Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Reel Review: LEBANON, PA

For the subjective viewer, LEBANON, PA is a film that explores a tired old theme, drawing from past films such as GARDEN STATE, ELIZABETHTOWN and even JUNO. It’s a variation of the old “journey” theme; an estranged son (or daughter) comes home and re-discovers the meaning of life. But for the objective eye, LEBANON, PA manages to explore old territory in a new and refreshing light, while keeping the atmosphere comfortable and entertaining.

Will (Josh Hopkins) is a Philadelphia-based, 35 year old ad exec who loses his girlfriend and his father on the same day (and before the opening credits). He leaves the city for the rural town of Lebanon, Pa.; a community as far-removed from Philly as Mars. There, he befriends his 17 year old cousin CJ (Rachel Kitson), who confides her new pregnancy with him and considers abortion. Will also begins an affair with CJ’s schoolteacher Vicki (Samantha Mathis), as he ponders his suddenly foggy future.

Despite the seemingly crowded plot, everything in LEBANON, PA blends together very well. The film evolves from Will’s story to the journey of the rest of many characters, and while at first the many storylines feel intrusive, eventually things begin to make sense; everyone in this story is in search of life one way or another.

But what makes the overall narrative so unique is that it resists the temptation to go through the cliché routine of the estranged son reconnecting with his deceased parent. In fact, who the old man was is barely explored. The film instead focuses on the characters; and allows the death of Will’s father to serve as the purpose of bringing everyone together. The film also resists the urge to dwell too much on the city mouse stumbling his way through the land of the country mouse; Will is in a town where “Philly” is spat out like a swear word. Things here tend to develop naturally with strong writing and sharp, yet plain dialogue that never bogs things down.

Director Ben Hickernell dives right into the cultures of Philly and Lebanon, and gets everything right. Shot on location, Hickernell not only photographs the surroundings right, but also gets the little things that make them be, just right; his characters even know how to order a Yuengling the right way ;)

The characters are constantly thrown into ethical dilemmas, and every actor answers with real and warm performances. LEBANON, PA is a film about life, and despite the seemingly constant soul-searching, never turns into a preacher’s pulpit. LEBANON, PA is as smart as it gets.


Thursday, April 28, 2011

Reel Facts & Opinions

FACT: Arnold Schwarzenegger and his reps are currently shopping around a package which includes the rights to create a new TERMINATOR sequel. Rights to the sci-fi franchise, which has spawned three (3) feature films and a (unfortunate) short-lived TV series, will revert to James Cameron in 2018.

OPINION: Ah-nold is already linked to two (2) other films in development, so one has to hope that scheduling and money-wrangling will delay a possible T5 until Cameron can get his mitts back on it. Let’s face it; T3 served no other purpose than to set up the future-war films, and T4, while having a great look and style, frustrated fans with a convoluted plot and a departure from many, many preconceptions. It is this blogger’s hope that Cameron, if he gets the property back, decides to sit on the once proud franchise and let it die in peace.

And that would free-up Ah-nold to do the long-awaited KING CONAN. Say with a straight face you don’t want it.

FACT: Gary Busey has joined the cast of the upcoming PIRANHA 3DD.

OPINION: Anyone remember when Gary Busey was an Oscar nominee? Anyone remember when (goddamn) 3D was cool? Start punching yourself in the face if this film will make you fork over the extra $$$ for those stupidassed dark glasses.

What say you?


FACT: Arnold Schwarzenegger and his reps are currently shopping around a package which includes the rights to create a new TERMINATOR sequel. Rights to the sci-fi franchise, which has spawned three (3) feature films and a (unfortunate) short-lived TV series, will revert to James Cameron in 2018.

OPINION: Ah-nold is already linked to two (2) other films in development, so one has to hope that scheduling and money-wrangling will delay a possible T5 until Cameron can get his mitts back on it. Let’s face it; T3 served no other purpose than to set up the future-war films, and T4, while having a great look and style, frustrated fans with a convoluted plot and a departure from many, many preconceptions. It is this blogger’s hope that Cameron, if he gets the property back, decides to sit on the thing and let it die in peace.

And that would free-up Ah-nold to do the long-awaited KING CONAN. Say with a straight face you don’t want it.

FACT: Gary Busey has joined the cast of the upcoming PIRANHA 3DD.

OPINION: Anyone remember when Gary Busey was an Oscar nominee? Anyone remember when (goddamn) 3D was cool? Start punching yourself in the face if this film will make you fork over the extra $$$ for those stupidassed dark glasses.

What say you?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Reel Facts & Opinions

FACT: The extended editions of THE LORD OF THE RINGS movie trilogy will be released in AMC theatres in June, Warner Bros. announced this week. THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING will hit June 14th, THE TWO TOWERS on June 21st, and THE RETURN OF THE KING will unspool on June 28th. The releases are happening to help promote the long-awaited blu-ray release in June.

OPINION: Since 2004, this blogger has faithfully viewed LOTR once a year, in December only (the original runs were in December). It has been a way to keep the memories alive of the fun had from 2001-2003; going to the theatre with the same group (fellowship) of people year after year. Watching the films at any other time of the year just didn’t seem right. This blogger is now forced to change his tradition; some films are just made to be watched on the big-screen, and no amount of glorious blu-ray will ever change that.

FACT: Speaking of hobbits, Peter Jackson has confirmed that Ian Holm will reprise his role as Bilbo Baggins in THE HOBBIT. As previously reported, Elijah Wood is also returning; playing Frodo Baggins in two sequences that bookend THE HOBBIT.

OPINION: Chances are Ian will appear in both of those sequences with Wood. It seems there are going to be a ton of winks and nods to the LOTR films. As stated on this blog before, it’s an important thing to do; connect the films and give the fans the consistent world/universe that they will demand. One has to hope that there will not be an overabundance of winks and nods that could derail THE HOBBIT’s narrative. In PJ we trust, however; the guy knows Middle-Earth better than anyone.

FACT: Several websites are reporting that there will not be a SCREAM 5, as the poor performance of SCREAM 4 in the box office and among critics has nixed any chance of a second trilogy.

OPINION: Told ya.

What say you?

Friday, April 22, 2011


Morgan Spurlock’s documentaries (SUPER SIZE ME, WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN?), on the surface may seem self-serving; He is always front-and-center and never away from the front of the camera for more than 10 seconds. But despite the fact that his face (and body) are all over the film, he somehow always manages to shift the focus away from him and to the subject matter. In THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD, Spurlock goes after the world of product-placement in movies, and in the process creates the most transparent documentary ever made.

Spurlock (Morgan Spurlock) sets out to make a documentary on product-placement in movies. To fund this project, he seeks corporate sponsors to foot the bill. Spurlock goes from sponsor to sponsor, promising to feature their product in his film in exchange for fundage. All of these attempts and pitches are filmed, and that is the movie (!)

It’s a documentary made by a genius and a madman. It shows the attempts to secure a sponsorship in a movie that is being created while they negotiate about it. The CEO’s and PR people are kind-of being punk’d throughout the film, but Spurlock manages to get away from the wink-wink and goes more for the reasoning behind product-placement in movies.

A lot of effort is put into documenting what the big companies want out of having their precious product in a film. The influence that products can have in a movie and how they can overrule the creative vision of the director is exposed, and shown as somewhat concerning. Outside of film, the ridiculousness of the United States of Advertising is shown; as Spurlock goes from TV shows to high schools finding ads. An interesting, and eye-opening trip is taken to a certain South American country, where advertising in the city is banned to really drive home the point.

The humor and smart-assness of Spurlock is ever present (after agreeing to be a main sponsor, a juice brand is seen all over the film, har har), and keeps things light and moving. The film grinds to a little bit of a halt in the mid-section (going over the effect of ads on the human brain), but manages to wrap on a high note while provoking thought.

Overall, Spurlock doesn’t reveal a whole lot of secrets that world didn’t already know, but rather sets out to remind us of the world we live in. It’s engaging for movie fans, and educational for documentary buffs. Spurlock has done it again.


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Reel Facts & Opinions

FACT: After months upon months of internet rumor and speculation, Oscar winner Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt have been confirmed for THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, the much-anticipated trilogy-capper from director Christopher Nolan. Cotillard will play a Wayne Enterprises board member and Levitt will play a cop. Both actors appeared in Nolan’s INCEPTION in 2010.

OPINION: Both Cotillard and Levitt are fine additions to the already strong cast, but one has to hope that Nolan doesn’t become “one of those directors”; the type that HAS to cast the same actor(s) in every movie they make. In the past, this has worked beautifully for some (Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro), but for others it eventually becomes annoying and laughable (Tim Burton and Helena Bonham-Carter). Nolan has always had an eye for talent; often pulling unknowns out of nowhere and placing them on the map. Hopefully, he can reel himself in and make darn sure he’s getting the right talent for the right role.

FACT: John Luessenop, the director of this year’s lukewarm TAKERS, is in talks to direct LEATHERFACE 3D, a film that would be the second reboot of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.

OPINION: Raise your hand if you asked for this movie to made. Raise your hand if you asked for it to be made in (goddamn) 3D. Now, take that hand and punch yourself in the face 500 times until you learn your lesson.

FACT: Ben Affleck has dropped out of contention for the role of Tom Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming (sigh, goddamn) 3D adaptation of THE GREAT GATSBY. Scheduling was the issue, as Affleck is committed to direct ARGO, a drama about the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.

OPINION: Since Luhrmann (ROMEO & JULIET, MOULIN ROUGE!) seems intent on ruining GATSBY with cheap-ass thrills in the form of the 3rd dimension, this blogger has to cheer and root for Affleck here. Affleck’s directing chops have been getting sharper as of late (THE TOWN, anyone?), and at least he keeps his shit in the 2nd dimension where it belongs.

What say you?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Reel Facts & Opinions: Why Scream 4 flopped

FACT: The 4th installment in the SCREAM franchise opened this weekend, taking in a paltry $19 million at the Box Office along with mixed to dismal reviews. The slash-and-stab flick got its ass handed to it by the first place winner, RIO; a family-oriented CG animated film featuring talking birds. The opening is the second-lowest for a SCREAM film.

OPINION: The SCREAM franchise was a unique series of films in its day; they were self-aware movies, not meant to be taken seriously as a straight-up horror franchise, but rather blazing a new trail on its own. It made fun of itself without really spoofing. They were directed by the master of all horror Wes Craven, and drew in truckloads of money at the gates. So why did Part 4 flop?

1. The RIO Factor: Let’s give RIO some credit. The film proved that the movie-going world loves a talking animal. But the fingers can still be pointed at the lack of interest in another SCREAM movie. RIO was not an established franchise with a built-in fanbase, it was not made by Pixar or Disney, and it features actors that most movie-goers would not recognize in two seconds. Somehow, SCREAM got creamed by a rookie. On to Factor 2:

2. The Nobody Asked For This Factor: It’s been ten (10) years since the last SCREAM film, which wrapped things up neatly and ended the trilogy. For the most part, fans walked away satisfied. SCREAM 4 was looking to kick-off a second trilogy, providing it made back its money (it cost $40 million to make, so good luck). What it comes down to is fans just don’t like it when their beloved films get milked for all they are worth and then some. They DO NOT like their movies/franchises messed with. No one wanted a 4th INDIANA JONES film, and no one wanted a 3rd GODFATHER film; sometimes it’s better off letting the prize pony out to pasture instead of trying to win one last race. Clearly, not even the built-in fanbase of SCREAM bothered to show up for this.

3. The Timing Factor: It’s difficult for people to get in the mood for horror in the springtime; the gloomy winter is over, and people just want to think about brighter, sunnier things (such as colorful films like RIO). Now the previous SCREAM films were also released early in the year, but it seems the movie-going public has latched on to a desire to see horror in October, where it belongs. Shame on the SCREAM 4 producers for not doing their homework and realizing that. With no SAW film this year, what were they afraid of? They deserve what they got.

All this adds up to no one showing up. Again, with only $19m made, and an obvious drop-off in the coming weeks, it will be hard-pressed to pass $40m. That makes the 4th installment a sad and unjust end to what was once a fun and unique series of movies.

What say you?

Sunday, April 17, 2011


One thing can always be for certain in a Robert Redford-directed film: Intelligence. His work is always smart; completely devoid of big Hollywood ingredients like loud noises, useless sequels, and cheap thrills and (goddamn) 3D. THE CONSPIRATOR can and will be a perfect example of his efforts; not only smart, but well-made, well acted, and able to reach any audience.

Seven men and one woman, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright Penn), are arrested and accused of conspiring to murder Abraham Lincoln. Surratt ran a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his gang met and made their plans, and may or may-not-have been in on the plot. Assigned to defend Surratt is Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), and his mentor Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). Aiken doesn’t believe his client to be innocent, but soon finds the government is more than ready to break their own courtroom laws to convict Surratt. Aiken battles Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), prosecutor Joseph Holt (Danny Huston), and Surratt’s own daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) to at least prove that grave injustices are being done, whether or not Surratt is guilty.

THE CONSPIRATOR is a crime-to-courtroom drama not dissimilar to a LAW AND ORDER episode. While most films that follow a TV formula tend to fail, it works well here. What drives it home is not just the performances Redford gets out of his actors, but a strong focus on the injustices done. Redford turns most of, if not all of his attention to the governments’ ignorance of their own laws to achieve an end; outrageous behavior that can will and leave the viewer outraged, and wonder if the same thing could happen again in today’s day and age.

While the film might seem like Redford is trying to push an agenda (no, not him), THE CONSPIRATOR tends to impress because the strong courtroom drama tends to develop the characters. The situation and events that unfold bring out the best and worst in the characters. Where most filmmakers fall into the trap of letting a character take over or dominate the proceedings, Redford lets things develop naturally; letting the characters breath and stay in their places. Smart. Very smart. Also worth a gold star is the way Washington DC in the 1860’s is vividly brought to life; eye-popping while never going overboard on flash and show.

Equally impressive are the performances Redford gets out of his ensemble cast. Each actor somehow vanishes into the parts, and most viewers would be hard-pressed to recognize who is in the movie. McAvoy, Wilkinson, and Kline are all excellent. Penn nearly steals the show with her performance of a condemned woman resigned to her fate, and the last 10 minutes are hers and hers alone.

THE CONSPIRATOR reaches a lot of people with its overall approach; it can be successful as a feature film as well as an educational piece for history buffs and law students. The question of whether or not Surratt was actually guilty is never really answered; but unlike a LAW AND ORDER episode, it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is the path taken to put her in the noose. This is an important film.


Monday, April 11, 2011

Reel Facts & Opinions: Why this bad movie is important

The medieval fantasy spoof YOUR HIGHNESS opened this past weekend with mixed to dismal reviews, along with a pathetic $9 million at the box office. Despite some excellent production design and a handful of good actors, the film failed miserably in entertainment and staying-power.

There are only three (3) things that a film can do to annoy this blogger (and whether you realize it or not, you lot as well), and those things are:

1. A movie where nothing happens
2. A movie that is boring
3. A movie that has no other purpose other than a vehicle to showcase an actor

YOUR HIGHNESS failed thanks to Thing No. 3. It was a spoof that wasn’t allowed to spoof; trading off jokes and pokes at the genre in place of Danny McBride’s vulgar toilet humor. Eliminating McBride from the film would have allowed things to take a more natural and successful turn. The absence of McBride’s character (a jealous younger brother), would have shifted the focus to James Franco and Natalie Portman’s characters. Would that work? Damn right. Franco and Portman’s characters were on the same quest for different reasons. Franco wanted to kill the bad guy for love; Portman wanted to kill the bad guy for revenge. Love vs. Hate. There’s the classic moral conflict that the filmmakers missed, and could have fun with.

Why is all this important? It a perfect example of a bad trend in movies, and it all comes back to Thing No. 3; good storytelling getting shoved to the back of the theatre in favor of showing off one actor. It’s a bad trend that’s been going on for nearly forever. This year alone there was Seth Rogen’s GREEN HORNET, along with Russell Brand’s ARTHUR; nothing more than showcases. The same can be said for most of Will Ferrell’s films, along with Jackie Chan, Steven Seagal, and Jean Claude Van Damme.

And the trend can be traced back even further. The majority of John Wayne and Frank Sinatra films offered nothing more than showing off their leading men.
It’s a bad trend, and one not likely to stop any time soon. Actors are an important part of movies (duh), but the storytelling should never be sacrificed for them. Half the problem is the average movie-going public goes to the theatre to see their favorite people (actors). Sometimes it works, but the money YOUR HIGHNESS lost has to make Hollywood take notice.

What say you?

Friday, April 8, 2011


YOUR HIGHNESS is a film that tries to pick up where Mel Brooks once left off; a comedy rooted in spoofing on genres and specific films. Where Brooks went for intelligence and wit by way of sharp writing and well-timed gags, HIGHNESS goes for shock value by way of vulgarity, nudity, and plenty of “omg, did he just say that” moments.

Set in a medieval fantasy world, two brothers couldn’t be more different. Fabious (James Franco) is a handsome and heroic prince, and Thadeous (Danny McBride) is a cowardly slob. On his wedding day, Fabious sees his bride-to-be Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel) stolen by the evil warlock wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux), who plans on impregnating her to fulfill a prophecy. Fabious sets out on a quest to save her, dragging along his younger brother who would rather smoke up with his man-servant Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker). They encounter Isabel (Natalie Portman), a warrior who is on a revenge-quest against Leezar, and they embark on a series of adventures as Thadeous tries to find his courage.

Simple enough story here. Younger brother trying to find his way in the world while in the shadow of his overachieving older brother. Nothing new on the storyline front, but here it works as the world is fantasy enough to awaken the audience. It’s a live-action Disney film; not meant to be taken seriously.

Where things struggle is whenever Danny McBride is on the screen. The film has plenty of really good spoof moments, and just when things look promising, McBride shows up and ruins it. Probably the best example of the problem comes in the early going: Franco and Zooey burst into a Disney-like love song during their wedding (which is hilarious), and just when the laughs are coming plenty, the film cuts to McBride chasing sheep. It’s an off-balance film; it has the makings of a Brooks-style ride offset with poor imitations of Kevin Smith-esque toilet/sex/homophobic jokes.

While director David Gordon Green makes the mistake of letting McBride run amuck, he does well for himself by creating a lush and sweeping fantasy world that is fun and eye-popping. It is a world full of wizards, minotaurs fairies, and he treats it all with respect. Great effort seems to have been sunk into the fine details of the surroundings, and it pays off.

Green also does well in pulling some appropriate over-the-top performances out of his actors. The actors are spoofing on a genre, and they know it. However, all is not perfect. McBride is woefully miscast as the lead. Not only does he lack the chops to carry things, but all he does is act like an ass (or maybe himself) for 90% of the run. It’s hard to connect with a main character who is a douchbag. Franco mugs for the camera and perfectly reminds one of a prince from a Disney cartoon. The biggest sin is how Zooey is treated; the lovely and often talented actress is reduced to switching from ogling over Franco to a helpless damsel in distress. She is painfully underutilized. Portman manages to become the most interesting character in the entire movie; she is neat to look at and listen too, gets cool things to do, and has an interesting backstory. Her Isabel nearly deserves a spinoff.

And the thong was clearly invented just for Portman's ass.

Checking your brain at the door is a requirement for watching this; it’s lack of intelligence or heart demands it. HIGHNESS brings about laughs only if you think saying “fuck” every 5 minutes is funny. HIGHNESS has a lot of great ideas with a solid cast (except for one) in an engaging world. It’s too bad they went the juvenile route for the laughs.


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Reel Facts & Opinions

FACT: The much anticipated finale to Christopher Nolan’s epic Batman trilogy will be filmed in…(drum roll)............Pittsburgh.

OPINION: Dislike. If this holds up, this will give us three (3) different looks for Gotham City in as many films. THE DARK KNIGHT was mostly filmed in Chicago, whose unique architecture offered a nearly perfect stand-in for Gotham City. Now there have been other reports trickling about saying that further shooting will still take place in Chicago and the UK, so hopefully things won’t look inconsistent. Nolan knows what he’s doing, but one has to wonder why Pittsburgh was chosen after the success of THE DARK KNIGHT; maybe Nolan has a few surprises, or maybe Chicago had enough of explosions after playing host to Michael Bay and his TRANSFORMERS three-quel last year.

FACT: Speaking of TRANSFORMERS: in a move that has many sci-fi geeks buzzing with anticipation, Leonard Nimoy has been hired to provide voicework for TRANSFORMERS: THE DARK OF THE MOON. The role is said to be for the voice of Optimus Prime’s predecessor and mentor.

OPINION: The character looks to be a voice of reason and logic, and there’s none better than Spock himself to bring the character to life. One can only hope that Nimoy’s distinctive voice can be recognized; the filmmakers sinfully managed to bury Hugo Weaving’s Megatron voicework in the first two films. Just lay off the vocal effects, fellas.

FACT: Keanu Reeves recently confirmed that the script for a third BILL & TED film is just weeks away from being complete.

OPINION: Ever since the first BILL & TED, Reeves has spent the last 22 years (yes, it’s been that long) trying to shed the “surfer” thing that the entire universe has related him to. He’s done okay in that fight and some would argue that he’s actually accomplished it. Now he’s repaying his loyal fans, the people who have believed in him for two-plus decades, by going right back to it? Come on (dude), the world isn’t really asking for this. Especially if it’s in (goddamn) 3D. Besides, how in the hell can you do a BILL & TED film without Rufus?

What say you?

Saturday, April 2, 2011


J.K. Simmons has made a career out of being a character actor; he is the go-to, fill-in-the-blanks guy that everyone calls when there is a need for a newspaper editor, a therapist, or a dad. In THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED, Simmons remains true to form in filling in the role of a father, but the difference this time is that he is front-and-center of the drama, as opposed to his usual status as a support beam. Simmons doesn’t carry the film; only because he doesn’t have to in what is a strong and moving character study.

The year is 1986. Henry (Simmons) and his wife are informed that after 20 years of estrangement, their son Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci), is in the hospital with partial amnesia thanks to a massive brain tumor. He cannot form new memories, forever trapping him in the late 1960’s. A therapist (Julia Ormond), suggests using music, which was a huge part Gabriel’s rebellious hippie-years, to help trigger his locked-away memories. Gabriel is locked away in his mind, and awakens only when the music he loves is played. This doesn’t go over well with Henry, who associates the music (The Dead, The Stones, The Beatles, Dylan) with the whole reason his son and family fell apart all those years ago.

THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED begins as Gabriel’s story, as they use vinyl record after vinyl record to unlock the memories and bring him back. It then evolves into a powerful father-son tale, as they both find each other again and re-discover the reasons behind the estrangement and the love they shared in the beginning. The film wisely lets the two journeys play parallel to each other; never interfering with each other or being intrusive.

Henry’s journey is different, but the same as Gabriel’s. While Gabriel is a story of rediscovery due to a medical ailment, Henry’s is a search for redemption. But they both find the path through music. Henry dives into his son’s music, and discovers the poetry, and messages of classic rock. First¬-time director Jim Kohlberg wisely does not let the film turn into a 2-hour music video, and instead lets the music act as an excellent backdrop to the unfolding of the characters.

Simmons really sells the part, although he isn’t allowed to show a whole lot of emotion until the near-end. The holding-back of the character almost gives the film a TV feel. Pucci’s performance as Gabriel nearly steals the show, as he convincingly awakens when the music is played, and drifts away when it ends.

The film is aided through flashbacks to fill in the blanks and tell the story of Gabriel’s eventual estrangement. The smartest thing about the film is that even though the son’s lost memories is the starting point, it is the father’s memories that take things home. THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED is strong, smart, and eventually wraps with an emotional punch that will have Kleenex making millions.