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All reviews - Movies (157) - TV Shows (4) - Books (2)

Quirky Indie

Posted : 4 years, 12 months ago on 16 December 2013 06:38 (A review of Frances Ha (2012))

"Frances Ha" is admittedly not normally my type of movie, but I was sporadically entertained by its down-to-earth charm. Filmmaker Noah Baumbach, who skyrocketed to indie fame after acquainting us with a cast of outrageously cruel, petty, narcissistic characters in "The Squid and the Whale" (I guess I've made my stance clear on that movie,) squares in on the lifestyle of the big-city intellectual again in "Frances Ha," but at least now the characters are tolerable.

Greta Gertwig gives a amiable performance as well-meaning, somewhat ditzy college grad Frances Halladay, who aspires to make it as a dancer. Her BFF is the bespectacled and kind of bitchy Sophie (Mickey Sumner,) and and two are as devoted as two friends ever were. When Sophie prepares to move to Japan with her boyfriend who she doesn't really love, 'Patch,' Frances feels lost without her best friend, and her life starts to veer off the the tracks.

Not a lot happens in this film. What's special about it is the real-life quality of the acting and dialogue. However, I did not like this as much as similarly naturalistic "Wendy and Lucy" because there was no high drama. I know, not every life contains a lot of intense drama. But in that movie Michelle Williams was struggling to keep her head above water financially and her fight to provide for her and her dog. She has a goal. Live. Or starve. We can't look away.

Frances simply flounders. She complains about money, but scrounges up enough to take a trip to Paris where she never leaves her apartment. She lives with two hipsters for a while and it seems like something romantic is going to happen with one of them, but nothing ever does. She wants to dance, but lacks the talent to make it happen. Frances is a nice girl, but the film lacks immediacy.

However, there are pleasures to be had from watching this movie. There is something to be said for getting entangled in a characters life, uneventful as it might be. Frances is a well-written character, and all the side characters seemed real. The down side- the astonishingly tasteless moment when drunken Sophie stoically describes the miscarrying of her unwanted baby as 'cool' . Ouch. It's hard to have sympathy for her after that.

I like the way this movie deals with the everyday awkwardness of relationships. The social difficulties Frances faces never seem forced or exaggerated. Anyone who has said something they later wish they hadn't (that's everybody,) drunk or sober, can relate to Frances. The film chronicles little moments on Frances' journey to become a self-made woman. I'm down with that. I just wish the story had been a little more arresting.

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Disappointing Early Shane Meadows

Posted : 4 years, 12 months ago on 14 December 2013 08:34 (A review of 24 7: Twenty Four Seven)

Shane Meadows is one of my top favorite filmmakers, so although "Twenty Four Seven" is not bad at all, it's a bit of a disappointment with my expectations set so high. It is a well-intentioned independent feature featuring Meadows' trademark working-class Brits, and sporting a slightly confusing ending. It lacks Meadows' usual intensity, and although it has a pretty decent story to tell, I often found myself getting distracted.

Good-natured and dedicated, Alan Darcy (Bob Hoskins) starts a boxing club to bring focus and passion to the kids in his lower-class town's lives. The kids, who have little to do but mingle and get into trouble, are initially wary of Darcy's enthusiasm, but eventually they find that boxing is a good outlet for their rage and frustration.

Darcy tries to provide guidance to the disaffected working-class blokes in his neighborhood, including abused teenager Tim (Danny Nussbaum,) sadsack drug addict Fagash (Mat Hand,) and a lonely fat kid uncharitably dubbed 'Tonka' (James Corden,) but finds himself becoming increasingly frustrated with the town's limited options.

When Darcy borrows stolen money to help set up his boxing club, I expected something to come of it, but nothing really comes of the plot thread. I liked Darcy, Tonka, and Tim but didn't find the characters as compelling as in some of Shane Meadows' other films, like "A Room for Romeo Brass," a film I gave 4.5/5 stars to.

The more I thought about it, the more I had problems with the ending, which I found increasingly unclear. What exactly happened to a certain despicable character, and are we supposed to believe that that certain someone would have a road to Damascus and show up at the funeral at the end? Pfft.

Nevertheless, Bob Hoskins did a good job playing a compelling character, and Shane Meadows' potential was evident from early on. The home-video footage of the young boy at the beginning was not really crucial to the plot, but I liked it anyway as it fit the mood of the scene.

I would only really recommend this movie to Shane Meadows fans who are curious how his career progressed over the years. It was worth watching once, definitely. The absence of Paddy Considine ("Dead Man's Shoes") or Stephen Graham ("This is England") was disappointing, but Bob Hoskins did a good job as the idealistic protagonist. An interesting movie, if not exactly fulfilling.

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Offbeat Slowburner

Posted : 5 years ago on 8 December 2013 10:24 (A review of The Cry of the Owl)

"The Cry of the Owl" is a strange little movie featuring profoundly odd characters who perplexed the bejeezus out of me. It's a movie that grows on you once you get behind the rhythm of the storytelling. Paddy Considine, an actor who I absolutely love and have enormous respect for, plays a slightly awkward and rather lonely divorcee by the name of Robert Forrester, who routinely spies on a local woman (Julia Stiles,) watching her house from a hiding spot in the woods.

Robert is caught by the girl, whose name is Jenny Thierouf, and she rather perplexingly invites him into her house, where she lives alone, her solitary life occasionally interrupted by the appearances of her boyfriend, Greg Wyncoop (James Gilbert.) It soon becomes apparent that she is to some degree fascinated with Robert's creepy interest in her.

Unfortunately for Robert, Greg is the jealous type who proceeds to make Robert suffer, even after Jenny tells Greg under no uncertain terms that their relationship is over. When Greg attacks Robert and promptly goes missing, poor Robert finds himself ostracized at every turn, and worse, a murder suspect.

Based on a book by Patricia Highsmith, the film features interesting and well-written characters, from whom you never know quite what to expect. Robert displays inappropriate social behavior and never seems quite comfortable in his own skin at any given time, and it takes us some time to decide whether he is essentially harmless or a dangerous wacko. With her clipped monotone and bizarre segues, Jenny is a fragile soul, and although you feel kind of bad for her, you certainly don't trust her.

The first thing I noticed was the unevenness of Paddy's American accent. Otherwise, he is very good as an introvert whose creepy nighttime activities have put him in hot water at work and home. Julia Stiles initially comes off as a rather stiff and uninterested presence, but we gradually warm up to her acting style, which ultimately fits the character.

"The Cry of the Owl" is a slow burner, with a rather abrupt ending, that may appeal perfectly to some audiences and confound and alienate others. I liked the offbeat characters and I was sucked into the mystery plot. Not for all tastes, and it may need time to grow on you, but otherwise, an entertaining thriller.

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Great Lead Performance

Posted : 5 years ago on 7 December 2013 09:31 (A review of Tsotsi)

Compelling and startling, "Tsotsi" chronicles a young thug in Johannesburg's surprising redemption. The somewhat quick development of the violent main character strains credulity, but the storytelling is so earnest (and the acting is so convincing) that it should suck in even the most hard-hearted cynic.

"Tsotsi," whose name simply means 'thug,' is a man without hope, without love, without a future or aspirations higher than being a ruthless criminal. He is played with dead-eyed determination by virtual unknown Presley Chweneyagae, in a performance so good you wonder where this guy has been for the last ten or so years. Tsotsi is part of a violent gang, and mercilessly abuses those around him, commanding control in spite of his non-threatening appearance.

When Tsotsi shoots a woman during a car-jacking and drives away with an unnoticed infant in the backseat, he is thrust into the role of caretaker that he never could have anticipated. But what can a gang member and murderer do for a newborn? Your maternal instincts will cry out as Tsotsi keeps the baby in a paper shopping bag and allows it's face to get dirty and crawl with ants.

Gradually, something changes- Tsotsi is finally living for someone other than himself. His heart begins to ache, memories of his abusive childhood flood in. He forces a young mother (Terry Pheto) to serve a wet nurse for the newborn, and they build an unusual rapport. Meanwhile, the injured mother (Pumla Dube) of the baby desperately tries to locate her missing child.

I'm glad the movie didn't take the easy way out and go with a sensationalistic ending. Director Gavin Hood knows how to build a tense climax without overplaying his hand, and I appreciate him for it. The acting was all around very good, and the script was strong.

I guess the only problem I had with the film was that the premise was far-fetched. I honestly thing that a character like Tsotsi, if he was unable to kill the child, would have left in the car rather than taking the responsibility of caring for it (or trying to) upon himself. Anyway, if anyone can make us believe in Tsotsi, it's the talented Chweneyagae. "Tsotsi" is an interesting and well-made film, and definitely worth a watch for lovers of international moviemaking.

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3-Dimensional Characters

Posted : 5 years ago on 7 December 2013 12:12 (A review of A Room For Romeo Brass)

Shane Meadows knows how to do a slow-burner. One of Britain's most powerful filmmakers, Meadows is a master of racketing up the tension in a seemingly ordinary situation. Never stupid, never sensational, he casts his unblinking eye on modern life in the UK and the fragilities of human relationships. If I had to choose between Meadows and Mike Leigh, I would pick Meadows, every time.

"A Room For Romeo Brass" is about how an ordinary friendship can undergo extraordinary duress when a dangerous third party is added to the mix. Two preteen friends, white Gavin and mixed-race Romeo share a brotherly bond that is equal parts camaraderie and constant teasing. Gavin (Ben Marshall,) called 'Knocks,' has a bad back and a limp, and is in transition to another surgery.

He's always up to a bit of mischief, and Romeo (Andrew Shim) is his softer-hearted other half. When a man named Morell (a very young Paddy Considine) rescues Gavin and Romeo from some bigger boys, he seems like a harmless, if eccentric, addition to the group. With his 'Simple Jack' haircut and halting speech, he doesn't readiate 'cool,'but he is friendly and can tell a sensational story like anyone.

The thing about these kinds of stories is, if they sound too good to be true they probably are, but this matters nada to the boys and one of them, Romeo, is sucked in by his dynamic personality. Gavin thinks that Morell is a sucker and good for a mean practical joke. He's deadly wrong. As Morell reveals a dark, violent side, Romeo and Gaivn's friendship is tested to it's outer limits.

Shane Meadows found two good little actors in Shim and Marshall, but Considine is the main draw here. Considine, who would later astonish audiences, including myself, in Shane Meadows' grungy revenge indie "Dead Man's Shoes," puts a unique spin on a character who is probably suffering from an undiagnosed mental disorder.

Like "Sling Blade"'s Karl or "Buddy Boy"'s Francis, Morell's uniqueness is electrifying to watch. At times I was wowed by this apparently simple man's ability to coerce and manipulate, and wondered if his limitations were a ruse and he was, in fact, a very clever psychopath. The truth is much more complicated.

Wait for the precise moment when the up-til-then likably dotty Morel becomes suddenly sinister. It's mind-blowing. "A Room for Romeo Brass" glues your eyes to the screen, and tells a intense story about friendship and betrayal, about a wolf in sheep's clothing who fleetingly wins- if not earns- our sympathy nonetheless. With it's three-dimensional characters and incisive writing, it's nothing less than riviting. Bravo, Shane Meadows. Keep them coming.

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Not-Bad Remake of an Unwatched Original

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 13 November 2013 05:24 (A review of Maniac)

Admittedly, I have never seen the 1980 original of "Maniac," which, for all it's guts and gore, turns out to be a pretty decent psychological slasher movie. Physically Elijah Wood isn't a great stand-in for the apparently imposing, plain Joe Spinell but he still manages to turn in a good (if slightly over-acted) performance as the lead psycho. Frodo ain't here Mrs. Torrance.

Frank Zito is a disturbed, slightly stereotypical nutjob (hmm, a sexually repressed loner with mommy issues... just dress him up in a wig and a dress and call him Norman) whose Mama liked to whore around in front of her impressionable son. This has left him with some issues with members of the fairer sex, and Frank acts out by killing and scalping attractive women. Did I mention Frank owns a mannequin shop? Creepy stuff for sure. At least Frank finds a way that all those scalps aren't wasted.

Then the unthinkable happens. Pale creeper Frank finds a girl, Anna (Nora Arnezeder) who makes him rethink his creeper life. She's smart, pretty, and she, y'know, GETS him- an attribute that's in short supply if you're a psycho killer with a fetish for scalps. She even seems to like his mannequins even more than she likes him, and this makes Frank's heart flutter with something unexpected- love, caring, a yearning for a different way of life.

Anna muses that the mannequins are beautifully unique and seem to have distinct personalities (no, she's not crazy.) Her soft, gentle manner draws out tentative Frank- but how long can Frank keep up his facade? And it soon becomes obvious that Frank's mask of sanity is about to slip (to borrow a all-too-overt reference to "American Psycho.") Will Anna be repulsed when she finds out Frank's true self?

The movie adopts the disturbing stylistic approach of forcing us to watch the crimes from Frank's POV. Not only does that bring up all kinds of moral and ethical questions (is our fascination with violence and serial killers cathartic, or rather voyeuristic and exploitative?), it occasionally makes the killings uncomfortably sexualized, marked by Frank's repressed libido and misogynistic rage.

I understand what the filmmaker is trying to do, but it is disturbing to watch a woman's breasts while she is strangled. Then again, doesn't the fact that the strangling doesn't bother me speak volumes on Americans over-familiarity with violence and carnage? Maybe that's what this movie is trying to say.

Frank spends a lot of time looking in mirrors, which may portray his fracturing personality (he often argues and pleads with his 'darker half,' which takes over when she gets the urge to kill) or it might just be there to remind us "yep, it's Elijah Wood playing the killer, not just a camera being toted around by the crew."

On the surface, this film is fast-paced and exciting. The psychology behind the character of Frank is a little sketchy (somewhere between Norman Bates' exclamation of "a boy's best friend is his mother" and Philip Larkin's poem that begins "They fuck you up your mum and dad...") but the movie is mostly solid.

I actually think "Tony" by Gerard Johnson, a highly underregarded film and hell of an independent production, knocks this film on it's ass. But "Maniac" is still a solidly acted way to pass the time. Take a date- but make sure they're not TOO into it, or we might have a "Maniac" case on your hands. Think about it. Good afternoon, everyone, and enjoy the feature.

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Touching True Story

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 12 November 2013 03:38 (A review of The Miracle Worker (1962))

Blind, deaf, and mute, wild child Helen Keller was shut out from communication and terrorized her affluent Southern family, until willful teacher Annie Sullivan brought structure and discipline to Helen's life and through teaching communication offered Helen something entirely new- a way to speak, and a voice of her own. "The Miracle Worker" tells the true story of Keller's childhood, with a special touch of sensitivity and minimal sentimentality.

Helen, who became a respected feminist and disability rights advocate, owes her success in no small part to Annie Sullivan, her teacher and friend. But it didn't start out that way. When Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft,) she is entangled almost immediately in a battle of wills with Helen (Patty Duke,) an unkempt girl seething with frustration and coddled by her exhausted family.

Helen's family deals with the pressure of her upkeep in different ways- Captain Arthur Keller (Victor Killer) postures and demands respect and obedience from his beleaguered family, while Kate Keller (Inga Swenson) maintains the dutiful 'whatever you think is best' attitude of old-world Southern manners. Meanwhile older brother James (Andrew Prine) goofs off and mouths off, while tensions between him and his domineering father simmer.

There are no 'bad guys' here- no monsters in the closet who want to exploit Helen, no boogeymen who want to make the wretched girl suffer. Helen is not a saccharine movie character- she kicks, screams, and bites, and at one point quite deliberately stabs her teacher with a needle- but she is never reprehensible or unlikable, and we never lose sight of her unbearable frustration and anger.

Patty Duke gives what is surely one of the best child performances of all time. Not once does she break character- we believe she is this wild, nearly feral deaf, blind, and mute girl. She excels beyond the portrayals most adult performers deliver of the disabled. The entire cast turn in excellent acting jobs.

It is impossible not to feel enormous respect for Annie Sullivan, as she refuses to take the easy way out (letting the child have her way) in the long, grueling process of educating Helen. When I saw the stage version of this at our local theater, the audience tittered and laughed at the scene where Annie tries to force her pupil to eat with a fork. In the film adaptation, nothing funny about it. Just pure grit.

"The Miracle Worker" is a touching true story that is still effective years later, and can be enjoyed by the whole family. No blood guts n' sex, no infantile humor pandering the younger set, just powerful storytelling. It is a true classic that can be enjoyed for years to come.

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Astonishingly, Not A Total Travesty

Posted : 5 years, 1 month ago on 10 November 2013 11:31 (A review of Movie 43)

Though hardly a consistently funny film, "Movie 43" is, astonishingly, not a complete and utter miss. I is a hit-and-miss spectacle around the lines of 2013's "The ABCs of Death," with a comedy rather than horror theme. At it's worst, it's still a lot better than the worst "ABCs of Death" has to offer.

The plot is loosely and crudely constructed, with an emphasis on 'crude.' The jokes consistently base themselves on shock value and poor taste, with sometimes funny results. This is an anthology film, and the segments all base themselves around this premise- wimpy schmuck Griffin (Greg Kinnear) listens as obsessed screenwriter Charlie (Dennis Quaid) pitches a script to him- a tasteless opus that Griffin quickly dismisses. Undeterred, Charlie holds Griffin at gunpoint and tries to force him to sell the script. The following shenanigans are the contents of this screenplay.

The first segment, "The Catch," is actually pretty funny as Kate Winslet tries to figure out why no one seems to notice the giant ballsack hanging from her date Hugh Jackman's neck. Don't judge me, I laughed. The second one was pretty funny in an 'ashamed of yourself but laughing' way, it actually plays on the stereotypes about homeschoolers, as a homeschooled young person I appreciated that.

The only other really funny short in this collection is the grossly inappropriate iBabe. The others range from pretty mediocre to pretty bad. The one with Chloe Grace Moretz, a talented young actress, is just embarrassing and awkward as a teenage girl is humiliated by her inopportunely timed first period and the incompetence of her male audience. The one with Anna Faris was gross and pointless, and is only funny if you like poop jokes and third rate sitcom humor.

Some of the shorts were mesmerizing in their strange tastelessness, "Beezel," with it's homosexual cat jacking off to pictures of his owner in swimtrunks, is a startling example. I didn't find the short about the black basketball players particularly racist, but I didn't find it funny either.

"Movie 43" doesn't really utilize it's all-star cast, but you could do worse for a late-rainy-day distraction. If you get to watch it free, and want to laugh a few times and think 'hmm, that's strange,' then go for it. It's not the abomination people have made it out to be, but it's no classic comedy. Just remember to lighten up and think for yourself!

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B**ch Parade

Posted : 5 years, 2 months ago on 12 October 2013 08:23 (A review of Bachelorette)

"Bachelorette" is the worst kind of comedy- tacky, shallow, mean-spirited, and unfunny. The venomously unlikable cast of characters will grate on you after the first five minutes... by the 80 minute mark, they're Hell. These gal pals will remind you of everything you don't like in human beings, hardly the tone to set for a romantic comedy.

Regan (Kirsten Dunst,) Gena (Lizzy Caplan,) and Katie (Ilsa Fisher)- ditzy, cruel, and devoid of charm- prepare for their friend Becky (Rebel Wilson)'s wedding. Infuriated that the 'fat girl,' who they always had a demeaning attitude toward, got engaged before them, the clueless three find themselves in big (and well-deserved) trouble when they rip Becky's wedding dress while playing a cruel joke.

"Bachelorette" piles joke after unfunny joke about drug addiction, abortion, mental disabilities, cancer, obesity, and Autism onto a weak script. Not only are these jokes not funny (I never let out more than a weak chuckle throughout this Godforsaken film,) they're also tasteless and offensive. I might sound like a prude, but believe me, I'm no more humorless than this film is.

This film's saving grace (besides sole non-mean girl Becky)- Joe (Kyle Bornheimer,) a drug-addicted but kind software designer and friend of the groom, who has an unexplained (and unexplainable) crush on dingy head-case Katie. I would regard a romance with Katie as akin to a shotgun pressed Joe's head, but hey, maybe love will win out.

The inexplicable second second half of the film treats serious and grim issues (one character's abortion, and another's suicide attempt) like Friday night at the comedy club, except without the alleged humor. The sitcom-ish handling of the whole thing turns sour almost immediately. There's a difference between dark comedy and just beating the dead horse with things that are not funny.

Something being controversial does not necessarily make it humorous, as this filmmaker has yet to learn. Also, making a character damaged does not automatically make her likable... sometimes you just end up with a damaged bitch, as "Bachelorette"'s gal's prove. Hateful humor a good film does not always maketh. Goodbye.

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Bright, Involving Animation

Posted : 5 years, 2 months ago on 10 October 2013 02:41 (A review of A Cat in Paris)

Cat lovers who wonder where their beloved pet wanders off to at night will be surprised and delighted by "A Cat in Paris," a highly enjoyable, however brief, 2-D animated film. The decidedly strange animation is admittedly a little off-putting at first, but grows on the viewer with it's bright merry colors and distinct characters.

Young Parisian Zoe hasn't talked since the death of her father, a detective, by mad criminal Victor Costa (voiced by JB Blanc in the English-dubbed version.) With her distracted mother Jeanne (Marcia Gay Harden,) who is also a detective, fighting to hunt down Zoe's father's killer, Zoe is often left in the company of her cat, Dino, who by night is the accomplice to a jewel thief (Steve Blum,) a big-hearted rogue with a passion for danger.

I really liked how this movie dealt with adult themes while still remaining accessible to children. My nine-year-old sister, a Junior Francophile-in-the-making, laughed and bounced merrily to Dino's perilous adventures. The characters were fairly intriguing for a movie that clocks at barely an hour (although the jewel thief seemed underdeveloped,) the villain Costa was evil without being too scary.

Costa's idiot sidekicks were a little stereotypical, and I didn't like the treatment of the dog character- it seemed a little cruel to me (but hey, I'll take a dog over a cat any day.) The animation was definitely a plus to me- as I said, I was uneasy with it for the first five-or-so minutes but I started to really enjoy it after that.

Zoe is a strong and unsentimental girl heroine, while still being within the boundaries of reality. I liked the character of her mother too- instead of simply making her into a 'cruddy parent' who 'doesn't care,' the film made her her into a fierce woman dedicated to finding her husband's killer at any cost- until she realizes how much it may cost her.

I don't think this movie is up to par with 'the best of the best' (i.e. "Up" or Hayao Miyazaki,) but it's certainly better than anything Dreamworks has put out lately. There's scarcely a dull moment as the Zoe and her mother cross paths with the jewel thief and try to stop Costa from committing his most dastardly heist yet. "A Cat in Paris" is a smart, brightly colored, entertaining excursion into mystery and intrigue.

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