You are currently browsing the monthly archive for May 2010.

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The stigma associated with sequels is that they always attempt to either go bigger or rehash what was already done. Both variations are usually set-ups for failure, sacrificing story for more bells and whistles or boring the audience with a slightly reworked alternate version, a watered down facsimile of the brilliant original. So, after Pixar produced just one other film post-Toy Story—the charmingly entertaining A Bug’s Life—the news that number three would be Toy Story 2 became an opportunity for everyone to start worrying the studio breathing new life to animation had already seen its well dry up. Confidence was low and without the stellar track record to fall back on in 2010 with a third, 1999 appeared way too soon. In actuality, the movie was set to be a 60-minute direct-to-DVD work while other features, like 2001s Monsters Inc., continued production. Early dailies and story points were looked upon so highly, however, that Disney requested it be expanded to a theatrical release, creating a rift which ultimately led to Pixar’s departure from their relationship. Thankfully for us all, not only did the partnership patch up half a decade later, but the film itself ended up just as good as the first.

I remember hearing from friends how great Toy Story 2 was. Not having seen the first in theatres, I knew I had to catch this one on the big screen, so I was very excited to finally attend with the family and see for myself how successful it was. Lasseter, Docter, and Stanton all returned to flesh out the story with Ash Brannon—himself the future helmer on Surf’s Up, a film I’m embarrassed to have still not seen—keeping the tone as consistent as possible. It does ultimately become a similar plotline as the first, dealing with a brave toy’s quest to save another from his manufactured background, only this time the roles are reversed. Tim Allen’s Buzz Lightyear is now fully conscious to the fact he’s a toy and has nestled right into Andy’s world as Tom Hanks’ Woody’s second in command. All is well with the new toys brought into the fold at the conclusion of its predecessor, including Estelle Harris’ Mrs. Potato Head, and the newest furry member of the family, the cute dog Woody has trained quite well—and who is rendered light years more realistic than Scud before him. It’s an accidental rip to the cowboy’s half a century old arm that ushers in conflict, seeing him stolen from a yard sale by toy magnate Big Al (Wayne Knight) and eventually discovering his past as a famous television marionette.

Woody is faced with the decision to either do what he can to escape and return to Andy or go into a museum exhibit with the other members of “Woody’s Round-Up”, Joan Cusack’s Jessie, Kelsey Grammer’s Stinky Pete, and his friendly horse Bullseye, to save them from an eternity of storage. Buzz turns to heroics and creates a team with Potato Head, Slinky Dog, Hamm, and Rex to invade Big Al’s Toy Barn and save their friend. So, rather than deal with two toys finding friendship in a world of starkly different generational toy styles, the sequel uses the theme of purpose and whether complete happiness and worth in the short-term supercedes a legacy of appreciation forever without the ability to ever be held again. For a toy who’s sole existence is to be loved by its owner, the choice would appear to be easy, but when your new friends face unending darkness as a result of that decision, second-guessing is more than understandable. Some toys will become bitter for never having felt the warmth of a young boy or girl’s unconditional love, though, so it rests with those that know to remember and realize it’s the only thing worth living for.

Who knew a sequel could utilize a similar construct, but infuse it with a brand new message for viewers, and almost end up more powerful than its brethren? It really is difficult to decide which of the two entries resonate more because they are so similar and different at the same time. What I do like about Toy Story 2 is that it focuses on a smaller group of characters, allowing them to breathe and become stronger without the need to continuously return to Andy’s room. By having so many in the outside on the rescue mission, we are able to watch Woody’s crisis of conscience as he’s readied to be shipped off at Big Al’s apartment and Buzz, et al across the street at the Toy Barn searching amongst the still-packaged toys simultaneously. It becomes two stories in one, both concerning survival and protection, eventually converging towards its conclusion. We meet Jessie and Pete, two vintage dolls amidst the massive collection of Woody memorabilia, materials precisely detailed in their aesthetic as a perfect view into the other world of toys—that of the collector. But while they wake Woody up to his heritage, the others have their hands full with freshly molded Barbies and Buzzs, the latter of which allows for a return to Lightyear’s deluded identity confusion. It worked for plenty of laughs before and does so again opposite our own ‘awaken’ counterpart.

As a result, the second film in the series does rely a bit more on comical bits—the three-eyed aliens’ cameo, Zurg and Buzz’s Empire Strikes Back homage, the intrinsic airheaded sensibilities of Barbie dolls, Rex’s lack of arm length, and Potato Head’s never-ending abyss of backside storage space. But they never trump the story being told; wrapping it into a tale of what happiness ultimately means. The acting is superb across the board once again and the inside jokes are plentiful. The real difference, and only non-negotiable point of superior improvement, is in the animation. Watching both films on consecutive days really shows the night and day comparison between the two. It may only be four years later, but the rendering is crisper, the backgrounds are more three-dimensional, and the reflective surfaces are stunning to behold (just look at Buzz with red laser dots covering his helmet at the start). Even the compositions of frames are infinitely more interesting, adding more depth and angle to scenes that would have merely been bare windowsills with action happening in the distance. Toy Story 2 becomes a rare enigma of Hollywood, improving upon its birthright in almost every category and officially cementing Pixar as King. Seeing a sequel so successful only made the anticipation for what was to come that much more appealing, and rightly so.

Toy Story 2 9/10

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photography:
courtesy of dvdbeaver.com

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It’s hard to believe that, with Toy Story 3 coming out soon, it has been fifteen years since the original film. Back in 1995, Toy Story ushered in an animation renaissance for not only Disney, but also the medium as a whole. Pixar Studios had created something that changed the game forever, spawning countless other computer-graphic studios to follow suit and never fully reach the potential consistently exceeded by the Mouse House’s little buddy. Starting as a small-scale studio inside the Lucasfilm behemoth, Apple’s Steve Jobs rolled the dice and bought them up, a company ripe with ex-Disney talent, ready to breathe life into a medium that seemed all but dead with two-dimensional cell animation. I’m not sure who exactly thought the film would be as astronomically lucrative and transcendent in the world of cinema as it was, but the project attracted a superb cast list in a time where videogames only recruited actors who weren’t good enough for soap operas or porn flicks and even Disney was only getting Broadway caliber talent their films. It was as if the world was finally ready for intelligent, family-friendly programming and the stars aligned for the masterpiece that is Toy Story, a film remaining at the top of its genre until last year’s Up finally dethroned it.

The concept itself is inspired. Inhabiting a world revolving around the strewn about toys of a young boy, the environment becomes composed of every nostalgic plastic friend you had while growing up in the 1980s—perfect for my generation having been thirteen at the time of the film’s release. We looked at these toys and remembered the good ol’ days of mixing and matching different sets for large-scale reenactments of whatever nonsense was flowing through our subconscious. I do often wonder what a cowboy and Indian type kid like Andy is doing with a Bo Peep doll, but even I would steal my sister’s Barbies to be used as victims that need saving or plain old collateral damage in TMNT war time. It’s still a bit weird since his sister is teething, so the sexy Annie Potts-voiced character must have been from a kooky aunt or estranged cousin, a hand-me-down rather than a toy of current relevance. It’s okay, though, because the other inhabitants include classics such as Speak & Spell, Mr. Potato Head, Etch A Sketch, a Slinky Dog, and many others. So much of the joy is watching these things animate realistically—like seeing the Army Men shuffle back and forth on their plastic stands—every toy with static feet finding a way to move that recalls how you’d have done it during playtime.

The sentimental attachment and inside jokes based upon the toys themselves isn’t all the film offers, they enhance a smartly written script chock full of wit that spans all ages. The list of writers on this project would cost millions today as the story was hatched by the Pixar Dream Team consisting of director John Lasseter, (who also helmed the sequel, A Bug’s Life, and Cars), Andrew Stanton, (the man behind Finding Nemo and Wall-E), the late Joe Ranft, (an integral part on each film made before his untimely passing), and Pete Docter, (director of Monsters, Inc. and Up). Throw in a screenplay credit to fanboy messiah Joss Whedon and this thing should have been an assumed surefire hit. But back in 1995, these names were unknown commodities—even Whedon barely had the bastardized theatrical adaptation of his Buffy universe out in the world. To think back now that some of the greatest works on film of the past two decades have been born from their minds is astonishing. It all began with a simple buddy-comedy, a young boy’s favorite pull-string plush cowboy and his insecurities about being replaced by the new, flashy, modern-day action figure with misguided heroics. A story of finding one’s identity, of sharing, of loving, of coexisting in a world of friends despite many differences on the surface resulted—Toy Story is requisite viewing for all young children, preparing them for their lives ahead.

Woody is the leader of the pack and has been since Kindergarten. He rules with love and compassion, gaining the respect of all besides the bull-headed and sarcastic Mr. Potato Head, (it’s amazing how Don Rickles’ performance literally re-invented this toy’s sensibilities, even later being appropriated by Bridgestone Tires many years later). The toys jump at his requests and look to him for protection, a desire ever more important now that their owners are moving houses in a week. Every toy is tasked to find a moving partner so no one is left behind—having moved a couple times in my own youth, I can completely understand this inevitability—but none of that is quite as relevant at the moment since Andy’s birthday party is transpiring downstairs, risking the reality of new play-things to replace them all. While Potato Head wishes for a Mrs. and Rex has a panic attack about how a new dinosaur will render him obsolete, (Wallace Shawn is by far my favorite voice-actor involved here), Woody is the one without fear, having ruled the community as long as he can remember. So, when Buzz Lightyear, complete with wings, karate chop, and pulsating laser, arrives onto Andy’s bed and Woody is brushed aside to fall through the cracks, ending up under the bed, the journey fueled by one’s jealousy and the other’s naïveté commences.

Buzz is portrayed to perfection by Tim Allen, equal parts his own persona and that of William Shatner “Star Trek” tendencies, clueless towards his existence as a toy and desperately looking for a way back to space in order to defeat Zurg. Woody—the consummate everyman played by the epitome of such a description Tom Hanks—realizes his usurper’s delusion and begins to use it against him, attempting to reclaim his throne atop Andy’s toy hierarchy. In doing so, the cowboy soon alienates himself from the rest of the group as a selfish villain, even seeing girlfriend Bo Peep and best friend Slinky Dog (Jim Varney) turn away. Once Buzz accidentally falls out the window and into the wide open world beyond that room, Woody discovers he must do what he can to save him, not because they are friends, but because bringing him home is the only way to redeem himself in the eyes of the rest. A trip to Pizza Plant and its three-eyed alien vending machine, (“The Claaaaaaw!!!”), a sojourn to the evil young Sid’s diabolical toy destruction factory across the street, and a high speed chase through the town’s streets behind a moving truck ensue, bringing with it hijinks, morality, forgiveness, and the kind of love that can only exist between two friends.

And while the film is now a decade and a half old, the animation still holds up. Sure there are multiple instances of flatness and crude shading on top of generic surface textures—the glares and reflections of Cars and the hair of Monster’s Inc. among others a distant future away—but for the time, and in comparison to the hand-drawn work opposite it, you can’t go wrong. Utilizing mostly smooth plastic objects helps suspend the disbelief of weirdly rendered characters such as Scud the dog, and the sheer work concerning Buzz’s clear helmet and translucent wings can make you forget all else. But above all that is the fact Pixar jam-packed each frame with infinite details. I love Andy’s bookshelf containing titles of past Pixar shorts, the Binford tool box in Sid’s room recalling Allen’s “Home Improvement”, and Hakuna Matata playing in the car for the enjoyment of young Hannah. Many jokes are specific to the toys saying them or on the butt-end, many are only fully appreciated if you are older than sixteen, but everything works on the level of hilarity that a young child could appreciate too. Mr. Potato Head’s Picasso joke elicits laughs from adolescents due to the fun of misplaced facial features and Buzz’s, (as Mrs. Nesbitt), Marie Antoinette and her sister joke makes us chuckle for its historical relevance while the children for the goofy voice he uses to deliver it. Because of this and more, Toy Story fires on all cylinders, setting a precedent for all animated work to follow it. Many have tired to recreate the wonder, but few—Pixar included—have been able to stay on par. It truly is a timeless classic.

Toy Story 9/10

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There is a reason I’ve never been a huge fan of documentaries. Besides feeling as though I’m in school being force-fed information I could really care less about, with stats and figures that bore me to sleep as they attempt to shock me with human travesty, I truthfully just have more of an emotional connection with fictional narratives that allow me to escape from real life. Every once in a while, though, a documentary will arrive to show a subject I wouldn’t normally seek out, giving me information in a biographical way rather than a cold, calculating, statistical format. Nicholas Goodman’s Canine Instinct is just such a film, not looking to tell me how many deaths are attributed to dog bites, or the ratio between professional training and violent incidents in America concerning different breeds of dog, but instead show an inside look at the life of Kyle L. Warren, a self-made lover of canines—don’t call him an animal psychologist or behaviorist—and the importance of earning your dog’s respect. He shows us how to diffuse aggressive tendencies and make animals listen and hold a ‘stay’ command above any other impulse they might have, without treats or abuse.

Anyone who knows me is aware that the idea of pet ownership has never been thought of as an appealing endeavor. I just don’t see the benefit of, what I feel is, the one-sided relationship with a pet. For all the things you must do to take care of and clean up after your dog, cat, whatever, the prospect of seeing it after a hard days work does nothing for me. That said, however, Canine Instinct does its best job to make me appreciate the kind of intelligence and capabilities these beasts contain within them. People love their dogs—I have tons of family members in that camp—and you can see the emotional attachment in the owners’ eyes as Kyle comes to help teach them how to control their pet. So many times he’ll come in and say ‘sit’ and ‘stay’ in a forceful yet quiet manner, watching the dog obey to the dismay of his clients wondering what they are doing different. Kyle isn’t afraid to say that training the dog is the easy part; it’s giving the owner the canine instinct that’s so tough to get across. When he gets a dog to understand that staying is more important than getting the Frisbee flying across the sky—a stand-in for any distraction, such as a gopher or deer—he proves the pet isn’t confused, but finally aware that what it wants isn’t what it’s supposed to do.

Warren is the kind of man I can respect in his achievements and supposed unorthodox path, as far as current societal views dictate, to get there. Looked upon as a kid with fierce sensibilities and an unceasing drive to succeed—his father speaks about how Kyle would wake up at 6am to study before going to school—he decided to forego college and pursue his passion for dogs. A wrestler at school, his day job was at his aunt’s pet supply store. He began to make contacts with coaches, teachers, customers, and neighbors across town, helping them better understand how to achieve a symbiotic relationship with their pets. Watching him with his own dogs shows how effective his techniques are. To see Rogue sit and stay during a training exercise for an intensely aggressive animal is unbelievable. Kyle knows that the dog wants Rogue and would snap her by the neck and shake if given the opportunity. He also knows that if the dog realizes the other canine isn’t close enough, he could turn around and attack him with relative ease. But just as Rogue sits silently as the German Shepherd barks in her face, Kyle also shows no fear, working as long as it takes, yanking the collar and commanding to sit and calm down. It is truly an amazing thing to experience, especially since all the pet owners I know rely so heavily on treats, the object he maintains only works so long as the other option is less appealing.

But Canine Instinct isn’t solely about Kyle’s tactics in training dogs to co-exist peacefully within human society. If you want that, go purchase his book delving into the secrets he teaches his clients. Goodman’s film concerns the man himself and his extreme dedication to the animals in his life. It’s not all about dogs, he also trains and races homing pigeons as a way to have quiet time away from work. A hobby that stemmed from his grandfather’s passion, it’s just one more way to stay in constant motion outside and with nature’s creatures. And while helping others build better bonds with their dogs Kyle discovered he wanted more. So, along with girlfriend Jana Martin, he began to put his energy into training search and rescue dogs, bridging his love for the animals and enjoyment in helping people to its ultimate convergence point. His dream was now reaching a level where he could take two superb specimens and create a family of K-9 hunters with the ability to save lives in peril. We watch him from the beginning, through the trials and tribulations, and to the success of all the hard work with his rise through the ranks of the Eagle Valley Search Dogs organization.

The film is only around sixty minutes and as a result never loses your interest, especially with the change of pace from dog training to pigeon racing to search and rescue to breeding. More about the man behind the dogs than the animals themselves, I really was able to invest myself in Kyle’s tale and his outlook on life. Goodman does a wonderful job editing everything together, constructing a coherent look in his evolution as a trainer; throwing in events from his past and family history that helped shape the man he has become amongst the “Cops”-like testimonials on the way to a job. If anything stuck out as odd and unnecessary, it would be the weird night-vision type filter on some of the search and rescue footage. It becomes distracting and I’m not exactly sure why it was included in the first place since everything else is shown in full clarity, including other moments of the dogs in the woods. Besides that, however, I really can’t fault the film anywhere else. Kyle is a personable, intelligent man that captivates his audience with fascinating stories, that shy kid he says he was all but disappeared. And even I, the self-proclaimed guy with a complete indifference to pets, can’t help but look upon these creatures and want to take one home.

Canine Instinct 7/10

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The first Iron Man was a breath of fresh air when it came out in 2008. That was the year The Dark Knight showed audiences how morosely ambitious a comic book story could be, as well as arriving after the more serious tales of humanity X-Men and Spider-Man, amongst others, had. Sure there were the couple blips on the radar called Fantastic Four, but those were merely campy and pulpy because the story wasn’t strong enough to be anything else. It was the risk-taking on behalf of Marvel to give such a huge tentpole film to an unproven, small-scale indie darling like Jon Favreau and the loose cannon, yet perfect choice for the titular hero, Robert Downey Jr. that bridged the gap, creating an amalgam of everything one loves about comics. The humor was there, the technology we could only dream of was literally at the characters’ fingertips, and the moral quandaries of war, peace, and everything in the gray area between were delved into rather than left to suffer behind easier, clichéd superhero tropes. Iron Man’s tone was just what theatergoers needed, that cocktail able to reach the masses and entertain all.

But, like all successful first installments to inevitable franchises, the sequel wore its burdens around its neck during development. Iron Man 2 was ready to unleash what the Tony Stark fanboys everywhere remembered reading about. Here was a hero unafraid to throw caution to the wind and tell the world who he really was. A perpetual party boy who plays hard and even harder after that, this film was to be the one beginning to show the toll pressures of being a self-made deity could bring. In order to make those hardships even direr, a villain worthy of shaking Stark from his funk was necessary to keep interest. Like so many before it, the filmmakers not only recruited Mickey Rourke to portray Ivan Vanko/Whiplash, a very intriguing opponent that can cause some real damage, but also brought in Sam Rockwell as arch nemesis on the research and development front Justin Hammer, as well as new partners for the side of good including Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, and an extensively longer cameo by patched super-spy Nick Fury, letting Sam Jackson earn his keep after signing that massive nine picture deal to come in and out of all Avengers-centric origin tales. Could it be too much too soon? I was certainly leaning that way after trailers debuted and early buzz disappointed.

Then I heard quotes on behalf of Favreau and company talking how the film was for fans of the comic, ushering the viewership into the darkness at the center of Stark’s self-destruction. Still a vehicle for merchandising and as family-oriented a film as a PG-13 movie can be, using alcoholism to bring the role to his knees would have been great for fans of dramatic gravitas, but perhaps chance alienating a large portion of the audience intended to make it a huge blockbuster. I’m okay with that, though. If I want to watch society in its disgustingly amoral authenticity, I’ll check out Chris Nolan’s work with Bruce Wayne. Marvel instead keeps the themes intact while making the descent more accessible for a wider range of ages, getting Stark addicted to an antioxidant drink of sorts, a potion necessary to slow the poisoning of his blood at the hands of his palladium-powered heart. The one thing keeping him alive is also that which is killing him ever so slowly and painfully. So, the prospect of Iron Man 2 isn’t so much in defeating Whiplash, but using his existence as a catalyst to wake up and realize the true consequences of his actions. If unable to find an alternate power source, not only will he cease to be, but the peace created on behalf of fearing him would too. Without Iron Man holding court, every country creating its own technology grabs for power, destroying the world.

In those regards, I felt the story to be adequate. Does it actually go anywhere? No, at least nowhere besides the result of a brief evolution in Stark’s ego and self-worth anyway. Having the expository origin tale wrapped up in its predecessor, I hoped for a bit more in terms of story progression. Instead we are given what, for all intents and purposes, feels like a bridge to whatever is coming next, whether that be Iron Man 3 or The Avengers, I’m not sure. Stark needs to grow into the responsibilities of his new occupation as keeper of World Peace—he doesn’t quite get there by the time the end credits roll. With that said, though, don’t think this film is just a bunch of wild special effects and overkill action scenes. It is all those things, yes, but it orchestrates them deftly into a strong piece of cinematic entertainment. Seeing those holographic computer screens floating in mid-air and totally interactive with human touch will never grow old and the fight choreography is pretty impressive to experience. Favreau and company realizes that one of this franchise’s strongest points lies in the charismatically narcissistic Downey Jr. at the center. We enjoy catching Iron Man kicking butt, yet it’s the snide retorts and one-liners of the man inside we truly love. So, even when engaged in a huge fight, we are always shown his face exposed during down times or engaged inside the helmet with superimposed computer graphics working hard.

The thing that holds a character like The Hulk back is its lack of human connection being fully computer-generated. Here we never really lose the biological core of the actors onscreen. Downey Jr. is as good as ever and his spiral into depression and uncertainty only gives him room to be even more enthralling. I enjoyed the expanded role of Don Cheadle’s recast Rhodes, slowly warming Stark to the idea of a partner through aggressively forceful ‘tough love’ and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, although taking a backseat, resonates with her determination and will to succeed, showing exactly what it is Stark sees in her. John Slattery is spot-on casting as Poppa Howard in film footage, doing what he does on “Mad Men” each week; Johansson is very much in the background, therefore not annoying much as usual, and her fight moves are slick as hell; Rourke is fantastic once again as the tattooed, genius heathen inciting Stark back to life while trying to destroy him; and Rockwell couldn’t be better as Hammer, a mirror image of Stark in every way, but unsuccessful, unlikable, and vindictive—hilariously so. Favreau’s small role as bodyguard and driver Happy Hogan also gets expanded, making his appearance so much more relevant than it was in the first.

So, while the story is weaker as far as growth and weight, Iron Man 2 makes up for it in sheer enjoyment. Bigger, louder, and more explosive in every way, the film is just as fun as the first and should be appreciated as such in the scope of the series. Development for guys like Whiplash and Hammer may be almost nonexistent, but then we figure they will either die or be more important in later installments anyway. The film is less a standalone story than an integral cog in the machine Marvel Films has been building, hoping to culminate with a massive collaboration containing every superhero entity working side by side—now there is a recipe for disaster and way too much for its own good sensibility. I was never bored, loved the faux scientific breakthroughs like the creation of a brand new element, and felt the adrenaline rush with every battle, no matter how small. Stan Lee’s characters are once again getting king-like treatment in their adaptations to live action cinema. I don’t think he’d continue showing face if he didn’t think so. I’m sure he could have stayed home and gotten the real Larry King instead otherwise.

Iron Man 2 8/10

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photography:
[1] Gwyneth Paltrow (left) stars as Pepper Potts and Robert Downey Jr. (right) stars as billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, in “Iron Man 2.”
[2] Mickey Rourke on the set of Marvel Studio’s Iron Man 2 as “Whiplash.”

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It’s won a ton of awards, including Tribeca’s New York Award which seems odd since it paints the city in a not so great light, (besides it’s beacon of freedom for an immigrant Serbian couple), and after watching Tamo i ovde [Here and There] for myself, I can see why. It is a sweet story about one man’s washed up and defeated life, finding purpose where he’d least expect it. Down-on-his-luck, bitter, depressed, and all around cantankerous in his antisocial indifference, David Thornton’s Robert looks like he is one hour away from jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, ending his misery once and for all. Evicted, unable to play the saxophone that’s been his meal ticket all his adulthood, and tossed to the curb by his one and only friend, (a quick cameo from his real life wife Cyndi Lauper), not even running into an old acquaintance can shake him from his daze. It’s the city that never sleeps and has obviously finished its need for Robert, relegating him to the streets in search of money and a place to stay. Who knew a Serbian furniture mover working alone out of his van could supply both?

The proposition is as follows: Robert goes to Serbia, acquires five thousand dollars for his troubles, and marries Branko’s (Branislav Trifunovic) girlfriend, allowing her to enter the American embassy for a spousal visa to come to NYC for a reunion with her love. Robert has nothing better to do and one short hour helping his new friend move couches proves the manual labor route isn’t in the cards, so a handshake later sees him getting off a plane in Belgrade—a city in turmoil and obviously behind the times in many ways, but also appearing to have some of the kindest citizens around, each in awe of and in need to befriend the new American in town. Cranky and impolite, he stays with Branko’s mother Olga (Mirjana Karanovic), scolding her for taking his clothes rather than thanking her for cleaning them, and goes about town with Ivana (Jelena Mrdja) as she readies for the marriage that will set her free. While this is all happening, however, Branko is still in New York looking to work as many jobs as possible to pay the fee before the wedding date. His van gets stolen and he unfortunately puts trust into a Spanish mechanic looking to make some quick cash. Misery sure likes company and the Robert/Branko duo has it in spades.

Here and There soon becomes writer/director Darko Lungulov’s Hallmark card to both NYC and Serbia, allowing two young lovers the dream of American living and one man stuck in a perpetual mid-life crisis the opportunity to get away and start fresh. Both stories become interweaved as we see Robert opening up and discovering the beauty and compassion in Olga as well as the exuberant neighborhood locals while Branko begins to fall into a dark hole, desperate to do whatever it takes to ensure Ivana safe passage to him. The mover starts to look for a new van so business can get back on track, his fiancé hoping to appeal to Robert’s humanity to fulfill his side of the agreement—a trait I don’t think anyone could see inhabiting his dejected visage of self-pity. Somehow, though, Olga breaks through with her unabashed kindness, generously giving to this stranger based on the simple fact he is a friend of her son’s, a boy she hopes is finding the joy he seeks. New York is filled to the brim with selfish parasites, including Robert after we watch him blowing off an old friend genuinely happy to see him; despite the suffering around them, Belgrade is conversely occupied by an optimistic and charitable public.

These Serbians are the highlight of the film, though. Trifunovic’s escapades in New York are fun and heartbreaking at the same time, but used somewhat as an after-thought to mirror Robert’s own trials in the Balkans. Branko meets a man he assumes to be kind and trustworthy, only to find that stereotypical American looking to play any angle he can. Juxtaposing that with the flirtatious corner store employee hitting on Robert to take her away with him back to New York and the jolly Tosha Rajkovic shows how much both sides take for granted. Tosha is played by Fedja Stojanovic with an over-abundant fervor for life, befriending this stranger, one who initially wanted to get away before soon finding someone willing to take him in without question. Sure Tosha uses his proximity for introductions as ‘my American friend’, but there is more to the relationship than solely an ego trip. Robert is involved in the lives of his neighbors and therefore worthy of Tosha’s time and interest. His is the role epitomizing the film’s quest to show what a full life actually holds—love and optimism.

But the film is ultimately a portrait of one man’s redemption against all odds, including his own self-destructive nature. In that regard, Thornton is pretty great as the lead character, always sour in his disposition, but constantly surprising us at the same time once he discovers good times may still be ahead. His muse for that revelation is Karanovic’s Olga, a teacher willing to do anything for her son. The performance singles itself out with its full spectrum of emotion from unsure kindness to a willing partner in love to the one person in position to give all parties what they need for happiness, at the sacrifice of her own of course. Thornton may make his mark with the gradual evolution of character, but Karanovic shines bright as the constant maternal voice, strong and confident, knowing when all was said and done, she’d still have her flowers on the terrace begging for her voice in song to make them vibrant. Olga not only waters those plants, but also each and every person her life touches.

Tamo i ovde [Here and There] 8/10

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photography:
[1] Photo by Vanja Bjelobaba.
[2] Photo by Srdjan Stojiljkovic.

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Some films not only necessitate a second viewing to wrap one’s head around the subtle intricacies, but also cause you to beg for the opportunity to watch again. Writer/director Jay Pulk’s short film Copper Penny is one of these. Screening at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival, I am almost glad I wasn’t able to catch it. Had I been able to, I would have been completely distraught at the knowledge I might never have a chance to watch it again with the knowledge only seeing it beforehand can deliver. Being happy I missed it is seriously bestowing my highest praise upon this gem. Thankfully, having made Pulk’s acquaintance at the festival, I was able to secure a copy of the film so I could view it on my own time to enjoy and review. Yeah, you guessed it; as soon as those credits began to roll I hit the menu button on my remote and quickly hit play to take the journey again.

Copper Penny is tough to talk about without ruining the well-conceived plotline. Pulk has crafted the film in such a way that the audience only becomes privy to pertinent information at the last possible moment—causing the knowledge to effectively work in the context of what you thought was happening and also subvert it all to reveal underlying facts that make the truth different from what you originally had thought. One could argue its construction is gimmicky and a ruse eliciting a reaction the filmmaker manufactures in us with a double twist, but I disagree with this assessment. The first ‘twist’ is in fact the end of the story. The film’s first moment of full disclosure is the natural progression for what’s happening. An unnamed gentleman escorts a female companion into a motel room in order to wrap his head around the shattered mess his life has become. Needing consoling and help in order to reconnect with his wife, the prostitute he has followed can no longer be of assistance since the physical contact he needs is with the woman he loves. The hidden truth of her role in his life becomes the logical and fitting end, hitting you hard before the real twist occurs, bringing every action and word back into your consciousness for a second evaluation.

But the film is more than just it’s ending, no matter how effective. Pulk’s directorial success is seen with the meticulously framed imagery, angling the camera from the motel bed, oftentimes softening one character’s focus while the other becomes the main focal point. Even when both actors (Michele Messmer as the woman and Norm Roth as the man) are seated together, the shallow depth of field is utilized—this broken man constantly fading away into his ocean of emotions. And their performances show how much exposition and character development can occur from just six-minutes of body language, seemingly inconsequential facts about their lives and motivations for why they are in that room together, and an ability to embody the pain (him) and the empathy (her) necessary to make the culmination of their random meeting so beautifully tragic in its result. Messmer cannot help Roth; she can’t get his life—lacking a job and a wife to love—to make sense again. Even so, after you find out who she really is, you’ll still ask the question of whether the choice she makes could have ultimately changed things.

Pulk recently told me that he had come up with the idea to expand on these characters and create a film series depicting more of their world. I am both excited and worried about the prospect. The ultimate achievement of Copper Penny is a direct result of the carefully unraveled truth at its core. Knowing everyone’s role for sequels, or perhaps prequels as well, not only makes his job of writing more chapters as hard-hitting as this difficult, but also could belittle the original’s reveal. That said, I am very interested to see where he goes next and with whom he continues to follow. This piece is a memorable work that deserves each and every festival inclusion it has been receiving. The strength of its story alone gives me faith that if anyone could expand a universe so perfect in its singular encapsulation, Jay Pulk is the one to do it.

Copper Penny 9/10

Check out the film’s website at Ion Films.

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Remember your wild thought of what Liza Minnelli would look like jiving and grooving while singing Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)”? You know the dream that’s haunted you since Sasha Fierce’s hook took over the airwaves two short years ago—or was that a nightmare? Either way, boy did Sex and the City 2 burn the vision to my retinas just twenty or so minutes in. I’m not sure I ever really recovered from it. Sure there was tacky, ugly fabric swatch combinations somehow labeled ‘fashion’; there’s bra-less Alice Eve jumping around all willy-nilly; a half movie sojourn to Abu Dhabi where one can just imagine how four middle aged sexpots would interact with conservative burqa wearing Muslims and their illegal to arouse male-folk; as well as a weirdly entertaining karaoke evening of pure incomprehensible craziness. Was there even a story tying the random insanity being tossed about? Thank heavens I didn’t expect one and thank you Michael Patrick King for at least making me laugh.

Admittedly, I really enjoyed the first thirty or so minutes—those that actually occurred in the city this series alludes to with its name. There are some smooth camera tricks morphing these glamorous women to their god-awful 80s aesthetic and back to the not much better exorbitantly priced present day attire before arriving at the hilarious gay wedding between the girls’ BGFF duo that seemingly despised each other for six seasons, (or so I inferred from the dialogue being thrown about having only watched the first film). Swans, a chorus of men in white, and that darn Minnelli keep the laughs coming fast and hard, building me up to think I may just in fact have a good time with these girls until the simple fact that no story would be told awakened me from my daze. The fun was over before it began and wedded gay bliss turned into the trials and tribulations of Miss Carrie and Mr. Big. As if the rough and tumble journey towards their vows in Sex and the City weren’t enough, now we have the ambivalence of sharing a stagnant life and losing their necessary spark. Which is the perfect two-year anniversary gift for Carrie Bradshaw—vintage jewels or flatscreen tvs to watch black and white classics such as It Happened One Night, (an amazing film I might add)? Come on Chris Noth, even I know that …

But then I’m also the only person in the entire theatre to laugh at a flippant comment about Midnight Express when Kim Cattrall’s Samantha watches all her hormonal medication and creams confiscated at UAE customs. That cinematic reference elicits the kind of silence crickets revel in, yet the intelligently constructed phrase Abu Dhabi Doo garners fits of hysterics. Sometimes I worry for the state of America and others I look upon it with abject horror. And watching Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie, Kristin Davis’s Charlotte York—I still can’t believe the naïveté and absolute childlike innocence she exudes at all times, a definite departure to the rest until materialism rears its head—Cynthia Nixon’s Miranda, and especially Samantha roam Middle Eastern streets can be cringe-worthy because I can imagine most Americans acting as inappropriate and entitled as them. You are visiting a foreign country much different than your own, show some respect like Miranda desperately attempts to instill. If this film were anything but fluff entertainment, all four women would be hooded and on a closed circuit internet feed awaiting decapitation. It is amazing what they get away with, and a bit sad that we’ve decided to drag religious customs through the dirt for laughs—I don’t condone the political law enforcement of these Muslims, but some do wear the veil for God and not the chauvinistic men in power.

It is solely a conduit for inside storylines and callbacks aimed at extreme fans of the show, so I will look past the disgusting treatment towards the UAE, (they aren’t innocent either and I will chide them since you can’t expect to be a world travel destination rivaling European hotspots until you become more lenient towards our crass and unbridled nature). So often I heard gasps and whispers—“Oh, it’s the dress”—and then there were the cheers at seeing John Corbett’s name, “Aidan Shaw!” I have no misconceptions that true diehard fans won’t love this film. It is quite simply a vehicle to jam-pack in as much wardrobe, wealthy living, exotic locales, girl talk, and menopausal jokes as it can. There are no illusions that the utter lack of any real narrative besides the flimsily used, when pauses in seriously crazy events occur, question of whether marriage in a traditional sense still exists will not stop the movie from box office records or rapturous enjoyment and screams for more. Many instances did tickle my fancy, from the hummus and yam consumption, the butler [Paula] Abdul (Walton Nuñez), the glitz and “freshness” of Arab karaoke, as well as the out-of-the-blue cameo from Penélope Cruz. Throw in the likes of Max Ryan’s Rikard Spirit for all those older women in the audience too and let Nixon go at it like the insatiable sex machine she is.

For me, though, a guy that has no interest in the series except for how it resonates in the humanity of its characters, I yearned for a return to NYC. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the Arab locales and the Abu Dhabi hotel extravagance, it really is spectacular. But all that time is merely a release for these women, once again at a crossroads in their lives needing a vacation from the husbands, children, and occupational responsibilities back home. What worked for me were the relationship quarrels and stop-gaps between Carrie and Big, the mental breakdown in progress for Charlotte, the epiphany reached to flip Miranda’s work-crazed existence on its head, or the fear of wasting away the elder Samantha has constantly battled with. All their troubles overseas stems from their own stupid actions; mistakes avoidable if they look past the shiny sheen of new shoes, hot men, and constant wait service. At least Abu Dhabi had one redeeming quality to keep me invested until the inevitable charitable action that’s set-up very early—Raza Jaffrey’s Butler Guarau. He is the brightest spot in a film devoid of real luminescence besides the glittery opening titles and hyper-angular frames of the Empire State Building. If you want the true meaning of love and the sacrifice necessary to achieve it, look no further than Raza. It’s just a shame that Carrie almost missed the lesson.

Sex and the City 2 4/10

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photography:
[1] (L-R) KRISTIN DAVIS as Charlotte York, SARAH JESSICA PARKER as Carrie Bradshaw, KIM CATTRALL as Samantha Jones and CYNTHIA NIXON as Miranda Hobbes in New Line Cinema’s comedy “SEX AND THE CITY 2,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Craig Blankenhorn
[2] (L-R) CHRIS NOTH as Mr. Big, TIM GUNN (in back) as himself, SARAH JESSICA PARKER as Carrie Bradshaw, WILLIE GARSON as Stanford Blatch and MARIO CANTONE as Anthony Marentino in New Line Cinema’s comedy “SEX AND THE CITY 2,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Craig Blankenhorn

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Let’s just say director Gary Winick’s track record is nothing to be inspired by—13 Going on 30 and Bride Wars amongst those he helmed. But, while he brings tripe like that to fruition, his producing credits include a few gems like Starting Out in the Evening and, a personal favorite, Pieces of April. Watching the trailer for his latest, Letters to Juliet, one can almost see what is a hybrid of the two types. Don’t get me wrong, there is a ton of romantic, true love, heavy-handedness, yet beneath that surface layer is a story unafraid to touch upon more complex relationship traits. Amanda Seyfried’s Sophie is engaged, in love, and on the cusp of finding her voice to pursue the dream job she’s always wanted. So, the film’s travels with her and the woman hoping to find a love she let go fifty years prior becomes more than just a rekindling of long lost feelings, or Sophie’s own weakness in falling for Claire Smith-Wyman’s grandson Charlie during the journey. It is also about this young woman letting go and seizing the day; discovering that the safe path before her may look wonderful on paper, but is still missing that final ingredient. It is about the courage to fight for one’s own life, without compromise.

Sophie writes back to Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) under the penname of Juliet’s Secretary. The literary figure’s ‘house’ in Verona, Italy is a place for romantics to go and seek solace, writing to Shakespeare’s heroine, asking for answers to their troubles. A quartet of women—three older and accustomed to questions about marriage and loss with a fourth young and capable for those lost in love—have taken the job of writing back, giving the tourists a taste of romanticism and the true believers something to hold onto. Sophie, however, when helping to remove letters left, finds one half a century old behind some loose rock. It is from a Brit over in Italy at sixteen, readying to return home and afraid to stay with the man she had fallen for at first sight. With so many years in between and most likely two long and fruitful lives later, she decides to write back, saying that if Claire’s feelings remained the same, she should look for him one last time to prove her love has no bounds. One could say writing such things could only end in tragedy—both parties could be happily married, both could be dead—and Claire’s grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan) believes just that. Others, however, might think you can’t live passionately without finding if he is still there waiting.

What Letters to Juliet has going for it is that the trailer gives everything away. It shows us the dashingly weathered Dos Equis-looking (as my father blurted out ‘Stay thirsty my friends’ at the perfect moment in the theatre) Lorenzo riding his horse towards his love as well as Sophie’s own smitten visage when looking upon Charlie, the boy who is such a handful and so unlikable that you know a connection will be made. It is all right there, so if you have any reservations on whether either pair of star-crossed lovers will end up in each other’s arms, you are seriously the most naïve person on earth. Like so many romance-infused dramas then, the success of the movie lies with the journey taken and whether it can entertain enough to get past the inevitability of it all. This one does its best to accomplish just that, having a fair share of good laughs as well as some conflict to at least keep the audience on its toes—I’ll admit to almost believing the ending might not be so happily ever after before I remembered it was Hollywood.

You can’t deny the beauty of Verona and Tuscany on display, nor the very light-hearted atmosphere used. Some plot points are flimsy, like Sophie’s own fact-checking job at The New Yorker while she toils away to be noticed by her publisher (an uncredited Oliver Platt) as a writer. I guess her timidity and lack of confidence to show this man anything more than how good she is at finding the truth for ‘real’ writers does play into her relationship trajectory, though. Something about the NYC bookmarks just rung hollow for me, almost tacked on solely to give her an excuse to tag along with the Wymans as Claire went searching for Lorenzo. That rejection and desire to prove she has it in her to become published does drive her tenacity, but without the absolute ambivalence of fiancé Gael García Bernal’s Victor, she would have simply peered upon the sights before going back to utter obscurity at home. His character is the epitome of career-driven and selfish, turning his abandoning of her into ‘win-win’ situations since she’d be bored going with him anyway. It is a pre-honeymoon of complete separation; one that would only show how stupid Sophie was if she stayed with him.

I did like Seyfried in the lead role, combining a good mix of headstrong feminism with that desire to be loved and taken care of by the only man she’ll ever need. Whether the actress can ever break the mold of genre fare such as this—it is weird to remember how ditzy and vapid her role in Mean Girls was considering everything now shows her as an intelligent, contemplative girl next-door—remains to be seen, but for now she appears to have found her niche. Bernal does his best to be the clown, something this leading man has too much charisma and talent to pull off. I would have been utterly dismayed if he in fact was playing an Italian, but thankfully they do throw in a couple moments to prove he’s a Spaniard pretending to be of the heritage he cooks with his restaurant. The real successes are the Wymans. Redgrave is fantastic as Claire, serving as the motherly figure Sophie never had; the tough but caring guardian of her grandson; and the woman looking for a love never forgotten. Her interactions with the failed Lorenzos are always on the nose. As for Charlie, Egan is the best part of the entire film. His sarcastic wit and pitch-perfect delivery of barbed dialogue never misses a beat. He brings the entertainment that kept me interested through all the obvious moments, making his character three-dimensional and realistic once the passion hidden inside finally breaks through.

Letters to Juliet 6/10

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photography:
[1] CHRISTOPHER EGAN and AMANDA SEYFRIED star in LETTERS TO JULIET. Photo: John Johnson © 2010 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.
[2] (Left to right) VANESSA REDGRAVE and AMANDA SEYFRIED star in LETTERS TO JULIET. Photo: John Johnson All photos: © 2009 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.

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There is no better director in Hollywood to helm Stieg Larsson’s Män som hatar kvinnor [The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo] than David Fincher. It is the perfect mix of Zodiac’s journalistic detecting and Se7en’s dark, religious-based murders. I can only see one problem—Niels Arden Oplev has already brought an adaptation to screens and it is every bit as good as it can be. Would Fincher bring someone uniquely his own to the project? For sure he would, and I’ll admit that I eagerly anticipate what he does with the material. I just hope the Swedish original won’t be left and forgotten. Larsson himself was a Swede and journalist in his own rite before writing the Millennium Trilogy, (named for the magazine lead reporter Mikael Blomkvist is a member of), his widely acclaimed series of crime novels involving many of the same characters throughout. All three were published posthumously after the author died of a massive heart attack at age 50, and there is something to be said about them coming to the big screen in his native language. If the other two, (already released in Sweden), are anything like the first, remakes are unnecessary.

The literal translation of the title—both novel and film—is ‘Men Who Hate Women’. You do not get more appropriate than that since the entire story revolves around abusive father figures, ex-Nazis, street hoodlums, and all sorts of rapists spanning each category. Hated most, or at least the victim we concern ourselves with, is the tattooed 24 year-old eidetic Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace). A checkered past has given her a record of mental illness and violence, segueing perfectly to her newest ‘guardian’ (Peter Andersson), a wealthy man looking to domineer and possess rather than be charitable. He blackmails her into performing sex acts for access to her own money, becoming one more in a long line of despicable men. Invisible to herself as a person, Lisbeth hides behind piercings, the giant artwork across her back, and pitch-black hair and make-up, finding solace in other women, the gender that hasn’t betrayed her humanity. Working as a hacker/stalker/hired PI, her research crosses with the persistent, tenacious, and successful journalist Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), recently sentenced to serve three months in prison for libel, a crime he says was a set-up in order to silence him. Unable to let go of this seemingly kindhearted and criminally clean man, she involves herself in his newest assignment, a six-month investigation into the disappearance of a teen forty years earlier.

I’m still not sure about the Scandinavian legal system in use—Blomkvist is found guilty, allowed to leave the courtroom, and actually has 180 days of free travel before returning for his sentence—but the window of time allows him to be hired by Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), the only redeeming member of the wealthy Vanger Group family and their Nazi connections. Knowing he doesn’t have much time left, the mystery surrounding his niece Harriet’s disappearance four decades earlier has to be solved now. Assuming a family member killed her to send a message, pressed and framed flowers—her signature gift—have continued to arrive each year on his birthday. To him they are just a constant reminder from the killer, showing he couldn’t keep her safe. So, uncaring of the controversy surrounding Blomkvist, he hires the reporter to sift through files and photos to see what he may unearth on the Vanger’s island estate. Digging up more than he could imagine, puzzles are unearthed that he can’t solve. Lisbeth, mirroring the reporter’s desktop and every move on her own computer, is the one to crack them. Once the two officially partner up, the answers all begin to fall into place, ratcheting up the suspense and danger as the dark, disturbing truth reveals itself.

The first half of the film is very intriguing, showing us both characters as they go through life alone, on their collision course. Lisbeth must deal with her guardian’s—a horrific performance of malice by Andersson, leading into some tough to sit through scenes—rules and abuse until finding a way to beat him at his own game. Her parents are non-existent and her only friend is another computer hacker who doesn’t appear to ever leave his apartment. As for Blomkvist, he is divorced and now out of a job due to the jail term and controversy, holding out hope Millennium doesn’t buckle under it. The prospect of spending six months on an island away from people he knows couldn’t have come at a better time. So, both these souls are lost and looking for something to keep them going in the face of adversity. He knows nothing about her, yet she knows everything of him. Watching her, this strong-willed woman unafraid and unable to truly love, become infatuated with Blomkvist is fascinating, at first as a way to apply her talents to the case, but eventually also a baring of her soul. The relationship between them goes from father/daughter professionalism to one that’s much more, in an oddly uncomfortable way yet also completely authentic to their respective psychologies.

Teaming these two up forms the perfect duo to solve the crime. Both want to know the truth, but each copes with the revelations in their own way. Blomkvist is unable to harm someone no matter what they have done while Lisbeth has never been averse to violent retribution, even as a child. Both performances are superbly nuanced and complex. Nyqvist is the least interesting of the two—extremely entertaining to watch as he deduces information from clues found, but a journalist doing his job, trumped by his enigmatic counterpart—while Rapace is unforgettable as Lisbeth. Her steely, emotionless visage is ever-present, breaking only for the screams of horror during abuse or the tremors of isolation and fear as she lights a cigarette, knees pressed to her chest. The film is just as much about her evolution as a person and detective skills, seeking revenge without remorse, but honing her expertise to exist, at least partially, on the right side of the law. Oplev adds his own stamp to the visuals, but when all is said and done, Rapace steals the show in every way. I only wish the ending, after the mystery is solved but before the loose ends of Blomkvist’s tale are tied up, didn’t feel so clumsy and rushed. It does, however, set the stage for the next installment and the assumed larger role Lisbeth will play. Before that, though, I can’t think of many crime thrillers better.

Män som hatar kvinnor [The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo] 9/10

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photography:
[1] Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson) stars in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. © Music Box Films
[2] Erika Berger (Lena Endre) and Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. © Music Box Films

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It all begins with the surfacing of three dead bodies left in a river. A foreboding vision for the mystery thriller that is Edge of Darkness, these unknown people set the stage for the governmental corporate cover-up already started, now at Mel Gibson’s Thomas Craven’s doorstep. The trailers put out by Warner Bros. portray what looks like an action-packed revenger, pitting Gibson’s bereaved father against the people behind the murder of his daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic). Don’t be misled, however, because the film is in fact a very deliberate drama involving the detective work of a cop on his own and outside the system. Everyone at the precinct enjoys throwing around the fact that the homicide involved a cop and therefore was a top priority for retribution, but when Gibson’s Craven starts to see the players involved and the resources at their disposal, he discovers it’s up to him to blow the whole thing wide open. He is a man with nothing to lose and it shows.

Somewhat estranged from his daughter—the one shining light in his otherwise lonely, work-obsessed existence—despite, as his frequent visits show, being within driving distance, Emma’s surprise return home puts the kind of smile on his face that probably hasn’t formed in some time. Even though she is a glorified intern, her job is confidential, so Craven never really pried for details. Now, though, he wants to enjoy a little mini-break with her home, cooking dinner and catching up. But there is something amiss; Emma gets sick on the way from the train station, she coughs constantly, and blood begins to trail from her nose. In a panic, the stakes at hand are about to be revealed—Emma tells her Dad that she needs to go to the hospital and also tell him something she should have before—right when the front door opens, “Craven!” is yelled out, and the young woman is blown back by a shotgun blast. In a whirlwind, Tom’s only reason for living is taken away, and while the cops diligently look to see what enemies he has, assuming he was the real target, Craven sees that the math doesn’t quite add up.

The consummate good cop, Craven doesn’t drink, has no vices, and knows that justice is bigger than he alone. He would never fold under blackmail, never choose his own loved ones while sitting back to watch others harmed. As a result, he cannot wrap his head around someone wanting to hurt him enough to drive by, shooting to kill. So, in order to shed light on the real conspiracy begging to be uncovered, we come into contact with Emma’s criminal boyfriend David, her mysterious and powerful boss Jack Bennett, as well as a friend named Melissa who has a greater connection to the murder than perhaps assumed. Unafraid to leave his coworkers and superiors out of the loop—with good reason as is later revealed—Craven follows these leads alone, keeping his daughter’s town’s police quiet so all information found doesn’t get put into her homicide file back home. No one wants to talk, each is being tailed and threatened, and confidentiality agreements adhered to are slowly found to have death sentences, not jail, on the other end if not held up.

Looking back, I think Edge of Darkness is a missed opportunity. It’s too slow when the action is absent and too quick to involve characters only to kill them off once their duties are complete. There is no exposition besides the gimmicky home movies depicting young Emma and her Dad, films that are replayed in Craven’s head as memories, nightmares, and sometimes voices from the grave. So how are we supposed to feel invested in anyone but Gibson’s lead role? Each supporting player is used as a pawn to divulge the one little secret they know and tossed aside afterwards to obscurity or death. Even Ray Winstone’s Jedburgh, by far my favorite part in this whole endeavor, is absolutely unnecessary to the plot. He is a government contracted spook that cleans up messes left by over-eager men of importance who’s own terminal diagnosis of cancer appears to create the kind of epiphany for him to take pause and question his own amoral actions. A mirror of Craven on the wrong side of the law, his not killing Gibson for being a loose end becomes the only relevant job served by his role. But then if Jedburgh never existed we wouldn’t have to worry anyway.

I like the parallels between these two as childless fathers, I like their similar outlooks on Massachusetts—albeit their differing ways of handling them—and I enjoy Winstone’s performance on its own. Even so, though, without knowing who he is or a strong motivation for his final actions, you could excise the role and not miss a thing besides entertainment. Knowing now that the film is based on a five-part miniseries, every gap glossed over and convenience taken makes sense. This is a shell lacking the meat that gives it room to breathe. All the nuance and intricacies to the crimes at hand have been excised, leaving behind a dumbed-down, bare-bones version that ties up loose ends so quickly and cleanly, there is no satisfaction to be had. Between the systematic revelations of activists, environmentalists, nuclear weaponry, international crime, treason, and Danny Huston’s (Bennett) silk pajamas and gold chain making him look like an extra from Scarface, I was left cold by answers never containing sufficient enough justification. It felt like when a friend invites you over to show off his new video game, pops it in and plays while you look on helplessly. No matter how good it looks, how intelligent it feels, or how great the performances are, without a level of investment it just becomes two hours of a wasted opportunity—although I do really want to check out Troy Kennedy-Martin’s “Edge of Darkness” now.

Edge of Darkness 6/10

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photography:
[1] RAY WINSTONE as Darius Jedburgh and MEL GIBSON as Thomas Craven in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and GK Films’ suspense thriller “Edge of Darkness.” Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[2] MEL GIBSON as Thomas Craven and BOJANA NOVAKOVIC as Emma Craven in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and GK Films’ suspense thriller “Edge of Darkness.” Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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