Category Archives: 3 stars


Rango (2011): United States – directed by Gore Verbinski

Rated PG by the MPAA – contains violent content, dark themes, some mild language and rude humor

Some American audiences feel that all animated films fall into one of two camps; either the disrespectful, slightly adult comedy of Dreamworks Animation (How to Train Your Dragon [review here] being an exception) or the heartfelt mastery of Pixar films.  But Rango is enjoyable precisely because it aims for something totally different, and ends up feeling like neither type of film.  Rango’s young adult flavor, mixing some violence with dark themes and quirky, offbeat humor, may not be for the younger kids but is a refreshing addition to the genre.

And what animation: Rango may be the most detailed, gorgeous animated film I have ever seen.  There are moments that are pure bliss, with such an atmosphere as few other animated films have ever managed.  The film is essentially a Western mixed with Chinatown that manages to discuss Eastern mysticism mixed with classic American movie tropes.  Add in a blend of Johnny Depp/Gore Verbinski quirkiness and comedy, and the result proves rather enjoyable.

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Another Year

Another Year (2010): United Kingdom – directed by Mike Leigh

Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains some language

When writing about Blue Valentine [review here] I commented that few films these days mention staying in love, as it is so popular to fall in love, over and over again.  My comments may have been short-sighted, even if Another Year does not entirely nullify the sentiment.  Another Year contains a long-married couple who are the roots of the film, surrounded by a great deal of rotten fruit.  But even this rotten fruit is portrayed honestly, and tragically, and with such a surprisingly old, happy married couple at the core the film is well worth the time for viewers interested in character dramas.

Mike Leigh’s newest film is certainly a character drama.  There are events that happen during the course of the film, but little in the way of plot.  Instead the film charts out a number of happenings over the course of a year in the life of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen).

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Captains Courageous

Captains Courageous (1937): United States – directed by Victor Fleming

Not rated by the MPAA – contains some mild mature themes and brief mild violence

Captains Courageous is a film like many others, whose popularity decreased after perhaps the late 1950’s, when cliches had become so rooted in film culture that the only way to move an audience was to shock them, mildly at first then rather strongly as the 1960’s gave way to the 1970’s.  But Captains Courageous is a gentle reminder that there used to be a different kind of movie, one that told a solid story with interesting characters.  Some of it may be dated now, and some of it may be cliche today, but it still works, and rather well at that.

The first half hour of the film is occupied with the setup of Harvey Cheyne’s (Freddie Bartholonew) life.  He is a young boy, and his father (Melvyn Douglas) is fabulously wealthy.  A tower in downtown New York City has the Cheyne name on it.  Harvey’s mother died some years past, and his father does the best he can.  His best, unfortunately, is not very good, as he caters to Harvey’s every whim.  Or, if he’s not present to cater to each whim personally (which he often isn’t) there are numerous servants ordered to dote on him.

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The Fighter

The Fighter (2010): United States – directed by David O. Russell

Rated R by the MPAA – contains boxing violence, strong language, some sexual content

The Fighter is a passion project, on a number of levels.  Mark Wahlberg stuck with it for years, training on the sets of his other films until financing and a director could be finalized.  Darren Aronofsky, granted an executive producer credit, was attached to direct before moving on to complete Black Swan [review here].  David O. Russell stepped in, and managed to make Wahlberg’s passion project into a worthy film.  And, even if it is simple in its approach and execution, it is rousing, moving, and engaging.

Wahlberg plays Mickey Ward, a boxer with a host of problems.  His recent bouts have been used as stepping stones for other up and coming boxers, and he’s still waiting for his chance.  His brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), and mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), have been his trainer and manager respectively.  They’ve been responsible for all his success, and all his failure.

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010): United Kingdom – directed by David Yates

Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains some scary sequences, some violence and disturbing material, some sensuality

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 picks up in exactly the same manner as the seventh book in the Harry Potter series, dropping the audience into the middle of the action without any digressive exposition.  The Death Eaters are gaining power, the Order of the Phoenix continues their underground struggle to combat Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), and Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) are in constant danger.  Or at least Harry is, being the most wanted man in the magical world, and Hermione and Ron are stuck with him.

Viewers not familiar with the book series, and those who haven’t seen the films recently, may be confused.  The film suggests enough for viewers to be reminded of past events and characters.  And, as the first of two movies chronicling the final book, it primarily serves to set up all that will transpire in the final chapter.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t without its charm or excitement.

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Tokyo Zombie

Tokyo Zombie (2005): Japan – directed by Sakichi Satô

Not rated by the MPAA – contains violence, some gore

Note: As I will be out of the country for a period of time, I have decided to inflict upon anyone who reads these reviews a sampling of my earlier work.  These will be shorter, less formal, poorly written, and generally crappy.  They will lack stills and links, and I will apologize in advance for their poor quality.  They have received minor edits to (very slightly) improve readability.  Enjoy.

(review originally published 10/19/08)

Yes, it is as awesome as it sounds.

The funniest zombie movie since Shaun of the Dead, made in Japan and only a year after Shaun, Tokyo Zombie is a film you can’t miss.

The film revolves around a young Japanese guy who works in a fire extinguisher plant with an older, bald guy. All they do is practice jujitsu. One day, zombies start coming out of a mountain of trash called Black Fuji and they have to fight them off. That’s about all of the plot that’s worth explaining, because the film is chock full of fantastically hilarious scenes and general Japanese weirdness that truly make the movie great. It blends the absurd and absurdly violent and the overly sappy and saccharine in a way that only Japanese and Hong Kong films (think The Killer) dare to do.

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The Wildest Dream

The Wildest Dream (2010): United States – directed by Anthony Geffen

Rated PG by the MPAA – contains some mild language, intense themes

There’s a beauty to Mt. Everest, and a brutal ugliness.  There’s a romanticism attached to the mountain, even decades after honor, glory, and adventure went out of style in favor of pragmatism and narcissism.  Conrad Anker remembers the sense of adventure that enraptured brave explorers of the past, such as George Mallory.

In 1924 George Mallory made his final attempt to ascend Everest’s highest peaks.  Perhaps he attained the summit, perhaps not.  Regardless, he did not make it back down the mountain alive.  In 1999 modern mountaineer Anker discovered Mallory’s body.  This moment set his life on a path that would envelope him for the next ten years.

The first segment of The Wildest Dream reenacts Anker’s discovery (shot on location on Everest, the mere production of this documentary would be fascinating to witness).  It then launches into a historical discourse on Mallory’s life and exploration.

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Jacob’s Ladder

Jacob’s Ladder (1990): United States – directed by Adrian Lyne

Rated R by the MPAA – contains violence, language, nudity, sexual content, disturbing images

Jacob’s Ladder is a conventional story told in a pleasantly unconventional fashion, at least until the disappointing climax.  There is so much to love in the film that it is painful to admit that the entire film almost falls apart with an overly plain ending.

The film opens in Vietnam; helicopters are floating across the horizon as a small squadron of men relaxes.  Suddenly there is a surprise attack, and as the men turn to face the enemy they realize something else is wrong.  Some of them start convulsing and going into shock.  One man runs for the woods where he is promptly bayoneted.

Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) wakes up on a subway train.  An old lady scowls at him and a homeless man sleeping on a bench suddenly sprouts a tentacle.  Singer disembarks at the next station only to find that there is no one there and all exits are barred.  Eventually he finds his way home to his girlfriend, Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña).  He is comforted and soon feels better.

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Nanny McPhee Returns

Nanny McPhee Returns (2010): United Kingdom/France/United States – directed by Susanna White

Rated PG by the MPAA – contains some crude humor, silliness

Not having seen Nanny McPhee, I knew little of what to expect from Nanny McPhee Returns.  I knew that Emma Thompson was heavily involved with the production (she wrote and executive produced, alongside starring), and that Maggie Gyllenhaal was starring, so was mildly hopeful.  Occasionally it pays off to be optimistic.

The film revolves around Isabel Green (Gyllenhaal) and her young family.  Her husband (Ewan MacGregor) is off fighting in World War II, and the English countryside is the safest place to raise children.  Her oldest is Norman (Asa Butterfield, already well established with roles in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Son of Rambow).  He’s followed by Megsie (Lil Woods), and then the littlest one, Vincent (Oscar Steer).

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Conviction (2010): United States – directed by Tony Goldwyn

Rated R by the MPAA – contains some violent and bloody images, strong language, mature themes

Without star turns by Sam Rockwell and Hillary Swank, Conviction wouldn’t be nearly as powerful.  A prime example of a concept and story greater than its execution on celluloid, Conviction tells the story of Betty Anne Waters.  Her remarkable true story took her on an 18 year quest to become a lawyer and fight for her brother’s release on a murder conviction.

The story is told linearly, but with varying flashbacks highlighting important aspects of the relationship between Betty Anne (Swank) and her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell).  They grew up in trailer parks and foster care, white trash in eastern Massachusetts.  They got in trouble together, stealing candy and breaking into old people’s homes.  Kenny took most of the heat, and by the time he was a young adult he was on a first-name basis with the entire police force.  But then, in 1980 in the town of Ayer, a bloody shack was discovered with a dead body inside.  The usual suspect was rounded up, and soon all the evidence gathered by local law-woman Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo) points towards Kenny’s guilt.

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