Rent It or Skip It? 5 Flicks on DVD!

I do love the summertime, but I can’t stand summertime movie-going. With all of the inane sequels and remakes, on top of the annual big blockbuster “action” flicks being released, there are so few films playing in theaters that I actually want to go out and see. My solution? I am stuck at home renting more films than usual and staying away from wasting my money at the multiplex on schlock like The Green Lantern, Captain America, and yes…The Smurfs. So I thought I would do another quick recap of what I’ve been watching and letting you know whether you should RENT IT! or SKIP IT! These are not film reviews – just very brief thoughts on some of the movies you may have missed in theaters that I’ve been playing on the ‘ol DVD.

Miral (dir. Julian Schnabel)

Surely, one of the year’s very best so far and Schnabel continues to prove what a visionary he truly is. Other than David Lynch, Schnabel is the only other director I can think of who directs a film as if it were a painting on a canvas, with each shot just as visually striking as the next. Based on a true story (and on Rula Jebreal’s autobiographical book), Miral begins in Jerusalem in 1948 during the Arab-Israeli War, when Hind Hussein (a wonderful Hiam Abbass) comes across a number of children left orphaned in the street due to a bombing. She takes them in. Within months, her Dar Al-Tifel Institute was helping to educate thousands of children who otherwise would have been left for dead. Young Miral (Freida Pinto) is brought to the Institute in 1978 and most of the movie follows her growing up and trying to balance the love she has for Mother Hind and her father — and fighting for the love of her country she sees suffering at the hands of the Israeli army. Yes, this is a political film, but Schnabel really doesn’t show any bias towards the Israelis or the Palestines. In fact, he received cooperation from both countries before shooting. I held off watching this for a while, but Miral is a moving, inspiring, and  gorgeously photographed film. The musical score shines, the performances are strong, the direction is sublime, and the story is nothing short of moving.

Peep World (dir. Barry W. Blaustein)

This one is a nice, small indie comedy written by Peter Himmelstein and features a nice ensemble cast. A dysfunctional family is getting ready to celebrate their wealthy father’s (Ron Rifkin, perfectly cast) 70th birthday. Tensions are at their peak since the youngest son Nathan (a spoiled and uncouth Ben Schwartz) has written a tell-all book exposing the family’s dark secrets. The book is an amazing success and even being made into a motion picture. His three siblings, of course, are not at all pleased – and it all comes to a head at daddy’s birthday dinner. Rifkin is terrific in his pomposity. Rainn Wilson, Michael C. Hall (TV’s Dexter), and Sarah Silverman play Nathan’s siblings. The very funny Lewis Black narrates the story. I thought the film was funny at times, and it kept me engaged. As the family’s dark sheep, Wilson turns in a restrained and moving performance. There is a moment near the end of the film where he opens up to Nathan and it is a very touching scene. In the end, I just felt that with the intriguing premise and impressive cast assembled, that the film didn’t go far enough – it could have dug much deeper and done much more. Despite this, I would recommend it – the script is crisp and quirky and the cast is fun to watch.

Sucker Punch (dir. Zack Snyder)

After Snyder’s Watchmen, I was super excited to see this one. I know most don’t agree with me, but I thought Watchmen was one of the Top 10 films of 2009 and one of the best superhero flicks (if not the most unique) I have ever seen. The trailer to Sucker Punch looked equally as stimulating – especially how visually arresting it is. But alas, Snyder’s latest effort is shockingly, well…a bore. Yes, all of the visual aspects are captivating. But aside from watching all of the eye candy here, there is very little as far as story goes and the plot gets a bit repetitious after some time. Young “Babydoll” (a sexy, doe-eyed Emily Browning) is committed to an asylum for the mentally insane by her sexually abusive stepfather. She becomes the ringleader to a pack of beauties who are being mistreated at the institution — and, following her lead, they plan their massive escape to freedom. Throughout, the film alternates between the real world and the fantasy world that Babydoll slips into. The movie plays out like you’re watching a 100-minute video game and poor Scott Glenn…what the hell was he thinking signing up to be a part of this mess? As many have suggested, I didn’t find the film to be misogynistic. If anything, I do believe that Snyder is on the side of the ladies and has attempted to showcase the empowerment of women over their oppressive male counterparts, but really…20 minutes into this, I just didn’t care. Here is hoping to a much better effort from Mr. Snyder the next time around!

Insidious (dir. James Wan)

I don’t believe that a horror film needs a significant amount of violence or gore to be scary. Hell, some of the scariest films are ones that don’t show the viewer anything at all, but give the viewer the expectation of what might creep up from behind the curtains. But Insidious really didn’t scare me at all. Perhaps the PG-13 rating hurt it a bit and kept the filmmakers somewhat restrained, but this film really fell a bit flat to me. The first half is actually pretty good and sets us up quite nicely. Renai and Josh (Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson) have just moved into their new home with their three young children. Young Dalton has took a fall in the attic after seeing something (offscreen) that scares him half to death. The next morning, dad cannot wake him up as he has fallen into a coma that baffles everyone. Weird things take place in the new home and Renai convinces Josh to pick up and move again – but the strange supernatural events take place there too. It turns out, that the house is not haunted at all…it is their son. The second half of the movie falls short and does not live up to the lofty expectations that the first portion sets up for us. Lin Shaye is exceptionally good here as the older woman who works in paranormal activities and comes in to help the couple and their child. Patrick Wilson is a terrific actor, but isn’t given all that much to do here. Insidious is like taking a ride on the kiddie roller coaster at the amusement park instead of stepping into the daunting one where the delightful screams can be heard in the distance. It has its small thrills and is adequate for the faint of heart, but leaves you wanting much more.

I Saw the Devil (dir. Kim Jee-Woon)

What Insidious fails to do, this flick does in spades – it scares the crap out of you! I can’t believe how much I enjoyed this – and how impressed I was in the visual aspects of this film. Kim and cinematographer Lee Mo-gae make this grisly and gory film so engaging and so beautiful to watch from the opening scene to its final credits. And do not fool yourself either – this is one of the more disturbing films you will see, with enough graphic violence to please the most hungry horror buff. But it’s not really a horror flick…more of a revenge thriller – with elements of horror thrown in. It opens on a chilly winter’s night and pretty Joo-yun (Oh San-ha) is stuck with a flat tire. The psychotic Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) pulls up in a small children’s bus and offers to help. He kidnaps her and brutally murders the poor girl, chopping her up in pieces. Her fiancée, Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun) is an agent on the police force and of course, he wants his revenge. The rest of the movie is a brilliant cat-and-mouse game, with Soo-hyun doing everything in his power to torture the sadistic killer who can’t seem to stop himself. Choi Min-sik is absolutely superb in this movie – he is haunting, menacing, and evil incarnate. Kim Jee-woon has crafted a magnificent and absorbing work with visual elements that are nothing short of breathtaking. The script, by Park Hoon-jung, goes places that you would not expect, keeping you on your toes throughout. If you have the stomach for it, and you are into revenge movies – do yourself a favor and watch this film. It is easily one of the year’s very best.
VERDICT: RENT IT! — if you dare


Rango  (* * ½)  — RENT IT!
The Lincoln Lawyer (* *) — SKIP IT!
Kill the Irishman (* * *) — RENT IT!
Happythankyoumoreplease (* * *) — RENT IT!

Film Review: Woody Allen’s “You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger”

I am not a Chicago Cubs fan, but I would imagine that being a fan of the iconic Woody Allen is a lot like being crazy about the historic baseball franchise that has been without a championship for over a century now. Each spring brings with it a sense of hope and optimism – that this will be the year all of the baseball demons will be put to rest…only to have those dreams squashed come October. For the past decade or so, I have felt the same about a new Woody Allen release. I read about it, watch the trailer, eagerly anticipate its release, and finally see it – only to exit the theatre feeling (more times than not) quite disappointed and a bit frustrated. Such has been the case with films like Scoop, Melinda and Melinda, the dreadful Anything Else and a number of others since 1999’s wonderful Sweet and Lowdown. But, like the crazed Cubs fan, I remain cautiously optimistic with each go-around. Such was the case going in to see his latest work, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, Mr. Allen’s 41st film.

Woody’s latest “tale of sound and fury signifying nothing” (stated as such by the film’s narrator) is an entertaining, well-written, thoughtful film that stands out above most of the filmmaker’s most recent, mediocre works. It isn’t a comedy, though there are a number of humorous moments. The feel is more of a lightweight drama. Material-wise, he’s not covering any new ground here. Again, we are introduced to couples struggling in their marriages, the artist’s ambition & toil for success, the afterlife, adultery, and the inevitability of growing old. However, the characters here ring more genuine and are more engaging than most of the recent characters who have spoken Woody’s words. The dialogue is not as stilted nor as dated as previous scripts, coming off as more realistic and lifelike. The editing and tempo here are also first-rate, moving everything along quite smoothly. And as always, Woody manages to bring in some superlative actors to frame his ensemble. Sometimes these hodgepodges of big-name celebrities don’t come off and feels uneven – maybe someone isn’t particularly appropriate for a certain role. Not here. All the main players fit their roles flawlessly and there a handful of scenes that capture an absolute sense of authenticity that it is riveting to watch.

Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) and Helena (Gemma Jones) have been married for years, but Alfie is becoming increasingly aware of his own mortality. Helena only serves to be a constant nagging reminder of this fact, so he leaves abruptly her and tries to find his long-lost youth. In the process, he moves on and quickly marries the very young Charmaine (Judy Punch), a hard-edged prostitute who Alfie wants to give a more luxurious life to. Their daughter Sally (a very strong Naomi Watts) is unhappily married to Roy (Josh Brolin), a writer whose first book some time ago made quite a stir. Roy though has been struggling for years with his latest novel, trying desperately not to become a one-hit wonder. The pressure has put quite a strain on the marriage as they both privately seek out possible substitutes. She, with her new art gallery boss (Antonio Banderas, refreshingly effective) and he, with the mysterious and beautiful stranger (Freida Pinto) who has just moved in to the building across the street. Gemma Jones is especially magnificent here as the flighty mother who has become obsessed with everything her spiritual advisor tells her. She and her son-in-law have never seen eye-to-eye and the scenes with both Jones and Brolin make for great drama. Brolin fits very well here and his own subplot (involving a writer-friend who is in a coma) plays out brilliantly, and ends with fascinating ambiguity. Hopkins is well cast, and doesn’t fall for the trap of playing Woody’s alter-ego like so many have done in the past. The character is his and he is certainly well-suited for it, though he doesn’t get to do all that much with it.

The Shakespeare quote that begins and ends the film is taken from one of Macbeth’s more famous soliloquies (Act V, Scene 5), when the King of Scotland has just been informed of his wife’s suicide. Macbeth ponders the meaning of life and what it’s all for. He feels that, in the end, life is simply a tale “told by an idiot…signifying nothing.” Any movie-goer familiar with Allen’s works knows that he shares this sentiment through many of his characters. You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is indeed a fine tale — told by no idiot at all. And though it is by no means one of his very best films (a difficult feat to accomplish), it remains a worthy achievement, that should surely be considered one of the stronger works in the great canon of Woody Allen films. I’d recommend any fan of his to see it.

Year:         2010
Director:  Woody Allen

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