Sunday, April 30, 2006


Æon Flux Movie Charlize Theron Directed by Karyn Kusama
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Once again I find myself in the minority. The Tomatometer’s gauge at levels off at an extremely cool 10% approval rating; meaning 90% of the critics DIDN’T like it.

Most of the bashing comes via comparisons to
CATWOMAN (another bomb) or the fact that the original ÆON FLUX was an animated feature on MTV and the translation to live-action cinema didn’t work. Not having seen these animated versions — or CATWOMAN for that matter — I can’t make any comparisons. But what I can do is tell you how the movie flowed, how well it was acted, and its entertainment value.

Charlize Theron (NORTH COUNTRY) stars as ÆON FLUX, a rebel in the 25th century. A terrible disease has decimated humanity and its surviving members hide behind an enclosure, cut-off from the possible devastating effects of what lay beyond (think LOGAN’S RUN and you’ll be close). Within the confines of their home live the remaining five million members of society thanks to the medical efforts of the Goodchild Regime, named after Trevor Goodchild (Martin Csokas). ÆON FLUX belongs to an elite group of resistance fighters known as the Monicans who’s goal is to topple the Goodchild Regime. People have been vanishing. Police actions are resulting in deaths. And ÆON FLUX is going to find out why.

As we move through the stronghold of humanity (the city is known as Bregna), we learn and see much about this futuristic yet completely alien-like society. Pills can heighten awareness and even send coded messages to ones brain. Computers look like musical instruments or a type of String Theory. Everyone feels that something is wrong with their world ...and there is. Cloning and its effects on the power-base of the Goodchild Regime are holding humanity back at a terrible price.

CATWOMAN comparisons aside (yes, Charlize looks fantastic in her skin-tight leather outfit), this is a thinking person’s film. There are lots of little tidbits thrown into the film that give it a futuristic look without trying too hard (the computers were a nice touch, as were filming many external shots in Berlin, Germany where new construction is the rage).

The pacing of the film was excellent. Never once did it get bogged down in the minutia of the times or the science. If you can’t keep up, oh well. Leaping from action sequence to fight scene to action sequence made the 93 minutes fly by. The acting was okay. Nothing special but nothing horrible either. Charlize was the shining star, of course, and gave a relatively fine performance.

For my time, this was extremely entertaining and sexy, and full of great sci-fi scenery.

Only one question remains: What’s up with the critics?!

Click here for the ÆON FLUX movie trailer!


North Country Movie Charlize Theron Directed by Niki Caro
Reviewed by Byron Merritt

Unfortunate Thumbs Down

An Unfortunate Thumbs Down Film Review Rating

NORTH COUNTRY is a story we’ve heard many times before: small-town person is persecuted by big-time company, fights, loses ground, but succeeds in the end. This is ERIN BROCKOVICH and SILKWOOD all over again, but put in a sort of COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER setting (we even get to see Sissy Spacek!) Although this film focuses on the case that ultimately set the stage for the prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace, the movie’s message dwarfed the actors.

One thing I love about films — if done right — is they get us up-close and intimate with a character or characters. CAPOTE did it. RAY did too. And WALK THE LINE was also excellently done. They focused on one character and so had that advantage, but NORTH COUNTRY is about one woman, too, named Josey Aimes played by the uglied-down (again!) Charlize Theron (AEON FLUX). Mrs. Theron has proven her mettle thanks to her stunning portrayal (and Oscar win) in MONSTER. We’ve all heard the accolades thrown down at her feet so I won’t bother you with a recap. Suffice to say she did an excellent job. Here in NORTH COUNTRY she also did some fine acting, but the script dashed any chances of reclaiming an Oscar. Frances McDormand (also in AEON FLUX) is notable as the hard-bitten friend who gets Josey Aimes the job at the local mine. McDormand’s tough love appearance on screen was well-played, and her eventual fall into Lou Gehrig’s Disease pitiable.

The filming of NORTH COUNTRY is pulled off well. The muted grays, dark browns, and dull colors of the mine give us the feel of a black and white film. As one actress pointed out in the DVD’s extra features, "There weren’t any pinks in the mine."

Where the film fell apart, again, was in the script. Jumping to flashbacks and trying to capture the family dynamic, the townsfolk sentiments, and dozens of other side stories all pulled the viewer away from the main character and tried to force-feed us the no-no’s of sexual harassment. I’m not trying to downplay harassment in the workplace. It’s an important message, but one that doesn’t necessarily translate to an enjoyable film experience. For example, with the exception of Woody Harrelson, all the other minor characters are easily forgettable (and I suspect the only reason I remember Woody is because I was a CHEERS fan).

You’ll note below that Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand both got quite a few nominations but won none of them. There’s a reason, folks.

Click here for the North Country movie trailer!

Oscar Nomination: Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Oscar Nomination: Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
BAFTA Nomination: Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
BAFTA Nomination: Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Golden Globe Nomination: Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama
Golden Globe Nomination: Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


The Ice HarvestJohn Cusack Directed by Harold Ramis
Starring John Cusack
Reviewed by Byron Merritt


If you’re dreaming of a black Christmas try putting this DVD in your player for a few hours of entertainment. But be forewarned: it won’t be for everyone. If you’re a fan of John Cusack (specifically if you really, really, really loved GROSSE POINTE BLANK) then you’ll probably enjoy the dark comedy flooding this film.

Harold Ramis steps outside his normal feel-good comedies (ANALYZE THIS, etc.) and jumps headlong onto the dark side. Having the look and feel of a Cohen Brothers noir film, Ramis chose to incorporate old themes (good-looking but flawed guy falls for even more flawed girl while trying to pull a fast one) but did so using an updated script.

The film opens with Charlie (Cusack), a lawyer for the local mob in Wichita Falls, stealing two-million dollars from “The Boss” and meeting up with his partner Vic (Billy Bob Thornton, BAD SANTA). They plan to leave the city in the morning but a horrendous ice storm hits town and life on the roads (and in general) becomes slippery and dangerous. A recurring poetic verse keeps popping up, too: “As Wichita Falls, So Falls Wichita Falls.” Charlie keeps seeing it written everywhere. But who’s the author and what does it mean?

We quickly learn that Vic is as morally bankrupt as a person can get and has no intentions of sharing the ill-gotten funds with Charlie (are they really ill-gotten if you steal them from the mob?) But thrown into the mix is a beautiful femme fatal named Renata (Connie Nielsen, GLADIATOR). She runs a strip club in town but has an unusual attraction to Charlie, Vic and money. But which will win out?

When mob boss Bill Gerard (Randy Quaid, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN) discovers the theft, he puts a thug named Roy (Mike Starr, KNOCKAROUND GUYS) onto Charlie and Vic’s tails. But when even that fails to pull Charlie and Vic in, the boss is forced to deal with the two thieves himself.

The karma here is as dark as dark can get, but also amazingly funny. When Randy Quaid waves his gun around at a few of the characters and complains that he should be at home with his kids celebrating “the birth of God”, it’s actually quite funny in a very irrational way. Worrying more about money than the message a holiday like Christmas is supposed to represent fills every moment of screen time. Are they that far off when compared with the message of modern consumerism in December? Ouch.

Watching the two additional alternate endings on the DVD made me thankful that they chose the theatrically released one; the other two were flat-out TOO dark. But the ending here will make you both laugh out loud and cringe.

This movie was universally panned by film critics, which makes me sad that they couldn’t see the humor associated with our counter-culture.

Oh yes, and the “As Wichita Falls, So Falls Wichita Falls” verse. It’s fairly nonsensical, but only in a way that makes perfect sense. Understand? No. Watch the film and learn.

Click here for The Ice Harvest movie trailer!

Sunday, April 23, 2006


In Her ShoesToni Collette Directed by Curtis Hanson
Starring Toni Collette
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



For those who’ve read any of my previous film reviews, you probably know that dysfunctional family stories aren’t my favorite genre. They tend to be too psychologically dark if not downright depressing (THE SQUID AND THE WHALE is a prime example). I don’t mind dark themes; in fact, I enjoy them, but they need to have more substance than just dark qualities. There needs to be character studies that go deep and delve into people as a whole, not just their black side. And that’s why IN HER SHOES works ...

Some might see this as a chick flick, but it isn’t. Although all of the prime players are women, they just as easily could’ve been men (brothers and a grandfather). But here, it just happens to be strong female leads that pull us into the story. The premise is simple: two grown-up sisters (played by Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz) are at odds with each other. One is a responsible attorney while the other remains a sexy playgirl, and a damaging evening involving one of their boyfriends rips them apart. But as time goes by, both learn that being the "other" sister isn’t such a bad thing; they are both equal parts of the other, and this comes into focus when they learn the truth about their mother’s death and discover that they still have a living grandmother (the excellent Shirley MacLaine).

Tears and laughter are mixed throughout the film as we learn more and more about this wily family and how one sister’s shoes (both figuratively and literally) might well fit the other ...and vice versa. The title of the movie is absolutely perfect in that we see early on Toni Collette’s character’s affinity for footwear and how the sisters fight over shoes and life, and how sometimes life doesn’t always nuzzle-up to us in a comfortable way but shoes (family/sisters) always do.

This is an excellent film to cozy up with next to your favorite (or embittered) sibling and take a voyage of discovery down Family Lane.

Click here for the In Her Shoes movie trailer!

Saturday, April 22, 2006


Daniel Radcliffe Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Directed by Mike Newell
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



The Harry Potter film franchise takes off with another wizardly tale of growing up at Hogwarts with all of its interpersonal banter and dark underpinnings.

Watching the young actors age on the screen is probably becoming one of the more satisfying things for me. It makes it seem more "real" even though this is just a fantastic fantasy.

Coming back to the wizard school this time, we see that Ron, Hermione and Harry have hit their growth (and hormone) spurts. Dancing, love, friendship, and danger are now forever linked as we’re introduced to the Goblet of Fire TriWizard competition. Normally set as a triad competition (between three individuals of different schools) this time there will be four contestants, obviously including Harry. Angst and anger are the melange of the day as Harry has to deal with his lack of knowledge about the competition and grapple with his growing affection for girls his own age. Oh yes, and he’s still be chased by the evil Lord Voldemort (the wizard responsible for his parents’ death and the unusual scar forever emblazoned on Harry’s forehead).

Harry’s not old enough to compete in the competition and his fellow Hogwartians aren’t happy with the fact that Harry seems to be outgrowing his own shoes. Is he too cocky? Harry never entered the competition and doesn’t know how his name got picked but his fellow classmates don’t believe him.

As the Goblet of Fire contest continues, we see Harry battling dragons, saving one friend but unable to rescue another, and then meeting face-to-face with true evil.

Perhaps it’s the dark qualities of these latest Potter films that drags me in, or perhaps I’m just a fan of the genre (junky?), but whatever it is, I find the dangers and limited successes of Harry and his friends comforting and realistic (not overly done with a "Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes" attitude). This one’s rated PG-13, too, so keep an eye on the kiddies.

Like the Prizoner of Azkaban, this one has very dark over and undertones. And clocking in at two-and-a-half hours, it’s one of the longer in the series but well worth the sitting time.

Click here for the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire movie trailer!


The Exorcism of Emily Rose
Jennifer CarpenterDirected by Scott Derrickson
Reviewed by Byron Merritt

Unfortunate Thumbs Down


THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE had an excellent start to what could have been a really outstanding upgrade to exorcism films of old (obviously I’m thinking about THE EXORCIST). But the ending had so many strikes against it that I nearly turned the movie off.

The initial premise of the film was wonderful, though, making it appear as if the audience would decide what really happened to Emily (Jennifer Carpenter). Showing back-story during the court case in which a priest is on trial for her death intrigued me. The courtroom drama unfolded with two aspects being shown: one moment we see the medical possibilities of what Emily may have gone through ("Was she an epileptic with a form of psychosis?"), while the next we’re introduced to the possibility of demonic possession ("Can an epileptic be conscious during a convulsion and speak Aramaic?") I was spellbound by the medical/religious dueling and I gave a bit of credence to both sides ...for a while.

Tom Wilkinson plays Father Moore, the Rose family parish priest, who was assigned the task of performing the exorcism by the local arch-diocese. But the exorcism goes horribly awry and "the demons" remain in Emily. She deteriorates and eventually dies ...which is where the film starts. We watch a medical examiner enter the Rose house and proclaim that he can’t prove Emily’s death was by natural causes, so Father Moore is arrested for negligent homicide for not seeking medical attention.

The Catholic church has an attorney firm on retainer and asks for their rising star lawyer, Erin Bruner (Laura Linney, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE), to represent Father Moore. But taking on the case may just be the start for Ms. Bruner. Father Moore tells her that "evil forces surround this trial," and it is here that the film begins to unravel. Instead of leaving it to the viewer to decide what might have happened to Emily, the film becomes a heavy-handed treatise on God, sainthood, and excessive religious symbolism. This completely deflated any possibility of a medical diagnosis, thus ending any after-movie discussion about what the message of the film might be about.

Conveniently, Erin Bruner finds a locket on the ground with her initials inscribed on it, giving sledgehammer understanding as to why she decides to continue with the case ("I found that locket, of all people, and I guess it means maybe I’m on the right path"). Give me a break. Strike one!

Then Father Moore miraculously produces a letter that Emily had wrote before she died, telling everyone that because Emily was a good person, and made a tough spiritual decision, she "might be considered for sainthood in the future." Excuse me? Sainthood for one action? And what about the wounds to Emily’s hands and feet. Stigmata, of course. Wait. Stigmata? On a possessed person? Strike two!

And then we get to the sentencing of Father Moore and the ridiculous "recommendation" by the jury. Would a judge really, honestly, legally, consider that? Maybe. But was it believable? Absolutely not. Strike three! You’re out!

Had the film retained its "is it medical or spiritual" uncertainty throughout its length, I felt this would’ve been a fantastic success. But as it sits now, it’s just a pile of rubbish. What a shame.

Click here for The Exorcism of Emily Rose movie trailer!


The Squid and the Whale Jeff Daniels
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Starring Jeff Daniels
Reviewed by Byron Merritt

Thumbs Down


THE SQUID AND THE WHALE is quite difficult to give a negative review to because I felt it manhandled the parent/child relationship with some great child actors, but failed in every other aspect.

Jeff Daniels stars as Bernard, a writer of minimal fame who’s marriage is on the brink of implosion. We first meet Bernard and his dysfunctional family while they play tennis and quickly learn that his wife Joan (Laura Linney, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) is fed up with her husband’s over-compensating ego related to his failed writing career. But the marriage has lasted nearly sixteen years and produced two children. The eldest, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), is in high school and idolizes his father, so much so that he tries to be just as intellectual as his dad but can’t quite reach the mark. At one point during a talent show he goes so far as to steal a new Pink Floyd song and play it off as his own, thus winning the grand prize. The younger brother, Frank (Owen Kline), is attached to his mother but also loves Walt, and the stress of the marriage’s break-up and subsequent family breakdown leave him with embittered feelings toward everyone, including himself; he starts drinking beer and whiskey, and comparing his looks to his mother.

It is the young boys who really pulled this movie up to a higher standing than it could ever hope to be and the script helped them out, making their portrayals relatively interesting to watch. For instance, as Walt discovers the truth about his father and his mother (how screwed up they both are) he has to come to terms with becoming his own man. It’s a tough realization for anyone to come to and watching Walt battle his younger self only to be bucked back to reality by his new, older self is a great way of showing self actualization.

Young Frank doesn’t have that option, though. He’s too young to know about such things and so acts out against the world around him. He drinks, curses like his father, tries to hate his mother, and ejaculates on library books as a show of defiance towards his parents’ chosen professions (writing).

So that’s the good parts of this award winning flick. But let me tell you about the "not-so-good" parts ...

The cameras used for filming are often handheld and although this can give a sense of interaction on the audiences part, it felt more wobbly than anything.

The script, although interesting, didn’t translate well to film. There’s really no angst one feels for these characters, only a sense of impending depression for what awaits them ("Oh boy, another family dynamic movie with screwed up parents and children. Now where did I put my Prozac?")

And finally, the title of the film is THE SQUID AND THE WHALE. Titles are important to me; they give me a sense of what the film’s going to be about, even if in relative terms. But this title is in reference to something that appeared to be thrown into the movie at the last minute. Now I realize that may not be the case, but that’s how it felt. We never know what this squid and this whale are until three-fourths of the way through the film, as if it was supposed to tie it all up for us in a nice little psychological package. Well it didn’t work for me (I’m not going to give away what THE SQUID AND THE WHALE is in reference to just in case some of you decide to watch the movie).

Psychology students should check out this film for research, but the general population might need to stock up on their anti-depressants before sitting through it.

Click here for The Squid and the Whale movie trailer!

Friday, April 21, 2006


Terrence Howard Hustle and Flow Directed by Craig Brewer
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Before I start in on this review, I think I need to make a few things clear: 1) I don’t watch MTV, and 2) I don’t like rap music. Hopefully that will help put things in perspective for those who choose to read this because this isn’t a tale about a rapper nor about music; it’s the story of never giving up on one’s dreams, a universal theme that takes on an entirely new scope in writer/director Craig Brewers excellent film HUSTLE AND FLOW.

I didn’t much care for BOYZ 'N THE HOOD and I felt that 8-MILE was over-hyped, so I was hesitant to watch something with a similar sounding theme. But my worries were unfounded. Although what you’ve probably heard is true ("It’s the story of a pimp and his whores"), chances are you’re only getting a snapshot glimpse of this amazing character film by listening to such a basic definition.

Terrence Howard plays D’Jay the pimp, a good pimp, struggling to make ends meet by employing three women in his "crib". But a chance encounter with a music mixer whom he used to go to school with lifts his spirits and makes him feel as if he’s having a mid-life crisis. D’Jay’s attempts to cut his own music consume him, even to the point of using one of his employees’ skills to obtain a $250 microphone (sparking off a rather heated exchange, I might add).

The fact that the story takes place in Memphis added a genuine sense of realism to the film, too (from the down-and-out neighborhoods and on-location shoots near bridges and underpasses).

The actors — without exception — reached deep down into themselves and pulled up some of the finest performances of 2005. Every single actor in the movie LIVED those roles. All of the Oscar nominated films in 2005 (although this one wasn’t nominated for Best Picture) held a valid message, and I absolutely loved how different yet similar they were. GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, CAPOTE, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, CRASH and MUNICH all had amazing historical or cultural aspects littered throughout them, and HUSTLE AND FLOW is no exception; why it wasn’t nominated in the Best Picture category ahead of MUNICH is a mystery to me, though.

Never giving up on your dreams ("By any means necessary") is both the message of the film and of the film-makers. Watching the extra features on the DVD, I learned that the producers shopped around Hollywood for financial backing but couldn’t find any. Year after year and studio after studio, they got turned down. So, in the spirit of "let’s go and do it ourselves", they put their own money forward (a measly $8 million sunk into it from pre- to post-production).

If you haven’t seen this movie just because of what you’ve heard, you’re cheating yourself out of an excellent night of entertainment. Just remember, you don’t have to be young to enjoy the themes talked about here. This is dreaming at its ugliest and its best. Oh! And I still don’t like rap music, but I may be buying the music track to this film.

Click here for the Hustle & Flow movie trailer!

Oscar Award Winner: Best Song (Music)

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


Pride and PrejudiceKeira Knightley Directed by Joe Wright
Reviewed by Byron Merritt


Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has been translated to film several times now – from Robert Leonard’s 1940 “attempt” starring Laurence Olivier, to the 1980 and 1995 TV miniseries, and now on to a new theatrical release here. Having read the book and seen all of these adaptations, I feel I can comment objectively on what does and doesn’t work with regards to director Joe Wright’s newest version.

Let’s start with the positives. It’s beautifully filmed (from gnarled old trees to stunning sunsets against old English mansions) and the cast performs well. I even liked Mr. Bingley (
Simon Woods, FOYLE’S WAR TV series) and the rest of the actors. They seemed to be able to grasp the internal dynamics of their respective characters and pulled in fine performances. Keira Knightley (BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM, 2002) does a good job as Lizzie Bennett but appears upbeat far too often during a time when love and loss went hand in hand. Matthew Macfadyen (WUTHERING HEIGHTS TV series) does an admirable Mr. Darcy but being up against a giant of the English acting world from a previous adaptation made his character representation a bit tougher when it came to comparisons.

Now let’s get into my main problem: the pacing. I usually don’t mind fast-paced films, but Jane Austen’s book is anything but quick (checking in at around 500 pages depending on which publisher you choose). Books of this size tend to be difficult to translate to the silver screen (or TV) because of their scope, and this was the big “ouch” for this film. Clocking in at 129 minutes, condensing the book in such a drastic manner meant clipping out chapters and causing a bit of confusion. The confusion comes from the lack of understanding a new viewer might have IF they’ve never seen any of the previous TV/movie versions or IF they’ve never read the novel. When Lydia runs off with “the wrong man” it is a vital portion of the story that is only touched on and could seem disorienting to the new Pride and Prejudice viewer. We never see what happens to Lydia in London, nor do we see the wedding and where Mr. Darcy’s pressure exerts itself.

Comparisons will obviously be made between this theatrical release and the 1995 miniseries (which many, including myself, feel is the penultimate adaptation of Mrs. Austen’s book). Some might complain that it isn’t fair to make such comparisons because one was designed for television while the other was meant for theater. I’ll grant that. But with the lengthy films that’ve come out of Hollywood lately (Lord of the Rings, King Kong, etc.), I don’t feel that this new version would’ve suffered in the slightest by lengthening its running time and thus adding a better sense of coherency to many of the side stories. The 1995 miniseries also had an incredible benefit in that Mr. Darcy was played by the estimable Colin Firth (SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, 1998), and it is THIS Mr. Darcy that many hold as the high standard for such work. Try putting Matthew Macfadyen up against Mr. Firth and you’ll see what I mean; there’s just no comparing them.

I did give this film a positive review because a) I liked the cinematography, and b) the acting was generally well done. But for emotional impact and excellent character portrayals look to the 1995 miniseries.

Click here for the Pride and Prejudice movie trailer!

Oscar Nominated: Actress in a Leading Role

Oscar Nominated: Achievement in Art Direction

Oscar Nominated: Achievement in Costume Design

Oscar Nominated: Musical Score

BAFTA Award Nominee: Outstanding British Film of the Year

Golden Globe Award Nominee: Best Motion Picture -- Musical or Comedy

Sunday, April 16, 2006


Two For The MoneyMatthew McConaughey Directed by D.J. Caruso
Reviewed by Byron Merritt

Thumbs Down


I don’t think I’ve ever been addicted to anything (with the exception of caffeine …which doesn’t count, right? Right! I didn’t think so!)

But taking a look at something so addictive and so expensive is a bit unnerving. Two hundred billion dollars a year in sports gambling? That’s “billion.” Whoa. The problem with this, however, is that “normal” people won’t have any idea about the machinations behind such a business, and that is one of this film’s biggest failings. Myself never having been a sports gambler, I simply couldn’t relate to this shady business nor could I have cared.

The main problem was that the focus was on the men who were on the inside, not those most affected by the bets: the little man who loses everything due to his addiction and the pressure put on them by bookies and gambling affiliates (beware in Vegas!) Two For the Money did show a touch – just a bit – of the terrible side-effects of gambling by glimpsing a man named Mohammed who ran a dry cleaning service. But it was very short.

The prime focus was on Brandon Lang (Matthew McConaughey, REIGN OF FIRE, 2002) an injured football player turned sports-win-picker who’s 80% successful selections make him a phenomenon. No one’s ever done that and Walter Abrams’ (Al Pacino, THE GODFATHER, 1972) bookie team grabs hold of Brandon and inducts him into their company. He quickly leads them to unparalleled success, money and fame but, as fickle as luck/fate can be, it just as quickly gets snatched away.

Although it’s interesting to get an insider’s look into this little-known world, it’s also (as stated earlier) of little concern to most mainstream Americans (I know of no one who has sports gambling problems …but maybe that’s just me).

The other big failing was that the movie brought up problems related to these two men, but then summarily dropped them with no rhyme or reason. For instance, we’re told early on that Walter Abrams has a heart condition, then ¾ of the way through the flick it’s never mentioned again. We’re also shown how upset some of the rich and famous become when they lose, and one of these wealthy men sends “a warning” to Brandon. It happens once, and then we never hear of it again, as if they (the movie makers) just wanted to show us this side of the issue. You know what I said when I saw that: “Who cares?”

All in all a poorly done film. The script was seriously lacking (and littered with holes) and the acting was nothing special. Pacino is just Pacino. But I’m sure the ladies will love seeing McConaughey with his
shirt off. Uh-boy…

Click here for the Two For the Money movie trailer!

Saturday, April 15, 2006


Walk The LineJoaquin PhoenixDirected by James Mangold
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



My introduction to Johnny Cash’s music was when I was eight years old. My father started collecting his albums (8-tracks actually) and whenever we were on the road he’d pop one in and we’d listen to I Walk The Line or Ring Of Fire or Folsom Prison Blues; those were the main ones anyway. My dad wasn’t a big music fan back then – he was extremely selective – but Cash was his exception. Not knowing what Johnny’s music was all about, I really didn’t give much thought as to why my father should or shouldn’t like the singer (“He sings real good, doesn’t he Dad?” “Yes he does”). This might seem more like a family reminiscence on my part but humor me for just one more minute.

My father was pretty conservative: he paid his taxes on time without question, was a Marine, believed in the death penalty, enjoyed any kind of sports, and coached in a Pop-Warner football league.

Fast forward to this movie,
Walk The Line, and I have to wonder why my father felt so strongly for this man’s music. Johnny Cash was anything but conservative. Joaquin Phoenix’s excellent portrayal of Mr. Cash – from his humble beginnings on an Arkansas farm to his nearly fatal brush with amphetamine addiction – shows us all the flaws this incredibly gifted man had balled up inside him. He drank like a fish, womanized while on tour, supported better living standards for prison inmates (something my father would NEVER agree with), and enjoyed the rock-a-billy sounds that were just emerging onto the airwaves. Cash’s worldviews were fairly extreme and this spilled over into the lyrics for his songs (just listen to his best-selling At Folsom Prison album and you’ll see what I mean).

So what was it about Johnny Cash that pulled my dad into his fandom?

Well, this movie shows us. Johnny Cash’s voice (“Like a freight train coming ‘round a bend but sharp as a razor”) is hypnotic, and Mr. Phoenix deserves all of the notoriety he’s received for playing this role. It’s stunning to learn that Joaquin didn’t lip-sync any of the songs, but sung them all himself. And although Johnny Cash’s voice was a bit coarser and deeper, Mr. Phoenix should be congratulated for his singing talent. He amazed me.

The shining light in the movie, however, was Reese Witherspoon as June Carter. Who could’ve guessed that this Legally Blonde comedic talent could act so dramatically? Her singing voice was wonderful, too, doing all of June Carter’s songs without lip-syncing … just as Joaquin had.

But I do have two complaints. First, I didn’t much care for the ending. I felt it was abrupt and tried too hard to tie everything up into a nice “family package” in just a few minutes. Second (although not really a complaint but more of a comparison) is that there’ve been some really great character films done in the past few years, and although Walk The Line ranks right up there with the best of them, I felt that Jamie Foxx did a bit better job in Ray (but I think overall Walk The Line was better as entertainment).

Still, this is a great movie with excellent filming and information about an American icon of the music industry. I’m sure my dad loved it, too.

Click here for the Walk The Line movie trailer!

Golden Globe Award Winner: Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy

Oscar Award Winner: Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


ProofGwyneth Paltrow Directed by John Madden
Reviewed by Byron Merritt

Unfortunate Thumbs Down

An Unfortunate Thumbs Down Film Review Rating

Proving or disproving something is the goal of many mathematicians. But PROOF takes that equation into an entirely different dynamic. Gwyneth Paltrow (SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, 1998) as Catherine gives the best performance of all in this ensemble cast. She’s the daughter of a genius (Sir Anthony Hopkins, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, 1991) who’d lost his mind and recently died. But his brilliance was legendary. His equations changed mathematical history. And when Catherine appears to be just as brilliant as her father, her fears drive her to extremes. She feels she may be losing her mind, too, so she hides her intellect behind a mask of despair, longing for her lost father. Behind this facade we see her own battle with depression and her worries that she may be too much like her father. Will she end up just as mad as he? This is the question that eats at Catherine throughout the story.

Jake Gyllenhaal (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, 2005) plays Hal, the love interest, as well as a math student trying to come up with his own proof (i.e. mathematical breakthrough). He’s pouring over Catherine’s father’s final papers, trying to determine if there was anything of value left in his fractured mind just before his death. And when Catherine gives him a key to the desk, Jake uncovers what could be a discovery of monumental importance. But who wrote it? The father ...or the daughter?

Hope Davis (THE MATADOR, 2005) stars as Claire, Catherine’s distant sister who returns to town to help bury their father and to tick Catherine off of her "to-do list." She was the other shining star in the film, acting as a neurotically classic type-A personality.

Although PROOF held my interest, it’s impact on me was negligible. There was no "hallelujah" moment where everything fit together or where an actor or actress did something extraordinary. They just ...were.

The pacing of the film was pretty laid back, too. Director John Madden seemed in no particular hurry to get a resolution to the audience, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But for a "family dynamic" film, there could’ve (should’ve) been something more gripping that held my interest.
I will say that the picture was acted and shot well. Just not "very" well. Anthony Hopkins was just Anthony Hopkins, for instance.

Psychology students might eat this story up, but for the general population it may fall pretty flat.

Click here for the Proof movie trailer!

Golden Globe Nominated Film: Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture -- Drama

Friday, April 07, 2006


Elijah Wood Everything Is Illuminated Directed by Liev Schreiber
Starring Elijah Wood
Reviewed by Byron Merritt


Turning a book into film is a sketchy proposition. You never know what the directors, screenwriters, and everyone else involved in the pre, intra, and post-production processes will do with it. Never having read the book ("Everything is Illuminated" by Jonathan Foer), I can’t draw any comparisons ...but this movie definitely made me want to read it. However, I can tell you what an independent gem this film is, and why most of you will enjoy it.

The films innate quirkiness will draw many viewers in and hold them to the very end. This was undoubtedly the picture’s strongest aspect. Elijah Woods plays Jonathan Foer, an American born Jew who’s obsessive/compulsive disorder makes him "collect" things. He claims he does it so he’ll remember everything but as the film rolls on we see that he’s gathered such artifacts as false teeth, insects, and other oddball items. And added to his strange collection one day is a photograph given to him by his ailing grandmother, a photo of his dead grandfather standing next to a pretty woman. The image was taken in the Ukraine, just before the Nazis attacked Russia, and Jonathan doesn’t recognize the woman. His grandmother refuses to speak to him about who she is. Jonathan’s obsessive/compulsive behavior then takes him to the Ukraine to find out who she was and how she’d affected his grandfather’s life ...and ultimately his own.

Once inside the former Soviet Union, we get to see Jonathan through the eyes of another quirky duo, a grandfather and grandson, who are "experts" in helping American Jews find their heritage in the Ukraine. Ukrainian punk-band leader Eugene Hutz stars as Alex (one of three Alex’s actually, a name passed from grandfather, father, to son), one of Jonathan’s roughshod drivers and his only translator. Young Alex’s English is questionable and he initially views Jonathan as a kind of freak — of course the big glasses and undertaker-style clothes Jonathan wears don’t help his perceptions. But Alex is also trying to discover who his own grandfather is (another "Alex" played by Boris Leskin, MEN IN BLACK), and why he pretends to be blind (Grandpa Alex is also the main driver of their beat-up European car, which adds some initial comic relief but later becomes extremely important and poignant).

Then, of course, there’s the "deranged" dog, Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. (Yes, that’s two Jr.s), Grandpa Alex's "seeing eye bitch." Jonathan has a fear of dogs that seems extreme but later we find that both Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. and Jonathan are bizarre kindred souls — neither of them will eat something that’s been on the floor, for example. But they both have surprising abilities even though we see them initially as just messed-up (I’ll stop there for fear of giving away too much).

The other strong point I liked about this little film was that it was loaded (perhaps overflowing, some might say) with symbolism. In a Hollywood world where we’re spoonfed every detail, it was nice to see a movie keep it "real". It doesn’t drop to the lowest common denominator. If you don’t understand something, oh well. And there’s lots to think about once the film is over, too. There’s a reason Grandpa Alex claims to be blind but isn’t, and it’s a powerful message. There’s a reason Jonathan "sees" all his Ukrainian acquaintances once he returns to the States. There’s a reason the house where Jonathan finally finds some answers to his many questions is surrounded by sunflowers. Keep your eyes and mind open while watching and you’ll be greatly rewarded.

I’m going to end this review by commenting on the heavy-handed Holocaust films that've infused Hollyweird over the past several years. Although the Holocaust was a horrible event, and it’s something we need to make sure never happens again, beating us over the head with it isn’t always the best method to achieve sledgehammer recognition. Sometimes less is more, and this film achieved a sense of horrible clarity in just a few short shots that many Holocaust films couldn't do in as many hours.

In case you didn’t get it, this is a fantastic movie.

Click here for the Everything is Illuminated movie trailer!

Monday, April 03, 2006


Russell Crowe Cinderella Man Directed by Ron Howard
Starring Russell Crowe
Reviewed by Byron Merritt


Cinderella Man is the story of human victory over seemingly impossible odds. Russell Crowe plays legendary boxer James J. Braddock in Ron Howard’s well directed film based on the life of this astounding man.

Set during the Great Depression the film takes on the tone of loss as we witness Braddock’s initial rise in the boxing ring and then his rapid decline during the disastrous economic punch that landed a low-blow to America and the world. Millions are out of work and on the street. Families are ripped apart. But Braddock and his wife Mae (played by Renee Zellweger) will do anything to keep their heads above water while remaining morally upstanding citizens.

Like many families, the Braddocks have to sell just about everything to stay alive. And once everything of value is gone, Braddock has to work at the back-breaking docks, but even that’s not enough to sustain them. Braddock is forced to beg for money from acquaintances, and this is a terribly humiliating event to watch. But if that wasn’t enough, he has to go to the government office for public assistance.

Then a glimmer of hope arrives. His old manager Joe Gould (the awesomely intense Paul Giamatti) offers him one last fight with a heavyweight title contender. The assumption is that Braddock will lose, not having trained for months and having eaten only scraps off the street. But Braddock wins, relaunching his career and eventually getting a shot at Max Baer, the champ who’s blows have killed two men already.

History tells us that Braddock wins this fight, to the surprise of the then boxing commission and to the joy of millions of downtrodden Americans.

More interesting than the crunching blows and bloody fights are the surrounding circumstances of what America was going through at the time and how Braddock held his head high (at least as high as he could) in such trying times.

Getting a myopic view of family life during this time was a powerful way to present such a rags to riches story. The costumes and sets were spot-on period perfect and completely immersed the viewer in the times. Filming the struggling family pulled the movie-watcher close to the Braddocks and gave a sense of empathy that few directors can match these days. And the brutal boxing scenes were painful to watch. I flinched several times, wanting to look away but unable to for fear of missing something.

Having lavished such praise on this film, I have to comment on the cookie-cutout cinema Mr. Howard chooses to shoot (you remember Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, right?) Although I enjoy these heart-wrenching and uplifting historical movies, I do wish that Mr. Howard could break out of that mold and produce something beyond the mainstream.

But make no mistake, this is an intense movie with graphic depictions of Braddock (Crowe) landing obscenely hard blows well as taking them. The greatness of the actual filming cannot be denied but the commonality of it won’t surprise those who’ve seen a Ron Howard film in the past.

Click here for the Cinderella Man movie trailer!

Oscar Nominated Film: Best Supporting Actor