By Marc S. Sanders

There’s a harsh reality to science fiction in the 21st century.  When the aliens arrive on Earth, a little girl will ask her dad “What is it?  Is it terrorists?”  Steven Spielberg’s interpretation of H.G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds covered that territory when it was released four brisk years after 9/11.  All these years later and there’s still some legitimacy to that sadly reasonable question.  I find it interesting that one of the most pioneering novels in sci fi was published just ahead of the twentieth century paving the way for endless approaches to alien arrivals and attacks on Earth.  When Spielberg approaches it on his third try, the trope may have been done to death, but now the reality of the response is updated and all too real, and brutally disturbing.

Tom Cruise is the lead in this adaptation, and he is arguably in the most vulnerable role of his career.  He plays a storage bin dock loader, only regarded as a half caring deadbeat and divorced dad to his teenage son (Justin Chatwin) and 10-year-old daughter (Dakota Fanning). After his ex-wife (Miranda Otto) drops the kids off for the weekend, there’s an uncomfortable game of catch in the backyard followed by the beginning of the mayhem.  What appears like a lightning storm evolves into dead batteries and no electricity along with odd wind currents and hammering echoes.  When the people all around the main characters in their New York neighborhood get vaporized, then naturally their first instinct is to think it’s terrorists.  In today’s science fiction, terrorists are real and aliens are not.

Later, once the extra terrestrials (not the friendly kind who consume Reece’s pieces) have viciously introduced themselves, Spielberg’s film resorts to demonstrating mass exodus of the people of Earth.  Military units advise folks to “keep movin’.”  When the attacks happen, people scatter in different directions.  When a ferry is leaving the mainland, helpless folks rush for the dock, desperately climbing over the gates and leaving loved ones behind.  Spielberg hasn’t forgotten about the unlawful occupations from world history.  He simply applies it to a Tom Cruise action piece.

Tim Robbins shows up as a crazed man hiding in a farmhouse basement with a shotgun ready to begin a one-man revolution.  Cruise tries to contain the hysteria.  A scene like this could have had Nazis or aliens circumventing on the floor above, as the central characters remain as quiet as the Jews used to do in the basement below.  The parallels are eerily the same. 

Still, I respect the reality of the piece.  For one thing, much of the film, scripted by Josh Friedman and David Koepp is pulled right from H.G. Wells’ pages, including the nice and tidy ending that eventually arrives.  Don’t knock it.  That’ how Wells wrote the story to begin with.  Spielberg and crew don’t invent their own new image of the invaders.  They are still the tall three-legged tripods towering over the people of Earth and blasting them with their “heat rays.”  My favorite touch of this film is using Morgan Freeman’s vocals as the bookended narrator reciting Wells’ novel text, nearly word for word.  It’s a welcome salute to the memorable radio show that Orson Welles lent to the story decades before. 

I consider this adaptation of War Of The Worlds to be an observational picture or a reactionary film.  Cruise is not super skilled with fighting techniques and weapons handling.  All he can do is watch and react.  He’s an everyman here, which is actually quite unusual for him when you gloss over his resume.  This is not Maverick or Ethan Hunt: Superspy.  His purpose is to watch and return his kids to their mother in Boston, assuming she is still alive.  The success of the mission here only depends on getting the kids back to mom. 

Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin go against the grain of so many other Spielberg kid characters.  They are not intuitive or inventive.  Especially for Fanning’s character, she is just a scared little girl.  Not a Goonie and not like Gertie, who is scared for the sake of humor with precocious one liners.  If aliens were attacking the Earth, this is how my kid would react. 

Once it is established that this movie is a Spielberg running man film, then you may be grateful for the realistic mentality of the story’s community.  You’ll also appreciate the amazing set pieces accompanied by John Williams’ original score that plays like a drive-in monster movie or a Twilight Zone episode.  The aftermath of a plane crash on a Jersey suburban neighborhood is very convincing.  A runaway train set ablaze intrudes upon the cast with great surprise.  A cracked piece of concrete that gets swallowed up below only to immediately vomit a tripod in the air for instant attack is eye popping. 

War Of The Worlds is a well-crafted film, and the thought was definitely invested in its approach ahead of making it.  Yet, I won’t say it’s fun escapism.  It’s a reminder of the unrelenting realities we live in now.  Sadly, it’s not reaching to say that maybe we live in a time where it is in fact every person for themselves.  Even Cruise’s son insists on going off on his own, abandoning both him and his sister with nary a care at all.  Unlike Close Encounters or E.T., there’s not much to laugh or grin at in this Spielberg alien film.

The 2005 adaptation of War Of The Worlds is certainly loyal to H.G. Wells.  It may be realistic in the human nature of its science fiction, but in the end, it is also a very bleak film.  There’s much to marvel at, but once the movie is over, as my colleague Miguel and I often recommend to one another, it’ll likely be best that you get outside and bathe in the warm sun under a blue sky, roll around in the grass with your dog, and taste an apple for the first time all over again.  It’s about all we have left to embrace what little is left of our sanity.


By Marc S. Sanders

Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn make a perfect comedy pair close to the same vein as Bill Murray and Harold Ramis. Close, but not as legendary, and nowhere near the statures of Newman and Redford.

Wedding Crashers was the the first of their two collaborations to date. The movie works as it charges forth in its raunchiness and unabashed thrust to not hold back. Fortunately, a guy named David Dobkin directed a script from Steve Faber and Bob Fisher long before the age of “Me Too.” What a denial of a great idea we would have, had this film been made later. Reader, Wedding Crashers was never intended to be politically correct. If it even thought about it for a second, the entire production would have failed.

Just go with this. Wilson and Vaughn are John and Jeremy, practicing marital law mediators (I said go with it!), who relish in debauchery by crashing weddings as an opportunity to score one babe after another. Dobkin and crew assemble a fantastic early montage of various nuptials to show how well John and Jeremy play this field of formality. We get to see them in action in all of the different methods. At one time they are charming the parents. They are telling sob stories and crying false tears. They are making balloon animals for the youngsters as a means to catch the attention of a beautiful bridesmaid caught up in the sanctum of love. One after the other a braless gal pal is tossed onto a bed ready for John and/or Jeremy. Call it refreshing, but at least these players are equal opportunists; Jewish, Irish, Italian, Indian. Every kind of wedding ceremony imaginable is given attention. These guys are so fine-tuned at what they do that there is even a rule book, which you can reference on IMDB, or on the Blu Ray extra.

When Secretary Cleary’s (Christopher Walken with not nearly enough to do) daughter is getting married, one last hurrah before wedding season closes is upon them. John immediately becomes attracted to the bride’s sister, played spiritually by Rachel McAdams, while Jeremy oversteps himself with the youngest and overly clingy sister who makes sadomasochism seem G rated. She is played by Isla Fisher. To my surprise, following the success of this film, Fisher never really became more mainstream. She’s the scene stealer. When she begs Walken to let the men stay for the weekend at their New England island home, I lost it. I was dying at her antics. Fisher is so good. She had to have invented some of this material herself. An amazing comedienne. The stomping feet. The poutiness. This is comedy. Fisher never holds back in every scene she’s in and because of her, Vaughn as her lustful prey is all the better in his tormented state.

Another scene stealer is Bradley Cooper, playing McAdams bullying boyfriend. Cooper probably made this character bigger than the script intended. Again, I lost it as the family and guests warm up for a friendly game of flag football. Cooper is in his own element apart from the others as he goes through regiment drills of what equates to an unhinged Marine. He’s cruelly brutal but he’s terribly funny. Later in the film his part might get too sadistic though as he punches Wilson bare knuckled which truly sounds like a crack of his skull. There’s nothing really funny there. This is beyond a Three Stooges slap or eye poke. Sometimes less is more. Blame that on Dobkin.

Other parts are wasted though they start out promising like Jane Seymour as Walken’s wife and Fisher & McAdams mother, who serves as a sex craved Mrs. Robinson. She’s given a presence, though her story never really delivers. As well, there’s a resentful gay brother (Kier O’Donnell) who dresses in black and bears a striking resemblance to Gru from Despicable Me. The character makes a good entrance but is primarily there to further torment Vaughn in a quick bed hop scene. Then there’s not much else.

McAdams plays meet cute just fine with Wilson. Though with much interference from the rest of the characters during the course of the weekend you really don’t get a sense of how McAdams falls for Wilson as well as why Wilson goes against his Crasher Code and obsessively falls for her. Not much beyond dream like gazes at each other across the room. For the romance to really work, these characters have to talk with each other a whole lot more than just a token wave crashing beach scene.

The 3rd act is expected. The boy loses the girl. He takes lonely walks down the street, he becomes a slob and he makes one failed effort after another to win the girl back. For a raunchy comedy that was moving with lightning hilarity, this 3rd act really slows the movie down. It ran way too long.

Still, Wedding Crashers is a great comedy most especially thanks to the concept of taking advantage of what can typically happen at any wedding reception, and the uncompromising comedy of both Isla Fisher and most of Bradley Cooper’s material.

Put your morals aside and RSVP to the event.


By Marc S. Sanders

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith is the best installment in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy of his epic space opera saga. However, that is where the line is drawn.

It carries a heightened drama thanks primarily to Ian McDiarmid as the eventual Emperor Palpatine. Shakespeare might have been proud of the character and performer. Much like Alec Guinness received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Ben Kenobi, so should McDiarmid have been honored playing an antithetical influence (of Kenobi) on the student and Jedi in Training, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen in a much more improved performance).

War within the galaxy is rampant and there’s no end in sight. The Jedi Order is overwhelmed. Anakin is used as a pawn to spy on his new mentor Palpatine who in turn insists that the young Jedi occupy a chair in the Jedi Council to spy on them. In addition, it’s hard for Anakin to come to grips with his secret wife Padme (Natalie Portman) dying from childbirth as his nightmares continue to remind him. A deal with the devil himself in Palpatine is offered as an option. Can a manipulation in the Force rescue Padme from death?

There’s a lot of weight on Anakin here. Sith departs from the politics discussed in the prior entries as it focuses primarily on Anakin’s personal struggles. The film really needed to take this direction. After all, it’s time to witness Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader. Everyone has been dying to see that.

George Lucas’ scene set ups work on occasion. A great performance of dialogue occurs in an alien opera box between Palpatine and Anakin. This is where McDiarmid really comes through. He’s subtle and deliberate in his influence. Fortunately, Christensen just needs to listen mostly.

Later however, a scene works only so much when Samuel L Jackson as Jedi Master Mace Windu duels with Palpatine, having just revealed his secretly evil Sith side. Through all three of these films, Mace Windu has been one of Jackson’s least exciting roles. He’s bland and never doing much. Christensen comes upon this scene and doesn’t give me the genuine anguish I was hoping for. McDiarmid, again, is hitting home runs in surprise and development. This turning point scene is not as strong as it should have been thanks to Lucas’ stilted direction and writing, along with Jackson and Christensen lacking any true depth.

Episode III also has a handful of so what moments that continually frustrate me in this trilogy. We have to watch Yoda and Obi Wan watch a video of what Anakin has done. Why? We’ve seen this already. Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits; I wish he had a larger role) needs to be informed of an upcoming meeting. Honestly, I don’t need an update on a character’s calendar. Just make sure he arrives on time. Moments like these don’t drive towards anything.

Natalie Portman is not served well as a pregnant Padme. Her dialogue is worse than ever, and it hinders her performance. Padme is torn between her affection for Anakin and her passions for democracy. We see next to none of the latter. How does an intelligent woman like Padme suddenly become so unaware? Ironically, opportunity for her political nature was filmed but remains only as deleted DVD features. These scenes would have enhanced the movie as they imply the foreshadowing of the upcoming Rebellion, while a petition attempt is mounted to usurp the Emperor’s administration. Here, Padme is trying to be instrumental in Luke & Leia’s (her own children) future. Really good material here. Nevertheless, George Lucas opted to leave it all on the cutting room floor. Oh well! I’m still holding out hope for a “special edition” cut one day, inclusive of this storyline.

Lucas’ lava planet, Mustafar, is quite grand as the arena for the much-anticipated dual between evil Anakin and noble Obi Wan. Still, again, it could have been better. There’s too much CGI and flashing lightsabers that hide the acting among the swordsmen. Compare this to the duals in Empire and Jedi and you see what I mean.

I know my commentary on the prequels is quite pessimistic, but I do have an (maybe a biased diehard fan) appreciation for the films. The stories work. The execution falls short however in dialogue, performances and visual artificialness.

George Lucas had all the right make up for a trilogy as epic as his original films that began in 1977. Maybe because he didn’t have the monies and technology at that time, his imagination had to work overtime back then. In these later films, however, his hubris got in the way of his craft. So, we have to settle for his next great technological discovery in CGI efficiency. Therefore, we get cartoons with no depth like Jar Jar Binks, General Grievous, and lame, clicking battle droids.

Lucas always defended the position of his writing by insisting these films are aimed for kids. No. I don’t accept that. Star Wars was aimed for kids and the kids that remain in all of us as we continue to grow into adulthood. George Lucas needed to write with that in mind.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Miranda July
Cast: John Hawkes, Miranda July, Miles Thompson
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 82% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A lonely shoe salesman and an eccentric performance artist struggle to connect in this unique take on contemporary life.

There is a scene in Me and You and Everyone We Know, Miranda July’s directorial debut, where Christine, an aspiring artist played by July herself, has submitted a videotape of her experimental video shorts to a museum curator who’s looking for examples of new art in a digital world.  At the end of the video, July addresses the camera and bemoans the fact that the curator will probably never watch the tape or get that far.  She pleads: “If you are watching this, then just call this number, the number you see on your screen, and say, ‘macaroni.’  …Just ‘macaroni’ and hang up.  No questions asked.”

In that moment, in the middle of a movie where I was never bored but constantly off-balance, I connected with Christine.  I’m guessing other people do, too, but I’m just guessing.  Who among us has never wanted validation or confirmation from someone, anyone, the world, that, yes, I see you and I hear you?  That right there is one of the reasons I do theatre, man.  I don’t always talk about it, but it’s there.  And I appreciated seeing that heartfelt emotion acted out in such a quirky and direct way.

That’s just one of the charms of this movie that defies description.  It’s a romantic dramedy where the two ostensible romantic leads can function around other people, but just barely.  There is also a subplot about two young boys who are bullied by two witless teenage girls.  How witless?  They thoughtlessly flirt with a much older man who starts leaving sexually graphic notes on his living room window so the girls can see them as they walk to school.  I won’t even tell you how their bullying of the two boys leads to the kind of sexual experimentation I devoutly hope doesn’t happen…but probably does more than I would care to admit.

Now, I’m making this sound like a Larry Clark movie (Kids, Bully), but it’s not.  The main story involves Christine and Richard (John Hawkes), a recently separated father (of the two young boys).  Richard works at a shoe store and is a hopeless romantic, not just when it comes to love, but life in general.  He tells his co-worker, “I want to be swept off my feet, you know?  I want my children to have magical powers.  I am prepared for amazing things to happen.”  But his idealism sometimes moves him to do and say odd things.  Near the beginning of the film, as he’s preparing to move out of his house and into a small apartment, he runs out to his front yard, gets his kids’ attention, and carefully and methodically uses lighter fluid to set his hand on fire.  Why?  His explanation (if I remember it correctly) is semi-reasonable, but I can’t help thinking there might have been a better way to demonstrate his thought process.

Christine is an aspiring artist who makes short experimental videos in which she provides voice-overs to still photographs.  In my mind, they are examples of how she might relate to people in real life if she weren’t so terrified of how other people might respond if she reaches out to them in person.  Her day job is as a taxi service for the elderly – sort of a proto-Uber service.  One day she drives a client to the shoe store where Richard works.  Richard notices small scars on Christine’s ankles.  She says her shoes rub her ankles, but all shoes do that because she has low ankles.  Richard looks her dead in the eye and says one of the best lines in the film: “You think you deserve that pain, but you don’t.”

Something passes between them, and the rest of the film, as far as these two are concerned, is about getting these two dysfunctional people together.  There are obstacles, of course.  A sick kid, an unexpected visit from the ex-wife, some examples of logic that seems rude but really isn’t.  It’s hard to explain.  But theirs is the thread that holds the rest of this weird film together.

And weird it is…but in that good way, you know?  Richard’s two sons are Robby, maybe 7 years old, and Peter, probably about 12 or 13, right when the hormones are kicking in.  In their off time, Peter visits an online chat room where he starts interacting someone who calls themselves “Untitled.”  (He calls himself “NightWarrior.”)  Their conversation gets racy.  If you think this is improper or immoral to show in a film, allow me to direct you to my own experiences on AOL chat rooms when I was that age.  (That’s one of the things the movie gets exactly right: the teenage boy’s curiosity/fascination about sex.)  Thing is, Peter is doing the chatting with Robby right there next to him.  Robby has no idea what he’s reading.  When Peter jokingly asks Robby for something dirty to type, Robby launches into this incredibly detailed scatological description of what he thinks is dirty.  At first, I was a little shocked, but then I started laughing because this is something else the screenplay gets exactly right.  Ask a really little kid to say the dirtiest thing they can think of, and this is the kind of thing you’re most likely to hear.

The movie is full of little moments like that.  The main love story is tooling along, and suddenly a store-bought goldfish is left on top of someone’s car in a baggie.  We’re watching Christine agonize over whether to call Richard or not, and then those two teenage girls from before persuade Peter, the teenage son, to let them give him what they call a “Jimmy Ha Ha.”  It’s exactly what you’re thinking.  Why do they do this?  Because they want to settle an argument over which of them can do it better.  Where were those girls when I was in high school???

And don’t even get me started about what happens when Robby, the youngest boy, starts posing as NightWarrior and chats with Untitled on his own.  This exceedingly weird situation, which I can honestly say I’ve never seen in any other movie before, leads to a moment when Untitled asks to meet NightWarrior in person.  The payoff of this story thread is sure to divide audiences, but I found it both hilarious and oddly touching.

If I’m making the movie sound like a mixed bag, well, it is.  But nothing ever goes too far in the taste department.  The perv who leaves graphic notes on his window has an interesting reaction when his bluff is called.  The Untitled/NightWarrior stuff comes to a proper close, in my opinion.  And Richard and Christine?  Well…what kind of romantic dramedy ends with the lovers NOT getting together, right?

Bottom line: Me and You and Everyone We Know is constantly engaging, constantly weird, but never boring, never conventional.  It held my interest for 90 minutes.  That’s more than I can say for most romantic dramedies involving poop jokes and “Jimmy Ha Ha’s.”


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Robert Schwentke
Cast: Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sean Bean (who, miraculously, does NOT die in this film)
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 37%

PLOT: A bereaved woman (Foster) and her daughter are flying home from Berlin to America. At 30,000 feet, the child vanishes, and nobody will admit she was ever on the plane.

I get it. Flightplan strains at the leash of credibility. A lot. In order for the plot to work, the audience has to believe that a number of people would have to be involved in a massive conspiracy, a cacophony of coincidences that screams “CONTRIVED” to any sane moviegoer.

But, as ridiculous as it seems, the movie still works incredibly well, even upon repeat viewings. Director Robert Schwentke has not exactly distinguished himself since this film (credits include R.I.P.D., Red, and the last two Divergent movies), but Flightplan displays a surefire command of tone, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere while keeping the camera free to move around the plane along seemingly impossible paths.

This film is a classic example of what Roger Ebert called a “locked room” puzzle. A girl is missing on an airplane – admittedly a very LARGE airplane, but still. There are only so many places she can be. The plane is searched, but she’s nowhere to be found, leaving only two possibilities: she was never there to begin with, or someone’s lying. But who? And why? She thinks she recognizes an Arab passenger on the plane…was he staring in her apartment window the previous night? Is she going crazy, or has there been an actual kidnapping? That’s the central mystery, and it carries the movie for most of its brief running time.

(There’s a neat section where Foster’s character (who, coincidentally, helped design the plane they’re on), monkeys around with the plane’s electronics and gets the oxygen masks to fall, to create a diversion for herself. Tell you what, that would get MY attention.)

The final resolution is…well, let’s say it answers all the questions of what happened without addressing HOW it happened. A lot of folks found that unsatisfactory (thus the 37% on Rotten Tomatoes), but the movie is so well-made and executed that, by the time the credits rolled, I didn’t mind it so much. But, you know…that’s just me.

KNOWING (2005)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Alex Proyas

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Rose Byrne, Ben Mendelsohn (plus an early sighting of a young Liam Hemsworth in his first movie role)
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 33%

PLOT: M.I.T. professor John Koestler links a mysterious list of numbers from a 50-year-old time capsule to past and future disasters and starts to wonder…what happens when the numbers run out?

[SPOILER ALERTS…not that anyone is going to rush out and stream this, but whatever, still … SPOILER ALERTS]

Knowing is a polarizing film from Alex Proyas, the visionary director of The Crow (1994) and Dark City (1998).  It tells the story of an M.I.T. professor whose son is given an envelope that has been sealed inside a time capsule for 50 years.  Inside the envelope is a list of seemingly random numbers that appear to be meaningless, until he notices a pattern emerging.

I remember when this movie came out very well.  I was stoked to go see it because Alex Proyas is one of my favorite directors. But it got PANNED right out of the gate.  And most of the negativity stemmed from the movie’s ending, which turned off the vast majority of moviegoers who thought was the equivalent of someone saying, “It was all a dream!”

Knowing does NOT have one of your typical Shyamalan-esque endings.  The ending follows the strict logic of everything that has come before and arrives at an astonishing, awe-inspiring conclusion that left me gobsmacked.  But more on that later.

Let’s talk about how Knowing works.  First, everything about the movie sets us up for what appears to be a standard horror movie with Nicolas Cage’s son apparently in danger from mysterious pale figures in dark coats who show up at their house in the middle of the night and just stand there…watching the house.  Creepy.  At one point, one of them somehow gets INSIDE the house, a sequence that ends with the boy having a nightmarish vision of a raging forest fire.

These are, so far, basic horror tropes.  But director Proyas uses skillful styling and editing to create something that feels as creepy and suspenseful as any horror movie I’ve seen.  In fact, every time I watch Knowing, I find myself still on edge during certain scenes, particularly the ones involving the pale strangers.

Another feature of the movie that I feel elevates it is the visceral nature of the key scenes involving various accidents.  See, that 50-year-old list of numbers is actually a list of dates on which various catastrophes occurred over the last 50 years, along with the number of casualties…and Nicolas Cage’s character, John Koestler, can plainly see that three of them are coming up in the next few days.

So it’s a foregone conclusion that we, the audience, are going to see some sort of major accidents.  And, man…I have never seen, before or since, such astonishing, nerve-racking sequences of horrible accidents in films.  I don’t want to be a spoiler, but I CAN say that I guarantee this is one movie that will never be an option for in-flight movie channels on commercial airliners.  I mean…when it happens, it’s out of the blue, and it feels as real as these things can get with CGI.  It literally takes my breath away every time I watch, and I’ve seen it like ten times.  Easily.

So now that Koestler has proof the list is real, the question that keeps nagging at him is…what happens when the numbers run out?

And that’s where Knowing leapfrogs over other genre thrillers and actually becomes ABOUT something.  Before finding that fateful list, Koestler asks his students at M.I.T. to write a paper on determinism versus coincidence in the natural world.  That is, do you believe that everything up to this point has happened for a reason, or is literally everything we do completely random, with no purpose or design?  Koestler believes in the latter, even though he’s the son of a minister, a man with whom he’s had no contact for years.

Koestler has his reasons.  Years ago, his wife was killed in a hotel fire, an event which he perceives as a random accident.  But then he gets this list, and it seems as if someone has been able to accurately predict seemingly random events.  This list flies in the face of everything he’s believed for years.  If these accidents are predictable, is everything ELSE predictable?  Is there a REASON for the accidents?  Is life more than just the result of millions of years of evolution and genetic mutations?

Koestler cannot square this list with his personal beliefs, and it’s that conflict that’s at the heart of the movie.  Knowing forces its main character (and, by extension, the audience) to make a decision one way or the other.  Is there a plan for existence, or is it random?  How long can he ignore the evidence of his own eyes before he makes his choice?

And over all of that, there’s still the issue of the list running out of numbers.  What happens then?  The end of the world?  Is he destined to SAVE the world?  Or stand by helplessly as pre-determined events spin forward out of his control?

This is why the movie stands above other genre sci-fi thrillers.  It poses tough questions and forces us to confront our own beliefs.  And the movie does not take the easy way out by trying to have it both ways.  The finale of Knowing is as implacably logical as it is visually stunning.

Detractors of the movie decry this finale as a “deus ex machina” that cheapens everything that came before.  I even remember some mild laughter in the audience when I first saw it.  But seriously…given everything that happened before, what ELSE would have been a good ending?  Have Koestler wake up from a dream?  Have him discover that it was all really a government experiment?  A drug-fueled hallucination?

None of those would have worked NEARLY as good as the ending the movie DOES provide.  As I said before, it follows the logic of its own story to the bitter end, and gives us some spectacular visuals into the bargain.  It doesn’t cheat, it doesn’t pander or cop out.  We have gone from point A to point B, and the only way out is through point C.  When you think about it, isn’t that kind of audacious?  How many movies have had the nerve to follow the courage of its own convictions?  (I’m reminded of The Bridge on the River Kwai with its own fatalistic finale, combining spectacular visuals with an ending that was not a “happy” one by any stretch of the imagination.)

I stand behind this movie as one of the great sci-fi mystery thrillers.  Love the ending or hate it…I challenge you to come up with an ending that would have been better than the one presented in the film.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Anna Paquin
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 92% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Two young brothers deal with the divorce of their parents in 1986 Brooklyn, specifically the Park Slope neighborhood.

I started writing this as a “conventional” review, and I found myself unable to make it more than a simple summary of the plot.  I have rarely seen a movie that has left me more inarticulate than this one.  I can tell you the movie works, and works extremely well, but I am unable to explain exactly why.

It’s a simple story of a husband and wife going through divorce, deciding on joint custody of their two sons, and the complications that ensue.  The husband, Bernard (Jeff Daniels), is a literature professor and a published novelist, but who hasn’t had anything published for some time.  The wife, Joan (Laura Linney), is in the final stages of getting her own first novel published.  This fact may or may not be one of the causes of the divorce, but Bernard is pretty sure it is.  Their sons, Walt (high school senior, played by Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (maybe 12 years old), deal with this news in a predictable manner: initial numb acceptance, then some acting out a little later.

Bernard, whose well-educated narcissism is impossible to miss, almost cheerfully informs the sons that he and Joan will share joint custody evenly during the week.  One of the sons asks, “How can you share us evenly?”

“I’ll have you every other Thursday,” Bernard explains helpfully.  This answers the question without making anything better.

Walt starts a relationship with a classmate whom he coldly describes as “cute, but not gorgeous.”  Bernard casually invites a female student to live in a vacant room in his new house.  Joan and Bernard fiercely protect their “days” with their sons.  Frank starts drinking beer and masturbating in public places (this is handled with much more discretion than that description would have you believe).

But the story itself is not what makes this movie such a pleasure.  It’s the movie’s style and editing that create a unique experience.  The movie clocks in at an unthinkable 81 minutes, WITH credits.  I learn from the bonus features on the Blu-Ray that it was shot on Super-16 film stock with a mostly hand-held camera, lending the film a low-budget, documentary look that enhances its “reality”.  Scenes last only long enough for us to get the point before a jump cut takes us to the next plot point.  Normally, this creates in me a sense of nervousness or anxiety, but for some reason it didn’t work that way.  I never felt cheated or short-changed.  It all just felt “right.”  It gave me the same sensation I get when I’m reading a really good short story with sharply-drawn characters and impeccable dialogue.

That may sound like more details than I had promised at the beginning, but it’s really just a clinical description.  Words can’t express how the film’s brevity, atmosphere, dialogue, and characters all combined to produce one of the most touching films about family and/or divorce that I’ve ever seen.

(No, I HAVEN’T seen Marriage Story by this same director, Noah Baumbach, but I will get around to it one day.  Today is not that day, though.)


By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Randy Quaid, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 87% Certified Fresh

PLOT: The story of a taboo romantic relationship between two cowboys, and their lives over the years.

Brokeback Mountain is the kind of movie that makes me wish I was a better communicator, like Lost in Translation.  I know I love these movies, I know WHY I love these movies, but it’s difficult for me to put into words.

Brokeback is, of course, the movie that will forever be known among the snark peddlers as “that gay cowboy movie,” which is insultingly reductive.  That’s like referring to Star Wars as “that space movie.”  To reduce the movie to those terms is to totally ignore the boundless riches to be had by watching it, I mean really watching it.

For one thing, damn, just LOOK at it.  Look at the way the skies fill the frame, with clouds hanging heavily over the mountains and the dusty streets and the trailer parks.  Director Ang Lee makes the sky into a tangible character all its own, much like Kubrick did with the Overlook Hotel.  It infuses every outdoor scene with a sense of the largeness of the world around us.  It’s a fitting backdrop for the intimate story presented to us.  In fact, those huge scenic backdrops are kind of a throwback to the ‘70s, to the films of Cimino and Arthur Penn and Bertolucci, when painting a picture with the camera was two-thirds of the story.  Virtually every outdoor scene in Brokeback Mountain is worthy of framing in an art gallery.  Stupendous.

The movie turns on the story of two men who unexpectedly and passionately fall in love in 1963, a time when gay love was still taboo, at least in polite society, and especially in any given cowboy community.  But as the story winds its way through almost twenty years in the lives of these men, it becomes less about the FACT of their affair, and more about the enormous sense of yearning and loss that comes from desperately wanting something that you can’t have.  Who among us has never felt that kind of insane desire?  Not necessarily for a person, even, but for anything at all?  A crippled man who longs to walk, or a blind man who yearns to see.  A dream job.  A dream vacation.  That’s what this movie is about.

Heath Ledger delivers the performance that really put him on the map.  His portrayal of Ennis Del Mar is incredibly subtle, although his Western accent flirts with impenetrability at times.  I love the way he shambles and mumbles through his role, virtually the entire movie, which pays off in that fantastic scene by the lake (“I wish I knew how to quit you!”) when this hulk of a man is torn down by his own unspoken passion.

Again…I’m not a poet, so this really doesn’t quite get at the mood generated by the movie.  It’s no feel-good film, that’s for sure, but it’s worth seeing by anyone who loves world-class storytelling.  Don’t let anyone, or your own preset notions, steer you different.

KING KONG (2005)

By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Andy Serkis (as Kong)
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 84% Certified Fresh

PLOT: In 1933 New York, an overly ambitious movie director (Black) coerces his cast and crew to travel to the mysterious Skull Island, where they encounter Kong, a giant ape who is immediately smitten with leading lady, Ann Darrow (Watts).

A cheesy screenplay, stupendous visual effects, breathtaking action sequences…James Cameron’s – sorry – Peter Jackson’s epic remake of THE classic monster movie may not have been the movie that anyone was clamoring for, but I, for one, am glad it was made.  To me, it’s one of the great monster movies of all time, and one of the greatest adventures since Jackson’s own epic adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

To make things easier for myself, I’m just going to tick off the highlights.

  • The screenplay lacks any semblance of subtlety, but the dialogue is not exactly the point here.  It serves its purpose.  In fact, the best scenes that approach any emotional depth are the virtually wordless interactions between Ann Darrow and Kong.
  • The visual effects are stunning.  Even putting aside the spectacular action sequences, Kong himself is one of the great triumphs of modern CGI wizardry.  Building on the technology used to bring Gollum to life, Kong’s movements and facial expressions are based on the motion capture performance by the man who really pioneered this new branch of acting, Andy Serkis.  To watch Kong expressing, not just red fury, but also puzzlement, melancholy, happiness, even (for the briefest of moments) fear…to watch it happen, and to feel the character come to life, is awe-inspiring.  You look in his eyes, and you see the mind behind them, working things out.
  • The sequence that begins with Ann’s encounter with Skull Island’s version of the T-Rex, and which ends with Kong in single battle with said beastie, is the kind of thing we go to the movies for, or at least the kind of thing we go to these movies for.  It’s pure blockbuster gold, and mostly without any music in the background.  Blu-Ray/DTS bliss.
  • Okay, yes, Adrien Brody would not be the obvious choice for the hero if the movie.  But hey, in the film someone actually says something like, “Real heroes have lousy haircuts and a skin condition.”  Or something like that.  Which makes Brody, by that definition, hero material.
  • True story: the first time seeing the movie in the theater, there were sniffles in the audience as poor Kong expires and falls to his death.  (Did I ruin that for you?  How did you THINK it would end?)
  • The extended cut is not quite as good as the theatrical version.  With the additional animal attacks, the movie would have been just too exhausting in theaters.  (On home video, though, it’s cool to watch.)
  • Now that you’ve seen the remake, find and watch the original.  You’ll be amazed at how much of the original found its way into this new version.

In summary, King Kong is modern thriller moviemaking, with director Peter Jackson in peak form.  Sadly (at least so far), he hasn’t reached this pinnacle again.  But one can hope.


By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Brian Cox
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 76% Certified Fresh

PLOT: At a turning point in his life, a struggling, engaged tennis instructor (Rhys Meyers) falls for an aspiring actress (Johansson), who also happens to be engaged…to his soon-to-be brother-in-law.

Watching Match Point is as exhilarating as any moviegoing experience I’ve ever had.  It’s pure soap, much like its uncredited (but obvious) inspiration, 1951’s A Place in the Sun with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.  But a crucial decision is made by the main character in Allen’s film that shifts everything into darker territory more comparable to Hitchcock than George Stevens.

One of the best things about the film is the editing.  It’s not a short film, clocking in at just over two hours, but everything feels pared down to the bare essentials.  The passage of time is indicated in efficient pans or quick cuts.  Unnecessary conversations are cut short.  Winter changes to spring in a single fade.  Allen wastes no time in getting to the meat of the story, and it makes for a film that hurtles along breathlessly.

The performance by the lead, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, is also a key factor.  Watching it again for the first time in quite a while, I was struck by how measured his deliveries are.  There’s nothing wrong with it on a technical level, but it always feels like he’s acting or performing.  Even when his character, Chris, interacts with his girlfriend who eventually becomes his fiancé, nothing he does feels real.  It’s almost distracting, how theatrical his performance is compared to everyone else’s.  I was thinking, “Well, I guess Rhys Meyers is the best they could get to stay under budget.”

EXCEPT…when he meets Scarlett Johnasson’s character, Nola.  Only then do his eyes and face reflect the lust in his words.  They flirt fiercely for about a minute before they’re interrupted, but the damage is done.  He’s hooked.  And it’s at THAT point I realized the “staginess” of his acting in previous scenes was intentional, because his character WAS acting.  Chris is ALWAYS putting on a performance for everyone around him, except Nola.  With Nola, we see the real Chris, the focused, hungry Chris who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

It’s a brilliant layer to a brilliant film.  Woody Allen has created a movie that starts out exactly like so many of his previous character-driven art-house films, so much so that we never suspect the surprises in store.  For the score, he chose stock opera recordings, really OLD opera recordings that sound so scratchy I wonder if any of them were actually being played on the old Edison cylinder players.  It’s the PERFECT topping.  It creates a uniquely Allen-esque atmosphere that lulls us into the feeling that, well, I know where THIS is going.

But I assure you, you don’t.

Pay particularly close attention to the various discussions of luck peppered throughout the film.  At multiple milestones in the film, luck plays a HUGE part, not always for the good.  Are these plot conveniences?  Well, how much of our own lives are governed by luck, good or bad?  An acquaintance of mine was killed in a wreck where a truck toppled onto him from a highway overpass.  Another was killed because someone was driving at night with no headlights.  Another friend contracted breast cancer, but is now in remission.  I have two uncles who last cancer battles.  Yet another acquaintance, the daughter of a friend, beat childhood leukemia.

Luck is inextricably linked with our existence, to the degree that it’s a little frightening.  We can bitch and moan about plot contrivances in movies and convenient phone calls and the rest, but if you step back, everything in existence is a contrivance: random meetings and phone calls and stoplights that keep us from hitting that pedestrian, and missed flights on airplanes that end up crashing, etcetera.

That’s REALLY what Match Point is drilling down to.  We live our lives, we play our roles, we follow the scripts WE choose…or are they chosen for us? Even without the backdrop of luck as a metaphysical discussion, the movie is an absolute top-notch thriller, one of the best of 2005, or any year, for that matter.  But it’s that next level hanging in the background that makes it my favorite Woody Allen film.