I, Frankenstein


Aaron Eckhart is pissed off that his agent let him sign up for this film.

Aaron Eckhart is pissed off that his agent let him sign up for this film.

(2014) Horror Fantasy (Lionsgate) Aaron Eckhart, Bill Nighy, Yvonne Strahovsky, Miranda Otto, Jai Courtney, Socratis Otto, Aden Young, Caitlin Stasey, Mahesh Jadu, Steve Mouzakis, Nicholas Bell, Deniz Akdeniz, Chris Pang, Kevin Grevioux, Bruce Spence, Virginie Le Brun, Penny Higgs, Goran Kleut, Yasca Sinigaglia, Nicole Downs, Angela Kennedy, Samantha Reed. Directed by Stuart Beattie

We are born and then we are created. We are all of us blank slates that are filled up by our experiences and our mentors, parents and friends. Of course if you don’t have the latter, you are left to interpret things on your own.

Victor Frankenstein (Young) had found the secret of creation, animating a sewn-together quilt of body parts and grafted skin. Part scientist and part madman, he had promised his creature (Eckhart) that he would one day animate a companion for him but later went back on his promise. In a fit of rage, the creature murdered Frankenstein’s wife (Le Brun) which completely unhinges his creator, who follows his creation up above the Arctic circle and promptly freezes to death. For reasons even he probably can’t understand, the creature carries the body back to the graveyard to bury his creator alongside his wife when the creature is attacked by demons. A pair of gargoyles witness the event in which the creature kills (and sends their spirits back to Hell) most of his attackers. Sounds plenty biblical to me.

They take him back (none too willingly) to a huge Notre Dame-like cathedral in some unnamed Eurocity where he is introduced to Leonore (Otto), Queen of the Gargoyles. She explains to the creature (whom she names Adam) that there is a war going on between the Demons of Hell and the Gargoyles who are the agents of Heaven (apparently the angels didn’t want to get their wings dirty) and that for whatever reason the demon Prince Naberius (Nighy) had chosen to involve Adam, he was nevertheless caught in the middle. However, Adam who is kind of pissed off at life in general (talk about someone who never asked to be born) chooses to turn his back, heading someplace where humans can’t find him. Or demons. Or gargoyles.

200 years pass and Adam, tired of being stalked by demons and still pissed off at life in general, decides to go on the offensive. Things haven’t changed much in gargoyle-land except that they are now willing to win by any means necessary and they don’t trust Adam much. Naberius, masquerading as a tech industrialist, has hired Dr. Terra (Strahovsky), a respected scientist, to help Naberius figure out a way to replicate Victor Frankenstein’s work. Of course, she doesn’t realize she’s working for a demon prince or she’d probably have asked for enough of a salary increase to afford a better apartment.

She’s able to re-animate rats but not humans yet; the reappearance of Adam and the existence of Victor Frankenstein’s journal in the possession of the gargoyles gives her a shot at actually reanimating human corpses. But what does Naberius want with reanimated corpses and how will that lead to the end of the world? And what will Adam, still pissed off at life in general, do about it – if anything?

Based on the Kevin Grevioux (who has a small role in the film) graphic novel, this has a lot of the same elements of the Underworld series; since some of the producer of that series are involved, it isn’t a stretch to figure out why the movie has much the same look as that hit movie franchise. Mainly set at night or at dusk, with palates of blue and grey predominant in the mix, the movie looks slick.

There is of course plenty of CGI gargoyles and demons to augment the slick look, with lots of digital flame and blue light to denote when a gargoyle or demon respectively bites the dust (the flames descend downward, the blue light ascends upward). The only thing missing is a black leather catsuit for Strahovsky.

Eckhart has been one of Hollywood’s most interesting leading men over the last decade but this is a definite misfire. His only expression is anger with a side trip into annoyed. He’s like the Clint Eastwood character in Gran Torino only with a murderous glare and lots of scars. He’s still charismatic but we get no sense of his inner journey – he eventually decides to help (not much of a spoiler gang) but we never get a clear sense of why; for someone who just wants to be left alone he really sticks his nose in things.

Nighy is one of my favorite actors and he’s essentially entertaining in everything he does. He can be light and charming, or dark and menacing as he is here. He makes for a fine demon prince, urbane and charming on the surface but with a whole load of delicious evil below it. Something tells me that a movie about his character would have been much more fun. Strahovsky, best known as the love interest in the TV show Chuck, looks pretty good on the big screen. I think she’ll make the transition just fine if that’s where she wants to go. Sadly, all three of these fine actors deserved better (as does Miranda Otto as the wishy-washy gargoyle queen).

In movies like Legion and Max Payne we get a very similar background story with a very similar look to both movies, and this one doesn’t really distinguish itself from those other two (and a whole mess o’ B-movies with similar themes). While some of the effects are nice and the leading actors do their job, the dialogue can be cringeworthy and you get the sense that director Beattie – who has some pretty good movies to his credit – lost a whole lot of battles to the producers and/or studio. In any case, this is bound to be heading to home video pretty quickly and while I won’t say it’s a complete waste of your time, you might be better off waiting for it to be a cheaper ticket than the ten dollars plus for the 3D version that are out there now.

REASONS TO GO: Bill Nighy is always entertaining. Aaron Eckhart is a solid leading man. Some nice eye candy.

REASONS TO STAY: Plot is very much paint-by-numbers. All concept and no substance.

FAMILY VALUES:  Throughout the movie there’s plenty of action and violence although not much gore.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The monster was given the name Adam in Mary Shelley’s original novel. Few of the movies have utilized it but this one does.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 5% positive reviews. Metacritic: 30/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Constantine

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Labor Day

Blood Creek (Town Creek)


Michael Fassbender just loves his new skin treatment.

Michael Fassbender just loves his new skin treatment.

(2009) Horror (Lionsgate) Henry Cavill, Dominic Purcell, Michael Fassbender, Emma Booth, Rainer Winkelvoss, Laszlo Matray, Joy McBrinn, Shea Whigham, Tony Barger, Douglas Roger, Michael Ntumba, Razvan Oprea, Ana Popescu, Florin Piersic Jr., Gerald McSorley, Vlad Voda, Albert Gherasim, Wentworth Miller, Lynn Collins.  Directed by Joel Schumacher

Some horror movies one must admire for their ambition but criticize for their execution. Some are just the opposite. Most fall in between.

In West Virginia circa 1936 a family of German émigrés working on a farm receive a letter asking them to host a German occultist doing research on a Viking runestone that they found in their barn. As they are barely making ends meet in the Depression-era rural South, the $150 a month they would receive for hosting the professor would be a Godsend.

At first Dr, Richard Wirth (Fassbender) seems like a harmless academic but soon it becomes clear that Dr. Wirth has a far more sinister motive in mind. The family is forced to set a spell trapping Wirth in their barn and the family is also caught up in the spell, not becoming immortal as Wirth did but certainly not aging normally.

Cut to modern times. Farmer Evan Marshall (Cavill) receives a visit one night from his brother Victor (Purcell). This wouldn’t ordinarily arouse comment except that Victor has been missing for months and when he shows up he is hideously scarred and looks like a cross between one of the Deliverance hillbillies and Frankenstein’s monster. He ropes Evan into taking him back to the farm where he had been held captive and getting his revenge on the family that kept him there.

You can guess which farm and which family he’s talking about. What you couldn’t guess – or maybe you could if you’ve seen a lot of horror movies – is that Wirth has mutated into a kind of Nazi vampire zombie master with terrifying powers. Although the comely farmer’s daughter Liese (Booth) tries to persuade Evan that they’re actually the good guys keeping the monster at Bay for well over three quarters of a century, Victor is having none of it with predictable consequences.

Lionsgate had at one time in the studio’s history released a glut of horror movies onto the market and in the latter part of the first decade of the 21st century began to be a little pickier about what they put their distribution behind. Therefore nifty little movies like this and Midnight Meat Train got microscopic releases, in Blood Creek‘s case a mere 25 theaters nationwide, mostly of the dollar variety.

I think this deserved better. Certainly it’s flawed but there are some pretty nifty elements that I’d certainly recommend. For one thing Fassbender, on the eve of his breakthrough as an actor, makes a thoroughly compelling and hissable villain. Cavill and Purcell both did competent jobs as the heroic leads and while Booth wasn’t given a whole lot to do is at least easy to look at.

There is an awful lot of hand-held camera work in the movie to its own detriment. At times it’s really difficult to make out what’s going on and some important plot elements become confusing and for those of us who are sensitive to shaky cam, the movie can be painful at times. While the movie builds up to its conclusion well, the actual ending is a bit of a letdown.

But then again as much as I would have liked more spectacle, you (and I as well) have to realize that this is a pretty low-budget affair – how tight a budget do you have to have when West Virginia is too expensive a location to shoot in? For the record, Romania stands in for West Virginia which makes perfect sense and quite frankly, it looks a lot of the West Virginia I’ve seen on the Internet.

Anyway, as low budget horror movies go this isn’t half bad. There are some genuine scares, plenty of gore and some nifty ideas. There are also some lapses in logic which is often a bugaboo in horror movies. If you like a good scare and want to try something out you haven’t seen before, you could certainly do worse than this. Not a hidden gem so much as a surprisingly good but flawed grindhouse flick.

WHY RENT THIS: Really nice concept. Fassbender rocks the villain. Smartly paced.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overuse of hand-held “shaky” cams. Ending lacked punch.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and gore as well as some pretty crude language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jesse Metcalf was originally set to star but had to drop out of the production for undisclosed reasons. Cavill was brought in to take the lead role.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dead Snow

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


Stanley Tucci is surprised by the sudden proposal of Jennifer Lawrence.

Stanley Tucci is surprised by the sudden proposal of Jennifer Lawrence.

(2013) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone, Toby Jones, Lynn Cohen, Patrick St. Esprit, Meta Golding, Megan Hayes. Directed by Francis Lawrence

With the Twilight series completed (at least for now), the studios scrambled to find a new franchise that would appeal to a similar demographic. They’ve found it with The Hunger Games based on the best-selling Young Adult book series by Suzanne Collins.

Following the events of the first film (there are spoilers for that film if you haven’t seen it yet), Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) are preparing to go on their Victor’s Tour of the 12 Districts of Panem, a traditional responsibility of the winners. Their love story has captivated all of Panem which has the tyrannical President Snow (Sutherland) a bit worried. You see, he has seen through the pair’s ruse. Katniss still has it bad for the strapping miner Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth) and her sham relationship with Peeta was something done so that they could both survive. Snow warns Katniss that she not only has to convince Panem that her feelings for Peeta are genuine – she has to convince the President first of all.

This isn’t the same Panem that Katniss left however. The repressive policies that have created such a wide gulf between the haves of Capital and the Have-Nots of the Districts has begun to spark some thoughts of uprising with Katniss herself a symbol that is giving the people the courage to stand up for themselves. The new master of the games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Hoffman) agrees with the President that Katniss needs to go – but not as a martyr. She must be associated with the government of Panem and become a symbol of its corruption and repression – then they can kill her.

And he has just the means to do it. The 75th Edition of the Hunger Games is coming up, the so-called Quarter Quell and rather than getting all-new tributes, Heavensbee proposes that the tributes be reaped from the existing pool of victors. Katniss, as the only female winner from District 12 is automatically chosen to go and this time she’ll be up against trained killers who have a win in the Games to their credit. This will be a Hunger Games like none seen before.

While director Gary Ross has exited and Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) has stepped in, there are plenty of familiar faces including Haymitch (Harrelson), the alcoholic former winner who has become mentor to Peeta and Katniss; Effie (Banks), Caesar (Tucci) the smarmy host of the Games whose capped teeth can be seen from space and Cinna (Kravitz), the brilliant clothing designer who is largely responsible for Katniss’ popularity and image.

There are also new faces mostly the tributes for the Quarter Quell including the hunky Finnick (Claflin), his mentor Mags (Cohen), the brainy engineer Beetee (Wright) and the savant Wiress (Plummer), as well as the buttkicking Johanna (Malone) whose motivations remain unclear. The overall performance level has been raised significantly from the first film.

So too have the special effects. There is a sequence in which a kind of mandrill-like monkey clan attacks and it is done so smoothly and seamlessly that it doesn’t seem like CGI at all. The look of the film is pretty satisfying in every sense.

More importantly, there’s so much going on here than just a mere action tale or a romance. There are all sorts of underlying subtexts from the class warfare to the vapid fashion-obsessed culture to the role of mass media in shaping opinion. That’s the kind of thing that makes a critic’s heart beat faster – assuming they have the gumption to look more closely at the movie or its source material.

Lawrence has won an Oscar since the last time she played Katniss and her self-confidence from that clearly shows in Kat’s own growth. While Hemsworth is a fine actor, it’s Hutcherson who captured my attention and seemed to make a better foil for Ms. Everdeen. However, be warned that some of the romantic elements don’t have the same amount of complexity that the rest of the story has and so it seems aimed more squarely at juvenile hearts. Also it should be said that at times Katniss is of a participant in her own story and more of a reactant. For someone who is as supposedly kickass a warrior and strong in spirit she can come off as a self-pitying wimp in places. I don’t think it’s Ms. Lawrence’s fault so much as it is male writers who have problems writing strong female characters. I’d love to see a female screenwriter take a crack at the next one although I understand that’s fairly unlikely an occurrence.

Still, this is solid entertainment that is going to capture the imaginations of its young female core audience. Katniss is truly a heroine to be admired, much more so than Bella Swan. In every respect this is a superior franchise to that other one with a lead character who is much worthier of being a role model despite the occasional hiccups. I wasn’t sure if I cared about seeing a sequel after the first Hunger Games; after the second, I can’t wait for the third.

REASONS TO GO: Some fine performances and action sequences along with a solid storyline.

REASONS TO STAY: Stumbles over itself with occasional overkill and main character sometimes doesn’t seem true to her own traits.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action and violence, with a few frightening images, some suggestive situations, a couple of instances of bad language and overall thematic elements not for the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the Capitol scenes were filmed at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis hotel which also happens to be where Dragoncon, one of the Southeast’s premiere conventions, takes place.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Running Man

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Muscle Shoals

Shadow of the Vampire


Dinner is served.

Dinner is served.

(2000) Horror (Lionsgate) John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Kier, Cary Elwes, Catherine McCormack, Eddie Izzard, Aden Gillett, Nicholas Elliott, Ronan Vibert, Sophie Langevin, Myriam Muller, Milos Hlavak, Marja-Leener Junker, Derek Kueter, Norman Golightly, Patrick Hastert, Sacha Ley, Ingeborga Dapkunaite. Directed by E. Elias Merhige

 

Since we cringed in caves at the dawn of time, we have been scared of the dark. The dark hides the things we can’t see; our imagination makes those things hideous. The noise of wind rustling through the trees becomes a stranger, with a knife, creeping through the grass. Fear has always been more a product of our imagination more than anything else.

That fear was never better crystallized than in the masterwork novel of Bram Stoker, Dracula. It captured the imagination of millions from the time it was published even up to this 21st century and most likely beyond. Stoker made the monsters of our imagination real, demons in the dark made flesh. That’s a dangerous thing in and of its own self.

Filmmaker F.W. Murnau (Malkovich) was fascinated by the novel, and yearned to film it. He was denied permission by the Stoker estate, but was determined to make the ultimate horror movie anyway.  Murnau recognized that realism would make his horror all the more effective. To that end, he hired an unusual actor by the name of Max Schreck (which, translated from German, means “shriek”) to play his Count Orlock, the Dracula of his film. Schreck (Dafoe) is a strange sort who demands that he be addressed as Orlock, and is in character (and the accompanying creepy-looking costume) at all times. Most of the cast and crew assign this as the quirks of an actor and think nothing of it.

It appears that Murnau’s vision is being realized. The film, Nosferatu, is turning out to be everything he hoped – one of the classic horror films of all time. Still, things are not quite right. His cinematographer (Gillett) has taken mysteriously ill and is near death. Murnau must shut down the production to procure a new one. While he is gone, mysterious deaths haunt the production.

When Murnau returns with his drug-addled replacement (Elwes), it soon becomes apparent that the terrifying Schreck is much more than he seems. And he has an unhealthy obsession with the movies leading lady (McCormick, Mel Gibson’s wife in Braveheart). You see, Schreck is not some Stanislavsky disciple taking the method to extremes; he actually IS undead.

What a fascinating and terrific idea for a movie this is. Nosferatu remains one of the most brilliant and terrifying movies ever made, and the mystery surrounding the real Max Schreck makes for some interesting speculation. “Max Schreck” was almost certainly a stage name; nobody knows for sure who he really was. Heck, for all we know he could have been a vampire.

Screenwriter Steven Katz was inspired by the original film, and includes many little touches that ring true; the decadence of jazz age Berlin; the solitude and creepiness of the castle exteriors. He even adds the little factoid that Murnau’s crew shot their movies while wearing lab coats and goggles, giving the proceedings a pseudo-scientific air.

Director Elias Merhige (Begotten) has assembled an impressive cast, including one-time Warhol associate Udo Kier as a producer. Dafoe gives an Oscar-worthy performance (and in fact he was nominated) as the sinister Schreck, an ancient creature who has grown too old, watching a century he does not understand encroach into the only world he has ever known. It is strangely affecting.

The problem here is that Merhige often sacrifices his story for the sake of atmosphere and art. He is successful at creating a genuinely creepy vibe, using old-time film effects and title cards to enhance the mood and set the period. As a result, the look of the film holds up next to the original, a not-inconsiderable task in itself.

But an overly long opening credits sequence put my jaw on edge from the beginning, not the way you want your audience to go into a movie like this. I found the pacing overall to be a bit slow. The film’s climax is also a bit off-putting.

That said, this is a genuine creep-out that will stand your hair on end in various places. Dafoe’s performance by itself is commendable. It’s funny, sad and terrifying all at once. Shadow of the Vampire wisely uses the best monster of all – our imaginations and our fear of the dark – to its advantage.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing performance by Dafoe. Brilliant concept. Creepily atmospheric.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Style over substance. Overly long opening titles sequence.

FAMILY MATTERS: Lots of horrific images, some drug use and sexuality, a bit of violence and bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The producers of Spider-Man hired Dafoe to be their Green Goblin based on his performance here.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a make-up montage that shows the process of actor Willem Dafoe going from human to Nosferatu in a matter of minutes.

BOX OFFICE PERFORANCE: $11.2M on an $8M production budget; the film was shy of recouping its production costs during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scream 3

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Internship

 

The Spy Next Door


Jackie Chan's lost his nunchuks.

Jackie Chan’s lost his nunchuks.

(2010) Spy Action Comedy (Lionsgate) Jackie Chan, Amber Valletta, Madeline Carroll, Will Shadley, Alina Foley, Magnus Scheving, Billy Ray Cyrus, George Lopez, Katherine Boecher, Mia Stallard, Maverick McWilliams, Quinn Mason, Margaret Murphy, Esodie Geiger, Arron Shiver, Lucas Till, Richard Christie, Kayleigh Burgess. Directed by Brian Levant

How many times have we seen this one – a divorced/widowed single dad/mom starts dating a new guy/gal who has special skills – i.e. a Navy Seal, a martial artist, a superspy. The kids are suspicious/hostile towards the new boyfriend/girlfriend and find many ways to discourage them from dating their parent/break up the relationship. For whatever contrived reason the boyfriend/girlfriend is left alone with the kids who stumble into/are caught in the middle of a dangerous situation. The boyfriend/girlfriend must rescue the kids/keep them safe and eventually they join forces to defeat the bad guy/girl.

This is pretty much the plot of this kid-centric spy. Bob Ho (Chan) is the boyfriend, a boring pen salesman who is really a Chinese spy working for the American government (which is a stretch of disbelief right there). He has recently defeated a Russian baddie (Scheving) who had developed a virus that breaks down petroleum. He intended to infect the world with it, forcing everyone to buy Russian petroleum at ludicrous prices. Why Paul Ryan didn’t think of this I’ll never know.

Anywho, the baddie is broken out by a kind of living Natasha Fatale named Creel (Boecher) and he’s keen to get the formula back and finish the job. The formula is tucked away safely on Bob’s laptop. Of course, the first rule of kidflicks is that one of the three kids (and there are always three) has to be a computer genius. Ian (Shadley), the middle kid, fits this bill. By the way, the other two kids are always an angst-y teen or pre-teen rebelling against everything and pissed off at everyone (Carroll) and a cute as a button princess (Foley). It is with this motley crew that Bob is left when his main squeeze – er, girlfriend – Gillian (Valletta) is called away on a family emergency.

Chan is getting on in years, as we all must but even at 55 (which is how old he was when he filmed this) he is still as entertaining an action hero as there has ever been. His comic timing is priceless, his physical gifts extraordinary. If he’s lost a step or two, and if he relies more on wires than jaw-dropping stunts, well, he’s earned the right. He’s done plenty of spy flicks in his native Hong Kong but the two Hollywood versions he’s done don’t hold a candle to them despite having much larger budgets.

Unfortunately, the buck pretty much stops there. The kids are more or less atrocious with the usually reliable Carroll playing surly, spoiled and bitchy which simply renders her character unwatchable. Carroll would  do much better work in pictures that followed this, particularly in Flipped. Valletta who’s also a decent actress has zero chemistry with Chan; one gets the feeling that they’re just friends without benefits; I can’t imagine the two of them sharing more than a chaste kiss on the cheek. Then again, this is a family film. Lopez and Cyrus as CIA buddies of Bob at least show up on time.

One of my big pet peeves is kid movies that treats kids like absolute morons. I get that playing to the kid fantasy of being in charge is a safe bet but even kids know that adults aren’t bumbling idiots from beginning to end and kid flicks generally portray them that way (moms are the sole exception and for good reason; piss off a mom and her brood won’t be seeing your movie). Nearly as high on the list is Hollywood’s complete fumbling of Chan. One of the great action heroes ever and basically was cast  either in buddy flicks or in hack job kidflicks. It’s like making an Avengers movie with the Hulk and having him stay as Bruce Banner the entire time. No wonder Chan grew disillusioned with Hollywood. I would too.

WHY RENT THIS: Jackie Chan.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Everything else.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some cartoon spy flick violence and a bit of rude humor that will delight the average six year old but might have their parents rolling their eyes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The opening montage is made up mostly of Chan’s Hong Kong-made spy movies.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Chan’s films traditionally show a gag reel of outtakes and pranks over the end credits; if you want to see it without the distraction of the credits, it’s here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $45.2M on a $28M production budget; the movie was just shy of making back it’s investment during the theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Pacifier

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Stories We Tell

Mud


Matthew McConaughey explains to his protégés that the secret to getting chicks is taking off your shirt.

Matthew McConaughey explains to his protégés that the secret to getting chicks is taking off your shirt.

(2012) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Shannon, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Joe Don Baker, Paul Sparks, Johnny Cheek, Bonnie Sturdivant, Stuart Greer, Clayton Carson, Michael Abbott Jr., Kristy Barrington. Directed by Jeff Nichols

 Florida Film Festival 2013

Love is not everything it’s cracked up to be. Sure it’s beautiful – it can raise us up to be better people than we ever thought we could be, inspire us to do amazing things. It can also turn on us in a heartbeat, savage us without warning, stab us in the back and leave us to bleed to death on the cold, hard ground.

Ellis (Sheridan) is a 14-year-old boy living on the Mississippi river in Arkansas. He and his good friend Neckbone (Lofland) have river water flowing through their veins; they are most comfortable on the river or it’s many tributaries and they know their way around an outboard motor. Neckbone has never really known his parents; he lives with his genial Uncle Galen (Shannon) who makes a living harvesting oysters from the riverbed and likes to have sex to the immortal strains of “Help Me, Rhonda” by the Beach Boys.

Ellis’ parents Senior (McKinnon) and Mary Lee (Paulson) fight more than they talk; Ellis takes most after the laconic, drawling Senior while Mary Lee – whose houseboat they live on – is tired of the life and wants to move into town. Ellis is torn up about this but takes solace in pretty 17-year-old May Pearl (Sturdivant) whom he is more than sweet on and who, against all odds, seems to return his affections.

While exploring an island on the river, Neckbone and Ellis find a boat that had been incongruously washed up into a tree during a bad storm. Even more incongruously, they find a man living in the boat. He introduces himself as Mud (McConaughey), and has driven nails into the soles of his shoes in the shape of a cross to ward off evil. Mud is a big believer in luck.

He is waiting on a girl, he tells them – the lovely Juniper (Witherspoon) who is graceful and beautiful and has tattoos of nightingales on her wrists. But Mud is no saint – he killed a man in Texas who abused the lovely Juniper and now is hiding out from the law and from bounty hunters sent by the deceased’s rich and relentless father (Baker). Mud is in a bit of a spot and needs some help. Ellis, generally suspicious of such things, is moved by his chivalry and charm and agrees to help.

That sets into motion a chain of events that none in the drama can possibly foresee. Ellis will learn that love doesn’t cure everything and that sometimes, that good isn’t always good enough. He will grow up much faster because he has to, but what will he truly become?

Director Jeff Nichols, who has helmed such films as Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories, is rapidly turning into a really terrific filmmaker who captures the modern South – particularly the rural aspects of it – better than anyone. Sort of a modern day Tennessee Williams without the melodrama, Nichols makes a movie about decent but flawed folk who may not be well-educated but aren’t dumb.

Matthew McConaughey has taken his share of critical lumps but in the past couple of years has really been on a hot streak. I haven’t seen Killer Joe yet and I’m assured his performance there is every bit as good as this one, but for my money this is his best performance on film yet. It utilizes his natural charm but McConaughey knows how to play the flaws well – Mud is a bit of a bovine poo artist, and he is rather impulsive. Mud however is basically decent at heart and Ellis recognizes it. Mud’s hopelessly in love with Juniper who he has idealized quite a bit; it becomes evident early on that she’s simply not worthy of him.

Sam Shepard’s character Tom Blankenship recognizes that. Blankenship is a father-figure to Mud and Shepard gives him the rootsy, folksy feeling that Shepard is well-known for. Blankenship has some skeletons in his closet which play into the film’s climax, but more on that in a bit. I’ve always loved Shepard as an actor since I first saw him in The Right Stuff and he’s still just as good now.

Sheridan is a big find. He gives Ellis a really good heart although he is sorely pressed by his world coming apart around him with Ellis unable to do a single thing to stop it. He becomes invested in Mud’s world and when that world implodes it becomes more than he can bear. Ellis is given some fairly emotional scenes to play and Sheridan plays them honestly. It’s a rare trait among juvenile actors.

Witherspoon’s recent personal and legal problems unfortunately surfaced just as the movie was hitting theaters which is a shame as her performance has tended to be overlooked in lieu of the more gossipy aspect of her life. I’m not sure why we feel the need to follow the mistakes and errors of celebrities – I get the feeling that she just had a bad night and given the opportunity to relive it would likely do things differently. I’ve done things that I regret – it’s just that I get to suffer the consequences of those actions privately.

This is the kind of movie that has a powerful emotional effect on you and when you leave the theater you know immediately that you’ve seen something profound. While I wasn’t a big fan of the film’s ending – it seemed a little Hollywood rote to me – still there was plenty of catharsis to go around.

The South has always had its share of literary giants – besides Williams there was William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty – but we are beginning to see some very strong directors coming out of the South and Nichols is one of the vanguard of a new Southern cinema that I believe is going to make its presence felt over the next couple of decades and beyond. Mud is a movie about the South but it is a movie that will resonate with anyone, even those who don’t live a rural existence. Mud is about love and life. We’re all said to be created from the clay and what is that besides dried mud?

REASONS TO GO: Really well-acted. Captures rural Arkansas to a “T.” Literate. Ellis is one of the best juvenile characters in years.

REASONS TO STAY: Ending could have used some work.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence, some sexual references, a bit of smoking, a fair amount of foul language and some adult thematic elements.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chris Pine was originally considered for the title role but couldn’t work it in to his busy schedule.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100; the movie is doing well from a critical standpoint.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eye of the Hurricane

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: The Brass Teapot

The Gravedancers


Dental hygiene isn't always the key to a happy life.

Dental hygiene isn’t always the key to a happy life.

(2006) Horror (Lionsgate/After Dark) Dominic Purcell, Josie Maran, Claire Kramer, Marcus Thomas, Tcheky Karyo, Meaghan Perry, Martha Holland, Oakley Stevenson, Samantha Twyford MacIvor, Jack Mulcahy, Jim McKeny, Geneva E. Avarett-Short, Bob McHone, Tina Murphy. Directed by Mike Mendez

We all do some pretty dumb things when we’re drunk. We say the wrong things to the wrong people, we pick fights, we sleep with people we shouldn’t have – there are very few of us who don’t have some sordid tale of something we did while we were drunk that we later came to regret. I’m pretty certain, however, that nobody has a tale quite like this one.

Harris McKay (Purcell) is back in his hometown for a funeral. His college buddy Chad bit the big one in a car accident and so there’s a reunion of sorts between friends Sid Vance (Thomas) and sultry Kira Hayden (Maran) with whom Harris had a fling with back in the day. The problem is Harris is married now and his wife Allison (Kramer) doesn’t get along well with Kira.

Allison heads back to the hotel room and leaves the three musketeers to get rip-roarin’ drunk. They make their way to a cemetery (as drunks often do) and find a mysterious black envelope with a poem written on a note inside it. Sid reads the poem which indicates that they should celebrate life by dancing on the graves of the dead, which they proceed to do in short order, which Sid punctuates by urinating on a headstone while Kira and Harris make out a little.

They all go back to their lives but something’s wrong. Harris and Allison hear mysterious sounds, and see odd things in the corner of their eye. Over the next few days these happenings get more frequent and more menacing. Sid tells of small fires cropping up at various times and places. Allison thinks it’s Kira trying to get back together with Harris. Harris and Allison go to confront Kira only to find her house a mess and Kira badly hurt, covered with bruises and bite marks and having been sexually assaulted.

They come to the realization that something is happening beyond their understanding or ability to contain, so they do what I’m sure thee and me would do next – they contact a paranormal investigator in the form of Vincent Cochet (Karyo) and his lovely assistant Frances Culpepper (Perry). They determine that the trio set off a curse with their actions and got three vengeful ghosts after them – a child arsonist, an axe murderer and a serial rapist and murderer. Not three haunts I’d want after me for sure.

Worse yet, they have until the next full moon before the wraiths kill the lot of ‘em. The only way out of it appears to be to disinter the bodies and re-bury them, thus breaking the curse (don’t ask me how). Trouble is, one of the group has their own hidden agenda and is willing to risk the lives of the whole group to achieve it.

Mendez, the auteur of this finer-than-average horror flick, previously directed The Convent which was another mighty fine horror film. Here you have a movie that’s not blazing new trails, taking bits of Poltergeist here and bits of The Haunting of Hill House there. That’s ok – Mendez puts it all together in a nice appetizing whole, much like making a terrific casserole out of leftovers. That can be as good as gourmet sometimes.

The cast is mostly not well known although Purcell and Karyo have been around. Karyo provides a certain amount of comic relief and Purcell, who has done well in ensemble roles and shows signs of being a pretty good leading man, is palatable here. In fact, most of the acting is pretty solid, a bit better than you’d find in the average horror film.

The special effects are for the most part pretty cool until they get a bit over-the-top in the final reel. In fact, the whole ending is a bit…much. The director on the commentary mentioned they wanted the last part of the movie to be like the big drop on a roller coaster – you’re never sure when it’s coming or how it’s going to hit you but when it arrives it’s still fun. I can agree with that in theory but here they just get ludicrous on you which is a bit sad. A little more imagination with the final real might have made this a bit better. As it is, it’s a much better than average genre film you might have overlooked as it came out in a group of seven other films of differing quality. Scare film fans should check this out; unless you are thoroughly jaded, you won’t be disappointed.

WHY RENT THIS: Balls-out scary in places. Decent performances and effects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not too many surprises. Ending is a little much.

FAMILY VALUES: The imagery here is graphic and horrifying. There’s plenty of supernatural violence and some sexuality (a rape is implied) as well as a smattering of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was released as part of the first After Dark Horrorfest: 8 Films to Die For film festival in major markets in 2006.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Parental Guidance

Dredd


Dredd

The last thing lawbreakers in Mega City One will ever see.

(2012) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Wood Harris, Warrick Grier, Domhnall Gleeson, Rakie Ayola, Joe Vaz, Scott Sparrow, Nicole Bailey, Langley Kirkwood, Edwin Perry, Karl Thaning, Michele Levin, Luke Tyler, Junior Singo. Directed by Pete Travis

 

As far as dystopian futures go, few have captured one so bleak as the long-running British comic book Judge Dredd. In its 35 year publishing history it has managed to come up with a rich smorgasbord of characters and a well-developed backstory that acts not only as hardcore action sci-fi comic but also as pointed social commentary as well. It was brought to the screen in 1995 with Sylvester Stallone in the lead role; the movie tanked and alienated not only fans of the source material (which it desecrated to be honest) but general movie audiences as well.

The new film is much closer to the tone and look of the comic, which is good news. In the future of Judge Dredd (Urban), most of the planet is an irradiated wasteland with people living in gigantic cities. Mega City One, population 800 million, is the Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, basically from Boston to Washington DC. Gigantic skyscrapers, called “Blocks” act as multi-use facilities (apartments with shopping, restaurants, movie theaters and other entertainment) on steroids.

With that many people in such an enclosed space, the streets are near-anarchy. Crime is rampant and the Department of Justice can only investigate about 6% of it. Doing that are the Judges – a combination of motorcycle cop, detective, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. Judges mete justice on the spot, ranging from imprisonment in iso-cubes to death. In order to do the latter, they have guns coded to their DNA that fire an astonishing array of firepower from normal bullets to stun grenades to incendiary missiles.

Dredd is asked by the Chief Judge (Ayola) to take out rookie Judge Anderson (Thirlby) whose proximity to the radioactive wasteland rendered her psychic – the most powerful one the Department of Justice has ever encountered. Dredd will be responsible for her evaluation, either failing her and washing her out of the program or passing her into the ranks of the Judges. He’s not too keen on doing it – her test scores didn’t make the cut and in the eyes of Dredd (which see things entirely in black and white) a fail is a fail.

Their first call takes them to a low-income block where unemployment is at 96%. Three bodies have plummeted to the ground-floor atrium with predictably messy results. Dredd notices that one of the corpses has signs that he was on slo-mo – a drug that slows down the perception of time to 1% of normal – which to him means that this was not suicide but homicide. They make a raid on an apartment where the stuff is distributed and capture Kay (Harris), a high-end dealer with the intention of bringing him in for questioning.

The tower is actually run by a gang, the Ma-Ma Clan, so-named for their founder Ma-Ma (Headey), an ex-prostitute with a wicked scar on her face. She is solely responsible for the supply of slo-mo for the entire city and while she would have been fine with the Judges killing Kay in a raid (a price of doing business in Ma-Ma’s eyes), she is not fine with Kay giving up details on her operation that will bring the Judges down on her like the apocalypse. So she locks down the building and gives her gang orders to shoot to kill. Now Dredd and Anderson are trapped in a gauntlet where trigger-happy gunmen lurk around every corner and help is not within reach.

Writer Alex Garland has concocted a story that remain true to the action elements of the comic books, it is a little light on the social satire. Dredd in the comic books is a humorless ultra-violent appendage of a fascist society who has no life beyond that of his calling; we rarely see him off-duty and we never see his face (think of it as all Batman and no Bruce Wayne). There is speculation among fans that he sleeps with his helmet on.

Urban captures this perfectly. While we only see the bottom third of his face, his twisted expressions are always grim, his movements deliberate and nearly robotic and his posture arrogant. His belief in the Law is absolute and unyielding; if the sentences are harsh he doesn’t argue with it. Whatever Dredd’s opinions are of his world he keeps to himself; he is the Arm of the Law and the Hammer of Justice. That’s all he really needs.

Anderson has more of a conscience. Having grown up in a low-income block, she feels more empathy for the people who live there. Dredd’s concern throughout the film is that she isn’t tough or ruthless enough to make the hard choices. Thirlby often looks out of place in a Judge’s uniform, being smaller than most of the other Judges in the film, but she pulls off the attitude nicely with a heaping helping of self-doubt.; Anderson herself isn’t sure she’s in the right job. She’s less about the law and more about justice.

The visual of Mega City One is a bit of a mixed bag for me. It looks like a modern 21st century city for the most part with internal combustion engine cars that look not unlike the sedans, coupes and mini-vans of 2012 – while customizing the vehicles a little might have been more expensive, it would have made the visuals more believable. It’s hard to believe that the vehicles of a society 100 years from now would have changed so little in the intervening period.

The slo-mo effects are great however. There is a beauty to them which is a nice juxtaposition to the bleak city and block we see throughout. You can almost understand why the junkies would much rather see the world through slo-mo than the reality of it.

It’s a brutal world but then again a world that crowded would have to be. Still, locking up Dredd and Anderson in an impregnable fortress reminded me of the hit Indonesian action film from earlier this year The Raid: Redemption. While that film had amazing martial arts battles interspersed with the gun fights, there is little beyond using different kinds of weapons here in an endless series of shoot-em-ups once the blast doors close. In that sense, the filmmakers painted themselves into a corner a little bit. Still, the visuals are good, the action is solid and as mindless entertainment the movie succeeds nicely. The audience hasn’t been there for Dredd sadly but hopefully some who gave the movie a miss will reconsider. It’s solid, satisfying entertainment.

REASONS TO GO: Closer to the comic book than the Stallone version. Satisfying visually. Urban and Thirlby make a good team.

REASONS TO STAY: Can be somewhat more brutal than American audiences are used to.

FAMILY VALUES: The violence is pretty intense – people fall from great heights and get shot up pretty good. There’s also plenty of foul language, drug use and just a bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Karl Urban’s face is always obscured by the helmet; we never see anything other than his mouth, jaw and chin.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100. The movie is getting mixed reviews but leaning towards the positive..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Raid: Redemption

CLINT EASTWOOD LOVERS: Urban based his vocal interpretation on Clint Eastwood, which is fitting since the character of Judge Dredd was based on Eastwood’s character in the TV show “Rawhide” – in the comic book Dredd even lives on Rowdy Yates block in reference to the character!

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Robot & Frank

The Expendables 2


The Expendables

Chuck Norris jut made that car burst into flames with the power of his steely-eyed glare.

(2012) Action (Lionsgate) Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Liam Hemsworth, Nan Yu, Jet Li, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude van Damme, Chuck Norris, Scott Adkins, Charisma Carpenter, Amanda Ooms, Nikolette Noel. Directed by Simon West

 

Back in the 70s and 80s, action movies were at their pinnacle. Movies like The Terminator, Rambo, Die Hard, Timecop and Missing in Action were box office bonanzas. As time went on and the men who played those heroes aged, the popularity of these sorts of movies began to wane. Although new heroes like Jet Li and Jason Statham took those action spots, action heroes were as likely to star in family movies geared towards kids as they were in old fashioned shoot ‘em ups.

In 2010, Sylvester Stallone wrote and directed The Expendables, an ensemble action movie uniting some of the biggest action heroes of the last 30 years, including Stallone, Statham, Willis, Schwarzenegger, Li, Mickey Rourke and Stone Cold Steve Austin. Just getting those names onto the big screen together was a feat in and of itself and it ignited the imaginations of fanboys all over the world. Schwarzenegger was still Governor of California at the time and hadn’t been in a movie for six years.

The movie was a big hit and of course plans for a sequel rolled around. Rourke dropped out, van Damme and Norris signed up (as did Liam Hemsworth) and Stallone relinquished the director’s chair to veteran action director West, who has Con-Air to his credit among others – the Stallion wanted to concentrate on writing – and here we go again.

This time, the Expendables – led by Barney Ross (Stallone) and his right hand man Lee Christmas (Statham)  are on a mission to rescue a Chinese billionaire and gets an extra added bonus attraction. Shortly thereafter, Ross has a meeting with Church (Willis) to whom Ross owes a favor – and Church aims to collect. He wants Barney’s team to head to Bulgaria to find a downed plane which was carrying a safe. The contents of the safe are something Church wants very much. He sends computer expert Maggie (Yu) along to help open the safe.

But things go south. They are intercepted by Vilain (van Damme) who also wants the contents of the safe. One of the Expendables doesn’t make it out of the encounter alive. Barney and the boys don’t take too kindly to it. They want that which is stolen from them but also they want payback. And we all know what payback is.

One of the problems with movies like this is that so many characters is that many of them get short shrift in screen time. That was also the complaint with the first movie in which Willis and Schwarzenegger only appeared in one scene. They have considerably more time onscreen this time out and get to do what we all wanted them to do in the first movie – shoot stuff up. But what the filmmakers giveth the filmmakers taketh away – Jet Li literally parachutes out of the movie after a single scene.

And there’s a whole lot of that. And if that’s all that you’re after, you’ve found nirvana here. The story is pretty….well, non-descript. There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before and no way you’re not going to figure out what’s going to happen next at every turn. And let’s face it – none of these guys are known for being amazing actors. But that’s not why you’d go and see a movie like this.

But still in all, the last movie had Mickey Rourke to elevate it. He gave a soliloquy during the first movie that still gives me the shivers it’s so good. There’s nothing like that here. I will admit that watching Chuck Norris save the day (as he does twice) put a huge smile on my face. There’s even a Chuck Norris fact for your cinematic enjoyment – it’s the one about the cobra, for those who are up on such things.

I have to admit that the thrill of seeing these guys together was kind of lost the second time out. It was nice and all but this is essentially a generic by-the-numbers action movie with a high-priced cast. It’s a novelty, but not much more. Sadly, I’m less eager to see The Expendables 3 than I was to see The Expendables 2.

REASONS TO GO: Seeing these old war horses in action again is a hoot.

REASONS TO STAY: Overreliance on catchphrase and cliché. A bit too predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and foul language, a little bit of sensuality too (but not much).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Gunnar Jensen has a degree in chemical engineering. So does the actor who plays him, Dolph Lundgren.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/25/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100. The reviews are mixed but trending towards the positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Losers

CATCHPHRASE LOVERS: Iconic catchphrases from action movies, like “I’ll be back” and “Yippie Ki Yay” are all uttered although generally not by the actors who first said them.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Cinema Paradiso

Brothers (2009)


Brothers

Tobey Maguire reactsas Natalie Portman gives him the news that she likes Thor far more than Spider-Man.

(2009) Drama (Lionsgate) Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Tobey Maguire, Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare, Sam Shepard, Mare Winningham, Patrick Flueger, Clifton Collins Jr., Josh Berry, Carey Mulligan, Ethan Suplee, Omid Abtahi. Directed by Jim Sheridan

 

The thing about brothers is that even though they come from the same genetics, sometimes they are nothing alike on the surface. Often though, they are more alike than you might think even though they don’t appear to be at first glance.

Sam Cahill (Maguire) is a family man and a respected marine. His men adore him, his family worships him and his father Hank (Shepard), ex-military himself, respects him. Sam’s wife Grace (Portman) loves him without reservation and has given him two sweet young daughters – precocious Isabelle (Madison) and adorable Maggie (Geare).

Sam’s brother Tommy (Gyllenhaal) is a different matter. He’s just out of prison where he served time for armed robbery. His father is ashamed by him, his sister-in-law barely tolerates him and only his brother and nieces seem to think that he has any value to him at all. Tommy is determined to make a fresh start and stay clean, but he’s said that before and unfortunately Sam is about to be deployed to Afghanistan. He’s made it through three tours though and while Grace is worried she knows that he’ll move heaven and earth to make it back safely.

But this time, he doesn’t. Word comes in that the helicopter that Sam was in went down and all aboard were lost. Because it went down in the water, there isn’t even a body to ship home for them to bury. They’re all devastated, Tommy and Grace most of all. Hidden resentments between Tommy and Hank come out at the funeral despite the efforts of Elsie (Winningham) – Tommy and Sam’s mom, Hank’s wife – to keep the peace. Hank’s alcohol problem becomes a bit more noticeable now.

Tommy is racked with guilt – guilt over things unsaid, things undone. There are some repairs to the kitchen that Sam had always been meaning to get to but never had. Tommy makes that his personal mission now. He recruits some locals to help build Grace a new kitchen. He becomes closer to Sam’s kids, almost a big brother instead of a screw-up uncle. He and Grace begin to not only develop a closer relationship, but one which might go further than either one ever imagined.

Except that the reports of Sam’s demise turned out to be somewhat exaggerated. It turns out that Sam and fellow New Mexican Joe Willis (Flueger) were captured by the Taliban. Both were held by them for over a year, under constant torture and in cruel and inhuman conditions. In order to survive, Sam is forced to do heinous deeds – things that haunt him long after he’s rescued and brought home.

Once home, things don’t get any better for Sam. He’s paranoid and haunted by his terrible wartime secrets. He’s also convinced that Tommy and Grace had been sleeping with each other. The trouble with that is that even though nothing has happened between Tommy and Grace other than a somewhat passionate kiss after an evening of drinking, it wasn’t that the thought hadn’t crossed their minds to take it farther. And despite their protestations to the contrary, Sam can’t get past his fears, leading to an inevitable confrontation that may lead to tragedy.

This is based on the Danish film Brodre by Suzanne Bier which was a much more spare, Spartan film which was largely improvised. This here is far more scripted and features three actors at the top of their games – Portman (who would go on to win an Oscar just a year later), Gyllenhaal (who’d already been nominated for one) and Maguire, best known for his portrayal of Peter Parker in the Spider-Man franchise.

In many ways Maguire has the most opportunity here and he seizes it. Generally he hasn’t had to access the darker aspects of his nature, but here he certainly must; it is the kind of performance that opens your eyes to new possibilities for an actor. Quite honestly, I’d always thought Maguire made a fine Peter Parker – a bit of a nerd with a few action chops and a pretty decent sense of comic timing. However, here he shows he’s capable of considerably darker roles and hopefully he’ll get considered for a few.

Gyllenhaal has a less meaty role as the brother finding redemption as he tries to pick up the pieces after a tragedy. The thing to remember here is that Gyllenhaal had a tragedy of his own to deal with – it was while he was filming this movie that his close friend Heath Ledger passed away, a passing that affected him deeply. Much of the middle third of the movie has Tommy dealing with the grief of the mistaken news of Sam’s passing; I don’t know how much of that portion of the movie was filmed before the news broke about Ledger but Tommy’s grief was a caged tiger throughout the movie, kept carefully inside his enclosure but the claws come out unexpectedly. It’s an understated performance that may not be flashy but compliments his other two leads nicely.

Portman is really in many ways the center of the movie, although ostensibly this is about the relationship between Sam and Tommy. She’s the lynchpin, the crux which the story revolves around. She’s not merely a plot device; she has real emotions, turning her grief into a renewed closeness to her daughters. Like Gyllenhaal, the performance is restrained and subtle; as a mom, she has to keep a lot of her anguish inside for the sake of her kids who need to lean on her as their rock (as does Tommy, to be honest). She’s very much a salt of the earth sort, one who does her duty without fanfare or need for applause – every inch the military wife. It wouldn’t surprise me if Portman spent some time with military wives to gain insight.

For the most part, the plot moves at a crisp and even pace. That is, until the third act when things break down a little bit. Part of it is due to story construction – we know what Sam is hiding, and a good deal of time has been spent showing us what he went through. It might have been far more effective to leave that offscreen (or told in flashback form) so that we are on the same level playing field with Sam’s family leaving us off-balance when Sam starts to change. At that point, the movie goes in a fairly predictable direction.

Still, with performances such as the ones in the lead roles you really can’t lose. While I wish that we were left to wonder, as Grace was, why her husband was acting the way he was, I can’t quarrel with the strength of the underlying material nor with its timeliness. This is one of those movies that might have escaped your notice both at the box office and as a rental that you might want to give a second look to.

WHY RENT THIS: The performances of the three leads are riveting. Tautly directed and well-paced.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Loses steam in the third act. Too many subplots.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is bad language and violence; some of the latter is pretty disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When a back injury threatened to derail Maguire’s participation in Spider-Man 2, Gyllenhaal would have been the first choice to replace him. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on how the picture developed from the Danish original and how the two films compare.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.3M on a $26M production budget; the movie fell just shy of breaking even at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hurt Locker

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Scream 4