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Ok, The Happening was a piece of crap. There’s no denying this fact, so get on with your lives and forget Marky Mark ever attempted to be a science teacher. Many think that wasn’t M. Night Shyamalan’s first misstep, though, people have fallen away from his work since The Village—a movie I am proud to call one of my all-time favorite cinematic artworks of style, tone, and emotion. Perhaps audiences got spoiled and pigeonholed the man into a spot he could never live up to, one where we’d have our minds blown by everything he touched. So when he made a love story—yes the advertising was dead wrong—the fanbase disbanded. As a result, I truly believe people are bashing his newest work unjustly, not taking the time to understand what the film is about, or that it’s even based on an American anime, Nickelodeon program “Avatar”. This is a PG, kid-friendly, adventure flick with a deep mythology and loyal following. You can’t go in expecting anything more than that; if you do it’s your own fault. I’ve never personally seen the original cartoon, but I’ll say right now, I had fun with The Last Airbender.

Shyamalan has always had an idiosyncratic way of writing dialogue. He appears to want to be the next David Mamet and time his words to a precise meter, but in fact it only comes out stilted, disjointed, and very cyclical, oftentimes using the same name twice in one sentence rather than plugging in a pronoun for variety. It works in The Village due to its old-fashioned environment and speech; it doesn’t fare so well in his other films, including this one, despite inhabiting a wholly unique world. Maybe the prevalence of such repetition is so young children can understand it, maybe it mirrors the show, I don’t know for sure. However, besides this minor gripe, and the fact the performances are very sub-par and over-the-top—could be a nod to the equally exaggerated anime overdubbing commonplace in the genre—the movie is very well made. The story itself never talks down, allowing the legend of Air, Water, Earth, and Fire to be uncovered as the characters become familiar with the newly discovered return of the Avatar. And the choreography is stunning. Graceful in its ritualism, flowing in its movements—sometimes even devoid of sharp cuts, showing the technique in full—the action sequences are memorable.

The world itself consists of four nations, one for each element. There are special members of each with the power to ‘bend’ or move the element of their people as an extension of themselves. Only one person, the Avatar, can handle all four, making him the peacekeeper and leader of the rest. Perpetually reincarnated, the God-like being is also the only one able to speak with the Spirit world, a gift that brings with it a price. To hold such power and responsibility means to forego a normal life. All the world’s creations become your children, all its troubles your duty to rectify. So, when the new Avatar finds he is unable to take on such weight, at such a young age, he runs away to be entrapped in ice for over a hundred years, the world disintegrating into chaos in the meanwhile. The Fire Nation decides to hold court over the rest, using its element to create new technologies and machines capable of inflicting destruction in order to sway control in its favor. Knowing the legends, how the new Avatar would take the form of an Airbender, the Firebenders annihilate each Air colony and imprison all other benders of Water and Earth, positioning themselves as the world’s ultimate force.

When siblings Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) discover young Aang (Noah Ringer) trapped in ice, they never anticipate what is to come. Their destinies have been set towards protecting the boy, helping him achieve his full potential and take his place as Avatar of the four nations. It is their journey to the Northern Water Region that this first installment in a planned trilogy concerns, finding a way to hone his skills with water and stand a chance against the immense army of Firebenders. It’s a perilous quest with two factions chasing, one led by Commander Zhao (Aasif Mandvi), right-hand of Fire Lord Ozai (Cliff Curtis), and the other by the Lord’s son Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), disgraced and banished to never show his face in the Fire Kingdom unless in possession of the Avatar. Zuko is stewarded by his uncle Iroh (Shaun Toub), a man with hidden secrets. The Prince is exiled for being soft, questioning a General and refusing to fight his father in a dual of strength. There is compassion in the boy, as well as a burning desire to prove he’s worthy, two conflicting forces battling it out to see whether he turns to the side of good, with Aang, or evil, with his father.

For being such an expository film, explaining a lot of mythology in a short period of time—admittedly seeming rushed—The Last Airbender does a great job in still retaining its own identity. Besides acquainting the audience with the environment in play, Shyamalan does his best to introduce each character and his/her motivations, watching as they fight and befriend, letting emotions overtake them and also patiently relent. Aang must live with the unintentional blood on his hands from his fearful flight; Katara and Sokka must grow into the warriors they’ve been born to grow into; and Zuko must find a voice of his own, discerning between his father and uncle for which direction to move towards. And through it all, battles rage on with stylized tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and comets, all rendered gorgeously to coexist with their live action counterparts.

Everyone handles their fight maneuvers deftly; making you believe each inhabitant of the four nations is well versed in martial arts and bred for the war that’s been waging ever since Aang’s self-imprisonment. Ringer is smooth in his motions, while a bit raw on the acting side of things; Rathbone is almost as stilted as his wide-eyed Jaspar in the Twilight series; and Patel is so earnest you feel as though his head will explode. There are some shining moments too, though, including Peltz’s desire to protect and serve and Toub’s secretive elder statesman—the actor can turn any role into gold. And, as a result, the good far outweighs the bad. Just remember the film was shot in only two dimensions, so the 3D conversion is probably shoddy, (I have heard this to be true). I myself didn’t cave to spend the extra cash for a poor attempt at Hollywood thievery, but won’t stop you from making the mistake yourself. After all, the more cash this one makes only helps the possibility of seeing the final two installments in the future.

The Last Airbender 7/10

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photography:
[1] Noah Ringer is the heroic Aang in the Paramount Pictures/Nickelodeon Movies adventure, “The Last Airbender.” Photo credit: Industrial Light & Magic Copyright (c) 2010 Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Left to right: Dev Patel plays Prince Zuko and Shaun Toub plays Uncle Iroh in the Paramount Pictures/Nickelodeon Movies adventure, “The Last Airbender.” Photo credit: Industrial Light & Magic Copyright (c) 2010 Paramount Pictures Corporation.

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I remember, when watching 15 Minutes back in 2001, thinking Vera Farmiga was an interesting foreigner playing quite well off of Ed Burns and Robert De Niro. Sadly, until five years later with a spate of high profile films leading to the A-list status she now holds, I still thought it despite her being born in New Jersey. As a result, I had no knowledge of the independent film Down to the Bone—a Sundance-winning piece for both her and director Debra Granik amongst a slew of other nominations on the festival circuit—the true reason for her rapid ascent in Hollywood. Yes, there are many films dealing with drugs and addiction, mostly spring-boarding stylistic artistry off the kinetic/slomotion roller coasters associated with the habit. Few, however, allow themselves to delve into an addict’s upside-down world for an up-close-and-personal view. Requiem for a Dream melds the two schools; Trainspotting shows how style alone can excel; and even a film like Rachel Getting Married subtly infuses its blanket effect on one’s life. Granik’s debut goes for the vérité look, utilizing Farmiga’s performance to paint the exact depths necessary to plummet before even beginning to lift oneself up.

It all started seven years previous with the short film Snake Feed, directed and cowritten by Granik. I haven’t seen the movie, but from the inclusion of the titular reptile in Down to the Bone, I can see the metaphor porting over into the feature version. Farmiga’s Irene has allowed the devil that is cocaine to overtake her entire existence. Working a dead-end job as a supermarket cashier, coming home to two young boys and a husband who tries to stop her habit by using their money to remodel the house—as well as buy pot—she looks for any opportunity to hide and snort what she can. The bottom comes quickly as the Halloween season brings her to the point of no drugs and no money to acquire more. After cutting her coke straw to lick whatever granules stuck to its inside, Irene knocks on her supplier’s door late at night, after having been denied an ‘advance’ earlier, with her son’s birthday check; kudos to the drug-dealer for refusing to let her become that person, hocking her child’s happiness for her own escape. All the kid wanted was a pet snake, something she nixed due to the costs of tanks and heat lamps, all while leaving the pet shop to score more powder while her sons waited in the car.

The whole endeavor of living with the drug looming high, controlling your every move, is much like a snake feed. Helpless to get up, the addiction pounces effortlessly, coiling itself around you, suffocating any attempts to stop it as your breathing slows and the quiet floods over. No matter how gentle the beast is, never biting its handler and pulling away when flesh is placed at its mouth, the snake will never pass up an opportunity for the kill. And that is why kicking the habit is so hard. Irene has tried and failed before, but this time is different. She can say she’s doing it for the kids, but it really is for herself. She is no longer able to live with the fact cocaine has been consistently placing first over all other aspects in her life. It’s time for a change starting with rehab, even if only for a week—she can’t spend more than that off of work. Hugh Dillon’s Bob makes things easier, befriending her as both the male nurse on duty and as a reformed addict himself, lending his services as a helpful hand. But your own strength is all you can count on. When you cook Thanksgiving dinner for friends and family, only to see a dealer at the door sell to one, and watching them cut it on the table—with your husband, Clint Jordan’s Steve—it can get to be too much.

Granik has an eye and feel for letting the actors run with the material and do their thing onscreen. Jordan is great as the caring husband with his own unsavory addictions, albeit tame in comparison to his wife; Dillon excels as the recovered junkie unable to stay sober once a woman enters his life and stimulates his libido—how can he enjoy her completely without taking a ride on the H-train again? But the film really does revolve around Farmiga’s portrayal of Irene. Granik shows her during the good times, the bad, and all those ups and downs in between. She is an attractive woman with two well-behaved boys at home who know they are watching their mother disappear second by second. Each injection of drug, whether the coke, her boys’ happiness, or sexual arousal from Dillon, takes control of her body, inhabiting her every expression, movement, and sound. Even those blank stares and short temper with the litany of grocery customers resonates with complete authenticity; we watch her withering away. No matter how much love is at home, though, Steve won’t stop his own drug use; no matter how great life is with Bob, his ability to lie and watch her slip back can’t be forgotten. Irene can only survive if she wants to.

Obviously shot on the cheap and handheld, we see most of the action close-up. Down to the Bone becomes an edited together mix of moments full of emotion. Shots linger on faces of heartbreak and defeat; you believe these actors are caught up in this world, living day by day, fully knowing that the next could be the one of no return. It becomes a question of what will make you stop. When will the stakes get too high to roll the dice one more time? Knowing that Granik used many locals from the Ozarks for her sophomore gem Winter’s Bone, I wouldn’t be surprised if the other Narcotics Anonymous members are in fact real addicts here. Their actions and mannerisms speak volumes to the crushing weight addiction inflicts and Farmiga and company squeeze right in as though they’ve been users their entire life and Granik is merely filming reality. This film may not give you easy answers; it may not even show whether Irene’s strides to survive and be a mother to her children work. What it does tell is one woman’s journey to hell and back, finding a glimpse of hope with kindred spirits and friends who understand exactly what it is she is going through. While the success of rehabilitation may be yours and yours alone, the path to that revelation doesn’t have to be a lonely road.

Down to the Bone 8/10

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photography:
Photos by Sebastian Mlynarski.

And the marathon series continues. Entry one ended up being somewhat of an enlightening experience, opening my eyes to the fact that when Julia Roberts is given a good role, she really can nail it. With a couple clunkers turned gems after rewatching, as well as a couple seen for the first time shocking me with their quality—Pretty Woman ending up being quite the enjoyable film—I have no complaints with my friend Christa’s selections. Roberts was not someone I necessarily wanted to open up my time towards, but she surprised me, changing my opinion of her for the better.

The second marathon I am going to partake in concerns the ever-reclusive and secretive Terrence Malick. I’ve heard for too long about his greatness, kicking myself for still having not discovered it for myself. With the release of his newest looming, The Tree of Life, a film that has supposedly completed shooting almost two years ago and is still not quite ready to screen, I desperately need to catch his back catalog. His career has been prolific in its grandeur and also it’s scant size, inching closer and closer to forty years, yet having this winter’s release be just his fifth feature length work. So, to complete the Malick journey, I must view 1973’s Badlands, 1978’s Days of Heaven, 1998’s The Thin Red Line, (which I have seen, but so long ago I couldn’t tell you a single detail), and 2005’s The New World.

This series has the makings of the most gorgeously shot foursome one could view sequentially. I’m excited for the sheer brilliance I’m told each contains, with an unrivaled attention to detail. But, the part I’m anticipating most is finally joining the conversation and having the ability to recommend the auteur to others.

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It’s one of those stories to show no matter how bad things are when you’re flat broke, single, raising three kids, and unemployed, sometimes having the high-paying job makes it so your personal life is even worse. Erin Brockovich is a fascinating case study on how a tenacious attitude, street smarts, and an ability to talk to people as though you’ve known them your whole life—with a not so subtle flash of cleavage—can allow you do accomplish pretty much anything you want. Down on her luck, the bottom drops even further when an ER doctor runs through her car at an intersection where she had the right of way. A profanity-laced retort to the prosecuting lawyer later and Brockovich is seventeen grand in debt and right back to where she was before tragedy struck. With nowhere else to turn, she forces herself into a job as a clerk for the defense attorney who failed her, and then the wheels begin to turn. She said she was a fast learner and willing to do the work, but I’m sure no one thought she’d construct a multi-million dollar case with over six hundred plaintiffs and a huge utility company to foot the bill.

The principals involved in bringing this true story to the screen are not initially seen as the perfect choices. Director Steven Soderbergh had been known for his mix of personal oddities and slightly off the beaten path indie crossovers. But then came 2000 and his life would never be the same. A darling for cinephiles the world over, it wasn’t until the 21st century began that Hollywood decided to also take notice. His inventively constructed interweaving triptych Traffic, garnering praise from all directions, eventually being nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and winning Best Editing, Supporting Actor, Screenplay, and Director, wasn’t the last of it either. Currently known for his prolific working schedules, who knew he’d be able to get two films in the same year to compete against each other for awards? Probably his most straightforward film, devoid of any glaring examples of his visual flair, Erin Brockovich just plain got the job done. It took an intriguing true-life court case and breathed some vigor and emotion, animating it to open the world’s eyes to a high caliber underdog; unafraid to do what’s necessary for justice. Also nominated for Best Picture, Supporting Actor, Director and Screenplay, it won a single trophy—Best Actress.

I’m not going to lie; if I had a vote back in 2001, Ellen Burstyn would have received it. That said, however, I cannot deny the power Julia Roberts brings to her portrayal of Brockovich, a very singular woman. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, when Roberts is given an edge of attitude and confidence, she is unstoppable. The wardrobe is memorable—all those short skirts and low cut tops bringing her ‘assets’ to the forefront—and its juxtaposition with her ability to dress down someone who dismisses her as a white trash inferior is an apt one, but without her delivery of well-written quips (courtesy of screenwriter Susannah Grant) and heart-on-her-sleeve expressions, America wouldn’t have fallen in love with this tough-as-nails upstart. You look at the character and think high class call-girl, you see her young children eating fast food burgers because the pantry has only a jar of peanut butter and think broken single mom, yet once she speaks, cursing and no-holds-barred content included, you can’t help but see her appeal. This woman will never give up on you or run away from the promise of her word, and all the while she’ll treat you like family, dissolving any inhibitions that may exist about lawyers, making the case about humanity rather than money.

This trait is key for anything that occurs in the film to work. You see later on how mistrustful—with reason—small town folk can be to a flashy, well-dressed Ivy Leaguer looking for facts and saying, more in attitude than words, “I don’t want any sentimental projections clouding them because I just don’t care”. These people have been lied to their entire lives, growing up and raising children on land contaminated with hexavalent chromium, a chemical directly related to cancers and other horrific diseases, being told the ‘good’ version of the element is actually being used. These folks don’t want to believe—they can’t fathom anyone would be so cruel—that their ailments could stem from the kind businessmen who paid for medical examinations and said everything would be all right. Already pandered to by suits from Pacific Gas & Electric, the last thing they needed was a lawyer coming with big words and tough to understand concepts to break the news. Those fools would be dismissed as money-hungry cretins, drudging up old history for financial gain as the families dying are exploited. So, in comes Erin Brockovich, a woman from the area and one of them. She becomes a translator for the common man and their strongest cheerleader.

Soderbergh must be given credit for allowing Grant’s script to be realized in all its detailed research and findings. We go with Roberts to the water board, we watch her visit the affected families, and stand by as she fights for the intrinsic value of human decency, unable to let cold and calculated law firm plans overturn the personal bonds she has created. It isn’t her astonishing ability to memorize phone numbers, names, and facts for each client that stands out, it’s the dedication and stake she’s put in at the detriment of her own children and lover (Aaron Eckhart) back at home doing their best to support her work. Because it is great work she’s doing, helping others get the justice they deserve. But to what end does that help her loved ones? What is the money when you don’t have the time to see it used and appreciated by the ones you’ve been working so hard to provide for? Eckhart’s performance helps bring this conflict out and Albert Finney’s Ed Masry, her boss, undergoes a transformation showing her effect to breed change for the better. Sometimes the people with large hearts have just been defeated for too long. It only takes one to wake up and become the catalyst for those around her. What better change is there than giving those without faith or hope the means to survive with dignity?

Erin Brockovich 7/10

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photography:
[1] Erin (Julia Roberts) takes care of her child in Universal’s Erin Brockovich – 2000
[2] Julia Roberts and Albert Finney in Universal’s Erin Brockovich – 2000

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Okay, for some reason the opening credit sequence to My Best Friend’s Wedding is sort of brilliant. Showing four women dressed for a wedding, they lip-synch the words to “Wishin’ and Hopin’” (with a version surprisingly sung by Ani Difranco) while performing choreography on a solid pink backdrop. It’s equal parts cute, endearing, and over-the-top, much like the film itself. I’ll admit that my first viewing and impression of the movie was a bit harsh. Watching again, over a decade later, still doesn’t vault it to favorite status—I do think it drags excruciatingly slow in parts—but it did win me over with its charms. I forgot just how important music was, becoming a character in its own right. Besides the opening, the dying animal sounds of Cameron Diaz singing karaoke, and a helium-induced squeaky trio serenading, comes the pièce de résistance, the one moment I could watch over and over again, with a stirring rendition of Burt Bacharach’s (I hope he got some coin for single-handedly supplying this movie’s soundtrack) of “I Say a Little Prayer”. It is Rupert Everett’s shining moment in a role chock full of them.

Julia Roberts, however, is the woman at the center of the insanity. About to turn 28, her Julianne’s memory is jogged when best friend and ex-lover Michael (Dermot Mulroney) calls with urgency. The two of them made a pack many years before that if unmarried at the milestone age of note, they’d wed each other. So, a bundle of nerves, she calls him up anticipating the outrageously—or are they—nuptials, only to be told he found someone and is marrying her in five days. The bride in question is Diaz’s Kim, a young woman of perfection, so much so that jealousy isn’t enough to describe feelings towards her. She is so flawless in beauty, heart, affluence, and love that the mere sight of her breeds annoyance. Her presence stirs up feelings inside Julianne, feelings she never thought existed within her pragmatic soul. Only when she finally sees the man in her life is soon to be gone does she realize how much she truly loves him. Therefore, instead of falling in equal amounts of love for the do-no-wrong bride-to-be, she stakes out a plan to despise her; a willingness to be cruel and unusual forms and the race to win Mike back begins.

It is this game of hers that takes me out of really enjoying the film. Roberts is fantastic in the role, I have no qualms with her performance because when she is given guts and an unwavering sense of confidence, she can play off the best of them. The timing on both lines and expressions—including that unmistakable hyena laugh—is pristine, but to what gain for the character? Her success in playing Julianne is actually what proves it to be so horribly unlikable. The actions and manipulations she is not only capable of but also actually able to fulfill are unspeakable. And through it all, she shows no signs of remorse. Perhaps this can be seen as a remarkable trait in her ability to go after the prize, but what about the consequences? This isn’t a high school catfight between cheerleaders over the star quarterback, there are people’s lives hanging in the balance—kind and gentle people’s lives. No matter how often the filmmakers show Roberts’ on the verge of tears for what she has just accomplished, she never stands up and admits her transgressions. While she might be the heroine in terms of top billing, Julianne is in fact the villain. We should loathe her unequivocally, and that fact unfortunately renders the goal of the film moot.

Besides this underlying problem with the construct of the love triangle for which there can be no winner, My Best Friend’s Wedding isn’t without its merits after all. The nefarious activities of Roberts may become repetitious—slowing the pace by showing her defeated face over and over after a planned sabotage blows up—they are generally funny to watch as well. If nothing else, every actor involved gives one hundred and ten percent to being as hammy and entertaining as possible, yet still retaining some semblance of emotional weight when called upon. Diaz gives a performance that caters specifically to her skills. The role of Kim is bubbly, complicatedly naïve, and unable to even fake a mean streak. I often have nothing good to say about her—with good reason I believe—but I can say with honesty that there is little to fault here. And as for the third in the love puzzle, Mulroney stays true to the typeset he nails even today. Few can be the charmingly handsome suitor for as long as he has made a career of it. The guy is effective, so kudos to him.

But the real reason I’ve almost turned 180º on the subject of this film is due to the supporting players. I had completely forgotten how utterly ambivalent the Wallace clan is. They aren’t quite ditzy or stupid, but they do carry an air with them of complete cluelessness. The parents of the bride and brother of the groom are of a cutesy, idyllic mold and M. Emmet Walsh is left to appear a senile old man, Definitely below his worth if I may say. But then there’s the wedding party, containing within it three stellar character actors. The Newhouse sisters and bridesmaids are “Six Feet Under’s” own Brenda (Rachel Griffiths) and “True Blood’s” Arlene (Carrie Preston), while one of the uncredited groomsmen is “Prison Break’s” iconic Paul Kellerman (Paul Adelstein). Heck, even Paul Giamatti joins the fun as a pithy bellman of reason. Yet despite all this craziness, there is still one man rising above to give the performance of his career—at least the little of it I have seen. Chop this thing up and splice together every frame with Rupert Everett and I dare say you’d have a 10/10 film of pure comic genius. He is the glue keeping Roberts’ Julianne sane and also the constant winning piece to an otherwise flawed piece of cinema. There definitely will be dancing.

My Best Friend’s Wedding 6/10

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It’s only fitting that the director behind one the of the great films of the 70s, All the President’s Men, Alan J. Pakula would be tasked with bringing John Grisham’s own look into political espionage and White House scandal, The Pelican Brief, to the screen. Admittedly I am not a fan of Grisham’s stories as they generally become convoluted and way to convenient, pandering to the audience at every turn, pretending to be suspenseful and unique. But I think perhaps this, along with The Firm, was chosen to open the floodgates into optioning his work for a reason. It seems to be one of his most competent yarns, fresh for not taking place in the courtroom, a common scene throughout his career. Besides that fact, however, I do think a lot of the film’s success rests in Pakula’s direction. He has an eye for the dramatic and is never afraid to compose his frames in shadows or hide the action going on. It’s a pleasure watching hired assassin Khamel (Stanley Tucci) commit his string of murders while never actually seeing him and his victims onscreen together.

Above all else—underlying oil contracts, the President’s impending decision on reelection, or even the deaths of two Supreme Court Justices at the center of everything—is the fact he film’s all about research and detective work, a reporter’s case for discovering those guilty of conspiracy and murder. Because of this, Pakula utilizes many of the tricks he did with Watergate two decades earlier, following the newspaperman and his contact as they search for the truth when the authorities cannot, due to the level of cover-up at play. The main difference between the two films is the fact that the President here is unaware of what is going on; unfortunately this fact doesn’t stop him from trying to sweep it under the rug. Robert Culp’s Commander-in-Chief seems a well-meaning man who has gotten caught up in the criminal activity solely because he took some campaign contributions. His right-hand man Fletcher Coal isn’t quite in the position to rest easy and hope people believe his boss is innocent, though, and thus must set in motion the kill contracts on anyone aware of the infamously out-of-the-box, yet able to scare those in a position to be scared, ‘Pelican Brief’. The fact the role is played by Tony Goldwyn only adds to Coal’s unsavory demeanor.

What makes the entire ordeal interesting, however, is that a 24-year old Tulane law student wrote the brief in question. Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts), involved in an affair with her professor Thomas Callahan (Sam Shepard), is jokingly tasked with hypothesizing on who would want to kill his former surrogate father and educator, Justice Rosenberg. It is said as more a way for her to stay with him and keep his mind off of his alcohol issues, but she takes the job to heart, spending a week researching and typing up the far-fetched essay implicating powerful men jockeying for the appointment of new, helpful to their cause, judges. The fact of the matter is, this brief is seen as a sort of joke itself, passed around from Callahan to his FBI lawyer friend to his FBI superiors all the way to the White House—the one place not laughing due to its actual plausibility. And that’s when the deaths begin to rack up; Shaw’s safety is constantly held in question as all aware of her paper seem to be blown up or shot around her. She has no idea where to turn or who to trust, and even when she feels someone is worthy, their own identity might be stolen to silence her.

So, it becomes reporter Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington) who comes to the rescue. Approached by an unnamed lawyer with the possibility of information into who ordered the hit on these judges, his trail runs cold right when the phone rings with Darby’s bombshell of trouble. At first very afraid, she soon opens up to Grantham and aligns herself to the fact she may be the only hope to achieve justice. The two then begin their search for answers and secrets, discovering who the lawyer using the name ‘Garcia’ is and how they can find cold hard facts to corroborate what Shaw speculates in the brief, the government’s reaction to it proving there’s much more truth than previously assumed. The real joke of the matter becomes how if not for Coal and the President getting nervous enough to hinder casework, the entire hypothesis might have been thrown out and dismissed as a young woman’s overactive imagination. But then that is how many conspiracies eventually become revealed, the fear of exposure ends up being the exact cause for it. And this film shows each step, never taking shortcuts. Not only does it span a fast two and half hours, it keeps a constantly high suspense level, leaving no one but Roberts and Washington untouchable.

And this is a major plus for me. Being such a long movie containing a plethora of characters, The Pelican Brief allows those that seem important to be expendable. Rather than most films combining parts to make things ‘less confusing’ for the audience, Pakula allows the world to breath, ebbing and flowing around the leads, as people serve their role and end up dead for their trouble. There is nothing worse than spending time with people who you know should be next to go, only to find the storytellers needing them a bit longer, prolonging their life and subverting all realism as a result. You can assume the stars are untouchable—at least until the end—but without stakes showing how valuable and precious life is, the thrill of suspense cannot exist. It was by far my biggest surprise when watching, consistently getting more and more invested in the plot as events progressed and new actors introduced. I could have done without the music cues manufacturing emotion, but it was 1993 and that heavy-handed use of sound was common. It still is a Grisham novel in the end, but rather than that mean watered-down and obvious, this entry retains some intelligence. Washington’s performance helps greatly in that regard, as does Roberts once her annoying ‘little girl’ voice with Shepard disappears.

The Pelican Brief 7/10

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courtesy of www.dvdbeaver.com

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Split into two halves, titled Circumstances and Consequences, the French film La fille du RER [The Girl on the Train] tells the based on a true story tale of a girl wanting simply to be loved. Young Jeanne and her mother are inseparable, carrying on their lives to their hearts’ content. Louise stays at home babysitting others’ children while her daughter rollerblades around the city, headphones blaring music as a soundtrack to her life. Needing to find a job in order to sustain her yearly vacation to Italy, Jeanne is desperate for whatever she can get being that she’s a hard worker willing to do anything, but having no references or experience vouching for those facts. It’s quite serendipitous then that Louise catches an ad seeking a bilingual secretary for a high-powered lawyer—a man she in fact knew many years earlier and once asked her to run away with him. The interview unfortunately doesn’t fare well, yet her journey towards it also brings her onto the path of star wrestler Franck. It may be love at first sight, or perhaps his overzealous desire to have her, but the two begin a relationship and everything spirals out of control from there.

Director André Téchiné has created a successful work portraying the tale he wants, but filled with superfluous minutiae. The beauty of French cinema is its ability to sprawl and touch on details in people’s lives, some pertinent to the main plot and others absolutely unnecessary besides adding a little more background information to characters’ motives. The Girl on the Train is no different, showing so much to say so little. Amidst it all are some nicely shot scenes of movement with Jeanne rollerblading as foliage blows past or tunnel lights illuminate the way and even the superimposing of an instant message’s text above the visual frames of the two parties conversing. It’s an interesting piece of artistic flair that is never matched elsewhere; the rest of the movie shot conservatively and direct. What intrigues instead is the way the second half builds upon the events of the first. A lot of things are set-up: Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne) is a girl with no trouble telling white lies, saying what others want to hear, including her mother (Catherine Deneuve), in order to be accepted in their world; Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is smitten and willing to do anything for Jeanne, including working with narcotics; and the lawyer, Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), is a man fighting to rid the country of a prevalent Anti-Semitic surge of violence, even though he is as unreligious a Jew as you could get.

All the facts seem to lead somewhere, each loose end appearing wrapped up and completed in tragedy. Jeanne’s desire for love has put her in a happy relationship with Franck, but also has compromised his morals to take a job guarding a stash of cocaine in a storefront for electronics. It is a quick fix for living quarters and monetary survival, so he brings her in without telling her the facts. For all she knows they are simply watching the store while its owner is on vacation. And while we see Jeanne’s apparently idyllic life fall apart once a dealer arrives looking for the goods, we also become privy to the Bleistein family and their myriad of dysfunction. Sam has found a calling in life with the law and is finally once more happy. His wife has passed, his ex-daughter-in-law works with him, his grandson is about to have his Bar Mitzvah, and his son is roaming the world, discontent and unknowing of what he wants. Out of the odd foursome of this Grandfather living and loving bachelor life while his children break-up and get back together on multiple occasions, it is the boy Nathan (Jérémie Quaegebeur) who stands out. Much more perceptive than his family may want to believe, he is the one on the pulse of it all.

The two families converge in the second half with much deeper purpose than simply Louise and Sam having known each other during the war. After the fallout of the crime at Franck’s drug stash, Jeanne devolves into a heightened state of depression as her boyfriend despises her lies, her mother is disappointed in her life choices, and Bleistein won’t hire her for a job. All these circumstances become the catalyst for the charade she then attempts to pull off. The news has been littered with Anti-Semitic beatings and crimes, France becoming polarized on the subject, rallying around those persecuted. So, with a life seemingly going nowhere and the ability to namedrop someone critically involved in the uproar, Bleistein, Jeanne fakes a beating, telling police she had been accosted on the train and abused for being presumed Jewish. It’s done for sympathy, to garner some attention from those around her while also allowing her to forget the events of the past month or so with Franck. But she underestimates the gravity of the situation and the country’s media machine’s ambulance chase for anything Anti-Semitic. The story goes national and the lie gets worse as a result, both because people of power believe and because those close to her knows it’s all fake.

The Girl on the Train is a pleasure to watch for its attention to detail. Watching the beginning half change into what follows seems odd at first, appearing to become a completely different film than originally laid out. But then as things move along, you do discover events occurring due to what happened before, the circumstances do in fact directly relate to the consequences at hand. The acting is great throughout, but special notice should go to Duvauchelle and Dequenne. He is very good as the boyfriend in love who is unafraid to speak his mind and go after what he wants. You oftentimes become uncomfortable with his jokes as the subject matter and delivery is cold and disturbing, but always find him endearingly affable, his feelings towards Jeanne authentic. And she carries the whole thing, from happy-go-lucky youth, to jilted lover, to impassioned depressive, to apologetically understanding in regards to the fiasco she is responsible for.

No matter how much pertinent information is brought forth, however, there is still an over-abundant quantity that does nothing to further the story. The visuals often get disoriented from quick cuts—sometimes to insanely short vignettes that confuse more then connect—and detail overload. We see the Bleistein clan so early on, yet watch as they disappear for a lengthy span of time, so long in fact that when we see Jeanne interview for Samuel, I didn’t recognize he or his daughter-in-law from the beginning at all. Once I got my bearings, though, it does begin to make perfect sense, despite its unorthodox delivery. It’s a fascinating look into one girl’s cry for help and the amount of lives her stunt could in fact affect, let alone the real crimes her actions might risk subverting altogether. I’m sure losing some scenes with a few snips here and there would only help the pacing and coherence, but this is a French film, a little confusion and departure from Hollywood contrivances is always a welcome breath of fresh air.

La fille du RER [The Girl on the Train] 7/10

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photography:
[1] La Fille du RER – Emilie Dequenne. Photo by Moune Jamet.
[2] La Fille du RER – Catherine Deneuve, Michel Blanc. Photo by Moune Jamet.

Without any inclination to continue my Buffalo, Consumerized series, I found a photo from the FC Buffalo victory against FC Sonic that worked for me. I liked the diagonals contrasting against the previous entry’s horizontal lines, moving the logo and stars into the empty field at left, ready to be taken out by the soon to be struck ball.

There isn’t really much more to say. The image once more deals with the lower bodies of the players, focusing on the feet and the real action of the game. By not concerning myself with the player’s faces, you are thrown into the action for what it is. No superstars, no favorites, just the game in motion.

The FC Buffalo Blitzers played their rematch against FC Sonic on June 19, 2010. After losing 1-0 on June 11 due to a questionable call late, revenge was in the air and the Blitzers went for the jugular all game, never relenting after going up 1-0 early. Goal scorers were Andy Tiedt in the 16′ and Mike Unwin in the 80′. Goalkeeper Dan Panaro registered his second clean sheet victory of the season and was named man of the match. FC Sonic was undefeated and at the top of standings coming in. Looks like the Buffalo squad is aiming high and proving they should.

Here are some photos from the game:

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After ten cherished films filled with heart, soul, and comedy, Pixar finally made their first cash grab. That fact is not necessarily a bad thing since anything they touch, no matter how forced a project it may be, is still pure gold, if not certified platinum. But, when I left the theatre after viewing Toy Story 3, I couldn’t shake the feeling that even though I laughed hard, the resonating warmth of humanity and spirit was lacking. The film’s end definitely attempts to amp the heartstring tugging a little too late, becoming more a contrived footnote trying too hard to make it look as though it was there all along. It never earned its desire to render the audience teary-eyed as all before it have. Looking back, though, I realized that perhaps we put the animation studio on too high a pedestal, spoiled by their greatness and accepting nothing less. That said, you can’t ask for a better second sequel to a series as it perfectly rounds out the trilogy and introduces more characters to make you cry in a different way—from laughter. Sometimes the old adage of ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ can be wrong; these newcomers at Sunnyside Day Care make the movie.

The plot continues logically from its predecessors, finding Andy at seventeen and ready to drive off to college, no longer having a need for toys. Like the others before it, Toy Story 3 begins with a wonderfully orchestrated fantasy sequence of action and adventure as the Roundup Gang and Buzz look to save a contingent of orphans (Troll dolls) on a speeding train to death at the plastic hands of Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head and their leader, the Evil Dr. Pork-chop (Hamm). It’s an intriguing set-up since previously we’d segue from it to young Andy on the floor acting everything out. Knowing he’s all grown-up, however, leaves you anticipating what it is you’re actually watching—a nicely fuzzed out and lo-fidelity videotape of the high school graduate, his mother reminiscing as she finds it hard to let go. These toys haven’t had a good ol’ playing with in years and are currently relegated to the toy box, at least those left. Hatching a plan to gauge the boy’s interest, Woody and the gang coerce Andy to open the box in search of his cell phone, needing to look them in the eye before shutting the lid. Shut it he does, seemingly devoid of any love he once had for them.

A decision is soon laid out that the boy has three boxes and a trash bag, either the group of childhood memories go with him to college, get donated to a day care center, go into the attic for storage, or become left at the curb for the garbage man, (who looks and acts eerily like old neighbor Sid). It’s a tough choice to make as Andy’s feelings haven’t changed—he did keep them when letting go of the rest after all—and even though he pulls out a bag, it is to lay them to rest upstairs, besides Woody of course, who makes it into the college box. But Andy’s Mom only sees a trash bag, taking them to the curb as their cowboy friend looks on. Feeling neglected, they escape in the nick of time, scurrying to the family car and the box of donations, unbelieving of Woody’s pleas to come back inside as Andy didn’t want to dispose of them. The trunk door closes before his convincing can work, though, and all are taken to Sunnyside’s Butterfly Room, a sanctuary for toys to be loved until the end of time. Except that’s not their final destination. While Woody leaves angrily to return to his owner, the rest stay to be ushered into the Caterpillar Room of toddlers; a land of drool, paint, and destruction.

The film is the first helmed by director Lee Unkrich alone, previously having collaborated with the better known of the Pixar bunch. He definitely has an eye for action and drama, handling the opening sequence with skill and epic scale, (loved the Barrel O’Monkeys swarm of red), and also the prison setting of Sunnyside, utilizing multiple rooms, the outside, hallways, and security cameras to really give the audience a handle on the environment and what needs to be done in order to escape. The installment is also the first in the series created specifically for 3D and it’s used just enough to add depth while not overpowering with gimmicky objects thrown forth. The technology is shown at its best, I think, when Buzz is eventually switched to Spanish mode, taking the heritage to heart by showing his Flamenco dance moves. The spinning and swooping camera angles capture the movements perfectly—I just wonder whether subtitles are a good move for an audience of young tikes barely able to read. Unkrich does the format justice as well as the large undertaking of maintaining order with a major influx of new characters inhabiting this world. It may be similar to Toy Story 2’s Toy Barn in that respect, except the periphery toys here are given much more to do.

All the returning toys retain their motivations and want of love, but while the rest are pragmatic enough to move on towards their future, Woody can’t shake his attachment to the boy he’s known forever. Tom Hanks excels in the role as usual, keeping his sense of humanity while stubbornly ignoring the cold hard facts of their situation. All the others retain their penchant for one-liner quips, Don Rickles and Estelle Harris’ Potato Heads standing out from the pack. And Tim Allen is once more given the role of multiple identities and therefore one of the funniest parts. His Buzz is best friend and second in command to Woody, a ruthless Spaceman Marshall doing the dirty work of Day Care Godfather Lotso Huggin’ Bear (Ned Beatty), and a romantically courageous Spaniard. Since he is relegated to factory defaults for the climax of the film, though, it is all Woody idea to orchestrate the prison break—an apt comparison due to the circumstances and shooting style of the escape. Buzz acts more out of reflex than brains to help when needed. But no matter what they are doing in the main plot thread, it’s newcomer Ken, played by Michael Keaton, who owns the show. His delivery and mannerisms are everything you’d expect from this purse with legs—read Barbie accessory—excelling beyond his comic relief existence.

Despite the friendship on display and the action-packed journey of Andy’s toys, this escape isn’t as much a return to their owner as it is to simply leave the tyranny of misguided toys. The screenwriters do their best to make it appear some morality lesson was at play, tying everything up in a dramatic conclusion of moving on, but that’s not what the movie is. Lotso may have been heartbroken in his past, changing him into a kingpin building up an army of heavies to keep the other toys in line, but he, as evidenced later on, no longer has the capability for good. He’s a villain by definition and therefore needs to be defeated by our protagonists. This good vs. evil plot is the center of the story, turning the Toy Story canon on its head and into a genre flick more than a children’s masterpiece. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if kids get scared at more than one point along the way. Between the in-depth look at a landfill’s methods of trash annihilation, the pitch-black void of emotion of Lotso, and the real possibility these toys may not survive, I really thought the filmmakers were capable of forgoing the usual feel-good end. But no matter how dark it gets, one cannot deny the abundance of laughs, making this the funniest Pixar film to date, despite being the most generic plot-wise. They are the masters, though, and great comedy is enough.

Toy Story 3 8/10

As comparison: Toy Story 9/10; Toy Story 2 9/10

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photography:
[1] (L-R) Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), Mr. Potato Head (voiced by Don Rickles), Slinky Dog (voiced by Blake Clark), Bullseye, Mrs. Potato Head (voiced by Estelle Harris), Rex (voiced by Wallace Shawn), Hamm (voiced by John Ratzenberger), Jessie (voiced by Joan Cusack), Aliens (voiced by Jeff Pidgeon) and Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen). ©Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
[2] ‘TOY STORY 3′ (L-R) Mrs. Potato Head, Mr. Potato Head, Woody, Rex, Buzz Lightyear, Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear, Barbie, Ken. ©Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

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