‘The Kids Are All Right’ is About Marriage, Period

The Kids Are All RIght movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2010.

Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” takes its title from one of many great songs by The Who. However, I kept wondering about the movie’s title in regards to the way it is spelled. The Who’s song is entitled “The Kids Are Alright” while the movie splits “Alright” into “All Right.” What exactly does this mean? Are the kids infinitely more intelligent than the parents in this movie? Do they make better decisions in their lives than the adults? We all know kids have a stronger detector system when it comes to exposing the hypocrisy of parents and adults in general, so perhaps the movie’s title means to spell this out literally. Or maybe it’s because The Who made a rockumentary a number of years back called “The Kids Are Alright,” and perhaps Focus Features didn’t want to confuse the two. Anyway, that’s just a thought.

I was lucky enough to catch a screening of this movie on the day Proposition 8 was overturned by the California Supreme Court (YES!!!). This was the same proposition which barred gay couples from getting married and found funding from people who didn’t even live in California. However, to call this a gay or lesbian movie would make audiences completely miss the point as that is like calling “Brokeback Mountain a “gay cowboy” movie for crying out loud. What the couple of Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) go through is not any different from what many “straight couples” go through, and it really gets to the truth of what hard work marriage can be.

Nic and Jules are a very loving couple indeed, and there is no doubt about how deep their affection for one another is. Furthermore, they have two wonderful children: a 15-year-old boy named Laser (Josh Hutcherson), and an 18-year old girl named Joni (Mia Wasikowska) who is about to head off to college. The major difference between Nic and Jules is while Nic has had a successful career as a physician, Jules has failed at just about every business she has tried to start up on her own. It gets to where Jules starts to wonder if Nic is really just belittling everything she does, and a resentment between the two grows quickly.

But what really throws a wrench into the family’s dynamic is when Joni, after being pushed by Laser to do so, contacts their biological father. Both were conceived by artificial insemination, and the sperm donor turns out to be a very nice guy named Paul (Mark Ruffalo) who has a phobia of commitment and leads a decidedly bohemian life. Upon meeting these two kids, he warms up to them immediately and finds himself changing in ways he didn’t expect. But then he meets the parents, and things get really crazy.

What I really liked about “The Kids Are All Right” was that after a summer of superheroes and high concept movies, here’s one which deals with real people and situations we all recognize from our own lives and the lives of others. The characters conceived here are all well meaning people who never come across as contrived or clichéd in the usual sense. Director Lisa Cholodenko, along with co-writer Stuart Blumberg, succeed in creating some wonderful characters, and they give them with hilarious dialogue which is also insightful and refreshingly down to earth. These are people with visible flaws which make them all the more human, as if we need to be told this.

I never found myself taking sides or hating any of the characters. Like I said, each one is well meaning and comes into this situation with the best of intentions. Of course, we all know where the best of intentions can lead us. When these people stray from one another, we may disagree with what they do, but Cholodenko uses this to make us understand why some end up doing the things they do. Everyone is complicated in their own way, but labeling people as bad for doing certain things only serves to blind us from understanding them as individuals.

All the actors are clearly in love with playing the intricacies of their roles, and each one creates a character we quickly become emotionally invested in. Annette Bening is perfect as Nic, the bread winner of the family. While at times very high strung and a bit overprotective of her family, she imbues Nic with a strong sense of commitment while losing sight of what brought her into this relationship in the first place.

Julianne Moore shines as she always does as Jules who feels increasingly neglected in her role as housewife, and her fear that Nic is not taking her career endeavors seriously feels very much justified. In many ways, Jules gets looked down more than anyone else in the script, but Moore never makes Jules a pitiful creature and gives her a strong center which she finds her way back to. Also, her speech on marriage is one of the movie’s best moments, and it comes from an honest place.

Mark Ruffalo continues his reign of great naturalistic performances and makes film acting look effortless. His character of Paul could have been the bad guy of the piece or some sitcom-like character, but you never doubt his sincerity in how he grows to love these kids which he had a hand in bringing into the world. Even when he missteps (and he really does), I found it impossible to dislike the guy. Of all the characters in “The Kids Are All Right,” he is the one who grows the most, but his revelations come in a way which is not exactly appropriate.

Both Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson are great as the kids, and Cholodenko keeps them from becoming conventional in the teenager mainstream movie kind of way. Wasikowska gets to be much livelier here than she was in Tim Burton’s bland remake of “Alice In Wonderland,” and she radiates intelligence which makes her character wise beyond her years to where she comes across as the most mature one in the film. Hutcherson also makes Laser into an interesting kid caught up in friendships which aren’t really sound and finding a father figure in the last place he expected to. Seeing him discovering his parents’ videotape of gay male pornography leads to one of the funniest scenes this movie has to offer.

If there is any complaint I have with “The Kids Are All Right,” it’s the ending. The plight of Ruffalo’s character is frustratingly left unresolved, and we never do learn if he will keep in touch with Joni and Laser. Nic and Jules do get a satisfying conclusion, but seeing Paul getting cut loose was an unfortunate disappointment. I was eagerly waiting to see where he would end up after all which had ensued.

Still, “The Kids Are All Right” is one of the nicest surprises of the 2010 summer movie season, and it deservedly got a large audience for an independent film. It has what I would like to see more of in movies: regular, down to earth people with problems and flaws much like anyone else’s. I also think it involves a relationship which any couple (and I strongly stress the word ANY) can relate to in different ways.

By the way, for those of you who think that gays getting married is still a threat to the “sanctity of marriage,” I got two words for you: Donald Trump. End of story.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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‘Avengers: Endgame’ Had Me Going Out of the Movie Theater Saying Wow

Avengers Endgame poster

WRITER’S NOTE: Will or will not this review have spoilers? Does it matter pointing it out at this point? Like any other movie, it would be best to keep from reading this review until you have seen this one.

Now you all know how much I hate the term “based on a true story” as it has long since lost its meaning for me, but there is also another I get seriously annoyed with, and it is this one: “it has all led up to this.” When a movie trilogy reaches its end or a television show finally arrives at its season or series finale, this phrase is often utilized as a way to get butts in the seats or eyes glued to the television in a why which will have advertisers salivating to no end. More often than not, it feels like a shameless trick to get us to watch something we otherwise wouldn’t, and we come out of it feeling angry as we have been easily duped.

But when it comes to “Avengers: Endgame,” the term “it has all led up to this” makes perfect sense. This is the 22nd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe which started back in 2008 with “Iron Man,” but this one has a strong sense of finality as the superheroes we have followed all these years will rise and fall all at the same time. Yes, the MCU will continue on, and we have “Spider-Man” and “Black Panther” sequels to look forward to, but after this penultimate installment, things will never be the same. What results is an exhilarating motion picture which thrills even the most jaded of moviegoers, and its conclusion will leave you emotionally drained for very good reason. Yes, it really has all led up to this.

Three weeks have passed since Thanos (Josh Brolin) captured all the Infinity Stones, snapped his finger and eliminated half of all life across the universe. Those Avengers who survived the snap are, as you can expect, infinitely eager to avenge those lives who disintegrated, but their quest for justice does not go in the way you might expect. In fact, for some it comes too quickly and leaves a lot of damage in its wake.

Following this, the movie then jumps ahead five years as what is left of humanity is grappling with the things they can do in the aftermath. Some are still eager to undo what Thanos did while others have done what they can to move on. Either way, they are dealing with a clear case of survivor’s guilt, and their enthusiasm for saving the universe is not what it used to be.

Yes, these characters are blessed with super powers we would love to have o, but the filmmakers are quick to show us how they are as human as we are. They suffer from doubts, anxiety, frustration and, as this movie begins, they are overcome with despair. While they may be special or gifted, they aren’t much different from the average joe as the weight of the world lies heavily on them, and they don’t have time to balance their checkbook. (Who does anyway?)

Time travel plays a significant role in this MCU movie as a couple of the Avengers, namely Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), come up with a theory which will make it possible for them to accomplish, albeit with some limitations. Like everyone else, the Avengers have seen every time travel movie ever made and are quick to mention such classics as the “Back to the Future” trilogy, “Time After Time,” “Timecop” (was this particular Jean Claude Van Damme film ever that popular?), “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” and even “Hot Tub Time Machine.” Somehow, “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” was left off this list, and I am deeply perturbed as a result. The Enterprise crew saved humpback whales in that one for crying out loud!

I enjoyed how “Avengers: Endgame” plays on our knowledge of time travel as a plot device. Even though science renders these various time travel methods to be utterly bogus, the pluses and minuses of actually changing historical events are always prominent in our minds. Remember all that talk about the space time continuum? Whether or not the conclusion of this movie is in doubt, I spent much of it wondering how things would end up once the mission was complete. What gave me comfort was what Doc Brown said in “Back to the Future Part III” about how the future isn’t written and how it is whatever you make it.

Granted, the time travel aspect does get a bit confusing at times, especially when certain characters end up facing off against their past and present selves. It reminded me of when Austin Powers faced a similar predicament in “The Spy Who Shagged Me,” and that one was a comedy. But the movie proves to be so much fun, who cares?

Helming “Avengers: Endgame” are Anthony and Joe Russo, brothers who have been a major asset to the MCU ever since they directed “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Along with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, they have an infinitely impossible job of balancing out a story filled with far too many superheroes, most of which will not get the same amount of screen time as the biggest ones of all. The ending is bombastic, but never in an overwhelming way. And yes, it is three hours long, but it never drags nor is it in need of a top-notch editor the way “I Spit on Your Grave: Déjà vu” was. For what it’s worth, you can head straight to the bathroom once the end credits start as there are no special scenes during or after them.

I imagine a lot of people look at these “Avenger” movies as being the kind which don’t require the cast to give their best performances ever. This assertion, however, is deeply unfair as many of the actors here have inhabited these characters for close to a decade. From one movie to the next, we see these characters evolve in meaningful ways to where we have to recognize what the passing years have done to them. It does not matter how incredible they are because they age like us even if they don’t always show it.

Chief among the cast is Robert Downey Jr. whose role as Tony Stark/Iron Man helped to rejuvenate a film career which looked to be permanently undone by drug abuse. Downey has taken Tony from being a lovably arrogant playboy millionaire to a less self-centered man who becomes eager to reign in his fellow superheroes before they do damage they won’t be able to walk away from. Tony himself has some interesting developments along with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to where his hesitation to disrupt the course of events is challenged endlessly, and watching him here makes you realize how far he has come in this role.

Another actor is Chris Hemsworth who has had quite the journey as Thor. For his first two movies, he portrayed the powerful Asgardian as an unshakably pure force who could not ever be corrupted. Then came “Thor: Ragnarok,” the best “Thor” film yet, which allowed Hemsworth to take some risks with the character in ways which made him even more interesting. With “Endgame,” we get to see Thor in his Big Lebowski phase, and we can tell Hemsworth is just having a blast taking this superhero in this direction. We should applaud him for taking chances here as other actors would have been a bit too fearful to do so.

Then there is Chris Evans who took Steve Rogers and his alter-ego of Captain America from what we thought would be the average white guy and turned him into a charismatic good guy in a way we did not see coming. Evans really hits his peak here in the MCU as he finishes his run in a very moving way, with Steve Rogers getting to reclaim a part of his past he thought he lost many years before. It is not spoiling anything to say this is Evans’ last time playing this superhero, but seeing him take his curtain call here is wonderfully fulfilling.

Coming out of “Avengers: Endgame,” all I could say was, wow. It’s the perfect capper to an amazing franchise, and my hat is off to everyone at Marvel for crossing the finish line in such an unforgettable way. DC Comics and Warner Brothers can only hope to be this successful with their own cinematic universe. Not once was I worried this franchise would flame out the way “The Matrix” did with “The Matrix Revolutions.” Everyone involved hit it right out of the park with this installment, and you don’t even need record breaking box office to prove it.

Of course, the question now is, where will the MCU go from here? I cannot see Marvel topping what they did here, especially with the cast taking their bow in the way the original Enterprise crew did at the end of “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” by providing their signatures. I imagine there are many more Marvel movies in our future, but the journey from here will still be fraught with expectations which may or may not be met. If this was to be the last MCU ever, it would have been perfect. All the same, superhero/comic book movies still reign supreme at the box office, so hopefully the ones coming soon to a theater near you will still be wonderfully entertaining. Whether or not they are as glorious as this one is another story.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

 

‘I Spit on Your Grave: Deja Vu’- Is it More Tolerable Than What Came Before?

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As much as I abhor “I Spit on Your Grave,” its power to shock and deeply unnerve its captive audience is something I have to admire even if I do so begrudgingly. The 1978 cult classic is like a scab which I cannot help but pick at even when I know doing so is harmful and pointless. Meir Zarchi’s controversial revenge flick was such a poorly made motion picture, and yet it maintains a raw power which would later inspire a remake and two sequels. Heck, there is even a documentary called “Growing Up with I Spit on Your Grave” which was made by Meir’s son, Terry Zarchi, and I may have to watch just out of sheer curiosity.

Now it’s 40 years later, and Meir Zarchi has given us a direct sequel to the original called “I Spit on Your Grave: Déjà vu.” Upon hearing Zarchi was going to make a follow up, I couldn’t help but be incredibly intrigued. It’s been a long time coming for this sequel as it was finished in 2015 but is only now seeing a release, albeit one which is seeing it go straight to DVD and Blu-ray. Has Zarchi improved as a filmmaker? Will it be more disturbing and violent than what came before? Could “I Spit on Your Grave: The Next Generation” be a more appropriate title?

Well, I got to check the sequel out the other week at its Beverly Hills premiere where the cast and crew were in attendance along with fans who seemed more excited for this than they are for “Avengers: Endgame.” Since this screening, I have tried to sort out my thoughts about it and will continue to do so in this review. What I can tell you is this; “Déjà vu” is infinitely better than its predecessor, features some really strong performances, and it shocks in a way which feels nowhere as exploitive as what came before. At the same time, it is widely uneven, has some actors redefining the term “scenery chewing,” and it has a running time of almost two and a half hours. Plus, as it goes on, it quickly becomes clear why it was given the subtitle of “Déjà vu.”

The movie opens with us learning Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) was found not guilty of killing the four men who brutally raped her, and she has since published a memoir of her ordeal appropriately titled “I Spit on Their Graves.” She meets up with her beautiful daughter, Christy Hills (Jamie Bernadette), for lunch, and we se she is a successful model who has made quite the career for herself. Both women are at a crossroads in their lives as they discuss what else they can do now they have found amazing success despite a troubled past, and the road ahead offers no easy answers.

As Jennifer and Christy leave the restaurant, they are accosted by Kevin (Jonathan Peacy) and Scotty (Jeremy Ferdman) who are eager to get Jennifer’s autograph. The fact the two men drive up to her in a white van with the words “Enola Gay” painted on the side is not a good sign as this was the name given to the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber which dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan back in World War II. Before they know it, the two women are abducted and driven far away from the eyes of the world where they meet Becky (Maria Olsen), the wife of Johnny (Eron Tabor) whom Jennifer castrated in the bathtub and left bleeding to death. Suffice to say, Becky is brimming with rage and furious at Jennifer for depriving her of a “church-going” husband and their two kids of a father, and she is intent on taking Jennifer back to the place where it all began so she can give her a “preview to hell.” In the process, Christy is forced to fend for herself after she is separated from Jennifer, and as she attempts to rescue her mother from a horrible fate, she comes to discover more about herself than she ever could have expected.

“I Spit on Your Grave: Déjà vu” is a much more professionally made movie than its god-awful predecessor, and Zarchi is blessed with an excellent cinematographer in Pedja Radenkovic who gives him a number of beautifully framed shots amid the bloody carnage we know will be unleashed in front of our eyes. He also provokes our views on religion and revenge among other things as Becky has convinced herself as well as Kevin and Scotty how her acts are justified by the word of God and the Holy Bible, and she sees Jennifer as nothing more than a vixen who used her sexual powers to lure Johnny and the other men to their ever so painful deaths. It’s both fascinating and frightening to see how people use religion to justify acts which Jesus would not condone in the slightest, and this makes this sequel feel surprisingly, and painfully, timely.

The first performance worth singling out here is Jamie Bernadette’s as she is a commanding presence throughout and manages to say so much while saying nothing at all. Just watch her stare down one of her assailants as she rocks back and forth in a chair. Not once does Bernadette have to tell us that Christy will have her revenge in a most brutal way as her eyes make this clear from the get go. Even when “Déjà vu” takes us through moments which defy all believability, this actress makes you believe certain things could be possible even when logic tells us they are not.

Then there is Maria Olsen who makes Becky into one of the most unforgettable characters I have seen in a horror film in quite some time. Even when she looks to head into, as Kevin Smith and Ralph Garmin would call it, “exquisite acting” territory, Olsen gives a fully committed performance as someone whose heart and soul yearns for nothing more than vengeance, and I can’t help but see her in some respects as a female Khan Noonien Singh. As she prays at the grave of her dead husband, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her, and even the snot hanging from her nose can’t possibly upstage her.

Okay, now let’s talk about what doesn’t work about this sequel. Yes, Zarchi has definitely improved as a filmmaker, but he needs a better editor as this movie has no reason to run over two hours long. Scenes drag on for much longer than they have any right to. Moreover, why does Becky want revenge after 40 years? I know the American legal system moves very slowly, but this slowly?

While the screenplay fearlessly provokes our thoughts and beliefs on religion and justice, it doesn’t provide much in the way of answers. Is Zarchi trying to strive for some particular meaning here? If so, what exactly is he getting at? And as we arrive at the movie’s climax, certain characters end up doing a 180 turn on us to where I came out of it questioning the logic of everything which came before. Why, why, why?

And as “Déjà vu” goes on, we come to see it is replaying the same exact story of the 1978 original as Christy is forced to endure the same fate as her mother though in a way slightly less disturbing. Didn’t any of the characters around her learn anything from what happened before, or are they far too dumb to realize the consequences of their actions? The bible does say “an eye for an eye,” but the meaning of this phrase proves to be quite infinite.

As for the other performances, they come to redefine scenery chewing. Jonathan Peacy in particular is all over the place in his portrayal of Kevin to where I wondered why Zarchi never bothered to rein him in. The actor is like a dog who gets all too excited to where he cannot stop jumping all over strangers. Regardless of how the dog’s owner tells them to get down, sit or shake hands, this dog cannot and will not contain their energy. I have to admire the energy Peacy brought to his role, but perhaps a little less caffeine behind the scenes would have done him some good.

And there is Camille Keaton who returns as Jennifer Hills. Her appearance here threatens to be nothing more than a cameo, and this for me was the most disappointing thing about this sequel. At the “Déjà vu” premiere, Keaton said she had wanted Zarchi to make a sequel to “I Spit on Your Grave” for years, and yet she only gets so much to do here. Considering how Jaimee Lee Curtis got to resurrect Laurie Strode for one of the best “Halloween” movies ever and turned her iconic character into a bad ass survivalist, I was hoping the same would happen with Jennifer Hills. In the end, this proves not to be the case.

There is a rape here, but only one thank goodness. Now that last sentence may sound strange, but considering the half hour of brutal abuse Jennifer Hills endured in the 1978 movie, this was a relief as Zarchi is far more focused on the revenge of the female this time around. There is also a castration scene you can see coming from a mile away, and it is as painful as the one we witnessed decades before. And yes, there is another mentally challenged who gets murdered even after he spares another human from certain death. Seeing him get killed off was especially frustrating as the character, Herman (Jim Tavare), proved to be more of a morally balanced individual than anyone else here, and yet he still gets it right in the back.

At some point, I may be able to view “I Spit on Your Grave: Déjà vu” as a guilty pleasure. For what it’s worth, it is a vast improvement over its notorious predecessor and a little easier to sit through even as Zarchi fearlessly and shamelessly gets under our skin. It also ends on an interesting note as one character chooses to avert a course of action we expect them to take, and we wonder if history will repeat itself again as two people who are alluded to show up unexpectedly. Still, after a time it devolves into the same old story, and many of us will be left wondering if it was one which needed to be revisited at all.

Perhaps Zarchi can make another sequel with the subtitle “Vuja De.” You remember what George Carlin said about this, right?

“Do you ever get that strange feeling of vuja de? Not deja vu, vuja de. It’s the distinct sense that somehow, something that just happened has never happened before. Nothing seems familiar. And then suddenly the feeling is gone. Vuja de.”

 

* * out of * * * *

‘Hanna’ Features One of Saoirse Ronan’s Best Performances

Hanna movie poster

Joe Wright’s “Hanna” on the surface looks a bit like “Kick Ass” as, like that movie, it follows the exploits of a young girl who has been trained to be an elite assassin so she can avenge her mother’s murder. But “Hanna,” however, is more down to earth in how it treats its characters and the events which envelop them. Does this make it better than “Kick Ass?” No, just different.

On top of it being an action thriller with a bit of Luc Besson sleekness in its design, “Hanna” is also a fish out of water story as the title character discovers the real world in a way previously denied to her. Hanna has spent her entire life in the woods, living in a snow-covered cabin where her dad, Erik Heller (Eric Bana), has kept her safe. But now she is heading into a world completely unfamiliar to her. Hanna’s mission of assassination is also a journey of discovery, and this movie ends up coming with more surprises than I ever could have expected.

Playing Hanna is Saoirse Ronan who has gone from her Oscar-nominated turn in “Atonement” to an excellent career which includes unforgettable performances in films like “Brooklyn,” “Lady Bird” and “Mary Queen of Scots.” On paper, Hanna seems like a completely unrealistic character who could in no way exist in real life. But the beauty of Ronan’s performance is how she makes Hanna seem as real as any 16-year old girl even as the character leads a double life the average teenager does not. Seeing her come into contact with a civilization she has been sheltered from provides her with evidence of how not everything involves guns, bullets and violence. Of course, seeing her get her first kiss is frightening because she can flip back to assassin mode in a heartbeat if she gets the wrong impression.

Most of Hanna’s adventures come as a result of her befriending a British family on a road trip whose daughter Sophie (Jessica Barden) introduces her to teenage rebellion and some rather tacky fashion statements. Sophie’s parents, Sebastian (Jason Fleming) and Rachel (“The Ghost Writer’s” Olivia Williams), come to admire Hanna and help her as she moves on to a safer haven from the government forces who look to eliminate her.

Wright comes up with several invigorating action sequences which made me feel like I was watching a Jason Bourne movie. There’s not much in the way of shaky camerawork, but you can feel the bullets flying in the air as well as the punches and kicks which land on her opponents, crushing them as if she were simply swatting flies. This is the kind of action film I like to watch as it makes you feel things instead of letting you just sit back like you’re some passive observer.

In addition, Wright gets some amazing unbroken shots as we watch characters make their way through crowds of people while being followed by their cold-hearted adversaries. It makes me want to say “eat your heart out Brian DePalma” as the choreography involved in filming an unbroken sequence like this is anything but easy.

There are other great performances to be found in “Hanna” as well. One in particular is from Eric Bana who plays Hanna’s father Erik Heller. His character is also a spy on the run whose relationship with Hanna is far more complicated than at first glance. Watching Bana here reminded me of just how much he throws himself physically and emotionally into his characters. It’s exhausting watching him here as we get reminded of his strong work in “Black Hawk Down” as well as his comedic roles like the one he had in “Funny People.”

Then there’s the infinitely brilliant Cate Blanchett who never seems to suck in anything she does. While listening to her southern accent feels a bit odd at first, she is still sharp as ever as corrupt CIA agent Marissa Wiegler. Throughout Marissa is as obsessive in eliminating Hanna and Erik as she is in cleaning her teeth. Heck, watching her brushing even while her gums bleed profusely reminded me of just how long it’s been since I’ve gone to the dentist. Blanchett also has a brilliant moment where she pays a visit to a key witness, but her face suddenly shows a wealth of pain which is mysterious in its origin. I don’t know how she did it, but it’s the one shot in “Hanna” which stays with me the most as her ruthless character succumbs to a moment of inescapable vulnerability.

On top of it all, you get a brilliantly propulsive electronic film score from The Chemical Brothers. I immediately downloaded it off of iTunes as soon as I got back to my apartment. It’s actually the first time they have ever composed for a movie. Learning this made me want to say, “duh, what about ‘Fight Club?’” But wait, it was The Dust Brothers who composed the score for that 1999 classic. I guess techno music is more of a family affair than I realized. Either that or all these brothers look alike.

“Hanna” is not without its faults. The pace of the movie tends to slag in between the action scenes which, while offering us beautiful moments for the title character, drag the proceedings down more than they should. Also, it ends without resolving the fate of several characters, leaving us wondering what happened to them and if they came out of this story alive and in one piece. As a result, the ending feels a bit too abrupt.

Still, “Hanna” is a remarkably involving action thriller which doesn’t lay out everything for you right at the start. The story continues to unfold throughout, revealing each of its secrets along the way. What brings it altogether is the fantastic performance of Saoirse Ronan who at a young age showed a professionalism and sharp focus on character equal to many acting veterans. Seeing her portray someone as innocent as she is very deadly made it one of the most unforgettable performances I had seen in any movie from 2011.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Religulous’ Shows No Shame in Questioning Religion and Blind Faith

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I came into this documentary with much excitement as religion is such a fun and easy target to lampoon regardless of what your thoughts are on it. “Religulous” was directed by Larry Charles who directed one of the funniest mockumentaries ever with “Borat,” and it has Bill Maher interviewing people of different faiths. Apparently, the people interviewed were not aware Maher was going to be interviewing them until Maher showed up. This is made clear by certain moments where publicists come up to the film crew saying rather tensely that they do not want Maher talking to their clients because of what they believe he represents. Would that be logic and reason? The fact these same people still chose to be interviewed by Maher does show a lot of guts on their part as he lets them have their say even as he interrupts them when things don’t make sense to him (and this happens more than you might think).

“Religulous” starts with Maher talking with his sister and mother about why they all stopped going to church. He explains how he was brought up by a mother who was Jewish and a father who was Catholic, and of how he loved playing with his toy gun and holster which he refused to take off even when he went to church. We also get to see clips from when he was starting as a standup comic and talked about what the first circumcision must have looked like to the one it was being suggested to. Maher’s distrust and comments on religion still go on to this very day, and they are not just meant to be funny, but also to make you think about why people allow themselves to believe certain things which defy easy logic.

One thing which kept coming up is how many preachers go out of their way to purchase expensive clothes and live more luxuriously than Jesus ever did. Jesus wore robes and lived in a hut or some other dwelling, and we can all agree he did not care for making money in his father’s temple. Here, Maher interviews them while they are showing off their tailor-made suits, the kind you would never find at your average discount store, and they also wear gold rings because they feel God would want them to dress extravagantly. Maher intersperses these interviews with these same preachers hawking their own DVD’s among other items they have to offer, and it immediately reminded of L. Ron Hubbard’s response to someone who asked him why he was so keen to create his own religion:

“That’s where the money is.”

“Religulous” also opened me up to what Mormons really believe. I always thought they were the nicest people, and I did have a huge crush on one while I was in school, but I never had the slightest idea they held the belief that God is actually from another planet (I can’t remember the name of it). We watch as Maher gets kicked off of the lawn outside the Mormon Tabernacle Church, but he does get to speak with two men who have since left the church and dispute what the Mormons are taught to believe in. Every religion seems to have its own interpretation of God, and I can’t help but wonder if a consensus can ever be reached on this subject.

One of the real pivotal moments comes when Maher interviews a “reformed” homosexual (talk about a contradiction). The fact that pseudoscience facilities which practice conversion therapy exist where people are send to be “cured” of their homosexuality, will always baffle me. Furthermore, this man Maher interviews is married to a woman who claims she was “cured” of being a lesbian. This all struck me as being completely odd and inappropriate as I was always under the belief God loves us all no matter who we are. That people allow themselves to be brainwashed into what others want them to be is frightening, and practices still continue even when people should know better. Seeing Maher hug the “reformed homosexual,” I kept waiting for the “Real Time” host to do something rather provocative, but even he has the good sense not to pinch the guy’s butt.

Clearly, “Religulous” is bound to upset many religious people as Maher shows no shame in picking apart faiths of any and every kind. I personally do not see, nor do I want to see, religion as being evil, but this will not step many from believing both Maher and Charles have made something both biased and hateful. Granted, there are many Bill talks to who will ever be quick to share his problems with religion, and we even see this here from one point to the next. But “Religulous” does indeed have a strong point of view as it never hesitates to call out those religious beliefs which prove to be both misleading and very dangerous. Maher also takes the time to find similarities between Muslims and Christians as each religion has their followers believing they are the chosen people and of how the world is coming to an end and that they will be the only ones left standing.

“Religulous” ends on an ominous note as Maher discusses how religions constantly talk about the end of the world and of how we should be wary of blind faith (amen to that). Religion is supposed to be about love, and yet there is a lot of hate and fear involved in many faiths. Hearing and seeing all of this takes me back to that scene in “A Bronx Tale” where the young kid asks a known gangster:

“Is it better to be loved or feared?”

His reply:

“I would rather be feared, because fear lasts longer than love.”

Maher remains one of the smartest, not to mention one of the most provocative, and “Religulous” is further proof of this as it shows he has balls of steel. He shows no fear as he questions the religion of those who may very well kill him for defying what they hold most holy. In the end, he makes a compelling argument of how religion can be dangerous and easily corrupted, and he also gets a lot of huge laughs out of the subject.

Like I said, there are moments where Charles puts in clips from religious shows, and there is one with a man talking in a language which makes him feel so good and yet has him sounding like a baby struggling to say their first words. It’s as gut busting hilarious as it is frightening. Whatever you may feel about religion, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion about it, “Religulous” will make you see the dangers of believing certain things and of the immense dangers of blind faith.

We all keep wondering when and if we will be saved from the horrors which keep engulfing this world we all live in. Maher meets a man who plays Jesus at a religious amusement park and asks him:

“Why doesn’t he (Jesus) obliterate the devil and therefore get rid of evil in the world?”

“He will.”

“He will?”

“That’s right.”

“What’s he waiting for?”

Yeah, what is he waiting for? And how do we know he is not actually a she?

Seriously, this documentary could make a great double feature with Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

30 Years Later, ‘When Harry Met Sally’ is Still a Wonderful Delight

When Harry Met Sally movie poster

In today’s episode of “man, do I feel old,” we revisit “When Harry Met Sally” which has now reached its 30th anniversary. Yes, this romantic comedy is that old, but in many ways, it hasn’t aged a day. The life challenges its main characters face are no different from what men and women face today, and the only thing missing is an overabundance of cell phones.

“When Harry Met Sally” is an especially unusual love story in regards to how it starts and progresses throughout. We first meet Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright right after they graduate from college. They end up taking a long car ride from Chicago to New York where the real world awaits them whether they are ready for it or not, and from the outset they cannot stand each other to save their lives. Harry is convinced men and women can never be friends because, as he puts it, “the sex part always gets in the way.” Sally tries to rebuff Harry’s advances and sexist comments by attempting to be more open-minded, but this motivates Harry even more determined to prove his point. When they finally reach New York, they part ways and go their separate paths, thinking they will never see each other again. But we know this will not be the case.

Five years later, we catch up with Harry and Sally as they bump into each other on a flight going to Chicago for business purposes. Things have definitely changed for the two as Sally is involved in a serious relationship with a lawyer named Joe, and Harry is now engaged to be married. The relationship between these two has not changed much, and Sally is still turned off by Harry’s cavalier attitude towards the opposite sex, even when it seems like he really has found true love. They finally part ways at the airport, thinking they won’t bump into each other ever again…

This brings me to the point the movie’s screenwriter, Nora Ephron, made about these two characters; they keep meeting up with each other at the wrong times in their lives. The first time when they were on the road and leaving college was the wrong time, and bumping into each other at the airport was also the wrong time. But the third time, which comprises the bulk of the movie, is definitely the most wrong time at all. Sally has recently broken up with Joe and declares to all who listen that she is “over him,” and Harry is going through a painful breakup which he did not see coming. These two at this point have no business being in any relationship as they are in a mourning period, but this time a strong friendship blossoms between the two as they go from fighting to challenging each other to see if men and women can really remain friends even after the sex part gets in the way.

“When Harry Met Sally” was made back in Rob Reiner’s golden age in which he gave us such cinematic gems as “This is Spinal Tap,” “The Princess Bride,” “Stand by Me” and “The Sure Thing.” His direction here is flawless as he brings us right up close and into the two lives of people who couldn’t be more different from one another. Their progression throughout the movie is very believable and feels almost effortless thanks to the truly inspired performances of Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, and the screenplay by Nora Ephron is far and away one of her best. Even when it looks like the movie might get a little too broad for its own good, Reiner manages to keep everything together and mines the material for all the humor and heart it has to offer. He also populates the movies with short vignettes of absolutely true stories involving how people found love in the most unexpected ways, and I came out of it believing how love is possible even for those who foolishly believe they are unlovable.

Billy Crystal typically comes across as just Billy Crystal in many of the movies he stars in, but he can be a very good actor when he is given the right role. His performance as Harry starts off in a seemingly broad manner, but he goes from being a confident man in love to a man whose pride looks to be broken forever in a way which he conveys perfectly. The pain in his face when he sees his ex-wife with another man while he and Sally are doing karaoke at the Sharper Image store really hit me hard, and his acting is strong as he makes Harry’s anger raw to where anyone is a target for his upset feelings. This character remains one of Crystal’s best roles to date.

Meg Ryan became a star with this movie and rightly so. No one else could have played the role of Sally Albright better than her, and she is utterly lovable even when she gives the waiter instructions of how she wants her food which would make any food server go insane. You also have to give her almost all the credit for the diner scene, which became one of the all-time great comedy moments in film history as she was the one who came up with faking an orgasm. Ryan shows a lot of range in the movie as she takes Sally from being serious to giddy to heartbroken at a moment’s notice. Granted, this movie pretty much got her stuck in romantic comedies for a long period than she wanted, but that’s because we came to love her so much.

But let’s not forget the great supporting cast here who prove to be every bit as good. The late Carrie Fisher reminded us there was more to her than “Star Wars” and writing screenplays as she steals one scene after another as Sally’s best friend, Marie. Carrie’s character has a thing for married men which never seems to deter her from pursuing them. Then you have the late Bruno Kirby (he is still missed) who plays Harry’s best friend, Jess. When Jess and Marie get together, it is a comedy high point as they ditch their friends for a night alone. Things never do go as planned, do they?

What makes “When Harry Met Sally” so enjoyable is how examines the question of if men and women can truly be friends, and in the answers it comes up with. This is one of those romantic comedies which is meant for both men and women, and remains a gem in a genre I typically want nothing to do with. It broke through the perception we had of these kinds of movies at the time, and of how the audience for them was bigger than we bothered to realize. It also stands as a testament to how unrequited love can be requited and in a way which is absolutely believable. We should all be so lucky.

Thirty years after its release, “When Harry Met Sally” more than deserves its place as one of the best romantic comedies ever made. It’s still a great movie after all these years, and one that is impossible to forget. And by that, I don’t just mean the diner scene. Few romantic comedies these days can match its laughter and sincerity, and I’m not sure we see one like this again for a long time. Of course, filmmakers out there are more than welcome to prove me wrong.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Wind’ is a Menacing Horror Western Which Gets Under Your Skin

The Wind movie poster

Weather can be a formidable character in movies, especially those in the horror genre. We have “The Fog” (John Carpenter’s original, not the dreadful remake), “The Mist” (talk about an infinitely devastating climax), “The Wave” which proved to be the best disaster flick I have seen in a long time, and there’s even “The Day After Tomorrow” which dealt with climate change although in a highly unrealistic way.

Now we have “The Wind,” a horror western which takes us back to the untamed Western frontier of the 1800’s. The wind here has a supernatural force inhabiting it almost in the same way those ghosts inhabited “The Fog,” and you are left wondering how anyone can rise above such a common weather element especially when it is always around. In the process, we are sucked right into a horror movie which fearlessly turns a number of tropes on its head especially when it comes to female characters.

Lizzy Macklin (Caitlin Gerard) is forced to fend for herself in the lonely wilderness when her husband, Isaac Macklin (Ashley Zukerman), is forced to leave her and travel into the nearest town with their friend Gideon Harper (Dylan McTee) for reasons which will quickly become clear. From there, she is stuck in the loneliest of places and in a house which looks like something out of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” The old west Lizzy resides in is not the least bit glamourous, but we quickly realize she is resilient and strong even after she is chased back into her house by a pair of ravenous coyotes.

The wind of the movie’s title first presents itself as a natural element, but it quickly becomes very ominous as it has hands reaching out at its victims who have little hope of escape. But after a while, one begins to wonder if Lizzy is really being attacked by a supernatural force, or if she is instead descending deeper and deeper into madness. Either way, you are in for an unsettling ride which won’t let you go.

The first thing I should single out is Caitlin Gerard’s performance. Right from the start, she holds our attention as she makes Lizzy into a formidable character who doesn’t necessarily need a man to see her through dangers of any kind. Furthermore, she has many scenes in which she doesn’t utter a word of dialogue and has to get things across with her face and body. It’s a lot to ask of an actor to communicate with just their face as they could easily fall into the trap of emoting to where they overdo it and turn in a performance which is inescapably laughable. Gerard, however, never falls into this trap as she almost succeeds in turning this movie into a one-woman show. Throughout, she succeeds in conveying so much while saying so little, and she completely sucked me into Lizzy’s horrifying predicament which could have easily done in a weaker character.

Co-starring alongside Gerard is Julia Goldani Telles who plays Emma Harper, Isaac’s pregnant wife who befriends Lizzy. Emma is pleasant at first, but she soon complains of how something is out to get her, and she becomes possessed by a force which does everything except turn her head 360 degrees. Telles also could have fallen into the same trap, but she makes Emma’s possession fierce and believable to where her transition from sane to insane is all the more terrifying.

From a distance, “The Wind” looks like a movie which will employ the usual variety of horror tropes such as the last woman standing, heroic and moronic male characters and a murderous villain looking for a long-running franchise which will eventually see a reboot. However, this horror western feels unique to many of its ilk, and it is great to see such strong female characters inhabiting it. Honestly, it feels like it has been a long time since I have seen a horror movie with female characters like these as they easily dominate the male characters without any doubt.

Director Emma Tammi makes her narrative feature debut here after having made several documentaries including “Fair Chase.” It is a very assured debut as she balances out all the cinematic elements in equal fashion. In addition to getting excellent performances from the cast, there is also beautiful cinematography from Lyn Moncrief and a terrific film score composed by Ben Lovett which sounds like something out of my childhood nightmares. The fact Tammi had only 30 days to film “The Wind” makes her work here all the more impressive.

If “The Wind” does run into any problems, it is in regards to its non-linear story which gives the movie a lot of power, but also generates some confusion. The screenplay by Teresa Sutherland is strong, but the more it shifts from one place in time to another, the more I lost track of where the characters were in the story. Granted, a lot of my confusion was rectified before the movie’s climax, but being thrown off like that did take away from my viewing experience.

I also have to say that the ending was a bit of a letdown. As much as I enjoy ambiguous conclusions, this was one I wanted spelled out for me. I usually hate it when filmmakers try to spell things out for audiences, but this time it would have helped as “The Wind” felt somewhat incomplete when the screen went to black.

Regardless, I very much taken in by “The Wind” and found it to be a highly unnerving horror film. It’s coming in under the radar and is easily being smothered by bigger movies, but I hope fans of the genre will give it a look. In the meantime, I will be waiting for the next weather disaster movie, “The Smog.” That one will be worth it just to hear its characters have the following exchange:

“You don’t understand! The smog is here and it’s trying to kill us!”

“Ahh, I see you are new to Los Angeles…”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Hellboy II: The Golden Army’ Has Del Toro and Perlman Up To Their Old Tricks

Hellboy II The Golden Army movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.

Darn it, I was not able to get around to seeing the original “Hellboy” before checking out its sequel, so I hope I am not missing much. When all is said and done, however, I was able to follow along with “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” and its characters with little, if any, confusion. I would like to know how the fish character, Abraham, breathes outside of the water, but I guess I’ll have to watch the original to find this out. With this sequel, we do get some back story of how the title character came to be, so the uninitiated shouldn’t feel too alienated from what is going on here.

Hellboy II,” like its predecessor, comes to us from the infinitely inspired cinematic mind of Guillermo Del Toro whose work here proves to be endlessly imaginative on a visual level. In the last few years, he has proven to be one of the most original and creative directors working in movies, and his 2006 film “Pan’s Labyrinth” was one of the very best of that year. While this sequel doesn’t reach the creative brilliance of that movie, it doesn’t matter much because this time around Del Toro is just out to give us a fun time. “Hellboy II” is definitely a lot of fun, and there is plenty of creativity on display here which you don’t see from your average movie studio looking to cut down overall budgets wherever and whenever they can.

Hellboy himself is played by Ron Perlman, and there is no one else who could have inhabited this demonic superhero anywhere as effectively. Seriously, I can’t think of one. Perlman previously worked with Del Toro in “Blade II” which was another great sequel, and he is also best known for his roles in “The City of Lost Children” and the television series “Beauty and the Beast.” His imposing height and rough demeanor fit perfectly with this comic book character who has a lot of Casper the friendly ghost inside of him as he wants to get along with people instead of them fearing and hating him. Hellboy is kind of like Snake Plissken from “Escape From New York,” except he does care about more than himself than just staying alive.

The prologue lets those who haven’t seen the original know how Hellboy was actually created by the Nazis, but he was soon rescued by the Army and raised to be one of the good guys instead of becoming a villain. On Christmas Eve, he is told a bedtime story by his surrogate father, Professor Trevor ‘Broom’ Bruttenholm (John Hurt). This allows Del Toro to set up the story of the Golden Army and of how they waged a war against humanity to rule the earth. The truce between the mythical world and humanity, however, is about to be broken as Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) seeks to restore the rule back to the mythical world.

The world of “Hellboy” is much like the one we saw in the “X-Men” movies as it deals with characters rejected by society for being different. Hellboy, while being hurt by the rejection of the humans, seems to have a strong sense of humor about the whole situation. While doing his duty against his and the world’s enemies, he always finds the time to drink a couple 6-packs of imported beer and take care of an unusually high number of cats (how does he keep track of them all?). The other characters around him are just as alienated from humanity, and this is mainly because the majority of them look anything but human. One of the other main characters, Abe Sapien (played by Doug Jones), is a fishlike character who has to wear a special breathing apparatus filled with water wherever he goes. One of the other ingeniously created characters in this movie is Johann Krauss, an ectoplasmic being who lives in a containment suit. While the characters of the “X-Men” movies may stand a chance of having seemingly normal lives, the ones in the “Hellboy” franchise don’t look to be as lucky.

I enjoyed some of the music choices Del Toro made here, and I’m not just talking about Danny Elfman’s score which is the same kind of score he gives to Tim Burton movies. There is one point where the song “Beautiful Freak” by the Eels (one of my favorite alternative bands) is used to help illustrate the strong relationship Hellboy and his girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair) have. No one can love Hellboy the way Liz does, and it certainly not a perfect love to put it mildly. There is also a funny and strangely touching moment between Hellboy and Abe where they start singing to a Barry Manilow song as they seek to find the elusive magic of love.

Selma Blair proves to be terrific as Liz, and she gives her character a don’t mess with me attitude as well as a vulnerability which makes us care about her all the more. You never doubt that she is ready and willing to risk her life and even the fate of humanity to save Hellboy for reasons which are made abundantly clear at this sequel’s start.

I also really admired the character of the Johann Krauss and of how he was created. There is also a hilarious fight scene between him and Hellboy where he ends up fighting the hornless devil boy in the least expected way possible. That scene was one of my favorites, and it also helps that Johann is voiced by Seth MacFarlane, the creator of “Family Guy.”

There’s nothing truly original about the story of “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” but Del Toro still manages to make it feel original in a way only he can pull off. Right now, he is one of the few directors I can think of who has a really unique filmmaking style. Even if this sequel doesn’t prove to be one of his best works, it still has a wonderful level of creativity missing from many mainstream films.

In the end, “Hellboy II” proves to be a fun ride, and it does make me want to catch the original at some point in my lifetime. Better yet, I should also check out “The Devil’s Backbone,” “Cronos” and “Mimic.” I have a lot of catching up to do.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Gran Torino’ is a Movie Only Clint Eastwood Could Pull Off

Gran Torino movie poster

At its core, “Gran Torino” is a familiar story as it deals with a man in contact with people he does not fully understand but comes to respect and even love by the movie’s end. But it brings out the brilliance of Clint Eastwood the director as his handling of the material makes it anything but familiar. Many of his best movies have a very down to earth feeling which brings you closer to the story and the characters involved in it, and he doesn’t rely on casting picture-perfect actors who would unintentionally suck away all the reality inherent in the screenplay. Eastwood gives us a close-knit Hmong family that is anything but average, and he gets deep into their culture and the traditions they keep. It’s a great family that breaks through whatever stereotypes we have of them, and seeing him hang around them gives the movie some of its best moments.

Eastwood portrays Walt Kowalski, a recently widowed Korean War veteran who is as cantankerous a man as they come. He is alienated from his family who are becoming increasingly eager to put him into a retirement home, and his granddaughter is keen for him to donate his prized 1972 Ford Gran Torino to her when he dies. His neighborhood of Highland Park in Detroit, Michigan used to be filled with working class white families, but now it is dominated poor Asian families and gangs whose violence seems never ending. Like many, Walt is resistant to change, but change is inevitable and something he cannot possibly stop.

The Hmong Vang Lor family lives next door to Walt, and neither are keen to know one another. This is especially the case after the teenage Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang) attempts to steal Walt’s Gran Torino after being pressured by the local gang to do so. Upon failing to steal it, the gang beats up on Thao until Walt confronts them with his rifle, and they run off. From there, Walt earns the family’s respect and is determined to thank him endlessly for what he has done.

The fact the Vang Lor family lets Walt hang out with them is astonishing when you take into account the vile crap which comes out of his mouth. As an actor, Eastwood never tries to hide from the ugly racist Walt is, and the name calling he does makes it seem insane that any family member would keep him around for five minutes. Watching “Gran Torino,” I tried to think of another actor other than Eastwood who could play such a politically incorrect character and still make you sympathize with and follow him wherever he goes. Eastwood gives Walt Kowalski a toughness and a vulnerability which is not so easy to pull off. To say this is a part which Eastwood could just walk through would be an insult to what he accomplishes here.

In the youth obsessed place that is Hollywood, it’s nice to see an actor of Eastwood’s age show us how it is really done. A part like his in “Gran Torino” cannot be played by some Clearasil clean face actor that adorns many of the shows on the CW network, but by one whose face and body is etched with the marks of a life lived long and hard. One of my favorite scenes has Clint driving up to a trio of African-American men who are messing with Sue (Ahney Her), Thao’s older sister, and her white boyfriend. Eastwood comes in and breaks up the party, going out of his way to insult everyone around him. He calls Sue’s boyfriend a pussy and busts his chops for trying to pretend he’s black (this got one of the biggest laughs in the theater the night I saw it in). He then delivers a line which would have sounded ridiculous coming out of any other actor’s mouth:

“Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have messed with? That’s me.”

Watching this, I felt more than convinced only Eastwood could sell a line like that. I like to believe I could, but a lot of people who know me seem to have a huge misunderstanding of the kind of guy I am.

The more I think of Eastwood’s role in “Gran Torino,” the more multi-dimensional it is, and he nails every part of it perfectly. We see the pain in his face of memories from long past which still haunt him, of the despair he experiences when members of the Vang Lor suffer the worst kind of abuse, and we can clearly see the regret in his face that he was not closer to his children throughout their lives. Even though Walt can seem like a hateful person, Eastwood gives him a strong humanity which comes across from start to finish.

By casting unknown actors as the members of the Vang Lor family, Eastwood the director gives this movie an even stronger authenticity to where you feel like you have known these people forever. One of my favorite performances in the movie was by Ahney Her who plays Sue Lor. She is a real kick to watch throughout as she comes through Walt’s casual insults unphased and even convincingly manages to get him to attend the family barbecue. It takes her a bit, but she manages to draw him in when she mentions there is beer. Her gives us a jaded teenager with a good sense of humor who is no pushover. She’s the kind of girl we knew from high school regardless of race, and Her steals every scene she is in.

As dark as “Gran Torino” seems, the movie has a quirky sense of humor which makes it all the more enjoyable. Another great moment is when Walt teaches Thao how to talk like a man to get what he wants. The scene in the local barbershop of Walt getting Thao to do this is a hilarious moment in how he gets the teenager to talk, and he playfully messes with Thao’s head to get him to realize a few things. This leads to one of the movie’s most gut busting moments when Walt helps Thao get a construction job and lets Thao do all the talking. I almost passed out because I was laughing so hard.

The last half turns bleak as the Vang Lor family deals with devastating events which threaten not only them, but Walt as well. It almost seems like the movie will have a “Death Wish” kind of ending, but Eastwood is much too smart to let things become unforgivably manipulative or sentimental. You may think you know where things are heading, and while you may be right, the terrific screenplay by Dave Johannson and Nick Schenk keeps you on the edge of your seat and has you guessing what will happen all the way to the end. It’s very clear “Gran Torino” is a redemption piece, but the way Walt achieves his redemption is both unexpected and shocking.

“Gran Torino” is the kind of movie which I think really brings out the best in Eastwood as an actor and a director. I am convinced that if this script landed in the hands of another director, it would have ended up being your average anti-racism parable with loads of clichéd characters and predictable situations. But with Eastwood in the director’s chair, he gives the movie a genuine humanity, and he lets the characters propel the plot of the movie. He also gives what we see a strong sense of reality which draws you into the story right away, and a freshness which almost makes you forget you have seen this kind of movie before. I really enjoyed “Gran Torino” a lot more than I thought I would. I figured it would be a decent movie at best, but Eastwood continues to challenge himself and his audience with each project he does. I also have to say that I’m really glad I didn’t have to sit through another ending like the one he gave us in “Million Dollar Baby.” I don’t think I could handle such an ending again.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘The Mule’ Movie and Blu-ray Review (Written by Tony Farinella)

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The fact that Clint Eastwood is still directing films at his age is nothing short of amazing.  When he is acting and directing them, it is even more impressive.  “The Mule” marks the first time he has directed and acted at the same time since 2008’s “Gran Torino,” so it’s been a while. He does not disappoint as the usual Eastwood touches are here.  He is a simple yet powerful filmmaker and actor.  He is not going to do a lot with the camera, but he trusts his actors, the writer, and he gives everyone them the space they need to tell the story.  It is what he has always done as a director.  He’s not a flashy filmmaker and he doesn’t need to be since he knows what works.

Eastwood stars as Earl Stone, a 90-year old horticulturist from Peoria, Illinois who is seeing the world changing rapidly thanks to the Internet. The film starts out in 2005 and he is winning awards at conventions and making friends left and right.  However, he has forgotten about his family in the process.  He is not on good terms with them and they feel neglected.  Early on in the film, they show him missing out on his daughter’s wedding.  His real-life daughter (Alison Eastwood) is in the film, which is a nice touch.

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With the internet growing, Earl has now fallen on hard times.  When he shows up to visit his granddaughter at a brunch for her upcoming wedding, he notices his family has not forgiven him for putting work over family. He wants to make it up to them by pitching in for Ginny’s (Taissa Farmiga) upcoming wedding.  Someone approaches him at the brunch and informs him that all he has to do is drive and he can make a lot of money.  Driving is something he is very good at as he has driven in forty-one states and has never been pulled over or ever had a ticket.

Little does Earl know he will be driving for the cartel and carrying around some cocaine. Since he is such a good driver, and 90-years old, it seems like the perfect way for him to make some easy money and get back in the good graces of his family. At first, he only takes on one job and believes it will be enough to hold him over.  Before long, he is their top driver and highly thought of by the cartel.   However, two DEA agents played by Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña are trying to take down the cartel, and Earl may go down with them as well.

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There is nothing here which is incredibly moving, profound, or earth shattering. The jokes about cell phone usage are a little overdone.  It is still very entertaining, however, and a very easy movie to watch. The film also features stellar performances from Laurence Fishburne, Dianne Wiest as Earl’s ex-wife, Richard Herd, Andy Garcia, and Clifton Collins Jr. Eastwood is the one leading the charge here, and he always plays it with his usual Eastwood calm, cool, and collected persona even when things get a little hairy.  He makes a decision and he sticks with it.

At 116 minutes, “The Mule” breezes by with humor, suspense, and tension.  At this rate, we don’t know how many more times Eastwood will be in front of the camera, and he is a Hollywood icon, so it’s always a treat.  I don’t see any upcoming films for him as a director/actor, and he is someone who should be cherished.  He still has it and will never lose it. I hope he lives forever and keeps making movies.  This is the kind of movie where you sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride Eastwood and company take you on for almost two hours.  It’s not great, but it’s still quite good.

* * * out of * * * *

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Blu-Ray Info: “The Mule” is released on a two-disc Blu-Ray, DVD, and Digital Combo Pack from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment.  It has a running time of 116 minutes and is rated R for language throughout and brief sexuality/nudity.

Audio Info: The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio: English 5.1, English Descriptive Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital: French 5.1 (Dubbed in Quebec), and Spanish 5.1. Subtitles are included in English, Spanish, and French.

Video Info:  The film comes to you in 1080p High Definition 16×9 2.4:1.

Special Features:

The Making of The Mule: Nobody Runs Forever (10:59): Clint Eastwood talks about how it was different from other projects he had done in the past.  It was inspired by true events as well. The screenwriter of “Gran Torino” wrote this film, which makes total sense.  Eastwood gives great details about how he approached the character. Many of the main cast members chime in with their thoughts on the film and working with Eastwood.  They also go into detail on how Eastwood was big on getting all of the little things right in this movie.

Toby Keith “Don’t Let the Old Man In” Music Video (02:54)