Posts Tagged ‘Friday Reviews’

Hereafter, a.k.a. “Les” Miserable

April 22, 2011

by Thomas M. Pender

I like Matt Damon.  I really do.  I enjoyed him in lighter dramatic fare, such as Good Will Hunting, heavier drama like Saving Private Ryan, and even silly things like Dogma and the infamous duet with Sarah Silverman on Jimmy Kimmel’s show (which I can’t tell you the name of!).  He’s a talented guy.

Yet, as Hollywood history has proven again and again, even the best actor cannot carry a film if the film is unwatchable.  The script, director, producer . . . many components play their parts in making a movie, from concept to finished reel.  Personally, on this project it’s the script that has me stumped.  Who read this and thought it would be well received by an American audience?

To begin with – and I’ll try not to exaggerate – half of the script is in French.  I did not wish to see a foreign film when I rented Hereafter.  Foreign films give me headaches.  You miss the whole show whilst reading subtitles at everyone’s waistline.  Here, interspersed with Damon’s scenes, are scenes of a woman in France and twin boys in England.  Not until you are a full 90 minutes into the 120-minute show do any of these people prove they have anything whatsoever to do with each other.  For 90 minutes, you feel like you’re watching three movies with a spouse who won’t let go of the remote control!  When they do finally interact, it’s so anticlimactic you’ll wish you could demand your money back from the Redbox.

Damon himself is the only box office draw, and it seems a good waste of the producers’ money, since they don’t let him act.  Unless “catatonic” and “unaffected” can be viewed as emotions that are difficult to fake, any box of corn flakes could have acted this part, at a mere fraction of the cost.

I’m surprised that I didn’t eject this one 45 minutes in.  If you’ve ever struggled through a movie, swearing to yourself that there must be some reason people made it and then paid to see it, you’ll understand what it’s like to watch Hereafter.  Hopefully, that will save you some time and money.

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A Beginner’s Guide To Spotting Sucky Movies

April 15, 2011

by Thomas M. Pender

It’s an age-old conundrum: How can I know if a film is worth seeing, without actually seeing the film?  With ticket prices as high as they are today, it makes sense that consumers wish to know – or to at least have a decent amount of probability – that they will enjoy a movie before they see it.  The goal here is to find the great movies, and avoid the godawful flicks.

I can be of some assistance in the latter half of that puzzle.

Assuming the potential ticket buyer either has no access to the film’s trailer, or is not satisfied with the information found there, it’s a good idea to read the reviews.  Still, reviews are opinions, and those of other people, no less.  How can this be helpful?

The key, dear friends, is in how the reviews are written.

First, a lesson in wording and definitions.  The review words “zany,” “wacky” and “madcap,” exclusively used in reviews of comedies, ironically means unfunny.  Not in a dictionarial sense, but in a real-world sense.  These three words come to a reviewer’s mind when a screen writer’s idea of ccmedy involves such tired images as pie throwing, stop-action sped-up chase scenes, and cartoony sound effects whenever someone is hit on the head with a real-life lethal object, such as a sledge hammer.  Unless you are under the age of six, and have time-portalled back to 1972, this is by no means cause for smiling, let alone roaring with laughter.  This is actually cause for peeking at your watch every three minutes and praying for end credits.  For the wiser set, these buzzwords are code for “Do not even think about coming near this film.  Pretty much, ever.”

And second, the excessive use of ellipses.  Ellipses are those three dots you see in movie reviews, placed between one-to-three-word bullet phrases, such as “. . . a must-see . . . brilliant . . .a classic!”  Now, legally, you cannot misrepresent someone’s exact words.  This is called libel.  Therefore, you cannot change someone’s words and keep quote marks around the phrasing, because they did not actually say what you’re writing.

However, there is a loophole.

Let’s say your film gets absolutely trashed by a respected reviewer.  Well, you certainly don’t want to write the awful remarks into your advertisements, but the conspicuous absence of a review by, say, a Roger Ebert might shout “Load of rubbish!” to the money-holding public, as well.  So what do you do?  Well, legally what you can do is quote a person’s words . . . even if you don’t quote all of them!  Take the above made-up review:

“. . . a must-see . . . brilliant . . .a classic!”

Sounds good, right?  But consider that since some words are missing, this could be an accurate partial quote of the sentence “This piece of garbage film will never be A MUST-SEE in my book!  The BRILLIANT thing to do is to avoid this mess of a movie like The Plague.  Only an escaped lunatic would consider this release A CLASSIC!”

Accurately partial-quoted, but somewhat misleading by the marketing squad, wouldn’t you say?  To be safe, don’t trust a review you can’t actually read.

I hope this tiny cinematic lesson has been of some service.  If I save one human being from sitting through one horrid film, I’ll consider my work here justified.

The Serenity of “Firefly”

April 8, 2011

by Thomas M. Pender

Browncoats Forever!

It’s pretty universally known that Fox Television is run by idiots.  They drop amazingly entertaining shows without a second thought, and let absolute mental drivel run for years.  So it was in 2003, when the suits at Fox yanked the completely original Joss Whedon accomplishment Firefly, after only 11 of the filmed 13 episodes had aired.  I myself didn’t discover the show until the fifth aired episode, after a good friend raved about it.  After seeing the single episode, I was completely hooked on the characters, the plot line and the fantastic writing.

I was lucky, in a way, that my first viewing was an episode loaded with background information on the crew of the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity.  I’m sure I was much less confused than those who had seen every previous show, since the network chose to debut the show with the second episode, and never aired the pilot.

Nathan (Castle) Fillion, who was at first hesitant to play the emotionally complex captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds, embodies the completely human flawed-but-heroic central character.  You root for him, you laugh with him (and sometimes at him!), and you feel you would follow him anywhere.  Add to this a stellar and eclectic cast that features Ron (Barney Miller) Glass, Adam (Chuck) Baldwin, Gina (TV’s Huge) Torres and Alan (Spamalot!) Tudyk, and what you are presented with is a cast of characters that you honestly like and care about.

But, alas, there is Fox.

Against all odds, creator Joss Whedon and the Firefly cast and crew had the last laugh, when the fan base cried “Foul!” and demanded more.  Whedon finagled a feature film deal, and just two years after the show was cancelled, the big-screen adventure Serenity was released.  Designed to bring in new viewers, as well as delight the faithful, the film gave a quick-but-good intro to the fictional universe (or ‘verse, as the characters are prone to say) in which it existed, and also wrapped the storyline up.  By the end credits, you are delighted, moved, sore from laughing and thoroughly entertained.

If you have never seen these characters onscreen, start with the DVD set of Firefly, then go on to watch Serenity.  If you saw either the film or the show, but not the other, see that, too.  Television and movies do not reach this level often, and it’s terrible to let it pass you by when it does.

Irish Soul Stars???

April 1, 2011

by Thomas M. Pender

Who thinks of this stuff?  “I know!  Let’s do a film about a garage band from Ireland who sings Motown soul!”  This has to be one of the most ridiculous premises for a motion picture in the history of cinematography.  Even the idea that audiences would pay to see it is beyond me.

April Fool!

Yes, the premise is ludicrous.  Still, the 1991 Alan Parker film The Commitments shocked and amazed me when I first saw it.  I had only heard of it when Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert both raved about it on their television review show.  My face sort of contorted while watching the clips.  I couldn’t believe that the two respected critics found something interesting in this out-of-left-field story.

Then I saw it.

This ragtag band was actually cast by auditioning singers before they were allowed to read for the parts.  With only two exceptions (who do not have lead vocals in the finished film), the performers were accomplished singers, and wow! can they sing!  If you’re not familiar with the Irish brogue/accent, you might have to put your DVD English subtitles on to follow it, but once these folks open their mouths to sing, no interpretations will be necessary, trust me.

Andrew Strong came along into the studio when his father was asked to audition for the film.  When the then-16-year-old was given a chance to sing, a star was born.  Not necessarily the most attractive of movie stars, Strong’s voice is loaded with acid and passion.  The fictional group’s manager announces that they will be performing soul music, and what a great choice for this boy’s (now man’s) voice!  Maria Doyle Kennedy (later of HBO’s The Tudors) was the only member to be cast who was actually a professional singer prior to the film.  She does rather breathy and affecting versions of songs in the Aretha Franklin range (and at least one song of hers) throughout the film.  Though these two warrant spotlights, the entire crew are worthy of credit as singers, background or otherwise.

The film itself (with the accent disclaimer) is loaded with story and scenery and humor.  It is a rare combination of great film and great music.  If you watch the movie out of sheer curiosity, odds are you will be inspired to purchase the soundtrack.  Yet, even if the music was removed, the script and performances alone would make a fine film.  The songs are just gravy . . . and rich gravy, at that!

All April Fool’s gags aside, if you haven’t seen The Commitments, and you love music, see it!  If you love Ireland or accents or humor, see it.  In fact, just see it, and you’ll find something to love.

“Beastly”: The Title Is Its Own Review

March 25, 2011

by Thomas M. Pender

I really wanted to like this one.  The trailer was very interesting: a modern teenage version of “Beauty and the Beast,” in which a popular hunk insults a witch (or would she prefer “Wiccan”?) and she repays him by taking away his outward beauty.  Lots of potential here to be a hip-but-meaningful classic.

But, alas, no.

It wasn’t the actors who ruined this film.  I was very impressed with the young cast, though I hardly knew anything about any of them.  The only one I recognized was the rather noteworthy Mary-Kate Olsen (yes, that Mary-Kate Olsen, half of the Olsen twins, but flying solo here) as the witch/Wiccan.  I was a pretty quick fan of Alex Pettyfer (recently of I Am Number Four), too, in this first film I have seen him in.  The female lead Vanessa Hudgens (of the High School Musical series) was also good.  The incidental characters are also skillfully played by Neil Patrick (TV’s How I Met Your Mother) Harris and Lisa Gay (The Soloist) Hamilton.  No, the cast can’t be pointed at for this miss.  It was clearly the writing.

What should have been a deep and intelligent turn of a fairytale was so rushed (it tells a yearlong story in 86 minutes . . . which is only 40 times the length of the trailer and includes the running time of the credits, for heaven’s sake!) that the audience doesn’t have time to feel anything.  Each scene seems to be a change of season, and the main characters appear to fall in love in the time allotment of a coffee break.  Even though the writer (Daniel Barnz, who adapted Alex Flinn‘s novel) is to blame, his mess makes everything else messy by association.  The actors deliver incredibly dopey shortcut lines, which I believe will insult teenagers’ intelligences as quickly as they did my own.  Such lines leave a bad impression from the characters, and though they can’t be blamed, the actors are most associated with the characters, so you do feel them to be a bit dopey themselves for attempting such tripe.

From settings to makeup and costume design, Beastly has some really rich elements, but it zips by you like a commercial, and leaves you feeling a bit cheated.  You wonder if there shouldn’t be a discounted ticket price for an abbreviated film.

The good news is that since the advent of the outdoor rental machines, it won’t cost you more than a buck or two to check it out in a few months when it hits DVD.  There is plenty to appreciate here, but do yourself a favor: watch it in slo-mo, and make it last a bit.

My Birthday Movies

March 18, 2011

by Thomas M. Pender

Every year, from 1978 until 1984, I celebrated my birthday by going to lunch and a movie with my dad.  Beginning in ’78, my parents gave all three of us kids a choice between a party and such an outing.  I think it speaks very highly of my parents that we never really considered a party, in which we’d get a potential trove of gifts, but immediately went for some special parent-bonding time.

Among the seven birthday movies I saw with Dad, three stand out.  I think they are memorable to me because each was a different “kind” of movie to which I was first being exposed.

In 1978, Dad and I went to see a sci fi picture called Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  I had no idea what the title meant, being 12, but the television commercials were very intriguing!  What I was most fascinated by during those two hours was not the special effects achievements, not the direction, and not even the story.  I was fascinated by this new exposure to the “PG movie”!  Until that day, all the movies I ever went to see were Disney-level adventures, in which the bad guys were bumbling and humorous, the plotlines were silly and the conflict was absent.  Here was a brand-new type of entertainment, in which people talked like people (and even cursed!), the danger felt dangerous, and you really didn’t know what was going to happen next.  Of course, I had no clue what a marvel Close Encounters was and would become.  I just knew that I liked it.

Three years later, I made my dad’s eyes roll when I announced that I wanted to go see Ralph Bakshi’s animated milestone American Pop.  “You want to see a cartoon?” he jokingly whined.  Turning 15, I was determined to be a commercial artist, and turn my bedroom hobby of drawing into a career.  The fact that an adult-oriented animated film was being released was reason enough for me to be intrigued, let alone the fact that two of my other hobbies were history and music, and this flick promised to present the history of American music.  From World War I era Europe to Jimi Hendrix and punk rock, my dad and I watched one family’s generations experience tragedy and success, all with an entertaining soundtrack.  It took many, many years for this little gem to make it to VHS, and longer still for it to be released on DVD, but even after witnessing advances in animation far beyond Bakshi, this classic still entertains me.  Not only for the accomplishment, but for the memory of that first viewing.

The next March, I shocked my dad again by requesting to see Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip.  I was turning 16, and was a big fan of comedy.  I guess my first exposure to live comedy was my parents’ The Best of Bill Cosby album, the entirety of which I had committed to memory by the age of seven!  I knew very little about Richard Pryor when I saw Sunset Strip, but I was highly entertained by the performance.  Again, it was an adult performance, and I suppose in retrospect I wanted to see it to take another step toward adulthood.  Pryor used dirty words and talked of dirty adult situations, and from my rather naïve outlook, this was all captivating.  I was also impressed that he was able to not only discuss in great detail his June 1980 “mishap,” in which he literally caught on fire while freebasing cocaine, but also his hard road through recovery, which included him watching news reports of his own death while in the hospital.  Richard Pryor made me laugh, but he also earned my respect in that performance.

Milestones of one sort or another each, these films, as well as the four others I saw for my birthday, stand out mainly because of the fun and activities of the days out with Dad, but these three also stood out as singular examples of impressive cinema, and all three are highly recommended.

“Boomtown”: A Diamond Among The Rejects

March 11, 2011

by Thomas M. Pender

Cop shows come and cop shows go.  Good guys, bad guys, arrests, convictions, lawyers, blah blah blah.  In the fall of 2002, a new show got my attention with just its commercials.  The ads for the soon-to-premiere drama promised “One crime, seen from every point of view.”  This intrigued me, as did the cast of characters, which didn’t just include cops, but reporters, medics, detectives and the assistant district attorney.

Boomtown, the brainchild of Graham Yost, premiered with an incredibly impressive episode about the shooting of a six-year-old child.  By showing key scenes more than once, each time with just a hint of difference in angle or detail, the viewer learns what happened and why and how, but like no other show in its day.

Several elements made this show unique and worth seeing.  In general, the entire ensemble cast was made up of three-dimensional personalities with weaknesses and character flaws alongside their strengths and gifts.  Among these acting talents, however, three deserve spotlights: Mykelti Williamson, Neal McDonough and Donnie Wahlberg.  Williamson, probably best known for his portrayal of Bubba in Forrest Gump, gave Bobby “Fearless” Smith depth.  His happy-go-lucky personality was laced with wounds from his past that were revealed over time through skillful writing and multi-layered acting.  McDonough (of HBO’s triumphant Band of Brothers miniseries) played dynamic assistant district attorney David McNorris, an adulterous, self-loathing alcoholic who always knew how to shine for the cameras and courtrooms.  Wahlberg (also of Band of Brothers) will be known to some as one of the original New Kids On The Block (and brother to another singer/rapper-turned-accomplished-actor, Mark Wahlberg).  The first time I ever saw Wahlberg act, he was unrecognizable as the skeletal mental patient in the beginning of 1999’s megahit The Sixth Sense.  I next saw him in Band of Brothers, and was equally impressed.  His work in Boomtown displayed subtleties of toughness and sensitivity that few seasoned actors can muster, let alone a relative newcomer.

Add to the phenomenal acting a crew of remarkable special effects experts who could show scenes with subtle differences as well as run scenes back and forth to reveal tiny elements, and an opening credits sequence rich with fine music and scenes from actual crimes of Los Angeles (including the Watts Riots, a shot of Bobby Kennedy moments before his assassination and footage of the O.J. Simpson “slow chase”).  The eighteen episodes of the first season were a roller coaster of emotions and story.  The second season was cut short well before its time, and has gone virtually unseen ever since.  Luckily, through the magic of DVD and services like Netflix, the entire first season is available to see.  The passage of time hasn’t taken anything away from Boomtown’s achievements.

My only demerit for this favorite show would be that the blatantly best episode was, in fact, the pilot.  While almost every episode had its high points and watchability, that first hour-long story did the best job of utilizing the multi-angle retelling that should have been the pinnacle of each episode.  In fact, given enough time, it ideally should have gotten better as the show went on.

Boomtown should not have been cancelled at such a young age.  It should have gone on for five or ten more seasons, and the characters should have been allowed to grow and reveal even more layers of themselves.  But, in this imperfect television world, at least we do have options, even with cancelled shows.  It is well worth the effort to put this DVD set on your list.  If you saw the show then, you’ll be amazed how good it is after so many years.  If you never saw it while it was on, prepare to be stunned.  It’s that good.

“Low”: Duvall’s New High

March 4, 2011

by Thomas M. Pender

As Hollywood clichés go, “the role of a lifetime” is among the top.  Still, as I was entrenched in the first third of the newly released DVD Get Low, the phrase kept echoing in my head.

Robert Duvall has had a very long and distinguished career.  Along the way, he has actually hit upon several “roles of a lifetime”!  From the enigmatic Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird to Tom Hagen in The Godfather, Parts I and II to Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now to his Oscar-winning role of Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies, Duvall has burned a trail of talent across the decades . . . and now, at the age of 80, Duvall gives us Felix Bush in Get Low.

Based on an age-old overtold tale, with no one left to know how much is true, Felix is a Tennessee hermit, self-exiled to his land, and almost never seen in the nearby town.  When he is, the townsfolk cross to the other side of the street, mothers hide their children’s eyes, and men spit at him.  It seems everybody (except the audience) knows about Felix . . . and it ain’t good.

Coming to the end of his life, or so he opines, Felix decides to throw himself a funeral.  He arranges with the local funeral home owners (who are dying for business, if you’ll pardon the easy pun) to arrange a giant gathering and raffle.  Tickets are sold, and the winner is to get Felix’s land, which is rich in timber, upon his actual death.

Among the folks interested in Felix’s new publicized “coming out” is a woman (Sissy [Coal Miner’s Daughter] Spacek) who seems to know who he was before he disappeared from society.  Also, a pastor from another state is asked twice to attend, first by Felix and then by the undertakers (played with deadpan charm by Bill [Caddyshack] Murray and Lucas [Friday Night Lights] Black).  The second time, he comes along.  Through the minister and the woman, we learn that Felix has something in his past to be ashamed of, that he’s never completely faced or conquered.  Eventually it seems that, one way or another, Felix means to come clean at the funeral party.

Laced with humor, Get Low remains a deep and touching character study.  As we learn about the man we don’t understand, we at times fear him, feel for him, pity him, and cheer him.  He is, as we each are, a complex human being, even when only a few characteristics show on the surface.  Remorse, regret and redemption come to the party, as well, and when the end credits appear, we finally feel that we have indeed met the man they call Felix Bush.

If you’re looking for action, sex, explosions and car chases, the cover art for Get Low (a simple shot of Bill Murray sitting and Robert Duvall standing in a field) will surely scare you away.  But if you want to see how intricate writing and subtle acting can truly bring a character to life, see Duvall’s latest triumph.  This “role of a lifetime” . . . no matter how many he’s had . . . is worth seeing!

A Home Run For “61*”!

February 25, 2011

by Thomas M. Pender

Just about a year ago, I reviewed Field of Dreams.  I’m no die-hard baseball fan by any means, but I admit that I love films about the game, and I recently viewed another worthy of touting.  The 2001 HBO film 61* was based on actual events during the 1961 season for the New York Yankees.  In a stranger-than-fiction scenario, two giants of the game, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris – who both play for New York – chase Babe Ruth’s legendary record of 60 home runs in a single season.  Yankee Stadium, also known as “The House That Ruth Built,” fills with fans all season long who just as often root for their hero Mickey Mantle to break the record as they do boo both men – in their own field, no less! – for trying to bring down Babe Ruth.

Each of the two men had personal issues and hurdles going on that summer.  We are invited into their homes and into the dugout.  The real-life families of Maris and Mantle cooperated fully in the making of this Billy Crystal-directed showcase, and to the families’ credit, nothing is glossed over.  We see Maris’ emotional struggles, as well as Mantle’s carousing, alcoholism and physical problems.  Add to that the tremendous pressure each man was under by the fans and the press to either break or not break the record, and what you get is a film with absolutely no dull spots!

I’ve never been a big fan of Crystal’s, but he does an amazing job with this project.  It’s clear that it’s close to his heart.  The behind-the-scenes interviews on the DVD reveal that Crystal met Mantle in the ‘70s, and being a big fan of “The Mick,” the young actor/comedian was thrilled to strike up a friendship.  This friendship would last until Mantle’s death in 1995.  His love for 61* shows in every frame.  His capturing of the time period is meticulous, as well.  The retired Tiger Stadium in Detroit was used to portray Yankee Stadium, as the architecture was spot-on, and the production went so far as to paint the chairs a specific shade of green to match the 1961 New York field.

The cast is phenomenal, as well.  Thomas (The Mist) Jane glows with Mantle’s “aw shucks” personality, and also does justice to his backstage problems.  Barry (True Grit) Pepper, who I’ve already spotlighted in a column, does a masterful job as Roger Maris, showing us how frustrated the right fielder was with the press and the fans.  Loaded with character actors, you may not know many names in the cast, but you’re likely to recognize every face!

You may be wondering about the title.  The number “61” refers to the number of home runs that Mantle or Maris would need to break Babe Ruth’s single-season record.  As for the asterisk (*) after the number, that is reason enough to see the film, as it is an integral part of the excitement of that summer.

If you love baseball, this movie will stir your soul with its detail and love of the game.  If you don’t, the sport itself will be quickly forgotten as you watch the story unfold.  At its core, 61* is simply an engaging human drama.  It’s the people who matter, not the bats and gloves.

“Catfish”: Proving That If Something Smells Fishy, It IS!

February 18, 2011

by Thomas M. Pender

It’s an independent film I’d never heard of until I went looking for a rental.  A normal-looking neighbor-type guy, a picture of a decent-looking woman, and the name Catfish slashed between them told me nothing about the plot.  The description of the film, however, intrigued me immensely.

In late 2007, filmmakers Ariel (“Rel”) Schulman and Henry Joost began to film the activities of Rel’s brother Yaniv (“Nev”).  Nev, a professional photographer, had recently struck up a friendship over the internet with a young painter hundreds of miles away.  This simple premise of a story ended up turning into a twisted tale of lies, hope, love and insanity that none of them saw coming.

I was immediately interested in the plot, because I myself have been a victim of deceits over the phone and internet.  A few, in fact!  Watching this film, I should have been angered by what the protagonist was made to go through, but instead, I was rather embarrassed.  Seeing myself in his shoes, I all but yelled at the screen, “Don’t believe it, Nev!” and “Run, Nev, run!”  Neither Nev Schulman nor I are perfect, but we each embarked on similar oddly-sparked romances with the best of intentions, found ourselves growing increasingly suspicious of our counterparts’ words and actions, and eventually came face-to-face with grim realities.

Aside from my personal connection, the film is a very good modern cautionary tale about how modern technology can be used to cheer and to hurt total strangers.  I don’t wish to put too much about the plot in the review, because it really deserves to be seen with no knowledge of where it will lead.  I typically shy away from documentaries, as I find them much less entertaining than fictional productions, but this literally has enough intrigue and suspense in it to fill a Hollywood script.  The fact that it’s really happening before your eyes should make you relate even more with the protagonist.

Whether you’ve ever or never been suckered by anyone in the name of love, you will find Catfish a jaw-dropping experience.  One of the most puzzling elements of the film – the title – isn’t explained until the final frames, and it does pull it all together, so I won’t ruin anything by explaining that, either.

Catfish will either make you glad you never fell for anyone who took you for a ride . . . or, like me, it will make you even more determined to never let it happen again.  Either way, it will likely improve your present by making you more aware of how to protect yourself in the future.  Not bad for a “fish”!