Tuesday, October 31, 2006


10th & WolfJames Marsden Directed by Robert Moresco
Starring James Marsden
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



If you've seen DONNIE BRASCO, you've seen parts of 10TH & WOLF.

Here we have Tommy (James Marsden, X-MEN: THE LAST STAND) trying to set his life straight. After finding out that his father was a hit-man for a local boss, Tommy soon sees him gunned down on the street. Twelve-year-old Tommy never forgets this and once eighteen, joins the marines and is whisked off to the Persian Gulf. He fights the war his country tells him to fight, only to learn that they can't go into Baghdad and capture Saddam in the end. Tommy loses control of himself, hits an MP, and steals a colonel's Jeep. Now in hot-water, and facing a court martial, he is shipped back to the brig in the U.S. where he's approached by Agent Horvath (Brian Dennehy, COCOON) of the FBI. Tommy is told that what remains of his family is in danger. His brother Vincent (Brad Renfro, GHOST WORLD) has fallen in with a friend's "business." This friend is Joey (Giovanni Ribisi, THE GIFT) who's attempting to become a boss of his own. The hitch is that Joey also saved Tommy's life once, and Tommy loves Joey like a second brother. Agent Horvath explains that another wannabe boss in the area needs to be caught on tape with incriminating evidence so that they can put him away. Joey and Tommy's brother Vincent will be given an easy deal if Tommy cooperates.

Tommy returns to 10th and Wolf, his true home, and rekindles his friendship with Joey. But once in tight with him, Tommy's values toward family and friends comes creeping up. That he cares deeply for Joey is all too evident; he may even care more for Joey than he does his own brother, something that is touched on in the film.

In the end, Tommy has to make a tough decision that is supposed to save his brother, but put Joey in harms way. Not willing to let Joey go through the danger alone, Tommy accompanies him into an explosive situation, only to learn that his brother Vincent's mortal coil may have been shed already.

Although fairly predictable, the story has some wonderful acting moments. Giovanni Ribisi was flawless as the cocky start-up Joey. Every scene he was in felt electrified. There's one in particular that stands out. It is where he and Tommy stand near a fence toward the end of the film and Joey speaks of trust and those who wear wires for "the good guys." It is a very touching and dangerous moment, because the audience doesn't know if Joey is going to kill Tommy or if his cold heart actually has a place for Tommy in it.

That there aren't any "big bosses" around adds a tension to the flick that is often lacking in other more gratuitously violent mafioso movies. Joey and another small time crook are trying to become godfathers of their own in the small community, and it is their battles with the past, as much as with each other, that makes this film stand out above its predecessors.

Click here for the 10th & Wolf movie trailer!

Sunday, October 29, 2006


Street Fight DocumentaryCory Booker Directed by Marshall Curry
Starring Cory Booker
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Most politically charged films focus on corruption at the higher levels of state, but STREET FIGHT gives us a curb-side view of something much smaller ...and much more important.

The 2002 Newark, New Jersey Mayoral race is something most voters in the U.S. could care less about. Why should someone in, say, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania pay attention to Newark’s voting issues? Or someone in Fort Worth, Texas? Or San Francisco, California? Realistically, none of them would. But Newark is New Jersey’s most populated city, and those in San Francisco and beyond might want to take a peak at what’s happening to our democracy on a pseudo-microcosmic level.

The documentary’s primary focus is on Cory Booker, a Newark city councilman with his eye on the mayor’s office. He’s a Stanford and Yale graduate who lives in a slum within Newark. He’s an idealist who’s grown tired of his city’s poor schools, poorer neighborhoods, and rising jobless rate. To get into the mayor’s office, though, he’ll have to unseat four-time incumbent Sharpe James, a man who’s firmly entrenched within Newark’s politics.

We watch as writer/director/photographer
Marshall Curry seeks to interview both sides of the race, first by checking in on Cory Booker’s campaign, then by trying (in vain) to meet up with Sharpe James and his people. But once James’ campaign personnel learn that Curry interviewed Booker already, he is immediately shunned and pushed aside (often in a very rough manner). Curry’s camera is pushed around time and again, his microphone broken, and he’s denied access to Sharpe James entirely. Even when Curry catches up with James at a public event, he’s manhandled by Sharpe James’ ‘brute squad.’ Most will find this very unsettling, as this is a publicly elected figure in a public place who is, in essence, acting like a thug.

That we never touch on the political issues surrounding the campaign is interesting and absurd. These are both positive aspects of the film. It shows us how little our democracy means in many instances; it isn’t the poor schools/neighborhoods/jobs that dominate voters’ discussions, but who’s "more republican" or "more black" (both candidates are black) or "campaign has more money" or "has visited a strip joint".

In the end, we watch Sharpe James use every slimy tactic at his disposal in order to win votes (including bringing in paid James’ supporters from out-of-state to help bolster support on election day). Booker doesn’t win the election, thus giving the viewer a very negative view of New Jersey politics. But all is not gloom and doom.

In 2006, Cory Booker returned to the mayoral race and took Newark by storm. Sharpe James uncharacteristically dropped from the race for unknown reasons while a new runner took up position against Booker, only to be squashed in the largest landslide win of any mayoral race in New Jersey history.

But the bitter taste of the 2002 race still lingers in audiences minds after watching Street Fight. It’s a tough film to watch, because we all want to believe that our democracy is flawless when, in fact, it has so many problems and shady dealings as to make one ill at the prospect.

Click here for the Street Fight movie trailer!

Oscar nominee (2005) - Best Documentary

Friday, October 27, 2006


Beowulf & Grendel
Gerard ButlerDirected by Sturla Gunnarsson
Starring Gerard Butler
Reviewed by Byron Merritt


Taking from the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, Icelandic director Sturla Gunnarsson pulls the broad poem down into a successful two-hour film filled with heroes, warriors, monsters and love (everything you need in an epic, right?).

The Norse hero Beowulf (
Gerard Butler, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, 2004) is called upon to aid King Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgard, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST), Lord of the Danes, in his bloody battle against a massive troll named Grendel (Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson, K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER). But once within King Hrothgar’s realm, Beowulf discovers much more than just a deadly troll.

Grendel kills only the strong men, and is selective even then, for his wrath is one of vengeance. King Hrothgar and his kin killed Grendel’s father years ago, and now the troll is bent on revenge. Beowulf is initially unaware of Grendel’s grudge, but our "hero" warrior soon learns of it via the beautiful but dangerous witch, Selma (

That Beowulf is battling a hero status he doesn’t feel deserving of is also observed throughout the film. The additional battles of the many gods now in danger of falling to "the one God" (Christianity) is also touched on, for King Hrothgar and his clan feel that the many gods have abandoned them and perhaps this new God will help protect them.

That Grendel is not just a monster but a flesh and blood being is quickly sensed as we watch his father killed for no particular reason, and experience the anguish of his isolation from the world (he plays a type of bowling game with skulls for entertainment). Even his need to procreate is vividly portrayed as he pays a nighttime visit to Selma’s home.

So when the end comes for Grendel, it is surprising, touching, bloody, and brutal. That Beowulf is forced to use his deadly warrior skills only adds to the terribleness of the deed that needed to be done.

Filmed entirely in Iceland — complete with stubby Icelandic horses — the film’s panoramic views of the stunningly beautiful countryside contributes to the rounding out of the story. Lengthy waterfalls, green hillocks, and bizarre stone formations are all incorporated through the camera lens, giving the entire production an otherworldly feel.

Any faults are directed at the initial rushing of the story during the first 30 minutes, and the deep brogues by some actors/actresses that make it tough, at times, to understand what is being said.

But all-in-all the story is pulled off exceptionally well.

Click here for the Beowulf & Grendel movie trailer!

Thursday, October 26, 2006


Man of the YearRobin Williams Directed by Barry Levinson
Starring Robin Williams
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Combining serious drama with adequate comedy is touchy at the best of times. LOOKING FOR COMEDY IN THE MUSLIM WORLD pulled it off thanks to a topical subject and a fantastic script; not to mention Albert Brooks’ excellent broodish character portrayal. But MAN OF THE YEAR can’t come close by comparison. It has a messy message folded in with forced jokes and a twisted love story that is completely unbelievable.

The premise initially seemed very promising. Put a Jon Stewart-like comedy news guy up for President of the United States and see what happens. This independent runner is Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams, RV), a successful TV personality who is pressured into running by his audience. Along with him comes his manager Jack (Christopher Walken, CLICK), and his writer Eddie (Lewis Black). Seeming to have very little chance at a successful run, Tom Dobbs amazingly wins the election.

But did he?

Eleanor Green (Laura Linney, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE) is a computer whiz at the company who designed the new software for electronic voting at polling stations. She finds a glitch in the system that is quickly swept under the rug by the company’s owner and his dark attorney Alan (Jeff Goldblum, INDEPENDENCE DAY). Poised to lose billions of dollars if word of this gets out, the company’s evil men decided to discredit and/or kill Eleanor to make sure she never tells anyone. But Eleanor is able to get to President-elect Dobbs and finally spill the beans (this is where the unbelievable love story starts blossoming, too). Dobbs goes onto Saturday Night Live and explains everything to the world, thus removing himself as the newly elected President and ending the careers of those at the computer company ...oh, and saving Ms. Green’s life.

Does any of this sound funny?

The comedy is forcefully wedged into the story and is often awkward. Robin Williams blazes for a few moments during a debate but is quickly doused as the gravity of how he became President bears down on him.

The message of the film is interesting and debatable, too: that special interest owns presidential candidates. I’m sure there’s substantial truth in this, and if you wanted to make a movie about it you could. If you wanted to make a comedy about you could. But Man of the Year isn’t it.

Click here for the Man of the Year movie trailer!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Down in the ValleyEdward Norton Directed by David Jacobson
Starring Edward Norton
Reviewed by Byron Merritt


Try and imagine a modern day western film taking place in bustling Los Angeles County, complete with an "Aw-shucks", white hat toting, young man in love with a girl who’s not quite of legal age yet, and you’ll come close to grasping DOWN IN THE VALLEY.

The story is set purely in L.A. as we watch a cowpoke named Harlan (Edward Norton, THE ILLUSIONIST) walk into town wearing Levi’s and a frayed rope draped over one shoulder. The dichotomy is immediately striking as planes fly over his head and power lines droop across roadways.

Then we jump to a small family that lives in L.A. and are having troubles. Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood, THE MISSING) is a very pretty young high schooler who lives with her burly father Wade (David Morse, 16 BLOCKS) and her clingy brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin, SIGNS). Tobe is growing too fast into womanhood and independence, and she and her father constantly joust with each other regarding curfews, clothing, and being a responsible teen. Lonnie latches onto Tobe all the time, a lost little brother whom Tobe is growing tired of raising since her father works all the time to help support them. And Lonnie isn’t Wade’s son, being an adopted family member but still a significant part of their lives.

One sunny day Tobe and her friends pull into a gas station to fuel up and encounter the "for real" cowboy, Harlan. Tobe is immediately attracted to him and invites him to go to the beach with her and her friends. Harlan accepts at the cost of his job, simply walking away from it. The two form an instant relationship and all appears sweet.

But when Tobe’s father ,Wade, finds out about it, he’s less than happy. Harlan tries to steal into his good graces but Wade will have none of it. His parental guard goes up and puts the brakes on their relationship.

Initially we’re pulling for Harlan and Tobe to become the ideal star-crossed lovers, battling family and circumstances in order to ride off into the sunset. But all is an illusion as we see Harlan’s cowboy facade crumbling under the weight of a doomed relationship. Not willing to give up, Harlan tries anything he can fathom to get back into the family’s good graces. This includes taking young Lonnie out shooting, stealing horses for daylong trips, and finally doing the unthinkable of unthinkables.

The fascinating portrayal of a wannabe cowpoke in today’s society is excellently done by Edward Norton. He is so adorable in the beginning that most female viewers will probably fawn over him. But when his steady psychological break starts showing, a terrible realization hits the audience; Harlan isn’t Harlan at all.

The film comes complete with panoramic views of the San Fernando Valley atop lush hills, giving us a truly western feel to the movie, and there’s even a quick draw shoot out that’ll both entertain and repulse most movie watchers.

The only downside is the ending. With all that happened to Tobe, Lonnie, and Wade at the hands of Harlan, it didn’t make sense that they would "honor" him in this way (no spoilers).

But this is still a fantastic psychological, modern day western. Norton is lovable and creepy both at the same time.

Click here for the Down in the Valley movie trailer!


StorytellingPaul Giamatti Directed by Todd Solondz
Starring Paul Giamatti
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



It’s probably fun to make a movie about yourself — or one that focuses closely on you — and that is what director Solondz has done with STORYTELLING. Not only is the film divided into two nearly unintelligible segments, it is further broken down during the final section by portraying a down-on-his luck director (Paul Giamatti, THE ILLUSIONIST) who is obviously a doppelganger of Solondz himself.

Overflowing with apathy, Storytelling has two distinct parts: "fiction" and "nonfiction." In fiction, which launches the film, we’re introduced to Vi (Selma Blair, HELLBOY), a young New Jersey college student involved in a writing/literature class that concentrates on critique. Her boyfriend Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick, THE WIRE TV series) has cerebral palsy and it appears the only reason she’s with him is because of her apathy toward college life and those that haunt its halls. The teacher of the class is a forbidding black man named Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom, also from THE WIRE), a Pulitzer Prize winner who’s flat affect and bored demeanor heaves a heavy shadow over the class. But apathy attracts apathy in Solondz story, so Vi and Mr. Scott have a sexual encounter, if for no other reason than to slip out of their routines and into one another. There’s actually some interesting dark sexual comedy here, but it quickly dissolves.

Perhaps "fiction" was part nonfiction, too, as one could easily see Solondz sitting in a class, reading stories that get sledgehammer critiques.

The second and final portion of Storytelling is "nonfiction." Here we find Toby Oxman (Giamatti), a man who can’t seem to finish anything. But when he discovers a young kid named Scooby (Mark Webber, THE MEMORY THIEF) who mirrors Toby’s own complacency toward life, the wannabe film maker believes he’s found a new calling: to make a documentary about society. John Goodman (O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?) stars as Scooby’s father, a big man that pushes his kids and family too hard to become his ideal nuclear family. His wife Fern (Julie Hagerty, AIRPLANE) is just as disinterested in life as the rest of the cast, but hides it behind a facade of smiles. The only empathetic character in the Webber household is the maid Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros, TORTILLA HEAVEN) who gets fired because she shows some interest in life. Toby Oxman films all of the Webber household people but keeps his focus on Scooby, whom he sees strictly as a character subject.

That the film ends abruptly with the death of Scooby’s family, and we still see no emotional response from him, only adds to the viewer’s anger that there’s no one in the film to care about. No protagonist that we can get behind. No angst from any of the characters. They are blobs of human flesh pooling around each other in uninteresting ways.

Directing a movie about society's complacency has been done before; AMERICAN BEAUTY is probably the most notable of these. But the characters were multifaceted and you cared about them. Here in Storytelling, the premise seems to be filming a flick about apathy just for the sake of showing apathy.

Click here for the Storytelling movie trailer!

Sunday, October 22, 2006


RVRobin Williams Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
Starring Robin Williams
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Mindless comedies abound in our A-D-D afflicted society, and it appears there is no end in sight for this overly worn-out genre when it comes to cinema.

Some may remember
THE LONG, LONG TRAILER (a Desi and Lucille Ball 1954 film based loosely on The Lucy Show), but it’s more likely that the current generation will be familiar with NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION or (ugh!) EUROPEAN VACATION, both starring Chevy Chase. The focus of these was on family and how vacations affect individual members in often funny ways. Sometimes they hit their mark, and sometimes not. But RV fails to even form a target.

Where RV lets us down is in ...well ...every department save one (and only minimally there). Its soggy plot, tepid characters, and discouraging script will most likely ruin it for most. But the biggest let down is that the comedy just isn’t that funny. What’s more, most laughs come thanks to the recreational vehicle itself rather than from any character to character interaction (which is where National Lampoon’s Vacation succeeded).

The story is about the Munro family and how distant their lives are from each other as the kids grow into their teens, and the husband and wife lead separate lives thanks to jobs and the demands of home-life. Bob Munro (
Robin Williams, GOOD WILL HUNTING) is the patriarch with a demanding boss. He’s forced to cancel his family’s Hawaiian vacation to finish a job and instead of telling his family the truth, lies to them (for fear of being alienated even more) and exclaims that they’re going to take a California to Colorado trek in an RV (where Bob’s supposed to give a presentation). His wife Jamie (Cheryl Hines, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM HBO series) grudgingly goes along for the ride. His kids Cassie (singer Joanna ‘JoJo’ Levesque, AQUAMARINE) and Carl (Josh Hutcherson, ZATHURA) are forced to come along, too, and vent all of their frustrations on Dad. To add further fuel to this volatile mix, they immediately run into the Gornicke family lead by Travis (Jeff Daniels, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE), a gypsyish RV clan desperate for friendship. They latch onto Bob and his kin, and never let go.

As the story progresses, we learn that the RV is a character in itself. With a faulty parking brake, it continually breaks loose from its moorings and rolls into trouble (from shopping carts to crumpling over police cars ...probably the funniest moment of the entire movie and it comes at the extreme end of the film). As Bob closes in on his presentation date, he digs a pit of lies under his family in order to keep them in the dark as to his real reasons for going RVing. And once the truth comes out, the family falls into chaos only to be saved by cliche and a putrid made-for-TV ending ("We understand now, Dad!").

So there you go. Just too few laugh-out-loud moments and a transparent family drama that’ll make you nauseous. Too bad considering this was supposed to be a feel-good comedy. It’s not that comedic, and you certainly won’t feel good after watching it.

Click here for the RV movie trailer!

Friday, October 20, 2006


Gretchen Mol The Notorious Bettie Page Directed by Mary Harron
Starring Gretchen Mol
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE is intelligently filmed, using grainy black and white film stock that gives it a period piece feel. And, unfortunately, this is the most notable part of the entire production. Although actress Gretchen Mol does an excellent acting job (even when completely naked), the story fails simply because there's little to no understanding as to Bettie's motivations.

That Bettie Page was one of the first celebrated pin-ups in the world is well known. Her leather and bondage photos launched her into an underground fetish realm that soon sparked congressional hearings on the matter, too. But it was her infectious innocence that most people comment on and Mol certainly got that aspect down pat. Where the movie blurs is the understanding of Betty's life experiences, and this portion fails miserably thanks to a script lacking such content.

For instance ...

In the beginning of the flick we're with Bettie while she sits in church with her mother. From this we are supposed to surmise (I guess) that Betty is fairly pious. But sitting in church does not equate to piety. In fact, Bettie is seen flirting with a young boy, so this didn't jive with any sort of religious binding she may have felt towards the end of the movie; she does "turn to Christianity" in the end, as history tells us. So everything from her naïve attitudes towards her pictures to her comfort level with nudity didn't make sense in terms of her religious attitudes at the beginning and end.

The other portion that is bothersome is the lack of any angst. Bettie is so comfortable with her fetish photo sessions that we don't feel there's any problem with it. We never get outside of Bettie (except for the congressional hearings which, again, are lacking any intensity), so never really see what others think of what she's doing, thus giving us no sense of any wrong-doing. The congressional hearings are just barely touched on and give little to no understanding as to how they got started, too.

That Bettie is possibly molested by her father is also alluded to but never fully explored. The assumption (again, I'm guessing) is that the audience is supposed to make the connection between her childhood abuse and her choice as a sexual icon later in life. But we only see one little snippet (about eight seconds of actual film time) on this topic and then it is summarily dropped.

Although the great black and white photography and the fascinating history surrounding this sexual dynamo may be appealing on one level, the fouled-up script makes it too easily forgettable.

Click here for The Notorious Bettie Page movie trailer!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Starring Bruce Willis (Voice)
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Animated films have some stiff competition. Not only do they have to compete against some truly marvelous predecessors (see SHREK, HOODWINKED, and FINDING NEMO), they also have to entertain not just kids, but adults who enjoy taking their kids to watch such films.

OVER THE HEDGE has some great animation and some good voices, but we’ve seen these things time and again. It also has a morally upstanding storyline (i.e., not betraying your friends and becoming a part of something bigger than just yourself), but we’ve seen that ad nauseam, too (ICE AGE). What most movie watchers want — regardless if it’s animated or live-action — is something fresh, new, and engaging. And that is where Over The Hedge fails. We get the same old story, the same great animation, and the same impressive voice cast.

It is the cast that’ll keep you watching it, too. Bruce Willis (DIE HARD) is the main character, starring as RJ, a raccoon with a big problem. He attempts to steal all of the food from a hibernating grizzly’s cave (Vincent voiced by the gravelly sounding Nick Nolte, THE GOOD THIEF). When the bear awakens before RJ can make good his getaway, RJ accidentally lets go of all the food and it slides down the mountain and is destroyed. He’s then given an ultimatum: get the bears food back within a week or be eaten alive. So RJ heads out and stumbles upon an interspecies family that have awakened one morning to find their wilderness world encroached upon by a huge hedge. Urban sprawl has come to their neck of the woods, and this ragtag group’s leader Verne (Gary Shandling, THE GARY SHANDLING SHOW) must find out what this hedge is for and why it’s there. But Verne is just one turtle and needs the help of his extended family. They include Hammy (Steve Carell, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE), a nonplused squirrel with hyperactive sensibilities; Stella (Wanda Sykes, POOTIE TANG), a skunk with an image problem; Ozzie (William Shatner, MISS CONGENIALITY), an overly-dramatic possum caring for his family; and a few others.

RJ runs into this clan and spots an opportunity to gather the food he needs for the bear. Manipulating his way into the family, he teaches them about junk food, dumpster diving, and the human world "over the hedge." But with the human world comes danger. Most notable among them is Dwayne (Thomas Hayden Church, SIDEWAYS), a varment exterminator. Will RJ risk this innocent animal family in order to save his own neck? The answer isn’t surprising.

Certainly the voices are entertaining, even more so than the script the actors read. Special notice has to go to Steve Carrell for his hyper-Hammy squirrel who avoids caffeinated beverages until the end when his super-speed is increased to Matrix-like proportions. Also, William Shatner’s Shakespearean possum is flat-out fun. But that’s it. And for an hour-and-a-half flick, it’s not enough.

Click here for the Over The Hedge movie trailer!

Sunday, October 15, 2006


The WoodsmanKevin Bacon Directed by Nicole Kassell
Starring Kevin Bacon
Reviewed by Byron Merritt


If ever there was a film to make you squirm, both internally and externally, this is it.

While watching this amazing little flick (90 minutes), my moral compass was spinning around as if I were standing at the North Pole - that's an acutely direct compliment to the acting and production of this movie but not necessarily its subject matter: the redemption of a pedophile.

As many of us would want, if we ever caught up with a child molester, we'd love to beat the crap out of him. Beat him to a pulp for stealing away the innocence of a child. Try to pound some moral sense into him (even in prison child molesters are held as subhuman and often beaten or killed.) But can we be judge, jury, and executioner - in any personal moral sense - because of what we "think we know" about a person and their serious societal flaws? These are tough questions which are all thrown at the viewer of
THE WOODSMAN. Notice I said "thrown at" and not "forced upon". That's an important distinction. For not once did I feel that the script was trying to be sympathetic to criminals, police, or our society. The film shows you both the good and the bad.

The story flows around a recently paroled child molester, Walter (
Kevin Bacon, MYSTIC RIVER), who now lives in a dumpy apartment in "Anywhere" USA. But problems immediately arise for Walter: his apartment, the only one that would allow him in, is directly across from a grade school playground; a cop comes by to harass him and tell him what a scumbag he still is; someone at his job finds out about his past and begins distributing flyers about him; and a child stalker (nicknamed "Candy") is prowling near the playground while Walter watches him with both disgust and anguish.

Throughout the film we also see Walter visiting his court appointed therapist, who asks tough questions, and Walter replies with equal brusqueness. He continually asks his therapist "When will I be normal?", feeling the weight of his "illness" every minute of every day. And this is an important set of narratives, because we see Walter wanting to be normal, we can feel the internal battle within him as he struggles with his past and his more uncertain future.

Added to the film is an attractive co-worker, Kyra Sedgwick (Kevin Bacon's real-life wife), who becomes a strange kind of girlfriend that Walter must confide in at some point. And when he finally does tell her why he was in prison, you could cut the tension surrounding both of them with a knife. I found myself holding my breath, waiting for her to respond to his history.

But if I held my breath for a moment there, I literally stopped breathing when Walter follows a young girl into a park and begins speaking with her. By this time in the film, most viewers probably are cheering for Walter to succeed in becoming a normal member of his community. We've felt the terrible pedophile lust trying to move away from this flawed man, and we're happy for him. But society won't leave him alone, and now he seems to be slipping back into some horrible old habits. Or is he? Can this child he follows into the park help The Woodsman be redeemed? It's amazing to me, too, that the title of the film is The Woodsman. This is the tale of Little Red Riding Hood who is cut from the Wolf's belly and removed unscathed. And the little girl Walter follows into the park, if you watch closely, is wearing a little red cape

I'm going to leave my review here, as I don't want to give away too much more about what happens in the park (the pivotal moment of the film). But I will say that this is a terribly uncomfortable flick to watch, which is why you should. If you want to feel challenged in any real moral sense, this movie is your best bet.

Click here for The Woodsman movie trailer!


The Science of SleepGael García Bernal Directed by Michel Gondry
Starring Gael García Bernal
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



If you thought director Michel Gondry’s ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND was dream-like, you ain’t seen nothing yet. THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP plunges headlong into the line that separates dreams from reality and blurs it so perfectly as to make the audience feel as if they’ve stepped into a piece of an artist’s REM sleep.

What the film does so well is create a moving canvas on the screen (note: see this on the big screen) while at the same time challenging the audience to follow the story of a struggling artist named Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal, THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES) as he moves into his mother’s home after the death of his father. Next door to their flat, he finds a woman with a like-minded soul named — oddly enough — Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg, JANE EYRE). Initially Stephane is attracted to Stephanie’s friend but soon learns that Stephanie and he have artistic aspirations that go beyond the norm.

But Stephane is not just artistically inclined while he’s awake, but while he sleeps, too. His dream world starts encroaching on the "real" and vice-versa, making it seem as if he were having waking dreams. Stephane has a news casting set (in his dreams) that acts as his platform from which his ideas/dreams launch. He is the camera operator, sound technician, and host for his dreams, having two pulled shades against backdrop windows that represent his eyelids and a third, larger window that acts as the gateway for his dreams.

As Stephanie becomes more and more a part of his life, she becomes more and more intertwined in his dreams (both sleeping and waking). Their strange relationship builds within Stephane’s dream world only to be fuddled up by the real one. But can a person’s dreams turn their life around? Can it become more lifelike than the waking world? Such are questions left up to the audience’s interpretation.

The living tapestry-style artwork of the dream world will be the biggest pull for movie watchers. The colors, scene jumps, and nonsensical dreams are pure eye-candy — one might wonder if being on hallucinogens could make the film experience even more enjoyable. The other big plus is that the movie actually engages the audience and challenges them to understand what is happening rather than just dragging us through another vapid and transparent Hollywood plot. And most viewers will feel that if their eyes leave the screen they’ll miss something vital or be pulled out of this fantastically visual world and dumped back into their own drab existence. Such is the magic of The Science of Sleep.

And it is magical. Childlike wonder and adult fantasy live comfortably side by side in Gondy’s latest cinematic offering and it is an excellent, if unusual (and fresh), work of art.

Click here for The Science of Sleep movie trailer!

Saturday, October 14, 2006


A Day Without A MexicanYareli Arizmendi Directed by Sergio Arau
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Trying to conceive of a "Left Behind" style film happening to a specific race in a specific State is pretty out there. But director Sergio Arau does so admirably in A DAY WITHOUT A MEXICAN.

Part comedy, part mockumentary, the film’s liberal leanings are sure to turn some viewers off. Taking consistent jabs at prejudices (and hitting their target more often than not), the film takes on the premise that a strange, magical fog has surrounded California one fateful day, blocking all incoming and outgoing traffic, internet access, and all forms of communication. And this weird atmospheric disturbance has also taken away all of the Mexicans. The disruption to the Sunshine State is evident as fruit rots on trees, vegetable aisles in grocery stores go empty, and car wash patrons have to dry their own cars!

Lilia Rod(riguez) played by Yareli Arizmendi (LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE) is a televison news reporter who doesn't disappear. The supernatural phenomenon seems to have passed her by even though she’s Mexican. Or is she? More unseen prejudices arise as we learn that most Anglos label anyone with a coppery-toned complexion as "Mexican." Lilia learns her true genetic heritage along the way but feels, in her heart, that she’s Mexican and promptly vanishes in front of a televison audience.

John Getz (BLOOD SIMPLE) plays Senator Abercrombie who has to take on the position of California Governor Pro-Tem, as the current Governor and Lieutenant Governor were Mexican. Thrown into the spotlight, the new Gov has to deal with all of the chaos caused by the disappearances as well as the disruptions to his own household when their maid/nanny/cook vanishes.

Other characters include two border patrol officers who are forced to deal with their prejudices when they learn that they no longer have a viable job. This is one particularly hilarious portion of the film that will really tickle audience’s funny bones.

As California tries to deal with the loss of an entire race, the remaining folks come up with some great reasons for the Mexicans’ disappearance. Some say that the sombrero is shaped like a UFO for a reason {wink!}. Others believe it’s a form of the rapture, and the apocalypse is upon us. Still others believe that it is because the other races didn’t appreciate the Mexicans and so they just up and left. Regardless of the reason (true or not) the effect is felt throughout the State. Anglos and other nationalities turn to looting and diving into black-market fruits and vegies in order to save their restaurants. Talk shows swing from one extreme to the other, some saying their glad that the Mexicans are gone while others struggle to stay on the air with a skeleton crew (many camera operators were Mexicans).

The film’s faults are that this probably won’t be for those who live outside California. A Day Without a Mexican has a fairly specific target audience. But the great message, often funny and poignant at the same time, cannot be denied: we all need each other, regardless of race.

Special mention of the
film’s musical soundtrack must be made, too. The mariachi version of California Dreamin’ is outstanding, as is the theme song A Day Without A Mexican.

Click here for the A Day Without A Mexican movie trailer!

Friday, October 13, 2006


United States of LelandRyan Gosling Directed by Matthew Ryan Hoge
Starring Ryan Gosling
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Why do people do good and bad things? What purpose do they serve? The "why" question is pondered to a fatalistic ending in THE UNITED STATES OF LELAND, starring Ryan Gosling (HALF NELSON) as the emotionally detached Leland P. Fitzgerald.

Leland is introduced to us during a terrible scene in which a young retarded boy lay stabbed to death on a grassy playground. It appears that Leland has had some sort of mental breakdown, as he stabbed the boy and then himself, "just to see what it felt like." But as the movie progresses we see plenty of emotional distance from the other characters, too. Leland’s own father Albert (Kevin Spacey, SUPERMAN RETURNS) hasn’t had much contact with Leland since he was eight years old. Leland’s previous girlfriend Becky (Jena Malone, DONNIE DARKO) zones out by shooting heroin and isolating herself away from her family. Even Leland’s mother Marybeth (Lena Olin, CASANOVA) simply slips in and checks on Leland occasionally, only asking if he’s "okay" even when it’s evident he’s not.

The only one interested in Leland turns out to be a teacher at the prison where he’s held after the murder. But even the teacher, Mr. Pearl Madison (Don Cheadle, HOTEL RWANDA), is only occupied with Leland as a way to break out of his writing slump (he’s a would-be author with serious blockage problems).

Leland questions the "why" of everything around him, and it’s an interesting message that gets pulled from the film. Why is it you’re considered "only human" when you do something wrong and not something right? Like pulling a little kid from a burning building. Why don’t we show emotions in equal measure when someone dies? These are tough questions that trickle out of the film.

The downside is that the movie doesn’t give us a good reason for Cheadle’s character to be enraptured with Leland so early and so quickly (considering that’s a large portion of the film, it’s pretty significant). And most viewers won’t like the incredibly slow pace, as well as the occasionally stilted line delivery. But that’s it.

The cast is excellent, from Spacey’s spacey father to the embittered and lost Malone, the characters were fairly riveting to watch, even though all that happens is some intense dialogue throughout.

In the end, it’ll all depend on your expectations and mindset. If you’re expecting something that moves along at a good clip, forget it. If you’re in the mood for action, blood, and fights, don’t even think about it. But if you’re ready for some deep contemplation, The United States of Leland is right up your alley.

Click here for the United States of Leland movie trailer!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


ClickAdam Sandler Directed by Frank Coraci
Starring Adam Sandler
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Watching CLICK is like watching two separate movies. The blatant parallels to IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE are transparent, but that's not what makes Click a clunker. Not that it is a clunker in its entirety, either.

The story surrounds Michael Newman (Adam Sandler, SPANGLISH), an architect who yearns for peace and harmony in his life. Part of the problem is the competition (keeping up with the Jones') that he has going on with his neighbors. They have a new RV, new toys and new cars, while Michael and his family just get by. One evening he hears the irritating boy next door talking about his father's new universal remote control that's patched into everything (garage door, TV, stereo, etc.) and it's all that Michael can take. So he heads out to the mall and stops at (of all places) Bed, Bath and Beyond. It is the "Beyond" that apparently pulls him in, but once inside all he finds are towels and bedding. He lays down on one of these and then quickly spots a doorway that says "Beyond". It looks rather ethereal yet inviting, so Michael goes on in. What he finds is a whacked-out looking guy named Morty (Christopher Walken, WEDDING CRASHERS) who offers him a truly "Universal Remote." This remote control does it all. It can rewind you to your birth so that you can witness it (or your conception, something we should NEVER have to see), or it can fast-forward you through troubling times, like arguments with your spouse, or personal illnesses. The dangers of this Universal Remote aren't evident right away. Apparently, as this magical tool gets used to your requests, it does them automatically, without you having to push a button. So when Michael fast forwards through arguments with his wife Donna (Kate Beckinsale, UNDERWOLD), the remote does it automatically for him in the future. Thus, large chunks of what might seem like inane discussions suddenly are wiped away.

Michael soon discovers that his life is in constant fast forward. His job, his kids, his wife, even his own body, change in rapid succession as the Universal Remote takes over. Trying to give back this dangerous piece of machinery, we soon learn that Morty is much more than he seems.

The great thing about the film is the last 2/3 of it (with the exception of the ending, which we'll cover in a moment). When people learn how important life is, it's truly an eye-opener. And this is where Click succeeds. When Sandler's character learns about death and how important it is to live every second of every day, it is heart renderingly pulled off. We get to witness Sandler rewinding time and again the important portions of his life that he missed. And, near the end of his own life, we witness his evolution into a man of distinction, trying to save his son from his own deadly mistakes related to family.

Where the film fails is the beginning and it's horribly cliched ending. The beginning of the film is filled with bathroom humor (farting in people's faces) and gag jokes that sag under their own terrible weight. This is where one feels like they are watching an entirely different film when compared to the latter 2/3 of the movie. The characters are one-dimensional and utterly unbelievable (quite the dichotomy from what we see later). This isn't a character evolution issue as much as a script failure.

The ending of the film is what finally gives it a poor rating. When we see Sandler lay down at Bed, Bath and Beyond, a creeping disgust enters the mind. The film-makers surely wouldn't use one of the oldest cliches in the book, would they? But, oh yes, they did. Grrr!

The unfortunate thing about Click is that it really has a wonderful message and some fine acting moments. Special effect make-up artist Rick Baker (PLANET OF THE APES) also deserves much credit for the aging looks he puts the characters through, from Henry Winkler's role as Sandler's father, to Sean Astin's (LORD OF THE RINGS) speedo and chubby swim instructor, it was one of the strongest aspects of the entire production.

As a whole, the film fails because of its childish beginnings and over-used style ending. But make no mistake, there are some great moments in here. Just not enough to give it a high ranking.

Click here for the Click movie trailer!

Sunday, October 08, 2006


The DepartedLeonardo DiCaprio Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio
Reviewed by Chad Wilson



A great filmmaker like Martin Scorsese has inspired countless others to create film and build upon his own substantial innovations. So it's somewhat fitting that things come full circle in which Scorsese's new film, The Departed, finds the director inspired by the successive films of those directors and filmmakers who found influence in Scorsese's work. A remake of the fantastic Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, The Departed is a return to great moviemaking for Scorsese and his strongest film since Casino.

The Departed has two men, undercover on opposite sides of the law, racing to discover the identity of the other in a battle between the Irish Mafia and the Boston State Police. Inside the police, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon, The Legend of Bagger Vance) is mobster trained as a police officer and has been feeding information to his organized crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Undercover in the mafia, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a mole who did real jail time and erased his identity as cover, a scheme planned by Boston police boss Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen) and his right hand man Dignam (Mark Wahlberg, Planet of the Apes, 2001). Each mole has been working inside the other's organization, but a gun deal between the Irish mob and Chinese mafia reveals to both sides that there is a rat in their respective houses. Now each mole faced with being exposed, Colin and Billy have to uncover the identity of the other before they end up dead.

Moving the setting from Hong Kong to Boston, Scorsese takes the story of Infernal Affairs (from an adaptation rewritten by William Monahan) and gives it his own personal touch. Preferring to embellish the story rather than pile on the pressure, The Departed is a slower paced film that builds deliberately and works towards a strong climax. Once again, Scorsese is in his element, including dialogue that solidly defines the nature of each character and infusing the film with the darker side of life. These manly characters have personalities born of the arena in which they play their game and Scorsese pulls no punches in depicting the racism and homophobia that run their lives. Alongside the artistic cinematography, none of the in-your-face violence we've come to expect from Scorsese is missing, making The Departed a film just as vibrant and visually disturbing as his other treatises on the bloody and brutal underworld.

This type high-concept film could have floundered in the hands of a lesser director, but Martin Scorsese backs up the script with a cast that performs adeptly time and again. Damon's Colin is charming and frigidly devious, ever the threat to DiCaprio's well played Billy, an angst ridden cop constantly in fear for his life. Jack Nicholson does his trademark best as the vulgar psychotic wiseguy Frank, always chummy with his strong-arm enforcer Mr. French, played with deep-voiced menace by the skillful Ray Winstone (The Proposition). Martin Sheen's role as Queenan is the level-headed intellect of the police, masterfully portrayed by Sheen as he moves his pawns around in an unrelenting quest to bring Frank to justice. Even minor roles shine, with a performance from Wahlberg as Dignam that is hilarious in Scorsese's trademark style of comedy-meets-vulgarity. Also of note is Alec Baldwin as Ellerby, who injects nearly all his scenes with sharp wit making the most of his screen time.

It would be easy to categorize The Departed as a flawless masterpiece, but the film falls just short of expectations. It generally keeps us glued to our seats, but at just under two and a half hours in length The Departed could use some trimming. The slower pace sacrifices much of the high-speed intensity of the original Infernal Affairs and while the dialogue and character development are ample entertainment, The Departed simply isn't as intense nor taut as it could be. The film also suffers from the overexposure of legendary actor Jack Nicholson and the silly antics of his portrayal as Frank Costello. Every over-the-top mob boss scene threatens to reduce the film to a star vehicle for Nicholson and when his character does dastardly deeds, that foolish grin often comes across as far less threatening than it should be. Lastly the film lacks a certain freshness that always occurs when a remake comes so soon after the original, since Infernal Affairs was released in 2002. Still, it's hard to go wrong with The Departed. From it's own landscape in North America, this film is easily one of the best of 2006 and Scorsese fans will delight at this fine feature that ranks among the director's best.

Despite being a remake, The Departed is a success all on it's own; beautifully shot, intriguing to watch, and with acting not to be missed, the film is skillfully directed by master filmmaker Martin Scorsese back in top form.

Click here for The Departed movie trailer!