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Brave and beautiful girls meet a harsh and ugly world.
24 September 2016
Warning: Spoilers
A sobering documentary about the perils of being a young girl and believing the world is her friend. (Full disclaimer: I am friends with the mother of young Paige featured in this documentary as we are from the same hometown of Albany)

Audrie & Daisy recounts two different instances in which a young woman parties with the guys and is made to pay for it with shame, humiliation, degradation (by her peers and community) and even death (in the case of Audrie).

Tougher-than-we-can-ever-imagine Daisy survives her ordeal alongside her best friend, Paige, who is also raped the same evening (because boys will be boys) although luckily her rapist admits to his crime and she therefore doesn't find herself in legal turmoil. Yes ... revolting and disgusting. Daisy and her family (her brother is a solid chap) find themselves harassed and hounded by a community -- Maryville, MO (40 some minutes from home) where someone burns the family's house to the ground in spite!!! -- that refuses to believe their football stars could possibly be rapists. In towns like this athletes are small-town heroes and dynastic political families wield a lot of power.

Audrie & Daisy spends much time upon Daisy and the aftermath of her sexual assault/rape (she was 14 at the time, Paige 13) as it also interviews law enforcement officers in Nodaway County, MO (a bunch of idiots) who "won't point fingers" but don't mind naming names ... of girls who apparently lead boys astray. Much of it is shocking. Much of it is unbelievable. All of it is disturbing.

Brave and beautiful girls. Harsh and ugly world.
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Persecuted (I) (2014)
Tolerance is the most evil, vile, despicable act on the planet. Who knew?!
16 February 2016
Implausibly ridiculous!

Persecuted is a film that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever and its storyline could not nor would not ever happen in reality; but it has not stopped filmmaker Daniel Lusko from writing and directing the story to pander to the fears of the far political and religious right. This is yet another film made by a "Christian" filmmaker who wants to purport that he and others like him are being "persecuted" for their beliefs … seemingly forgetting what actual persecution is (I'd say ask Christ about it but He died from actual persecution).

The real kicker to the story: the "villains" of Persecuted are people merely seeking tolerance for all religion! It is an organization that seeks the approval of a revered Christian evangelist named John Luther (James Remar – Django Unchainced) to go ahead and begin worldwide operations with some sort of assistance from the US government (because that'd happen!). One seeking the vocal support of Luther is a US Senator (Bruce Davison – X-Men), who becomes downright frustrated when Luther speaks his conscious and says he cannot approve of a group that would place Christians at the same table as leaders from other world religions. Tolerance!? What are these despicable bastards thinking?!

The US Senator and some of Luther's own cohorts are so upset with his lack of cooperation, they decide to frame him for the murder of a young and innocent teenage girl! They get the girl killed but they are unable to capture/arrest Luther who proves to be a rather wily one. The damage to his name has been done, though … as everyone simply believes John Luther would just KILL this girl … just because. The world has turned against John Luther!

The entire film is a cat-n-mouse chase between Luther and those after him. As Luther has God on his side and government = bad, there aren't a whole lot of surprises as the film advances.

As the film culminates in a ridiculous stand-off, I was not able to shake the thought that the film's primary villains are people who seek tolerance and understanding of others so that there would be NO MORE religious war and leaders from all religions would respect one another enough to listen to others. TOLERANCE is the real villainy in Persecuted! Wrap your head around that one! This is frightening and I guess it is the world that some want.

Yoda got this one completely wrong: "Fear is the path to the dark side … fear leads to anger … anger leads to hate … hate leads to suffering." Who knew it all actually stems from TOLERANCE?
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70's Chic Space Oddity
5 April 2015
In this dark comedy that is blacker than the deepest depths of space, a group of denizens reside in a random floating space station (Station 76 to be exact) whose lives and well-being are put up for inspection by the audience as they struggle with everyday ordeals such as loneliness, infidelity, sexism, drug use, self loathing and loneliness (yes, the second mention was intentional).

This low budget film does the most with its budget and it actually all looks quite acceptable as it is a spoof/comedic take on cheap, cheesy futuristic 70's science fiction films which allows for poor special effects and less-than believable interior shots of actual human- built ships/stations floating about in space. The station's interior décor is 1970s chic ... as are the characters' costumes and hair styles. The director (Jack Plotnick) has all of this down.

Where he suffers is piecing together the story's narrative. His lack of direction is rather obvious as the toxicity of some of the laughs aren't as deadly as they should be. I chuckled throughout most of this movie but this comedy is actually more of a tragedy and while everything is played for laughs the somber, serious nature of each of the characters may persuade some to believe they are instead watching a bizarre drama as these characters are clearly all crying on the inside.

When Jessica (Liv Tyler - Empire Records) newly arrives at Station 76 as a new mate, the men and women of the station aren't sure what to make of a woman wanting to "work". The station's captain (Patrick Wilson - Little Children) is unhappy with his new partner but also appears to harbor some resentment towards the one who just left whom Jessica is replacing. Matt Bomer (Magic Mike) plays the station's maintenance man whose wife (Marisa Coughlan - Pumpkin) has grown bored with both marriage and motherhood.

Their lives unhappily float about in space ... and that is about it. Some will chuckle at their lives and misfortunes as presented and others simply won't get it; but we are laughing at tragic human internal suffering. It's black comedy ... and parts of it do work.

The film clearly won't be for everyone. I enjoyed this for the most part but I know many others won't like it ... so I won't be going out of my way to recommend this to those I know.
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My Mistress (2014)
My Mediocre Mistress
5 April 2015
In this Australian coming-of-age film, 16-year-old Charlie Boyd (Harrison Gilbertson - Need for Speed) happens on a family tragedy which profoundly affects his relationship with his mother. Unable to relate to her and appearing to be a bit of a loner with few friends, Charlie finds himself curiously drawn to a new woman in town (Emmamuelle Beart - 8 Women) whose beauty captivates him ... although it also appears to capture the attention of several men as she has men entering and leaving her home at all hours of the day and night.

After breaking onto her grounds one afternoon, Charlie discovers Maggie (Beart) with a male client in a rather compromising situation. Charlie learns that Maggie is a dominatrix (for the right price) and he longs to be near her so much he begs her to hire him as her garden/pool boy ... which she reluctantly agrees to do.

The pairing of the two characters in this film is oddly uncomfortable as there is a stigma stateside involving sexual relations (of any kind) with anybody below the age of consent. As Australia's age of consent is 16, this is a societal difference some won't accept but it does make a difference when viewing the movie.

Beart is a strikingly beautiful woman and she is rather believable here as a secretive woman who is as fragile as she is strong. Her wounded soul is believable and I understood her character's frustration, anger and misery. Gilbertson is fine here although he doesn't have to do quite as much as Beart. He portrays a quiet, seething anger rather convincingly and his seeming inability to fully grasp the film's content might be intentional ... as he is still so young himself.

The film is very tame ... one shouldn't be worried about anything that may or may not be shown on screen. The two need what is inside the other person ... so there is no bared flesh in this BDSM film like Fifty Shades of Grey (it has even fewer risqué sequences than R100).

My Mistress has a decent story about two people at its center, it just isn't overly well-developed. I'd have liked a little more of these two emotionally bonding ... I felt like I/it needed more.
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Serena (I) (2014)
Serena is Sad Sad Sad for a Number of Reasons
4 April 2015
Hoping that lightning and/or movie magic would happen thrice, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence (both of Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle) team-up for a third time in, Serena, a Susanne Bier movie adaptation of a Ron Rash novel. In their previous two efforts, they were directed by David O. Russell who has proved to be a master at coaxing great performances out of his actors (his latest two films picked up 8 acting nominations between them!); and although neither actor does poorly here, Bier proves to be a much lesser director as the film lacks focus and neither multiple-Oscar nominated actor (she has won one) turn in award-worthy performances in this film.

Serena is titled after Lawrence's character, a tragic Colorado lumber heiress whose entire family succumbed to a house fire when she was merely 12 years old. At an upscale equestrian event in Boston in the late 1920's, she catches the eye of a driven and ambitious lumber baron (wannabe) played by Bradley Cooper. After an oh-so-brief flirtation, the pair are married and they return to his native North Carolina where he owns many acres of land in the Great Smokies. He also has prospects in the the wilds of Brazil, and as long as he can make a profit here in the states him and his young wife can move to South America and live a very comfortable life.

Only, secrets from his past come to light and Serena fears losing him and her new, secure life (she invested all of her money in his holdings) ... and things don't go smoothly.

Costarring Toby Jones (Infamous), Rhys Ifans (Vanity Fair), Sean Harris ('71), Ana Ularu (Outbound), Christian McKay (Rush) and Sam Reid (Belle), Serena is a beautifully photographed film (I'll give 'em that) with credible performances from the entire cast; but the story proves to be too expansive to fit into the confines of the film's runtime as characters begin making too many seemingly uncharacteristic choices for no believable reasons. I'm assuming the book expands a bit more on motivation and character back-stories to be acceptable ... much of that is left out of the cinematic Serena.

The film has lofty ambitions and does achieve a few of them; but the editing and/or screenplay are just too weak. I will again note how beautiful some of the images Serena gives its audience are -- fog- covered mountains and valleys are breathtakingly beautiful. The film also has a nice eye for period detail but much of that is lost by trying to keep track of the ever-expanding story.

Serena wanted to be great ... and it had a decent chance at being so; but it just is not to be. It is tragic.
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What a Special Song
4 April 2015
"Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand, For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand." -- William Butler Yeats

So opens the lovingly animated Song of the Sea, the second feature- length film of Oscar-nominated director Tomm Moore who gave audiences the animated surprise The Secret of Kells in 2009. Both of his films are glorious tributes to the lore and history of his beloved Ireland, and his 2D animation style is grandly and respectfully suited to the tone and mood(s) his films want to convey.

In Song of the Sea, a young boy loses his mother as she brings his younger sister into the world. It sounds bleak but it isn't an overly dark moment in the film as Song of the Sea simply needs the daughter to come into the film for the story to actually begin and the build-up is ever so brief with the actual moment not being captured on screen. The boy, Ben, was taught songs of yore from his loving mother ... all which had secrets and links to her (unknown to him) past history as a selkie -- a mythical creature of Irish/Scottish lore that was a woman who could become a sea-dwelling seal.

Set in a mostly-modern animated world, the mythical past is believed to be exactly that -- "mythical" -- until a few years pass and the (mute) young sister, Saoirse, is called back to the sea after playing a mystical shell flute ... much to the horror of her father (Brendan Gleeson - Gangs of New York), brother and Granny (Fionnula Flanagan - The Others).

Granny is so horrified by the thought of losing a grandchild that she sweeps the two kids up removing them from their coastal dwelling to live with her in the big city. It is here that the journey of the two kids begin as they make it their mission to return home to their father and the wide-open ocean their mother so loved. It is also on this journey that the two fully discover the purpose and meaning of Saoirse's abilities ... and that her life depends on making it back to the sea and finding a mythical coat left behind for her by her late-mother.

The film is a beautiful one to look at and watch unfold. The cutesy dynamics of siblings plays out nicely as big brother Ben tires easily of a little sister he cannot fully relate to although knows her importance (to himself as well as selkie lore). Elegantly drawn, Song of the Sea carries on the tradition of colorful-yet-simple animation from Moore's prior film. Where that film used greenish tints to capture the Emerald Isle, Song uses various shades of blues and grays to capture to spirit of the sea ... and the sea-life on display here is adorable.

I'm not sure if the film fully explains itself, but it has piqued my interest in its subject matter and some of the stories at its center. I just may have to learn more about them ... which means this film is still a success.

Beautiful. Simple. Charming. Song of the Sea is another pleasant film experience from a most-promising young filmmaker.
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Wild Tales (2014)
Wildly thrilling. Wildly fun. Wildly original.
17 March 2015
This Argentine film that found itself nominated for the 2014 Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award comes to us from director Damián Szifrón who has crafted a feature film comprised of a series of 6 vignettes/small stories about human beings from all walks of (Argentine) life who are all tested and taken to their limits ... until they finally lose control. While mostly disastrous the film is also WILDly thrilling and wholly original in its daring cheekiness ... as the film is a bitter dark comedy (with tinges of brutal drama).

It is a film about a myriad group of people on a plane; a young waitress who still finds herself grieving over a family tragedy of the past; an encounter between two men from different social classes on a desolate highway; a man growing tired of the rat race of life in which we are all destined to lose; the aftermath of a horrible automobile accident; and a wedding reception like none you've ever seen before. All feature one or two characters taken to the edge ...

It is how each of them handles their various situations that give us our WILD stories. Fascinatingly grim at times, the film almost always miraculously produces laughter and grins. Much of the laughter might be heavily muffled as one chuckles under his/her breath as others around them fail to see the director's (WILDly) wicked sense of humor come into play in some of the film's intense situations; but the dark tone pervades the entire film.

While the film is most definitely tragic in many instances, Wild Tales is a comedy of errors about human nature and who we are. Some can watch this and most-likely not pick up even a hint of humor; but it is there ... and it is fantastically facetious.

Wildly thrilling. Wildly fun. Wildly original. It is courageously wild.
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If Paradise is only in one's head can it ever truly be found?
16 September 2014
An almost stranger-than-fiction tale of paradise found and paradise lost is recounted in the documentary The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, a true-crime mystery that unfolded in the remote islands off the South American coast during the 1930s that remains unsolved to this day.

Tiring of conventional life in Germany, a doctor and his sickly mistress retreat from civilization and head to the furthest reaches of the earth -- the unsettled islands of the nature-filled Galapagos Islands. A family of three soon joins them on the island and tensions begin to build as each have contrasting opinions of what the isle should be like. Things change even more when a beguiling baroness and her two lovers arrive on the island hoping to scout out a location for a fancy hotel.

Things happen. Bad things.

Told through narration by the reading of the actual people's journals and diary entries of their time on the island, the visuals of the film are as equally fascinating as a surprising amount of actual video footage was recorded of the various adventurers. It is as if it was all meant to happen ... so we'd be intrigued anew 80 years later! This little story has remarkably remained secret over the decades ... I'm surprised Hollywood has not tried to adapt this into a jaw-dropping suspense thriller as nobody on the island knew what to think of any of the others once mysterious things started to happen. What did happen? I watched the documentary and am still unsure. It is a perfect mystery ... or it is a perfect hoax.

The film is intriguing and made me think of Agatha Christie's 'And Then There Were None'. I wish there was more to know ... but there isn't. It is an eternal mystery ...

"A closed mouth admits no flies."
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Very Good Girls = Very Mediocre Movie
5 August 2014
Very Good Girls has somehow managed to get a truly noteworthy and remarkable cast in spite of being a most mediocre, humdrum and unremarkable film itself.

The movie is about two best girl friends during their last summer together in New York before they go off to two different colleges in the fall. As the title implies, they've been "Very Good Girls" in high school and are not overly experienced in some aspects of life making them conclude that they should lose their virginity before heading off to school. Their friendship is tested over the summer by various things -- work, family, uncertainty, tragedy -- but most of all by their mutual attraction to a handsome street artist they meet and befriend.

Dakota Fanning (I Am Sam) and Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) play besties Lily and Gerry with Boyd Holbrook (Milk) playing their object of affection who ends up favoring one of the girls to the other. Fanning and Olsen are two of the best young working actresses in Hollywood today and I do not question their talent at all; but Olsen's five year age differential is highly apparent here making the casting in this film ever-so-slightly distracting. Richard Dreyfus (Jaws), Ellen Barkin (Sea of Love), Clark Gregg (The Avengers) and Demi Moore (Ghost) play parents of the two girls while Peter Sarsgaard (An Education) co-stars as Lily's boss and Kiernan Shipka (Sally in 'Mad Men') as her younger sister.

The first-time director, Naomi Foner, just happens to be the mother of the Gyllenhaal siblings (Jake and Maggie) which most likely helps explain why this talented cast (Sarsgaard is Foner's son-in-law) signed onto such a pedestrian, over-done script.

The story is nothing special -- and has been told many times -- but the acting in Very Good Girls is "Very Good" and solid. Everyone involved here is singularly better than the film as a whole.
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Son of God (2014)
Not Divine But NOT As Awful As Others Want It To Be
5 August 2014
This well-meaning film may be a tad bit overlong (2 hours and 40 minutes) and it clearly wants to convey a nice message about Christ and his followers He picked up at various locations throughout the Promised Land; but it would be hard to give this film enough praise to recommend it as most of it comes from the already seen The Bible miniseries shown on TV earlier this year.

That 10-hour film event was edited to make this film for theaters which now solely includes the scenes of Jesus in order to make a film specifically about Him ... and -- to be fair -- to make more money (which is disappointing and something He most likely would not approve of).

My father summed it up best with the comment, "Haven't I already seen this?" He had and those interested in this subject most likely already have as well although there were a few re-shot and extended scenes featuring the GQ-handsome Jesus Christ (Diogo Morgado) found throughout this new movie. Clearly the anti-religious crowd will be vocal in their disdain for it although most probably have not watched it. I am not the most "religious" person on the planet and I have so many doubts and questions regarding the writings of mere mortal men regarding this Divine Individual that many avid churchgoers would probably throw me out; but I am aptly named (Thomas) and I have no problem with people either believing or not and I won't belittle another for whatever choice he/she makes regarding it. I believe in some form of creation (a Big Bang) but I also believe whoever created organized religion is playing a lot of people for fools ($).

Many people going in to this film will get what they are expecting from it (which isn't necessarily a bad thing) but there is little new here that will awe a new audience. Some of the casting choices are debatable -- early scenes have a nearly blonde Mary (!) -- but this movie does a decent job of showcasing the motivations some of these men had. I don't think this was as good as The Passion (a decade old this year!) and much of it was played pretty safe.

I wasn't upset with the liberties taken here -- it is a movie after all. There was a lot of criticism of Noah earlier this year because many said it strayed too far from the Biblical text (all 7 verses or so of the Noah story!) and also raised a fair amount of questions about a Creator who would kill the sinning masses (including innocent babies which had to really upset some -- how dare liberal Hollywood include that in a film!). Son of God only depicted a benevolent God and was therefore accepted by these same people. I couldn't imagine people NOT wanting to think very hard.

There are many better movies on this subject an audience can watch and there are also a few worse ones.
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Augustine (2012)
Fascinating topic yet not so fascinating film
15 April 2014
This slow and subtitled French film that is based on actual events won't be one many are going to out-right enjoy although I found it to be rather interesting as I find its subject matter -- 19th century female hysteria -- to be most fascinating.

The film is about Augustine, an illiterate young French housemaid (played by French singer/actress Soko), who suffers a debilitating seizure one evening while serving dinner that leaves her partially paralyzed. She is thus admitted to the Parisian psychiatric hospital, Pitié-Salpêtriere, where she is diagnosed as a hysteric (!) and treated by renown physician Jean-Martin Charcot (Vincent Lindon - Mademoiselle Chambon).

The medical world of the 19th century was dominated by uber-intelligent men (that "intelligent" part could be debated) and it was common for a woman who experienced something that a man couldn't easily explain and/or understand to be diagnosed with "hysteria" (a "nice way" of saying a female sexual perversion). If a woman acted in any manner society found confusing or even slightly objectionable, she was a "hysteric" who could find herself institutionalized and subjected to some horrifyingly abhorrent and offensive "treatment(s)" at the hands of men who claimed a medical interest in her well-being.

The time period and "understanding" of this predominately female ailment IS genuinely fascinating and if this topic sounds even remotely intriguing, I implore people to seek out the topic and read up on it as Augustine is merely about A case -- AN instance -- in this outrageously baffling era of medical (mal)practice when many male doctors found it to be en vogue and "fashionable" to make these diagnoses! The level of quasi-ignorance shared by these male "geniuses" in the medical field who simply did not understand women is mind-blowing.

I think a better film would have focused more on the doctor and his evolving understanding of hysteria over the years that followed this brief amount of time spent with this one patient, Augustine. There is a reason the film was not entitled Charcot. Instead, the direction of Alice Winocour (a WOMAN!!!?!) has used a specific example to reveal a sad universal truth of the time and expose just how farcical this "ailment" was while subtly implying perversions may have lain elsewhere. As Winocour's first full-length feature film that is clichéd a time or two, she shows much promise. Diagnose that, Charcot!

Again, the movie is hard to simply "enjoy" but it is one that could hopefully shed some more light on this bizarre chapter of modern medicine.
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Adult World (2013)
Easy to watch but doesn't really stay with you
28 March 2014
Amy Anderson (Emma Roberts - We're the Millers) has just graduated from a nice university and has much of her life already planned out. She is going to be a celebrated, world famous poet and YOU will know her name! This Sylvia Plath fan girl wants to write like Sylvia, feel the world like Sylvia and love passionately like Sylvia ... only Amy's life isn't going as planned as she has faced rejection after rejection after rejection since her college graduation. She has even thought of making an overly-dramatic Sylvia Plath-like exit from life but Amy's stove is unfortunately electric! And so ... Amy finds herself living back home with her parents as she is in serious debt from student loans and her poetry degree severely limits her job opportunities as she has no experience in the working world. She takes the only job she can find at Adult World, an adult video/book store where she befriends a clerk (Evan Peters - 'American Horror Story') with his own outlook on life.

While Amy has realized she must work to make some money, she hasn't given up on her dream of writing and so has decided to stalk an aging punk poet with a bad attitude named Rat Billings (John Cusack - 2012) who she hopes can mentor her and help her eventually one day get published. The reclusive writer doesn't take well to being followed but Amy doesn't let that stop her from absorbing everything she can from this man she highly admires ... most likely because he is nearby and has been published. Yes ... poor Amy.

The film is nothing spectacular but it kept my interest during its entire (short -- just over an hour and a half) runtime as it is a cross between High Fidelity and Wonder Boys (although not as good as either of those). While Amy may annoy, we can still feel her plight as she is welcomed into the Adult World and begins learning the lessons of life that actually matter.

Cloris Leachman co-stars as the quirky (surprise!!) owner of Adult World. And Cusack -- who seems to only make straight-to-DVD titles anymore -- has one of his best roles in years here.
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Like her or not, this movie should have been better
27 March 2014
This biopic about the first wife of iconic and legendary South African statesman and apartheid adversary Nelson Mandela, stars Academy Award winning actress Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls) as the title character who was raised in a strict, rural upbringing with a schoolteacher father who was disappointed with the fact that she was his sixth daughter. Winnie worked hard to win his approval and when she was of age she moved to the city to pursue medical school -- which was unusual in a sexist, apartheid South Africa. It was here that she met (and almost reluctantly) fell in love with the young political revolutionary Mandela (Terrence Howard - Hustle & Flow) who was already an "enemy" of the white government for believing in equality.

The film is rather shaky in that it doesn't really appear to know how it wants to portray Winnie and while an Oscar-winner (in a good performance with one STELLAR, knockout scene), Hudson does appear to have a limited acting range. After Nelson is arrested and incarcerated, Winnie also faces some horrible and unjust, inhumane abuses at the hands of the South African government. Once she is freed she attempts to carry his mantle but does so with some very questionable actions that have today tainted her legacy.

The film perhaps wants to be overly honest but in doing so Winnie doesn't come across as a winning figure for such a biopic. She is quite polarizing and the "hero tone" the film presents is rather conflicting. This could possibly all be intentional on the filmmaker's part.

Different time ... different place. She was strong and she was not broken and she did NOT give up. Like her or not -- she was no Nelson -- but I wish this movie had been better.
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Good but not great ... and I fear the copycat wannabes!
27 March 2014
First-time feature documentary director Matthew Cooke's 'How to Make Money Selling Drugs' is about exactly what the title says it is about. There is no clever misdirection, grand illusion, trick or outright lie … it is about making LOTS of money while selling drugs.

In what has been described as a "shockingly candid examination", Cooke interviews a cross-section of "insiders" – dealers, big pharma lobbyists (ka-ching!), prison employees etc. -- who know this world of secret deals and cutting and mixing as few others who have survived to tell their tales. While this entertaining documentary deals with unsavory subject matter, Cooke keeps the footage rather PG-13 and his style and format are quite engrossing. It doesn't feel like an "old school" documentary -- this one is fun (and with this title ... it could spell trouble!)

Cooke starts the viewer out with a little Joe Schmoe selling drugs to his high school friends and teammates before escalating his "business" over the course of a relatively short amount of time into a multi-million dollar, international conglomeration complete with mules (some very unfortunate souls) and chefs and high profile clientele.

While Moore shows the audience how frighteningly "easy" a global market can be obtained (which brings in the BIG bucks) with proper work ethics and technique, he never once glamorizes the trade without depicting the harsh realities (cops, fights, bad deals, DEATH) that are never more than a few steps away at any given time of day.

In order to not boggle down the mind of (some) viewers and to keep the film fresh and interesting, Cooke breaks his film into segments one might come across in an "Idiot's Guidebook to ..." manual.

It is made clear that just about anybody can sell some drugs and possibly make some money but it is NOT a wise profession. It is an interesting watch … which might sadly influence some pathetic copycats who would be quite dangerous as they would be dumb enough to miss ALL of Cooke's warnings.

This is an enjoyable, entertaining and informative documentary.
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Grand Piano (2013)
There is nothing GRAND here but the title
27 March 2014
Warning: Spoilers
Grand Piano wants to be some grand and thrilling low-budget entertainment and on some levels it does actually succeed. The film is fast-paced and it employs many different camera angles and takes and it has a nice glossy look to it; but the central story is so preposterously bogus that I found myself laughing at some very inopportune times while some of the bit/supporting players (sorry Tamsin) show us why they will always be bit/supporting players.

Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings) stars as accomplished pianist Tom Selznick, who simply stopped performing in public years earlier because of his unconquerable fear of stage-fright. Drawn back to the stage to perform at a farewell, tribute concert for his late father, Tom finds himself sitting on a piano bench under the watch of an assassin who warns him, "Play one wrong note and you die!" If Tom reveals the charade/game, his wife and friends in the concert audience will be taken out in his stead. Oh dear!!! Grab some popcorn! I admit that the plot sounds rather "guilty-pleasure" fun and there are some frantic moments on screen; but the film becomes too implausible as Tom does nearly everything he can think of to try to outsmart the assassin (John Cusack - High Fidelity) ... while sitting on a bench playing the piano.

Tom likely asks himself the question "who is this guy and what does he want with me?!" and in order to find out ... he has to comply to everything he is told to do. One has to watch to find out what becomes of Tom and his grand piano although the film's preview is rather spoiler-ific.

The film is supposed to be fun and far-fetched -- most are; but there is a scene with Tom texting on his phone through a sheet of music that just kind of killed the entire movie for me. He could see nothing ... but he could text perfectly without the dreaded autocorrect mistakenly "fixing" a non-error. We all have breaking points ... AND that was mine here. Sorry.

Grand Piano is rather mediocre schlock but parts of it are fun. The parts that are "pretty darn bad" are genuine keepers, though. I do seem to remember those preposterous moments much more so than the ones that were believable ... as I actually cannot remember any of those!
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You're Next (2011)
Glee and death make a gruesome pairing ... that works!!
6 November 2013
Note: This would get a 6.5 from me ... but that score isn't an option here and rounding-up makes the score appear too high (it is a most perplexing first world problem). Out of something-like 4000 scores here on IMDb, I've given out a scant 57 10's. I'm just very particular. Now for the review:

One most-likely would not expect there to be as much dark humor in such a gruesome film like You're Next; but that is just one of the ways this film differs from others in the home-invasion sub-genre (The Purge, Trespass, The Strangers, Kidnapped) of slasher films. There is an abundance of death and dying -- with blood -- on display here as a rather large and argumentative family gathers at their (rural) vacation home before they are picked-off one-by-one by masked individuals for no apparent reason whatsoever other than they have the abilities to do so.

Phones are cut off and cell phones are blocked and trying to escape leads to certain death (or so in the one tried attempt) leaving the family with few options other than their own survival skills; but as the family is a bickering one they don't work overly well together and the intruders appear to have the upper hand ... until one unlikely family member proves to be a real survivor with a strange knack for killing (blender to the head anyone?).

You're Next does give the audience the oft-seen on screen death and carnage from such a massacre; but it does so in some unexpected ways (as mentioned -- "death by blender" is one of the most creative film deaths I have seen in years). The cast are mostly little known character actors from indie film (Joe Swanberg, Sharni Vinson, Amy Seimetz, Ti West) who all do a respectable job here ... you don't laugh at any of them un-intentionally at least. The dialogue might not be the best but it is all acceptable as horror films aren't generally renowned for their characters' conversations as thinking about "what one says" is usually trumped by thinking about "how to survive". You're Next also relies heavily on the dialogue providing some laughs that might feel out of place but deliver exactly what the filmmakers had intended. The film is briskly paced once the killing begins and once the dying starts it doesn't stop ... and the film never lets up. There is dread and tension for those hoping to survive while some believably appear to be disconnected from what is going on around them.

I realize this would not be a film for everybody; but those who like this type of film and the genre (and all of its subsequent sub-genres ... which I admit can get rather tiring) should find this one to be a grand good time. You should laugh ... glee and death may be a gruesome pairing ... but it works here and frequent horror-film director, Adam Wingard, has made his best film yet with this one.

(AND this Missouri boy will point out to his Missouri friends that it was filmed in Columbia, Missouri!! Check it out!)
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Grabbers (2012)
Grab yourself some popcorn and enjoy!
6 November 2013
This is another one for the British humor enthusiasts as its offbeat style of humor might not go down as smoothly as some of the pints served up in the movie to general American audiences who don't always appreciate the wit behind British comedy.

On idyllic Erin Island off the coast of Ireland, strange things are afoot as dead whales begin washing ashore and entire fishing boat crews go missing. Unbeknownst to the town's denizens, a strange light that fell from the sky a few nights before brought with it an alien species that was going to wreck havoc on the peaceful island and its heavy-drinking citizenry (luckily the drinking thing plays into their favor!). Newly arrived to-the-isle police officer Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley - Flyboys) finds herself in the midst of a crises she tries to solve with often-tipsy local officer Ciaran O'Shea (Richard Coyle - Prince of Persia) and local scientist Smith (Russell Tovey - The History Boys).

When Paddy, a local elder and yet another town drunk, survives an attack, it leads the trio come to the realization that the "grabbers" -- as the mysterious tentacled species are being called for their penchant of grabbing its victims before beheading them -- have an aversion to alcohol and they advise the town's citizens to get VERY sauced in the local pub (!!) to stay out of harm's way. While the party of the century (or at least their lifetimes) is being held at the pub ran by married couple Brian and Una (David Pearse - The Guard / Bronagh Gallagher - Albert Nobbs) some things go as planned ... while others do not as the three try to figure out how to rid themselves of these alien beasts that range from cute, little tentacled hatchlings to ginormous and hungry monstrous mother-creature.

The film does conclude a bit too easily in my opinion and I could have done without the inserted moments of (very forced) romance it thought it needed; but drinking to one's health brings on new meaning in Grabbers, a small monster-comedy with plenty of laughs that is worth a watch.
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A Decent Doc about the Father of Shock-Talk
1 November 2013
Before reality television allowed just about anybody to say just about anything in front of just about any audience AND before polarizing radio/television personalities such as Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill Maher and Sean Hannity proved there is an audience that craves shock-talk when it involves putting-down and insulting others, the world had one person who did this on a regular basis and who was actually different than all who followed as he was an honest, equal-opportunity offender who spoke his mind and was not earning tens of millions of dollars from corporate sponsors by manipulating those dumber than himself to believe everything he said. Yes, sorry, but if the shoe fits one's left OR right foot ... wear it.

Morton Downey Jr. was a foul-mouthed, bug-eyed, chain-smoking hothead who had hoped to follow in his father's footsteps as a crooner; but as the intelligent man's talent wasn't in music he found a place for himself on television as a host of a short-lived yet notorious and controversial talk show that bore his name -- The Morton Downey, Jr. Show -- that aired in syndication from 1987 to 1989.

It was called "3-D television" by some because of the numerous quasi-violent outbursts -- flinging chairs! fistfights! shouting matches! -- that occurred on the show between the verbally volatile frequent and not-so-frequent guests such as Rev. Al Sharpton, Gloria Allred, Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul, Curtis Sliwa, Allen Dershowitz and some (ignorant) random klansmen. His show was also described as "rock and roll without the music" because of its attitude, pacing and aggressive format. Downey Jr. was "in your face" and rarely apologized and always had an opinion which turned off plenty of viewers although it revolutionized the television format/genre. It could be compared to Jerry Springer; but Downey Jr. emphasized politics and race and hot-button issues and did not openly embrace trashy topics like promiscuous married bed-hoppers or naughty male nurses or stripper mothers. He believed his show was important.

Downey Jr. had a very quick rise to his infamous fame but also had a very fast fall as a stunt of his backfired and he lost much support. Evocateur is at its best when it showcases the man's career rise and fall but also provides a bit of touching, human reality by including the man's late health scare and battle with lung cancer (he claimed to have smoked upwards of 3 packs a day at the height of his career and he openly chronicled much of his early cancer battle with various television audiences). The doc falters a bit when it mentions his late-life love story with his third wife that wasn't necessary for the film but perhaps the filmmakers wanted to show he had a heart and was capable of loving another.

His show aired in the late 80's and I remember it being on and hearing some of his more shocking claims ... that probably are not as shocking to an audience today as they once were. Evocatuer is an adequate tribute to a man who did revolutionize television even if the man never knew to what extent.

Without doubt, he did take things too far but he did speak his mind openly and honestly which is more than can be said about so many that have followed him and are doing so for larger paychecks (as it has become ALL about the $).
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Dirty Wars (2013)
War is Dirty ... but is honor dead?
30 October 2013
Dirty Wars is a startling documentary that would most likely have (most) Americans up in arms in disgust over the senseless victims depicted in the film weren't they Muslims half a world away.

The Nation journalist Jeremy Scahill dives into the murky waters of American counter-terrorism efforts after 9/11 and discovers that drone attacks and targeted kills might actually be turning the tide in a war we believe ourselves to be winning ... as each new death creates tens to hundreds of new anti-American citizens in the world who view us as the new axis of evil as most of the deaths are collateral damage of innocent women and children. Scahill doesn't highlight the fact that we have enemies in the world that have caused us to increase these attacks; but he is simply making note/drawing attention to how "dirty" this "war" has become (war in nations we have never declared war upon). In places that once embraced Americans and our way of life, our continued use of drones and brutal attacks makes the survivors question who we are and wonder what our goals have become.

Some Americans and former military question this same thing -- what are we doing?!? When answers no longer make sense and lack logic, it is time to step back and re-evaluate what we are doing ... but the powers-that-be don't and won't. Began under President George W. Bush and continued heavily under our current President Obama, Dirty Wars exposes the acts of a super-secret branch of the military (JSOC - Joint Special Operations Command) who answers solely to our president. Their covert villainy (not always bad and villainous I must point out) can be easily re-written and members can become heroes at the drop of a hat -- or the execution of a major power player in the world of terror (Osama).

The doc is eye-opening and it actually made my eyes tear up a time or two over the deaths of innocent people (it isn't for the faint of heart as we see many graphic photos of the dead -- many of whom are children)... who happened to be Muslim. Oh ... the horror of THAT (my tears)! No ... oh the horror, period.
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Like Dean himself ... promising but unfulfilled.
8 September 2013
For James Dean fans -- who only made three feature films in his lifetime (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant) -- this will lamentably NOT be the biopic many would be hoping for. The title actually gives this away by calling itself a "portrait" of Dean by highlighting a brief portion of his life in Joshua Tree, California in 1951. Dean didn't make "it big" in film until 1955 (the year of his death) and his two consecutive Oscar nominations were posthumous in 56 and 57. This small film highlights a small phase of Dean's life as he struggles with acting and his drive to become famous.

In the film, Dean is taking an acting class to learn the ropes and establish his footing in southern California while he lives with a nice classmate who apparently has some deeper feelings for him -- the film is based upon the writing of this roommate. Much has been said about Dean living a bisexual lifestyle and this film "goes there" -- some won't want to see how much skin is on display here (there isn't even that much but it might upset some is all) -- although the film never really goes into any of the particulars with any of Dean's relationships so the audience never knows if Dean felt anything for anybody else or if all of his moves were calculated and methodical ... hoping something would come from this fling or that encounter.

The film feels rather pretentious at times (it is about James Dean!) but its stylish elements save it from being loathsome and detestable while the acting feels amateurish yet adequate. The landscape and views of Joshua Tree are breathtakingly beautiful and these simple moments in the film are gorgeously shot. There are parts of this that are not great but just when a moment is becoming almost unbearable the film offers up something commendable that makes one take notice.

There is a lot of promise here (like its subject matter) and it is disappointing that the film couldn't be more (again ... like its subject matter). This is probably a hard film to find and track-down and it won't be for everybody; but those fans of Dean's work probably won't mind seeing this small tribute to the star trying to make it in 1951 while not catching any breaks. It isn't much and is rather lite.

Joshua Tree, 1951 is more "art" than anything else ... it is a what if (as most of it is merely alleged; but what isn't?). James himself is a what if ... if only. There was something there with Dean ... and there is something here too. It just comes up short and never lives up to its potential. Again ... truly fitting and the disappointment one feels as the credits role is the exact disappointment that should be felt for this life that was cut short.

If this were the filmmaker's intent, I'd say "genius"; but I'm not certain of that. As is, though, ... it is quite good.
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Jack Reacher (2012)
Tom Cruise's BEST in at least a decade
7 September 2013
Those who know me well know that I am not the biggest fan of Tom Cruise and I can actually do without most of his movies. It seems as if Tom Cruise has at one time signed up somewhere to play a character that has been used interchangeably ever since in a variety of movies as he is oftentimes a tough-talking alpha-male with a chip-on-his-shoulder.

Jack Reacher is a perfect Cruise character as he is the SMOOTHEST toughest-talking, most alpha-male movie character to be on screen in months (he is also the film's title character and that could possibly be all that Cruise needed as motivation). Jack Reacher doesn't really have a chip on his shoulder, though ... his "chip" is more like a state the size of Texas.

Reacher is called to Pittsburgh to help investigate a multiple murder in which five random people were killed from a hail of six shots along the urban riverfront. A military officer is accused of the murders but Reacher knows the suspect is just a patsy which means he'll have to dig a little deeper to get to the truth and find what has been hidden and/or destroyed.

Not getting much help from the law (who actually believe Jack could be behind the deaths or at least knows something else about them), Jack teams up with the officer's lawyer, Helen (Rosamund Pike - Pride & Prejudice), and the pair follow evidence trails that lead to her father's corrupt office at the DA (Richard Jenkins - Killing Them Softly) and to other less-than-desirable individuals such as a sociopathic hit-man (Jai Courtney - A Good Day to Die Hard) and a secretive Russian mob boss (Warner Herzog - What Dreams May Come).

Jack always has something to say no matter the situation or surroundings (this kind of won me over) and he must always stay a step of others and his surroundings as his life and Helen's life are quickly put into danger. Figuring out why these five people were killed and what their unlikely link was might get Jack into trouble or killed ... Can Jack figure it all out before it is too late?! Jack Reacher has some good dialogue and it was my favorite thing about the film. Cruise oftentimes comes across as arrogant but here his character's talk backed-up his stance. Pike has little to actually do but I still like her as an actress and using Herzog in such a small role garners attention as he rarely acts on screen anymore. Jack Reacher plays its hand wisely and most of it works.

Director Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) has wisely crafted a film that makes one wonder and suspect and anticipate what'll come next. As much as I hate to admit to liking a Cruise vehicle ... I did like Jack Reacher and I could actually watch it again!
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Go ahead and fly away with this Fairy!
6 September 2013
A hit at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, Crystal Fairy stars Michael Cera (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) as an uptight American drug-partaking lout backpacking parts of Chile with three friends (whom are native Chileans) in search of a rare cactus -- the San Pedro -- in hopes of experiencing its hallucinogenic effects on a northern beach.

At a random party before their trek is set to begin, a coked-out Jamie (Cera) spontaneously invites another American party-er to partake with them. She (Gaby Hoffman - remember the little girl from Field of Dreams and Sleepless in Seattle?) is a hairy (uh ... yep) free-spirit who channels the vibes of nature and goes by the name Crystal Fairy.

After their trip begins (it is a few hundred miles of a drive from the city to the beach), Jamie and Crystal discover that they have conflicting personalities and they clash many times before their group even comes across the cactus to imbibe as he is boorish and insensitive and she is unique and a deep-thinker. Jamie becomes increasingly annoyed with Crystal while his three Chilean friends tolerate her much better and actually respect her point of view and sensibility. Jamie is oftentimes unaware of his rude-ness but he is written well and believably portrays an American tourist expecting concessions and advantages. When they actually find a cactus (one she has spotted), Jamie and Crystal Fairy even disagree as to how to obtain it because Jamie likes things being his way and he is a stressful worry-wart.

While this portion of the journey is complicated, the real "adventure" begins on the beach when they make their drinkable concoction. The film becomes one about personal and inner understanding, acceptance and compassion. The first half comes across as rather annoying as Jamie's character is very self-centered and not too-likable and while I believed the drug-induced portion of the film would be the hardest part to endure ... I was wrong as this is when the true characters of each are actually revealed.

As for the film's acting: Cera fans know what to expect from him and he plays another slight variation of manic that he's shown audiences before. His character is high-strung and abrasive and some might want to reach through their screens and punch him a time or two; but this is a testament to Cera's acting talent. He plays his character very well. Hoffman hasn't been on many movie screens lately and it is nice seeing her play the titular (ahem) character. She bares more than just her soul in a few scenes ... and her final admission around a late-night campfire is moving and emotional. Welcome back to the big screen Gaby! This is a good little, independent film ... but it isn't one for everybody. It takes some patience and those who dislike grainy picture and plot-lite story lines won't appreciate or enjoy this. It is only those patient enough to make it to the end of this film and willing to take the entire trip who will be rewarded with the film's high.
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Decline the invite to The Big Wedding.
16 August 2013
If you get this invite in the mail, reject it. Reject it immediately! The Big Wedding is a big cast disappointment filled with off color jokes, juvenile sexual pratfalls, perplexing situations and relationships, ridiculous dialogue, dated material and off-putting or offensive moments. The one thing it has going for itself is its respectable cast but they are so horribly misused and abused I have no idea why a single one of them signed up for this travesty.

Robert De Niro (Cape Fear) and Diane Keaton (Father of the Bride) play divorced parents who are reuniting at a beautiful lake house for the wedding of their "brown-skinned" adoptive son, Alejandro (Ben Barnes - Dorian Gray), to a lovely blonde (Amanda Seyfried - Dear John). It is said by several characters that he is Italian because his future mother-in-law (Christine Ebersole - Black Sheep) fears brown-skinned Hispanic babies although he is supposed to be Colombian (but Barnes is actually a British actor who apparently hit the tanning beds a few times before filming the role ... not offensive at all, no?). Susan Sarandon (The Client) is the father's new girlfriend although she was at one time also their mother's best friend. The entire situation could be very awkward but the trio makes the best of it ... even as one of them walks in on the other two going at it on the kitchen counter. Yes, really.

So many of the moments in The Big Wedding had me question whether or not I was actually seeing what my eyes were (sadly) ACTUALLY seeing because the content and situations were so dreadfully bad (not to mention embarrassing to some of the actors).

Topher Grace (Take Me Home Tonight) and Katherine Heigl (The Ugly Truth) play Alejandro's two adoptive siblings -- him as a sexually-challenged doctor who is relentlessly pursued by Alejandro's "real" sister (uh -- gross but played by Ana Ayora - Marley & Me) who comes to the wedding and her as a cold who-knows-what. Her purpose is to act sour and frustrated throughout the entire movie (perhaps she was the only one who read the script and couldn't help but act this way after being contractually obligated to appearing in it).

The Big Wedding is another "wedding shocker" (think 'Game of Thrones') but for a different reason ... this one is unbelievably SHOCKINGLY bad. There isn't even a word for how bad this is. Four Oscar WINNERS in this cast (the fourth is Robin Williams playing a manic and bumbling priest) and we get this tripe?

There is honestly very little good to be said about this movie. The lake house is gorgeous. The couple chose some nice wedding colors. And ... that is just about it.

If you can, RSVP with something nice to say!
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Safe Haven (I) (2013)
Nicholas Sparks at his best ... er, uh, I mean same.
16 August 2013
If someone were to tell me that the latest Nicholas Sparks novel-to-a-movie adaptation would be one that starred two ridiculously attractive actors playing characters who almost fall in love when a secret from the past that can keep them apart is revealed nearly thirty minutes before the movie ends ... I would say "No $--t! Have you not been paying attention!?" Anybody who does not reside in a cave would know this.

Safe Haven is yet the latest of Sparks' novels to follow this same "winning" (they continue to be profitable!) formula/pattern and it rather saddens me this is director Lasse Hallstrom's SECOND Sparks film as the (thrice) Oscar-nominated director has made GREAT films in the past such as The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, What's Eating Gilbert Grape and Salmon Fishing on the Yemen (I've also just realized his greatest films have an edible word in the title).

Safe Haven stars Julianne Hough (Rock of Ages) as Katie, a beautiful young woman on the run from her past. Safe Haven also stars Josh Duhamel (New Year's Eve) as Alex, a handsome widower and saintly father raising two young children in a small, coastal North Carolina town.

The two meet soon after her arrival in town and begin a friendship (rather reluctantly on her part) after she meets him at the small convenience store he runs -- his cute daughter runs the cash register! -- as he helps her with an odd assortment of items and he answers some even stranger movie-scripted questions. He even gets her a bicycle with a basket on the front (which she takes as an affront) and he orders her yellow paint. Wh-what? Exactly.

Their entire relationship is contrived in a connect-the-dots Nicholas Sparks pattern and the film's supporting players each have a single purpose for the movie -- her jerk of an ex looking for her (David Lyons - Eat Pray Love), his cop pal who can discover her secret in an instant (Ric Reitz - Flight), his children to either look cute or get into trouble, and her country neighbor giving her relationship advice on Alex (Cobie Smulders - The Avengers).

Hallstrom has made this better than most sappy melodramatic romances (and Hough and Duhamel are both likable-enough stars) but Sparks' over-the-top climatic children-in-peril moments have become eye-rolling. The film is standard Nicholas Sparks malarkey and anybody who has watched the movies based on his work knows they have much in common. This can be good or bad depending upon the person.

Beautiful actors? Check. Beautiful scenery? Check. Romance? Check. Melodrama? Check. More melodrama? Check. A scene in or near the water? Check. A young one in trouble? Check. Good story? ... uh, Bueller?
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An adequate British crime drama ... but sadly not another In Bruges
16 August 2013
Welcome to the Punch is yet another film about the seedy criminal gangster underworld of Britain, a crime sub-genre that was a rarity a decade or so back but is now highly prevalent as there are one or two of them being released every month anymore.

The critical success of other Brit films such as In Bruges, Layer Cake and Sexy Beast (all excellent) has inspired many copycat wannabe film-makers to attempt to make the next buzz-worthy feature that will have audiences talking. But for every Tyrannosaur the film world gets we get 8, 9 ... 12 or 14 Welcome to the Punches. It is most fortunate that Welcome to the Punch is actually one of the better of these "lesser" crime films as it is generic and rather formulaic but also watchable at the same time -- mostly because of its very decent cast.

Welcome to the Punch is the story of Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong - Kick-Ass), a reformed criminal who had been living in exile in Iceland, and his nemesis, detective Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy - X-Men: First Class), whose failure to capture Sternwood years before never set well with him. When Jacob returns to England to help his son (Elyes Gabel - World War Z) who had been involved in an ill-fated heist, Max sees it as his opportunity to bring in the one man who got away; but Max and his partner Sarah (Andrea Riseborough - Oblivion) quickly discover that Sternwood might be an unlikely ally as truths are uncovered and a larger conspiracy comes to light.

Those Max believed he could trust in the past may no longer be ones he can depend upon in the future as he learns Sternwood's story isn't exactly what he had believed it to be. As him and Sarah uncover some unflattering details involving those within their own department and on their side of the law, the safety of their lives is put in jeopardy. Daniel Mays (Atonement), David Morrissey (Red Riding: 1974), Jason Flemyng (Hanna) and Peter Mullan (War Horse) costar as friends, threats or both to Max as he gets closer to the truth and understanding his one-time rival's past motivations and actions.

Welcome to the Punch will not be the "best" movie you've ever seen but it is also far from being the worst. It keeps one's attention and unfolds at a brisk pace. While I would have liked to see more of Riseborough (whom I believe to be a phenomenal actress), the film isn't about her character. This is a story between the two rivals who begin to understand one another as the story progresses. They might not like what they discover and uncover but an audience should.
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