Bridgend


Deceptive beauty.

Deceptive beauty.

(2015) Drama (Kimstim) Hannah Murray, Josh O’Connor, Adrian Rawlins, Patricia Potter, Nia Roberts, Steven Washington, Scott Arthur, Aled Llyr Thomas, Elinor Cawley, Jamie Burch, Mark Charles Williams, Adam Byard, Natasha Denby, Leona Vaughan, Liam Dascombe, Josh Green, Rachel Isaac, Phil Howe, Martin Troakes, Jane Davies, Rob Page, Judith Lewis. Directed by Jeppe Rønde

Florida Film Festival 2016

When a teenager dies, it’s a tragedy. With their whole life ahead of them cut short, it’s devastating to their family and their friends. When a teen takes their own life, it can feel even more tragic. Those left behind can feel like they’ve failed somehow. But what happens when teens kill themselves in droves?

That’s what really happened in Bridgend County in Wales. Starting in 2009 and through 2013, more than 75 teens took their own lives – most by hanging – without leaving a suicide note. To this day, what prompted these mass suicides remains a mystery. There was an excellent documentary in 2013 about the case but this is a fictionalized look at the affair.

Sara (Murray – fans might recognize her from Game of Thrones) and her policeman dad Dave (Washington) who is widowed have moved from Bristol to Bridgend to start a new life. As a policeman, Dave is investigating a rash of teen suicides. At first, Sara doesn’t really feel like she fits in with the working class kids in town but her beauty and compassion catch the eye of Laurel (Cawley) who invites her to the local reservoir to hang out with a group of kids, led by co-alphas Jamie (O’Connor) and Thomas (Arthur).

As Sara gets more involved with the group, her father begins to get terrified. Sara is already at that age where she’s distancing herself from her dad, and drifts closer to the disaffected teens and further from her father. And as her friends begin to die off one by one, her romance with Jamie takes on a more intense tone.

Speaking of tone, that’s one thing this movie has plenty of. Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck films things through a blue filter, underlighting interior shots to give things a more menacing and darker look. The blue serves to give the movie an overall depressing feel. That’s sight; as for sound, Mondkopf, an artist specializing in electronic trance, gives the score a dreary electro feel, instilling a sense of foreboding throughout.

There are two ways a movie like this can be made palatable; one is to give insight as to why a group of teenagers would all fall into lockstep and kill themselves. To be honest, Rønde doesn’t really address this. There are all sorts of theories as to why the real kids did this and to be fair, I can imagine that the filmmaker didn’t want to tread on the graves of the dead by putting motivations that weren’t necessarily there. You don’t get a sense that there was any peer pressure going on, only that these kids were essentially unhappy.

Secondly, the characters could be interesting people that you care about what happens to them, but again, that proves not to be the case here. These are kids who most adults wouldn’t want to spend even five minutes with. They come off as spoiled, whiny and full of angst and ennui. There is a melancholia sure, but with the rituals that these kids use to honor their dead it begins to come off as creepy posturing. The kids don’t come off as anything other than people who simply fell into line like sheep and gave up far too soon.

Rønde is a little self-indulgent with his direction, doing so many cutsie things that the audience is drawn out of the movie and paying more attention to the moviemaker. I call this “Look, Ma, I’m Directing syndrome” and Rønde has a nasty case of it. And the ending. Oy vey, the ending. I won’t go into details here, but it’s a colossal cop-out.

The events in Bridgend are apparently still taking place to this day, and quite frankly I think there is an important movie that could be made here. Certainly this is in many ways a cautionary tale for parents that their teens are at risk, but the filmmakers don’t say anything much beyond that. I found this to be a frustrating movie that at the end of the day, was enormously unsatisfying when it didn’t have to be.

REASONS TO GO: Some beautiful cinematography and along with the electronic score creates a foreboding mood.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much self-indulgence and spoiled behavior. Never really gets into the psyche of the “gang.” Too many scenes in which you’re conscious that the director is “directing.”
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes, some violence, sexual content, nudity and profanity, all involving teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed entirely in Bridgend County, Wales where the events that inspired the film actually took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paper Towns
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Family Fang

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The Art of Getting By


Discovering that craft services is Vegan only.

Discovering that craft services is Vegan only.

(2011) Teen Romance (Fox Searchlight) Freddie Highmore, Emma Roberts, Sasha Spielberg, Marcus Carl Franklin, Ann Dowd, Maya Ri Sanchez, Blair Underwood, Ann Harada, Rita Wilson, Jarlath Conroy, Elizabeth Reaser, Andrew Levitas, Sam Robards, Alicia Silverstone, Michael Angarano, Dan Leonard, Sophie Curtis, Lindsay-Elizabeth Hand. Directed by Gavin Wiesen

It seems sometimes that the world is overcrowded with movies about teens, floundering to find themselves, finding romance which inspires them to put aside whatever bullshit they were into and grow up. I’m not sure if the source of these are frustrated parents of teens, desperate for hope that their own kids are going to grow out of the phase they’re in, or by former teens who wish that their issues could have been resolved that easily.

George (Highmore) is a self-described misanthrope, although I might have added nihilist to the description. He is a budding artist who is inspired by nothing. We’re all going to die eventually, he reasons; why bother doing anything? So the homework at the elite prep school in Manhattan that he attends remains uncompleted and he spends his lunch breaks alone and reading Camus. And if you needed one more clue that George is a pretentious Morrissey-wannabe, he always always always wears a dark overcoat. Except in the picture above.

Then Harry – I mean George – meets Sally (Roberts) and impulsively takes the fall for her smoking on the school roof. Side note: has anybody actually named their daughter Sally since, say, 1947? Anyway, the two start hanging out together and George begins to develop those kind of feelings for her which are either not reciprocated or ignored. As it turns out, Sally’s got issues of her own although we don’t find out what they are until later in the film.

George also meets Austin (Angarano), an artist who starts hitting on Sally. George’s parents – his doormat mom (Wilson) and his stepdad (Robards) who turns out to be not nearly as successful as he let on – are having issues. George, now really upset, has a blowup with Sally and the two fall go their separate ways, Sally into a relationship with Austin and George into a quest to find meaning by finishing his homework which leads me to believe that the first group might be the source of this particular film.

First-time director Wiesen cast this Sundance entry well, with Highmore especially proving to be fortuitous. The young Brit has been a skilled actor for quite awhile (and has received rave notices for his work on the Psycho TV series. The George character is truly unlikable when we first meet him; pretentious and angst-ridden in the worst teen way. Like many teens who prefer to embrace the doom and gloom, they refuse to see the things right in front of them that are good – a mom that loves him, a school that wants to inspire him, a girl that could be good for him.  Instead, he prefers to mess things up for himself which is pretty true-to-life.

What isn’t is that the movie follows too many teen movie cliches in that everything is resolved by a girl leaving a guy, forcing him to make changes for the better and by the end of the movie he’s actually a likable guy with a bright future and of course the ending is as predictable as a Republican reaction to an Obama policy. Most kids are far too complex and far too smart to believe this as anything but the most optimistic fantasy. Change comes from within, and change for the better is hard work. I can’t think of many schools, particularly elite academic institutions, that would be willing to let someone who has slacked off on turning in his homework all year save his academic life. In fact, most schools would have expelled his ass long before.

Despite the cliches, this is actually a pretty decent example of the teen coming-of-age romance genre and while it’s no Say Anything it’s still competently made and has some decent performances, especially from Highmore. And, for once, the adults aren’t treated like morons; they have their own issues sure but they are well-meaning. Of course, the trend lately is to eliminate the adults from the conversation entirely, but Wiesen doesn’t do that. The Art of Getting By more than gets by, thankfully; it’s not a movie that will change anybody’s life or perception of it but it fits the bill, particularly if you’re into the niche that it fits in.

WHY RENT THIS: Highmore is engaging and turns an unlikable character into a likable one.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really add anything to the teen coming-of-age romance movie genre which is overcrowded as it is.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements are aimed at more mature teens and adults. There’s also plenty of foul language, sexual content and scenes of teen partying and drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the first scene, the camera passes by Tom’s Restaurant, the one made famous by Seinfeld.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of very brief interview segments on New York City and young love in general.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.4M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restless
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Outside the Law

Cinema Paradiso (Nuovo Cinema Paradiso)


Cinema Paradiso

Movies are magic!

(1988) Drama (Miramax) Jacques Perrin, Philippe Noiret, Salvatore Cascio, Agnese Nano, Marco Leonardi, Antonella Attili, Pupella Maggio, Isa Danielli, Leonardo Trieste, Roberta Lina, Leo Gullotta, Enzo Cannavale, Nicola Di Pinto, Nino Terzo. Directed by Giusseppe Tornatore

 

Some movies are so personal to the director that you feel like you are getting a glimpse of their very soul. Those movies can be a mixed blessing, but in other cases they become timeless classics that change your point of view forever.

Cinema Paradiso is one such film. It charts the journey of Salvatore “Toto” Di Vita who as an adult (Perrin) gets a phone call from his mother that his childhood mentor Alfredo (Noiret) has passed away. He returns to his home town in Sicily, a small village where the 20th century arrived kicking and screaming.

As a boy (Cascio) he waited in vain for his father to come back from the war. He soon found something to be fascinated by – the town’s only movie theater which is basically the only source of entertainment for the village. He is taken under the wing of Alfredo, who allows him to watch movies from the projection booth. There he learns the language of cinema – of close ups and cross cuts, of montage and flashback.

But the idyllic life of a small town takes a dark turn when a fire robs Alfredo of his sight – and it would have been more had it not been for the courage and quick thinking of Toto. As a teenager (Leonardi) he takes over the projectionist duties with the help and guidance of his mentor. He also develops a crush on Elena (Nano), a blue-eyed blonde who confounds and bedevils him, but also excites and inspires him.

He will reach a point in his life in which he will need to make a decision to go or stay – to remain the conduit of dreams in his little village, or to become a maker of dreams. We know what he chooses but why he goes down the path he takes…well, it is not exactly what you might expect.

This was the 1989 Best Foreign Film Academy Award winner, and deservedly so. Oscar doesn’t always get these things right but they sure did here. This film is a classic, a once in a lifetime movie that not only gives us a sense of nostalgia for why we love the movies but a sense of sadness for the roads not taken.

Tornatore brilliantly cast three different actors for the same role. They don’t really look much alike, but they certainly all channeled the essence of Toto. I don’t know if Perrin, Cascio and Leonardi had much communication before filming began but the performances sure come off as if they did. The three actors are seamless in changing from one to the other – and never at any point do you feel as if you’re seeing the interpretation of a role but three actors playing the same person at different points in his life. It’s amazing to see and critical to the success of the film.

There are moments of pure magic – such as Alfredo projecting the movie on a building across the square after the theater has closed for the night, or a montage of kissing scenes that were cut from the movies at the behest of the village priest who every week meticulously sat through each film, ringing a bell whenever he wanted Alfredo to snip a scene out.

Hollywood has often viewed small town life through a rose-colored lens and it’s kind of comforting to know that Rome has the same lens in place. This is a film that moves you and touches you. Even if you didn’t live a life anywhere near what Toto did you will certainly find elements of the story that will resonate with you. Cinema Paradiso isn’t just about the movies – it’s about life, and maybe that’s why we love the movies so much because at the end of the day, that’s what all movies are about in some way shape or form.

The original cut oddly enough is not the one shown in America initially. The Weinsteins made some cuts and it is that version that won the Oscar. Later, they released it briefly in its original uncut form. Strangely, like Roger Ebert, I prefer the cut version. The original one feels a bit overlong to me although it does give a good deal more insight into the Elena-Toto romance and what happened to it. You should certainly see it if you loved the American version of it, but it requires a more patient European personality I think.

WHY RENT THIS: A marvelous look at the meaning of home for better and for worse and of the place of movies and magic in it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Runs a little bit long, particularly the director’s cut edition.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of sexuality on the director’s cut and a disturbing scene of a fire in both editions.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Samples of dialogue from the movie can be heard in the Dream Theater song “Take the Time.”

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The DVD collector’s edition includes both the theatrical and director cuts of the film as well as recipe cards for dishes inspired by the film as well as the Food Network show in which Michael Chiarello discussed the film and the dishes he created around it. Because the rights to the director’s cut edition lie with a different studio, the Blu-Ray version of the film includes only the shorter theatrical cut and none of the extras (including the commentaries and featurettes) found on the DVD so you might be better off finding the collector’s edition on eBay.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.4M on an unreported production budget; the movie was in all likelihood a hit (as we only have domestic box office figures).

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Picture Show

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Odd Life of Timothy Green

The Twilight Saga: New Moon


The Twilight Saga: New Moon

Couldn't you just DIE?!?

(2009) Romantic Fantasy (Summit) Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Ashley Greene, Rachelle Lefevre, Billy Burke, Peter Facinelli, Nikki Reed, Kellen Lutz, Jackson Rathbone, Michael Sheen, Dakota Fanning, Anna Kendrick, Chaske Spencer, Christopher Heyerdahl. Directed by Chris Weitz

Some movies are aimed squarely for a specific audience segment and you just have to go with that particular flow. It you don’t mind accepting that you’re not the target audience, you can enjoy the movie at least on an intellectual level.

The Twilight saga continues with the second installment of the four-book series. Edward Cullen (Pattinson) and Bella Swan (Stewart) are deeply in love and looking forward to Bella’s 18th birthday, which she intends to spend at a celebration at the really nice Cullen place in the woods. When she accidentally cuts her finger, it sets off Jasper (Rathbone) and ends up with Bella getting hurt. Edward recognizes that it is far too dangerous for Bella to remain with his kind and he dumps her, heading off to Italy to hang out with the Volturi, the eldest of the Vampires.

Bella is devastated by this and spends much of the movie in a funk, crying and brooding and in general, acting as if her life is over. Most teenage girls can relate to this – when you can’t be with that cute boy you love, you just want to die and so Bella does, convinced that each time she is on the brink of death, Edward’s spirit comes around to save her so that, at least that way, the two of them can be together. Mothers of teenage daughters please take note – this is very unhealthy and should be discouraged.

Bella is taken under the wing of Jacob Black (Lautner), the Native American who has buffed up quite a bit since the first movie and spends much of his time not wearing a shirt to make sure you know how buff he is. He has taken to hanging out with the Wolf Pack, a bunch of equally buff and shirtless Native Americans led by Sam (Spencer) who like Jacob and the rest of the Wolf Pack, harbors a secret – they’re all werewolves (although this is treated as a secret plot point, it is well known enough that I don’t mind revealing it here). Jacob and Bella begin to get a little closer than just besties.

In the meantime Bella is being stalked by Victoria (Lafevre) who has vowed vengeance on her after the events of the first movie and the Wolf Pack mean to protect her – as do some of the Cullens, especially Alice (Greene) who has come to warn her that Edward, lovesick and moping around, means to reveal himself to non-vampires which would mean his death by Volturi.

The success of the first movie meant a much bigger budget for the second, which means this is a much better-looking film than the first, where the special effects were bargain-basement. Here, they are more extensive and a bit better-realized but all in all the point of the movie isn’t the special effects, it’s the romance at the center. Or, in this case, romances.

The whole Team Edward vs. Team Jacob thing is set up here. Certainly Bella is firmly entrenched in Team Edward at this point. There is a Romeo and Juliet thing that seems to be pulsing through the movie, from its Italian denouement to the reading of the play in class at the movie’s beginning. The star-crossed lovers thing is reinforced by the looks of aching and longing that is supposed to be soulful but sometimes comes off more like Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart.”

Part of my issue with the film is that Bella is so damn bland. Most of the movie, people are telling her how special she is, from her dad (Burke) to Jacob to Edward to Alice to…OMG, like, everyone. I just don’t see it. When Edward dumps her, she falls apart and not just for a little while, I mean for almost the entire movie she can’t breathe, she hurts so much.

We’ve all been there. Most of us who have ever had their hearts broken (and that’s most of us) can relate to her pain. What I can’t relate to is how long it goes on, her obsession driving her every move, including bringing herself into near-death experiences just so she can see the apparition of her lost love. While it’s highly romantic and appealing to adolescent girls, it is somewhat disturbing that this unhealthy behavior is seemingly celebrated here as the right way to behave for a loyal loving heart. It really isn’t ladies…trust me on this.

Like the first movie, the performances are as good as you’d expect – not really outstanding but not bad either. The addition of Sheen and Fanning to the cast adds a little bump up in the talent, but they aren’t seen much. The movie mainly resides in the hands of Stewart, and she spends most of the time moping. It isn’t her fault – Stewart is proving to be a pretty decent actress although she mostly gets to show that in other films – the story is set up that way. Still, it’s hard to get behind a character that you just want to shake and scream in her face “Enough, already!”

Lautner is much more integral to the movie and he’s an appealing young actor who has better things ahead of him, but to this point his role is essentially a one-dimensional nice guy who is meant to be the thankless best friend role that is blossoming into maybe something else but never will because Bella is “meant” to be with Edward. Hmm.

I have to say that overall, I didn’t like this movie as much as the first – which, to be fair, is usually the case with sequels. As in the case of the first film, this review is pretty superfluous – girls gonna see it no matter what anyone writes. There is nothing more loyal and steadfast than a teenage girl in love, and there are few things that teenage girls are in love with more than a tragic love story that appeals to the drama in their lovely teenage hearts, bless them all.

No, I’m not the audience this movie is meant for and for those who aren’t this movie isn’t as compelling or engaging as the first. However, for those who love the books and the first movie, this isn’t going to disappoint and while it likely won’t convert any new fans, it won’t dissuade any old ones from their rabid devotion to the series.

WHY RENT THIS: For the adolescent or pre-adolescent girl in your family – and their mom.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Well, you’re not one.

FAMILY VALUES: If you don’t mind a little bit of fantasy vampire/werewolf violence, it’s pretty much acceptable for everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Weitz also directed The Golden Compass based on a bestselling young adult fantasy series.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Summit chose to market a variety of different editions that were exclusively available at specific retailers, each with their own unique features which made choosing the edition you wanted difficult and confusing. Common to all were a series of features which included one on how the success of the first movie affected the lives of the actors. In addition, the Deluxe Edition (available only at Target) had a featurette on the music of the film and at the die-hard nature of the series’ fans, as well as one on the Volturi. The Ultimate Fan Edition (Wal-Mart) had a documentary about the impact of the series on Forks, Washington – the real life town where the series is set (and some of the scenes are filmed), and a look at the love triangle and the rabid fans who choose Team Edward or Team Jacob. The Medallion edition (Borders) comes with a medallion necklace that has a wolf head crest on one side and the Cullen family crest on the other. Finally the Steelbook Package (Best Buy) comes in a special steel case and comes with a free cell phone skin.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $709.8M on a $50M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Tenderness

I Am Number Four


I Am Number Four

Timothy Olyphant and Alex Pettyfer discover that catering has run out of bran muffins.

(2011) Science Fiction (DreamWorks) Alex Pettyfer, Timothy Olyphant, Teresa Palmer, Dianna Agron, Callan McAuliffe, Kevin Durand, Jake Abel, Jeff Hochendoner, Patrick Sebes, Cooper Thornton, Judith Hoag, Emily Wickersham, Jack Walz. Directed by D.J. Caruso

Growing up is hard enough without moving from place to place, never being able to set down roots or forge deep connections with friends. How much worse is it when you’re being chased by alien killers bent on your destruction before you develop powers over which you have no control and no idea what those powers are going to be?

Ask John Smith (Pettyfer) all about it. That’s not really his name; he’s not even human. He is Number Four, one of nine young teenagers who are the last of their kind, bred to be protectors of their race, the Loriens, but a cruel, homicidal race called the Mogadorians wiped them out before the teens could develop their powers. They were then brought to Earth, each with a warrior-guardian to protect them until their powers manifested.

Unfortunately, the Mogadorians followed them to Earth and have started to kill the teens, one at a time in order. Each teen is wearing a pendant with a symbol on it; the Mogadorians are taking them with each murder. The first three are dead; John is next on the hit list. After John makes an unwanted YouTube appearance, he and his guardian Henri (Olyphant) are forced to relocate to the lovely Rust Belt town of Paradise, Ohio.

Despite Henri’s warning for John to stay home and skip school, he gets stir crazy and enrolls in the local high school. There he meets Sam (McAuliffe), the resident geek whose dad disappeared a few years back and who was something of a UFO nut. He also falls for Sarah (Agron), the town shutterbug which leads him to run afoul of Mark (Abel), the quarterback of the football team and something of a jock jerk (ah, the timelessness of stereotypes).

However, the Mogadorians are hot on his trail and so is a hot young blonde named Jane Doe (Palmer) who turns out to be Number Six. Together, the four young people will take on the Mogadorians and their monstrous creatures, a sort of combination between a rhino, a bat, a dog and a crab – only about twenty feet long and ten feet tall.

This is based on a book that was co-written by James Frey, who you may recall caused a stir some years back when Oprah ordained his alleged biography as a book about courage until it came out that he had fudged a number of the facts in it. He has since founded a writing collective called Full Fathom Five and this book, the first in a series, was credited to Pittacus Lore which is Frey and Jobie Hughes. There is actually quite a backstory to the writing and publishing of the book which in some ways is more fascinating than the actual book itself.

I had fairly high hopes for the movie not so much for who was onscreen but for who was behind it. Caruso is a highly talented director whose works include Suburbia and Eagle Eye. There is also writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar of “Smallville” and Marti Noxon of  “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,”  as well as Michael Bay in the producer’s chair and of course Steven Spielberg lurking in the background as the head honcho of DreamWorks.

Certainly of all the young adult fantasy novels that have come our way in recent years trying to create a franchise for themselves, this isn’t the worst of them. It isn’t the best either; certainly not along the lines of a Harry Potter or a Narnia (or some would argue, the Twilight series). Still it has a good deal going for it.

First and foremost is Pettyfer, a young British up and comer whose angular good looks and smoldering screen presence is certain to set a lot of young pre-teen and teenaged hearts a-flutter; certainly Hollywood has noticed, casting Pettyfer in a number of high profile projects in the coming months. Here, he is ideally suited to the role of John carrying off both the brooding angst as well as the yearning for normalcy that is present in most teenagers – needing to fit in and stand out all at once.

Olyphant is one of those actors who elevate most of the projects he’s involved in. Best known for his work in “Deadwood,” he is circling around a breakout role that will elevate him into stardom. He hasn’t gotten there yet but it’s only a matter of time. The two females, Agron from “Glee” and Palmer, who is set to appear in the new Mad Max: Fury Road, are gorgeous but while Agron is fairly disposable, Palmer has the makings of a solid female action star.

The problem here is that the movie spends a whole lot of time dwelling on the teen interrelationships that make it a lot like “One Tree Hill” and the like. I’m wondering if the filmmakers are consciously trying to appeal to the teen soap crowd as well as the action/sci-fi crowd; it’s only in the last 30 minutes that the movie really takes off and when it does, it’s a solid, fun movie with some nifty special effects and CGI beasties.

Unfortunately it takes awhile to get there. The set-up of the movie takes a bit too long, and too much time is spent with Henri acting like a mother hen to John and John brooding over Sarah, or raging at Mark and his goon squad. I haven’t read the book but from the synopsis I’ve read of its plot, the movie seems to follow it pretty basically and quite frankly, that element of the book doesn’t work well cinematically speaking.

Still, the last 30 minutes are quite a ride and if you’re willing to sit through the first 60 minutes, it’s worth the wait. Pettyfer is to my mind a future star – he has everything going for him, especially the screen presence which is an intangible you can’t teach. Caruso helped make Shia LaBeouf a star and despite the pretty much universally negative reviews of this one, I can’t help but think that what’s going to emerge the most from this film is not necessarily a new franchise for DreamWorks but a new star who is going to have a really good career ahead of him.

REASONS TO GO: The last 30 minutes are a great ride. Pettyfer has big star written all over him.

REASONS TO STAY: Too much exposition to begin with. Goes the teen soap route and really torpedoes the sci-fi action vibe.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some intense sequences of violence and sci-fi action. There are a few bad words, but not really in a pervasive manner.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shalto Copley was originally cast as Henri but had to drop out due to a scheduling conflict.

HOME OR THEATER: The last 30 minutes should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Collector

My Sister’s Keeper


My Sister's Keeper

It's an awkward moment as Cameron Diaz asks Alec Baldwin about any openings on 30 Rock.

(New Line) Cameron Diaz, Abigail Breslin, Alec Baldwin, Jason Patric, Joan Cusack, Sofia Vassilieva, Evan Ellingson, Emily Deschanel, Thomas Dekker. Directed by Nick Cassavetes

As parents, part of our job is to protect our children. It is a given that we will do anything – absolutely, positively anything – to keep our child safe from harm. When we are helpless to do so – as in the case of a terrible disease for example – our fight takes on a different tone.

At first glance the Fitzgerald family seems nearly perfect. Dad Brian (Patric) is a fire chief, while mom Sara (Diaz) is a top-notch lawyer. They have three great kids; Kate (Vassilieva), Jesse (Ellingson) and Anna (Breslin).

“Nearly” can be a very important word, however. Kate is suffering from a particularly dreadful and aggressive strain of leukemia. As a matter of fact, most kids who have it don’t live past the age of five. However, Sara is willing to do anything to keep her daughter alive. That includes having another child, fertilized in vitro, to supply Kate with bone marrow, blood and other spare parts to keep her alive.

The plan works, although it’s far from perfect; Anna (the test tube baby) is subjected to frequent and often painful hospital procedures in order to procure whatever it is that Kate needs to continue to live. She’s a teenager now, and the disease has reared its ugly head again and this time it’s going to take more than a blood transfusion or bone marrow; Kate’s kidney has shut down and she needs a new one to survive.

Normally she’d go to the spare parts store that is her sister, but Anna has had enough. She realizes the consequences of having only one functioning kidney and it means the end to any sort of normal life that she might want to lead. She engages the services of a lawyer, the kind that advertises on bus benches and late night TV. His name is Campbell Alexander (Baldwin) and after some deliberation, decides to accept her suit for medical emancipation from her parents.

Sara is no slouch as a lawyer and prepares her own defense, but as the case drags on, Kate grows weaker and weaker and the case tears the family apart. Is Anna turning her back on her sister or is she just reaching for the only chance at a normal life she may ever have?

This is a movie that raises some interesting, fundamental questions and to its credit, gives the viewer much room for thought. The unfortunate part is that it wraps the compelling concepts in so many tearjerker clichés that after awhile what might have been a fresh take on a difficult subject seems very formula and rote.

There is some fine acting going on here. Breslin is in my opinion the best child actor in Hollywood at the moment, having dethroned Dakota Fanning who is in the teen actress realm now. She plays Anna as terribly conflicted but intensely driven. Her Anna is much more like her mother than her mother would care to admit, and rather than showing the common traits in the same way that Cameron Diaz shows them instead gives them her own take.

Baldwin, who is as hot as anyone in Hollywood at the moment, is also superb as the quirky lawyer who has a bit of a prima donna in him. He’s self-deprecating and the part is so solidly in Baldwin’s wheelhouse that you can’t imagine any other actor in the role.

Diaz is not normally someone I’d turn to for her acting chops, but she delivers here. She does chew the scenery a little bit but just a little bit. The mother is a bit of a shrew and more than a little of a control freak, but there is a fierce love for her child that is so consuming that it nearly blocks her other children out entirely. It’s not an unusual situation in families, and it’s played out here quite naturally.

There are some nice turns. The hospital romance between Kate and another cancer patient (Dekker) provides the movie with some of its sweetest moments, although the outcome is somewhat predictable. Joan Cusack plays the judge who has some empathy for Kate, but much more wisdom than the tunnel visionary mom.

There is also an unnecessary third child who I guess is in the movie to illustrate Sara’s complete focus on her one sick daughter at the expense of her other children. He is usually onscreen accompanied by melancholy folk music; it gets a bit distracting, to be honest.

Still, the movie is strong enough for me to recommend. I know that it is fashionable for critics to snipe about movies that manipulate emotionally, but I find that hypocritical; all movies are manipulative in one form or another; these tearjerkers are just upfront about it. If the manipulation is done well and brings me a bit of catharsis, I consider it a job well done and so I can recommend My Sister’s Keeper on that basis. If you are in need of a good cry, by all means your ship has arrived.

WHY RENT THIS: For those in need of a cathartic release, this is the movie to see. Breslin again shows she is the best child actor in Hollywood.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At times, the movie sinks unnecessarily into maudlin cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: The topic is very mature and certainly will upset children who may not understand the dynamics of what’s going on; the frank depiction of the disease and its consequences will also be difficult for the sensitive. Parents should also be aware there are some scenes of teen drinking and sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Kate was originally offered to Dakota Fanning, with her sister Elle to be cast as Anna; however, Dakota reportedly balked at shaving her head for the role, so both sisters bowed out of the production.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Valkyrie

Twilight


Twilight

Can it really be young love if one of them is 114 years old?

(Summit) Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Billy Burke, Peter Facinelli, Elizabeth Reaser, Cam Gigandet, Nikki Reed, Jackson Rathbone, Ashley Greene, Taylor Lautner. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke

We are all of us searching for something but none more than teenagers. Teenagers aren’t only looking to find love and acceptance, but also define who they are. When we find those answers, it’s usually the gateway into adulthood but sometimes those answers cost.

Bella Swan (Stewart) has had a difficult time of things. Her parents are divorced, her mom in Arizona having remarried a baseball player. Bella, a sensible sort, goes to live with her father (Burke), the Sheriff in the tiny western Washington town of Forks, Washington (a real place, by the way). As the new kid in a small school, Bella is big news and is fussed over by her new classmates both studly and dorky. She tries to fit in with her new friends but she notices a group of pale kids who hang out amongst themselves. This, she is told, is the Cullen clan, a group of foster kids being cared for by Dr. Carlisle Cullen (Facinelli), the town physician. They live in possibly the coolest home in Western Washington on the edge of town. One, in particular, nabs Bella’s interest; the smoldering, sexy Edward (Pattinson) who stares at her like his eyes have been glued to her.

Bella’s dad is being kept busy by a series of animal attacks in the area that have resulted in the deaths of several people, but he has time to have his friends Billy Black and his handsome son Jacob (Lautner) over. The long-haired native American Jacob hits it off with Bella and the two become friends.

Edward and Bella are assigned to be lab partners and despite Bella’s attraction to Edward, she is disturbed to discover that he feels quite the opposite about her, asking to transfer out of the biology class altogether. However, once they begin talking, a deep attraction begins to blossom. This is heightened when he saves Bella’s life by stopping an out of control truck from squashing her in the school parking lot, despite not being anywhere near her when the truck began its skid.

Suspicious at secrets Edward is apparently hiding, Bella does some research aided by stories told by her friend Jacob. She soon suspects that Edward might be a creature not unlike a vampire, which Edward eventually confesses that he is. However, vampires aren’t anything like how we’ve seen them in the movies; they don’t fear crosses or garlic and they are quite capable of being out in sunlight; however direct sunlight causes their skin to sparkle and annoying bells to ring. The sparkle announces that they aren’t human, but it might be those twinkling bells that make the Cullens unwilling to venture into the light.

Each of the Cullens (who don’t feed on human blood – they feed on animal blood instead, considering themselves kind of like vegetarians) has a different and unique power; Alice (Greene) can foretell the future for example. There are other vampires who prey on humans and their leader James (Gigandet) has his sights set on Bella, so Bella’s in danger but worse yet the prom is coming up and you thought your high school prom had drama…

Of course this is based on the staggeringly popular young adult fiction series by Stephenie Meyer which has sold about a gigillion books, mostly to teenaged and pre-teen girls but also to a surprising number of their mothers. I’ve heard the books described as “Harlequin Romances for teens written by Stephen King” which may be a bit harsh. Nonetheless, there is an element of truth to it.

First and foremost, understand that this isn’t a traditional vampire movie and it isn’t a traditional teen drama movie either. It’s not even a traditional romance. What it actually turns out to be is elements of all three genres wrapped up into a neat little package. While many critics (and film fanboys) openly sneer at the franchise, I actually found myself admiring it a little bit for trying something different than the traditional vampire movie with quivering virgins, buckets of blood and flaming vampires. There is actually very little gore or sex here. I also found myself giving the author marks for at least creating her own vampire mythology.

This movie was always going to live and die on the attractiveness of the leads and Stewart and Pattinson have all that they need. I seriously doubt this movie would have been anything near as popular without Pattinson as Edward; he is absolute catnip to teenaged girls, handsome and brooding and gentle all at once, yet fiercely protective. He is the ultimate boyfriend, and I don’t doubt that every teenaged girl who sees this will be holding up their boyfriends and potential boyfriends up in comparison to this guy, which is going to make for a lot of disappointed teenagers.

Stewart, who was one of the best things about Into the Wild has a very girl-next-door kind of look to her. She is meant to be strong, smart and kind – someone teenaged girls are meant to want to be like. Da Queen found it amusing that with all the romantic drama going on in this girl’s life she never once snapped at her parents but this is a fantasy after all.

This is a nice-looking movie that makes ample use of the Pacific Northwest scenery to create an overall tone. However, the movie had a pretty light budget (given that tiny Summit Entertainment was making it) and some of the special effects seem a little chintzy. I suspect that given its overwhelming box office success, future installments will have better-looking SFX than this.

In some ways, reviews for movies like this are superfluous; their target audience is going to see them over and over again regardless of what any critic says. For the rest of us it’s adequate entertainment and not nearly as bad as some have made it out to be. Keep in mind it is geared towards teens in a big way and that anyone my age – heck, anyone over thirty – aren’t going to relate to it as closely as those under thirty. That’s okay too; in some ways I’m quite glad I’m well past relating to these kinds of movies. Still, if you have a teenaged daughter or want to know more about what teenaged girls are thinking, here is your opportunity to get some insight. Oh, and the soundtrack is surprisingly amazing as well.

WHY RENT THIS: This is an entirely new mythology for vampires. Pattinson and Stewart make an attractive couple. The beauty of the Pacific Northwest plays an integral element in the movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The teen soap opera elements may make this a difficult pill to swallow for vampire film fans. The special effects don’t hold up against other modern films.

FAMILY VALUES: A little violence and teen sex make this suitable for teens and tweens; the movie may not be suitable for smaller sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the release date of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince was pushed out to July 2009, Summit moved Twilight into that desirable pre-Thanksgiving weekend spot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a trio of music videos, as well as footage of the cast’s appearance at Comic-Con. Be prepared to hear a whole lot of teenaged girls screaming.

FINAL RATING: 5/10 (but if you’re a teenaged/pre-teen girl or their mom, 10/10)

TOMORROW: Gran Torino