Tuesday, June 20, 2006


16 Blocks movieBruce Willis Directed by Richard Donner
Starring Bruce Willis
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Resting heavily on the shoulders of THE GAUNTLET (Clint Eastwood, 1977), 16 BLOCKS gives us a standard Bruce Willis action film and does so admirably. Not overly so, but a positive nod is deserved.

Jack Mosley (Willis) is an old, alcoholic cop who’s always done "the right thing" for his department. And now he’s assigned to take a fast-talking thug named Eddie (rapper
Mos Def) just 16 blocks for a court appearance. Trouble is, though, Eddie is scheduled to testify against some crooked cops who live and breath right in Jack’s backyard. Jack is unaware of this and soon discovers he’s got much more than just a simple escort job on his hands. People (cops mainly) are trying to kill Eddie. Jack quickly has to make a decision: protect Eddie and "do the right moral thing," or let his fellow brethren have their way with him and "do the right thing for the department."

Willis plays the aging cop well. He grumbles and drinks and generally hates what he does. The dirty New York offices and streets were shot well and gave an overall sense of the uncleanliness of Jack’s life (including his past, which comes up toward the end of the film).

Mos Def plays the irritating convict and his grating voice bugged the crap out of me. He sounded very nasal and whiney but, in contrast, this added a strange upbeat quality to a film that could’ve gotten too dark.

I also like the fact that Willis isn’t trying to play the "young stud" anymore on film. He’s getting older and I’m happy to see him in roles befitting his age.

The alternate endings on the DVD are worth watching, too. Personally, I would’ve gone with an alternate ending rather than the one seen in theaters. But maybe that’s just me...

Click here for the 16 Blocks movie trailer!


Shia LaBeouf The Greatest Game Ever Played movie Directed by Bill Paxton
Starring Shia LaBeouf
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Watching a movie about a kid’s struggle to play golf I’d assumed would be about as appealing as sticking hot needles in my eyes. But I’d heard a few good things about THE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED and found out that it was directed by Bill Paxton (ALIENS, 1986) so decided to give it a go. I ordered it from my online rental company and, to my additional horror once it arrived, discovered that it was a Disney film. Oh Lord, nooo! Not having anything else to watch, I swallowed my Mouseketeer bile and slid it into my DVD player.

Well, it ain’t too bad. Shia LaBeouf (HOLES, 2003) stars as 20-year-old Francis Ouimet, the historically amazing young man who had a knack for the game of golf and beat out two "veteran" British players (Harry Vardon and Ted Ray) for the U.S. Open, and did so using a preteen caddy with a loud personality but a love of the game.

There have been a lot of films made featuring golf at their cores and I’ve seen many of them. TIN CUP was probably my favorite. HAPPY GILMORE was funny but in a gruff, teenage sort of way. CADDYSHACK: ‘nough said. THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE was modestly entertaining. And now we have THE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED.

Being "Disneyfied" the film takes this historical golfing event and puts a gushing feel-good face on it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; just something you might want to brace yourself for. Francis is at odds with his father, who believes that golf is a waste of time and is outside their class. Francis and his family aren’t wealthy and struggle to get by. So the tensions get moved up a few notches as Francis and his father find themselves in the middle of a generation gap. There’s a love interest in a woman who’s waaaay beyond Francis’ means. And there’s the growing attraction of the down-and-out toward Francis as they read about his golfing success in the papers during the pre-Depression times.

The acting was okay. Nothing outstanding with the exception of Francis’ little caddy, Eddie Lowery (Josh Flitter, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND) who steals almost every scene he’s in.

What made this film a success was how it was filmed. Cameras perched on top of golf balls as they’re hit. Special effects that make the crowds vanish and leave the golfer all alone on the fairway with nothing between him and the green. The slow-motion swings of these men and how clean they were. That’s what really helped move this flick along and didn’t linger on putts, bad lays, or other golfing intricacies that easily could put many watchers to sleep.

If you’re a Disney fan you’ll probably fall on your knees and give praise to such a high quality film. And even if you’re not a big bolster of the Mouse Man, you might find this to be a relative gem amongst their more overly-sweet works.


Paradise Now movieKais Nashef Directed by Hany Abu-Assad
Starring Kais Nashef
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Neither bomber nor terrorist be.

Getting the "inside scoop" is a tough thing to do in a fictional tale on such a delicate subject. I have friends who are on both sides of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and I try equally hard to see both their views. But the things I could never get over were the constant incursions of the Israeli’s into Palestine, and the Palestinian radicalists who strap bombs to themselves and detonate their deadly selves in the middle of women and children. Regardless of my political standpoint, both of these things just felt ...well ...inhuman.

"Paradise Now" is refreshing in that it doesn’t ask the audience to take sides. We’re just along for the ride with two good friends, Said and Khaled, Palestinians who are given the task of strapping on bombs and destroying as many Israeli’s as they can (it’s noteworthy to mention that this "reaction" is in response to the death of a Palestinian). Politics takes a backseat here as we witness these two men turn from automobile mechanics to walking time-bombs; they don’t have a personal agenda, so to speak. They are out to do what is demanded "by God". But once armed and led into Israeli territory, things quickly go awry: an Israeli tank appears and threatens the mission. Said and Khaled get separated and the Palestinian militants who sent them on this mission begin to question their loyalties. Indeed, even Said and Khaled begin to question themselves. Why are they doing this? What will be gained? These are incredibly tough questions that the film plops into the audiences lap. And we get to see these things through the eyes of the two friends. The issue isn’t forced upon us in some docu-drama fashion. This is fiction but with a splash of personal and modern morality.

Hany Abu-Assad (director) deserves quite a bit of praise for his telling of this story. His gentle handling of this volatile subject matter held the perfect pitch: not forcing a message upon us yet getting a message across nonetheless. And that message? It’s more about friendship, loyalty, love and loss than political extremism. Oh sure, the politics are tucked into the background but it’s not (thank goodness) the focus.

And it’s no small wonder this movie was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars this year.

Click here for the Paradise Now movie trailer!

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


The Omen movieLiev Schreiber Directed by John Moore
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



There are a couple of "fan camps" with regards to this film. First we have those that absolutely loved the original 1976 theatrical release starring Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, and Harvey Stephens (Damien) but despise this remake. Then there are those that haven’t seen the ‘76 version but have watched this one and found it adequate. And finally there are those who’ve watched both versions and like this one better than the original.

So where do I stand?

I’m firmly in the first group. Although I didn’t think the ‘76 version was flawless, it did have some stellar acting, a great deal of psychological horror, and an interesting story. I’d never really thought about a remake. But oh Hollyweird has. That seems to be their bread-n-butter lately. From
WAR OF THE WORLDS to KING KONG, everything is being "updated".

But what about this film...

Well, it has its moments but the flaws are glaring. Relying more on the sudden heart-pounding noise or attack, this version shied away from the psychological and went visceral. Not necessarily a bad thing; it just depends on your expectations. Personally, I was looking for the psych aspects but was woefully disappointed.

Watching Mia Farrow was probably the most rewarding. She actually creeped me out. Being Damien’s nanny and protector, she took her character all the way to the edge and left me hanging there, wondering if she’d push me over. But her acting was really the only adequate performance.
Liev Schreiber (Robert Thorn) played as wooden a role as I’ve seen from him. By comparison, his performance in (again, another remake) THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE was much more believable. Julia Styles is equally a sapling as Mrs. Thorn. And the worst acting came, unfortunately, from Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick (Damien). I don’t like bashing child actors as I feel much of what they do isn’t their fault; they simply follow direction. So to be more specific, the directing of Fitzpatrick was atrocious. Mostly he just stands there, staring at the camera, trying to put a mean scowl on his face ...and failing miserably.

Being in the medical field, I also MUST comment on two specific events that were obviously not researched. First is the trailer we’ve all seen with Damien’s first nanny standing on a roof with rope looped around her neck yelling, "Damien! Look at me! It’s all for you, Damien!" then jumping. Realistically her head would’ve come off, not just her shoes. The second is the hospital scene where Mia Farrow goes in to see Julia Styles and injects her intravenous line with a smidgin of air. It would take huge syringes full of air to do any sort of damage and even then the effects would take a very long time before anything life-threatening came about.

My biggest complaint, though, has to come from the poor script. Perhaps they were trying to appeal to multiple groups of movie-goers by putting in grotesque scenes with only a dash of the psychological. I don’t know. But, for whatever reason, they decided to travel this route and I found it a terrible way to go. Neither worked and seemed to negate the other.

Click here for The Omen movie trailer!


The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada MovieTommy Lee Jones Directed by Tommy Lee Jones
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



With a title like this, one might think this would be a rather depressing story. Burying someone three times seems ...well ...dark. And although The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada has its dark tones, the film is anything but depressing. Directed and starring Tommy Lee Jones (LONESOME DOVE), the movie watcher is guided through a plot unlike any I’ve seen.

Nonlinear storylines in film are not uncommon (ala MEMENTO) and this one takes us down that well-trodden path, too. But here we get to see the burial of Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo, THE ALAMO) through multiple viewpoints. First we see it through Pete Perkins’ (Tommy Lee). He’s a rancher who befriends the luckless Mexican. Melquiades Estrada crossed the Mexico/Texas border illegally and is simply looking to make a better life for himself. He tells Pete that he wants to make things better for his wife and children in Mexico, too, but that if anything should happen to him, Pete has to promise to take him back to his little hometown in Mexico and bury him. Pete reluctantly agrees.

Next we get to see Mike Norton (
Barry Pepper, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN), a newly employed US Border Patrol Agent and his wife Lou Ann (January Jones, LOVE ACTUALLY) move to a one-horse border town. Lou Ann is a shallow and immature young woman who only wants to go to "the mall" and sexually pleases her husband in as boring a fashion one could imagine. Barry’s gung-ho attitude quickly gets him into trouble on the job. He hates these Mexicans who are continually trying to cross the border. Always on the lookout for "the enemy" Barry’s thoughtless reaction to stray gunshots being fired end up causing Melquiades Estrada’s death. Barry covers it up (the first burial) and tries to forget about it.

The third set of eyes which we get to see the burials from are, surprisingly, Melquiades himself. After his death and first burial, his corpse is soon discovered and brought into town for identification. His name is incorrectly listed, a grave marker erected, and he’s unceremoniously buried again (#2).

When Pete discovers what happened to his friend, and who was responsible, he quickly takes matters into his own hands. Pete ain’t happy that Mike Norton (Pepper) isn’t being punished for what he did. Few know about it and those that do are within the brotherhood of law enforcement. Sooo ...Pete kidnaps Mike, forces him to dig up Melquiades’ body, then makes him haul the decaying corpse back to Mexico.

They cross the border and have great difficulty locating the dead man’s hometown. No one in Mexico recognizes the name of it, including his wife. His wife? Doesn’t she live in the town? Nope. In fact, the picture of his wife and kids that Melquiades showed Pete aren’t really his. Why did he lie? Pete decides to find the town anyway and bury his friend there. His search seems nearly fruitless until he stumbles across a small half torn-down building in the middle of nowhere. He decides that this MUST be the place. But is it? Much is left to the viewer’s interpretation here. Was Melquiades crazy or deluded? Or did Pete REALLY find the town?

Regardless, Pete makes Mike bury Melquiades (the third time!) and then releases Mike. It’s a poignant moment when Pete releases him because much has transpired since their ordeal began. Mike is now in Mexico amongst "the enemies" he perceived when he was on the other side of the border. But now, being in their midst, his radical tone softens. But it’s a hard realization and the film pulls it off without becoming trite.

Tommy Lee Jones is an able actor and director and this film proves it. Of course, Barry Pepper is no slouch either. Both pull in excellent performances and the scenes of the Rio Grande and border towns are perfectly portrayed.

This is a must see.

Click here for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada movie trailer!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


Hostel movieJay Hernandez Directed by Eli Roth
Starring Jay Hernandez
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Horror films need more than just sex and slashers ...so if you’re looking for something with higher level cinema, you best look elsewhere. HOSTEL is designed for the young man with an appetite for video-game style plots.

The films premise is, at least, interesting. A hostel in a Slovakian city is a jumping-off point for nightclubs, sexual encounters, drugs ...and murder. The hostel owners are secretively helping a select group of the rich and demented. These wealthy and twisted individuals pay to kill people, and an “art house” on the outskirts of town acts as the facilitator of horrors. For those unweary travelers who happen to fall victim to the wiles of the hostel owners, ending up drugged only to reawaken in Hell on Earth is a gruesome and life-ending discovery.

Paxton (Jay Hernandez) and his friends Josh (Derek Richardson) and Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson) are three college students traveling through Europe. They stop at this hostel and are quickly enraptured with a couple of young women who have an appetite for sex. Once fully involved with these women, the boys begin dropping off one by one. First Oli vanishes, the Icelandic disco-lover. Then Josh, the nice boy. And soon even Paxton finds himself strapped to a chair with an axe-wielding and chainsaw-ripping psycho standing over him.

But Paxton escapes and with him he takes another Japanese girl who was also being tortured to death. Once out, Paxton loses the Japanese girl and soon spots the “main man” responsible for this death camp. Can Paxton exact revenge on him? Or will he get caught and killed?

The main problem with the film were its characters. Josh, the likable guy who seems to be the brains of the trio, is killed off in short order. Paxton, who I thought was a bit of an ass, lives on to exact revenge on the man responsible for doing in his friends. But this revenge sequence felt very flawed as I had no empathy whatsoever for Paxton. Josh, on the other hand, should’ve been the guy to figure out everything and avenge the death of his buddies. Even Oli would’ve been a better choice. He was at least fun to watch and had a great personality. Perhaps the script writers weren’t sure who should live and who should die ...and I think that really showed in the revenge aspect of the film.

Click here for the Hostel movie trailer!

Sunday, June 04, 2006




Having little experience in the Anime realm, I have to admit I’m probably not the most knowledgeable reviewer to examine a film such as this. But what I DO feel I’m fairly qualified to do is to evaluate stories. Animated or not, films are a valued method of reaching out to viewers and creating entertainment.

HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE had some great animation and interesting concepts, the story was so nonsensical in so many places that I found myself shaking my head wondering why I was watching it.

The story (if I’m not mistaken) is about Sophie, a young milliner (hatmaker) who lives a mundane life until she’s afflicted by a curse put upon her by the (initially) evil Witch of the Waste. The curse comes in the form of age, turning Sophie instantly from a vibrant young girl into a ancient old hag. In order to break the spell, she must find Howl and his moving castle. But with the curse comes the added insult that she cannot tell anyone about it. So once our heroine meets up with Howl, she’s unable to tell him what she needs and instead becomes the moving castle’s housekeeper.

Within the house she finds a young boy who wants to be just like Howl. She also meets and befriends the power that helps keep Howl’s castle constantly on the go: a type of fire called Calcifer. And with the castle comes a multitude of problems: Howl’s carelessness and difficulties of "the heart", a war against outside forces, and the threat of the Witch of the Waste.

Again, the animation in the film was great. It was excellently colored and moved in an almost Van Goghish fashion across the screen. But oh the story!

There’s never an explanation given as to the war that is constantly circling this strange land. Why and how it got started are never fully explained, even though much screen time is given to the machines of war. Why and how the young boy who lives in Howl’s castle came to be there are never explained either. Nor is any explanation given to the powers of Calcifer, the fire that drives the castle (the ending touches on it slightly but very ineffectually.) There are plenty of other non-sequiturs but those are the biggest. Too bad, really, as there were some great voices amongst the cast ...from
Christian Bale, Billy Crystal and Lauren Bacall just to name a few.

I don’t mind films that leave a certain amount of exposition up to the viewers interpretation, but there needs to be some rhyme and/or reason for the basic constructs of a movie. HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE left me howling for too many explanations.

Oscar Nominated: Best Animated Feature

Click here for the Howl's Moving Castle movie trailer!

Saturday, June 03, 2006


Rumor Has It movieJennifer Aniston Directed by Rob Reiner
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



One of the main things that helps me rate films is how memorable they are, and with RUMOR HAS IT this became a bit sticky. The conundrum comes from my extreme enjoyment of THE GRADUATE (1967), something that RUMOR HAS IT makes no small claim to being a sort of sequel to.

THE GRADUATE was sexy, funny, ahead of its time, and even explicitly inappropriate. RUMOR HAS IT tries to ratchet up these areas but doesn’t succeed due to poor acting, poor casting (with one exception) and a senseless script.

Jennifer Aniston plays Sarah Huttinger, the granddaughter of Katherine Richelieu (Shirley MacLaine playing the aged Mrs. Robinson/Anne Bancroft), and she soon discovers that the women in her family have a "thing" for Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner playing an middle-aged Benjamin Braddock/Dustin Hoffman). Sarah (Aniston) is engaged to be married but something inside her makes her hesitate before heading to the alter. She doesn’t act or look anything like anyone in her family and she feels that maybe she was adopted. Her mother died years ago and can’t give her any answers, so she goes to see Grandma Katherine (MacLaine) to see if she has any. A pandora’s box of information suddenly gushes forth as Sarah learns her family was the basis for the book and film, The Graduate. She also learns that Beau (Costner) may be her father, since her mother also slept with him right before Sarah’s mother and father were married.

Coming to terms with the fact that Beau isn’t her father is both tough and touching (one of the few truly memorable moments of the movie.)

But RUMOR HAS IT just isn’t that engaging. It’s not nearly as sexy as THE GRADUATE was and it’s not nearly as funny, either. The film makers try to "shock" the audience by having Sarah and Beau sleep together while the true nature of Sarah's paternity remains unclear ("This isn’t The Graduate, this is Deliverance!") But the shock just doesn’t take us where we need to go. It’s not funny, dramatic, or even that interesting.

The one exceptional portion of this movie lay with Shirley MacLaine. Stealing nearly every scene she’s in, MacLaine was the epitome of a damaged woman trying to keep her granddaughter from becoming just as screwed up as she. But even her excellent performance couldn’t save the film ...unfortunately. Costner and Aniston looked out of place and miscast, completely lacking any kind of true chemistry, thus making the entire film unmemorable.

Click here for the Rumor Has It movie trailer!

Thursday, June 01, 2006


Munich movieEric Bana Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Eric Bana
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Most people over the age of 40 remember the terrible events surrounding the killing of the 1972 eleven-member Israeli Olympic team by a group of Palestinian extremists. Their abduction from Munich and ultimate death pulled a shroud over the games. Because of this horrific event, security at subsequent Olympic games has been ratcheted up significantly. But that’s not why we’re here discussing Steven Spielberg’s film. We’re here to see why I didn’t give it a resounding "Thumbs Up".

Historically MUNICH is interesting. Not only does it show the horrors mankind can inflict upon one another, but it also shows the repercussions of reacting in an equal measure of violence to such an event. When Israel decides to form a death squad and send them out to eliminate the terrorists who dealt the deadly blows to the Israeli Olympians, a message we’ve heard a million times comes a-smackin’ us in the face: evil begets evil.

The acting is fairly blasé with the exception of the main character, Avner (Eric Bana, TROY.) In fact, I can’t recall a single other memorable person in the film. I remember that there’s a bomb-maker, a clean-up man, and a couple of shooters, but that’s all I remember of them.

The length of the film is extreme. At 2 hours and 44 minutes, nodding off was almost inevitable. Mr. Spielberg is, perhaps, spoiled in that he can do whatever he wants in Hollywood and for as long as he wants (the remake of WAR OF THE WORLDS being a prime example.)

I don’t mean to belittle the atrocious circumstances surrounding this true story, nor do I mean to invalidate the message Steven Spielberg so desperately wants to get across to us. It’s a vital and unfortunate part of human history. But I felt the story lagged and was forced upon the viewer rather than coming across in a fluid manner.

Although I watched and enjoyed the Oscars this year, MUNICH stood out as the "stinker" in the Best Film category. I would’ve much preferred to see HUSTLE AND FLOW in the mix instead of this flick.

Click here for the Munich movie trailer!