Horror Film Review: Underworld (dir by Len Wiseman)


Underworld is one hell of a confusing movie.

I saw Underworld when it was first released in theaters, way back in 2003.  And I’ve rewatched more than a handful of times since then, mostly because of my huge girl crush on Kate Beckinsale.  And every time that I watch this movie, I find myself wondering what the Hell’s going on.

I mean, I get it.  There’s a centuries-old war between vampires and Lycans and the Lycans are basically werewolves but they’re called “Lycan” because Lycan sounds better than werewolf.  The Death Dealers are vampires who go around and shoot Lycans on dark rainy nights.  And apparently, the vampires think that the Lycan threat has been neutralized because the leader of the Lycans, Lucian, is dead but maybe he’s not because Lucian’s body was never found.  And meanwhile, there’s three vampire rulers and two of the rulers get to sleep while the other one reigns and they switch out every few centuries.

Oh!  And the vampires and the Lycans are not really supernatural creatures.  Instead, they’re people who have been infected by a virus that causes them to live a really long time and have a craving for blood or something like that.  So, that explains why none of the vampires turn into a bat or anything like that during the movie.  Instead, everyone just runs around and does parkour and shoots guns at one another.

Also, the vampires don’t have to prey on human beings because they’ve learned how to clone blood because cloning is the solution for everything.

And also, everything happens at night while it’s raining because the vampires and the Lycans are secretly living in the same world with humans, they’re just living underground.  They’re living in an underworld, if you will.

Also ….

Well, listen, there’s a lot of plot in this movie.  Underworld lasts for 121 minutes and there’s really not a slow spot in the entire film.  In fact, that’s probably one of the film’s greatest strengths.  The nonstop action keeps you from thinking about how the plot of the film just seems to be something that the filmmakers made up as they went along.  Instead of wondering how everything fits together, you’re too busy watching as the movie flies from violent set piece to another.

Underworld‘s other great strength is that it stars Kate Beckinsale.  Nowadays, the action girl who kicks ass and defeats evil while looking good has become such a cliche that it’s easy to forget just how exciting it was when we first saw Kate Beckinsale, clad in leather and effortlessly dodging bullets and ruthlessly killing Lycans.  Though its impact may have subsequently been diluted by too many sequels and imitations, watching Underworld for the first time was a very empowering experience.  Watching Underworld for the first time, I wanted to be Kate Beckinsale. If Kate could defeat both vampires and Lycans without breaking a sweat then I knew that I could defeat my own insecurities.   Of course, unlike Kate, I didn’t have the advantage of movie magic to help me down a backflip off of a wall and I ended up spraining my ankle but still, Kate Beckinsale in Underworld was the perfect antidote to years of previously watching women in horror and action films be treated like either disposable victims or damsels in need of rescue.

In Underworld, Kate Beckinsale played Selene, a Death Dealer who tries to figure out why the Lycans are all after a human named Michael (Scott Speedman).  Selene also falls in love with Michael, which leads to some complications after Michael gets bitten by Lucian (Michael Sheen), the Lycan leader who wasn’t really dead after all.  Meanwhile, Kraven (Shane Brolly) wants to take over the vampires and a vampire elder named Viktor (Bill Nighy) is woken up early and then ages backwards through the film, which is actually a pretty clever idea.

And, as I said before, it never really makes much sense.  But, as incoherent as Underworld may be, it’s still an undeniably addictive viewing experience.  The movie is pure style.  It takes place in a world where it’s always night and it’s always raining and where everyone is beautiful and deadly at the same time.  Whether they’re a vampire or a Lycan, People in Underworld movies don’t merely enter a room.  Instead, they throw the doors open and allows blue light to flood in as they make a grand entrance.  At times, the film’s style is so kinetic and overwhelming that it threatened to get a little bit silly but, again, that’s a part of the film’s appeal.  While Kate Beckinsale thrills you with her empowering performance, the visuals grab you and say, “We’re going on a trip and don’t worry about whether it makes any sense!”

That’s why I’ve watched Underworld several times.  It doesn’t have to make sense.  It just has to kick ass.

 

 

Trailer: Apostle (Netflix)


Apostle

Gareth Evans is pretty much the director who helped usher in the latest renaissance in action films. His films show that action can be done without reling on quick cuts and fast edits. Gone are the days of Christopher Nolan staged fight scenes that shows no life whatsoever and the nausea-inducing edits by Paul Green grass in his Bourne franchise.

Well-known for his work in Indonesia, especially with the Raid franchise, Gareth Evans is now trying his hand in something a bit different, but still looks to be in his wheelhouse. This time around it’s through the largesse of Netflix that he will be making his next project titled Apostle.

The film has been under the radar throughout much of its production and post-production, but with less than a month remaining til it’s October release, Apostle may have just become one of my most anticipated films of the year.

With a cast headlined by Dan Stevens and Michael Sheen, Apostle looks to combine Evans’ stylistic action with period horror. Will the combination be a balanced mix or will it be too much of a good thing and the whole thing falls apart? We’ll find out on October 12, 2018.

Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2016: Alice Through The Looking Glass, Gods of Egypt, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Me Before You, Mother’s Day, Risen


Here are six mini-reviews of six films that I saw in 2016!

Alice Through The Looking Glass (dir by James Bobin)

In a word — BORING!

Personally, I’ve always thought that, as a work of literature, Through The Looking Glass is actually superior to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  That’s largely because Through The Looking Glass is a lot darker than Wonderland and the satire is a lot more fierce.  You wouldn’t know that from watching the latest film adaptation, though.  Alice Through The Looking Glass doesn’t really seem to care much about the source material.  Instead, it’s all about making money and if that means ignoring everything that made the story a classic and instead turning it into a rip-off of every other recent blockbuster, so be it.  At times, I wondered if I was watching a film based on Lewis Carroll or a film based on Suicide Squad.  Well, regardless, the whole enterprise is way too cynical to really enjoy.

(On the plus side, the CGI is fairly well-done.  If you listen, you’ll hear the voice of Alan Rickman.)

Gods of Egypt (dir by Alex Proyas)

I don’t even know where to begin when it comes to describing the plot of Gods of Egypt.  This was one of the most confusing films that I’ve ever seen but then again, I’m also not exactly an expert when it comes to Egyptian mythology.  As far as I could tell, it was about Egyptian Gods fighting some sort of war with each other but I was never quite sure who was who or why they were fighting or anything else.  My ADHD went crazy while I was watching Gods of Egypt.  There were so much plot and so many superfluous distractions that I couldn’t really concentrate on what the Hell was actually going on.

But you know what?  With all that in mind, Gods of Egypt is still not as bad as you’ve heard.  It’s a big and ludicrous film but ultimately, it’s so big and so ludicrous that it becomes oddly charming.  Director Alex Proyas had a definite vision in mind when he made this film and that alone makes Gods of Egypt better than some of the other films that I’m reviewing in this post.

Is Gods of Egypt so bad that its good?  I wouldn’t necessarily say that.  Instead, I would say that it’s so ludicrous that it’s unexpectedly watchable.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War (dir by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan)

Bleh.  Who cares?  I mean, I hate to put it like that but The Huntsman: Winter’s War felt pretty much like every other wannabe blockbuster that was released in April of last year.  Big battles, big cast, big visuals, big production but the movie itself was way too predictable to be interesting.

Did we really need a follow-up to Snow White and The Huntsman?  Judging by this film, we did not.

Me Before You (dir by Thea Sharrock)

Me Before You was assisted suicide propaganda, disguised as a Nicolas Sparks-style love story.  Emilia Clarke is hired to serve as a caregiver to a paralyzed and bitter former banker played by Sam Claflin.  At first they hate each other but then they love each other but it may be too late because Claflin is determined to end his life in Switzerland.  Trying to change his mind, Clarke tries to prove to him that it’s a big beautiful world out there.  Claflin appreciates the effort but it turns out that he really, really wants to die.  It helps, of course, that Switzerland is a really beautiful and romantic country.  I mean, if you’re going to end your life, Switzerland is the place to do it.  Take that, Sea of Trees.

Anyway, Me Before You makes its points with all the subtlety and nuance of a sledge-hammer that’s been borrowed from the Final Exit Network.  It doesn’t help that Clarke and Claflin have next to no chemistry.  Even without all the propaganda, Me Before You would have been forgettable.  The propaganda just pushes the movie over the line that separates mediocre from terrible.

Mother’s Day (dir by Garry Marshall)

Y’know, the only reason that I’ve put off writing about how much I hated this film is because Garry Marshall died shortly after it was released and I read so many tweets and interviews from people talking about what a nice and sincere guy he was that I actually started to feel guilty for hating his final movie.

But seriously, Mother’s Day was really bad.  This was the third of Marshall’s holiday films.  All three of them were ensemble pieces that ascribed a ludicrous amount of importance to one particular holiday.  None of them were any good, largely because they all felt like cynical cash-ins.  If you didn’t see Valentine’s Day, you hated love.  If you didn’t see New Year’s Eve, you didn’t care about the future of the world.  And if you didn’t see Mother’s Day … well, let’s just not go there, okay?

Mother’s Day takes place in Atlanta and it deals with a group of people who are all either mothers or dealing with a mother.  The ensemble is made up of familiar faces — Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts, Kate Hudson, and others! — but nobody really seems to be making much of an effort to act.  Instead, they simple show up, recite a few lines in whatever their trademark style may be, and then cash their paycheck.  The whole thing feels so incredibly manipulative and shallow and fake that it leaves you wondering if maybe all future holidays should be canceled.

I know Garry Marshall was a great guy but seriously, Mother’s Day is just the worst.

(For a far better movie about Mother’s Day, check out the 2010 film starring Rebecca De Mornay.)

Risen (dir by Kevin Reynolds)

As far as recent Biblical films go, Risen is not that bad.  It takes place shortly after the Crucifixion and stars Joseph Fiennes as a Roman centurion who is assigned to discover why the body of Jesus has disappeared from its tomb.  You can probably guess what happens next.  The film may be a little bit heavy-handed but the Roman Empire is convincingly recreated, Joseph Fiennes gives a pretty good performance, and Kevin Reynolds keeps the action moving quickly.  As a faith-based film that never becomes preachy, Risen is far superior to something like God’s Not Dead 2.

 

 

Insomina File No. 16: Kill The Messenger (dir by Michael Cuesta)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

Kill_the_Messenger_poster

Last night, if you were awake and unable to get any sleep at 1:45 in the morning, you could have turned over to Cinemax and watched the 2014 conspiracy thriller, Kill The Messenger.

Kill The Messenger opens with one of those title cards that assures us that the movie we’re about to see is based on a true story.  We are then introduced to Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), a California-based reporter who we know is a rebel because he has a precisely trimmed goatee.  Gary is interviewing a suspected drug smuggler (Robert Patrick) at the smuggler’s luxurious mansion.  Suddenly, the DEA storms the house, shouting insults and roughly throwing everyone to the ground, including Gary.  It’s actually exciting and promising opening, one that perfectly establishes both Gary as a truth seeker and the U.S. government as an invading army that’s fighting a war that’s full of collateral damage.

Gary, of course, has nothing to do with smuggling drugs.  He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  If he was treated unfairly by the DEA, it’s just because the government is serious about winning the war on drugs!

Or is it?

Following up on a tip, Gary comes across evidence that, in order to raise money for pro-Amercian rebels in Central America, the CIA not only helped to smuggle drugs into the U.S. but also arranged for the drugs to largely be sold in poor, minority neighbors where, in theory, no one would notice or care.

When the story is finally published, Gary is briefly a celebrity.  Not surprisingly, the government denies his accusations and start tying to discredit him.  However, Gary also finds himself being targeted by his fellow journalists.  Angry over being outscooped by a relatively unknown reporter, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post both launch their own investigations.  Instead of investigating Gary’s allegations, they jealously and viciously investigate Gary himself.

Soon, both Gary’s career and his family are falling apart and Gary finds himself growing more and more paranoid…

Remember when everyone was expecting Kill The Messenger to be a really big deal?  It was due to come out towards the end of 2014, right in the middle of Oscar season.  Jeremy Renner was being talked up as a contender for best actor.  Then the film came out, it played in a handful of theaters for a week or two, and then it sunk into obscurity.  Some commentators even complained that Focus Features buried the release of Kill The Messenger and that the film was ignored because of its leftist politics…

Of course, it’s just as probable that Focus Features realized that The Theory of Everything was more likely to charm audiences than a movie that suggested the U.S. government was behind the drug epidemic.

Or it could have just been that, despite telling a potentially intriguing story, Kill The Messenger was an oddly bland film.  Other than one scene in which he admits to cheating on his wife, Gary Webb is portrayed as being such a saint that it actually causes the film to lose credibility.  (Don’t get me wrong.  For all I know, he was a saint.  But, from a cinematic point of view, sainthood is never compelling.)  This is one of those earnest films that gets so heavy-handed that, even if you agree with what the movie is saying, you still resent being manipulated.  (Of course, some of us have grown so cynical about the media that we automatically doubt the veracity any movie that opens with those dreaded words: “Based on a true story.”)  Watching Kill The Messenger, one gets the feeling that a documentary about Gary Webb would probably be more compelling (and convincing) than a fictionalized dramatization.

(Unfortunately, if you think it’s difficult to get an audience to watch a movie that suggested the U.S. government was behind the drug epidemic, just try to get them to watch a documentary about … well, anything.  I know most of our readers would probably happily watch a documentary but that’s because y’all are the best and a thousand times better than the average person.  Love you!)

Here’s what did work about Kill The Messenger: the performances.  Jeremy Renner, who also produced this film, gives an excellent performance as Gary, especially in the scenes where he realizes that both the government and the press are now conspiring about him.  Rosemarie DeWitt has the traditionally thankless role of being the supportive wife but she still does a good job.  And finally, Ray Liotta shows up for one scene and is absolutely chilling in that way that only Ray Liotta can be.

Kill The Messenger doesn’t quite work but, thanks to the cast, it is, at the very least, a watchable misfire.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #106: The Queen (dir by Stephen Frears)


The_Queen_movieIt recently occurred to me that, if you were so inclined, you could reconstruct the entire history of the British royal family by watching movies that have been nominated for best picture.

You would start, of course, by watching Becket.  Then you’d move on to The Lion In Winter.  After The Lion in Winter, you’ll enjoy a double feature of Ivanhoe and The Adventures of Robin Hood.  After that, it’s time to watch Henry V.   When it comes to Henry VIII, you’ve actually got three films to choose from: The Private Life of Henry VIII, A Man For All Seasons, or Anne of The Thousand Days.  I suggest that you go with the Private Life of Henry VIII and then follow it up with a double feature of Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love.  After that, you’ll jump forward in time a bit.  You’ll watch The Madness of King George and Mrs. Brown because, even though neither was nominated for best picture, they both feature Oscar-nominated royal performances.  Finally, you’ll watch Chariots of Fire and The King’s Speech.  And, after all of that, you’ll end things by watching the 2006 Best Picture nominee The Queen.

And what a way to end!  The Queen is perhaps the best of the many Oscar-nominated films to be made about British royalty.  While the Queen is rightly known for being the film that finally won the great Helen Mirren an Oscar, it’s also a witty and frequently poignant look at how a group of entrenched people are forced to adapt to a changing world.  It’s a film that works not just because Helen Mirren gives a good performance in the role of Queen Elizabeth II but also because she humanizes Elizabeth, turning her into a character to whom viewers can relate.

The film opens with the death of Princess Diana in Paris.  As the world mourns, the British royal family struggles with how to deal with the tragedy.  Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) worries about the well-being of his sons.  Prince Philip (James Cromwell) is rather haughtily unconcerned with how the general public feels about Diana or the rest of the royal family.  The Queen Mother (Syliva Syms) continues to insist that the Royal Family is just as important as it has always been.  Only Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren) seems to truly understand that the Royal Family cannot continue to cut itself off from the rest of the world.  Even though Elizabeth understands that the world outside of Buckingham Palace has changed, she’s still unsure about what her place in this new world will be.

Of course, not only does Elizabeth have to adjust with the changing values of the British public but she also has to deal with a new prime minister.  Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) has been swept into office, pledging that he’s going to “modernize” British society.  While the politically savvy Blair is determined to treat Elizabeth with respect, some of his closest advisers do little to disguise the contempt with which they view the royal family.  This include Tony’s own wife, Cherie (Helen McCrory).

And so, while self-styled reformer Blair finds himself in the strange position of defending tradition, Elizabeth tries to figure whether those traditions still matter in changing times.

The Queen is a film that demands an intelligent audience, one that is capable of enjoying a film based solely on the basis of good acting and intelligent dialogue.  The Queen‘s triumph is that it humanizes an iconic figure and reminds us that even the biggest events are both historical and personal.  I have no idea whether the real Elizabeth is anything like the character played by Helen Mirren but I certainly hope she is.

Two Post Presidents Day Reviews: Frost/Nixon (dir. by Ron Howard) and All The President’s Men (dir. by Alan J. Pakula)


“Now Watergate doesn’t bother me/does your conscience bother you?” — Lynard Skynard, Sweet Home Alabama

As part of my continuing quest to see and review every film ever nominated for best picture, I want to devote my first post Presidents Day post to two films: 2008’s Frost/Nixon and 1976’s All The President’s Men.

During my sophomore year of college, I had a political science professor who, every day of class, would sit on his desk and ramble on and on and on about his past as a political activist.  He protested Viet Nam, he hung out with revolutionaries, he loved Hugo Chavez, and I assume he probably had a Che Guevara poster hanging in his office.  Whenever he wanted to criticize George W. Bush, he would compare him to Richard Nixon and then pause as if he was waiting for the class to all start hissing in unison.  He always seemed to be so bitterly disappointed that we didn’t.  What he, and a whole lot of other people his age, didn’t seem to understand was that Richard Nixon was his boogeyman.  The rest of us could hardly care less.

That was the same problem that faced the 2008 best picture nominee Frost/Nixon

Directed rather flatly by Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon tells the true story about how a light-weight English journalist named David Frost (played by Michael Sheen) managed to score the first televised interview with former President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella).  Both Frost and Nixon see the interviews as a chance to score their own individual redemptions while Frost’s assistants (played by Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell) see the interview as a chance to put Richard Nixon on trial for Watergate, the Viet Nam War, and every thing else under the sun.  That may not sound like a very exciting movie but it does sound like a sure Oscar contender, doesn’t it?

I’ve always secretly been a big history nerd so I was really looking forward to seeing Frost/Nixon when it was first released in 2008.  When I first saw it, I was vaguely disappointed but I told myself that maybe I just didn’t know enough about Richard Nixon or Watergate to really “get” the film.  So, when the film later showed up on cable, I gave it another chance.  And then I gave it a chance after that because I really wanted to like this film.  Afterall, it was a best picture nominee.  It was critically acclaimed.  The word appeared to be insisting that this was a great film.  And the more I watched it, the more I realized that the world was wrong.  (If nothing else, my reaction to Frost/Nixon made it easier for me to reject the similarly acclaimed Avatar a year later.)  Frost/Nixon is well-acted and slickly produced but it’s not a great film.  In fact, Frost/Nixon is epitome of the type of best picture nominee that inspires people to be cynical about the Academy Awards.

Before I get into why Frost/Nixon didn’t work for me, I want to acknowledge that this was a very well-acted film.  By that, I mean that the cast (Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, and Oliver Platt) all gave very watchable and entertaining performances.  At the same time, none of them brought much depth to their characters.  Much like the film itself, nobody seems to have much going on underneath the surface.  Frank Langella may be playing a historic figure but, ultimately, his Oscar-nominated performance feels like just a typically grouchy Frank Langella performance.  Michael Sheen actually gives a far more interesting performance as David Frost but, at the same time, the character might as well have just been identified as “the English guy.”  In fact, a better title for this film would have been The Grouchy, the English, and the Superfluous.

For all the time that the film devotes to Rockwell and Platt blathering on about how they’re going to be giving Richard Nixon “the trial he never had,” this film is ultimately less about politics and more about show business.  Ron Howard devotes almost as much time to the rather boring details of how the interviews were set up and sold into syndication as he does to the issues that the interview brings up.  Unfortunately, for a movie about show business to succeed, the audience has to believe that the show is one that they would actually enjoy watching,  This, ultimately, is why Frost/Nixon fails.  While the filmmakers continually tell us that the Frost/Nixon interviews were an important moment in American history, they never show us.  Yes, everyone has hideous hair and wide lapels but, otherwise, the film never recreates the period or the atmosphere of the film’s setting and, as a result, its hard not to feel detached from the action happening on-screen.  For all the self-congratulatory claims made at the end of the film, it never convinces us that the Frost/Nixon interviews were really worth all the trouble.  Much like my old poli sci professor, Frost/Nixon never gives us a reason to care. 

For a far more interesting and entertaining look at the Watergate scandal, I would recommend the 1976 best picture nominee All The President’s Men.  Recreating the story of how two Washington Post reporters (played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) exposed the Watergate scandal that eventually led to Nixon’s resignation, All The President’s Men is the movie that Frost/Nixon wishes it could be.  Despite being made only two years after Watergate, All The President’s Men doesn’t take the audience’s interest for granted.  Instead, director Pakula earns our interest by crafting his story as an exciting thriller.  Pakula directs the film like an old school film noir, filling the screen with menacing shadows and always keeping the camera slightly off-center.   Like Frost/Nixon, All The President’s Men is a well-acted film with a bunch of wonderful 70s character actors — performers like Ned Beatty, Jason Robards, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, and Robert Walden, and Jane Alexander — all giving effectively low-key and realistic performances.   The end result is a film that manages to be exciting and fascinating to those of us who really don’t have any reason to care about Richard Nixon or Watergate.

Both of these two films were nominated for best picture.  Frost/Nixon quite rightly lost to Slumdog MillionaireAll The President’s Men, on the other hand, lost to Rocky.

6 Quickies With Lisa Marie: Atlas Shrugged, Beautiful Boy, Crazy Stupid Love, The Devil’s Double, Sarah’s Key, and Water For Elephants


For my first post-birthday review post, I want to take a look at 6 films that I saw earlier this year but, for whatever reason, I haven’t gotten a chance to review yet.  My goal has been to review every single 2011 release that I’ve seen this year.  So far, I’ve only seen 106 2011 films and I still need to review 21 of them.  So, without further ado, let’s “gang bang this baby out” as a former employer of mine used to say. (*Shudder*  Seriously, what a creepy thing to say…)

1) Atlas Shrugged, Part One (dir. by Paul Johansson)

What to say about Atlas Shrugged, Part One?  When I recently rewatched it OnDemand with a friend of mine who had just gotten back from Occupying somewhere, he threw a fit as soon as he heard wealthy 1 percenter Graham Beckel declaring, “I am on strike!”  When I first saw it earlier in the year, in a theater full of strangers, they broke out into applause when they heard the same line.  Atlas Shrugged is a wonderfully divisive film.   If you’re a political person, your enjoyment of this film will probably come down to which news network  you watch. If you enjoy those MSNBC spots where Rachel Maddow won’t shut up about the freakin’ Hoover Dam, you’ll probably hate Atlas Shrugged.  If you truly believe that Fox News is “fair and balanced,” chances are you’ll enjoy it.  But what if you’re like me and the only politics you follow are the politics of film and you only bow at the altar of cinema?  Well, I enjoyed Atlas Shrugged because the film really is a grindhouse film at heart.  It’s an uneven, low-budget film that has a few good performances (Beckel and Taylor Schilling), several bad performances, and ultimately, it goes totally against what establishment films have conditioned us to expect when we go to the movies.  Ultimately, the film is a big middle finger extended at both the film and the political establishments and who can’t get behind that?  Add to that, Roger Ebert hated it and when was the last time he was right about anything?

2) Beautiful Boy (dir. by Shawn Ku)

I’ve read a lot of rapturous reviews of this film online and my aunt Kate loved it when she saw it at the Dallas Angelika earlier this year.  So, admittedly, when I watched this film via OnDemand, I had pretty high hopes and expectations but, unfortunately, none of those expectations came anywhere close to being met.  In the film, two of my favorite performers — Michael Sheen and Maria Bello — play the middle-class parents who have to deal with the consequences (both emotional and physical) of a terrible crime perpetrated by their son.  The film is based on the Virginia Tech massacre and both Sheen and Bello give excellent performances but overall, the film feels like a thoroughly shallow exploration of some various serious issues.  Ultimately, the film’s refusal to provide an explanation for the crime feels less like a brave, artistic choice and more like a cop-out.  The film is less abstract than Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique but it’s also a lot less effective.

3)Crazy, Stupid Love (dir. by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra)

I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive Steve Carell for abandoning The Office and forcing upon me the current, almost painful season of the show.  Still, I can’t totally blame him because the guy is totally a film star and he proves it in Crazy, Stupid Love by holding his own with other certifiable film stars like Ryan Gosling, Kevin Bacon, Marisa Tomei, Julianne Moore, and Emma Stone.  In the film, Julianne Moore plays Carell’s wife who leaves him for a coworker (played by Kevin Bacon, doing his charming jerk routine).  The depressed Carell is taken under the wing of womanizer Gosling who teaches Carell how to be more confident and appealing.  Things seem to be working out well until Gosling starts going out with Carell’s daughter (played by Emma Stone).  The movie, itself, isn’t anything special and it’s really kind of a mess but it’s saved by a massively appealing cast.  And, by the way, Ryan Gosling —très beau!  Seriously.

4) The Devil’s Double (dir. by Lee Tamahori)

Taking place in pre-Desert Storm Iraq, The Devil’s Double claims to tell the true story of Latif Yahia, an Iraqi who was forced to serve as the double for the sociopathic young dictator-in-training Uday Hussien.  I’ve read that there’s some debate as to how faithful The Devil’s Double is to the facts of the story and it is true that Latif is portrayed as being almost too good to be true but no matter.  The Devil’s Double is a compelling and oddly fascinating little gangster film, one that manages to show the dangerous appeal of the excessive lifestyle of a man like Uday Hussien without ever actually being seduced by it.   The film is dominated by Dominic Cooper, who gives a great performance playing both the tortured Latif and the cheerfully insane Uday. 

5) Sarah’s Key (dir by Gilles Paquet-Brenner)

Sarah’s Key tells two stories at once and, the result, is a film that feels very schizophrenic in quality.  The better part of the film deals with Sarah, a 10 year-old Jewish girl living in Nazi-occupied France.  When Sarah and her parents are sent to a concentration camp, her younger brother is left behind in Paris.  Sarah eventually manages to escape and desperately tries to get back to Paris to rescue her brother.  Meanwhile, in the modern-day, a journalist (Kristen Scott Thomas) researches Sarah’s story and discovers that her French husband’s family has a connection of their own with Sarah’s story.  The film is compelling and heart-breaking as long as it concentrates on Sarah but, unfortunately, the modern-day scenes feel forced and predictable and the end result is a film that’s never quite as good as it obviously could have been.

6) Water For Elephants (dir. by Francis Lawrence)

Look, I make no apologies — I freaking loved this movie.  Yes, plotwise, this film feels almost like a parody and yes, so much of this film was over-the-top and kinda silly but I don’t care.  I loved this film for the old-fashioned, melodramatic, and rather campy spectacle that it is.  Robert Pattinson plays a Depression-era Ivy League college student-turned-hobo who ends up joining the circus and falling in love with Reese Whitherspoon, the wife of insane circus owner, Christoph Waltz.  Pattinson isn’t much of an actor but he’s easy on the eyes and he and Whitherspoon have just enough chemistry to remain watchable.  The film, however, is totally dominated by Waltz who is both charming and scary.  The next time your man makes you sit through anything starring Jason Statham, you make him watch Water for Elephants.