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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Undefeated

Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen (McLintock!), this post-civil war drama deftly balances the experiences that soldiers on both sides had acclimating to life once the fighting stopped. From the North, we have Col. John Henry Thomas (John Wayne) a successful campaigner who refuses to re-enlist once the South surrenders, opting instead to round up wild horses and sell them to the highest bidder. From the South we have Col. James Langdon (Rock Hudson) a defeated leader trying to get what’s left of his men and their families across the Mexican border before the bill for reparation is forced upon them. The film bounces back and forth from the two groups in interesting ways, leading to the predictable moment when The Duke and Rock meet, fight and, before all is said and done, join forces to battle some really bad hombres. It’s epic.

Monday, December 30, 2013

North to Alaska

One of the things that kept John Wayne’s career going for so long is that every now and then he’d make a movie that made fun of the legend he had created. This slapstick comedy from director Henry Hathaway (The Sons of Katie Elder) is a perfect example. In it, Wayne plays Sam McCord, a hard-drinking, hard-living frontiersman who’s just struck it rich mining gold in Alaska. While his partner (Stuart Granger) stays behind to cover the claim, McCord travels to San Francisco to get his partner’s fiancé to bring her back. Turns out she’s gone and got herself married instead of waiting, so McCord comes up with a plan to try and pass off another girl to his partner instead. It’s as silly as it sounds, but the film is filled with an infectious energy that makes even the most unbelievable moments a hoot to watch.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Omnibus: Gene Kelly – Dancing, A Man’s Game

Mickey Mantle, Johnny Unitas, Bob Cousy, Sugar Ray Robinson…and Gene Kelly? The mix of star athletes and the world famous song and dance man is not as strange as it looks on paper, especially once you’ve had the pleasure of watching this fascinating episode of the famous Omnibus series from 1958. Kelly uses the athletes to make a strong case for his belief that dancing is every bit as athletic and, yes, manly as throwing a football or hitting a home run. The way he does it, is fascinating.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Prisoners

It’s every parent’s nightmare: your child goes out to play and disappears, leaving you desperate to find out what happened to them and, if possible, punish whoever did them harm. Director Denis Villeneuve does an excellent job of preying on the phobias of the parents in the audience with this taut thriller, but he’s also clever enough to give his film a universal feeling of terror that will keep anyone watching on the edge of their seats. Hugh Jackman is excellent as the father of the missing child, perfectly encapsulating the rage and frustration anyone would feel at not being able to protect his own, while Paul Dano is palpably creepy as the guy that Jackman suspects abducted his daughter. Maria Bello is equally good as the wife whose inability to do anything but grieve drives her to the edge of sanity. The only really weak point of the story is the unconvincing work of Jake Gyllenhaal as the cop dedicated to solving the case by whatever means necessary.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Wolf Children

In an anime world dominated by giant robots and buxom schoolgirls, it’s refreshing to watch a movie that tells a story without resorting to any of the usual anime extravaganzas. Instead, it takes a fantastic tale – the story of a man/wolf who falls in love with a human woman and fathers two human/wolf children – and tells it in a realistic way that makes the story all the more magical for it. Directed by Mamoru Hosoda (Summer Wars), the film explores the concept of nature vs. nurture as the two young kids/cubs try to decide if they want to live their lives as a human or as a wild animal. The mother, after her mate dies, doesn’t have a clue how to raise her offspring, but the audience always feels the love she has for them, which is the key to making the magic of the story work. On top of all that, it’s absolutely gorgeous to look at.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Broken

It’s not easy to put thoroughly unlikable characters up in the screen and still capture the audience’s imagination and heart, but first-time director Rufus Norris finds a way in this tense drama set in a claustrophobic cul-de-sac of a North London neighborhood. The film stars Tim Roth as Archie, a single dad raising two kids the best he can following the death of his wife. Archie also acts as the informal neighborhood attorney, whether it’s a property dispute or, as the violence in the story escalates, legal counsel for criminal attacks. Other residents of the area include an older couple raising a mentally challenged adult child, and another single dad with three of the most vulgar, nasty daughters you can imagine. Watching these people interact isn’t always pleasant; in fact, the movie can be tough to take at times. The reward of getting through it may not be the traditional happy ending, but it’s one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences you can get.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Trench

Written and directed by William Boyd, this tense drama takes viewers inside the trenches of World War I on the eve of one of the bloodiest battles in history, the battle of the Somme in 1916. Although the story gets a little too paint-by-numbers at times – you meet a character who tells an overly dramatic story from his past and BLAM he gets killed – the  acting  is strong enough to make even the most obvious moments work. Daniel Craig is particularly effective as the tough sergeant who has to rally the men to climb out of the trench when the time comes, and the always enjoyable Danny Dyer steals the show as a roguish man-about-town whose attempts to remind the lads what life is all about back home, through his collection of lewd girly photos, come back to haunt him.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Blackfish

Tilikum is responsible for the deaths of three individuals, including a top trainer. If he was a pit-bull or a pet snake, the authorities wouldn’t hesitate to issue an order for him to be put down. Because he’s the main attraction at Sea World and worth millions of dollars as both an attraction and in stud fees, though, Tilikum is getting away with murder. While her documentary is far from balanced, primarily due to the fact that Sea World never officially comments on camera, writer/director Gabriela Cowperthwaite makes a compelling case for more than just refusing to ever go to Sea World again. At its most successful, the film raises important questions about the nature of the relationship between wild animals and the humans who try to train them, underlining the important fact that while you can take such animals out of the wild, you can never take the wild out of those animals.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Only God Forgives

And the Oscar goes to… It may seem a bit presumptuous to begin a review with those words, but it won’t to anyone who has watched Kristin Scott Thomas deliver her amazing performance in this gorgeous thriller from director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive). The film tells the story of two sibling drug dealers in Thailand, one of whom is brutally beaten to death by the father of the young girl he raped and murdered. When the surviving brother (played by Ryan Gossling) doesn’t seek retribution for the crime, believing his brother got what he deserved for the murder he committed, his mother (Thomas) steps in to get the job done. The film is absolutely gorgeous to watch, with Refn combining images, lighting and music to virtually hypnotize the audience. It lulls you, and then shocks the hell out of you. There are sporadic scenes of graphic violence, to be sure, but the most stunning violence takes place every time Mom opens her mouth to say something. The experience is both visceral and breathtaking.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Conjuring

After unleashing the blood-fueled Saw franchise on the world, horror filmmaker James Wan decided to take the less is more approach to scaring audiences, at least in terms of gore, with this surprisingly bloodless, yet bone-chilling tale. The film stars Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, a happy, loving couple whose belief in otherworldly beings leads them to investigate the strange goings on in a Rhode Island farm house owned by the Perron family. Wan is an expert at building tension in his films, but the intensity in The Conjuring is cranked up to 11 thanks to the fine performances of the entire cast, particularly Wilson and Farmiga who have that rare ability to make you wholeheartedly believe what their characters believe. And in this case, that’s a terrifying idea.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Blood –C: The Last Dark

This sequel to the successful Blood + series follows the seemingly normal Saya Kisaragi as she battles a host of demons threatening to destroy our world. In The Last Dark, Saya teams with an underground revel organization known as Sirrut to solve the mystery of an organization known only as Tower rumored to be conducting experiments involving human beings. The plot is a bit too complicated, especially if you are not already familiar with the series that spawned it, but the animation is interesting, especially in the fight scenes between Saya and her victims. The dream sequences that enable Saya to piece together her past and solve the mystery and both beautiful and disturbing. The movie may not be the best place for anyone new to Blood + to start, but it should be incentive enough to go back and watch the source material.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Oka!


Given only a few months to live due to oncoming liver failure, a young musicologist named Larry (Kris Marshall) travels to Africa to record the sound of an ancient pygmy instrument being played before it’s too late. Along with the problem of staying alive long enough to find the instrument, as well as a musician who can play it, Larry finds himself up against greedy Chinese businessmen, corrupt government officials, the dwindling pygmy habitat and, as if he doesn’t have enough on his plate, a pygmy wife who wants him to put down his microphones and learn to hunt for their supper. It’s all a bit overwhelming for Larry –and for the audience. But there’s a generous spirit in the way director Lavinia Currier paces the film that allows you to follow along at your own pace. Marshall is, as always, an engaging presence on the screen, although his choice of/ability to do an American accent is unfortunate.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Vikings

Rape, murder, plunder: Just another day for the characters in this popular History Channel series. Or at least that’s what’s on the surface, and if that’s all you want from a TV show, it delivers. But there’s more going on with Vikings, from political intrigue to family values, and all of it brought to pulsating life thanks to some great writing, pinpoint direction and excellent acting. Travis Fimmel leads the way as young Viking Ragnar Lothbrok, a brave warrior chaffing under the iron fisted control of his chieftain, Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne). Ragnar secretly strikes out on his own, makes a very successful raid and sets in motion the wheels of history as the Vikings discover the New World. Although the series, like the Viking world, is very male-dominated, it’s to the credit of the producers that they expand the plot to include some very strong feminine characters, too, particularly Ragnar’s wife, Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), one of the fiercest female characters ever created.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Abducted

Aliens and their penchant for probing helpless humans has been fodder for horror movies for a long time and, to be honest, most of them are about as much fun to sit through as the probing would be. Don’t let your past experiences (cinematic or otherwise) keep you from watching this entertainingly original riff on the theme, directed by Lucy Phillip and Glen Scantlebury. Like a lot of horror movies, the film starts out showing us a happy loving couple who are out having the time of their lives, not knowing that disaster awaits in the form of alien abductors. The key here is the actors, Tessa Ferrer and Trevor Morgan are actually believable in their roles, and the film gives us enough time to really get to know them before the mayhem begins. And when it does, the film is smart enough to avoid predictability – and an overdependence on gore – resulting in a rare treat for fans of any film genre. It all derails a bit at the end, but the ride is so much fun you can hardly complain.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Embrace of the Vampire

Based, loosely, on a 1995 movie starring Alyssa Milano, this film from director Carl Bessai tells the story of a virginal young Catholic school girl named Charlotte (Sharon Hinnendael) whose transfer to a co-ed university rocks her world in more ways than one. In between erotic dreams of her classmates, Charlotte stats having horrific hallucinations that lead her to believe she’s in a fight for her very soul. While the plot is a bit strained at times, Bessai has a real talent for filling the screen with unforgettable images to illustrate the story in new and imaginative ways. Hinnendael is likable in the lead, not an easy thing given the dialogue she’s forced to speak. Watching her go through some of the film’s more gory scenes makes you root for her even more.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Curse of Chucky

There’s a new Chucky movie? Even hardcore fans of the killer doll series may be surprised that there’s a new Chucky movie; they’ll be even more surprised at how good it is. The film is less a continuation of the story than a reboot, with the cornball antics of the last few films (Chucky getting married too another doll and having a kid?!?!) tossed out for a return to old fashion scary stuff. The doll, voiced by veteran character actor Brad Dourif, is still creepy as hell to look at and it’s a lot of fun to watch him be all cute in the beginning because you know what Chucky can – and will – do. The cast does a pretty good job selling it, too, especially Dourif’s daughter, Fiona, as the girl in the wheelchair. The real star here, though, is writer/director Don Mancini (director of some of the less than stellar Chucky films) who has developed the sense to let the doll do what it does, while concentrating on tweaking the tension levels in the rest of the film. This time, he really gets it right.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Eyes Without a Face


The horror classic from French film director Georges Franju tells the story of a grief stricken doctor who is desperately trying to find a way to cure his daughter, who was horribly disfigured in an automobile accident. His solution is to kidnap young girls who look similar to what his daughter use to look like, surgically remove their faces and graft them onto his little girl. It’s a twisted tale and, for 1960, it can be pretty gruesome to watch, particularly in the surprisingly gory surgery scene that details just how the doctor removes his victim’s face. The film is more than a cheap thrill, though, thanks to Franju’s inventive directorial style, the gorgeous photography of Eugen Schüfftan (The Hustler) and the haunting image of the mask the daughter wears to hide her face to the world.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Lost and Found


A young boy’s life is forever changed when he answers his door one day to find a penguin on the doorstep. Assuming the flightless bird is lost, the boy decides he must take the penguin back home. There’s a wonderful charm in the way the boy simply decides that taking the penguin home is the right thing to do, a charm that fills every frame of this of delightful animated tale. And before you snub your nose at the idea of watching an animated family film like this, take a deep breath and get over yourself because a great story is a great story, no matter what medium is used to tell it. And this is a great story, form the dazzling animation to the lovable narration from Jim Broadbent. You don’t need to think twice: get it.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Chasing Ice

Like a lot of people, National Geographic photographer James Balog knew in his heart that global warming was a real threat to the planet. Unlike a lot of people, however, he had a plan to prove it. So he trudged out to some very remote locations in Alaska, Greenland and, believe it or not, Montana, set up some time elapse photo equipment and recorded what happened to the landscape over a three-year period. The end results are amazing. So is the story of the man behind the cameras and the lengths he went to to get the footage he needed. While it’s disappointing to see the reaction his work got from the people who oppose the idea of global warning for their own personal reasons (greed), it’s inspiring  to see one man fight so passionately for what he believes in.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Call Me Kuchu

It’s unnerving to sit in a land that is slowly, state-by-state, beginning to recognize the rights of same gender people to be legally wed and watch a documentary about a country where homosexuality is actually illegal. Unnerving, aggravating and, hopefully, inspiring. Written and directed by Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall, the film follows David Kato's historic fight for gay rights in Uganda and the high price he paid for being an outspoken advocate for human and civil rights. The film is filled with a sense of place, and pride, for the land and people of Uganda, a country best known by people outside its borders as the land of former dictator Idi Amin. The sense of freedom the rest of the country feels following the end of his regime only underlines the struggle that Kato, his friends and his family fight. It’s a great story, extremely well told, that needs to be seen and remembered.