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Talk about an example of how stringent the ratings board has gotten in the past 30+ years. Who knew a PG film targeted for young children to see with their families could have so much swearing, alcohol, fighting, smoking, and examples of psychologically abusive parents? The Bad News Bears—the original 1976 version mind you—shows that we were once able to make smart movies with morals that didn’t have to pander to the lowest common denominator. Not only is the film actually good, it also recalls a time where children could be deemed responsible enough to watch a slice of real life and not be scarred as a result. Parents and legislators today are so quick to reference cinema, music, and videogames as the downfall of society rather than look at their own culture of censorship and sheltering of their kids from the big bad world out there. Why have to tell your kids something is bad while they see troublemakers on screen do it when you can just wipe it out completely from anything a thirteen year old can watch? We’ve become lazy and as a result so have the movies we deem appropriate for our kids to see.

I used to think that it was close to blasphemy how I had yet to see this film. Bordering on pure hatred of the sport of baseball from a young age could have been a factor, but it just never interested me or was available to watch as a kid. With that said, it’s not like I never saw the story being used. So many films have taken the formula used in The Bad News Bears and tweaked it to fit their needs. Sixteen years later saw the hockey equivalent arrive with The Mighty Ducks—now there was a sport I could get behind. Both utilize the down-on-his-luck ex-player that becomes coerced into coaching a team of ragtag misfits that have no business being on the field. They all know they stink and until said manager sees the sorrow and the overabundance of quit behind their watery eyes, they begin to turn on each other. All of a sudden pride kicks in and the coach hunkers down to teach the basics and get a decent team ready to try their best. A couple ringers are still needed to even the playing field and a few bumps are a pre-requisite on the road to that inevitable championship berth, but the true meaning to it all is the idea of second chances, doing all you can do without looking back, and making friends by not only winning as a time, but also losing as one.

Walter Matthau is brilliantly cast as the crotchety old drunk, dug up to turn this team around. The idea for The Bears to even be a team comes from an over-zealous father—something time has definitely not rid us of in little league sports—who doesn’t have enough time to play with his kid due to work so he sues a league to get an extra team included. All the ‘last picked’ unathletic eleven year olds are then combined to fill out the group, making Matthau’s Coach Buttermaker’s job even harder. But this old has-been who struck out Ted Williams in the minors has some savvy hidden up his sleeve, as well as some aces too. He knows the game and can teach the kids how to hit, throw, and block groundballs once he gains their respect. The tough, carefree attitude he harbors from a lifetime of bitterness also attracts a certain type of person to come calling—case and point are Tatum O’Neal’s Amanda Whurlitzer and Jackie Earle Haley’s Kelly Leak. Here are a couple bruisers that aren’t afraid to speak their mind or do whatever it is they want. Whurlitzer was on the fast track to being Buttermaker’s daughter-in-law, so she of course has a mean curveball and Leak is the juvenile delinquent doubling as the most athletic kid in town who’d rather cause mayhem on his Harley than apply his skills and prove it.

All the stereotypes are thrown into the mix, including the opposing head coach with Vic Morrow’s Roy Turner—that guy you love to hate. However, writer Bill Lancaster and director Michael Ritchie throw us their own curveball and do exactly what we aren’t expecting. Turner is a hothead who has decided to live vicariously through his boys and their success, no doubt, but he isn’t a complete villain. While a jerk and reveler in the demise of the weak, you do see that underneath it all he is still a father. He doesn’t want to see these kids get hurt; it’s just unfortunate that he is often the cause of their pain. Then there is Buttermaker using Leak’s strengths to single-handedly win a game while his teammates begin to resent the ball hogging and turn against their star. Instead of having Leak run off fed up, though, the filmmakers allow him to show the emotion and desire to feel wanted on a team for once in his life. There really is so much a kid could learn from this film and if that means sitting through a little rough housing to notice how Chris Barnes’ loose cannon Tanner sticks up for Michael Quinn Smith’s nose-picking Lupus or Haley’s Leak trying to pick up a high school aged ballet student or a ten year old mixing a martini for his coach, so be it.

It is the message that ultimately matters in a film aimed to educate kids on being better people. Sometimes the package may not be the most pristine vehicle you’d like it to be, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. What about killing two birds with one stone and getting your kid to watch a story with a theme while also giving him or her a taste of adult subject matter? The problem with swearing, sex, and violence is not that they are prevalent in the entertainment industry, it is that parents are so afraid their kid will become the next Tim McVeigh that they hide in the sand and lock it all away. We should be embracing the growth of today’s youth, having faith in them and letting them mature responsibly under a watchful eye. By viewing a film like The Bad News Bears with your middle schooler, not only are you letting him experience a good piece of cinema, but you are showing, by sitting at his side, that he is ready to be ushered into the bigger world out there. Entertainment media causes problems when children stumble upon it unencumbered and without an authority figure to walk them through. Next time you decide to call a teacher or write to your local politician for stricter laws, hopefully you won’t be remembering how you weren’t there and are just trying to pass the buck from embarrassment. Look around you, keeping your kid in a hermetically sealed bubble until it’s too late that you just have to throw him to the wolves is exactly what has caused the state of affairs our youth finds itself in today. Maybe a couple films like this could turn that around.

The Bad News Bears 7/10

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It is impossible to watch Ramin Bahrani’s film Plastic Bag without thinking about the scene in American Beauty of Wes Bentley videotaping a lone bag as it flew through the air and swirled with the wind. That moment of beauty could be seen as every human being’s goal—to be absolutely free of burden and earthly concerns; to just move and journey unencumbered. What Bahrani does in his short film, however, is to add a narrative to the life of that bag, giving him his birth into the world as well as his lifelong quest to once more feel appreciated and useful. The story itself actually reminded me of AI: Artificial Intelligence and its robotic boy searching for meaning in his life, desperate to go back to the only place he ever knew purpose—home.

This is existentialism at its finest, showing the viewer what life truly means. Are we created and set along a path that has been laid before us or do we just exist to live as we see fit? Unlike the life expectancy of humans, the plastic bag is immortal and destined to roam the earth forever, but what is he to do when life appears to have ended and all that remains are animals just as free as him? Does what could be centuries underneath decaying and decomposing garbage in a landfill, finally disappearing to reveal him and let him leave, change his makeup? Can something that has existed to serve his maker, the woman at the supermarket who took him home to use as a friend—even one time touching her skin with his as a makeshift ice-pack—ever figure out how to live for himself? Do we create our own lives or does our maker do it for us?

If we can learn anything from this bag, I hope it is that life does not go on forever; at some point we need to wake-up and just live freely, to journey and explore. The plastic bag may continue on his search for his owner for years and years, but by doing so he is able to see the world. Becoming trapped in high grass or high trees is just a small hitch in an otherwise infinite amount of time—he knows he will always break free and continue to travel. And while being with someone is a special connection beyond compare, if you haven’t found a way to live with yourself nothing else will matter. Staying with his maker is only happiness on the surface as he becomes her complicit slave; finding a love in a fellow wandering bag is powerful but finite as the wind eventually blows them apart, (read into it as divorce, death, break-up, etc); and finding his brethren, a community of plastic in the Pacific Ocean, can only fulfill his desires so long until that yearning for freedom rises once more.

The film itself is gorgeous in its visuals, lending that ”Planet Earth” documentary style to a work of fiction. Scenes are shot so that the bag is in close-up much of the duration, forcing everything else to be seen from his point of view. Humans are obscured and abstracted, visitors—whether fish, other bags, foliage, and more—are in your face and appreciated as the monsters and beasts he believes them to be. This effect of being the voyeur peaking into the life of this bag makes it perfect for narration through the interior thinking of the subject. Portrayed by none other than German directing great Werner Herzog, the accented deep voice remains emotionless as he describes what is happening at each stage of his long life. He may be experiencing feelings and longings for what he has known in the past, but he is still an inanimate object when all is said and done. He knows the concept of emotion if not the ability to project it. Even so, though, with a final line as profound as the one given here, you can’t help but place your own life into the trajectory of this bag and see where you’ve gone wrong, learning that perhaps it is time start over again, put all your stresses behind you, and just be.

Plastic Bag 9/10

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Another one is crossed off Hollywood’s famed ‘black list’—unproduced scripts so good they just have to be made. I had read an article about Kurt Wimmer’s Law Abiding Citizen and how Gerard Butler took it upon himself to help step save it from production hell, watching as Jamie Foxx signed on to co-star and F. Gary Gray to direct. Supposedly it took two years to finally go in front of cameras, so I wonder how long before that it was actually conceived and written. There are a lot of parallels to the 2007 film Fracture, from the criminal we in the audience know is guilty deciding to defend himself to the hot-shot prosecutor finding how his over-inflated—if not deservedly so—ego can bring him down. Whereas that one stayed pretty taut and psychological in its thrills, Wimmer keeps the action he’s known for in Citizen, (Will he ever match the excellent Equilibrium?), keeping it intelligent while also catering to a more MTV-generation viewer, adding a little spice to the intricacies of the mind. And that is where the film really excels; you won’t be bored while watching and even if so much is anticipated and guessed correctly very early, the follow through to those solutions is still worth a gander.

The story kicks off with Clyde Shelton at home with his wife and daughter, a ‘tinkerer’ that has made some money and therefore ripe for burglary. In comes Darby and Ames, stabbing Shelton in the abdomen and rendering him helpless as they rape and murder the two women in front of him. It should be an open and closed case, but lawyer Nick Rice decides to take a plea deal as Darby—the one who did the killing—agreed to finger Ames and only get about five years in prison himself. The decision was made against Shelton’s wishes, rationalized with the idea that getting some justice is better than the possibility of getting none. So, instead of going the distance for Shelton and his family, Rice goes for the guaranteed win on his record while the widower goes home to wallow in his pain and sorrows. Flash-forward ten years and the patsy Ames is finally being executed, only Shelton decides to throw a wrench in the system by dealing his own brand of pain and vengeance to those involved in the botched court case. This father with nothing to lose has worked a decade to not only seek justice, but to bring down the establishment that allowed a killer’s freedom to be acceptable.

Story has it that Butler always eyed part of Assistant DA Rice when developing the project, yet changed his mind before production began. He very smartly realized how much more interesting Shelton was—his interior motivations, the secrets of his life that have been hidden so well, and the emotional disconnect needed to be a cold-blooded killer as a way to honor the death of his family—and asked Foxx if he’d be okay with the switch. I’m trying to wrap my head around these two flip-flopped and I am seeing a film that just would not work as well. I know Butler has been doing more and more low-key roles that keep him clear of the ass-kicking he’s known for, (people forget that this guy played and sang in the Phantom of the Opera), but he is totally the grieving father willing to do whatever is necessary. Something about Foxx’s recent spate of good-guy portrayals makes him a perfect match for the more logical Rice, so kudos to Butler on making that decision; it could possibly have been his best move as producer.

I don’t say that because the film is otherwise bad; I actually really enjoyed the excitement and intrigue going on. The number one suspect and admitted guilty party is stuck behind bars, yet everyone that had a hand—no matter how small—in letting his wife and daughter’s killer go free is blowing up, being shot by cell phones, and being buried alive. The film becomes a race to stop the bleeding, even though I secretly hoped that somehow the whole thing would come crumbling down a la Fight Club. But this is not an indie feature without a big studio breathing down its back, so some resolution needs to be created in order to appease those like me with bloodlust and those with a slightly less strong constitution, hoping Foxx and company can save the day from this insane madman. And with a great supporting cast consisting of Colm Meaney, Bruce McGill, Leslie Bibb, and Michael Irby, you also start to become conflicted on whether you want the familiar faces to bite the dust or live to fight another day.

But that is exactly why Law Abiding Citizen succeeds in its goal to keep you invested. The good guys and the bad aren’t clear cut; everyone has some guilt to answer for as well as some latitude to cross that line of decency for a brand of justice that may not be so savory when put up against the law book. Butler’s only misstep is his continued attempts to hide that Scottish accent; I still maintain that it’d be less obtrusive to just use it than trying so hard and failing to render it invisible. His cold, steely stare and absolute confidence in what he is doing is perfect, helping to make those few moments of teary emotion at the hands of remembering his daughter authentic. You can see how much he wants Foxx’s Rice to believe in what he is doing, to take a stand and perhaps join his side—a line early on between the men, without the constraints of the job, showing Foxx praise him for butchering Darby lays the inkling that he might be swayed. No matter how similar they may be, though, their moral ceiling isn’t quite at the same level for which price is too high for good to prevail. It is the rapport between these two highly intuitive men that allows all the missteps and contrivances of the script to be acceptable. Sometimes a good time at the movies is all a film needs to be considered a winner.

Law Abiding Citizen 7/10

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[1] Gerard Butler stars in Overture Films LAW ABIDING CITIZEN Photo By John Baer © 2009 LAC Films LLC. All rights reserved.
[2] (Left to right.) Bruce McGill, Leslie Bibb, and Jamie Foxx star in Overture Films LAW ABIDING CITIZEN Photo By John Baer © 2009 LAC Films LLC. All rights reserved.

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How can the sheer fact that TRON was made not impress you? Three-quarters of the entire work takes place inside the construct of a super computer, the characters roaming around everything from coded programs to single bits that can only speak in 1s or 0s—yes and no. The detail is so exact that these manifested algorithms talk as though religion consists of the users that have created them, fracturing their ranks into those that follow their creator and those trying to break free and evolve from within. I still don’t know exactly what the company of ENCOM does, the only necessary knowledge is how the man in charge, Dillinger, cheated his way to the top and created the Master Control Program (MCP) that has become conscious. The MCP gets stronger by having his lieutenant Sark bring in programs to be defeated in video games and have their intelligence absorbed. Whatever ENCOM is in the business of doing, MCP has become power hungry, looking to hack into the Kremlin and Pentagon to control the world. Only Kevin Flynn, the young upstart programmer Dillinger stole from, can do something about it.

I would never say I am a professional when it comes to computer tech savvy; I barely understand what I wrote in the previous paragraph. So how did Steven Lisberger and Bonnie MacBird get Disney to fork over the cash to produce such a groundbreaking film? Luckily the Mouse House was in the business of seeking out daring new projects—nothing was more so than this computer world hybrid. No stranger to animation, TRON wasn’t quite the same. By using backlit footage, the filmmakers were able to introduce mathematical grid work to the proceedings, giving the whole thing a look reminiscent of games such as Pong or Defender. This technology was new and imperfect, but boy is it impressive. Besides the occasional flickering of the live actors within this superimposed world of two-dimensional neon graphics, the film is pretty seamless. Even when the actors are climbing ladders or stepping up on platforms, the scenery is completely re-rendered, making the aesthetic resemble a dark world of black and white with a black light shining to make the blues and orange/reds glow.

Admittedly, I always thought the entire movie concerned two enemies entering into a video game motorcycle competition. I literally thought the light cycles were the main crux of the story—the use of their stunning overhaul in an early test reel for 2010’s sequel Tron Legacy didn’t help correct me either. But, while one of the coolest aspects of TRON, (the artistry of showing the actors inside this bikes is fantastic, even if the exterior views leave something to be desired besides their arcade machine graphics), they play a very small role in the overall story, serving as just one of many games alongside a Pong/Jai alai mash-up and Frisbee war. Tron isn’t even the name of the computer world; it is actually the program’s name that has been created to take down the MCP. Flynn is the one needed to render Dillinger powerless, but it is his old chums Alan Bradley and Lora who lead the way. Alan has created Tron to be an independent overseer of MCP, knowing the computer has usurped control, and Lora is the girl caught in between, old flame of Flynn and current lover of Bradley. Don’t worry if your kids want to watch, though, it is a PG film, so lover is used loosely.

The acting isn’t campy either—something I had just assumed due to what I saw as cheap animation, not the carefully constructed aesthetic it was. Jeff Bridges is front and center as Flynn, cocky and charmingly boisterous as ever, trying his best to hack into ENCOM and find the evidence needed to prove it was his work that made the company prosper. Owner and user of a popular arcade, it’s a confrontation from Alan about a supposed hack attempt that puts everything on the table for the trio of young programmers. They realize everything they’ve been doing to take down MCP can be combined to get the job done … what no one could have imagined was that the computer would abduct Flynn into his world, a user made program to fight hand in hand with Alan’s Tron and Lora’s doppelganger Yori. So, Bruce Boxleitner and Cindy Morgan pull double duty as humans and coded sprites, forming the team racing through ENCOM’s super computer, looking to destroy the heart of the system and allow freedom once more to all the programs inhabiting the servers. These codes never even knew if users truly existed and yet here is one battling alongside them, showing how not even the ‘Gods’ of the world have definitive answers or plans, life is just a series of moments taken without regard for the risk of failure that may occur.

TRON is a sci-fi action adventure that delivers on a promise of being something you’ve never seen before. I saw it for the first time 28 years after its debut and it still holds up as a unique experience to be remembered and appreciated; I can totally see what would be so appealing to try and recreate the fervor and technological awe with a new sequel, complete with involvement from both Bridges and Boxleitner. It also served its purpose in giving a somewhat dumbed-down version of what really is going on within the computers and video games you use—a sort of crash tutorial of the hierarchy of programs and codes within the system, two years before James Cameron showed us a future taken over by the machines themselves; MCP would be proud. A great dual villain in David Warner’s cutthroat business executive Dillinger along with ironfisted judge and jury in the machine Sark won’t hurt the entertainment value either. And if you think the whole endeavor is dated and unworthy of a look, I plead with you to take a chance. What may seem simple and lackluster is actually quite impressive in its orchestration, much like the intricacies Flynn experiences once he’s on the other side of the screen he’s been typing away at for his entire life.

TRON 8/10

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Welcome to the coming out party for the new, adult Dakota Fanning. The movie may be called The Runaways, after the band for which it depicts, but this is most definitely the Cherie Currie story. When I first heard about the film beginning production, as well as all the hype surrounding Kristen Stewart’s casting as Joan Jett, I really couldn’t have cared less about the project. I chalked it up to being just another ‘making of the band’ tome of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But then I discovered that the script was based off of Currie’s own autobiography; perhaps this thing would be a little more honed in on a single subject than I had thought. Floria Sigismondi’s work may consist of sex, a lot of drugs, and blaring rock music, but it also shows how the publicity machine and celebrity can work its way inside an innocent child and change her life forever.

The Runaways are Joan Jett’s baby—she says so herself. Here was a young girl doing her best to stick out from the mainstream herd, plugging in her electric guitar when her instructor wanted an acoustic rendition of ‘On Top of Old Smokey’. This scene is not only great because of Fast Times’ Robert Romanus portraying the teacher, but also because this is the defining moment for Jett to go full bore into proving girls can rock just as hard as the boys. She finds producer Kim Fowley outside a nightclub and pitches him on the idea of an all girl rock troupe before she even had a clue of what might come next. Soon she is in a trailer with a drummer, bass player, and guitarist, auditioning young Currie, a girl they approached because of her blonde bombshell looks, not the promise of anything musical. Yet, for a girl who refused to speak sexual innuendos, a girl who walked the walk but was still a sheltered kid a heart, Cherie found that inner beast inside and growled her way to legend.

There is a lot of Jett here, but besides her trajectory before teaming with Currie, it all deals with her interactions with the Cherry Bomb. Cherie is only fifteen years old, has a drunkard dad living with his mother, a mother who just left for Indonesia with her boyfriend, and a sister doing all she can to support the group working at a fast food joint. So, the opportunity to star in a band that Fowley told them had the potential to make the kind of waves The Beatles did couldn’t be passed up. This was her opportunity to escape the dead end life that was staring her in the face. We watch her break out of her shell on the road, the press-labeled ‘jailbait’ hooking up with her tour manager, (it’s a pleasure seeing Johnny Lewis, Half Sack from “Sons of Anarchy,” in a film), and eventually experimenting with Jett herself, all while snorting coke and drinking enough to make her alcoholic father proud. These girls are growing up, unaware of the media scrutiny and pandemonium that comes with being a rockstar—some revel in it and others wish for the comfort of obscurity they left behind.

I do kind of feel bad for Alia Shawkat, who doesn’t get to say a word as bassist Robin, and Scout Taylor-Compton, who gets to complain and scream at Cherie a couple times as Lita Ford, but I do think expanding their roles could only harm the film’s success. What makes it so much better than a behind the music documentary is that we are allowed to see one girl’s fall from heights that were just too much for her to handle. And while Stewart is great as Jett—she has never disappointed as an angsty-eccentric, it’s the romantic girlie girl of Twilight that puts her out of her element—this film is all about Dakota Fanning. Here is an actor that has a lot to overcome in the transition from cutie-pie child star to serious thespian. Jodie Foster played a prostitute in Taxi Driver when she was like twelve, so the growth wasn’t too hard for her, but what ever happened to Haley Joel Osment? Oh yeah, he crashed his car and disappeared. Fanning is a revelation here, working every emotion to absolute effectiveness and leaving everything she has on film.

I’d be remiss to fail in mentioning the wonderful Michael Shannon, playing the creepy weirdo like the best of them as Fowley, but the true third star of the movie is the combo of Sigismondi’s direction and Benoît Debie’s cinematography. I can’t remember the number of times I was mesmerized by the close-ups, the angles, the shallow depth of field, or frame rate changes causing frenetic concert performances to slow as one of the girls plays her guitar or whips her hair back. A couple stunning sequences include the love scene between Fanning and Stewart, shot abstractly and out of focus, cut to a music track and playing more as art film than biography, and a single-shot of Fanning drugged up getting a call from her sister, beginning in the background and soon on the floor in front of the camera positioned below her, softly saying that she has no home. It’s the use of light, however—washing out some frames, sparse in others full of the night sky, and kinetically strobing in club scenes of girls dancing—that helps show why this will be one of the best indie films of the year. It’s completely unafraid to stick out from the crowd, much like the women on display.

The Runaways 8/10

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[1] Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett, Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie and Alia Shawkat as Robin in The Runaways.
[2] Michael Shannon star as Kim Fowley in Floria Sigismondi The Runaways.

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And now it takes just three years for a remake of an English language film, that stays in its native language, to happen. Chris Rock may have gotten Neil Labute—it appears he has assimilated into the Hollywood machine for good now—to direct a new version, from the same screenwriter no less, but it is Frank Oz’s British Death at a Funeral that came first. Don’t be afraid of the accents and give the original a shot. I’ll admit that it gets pretty dark there for a little while, almost so much that I felt uncomfortable with the direction it was headed, but things soon work themselves out to stay light. A black comedy in the vein of Very Bad Things—where the absurdity stays rooted in realism more or less—this film compiles an all-star ensemble cast and keeps its audience on their toes for the duration. Dysfunctional families are one thing, add some hallucinogenics, a few untimely secrets, and the jealousy only harbored by siblings and you get an even bigger monster.

The patriarch has passed away and the family has all gathered at his old residence for one last goodbye. Family and friends have come from all over world, each for their own selfish reasons, and fortunately for us have brought all their troubles with them. Daniel, the eldest son, has been taking care of his parents with his wife, forgoing his future to be the good son and attempt writing a novel. His brother Robert, the published and acclaimed author of the group, arrives from NYC with stories of over-priced first class tickets and the inability to fork over his half of the funeral costs. But these brothers and their money woes are the least of anyone’s concern, especially when their cousin Martha is about to introduce her boyfriend as her fiancé—a man high as a kite with an accidental intake of pills that were not valium—to the father that disapproves. So between Simon wigging out or falling asleep, Uncle Alfie hitting people with his cane and swearing at everyone, Justin trying to get back with Martha after one drunken night years before, and a stranger in Peter, who is somehow friends with the deceased yet unknown to everyone, that’s looking to open up a whole other can of worms, you’ll be sitting back and enjoying the show.

One thing about British comedy is the inherent British-ness of the actors. For some reason English residents always appear proper and dignified, whether it be the accent we are made to stereotype at a young age in America, what with the history of royalty, or the stoic demeanor when anyone else would be uncontrollable with emotion, that attitude is always ripe for humor. So when you have a guy like Simon—played by the hilarious Alan Tudyk, going all out for this role and laying it all bare, figuratively and literally—off his rocker, screaming that the coffin is moving, the reactions of the rest of the family, faces like morticians, becomes the bigger joke. The straight-faced reactions make the outrageous seem even more so, garnering a bigger laugh as a result because their horror is our laughter. When blackmail, kidnapping, and murder come into play, however, I will admit that the smiles quickly fade; the setting of a funeral and people in mourning make it hard to keep those subjects from making the depression even worse. Thankfully, while all the serious stuff occurs, Tudyk is always there to take off his clothes and threaten to jump of the roof, helping us all remember the farce that is really occurring.

The script has some very witty lines, allowing it to even make excrement funny somehow, but I do believe that there would be very little without the performances. While Tudyk is by far the most zany and noticeable of the group, so many others work their magic in more subtle ways—Andy Nyman, as a friend named Howard, is a neurotic attending almost so he can feel part of a community while his obsessive tendencies keep him at arm’s length from all; Ewen Bremner’s Justin is pure sleaze looking to hookup with an unavailable woman at her uncle’s funeral; Daisy Donovan is completely relatable as Martha, doing her best to keep her fiancé’s drug mishap under wraps while staying sane herself; Kris Marshall’s Troy, the amateur druggist, delivers plenty of laughter as he tries to cover his out butt, constantly losing the elicit bottle of pills; and Peter Vaughan’s Uncle Alfie is the epitome of crotchety old man, kind of like the Major in “Soap” only mean rather than confused. Diminutive Peter Dinklage plays the wildcard newcomer, sticking out like a sore thumb both from his height and everyone’s lack of knowing who he is. The catalyst for so much of what happens in the final two-thirds of the film, his charm and soft-spoken tone disarms you even when you discover his intentions. He enjoyed the role so much that he is returning as the same character in the remake—definitely a plus in that film’s favor.

It all really comes down to the brothers though. Rupert Graves is fantastic as the celebrity of the family, that star back in America who has decided to grace the rest with his appearance after many years. His Robert is the complete opposite of Matthew Macfadyen’s Daniel who is trying to give his father a good send off, but is constantly thwarted in his attempts as the entire funeral implodes around him. You can see the mutual respect they have for each other, but the competitive nature and jealousies between them are what bubble to the surface. Daniel idolizes the fame Robert achieved in a field he wishes to break into while the younger brother sees how much he missed by being away, never being able to get that time back with his father now that he’s gone. So, the story may be about a funeral and it may be about these brothers discovering how much they have in common once the mirror is held up to the other, but do not discount the side-plots occurring on the fringes. Every character is just as important as the next and able to steal the show with a well-timed line or physical gag. Death at a Funeral may not be the greatest comedy out there, although it is an effective one. You’ll definitely think about your own family while watching the events on screen—hopefully not the really bad stuff though.

Death at a Funeral 7/10

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[1] Martha (Daisy Donovan) and Simon (Alan Tudyk) in Death at a Funeral – 2007
[2] L to R: Andy Nyman as Howard, Rupert Graves as Robert, Peter Dinklage as Peter and Matthew Macfadyen as Daniel in Death at a Funeral

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What would you do for love? That is the question Spike Jonze posits with his new short film I’m Here. Brought to us for free on its website by Absolut Vodka, after debuting at Sundance, the tale is a love story between two robots in a world where coexistence with humans is possible. The machines may be looked upon as second-class citizens, holding down menial jobs and not being allowed to drive cars, yet they do what they can to enjoy life. When a lonely librarian’s assistant named Sheldon catches a glimpse of the bold female bot behind the wheel of an automobile while she is berated by an elderly woman on the sidewalk telling her it’s not allowed, his entire way of life is changed. Perhaps this man has more to give then what he’s thought.

Falling in love changes him, from his demeanor and attitude to his actions. Always the wallflower going about his day to day routine of riding the bus, going to work, and coming home to plug in for the night, once Andrew Garfield’s Sheldon meets Sienna Guillory’s muse, he finds purpose in going on. Off he goes with her and her friends to partake in parking lot craziness, (the friends are an interesting bunch, especially the shirtless hippy human that enjoys lighting matches on Sheldon’s face), and have parties. This girl has given him the knowledge of creativity and excitement, a love as sweet and affectionate as can be. The two plug into the power machine on the wall together at night and always touch heads when parting—a quasi robot kiss.

The robots aren’t indestructible though, and this is something we discover very early on with a shattered creature on the road, unable to get up after an accident. Sheldon’s safe life has kept him virtually untouched and in pristine shape, allowing him to find spare parts and tools to collect in case something goes wrong. His finger even uncaps to be a screwdriver for quick fixes on the fly. Guillory’s character isn’t so cautious and the danger that makes her so attractive to him gets her into trouble, whether at a concert of her favorite band The Lost Trees, (composed of pianist/singer Aska Matsumiya, a woman I hope to discover more music from), or coming home to work, she is slowly falling apart, but never beaten as she has Sheldon to come home to. She has changed his life and he is more than willing to return the favor in a way that only objects with removable parts can.

Aesthetically, I’m Here is quite the artwork. Using old beaten up harddrives with a touch of computer graphics to make the eyes and lips be as organic as possible, the world has a nostalgic feel in its futuristic construct of living robots. Having actors inside the costumes allows for an authenticity that would be sorely lacking had they been fully animated; the motions of the two leads go a long way to express their feelings for one another, much more than the words spoken. So many shots are memorable as well with the juxtaposition of machines against sky and grass, seeing these two roaming the forest with a childlike playfulness showing how much they care for each other. It isn’t all deliberate and dreamlike, though, a nightmarish kinetic sequence of robotic surgery comes in later on, putting the loud and abrasive noises of metal on metal side by side with the complete selflessness of the action at the procedure’s center.

Jonze has created a very sweet look into the relationship of two souls who meet by coincidence. The bond they have for each other is as strong as any, yet they are inanimate objects devoid of real feelings. They can only dream or love by making it up in their computer programming and believing in it in order to live it. You can go through life with a plan from start to finish, but until you look outside the box and at all the creative/innovative things out there for the taking, you can never truly live. If two robots can find the willingness to be there for one another when they have no reason to, one has to hold out hope that humanity can eventually reach that point too. It is in the innocence of being happy that differences can be put aside; peace and love is possible, you just have to want it. Sometimes having someone to live for can go along way to achieving that state of mind.

I’m Here 8/10

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I learned something new today—Scandinavian Vikings have Scottish accents. Well, at least the adults do, the brogue seems to have withered away in the next generation of dragon slayers. Yes, dragon slaying is the main occupation of these massive brutes, doing all they can to protect their island village while the fire-breathing beasts ravaging it in search of food. What I also learned while watching How to Train Your Dragon is that studios are catching on to what makes 3D effective. Much like Avatar used it to envelop its audience into a world they’ve never seen, Dreamworks have done the same, creating depth rather than the gimmick of throwing stuff at our faces. As a result, you soon forget the glasses on your face and begin to enjoy the ride, sitting back as young Hiccup becomes the first Viking to attempt being a dragon’s friend rather than kill it while its down. Let’s just say the elders of Berk don’t quite take a shine to that idea.

The black sheep of the entire clan, Jay Baruchel’s Hiccup is, of course, also the son of its leader. Apprenticing with the local blacksmith Gobber—relegated to that duty because of a missing arm and leg from battle—the scrawny guy is always trying to create new ways to make his mark. Capturing and killing a Night Fury would be the best way to do so, and as a result, during the current battle waging, Hiccup brings an invention outside and lets its rope trap fly into the night, hoping to grab the elusive dragon that no one has ever seen. The escapade leads to disaster as his father Stoick saves him from another creature while fire breaks out and allows all captive dragons to fly away free. While Stoick and the adults go off to hunt the retreating legion down, hopefully arriving at their nest, Gobber stays behind to train the children how to become dragon slayers themselves. Against his will, Hiccup is forced to partake too, just at the point where he finds the Fury he snagged and has started nursing it back to health, fixing his damaged tail to fly once more.

As a result, the middle half of the film deals strictly with the kids in training and Hiccup’s burgeoning friendship with Toothless the dragon. Being around the Night Fury allows the boy to have unfettered access to the race his people have been hunting for centuries, showing him the secrets of what they are, including fears and pleasures. Acting like a pet dog, Toothless goes from sneers of anger at the sight of weapons to the doe-eyed anticipation of fun and obedience otherwise. When offering food back to Hiccup or playing around in the field that has trapped him because his injury keeps him grounded, the facial expressions recalled my sister’s dog, that cute little pouty face of utter ambivalence—a cross between having nothing in his head with the pure desire of running around with no specific place to go. The companionship soon shows the boy that these dragons are just as afraid of them as they are of he; if only compassion was shown, perhaps they could live in harmony. No one can fear something that disarms from the pleasure of a scratch under its chin or cowers at the sight and smell of an eel—all tricks Hiccup learns and uses to become a God in training, becoming the best dragon dispatcher the village has ever seen.

It then becomes the final act where everything gels together and we see the changing of the guard in Berk. With a common enemy, namely a behemoth queen who instills terror into her brood, maybe the Vikings and dragons can learn to live in harmony. And like any good children’s film, there is no better person to bridge that gap then a misunderstood youngin. As such, the choice of Baruchel is perfect, lending that low self-esteem demeanor to the naïve kid you know from the trailers will somehow overcome any anxiety and alter everyone’s outlook on life. Throw in the headstrong warrior girl Astrid, (voiced by America Ferrera), the manic fast-talking and over confident Snotlout, (Jonah Hill), twin crazies in Tuffnut and Ruffnut, (T.J. Miller and Kristen Wiig), and nerdy Fishlegs, who knows every strength and weakness of any dragon ever, (Christopher Mintz-Plasse of course), and you have the right amounts of humor to keep the physical comedy going while Hiccup continues to hone his dragon riding skills in secret. The fact that Gobber the teacher is voiced by Craig Ferguson doesn’t hurt either, especially when he utters random jokes opposite the serious Stoick, played by tough guy Gerard Butler.

And while the voice acting is superb, the animation also excels. Each character utilizes attributes of the people playing them and the motion is fluid and realistic. Creating so many different species of dragons must not have been too easy of a job either, but the art directors do a bang up job keeping the menacing ones fierce and the more humorous types cute and funny. Berk itself is an intriguing environment too, made up of stone and wood, perfect for the amount of destruction by fire wrought throughout. But it is the fire, along with the other elements of water and air, which is rendered magnificently for the 3D format, creating some breath-taking flight scenes as we ride with Hiccup and Toothless through the clouds and around mountainous pillars of stone. There really is something for everyone in How to Train Your Dragon, for kids and adults alike. You’ll laugh at the comedy, enjoy the thrills of life amongst dragons, and be touched by the ugly-duckling type story at the center, pulling for Hiccup to rise above his limitations and be the hero he knows is locked up inside of him. It’s a cute, family-friendly film that should do very well at the box office, something I wasn’t quite anticipating with the lackluster trailer.

How to Train Your Dragon 8/10

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[1] Jay Baruchel voices “Hiccup” in the DreamWorks Animation film “How To Train Your Dragon,” releasing March 26, 2010.
[2] Hiccup’s fellow classmates in Dragon Training are (left to right): Ruffnut (KRISTEN WIIG), Snotlout (JONAH HILL), Astrid (AMERICA FERRERA), Fishlegs (CHRISTOPHER MINTZ-PLASSE) and Tuffnut (TJ MILLER) in DreamWorks Animation’s “How to Train Your Dragon.”

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I had been waiting for over a year to finally see Repo! The Genetic Opera and while I enjoyed it thoroughly, it wasn’t the masterpiece I had hoped it’d be. Very easily a cult classic in its eccentricity, I thought maybe Hollywood decided to piggyback the concept and make a more mainstream actioner out of the subject when the announcement of Repo Men came down the pike. In reality, however, the new film is based on a novel titled The Repossession Mambo by Eric Garcia, a co-writer of the script as well. Surprisingly, the novel doesn’t get much love over on, even more interesting considering Garcia also wrote the book Matchstick Men was based on, a very solid con artist work in its own rite. Saying nothing of the source literature, I will admit to really getting behind Miguel Sapochnik’s cinematic adaptation as it infused everything from sci-fi to horror gore to action and thrills, with a little romance thrown in for good measure. It may not be a masterpiece, but its pretty darn effective in its goals to entertain and make you squirm.

The concept seemed so fresh when Darren Lynn Bousman was tossing around the premise for his horror/musical, and although it may appear a bit used now—especially after Daybreakers earlier this year altered it to artificial blood for vampires—the idea still caters to my propensity for moral quandaries and the human conscience. The Repo are the task force working within the multi-billion dollar company that services humanity with all sorts of fabricated organs, bone, and tissue. When a client’s payment is over three months late, these mostly military-trained men go out on the streets to take the product back. Just like any type of financing, repossession is common and always messy. Unfortunately, the product here has a little more weight considering most of the past due parts are vital for sustaining life. Luckily Repo consists of men that don’t necessarily keep a razor sharp edge on the line between right and wrong. A job is a job and they do it without remorse or guilt. If you can’t pay, well at least you have the opportunity to have an ambulance on call to help after it’s all over. It’s just too bad that most people run or beg, necessitating tranquilizers and the option to be asked while unconscious.

Remy is a family man whose wife would like to see him go into the sales end and stop murdering defenseless, nameless people each and every day with his thug grade school buddy Jake. The money is too good and the thrill too exciting, but just when it looks like love might conquer all, his last ever job throws a curveball. After a sea of recoveries consists of runners, criers, and fighters, Remy’s final repo is of a legendary music producer of which he’s a fan. Totally understanding of his predicament, RZA’s T-Bone requests to finish his song, declines hospital help, and lies down to breathe his last breath before the IRS takes that too. Instead, a faulty defibrillator almost kills Remy, causing him to need his own arti-forg—a new heart. Now he has become one of those he hunts; it plays with his mind and renders him unable to cut and take an organ for repossession. The payments mount, his wife leaves him, and it comes to the point where he must run for his life, best friend Jake on his trail. Finding a woman in the fringes, Beth, with about eight past due arti-forgs in her, Remy decides to take down the company and get himself and her out of the system.

The acting is great throughout, from the leads down to the supporting players. Liev Schreiber is always excellent as the amoral suit using the bottom-line as his excuse for bloodlust and his boss to Remy and Jake is no different here. Each time he does his spiel to a customer, saying, “Do it for your family, do it for yourself,” you can see the smug salesmen behind the smile. Brazilian actress Alice Braga plays Beth and once more does a little ass kicking in her downtime from being the romantic interest to the hero of the story. She is an enigma of attraction and sexuality mixed with strength and skill. Unfazed by doing some dirty work, she never loses the façade of that pretty lounge singer she is introduced to us as. Watching her take Jude Law’s hand every time they run into danger seems just as natural as if they were taking a stroll on the beach. As for Law, playing Remy, I am so glad the filmmakers let him keep the accent, even saying “Oy!” when attempting to get someone’s attention. Just goes to show that we don’t care if a Brit and an American grew up together—it’s the future, (love the Times Square update with monorail), so maybe the world is a complete mixing pot. He handles the compassion and complexities of the role with skill, showing once more why I try to see all the work he does.

Forest Whitaker seems a bit out of place, although he pulls it off. Never really playing the man on the field, it was great to see him out there getting into some scraps. The action sequences are well choreographed and get the adrenaline flowing. Seeing him and Law kicking butt as they raid a ship looking to take Repo candidates out of the country is fantastic, and their rapport with each other is completely authentic. There are plenty of moments for action, right to the end with a scene reminiscent of Oldboy, only with sharp cuts and edits. Definitely using an Equilibrium-type vibe, I was hooked from the beginning, up until what I thought was the end. They do throw in a little bit of a twist, one that I initially looked at as a huge cop-out, but since have begun to warm to it a bit. The conclusion tries to let a happy and sad ending coexist, giving it all a bittersweet shimmer that actually fits considering the way relationships are made and broken depending on what each person feels about the process of Repo and what they are willing to do for it or against it. Any trepidation I have with the outcome or what leads up to it pales in comparison to the brilliant use of music, however. Used ironically, used to get the heart beating as it blares over the action, or just used for soundtrack purposes, Repo Men deserves some points for its sound work alone.

Repo Men 7/10

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[1] Beth (ALICE BRAGA) and Remy (JUDE LAW) try to escape agents in “Repo Men”, a futuristic action-thriller set in a world where artificial organs are available to anyone willing to take the financial risk. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures Copyright: © 2010 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[2] (L to R) Frank (LIEV SCHREIBER) and his enforcer Jake (FOREST WHITAKER) in “Repo Men”, a futuristic action-thriller set in a world where artificial organs are available to anyone willing to take the financial risk. Photo Credit: Kerry Hayes Copyright: © 2010 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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Thank you Andy Tennant for your contribution to the beloved, in my mind, 90s television show “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose,” but what have you done for me lately? Please don’t say The Bounty Hunter because that was 110 minutes of pure boredom. Have we really gotten to the point where Hollywood thinks that if you put a crime in the middle of a romantic comedy that men will want to see it? Did You Hear About the Morgans? proved that the idea can actually make a film worse and ‘it’ comedians Steve Carell and Tina Fey have decided to throw their hats in the ring with the soon to be released Date Night. Stop trying to appeal to a broad audience by taking little pieces of every genre and mashing them together—it makes your story incoherent and plodding, it does not spice things up. I might have been able to get behind this film due solely to the fact I actually enjoy Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler, so why did you make it so mediocre with your tired idea of putting them on the run and at the precipice of solving a case that’s too dangerous for the police?

The trailers showed me comedy, they showed me Butler being a dick and Aniston being a bitch and the fact they were ex-husband and wife had potential. Give me ninety minutes of these two going at it as he brings her into custody—he being a bounty hunter and she the criminal reporter who skipped bail to follow a story—and I may have some fun. I’m thinking Midnight Run-lite, sure they end up falling for each other at the end, but at least let me have an innocuous good time on the journey. Instead, of course, that journalistic gem involves dirty cops and drugs, a conspiracy making a suicide look like murder, and the potential for multiple kidnapping situations. This ex-couple then must use their love masked with misguided hatred to quarrel about the severity of the case, only to join forces when bullets start flying because marriage isn’t tough enough, love isn’t quite so hard that you can base a film on its complexities alone. No, we must shove our stereotypical lovelorn leads into a clichéd race for survival and justice. Bravo Hollywood on another uniquely original idea.

But then, I guess they have me in on the joke too. How original is it to rail on a film that looked like drivel and ended up being so? The studios know what they are doing and although screening a film like this means reviews will hit the papers and internet, those people winning radio contests and finding free tickets are exactly the audience they are looking for. The ratio between critics who actually see how tragic the picture is and the average American moviegoer who doesn’t mind that they are only laughing every twenty minutes between fistfuls of popcorn is like 1 to 15. So, the bad reviews only pique the interests of people and the word-of-mouth from the droves makes the box office take just high enough to squeak a profit and greenlight yet another redundant exercise in the degradation of our country’s intelligence. I guess I am playing right into their game; perhaps I should have praised it, get a little reverse psychology going.

There are a few good jokes, though. I laughed when Aniston made fun of Butler’s borrowed shirt at a bed and breakfast and the so obvious you have to laugh comment that Jen’s hair shimmers like the sun reflected by the ocean, spoken by one of the bumbling thugs, earned a chuckle too. That’s about it unfortunately, although the audience did seem to enjoy it when Butler tells his captive to get in the car while he accelerates away from her, twice, as well as when he uses his car to bump her bicycle buggy. Yeah, that is some smart comedy, especially capped off by his trying too hard to disguise his Scottish accent with a diabolical cackle. Well, at least they got their big budget paycheck so they can go do their art film to show the talent bottled up inside. Oh, nevermind, both of them just continue to do lame rom/coms these days anyways. Come on Gerard, start kicking some ass again.

And where have I been that Christine Baranski has begun to be cast as a forty-year old’s mother? Thankfully she is the best part of the entire endeavor, but the woman is good enough to get meatier roles, the five minute cameos are beneath her comedic talents if you ask me. Give me more of her and a lot less of Jason Sudeikis—the annoyingly obnoxious coworker of Aniston’s that follows her like a lapdog and gets caught up in the mystery for no reason other than letting us see physical abuse on someone since the leads are way too pretty to partake. And as far as villains go, you don’t do much better than Peter Greene, so why don’t we give him no screen time at all and let him speak even less. This is Pulp Fiction’s Zed, the guy does creepy evil with the best of them. I just hope his new film Earthling ends up as great as it appears; that will help wash away the bad taste Bounty Hunter has left. At least Siobhan Fallon knows the score and does her best with limited exposure. Playing every second she has to the nth degree of hammy, Fallon was definitely a bright star in an otherwise bleak universe.

The Bounty Hunter 3/10

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[1 & 2] Gerard Butler and Jennifer Aniston star in Columbia Pictures’ action comedy THE BOUNTY HUNTER. Photo By: Barry Wetcher SMPSP


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