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We all go about our lives creating a world around us. To us, we are the stars of a film; our surroundings are the set; and the people touching our lives supporting players and/or extras. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden Cotard watches as the plays he directs onstage succeed and garner praise while the life he lives with wife and daughter falls apart around him. As a God, crafting the activities and molding the characterizations of a cast, his own humanity is lost and hidden behind an insecure and scared shell of a man. Cotard is truly a selfish person who has thought only of himself and, in turn, looked upon those around him by how they interact in his own life. We do audition the people we hold dear; they must pass a test before we allow them in our lives. Some go on to play bigger roles while others get fired for not doing their job. We raise our children and build them into what we feel a child should be, shaping them to grow up and succeed. It is all carefully orchestrated in the movie of our life, but until you realize that the extras in your story are the leads in their own, you will never be truly happy. Each one will become more famous and sought after, bringing their show to Broadway and Hollywood, hitching a ride on a new director’s coattails, while you stay, stuck and alone, going through the motions in your abandoned back-lot, eternally in Synecdoche, New York.

Is there anyone doing things more ambitiously or creatively then screenwriter Charlie Kaufman? The man is pure genius. Constantly delving into the world of fractured realities, his stories deal with multiple layers and intricate parallel universes. With Human Nature he showed us the clash between people raised in the wild with the doctor who finds and attempts to civilize them, all while having cut-scene interviews with the doctor, stuck in purgatory, a gunshot wound in the head. Being John Malkovich brought us a world where every human being is a puppet to be played with and manipulated from the inside; each of us a hollow shell to be filled by an actor, taking our story in new directions. Adaptation blurred the reality of life’s boring monotony with the action-packed excitement of a B-movie storyline and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind showed how true love is deeper than the memory we have of it. The good will always outweigh the bad and when it is all over, you will only regret why you didn’t try harder to stop it, not knowing that the cycle will inevitably begin again. With Synecdoche, Kaufman makes his debut behind the camera—both Gondry and Jonze off working on their own things—and he does so with the most elaborately challenging of all his work. I’m sure it is a very personal journey about the evolution of a storyteller always creating new and exciting roles, but never taking the time to rewrite himself, to flesh out his own life into one that isn’t full of depression as everyone goes on finding love and success while he stays stagnant in his own self-pity.

I didn’t quite know what to expect when delving into this film. At first, it all seemed pretty much rooted in a reality, a slightly heightened one, but still accessible. Cotard was living a life of convenience with his regretful artist wife Adele, (Catherine Keener), and their annoyingly hyper daughter Olive. We begin to catch glimpses of the deterioration of his surroundings as words start to confuse—Ophthalmologist sounds like Neurologist which sounds like Urologist; when speaking of suicide, “How would you do it” sounds like “How did you do it”, etc—and eventually all footing is lost when Samantha Morton’s Hazel buys a house on fire. It appears to be a gag as she speaks of being afraid she might die in the flames, yet as the film continues on, the home is constantly burning, possibly showing her role as devil to Cotard, the ever-alluring vixen he so wants, but can never build the courage to be with.

The acting is brilliant across the board, from the large roles to the small. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s mysterious Maria becomes a fully fleshed creature, a destructive force in Cotard’s life while only being onscreen for maybe five total minutes. She takes away his wife and then his daughter, becoming a surrogate for himself in Berlin, the place he was not allowed to follow them to. She, in effect, becomes the first cast member in the life of Caden Cotard; the stand-in for him as he must stay back to work on his MacArthur grant producing masterpiece. The story becomes more and more surreal at this point, Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal becoming more eccentric and crazed with nervous ticks and medical problems cropping up one after another. Time begins to fold in on itself as the years pass by, but seem as only days or weeks to him. A wife and child gone for a year yet he only misses them for a week, thinking they will return once the show overseas has completed. The real world and that of his play, reinterpreting it, meld together into one. The warehouse containing his work now becomes the world he knows with warehouses soon being built inside of themselves, copies of the places in his life built like stage sets to be walled up and forgotten, cast members quitting his life being let-go on stage to save on budgetary costs. Synecdoche, New York becomes a rabbit hole ever deepening, MC Escher’s Relativity, Caden moving up and down and around, never escaping his maddening world of solitude and selfishness.

More and more layers are created as we get Emily Watson cast as Hazel, in the play being written, while the real-life Hazel (Morton) goes on continuing her journey with Hoffman’s Caden. Even Cotard himself begins to play the character of Ellen, a housekeeper for the real-life Adele, who then becomes a character cast with Dianne Wiest in the story. Probably my second favorite move by Kaufman, having a character created for a fictional person, to then eventually be played by Caden again, revisiting the role for which he originated, a person who does not exist on any plain whatsoever … genius. I say second favorite, though, because I absolutely loved the character of Tom Noonan’s Sammy Barnathan. He is ever-present throughout the entire film, seen in the background, watching intently. From the first scene, standing across the street as Hoffman gets his mail, to the shadowed blur in front of the camera as he creeps out from behind a tree when Hoffman meets his muse in actress Claire, (Michelle Williams), at a park bench. He is always there, watching and waiting, until the time comes that Caden needs an actor to play himself. How can he give notes on his own character if he cannot see what he is doing? The only way to improve is to put him into the elaborate play himself, to watch his insecurities and greed firsthand, to acknowledge the error of his ways. However, he is so vapid and egomaniacal that he becomes jealous of the characters themselves. When the real Hazel starts flirting with the fake Sammy, while the real Sammy watches playing the fake Caden, the real Caden can’t help but want it to stop. He therefore breaks his own fourth wall to punish the real Sammy, leading up to an utterly brilliant moment of Noonan confronting Hoffman with the sad reality of all that has been happening in the decades-long project.

Only when Wiest’s Millicent Weems takes the job of playing the real Caden—that’s right, the REAL Caden—does he finally get a break to put his whole self into the part of Ellen. He decides to hide inside his own play, all those he loved dead and gone, while Wiest tells him the story of her own life as an actress, eerily similar to his. It all spirals out of control, as Cotard himself can’t remember what happened in his past to bring him to where he has ended up. When he sees his daughter again, dying in a hospital bed, no longer understanding English, her German upbringing replacing her entire childhood, do you begin to wonder who left who? Is what we saw at the start, Keener’s Adele leaving, the truth, or did Cotard leave them to have a homosexual affair? By the time the ending comes, you really won’t know if anything you’ve seen actually happened. However, the final cue, the final note, if you will, given to Hoffman’s “real” Caden Cotard as Ellen Bascomb, couldn’t be more profound in its simplicity. He has needed to be told what to do at every step of his existence, so it is only appropriate that he is told when he can finally take that much-deserved rest.

Synecdoche, New York 10/10

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[1] Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, Samantha Morton as Hazel. Photo by Abbot Gensler © 2008, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, Michelle Williams as Claire Keen, Tom Noonan as Sammy Barnathan. Photo taken by Abbot Gensler, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, All Rights Reserved.

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Longtime television director, and top dog of some movies I’m sure he’d like to forget about, Ken Kwapis’ new film He’s Just Not That Into You seemed to be that rare romantic comedy that offered enough plot and insight to interest both sexes. All about a group of guys and girls in their late twenties to late thirties—who are, in the most convenient way, connected to each other by someone in the group—it shows their successes and failures at love. Based on a popular novel, I’d be interested to know if they all held these connections there too, or if characters were combined and moved around for ease at adapting. Either way, it does work, as long as you forget that whole unwritten rule about dating your best friend’s ex. That rule surely doesn’t apply here, and really, why should it at all? If the film shows us anything, it’s that we find love in strange and unusual places, oftentimes discovering it when you least expect it.

The cast is all-star filled with high-powered celebrity. Mostly showcasing a new rising crop of performers like Ginnifer Goodwin, Justin Long, Bradley Cooper, and Kevin Connolly coming into their own as stars, the addition of stalwarts Jennifer Connelly, Ben Affleck, and Jennifer Aniston help support it. Yeah, Drew Barrymore and Scarlett Johansson are also included, but I’m not a big fan of them. Thankfully, Barrymore is barely seen and Johansson plays sexy well if not still always coming off as more immature than anything else, but to each his own. What it all comes down to is the fact that they all pretty much become their character. I never started thinking about Ben and Jen, but instead Neil and Beth, because each actor has such an ensemble role to play that no one ever steals the spotlight … the true star is the story and the heartbreaking reality that you can relate to each and every one of them. So many cringe-worthy moments accompany the laughter at how true it all is; the cast puts it all on the table nakedly for you to relive every relationship you’ve had and the absolutely crazy things your friends have said to help you through it.

If I were to single out any one character as the “star”, it would be Goodwin’s Gigi. This girl is the most outrageous stereotype there could be, yet, while I hated her idiocy in the trailer, I grew to really like her innocence and honesty. Always making the wrong move, always being that crazy stalker girl, she never showed fear at putting herself out there to crash and burn. You have to respect that. Gigi is at the middle of the action, co-worker and friend with Connelly and Aniston while also delving into the world of Long’s bar-owner Alex and his womanizing ways. The more subtle trials and tribulations occur around her front-and-center shenanigans, which, while seemingly a continuous series of brain farts, will most likely be all too close for comfort with your own memories. Goodwin has the angelic naivete to pull it off though. She is both needy and trusting, yet loving despite all the pain she experiences—ever optimistic about life. Sometimes you want to slap her in the face and wake her to reality, but at the same time you hope she finally finds the right guy.

As far as that slap in the face, though, Justin Long is my favorite part of the movie. He knows what kind of guy he is and he knows all the tricks and games both sides play. His candidness with Gigi is refreshingly honest and pulls back the curtain of the man’s playbook of dating. I mean, really, if a guy isn’t calling, he’s not interested; sometimes you just have to move on and realize that if he didn’t want you, why should you want him? And that goes both ways guys. It is a moment like him telling Gigi to run from a date while she calls him from the bathroom because he said he’d be going out of town. Long’s insight is spot-on and the hesitation from the date when asked where he is going is priceless. But even the mighty must fall at some point. Numb to the powers of love for so long, even the one with all the answers sometimes needs to be slapped back to reality so he can see what’s right in front of him.

All the storylines have some redeemable qualities as you watch and remember the times you were in the same situation. From Connelly’s driven-to-be-married wife that becomes more mother than lover; to Bradley Cooper’s guilted husband that wants out but is too afraid to leave, (honestly, him telling his wife he cheated on her was not brave as she later says, it’s the complete opposite, delving into cowardice so that she can slap him and leave, thus allowing him to not be the one to end it, despite the fact he cheated); to Connolly’s used soul strung along by the woman he loves because she knows he’ll be there when she needs him although she has never, ever been there for him; to the true love between Affleck and Aniston despite them being together for seven years and not engaged. Honestly, if you are committed to each other why must you prove it to the world with a giant spectacle? However, the opposite holds true as well since how hard is it to just make it legal and not care in order to be with the woman you love? Their story was my favorite, yet its conclusion left a lot to be desired.

(**spoilers** Affleck would be the romantic great guy if he proposed and went against his principles for the woman he loved before they broke up. By waiting to bend his rules until after she throws hers out the window is a prick move and subverts the “happiness” his proposal shows. If you’re going to step up to the plate, do it before it becomes a need to answer her selflessness, because an act of selflessness performed due to guilt becomes even more selfish than not doing it at all. **end spoilers**)

In the end, I really enjoyed my time in this world—especially viewing with two girls that kept laughing at moments they related to both being involved in with each other before; that shows how universal the problems and successes are. Even the short fourth wall-breaking documents that follow each “chapter heading” hold relevance along with levity. There is a lot of truth in He’s Just Not That Into You, but I’m sure, even if you watch and realize the errors of your ways, you’ll still do the same things over again. Love just makes people crazy … but that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.

He’s Just Not That Into You 7/10

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[1] JUSTIN LONG stars as Alex and GINNIFER GOODWIN stars as Gigi in New Line Cinema’s romantic comedy “He’s Just Not That Into You,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Darren Michaels
[2] BRADLEY COOPER stars as Ben and SCARLETT JOHANSSON stars as Anna in New Line Cinema’s romantic comedy “He’s Just Not That Into You,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy New Line Cinema

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The 2009 Academy Awards have closed out the 2008 award season once and for all. And in an inspired move, actually ushered in the new year of movies by ending the show with a montage of 2009 releases. It was a departure somewhat from previous years as it appeared the Academy wanted to try some new things out, making the ceremony a bit more intimate while also possibly shortening its length (well the latter didn’t end up happening). I’ll say that production-wise, this was one of my favorite incarnations ever. It’s just a shame that the end result was also one of the most boring ones. For every new enhancement and slight variation came the realization that the end result was still long, still drawn out, and still very, very unsurprising. There were no upsets, no surprises, and ultimately it left the audience with a feeling of, “meh”. At least it did for this guy.

Some of the streamlining made me think that the organizers finally brainstormed from the shoes of someone watching at home. It was really as though they took a step back and asked the questions of how to make it all go smoother with less padding and frivolities. What follows are just some thoughts, upon reflecting the day after, about what worked and what didn’t, as well as those moments that stood out both for their fun factor and also for their holy crap that was horrible reactions.

• Why did I watch the pre-show? It was as horrible as always, showing famous people talk to famous people and gush unnecessarily. And please, next time, when you say “thank you” to the person you just interviewed for a total of two minutes, look at them and not the camera. How awkward for the celeb wondering if they should go, say thanks back, or just keep thinking “why am I here?”

• Kudos on the set design. It wasn’t about craziness and multiple focal points and how many different angles can we get out of this thing with massive structures everywhere. Instead, the audience seats were moved right to the front of the stage and positioned around the circular center so all the “big name” nominees were right in the thick of the action. It wasn’t about being formal and stuffy, but instead lent a bit of what works so well with the Golden Globes—a sense of comradery and friendship in a casual setting. And the minimal stage was a breath of fresh air.

Hugh Jackman does an admirable job. Whether he actually took any pointers from Ricky Gervais as rumored or not, he was most successful when singing and dancing and making a fool out of himself (yes, he even gave Barbara Walters a lapdance in her pre-taped preshow). The stand-up jokes fell flat, but his charisma and willingness to perform shined through better than a comedian just telling jokes. And the low-fi props were very fun.

• How great is it that they sat Mickey Rourke right next to Marisa Tomei? Just in case he won this one, at least he’d be able to look to his right and ask her name before getting onstage and forgetting like he did at the Independent Spirit Awards.

• What was up with Seymour Philip Hoffman’s skull-cap? … poor Alan Arkin.

• Rounding up past winners to wax poetic from a written script about how great the nominees are? Where are my film clips? I don’t care what some over-paid show writer has to say about the actors through another winner’s mouth, I want to see an example of their performance and why they deserve to be there.

Goldie Hawn looked horrible, sorry, she did … but at least she didn’t make me shudder as when Sophia Loren caught sight of the camera. I think she turned some people to stone. Whereas Freida Pinto looked radiant whenever the camera caught glimpse of her … right next to a psyched Dev Patel.

Penelope Cruz wins a deserved award (she was better in Volver) although Kate Winslet should have won for The Reader … more on that later.

Jack Black has a gem of a joke at Dreamworks’ expense … and then makes it better with a “YES!!!” when Wall-E wins.

Kunio Katô is my favorite self-deprecating human in the world when after saying thank you before each person to thank (read “sank you”) he says “domo arigato Mr. Roboto”. Sweetness for sure.

Ben Stiller has won me over completely now. I’ve never been a fan, but after Tropic Thunder, revisiting The Cable Guy, and now this timely impersonation of Joaquin Phoenix … I love him. If you missed the infamous Letterman interview …

Heath wins … I still believe he deserved it whether he was alive or not.

Will Smith drops an obscure, cultish Youtube clip reference when flubbing a line. I feel even more sorry for that unfortunate kid being forced to do a sports segment on live television. “Boom goes the dynamite” indeed.

• The music medley is a welcome reprieve from the overlong performances in years past. However, I do fully respect Peter Gabriel’s declining to perform unless he could do the whole song. There is something to be said about artistic integrity.

• Kate Winslet wins a long overdue Oscar … albeit for the wrong film. She should have won Best Supporting for The Reader, or at least if she was to win Best Actress it should have been Revolutionary Road. Anne Hathaway—you deserved it—maybe next time.

• Was it just me or did Robert Pattinson scare the crap out of you? His piercing stare made me want to turn the channel and his utter ambivalence seriously had me thinking he was hatching a plan to kill some people.

• I love Mickey and he would have been a great winner, but I’m not sad that Sean Penn took the trophy. The guy is good and his Harvey Milk was fantastic.

• And finally, after winning every other major award, Slumdog takes the top prize and ultimately 8 out of 10 awards it was nominated for. AR Rahman owned the soundtrack war with good reason and Danny Boyle should have won years ago for director as he hasn’t made a bad film yet. (I still haven’t seen Shallow Grave or The Beach, but I give him the benefit of the doubt every time.) Boyle’s genuine smile the entire night as all his friends won was the true highlight of the evening. Slumdog truly was movie of the year (at least among the nominees as it was the only one in my top ten of the five … where’s the love for The Fall?)

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Slumdog Millionaire film stills:
[1] L-R: Dev Patel and Freida Pinto. Photo Credit: Ishika Mohan
[2] L-R: Director Danny Boyle and Freida Pinto. Photo Credit: Ishika Mohan

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How much money is your child worth? Is that a question you could ever fathom yourself asking? Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter broaches the subject with devastating results, showing the many ways in which one could lose their offspring and the pain and suffering it causes. But can that pain be tempered by a monetary settlement or a name being punished with a slap on the wrist? No, of course not. Vengeance will only feed your lust for blood; it will only make you go deeper and deeper into a descent towards hell. There comes a time where you must look at your life and feel rewarded for the time you’ve had and be able to move on, no matter how slow and painful that transition may be. This film is pretty much perfect on all counts—story, acting, pacing, directing, you name it. As it went on, I couldn’t help but think of David Gordon Green’s film Snow Angels and the comparisons of loss and renewal as thematic backbones. Interestingly enough, both of these films were my first foray into the two director’s oeuvres, both possibly their most sorrowful and heartfelt, making me want to visit the rest of their works. What the similarity also does, over ten years later, is prove Egoyan himself correct. My screening of The Sweet Hereafter was followed by a Q&A with editor Susan Shipton who spoke of how just that morning Atom told her, upon revisiting the film, that “I think it holds up”. He couldn’t be more right; its relevance has stood the test of time.

The insight from Shipton was fantastic; it is wonderful to hear about a piece of art from someone who helped create it. She spoke about how this was the most restructured work that the two filmmakers collaborated on, changing so much from first draft that the final draft was actually “written” in the cutting room. Always different in ways from the original novel, especially the ending Shipton says, it continued to evolve to find its own voice, while still “thrilling” writer Russell Banks when he screened a rough copy upon a set visit. Their first workprint, for example, cut to the structure of the shooting script, actually began with Sarah Polley’s Nicole in the hospital, complete with voiceover, setting the scene for a film from her perspective. Almost immediately, Shipton and Egoyan decided that this would be a horrible idea, pigeonholing the film on a linear path and stifling the depth and scope surrounding Nicole’s story. As a result, the final cut allows its multiple narratives to be interweaved through time, showing us flashbacks, the present, and future events all at once. The Sweet Hereafter then becomes a journey into a sleepy little country town and the tragedy that changes it forever. A tragedy that risked breaking apart the humanity they held for each other, almost letting an outsider in to tell them what is right and what is wrong, rather than a tale told from one character’s perspective.

At its core, the film is about the loss of innocence, the disintegration of the parent/child dynamic. Values had started to fall by the wayside as people began living their lives with a drive for money and power, allowing drugs and greed to destroy any semblance of compassion and morals. “We’ve all lost our children,” says Ian Holm’s Mitchell Stevens, a cutthroat lawyer looking for blood by suing a manufacturing firm for a horrible accident that really had no one’s fault to blame, but also a loving father who lost his hope and dream of the idyllic family. Each and every character has lost someone dear to them, whether that be the parents of the children who perished in the school bus accident at the center of it all; the driver Dolores, (wonderfully played by Gabrielle Rose), upon losing all the children of her town and surviving; or Holm with an estranged child who has been in and out of drug abuse clinics for over a decade, possibly dying or just scamming him for money any chance she gets. Love is shown in all its many forms, from a father’s incestuous relationship with his daughter, to the unencumbered joy in an adopted Indigenous son, to the worrisome mother for her learning disabled child, to the father who knows he enables his daughter’s drug habit, but can’t stop because there may be one time when she actually isn’t lying to him. Love is a gamble that you take with your heart, and through the good and bad, it can never be a mistake.

What I will never forget, besides the heartbreaking instances and lingering close-ups of actors’ faces mirroring the hurt they feel, (I loved the extreme framing in parts of just mouths, or even abstract compositions of a ferris wheel in the bottom left hand corner and sweeping aerial shots from a winding road to the wispy clouds in the sky), are the amazing performances. An early role for Canadian beauty Sarah Polley shows the burgeoning success she has found since, Ian Holm relays how good he is with a more challenging and rewarding role than the hailed bit part in Garden State, and Maury Chaykin, with commanding presence in a short scene, resonates both his humor and gossip yet also his sense of community in a warped way. There were also a couple of truly great turns from Tom McCamus and Bruce Greenwood. McCamus plays Polley’s father with a very intriguing interior makeup. Truly loving his daughter, too much in fact with regards to their presumed sexual relationship, he always has a smile mixed with apparent awkwardness, unsure of his role in her life. Complicated to the end, it is his performing without words in two later pivotal scenes that shine most. As for Greenwood, he is by far my favorite. After losing his wife to cancer, he will do anything for his twins, even following their school bus each morning to wave at them. That fact put him in firsthand view of the accident and the realization that sometimes life just deals you a bad hand. The most tragic and also the most realistic of them all, it is his resolve that ultimately saves this quiet town from complete implosion.

Confronting the Burnells, (Polley’s family), Greenwood attempts to have them drop the lawsuit, planting the seed of what a misguided grab for cash will do to them in young Nicole’s mind. As David Hemblen’s Abbott, (Dolores’ husband), stutters out due to a stroke, a jury of twelve strangers won’t absolve anyone of fault, it will be a jury of one’s community, those that know the everyday life and workings of the people around them. It is not the matter of a fancy lawyer coming down and planting ideas of negligence from faceless businesses and their bottom lines, nor of the woman each parent entrusted their children to each morning as Dolores had done it for years. What it all comes down to is a group of people grieving together and helping each other cope with a horrific event felt by all. Someone in the audience asked Shipton how Dolores could ever get a bus job again after Nicole lies, blaming her for the accident. What that person didn’t understand is that the lie is what made it possible. By completely destroying any chance of a lawsuit against the bus makers, no one is held at fault. A new lawsuit would have to be brought up against Dolores to truly hold her accountable, so that lie then put her fate in the hands of community, who in turn absolved her of any guilt she most certainly already holds in her heart. As the overshadowing tale of “The Pied Piper” shows a hatred that only leads to more pain—using his magic for revenge rather than just getting what he wanted and leaving—only Greenwood’s Billy Ansel and Polley’s Nicole see the light in forgiveness and honoring those lost rather than treading over their graves with more and more hate. Sometimes doing nothing is the hardest and most difficult thing to do.

The Sweet Hereafter 10/10

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I will admit it first off, I dreaded this day—the day I was going to sit down and watch Fired Up! It’s a film about two high school football jocks that decide to go to cheer camp and attempt to make headway in an untapped market of females. Now when I said high school, I mean the characters, not the actors. How Nicholas D’Agosto and Eric Christian Olsen can play seventeen year olds Shawn and Nick when they are 28 and 31 respectively, I don’t know. However, with the stigma of all the bad that this film should be, I will gladly give it the best four word review I can think of … I didn’t hate it. That’s right, you heard it here first, Fired Up! is an entertaining vulgar comedy that could have been even better given an R-rating, but as it is, shows a lot more Wedding Crashers than it does Bring It On, (not that I ever saw it, but from what I’ve heard, I don’t think that cheer-flick was going for the funny, even if it did bring it).

There was always the potential for containing some moments that would be memorable or characters that would steal a scene or two, but I never thought it would occur on as steady a basis as it does. The beginning is your ho-hum, run-of-the-mill high school mundanity with Philip Baker Hall collecting his paycheck by cursing profusely and throwing away the credibility he worked so hard to achieve as our leads’ football coach. We are introduced to Shawn and Nick as athletic womanizers, checking out the woman in the stands more than the play-clock on the field during a Spring scrimmage. These two are the kind of guys who don’t need practice; they are natural talents doing it for the notoriety and popularity rather than the love of the game. We even get treated to seeing them in contact with girls at school—the not so pretty ones who you think they will bash, but instead find out are ex-girlfriends. It’s a play that makes one think of the stereotypical ladies’ man only to be surprised at how they aren’t just talking to the “prom queens”, but also sets up the stark contrast to the hoards of model types they cross paths with at the camp. An extended tracking shot through gyrating girls, stretching and showing off their tramp stamps as the camera loops around back to the boys, shows the paradise they have landed in.

You have a clear idea of what to expect before even eating that first kernel of popcorn. Somehow one or both of these guys will fall in love and figure out that cheering with the team is a more fulfilling deed than getting laid and heading back to a football weekend of partying while leaving the girls in the lurch for the competition. Blah blah blah. It’s going to happen, it’s expected, and thankfully it isn’t as obtrusive as it could have been. This is where the Wedding Crashers comparison occurs; much like that film played with the same structure—two guys crashing marital bliss to get women and move on until one falls in love—this one keeps up with the funny and absolutely random shenanigans breaking in to make you forget how cookie-cutter it all is. Sure the PG-13 doesn’t help matters, (especially with an end credit blooper reel that gets censored in the good parts), but it also doesn’t make the filmmakers back off and not try to push the envelope.

The antics are funny for the most part, but prepare for plenty of stuff to fall flat as well. With some true gems—Olsen’s hilariously rehearsed speech to get out of football camp with adoptions and kidneys playing a part as well as a brilliant glimpse into the world of mascots on tricycles, amongst others—you won’t be bored for extended periods of time. My favorite aspect of the movie, though, is the use of movie references and unabashedly frank way of taking shots at the industry. Now I don’t mean David Walton, as Dr. Dick, and his “Animal House reference … LOVE it!” moments, but the more subtle instances. Like a throwaway line from Olsen of “Rock me sexy Jesus” bringing the funny in such a timely manner, probably added due to the fact that director Will Gluck had a role in Hamlet 2. Yet I also can’t forget a classic moment of Bring It On playing on the big screen to the entire camp, or the fact that EVERY single person knew the script by heart. Hearing 300 voices, in-sync, talking over Kirsten Dunst and Elisha Dushku is a scary proposition. But that Jesse Bradford, you got to love him.

And that in-joke, which you’ll understand if you see the flick, brings me to the bread and butter of Fired Up!—the supporting cast. D’Agosto and Olsen do their job and Sarah Roemer is pouty and beautiful like usual, but it’s the bit roles that make this film work as often as it does. The one-liners from Margo Harshman, (Tawney from “Even Stevens” is who she’ll always be to me), the surreal Juliette Goglia as Poppy, (“I know, she’s got the shine”), and John Michael Higgins’ cheer camp maestro can only be beat by one man—Brewster. Adhir Kalyan’s flamboyant, Calcutta-raised “chick” is a riot and he definitely steals pretty much every frame he is in. I also don’t want to fail to mention a fun soundtrack playing a role as well, and not just because of Dr. Dick’s jams either.

Check the brain at the door and be in the mood to laugh. Fired Up! won’t be something you’d probably want to run out and see again, but it will leave a smile on your face. Make sure to pay attention and listen close, though, because some of the gems are subtly laid out there and can be easily missed. Perk the ears when cars are mentioned for references to the LPGA or Ford’s wonderful Focus and bask in the delivery and well-timed pace of Olsen and D’Agosto’s back and forth. It could have been so much more had it not tried so hard to cater to a specific moviegoing demographic, but as is, I’m happy to say I don’t regret checking out.

Fired Up! 6/10

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[1] Nicholas D’Agosto (left) and Eric Christian Olsen star in Screen Gems’ comedy FIRED UP.
[2] John Michael Higgins and Molly Sims in Screen Gems’ comedy FIRED UP.
© 2009 Screen Gems, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Why do I keep questioning the work of Tom Tykwer? True, I didn’t know that The International was his film until way after the marketing onslaught, but even then I still held a little trepidation, although much less than when I first saw the trailers looking kind of mediocre. The guy most definitely has the goods and I’m glad English language producers are showing the confidence to start handing him big budget flicks. Much like a Marc Forster, known for small scale story-heavy movies getting a shot at directing a Bond film, Tykwer has steadily been building up to this point, helming an action thriller with a fantastically orchestrated shoot ‘em up (no pun intended on the pretty bad Clive Owen starrer of that name) in the Guggenheim Museum. While I will admit to not being adverse to seeing him direct another German-language film in the vein of Lola rennt or a small indie like the Kieslowski script Heaven, I can’t complain about the ones he has been making with American cash.

On paper, the plot seemed a bit stale. So some international bank is using its power and money to make a run in the small arms trade to control the debt of ninety-nine percent of all warfare in the world. Wow, our money being saved in CDs and savings accounts is going to defense contractors and third world nations to stage coups and create mayhem. Well guess what, our government is probably doing that exact same thing with our tax dollars. Who cares? It’s the same old story and really not very intriguing to watch. So, let’s just say I was pleasantly surprised to find that the film isn’t really about our money or watching wars break out with bank backing. Instead it is the hunt for a source to take the corporation, namely Ulrich Thomsen’s bank president Skarssen himself, down and create a sense of justice for the law enforcement and witnesses that have been murdered as a result of taking a stand against them. It is about seeking retribution for humans who sacrificed their lives for what they thought was morally right; and those my friend are stakes I can get behind.

Owen’s Louis Salinger is Interpol and Naomi Watts’ Eleanor Whitman works for the Manhattan DA’s office, and both are hot on the trail of opening their long running case against the IBBC (International Bank of Business and Credit) up. After an agent is assassinated in public without a trace of foul play, Salinger begins to dig deeper and find connections between defense contractors and IBBC brass. This series of uncovering relationships and grudges leads to more deaths as well as more evidence of nefarious activities. Both leading agents find their bosses getting more and more restless, as well as scared about coming close to a truth they themselves don’t feel comfortable unearthing, and eventually need to step outside the box to find more. The real chase starts when they identify the assassin being utilized to carry out the bank’s more sensitive hits, leading Owen into the Frank Lloyd Wright structure for an adrenaline rush of a sequence involving machineguns, innocent bystanders, unlikely comradery between two people you anticipate being adversaries, and a lot of bullet holes in a setting that wouldn’t like the destruction wrought much at all.

It is a scene like this climatic fight that sets The International apart from most other films of its kind. Not even thinking about whether they were allowed to shoot the exchange in the actual museum—I’d believe no, but it is very convincing to the contrary—the sheer idea of putting an all-out battle on the circuitous ramp of the famous building is inspired. With the only exit being the ramp itself, with enemies stationed at the bottom and all along the path our protagonist must take, you really feel caught up in the action. A few surprises crop up, like a flak jacket and a nicely used wheelchair decoy, as well as realistic blood, the need to replenish bullet clips, and injuries to those we know won’t end up dying … just yet anyways. It is the kind of scene that would play for explosions and carnage in a lesser film, but here is chock-full of plot and carefully planned out consequences. Not only that, but our “action hero” Owen is an intelligence agent, not even issued a gun. So let’s just say he isn’t as smooth, or confident, as you would expect in a scene like this.

What happens will sometimes surprise you throughout. Not everything concludes in a clean-cut way, with loose ends tied or character’s arcs never necessarily completed. Instead, what we get is a literal translation of Armin Mueller-Stahl’s comment about the difference between truth and fiction—“it has to make sense in fiction”. Decisions in real life don’t always become black and white, but instead lie in the grey areas of right and wrong. We can’t live life to perfection, we must make the tough choices to survive and find a semblance of that utopia we seek. Much in that way, the film takes turns that give us a result I think we want from the film, just not in the way we might have thought it would have occurred. But that is okay, if not better, in the long run. An investigation as far-reaching as this one can never be fully accomplished because things will always be getting in the way. People are replaceable and even if you rid a corporation of its superiors, there will always be someone else to take the place.

So, while you do get closure at the conclusion, it is not complete. And I love that aspect. Tykwer takes a Hollywood genre and instills a bit of intelligence, along with scripter Eric Singer, (I don’t want to forget about him). Not only that, but the guy gets some nice performances, especially from Owen, Mueller-Stahl, Thomsen, and probably my favorite character, that of the “consultant”, Brian F. O’Byrne. Watts is okay, but at times I feel a bit out of place. No matter though, the places themselves make up for that by giving us some spectacular locales. Not one to be shy about showing his home country of Germany, you also get to see a little of France and NYC along with the gorgeous scenery of Istanbul, Turkey. There really isn’t much to be disappointed about here. It’s an entertainingly told, intelligent tale spanning the world and put on by some great acting. I can’t wait to see what Tykwer pulls out of his sleeve next, but I do know I won’t be questioning its relevance anymore until the end credits roll.

The International 8/10

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[1] Naomi Watts as “Eleanor Whitman” and Clive Owen as “Louis Salinger” in Columbia Pictures’ thriller THE INTERNATIONAL.
[2] Clive Owen as “Louis Salinger” and Armin Mueller-Stahl as “Wilhelm Wexler” in Columbia Pictures’ thriller THE INTERNATIONAL.
©2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. and Beverly Blvd LLC All Rights Reserved.

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The scariest part of the new remake Friday the 13th … that’s right, getting into your car and realizing that the eternity was only 90 minutes. All jokes aside, what I learned from the newest installment in one of horror’s never-ending franchises is that you do not mess with Jason Voorhees’s weed. The guy has a nice little crop growing over there at Camp Crystal Lake, and he protects it with his machete and burlap bag covered grotesque mug. Honestly, the first few deaths can all be attributable to people trying to cut in on the drug trade, but don’t worry, that story thread is soon abandoned and we get back to the gratuitous nudity, impressive death scenes where you actually get to see things impaled into people’s heads numerous times, and a lot of running and screaming away from the big guy. I apologize for being so tongue-in-cheek here, because the film really wasn’t that tragic. I’ll admit that the original bored me to tears and I enjoyed Freddy Vs Jason, (probably because I love me some Kruger), and this one had some laughs—that’s right, the laughs worked—and some decent moments as far as the genre goes. Still, though, that banned Nike commercial with the out of shape Jason is by far the best adaptation of the myth, or was that more Texas Chainsaw?

What the film gets right: playing a Santogold track during a sex scene, so I could at least enjoy a good tune. Okay, I’ll be serious now … I really enjoyed the beginning, no joke. It all starts with the revelation that concludes the original film. Here is young Jason’s mother coming upon the last camp counselor that neglected him, allowing his drowning in the lake. She has killed everyone else and is about to complete her revenge when her inevitable demise occurs—all while the boy watches on. Was he really dead? Did he rise from purgatory to avenge himself and his mother? Who cares; he’s there, he’s sad, and he decides to spend the next twenty years bulking up like a professional wrestler, earning all his merit badges, (I mean look at those perfect knots collecting dust on his cabin’s wall), and honing his archery skills with deadly precision. But that’s not all for the prologue to the tale, no, we also get to watch a horny quintet visit the secluded area and be ravished sexually by each other and violently by the homicidal maniac. This is where it may hurt me being such a cinema fan; I knew it was still the prologue since none of the “stars” were yet in attendance. Everyone else in the theatre seemed to not know this and clapped when the title finally made its way onscreen about twenty minutes in.

Why did that short sequence work, besides having everything you need in a successful slasher film—namely gore, Jonathan Sadowski’s fantastic comic relief, a very not so shy America Olivo, and the discovery of Jason’s creepily realized lair? It did because everyone was expendable, no stars had to survive until the end because they are collecting a paycheck and our country’s short attention spans need a recognizable face to fork over their hard-earned cash. This is what true genre success needs, absolute anonymity and the unknown of who may survive, if anyone. Unfortunately, after those twenty minutes, we are treated to your regular run-of-the-mill/get your frights mediocrity. Rich kids galore with Daddy’s boy prick versus brooding leading man looking for his sister, (who had been taking care of their cancer stricken mother, cue the sensitivity tears), and the obligatory machismo rearing its head like only spoiled brats can show. You want them all to die, and for the most part they do, but it is just so obvious and cliché; the only enjoyment you’ll get will be wondering what horrific fatality can be coming next.

I lied, that’s not the only enjoyment; there is always Aaron Yoo. The guy truly is gold in everything I’ve seen him in. Ultimately here for comic relief, I actually hoped he might somehow survive all the carnage. He and Arlen Escarpeta are great together, (love the exchange concerning the bong), and I found them so much more endearing then Travis Van Winkle’s Trent, whom you want to kill yourself, and our leads Jared Padalecki and Danielle Panabaker. It appears that “Supernatural” isn’t paying enough these days with both stars seeking shelter in horror remakes, (co-star Jensen Ackles just graced the silver screen in My Bloody Valentine 3D). Padalecki is okay; the film doesn’t ask too much from him and he isn’t one to try and do more than he should. Panabaker, on the other hand, is a very interesting choice to be cast here. Known mostly as a mousy, nerdy girl in Empire Falls and Sky High, she is all of a sudden the “girlfriend” of mister Joe Cool Popular Trent and a total departure from the big-bosomed blonde bimbos her group consists of. Inspired casting? Sure, maybe. Does she shine and carry the film into a credible stratosphere? No.

When all is said and done, if you enjoy slasher films for what they usually promise—blood, camp, nudity, and more blood—you’ll probably have a good time. It’s all been done before, the turning of old classics that had a shred of subtlety and nuance into quasi-snuff films. However, since I wasn’t a big fan of the original, I appreciated what director Marcus Nispel attempted. Rather than a remake, he instead opens the film with a distilled version of the 1980 original, (even captioning the first scene as 1980 before getting to the “present day”), and makes his own piece to add to the legacy of the hockey mask. More Jason XI than Jason I Redux, it could have been a lot worse. But then again, I could have stayed home and not been any worse for wear.

Friday the 13th 5/10

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[1] Chelsea (WILLA FORD) discovers Jason (DEREK MEARS) watching her from the shores of Crystal Lake in New Line Cinema’s and Paramount Pictures’ horror film “Friday the 13th,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by John P. Johnson
[2] Jason (DEREK MEARS, right) crashes through a window and grabs Clay (JARED PADALECKI, left) in New Line Cinema’s and Paramount Pictures’ horror film “Friday the 13th,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by John P. Johnson

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There is something to be said about great music and the depths of hell it comes from. So many classic songs and albums were created under the influence of some drug, whether illegal or prescribed, or by a disorder of some kind, both mentally and physically. This is true of The Carpenters and their demise at the hand of lead singer Karen falling prey to an overdose of medication used to keep her anorexia going without the need of over-the-counter laxatives. Todd Haynes decided to create a bio-pic depicting the life of this tragic star and entitled it Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Unfortunately, like most stories of this kind, it was pretty much widely agreed upon that her family life led to the troubles that eventually ended her life. Whether it the repressed childhood or over-protecting parents, the brother and partner more worried about her health killing his career than his sister, or the struggles of fame and the scrutiny the media places you under, Karen never could cope with the way her life progressed. Attempting to keep the wholesome façade on the surface, her dark inner struggles soon became the bigger news story and sadly just as memorable as her songs and amazing voice used to give them to the world.

Unable to secure the rights to The Carpenters’ catalog of music, Haynes has never been able to get this early short film out to the public in any legal way. Understandably, due to the representation of his character and family, Richard Carpenter filed an injunction against its release and the film may never be officially available. It’s a real shame because there is a lot to like about the work … the least of which is the fact that it is all told with Barbie Dolls filling in as actors. There is no stop-motion animation going on here, but instead many static scenes blocked precisely to create interesting angles and the appearance of realism. Framed in a way to be able to move the figures when necessary, but still keeping the “performers’” hands off-screen must have been carefully orchestrated and choreographed. The amount of care definitely shows. Especially when you try and fathom the detailed sets and props all miniaturized to work in a Barbie Doll world. Quite inventive and as unique a thing as you’ll ever see.

The most interesting piece to take from viewing the film is how much it influenced Haynes’ most recent release I’m Not There. Another musician biography, this time about the legendary Bob Dylan, it’s told through the eyes of five different actors, each representing a different era in the singer’s long and ever-evolving career. It’s not just the fact of comparing the use of dolls to reenact the behind the scenes life with the use of multiple people containing widely differing ages and even both genders to do so, but the similarities of the actual style and construction. Haynes utilizes a lot of cut scenes and montages in Superstar, adding text blocks to explain facts on anorexia or to elaborate events in the Carpenters’ life, showing archival footage of the Vietnam protests and Richard Nixon, or just letting idyllic suburbia fly past while a camera shoots out a car window. In I’m Not There he does the same, however, all with manufactured shots. The interviews or the switch from color to black and white occur with new film, everything created along with the script. Therefore, one could say the device is more successful here because he had to edit stock reels to make sense in the context of his story. From the food shots to the old-era movie scenes paralleling what was going on in the story, it all makes an eerie juxtaposition, adding just one more layer to an eccentric format that borders on the line between intelligent experiment and absurd miscalculation.

Surprisingly, the acting is quite good also, with some effective voice work. I loved the almost horror film quality to narrator Bruce Tuthill’s voice and in many scenes, like a later one involving Richard yelling at Karen, the emotions come across stronger than the lingering chance of breaking into laughter at the fact dolls are performing the visual accompaniment. Haynes, thankfully never allows himself to treat the gimmick as a pejorative comment on the true-life tale. He tells it all with an obvious attachment to the material and desire to let the facts become known. Karen Carpenter’s life was constantly decided for her and she soon realized that the only aspect she had control over was her body. With all the fame and fortune being strewn upon her for her voice, she needed to find some control and unfortunately that meant a slow and steady descent into oblivion. Right from the start, when her mother suggests she sing for her brother’s band to her sealing her fate of celebrity strife in a strongly metaphoric scene cutting to a record executives’ outstretched hand—a deal with the devil if you may—Karen’s life would never be the same. Thankfully we all still have the music to remember her by and maybe one day in the future, the world will be able to see her story told artistically and with care … even if plastic toys are doing all the work.

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story 7/10

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It kind of flew under the radar, but Ed Harris’ film Appaloosa is a pretty solid western. As only his second foray behind the camera, after the good art biography Pollock, Harris has upped the stakes a bit in terms of scope and execution. Sure an old time western set around New Mexico territory isn’t all that posh and expensive, but it is impressive nonetheless. Between the costumes and the authenticity needed to make it real, something that HBO showed was possible with their dead before its time “Deadwood”, the film gets all the grit and moral toughness you would expect in a world where a man’s word is his bond and the ability to look death in the face a necessity. Credit the actor also for pulling out an inspired performance equal parts restraint and repressed anger, a lawman with the need to educate himself and better his vocabulary, a person that never lies because the truth is just easier. Harris’ Virgil Cole is the kind of sheriff you want in your town, one who’d never compromise his values nor let a murderer run free and unchecked despite a Presidential pardon.

I find, with a very light western film knowledge, that the best of the genre are those unafraid to stay stoic and deliberate, allowing the events to transpire in their own time, never rushing to a scene of violence or action, but letting them occur naturally. For the most part, Appaloosa does just that. When you have characters like Harris and Viggo Mortensen’s Everett Hitch, two men with a common understanding and shorthand of communication consisting of head movements and body language, you know the film itself will probably be just as buttoned up and precise. Feelings may get you killed in a society only on the cusp of order, but these two men know when compassion and emotion are necessary to remain human, despite the consequences that may follow. In effect, both are hired to kill a band of outlaws under control of Randall Bragg, the always-riveting Jeremy Irons. By signing the town over to Harris, the citizens pretty much give him carte blanche on what he’s allowed to do to keep order. The job always comes first, but certain circumstances have a way of finding a spot in the plot, shaking things up a bit and leading them astray just enough to add a bit of suspense.

Throw in a beautiful newcomer played by Renée Zellweger to stir into the pot and you know trouble will be brewing. The unknowing femme fatale, she is the kind of woman who needs to feel secure and safe, shacking up with the man in charge to make sure she stays that way. Unfortunately, that also means that once the current “love” falls just a bit out of favor, below someone else, she won’t hesitate to make her move strong and early. But these boys are cowboys—with nerves of steel and blood cold as ice—they can see the reality of situations and not let emotions fool their minds. The real object at hand is doing the job, serving the town, and hanging a convicted murderer. There will of course be bumps along the way, but that goal will never stray from being at the forefront. Cole and Hitch have been doing this sort of work for too long to not realize what truly matters.

I’ll admit to not being a fan of Zellweger early on; her character was just annoying and seemingly inconsequential. However, as the tale continued on, her role becomes more crucial and her actions understandable in the context of whom she is. Once the façade of waif-like naïveté wears off, as the truth comes out of what kind of person she is, you begin to see the vulnerability and fearlessness at her core. Still probably the weakest link in the film, I did eventually learn to appreciate the role. Many supporting parts come into their own throughout, including a nice tough guy turn from Timothy V. Murphy and a couple more from Lance Henriksen and Adam Nelson, but the real winners are the trio at the top. Irons is a brilliant combination of intellect and conniving malice, as only the best villains can be composed. His utter brutality and fervor to save his own skin come alive with screams and aggression, but his eloquence and knowledge of the world make you wonder about what lies behind the hard exterior. And both Harris and Mortensen shine as the partners in control, staring their own mortality in the face, knowing they can and will beat it every time. Their dynamic is perfect, especially the need of Viggo to finish his boss’s need to pull a big word out of his head. I especially enjoyed Mortensen’s appearance, swagger, and soft spot for the world. Willing to do whatever necessary, to do his boss and friend’s every bidding without pause, yet still be soft-spoken, knowledgeable, and compassionate about all who are close to him make up that complicated man you need in a bleak wild west atmosphere.

By no means is Appaloosa a masterpiece, but it does its job well. The construction left a little to be desired by me as I almost thought the film would end very early and barely make the 90 minute mark. After introductions and the subsequent capture and trial we all were waiting for happened, there doesn’t seem to be much else to see. However, there is more as characters come back and cross each other’s paths yet again to lead towards a very good ending that I enjoyed immensely for its mix of slight closure and open-ending curiosity. My one qualm is with the half hour or so between these two successes, a period of time utilized to bridge the end of act one to the climatic final showdown. The time plods along and begins to unravel into nonsense and repetition. Thankfully it all does occur for a reason, and for that I can accept it for what it was and remember the enjoyment I had despite it.

Appaloosa 7/10

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Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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So, I’ll just come out and say it … I enjoyed Lucky Number Slevin. It was stylish, Ben Kingsley was a good kind of hammy, and Josh Hartnett’s penchant for wooden acting worked with the character. You know another thing I really enjoy? That little television show called “Heroes”. Trust me, it’s a goodie. Why do I say all this? Well because director Paul McGuigan has taken his action-infused storytelling to the new film Push, basically using a similar premise as the before mentioned NBC show, but with swearing. Sorry, that sounded as though I didn’t like it and that would be a very wrong assessment. In actuality, Push is a highly energetic thrill ride, introducing us to “skilled” young people coming to grips with their powers and their future of possibly being the only ones to save the world. Would I have liked more action/fight scenes? If the successful ones included are any indication, most definitely. However, the fact that screenwriter David Bourla had a yarn to spin intelligently and was able to do so in a mainstream actioner that most producers probably would have hijacked into a jumbled mess of cut scenes showing explosions, I’ll except the fact that this is a set-up for sequels. And I’ll probably be in attendance to experience what those installments have to show too.

Leave it to the Nazis to begin the experimentation that us lovely Americans appropriated into our own government lust for absolute power. The results of these tests led to the existence of “pushers” (that’s telekinesis Kyle—sorry, lame Tenacious D reference), “sniffers” (seers of the past and locators of the present), “watchers” (clairvoyants), and “stitchers” (healers) among others. As any good government beta project has power-wielding humans on their payroll, so does this one. Division is full of patriots attempting to create a new drug that will enhance those with abilities, forming an undefeatable army more powerful than any nuclear bomb. Unfortunately for them, that drug seems to kill every single patient (read prisoner) they inject with it. That is until Camilla Belle’s Kira recovers from a flat-line to escape captivity with a little help from a rolling glass orb, (you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it). With her now the new patient zero, in possession of the drug and hunted by Division, she also becomes top on the list of people to find for our ragtag bunch of heroes—a couple of newbies to their powers’ true strength, who also see the future as ultimately holding their own demise.

Now the actual plot is a lot more convoluted and complicated than just searching for this girl before the baddies get her. But don’t misunderstand me, as it is a jumbled mess in a good way. All the crazy powers are shown and utilized to their full potential; having “pushers” that can implant memories in your head and make you do their bidding lends itself to changing identities and turning good guys into bad and vice versa; and my favorite freakshow, played by the always solid Cliff Curtis, (co-star of leading man Chris Evans in the masterpiece that was Sunshine), is the “shifter”, or one who can shapeshift objects for a limited amount of time, makes wrapping your head around what is happening somewhat interesting. Three converging contingents doesn’t help matters either as the heroes are battling against time, their own mortality, and both Division and the Chinese power family looking to steal the drug to make them the most powerful nation in the world. Did I mention it all takes place in China? Now this is a very big plus in my mind because the local is exotic, the city’s architecture strange and unknown to me, and it just adds another level of uniqueness to an already “fresh” sci-fi thriller.

And the cast is very good, culling together a bunch of on-the-cusp stars—familiar faces that I’ve enjoyed long enough; they deserve to be enjoyed by the movie-going population who only know “A-Listers”. Well, that is all but Dakota Fanning … that girl has been huge for a while now. But here’s the kicker, she is finally old enough for me to enjoy. I always appreciated her acting prowess, but I hated the fact that she wasn’t believable as a child. Always a thirty-year old in a ten-year old body, her intellect and naturalism finally have been equaled by her appearance. Letting her swear doesn’t hurt either. My favorites, though, are villainous baddie Djimon Hounsou, the original Chun-Li Ming-Na, the aforementioned Curtis and lead Evans who carries the film with his physicality and emotive acting throughout. The guy is still way too underappreciated. And last but not least, the man of the hour, Neil Jackson. As Hounsou’s number two Victor, Jackson is the ultimate badass, wreaking havoc and just being cool as hell. You want action; just wait for him to bust loose.

But let’s not forget director McGuigan while praising the rest. He has an eye and definite flair for the dramatic. Utilizing a very nice score and obscure tracklist, to me at least, helps too. With a couple nice maneuvers using camera-tricks, (I loved the sniffing sequences of an object and watching it unmoving as the things around it change with the passing of time as well as the entrance into a motel hallway with a fluid camera panning the characters on the fringe until it makes a 180 turn to show Evans as he reaches room 5A), I was never bored. The special effects were well crafted also, the pulsing of the “pushers”, the destruction of high-rise buildings and giant market fish tanks, (I loved the exploding fish), all succeeded with flying colors. I can only hope that this is just laying the groundwork for subsequent entries, because honestly, if these kids get the chance to go all out next time war brews … that’s something I’d like to see. Oh and to meet Fanning’s Cassie’s mother—definitely on my to-do list.

Push 8/10

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[1] MING-NA, DAKOTA FANNING, and CHRIS EVANS (left to right) star in PUSH, a Summit Entertainment release. Photo credit: Courtesy of Summit Entertainment
[2] DAKOTA FANNING stars in PUSH, a Summit Entertainment release. Photo credit: Courtesy of Summit Entertainment


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