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Mark Zhuravsky

Staff Writer

I'm a prolific blogger, writer and editor who loves film.

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The Cell 2 Review

The Cell 2 is an infuriating movie, insulting your intelligence as it frolics gleefully in its own stupidity. This is exacerbated by the fact that it poses as a sequel to the Tarsem Singh original, a generally derided film that developed something of a cult following, with this reviewer among the ranks. This film is barely able to qualify as a follow-up as it shares few actual similarities and completely ignores the rules that the original played by.

Eva Longoria look-alike Tessie Santiago is the clairvoyant Maya Casteneda, working in conjunction with the FBI on the trail of serial killer The Cusp, who tortures his victims by killing them and bringing them back to life multiple times. Maya’s ability is the result of a former encounter with The Cusp, rendering her the only survivor of the killer and opening up areas of her brain through the massive amount of endorphins her body circulated in these life-and-death torments. If the explanation sounds inane, its even more stupefying coming from one of the characters.  Anyway, when The Cusp kidnaps the niece of ball-busting small town sheriff Harris (Chris Bruno) – just Harris, like Cher – Maya and the FBI step in to track him down.

The biggest problem with this film for me, outside the lacking production design, impassive acting and late night TV-grade action scenes is the fact that it eschews the rules of the original to the point of being just a different film with the Cell name slapped on the cover. By making Maya control her psychic abilities without using any kind of equipment, the film loses what made the original so tantalizing for me. Jennifer Lopez’s character in the first film could not willingly enter the minds of her patients and it was that conscious and dangerous decision that provided a background for the suspense in the film. Trapped in a world that’s not her own, she must travel through the mind of a killer in order to find clues to rescue his final victim.

The Cell 2 allows Maya to jump into anyone’s mind just by holding on to an object that belongs to them. Yet when she jumps into the mind of the killer himself, she cannot see his face. This is explained away but why can’t she see his face when seeing through the eyes of his victim? Another example is the serial killer’s voice – he sounds like Xerxes in Maya’s visions but does so outside of them as well until he doesn’t again. Maybe I’m a stickler for little things but when you base a film on an established set of criteria and then go completely off the rails when they don’t suit you, you can’t expect your audience to follow.

Clearly piggybacking on the Saw franchise, the serial killer torture room scenes are all coffee-filter grey with deep shades of red, over-saturated and completely tiresome to watch. The scenes dealing with Maya’s descent into The Cusp’s mind are likewise laboriously boring, limited by a small budget to essentially TV-grade CGI, unconvincing and unnecessary. Much of the beauty of the original Cell had to do with the visuals Tarsem Singh conjured up, relying on his commercial background, much as he would for his next film The Fall. Here, director Tim Iacofano uses his television roots to treat the film like a bad episode of 24, assuming that the incredibly thin characters need no further establishing and that poorly choreographed set pieces (a yawn-inducing and strangely disjointed car chase and a pointless stunt with a helicopter) will make up for the deficiency in suspense. I would be somewhat more satisfied if the film was tongue-in-cheek with its convoluted plotting but it treats itself very seriously, with the serial killer and Maya facing off in a psychological battle of wits, signified by dialogue using the words “light” and “dark”. Symbolism, kids! If The Cell 2 doesn’t feel the need to try, why should you?

The Blu-ray transfer is decently crisp but suffers from the fact that the film is shot on HD and it shows, particularly in the darker scenes with more mood lighting. Sound is nothing to write home about, but as long as you can hear the dialogue, that’s a plus. Or minus. You decide.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

The Cell 2: Behind the Scenes” is a thirty minute featurette which curiously involves the cast half-heartedly praising the film and director as well as a look at the special effects and stunts for the film. I can’t say much more for it but if you really want to watch it because you like the film, there’s nothing more I can do.

Jun
18
2009

Fatal Attraction Review

Between this film and Basic Instinct, you’d be tempted to assume Michael Douglas was making his bread playing alternatively put-upon or predatory every-men involved in high-stakes lust games with gorgeous women. In the case of Fatal Attraction however, the woman in question is Glenn Close, who few people would expect when considering a bombastically unhinged romantic interest. Where Paul Verhoeven infused his work with cautionary sexual energy, here director Adrian Lyne deals with the ennui of an ordinary married life and the tense body-wrecking pull of an affair. Lyne’s work has always dealt with questions of the mind and the body (he made the steamy Nine 1/2 Weeks and the generally underrated Jacob’s Ladder before and after this film, respectively, following up with Indecent Proposal), and he approaches thriller elements from a subdued standpoint, leading up to a shocking climax on a scene-by-scene basis. Fatal Attraction is likely his most famous film, a multiple Oscar-nominated chronicle of an affair between a bored everyman and a sociopath with possible suicidal tendencies. 

Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) is a wealthy New York lawyer with a wife, daughter and dog, who meets Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), an enticing woman with a full head of hair (you’ll see what I mean when you watch the film; people really did crazy things in the 80s). The two share a moment at a function and when Dan’s wife and daughter leave town, he is more than willing to jump crotch first (see what I did there?) into an affair with Alex, culminating in a no-holds-barred one night stand. Now that we’ve gotten the basic setup out of the way, the question remains: what differentiates this film from a dozen other storybook-life-gone-wrong thrillers? Lyne’s attention to detail and the performances are largely to hail for Attraction’s success, as the director invests heavily in accentuated set design and oftentimes mood lighting (a scene where Dan knocks over a lamp in pursuit of Alex is gorgeously lit and elegantly blocked). The mundane features of Dan’s apartment, Alex’s kitchen and bedroom and the country house into which Dan and the family move are all fully realized environments that feel lived-in or at least just-moved-into.

Much of the credit must go to Glenn Close, who once again reminds us that she’s one of the most experienced and underrated actresses in the business. In this, probably her most famous role, she is disturbingly realistic in her mannerisms and habits as an obsessively unhinged woman. She is by turns ecstatic in the power of her love and possessively neurotic, throwing fits and breaking down crying amidst the chaos. Her scenes with Douglas at the meat and potatoes of the film, and they don’t disappoint with Douglas also surprising in his lack of restraints during the more passionate scenes. The sex here doesn’t feel titillating but rather ominous and much credit goes to the leads and Lyne for really taking the fun out of the idea of an unfaithful tryst.

Overall however, Fatal Attraction suffers from a been-there-done-that feel that slowly suffocates it until it simply runs out of steam in the last 20-30 minutes. The stakes are high, Alex is on the loose and you can hardly bring yourself to care. You want a resolution to this slow-moving potboiler and the one Lyne delivers is completely off the path the film spends so much time trying to pave (the original ending, included on the disc, is much closer in mood and tempo). Lyne undoes much of the thrilling elements with a self-indulgent violent conclusion which ends with the one character you don’t want nor necessarily expect to get their hands dirty stepping in. Nevertheless, as far as thrillers go, Fatal Attraction goes above and beyond the lower depths preyed upon by borderline insulting affairs like this year’s Obsessed.

The Blu-ray transfer is surprisingly crisp for a generally darker film, where loss of light plays a big role. Outside scenes are clean and the upgraded transfer punctuates smaller details. Sound is true high-definition, not that it does much for a film that rarely needs to rise above casual dialogue. Music is sparsely used and sound effects are always clear.

DVD Bonus Features

Outside of a monotonous commentary by Lyne, the disc includes three short featurettes, "Forever Fatal", around 28 minutes, "Social Attraction", ten minutes, and finally "Visual Attraction" at 20 minutes. They are mostly talking head documentaries highlighting the making-of anecdotes behind the film, the impact of the film and the controversy generated by its take on sexual politics and the cinematography and production design behind it. Also included is the alternate ending, which I would recommend watching, with or without commentary by Lyne. Rounding out the extras is a rehearsal for Glenn Close and Anne Archer, who plays Dan’s wife.

Jun
11
2009

Une Femme Mariee Review

I went into Une Femme Mariée with very limited exposure to the actual films of Jean-Luc Godard despite having studied his techniques and style in various film school courses. Not even Breathless, which is infinitely quoted as the quintessential French New Wave classic, particularly interested me. Maybe Une Femme Mariée surprised me as much as it did because of my unfamiliarity with Godard’s oeuvre. Just to think, having studied someone in great detail had shaped my perspective beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet, Une Femme Mariée is a challenging film on its own, free from the cult of personality that is Godard and yet fully indulging in his stylistic fashion.

Une Femme Mariée lets us peek into the life of Charlotte and her relationship with her husband and her lover, respectively. Macha Méril, whose delicate features and lack of emotional expression quickly establish her as only mildly involved in both her affair and her marriage, plays Charlotte. She is, like the rest of the characters in the film, prone to spouting thoughts on philosophy and reality, but only in passing with fleeting interest as to the nature of her words. She drifts through life, hardly torn between the affections of Robert (Bernard Noël), who pines for her in an openly sexual way and the machination of her paternalistic husband (Philippe Leroy), whose own advances are muted.

Charlotte’s opening scenes with Robert are shot in a uniquely divisive way, with the camera lingering more on individual body parts than the characters themselves. Taken on their own, Robert’s appreciation of Charlotte’s legs, arms, or her stomach take on a subtly disturbing collection of images, almost overt in their suggestion of division between the person and the body, questioning our attraction as purely physical or mental.

Pierre, Charlotte’s husband, is a pilot and a poor communicator, lightly slapping Charlotte when he tries to communicate his distrust. Their scenes are almost infuriating when you witness the lengths these two people will go not to talk with each other but still toil to fill the air with pointless exchanges. Finding herself between these two men, Charlotte’s personality doesn’t vary so much as dissipate, replaced by numbing agreement and a disregard for an emotional response both men seem to be vying for. She does not wish to satisfy them but is herself barely laboring to keep up appearances as wife and mother.

This is a difficult film, highly reminiscent of Bergman’s oft-inscrutable Persona, lacking a narrative and freely relying on conventions even as it subverts the typical plot with character interviews aimed at breaking the fourth wall. Godard’s fascination with cinema lets him ape the idea of the spectator in both character blocking and self-aware camera placement, a constantly prodding hint at the existence of a crew just outside the borders of the frame.

Much of the drama, what little there is of it anyway, comes from Charlotte’s realization that she is pregnant doesn't know who the child’s father is. This disrupts the idyllic balance in her mock-up bourgeoisie world, but I’ll leave it to you to find out what happens. Suffice to say those hoping for histrionics are unlikely to get much in the way of high emotion, but rather an examination of individual desires and the nature of reality, love and trust.

The DVD features a decent transfer of an undoubtedly older film (made in 1964). This is not a bombastic film and there is little in the way of simplistic exchanges and some outside noise. The option for subtitles is of course included, but I cannot verify how accurate the subtitles are to the original words.

DVD Bonus Features

Unfortunately, aside from accompanying trailers, the disc does not offer any special features, but judging by the relative unfamiliarity of the film as part of Godard’s filmography, this is not surprising.

Jun
04
2009

Raising the Bar: The Complete First Season Review

The best thing you could say about the first season of ABC Studios and producer Stephen Bochco’s (NYPD Blue) production Raising the Bar is that it does exactly what it sets out do. Make no mistake about it, this is a by-the-numbers courtroom drama; another addition to an already overcrowded market of day and nighttime television that unfolds primarily in justice’s hallowed halls. Raising the Bar does manage to briefly distinguish itself on the strength of dialogue and production values, but it can’t avoid the sinking feeling that you’ve seen this all before. Nevertheless, there is a certain comfort to the atypical unpredictability the show brings to many of verdicts and the way the lives of the cast intersect.

Raising the Bar primarily revolves around Jerry Kellerman (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), a plainly idealistic public defender whose ruffled shirt and constantly undone tie should help identify him immediately. Kellerman’s brash behavior and his fervent search for justice has a tendency to cause him trouble, especially with a petulant judge played by Jane Kaczmarek of Malcolm in the Middle fame. Anyone familiar with Kaczmarek’s performance on that show, or more importantly her repeat cameos on The Simpsons, can expect a familiar face and attitude.

Still, the actors fare admirably, as does the rest of the cast. Kellerman’s relationship with opposing prosecutor Michelle Ernhardt (Melissa Sagemiller) and his practice under the serene guidance of Rosalind Whitman (Gloria Reuben) are both developed with some above par writing; Raising the Bar especially excels in capturing the shop talk between various attorneys, dripping with legal slang that’s sometimes difficult to follow.

The courtroom sessions are about what you’d expect, with the exception of a few surprises and stellar casting in the bit parts for mostly everyone. Although many of these actors appear briefly, only to testify or react, they seem natural in their surroundings and help develop the attorneys we follow through the back-and-forth dialogues. Each episode (there are 10 in the first season) usually deals with two separate cases, and gives a bit of time for Kellerman to clash with the judge and the lawyers to go out for drinks toward the end of the episode. The friendly, colloquial and rather genial interaction between the group, even as they argue against one another in a court of law, is refreshing and certainly keeps the show from taking sides.

Production-wise, the show is again above average, with outstanding TV lighting by Rick Bota and Frank Perl. The editing, courtesy of Jonathan P. Shaw and Rick Tuber, is also surprising at first, energetic and swift, taking a bit of getting used but then sinking in as a very effective way of conveying tension in conversation. Still, despite the effective and highly professional crew, the show is weighed down by expectations of mediocrity. There is really nothing to set it apart from any other drama of a similar sort, although it is no more or less comfortable to watch and definitely better made than some other series. You may grow to like it more as it develops, but you probably won’t be able to shake the likenesses that burden it. 

DVD Bonus Features

The DVD opens with an overabundance of trailers, so skip at will if you don’t enjoy that sort of thing. Otherwise, the third disk in the three disk set has several short featurettes, beginning with "Sworn Testimony: True Stories of a Public Defender" (13:45), which gives a background on the show as well as David Feige, an actual attorney who acted as co-creator. His insights are entertaining and show just how much real-life authenticity the crew and cast attempted to bring to the show. "Behind the Bar: An After-Hours Roundtable with the Cast" (13:16), is a just that, a collection of the cast trading anecdotes and stories from how they got on the show to various goings-on during filming. "Mistrials: Bloopers from Season One" (1:54) is a short blooper from episodes in the first season. There are also commentaries with the cast and crew on select episodes.

Jun
02
2009

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers/The Princess of Nebraska Review

Director Wayne Wang, best known for his adaptation of Amy Tan’s celebrated novel The Joy Luck Club, has kept himself at the forefront of Asian-oriented filmmakers even while making a variety of crowd-pleasing commercial films (Maid in Manhattan, Last Holiday). This collection of two of his latest films, both low-budget works shot on HD, is a great way to get acquainted with a unique filmmaker of considerable skill. Although the films vary in quality of both filmmaking and performance, there is no denying both pose interesting questions about Chinese or general Asian identity and their place in and outside of China.

The stronger of the two films, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, is a meticulous study of character. In the film, an aging Mr. Shi travels to America to visit his daughter Yilan, recently estranged form her husband. Mr. Shi is played by Henry O, until now relegated to a variety of bit parts in a variety of popular American films (Rush Hour 3 and a recurring role as Monk #1 on The Sopranos). The performance O turns in here should catapult him to the top tier ranks of elderly actors working today. His work as Mr. Shi is mesmerizing, nuanced and understated by positively heartbreaking moments. His arched back, slow walk and fragmented English do not feel staged or rehearsed but absolutely real; when you hear the man speak haltingly but eloquently in an interview included on the DVD, you realize what a remarkable job he’s done.

The film rests on O’s shoulders, as his experience and outlook on America is what we experience as an audience. Left to wander his withdrawn daughter’s (Feihong Yu) home, Mr. Shi isn’t afraid to go out, running into people who regard him with a studied interest but don’t stay to talk for long. He does make one friend in Madam (Vida Ghahremani), a similarly aged, Iranian refugee who likewise speaks in broken English, mixing Farsi in whenever she can’t find the right words.

The scenes between these two lonely people, both widowers, are some of the best in the film - touching without being sugary. Wang elects to approach the film as a minimalist, taking little to no liberties with any stylistic choices. At the end, little is resolved and few secrets are told; but you come to understand Mr. Shi and, to a lesser degree, his daughter. Separated by more than miles but the history of a country still trying to find its footing, the father and daughter are burdened by questions they don’t have answers to.

The weaker of the two films, Wang’s The Princess of Nebraska is hurt by the aggressively hand-held filmmaking that characterizes most of the film. Again dealing with the Chinese experience, the heroine of the film is Sasha (Li Ling), a young lesbian possessing something of great value to a man who takes her in. Sasha is outspoken, disrespectful and genuinely rebellious but in a passive way. She practices prostitution briefly and as a result meets a woman she falls in love with.

Her role as an immigrant and the object of desire she holds sway over are revealed in due time, but the film loses much steam from being somewhat uninteresting. Sasha is not a likeable character and her struggles, although dramatically affecting, didn’t appeal to me on an emotional level. The film’s slow pacing is undermined by the camera work, which suggested an urgency that simply isn’t there. There is a hint of exploration of the new China and how it is perceived by foreigners and a few moments of impressive subtlety (a sit-down with a bartender has a few choice words on family and background), but overall The Princess of Nebraska is a film about rooting for an outsider who feels wrong.

To include both films, handsomely shot by Patrick Lindenmaier and Richard Wong, respectively, in one package is a value and a bargain, especially since the merits of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers far outweigh the mediocrity of The Princess of Nebraska. Taken together, the two films accomplish what Wang might’ve set out to do: they paint a complex portrait of tradition and conflict across generations, one that can be solved with fewer words than you would think.

DVD Bonus Features

Both disks feature the same collection of trailers. Prayers' bonus features include interviews with Yiyun Li and Henry O, less introspective pieces than marketing press work, and a photo gallery of actors and Wang at work. Princess features another interview with Li explaining her intention behind the short story that inspired the film, a photo gallery and two featurettes – “Sasha Video Diaries” and “Ling and Yan Yan – A Day in the Life of Young Chinese Women,’ which are conceptually interesting in shedding more light on a unique cultural experience but feel more labored than exciting.

May
27
2009

Killshot Review

Stirred up by his admittedly impressive performance in Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke has been enjoying a deserved career revival, rising up from the pits of direct-to-video refuse to take his rightful place as a noteworthy, if not iconic actor.  John Madden’s troubled Killshot does Rourke no favors, an Elmore Leonard adaptation edited down to a generic thriller with few redeeming elements, among them Rourke’s performance, which is solid enough to satisfy fans but not to keep the film afloat.

Armand 'The Blackbird' Degas (Mickey Rourke) is a hired killer with a price on his head over a botched assassination. As he hides out, shuffling from place to place aimlessly pondering giving up the assassin life, he is confronted by Richie Nix (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a hair-trigger adolescent Max Cady. Nix plans to intimidate a real estate agent out of $20,000 and Degas (or Bird, as he prefers to be called) takes him under his wing, seeing something in Nix that reminds Bird of his dead kid brother.

May
25
2009
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Gigantor: The Collection, Vol. 1 Review

Retro - relating to, reviving, or being the styles and especially the fashions of the past: fashionably nostalgic or old-fashioned. (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary)

Don’t you hate things that start with the definition of a word? I hope you won’t chalk this up to pretentiousness when I say I realized while watching Gigantor that I didn’t really know exactly what “retro” meant. What is this obsession a lot of us have with old things? Is it some semblance of nostalgia passed down from our parents? A willingness to make a connection to a different time period, if only momentarily? Or maybe you think vinyl will always sound better than an MP3 (which it does, most of the time.) 

I didn’t grow up with Gigantor but my own oft-retro sensibilities drew me to it, expecting a defining series for American anime. Adapted from the influential Mitsuteru Yokoyama manga and anime series Tetsujin 28-go, Gigantor is similar in its execution to the fabled Speed Racer (itself an Americanized import of Mach Go Go Go). Gigantor however, suffers from either a serious lack of budget or an avante-garde appeal of some sort, because the animation is severely lacking. Mouths convulse oddly and single motions are repeated in order to generate movement. As a result, the show is slowed down as you watch it, even as the plot rushes forward at a break-neck pace.

The plot of Gigantor is simple enough to get into: it's the distant future (the year 2000, according to the show) and boy genius Jimmy Sparks has the power to control a giant robot (via remote control, joystick included). Jimmy and Gigantor fight super-villainy, terrorism and crime around the world accompanied by a team of poorly named adults (the skittish Inspector Blooper, the heroic Dick Strong and the…brilliant Dr. Bob Brilliant). Their approach to doing so involves letting Gigantor massacre untold millions of dollars of equipment and minion personnel. Even though this is a kid’s show, these parts are fairly disturbing as they are done without any notion of tongue-in-cheek. The kind of “we’re good, they’re evil” jingoistic mentality of Jimmy and his cohorts is a real turn-off. But perhaps I’m analyzing the show too much.

The truth is Gigantor: The Collection: Volume 1, featuring the first 26 episodes of the series, hasn’t aged well at all. The series is stagnant and often nonsensical, with dialogue and emotional reactions that often border on moronic. The animation is dated but the lack of a proper budget to make it look something like Speed Racer left me completely cold to it. The plots are derivative and the appeal of watching giant robots fight is hurt by the poor animation. For someone who grew up watching X-Men: The Animated Series or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (or Digimon and Pokemon, if you prefer), Gigantor has little to offer and this set wisely banks off of nostalgia in selling the product.

The episodes are grainy but clean enough to be viewed without a second thought to quality. On the menu front, an odd glitch that I found when I tried to choose an episode from the Episode Select menu is that you can’t pause or fast-forward if you choose an episode but if you select Play All Episodes, you can. This is counter-intuitive and downright odd, forcing the viewer to skip through episodes instead of choosing one from the get-go. This is however localized only to Disk 1.

Overall, I couldn’t recommend Gigantor unless you’ve caught yourself humming the nauseating theme song in the last couple of years. If this is a staple of your youth, think again before watching, as you may be disappointed. Certain things just don’t age as well as others and this one has all the retro appeal of a broken record.

DVD Bonus Features

The 4-disc set comes packaged as a part of a collection, featuring a 16-page booklet that advertises Gigantor and drops a few clues about its origin and production. After leafing through it, you are welcome to take a look at the first six issues of the Gigantor comic book series, located on the first disc (in DVD-ROM fashion), which are about what you’d expect. You’ll need Adobe Reader to view them though. Also included are a number of audio commentaries with Fred Ladd, who directed, wrote, and produced the Americanized series. They are few and far between but are informative and a good listen. Two video interviews round out the extra features, one with Fred Ladd (34 minutes) and another with anime historian Fred Patten (28 minutes). Both offer the customary talk about the creation and influence of Gigantor, as well as a brief history of anime and its effect on American culture.

May
17
2009

Russell Brand in New York City Review

You probably know Russell Brand from his briefly hilarious turn as out-there rock star Aldous Snow in the Jason Segel-penned Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Brand has been getting a lot of press recently, culminating in his hosting of the 2008 MTV Video Music Awards, where he delivered a now-famous politically tinged tirade to a crowd of courageously bland faces. Brand has dabbled in stand-up, acting, and further presenting. The meager offering that this 60-odd minute act presents might be enough to satisfy fans of his, but does not hold up as a stand-up act, largely due to Brand himself.

May
13
2009
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The Showdown Review

The Showdown is the kind of film you used to come across all too often in the age of the video store, the bottom shelf cornerstone that was always left untouched. There is nothing about this film that impresses, but rather plenty that disappoints. Here is a western woefully undone by its low-budget approach. Most will agree with me when I say the best westerns, the grittiest, most memorable ones were shot on film. Showdown looks like it's shot on HD, though the lack of clarity in some scenes makes me wonder if it wasn’t shot on a digital prosumer camera. There’s nothing about the film that immediately stands out or draws you in. Rather, you are faced with 90-odd minutes of rooting for the film to get better, to pick up or impress in some satisfying way, big or small.

May
13
2009
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Just Another Love Story Review

What a brilliant film. It's a genuinely fresh feeling to be drawn in and affected by a film nowadays - with so much stale material on a reviewer's plate, sometimes it's difficult to remember just how good films can be. Ole Bornedal's 2007 Just Another Love Story (Kærlighed på film) is an impeccably mounted neo-noir, using typical genre tropes to tell an immediate and effective story. It's a mix of genres that at first almost dares you to expect the film and filmmaker to let you down. But it never does. It never ceases to impress in telling an intricately plotted and perfectly crafted story with its potently talented director, cast and crew. The performances are stellar, the cinematography is gorgeous, the soundtrack is just right and the editing takes daring risks with symbolism that pay off in the end.

May
11
2009
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The Burrowers Review

In recent years, riding on the popularity of the Saw franchise, Lionsgate has come up with a veritable assembly line model for horror film marketing. That's not to say they haven't been surprisingly selective in the kind of material they put out; High Tension, Open Water, and The Descent have all been relatively well-received and have found a decent audience, particularly Neil Marshall's nerve-racking cave-dweller horror film. The Burrowers, a straight-to-DVD release from the studio, is a surprise, in that it offers not only a novel setting but also more than competent acting and eye-catching cinematography.

A horror western is a unique concept that requires a masterful balancing act, utilized to great effect in Alex Turner's disturbing Dead Birds, released in 2004. Whereas Dead Birds focused largely on a single location and functioned as a psychological thriller, The Burrowers is much more in vein of a western, a rescue picture punctuated by the inclusion of a monstrous race of man-eating creatures.

May
02
2009
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State of Play (BBC Miniseries) Review

Spiking in popularity on the eve of the release of the American remake of this British miniseries, State of Play is likely one of the best, if not the best miniseries I’ve seen in the last decade. This journalistic potboiler is staggeringly well acted, and the low-key production and unobtrusive direction combine to make for one of the most compelling storylines I’ve seen in recent years. It’s difficult to justify my gushing, considering I went into the series largely because I saw that it starred James McAvoy, whose work I enjoyed in Wanted and Starter for Ten. I sat through the first episode fairly unimpressed, admiring the workman-like ethic of the production. However, midway through the second episode, I was hooked.

It’s difficult to say what makes State of Play such a potent combustion, equal parts journalistic thriller and relationship drama. The show makes a point of approaching its storyline without manipulating the viewer’s emotions. There’s hardly any use of music and the camera is often stationary. The cinematography is likewise appealing but very clean, without any regard to stylistic choices. Instead, director David Yates lets writer Paul Abbot’s brilliant work speak for itself. Dialogue is sharp and driven, exchanges sparking with a good amount of wit. The cast of State of Play is more than up to the task, bringing a humanity and emotional appeal to a story that would otherwise flounder on the basis of its many serpentine facts.

State of Play begins as many thrillers do: with a seemingly insignificant murder. The victim in this case is a young black teenager; but what confounds the mystery further is the unrelated death of one Sonia Baker, research assistant to politician Stephen Collins (a resolute David Morrissey). As Collins walks out of a press conference nearly in tears, the newspapers descend on the story, which strongly suggests an affair between Collins, a married man, and Baker. Assigned to cover the story is Cal McCaffrey (John Simm, who bears a surprising resemblance to fellow Brit Simon Pegg).

What quickly complicates matters is Cal’s relationship to Stephen, since Cal acted as Stephen’s campaign manager while the struggling politician was fighting his way into Parliament. Now, faced with the prospect of betraying an old friend, Cal uncovers that the two deaths may be connected, and from that point on State of Play does not let up. With his reporter team consisting of an emotive Kelly MacDonald and a wiry James MacAvoy, and under the watchful eye of editor Cameron Foster (Bill Nighy, wonderfully acerbic and gifted with some of the funniest lines in the series), Cal delves deep into what soon develops into a conspiracy that may envelop not only Collins, but anyone who dares to become involved.

The less said about the plot, the better. Suffice to say State of Play owes a certain debt to American political thrillers of the 1970s, mainly All The President’s Men and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. Most of the action goes down in wiretapped rooms, offices or the newsroom. David Yates nevertheless manages to inject local flavor into the proceedings, but not so much as to isolate non-British viewers. The show is very easy to follow but requires that you pay attention, which is an easy feat considering just how effective it is at portraying the tension of its quickly developing story. Yet Paul Abbot’s writing hardly feels rushed, developing character and story with an astute ear for dialogue, as director David Yates brings a toned-down professionalism and excels in smooth transitions and great multi-character composition.

The DVD set is split up into two discs, each with three episodes. The transfer is quite impressive for a show shot on HD, with hardly any grain in the nighttime scenes and general clarity that only helps one to marvel at the more artistic shots. One note to viewers is to keep subtitles on, since the various accents can be difficult to decipher from time to time, MacDonald’s strong Scottish accent immediately coming to mind.

DVD Bonus Features

Unfortunately, the extras are limited to a number of trailers and two commentaries by the director, writer, and editor Mark Day for episodes one and six. The commentaries offer some insight into the production but give it plenty of space to speak for itself.

Apr
30
2009

Homer & Eddie Review

Quite honestly, I don’t know where to start with Homer & Eddie. The DVD case makes it out to be another 80s road trip comedy. Far from it, Homer & Eddie feels like David Lynch taking on the Americana of Forrest Gump. There’s a threatening surrealism lurking just underneath the surface of the film, or maybe I’m reading into it too much. Nonetheless, Homer & Eddie is an odd drama, a feel-bad story about two misfits who embark on a repetitive and largely aimless journey.

Homer Lanza (James Belushi) was rendered mentally challenged by a baseball that hit him in the head when he was a child. Eddie Cervi (Whoopi Goldberg) is a sociopath with a muddled family history and a fatal secret. Homer sets out to visit his father, who is in the hospital dying of cancer. But when Eddie finds Homer sleeping in her car in a junkyard, she takes him along in order to get back the $87 stolen from him by some random men he met earlier on the road. The road trip gives director Andrei Konchalovsky the opportunity to punctuate monotonous driving sequences with equally monotonous 80s rock. Strange story choices make up the rest of a scatter shot plot, set apart by a series of robberies and murders committed by Eddie.

The problem with Homer & Eddie is simple: the characters are simply unlikable. Belushi plays Homer broad, too broad for a drama and often seems to be slipping in and out of character. You sympathize with Homer, or at least begin to, before Goldberg’s Eddie tears you out of that realm. Eddie is a murderous sociopath, seemingly bipolar and out to hurt herself and whoever gets in the way. She is impossible to root for or even relate to, and it is difficult to understand why Homer continues to travel with her, as he often shows signs of fully comprehending exactly what’s going on.

Perhaps a scene that describes the off-putting schizophrenic nature of Homer & Eddie is the following: Eddie commits a robbery and murders the shop owner in the process, which is then followed by Homer deciding to leave her and the two having a heart-to-heart dialogue about their ongoing friendship. Writer Patrick Cirillo seems to be striving for realism in this life, the endlessly similar locales and outstandingly average people populating the frame, but somehow loses his characters to the landscape, making them uncanny and largely unpleasant.

Maybe I missed the point of Homer & Eddie or was thrown off by its admittedly different approach to the same old story, but I did not enjoy the film. It wasn’t so much touching but just depressing, the inability to relate to or even like the characters seriously hurting the film. The film is at times beautifully lensed, but the DVD (part of Lionsgate’s The Lost Collection) is fullscreen and the nighttime scenes look very grainy.

DVD Bonus Features

A sparse trivia track and trailers for upcoming Lionsgate DVD releases round out a disappointing lack of special features.

Apr
15
2009

The Night Before Review

As a fan of Martin Scorsese's After Hours, I was pleasantly surprised to see "in the tradition of After Hours" on the back of the DVD case for the Keanu Reeves/Lori Loughlin 1988 vehicle The Night Before. Could this film match the frenetic energy of Scorsese's Kafkaesque journey through the hipster underworld? Well, The Night Before is no After Hours, but it scrapes by on sheer manic energy, as if director/co-writer Thom Eberhardt and writer Gregory Scherick are terrified of the viewer getting even slightly bored. All in all, The Night Before fits snugly into the 80's comedy category - with a few exceptions.

Winston Connelly (Keanu Reeves) has woken up on the street of the seediest Los Angeles neighborhood imaginable. He quickly realizes he has several significant setbacks, all related to the night before of which he has no recollection. His prom date, Tara Mitchell (Lori Loughlin), is missing and he owes money to a man named Tito (Trinidad Silva). Possibly the longest running joke of the film, Tito's identity and the reactions of the neighborhood denizens to a mention of his name is a tired gag but a useful plot device whenever Winston needs to travel somewhere. The film cribs from After Hours more than just a look, but also repeating motifs (car thief and hoodlum Danny Boy makes so many appearances it drains the humor out of them, but the similarity of his arrivals to those of Neil and Pepe of After Hours is obvious).

As Winston slowly uncovers the events of last night and early that morning, the film often flashes back quite creatively, keeping you interested in the progress of plot. But as the blanks are filled in, the viewer realizes that this is yet another lightweight teen comedy, albeit one that frequently stumbles in its desire to keep the laughs coming. Lori Loughlin's Tara is very difficult to like as a character, as she is self-centered and shrill; but I suppose a scene that has Ms. Loughlin handcuffed to a bed in her underwear makes up for it. Mr. Reeves, pre-Bill & Ted, plays Winston like a younger version of Ted, slightly smarter and definitely more unhinged (the scene when a drug-fueled Winston ‘shoots' with his hands at a pair of sunglasses is a classic for the Keanu Reeves overacting vault).

What rescues The Night Before from becoming a bizarrely plotted mess is the film's inability to accept its boundaries. Director Thom Eberhardt does not want to keep playing by teen comedy rules so once in a while he'll up the ante: prostitution becomes a primary plot point, as does the rather clever series of allusions to the fact that Winston and Tara are upper-class white kids from the valley, stuck in a neighborhood filled with a stereotypical selection of Hispanic and African-American characters. Tito himself comes across as a complete throwaway sleaze, his accent and wardrobe giving way to a gangster look long unpopular since the 1980s. Nevertheless, the pervading sense of fun and the breezy pace the film sustains from scene to scene keeps it afloat.

The DVD is presented in full-screen, which is an odd and puzzling choice so late in the game, when Blu-ray is cornering the market and wide-screen DVDs are pretty much the norm for just about anybody. In the end, The Night Before is worth a rental, maybe even a buy if you're a Keanu Reeves fan. I doubt it would stand up to repeat viewings but for a night out with friends (or fellow Keanu bashers, you make the choice), you could do a lot worse.

DVD Bonus Features

 

A sparse trivia track and trailers for upcoming Lionsgate DVD releases round out a disappointing lack of special features.

Apr
13
2009


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