You are currently browsing the monthly archive for May 2009.

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I think that, as a film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is completely unnecessary. Sadly, the entire crux of the story—namely how James Logan becomes our titular sarcastic mutant—is explained, coherently and concisely, in flashbacks during X-Men 2. So, what we have with Gavin Hood’s effort, (you can’t blame him as he was totally a hired cog), is frivolous nonsense, showing us what we know, involving villains that can’t die since they are in movies taking place later on the timeline, and chock full of convenient subplots and introductions to characters. What ever happened to the children at Xavier’s school growing up and being recruited? No, no, they were held captive on Stryker’s island of course. Which could make sense if it was first generations like Storm, Jean Grey, and Cyclops … but wait, what is Iceman doing there? Doesn’t he have parents and a house in one of the X-Men films? Why mess with something that was good, despite a mediocre third installment? I guess money does trump all.

It all makes sense if you don’t look too deeply. I myself am not an X-Men fanatic—I’ve never read the comics nor have I seen the cartoon. Bryan Singer was my introduction to the universe and that world was fantastic. I always thought that Logan was an immortal with regenerative skin only, a power that lent his body to be experimented on in order to infuse an adamantium skeleton. Whether it true to the comics or not, I found it very weird to see claws exit his hands made of bone. But they do cover this fact in the transformation process by Stryker’s doctors, so either way the plot question is tidied up. Again, though, why even bother with attempting this story, risking plotholes and vocal fan hatred? I know people love the Wolverine character, but give him a badass fight film post-X-Men: Last Stand, don’t repackage something we’ve already seen to milk more money.

I enjoyed the wisecracks and the obvious storyline with love interest Kayla. The emotions worked and I guess that is a success. What really hit on all cylinders, in my opinion, was the relationship between Logan and Victor Creed. In a shocking move to me right at the start, the bond connecting these two is a lot more powerful than I had anticipated. Complete with a stellar credit sequence—a wonderful timeline, overproduced for sure, but I enjoy slo-mo freeze framing—we discover their history growing up with each other through the decades. You believe the strong feelings they have towards each other upon going their separate ways. Would I have liked Creed to be more fleshed out and deep? Yes. Did he need to be in order for the story and action choreography to work? No. And frankly that is the one thing this film has going for it: action. You can’t fault the pyrotechnics or the fight scenes. Heck, even the acting is pretty good … they can’t help it if the script is lacking in strong material. You can however fault the horrid special effects. I almost thought I was watching that leaked version from the internet with animatics spliced in. Wolverine’s claws looked like cartoons—it was laughable.

Credit Hugh Jackman for sticking to the character because Logan is a flawed and intricate one. The role is ripe for introspection and evolution on many levels and Jackman sees this and wants to create entertainment from it. I truly believe he sees something redeemable in the stories, something that people can relate to in this flawed hero; it’s not all about the easy money to him. He doesn’t phone in the performance and being that he is a producer, I applaud the effort. I can also say no wrong towards Liev Schreiber and Danny Huston, two very well-versed thespians as Creed and Stryker respectively. Schreiber is good in the villainous role, something I hope he pursues, whether full-blown as here, or subtler like in Defiance. And Huston really gets the double-crossing and conniving Stryker to leap off the screen. You can see Brian Cox’s version from X2 for sure, cultivating a nice bridge to the previous films.

Even the supporting cast was good pretty much across the board. The Black Eyed Peas’ Will.i.Am is intriguing as John Wraith, adding a little bit of humor to counteract his lack of acting skill; Lynn Collins is effective as Kayla, a nice foil to Jackman’s Logan; and Taylor Kitsch is entertaining as Gambit, the long-awaited arrival of the fan favorite mutant. I really liked the two “Lost” alums in Dominic Monaghan and Kevin Durand. Monaghan’s Bradley is a tragic figure, a past associate in the Stryker squad. I think he nailed the emotive qualities called for as you can see the sadness and acceptance of the death sentence he knows will soon befall him. And Durand, while playing a very comedic character in an otherwise serious film, adds some flavor as Fred Dukes—both the chiseled solider version and the blob-like model as well. Sadly, I cannot say very much good about Ryan Reynolds’ Wade Wilson. I loved the wisecracking attitude and flourish he exudes at the start, but with only about five minutes of screentime, his inclusion is solely to lead to the planned spin-off for Deadpool, a character shown briefly as well and portrayed by a different actor, (Scott Adkins).

I wanted to enjoy Wolverine and include it in the X-Men universe that Singer created almost a decade ago. But sadly, the focus on story and character development he showcased may be long gone for this series. The third installment fell into the trap of introducing too many people and watching it all fall beneath the excessive weight, and this film does the same. The filmmakers try too hard to inject as much as they can, including little callbacks and unnecessary ways to bridge to the other films. Unless you are bored and feel like an action flick with some good performances, I say pop in your DVD of X2 and enjoy the flashbacks of Wolverine’s creation. Those few minutes do a better job of contextual gelling to the overall tale at hand.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine 5/10

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[1] Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber) face off for the ultimate battle – against each other. Photo credit: Michael Muller
[2] Ryan Reynolds is Wade Wilson, later to be known as Deadpool, a highly-efficient killing machine whose weapons of choice are katana swords. Photo credit: Twentieth Century Fox

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There is nothing like a critically acclaimed indie to bring you back to reality after the opening weeks of summer and the influx of blockbusters like Star Trek, Terminator, and Transformers 2. Derick Martini’s Lymelife is just that kind of film. A story about two families and their comings and goings through each others’ lives, we watch as Rory Culkin’s Scott sees the world around him, seemingly idyllic, fall apart. He sees his father as a hero, getting richer and richer everyday with his housing developments; his mother slowly devolving into lunacy as she misses Queens despite the “wonderful” life they live; his brother as a war hero fighting for the country’s safety; and his neighbor Adrianna as the girl of his dreams. But none of it is real. Just like the fantasies he plays in front of his mirror—pretending to be Han Solo—the American Dream hasn’t left the Bartlett family happy. On the cusp of manhood, his confirmation soon approaching, his eyes are opened to the truth. Life is hard, messy, and open-ended—much like this film—and it must be experienced for oneself, even the bad, in order to cherish what truly matters.

Scott is somewhat of a loner, hanging out with the girl he likes, but who tells him he’s like a brother to her; getting bullied and called names; and babied by his mother who duct tapes every opening of his clothes so as not to contract Lyme disease from a tick. And that worry isn’t unwarranted as Adrianna’s father actually has it. Her family has changed ever since as Charlie Bragg needs medication just to function, and even then he goes from euphoria to unending pain as his body deals with it. He is no longer the man Melissa Bragg married and therefore she starts to stray into the arms of Scott’s stress-heavy father, in just one cross of the families that comes into the open, changing all their lives. That affair coming to light, (even though many of the parties already knew), is what alters Scott forever. It shows the lies all around him, the weakness each person exhibits, and the fact that maybe we all don’t live happily ever after, no matter if we have the big house, the white picket fence, or the chance to be a millionaire at year’s end.

Lymelife is full of nuance and heart; even at its toughest moments, the emotions wrought are real. No matter where each goes to satisfy their heart, the feelings they have for others are unchanging. Just because Adrianna goes after an older boy doesn’t mean she likes him, she may just be trying to make Scott jealous; just because Mickey Bartlett starts to sleep with Melissa doesn’t mean he has stopped loving his wife, nor that he wants to abandon his children, even if he may have already pushed one too far away to get back; and just because Jimmy Bartlett is in the army, smoking cigarettes and unafraid to beat up his brother’s bullies doesn’t mean he is oblivious to what is going on in his house. Everyone is running away, but just like the quote about the train being heard from anywhere you may be on Long Island, no matter how far you run, the problems that drove you away will still be there.

While the script is very good, as is the directing and cinematography across the board, what really resonate are the performances. This is a pretty high profile cast for a writer/director that only has one film under his belt—starring himself no less. A guy like Alec Baldwin lives for roles such as this: the once lothario, aging businessman who uses his natural charisma to be a success and turn every woman’s head. I thought a line by Adrianna was perfect when she says that he doesn’t need money to attract the ladies, but that even so, Scott shouldn’t try too hard to be like him. And as for the role of this young lady, I was pleasantly surprised with Emma Roberts. While at first she came off a bit amateurish and trying too hard, as the film progressed, she soon filled the character’s shoes with success and breathed some life into her. At the beginning you just think she is a tease and a brat, but once you discover her true feelings and how she knows more about what goes on around her than you may think, you’ll learn that she is just as innocent as Scott, only more experienced at hiding it. I also liked her mother, one of the pieces to the crazed puzzle being constantly moved around her. Cynthia Nixon plays the aging woman as she should: a beaten soul that’s unhappy with her lot in life, looking to move on, but trying too hard. She gets all dolled up to impress the men of the town and does her best to avoid her husband whenever possible.

It is with the spouses and the Barlett boys where the best acting occurs, however. I have never seen Jill Hennessy perform before and I have to say I was impressed. Here is the epitome of suburban housewife trapped in a situation she doesn’t want. Knowing her husband has been sleeping around, and the kind of person who can’t accept the money and comfortable life as compensation, she acts out to get attention from anyone who may be looking. By trying to get her son to see her as fun she in fact makes him believe she is going crazy. As for that son, Scott, Rory Culkin is fantastic. It’s so good to see these younger Culkin boys getting their starts in low-key indie-fare rather than the big budget schlock their brother Macaulay had, the same kind that spiraled his career into oblivion. He is the star here and he handles the responsibility deftly, playing off of some very accomplished actors. His sibling, in the film and real life, is Kieran Culkin’s Jimmy. It is a role that seems simple enough, as does most of the film, until the layers get uncovered and you discover what really makes him tick; how his relationship with his parents affected his decisions in life and decisions in the present.

My favorite role, however, came from Timothy Hutton. His Lyme disease inflicted Charlie Bragg is a startling performance. His confusion and ticks, (no pun intended), craft a unique being that is trying to live his life as it was, despite the fact he can’t. Between hallucinations and the medication, he cannot find work and his love of hunting isn’t safe anymore. He is losing his family from around him and soon sees that young Scott is the only friend he has. This arc is one of the most intriguing in the film and his character’s conclusion one of the most impactful, culling together all his strength. The ending in general is one that definitely hits home by showing each character and where they have rested after all the lies are brought into the open. It is a perfect finale for a very worthwhile film, showing the audience that not everything is black and white; some people make mistakes and we are all flawed. It is what you do with that knowledge that defines who you are and what you are willing to achieve in life and the future.

Lymelife 9/10

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[1] Alec Baldwin, Rory Culkin, Kieran Culkin and Jill Hennessy in Screen Media Films’ Lymelife (2009) Copyright © Screen Media Films. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Emma Roberts stars as Adrianna Bragg and Rory Culkin stars as Scott Bartlett in Screen Media Films’ Lymelife (2009) Copyright © Screen Media Films. All Rights Reserved.

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The success of Old School pretty much vaulted Todd Phillips onto the A-list for comedy directors. We waited and waited for his second hit, (I didn’t forget about Road Trip which was good as a precursor to Old School), but only got the mediocre Starsky and Hutch and, what I can only imagine as disappointing, School for Scoundrels. Maybe what Phillips needed was a script from the guys that brought us Four Christmases and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past … wow, this is sounding worse and worse. But for some reason, putting those pieces together crafted one of the funniest comedies I have seen in years. The Hangover lives up to the exorbitant amount of praise being tossed around everywhere; the buzz is running rampant online and rumors of a sequel have already started months before the film is even released. Movies pertaining to the alcohol induced shenanigans that can occur at a bachelor party two days before the wedding—in Vegas no less—always bring something funny to the table. The Hangover, however, trumps them all on sheer absurdity, craziness, and all-around hilarity.

Doug is about to marry the girl of his dreams, a woman with wealth, but also a family that seems grounded in reality, (Jeffrey Tambor as the patriarch is not hesitant to say that his prized possession car is just a car, nor that what happens in Vegas should stay there). It is a couple days before the nuptials and Doug is on his way to Vegas for a night of fun with his two best friends and soon-to-be brother-in-law. This foursome is such a mixed bag that you believe them to all be real friends. Doug is the successful, who knows what, (we sadly learn very little about his character as he is a mere pawn for the evening to occur); Phil is the married teacher that hates his life, marriage, and children in general; and Stu is the nerdy doctor—sorry, dentist—without a backbone, but who you know can be wild when a few drinks have been imbibed. As for Alan, the bride-to-be’s brother, he is the wild card of the bunch. Only having met Phil and Stu a few times and a bit off in the head—he is not a “rah-tard” though—you never know how he may interact with the others, nor what he may do or say about his wolfpack brothers.

The evening starts with the four going to the hotel’s roof to take a shot of Jager and toast the groom on one last night of partying. It is right after this exchange that Phillips brings us to the next morning: Stu minus a tooth, Alan without pants and in the company of a tiger, and Phil with no recollection that he was in the hospital sometime during the night. Well, I don’t want to knock Phil too much; no one remembers anything of what happened, nor can they find Doug. In fact, rather than their friend, they find a baby crying in the closet. Amidst the strewn-about debris, smoking chair, and random chicken, the boys realize that they have less than 48 hours to find the groom and get him to his wedding. The adventure that commences takes them on a journey through the many locations they visited the night before, compiling a timeline while allowing the audience to enjoy the laughs that come with the evidence of what happened and the reactions to it all from the threesome. Throw in a newly married stripper; a gay Asian with crimeworld pull, angry and naked from being trapped in the trunk of a car; a kidnapping; a stolen police car; and yes, Mike Tyson singing Phil Collins, and you can only imagine the uproarious laughter that will be emitting from your body.

Phillips has done with The Hangover what he did with Old School, getting a group of relative unknowns, (at the time), to play off each other amongst absurdity and brilliant supporting players. Doug’s Justin Bartha is best known for being Nic Cage’s sidekick in the National Treasure films and, although not a main part of the film, does work well with the three stars, definitely fitting in as the guy they are celebrating. As for Phil, Stu, and Alan—Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis respectively—you can’t have more perfect casting. Just as Luke Wilson, Will Ferrell, and Vince Vaughn played versions of their own comedic personas, the bachelor party participants are definitely playing within their wheelhouse. Cooper has played the good-looking prick many times, but his role here has another layer beneath the childish, testosterone-induced tendencies. He is the star of the film and the one who takes control in the search for Doug. Despite being vain and selfish, he will do anything for his friends and proves it over and over again. As for Helms, he shows that his character Andy in “The Office” might be more ad-libbed than scripted. Complete with delivery, singing, and facial expressions, his Stu is so similar to that television persona that I have to imagine he infuses his own schtick in both. The pent-up aggression, but overall puppy dog sensibilities breed many laughs.

But it is Galifianakis who surprises the most and completely shines as the off-kilter Alan. I’ll admit to mostly being turned off by his brand of humor, generally jokes that run on too long and are too dry for their own good, (although he is the best thing in Out Cold). Here, however, it all works beautifully. Even when he risks going too far, like with his wolfpack speech at the beginning, Phillips seems to have been able to cut him to the perfect length in order to maintain the joke and not destroy it. He is a little child—“don’t let the beard fool you”—and his innocence and ambivalence to what is going on around him is priceless. His emotions get the better of him, he wants nothing more than to be Cooper’s best friend or carbon copy, his delivery of absurd lines is so straight-faced you become as dumbfounded as Stu and Phil, and his props add even more to the character. His satchel, his Blackjack book, and his roofies, among other things, enhance the jokes and the plot. A moment with him and Cooper mimicking Rain Man brings the laughs as does a slo-mo sequence between he and a little boy on a field trip to a police station. When Galifianakis is onscreen, you truly have no idea what will happen next.

I know I have spoken little about the plot, but really, besides pertaining to three guys trying to remember what happened to them the night before, and where their best friend went, there isn’t much else to say. The Hangover could have easily fallen prey to the “SNL” syndrome of just being skit after skit, loosely connected into a story, yet too disjointed to really enjoy, but the cast and crew never let this happen. Bringing in actors like Heather Graham, Rachael Harris, and a scene-stealing performance from Ken Jeong only expand the story rather than derail it. The jokes come so quick and successfully that you have little time to question what is happening, and you are laughing so hard that you are probably missing dialogue anyways. And don’t even get me started on Mike Tyson’s lisp; he deserves a high-five for sure. The only thing I can say is that you will laugh, because, honestly, who wouldn’t enjoy watching a night of excess that went so overboard it’s participants can only recall what happened through the X-rated photos on their digital camera? Yes, you do get to see those gems in all their glory during the end credits.

The Hangover 8/10

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[1] (L-r) ZACH GALIFIANAKIS as Alan, ED HELMS as Stu and BRADLEY COOPER as Phil in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ comedy “The Hangover,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[2] (L-r) Phil (BRADLEY COOPER), Alan (ZACH GALIFIANAKIS), Stu (ED HELMS) and Doug (JUSTIN BARTHA) en route to Doug’s bachelor party in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ comedy “The Hangover,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[3] Stu (ED HELMS) wakes up with a hangover and finds a chicken in his hotel room in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ comedy “The Hangover,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Frank Masi

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I have never seen a McG film before. I avoided the Charlie’s Angels movies and thought We Are Marshall looked pretty mediocre—besides being a based on true events sports flick; not my genre of choice—but here we have him helming the new entry to one of the best science fiction series in cinema. How would someone that people oftentimes compare to a hack like Brett Ratner do with a big scale production containing an existing mythology and fan base calling for greatness? We all know the weak job Ratner did on X-Men 3 with similar expectations. Terminator Salvation is a bit different, though, being that it is somewhat of a reboot—the first of a planned new trilogy—that has some room to breathe on its own. You do not need to be aware of the television show “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” at all, and frankly don’t need to know too much about the original trilogy either. Salvation amps up the action, brings in some pretty good talent to perform, and gets the aesthetic of post-Judgment Day perfect. Unfortunately, for all that it succeeds to accomplish, there is one glaring problem—the story is very thin. With action scenes and explosions filling the screen at a rapid pace, story is pushed to the back, making the film very much an opening to a larger tale. When put alongside the future installments, (there is no way this tanks to the point the money isn’t there for more), it may all work perfectly. Watching as a film on its own just shows a fantastic surface with a weak interior heart.

I use the simile with the heart because of how important that muscle is for character Marcus Wright. The film opens with his lethal injection in 2003, allowing us to see him sign away his body to a very creepy, cancer-ridden Helena Bonham Carter. The blatant, ham-fisted script pushes its agenda of second chances right from the start and never stops. Nor does it let up on the fact that Marcus’ heart is very strong, a pulsing that comforts Moon Bloodgood’s Blair Williams as she rests her head against his chest in 2018. Wait … 2018? I thought he died in prison fifteen years earlier? Well, what would a Terminator movie be without a Terminator? Salvation uses the character of Marcus Wright much to the same effect that “Battlestar Galactica” used the skin-job cylons: a combination of machine and biology, one who’s consciousness stills holds the humanity necessary to make choices in his actions. Because, of course, the true sign of what sets a human apart from machine is its heart.

Besides Wright’s awakening, the film concerns the evolution of John Connor and his place in the Resistance. We learned through the first three films that he would be the savior of our race, the one man to unite all survivors to take down the Skynet’s machines once a for all. However, in 2018, Connor is not yet the Jesus-like visage we would think. A rogue voice commanding the masses, as people listen to him because of the rumors and speculation they have heard, Connor is not a general—no that would be the always-classic sci-fi action actor Michael Ironside—nor is he universally loved. Many believe him to be a false prophet, not worth the time or effort, despite the eventual discovery of things that he had spoken of years before. One major plus in Salvation, though, is that his teacher and mother Sarah Connor didn’t know everything; the future seems to have changed. A creature such as Marcus was never fathomed before. The fact that time travel has been occurring for the past three decades in attempts to eradicate John and to save him means that the timeline has been altered. Somewhere along the line the machines discovered their failures and advanced their AI to create the ultimate infiltrator—half man/half machine. However, this weapon is awakened before ready, an outcome caused by Connor’s arrival on a mission to the Skynet laboratory, a mission that ends with the destruction of everything in sight, besides Connor and Wright, therefore setting them on a collision course.

Wright goes on a journey to find the one person that might be able to explain why he is alive, Bonham Carter’s Dr. Serena Kogan. On his way he meets the LA division of the Resistance in Anton Yelchin’s Kyle Reese. Yelchin is great in the role, even making facial expressions that recall memories of Michael Biehn in the original film. With this and Star Trek, the kid is finally making it into the big time after a very successful early career. John Connor is also on the lookout for Reese, searching while hatching a plan to utilize a sound frequency that will shutdown the machines. Once Reese is captured, both Wright and Connor try to find a way to recover him. When they cross paths, it is up to their trust in one another to decide whether they are on the same side or mortal enemies. The salvation of the title regards both of these men: one a murderer given a second chance at life and the ability to do good; the other lost and adrift, finally living the life he knew he would as a child, but needing to think outside the box and remember that his future self once sent a robot to the past to protect him. His future self learns to trust the machine and make them work for him; that mentality must start somewhere.

As exposition, Terminator Salvation is a success. It refreshes our memories on the relationship between characters, re-familiarizing viewers with the age gaps and ramifications time travel has done to them through the previous stories. There is a nice progression for Marcus Wright as we see him for what he was and who he becomes. Sam Worthington, a virtual unknown Aussie on this side of the Pacific, but soon to hit it big after filming the lead in James Cameron’s new Avatar, sinks his teeth into the role. Here is a Terminator that has a heart, has emotions and feelings, and has the ability to go against programming, even if he doesn’t know he was programmed to begin with. It is something seeing a soul behind the eyes of a face half composed of metal. Wright’s story is where the plot’s strengths end, though. We are introduced to Bryce Dallas Howard as Connor’s wife and to Common and Bloodgood as two of his soldiers, but we really know nothing about them. Even Christian Bale’s John Connor falls a bit flat.

Don’t get me wrong, Bale plays the part to perfection, (I could have done with less growl), and the character lives up to the one we’ve seen before. There just isn’t anything here to make us grow an attachment to him, to allow for the ending to resonate as much as the filmmakers would hope. Worthington’s Wright is so complete a character, and even Yelchin’s Reese is completely three-dimensional, that Connor is left by the wayside. Bale is asked to perform as someone more legend than man, someone making the tough decisions in order to save the world. I just wish the story allowed us to discover who he is and what he is to become; I guess maybe we’ll get that in the next film. So, for now, just be happy to see a glorious landscape of charred, bleak destruction, inhabited by robotic vehicles of death wreaking havoc wherever they go. As an action flick it is great, but besides Marcus Wright’s conflicted monster, there isn’t much more than that. Truthfully, though, does there really need to be?

Terminator Salvation 7/10

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[1] CHRISTIAN BALE stars as John Connor in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action/sci-fi feature “Terminator Salvation,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release, also starring Sam Worthington. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[2] Marcus Wright (SAM WORTHINGTON) stands in front of what remains of the Hollywood sign post-Judgment Day in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action/sci-fi feature “Terminator Salvation,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release, also starring Christian Bale. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[3] A T-800 Terminator in a scene from Warner Bros. Pictures’ action/sci-fi feature “Terminator Salvation,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. The film stars Christian Bale and Sam Worthington. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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Author Dan Brown has a writing style that suits mainstream America. The guy is a consummate fixture on bestseller lists and frankly he deserves it. I read The Da Vinci Code and it was a page-turner; I remember not being able to put it down as new discoveries were made and the intricate plot unraveled. However, when the movie version came out, I was very under-whelmed by what Ron Howard did. He took all the excitement out of the novel by painting a film by the numbers, literally taking the page to screen. Unfortunately, what works internally by reading doesn’t usually work visually. As a result, I decided to go into the prequel novel adaptation—made into film sequel—Angels and Demons without prior knowledge to the story at hand. It definitely gave me a more pleasurable experience, allowing me to enjoy it for what it was, a summer blockbuster thriller and nothing more.

At its core, this is simple storytelling. You have a man at the top of his field, Robert Langdon, who can literally walk into a room and see everything symbolic and its historical meaning within seconds. As a result, any minute detail needed to progress the plot can be made feasible in the context that Langdon knows everything about anything. His never-ceasing-to-amaze mind allows the impossible to be done. That said, I felt preached to and talked down to a lot less here than with Da Vinci. Howard decides to go forward without any exposition, (if you saw the first film you know Langdon’s backstory, no need to rehash again), and delve right into the action. Within ten minutes, Tom Hanks’ symbologist is in the Vatican, up to speed, and seemingly more invested than the Papal police with the case. The incident concerns the kidnapping—with threat of murder—of the top four candidates for the Pope, a position vacated by the dying Vatican leader fourteen days previous. Oh, and there’s a little something about some stolen antimatter that poses the chance of destroying the Vatican and part of Rome with a cataclysmic explosion.

So, our favorite atheist—played once more by Hanks—Langdon must put his mind to work, uncovering an ancient rumored path created by Galileo and Bernini, showing the way to the Illuminati’s meeting place, where he believes the bomb to be. There are four churches along the way, standing in for the elements of earth, wind, fire, and water, crossing the city and guarded by angels. Langdon must team up with one of the scientists responsible for creating the antimatter, (Ayelet Zurer’s Vittoria), the Italian police, (an enjoyable Pierfrancesco Favino as Inspector Olivetti), the Papal police Commander, (Stellan Skarsgård’s Richter, always making us wonder which side he is on), and the Camerlengo, (a very nice turn from Ewan McGregor as the Pope’s right hand man and holder of Papal power until a new replacement is voted upon in the Conclave). The journey leads them through mysteries, gruesome deaths and brandings, to some beautiful churches complete with glorious artwork, and even the Vatican Archives housing a Mercedes Benz amongst other treasures.

I’ll tell the truth and say that the outcome is pretty obvious, especially when Howard and the filmmakers make so many people out to seem like the bad guys, causing you to know that it must not be them, but instead the ones you would never guess. Angels and Demons is the kind of film you check your brain at the door with, going along for the ride and potentially learning something on the way. Langdon’s wealth of knowledge not only remarkably makes him the one man on Earth that can decipher the mystery at hand, but also allows the audience to possibly absorb some religious and cultural history. It all happens at breakneck speed, the viewer never able to take a breath and think about people’s motivations. The pace is so fast that you are whisked away, following one step behind the characters as they go from one church to the other. Does Langdon speaking his thoughts out loud constantly, coming across as a pompous know-it-all, get old? You betcha. But what other way could we see how he solves things? There isn’t; and that is why literary adaptations aren’t always great. They are two separate mediums that utilize different facets of your brain. You can’t expect a direct translation to work; one needs to reinterpret with the vehicle’s attributes in mind. Filmmakers must take the story and make it their own, not just copy, shoot, and print. Howard isn’t a bad director, it’s just a shame he mostly takes “for hire” type jobs.

The film is not without its merits, however. The special effects are nice, especially the antimatter climax, and the blood and gore adequate to get the audience going—there is nothing like an eyeball sitting on the floor to get you into a story. Hanks is good as Langdon, working his brain and acting smart. It’s perfect casting; I just wonder if it’s a character that has any redeeming qualities other than the fact he knows everything and can save the world from crazy conspiracies that occur randomly in the world. My favorites, though, were McGregor and Armin Mueller-Stahl as Cardinal Strauss. Mueller-Stahl has a very intriguing role, tricking us into believing he has nefarious ideas and interest in stealing the Papacy in one moment and appearing to be the most righteous and pious of the bunch the next. He is a wild card that keeps you guessing, becoming the one enigma that I couldn’t quite pin down throughout. As for McGregor, you can figure out early on what his motivations are, but he plays the part so well. His monologue about church and science being at war is brilliant and his twists and turns during the film always completed skillfully.

In the end, though, Angels and Demons is your standard summer film—mindless entertainment with a pseudo-intellectual bent that seeks to titillate more than stimulate the mind. There is some humor as well as some likeable characters all on the trail to prevent a bomb like none we’ve seen; an event that would all but wipe out the entire Catholic Church in one fell swoop. There may be few surprises and occurrences that make you shake your head at the contrived absurdity of it all, but Howard and company also give us a puzzle’s solution through deductive reasoning and research. Perhaps the Robert Langdon saga will teach kids that it is okay to be booksmart, its ok to devote your life to academia, because maybe, just maybe, you will write a book that the government gets wind of, about a topic that is exactly like the one which a current unsolved case is built around, allowing you to work side by side with a beautiful woman and show that you can kick ass and play the hero despite your pale complexion and aversion from leaving the indoors. Us nerds can all dream … right?

Angels and Demons 6/10

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[1] Tom Hanks and Ayelet Zurer star in Columbia Pictures’ suspense thriller ANGELS & DEMONS. Photo By: Zade Rosenthal
[2] Armin Mueller-Stahl and Ewan McGregor in Columbia Pictures’ suspense thriller ANGELS & DEMONS, starring Tom Hanks. Photo By: Zade Rosenthal

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Time-traveling Romulans? Why has no one thought of that yet? Leave it to the crew behind the hit series “Lost” and its time-traveling physics in season five to breathe some fresh air into a franchise that has been out of theatres for seven years. Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman showed they could do serious action with Mission Impossible III, but the campiness of Transformers gave me trepidation that their reboot/prequel Star Trek might lose its way. However, with a guy like J.J. Abrams at the helm to steer the ship, I never should have lost faith. The origin story for all your favorites like Kirk and Spock is everything you’d hope it could be. The humor is great, the effects spectacular, the acting really good, (thank you for not making Chris Pine do a William Shatner caricature), and the story intricate in its own rite, being deeper than just a throwaway film to introduce people and set up a sequel. And who would have thought Karl Urban and Simon Pegg shouting out fan favorite lines as Bones and Scotty respectively could actually fit in and not seem forced or cheesy. Star Trek is back and better than ever; good job Paramount for giving the con to an admitted Trekkie novice who’s outside perspective was just what the series needed.

In any lesser hands, Star Trek could have fallen prey to the origin story syndrome of so many, spending too much time on characters that most know a lot about, leaving the plot and ultimate climax to suffer. How many times do you get a great story full of exposition only to see a beloved villain get wasted in the first film, with an epic battle becoming little more than a whimper? Orci and Kurtzman seem to understand this fact and therefore create a whole new creature to act as antagonist. Captain Nero is a Romulan who has accidentally been sent from the future through a black hole, looking for revenge on the man he holds responsible for the annihilation of his home world. He is a wild card unknown to the Federation, someone with a superior ship and weapons, a force for which no plans exist to confront him. He is the perfect adversary to help vault James Tiberius Kirk into the Captain’s chair on the Starship Enterprise. Nero can’t be reasoned with, he must be reacted to in kind, with as much improvisation as possible. No one is better at going into a fight undermanned and underpowered, yet still feeling as though he has the advantage, than Kirk.

But even though he is an egomaniac, too smart for his own good and bad boy demeanor, he must learn to trust and rely on those around him, even if they disagree. Not having ever watched the original television series, but having seen a couple of the films, I always did found it interesting that someone so cavalier as Kirk could be so close of friends with a Vulcan like Spock, pretty much unemotional, by the books, and unrelenting in his logic. Here we get the answers. We learn about Spock’s interspecies parents—Vulcan father and human mother—and how the two races have affected his internal structure and emotional gauge. We also see Kirk’s hardnosed childhood without a father in backwoods Iowa, a chip perpetually on his shoulder. It is an adolescence brought on by the ripple through time Captain Nero has caused, coincidentally being the direct reason for Kirk’s father’s death in this alternate reality. Whereas “Lost” posits that the past cannot be changed, Star Trek not only says in can, but also does so without warning. The crewmembers you know from old discover each other, find their way onto the Enterprise through aptitude or sheer dumb luck, and discover the strengths they each possess, forming the bonds and work ethic that will keep peace in the universe for years to come.

I loved the camerawork and cinematography. The lens flares and glares galore, the shiny/reflective metallic surfaces all around this futuristic world, and even the starship animation couldn’t be better. Action-packed and yet keeping true to a story, you can’t ask for more out of a summer blockbuster. Abrams has infused his penchant for humor and assembled a perfect cast to play it out. John Cho and Simon Pegg show they shouldn’t be relegated to only comedic fare. Pegg keeps the laughs coming of course, utilizing a thick Scottish accent, and Cho brings some seriousness to the proceedings, even showing off Sulu’s fencing prowess. Anton Yelchin’s accent as Pavel Chekov begs the question on whether that is his real voice or not. I’ve seen him in so many films with an American accent, but the kid was born in Russia, so maybe the American is indeed the fake one. He excels as the jubilant seventeen year old on the bridge, excited at any opportunity to use his mathematical skills to save lives and solves problems. Zoe Saldana as Uhura and Bruce Greenwood as Captain Pike round out the supporting roles nicely, playing their parts with aplomb.

The real success stories come from our trifecta of leads, Chris Pine’s Kirk, Zachary Quinto’s Spock, and Eric Bana’s Nero. Bana brings some real malice to the role of the villain. He is an imposing figure, even more so with his introduction at the start, brooding in his chair while his right-hand man, played by Clifton Collins Jr., does the talking before he strikes. Quinto was a no-brainer choice to play Spock as his Sylar from “Heroes” contains similar mechanics and streamlined actions. You do miss the sly smirk that that character brings, but the tumultuous conflict of emotions battling each other behind Spock’s eyes show the fire inside—the human part of him unwilling to stay buried. Watching him be so matter-of-fact with lines such as “I’m not familiar with humans’ idea of the prank” elicits many laughs, but never at the character’s expense. And Pine really shows what he is made of here. A badass, smart mouthed, punk hiding a mind and willingness to lead, his Kirk couldn’t be better. With some great one-liners and perfect timing, you really start to like this kid and understand why he will become the great leader he does. You even see a little of Shatner in the role—and that’s a good thing, especially since oddly timed verbal pauses weren’t necessary to do so.

Star Trek is everything it has been built up to be. A worthy addition to the series and possible frontrunner quality-wise to the rest, Abrams has restarted the franchise and I’m sure reinvigorated the public’s want for the Federation. I hope the cast and crew continues to create more, as long as the professionalism and strong storytelling stays intact. If you want story, action, science fiction, or just some good ol’ Trekkie fun, go out and see it now because it’s all included. All the characters are present, each developing and honing the quirks and idiosyncrasies we’ve grown to love from them. Not to mention many a fanboy’s dream in seeing Leonard Nimoy play opposite Quinto, passing the torch onto a new generation. Television be damned, Star Trek may have some legs to make many more films, keeping the tradition alive while earning new, younger fans. This world has some more life in it after all.

Star Trek 9/10

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[1] Anton Yelchin, Chris Pine, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, John Cho and Zoe Saldana in Paramount Pictures’ Star Trek (2009) Copyright © Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Eric Bana stars as Nero in Paramount Pictures’ Star Trek (2009) Copyright © Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[3] A scene from Paramount Pictures’ Star Trek (2009) Copyright © Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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Buffalo, New York hosted its first ever World Premiere showing of a film to be released theatrically in America. The Buffalo Niagara Film Festival’s gold ticket event for 2009 was for the film What Goes Up, a story set in the week leading up to the Challenger disaster in New Hampshire, home of teacher and astronaut Christa McAuliffe. Writers Robert Lawson and Jonathan Glatzer, (who also directed), were in attendance to introduce their work and explain their hope to get audiences thinking about what it means to be a hero. Describing it as an example of tumultuousness and devastation breeding comedy, it is interesting to learn that we never see the space shuttle explode. The tragedy at hand is instead the suicide of a beloved teacher, one who may or may not have been having too close of a relationship with his students, and how the group of misfits he brought together and gave hope to for the future deal with it. Throw in Steve Coogan’s journalist, in town to report a space related puff piece, who had also been a college friend to the deceased, and you get a story that delves into some dark places, brings some genuine laughs mixed in with plenty of awkward ones, and asks some good questions. The whole definitely doesn’t add up to a success, but some of the parts do resonate.

Joining the filmmakers at the screening were a couple actresses, (introduced as two beautiful women, and you will see why this descriptor was used if you view the film because they are both uglified into weird, eccentric, and creepy girls), and a couple nice text messages from the two leads. Hilary Duff texted about missing the premiere, typing an “OMG” at the start of her regrets—how stereotypical—and Steve Coogan typed with some humor about how he was in New Zealand and was sure “it was nice in Buffalo as it is very nice here”. In the film, both of these actors are playing somewhat against the norm, and not necessarily to good effect. Duff is not a great actress to begin with, and here she is asked to handle some very hard subject matter as a girl who was in love with her teacher that just killed himself. She sees Coogan’s arrival as a way to fill the void, seducing him with her juvenile wiles while playing a troubled young girl, but trying too hard at times. As for Coogan, I’m not sure if he is cut out for serious fare. He is dealing with his own tragedy and professional lie, a falsified series of articles that could ruin his career if discovered during their Pulitzer Prize nomination. When he is utilizing sarcasm and his inherent goofiness, you do believe in his character, however, the filmmakers ask him to be completely serious at times, in close up no less, and unfortunately he doesn’t look pull it off.

In true indie film fashion, What Goes Up contains a bit more quirkiness than needed. I enjoyed the creepy girls the first couple times on screen, before they just got … creepy; Molly Shannon’s odd teacher, composer of “Blast Off” the musical, (wow is the song from this performance so intentionally head-shaking bad that you have to laugh), is very weird, and supposedly girlfriend to the dead teacher—a fact glossed over after a very brief mention; the theft by the children of their teacher’s body and coffin is unbelievable; and what’s with Coogan setting up toy figures to mimic the people he has met during his visit? A couple aspects to the script really do work, though, but you may miss them due to all the filler thrown your way. Just pay attention to the scenes pertaining to Josh Peck and Olivia Thirlby as they shine throughout and make me want to watch them in The Wackness even more now.

Peck plays Jim, one of the students affected by the death, one who had been given direction by his “almost-priest” teacher. He looked up to and listened to the man only to find that he killed himself. When something like that occurs you can’t help but question the validity of what you had been told. Peck becomes jealous and angry towards Coogan for coming into town and basically moving into his idol’s shoes as he is viewed as a replacement, even becoming the object of affection from Duff’s Lucy, the girl who loved him. Peck’s hero is proved to be fallible and only when he himself prevails in a situation that could have resulted in the death of a baby, is he able to let go of the memory. As for Thirlby, she is absolutely fantastic. An abused child, assumed to be carrying her uncle’s offspring in her stomach, Thirlby’s Tess has experienced pain firsthand and sees Coogan as someone just looking to prey on her friends’ emotions. Her life has built paranoia and a need to be the hero in her mind, going so far as to lie about something that she knows isn’t true, but possibly could eventually become so, like the relationship between a teacher and student. Her monologue at the end, explaining her motivations throughout the film to Coogan, is a powerhouse moment, made all the more impressive by seeing Coogan’s odd expressions in reaction shots. Thirlby acts him under the table.

But Coogan’s Campbell Babbitt has his own moments as well, a hero in his own rite after writing inspirational articles in the paper about his subject and eventual love “Angela” and her selfless work done to honor her slain son. To add one more instance of moral ambiguity to a film ripe with pedophilia, teen sex—including that with a paraplegic girl, shoplifting, and misguided anger on behalf of many, Coogan finds himself caught in a scandal still hidden as “Angela” killed herself after the first story he wrote. His love for her too much, he continued her story with lies, lies that helped people and brought happiness to many. So, as a school teacher is about to go into space as a hero, eventually to keep that title once her shuttle disaster never allows her to get there, in the backdrop, we see adults and children experiencing the many different definitions of that term—hero. Sometimes that label means making a hard choice, lying and deceiving for the greater good. If What Goes Up gets anything right, it is this fact: that heroes are who we make them, subjective and often privy to debate. If the film focused more on this theme, leaving much of the precious quirk so abundantly prevalent on the cutting room floor, it might have been something I could have recommended more. Maybe the play on which it is based gets it done more successfully; as a film, though, it’s more uncomfortable than thought provoking.

What Goes Up 5/10

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[1] Hilary Duff stars as Lucy and Steve Coogan stars as Campbell Babbitt in Sony Pictures’ What Goes Up (2009) Copyright © Sony Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Olivia Thirlby stars as Tess in Sony Pictures’ What Goes Up (2009) Copyright © Sony Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[3] A scene from Sony Pictures’ What Goes Up (2009) Copyright © Sony Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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I should have known from the moment I sat down for my second screening at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival that I was in for a good time. Three of the filmmakers were seated behind me, conducting an impromptu interview about the creative process that drove them to make Boppin’ at the Glue Factory. With good-natured quips, funny jabs at each other, and an overall jovial demeanor—at one point it was asked how the title was decided on and Hector Maldonado couldn’t remember the notebook with hundreds of ideas, just the alcohol and late night, where upon the interviewer refreshed his memory and said to tell that story once he reloaded the film, even though Hector still didn’t recall it—I should have expected the humor injected craziness about to occur at the convalescent home onscreen. Revolving around a junkie nurse who had just gotten away with boxes of Dilaudid from the city’s County Hospital to be injected into his arm, we experience his slow deception at his new place of work. Taking over the night shift to “care” for the elderly, he bides his time in order to get the medicine room key, all while making a deal with an old jazz saxophonist, allowing him to play and smoke his Mary Jane in exchange for the patient’s extra Dilaudid every evening.

Henry Dittman’s Eric is pure gold. He is a conman above all else with a smile that no one can resist. Quick on his feet to turn any event to his favor, Eric cons his way into the home with a vague resume and awkward sayings such as wanting “the reward of caring for the elderly because it is just so … rewarding”. Everyone eats his story up save for the Russian taskmaster and head nurse Vladimir, (a funny turn from Charles Santore with perfect facial stoicism and Soviet coldness), and old Mary LeDoux, (Mews Small), a perceptive resident that uses her shrill voice whenever possible to get her way and make sure she and her friends are not being taken advantage of. Hospital manager Shirlee, played by Jossie Thacker, is the most gullible, creating an Employee of the Month award for her new “star” employee, despite the residents dying on his watch and the fact that he gets high, watches TV, and sleeps each night, ignoring every patient’s buzzer.

It is a role that reminded me of Ron Livingston in Office Space. So cool and stress-free, Eric just goes with the punches, always improvising and conniving to get one step closer to the mother-load of barbiturates. At first I wasn’t quite sure if I should be laughing as hard as I was, whether the intent of the film was to show his antics or his downfall. All those reservations disappeared once Rance Howard’s Walker Bill makes his second appearance. Out of sorts and confused in his first scene, he becomes more coherent and progresses his joke telling skills after receiving a bottle of water from Eric. Water has been rationed to the point of non-existence by Vladimir to try and stop the many “accidents” causing slipping and messy cleanups on the floor. All it takes is a little H2O to win over the residents, (as well as a little senior porn on the television for Mary), and make them turn a blind eye towards his obvious junkie tendencies—they all know. In exchange for the fun they have each night, they don’t mind Eric’s lax behavior or take notice of the death every night due to his ambivalence and drug induced slumber. Well, all except Walker Bill who writes “Who’s Next” on the dry erase board as the new quote as well as telling the joke, “Why did the old man cross the road? … To get away”.

There are a lot of supporting roles that add levity and charm to the proceedings. I especially enjoyed Ski Carr’s Zen using—and what we can only assume ex-con—nurse, Santore’s Vladimir, and Stephon Fuller’s Joe Tones the security guard. Fuller is the only person at the home late night besides the residents, and could ruin Eric’s plans except for the fact he brings his wife in to have sex while on the clock. What then starts as an innocuous quip from the paramedics, who are always asking how his “pretty young wife” is, becomes the blackmail line that quiets him down when a midnight birthday bash is thrown. Even the paramedics are great in limited roles. They recognize Eric from his County days and ask if the guy ever got caught, (for which we can only assume is him, having stolen the meds and high-tailed it out), and tell him they will give a reference if he needs one. My favorite line by them was upon a bogus call of distress, after they had picked up dead bodies the last two nights, where once they declare the old man fine, say “It must have just been a panic attack; he’ll think twice about doing it again once he gets the bill”.

Director Jeff Orgill infuses some nice style as well with a well-orchestrated dissolve from a men’s room sign to Eric on the toilet after an injection among others. I also liked the color transition from muted colors when our lead is without a means for drugs to the vibrant palette when the opportunity for free Dilaudid crops up. But you really have to credit Dittman’s handle on the script as well as the words themselves crafted by Orgill, Maldonado, and B. Scott O’Malley. This is a very funny screenplay that adds humor to a world you would generally only see onscreen as a subdued downer, the elderly being neglected and left to die. Instead, Eric and Conrad Roberts’ jazz man Tharin Sanders inject some much needed fun and excitement, deciding to throw the rules out the window, get high, do as little as possible, and somehow get rewarded for it every time. Slackers around the world would be proud.

Boppin’ at the Glue Factory 7/10

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[1] Eric LaBudde (Henry Dittman) talks the escaping Tharin Sanders (Conrad Roberts) back into the car. photo by Christian Miglio.
[2] Vladimir (Charlie Santore) looks for Eric when he finds a patient dead and the nurse log empty. photo by Cynthia Petrovic.

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Some films seem like they will be great in concept, only to let you down in execution. The Buffalo Niagara Film Festival screening of Roses Have Thorns is one such example. An American production, but mostly spoken in Japanese and Korean, Jong W. Lee’s tale of love had the potential of being something very unique and creative. Dealing with four characters in their twenties—Jae Hoon Jeong’s Jay, a Japanese immigrant who has been in the country three years; his girlfriend Rachel, played by Vanessa Scott Lee; Kai Issey’s Brandon, a photographer who begins to have feelings for his model, Rachel; and Nozomi Akioka as Kaoru, another girl caught in the middle, sometimes friend to Jay, sometimes to Rachel, always the girl the drives the couple apart—we see their tumultuous relationship four separate times. This device could have been utilized to great effect by showing the same story through each set of eyes, or to show how events can change if one component is different and how that alteration effects everything that comes after. Instead, we are pretty much given four short films strung together. Besides having the same names, the four lovers are never identical to their counterparts in the vignettes that came before. Without any consistency, what is Lee trying to prove? Rather then a study on love’s fickle ways, we are given a series of different drafts on a common outline; a gimmick seemingly used only to pad the runtime.

The film is shot very nicely, with a minimal use of the camera. Each moment is generally filmed from a static vantage point, lingering and watching as characters come in and out of the frame. I really liked the style, giving the actors some latitude and movement without being continuously followed to stay in the center of the frame. Every quadrant contains scenes with the same setup—location, camera vantage point, and periphery characters—and utilizes it depending on the situation. One such example is of the four at a bar, sitting in a table placed in the top left of the frame. This is the moment in each portion that shows the rose color that began the story thread. I can’t remember if the walls change color as well—I only noticed the red walls during “Red” and can’t recall if they were red throughout, or altered depending on the story’s name—but the rose is our constant bridging it all together, a gentlemen flower salesmen, sells one of the four corresponding to the name, being either “White”, “Yellow”, “Pink”, or “Red” with an epilogue titled “Thorns”, a look at the fallout of the new love connections that ended the old, a short sequence that fits as the ending for any of the four.

I was with the film after “White” had ended. It’s a love quadrangle that attempts to have the gravitas of a Closer or We Don’t Live Here Anymore, never quite living up but intriguing nonetheless. Jay and Kaoru are friends, she being someone he can confess his love troubles with Rachel to. Kaoru likes Jay and wants to be more than just friends, but he is genuinely in love with his girlfriend and wants to make it right. The next day, the four get together at a bar for a good time, ending in the drunken slumber of Jay, after he purchases a white rose for Rachel. Brandon and the girls help take him home, wherein Brandon makes a move on Rachel after Kaoru had left. The two go out for food and we find Kaoru hiding in the hallway, ready to re-enter the room and be with Jay. A very conservative Korean, Jay awakes angry, leaving to find his girl and get her away from the photographer. He is justified in his jealousy as he has ignored the advances of Kaoru thus far, however, Rachel metaphorically slaps him in the face anyways saying she feels he is only with her to get a green card. The next day, both women arrive at Jay’s place, where Kaoru makes her move while Rachel leaves the room, only to find them kissing when she returns. The roles are subverted as the one we expected to cheat, Rachel, is never shown as having more than just a meal with Brandon, but Jay, the one “in love”, is caught with the other woman and admits to having slept with her.

That version of the tale ends and we get the title card for “Yellow”. It begins in Brandon’s studio where we see Rachel getting ready for the shoot and Kaoru setting up the backdrops before leaving. I was excited as it appeared we would now get blanks filled in through the same story told through Rachel’s eyes this time, like the first was through Jay’s. The two have their session and Kaoru leaves early to, in my assumption, go home and eventually meet with Jay as he arrived in the start of “White”. Instead, we are given a completely different story that holds very little similarities to the one before it. One constant to all four is Jay passing out at the bar, (each time with a different person buying a different colored rose), leading to a unique confrontation between Brandon and Rachel in her kitchen. He either goes after her wherein she acquiesces to it or says she just wants to take a walk, or she corners him, all while Jay sleeps in the next room. So, rather than have a connecting narrative, being understood as each layer is revealed, we get four movies in one, each containing its own set of characters, all the same, but very different in tone, personality, and moral compass.

The only thing I could take from Roses Have Thorns is that no matter who was willing to have an affair, no matter who pursued whom at the expense of the others, Jay and Rachel just were not meant to be together. However, I don’t necessarily buy into the cynical view that each time the relationship was ruined, nothing good came about. If “Thorns” is to be believed, just because Jay always ends up with Kaoru and Rachel with Brandon, does not mean they are meant for each other. For all we know, the flower salesman is some devil-like character corrupting the foursome with his colored flowers, subjecting them to heartbreak in the guise of something better, a love worth letting go of their previous one for. But maybe Jay and Rachel truly were meant for each other, maybe the other two were to be the temptation that bonded their love completely, but each was too weak to resist. The rose being the apple of Eden, a thing so irresistible that its beauty only breeds destruction. I think that reasoning gives the film too much credit though. It may just be a series of stories put together because they contain the same four people; and maybe there is nothing deeper than that.

Roses Have Thorns 4/10

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[1] Kai Issey (Brandon), Nozomi Akioka (Kaoru), Vanessa Scott Lee (Rachel), and Jae Hoon Jeong (Jay)
[2] Nozomi Akioka (Kaoru)
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What a gorgeous poster, and frankly a gorgeous film despite its hard look at love conquering abuse, alcoholism, and the shattering of dreams. Sometimes two people find themselves forgiving each other, not out of weakness, but out of the underlying powerful love bonding them. Academy Award nominee Jan Troell’s new film Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick, or Everlasting Moments here in the states, is a slow unveiling of what it was like to live in Sweden as a below Middle Class citizen, striving to feed your seven children and attempting to survive. It pulls no punches and shows life in all its dirty ways, engrained in the memories of all involved and displayed on film for our viewing, much like the photographs taken by Maria Heiskanen’s Maria Larsson. These photos prove to her she is worth something in this world, showing her a talent that is unappreciated by her cheating husband, but viewed as magnificence from her tutor and friend Sebastian Pederson, (Jesper Christensen), and those in the town she lives, even helping to support them when times are tough.

Sometimes that admiration trickles down and changes people like her brutish husband, played by Mikael Persbrandt, and sometimes that change happens too late. So much occurs to make you angry with Maria for not leaving Sigge after any of the numerous chances he gives her. Following his drunken verbal lashes, his jealous rages forcing himself on her, or even his threats of murder with a knife against her neck, she always looks at him and finds that love she fell for years ago. When he comes back from jail sober and rested, he is a different man, but each time temptation ruins his redemption. Whether her father’s declaration, upon Maria asking permission to divorce him, of “you will be together until death do you part” lingers at the back of her head or not, she always finds forgiveness. Her children grow up to realize what is happening between the two, even questioning her reasons for staying as well. It is a different time and having so many mouths to feed in a poor neighborhood negates some options. It is only in her camera, a fine Contessa, is she able to escape into a frozen reality where a smile stays forever. She wishes one day her life can remain static in that state as well, never falling back into the violence her Sigge is so capable of providing.

The acting is masterful and the direction tight and controlled. Authenticity is prevalent throughout from costume to emotions to events. The Swedish film spans many years and we see the young children age and pursue an education, pushed towards by Maria against Sigge’s wishes for them all to work and earn money rather than waste time studying. Each passing year brings more and more trouble whether a new child, a new job utilizing Sigge’s size and strength, a new photographing job that only angers Maria’s husband, World War I taking the patriarch away to the fight, or death and disease in the house or nearby. One may argue that the film portrays a weak woman staying with an abusive man, but I believe the story is more complicated than that. Sure Sigge is a horrible specimen of a human, without fail, but there is goodness inside of him. The pressures and stress of the times weighs heavy on everyone, yet manifest into anger when he can’t quite handle it. Everlasting Moments becomes a study of love bonding together two people despite every worldly attempt to separate them forever. You almost begin to root for the Larsson family to survive it all, because you begin to see what could be.

What really works above all else is the style. What at first seems very straightforward soon becomes seen as a very specifically shot film. With muted tones you begin to feel as though you are spying on photographs from the start of the 20th century. I also loved the moments when we get to see the photos that Maria and Pedersen take, even at times looking through the viewfinder at the upside-down image being sent through the camera. Even a throwaway moment of Pedersen showing Maria a moth/butterfly through the lens of the camera against his hand becomes a moment of beauty. Every detail is meticulously placed and included, all becoming a part of a fully fleshed world once the characters begin to move around in it. Heiskanen is fantastic as Maria, coping with the troubles of her husband, expressing the happiness she feels behind her camera or with Pedersen, and embodying the maternal love for her children. Persbrandt is a revelation as well, playing Sigge. The children nail it correctly when saying he reminds them of the bad guy in Charlie Chaplin’s film, but his ability to navigate the emotional parts, to have that tear roll down his cheek or to hold his dead friend in his arm, even the jubilance of seeing his horse still in its place once he returns from jail one last time, really show the man he is deep inside, beneath the hard exterior.

Jesper Christensen is my favorite, though—an enigma to the proceedings. Is he a wishful suitor for Maria or just a man who desires talent? How much of his helping her pay for supplies stems from his feelings towards her or his eye in seeing the skill and potential to be a professional photographer? It’s a wonderful scene at the end, one after we see the two of them in an exchange that hints at burgeoning love, where the unwritten and impossible love between them is shown. The camera bonds them forever; it was just bad timing that won’t allow them to ever be together. This relationship is an important affair of the mind; one she needs to cope with the affairs of the flesh Sigge has behind her back. Their stolen moments together in the darkroom developing photos can almost be seen as more romantic than any she shares with another during the course of the film. They become her own everlasting moments, imbedded in her mind like the images held still on her developed stock. Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick may be long and trying at times, but for all the filler, the moments that work make it a worthwhile journey to take, watching the many forms of love and how when it seems all but lost, it rekindles and burns once more.

Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick 7/10

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[1] Maria Heiskanen as Maria Larsson in IFC Films’ ‘Everlasting Moments’
[2] Jesper Christensen as Sebastian Pedersen and Maria Heiskanen as Maria Larsson in IFC Films’ ‘Everlasting Moments’


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