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Posts Tagged ‘movie review’

Doubt: Titans Clash Over Sheer Intensity

Posted by goldwriting on January 16, 2009

doubt I was told by a reliable source that black is the new black this year.

Rating: 7 out of 10

There are numerous ways to tell a story. You can paint a picture which conveys one image, but a library worth of emotion. You can write a piece of music which seeps in behind the eyes and speaks even more directly to the heart. Hell, some people can even tell a story through the presentation of a seven course meal with a well thought out menu. Yet two of the most popular ways to tell a story are on stage and on screen and every now and again one story takes that perilous walk from one to the other. Sometimes the results can be fascinating, like opening up a whole new way to think about the characters and the story as a whole, but on other occasions all you do is sit back and wish you’d seen it in its original form. Sometimes, just sometimes, where you’re born is where you’re meant to stay.

As you might guess, that is how I feel about Doubt.

Doubt is a story about a power struggle between Sister Aloysius Beauvier, an overbearing, discipline-driven nun and Father Brendan Flynn, a younger, more socially-forward pastor that the Sister unwillingly works for. Sister Aloysius is alerted to a possible inappropriate situation going on between Father Flynn and a young boy in the church and she goes on a hell-bent tirade to root him out, no matter what the cost or the complete lack of proof she has. With conviction and passion on her side and logic and the absence of proof on his side, these two deeply entrenched personalities battle over truth, what you are allowed to do to get it and finally, if you really need it at all.

The story originated as a play written by John Patrick Shanley and he went on to write the screenplay and direct the film himself. In most cases you don’t get that lucky, to have the original creator still in such control over the new permutation, but Shanley made sure he kept the tone and power of the story intact during its newest transformation. In a certain respect that might be part of the problem. In the original play only four characters were in it: the nun, the father, the younger nun and the mother of the boy in question. With the film, many more people had to be created to fill out the world they lived in and on occasion it worked perfectly, creating fluid movement between the scenes with the major characters, but every now and again you could feel the presence of a band-aid type of moment, only there to hold things together while we got to something actually important. Also, I haven’t read the play or ever seen it on stage, but the character of the boy’s mother only has one scene in the film, albeit an incredibly powerful one, and it feels like she could have been made much more integral to the film. The dialogue is intense, pointed and incredibly crisp, but that much is to be expected coming from such an accomplished playwright as Shanely. As a play, Doubt had already taken home the 2005 Drama Desk Award, a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Not too shabby.

In some of the transfers from stage to screen, the studios and directors will reach out to those actors already familiar with the material and bring in the original cast members (as was done with Frost/Nixon with Langella and Sheen), but Shanely made a specific choice to not invite his stage cast into the film project because he knew with the growth of the world he had to create for the film, those actors would have a harder time adapting to the new version of the story and they would feel out of place with the rest of the cast. So he brought in new blood to the project and I can truly say he chose incredibly well. Philip Seymour Hoffman took on the role of Father Flynn and he attacked it with the passion and sensitivity we have all come to know and expect from him. There is an honesty about him, even when he is playing a villain, that makes the audience side with him on nearly anything. Standing across the religious ring from him was Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius. She channeled every child’s worst nightmare of their Catholic school upbringing into this devout and devious despot. From the moment she lets her brain lock onto the possibility of Father Flynn’s misdeed, she tenaciously grabs hold, sets her head down and barrels over anyone and everything in her path. Like most movies born on the stage, this has some truly amazing scenes and one particular fight between Hoffman and Streep is stunning in the level of intensity, power and outrage they both escalate to. Shyly trying to not impede on the performances of her cast mates is Amy Adams as the young and innocent Sister James. She has the unwanted joy of lighting the match which burns through this entire piece and the second she lights it her face and heart drops knowing it will lead to something awful. Adams is still climbing the ladder of her already illustrious career and few are doing it with such variety and skill as her. It’s understandable that she would feel somewhat intimidated by tangling with Hoffman and Streep, but her talent holds up quite well in such company. Rounding out the original four characters is Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller. Davis only gets one scene in the entire film, so maybe it was the knowledge of that which made her decide to knock it completely out of the park. She shared time in that scene only with Streep, but instead of letting the audience revel in Streep’s already well-known talent, Davis injects herself with bravado, self-righteousness and gives Streep her only ass-whooping of the film. With only words, Streep looks like she has been bowled over by a cement truck by the end of a scene where the two characters simply walk down a small path. Davis went along to be nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama and it was well deserved.

In the end my reason for thinking it most likely works better on stage is due to the rest of the world feeling somewhat forced. The original four are still the only truly interesting characters and when we are away from them, we just end up wondering where they are. Also the tone and pacing is still very much that of a play and the film runs incredibly fast, so the ending feels a touch abrupt in my book. Shanely also mentioned in an interview that he wanted to make sure the audience left with a sense of doubt about whether the alleged event of Father Flynn ever really took place. Unfortunately for me, Hoffman’s performance never gave me too much feeling on his guilt and Streep’s inability to see any logic outside of her own made her seem too oblivious and misguided to be on the right side of the argument. There were some quick shots later referred to in an effort to shed a cracked light on Father Flynn, but it was too little too late for me.

Recommendation: This particular film with lose nothing in the shift from big screen to TV, so feel free to wait on that account. If you are a connoisseur of acting, this is a great example of some true pros at work, but if you’re looking for a more well-rounded plot, this might not fit the bill.

Reviews Coming Soon: Seven Pounds, Yes Man, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and many more…

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Frost/Nixon: Bringing the Fight to the People

Posted by goldwriting on December 7, 2008

frostnixonmovie Did I have your phone tapped? Your voice sounds so familiar…

Rating: 9 out of 10

There are few things in life as exciting or exhilarating as watching a good fight. Maybe it’s the primate in us, a deep evolutionary need to see two people beat the piss out of each other in order to prove dominance. Maybe it’s the need to see a champion, someone we can look up to and model our own lives after. Or, on a slight chance, it’s the glimmer of hope we huddle around to keep us warm and keep our dreams from fading away, the dream that one day someone will topple the champ and change the world forever. Now you might think those emotions only get woken up during a purely physical battle, but if so, you are truly missing out on some of the best battles in human history. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated seven times in 1858 for control of the Illinois legislature and those verbal fencing matches were a preview of the power and eloquence with which Lincoln would bring to bear in his time as President. Almost exactly one hundred years later, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon took to the airwaves for the first ever televised debate between Presidential candidates. Those four on-air matches drew numerous comparisons to their predecessors of nearly a century before. Even in our latest election a highlight truly arrived during our one and only debate between Vice-Presidential candidates, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. While it might not have been the intelligence and skill in the fight we were all watching for, it still made for captivating television.

Yet one thing all those previous moments lacked was the dark cloud of obvious guilt and shame hanging over the head of Richard Nixon after he resigned the Presidency in disgrace over the Watergate scandal. A man who achieved amazing and brilliant things during his time in office was forced to step down and hang his head for something he was arguably not the first to do, just the first to get caught red-handed. I’m not defending Nixon, but in the context of political history, including any number of the documented and undocumented crimes committed by our still reigning President, Nixon was a lightweight. But for the American people of the 1960’s, his betrayal of the public office was the lowest they had seen a President stoop to and they demanded action. After newly sworn-in President Ford issued a complete and unequivocal pardon of Nixon, it seemed as though the American people were going to have to drink and eat whatever they could get their hands on to cover up the bad taste. But then one man stepped up to the plate, determined to give the people exactly what they wanted.

This is not just a history lesson; this is the premise and plot of Ron Howard‘s new film, Frost/Nixon. David Frost was a British talk show host who came up with the idea of interviewing Nixon after his resignation, but his original motives were not entirely altruistic. Mainly, he was a master of television audiences and he could feel the ratings he would get for such an interview would be outrageous. Once he locked the interview in place however, it became a monster he almost couldn’t control. The film is incredibly small in scale, beginning the year where Frost came up with the idea and ending within days after the interview was concluded. We get to see the build up to the big interview, but the actual recorded and tastefully lit chat between the two characters is really the lynch-pin on which the whole film rests. Thinking about the premise beforehand, it’s hard to imagine there being an incredible amount of tension in the movie-going audience, especially since we know what happens, but quality filmmaking and intelligent storytelling can make any old story seem new once again. By the time Frost and Nixon sit across from each other, microphones pinned to their lapels, handkerchiefs folded and makeup invisibly applied, the intensity is palpable. It was akin to watching a heavyweight boxing match, except one contender had never really felt the blow of a well-landed punch before. Once he does, the fear in his eyes truly brings the audience into his mindset. Luckily for us, both in the theater and in history, fear that might make some men run will make others fight all that much harder.

Ron Howard has been making movies for a number of years now and won a number of accolades and critical acclaim, but Frost/Nixon might end up topping them all. With a very simple story he found a way to display two very non-simple people. There is tension, anticipation and weight all brought to bear on a simple interview which ended up changing the lives of not only the people in the chairs, but the worldwide audience as well. Howard also got his two lead actors gift-wrapped, Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost. Both actors originally played their roles on stage to massive acclaim, so heading into the movie, they had these characters down cold. There is definitely a difference between playing a role on stage and playing it on film, but the internal work and preparation by these actors is a virtual treasure chest in comparison to what you get on most film sets. The moment they appear on screen, you can feel the depth and skill both actors gained from all their time put in. Frank Langella disappears into Nixon, truly embodying Nixon’s confident walk and sweeping movements of his arms, his imposing intrusion into people’s personal space, and finally the stoop — which on anyone else would have made them look old, but with Nixon is just made him look dangerous and determined. On the other side of the ring, we have Michael Sheen, who shined as David Frost, the plucky and charming television talk show host. There are some moments where Sheen is just listening to Langella rant on and on and Sheen displays an amazing level of intensity, fear and nearly overwhelming nervousness just by using his eyes. He doesn’t even have to move to show the wave after wave of emotional turmoil this man goes through while trying to go toe-to-toe with “Tricky Dick”. Both actors are strong contenders for nominations in the award season.

Beyond the powerhouse duo in front, there is a wealth of strong supporting cast. Sam Rockwell, one of Hollywood’s best go-to character actors, delivers an impassioned performance as James Reston Jr., one of the researchers on Frost’s team. He is the emotional anchor for the team, representing the anger, fury and bitter disappointment of the American people, and if there is one thing Rockwell does better than anything else, it’s playing disappointment and disdain (try poking your head into almost any scene in Choke). Right alongside Rockwell is another amazing talent, Oliver Platt, who plays Bob Zelnick, the more political structure based portion of Frost’s team. Platt continues to do his thing with great talent and shine without ever stealing scenes or trying to make the moment about him. He can be the star of the show if cast that way, but his true talent is blending into an ensemble and making everyone around him better for it. If you’ve never really experienced Platt, I would happily and heartily suggest Casanova and The Three Musketeers, both brilliant comedic performances. A little on the lesser-known side is Matthew Macfadyen, who plays John Birt, Frost’s manager, who continually rallies the troops and sticks by his side even when things are at their most bleak. Macfadyen brought a great sense of strength and loyalty that kept the audience in check and never giving up on Frost and his ultimate goal. As if we needed another name to add to the list, this will benefit all those addicts of the “Six Degrees” game, Kevin Bacon plays Jack Brennan, Nixon’s Chief of Staff and most devoted servant. Bacon lays it on thick, the dogged determination and defense of Nixon, even in the final moments when it all is slipping away. A solid job from an incredibly consistent actor.

Recommendation: If you like movies about important moments in American History, you should like this. If you like Ron Howard films, you should like this. If you like purely character pieces, you should like this. If you are looking for sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, you might wanna move on by. Lastly, if you are like me and try to watch everything on the Oscar nominated list, I’m putting good money this film will end up on there somewhere, whether for acting, directing or writing. Save yourself the rush of trying to track it down during awards season and catch it now.
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Twilight: Tween Daydream Turns Into Nightmare

Posted by goldwriting on November 24, 2008

twilight

My eyes are shut. Please, please tell me when the crazed fans are gone.

Rating: 2 out of 10

There is not a person in the world who hasn’t heard the rags to riches story of J.K. Rowling and the legendary Harry Potter series of books. Those books, of course, led us to the movie franchise, which has generated so far over a billion dollars with three more movies to go (one for book six, while book seven will be split into two pieces). Yet as quickly as one legend is chiseled into stone, another one comes along, shaking the pedestal to knock down the reigning champion. Stephanie Meyer wrote the first book in her Twilight saga only 3 years ago and she is already hot on the trail of Harry Potter’s coffers. With the release of the fourth book, Breaking Dawn, the series as a whole has sold over 17 million copies and been translated into 20 different languages. So, with the literary world groveling at the feet of the Twilight series, begging for more, it was inevitable the movie world would come knocking. Does such a massive fan base guarantee success for the feature film adaptation?

Financially it always helps, but critically it doesn’t mean a thing. With an opening weekend of over $70 million dollars, Twilight is already a blockbuster and I’m guessing will finish up somewhere in the $400 million dollar range. This will mainly be due to the hordes of tween girls who will go see this repeatedly, like they did with Titanic, driving the box office receipts way past any critical value. Once you look beyond the dollar signs and the pre-pubescent obsession, the reality is this movie is barely watchable.

From the very beginning of the film it is terribly paced, trying to drain each and every sigh and wistful gaze from the moments on screen, which causes it to take over an hour to get to anywhere the least bit interesting. Finally, when that moment comes, it is over incredibly fast and done with such broad, clumsy strokes that banging your head against the chair in front of you begins to seem like a viable option to make yourself feel better. The whole thing drips with teenage melodrama, admittedly perfect for their direct audience, but to make a truly successful film it has to play to more than just a fraction of the populace. I’ve never had a problem appreciating a good movie, whether I was the correct demographic or not (look back on my review of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 if you need proof). The fact remains Twilight drags itself from scene to scene, on top of being badly performed. This is a shame to be added to the resume of normally skilled director Catherine Hardwicke, who I have personally raved to many people about her previous films, Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown.

Rob Pattinson, who plays Edward Cullen, the lovelorn vampire, has already ascended to fill the void left by Orlando Bloom from his Lord of the Rings days, but he has far from grasped what it takes to be an on-screen heartthrob. There is an art to the longing gaze, an inherent skill to the penetrating looks across the room, neither of which he possesses. He ends up coming off more like a borderline sociopath who might be suffering from any number of vitamin deficiencies. He also proves numerous times that opening your eyes incredibly wide doesn’t always emote intensity, some times it just comes off looking like you’re in pain. There are rare occasions when the lead actor can be propped up by the performance of his co-star, but this is not one of those times. Kristen Stewart, taking on the role of the lovestruck Bella, who although powerfully cute and physically perfect for the role, plays way too much with the awkwardness of meeting a boy you like before taking an enormous leap into the deepest love in the world. There is virtually no arc for her romanticism, it just appears instantaneously and is never doubted by either side. Also, without giving away any spoilers, there is something special about her character which draws her to her new vampire boyfriend, but yet again it is never explained or even explored. For the next film, which has already been signed and contracted, it would behoove whichever director it might be to watch Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist to see the correct way how to show two incredibly awkward teenagers fall in love without making the audience want to gouge out their own eyes. The painful and repetitive scenes between Rob and Kristen completely washed away James Van Der Beek and Katie Holmes from Dawson’s Creek, America’s previous winners for “Most Time Taken by a Fictional Couple to Just Get the Hell on with It!”

Not having read the book, and I pray it is better than the adaptation, there are also a number of things changed or altered from the vampire mythos. I’m all for new storytellers taking creative license and trying to make something traditional into their own, but the changes made here just ripped out the heart and soul of these maligned and tragic characters. From their over-romanticized reaction to direct sunlight to the absence of a single pairs of fangs in the film, all the creative team of Twilight succeeded in doing is making these characters the weakest and most pathetic vampires in movie history. I would make a comment about Buffy being able to take care of these poor specimens, but I honestly don’t think she would bother. She’d probably send Xander.

It was glaringly obvious that the movie was made with only one group in mind, the 12-14 year old girls, and if you were not a member of this group, you honestly didn’t matter. This tactic might make for a financially successful film, but the franchise will begin to suffer once its audience grows up between films and they start to be able to do more than just gape at a mysteriously gaunt boy on the big screen. My only hope is the studio learns from the Harry Potter series, which has gotten better and better as the films have gone on and they continue to satisfy the young fans of the books along with their parents and older siblings.

Recommendation: If your hair isn’t currently in pigtails, move along.

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Quantum of Solace: Big Bang, Little Else

Posted by goldwriting on November 17, 2008

QUANTUM OF SOLACE

Why did I park so far away on opening night. I’m gonna miss the previews!

Rating: 5 out of 10

There are characters out there so iconic, so ingrained into the hearts and minds of the viewing public, that when a new chapter in the series emerges we rush out opening weekend, our hands clutching popcorn and our eyes pasted wide. Only a chosen few have made it into this cherished realm of public trust, but none as long and as stylishly as James Bond. This weekend brought his newest episode, Quantum of Solace, and it marked the second in the reign of current Bond persona, Daniel Craig. He broke out the gates with extreme critical and public appeal in the remake of Casino Royale, but now it was time to see if he could keep up the excitement and appeal.

Excitement, yes. Appeal, less so.

Besides being incredibly well dressed at almost all times, Bond is known for action and this chapter goes for the gusto from the moment the cameras roll. The movie opens with an impressive car chase, which inevitably leads our hero from overcrowded roadways into a wonderfully photographed rock quarry. It was a bold choice to jump right into the action without any set up whatsoever, but for those out there who somehow avoided seeing Casino Royale, it definitely helps to understand where this scene fits in (approximately twenty minutes from the ending of the last film). Lots of gunplay, screeching tires and near misses bring the curtain up nicely, but having a strong opening does not guarantee audience support for the rest of the film. We need to be taken on a journey, not just shown an amazingly expensive episode of Fear Factor. There needs to be plot and story behind the action to raise it up, but Quantum had very little in the area of foundation.

The story jumps around incredibly fast, not enough to lose sense of what is going on, but just enough to not give us time to invest. The Bond movies seem almost addicted to making every scene take place in a different foreign country, which makes for some great camera shots, but terrible continuity of scenes. Also, much of this movie was sub-textually about James Bond mourning the loss of his love from the last film and barely controlling his rage while seeking revenge. We fully got the revenge motif, but the mourning was shown only in the thinnest of manners. A nicked photograph and an old necklace were the only links to his emotional center, but they were rarely used in the brief moments between gunfire and roof jumping.

On the adrenalin front, Bond delivers as usual. One of the nice changes I feel to the modern day Bond is the older films used to show him skillfully sliding from one place to another, jumping and landing perfectly on any surface and so forth, but Craig makes every leap seem based solely on guts and gusto, not tact and talent. Throughout the movie, he lands on balconies and terraces by crashing into some random piece of furniture. The only reason the bad guys don’t get away from him is the dogged determination which forms the core of who the Bond character is. I think the rougher, tougher Bond is an obvious reflection on society today and what we want to see in a hero. Not so much a person who can dodge a bullet, but one who can take two shots to the leg, one to the arm and an uppercut, yet still win the fight.

Surrounding Bond as always are a bevy of beautiful women and a cabal of agents, both on his side and against. Gemma Arterton was mentioned a while back, by myself and others, as a “Bond Girl”, yet in this episode she is actually not the top of that food chain. Olga Kurylenko is the alpha female here and is a much more complex character. In the beginning her and Bond are on completely different tracks, but over the course of ninety minutes of insanity their paths intertwine, both strategically and emotionally. While not being a complete knock out performance, she is steadily improving over her turns in the unfortunate back-to-back duo of Hitman and Max Payne. Gemma, definitely worth mentioning, does finally bring a little taste of the classic Bond, just enough for an homage to the old days of Connery and Moore. Her sultry style hearkens back to the female characters of the early films and makes us remember why we love to visit the world of Bond so much. Also, without revealing a blatant spoiler, her role brings up the most direct recall from one of the most well known Bond moments. Feel free to let me know if you see it (it’s hard to miss). Now Bond would be nothing without a dastardly villain to track down and capture and this time it’s provided to us by Mathieu Amalric. A very popular and well rewarded star in the French cinema, this marked the American debut of Mathieu, who played the corrupt CEO with the world’s creepiest stare, Dominic Greene. While I do understand not every Bond villain has to be one who can last a round with him in a fist fight, in fact many of them don’t fit that category, but something about the final confrontation between these two didn’t sit right. So much had to be stacked against Bond to make this even halfway feasible and even then I found myself wondering why it was lasting so long. In cases like this, I find it’s better to give the villain a skilled right hand man, who endures the final fight, and let the boss deliver a final speech before giving up or blowing up.

Orbiting around Bond are some other side characters, but the only ones worth mentioning are Judi Dench who returns to continue her role as M, Jeffery Wright as the CIA agent with a working conscience and Giancarlo Giannini as Mathis, the convict turned trusted friend of Bond. All of these actors did a fine job in their limited screen time, but even they couldn’t hold up the lack of plot or story connectivity.

Recommendation: Quantum of Solace is good for some action, but a lackluster follow-up to Casino Royale, the relaunch of the Bond franchise. The execs are going to have to wipe the drawing board clean once again and see if they can’t relight the spark they just had, because one more like this and the fickle crowd will start murmuring to fix the problem with yet another new actor as Bond, which is not the answer. Plus, in my humble opinion, Daniel Craig was born to play this part. So, catch the afternoon matinee if you are drawn to the tradition, but if not, try re-watching Casino Royale. Homemade popcorn is better anyway.

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The Visitor: Finding the Beat of Your Heart

Posted by goldwriting on November 1, 2008

Can you teach me something by Journey?

Rating: 9 out of 10

Taking the ordinary and introducing it to the out-of-the-ordinary. That’s what Thomas McCarthy said about his films and their underlying stories. Actually, he probably put it a little more eloquently, but you catch the drift. This is indeed the core of nearly all filmmaking and good storytelling. It brings out the eternal question; What happens when the normal world is shifted, knocked askew by any number of forces and how will the people of that world react? Will they run? Will they freeze? Most importantly of all, what would we do in their shoes? Now before you apply these new questions to such deep and powerful films like Beerfest and Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo, let’s start out with something a bit clearer.

The Visitor tells the story of Walter Vale, an economy professor listlessly wandering through his days pretending to be busy so he can negate any chance for human contact since the loss of his wife. He reluctantly makes a trip to New York for a conference and finds a young couple illegally renting his apartment in the city. Being a decent person, he allows them to stay while they look for a new place, but in return he gets much more than new roommates, he finds the doorway to a life which has been passing him by.

Thomas McCarthy creates a wonderfully simple and beautifully timeless world for us so we can bear witness to one of the great abilities in human nature, love. You can break almost any story down into a love story, but The Visitor is one dealing with numerous types of love in one tale. There is the love of music, shown when Tarek, the young man living in William’s apartment, teaches William about the African drum. Through this new musical outlet, William grows not only as a drummer, but as a person as well, allowing himself to open up to the world walking by him and becoming a participant instead of an invisible observer. There is the love of a young couple, shown by Tarek and Zainab, his girlfriend. They are both living in the country under constant fear of deportation, ignorant retaliation and learning to do what they can to get by, but their love for each other keeps them together and puts smiles onto their faces in even the darkest of moments. There is also the love of a mother for her son, shown through the brave journey of Mouna, Tarek’s mother who travels to New York after five days of not being able to reach her son on his cell phone. Sure, that could sound a touch paranoid, but it was the reality this family was living in which made her so concerned. Lastly, just to top off the love-fest, this also tells the story of love coming again to those who have closed themselves off to the idea. No matter what the circumstances, no matter how long it has been, love can always breach those defenses and wake up the heart once more. All these different versions of love are delicately woven together and paired up with a powerful political sentiment around our broken immigration policies and treatment of illegals. Coming off heavy handed is dangerous when dealing with these themes, so subtlety is the name of the game here and McCarthy handles it with the same skill and honesty he showed us before in The Station Agent. As a writer/director his record is incredibly strong, so I recommend keeping an eye out for anything bearing his name.

As with most small stories like this one, much of the weight and success falls on the shoulders of the actors and their ability to deliver realistic, believable and truthful performances. Casting becomes a type of “make-or-break” decision for the project and Thomas McCarthy came well prepared to the table. He had Richard Jenkins in mind for Walter Vale from nearly the beginning and stuck with him even after Richard told him that he would love to play the character, but the movie would most likely never get made with him as the lead. Richard wasn’t saying this out of any type of martyr complex, but he has been a character actor for a great many years without a starring role and he knew his name would not carry much weight on the playbill, yet even with that fact staring him in the face, Thomas stuck to his guns and fought for Richard. After winning all necessary battles, Richard walked into the role with such amazing depth and sensitivity garnering him incredible buzz and murmurs of Academy nominations. If he doesn’t reach the heights of the golden statue this time, he shouldn’t be too heartbroken because I have no doubt a number of the independent awards and smaller organizations are going to give notice and heap praise. There were such small and nuanced details to every moment he portrayed, it was impossible not to feel for him during this journey. From platonic caring to romantic longing, Richard proved once and for all he is a lead actor and one to be learned from. Also involved from near the inception of the story was Hiam Abbass, who played Tarek’s mother, Mouna Khalil. She really fit perfectly with the style and grace of Jenkin’s performance, showing a quiet, reserved, yet insurmountable strength which propelled her character to do absolutely anything to be there for her son. As for the young couple, Haaz Sleiman played Tarek and Danai Jekesai Gurira played Zainab. Both were quite good and held up the incredible level of commitment and quality already being displayed in the film. Haaz boldly followed his ark of being hopeful and optimistic about life in America to barely contained rage over his mistreatment from ignorance and fear. Danai displayed the other side of being a foreigner in this country, the side where they try as best as they can to keep to themselves and not interfere or be noticed for fear of being deported. Her struggle displays one of the true tragedies of the story, where the yellow brick road leading many immigrants to our shores and streets ends on cracked pavement and broken promises.

Recommendation: The Visitor is an amazing film which really brings out the depth of feeling we yearn for from independent cinema. It has had a long and slow burn on the film circuit and at this time can already be found on DVD, so do yourself a favor and buy, rent or borrow this movie as soon as you get the chance. If you’re lucky, the story of Walter Vale might even inspire you to continue on your own journey, wherever it may lead.

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RocknRolla: Ritchie Gives Tarantino the Ole’ One-Two

Posted by goldwriting on October 9, 2008

Buy at Art.com

[ Click above to buy the poster]

2 out of 3 people in the poster are looking off to the left. The girl would be looking there too, but she’s playing coy.

Are you looking to step into a bit of the ole’ underground? Yearning for a taste of the underbelly of London? Maybe you’re just missing the sounds of those thick British accents as the words stumble into your ears and confuse more than inform you. Whatever the case may be, there is only one man who truly provides the cure for those ills…Guy Ritchie.

The man behind Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch is back once again with another chapter is his series of old school mob movies. RocknRolla follows along a certain tradition for Ritchie, fast talking and fast reacting characters keep the audience tense, because they have absolutely no clue what will happen next. Keep the characters unpredictable and keep the audience involved, that’s the key. Now, if you noticed the title of this review, you might be wondering where the connection to Quentin Tarantino comes in (and that is a most perceptive and valid question. Well done, reader). After the movie ended I turned to my friend and said, “One sentence review: The British Pulp Fiction.” He sat back, processed the comparison and smiled. “Yep, you’re totally right.” I’ll show you what I mean while giving a brief overview of the story.

RocknRolla follows a small gang of low level criminals known as The Wild Bunch, who get hired by a sexy accountant to rip off some big money from an even bigger mobster. What she didn’t know is our little hooligans were already in debt to the local crime lord, who was doing business with the “bigger mobster”. So money is stolen, circulated, recycled and everyone ends up chasing each others tails. Also, there is a painting that gets stolen and becomes the MacGuffin of the film, which is a cinematic term for an object that is central to the plot, but no one ever really sees it. People philosophize, people die and people are nearly sodomized.

If the specifics of the comparison aren’t gelling for you yet, here’s a breakdown:

MacGuffins: Pulp Fiction has the briefcase which we never see inside. RocknRolla has the painting which we never see the front of.

Crooks in way over their head: Gerard Butler and Idris Elba play the heads of The Wild Bunch and are constantly trying to keep one step ahead of being killed by the very person they are working for, just like John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson (more Travolta though, in this case).

The Girl is the Problem: Thandie Newton is the instigator of the troubles which put Gerard into play, just like Uma Thurman goes after Travolta, thereby putting him in a situation of life or death.

Multiple storylines: RocknRolla is not set up in the vignette fashion of Pulp Fiction, but both deal with a number of plot lines that all converge in the end to tie things up.

Sodomy Interruption: Both films have a scene where a guy is about to be raped by a pair of leather clothed dudes, when someone comes in and makes the snap judgment on who to kill.

It can be argued that some of these things are common to all movies of the crime/mob genre, but so many together in one film makes the case a little stronger. I’m not saying RocknRolla is bad, not in the least, but I left feeling like I’d seen it before.

RocknRolla is not going to be remembered in history for iconic performances, like Travolta and Jackson, but there was some good work being done. Butler hams it up nicely as a crook-cum-swashbuckler with no dancing feet. His inherent suaveness comes to bear in his scenes with Thandie, but he also gets to show his willingness to play that in the direction of a different gender. Which brings up one big difference between this and Pulp Fiction, and this could be easily attributed to the time periods, but RocknRolla was doused in homoerotic overtones. From the sodomy to the gay side characters to the subplot of Butler and his best friend in the gang, it never gets too far away from it. This provided for some really amusing humor and grinningly awkward scenes. Idris gets to play the straight man, no pun intended, to Butler’s machismo and he achieves it well. There is a certain calm to Idris on screen which makes me certain he’s going to be around for a long time to come. Tom Wilkinson also gets to walk a little on the more wacky side as the crime boss of London, trying to prove he’s still the big fish in town and time isn’t passing him by. Thandie, who I’ve enjoyed on screen in the past, doesn’t travel much farther beyond eye candy on this occasion. Jeremy Piven and Ludacris drop by as music producers, but get paltry little screen time. The one person who will leave the biggest visual impression is Toby Kebbell, as Johnny Quid. He spends most of the film shirtless and brings back frighteningly skinny images of Chistian Bale from The Machinist. Bale still wins the freakish battle, but Kebbell kept enough muscle tone to still look dangerous as well, which gives him an edge. Lastly, blink and you’ll miss Gemma Arterton, who will be seeing much more of in the upcoming Bond film, Quantum of Solace.

Ritchie on the other hand delivers once again in more traditional style. As I mentioned before, fans of those two early films of his will certainly enjoy this. The attitude is there, the raw edge is there and the camerawork is rife with quick cuts and whip pans, just like we’re used to from him. He also wrote the film again, which helps even more keep the style intact. I think many people will be glad to see the old Guy Ritchie back on the silver screen. Yet, all his past successes could be wiped out by the possibility of greatness with his upcoming film, Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr. as the questioning crusader, Jude Law as the encyclopedic Dr. Watson and Rachel McAdams as lady love interest. I’m containing my excitement for this, but just barely.

Recommendation: A good flick, bordering on great, far from amazing. If you’re a fan of Ritchie from the past, you won’t be disappointed. If you’ve never seen a film of his before, feel free to check this out, but don’t stop here, see Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels as well. As for the theater experience, after the initial whip panning frenzy in the first ten minutes, it settles down and becomes quite enjoyable. I also recommend Rasinettes over Goobers (take that, peanut lovers!).

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Rachel Getting Married: Performances Outpace Story

Posted by goldwriting on October 4, 2008

I remember what it was like to blink. Those were good days.

In every actor’s career there comes a moment where the critics and audiences rally around jumping for joy about how they’ve just witnessed a breakthrough performance. As stunning as these performances are, the term “breakthrough” always felt a little out of place to me since it’s only on rare occasions the actor in question is relatively new. Most times they are people who have been pounding the boards and scraping the screen for years. In those terms, the breakthrough is nothing more than a large group of people seeing that actor in a new light for the first time, mostly in something they never imagined before. Now the newly colored spotlight falls on Anne Hathaway and her powerful turn as Kym in Rachel’s Getting Married.

The film is a slice of life piece detailing a small space of time, only a few days, where Kym returns home from a rehab clinic just in time for her sister Rachel’s wedding. Anyone who has ever taken part in arranging a wedding, especially one taking place in the family home, knows the extreme stress already present, so toss a young, partially unstable girl into the mix and top it off with a nice coating of family denial and dark skeletons in the hallway closet, then you get the full picture of this film. Relationships are strained, ties pulled so tight and taut they could snap and still they try to work it out through screaming, laughing and crying (not necessarily in that order). After all, it’s about a wedding, who’s not happy at those?

Before giving Anne her due credit, let me shed some light on someone most people won’t know off the top of their heads. Rosemarie DeWitt plays the title role of Rachel and she does it with the utmost tenderness and subtlety. What she brings across is the inherent hatred, resentment and unending compassion sisters can feel for each other, even through the worst of storms. With a film more comfortable in the category of “ensemble piece”, Rosemarie is the catalyst and pushes the energy along, changing and charging every one of her scenes. But the light shines brightest on Anne Hathaway as Kym, the ex-junkie, ex-alcoholic, ex-return rehab patient bordering on becoming an ex-family member. Audiences claim this as a breakthrough performance because they fell in love with Anne in The Princess Diaries movies, Ella Enchanted and the wonderfully wicked The Devil Wears Prada. Yet what they might not remember is she’s played rougher, tougher roles in Havoc and Brokeback Mountain, showing the more mature and adult side of her skills. So I wasn’t all that shocked to witness the brilliance she brought to this film, but I will celebrate it all the same. Anne jumps in and exposes a vulnerability, a cavern of pain and lost love, which drives the emotional core of the picture. From opening credits to the closing moment, she is the elephant in the room everyone must deal with and the magical point is this is the first time where the audience can begin to empathize with the elephant and not the onlookers. I can’t end the acting portion of this review without bringing up Bill Irwin and Debra Winger as well. Bill plays her father and churns out a tenderness only an accomplished actor such as himself could generate. There are such small moments, such tiny fractures in his facade which allow you to peer into the heart of a man trying to choose between his greatest love and his greatest loss. On the other side, Debra Winger plays her mother, who has chosen to block out the pain in her past and skate by the rest of her life, allowing the blackness and hurt to fester and suffocate any chance at a real connection with her daughters. As you can read, the acting on display here is sensational and will undoubtedly be remembered during awards season.

As a total film, I’m not sure the story reaches the same heights. A lot of great scenes and spectacular moments are created, but the story lacks cohesion. A particular subplot about the family and its deep love for music is mentioned and referred to over and over, but never fully explained or explored, which weighs down later scenes during the wedding celebration and the overlong musical sequences. During most of the musical moments, all I really wanted was to get back to the story, back to the family and to Kym. Also, the connection between Rosemarie and her soon-to-be husband Sydney (played by Tunde Adebimpe) never quite comes across. There is a wonderful moment during their wedding vows, but it could have been helped even more if their relationship had been more centered earlier on.

On the directing front, Jonathan Demme, with the assistance of a touchingly tender script from Jenny Lumet, helps craft a reality we can all believe in, a home we can all feel we’ve been to before. Much of this intimacy and nuance came from the free form style of camera movement, with the actors never knowing where and when the camera was going to appear on them. Everyone was basically playing everything from the moment he yelled action, so there were emotional surprises around every pan of the camera. That technique gave the movie a certain level of improv or even documentary feeling, like the audience was the most silent of voyeurs.

Recommendation: A powerful series of moments, filled with terrific acting, that don’t quite come together as a film. Certainly has great value to witness, but the theater experience might not be necessary. Also, this really is meant for those viewers not afraid to open themselves up to it.

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Death Race: Updated, Not Improved.

Posted by goldwriting on August 22, 2008

The reason I am the only thing in focus here is sheer power of the “stare”. Don’t try it at home.

There has always been a trend in Hollywood to go back and remake classics, but the term “classics” is loosely defined between critically acclaimed movies and those which we just have a hell of time watching over and over again, sometimes re-coined as “cult classics”. Fans of both good and bad films raise their respective hands in horror and disbelief everytime another remake is greenlit, while others furrow their brows in confusion as to what inner voices compelled movie execs to take on that particular film update. So here we are again, witnessing the results of nervous hands reaching back into the annals of film history for something to bring back, something to put new wrapping paper on and re-gift to a whole new audience. Happy Birthday, Movie Fans; It’s Death Race!

The original film, Death Race 2000, was produced by legendary film icon Roger Corman, who also acted as one of the producers for the update as well. It was yet one more notch in the belt of an already stellar B-movie career, which included gems like The Little Shop of Horrors, Dementia 13 and Big Bad Mama. Another tidbit the former Death Race had on it’s side was the performances of Sylvester Stallone and David Carradine as Machine Gun Joe and Frankenstein respectively. Both were big names already, with Stallone only one year away from the stardom of Rocky, and these two actors lend a huge amount of camp value to digging through the DVD rental racks just to discover this timeless story of pre-eminent road rage. You might be thinking to yourself, without those two actors, how can this remake hold up? Well, the answer is simple, find a younger actor who can seemingly play absolutely any character with a car and a bad attitude: Jason Statham.

For those who have been living under a rock for the past ten years, Jason Statham is one of the most under-appreciated action stars of our generation. Launching himself to critical appeal in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in 1998 he cemented his career moving forward by getting cast as the kung-fu thrilling, one liner spouting and impossibly percise driving lead in The Transporter. His trail through the movie ranks has been a tad wobbly at times, like his starring role in Uwe Boll’s In the Name of the King, but no one can fault him for striking while the iron is hot. Statham continues his streak in this flick with a heap of glaring shots through broken windshields and stare down moments after taking unbelievable punches and kicks to the head. The only piece missing for the true Statham fan is a distinct lack of martial arts, which makes sense on the story side of things, but I still wished for one good spin kick, ridgehand chop to the neck or even better, a homage to the greased pig fight ala Transporter style.

Surrounding our steely-eyed hero are a couple of people worth mentioning. Ian McShane, who is most recently known for mercilessly killing and beating people down in the Old West town of Deadwood, plays Coach, the institutionalized leader of Statham’s pit crew. Tyrese Gibson brings his own version of the stone cold glare over to play as the new Machine Gun Joe, which for one reason or another the new writers decided to make gay. Joan Allen takes a striking departure from her usual fare and turns in a stereotyped performance as the fiendishly powerful warden of the futuristic prison where the Death Race takes place. To get a literary glimpse into her role, picture her performance as Pam Landy from the last two Bourne films and turn the bitchiness up three more notches. Lastly, rounding out the cast, as well as her wardrobe, is the film debut of the dangerously curvy Natalie Martinez as Case, the navigator in Statham’s rolling wagon of destruction. The eye candy in this flick just got a little spicy.

The movie gives you exactly what you expect, fast cars, loud guns and explosions one after another. There are a few really impressive stunt sequences and the realism of the shots seemingly prompted the studio to put up a disclaimer at the end of the film to make sure people don’t go home that night and try to mount mini-cannons on the hood of their Honda Civic. One of the main things I can attack about this flick is not the movie itself, but the trailer. The first trailer to hit the screens was way too long and showed each and every plot twist. Admittedly, you don’t sit down for this with popcorn in hand expecting to be dazzled by well written story elements, but at least give the movie a chance to hit on all cylinders (oh hell yes, car references get me bonus points in this one).

Recommendation: It’s not bad for the die-hard Jason Statham fans and road rage enthusiasts, but for the genre it lands in, I might lean towards the recent decapitation-fest Doomsday. The theater experience is only going to help this one out, so hit up a matinĂ©e if you’re feeling the fire for it.

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The Rocker: Comedy Rhythms with Heart

Posted by goldwriting on August 20, 2008

There it is, the first Papa Gino’s I ever ate at. Your first spaghetti basket will change your life.

This summer we have seen everything in the realm of comedy from forty-year-old children and weed fueled action heroes to bumbling super spies and blackfaced primadonnas. It has truly been the summer of high concept, but the audiences are just about ripe for something solid, something familiar and something just under the radar. Who knew it would come in the form of Dwight from The Office?

The Rocker follows the dream which never quite came true for our main character, Fish. He was the drummer in a band, but in order to rocket their career to unheard of levels, they had to drop him. Drop they did, and Fish dwindles into obscurity and ambivalence towards life itself. Twenty years later the universe smiles on him once more and he gets the chance to play drums in his nephew’s band. Through a series of pop culture twists and turns the band ends up becoming an overnight sensation and Fish runs wild through the fields of his waking dreams, while learning the lessons of what it really takes to be the member of a band, not a one man show. Of course, he is not the only one learning lessons, but he’s the main dude on the poster, you know how it goes.

Getting myself comfy in the cushioned theater chair, I was fully expecting a slapstick style, overgrown childhood movie with Rainn Wilson taking charge of the blundering and buffoonery, but what flickered on the screen in front of me was much more than prop jokes and prat falls. The Rocker sneaks by the chuckles and laughter and weasels into your heart with a subtly touching story and some really soft moments. Rainn does get hit by numerous objects and suffers more than his share of bodily harm, but he also never wavers from believing his dream is right and true, not some childhood fantasy. The more subtle comedic moments are left to Josh Gad, who plays his socially awkward nephew/keyboard player. Josh delivers more than a few times and his style felt oddly akin to Dan Fogler ala Balls of Fury, a kind of straight line delivery for a ludicrous line on the page. Rounding out the bandmates are Emma Stone and Teddy Geiger. Emma personifies the “i-hate-everyone-but-the-people-in-this-band” chick, while Teddy has no problem with his sensitive, soulful lead singer persona. For those who don’t already know, this is a touch into the area of typecasting since Teddy Geiger already has a wildly popular album called Underage Thinking and he lent his pop music talents to almost all the original music in the movie. Since they were able to write songs from the characters perspective and not just layer in current pop tracks, The Rocker tips gently into the genre of musical, because the songs actually investigate the emotional state of the characters and move the story along. Also, while Teddy is selling movie tickets and soundtracks, Emma Stone is doing what few actors, especially at the young age of twenty, get to do; open two movies in the same week! The Rocker beat it to the punch, but The House Bunny opens this coming Friday and Emma co-stars in that alongside and Anna Faris and Rumor Willis. It’s a one-two punch for the young ingenue who last charmed people as the girl of Seth’s dreams in Superbad.

Lending a hand to the laugh level were a number of cameos and side characters. Jason Sudeikis from SNL drops by to play the slimiest of record label agents in recent movie history. There are moments you want to punch him, but then you wonder what might get on your hands and if it would wash off later. Christina Applegate plays Teddy Geiger’s mom and tries to balance out the adult-to-child ratio in the mix. She does a decent job and has some truly biting lines (rebutting being called a MILF by replying with calling the man a PILS, you’ll have to see it to get the definition, but I think my best friend will be using it for the rest of her life). Demetri Martin also shows up as the epitome of pretentious, film school drop out, ultra hipster music video directors and it gave me a medium level of anxiety just imagining being on a set with a character like that.

This was honestly the last movie I had any inkling would stir any feelings beyond a bubbling chuckle in my belly, but there is a sweetness to the story and an honesty to the message. It all boils down to follow your dreams, no matter the cost. If that message is spoken faithfully, no matter what story you wrap it in, there will be some people in that audience walking out a little lighter in their step, just itching to get home and pull out their old hobbies, guitars, etc. Don’t get me wrong, this is no Rocky, I doubt many people will suddenly become rock stars after seeing this, but they might just get a tiny bit of inspiration from the best place possible; somewhere unexpected.

Recommendation: I was completely surprised by it, but I’m a sucker for a sweet story. Some good comedic moments, but they are outweighed and outnumbered by the more heartfelt ones. If you’re looking for down-and-out comedy, this might no be crude enough for you. Yet, if you want something simple, with a nice rhythm, this could be the right beat for your Saturday afternoon.

p.s. Christina Applegate also holds one of the best honors ever, being mentioned in the P.M. Dawn song, Set Adrift on Memory Bliss. Let’s be honest, where can you possibly go from there?

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Tropic Thunder: Riders on the Storm of Absurdity

Posted by goldwriting on August 18, 2008

One of these things is not like the other, err..well, it is, but it’s not. (hint: one of them is British)

When the whole world is ranting and raving over the dark, brooding charisma of a vigilante crime fighter, where could we possibly turn to finally end the majestic run of the bat? Well, look no further than the most politically incorrect big-budget comedy in years. I guess five weeks of the gloom and doom of Batman finally did get us wondering, “Why so serious?”. Tropic Thunder rolled through the digital clouds this weekend and into theaters nationwide. It barely cleared the opening weekend take of recent R-rated comedic kin, Pineapple Express, but since Tropic Thunder was made for a ton more money people are wandering around claiming it was a letdown. Look, it took the #1 spot away from The Dark Knight, which had held it for five weeks, and claimed the spot for itself. No matter what amount of money it took in, this was still a success in its own right.

But let’s not focus on money, since it is the root of all evil (but I’ve been trained to handle it, so feel free to rid yourself of any and all unnecessary evil and send your spare money to me). The real success story for this film is the writing, the acting and the sheer brilliance of stupidity skipping and frolicking its way through the jungle. Jumping off the launching point with the fake trailers created for the fake actors in the movie, you already know you are in for something different, something that pushes the envelope of political and social commentary and satire. Tropic Thunder takes unabashed shots at Hollywood, not only for its reputation for prima-donna actors and bumbling directors, but also at its own tendency to turn any poignant social commentary into cannon fodder for the Oscar season. Critics want to brand the movie as insensitive to any number of groups, but what they refuse to see is the lambasting of Hollywood and its own culture as the root of the satire.

Intelligent writing will get your foot in the door, but it’s the actors who are going to have to walk through it. Performances from left to right were all above par and some were down right sensational. Robert Downey Jr. got a helping hand from the instant buzz created the moment people heard he was going to play his character in blackface, but once again the satire of the film keeps it from coming off as incredibly racist. Also lending a hand is Brandon T. Jackson, playing his rapper/actor crossover character Alpa Chino, who comically tries his hardest to correct the historic stereotypes Downey uses to embody his African American roots. Dropped into the lap of a less dedicated actor, the blackface would have completely failed and indeed come off as racist, but Downey confidently walks through the film totally unashamed, which allows the audience to feel unashamed at laughing at him. Ben Stiller, who also took the directing helm for this wartime parody, equally dove into the deep end of the pool with his action hero’s level of total obliviousness to the world around him. Feeling a little like the reverse of the situation in Hot Fuzz, where one man was sane and the entire town was mentally inept, Stiller provides a good deal of the less subtle humor. The only negative twitch I had here was the suspension of disbelief is stretched incredibly thin with Stiller. I could buy the totally out-of-touch actor persona, but once dropped in the legit war zone, it’s a little tough to buy Stiller continuing to live in his action film dream world. Jack Black comes through in the end of the film with his physical comedy king character, but he felt wildly underused for most of the film. Surprisingly, driving the plot and the story along was Jay Baruchel, who was the only mentally stable person in the entire film and he turned in a great performance.

Peeking around the corner of the frame, the cameos in the film are almost overwhelming. Steve Coogan, who should have had a much bigger role, was relegated to mere minutes of screen time, yet he made the most of them. Matthew McConaughey helps paint Hollywood agents in their bleakest light to date, while Bill Hader appears under the veil of the lowly studio-head assistant. Danny McBride, who is having the year of his life right now, steals scenes left and right as the pyrotechnics expert alongside Nick Nolte as the grizzled true life persona of Ben Stiller’s lead role. Saving the most notable cameo for last, Tom Cruise makes a triumphant return to the big screen as an overweight, unbelievably hairy, booty smackin’, cuss tossing Hollywood Studio exec. The hidden genius in this role is every moment he is talking smack about over-pampered actors and how they need to be treated, you know he’s poking fun at himself. Word on the street is Tom recently dropped out of his next action/spy thriller in turn for another comedy after hearing the positive buzz about his Tropic turn. If his career makes a dramatic upturn in the coming months, Tom honestly owes Ben Stiller a crisp million dollar check.

Topping off the whole experience is the great cinematography from John Toll and a wonderfully worked soundtrack, which brings the audience back to the time of epic war movies, but equally reminds us we are watching a send up of that very time period. I can’t say this is going to take in tons of money since the humor might be missed by people not familiar with the inner workings and insanity of the entertainment industry, but I hope there is enough kicks to the balls and fart jokes to keep the rest of the world happy.

Recommendation: It’s worth a look see. Save a couple bucks with the matinĂ©e ticket if you can, but check it out in the theater. The jungle, the explosions, the ridiculous trailers all work better in that environment.

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