Olaolu Afolayan's Movie Ratings - Rotten Tomatoes

Movie Ratings and Reviews

Prisoners
Prisoners(2013)
½

A powerful, dramatic mystery/thriller that manages the increasingly rare feat of not only being tautly-paced and viscerally involving but also emotionally and intellectually resonant. This was one that I'd been wanting to see from the moment it was first brought to my attention and I'm not sure why it took so long for me to finally get around to it but for anything of this high quality, I suppose that it's better late than not at all. If I had to play the comparison game, I'd say that this film gives an approximation of what you could expect if someone had cross-pollinated the plot elements from a pair of recent Dennis Lehane adaptions - Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River, to be exact - transplanted the setting from Boston to a western Pennsylvanian suburb and then put someone like David Fincher in the director's chair. Like Gone Baby Gone, this one revolves around the disappearance of a child (actually a pair of children in this case) and it doesn't pay lip service to the moral and ethical dilemmas that haunt the protagonists as they investigate the circumstances revolving around said disappearance. Here however, instead of a pair of emotionally unattached private detectives, our lead this time is the very much emotionally involved father of one of the missing girls, which is where the Mystic River parallel kicks in. Like the 2003 film, this one pulls no punches in depicting the lengths to which a grieving father will go to assuage and avenge an emotionally devastating loss, even if attaining that sense of closure means stepping outside the boundaries of the law and resorting to actions that, under normal circumstances, would be deemed unconscionable and maybe even unspeakable. It probably goes without saying that this is not lighthearted, upbeat entertainment; much like the majority of David Fincher's films, it's a dark, gritty and moody affair that isn't averse to exploring uncomfortable and often disturbing subject matter (including depictions of torture). Apparently, the initial cut of the film was graphic enough to earn an NC-17 before some edits were made to convince the MPAA to award an R rating. Quite frankly though, there are still scenes even in the edited version that some may find too difficult to watch fully (consider this your fair warning people). Also, like the Fight Club/Seven director's output, this one benefits from an overpowering sense of atmosphere (although this probably isn't quite the equal of Fincher at his stylistic best). Most of the movie takes place either at night or during the rain (and sometimes snow) and even the few daytime scenes that don't feature some kind of inclement weather are still shrouded in a perpetual state of cloud cover (give the proper due credit to veteran cinematographer and frequent Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins, who was duly honored with the lone Oscar nomination of the film for his work here). This film, expertly brought to the screen by French Canadian film-maker Denis Villeneuve, may have a number of antecedents but it successfully manages to transcend those influences and leave its own uniquely indelible mark on the viewer's psyche.

The key to Prisoner's staggering success begins with its plot, which is brilliantly realized. To often, with mystery stories, the tendency is to present a group of characters, throw in some sort of crime that needs to be solved, offer up a slew of generic and easily predicted "twists" and then try to "surprise" us by revealing which of the characters is the culprit (usually complete with the dread "Talking Killer" syndrome where the bad guy spills the beans about his or her schemes while giving the protagonist ample opportunity to get the upper hand). Although some of these elements are present after a fashion in this case, the method of their inclusion is far more intelligent and unpredictable than the average Hollywood take on this kind of story. Villeneuve, along with screenwriter Aaron Gruzikowski, weaves a singularly involving tapestry that takes a number of seemingly disparate plot threads and ties them altogether in a satisfying manner. This film rewards the thinking viewer rather than punish those who dare to use their brains and a second viewing reveals just how well everything comes together.

In addition to its strong story-line and impeccable sense of direction, Prisoners has been blessed with an impressive cast that's headed up by Hugh Jackman (as Keller Dover, the father of one of the missing girls) and Jake Gyllenhaal (as Loki, the lead detective on the case), both of whom have rarely (if ever) been better than they are here. Joining them are Maria Bello (as Dover's wife, Grace), Terence Howard and Viola Davis (as Franklin and Nancy Birch, the parents of the other missing girl and the reluctant co-conspirators in Dover's plan to exact revenge and get answers for the girls' kidnapping), Paul Dano (as Alex Jones, the mentally-handicapped chief suspect in the case who ends being subject to Keller's torture) and Melissa Leo (as Alex's aunt Holly). All of these actors and actresses are well-respected and, with the exception of Bello and Dano (at least as of this writing in 2016), all have been nominated at least once for an Oscar (with Leo winning for her performance in 2010's The Fighter) so naturally with a cast of this caliber, there are certain expectations that come attached; thankfully everyone proves more than equally to this daunting task and no one, even amongst the actors in bit parts, is found wanting. In particular, Jackman stands out as the grief-stricken Keller; he brings his character's torment, grief, anger and confusion to the forefront every bit as forcefully as Sean Penn did in Mystic River. The actor is arguably even better here than he was in 2012's Les Miserables adaptation (for which he was awarded his Oscar nomination). This is the side of Jackman at which we only occasionally get glimpses in the X-Men or standalone Wolverine films (which are arguably still his best known roles). There are times when we feel deeply for Keller and others still when we might be tempted to hate his guts (although he probably hates himself as much if not more as he recognizes that some of his actions throughout the course of the film often contravene his deeply held moral and religious beliefs) and it's Jackman's performance more than anything that facilitates these very complex emotions we have towards this very complex character. Matching him beat for beat is Jake Gyllenhaal who builds on his work in 2012's End of Watch (where he also portrayed a cop) and fashions Loki as a lonely but driven detective who's committed to his job (possibly to a fault) but isn't fully prepared for the emotional and moral dark places to which his latest case takes him (one scene in particular where he lashes out in frustration at his desk drives home the point very clearly and powerfully). The rest of the cast lifts the burden off the top-billed duo and nearly everyone has at least on scene in which he or she is allowed to really shine (Dano, in particular, succeeds at bringing a mixture of unsettling creepiness and child-like innocence to his character that inspires equal parts revulsion and sympathy in the viewer). In many ways, it's a damn shame that Prisoners didn't get more attention at the 2013 Oscar ceremony because there's more than enough here to have easily justified multiple nominations, particularly for the powerhouse performances of the cast.

To say much more about this film would be to reveal entirely too much that would be better left for the individual viewer to uncover on his or her own but, for anyone who craves stories aimed at thinking adults, this should be considered as ironclad of a must-see as anything currently out on the market. In addition to offering the requisite genre thrills (including enough tension and suspense for multiple stories), it provides a healthy portion of compelling drama and more than enough thought-provoking and disturbing material to gnaw at the soul for days (or even weeks) and, even at a running length of over two and a half hours, the movie manages to be well-paced and engaging for every single second, right up to the last frame. Best of all, even though it brings the central mystery to a satisfying conclusion, it doesn't feel the need to tie everything up in a neat and clean package just to placate adherents of conventional Hollywood fare; some viewers may be frustrated (possibly even angered) by how Villeneuve and Gruzikowski elect to close things out but I found the ending to be fitting for the grim and uncertain tone of the story. This movie's title may connote a confined state of mind but quite frankly I couldn't have been happier to be taken captive and held in this film's thrall as it was unspooling its intricate and complex tale of crime and punishment. It's well worth the expenditure of a couple hours of anyone's time.

Strange Days
Strange Days(1995)
½

Tragically underrated and little-seen effort from the mid-90's, which is shocking given that James Cameron was involved in this. Action-adventure, science-fiction, murder-mystery, modern-noir and social commentary combine to make this a relentless, adrenaline-fueled and surprisingly thought-provoking futuristic thriller. The brilliance of this film lies in the fact that much of what was depicted here doesn't seem all that implausible- many viewers may indeed be reminded of somewhat recent history. Even the virtual reality technology seems almost like something that could be around in the near-future.

Kathryn Bigelow, who made history recently by becoming the first woman ever to win the Best Director Oscar for her direction of the tense, gripping war thriller, The Hurt Locker (which was also the Best Picture winner that year) does justice to her ex-husband James Cameron and co-writer Jay Cocks' script. Her direction of the virtual reality sequences is especially worth mentioning; the utilization of the point-of-view camera shots makes these scenes seem that much more immediate and intense. Aside from the V.R. material, there are several action sequences throughout the film that are skillfully handled including plenty of hand-to-hand combat and a thrilling car-chase/shootout. Cameron may not have been the one at the helm this time but this is precisely how I would've imagined he would direct the film. The pacing is tight, the cinematography is crisp and clean, and the soundtrack is on overdrive. It would be easy for all of this to overwhelm the important elements but, as with all of Cameron's efforts both before and after this, the special and visual effects serve the story and individuals who populate it, not the other way around.

As can be expected, the main characters are well developed which adds to the surprising poignancy of some scenes in the film. The performances by Fiennes and Bassett are top-notch, although I dunno what the hell Fiennes was doing with that accent! In spite of that inconsistency, he does a good job of bringing out the humanity in a character that is effectively a sleazebag. We feel and root for him, which is key to the film's success. As the co-lead, Angela Bassett makes a strong addition to James Cameron's gala of action heroines. Not only does she get to kick some serious ass but she also gets the emotional dimensions of her role. The leads get solid support from Tom Sizemore (who could also be seen in Heat and Devil in a Blue Dress the same year that this came out), Vincent D'Onofrio and William Fichtner (as a pair of less-than-scrupulous cops), Michael Wincott (in a part similar to what he did a year earlier in The Crow) and Josef Sommer (who, in a nice bit of irony, gets a chance to play an honest, albeit uptight, police commissioner after having played a corrupt police chief a decade earlier in Peter Weir's dramatic thriller, Witness) amongst others. The only performer that doesn't quite pull her weight is Juliette Lewis but that shouldn't really surprise anyone. Per the usual, she gets the sleazy and trashy part of her character but that's as deep as this performance goes.

Obviously, certain aspects of the film are dated but in no way does that hinder the enjoyability factor of the film. I used the phrase "thought-provoking" at the beginning of this review to describe this film and those words were chosen for a reason. One point the film wishes to address is the addictive nature of technology and in this day and age where many people practically live their lives online, it's tough to refute what the movie is saying. The main thrust of the film revolves around devices called Superconductor Quantum Interference Devices (or SQUID's as the film refers to them) that lets you film personal experiences and allows others to put on a headset and live those experiences from the vantage point of the original wearer. It's virtual reality taken to the next level. How many of us *wouldn't* be drawn in by the promise of being in someone else's shoes if only for a moment? It's right there in the film's original tag line: "You know you want it." Who wouldn't want to be able to vicariously experience the thrill of robbing a bank (as the masterful opening sequence shows) or participating in an orgy? It's a very enticing proposition but like any drug, it can be become highly addictive. Strange Days shows how far down this rabbit hole one can go. It's not entirely dissimilar from what would be postulated four years later, when The Matrix was released.

In addition to the vices of technology, Strange Days has a few things to say about the racial divide that often exists in modern America and what could possibly happen if this gap isn't bridged. At times, it's hard not to think of the Rodney King incident and the subsequent L.A. race riots while watching this film; clearly Cameron was inspired by those events while writing this script and the inclusion of this material stokes the flames of a situation that is rather tense and uncertain to begin with; calling the Los Angeles of this film a dystopia might be an understatement. Near the end of the film, there's a moment depicting the vicious beating of an unarmed black woman by the police which eventually sparks a riot when the crowd of mostly black people attempts to intervene. Strange Days may be a work of science fiction but it isn't afraid to serve that fiction with a side dish of grim reality and the recent glut of police-involved shootings of young, black men and the subsequent riots that they have incited all over this country have sadly only reinforced much of what this movie was postulating two decades prior.

Ultimately, Strange Days wants to offer it's audience a rousing, entertaining experience but it doesn't shy away from the more unpleasant aspects of life along the way-- aside from the aforementioned riot, there are other moments in the film that will get under the skin of several viewers in the audience, not necessarily because they are particularly graphic, but because of the nature of what is transpiring - one especially chilling and disturbing display of voyeurism and murder comes to mind in which a SQUID is employed with sickening ingenuity. This occasionally makes the film a tough watch but ultimately the film doesn't dwell too much on its darker elements.

I'm not gonna claim that this is a perfect film. Aside from my gripe with Lewis' lackluster acting, there are some serious flaws with the climax. Once again the "Talking Killer" cliche rears its ugly head- you know, the one where the bad guy holds the good guy hostage and then divulges his entire scheme to him. The script attempts to put a slight spin on this but that doesn't quite erase the slightly bitter aftertaste left by this plot device. This would have been enough to sink a lesser film but Strange Days maintains such a high level for most of its running that while parts of the conclusion are disappointing, they only do minimal damage in the grander scheme of things. In the end, the film manages to provide the exhilarating experience that it promises and it doesn't insult the audience's intelligence in the process.

Killer Joe
Killer Joe(2012)

Finally got around to checking this one out and I gotta say that considering the NC-17 rating, I was expecting things to go much further and more over-the-top than they ultimately did (about the only thing the was truly shocking to me was the now-infamous chicken leg scene); of course, the fact that I'm somewhat hardened in my movie-watching habits probably made this easier for me take and enjoy so there is that to consider as well. Even so, there is still enough graphic violence, kinky sex, depravity, craziness and dark comedy to hold the attention of anyone who can appreciate this kind of modern-day exploitation fare and to earn the ire and contempt of more timid and conservative filmgoers. One benefit of having a plot like this that is so rife with insanity is that there is no way to predict where this is all headed which serves to heighten the levels of tension and suspense alongside the twisted, jet-black humor herein. Ultimately, the film rewards us with a violent, contentious and delightfully open-ended finale. Besides all of this, the first rate cast is also another huge plus in this film's favor and no one shines brighter than Matthew McConaughey. I think it's safe to say that between this and The Lincoln Lawyer, I am now fully convinced of this man's talent to do something far more than coast by in one forgettable romantic comedy after the other. Although a case could be made that he was still mining familiar territory with The Lincoln Lawyer (the role could basically be considered a throwback to his breakthrough part back in 1996's A Time To Kill, albeit an older, more cynical and world-weary version of that character) with this assignment, he manages to effectively step outside of his usual persona to essay what has to be the darkest, most twisted character of his career. For his part, he is still as charming and charismatic as ever but there is always a sense of malevolence and menace underneath the cool and smooth exterior that comes out in the most shocking of ways from time to time (such as the chicken leg scene). I never thought in a million years that I would ever say this but I would argue for an Oscar-nomination here although the controversial nature of the movie and the role will rule that out (if a nomination for McConaughey is likely at all at this point, it would probably be for Magic Mike, which I've yet to see but might need to check out now, God help me). The rest of the cast doesn't quite reach McConaughey's level but they do their best to hold their own. Thomas Hayden Church brings a understated, dry wit to his role as the dim-witted Ansel (kinda like his character in Sideways but with a Texas drawl and a dimmer mental capacity), and Emilie Hirsch gives a reasonable approximation of desperation for his part as Chris, whose drug money debt provides the catalyst for the chaos in which we find ourselves here (to compare to some of Hirsch's previous roles, this one is much closer to Alpha Dog than to The Girl Next Door). Gina Gershon doesn't have as much to do except act slutty and trashy (such as in her memorable introductory scene) and get seriously degraded in one scene, but it's always nice to see Gershon on screen (and she is still incredibly attractive despite now being officially a pentagenarian). I would say that the second strongest impression besides McConaughey is made by the young British actress and rising starlet, Juno Temple, as Dottie, Chris's younger sister (and Ansel's daughter). Temple kinda resembles a blonde and slightly curvier version of Ellen Page (who incidentally once played a fictional character with Temple's real-life first name) but her performance here reminded me more of Juliette Lewis's Oscar-nominated breakthrough role in Scorsese's Cape Fear remake (this was back when Lewis showed legitimate promise as an actress). As Temple's career develops, one can only hope that the trajectory is more like Page's and less like Lewis's but for the time being, there is plenty of promise here. Not only does she don an incredibly sexy and nearly flawless (at least from my perspective) Texan accent but she effectively brings out both the vixen and the virgin in her portrayal. It takes a great director to hold this all together and William Friedkin has proven himself over his decade-long career to be just that. This may not be up to the same level as The French Connection or To Live and Die in L.A. but it's provides more than enough evidence that this veteran filmmaker's edge hasn't dulled with age. Despite the Hollywood A-list credentials, this is definitely *not* mainstream fair but if you're a fan of ultra-hip, Southern-fried, post-Tarantino comedy/thrillers that aren't afraid to let it all hang out, you will find that this provides plenty of lurid and trashy thrills. It may not be edifying but it's damn entertaining!

Animal Kingdom
½

A grim and gritty, slow-simmering Aussie crime-thriller that maintains a constant aura of dread without injecting needless action into the narrative. The storyline might invite comparisons to more visceral, in-you-face crime films such as GoodFellas, The Departed and Scarface but in terms of the deliberate, unhurried manner in which freshman film-maker David Michôd allows things to unfold, one could just as easily mention this in the same breath as Jean Melville's classic, Le Samourai, and more recent thrillers like Michael Clayton and The Constant Gardener. Moments of violence, when they do occur, are brief and shocking; the ending, in particular, is stark and surprising. While the occurrence that closes the film is perhaps inevitable, especially given the events that lead up to it, the manner in which it's orchestrated still manages to catch us unawares with its starkness. Also, as it proves during its early passages, this film is not beyond disposing of one of its presumably-central characters quickly and summarily. Animal Kingdom gets a fair amount of mileage from the element of surprise, but for the most part, the tension here is generated more by the plot and the increasingly dire circumstances that main protagonist must face, rather than by generic "suspense-building" tactics.

In fact, one could argue that this is a much an atypical coming-of-age tale as it is a crime-drama in that it utilizes a such a young protagonist who is forced to undergo a personality transformation and must learn to think quickly if he is to survive life in this often vicious and cruel kingdom. At times when I was watching this, I was reminded of the underrated 1994 American film, Fresh, which highlighted the efforts of an even younger man to break free from very similar circumstances (and like the earlier film, this is one is also the product of a first-time director). And like the protagonist in the older effort, this one isn't given to using many words and oftentimes comes across as a little timid and emotionally cut-off but ultimately bridges the gap with his intelligence and his knack for manipulating seemingly dire circumstances to his advantage. About the only major difference aside from the different settings is that title character in the earlier film started out as being somewhat hardened and streetwise before the facade finally broke toward the end. Here, the transformation is almost the opposite but otherwise, both films could be considered cinematic siblings right down to the understated matter in which the narrative unfolds in each of them.

Another similarity in both films is the strength of the casting. Animal Kingdom's acting is solid all around with the standouts being Oscar-nominee Jacki Weaver as Janine "Smurf" Cody, the grandmother from hell who dominates this "kingdom" with a borderline incestuous love for her sons (some of the film's slim dark humor stems from this dynamic) and Ben Mendelssohn as the oldest and most psychotic of the clan. Mendelssohn's character, Andrew 'Pope' Cody, might not seem like much of a threat initially, with his rather calm and collected demeanor, but as the movie progresses, his truer, more volatile personality begins to emerge and it ain't pretty. Lead actor, James Frecheville, provides our entry point into this dangerous world with his solid performance. For the most part, his character, 17 year-old Joshua (or 'J' as he's referred to throughout the film) is emotionless and withdrawn. Some might call his acting wooden but for me, this was the perfect approach to portraying someone who has learned to close himself off from all of the horrors that he sees around him (as the movie opens, we learn that his mother has just OD'ed on heroin, which prompts him to contact his grandma and arrange to live with her and his uncles - all without missing a beat!). As the stakes get higher and higher, the actor becomes more alive. His breakdown when someone he truly cares about finally gets caught in the crossfire is all the more powerful because of the reticence that he has shown for most the movie. The actor in the cast that is likely to be familiar to American audiences would be Guy Pearce, who has enjoyed quite a fruitful career on both sides of the ocean. Here, in his role as Detective Nathan Leckie, the one seemingly honest cop in this story who tries to take 'J' under his wing with the goal of using him to bring down his crooked family, he is steady and reliable but he wisely doesn't try to steal the spotlight. The rest of the cast includes Luke Ford as Darren, the youngest of the Cody clan and Joel Edgerton (who's star was on the rise at the time on both sides of the ocean but seems to have dimmed of late) as Barry "Baz" Brown, a close family friend and partner in crime.

As the title would indicate, this is an often volatile and ferocious story and those traits definitely come across here even if it's only in the most subtle of manners. Still, anyone willing to surrender himself or herself to Animal Kingdom's unique and hypnotic rhythms will discover a singularly compelling piece of cinema that's more than capable of enthralling any viewer with the proper expectations. It's a shame that this fine film hasn't gotten much exposure despite all the critical acclaim - not to mention Weaver's much-deserved Oscar nomination for her chilling, diabolical performance - because it richly deserves an audience that can appreciate intelligently-written thrillers that boil slowly but ultimately provide a more-than-satisfying cinematic entree.

The Kids Are All Right
½

One thing that I can say for sure is that this movie is considerably more than merely "alright." It's a keenly observant tale of family relationships and the forces that can unite as well as divide them. The fact that Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, respectively) the spouses at the focal point of the story, are lesbians could be considered a red herring; in fact, I would suggest that it's almost incidental to the themes explored herein. I honestly feel that if the pairing were heterosexual, the movie would've been just as effective, or nearly so. Of course, some of the aesthetics and dynamics that are unique to this particular tale would be a little different if not altogether removed from the equation, but the overall impact would remain intact. Ultimately, what writer/director Lisa Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg wish to acknowledge with this film are the universal challenges and difficulties that come as part of *any* relationship - especially one that has lasted over two decades - regardless of the sexual orientation of the participants. From the beginning, its clear that the film has something to say but thankfully, the filmmakers wisely avoid soapbox sermonizing and over-the-top sentimentality; instead, we're treated to an intelligently-written script (which was rightfully nominated for an Oscar and but didn't win) that offers a quintet of fully-formed protagonists and a near-perfect mixture of wryly-funny comedy and heartfelt but nicely-modulated drama.

The key to a successful film like this is believable character interaction and in that regard, The Kids Are All Right hits the bulls-eye. In a refreshing deviation from the norm, there are no true villains in this film; too often in Hollywood-financed efforts, there's an unfortunate tendency to paint everything in broad strokes of black and white. Either the characters are so one-dimensionally evil that they tip the scales into self-parody or their virtue and nobility shine so brightly that they run the risk of being merely bland but that isn't how things usually are in real life and certainly not in this movie. Part of what I loved about this film is that everything feels natural and unforced from the way the characters interact with each other to they manner in which they approach and resolve conflicts. Everyone here feels like a flesh-and-blood human being with equal capacity for good and for bad; warts and all, we come to care about these individuals and hope that they find a way to solve the myriad of problems that they face during the course of the film but, true to the film's nature, it doesn't take the easy way out. The ending provides closure where it counts but it doesn't feel the need to tie up every loose knot. There's a clear conclusion but also an understanding that life doesn't stop at the end of a two-hour film.

Characters like these require strong acting to bring them to life and from top to bottom there isn't a weak link in the entire cast. The kids may be the subject of the film's title but it's the adults who take center stage here. Annette Bening, who received her fourth Oscar nomination for her performance here, brings depth and humanity to her role as Nic, the more domineering partner in her relationship with Jules. It would've been easy to turn this character into a one-dimensional stereotype of a control freak (somewhat like the actress's alter ego in American Beauty, which earned her one of her previous nods) but Bening successfully shows us her warmer, more nurturing side as well. There's never any doubt that Nic's actions are motivated by her love for Jules and for their two children, Joni and the improbably-named Laser (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson, respectively), even if she doesn't always show it. Equally as riveting in her role as the more submissive Jules is Julianne Moore, even though she didn't get recognized by the Academy. Out of all the characters in this film, her's is arguably the most sympathetic. All she craves is affection and affirmation, neither of which she feels Nic is providing for her anymore. Ultimately, when Jules embarks on her affair with Paul (Mark Ruffalo), Joni and Laser's biological father, there's a sense that it was gonna happen sooner or later, whether with another man or another woman. Equally inevitable is the massive fallout that results from this decision and the fact that she has this affair with her children's donor dad only stirs the pot that much more.

Speaking of Paul, Mark Ruffalo, who also nabbed an Oscar nomination (which, to me at least, was a bit surprising at the time), is as good as either of his female co-stars. Of all the characters, his is the most laid-back - at least initially. Though successful as a business man (he operates an organic foods restaurant and grows his own produce), he's very much a hippie at heart and before he meets his two biological children, the prospect of fatherhood or marriage couldn't be further from his mind. However, as the movie progresses and his bond with Joni and Laser deepens, his perceptions begin to change and his paternal instincts soon start to assert themselves. Ruffalo's performance generates most of the film's understated humor but when dramatic acting is required, the often underrated actor brings his A-game.

The adults may be our attention magnets but the work of the "kids" shouldn't be overlooked, either. If Wasikowska and Hutcherson weren't believable in their roles, this film wouldn't work nearly as well as it does. In many ways, these two are like a lot of young people on the cusp of adulthood. Joni, who just turned 18, is spending her final summer at home before heading off to the freedom of college. On the other hand, Laser, who's only 15 (and is initially more interested in meeting Paul than Joni is, even though she's legally of age to make that call) is still trying to feel things out as far as what his niche is in life. Like many teenagers, they seek acceptance and attention from their peers, but at the same time, there's a sense that their unique upbringing has given them a certain maturity and awareness that many others in their age bracket (and possibly even a little older) don't really have. Both performers are entirely comfortable inhabiting these characters' skins.

In the end, it comes back to the screenplay, which is truly the foundation on which this film is built. The dialogue is intelligent and witty and it captures all the subtle nuances of how these people relate to one another. It doesn't pass judgment on its characters and it doesn't resort to preaching from the pulpit; all it does is observe these individuals and how they interact with one another while inviting the audience into their world rather than keeping us at arm's length. Any flaws that this film has are minor and hardly deserve mention. This is an example of the type of independent film-making that rarely finds favor in this market driven by big-budget, low-intelligence blockbusters. When something like this comes along that manages to be smart, funny, perceptive and emotionally honest with individuals that truly merit our time and attention, it deserves and demands the respect of any serious film-goer.

Hard Candy
Hard Candy(2006)
½

A tense, disturbing thriller that digs its claws into you and doesn't let you go until the bitter end. Imagine someone like David Mamet collaborating with another David (Fincher that is) to make a film about pedophilia and you would get an idea of what to expect here. Those who seek lightweight entertainment from a movie or demand a rooting interest in their films would do well to avoid Hard Candy, because comfort is the last thing on this film's agenda and neither of the main characters is the type of person with whom most viewers would likely identify - unless their moral compasses have been irreparably twisted. Hard Candy is the type of film that asks provocative questions, pushes buttons and occasionally makes viewers squirm in their seats. If you feel ill-at-ease during some portions of this film, this is precisely the tone that the filmmakers were trying to strike. One scene in particular (you'll know the one when you see it) will likely hit a raw nerve with male viewers; it's not especially graphic but it conjures up images that will make the blood run cold. Despite all of this unsavory material, Hard Candy never fails to be compelling and involving. It proves that thrillers of this sort can generate tension and suspense without ever needing to resort to pointless action sequences and other such superficial tactics. At one point in the film, it appears as though Hard Candy might develop into a mystery (there's a picture of a missing teenage girl near beginning of the film and later on, we're shown another picture of the same young lady) but ultimately, the movie is more concerned with the present than with the past events that may or may not have led up to it. The characters and their situation are more than enough to hold anyone's interest and Hard Candy milks this scenario for what it's worth without having to delve too deeply into other subplots. Some of what occurs in the movie doesn't quite hold up to careful thought and examination after viewing, but while the movie is spinning its tale, it manages to be engrossing enough to where most viewers won't contemplate the logical flaws until long after it's over (or even until after several viewings).

Still, the most lasting impressions left by this film have little to do with any plot deficiencies that might arise from time to time but relate more-so to the numerous thought-provoking issues that the script broaches. In particular the way the film approaches (and ultimately upends) the subject of vigilantism is noteworthy. In a more conventional film, there is no question that Haley Stark, the 14 year-old avenger (played to stunning perfection by Ellen Page in a role that would ultimately bring the actress to Hollywood's attention) would be the victim and that Jeff Kohlver (Patrick Wilson), the 32 year-old photographer and would-be pedophile whom Haley meets online, would be the Big Bad Wolf (there are in fact some references to Little Red Riding Hood here but not nearly as many as in the underrated 1996 comedy/thriller and early Reese Witherspoon starring vehicle, Freeway, which touched up on subject matter similar to this film) but in this setting, the roles are almost reversed and nothing is nearly as cut and dried. As I mentioned before, no attempt is made to build sympathy for either of the main characters (except for a brief moment where Jeff relates a story from his childhood in a half-assed effort to explain why he is the way he is) but oftentimes Haley comes off as being the more disturbed of the two. Don't get me wrong here; in no way, shape or form could Jeff be considered a likable character (although he has a certain charm). The film makes his tendencies towards pedophilia very clear although the extent of his sickness remains an open-ended question. In particular, there are strong suggestions as to his complicity in one especially horrific crime but the audience is never given any definitive proof. On the other hand however, we're made privy to all the torture and humiliation that Haley puts him through and some of what she devises for Jeff (especially during the aforementioned centerpiece scene) would be considered depraved for anyone of any age, talk less of a girl who hasn't even made it to high school yet. There's no denying that Haley is an extremely intelligent and manipulative individual - especially for someone so young - but the same things could be said of most sociopaths or, for that matter, many pedophiles (which in someways brings the film's dynamic full circle). The fact that Hard Candy toys so much with this idea, often to the point of inducing audience discomfort, has earned the film its share of detractors but it's this same quality that has galvanized and impassioned its defenders (myself included).

Another myth that the film attempts to debunk relates to the subject of pedophilia itself. When people usually think of child rapists, the first image that comes to mind is that of a disheveled and creepy-looking individual who has absolutely nothing going for him (or her in some cases), the kind of person from which most young girls would hopefully flee as far and as fast as possible if he or she tried to approach them. In this instance though, the pedophile is actually a reasonably attractive individual with a stable and respectable career and a very comfortable living situation, the kind of man whom most adult women would easily consider a desirable and suitable mate. Yet, despite all of these things that he has going for him, he chooses to go after young girls who aren't even half his age. And because Jeff is so good-looking and charming and does such a good job of presenting himself initially, most of his potential victims wouldn't think twice about trusting a man like him. In many ways, this makes him more dangerous and pernicious than the stereotypical pedophile because of his unassuming and suave demeanor. But the film shows just shallow his pool of charisma is and how quickly he can unravel and reveal his true colors when faced with someone like Haley who can see through his bullshit.

It takes an exceptional caliber of filmmaking to hold all of this together but Hard Candy leaves little to be desired in that aspect. David Slade (wow, that's 3 David's in this review), a former music-video director who made his feature film debut here (and would go on to helm the entertaining vampire flick 30 Days of Night before being suckered into taking the reins for one of the Twilight films), does an excellent job of handling this edgy and weighty material. Their are times when some of his camera work betrays his background but these moments are few and far between. The script, credited to Brian Nelson, is intelligently-written and diabolically clever (with occasional moments of dark humor to break the tension) and the cinematography is arresting. Even the opening credits are visually dynamic. However, as I alluded to earlier, it's the tremendous performance of Ellen Page that truly gives this film its pulse. Page may have gone on to stardom because of her work in Juno (for which she nabbed an Oscar nomination) but Hard Candy was her calling card as an actress. As written, Haley is the kind of improbably intelligent and unbalanced teenager that one rarely encounters in the real world, which does raise the suspension-of-disbelief curve quite a bit. This makes it all the more crucial to the movie's success that we as the audience believe in her character, otherwise the movie would implode under the weight of its implausibilities. Thankfully, Page is more than equal to the task and it's because of her work more so than that of the script writers that Haley becomes a living and breathing individual. The actress is so forceful in this role that the audience is constantly anticipating her character's next move, even during the brief moments when she isn't on screen. Not only does Page understand the importance of delivering dialogue but she is equally as good when it comes to acting with her facial expressions and body language. Patrick Wilson does the best that he can in his role as the devious and pathetic Jeff, but he toils in Page's shadow. She *owns* this film much like her character owns and manipulates Jeff.

In the end however, while Page's performance might be the standout aspect of this film, by no means is it the only worthwhile element here. Hard Candy works because of its ability to combine all of its diverse threads into a cohesive and compelling whole. In the end, this may not be an easy film to absorb, but it's precisely its unsettling exploration of the darker plateau of human behavior, combined with its stellar lead performance and its constant sense of dread, that makes it a top-notch psychological thriller well worth viewing for those who are open-minded and unafraid of being confronted with some harsh truths. It's no less engrossing and disturbing now than it was when it first hit screens back in late 2005/early 2006.

Dallas Buyers Club

A strong and affecting drama that, in addition to effectively recreating the climate of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, chronicles the transformation of it's bigoted main character into a beacon of compassion and, in the process, highlighted what has to be the strongest performance ever in Matthew McConaghuey's career.

Kick-Ass
Kick-Ass(2010)
½

A wildly-entertaining ultra-dark superhero action-comedy that definitely scores points for truth in advertising, this flick does exactly what it's title says in every single way. Imagine combining something like Superbad with Spiderman (that film's tag line is even referenced here in a rather off-hand manner) perhaps crossed with The Professional or Kill Bill and then handing it over to Tarantino or Scorsese to direct it; that description only offers a glimmer of what's on display here. To put it another way, this is as hard-edged of a satire as you're likely gonna find of superhero films, one that embraces as many of the tenets of the genre as it skewers. If hardcore action sequences are what you're after, this deliver in spades; best of all, it doesn't feel the need to tone things down in order to pander to a younger audience. For those willing to dig a little deeper, there's a wonderfully self-referential streak that permeates throughout the whole thing; one thing to appreciate about this film is that it's tongue is never far from its cheek, even during its most bloody and violent moments - and for good measure, there's even a sweet little love story that develops between the title character and the girl of his dreams (played here by a very cute Lyndsey Fonseca).

By now, I really don't need to tell anyone that this isn't one for viewers with weaker stomachs and it is definitely *not* for the kiddies, despite the presence of a preteen as one of the protagonists - in fact, many of the more sensitive viewers have been disturbed by the rather homicidal proclivities of said preteen, who's appropriately named Hit-Girl. I normally don't pay a great deal of attention to the MPAA and their ratings but I would definitely take heed of what they said about the content in this one, particularly their warnings of "strong brutal violence throughout" - they are not kidding around. There is plenty of viciousness throughout the film, much of which is perpetrated by - and, even on a couple of instances, against - young children as well as adults, to say nothing of the constant profanity.

But these things aren't besides the point; they *are* the point. Kick-Ass postulates what would happen if someone, or a group of someones tried to adopt a vigilante alter-ego in the real world and I think that it pretty much hits the nail on the head (if you siphon off some of the more patently ludicrous elements of the proceedings). Certainly, it's not gonna play out like someone's watered-down PG-13 fantasy. Some of these costumed crime fighters are more equipped to handle the rigors of such a daunting task than others (such as the titular character) who skate by purely on their tenacity and foolhardiness. In either case, when one chooses to play with fire in such an overt manner, they can expect to get burned (both literally and figuratively) and recovering from such assaults may not be as simple as just a few stitches. This movie isn't afraid to get that point across in a rather graphic, upfront manner. I for one appreciated the film's uncompromising approach to the material and it's unwillingness to water things down in order to court a more teen-friendly audience. But despite the harshness of the material, the tone is still largely comedic and it's definitely a testament to the skill of Matthew Vaughn that we laugh - and sometimes laugh hard - at much of what occurs here (although when one considers that Vaughn produced some of Guy Ritchie's early efforts and directed the 2004 crime-thriller - which was arguably the film that won its star, Daniel Craig, the role of James Bond - perhaps it's not too surprising that he could find the humor in such carnage).

A few words should be said about the casting, particularly that of young Chloe Moretz in the role of the aforementioned Hit Girl (nee Mindy Macready) since it arguably represents the most controversial aspect of the film. To say that casting such a young actress in this sort of role (Moretz just turned 13 a mere two months before Kick-Ass made its debut in theaters) is a ballsy move is to understate matters and one could go back and forth on how morally responsible such a decision was but this certainly isn't the first time in Hollywood that a young performer would be asked to handle such a potential risky part. I mentioned The Professional near the beginning of this review and there's a good reason for that because there are obvious similarities between Moretz's role here and the one that Natalie Portman essayed in the 1994 film. Both characters have a similar homicidal bent born of a need to exact revenge for the murder of a family member, not to mention a similar predilection for profanity (although to be fair, Hit Girl takes things much further here than did her counterpart, Mathilda, in the earlier film and conversely, the sexual overtones in that film are largely absent here, at least as far as Hit Girl is concerned). One could have all sorts of moral and ethical debates until they're blue in the face but, for me, all that matters is that Moretz dominates in this role, much like Portman did in The Professional (although Moretz's role here is more openly comedic). Even more so than the title character, Hit Girl is often the central attraction and a huge part of that has to do with how Moretz plays her part. This isn't intended as a knock on English actor Aaron Johnson, who does a solid job in the title role. He certainly sells on his character, an everyday high school geek who decides one day to become a superhero and manages to be successful despite some rather harsh resistance initially. It's a challenging role and one that Johnson proves capable of handling but when Hit-Girl is on screen, he and nearly every other cast member toil in her shadow. The exception is Nicolas Cage who plays her father, aptly named Big Daddy, another superhero who looks but acts nothing like Batman (certainly, the Dark Knight wouldn't approve of this caped crusader's penchant for guns). For Cage, this is arguably one of his best roles in years and it's pretty clear that the actor is having a field day here. As the villain, Mark Strong (who left a very strong - no pun intended here - impression in the 2008 thriller Body of Lies) tears into his rather stereotypical role with relish. As his son, the rather duplicitous but goofy Red Mist, Christopher "McLovin" Mintz-Plasse is cast according to type.

Before concluding this review, I'd like to make one final point. When my friend was trying to plug this movie for me (not that he really needed to since I was interested in seeing this ever since I'd heard of it) he described it as Spiderman movie for those of us who hated the Spiderman flicks. I can certainly agree with this sentiment. There are definite similarities in the plots of both stories but Kick-Ass has a much sharper edge and in my estimation, is infinitely more entertaining. In fact, this could easily be the best superhero film since Chris Nolan took the genre to new heights with The Dark Knight. This film truly deserves its name and I await the sequel with baited breath.

Kick-Ass 2
Kick-Ass 2(2013)

Oh wow, this film is getting eviscerated by the critics, jeez! :o No matter, I loved the first one so I have to give the sequel a try! :)

Gone Baby Gone
½

A powerful, gripping tale that keeps you involved and on the edge of your seat until the very end. What starts out as a well-made excursion into well-worn cliches ends as something far more devastating and forceful. As a mystery-thriller, Gone Baby Gone offers more than enough to satisfy most adherents of the genre. There are the usual unsavory and shady individuals (drug dealers, pimps, pedophiles, etc.) that cross the paths of the main characters throughout the film and while the investigation that comprises the bulk of the plot contains all of the expected twists, turns and instances of misdirection, its conveyed with enough freshness to keep most viewers engaged (although nothing here should surprise anyone who has read the Dennis Lehane novel on which this was based and one revelation in particular is somewhat foreshadowed early on). The streets of the Boston neighborhood where the action is based (Dorchester to be exact) are brought to life with gritty authenticity - not surprising since Affleck grew up in and around this area - and the hard-hitting and often vulgar dialogue amplifies this impression. And with a running time of just under two hours, the pacing is perfect and there's even a little room for shootouts and gunplay. However, much as was the case with the equally searing Mystic River (another film based on a Lehane novel), the true power of the story comes more from the moral, ethical and emotional dilemmas that engulf the protagonists rather than from the whodunit elements. Ultimately, what Gone Baby Gone wishes to acknowledge (both novel and film) is that the question of what is right or wrong isn't always as easy to answer as we would like it to be and even the best of intentions and choices can often be rewarded with consequences too terrible to consider.

As with Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone is the product of an actor-turned-director; however, unlike Clint Eastwood, who had decades of experience on both sides of the camera coming into the 2003 film, this was the first-go-round for Ben Affleck and it couldn't have come at a better time for him. Perhaps, Affleck felt that moving behind the camera was the key to revitalizing his Hollywood career and lifting himself from the ashes of his early 00's meltdown (something that even his well-regarded performance in 2006's Hollywoodland couldn't fully accomplish) or maybe he just wanted to try something different; whatever the case, the results argue in his favor. If I didn't know beforehand that this was the product of a neophyte, I would never have guessed. This would be considered an accomplished effort for anyone but for someone who's getting a crack at the director's chair for the first time, it's astonishing. In fact, this was arguably better than anything Affleck had done on either side of the camera up until that point (and yes, that includes his and Matt Damon's Oscar-winning script for Good Will Hunting). Affleck, who in addition to directing, once again shared writing duties (this time with Aaron Stockard) captures the essence of the novel faithfully and proves adept, not only at maintaining the requisite suspense and taut pacing, but also at navigating the emotional and intellectual intricacies of the storyline. As the audience, we are forced to ponder alongside the protagonists how we would respond to the various quandaries that challenge them during the nearly 2-hour running length but at no point does the film ever force-feed any particular viewpoint down our throats. Gone Baby Gone has enough intelligence to realize that these aren't the sorts of dilemmas at which a solution is quickly or easily arrived; consequently it takes great pains to make sure that all sides of each case are clearly presented and argued. By emphasizing this particular aspect of the novel, Affleck succeeds in heightening the tension much more than if he had relied solely on conventional storytelling elements.

It takes strong acting to effectively realize a plot as complex as this one but Affleck has chosen all of his actors and actresses wisely. Even the "weaker links" relatively speaking are solid enough to sell us on their parts. For the main character, Patrick Kenzie, Affleck looked no further than his young brother Casey to fill in the role and I can't argue with this choice. The younger Affleck doesn't threaten to steal too many scenes with his low-key rendering of this character (although he has at least one or two monologues where he truly shines) but he has enough of a presence to hold his own and not disappear into the background, even when he's sharing the screen with some of his better-known co-stars. Likewise, Michelle Monaghan, who was a rising starlet in Hollywood at the time of this film (I probably remember her best as the atypical femme-fatale in the delightful noir-comedy, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which hit screens 2 years earlier), takes an understated approach to her role as Angie Gennaro, Patrick's partner and lover (although she's clearly the more emotional of the two, unsurprisingly). And like her male co-star, she has her chances to arrest the spotlight from time to time. Together, these two provide a firm foundation on which the rest of the cast can build their performances. As I read the novels (and Gone Baby Gone is actually the fourth book in a series revolving around these two romantically and professionally linked private detectives), I often wondered whom I would have pegged for the leading roles and I can't say that I'm disappointed with either of these choices.

Still, a case can easily be made that the true standouts in the cast come from the supporting ranks. In their respective roles as a police chief and one of his subordinate officers handling the case, both Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris give the types of superlative performances that befit their sterling and well-deserved reputations as top-notch actors. Both of their characters start out as cliches - two cops who reluctantly make Patrick and Angie privy to their investigation while just barely tolerating them - but it doesn't take long before we realize that both men have surprisingly complex motivations for some of their actions during the course of this film, the likes of which aren't fully understood until closing credits are about to arrive. Also noteworthy is Amy Ryan who portrays Helene, the neglectful mother whose daughter's disappearance provides the impetus behind the investigation. No one will deny that Helene is a nasty piece of work (unless their psyches are just as irreparably damaged) - as written in the book and shown here in the film, she is a trashy, boorish and self-centered drug-and-booze addict whose nearly non-existent parenting skills have put her daughter at risk on more than one occasion - but she still retains a core of humanity that asserts itself from time to time. Juicy roles like this can often prove to be challenging for even the best thespians but Ryan doesn't miss a beat. For this performance, the actress was honored with the lone Oscar nomination of the film. The rest of the cast including Titus Welliver and Amy Madigan (as the girl's uncle and aunt who employ the services of the two gumshoes) and Madeline O'Brien (as the missing girl) all make solid impressions and even bit players such as Boston rapper Slaine (who plays Bubba, a drug/arms dealer and close friend of the detectives) and Ed Gathegi (as another drug dealer with whom Helene may have gotten mixed up) are colorful and engaging in their limited time onscreen.

With this effort, the elder Affleck accomplished far more than just merely turn a new corner professionally - he crafted what was arguably one of best and most challenging films of 2007, one that continues to be just as thought-provoking and consistently compelling as it's always been and is still capable of inspiring passionate discussions and arguments long after the viewing experience is over. What's perhaps even more amazing was what Affleck was able to bring to his next effort, 2010's The Town, which avoided the much-dreaded sophomore jinx - I would actually argue that it was nearly as good as his debut - despite boasting a far more conventional storyline than what he had to work with here (and now with his latest film, Argo, he has managed to extend this winning streak behind the camera while proving, much like The Town, that he can still deliver the goods in front of it). Still, it's abundantly clear that Gone Baby Gone was much more than just a launching pad for a new phase in Affleck's career. The novel is said to be one of Affleck's favorites and he was obviously intent on doing justice to it. The end result is a powerful and affecting dramatic thriller that transcends the genre in which it has its roots. It refuses to compromise on its views of black and white and, perhaps even more so, all the shades of grey in between. Best of all, the ending isn't a cop-out; the final scene brings closure to the story but it doesn't tie everything up in a nice little crescent bow and the question of what the future may hold will linger over the heads of more than one surviving character long after the finish line has been crossed and the closing credits have faded from view.

The Matrix
The Matrix(1999)
½

Even now, this film remains just as fresh, intelligent, exciting and innovative as it ever was. As I write this in 2014, The Matrix will be celebrating its 15th anniversary and nothing - not even the two sub-par sequels and all the spinoffs, knockoffs and imitators that followed in its immediate and distant wake - has detracted from it or diminished its impact. At the time of its release, the film was rightfully ballyhooed for its groundbreaking visual and special effects (it went on to win 4 Oscars for it's impressive technical attributes) but its legacy would prove to be more far reaching and more lasting than just that. In many ways, this film would provide a blueprint for most of the science-fiction films that followed over the next decade (although it certainly wasn't the first influential film in its genre) and it continues to be an inspiration to filmmakers in one way or another. 1999 was arguably one of the strongest years in movie history and The Matrix earned its place alongside the likes of American Beauty, Fight Club, Three Kings, The Insider and Being John Malkovich amongst the creme de la creme of that year's class.

This was the sophomore feature for the Wachowski brothers (now the Wachowski siblings since Larry became Lana back in 2008) and it more than delivered on the promise of their 1996 debut feature, the underrated, steamy, lesbian-based noir thriller Bound (which featured Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly in the lead roles). As they did with the earlier effort, the talented siblings once again proved that they could elevate well-worn material with their keen and striking visual style and an intelligent and absorbing screenplay that provides plenty of thrills while still offering a wealth of thought-provoking material. The central conceit of this film revolved around such concepts as virtual reality, computer-hacking and futuristic dystopias, all of which were overused plot devices by the time this film hit the scene back in 1999 (some of the more noteworthy films that utilized this subject matter prior to The Matrix include the slight and silly teen flick Hackers, the far more potent and controversial James Cameron/Kathryn Bigelow collaboration Strange Days - both of which hit screens in 1995 - and the vastly underrated Dark City, which was released just one year before The Matrix) but somehow this film managed to give all this material a much-needed injection of freshness by incorporating it into a storyline that forces the audience to think about and even question the reality in which we live. Ultimately the questions and theories asked and postulated in this film would inspire countless conversations in venues as diverse as college lectures halls, high school classrooms and even churches.

In addition to its impressive technical and intellectual attributes, this film proved what an asset a well-chosen cast can be to any film. Headlining this movie was none other than Keanu Reeves and with this film, The Wachowskis proved - much like Jan de Bont did 5 years earlier with Speed - that they were amongst the few filmmakers who understood the strengths and (perhaps more importantly) limitations of their leading man. Reeves has never been adept at showing emotion but he's always had screen presence and here, decked in a black trench-coat and sunglasses, he becomes the epitome of cool and displays just enough likability and charisma to draw us in his corner. At one point Will Smith was pegged for this role and while he might be the better actor between the two, Reeves puts such a strong stamp on this part that it's impossible to imagine anyone else doing anywhere near as good of a job. In many ways, Neo would become an even more iconic character than Jack Traven, Reeves' alter ego in Speed. The rest of the cast more than lifts the burden off of their lead actor including Laurence Fishburne and Carrie-Ann Moss (whose roles as Trinity and Morpheus would also prove to be enduring in the pop culture lexicon) and Joey "Pants" Pantoliano (who was the villain in Bound and once-again making an appearance for the directors). And in the role of Agent Smith, Aussie actor Hugo Weaving created one of the most memorable villains of the past 20 years with his near monotone voice and menacing demeanor (and just a hint of dark humor).

Of course I would be remiss not to mention the staging of action sequences, which has been one of the most copied aspects of this film but very few could even come close to matching the Wachowskis' approach here. It's very clear that they took their inspiration from John Woo, particularly for the numerous shootouts and hand-to-hand combat sequences but again, this doesn't feel like a retread. The filmmakers employ a variety of technique including slow-motion shots and multiple camera angles to enhance the excitement, keep the adrenaline pumping and make this material their own. Of course the money-shot was the scene of Neo dogging bullets on the rooftop of a multistory building but it's far from the only lasting image in this film. There is plenty of tension and white-knuckle excitement in this film but the best part of it is that it complements rather than detract from the more intriguing and tantalizing elements of the story. In order to full appreciate this film, you have to be willing to engage your mind and puzzle along the characters the many quandaries that they face. One of the more disappointing aspects of the sequels is they jettisoned the more thought-provoking material and just focused more on giving the audience a visual rush (and the action sequences in those films weren't even all that special).

In the end The Matrix entertains like the best films do: by providing a complete experience. There is plenty of action, thrills, humor and even a dollop of romance all wrapped up in a neat package that encourages the involvement and participation of viewers' minds, something that's as rare now as it was a decade and a half ago. Ultimately that was what the best films of this sort that followed - including the likes of Minority Report, Children of Men, District 9, Inception and Looper just name a few - understood beautifully and that to me best encapsulates the enduring legacy of this film. It's just too bad that the Wachowskis started to believe their own press (like many whose careers take off in such a spectacular fashion) which resulted in some good films - like V for Vendetta - but also some unfortunate career-stalling decisions (Speed Racer anyone?). Still, they managed to make a major impact on the art of film-making with their first two films and particularly with The Matrix, which remains one of the best modern science-fiction stories ever put to celluloid.

Aliens
Aliens(1986)

A masterpiece of the genre and a member of that oh-so rare group of sequels that improve upon the original rather than disgracing the memory of it. The 1979 original was an excellent sci-fi/horror hybrid that relied mostly on a slow build-up of tension and chilling atmosphere to keep viewers riveted; this time around, while the sense of atmosphere is still just as claustrophobic and overpowering as it was before, the original film's slow-burn approach has been replaced with a taut and relentless pace that doesn't allow for even a moment's relief. What James Cameron has done with this landmark 1986 picture is to take the core elements from the original film and use them as a blueprint for a superior action/adventure effort; in the process, he managed to craft what is arguably the best film not only in the franchise but also on his own personal resume as a filmmaker - and considering how immaculate his track record was and continues to be, that's saying something! To put it another way, if Ridley Scott laid the foundation with the original Alien, Cameron built the house with Aliens.

The first half hour of the film is relatively calm as the character of Ripley gets reestablished and new characters are introduced into the story. I'm not gonna delve too deeply into this part of the film since most people have seen the movie and already know what happens (besides, I don't wanna ruin it for those who somehow *haven't* seen it). Things move a little slowly during this segment but by no means is it boring or laborious and it effectively accomplishes the task of setting up the story. Once the locale shifts to planet LV-426 however, this is where we truly get into the meat-and-potatoes of the film and things really kick into high gear. Cameron turns up the intensity several notches as he serves up one suspenseful set-piece right after another with occasional breaks in the momentum to flesh out the characters and to allow the audience to catch its breath, if only for a second. As with the original Terminator, and all of his films thereafter, the director's knack for big, bold and energetic action sequences is very much on display here but unlike most of his contemporaries, Cameron is a meticulous craftsman. He understands how to film action in a way that quickens the pulse but isn't deemed incomprehensible by too many flash edits and quick cuts. This way, we can admire the skill and craft that's on display while still remaining on the edges of our seats.

As superior as Cameron's instincts are for creating and sustaining an adrenaline rush, he doesn't just leave it at that and forget about the individuals populating his films. Action and special effects may be his means but his ends have always been his characters and their stories, which is another reason why he's still considered to be amongst the elite in his genre (any doubts about his abilities to bring depth to the characters in his stories were shattered in 1997 with Titanic, easily the most dramatic of his films). Here, he takes time to nurture the most crucial human relationship, the one between Ripley and her adopted "daughter" Newt (knowing that Ripley lost her biological daughter so many years ago adds an extra element of poignancy to this dynamic). The fact that we have such a strong emotional investment in these two elevates this above the level of just a well made sci-fi/action flick and gives this film its beating heart. In fact, this relationship is a huge part of what drives the climax of the film as Ripley has to save Newt from the clutches of the queen alien, who herself is also a mother. The Newt/Ripley dynamic may be the emotional cornerstone of the film but Cameron doesn't skimp when it comes to the other characters either. Several of the Marines are given enough personality to escape the low orbit of being "just another grunt"; these aren't deep and complex individuals but they are likeable enough to capture our sympathies and get us on their side.

Hell, even the aliens themselves are given some depth and dimension; certainly we learn more about them here than we did in the first film. Their structure is similar to that of a typical insect colony (as one character observes at one point) although these creatures are deadlier and far more intelligent than an average bee. One important aspect of the original film that Cameron employs here is that less is better. Even though the aliens have multiplied this time, we still don't get a very good look at them until near the end and this enhances their menace. They make appearances at the just the right moments but then, like any seasoned predator, they retreat just as quickly as they show up. These creatures are implacable in terms of their threat but by no means are they the only villains in the story; we also get a human villain in the form of a slimy bureaucrat named Burke (Paul Reiser) who's only concern is with profit above all else including and especially the lives of his fellow crew members.

Sigourney Weaver is the only returning cast member from the original and her performance here is even more intense than it was before. The somewhat carefree nature of her character in the original has been replaced with a sense of urgency; the Ripley of this film is an emotionally and psychologically distressed woman who's found something to live for in protecting and caring for her adopted daughter. Weaver is rightfully credited with developing the first archetype for a female action-hero - or, more appropriately, action-heroine - and this film, more so than the other Alien films, was a huge part of establishing that reputation. Not only does she have an impressive physique but Weaver can kick ass alongside most male luminaries of the genre, including another Cameron regular, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unlike most action stars however, Weaver has legitimate acting talent and it comes through during the more dramatic moments of the film, especially her scenes with Carrie Henn (the actress who played Newt). Weaver managed to earn a surprise Oscar-nomination for her acting here, while the film itself would earn several nominations for its impressive technical attributes. The rest of the cast is solid including past and future Cameron "regulars" like Michael Biehn (as the brave but stoic Corporal Hicks), Bill Paxton (who provides most of the film's comedic relief as Hudson), Jenette Goldstein (as the rather butch Vasquez) and Lance Henricksen (as the mysterious Android, Bishop). The aforementioned Paul Reiser is also surprisingly good as the slimy Burke (surprising considering the actor's reputation for playing likable but neurotic individuals).

For James Cameron, The Terminator may have been his calling card as a filmmaker (for me, it's my second favorite film of his next to this one), but with Aliens, he announced that he was here to stay. He would go on to achieve massive success in his career both creatively and financially (as of this writing, both Titanic and his most recent film, Avatar, stand side-by-side as the top box office champs) but as excellent as all of his films have been, for me at least, he hasn't quite surpassed what he was able to achieve with Aliens. Whether you wish to approach this as a science fiction film or an action/adventure - in fact, quite frankly, if you want to consider films of *any* genre or variety - you'll find that few offer as complete and as exhilarating of an experience as this one does. This isn't just a superior white-knuckle ride, it's a superior motion picture by any substantive standard!

The Squid and the Whale

A solid and affecting film that mixes understated drama with wry humor to relate the tale of a divorce and the effects that the aftermath has on both the parents and their two children. Apparently, the writer/director of this film, Noah Baumbach based this story on his own personal experiences growing up in New York City as young man dealing with his own parents' divorce and, considering the level of honesty with which the script (which went on to be Oscar-nominated) was written, I can certainly accept this as fact. In many ways, while I was watching this, I was reminded of a more recent film, The Kids Are All Right, that also explored the dynamics of a family in crisis. The specific circumstances may be different but when you boil everything down to essentials, it's the same sort of conflict that's at play here and the same types of forces that threaten to divide each family (although the couple in Kids are lesbians and don't use a divorce to resolve their issues like the straight couple depicted here). Moreover, neither film stacks the deck when it comes to its characters; sure, these people do things to one another that are deeply hurtful but they are equally as capable of showing love and kindness. Most importantly, both films provide conclusions that don't feel like cheats. The movie ends once the story has been told but not every loose end has to be neatly tied up and not every character has to have been force-fed a sense of closure. I found The Kids Are All Right to be the better overall film on the balance, but The Squid and The Whale (which takes its title from a display at the American Museum of Natural History that plays a crucial role in the film) doesn't trail too far behind it. As with the more recent film, this one relies on a solid script and host of strong performances as its anchors. Jeff Daniels, in particular, is surprisingly good going somewhat against type as the Bernard, patriarch of this family whose egotistical attitudes and unsparing opinions about everything and everyone oftentimes overshadow the deeply buried pain in his soul. As his ex-wife Joan, the always-excellent Laura Linney once again brings her A-game and the two actors playing their children, Jesse Eisenberg (who plays Walt, the elder and more reserved of the two sons), and Owen - son of Kevin - Kline (who plays Frank, the younger and far more unruly younger son who deals with his frustrations in ways that will surely get anyone's attention) are solid as well (Eisenberg would of course see his star rise in the years following this film, culminating in an Oscar nomination for his bravura interpretation of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network). Aside from the central cast, the other two actors with important parts in the film are Anna Paquin (as one of Walt's students with whom he becomes lovers) and William Baldwin (as Frank's tennis coach Ivan, who unsurprisingly becomes romantically entangled with Joan). In the end, this film will resonate with anyone who has experienced the often fractious war zones that we like to call families - and more so, perhaps, with those who have experienced the effects of a divorce - as well as with anyone who enjoys well-written and well-acted slice-of-life dramas that don't have to resort to cliches and melodrama to attain their impact.

Grosse Pointe Blank

A delightfully dark, offbeat and entertaining comedy-thriller that deserves more attention than it's gotten over the years. Many movies have been made about high school reunions but very few have quite the feel of this one. The requisite nostalgia factor is definitely intact (the soundtrack is full of great 80's tunes, both popular and somewhat obscure) but that's just a small portion of this film's surprisingly ambitious agenda. By combining elements of an action film, a noirish post-Tarantino crime-thriller, an offbeat romance, and darkly satirical comedy along with it's high school reunion plot, Grosse Pointe Blank has set itself up for a Herculean task but, by and large, it succeeds. The script, which was credited to John Cusack and a host of other writers, is sharply-written and intelligent with many quotable lines and several perfectly on-target observations on various facets of American culture in the 90's (it takes aim at big business and Gen-X angst, amongst a rich variety of other topics). This film is often observant and pointed in ways that may not always be obvious expect upon reflection and rumination. Take the case of a shootout that occurs in a convenience store between our hero and a rival hitman. During this little fracas, the clerk on duty is completely oblivious to the violence and chaos going on around him because he has his headphones plugged in whilst being entertained by the fake violence and carnage of an arcade game. The script is rife with moments like this but it takes careful thought and attentiveness to uncover them all. Still there's enough here to be enjoyed even by those who don't wish to think all that deeply into things.

John Cusack is surprisingly well-cast in the lead role as the titular character Martin Blank, a hitman who has doubts about the future and his place in the world despite being an efficient killer and having lead a far more interesting life than most would dream of living at twice the age of his character here. The brilliance of Cusack's performance is that he is able to wed his typically quirky, slightly neurotic personality to this inherently unlikable character, thus endearing him to the audience. Imagine what might happen had Lloyd Dobler (Cusack's character from Say Anything) decided to heed his father's advice and join the Army and that should give you a sense of what John Cusack brings to his role here. For the most part, the rest of the cast is equally well-chosen including Joan Cusack, Alan Arkin, Jeremy Piven and Dan Aykroyd (who is delightfully over-the-top in his role as a rival assassin). The only one who seems initially miscast is Minnie Driver (her American accent is quite uneven at times and she doesn't always click with Cusack in the beginning) but eventually, even she grows into her role as the love interest (who our hero stood up on prom night to join the Army before a brief stint in the CIA leading up to his current profession) -- and it doesn't hurt that she is still highly attractive, even at her worst.

Sitting in the director's chair for this effort is George Armitage, whose previous film was the underrated and somewhat under-seen Alec Baldwin starring vehicle, Miami Blues (which employed a similar mixture of mirth and carnage that works so well here). Armitage's work here is often overlooked because everyone wants to praise John Cusack's contribution, but he does a capable job of directing this film. The action sequences, in particular, are crafted with skill and energy, while still meshing well with the overall comedic tone of the film. The are times however-- particularly in the case of one especially bloody murder (where a ballpoint pen is employed with cruel ingenuity) -- when the mixture of violence and humor might be off-putting to some tastes. This shouldn't be too shocking to anyone raised on the works of Tarantino and his numerous imitators, but you never know (Pulp Fiction is in fact referenced on at least a couple of occasions during this film, the most obvious of which occurs during the aforementioned convenience store skirmish where a cardboard cutout of the cast from the earlier film is riddled with bullets). Personally, I think this film has other problems that demand more attention. For example, there are a few scenes (like when Martin visits his mother in a nursing home) that bring the film's momentum to a grinding halt and several minor characters, especially at the reunion, that are more annoying than funny. Also there are scenes that end abruptly before quickly and sloppily transitioning to something else. Luckily, while these flaws might diminish the movie's overall effectiveness, they don't do irreparable damage in the long run. In the end, Grosse Pointe Blank is more than worth a look for anyone who appreciates movies that are offbeat, edgy and don't fit neatly into a single category while still managing to deliver plenty of thrills and big laughs in the process.

Adventureland
½

A funny, smart and surprisingly touching dramatic comedy that deserves a much wider audience that it has gotten thus far. This is definitely one of 2009's unsung treasures; despite the near-universal acclaim that it got from critics, it mostly got the cold shoulder from mainstream audiences who, perhaps as a result of the mishandled trailers, were under the mistaken impression that this was gonna be another wild and crazy sex-farce and were subsequently disappointed by the more honest and dramatic direction that the storyline took (and the fact that this opened on the same weekend as the Fast and Furious reboot definitely didn't help its prospects at all). Writer/director Greg Mottola makes good on the promise he showed with his direction of 2007's Superbad by following it up with something less raunchy and more personal.

Don't get me wrong here; the film doesn't shy away from conversations about sex and other things that tend to occupy the minds of young people in their late teens and early twenties but this isn't an endless barrage of dick-and-shit jokes. The humor here flows more organically out of the characters and their situations than out of a bunch of lowbrow gags and consequently it feels much more natural to the story. However, the comedic elements of the film often take a backseat to the more dramatic ones. No this isn't some ultra-serious film masquerading as a comedy but it does have a heart and the main characters are given enough depth and individuality to where we have a vested interest in their predicaments. However, things thankfully never devolve into artificial sentimentality or mawkishness. The dramatic elements are just as natural and unforced as the comedic ones. Credit Mottola who has a clear vision for his story and for where he wants it to go. Perhaps, the fact that he based this on some of his experiences as a young man is what makes Adventureland so special. There is certainly a sense of verisimilitude that can be seen in even the small details of the film from its depiction of second-tier theme parks to its sense of time and place (the movie is set in the late 80's). There is also a sense of believability in the way people interact with one another through the film. The script is smart and often wryly funny but it doesn't wallow in its own cleverness (an occasional problem with the otherwise excellent Juno) nor does it ever succumb to the sort of banal dialogue that can be found in most similar efforts.

The choice of actors to inhabit these characters was also very shrewd. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, in particular, are impeccable in the lead roles. Eisenberg plays his character, Brennan, with an awkward charm that (for me at least) recalls some of John Cuasck's early roles (Say Anything in particular). There is no denying that Brennan has a stronger intellect than muscle but he is far from the stereotypical Hollywood geek and Eisenberg fully understands how to inhabit this character's skin. Some have compared his acting to that of Michael Cera, but from my perspective, Eisenberg brings considerably more gravitas and authority to his role than Cera, who likely would have turned this guy into a caricature. Even better though is Kristen Stewart, who sells us on the likable, but somewhat troubled, Em. The actress has an unconventional attractiveness that serves here well here but she is also in sync with the emotional dimensions of her character.There's no doubt that Em is a flawed individual but Stewart bring such warmth to her that its impossible not to see how someone like Brennan, or anyone else for that matter, could be drawn to her. It's a shame that the young actress will likely be better known for her role in the Twilight films because here she proves that she is capable of far more. She can do a helluva a lot more acting with her eyes than many are able to do with words.

The rest of the cast is solid as well; in particular, special mention should be made of Ryan Reynolds and Martin Starr. Reynolds' Conner is the kind of character that could have been turned into a one-dimensional dickhead but the actor (in collusion with the script) keeps this character down to earth, making him likable despite his flaws (chief of which is his adulterous lifestyle). This part, along with Reynolds' role Definitely Maybe, continues to prove the actor's previously untapped potential. Likewise, Starr gives of a sympathetic portrayal of another character similar to Brennan, who is imprisoned by his lack of success and low self-esteem. This is another character who could have turned into a stereotype but thankfully that never happens. As the owners of the park, comic actors Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are wisely kept in check as is Matt Bush, whose character, Tommy Frigo, comes the closest to being a caricature. Had this role been toned down or completely excised, I could easily see giving this film my highest recommendation.

Overall, this film gave a near-perfect impression of what the end result might be if John Hughes and Cameron Crowe had collaborated together on a film. The uncommon insight into the inner-workings of young people is similar to what the former, recently deceased filmmaker demonstrated with his efforts (particular, The Breakfast Club). Likewise, the intelligence, warmth, likability and sense of verisimilitude that many associate with Crowe's films are in evidence here (watching this film, I was especially reminded of the aforementioned Say Anything and the more recent Almost Famous, which like Adventureland, was semi-autobiographical for the writer/director). Also, like the two aforementioned filmmakers, Mottola demonstrates an uncanny ability to memorably wed rock music to screen images (in particular, the film uses both The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" and Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over" to excellent effect)- but this film is no mere copycat of other people's work. Adventureland quickly stakes it's own ground and that, more than anything, is what makes it such a charming and unique motion picture experience. Adventureland might not be the best film of 2009, but it's likely to be the one that I will revisit the most often. Would that more films were like this.

Three Kings
Three Kings(1999)
½

An energetic mixutre of a thrilling action-adventure, a heist flick, darkly-satirical and bitingly-funny comedy, social commentary and surprisingly poignant drama makes this one of the most original war movies to come out in the past decade. It takes a director of great skill to combine all of these elements and make them work, but against all odds, David O. Russell pulls it off beautifully! The script is intelligent, asking some serious challenging questions about foreign policy and American politics without offering quick-and-easy solutions; the dialogue often sparkles a la Tarantino or Kevin Smith. The edgy mixture of graphic-violence and dark humor also recalls Tarantino. The action sequnences are executed with virtuoso skill and guaranteed to keep the viewers on the edge of their seats! The various visual techniques used throughout the film actually work to enhance the storyline rather than take away from it. The charatcers are very well-developed and worth caring about. The performances from the top-billed trio are fantastic! Clooney and Wahlberg (both vastly underrated although they have finally gotten their long- overdue brush with Oscar) stand out in particular! Ice Cube continues to show that he is one of the better musicians-turned-actors (along with Wahlberg) and Spike Jones makes an effective transition from directing moives to acting in them. The rest of the cast including Nora Dunn and (surprisingly) Jamie Kennedy is solid. Easily one of my favorite films and well-worth seeking out!!!

Say Anything...
½

To this day, this remains one of the best teen-oriented films ever made, alongside other standouts in this sub-genre such as The Breakfast Club, Pump Up The Volume and more recent entries like Juno and Adventureland (and honestly, would those last two films even be possible if not for this landmark effort?). Unlike most other teen films, this one doesn't need crassness or juvenile gags to hold the attention. It simply presents us with a trio of three-dimensional characters and treats us to a storyline that manages to be charming, endearing, touching and funny without ever insulting the intelligence. There's nothing particularly revolutionary or groundbreaking about the story but rather, it's the way in which the details are presented that make this one truly special. You won't feel like you've been taken to uncharted territory by the end of the film, but you'll likely feel that the journey to that destination was far more rewarding than similar treks in other films... and as a fringe benefit, you'll gain a much deeper appreciation for Peter Gabriel's landmark song, "Your Eyes"! A true gem of a film and one that continues to be as special and heartfelt as it ever was!

Requiem for a Dream

A powerful, disturbing motion picture that is an easy candidate for one of the best films of the decade and perhaps of all time. I saw this several years ago and I haven't forgotten it since. I can't think of another film I've seen (including excellent candidates such as Basketball Diaries and Trainspotting) that has made as forceful of an anti-drug statement as this one does. In its depiction of the often catastrophic consequences of addiction, this film pulls no punches and shows no mercy; it simply tells it like it is, with no concern for the weaker constitutions of some of the audience members (a point that was duly noted by the MPAA when they thoughtlessly slapped this film with an NC-17 rating upon its initial release). And while Requiem for a Dream is hardly what one would call subtle, it doesn't ever turn didactic or resort to the kind of sermonizing that can be the undoing of a movie like this. Director Darren Aronofsky (who also co-wrote the screenplay along with Hubert Selby, who adapts this from his novel of the same title) understands that a film of this sort works best when the characters are vividly-drawn and multidimensional; he puts that philosophy to use here and presents us with a quartet of likable albeit deeply-flawed people, each of whom has his or her own hopes and aspirations in life before the cycle of addiction engulfs them. By the time the movie reaches its end game, we have grown to care deeply about these individuals; consequently we have a vested interest in their circumstances even though we're fully aware that their lives are speeding trains on a collision course with the bleakest, most nightmarish reality possible. Watching these individuals implode and finally hit rock bottom is nearly impossible but we've made it this far with them and having come to regard these people as nearly and as dearly as our closest friends and family, we can't peel our eyes - and our hearts - away from their ordeals as much as we might wish we could. More than anything, this is the reason why the final 15 or so minutes of this film represent one of the most harrowing and emotionally draining final acts in recent film history - and the exemplary editing job during this closing sequence only amplifies the impending doom.

That's not to say that the rest of the film isn't expertly crafted. Visually, Aronofsky brings his considerable prowess to bear on the proceedings by employing a variety of camera tricks to draw us further into the mindsets of the protagonists and thus heighten our emotional attachment to them. It's as if the audience is thrust into the throes of drug addiction alongside Harry (Jared Leto), Marion (Jennifer Connelly), Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) and Sara (Ellen Burstyn). Luckily, Aronofsky shows just the right amount of restraint to where he doesn't draw attention away from the characters and their struggles - and visually, this is one helluva a busy picture with some of the scenes being sped up while others are slowed down. There is also one scene involving a split screen approach as well as several repeated quick clips that are interspersed with the main action.

A lesser director would have let all of this overwhelm the story and take focus away from the actors but that is not the case here. From top to bottom, there is nary a weak performance to be found. Ellen Burstyn was the only one to get an Oscar nomination for her acting (the only nomination in the entire film no less) and in many ways, her performance is the most heartbreaking but it is no more assured than the work of the other performers in the film. All four of the top-billed actors deserve recognition for allowing themselves to be put through the emotional and physical rigors of their parts and for embracing the degradation that their characters must endure throughout the film. Jennifer Connelly in particular goes out on a limb and has to appear nude in several scenes, including a two-girl sex-show that she has to perform in a room filled with middle-aged perverts, when her character has finally hit rock bottom.

The two main male performers in the cast are just as mesmerizing. As the central character in the drama, Leto's Harry is in many ways the glue that holds everything together and the actor steps up to the plate and hits a home run. This performance, along with his work in the equally masterful Fight Club, shows that Leto has considerably more talent than he's often credited for. Finally, Marlon Wayans proves that he has the ability to do far more than the outrageous comedies that have been his bread-and-butter throughout his career. Any humor that he provides here is almost too low-key to be worth mentioning. Perhaps, it takes a strong director like Aronofsky to keep such a wild personality in check, but whatever the case, Wayans has proven his dramatic chops here.

Finally, there's the musical score by Clint Mansell and the Kronos String Quartet, which perfectly accentuates the gloominess of the proceedings. I may never forget the closing musical score for as long as I live. As the saying goes however, this is most definitely one film where the whole is far more than the sum of its parts. Requiem for a Dream may not have the most triumphant story to tell but the movie itself is a triumph of film-making on every level.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed

Now here's a nice, underrated little gem; a taut, gripping and consistently suspenseful British thriller that, while far from perfect, still manages to keep audiences on the edges of their seats, constantly guessing and second guessing the characters and their true motivations. As with any self-respecting production of this sort, there are plot twists but unlike in the average Hollywood-produced effort, they aren't so hard to swallow that the audience is forced to suspend it's disbelief to an exorbitant degree. Also, in a nice departure from the norm, the villains aren't complete idiots; they may not be perfect but it's pretty clear that they at least attempt to think their scheme through before just rushing into it without a defined plan - in fact, the opening dialogue-free sequence shows just how smoothly the kidnappers are able to pull off capturing and subduing their mark (although their motives for committing this crime aren't initially made clear). Of course, everyone knows the saying about best laid schemes of mice and men and that maxim definitely applies here.

Likewise, the titular victim of the kidnapping is far from the standard order damsel in distress; she's tough, resilient and surprisingly resourceful. This is one chick who isn't gonna just sit back and willingly accept her captivity. Ultimately, the relationships amongst this trio of characters are what truly fuel this movie's considerable suspense. It gets to the point where our perceptions of - and consequently our sympathies with - these people shift several times throughout the film.

Credit the trio of actors in the film, none of whom misses a beat with the arc that his or her character takes during the course of the proceedings. As the title character, Gemma Arterton gives an especially brave performance and this goes beyond the nudity that's required of her role; the actress is forced to spend most of the film chained to a bed and is often shown in scenarios that are less than flattering. How many Hollywood actress - talented and attractive though they may be - would be willing to show themselves in this light, especially when they came to prominence as a result of glitzier, big-budget parts (her biggest role before this was as a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace and she has since appeared in the likes of The Prince of Persia and the Clash of the Titans remake)? With this performance, Arterton not only proves her ability, but also her fearlessness.

As her two captors, Danny and Vic, Martin Compston and Eddie Marsan are also rock-solid. Marsan is commanding in his role as the initially more menacing Vic but Compston does a nice job of playing up the ambiguities of his character. Danny may seem like the more submissive one in this partnership but in this movie, first impressions can be and often are deceiving.

Put simply, this film efficiently and effectively accomplishes the goal of any self-respecting, tautly-paced thriller, which is to build and maintain suspense. Unlike many other more generic genre entries however, this one doesn't need to rely on the well-worn standbys of routine action sequences and wild implausibilities to generate its brand of white-knuckle tension. There are certainly violent encounters and some gun-play here but nothing that one wouldn't normally expect from a scenario like this. I won't claim that this is a masterpiece of the genre; as with most films of this sort, the proceedings begin to lose a little steam as the film gets to its final act and the ending is perhaps a little too neat and conventional. On the balance however, Alice Creed manages to rivet the audience's attention for nearly the entire running length and at just over an hour and a half, it doesn't come close to wearing out its welcome.

Bound
Bound(1996)
½

A top-notch debut for the Wachowski Brothers who went on to even better things with their sophomore effort, The Matrix (before the sequels ruined that movie's legacy). What could have been a cheesy, trashy exploitation film has been turned instead into a top-notch modern-noir thriller that is intelligent, sexy, stylish, unpredictable and darkly-humorous. Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly light up the screen as the two lovers and co-conspirators and Joe Pantoliano oozes equally parts menace and charisma as the intended dupe of the lovers who isn't quite as naive and foolish as expected. The cinematography is gorgeous and the use of certain primary colors (mainly black, white and red), shadows and light add to the already intoxicating atmosphere. If this movie were not about anything but its looks and sense of style, it would still be a success. Luckily however, the movie has a plot, in addition to the visuals, that keeps the viewers involved from start-to-finish with plenty of unexpected twists and turns; moreover, by keeping the action mostly within the confines of an apartment building, the Wachowski Brothers keep the levels of tension and suspense at a maximum. As with any movie of this sort, there are logical flaws, but the movie is so involving that very few (if any) will be noticeable until after the movie is over. In the grand scheme of things however, the mixture of ultra-stylish film-noir, thrills, chills, romance, eroticism and intelligence make this one an entertaining and engrossing thriller that is worth watching again and again!

Menace II Society
½

A gritty and powerful experience that is rightfully regarded along Boyz n the Hood

Fight Club
Fight Club(1999)

I remember being reluctant to see this movie for the first time. Even though several of my friends had been telling me for a long time what an amazing film it was, I still couldn't help but wonder how on earth a story about underground boxing clubs could truly be worth my time except for maybe a couple hours of cheap, testosterone-fueled escapism. Well, when I finally did sit down to watch this several years ago, it didn't take long for the movie to quell my skepticism and then some. Yes, it is called Fight Club and yes, these underground clubs do play an important role in the progression of the plot (although that element of the story doesn't appear in full force until 40 or so minutes into the film) but this is only a small portion of a much more ambitious cinematic agenda; however to say much more than that would be violating the first two rules of Fight Club in a big way...not that I'd ever let that stop me from doing so anyway (don't worry, I won't spoil anything).

Like the best films that take their basis from a well-known novel (which, in this case, I read after seeing the film), this one manages to stay true to its roots while developing its own identity. Screenwriter Jim Uhls and director David Fincher deserve credit for realizing the strength of Chuck Palahniuk's source material and wedding it so perfectly to their own collaborative vision. It's all too rare that a film continuously builds such taut momentum and keeps viewers' adrenaline pumping while still providing a healthy dose of intellectual nourishment and strong character development but Fight Club does all of these things with unparalleled skill. As is often the case with his films, Fincher does an amazing job of developing an almost overpowering sense of atmosphere; he also peppers the film with tons of visual bells and whistles. The opening credit sequence gets us off to a flying start with a journey under the skin of the main character and the proceedings only gain momentum from there. In another sequence later on in the film, we get a tour of someone's apartment as though it were laid out on the pages of a sales catalog, with lines of text printed on the screen to describe each item therein. There is also a nice little parody of the FBI warnings that accompany DVD's and videotapes. Additionally, there are several single frame "quick clips" that come and go so quickly that they may not be noticed at all on the first viewing. A lesser director would have let all of this visual chicanery overwhelm the story but as he's proven time and time again, Fincher is capable of using this sort of kinetic, restless style of filmmaking to enhance a compelling narrative rather detract from it. Fight Club is definitely a dark, gritty and relentlessly-paced trip but that's to its benefit, not its detriment.

Thankfully, the talent in front of the camera is a perfect match for the ambitions of the people behind it. As the Narrator of this film, a cynical, insomnious, young professional who is quickly growing weary of his yuppie lifestyle, Edward Norton slides effortlessly into another challenging and complex role. I don't think that Norton could ever give a bad performance if he tried and not surprisingly, he lives up to his reputation here, breathing life into a three-dimensional protagonist who is not at all what he seems to be at first. Meanwhile Brad Pitt gives what may be the best performance of his career thus far. It certainly outdoes his Oscar-nominated work in 1995's Twelve Monkeys and his previous appearance for Fincher in Se7en, which came out that same year. Here, the actor effectively sheds his pretty boy image and buries himself under the skin of the mysterious but charismatic Tyler Durden and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, he proves capable of going toe-to-toe with Norton. Finally, Helena Bonham-Carter (aka Mrs. Tim Burton) is equally as good as her male co-stars in the role of Marla, the suicidal but attractive woman who comes between the two main characters. In smaller roles, Jared Leto and especially (and somewhat surprisingly) Meat Loaf, amongst other actors in minor parts, stand out as well.

As can be inferred from the title (and as just about everyone reading this should know), Fight Club is not a peaceful and serene film-going experience. Comparisons to A Clockwork Orange and to Tarantino's work (especially Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction) are not out of place here; like those earlier films, this one has been criticized over the years for its brutal, unflinching depiction of violence. While there is no denying that this is an often graphically-violent film, none of it is gratuitous; it has a purpose here in terms of the insights it gives about the film's characters and their dire circumstances. These are men who've lost touch with their purpose in life and have become disillusioned with the world around them -- especially its preoccupation with material wealth and superficial notions of success -- and this gut-churning need for some sort of meaningful connection has forced them to go to extremes. Perhaps the most bitterly ironic point made here is that these people are drawn to this lifestyle because it initially offers them some respite from the stifling conformity of their daily live but ultimately, it engulfs them into a form of servitude that is far more ensnaring and destructive than even their worst nightmares. Fight Club does what it must to bring us into the depraved and desperate existence of these characters and it's not always pretty. For me, the scene that was the toughest to watch was the hand-burning scene. It's not even the most violent occurrence in the film but perhaps, it's the relative simplicity of this scene that elicited such a strong reaction from me. There are plenty of other wince-worthy moments here; weaker stomachs need not apply. This film definitely does not pull its punches (both literally and figuratively); however for all of the intensity and bleakness, there is still plenty of twisted humor to break the tension. Another commonality with Tarantino's output is that Fight Club successfully mines the irony in even the grimmest of scenarios. The intelligent, sharply-written dialogue only serves to enhance this impression and there are some surprising laugh-out-loud moments here. In fact, this film could easily be considered as much a dark comedy and a social satire as it is a thriller and a psychological drama; it certainly does a superior job of weaving all these elements seamlessly into its overall fabric. The fact that Fight Club so easily defies conventions and expectations is another strength. Even the central plot twist -- which I'll not spoil for those of you who still haven't seen this (what the hell are you waiting for?) -- isn't designed merely to just blindside the viewer. It's well-integrated into the storyline and it makes perfect sense the more one thinks about everything that preceded it. Thankfully, the success of the film isn't dictated by whether or not one knows the twist beforehand since there is plenty of material above and beyond that to command our attention and occupy our minds. Best of all, the movie doesn't fall apart or lose any of its power even after you've seen it a hundred times; in fact, this is one of those rare films that prove to be even more rewarding with subsequent viewings, where knowing how things will turn out offers even more food for thought than before. To me, this is the mark of a truly great film and one that has lost none of its ability to amuse, thrill, enlighten and disturb audiences even now, more than a decade after it first hit theaters.

Looper
Looper(2012)

An easy choice for one of the best films of 2012 and as I have claimed elsewhere, this could rival even James Cameron's Terminator films amongst the best time-travel based science fiction/action thrillers ever made. More to come later...

Argo
Argo(2012)
½

Another winner for Ben Affleck the director. More to come later

Copycat
Copycat(1995)
½

A superior serial killer thriller that deserves mention amongst the best of the genre; not only does this film manage to keep the audience on the edge of its seat, but it shows a level of insight that's uncommon within this sub-genre. Only when it delves too deeply into a few pointless subplots does the film ever lose its way - in particular, the whole Chinatown fiasco and the "love triangle" that develops with a few of the supporting characters could have been excised without damaging the pacing of the film - but when the film is on target, it's more than capable of keeping the audience riveted. Unfortunately, Copycat had the misfortune of being release the same year as the better known and similarly plotted Seven so many wrote it off as being exactly what it's title implies, but in my opinion, this is just as good as that seminal film - in fact, if I may be so bold, I enjoyed this a little more than Seven *and* Silence of the Lambs (not to take anything away from either of those films of which I am also a fan). It manages to retain many of the strengths of both films including well-rounded, three-dimensional protagonists (and villains), an intelligent plot that isn't ten steps behind the audience and a strong sense of atmosphere (although this one isn't quite as stylish and visually dynamic as Seven). As with both of its older siblings (by mere weeks in the case of Seven), less attention is paid to ascertaining the identity of the culprits than figuring out how they plan to strike next so that the good guys can hopefully be a step ahead of them (in the case of Copycat, the filmmakers do us a favor but unmasking the identity of the killer fairly early on). On the balance though, the storyline here holds together a bit better than it did in the earlier films. Moreover, those with weaker stomachs will be happy to know that this film isn't nearly as graphic as either of those movies; while there are scenes that will make some of the more squeamish viewers shut their eyes, the potentially gorier elements are left to the imagination. Copycat is far more interested in studying the pathology of serial killers and exploring what makes them tick than it is in displaying a bunch of gratuitous bloodletting and considering some of the notorious real-life serial killers that are referenced and copied during the course of the running length, that's quite an accomplishment.

The Town
The Town(2010)
½

An excellent, gritty action-drama in the vein of Michael Mann's Heat. In fact, if I may say so, I probably enjoyed this one even more than that landmark 1995 picture. For the second film in a row, Ben Affleck proves his worth as director; it's tough to say whether he's taken a step forward with this film (for his next film, he might consider coming up with his own completely original material rather than adapting someone else's like he's done with his first two films) but he certainly hasn't regressed. In comparison to his blistering directorial debut, 2007's Gone Baby Gone, this one is a more straightforward crime-thriller but, in this case, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Okay so the ending could have taken more chances and maybe the material is nothing we haven't seen before (particularly in the aforementioned Heat and other films such as the underrated Set If Off) but the levels of freshness and energy with which the pieces have been assembled keep the proceedings at a high level. One area in which Affleck shows growth in this effort is with his staging of action sequences (Gone Baby Gone had its share of action but it was more low-key than what's on display here). In addition to the robbery scenes there are several other high-octane set pieces including shootouts and even a car chase. It's to Affleck's credit that this material manages to keep the blood pumping while being presented with enough clarity to where we're not kept in the dark as to what's going on. Unlike many other directors who traffic in this arena, he avoids flash editing and gimmicky camerawork; by abstaining from such needless grandstanding, he's able to heighten the levels of tension and suspense rather than kill them. More importantly, the adrenaline rush doesn't prove to be an impediment to the development of the story and the characters who inhabit it. There's plenty of excitement here but it only means something because we care about the individuals at the center of the storm.

Once again, Affleck has decided to focus his attention on his native stomping grounds in Boston. This time, we're taken to the neighborhood of Charlestown, which is no less dismal than blue-collar environs of Dorchester where Gone Baby Gone transpired. As we're informed during the caption that opens up the film, Charlestown has an epidemic of bank robberies. Heisting is treated like any other trade that can be learned and then passed down from fathers to sons. Soon, we're introduced to the main character, Doug MacRay, who comes from one such lineage. His father, Stephen (played by the incomparable Chris Cooper in what amounts to an extended but powerful cameo) is currently doing time for his involvement in several robberies and naturally, Doug has decided to take up the family business, even giving up a promising career as a hockey player to do so. The members of Doug's crew include his right hand man, James "Jem" Coughlin (a scene-stealing Jeremy Renner), who did 9 years in prison on murder charges and is still very hot-headed and impulsive, Albert "Gloansy" Magloan (Boston rap artist Slaine who was also in Gone Baby Gone) and Desmond "Dez" Elden (Owen Burke). Other important characters include the drug-addicted single mother Krista (Blake Lively) who is James' sister, was once Doug's girlfriend and still thinks they have a future together; Fergie the Florist (the recently deceased Pete Postlethwaite) who is the local crime boss for whom Doug works (and for whom his father used to work before he was busted); Clarie Keesey (a splendid Rebecca Hall) the manager of the bank that Doug and his crew rob at the beginning of the film and with whom Doug eventually falls in love after tracking her down to figure out how much she knows; and finally FBI Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm), the head of the Special Task Force that is formed to stem the tide of robberies in the area, who very quickly takes an interest in Doug and his crew.

The near-perfect balance of action and character development is a huge part of The Town's stunning success. In particular, the back stories of Doug, Claire and James are given enough attention to where these three attain multi-dimensionality. All three of their lives have been rocked by tragedy and to varying degrees, this is what drives their respective current situations life perspectives. Not surprisingly, the strongest performances in the film belong to Affleck, Rebecca Hall and Jeremy Renner, who respectively portray these characters. For Affleck, this not only solidifies his reputation behind the camera, but it also continues his transformation in front of it; if this isn't his best performance ever, at least, it's up there. Affleck is as charismatic and confident as ever, which is important for a leading man in this situation but there's a sense of vulnerability to go alongside it. Doug is well aware that his current situation is far from ideal - in addition to his current life of crime, he is also a recovering drug and alcohol addict - and he hopes, as he tells one character, to put eventually put it all in his rear view. It's largely because of Affleck's unflagging portrayal that we understand Doug's desperation and hope that he finds a way to bridge that ever-widening gap, impossible though it may seem.

The second noteworthy portrayal belongs to Rebecca Hall who brings real passion and fire to her portrayal of Claire as well as a deeply-rooted sense of pathos. She does an excellent job of conveying the effects that the robbery and her subsequent kidnapping have had on her psyche as well as the events in her past that still weigh heavily on her conscience. Despite all the trauma in her life, there is still a sense of strength and a zest for life that carries her through in spite of it all. Claire is a fascinating character and her relationship with Doug is one of the two emotional touchstones of the film (the other being Doug's friendship with James). As far as the major female performers Lively does a solid job (although methinks she still looks too attractive to be fully believable as a junkie) but it's Hall's work that truly captures the audience's attention and sympathy. I do hope that this role will be a stepping stone to bigger and better things for the British actress (my only complaint is that her English accent occasionally comes through but that's a minor distraction at worst). She's way too talented and attractive to be just a flash in the pan.

Finally, there's Jeremy Renner for whom this role is the follow-up to his Oscar-nominated performance in the 2009 Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker. As I and most other people fully expected, the actor garnered another nomination (in the supporting category this time) for his work here. There is no doubt that James Coughlin is nasty, unpredictable piece of work actions can often jeopardize himself and others but there's a human dimension to him as well. For James, loyalty is more important than anything and, even if his methods of showing it aren't the most agreeable, he truly does cherish the companionship of his crew. Particularly important is his relationship with Doug and the more we understand the dynamic between these two - as well as the world of pain and hurt that he's harbored as a result of his tumultuous past - the closer we come to understanding this character. More than anything, it's Renner's work that puts the meat on the skeleton of this character. For me at least, his performance was the standout amidst all the strong work surrounding him. Everyone else in the film does solid work, including Jon Hamm, who manages to make his FBI Agent far more interesting and intelligent than most similar characters in other films.

In addition to acting and directing, Affleck also shares writing duties with Aaron Stockard (who worked with him on Gone Baby Gone) and Peter Craig. Like the earlier film, this one is an adaptation of a novel, Chuck Hogans Prince of Thieves in this case. Not having read the book (as of this writing) I can't really discuss how faithful the movie is to the source material but after seeing the movie, I can't wait to get my hands on a copy. Any novel that would inspire a movie this consistently compelling has to be worth a look. The dialogue, which generates most of the film's humor, is consistently sharp and captures the essence of the gritty streets where it originated. Not surprisingly, there is plenty of profanity here (as there was with Gone Baby Gone) but it's written with such rhythm and grace that it doesn't feel gratuitous. On the contrary, the writing adds color and dimension to these people, which is what any good screenplay should do.

The Town belongs to the ever-growing sub-genre of "Boston-noir" whose membership includes such films as The Departed, Mystic River and, of course, Affleck's own Gone Baby Gone. In comparison to those films, The Town is a bit more conventional and has a less bleak life perspective but it's no less accomplished and any flaws that this film has (such as my previously-voiced issues with the ending) are hardly worth mentioning. For anyone who can appreciate a heist film that not only delivers the goods when it comes to action and suspense, but doesn't shortchange the characters in process, this Town is more than worth the visit.

The Dark Knight Rises
½

No it doesn't quite ascend to the level of its immediate predecessor but it's still a more-than-worthy conclusion to one of the best (and bleakest) superhero sagas ever rendered. It's a shame that this film will be forever linked to the horrible tragedy that occurred in that Aurora, CO theater on opening night but there is enough power and majesty herein to lift it above that sad legacy as the years go by. With this series, director Christopher Nolan has proven once and for all that even superhero stories can have the depth and dramatic heft of the most serious of Oscar-worthy dramas will still delivering the goods when it comes to action, stunts and adrenaline. This trilogy will be a gold standard in the genre, possibly for generations to come and while the third and final installment isn't quite perfect, it still gives this Caped Crusader the cinematic blaze of glory that he so richly deserves. Considering how many third chapters have been abject failures or brought the series down a notch, that is an amazing accomplishment.

Buffalo Soldiers

A underrated darker-than-night satire that generates equal parts humor and tension and benefits from a sharply-written script. Unfairly maligned during its initial release as "anti-American" due to its less-than-positive take on certain aspects of the U.S. military (the original release date for this film was just days before the 09/11 attacks; not surprisingly, it sat on the shelf for a couple of years before it finally saw the light of day in 2003), this film has thankfully found an audience but its still relatively obscure. I would stop short of calling Buffalo Soldiers brilliant but it's still very funny and, like any good dark comedy, it manages to successfully cull most of its humor from less-than-savory material (people often get killed as part of the punchline to several of the movie's gags); and towards the second half of the film when the proceedings start to morph into more of a thriller, it manages to be suspenseful without completely jettisoning the more comedic material. To put it another way, try and imagine what the results would be if M*A*S*H were re-written and directed by someone like Quentin Tarantino and that should give you a fair approximation of what to expect here. By the admission of Aussie writer-director Gregor Jordan, who adapts Robert O'Connor's novel here (which I haven't yet read as of this writing), Buffalo Soldiers was intended to be a "blackly-comic Cold War thriller" and that is exactly how it comes across. The tone is pretty cynical (a fact that is reinforced by the often dark and gritty cinematography) but there are still plenty of laughs to be had, provided your expectations are in the right place.

The acting performances are solid all around. Joaquin Phoenix, who was fresh off of an Oscar nomination (his first of two to date) for his villainous role in Gladiator back when this film was originally due for release, isn't quite the standout here that he was in the 2000 Best Picture winner (or more recently in Walk The Line for which he earned the second nomination), but he's still good enough to sell us on Ray Elwood, the somewhat duplicitous but still likable protagonist in this film. His running voice-over commentary, in particular, is laced with just the right amount of scathing commentary and self-deprecation. The more interesting performances belong to Ed Harris (who plays against type as a rather spineless commanding officer) and Scott Glenn (who plays to type as the hard-nosed new commander who comes in to clean things up around the base). Glenn, in particular, is almost frightening with the kind of intensity he radiates as Sergeant Lee. If you wanna cross this guy, you'd better do it right! On the other hand, Harris is far more laid back that were used to seeing from him but he manages to pull of his part as the milquetoast Colonel Berman quite well, which is a testament to his range as an actor. Solid support is provided by Elizabeth Govern as Berman's adulterous wife, the underrated Anna Paquin, who plays Elwood's love interest and Sergeant Lee's daughter, Gabriel Mann who plays Elwood's roommate, and finally Leon and Michael Pena, who play Elwood's partners in crime.

The film's taut pacing is also worth mentioning; at just over an hour and a half, Buffalo Soldiers doesn't come close to wearing out its welcome and it manages to sustain it's momentum for nearly all of the running time. This is not a perfect movie by any means (in particular, the movie does fall prey to some rather unfortunate and easy-to predict "twists" near the end) but overall, it's an above-average comedy-thriller that has the capacity to entertain anyone who's willing to take a chance. It definitely deserves far more attention than it has gotten over the years.

Léon: The Professional

Even now, all these years layer, this still holds up as a superior film, especially in the Extended Director's Cut. By combining action/adventure and white-knuckle tension with surprisingly poignant drama, top-notch character development and dark humor, The Professional achieves at a level to which precious few action films aspire, much less attain. The theatrical release was a solid thriller that was elevated by the touching central character relationship but there was still a sense that something was missing. As it turns out, there was indeed *plenty* missing; several scenes were cut after a rather unsuccessful test screening for American audiences who were uncomfortable with the sexual overtones in the main relationship - especially since it involved a 12-year-old girl (who's played here with astonishing ability by Natalie Portman in her acting debut). Not surprisingly, one of the scenes that were cut was a scene showing Mathilda (the aforementioned 12-year-old) and the title character, Leon (Jean Reno) sleeping (mind you, *not* having sex) together in a bed; another showed them having a drink in a restaurant after a successful hit. I honestly have no idea why any of this should be cut in the first place except that many Americans are extremely prudish and can't be bothered with anything that will take them even slightly out of their comfort zones (personally, I found the theatrical release to be more disturbing where the nature of their relationship was somewhat more ambiguous).

Thankfully, the missing content was restored first in a European Cut that was available only in select markets and then later in the Extended Director's Cut that was made available more widely (I actually picked up my copy at a local Walmart near my house, where I was surprised but thankful that it was available). The missing scenes restore a sense of balance to an already worthwhile production and in the process, they elevate this film to the level of a masterpiece. The main characters are given more depth and breadth, especially Leon, who was something of an enigma in the truncated version. Here, we get a better sense of what makes this man tick; plus, we're made privy to the tragedy that forced him to flee his home country and drove him to his current profession (things that were only hinted at in the theatrical version). Likewise, Mathilda's need for love and acceptance (as well as her desire to exact revenge on the men who killed her family) is given a greater sense of urgency. We come to better understand how these two individuals come to care about and depend upon one another. There were times during the theatrical edition when the development of their relationship seemed rush as a result of the excised material but here it feels as though we're taken through all of the ups-and-downs that occur with any sort of connection between two people, whether romantic or otherwise. This is basically an offbeat surrogate father/daughter (or, if you prefer, mentor-student) pairing with an understated sexual component (at least on her end; for his part, he sees her only as a daughter figure) and while this kind of bond isn't likely to exist in the real world, it's so brilliantly realized here within the context of the film that suspension of disbelief doesn't even become an issue.

While the Extended Cut definitely skews the film more towards drama, the pacing isn't seriously damaged. The action sequences still generate as much excitement and suspense as they ever have and the stakes are arguably higher now that we have a stronger emotional investment in the characters. The best of these set pieces remain the opening introductory sequence, where Leon methodically and handily wipes a bunch of men who armed to the teeth and the final, tragic last stand in his apartment against a bunch of law enforcement agents but there are enough smaller-scale skirmishes peppered throughout the film to keep restlessness at bay. With his previous effort, 1990's Nikita, which put him on the path to international stardom, writer/director Luc Besson proved that he was as capable as any American filmmaker of pumping the adrenaline and staging action in a way that is fresh and stylish while crafting a story that didn't run afoul of formulaic Hollywood conventions. With Leon, he was able not only to reinforce these impressions, but to take things to another level. This film was rightfully his breakthrough and it arguably remains the crown jewel on his resume.

The casting was a combination of American and foreign born actors and everyone plus his or her weight here. As I mentioned earlier on, Portman was making her acting debut here but you'd never be able to glean that from this performance. As Mathilda, Portman had the challenge of portraying a young girl who is wise beyond her years (as a result of her unfortunate exposure to the less savory side of life, courtesy of her drug-dealing deadbeat biological father) but still has the precociousness that only comes with youth. Like most young girls, she also craves the kind of love and attention that can only come from a stable influence in her life. It's a lot to ask of someone so young but Portman faces every challenge head-on and comes out unscathed. It's not hard to figure out why she soon found her talents in demand and still enjoys a healthy career today (and is now the proud owner of an Oscar).

Likewise, Jean Reno also has a difficult role to play but still manages to find the perfect pitch for his character. This is technically the second time that Reno played this character; we were first introduced to him in Nikita where he was named Victor and was far more ruthless. Here, even though he is still efficient as a killer, there is more humanity and warmth underneath the cold, icy shell this time around. In fact, Leon is really a gentle soul who loves his ever-present plant and enjoys old Hollywood musicals. Despite the nature of his profession, there is still a part of him that longs for human contact, which is why he opens his door to Mathilda in the first place, as she rightfully points out early on in the film. Like his younger costar, Reno buries himself in this role, which is no less complex and three-dimensional than that of his younger charge. As Stansfield, the crooked, Beethoven-loving DEA agent who has Mathilda's family executed, Gary Oldman is intentionally and wonderfully over-the-top in his villainy. There's no doubt that the actor goes off the rails with this portrayal but he still manages to be menacing without being laughable (although there is an element of dark comedy in his performance). Finally, as Leon's handler and the owner of an Italian restaurant/bar, Danny Aiello lends some veteran talent to the movie (if I had to pick a small flaw in this film, it's the rather stereotypical nature of this particular role but Aiello's acting is strong enough to deflect that criticism).

I could go on in my praise of this film but just reading my words wouldn't offer quite the same effect as going out to the store to rent - or better yet, buy - the DVD and experience it for yourself. In a way, The Professional offers the best of two worlds: fast-paced, adrenaline pumping film-making combined with a more thoughtful, dramatic European sensibility. Best of all, this film resists the urge to cop-out with a quick-and-easy Hollywood ending. The conclusion brings catharsis and closure to the story but it doesn't betray the sadness that lies at the core of the proceedings. The result is a masterpiece that retains its power even now after nearly two decades.

God Bless America

An uncompromisingly dark comedy that takes aim (both literally and figuratively with all of those bullets flying) at the pervasive stupidity of pop culture and life in general in America today. Consider this one a more openly-comedic version of Falling Down. Or better yet, consider this the movie that someone like Michael Moore would make if he wanted to do his own version of Kick-Ass; the film references Bonnie and Clyde and Juno (the line about Diablo Cody is one of the film's laugh-out-loud moments) at one point as well. However, despite all of these influences, this film quickly stakes out its own territory. Sitting in the director's chair is comedian/filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait, whose previous film, World's Greatest Dad, exhibited a similar fearlessness in attacking the cult of posthumous celebrity, and culled an atypically low-key performance from Robin Williams in the title role. Sitting in Goldthwait's cross hairs this time is Joel - brother of Bill - Murray, whose affable, everyman performance as the divorced, recently fired and possibly terminally-ill Frank is precisely what is needed for this film to work since we're seeing everything from his character's eyes. It's easy to cheer this guy on when he finally loses it and goes on his spree. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the people he targets are the sorts of shallow types whose comeuppances are easily cheered. How many of us haven't wished from time to time that we could go after all the politicians and seemingly-brain-dead celebrities that feel like a never-ending blight on our country? It's almost frightening to consider how closely the viewpoints of Frank (and, by extension, Goldthwait) match mine; in fact, there are several occasions through the movie when it takes on the form of vicarious wish fulfillment. The second lead on the film is Tara Lynn Barr who is a scene stealer as Roxy, a hyperactive-but-extremely intelligent high school student who becomes Frank's partner in crime as they rid the world of soulless pop culture celebrities and inconsiderate, boorish idiots in general. This certainly isn't a perfect movie; in particular, it does have a tendency to get a little preachy about its subject and I'm not quite certain that the dramatic interludes work all that well but overall, when the film is on target, it manages to be a scathing and oftentimes hilarious satire.

Bad Boys II
Bad Boys II(2003)

Not quite as awful as many have made it out to be over the years but it's still a pretty listless, lackluster affair and a definite step down from the original. Now far be it from me to start singing the praises of the earlier film, which wasn't exactly the stuff of cinematic dreams (unless those dreams simply involve a lot of shit getting blown sky high), but at least it had a little energy to it, the pacing was much tighter and there were some good laughs to be had. For me, the 1995 film just missed the label of "guilty pleasure." Unfortunately, the word "pleasure" can't be ascribed to the 2003 sequel; Now as I indicated at the beginning of this review, I wouldn't go so far as to call this an exercise in torture but neither would I say that I really enjoyed myself. One major problem with this installment in the series (and sadly, it looks as though Bad Boys III will be on our radars in the not-so-distant future) is that the proceedings have an unfortunate tendency to drag and the set-pieces lack juice (which, for any action-based film, is the kiss of death), but not for lack of trying on director Michael Bay's part - he certainly attempts to amp things up with all sorts of camera tricks and flashy editing, but all this grandstanding tends to compound rather than solve the problem.

As far as Bay's canon, I'd say this one is on a par with most of his stuff (if not perhaps a slight step lower) but not on the same plateau as the aforementioned original Bad Boys or its immediate follow-up The Rock (arguably the one truly good film on his resume). Basically, this film offers up more of the same including lots of explosions, chases, shootouts and so-called "humor" - only this time with even less zest and energy than on the first go-round (at least, this one has some sex and nudity, something that was noticeably missing from the original despite the presence of an attractive woman). It's clear that the filmmakers wished to outdo the original in terms of outrageousness and perhaps they succeeded but ultimately, it was to the detriment of the film. In this case, less would have definitely been more and with the running time clocking in at nearly 2 1/2 hours there is plenty of fat that could and should have been trimmed. The "comedy", such as it is, involves homophobia, sex jokes (including one gag involving rodents), defilement of cadavers, racial slurs and (of course) plenty of bitching back and forth between our two heroes. It's all very sophomoric and tasteless, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but unfortunately, the filmmakers just leave it at that and don't see any need for the finer aspects of comedy such as timing and wit. It's amazing the rate at which the jokes in this movie fall flat on their asses. That's not to say I didn't laugh at all but most of the successful humor probably wasn't intentional - in particular, there's a pretty lame attempt to incorporate some dramatic elements into the mix that turns out to be funnier than the film's legitimate stabs at mirth (shades of one of Bay's previous films, Pearl Harbor).

As with the first film, Will Smith is easily the best thing in the whole mess and his charisma probably shines through even more on this occasion with everything else crashing and burning (often literally) around him. I wouldn't call this great acting but, relatively speaking, it's the best that this film has to offer. As for the other lead, Martin Lawrence continues to be an albatross around everyone else's neck, dragging the movie down even further this time around. I don't know how this guy continues to get work in Hollywood. Other returning players include Joey Pants (as the title character's abrasive boss, Captain Howard) and Theresa Randle (as Lawrence's onscreen wifey). New to this installment are Gabrielle Union (as DEA agent who we come to find out has close and personal connections to the main characters, which is partially responsible for the film's so-called "drama"), Jordi Molla (as the main baddie) and Peter Stormare (as one of the main baddie's rivals in the drug trade). There is also a very welcome cameo from Henry Rollins near the beginning of the film; granted he doesn't do much more than act and sound authoritative but his presence is definitely a boon. I'm sure you get the point by now so I'll conclude with this thought: this movie definitely knew what it was doing when it included the first word of its title.

About Schmidt

Definitely not the best film on Alexander Payne's resume but it's still a very worthwhile effort that mixes understand drama and humor in a mostly successful manner. More importantly, it proves definitively that Jack Nicholson can do more - a lot more in fact - than just sneer and go over the top. Here in the role of the title character, Warren Schmidt, the actor completely buries his own larger-than-life persona under the skin of the person he is portraying an brings him to life, flaws and all. It's a surprisingly low-key performance and it's all the better for it. Nicholson does as much acting with his facial expressions and his eyes as he does with dialogue. More to come later...

The Sum of Us

About to enjoy some old school Russell Crowe; I'll be sure to let everyone know how it went!

Marvel's The Avengers
½

A truly spectacular experience that justifies the storm of hype that has been swelling up around it over the past year, if not longer (the first Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk reboot were both released back in 2008 before the Iron Man sequel, Captain America and Thor all followed shortly thereafter so this storm has arguably been brewing for four years now but has definitely gained the most momentum since last summer, when those last two flicks hit screens). It has all the stunts and action of a typical Michael Bay movie (really a typical summer movie) but it's executed with far more panache and skill than anything that Mr. Transformers could ever hope to achieve. There are times here and there when the surfeit of special effects may trigger a flashback to some of Bay's films but overall, director Joss Whedon keeps far tighter control of the set pieces and never allows us to lose sight of what is important, even in the midst of all the mayhem and destruction (the movie concludes with a massive showdown between our heroes and the main baddie and his army of minions that lasts nearly an hour and manages to keep the adrenaline pumping throughout when it could very easily have become repetitious and boring). So far, I have only seen the first Iron Man out of all the Avengers prequels and I honestly wasn't as crazy about it as a lot of people were (although I will admit that Robert Downey Jr. dominated in the role and does so again here) but I still enjoyed the hell out of this and now I think I may have to sit down and watch all of those other movies - hell, I might even give the first Iron Man a second chance.

Admittedly, things start out kind of unevenly during the first half-hour or so as the main thrust of the plot line (involving Thor's adopted evil brother, Loki, and his quest for world dominance) gets set up and our heroes are introduced (or perhaps reintroduced for those of you who did your homework, unlike me, and actually saw all the prequels beforehand) but once all of that is accomplished - and particularly, once Iron Man finally makes his first appearance - the movie really takes off and the remainder of the running time dazzles us with plenty of spectacular action, lots of humor and some very sharply written dialogue. Not surprisingly, Iron Man gets most of the best lines and Downey delivers them with of all the relish and verve he can muster (although he gets some stiff competition from Mark Ruffalo, who becomes the third actor in a decade, following Edward Norton and Eric Bana, to essay the role of Dr. Bruce Banner - aka The Hulk). Also, while no one would ever mistake this for a drama, there is just enough of an emotional investment in the heroes for all of the flashes and bangs to matter but not so much that this ever comes close to becoming a ponderous experience, even with the presence of Thor in the cast (one of the better lines takes aim at his Shakespearean tendencies). Plus, for those of you to whom such things matter, there is also the fringe benefit of seeing Scar-Jo don that leather outfit for most of the movie in her role as Natasha Romanov aka Black Widow (which she reprises from the Iron Man sequel) and in addition to flaunting her well-sculpted figure, she proves that she is more than capable of holding her own with the men in the cast when it comes to handling the action sequences (kinda makes you wish that she'd have been cast as Catwoman in the upcoming Dark Knight Rises instead of Anne Hathaway but I digress). Also, there is a nice subplot pertaining to her close friendship with Hawkeye (played here by Jeremy Renner who continues to prove his mettle as an action hero and his worth as an actor in general) which is given enough time to breathe despite everything else that is going on and is just one of many reasons why this feels a little more grounded than most films in this subgenre.

One worry that I had was that with so many high-profile superheroes sharing the screen, some of them would inevitable get pushed to the margins but amazingly enough, the movie does an excellent job of dividing the screen time amongst each of the principal cast members and giving everyone a chance to shine. Admittedly, some of these guys still arrest the spotlight a little more forcefully than the others (Iron Man in particular) but on the whole, I would say that the characters are as well-balanced as one could possibly hope for given the circumstances and they all play off each very, very well whether they're trading blows - and barbs - or working together to defeat Loki and save the world. This is the first time I have been to a movie theater in nearly 2 years (I tend to rent or stream my movies nowadays if I don't outright buy them on DVD) and it was more than worth the trip (and it's far better than The Expendables, the last movie that got me in front of the big screen, stuffing my face with a bunch of popcorn). In terms of the superhero films that I have seen so far, The Avengers doesn't quite make it to the pinnacle achieved by The Dark Knight (which, in many ways, had far more on its cinematic agenda than the average superhero flick) but it still fires on all cylinders as one of the best genre efforts to date. Definitely worth seeing on the largest screen possible!

The Square
The Square(2010)

A dark and dank Aussie neo-noir thriller that probably won't take you to places you've never been before cinematically but still provides a solid hour-and-a-half's worth of genre thrills, provided you don't go in expecting everything to be all sunny and rosy in the end. Most film noir, by its nature, is pretty cynical and grim stuff but this one is as much a straightforward, almost Shakespearean tragedy as it is a twisty, atmospheric thriller. In someways, it is even more downbeat than another recent Australian import, 2010's Animal Kingdom, although I liked that film slightly more. Unlike this effort, that one took what could have been a garden variety crime drama in a more interesting direction and became something far more powerful as a result. On the other hand, this film is content to be your basic tale of lust, infidelity, murder and betrayal - everything that one expects from this sort of movie. It can be argued that perhaps it wears its influences on its sleeve a bit too much; in particular, I was reminded of the Coen Brother's debut Blood Simple and Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan (the fact that this involves cheating spouses brings to mind the former, while the greed and duplicity of the main characters could easily remind one of the latter). Still, it manages to infuse the material with enough freshness that it doesn't come off as a complete clone of its cinematic ancestors.

For me, one aspect of the film that keeps it from reaching its full potential is a near dearth of likable or sympathetic characters. Yes, I realize that these kind of films are usually populated with all sorts of unsavory types but in order for something like this to be truly devastating, we need to be drawn to the protagonists and emotionally invested in their plight. Unfortunately, neither of the individuals in the principal pairing, Ray (David Roberts) and Carla (a sexy Claire van der Boom) succeeded in getting me in his or her corner. Putting aside their obviously devious and conniving nature, neither of these two characters demonstrates that they are very bright (she is clearly more the manipulative of the pair but he is supposed to be a construction project manager so you'd think that he'd be better at executing plans). Every time they try to scheme or plot something, it inevitably goes horribly awry because of their carelessness and their attempts to fix their problems only exacerbate the situation until it becomes too much for anyone to handle. It would be hilarious if only it didn't turn out to be so tragic. It's pretty clear that everyone in this movie is headed on a collision course with catastrophe but despite our intellectual awareness of this, it's tough to truly feel any empathy for these people even as they're descending deeper and deeper into the personal hells that they've created for themselves.

Just because the characters aren't sympathetic, that doesn't mean they're not well-acted. As the cheating spouses, both David Roberts and Claire van der Boom give strong performances and allow us to sense their characters' desperation as they scheme to break free of the monotony that has defined their existences but find themselves in way over their heads in the process. Both understand how to deliver dialogue but where they truly shine is in their non-verbal acting. There are several scenes where the looks on their faces tell us everything we need to know. As Claire's husband Smithy, a tow truck driver who is a low-level crook on the side, and Ray's wife, Martha, both Anthony Hanes and Lucy Bell are solid but they don't threaten to take the spotlight away from the leads. Also worth mentioning is Joel Edgerton who, in addition to co-writing the screenplay with Matthew Dabner, has a significant onscreen role as Billy, the thug-for-hire whom Ray uses to help cover his and Carla's tracks and who unwittingly -and quite literally - sparks the first major tragedy of the film. In recent years, the actor has seen his profile rise on both sides of the ocean with superlative performances in films such as the aforementioned Animal Kingdom and 2011's Warrior where he played Tom Hardy's older brother. Personally, I didn't find Edgerton to be quite the standout here that he was in either of those two more recent films, but he still does a solid job in a somewhat cliched role. As Billy, he is suitably shady and menacing, which is really all that is needed of him.

I would say that in this case, Edgerton's efforts as a writer are more noteworthy than his acting (although he clearly didn't write the most interesting character for himself to play). Again, there is nothing particularly original about the plot line but it is still well-written and Edgerton and Dabner refreshingly don't feel the need to infuse this with Hollywood cliches. Instead, they allow things to unfold the way they likely would if this were to happen in real life. I'd say that they deserve credit for not pulling any punches in steering the story to it's natural, albeit grim, conclusion. Perhaps the manner in which the movie elects to wrap things up isn't all that surprising considering everything that leads up to it, but it still packs a punch (although the lack of emotional investment with the main characters doesn't allow this blow to be as strong as it could have been). Also, in a departure from most noir thrillers, the comic relief is very limited here; in fact, I honestly can't recall anything here that could remotely be construed as even a little funny (except perhaps for a small subplot involving the canine companions of the two lovers). The potential is there for a deliciously dark Murphy's Law - type comedy but the script takes it's characters and their circumstances very seriously - perhaps too seriously. Sitting in the director's chair is Nash Edgerton, Joel's older brother (the fact that this film is the product of sibling filmmakers further strengthens the connection to Blood Simple); the elder Edgerton definitely does justice to his younger brother's script. The pacing is tight with more than enough tension and suspense to keep most viewers riveted and the proceedings are suffused with atmosphere although perhaps it's not as overwhelming here as it is in other similar efforts. In the final analysis, this film may not offer anything that's truly new and groundbreaking, but it executes it's stock elements with enough aplomb to be worth viewing for fans of noir thrillers that hit all the expected bases but don't feel the need to cheat viewers with a cop-out ending.

Pulp Fiction
Pulp Fiction(1994)

Without a doubt my favorite movie ever! A pitch-perfect mix of violence, blood, profanity, dark comedy, ultra-coolness and uncommon intelligence! Gangster flicks and modern noir collide together violently with a 90's sense of hipness and nihilism, spinning off into directions that are equally anticipated and unexpected but always exciting and interesting. For his sophomore outing behind the camera, Tarantino managed to do the impossible and improve on a masterpiece. As amazing of a film as Reservoir Dogs was (and trust me, it is amazing - in my mind it places a very close second to this film), that was only just a wind-up for the no-hitter that is Pulp Fiction. I can honestly say that this is one of a few movies that almost every time I watch it, I discover something new about it that I didn't notice before, whether it involves the intricacies of the plot or (more often) the small, stylistic touches that pop-up from time to time (such as the use of reels from 40's and 50's films to provide a backdrop for some of the scenes). Whether or not these touches are truly "necessary" to telling the story in any way is up for debate, but for me at least, they no doubt add to the overall experience. At two-and-a-half hours, this film has quite a bit of ground to cover but even during the slower moments - which are necessary to flesh out the characters and give them multi-dimensionality - Tarantino infuses the proceedings with such momentum and energy that the minutes fly by like lightning. Whatever problems this movie may have (and I can't think of any right now), tight pacing is definitely NOT one of them. If people were desperate to find a flaw they could cite - and many have indeed cited - the fact that Tarantino blatantly steals from other movies and directors but there's enough freshness evident in how he puts the pieces of the puzzle together that to me at least it really doesn't matter. Besides, how many films nowadays are 100% original anyway?

Perhaps, the reason why the time flies by so quickly is because each subplot - and there are quite a few of those here - is so vividly crafted and richly involving that our eyes remain fixed on the screen. It's not just the characters and their circumstances, but it's what they say and how they say it- and therein lies the true brilliance of the film; for while Tarantino certainly has a superior knack for providing audiences with a jolt of adrenaline and keeping them on the edge of their seats, it's his ear for dialogue that truly fires this movie's engine. As brilliant as his writing was in Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino kicks it up several notches here. His approach to "weighty" topics such as intimacy, beauty and religion amongst other equally though-provoking issues is unique and original; and even the conversations that involve mundane and seemingly "useless" topics (such as the now-legendary exchange between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson about burgers and Europe, more their excellent acting later) are invaluable in the insight that they provide about the characters while allowing them to escape from the stereotypical boundaries of most similar types in countless other films. Indeed, while much of Pulp Fiction's considerable and often laugh-out-loud comedy comes about as a result of how Tarantino stages certain scenes (and it takes skill, not to mention brass balls, to be able to successfully cull humor from some of the more shocking and unsavory moments here), it's the dialogue that will have most viewers chuckling while simultaneously pondering the director's points; and the rhythm and style with which this is achieved could almost put David Mamet to shame! And it's not just the dialogue that makes the script stand out but the manner in which the seemingly unrelated and disparate threads are tied together in the end. The non-chronological timeline might cause some minor confusion at first but the final scene snaps everything into focus wonderfully.That Tarantino and co-writer Roger Avary won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay is a small testament to lasting power of their accomplishments here.

Thankfully, the acting is a perfect match for Tarantino's writing. From top-to-bottom there is not a single performance that misses even a minor beat nor are there any obvious instances of miscasting. My choice for the best performance in the film goes to Samuel L. Jackson whose rendering of the philosophical and religious hit-man Jules, not only earned him a rightful Oscar-nomination but shot him onto Hollywood's A-list. The man commands every scene he is in with such passion and intensity that Jules becomes a focal point for the audience's attention (and in his own way, he actually becomes the film's moral center), but he gets plenty of support here. Nearly as good as Vincent Vega, the more laid back (perhaps to a fault) of this hit-man duo, is John Travolta who also earned an Oscar-nomination as well as a revived career. Likewise, Uma Thurman, as the ultra-sexy Mia Wallace, was also able to seize her shot at stardom (and like her aforementioned co-stars, also scored some Oscar attention). Not to be outdone, Bruce Willis, in his role as a boxer with a moral dilemma, proves that his acting chops far exceed the action-movie niche in which he was stuck at the time and in which he is still most often typecast. The rest of the nearly-perfect cast includes Tim Roth and Harvey Keitel (both of whom were in Reservoir Dogs) Christopher Walken (who rightfully gets a scene all to himself), Ving Rhames (who shows his team spirit by willingly becoming the "butt" of one particularly nasty joke, if you get my drift), Eric Stolz, Amanda Plummer and several others including a "blink-and-you-might-miss-it" cameo appearance from another Reservoir Dogs alumnus, Steve Buscemi. Even Tarantino himself, whose attempts at acting have often stuck out like sore thumbs in whatever film he appears, is in fine form here where his style actually proves to be the perfect fit for the character, a humorously-uptight small-time drug dealer named Jimmie.

I could never say enough words to describe the sheer exhilaration of this film - and I haven't even begun to discuss the tremendous work that Tarantino does in the director's chair - but nothing I can say will be able to fully capture the essence of this film; it just has to be experienced in order to get the full effect. There is a damn good reason why Pulp Fiction has built up a legacy over the years and this goes beyond all the countless knock-offs that have littered the cinematic landscape. This film enthralls and entertains in ways that only timeless cinema can do. Tarantino has made plenty of good films over the years including two - the aforementioned Reservoir Dogs and his most recent effort, Inglourious Basterds - that have nearly reached this high level, but nothing he has done either before or since has surpassed what he achieves here and it seems less likely that anything else he does in the future will even come close.

Fargo
Fargo(1996)
½

Massively overrated and nowhere near the Coen's best work (for my money, that distinction rests with No Country for Old Men with Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing coming very close) but still worth watching. I may never understand the level of brilliance that so many people have attributed to this film but it clearly has a number of things going for it including a beautifully-captured snowy atmosphere (credit frequent Coen collaborator Roger Deakins for his first-rate work here) and the Coen's usual predilection for the quirky and unusual. Certainly, the sibling filmmakers have never had any qualms about combining graphic and often horrific violence with a dark and witty sense of humor in a manner that brings to mind the works of Tarantino and they don't part ways with that tradition here (although to be fair to the Coen's, they had been making movies nearly a decade before Tarantino was even a blip on anyone's radar).

Admittedly the Coen's offbeat approach does lend itself to some rather memorable moments, including the infamous wood chipper scene (easily my favorite moment in the entire film, not surprising given my rather warped sense of humor) but the momentum has a tendency to flag and some of the movie's running gags wear out their welcome long before the finish line. Take, for instance, the exaggeration of the Minnesotan accents (which I know from experience isn't all that different from how most people talk elsewhere in the Upper Midwest); while amusing at first, it very quickly becomes tiresome and repetitive. There's no denying that the Coens, who are native Minnesotans, understand the dialect and temperament of their home state and they intentionally milk it for comedic effect, but for me at least, they go to the well perhaps a few times too many with this particular gimmick.

Likewise, the acting in the film is a bit of a mixed bag. No one is ever gonna convince me that Frances McDormand gave a truly Oscar-worthy turn here, especially when I've seen her give monumentally better performances elsewhere (such as in Almost Famous for which she was also nominated, this time in the supporting category). She does as much as she can with the role of Marge Gunderson but there isn't much meat for her to chew on. We certainly get the sense that she is hard-working and willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done and get her man but unfortunately there isn't more depth to the character than that. William H. Macy (also nominated) fares a little better as the desperate and rather devious, used care salesmen, Jerry Lundegaard, but it's still pretty tough to see either of these people as anything more than caricatures.

Personally, I was more partial to the performances of Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare as the inept crooks who cause all of the mayhem that ensues during the film. Buscemi is his usual high-strung, motormouth self as Carl Showalter, the more vocal of this duo; it's the sort of role that he does so well. The more threatening and psychotic of the duo is Stormare's Gaear Grimsrud. This guy may not say much but he can be very decisive and violent when need be (he's the impetus behind the aforementioned wood chipper incident); clearly this is *not* someone you wanna cross or piss-off without thinking about it first!

I don't wanna seem as though I'm being unduly harsh on this film; I still thought it was well-crafted and entertaining - unquestionably the product of men who understand and appreciate filmmaking - but when something gets as much praise as this film has gotten over the years (it has routinely appeared on many best-of lists in addition to the slew of Oscar nominations it received at the 1996 ceremony, taking home the statue for McDormand's performance and for the screenplay) I tend to expect quite a bit more than what I got. To conclude this on a positive note, I would say go and check it out if you've never seen it before and you're in the mood for a solid, well-made dark comedy/crime thriller; just don't go in expecting to get blown away.

Pearl Harbor
Pearl Harbor(2001)
½

There is roughly 40 minutes of truly worthwhile material in this movie. Unfortunately, the small pleasures provided by that sequence don't quite justify sitting through the rest of the more than 3-hour running length of this film. Oh certainly there are pleasures to be had - the stupefyingly atrocious dialogue offers plenty of unintentional mirth - but too often, this film is more tedious than entertaining. Frankly, I feel like I'm being ridiculously generous to this film with my rating although I have to admit that this film didn't quite depress me in the way that something truly awful would do. Still, it's tough not to bemoan all of the wasted potential here.

Sitting in the directors chair is none other than Michael Bay, for whom this was an attempt to craft a sweeping, epic romance against the backdrop of a historical tragedy, a la Titanic, which won Oscars just a few years earlier for fellow big-budget filmmaker James Cameron. Perhaps, Bay felt that if Cameron could make the transition from action-oriented, special effects-drive entertainment to something weightier and more dramatic, maybe he too should give it a shot. What Mr. Bay failed to realize is that Cameron's films are driven as much by his characters and his storytelling prowess as they are by the stunts and visual effects so it wasn't much of a stretch for him to craft a larger-than-life epic romance that still didn't loose sight of the intimate despite all of the grandeur and bombast.

The Descendants
½

An intelligent, near-perfect dramatic comedy that explores difficult subject matter with a deft touch that is neither too heavy handed and maudlin nor too cavalier and jokey. Incidentally, 2011 gave us another very good film, 50/50, that utilized a similar approach to relate the trials and tribulations of its main character, but this one is even better. While the former film focused on the struggles of a young man fighting against a rare form of cancer, this one deals with a much older man whose wife is lying in a potentially permanent coma as a result of a boating accident - and who may have been having an affair with another man prior to the incident. As with the Joseph Gordon-Levitt star vehicle, there are times when this film is very funny - occasionally bordering on hilarious - and other moments that evoke a powerful emotional response but at no point does the film every slip too far in either direction and the tonal shifts are smoothly navigated. More to come later...

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
½

The rare remake that actually manages to be at least as good as the original, if not perhaps a little better- and considering how strong the original was to begin with, that is an impressive feat. I was always optimistic about this remake though. I figured that with David Fincher sitting in the director's chair, there was no reason that this shouldn't be at least a solid re-visioning. This material is right up his alley; the dark and lurid nature of the plot is reminiscent of his earlier efforts but the methodical, deliberate manner with which the story unfolds is in keeping with some of his more recent efforts such as Zodiac (the manner in which the investigative process is handled here reminded me strongly of that one). Perhaps, it shouldn't be surprising that this version turned out to be so good. More to come later...

Shooter
Shooter(2007)

A solidly entertaining, fast-paced thriller that should satisfy anyone on the hunt for a decent adrenaline rush. It delivers what most would expect from this sort of movie including a likable hero, detestable villains and lots and lots of action. It's nothing new but it's rendered with consummate professionalism and skill by director Antoine Fuqua, who's probably best known for the darker and grittier crime thriller, Training Day, which was his sophomore effort. This time around, his efforts are more straightforward but no less assured. The pacing is tight and energetic and the plot is sufficiently developed so that it doesn't seem like just a flimsy excuse for the set pieces but things don't get so convoluted that the movie runs the risk of losing the audience.

One refreshing aspect of this film is that it doesn't feature a hero who's completely made of stone. Like many leads in these sorts of films, Bobby Lee Swagger (man, I betcha no one would *ever* think "total redneck" with that name!) is resourceful and quick-witted but he isn't completely devoid of emotion and he will bleed if you prick him (or, more appropriately, kick, punch or shoot him). The film's rather straightforward, kick-ass-and-take-names approach harkens back to the actions flicks of the late 80's and early to mid-90's; however, one notable difference here is that instead of Schwarzenegger, Stallone or Keanu Reeves in the lead, we have Mark Wahlberg, who has built a reputation for being a solid actor rather than merely being just an action icon. For the former-rapper-turned-actor, this role was the immediate follow-up to his Oscar-nominated role in The Departed; here, he gets the opportunity to play a more conventional character who is far less abrasive and more admirable. With Wahlberg in the lead, it doesn't take any time at all for us to get behind Swagger and root for him to get back at the people who framed him for an assassination.

It also helps that it's just as easy to despise the villains as it is to cheer on the hero. As a corrupt Senator and his two cohorts in crime, Ned Beatty, Danny Glover and Elias Koteas all create characters for whose comeuppances we would actively clamor. In the case of Koteas' character, Jack Payne, I personally wanted to kill him myself after one particularly heinous act - although, thankfully, the incident was merely implied and not shown. Not that I wasn't any less unfavorably disposed toward Beatty and Glover in this particular film. It takes good actors to make you hate their characters with such white-hot fervor and you'll likely be wishing all three of these creeps dead before the end of the first reel so I would say the actors succeeded in their jobs. Other notables in the cast include Michael Pena, as a cop who becomes Swagger's ally after being initially distrustful of him, and Kate Mara as Sarah the widow of one of Swagger's Marine buddies (if you can't guess what how things will develop between Bobby and Sarah, you seriously need to watch more movies).

As with many politically-inflected action flicks of this sort, this movie is very much a product of its time. Back in 2007, when this film hit movie screens, Bush was still in office and the general consensus was one of cynicism toward the political process. That spirit comes across here from time to time but this film is far more interested in pumping the adrenaline than in becoming a polemic. Sure, it occasionally takes aim at certain aspects of the political system but no one attends this sort of movie for a lecture on politics; they show up for two hours of no-frills entertainment and in that regard, this movie delivers the goods. For anyone on the hunt for some testosterone-fueled escapism, this Shooter definitely hits its mark.

Natural Born Killers
½

An insanely over-the-top satire of violence and media obsession that actually works because of it's crazy excesses than in spite of them. This is one of those films that sharply divided critics and audiences alike; it seems as though one can either love or hate this film - put me squarely in the former category. I wouldn't quite consider this to be the best film Oliver Stone has done (that would probably be Platoon) but it's a strong entry in his canon. Moreover, it's one of the few films that effectively utilized the talents of the normally acting-challenged Juliette Lewis (although her best performance remains her Oscar-nominated part in Scorsese's Cape Fear remake). Admittedly, she and her co-star Woody Harrelson are playing nothing more than exaggerated, over-the-top caricatures (much of the same could be said of the other actors in the film) but that is precisely the tone that Stone was trying to strike and to the extent that the cast captures this, they are effective.

Fresh
Fresh(1994)
½

A powerful urban-drama that deserves mention alongside Boyz N The Hood and Menace II Society amongst the best entries in the genre. In fact - and I'm about to say something that some people may consider to be heresy - this one might even be a little better than those fine titles. Certainly, it does have a more unique perspective and this goes beyond just the geographical differences (the earlier two films transpired in South Central L.A. whereas this takes place in New York City). One thing that sets this one apart is that it's as much a thriller as it is a drama - the main character is given surprising depth and development (surprising since he's only 12 years-old) and there is plenty of tension ans suspense inherent in his dilemma. Add to that a taut, unpredictable storyline that keeps viewers guessing and on the edge of their seats and the end result is a compelling experience from start to finish.

Another aspect of this film that sets it apart from most other genre efforts is the musical score. This is not something I usually discuss in most of my other reviews but it deserves mention in this instance. Absent is the aggressive, rap-heavy soundtrack that typically permeates most films of this sort. In it's place is an understated composition provided by no other than Stewart Copeland (that's right, the drummer of The Police). I remember seeing this for the first time and think I'd rented the wrong film when I witnessed the opening scene, which features Copeland's score playing over images of a deserted intersection that looks like something out of an old Western. Eventually, we're shown a brief montage of how that intersection develops into part of what would become modern-day New York (circa 1994, that is). That was when I knew that I'd be in for a unique but fascinating ride.

And it doesn't stop there. This film continues to defy conventions as it goes along. After all, how many hood films have the game of chess as such an integral element of the plot? That game gets plenty of exposure here both literally (the title character often meets with his father, played by Samuel L. Jackson, in the park for matches) and figuratively (the younger man must apply the lessons learned from his father to a much riskier and potentially deadly real-life game) and this adds a layer of complexity to an already involved plot-line. By effectively combining so many diverse elements Boaz Yakin (a longtime screenwriter who was making his directorial debut here), has crafted a film that is simultaneously like and unlike other films about the inner-city.

In the tradition of the best urban dramas, Fresh doesn't glamorize life in the hood. After all, this is the sort of place where a 12-year-old has to push drugs in order to survive and where children in the same age range can be brutally murdered in broad daylight at a local basketball court. This is an often harsh existence and Fresh doesn't shrink from depicting it as such but neither does it revel in the bloodshed. Most of the violence is limited to only a few scenes with some of the more potentially graphic moments (such as the beating of two characters to death with a metal chain) taking place just out of view of the camera. There is no doubt that Fresh often dishes out some tough, uncompromising material, but none of it is gratuitous and that makes it all the more realistic and disturbing.

Thankfully, Yakin's excellent vision extended to his casting choices. As the somewhat taciturn title character, Sean Nelson, making his screen debut here, does a superlative job of depicting the toughness and keen intelligence concealed beneath the seemingly unassuming exterior. This performance is every bit as assured as that of another child thespian, Natalie Portman, who made her debut in another 1994 film, The Professional. It's a shame that Nelson, unlike Portman, hasn't done much since then (although he did get some work in the immediate wake of this film) because based on his performance here, he definitely has what it takes. Luckily, the young actor has a strong cast supporting him. As Fresh's alcoholic, chess-playing father, Samuel L. Jackson, who could also be seen that same year stealing scenes in his star-making turn in Pulp Fiction, proves that he can be just as riveting when circumstances call for a lower-key. Too often these days, the actor is better known for his more flamboyant performances so much so that it's easy to forget that he's capable of much more. Roles like this give the veteran performer a chance to display some of his less-publicized range as an actor. Other notables in the cast include Giancarlo Esposito (who, like Jackson, was once a Spike Lee regular) as Fresh's mentor and the local smack dealer, Esteban and N'Bushe Wright as Fresh's addicted older sister, Nichole.

In its own way Fresh is just as strong of an indictment of modern-day inner-city life as the aforementioned Boyz N The Hood and Menace II Society but it never resorts to the sort of sermonizing that the earlier films occasionally courted. Rather, it uses subtlety to get its points across and nowhere is that more apparent than in the final scene, where one character must finally bear the emotional weight of his decisions. Ultimately, this is just one of many moments that set this film apart and make it just as special and synonymous with its title now as it was when it first crossed our collective vision.

A Prophet (Un prophete)
½

A thoroughly engrossing French crime epic that works equally well as either a prison or gangster flick. It was one of the Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film at the 2010 ceremony and it's certainly worthy of that distinction. In terms of its relationships with American-made films of this sort, this is more of a Godfather (perhaps crossed with Shawshank Redemption) than a Goodfellas. The sprawling, operatic length will likely remind many viewers of the former although during some of the more violent occurrences, one might be forgiven for thinking of the latter. The deliberate pacing has, for some people, been somewhat of a drawback; the film doesn't rush the development of its story and its compelling main character, which isn't really gonna endear this film to the ADD sufferers in the audience but as someone who can appreciate this kind of gradual development, it didn't take long for the film to pull me under its spell. Only in its inclusion of "spiritual" aspects did the film ever lose its way with me. More to come later...

Schindler's List

A film of such devastating power that it stays with the viewer long after its over. The multiple Oscars that it won back at the 1993 ceremony (including, of course, Best Picture of the year) are only just testaments to this film's lasting effect. Now, I know that there is very little I can add to the symphony of much-deserved praise that this film has gotten over the past nearly two-decades but I'm gonna weigh in nonetheless because when I see something this remarkable, I have to express my admiration and respect. What Spielberg has accomplished here, along with his cast and crew, is nothing short of amazing. Even more amazing, perhaps, is the fact that Spielberg repeated this feat not just once but twice later on in his career with both Saving Private Ryan and the underrated Munich. With these three films, he was finally able to prove that he is equally as capable of crafting serious, thought-provoking films as he is of more lighthearted fare.

Schindler's List isn't merely a Holocaust movie; it's not merely a movie, period. It's a deeper, far more resonant experience that will touch the hearts and earn the respect of any and all who view it (unless you are totally made out of stone). Not only is this a story of how the Jews overcame the evils of the Holocaust but it's also a more personal story of one man's transformation from someone who is selfish, womanizing and money-hungry to a man who selflessly risked it all to save the lives of hundreds of men, women and children; and therein lies the power of this film. You see, this could have been nothing more than some dull, dry history lesson; however, by giving us a fully-fleshed out, multidimensional protagonist and a host of minor but equally well-developed characters and subplots, Spielberg (along with screenwriter Steven Zaillian who adapted his screenplay from Thomas Keneally's novel) makes sure that we don't lose sight of the intimate even as he tells a story that is epic in scope.

Moreover, he doesn't shy away from depicting the Holocaust in all of its ugliness and horror. The Nazis saw the Jews as being subhuman and inferior and Spielberg pulls no punches when it comes to depicting the often cruel and vicious treatment of the latter by the former. The violence in this film, of necessity, is very graphic and realistic but none of it is gratuitous. Indeed, there are times when Spielberg's recreations of some of the injustices faced by the Jews have a very Scorsese-like sensibility in terms of their bluntness and matter-of-fact directness (incidentally, Scorsese was one of the directors that Spielberg initially approached to direct this film). Luckily, Spielberg doesn't feel the need to dwell on the gore but neither does he merely skim over it. He makes it very clear what is transpiring and his decision to film the movie almost entirely in black-and-white adds a sense of starkness to the proceedings that it might not have had otherwise. On the rare occasions that he does use color (including the opening and closing scenes), it's for a clear purpose, whether it's to focus on the red dress of a little girl hiding from the Nazis or the burning of a candle during a Jewish prayer ceremony. Spielberg knows what he's doing and the results pack a devastating, emotional punch.

However, as brilliant as Spielberg's decisions are behind the camera, they don't detract from the work of his cast. It takes strong actors to perfectly realize Spielberg and Zaillian's vision and from top to bottom there isn't a weak performance to be found. The incomparable Liam Neeson brings all of his considerable talent to bear on his role as the titular character. As essayed by the actor, Schindler is a man of great flaws, great charisma and a biting sense of humor who later transforms into one of great compassion and kindness and Neeson sells this transformation. His breakdown near the end of the film when he laments not being able to save more Jews is especially wrenching.The actor was duly honored with a Oscar nomination for his powerful work here. Recently, the actor has carved out a niche in the action genre; revisiting this film reminds us that he is capable of far more. Equally good is Ralph Fiennes who was also nominated for his role as the film's main villain (if such a facile term could truly be used here), the high-ranking Nazi official, Amon Goeth. Goeth, as written, is a nasty piece of work who likes to randomly kill Jews for sport and viciously beats his Jewish mistress, Helen Hirsch (played wonderfully by Embeth Davidtz) out of disgust for his conflicted feelings towards her, but Fiennes allows the humanity of this character to emerge from time to time. It's as easy to be drawn to Goeth as it is to be repulsed by him and Fiennes understands this dichotomy perfectly. At the time of this film, Fiennes had a few credits under his belt but this was the role that secured his place amongst the stars and witnessing his chilling work here, it's easy to understand why. The rest of the cast is equally good including Ben Kingsley (a nicely-understated turn as Schindler's Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern), Caroline Goodall (as Schindler's wife) and the aforementioned Davidtz.

In the end, however, this is very much one of those films where the whole is far more than the sum of its parts. It tells a story of great suffering and persecution, but it provides a wonderful counter-balance to this grim material by showing the how the power of kindness and the courage of one man in the midst of tremendous evil can affect a lifetime of change and truly have a lasting impact. That, more than anything else, is perhaps what has given this film its lasting legacy in the annals of film history.

21 Grams
21 Grams(2003)

I can't believe it took me this long to finally check this one out but I'm glad I finally did because it's easily one of the best films I have experienced in a while. It demands not only an emotional investment but an intellectual one as well. The manner in which the filmmakers have assembled the storyline was a sore point for many when this was released back in 2003 and admittedly, it can be frustrating to those who aren't willing to pay rapt attention. In terms of films that employ non-linear timelines to tell their stories - including the likes of Memento, Pulp Fiction and the slightly more obscure Atom Eyogan efforts, Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter (of all the four films I just mentioned, this one probably has the most in common with the last two) - this maybe the most extreme example I have encountered. Basically, the film moves fluidly amongst the three principal characters and jumps back and forth in time like a ping-pong ball; it's as if the filmmakers shot everything in sequence and then decided to break it all down into short scenes no longer than 5 minutes each before reassembling the movie in a completely random fashion. To put it another way, it feels as though one is forced to assemble a mental jigsaw puzzle but for those willing to put forth the effort and work through the details, a clear pattern begins to develop from the chaos as everything starts to converge towards several key events. Sitting in the director's chair is Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu for whom this was the second film in his stylistic and thematic trilogy involving individuals and the tragedies that unite them (his main collaborator for all three films was writer Guillermo Arriaga). The director made his debut in his home country with 2000's ultra-gritty Amorres Perros and concluded the trilogy in 2006 with the international, star-studded Babel. 21 Grams, the director's first American-financed effort, is arguably the best of the bunch (although the other two films are strong, powerful pieces of cinema).

The film's title derives from the idea that everyone loses 21 grams at the exact moment that they die and if there's one thing that unites all of the main characters in this film, it's the presence of the grim reaper. I don't wanna get into too many details for those who haven't seen the film yet but suffice it to say, this is one group of people who are intimately familiar with hardship and tragedy long before the pivotal event in the film that binds them inextricably. As one can expect from a film with such heavy subject matter, the tone is dark and somber but not to such an extent that there isn't any room for redemption or hope. And the filmmakers don't take the easy way out by turning this into some overly sentimental melodrama that is heavy on manipulation. There is no denying that this film culls a strong emotional response but it doesn't earn that with cheap theatrics. Along the way, moments of humor are occasionally unearthed, such as when one character chooses to donate his sperm and the doctor puts him in a room complete with various "inspirational" materials. Such asides are necessary to occasionally loosen the grip of doom that seems to have such a strong hold on the main characters in the story but, despite the multiple calamities that befall everyone, the filmmakers still manage to bring closure to the story lines without undoing everything that came before.

Before I conclude, I feel that a few words about the acting, which never fails to be of the highest caliber possible, are in order. Both Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts received Oscar nominations for their raw, searing performances and rightfully so. Del Toro allows us to forgive his participation in the generic action flick The Hunted from earlier in 2003 and reminds us of the actor who mesmerized us in films like Traffic (for which he'd previously won the Oscar) and Snatch. His character, Jack Jordan, is an ex-con who has recently found faith in Christ and struggles daily to live his life according to Biblical principles but finds his faith tested once fate deals him a particularly tough hand. Del Toro allows us to accept this man as a sincere individual who desires to do the right thing but often struggles with the demons of his past (on a side note, it's refreshing to encounter a Hollywood-produced effort that doesn't paint Evangelical Christians as caricatures but rather as three-dimensional individuals who truly wrestle with their faith and don't pretend to have all the answers). Like Del Toro, Watts also has to play a character who undergoes several personality transformations throughout the film - from strung-out drug addict to loving wife and mother of two and then back again once circumstances throw her a curve - and the actress is never less than convincing from the get go. It takes guts for any actress - especially one as attractive as Watts - to take the kinds of risk that she displays here and oftentimes allow herself to look rather ugly. Ultimately, this is just one of many tools that she employs to completely bury herself in the role.

The third lead in the drama, Sean Penn, was enjoying quite the banner year when this came out; he would of course go on to win the Oscar for his performance in the searing Mystic River but his acting here hits the mark equally as well. His character in each film is a very different individual but many of the conflicts and conundrums that they face are strikingly similar. What matters is that in both films, Penn totally brings his A-game and disappears under the skin of the characters he's portraying - his work in both Mystic River and 21 Grams deserves mention alongside Dead Man Walking at the top of his resume as an actor. The leads all get strong support from the rest of the cast including the likes of Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melissa Leo (who finally won her Oscar in more recent years), Clea DuVall and Eddie Marsan amongst others. I can't say enough good things about this film. Anything that would require and reward such a complete investment from its audience instead of just insulting them with cheap escapism deserves nothing less than the highest possible recommendation.

50/50
50/50(2011)

A solid film that is funny and touching and manages to explore a difficult subject without being heavy-handed or manipulative.

L.A. Confidential

Any easy entry into my top-five films of all time. Intelligent, atmospheric, fast-paced, tension-filled and consistently compelling, this film deserves a prominent spot amongst the best modern noir thrillers. With apologies to Titanic, which was definitely an accomplished piece of film-making in its own right (and clearly had broader appeal amongst the masses, at least at the time), this was arguably the movie *truly* deserving of the title of "Best Picture of 1997" (it did rightfully win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and believe me, if you've ever read the novel, you'll appreciate what the filmmakers were able to accomplish in adapting this story for the screen and you'll likely agree 100 percent with that Oscar win). L.A. Confidential is just about the best compromise that you can get between the hard-boiled classics of the 40's and 50's and the rougher-edged entries of the 90's. Moreover, this is one of an increasingly-rare number of films of which I can say that not a single scene is wasted. Whether it's fleshing out the intricacies of its labyrinthine plot or burrowing under the often-thick skins of its complex characters, this move maximizes every minute of it two plus-hour running time. Even the seemingly superfluous moments (such as the whole "Bloody Christmas" fiasco that occurs early on in the film, and its immediate aftermath) turn out to be invaluable in terms of the insight they provide into what makes these men and women (well, woman) tick. And there is more than enough here to offer just about anyone including a wonderfully-twisty plot line, plenty of tension and suspense, some crisply-staged action set-pieces (the standout of which is a big shootout near the end), a surprisingly tender romance and even some humor (most of which comes via Danny Devito's delightfully sleazy tabloid journalist). In many ways, this film provides a more complete movie-going experience than Titanic could ever hope to give.

The writing is brilliant and remains faithful to the overall essence, if perhaps not all the specifics, of the James Ellroy novel on which it's based while still developing an identity of its own (some of the more lurid and sensationalistic elements in the book are noticeably missing here but, for me at least, the movie is all the better for those omissions). Moreover, it refuses to make concessions to those who aren't willing to pay attention; there are several subplots, all of which are equally as well-developed as the main storyline even if it isn't immediately obvious how one story relates to the others and how it all fits into the big picture. At times, you may feel as though you need a scorecard to keep track of the characters and their relationships with one another but, at least for those who are up for the mental challenge, everything eventually gets tied together wonderfully in the end. This is one film that rewards thought rather than punishing those who use it. It's rare that a movie can both stimulate the mind and pump the adrenaline the way this one does.

The acting by the leads is impeccable; In particular, both Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce standout, not only for being two of three Australian actors (the third being a young Simon Baker in a small part) in this uniquely American tale, but also for their flawless performances. Crowe was no stranger to American films having already made appearances alongside such Hollywood heavy-hitters (at least at the time) as Bridget Fonda (Rough Magic), Sharon Stone (The Quick and the Dead) and Denzel Washington (Virtuosity) but this was the film that finally broke him through in this country and put him on the path to super-stardom (he would win the Oscar just three years later for his role in Gladiator). Witnessing, his performance here, it's not hard to see why. As the hot-tempered Officer Bud White, Crowe is successful not only in bringing his character's volatility to the fore but also in emphasizing his more tender, human qualities, especially once we come to understand the forces that drive him (his scenes with Kim Basinger radiate a surprising sweetness). Only Ray Liotta might have been able to do this role nearly as well.

Like Crowe, Pearce (who was probably best known at the time for his role as one of the cross dressers in 1994's Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and would go on to international acclaim for his role in 2000's masterful Memento) is equally on-the-mark as Sergeant Edmund Exley, a young, idealistic, college-groomed cop who is torn between his thirst for power and position (he certainly has no qualms about throwing his fellow officers under the bus if it means getting a promotion) and his desire to do what's right. Initially, it may seem as though White and Exley are nothing alike (indeed they openly despise one another for most of the movie's running time) but ultimately, it turns out that Exley is driven by traumas not entirely dissimilar to what gnaws away at White and this is what provides the fuel for many of his actions during the course of the film. It's worth noting that both actors affect nearly flawless American accents, proving their dedication to their characters and to the needs of the film.

Finally, as the third leg of this tripod, Kevin Spacey proves that his Oscar-win for 1995's The Usual Suspects (another superior neo-noir effort) was no fluke (he would of course, go on to win another equally deserved trophy for his performance in 1999's Best Picture Winner, American Beauty). Spacey's Jack Vincennes, a cop who seems more interested in being a celebrity than being an actual officer (he's the "technical adviser" on a fictional cop TV show called "Badge of Honor", that seems to take its inspiration from shows like "Dragnet"), might seem like the most laid-back and morally ambivalent of the three leads but circumstances gradually force him to re-evaluate his priorities, both as a policeman and as a person in general. Spacey's performance allows us to accept this character's transformation.

Of course, as the movie progresses, it becomes more apparent that these men compliment each other nicely in spite of -- or perhaps, because of -- their differences. Indeed, watching how these three slowly come together and bring their individual talents to bear on the case is one of the movie's highlights and part of that thrill is because the actors play their roles with such passion and vigor. The supporting cast is also very good including James Cromwell (as a police captain), David Strathairn (as a suave, high class pimp), Basinger (a surprisingly-good, Oscar-winning performance as one of his prostitutes who becomes romantically linked to White) and the aforementioned Danny Devito. From top to bottom, there isn't a weak link in the cast and no obvious cases of miscasting. It sucks that they don't hand out Oscars for ensemble acting because this film makes a convincing case for such an award.

The direction by Curtis Hanson is equally astounding. The pacing is taut and crisp despite all of the ground that has to be covered and sense of time and place is nothing short of perfect. This is Los Angeles as many would imagine it to be during the 1950's and even if it's not realistic (tough to say, since I wasn't around at all during that time), it works quite well within the scope of the film. Simply put, this is a true masterpiece - a phenomenal cinematic achievement that never ceases to amaze even after dozens of viewings and definitely doesn't deserve to be kept on the "hush-hush."

Reservoir Dogs

Gritty, tense, violent, disturbing, tightly-paced, suspenseful, darkly-hilarious, intelligent and unpredictable! Every time I try to describe this film, words almost fail me! A great start to a great film-making career for Mr. Tarantino. The casting, which includes the late Chris Penn and Lawrence Tierney, Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi and Tarantino himself is just about perfect, the script is fantastic with dialogue that sparkles with wit, intelligence and profanity. The direction is crisp, gritty and realistic. Tarantino has a real gift for crafting taut action sequences and blending them with edge-of-your-seat tension and dark-comedy. He is equally gifted at taking characters that could have easily turned into stereotypes and giving them personality and multi-dimensionality. There are also several unforgettable moments chief of which is the infamous "Stuck in the Middle with You" torture scene. I defy anyone to forget that scene anytime soon after witnessing it. The plot is simple enough but it is developed in a way that keeps you guessing and never ceases to be absolutely riveting from start to finish. Many veteran film-makers would be hard pressed to come up with something this accomplished and which makes it that much more of an achievement that this film is the product of a first-timer. But this isn't the debut effort of just anybody. One can easily surmise that Tarantino spent plenty of time studying film very closely and with this production (and even moreso, his next effort Pulp Fiction) the results speak for themselves. Easily my second favorite movie ever!

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
½

Well, I finally got around to seeing this one...like almost a year after it hit theaters and more than half a year after it won two Oscars at the 2009 ceremony. I knew that I would like this film but I didn't expect that feeling to give way to love. I know that I'm arriving kinda late to this party but I feel that I need to offer my praise to this exceptional film even though I probably won't say much that is different from what others have previously said about the film, but such is the case with truly excellent work. It has the power to affect and reach out to a variety of different people from all walks of life and when anything achieves that, perhaps it deserves that kind of universal acclaim. It's no wonder that this attracted the attention of Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, both of whom were instrumental in getting this film funded and released (and, in Perry's case, this is arguably the best film he's ever been involved with in any capacity). 2009 turned out to be one of the stronger movie years in recent history and Precious has earned it spot amongst the creme de la creme of that particular class. On paper, the storyline for the film (which was saddled with the overlong and wholly unnecessary subtitle, "Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire) is hardly the stuff of dreams - this certainly isn't the first time that we've be exposed to a story of underprivileged teenagers from the ghetto who try to break free of their humble origins in order to pursue better lives for themselves - but this is far from some made-for-TV, Hallmark Channel, "inspirational movie" affair. Precious doesn't earn it's emotional impact by blatantly toying with our emotions; rather, it just simply presents the situation as it is, without pulling punches or soft peddling the rather tough circumstances that the title character must face in her life. This quality, coupled with the powerhouse performances by the two leads, makes this a film that is as uncompromising and hard-hitting as it is ultimately hopeful and touching.

Incidentally, Precious shares superficial similarities with another 2009 release, The Blind Side, which touched up on some of the same issues that are presented here. Both involved young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who have to face and overcome adversity in order to achieve their dreams in life. Despite these tremendous odds, the protagonist in each film was lucky enough to have somebody in his or her corner (or a group of somebodies, in Precious' case) to offer encouragement and support. As good as The Blind Side is (even if I did find it to be a tad bit overrated), Precious packs a stronger punch largely because of its willingness to openly confront many of the issues that The Blind Side broaches, but only skims on the surface, in its quest to be a crowd-pleaser (although it should be noted that Precious was based on a work of fiction whereas The Blind Side was based on true - in fact, somewhat current - events); Throughout the course of the film, the title character (who incidentally shares her name with my mother) must endure a variety of soul-crushing and traumatic ordeals from the sexual abuse she receives at the hands of her father (she already has one child by him and, when the movie begins, she is pregnant again) to constant, daily barrage of physical and verbal abuse that her overbearing, unemployed, chain-smoking mother doles out. Additionally, she has to put up with taunts and ridicule from her classmates and neighborhood kids because of her weight. The film does what it must to pull the viewer into this tumult and that makes for an often difficult viewing experience. It's like we're not just merely viewing things from a detached perspective; we're there right alongside Precious experiencing the living hell with her.

However, as brutal and punishing as the film can be at times, it's far from being an unrelenting downer. Several fantasy sequences are included in the film not only to lighten up the mood, but also to present us with a critical component of Precious' personality. Like many young people who have to face daunting life situations, Precious has an elaborately constructed dream world where she sees herself as she'd like to be, getting the sorts of attention and affection that she desperately craves in her real life. Every time something bad happens to her, she retreats into this dream world as a coping mechanism - that is until she finally meets people in the real world who genuinely and truly care for her. The inclusion of these sequences does seem a bit jarring at first but, in retrospect, they add more to the film than they detract from it. And let's face it: who amongst of us hasn't dreamed of better, if not completely grandiose and outlandish, circumstances for ourselves? This is the kind of universal truth that the movie taps into so well. Most of the humor in the film is generated by these scenes but there are instances of it elsewhere as well, such as the scene when Precious robs a bucket a fried chicken from a diner on her way to school only to get sick from gorging herself on it. Some of the banter amongst the students in her class and as well as the name that Precious gives to her first-born (who has Down's Syndrome) might provide some chuckles as well, although consternation is equally as likely to be a reaction (especially in the case of the latter). At any rate, moments of levity like these are necessary to offer the occasional respite from the grimness of most of the movie but the humor never feels forced nor is it so overdone that it threatens to compromise the viability of proceedings.

Of course it would be remiss of me to write this review without mentioning the acting. Both Gabourey Sidibe and Monique received Oscar nominations for their on-the-mark performances (Monique of course went on to take home her statue for Best Supporting Actress) and I can't fault the Academy one bit for these choices. As the title character, Sidibe completely buries herself underneath Precious' skin and stays there (incidentally, as I'm writing this review, the October 2010 edition of Elle Magazine, featuring Sidibe on the front cover, has just hit bookshelves). She bring every facet of this character to life from the sadness and anger at the hand life that has dealt her to the resilience she shows in her attempts to play the best game she can in spite of all of it. A huge part of the reason why we identify so deeply with Precious and feel like we're vicariously living out her trials and tribulations alongside her is because Sidibe completely sells the character, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that this was only her first professional acting gig. As good as Sidibe is however, Monique proves to be every bit her equal in her performance as Precious' abusive mother Mary. One could almost argue, in fact, that Monique's role posed a greater challenge since she's somewhat well known whereas Sidibe is just starting out - Monique is known largely for her comedic roles although she's done dramatic stuff too (she had a major role in 2005's Shadowboxer, which was directed by this film's director, Lee Daniels) - but against those odds, Monique proves just as capable as her co-star of losing herself in her character. There is no denying that Mary is a nasty, nasty piece of work but Monique allows us to see some of her more human qualities as well, particularly during one scene late in the film where she finally lets down her guard in front of a social worker. We certainly don't ever come close to sympathizing with her, but we do gain a measure of understanding as to how she came to be the way that she is and Monique's work is an integral part of getting this point across.

The supporting cast may not have as much visibility but their roles are no less crucial to the success of the film (it could be argued, in fact, that some of these secondary characters deserve more screen time but that might have elongated the film unnecessarily and possibly diluted some of its considerable power). As the teacher who takes Precious under her wing and offers her love and support, Paula Patton radiates kindness mixed with just the right amount of toughness. Equally notable are the inclusions of musicians Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz as the aforementioned social worker who pities Precious and the male nurse who takes care of her, respectively. Both are low-key enough to where they don't call undo attention to themselves. Carey, in particular, tones down the glamour and allows us to forget about her ill-fated first attempt at acting in 2001's Glitter. All the performers portraying the students in Precious' class are also solid and believable as well. In the end however, it all comes back to the two leads and no one steals the spotlight from Sidibe and Monique. Whenever either of them is onscreen (whether together or apart from one another), our attention is on them.

Ultimately, Precious works, not because it trail-blazes into unexplored cinematic territory, but for the simple fact that it tells the story it wants to tell without affectations and unnecessary razzle-dazzle and it doesn't try to pretty up subject matter that is ugly. I won't claim that this film doesn't have any manipulation at all but when it tugs the heartstrings, it does so subtly. Ultimately, this is a tale of one young woman's quest to beat the odds and embrace her sense of self-worth in spite of the forces working against her; however, unlike seemingly 95% of similarly-themed movies, this one doesn't gloss over the treacherous journey that it takes to reach that point, which allows the catharsis at the end to feel more immediate and real. Credit director Daniels and his screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher (whose adaptation earned the second of the film's two Oscar wins) for their clear-eyed, collaborative vision and for using the tools at their disposal to bring it to fruition. Daniels, in particular, is on-record as stating that part of his passion for this film stemmed in part from the abuse that he received at the hands of his father when he was younger because of his sexuality; his zeal is evident in the sense of verisimilitude that informs every single frame of the movie. Not having read the book from which this takes its basis (as of this writing) I can't vouch for how faithfully this film follows its inspiration but, allowed to stand on its own merits, Precious is truly everything that its title suggests.

To Live (Huo zhe)

Easily one of the most powerful films I've ever seen in any language; a stirring tale of one family's brave struggle to hold it together despite seemingly impossible odds. The story unfolds amidst the ever-shifting cultural and political backdrop of China from the 40's all the way up until the 70's but despite the epic scope, the film's attention never strays away from the main characters Fugui and Jiazhen (played to stunning perfection by You Ge and Li Gong) and their fight to maintain their marriage and their forward progression in life despite all of the forces that seem to be allayed against them. Most viewers many not be able to relate to the specific circumstances that these people face but the bigger picture will be impossible to miss. Certainly, the themes that are explored here including the importance of persevering through trials and tribulations and falling back on the strength of family for love and support in tough times are universal in meaning and impact. More to come later...

Raise the Red Lantern (Da hong deng long gao gao gua)

I so need to check this one out, especially after everything I've read about it so far! I might make it a double bill with one of Yimou's other well-resepcted films, To Live.

Super 8
Super 8(2011)
½

A much better film than many have given it credit for, although it did get decent reviews overall. Many have decried this as a blatant attempt to copy the efforts with which this film's producer, none other than Steven Spielberg, was involved in one capacity or another during the 70's, 80's and 90's. For me, it's more of an homage than a straight-up act of cinematic theft and while there are plenty of nods to E.T., Jaws, Close Encounters of The Third Kind and Jurassic Park (all of which Spielberg directed) as well as to the likes of The Goonies and Gremlins (which he produced), for me, they don't draw enough attention to themselves to distract too much from the characters and their story - although it could be argued that the ending recalls one of these older films perhaps a little too forcefully (you'll know what I'm talking about if and when you decide to check this out). Still, everything that leads up that point is so exceptional that it's very, very easy to forgive this last minute lapse. More to come later...

Warrior
Warrior(2011)
½

Definitely *not* your conventional "underdog-takes-all" sports movie and it's all the better for it. As with The Fighter, the real meat of this story isn't in the sports cliches but rather in the acrimonious family dynamic amongst the three main characters, two brothers and their estranged father. Warrior probably won't receive nearly as much love come awards time despite the mostly positive critical notices (although Nick Nolte will likely garner another acting nomination) but it arguably packs a harder punch than did the 2010 multiple Oscar-nominee. In fact, one could convincingly make a case that this familial friction is the driving force behind this story even more so than in the earlier Mark Wahlberg/Christian Bale film. By now, most people are aware that everything builds up to a mixed-martial-arts (or MMA, as it is more commonly known amongst fans) showdown between the two brothers, one of whom is being trained by their father, and it's pretty clear that this tussle is gonna be as much about divesting of personal demons and repairing emotional rifts as it is about winning the prize (there's a $5 million-dollar reward at stake here, the largest purse in MMA history as we're informed during the movie). Enough time is spent developing both of these characters (and their father) as individuals to where many people will find that there is no safe place for your loyalties (although one of these competitors clearly has more to lose than the other); this is a definite far cry from the traditional sports film scenario where the question of whom were supposed to be cheering for (and against) is more black and white. This time, things aren't nearly as clear cut and that creates a greater sense of urgency.

Sitting in the director's chair is Gavin O'Connor, whose previous credits include Miracle, a solid but far more conventional sports drama that chronicled the USA Hockey Team's historic win over the Soviets during the 1980 Olympics. Here, the director moves fluidly into edgier territory and gives the film a dark aesthetic that fits the intensity of the emotions that are on display here, although he does occasionally get a little too overzealous with the shaky-cam approach, particularly during the fight scenes. That issue aside, the film's production values are never in question. When it comes to comparing the 2004 Kurt Russell star vehicle with this more recent effort, it's pretty clear which production is superior and it hardly matters that the former was based on a true story while this one is a work of fiction (incidentally, The Fighter was also based on a true story so a similar argument could be used there as well when comparing it to Warrior). Still, I would argue that it's the talent in front of the camera rather than behind the scenes that truly brings Warrior to life. So far, Nick Nolte's performance has gotten the most attention and his work here as Paddy Conlon, a recovering alcoholic who is struggling to reconnect with the two sons he abused and neglected when they were younger, is powerful. In many ways, this man feels like an extension of Wade Whitehouse, the actor's Oscar-nominated role in 1997's Affliction and his acting here is equally on the mark. It would be easy to despise Paddy but Nolte's superlative work humanizes him to the point of being sympathetic (although it certainly helps that we only hear about the abuse but never actually see any flashbacks to it). When his younger son, Tommy (Tom Hardy) enlists him to be his trainer for the competition, one gets the sense that he sees it as an opportunity for redemption in his son's eyes - although, for his part, Tommy sees Paddy strictly as his trainer ("that much, you were good at") and not as his father.

Speaking of Tommy, Tom Hardy is simply a force of nature in this role. The British actor (who was recently in Inception and won raves for his work in 2008's Bronson), not only dons a flawless American accent, but brings the character's barely-contained rage to the screen with great ferocity. It's easy to view this guy as being somewhat aloof initially but as we get deeper into the man behind the facade, we start to get a better sense of the pain that has defined most of his life, including a tour of duty with the Marines that was fraught with turmoil. Hardy's multifaceted portrayal, more than anything, is what allows us to feel this inner-struggle. As Brendan, the elder of the two brothers, Joel Edgerton is no less impressive. Edgerton, an Aussie actor who is quickly becoming a familiar face on this side of the ocean (he can also be seen in 2010's searing Animal Kingdom which he did back in his home country) is just as adept as his co-star at affecting an American tongue; he is equally as accomplished at traversing the arc of his character, a former MMA-fighter-turned-high-school-physics-teacher who can barely make ends meet with his job and is forced to enter the competition as a last ditch effort to avoid foreclosure on his home. Like Tommy, he is profoundly distrustful of his father, whom he feels neglected him for his younger brother - although he seems more willing to open the lines of communication (just not face-to-face). He must also deal with feelings of betrayal against Tommy for choosing to stay with their father when he was a teenager while Tommy chose to move in with their mother. Like Hardy and Nolte, Edgerton proves equal to the task of fleshing out a complex character. In fact, as note-perfect as Nolte is here, in many ways, I was even more moved by the performances of Hardy and Edgerton. Solid support is provided by Jennifer Morrison (who plays Brendan's wife, Tess, but is better known for her role on House) and Frank Grillo (as Frank Campana, Brendan's trainer and friend).

For all of the emotional heavy lifting that the film does as it deals with the contentious relationship amongst the three principle characters, there is still enough here that is familiar to please fans of sports films and of MMA fighting, in particular. Despite the shaky camera, the fighting sequences are presented with enough skill and energy to get the adrenaline moving - most viewers are likely to feel that this is a reasonably accurate approximation of real MMA action - and the ending provides a rousing catharsis, although by no means is every loose end tied up before the end credits cross our vision. The issues that these people face are far too complex and the wounds cut too deeply for everything to be cleanly resolved in the span of just over two hours but, at least, the ending offers some hope that the breaches can be repaired, if not completely fixed (although, things are clearly gonna get worse for at least one character before they finally do get better). The bittersweet nature of how Warrior chooses to conclude evidences a greater level of emotional honesty than about 95% of similar films and it's just one of several elements that make this a far more powerful and memorable experience than the storyline and the rather generic ad campaign would likely lead most people to believe.

Attack the Block

This is supposed to be a spoof right? After all, the promotional material advertises that this is from the producers of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, both of which were top-notch parodies of the zombie-horror and buddy/action sub-genres respectively (and to strengthen the connection, one of the co-leads in both films, Nick Frost, shows up here in the largely comedic role of a weed farmer/dealer). Moreover, the premise, which involves a group of tough youths in a London housing project defending their hood from an alien invasion, sounds like it couldn't possibly work unless the film-makers had their tongues wedged completely in their cheeks. These were probably many people's expectations and they were mine as well, until I actually saw the film. While I can definitely state that there are moments of dark humor, those expecting an all-out laugh riot may be more than a little disappointed since this one plays it surprisingly straight. Perhaps the more important question should be, is the film worth seeing? I would say that if you're on the hunt for a sci-fi/horror/action hybrid that offers some social commentary and a uniquely British style of understated wit to go along with all of the adrenaline, mayhem and gore, the answer to that question is a resounding "yes"! It may not be the movie you were expecting but I dare you not to be entertained nonetheless (and the near-universal acclaim that the movie has earned would strengthen that argument).

National Lampoon's Senior Trip
½

Oh wow! Who would ever believe, after watching this, that Jeremy Renner would go on to become one of the most respectable and respected actors in the business with already two Oscar nominations to his name (one of them for a prominent role in a recent Best Picture winner)? Not me, not if I didn't already know better and only had this performance to go by! I guess everyone has to start somewhere but I imagine that this isn't a title that the actor highlights on his resume too often, if at all (assuming he hasn't already long forgotten about it, which I suspect he would prefer to do).

The Game
The Game(1997)

Definitely not David Fincher's strongest film but still a solid bet if you're looking for a taut, suspenseful thrill-ride that keeps you on the edge of your seat for most of the running length. The ending was perhaps a bit of a letdown and the film isn't nearly as clever as it wants you to think it is but most viewers should be reasonably entertained. Also, Michael Douglas' character, Nicholas Van Orton, often comes off as too much of a self-centered and emotionally closed-off jerk to be truly likable, which often makes it difficult to get in his corner. I guess that's the point since Van Orton's life has been defined by a childhood tragedy that has crippled his ability to establish meaningful interaction with anyone (except maybe his brother, played by Sean Penn); still it would've have been nice if the character had been given a warmer side. Certainly, Douglas can't be faulted for his performance; he does of excellent job here and most of Van Orton's humanity comes from the actor. The problem stems more from how the character is written than with Douglas' portrayal. No one else is given as much screen time including Penn as the younger brother and Deborah Kara Unger as the film's femme fatale. Coming on the heels of the absolutely devastating Se7en, this wasn't quite another unqualified success story for Fincher but it wasn't anywhere close to being an embarrassment. Certainly, the man's stylistic fingerprints are all over the production, which serves to elevate the material. And there's more than enough suspense and thrills to keep the average viewer entertained. At least, the director was able to follow this up with Fight Club, which to me, remains his best work.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
½

Quite possibly one of the most underrated films of the past decade; a sharply-written and fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek comedy-thriller that cleverly combines the plot conventions of hard-boiled, pulpy film noir with those of a buddy/action flick and, in the process, manages to simultaneously satirize and pay homage to both genres with surprising effectiveness. Essentially, this film does for film noir and buddy flicks what movies like The Evil Dead and Scream series did (with varying degrees of success) for horror films, or what the more recent Hot Fuzz did for action films. Perhaps the best description I can give of this film is to think of it as L.A. Confidential meets Get Shorty crossed with The Last Boy Scout. The last comparison is especially appropriate since this movie's writer/director Shane Black (making his directorial debut here) is best known for penning The Last Boy Scout and even more-so, the original Lethal Weapon. At first, it would seem like a stretch for him to do this kind of homage until one realizes that noir influences have informed most of his earlier work (Last Boy Scout, especially) and by using the buddy film template here, Black doesn't step too far away from his comfort zone. Moreover, the fact that one of the characters in this pairing is openly gay gives Black an opportunity to take aim at the often understated homo-eroticism that can found in many buddy movie pairings. This streak of self-referential humor is just one part of this movie's appeal, but it doesn't stop there. There is a great deal here for movie lovers to savor including lots of clever, sharply-written dialogue, action and thrills aplenty and a surprisingly complex plot-line with no shortage of twists and turns.

The casting of the main roles is another one of this film's strengths. It's tough to ask for better choices than Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer in the lead roles. Downey's work in particular reminded me of some of John Cusack's performances with his unpretentious, self-deprecating demeanor and dry wit. His self-aware voice-over narration throughout the film, which offers the perfect send-up of similar voice-overs in straight noir thrillers, is one of many highlights. Witnessing this performance, it's not hard to see why Downey is often regarded as one of the best actors of his generation. On the other hand, Kilmer's work as the openly gay private-detective who takes Downey under his wing is intentionally and delightfully cocky. Of course, the key to any pairing of this sort is that the leads have chemistry and these two have it in spades. I could listen to these two trade barbs and stories for hours on end if I had to do so. Mention should also be made of Michelle Monaghan, who plays a most atypical femme fatale with a penchant for skimpy Santa costumes and an in-your-face directness that most female characters in this sort of movie don't have. Everything is directed with a sure-and-steady hand by Black who keeps the proceedings moving at a brisk and relentless pace. As with L.A. Confidential and Get Shorty (and, to a lesser extent, Last Boy Scout), this movie refuses to make an concessions to confused and/or inattentive viewers. In fact, even those who are paying attention might not be able to sort everything out in the end, but this shouldn't hamper the enjoyability factor for most viewers. Indeed with everything else that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has to offer, the fact that the plot is so convoluted will be of little concern to most viewers. Those who can deal with that caveat and accept the movie on it's own terms will be in for one wild roller coaster ride of a film that thrills, amuses and best of all, doesn't underestimate the intelligence of the audience in the process.

Harsh Times
Harsh Times(2006)

Well, I can say this much: the title of this film is apropos; this film is definitely *harsh* but in a good way. It paints an uncompromising picture of a Gulf War veteran whose psychoses, brought upon by his experiences on the front lines, are threatening to engulf him. Spending time in the company of such a character doesn't always make for the most entertaining viewing experience but the film still manages to be compelling in a way that such grim character studies often are and there is more than enough dark humor (at least during the first half of the film) to offset the bleakness... not to mention it does have the benefit of a typically intense and committed lead performance from Christian Bale, who brings the main character's torment to the screen with force and fury. More to come later...maybe!

The Dark Knight

Quite possibly the best superhero movie ever committed to film.

Casino
Casino(1995)
½

Highly derivative of GoodFellas (which probably isn't that surprising since this movie, like it's older sibling, was based on a non-fiction novel by Nicholas Pileggi, who in both cases also co-wrote the screenplay with Scorsese) but still another winner from Scorsese. Like the earlier film (and also like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and more recently, The Departed), this one boasts a screenplay full of gritty and meaty dialogue, vividly-drawn characters, unapologetic violence and plenty of humor. It doesn't quite ascend into the upper-echelon of Scorsese's work (largely due to the fact that it is so similar to GoodFellas, often to the point of copying some of that movie's techniques including the use of multiple narrators and a typically unhinged Joe Pesci performance) but it comes very, very close. It also features what may be one of Sharon Stone's best performances ever (for which she was recognized with the film's lone Oscar nomination) as the hooker who marries - and then ultimately destroys - the main character, bookie-turned-casino manager Ace Rothstein (played by pre-collapse DeNiro in fine form).

Dogma
Dogma(1999)

Not quite as good as I remember it being but perhaps still one of Kevin Smith's stronger efforts (although it still trails behind Chasing Amy and the original Clerks). Paradoxically, it may also be the film that showcases him at his weakest - at least as a director. Smith's style behind the camera has always been very simple and spartan and that doesn't translate well to special effects and action sequences (and there's plenty of both here). At times, it's like playing a game to see how quickly you can spot the boom mike. Still, if you can get past these deficiencies, you will find that the film still provides a funny and thought-provoking experience that is surprisingly pro-faith but perhaps, anti-organized religion...I'll return to this when I can gather my thoughts a little better.

Bad Santa
Bad Santa(2003)

Perhaps the quintessential Christmas movie for those who hate Christmas; it's dark, twisted, raunchy, vulgar and unapologetically uncouth but damn if it isn't funny as hell! Those looking for typical Holiday cheer need not apply. This movie is for those of us who've grown weary of all the artificial goodwill and seemingly incessant caroling and all the other phenomena that pollute the landscape during this time of year. This particular Christmas comedy features gags revolving around such cheery topics as sodomy, alcoholism and child abuse, amongst other things. It's daring stuff for *any* movie to make light of, talk less of a Holiday-themed one but to their credit, the filmmakers pull it off with aplomb. It probably goes without saying that those who are easily offended will wanna put as much distance between themselves and this film as humanly possible. On the other hand, if you're like me and have a warped sense of humor, you'll likely have a jolly good time, reveling in all the darkness and cynicism, and laughing all the way. Ha, ha, ha!

Four Brothers

No this isn't Oscar-worthy stuff here and no one will be mentioning this in the same breath as director John Singleton's best work (Boyz In The Hood and Rosewood) but if you're on the hunt for a solid, testosterone-fueled, action-packed revenge flick, this should more than scratch the itch. The action sequences are expertly-crafted (with the car chase/shootout towards the midpoint of the film being the standout), the chemistry amongst the main actors is solid and the script has plenty of room for humor amidst all the intensity. This film has technically been billed as an action-drama but the dramatic elements don't quite hit home with the same force as the action-oriented or even comedic ones. The characters don't quite have the depth for this portion of the story to truly take flight. We certainly like them and hope that they'll be successful in avenging their adopted mother's murder but personally, I didn't come close to developing any deep and last emotional empathy for anyone amongst the principal cast; when it comes to dramatic action flicks, no one's gonna be mentioning this in the same breath as films such as The Professional, John Woo's The Killer or even Man On Fire. Luckily, those who are thirsty for testosterone/adrenaline cocktail with an urban flavor will likely find that this one satisfies on it's own least-common-denominator terms. In short, this one fits into the category of "guilty-pleasure" perfectly.

Hanna
Hanna(2011)

An entertaining action-thriller with elements of fairy tales wedded to the narrative. As with most films of this sort, the plot is rather ridiculous but the pacing is brisk enough to keep us from dwelling overmuch on the implausibilities. More to come later...

Bad Boys
Bad Boys(1995)

Far superior to the bloated overlong sequel, this one at least provides us with some energetic action sequences and surprisingly effective humor but it still ranks no better than middling in terms of action/buddy comedy flicks. This was the feature film debut for Michael Bay and it still places amongst his stronger efforts but that's not really saying much when one considers his filmography (since he had a lower budget for this film than for any of his other stuff, I guess he had to keep things on a tighter leash and suppress his tendencies to let all hell break loose). Overall, this marginally ranks as a guilty pleasure. Certainly the natural charisma of Will Smith (one year away from REALLY making a splash with the mega-hit Independence Day) is huge point in this film's favor. His rather smooth, laid back persona provides the prefect counterbalance to Martin Lawrence's far more abrasive and often off-putting style. I can only imagine how much better this would have been had Lawrence's part been recast

United 93
United 93(2006)

Only the second film I have seen that has caused tears to well up in my eyes. In a word, devastating! I can't remember the last time I sat through the entire closing credit sequence of any film; I just couldn't bring myself to get up from my seat immediately. I can't think of a better way to commemorate all of those who lost their lives on that terrible day back in 2001.

The Departed
The Departed(2006)

Arguably Scorsese's best film in years, it could possibly contend for the director's best film *period*. I'll leave that argument to someone else but I can definitely assert that the movie has earned its spot alongside Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and GoodFellas at the zenith of his work as a filmmaker. Not having seen Infernal Affairs, the original Hong Kong film on which this is based (as of this writing), I can't even begin to do any sort of comparison between the two so I can only judge The Departed on its own terms; but even by those standards, the film works so splendidly that perhaps, in the end, such observations don't really matter much. Allowed to stand on its own considerable merits, The Departed delivers exactly what we've come to expect from Scorsese when he's at the top of his game including fully-fleshed out, multidimensional protagonists, memorable and often profane dialogue, bursts of brutal violence and bloodshed, surprising moments of dark humor and great acting performances from his A-list cast. It's been 4 years since the director finally took home his long overdue (and well-deserved) Best Director Oscar while the film itself took home the big award of the ceremony and the film has lost none of its power in the interim. I would have no difficulty naming this amongst the best films of the past decade (alongside the following year's No Country For Old Men and 2003's Return of The King, it's easily amongst the few truly deserving Best Picture Winners of recent years). Even the director's next effort, Shutter Island, while certainly a solidly entertaining genre piece, doesn't come close to the high level of this film.

Key to The Departed's stunning success is its sense of pacing, which is perfect or nearly so. The movie gets off to a flying start with an engrossing monologue delivered by Jack Nicholson's villainous character, Frank Costello, as we're taken back to sometime during the recent past (perhaps the late 70's or early 80's); after that, the proceedings shift to the present and the momentum only continues to build from there. While I stop short of calling the film relentless, there is plenty of tension and suspense in the proceedings but things don't move so quickly that the story isn't given any room to breathe. On the contrary, Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan (a Boston native who also won the Oscar for his blistering screenplay here) spend a fair amount of time establishing the main characters and developing the intricate, complex plot in which they find themselves trapped. The opening credits don't appear onscreen until nearly 20 minutes into the movie but by the time they arrive, the audience is so deeply entangled in the web of intrigue, deceit and corruption that has been spun that one would be hard pressed to even notice or care.

The film's sense of atmosphere only serves to further cast us under its spell. Despite most of the principal shooting taking place in New York, everything feels "all Boston" (at least based on my limited experience with that city). One can't underestimate the role that this film played in opening the floodgates for the recent spate of Boston-based crime films (this burgeoning sub-genre has been appropriately dubbed "Boston-noir"). In many of these films, it's easy to get the sense that characters' connection to this community provides the catalyst for their many decisions throughout each film and that is especially true of this particular film. It rare that we see this much A-level talent together in one film and rarer still everyone gets a chance to shine without completely stealing the spotlight from the others but that's exactly what happens here. Certainly, Scorsese is one of the few directors in Hollywood with enough clout to get this sort of cast together and for good reason: he knows how to direct actors. Even when performers thought of as lightweights make their way into his films, (such as was the case with Juliette Lewis in the Cape Fear remake or Sharon Stone in Casino), Scorsese seems able to cull strong work from them. Here, his cast selection is perfect, or nearly so.

For Leonardo DiCaprio, this performance was a game changer. Despite having already worked with Scorsese for two films (Gangs of New York and The Aviator), the actor was still struggling to escape from the shadow of his Titanic role and be taken seriously as an adult actor. It's not the actor wasn't capable of powerful work (note his Oscar-nominated role in What's Eating Gilbert Grape or his interpretation of Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries) but his teen heartthrob status often overshadowed his abilities. These days, he widely regard as one of Hollywood's best and brightest (the varied list of directors besides Scorsese with whom he's worked over the course of his career - particularly in more recent years - is quite impressive) and it can be convincingly argued that his performance here was a huge part of changing people's negative misconceptions of his as just another pretty boy. The actor brings gravity to his role as the protagonist, Billy Costigan, and allows us to understand his struggles as he navigates the dangerous Irish underworld in his role as an undercover cop. DiCaprio was nominated that year for his role in Blood Diamond but he was arguably more deserving of the mention for this role.

Nearly as good is Matt Damon who plays Collin Sullivan, Costigan's equal on the other side of the law. Together, these two performers build the foundation on which the other actors stand. DiCaprio and Damon are excellent but they are not the only ones. Of course, the showier role belongs to Jack Nicholson, who easily steals his scenes as the main villain (and Sullivan's boss), Costello. Of necessity, the actor is a little over-the-top but he avoids going so far off the deep end to where he draws too much attention away from the other cast members. From his introduction during the aforementioned monologue and onward throughout the course of the film, Nicholson is clearly in sync with his larger-than-life character but he's not the only supporting player to leave a strong impression. It could actually be argued that Mark Wahlberg gives an even more demonstrative performance in his role as the foul-mouthed Staff Sergeant Dignam. From the stinging verbal abuse he doles out at Costigan early in the film to the equally brutal briefing that he gives to fellow officers during one meeting, the actor has many moments here worthy of Alec Baldwin in Glen Glengarry Ross; I could also see Joe Pesci in this role (particularly if Scorsese had set this within his traditional Italian-American element and made the character a little older). Most of the film's best lines belong to Dignam and Wahlberg delivers them with relish. For his work here, Wahlberg earned the film's lone acting nomination. One could argue whether he deserved it over his co-stars (DiCaprio in particular) but there's no doubt in my mind that the actor leaves a blistering impression here.

Of course the work of the rest of the cast can't be discounted. Everyone here, including Baldwin and Martin Sheen (as police captains), Vera Farmiga (as the psychiatrist who becomes romantically linked with both Costigan and Sullivan) and British actor Ray Winstone (as Costello's right hand man, French), does excellent work. Even Anthony Anderson continues to proves his potential as a dramatic actor while still providing some understated comic relief (he did this role following his equally subdued performance in 2005's Hustle 'N' Flow).

If one were to categorize The Departed, the obvious genres would be crime-epic or police-drama but as with Scorsese's best films, this one transcends it's genre labels. That's not to say that fans of those genres will be disappointed; certainly, this one delivers the tension and menace that one would rightfully expect here and it saves its biggest and best surprises for the end, but if that were all it accomplished, it wouldn't come close to being the best film of 2006. As with the director's other masterworks, this one uses its genre trappings as a springboard for a deeper exploration of the themes that have always been near and dear to Scorsese's heart. For most of his career, the director has focused his attention on his native New York Italian-American community but here, he proves that a similar dynamic exists within Boston's Irish-American neighborhoods. The script is rich with themes related to loyalty, family, betrayal and guilt (especially since Catholicism is a common denominator in both communities) and as usual, Scorsese doesn't merely pay lip service to this material. This more than anything is what elevates The Departed above the level of merely an exceptional crime drama and into the stratosphere occupied only by true masterpieces. The film's title is certainly *not* indicative of the impression that it will leave on the viewer.

The Hurt Locker
½

A tense and gripping war-thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat while highlighting three well-realized characters and several strong acting jobs. This film is worthy of all the buzz that it has received thus far including the multiple Oscar nominations that it recently earned (in the time since I first published this review, the film went on to win 6 of those awards including Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay at the 2009 ceremony). At first, it may seem as though this has little in common with other grimmer and grittier war films like Platoon, Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down, all of which paint the starkest picture imaginable of modern warfare but ultimately, The Hurt Locker proves to be just as stunning an indictment of the dehumanization that often accompanies life on the battlefield. All the while, it still provides viewers with a jolt of adrenaline that equals or bests many action films. The set-pieces are expertly-crafted and the taut pacing keeps everything on an even keel. Don't be fooled though; this isn't wall-to-wall action. The script takes time to explore the day-to-day drudgery of a soldier in this situation and this adds to its believability. Of course, knowing that this was written by someone who actually spent time with a bomb disposal unit in Iraq (journalist Mark Boal is credited with the screenplay) enhances the sense of verisimilitude. Perhaps, the biggest reason why the tension level is so high is that we identify with the main trio of characters which allows us to care about their circumstances. These guys aren't superheroes; they are just ordinary men placed under extraordinary pressure with equal capacity for good or for bad. Credit the performances, as well as the writing, for drawing the audience into this dangerous world. In particular, Jeremy Renner (whose performance earned one of the film's nominations) succeeds in burrowing under the skin of the lead character, SFC William James. Initially, it would be easy to dismiss this guy as just another arrogant, thrill-seeking jackass in the vein of Tom Cruise's Top Gun alter-ego, Maverick, but James proves to be a far more complex individual than such a facile description would indicate and Renner's fierce portrayal fully allows his humanity to emerge. The performances by Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty provide a solid counterbalance to Renner's more gung-ho personality. Some of the better known actors to populate the cast include Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce and David Morse but none of these performers gets more than 10 minutes of screen time a piece. Lost's Evangeline Lily also has a small but somewhat crucial role. Ultimately, however, its the top-billed trio that catches and holds our attention. The real star, however, is director Kathryn Bigelow, who is finally getting the sort of serious acclaim that had eluded her for so long. Her first big claim to fame, of course, was marrying and then divorcing filmmaker James Cameron (who, ironically, represented her biggest competition at the 2009 Oscar ceremony for his box-office champ, Avatar - which took that crown from his previous effort, Titanic). She then went on to solidify her action film credentials with her sure-handed direction of such films as the overblown surfer flick, Point Break and the underrated cyber-thriller Strange Days (which was co-penned by Cameron and featured the aforementioned Fiennes in the lead role). She hasn't done much in the intervening years until now...and what a comeback this is! Bigelow proves that her years of toiling in relative obscurity during the early part of this century have paid dividends. Her use of cinema verite film techniques give this film a gritty aesthetic that brings us closer to the action and the on-location shooting in Jordan provides the perfect stand-in for Iraq. 2009 proved to be a surprisingly strong year in cinema and The Hurt Locker has earned its spot amongst the creme de la creme of that year's class.

A Few Good Men

An example of how a strong cast and a well-written screenplay can make regurgitated material seem fresh. More to come later...

Singles
Singles(1992)
½

A middle-of-the-road offering from Cameron Crowe; it doesn't have the immersive qualities and emotional depth of his best work such as Say Anything (which immediately preceded this one), Jerry Maguire (which immediately succeeded this one) and Almost Famous (my personal favorite of the bunch) but the characters are likable enough to hold our interest, even if they aren't exactly well-rounded.

Clerks
Clerks(1994)
½

The movie that first introduced us to Kevin Smith's offbeat and wacky Askewniverse. The appearance of this film may be crude (of necessity given the budget, which was under $30K, possibly a record for the lowest budget of any film) but what it lacks in polish, it more than makes up for in its script. This remains one of the best films in the director's canon (topped very narrowly only by Chasing Amy). As would be the case with subsequent features, Smith's script completely flouts the rules of conventional screen-writing as it combines intelligent, wry and witty dialogue with unapologetically and raunchy humor and frank, vulgar language. Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson may not be the best actors in the world (either now or then) but it's hard to imagine anyone doing a better job of playing Dante and Randall, respectively. As the ennui-stricken, twenty-something title characters, these two paint an accurate picture of the thoughts and feelings of an entire generation ("X' marks the spot). Whether they are discussing Star Wars, having frank and often hilarious discussions about sex, discussing human behavior or playing hockey on the roof of their store, these two never cease to hold our attention. Then there's Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith, himself), who get their first on-screen appearance here. These two don't have as prominent a role as they would in later films but what little they have here is still very, very funny. Kevin Smith has had his highs (the aforementioned Chasing Amy) and lows (the better-to-be-forgotten Jersey Girl - what, did you honestly think I was gonna say Mallrats?) but with this film, he kicked his career off to a flying start and proved that you really can do a lot with a little. Well worth watching and well worth owning!

Murder in the First

Not perfect by any means but still a more-than-solid fusion of a legal drama with a prison film that contains enough moments of blistering power to be worth seeing.

October Sky
October Sky(1999)
½

A superior feel-good film, one that has intelligence to go along with its old-fashioned sensibilities...

The Abyss
The Abyss(1989)
½

James Cameron's attempt to ape Spielberg... I'd say he was successful! More to come later.

In the Company of Men

An uncompromisingly bleak and cynical drama about deceit and manipulation in relationships and the horrible extremes to which the "alpha-male" complex can be taken, especially in corporate America. There's enough twisted humor here to qualify this as a dark comedy but if you're on the hunt for some full-bellied laughs, you might wanna consider checking out something else. This film pulls no punches in its depiction of the emotional devastation that the two main characters wreak on their unsuspecting victim and in the grand scheme of things, the comic relief does little to dispel the sense of disquiet that most viewers are likely to feel by the time the end credits roll. This is definitely *not* what most would consider to be a "feel-good" experience (unless of course their personalities are as irreparably skewed as that of the two male leads) but it is a powerful one that keeps the viewers' attention until the bitter, devastating end. Films like this that aren't afraid to tell it like it is and refuse to cave in to Hollywood conventions are as rare now as they were back in 1997, when this film was released (and announced director Neil LaBute and his leading man, Aaron Eckhart, as talents to be reckoned with).

The Sweet Hereafter

Probably up there with L.A. Confidential amongst the best films of 1997; a stirring, forceful drama that relates the story of a great tragedy and attains its considerable emotional impact without ever once resorting to cheap sentiment, needless sensationalism or other such sledgehammer techniques. And considering some of the subject matter that is broached here, that is an amazing feat in and of itself. The plot reads like one of those throwaway stories about lawyers that one would expect from someone like John Grisham but thankfully writer/director Atom Egoyan (adapting from the Russell Banks novel of the same name) avoids the quick and easy fixes and always treats his characters and their situations with respect. And he does it all with a sense of artistry that is breathtaking. Few will argue that this is a happy movie - in fact, one could argue that some of the points Egoyan are is trying to prove here are rather cynical - but for me at least, because of the level of skill that went into making this film - especially, the superlative acting jobs from everyone in the cast and the beautiful cinematography - the natural sadness of the material ultimately gives way to exhilaration. Don't get me wrong - it's not that the difficult circumstances that the characters have to deal with in this film don't affect me at all. Rather, I'm merely illustrating that this is the sort of film where the magnificent whole is more than the sum of it's individual parts. Not only is the film a visual feast (there's a reason why I mentioned the cinematography, credited to Paul Sarossy, in this review; the small town in British Columbia, where most of the action takes place in the movie, is consistently filmed in the most breathtaking way possible) but it challenges both the intellect as well as the emotions. In short, for anyone who is a fan of this sort of powerful drama, The Sweet Hereafter offers the complete package.

Black Swan
Black Swan(2010)
½

Well, it was creepy and disturbing, albeit to a lesser degree than I was anticipating. And yes, Portman deserved that Oscar.

Lethal Weapon
½

If this isn't at the top of the buddy/action genre of the late 80's and early 90's, it's pretty damn close. It delivers the high-octane set-pieces and the wryly funny humor that we all expect from any self-respecting genre entry but, by incorporating surprisingly effective dramatic elements and character development, it ascends to another level. One thing that can be appreciated about this film is that it isn't afraid to occasionally go to some dark places, particularly in relation to the character of Riggs (played by Mel Gibson in one of his signature roles) but it still provides the rousing experience that anyone would want from this sort of film.

Lethal Weapon 2
½

Nearly as good as the first one; probably a bit more skewed towards humor this time around (the movie definitely has a bit of fun at the expense of apartheid-era South Africa) but it still has plenty to offer in terms of stunts and adrenaline-pumping moments and the characters continue to be as likable and engaging as they were the first time around.

Bullet in the Head (Die xue jie tou)
½

Arguably the best of John Woo's late 80's/early 90's Hong Kong efforts. This was the film where he finally perfected the mixture of stylish but brutally violent action with character development and melodrama. Here amidst the backdrop of the Vietnam war, he comes up with a surprisingly hard-hitting and uncompromising story of friendship, loyalty and betrayal.

Romper Stomper

A worthwhile Australian effort that focuses on the Neo-Nazi gang culture in that country - more specifically, it takes place in the city of Melbourne - this makes for a solid companion piece to its American counterpart, American History X, which hit screens six years later. Like that 1998 film, this one has perhaps been a little overrated over the years, but it's definitely worth seeing once or twice. It's tough to say which of the two films I liked better - ultimately, both of them are spot on when it comes to their depictions of racism and the zeal of those who embrace such hateful doctrines and lifestyles, but at the same time both films have their share of flaws that keep me from giving them unreserved praise. If American History X has a tendency to sermonize a little bit too much, then Romper Stomper is probably too preoccupied with needless subplots, especially when it come to the character of Gabe; now nothing against the character or the actress, Jacqueline McKenzie, who portrays her - in fact, I found her to be the only truly sympathetic and likable character in the film and McKenzie manages to find the right mixture of sensuality and innocence and gets us in Gabe's corner pretty quickly (and her accent is sexy as hell). McKenzie makes Gabe such a compelling individual that it makes the audience bemoan her rather shabby treatment all the more. She clearly deserves far more than to be the impetus behind a love triangle involving her and the two male leads (and don't even get me started on her incestuous relationship with her father). One could argue that this material was important in how it establishes her character and also reveals things about the characters of Hando (a very young Russell Crowe) and Davey (the late Daniel Pollock, who tragically offed himself back in 1992, around the time of this film's release), the aforementioned male leads, but despite some erotic sex scenes and decent chemistry amongst the actors, this subplot is just a little too melodramatic and soapy for a film so deeply entrenched in such a grim reality.

At least the acting level of acting is of a high caliber. I said a few words about McKenzie's contribution but she's not even the best performer in the film. As with American History X, Romper Stomper benefits greatly from a powerhouse lead performance, in this case from Russell Crowe. One could almost argue, in fact, that this film was more noteworthy for Crowe's volcanic portrayal than for anything else. Hando isn't given a great deal of depth but Crowe imbues his with such ferocity and viciousness that he arrests our attention nonetheless. This man personifies hatred and contempt in ways that are downright frightening; next to him, Edward Norton's equally compelling lead Nazi in American History X comes across as more of a misguided idealist than someone who's truly hateful. It's not hard to see how Crowe would soon find his talents in demand not only in Australia but over on our shores (he earned his American breakthrough role in L.A. Confidential as a result of his performance here, before going on to attain an Oscar and super-stardom for his role in Gladiator). This is the kind of acting that stays etched in people's minds and commands the respect of all who witness it. As the third leg of this tripod, Pollock is solid but it's Crowe and McKenzie (to a lesser extent) who truly shine here. The acting from these three goes a long way towards mitigating the superfluousness of the romantic subplot and they get adequate support from the rest of the cast.

Despite the meandering plot line, Romper Stomper gets things right when it comes to the bigger picture of racism and the senselessness that can often stem from it. The movie sets the tone early on during the opening scene, which depicts a trio of Vietnamese immigrants skateboarding through a tunnel when they have the misfortune of running into the skinheads. The latter deals a vicious beating to the former after letting them know that they don't consider them a part of "their" country. It's a stark and disturbing moment that gives us a sense of what these people are capable of doing and it gets things off to a powerful start.

Equally compelling is the fight scene that breaks out after the skinheads try to attack another group of Vietnamese immigrants, this time for buying out a pub that used to be one their hangouts. The Vietnamese, who have had enough of the beatings and taunts, decide to retaliate and send in reinforcements, which leads to this 15 minute sequence that is arguably the centerpiece of the film. It's an elaborate and brutal melee that involves both sides going after one another with clubs, crowbars and anything else they can get their hands. I won't say much about this outcome of this tussle except that it occurs before the midpoint of the film so there is still plenty of film left. What it does illustrate effectively is the extremes to which some can go when they've been pushed too far.

Not surprisingly, the first half of the film is more compelling than the second half, but at least the latter moments allow the principle three characters to be fleshed out a little bit. I wasn't crazy about the love triangle as I've already mentioned but there are other things to appreciate about this portion of the film. We certainly get a sense of how empty these people's live are when they aren't busy terrorizing innocent minorities. They live in squalor and spend most of their time partying and eventually, with no real purpose to unite them, they begin to turn against each other. This is the problem with any philosophy of hatred; it's too shallow of a well to keep anyone sustained for very long. In terms of it's depiction of the eventual disintegration of this gang of skinheads and the urban decay that engulfs them, Romper Stomper recalls A Clockwork Orange, although this film isn't nearly on the same level in terms of impact.

In the final analysis, Romper Stomper is a solid and often powerful portrayal of the consequences of white pride. On the balance, it's less preachy and a little more nihilistic than American History X (although it doesn't quite feature a scene as chilling in its starkness as the curb-stomp in the latter effort) but from my standpoint, it's on the same level. It's not a perfect film but it won't quickly be forgotten by those who take the time and effort to seek it out.

The Incredibles
½

True Lies, the animated film! More to come later...

Le samouraï
Le samouraï(1967)

An ultra stylish excursion into film noir that deserves recognition as a gold standard in the genre. This may have come out more that 4 decades ago but it can easily stand toe-to-toe with the best modern day crime dramas. It should be noted that none other than John Woo has lauded this as a "perfect film" (in fact, one of his own films, the considerably more action-oriented melodrama, The Killer, was loosely based on this) and it's easy to agree with him once you've immersed yourself in this masterful thriller from legendary director Jean-Pierre Melville. In fact, Woo isn't the only director to draw inspiration from Le Samourai; it's pretty clear that Quentin Tarantino and Melville's fellow countryman, Luc Besson, are intimately familiar with this landmark thriller (in particular, try watching Besson's masterpiece, The Professional, without thinking about this film). More to come later...

American History X

Not a perfect film by any means but still a powerful and uncompromising portrait of racism and the effects that it can have on a family. It does get a little preachy at times and it's not exactly what one would call a subtle film but on the balance, it offers a surprisingly even-handed portrait of the ideology of white power hate groups. Bolstered by Edward Norton's superlative, Oscar-nominated performance in the lead role, this film manages to attain a level of impact and potency despite its flaws.

Certainly, this film doesn't take the easy way out and turn the skinheads it depicts into mere mindless thugs. Oh sure, they can be volatile and dangerous but there is real anger behind their actions; in fact, many of the arguments that Norton's character, Derek Vineyard, offers up have a ring of truth to them if one is willing to give them some honest thought. The conclusions that he reaches and they way he chooses to act on them are the problems but Vineyard is no idiot and as he himself points out in one scene, he's not part of some "disorganized bunch of rednecks" like the KKK. Ultimately, this film's stance is anti-racist but it doesn't merely dismiss the rhetoric of these hate groups out of hand.

Wanted
Wanted(2008)

This is a solid example of what a summer action flick should be. It's stylish, energetic, fast-paced and viscerally satisfying. Yes, at times, the proceedings are patently ludicrous and one can easily get the sense that words like "physics" and "logic" don't exist in this world but can't the same things be said of most modern action-thrillers- especially ones like this that have sci-fi elements to go along with it? At least, unlike most similar fare that gets released during the hottest season of the year - such as, say, the Transformers movies - this one has the virtue of not being so empty-headed and superficial that it becomes insulting; we like and identify with the main character, which heightens our interest in what the final outcome will be. Moreover, the action sequences, while kinetic and exciting, are not edited so rapidly that one cannot follow what's going on. They accomplish the task of exciting the senses and pumping the adrenaline without causing a severe headache in the process.

It's worth noting that Wanted has a stronger cast than in most films of this sort. Here, we are treated to two previous Oscar-winners (Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie) and a potential, future Oscar-nominee (James McAvoy, whose best-known roles before this have been in prestige - read: "Oscar-bait" - films such The Last King of Scotland, Atonement and the recently released The Last Station). Freeman and Jolie (the latter, especially) have done these sorts of movies before but this is McAvoy's first shot at carrying a bigger budget action flick and he acquits himself admirably. The key to accepting this world and these circumstances is that we connect with the main character, who is our surrogate through all of this. Luckily, McAvoy's portrayal allows this to happen and his American accent is mostly believable (although there are minor slip-ups here and there).

If one criticism can be leveled against Wanted, it's that the plot is blatantly derivative of The Matrix with Freeman's Sloan and Jolie's Fox playing Morpheus and Trinity to McAvoy's Neo (his name here is Wesley). Thankfully, this film has enough going for it to where it is able to develop its own identity and stand on its own apart from its obvious inspiration. In particular, there are some twists and turns that send the story spinning off in a slightly different direction towards the end of the film. I won't spoil them here (although, those familiar with Mark Millar's graphic novels, on which this is based, will probably know what's coming) but I will say that I was genuinely surprised by - and impressed with - some of the unexpected developments in the plot. Don't worry though; this film doesn't go so far off the beaten path that the audience won't get the satisfaction that it craves in the end (complete with a priceless one-liner). After, certain things are expected here...

Certainly, Wanted is bloodier and more profane than The Matrix. This film takes the trademarked, slow-motion tracking approach of the earlier film to another level and follows each bullet on its path as it rips through flesh and bone. Consider this John Woo on cocaine. The violence and gore may be stylized but they're definitely R-rated. Credit Russian director Timur Bekmambetov (who earned the task of directing this film on the strength of his Nightwatch series) for having the guts to approach this material with such a hard edge rather than watering it down to attain a more commercially-acceptable PG-13 rating (in addition to the graphic violence and harsh language there are some quick sex scenes here and yes, Angelina does get nude, albeit only for a brief moment). The Matrix is arguably the superior, more visionary effort but Wanted doesn't have nearly as ambitious of an agenda. In the end, however, this movie achieves its modest goal of providing nothing more than 2 hours of fast and furious entertainment, and for a flick like this, it's hard to ask for too much more.

A Perfect World
½

Back in the early 90's, it seemed as though the Western was beginning a resurgence as a viable genre. Leading the way in this mini-revival was 1990's Dances With Wolves, a film that seemed to reject as many of the Western's conventions as it embraced. This film was all the more remarkable in that it was helmed by an actor-turned-director making his debut round in the latter capacity. Eventually, the film would go on to sweep the Oscars in several categories including Best Picture and Best Director while earning several other nominations. Two years later, another actor-turned-director (albeit one with considerably more experience both in front of and behind the camera) would respond with Unforgiven, another unconventional and even grittier Western that went on to triumph similarly at that year's Oscar ceremony.

Of course, the two men at the forefront of this movement were Kevin Costner (who directed and starred in Dances) and Clint Eastwood (who directed and starred in Unforgiven) and considering their similar tastes - not to mention the critical acclaim that their aforementioned films earned in their respective years - it was perhaps inevitable that these two would work together at some point in time. Luckily, it didn't take long for that project, A Perfect World, to get off the ground (this time, with Costner in the starring role while Eastwood was in the director's box and had a supporting role) and it would finally get released in late 1993, only months after Unforgiven had it's way at the Oscars. The results didn't garner anymore Oscar nominations for either of them (although the film was arguably deserving of that kind of recognition) but it still did both men proud and even now, nearly two decades later, it remains a powerful and affecting experience.

What surprised many back then is that this flick is neither a Western nor a standard order cops-and-robbers thriller, although elements of both genres - the latter, in particular - make appearances here. Sure there are kidnappings, shootouts and violence and the film essentially takes on the former of a chase film, but if that's all you're after, you'd better brace yourself for some disappointment. Ultimately, these are surface elements on the core of a surprisingly heartfelt and effective drama about an unconventional father-and-son bond that develops between Kevin Costner's escaped convict, Robert 'Butch' Haynes, and his young hostage, Phillip 'Buzz' Perry (played by T.J. Lowther). The care with which this relationship is developed is a huge part of what gives the film its beating heart and elevates it above the formulaic broth in which it's been stewed.

The superb performances only serve to keep things at a high level. For Costner, whose career in front of the camera has epitomized unevenness, this is easily one of his strongest acting assignments. There's no denying that Butch is a criminal but most of his crimes are coping mechanisms for dealing with his abusive past (including the crime that put him in prison from which he is on the run when the film begins). Kidnapping Buzz gives him the opportunity to provide the sort of love and encouragement to someone that he felt was lacking in his own life. Costner makes Buzz likable and sympathetic despite his flaws and moreover, the actor is up to the emotional demands of his role - surprising since he hasn't exactly been known for his range, especially early in his career (Robinhood, anyone?)

The Rock
The Rock(1996)

Easily the best film on Michael Bay's resume as a director - many (myself included) will argue that this is the only truly *good* movie he ever made (although Bad Boys occasionally comes close).

Once Were Warriors
½

A grim and powerful motion picture that rivals even the best American-produced urban dramas for depth and impact. This definitely isn't one for those on the hunt simply for lighthearted or even serious entertainment. That word definitely doesn't apply here. Few films have dared to paint such an uncompromising picture of inner-city poverty and its effects and byproducts, particularly when it comes to alcoholism and domestic discord. The setting here might be in New Zealand amongst the Maoris (who are similar in many ways to our Native Americans) and but the cycle of violence and abuse is depicted in a way that will be understood by anyone regardless of their cultural backgrounds.

An Education
An Education(2009)
½

In life, experience is often the best teacher and, in most cases, those lessons are hard learned. This is a universal truth that all of us have to face at some point or another and it also forms the thesis of the aptly-named An Education, which was one of 2009's most acclaimed films, and rightfully so. I had been meaning to see this one since the fall of that year, when it received wide release and immediately started generating Oscar buzz due to its sharply-written screenplay and lead actress Carey Mulligan's stellar lead performance (both eventually received nominations while the movie itself was nominated for Best Picture). Nearly a year and a half later, I was finally able to hunt down a copy and I can honestly say that it was truly worth the wait. This is yet another excellent film from a year that seemed to have no shortage of those.

At first glance, it would seem as though this film couldn't be more dissimilar from another one of 2009's best efforts, Precious - certainly this film, despite the serious nature of the subject matter, applies a much lighter tone - but closer inspection reveals a host of similarities. For starters, both protagonists are the same age - 16 years old - when each film begins, and both are forced to confront some truths about themselves and the world that they live in (although Mulligan's Jenny doesn't endure anything nearly as soul crushing as the title character in the other film). Likewise, both films showcase the talent of their leading ladies. Like Gabourey Sidibe in Precious, Mulligan disappears under her character's skin and the illusion doesn't abate until the end of the film. Despite being several years older than the character she's playing here (also like Sidibe), the actress is entirely convincing as a 16-year-old young woman who, despite her mostly sheltered existence (it seems as though her entire life has been all about getting into Oxford, under the watchful eyes of her parents), is still aware of the world and recognizes that, despite the seemingly first class education she may receive at Oxford, her options as a woman in this time and place (the film takes place in England during the 1960's, when women's liberation movements were on the up-rise but women's rights still weren't fully recognized) are limited. All Jenny really wants is a chance to be independent and truly experience the world with all of its culture (she is particularly fond of the French) and not feel boxed in by the expectations society has for her. Mulligan fully understands this character and melds all of her traits into a multidimensional portrayal that never once misses a beat. Not surprisingly, both Mulligan and Sidibe would go on to earn rightful Best Actress Oscar nominations at last year's ceremony only to end up losing to the less-deserving Sandra Bullock for her solid but overrated performance in The Blind Side.

Another film that comes to mind when playing the comparison game would be Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous. In each case, both of the main characters come from rather closed-off home lives and consequently aren't fully prepared for the tough lessons they will eventually learn but at least for a short while, they get to live out their fantasies in living color. Whereas the protagonists of Famous gets his enlightenment amidst the backdrop of the early 70's rock scene on a tour bus with his favorite band, Jenny's adventure transpires a decade earlier in another country and on the surface at least, would appear to be more high-class. In addition to finally experiencing Paris, she also gets to enjoy exquisite dining and attend concertos; in either film's case, these would be heady experiences for anyone and certainly for young people in their teens who've probably only read about these things before. For Jenny, the catalyst for all of this enlightenment is David (Peter Sarsgaard, affecting a rock-solid British accent), a charming smooth talker who is twice Jenny's age but nonetheless manages to seduce Jenny and impress her parents while bringing her into his fold, which includes Danny and Helen (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike). It would seem as though these three lead a truly charmed existence and for over a year, Jenny's world is opened to many possibilities that she didn't know previous existed. Naturally though, the harsh realities of life intrude on the dream, especially once Jenny gets more emotionally involved with Pete and begins to uncover some of his well-guarded secrets (a similar fall from grace plagues William Miller, the main character in Famous).

Mulligan's performance may be the focal point for our attention but she gets strong support from her co-stars. Peter Sarsgaard succeeds at uncovering the humanity of his character, sheathed underneath layers of charm and deceit. We get a sense pretty early on that this guy is kind of a creep and is too good to be true but Sarsgaard allows us to see his character's more endearing traits as well. Ultimately, his feelings for Jenny turn out to be more genuine than we and perhaps even he himself expect initially. Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike are suitably enigmatic as David's cohorts, while Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour provide most of the film's understated humor as Jack and Marjorie, Jenny's well-meaning but somewhat overbearing parents (although Marjorie is a bit more lax), both of whom fall under David's spell as easily as does Jenny. As the headmistress at Jenny's school and a teacher who tries, but initially fails, to shy Jenny away from David, Emma Thompson and Olivia Williams also leave solid impressions.

By now most people know that it was Nick Hornby who was responsible for the screenplay. Of course, Hornby has a well-established reputation as an author (several of his books have been adapted into films including High Fidelity, About a Boy and two versions of Fever Pitch); here he gets the opportunity to adapt from someone else's novel (in this case, the author is Lynn Barber who based this story on some of her own experiences as a young woman). Not surprisingly, the script is as sharp and observant as one would expect from someone with such a pedigree. The dialogue sparkles and the character interaction is perfectly captured.

Finally a few words should be said about the director, Lone Scherfig, a Danish director who is a disciple of the Dogme95 school of filmmaking. Her direction here isn't as sparse as what most people would expect from someone with that background but it's not too showy either (although she definitely does justice to the European architecture of both France and England). The focus here is on character interaction, something that a more flamboyant approach might have undermined so I certainly can't argue with her choices here.

Ultimately, this film works not because its subject matter is anything new or original (notice that I've come up with at least two films to which this one can be compared), but because of the intelligence of the presentation. Moreover, it's refreshing to encounter a protagonist - especially one as young as this - who isn't completely clueless or naive. Indeed, Jenny is uncommonly sharp and perceptive for someone her age, but that doesn't prevent her from getting hurt. Ultimately, the biggest blow that Jenny is dealt as a result of her affair with David is something that would devastate anyone in a similar position, regardless of their age. The film doesn't merely pay lip service to the damage that is done but it isn't steeped in cynicism and the ending manages to be cathartic and hopeful without compromising everything that came before it. It's an entirely appropriate conclusion to this charming and worthwhile motion picture experience.

The Social Network

Oh wow! If for some reason I were forced to pare this review down to two words, those would be the first to pop into my mind. When any movie gets the sort of near-universal acclaim that this one has received, expectations will be high and often unfairly so; thankfully, this is one instance of a film that is not only able to weather that storm but actually manages to transcend expectations. In concept, the story of the founding of FaceBook might not seem like a recipe for compelling cinema but in realized execution, that's another story. I can't think of any aspect of this film that doesn't consistently impress whether one wants to discuss the acting, the writing, the direction, the cinematography or even the musical scoring (which comes courtesy of Nine Inch Nails front-man, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross).

The opening scene gets us off to a flying start with a conversation between Mark Zuckerberg (who is brilliantly brought to life by Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) in a bar on Harvard's campus during the fall of 2003. It sets up Zuckerberg as an obviously intelligent young man whose obsession with status and lack of social skills alienate anyone who gets too close to him, and this is the character we get to know throughout the course of the film. Albright, who has finally had enough of dealing with all of this baggage, decides to end their relationship. This scene sets the pace for what we can expect from the film in terms of the keen interplay between the characters and the high caliber of film-making in much the same way that the event that's depicted here changes the course of Zuckerberg's life and sets the tone for what is to come for him...and this is before the opening credits have even appeared onscreen.

From there, the momentum continues to build and build. I could give you a rundown of the best scenes but instead, I'll just discuss the aspects that impressed me the most, beginning with the screenwriting. Everyone probably knows by now that Hollywood veteran Aaron Sorkin is credited with the script and his work here is truly worthy of his reputation. If he doesn't win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay (the movie takes most of its basis largely from Ben Mezrich's book, The Accidental Billionaires, which he allegedly based heavily on testimony from Zuckerberg's former friend and business partner, Eduardo Saverin), I will be highly disappointed. The interaction amongst the characters is consistently intelligent and quotable but that probably shouldn't be a surprise coming from the writer of A Few Good Men. The sharpness of the dialogue is such that I often found myself laughing out loud at several moments during the film. Clearly, this is the filmmakers' intention. Not one instance of humor seems ill-timed or out of place. Beyond the dialogue however, the screenplay also gets it right when it comes to its exploration of the age-old themes of friendship, loyalty and betrayal. At its core, this is what The Social Network is truly about and it simply uses the story of the development of FaceBook as a backdrop for it probing of these deeper, richer themes. Ultimately, The Social Network is no more about web designing and internet business than Raging Bull was about boxing. In both cases, it's the characters that take center stage and not their professions (and yes, I deem The Social Network to be worthy of mention alongside the 1980 Scorsese masterpiece).

The narrative structure of The Social Network is not linear. Things are straightforward for the most part but the script often employs flash-forwards to the present time during two separate lawsuits that were brought against Zuckerberg by Saverin (played here by Andrew Garfield) and by the Winklevoss Twins (played by Josh Pence and Armie Hammer) who claim that Zuckerberg stole their idea by creating FaceBook. One of these depositions is actually used as a device for the narrating past events that lead up to it and form the meat of the story. It's a clever and effective way of relating the proceedings and it keeps us riveted in a manner that a more conventional approach might not achieve. Another thing that can be appreciated about the film is the time it spends with the minute details that may not necessarily be integral to the story but still aid in giving us a sense of the characters and the world they inhabit; to that end we're taken inside the dorm rooms and the hallowed halls of the secret societies that dot the landscape of Harvard's campus amongst other places.

Characters as compelling as these require equally compelling portrayals and in that regard, the cast is uniformly impressive and not least of all, lead actor Jesse Eisenberg, who's portrayal of Zuckerberg is nothing short of astonishing. Eisenberg has been underrated for quite sometime now despite some noteworthy work in the past (particularly in 2009's sadly under-appreciated Adventureland and the offbeat zombie action-comedy Zombieland); even while everyone else saw him as just another one-trick pony like Michael Cera, Eisenberg's potential as an actor has always been apparent to me and it seems as though, in his portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg, he has finally found the perfect outlet for all of his ability. For a while, it seems as though Zuckerberg is indeed an asshole, as Erica refers to him during that conversation at the beginning of the film. He is socially-inept, snobbish and, at times almost coldly opportunistic but he still retains a core of humanity that occasionally rises to the surface, particularly towards the end of film when the weight of all the emotional damage he's caused others finally begins to sink in. Perhaps, one line that is uttered by another character towards the end of the film describes Zuckerberg - at least as he's been portrayed in the film - best and no I'm not going to spoil it here, but trust me. You'll know exactly what I'm talking about when you hear it. At any rate, this a surprisingly multifaceted role that would challenge just about any actor but Eisenberg never once misses a beat. It's hard to imagine that Eisenberg won't garner that well-earned Oscar-nomination for this singular performance.

Nearly as good are Andrew Garfield as Saverin and Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker, the founder of Napster, who would eventually wrest co-ownership of FaceBook from Saverin when things began to go sour between him and Zuckerberg. If anyone earns our sympathy in the movie, it would probably be Saverin, who comes across as a young man with a strong work ethic and a solid moral backbone but who is unfortunately very naive. Ultimately, he gets the short end of the stick from everyone and Garfield, affecting a solid American accent, fully understands how to develop this character. On the other, Timberlake presents Parker as a more charismatic and energetic counterbalance to Zuckerberg's awkwardness. It's easy to understand how anyone could be swept of their feet by this man with his smooth and confident demeanor but as we come to learn, this charming exterior turns out to be a mask for some surprising character flaws. It's an excellent job of acting by Timberlake who officially solidifies his credentials as a thespian with this performance added to his work in Alpha Dog and Black Snake Moan. The rest of the cast is solid including the aforementioned Josh Pence and Armie Hammer as the Winklevoss twins, Max "son of Anthony" Minghella as their business partner, Divya Narendra; Joseph Mazzello and Rooney Mara, amongst others. Hell, even Disney-bred actress Brenda Song is given a role in which she can shine.

Finally, there's the director, whose contribution is truly the glue that holds everything together. This would normally seem like a rather odd project for director David Fincher whose filmography lists a group of dark, edgy thrillers punctuated by their relentless cynicism, such as Se7en, Fight Club and Panic Room. However, in recent years, a kinder and gentler but no less accomplished incarnation of the director has emerged and if nothing else, it proves Fincher's versatility and ability to move fluidly from one style of film-making to another. As can be expected, this film is nothing short of amazing visually. At no point is The Social Network ever anything less than a feast for the eyes but as good as the movie looks, it exists to compliment rather than eclipse the other aspects of the film and this is where David Fincher's films, even the ones that are the most on the fringes, have always impressed. Were it up to me, I'd hand him the Oscar now, which is likely gonna be the case so I'm happy about that.

In the grand scheme of things, I can't say much more about this film that hasn't been said already. As I'm writing this, the movie has just swept a bunch of Golden Globes, which would indicate that it's Oscar prospects are pretty much locked down. Normally, awards don't necessarily mean much but in this case, it's just a small testimony not only to the power and influence that this film has already had but will likely continue to have in years to come. Not only has this film earned its spot alongside Fight Club at the pinnacle of David Fincher's filmography as a director, but it is easily one of the most impressive films of this past year or any other year for that matter.

Blue Valentine
½

A powerful, heart-wrenching film about the dissolution of a once-promising union. Don't be surprised if you struggle to fight back tears every once in a while during this. Likewise, don't be surprising if you chuckle at some moments as well. In a strange sort of way, I was reminded of (500) Days of Summer in that both films utilize a very similar structure of jumping back and forth between time frames to chart the course of a relationship; however, whereas the 2009 film was largely a comedy, this one is a fairly serious drama, albeit with moments of humor sprinkled in here and there. Blue Valentine should resonate with anyone who's ever been in love or been in a relationship (hypothetically, that includes *everyone*). It should also resonate with anyone who appreciates powerful acting. The two leads are nothing short of impeccable. Michelle Williams was nominated for an Oscar for her part but Ryan Gosling was no less deserving for his contribution. No doubt, these two performers are a huge part of what provides this film with it's blistering power. The emotional honesty of the script is another unassailable asset; this film is the antithesis of a typical Hollywood production in that it isn't a afraid to follow this story to its natural, albeit grim, conclusion (500 Days concluded in a similar, albeit slightly more hopeful, manner). All I can say is get a hold of this film anyway possible. For fans of serious cinema, it truly is what the second half of its title would suggest.

Easy A
Easy A(2010)

I think Emma Stone just became my new favorite actress.

Sin Nombre
Sin Nombre(2009)
½

A gripping, edge-of-your-seat dramatic thriller that chronicles the struggles of two young immigrants (one Honduran and one Mexican) as they battle seemingly impossible odds to make the perilous journey across the border into the U.S. to pursue the promise of better lives. The title of this film, *Sin Nombre* literally translates into "nameless" in English and perhaps the reason why the filmmakers chose this title is because it illustrates the way many of us in this country view immigrants, especially those who dare to cross our southern border. For his first full-length feature, Japanese American filmmaker Cary Fukunaga has not only given names to two of these faces, but he has given them enough depth and personality to attach us to their daunting circumstances and not just view them as statistics. The result is yet another one of 2009's best (and most underrated) releases.

To Live and Die in L.A.
½

A tough, uncompromisingly gritty cop-thriller that doesn't make concessions to those with weak constitutions (for example, it doesn't shrink from showing the impact that a bullet can have on someone's face) and isn't afraid of completely turning genre conventions on their ears. As with most films of this sort, there are still plenty of white-knuckle moments and the fact that we don't exactly know where everything is headed is in keeping with the danger and unpredictability that is inherent in this sort of flick. Add to that what is arguably one of the most memorable car chases even put on screen (an easy rival for director William Friedkin's other car-chase flick, The French Connection) alongside some other equally accomplished set-pieces, several strong acting performances (especially that of William Petersen as the appropriately-named Chance, John Pankow as his partner Vukovich and a chilling Willem Dafoe as the intelligent and ruthless villain, Rick Masters) and an excellent Wang Chung soundtrack (the title song, in particular, has to be one of the most evocative tunes to come out of 80's) and you've got the makings of a winner. More to come later...

The Rocketeer

A childhood guilty pleasure...

Inception
Inception(2010)
½

Excellent movie but not quite up to par with Nolan's best (for my money, I'd rate it a tie between Memento and The Dark Knight). I honestly feel that it could've have followed through a little bit more on its thought-provoking ideas and perhaps introduced more ambiguity into the proceedings. For a movie that has been described by many as confusing, I found it surprisingly easy to follow; to use an analogy I didn't quite understand how some of the trees were planted, but the overall layout of the forest made enough sense. Still, as much as I admire the movie, I feel that it was perhaps a bit overrated. Maybe much of the praise it's gotten is based equally as much on the significantly lower quality of most other movies out there as it is on the merits of this one. Don't get me wrong though, this mind-trip is one that is well-worth taking. In the tradition of the best science-fiction/action hybrids, this one has as much room for intellectual and emotional stimulation as it does for action and adrenaline (although perhaps it overdoses on the latter just a bit). One can easily find other films to which it can be compared (The Matrix easily comes to mind) but it has enough going on to stake out its won claim. I need to think a bit more about this and maybe watch the movie again before I can offer a more clear-headed perspective but for now, I will say that those of you who haven't seen this yet should check it out.

Enemy of the State

Still holds up more than a decade later as a solid, fast-paced and surprisingly prescient high-tech thriller that not only delivers on action and adrenaline that one expects from a Jerry Bruckheimer/Tony Scott collaboration but leavens the cocktail with a surprising (and welcome) helping of food for thought. What seemed kinda far-fetched back in 1998 seems completely plausible nowadays (in fact, the surveillance bill that's postulated in the movie is eerily similar to certain provisions of the Patriot Act, which was passed only a few years later) and that's a huge part of why this film still retains relevance today. I'm not gonna argue that this is a perfect film; there are plenty of flaws that one could pick out here including several inconsistencies in logical and an ending that is arguably too neat and over-the-top but these things are par for the course in this sort of flick and frankly there's enough about this film that works that it should be easy to over look these issues and just enjoy the ride.

The Constant Gardener

Nowhere near as good as Meirelles debut *City of God* but far from a sophomore slump. If you're looking for a decent romantic drama/thriller set against the backdrop of corrupt medical practices in Africa, you should find this to be a solid, if unspectacular effort.

Inglourious Basterds

Welcome to WWII as seen through the eyes of Tarantino. You can say this much about the man's take on the conflict: it sure ain't predictable in the least. Of course, Tarantino has never been bound by the rules of conventional filmmaking in any of his previous endeavors but this one may have outdone even those efforts for sheer audacity. You see, in Tarantino's version of WWII, out-of-period music is not out of the question nor is the complete and blatant disregard for several key historical events. Also included in the package are the occasional narration from a very-well known bad-ass actor, plenty of Tarantino's trademarked, sharply-written dialogue and, of course, moments of shocking and graphic violence often interspersed with a wickedly funny sense of humor. You can expect this and a whole lot more but don't expect to be able to figure out where this is all going before the end credits roll. You likely won't stand a chance until then. Oh yes, this film takes you for a ride, but what an energetic, thrill-packed trip it is! Even during the film's quieter moments, there is a certain momentum that drives the proceedings forward. Quentin's pen is as sharp as it's ever been but there's a lot more going on beyond the obvious. During IB's talkier segments, not only does he reaffirm his gift for words but he demonstrates an ability to orchestrate and sustain tension. Many of these scenes are often preludes to brief but explosive action sequences and with each word, Tarantino cranks up the suspense to nearly unbearable levels until he finally allows the bubble to burst violently. Through it all, you will be sitting on the edge of your seat with your eyes glued to the screen the entire time. I would give you a brief rundown of some of the film's best moments but I don't want to ruin your own discoveries. Besides, isn't it more fun that way? I would like to say some words about the acting, though. I guess the perfect place to start would be with Brad Pitt whose portrayal of Lt. Aldo Raine hits the proverbial bulls-eye. Pitt's abilities as an actor have often been overshadowed by his status as a celebrity but the man has proven his worth time and time again. There's a damn good reason why men like David Fincher routinely cast him in their films and even if Pitt might not initially seem like the best fit for Tarantino's sensibilities (although he did take a dip in Tarantino's pool back in 1993's True Romance) he proves that the director's instincts were spot-on when he made this casting decision. Most of IB's best humor comes as a result of Raine's demeanor and mannerisms and Pitt fully understands how to disappear under the skin of this larger-than-life individual. Equally good is Melanie Laurent, whose Shosanna Dreyfus, is strong female character in the mold of The Bride from the Kill Bill movies. In many ways, Shosanna provides IB's emotional center and the actress proves to be more than equal to the task of this surprisingly complex individual. The other significant female player, Diane Kruger (who was Pitt's co-star in 2004's Troy) is solid as Bridget Von Hammersmark, but as far as the women in this movie, Laurent's work dominates. The supporting cast includes Eli Roth (the director of the Hostel movies) and Mike Meyers (Austin Powers, himself) amongst others, all of whom are general solid (although Meyers could have been slightly less over-the-top). The standout in the cast, however, is Christoph Waltz, whose star-making role as Colonel Hans "Jew Hunter" Landa is worthy of a spot on the roster of recent, great movie villains alongside Anton Chigurh (no Country for Old Men) and The Joker (The Dark Knight). And like Javier Bardem and the late Heath Ledger before him, Waltz is all but guaranteed the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor; far be it from me to argue with that distinction. Tarantino has often shown a knack for reviving acting careers (i.e. John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, Pam Grier in Jackie Brown, etc.) but with Waltz, he has gone one step further and uncovered a gem. The actor so forcefully inhabits this character, whose outwardly charming and gentlemanly demeanor masks a sharp intelligence and a cold-hearted, ruthless and often opportunistic core, that he may never live it down for as long as he continues in the business (and, trust me, with his upcoming role in the Green Hornet film its pretty clear that this guy's not going away anytime soon). Waltz hits every note perfectly with this character, providing just the right mixture of civility, malice and dry wit. I'd even hasten to compare what Waltz has accomplished here to what Anthony Hopkins did nearly two decades earlier with the iconic role of Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs. IB definitely has plenty of things going for it above and beyond Waltz's performance but few will deny that the movie wouldn't be the same without it. So what else can you expect from the film? Well, you can expect Tarantino's best work in a decade -and-a half, a masterpiece worthy of mention alongside Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs at the pinnacle of his filmography as a writer and director. You can also expect what is arguably one of 2009's best films.

The Expendables
½

Delivers what is expected and not a damn thing more...although the action sequences could've been presented more clearly. Still I was able to make out enough of what was going on for the movie to be enjoyable. If you're after some decent hardcore, old-school action, this won't disappoint and neither will the cast!

No Country for Old Men

This may be the Coen Brothers' best film in years if not perhaps their best ever (it certainly deserves mention alongside Miller's Crossing and Blood Simple at the zenith of their work). In my honest opinion, this movie is easily better than their often lauded 1996 effort, Fargo (a movie that I thought was good but vastly overrated). The Coen's make a triumphant return to Texas, the state where they made their debut with the aforementioned Blood Simple. As with that film and with most of their work in general, the Coen brothers flawlessly combine violence, tension, drama and dark humor into a compelling, gritty noir-thriller (with flavors of a modern Western) about greed, deception and murder. One of the most noteworthy aspects of this film is the sparsity of cue music. Where most movies use music to elevate the levels of suspense and tension, this film shows that oftentimes the complete absence of music can achieve the same effect even more. There were several scenes that actually caused me to jump because the tension was so well-orchestrated. At just over two hours, the movie is well-paced and every time the proceedings threaten to lull us too much into our comfort zones, the Coen's jolt us back to reality usually with sudden bursts of action or similarly violent occurrences; best not get too comfortable for too long. And the Coen's prove that they can compose action set-pieces with the best of them. Their are several moments in this film that get the adrenaline pumping with amazing effectiveness. Arguably the best thing about this film, however, is the tremendous Oscar-winning performance turned in by Javier Bardem as the vicious, emotionless hitman, Anton Chigurh, one of the most compelling screen villains in recent memory. Here's a man who kills without compunction or remorse; the concept of mercy is one that is completely alien to him. Many have compared him to Hannibal Lecter and I believe that is entirely legitimate connection. Both are highly intelligent people and both are calculated in their often savage acts towards others. Without a doubt, most of No Country's best scenes revolve around Chigurh and a huge part of this is the way Bardem plays the role. Everyone else does a good job including Josh Brolin (who plays the protagonist), Kelly McDonald, who sports a flawless Texan accent and plays the protagonist's wife (I still remember her best as Ewan McGregor's underage girlfriend in Trainspotting), Woody Harrelson (as a rival bounty hunter) and Tommy Lee Jones (as the world weary sheriff and, in many ways, the conscience of the film), but it's Bardem's work that dominates. Perhaps, the most controversial aspect of the film is the open-ended manner in which the Coen Brothers elect to conclude things. Enough loose ends are tied up but not everything is wrapped up in a neat and tidy package. This has infuriated many people but personally, I loved it. It was the perfect, unconventional ending to a very unconventional film, the cherry on top of a wonderfully dark but delicious parfait. I would love to see the Coen Brothers revisit these characters someday (perhaps if they can somehow option the rights from Cormac McCarthy, the author of the book on which this film is based). It worth noting that with this film and The Departed winning The Best Picture Oscar back-to-back, the tastes of the Academy have gravitated towards darker, grittier films. I personally love this trend because it proves to me that the members of the Academy are finally pulling their heads out of their asses and paying attention. Even if it didn't win anything, however, No Country for Old Men would still stand tall, not only as a monumental achievement for the Coen Brothers, but as one of the best- if not the best- films of 2007.

Stranger Than Fiction
½

A delightfully whimsical, offbeat and surprisingly touching little tale. Calling this "Charlie Kaufman-lite" would seem like an insult but that isn't my intention with that statement. What this film accomplishes is it takes many of the ideas that are apparent in Kaufman's films and presents them in a slightly more accessible, but no less engrossing fashion. In the process, it also provides Will Ferrell with the opportunity to deliver what is arguably his finest performance to-date, reaffirming not only his talent for comedy, but also proving his potential as a dramatic actor.

Shutter Island

A solid, if not perhaps great, adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel. It certainly doesn't reach the same level of excellence attained by other two recent Lehane adaptations, Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, but it's flaws have less to do with the craftsmanship of the film than with the weaknesses in the story. When I first read the book, I had the impression that Lehane wrote it with the intention of one day getting it adapted into a movie, which is precisely what happened, not surprisingly. It isn't a bad story but it's nothing truly special and it certainly doesn't come close to retaining the same emotional impact of the other aforementioned adaptations; instead - and you can consider this your spoiler warning, even though I will do my best not to divulge specific details - this one comes across as a good old-fashioned mind-bender in the vein of other similar films such as Fight Club (which was also based on a novel) and the underrated 2003 horror/thriller Identity (although it could be argued that even those two films were superior).

This film generated a considerable amount of buzz long before it was initially due to be released back in October of 2009. Not only was this yet another adaptation of a novel by respected writer Dennis Lehane but the man who was to be in director's chair was none other than Martin Scorsese, for whom this was the long awaited follow-up to 2006's The Departed, the film that finally (and in my opinion, rightfully) won the director that seemingly elusive Best Director Oscar after years and years of continuously get snubbed for some very worthy efforts. As with that film and all of the director's recent output, he was once again teamed up with Leonardo DiCaprio as his leading man, with plenty of respected performers offering him support. With all of this top-flight talent involved, it wasn't at all surprising that this film drummed up a ton of interest prior to its release.

Then, just a mere two months before its scheduled unveiling, Paramount Pictures made the announcement that they were gonna push it back a few months to February 2010, thus making it ineligible for consideration in the 2010 Oscar ceremony. Since February is not known as a month for quality movies, this decision had people wondering if maybe the movie wasn't quite as worthwhile as expectations had led them to believe. The official reason that Paramount gave for their actions was that they didn't have enough money to mount a proper Oscar campaign for the film (tough to believe since they were the people behind two of 2009's most profitable films, Transformers 2 and Star Trek) but that still wasn't enough to quell people's concerns.

When the film finally was released back in February, it became apparent that while this film is obviously well-constructed and involving, it certainly doesn't scale the same heights as Scorsese's best work and nor it is truly Oscar-worthy except perhaps in some aspects, but more on that later. What Scorsese delivers here instead is nothing more spectacular than a solid genre entry, not unlike what he accomplished back in 1991 with his remake of Cape Fear.

There's no doubt that Scorsese's superior filmmaking instincts elevate the material. Employing the services of veteran cinematographer Robert Richardson (a regular for Oliver Stone amongst other), the director makes sure that the movie is never anything less than a feast for the eyes. The sense of atmosphere is so strong at times that it can overwhelm the viewer but that's definitely the proper approach for this sort of film. We never doubt that this film is taking place during the 1950's on a secluded island outside of Boston Harbor because of how forcefully Scorsese conveys this sense of time and place.

Also impressive is the acting although with a cast of this caliber, would it be reasonable to expect anything else? DiCaprio, making his fourth appearance for the director, gives another superlative performance as U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels, a man wrestling with demons, the nature of which aren't fully apparent until near the end of the film. There is a good reason why DiCaprio has become Scorsese's go-to guy post De Niro and why he has also found his talents in favor with other respected directors including the likes of Edward Zwick, Ridley Scott and most recently, Christopher Nolan. Here is a man who has finally put his matinee idol status to rest while allowing his raw talent to emerge from underneath the shell of his boyish good looks and honing it to perfection. If Shutter Island has any urgency at all, a large part of that has to be credited to DiCaprio's work here. Had the original release data been kept, DiCaprio would've likely garnered another Oscar nomination at this year ceremony and if he gets recognized at next year's competition, I certain won't be throwing my hands up in protest (although he stands as much of a chance of being recognized for his performance in Inception). As the doctor's at the institution where the movie is set, Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow lend some veteran credibility while Mark Ruffalo and Michelle Williams are solid in their respective roles as Teddy's partner and wife but no upstages DiCaprio. This is *his* movie all the way.

Ultimately, Shutter Island satisfies for the same reasons that many a solid thriller does. It keeps viewers in suspense and not entirely certain of what's going on until the end (although, if you're already familiar with the book, nothing here should be all that surprising) and the twists and turns in the plot are smoothly navigated (including the "big reveal"). For those not familiar with the book, the proceedings might be confusing at first but it isn't difficult for the thinking viewer to sort things out. Shutter Island may not be the next great Scorsese masterpiece but it is entertaining and engaging and with so many would-be thrillers out there failing to attain even these modest goals, if you're looking for a decent execution of genre conventions, the trip to this island is definitely worthwhile, even if it isn't exactly what one would call a tropical paradise.

Die Hard
Die Hard(1988)

To this day, this remains one of the definitive examples of the heights to which even films within the action genre can scale.

Zodiac
Zodiac(2007)
½

An atypical but still thoroughly engrossing endeavor from filmmaker David Fincher. One could argue that this represents the director's chance to attempt something different while not straying too far from his comfort zone. Certainly, the subject matter, which involves serial killers, is nothing new for him; in fact, one of his previous films, Se7en, is rightfully considered a landmark in the sub-genre but while the earlier film was a completely fictional story, this one takes its basis from the true crime novel written by Robert Graysmith (who is portrayed here as a young journalist by Jake Gyllenhaal). More importantly, the fast-paced, in-your-face style of filmmaking that was apparent in Se7en and in most of Fincher's other efforts (including Fight Club and the underrated Panic Room) is largely absent in this film. The violence is limited to the depiction of only a few murders and while it's pretty clear what is transpiring in these scenes, the amount of gore is surprisingly limited here. Moreover, Fincher cuts back on his penchant for visual flair and camera tricks. Instead, what he gives us here is a meticulously-constructed, methodically-paced dramatic thriller that works well either as a police procedural or as a more personal story of one man's obsession and the effects that it has on those close to him. Either way, I have no problem ranking this amongst Fincher's stronger efforts, despite the fact that it's so different from anything else that he's previously attempted (although, in my mind, this still misses the pinnacle achieved by Fight Club). Perhaps he felt that since this story was based on real-life events, he should approach the proceeding in a more understated manner and I honestly can't fault him for this decision. Personally, this film kept me in its thrall for every minute of it's two-and-a-half hour running time.

The Chase
The Chase(1994)
½

Guilty pleasure to the max!!!!

Traffic
Traffic(2000)

One of the best films of the decade; a powerful, ensemble genre that weaves a complex web of deceit set against the backdrop of the drug trade.

The Lives of Others
½

Well-deserving of its Best Foreign Film Oscar. Whether you want to view this as a tense thriller set against the backdrop of 1984 Soviet-occupied East Germany or as a character study focusing on the personal transformation of a cold-hearted and calculating officer in said regime to someone with a heart and the courage to act on it, this film satisfies completely. It certainly doesn't hurt that the script is intelligent and keeps you guessing as to where everything is headed nor does it hurt that the acting is of the highest caliber possible. In particular the lead actor, Ulrich Mühe (who tragically passed away shortly after completion of this film) is note-perfect as Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, the man for who most of the major changes in the film are reserved. Since most of this transformation is subtle, that requires a ton of none-verbal acting, a task at which Mühe excels breathlessly. Indeed, it's this trait in his performance that gives the final scene, as understated as it is, so much of its considerable power. As the subjects of Gerd Wiesler's scrutiny and ultimately his sympathy, Sebastian Koch (who had an important and, in many ways, very similar role in another of 2006's best foreign films, Paul Verhoven's Black Book) and the attractive and talented Martina Gedeck also make strong impressions but this is Mühe's film all the way. He is the one around which the other actors orbit. Take him away and it's questionable as to whether or not The Lives of Others would have anywhere near as much impact as it does -- and believe me, this film does pack a punch; but despite the trials, tribulations and tragedies that the characters face during the course of the movie, this tale is ultimately one of hope and redemption and even though it relates a story that took place more than two decades ago, those are qualities that can be treasured as much now as they were back then.

Affliction
Affliction(1997)
½

A powerful and gripping if (of necessity) somewhat dark and downbeat tale of one man's desperate quest to cling to the remaining vestiges of his quickly-waning insanity and exorcise the demons of his rough childhood, resulting from his relationship with his verbally and physically abusive, alcoholic father. For those in the know, it shouldn't be surprising that Paul Schrader, who both writes and directs here, would be attracted to such material; after all, his best known scripts were for the Martin Scorsese masterpieces, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, which dealt similarly broken characters. Here, working from a novel by author Russell Banks (who wrote the source material for Atom Egoyan's amazing The Sweet Hereafter), Schrader weaves a rich and involving tapestry that is part murder-mystery and part psychological drama and part character study. The result is a film that engages the audience on both an emotional and intellectual level. Powerful acting is one of several reasons why this film succeeds as well as it does. Nick Nolte, who garnered a well-earned Oscar nomination for his role here, buries himself completely under the skin of the main character, Wade Whitehouse, and allows the audience to feel his deeply-buried torment. Despite his best efforts to reject his father's lifestyle, he has adopted a few of his bad habits, including alcoholism and an occasionally explosive temper. Equally good is James Coburn, who won an Oscar for his vile, hateful and yet surprisingly human portrayal of Wade's abusive father, Glen. One gets the sense that Glen is the way he is because of his relationship with his father (to which he makes reference late in the film). The most surprising performance, for me at least, came for Wilem Dafoe, who successfully abandons his usual portrayals of oddballs and psychos to easy the role of Rolfe, Wade's younger brother, who narrates the story and is the only one in his family to successfully leave their small town. There's no doubt that he too bears the scars of their father's abuse albeit differently from Wade (for example Rolfe refuses to drink, while Wade is a full-blown alcoholic). In many ways, Rolfe is the audience's surrogate into this dreary world and Dafoe is key in forging that link. Supporting work from the likes of Sissy Spacek (as the only woman who'll stand by Wade) Mary Beth Hurt and Brigid Tierney (as Wade's ex wife and his daughter respectively), is also effective and affecting. Another aspect of Affliction that elevates it is the cinematography. Much of was the case with The Sweet Hereafter (which was set in British Columbia), the snowy and beautiful New Hampshire landscapes are crisply and lovingly captured. One can almost feel the cold permeate off of the screen. In fact, one could argue that the scenery is as much of a character as the humans who populate the story. The perpetually chilly weather could easily be considered a metaphor for the similarly paralyzing emotional states of the main characters. One more thing that makes Affliction stand out is the complete lack of cheap, sentimental manipulation to cull an emotional response from the audience. Schrader simply chooses to present things the way they are and to let the poignancy and drama flow form the situations and characters, rather than from cheap Hollywood ploys and cliches Taken together with the acting, writing and directing, this helps raise this film to a plateau at which few films attain or even aspire. Well worth watching!

Black Book
Black Book(2007)
½

A gripping epic WWII thriller that offers just about every pleasure imaginable guilty or otherwise. It delivers exactly what is expected from this sort of picture inluding a strong, fully-developed lead character, plenty of tenison and suspense, lots of surprises and twists, an intricate and involved storyline, expertly-stage action sequences, a surprisingly heartfelt romance and some equally surprising eroticism as well (although perhaps not all that unexpected when one considers the director). The set design perfectly evokes the right sense of time and place and the acting is top-notch, especially that of lead actress Carice van Houten, who fully and forcefully inhabits this complex and endlessly fascinating character. Not only does this gal have a great figure (and zero qualms about showing it off - again, what would a Paul Verhoven flick be without at least a little bit of female flesh) but she gets the emotional dimensions of her character as well. Don't get me wrong though - this isn't merely some "damsel in distress." Von Houten's Rachel Stein (or Ellis de Vries, as she is known during most of the film) is a strong and independent individual who suffers tragedies and gets her heart broken but never once does she lose the will to survive and that makes her someone to be reckoned with. There is certainly a great deal of ground that has to be covered with this character and that would make it a challenge for anybody but the von Houten doesn't miss a beat or hit a single wrong note. The rest of the cast gives her strong support including Sebastain Koch and Thom Hoffman amongst others. The film's taut pacing is another unquestionable asset. At 2 1/2 hours, this movie is definitely long but because we're so involved wtih the characters and the plot, it moves very briskly. Part of that has to do with the sheer unpredictabililty of the plot and the complicated web of deceit and intrigue that it weaves and this goes beyond just a bunch of plot twist (although there are plenty of those as well). Black Book is audacious in ways that may be off-putting to some viewers. For example, it sets up a high-ranking SS officer as one of the good guys while it shows some of the Resistance fighters to be less-than-scrupulous and rather duplicitous. There's so much about this film that works so well that it makes the opening scene, which pretty much gives away a crucial part of the plot, all the more unfortunate. As much as I enjoyed this flick, it could've been even more involving without the inclusion of this scene, which diffuses some of the tension that the rest of the movie works so hard to build up (or perhaps, they could've put it more toward the end of the film where it would have been far more appropriately placed). Thankfully, director Paul Verhoven's craftsmanship is so superior that we remain on the edges of our seats nonetheless. This isn't a perfect film but it's damn close. Most will likely agree that it's 2 1/2 hours well spent.

Mean Streets
Mean Streets(1973)
½

The film that put Scorsese on the map. Probably not quite up to par with his latter cinematic triumphs including Taxi Driver (which came out just three years after this one), Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino and more recently The Departed; but it offers a nice sampling of the themes that Scorsese would revisit throughout his career including Catholic guilt, crime and punishment, the bonds of family and friendship and of course, the ways in which those bonds can be tested and even broken. There is violence here but it's surprisingly low-key, at least in comparison to some of what the filmmaker would give us in much of his latter work (especially the aforementioned masterworks) and the pacing here is a little bit slower too (even those this film is about an hour shorter than most of his output). You could say that this movie is nothing more than a simple character study involving a group of friends in Little Italy and you'd probably be right but even at this early stage in his career, Scorsese shows that he had enough skill to lift this material above its seemingly simplistic plot.

The Negotiator
½

A superior white-knuckle thriller that is driven equally as much by smart dialogue and strong character development as it is by action sequences and pyrotechnics. The movie develops it's momentum early on and it never lets up until the denouement. Thankfully, there is enough dark humor here to diffuse the tension from time to time but not so much that the film turns into a self-parody. This flick definitely has plenty of things going for it but the lead performances by Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey are what truly give this train its engine. Watching the interplay between these two is easily the chief pleasure of this film and it offers solid proof that action flicks like this can benefit from this sort of strong character interaction equally as much as more "serious" dramas. More to come later...

Munich
Munich(2005)

A gripping and tense spy thriller that not only keeps viewers on edge of their seats but poses plenty of tough questions and doesn't cop-out by offering easy answers. Despite mostly strong reviews and several Oscar nominations (but no wins unfortunately), this film flew under people's radars for the most part back when it was released towards the end of 2005 but in my mind, this was one of the best films of that year. It also ranks alongside Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan as one of Spielberg's personal best efforts. The film's title might be a little misleading as the events that transpired at the1972 Olympic games are only shown briefly (although the film revisits these occurences from time to time via a combination of actual news footage and cinematic reenactments). The real meat-and-potatoes of the story deals more with the aftermath of the incident and the actions that were taken to deal with those who were responisble for the Black September massacre. This is inherently compelling material and Spielberg gives it the justice it deserves; the numerous set pieces throughout the film are executed to flawless perfection with enough gritty action and white-knuckle tension to keep the juices flowing for the entire running length but this film has far more on its mind above and beyond just giving viewers an adrenaline rush. At the core of this film is the question of where the line between terrorism and counter-terrorism exists and Spielberg doesn't pay lip service to this issue. Even Avner, the leader of the group of operatives sent on this mission (who is played with note-perfect intensity by the underrated Eric Bana) admits that killing becomes easier and easier with each target he must go after, several of whom aren't even on the list of names he was given. Another equally important question is also posed: Can the war on terror truly be won? History has shown time and time again that even if we suceed in getting rid of one terrorist or a group of terrorists, there is usually something or someone worse waiting in the wings to take that entity's place. One point that Munich drives home effectively is that oftentimes, it's not as easy as a simple matter of good and evil or black and white. This moral quagmire is what elevates the film to a higher level and keeps us riveted. Thankfully, Munich doesn't resort to sermonizing or preaching and it doesn't lose sight of the characters at the epicenter of this storm. If we didn't identify with Avner and his team of operatives, this film wouldn't have nearly as much resonance as it does. We grow attached to this group of characters and get to know them as individuals. Spielberg also uses this opportunity to incorporate some low-key humor to diffuse some of the tension ans keep things from becoming to serious and gloomy. At nearly three hours, this is definitely a long film but Munich justifies every second of its running time and the ending provides an effective link between our modern-day circumstance and those of the early 1970's, during which the events of this film transpired.

Hot Tub Time Machine

A very middling attempt at time-travel comedy. I was pretty much talked by a friend into seeing this and I got more or less what I expected. Granted, there are things to like about the film - I for one latched onto the 80's soundtrack (I especially loved that they used Scritti Politti's "A Perfect Way" in one scene - definitely a nice surprise), the presence of several attractive women and some funny bits here and there - but there were things that could have been toned down or perhaps completely excised altogether. Rod Corddry's character belongs solidly in the latter category. I grew weary of this guy within the first five minutes of his appearance. Much of it has to do with the actor, who seems to be one of the go-to guys in Hollywood for playing really irritating people (see also the Harold and Kumar sequel). Most of the movie more cringe inducing moments revolve around this guy but very few of the truly funny ones. Too bad his character's suicide attempt at the beginning of the film wasn't more successful. Most of the other actors in the film seem to be going through the motions as well but at least they're more tolerable. John Cusack does a walk-through of the kind of neurotic, uptight and high-strung character that has been his stock-and-trade throughout his career but here it seems more obligatory than truly inspired. I like Cusack a lot but on this occasion he may have lost his way just a bit. Likewise Craig Robinson isn't exactly breaking new ground here as the failed musician who now works at a dog clinic. As Cusack's nephew in the film, Clark Duke is probably the most likable perhaps because he seems the most level-headed (albeit painfully introverted) of all the characters despite being half the age of the other three but his work here isn't very noteworthy. Sitting in the director's chair is Steve Pink, who is one of Cusack's longtime buddies and has worked with him in the past co-writing and producing both Grosse Point Blank and High Fidelity amongst other things. Both of those films had a pretty solid sense of comedic timing not mention characters that, while somewhat similar to the ones here, were at least more likable. This time around, Pink and his screenwriters (Josh Heald, Sean Ander and John Morris) are skating on thinner ice for while there are isolated moments of hilarity, there are just as many, if not more scenes that completely fall flat. In short, this film is very much a mixed bag that might make a decent rental but probably isn't truly worth a trip to the theaters, especially for the obscene prices that such places are charging nowadays.

Bio-Dome
Bio-Dome(1996)

The horror, the horror...but wait I thought this was supposed to be a comedy. So why would I be invoking the famous quote from Apocalypse Now when describing this. Probably because this film is just as funny as Apocalypse Now. Perhaps, the best news about this film is that it effectively ended Pauly Shore's career...unfortunately he took Stephen Baldwin down with him.

The Last Boy Scout

Near the top of the list of the most underrated buddy/action flicks ever. No this isn't likely to be too many people's idea of great cinema but it's good solid entertainment if you're into this sorta thing. The one-liners are often hysterical; the action sequences, while workmanlike, are still capable of arresting the attention and the leads, Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans, have enough chemistry with one another to make this a pairing that, while certainly not the equal of Danny Glover and Mel Gibson from the Lethal Weapon films (the first of which was penned by Shane Black who filled the same function here and became the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood at one point as a result), is still better than most similar duos in more recent films. And the undercurrent of modern noir fiction in the plot-line (aided immeasurably by Ward Russell's evocative and atmospheric cinematography) adds a nice texture to the proceedings. I'm not one to disparage more serious, dramatic film-making on principle (check out my list of favorites if you doubt me on this) but every once in a while it's nice to just kick back, relax and enjoy a good mindless action flick and this certainly scratches that itch and then some. I probably wouldn't put this on same plateau as the best films of this genre, such as Die Hard (which also starred Willis, of course), True Lies and the aforementioned Lethal Weapon series (the first two at least) but it's still better than most average efforts (such as the middling Bad Boys) and it certainly doesn't deserve mention with the worst films in this genre (such as the piece of shit that is Bad Boys II). Sitting in the director's chair is Tony Scott whose resume is one long series of ups (such as Man on Fire, Enemy of the State and the Tarantino-penned True Romance) and downs (such as the incoherent Domino). This is definitely close to former category than it is to the latter. At least, we're spared the over-the-top camera tricks and chaotic -I would go so far as to say frenetic - editing that have often hurt even some of his better films, especially more recently. His camera is still fluid but not to the point that it interferes with our enjoyment of the movie. So for a couple hours of mindless action-oriented entertainment, this isn't the creme de la creme but it'll do in a pinch. More to come later...

Up in the Air
½

What can I say that seemingly everyone else hasn't already? This is just about the best mixture of smart, witty comedy, razor-sharp satire and understated but heartfelt drama that anyone could hope to encounter right about now. George Clooney nails his role bringing out the charm and charisma that we've all come to expect from him but underscoring that with a surprising sense of pathos and vulnerability. It's amazing how far this once derided actor has come since his ER's days (not to mention the whole Batman and Robin debacle). It helps that his female co-stars, Anna Kendrick and even more so, the underrated Vera Farmiga are equally on target. I'll expound more on this later but trust me, this film deserves all of the positive recognition it has received over the past several months (shame that it didn't win at least one of the multiple Oscars for which it was nominated).

District 9
District 9(2009)
½

Up there with Avatar amongst the stronger science fiction efforts from 2009. An exhilarating mixture of thought-provoking ideas, an involving storyline with some compelling lead characters (both human and alien) and plenty of thrilling, adrenaline pumping action sequences. The pseudo-documentary style of film-making adds to the gritty sense of urgency here. It's sure to be one exhausting ride but few will regret having experienced it.

Avatar
Avatar(2009)
½

Excellent return to movie making for James Cameron.The man proves that 12 years haven't dulled his capacity to craft films that not only amaze on a technical level but involve us fully and completely with the characters and their stories. Being that I saw it in 2D and not 3D, I'm gonna hold off on making more comments until I get a chance to see the 3D version but for now, I will say that it's well worth seeing, even in 2D

Juno
Juno(2007)
½

Not only does this film occupy the top echelon of teen films (right up there with Say Anything, Breakfast Club and Pump Up The Volume) but it may well be amongst the most intelligent, sharply-written and bitingly-funny comedies in recent years. The story might be nothing special but ultimately it's the details- the memorable dialogue and the wonderful, quirky and well-fleshed out characters- that make this movie worthwhile. And to keep the comedy from becoming too pervasive, screenwriter Diablo Cody (who rightfully won an Oscar for this) includes several well-placed moments of surprising poignancy and drama. I was reminded at times of the somewhat-little-seen 1998 film, The Opposite of Sex, which also dealt with a 16-year-old coming to terms with an unplanned pregnancy. The plot-lines of both films are similar and both films make clever use of voice-overs from the protagonists. The Opposite of Sex might have had a darker, nastier edge, but Juno gets my vote for the overall better film. One more thing that the two films have in common is that they both feature star-making turns- for The Opposite of Sex, it was Christina Ricci; for Juno, it's the cute-as-a-button Ellen Page, who proves that her fantastic performance in the tense thriller Hard Candy was no fluke. The earlier film might have been her calling card as an actress, but with this part, she has arrived in a big way! Here, she gets to play a part that is slightly more normal (albeit with a few delightful quirks) but no less challenging and she runs off with it, displaying both comedic and dramatic chops as an actress and snagging an Oscar nomination in the process. Page is so good that perhaps it's a wonder that the other actors even get noticed at all, their work shouldn't be overlooked. Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner stand out, in particular, with their heartfelt and surprisingly sympathetic portrayals of the would-be adoptive parents of Juno's offspring. Also worth singling out are Michael Cera and Olivia Thirlby as Juno's boyfriend and best friend respectively. As the main character's parents J.K Simmons and Allison Janney provide solid support. In the end, however, it all comes back to Page. She and the wonderfully witty script are the biggest reasons to see this film. Like Napoleon Dynamite and Little Miss Sunshine before it, this was one of those relatively "small" films that, because of effective marketing and strong-word-of-mouth became one the sleeper hits of their respective years. I found the first two movies, while decent, to be vastly-overrated and not really worthy of the hype, but Juno truly deserves that kind of distinction. Well worth seeing...oh yeah, and don't forget those orange tic-tacs (ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!).

Witness
Witness(1985)
½

Yet another film that refuses to be pigeonholed into any one genre. On the surface, this may seem like yet another in the long line of gritty cop-thrillers that were popular during the 70's and 80's but it very quickly evolves into something more meaningful and memorable. Don't get me wrong here; the movie still provides its share of tension, suspense and action-oriented set pieces but ultimately, these elements become simply icing on the cake as we delve deeper into the story. First off, this is a thoughtful examination of a segment of society that often gets treated with derision in mainstream Hollywood. Here, the Amish and their culture are treated with an uncommon deference that transcends the stereotypes often associated with them. This film invites us to understand their world and their customs rather than keeps us at arms length. Moreover, while the Amish in the film are clearly mistrustful of outsiders, they aren't so hostile that they turn into caricatures. Ultimately, the Amish are people who, despite some significant cultural and religious differences, share many of the same aspirations as most other people. The sensitive and intelligent exploration of Amish life vs. modern big city living shows amazing acumen on the part of the filmmakers. Secondly, the movie is a love story, albeit one that defies Hollywood convention. Much of the significant communication that takes place between the would-be lovers is non-verbal but their body language often says all that needs to be said, particularly during several key moments of the film. These are two characters from wildly divergent worlds and lifestyles and the film shows enough intelligence not to pretend otherwise; consequently, this portion of the film is allowed to transpire the way it probably would in real life as opposed to the fantasy world that most romances inhabit. Perhaps the level of intelligence shown in this film should not be that surprising when one considers the director. Peter Weir (who was offered this film as his first American-financed production after the international success of Galipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously, both of which were instrumental in making a superstar out of Mel Gibson) has always had penchant for crafting films with uncommon depth and this quality is evident in some of his later films as well - such as The Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show. Clearly, Weir has a talent for using seemingly conventional material as a springboard for probing deeper and richer themes and in that regard, he doesn't disappoint with this film. Another equally important aspect of this film is that it opened many eyes to the dramatic acting abilities of Harrison Ford and, to a lesser extent, Kelly McGillis (similar to what The Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show did for Robin Williams and Jim Carrey). Ford, of course, was best known for his work in the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises and other action-adventure material and although certain aspects of this film place him within his comfort zone, this part still required far more dramatic heft than any of his previous work up until that point. Some have argued that this is the best performance of Ford's career and that is a tough argument to refute. There is passion and intensity in this performance as well as plenty of non-verbal acting. The actor was rightfully nominated for a Oscar and a host of other awards for his work here. Equally good is Kelly McGillis, who apparently spent time living in an Amish community in preparation for her part here. Considering how on-target her performance is, I have no problem believing this bit of information. Of course, McGillis would go on to bigger things the following year with her role opposite Tom Cruise in the mega-hit, Top Gun, but this film is a much better showcase for her acting ability. This level of verisimilitude informs the work of the other performers portraying the Amish including a young Lukas Haas, Russian ballet dancer Alexander Godunov and a fresh-faced Viggo Mortensen. The actors playing the villains, including a pre-Lethal Weapon Danny Glover (who could be seen inhabiting a similarly nasty character in The Color Purple, which came out the same year as Witness) are strong as well. Perhaps, the fact that we, as the audience, connect so strongly to the main characters is the reason why the film is capable of generating so much suspense. We care about these people and consequently, we have an almost vested interest in their survival. However, there is still plenty of the conventional sort of tension that we expect from a thriller. The murder sequence in the train station bathroom is rife with suspense as the young Amish boy, who was an unfortunate witness to the grisly incident, has to rely on his wits and quick thinking to help him evade capture and possible death at the hands of the killers. The final shootout is also very tense. This scene isn't impressive so much because of the fight choreography but rather because of how well it showcases the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the protagonist who is initially unarmed and is squared off against three guys, all of whom are packing. However, it's the more tranquil scenes that elevate this film several notches, especially the scenes that revolve around Ford and McGillis as the relationship between their characters deepens and intensifies. Ultimately, the fact that Witness is able to weave all of these different ideas and genres so seamlessly and skillfully into its overall fabric is what makes it such a memorable and engrossing experience that doesn't seem all that dated despite the passage of more than two decades since its initial release.

Sophie's Choice

A bona fide masterpiece that features arguably one of the all-time great female performances. This one deserves mention alongside not only the list of the best films of the 80's but perhaps of all-time and a significant portion of that has to do with Meryl Streep's bravura lead performance; honestly, there is only so much I can say about Streep's work that hasn't been said already. Don't get me wrong; there is plenty in this film that is worthy of praise, including the powerfully-written screenplay and the superior direction as well as the choices made by the cinematographer. Ultimately though, it's Streep that sends this movie shooting into the stratosphere. I've always known that she was a great actress but I never fully understood the extent of her capabilities until witnessing what she accomplishes here. First of all, she gets the technical part of character down to a T. Not only does she affect a flawless (insomuch as I can tell at least) Polish accent but she speaks both Polish and German flawlessly. However this is just icing on the cake; more important is the fact that Streep is emotionally in touch with her character and there is plenty of ground that she has to traverse here. As essayed by Streep, Sophie is a character full of complexities and contradictions, the likes of which aren't fully apparent until the film is nearly over. Perhaps the scene where Streep's ability is the most evident would be the titular scene, where she is confronted with a decision that NO ONE should ever have to make.This is very difficult material even for the best of performers but never once is Streep found wanting. Her's was an Oscar well-earned. The contributions of the other performers shouldn't be ignored however. Despite existing in Streep's shadow, both Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol do solid work. Kline, who was making his motion picture debut, shows hints of the comic and dramatic aptitude that would be highlighted in subsequent features (such as A Fish Called Wanda for which the actor won an Oscar). His performance is a bit over-the-top but that's of necessity, especially once we realize the true nature of his character. On the other hand, MacNicol is given the film's least visible part and his low-key approach is perfect. While it's Streep's and - to a lesser extent - Kilne's work that holds the audience's attention, in many ways, MacNicol's Stringo is our entry point into the story and ultimately, this is as much about his coming-of-age as it is about Sophie and Nathan. However, as important as the acting is, the behind-the-scenes work is what provides the film's foundation. Stories in which the characters have to come to terms with personal tragedies, both past and present, are intrinsically compelling and the late Alan J. Pakula, who both wrote and directed here, understands how to get maximum impact from this one. From a technical standpoint, his methods aren't especially showy, but they fit the proceedings tighter than a surgical glove. The sense of time and place is impeccable and certainly in sync with how one would imagine life to have been like in Brooklyn immediately after World War II. The cinematography, courtesy of an Oscar-nominated Néstor Almendros, only serves to strengthen this illusion. During the present-day scenes, the color-scheme is somewhat bright and colorful albeit not to the point of garishness (thankfully). On the other hand, the flashback scenes (particularly the ones that take place in Auschwitz) are rather bleak and monochromatic. It is to the credit of everyone involved that all of this work complements the characters and their story without detracting from it. Ultimately, its the plight of Sophie, Nathan and Stingo that keeps the eyes of the audience riveted to the screen and Pakula and his cast-and-crew understand this. The end result is a film of stunning power that may not be enjoyable in the traditional sense, but will satisfy anyone with a hunger for emotionally-resonant but non-manipulative drama that doesn't cop-out when it comes to its characters and the audience.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno
½

Moderately disappointing but still pretty funny. The romance was rather rushed though. A more detailed review to come later...

Cidade de Deus (City of God)

Gritty, uncompromising and absolutely unforgettable. Director Fernando Meirelles pulls the audience right into the heart of the grim and violent Brazilian slums with all of the urgency, kinetic energy and passion that he can muster. This movie is unsparing in its depiction of the harsh realities of young people (especially young men) who live in these conditions where the influence of violence and drugs is so pervasive that the need to obtain a gun often surpasses the need for an education. There's some nasty, disturbing stuff here including a brutal torture scene involving two 10-year-olds. There is also plenty of other realistic and graphic violence, none of which is gratuitous, most of which involves young kids anywhere from the ages of 5 to 18. You've been warned. Having said that much, I must report that I absolutely love this film, not only for its message and the non-preachy and uncompromising manner in which it elects to deliver it, but for the skill and energy invested in the film-making. The camera work is kinetic and energetic (without being overwhelming) and the cinematography is colorful and vibrant. The script is intelligent and insightful in how it highlights the types of circumstances that are often beyond anyone's control, especially for those with limited economic means.The manner in which director Fernando Meirelles has elected to frame the story is brilliant, with flashbacks used to highlight the back-stories of certain key characters. The use of the character, Rocket, as a narrator gives us a rooting interest and a safe entry point into this cruel and harsh world. And despite all of this unsavory content, City of God includes moments of surprising humor to break the tension and none of it seems the least bit unnatural. This movie has been compared to Boyz N the Hood and the works of Tarantino and Scorsese and all of these comparisons are appropriate. It goes beyond just superficial similarities. The kind of passion for film-making that Meirelless has shown here is easily on a par with (perhaps even a rival for) the best work of Tarantino and Scorsese. And like Boyz N the Hood, the movie ends on hopeful but unforced note. Yet another easy entry into my top-five and a movie that should absolutely be seen by any and every serious film-goer!

Chasing Amy
Chasing Amy(1997)
½

Easily my pick for the best film of Kevin Smith's career (with Clerks. coming in at a very close second-place). It's probably not the favorite amongst most of his fans but for me at least, this one reaches a level of resonance to which his other films, as good as most of them are, neither aspire or attain. Even now, more than a decade after its initial release, it still holds up with amazing effectiveness. Kevin Smith not only re-affirmed his penchant for combining side-splitting, often edgy and raunchy humor with intelligent, sharply-written dialogue but he proved (at least for this one film) that could wed that skill to a surprisingly heartfelt albeit slightly offbeat romance that is astonishing in its dramatic effectiveness. In fact, this one deserves a place amongst the best romances of the nineties including Before Sunrise and The Brothers McMullen (although this is far raunchier than both of those films combined). The biggest reason that film works is because the actors (in collusion with the writing) really sell the emotions. Ben Affleck and Joey Lauren Adams have rarely been better than they are here (in Affleck's case, this was the first movie that proved to me that he can give a compelling performance when given the right material and the proper push from a director that cares about getting the best out of him). Jason Lee proves that not only can he handle comedy (which was no surprise to those who saw him in his breakout role in Smith's previous film, the criminally-undervalued Mallrats) but he can work equally as well with dramatic material. All three performers are able to take their characters through the emotional arcs that the script demands and pull us through with them. Jay and Silent Bob leave an impression as only they can for their too-brief time on screen and other characters such as Hooper X (Dwight Ewell) make memorable contributions. Another reason why this film works so well is because of its willingness to openly flout romantic-comedy convention. As always, Kevin Smith offers plenty of insight into sex and 90's pop-culture (amongst other things) but this is just icing on the cake of a complete and well-rounded film-going experience. Kevin Smith has made plenty of other good films (the only real dud on his resume would be Jersey Girl) but he has yet to surpass what he has done here and with each passing film, it seems less and less likely that he will. Well worth watching repeatedly -- especially with someone you love!

The Brothers McMullen
½

Charming, funny, romantic, heartfelt and keenly-observant. These are just some of the many adjectives that could be used to describe this tale of first-generation Irish-American brothers in New York City and their struggles with love, commitment (or lack thereof), religion (Catholicism mainly) and general life in the nineties. The overall trajectory of this film may be identical to other similarly-themed movies, but what makes this one stand out are the details of the journey. For starters, the title characters are likable and endearing, which is the biggest key to this movie's success. Despite their flaws and their often non-committal tendencies towards their respective significant others, the brothers' characters are so well-developed that we come to understand some of what drives their actions and decisions, even if we don't condone everything that they do. More importantly, we end up rooting for them to succeed in their goals, romantic or otherwise, which is especially important to the resolution of the film. As a bonus, the brothers' female counterparts are equally-fleshed out, likable and intelligent. On more than one occasion, when one of the brothers thinks he's pulling wool over the eyes of his girlfriend or wife, it doesn't take long for her to catch on to his ruse. Thankfully, the script doesn't doesn't let the characters down by giving them empty, banal lines to speak or putting them in unrealistic situations. The writing is consistently intelligent, insightful and well-worth hearing (especially the banana scene) and the problems that each character faces are entirely believable. Despite keeping a lighthearted tone throughout the proceedings, the movie delves into some serious issues from time to time such as religion, soul mates, child abuse (one gets the sense that many of the brothers' commitment issue stem from the relationship they had with their alcoholic, abusive father) and life in general. Best of all, the movie manages to end on an upbeat note without having to fall back on a bunch of hard-to-swallow plot contrivances to get there. Everything about this film feels natural and the acting, while not very polished (basically everyone in the cast was acting for the first time here) is uniformly solid. In many ways, the actors are just as crucial to the success of the movie as the writing and the fact that all the cast members were amateurs make gives the performances an heir of realism that a more professional approach might have actually undermined. The look of the film may be grainy due to the ultra-low budget (which actually helps to make everything seem more immediate and intimate), but as Kevin Smith proved a year earlier with his equally endearing (albeit far more profane) debut Clerks, a movie's budget doesn't necessarily have to determine the success or failure of a movie as long as there are worthwhile characters and strong writing to fill in the gap and that is precisely the case here. If only Burns didn't feel the need to put that god-awful Sarah MacLachlan song on the soundtrack...but don't let that discourage you from sampling this worthwhile and charming slice of modern life.

The City of Lost Children (La Cité des Enfants Perdus)
½

Arguably one of the best kept secrets of foreign and independent cinema. A wonderfully whimsical and dark fantastical creation from the always-fertile minds of Jean Jeunet and Marc Caro that never ceases to entertain and delight even with repeated viewings. It is unparalleled in its combination of elaborate and visually-striking set designs with quirky-but-endearing characters, moments of high adventure and dark comedy and a twisty but always engaging story about dreams, the innocence of youth and the things that we don't always realize are near and dear to us until we no longer have them. Think of it as the Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland as seen through the glass darkly.The sense of atmosphere in this movie is equally parts bleak and intoxicating and the pacing is taut and economical. Right from the first frame of the film, the viewers are drawn into the strange and imaginative world created by Jeunet and Caro and are kept in its thrall for the entire running length. The main characters are well fleshed-out and given three-dimensionality by actors Ron Perlman (the lone American in the cast who learned most of his French specifically for this film) and Judith Vittet. The rest of the cast do equally strong work including Daniel Emilfork as the deranged mad scientist with the inability to dream and Dominique Pinon (a regular for Jeunet and Caro) who plays several of his stooges and is his typical oddball self. This is definitely not one for mainstream tastes but for those with a predilection for films that don't follow the beaten path, this is one City worth getting lost in time and time again. It earns its status as a cult classic.

Mallrats
Mallrats(1995)

Vastly-underrated sophomore effort from Kevin Smith. Alright, so it wasn't as good as it's immediate predecessor (Clerks.) or it's immediate follow-up (Chasing Amy) but its about as good as the rest of his stuff which is not a bad place for a movie to be (it certainly doesn't sink to the depths of Jersey Girl). The dialogue is still very sharply-written with in-jokes and pop culture references galore and the humor is still unapologetically off-color, occasionally tasteless and absolute hilarious. Ultimately, however, the most noteworthy thing about Mallrats is the unhinged, in-your-face, comic performance of Jason Lee who shows a real gift for timing and for delivering dialogue in what was just his first major screen appearance. His work here is so entertaining that is greatly diminishes most of this film's flaws-- and there are plenty of those (including some dead spots here and there and stiff, uneven acting from some of the other cast members including Claire Forlani, Jeremy London and -- surprise, surprise-- Shannen Doherty). Of course, with Chasing Amy, better things were just around the corner but this is where it all started for Lee and if for no other reason, this film is worth watching just for him. Also, check out some early work from future Smith regular and Hollywood A-lister, Ben Affleck, who would also get his big break largely as a result of Chasing Amy. And of course, how can I forget Jay and Silent Bob, who are probably the second biggest source of laughs next to Lee. Mallrats may not be Kevin Smith's best, but still worth watching, not only for other fans of his work, but also for anyone looking for an hour and a half of solid laughs.