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Posts Tagged ‘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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Bolt: Some Sizzle, Yet No Spark

Posted by goldwriting on December 1, 2008

bolt Do you know how close that place is to the ocean? Do you realize how much water that is?!

Rating: 6 out of 10

We sometimes cast a wistful gaze back into history and remember all the purely magical moments of our childhoods: learning to ride a bike, dumping out the first bag of Halloween candy after a monster haul, or playing with the first new family pet. All of these things hold a special place in our hearts and right alongside those for most of us is the memory of watching our first Disney film. Whether it was Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Steamboat Wille or Aladdin (had to mention it since it is still my reigning favorite from ‘The House of Mouse’), those magical cartoons had a profound effect on several generations and for that, Disney deserves a certain amount of credit. Yet, today things are slightly different. In the world of animated cinema Disney is scratching for third place on the totem pole, underneath the powerhouse studios of Pixar and Dreamworks Animation. It’s true, it can be argued Disney is on top of the pole since they own Pixar, but Pixar operates very much as a separate company and they gained their early success and prestige before Disney made the purchase. Disney is merely the distribution chain for the wonderment emanating from the minds and dreams of the Pixar creative staff. So the question becomes, does Disney still have the chops to compete in the animation circuit?

Yes, they do, as long as they are satisfied with coming in third.

Disney’s latest contribution is Bolt, the story of a dog who doesn’t know he’s an actor on a television show and ends up lost in the real world trying to find his owner, who was fake-kidnapped on the show. Along the way Bolt captures an alley cat in an effort to force her to lead him to the Green-eyed Man (his TV arch-nemesis) and also picks up a hamster that happens to be a fanatical fan named Rhino. Their cross country journey is full of adventures and mishaps, all in an effort to lead Bolt home and back to his owner. The journey is also an internal one for Bolt as he struggles with the realization that he is a normal, non-superhero type dog.

Bolt is a charming movie and should be enjoyable to most young kids out there, but the modern day marker for true success in this genre is how many adults can you attract without their children in tow? For that crowd, Bolt doesn’t offer a whole lot. The trailer was incredibly well-designed and caught a good deal of the highlights in the film, mainly showcasing the role of Rhino the hamster, who stole most of his scenes and felt light in the overall scope of the film. Boosting up his role might not have fit in the structure of the story, but it certainly would have brought up the laughs. Another point in which I think the movie fared really well was the depiction of the pigeons, both in New York and in Los Angeles. The movements and seemingly spastic thought processes in those birds were amusing no matter what they were talking about. Those animators really captured a brilliant idea of what it could be like to listen to their thoughts. The Los Angeles based pigeons…well, those were hilarious for a whole different reason, which I won’t go into for the sake of not ruining the scene. (The only pitfall here is it might only be funny to people who live out here and work in the entertainment industry. Even so, I’m lucky because I do live here and I did think they were the high point of the flick.) As for the main characters, Bolt made sense throughout the film and always stayed on a strong motivated course, but I just wasn’t endeared to him. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it was, but something lacked in making Bolt stand out amongst the cadre of side characters and he ended up being only a lynch pin instead of driving force for the story. The alley cat, Mittens, played well off Bolt and acted more like the Chorus in Greek and Roman theatre, providing the reactions of the common audience member, since Bolt’s own worldview was so skewed. Mittens continually reminded us that what was happening was more-or-less insane, but in the end also showed us what was most important. Surprising to me, Mittens felt more like the heart or emotional center of the film over Bolt.

With animated features another big hurdle is to find a cast of voices that not only fits the characters, but also doesn’t overshadow the movie itself. John Travolta provided the voice of Bolt and admittedly when the movie began I felt his voice was too old for the character and too aware of himself, but as it went on I felt Travolta settled into it more and became more attuned with the character. On the other hand, Miley Cyrus was not a terribly good choice as the voice of Penny, Bolt’s real life and on-screen owner. She was certainly picked for star power and to further connect the movie to the teen-and-under audience, but Miley’s voice is raspy, bordering on smoky at times and while that might work for her pop star image, it didn’t play coming from the mouth of a young, innocent looking girl.

One last interesting tidbit is Bolt was actually executive produced by John Lasseter, one of Pixar’s creators who now works for both companies. He was brought onto Disney Animation to help bring them back into the forefront of the animation world, but I can’t say I really felt that Pixar spark inside this movie. I have no doubt Disney will continue to move forward and fight their way onwards and upwards, but so far it has been a slow crawl for them.

Recommendation: If you have young children, jump on in, but if you’re heading out on your own, you better be a die-hard fan of children’s movies. Also, this is being offered in 3-D at some theaters, but feel free to skip that option. I saw the 3-D version and there wasn’t anything really worth the hassle of wearing those glasses and possibly fighting off the resulting headache.
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Slumdog Millionaire: Rising From the Ashes

Posted by goldwriting on November 27, 2008

slumdog-millionaire You gotta get on that train, kid. Trust me. It was in a movie much older than this one.

Rating: 9 out of 10

The last two months of the year always bring out the heavy hitters from both the studio pipeline and the independent circuit. It can almost become a test in itself to keep perspective about what constitutes a good or possibly great film. The bar of quality can get subconsciously raised so high that everything starts to either blend together or pale in comparison to one overwhelmingly powerful piece of cinema. Yet no matter how hard the struggle may get, everyone wins in the end because the audience is presented with a plethora of great films to enjoy.

I’m sure you see where this is going in terms of how I feel about this next movie. If not, please go back and read the first part again. Slowly this time.

Slumdog Millionaire is the story of Jamal, a young boy growing up in the poverty stricken parts of the big cities in India. Through a twisting and winding series of events he finds himself as a contestant on their country’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. His fame and wonder grows as he answers question after question correctly until he is on the brink of completing game and winning the grand prize. As most good stories do, this film begins with a question; how does he know all the answers? Is he cheating? Or is it written?

Simon Beaufoy, the writer of the screenplay, got the story from a novel called Q&A by Vikas Swarup. It’s true I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how close the movie follows along or how much was creative license, but either way, the structure of the film is a beautiful example of intelligent and well-planned storytelling. Each question in the movie leads to another flashback, a new vignette into the history of where Jamal came from and the struggles he went through to get where he is. It allows the audience to get pieces of information that are only pertinent to the scene in front of it without having to wallow through sixteen years of a childhood. It also breaks the film up nicely and serves as a nice reminder when the footage you are watching is particularly harsh that he does make it through somehow, since we see him on the game show. The true power of the story is the celebration of love, destiny and the belief it is still possible, no matter what the costs. As mentioned previously, some of the footage, mostly in the first thirty minutes, can be very hard to sit through due to a few scenes of child abuse, alluded to and shown. The tolerance level gets pushed nearly too far, but at the last possible second the film turns the corner and those previous scenes now become the anchor to where it goes from there.

Danny Boyle, who directed this fine feature, is no stranger to telling love stories in the most chilling or tragic of circumstances (take a glance back at The Beach) or pushing cinema to new levels of uncomfortable (try some of the key scenes from Trainspotting or 28 Days Later). No matter if it’s love or death, Danny Boyle always comes to the plate with something visually interesting and compelling, never failing to leave a lingering impression which sparks conversation even weeks afterward. Beyond those intense scenes in the beginning, there are numerous moments throughout the film which stand out. I won’t go into them all here for the sake of saving surprises for the theater, but believe me, they are there. Another talent Boyle has is working with the actors, which should always be the main role of the director. The performances here from Dev Patel, who plays our lead Jamal; Freida Pinto, who plays the romantic interest Latika; and Irfan Khan, who plays the police inspector, are all incredible and worthy of mention. Dev is definitely the heart and soul and drives the film, but his skills are only exemplified by the support he receives in each and every scene by the other cast members. Dev has only one credit outside of this film, but I have no doubt it will be filling up nicely after this film makes the rounds. The same holds for Frida, who actually only has this single credit to her name, but with her presence, talent and striking beauty, she will be gracing the silver screen for years to come, if we’re lucky. Irfan was quite busy before this movie came along and that doesn’t look to be slowing down for him any time soon.

Now although everything up to this point has been glowing and full of praise, this film not perfect. I had one main issue coming out of the theater and it has to do with the character of Salim, Jamal’s older brother, played by Madhur Mittal. There is an obvious triangle in the film between Jamal, Salim and Latika, but even before that appears, Salim constantly jumps back and forth between an undying loyalty and love to his younger brother and in the next scene betraying him in the worst ways imaginable. Some might argue it is an issue of control and Salim’s constant battle to keep it over Jamal, but I’m not sure it is supported by the story. Whatever the case may be, the audience is never granted with any explanation of Salim’s motives and I feel it harms our ability to emotionally connect with his character. It is not a deal breaker by far in this film, but since everything else in the movie was done so well, this little fact stuck out for me.

Recommendation: This is a true must-see film. If you miss it in the theater or it doesn’t play anywhere near you, rent it the first chance you get. Strap yourself in and ride out the tougher stuff in the beginning of the film, you will not be sorry. Also, not to plug another film, but if you like great films with themes of undeterred love, check out Brick; it’s in my Top Ten Movies of All Time. Lastly, if you’re a fan at all of Danny Boyle, I would be remiss in forgetting to mention the under-appreciated and terribly under-marketed Sunshine, which was without a doubt one of the best Sci-Fi films of last year, if not the last five years.

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Changeling: Truth and Passion without Power.

Posted by goldwriting on October 26, 2008

“Oh my, ummm…this is awkward. Can I return this one for something a little more, i don’t know, related to me?”

Ranking: 7.5/10

Some people refer to it as the “Oscar curse”, others mention it as “setting the bar too high”, but they all refer to the same phenomenon, once great success is achieved everything from that point forward is compared against it. Few directors still working today know this as well as Clint Eastwood. After winning a number of awards previously, he finally snagged the Academy Award for Best Director and Best Picture for his 1992 return to the Western, Unforgiven. Twelve years later he reached that height once more in both categories for Million Dollar Baby. With that amount of popularity and acclaim in your wake, critics and audiences begin to develop a particular impression of where your movies will take them. Each time Clint returns to the screen, it is another contest against himself to try and outdo his previous visions. Did it happen this time? Were new peaks reached in power and passion? Let’s find out.

Changeling is based on a true story about a young woman named Christine Collins whose young son was kidnapped in late 1920’s Los Angeles. This took place during a time of great scrutiny and negative press for the police department in LA, so her tragic situation was given an overwhelming amount of news coverage and spotlight. Desperate to garner anything in the form of positive press, the LAPD snatched up any attempt to find her boy, but in that desperate vein they returned to her a young boy who was not her son. Whether it was an honest mistake or collusion on the part of the police force, it didn’t matter, there was no way for them to back out. What followed was a closely guarded cabal of high ranking officers and elected officials who did everything in their power to silence the willful and impassioned young mother still crying for her real son to be brought home.

The story is a powerful one and at times you have remind yourself that it actually took place. The sheer audacity and corruption depicted nearly ruins any suspension of disbelief, but it’s because we live in a different time, a different society. Back then, women still had very few rights and a great deal could still be swept away with a back handed comment about them being “too emotional”. In the past we were still bearing witness to the classic adage of “absolute power corrupts absolutely”, which we can still see today if we look closely enough. Clint did a fantastic job translating this desperate tale to the screen, bringing every minuscule detail of the 1920’s – 1930’s Los Angeles back to life. He also continues to handle brutal levels of violence in a sensitive and classic manner, moving the camera away or playing with shadows just enough to let the audience fill in the darkness.

Yet, what a director is truly there for is to direct the actors and bring forth the most honest and pure performances possible. This is where Clint Eastwood is a living, breathing masterpiece. Angelina Jolie brings forth the tremors and troubles of the young mother, Christine Collins. There is no doubt playing this role was incredibly intense for her since she most likely drew from her own much publicized experiences as a mother. She once again glides from reserved, to frantic, to forlorn and lastly to resolute with the grace of an actress much older than her years. The only problem for her was she spent a good deal of the movie emotionally troubled, so there wasn’t very far she could still go by the time of the third act climax. In the end there was a sense of caring for her, but I felt the lack of a distinct moment of undenied connection from the audience. John Malkovich lays the heavy hand of responsibility on the LAPD in his performance as Reverend Gustav Briegleb, a local pastor who made it his main goal in life to bring to light all the criminal and despicable acts the police had committed under the guise of justice. John achieves the powerful and sometimes frightening level of surety and devout belief in his own actions, which is usually the signature of highly influential religious officials. Jeffery Donovan gets the part people either love or hate to play, the character left holding all the blame. As Capt. J.J. Jones, Jeffery scrambles erratically to cover up Christine Collins in any way possible, including having her committed to an insane asylum until she agrees to sign a document absolving the LAPD of any wrongdoing in her case. He definitely reaches deep into this character to bring out the desperation which accompanies his actions, but the one failure here is we can never tell how much he knew from the beginning, exactly how complicit was he, which affects how much the audience can blame him. Yet, with all these big names and accomplished actors in the film, scene after scene is stolen by Jason Butler Harner in the role of Gordon Northcott, a frighteningly imbalanced monster with a penchant for young boys. No matter who he was on screen with, Jason drew all eyes to him and punched his way off the screen into the guts and underbelly of the audience. When nominations are announced next year, I’m not going to be surprised to see some of these names in lights, but Jason is certainly one of the most deserving.

While there are times we complain something on screen is unbelievable or that it could never happen in real life, this film suffers slightly from the opposite effect, what we witness is based on real life, during a particular moment in time. The level of mental, physical and emotional abuse laid upon this woman is not only baffling, but shocking to the idea that it ever took place. The film follows a common structure of your underdog story, one against the many, but in the end I’m not sure whether there was enough retribution to balance out the agony she had been put through. Without that equality between protagonist and antagonist, the film can sometimes feel unfulfilled.

Bottom Line: Fans of Clint Eastwood will like the film, but possibly not love it. It still fails to reach the level of his previous works, but certain performances, specifically from Jason Butler Harner, are truly worth experiencing.

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Body of Lies: Political Punch Without a Point

Posted by goldwriting on October 12, 2008

You mean to tell me the hidden Harry Potter novel is NOT in this folder?

There are certain things a country does when it goes to war, the economy usually booms into action, the populace rally behind the sitting President and Hollywood starts production on films portraying America as the patriotic force of good against whatever evil it is we are currently fighting with. And so it went during the early years of the Iraq War, but as time dragged on everything started to slip away. The economy slid into one of the worst depressions on record, the general populace turned on the sitting President with such vitriol and distaste it is a wonder he’s still in office, and lastly Hollywood began to show another side of the conflict, one where we were not cast in the best of lights. The movie going public usually eats this all up with a popcorn flavored spoon, but eventually there is a line crossed where the audience just doesn’t care anymore. We’ve moved on, the war has become old news and we don’t want to be reminded anymore about how badly we screwed the pooch. But films take a long time to go from start to finish, so this weekend we were graced with one more wartime vision, Body of Lies, this one from greatly acclaimed director Ridley Scott and powerhouse actors Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Russell plays Ed Hoffman, an arrogant, egotistical CIA operative constantly wired to the cell phone in his pocket and somehow managing to pillage information from halfway around the world while still attending his daughter’s soccer game. Leo takes the role of Roger Ferris, the rough edged man on the ground who provides Ed with his intel and carries out whatever orders flow through those encrypted phone lines. As with anyone who stays in those situations for too long, Roger is getting strung out and he starts to wonder if these secret missions and assassinations are really the correct course of action. Ed does what he can to talk sense into him, make him see the bigger picture, but Roger begins to think the two of them are picturing different things. Old loyalties are tested and broken, while new ones are forged in the heat of a silent war. Once again, it’s shown that every man must choose his own destiny and find out what he truly believes.

The main thing getting in the way of this film’s success is the timing. No matter how much action you put in, no matter how much drama you layer over it, the fact remains this is yet another Iraq War movie and the audience just isn’t there anymore. We have grown weary of seeing our enemies, the ones fighting against us and the ones claiming to be fighting for us. There will always be a place for war movies in the annals of cinema, but the market right now has become glutted with them, especially with the extra helping on documentaries on the subject. Deep down we all go to the movie theater to be momentarily distracted from what we see on the news every night and right now the voice of the people is speaking loud and clear on that point.

Yet, even if this movie had been released earlier by three or four years, I’m not sure it would have done much better. Ridley does his best here to set up tension and a good sense of paced action, but with only an hour gone from the opening shot I was already beginning to wonder how long we had left. The film seems to drag itself towards an end, which when it finally arrives has little to no impact. The story lacks a sense of closure, which possible stems from the reality of the situation in Iraq. There is certainly a ride to be had by watching this, but I’m not sure you finish the ride feeling any different than when you got on.

The excitement surrounding Russell and Leo getting to work together was palpable when the casting was first announced, but they both deliver only during certain scenes. Russell relaxes into the skin of Ed Hoffman, a man who can’t be bothered to think about the humanity of his actions because he has the safety of the world on his mind. Yet barely underneath that is his own desire to be recognized as the one who saved it. In particular moments of the film, Russell really flowed with the brimming confidence of Ed, but in other scenes he came off rather uncaring and unmotivated. Leo got a touch luckier in his role because all the drama and conflict really resides in him. He showed some good chops while playing the political game between Ed and the local contacts, but it never came up to the power of Leo’s earlier stuff, like The Basketball Diaries, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape or most recently The Departed, which he will forever be measured against. The one person who actually stepped out of the film and truly gave a measure of weight when on screen was Mark Strong, who played Hani the head of the Jordanian Secret Service. His cool demeanor was a translucent mask over an intimidating and unremorseful nature. Hani saw the world very plainly, those who were with him and those who were against him, and you knew which side you wanted to be on.

Recommendation: I can’t honestly say there is much here we haven’t already seen in the last couple of years with films like The Kingdom and Lions for Lambs. If you really want power and performance inside a war story, Ridley is still your man, just go rent Black Hawk Down instead.

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Here are links for two of the posters for the movies I mentioned in this review:

Buy at Art.com
Buy at Art.com

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Eagle Eye: I Think I’ve Gone Blind (SPOLIERS)

Posted by goldwriting on September 28, 2008

What do you mean those Indy fans are still pissed off? Man, they are persistent.

Shia LeBeouf is the boy with the golden ticket. We’ve watched him rise from talent on the TV screen in Even Stevens, make a breakthrough performance in The Battle of Shaker Heights (one of the winning films from the ambitious Project Greenlight) and land squarely in the middle of some of the biggest blockbusters of all time, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls and Transformers. His star is shining bright in the Hollywood skyline and nothing seems to be slowing him down…

except for the fact his acting skills are getting completely lost in terrible, and I mean truly terrible, scripts. Let’s give his newest visual extravaganza a look see.

Eagle Eye is the story of Jerry Shaw (LeBeouf), a young, brilliant son who never applied himself to anything and is scraping by in a droll existence dodging his landlady and bluffing money in poker games in the back room of his copy store job. This is also the story of Rachel Holloman (played by Michelle Monaghan), a pretty, young and bitterly divorced woman who’s trying to vicariously live out her wild youth through her friends, while dedicating her only strength and passion to her young son. These two seemingly total opposites are “activated” and sent kicking and screaming through a dangerous series of hoops by an unknown voice on their phones, who can seemingly track them absolutely anywhere. Jerry is forced into it because he’s been framed as a terrorist, while Rachel runs the gambit to save the life of her son. Together they try to stay alive long enough to figure out what it is they are supposed to accomplish.

*There you have the basic set up. From this point on, there are spoilers because it is impossible to write about the issues with this film without giving away the plot twists. You’ve been warned.*

There is no person on the other end of the phone. It’s a computer called Aria who was designed and built by the Department of Defense and is now on the warpath to eradicate the chain of command, all the way up to the President, because they disobeyed a tactical recommendation she gave them. So after all the hype and excitement around the movie, it turns out to be nothing more than a poor remake of WarGames. This is only made more offensive by the fact that I loved WarGames as a kid and amazingly enough the film still holds up today, which many from that time period don’t, especially when they have to do with computer technology.

The film pretty much unravels from the moment you are told everything is being run and designed by a rogue artificial intelligence. The trailers were specifically designed to hide this fact, giving off more of a “big brother” fright tactic, and I applaud that marketing plan, except the only time that works is when the true plot twist in the theater is more interesting than the one we already imagined. This is not the case with Eagle Eye. No computer system would ever create such a convoluted and hole-ridden assassination plot. Computer systems are based on logic, even the ones we give personalities to, but Aria decides to make Shia and Michelle run rampant through downtown streets in numerous cities, dodging death and destruction at every turn, only so they can get into Aria’s control panel and undo a biometric lock put in place by…wait for it…wait for it…Shia’s twin brother, Ethan Shaw. We’re supposed to believe that once this lock is removed, Aria can proceed with her plan to destroy the chain of command. Not bad, as long as the audience chooses to notice that by this point in the movie the plan had no way of stopping, even if the lock was still in place. All the pieces were already in motion and Aria was pretty much unnecessary to the assassination.

Seriously, I could go on and on about the plot holes and logical misfires in this script. They range from a cell phone which can be triggered to only light up in short bursts and used to relay Morse code (I don’t know about you, but one click on mine and it stays lit for at least three seconds, no matter what) to the fact that only one mini-mart shop in all of Washington D.C. has a security camera not hooked up to any external network. The amount of disbelief needed in this film to make it enjoyable is staggering, almost more than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Transparent Ego Issues. No one actually tried to make sense of anything in the film and it runs on the belief if you move the camera around fast enough no one will notice. Well I noticed and I’m nowhere near the only one.

D.J. Caruso, the director of this silver screen misfit, is teetering on the brink of becoming Michael Bay, which I’m sure to some people is not a bad thing. He could follow this path and keep making bigger and bigger movies with less and less attention paid to the story or plot, but there’s a certain amount of respect traded to the devil of special effects and deep pocket budgets. He won a ton of people to his side with his Rear Window homage, Disturbia, and gained Shia as his modern male muse, but this recent visual splatterstorm of nonsense has brought him back to square one. The cast of the movie, which also included Billy Bob Thornton and Rosario Dawson, kept up their end of the bargain, but no one could perform their way into anything meaningful inside the web of failed logic and shark jumping. The blame firmly rests on the shoulders of screenwriters John Glenn and Travis Wright, which is frightening since these two are currently writing the remakes of Clash of the Titans and The Warriors. If there is justice in the film world, let their directors know how to rewrite on set.

Recommendation: If you’ve read the whole review to this point, this part should be fairly clear. Feel free to make up your own mind, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. I’m a writer myself and I know this review was rather harsh, but I call it like I see it, what I saw was a total mess.

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Burn After Reading: Coen’s Bring Imperfect Wackiness

Posted by goldwriting on September 24, 2008

You mean I can only be nominated for one Oscar at a time? But whyyyyyy???

As September crosses into the present, film critics and aficionados everywhere begin grinning and twitching in excitement. Oscar movies are officially on their way to the nearest silver screen. With the ribbon of quality content being cut, the first expected contender came from the brotherly duo not unfamiliar with the Oscar machine, the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan. Fresh off the heels of their Best Directing, Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars last year for No Country for Old Men, the cinematic brothers brought us a new chapter in their visual memoirs, Burn After Reading, a throwback to the darkly humorous days of Fargo, which also won them a Best Original Screenplay statue. Into the mix of directorial style and writing finesse we gained the acting skills of Brad Pitt, George Clooney, John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton. Frances McDormand is also along for the ride, but she’s a Coen staple (and also married to half the duo, Joel Coen). This movie had Oscar potential written all over it, so the only question going in was would it live up to the expectations?

Swing…the ball connects…it’s going deep…almost there…awww. Ground rule double.

This is not an Academy award winning film and certainly not one of their best, but still a nice way to slide into the season of quality content over box office boffo. Burn After Reading is a quirky, silly tale following a disc of information thought to contain CIA secrets from a disgraced and angry analyst (Malkovich), which is found in a local gym and tightly grasped by the hands of a woman (McDormand) desperate for money to cover her plastic surgeries. Mostly what the Coen brothers are known for is the depth and creativity of their characters and this film does well to cover the bases on that point. Frances McDormand plays Linda, a terribly pathetic woman so deathly afraid of aging and the current state of her body that she has blinders on to the rest of the world and the happiness it can offer. She brings the solid level of commitment and shine we’ve come to know her for. Brad Pitt joins in with what has to be his silliest and least intelligent character to date, Chad, a constantly hyper-active, exercise fanatic who works with Linda at a gym called Hardbodies. I have to imagine this was a fun role for him to play since he hardly gets to let loose like this anymore, not since 12 Monkeys. He provided a lot of the early humor in the film, but also drops one of the biggest plot twists halfway through. Clooney brings to life Harry, a ex-personal bodygaurd with a penchant for compulsive lying and an addiction to sex. George only gets to be this wacky under the tutelage of the Coen brothers, so even while it’s not his best work by any means, it’s a fun reminder that he can indeed get goofy with the rest of the gang. Tilda plays the ice queen wife of Malkovich, while also having an affair with Clooney. Watching her in this role, along with some others, I wonder when her picture will be included in the dictionary next to “emasculating”. Not to be left out of any discussion about over-the-top characters, Malkovich plays his part to the hilt, but I honestly feel his best moments are in the opening scene. There’s not much of an arc for him, so only seeing him come to life early on really provides any surprise and unseen moments.

Burn plays inside the footprints of Fargo, but never quite catches up to it. The Coens obviously know their craft and continue to put material out there with their own voice and character stamp, but this film felt a little like a step back for them. Maybe it was just a way to resettle into the dark comedy they are known for after their detour into heavy drama with No Country. Also running parallel to this is the question of the marketing campaign. Again the trailer was cut in a fashion to show one type of movie, but once you were in the theater it became something different, not wildly so, but still there is a distinct shift in tone from wacky comedy to dark comedy, and sometimes those audiences don’t mix well. It’s like seeing a trailer for Police Academy and getting Rushmore. Two great tastes that taste awful together.

Recommendation: If you’re a devout fan, you’ve already seen it anyway. If you’re on the fence, wait until video. If you’re completely on the other side of the fence, you still read this far anyway? I’ll take that as a compliment. Thanks. 🙂

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Babylon A.D.: A Future No One Wanted to See

Posted by goldwriting on September 7, 2008

No one knows it, but I’m watching The Fast and the Furious behind these lenses on repeat. Damn, I was good back then.

It can be tough to remind an audience of something they used to love long ago. Cut to eight years ago where fresh faced post-millennium crowds were stunned by the sheer machismo of a character known as Riddick and the actor who brought him life, known as Vin Diesel. Talk of the next big action star shot around town through phone lines, electric wiring and every wireless network available. Vin was handed the golden ticket, but unfortunately he chose to cash it in on the wrong show. After another huge boost from the Fast and Furious franchise, which he helped create, Vin walked away and jumped into XXX which turned out to be a huge disaster. Since then Vin has stumbled through the action world, briefly turning in a finely tuned family performance in The Pacifier, but never making it back to his once renowned action star fame. Here, in the dark, dreary world of Babylon A.D., Vin was set for a comeback. Poised on the edge of a Blade Runner-esque feature that looked to relaunch the man-myth in the same fashion as Pitch Black did all those years ago. Would it work? Would Vin muscle his way to the top once again?

Not this time.

Babylon A.D. is hamstrung from the start. Here’s a brief overview of the story: Vin plays a smuggler who’s pretty much left the game, but is dragged back in for one big score which could give him the chance at a new life. The deal is he has to transport a young girl into America in six days. Tons of people are after her for different reasons, which Vin tries to ignore at first, but finds himself tangled in her web. This last job forces him to make a choice between caring about himself or caring about others. On paper it all sounds fairly straight forward and easy to get across, but somewhere in the translation from page to screen this simple story became so convoluted and riddled with plot holes that the director himself went on a vulgarity laced tirade against the studio for ruining it. Matheiu Kassovitz railed against Fox Studios for cutting an extra seventeen minutes from the final cut and also not allowing him to shoot what he felt was an integral scene to the story. We as the audience will never know if those missing minutes would have turned the tide of the film, but when the credits to roll as it is the feeling of huge and important facts missing is inescapable. The most glaring of all is the big hook from the trailer where we see a rocket propelled missle explode within inches of the young girl, as if blocked by a force field, but where the field came from, how she created it or what it means about her powers is explained only in the most inept fashion. This would be the only moment the audience could emotionally connect with Vin Diesel’s character since he couldn’t understand any of it either.

In the acting realm, Vin didn’t do a terrible job. He brought back a little touch of the gruff, no nonsense brute we all came to love back in the day. Yet later in the movie he shows even he has an achillies heel, no matter how tough he may seem. A late in the third act crying scene was absolutely painful to watch and should have been cut from the first moment of rehearsal. Put him behind the wheel of a car or the trigger of a gun, but never, ever put Vin behind a sheen of fake tears. Michelle Yeoh tries to add some acting chops to the flick, but even she gets lost in the convoluted plot twists. Stuck smack dab in the middle of this bleak futuristic mess is Melanie Thierry, who plays Aurora, the mysterious explosion proof girl. Piercing blue eyes aside, she has the innocence and purity the role calls for, but not the experience and talent yet to pull the audience in with her.  Once again though, I hate to give her too much flack since everything really starts with the script and the writing just wasn’t there to support her.

In the end Babylon A.D. came to the screen as a great concept, but terribly executed and we’ll never know if that was due to the unfinished and unpolished script, terrible directing by Kassovitz or another example of a movie studio sticking its fingers where they don’t belong. Whatever the case, it was a missed opportunity for Vin Diesel to recapture his former glory. Luckily for him, he already signed on to return to his star making character in Fast and Furious, the fourth part of the franchise, reuniting all four members of the original cast. If done right, Vin still might get the bump he was looking for.

Recommendation: Watch Blade Runner again, or Equilibrium, or Gattaca, or take a nap.

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Towelhead: A Hat Trick of Anxiety, Trauma and Beauty

Posted by goldwriting on September 3, 2008

I’m sure there’s a joke out there somewhere to make about a movie with themes like this, but I’m not going there. So phbbbtttt…

Nothing sets the mood like walking into a movie already brimming with controversy before it ever hits a single silver screen. So it was with the new storytime vision of Alan Ball, writer of American Beauty and creator of Six Feet Under. With those two titles under your belt, every audience member knows they are in for something darkly humorous, unusually frank and powerfully uncomfortable. Once again, Alan Ball did not disappoint on any count.

Towelhead is the story of Jasira, a young thirteen year old girl reaching the inevitable point in her life where changes occur in her body and her surroundings, but none of the adults around her represent anything close to a good role model. Without proper guidance Jasira stumbles tragically into puberty and has to fight off racism, sexism and the primal urges of others as well as her own. Nothing makes sense to her anymore and a new fight emerges when someone actually tries to care for her and make her recognize right from wrong.

This film penetrates through layer upon layer of social taboo and almost dares the audience to flinch, maybe even leave if they can’t handle it. The depths of humiliation and abuse Jasira sinks into are troubling to say the least, but there does seem to be a method to the madness behind the scenes. The story does attempt to say something important about young children, especially girls, who are victimized. Too many times once a tragedy has occured in a young girl’s life, she is forever treated like a victim and never expected to fully return to a normal, well balanced life, but Alan Ball strove to show a different possibility. He created a world where Jasira suffers terrible act upon terrible act, but continues her fight for understanding and once she does fully come to grips with what is happening to her, it becomes a fight to take back control of her own life. Also brought to bear upon the social mindset is the dispicable parenting that takes place. Jasira is an all too common example of divorced parents using their child as a weapon against each other and losing all recognition of the small impressionable person in between. It’s not to say what happens in Towelhead happens to every child, I surely hope not, but the allusions drawn here are far from unheard of.

The thematics will feel somewhat familiar to those in touch with Ball’s previous works, but he claims to have not noticed that until after filming was already done. Also part of the excuse is Ball didn’t write the story, he adapted the script from the novel of the same name by Alicia Erian, a middle eastern woman herself. Together, Alicia and Alan both defended the use of the title Towelhead in the face of protests from American Muslim groups across the nation. It’s a gray area to be sure. Alicia and Alan actually changed the name to Nothing is Private before they screened at Cannes because they were so afraid of the reaction (and it’s still listed on IMDB under that title), but after the film was sold, the studio actually asked for them to change it back. Everyone involved seemed to feel the inherent racism in the title and the shocking nature of it was integral to the story they were trying to tell. Opposers feel it is sensationalist and only helps further the use of such a deroggatory term. In my opinion, it’s a tough sell to try and make them change it since it gets embroiled in a censorship vs. artistry dispute, but I do see a double standard in our country where this movie can get released and supported, but Nas is forced to change the name of his last album away from N****r for exactly the same reasons. I think that proves the point that we may have come a long way in the fight against racism, but it’s only against some cultures, not all.

OK, off my political soapbox, back to the movie. Like I expected, Towelhead is incredibly well done, but equally uncomfortable. Numerous times I shifted around in my seat because there was no way to watch the screen and feel at ease with what I was being shown. Alan made this effect possible with strong unapologetic writing and brilliant casting. Summer Bishil takes on the impressive and heavy role of Jasira and delivers a stunning performace, which for her is nearly a debut (she’d done some children’s TV movies before, but nothing of this level or caliber). Her nievete in acting only helped to make Jasira more innocent on screen, creating even more torment when that innocence is threatened. It was a inceredibly brave role to play and I would not be surprised if her name is mentioned around Oscar time. Aaron Eckhart once again proves he can play any kind of next door neighbor, the one you invite over and cook hot dogs with or the one you make sure you lock the side doors against. This time he plays the more devious and dispicable of the two and his commitment to the role was impressive and frightening to say the least. Playing the role of Jasira’s father, Peter Macdissi had an entirely new road to travel as a man ill equipped for fatherhood in America during this day and age, while also fighting off racism both against him and from him. My feelings towards his character were very close to those of Greg Kinnear in Little Miss Sunshine. Both were paternal characters who were incredibly easy to hate, but when the film tries to redeem them at the end, it feels like too little too late. I will say in Towelhead, Peter’s character makes a stronger turn in the third act, but so much animosity is built up by then, it’s hard for an audience to empathize. Trying to save adults everyone from being portrayed as completely inept is Toni Collette. She plays a pregnant neighbor on the other side who begins to see terrible possibilities open in front of her and does her best to protect and shelter the young girl, sometimes even from Jasira herself. It was a nice touch to make the character pregnant since it added an extra level of worry and panic over whether something like this could happen to her own incoming child.

Recommendation: This is not a sunny afternoon matinee and certainly, positively not a date movie. But, if you are a fan of good, powerful and emotional filmmaking, strap yourself in because this is a heavy ride. See it in the theater for that extra added power, since it won’t be so easy to pause or change the channel.

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