Peter Eramo Reviews: “Cyrus” and “Despicable Me”

While every film nut is desperately awaiting the release of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, I was able to take in a couple of movies this weekend to try and fill in the void. Now, I am not nearly as confident as everyone else seems to be about Nolan’s latest work (I remain cautiously optimistic), but I was expecting to see two good films in Cyrus and the new animated feature Despicable Me. It’s odd because I would rate each film 2 ½ stars, but would recommend the “strong” 2 ½ star film, while suggesting you wait to catch the other on DVD or if it’s playing on cable. I’ll start with Jay and Mark Duplass’ dark comedy, Cyrus.

Cyrus has a lot going for it, starting with its impressive cast of John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Catherine Keener and the gorgeous Marisa Tomei. Reilly plays John, who has been divorced for seven years and is still not quite over the hurt of it all. His life has been in a tailspin since, as he lives in a shoddy little apartment and doesn’t ever get out and socialize much. He meets the girl of his dreams in Molly (Tomei) and they hit it off quite well. That is, until he meets her 21-year old son, Cyrus (Hill) who has a lot of twisted Oedipal issues going on inside that little eccentric brain of his. A battle of wits begins between John who is trying to get closer to this wonderful woman he has just met and Cyrus, who will do anything within his power to see that he is out of their lives forever.

I must say that Hill is pretty convincing here in a darker role that we are not accustomed to seeing him in. The way he looks at his nemesis throughout is pretty freaky, with eyes that just seem to pierce through the screen. Reilly is perfect for playing the lovable, awkward loser and his chemistry with Tomei is convincing enough, though I not sure if I ever really bought into them hooking up in the first place. You see, they meet at a party and watching him try to speak to a few of the women there is pretty painful to watch. I know it’s supposed to be funny, but I didn’t find it very humorous as I just sat and squirmed in my seat watching his failed attempts at finding his soul mate. The idea that Molly would be turned on by this was far-fetched to me. I also felt that the Duplass brothers could have taken this premise so much further (as they wrote and directed the film together), but settled for a fairly predictable 2nd and 3rd act. You could surely see how this was all going to play out.

I guess in the end I didn’t find the film to be all that funny. Sure, there were some funny moments between Reilly and his counterpart and I thought his first scene with Tomei was charming and witty, but it felt much more like a drama to me, which is absolutely fine. Also, I didn’t find the abnormally close relationship between mother-and-son here to be all that realistic. I give the Duplass brothers credit for not going over-the-top here, as they could have easily done. Instead, they go for real, genuine moments and the motives of the characters are believable throughout. This is not a bad film by any means – I just felt there could have been so much more and even with all the crap that is permeating theatres at the moment, I would recommend that you see this one at home rather than pay the $10 in the theatre.

Director: Mark and Jay Duplass
Year: 2010

To view the trailer for Cyrus, click here.

Universal Pictures’ new animated feature Despicable Me (which grossed an astounding $60m in its opening weekend) is a very different kind of comedy, of course. I must first say that I enjoyed this film very much and laughed quite a bit. Steve Carell is the voice of Gru, a super villain who takes great delight in all things wicked. At the moment, he is facing stiff competition from an up-and-coming, younger villain in Vector (voiced by Jason Segal) who has just stolen a world-famous Egyptian pyramid. So Gru is now in the midst of planning the world’s greatest heist of all – with the help of his army of little minions, he plans on stealing the moon! Vector steals the almighty shrink ray from Gru, so now Gru must find a way into the very secure home of his worthy archenemy. To do so, Gru adopts three little girls from an orphanage who want nothing in life but a loving parent. Gru seems to have faced many great trials in his life, but nothing compares to the challenge of these three sweeties who see something in Gru that no one else ever has.

Carell’s voice for Gru is terrific and made me laugh throughout. He’s got a lot of great lines here and is the source of most of the film’s comedy. The actions of his many little yellow minions also made for some great comedy. The three little girls are adorable, especially the voice of Elsie Fisher’s Agnes, the youngest of the lot. Seeing the relationship between the devilish Gru and the girls grow is also rather sweet.

Compared to other animated films though, Despicable Me sadly falls a bit short and that lies with the prescribed storyline. The character of Gru was funny, but not much else really is. I enjoyed it, but could not help feeling that so much more could have happened here. I think kids will certainly love the film and have a great experience with it. However, I’m not so sure about most adults. Most of the new animated features work on both levels, engaging an adult audience just as much as the kids they appear to be catered to. Despicable Me doesn’t offer much more than a very funny front man and the crazy little minions (who I loved) — but no other characters really stand out. I don’t know if I am nit-picking on an animated film, but I also felt the way in which Gru learns to love the three girls was far too easy and not fully developed. All in all though, it is a sweet film with a big heart and I would highly recommend taking kids to see it. Looking at it a bit more critically, it just misses measuring up to some of the “better” animated films such as Happy Feet, Over the Hedge, or Monsters, Inc.

Director: Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud
Year: 2010

To view the trailer for Despicable Me, click here.

Peter Eramo Reviews: “Alice in Wonderland” (***)

I recall that there was so much anticipation to this film — ‘The film that Tim Burton was born to direct’ was what everyone was saying. Then, when it was released earlier this year, I hadn’t heard many positive things about it at all (despite its massive box-office intake), so I decided to stay away from it. Sadly, I did not get to witness this gorgeous looking film on the big screen, but I am glad that I did get around to watching it as I found it to be a pretty enjoyable film.

Tim Burton is hit-or-miss with me. Though certainly a great visual director who has his own unique style, I always felt he needed better screenwriters to collaborate with as many times it is the screenplay that I find to be weak, though he has made terrific films in “Sweeney Todd,” “Big Fish” and “Ed Wood.” Here, he re-creates his own bold interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s seminal work with an adapted screenplay by Linda Woolverton. Rather than having an Alice trying to figure out who she is not (as in the book), this Alice (a fresh young face in Mia Wasikowska) is seeking to find out who she is as a 19 year-old budding woman. In the process, Burton gets to explore the complex nature of dreams as Alice is never quite sure if she is awake or will wake up at any moment.

Alice is betrothed to an idiotic fop of an English nobleman who she really has no love for. The first few minutes pretty much beat you over the head with showing you how independent and unique she is — too much so. At her engagement party where she is debating whether or not to say “Yes” to this clod, Alice escapes and falls down the proverbial rabbit hole, entering the magical world of “Underland.” Filled with strange and unique characters – a tyrannical queen, talking animals, bandersnatches, knights and such – Alice finds that she is there for one reason…to slay the treacherous Jabberwocky and restore the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) to her rightful place on the throne.

The film is a visual delight filled with wonderous art direction, make-up, and computer effects in addition to Colleen Atwood’s imaginative costume design for these surreal characters. Danny Elfman’s score, though fitting, is quite easy to point out, as much of his work for Burton’s films sound very much alike. While in Underland, the movie is a treat to watch — it’s the beginning and end of the film, when Alice is in “the real world,” that the film falls short.

The performances here are wonderful and fun to watch.  As the despotic Red Queen with the enormous head, Helena Bonham Carter is deliciously fun. She is incredibly bossy here (“I need a pig!”) and barks her orders in quick, firm fashion. Though quite villainous, Carter does display a great sense of insecurity and envy towards her sister, the White Queen. You almost feel bad for her…almost!  Hathaway does a fine job as the White Queen who is committed to her altruistic vows. She doesn’t get to chew the scenery like her co-stars, but does an admirable job and has the right look/air of playing the good queen. The voice work of Alan Rickman (the Blue Caterpillar) is superb, which should be of no shock to anyone. His baritone voice is smooth and melodic and creates a great sense of mystery here. Stephen Fry plays the voice of the magical Cheshire Cat and he too is wonderful to listen to.

Of course the highlight here is Johnny Depp playing the infamous Mad Hatter. I’m not sure what to say about Mr. Depp other than the fact that I find him to be one of the handful of actors working today that truly immerses himself in a role and commits to the craft of performance in full force. A close friend and “student” of the late Marlon Brando, you can tell that much of Brando’s approach wore off. Depp has an uncanny chameleon-like ability and here, he comes up with his own unique interpretation of the Mad Hatter. He is sweet and gentle one moment, and forceful and a bit sinister the next. His lispy voice and eccentric manner (as well as his make-up and costume) fit the legendary character very well. He also plays a great protector to little Alice and there is a very sweet scene between the two when Alice has to say good-bye to her new friend. I found myself feeling great empathy for him throughout the film. There is also an incredible scene between Depp and Carter when he is brought in to her as a shackled prisoner. Great fun to watch!

This is a very engaging coming-of-age story where Alice has to figure out who she is, what she wants and has to find her “muchness” that she has apparently lost. Wasikowska, an actress I was not familiar with, does a nice job at playing the very demanding role where much of her work is done against a green screen – and her chemistry with Depp is strong.

All in all, I was upset that I didn’t get to witness this event on the big screen and I don’t see where all the negativity comes from — unless it was that expectations were set so high that Burton had to create a masterpiece in order to satisfy everyone. This film is not a masterpiece, but it is a very entertaining film that takes on its own interpretation while keeping the tone and feel of the book everyone knows. And though it does have a few flaws, I enjoyed it immensely.

Director: Tim Burton
Year:      2010

To watch the film trailer, please click here

Peter Eramo Reviews: “Date Night” (* ½)

Well, they are the king and queen of sitcom television (so I hear), so you knew it wouldn’t be long before Hollywood decided to cast Steve Carell and Tiny Fey opposite one another for the big screen. The result is Shawn Levy’sDate Night,” and sadly, the movie offers very few laughs, some very poor dialogue, and almost no originality.

Carell and Fey play the Fosters – a middle-class, suburban New Jersey couple who discover that their close friends are getting a divorce, sending them a much needed wake-up call.  Between taking care of the kids and managing their respective careers, they are worried that their lives have fallen into one gigantic, wearisome rut. Phil Foster (Carell) wants to do something about that gosh darn-it, and does so by shaking up their weekly humdrum ‘Date Night’ and bringing it to the bright lights of Manhattan. After he “steals” another couple’s reservation at a very trendy, chic restaurant, the mayhem ensues. Or perhaps I should say, wish it had ensued.

The exhilarating and dangerous night that the Fosters face is filled with mistaken identities, a corrupt D.A., cops on the take, car chases, a few cameos to try and keep us entertained, and for some odd reason, an almost empty New York City, where no one can be seen in the world’s most famous park and very few cars and pedestrians take up the normally crowded busy streets.

Tina Fey may be the darling of primetime, but she cannot carry a movie (see the disastrous “Baby Mama”). At best, she makes for a solid supporting role (see “The Invention of Lying”). Carell has already proven he can tackle film and do so convincingly in a wide variety of roles that showcase an impressive range. Here, he is just given a poor script and not given very much to do. William Fichtner, a very strong character actor, is wasted here and his caricature of a district attorney is embarrassing. And the scenes with Detective Arroyo (Taraji P. Henson) were all terribly, terribly written. I will say that the scenes with Mark Wahlberg were quite amusing. Wahlberg plays the always shirtless Holbrooke, who helps the Fosters out throughout the course of this whacky, crazy evening. The funniest scene of the film is when the Fosters finally meet up with the young couple (two fun cameos) who has the computer chip they have been looking for all night.

I don’t really consider myself much of a movie snob – I like a goofy comedy every now and then like anybody else.  Here, I went in to this film thinking that it would at least be funny and good for a few laughs. But instead, all I got was predictability all the way through: the emasculated man must prove to his wife that he can take care of her and save the day, the marriage that once seem to be tedious is now revived, etc., etc., etc.  It’s really too bad because Carell and Fey, with all of their comedic talents, are much better than this shlock and deserve more.

Director:    Shawn Levy
Year:          2010

Peter Eramo Reviews: “Hot Tub Time Machine”

Three middle-aged guys, all of whom are frustrated with their own lives — and a young nephew — travel back in time (via a magical hot tub) to their heyday year of 1986, a time when the three had their whole lives ahead of them. The premise of Steve Pink’s comedy says it all here and you know what you’re going to get going in. If you are looking for just laughs alone, this film should do it as there are some funny moments here. I would also say that those over the age of 35 and/or those who experienced the 1980’s as a teen would appreciate this film a lot more. On that note, there is a great sense of nostalgia here and plenty of 80’s references sprinkled throughout that will take you back, if just for a little while.

The four men go to a ski resort for some male bonding (and to cheer up one of them up who has been severely depressed). The resort is nothing like they remember it back in their prime — antiquated, filled with old people, near-deserted, with nothing going on. That is, until they all decide to, you know, do the manly thing — and all get in the hot tub together, sans clothing.

Our trio here is John Cusack (the ringleader experiencing a mid-life crisis), Craig Robinson (the married one who still dreams of a life he once gave up on), and Rob Corddry (the vulgar, crude, party animal). It seems with the advent of Apatow comedies (perhaps dating back to the Farrelly Brothers as well) and with the tremendous success of “The Hangover,” most comedies being released need to be over-the-top when it comes to the level of  raunchiness, perversity and sex-themed humor. That’s fine. I’m no prude. But it does sometimes get a bit predictable and really, at this point, what curse word or sight gag is really going to shock us at this point?

Corddry does his best at playing that one friend you see in all of these comedies — the one who will say and do anything, the one with no inner editing device…the asshole who, as Robinson and Cusack refer to as, “their asshole.” Robinson, by the way, is funny, as always. He’s got terrific comedic timing and a wonderful, unique delivery. And John Cusack looks like he’s having a great time, which is fun to see. He’s always a pleasure to watch, despite some of the poor choices he has made in recent years. Clark Duke plays the young, sarcastic, glued-to-my video games nephew and he is fine here in the familiar role.

Overall, though I thought it was funny and I had a good time watching it, I felt it could have gone much further with the time-travel and 1980’s themes. It seemed to touch the surface, but didn’t dig deep enough. The Chevy Chase scenes were somewhat odd and his ominous character felt out of place (though it’s nice to see him getting some work). The subplot between Cusack and Lizzy Caplan was also thrown away. It was great to see Crispin Glover here in a supporting role, but the pay-off on that subplot was not as grand as it could have been. Finally, the ending seemed to be too neatly tied together and yes, rather conventional. Again, I am aware that this was not supposed to enlighten or move me in any profound way. It is a raunchy comedy, and for that, I enjoyed myself. And, as I am in my late thirties, I can honestly say that walking out of the film, it did move me in certain ways; taking me back to 24 years ago and realizing just how quickly it all went by. So there…

Director:  Steve Pink
Year:        2010

Peter Eramo Reviews: “Iron Man 2″ (** 1/2)

I’d like to preface this review by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed the first “Iron Man” film released in 2008. It was, in my opinion, one of the better action films I had seen and certainly one of the better films of the ‘superhero’ genre. Having said that, I feel that I can say with great confidence that anyone who truly enjoyed the first film will be severely disappointed in its sequel, “Iron Man 2.”

It is almost standard fare in Hollywood and we hear it almost every time a sequel is released — “It was good. Not better than the original at all, but it was good.” Very seldom does a sequel live up to all of the hype and it is even a rarer feat for the sequel to best its predecessor. Perhaps “Superman 2,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Aliens” and most certainly “The Godfather Part II” are members of that elite group, but that is always up for healthy debate. More times than not, before watching a sequel, my expectations are not very high. “Iron Man 2” was an exception though. I was in fact expecting more from this franchise, from director Jon Favreau, and from screenwriter Justin Theroux. I was disillusioned. And if you are one who sees this film and is not as disappointed as I was, then I will go out on a limb and almost guarantee that you will at least grant me the service of at least admitting that it comes nowhere near the original.

Billionaire playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) has a lot on his plate in this one.  Now that the entire world knows that he is in fact the Iron Man hero, he is facing tremendous pressure from the government (most notably from Senator Stern, played by comedian Garry Shandling) to hand over the powerful technology to the U.S. military. He has also discovered that the palladium in the arc reactor that is responsible for keeping him alive, is in fact, slowly killing him (ah, the irony) and all of his attempts to find a substitute element have failed. On top of this, Stark must deal with the opening of the grand Stark Expo (you never saw Flushing, NY look saw strikingly impressive), in the name of his deceased father — and most of all, he is confronted with his new arch enemy, the Russian physicist-turned-evil genius, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke).

It seems that Ivan’s father worked alongside Stark’s father and the two of them were responsible for creating technology far ahead of its time. The two should have shared in the wealth and fame, but instead, Ivan’s father was pushed aside and was forced to live a life of misery, poverty and failure. Ivan wants revenge — he wants Tony Stark.

Rourke is great here, but that should be of no surprise to anyone. It’s always a pleasure to watch him work. Here, his Russian accent is near perfect and his tattooed body and appearance fit the villain caricature very well. He is well cast here and creates a mysterious foil to Stark with his gold teeth and great affinity for birds. What is terribly anti-climatic is that the whole film is building up to this grand face-off between the two and when it happens, it is just a shameful let-down. The confrontation is there, we’re awaiting this amazing finale, and it lasts perhaps a minute long and just like that, it is over…leaving the viewer let down…again.

Robert Downey, Jr. created a delightful, charming, charismatic Tony Stark in the first film. Here, he gets to do pretty much the same. Nothing new here – he makes his playful and witty remarks as often as he can. But we don’t see or feel any of the desperation that Stark had in the first one…not even when his life is on the line. In addition, his relationship with his former personal assistant Pepper Potts (Paltrow) is a huge letdown. The two had such great chemistry in the first one. Here, he appoints Ms. Potts to be the CEO of his empire and they seem to be at odds throughout the entire film. The only time the two have a meaningful, endearing exchange is when they are on a video-conference-call and she finds out about his illness…it’s a sad commentary when the only time two actors have a true exchange is when they aren’t even on the same screen together.

In other subplots (of which there are far too many), Stark must also deal with his industry rival, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) who enlists Ivan to work for him and ruin Stark for good. Rockwell is fun to watch. His Hammer is conniving and cowardly, the epitome of envy to the great Tony Stark.  Oh yeah, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) of S.H.I.E.L.D. also approaches Stark with a treasure-trove of old film and artifacts of the elder Stark. Fury also wants to see if he is S.H.I.E.L.D. material. Jackson is Jackson, except here, he wears an eye patch for good measure. Scarlett Johansson plays Natalie, who plays a newly employed Stark receptionist with a great deal to hide. Johansson doesn’t get to do much as far as honing her acting chops, but fits the role of sexy vixen who can kick the asses of 20 men quite admirably. Don Cheadle replaces Terrence Howard in the role of Lt. Colonel James Rhodes. We don’t miss Howard for a second, but, with the exception of the big paycheck, he should be grateful not to be a part of the mess.

Listen, it is what it is. It’s a Hollywood summer blockbuster film. I get that. And if you are looking to sit back, have some popcorn and enjoy some action, some funny lines (though not nearly as humorous as the original) and take out the brain for two hours, then you will perhaps enjoy it. Again, I was expecting more from this particular franchise – and from Favreau who fell victim to the ‘Too Many Villains in A Single Movie’ catastrophe that has struck many directors before him. In the end, to me, it felt like: “OK, we have a title for the movie, we have our director…we have our star-studded cast….hmmm, we just need some kind of a story. Anything’ll do…the public will come.” And I am sure they will. I’m sure it’ll make $250-$350 million domestic….But you still can’t say it comes close to the original.

Film:           Iron Man 2

Year:           2010

Director:     Jon Favreau

Rating:        an extra 1/2-star for those who love summer blockbusters

Peter Eramo Reviews: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (****)

This film is certainly not for the faint-of-heart, but I am convinced that this grisly, fascinating Swedish thriller will be near the very top of the year’s best when 2010 draws to an end. Based on the popular novel by Stieg Larsson, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is nothing short of a superb, well-crafted film, with outstanding performances and taut, stylish direction by Niels Arden Oplev. I am surprised to see it playing in a number of select “art-house” theatres around me – so if you see it around and you are not one of those ignorant Americans who are averse to reading subtitles, check out the trailer and see this wonderful movie.

Mikael Blomkvist is a journalist who is charged with defamation and is found guilty. The news is spread all over papers and television. Before serving his brief sentence, he is hired by the patriarch of the Vanger Concern (a wealthy & powerful family) to find his niece’s murderer. Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger mysteriously disappeared on the island owned by the Vanger’s and her body was never found. The uncle is convinced that the killer is a member of his own dark and troubled family, even though every year he receives a gift of nicely framed pressed flowers, which he thinks is sent by the murderer to taunt him.

Blomkvist pairs up with professional computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander (a remarkable Noomi Rapace) to investigate. She is tattooed, tough-as-nails, and a ward of the state who needs a legal guardian for a crime (though from flashbacks, it sure looked warranted) she committed years ago. The two begin to peel off layer after layer in trying to break this unsolved 40-year old case and in doing so, discover a link to a number of grotesque murders. They also begin to uncover a dark and twisted family history of this secretive clan.

Noomi Rapace is magnificent here playing the very complex and challenging role of Lisbeth and though it is only May should get some serious Oscar consideration here as I doubt there will be many performances that match this display right here. She exhibits a merciless, cutthroat behavior in one scene and easily transforms to that of a helpless and frightened little girl in the next. She has some gruesome, nearly unwatchable scenes to film here too. Two scenes in particular are opposite the older gentleman who has become her new legal guardian, though brilliantly executed are graphic and haunting. Rapace creates a fascinating character out of Lisbeth – a constant enigma living in a world filled with filthy and brutal men…and we certainly empathize with her throughout.

Michael Nyqvist is also excellent here as the disgraced journalist who falls into much more than he bargained for. The supporting cast is stellar, Peter Haber in particular. These are all actors I’m sure none of us have heard of – but so what…they’re amazing. One scene that I was blown away by takes place near the end in a basement…I don’t want to give anything away here, but I will say that the exchange between these two men is completely flawless…absolutely riveting.

At its core, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a mystery – and we go along on the journey set off by Blomkvist and Salander. The plot is filled with great twists and turns. The unforgiving, cold Swedish winter terrain adds to the tone and mood of the film. I have not read the books (it is part of a trilogy, I believe), but have read that this is very faithful to the novel. The film doesn’t stop and you are glued to the screen for over two hours. However, it does slow up in the final 15 minutes or so after the film’s climax which kills all of the momentum – but you understand why it continues after seeing the very last scene of the film. A great surprise of a film – and I am now eagerly awaiting the second installment (of the trilogy) due to be released this summer. It did win Sweden’s equivalent of the Oscar in the “Best Picture” and “Best Actress” categories already — so I am hoping that the A.M.P.A.S. takes equal note of this grand achievement.

Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Year:       2010

Review of HBO Films’ “You Don’t Know Jack”

The premiere of HBO Films’ You Don’t Know Jack” aired this evening to much press and media hype. Directed by Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson (“Rain Man”), the film stars Al Pacino as the infamous Dr. Jack Kevorkian – and it follows us from his days at being an unemployed physician in the early 1990’s, through the over 130+ assisted suicides that he aided in, and finally, the well-known trial that brought an end to his morally questionable practice.

Not only is “You Don’t Know Jack” an important piece of filmmaking (thank you HBO), but brings to the forefront such fascinating moral and ethical dilemmas about a person’s right to die that have always followed in the shadows of Dr. Kevorkian. Perhaps this is an odd choice of wording here, but the film is also a pleasure to watch – as it draws the viewer into this beguiling debate with each passing scene.

With the passing of Marlon Brando in 2005, and then Paul Newman three years later, Al Pacino may very well be the finest screen actor alive (although if you told me Daniel Day-Lewis, I wouldn’t put up much of a fight). Pacino shines here as he immerses himself into the man that is Jack Kevorkian – the slouched-over way that he walks, his voice, his eyes as he watches his patients slowly fall into a sleep that they will never awake from…as a biopic, much of the film rests on Pacino’s mighty shoulders, and he carries it in such graceful fashion all the way. Here, Pacino plays the Kevorkian that most of America has seen in the news and on interviews, but more impressively, he plays the Kevorkian that we never knew – his close relationship with his sister Margo (a wonderfully strong and funny Brenda Vaccaro), his ascetic lifestyle, his maddening stubbornness, and his supreme dedication to serve his patients and fight for the one thing he truly believes in…even if it killed him. This is thanks in part to Adam Mazer’s careful screenplay and his characterization of the man, to Levinson’s subtle direction, and of course to Pacino, who looks so effortless doing it all. The use of grey and pale blue color throughout the film, the precise use of close-ups and simple art direction all work very well.

The supporting cast is led by Danny Huston who plays Geoffrey Fieger, Kevorkian’s arrogant and successful attorney. The intimate scenes between the two are great entertainment. Susan Sarandon and John Goodman play colleagues who believe in what Kevorkian stands for and are there to assist him throughout his journey. Goodman has a great look to him and his sympathetic face works wonders on the viewer. In one particular scene (where he is helping Kevorkian with a suicide in which they may not have enough supplies), he is placing a plastic box around the patient’s head – the looks he gives to Kevorkian say it all and it is very moving to sit through.

There are some great moments in the film – when Kevorkian famously came to court dressed in a powdered wig complete with ball in chain, a confrontational scene between brother and sister in a local Bob’s Big Boy, a moment when Kevorkian finally lets himself open up to Janet Good (Sarandon) and tells a small bit from his past…it all works to add another piece to the Kevorkian puzzle. I was especially moved by the scenes with Kevorkian and his patients, as the videotape was recording their conversations. Levinson shoots these scenes as if they were homemade videos and it is quite effective. I don’t believe the movie works to manipulate your feelings about its subject one way or another. I don’t think viewers will watch this film and change their opinions on such a vital subject, though I do believe it is important for them to watch.

In the end, if you defy the rules long enough and go against the norm, you’ll end up getting the horns, which is what happens when Kevorkian submits his videotape of what was to be his last assisted suicide to CBS’ “60 Minutes” all but putting himself behind bars. This is what he always wanted – a chance to put the issue of euthanasia on trial and Kevorkian naturally defends himself. With no legal training whatsoever, Kevorkian’s case gets weaker and weaker. Geoffrey Fieger barks in the hallway, “It’s like watching a man hang himself!” The line is quite fitting as earlier in the film Kevorkian, at the dinner table, tenderly recites a line by Arthur Miller’s protagonist John Proctor in the brilliant play “The Crucible”:

“Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”

It is a line that Kevorkian will incessantly (and deliriously) repeat when he is in jail and on his 19-day hunger strike. In the play, Proctor can go back home to live his life with his faithful wife and kids – if only he lies to the judge and says he has witnessed others in Salem trafficking with the devil. Proctor cannot do it…and he is hanged for it. He is, in many ways, a martyr – a man who is willing to die for what he believes in – Dr. Kevorkian is his descendent here and the comparison works nicely. I highly encourage you to see this film — a strong, weighty work by Mr. Levinson, his cast, and crew.

Year: 2010
Director: Barry Levinson


Peter Eramo Reviews: “The Ghost Writer”

The latest film from master-director Roman Polanski, “The Ghost Writer” is a taut, intelligent and suspenseful film that echoes some of his older works and a bit of Hitchcock thrown in as well. Ewan McGregor plays “The Ghost” (referred as such in the credits), a writer who is hired to complete the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister. The previous author mysteriously drowned and he has left behind a massive manuscript that our Ghost feels is un-readable and quite boring. The Ghost takes the job reluctantly (egged on by his assertive agent) and takes the long, exhaustive journey to the beach house of Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

As soon as the new writer begins work on the manuscript, PM Lang is accused of authorizing the kidnapping and torture of suspects. The story is sprayed all over the news and an indictment seems imminent. It is not a wise legal move to fly back to England, so instead, Lang flies to Washington DC for a photo-op with the current administration. In the meantime, our Ghost does some checking on his own and, little by little, realizes there is much more to Adam Lang and the death of his predecessor than he first thought. Lang has flown to Washington with his aide, Amelia Bly (Kim Cattrall) who he is openly having an affair with. Who stays home with the Ghost is Lang’s strong-willed and loyal wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), in addition to the countless number of security around the impressive home. As The Ghost presses for information, his own life is in danger.

The atmosphere of the film blends well with the suspense — here, Martha’s Vineyard is dark, rainy and gloomy throughout (although it was filmed in Germany due to the fact that Polanski could not step foot in the United States). The home of the Prime Minister is also detached and cold, yet elegant. Cinematographer Pawel Edelman does an impressive job shooting the characters and the elements around them. The use colors, interiors and design all fall in line with the dynamics of the film.

The performances, for the most part, are damn strong. Ewan McGregor makes a fine Ghost. He is a man with no real past and no meaningful connections in his life at the moment. We see him take on this assignment that is much more than he can chew and he plays the author struggling to find answers and the truth quite well. I’m sure McGregor would have made a fine Hitchcockian protagonist, in the same manner that Cary Grant was. Pierce Brosnan makes a great Prime Minister (though made to look far too much like Tony Blair). he is affable, charming, handsome – but at the same time, we can see he can blow into a fit of rage at any moment. We can never really make out if he is guilty of the crimes he is accused of or not, which means good job by Brosnan. The few scenes between the two actors make for excellent viewing. We can’t help but feel that Lang is trying to assist the Ghost with completing the book, but that there is much underneath that he would prefer not even be mentioned.

Olivia Williams is wonderful here as Mrs. Lang. She is bitter, reilient and somewhat sexy. Her presence on screen demands your attention and I am hoping that she gets more work and greater recognition. Her silent reactions and body language are astute and she doesn’t cease to catch one by surprise. The supporting cast is also very effective. I don’t think I can ever say a negative thing about Tom Wilkinson and here, he plays the very distinguished and celebrated Harvard professor, Dr. Paul Emmett. His scene with McGregor is extraordinary and his ominous portrayal is indeed strong work. Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach and James Belushi also play bit roles — and all do fine work. Eli Wallach plays a local trying to help the Ghost out on a gray, rainy day…it’s a pleasure to watch him work. And James Belushi — good for you! Though only in one scene, he looks great and fits the small part very nicely…a pleasant change from doing sitcom work for so long.

The train wreck is the embarrassing Kim Cattrall. Who the hell watched the dailies of this film and allowed her to continue working on this project? She is just dreadful to watch here. Perhaps it was some of the lines she was given, but she just over-acted with each line she spoke…she just over-did everything. I have never seen the “Sex and the City” stuff at all, but maybe she picked up bad habits from that…I’m not sure. Here, she doesn’t work and all of her exaggerations hurt the film. She seems much better suited for a 40’s noir piece opposite Robert Mitchum than she does trying to play naturally opposite the low-key McGregor.

All in all, a very smart looking film from the eclectic, auteur Polanski. He knows suspense and he knows how to shoot a thriller. He does not insult his viewers by using modern gimmicks, but rather lets the actors tell the story and lets the suspense build slowly. The last scene here is a riveting one and keeps you in your seat while the credits roll. Though it has some loose ends (plus horrid work by Cattrall) and has too many overt references to the Bush administration (including Halliburton and Condoleezza Rice), it remains an impressive work nonetheless by one of our great filmmakers…I must say that I am glad to see him continue adding to his impressive resume.

Film: The Ghost Writer
Year: 2010
Director: Roman Polanski


Peter Eramo Reviews: “Spinning Into Butter” (*)

This film has a lot to say…on some very intriguing and crucial topics concerning our society. However, in the hands of its writers (Doug Atchison and Rebecca Gilman adapting from her poorly constructed play), it is painful to sit through for its unrealistic dialogue throughout. Five minutes in, I thought the film was condescending to the viewer…it got worse and worse as it went along.

The film stars the very popular (but I’m not sure why) Sarah Jessica Parker, who I admittedly have a tough time watching. She plays a school dean at a predominantly white college in Vermont who once taught at a more multicultural, urban school and developed deep prejudices against minorities. Now she is expected to be the spokesperson for the few minority students after a terrible hate crime has occured on campus. She is also asked by school administration to write up a 10-point bullet list on how to “resolve” racism. Parker is game and up to the task, but unfortunately looks foolish doing so – no fault of her own really. The script and poor direction do it all for her.

The very talented Miranda Richardson is given horrible direction here (by Mark Brokaw)…playing a simplistic, one-dimensional caricature along with the rest of this cast…all given unbelievable and embarrassing lines to speak. If you want to make a meaningful or even lasting statement on a subject as serious and as important as race relations, you better put it in the hands of an effective writer and a director who can relay that vision to the audience in a provocative manner. Instead, both writers and director here manage to exploit, patronize and humiliate the very characters who they believe they are speaking for.

Near the end of the film, Mykelti Williamson screams to the student who is responsible for the hate crimes going around on campus (which was predictable in itself): “This is an embarrassment!” I think he was speaking for everyone involved in this empty, embarrassing film. Skip it…save your time….you’re welcome!

Film: Spinning Into Butter
Year: 2009
Director: Mark Brokaw

Rating: * (out of 4 stars)

Peter Eramo Reviews: “Wonderful World” (***)

This one’s a relatively low budget indie film that didn’t get much of a push at all when it was released earlier this year. Matthew Broderick plays Ben Singer, a one-time famous children’s folksinger who has turned into a career pot-smoking proofreader and is miserable living in a world that he has no control over and one in which he cannot relate to. Ben is rude, misanthropic, and pessimistic. He is a poor weekend dad who struggles to relate to his pre-teen daughter (Jodelle Ferland), his ex-wife, his co-workers, and everyone around him. The one person Ben does relate to and can truly call his “friend” is his Senegalese roommate, Ibu (Michael K. Williams). Ibu is Ben’s opposite of course, always seeing the good in everything and trying to give Ben some sound advice during their routine chess matches. When Ibu gets sick and is forced to stay at a hospital, his sister Khadi (Sanaa Lathan) comes all the way from Dafur to help take care of him. She stays at Ben’s and a peculiar relationship ensues.

Josh Goldin has written and directed a sweet, pleasant film and it is nice to see Broderick play such a miserable curmudgeon. Even when he is being insulting or downright offensive, we can still not hate him, but rather root for him to pull himself out of his middle-age funk. The awkward scenes with his daughter are well played and Ferland is a nice find here…a strong actress for her age. The beautiful Lathan is terrific in trying to find the good in Ben and her chemistry with Broderick is convincing. Phillip Baker Hall has a small role as “The Man” who pops up every now and then in Ben’s subconscious to try and teach him life lessons. It always seems to be Ben vs. “The Man” in society and Hall makes for great casting in this part. This theme is brought to fruition during Ben’s seemingly frivolous court case.

I also admired the ending to the film. When Ben goes to Dafur and meets up with Khadi again, it would have been very easy for Goldin to give us what we are expecting and take the easy way out. What Goldin does with his final act is give us a more believable, authentic ending with a glimmer of hope during the nice final shot. The original music by Craig Richey is also quite effective and very nice to listen to. There is nothing spectacular about the film other than the way people react to and communicate with one another. What this film is, is a little gem in the rough – a quirky dark comedy with the proverbial lessons to learn. I enjoyed it – and if you’re looking for something to rent and you’re not in the mood for a meaningless sequel or big budget blockbuster with much glitz than substance, I’d certainly give this one a shot.

Film: A Wonderful World
Year: 2010
Director: Josh Goldin

Rating: *** (out of 4 stars)

Peter Eramo Reviews “Crazy Heart”

For at least 15 years, I have been saying to those who will listen that Jeff Bridges is our most under-rated screen actor (alongside Kevin Kline) and with his performance in this film — and the many accolades that have been bestowed on him, I am afraid I won’t be able to say that anymore. Suffice it to say that I am enormous fan of his work. Here, his performance and the character of Bad Blake is what this film holds its cowboy hat on. In a word, Bridges is sensational and is deserving of every award he has received thus far, including the most prestigious — the Academy Award this past year. Not to dampen what he puts into his work/performance, but he looks so damn effortless doing it. He is Bad Blake, through and through — from his chain smoking, to his eating habits, his interaction with people, the way he wears his belt, his drinking — and of course, his singing. Bridges has a great country-western voice here and impresses with that as well. He grabs our attention and holds our empathy. Bad Blake has been down on his luck for sometime (he is his own worst enemy there), but we want him to succeed and beat the demons that have haunted him for a good number of years.

Surrounding the raw and gripping performance of Jeff Bridges is Colin Farrell — which is a very interesting choice here – playing the young and mega-successful musician who has learned everything he knows from the older, broken down Blake. Farrell is quite likeable here and does a fine job in his scenes with Bridges and on the stage singing as well. Maggie Gyllenhaal , who I usually have problems watching, is fine as the young and eager newspaper reporter and her rapport with Bridges works well…the chemistry is there – not a whole heck of a lot, but it’s there. Gyllenhaal is a good choice here, though I don’t believe she was worthy of the Oscar nod.

The music throughout the film is outstanding and I am no fan of this genre of music. The central song, Ryan Bingham’s The Weary Kind” is a great work that encapsulates the essence of Bad and the film. T-Bone Burnett’s score also works quite well, as is his usual. As it was shot in about 24 days, this is a grand independent achievement. It reminded me a lot of Nick Nolte and his terrific work in “Affliction” – another great work. A touching character study by director Scott Cooper with a solid script (his own adaptation from the novel), strong performances and a great score complete with songs that fit the backdrop splendidly.

FILM: Crazy Heart
Director: Scott Cooper
Year: 2009

RATING: *** (out of 4 stars)


Peter Eramo Reviews “Tyson” Documentary

There is a moment near the end of James Toback’s documentary Tyson that is quite revealing, somewhat telling, and inevitably tragic. It is footage of what would end up being Mike Tyson’s last fight (back in 2005) against journeyman fighter, Kevin McBride. The bell rings for the start of the 7th round and Mike Tyson simply does not get up from his stool…refuses to leave his corner. He quits. He is done. And so is his magificent (and topsy-turvy) boxing career. He is interviewed immediately after the fight and admits that his heart is no longer in the sport, that he was not ready for this particular fight, that he would retire from the ring…for good.

The scene is moving and yes, sad, for many reasons. This is the same fighter who, when he first entered professional boxing, was a one-man wrecking machine. A street-fighter who would intimidate and beat his opponents with his ferocious stare before the bout even began. If the fight went more than one round, it was considered a bit of a defeat for Tyson. He was young, he was strong and he seemed virtually unbeatable…a tiger caged up and ready to pounce. Discussions about whether Mike Tyson could possibly become the greatest fighter in the history of the sport were not unheard of and with each passing fight, Tyson made a great case for himself.

This documentary does a wonderful job at showing this beginning stage of Tyson’s career, it’s tragic end in the McBride bout — and all of the drama that made up the years in-between. Toback (the writer of “Bugsy“) puts the camera right on Tyson in a number of one-on-one interviews and lets Tyson do all of the talking about his childhood, his career, his love life, his time in prison, and so much else. We don’t hear Toback and most importantly, the filmmaker lets the viewers make up their minds as to what they think about Mike Tyson the fighter, Mike Tyson the husband, Mike Tyson the human being. It’s really a kind of self-portrait done on film, in the same manner that Rembrandt or Van Gogh would do, but rather than use canvas, Toback uses the medium of film. Should we trust everything that Mike Tyson has to say here? Again, that is left up to you, the viewer and that is part of the beauty of this documentary.

I enjoyed the film as a whole. It was fascinating to watch this once destroyer of men open up — here, he is candid, vulnerable, intelligent, angry, caring….in a word – raw. The only point that is actually “staged” for the film is when we hear Tyson narrate a poem in the middle of the film. Everything else is Tyson on the cuff, simply answering questions about his professional and personal life. We see what a tremendous influence his manager and personal friend Cus D’Amato had on him and how he remains with him to this day, though Mr. D’Amato passed even before Tyson became the heavyweight champion of the world. The relationship comes through here on film and it is truly touching.

We hear Tyson’s view on women which is fascinating. He speaks of his ill-fated marriage to Robin Givens and the footage of their interview with Barbara Walters is an interesting one as we watch Givens humiliate and embarrass her husband for millions to see. We also see Tyson get into his rape conviction and the years he spent in jail for his assault on Desiree Washington. To this day, Tyson denies this charge and we can see the bitter resentment he feels about his accuser. Toback also gets into Tyson’s sour relationship and attitude regarding promoter Don King and the infamous ear-biting fight with Evander Holyfield.

There is a lot covered in this 90 minute documentary. You don’t have to be a fan of boxing to appreciate the film at all. Nor do you have to be a fan of Mike Tyson. I found it an enjoyable watch (for lack of a much better word) because Tyson is such a fascinating public figure…he is either loved or hated. And his life does resemble that of a classic Greek tragedy, which is illustrated nicely here. Toback does a great job of including old footage and taking us on the journey that is Tyson’s rise and fall. There is a bit of footage of Tyson at a press conference and a reporter asks him an insensitive question — Tyson goes ballistic! I mean, he goes off! He starts screaming and cursing and insulting this man. He looks like a raving madman ready to kill. The scene is interesting because I did not hate Tyson here. By this time, I understood the man a bit more and could only feel sorry for him. It was a defense mechanism that Tyson has been using all of his life…he reminded me of a King Kong that was taken out of his indeginous surroundings and put on display, out of his element.

Overall, a strong, tightly edited film. Very moving and it was rather enjoyable listening to Tyson speak to so much that has happened to him. I would recommend it to anyone with even the slightest interest in this multi-faceted, fascinating man…

Film: Tyson
Director: James Toback
Year: 2009

RATING: *** (out of 4 stars)


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