Get reviews on many films (in theaters or on DVD and video) at Drew's Reviews. I am an avid film fan of many years. I offer my humble opinion on the latest and greatest that cinema has to offer. Enjoy several categories of reviews, including: NEW IN THEATERS, ART HOUSE OFFERINGS, CLASSICS CORNER, DVD/VIDEO, and MY PERSONAL FAVORITES. Comments are welcome!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

DVD/VIDEO: Reservation Road


Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Connelly, Mira Sorvino, Elle Fanning, Eddie Alderson

Director: Terry George

Review: On rare occasions, I encounter a film that has the ability to administer an emotional punch to the gut that is so powerful and deeply felt that it leaves the viewer almost breathless. Such experiences take cinema to a level of authenticity that is as welcome as it is intimidating. While the honesty and vulnerability of such films are refreshing, they also challenge us to look within and examine our own frailty, fallibility, and need for redemption. Reservation Road, adapted from a novel by John Burnham Schwartz and directed by Terry George (Hotel Rwanda), is one of those films.

At a lean 100 minutes, Reservation Road examines with uncommon insight and unsettling intensity the aftermath of a tragic hit-and-run accident from two intriguing and heart-breaking angles: that of the preteen victim's parents and sister, and that of the driver, who is himself a loving father to a pre-teenage son.

The approach taken by George, whose Hotel Rwanda is one of the most intense and least graphic films about genocide ever made, is understated but creates a profound impact. The drama is high but never feels manipulative or contrived. Similarly, the cinematography and underscore never intrude on the storytelling but instead support it in an almost imperceptible manner. John Lindley's camerawork provides a chillingly beautiful and barren landscape in which to hold this dark, sad story, and film score heavyweight Mark Isham (October Sky, Crash) fashions simple, mournful tones that, while not memorable in and of themselves, dovetail perfectly with the movie's themes of grief, anger, guilt, and ultimately, hope.

While strengths indeed, the aforementioned qualities fade in comparison with the performances in Reservation Road. Portraying Ethan Learner (the father whose son has been snatched prematurely from his care), Joaquin Phoenix captures the essence of a man who subverts the pain of his loss with a formidable loathing for the person who destroyed his family. Phoenix's rage is palpable, but thankfully he keeps the character's humanity just visible enough so as to avoid rendering Ethan unsympathetic.

Although Phoenix's work is strong here, the film belongs to Ruffalo and Connelly. Ruffalo, typically an engaging everyman, puts his abilities in this regard to great effect as Dwight Arno, the scruffy, down-and-out dad to a bright and engaging preteen boy (Eddie Alderson, refreshingly unlike most modern movie children). Ruffalo's haunted and haunting portrayal takes us deep into Dwight's fear, guilt, and despair, daring us to look beyond our own anger at his failure to take responsibility and witness the broken and pitiable man within.

However, it is Connelly who is most shattering as Grace Learner, the grieving mother searching for a way to heal her family as her husband spins out of control in his understandable but destructive hatred for their son's killer. Blending the crushed spirit of Marion Silver from Requiem for a Dream with the fortitude of Alicia Nash in A Beautiful Mind, Connelly aces every scene she is in. In an Oscar-caliber performance, the actress breaks our hearts with her raw anguish while inspiring sympathy and respect for her ability to weather the grief process with courage and dignity. It is a shame that Connelly was not recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for her flawless work in this film.

Finally, what makes Reservation Road so successful is the manner in which it handles the discomfort and truth of dichotomy. Much as we are asked to do in life, the film invites us to hold in our hands both compassion and righteous indignation, vengeance and forgiveness, a desire for justice and a need for mercy, the fire of hatred and the cleansing rain of love. While the film's conclusion is a bit abrupt and offers more of a hint than a full resolution, director George sets Reservation Road firmly on the path to redemption and healing, and for this, he deserves praise indeed.

Rating: **** 1/2 (out of *****)

R, for intense thematic material, some language, and a brief accident scene

Saturday, October 06, 2007

NEW FOR 2009

Hello, movie fans!

I have been absent from the site for some time. Life has been exceptionally busy, with family, work, school, and internship taking the bulk of my attention. However, with my graduation less than two months away, I am ready to get back into the swing with movie and DVD reviews! As always, I love hearing your comments. Discussing films (and their implications) is truly one of my favorite pastimes.

So, welcome back, and I wish you all the best in 2009! Here's hoping for a great year of film!

Friday, October 05, 2007

ART HOUSE OFFERINGS: Into The Wild (2007)


My Rating: ***** (out of *****)

Starring: Emile Hirsch, Catherine Keener, Marica Gay Harden, Jena Malone, William Hurt, Kristen Stewart, Brian Dierker, Hal Holbrook

Director: Sean Penn

My Review: Sean Penn's brutally beautiful Into the Wild will capture the soul of any true lover of nature, adventure, and mystery. Contrary to what some reviewers have expressed, I did not see Penn's adaptation of Jon Krakauer's 1995 bestseller as idolizing Christopher McCandless, the film's central figure who completely cuts himself off from his dysfunctional family to pursue a life in the wild, forgotten places of America. Rather, McCandless (beautifully and charismatically portrayed by Emile Hirsch) is a real person, following the call of the wild in his heart, while, at the same time, punishing his family for their sins and deftly avoiding the deep emotional connection that he realizes, too late, is the goal behind all of his striving.

Chris's journey is at once exhilarating, heartbreaking, devastating, and redemptive. And Penn's incredibly honest and realistic script does a great service to all of the characters involved. There are no villians here, only human lives, working toward some sense of peace, identity, and meaning.

The acting is flawless. Besides the aforementioned Hirsch, every actor is spot on. William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden, as McCandless' parents, take what could have been caricatures and flesh them out, making them gut-wrenchingly real. We truly experience the ache of longing that Jena Malone as McCandless' sister has for her wandering brother. Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker hit just the right notes as a hippie couple with whom Chris bonds. But Hal Holbrook almost steals the movie from Hirsch as an older man whom McCandless befriends prior to his ultimately fatal trek into the Alaskan wilderness. Holbrook should win this year's best supporting actor Oscar, and Hirsch just might deserve that title for leading actor.

The photography is breathtaking, made even more authentic by the fact that Penn shot on location in every area of the country that Chris ventured to. We are literally right there with Chris on every step of his spiritual odyssey. The music sets the right tone of reflective wistfulness and melancholy. And, perhaps best of all, the sweet love of God touches this movie in a miraculous and profound way that takes what could have been a dispiriting and somewhat pointless conclusion, transforming it and all that has come before into an exquisite portrait of the wayward soul's spiritual journey back to the One who formed it.

The year's very best. Period.

R, for some strong language, several scenes of extensive naturalistic nudity, thematic material, and some gruesome images

Sunday, November 26, 2006

DVD/VIDEO: World Trade Center


My Rating: ***** (out of *****)
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Jay Hernandez, Nicky Katt, Stephen Dorff, Frank Whaley
Director: Oliver Stone

My Review:
When I first heard that Oliver Stone was directing a movie about events surrounding the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I was skeptical at best, deeply concerned at worst. With Mr. Stone’s history, I expected a manipulative, politically slanted, less than truthful film that would probably provoke indignation and anger in me. Throw in Nicolas Cage, one of my least favorite actors, and I was pretty much counting this one as a total bust.

World Trade Center just goes to show that positive change is possible, and miracles do happen. Deeply personal and beautifully honest, the second major motion picture of 2006 to address that fateful day in world history is arguably the best film of the year. WTC is also a perfect companion piece to this year’s earlier 9/11 movie, United 93. Both films take very different approaches to the subject. For example, United 93 plays like a documentary, capturing the raw confusion, horror, and bravery present on that day, while WTC focuses specifically on two families and their fight to survive the terrors of the attack, physically as well as spiritually. The films are alike in that they both focus on telling a story about what happened that day, avoiding politicization and emphasizing instead the triumph of courage and faith over hatred and hopelessness. Both films thus honor those who perished and those who survived, reminding a nation that seems to suffer from short-term memory loss to never forget.

Nicolas Cage actually turns in a solid performance as John McLaughlin, a NYFD fire chief who gets caught in the rubble of one of the collapsed towers with Will Jimeno (Pena, who was excellent in Crash and is equally effective here), a young Port Authority police officer. The movie shows us the events of the day as they would have been experienced by these two ordinary men, from the humdrum beginnings of just another September day, to the shock and chaos on the streets of New York as the towers are hit, to the eerie quiet of being buried alive beneath the rubble of a 110-story building.

Stone guides us through these scenarios with seemingly effortless grace. It is to his great credit that we are placed in the middle of the events without ever becoming distracted from the humanity of the characters. He is greatly aided by first-timer Andrea Berloff’s exceptional screenplay, which thankfully dodges the common pitfalls of disaster-themed movies, not the least of which are melodrama and kitsch. In addition to remaining single-minded and pure in her approach, Ms. Berloff does something wonderfully refreshing in today’s politically correct climate: She not only depicts people relying on their faith in God to get through life, but also gives credit to the subject of their faith. What a concept!

Attention is also given to the families of these men, waiting in helpless agony for any news of the men they love, hoping against hope that they are alive but preparing for the worst. Gyllenhaal and Bello portray Allison Jimeno and Donna McLaughlin, respectively. The former is a vision of spunk and tenacity, and Gyllenhaal nails the character on the head. Bello, fresh from her Oscar-worthy turn in A History of Violence, reveals again that she is an actress to watch. The scene where she shares an angry comradery with another woman waiting for news of her loved one that melts into gut-wrenching remorse for her last words having been angry ones is shattering and utterly brilliant.

The remaining cast members depict miscellaneous police, firefighters, and rescue workers, most notably Michael Shannon as ex-Marine Dave Karnes, who feels inspired by God to go and look for survivors among the ashes. Also noteworthy is Craig Armstrong’s simple and elegiac score, which is pitch perfect for the reverent and ultimately hopeful tone of this exquisite memorial to those who died and those who still live.

PG-13, for intense emotional and thematic elements, depiction of the aftermath of terrorist attacks with related images of destruction, death, and gory wounds, and for some language

Monday, October 09, 2006

DVD/VIDEO: The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio


My Rating: **** ½ (out of *****)
Starring: Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Trevor Morgan, Ellary Porterfield
Director: Jane Anderson

My Review:
When this unassuming little flick barely made a blip on the movie radar in 2005, I was mildly interested due to the cast, but didn’t make the effort to get out the art house circuit and see it. What a shame, because Prize Winner is one of the year’s very best films.

Julianne Moore does it again, turning in yet another stellar performance as Evelyn Ryan, a real-life 1950’s homemaker who is forced to use everything she has to provide for her ten children, as her husband Kelly (a remarkable and heartfelt Woody Harrelson) is, as the AA Big Book states, an alcoholic of the hopeless variety. At a time when women were still often seen as less than in comparison with men, Evelyn carries the additional weight of being treated as if she is somehow to blame for her husband’s inability to provide.

Evelyn already does everything for her family, but Kelly keeps paying out more for booze than he brings in. So, Evelyn uses her knack for concocting catchy phrases to enter contests for commercial jingles. Ultimately, the Ryans are faced with multiple threats of loss, and each time, it is Evelyn’s courage, hope, wordsmithing, and ruthlessly positive outlook that keep them afloat during the most tumultuous storms of circumstance.

Evelyn is a woman of remarkable character. Whether Kelly is whining piteously, begging for forgiveness, offering empty promises of “I’ll change,” or frightening the kids with one of his drunken rampages, Evelyn never once belittles or undermines her husband. She speaks the truth, to be sure, but does so in a way that will not cause any more damage to his standing with the children than he has already caused himself. She consistently displays incredible innovation, unflappable optimism, razor-sharp intelligence, and Christ-like servant leadership - even to the one who causes her the most harm - over and over and over again.

Writer and director Jane Anderson has taken Terry Ryan’s memoirs of her own experiences with her mother and fashioned them into an uncommonly warm and loving tribute to moms, and indeed to all who selflessly seek to serve others, forgive “a multitude of sins,” and not let life’s difficulties rob them of its joys. Julianne Moore perfectly embodies these characteristics as Evelyn, a woman who manages to triumph even while faced with more than her share of shattered hopes and dreams. Moore captures the almost psychotic cheeriness of the 1950’s media portrayals of housewives (and of women in general), but rather than going to the extremes of skewering or blindly idealizing, she puts flesh and blood behind the twinkling smiles and colorful pinafores, showing us a real woman who fought real battles, but also found genuine happiness and peace in her life. Hers is the privilege of portraying one of the most heroic characters in film history, and Moore pulls it off without a hitch.

Much praise is also due to Anderson’s beautiful screen adaptation, confident and balanced direction, and courageously creative choice to tell this sometimes dark and intense story using the cheery media clichés of the era to do so. Anderson achieves some nice irony by doing the latter, but never becomes biting or sarcastic in the process. No, Anderson is concerned with truth here. Yes, the family suffers great hardships. Yes, Kelly causes much pain due to his addiction. But Anderson doesn’t do what lesser filmmakers would have done by stooping to the level of easy potshots or windy feminist rhetoric. Like Evelyn, she proves herself a woman of character by bestowing compassion upon all of her principals, and in so doing, manages to craft a film that is light, breezy, heartbreaking, gritty, beautiful, fun, humorous, devastating, nostalgic, and richly rewarding, all at once. By uncomfortably but truthfully juxtaposing oceans of suffering with islands of rapturous, life-giving joy, Prize Winner gives us a film that deserves to be seen and honored. It is an absolute must.

PG-13, for mature thematic elements, domestic conflict involving aggressive and sometimes frightening behavior, some strong language, and a disturbing image

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

CAPTION REVIEWS: Nacho Libre, Superman Returns, Monster House, The Benchwarmers

Summer Captions

This summer seems to have gotten away from me in terms of keeping up with my movie reviews. That being the case, I’ve decided to offer brief reviews on four films viewed between June and August.


My Rating: **** (out of *****)
Starring: Jack Black, Ana de la Reguera, Hector Jimenez, Cesar Gonzalez, Peter Stormare
Director: Jared Hess

My Review:
Nacho Libre is a supremely silly comedy about a Mexican friar (Jack Black, utterly hysterical) who falls for a lovely nun (Ana de la Reguera, the latest Salma Hayek, Penelope Cruz, Jennifer Lopez, et al) and dreams of becoming a wrestler, or luchador, so that he can “get some respect.” Nacho hooks up with a scrawny street urchin named Esqueleto (Jimenez, whose expressions alone bring more laughs than most movies do in their entirety), and together, they enter the colorful world of Lucha Libre prize fighting. Nacho’s double life (he cooks for the orphans in his village by day while wrestling at night) can’t last forever, but all ends well when he decides to use the money he gains from fighting to serve the orphans.

As one would expect from the director of Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre maintains a bizarre, wacky sensibility throughout (the twin midget fighters, the lady who burrows through tunnels, the corncob in the eye, etc.). Nacho is more mainstream in that its lead character, unlike Napoleon’s grating, obnoxious central figure, is a lovable loser. Jack Black owns this movie, and his Nacho is a riot from first frame to last, whether he’s ungraciously jiggling his stomach flab, tauting his large posterior while wearing white “stretchy pants,” improvising a song about his beloved, or passing gas as he attacks his opponents.

Take these assets and toss in the delightfully absurd soundtrack (bravo Danny Elfman!), a goofy sense of sweetness, and some hilariously staged fight sequences, and you end up with the funniest and most enjoyable comedy in years.

PG, for crude humor and innuendo, and for comical action violence


My Rating: **** ½ (out of *****)
Starring: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, James Marsden, Kevin Spacey, Parker Posey, Frank Langella, Sam Huntington
Director: Bryan Singer

My Review:
Superman was my hero growing up. Ever since I first heard John Williams’ immortal theme and saw Christopher Reeve saving Metropolis and fighting for Truth, Justice, and The American Way, I was hooked. In fact, I was such an avid fan that I viewed Superman: The Movie and Superman II more than 100 times each before the age of 15. All this to say, when I learned that a new Superman was hitting the screens, I faced a multitude of emotions ranging from excitement to fear. Thankfully, a few missteps notwithstanding, the filmmakers have fashioned a worthy follow-up to the originals, creating one of the best superhero movies ever made in the process.

Returns picks up five years after Superman II concluded (III and IV are ignored – yea!). Shortly after defeating the three villains from Superman II, Superman (newcomer Brandon Routh – who literally seems to channel Chris Reeve at times) disappeared on a journey of self discovery. Upon returning five years later (which is where this movie starts), the Man of Steel finds that the world has learned to live without him. In particular, Superman's former flame Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth, not bad, but woefully miscast) has a young son, is engaged to be married to Perry White’s nephew (James Marsden, thankfully not caricatured as the inadequate boyfriend), and has won the Pulitzer for an article entitled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” Also, that old baddie Lex Luthor (Spacey, effective but not quite as fun as Gene Hackman) has escaped from prison and is up to his old tricks of total world domination. Of these issues – corruption and lack of faith – the former seems like a breeze compared with the latter, and how our hero addresses these concerns is what makes Superman Returns not only a great comic book action movie, but a rich, layered dramatic success as well.

Besides being a little low on humor (which the earlier films had in abundance), the greatest flaw in Bryan Singer’s new version is that he has missed the boat on the character of Lois Lane. Kate Bosworth does not do a bad job at all. It’s just that she is not Lois Lane. The endearing goofiness, the zest, the lack of self-consciousness, the originality – all of these have been replaced with a thoroughly grounded, highly accomplished, wholly modern female lead who is much more elegant but much less interesting than Margot Kidder’s rendition in the earlier films.

The experience of seeing this film in the theater - hearing those familiar, majestic tones of John Williams' classic themes, seeing the opening credits fly at the screen as they did in the earlier films, and catching Superman’s smile as he flies past the earth before the closing titles – was pure magic for me. Besides the nostalgia factor, which is quite high, Superman Returns is a great film in its own right. The story is interesting, the acting solid, the emotions complex, the action exciting and exquisitely staged, and the Christological elements fascinating. In fact, the scenes in which the latter are portrayed visually are the most haunting and beautiful in the entire film.

PG-13, for some intense action violence, thematic elements, mild language including a few suggestive references, and brief partial nudity


My Rating: *** ½ (out of *****)
Starring (vocal talents): Mitchel Musso, Sam Lerner, Spencer Locke, Steve Buscemi, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Kevin James, Nick Cannon, Jason Lee, Jon Heder, Kathleen Turner, Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara
Director: Gil Kenan

My Review:
A children’s horror movie? A bit of an oxymoron, wouldn’t you say? But director Gil Kenan and writers Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab, and Pamela Pettler have constructed exactly that with Monster House, a twisted, inventive, exquisitely animated feature that seems to take its cues from the Tim Burton school of filmmaking.

This delightfully demented and extremely watchable movie explores one of the hallmarks of childhood: the dilapidated old house that everyone says is haunted but no one dares to enter. DJ and Chowder (perfectly voiced by Musso and Lerner) are two young friends on the verge of pre-adolescence. Left alone with a mean-spirited babysitter for the weekend preceding Halloween, the boys – with help from a neighbor girl who has captured both of their fancies – set out to investigate the mystery of the house that literally seems to have a life of its own. What they find is, to say the least, disturbing, but the tone stays relatively light throughout, and of course, things work out okay in the end. An abundance of humor along the way also keeps things from getting too freaky. Think of it as Poltergeist Lite.

First, the pro’s: The animation is utterly spectacular. The characters move with remarkable fluidity, and the look is astonishingly realistic even while maintaining an appropriately cartoonish feel. Also, the script is frequently insightful and hilarious, the scares are spooky and fun, the vocal talents considerable (especially Lerner, with additional kudos to Nick Cannon and Kevin James as a pair of bumbling cops), and the vision exciting. This is one of the more invigorating films of the summer.

The con’s: This movie is entirely too dark and creepy for younger kids, who unfortunately make up the bulk of the targeted audience. Some of the story’s twists and turns are bizarre and troubling, and the excess of adult references (including, but not limited to, manslaughter, possession, extramarital affairs, a drunken, groping boyfriend, unrebuked lying and manipulation, misuse of pharmaceuticals by young children, voyeurism, etc.) easily push Monster House into PG-13 territory. Finally, the caricature of adults and law enforcement as consistently clueless, shallow, and helpless is tiresome and inappropriate for the impressionable young children that will consume this product.

All in all, Monster House is a unique, fun, and frothy summer concoction of thrills and chuckles, with cautions for younger audiences as noted.

PG (unwisely), for mature thematic elements, bizarre and frightening moments with some related violence and mayhem, crude humor and innuendo, and some language


My Rating: ½ (out of *****)
Starring: Rob Schneider, David Spade, Jon Heder, Jon Lovitz, Molly Sims, Tim Meadows, Craig Kilborn, Nick Swardson
Director: Dennis Dugan

My Review:
There’s not a lot to say about this movie. First and foremost, it sucks. Really, really bad. Even in the company of such lowbrow comedies as Dumb and Dumber or Tommy Boy, this movie falls embarrassingly and hopelessly short.

To attempt to describe the plot of The Benchwarmers is essentially pointless. The simple fact is that there really isn’t one. Basically, a former bully (Schneider) pairs up with a couple of big time nerds (Spade, in the grossest wig ever, and Heder, who fares the best out of anyone in this god-awful movie, but that’s NOT saying much) to empower an up-and-coming generation of geeks by joining their baseball team and playing against the big, bad bully kids, who have clearly learned their abusive behavior from their own reprehensible fathers. Throw in bald-faced mockery and stereotyping of homosexuals, women, short people, and the mentally challenged, to name a few, and you have 85 excruciating minutes of “comedy.”

I guess that somewhere, somehow, this high concept could have generated some humorous episodes. Alas, there is barely a chuckle to be had. In fact, the filmmakers try so hard to elicit laughs that one feels repeatedly punched in the gut by the director’s disingenuous attempts. They are 99% unsuccessful, and the result is bruising and painful. Finally, the acting is atrocious, the pacing choppy, the jokes unfunny and/or offensive, the emotion hackneyed, and the technical qualities lacking. Steer clear, if you know what’s good for you.

PG-13, for language, crude and sex-related humor, and some comic violence

DVD/VIDEO: The Omen (2006)

THE OMEN (2006)

My Rating: *** ½ (out of *****)
Starring: Liev Schreiber, Julia Stiles, Mia Farrow, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Pete Postlethwaite, David Thewlis, Michael Gambon
Director: John Moore

My Review:
For the record, I’m getting just as tired of Hollywood’s fascination with remakes as you are. Usually, they’re not even remakes of good movies (consider director John Moore’s previous offering – The Flight of the Phoenix – a tepid remake of an equally tepid film). So, when I discovered that a new version of the 1976 horror classic The Omen was hitting theaters on June 6, 2006 (6-6-06, easily one of the most ingenious marketing gimmicks in motion picture history), I was little more than amused. Alas, being a horror buff and a fan of the original, I couldn’t resist.

Using David Seltzer’s original screenplay almost word for word and shot for shot, director Moore has reimagined rather than remade Richard Donner’s earlier film, assembling an impressive, big-name cast and weaving a stylish, mesmerizing atmosphere to give the somewhat tired proceedings a bit of an edge.

Schreiber, relatively solid here, fills in for Gregory Peck as Robert Thorn, the American Ambassador in London who slowly begins to suspect that his young child Damien (Davey-Fitzpatrick) may be the Antichrist foretold in Scripture. Thorn’s wife Kathy (a passable Julia Stiles) knows that something is wrong with Damien before her husband does. The old “everyone including my own husband ignores the obvious signs that we have hell-child on our hands and thinks I’m totally losing it” ploy is milked for all its worth, and is actually relatively effective here. I usually can’t stand Julia Stiles. I think she’s one of the most wooden actresses around. But, to her and director John Moore’s credit, we actually feel pity for her hopeless plight.

As mentioned, due to the fact that we who have seen the original already know everything that’s going to happen (and even those who haven’t will probably figure it out pretty quickly), this 2006 version is all about the mood and the actors. The aforementioned principals are decent, but the supporting players really get to shine. Pete Postlethwaite is perfect as the tortured Father Brennan, and David Thewlis (in an unusual “good guy” role) almost seems like the reincarnation of David Warner from the original movie.

Not surprisingly, Mia Farrow steals the film as Mrs. Baylock, the deceptively sweet new nanny who turns out to be a demonic agent sent to insure that no one harms little Damien. Billie Whitelaw, who originated the role in the 1976 version, was truly terrifying, but also totally obvious. Farrow’s Baylock is actually believable as a seemingly loving guardian who could dupe parents as attentive as the Thorns are. That doesn’t, however, mean there isn’t plenty of room for scenery-chewing, which Farrow does with delightfully demented relish. Every scene with her is a wickedly guilty pleasure.

Atmospherics are top notch, including a tantalizing obsession with the color red (it pervades this movie like a plague), a handful of brilliant set pieces (the famous balcony sequence, a couple of eerily perverted dreamscapes, a mournfully lonely old church and graveyard, and the ear-splitting thunderstorm in which Father Brennan meets his unhappy demise), and effective use of lighting and camera techniques.

All in all, the film’s greatest misstep comes with Moore’s philosophies on how to coach the young actor portraying Damien. In my humble opinion, the spawn of Satan in human form should be attractive and normal-looking. After all, the Devil was an angel before he fell, and evil often appears to be beautiful. As directed by Moore and acted by Davey-Fitzpatrick, Damien is perpetually scowling, with sunken bug eyes and a plastered-on frown. He comes across as annoying rather than frightening, which is most unfortunate as it mutes some of the potential thrills offered by this movie. Still, The Omen 2006 is a happy diversion for genre lovers and those who enjoyed the original.

R, for moments of gruesome horror-style violence and gore, some disturbing imagery, brief strong language, and mature thematic elements

Sunday, August 06, 2006

DVD/VIDEO: Freedomland


My Rating: **** (out of *****)
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Julianne Moore, Edie Falco, Ron Eldard, William Forsythe
Director: Joe Roth

My Review:
For all those film fans who haven’t yet heard of it, there’s a great website called Rotten Tomatoes ( Film critics across the country say “yea” or “nay” to a movie, and Rotten Tomatoes makes an average of these numbers, assigning an overall percentage rating to the film. A 60% or higher positive average deems the picture “fresh,” while those let fortunate are labeled “rotten.” Cute. Generally, those films that are designated “rotten,” especially if their percentile rating is extremely low, tend to be just that. With a whopping 25%, one would expect Freedomland - a gritty, racially themed drama – to be a surefire dud. It is anything but.

Directed by Joe Roth and based upon a novel by Richard Price, Freedomland features a solid Sam Jackson as Lorenzo, a New Jersey police detective who is called upon to investigate a child abduction case that threatens to rip the already strained community apart with its explosive racial issues. Brenda (Julianne Moore), the mother of the abducted child, claims that a black man took her son. The predominately African-American community threatens to riot. Brenda seems anything but trustworthy – she is shifty, hysterical, and her story doesn’t make a lot of sense. But something about this poor woman’s plight captures Lorenzo, who gives Brenda the benefit of the doubt even when it is against his better judgment to do so. The mystery unravels in a way that may not be totally unexpected, but is startling, tragic, and magnificently redemptive nonetheless.

The story of Freedomland is certainly strong, and the themes, while familiar, are important and timely (though the filmmakers do produce some trite moments in this regard). But this movie’s real strength lies in its female performances. Jackson, a decent if overrated actor, does fine with his part. Ron Eldard and William Forsythe, both good actors, are woefully underused. But Julianne Moore again reminds us that she is one of today’s finest actresses with a performance that virtually flays the viewer with its raw intensity and power. Moore is brave here, willing to be downright ugly (emotionally more than physically) at times in her depiction of a mother on the edge. Her pivotal scene comes two-thirds of the way through the movie, and it is more than worth the wait. In this exquisite and unforgettable sequence, Moore takes us into the depths of an emotional hell, churning up conflicting feelings of disgust and pity that vacillate at the turn of a sentence.

Edie Falco, also a tremendous performer, snatches ever scene she appears in as the steely head of a mysterious coalition of parents who have each had a child go missing. The scene in which Falco smoothly and icily attempts to get some difficult information from Moore’s character is simply and utterly breathtaking.

For all its dark, heavy material, Freedomland turns out to be a remarkably positive experience. Lorenzo’s faith in God sees him through a series of severe trials, and though broken and wounded for what he has endured, Lorenzo is able, humbly, to extend a hand of grace to the distressed, disheveled, and hopeless Brenda, and in so doing, extends that hand to himself. The closing sequences of Freedomland are bleakly beautiful and ruthlessly hopeful.

R, for an abundance of strong language, mature subject matter, and violence, including disturbing descriptions of violent acts

Sunday, June 18, 2006

DVD/VIDEO: Flight 93

FLIGHT 93 (2006)

My Rating: *** (out of *****)
Starring: Brennan Elliott, Kendall Cross, Ty Olsson, Monnae Michaell, April Telek, Colin Glazer, Meghan Heffern, Laura Mennell
Director: Peter Markle

My Review:
Flight 93, the first non-documentary film to focus on some of the events surrounding 9/11, originally aired on A&E in January 2006 to the tune of some 5.9 million viewers (a record for the cable network). Three months later, Paul Greengrass’ superlative United 93 hit movie houses to become the first theatrical release to tell the story of the only hijacked aircraft on September 11, 2001, that did not reach its predetermined target.

Perhaps unfortunately, I happened to view Greengrass’ film first, and, sadly, Flight 93 pales in comparison. I’m not exactly sure why I had the reaction to this film that I did. I expected to be blown away, as I had been with United 93 and with Jules and Gedeon Naudet’s astonishing documentary 9/11. My reaction was, instead, strangely muted. Perhaps it was my expectations after seeing those other films. Or maybe it was the subpar production values and sometimes unconvincing acting in this made-for-TV version. My reverence for and belief in the importance of the subject matter might also have had an effect. Perhaps it was a combination of all of these factors. No matter what way you slice it, Flight 93 doesn’t come close to creating the emotional impact that is offered by its theatrical and documentary counterparts.

The stories in this film and in Greengrass’ version are identical, though – where United 93 spends a great deal of time addressing the chaos experienced by air traffic controllers, military personnel, and ground crews - Flight 93 chooses to emphasize the passengers and their families (the latter are neither seen nor heard in Greengrass’ film). Portions of each film play like carbon copies of one another (the terrorists’ somber preparations, the initial upset on the doomed aircraft, and the desperate final attempt of the passengers to thwart their captors), though the aforementioned differences in focus make each one a totally separate and unique viewing experience.

Director Peter Markle’s decision to give special attention to the families of Flight 93’s doomed passengers is certainly a noble one. The film forces us to imagine the horror, powerlessness, and anguish that must have ensued for these people, going through the motions on an ordinary autumn morning only to be called by loved ones who had just been sentenced to die within the hour. And certainly, the sheer power of this subject matter creates some intense emotional moments and reactions. Markle gets a lot of mileage out of Meghan Heffern’s quietly authentic and moving performance as Nicole Miller, and the scene where Todd Beamer (Brennan Elliott) prays with Lisa Jefferson (an effective Monnae Michaell) is simply breathtaking. On the other hand, some of the dialogue and performances feel cramped, forced, stagy, and downright weak, thus giving Flight 93 a tepid movie-of-the-week feel that seriously dilutes its effectiveness at certain points. Also, the sloppiness of some of the scenes (while Nicole Miller’s mom talks to her on the phone, children ride their bikes and play the street, when it is more than likely that they were in school on that Tuesday morning in September 2001) is downright distracting.

Alas, in terms of the movie as a whole, what could have struck with the force of a hurricane merely unsettles us with the impact of a bad thunderstorm. Though this is almost tragic when one considers the magnitude of the events depicted in Flight 93, the fact that the story is being told – with at least some level of skillfulness and power – is reason enough to see the film.

PG-13, for depiction of a terrorist attack with moments of related violence, as well as mature thematic elements, emotional intensity, and some mild language

Sunday, June 11, 2006

NEW IN THEATERS: The Da Vinci Code


My Rating: * ½ (out of *****)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellan, Jean Reno, Paul Bettany, Alfred Molina
Director: Ron Howard

My Review:
So dark the con of man, indeed. This intriguing line from Dan Brown’s bestselling novel is transposed into Ron Howard’s incessantly hyped, critically lambasted, financially successful film adaptation with a piercing irony. The con, it turns out, is not the story’s proclaimed dupe of undiscerning Christian believers by murderous, power-hungry church officials, but rather, the insidious ruse of a clever, forked-tongued author and the filmmakers who have prepared his pseudo-historical fiction for millions of gullible viewers.

The Da Vinci Code’s plot is at once exceedingly complex and shockingly simplistic. Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks, pasty and laconic, but employing enough of his everyman charm to semi-successfully pull off the role) reveals – through a series of car chases, near escapes, and long-winded exposition – “the greatest cover-up in human history” when he and French cryptographer Sophie Neveu (Tautou, losing almost all of her Amelie winsomeness, but solid nonetheless) investigate the bizarre and grotesque murder of Sophie’s grandfather in the bowels of the Louvre museum.

Tracked by a relentless French policeman (Reno, bland) and a psychotic, homicidal, sadomasochistic albino monk of the secretive Catholic order Opus Dei (Bettany, sometimes overacting, mostly frightening), Robert and Sophie join with the eccentric recluse Sir Leigh Teabing (McKellan, always a feisty delight) to learn of the early Christian church’s suppression of the “sacred feminine” and of the “human invention” of Jesus Christ’s divinity, among other things. It all pans out to be a case of the old Gnostic heresies (raised and disproved centuries ago, being almost as ancient as Christianity itself), dressed up in simpering postmodernism that doesn’t say anything definitive about anything, and if it does, clearly highlights the allegedly divine nature of Mary Magdalene over that of Jesus.

So, let’s begin with the notoriously bad reviews received by The Da Vinci Code. Purely as motion picture entertainment, this movie is not nearly as awful as it has been made out to be. The pacing and direction are clunky, with way too much telling and not enough showing, but what is told is interesting. As a result, the film is not boring by any means. The talented cast is underused, but certainly not laughable or lifeless as described by many a critic. Other qualities such as cinematography and music are serviceable if not spectacular.

The real problem with The Da Vinci Code (and thus why it merits a one-and-a-half star rating from this reviewer) is the same as that of its source material: pure fantasy and bald-faced lies using real titles, events, and persons to give the impression – at least on the surface – of suppressed historical fact. Many will surely dismiss the controversy over film and novel with cries of “It’s only fiction.” True. Alas, Dan Brown, while calling his work a “novel,” also states that all of the architecture, rituals, organizations, artwork, and documents described within are “accurate.” Hmm. Sounds like a have-my-cake-and-eat-it-too politician to me. And to be sure, the discerning reader and moviegoer will not be influenced in any way by this preposterous baloney. However, and most unfortunately, the average entertainment consumer does not often question media presentations that appear to be true, especially when they convey such ear-tickling, middle-of-the-road nonsense statements as “Why couldn’t Jesus have been divine and married? Maybe human is divine.” (the aforementioned “simpering postmodernism”).

Hopefully, some moviegoers will be challenged and encouraged to look into the real Jesus as a result of seeing this film. Some will want to know more. But sadly, this movie will probably confirm more doubts and encourage more erroneous beliefs about Christ than it will direct people towards truth. For that reason, and for its wildly imbalanced portrayal of those who do believe in Christ’s divinity as perversely disturbed liars and killers, The Da Vinci Code – which (all other things remaining constant) would have garnered a much higher rating given a more honest approach to the subject matter – gets the dubious distinction of being the worst film I’ve seen so far this year.

PG-13 (a joke – the MPAA should be called to task for making this movie accessible to all ages), for scenes of graphic violence, including a lingering, explicit scene of nude self-flagellation with homoerotic, sadomasochistic overtones, as well as mature subject matter, brief sexuality including verbal references, some language, and a momentary drug reference