Deliver Us From Evil


Eric Bana is impressed by Edgar Ramirez' iMDB page.

Eric Bana is impressed by Edgar Ramirez’ iMDB page.

(2014) Supernatural Horror (Screen Gems) Eric Bana, Edgar Ramirez, Olivia Munn, Sean Harris, Joel McHale, Chris Coy, Dorian Missick, Mike Houston, Lulu Wilson, Olivia Horton, Scott Johnsen, Daniel Sauli, Antoinette LaVecchia, Aidan Gemme, Jenna Gavigan, Skylar Toddings, Sebastian LaCause, Steve Hamm, Sean Nelson, Tijuana Nicks, Lolita Foster. Directed by Scott Derrickson

Usually when you hear things that go bump in the night it’s a sign that it’s time to move. In horror movies, most people who hear such things tend to go looking around for what’s causing those noises and that’s never a good idea.

Ralph Sarchie (Bana) is an NYPD detective stationed in the Bronx. His partner Butler (McHale) is an adrenaline junkie who relies on his partner’s “radar” to figure out when real bad stuff is going down. Ralph, a lapsed Catholic,  thinks of himself as having a “hard hand” as a cop and he has the scars to prove it. He’s a family man too, with his wife Jen (Munn) pregnant with their second child – adorable moppet Christina (Wilson) is their first. However, as of late he hasn’t exactly been present at home.

The truth is Ralph is beginning to crack a little. Finding dead babies in dumpsters doesn’t do a lot to maintain your faith in humanity. When he arrives on a scene where a disturbed mother (Horton) throws her infant into the lion pit at the Bronx Zoo, he has an odd confrontation with a painter who turns out to be an Iraq War vet named Santino (Harris) who had a strange and frightening encounter in the Middle East.

Taking an interest in the case is Father Mendoza (Ramirez), an unorthodox Jesuit priest (which is something of an oxymoron) who has seen true evil in his time. He knows that what Ralph is facing isn’t run of the mill evil perpetrated by deranged or amoral men, but something more primordial and far-reaching. Ralph is skeptical of this at first, but when his daughter starts hearing scratching noises under her floorboards and her stuffed animals begin to menace her, the pragmatic cop begins to realize that he might be in way over his head.

Derrickson, who also helmed the horror hit Sinister has got the creepiness factor down. He orchestrates an excruciating terror that begins early on and never lets you out of its grip for the remainder of the movie. A good horror film requires the proper atmosphere to work properly and Derrickson supplies that.

Bana is a very underrated actor, one who has done impressive work in films like Munich but has never really crossed over into superstar territory. He probably won’t with his work here, but it’s very capable which is a standard with Bana. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him turn in a bad performance even in films that are not very good.

There is a real Ralph Sarchie and this is based on some of the cases that he has been involved with. As with most horror movies that use real life events as a springboard, this takes an awful lot of liberties with Sarchie’s story (he wrote a book with Lisa Collier Cool entitled Beware the Night). There are elements of a lot of different cases in this single case and the character of Father Mendoza is an amalgam of a couple of different Catholic clerics. Take the “based on a true story” thing with a grain of salt; true stories are rarely as exciting as they are portrayed to be on the big screen.

This is equal parts police procedural and gross-out supernatural scare film. Some of the scares are legit here, and there’s plenty of squirm-inducing images. Cat lovers, be forewarned – there are some scenes that you will find quite disturbing and there are a couple of gruesome murders shown in detail onscreen. While there’s nothing here that is particularly standard-setting, neither do the make-up and special effects disgrace themselves either.

This movie is a bit of a metaphor for the overall summer season; while it has a lot of elements that could have made it a great film, it goes the safe route in a lot of ways and ends up being just a solid, entertaining film. I will say the climactic exorcism scene is pretty nifty, but it lacks the sheer on the edge of your seat tension that the similar scene in The Exorcist possessed (no pun intended). From my point of view, this is solid but unremarkable horror entertainment for the summer months.

REASONS TO GO: Bana always delivers and Ramirez is an interesting priest. Some legitimate scares and uninterrupted creepy vibe.

REASONS TO STAY: The usual horror movie cliches.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some disturbing images, a good deal of violence that is generally bloody and gory, salty language and yes, terror. It’s a horror film after all.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Ralph Sarchie role was originally offered to Mark Wahlberg who declined. Eventually Bana accepted the part.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Devil Inside

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Tammy

Heaven is For Real


A little father and son talk.

A little father and son talk.

(2014) Faith (TriStar) Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Marge Martindale, Thomas Haden Church, Lane Styles, Jacob Vargas, Thanya Romero, Danso Gordon, Rob Moran, Nancy Sorel, Darcy Fehr, Vivian Winther, Pete Hudson, Ursula Clark, Mike Mohrhardt, Bryan Clark, Randy Apostle, Julia Arkos, Candace Smith, Cruise Brown, Amber Lynn Partridge. Directed by Randall Wallace

Disclaimer: I’m not a big fan of organized religion or of faith-based movies. I have an aversion to being preached to. Not that I have an issue with people having faith or even religion – there are a lot of good things that organized religions do, but there are also some questionable things and I’m talking about all faiths here, not just one in particular. When someone tells me that there is only one way to get to heaven, I smell flim-flammery.

However, faith and religion are different things entirely. While religion tends to codify our faith, faith can exist without religion (but not vice versa). Religion helps those with faith understand just what it is they have faith in. However, when that faith is confronted with something that we can’t really explain, that faith is shaken to the core, severely tested. It all comes down to belief.

Todd Burpo (Kinnear) is a Wesleyan pastor in the small farming community of Imperial, Nebraska. Besides that, he repairs garage door openers, coaches wrestling and the local high school and is a volunteer fireman. If that wasn’t enough to fill up his day, he dotes on his four-year-old son Colton (Corum), his older sister Cassie (Styles) and his wife Sonja (Reilly) who also directs the music group at the church. If there ever was a Norman Rockwell life, Pastor Burpo was living it.

During a softball game, the pastor slides hard into third base and suffers a severe spiral fracture in his right leg, forcing him to the sidelines on all his endeavors for a few weeks. No sooner has he come back to work when he collapses on the altar during his sermon, felled by kidney stones. The medical bills begin to pile up and there isn’t enough money.

Things go from bad to worse. After a family trip to Denver, both Cassie and Colton come down with the flu. Cassie recovers but Colton doesn’t. He starts to get worse. His parents rush him to the hospital (which is a bit of a hike from Imperial) and once there, it is determined that Colton’s appendix had burst. He is rushed into surgery, but the outlook isn’t hopeful.

However, the little boy manages to pull through. Cue big sigh of relief from everyone involved. But then little Colton starts telling his Dad about his experience; how he found himself floating above the operating table and watching the doctors work on him. How he could see his mother calling friends on the phone and asking them to pray for him. How he saw his Dad in the chapel, yelling at God and venting. Todd is at first bemused by this; these types of experiences are not unheard of after all.

But then he tells his father that he actually visited heaven, and goes on to describe it. While he was there, he heard choirs of angels singing to him, giggling when young Colton asked if they could sing “We Will Rock You” by Queen (a Burpo family sing-along favorite). He also sees Jesus, riding on a horse that is all the colors of the rainbow. He sits in Jesus’ lap, and describes him as having blue/green eyes.

Todd passes this off as his son’s vivid imagination coupled with being surrounded with religious imagery all his life. Then Colton starts giving some details about people he meets in Heaven including a sister whom his mother had miscarried; neither Todd nor Sonja had told him anything about that incident. Todd’s faith is shaken to the core. How can he continue to be the effective pastor he has always been when he isn’t sure that his son has really had this experience he is so sure he’s had?

Wallace, who wrote Braveheart and directed such fine movies as The Man in the Iron Mask and Secretariat  makes some smart choices here. He allows viewers to make their own decisions as to whether Colton’s experience was legitimate and if he’d actually been to Heaven. His father believes it, that is for certain. Clearly, it’s not something that can be proven but it must be taken on faith.

That can be difficult. Church and Martindale play friends of the Burpos as well as members of the board of the church who have a difficult time in accepting Colton’s story (and both do bang-up jobs for the record), and worry about the effect that the growing media circus will have on their small town and their church. I found myself wondering why devout Christians would be anything but thrilled at “proof” that heaven is for real. I guess it’s as hard to see your beliefs proven to be true as it is to see them proven to be false.

Kinnear is the glue that holds the film together. He is rock solid, charismatic and crazy likable. We are reminded once again that he is one of those actors who should be an A-lister but for whatever reason has never gotten the role that pushes him over the top. Given the box office success of this film, we may finally get to see that happen.

As for the actor that played young Colton, I have to be honest although it doesn’t make me happy to do so – he is stiff and unnatural. I try to give leeway to young actors because it’s not fair to hold them to standards that you would hold an adult to. However, in this case because he’s so integral to the story and to the film, I would be amiss in not at least mentioning that you need to expect that his line readings can sometimes remind you that he is a kid reading words rather than a character saying them. There is a huge difference and it did for me at least take me out of the movie at times.

The movie and the book that it came from has sparked a certain amount of controversy. Some Christian publications have condemned the book for not having a Biblical version of Heaven – some film critics have panned the film for its depiction of billowing clouds, WASP-ish Jesus (although the painting of him that Colton identified as the Jesus he saw in heaven that was painted by a Serbian girl who had a similar experience looked distinctly Semitic to my eyes) and  angelic chorales was too over-the-top. I never realized that Heaven was such a controversial subject.

And of course, atheists and non-believers have been smug and snarky in their contempt for the film. It’s this kind of treatment that adds fuel for the Fox News assertion that there is a war on Christianity, albeit that on Fox News there’s always a war on something. People have the right to believe as they choose; just because you believe in one thing doesn’t make you automatically better than people who believe in another. Belief is not about being superior to everyone else; it’s about how you choose to live your life and what you choose to embrace as fact even if you cannot prove it as such.

Living in the Bible Belt gives me a certain perspective. Certainly most of the audience that is seeing this movie is Christian or leans that way. During many points in the film, there was audible sniffling and I’ll admit to getting misty-eyed myself. I suspect few atheists will go to see this and I can’t see a lot of non-Christians making the effort either. This is certainly aimed at one segment of the movie-going audience but it serves them well, yet for those who are less religious at least it treats the subject with respect and as I said earlier, allows us to reach our own conclusions.

I have my own conclusions and my own beliefs as to what happens after we die. The fact of the matter is, as Kinnear’s character says during the film quoting his grandfather, is that by the time we know for sure what does happen to us it’s too late to tell anybody about it. Maybe Colton actually did visit heaven; maybe it’s something that his mind did to help him cope with a crisis he couldn’t understand. We will never know for certain either way. Whichever explanation you choose to believe you have to take on faith. And that my friends is the crux of that human ability to accept things we cannot prove.

REASONS TO GO: Kinnear is solid. Raises some real questions about faith.

REASONS TO STAY: Gets preachy in places. Corum not the most natural of actors.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some medical situations involving a child as well as some thematic elements which small children may not understand or be disturbed about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed mostly around Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Five People You Meet in Heaven

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Love Me

A Mighty Heart


Angelina Jolie reads her reviews.

Angelina Jolie reads her reviews.

(2007) True Life Drama (Paramount Vantage) Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman, Archie Panjabi, Irfan Khan, Will Patton, Sajid Hasan, Denis O’Hare, Aly Khan, Adnan Siddiqui, Perrine Moran, Jeffry Kaplow, Ahmed Jamal, Demetri Goritsas, Mohammed Azfal, Ahmed Jamal, Imran Patel, Veronique Darleguy, Gary Wilmes, Jean-Jacques Scaerou, Jillian Armenante. Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Our Film Library

On January 23, 2002, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal investigating ties between “shoe bomber” Richard Reid and Al Qaeda was kidnapped from the streets of Karachi, Pakistan by a group of Muslim extremists. His wife was five months pregnant with their son at the time.

The kidnapping of Daniel Pearl (Futterman) is today a fairly well-known occurrence by most Americans. His wife, Mariane (Jolie) would write a biography of her husband which described their life together and the harrowing last days of his life, before he was beheaded by his captors on February 1 despite her many pleas for clemency and denials of the terrorist assertions that Pearl was a CIA spy (to this day there have been no links shown between Pearl and any intelligence agency).

The movie made from her book mostly shows Pearl through flashback in almost idyllic tones. Most of the film’s plot revolves around Mariane’s ordeal as she tries to remain as composed as possible considering the extraordinary circumstances as well as the efforts by the United States Diplomatic Security Services, exemplified by Special Agent Randall Bennett (Patton), the Department of Justice and the Pakistani Capital City Police, exemplified by Officer Mir Zubair Mahmood (Khan) to track down the kidnappers and bring them to justice.

Throughout she is supported by close friends like Asra Nomani (Panjabi) and colleagues of her husband such as his WSJ editor John Bussey (O’Hare) and Steve LeVine (Wilmes), ultimately this is an ordeal Mariane must go through alone. That she went through it with such grace and dignity is a credit to the triumph of humanity over depravity.

Jolie delivered a performance that may be the crowning achievement of her career in this film. It was certainly Oscar-worthy, although the movie’s June release date and box office failure likely were the causes of her not receiving a nomination for Best Actress. She plays Mariane with a good deal of emotional control, although the scene in which she is informed of her husband’s death is absolutely devastating. There is also a sense of her concern early in the film as she has some friends over for dinner, but the place setting for her husband who was on his way to an interview remains empty; her glances in the direction of the empty chair are subtle yet telling.

Both Jolie and Futterman resemble their real-life counterparts somewhat eerily (particularly in Futterman’s case). In fact, I would have liked to have seen Futterman as Pearl a bit more in the storyline; after all, Mariane Pearl wrote the book about her husband and not about herself. However, the focus of the movie is entirely on Mariane and Daniel is almost an afterthought in many ways except in flashbacks which show an almost idyllic lifestyle between the two. Oddly, these flashbacks seem a little overly manipulative and overly idealized. Daniel Pearl is in many ways not present in the film that is ostensibly about his wife but is in reality more about his death. In my mind, that does a disservice to not only the good man that he was but also the work that he did.

That said, I found it troubling that the casting of Jolie was groused about by some critics who said that they found her celebrity distracting when viewing her performance. Personally, I think film critics who can’t get past the celebrity of an actor are probably not in the right profession. Every actor brings something of their own personality and experiences into the performance of their roles; if you are judging a performance by what TMZ is saying about an actor, you aren’t doing your job. But I digress.

Winterbottom adopts an almost documentary style in telling his story, although the flashbacks tend to put paid to the documentary feel of the film. After watching the film, I did feel that I wished I knew more about Pearl the man; those who feel similarly can get more of a sense of who he was should probably see the Emmy-winning HBO documentary The Journalist and the Jihadi which tells Pearl’s story with some background on his life in addition to the story of his kidnapping and execution.

At the end of the day, what happened to Daniel Pearl was barbarous and undeserved. However, it also must be said that he was more than just the last days of his life – he was a loving husband, a dutiful son, a proud Jew, a skilled writer, an insightful journalist and a thrilled father-to-be. Looking at his life as a tragedy tells only half the story. However, one cannot deny that Mariane Pearl makes for an interesting film subject as well and Jolie’s performance is truly inspiring. I can’t help feeling however that the film would have benefited from more of her husband’s presence, rather than being just a memory. He was and remains more than that to her.

WHY RENT THIS: A magnificent performance by Jolie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Manipulative and focuses less on the late journalist than it does on his wife.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some horrific violence herein as well as some sexuality and its share of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A featurette on the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists which rose out of this incident as well as a Public Service Announcement for the Pearl Foundation.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: $18.9M on a $16M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harrison’s Flowers

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The conclusion of Our Film Library!

Our Film Library


Our Film LibraryTomorrow marks the beginning of a new mini-festival here on Cinema365. Entitled Our Film Library, the films reviewed on all four days of our mini-fest will come from literary sources. There will be one based on a literary classic; one from a young adult bestseller, one from a non-fiction biography and another from a modern classic. While movies based on books have a reputation of not living up to the original work, they have something to offer that is unique and in many cases inspire people to read the original book. Hopefully you’ll be moved to do the same if my words inspire you to see the movie. In that sense, it will go full circle. Clever, no?

Also later today I’ll be at the press preview for the 2014 Florida Film Festival – yes it’s that time already – and the film line-up will be announced. I’ll be back on either later tonight or early tomorrow to give a brief preview of the festival. We reviewed over 50 of last year’s 170 movies and shorts that were screened; hopefully we’ll do about the same this year. Hopefully, those who are looking to attend this year will find a few movies of their own they’re interested in seeing. One of them for certain, at least for me, will be the opening night film which on the FFF website is listed as The Trip to Italy. More on that later in any case.

So hope you’ll stick around for Our Film Library and the upcoming coverage of the 2014 Florida Film Festival. I don’t know about you but I’m already excited!

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug


A merry company indeed.

A merry company indeed.

(2013) Fantasy (New Line/MGM) Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, Aidan Turner, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry, Luke Evans, Cate Blanchett, Sylvester McCoy, Mikael Persbrandt, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Dean O’Gorman, Stephen Hunter, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Manu Bennett. Directed by Peter Jackson

It’s not the destination, it’s the journey but that isn’t always true. Sometimes the journey really begins when the destination is reached.

For the company of dwarves under Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage) that couldn’t be more true. After the events of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, they must travel through the Mirkwood, a once-green and pleasant forest grown dark with corruption. There be spiders in them words, big ones the size of Volkswagens. There are also wood elves, led by the dour King Thranduil (Pace) who isn’t exactly on Thorin’s Christmas list – when Erebor originally fell, Thranduil failed to aid the dwarves in their hour of need, turning his thin aristocratic back on them. Thranduil’s isolationism mirrors that of America and Great Britain (for that matter) in the pre-World War II days when the original book was written and reminds us that Tolkein wasn’t just writing a children’s story – there was plenty of allegory to go around too.  Among the wood elves is a familiar face – Legolas (Bloom) who happens to be Thranduil’s son. Also there is Tauriel (Lilly), an elf Legolas is a bit sweet on. She also is the object of attention for Kili (Turner), one of the dwarf company.

Also on their tails are a party of Orcs led by the gruesome Azog the Defiler (Bennett) who appears to be answering to a mysterious Necromancer (Cumberbatch). Gandalf (McKellen), fearing the worst, goes to Dol Guldur accompanied by fellow wizard Radagast (McCoy) to investigate and gets more than he bargained for.

Meanwhile the company has made their escape from the elves with Tauriel and Legolas hot on their trails and make it to the human village of Laketown where they receive aid from Bard (Evans), a ferry captain who is dissatisfied from the corrupt regime of Laketown’s master (Fry). Still, Thorin manages to convince the Master that a dwarven presence in Erebor will only mean prosperity for Laketown. They are sent on their way with weapons and provisions leaving behind Kili who is gravely hurt after an Orc attack.

Once at the Lonely Mountain, the company will need to find the hidden doorway into Erebor and Bilbo (Freeman) will have to search for the Arkenstone, a powerful talisman and symbol of the right of the King Under the Mountain to rule Erebor without waking Smaug (Cumberbatch again) which is beastly difficult when you consider how much a dragon loves his treasure. Can Bilbo retrieve the jewel before Smaug becomes fire…and death?

To tell the truth I was more impressed with the visuals of the first movie than the overall film which I thought was more exposition than action. I’m pleased to report that’s thankfully not the case here where the film moves at a more suitable pace for fans of the original trilogy. There’s also more of Middle Earth to be explored (we’d already been in Rivendell and the Shire where the first film was primarily set) and a lot more action sequences.

Freeman remains a pitch-perfect Bilbo although he’s given less to do here. While Thorin and Balin (Stott) remain the primary focus within the dwarves, Kili gets a lot more attention here while we get to spend a goodly amount of time with new characters Tauriel, Bard and Thranduil although returning Legolas gets his share of screen time as well.

Once again the visuals are remarkable, particularly in the IMAX 3D High Frame Rate presentation, which is one of those rare instances where the upcharge is worth it. Of special note is Smaug, who is done through motion capture but the detail to his look is so exquisite you can see the individual scales as his muscles ripple under his skin. This may well be the most life-like CGI creature ever captured on the big screen.

Some Tolkein purists are grousing about the character of Tauriel who is a whole cloth invention of the filmmakers but I for one appreciate the inclusion of a female character in a book that was distinctly male-centric. Personally I don’t get that kind of complaint. It’s not like it’s headline news that the film version of a classic book is going to be different. That the movie version is different does nothing to diminish the original source material. You can still read it; it’s not like once the movie shows up in the local multiplex all the copies of the book are confiscated and burned. If you don’t like the movie version, don’t watch it. It’s really that simple.

This is definitely fine holiday entertainment. Jackson’s Middle Earth films may not have the same appeal as they once did but that doesn’t mean they aren’t entertaining enough to be worth your time and money. This is a great improvement over the first movie of the new trilogy; if the second film makes the same kind of improvement we’re in for a crackerjack of a time in 2014.

REASONS TO GO: A distinct improvement over the first film in the trilogy. Smaug is an amazing creation.

REASONS TO STAY: Still lacks the heart of the first trilogy. Cliffhanger ending abrupt and unsatisfying.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some seriously frightening images and plenty of fantasy violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tauriel is a complete invention of the filmmakers and doesn’t appear in any of Tolkein’s writing. She was brought in to add female characters into the film as the book has very few of them.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lord of the Rings; The Fellowship of the Ring

RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: The Godfather Part III

The Son of No One


Acting 101 is now in session with Professor Pacino.

Acting 101 is now in session with Professor Pacino.

(2011) Thriller (Anchor Bay) Channing Tatum, Al Pacino, Tracy Morgan, Katie Holmes, Ray Liotta, Juliette Binoche, James Ransone, Jake Cherry, Ursula Parker, Brian Gilbert, Peter Tambakis, Simone Jones, Lemon Anderson, Ralph Rodriguez, Roger Guenveur Smith, Sean Cregan, Karen Christie-Ward, Pat Klernan, Gisella Marengo. Directed by Dito Montiel

New York City is a place of dreams. It is also a place of nightmares, of unrelenting grime and corruption. At least, that is how the movies have portrayed it – on the one hand the center of the universe, a place where romance magically happens. On the other, a hopeless cesspool of brutality, corrupt cops and junkies.

Jonathan White (Tatum) grew up in the projects of Long Island City. Like his departed dad, he has chosen to be a cop and lives with his wife Kerry (Holmes) and his epileptic daughter Charlie (Parker) on Staten Island, where he plies his trade.

He is less than thrilled to be re-assigned to his old neighborhood. Soon after he arrives, anonymous letters are being sent to Loren Bridges (Binoche), the crusading editor of a storefront newspaper resurrecting a decades-old pair of murders and alleging that the police have covered up that the crimes were committed by a cop. This is particularly distressing to Jonathan since it was he that was responsible for those killings, although he wasn’t a cop at the time. In fact, he was just a kid (Cherry) who was defending his own life from a pair of violent junkies. His best friend Vinnie (Gilbert) witnessed the crimes and Jonathan thinks that he is likely the source of those letters. Vinnie has grown up (Morgan) into a mentally unstable man who can’t escape his own demons, many of them conjured up when the very same junkies molested him as a child.

These letters are making Captain Mathers (Liotta) who happens to be Jonathan’s boss more than a little nervous. In post-9/11 New York the cops need all the good will they can get and this is the kind of scandal that might set the public against the force. Mathers – who knows about the cover-up since he and Detective Stanford (Pacino) who was the partner of Jonathan’s late father helped cover up the evidence and made the case go away – wants Jonathan to kill Vinnie and Jonathan is considering it.

Things start to get much tenser for Jonathan when the reporter is murdered after meeting with Jonathan. Jonathan’s psychotic partner Prudenti (Ransone) lets Jonathan know that if he doesn’t take care of the situation, Jonathan will be framed for the murder of the reporter as well as the original murders years ago. With his situation deteriorating and Jonathan beginning to fall apart, the likelihood of an explosive confrontation becomes more and more likely.

Montiel directed the autobiographical A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints which was actually a very good film. He has shown great promise, particularly in regards to his obvious love-hate relationship with New York. One might say that these are honest warts-and-all depictions but while it is clear he bears a deep affection for the Big Apple, he seems to have a feeling of revulsion towards its less glamorous side.

He has assembled an amazing cast but unfortunately they don’t really rise above the material which you might expect. Pacino almost phones it in and you get the sense that he was interested more in the paycheck than the performance. Binoche, one of the world’s most marvelous actresses, is an odd casting choice. She gamely soldiers on as you might expect she would but one gets the sense she really doesn’t know what to do with the part. Morgan on the other hand is best known as a comic actor; he is surprisingly adept at this dramatic role and has some of the best moments in the film.

Tatum, who has finally shown some signs that he is more than just a pretty face (like Montiel, he is an ex-model) although this was filmed during the period when his acting style might best be summed up as wooden. We don’t get a sense of Jonathan’s wracking guilt or his inner turmoil although the commentary track by Montiel alludes to it. Sadly, he doesn’t show much more tension than a high school honors student approaching a mid-term algebra quiz.

There is a good deal of ugliness here although there are some moments that are surprisingly powerful (the final scene between Jonathan and Vinnie for example) they are outnumbered by those which don’t make sense. For example, the murders were clearly a matter of self-defense committed by a minor. Jonathan committed no crime; there was therefore no need to cover anything up. If anything, the only crime that was committed was the act of covering up.

Montiel is a terrific director and writer but this is certainly a misstep. I’d recommend his previous two films ahead of this. I hope this is just a one-time setback and not an indication that his creative well has run dry.

WHY RENT THIS: A chance to watch a fine cast slumming.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit confusing. Lacks logical sense.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence and bad language and some brief sexuality of the disturbing kind.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robert De Niro was originally cast as Detective Stanford but he had to drop out of the production and Pacino was cast instead.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $30,680 on a $15M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Copland

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Don Jon

My Week With Marilyn


Beauty personified.

Beauty personified.

(2011) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Julia Ormond, Dougray Scott, Zoe Wanamaker, Emma Watson, Toby Jones, Phillip Jackson, Geraldine Somerville, Derek Jacobi, Dominic Cooper, Simon Russell Beale, Pip Torrens, Michael Kitchen, Miranda Raison, Karl Moffatt, Robert Portal. Directed by Simon Curtis

In 1957, American icon Marilyn Monroe flew to London to begin work on a movie directed by the legendary actor Sir Laurence Olivier. With husband and playwright Arthur Miller in tow and an entourage that included acting coach Paula Strasberg, she made a sensation in England but her tardiness on-set, difficulty remembering her lines and feuds with Olivier and cameraman Jack Cardiff created a chaotic environment that has become legendary in Hollywood.

Colin Clark (Redmayne) remembers it differently however. Hired out of Eton College by Olivier (Branagh) at the insistence of Vivien Leigh (Ormond), then Olivier’s wife, he was Olivier’s on-set Boy Friday, impressing the great actor by not only procuring a house for the Americans to stay in during shooting but a second back-up house when the British press discovered the location of the first.

His view of Marilyn (Williams) was much kinder. He saw a woman tormented by the demands of fame, insecure about her abilities as an actress and humiliated by Miller’s (Scott) new play which seems to take some very personal jabs at her. With only Clark and actress Dame Sylvia Thorndike (Dench) in her corner, she finds going to work on the set to be nearly intolerable.

Her only solace comes from Colin, who squires her about England and with whom she develops a sort-of romantic relationship with, much to the chagrin of Lucy (Watson), a costume assistant whom he is dating. He is warned that she will break his heart but he is heedless; what man of that era wouldn’t want to be involved with Marilyn Monroe? However, those who surround her and who are vested in protecting her image may not necessarily be sanguine about his relationship with her.

This is what I call a quasi-true story. It is true that Monroe worked in London on The Princess and the Showgirl and had the difficulties spoken of earlier. However, this film is based on the diaries of Clark who did also work on the film but the depth of the relationship with Monroe that he claimed has never been corroborated. That aspect of the drama must therefore be taken with a grain of salt.

However, there is nothing “quasi” about the performance of Michelle Williams as Monroe. Justifiably lauded with a Golden Globe win and an Oscar nomination, she captures the late icon’s sexiness, public vivaciousness, vulnerability, insecurities and innate sweetness that made a generation obsessed with her. It is easy to see in fact why we are still obsessed with her today. Williams has developed into one of the most compelling actresses in Hollywood and to my mind is the most likely bet to succeed Meryl Streep as the best actress in Hollywood. This performance is a good reason why I think so.

The good performances don’t end there. Branagh, a great actor in his own right, delivers one of his finest performances in a decade. Dench is always solid if not terrific; here she is the latter. Redmayne delivers a warmth in his character which while appealing isn’t enough to be the center of the film; it makes one wish for more concentration on Marilyn which sort of defeats the purpose – it’s not My Week with Colin after all.

Like many British films, this is exceedingly well-acted and well-written. While it doesn’t have the oomph or the fireworks to really attract an American audience, it is still one of those movies that gives a whole lot of enjoyment more than it does insight.

WHY RENT THIS: Marvelous performance by Williams. Supporting cast superb.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Clark, who is the center of the film, is much less interesting than Monroe.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a surfeit of foul language, some sexual situations and some suggested nudity..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The re-enactments of The Princess and the Showgirl were filmed on the very same soundstage where the original was filmed.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed. Sadly, Weinstein missed an opportunity to explore that period of Monroe’s life with a featurette – surely there was plenty of archival footage of Monroe in London during that period.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $35.1M on a $10 production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Being Sellers

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Elysium

Rabbit-Proof Fence


Took the children away.

Took the children away.

(2002) True-Life Drama (Miramax) Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, Kenneth Branagh, Ningali Lawford, Myarn Lawford, David Gulpilil, Deborah Mailman, Jason Clarke, Natasha Wanganeen, Garry McDonald, Roy Billing, Lorna Leslie, Celine O’Leary, Kate Roberts. Directed by Phillip Noyce

Some stories are so unbelievable, so outlandish that they can only be true. Rabbit-Proof Fence is, sadly, one of those cases. I say sadly simply because of the hardships endured in this movie by a woman who was blameless of anything but of having a white father and an aboriginal mother.

Molly Craig (Sampi), her sister Daisy (Sansbury) and cousin Gracie (Monaghan) live with Molly’s mother (N. Lawford) and grandmother (M. Lawford) in Jigalong, an Aboriginal community in the desert outback of Australia.

In the 1930s, Australia had a policy for half-caste children. Led by Minister of Aboriginal Affairs A.O. Neville (Branagh), the idea was to take the children out of their aboriginal homes and train them as domestic or slave labor. There they would join the white culture, marry and have children with white mates, and eventually breed the black out of them, as is graphically illustrated during a scene early in the movie when Neville explains the policy to a women’s group, using slides.

The order goes out to round up the children, and the three young girls are taken from their homes in an emotionally wrenching scene and transported to the Moore River Native Settlement, some 1,500 miles away – roughly the same distance as Minneapolis, Minnesota is from Orlando, Florida. The girls spend some time there, long enough to decide for themselves that what is being done to them is wrong and that their only hope is to escape and walk back home.

Escape they do, chased by a taciturn tracker named Moodoo (David Gulpilil), whose heart may or may not be in his work, and also by the Australian police. The girls’ odyssey becomes a media sensation in Australia; sightings of the runaways keep the story alive, and the vast distance they are covering, with no food, no water and no shelter make survival a real problem.

What’s worse is that the girls don’t really know where their home is. They only know that their home is alongside the great ”Rabbit-Proof Fence” – the longest fence in the world, built to keep rabbits from destroying the crops of the fertile farmland nearby. If they can find the fence, it will lead them home.

The story is simple enough, but powerful. Director Phillip (Dead Calm) Noyce wisely uses powerful cinematography to convey the vastness of the Outback, and the land itself emerges as a character in the film; unforgiving, but bountiful enough when respected. The three children survive their ordeal mainly because of the tutelage of their grandmother, who taught them how to live off the land. The music of Peter Gabriel further enhances the vast expanse.

The three girls who play the main characters are not actresses, although Everlyn Sampi certainly has a future in it if she chooses. They can’t really conceive of how impossible is the task before them; they are just walking home, as naturally as if they were walking 1 mile instead of 1,500. Certainly, they get frightened, they get depressed, their feet ache, but Molly’s strength holds them together. At the end of the journey, when only two of the children reach their destination (one is entrapped by the police), Molly weeps in her grandmother’s arms because she had not brought them all back. It is a powerful moment, one that will affect even the most stone-hearted moviegoer.

The Australians call the children who were taken in this manner The Stolen Generation, and it is not a period in their history of which they are particularly proud. That it lasted until 1970 is mind-boggling. A large percentage of their aboriginal population were affected by these events, and remains so today – singer Archie Roach made a wonderful CD about it, Charcoal Lane, with the powerful ”Took the Children Away” – and it remains a sore subject in Australia today, one which their government has refused to recognize or to apologize for until 2008.

Rabbit-Proof Fence is as a powerful testament to the human side of this issue. It’s hard to imagine anyone seeing this movie and not being deeply affected. Here in North America, our treatment of the aboriginal peoples of the continent has been shameful as well. The experience of seeing this movie got me thinking about my own attitudes not only towards the American Indian culture but also about my attitudes towards other ethnic groups. We are all human beneath the skin and what color that skin is makes no difference any more than the color of the wrapping paper makes any difference towards the gift inside. Rabbit-Proof Fence celebrates this. It’s a movie everyone should see.

WHY RENT THIS: Powerful issue that is a celebration of life. Terrific performance by Everlyn Sampi. Moving and wrenching.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might be too wrenching for those who have lost children.

FAMILY MATTERS: The themes of the movie bring out some very intense emotions; may be too intense for children and those who are sensitive to the taking of children from their parents.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The premiere of the film was held in an outdoor venue in Jigalong where the descendents of the children still live. The real Molly Craig appears in the last shot of the film although her health was so frail that the decision was made to shoot that scene first.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The Making-Of feature is far from standard, giving a look at the history behind the events of the film. The commentary track similarly veers from typical fashion, including author Doris Pilkington, daughter of the real Molly Craig and whose book the film is based on. Her recounting of her own experiences and those her mother shared with her are heartbreaking.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.2M on a $6M production budget; the movie was a modest hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Way Back

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Breaking Upwards

Oz the Great and Powerful


James Franco tries to hitch a ride with his China Girl. Ooh baby, just you shut your mouth...

James Franco tries to hitch a ride with his China Girl. Ooh baby, just you shut your mouth…

(2013) Fantasy (Disney) James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Zach Braff, Joey King, Bill Cobbs, Tony Cox, Stephen R. Hart Abigail Spencer, Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi, Tim Holmes, Toni Wynne, Rob Crites, William Dick, Gene Jones, Channing Pierce. Directed by Sam Raimi

Belief is a powerful thing. It can change the course of history, make the impossible possible. It can turn fear into strength. It can make leaders of the most unlikely of men.

Oscar – but his friends call him Oz (Franco) – is a somewhat adept carnie magician in sepia-toned Kansas in 1905. He yearns for greatness but is stuck in this Podunk circus that seems destined to kill all his hopes and dreams. His assistant Frank (Braff) is barely competent and the ladies he gets to sample his charms are shall we say less than discreet. The one girl he does want (Williams) has been asked to marry John Gale, a steadfast Kansas farmer. And to make things worse the Circus strongman (Holmes) has discovered that one of Oscar’s conquests is his own wife (Wynne) and so he wants to use Oz’s head as a squeeze box.

Oz gets away in a hot air balloon with only his top hat and satchel as possessions but unfortunately he gets sucked into a tornado and ends up in the brightly colored land of Oz. There he meets Theodora (Kunis), a beautiful young witch who develops quite the crush on Oz. Oz unleashes his usual bag of tricks on her, particular when he discovers the prophecy that someone with the same name as the land would descend from the sky, save the land from a wicked witch and become king of Oz. The two head back to the Emerald City where Oz meets Evanora (Weisz), who is Theodora’s sister and regent of Oz since their father was poisoned.

There is a wicked witch for Oz to kill however and he goes off to do just that with his trusted flying monkey valet Finley (voiced by Braff) at his side. Along the way they run into a porcelain village that has been decimated by the wicked witch’s flying baboons. The only survivor is a little china girl (King) whose legs have been shattered. Oz, with a trusty bottle of glue, puts her right as rain and the grateful girl accompanies the two on their quest.

When they meet Glinda (Williams) again who introduces them to the Quadlings, the Tinkers and the Munchkins, Oz realizes that the task at hand is much more complicated and dangerous than he first thought and that he has little more than pluck on his side. His entire life he has been searching for greatness but now it appears that he must die in order to achieve it.

A lot of people are going to make the mistake of comparing this to The Wizard of Oz, among them professional critics who should know better. If you go into this movie thinking that this is going to be just as magical and just as timeless, you’re going to walk out disappointed. Raimi wisely chooses to pay homage to the classic rather than aping it. Sure there are some similarities – the sepia-toned Kansas, the colorful Oz, the singing and dancing Munchkins, a cowardly lion (blink and you’ll miss him) and an Art Deco Emerald City.

The 1939 version of the film was always a woman’s movie – Dorothy versus the Wicked Witch. The men in the movie were really little more than comic relief and that was okay. In some ways that’s true here as well – while Oz is at the center of the action and is the erstwhile hero, this movie is all about the witches with a little help from a China Girl.

Franco as Oz is kind of an odd choice. Sure, Franco projects that con man cockiness with an aw shucks grin that has just the right touch of nasty to it. He is just smarmy enough to be in character but enough to get on my nerves from time to time. This is supposed to be a prequel to Wizard and for me, I had trouble connecting the dots from Franco’s Oscar to the grouchy old fraud that Frank Morgan played.

The witches are all three excellent actresses at or near the top of their game. Weisz makes a memorable Evanora, one whose depths are darker than you might imagine. A character like this gives Weisz a chance to really cut loose and she does, although never going over-the-top which a lesser actress might just do.

Kunis is turning into a star in her own right. I’m not sure this is the role to advance her career any but at least it doesn’t do her any harm. She has the widest range to cover and she does it pretty well although not notably. She neither distinguishes herself nor disgraces herself other than to remind us how gorgeous her face is in her early scenes with Franco.

Williams is often overlooked when discussions about Hollywood’s best actresses ensue but believe me, she is right up there among the very best. She has the least meaty role of the three sisters but  shines nevertheless. In many ways she had the most difficult task but she wound up shining, commendable considering who she was acting with in the movie.

There is a whole lot of eye candy here, most of it of the CGI variety. Most of it is pretty nifty but there are a few scenes in which the CGI green screen effect is a bit clunky, surprisingly so. The surprise is because they got the 3D down so well which is fairly rare. It actually enhances the movie. I know, notify the paramedics because there are gonna be coronaries over it – but facts are facts.

This is no Wizard of Oz, it’s true. This isn’t timeless, there’s no “Over the Rainbow” and the movie doesn’t have that same magic that the 1939 classic had. Nevertheless that doesn’t mean it can’t be solidly entertaining in its own right and in all truthfulness I’m a sucker for Oz and getting a chance to go back there again is an irresistible lure. It brings back the kid in me and at my advanced age that’s a welcome and impressive feat of prestidigitation of its own.

REASONS TO GO: Great performances throughout. Really good chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence.

REASONS TO STAY: Keeps you a little too off-balance in places. Too Hollywood an ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some images of flying baboons and witchery that may be too scary for the tiniest of tots. There is some mild cursing but unlikely that your children haven’t heard it before.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Baum Brothers circus that Oscar performs in, as well as the name of his assistant Frank were both tributes to L. Frank Baum, creator of Oz.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100; critics were all over the board with this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alice in Wonderland

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: 56 Up

The Wizard of Oz


We're off to see the Wizard!

We’re off to see the Wizard!

(1939) Musical (MGM) Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Charley Grapewin, Pat Walsh, Clara Blandick, The Singer Midgets, Dorothy Barrett, Amelia Batchelor, Charles Becker, Buster Brodie. Directed by Victor Fleming

Most movies are a product of their times. Most people can without knowing when the film was made have a pretty good idea of approximately when it was filmed just by looking at the costumes and hairstyles, listening to the dialogue and so on. Some movies though, transcend the times and become classics. These movies will be around much longer than you and I will; long after we’ve shuffled this mortal coil, audiences will still be enjoying them.

The Wizard of Oz is one such classic. Even though few of us were around when it was released back in 1939 most of us have childhood memories revolving around the movie thanks to its annual appearance on broadcast TV in the 60s through the 90s and of course it’s availability now on home video. Even today when I watch the movie I still feel the same wonder I did when I first saw it on television as a young boy.

Need I tell you the plot? Everyone knows that young Dorothy Gale (Garland) and her beloved dog Toto are transported from dull and sepia-toned Kansas by a twister (or tornado if you prefer) to the colorful and magical land of Oz. Her arrival accidentally ends the life of the Wicked Witch of the East, whose magical ruby slippers are placed on Dorothy’s feet by Glinda (Burke) the Good Witch of the North which protects her from the Wicked Witch of the West (Hamilton).

Getting Dorothy home won’t be easy so Glinda sends her down the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City where Oz (Morgan), the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz could help her. Along the way she meets up with the Scarecrow (Bolger), the Tin Man (Haley) and the Cowardly Lion (Lahr) who become fast friends with Dorothy. The Wizard sends them on a quest to fetch the broom of the Wicked Witch to prove their worth but how will these friends, who need brains (the Scarecrow), a heart (the Tin Man) and courage (the Lion) be able to help Dorothy – who just wants to go home – against a powerful and evil sorceress?

Along with Gone With the Wind this may be the most beloved film ever made. It is Da Queen’s all-time favorite so it gets a regular viewing in our household. We even went and saw it on the big screen a couple of years ago to mark its 70th anniversary. I will say that if ever a revival house shows it or if it makes an appearance for a special event at your local cinema, you should by all means try and see it on the big screen – it makes a huge difference.

Even if the only place you ever see it is on your TV or computer screen it is well worth a look. It is a thing of brilliance, from the contrast of the drum and sepia-toned Kansas sequences (which includes the “Over the Rainbow” musical number, perhaps the best ever set to film) with the colorful and whimsical Oz sequences. For most of the actors who would appear in the movie, it would be a career-defining moment.

A lot of the films from this era are extremely dated and don’t hold up to modern standards but this isn’t one of those. Although the special effects are primitive by our standards there is still a magic here that goes beyond CGI. Part of it is simply that part of your inner child who loves to play “make believe” that this movie speaks to but part of it is simply that great care was taken to make this fun and lovely to look at from every angle. Sure, the art deco Emerald City looks like Miami’s South Beach on crack but that’s half the joy.

Garland was never better than she was here, a performance of lovely simplicity that made her utterly believable. When she sings “Over the Rainbow” it is with such yearning that your heart almost breaks – and empathizes. Haven’t we all wanted to go over the rainbow in our darkest moments?

Lahr, one of the most popular comedians of the era, nearly steals the show as the Cowardly Lion. He’s kind of like the soldier from Brooklyn who lightened up the wartime flicks that would come in the intervening years, and his delivery of the Lion’s lines (say that real fast if you dare) is iconic to the point that most of us often do our own impressions of it (go ahead and deny it if you can). Overall it is a tribute to friendship and loyalty that resonates with all of us – who hasn’t wanted friends like the Scarecrow and the Tin Man at our backs?

This is the kind of movie that transcends movies. It is what brings families together to watch something so pure that we can all enjoy it without thought of politics, race, religion or just about anything. It’s appeal is so universal that it goes beyond boundaries and lines – it is as popular elsewhere in the world as it is here in America. One cannot hear “We’re off to see the wizard!” without thinking they’re embarking on an adventure of their own.

In short, this is a movie you don’t just like, you come to love it. It’s not a movie you watch or even experience, it becomes part of you. It is why people fall in love with the movies to begin with. My highest rating is 10 out of 10, but this is one of few movies that is above such inane things as ratings. It’s just something special you shouldn’t cheat yourself out of.

WHY RENT THIS: A true classic and a great means of family bonding.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: I don’t know. You don’t like classic movies maybe?

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few scenes that might frighten the very young and very sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Garland wore a corset across her torso so she would appear younger and flat-chested.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 2005 release Collector’s edition (the one in the green case, not the yellow) has a wealth of extras, including Angela Lansbury reading an abridged version of the book complete with original illustrations; an 11-minute featurette on the restoration process and several documentaries on the making of the movie and it’s enduring legacy. There are five silent era versions of the book as well as an animated short from 1933 There’s a 28 minute feature on the life of L. Frank Baum, author of the beloved book that started it all and there are some stills and promotional materials (including a souvenir program from the Hollywood premiere in 1939). Believe it or not, the 2009 70th Anniversary Blu-Ray has all that and even more – a 52-page hardcover book about the making and marketing of The Wizard of Oz, a wrist watch, a sing-along track, a 1992 made-for-TV movie called The Dreamer of Oz starring the late John Ritter as Baum, a radio broadcast in which Garland reprised her role as Dorothy Gale and on its own double-sided disc a six hour documentary on the history of MGM. It’s pricey but worth the added expense for the Oz junkie in your family.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17.7M on a $2.8M production budget; in 1939 dollars that’s a major blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gone With the Wind

FINAL RATING: 11/10

NEXT: Oz the Great and Powerful