Friday, September 28, 2007


Inspired by the New York Times Magazine cover story “The Girls Next Door” by Peter Landesman, the film follows the process of kidnapping, torture, transport, sexual abuse, and selling of young girls for profit.

The film begins with the kidnapping of Adriana (Paulina Gaitan), a 13 year-old girl from Mexico, and Veronica (Alicja Bacheleda-Curus), a young woman from the Baltic States. They are taken by force to an unknown location and then put in the pipeline to be sold with others as sex slaves. We watch their journey from Mexico, into the United States, and to New Jersey where they will be sold.

The other part of the story concerns American cop Ray (Kevin Kline) and Adriana’s brother Jorge (Cesar Ramos) who team-up to try and rescue his sister.

The film is full of disturbing scenes including the brutal rape of Veronica and highly suggestive scenes involving Adriana and girls and boys her age performing sex acts on the side of the road for money. There are also scenes in which the girls are forced to change and pose provocatively for the camera, forcibly drugged, and beaten. I honestly don’t know how this film avoided an NC-17 rating, which it justly deserves; it’s certainly not a film for the squeamish.

The performances are all good with Bechleda-Curus and Gaitan being the best of the bunch. Both are strong and Gaitan is a terrific young actress who is asked to do some seriously adult work here. I hope she stays with this acting thing because she is someone to watch. Ramos also does a good job in reacting to a situation that spins his entire reality out of control. It’s through his eyes initially where we feel the first real terror and urgency of each moment.

The men who kidnap and hold them (Zack Ward, Marco Perez, Pavel Lychnik) are also worth noting, although at times the film turns them comes dangerously close to turning their characters into cliches, from Maneulo’s odd behavior shifts to the the total wickedness of the other two. Kate Del Castillo has a role of a woman involved in the operation who is so evil and screwed-up she might as well be wearing a pointy hat and riding a broomstick.

The film also has some trouble in its storytelling. Late in the film there appears to be an entire sequence of shots and scenes missing dealing with the other girls in the party. There’s also Maneulo’s (Perez) odd choices and behavior changes, and an all too happy Hollywood ending. Also worth noting is the artistic juxtaposition the director uses during scenes of high tension and violence which come off strange at best. For example during the violent shots of Veronica’s rape we are also shown images and memories of her young child. Although this was probably meant to add to the drama and lessen the brutality of the scene it comes off more than a little creepy and confusing instead.

It’s far from perfect, but the film has a tension that works, even through some of the more unbelievable aspects and odd plot twists, and it’s a subject that is worth recognizing and discussing. It may not be what you want to see at the movies, but it’s not something you can not ignore either. I had a very mixed reaction to the film as I can admit to the workmanship of the material, but also feel a bit dirty by just viewing what, at times, becomes a self-indulgent voyeuristic seedy journey, which tries a bit too hard to tack on a happy ending. This is a film where one should leave depressed, heart-broken and mad as hell, but it does not have quite enough bravery, in the end, to go to the the necessary lengths to drive its point home. Given the disturbing images and situations the film puts the audience through early in the film, when it never capitalizes on them, it feels like a cop-out which leaves the audience with the wrong message.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

In the Shadow of the Moon

“There are some men who lift the age they inhabit, ‘til all men walk on higher ground in that lifetime.”
—Maxwell Adams

In 1961 President John F. Kennedy presented a goal and challenge for the United States to land men on the face of the moon before the end of the decade. This speech led to the creation of the Apollo program and their missions to the moon.

This new documentary from director David Sington and producer Ron Howard takes us back to the early days through the words and experiences of the surviving Apollo astronauts including Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Michael Collins, Jim Lovell, and Neil Armstrong (though in Armstrong’s case, only through archival footage).

With human ingenuity and hard work these men traveled through space and many of them stepped foot on the moon. It was a time of magic and pushing the limits of all that was possible.

The film focuses mainly on the Apollo 11 mission, but also incorporates events from other space missions, including the near disaster of Apollo 13, into a well-managed format discussing training, lift-off, moon landing, return and life afterwards, with all the astronauts.

It’s nice to get to know these men of legend and see them reminisce about an adventure they can only truly share with each other. Their stories are fascinating and each gives their own take on their experiences; Michael Collins is especially entertaining. A final note for those of you who can find this film playing at a theater near you. Stay through the credits and listen to the astronauts as they debunk the crazy Apollo hoax allegations. It’s almost worth the price of admission alone.

Sure there’s a little too much condensed into a single film, but they get the message and the spirit right; casual observers can take this film as a starting point to learn more about one of the most interesting eras in our nation’s history. What most moved me about the film was the profound impact of the moon landings and space flight on each of these men and their understanding and respect for our world. As the film points out, no man has walked on the moon (or any other heavenly body) since 1972. Once we were strong, smart, and bold enough to travel among the stars. We could use a little more of that today. For more on the Apollo missions check out these sites here and here.

Sydney White and the 7 Dorks

Hi-ho, hi-ho it’s off to mediocrity we go. Sydney White falls far short of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in its attempt to tell a modern version of the fairy tale. Is it cute? Yes, in fact it’s just so damn precious it gives The Care Bears a run for their money.

Amanda Bynes stars as tomboyish Sydney White. Sydney embarks on a new adventure to attend the college where her parents met and pledge the sorority her mother loved so dearly.

Raised by her father (John Schneider) on his various construction sites, after her mother’s death, Sydney is far from the ideal candidate the Kappa president Rachel Witchburn (Sara Paxton) wants in her house. It also doesn’t help that Rachel’s ex (Matt Long), the kindest and sweetest frat guy ever imagined on film, or anywhere else, falls for Sydney’s charms in record time.

When Sydney is denied membership in the sorority she moves into “the Vortex,” a rundown house on the end of campus row which houses the campus rejects, the seven dorks (Jack Carpenter, Jeremy Howard, Arnie Pantoja, Samm Levine, Danny Strong, Adam Hendershott, Donte Bonner). Sydney bands her new friends together to take on Rachel and the Kappa’s and take back the power of the school from the Greeks.

You can guess where the film goes from here. Sydney learns to be herself, discovers her voice and purpose, and finds true friends and the love she has always wanted. It’s so sweet you will retch. Nor is the film that smart or subtle - naming a character “Witchburn,” come on! To quote Buffy Summers, “All right, I get it. You’re evil!” Other major failings include an awkward scene shot in front of what I can only assume was a borrowed junior high school drama set, complete with an obvious mat painting which is supposed to be the campus at sundown but won’t fool anyone over the age of two months, a lack of any real funny moments or surprises, and a script that tries only hard enough to put its characters and the audience through the motions before tacking on the obligatory happy ending.

A final note on Ms. Bynes. I liked her in Hairspray as the dorky friend. She has a nice quality of cuteness and quirkiness which works for her in small supporting roles. As the main character in the film however you need a little more than just being cute, of course it doesn’t help with what she has to work with in this script. And who decided to give her such an awful tan before the film? When I first saw her on screen I thought there was a problem with the projector. And how come no one who meets her, neither her friends or enemies, comments on it?

Sydney White might be an okay video rental for young girls under 8 years-old. As a theatrical experience however it falls far short. The only people who live happily ever after here are those who pocketed some quick cash for making the film.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Eastern Promises

“Crime butchers innocence to secure a throne, and innocence struggles with all is might against the attempts of crime.”
—Maximilien Robespierre

The film begins with two deaths and one birth. A father and son brutally murder a customer in a barbershop. Across London a 14 year-old prostitute (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) dies as she gives birth to a baby girl. These two events are both traced back to the head (Armin Mueller-Stahl) of one of the city’s most powerful Russian crime families and his son (Vincent Cassel).

When a midwife (Naomi Watts) begins an investigation into the girl’s life she finds only darkness and death which put her, the child, and her loved ones in danger when the organization’s newest and deadliest member (Viggo Mortensen) is sent to retrieve the girl’s diary, protect the family’s secrets, and clean up the mess.

There’s much to appreciate here in a film where almost all of the performances are purposefully understated and controlled. Even if the film doesn’t live up the high expectations of A History of Violence, there is plenty to enjoy including one of the most brutal fight sequences in recent memory between a naked Mortensen and a pair of Russian goons.

If the film has a failing it is in the character of Anna. The character is much more thinly written than the others in the film, or that of Maria Bello in A History of Violence. Watts, for all her beauty and charm, just isn’t as strong an actress as Bello. Not that she is bad in the film; she is fine in a role it doesn’t ask her to do much besides acting confused and scared for most of the picture.

This is a film where not everything is what it seems. The film hints at plot elements and divided loyalties, but doesn’t rely on shocking twists to tell its tale. Although most, if not all, of these secrets can be figured out before they are entirely revealed, each only exists to add more depth to the characters and the tapestry of the story. Hollywood should collectively watch this film and take notes. This is how you create a compelling story with shifting scenes without the need to pull a completely implausible ending out of your ass at the last minute. Big kudos to director David Cronenberg and screenwriter Steven Wright for their deft storytelling here.

This isn’t a family film. It’s brutal, bloody and disturbing, but also quite worth watching if you can handle the subject matter and remarkably slowly pace for a such a short film (100 minutes). I wouldn’t recommend to all movie-goers, but if you can handle its adult, and often brutal, subject matter it is definitely worth a look.

In the Valley of Elah

When I saw the trailer to this film I couldn’t get over how much it reminded me of your average Ashley Judd thriller/mystery vehicle (and isn’t it odd how Theron is even made up to like a little like Judd?). Though the film turns out better than I expected, given its marvelous performances, it still gets stuck by the confines of its genre - complete with a head shaking and nonsensical ending.

Former Army Sergeant, and crime scene analyst, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is informed his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) is back from Iraq but AWOL from the base.

Hank leaves home and travels down to look for his son but can make no headway in the investigation and tries to enlist the help of a local cop, Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). Things only get murkier when his son’s burnt and chopped up body parts are found on the side of the road.

Unwilling to let the Army investigate, and most likely hush up the crime, Emily and Hank work together to try and piece together his son’s last few hours and try to understand how and why his life ended in such a brutal act of violence.

The film plays out much like High Crimes, The General’s Daughter, Twisted, Double Jeopardy, and the like, with all the trademark discoveries, twist, turns, and illogical revelations.

What separates the film from those films mentioned above is the time Paul Haggis spends on these characters, each dealing with their own pain and doubts. Emily fights prejudice from her fellow cops who think she slept her way into her job and struggles to raise her young son (Devin Brochu) on her own. In flashbacks Mike deals with doubts and guilt from what he has seen and experienced in Iraq. And Hank and his wife (Susan Sarandon) deal with the loss of their second son to military service. Mike’s friends and fellow soldiers (James Franco, Jake McLaughlin, Mehcad Brooks) mourn the loss as well.

A final note. The film, aside from telling the story, is also a subtle indictment on war, the military, the United States’ presence in Iraq, and what battle does to soldiers. Although I don’t agree or disagree with all the points Haggis makes about soldiers and war in the film, I think many might object to the portrayal of several Army officers which on one side are shown as loyal, caring, and courageous, but on the other hand the same characters are as secretive, egotistical, violent, irrational, immoral and degenerate. Haggis’ idea that war changed them all in the same ways seems a bit simplistic to me, but the idea of war, and prolonged exposures to those conditions, adversely effecting young men and women is a theme worth exploring.

Much like Jodie Foster‘s The Brave One (read that review) this film tries to balance formulaic action and thrills with strong drama, and much like The Brave One it falls short of its goals. Although the film is worth seeing for its strong performances it never gels the two opposing aspects to come together as a cohesive film. The drama and emotion are constantly undercut by the genre’s reliance on twists and surprises, at times bordering on absurd.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Hunting Party

“Awards are like hemorrhoids; eventually every asshole gets some.”

Duck (Terrence Howard) is a camera man with the cushiest and highest paid job in the business. Traveling to Bosnia for a report he encounters his old friend and former partner Simon (Richard Gere) down on his luck and doing whatever he can to survive. Simon offers Duck a chance to relive the glory days and scoop the biggest story of the year by finding the number one war criminal in Bosnia - the Fox (Ljubomir Kerekes).

With the network VP’s kid (Jesse Eisenberg) in tow they set off to find the Fox and break the story. But what starts out as a wild goose chase soon becomes deadly serious as the threesome deal with events from the past, Simon’s own agenda, unfriendly natives, and an ever-increasing list of those who mistakenly take them for a C.I.A. hit squad and wish to offer their assistance including a UN officer (Mark Ivanir) and the girlfriend (Diane Kruger) of one of the guards which lead them so close to their prey they begin to ask themselves how come the C.I.A., who have been searching for months, can’t find this man?

The performances across the board are outstanding. Much like his role in The Hoax Gere provides a central character who deludes himself and others to reach his goals. The backstory involving Marda (Kristina Krepela) and his breakdown are excellently woven into the film and provide the character with a necesary emotional center that shows him as more than just a bum and glory hound. Howard is terrific as usual and young Mr. Eisenberg holds his own with pair, and provides the most surprising and humorous scene of the movie by telling an outrageous lie in a dark tunnel in the dead of night.

I also must praise the creators of the film for shooting in Croatia and Bosnia. The film looks and feels authentic, and not like Vancouver, because it was shot in the locations where this story took place. The look and feel of the actual locations, filled with extras from that area, help sell the story and the pain and loss that it has seen over the years. Writer/director Richard Shepard (The Matador) has now created two terrific and surprising films and I, for one, can’t wait to see what he’s got in mind next.

The film begins with a statement that only the most absurd parts of the story are true. I think there’s more than a little truth there. Those who want 100% accuracy in something like this are bound to be disappointed (check here for some of the real story or check out Scott Anderson’s original Esquire piece on which the film is based), but those with an open mind will find an intriguing story, based only in part on fact, that will make them think, question, and wonder about events around the globe, and how the US acts and responds to these situations, then this is the film for you.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Brave One

Jodie Foster action star? Umm…okay. The Brave One doesn’t quite work as the drama and action elements never blend, but it does have its moments, if you can get over the inherent absurdity of Jodie Foster doing her best Charles Bronson impersonation

After radio talk show host Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) and her fiancée (Naveen Andrews) are brutally attacked in the park by a gang she wakes up in the hospital beaten and frightened after weeks in a coma. Her fiancée is dead, her dog is gone, and the men who are responsible are still free.

In an attempt to get control of her life Erica buys a gun and puts herself, sometimes purposefully sometimes by accident, into dangerous situations where violence will occur. Though she is repulsed and frightened she also seeks out these situations and even begins to enjoy herself. She becomes a vigilante and imposes her own brand of brutal justice on her victims.

She also meets and befriends NY Detective Mercer (Terrence Howard) who is struggling with the limitations of the system and also trying to help Erica come to grips with what happened to her. As the clues to the vigilante’s identity begin to pile up Mercer begins to suspect his new friend might be responsible.

In terms of drama and the process of a character overcoming and dealing with a horrific crime the film receives high marks. Foster is terrific in the role of a woman whose life has been shattered and doesn’t quite know how to pick up the pieces. The scene of the attack is unbelievably brutal (at moments unnecessarily so - did we really need to see this to “accept” her situation?). The film also spends an adequate amount of time letting Erica deal with her grief and newfound sense of fear, which she speaks eloquently about on the radio.

The other half of the film, the vengeance action scenes, don’t quite mesh with the drama. The film feels like two separate movies at cross purposes. The first is an engrossing character study and the second a mindless action flick. Sadly it’s the second which wins in the end with a completely unsupportable, and groan worthy, ending.

The Brave One, at times, is a mess, ridiculous, and quite good. Although the film is deeply flawed the drama and the scenes between Howard and Foster are worth seeing. Even with all of its faults I would still, marginally, recommend the film to viewers who want more than your average action flick, but more action than your average drama. Does it work? Not really, but there’s enough there that it can’t be totally dismissed either.