AN EDUCATION (2009, Great Britain)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Lone Scherfig
Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Rosamund Pike, Dominic Cooper, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson, Carey Mulligan
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 93% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A coming-of-age story about a teenage girl in 1960s suburban London, and how her life changes with the arrival of a playboy nearly twice her age.

Lone Scherfig’s An Education, written by famed British author/screenwriter Nick Hornby, is yet another example of how my preconceived notions of a film are often very wrong.  Based on the plot description above, I assumed I was in for what I call a “spinach movie”: something that’s good for you, but not a lot of fun to eat.  I thought the film would be dark and deep, delving into unsavory territory involving a predatory older man putting the make on an underage girl.  Lessons would be learned, but it would be an uncomfortable watch.

For about the first half of the film, I felt I was mostly right.  It’s 1962 in England, and Jenny (Carey Mulligan in her first major role) is a sixteen-year-old student who is studying hard to pass her A-levels – I think I got that right – with flying colors, which she hopes will give a favorable impression to the admissions board at Oxford.  Her father (Alfred Molina) supports her plans…or rather, he supports HIS plans for her.  He gives several impassioned speeches about the importance of getting a higher education, making sacrifices, dropping her cello hobby, etcetera, all in the service of getting those Oxford-level grades.

One day, Jenny gets caught in the rain and is rescued by David (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming older man driving an irresistible maroon sportscar.  He isn’t just charming, he’s effortlessly charming, turning the exact right phrases to put Jenny at ease.  The morning after he drives her home, he leaves a bouquet of flowers at her doorstep.  He bumps into her again quite by accident, or “accident”, and asks her on a date for dinner and a concert.  For this, he must convince Jenny’s very suspicious father…which he does with silver-tongued ease.

Jenny is caught up in this whirlwind of attention from a much older man who is clearly well off with sophisticated friends, Danny and Helen (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike).  Jenny’s father, Jack (Alfred Molina), is torn between his protective instincts and the idea that Jenny might have met a man who could make her dreams of Oxford…moot.  Why worry about the expense of university when a rich husband can keep his daughter well cared for?

Despite the father’s (and my own) forebodings, Jenny is genuinely enjoying herself.  She loves music, so David takes her to a concert.  She loves art, so David takes her to an art auction.  She loves learning and speaking French, so David takes her to Paris.  His method of getting Jenny’s father to agree to this overnight trip is simultaneously simple and diabolical.  Jenny is having fun for what seems to be the first time in her life.

She’s having so much fun that, for a while, I wasn’t quite sure what the movie was advocating.  Is it supporting this relationship?  She has a very frank conversation with David regarding her wish to remain a virgin until her seventeenth birthday.  David agrees…then, in one of the ballsiest (and creepiest) moves I’ve ever seen from a guy in a movie, he asks her to give him a “peek.”  What is going on?!?  This guy is clearly a cad.  But he’s so nice to her…and she’s having fun…!

Put it this way: I was prepared to throw something at the television by this point.

Around the midway point, though, the movie finally makes its true purpose known.  It’s not about judging Jenny, which is too easy to do, or even judging David, which is ridiculously easy to do.  The film is based on a memoir by a British journalist named Lynn Barber, which made some of the revelations about David’s past and how he makes a living easier to swallow, knowing that it’s based at least partially on fact.  It also made all the “icky” parts in the first half of the film a little more palatable.  When you realize that someone really went through this, it puts everything in a different light.  I had the same epiphany during Schindler’s List; the concept that this all actually happened brought a deeper level to the viewing experience that I hadn’t expected.  (It’s also what made Fargo so much more entertaining than your average crime film, but that’s another story…)

Anyway, this happens and that happens, and before you know it, Jenny has made the kinds of decisions that would make grown men and women tremble with anxiety. The movie’s title takes on a whole new meaning.  It’s not just about Oxford anymore.  It’s about studying at the University of Life, where the only way to know if you passed your test is if you’re still willing to take the next one, and the next, and the next.  Even David learns a thing or two.  Maybe.  It’s a little inconclusive when it comes to that guy.  What a jackass.

So…is it any good?  Yes, it is.  It’s got brilliant performances working from a Nick Hornby script that switches easily among pathos and embarrassment humor (witness the predicament of Jenny’s other suitor at her 17th birthday party) and even a little suspense.  I tend to think of Hornby as Britain’s answer to Cameron Crowe.  Hornby’s books and screenplays walk that same tightrope time after time (About a Boy, High Fidelity, the original Fever Pitch – soccer, not baseball), just like Crowe’s best work (Jerry Maguire, Say Anything, Almost Famous, which I don’t particularly love, but I do acknowledge its craftsmanship).  By the time I got to the end of An Education, the double- or triple-meaning of the title is fully realized.  Everyone has learned something.  Not all of it has been good.  It doesn’t all tickle.  But, except possibly for David, everyone has taken what they’ve learned, good or bad, and put it to good use.  That’s a satisfying ending.

[Side note: after this movie was over, I found myself thinking of Licorice Pizza and its plot regarding an underage boy and an adult woman. I can imagine my friend and partner-in-crime reading my favorable review above and asking me, “If you like this movie, how can you not like Licorice Pizza?” (He really loved Licorice Pizza.) The difference is that, by the time An Education is over, the characters have EVOLVED. Discuss.]


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Dileep Rao, David Paymer
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 92% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Christine Brown has a good job, a great boyfriend, and a bright future. But in three days, she’s going to hell.

Re-read that plot description above.  That’s pretty much the movie in a nutshell.  And it was directed by Sam Raimi getting back into his grindhouse-y horror zone after five years of hobnobbing with Columbia Pictures and their Spider-Man franchise.

In other words, it’s a movie showcasing a director getting back to what he does best.  And it is nothing if not effective.

Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a loan officer at a bank, tries to impress her boss by refusing to extend the home loan of an elderly woman, Sylvia Ganush, who is facing eviction.  Later that night, Mrs. Ganush accosts Christine in a parking garage (one of the movie’s many exceptionally effective scare sequences).  As revenge for rejecting her loan extension, Mrs. Ganush bestows a curse upon Christine: in three days, a demonic spirit will come for Christine’s soul, and there’s nothing she can do to stop it.

(We have already received a glimpse of what potentially awaits Christine during a horrifying prologue…and it is not good.  Helpful Tip for a Longer Life: Never piss off an old woman with a glass eye.)

Drag Me to Hell is not really trying to be “great”.  It’s a D-list story filmed by an A-list director.  It’s not concerned with the thematic dichotomy of good versus evil, or anything like that.  It is simply a delivery device for scares intended to jolt people out of their chairs every 5 or 10 minutes.

And, MAN, does it deliver.  There are sequences of poor Christine alone in her house, while something sinister prowls around outside, and eventually gets into the house…and I haven’t been that scared since I saw John Carpenter’s Halloween on VHS for the very first time.

There’s a creepy scene involving a single fly buzzing around Christine’s head while she sleeps, and then it alights on her face and crawls INSIDE HER NOSTRIL and then OUT THE OTHER ONE.  <shudder>  But then it moves towards her lips and starts to force its way INTO HER MOUTH…and it just makes your skin crawl in a way that’s hard to describe.  Accomplished with no blood or gore, just…eeyuck.

Mrs. Ganush herself makes a few encore appearances, just to keep things interesting, and then there’s a climactic séance at the house of a celebrated medium who once battled this particular evil spirit before.  This will certainly go down in movie history as one of the scariest/most gonzo séances EVER.  Without going into too many details, let me just say this: I could tell you the scene involves, at one point, a talking goat, and you might laugh, because what’s funnier than a talking goat, and it IS funny for the first couple of seconds…but that laughter will fade as soon as you see what happens next.  The word “bizarre” was invented for the séance in Drag Me to Hell.

That right there sort of encapsulates the general mood of this movie.  In all of his horror films, Sam Raimi’s sense of humor was always evident, most especially in Evil Dead 2 [1987] and Army of Darkness [1992].  In returning to the genre that started his career, he retains that gleeful, mischievous tone.  As horrifying as Drag Me to Hell is, it’s also pretty damn funny, even while we’re getting the bejeebers scared out of us.  (It’s hard to explain without getting into spoilers, but you’ll see what I mean when you watch it.)

So there you go.  It’s a horror movie that will make you laugh and shriek at the same time.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

…but I would advise checking your doors are locked before starting it. Just saying.


By Marc S. Sanders

If you are going to rewrite history then go crazy.  Go big and bloody.  Go for broke.  Don’t hold back.  Quentin Tarantino didn’t hold back when he penned and directed Inglorious Basterds, my personal favorite of his films.

To date of when this review is published, Tarantino has directed nine films and if ever the maturity of a director is so evident, it really shows with Basterds where three quarters of the picture is performed in either French or German.  English is secondary here, and Italian is limited to only a couple of “Bonjournos!”  and “Gorlamis!”

Tarantino presents early 1940s France when Germany occupied most of the country and practically rounded up all of the Jews.  In 1941, a cunning detective of a Nazi Colonel, Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz performing as one of the greatest villains of all time) visits a French dairy farmer to ensure there are no unaccounted-for Jews scurrying around; scurrying around like their beastly equivalent, the rat.  Landa is the hawk that will most assuredly find them.  This scene is the best written moment within Tarantino’s catalog of various scripts and dialogue exchanges.  The Landa character offers justification as to why a Jew needs to be exterminated to the point that he nearly had me (a conservative practicing Jewish man) believing in his hateful philosophy.  The lines crackle here with Waltz doing most of the talking while the sad dairy farmer can do no more than respond with certifying Landa’s interesting points.  Tarantino closes the peaceful discussion with horrifying violence though.  Hans Landa may be complimentary of a farmer’s milk and his three beautiful daughters.  He may be eloquent in his dialogue albeit French, German or English, but he is a ruthless enforcer of law …of Nazi law at least.  I also would like to note Tarantino’s tactful way of using props like the pipes the characters smoke, the glass of milk that is consumed by Landa and the ink pen and spreadsheet he uses for accounting of the Jews in the area.  There’s an uncomfortable intimidation in all of these items as they are handled by Waltz, the actor.  Later in the film, Waltz will send a chill down your spine as he happily enjoys a delicious strudel with whipped cream.  Inglorious Basterds is a great combination of directing, editing, cinematography and acting.

The film diverts into a few separate stories, namely the title characters led by Aldo “The Apache” Raines, played with Tennessee redneck glee by Brad Pitt.  The Basterds consist of mostly Jewish American soldiers tasked with going deep into enemy territory and literally killing and scalping one hundred Nazi soldiers, each.  However, keep at least one alive during each encounter with a carved souvenir on their forehead, to spread the word of the Basterds intent.  This is deliberate B movie Dirty Dozen material and it works because it doesn’t take it self seriously.  Tarantino maintains that pulpy fiction narrative.  A cut to an over the top cry baby Adolph Hitler asks “What is a Hugo Stiglitz?” and then we get a quick pause with big black block letters across the screen spelling out HUGO STIGLITZ.  This guy is a bad ass; a German turncoat who only wants to kill fellow German Nazis.  He’ll shoot them up until they are dead three times over.  He’ll stab them in the face twenty times through a pillow.  He’s not a suave killer.  He likes it violent and bloody messy.  The Basterds are fans.

The heroine of the film is Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), a Jewish girl who is living undercover as a cinema owner in France.  By implied force she is tasked with presenting Himmler’s proud film of Nazi Germany’s finest war hero, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), recreating his bird’s nest three day sniper battle against an army of three hundred men.  This is where Tarantino does best at writing what he knows, and what he knows best is anything about cinematic film.  He literally uses his knowledge of film and film reels to bridge his story while setting Shoshanna on a mission to actually end World War II in one swift motion.   

In addition, he captures the adoration of film lovers and celebrity status.  Zoller is as a heroic celebrity as John Wayne or Zorro.  When he is recognized in the coffee houses or on the street, he humbly stops his ongoing flirtation with an uninterested Shoshanna, to give an autograph or pose for a picture.

Furthermore, Tarantino applies the scientific knowledge of how 35mm film is more flammable than paper as well as how to edit a film reel to an unexpected moment for her Nazi audience.  He knows the architecture of a European cinema with its lobby and balconies and seating capacities.  He allows his characters to speak on an intellectual level by discussing great film artists of the time – filmmakers not as well known as Chaplin here in the United States, but just as great or even artistically better. The art direction of the cinema both inside and out is adorned with washed out, distressed classic noir films.  Shoshanna changes out the lettering of the curved marquee top of the theater as well.  It might sound mundane, but to me it’s all atmospheric.

Beyond the subject of cinematic art, a bad guy will weed out a spy in Nazi garb by recognizing how he signals for three drinks with his hand.  There’s a right way and a wrong way to place an order with a bartender.  Inglorious Basterds may be a fictional historical piece, but it also will give you an education. All of this reminds me that Quentin Tarantino has graduated from the simplicity of Reservoir Dogs to something bigger and grander and glossier.  Production money with a large budget will lend to that status of course, but Tarantino still had to learn to truly know what he was doing.

I will not spoil the ending here.  It’s a bloody blast for sure.  Moreover, it’s shocking.  If anything, Inglorious Basterds introduces an exclusive universe that resides in the mind of Quentin Tarantino where the text book is thrown away, burned, riddled with bullets and blown up; it is where something else altogether happened, and you know what? I really wish it did actually happen this way.


By Marc S. Sanders

While the remake of The Taking Of Pelham 123 is not the best of the Tony Scott directed/Denzel Washington headlining thrillers, it’s still a good time. I’m a sucker actually for most of their films, though as of this writing I’ve yet to see Man On Fire. Washington and Scott made several action pictures together. You depend on Scott to work in all the fast cuts to wake up your pulse and allow Washington to form a variety of characters. Denzel Washington didn’t have to appear like the macho tough guy with the ripped muscles. In Pelham, it could not be more evident.

Washington plays Walter Garber (first name salute to Walter Matthau of the original film), a dispatch operator for the New York City subway line with years of experience in all facets of operation and management. However, he’s been demoted due to an ongoing investigation that he has accepted bribes. Now let me say that I like this angle. He’s not a typical alcoholic or drug addict that we might have seen a Bruce Willis guy do one too many times. This is something different and unexpected. Washington also appears with a pot belly, glasses and no fashion sense. He’s not a decorated war veteran. This is not an action hero. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland got it just right, with this character at least.

John Travolta is your bad guy known as Ryder, and I’m afraid he’s cut from similar cloths of his other career bad guys. He screams in the same way. He has the psycho meltdown attempts at hilarity. So he’s more of the same really.

Ryder and his crew hijack one car off the subway line that comes out of Pelham Bay, NY. Garber answers the call from Ryder with his demands for money within the hour or a hostage will get killed minute by minute after the deadline.

Now Helgeland and Scott are very aware of the absurdity going on here. When the apathetic Mayor (a welcome James Gandolfini) agrees to pay the cash, it has to be transported all the way from the bank reserve in Brooklyn. This requires Scott’s signature moves of racing police cars and bikes through congested New York City to get it to Ryder before the deadline. Only midway through this long sequence which gobbles up tons of the film’s running time, does someone ask why they just didn’t use the helicopter. Cue my colleague Miguel E Rodriguez: “Then there wouldn’t be a movie!!!!”

As much as I like the action shots, because I’m a guilty pleasure sucker for that stuff, I have to insist that there still could’ve been a movie; a better movie. Helgeland’s script wasn’t imaginative enough, or the producers insisted on more car crashes and things blowing up real good. The original with Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw maintained tension for its two hour running time. This remake could have learned a little more from its ancestor. Two great actors are at your disposal, and you might have gotten some good dialogue like that of Clarice & Hannibal, perhaps.

Still, the conversations between Washington and Travolta are serviceable on at least one side with most credit going to Washington. Surprises into the Garber character keep the film interesting. Travolta? Well, I saw this guy in Face/Off and Broken Arrow and Swordfish and on and on.

The Taking Of Pelham 123 always had my attention. Yet, I wish it showed me even more new things than just its unlikely hero. Denzel Washington shouldn’t have to be the only one putting in overtime.


By Marc S. Sanders

James Cameron is the guy with the ambitious talent, and yet he more often than not has a missing link in his widening imagination. It never surprised me that Titanic was nominated for a slew of Oscars and still the one thing that was not recognized was Cameron’s overly melodramatic screenplay. That shortcoming carries over to Avatar from 2009.

As a naysayer of 3D viewing who is giving you this review, I was initially so impressed with this picture featuring tall blue people with tails and big ears that I saw film twice. Still, I couldn’t get past the simplicity of the story. Avatar is Pocohontas. Avatar is Dances With Wolves. Avatar is Ferngully. (Okay. That last one I only heard from Miguel and his girlfriend Penni. I’d never seen Ferngully.)

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a Marine now confined to a wheelchair and recruited to replace his deceased soldier brother on a mission to meld his mind with an “avatar” body of a native of the neon jungle planet known as Pandora. The actual Greek meaning of the name Pandora is never considered for any kind of thought provoking significance. Jake is assigned to learn about the natives known as the Na’Vi and expose a tactical weakness in their fighting skills and weaponry. Jake works alongside the scientist known as Grace (Sigourney Weaver) to connect with the people. The evil military corporation led by a mean grunt named Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is in need of collecting a valuable mineral known as “unobtainium.” Grace’s priority is not the mineral. She’s more concerned with connecting and peacefully studying the people. On Jake’s first tour into the wild, he ends up stranded overnight. Gradually, his mission for the means of the military and corporation dwindle as he bonds with a Na’Vi named Self (Zoe Saldana). Soon, he identifies only with aiding the Na’Vi declaring his will to defend their planet against the greedy humans.

Much of Cameron’s near 3 hour film is a travelogue of the fictional Pandora and the customs and behaviors of the Na’Vi along with the creatures they share the planet with like oversized dog looking animals and winged dragon variations that the natives can ride on their backs. Neon plant life is shown in excess. Rivers and streams as well. Wide open skies too. It’s amazing to look at for sure, but eventually the novelty wears off. More or less, a lot of these trees are just glowing palm trees.

Because the film’s central storyline is so simplistic and familiar it’s not very gripping. When a Na’Vi dies or a precious worship tree tumbles at the behest of the military’s destruction, the Na’Vi wail in their own way. It just didn’t hold me so much because I didn’t feel a connection to the sci fi the film presents. James Cameron can paint a picture like no other. Somehow though, his prints are devoid of much emotion. The dialogue is clunky or cheesy in its nature. Regrettably, this has always been his problem going back to films like The Abyss or even the original Terminator. All BIG IDEAS, but weak development.

Avatar enchanted audiences back in 2009 thanks to its 3D. It was positively immersive and you felt surrounded by the nature of it all. At home, that effect is sorely missing and so you are left dazzled during the film’s exposition, but worn out on its long winded and simple storytelling.

Apparently, James Cameron is filming the next three sequels back to back to back. Three more movies of this? Really? Look, the guy has a great track record and has mostly defied the pessimists over the years when his budgets go through the roof, but I can’t see another nine hours of this material to hold me interested or thirsting for more of either Pandora or what the blue people still have yet to offer.

STAR TREK (2009)

By Marc S. Sanders

Well Batman did it, and James Bond did it.  So why can’t Star Trek do it too? 

JJ Abrams adopted another franchise to direct when he rebooted the outer space western originally conceived by Gene Rodenberry over 50 years ago.  He did well with it too, if you are willing to dismiss the final polish to the look of the picture that Abrams couldn’t resist.  Not so much a polish as it is a tarnish, unfortunately.

I was late to the party of realizing that Abrams has a terrible habit of using “lens flares” on many of his films.  Now that I’m attuned, I can’t help but notice.  I typically get quite entertained by his pictures.  Mission: Impossible III is still the best of the series as far I’m concerned.  The Force Awakens thankfully carried the original trilogy tradition of the Star Wars franchise.  His one original film that he directed, Super 8, is criminally underrated.  However, those films were spared the over saturated and very unwelcome lens flare that dominates his first Star Trek film.  The film opens with an outstanding special effects battle as a Federation starship is being overwon by a Romulan war ship.  The sets of the bridge and decks of the ship are slanted to emote chaos.  There are sparks of fire falling all over the place.  Crew members are being sucked into space, and falling over each other.  And there’s lens flares aplenty which are not so distracting within all the hysteria depicted.  The scene climaxes with the birth of one of the two most celebrated franchise characters, James T Kirk.  It’s a spectacular opening sequence that seems to uphold the traditions of Star Trek while feeling fresh with outstanding visual effects.

Afterwards, the visual effects stay on course with the updated technology that Hollywood now relies upon.  Nothing here looks CGI.  It all feels tangible, hot, and operationally functional.  Abrams accomplished a great looking science fiction film, but then he and his cinematographer spray painted a graffiti of light streaks that never end.  Crew members will be walking down a hallway – there’s a lens flare.  A character gets abandoned on a deserted snow planet – there are more lens flares.  A bar fight occurs, only to be blinded by lens flares.  Every time a guy throws a punch, it’s literally followed with a lens flare.  A hearing in an assembly room takes place.  Why do we need streaks of light in here of all places?  If I were on vacation and taking in the sights of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco within this future, my pictures would be terrible.  Apparently, lens flares have taken over the state of California.  (I guess I should be thankful knowing the state did not in fact eventually sink to the bottom of the ocean.)

The rebooted story line is fine, yet simple.  A Romulan terrorist named Nero (Eric Bana) from a further distant future is obsessed with exacting revenge on Spock.  Next to that plot, this film serves more as opportunity for production company Paramount Pictures to reintroduce the beloved seven main characters of the original series of television and films with new actors.  Chris Pine is one of the best casting selections.  His Captain Kirk is his own performance and yet when he finally sits in that captain’s chair on the bridge, I could recognize the stature and expressions of William Shatner.  He gives a nice salute to the character and the original actor who played him.  Zachary Quinto is also good as Spock, though this character is distant cry from the original Leonard Nimoy portrayal.  I found it interesting.  This Spock has greater challenges with emotions harbored in the human side of his brain.  Karl Urban is fantastic at taking over the reigns of DeForrest Kelley as “Bones” McCoy, the Enterprise’s eventual resident doctor.  Urban is given the opportunity to be hilariously cynical upon his entrance into the film.

While the visual effects and sets are at the top of their game with Abrams and crew sparing no expense, it is a little eye opening to see the sexuality of the characters take a step forward.  Abrams is not shy about showing Zoe Saldana as Uhura disrobe into her under garments with Kirk standing on the other side of the bedroom.  I’m not offended or prudish about this material but was it really necessary to go with the Porky’s angle?  It doesn’t have to be a requirement to take some of the most beautiful actors in the world and get them to strip to uphold a film.  Star Trek always had much more to offer than that.  Scenes like this come off like a cheap shot.  Pine and Saldana are better actors, worthy of favored franchise fare (DC and Marvel films) than just material like this. 

There are some surprises in this reboot for both the casual and obsessed fans.  It’s kind of welcome actually as it takes the familiar universe of Roddenberry’s conception and turns it on its head.  Certain well known locations and characters arrive at unexpected fates.  Though, unfortunately, the alternate timeline motif pushes its way through the middle of the picture.  I fear for these kinds of stories.  All they do, time and again, is open up unanswered and (forgive me for the pun) illogical answers.  Marvel and DC films are on their way to doing this with their upcoming films following the year 2021 and I can see the whole thing unraveling at the seams.  Was it necessary here, though?  I really didn’t think so.  Abrams had an opportunity to win back an appearance of an actor from the original series and it seemed forced into the film like a square trying to fit into a circle.  The older installments had their moment in the sun.  Let that go.  Focus on this new cast and this new vision.

Again, this Star Trek is a gorgeous looking film full of color and clean looking set designs all around.  The bridge of the Enterprise is something that I’d love to see in person.  The cast is actually quite perfect filling the shoes of their respective roles.  However, JJ Abrams tried too hard I think with a couple of plot developments, and an extremely distracting and very unwelcome LENS FLARE.  I KNOW I’M REPEATING MYSELF.  YET I’M NOT BEING ANY MORE REDUNDANT THAN ABRAMS WAS WITH THE STUPID BLINDING PIECE OF LIGHT. 

Maybe the next time I watch this picture, I’ll wear my sunglasses.