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Reviews

Phantom Thread
(2017)

Do it Carefully
Every stitch of the filmmaking (the directing, the photography, the screenplay, the acting, the exquisitely beautiful music from Jonny Greenwood) mirrors the careful threading of fabric and creations of the film's focus: 1950's London dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (played perfectly by Daniel Day Lewis). But writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson flips things on their head by making the new love interest, Alma (an amazing Vicky Krieps), the protagonist...and her emotional chess match with Reynolds creates the film's beautiful, subdued, classy, and darkly humorous suspense.

Fans of refined cinema should rejoice. Phantom Thread is a carefully constructed and mesmerizing masterpiece. It is both unlike anything we've seen before from Paul Thomas Anderson and everything you could hope for from such a talent (the underlying themes carry across from other works, and the attention to detail remains paramount). If this is Daniel Day Lewis' last film (as reported), then he leaves on a very high note.

Quite simply, this is the film of the year...and one of the best of the decade.

Read full reviews at theschleicherspin.com

Mud
(2012)

A Ripping Good Yarn
Jeff Nichols' new film "Mud" is essentially a coming-of-age tale, but it borrows liberally elements of neo-noir, Southern Gothic and melodrama while being filmed as if it was based on some great novel that was never written. It makes for a ripping good yarn that should please a wide audience thirsty for drama with a bit of heart and some sentimentality (without ever being sappy).

The cast works extremely well together under Nichols' direction with McConaughey delivering an Oscar worthy performance as a troubled man hiding out on an island in the Mississippi River who is discovered by two young teenage boys (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland in two winning performances).

You won't want much more spoiled before seeing it. Highly recommended.

Check out full reviews at theschleicherspin.com

Searching for Sugar Man
(2012)

The Power of Art
I love a documentary that is crafted like a fanciful film and not just some series of interviews with people telling a story (though there is some of that here). Amazing cinematography of Detroit USA and Cape Town South Africa is melded with the infectious music of 70's folk-rock singer Rodriguez - an enigmatic figure who never found the fame he deserved in the States and against all odds (and thanks apparently to some piracy) became the musical voice of a generation in apartheid era South Africa.

The film is about the search by some South African journalists for "the real Rodriguez" amidst rumors of his death.

"Searching for Sugar Man" is the best documentary since "Man on Wire" and is a beautiful story about the power of art to cross oceans and time. It proves the old adage - truth is stranger than fiction.

Check out full reviews at theschleicherspin.com

Mama
(2013)

A Huge Waste of Talent
In most horror films there is a suspension of disbelief required. I probably would've been okay with the overly convoluted plot of "Mama" had there been some sense of suspense...but there's never any mystery to it and the clueless director shows us Mama in all her glory in the first five minutes of the film before the opening credits even begin.

Decent cinematography and music score aside, the rest of this film is an absolute mess of clichés and underwritten characters. Poor Jessica Chastain is completely unconvincing as a punk-rock chick turned stepmother to two feral girls who were raised by an irate ghost in the woods. The ghost effects are unimaginative and the back-story of the ghost is one we have heard a million times. The ending is one of the worst of recent memory.

With Del Toro producing, I had expected so much more. This is a complete waste of his name and Chastain's acting talents.

Check out full reviews at theschleicherspin.com

Monsieur Lazhar
(2011)

Fantastic French-Canadian Drama
In Montreal, an Algerian immigrant (with his own tragic past) takes up the teaching post left vacant by a woman who hung herself in her classroom. Superb slice-of-life approach captures the place and the mood perfectly as we see how this new teacher helps the students through their varying degrees of trouble and heartache. Though mostly subtle, the film is not without some emotional powder-keg scenes, especially where a young boy finally breaks down in class and reveals his true emotions.

Discerning viewers will find much to chew on as moments in the film are rendered both troubling and comforting while appealing all too closely to real life.

Check out full reviews at theschleicherspin.com

Lo imposible
(2012)

A Near Perfect Tear-Jerk Thriller
The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami is brought to shockingly realistic life in J. A. Bayona's ten minute sequence near the beginning of the harrowing true-life survival tale, "The Impossible." With little to no CGI and using mostly scale models and a giant water tank, Bayona throws the viewers into the wave along with stars Naomi Watts (astonishing) and young Tom Holland (revelatory as Watts' son). Told from the point of view of a family on holiday in Thailand, the story makes for a riveting family-centered emotional drama. The rest of the cast is outstanding as well, and there's a strong humanist approach applied to depicting this wide-spread multi-national disaster.

It might pull on the heartstrings a bit "too much" in some sequences, but the manipulation is apt in telling this real-life drama.

Overall - an unforgettable, draining but uplifting film experience.

Check out full reviews at theschleicherspin.com

Rare Exports
(2010)

Santa Claus is Coming to Town
On the eve of Christmas and at the height of reindeer hunting season in Finland, a mysterious corporation begins excavating a mountain near the Russian border while a little boy (Onni Tommila - looking like a prince from the kingdom of Bjork) begins reading up on the real story of Santa Claus - a Finnish fiend who kidnaps, boils, and eats all the naughty children - and begins to suspect the foreigners are trying to dig up the evil monster.

Oddly endearing and shockingly sentimental, it's as if the guys from "South Park" decided to make a Steven Spielberg film. Though never laugh-out loud funny and never really scary, the movie is entertaining and clever throughout. I actually enjoyed this better than the similarly-themed Summer Movie Hollywood flip-side that was J. J. Abrams' "Super 8." However, I can't say I wasn't a bit disappointed when it came to the action and gore, which there is a surprising lack of for an R-rated venture such as this.

Regardless, fans of oddball cinema and savvy older kids who aren't too far removed from the myth of Santa Claus should get a mad kick out of this.

Check out full reviews at theschleicherspin.com

Small Town Murder Songs
(2010)

An Undiscovered Country
Coming across films like "Small Town Murder Songs" is akin to the discovery of a new world.

Yet the eeriness lies in the scents of past loves...echoes of the Coen Brother's "Fargo", Reygadas' "Silent Light" and Granik's "Winter's Bone" seep into this film and are as troubling as Jill Hennessy's character's hold over the detective played by Peter Stormare.

I don't know who this Ed Gass-Donnelly is, but he's a director to watch for in the future. Excellent cinematography and a soundtrack of bluesy rock gospel songs that I instantly purchased from iTunes make this tale of murder in a small Ontario Mennonite community stay with you long after its brief run-time expires.

Check out full reviews at theschleicherspin.com

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
(2011)

The Rise of Rupert Wyatt
In only his second film, director Rupert Wyatt (in tandem with smarter than your average producers and the great Weta Digital Effects team) teaches a master course on how to do a reboot/origin story in a way only Christopher Nolan has previously been able to achieve.

Skilled direction, a great performance by Andy Serkis as Caesar, emotionally involving character development, and a clever subversion of expectations help this Apes flick rise above the rest.

Watch out for some plot holes, leaps of logic, a goofy James Franco, and a vacant Freida Pinto...but don't worry, you'll still enjoy the ride.

Check out full reviews at theschleicherspin.com

The Tree of Life
(2011)

A Towering Tree of Life
Malick's trademarks show up in spades: exquisite use of classical music; a soaring/roving camera; an obsession with trees and water and beautiful shots of nature; and a desire to return to an innocence lost.

What makes this different from his other films is how personal it is. When not overwhelming us with ambitious imagery second only to Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" in their cosmic wonders, Malick tells a tale of childhood (probably not too far removed from his own) and of love and loss and growing up in 1950's Texas.

Magical while always staying grounded, philosophical without being didactic, and drenched in melancholy and memory, Malick's latest is a film impossible to forget and demanding of multiple views to take it all in.

Check out full reviews at theschleicherspin.com

Midnight in Paris
(2011)

Meandering Woody Allen in Paris
Charming latter-day Woody Allen film is crafted as a love letter to Paris and nostalgia. Though Owen Wilson (not as bad as he could've been) and Rachel McAdams (lovely but terrible as usual) are miscast, Marion Cotillard is perfect again as a dreamy muse for a writer who wishes he was living in the 1920's.

Though beautifully photographed and with a great soundtrack, this isn't as strong an entry as 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona', but should please Woody Allen fans and anyone who has dreamed of going back in time to more romantic and inspiring days - and nights.

Check out full reviews at theschleicherspin.com

Hævnen
(2010)

Bier Has Been Better
Susanne Bier's latest Danish melodrama, "In a Better World" is both her least stylistic and most didactic. What came across as natural and compelling in past films seems forced here as she weaves a tale of global bullying.

With that being said, Bier is still able to bring forth great performances from her cast (a hallmark of all her films), and the film isn't without its thought-provoking and emotionally resonant moments. It's also bolstered by some beautiful cinematography of both the Danish coastline and unnamed parts of Africa.

If you are uninitiated to Bier and have been provoked by the film's Oscar win to check this out, I highly recommend "Open Hearts" or "After the Wedding" first so that you can get a feel for the totality and high quality of her work.

Check out full reviews at theschleicherspin.com

Hanna
(2011)

Wright on Track
Joe Wright directs his art house action flick turned coming-of-age story "Hanna" as if it's his first film and not his fourth. What results is a visually audacious, occasionally mesmerizing, sometimes maddening, darkly humorous ride that is as hectic as it is haunting.

Great acting from all involved and a killer soundtrack from The Chemical Brothers that is sometimes indistinguishable from the labyrinthine sound design make this film one of the most interesting of the year.

See it with an open mind, look for the overt symbolism and enjoy this modern day Grimm Fairy Tale.

Check out full reviews at theschleicherspin.com

Biutiful
(2010)

Biutiful Layers
Inarritu rebounds in a big way from his babbling "Babel" with this compelling, emotionally draining, haunting and wholly enthralling "Biutiful". This is his most pointedly focused film to date as it tells the story of Uxbal's last days (Javier Bardem - Oscar-worthy) in Barcelona trying to atone for his corrupt life while leaving something meaningful behind for his young children.

It's a harrowing play on the "man-on-a-mission" saga, and Innaritu weaves in many powerful themes on family, legacies, ghosts, curses, corruption and redemption. At times the film feels overstuffed by some side stories involving the exploitation of illegal immigrants (a common Inarritu theme) but these don't take away from Bardem's tour-de-force and the film's heart.

Inarritu constructs his films like a great novelist: revealing visual themes and motifs, utilizing dialogue with double meanings, creating character foils, and developing layers upon layers of interpretation. His films are not for every taste, but well worth it for those looking for something complex, gritty and heartfelt to savor.

Check out full reviews at theschleicherspin.com

127 Hours
(2010)

Harrowing True Life Tale of Survival
Academy-Award winning director Danny Boyle has always been a fan of survival stories. With this reality based tale about Aron Ralston getting literally trapped between a rock and a hard place on a mountain climbing trip in Utah gone horribly wrong, Boyle has finally found a near perfect story to match his over-the-top directorial style.

Apart from the head jarring opening minutes, most of Boyle's usual tricks work very well here. It also helps that James Franco willingly goes gonzo in the lead role. There's real emotion and a zest for life on display...and as gut churning as the end result is...you'll be hard-pressed not to feel uplifted.

Check out full reviews and more at theschleicherspin.com

Fair Game
(2010)

Compelling Domestic Game
If you view Doug Liman's "Fair Game" outside of the politics and controversy around what actually happened, what you get is a solidly directed, well scripted, fantastically acted domestic drama where the wife just happens to be a spy.

As outed CIA-agent Valerie Plame and her diplomat husband Joe Wilson, Naomi Watts and Sean Penn are riveting. They are two professionals at the top of their game, and they play off each other exceptionally well with Watts cool and collected even under the greatest of stress, and Penn fuming and raging against "the machine" that came crashing down on their marriage. With the focus on their relationship, it makes for a compelling drama about two people fighting to stay together.

Liberal bias? That sounds like conservative family values to me.

Check out full reviews at theschleicherspin.com

Rope
(2010)

Great Short Film Leaves You Hanging
Like the best short stories, the best short films are compact, compelling and open-ended. "Rope" - at a tight four minutes - is one such film.

Writer/director Ian Clay makes great use of voice-over narration to bring the audience inside the fractured and troubled internal monologue of a man planning to hang himself. Polished editing and sound design techniques (reminiscent of early Nolan films) highlight the story. There's a bit of mystery (a reference to a girl...and an accident perhaps?) and a surprising visit by a dog in the end...leaving us to wonder...will he or won't he?

For a short film done on the cheap, "Rope" has solid production values and leaves a lasting impression on the viewer.

The Hurt Locker
(2008)

Bigelow Detonates All the Right Marks
Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is the "wild man" team leader who has defused more than eight hundred bombs and has built his reputation on being an adrenaline junkie in order to mask his inability to cope with the emotional connections he feebly tries to make at home and on the job. Sergeant JT Sandborn (Anthony Mackie) approaches his work with a by-the-book stoicism that can't comprehend the recklessness of James. Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is highly trained but still feels overwhelmed by his morbid thoughts on war and his role in it. These are the members of the EOD Army bomb squad stationed in Baghdad in 2004, and "The Hurt Locker" is their story.

After failing to do so with the depressingly somber and serious "In The Valley of Elah", screenwriter Mark Boal wisely places politics and moralizing aside this time to give us an intimate look into one squad with a highly specialized job to do. Hollywood has always loved to play with the grunt's-eye-view-of-war-as-hell theme, but "The Hurt Locker" spins that volatile cocktail on its head and blows it up all over the screen by focusing on an elite team and proposes the notion that maybe war is a drug...for some.

Director Kathryn Bigelow hits all the right detonators with her fascinating presentation of modern warfare in the Middle East. Bigelow hasn't really made anything memorable since her 1987 breakthrough, the cult vampire/western "Near Dark", but she has always managed to make interesting failures-- just take a look at her attempt to do a literary adaptation with the superficially obtuse "The Weight of Water". Often living under the shadow of ex-husband James Cameron or having to share the title of "that female action director" with Mimi Leder (until Mimi murdered her film career with the abominable "Pay it Forward") Bigelow, determined to finally leave her mark, displays an astounding technical prowess with "The Hurt Locker" that can only come from the wisdom of experience. Close-ups, slow-mo's, quick cuts and inventive plays with the camera's point-of-view are used sparingly and with pin-point precision to heighten tension. Here she shows the "good ol' boys" she once emulated but has now trounced that style can be used for dramatic effect but need not be excessive. Her sense of space allows us to be right there with the bomb squad as they are faced with unimaginable danger. We always know where each character is positioned in relation to the bomb, and we always find in turn our stomachs have hit the floor. Her technique is brilliant and delivers a picture that is so taut it might be the most intense experience this side of Clouzot's "Wages of Fear". Now knowing all the moves, however, I wonder how the film will hold up on return viewing.

"The Hurt Locker" is not for those seeking generic thrills or anyone currently on medication for emotional problems. It gets deep down into the gritty nature of bomb defusing by offering us lessons on suicide bombers, IED's and body-bombs that will make your gut churn. There's also some fantastically rendered sniper scenarios that are used not just for a visceral jolt, but also as a way to explore character development. Soldiers are not only put in precarious situations during combat but also in their day-to-day life dealing with their own conflicted emotions on top of a moody Iraqi populace that includes people treating them as tourists and looking to make a quick buck, people looking at the carnage as a spectator sport, people suffering as innocent bystanders, and people who wish to kill the soldiers and any one else in any way possible.

While there are a few details one could quibble with (for instance, the title is never explained), "The Hurt Locker" is impossible to dismiss and sometimes hard to digest. It paints a picture of war that shows there are no politics when it comes to the daily experiences of soldiers in the field. Their everyday heroism is painted in varying shades of moral ambiguity, while their internal struggles are shown to receive no emotional closure. As in real life, the story arcs of the fictional characters seen here are left open-ended, and the possibility of redeployment looms not just as an act of cruel fate but as a conscious and determined choice.

Public Enemies
(2009)

Handsome Depp Gangster Flick Lacks Depth
Johnny Depp (in a subdued cool swagger) is Public Enemy #1, John Dillinger, in director Michael Mann's handsomely mounted but curiously distant riff on Depression Era Gangster Shenanigans. Christian Bale is Melvin Purvis, the G-man hunting down Dillinger's gang, but the cat-and-mouse game never reaches the boiling point some viewers will desire, resulting in a tepid film designed to make you think you have to admire it.

Lifting material from the true crime book by Bryan Burrough, the workmen-like script from Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman tries clumsily to weave in too many secondary characters while staying on point with the historical events. There are some decent attempts to anchor the film with a love story between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (played by the French actress Marion Cotillard, who is wisely striking while the iron is hot in her first stateside role since her Oscar win), but there's not much else in the realm of character development, and no one is given any backstory. The writers start "in media res" to give it that classical epic structure, but it doesn't work when you can't even identify the peripheral characters from each other. What results is a cavalcade of apparently great supporting turns from a large professional cast, everyone spot on with their period cadence and mannerisms but no one leaving any kind of lasting impression in the wake of the great turns from Depp and Cotillard, the only two in the cast given anything to work with. There are also some missed opportunities to explore Dillinger's Robin Hood mentality and the public infatuation with his "celebrity" -- just two of the potentially great subtexts that are only given brief surface level treatments by the screenplay.

From a technical standpoint, there's plenty to chew on here for thoughtful audiences. Mann's use of HD video to shoot the film gives the period-piece gangster film an interesting texture. I found it refreshing to watch a Depression Era film not washed out in sepia tones and instead look crisp and fresh, with the nighttime shots especially compelling from a composition standpoint. However, there are times when in tight quarters that the digital camera-work gives the film a "home movie" aesthetic, and whether shooting on film or in digital, the shaky hand-held work during action scenes is always a mistake in my book. Mann also attempts to do some throwback Fritz Lang "M"-style work on the sound design, which works well in some of the "silent" scenes but often results in dialogue that is hard to hear and gunshots that are clamoring. These artistic choices are highly debatable, but I admire Mann's vision to do something different with a generic story. Whether you think Mann's manipulations work or not will be left to a matter of personal taste.

"Public Enemies" is a film composed of many handsome elements from the costuming to the finely detailed set designs to the soundtrack, which most notably creates a recurring theme with "Bye, Bye, Blackbird." There are also some good standalone scenes including a well shot rain-soaked police escorted airplane landing in Indiana, some charming movie theater moments, a thrilling nighttime shootout in the woods, and a killer Cotillard-focused coda that would've packed more of a wallop had the rest of the film added up to the sum of its parts. While it's easy to admire the work of Depp and Cotillard, Bale is off key in his attempt to add subtlety and nuance to his hollowly scripted character. Sadly, Mann's film is a good-looking but shallow exercise in self-seriousness largely due to a faulty script that never successfully identifies the heart of the story. Watching that tear run down Cotillard's cheek before the credits roll, though, you might swear you had just watched something better.

Whatever Works
(2009)

"I'm not a likable guy..."
Woody Allen's alter ego, Boris (a bitterly good and sardonic Larry David) makes this statement to the audience rather early on in "Whatever Works". The truth is, no matter how misanthropic, sarcastic and neurotic Woody Allen is, he ultimately is a pretty likable personality...if you like that type. Allen's return to Manhattan after three stays in London and a wonderful stop-over in Barcelona is yet another niche film. Fans of Allen, as well as fans of Larry David's "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (which not so ironically should be the same folks) will find plenty to laugh at here, while others will inevitability whine, "I don't care for Woody Allen...and oh, that Larry David! Can't stand him!"

The plot of "Whatever Works" is irrelevant. Boris is some sort of genius-level physicist trying to speed his way to death, though those metaphors are never explored as poignantly as they should be. It all just serves as a soap-box for Allen (through David) to funnel his usual dialogues about relationships, love, luck and the meaning of life. It's all very broad and obvious this time around, but it's sometimes nice to still be laughing at the same old feel-good shtick. It should come as no surprise that Boris also tells the audience this isn't a movie designed to make you feel good, unless you're Allen fans, and then you'll feel pretty swell afterward. Leave it to Allen to infer moviegoers are inherently morons, but we're sophisticates for watching his films.

Apparently this is a re-worked screenplay from the 1970's and the "Annie Hall" style monologues to the audience are evidence of that. In the jokes department you'll find old standards mocking the French and suggesting kids should attend "concentration camps" for the summer mixed with modern humor about the Taliban and Viagra. There's also one hilarious throw-away/blink-and-you'll-miss-it reference to James Cameron's "The Abyss" that makes you wonder if perhaps the screenplay was first reworked in the 1980's before its final incarnation here.

In the casting department we find Patricia Clarkson, yet again, is a delight in her curiously under-written over-written role (which is far too simply complex to explain in a traditional review) and continues to build a case for herself to be declared this generation's "Best Supporting Actress" twenty years from now. Evan Rachel Wood is cute-as a-button (oh, as her character might declare, what a cliché) as a Southern cutie-pie who runs away to New York City and meets up with the suicidal Boris. Allen, as always, is luminous with his photography of the "young lady." And unlike the similarly dumb motor-mouthed funny-voiced Mira Sorvino character from "Mighty Aphrodite", Wood's character is actually given an arc here and proves not to be as shallow and moronic as Boris originally assessed, which indicates maybe Allen is growing just a teeny bit in his view on women...or maybe not.

Ultimately this is yet another testament to Allen's world-view, which is summed up here as do whatever works for you to trick yourself into believing you're happy in this miserable world. Sure, there are times when Boris' diatribes run a few lines too long, or when the film stops dead when he is not on screen, but for the most part, this is Allen doing what works best for him. No other director can call himself out on all his personal pratfalls and annoying quirks yet still find a way to endear himself to the faithful who are ever patient with him and his films. No other director can be so charmingly mean-spirited and self-deprecating yet still find a way to declare his alter ego a genius at picture's end. And that's why we've always liked you, Woody, for better and for worse. For what it's worth, when it comes to Allen's better and worse, "Whatever Works" falls happily in between and works just fine, thank you very much.

Away We Go
(2009)

Successful Detour for Director Mendes
Just six months after introducing us to one of the most unlikable and miserable movie couples viewers had ever seen in "Revolutionary Road", director Sam Mendes takes us on a little detour from his usual style/genre and allows us to meet one of the most likable on-screen pairings in recent years with "Away We Go".

TV's John Krasinski is the amiable goof-ball and insurance-futures' salesman Burt and SNL alum Maya Rudolph (in a quietly revelatory performance built on her gift of perfectly timed facial expressions) is his long-time girlfriend Verona who does illustrations for medical textbooks. Suddenly they find themselves pregnant and searching for a real home in this semi-autobiographical tale from scribes Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. The pair, untethered to their current situations, decide to travel all over North America visiting family and friends so that they might find that perfect spot to lay down roots. Fans of Eggers' books should be pleased that the screenplay is imbued with his popular brand of sharp humor mixed with diluted sentimentality. The tale of these two thirty-somethings trying to do the right thing not only for themselves but for their daughter-to-be is filled with humor and warmth that allows us to relate to both the chaos around the characters and their desire to shield their baby from it.

Under Mendes surprisingly laid-back director's hand, the material and the performances rise above the clichés of the "she's having a baby!" sub-genre of dramedies while successfully interweaving elements of "discovering yourself on a road trip" indie flicks. Episodic and sometimes meandering in nature, the film's acts range from laugh-out-loud hilarious (including a scene-stealing Allison Janney making a bid for worst mother of the year in grand comedic style) to laughably absurd (witness Maggie Gyllenhaal as a self-righteous alterna-mom with an unfounded hatred towards strollers) to unexpectedly poignant (in an unexpected side-trip to Miami to help Burt's brother through a crisis). You won't find any screamingly awful delivery room scenes here, and while there is some semi-crude sexual humor, it's reality-based instead of raunchy and never overshadows the film's heart.

As with any Mendes' production, the cinematography (this time from Ellen Kuras) is artistically sound and serves as the perfect place for Mendes to paint his details. When the director uses a steady tracking shot moving through the passengers on a plane in mid-flight to focus in on the sun's hazy golden light coming through the windows highlighting the faces of our two stars sitting side-by-side, you can see Burt and Verona unified in a yearning pensive loneliness that makes you instantly root for their success. The promise of that scene is wonderfully fulfilled in the closing act (the details of which I will not divulge) which is probably the most hopeful denouement -- beautifully understated and with minimal dialogue -- you will ever find in a Mendes' film. As with anything in life, even in the most hopeful of atmospheres there is still some uncertainty, but if we're lucky, we'll see the talented Maya Rudolph in more lead roles and Sam Mendes will take time for more pleasant detours such as this.

Adoration
(2008)

Interesting Dramatic Experiment
A teenager (Devon Bostick) who was orphaned after the tragic deaths of his parents is prompted by his teacher (Arsinee Khanjian) to deliver a fictional monologue about his father's failed terrorist act as fact in an elaborate "dramatic exercise" in Armenian-Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan's latest thought-provoking piece of abstraction "Adoration". As the fiction spins out of control over the internet, the true motives of those involved in the lie are revealed and back-stories come collapsing in on each other in Egoyan's signature elliptical style.

Egoyan, as always, gives patient viewers plenty to chew on. Like the young man's monologue that marries a true story to a false one about his parents, "Adoration" itself is an interesting dramatic experiment designed to provoke. It tackles many issues including the motives of terrorists, fractured familial relationships, the hollowness of alleged connections made through modern technology and the dangers of thinking those connections can replace real face-to-face human interaction. Though I always question Egoyan's motive in casting his wife Arsinee Khanjian in his films, in many ways, she gives her most understated and powerful performance here. Bostick does a decent job with a tough role, though Rachel Blanchard is curiously flat in the flashbacks as his mother. The true revelation is Scott Speedman as the troubled tow-truck driver who reluctantly steps in to raise his sister's son after she dies. His story arc proves to be the most involving, though one wishes his background had been more developed.

The bizarre detour into sleazy mediocrity with "Where the Truth Lies" seems to have made Egoyan a little rusty as he returns to a more familiar form here for those who have been watching the arc of his career. The elliptical folding in of the converging plot lines seems clumsier in "Adoration" than it did in his earlier works, and the "big reveal" comes a few scenes too early and sucks out the emotional impact. Unlike "Exotica" which had the swagger of a young auteur at the top of his game, or "The Sweet Hereafter" which came from the sublime source material of novelist Russell Banks, "Adoration" represents Egoyan bruised from years of wear left to his own devices. Though compelling, he gets the best of himself and let's the ideas take over the characters. He also relies far too much on visuals of non-characters in chat rooms or of people being recorded with cameras. However, Egoyan scores when Mychael Danna lends his musical compositions. The frequent collaborator does a magnificent job creating a haunting score with a recurring violin motif that plays integral to one of the back-stories.

Back in the late 1990's Atom Egoyan was in a league of his own and master of his own style. In the past ten years, however, international cinema has seen the emergence of filmmakers like Mexico's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Amores Perros", "21 Grams" and "Babel") and Germany's Fa-tih Akin (whose superb "The Edge of Heaven" deserved a bigger audience stateside last year). They often tackle similar themes in an elliptical Egoyanesque manner. But because their films are presented on a larger scale and infused with a certain energy and immediacy, Egoyan's films, in all their isolated scholarly austerity, have been unfairly left out in the cold. "Adoration" may not be Egoyan's best, but it proves he still has some good ideas in him and he isn't ready to be dismissed just yet.

Star Trek
(2009)

Damn it, Jim, I'm a TV Producer not a Film Director!
TV guru extraordinaire J. J. Abrams beams up as producer and director of this zippy and serviceable relaunch of the moribund "Star Trek" film series, itself a spin-off Gene Roddenberry's iconic 1960's sci-fi drama. There's plenty of circularity in concept and execution as Abrams does an adequate job of paying homage to the original TV series while giving everything a big epic, slick, modern film veneer. Abrams displays his usual flippant emo-sensibilities (lest we not forget his first claim to fame was the insufferable TV show "Felicity") in creating a colorful back-story to familiar characters, but he wisely focuses on action for the better parts of the film and keeps the pacing at warp speed even though we really know he just wants to play with Trekkies' emotions, much in the same way a swaggering Kirk antagonizes the desperately logical Spock.

Though Zachary Quinto is fairly lifeless as Spock, the rest of the cast is up to task doing fine impersonations of the senior Trek crew. Simon Pegg gets plenty of laughs as Scotty, and Karl Urban is mockingly masterful in his delivery of all the classic Doc McCoy witticisms. As the young Kirk, Chris Pine puts an entertaining spin on the role as he seems to be channeling both Christian Slater doing Jack Nicholson and, well, Chris Pine doing William Shatner. But it's only the dashingly smart and sexy Zoe Saldana who takes things to a new level giving Uhura a personality and vibrancy that was never apparent in the original film series.

Comparing the film to others in the series, it probably ranks somewhere in the middle. By far it displays the best production values and special effects of any Trek before it on the big or small screen. Always crucial to the film series, the villain in this one (a tattooed Romulan named Nero played by Eric Bana) is clearly no match for the mythic-sized Khan of said "Wrath of" or the unstoppable Borg Queen of the Next Generation's "First Contact". And while the early years of Kirk, Spock and the U. S. Enterprise are fairly well played here, the main storyline is where the film really suffers as it mashes up a big old mess of a plot involving black holes, time travel and planetary annihilation.

While I grew up watching the "Next Generation" on TV and enjoyed the original film series, I'm by no means a Trek purist. I am, however, a stickler for good storytelling. By playing with all this time-travel mumbo-jumbo, the screenwriters have essentially wiped the slate clean and negated the entire original series. The same old characters are now free to roam outer space on brand new missions, which is a brilliant business building ploy but lazy writing and a big cop-out. By going backwards in the serial mythos instead of forging ahead further into the future, the filmmakers have backed themselves into a corner. Just how many of these new adventures can the old crew have? And will it all lead to the inevitable...Picard's Academy Days or the origins of Data? While this new film was modestly entertaining and better than your average sci-fi flick, it didn't really leave me clamoring for more. Will the filmmakers eventually "make it so"? Quite frankly, I'm indifferent, though Abrams probably "gave it all she's got".

State of Play
(2009)

Yesterday's News Still Blog-Worthy
A gruff old-school reporter (Russell Crowe playing his A-game) becomes personally entangled in a breaking news story surrounding his old college buddy turned congressman (Ben Affleck, not as bad as you would think) and a young female aid who died under mysterious circumstances in the surprisingly plausible political thriller "State of Play" from director Kevin MacDonald who was previously responsible for "The Last King of Scotland". Though designed as a throw-back to paranoid investigative thrillers from the 1970's, relevance is gained when the massive cover-up revealed becomes a vehicle for the filmmakers to explore the death of print news at the hand of digital mediums.

The twisty and engaging screenplay is credited to three scribes: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray. But it's Gilroy's fingerprints that shape the story with all the overlapping dialogue and conspiracy talk that will remind many of his "Michael Clayton". Adapted from a sprawling BBC miniseries created by Paul Abbott, the trio is especially deft in their condensing of the story into a fully digestible two hours. Even as new characters and twists keep coming, the audience is never left out in the cold. They also give the cast plenty to chew on with some great throw-away lines amidst all the posturing between the cops, reporters, politicians and sleaze-bags.

Though it's Crowe and Helen Mirren as his sparring and quick-witted boss who shine the most, this is essentially an ensemble piece, and it's especially clever when Jason Bateman arrives on screen for a few pivotal scenes as a smug public relations guru who's too dumb to realize he knows too much. The cast also includes Robin Wright Penn as Affleck's wife, Jeff Daniels as the arrogant majority whip and Harry Lennix, who as a D.C. detective makes a compelling case here for the lead role in the Barack Obama Story. The only miscalculation in the casting is poor Rachel McAdams, lovely but annoying in her high-pitch as Crowe's blogging tag-along looking to kick it old-school and get something in print.

By the third act "State of Play" overplays its hand in its attempts to be timely with too much talk of the privatization of the military, Capitol Hill sex scandals and traditional newspapers losing out in the digital age to bloggers more concerned with gossip than real journalism. It could've also been more subtle in its preaching about the importance of serious investigative reporting. It should be commended, however, for an otherwise smart screenplay that doesn't spell out all its twists and turns too early and the well polished cast who give the film a slick sheen. Even though it might be reporting on yesterday's news, "State of Play" still makes for solid rainy day entertainment and is worthy of blogging about.

Sunshine Cleaning
(2008)

A Blunt Ray of Sunshine through the Darkness
A struggling single mom named Rose (Amy Adams in her comedy/drama wheelhouse) gets tired of working for a maid service and boldly decides to branch out into crime scene clean-up with her lay-about sister Norah (Emily Blunt, ironically named) in Christine Jeffs' observant and easy-going "Sunshine Cleaning".

Although it has been marketed as one of those quirky dramedies the studios love to shove down our throats every year, Jeffs' film (from a solid screenplay from Megan Holley) is more in tune with somber yet hopeful indie character studies. The film deals with some dark subject matter and poignantly explores grief and family dysfunction but maintains a positive outlook and contains some solid situational laughs. The combination of an interesting set-up, smart writing, likable characters and winning performances make the film, even when it teeter-totters from dark to sappy, go down smooth. None of the characters seem forced upon us, unlike the overtly quirky family from "Little Miss Sunshine" or the stylized dialog spewing teens from "Juno". These characters talk and interact like real people and there's a naturalism in the way their relationships develop.

It makes for engaged viewing when a film like this doesn't feel the need to explain every detail or tie up every loose end so nicely. Some subplots involving Norah taking a personal interest in one of the clean-up jobs that leads to an awkward friendship with a blood-bank worker (Mary Lynn Rajskub of "24" fame) or a one-armed supply store guy (Clifton Collins Jr.) who takes a shine to Rose aren't resolved in a typical fashion, and some things are never made known or left open-ended. It makes the film feel truer to life. Even when Rose's precocious kid (Jason Spevack) tries to talk to heaven on a CB radio in what would normally be considered a contrived and cutesy moment, you feel like you've grown to know the character and it's just something he would do. Likewise, Alan Arkin as the sisters' scheming entrepreneurial father behaves and acts like a real guy who's had to struggle raising two girls alone and is just trying to help them catch a break.

Amy Adams, of course, is an absolute delight. Something about her girl-next-door good looks combined with her innate talents as a comedienne and her theatrical background that produces some of the best facial expressions and crying-on-cue you'll ever see make her the perfect choice for this type of role. While it's easy to sing the praises of Adams, and she's never been more endearing or relatable than here, Emily Blunt proves to be an excellent foil. It's Blunt's sharp portrayal and her character's story arc that provide the film its emotional weight. Both actresses deserve to be remembered come awards season, and "Sunshine Cleaning" is that rare spring-time bird: a film worthy of buzz.

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