Saturday, May 29, 2010

Review: Winter's Bone

Film:  Winter's Bone

Starring:  Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt, Shelley Waggener, Lauren Sweetser, Ashlee Thompson, William White, Casey MacLaren, Isaiah Stone, Valerie Richards, Beth Domann, Tate Taylor, Cody Brown, Cheryl Lee

Director:  Debra Granik
Screenwriter:  Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini

Novel: Daniel Woodrell

There's a sense of desolation watching Winter's Bone, but also a strong determination and a feeling of solidarity and community in this back country area, where people keep to themselves, but still lend a hand when one of their own is in need.

Rees, a seventeen year-old who is left raising her two siblings and ailing mother, while her father has disappeared after putting up her home toward his bail, which means that if Reese doesn't find him, her family will be homeless. So she must track him down for the sake of her family, finding herself deeper and deeper into the seedy world where her father once thrived.

While this mystery thriller keeps us guessing as to what happened to her father, it's really an exciting character essay on life in the Ozarks, and an analysis of human nature and trust among neighbors and family.

The cast is fantastic.  I didn't recognize Cheryl Lee, but she was great in a very small, but rich role as one of Rees's father's ex-girlfriends.  Jennifer Hawkins is fantastic as Rees, and John Hawkes is excellent as Teardrop.

Producer  Kathryn Dean was the guest at the Q&A.  She spoke about how many of the cast were locals, who at first were apprehensive about the film, but soon warmed up to it and enjoyed taking part in the story.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Review: Solitary Man

Film:  Solitary Man

Starring:  Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, Mary-Louise Parker, Jenna Fischer, Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg

Director:  Brian Koppelman and David Levien
Screenwriter:  Brian Koppelman

Do you ever get the feeling that if films didn't have a moral, they'd be totally different?

Solitary Man is the story of a man whose indiscretions lead to loads of problems.  This is what they want us to believe.  This sixty year-old, divorced man, who prefers his women of the late-teens-to-early-twenties variety, is a true charmer.  He's charmed his entire family, his work contacts and - of course - any woman that he sees as a potential sex partner.  Unfortunately for him his actions cause him to lose all the things that once meant something to him.

The problem is that by the middle of the film, despite his steady decline, I sat there asking myself if rather than being shown the repercussions of Ben Kalmen's (Michael Douglas) lascivious behavior, we were actually seeing a view of the ideal fantasy every man has, veiled in a morality story about how this man's behavior has ruined his life.  I can see the intended parallels in this film between Ben's lifestyle and what he was trying to avoid, but they weren't enough to make me believe that the morality story really was the initial vision of the writer.
Like any message-laden film, you sit and ask yourself how Ben got to this point and are rewarded with an explanation at the end.  However, I wonder if the reveal was worth the 90 minute journey to get there, especially when the revelation was something used in another, similar situation in another film made roughly 25 years prior that I happened to watch the night before I saw this one.  How ironic is that?

Perhaps this story would have been better told in less time?  Some scenes just seemed to drag a bit too long to get it's point across.  This after writer/co-director Brian Koppelman said he had to cut out scenes after a few screenings because he discovered the audiences were smarter than he had thought.

My main issues with this film included the following:

1.  If you lost all your money and couldn't afford anything, would you still be driving a fancy Mercedes?  Maybe some car aficionados out there can tell me if that was an older model left over from the height of Ben's car selling days, or a freebie he managed to sweet talk off an old friend.

2.  If someone gave you some hefty blows to your groin and kidney area and threatened to do worse if you didn't leave tomorrow, would you stay yet another day (I'm talking about after he leaves the hospital)?

3.  I would have liked to have seen a bit more of Ben's earlier life when he was married to give the film a bigger impact, rather than only giving us a hint of it at the beginning.

4.  The friendship between Ben and Jimmy (Danny DeVito) was lacking.  The two actors are close friends in real life, so you'd think the chemistry would ooze out on screen, but it didn't.

The acting was good all around, and the film was far from boring, but when a movie makes me ask, "Why am I being shown this?" in the middle, then there's something missing.

 Directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Koppelman wrote the screenplay) were guests at the screening.  Koppelman said he was fascinated by a man who would live like Ben Kalman and wanted to write a film about someone like that.

They said that Michael Douglas really immersed himself in the part.  They told of how he would just personify the character as if he were really the man himself.

DVD-Review: Lucky You

Film:  Lucky You

Starring: Drew Barrymore, Eric Bana, Robert Duvall, Robert Downey Jr., Deborah Messing

Director: Curtis Hanson
Screenwriter: Eric Roth and Curtis Hanson

Why?  What prompted Drew Barrymore to play yet another naive innocent in some vacuous film?  I ask this question of Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. although neither of these two were naive innocents, and the latter Robert's role was only about 5 minutes long.

The premise of the film is the analysis of the life of Huck (yes, as in Huckleberry) Cheever, a full-time gambler who can win successfully, but doesn't know when to stop.  Compulsive is the word.  He falls for Billie (Drew), who is in town visiting her sister (Deborah Messing), who warns Billie against Huck.  She falls for him anyway, thinking him a lost soul who can be changed.

It doesn't matter that when she tells him that she got a job and he offers to celebrate, he takes her $1,000 in traveler's checks and has her cash them in for chips so they can gamble.  That's how they celebrate her job.  She sits there asking stupid questions and looking goofy and stupid, while he bids and bets her money.  They win, of course, but what if he hadn't.  Would she have slept with him later?  Would she have been as shocked when she discovered he had he stole money from her handbag?  Did she really think he wouldn't do that?

In the end she supposedly teaches him a valuable moral lesson, but it's lost in the lack of chemistry. It just wasn't there.  It wasn't felt.  Maybe it's because we hear and see stories about people in Huck's position not being able to rehabilitate themselves without going to Gamblers Anonymous.  Just saying it won't happen again, just isn't enough.

As for the poker playing that goes on throughout the film, it bothered me.  Not because I'm not a gambler or because I'm unfamiliar with how to play Texas Hold-em, but moreso because it just seemed to emphasize the depravity of it all.  The whole thing was done with such a depressing feel, as if they wanted to send a subtle message such as, "Kids, don't try this at home."

The final scenes at the tournament are entertaining, but there's no sense of anticipation.  There's no feeling of excitement.  In a why I knew the outcome and it's a bit anti-climactic, just like most of this film.

I should mention that this DVD was for sale in the $1 bin and my friends and I watched it not sure what to expect.  What we all agreed with in the end was that it wasn't even worth the $1 that was paid for it.

Review: New York Street Games

Film:  New York Street Games

Starring: (as themselves) Keith David, Joe Pantoliano, Ray Romano, Hector Elizondo (also narrated), Regis Philbin, Whoopie Goldberg, Mike Starr, David Proval, Robert Klein, Robert Costanzo, Vinny Vella, Robert Moresco, Mark R. Harris, C. Everett Koop, Curtis Sliwa, Butch Barbella and Beverly R. Kahler

Director: Matthew Levy
Official Site:

Where were you in the 1950's, 60's or 70's?  Did you hang out with your friends playing stickball, hopscotch or handball?  Then this film is for you.

If you have never experienced what it was like playing street games as a kid, you'll enjoy this film because it might even inspire you to grab your friends together for a friendly game of Stoopball.

This documentary is a fun nostalgia trip back to a time when playing in the streets of New York was considered a safe thing to do.  There was a mutual respect between drivers and kids, and there was no feeling of fear.  The neighborhood was a community.

These days it's difficult to see that anywhere, but there are people who are trying to revive interests in these games by promoting them in a safe environment, such as a playing field or in a section of the city that's closed off for special events.

So if you want to learn more about these great games or revisit your youth, I suggest this film wholeheartedly.  Right now it's available for preorder on their website (linked above).

Oh, and bye the way, I spent 8 years in New York in the 1970's, playing handball among other things, so while I didn't play in the street like these kids did, I did feel a sense of nostalgia.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Review: Letters to Juliet

Film:  Letters to Juliet

Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Vanessa Redgrave, Gael García Bernal, Christopher Egan, Franco Nero

Director: Gary Winick
Screenwriter: Jose Rivera and Tim Sullivan

The title sounds endearing enough, and even the premise sounded good.  A woman on vacation in Verona, Italy stumbles upon the "Secretaries of Juliet" who write advice to the lovelorn.  Being a writer herself and a bit of a romantic, she joins in, because her fiance is too busy darting around the country getting tips, treats and cooking lessons, as well as making contacts for his new restaurant which he is opening in New York.  She stumbles across a 50 year old letter and decides to reply to it, which leads her on an adventure helping a woman find her lost love.

Sadly, that's where the fun ends.  If you're into saccharine, chick-flick romances, then this is your kind of film.  No one dies at the end, thankfully.  That would have been too much for me.  I lost interest in chick-flicks, when I saw a few in one year that all had the similar outcome:  kill off someone to make the audience of mainly females cry.  "What a cheap shot," I had thought in my pre-teens after seeing a few films use this gimmick.  Since then I choose my girl-films very carefully and watch with a wary eye.

This film had some good aspects to it:  The scenery of course, and Vanessa Redgrave.  In fact, her quest to find her long-lost boyfriend is what really makes the film interesting.  She's searching for her long lost Lorenzo, but there are so many with the same surname, that it seems he's impossible to find.

I laughed only once, and that's when one of the Lorenzos says, "I am your Lorenzo," followed by his wife shouting out the window, "Take him!  Take him!"

That, sadly was the best part of the movie.

I would have enjoyed it even more if it was Vanessa's film of her alone pursuing this goal.  However, it's all about who you cast in these films, and you need some young, up and coming actress to be the lead.

The events that lead up to the quest are what hurts the film.  They're too easy or too quickly established.  Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) just happens to follow this woman who just took down a bunch of letters written to "Juliet" that were tacked on a wall.  And the Secretaries of Juliet welcome her in without blinking an eye.  They are also surprisingly open about what they're doing, while the real Secretaries of Juliet are closed off to the public and restrict any visitor access.

Other things just happen too quickly.  Sophie writes a letter to Claire (Vanessa Redgrave), and suddenly - poof - Claire arrives in Verona.  I don't know how long it takes for a letter to arrive in England from Italy, but from the US it can take up to 2 weeks depending upon where in the country it's sent from and going to.

Then my least favorite overused cliche, the "sexual tension" that's introduced.  This is another exhausted gimmick in chick-flicks these days.  Woman meets man, they argue quite often, they fall in love.  The end.

I love the film industry.  I really do.  However, when they can't think of original ideas and keep borrowing the same old ones, it's pretty darned sad.

So yes, Sophie and Charlie (Christopher Egan) clash at first.  Then of course you know what's going to happen.  I was rolling my eyes the instant he snapped at her, which was in the very first scene.

And talk about a stereotypical stuffy Englishman!  Claire tries to explain away that it's just a family trait, but how many times have we seen this played out?

Other things that didn't work:

1.  Amanda Seyfried walking like she's either doing a runway fashion show or scowling at the world.  She'd just finish laughing or smiling at something or experiencing a pleasant situation, then as she walks away she scowls with this blank expression on her face.  She does this for a good portion of the film.  Perhaps it's the fact that she's from New York, but I found it very pretentious and a bit cold.

2.  Maybe it's my independent spirit, but if you're a gung ho gal who wants to go from a fact checker to a writer, and you have the guts to invite yourself on a road trip, why can't you rent a car or go on a bus tour of Tuscany, rather than let your busy fiance ruin it for you?  One of you might respond that she didn't have the guts at first, but I disagree.  I really don't know what changed her in the film.  She didn't really change all that much.

3.  And that could have been my other problem.  At the end Sophie tells her fiance, Victor, that she's changed, but all that changed were external, aside from her feelings toward him.  There is no moment where we see a transformation.  She doesn't really change in this film.  The only person who does is Charlie.  This should have been his movie with Vanessa.  That would have worked even better.

So if you can get past the simplistic, childish young romance that plays out around Claire's story, then go see the film.  In fact, rent it so you can fast forward to Vanessa's scenes and the scenery.

Director Gary Vinick visited for the Q&A and talked about how he put the film together and what it was like working with Vanessa Redgrave.  He said Vanessa was always very particular about her scenes and would know everyone's lines and place in a scene.

He casted Amanda first, and once he had her, the studio was happy.

He said their only hardship was the heat in Italy and the working habits of the crew.  Unlike the US that has a standard 12 hour filming day with potential for overtime going an additional 2-4 hours a day, Italian's are more strict, adhering to 10 hours with little or no overtime. So this added days to filming and greatly cut the number of days they had planned to film in New York.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Review: Harry Brown

Film:  Harry Brown

Starring: Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Charlie Creed-Miles, David Bradley, Iain Glen, Sean Harris, Ben Drew, Jack O'Connell, Jamal Downey, Lee Oakes, Joseph Gilgun, Liam Cunningham

Director: Daniel Barber
Screenwriter: Gary Young
Vigilante films have been around for several years, so it's hard sometimes to make ones that can be considered unique.  They're really designed to tap into our sense of fantasy justice.  While the methods are illegal, we all secretly wish to exact revenge in some way shape or form.  An eye for an eye, and all that.  And since we can't do that within the realms of reality, it's a great release to see someone do it on screen.  This film is no exception to both situations:  being cliche and tapping into a fantasy. 
Like most films in this genre, this film is a bit predictable in places.  For one thing, you know that one day Harry Brown (Michael Caine) will avenge the wrongdoings done to his friend.  Being a British film, the cliches go a bit further.  I've watched (and continue to watch) British mysteries and comedies, and there's a theme that seems to occur quite often where management is depicted as a bunch of imbeciles with no real-world experience, who somehow wind up running a squad of police officers.  They seem to be more concerned with their own prestige and the art of mapping a process on paper, rather than what's really happening around them.  And they don't seem to rely on their own officer's judgements.
I don't know about you, but if I were a Superintendent and my Detective Inspector told me that an ex-marine was killing off gang members, I'd take notice, despite the fact that the ex-marine in question is in his 70's.  Films like these are about the art of surprise and good aim, and not about whether you can chase after someone and kick their butt.  The gang members in this film are depicted as a bunch of short-fused, trigger happy, power hungry punks, and not special forces trained, ninja fighters.  So could an old marksman take them out?  Absolutely, despite the fact that the marksman in question has emphysema.  It's not about stamina.  It's about cunning, timing and aim.  So I found the tired plot of the conceited, image conscious Superintendent a bit... well... tired.
Emily Mortimer was pretty good as the Detective Inspector, although there were some scenes in which she seemed a bit too weak.  I had trouble with the scene where she apparently had whiplash, but was able to carry her unconscious partner with his arm draped over her back.  She couldn't take her hand off her neck, but yet she could carry him without crying out in pain.  Granted, Harry was helping her carry him, or was she helping Harry carry him?  I'm not too sure.

Another unbelieveable moment is when Harry manages to get back to his home amidst the chaos around him.  He just materialized.  I turned to a friend and quipped, "How did he get there?"  My friend replied, "He knows Batman."
Michael Caine did a fantastic job of portraying Harry.  He always manages to bring depth to his characters.  Adding to that was the director's vision of showing Harry's world as meticulously neat and clean, and organized, while the rest of the world around him was in chaos.  The close-ups of Harry and his morning ritual at the beginning of the film was a nice touch and gave us some insight into Harry's life without any need for narration or dialog.  I thought that was very well done.
Overall the film is watchable and kept my interest.  It follows the predictability of its genre, but does not become repetitious or boring.
Actress Emily Mortimer visited the screening and imparted some interesting trivia about the film.  She said that Michael Caine was a very funny man, and a joy to work with.  He revealed that he was born in the housing estate (equivalent to what we in the US would call "the projects") where they filmed.  Also, she said that there was a mural of Michael on the building of his Get Carter character.  She said he spent a lot of time bonding with the kids who played extras in the film, some of whom were in gangs.  She said they were excited to work on the film, and he spent a lot of time talking with them.
Emily herself said she had a great time playing such a unique character, and enjoyed working with Michael Caine on the film.  She said he made her laugh quite often.  Emily researched her part by spending the day with a female Detective Inspector who told her what the job entailed and what she would encounter.