Saturday, September 30, 2006


Sandra Bullock The Lake House Directed by Alejandro Agresti
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



THE LAKE HOUSE fails on so many levels that it’s tough to pin down one thing viewers will dislike the most. Be it the multiple unexplained fantasy elements, or the lame acting, or the dumb-downed plot, this film will most likely make you shoot popcorn out of your nose, not in laughter, but because of incredulity.

A time-traveling mailbox (and, apparently, canine) bind two lonely souls together at a lake house. The place was built by Simon Wyler (
Christopher Plummer, INSIDE MAN) for his now deceased wife. Being a successful architect, his sons fall into the family business too. One of these is Alex (Keanu Reeves, MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO), who purchases the house in 2004. Trouble is, though, the house is already owned 2006. Not usually a problem, but apparently these two years in time are connected somehow. Kate Forster (Sandra Bullock, CRASH) is the 2006 year owner and has just sold the place. She leaves a note for the new owner to send all mail to her forwarded address. But the mail gets picked up in 2004 by Alex, who’s confused about the date she put on her message. When he sticks his reply in the mailbox, Kate picks it up 2006, two years later. The two form an "across-time" romance, trying to meet up in Kate’s year but failing. They do bump into one another in 2004 but neither realizes the importance of it.

Okay, let’s start with the basic problems: Why these two and why a mailbox? The two individuals chosen for this event may be overlooked as mere coincidence. But the mailbox? Please!

Kate and Alex are separated by two years in time but brought together by the mailbox. The big issue here is that neither of them find this even remotely disturbing or incredible. They just accept it. The assumption must be that the script and director wanted to move on to the "more interesting" love story surrounding the two protagonists. The problem here, though, is that the romance is anything but interesting. It’s distant (like the years that separate them), and rushed, and poorly acted. Bullock and Reeves had more chemistry in SPEED (that ought to tell you a lot!).

Time travel movies are tough to pull off to begin with, and the challenge for most of them is avoiding the paradox they create. The Lake House doesn’t even try to address this problem and simply plows ahead without considering the intelligence of its audience. For instance, at one point Kate (in 2006) goes to an architects office and discovers some disturbing news. She rushes out to try and prevent it from happening by sending Alex a letter. And they do avoid the disastrous event. The trouble is, though, is that if it’s avoided, then there never was an event to begin with because Alex avoided it in 2004, thus, in 2006, there wouldn’t have been this problem for Kate to worry about. Some may not be bothered by this, but many scientists must be pretty ticked-off that the film doesn’t address it.

And the final tragedy is the acting. Both Reeves and Bullock can act. We’ve seen them do it. But here they are bland, boring, and completely unsympathetic. Even Christopher Plummer’s character seemed forced and poorly thought out.

Need a sleep aid? Put this flick in your DVD player and snooooooze away!

Click here for The Lake House movie trailer!

Friday, September 29, 2006


Franka Potente Run Lola Run Directed by Tom Tykwer
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



RUN LOLA RUN is one of those films that actually delivers what it promises. In this case, a heart-pumping, action-filled flick with an excellent soundtrack, and plenty of artistic weirdness to boot.

Clocking in at a mere 80 minutes, this German-made film is infused with a quality normally seen in the cars this country produces. Tom Tykwer wrote the script and directs (as well as contributing his voice and music to several songs/remixes), and gives us a movie that contains more than just artsy material. He takes the viewer on a journey of existentialism thanks to the unusual abilities of its main character, Lola. She’s a dye-dipped redhead with a high-pitched, soprano voice that can shatter glass. And she has the ability to change her future. Problem is, though, every time she changes something, everything changes, not just the one thing she wants. So when her boyfriend, Manni, loses 100,000 Deutsche marks that are owed to a local mob boss, Lola has to save him. But she’s only got 20 minutes, and everything doesn’t go as planned ...the first time. Or the second. Or maybe even the third.

Not being very familiar with German cinema, I’d rarely watched anything from this country. But I’d often heard people comment on Run Lola Run and how great it was, so I decided to check it out. And I’m glad I did! The film opens up with a bang and doesn’t stop until the final scene. Franka Potente (THE BOURNE IDENTITY) stars as the hair-color-enhanced Lola, and her portrayal is believable, beautiful, and bizarre. In short, a great combination. Her boyfriend, Manni, is played by Moritz Bleibtreu (MUNICH), and his ridiculous behavior is pulled off well, especially when he loses the money and calls Lola in a blubbering panic.

I loved, too, the incorporation of overlapping animation, something I enjoyed in the movie

Connections within connections is the main theme here, but one that is brought to life by a vivid script and excellent camera work (the dizzying slow-downs and speed-ups may drive some to distraction but are vital to the story).

I mentioned earlier the great soundtrack and that the director contributed his own voice and songs to it. And so did Franka Potente. The European beats mixed with old American titles were laid down in topnotch fashion.

This is another foreign film gem, and one that won’t take up much of your time. But it’s one you’ll be glad you visited.

Click here for the Run Lola Run movie trailer!

BAFTA Award Nominee: Best Film Not in the English Language

Thursday, September 28, 2006


Ellen Page Hard Candy Directed by David Slade
Starring Ellen Page
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Occasionally a piece of cinema pushes boundaries and hits its audience with issues pertaining to choice, judgement, and morality. These are the type of films that divide audiences and add heated comments to after dinner discussions. One such film in recent memory was THE WOODSMAN, starring Kevin Bacon, a story about a pedophile trying to integrate himself back into normal society after being released from prison. It pushed us beyond our normal comfort level and forced us to view the world in a somewhat more empathetic manner regarding these people (a pretty uncomfortable thing to even think about). And HARD CANDY asks the viewer similar disturbing questions but ping-pongs us back and forth between doubt and certainty about what’s happening between the two main characters.

The story opens with two people in a chat room on the internet, typing suggestive comments to each other. A face-to-face meeting is arranged, and when the two come together it is obvious there are issues here: one is a fourteen-year-old girl named Haley (
Ellen Page, X-MEN: THE LAST STAND) and the other is a 32-year-old photographer named Jeff (Patrick Wilson, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, 2004). From the get-go we’re uncomfortable with this meeting, as we know that men in Jeff’s age-range shouldn’t be meddling with a kid. The ante is upped even higher as Haley agrees to go home with Jeff (indeed, she pushes to go home with him). But once at his place, the tables rapidly turn. Haley is a smart and possibly psychotic young girl. As we delve deeper and deeper into the film, we begin to feel that maybe Jeff was setup somehow. And as Haley begins to "knock him down," the audiences allegiances towards her stance are questioned. Should we be cheering for her? Or worried that Jeff may not be a pedophile after all, and may simply be a nice guy?

Time and again the tables get turned, and the viewer is constantly wondering which of these two they should be hoping comes out on top.

This is one of the most intense films I’ve seen in a long time. Not since
PSYCHO has this amount of a mental impact been felt. The beginning is somewhat slow to get going and many may feel like this is going to be a cliche-riddled movie. It isn’t. As I sat on the couch, watching in horror as the stakes went higher and higher, my fiancé said, "Honey? You’re squeezing my hand too hard." I hadn’t realized how affected by the movie I’d become until she mentioned this. In fact, several times I held my breath, something that is a cliche in itself, but something I couldn’t help.

The acting and script for Hard Candy are absolutely superlative. Young Ellen Page (who was eighteen at the time but fits well into the role of a fourteen-year-old) delivers the performance of a lifetime. Her intensity, especially during a set of scenes I like to call "The Home Surgery Mutilation," is so creepy, frightening, and sick, that I actually felt nauseous. Patrick Wilson as Jeff is just as impressive, and I felt equally repulsed and worried for him as the minutes ticked by.

The movie isn’t forcefully bloody or grotesque, either. Its success is owed solely to the interactions of the characters and not, necessarily, what they do to each other. Men, be forewarned, you may have nightmares once it's over.

When the flick ended, I felt spent, as if I’d just run a set of mental hurdles. That’s how good this film is.

Click here for the Hard Candy movie trailer!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Joel Edgerton Kinky Boots Directed by Julian Jarrold
Starring Joel Edgerton
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



When Charlie Price inherited his family’s shoe factory after the death of his father, he also inherited a financial mess. Their shoe styles aren’t selling with a market flooded by cheap Taiwan imports.

But one fateful night, Charlie runs into Lola, a drag queen, who jabs an idea into his head: make women’s shoes for men. Specifically, make footwear for cross-dressers who can’t find the appropriate sizes and sex appeal they require.

The Price Shoe Company quickly gets to work on the idea, encountering problems with men’s weight on women’s heels, financial woes, and the internal conflicts of workers at the factory who aren’t very keen on the idea of creating "sex in a tube," the unofficial term for these new boots and shoes.

Setting out a plan to display his new shoe styles at the Milan show, Charlie is forced to mortgage his own home, causing a rift to develop between him and his fiancé (a rift that grows because of her manipulative behavior and improprieties).

The fact that this story is based on an actual shoe company is probably the biggest kick (no pun intended). Picturing a stodgy old English factory pumping out transgender pumps is quite the image, and
KINKY BOOTS uses it to full advantage; the building they’re in is an old brick-and-mortar behemoth with half-rimmed glasses wearing employees running sexy red velvet boots through ancient looking machines.

But the biggest success in the film is the acting. Chiwetel Ejiofor presents an Oscar-caliber performance as Lola, the drag queen with a footwear fetish. It’s hard to imagine that this is the same bad-ass who played The Operative in the sci-fi smash SERENITY. Joel Edgerton plays the lead role of Charlie Price and the painful decisions he makes are delivered admirably and with angst. The remaining actors do justice to their respective parts, but one that I have to give extra praise to is Nick Frost’s portrayal of Don, the factory worker who has to deal with his own prejudices towards Lola’s sexual identity. I loved Frost in SHAUN OF THE DEAD, and his great acting here (especially during an arm wrestling scene between him and Ejiofor) is highly notable.

Although the script is rather blase, the acting made this flick very watchable. If you decide to check out Kinky Boots, make sure you pay attention to Ejiofor’s performance. It’ll make you stand up and cheer.

Click here for the Kinky Boots movie trailer!


Christian Clemenson United 93 Directed by Paul Greengrass
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



This could be the toughest review I’ve ever written. Being a born-and-bred American, I have a few protective sensibilities regarding my home country. When 9/11 happened, I was just as stunned, fearful, and outraged as most of my fellow countrymen, I’m sure. And watching a film related to those events only a few short years after that dreadful day, I could feel those same emotions smoldering within me. Trying to objectively rate this film based solely on its merits becomes a bit sticky, simply because that emotional scar is still so fresh. But I’ll do my best.

The greatest thing about UNITED 93 is that it’s filmed using hand-held cameras, giving the viewer an intimate sense that they are an active party within the movie. This is most effective when we’re on the plane (for reasons stated earlier) and get to witness all of the passengers’ interactions with each other and the hijackers. The other excellent part is that there isn’t one star that we follow, nor are there any big name actors/actresses in the film. Every person is just as important as the next. I applaud director Greengrass’ script interpretation and this seldom used method of filming.

Another admirable item is that the film shows us how off-guard the FAA and the military was immediately following the hijackings. As the movie moves between the FAA headquarters and the military’s interactions with these public offices, we get to witness the incredible chaos that ensued and feel the frustrations as they try to figure out which planes are risks, what to do about them, who has the authority to shoot them down (if need be), and the unavailability of President Bush.

The big issues with the movie will obviously be very personal. Each individual will probably feel differently about it. Mine were of manipulation. Since this is still a fresh memory in the minds of most Americans (including my own), I felt as though the film makers were trying to feed off of those memories. This isn’t as horrible as it sounds, though. Some of the best films play with our feelings. The risk here, however, is what we do with them. Do we continue to fear? Or hate? Or do we learn from these experiences and move ahead? This film won’t give you the answers to those questions, which is both a strength and one hell of a flaw. But it is a well put together piece of cinema.

Click here for the United 93 movie trailer!

Monday, September 25, 2006


Guy Pearce The Proposition Directed by John Hillcoat
Starring Guy Pearce
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Historically, and from a character perspective, there’s still mining to be done in western films, and THE PROPOSITION gives us a great sense of both. Aussie director John Hillcoat delves into Australia in the 1880s, telling about the bloody lawlessness and aboriginal prejudices.

The story centers around the outlaw Burns brothers, Charlie (Guy Pearce, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL), Mike (Richard Wilson, DECK DOGZ) and Arthur (Danny Huston, THE CONSTANT GARDNER). When Charlie and Mike are caught by local lawman Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone, COLD MOUNTAIN), Charlie is pulled aside and given a distasteful proposition: kill your brother Arthur and Mike will live. Charlie loves Mike dearly and hardly knows his other brother, Arthur. He grudgingly accepts the terms but it quickly becomes clear that he’s unsure what to do. Is the killing of one family member in order to save another morally apprehensible? What if your moral boundaries are skewed?

Charlie rides off to find his brother in the searing Australian Outback.

Meanwhile, back in town, Captain Stanley is having great difficulty controlling its citizens once they learn one of the dreaded Burns brothers is in the local jail. A powerful bureaucrat named Eden Fletcher (David Wenham, THE LORD OF THE RINGS) demands swift justice. He orders that Mike Burns be lashed 100 times. Knowing that Mike probably won’t survive this, but also battling feelings his lovely wife Martha (Emily Watson, GOSFORD PARK) has about the crimes Mike has committed, Captain Stanley is forced to give in to the township’s demands.

Back in the Outback, Charlie finally runs into his twisted brother and comes face-to-face with his worst fears: killing someone of his own flesh and blood. Can he do it? Should he do it?

The word "epic" has been on the lips of many reviewers, but epic may be too big a term for this flick. It is enjoyable, and has sweeping views and great acting (even John Hurt makes a soulful appearance as a perverse bounty hunter), but it doesn’t approach films such as LAWRENCE OF ARABIA or DOCTOR ZHIVAGO in scope. And that’s okay. There are many films out there that are still very enjoyable but don’t meet the epic criteria.

That the western film has been done for nearly a century might make one think that it’s dying out as a genre. But no. THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUAIDES ESTRADA and UNFORGIVEN are two of the more recent favorites that prove there’s still life out there for the western. And The Proposition is another excellent example that it’s still got cinematic value.

Click here for The Proposition movie trailer!

Saturday, September 23, 2006


Stan Lee Who Wants To Be A Superhero? Directed by Rick Telles
Starring Stan Lee
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



I’m sure there are worse things in the TV biz than trying to make a reality show filled with actors play as if it were "real", but I can’t think of any at the moment.

There was a certain amount of curiosity (that soon turned morbid) that made me watch this show. First, I wanted to know how in the hell it could be pulled off. Humans obviously have no superpowers, so I thought maybe they’d make it comical.


The producers really wanted to create a new superhero with the help of comic book icon Stan Lee. But filling the entire cast with actors — and I’m not talking about actors who just happened to get picked, but actors who were obviously cast — made this TV series so shallow and a blatant marketing tactic to try and help sell the show to audiences, that it came off being both cheesy and phony.

It was obvious from the outset that this entire "reality show" was scripted. Unlike SURVIVOR or other series that plunk strangers together in often bizarre circumstances,
WHO WANTS TO BE A SUPERHERO had no angst, no interesting internal or external dynamics, and cared more about showing off lame costumes, large hooters, and moronic names (Lemuria?).

The barefaced scripting of the show became all too apparent when one of the cast was kicked off but then returns as the "evil villain" with Stan Lee’s help. How could that not be scripted?

The basic premise of the series was that it gathered a bunch of men and women together who (supposedly) really wanted to be a superhero. They had such names as Nitro G, Major Victory, Fat Mama (my personal favorite), Feedback, Cell Phone Girl, Monkey Woman, and the list goes on. These superhero wannabes were put through tests overseen by Stan Lee, creator of such comic heros as
Spiderman, X-Men, and The Fantastic Four. The tests tended to be twofold: to see if they can finish the task, and to trip them up (one of the first tests involved running to a finish line but before they arrived, we see a lost young girl crying out for her mother. The superheros are supposed to stop and help her but several simply whizzed by, showing they had no superhero tendencies at all). As the tests are finished, Stan Lee brings the group together and eliminates the weakest superhero until we’re whittled down to two. Then he picks the winner who will be the star of a new comic book.

If there’d been anything approaching reality for this "reality show", it probably would’ve engaged me on some level. But as it stands now, it’s an intellectual retardant.

Click here for the Who Wants To Be A Superhero TV trailer!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Willem Dafoe The Boondock Saints Directed by Troy Duffy
Starring Willem Dafoe
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



THE BOONDOCK SAINTS is a movie with some great characters and one big plot problem.

The film’s premise is interesting and brings a new take on an old movie theme: vigilantism.
Charles Bronson of the DEATH WISH series rules this roost, but all of these are seriously dated now. DEFIANCE (1980), starring Jan-Michael Vincent, was another great flick that focused on a citizen taking the proverbial bite out of crime in an otherwise corrupt neighborhood. So I was pleased to see something a bit fresher appear on celluloid with this oft-thought-of overused message.

In The Boondock Saints we find twin brothers Connor and Murphy MacManus taking on the vigilante mantle by any bloody means necessary. And I do mean bloody. They also view themselves as instruments of God (as seen in the opening sequence in which they are in church listening to the funerary services for an innocent victim). Once on the streets, they tuck their crosses beneath their shirts and pull out their chosen weapons ...usually ones infused with gunpowder. They also say a special prayer before shooting their final bad-guy of the day, a prayer their father taught them. Oh. And their Irish, in case you didn’t catch their last names. So we have to have the typical Irish pub in the area. And this is where much of the movie’s success comes from. The absolutely amazing characters are what drives it.

The pub owner is an old Irish coot who is being forced to sell his bar by the local Russian mob. But when the vigilante brothers show up and learn of it, they quickly make sure one of their favorite hangouts isn’t manhandled by any outsiders. The Irish pub owner is thankful to the brothers, and it’s amazingly funny how he thanks them because the old guy has Tourettes Syndrome (a tic disorder that often results in uncontrollable cursing outbursts).

The Irish brothers also have a close friend named "Funny Man" Rocco (played by coked-out looking
David Della Rocco) who has mob issues of his own. His "boss" is trying to rub him out and when Funny Man learns of it, he takes matters into his own hands as well as becoming a third party to the MacManus brothers’ cause.

Hot on their tails is flamboyantly gay FBI agent Paul Smecker, played by
Willem Dafoe. It is Dafoe’s character that really elevates The Boondock Saints to a higher level. His witty comments and astonishing detective abilities mixed with his social/sexual preferences are pulled off effortlessly. Watching him go over a crime scene while listening to opera is something to be marveled at.

The downside is that this is a pretty bloody flick, spilling as much crimson as any slasher film. But the biggest issue some may have is that there’s no background for the MacManus brothers. The audience never learns what trigger set them onto this path, so the viewers are just supposed to take what they’re doing at face value. That’s a pretty big pill to swallow. Set-up is important in the movies. But here’s the thing. The Boondock Saints has such great characters, most watchers probably won’t even notice this glitch.

Click here for The Boondock Saints movie trailer!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Glory RoadJosh Lucas Directed by James Gartner
Starring Josh Lucas
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Nothing should take away from the amazing circumstances that led coach Don Haskins to defy southern standards and start playing a mostly black NCAA team in El Paso, Texas during a time when the U.S. was rife with bigoted undertones. But then you watch this Disney film and wonder what went wrong...

The legend of "The Bear" (Haskins) lives on in the El Paso community and should leave little doubt in anyone’s mind that this great man accomplished something extraordinary in 1966 by leading his black and white Texas Western basketball team to the national title. But in the hands of screenwriter Bettina Gilois, the film falls far short of rousing entertainment.

The movie stars
Josh Lucas (SECOND HAND LIONS) as Coach Haskins and Lucas pulls in a good role from this languid script. Matching "The Bear’s" attitude toward discipline and basketball basics, Lucas’ performance was the cherry on this otherwise melting, gooey mess. When we first meet Haskins, he’s the coach of a girls high school basketball team and is approached by the tiny NCAA school of Texas Western. Hungry to advance his coaching career, he and his family move into the dorm for the Western team, only to learn that there’s little hope for success from such a small community with a crumbling stadium. But Haskins won’t give up. He travels around to various states with his coaching team, hoping to find some successful players. But all of the Great White Hopes refuse to join up. So Haskins’ search takes him to Harlem, Detroit and other less-than-appealing locales, digging up some of the best black talent the streets have to offer. He meets with much resistance upon returning home, too. People call him and his team the "N" word, as well as other unseemly titles. But these taunts soon turn to amazed cheers as Haskins leads his team to a near undefeated first season. And when Haskins team makes it to the NCAA finals, he starts a pure black team, something never heard of in basketball up to that point.

There’s nothing wrong with this awesome historical story, but its execution was lacking on so many levels as to make it a yawner. The audience is jerked from one set of circumstances to the next and they never get to focus on one particular character nor care about any of these wonderful kids (most viewers will probably feel fairly detached rather than anything approaching familiarity).

Comparisons between HOOSIERS and GLORY ROAD can easily be seen (although one is about high school ball while the other is NCAA), and the former still rules the high cinematic ground. Gene Hackmans’ coach Dale far outclasses Lucas’ portrayal of Haskins, not to mention Hoosiers excellent cohesive story, something completely absent in Glory Road. And this is a sad statement. Someone as important in the racial arena as "The Bear" should have had a much better film made about him and his brave team. But instead we get this snoozer, a lackadaisical Disneyrama film with poor character development and shallow entertainment. Stick to Hoosiers; you’ll be glad you did.

Click here for the Glory Road movie trailer!

Sunday, September 17, 2006


Edward Norton The Illusionist Directed by Neil Burger
Starring Edward Norton
Reviewed by Byron Merritt


Much of a film’s interest starts the moment audiences see trailers for it , and such was the case with THE ILLUSIONIST. The dark themes, nice sets, pretty actors/actresses, and supernatural undertones probably drew movie-goers to the theaters after checking out the trailers. But some may be disappointed to find little else behind The Illusionist. Although this disappointment won’t fall to the level of despair or hatred of the film, movie buffs may feel as if they were lied to when it doesn’t deliver the high-caliber flick they were expecting.

The story …

Eisenheim The Illusionist is played by
Edward Norton (AMERICAN HISTORY X), and Norton does an okay job with a scripted character that seems to have few emotions. Eisenheim’s life has focused on his magical craft since he left his hometown and the love of his life, Sophie (Jessica Biel, ELIZABETHTOWN), a fellow teenager who’s way above Eisenheim’s station. Fifteen years later we find Eisenheim in Vienna only to discover that Sophie, now a beautiful young baroness, slated to marry into the upper echelon of royalty. Her husband-to-be is the dangerous and manipulating Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell, DARK CITY). But when Eisenheim and Sophie try to rekindle their love interest, deadly forces are at play and are ready to rip them apart again. One of these forces is Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti, CINDERELLA MAN), the upstart of a poor butcher who’s trying to rise to a power all his own (Viennese Mayor Uhl? Nice ring to it, eh?).

Eisenheim and Sophie concoct a plan in which she can detach herself from the Crown Prince, but the plan seems doomed from the start. Sophie’s life is put in danger and Eisenheim has to use his incredible illusionist powers to help save their lives and their love. But can it work?

As with the title and the main character, much of what is seen is complete illusion. But if one watches carefully, they can pick up on hints of what is truly going on. “Make us disappear,” Sophie pleads with Eisenheim at the beginning of the film as they cower in a hut. And that he cannot do so obviously affects the rest of his life and the rest of the film.

The shinning stars in The Illusionist are Giamatti, Sewell, and, surprisingly, Biel. Although the entire focus of the film is around Norton’s character, it’s tough to get “into” him when what he mostly does is sit on a stage and make soulful apparitions appear by looking as if he were having a particularly tough bowel movement.

Paul Giamatti really steals the show here. How great it is to see someone of Giamatti’s chops finally get the recognition he deserves and star in some great roles. Now he’s proving that he’s not just a co-star (THE TRUMAN SHOW, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN). His Inspector Uhl character is miles away from …well …Miles in his career launching SIDEWAYS film. That the audience both roots for Uhl and hopes he fails is evidence of Giamatti’s great acting ability.

Rufus Sewell is the bad guy everyone loves to hate. He’s done it time and again (A KNIGHT’S TALE, HELEN OF TROY, etc.) and pulls in a wonderfully slimy character portrayal here, too.

But Jessica Biel is the biggest surprise. Looking both pretty and elegant, Biel goes further than she’s ever gone before – far beyond 7th HEAVEN and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE – and may have cemented herself as an actress with Oscar-caliber potential.

The biggest letdown for film-o-philes will be that The Illusionist doesn’t expand much beyond what they saw in the film’s trailers a few months ago. But it does entertain, and it’s visually interesting and well shot. Just don’t expect too much from the script and you’ll probably be just fine.

Click here for The Illusionist movie trailer!

Friday, September 15, 2006


Caveh Zahedi I Am A Sex Addict Directed by Caveh Zahedi
Starring Caveh Zahedi
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Although a dark comedy with a serious lean toward sexual narcissism, this film’s quirks will appeal to those who don’t mind exploring those dark corners of one’s desires and laughing at their own inadequacies.

Caveh Zahedi is the screenwriter, director, star, and historian regarding his personal battles with sex addiction.

The most entertaining aspects of the film are that it is shot rather unconventionally. Although the film starts with Zahedi talking to the camera, waiting to be married for the third time, the scenes zip back and forth between Zahedi the narrator, Zahedi the actor, and Zahedi the narrator during acting (he’ll occasionally stare at the camera and make a rather pithy comment while acting within the framework of the film). Part documentary, part fictional take on his experiences, the film delves deep into sexual promiscuity. Bit by bit we get to watch Zahedi fall into a pit of self-gratification with little or no concern for his girlfriends or wives. That he tries to be "honest" and "open" only shows his continued deep slide into the addictive process. When the women in his life fight with him, he’s at a loss to understand why ("But you said I could have sex with a prostitute!")

The comedy is all based around Zahedi’s lack of self-control and his relationships based solely on sexual need. Watching him receive oral sex — his facial expressions and loss of auditory control — are absolutely hilarious; not to mention his fifteen second rise to orgasm.

The film is edited extremely well, mostly taking place in San Francisco, but also in Paris and a few other locations. The map animation sequences are very nicely done as are a few other animations related to travel and Zahedi’s history.

The fact that I AM A SEX ADDICT won the Gotham Award in 2005 for Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You should be a useful gauge for those considering this movie as a rental or purchase.

Click here for the I Am A Sex Addict movie trailer!


Thank You For SmokingAaron Eckhart Directed by Jason Reitman
Starring Aaron Eckhart
Reviewed by Chad Wilson



Since good things come in small packages, I find it fitting that a little known film titled Thank You For Smoking should be one such good thing. Equal parts social satire and social commentary, the film comes as a surprise star of 2005 that most will probably see this year (2006). While my extensive praise for the film may give the impression this is some magnificent, life-altering affair, I'll digress and say it's simply a great film about a great subject and the result is nothing short of my over used adjective.

Aptly named Nick Naylor (
Aaron Eckhart) is a charming, well-spoken spin doctor for big tobacco, given the unenviable task of publicly promoting cigarettes in an increasingly hostile, anti-smoking society. Naylor's back-stabbing boss Budd (J.K. Simmons) sends him to make the best out of the worst situations, from fighting pro-health reform Senator Finnistirre (William H. Macy) to avoiding the pitfalls of an interview with clever reporter Heather (Katie Holmes). When not sharing trade stories over lunch with fellow "merchants of death" Polly (Maria Bello) and Bobby (David Koechner), Nick has to find time to fix his relationship with ex-wife Jill (Kim Dickens) and the will to act as a role model for his twelve-year-old son Joey (Cameron Bright, ULTRAVIOLET).

Thank You For Smoking is a film that does some of the best pontificating without coming across as preachy. The movie starts as a comedy about Nick Naylor but quickly turns into a character deconstruction then turns yet again into a surprising treatise on human rights. Through it all, the film never misses a beat or an opportunity for some gut-busting dialogue. Director Jason Reitman adeptly breathes life into a sharp script he co-wrote with Christopher Buckley, the author of the original novel. Most often in films like this we expect the main character to undergo a cliched cathartic experience in which the character repents his wayward ways. But Eckhart plays the character true and the catharsis leads the script in a direction unexpected, resulting in a brilliant and always humorous finale.

The acting in Thank You For Smoking is top notch. Every character adds some flair to their scene, whether it's serving the drama or adding the final touches on a hilarious line. The editing takes advantage of the slick, witty style of protagonist Naylor, often splicing brilliantly satirical images or the odd subtitle with Eckhart's pitch-perfect delivery of smart dialogue. Most impressive of all, the film masterfully handles the drama with freshness and inspiration, allowing the audience a strong empathy with Naylor when his life turns for the worse. Here is a main character deliciously deceptive one moment, yet likable the next, without coming across as forced or contrived. The audience can relate to the character, which sets up just the right amount of understanding when the time comes to consider the message the film is making about our rights and the freedom to choose.

The only weakness in Thank You For Smoking would be it's low profile. This is a film everyone must see, smoker and non-smoker alike. It's entertaining, funny, educational and surprisingly apolitical for a film whose message comments on society and choice.

Avoiding cliches while making a statement about our rights, Thank You For Smoking's great acting, charming characters, and perfect humor adds up to a big win.

Click here for the Thank You For Smoking movie trailer!

Click here to see Byron's Alternate Review of Thank You For Smoking

Thursday, September 14, 2006


Out Of SightGeorge Clooney Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Reviewed by Chad Wilson



Films about crime capers and charismatic cons are often an attractive lure for directors, but too often they lack style, visual appeal, and intelligence. Director Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight is not lacking in any area mentioned above and even manages to be charming and funny at the same time. It may not be the best film of the genre, but this is a film that makes a fine attempt and creates entertainment above the norm.

Jack Foley (George Clooney, GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK), a middle-aged bank robber intent upon avoiding old age in a penitentiary, executes a daring plan to escape with the help of his partner in crime Buddy Bragg (Ving Rhames). The plan is complicated when Federal Marshall Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) stumbles upon the two criminals and is taken hostage attempting to foil the jail break. During the escape, Foley and Sisco find themselves inexplicably attracted to each other, but Sisco gets away and Foley is intent upon meeting her again. On the run and planning a robbery that will make him rich, Foley tries to find a way to make the score and gain the woman he is now in love with; the very woman hunting him down.

While a premise like Out of Sight may require a bit of faith to swallow, the film manages to grab the audience with charming characters, smart laughs, and some visual style. Soderbergh relies upon a groovy retro soundtrack that helps move the movie along with his now trademark editing and well placed sequences. The film benefits greatly from these creative verves and enhances the subplots with fine character actors including Dennis Farina as Sisco's father, Catherine Keener as Foley's old flame Adele, Don Cheadle as ex-boxer turned killer Maurice, and Steve Zahn as witless screw up Glenn.

The script is another treasure in Out of Sight. Featuring a fractured narrative and ample use of flashbacks, the script maintains pace and flow while equally providing insight and laughs. It's a fun method for managing scenes and the film even allows the love story between Foley and Sisco to develop quickly on screen without feeling artificial. Naturally, Clooney's subtle performance and charisma help sell his role as hapless-but-heartfelt Jack Foley, but it is Lopez who surprises most, turning in a performance as Karen Sisco that is sexy, strong, and intelligent (a notable performance that even spawned a short-lived television series based on the character starring Carla Gugino). The on-screen chemistry between the two leads is sizzling hot, which makes their romance entertaining and honest.

This is the first outing for Clooney and Soderbergh in what becomes a staple for the duo in years to come. Largely, the film succeeds with the talents of both lead Clooney and Director Soderbergh, but also owes a lot to screenwriter Scott Frank. Yet the film still slows at moments and at 123 minutes, even the sharp editing and smooth transitions can't sustain the pace. In the third act events take a while to get moving and we can feel the film stagger. But with a little patience, the finale is worth it, done in true Soderbergh style; a little dour at first, but a touch of hope and a smile makes a solid finish (and an unexpected cameo by Samuel L. Jackson, SNAKES ON A PLANE).

Equal parts stylish crime flick and delightful romantic comedy, Out of Sight is a little long but worth the wait.

Click here for the Out of Sight movie trailer!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Lucky Number SlevinJosh Hartnett Directed by Paul McGuigan
Starring Josh Hartnett
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



When Slevin (Josh Hartnett, BLACK HAWK DOWN) arrives in New York to visit an old buddy, he quickly runs into trouble. First he gets mugged. Then he arrives at Nick’s house (his friend’s) to find him not at home. Slevin makes himself comfortable but is soon interrupted by Lindsey (a very perky and fun Lucy Liu, KILL BILL), Nick’s neighbor. They are instantly attracted to each other and the humorous sparks fly as they verbally joust with one another. Lindsey notices his battered nose (mugged?) and Slevin tells her what a terrible day he’s having, which endears him even more to her.

Shortly after Lindsey leaves, two thugs arrive and mistake him for Nick. They don’t believe him when he tells them his name is Slevin and drag him out of the apartment clothed only in a bath towel. They take him to "The Boss" (
Morgan Freeman, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION) where he’s told that Nick (i.e., him) owes a lot of money but can work it off by killing one man: the son of his biggest enemy, The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley, GANDHI).

Soon after agreeing to do this, Slevin is then picked up by The Rabbi’s thugs and told by him that he owes The Rabbi money, too, but can work it off by killing The Boss. Caught between the disbelief of two mob bosses about who Slevin really is, he’s forced to make a decision. Or is he?

At the beginning of the film we’re introduced to a poor family man with a gambling problem. He bets a lot of money on a losing horse and soon he and his family are "rubbed out". And who killed the family? Yep. The Boss and The Rabbi before they became enemies.
Bruce Willis (DIE HARD) plays Mr. Goodkat, a heartless assassin who eliminates the young boy of the losing gambler with a single bullet to the head. Or did he?

Convoluted stories are often so complex that they lose cohesion and I was afraid that this might happen with LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN. Thankfully it didn’t. The complexity is there and subtle, but handled with expert care by Aussie director Paul McGuigan. The flashbacks are impeccably pulled off as are the many action sequences. The fact that it all came together so nicely in the end made the entire movie watching experience effortless. Although I did try and figure out what was happening, there were so many well executed twists and turns that I was continually surprised and delighted.

We always here the words "ensemble cast" when certain films come out with a few favorite actors sprinkled here and there, but this time the title is well deserved. Sir Ben Kingsley, Morgan Freeman, Josh Hartnett, Lucy Liu, Stanley Tucci, Danny Aiello, Kevin Chamberlin and a smattering of other notables round out this pristine cast.

Comparisons between Tarantino’s directorial style and Mr. McGuigan’s have been made, but Paul McGuigan’s methods, I think, are more subtle in tone but direct in execution (I hope that makes sense!).

The other notable point in the film was location. The filming of the sets held a consistent circular theme to them, including wallpaper, stairways, and cups. This theme is well deserved, as a circle has no beginning and no end.

Click here for the Lucky Number Slevin movie trailer!

Monday, September 11, 2006

HOUSE, M.D. (Season One TV Series)

Hugh Laurie House, M.D. Created by David Shore
Starring Hugh Laurie
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



I’ve got one big complaint about HOUSE that I must mention. I work in the medical field and one thing is glaringly missing from this otherwise excellent series: ancillary staff. Where are the nurses, radiologists, and lab techs? Trust me, doctors DO NOT start their own IVs on patients, or run the CT machine, or draw blood, or process viral cultures. If they attempted to do all of this, there would be zero time spent on patient care.

Hmpf! Okay, I’ve got that off my chest.

Gregory House (
Hugh Laurie, STUART LITTLE series) is who this series is about. He’s a doc with a keen sense for disease. And he’s also damaged goods. Years before the series even begins (and as the story progresses) we learn why doctor House hobbles around on a cane. One of his thigh muscles infarcted (died) due to ischemia (blood and oxygen deprivation) thus killing off a lot of muscle tissue. This has hardened him as well as causing a lot of pain, which he quells by popping Vicodin as if they were M & Ms.

The head of the hospital where he works (Dr. Cuddy played by
Lisa Edelstein) forces House to work in the hospital clinic; something he loathes ("Oh look! A runny nose. How exciting!") Obviously House feels this is beneath his skills as a disease specialist and this is very insightful into his character. Not only does it show the audience his uppity attitude but it also shows his amazing diagnostic abilities. He figures out pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, niacin toxicity, and even paranoid delusions in the blink of the proverbial medical eye. This might sound as if it would come off as completely ridiculous, but the writers of this show have given doctor House such an excellent persona that it comes off being completely believable.

Although I had problems with the glaring omission of ancillary staff, the producers of House made such a screwed up character with remarkable brainpower that I found myself completely engaged in the series. And although there are several holes in how things "really happen" in hospitals, I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what barbed comments doctor House would throw out next at the clinic, at his staff, or at the hospital administrator ("I don’t have a pain management problem. I have pain issues. Or maybe I do have pain management problems but I’m just too stoned not to realize it" or "She just ran six miles for the first time in years and her legs hurt. Hmm. I wonder what’s causing that?")

As mentioned earlier, I work in the medical profession and part of the appeal of this series is that doctor House holds back nothing. He’s completely, brutally, honest, which makes him both rare and unsettling. We in the medical profession would often LOVE to say some of the caustic things that come out of his mouth, but we hold back for fear of a) losing our job, and b) being sued back to the stone age.

Even so, the writers of this excellent series have created a great character who makes us both cringe and laugh.

Click here for the House season one trailer!

Friday, September 08, 2006


Daniel Auteuil Cache Directed by Michael Haneke
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



There’s a few things to like about this film and quite a few to dislike. CACHE (in French) means "hidden", and it’s an apt analogy on multiple levels. But the levels collapse under their own dramatic weight, leaving the viewer scratching their heads more than pondering the movie’s significance.

The story focuses on husband and wife Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Ann (Juliette Binoche, CHOCOLAT), a happily married couple who’s lives are about to unwind. In front of their home, they find a videotape. The tape shows a fairly stagnant view of the front of their home; their comings and goings. But it’s also a bit unnerving. Who would shoot this film and why?

Eventually more tapes show up on their doorstep, only now they’re wrapped in paper on which is drawn — childlike — very disturbing caricatures of a face with blood shooting out of its mouth. Georges begins to feel that some of this may be linked to his past, but keeps it hidden from his wife, thus causing a rift to develop.

We occasionally flashback to Georges childhood when he was six. Here we learn that a young Algerian boy and his family were once a part of Georges and his parents’ lives. But tragedy struck the Algerian boy’s parents and Georges, somewhat of a spoiled brat, ruins what’s left of the Algerian boy’s young life.

More tapes show up and Georges is led to a now full-grown Algerian man’s home, the same man whom Georges helped evict from his life. Guilt settles in heavily for Georges and we watch him being torn apart by childhood memories long forgotten.

The story sounds more appealing than it is. It certainly got my attention when I read about it. But watching it is pretty tough. The pacing is agonizingly slow, showing slow passing cars, minutes upon minutes of mundane material, and a plot that seems to lead nowhere. Initially I thought this might be some sort of murder mystery or psychological thriller. But no. It’s all about childhood guilt and how one man deals with it later on in life. I actually didn’t even understand it was about guilt until I watched the extra features on the DVD just to find out what the hell was supposed to be going on; I think that says a lot about how far afield the story strayed (I consider myself a fairly astute viewer).

The good parts of the film are its innate quirks. Sometimes you’re watching the movie and you aren’t sure if its part of the movie or part of a videotape within the movie. That was kinda cool. The dark scenes in the bedroom as Georges and Ann come to terms with what Georges did to the Algerian boy are filmed extremely well, too. That acting is also well done and never forced, adding a bit or emotional heft to a rather bland telling. But that’s as far as the "good" goes.

And, as they say, the rest is silence.

Click here for the Cache movie trailer!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


The Wild BunchWilliam Holden Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Starring William Holden
Reviewed by Chad Wilson


The Wild Bunch is often credited as a classic western and praised as a bold departure from the morally prideful films with straight-laced heroes. Director Sam Peckinpah continues his maverick tastes in this film, creating a story filled with anti-heroes and villains with just a touch of morality, and a heavy helping of action and violence. While the film is important in the grand scheme of film history and westerns in general, it doesn't quite live up to the mantle of "classic" lauded by fans.

An aging band of outlaws in the American Old West come up with a plan to end their wayward ways with a final robbery that will make them rich. Gang leader Pike (William Holden) finds his plans going awry when his ex-gang-mate-turned-bounty-hunter Deke (Robert Ryan) foils their bank robbery and pursues the bandits cross country. Dealing with his discontented gang, bounty hunters on his tail, and the end of his way of life, Pike manages to find a way out by stealing arms for a Mexican General named "Mapache" Juerta (Emilio Fernandez) which may just present the biggest payoff of his criminal career.

Short and reserved dialogue from the actors makes for a somewhat stolid style in this otherwise grand tale of the old west. William Holden in particular drives the film, portraying Pike as a tired man on the fringe running out of time in a land quickly being swallowed by civilization. In many ways the story of The Wild Bunch is an homage to a vanished way of life and the men who lived it. In accordance with that theme, director Peckinpah creates his tale with a lot of male gusto and stoic drama. These are hardened men living life hard and fast, spending what time and riches they have on violence, drink, and women.

Like most Peckinpah films, the characters of The Wild Bunch are atypical subjects and outsiders. Peckinpah pulls no punches as his characters kill and fight their way through one robbery and onto another. Like the morally ambiguous characters of Kurosawa films that inspired The Wild Bunch, we watch the gang do their deeds with a combination of repugnance, admiration, and understanding. The action in the film is pure Peckinpah panache, and movies like The Wild Bunch inspired the action genre for years to come.

The weaker elements of The Wild Bunch also rest with Peckinpah. The pacing of the film can often feel as tired as the main characters. Peckinpah was never a overly innovative visual director outside of his action sequences and this film does drag from drab, conventional shots during the majority of the acts. The script is also a fairly banal work from a narrative angle and many flashback sequences are extraneous scenes worth cutting. Unlike other western classics such as Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West, The Wild Bunch feels like a film from the late 60's rather than possessing a visual presence that would transcend its own era. The final act is also a violent tour-de-force typical of Peckinpah films that fails to provide a strong closure to the story.

An important film of the action and western genres, but not quite the great classic often attributed to Sam Peckinpah's anti-hero adventure films.

Click here for The Wild Bunch movie trailer!