Category Archives: Full Movie Reviews

We Need To Talk About Kevin – Review

Since Columbine, Hollywood has avoided stories that have to do with school shootings.  Discussing the issues surrounding these events seems to have become taboo.  Even this year’s acclaimed documentary, Bully, couldn’t escape controversy as the MPAA slapped it with an R-rating, much to the dismay of parents, teachers and psychologists who argued it was a film that NEEDED to be seen by kids.  We Need To Talk About Kevin is an unflinching film that seeks to get to the root of one possible factor behind deadly outbursts from teens:  broken bonds of motherhood.

To say that Tilda Swinton gives a masterful performance would be an understatement.  She embodies grief, regret, and sadness in nearly every expression, word, and body movement you see on screen.  How this performance was overlooked by the Academy Awards this year is remarkable.  Playing her character in non-linear scenes that take place both before and after the killings, she must merge back and forth from a struggling, emotionally detached mother, to a societal pariah after other parents in the neighborhood blame her for everything her son has done.

Ezra Miller, who plays the teenage title character, is also a revelation.  The first time I saw this kid in a film, Another Happy Day, there were hints that he had some serious acting chops.  But this role could define him in the same way Leonardo DiCaprio’s turn in Basketball Diaries became his coming out party as a serious actor.  In an interview on the Blu Ray special features, director Lynne Ramsey says that the moment she saw Miller in auditions, she knew he WAS Kevin.

While the subject matter is pretty heavy, this movies is really worth a watch.  It’s the kind of film that inspires discussions long after it finishes.  It’s easily one of my top 10 favorites of the year.  Highly recommended.

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“Drive” – Full Review

Looking at the title or the cover for “Drive”, you might be tempted to think it’s an action movie in the vein of “Fast and the Furious”.

You would be dead wrong.

Ryan Gosling’s latest is far more art-house than Hollywood, with a sparse script that depends more on nuanced performances by Gosling and Carey Mulligan.  If you’re grabbing a copy for the car chases, you’re going to be disappointed.  Although there are a few, they are done in the traditional style of old Steve McQueen movies like “Bullit”.  It’s essentially a crime film about people caught up in something against their will, and using any desperate they can to get out of it.

The more I watched of “Drive”, the more I realized how much it was recalling the late sixties and early seventies, when maverick directors like Scorcese and Peckinpah absolutely turned Hollywood on its head.  The film has the burning intensity of “Taxi Driver” coupled with the explosive, visceral violence of the original “Straw Dogs”.

“Drive” teases viewers with the threads of what might be a cliché love story, but then rolls them up into a ball of knots.  The characters are fascinating, but hardly likeable.  And that’s what I liked about them.

There’s absolutely NOTHING tidy about this movie.  None of the usual Hollywood tricks are employed here, and it will probably leave a lot of people feeling like they want more resolution.  But I give the film full marks for breaking all the usual crutches that these movies depend on.  It may not be the most satisfying movie you’ve seen, but the images will stay with you after the credits roll.

I’m sure not everyone will agree with me, but I think Drive is one of the most interesting and stylish films of the past year.

Apollo 18: Blair Witch Project in Space

Hollywood has never had a shortage of films based on conspiracy theories.  Even ones about the space race.  Growing up in the 70’s, one of my favorite movies was Capricorn One, which posited that moon landings had been faked by NASA and the U.S. government.  Viewed today, the movie comes off as a bit forced and silly at times, but to my impressionable teenage mind, it was brilliant stuff.

Jump ahead a few decades, and Hollywood has churned out another space-themed conspiracy story involving a supposedly non-existent space mission, Apollo 18.  Three astronauts are sent to the moon on what is supposed to be a routine mission to collect more rocks.  With one astronaut remaining in orbit piloting the Apollo 18 craft, the other two land on the moon and begin the two day mission.  Naturally, things start to go awry.  Strange noises can be heard outside the ship and rock samples mysteriously find their way out of the sealed collection bags.  But things get really strange when they discover the body of a dead Russian cosmonaut in a shallow crater, not far from their LEM.  The fact that there is even a Russian craft not two kilometers from their landing zone makes the astronauts suspect that their government knew the Soviets had been there all along.

The rest of the film is a pastiche of suspense and horror movie cliches involving one of the astronauts getting “infected” by something they encounter in a crater, as well as a gradual descent into paranoia by both men.  All of this is caught on a series of cameras which are both on board the LEM and set up and outside for routine observations.  The director is clearly trying to piggyback the same style that has made the Blair Witch Project and, more recently, Paranormal Activity, so successful.  They even go as far as claiming that the film was created from real, on-board footage, and direct viewers to a website called http://www.lunartruth.com (which doesn’t seem to be an active site anymore, if it ever was).

While the film does generate a few legitimate scares, and benefits from some creative editing, too much of the story feels forced at times.  There is never much doubt about where it’s heading.  Even though it tries to retain a sense of vagueness with unexplained events, this also contributes to it not making a lot of sense.  The acting from the tiny cast of three is pretty average, and although a grainy style makes the film seem authentic, too many modern editing styles creep in, jarring audiences out of the sense of time and place they might otherwise have.

On the surface, the concept of this film is intriguing, but the end result falls a bit flat.  At least it clocks in at 86 minutes, including credits.  Brevity probably saves it from bring a complete train wreck.  In the end, it’s an average horror thriller that probably won’t have a long shelf life.

“Another Earth” – Sci Fi Meets Philosophy

Sci-fi movies and books have generally always fallen into one of two categories – the kind where hostile creatures invade and mayhem ensues, and the kind which used alternate universes to explore deeper questions about the nature of humanity.  Another Earth falls into the latter.  It contains very little in the way of special effects, but poses some pretty deep questions about the threads which hold our life together, for better or worse.

Relative newcomer Brit Marling (who also co-wrote the script) plays Rhoda Williams, a brilliant young student on the verge of entering MIT, whose life comes apart after a night of drunken celebrating, when she gets into a car accident kills the wife and child of a music professor named John Burroughs (played by William Mapother).  All of this occurs on the night that astronomers discover a planet which is absolutely identical to Earth, right down to the people living on it.  In the moments leading up to her accident, Rhoda is listening to this news on her car radio and looking into the sky.  Later, scientists speculate that the moment these two “Earths” discover each other, is also the moment in which their identical histories diverge (a key element to the end of the film).

Flash forward a few years, following a prison sentence, and Rhoda is working as a janitor.  She’s plagued with guilt over killing Burroughs’ family, and wants desperately to tell him how sorry she is.  Burroughs, meanwhile, is living in squalor, unable to function as a human being any more, let alone continue his career as a professor.  Rhoda pretends to be from a company offering free house cleaning, and slowly involves herself in his life to try and save him from the despair that is drowning him.

During the years that Rhoda was in prison, wealthy individuals from the private sector develop a plan to visit the “other” Earth, and offer to give a seat to anyone who writes an essay telling why they would be a good candidate.  As you can probably guess, Rhoda enters this competition.  And while this sort of story could fall over itself trying to ape just about every cliche the genre has created, it doesn’t.  Instead it brings us into the story on a human level, asking audiences to imagine your own life in which everything possible has gone wrong.  How would you react if you met yourself in another, parallel universe?  What would you say?  Would it make anything better?  And in the greatest of sci-fi traditions, Another Earth makes no attempt to answer its own questions.

As the film began to wind down, I sat trying to speculate as to how they were going to pull off an ending to a story like this, without making it seem obvious and laughable.  All I will say is this, the writers deserve huge kudos for executing one of the most clever conclusions I could imagine.  It hearkens back to some of the brilliant Twilight Zone episodes of the golden age, and deftly uses an element of suggestion to leave the audience both satisfied, yet full of questions.

Warrior – Full Review

The premise of “Warrior”, which is the story of two brothers competing in the same UFC-style Mixed Martial Arts tournament, will probably scare off more discerning film fans who dismiss it as another throwaway kickboxing movie.  This is unfortunate, because at the heart of this film is one of the most powerful dramatic stories to hit screens in a while.  Joel Edgerton, who won raves for his role in the excellent Australian film “Animal Kingdom“, plays Brendan Conlon, a popular high school teacher forced to enter a brutal fighting tournament after hospital bills from his daughter’s illness devastate the family’s finances.  His brother Tommy (Tom Hardy), recently returned from a tour in Iraq, enters the same tournament, while being trained by their father Paddy, played by Nick Nolte in one of his best roles in decades.

The emotional key to the story is the complex relationship between the brothers, whose family was shattered by the abusive behavior of their alcoholic father.  Long estranged from Paddy, Brendan refuses to have anything to do with him despite the fact that he has obviously cleaned up his act and is nearly 1000 days sober.  Tommy, despite enlisting his father’s help in training for the MMA tournament, refuses to make any kind of emotional connection with him or attempt to resolve their past conflicts.  Nolte does a marvelous job in a role that tasks him with conveying a man who has lived a hard life and made tragic mistakes as a human being.  In a scene where he breaks down after being verbally destroyed by Tommy, Nolte delivers what may be his finest 90 seconds on screen.  It’s truly heartbreaking.

The back story surrounding Edgerton’s role as Brendan is a bit more formulaic, with some standard underdog tropes at work.  It fits nicely into the “struggling father trying to pay for his little girl’s doctor bills” tradition that Hollywood loves.  In fact, it’s Edgerton himself who rescues the story with a fine performance, making some of the cliches more believable.

I also had a hard time buying the coincidence that, in a tournament featuring the top 16 fighters in the WORLD, that two brothers would both make the cut.  But, I guess if you just go with it, the unlikely scenario doesn’t really take anything away from the core story.

Although the film is punctuated by some lengthy fight scenes, I hope this doesn’t deter film fans from giving it a chance.  Like many of the greatest “sports” movies of all time, the sport itself is not the most important element of the film – the characters are.  Films like “Rocky” and “The Natural”, as well as the recent television series “Friday Night Lights”, appeal to a large audience because they tell a story that audiences can connect with.  “Warrior” succeeds for the same reasons, and should garner a decent following based on word-of-mouth buzz.  It’s a great film.

Midnight In Paris – Full Review

Some of my favorite movie include The Terminator, Alien, and The Matrix.  Logic suggests that I shouldn’t even watch, let alone enjoy, a Woody Allen movie.  Yet I’ll confess, Midnight In Paris hooked me (and if I’m being honest, I’ll admit it isn’t the first Allen movie I’ve enjoyed – there, I said it).

It’s the kind of movie that works simply because it’s operating on a number of different layers.  On the surface, it’s a simple romantic comedy featuring the usual neurotic male lead that Woody Allen loves (and which he himself played in so many films).  But underneath is a film that celebrates art & literature, while parodying the self inflated sense of intellectualism that seems to blossom among dilettantes and academics who revere the great works.

Owen Wilson plays Gil, an American screenwriter who travels to Paris with his fiance and her family, and finds himself swept up in the romantic notion that the French capitol holds the key to his desire for success as a serious novel writer.  Allen uses a series of scenes where Gil finds himself transported back to parties during the 1920’s, during what he thinks of as the golden age of art and literature.  He meets a number of famous faces from this era, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, his wife Zelda, Luis Bunuel, Salvador Dali, and Gertrude Stein.  Gil’s conversations with Ernest Hemingway (played brilliantly by Corey Stoll, a relatively unknown bit actor) make some hilarious references to the larger-than-life persona surrounding the author.  This role should open a lot of doors for Stoll.

Whether you love or hate Allen’s movies, one thing that’s undeniable is that he represents a dying generation of filmmakers who are still able to present a signature style.  In an age where VOD and illegal downloading has reduced movies to disposable commodities made by interchangeable directors, you can still spot a Woody Allen movie miles away.  Like Steven Spielberg and David Fincher, Allen is one of a handful of working directors who still manages to inject his films with a unique voice and vision that fans come to expect, and adore.  Young hotshots who think that movies are all about jump-cuts and seamless CGI could take a few lessons from Allen.  Midnight In Paris is one of his best in years.

Thor: Review

Directed by Kenneth Branagh, well known for directing Shakespearean-style films, takes the helm for one of the summer’s big blockbuster super hero flicks, “Thor”.  Not since Indie auteur Ang Lee took a failed stab at The Incredible Hulk has there been such a mis-match on paper.

The results of this marriage of oddfellows can be described as both interesting and refreshing.  Sure, stuff blows up, and the dialogue ventures into fromage country from time to time.  But Branagh knows his tropes, and he manages to inject the film with a sense of weight, steeped in Norse myth.  The sub-plot involving Thor’s fall from grace and rift with his father, Odin (played by Anthony Hopkins), plays like Greek-tragedy-light at times, but the actors manage to elevate it to something greater than the sum of its parts.  In comparison to some of the fluff we see in Marvel adaptations, this was heavy stuff.

I thought Australian actor Chris Hemsworth made a great Thor, and brings both a sense of comedic levity and unbridled intensity to the role.  Natalie Portman, however, seemed penned in by a poorly written role as  Jane Foster.  Portman has played some challenging and deep characters before, but she seems more like window-dressing here.  Same for Rene Russo, who plays Thor’s mother.  With barely a handful of lines, she does reinforce the fact that Thor, and the myths on which it is based, are both  very male-centric.

Although touted as another popcorn action flick, Thor is actually a hybrid of genre film and art-house sensibility.  I’m not sure if it will find a home with either demographic.  Action fans may get impatient with brooding ruminations on father-son relationships, and the art-house crowd will probably avoid it simply because the cover has a guy wearing a cape.  Personally, I enjoyed the movie quite a bit.  I love a good action flick as much as anyone, but I can’t abide by those actiony super hero flicks that are all style and no substance.  Thor has both, but I suspect only film fans with varied and open-minded tastes will be willing to see all it has to offer.

DVD and Blu Ray Release Date:  September 13th, 2011

Priest – Review

I admit, I wasn’t expecting much.  Another movie in which Paul Bettany plays a slayer of supernatural creatures.  Another special effects extravaganza that is completely devoid of style or soul.  But a funny thing happened about 5 minutes it…the movie hooked me.

It’s a gonzo mish-mash of styles based on an anime graphic novel, set in a kind of alternate future where an eternal war between mankind and vampires has resulted in the Earth being a scorched ruin dotted by “Cathedral Cities”.  These walled metropolises are govered by the Church.  Vampires have been imprisoned in “reservations”, and the once powerful Priests, sort of Jedi Knights of this alternate reality, have been discarded by society.  Until a new hybrid human-vampire threatens to reawaken this age old war.

Ya, I know, it sounds hokey, but I had a blast watching this movie.  The effects are good, and there’s plenty of action.  The visual style is dark, like the Underworld movies, but contrasted by daylight scenes where the world comes alive with searing tones.  While the flick cribs from some past movies like Blade, The Road Warrior, and Underworld, it still manages to do it’s own thing well enough to win over some fans.  It’s a big, dumb popcorn movie, and hey, that’s cool with me.

DVD Release Date:  August 16th, 2011

Cedar Rapids is a hidden gem

On the surface, this movie didn’t look like much.  Goofy looking cover/poster, and a premise that seemed pretty lame.  Ed Helms plays Tim Lippe, a goody-two-shoes insurance agent who goes to Cedar Rapids for his company’s annual convention.  Lippe is naive almost to the point of being a man-child, and from the moment he begins his trip, the laughs start. I was caught completely by surprise at the number of laugh-out-loud moments in this movie.

Ed Helms is a funny, funny actor, and plays this part perfectly, but the film also benefits from a cast of supporting characters that set up his gags perfectly.  John C. Reilly plays Dean Ziegler, the perpetual middle-aged party boy who encourages Tim to let loose.  The two have great comic chemistry together.  There is a scene toward the end where Tim ends up at a redneck house party with a hooker, and his insurance-agent friends come to rescue him.  During this scene, I can’t remember laughing so hard at a movie in a long time.

If you like a good comedy in the vein of Trains, Planes and Automobiles, you should really give this one a try.

 

Brotherhood – Movie Review

Brotherhood is a direct-to-video thriller that has a great premise:  frat house pledges have to rob a convenience store to prove how badly they want in, and when one of them gets shot in the process, the movie becomes a pressure cooker of young men panicking and going to extremes to cover their tracks.  The cast is made up of mostly young actors, only a few of whom are recognizable.  Trevor Morgan and Lou Taylor Pucci are solid actors, and both give great performances that compensate for some of the histrionics delivered by a few of the other cast members.

The tension builds throughout the movie as things go from bad to worse.  Essentially, the theme of the film is, how far will members of a brotherhood go in order to protect themselves, and each other, even in the face of a crime they have committed.  It isn’t exactly groundbreaking work, and viewers have to suspend disbelief a bit in order to accept some of the bizarre coincidences that create a kind of thriller-of-errors.  But aside from that, the movie should be a hit with the target demographic.