Tuesday, March 24, 2009


I'll give you the long and short of it: Knowing has several stop-the-heart special effects, effects that take you to a different kind of adrenaline rush. It's wow time when they come up. However, they're not the whole movie, unfortunately.

The problem is that these events are broken up by long stretches of yawn time. Boring substitutes for plot here, although I'm sure they were going for spiritual moments. Those moments are muddled, where airplane-crashing-into-earth-just-feet-from-you is crystal clear.

John (played by Nicolas Cage) is an astrophysicist instructor at MIT when he discovers that the paper dug up out of the 50-year-old time capsule can predict disasters. Somehow his son is mixed up in all this.

We quickly learn John's sad backstory, that his wife died a year ago in a fire, and he's raising his son alone. It's a difficult time, still, for both. John has turned against his father, and apparently his mother and sister, too, because his father is a minister and apparently John can't believe in God any more. At least I think that was what was going on.

The word "knowing" is about faith. Faith that there's a higher being, watching over all of us. Faith that there's something beyond the physical.

But we can't have faith that this movie knows where it's going. It's at once a horror story -- and the story they show us at the beginning about the girl who wrote the paper with all the numbers is quite intriguing and horrifying -- but that isn't really followed up. And then there are those guys following John's son -- they're sort of explained in the end, but not really, and that storyline slips into sci fi. And at the end, we have a spectacular special effect as we head into the abyss of spirituality without substance. It's confusing, and it's definitely a downer.

People were shaking their heads and muttering to themselves as they walked out of the theatre I was in. I agree. This one will leave you befuddled.

Thumbs down.


Friday, March 20, 2009

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Eight-year-old Bruno is upset in the opening shot when he finds out that the whole family has to move. It's a good thing: his father, an officer in the SS in Germany, got a promotion. But the bad thing is that he has to leave all his friends.

The family moves out to what appears to be farm territory, and the farm workers, to Bruno, appear to be wearing striped pajamas. The family decides not to tell Bruno and his older sister that the "farm" is actually a concentration camp, and those wearing those "striped pajamas" are prisoners in the camp.

But Bruno is very lonely in his new house. There are no kids to play with. He gets to know a few of the workers, those who work around the house, in those striped uniforms, and they seem very kind. He also gets to know a few of the young Nazi soldiers, who seem quite arrogant. He is not allowed past his yard, for some odd reason. But we know eventually he'll go there, because we know 8-year-old boys. He finds a way out a window into a field next to the "farm," and befriends a boy his age, named Schmuel, on the other side of the fence.

This is a slow and plodding movie, but all to good purpose. We see the details -- yes, often boring -- of Bruno's life, knowing full well the drama that's just a few feet away. And the rising horror of his mother, who realizes when they move in that they are a bit too close to the camp, and finally, when she sees the smoke burning and senses the outrageous smell, realizes exactly what's going on. And that her family is right in the middle of it.

The parents, even Bruno's dad, are not monsters here. But it's hard to explain away the Commandant's feelings that these "helpers" around the house, and those prisoners in the camp, are not human. He looks like a military officer, but when Bruno sees him, he's a father, a caring one. David Thewlis does a wonderful job in this role. (You'll recognize Thewlis from the Harry Potter movie series.) And Vera Farmiga, as the mother, is amazing.

This is an ordinary family in an extraordinary situation. Well, except that the family isn't quite ordinary in the fact that their father is the Commandant of Auschwitz.

I could guess that young Smuel is not going to find a marvelous outcome. I could not guess, however, at the emotional impact the ending would deliver.

Thumb's up.


Monday, March 16, 2009

I've Loved You So Long

There's one scene in the beginning of I've Loved You So Long, where Juliette (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) stands against a white wall in her younger sister's home. Her face, her unmoving body, seems to fade into the paint. It's almost as if she doesn't exist.

Juliette has been away for 15 years. We quickly find out that she went away to prison so long ago, obviously for some heinous crime, but the why isn't revealed until nearly three-quarters through the film. The story is intriguing, but why she went to prison, and why she didn't defend herself during her trial, isn't the primary story. The real story here is the relationship between Juliette and her younger sister, Lea (played by Elsa Zylberstein).

Lea is thrilled that Juliette is finally coming home. Her husband is less thrilled, and wonders what they've gotten themselves into. As time goes on, through simple scenes involving the two of them, you discover that Lea never visited Juliette, never wrote to her, during the entire time Juliette spent incarcerated. And that particular "why" is part of the greater story.

It's rather amazing that this story can be told with very little dialogue, especially in the beginning of the film. However, as time plods on in Juliette's life, she picks up language, she begins to live a little, and the rhythm of their lives speeds up, bit by bit.

"I've Loved You So Long" is the name of a song they both used to sing in childhood. However, it's really the theme of the movie: it's all about the great love the younger sister had for her older sibling.

There was great talk of an Academy Award nomination for Kristin Scott Thomas for her portrayal in this film. I would have to also add my bewilderment at how the Academy could pass her by. However, what's often not said is that this is a very well-made film. The screenplay is exquisite. And all the actors feel true in their parts. I found the entire play quite moving.

Thumb's up.


Friday, March 13, 2009

Let the Right One In

Let the Right One In is a new and different take on the old vampire story. The newest part is that it's Swedish, and any DVD you'll see will have English subtitles. The different part is that the movie is all about 12-year-old kids.

Oskar is a tortured 12-year-old at school, tortured because there's a gang that beats up on him, ridicules him, makes him do things he doesn't want to do. And he doesn't fight back. One day, while taking his imaginary "revenge" on a tree in the snow near his apartment building, he meets a girl named Eli. Only this girl is different. She gets sick if she eats anything. She avoids direct sunlight. And she doesn't go to school. They form a close attachment, and it slowly dawns on him who Eli really is.

I watched the movie with very bad English dubbing, not a recommended way to see any movie. But at the core of this sometimes very gory movie is a sweet love story. I said it was different and it is. The kids -- usually ignored in vampire lore -- who play Oskar and Eli are really interesting; the camera loves their faces. And the little things that this story tells about vampires make this take on the old tale very intriguing. The title refers to the fact that, in vampire canon, a vampire cannot cross the threshold of your house if you do not express permission, or he or she (or it, actually) will suffer the consequences.

The negatives of the film are that some things are confusing. I have no idea why Eli had a man living with her, a man seemingly there to do her bidding. The screenplay doesn't explain a lot. But all the more time to get into Oskar's and Eli's relationships. Just get ready for the blood that will inevitably flow your way.

Thumb's up.

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Saturday, March 07, 2009


It's a time of Nixon, a time of paranoia. If you're not afraid of the atomic bomb threat from Russia, you're frightened of the crime on the streets and the degradation the United States is surely headed towards. It's 1985.

Super heroes have been banned from cleaning up any of this, even though they helped end the Vietnam War in our favor. Our story follows these superheroes, once known as the Watchmen, in their lives when one event propels several of them towards the truth. The Comedian has been killed.

As I sat there and watched this movie through all 2 hours and 45 minutes, I couldn't help but marvel at the skill in which a very complex, overlayered graphic novel was reduced to something less than 10 hours. The graphic novel -- story by Alan Moore, drawings by Dave Gibbons -- is thick, encompassing 12 comic books. The straight tale of what happened to the Comedian is interlaced with back-up stories of many of the Watchmen, a love story or two, a story about a Black Freighter straight out of a comic book being read by a kid on the street corner, and as you're reading, it's really hard to keep straight what's happening in this city modern time versus what happened before and what's "fiction" from that comic book within a comic book. It's utterly fascinating and genius material.

Director/producer Zack Snyder chose to leave most of the extraneous, especially the comic book stuff, behind, only featuring some back-up material -- for instance, some brief scenes of Rorschach in prison -- much to the benefit of the story. It's a lot easier to follow.

The characters are fascinating. Only one of the Watchmen has any super powers at all, Dr. Manhattan, who's big and blue and mostly naked. The others seem to either have great fighting abilities or just a stubbornness beyond being injured. Rorschach is especially interesting; you've never seen a character like him. He's a do-gooder, trying to erase the evil in the city for the betterment of mankind. But he doesn't care how many fingers he breaks to find the truth. The movie softens up this portrayal of Rorscach (called that due to an ever-changing blot on his mask), opting not to tell you that he'll beat up 13 guys to find the one in the bar who knows something about something. The Comedian is another not-so-nice hero; he's sadistic, plain and simple. War and 'Nam will do that to you.

So why should we care about The Comedian? Why should we care that he's dead from the opening scene, especially that he's dead before we even meet him? The story weaves around his character so that we see bits and pieces, sometimes literally, of him in the past. And this story is all in the details. The photos on his dresser. His moments of despair. When he asks for forgiveness.

There's violence -- I mean, limb-tearing, bone-shattering violence with blood oozing everywhere, there's sex -- who knew that superheroes had sex? Superman never encountered that "issue", there's a long, hard look at the city's underbelly. This movie ain't for kids. For that reason, and many more, it's not as easy to get into as Spider-Man, but it shows much more.

At close-up, it's a story of these very-human do-gooders. You learn to care about them because of what they do and who they are, the odds they're against. At far-away, it's a story of humanity. And, at farther-away, it's a story of modern times, of how we need to deal with our paranoia and the sickness within us.

Watchmen is a fascinating triumph. Thumb's up.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Wackness

Ben Kingsley stars in a little movie called The Wackness, which refers to a conversation Kingsley, as psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Squires, has with his young friend, a high school student named Luke Shapiro. The Wackness is that depression that Luke deals with, that perhaps we all deal with.

They strike up a strange friendship. We identify "strange" by the fact that Dr. Squires trades counseling for dope. It seems that Luke has a lucrative pot-dealing business going in The Big Apple. And strange because the shrink does a lot of weed as he counsels. They're an interesting pair, both screwed up in different ways.

The Wackness captures the spirit of 1994 Big Apple, when Mayor Rudy Giuliani takes over and makes life miserable for drug-dealers and drug-smokers. It's a time of pagers, not cell phones. And in this city, not cars but a lot of walking and standing around. The music is alive in the city: hip hop is beginning to rule. Kurt Cobain just died.

But the movie is really about a friendship between the two, one that grows in spite of the fact that Luke wants to date Dr. Squires' step-daughter.

I liked the movie because I grew to care a lot about Luke, played ably by young actor Josh Peck. Only good writing and good acting can bring the viewer to that place. And the sense of humor in the piece is refreshing. However, the movie is offbeat, to put it mildly, and there's a lot of depressive standing around. It certainly may not be for everyone, but I found it quite affecting.

Thumb's up.


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Angel of Death

I'm not used to viewing webisodes, except for one: I viewed several of the Battlestar Galactica webisodes, which served as material to fill in the gaps between Seasons 1 and 2 when they landed on New Caprica under Cylon rule. The BSG webisodes could serve as a primer for such things.

Angel of Death apparently is not patterning itself after anything that good. The Angel of Death is Eve, a female hitwoman, played by former stuntwoman Zoe Bell. The first two episodes show some good action, inspiring music (mostly a solid but zippy bass line), but there's no purpose, no sense of humor, no relief. Oh, but there are some great parts for wigs.

Oh, I did laugh when Doug Jones appeared as a doctor who's not terribly nonplussed by the knife sticking out of Eve's head. But then, I laugh whenever Doug is onscreen because he's that good with the material.

Lucy Lawless is due to make an appearance in the 5th episode. Zoe was Xena's stuntwoman when both she and Lucy were on the series some years ago. And Ted Raimi is in the 3rd episode; Ted Raimi is Sam Raimi's brother, and played "Joxer" on the Xena series. It's all one big family.

We can only hope that the series will be uplifted by such inspired casting. Be assured there will be a great fight scene in each webisode. Just don't look too closely for plot lines. Find Angel of Death at Crackle.com.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Brave One

Erica Bain, a smooth-talking poet on a local radio show in New York, is beaten along with her fiancee while walking one day in Central Park. She wakes up three weeks later from a coma, and, upon discovering that her fiancee died and her dog stolen, she tries to put her life back together.

However, she can't put the same Erica Bain back together. So she reaches for an illegally purchased gun and a box of bullets, and rather than being paralyzed by fear and grief, goes about avenging his death.

This movie disappointed me on so many levels. First of all, I can't even enjoy Jodie Foster whipping a gun around on a subway and pointing it at nefarious dudes. I can't enjoy her kick-ass mentality because SHE can't enjoy it. While she's on a spree throughout New York as an avenging angel, she's angsting all over the place, even to the point where she befriends a policeman assigned to the case. She's on the brink of confessing, it seems, every time they speak. We feel little remorse for her crimes, which are against over-the-top bad guys, but she's carrying the weight on her shoulders. It's as if Jodie had just discovered the Code of Ethics for the Motion Picture Industry.

The dialogue is asinine, put simply. When the gunshop proprietor tells her, You can't buy a gun without a waiting period, she replies, like a five-year-old, "But I need something NOW." My God, even her on-air poetry sucks wind.

Ms. Foster is very good in the role, despite the bad writing. However, she has another obstacle in the film, an obstacle no amount of bullets is going to overcome: The casting of Terrence Howard as her police buddy. The guy is friendly enough, but no way do we believe him in this role. He doesn't have the star power, the gravitas, to be the shining white (so to speak) hero in this piece, especially against a friendly assassin. He is woefully miscast.

And the idea that the detective on the trail of a vigilante killer in The Big Apple would be allowed to saunter along the hallways as if there's no management or media pressure on him, taking time enough to appear on this poet's show -- several times -- is just ludicrous.

So, in the end, there's no feeling of completeness, no sense of justice, and no sense of empathy for any of these people, with the great exception of Erica.

Thumb's down.

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