Joe (2013)


Joe has his sights set on opening that there can of whoopass.

Joe has his sights set on opening that there can of whoopass.

(2013) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Adriene Mishler, Brian Mays, AJ Wilson McPhaul, Sue Rock, Heather Kafka, Brenda Isaacs Booth, Anna Niemtschk, Elbert Evan Hill III, Milton Fountain, Roderick L. Polk, Aaron Spivey-Sorrells, John Daws, Kay Epperson, Lico Reyes, Erin Reed, Dana Freitag. Directed by David Gordon Green

florida-film-festival-2014We are none of us born perfect and some of us come into the world with more obstacles than others to achieve perfection. We still plug away nonetheless, eking out our place in the world and trying to make a life that we can call our own.

Joe Ransom (Cage) is an ex-con with a hair-trigger temper. He is trying the straight and narrow as the boss of a crew that poisons trees so that a developer can come in and snatch the land for rock bottom prices, then raze it and do what they like with it. It’s illegal as hell, but it’s the most honest living Joe can find.

He drinks and smokes too much and from time to time gets into bar fights, particularly with a lout named Willie Russell (Blevins) who shoots Joe in the shoulder in retaliation. Joe takes up with hookers and drives a battered old truck, occasionally running in with the law and getting bailed out by his old friend Earl (McPhaul) who knows that despite the rough edges Joe is basically a decent sort.

One day a young teenage boy named Gary (Sheridan) shows up looking for work along with his father Wade (Poulter). The dad is an absolute disaster; a raging alcoholic who beats his son up and takes the money he earns to buy cigarettes and booze. Gary on the other hand is a hard worker who impresses Joe from the get-go and the not easily impressed Joe takes the boy under his wing somewhat and becomes a mentor to him.

Certainly Gary could easily be headed on the same freight train that his father is riding but even the exceedingly imperfect Joe is more of a role model than his dad. Of course this doesn’t sit well with Wade who meets up with Willie Russell who after further humiliation from Joe is ready for something even more violent.

Cage in recent years has achieved the kind of notoriety that no actor wants – for excessive scene-chewing and taking on roles in movies that are wildly forgettable or worse. Here in one performance he very nearly erases a decade of performances that are simply put not worthy of a man of Cage’s talent. This is the Nicolas Cage whose movies I looked forward to seeing; this is the guy who won Oscars and charmed critics with his offbeat charisma. Those who have been disappointed by his recent run of B, C and D movies can rejoice that he’s finally been given a role deserving of him.

Sheridan continues his hot streak of excellent roles in mainly Southern gothic films. As in Mud he has a first-rate adult actor to work with and one gets the sense that Sheridan is learning well from watching pros like Cage and Matthew McConaughey at work. One gets the sense that he is going to be around for a good long time and may well be the most decorated actor of the 2020s.

Green, like Cage, had a little bit of a career hiccup after a promising start; it seems likely that he knew that he wasn’t doing his best work and took a step back and started where he came from – the indie drama. This is his best work in awhile, the fine Prince Avalanche notwithstanding. He captures the sordid desperation of the very lowest and impoverished classes in rural Texas and allows them their own brand of dignity. These aren’t people you may hang out with or even want to, but Green gives them more respect than other directors might have been willing to in the same position. Kudos to him for that much.

This can be tough going in places. The sordid existence of Joe, Gary, Wade and Willie Russell may be too much grit for some but those willing to stick it out will be rewarded with a real gem of a movie.

REASONS TO GO: Cage’s best performance in years. Gritty and unpleasant but always compelling.

REASONS TO STAY: The ugliness can be overwhelming.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some fairly disturbing stuff including depictions of child abuse and alcoholism, violence, foul language and strong sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Poulter, who passed away two months after filming concluded, was actually a homeless man with a history of alcoholism and violent behavior when cast by Green, who is known for casting local non-professionals in his movies.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mud

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Lunchbox

Fireflies in the Garden


Family dinners in indie films rarely end well.

Family dinners in indie films rarely end well.

(2008) Drama (Senator) Ryan Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Willem Dafoe, Carrie-Anne Moss, Emily Watson, Ioan Gruffudd, Hayden Panettiere, Shannon Lucio, Cayden Boyd, George Newbern, Brooklyn Proulx, Diane Perella, Natalie Karp, John C. Stennfeld, Philip Rose, Babs George, Frank Ertl, Grady McCardell, Chase Ellison, Michelle Brew, Gina Gheller, Stayce Smith. Directed by Dennis Lee

There are those who say that we cannot escape childhood. Like death and taxes, it pursues us with relentless ferocity and those things in childhood that wounded us remain with us, periodically picking at the scabs.

Michael Taylor (Reynolds) is a best-selling author although what he writes is generally considered “light” reading. His relationship with his father Charles (Dafoe) is strained at best. Charles is himself a frustrated writer who retreated into the halls of academia when his career as a novelist didn’t pan out. A strict disciplinarian with his children but mostly with his son, Charles meets any indiscretion with the most horrific and overreacting punishments imaginable. You can imagine what this academic does when Michael as a boy (Boyd) shames him by plagiarizing a Robert Frost poem and presenting it as his own.

Michael is definitely abused but he has two women in his corner; his gentle mother Lisa (Roberts) and his feisty aunt Jane (Watson as an adult, Panettiere as a teen) who protect him against the worst of his father’s rages and comfort him when their protection is breached.

As an adult Michael has definitely made some errors. He has separated from his wife Kelly (Moss) and continues to have a contentious relationship with his father. When a family tragedy brings the family into the same place, Michael and Charles will have to confront their feelings for one another perhaps for the first time in their lives.

Although set in Illinois, the movie was filmed in Texas and has a kind of Southern gothic feel to it that is almost soap opera-esque. Dafoe is note-perfect as Charles whose anger issues and self-loathing point to deeper waters that the film doesn’t explore but that Dafoe seems to have a handle on. Roberts’ Lisa at first glance seems like the long-suffering wife archetype but it turns out that she has some secrets of her own and not all of them are pleasant. Roberts, normally a star who appears in much higher-profile movies, imbues Lisa with decency and humanity.

Reynolds in recent years has gotten all sorts of flack for appearing in some sub-par films but to my mind is actually capable of some pretty good work. This is an example of him at his finest, showing that Reynolds can really deliver when given the right script.

The jumps between present day and past can be jarring and with all the souls revolving around the story here it can be difficult to distinguish one character from another. Simple linear storytelling might have served the film better, or failing that cutting down on the superfluous characters would at least be helpful.

The pacing here is as slow as a tax refund when you really need it which suits me just fine but some viewers who prefer a more robust pace might find frustrating. Lee does have a good eye and some of the scenes have an artful grace to them, such as when the family is swatting fireflies with badminton racquets or the bookending scenes in which young Michael is forced to walk home in the rain after a transgression in the car and his nephew Christopher (Ellison) runs away from nearly the same spot 22 years later. Despite the star power for this indie feature, there isn’t enough here to really sustain interest over the course of a full film although there is enough promise in Lee’s work to keep me interested in his future endeavors.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Dafoe, Roberts and Reynolds. Some graceful touches.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Multiple actors playing the same role gets confusing. Storytelling is a bit muddled. Languidly paced.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language as well as some sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moss and Panettiere share a birthday.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.4M on an $8M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tree of Life

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Bad Words

Bridge to Terabithia (2007)


Things are looking up for AnnaSophia Robb.

Things are looking up for AnnaSophia Robb.

(2007) Drama (Disney/Walden) Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, Zooey Deschanel, Robert Patrick, Bailee Madison, Kate Butler, Devon Wood, Emma Fenton, Grace Brannigan, Latham Gaines, Judy McIntosh, Patricia Aldersley, Lauren Clinton, Isabelle Rose Kircher, Cameron Wakefield, Elliott Lawless, Carly Owen, Jen Wolfe. Directed by Gabor Csupo

Sometimes a great friend comes along when we least expect it. Someone who broadens our horizons, turns our perspectives upside down and makes us look at the world differently. Sadly, sometimes great friends also leave us when we most need them.

Jesse (Hutcherson) doesn’t have the most ideal home life. Sometimes, he feels like the invisible boy. His dad (Patrick) and mom (Butler) dote on his little sister May Belle (Madison) and all his other little sisters. They have way too much on their minds though to spare much of a thought for him – money is tight and that alone is enough to get him bullied by Janice Avery (Clinton), a large sadistic girl.

There’s a new girl in class though – Leslie Burke (Robb). Jesse has always taken solace that he’s the fastest kid in school, but Leslie beats him in a race, netting him further grief from his tormentors. On the bus ride home, he discovers that Leslie lives next door. Irritated with her victory, he rebuffs her attempts to make friends.

Eventually she wins him over, especially when she expresses her admiration for his drawings in the notebook he carries around with him at all times. She tells him about her love for fantasy stories. Together they go exploring the woods near their home, crossing the creek on a fallen log. They find an abandoned treehouse and a broken down old truck near it. They decide that this is their castle and this is the world of Terabithia, populated by gnomes, trolls and all manner of fearsome beasts. They are the King and Queen of their little world which comes to life in their imagination.

Leslie has had a rough time of it, moving from place to place and having trouble making or keeping friends. Even though her parents are wealthy and loving, Leslie has been a lonely little girl. Jesse is really the first and best friend she’s ever had, so Leslie’s parents embrace him as one of their own. Leslie discovers that Janice has had an even tougher time of it. She is the victim of abuse from her father. Leslie befriends her, a turning point in Janice’s life.

Leslie isn’t the only one noticing Jesse’s talents. Ms. Edmunds (Deschanel), the music teacher Jesse has a secret crush on, invites him on a trip to the art museum. Although he tells his mom where they are going, she is half asleep and he takes her mumbled response for approval for his trip. He has the opportunity to take Leslie along but at the last moment he doesn’t, wanting the experience all for himself. Spending the day at an art museum on a stormy day seems like absolute heaven to him.

However, his trip to the art museum will have unintended but devastating consequences as tragedy will strike very close to him. Jesse’s life will never be the same afterwards.

The movie is based on the award-winning children’s book by Katherine Paterson which is in turn based on the real life experiences of her son David (who wrote the screenplay for the movie). Perhaps that is why the kids seem realistic to me and their relationship organic and natural. Robb who has also turned out impressive performances in Race to Witch Mountain and later in Soul Surfer is a lustrous beauty even at this age who seems almost angelic. Hutcherson who has gone on to star in the Hunger Games movies, shows some solid acting chops. While he doesn’t have Robb’s screen charisma, he is nonetheless more than adequate for the role.

Disney marketed this as a straight up fantasy movie which it isn’t really at all, although there are certainly digital creature effects thanks to WETA (which are better than average, by the way). This is a coming of age drama essentially with elements of fantasy which are meant to highlight the imagination of the children – we see what they see. Some people who saw the movie left disappointing, expecting something along the lines of a Harry Potter movies. There are also those who went into the film expecting another disappointing young adult fantasy movie and emerged pleasantly surprised.

There is a great deal of depth to this movie and it deals with a lot of things that kids deal with – bullying, economic hardship, fitting in, loneliness, imagination, feeling left out, and loss. Some of these things can be difficult for parents to help their kids with and in fact the parents in this movie don’t have all the answers. Just like most of us.

Still, I highly recommend this for not only pre-teen kids but their parents as well. There are some terrific opportunities for dialogue between parents and children to be opened up here. Not only that, this is as satisfying a movie for adults as it’s going to be for their kids. Highly recommended.

WHY RENT THIS: Surprisingly candid and insightful. Pulls no punches. Terrific performances from Hutcherson and Robb, with Deschanel her usual solid self.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fantasy sequences can be a bit cliche.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are depictions of bullying and peril as well as a few mildly bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be cinematographer Michael Chapman’s final film as he retired after filming was completed.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a music video for the song “Keep Your Mind Wide Open” from cast member Robb, as well as a discussion about the book by cast members, educators and most insightful of all, author Katherine Paterson.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $137.6M on a $20M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flipped

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Need for Speed

Lovely Molly


Lovely Molly

Molly may be lovely but she’s also scary as Hell.

(2012) Psychological Horror (Image) Gretchen Lodge, Johnny Lewis, Alexandra Holden, Ken Arnold, Shane Tunney, Tony Ellis, Katie Foster, Lauren Lakis, Daniel Ross, Brandon Thane Wilson, Dan Franko, Todd Ryan Jones, Tara Garwood. Directed by Eduardo Sanchez

 

Going back home is usually considered a bit of a warm fuzzy; all of our glowing childhood memories of safety and security packed with the joy of childhood. Of course, if your childhood as awful filled with sexual abuse and drug use, going back home carries a whole different connotation.

Molly (Lodge) is a new bride, having married her sweetheart Tim (Lewis). She works as a janitor in a local mall while he drives a truck for a living and is gone for long stretches at a time. The new couple has moved into Molly’s childhood home, which she inherited after her  father passed away. Her sister Hannah (“Franklin and Bash” regular Holden) has serious misgivings about this since in that home Molly was repeatedly molested by her father, which sent her into a downward spiral of drug abuse and psychosis from which she’s only recently recovered.

At first things are lovely and idyllic in the bucolic Maryland countryside house that goes back to the Colonial era. Then, Tim gets called away for a long haul just before Molly’s birthday. She begins to hear noises in the night – terrifying footsteps, and doors slamming on their own accord. She hears voices, male voices whispering unintelligibly in the night. Molly carries around a digital video camera around with her but can’t seem to get more on film than things that can be explained away.

She starts to see shadowy but hideous demonic forms out of the corner of her eye. The noises and unexplained phenomena are beginning to get more intense and threatening. She talks to a pastor (Arnold) about her fears but he can’t really help her – and she can’t afford health care in order to see a therapist or psychiatrist.

Tim has been supportive but even he is wondering what’s going on with his bride. Is she having some kind of psychotic break, or perhaps relapsing into drug use again? Or is the truth that she is legitimately being haunted, perhaps by the ghost of her father – or something more insidious, sinister and ancient?

Sanchez, whose first movie was the legendary Blair Witch Project, has made a career out of creating atmospheric horror films in which the audience is never 100% positive about what they’re seeing. One of the things I liked most about this film – and in fact of all of Sanchez’ films – is that he casts doubt on the evidence of your senses. Is that really ghostly whispers or the minds of the protagonists playing tricks on them?

It helps having an unknown actress throwing down a powerful performance in the lead. Gretchen Lodge doesn’t have a lot of on-screen experience but she makes up for it with a nuanced performance that captures her fragile psyche as well as her dangerous and unpredictable aspect. If Molly isn’t genuinely beset by supernatural forces then she is surely psychotic and maybe even schizophrenic. That you cannot be certain which is both a tribute to the writers and to Lodge herself.

The problems here are also in the writing; there are some logical leaps of faith that are a little bit too much to ask of the audience, particularly when it comes to how other characters react to Molly. For example, if Molly were truly having so many problems in the house, why not go stay with her sister who evidently lives close enough by to make regular visits? Also, there’s a sense that some of the elements have been seen before, like the horny pastor. That little subplot doesn’t really work and could easily have been excised from the film to the movie’s benefit.

Da Queen didn’t like this movie at all when we saw it at the Florida Film Festival, but then again these are the types of movies she really doesn’t care for at all so that must be taken with a grain of salt. There are a good deal of things that work here, particularly in regards to keeping the audience guessing about Molly’s veracity. That makes this the kind of movie that is a candidate for repeated viewings as audiences will want to see it again with a different point of view in mind. This isn’t a remarkable film – it’s too cliché for that – but it is genuinely spooky and innovative in its own way. If Sanchez could have tightened up a few things here and there he’d have made a genuine classic.

REASONS TO GO: Creepiness factor through the roof. Lodge performs well in a demanding role.

REASONS TO STAY: Lapses in logic. A bit too vague in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic violence and sexuality, some disturbing images, nudity, drug use and let’s throw in some bad language for good measure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gretchen Lodge’s first feature film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.The reviews are decidedly mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Silent House

COLONIAL LOVERS: The home in the film is an actual Colonial dwelling in Maryland not far from where The Blair Witch Project was shot.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Dark Shadows

Chronicle


Chronicle

Dane DeHaan wants a Ferrari and he wants it NOW!!!!

(2012) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Kelly, Ashley Hinshaw, Bo Petersen, Anna Wood, Rudi Malcolm, Luke Tyler, Crystal-Donna Roberts, Adrian Collins, Grant Powell, Armand Aucamp, Nicole Bailey. Directed by Joshua Trank

 

The saying goes absolute power corrupts absolutely, and that is true even of people in the best of positions. When it comes to teenagers, they are still developing their value system and their moral compass is still under construction. That’s not a knock, that’s just how people grow – some may develop sooner than others but for the most part most teens are just kind of making their own way through the best they can. Making mistakes is part of growing up; but when you have super powers, those mistakes become amplified exponentially.

Andrew (DeHaan) is a bit of a loner. His mom Karen (Petersen) is slowly dying, her lungs eaten up by cancer. His father Richard (Kelly) is a former firefighter who is out on permanent disability and copes with the family’s financial ruin and impending death of his wife by drinking and beating up his son who is a disappointment to him.

Andrew copes by documenting everything on an ancient video camera he’s found – why I’m not really sure except a desire to relive every moment of his teenage years’ misery when he gets older. He has few friends at school, let alone a girlfriend. He’s not a bad kid but he’s clearly troubled.

His only friend is his cousin Matt (Russell) who is smart and outgoing although a bit socially awkward himself. He reads books of philosophy, quotes Plato and Schopenhauer and ferries his cousin around to school. Living in the Seattle area, cars are a must unless you’re fond of getting soaking wet in the frequent rainstorms.

Matt drags Andrew to a rave and Andrew decides to go, camera in tow. Predictably he gets bullied and goes outside to sit, despondent. Matt’s friend Steve (Jordan), a popular athlete running for student body president finds Andrew and brings him to a mysterious hole in the ground that he and Matt found. Matt wants Andrew to take pictures of it; the three go down into the hole and find…something.

Three weeks later that something has started developing telekinesis – the ability to move objects with the power of the mind – and their powers are growing stronger and stronger. At first it’s a big goof for the three of them, moving a leaf blower to send an updraft up the skirts of cheerleaders, or bringing a stuffed animal to life to terrify a young girl in a toy store (boys will be boys and sometimes they’re jerks, to paraphrase something Martin Zellar once sang).

Soon though Andrew’s inner rage (as the bullying intensifies as does his mother’s illness and his father’s abuse) begins to burn through and he is rapidly becoming the most powerful of the three of them. An incident causes Matt to establish some rules – no using the powers in anger, on humans or in public, all of which Andrew will soon violate.

This is Trank’s first feature film and he’s already being considered for the high profile Fox reboot of Fantastic Four. He is very successful with taking a movie in the found footage genre and augmenting it with some pretty nifty special effects (although some of the flying sequences look patently green screened with harnesses). The script by Max Landis (son of veteran filmmaker John Landis, the man behind An American Werewolf in London and National Lampoon’s Animal House as well as Michael Jackson’s Thriller video) is smart and authentic. Not only are these high school boys who talk like high school boys (perhaps only Diablo Cody is as good with young people dialogue) but they act like them too. Full of mischief, a little bit of cruelty and plenty of insecurity yet absolutely sure they are the top of the human food chain – yup, just like every teenager I’ve ever met – or the one I used to be.

The movie could easily have taken the easy route and just had three kids becoming Gods with all sorts of wisdom and benevolence and become Superman or even Spider-Man but instead their powers play into their issues and their inexperience leads to tragic circumstances.

DeHaan is the lead here and he does the best job artistically – he has much more to work with in a lot of ways as the troubled boy who slowly comes to realize that he doesn’t have to take anybody’s crap anymore. Still, I think the handsome Russell may wind up with the most success later on down the line – he has that movie star charisma and looks that studios find irresistible. Don’t be surprised if he gets a franchise role somewhere down the line and not too far, either. Ditto for Jordan who has an easy charm and might do real well in some Tyler Perry-like comedies for a younger audience.

Hinshaw as a v-blogger who captures Matt’s attention and Wood as a classmate of Andrew’s who decides to take his virginity after a successful talent show appearance (augmented by his powers) are both nice eye candy but not really called upon to stretch their talents very much. Hopefully we’ll see them do just that in some juicier roles eventually.

This was a bit of a surprise I have to admit – judging on the trailer I expected another teen-centric found footage piece that would grab the high school audience but not much more; quite frankly I thought this was a solid movie with broad appeal and certainly a nice showcase for both Trank and Landis, who I believe have awfully promising careers ahead. There’s actually some stuff to think about here along with the strictly visceral appeal – and that’s a win for a broader audience anyday.

REASONS TO GO: The teens act like teens. Some impressive effects work despite the budget.

REASONS TO STAY: More than its share of angst.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, a few cuss words, some sexuality, teen drinking and some of the themes here are pretty sophisticated for the Nickelodeon set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anna Wood, whose character makes out with Andrew in the film, is Dane DeHaan’s girlfriend in real life.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/15/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100. The reviews are raves.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cloverfield

RAIN LOVERS: It rains all the time in Seattle, dude. It rains here a lot too.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Man On a Ledge

Mammoth


Mammoth

This is the kind of penthouse view you can only see in movies.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Gael Garcia Bernal, Michelle Williams, Sophie Nyweide, Marife Necesito, Tom McCarthy, Run Srinikornchot, Jan David G. Nicdao, Martin de los Santos, Maria Esmeralda del Carmen, Perry Dizon, Joseph Mydell. Directed by Lukas Moodysson

The world doesn’t exist in a vacuum; what happens in New York might well ordain what happens in Luzon, or Bombay or Bangkok for that matter. Even our most insignificant actions in other words have consequences.

Leo (Bernal), Ellen (Williams) and their daughter Jackie (Nyweide) are a happy family. Sunday mornings are comprised of family tickle fests in their expensive Manhattan loft. Still, even a good tickle fest must come to an end and Leo, a video game designer, must jet off to Thailand with his business partner Bob (McCarthy) to sign a multi-million dollar deal that will make the already wealthy Leo even wealthier. Since Bob is the business end of the partnership, Leo has little to do but show up and smile; after doing too much sightseeing he begins to get bored.

Ellen is none too fond of Leo’s absence and her stressful position as a pediatric E.R doctor. She is suffering from insomnia, much of it due to sexual frustration but also due to a case that she’s handling in the E.R. of a child who was stabbed in the stomach by her own mother. She is also feeling disconnected from her daughter, a feeling that is further heightened by Jackie’s growing closeness with her nanny.

Gloria (Necesito), the said nanny, hails from the Philippines and has two boys there – Salvador (Nicdao) and Manuel (de los Santos) who miss her terribly and beg her to come home whenever she calls. She sends most of her earnings home to them to build them a home of their own (they live with Gloria’s mother) and put them through college eventually so they can make a better life for themselves. Jackie is latching onto her because she is basically the only one paying attention to her and treating her like a person. Gloria for her part teaches her Tagolog and takes her to the planetarium, which is Jackie’s favorite place.

The distance between Leo, Ellen and Jackie is growing and Leo finds that he is being tempted by a sweet Thai prostitute named, ironically enough, Cookie (Srinikornchot) who has a daughter of her own. There are a lot of mama issues in this movie.

Swedish director Moodysson (in his English language debut) has taken a lot of heat for implying the link between women working and child issues. Quite frankly he has a point there – women are being forced more and more into the workplace and something has to suffer for it and generally, it’s the relationship with their kids that has to take a back burner simply because they aren’t around as much. It’s not an indictment of women, gang, it’s just a statement of fact.

Bernal is a greatly underrated actor best known for his work in Y Tu Mama Tambien. His role is the least defined of the three members of the family but Bernal makes it memorable. He plays the husband as conflicted and a little bit weak-willed. He is guilty about his fling with Cookie and guilty about deserting his family but a little fuzzy on what’s really going on with his wife and daughter.

Williams, so good in Wendy and Lucy, shows that she has the ability to do an abundance of roles. Self-assured as a surgeon she is nonetheless flawed and occasionally unsure of herself as a woman. She is jealous of Gloria’s closeness to her daughter but doesn’t know how to develop that closeness herself. Instead, she finds herself giving that tenderness to the daughter of another mother. Williams owns the role the same way she owned the role of Wendy in the previous film; and the two roles could not be more different. I see statuettes and red carpets in her future.

The soundtrack is magnificent and uses songs by the electropop band Ladytron effectively to create upbeat moods, which the movie needs in places. It creeps along most of the time and has a languorous pace that can use the occasional shot of adrenaline and Ladytron supplies that nicely.

While the women play the pivotal roles in this movie, I came away thinking it was more about the way families drift apart in the modern world, given the demands of work and of human interactions. In that sense, this is a movie that hits the mark nicely, but it takes a long time to get down a short road and some might find that infuriating. Whether you agree with all of Moodysson’s conclusions is kind of beside the point. It’s whether or not you’ll enjoy the journey and I think it can go either way for most people. It’s worth taking the time to find out if you’re one of those who’ll like it though.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Bernal and Williams. Establishes dialogue regarding privilege and those who support it. Nice use of Ladytron on the soundtrack.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves at a glacial pace not unlike the title creature. Some will find the movie’s plot controversial and its conclusions unpalatable.

FAMILY VALUES: There are adult themes going on here and some scenes where children are put in jeopardy.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in Thailand, the Philippines, Sweden and New York City.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.8M on an unreported production budget; I’d guess the movie broke even or thereabouts.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Bedazzled (2000)

Buck


Buck

Buck Brannaman surrounded by his friends.

(2011) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Buck Brannaman, Mary Brannaman, Reata Brannaman, Betsy Shirley, Robert Redford, Bibb Frazier, Betty Staley, Ali Cornish, Shayne Jackson, Smokie Brannaman, Ray Hunt. Directed by Cindy Meehl

We as Americans tend to think of ourselves as the strong silent types. We admire the archetype of the lone cowboy, masculine and kind, prone to doing the right thing and saying little to blow his own horn; he just gets on with things.

Buck Brannaman fits the ideal to a “T”. This documentary follows Brannaman while he goes on the road, which he does nine months of the year. He runs clinics in which he teaches horse owners to gently train their horses without abusing or breaking them. He is the inspiration for the character of Tom Booker in the Nicholas Evans novel “The Horse Whisperer” which later became a Robert Redford movie.

Brannaman has a droll sense of humor; he quips early on “I get called out for people with horse problems, but usually find horses with people problems.” He is self-deprecating but firm in his passions; from time to time he calls out his clients when their behavior is detrimental to the horse. His daughter Reata accompanies him for two months out of the year; she is described by her mother Mary as “her father’s daughter,” which Buck tends to agree with; “Fortunately she got her mother’s looks, but inside she’s more like me.”

There’s something about Buck that you just respond to, whether you’re a human being or a horse. It is his innate humanity, his gentle sense of humor and his empathy for both man and beast. He is a decent human being and that decency radiates from him like an aura.

Horse lovers will find many reasons to love this film; the animals have personalities and are treated with dignity and respect. So too are the people who love horses. Some are those who work with horses on ranches; others are those who use horses in other ways, as show horses and in dressage. Then there are just who just love horses and want to learn to ride.

The most remarkable thing about Buck is that he came from a background of extreme abuse as a child; his father was something of a drunken monster who’s own insecurities led him to beat his children (Buck and his brother Smokie) unmercifully. Buck and Smokie, who were trick ropers as children (Buck and Smokie remain in the Guinness Book of World Records to this day for achievements as children), had their injuries found out by a football coach who immediately reported it to the authorities, and the two boys were remanded to the care of Betsy Shirley, a foster mom who together with her husband raised the two as their own (some of the best moments in the movie come when Betsy comes to visit Buck).

Not all documentaries need to be about an issue. Some of the best ones are about people who are worth knowing more about. People who make the world a better place in their own way. You will be better for even a brief encounter with Buck than you were going in. If there’s a better reason to go see a movie, I can’t think of it.

REASONS TO GO: A wonderful portrayal of a real American archetype. Truly inspiring in places, Brannaman’s humanity and compassion shines.

REASONS TO STAY: Much of the movie revolves around Brannaman’s clinics and might be a bit repetitive for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some discussions of child abuse and one scene of an injury that might be too much for impressionable sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buck Brannaman was not only the inspiration for the lead character in the novel The Horse Whisperer; he also was a technical advisor on the film of the novel.

HOME OR THEATER: Beautifully photographed, this should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Premonition

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Man som hatar kvinnor)


The Girl with the Dragoon Tattoo

This is not the girl you want to mess with.

(2009) Thriller (Music Box) Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Lena Endre, Sven-Bertil Taube, Peter Haber, Peter Andersson, Marika Lagercrantz, Ingvar Hirdwall, Bjorn Granath, Ewa Froling, Annika Hallin, Georgi Staykov, Tomas Kohler.  Directed by Niels Arden Oplev

My wife was often heard to say to my son (and she heard this herself often as a child) that the truth will find you out. It usually does, too – although sometimes it can take many years before it finally shows up at your door.

Mikael Blomkvist (Nyqvist) is the publisher of Millennium, a left wing magazine in Sweden that goes after corporate and government officials mostly of the right wing variety. Blomkvist has just lost a libel trial against a wealthy Swedish industrialist and in six months time, will be sent to jail for it. He has temporarily stepped down from his position because of the scandal.

In the midst of this, he gets an intriguing offer from an aging Swedish industrialist. Henrik Vanger (Taube) is in his 80s, the patriarch of a wealthy Swedish family living in isolation on an island near Stockholm. 40 years previously, his niece Harriet (Froling) disappeared and is presumed dead. Nobody knows what happened to her although everyone assumes she was murdered. Who done it? Well there’s a whole family of suspects.

As it turns out, Mikael isn’t the only one investigating. Lisbeth Salander (Rapace) was hired to investigate Blomkvist and as she checks up on him, gets drawn in to his own investigation. She is one of Sweden’s best hackers and she has no trouble finding information Mikael can’t access. As time goes by, they discover that the Vangers have a couple of not-so-closet Nazis in the family tree. Salander turns out to have some dangerous secrets of her own and as Mikael closes in on the truth, nothing is what it seems – and it seems there may be something rotten in Sweden.

This is from the first book of the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy which is wildly popular in Scandinavia and more recently worldwide. The motion pictures based on the trilogy are among the most popular ever in Sweden and are due to be remade by Hollywood, the first due out at Christmas directed by Oscar winner David Fincher and starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara.

So should you see these before seeing the remakes? I say yes. This is a world class movie, right up there with the best of Hitchcock and De Palma. The bleak Swedish winter landscapes create the perfect mood, with just the right number of twists – not too many, not too few.

The leads couldn’t be more different. Nyqvist is understated as Blomkvist. He is capable and intellectual but not what you’d call the typical heroic sort. He is more heroic in his convictions and ideals rather than as a physical purveyor of derring-do. He is a decent man caught in a situation that is way over his head, one he’s not nearly mean enough to handle.

Rapace however delivers a star turn as Salander. Lisbeth is a bundle of contradictory characteristics. Quiet and withdrawn in many ways, she also dresses in outlandish punk hairstyle and leather which inevitably calls attention to herself. There is a rage in her that’s just below the surface, a rage that comes out brutally when she’s raped graphically early in the movie. It’s a brutal scene that’s not for the sensitive and is anything but sexual. There are those who are disturbed by it, but considering the importance of the event in the series, it is a necessary scene.

I like the mood the movie weaves; it is a mood that contains the comfort of Scandinavian homes, the overwhelming fog of uneasy dread, the air of mysteries buried deep in the Swedish soil. While there is an Agatha Christie-like vibe to the first act, this is definitely the work of a mind whose roots are deep in the land of the Northern climes, where winters are deep, bone-chilling and soul-sucking. One can almost hear “Finlandia” playing on the soundtrack.

Even more to the point, these are characters that are real and compelling. Even the evil neo-Nazi bastards aren’t caricatures; there is flesh on all of these bones.  Lisbeth Salander may be one of the most interesting heroines to come along since Ellen Ripley in Alien. She has demons deep within her, most of them barely hinted at. She’s not always an easy character to like, but she’s always an easy character to be fascinated by.

There are people who won’t see this because it’s subtitled. That’s a shame; those who love thrillers will love this one. It’s not the most original plot; it’s just done in an original style. There’s a realism to it that works, as well as an air of melancholy that makes it Swedish. It’s not Hitchcock, but as this style of movie goes, it’s as good as anything that’s come along in the last decade.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-acted, well-filmed and well-structured – nearly an ideal mystery-thriller.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story is not really ground-breaking and the ending is not too hard to figure out.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of violence and some grisly images. There’s also a graphic rape, nudity, some sexual material and a bit of bad language (in Swedish but nonetheless).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Noomi Rapace got her eyebrow and nose pierced for the film. She also learned kickboxing and lost weight. Incidentally, the actress playing her mother in the movie is also her mom in real life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a Vanger family tree that may prove helpful in keeping up with the plot. There’s also an interesting interview with Rapace in which she discusses how she came aboard.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $104.4M on a $13M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Girl Who Played With Fire

Slumdog Millionaire


Slumdog Millionaire

Who wants to be a millionaire?

(Fox Searchlight) Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Saurabh Shukla, Mahesh Manjrekar, Ankur Vikal. Directed by Danny Boyle

When you live in abject poverty, survival is a day to day issue and nothing is guaranteed, least of all the possibility of a better tomorrow. However as difficult as it is to escape the slums, if that is what love requires of you then it must be done.

Young Jamal Malik (Patel) is a contestant on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” He is one question away from the grand prize of 20 million rupees when he is arrested by police and questioned. They are suspicious that a boy like this from the slums, uneducated and unaware even of who is on the 1,000 rupee note (It’s Gandhi for those who are wondering, and for those who aren’t, this particular banknote is about as common as the $1 bill is here) can answer questions that even the highly educated cannot.

After a night of torture, a patient police detective (Khan) sits Jamal down and runs through the tape of the previous day’s show one question at a time.

It turns out that Jamal’s knowledge is hard-fought, obtained from a life on the streets of Mumbai. Orphaned at an early age along with older brother Salim (Mittal), the brothers befriend a fellow orphan, the beautiful Latika (Pinto). The three are taken under the wing of Maman (Vikal) who turns out to be a heartless gangster who has accumulated dozens of children in his “orphanage” to act as beggars. He even, in a particularly gruesome scene, has the eyes burned out of some of their heads with acid to then be scooped out with a spoon like so much yoghurt. Salim leads them on a breakout but when he and Jamal make it onto a train, Salim purposely slips his hand away from Latika’s so that she gets captured.

The brothers wind up working – okay, scamming would be a better word – as tour guides at the Taj Mahal, brazenly telling tourists false facts about the Taj and throwing up bigger lies when their own stories are questioned. They are making good money but Jamal misses Latika, to his brothers’ disgust and urges them to go back to Mumbai and find her. When they do, they discover that Maman has been preparing her as a highly sought after virgin prostitute and is getting ready to make good on his investment by selling her virginity to the highest bidder. Salim winds up shooting and killing Maman. He then uses that to get a job with rival gangster Javed (Manjrekar) and proceeds to throw Jamal out of the apartment they share with Latika. Jamal’s heart is broken because Latika is apparently siding with Salim.

Years later, Jamal winds up working at a call center as a chaiwalla (tea server) and uses the database to find both Latika and Salim but succeeds only in finding Salim. Salim is penitent but Jamal is still focused on Latika. Salim is bewildered by his devotion and responds that she is “long gone.” When Jamal follows Salim to his house, he discovers that Latika is there but is apparently living with Javed. Jamal brazenly bluffs his way into the gangster’s house and confesses his love for her. She is reluctant to go with him, knowing that Javed would be furious but he promises to wait for her in Mumbai’s largest train station every day at 5:00pm “until she comes.” One day she does come but before the two can re-unite, she is kidnapped by Javed’s men (including Salim) in front of Jamal’s horrified eyes. One of the men cruelly slashes her cheek with a knife, driving away from an enraged Jamal.

When Jamal goes back to Javed’s house, he finds that the gangster has moved away. With no way to find his beloved, he decides to take a chance – to go on a game show that she is sure to be watching, and stay on as long as he can. And so far, he has stayed on as long as he can go – because every question has had an answer from some incident in Jamal’s life. But can he answer the biggest question of all – will he wind up with the love of his life?

Director Boyle has had a chameleon-like career, with movies as disparate as Trainspotting, Million$ and Sunshine to his credit. Here he takes Bollywood conceits and blends them nicely with western storytelling and creates one of the most heartfelt movies of the year. Winner of eight Oscars, including Best Picture, the movie captures the poverty of the slums and the heartlessness of those who exploit those in it. There are some exemplary moments in the movie.

The storytelling style has drawn some fire, which I find hard to understand. Yes, it might be a bit serendipitous that the questions on the game show echo things that happened in Jamal’s life in chronological order, but it doesn’t take that much of a suspension of disbelief. The flashback style by now isn’t anything particularly innovative, and I for one had no problem following the story.

Also worthy of note is the acting. The leads Patel and Pinto are particularly stellar; giving performances that belie that this is the first time either has acted in a feature movie (Patel has some television experience in Britain). Their chemistry is noticeable and more believable than some larger-budget pairings between established stars.

Many of the supporting cast, drawn from Bollywood, is also solid. I was fond of the heinous gangster as enacted by Vikal, as well as the smarmy game show host with an agenda of his own, which was played by the veteran Anil Kapoor. Special notice must also be given to the child actors who portrayed the two brothers and Latika at various stages of their life. Some of them had no experience whatsoever and were actually drawn from the slums of Mumbai.

The score by A.R. Rahman is superb, combining traditional Indian music along with hip-hop, r&b, rock and other western forms. The result is, like the movie, an engaging multi-cultural stew that gives us a glimpse of an entirely different world. In that sense, Slumdog Millionaire is science fiction, only it goes no further than our own world and reminds us that as a race we are far more diverse and wonderful than even we know.

WHY RENT THIS: Like other Danny Boyle movies, this one has a great deal of heart. Astonishing performances by first-time feature actors Patel and Pinto. A glimpse at an entirely different world than we in the West is used to.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The hype for this underdog movie may well have exceeded its performance. Some of the scenes of poverty, desperation, crime and torture may be too much for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some graphic scenes of child abuse and depictions of abject poverty. Also some violence, sex and foul language, enough that would make me think twice before letting the kids watch this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the only Best Picture winner to date to win the Oscar without any former or future Oscar winners in the cast.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD release is curiously lacking in anything but the basic deleted scenes-commentary-making of feature-trailer package that accompanies every major release, which considering this won 8 Oscars last year is awfully strange. The Blu-Ray contains all this plus a 41 minute Indian short, as well as an examination of the set-up and execution of the notorious toilet scene.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Box