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203 posts from January 2009

January 30, 2009

New In Town

Hr_New_in_Town_poster Rennee Zellweger works her romantic comic magic as Miami corporate climber Lucy Hill who volunteers to help restructure her company's food plant in Minnesota in the heart of winter. Lucy's culture shock is compounded by the conservative mores and short-list habits of a tight-knit community that she reluctantly comes to respect and even love, thanks in no small part to the outdoorsy charm of the town's union rep Ted Mitchell (played by Harry Connick, Jr.). "New In Town" is an uncomplicated fish-out-of-water romance with just enough modern-day social commentary to give it some substance. The sweetness here is far from saccharine, and well-crafted supporting role performances from Siobhan Fallon Hogan and J.K. Simmons go a long way toward anchoring the humor.

(Lionsgate) Rated PG. 96 mins. (B-) (Three Stars)

The Uninvited

Hr_The_Uninvited_poster Unrelated to the 1944 ghost story that gave birth to the great Jazz standard Stella by Starlight, this "Uninvited" is a clunky Americanized remake of Kim Jee-woon's 2003 Korean horror film "The Tale of Two Sisters." The upstart sibling directing team of Charles and Thomas Guard create hamburger-helper scares in a story about a suicidal girl named Anna (played by Emily Browning) who returns from a stint in the loony bin to live with her father Steven (played by David Strathairn in a squandered performance) and his new girlfriend Rachel (played by Elizabeth Banks). Anna's sister Alex (played by Arielle Kebbel) is quick to fill Anna in on how their now-deceased mother's former nurse Rachel has dug her nails into their father's heart. Anna suffers from hallucinations of her corpse-like mother crawling around the family's lakeside mansion, that point to Rachel as her assassin. Perfunctory scares lead up to a would-be surprise plot reveal that instead carries the odor of a day-old tuna sandwich left out on the counter. 
(Paramount) Rated PG-13. 87 mins. (D+) (One Star)

January 23, 2009


Taken The ever-capable Liam Neeson takes a well-earned payday as retired CIA-agent Bryan Mills whose 17-year-old daughter is kidnapped by Albanian sex traffickers when she runs off to Paris with her best friend to follow a U2 tour around Europe. Hamfisted screenwriting over-establishes Mills's desperation at winning his daughter's affection before he gets to use his specialized set of spy skills that will impose a hearty body-count on his rescue and revenge quest around Paris. French cottage film industry maverick Luc Besson co-produced and co-wrote the project that takes special pleasure in spicing up violent surprises for a revenge fantasy that's spelled out in capital letters. Perhaps the biggest revelation is Liam Neeson's impact as a 55-year-old super spy whose physicality is undiminished in spite of his age. Mills has no ethics about torturing bad guys before leaving them to die an agonizing death or about hurting innocent bystanders in the interest of getting his way. Leave your brain at the door to enjoy this smash-and-grab spree of fast-twitch carnage.
(20th Century Fox) Rated PG-13. 93 mins. (C+) (Two Stars)

Donkey Punch

Donkey Punch American audiences can get a crash course into what the Brits lovingly refer to as a "video nasty" with commercial director Olly Blackburn's feature film debut.Part sexploitation flick and part formula thriller, "Donkey Punch" sets up three twentysomething English girls on vacation in Mallorca where they take up with four British boys who've been running crew on a luxury yacht. A trip out to sea with champagne and doses of ecstasy lead to a videotaped romp of group sex that necessarily involves the apocryphal sex practice of the film's title. A girl dies as a result, and her two friends face off against the boys who insist on covering up the accidental murder by tossing the body overboard. Blackburn has said that he's inspired by Neil LaBute's confrontational approach to satirizing male and female relationships, but the film works better as a stylish thriller than it does as a discourse on the sexual sensibilities of freewheeling youth. If there's cautionary moral here it's that a girl should never introduce herself to a prospective lover as "hardcore."       
(Magnet) Rated R. 95 mins. (B-) (Three Stars)

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

Hr_Underworld_Sonja_poster Kate Beckinsale jettisoned the Underworld franchise for this third installment prequel that's made bearable only by Michael Sheen's strong presence as the Lycan werewolf slave Lucian. Beckinsale look-alike Rhona Mitra plays Sonja, the vampire princess daughter to coven king Viktor (played with googly eye acting techniques by Bill Nighy). Sonja and Lucian enjoy a tempestuous affair that's threatened by daddy's wrath should he ever find out about their intimate bond that promises to birth a new kind of creature. Hokey CGI graphics display bloody battles with hordes of Lycans being split in two as Lucian and Sonja attempt to overthrow the Vampire dynasty that condemns their union. Director Patrick Tatopoulos is in over his head with a movie that should, but probably won't, put a final nail in Underworld's monochromatic coffin.
(Screen Gems/Sony) Rated R. (C-) (Two Stars)

January 18, 2009


Startupdeatcomcine-600a The name D.A. Pennebaker strikes fondness in the hearts of audiences familiar with the director's seminal cinema verite documentary "Don't Look Back" (1967), which followed Bob Dylan's last acoustic tour in England, and his more recent film "The War Room" (1994), about Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. It seems fitting that Pennebaker would produce the first documentary about the dotcom boom and bust while the hardening corpse is still warm. Under the joint direction of Pennebaker's wife Chris Hegedus and newcomer Jehane Noujaim, "Startup.com" follows childhood friends Kaliel Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman as they turn an idea about a website designed to facilitate paying local government fees, like parking tickets, into a $60 million internet company called Gov-Works.com. Co-director Jehane Noujaim, a Harvard graduate and then roommate to Kaliel, started filming in May of 1999, on the day the baby-faced boomer quit a high profile job at Goldman Sachs to become the CEO for GovWorks. What follows is a digitally filmed macro and micro record of an American entrepreneurial phenomenon that skyrocketed and quickly burned out, leaving the US economy to be devoured by Republican wolves. That we also get an intimate look at two vastly different companions sacrificing their trust on an altar of business, makes "Startup.com" an impromptu lesson in power, duty, and betrayal that goes well beyond traditional limitations of celluloid documentaries.
Rated R. 103 mins. (B+) (Four Stars)


THE BIG HEATBased on William P. McGivern's novel, Glenn Ford plays a by-the-book police sergeant named Dave Bannion so busy grappling with the crime that rages around him that he isn't able to see his own negative influence. You couldn't call Dave Bannion an anti-hero; he's too much of a menace to society, and himself, for that little honor. 

The women Bannion comes in contact with don't fare so well after their meeting. No femme fatale is gonna get one over on the always suspicious Bannion. Still, Gloria Grahame never looked more beautiful or seductive than she does in this shocker of a movie.

Suicide, a nasty face scalding, and vengeful murder collide in Fritz Lang's explosive 1953 noir about police procedure as exemplified through Sergeant Bannion's tunnel-vision perspective.

Lee Marvin makes an impressive early turn as a brutal gangster in this exquisite representation of the noir genre that begins with one of the most visually iconic opening sequences in cinema history. A hand reaches into the frame to pick up a police issue .38 caliber pistol. Bang.

The big heat

Considered the most violent movie of its day, everything about "The Big Heat" is "hard boiled," gritty, and mean. 

Not Rated. 90 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)


KANE"Citizen Kane" occupies the first place slot in more critics' lists of the best films ever made than any other. At the young age of 26, Orson Welles built on his already unbelievably prodigious career to make a movie loosely based on newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst's rise to dictatorial power in the media world.

Originally entitled "American," the script was written by Herman J. Mankiewicz before being doctored by Welles. Although Welles's film was far from a biography of Hearst, gossip columnist Louella Parsons screened a rough cut of the film, and reported back to Hearst that it was indeed an unauthorized biography of him. In turn, Hearst set about attempting to purchase the original negative.

The story is book-ended by the mysterious use of the word "rosebud" that the elderly Kane utters in the opening scene as the last thing he says before dying. The movie goes on to reveal in flashback the story of media maverick Charles Foster Kane who, after being separated from his parents as a teenager, goes on to wield enormous political and financial power.


Joseph Cotton occupies a central role as Kane's best friend Jedediah Leland, who provides reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) with key narrative elements of Kane's rise. As Thompson queries more of Kane's friends and associates, flashbacks build to reveal the significance of "rosebud," for the audience if not the reporter.


Welles's pioneering techniques of dialogue, editing, sound, and dramatic form are unmistakable for the 1940 film that would go on to win only one Academy Award — for screenwriting. While "Citizen Kane's" famous reputation over-leverages its ability to satisfy modern audiences for the expectations they might bring to "the best film ever made," it is nonetheless an impressive dramatic epic that articulates some of the myths of capitalist America in a personal and human way. For that reason alone, "Citizen Kane" is essential viewing for any lover of cinema, history, or of both.    

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January 17, 2009



William Friedkin leveraged the influence he accrued with the enormous box office successes of "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist" — both films also won Oscars — to live out his dream of remaking Henri-Georges Clouzot's trailblazing 1955 thriller "Le Salaire de la Peur" ("Wages of Fear"), albeit with a sharper socio-political-corporate commentary and an even tougher visual style. The director’s decision to use an outré electronic music score by Tangerine Dream adds considerably to creating a volatile vibe that complements screenwriter Walon Green's perceptive adaptation of Georges Arnaud's anti-capitalist 1950 novel.

During its finely crafted first act, Friedkin skillfully sets up the back-stories of four criminals from around the globe who end up in the same backwater oil town in Venezuela where a well fire burns out of control some 200 miles away. The manmade disaster gives the hard-up refugees an opportunity to make a sizable sum of money — if they can successfully deliver cases of nitro-sweating dynamite to the site to stanch the out-of-control blaze.


Despite Friedkin's public grousing about Roy Scheider being the “wrong actor” for the film’s leading man role of Jackie Scanlon — the director originally wanted to cast Steve McQueen — the reliably wholehearted Scheider delivers a gutsy performance that is every bit as solid as his work on "Jaws," if not better. Indeed, Scheider is the only name actor in the film.

Infamous battles between the then ego-bloated Friedkin and the film’s production companies (Paramount and Universal) — over casting and budgetary concerns — were exacerbated by costly set disasters. One such crisis involved an expensive rope suspension bridge used in one of the film's most gripping sequences. A specially created hydraulic-controlled bridge extended over a shallow riverbed in an area that never flooded — at least not until shooting was scheduled to begin. A still image from the nail-biting scene was used in the film’s extraordinary poster. It remains one of the most anxiety-inducing scenes in the history of cinema.

"Sorcerer" had the misfortune of being released at the same time as "Star Wars." As such, it flopped at the box office in the blink of an eye — not that the powers that be didn’t set it up to bomb. After bleeding money during the film’s far over-budget production, Universal and Paramount wrote the picture off as a loss and put no effort into distribution or publicity. For the first time in his career William Friedkin failed as a filmmaker — not because of the superb product he delivered, but rather the way he played the system. His outsized pride caught up with him just when he thought he was above it all.

It's rare that a remake lives up to the original upon which it was based, much less exceeds it, but William Friedkin’s "Sorcerer" is that exceptional movie. It remains one of the most overlooked cinematic masterpieces of all time.


Rated PG. 121 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts. Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon.


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