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Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. That pretty much epitomizes the film 9 Songs. Michael Winterbottom is a director that has never shied away from genre hopping or controversy, doing both with this explicit romance consisting of concert footage and sexual intercourse, with a little story thrown in for good measure. More an art film than anything that should be given a theatrical release, it is only 71-minutes in length, but that is enough for what is being portrayed. One can only sit through the repetition of bedroom, rock venue, bedroom, and so on for so long. Once we as an audience start to understand where these two lovers are in their respective lives, the point of the film—how love can be both wonderful and isolating at the same time—comes across, leading the story to its inevitable conclusion. It is a love affair lasting a few months while Lisa, an American, attends school in London and Matt prepares for a job studying glacial ice in Antarctica. A relationship between a young twenty-something co-ed and a thirty-something field professional, it has different meanings for both sides of the equation. No matter the results or the hardships involved, these two do love each other on some level.

Told as almost a flashback from Matt’s point of view, we see this glaciologist amongst the snow and white, feeling claustrophobic and agoraphobic at the same time. He recalls those same feelings when with Lisa back home during their torrid sexual escapades. In love with her, without a doubt, he made the most of those months by cooking for her, pleasing her in the bedroom, and having a great time on the indie music scene, living it up in the London nightlife. Every attempt he made to see where their future was headed, however, was met with a cold attitude, alluding to the tenuousness of their bond. He wants to spend Thanksgiving with her, but she made plans with her friends of whom she assumes Matt will hate; he wants to take the step of having sex without a condom, feeling out the prospect of having children someday in the future, but she says no, she likes it this way. Throughout their entire time together, Lisa had never even invited him to her apartment.

They met at a concert and it brought them close; the film shows their affection at the start, but as it continues on, the cracks begin to widen. Whereas Matt looks to extend the relationship to something lasting, he finds Lisa’s penchant for drugs and sex to be too much. Not that he isn’t enjoying it, the two have no issues with tearing each other’s clothes off at any time of the day, even adding blindfolds and restraints to the festivities, but her need for it becomes overwhelming. I don’t know why they go to a topless bar at one point, but it is Lisa who becomes so involved and aroused by the woman gyrating on and near the couple. She becomes so enraptured that, in an economy of shots, we watch as Matt leaves her there by herself, the event becoming the final straw in his acceptance of her behavior. Soon she is found pleasing herself while Matt makes supper and making the decision to stay at home while he goes off to a concert. He was feeling completed in the great big world with his love, but when she lapsed into her drug-induced sexual stupors, he found himself closed in, whether surrounded by 5,000 people at a show or deserted at home. Without Lisa he was completely alone.

I do believe that showing these feelings that love instills in us is Winterbottom’s goal. Without a strict narrative besides Matt’s remembrances of a few months in London with a woman he loved, the film isn’t much more than an extended, NC-17 concert video. So many people will go to the trouble and say how both Kieran O’Brien and Margo Stilley have given brave performances, but what is really so brave? If taking off your clothes and having sex on tape is so brave, why aren’t pornstars scooping up all the Oscars for their portrayals onscreen? If anything, it’s because they are actually having sex in front of the camera that makes it less of a ‘performance’. O’Brien and Stilley do have to portray a love and affection through the good and bad times while fully clothed, but once they are in bed—which is seriously two-thirds of the movie—all acting is out the window as they partake in unsimulated sex. I’m not saying they do a bad job of acting, I did buy into their relationship, watching them fawn over each other at a concert, seeing the way they looked at each other across the dining room table, and how they enjoyed themselves roaming London towards the end. I just have a problem with people automatically praising an actor for being naked onscreen. They are getting paid and they have chosen to do it. I’m not so sure how much the word ‘gutsy’ has to do with it.

And for anyone out there who picks up 9 Songs from the shelf and think nothing of the explicit sex warnings on the cover, know that it is as advertised. If you have any prudish tendencies at all, just put the DVD down and find something else for date night. These two run the gamut of sexual activities and everything is shown. I give credit to Winterbottom for attempting to show the highs and lows of love in such a way—keeping the sexual arousal intact as the central story point, but never glamorizing it to cause titillation as a porn film would. Definitely not for everyone, nor something I would ever really want to experience again, it is a piece of art that deserves to not be tossed aside as some sex film without merit. The juxtaposition of Antarctica and the pairs’ own little island together has meaning and the cutting between the gyrations of rock ‘n roll fans watching their favorite bands play with the close-up sounds and sights of two people making love is effective. There are some really good bands on display, including Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Franz Ferdinand, Elbow, and Super Furry Animals, but their performances, as well as the music’s role in the story, do get overshadowed by the controversial explicitness of the rest. Love is both unparalleled in joy and pain, depending what stage you are in, but no matter where it leads, for better or worse, the parts that worked can never be forgotten.

9 Songs 6/10

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[1 & 2] Kieran O’Brien as Matt and Margo Stilley as Lisa in Michael Winterbottom’s 9 SONGS, Tartan USA release. © 2005

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There really is nothing more frightening than a writer. The ability to weave a story together that so touches you with its realism is a very powerful gift. You become cast under a spell, yearning for the next page and the answers to discover what may happen. What occurs when you are the orchestrator of it all, though? Edward Albee attempts to get at this very question, pitting a middle-aged couple, liquored up and ready to verbally spar, at each other’s mercy, using the twenty-something year old guests that arrived at their doorstep as pawns in their game. What appears to be a very late nightcap of sarcasm and sharply stinging jabs soon unravels into tales of deceit, slowly chipping away at the young ones’ resolve while turning the emotional screws of the elders. The film’s title posits the question, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as a sing-song joke to the tune of ‘The Big Bad Wolf’ that soon is answered with the fact they all are. George and Martha are writing the evening as the minutes pass, getting angry and violent as they attempt to defeat the other, not only scaring their guests, but also frightening themselves with how far they find they are willing to go.

What makes this film so good, besides a strong story and amazing acting, is that it comes from a first-time director in Mike Nichols. I saw this film many years ago and loved it, so much so that when the play was performed here in Buffalo, I made a point to see it. Albee’s words are the backbone of one of the most intelligent scripts to be put to film, (another of the best being a later Nichols film adapted from the stage in Patrick Marber’s Closer), and succeeds in a theatre-in-the-round, single location set-up or the inside/outside change-up of the movie. I’m currently reading Mark Harris’s bestseller Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood—one of whose five films is The Graduate. Originally slated to be Nichols’ first foray in Hollywood, it soon becomes decided that he’d cut his teeth on this Albee adaptation instead. Harris talks about the former comedian turned Tony-winning stage director and how he reigned in the most volatile couple in America to make Woolf work. A man in need of control, he didn’t let the studio interfere, even hiring Haskell Wexler to complete the cinematography despite the producers wanting someone else, and his own eventual problems with the man. It may help that the story concerns only four characters and plays as though on the stage, but don’t let that demean the shear brilliance on display.

In the hands of a lesser artist, this film could have become a strict telling of the play, both in script and blocking, shooting it all in long-shots, watching the players do their thing. This was not the case. First off, credit should be given to screenwriter Ernest Lehman for taking Albee’s work and making it more cinematic. He allows for a change in scenery in a couple instances that really enhance the words being spoken. Taking George and Nick—the young Biology teacher newly arrived to the college where George works in the History department and Martha is the daughter of the school’s president—outside at one point lets them be more candid in their isolation from the women. Even the fact that they talk while sitting on a tree swing in front of the older couple’s house becomes a subtle inroad to the topic of the son that plays such a crucial role in the games at hand. And the idea of adding a couple drunken drives, with a stop over at a deserted bar for some jukebox music and dancing in between, only increases the tension and animosity constantly growing, serving as the place where ‘Humiliate the Host’ gives way to ‘Get the Guest’ and George’s decision to take control of the night’s festivities.

The second reason the film is much more than just a taped performance of the play is in the extensive use of close-ups. Consisting of so many long monologues and waxing poetic, whether stories of truth or illusion, the camera oftentimes lingers on the character’s face, showing the inebriated stupors, the rage bubbling inside, and the tears streaming down cheeks when the fun becomes to hard to handle. Because of this showcasing style, one cannot argue how good both Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are as George and Martha. These two live a life of both love and convenience. They may have gotten together for reasons that concerned their careers and social statuses in the future, but eventually love did win over. In a couple instances towards the end, we learn how the two revel in their ability to rile the other up, relishing in the delight it cultivates, knowing that the other will stand and fight back. Martha is slightly crazed, picking her battles and asking for all the pain dealt her way; she seems to need the abuse as punishment, letting George lay into her to make up for the fact that she let him fall in love with her. I almost hope these two were drinking throughout the production because the stupors are completely realistic, enhancing the mood swings to impressive effect. Both actors turn so easily from laughter to tears, screams to soothing tones—each transition another nuance to the games, lulling the other into a place of security before lashing out for the jugular.

I think these two powerhouse performances do sometimes overshadow the effective work done by the other two actors onscreen, though. George Segal should not be underestimated as the self-absorbed and short-fused newcomer Nick, doing his best to toe the company line while seeing an opportunity for quick advancement within the school. Egged on by Burton to grasp at this possibility, both to see if he’ll go that far and also to see if his wife will as well, Segal becomes the straight man, seemingly able to hold his liquor and keep his head. Yet that ability to appear sober only makes his transgressions that much more vile, seeing him use his ambition to give into temptation, angrily reacting to show just how weak a ‘houseboy’ he is. And Sandy Dennis is fantastic as his wife Honey. Drunk right from her first frame, she has the most difficult job in having to show her vulnerability through small flashes of clarity when overwhelmed by the activities occurring around her. Often the thinly veiled butt of George’s verbal stabs, her brandy-induced malaise spins from giddy excitement at familiar yarns to horrified embarrassment when she realizes the familiarity stems from the stories being about her. She may be the naïve throwaway that’s along for the ride, but she is also the crucial piece that is played to help make both George and Martha’s changing rules real, becoming an unknowing partner to each.

The games Albee has these characters play are what propel the story forward. Everyone is living within a world composed of just as much fiction as fact. One would agree that this is true for the hosts, but I also believe it is for the guests too. Honey has constructed a past to explain to herself how she got married, lies that make her life bearable while Nick cheats himself by staying with her, not really sure if its love or duty that keeps him there. With the help of alcohol, and the cunning of their hosts, both of these youngsters find themselves spilling all their worst secrets, falling prey to the games and into a false sense of trust. George, on the other hand, knows from the beginning what is to transpire and he does his best to keep his emotions in check. Only when Martha throws the rules out the window does he decide to adapt and change the game so that the tables turn from him to the other three. After his own humiliation is complete, the only thing left to do is dress-down the others, get his revenge, and once and for all put an end to the shenanigans. He must finish what Martha has started, doing the unthinkable by going as far as he can. Truth and illusion become intermingled throughout the entire film; the lies unravel little by little as the stakes get higher, all culminating in a climatic moment of pure unadulterated emotion letting loose from all onscreen. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? crescendos from the very first frame of Burton and Taylor walking from background to foreground, the tension getting heavier as it goes, reaching its peak only when the story is complete.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 10/10

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Here is my call to arms people … go visit the Guggenheim Museum and donate money. After The International last year shooting up Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural wonder, New York City decided to get some more cash influx by allowing it to be showcased in this year’s rom-com crazy flick When in Rome. This film is by no means good—at all. However, that said, I laughed a whole lot. Once you leave the plot behind and start to just let the absurd supporting characters wash over you with their eccentricities and obnoxious foibles, you’ll find the smile you were looking for. I did some reconnaissance before my screening and was surprised by the multiple comments about it being one of the funniest movies the viewer had ever seen. Now, I know hyperbole when I see it, but I had the glimmer of hope that maybe I’d at least be entertained. While the beginning twenty or so minutes went by in an excruciatingly painful manner, once Josh Duhamel and magically entranced kooks entered the fray, I was able to sit back and have a good time.

Where are we, though, in terms of world creativity when this plot gets green-lighted? Beth has been spurned her whole life where love is concerned, instead diving into her work as a crutch disguised as coping mechanism. Once her younger sister finds love and marriage in only two weeks, she must journey over to Rome for the wedding—while in the midst of a huge exhibit at the museum for which she is curator—to also be kicked by amore once again. This latest effort, at the hands of Duhamel’s Nick, or so she thinks, leads her to pick out five coins from the fountain of love, keeping their wishes for everlasting romance in her purse. It is at this point where hilarity begins, ushering in the rogues gallery of Will Arnett, Jon Heder, Dax Shepard, and Danny DeVito to fawn over and stalk Beth back to NYC. It is both their desperately insane attempts at wooing and Nick’s authentic courting hampered by clumsiness and bad luck that make this film worth watching. Admittedly, I can only watch an actor slapstick his way into light posts or down openings in the street so many times before becoming bored, but something about Duhamel’s affable demeanor kept it fresh despite the repetition.

The story itself really is atrocious. Just the fact that Roman mysticism and folklore is behind it all makes me roll my eyes, so feeling any sort of connection to Beth’s plight is unattainable. I did, however, really like Kristen Bell in this role, and that says something coming from someone who has never been a big fan. She gives the part much more than it deserves and tries her best to let us care for her even though it is her troubles that we are enjoying. Full of clichés and gimmicks, When in Rome’s setups fall flat across the board. Her job being in peril and Anjelica Huston’s mean boss are predictable, watching her newlywed sister in Rome cooking naked with her new husband unoriginal, and the lame attempt at making us think that somehow the two romantic leads won’t end up together in the end is pandering. But all the little things in between, the tiny adventures that could have been skits on a comic variety show excel on their own, even if they seem out of place in the story at hand. What can be out of place, though, when your four stalkers are a street magician, a vain model working on spec, a wannabe painter, and an older sausage magnate? With a mix like that, anything goes.

Before getting into the big name bit parts, I want to mention a couple unknowns. Why both leads needed a sidekick with insanely wide-open eyes is beyond me. Kate Micucci is anime cute as Stacy, but also kind of creepy with that blank stare, while Bobby Moynihan, playing Puck, (a not so subtle nod to Shakespeare’s jester), is pretty darn funny. Using “Roots” as a punchline and really just playing the goof opposite Duhamel’s star-crossed lover, I hope to see more of this guy. But that’s enough of the newbies; let’s get onto the veterans. Each of these four suitors is completely two-dimensional, trying their best to bring some laughs while trapped in thankless, cheesy parts. DeVito is a tad overzealous going after a girl more than half his age, yet the completion of his arc worked for me, although he is the throwaway of the group. Arnett’s fake Italian schtick gets old, but I can’t get enough of that innocent, stupefied look whenever he does something wrong; Heder is annoying and strangely humorous in his costume alone, allowing a Napoleon Dynamite guest star be his role’s finest hour; and Shepard never ceases to amaze in bringing laughs with his characters’ gigantic egos in everything he does.

I’d like to tell director Mark Steven Johnson to stick to comic book superhero films, yet that didn’t work out too well for him either. The only real thing I can fault him for here is the fact that he took on the project to begin with. There really is nothing original in the script besides some funny moments that hit hard due to the joke, not its relevance to the plot. Without an extended sequence of dining in the dark that contained the always-wonderful Kristen Schaal, a clown car gag that was much funnier than it should have been, and Keir O’Donnell’s knack for playing very odd characters, I wouldn’t have been able to find anything redeeming. A few effective parts cannot make up for the lackluster whole, no matter how hard I did laugh at times. I do think both Bell and Duhamel have what it takes to make a good romantic comedy together, knowing how to play the charming, romantic couple. Sadly this isn’t quite it.

When in Rome 5/10

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[1] Josh Duhamel as Nick and Kristen Bell as Beth in drama romance ‘When in Rome.’ Photo by Philippe Antonello. © Touchstone Pictures. All Rights Reserved. Artwork © Cai Guo-Qiang
[2] (l to r) JON HEDER, DAX SHEPARD, WILL ARNETT, DANNY DeVITO Photo: Kerry Hayes SMPSP ‘© Touchstone Pictures, Inc. All Rights Reserved.’

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Life ain’t no place for the weary kind. Just ask Bad Blake. Here is a man that acts from the soul every step of the way, however, it’s one that has been ravaged and decimated from a life of alcoholism and chain-smoking. Able to compose a song that will resonate for decades to come just by picking up his guitar, Blake is the sort of enigma that means well, but can never clean up enough to achieve. A legend to the people who know ‘real country’; teacher and mentor to the younger crowd’s new heartthrob superstar in Colin Farrell’s Tommy Sweet; and a has-been, screw-up that’s four times divorced and estranged from the one son he has for over 25 years, this man is in desperate need of a wake-up call. The question that looms over Crazy Heart, as a result, is whether or not Bad deserves to be redeemed. We want to root for the underdog, but when that long shot is a drunkard on the fast track to oblivion, you have to ask if the world would be better off. And that’s where Jeff Bridges comes in with one of the best turns of the year. His ability to be sympathetic while completely selfish cannot be overlooked, making us shake our head when he does wrong, but always hold out hope that things will turn around.

Based on a novel by Thomas Cobb, writer/director Scott Cooper chose a winner for his debut behind the camera. With all the hoopla over Bridges this award season, it was easy to forget about the film itself, which is a mistake. I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting too much, especially with the comparisons to The Wrestler. Now I can see the parallels, but the two are totally different films—well, maybe not totally. What sets them apart is how Bad Blake can succeed if only he took the time to do it. Resentful of his protégé for finding fame and fortune, he has taken himself out of the limelight, refusing to believe he can write a new song, but unable to do anything except play. Even after headlining bowling alleys and dive bars, the prospect of opening for Sweet at a 12,000-capacity venue completely disgusts him; he is too prideful to take a backseat and realize when a helping hand is being extended. Alone for so long, Blake has found his only solace in the bottle—never missing a show, but also not one to consistently finish them either. The older women he beds each night do nothing to fulfill his need for companionship, discovering that his buddy Wayne, (a nice role from Robert Duvall, a guy seeing a lot of supporting work lately and excelling at it), back home is all he has.

It wouldn’t be much of a story if all we see is some stubborn old musician hell-bent on destroying the little life he has left. So, of course, we find life itself intervening. After playing with a bunch of kids as a backing band, Blake finds himself in Santa Fe with a piano player that actually has some skill. The musicianship alone allows the old-timer to ask Bad for an interview with his niece. Enter Maggie Gyllenhaal and a chance at redemption. She is someone that he can help and, even more, can also help him. Looking into the barrel of the gun that his hard and fast lifestyle has set in front of him, Blake sees a way to be a better person—to be relevant again for once, away from the stage. A single mom of a four year old, Gyllenhaal’s Jean is exactly what he left a quarter century ago. This time he wants so much to stick around and be the father he never was, the lover he neglected to be while on the road, and allow his big heart the chance to give again. The matter of alcohol always looms large, however, and it only becomes a matter of time before something derails the mirage of the high-life he has imagined will last forever. I cringed each time Blake was left alone with young Buddy, knowing in my gut that something was bound to happen eventually.

And this is where Crazy Heart truly excels. It is utterly believable at every turn, from the actors to the story. While the simple fact of having a musical legend boozer at the center of it all makes it clichéd, the plot itself rises above. His relationship with a girl half his age never feels false, as both know what they are getting into. Gyllenhaal is great, keeping her performance nuanced and controlled, continuing her underrated career in character-driven indies and allowing Bridges to show the compassion he has kept bottled inside for so long. She is his rock, no matter how short a time they’ve known each other, but a life of abuse without rehab isn’t something to be undone easily. Sometimes a person can be drunk 24/7 and watch as they get by unscathed, but that one time you stop at a bar and sip half a drink can have devastating effect. Alcoholism lulls you into the false hope of surviving, that is until the bottom finally falls far enough to no longer see the light at the top. Bridges has never been better, portraying that mixture of self-loathing and stubbornness, building the walls to trap him into the destructive world he has. You may think you know how it all ends, except this isn’t Hollywood. Expect an outcome that feels true, leaving room for the happy ending that may or may not come depending on your definition of the term.

But Bridges and the strong tale at hand would be nothing without the amazing work by T-Bone Burnett and Ryan Bingham. To be able to believe that this character is a musician of worth, you need to have the music to back it up. The soundtrack put together is top-notch ‘real’ country that wears its emotions on its sleeves. Jeff Bridges pulls off each and every performance—as does Farrell—showing the feeling and pain in his heart. Jean asks Bad where the music comes from and his reply is simply, “from life, unfortunately”. Each chord and lyric tells the story of this man’s past, all the hardships that have led him to the point where we enter. It is only in the discovery of love, the wonderment of being needed and wanted, that his creative juices begin to flow once more, crafting the centerpiece track, and Golden Globe winning tune, “The Weary Kind”. This song needs to be a masterpiece in order to tie the entire film together and make it work. Anything less and we as an audience feel cheated and taken advantage of. To build a story around the power of one piece of music composed in bed on a broken ankle is a tricky endeavor. Thankfully Bingham and Burnett were up to the task, along with everyone else involved pulling their own weight in return.

Crazy Heart 8/10

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[1] L-R: Jeff Bridges and Robert Duvall Photo Credit: Lorey Sebastian. © Fox Searchlight.
[2] L-R: Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal Photo Credit: Lorey Sebastian. © Fox Searchlight.

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After watching Drew Barrymore’s surprisingly good film Whip It, I had roller derby on my mind. A couple weeks earlier I had been in Toronto for the city’s International Film Festival and watched as they constructed an outdoor rink to be played on as promotion for that film and a couple months later Buffalo Spree did a cover story on Buffalo’s own league, The Queen City Roller Girls. Leave it to our fair city to have a roller derby league able to capitalize on all the new hype—we have it all here. So, with a cursory knowledge in the rules and scoring system thanks to Ellen Page and company, I jumped at the opportunity to see the fun in person. Enter Bout Two in the 2010 season: The Suicidal Saucies vs. The Nickel City Knockouts.

Rainbow Rink in North Tonawanda was electric with a sold out crowd of mostly diehard derby fans. All ages were represented around the rink either sitting on folding chairs, standing in the back, or residing on bleachers set up in the corners. Definitely a fan-friendly event, the announcers get into it from the get-go, adding their own personality as they bring out both teams, stopping just short of saying “Are you ready to rumble!!” Each team has 20+ players with monikers such as Legs Luther, B’kini Whacks, Crazy Legs, and Little Orphan Angry; there’s about five referees skating around the middle making sure the hits are clean and elbows are kept to themselves, (something that didn’t happen); and the scoring is astronomical with this match seeing the Saucies double up their opponents after compiling over 200 points.

Consisting of two 30-minute periods, (Why not call them halves?), the game clock runs continuously and keeps the pace fast and intense. Supposedly there is a penalty box, and I know that the color commentator mentioned players getting caught for infractions, but I had no idea if there were fewer players out because the carnage never lets up. The jammer is center to it all as the point getter, having to travel through all other players—pivots and a pack of blockers—on the rink during their jam, earning a point for each opponent left behind. Just now I learned online that the lead jammer—she who beats the pack first—can stop the jam whenever she wants before the two-minute time is up. This explains a lot since I couldn’t figure out why some jams were longer than others or why the jammers sometimes kept placing their hands on their hips as though it was some sort of taunt.

It’s pretty cool when you attend a niche sport like this and can easily get caught up in it all. Right from the first jam, the fans for their respective teams are cheering on their girls and reacting to what’s going on. This is a huge help in learning the rules too, seeing what’s happening and listening to the collective consciousness, finding out what moves are good and what are not. There are also those fans out for a beer and a good time, keeping their boisterous applause for when an athlete hits the deck or gets checked over the neon blue out-of-bounds line. One Knockout did end up leaving the playing field with a pretty bad limp, although she came out for the second period to sit on the bench and cheer her teammates on. These girls have hockey player mentalities—you aren’t getting them off the rink unless a bone is coming through their skin or if they get thrown out for causing said compound fracture on an opposing player.

Each girl has her own personality, playing to the crowd and talking and smiling before each jam begins. There are tattoos galore, piercings left and right, and more fishnets than you’ve ever seen in your life. But don’t disrespect and assume these players are head-cases and scary by any means. Sure they compete hard and take a loss to heart, but I’ve never seen a more jovial group just having a blast, shaking hands after the match, talking amongst opponents during second period warm-ups, and constantly waving to friends and family in the audience. The whole affair is quite good-natured with candy throwing to the crowd, bread loaf tossing at the half, (That was bread, correct?), a raffle, and even the Alison Pipitone Band playing during the break from a stage erected at the side of the rink.

You really can’t go wrong attending a bout. Tickets are only 12 bucks general admission or 17 bucks for front row seating pre-sale, and the high-paced action lends it to indoor lacrosse comparisons. I’ve been to a Bandits game and that atmosphere is insane, but I won’t be surprised if, during the course of this season and next, the Queen City Roller Girls begins to cultivate that same type of consistent rowdiness. All the pieces are in place and the fact this battle sold out in advance only shows how word-of-mouth has spread this thing around. Tons of people were left out in the cold without admittance, many asking ticket holders for any extras they might have at the front doors. So be safe and order online or through one of the league’s affiliates beforehand … you won’t be disappointed.

Queen City Roller Girls: for ticket info, schedule, and rosters.

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Based on a Manga by Hideo Yamamoto, Takashi Miike’s Koroshiya 1 [Ichi the Killer] is just as brutally gory as people say. This was my first screening of a Miike work and I’m not quite so sure of how I want to continue delving in. Definitely more style and gratuity than any real desire to tell a story; the film pushes the envelope by allowing its main characters to be complete sadomasochists. These completely depraved souls seem to relish the joy of inflicting pain, mixing torture and violence with sex and lust in the cesspools that are their lives. Again, though, I would think most people would know this going in; no one is going to pick up a DVD with a cut up, bleached blonde Japanese psycho gracing the cover along with the word killer and think it will be a feel-good tale. The promotional material is misleading, however, in the depiction of Tadanobu Asano always with the title superimposed over the calm storm that is his face. I thought it portrayed Ichi himself, wild and disfigured, looking to deal his own brand of enjoyable rage, but in fact it is Kakihara, the Yakuza chief of security out to find his boss’s killer, hunted himself by the man he seeks.

At times Miike utilizes sharp cuts while playing with the frame speed to create a high-octane action flick, even pacing it to the loud music sporadically played. It works as far as getting you settled in for the jarring visuals to follow, but also disorientates in its flashes of past events, sometimes even cutting to moments that don’t necessarily make sense or seem relevant to what just happened. Effective in keeping you on your toes without ever knowing what to expect, the disjointed nature also detracts from being able to really invest in the story and try to wrap your head around it. Starting somewhat straightforwardly, the film begins to feel as though it will just be a highly stylized mystery thriller, watching as this Mafioso family seeks out the kidnapper of their leader. Very soon, however, things get crazier and crazier as the surrealism increases and the campy humor begins to show through. The chaotic feel is always there as the opening scene cuts from the Yakuza bodyguards having fun while their boss is unprotected in the next room to a pimp raping one of his girls while a strange man watches from outside. As quick as the transitions, we find ourselves in a car full of mask-wearing thugs about to clean up after Ichi’s evening. Is it the pimp he killed? Is it the boss, Anjo? Was the pimp the boss? I seriously had no idea until later seeing the pimp again in a scene that seemed a carbon copy of this first one, making me confused again about the timeline being used.

I’d say that about halfway through the movie I finally got a grip on what was happening—at least enough to be able to go with the flow and see how it all played out. Basically, Kakihara is a badass, homicidal psychopath bent on getting revenge for his boss’s disappearance as well as satiating his own bloodlust in the process. You see, Anjo was the one person who could inflict pain and suffering with the kind of pleasure Kakihara enjoyed. There is no fun in getting beat up half-heartedly, he needs to see the abuser truly showing a passion for the violence to him. Asano’s is an unforgettable performance that really makes the movie—his disfigurements only add to his personality and his ability to cut off his tongue, his deft handling of razor-sharp foot-long needles, as well as his fearless attitude make him one of the greatest screen villains that I can think of. It is hard to actually call him a villain since he is on the hunt for a killer, but they are all killers here, even the one man we might be able to deem heroic. A gunman for Anjo and stalwart supporter of Kakihara, if only to be able to find Ichi, Hiroyuki Tanaka’s Kaneko is a former cop turned gangster that stays on to avenge the murder of his boss, the one man that took him in when he lost his police job. Here is a man doing evil for what could be construed as good reasons, but the fact that we see him interact with his son Takeshi is what adds that mystery of compassion we want to believe he contains.

Along with these mobsters is the titular character Ichi, played by Nao Omori, a man that is not what you may expect. From all the carnage and blood sprayed everywhere—the murder scenes are almost laughable in the abundance of organs, gore, and sliced off limbs—you’d think this monster is Kakihara to the nth degree. The fact of the matter is that Ichi may be the most complicated and misunderstood of the bunch. Handled by a man name Jijii, (whose one scene showing how he isn’t the weak little rat playing both sides we guessed might be the funniest moment in the film, almost having me believe that perhaps the whole affair was just someone’s dream), Ichi is being manipulated into thinking he had been bullied and abused as a child, using an incident of rape to mix his feelings of arousal with those of absolute malice. He is sent out as a killing machine to rid the world of bullies and clean up the streets of their filth. A sort of demented Batman in his plastic-padded suit with bright yellow “1” on its back, Ichi’s mild-mannered alter-ego gets pushed back like clockwork when angry tears flow from his eyes, turning him into an unstoppable beast of rage, blinded by the red until he realizes what he’s done and can only say “I’m sorry”.

You will start to get interested in the seedy underbelly of Japan as these criminals walk the streets in search of retribution and death, but not necessarily to see a story come to a conclusion. Anjo’s death stops being relevant early on as the film deconstructs into a journey that can only end with Kakihara and Ichi dueling once and for all. The murder case and all the players used as witnesses or torture subjects for information serve this goal alone. We know who orchestrated it all, we know who did the dirty work, so we therefore keep watching to see what kind of insanity Miike will throw our way. Whether stretched skin from hooks or fingers; bodies severed in half or cut into pieces; faces skewered by needles and twisted in agony as an arm gets ripped off; or the laughable muscle-bound faux body of Jijii that uses some pretty impressive superimposing technology to get Shinya Tsukamoto’s head on it, Ichi the Killer plays to its audience’s sick sensibilities and enjoyment of the anonymous brutality they are bred to abhor in the real world. Perhaps Miike’s one goal is to show his viewers that no matter how much they cringe at violence on the news, the mere fact they will sit at one of his movies proves they secretly revel in the adrenaline rush of it all.

Koroshiya 1 [Ichi the Killer] 7/10

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It is interesting to see a company such as CBS throw their hat in the ring of motion pictures, especially with the financial climate of the industry so muggy. I guess all that money from “CSI” and its spin-offs have landed enough cash in the coffers to lay the groundwork for what is promising to be a few movies a year with high-end talent. Add to that the marketing dream of having your parent company as a television station ripe for advertising during lucrative football games and the formula looks better and better. The caveat to it all becomes the ease at which the whole endeavor could fall into made-for-tv fare, churning out a 10 o’clock movie with some cursing and minor A-list stars in hopes to earn some of the increasing, (recession brings the theatre-goers in droves for a little semi-cheap escapism), box office take. And this was the first thing I thought of when hearing of Extraordinary Measures—its content looked conventional, sappy, and way too feel-good for my tastes. But maybe CBS Films knows what they are doing, starting slow with an ‘inspired by true events’ yarn, looking to get edgier in the future, (letting J.Lo carry your sophomore effort, The Back-up Plan, is definitely edgy, as in will anyone see it?).

Definitely a step in the right direction for Tom Vaughn—who’s last effort was the somewhat abysmal What Happens in Vegas—this story about one father’s fight to find a drug to save his children’s lives is by-the-book, yet handled with competent hands. No one will be hailing Vaughn as a visionary doing things with the camera that haven’t been done before, but they also won’t say he dropped the ball and left the editing bay with little usable footage. It is a very conservative start that probably allowed for the people at CBS to get their feet wet in branching out to the big screen, making all the right moves, looking to infuse the emotions and heart that go into a true life story of survival. Sure there are the usual contrivances of pitting a large corporation of heartless bean-counters as the villain, (although they also are the source of investment and research capital), the sick kids overcoming adversity and showing the kind of fight residing within, and the volatile genius who has more potential of derailing his own work than seeing his brilliant theories realized, but what did you expect? If anyone goes into this movie expecting a fresh take on the medical miracle genre, you’ll have no one to blame but yourself if you’re disappointed.

Centering on Pompe Disease—a form of Muscular Dystropy—Extraordinary Measures finds John Crowley at the edge of a huge abyss that has been laid before him. With a life expectancy of nine years, the film begins by showing John rushing to get to his daughter’s 8th birthday party. Along with her brother of six that is worse off physically than she, the family knows that they don’t have much time left together. Going beyond his due diligence, Crowley scours the internet to find that one man has been doing promising work in the field of curing the disease. Dr. Robert Stonehill is a brilliant man who has discovered a way to enhance the enzyme that patients need to break down glycogen so it enters the cells. On paper he has solved the problem, but formulas and theories are worthless without the money to manufacture and test the science. As a result, Crowley quits his job and becomes head cheerleader and CEO for Stonehill’s idea, raising the capital, making the connections, and moving forward to a tangible answer—hopefully in enough time to help his own family.

You don’t need to know much else than this. The fact it has been made a film at all should lend itself to create the correct prediction on how it will all end, so the true test of success lies in the journey to reach that result. It falls on the filmmakers to make their audience care about this family, pull for the children afflicted by this deadly illness, and be interested in all the behind the scenes turmoil and success. And this is where the problems of the movie show; the story itself is too conflicted on what it’s striving to be. There is a lot about the Crowleys and their quest for life, but there is just as much scientific research residing in a world of bottom-line bureaucracy. I truly don’t think you can succeed without picking one of these avenues to be the primary driving force. With all the back and forth, an audience can never stick with one focus long enough to fully invest, making the completed work more high school educational tool than cinematic experience. Whereas My Sister’s Keeper became a real film—tugging at the heartstrings and portraying one family’s strength in the face of adversity, leaving all the science and medicine for backdrop only—Vaughn and company holds their work back by trying to educate while they entertain, falling into those made-for-tv conventions.

Jared Harris’s Dr. Webber, (why couldn’t he use his natural British accent?), hits the nail on the head by constantly reminding Crowley how he’s unable to be objective. John wants to save his children with this drug so much that he can’t look at the big picture of how many others it will cure. The added pressure Crowley puts on himself actually exacerbates the situation, risking his own self-imposed sabotage. Objectivity is needed for this drug to eventually reach his children, and it’s also needed for the film’s viewers to know what it is they are watching. The children are gone too often and for too long, making us forget what’s at stake as the task of creating medicine overtakes them in importance. Our connection to the human element at work is cut off instead of nurtured.

It is not by fault of the cast, which does some good work—Brendan Fraser’s Crowley is what a man in his situation should be: loving, caring, and driven to get the job done at all costs, both vulnerable and steadfast; Harrison Ford is great as the extremely hot-tempered introverted scientist, hard-edged while able to see his own errors while my only issue with him is that I don’t think his Stonehill quite earned the out-of-character joyful moment at the end; and Keri Russell is the epitome of a mother helpless as her children whither away. No, the failure of Extraordinary Measures not resonating lies in its very structure as it tries to do it all. The potential is there with many moments succeeding on their own, but by trying to show both the familial and scientific sides to the story, the film ends up being just a sterile telling of fact, never allowing us to really enter the world and experience what’s happening as anything other than a spectator.

Extraordinary Measures 6/10

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[1] Brendan Fraser as “John Crowley” and Harrison Ford as “Dr. Stonehill” in CBS Films’ EXTRAORDINARY MEASURES © CBS Films, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Keri Russell as “Aileen Crowley” and Diego Velazquez as “Patrick Crowley” in CBS Films’ EXTRAORDINARY MEASURES © CBS Films, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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

Another year gone, another 100+ releases down. 2009 was one that included a lot of good directors and some great ensemble pieces. Out of all the inclusions to my top ten, plus honorable mentions, only three really contained a central figure worthy of mention above the work itself; the others truly were complete packages consisting of group success. Not only that, but for the first time in a while, the foreign language pieces proved that the Hollywood machine is far from telling great stories, relying instead on blockbuster special effects and scantily clad models. I enjoy a good Transformers 2, Fired Up, and Zombieland like the next guy, but it’s the indies like Lymelife, Two Lovers, and Sunshine Cleaning that show what cinema should be. No one knows that more than the excellent directors abroad, whether it be Spain, France, Korea, and even Australia this year. I hope that one day soon the studios take a page from their book rather than try to import them over to make work here with their hands cuffed behind their backs. If staying home and crafting tales that hit hard emotionally mean we Americans must read subtitles, then so be it. Next year sees even more famous auteurs returning to the big screen and no moneymen should be allowed to hinder their artistic visions, especially for such a bigoted reason as their films not being in English. We shouldn’t underestimate our own country’s ability to appreciate high art, no matter how much people prove time and time again that we should.

Films not seen yet that have potential of creeping into the top 10:
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans; Black Dynamite; Coco avant Chanel [Coco Before Chanel]; Crazy Heart; Julia; The Last Station; Le silence de Lorna [Lorna’s Silence]; Chi bi xia: Jue zhan tian xia [Red Cliff 2]; Sugar; Tyson

Honorable Mention (in reverse order):
The Hurt Locker, review: All the press and acclaim is deserved for Kathryn Bigelow’s new film. It takes an impartial stance on the war and instead relies on showing the psyche of the soldiers sent to disarm bombs. Authentic, gritty, funny, and dramatic, The Hurt Locker could be the best war film to come out in quite some time, leaving all the politics and agendas behind.

Los abrazos rotos [Broken Embraces], review: Pedro shows once more that he is like a fine wine. One would think he could only do the handicapped artist embroiled in a unique love triangle melodrama so often without becoming tired, but this Spanish wizard will hear nothing of it. Penélope Cruz is fantastic as always, but it’s Lluís Homar’s portrayal that makes this film great.

Where the Wild Things Are, review: It is not easy to turn a beloved children’s tale full of nostalgia and happy memories into a good film, let alone a great one. Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers did just that and brought Maurice Sendak’s world to life. Darker than most Americans might want to expose their sheltered children to, Where the Wild Things Are expresses the isolation and strong emotions every young kid experiences as they deal with issues parents feel are too adult to fully explain to them.

A Serious Man, review: It may not have the blatant humor or the pitch black drama that a great Coen Brothers film usually excels in, but A Serious Man does have the intrigue needed to keep you riveted to your seat. With an intelligent screenplay, great performances from a mostly unknown cast, and exposure of the mystical secrets and traditions of Jewish religion and culture, the black humor leaves you slightly off-kilter, never knowing what tragedies could possibly occur to Larry Gopnik next.

35 Rhums [35 Shots of Rum], review: On the top of so many lists I’ve read this awards season, Claire Denis’s French film lives up to the praise. Love is a central theme, showing how important it is to survival while also how it can hinder your own evolution by trapping you in the past. We try so hard to please the ones who love us that sometimes we don’t allow for the time to be happy ourselves. Stellar acting and gorgeous cinematography complement the dramatic story, showing its audience that being selfish in order to be happy can be okay.

The Top Ten of 2009 (in reverse order):

10. (500) Days of Summer, review: The romantic comedy for guys and girls alike. Marc Webb’s film brought in audiences with its quirky, inventive setup, making it one of the year’s surprise hits. It has comedy, heartbreak, impeccable taste in music, and even a musical number complete with animated bird. Told out of linear order to let character emotion drive the plot, Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are relatable and perfect stand-ins for ourselves, showing us the highs and lows of every relationship we’ve ever been in.

9. Inglourious Basterds, review: I think I have to watch it again to hail it as a masterpiece like so many others do—Pulp Fiction is still my favorite Tarantino—but it doesn’t take a second viewing to realize its greatness. The scale is the largest he’s ever tackled with multiple locales and plot threads, numerous languages and subtitles, as well as his own absurd take on history, changing everything we’ve learned about the end of WWII. All you know and love about Quentin is here from the witty dialogue to the use of constant visual homage, but it does appear that he has grown as a filmmaker it each aspect, further entrenching this former video store clerk as one of the best filmmakers of his generation.

8. Up in the Air, review: George Clooney may have outdone himself with this film. Never have I said, “Wow, Clooney really knocked that one out of the park,” but Reitman has gotten that type of performance out of him here. Full of heart and really funny, Up in the Air was a huge surprise when I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival, especially having walked in knowing the talent but not the plot. This sets the bar for where adult cinema should be—honest and raw in how people interact and converse in the business world, giving even a man who excels at firing people the room to redeem his life and for once find happiness.

7. The Limits of Control, review: Built like a David Lynch film, Jarmusch has amped up the surrealism and crafted a film so dreamlike that the true meaning he attempts to get across is unnecessary. I’m sure The Limits of Control has a different effect on each of its viewers, making all decipher the puzzle based on their own life experiences. Isaach de Bankolé is stoic perfection, wandering through the landscape of his mind as he works towards destroying what it is that has been undermining mankind’s ability to stay creative and use their imaginations.

6. Avatar, review: Sometimes the extreme spectacle of new technology can live up to expectations. Cameron’s Avatar risked overexposure through advertising and hype, very easily having the possibility of complete and utter failure, but once again he delivered on his word. The new 3D tech is mind-blowing in comparison to anything that came before it and the motion capture computer graphics have never been better. So many look to the weak story in order to dismiss it as pretty but devoid of a soul. That reaction is simple and convenient, though, because if you’ve ever wanted to be transported away into another world when seated at the movie theatre, Avatar makes it happen.

5. Moon, review: Sam Rockwell and director Duncan Jones are Moon. Science fiction deserves to be this stark and sterile, showing the dehumanization of technology and isolation space holds. Rockwell gives the performance of his career as cabin fever sets in and the existence of another version of his character arrives in the spaceship. The answer to this wrinkle comes quickly, leaving the rest of the film to keep you on the edge of your seat, wondering what it is actually going on miles and miles from Earth.

4. Up, review: Pixar has made its best feature in Up. The only animation studio that relies on the intellect of its audience, they are never afraid to put story in front, whether it means a lack of dialogue or fantastical worlds of talking animals. With an opening scrapbook representation of Carl and Ellie’s lifetime together that will have you in tears before the film’s actual plot even begins, Up’s journey is vast and full of detail. For kids and adults alike, no other animated movie has ever resonated so strong emotionally—equal parts goofy humor and heart-warming companionship.

3. Sin Nombre, review: A harsh representation of gang lifestyle taking place in South America, Sin Nombre gets everything right. Combining the storyline of a young man standing up to his superiors in the brotherhood with a girl escaping to America that he crosses paths with allows this film to be more than just a crime drama. No matter how much evil you’ve done, an opportunity to turn things around and try to do good will always exist. Once you get in bed with the devil, though, your fate is all but sealed; it becomes what you do before you die that creates the legacy you leave behind.

2. Das weisse band [The White Ribbon], review: It took a little while afterwards to officially realize how great Haneke’s new film was, but it hit hard when it did. A sprawling epic of a seemingly quiet town in Austria, the movie will leave you with more questions than answers. The mysteries occurring could be answered in many ways depending on you own outlook on humanity. Murder and abuse occurs, religion is used to punish, and war breaks out across Europe, leaving the kids at hand here to soon inherit their parents’ mistakes in the years leading up to Hitler’s reign of terror. Haneke loves to make art that begs its audience to think, using their own preconceptions and feelings of persecution to create answers. He challenges us to see how maybe we aren’t as righteous as we may believe, making us complicit in the tragedies he puts on screen.

1. A Single Man, review: Visually stunning and powerfully acted, Tom Ford’s debut is a wonderful piece of art. Colin Firth is a revelation playing a three-dimensional soul in pain—a far cry than his usual British love interest in romantic comedies. Speaking about issues such as life and death, giving visuals to psychological pain, and portraying the way in which we all are taken over by memories of happier times, A Single Man is a masterpiece, bringing the interior workings of a desperately distraught human being to life through the marriage of intense close-ups and haunting melodies. I seriously wanted to see it again as soon as the end credits began to roll.

Some films to keep on the radar in 2010 are listed here.

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A series of flashes, shooting before your eyes—this is what people like to believe happens as you die. A Single Man looks to corroborate this hypothesis, beginning with our discovery of George Falconer’s pain and depression dealing with the death of his long-time lover Jim, continuing to show him put his gun into an attaché as he leaves for work on a day of farewells. Scored to a magnificent orchestral symphony, the film takes us on a journey through the fragmented moments of George coming to grips with his loss as well as his own mortality. We see the close-ups that gain his attention, the memories flooding back into his consciousness, and the sheer weight of sorrow that plunges him deeper and deeper into the abyss of loneliness, drowning him each time he closes his eyes. Invisible to the world as a homosexual in the 60s, George realizes that the one person he could truly connect with completely, the one person that truly saw him for who he was, has abruptly disappeared. The only desire that remains is to go away too; leave the petty judgments behind and spend eternity with the purist love he’s known.

This is one of the most sure-handed debuts I have ever had the pleasure of watching. Here is a man in Tom Ford that decided to move on from being a fashion designer—one that turned around a company such as Gucci from collapse—to a writer/director in the movie industry. Definitely having a flair for style, the trailer alone got me interested in the film for its sheer beauty and economy of design. Purely images spooling through with the film score at its back, this advertisement showed what kind of visual powerhouse A Single Man could be, but the story was still left in the dark. However, with help from David Scearce, Ford adapted the Christopher Isherwood novel and brought the kind of gravitas of storytelling that was necessary to accompany such a hauntingly image driven work. As for cinematographer Eduard Grau, I’ve never heard of any of the films on his resume, but boy do I hope he starts to run wild in Hollywood with his masterful handling of composition and framing. For all I know Ford storyboarded this thing to the finest detail; whether or not that’s true, he is still the man on top that somehow culled together a group of actors and crewmembers to create a remarkable piece of art, front to back.

No matter how beautiful it is to look at, though, it is only a shell until what’s onscreen becomes real. Colin Firth is better than I have ever seen him, completely intertwined with George and all but removed from his own persona. His world has been shattered so fully and so suddenly that he doesn’t even have time to grieve, nor is he allowed to when Jim’s parents don’t acknowledge the man their son has lived with for sixteen years as a member of the family. An outsider his entire life, the man that made him relevant was now gone. Firth’s collapse into oblivion is emotionally true, especially when juxtaposed by the flashbacks of his wittily sarcastic self, perpetually smiling alongside his boyfriend. To cut harshly between that joy, to the underwater writhing, bound by invisible chains, to the old and beaten man we see in the present only compacts the interior workings of this English professor. The good and the bad are racing past his consciousness so fast that he can’t even linger in happiness long enough to help him through the pain that will soon drive a stake into his heart. All he can think to do is tie up loose ends and ready himself for the next stage of his journey, hopefully the final chapter of a play that has had him alone for longer than he’d care to remember.

Nicholas Hoult—the new muse, so to speak, that has arrived on George’s path—has a wonderful line about us all being born alone, dying alone, and between it all being trapped inside an isolated body. Perhaps we do exist to be by ourselves, many say you can’t truly love another until you do yourself, so there may be a lot of truth to this thought. But no matter how much time we spend walking in circles inside our own head, there are still connections on the outside that we make, relationships to keep us sane and feel valued. Firth’s George speaks about how he doesn’t regret it all; there were still those moments when he connected with someone so fully that all the smog blocking his view dissolved into absolute clarity. We live for these instances—no matter how brief—to give us meaning to go on towards a future that we all know will end in death. The end is inevitable, but the journey is completely up to us. We are given the opportunity to meet people like Julianne Moore’s Charley, lifelong friends to love and cherish, those few souls we let inside and can rely upon implicitly. They are just as messed up and scared as the rest of us, and Charley is no exception, but to see another going through the same hardships as us only proves how we all can survive and beat whatever obstacles block our way.

Our entire lives consist of our own perceptions of what we see, so forgetting to look is the greatest error any of us can make. George is contemplating the end and walking towards it with full knowledge, but along the way he notices the little things that he otherwise was too busy to see before. Ford gives us the close-ups of meticulously drawn eyeliner, the slomotion exhalation of smoke from a would-be actor’s mouth, the simple gifts in life such as a bright yellow pencil sharpener, and the freckled, boisterous laughter of a drunken friend—each frame a snapshot from the viewer, a frozen image that only he had the privilege and perspective to witness. All those remembrances of Jim, that young man strong in body and soul, (portrayed to confident perfection by Matthew Goode), are trapped in our brains to be called upon when needed. Each one of us is filled to the brim with experiences that shape the people we become, ever-evolving, until the day we leave this earth. A Single Man is a manifestation of one man’s realization of how none of the good times would ever have been so without the bad to contrast them. George Falconer is a man pushing into his fifties that only truly knew who he was for a short 16 years of that lifetime. What he didn’t realize, until it all came back to him, was that all we ever need is one singular second to finally see that all the peaks and valleys were worth it. It only takes one moment of pure bliss to erase what came before or will come after—it’s all a dream, after all, one we wander through frame by frame, constructing ourselves with every step.

A Single Man 10/10

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Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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Sometimes promotional material lets on to the truth. By watching the trailers for The Book of Eli, I became excited to see the film due to its stripped color palette, post-apocalyptic environment, and Denzel Washington’s insane fighting skills. For some reason, though, all those posters saying “Deliver Us” and the fact of it all centering on a book that’s more important than anything else left on earth—a weapon even—eluded me in realizing just how large religion would loom over everything. The Hughes Brothers could have easily made this into a straight-up action flick, and I was actually kind of expecting it, but thankfully they took care with Gary Whitta’s script and delivered a tale much deeper and spiritually powerful than I ever would have guessed.

Faith is a part of humanity; whether cherished and held close or forsaken completely, it still plays an integral role on how we live our lives. When the majority of the population has no knowledge of God and survival itself, soaked in blood, is the only thing binding them together, faith becomes replaced by acquiescence. The strong, in this case synonymous with a lack of morals or appreciation for the human soul, prey upon the weak and rule with an iron fist of fear. Gary Oldman is the tyrant of this story, building a civilization supported by complacency. His miscreants run wild, their free reign of booze and women in exchange for their search of the book that will allow him to take over the world. This book could give him the words to lead without violence, to become their savior—not because of compassion, but instead so he can be both King and God himself, ruler of all that’s been left since the sun burned the world to dust. After thirty years of waiting, thirty years of killing and suffering, the one man in possession of this power has arrived.

The film itself leans heavily on the metaphor of Washington’s Eli being a prophet entrusted with the protection of religion itself. His words and prayers are heard for the first time by those around him, brightening eyes and minds instantly, their power steadfast and quick. All he would have to do is spout a few verses to usurp any control Oldman’s Carnegie has on the people, or anyone anywhere for that matter. He is Moses coming down the mountain with the word of God at his disposal, yet he refuses because it is not his mission. He is a guardian—not an orator—wandering west in order to find a place this book can reside to do some good. It is the most powerful weapon for sure, just words on paper that can unite or control by planting the seed of belief and faith. So strong, in fact, that Eli can’t let anyone else even touch the book in his possession, he won’t even read from it, instead reciting from memory. It has a hold over him, protecting his safety as a necessity for its own, walking blindly through faith that his path ends in salvation. Whereas Carengie would use it to brainwash and exploit the people, something churches all over the world are known for at the present, (possibly that allusion spoken about how the book caused the war that tore open the sky is more truthful than not), Eli uses it to survive, knowing how many it will save in the future.

There are many influences besides the religious overtones at work, though. The Hughes Brothers have crafted it more as a western that anything else with its distinct delineations of good vs. evil. The Orpheum across from Tom Waits’s store, (oh how I love seeing him in two films within a one week period, Imaginarium being the other), is a wild west saloon with its soot-covered, goggle-wearing cowboys drinking away their indifference. The world is a dust bowl ghost town devoid of law; it’s survival of the fittest and bartering is key. Who knew a few wetnaps from KFC could be worth more than gold? But the directors don’t stop there, infusing some brilliantly choreographed action sequences. Taking a page out of Children of Men, there are a couple fight scenes that appear to be seamlessly shot in one take. The camera flies through exploding debris and doubles back by breaching holes and shooting under burning wreckage, at one point even coming face-to-face with a Gatling gun’s fiery barrels. The monotone gray filter thrown on top of everything is effective too, the dirt and grime authentic, and the destroyed buildings and towns realistic. I only had one problem visually and it’s the plethora of blatant product placement. With so much nondescript and covered, the ‘conveniently’ noticeable logos of Coffee Beanery and J. Crew stick out like sore thumbs. And I don’t think they could have lingered on that Motorola megaphone any longer without making it a Super Bowl spot.

However, a cool world made up of appropriated technologies, mish-mashed into a brand new style of necessity, can only get you so far without feeling hollow. It becomes the performances that flesh out these exteriors and draw the audience in deeper, holding on tight. Oldman seems at his best when playing smarmy despots that will do anything for control, so his role is pretty much par for the course. What impressed me was the work by the others, not quite branching away from the norm, but still bringing a little something fresh and effective to the proceedings. Ray Stevenson is channeling his Punisher for the most part, but the moments of heart that show through, a code of honor that has been buried too long, were surprising. One instance after a shoot out, he and Denzel peer across the road at one another and you can see the understanding between them, a sort of mutual appreciation between warriors. And you don’t understand how refreshing it is to see Washington old and grizzled. The man we know and love is there, but he has this added character and weathered self-worth that’s usually glossed over by his charismatic smile. It only helps in his role of prophet, walking the land with purpose, not a shred of ego to be seen. Throw in effective turns by Mila Kunis, Jennifer Beals, and a fun Michael Gambon and the ensemble is complete.

It is unfortunately tough to really delve into the religious backbone without ruining things, so just know that it does drive the entire story. I could have done without the convention of needing Kunis as an apprentice of sorts, because that job isn’t really necessary if Eli succeeds in his mission, but Americans do like there little ‘hell-yeah’ moments and the Hughes include one at the end here. I just hope no idiotic Hollywood producer thinks it opens up the possibility for a sequel because that would be a travesty. The Book of Eli is not wall to wall action so don’t get discouraged about the lulls telling an actual story. Whitta has crafted a competent screenplay here with many allusions to Catholicism and really all faith-based religions, still finding a way to throw in some twists and turns to make the message of mankind’s salvation cinematically exciting. “… I was once blind and … now I can see”—this book has the power to make it happen with all of the survivors, opening their eyes to a future of promise. The human spirit will never die; it just sometimes needs meaning and purpose to prevail.

The Book of Eli 8/10

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[1] DENZEL WASHINGTON (left) as Eli, GARY OLDMAN (right center) as Carnegie and RAY STEVENSON (background) as Redridge in Alcon Entertainment’s action adventure film “The Book of Eli,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[2] MILA KUNIS (right) as Solara, DENZEL WASHINGTON (center) as Eli and MICHAEL GAMBON (background) as George in Alcon Entertainment’s action adventure film “The Book of Eli,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures


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