Gods and Generals


The Civil War: the greatest American tragedy of them all.

The Civil War: the greatest American tragedy of them all.

(2003) True Life War (Warner Brothers) Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, Jeff Daniels, Bruce Boxleitner, C. Thomas Howell, Kali Rocha, Frankie Faison, William Sanderson, Mira Sorvino, Alex Hyde-White, Matt Letscher, Joseph Fuqua, Jeremy London and a cast of thousands. Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell

The American Experience

When Gods and Generals came out in 2003, it was made by pretty much the same team that made the very successful Gettysburg in 1993 and certainly there had to have been high hopes that this would follow suit. However, while Gettysburg had Ken Burns’ highly personal and riveting PBS miniseries The Civil War to leapfrog from, it’s prequel would have no such assistance.

Based on a book by Jeffrey Shaara (whose father Michael wrote the book that Gettysburg was based on), the movie follows Confederate Lt. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Lang) who was one of the most brilliant and fearless military minds of his time. He worked well with General Robert E. Lee (Duvall), who considered him his best field general. Jackson, a devout man who prayed to God even as he set out to kill as many Northern invaders as he could, resigned from his post as an instructor at the Virginia Military Institute to take a post in the Confederate Army. He was responsible for some of the most important victories the Confederacy would have in the war and died senselessly, shot by his own men who mistook him and his escort for Union scouts.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the movie, even though critics at the time lambasted it for being florid, long on dialogue and riddled with too many subplots and characters. Some even criticized it for depicting Southerners as being more concerned with States rights than with Slavery. Nobody ever accused movie critics of being knowledgeable about history however. For the South, Slavery drove their economic engine and the feeling was that the abolition of Slavery would be an economic catastrophe. They didn’t want Northern politicians to tell them how to run their affairs. There is a tendency with some to depict the South as sadistic twisted slave owners who wanted the institution of Slavery to continue because of a cruel streak. What it really was about, as it usually is, was money.

So how does this film depict the American Experience? It captures a period in time when America stood at a crossroads and would in four bloody years come to define itself and its future. Certainly the movie tends to lean a little bit towards the Southern point of view, but to tar the South with a single brush is both inaccurate and a disservice. Quite frankly, I think it’s a good thing to see things from the other side – history is written by the winners and while Slavery was an abhorrent practice, to see what the South really thought they were fighting for is certainly worth considering. Gods and Generals definitely captures the period, not only in the sense of how the armies operated but the civilians as well. One thing that has been praised about this movie was their attention to detail when it came to accuracy; in fact this may be one of the most historically accurate films ever made.

Lang’s performance brings Jackson to life. While the style of speech has been heavily criticized, this is how the people of the time spoke. Clearly there is an element of history lesson here and it might be argued that the length and pacing of the movie is akin to one of those history professors who talks on and on and on and on. However, the sumptuous visuals and the attention to detail make this a history lesson that if one is willing to sit through will inform and amaze, and that’s the kind of history professor that always got my attention.

WHY RENT THIS: Unusual historical accuracy. Terrific performance by Lang. A crackerjack reproduction of the era.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Slow and ponderous. Too much speechifyin’. Overly long.

FAMILY VALUES:  While the battle sequences are tamer than some, there is still enough material here that might disturb the very sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Duvall, who played Robert E. Lee, is actually descended from the great general.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an introduction by Ted Turner who put up the production budget of the film himself (nearly $60 million) as well as music videos from Mary Fahl and Bob Dylan and  a look at the life of Stonewall Jackson.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.9M on a $56M production budget; unfortunately the movie has to be considered a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gettysburg

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The American Experience concludes!

Mama


So put another dime in the jukebox baby.

So put another dime in the jukebox baby.

(2013) Supernatural Horror (Universal) Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet, Jane Moffat, Morgan McGarry, David Fox, Dominic Cuzzocrea, Christopher Marren, Ray Kahnert, Hannah Cheesman, Julia Chantrey. Directed by Andres Muschietti

The bond between a mother and her child is something that simply can’t be broken. It is stronger than diamonds and carries its own gravitational pull that makes a black hole look like a refrigerator magnet. That bond is there for life – and some say, beyond.

This story starts with murder, of a man who loses it and kills his estranged wife and ex-partner and kidnaps his two children. He takes them, not quite intentionally, to a dilapidated cabin in the remote woods of Virginia called oddly enough Helvetia (with Mad Men-era retro furniture) where he intends to shoot them, and then himself. However fate – in the guise of a malevolent presence – intervenes.

Five years later, the two girls are still missing and their Uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau) is still looking for them although his funds are running low – he’s been utilizing the inheritance from his successful brother. Lucas apparently “draws things” although it’s never really established whether he draws paintings or cartoons or whatnot. Anyway his girlfriend Annabel (Chastain), a rocker chick who plays bass in a punk-edged indie rock band, is a little put off by her boyfriend’s obsession especially since she can’t get pregnant herself.

However quite accidentally Burnsie (Fox), the tracker that Lucas has hired for the task, stumbles on the cabin and finds the girls – Victoria (Charpentier), now eight and her sister Lilly (Nelisse) who is six. The two girls are nearly feral although Victoria seems to be recovering her ability to speak. Lilly, in particular, is nearly mute, moving in an eerie spider-like motion.

It’s nothing short of a miracle that two such young children could survive in an isolated cabin on their own for so long but nobody seems to be questioning that. In fact, their psychiatrist Dr. Dreyfus (Kash) thinks that in a stable home environment that the girls might achieve some normalcy. While Lucas’ Aunt Jean (Moffat) is anxious to get custody, Lucas is actually much closer to the girls and with some help from Dr. Dreyfus gets the judge (Kahnert) to agree once the University arranges for a nice suburban home for Lucas and Annabel to move into.

But things aren’t all My Little Pony in suburban Virginia. The girls are both extremely traumatized and look at Lucas and particularly Annabel with some wariness. They refer to an invisible entity they call Mama who looks after her – and apparently she’s dropped by the ‘burbs to keep an eye on her girls. And after Lucas is removed from the picture, it is up to Annabel – who neither wants the job nor thinks herself able to do it – to take care of two very difficult children.

But a funny thing happens on the way to the horror film. Annabel begins to bond with the two girls (in particular with Victoria) and this Mama doesn’t like at all, not in the slightest. Dr. Dreyfus isn’t much of a help – he has his own agenda which isn’t necessarily in the best interests of the girls. And Mama isn’t recognizing any agenda but her own which isn’t good news for Annabel or  the girls.

This is based on a short previously directed by Muschietti and was produced by fan favorite and all-around good guy Guillermo del Toro. Spanish horror tends to be really atmospheric and Muschietti has a flair for it, making the cabin look anachronistic and genuinely creepy. Everything from the movement of the actors which isn’t quite natural to the suburban setting which is deceptively ordinary contributes to the overall vibe that things aren’t right a’tall.

Enjoy Chastain in this role folks, because you won’t see her in this kind of movie ever again – or at least it’s very unlikely you will. Right now if I had to name the best actress working in Hollywood right now, today, this moment, it would be Jessica Chastain. She has that chameleon-like quality that Meryl Streep possesses that allows her to take on virtually any kind of role and not just make it hers but make it unique as well. Here she’s channeling her inner Joan Jett and gives Annabel a gamine like quality that is endearing with the immature feel of a teenage boy who hasn’t quite grown up yet. Annabel grows up a great deal during the course of the movie and Chastain makes those changes organic. You don’t often go to see a horror movie for the acting performances but this is one of those exceptions where you should.

Coster-Waldau, so excellent as Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones on HBO is solid here, reminding me a little bit of Viggo Mortensen. He plays the dual role of Luke and his doomed brother and wisely lets Chastain take center stage. He’s a terrific actor in his own right and has all sorts of leading man potential. In addition, the two young juvenile actresses do extremely well – Charpentier as the emotional center reaching for the mundane and Nelisse as Lilly who has one foot in the spirit world wherein Mama dwells.

Mama’s backstory is nothing to write home about and when she is revealed she isn’t all that impressive but when she moves through the floor or ceiling it’s chillingly effective. Mama needs to elicit a certain amount of sympathy from the audience but in this case she doesn’t really inspire enough which is a hard feat I know but it would have made the movie exponentially more effective. As it is given Chastain’s performance this is a horror movie mainstream audiences should go see.

REASONS TO GO: Creepy in all the right places. Jessica Chastain is the best actress in Hollywood right now period. Nice ghostly effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Story a little bit convoluted. Final look of Mama is a bit of a letdown.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some pretty scary images some of which are pretty disturbing, some thematic issues and a few nasty scares.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally scheduled for a Halloween 2012 release, the movie got bumped up to January which proved to be a smart move as it recouped its entire production and marketing cost in its opening weekend, debuting at number one at the box office.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. Although the reviews are somewhat mixed, there are more positive than negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Woman in Black

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Sorcerer and the White Snake

Playing For Keeps (2012)


Dennis Quaid is hyeah! (Uma Thurman too)

Dennis Quaid is hyeah! (Uma Thurman too)

(2012) Romantic Comedy (FilmDistrict) Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Uma Thurman, Dennis Quaid, Judy Greer, Noah Lomax, James Tupper, Abella Wyss, Grant Goodman, Grant Collins, Aidan Potter, Marlena Lerner, Iqbal Theba, Emily Somers. Directed by Gabriele Muccino

Making a connection with your own child isn’t always easy, particularly when you haven’t been around much. Connecting involves presence, and if you aren’t present, there’s nothing for your kid to connect with.

That’s been the story with George (Butler), once a soccer star in Europe who eventually played in the MLS in its early days but after an ankle injury forced him to retire, George has been struggling to keep it together. He is staying in the Virginia suburbs of our nation’s capital – not just because his last team was DC United, but because that’s where his son Lewis (Lomax) lives with his mom Stacie (Biel). George and Stacie were together once but no longer; in fact, we learn early on she’s engaged to marry her new boyfriend Matt (Tupper) who seems to be a much nicer guy than George; certainly he’s more stable.

Thing aren’t going terribly for George in any other facet of his life. He’s broke, would love to be working a sportscasting job but can’t find one to save his life, He lives in the guest house of a wealthy Indian man (Theba) and drives an Alfa Romeo which sounds posh until you realize that it was probably brand new at about the same time Frankie Goes to Hollywood was.

Soccer is really the only connection George has with his son. His son’s coach spends more time on the phone than training his young players (“Kick it with your toes” is about his only advice) and soon George can’t stand it and starts showing the youngsters a few pointers. The kids take to his instruction and soon by parental proclamation George is named the team’s new coach which is just in the nick of time since they haven’t scored a goal all season.

Things start looking up. The soccer moms, cougars all, start throwing themselves at George, among them redheaded Barb (Greer), a recent divorcee who has got a case of the hornies big time, brunette Denise (Zeta-Jones), a single mom who is an ex-sportscaster herself who thinks the way to George’s heart might be through her career connections, and blonde Patti (Thurman), the wife of Carl (Quaid) who is an expansive Texas-style businessman who thinks nothing of loaning George his Ferrari nor using his fame to close a business deal with Brazilian soccer fanatics.

Best of all, Lewis and George are beginning to find some common ground and even Stacie is looking at George in an entirely different light. But this being a Hollywood rom com, that’s just the calm before the storm. George’s sexual escapades begin to catch up with him and just as he’s ready to settle down, ESPN comes a’knockin’. George may have to choose between career and kid.

Muccino made his reputation as the director of the Will Smith hit Pursuit of Happyness and truth be told that was a much better film than this one. This is more or less standard Hollywood romantic comedy fare with few (if any) surprises. What keeps this from pure direct-to-video cheesiness is Butler whose easygoing Scottish charm make the movie. While his character really lacks inertia – things pretty much just happen to him rather than him making them happen – he gets by on a smile and an accent (not to mention a body that made most of the ladies in the auditorium sigh).

His chemistry with Biel is a bit bland to be honest; while I could see his appeal to her, her appeal to him wasn’t as apparent. I would have liked to have seen more fire from Ms. Biel; she’s shown it in plenty of roles so I know she possesses it. It’s just not in evidence here. As a result the romance in the romantic comedy is sorely lacking.

The supporting cast are pretty big name and only Greer really shines among them, although Quaid makes a game try. Quaid has been one of my favorite actors for quite a few years now and this is the sort of role that he excels at. A bit stuffy and a bit unctuous and not necessarily a good guy (although Quaid does good guys pretty well), but a lot of fun to be around.

Unfortunately the movie has more faults than strengths. This is clearly a movie aimed at the female audience but the women in the film are mainly bedroom ornaments for George. If you’re going to appeal to women, you need an appealing woman in the cast. All of the movies in the movie seem to be defined by their relationships with men. That’s not going to make your target audience happy.

Still, Butler is going to make plenty of the target audience happy, particularly in those scenes where his shirt comes off (and there are a few). Ultimately this is pretty disposable but not real offensive, unless predictable plot points offend you. In a holiday movie season where there aren’t a lot of rom com options to choose from, it will fit the bill but it doesn’t really hold up against the better movies of the genre. In short, it ain’t no Sleepless in Seattle.

REASONS TO GO: Gerard Butler is at his charming best.

REASONS TO STAY: No chemistry and no heat. Most of the women in the movie exist to bed Butler. A romantic comedy without romance.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit o’ sexiness and some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was formerly titled “Playing the Field.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 4% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100. The reviews are pretty pathetic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Ugly Truth

SOCCER LOVERS: There’s quite a bit of the Youth game variety but Butler has a few nice moves that he shows off at various times of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Act of Valor


Act of Valor

An unusual sighting of the rare Flying Seal.

(2012) Action (Relativity) Active Duty U.S. Navy Seals, Roselyn Sanchez, Nestor Serrano, Alex Veadov, Jason Cottle, Artie Malesci, Marc Margulies, Dimeter Marinov, Ailsa Marshall, Gonzalo Menendez, Emilio Rivera, Dan Southworth. Directed by Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh

 

We owe so much to our men and women in uniform. Say what you will about the reasons we send them out to risk their lives for us, they still serve with the knowledge that they may be called upon to die for their country and yet they still do it. There’s no doubt that our military personnel should be given the highest respect and honors by all of us and for the most part, most of us feel that way about them.

We can be proud that our service people are some of the most highly trained badasses on the face of the Earth. From the Army Rangers to the Air Force fighter pilots to the entire God Damn U.S. Marine Corps, these are guys (and gals) you should be VERY thankful are on our side.

Some of the badassest guys and gals in our military are the Navy SEALs. These are the same guys who got Bin Laden and rescued the Captain of that merchant vessel from Somali pirates. When they are given a mission, they execute it – and sometimes the cost is tragically high.

A group of SEALs led by Chief Dave and Lt. Cmmdr. Rorke (both first names only – which apparently is also the names of the real-life SEALs that portray them) have been given the task of rescuing a female CIA agent (Sanchez) who has been kidnapped by a Ukrainian arms dealer who supplies to the Chechnyans (Veadov). She is being tortured in some central American hell hole but the SEALs come in and against a well-armed numerically superior force pick up the woman (who has been brutally tortured) and take her to safety.

Except their work isn’t done quite yet. It turns out that the arms dealer has a link to a jihadist (Cottle) who is smuggling in suicide bombers using high-tech vests with porcelain ball bearings that can take out an entire city block, which in those numbers would bring our economy to its knees. The SEALs must find the jihadist and stop him before his plan comes to fruition.

Doubtlessly you have heard by now that the SEALs in the movie are played by real life SEALs who are on active military duty. It sounds a bit gimmicky – and it is. It also plays a lot like a recruitment video, which isn’t surprising since it supposedly started out life as one but became more of a traditional movie in which SEAL tactics and personnel were used to illustrate just what they do.

I don’t have any objection to that. I don’t mind learning what life is like from the perspective of someone like the men here, who actually put their lives on the line on a regular basis. I don’t mind being educated, but I do object to propaganda…which this, thankfully, isn’t (although some critics seem to think it is). This isn’t some Fox News rant about how great the military is and how the liberals of our nation are killing our freedoms yadda yadda yadda; this is meant to realistically portray conditions in the field and the kind of things our fighting men and women have to go through.

Is it Hollywoodized? Sure, at least just a bit. The dialogue is heavy on the pound-your-chest macho aphorisms. The situations resolve themselves far more neatly than they do in real life – or even in the field. I may be no military man but I’ve enough common sense to realize that few missions this complicated end up as cut and dried as this one does – there are always curveballs and snafus. In fact lest we forget, the term “snafu” itself is military in origin.

The directors, who go by the name of the Bandido Brothers, prove to be very capable directors of action sequences. They boast that live ammo was used in many of the sequences and while that does add to the realism quotient, it makes me uncomfortable. No matter how many precautions you can take, you don’t mess with live ammo. Nobody’s life is worth shooting a movie for.

I wound up liking the movie and Da Queen had a good catharsis of her own by the movie’s end (she comes from a military family so it hit home with her a bit deeper than it did with me). In fact, those who do have any sort of military connection will find something that resonates here, from the goodbyes to loved ones being deployed into harm’s way to the hasty phone calls from God-knows-where that only make you miss them more.

I wound up appreciating the movie and admiring it from a technical standpoint, but still I couldn’t get over the feeling that it was a bit gimmicky with the literal stunt casting. For my money, I’d rather have these men out in the field doing what they do best or better still, home with their families  rather than in front of the cameras. Still, the movie was much more entertaining than I anticipated so it’s definitely worth a look-see.

REASONS TO GO: Great kinetic action sequences.  

REASONS TO STAY: More recruitment film than film. SEALs are not necessarily good actors and the sometimes stiff jingoistic dialogue doesn’t help them much. A little gimmicky in the end.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some fairly graphic torture sequences as well as military violence. There are also some bad words here and there but probably nothing compared to the language SEALS use during actual operations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Initially the plan was for the SEALs to be portrayed by actors but when several SEALs who were asked to consult for accuracy complained that the SEALs in the film weren’t being portrayed accurately, it was decided to have actual active duty military in the cast portraying those roles.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100. The reviews are poor.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Top Gun

MILITARY LOVERS: The equipment used here is all currently in use by the U.S. Military, giving those who are into military things a reason to drool.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Vampires

Hannibal


Hannibal

Ray Liotta flips his lid for Hannibal!

(2001) Thriller (MGM) Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman, Ray Liotta, Frankie R. Faison, Giancarlo Giannini, Francesca Neri, Zeljko Ivanek, Hazelle Goodman, David Andrews, Francis Guinan, James Opher, Enrico Lo Verso. Directed by Ridley Scott

 

The main problem with Hannibal, the multi-bazillion dollar grossing thriller, is Silence of the Lambs. Inevitably, it is going to be compared to that modern classic (after all, it is a sequel) and quite frankly, it doesn’t hold up. But y’know, director Ridley Scott really isn’t trying to do that. To his credit, Hannibal is a completely different type of movie, not so much suspenseful as visceral; it is more horror than it is heartstopping.

Some years have passed since the events of Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling (a terribly miscast Moore) has managed to alienate most of her superiors and peers at the FBI, and after a botched arrest which leaves her partner dead and Starling under intense media scrutiny, has begun to have doubts about her career.

Meanwhile, escaped madman Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins) has settled into a quiet life in Florence, Italy, as an academic. Careful not to attract too much attention to himself (and circumspectly wearing gloves and wiping wineglasses to protect from his fingerprints being discovered), he has found a niche that appeals to his love of antiquity, fine dining and academia. The problem is, Hannibal the Cannibal has become bored.

The only living survivor of a Lecter attack, multi-billionaire Mason Verger (Oldman, wonderful under a queasiness-inducing makeup job), has been plotting his revenge since Lecter’s escape, but has been unable to locate the good doctor. Starling’s disgrace becomes Verger’s chance to smoke the good doctor out of hiding, and he uses a Justice Department bureaucrat (Liotta) to do just that.

In the meantime, the academic has been spotted by an Italian policeman (Giannini), who is trying to support a high-maintenance, beautiful wife on a policeman’s salary. The reward for bringing in Lecter proves to be too tempting for the lawman, and so the game is afoot.

At the risk of giving too much away, things go south and Lecter comes home, mainly to observe Starling. He has a rather unique bond with her, and although his motivations are never made as clear as they are in the book, there seems to be a hint of romance in the doctor’s motivation.

Quite frankly, there is a lot of gore here, much more than either of the first two Lecter movies (Michael Mann’s Manhunter being the first). Although there is some nifty viscera (particularly the scene where a man eats a meal you won’t find in the average fast food joint … well, then again, you never know), that alone won’t carry a movie.

What does is story and performance. The acting is certainly solid. Hopkins chews the scenery like his character chews other characters but still makes Lecter one of the most interesting screen villains ever … in fact, “villain” is not quite the right term for Lecter. Most of the movie, you spend rooting for him to get away from those who wish to take away his freedom, but you are reminded at every turn just how dangerous and homicidal he is.

Giannini is as soulful an actor as there is today; here is a man not hemmed in by desperation, but by resignation. His pain is quiet and restrained, mostly communicated through his eyes and a sad smile.

Oldman’s scarred, twisted Mason Verger is the true baddie of the movie, and I am not aware of very many actors today who do bad guys as well as Gary Oldman. Verger revels in his wickedness, wearing his scars like a badge of honor. He can’t let the pain and suffering go – but in a sick way, he needs them to be who he is.

Director Ridley Scott must have been flashing back to his Blade Runner days when filming this; the movie is filled with rain, umbrellas and crowds (although the neon is missing). The cityscape of Florence is in its own way a major part of the movie’s allure; the beautiful, ancient, civilized Florence has an underbelly that can’t be trifled with.

There are certain unexpected moments of lightness – for example, prominently featured in Lecter’s kitchen is a vegetarian cookbook. However, for the most part, there is a heavy sense of impending destiny that drags the movie down. The showdowns — between Lecter and Verger, as well as the one between Lecter and Starling — are both too predictable.

Moore, while a fine actress, doesn’t really capture the toughness of Starling. She doesn’t really have the physicality needed for the part (although, to be fair, neither did then-recent mother Jodie Foster at the time this was filmed). Moore never for a moment convinces me that she is dangerous, or even well-trained. In all of the physical confrontations she is involved with, she gets bested rather easily.

While the ending of the movie differs significantly from the more controversial ending of the book, I think it works better. I never really understood why novelist Thomas Harris had Starling do what she did at the book’s conclusion; the ending screenwriter David Mamet came up with here seemed more consistent to her character. Nevertheless, I’m not a huge fan of Mamet’s writing; he is a bit too cerebral and slow for my tastes. Here, the pace drags and the plot is obfuscated with unnecessary little “See how smart I am”-type intellectualisms that I found a tad pretentious. Did we really need Lecter reading sonnets by Dante aloud?

Hannibal made a ton of money, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. I recommend it mainly for the performances of Hopkins, Oldman and Giannini and I think the movie works despite the godawful script, elephantine pacing and inept plotting. Let’s face it. Most of us are going to see a movie like this regardless of the reviews. Let’s just say this is a good movie that didn’t meet the impossible expectations set for it.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s Hannibal Lecter, people. Brilliant performances by Hopkins, Oldman and Giannini. Scott pulls off a sequel to a classic that stands on its own.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moore is terribly miscast. The script is full of intellectual showing off, almost talks down to its audience. Moves slowly and some of the plot points are ludicrous.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of violence, some of it gruesome at times. There is also a little bit of nudity and some foul language peppered about here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The scenes at Verger’s mansion were filmed at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC. Winnipeggers can take pride that the killer hogs in the hog massacre scene were purchased from a Manitoba farm just outside of Winnipeg.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The Special Edition DVD includes footage from the press conference announcing the making of the movie. Strangely, the Blu-Ray edition (released in 2009 as part of a Hannibal Lecter collection that includes Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $351.7M on an $87M production budget; the movie was a big hit.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Made in China

Incredible Hulk


Edward Norton

Ol' green eyes is back!

(2008) Superhero (Universal) Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt, Tim Blake Nelson, Ty Burrell, Christina Cabot, Peter Mensah, Lou Ferrigno, Greg Bryk, Paul Soles, Debora Nascimento, Robert Downey Jr., Bill Bixby, Brandon Cruz. Directed by Louis Letterier

 

All of us have some sort of demon inside of us. They are of varying size and ferocity, with varying holds on us but we all have one. Some, however, have demons that are far more evident than others.

Dr. Bruce Banner (Norton) is living as inconspicuously as possible in a suburb of Rio de Janiero, working in a soft drink factory. When he is at home, he is doing complex research trying to reverse his condition – when his heart rate goes over 200, his physiology changes, turning him into a green behemoth of enormous strength and agility. Banner had accidentally irradiated himself with gamma radiation in an effort to find ways to regenerate cells but which now the U.S. Army in the person of General “Thunderbolt” Ross (Hurt) wants to create an army of behemoths. Complicating matters is that Banner’s girl is Betty Ross (Tyler), the general’s daughter. Yikes.

Banner runs afoul of some toughs working in the factory and when they attack him and set his heart rate above 200, Banner hulks out just as the army arrives to capture him. Let’s just say it doesn’t go well for the army.

Banner returns to Culver University in Virginia where Betty now works and where she is dating psychologist Dr. Leonard Samson (Burrell). Betty is reluctant to reunite although she clearly still has feelings for Bruce but the suspicious Dr. Samson turns Bruce in and he is captured. But Emil Blonsky (Roth), a British Special Forces agent charged by General Ross to capture Bruce, has taken a super soldier formula and forces Dr. Samuel Sterns (Nelson), a genetecist who has been secretly working with Banner, to inject Banner’s blood into his veins, turning him into an abomination. Only Banner as the Hulk can save the city now.

This movie is inevitably going to be compared to Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk starring Eric Bana in the Banner role; the earlier version is a much more cerebral turn which was excoriated by fans and critics alike, but which I found to be much better than it was given credit for. This new Letterier-directed version is much more action packed, which is what fans wanted. Consequently it got better marks from fans although that didn’t translate into astounding box office.

Norton makes a terrific Banner; thoughtful, haunted and a little bit short on the fuse, temper-wise. There was a fall out between Norton and Marvel over the editing of the movie, causing the actor to distance himself from the film and Marvel to hire Mark Ruffalo for the upcoming The Avengers movie in the Bruce Banner role. One can only wonder what Eric Bana thinks of all this.

The action sequences are spectacular as you might expect although the CGI Hulk is still not quite as effective as he might be. There is more a connection to the Marvel universe here, with Doc Samson and the Abomination both in the mix and Hurt makes am mighty nice villain. This isn’t the perfect Hulk movie, but it’s a very good one and with homages to previous Hulk incarnations (including the Ang Lee version) in various ways, this is a fanboy dream.

WHY RENT THIS: Action-packed and a compelling story to underline it. Norton does a good job with the Banner side.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the CGI doesn’t quite work.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sci-fi/comic book violence and a few frightening images.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Paul Soles, who played Stanley the pizza parlor owner, provided the voice of Dr. Bruce Banner in the animated “Hulk” TV series in the 60s.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: In the Blu-Ray edition, there’s an animated comic book feature that is also a part of the U-Control feature that allows viewers to access behind-the-scenes content while watching the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $263.4M on a $150M production budget; the movie was just shy of being profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Please Give

Secretariat


Secretariat

Secretariat is neck and neck.

(Disney) Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Walsh, Margo Martindale, Nelsan Ellis, Otto Thorwath, Fred Dalton Thompson, Scott Glenn, James Cromwell, Michael Harding, Nestor Serrano, Drew Roy, Dylan Baker, Kevin Connolly. Directed by Randall Wallace

There may be no other event as beautiful as a horse race. Something about a horse running down a track takes the breath away; while I’ve never been a huge fan of the sport, I understand the passion it inspires. It’s very easy to get caught up in.

Penny Chenery Tweedy (Lane) is a Denver housewife, raising four kids and living the life of the upper middle class when she gets a terrible phone call; her mother has passed away. She goes back home to Virginia for the funeral. Her father Christopher Chenery (Glenn) is ill, lucid only for brief moments. He runs Meadow Farm, a horse ranch that has fallen onto hard times. Penny and her brother Hollis (Baker) realize that there is a lot of issues to be decided about the farm’s future. Penny decides to stay on and close up loose ends; Hollis means to sell the farm and get what he can for it, but Penny is a little less crazy about the idea.  

Aided by Mrs. Ham (Martindale), the loyal secretary to her father and virtually a family member, Penny begins to take a closer look at the farm and finds that things are dire, but not irretrievably so. One thing they do have that is worth money is a potential foal that was sired by Bold Ruler, a champion sire. There are actually two foals, each with a different mare on the farm. The owner of Bold Ruler, Ogden Phipps (Cromwell), one of the richest men in America, made a handshake deal with her father that a coin would be flipped to determine which foal would go with him and which one would stay with Meadow Farm.  

In the meantime, Penny lets go of the trainer for the farm and at the advice of family friend Bull Hancock (Thompson), she hires Lucien Laurin (Malkovich), a well-respected trainer who had recently retired but was finding retirement doesn’t agree with him. Penny winds up losing the coin flip but gets the foal she wanted; Bold Ruler was known for siring very fast horses but the mare Somethingroyal had given birth to horses with stamina. The combination could create a potential superhorse, but Phipps goes with conventional wisdom and takes the progeny of Hasty Matelda, a horse that had delivered much more successful racehorses at the time.

When Lucien, Penny and groom Eddie Sweat (Ellis) witness the birth of the foal, they are stunned to see it rise up to its feet, something that takes most foals longer. Lucien is in awe; clearly they are in the presence of something very special.

Penny falls immediately in love with the horse whom she nicknames Big Red for its color; initially Lucien isn’t sure of the horse’s work ethic and is suspicious of his tendency to overeat but the horse that is named Secretariat (after ten other names had been rejected by the Racing Association) turns out to be a powerful champion.

Getting him to the Triple Crown races of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes will be a near-miracle; the farm is close to foreclosure and there is little money left. To make things worse, Penny isn’t taken seriously as an owner in a world that is dominated by men, mainly men from money (like Phipps).

Most people know the Secretariat went on to win the Triple Crown in 1973, the first horse in a quarter century to achieve that feat (Seattle Slew would win it in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978, but no horse has won it since). Some may well know the spectacular fashion he accomplished it in, but most people agree that Secretariat was the most dominant horse of his time, and perhaps ever. Perhaps only Seabiscuit alone was more popular than Big Red.

Like Titanic, the movie’s end is a foregone conclusion. What makes it interesting is the behind-the-scenes look at what was going on and what Penny Tweedy overcame. You can’t really call this an underdog movie, although Disney is marketing it as such; it would be like calling the story of the 1995-6 Chicago Bulls an underdog story. You can’t call the best athlete in his sport an underdog, and Secretariat fit that description to a “T”.

Director Wallace, who previously wrote Braveheart and directed We Were Soldiers and The Man in the Iron Mask, understood the dilemma of having a sports story without an underdog per se, so rather than focusing on the horse, he focuses on the owner and her battle to gain acceptance in the masculine hierarchy of the horse racing world.

Lane plays her as an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, she’s strong as steel, her daddy’s daughter who is unwilling to give up or give in. On the other, she’s a typical housewife of the late 60s and early 70s, the happy homemaker who cleans house, cooks dinner, raises the kids and supports her hubby (Walsh). Lane integrates both elements of the personality effortlessly (I suspect that she relates to Penny Tweedy very strongly) and makes the character heroic in her struggle. 

Malkovich can be a bit twitchy and he does have his quirks here, most of which the real Lucien Laurin possessed (the loud slacks, the hideous hats and so on). However, Malkovich reigns in his performance (no pun intended) quite well and allows the volatile Lucien to take center stage. Thompson and Glenn both are memorable in their brief screen time. Secretariat’s hot-tempered jockey Ron Turcotte is played by real-life jockey Thorwath and it brings realism to the racing scenes which are well-done in general.

The movie is going to inevitably be compared to Seabiscuit and that really doesn’t do it justice. That horse was an unlikely champion, a horse that didn’t come from bluebloods of breeding, but became a popular attraction as much as a racing champion (although he won his share of races). Seabiscuit was revered; Secretariat was respected.

There has been some complaining, mostly from Andrew O’Hehir of Salon Magazine, that Wallace, an avowed Christian, had turned the movie into a kind of Tea Party manifesto with overtly Christian themes. Quite frankly, while there is a quote from the Book of Job at the beginning and ending of the movie and a couple of hymns on the soundtrack, this is no more Christian than Braveheart was. As for its conservative leanings, well, I don’t think it was particularly endorsing a return to the period as O’Hehir seems to think it does as it was merely depicting that time. O’Hehir complains that no-one in the movie mentions the Vietnam War, and yet Penny’s daughter is shown to be an anti-war activist. Which war did O’Hehir think they were referring to?

Disney is known for their underdog sports stories, from Miracle to The Rookie to Invincible but this one doesn’t really fit the format, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You can only watch Hoosiers so many times, after all. With the strong performances by its leads, racing sequences that utilize digital cameras to bring viewers closer into the action than ever before, this becomes a solid sports movie that doesn’t really fit the “underdog” label real well, but does fit in as quality entertainment.

REASONS TO GO: Really strong performances by Malkovich and Lane, as well as some compelling racing footage.

REASONS TO STAY: Pales in comparison to Seabiscuit. I never got that sense of overcoming overwhelming odds that other sports movies portray.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words but mainly okay for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The trophy for the Triple Crown seen after the Belmont was the actual trophy won by Secretariat that was loaned to the production by the Kentucky Derby Museum. While most of the racing footage was recreations done for the film, the footage of the Preakness seen on the living room TV set of the Tweedys was the actual race footage from 1973.

HOME OR THEATER: In all honesty I’m really torn. Some of the scenes look really good on the big screen but at the end of the day, I think home viewing is perfectly okay for this one.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Red

Don’t Tell (La bestia nel cuore)


Don't Tell (La bestia nel cuore)

The three women of "Don't Tell" ponder their inner demons.

(Lionsgate) Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Luigi Lo Cascio, Alessio Boni, Stefania Rocca, Angela Finocchiaro, Giuseppe Battiston, Valerio Binasco, Lucy Akhurst. Directed by Cristina Comencini

We all bear some sort of painful secret from our past that haunts us in one way or another. Sometimes we are consciously aware of that pain, other times it hides in our inner psyche, buried deeply only to be released unexpectedly and unwanted.

Sabina (Mezzogiorno) has a pretty nice life. She works as a voice-over actress, dubbing Hollywood movies. Her boyfriend Franco (Boni) is a handsome, well-regarded stage actor who has taken a role as a doctor in a soap opera that, while beneath his talents, will settle their financial issues for many years to come. Sabina is also pregnant, which she is trying to figure out the right way to break to her boyfriend.

However, she is beset by nightmares that torture her night after night. She realizes that this has something to do with her past but she can’t figure out what for the life of her. Determined to find out why these demons are tormenting her, she is determined to visit her brother Daniele (Lo Cascio) who lives in America, a professor of Italian literature at the University of Virginia.

Before she leaves, she needs to see to her friend Emelia (Rocca), who lost her sight at 20 and has been depressed ever since. Sabina visits her regularly and Emelia has developed a romantic attachment to her. Sabina however is quite straight and arranges for Emelia to be visited and assisted by Sabina’s director, Maria (Finocchiaro) who is also going through a difficult time – her husband has just left her for her daughter’s college friend.

The movie is mostly about Sabina’s journey and the truth behind her nightmares which I won’t reveal here – the movie will present a far more powerful impact if you don’t know what it is. Comencini adapted her own novel, which was inspired by a newspaper article of an adult brother and sister coming to terms with a childhood trauma.

Mezzogiorno does a terrific job here, playing a woman alternately confused, frustrated and eventually angry at the things that she can’t figure out, until the moment she does realize what happened to her in her past. It’s a compelling screen moment, one of the best in recent years.

If there’s a quibble here, it has to do with the two subplots that occur during the movie, one involving the budding relationship between Emelia and Maria and the other involving the boyfriend being chased by a seductive ingénue on the set of his soap opera. To my mind they were distracting, unnecessary and at times confusing. I can understand why they are there, however; the main story is wrenching and requires some relieve for the audience.

This wound up losing the Oscar to Tsotsi which is justified I think; that movie is a superior movie and one of the best of the decade. However, when you consider that this had to compete with Paradise Now and The Final Days of Sophie Scholl, you realize what a remarkable crop of movies came out from places other than Hollywood that year.

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch and those who are sensitive to child endangerment and to sexual situations are advised to give it a wide berth. However, this is one of the finest examinations of the female psyche and the effects of devastating trauma upon it that I have ever seen. From that standpoint alone, this is a movie worth seeking out although methinks it will be difficult to find at the average video store; an online rental service such as Netflix (where I rented it from) and Amazon might be your best bets.

WHY RENT THIS: A very difficult subject is handled with sensitivity but without pulling any punches. Mezzogiorno, Lo Cascio and Boni all deliver outstanding performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the subplots seem to unnecessarily derail the main thrust of the film.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some very mature sexual content as well as nudity here, as well as a scene of shocking violence. There is also plenty of foul language throughout. This is most definitely for mature audiences only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Don’t Tell won the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and was a nominee for Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2006..

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Exit Through the Gift Shop