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While reading about the new Kathryn Bigelow film The Hurt Locker, I found it very interesting that people were saying how it really doesn’t have an anti-war sentiment. I was always under the impression that it would be another liberal propaganda-driven message movie like all the others coming out recently. To my great surprise, they were exactly right. Rather than use the war to tell people already against it to protest, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal decide to use Iraq purely as a backdrop to the real subject matter at hand—war itself. Plain and simple, war is hell, but it is also a drug each soldier feeds on, an adrenaline rush that makes him wake every morning to see what may happen. We are thrown into the action as Bravo Company’s bomb team has just 38 days left in rotation. Let’s just say the day doesn’t end well and the final month has its ups and downs showing the world what is going on over there—the pressure, the friendships, the duty, and the loss.

The authenticity is astounding throughout. I know people will gripe about the shaky camera style, but that lends itself to the realism and puts you into the action of this bomb squad under the cowboy antics of leader William James, played by Jeremy Renner. He is a recent addition, replacing the team’s last technician after a tragic accident involving a bomb and an Iraqi cell phone. It would appear that he has a death wish, going into situations without recon and letting his emotions get the better of him every step of the way. He does have a girlfriend and son back home, though, and the compassion a father has comes out at times, especially when dealing with a young Middle Eastern boy named Beckham selling DVDs and playing soccer. James uses his sense of humor strangely, telling people he’ll chop their heads off or some other such nonsense with a straight face before smiling, saying he’s just kidding, and rubbing their head. His carefree attitude may seem cavalier, but by the end of the film we will realize what makes him tick. He is doing this for his country, filling a job in high demand with the US army, a job he’s damn good at.

The other two members of his team don’t necessarily share his laidback demeanor. As another soldier says later on in the film, this team is wired tight. Anthony Mackie’s JT Sanborn is a by-the-books guy, holding the safety of his men above all else. He is willing to have a good time and can drink, punch, and joke with the best of them, but when it comes to a live bomb out in the middle of a street, he wants you with your radio on, listening to what he has to say. When a surrounding area has been evacuated and he asks James to pull back, letting the engineers take over, he wants to be listened to. Renner’s technician is not that kind of guy, though. He sees a puzzle and he wants to solve it, almost admiring the bomb creator whose work he is dismantling. Unafraid to give his Sergeant the finger and continue with his work, headphones and bomb suit off—Specialist Eldridge right next to him in the blast zone being told to fall back by Sanborn but having to stay since James is the commanding officer—he lives for the excitement at the edge of life and death.

As for Eldridge, played by Brian Geraghty, who is used to the desert having been in Jarhead, he is a young novice on the team, never having seen a dead body, never having been in a firefight, and yet here he is putting himself in the way of active bombs that could blow him to pieces. A boy that isn’t quite able to shake the fear of death, nor the thought that being in Iraq means he already is dead, Eldridge is visited often by a Colonel, who is also a psychiatrist of some sort, helping him through the war. Their relationship ends with devastating effect that resonates from Geraghty’s performance despite being an obvious result when watching the sequence leading up to the event. It really is the performance by each of these three leads—Renner, Mackie, and Geraghty—that makes The Hurt Locker as effective a tale as it is. Eldridge may keep his demons on his sleeve throughout, but both James and Sanborn keep theirs hidden until they can no longer. Both do brilliant work at expressing the inner fears and desires, especially those dreams they aren’t sure they’ll ever be able to fulfill.

A lot of credit must be given to Bigelow for getting all the pieces together and crafting a very effective war film. It is character-driven throughout, hinging on the audience believing that these men are in life or death situations each and every day. She opens the film through the eyes of an Army bot, calling to memory the first person filming in—what is my favorite film of hers—Strange Days. Her credibility as a director also allowed her to not only get a cameo from that film’s star, Ralph Fiennes, but also a couple small, scene-chomping appearances from Guy Pearce and David Morse. And while many will label Bigelow as a man’s director, doing action and testosterone-induced work, you can’t deny her delicate care in expressing the human psyche. Whether it was more she or the actors themselves, especially Renner and Mackie, I don’t know, but they really go all out here. It isn’t even just the fight scenes or the high-pressure anticipation of a bomb going off; no my favorite moment is when Renner goes off camp to seek revenge for something he believes occurred. He is alone, without his uniform or equipment and only a sidearm at his disposal, wandering the streets of Iraq. Just the matter in which he has to return to base shows how on edge everyone is. This isn’t a videogame played by faceless automatons, no, war is most definitely hell. It’s being fought, win or lose, by people just like us, full of aspirations and dreams we just hope we’ll live long enough to see come to fruition.

The Hurt Locker 9/10

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[1] Anthony Mackie in THE HURT LOCKER, directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Photo credit: Joanthan Olley.
[2] Scene from THE HURT LOCKER, directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Photo credit: Mark Boal.

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It is safe to say, my man-crush on Ryan Reynolds has remained intact after watching his new film The Proposal. It could have gotten ugly being a vehicle for Sandra Bullock, (Reynolds is in fact the “romantic interest”), directed by Anne Fletcher, the woman behind the occasionally entertaining 27 Dresses. Would I have enjoyed myself as much as I did if Reynolds—a Canadian playing an American, opposite an American playing a Canadian—was not there? Probably not. That is what his sarcastic humor does for the romantic comedy, it makes it worth the time; he seriously makes this movie. But I don’t want to disregard everything in the film, because I actually thought Bullock was good as the tough as nails, cutthroat boss. In fact, for an actress I don’t generally enjoy, the last two I’ve seen including her have been surprisingly good. Yes, I enjoyed The Lake House.

Pete Chiarelli’s script is by no means original at all. Besides making it the woman that needs a sham marriage to stay in the country instead of the man, what we have here is a premise devoid of creativity. However, all these films contain that crutch; it’s nothing new. One doesn’t go to a date movie like this for intelligent storytelling, it’s about being entertained for a couple hours, watching the antics of love do their worst onscreen. And, frankly, The Proposal does exactly that. I laughed a lot during the course of this Alaskan adventure, knowing the outcome, but genuinely interested to see the path that would lead to it. This high-powered book-publishing editor-in-chief is at risk of losing her job for a whole year if she is deported to Canada. None of her employees would be crushed from this fact, as they are completely scared of her, computer messaging each other warnings when she is moving around the office.

While they all would probably be better off emotionally, alleviated of a lot of stress, it is her assistant that would lose the most if she were sent away. Being her right-hand man, despite loathing her as well, he’d be the first to be fired in order to rid the office of anything Margaret Tate. Therefore, when confronted with the proposal of marriage, he decides to risk jail in order to blackmail his “bride-to-be” into giving him a promotion to editor and the respect he knows he deserves and thinks she does as well. The reason this film is as funny as it is? Mainly because Reynolds’ Andrew Paxton eventually realizes he has the upper hand, his fake doting charm is washed away and the biting, cruel longing for payback comes to the surface as it is his turn to make Margaret’s life a living hell. Satan’s mistress no longer holds the control in their relationship, as he is the only chance she has of keeping her job.

So, it becomes a test of each person’s mettle. He has to lie to his parents and Gammy, (it’s her 90th birthday), about being in love with the woman he abhors most in this world, and she must pretend to not be the cold, frigid, soulless person she is. The course of events in the small Alaskan town—virtually owned by the Paxton’s—becomes the true driving force of the film. The actual wedding and immigration fraud is in fact only a premise to splice together numerous comedic skits and opportunity for both Reynolds and Bullock to verbally spar. The quick wit is fun, especially in moments like the telling of how Andrew proposed. It is an ad-libbed discourse told by the back and forth of both New Yorkers, doing their best to make the other seem weak and powerless. An attempt is made to show a conflict in idealisms on behalf of Reynolds and his father played by Craig T. Nelson, but it is just a side plot that has no legs except to give a reason as to why the immigration agent would travel to them. The film works when it is characters are acting goofy or hating each other. There really isn’t much that is funnier than a dysfunctional family.

Besides the scene stealing performance from Reynolds, (don’t get me wrong, he won’t be nominated for any Oscars here, but he does what he is supposed to and makes this thing worth watching), and the solid job from Bullock, you can’t leave this film without a smile forming when thinking back to both Betty White and Oscar Nuñez. These two are hysterical. White is great as Gammy, never afraid to speak her mind or make the guest uncomfortable. Without shame, she is at her best opposite Bullock, definitely having a fun time with the role. She is also a main catalyst in the second of two “musical numbers,” getting her soon-to-be granddaughter to chant and dance around an indigenous fire ceremony. That chanting becomes a wonderful rendition of “Get Low” by Lil Jon. But you can’t forget the brilliant falsetto from Reynolds doing Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two”. The scene begs you to recall 27 Dresses’ best scene of “Benny and the Jets”. Fletcher seems to like her sing-a-longs.

And, of course, there’s Nuñez. His first appearance made me laugh due to his comical Spanish accent. Seeing him as the straight man, (no joke intended), opposite the crazies in “The Office,” gives you a certain typecast idea of what he’ll be doing. Throw all those preconceptions out the window, though, because he is definitely not Oscar from television. No, he is Sitka’s resident butler, country store manager, and exotic dancer amongst other occupations. The Spanish lisp gets funnier as the film goes on and his antics more absurd. It is supporting roles like his that prove the effectiveness of the film, making it more about the audience laughing and less about what may happen to Reynolds and Bullock. Sit back and enjoy a good time, because The Proposal has the potential of being a lasting hit at the box office, especially as reverse programming to summer blockbusters like Transformers 2. So girls, if your man drags you to see robotic carnage, don’t feel bad returning the favor with this little gem. He may actually enjoy it, although he’ll never tell you so.

The Proposal 7/10

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[1] (l to r) SANDRA BULLOCK, RYAN REYNOLDS. Photo: Kerry Hayes SMPSP ‘© Touchstone Pictures, Inc. All rights reserved.’
[2] (l to r) SANDRA BULLOCK, BETTY WHITE. Photo: Kerry Hayes SMPSP ‘© Touchstone Pictures, Inc. All rights reserved.’

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The filmmakers behind The Wedding Date do a very smart thing by throwing us into the action right from the start. I was anticipating a lengthy exposition period of Debra Messing’s Kat talking to a best friend about how she doesn’t want to go to her sister’s wedding alone, especially since the best man is her ex-fiance. As the two banter about the past and broken-hearts, the friend will suggest, “why don’t you get an escort to make him jealous?” Then of course giggling will ensue and I’ll want to blow my brains out. Thankfully, director Clare Kilner and writer Dana Fox refuse to cater to clichés by making us understand from the start why Kat is in the situation she is in. Instead, and maybe this is also how the Elizabeth Young book begins, their first shot is of Messing chaotically rushing to get ready and head to the airport with little time to spare, a plane ticket exchange with a courier to deliver to her already called and accepted escort. Five minutes in we see Kat and her hunky catalog-bought date Nick, (Dermot Mulroney), meeting for the first time on a plane. And so the tale commences.

Through the course of Kat’s sham being held as truth to her entire family, we eventually learn how her past led to this point. It’s not as though we are to just believe she can’t get over her last love, nor that she can’t get a date; this is a romantic comedy after all and you probably assume from the start that this “escort” will eventually be her “the one,” so she’ll have to open up to him at some point, in effect opening to us as well. So we learn about her breakup, how her sister is marrying his best friend, how she stalked Nick down specifically to be her date through a magazine article, etc. Their chance pairing isn’t necessarily as coincidental as you may think. He is the best at his job, so his incognito identity was sought after, despite a six grand price tag excluding all potential sexual additions to the weekend’s escapades. Nick becomes the talk of the wedding, the dream of all other women there, but it is Kat that soon learns what lies beneath his exterior. She discovers the man beneath the image that he is so guarded at shielding from his “clients” to the point where he’ll eat anchovies despite being allergic to them. It won’t be easy—there will be bumps in the journey—but the two discover how wonderful each really is.

The Wedding Date came out at the height of Messing’s television career and with good reason. She was bred to be this kind of role; it is definitely her niche in the industry. She is charming throughout, very beautiful, and in possession of great comedic timing. Playing off her ex, especially after finding out he may still be in love with her, (see the water bottle scene during a cricket match—oh yeah, the film takes place in England), you can’t help but laugh at her antics. However, she can also hold her own in serious moments, including heart to hearts with her stepdad and blow-up fights with Nick. Mulroney is also in his wheelhouse here, playing the good-looking man’s man. But there is more to him and, much to my surprise, he steps up to the occasion. With intelligent line deliveries when speaking psychologically and a scene with Messing outside her car that gets the blood boiling without ever kissing her, he helps make their partnership an effective duo.

My biggest surprise was the fact that Amy Adams plays the betrothed sister. Coming out the same year as her breakthrough role in Junebug, Adams is very much billed in the background. Today I might even say her and Messing’s casting would be reversed when considering how bright the star of Adams is in the industry at present. She is effective in a throwaway role as is Jack Davenport, playing her groom. Davenport has that way of being the somewhat dullard, unaware of what is going around him. He plays pretty much the same role in the Pirates movies. I did also enjoy Sarah Parish as friend TJ, the brash woman always looking to have fun, dancing like a lunatic as the wedding dance lessons being the odd girl out with no one to pair off with … until Woody comes along of course.

I truly enjoy Messing, even in work as obvious and generic as this. But then, isn’t that pretty much all she does? The Wedding Date is a very cute film and being only 80 minutes doesn’t hurt. There is no padding to make it longer and seem more important than it is. Everything that occurs is for a reason and, although the end result is pretty much known from the start, there are some twists and turns that I should have seen coming, but did not. You could do a lot worse in the date movie genre, so if you are confronted with the task to take this film on, just put a smile on your face and try to have some fun with it. It’ll make you laugh at least a few times.

The Wedding Date 5/10

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[1] Debra Messing and Dermot Mulroney in “The Wedding Date” (2005) Copyright © Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Jack Davenport and Amy Adams in “The Wedding Date” (2005) Copyright © Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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My screening of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen ended around 10:00pm. What do we see in the lobby as we exit the theatre? That’s right, a line already forming for the midnight show, less than two hours away, the premiere timeslot to expose the world to the ancient Decepticon Fallen. Those kids were ready for a good time, hoping that the sequel lived up to the surprisingly effective first installment. If any of them had asked me as I walked by what I thought, I would have told them the truth … it’s not that bad. In hindsight, I think I gave the original too high a rating with an 8/10. It did entertain and the computer graphics were impeccable, but too often did it have me shaking my head at the clumsy script and abundance of cheese. It was a crapshoot on what to expect with a sequel from maestro of destruction Michael Bay. All I knew for sure was that he’d bring more robots, more explosions, and more carnage, because, frankly, that’s how he rolls.

Let’s put this phenomenon in perspective here. Not only are all local theatres playing a midnight show—yes, even the drive-in—but tomorrow’s “first day” screenings begin at 10:00am. It’s a Wednesday people. I understand it’s the summer and most kids are off of school, but one can imagine how many people lining up in the morning are playing hooky from work too. This thing will be breaking the bank for sure, despite the early, mostly derisive, reviews. The people that will be pumping money into Hollywood’s coffers aren’t likely to be reading those critical analyses anyway. No, instead they are probably going to see it again. In all honesty, I don’t blame them one bit. If I were a serious critic, looking at this thing in comparison with the great movies of all time, nitpicking every minute detail, I’d probably be hailing it as one of the worst motion pictures ever. But I am not, and I won’t. Transformers 2 is a heck of a lot of fun and I can say with a straight face that, if you enjoyed the first, you will have a blast with the second.

The movie brings what you’d expect from Bay—more of everything. There is a ton more action, mostly robot versus robot fighting, that intrigues immensely. I could have gone without the quips and stupid catchphrases as they throw each other, but that is a minor quibble. Even the comedic aspect is increased, and as someone who thought the first was too campy, this actually isn’t a bad thing. The humor is shored up and more honed with less headshaking and more laughing. Even little inside jokes thrown in, like a Bad Boys II poster hanging in Sam’s dorm room, sparks a chuckle. I was also beginning to think that John Turturro redeemed himself for a dismally weak performance in the first until they had to put him underneath a robot with two hanging metal orbs, to which he spoke over the radio, “I’m beneath the robot scrotum”. It was a very poor error in judgment, but, of course, the audience ate it up, along with the twins Mudflap and Skids. I don’t know what was more offensive, the ghetto-bots’ blatant caricature boarding on racist or the fact that every time Tyrese Gibson was on screen he was saying “that can’t be good”.

But Gibson wasn’t the only human left with nothing to do. In fact, besides Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky, every other real actor was relegated to being a two-dimensional prop. It’s a shame because by not having many people talk and exposing us to so many robots and sequences completely devoid of humans, you can’t help but notice how weak an actress Megan Fox is. It may be good that she is so under-utilized, because her real purpose is eye-candy, and that is the sad truth. I did enjoy Kevin Dunn and Julie White, reprising the Witwicky parents, but for the most part, all other actors were pretty much forgettable, especially the mostly annoying Ramon Rodriguez, going a bit too over the top too many times. I’ll give credit to LaBeouf, though, because “The Beef,” (why has that nickname stuck?), does deliver. This is the kind of role that he is perfect for: equal parts naïve, smart-mouthed kid with courageous, action hero instincts. You relate to a guy like him, (besides having the “every man’s dream” girlfriend that enjoys posing provocatively on motorcycles and hot-wiring cars, if you like that sort of thing), and believe that if he can save the world, you can too.

The true success here, however, is that the story revolves around the Transformers. If the first film was about Earth and humanity’s discovery of this alien race, the sequel is about that race and what it is they are doing here. It is a time for them to prove themselves and show that the trust humanity has given is earned. As a result, we get a ton of computer-generated robotics to brilliant effect. The robots came to Earth to harvest its sun for energy, only to discover life, realizing they must find another sun because they will not destroy a civilization. Except that one Prime decided to stay and reap the power, forever being called Fallen, exiled by the other Primes and blocked from his takeover. That means the Harvester is buried, the matrix key guarded, and Fallen is in hiding awaiting a chance to return. Once Sam touches a remnant of the All-Spark, well, the map to destruction is embedded in his head and the search for Earth’s survival is on. Yes, the mythology is convoluted, but if you buy into an alien race of robots coming to our world, well the plot will fall into place too.

So, yeah, the faults of the first are shored up pretty well, but the story loses something in the process. For being over two hours, the end comes with the realization that not much had happened, leaving us with an Optimus Prime voiceover, making us wonder if we accidentally just watched the first film again. Who goes to a Michael Bay film for the strong story, though, right? You go for a good time, an escape from the challenges of our world to watch the little guy defeat an impossible foe and save the world. Bay is the master of escapism and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is one more feather in his cap. You know what to expect and it will be delivered, so just sit back, relax, and enjoy a new adventure, much like the previous, but this time full of robotic goodness from front to back.

Tranformers: Revenge of the Fallen 7/10

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[1] Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Image Courtesy Paramount Pictures. Copyright © 2009 Dreamworks LLC & Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[2] John Turturro as Agent Simmons and Shia LaBeouf as Sam Witwicky in Paramount Pictures’ Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Photo Credit: Robert Zuckerman. Copyright © 2009 Dreamworks LLC & Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Megan Fox star as Mikaela Banes in Paramount Pictures’ Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Photo Credit: Jaimie Trueblood. Copyright © 2009 Dreamworks LLC & Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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I have not read the Judi Picoult novel for which the new film My Sister’s Keeper is based, and I think that is a good thing. Whether I would have thought the movie did or didn’t live up is beside the point as, from the scuttlebutt at the completion of the screening around me stated, the endings are completely different. Truthfully, I think I like the cinematic conclusion much better than the literary one, if these audience members are to be believed. What they say transpires in the novel is just plain emotional overload; tragedy for the sake of being as tragic as you can be. That is not what the film is about. Yes, it is a tough story to endure and causes multiple moments of “manning up” to hide the tears begging to escape, but it is also a tale of hope, family, forgiveness, and the meaning of life. Sure there is a young girl dying of cancer before our eyes and sure young Anna was created to save her, however, what this brave girl really ends up doing is saving her family. And that is something I don’t see happening by the book ending.

If you have seen the trailer, you know what you are in for. Kate has leukemia and is dying from a very early age, only prolonged due to the chemotherapy and her little sister. This sibling, Anna, was a test-tube baby, devised as a cure—a literal spare parts factory. The family’s mother gave up her law practice to stay home and be there for her daughter while the father works as a firefighter and does what he can to bring money in. As Brian Fitzgerald says, being the parent of a sick child is a full-time job. Sara’s main focus is in saving her daughter, no matter what, even sometimes to the detriment of her other children. Brother Jesse is neglected in his schooling and Anna is looked upon to endure excruciatingly painful procedures, at risk to her own wellbeing, in the hopes they help Kate. As the day of reckoning looms closer, Anna finds a lawyer and decides that she is finished being a lab rat—she wants to live her own life without worrying. The Fitzgerald family was already hanging by a thread and this action is the last straw, threatening to break them apart forever.

Whereas the story itself is somewhat obvious, (why is it that Anna decides now to stand up for her rights?), it is with everything else that surprises. Number one on that list is Cameron Diaz. I am a self-proclaimed non-fan of this A-list actress for a number of reasons. I believe she has gotten by on her looks, which confuses me to no end, and, of late, has been looking way too old to play the roles she has, namely the bubbly blonde airhead. Here, however, she is a mother that cannot accept the fact that her daughter is dying, a mother that lets the pragmatic lawyer come to the surface, micromanaging in a utilitarian way, seeing that her dying child needs help and that pain for her other daughter is justified. The grief, the tiredness, the dedication, and the hidden love behind a stiff façade of mechanics rather than heart all show on her face. Probably her best performance ever, Diaz is playing someone her own age and shows that she can act if given the chance. I thought she did well in In Her Shoes, and she builds on that success here. I hope she sticks with it because this is a Cameron Diaz I could watch.

Nick Cassavetes, director and co-writer of the film, is the second surprise. Son of prolific auteur John Cassavetes, I used to laugh at his early work. I mean John Q is far from a masterpiece and then there is the infamous The Notebook, the film lingering with the potential of being forced to watch on request by every man’s girlfriend. But 2006 brought the solid Alpha Dog and, coupled with My Sister’s Keeper, maybe that Nicholas Sparks yarn no longer appears as scary as it once did. Cassavetes shows a nice touch in tempering the emotionally draining with subtle comic relief. You get inside of each character, learning what they think during their moment of voiceover and flashback. I loved the collaged scrapbook as well. What a powerful little prop that expressed so much of the past as well as so much hope for the future.

The acting is stellar throughout, including some stalwarts like Jason Patric as father Brian and Alec Baldwin in a rare serious role as lawyer Campbell Alexander. Even Joan Cusack brings some emotional weight in a role as the lawsuit’s judge, her life mirroring that of Diaz’s Sara. Evan Ellingson is also very effective as Jesse, the keeper of Anna’s secret and silent presence of strength for the family, watching everything fall apart, trying his best to stay sane and hope it all works out. And you can’t say enough about young Abigail Breslin, my vote for best child actor around. Dakota Fanning has nothing on this one as Breslin acts with the poise of an adult while still being a child rather than a twenty-year-old in a twelve-year-old body.

The real shining star, however, is Sofia Vassilieva as Kate. This is a powerful performance that resonates every single second. Combining the angst of an adolescent with the pride and vanity of a young girl who has lost her hair and a body slowly shutting down, this young lady captures the pain and heartbreak perfectly. Oftentimes too, that heartbreak is not for her mortality, but instead for what her condition is doing to those she loves. You will see the helplessness in her eyes as she watches the tears, anger, and frustration of those trying to fight for her life. But, through flashbacks, we also catch glimpses of the moments in her life that helped her feel like a normal kid. Thomas Dekker’s Taylor is a big part of this, but her family is as well. Those moments in the photo booth or on a trampoline amongst hundreds of bubbles are the ones that linger in your memory. They are the moments of innocence, of childhood that we hope all our children experience. My Sister’s Keeper succeeds in showing us not to take life for granted because it can be taken away without notice. Kate Fitzgerald knows this fact and she just hopes to be able to convey it to her family so that, when she is gone, they will be able to live on.

My Sister’s Keeper 8/10

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[1] (L-r) CAMERON DIAZ as Sara, ABIGAIL BRESLIN as Anna and JASON PATRIC as Brian in New Line Cinema’s drama “My Sister’s Keeper,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Sidney Baldwin
[2] CAMERON DIAZ as Sara and JASON PATRIC as Brian in New Line Cinema’s drama “My Sister’s Keeper,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. The film also stars Abigail Breslin. Photo Courtesy of New Line Cinema

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I’m going to preface this review by saying I have no clue about anything “Speed Racer”. I’ve never seen the cartoon, I don’t know the ins and outs or plotlines, nor if the source material was tongue-in-cheek and campy. Truthfully, I am glad I went into the Wachowskis’ film adaptation Speed Racer this way. Perhaps the tone took me by surprise in how grating and annoying it could be at times, (I wanted to kill Spritle and Chim Chim from their first moment on screen), and maybe I wouldn’t have been so taken aback having known that was a crucial part of the world at hand, but otherwise, going in fresh allowed the environment to absorb me in. The film is by no means a masterpiece, heck it isn’t even great, but it is far from the drivel so much I’ve read dismissed it as.

This is a cinematic videogame that assaults the senses. Right down the line, from the crisp visuals with a cartoon-like depth of field; the sheer amount of graphic/computer work; the floating heads flying past the screen in conversation, overlapping each other, mimicking game cut scenes and I believe the original cartoon; to the amateurish voicework from the actors, I felt as though I should have had a controller in my hands, pressing the A through F buttons right along with Speed in his Mach 5. The Wachowskis definitely created a thrill ride that I’m sure was something to behold on the big screen, but it just might not have been quite perfect enough. The animated backgrounds were very obviously just that, and the blatant green screen usage screams at you every second. I believe that the cartoon look may actually detract from the realism because having everything in focus only shows how starkly different the live actors and computer environments are. Without any blurring or shading for depth, the three-dimensional people appear awkwardly flat in their two-dimensional fields. As for the color and the cars, however, you can’t avoid their effectiveness.

Speed Racer excels in the car races. At first I thought it was a little too much, boring me as the vehicles go without me being able to control them. As the movie progressed though, I began to sit back and enjoy the visuals for what they were; I completely bought into the tracks and the cheating and the quirky cast of characters, especially on the cross country race with the hired hands set to take out Speed and his team. I absolutely loved the bit in the ice caves watching the lights trail from the sheer car speed around bends. The cars have so much drift that the lights whipping around curves linger, and the effect is rendered beautifully. If only they didn’t have to cut to the actors so much in the driver’s seat, it would have been that much better. Maybe a complete animated work might have been a more effective use of the technology, especially when you have to watch the reaction shots of the Racer family in the stands jumping with glee. It is so false and cartoonish that it becomes more laughable than endearing.

And this is exactly where the film falls apart—the performances. Even Christina Ricci, with a face built for anime, seems to be hamming it up too much as Trixie. Seldom used anyways, she becomes a cheerleader with such exuberance that you just want to look away. Susan Sarandon may be the best at dialing it down enough to appear real, but John Goodman, on the other hand, as Pops Racer, can’t be complimented in the same way. I actually enjoyed his over-the-top antics, but when he needed to be serious and contemplative, his performance fell flat. And Paulie Litt’s Spirtle … wow, you cannot be more annoying than him. Think Jim Carrey as a young boy, doing crazy things and being loud. Throw in a monkey and you have a duo that adds more to the temptation to shut the film off than comic relief—Jar Jar Binks anyone? With moments such as them pretending to be ninjas, similar to a cartoon they watch on television, cut out against black with bright color lines going across the screen and a later spliced in superimposed warning to the audience that the following moment may be “unsuitable to kootie-prone viewers,” I was completely taken out of the action.

I did, however, enjoy Emile Hirsch, as our titular hero, and Matthew Fox as the mysterious villainous savior Racer X. Both kept their roles steeped in reality while still adding some flair to relate with the more outrageous things going on. They were believable behind the wheel, even though the effects work recalled old television shows that have a stationary car in front of a moving screen with stock traffic footage playing in the background. Both these men emoted well and gave some credibility to an otherwise ludicrous supporting cast. Roger Allam’s Royalton is operating on such a high level of camp that it is hard to take anything happening seriously. His dynamic with the racing world—fixing things and making it all about money—may have been crucial to the plot, but only detracts from what Speed Racer is really about: the racing, and nothing more. Remiscent to the N64 game Extreme-G, I began to invest myself with the racetracks, rooting for the good guys and hoping for as much destruction as possible. The action-heavy Wachowskis do not disappoint in that regard.

In order to appreciate a film such as this, you need to really buy into it all. This is a world where people’s last names are their occupations, (The Racer family, Inspector Detector, etc.), so you shouldn’t be expecting high drama. I do believe, though, that the film ends up being caught in the middle of pure absurdity and true serious storytelling. With a definite moral about looking inside oneself to find what truly matters, to never corrupt yourself into becoming part of the machine, even if you can’t change the deception, I wanted it to be even more apparent on its sleeve. Being a full-blown cartoon might have helped, allowing preconceptions of live action to never find their way in front of just having a good time. When you ask real people to act like cartoons, you have to really be in control of what it is you want to accomplish, because the line between success and dismal failure is very thin. Speed Racer balances the tightrope for the most part, but if it were to slip and fall, I fear it would land on the side full of throwaways that meant well and looked good, but just didn’t have what it took to last.

Speed Racer 6/10

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[1] EMILE HIRSCH as Speed Racer driving the Mach 6 in a scene from Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ action adventure ‘Speed Racer,’ distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[2] EMILE HIRSCH as Speed Racer in a scene from Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ action adventure “Speed Racer,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[3] MATTHEW FOX as Racer X in a scene from Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ action adventure “Speed Racer,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

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I don’t know what it was about the trailer for The Midnight Meat Train that drew me in, but I had been anticipating finally seeing it for a long while. Maybe it was seeing Bradley Cooper in a lead role, against his usual type, (and now of course he is huge after The Hangover); maybe it was the bleak, metallic starkness of the subway car surroundings; or perhaps it was that it’s based on a Clive Barker short story. Now, if I were to pick any of the horror series from the 80s and 90s as my favorite, it would be an easy answer—Hellraiser. That being said, I think Barker’s involvement really piqued my interest. Upon viewing, though, I started to forget about his connection because of how very straightforward the suspense/thriller was. Only at the end, when everything that had happened is revealed to be part of something much bigger, does Barker’s stamp appear. And boy, does it ever. Ryûhei Kitamura has added some style and mood to this thing and crafted one of the more enjoyable horror films I’ve seen in quite some time.

There are some conveniences for sure, but I tend to look beyond them in a film like this; one that isn’t trying to win any awards, just trying to entertain for a couple hours. Photographer Leon Kauffman (Cooper) is trying his hardest to break out and find a niche to make him the money needed to finally propose to his girl Maya, played by Leslie Bibb. After meeting with the authority on photography in the art world—a fascinating bit part from Brooke Shields, picking her out of Hollywood obscurity—he realizes that he must catch glimpses of the city more provocative and dangerous than those he has been. After following some gangbangers down to the subway, taking their photo while terrorizing a young model, Leon’s life is changed forever. He steps up to these hoodlums, saves the girl, and eventually catches a glimpse of the uniquely ringed finger holding the door open for the almost/soon to be victim. The finger belongs to Mahogany, a mysterious man playing butcher by day and possibly butcher, with a different sort of meat altogether, by night.

The film then sets out to show Cooper’s spiral downward into the conspiracies running through his head. The cops don’t believe his theories and neither does his fiancé, but it doesn’t stop him from putting his life in danger by stalking Mahogany on his daily travels, snapping photos as he goes, photos that get him into a prestigious gallery showing, one that could catapult his career, but also photos that haunt his dreams, driving him to discover what is really happening on the 2:00am train. His nightly journeys lead to some interesting camerawork with plenty of angular shots as well as the utilization of multiple reflective surfaces. Mirrors, windows, and even pools of blood are used to show events occurring behind the camera. Well, scratch that, events occurring to the camera, which is standing in for a character. One effective technique here is that there are many instances where the lens becomes our eyes; we watch as Mahogany comes at us with a knife or meat mallet, allowing the audience to enter the film and its carnage.

There are other flourishes that standout as well, namely a spectacularly shot climatic fight sequence at the end where the camera whooshes from inside the subway car to outside, weaving in and out while it circles the mayhem transpiring inside. Yes, there are times when the computer effects work shows to be blatantly manufactured, (Ted Raimi’s eye can attest to this), but it can’t necessarily take you out of a tale so removed from reality in the first place. Even the fact that Vinnie Jones’ malicious killer never utters a word adds to the atmosphere of the film. His sneers and wry smile do so much more to express what his character is thinking than words ever could. Jones is a force to be reckoned with, one who’s secrets await us to be discovered along with the truth to why these midnight murders are happening.

While, like most horrors, the look and feel, along with the villain’s performance, really make or break them, the rest of the acting here lives up to its end of the job also. Bibb is a bit overbearing in a role that never adds very much to the plot anyways, but you can’t fault her as much as the weakly written role. Her actions are the most head-shakingly convenient; we watch her do things that her character probably wouldn’t do, but which are crucial to the progression of the story. I really enjoy Roger Bart, slowly becoming a genre staple with this and his turn in Hostel II, as the friend, a bit odd being that his face and emotive qualities scream villain; and Tony Curran as the train conductor is nicely foreboding and mysterious. But it is with Cooper, the lead in the story and ultimately the man for whom the film hinges on, that excels. You believe in his character throughout, whether in love with Maya and his work or becoming increasingly paranoid about what he thinks he sees. Cooper is invested in Leon and his actions show this fact; especially in the final shot, bringing chills as an ending bookmark to the film. It’s a conclusion that cycles back to the opening scene, adding just one more layer of intrigue to an already successful exercise in brutality, the human psyche, and even a bit of the fantastically surreal.

The Midnight Meat Train 8/10

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[1] Bradley Cooper (“Leon”) stars in Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s The Midnight Meat Train.
[2] Vinnie Jones (“Mahogany”) stars in Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s The Midnight Meat Train.

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I have caught the Guy Maddin bug. And it is all My Dad is 100 Years Old’s fault. Is Isabella Rossellini’s love letter to her father overdone, pretentious, and unnecessary? Probably yes on all counts, however, none of that detracts from the achievement it also creates. Why film an interview, static and uninteresting, when you can hire an auteur to use his eye and add a flair for the dramatic? Cinema is about drawing the viewer in, right—to cause the audience to think, feel, and relate? What could have been a straightforward telling of a daughter’s love and idolatry for her father instead becomes a short film displaying that which Isabella speaks. We see examples of Roberto’s neo-realism and eye-level static framing, not to mention instances calling these techniques out, at the same time mocking Rossellini himself as well as the critics who uttered the remarks. You begin to understand the genius, stubbornness, and creativity of both filmmakers, Rossellini and Maddin, sowing the seeds to seek out more from both.

You cannot help but think about David Lynch when watching the stark black and white, calling back to his older shorts. The sheer absurdity of Roberto Rossellini being played by another man’s large belly just adds to the comparison, especially when coupled with the smoky fog, Isabella playing multiple cinematic greats, and the use of projections and camera tricks unpolished and out in the open. To go so far as to have her Chaplin speak through title-card shows the meticulous detail taken to create a true piece of art. And the scratchy appearance and jumpy framing only adds to it. Maddin isn’t trying to mass-produce a piece that will be consumed by the public and bring in large sums of money. No, he has taken the time to tell the story of a past collaborator in Isabella and her feelings about her deceased father. Roberto was a loaming figure in cinema, directing some of the medium’s greatest works, yet at the time beleaguered with criticism and close-minded mentalities of the craft. However, what is slow and laborious to some is calculated brilliance to others.

Isabella was only 25 when her father passed on, only having acted in one film previously. Her father—and mother Ingrid Bergman of course—greatly shaped her career going forward. Having to endure the comments about and dismissal of his work, a man who she held as a genius and leader of the field, must have only strengthened her resolve to seek out cinema for what it could be and not what it “should” be. As her iterations of Selznick and Hitchcock say, the people like Hollywood, they like to be entertained. But, like is not the measure of right. One must look inside oneself to put forth work that is redeemable to him; therefore hoping it resonates with the public to become as well loved by them as it is by he. Looking at Isabella’s filmography, you see someone who stuck to that creed, seeking out work that would challenge and make a difference, much like her father did with his films of what might have happened, not the neo-realist what did happen for which he was labeled. His camera choices and filming style were honed with a purpose, to see the world as it may have occurred, to try and understand what was happening around him.

The amount of care put into this film by both Rossellini and Maddin cannot be questioned. Her script is heartfelt and poignant while still holding relevance to cineasts across the globe. To hear a firsthand account of a legend by living legend herself, not to mention the daughter of the subject, is an experience not to be taken lightly. This piece holds historical value, something I’m sure The Documentary Channel had in mind when financing it, but also contains merit on its own. Maddin weaves together images of the stomach with foggy veiled frames of Italy, footage from some of Roberto’s films, and the bringing to life of cinema’s finest. Complete with visual flourishes such as the gigantic projection of Bergman, played by Isabella, talking to Isabella, as well as the wonderful projected flying of Chaplin’s angel, portrayed again by her, My Dad is 100 Years Old becomes a document of a filmmaker as well as a successful creation in its own rite. Maybe it goes overboard and maybe it is self-indulgent, but, honestly, I wouldn’t mind watching it again right now.

My Dad is 100 Years Old 8/10

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Watch it yourself, as I did, on The Auteurs …

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Director Mikhail Kalatozov’s film The Cranes are Flying (Letyat zhuravli) is a glorious piece of cinema. From the screenplay by Viktor Rozov, based on his own play, Kalatozov shows us a vision of the heroism of war and the suffering by those left at home. Granted, the film was made in 1957, but having just seen it myself, I must say how much of a breath of fresh air it is. Inundated with countless war movies showing us the frontlines and the carnage, the topic itself becomes tedious and avoidable. However, this Russian gem shows how the tale of hardship can be told in a different way; by telling us, straight from a soldier’s mouth how war is hated by all, that they hope those who died did so for a cause that will allow for peace and the end of fighting, we see a new vision of WWII. We have young men volunteering to wage war for peace, to keep their families and loved ones safe at home rather than draftees fighting a battle they don’t believe in. With so much hatred towards our current situation in the Middle East, and how people are dying for no reason, against their will, it’s nice to see a film that shows just how selfless and heroic these soldiers are, as well as those awaiting their return.

Communist Russia shows how involved all were in the war. While Boris may have volunteered to go to the frontlines, his father is head doctor of a hospital aiding in the mending of soldiers injured and his sister is helping him there as well as his girl Veronika, doing all she can to keep her mind off the fact that no letter has arrived from her love. An entire city comes out to send the boys off in celebration. Even the factory that Boris and his friend Stepan work for send representatives over with gifts of gratitude. Whether this is all a glorified look into Russia at the outset of WWII or not, I don’t know. Either way, it is nice to see the pro-soldier feeling brought out by it all. There are no protests or badmouthing of these boys risking their lives for a country, it is all praise and thanks. Some in America could learn a lesson from this because whether you agree with the war at hand or not, protesting and wreaking havoc in its name only sullies what these men and women are sacrificing each and everyday. The fight is going on and will continue, maybe support is where we should focus our attention, bolstering morale rather than a selfish need to speak our minds, possibly making these soldiers second-guess what it is they enlisted for.

What I really enjoyed about the film is that it is not about the soldier—in fact, after Boris goes off to war, we see very little of him—but instead about Veronika and Russia itself. The Cranes are Flying is a love note to the nation for their hard work and dedication to the cause, telling the masses that no matter the deaths and destruction, Russia will be rebuilt, and as a result of the fighting, it will be rebuilt under a time of peace. Those who didn’t come back allowed for the safety of those that did. And this is exactly the lesson being learned by Veronika throughout. Waiting and hoping to hear from or see her boyfriend Boris, she stays true to her feelings until his cousin has his way with her—an event foreshadowed early on and all but expected. Finally broken down, she relents to marry Mark despite her repulsion towards him, marriage being a small comfort to her fear that the one she loves may never come back to her. Only later do we find out exactly how cowardly Mark has been throughout the whole war and how he orchestrates much of the tragedy that befalls the family.

The acting is top-notch throughout, but some deserve singling out. I really enjoyed Antonina Bogdanova in a small role as Boris’ grandmother. She is the one family member he can trust and her sadness at his leaving is very evident on her face and through her body language. Vasili Merkuryev, as the patriarch Fyodor Ivanovich, brings what is perhaps the best performance. As spoken at the end, about fathers needing to choke back hidden tears, Merkuryev epitomizes those sentiments. He puts on a tough exterior, especially cracking jokes and riding his son hard when he finds out about his volunteering just hours before he must leave. But when Boris exits to go to the assembly station we see the true pain of the man, seated in sorrow at the table. He loves his son dearly and although he may not be able to show it to him, his actions throughout the film express it to the audience. Aleksey Batalov is effective as Boris, a happy-go-lucky young man, and idealist, doing what he believes is right, and Aleksandr Shvorin is good as the villainous Mark, staying home due to his talented piano skills, or maybe just to steal his cousin’s love. That love, played by Tatyana Samojlova, really draws the audience in to her grief, dejection, and slim glimmer of hope. The true star of the film, she must go through many emotions on a journey where she does lose her way, needing to steer back on course, hoping that she did so soon enough for Boris’ return.

Besides the realism to the story, as well as being unafraid to use tragedy to get the theme across, I also loved the visual style of the film. Sergei Urusevsky’s cinematography is amazing, especially when considering the movie was shot in fullscreen. It is one thing to create stunning compositions in a widescreen panorama; it is completely different to do so in a square frame. Right from the beginning we get a beautiful static shot of a winding walkway along water, a bridge in the background at the top, as our two lovers skip their way up the screen and into the distance. There are multiple instances of the camera being behind barriers yet still allowing for the action to be seen, creating unique spatial depth and interest at all times. Sharp angles are utilized, as well as careful blocking to allow for overhead shots and exaggerated juxtapositions of characters in frame together.

The real feats, however, are those instances of the long shot. Used well towards the end to follow Veronika through the mass of returning soldiers, it is magnificent earlier on as she roams through those saying goodbye to their loved ones while she searches for Boris, her own farewell needing to be said. The planning for this shot must have been extensive because while she weaves in and out of people, the camera focuses on couples kisses, people yelling to one another, and more, all purposely in frame at specific moments while the camera moves through. Everyone needed to hit his mark precisely and it leads to a brilliant piece of cinema. It’s just one part of an overall masterpiece of tone and style; The Cranes are Flying shows how successful placement and mise en scène can be in showing the audience what it needs in as simple a way as possible. Composition and professionalism from the actors and crew can work wonders, adding something that huge setpieces and special effects can never do.

The Cranes are Flying 9/10

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Watch it yourself, as I did, on The Auteurs …

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If you ask me whether I’d prefer Ridley Scott or his brother Tony, I think I would have to pick the latter each and every time. Sure Ridley has made some masterpieces, (Alien and Blade Runner), but he has also given the world plenty of overrated fare as well, (yes, I’m talking to you Gladiator). Has Tony ever equaled the best work of his brother? Absolutely not. But if I were to pick an entire career, I can’t deny the entertainment value and sheer consistency of the younger sibling. Go as far back to Top Gun and as far forward to the gem Déjà Vu and there are few blatant blemishes. Truthfully, Spy Game, Man on Fire, Domino, and Déjà Vu are a high-octane run of real winners in my opinion. So, I went into the new version of The Taking of Pelham 123, (adapted from the original novel and not the previous film), with a mix of excitement and cautiousness that the streak may come to an end. Don’t get me wrong, the new flick is fun, however, it is the first time I actually thought to myself that the flash was too much—visceral overkill. I never thought I’d say it, but Tony’s style over substance knock finally showed face.

What do I love about Tony’s films? Mostly his unabashed approach to using hyper cuts, loud beats, and a no-holds-barred, knock me upside the head, execution. His films are more a ride than a journey; strap yourself in and let the imagery flow over you. Generally this works wonders as his films take place in multiple locales with many storylines and or timelines playing out simultaneously. With Pelham, however, we are given a pretty straightforward hostage situation, only two locations, (the hijacked subway car and base control), and really no twists or surprises to be had. Frankly, Ridley may have been better suited to this material as he is the storyteller of the duo. I love Tony’s use of text and moving subtitles, but here, the minutes of a deadline being our only vested interest, it becomes a gimmick. We know time is running out, we don’t need the freeze-frames telling us again and again. I also understand his want to utilize the speed of the train as a means to show motion and MTV-generation style, but honestly, I think it was utilized more successfully in his short Agent Orange. The flash and trademark style sadly becomes fluff. My God, I sound like all those Tony detractors I despise.

The story itself is an intriguing one, if not original. We have a man out for money, taking hostages in a well-thought out plan. With an inside man who knows the tunnels and workings of the subway, his own keen sense of the way the world works, and a remorseless mind when it comes to innocent civilians, (each death is at the hands of NYC, not him; “we all owe God a death”), John Travolta’s Ryder is a sick cookie just waiting to blow and completely unafraid to die. He is forever joined with Denzel Washington’s dispatcher Walter Garber, the one man he is willing to trust and use for his benefit. Will the terrorist get his spoils or will the unlikely man—the only one with the ability to stop him—rise to the occasion and save the day? Unfortunately, that question is not very hard to solve since the thriller aspects of the film are pretty paint-by-numbers. If there is one thing to take from the movie, it is the performances of our two leads. One for his understated verité and the other for his over-the-top antics.

Pelham is truly all about Washington vs. Travolta; simple civil servant against the crazed, tattooed villain. If you are to single out a “twist” it is in the backgrounds of these two men, both of which get uncovered as the plot progresses. While the truths of their pasts may help propel the story to its conclusion, they do very little to enhance the roles or bring more interest to the story. In fact, the multiple tidbits of information or sprinkling of convenient props around the sets are mere contrivances and nothing more. The blatant positioning of a laptop aboard the train could have been a key piece to the puzzle, causing major distraction, changing the whole film in fact. Instead, it is a tool used to identify the captors, discoveries that add nothing to the plot. Actually, the only thing they add is to include even more examples of lazy writing on how everyone is somehow connected, whether to our leads, to the mayor, to the transit system, etc. I so wanted the underlying topic of Wall Street and the Stock Market to mean something, but again, all it did was help uncover the name of the assailant, a minor point that is brushed aside without further relevance.

Again, though, Washington and Travolta are great together, whether side by side or on the other end of a microphone. You cannot deny the craft of Denzel and his ability to become a character, allowing us to see the tragedy behind the eyes of his composed exterior. His Garber is a man at a crossroads; unknowing what his future holds—either a return to his old position, a career demotion, or a jail cell. But he keeps his wits and does his best job to become a hostage negotiator with Travolta’s Ryder. The courage and fortitude of this man may be the only things that could save the nineteen innocents on that train. As for Mr. Travolta, although he may have just one notch on the gauge—that being wild and over-the-top—he is having fun and plays the bad guy perfectly. Whereas his manic demeanor elicits laughs in serious, heroic roles, he really does hit villainy out of the park. Whether his Ryder is in this thing for the money or just to prove that he can do it, we may never know. However, the ride—there’s that word again—he takes us on is worth the admission. I just wish it would have warranted a second ticket, but alas, I believe one trip may be enough.

The Taking of Pelham 123 6/10

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[1] Denzel Washington stars in Columbia Pictures’ action thriller THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123, also starring John Travolta. Photo By: STEPHEN VAUGHAN
[2] John Travolta in Columbia Pictures’ action thriller THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123, also starring Denzel Washington. Photo By: RICO TORRES
© 2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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