A History of Violence

You might have imagined from the trailer for this one that David Cronenberg (The Fly, Dead Ringers) might be giving up his edge to tell a tale of small town America and a father of two (Viggo Mortensen) fighting to protect his wife (Maria Bello) and family (Ashton Holmes and Heidi Hayes) from an evil man (Ed Harris). Well, if there is such a thing as a good shock, this is it. Cronenberg takes what might have been your average tense drama about a family man facing down evil, and makes the drama so intimate that the inevitable violence in the story is rendered more shocking and more disturbing. Mortensen's character is put through an emotional mutation comparable to many a Cronenberg anti-hero; the difference here is that the change doesn't come from a mind-warping TV program or a teleportation experiment gone wrong. The spiral downward begins when Mortensen's Tom Stall fights back against vicious would-be armed robbers, bringing him unforeseen press attention, and a visit from an apparent mobster (Harris) who believes that Tom is actually a long lost fellow criminal named Joe. Bello's Edie is the wife who experiences doubt and disillusionment. Holmes is the son dealing with a tough time in high school even before Dad's incident. The cumulative result is one of the most intense dramas about the corrosive and pervasive effects of violence in the bedroom, the family and society. It's a disaster film on a personal scale, with an ending that has more to say about family, forgiveness and the ability to evolve than you'll be able to process on one viewing. (Sam and Kevin recommend!) (Review written by Kevin).

The Constant Gardener
Director Fernando Meirelles (City of God) brings a color drenched, handheld style to this thriller, based on a novel by John LeCarre. As with most of LeCarre's spy thrillers, this thriller about African and British politics and big money pharmaceuticals is concerned with the personal effects of big political maneuvers. Ralph Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a functionary in the British High Commission in Nairobi, who happens to be married to political activist Tessa (Rachel Weisz), who, as the movie begins, seems to have lost her life due to foul play. Meirelles spends time with these characters before getting to the details of the mystery. In fact, the film unfolds thematically out of the lives of its' characters in such an organic and natural feeling manner, that it's a bit unfair to even think of calling any part of it a "flashback." Most of the movie develops our knowledge of their relationship at the same time as the mystery of her murder develops. Was she murdered by a jealous lover? Did she uncover something about a major drug company, and its' manipulations of health care systems in the so-called "third world"? All are possible, but none matter so much as Quayle's quest to renew his faith in love and justice. Feinnes is remarkably sympathetic, Weisz is beautiful, provocative and driven as Tessa. Danny Huston, Bill Nighy, Hubert Koundé and Pete Postlethwaite all deliver good support in this powerful drama which sneaks its' political messages in along with moving human drama. Great stuff. (Review written by Kevin) (Sam and Kevin recommend)

The Curse of the Were-Rabbit starring Wallace & Gromit
Aardman honchos Steve Box and Nick Park bring their star claymation duo to the big screen in this adventure that recalls classic Hammer horror and Universal monster flicks... okay, maybe they only recall Hammer because they're very British, but I think that counts (their Vicar with his shock of white hair certainly recalls Peter Cushing and even Coppola's Dracula). In this story, inventors Wallace (Peter Sallis) and his loyal dog, Gromit (a great silent plasticene comedian), set out to discover the mystery behind the bunny plague that threatens their village and the annual giant vegetable growing contest hosted by Wallace's love interest, Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter). Wallace's latest attempt to solve the rabbit problem without hurting the critters, however, results in the unleashing of a hulking bunny monster, which local hunter and scoundrel Victor Quartermain (Ralph Fiennes) is only too happy to destroy. This is yet another non-Pixar, non-Disney piece of animated work. It is even slightly different to Corpse Bride in that Aardman uses wholly plasticene puppets and clay, instead of the more angular, sculpted look of Burton's piece. A little more than Chicken Run, Wallace and Gromit work very well as entertainment for the entire family, with plenty for mom and dad and uncle and aunt to laugh at. As they say in Nun Wrestling magazine, "Get ready to Wimple!" (Sam and Kevin recommend) (Review written by Kevin)

In Her Shoes
Curtis Hansen begins his latest film with two sisters (Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz) jumping hastily into their next affairs. Collette's straight laced Rose has just begun an affair with a fellow lawyer in her Philadelphia law firm (Richard Burgi); Diaz's Maggie, on the other hand is engaging in a drunken restroom stall liaison at her high school reunion, her latest alcohol tinged escapade. Soon Maggie has landed on Rose's doorstep after being thrown out once again by her parents, and Rose begins a familiar cycle of foisting responsibility on Maggie, which Maggie resists out-of-habit. Maggie, instead, pursues an audition for MTV VJ's, only to confront her nemesis: a fast moving teleprompter. Seems that, along with Maggie's other problems, she's dealing with dyslexia. At first, it almost seems that Hansen has taken on too much, especially when you realize that the movie ultimately brings Maggie to Florida to encounter her long lost grandmother (Shirley MacLaine). The happy thing to report is that the chemistry of this cast (also featuring Brooke Smith, Mark Feuerstein, Ken Howard and Candace Azzara) brings it all the way home, especially Diaz and Collette, who project sisterly chemistry to spare. MacLaine, while a tad underused, has some great moments with the two sisters, and other denizens of her retirement community (Francine Beers and Jerry Adler). The film was such fun, it was easy for me to forget that we were wandering into similar mom-issue/ co-dependent territory to the much inferior Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Sure, the end is a bit pat, and a detour with Norman Lloyd and Diaz that is milked a bit, but the performances are the very watchable glue that holds it all together. Take that Ya-Ya! Now all this film needed was some Cheddar Bob...(Kevin recommends) (Review written by Kevin)

Corpse Bride
The latest film from Tim Burton, and the second great one this year to bear his name (the first was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), is a directorial collaboration with Mike Johnson (animator for The Nightmare Before Christmas). Apparently, Johnson was to be sole director at first, but I believe Mike Johnson directed this like Tobe Hooper directed Poltergeist.
This stop motion film shares a design sense, inevitably, with Nightmare (designed by Burton, but directed by Henry Selick). The characters are near cousins of the ghoulish cartoons of Charles Addams and Edmund Gorey, with movement in the style of many a Rankin-Bass Holiday special.
The film begins with the world of the living, a bloodless and pale world, socially stiff and unemotional. Johnny Depp performs the voice of young Victor Van Dort. His fishmongering, nouveau-riche parents (voices of Paul Whitehouse and Tracey Ullman) think they have arranged for their son a way to marry into the lordly Everglot family (Joanna Lumley (Absolutely Fabulous), Albert Finney and daughter Emily Watson (Punch Drunk Love)). The Everglots, however, are concealing the fact that the marriage is their only way out of massive debt. Victor tries to rehearse the wedding with bride Victoria, but nervously bungles his lines, drops the ring and just about ruins the practice ceremony. As he wanders in the woods, he performs to the surrounding trees in a graveyard and finally gets his lines right, placing the ring on what he thinks is a tree branch. Unfortunately, that branch turns out to be the hand of the late Emily (Helena Bonham Carter), who considers Victor’s practice vows the real thing. Bonham Carter’s Emily is a sweet, cute and pitiable creature whose desire to hold on to her newfound spouse is born of her broken heart and unfortunate demise at the hands of a greedy and manipulative suitor. She brings him down to her world, and when the action moves into the (literal) underworld of the dead, the film glows with blood reds, luminescent blues, bright lights and lively, swinging, emotional music (provided by Burton constant Danny Elfman, who also sings).
The script, by John August (Big Fish) and Pamela Pettler, and from a story by Caroline Thompson (Nightmare before Christmas), is witty and crisp. The voice cast is generally brilliant and packed with Burton favorites (girlfriend Bonham Carter, old hand Depp, Finney, “Oompa-Loompa” Deep Roy and Christopher Lee). Stephen Ballantyne (channeling Peter Lorre), Richard Grant and Jane Horrocks (Chicken Run) round out the cast in this virtual lock for Best Animated Feature at next year’s Oscars. One complaint I have about the film would be the length, or, rather, the lack of it. Although, I suppose it is understandable, that Burton’s trip through the afterlife cannot linger too long, lest the kiddies (or, more understandably, the nervous parents) be exposed for too long to a scenario that involves obviously violent and/ or gory circumstances, no matter how much imagination is applied to the storytelling or care given to developing characters.
After all, those kids have got to get home early so they can play “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” right? Ho ho.

(Sam and Kevin recommend)

(Originally published in the University of Hartford's weekly newspaper, The Hartford Informer)

Wedding Crashers

Ah, it's so nice to see Vince Vaughan and Owen Wilson in a good dumb R-rated comedy (and I don't want to hear one groan from you Wes Anderson fans out there. Anderson is often not all that funny, and never quite that dumb). Vaughan (himself rarely a major part in anything this smart and funny since Made) and Wilson (always an asset to buddy comedies) play Jeremy and John, womanizers who have taken to posing as wedding goers to pick up on women swooning under the spell of romance and alcohol. As usually happens with such stories, however, Wilson's character is coming to the end of his rope with this lifestyle, when he happens upon Claire (Rachel McAdams). Unfortunately, he meets Claire at a wedding, and so must continue the masquerade he and his buddy began when they walked in. Complicating matters are Claire's uber-type-A longtime boyfriend (Bradley Cooper) and Claire's sister (Isla Fisher), who, after becoming Jeremy's latest conquest, reveals herself as a dangerously unstable nymphomaniac with designs on Jeremy's future. Director David Dobkin (Shanghai Knights and Clay Pigeons) plays his cards remarkably smartly here, introducing other problems, like Claire's suspicious and powerful dad (Christopher Walken), her sexually frustrated mom (Jane Seymour) and her equally frustrated gay brother (Keir O'Donnell), and her blunt and offensive grandma (Ellen Albertini Dow), who has tales to tell about Eleanor Roosevelt. Vaughan is allowed to shine here, playing his annoying know-it-all lout that he does so well (a favorite from Swingers and Made), and though Wilson's John displays every sign of being ready to leave behind his wandering ways, still finds time to try his hand at trolling for dates at funerals with... but that would be telling (he was really good, though). It's your basic edge-pushing hilarious little romantic comedy... and look! An R-rating! You would think that the Martians had destroyed two planets in Wedding Crashers, wouldn't you? (Sam and Kevin are hitting a wedding this weekend... or maybe just a movie...) (Review written by Kevin)

Five hundred years in the future, in the aftermath of a galactic civil war, Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) rounds up a crew of bandits to steer his ship, Serenity, between the savage Reavers and the totalitarian Alliance forces. Wait a second, this sounds like a show I saw on TV... hey wait! It was! Firefly lasted less than twenty episodes on Fox last season, so creator (now director) Joss Whedon gets to bring it to the big screen. The bad news: it's the TV show on a big screen. The good news is the same. Serenity is a space western, just like the show, and all the principals have returned (Summer Glau, Julie Torres, Ron Glass and Adam Baldwin among them). Whedon on TV has a knack for developing an interesting cast of characters with good dynamics and a sharp wit. Chiwetel Ejiofor is this week's... I mean, the film's bad guy, continuing a casting trend he leapt into this year with Four Brothers, and having a good time at it. Ejiofor's operative comes looking for former government experiment Glau, who is being protected by Reynolds and his sometimes reluctant crew. Is it Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan? No, but, with luck and a healthy box-office showing, the Browncoats (the show's own obsessive otaku) will get the second movie and/or season they deserve. (Sam and Kevin had a good time with it and recommend) (Review written by Kevin).

The 40-Year Old Virgin

Steve Carell jumps to a starring role in this surprisingly sweet and unavoidably raunchy hit , where he plays Andy, a 40-year old electronics store worker, who, as it turns out, has been so busy concentrating on collecting action figures and playing video games, that, after several early attempts gone wrong, he has forgotten to lose his virginity. Eventually Catherine Keener's E-Bay consignment shop keeper is the one who must try to coax him out of his shell, but, until that happens, his co-workers (Paul Rudd, Romany Malco and Seth Rogen), having recently realized his situation, take it upon themselves to offer all kinds of awful romantic advice, from picking up dangerously drunk driving blondes (Leslie Mann) to acting like "David Caruso in Jade." His boss (Jane Lynch) also tries to "help" by suggesting a "buddy" arrangement of sorts. Carell and all his supporting cast (including Elizabeth Banks) manage to do something the Farrellys have largely forgotten how to do: have genuine fun with scatology and keep a good eye on your characters. Good for writer and first-time director Judd Apatow! (Kevin recommends. Very funny, and even sweet. Awwww.... look, a chest waxing...).

Into the Blue

The big difference between this new flick and 1977's The Deep is negligible. Okay, in the original two vacationers happen across a wreck that they shouldn't have, instead of a part-time treasure hunter (Paul Walker), his girlfriend (Jessica Alba) and two... um, vacationers (Scott Caan and Ashley Scott). At any rate, off the coast of Bermuda, Walker, his brother Caan and girlfriends Alba and Scott happen across an ancient wreck uncovered by a recent hurricane and a recently crashed plane full of cocaine. Inevitably, this leads the foursome into greedy and heavily illegal temptation and conflict with the local drug cartel and a rival treasure hunter (Josh Brolin), but let's get down to business. If the swimsuit issue was shot as a thriller by the director of the similarly ocean loving Blue Crush (John Stockwell), this would be it. Give Stockwell the credit: he latches on to some excellent photographers for his watery adventures. This time around, his underwater man is Peter Zuccarini, and the film is as filled with beautifully colorful underwater life as it is with Jessica Alba filled bikinis. Yes, what The Deep did for Jacqueline Bisset, this does for Alba, and the beautiful people swimming around this film really does help this glossy thriller to entertain. And adding to the strangeness of this Jessica Alba year: In the Blue finds her ever so marginally more naked than she was in the excellent Sin City where she PLAYED A STRIPPER!!! As Kelly Bundy said, "The mind wobbles..." (Kevin recommends for fun swimming with Jessica Alba) (review written by Kevin)

Just Like Heaven
Mark Ruffalo plays a mysteriously lonely man who falls for the spirit of beautiful woman (Reese Witherspoon) who used to live in his new apartment. What seems, at first, an attempt to bring some of the ideas of Ghost into the realm of light romantic comedy, eventually takes some less than expected turns. Ruffalo is your basic go-to actor, whether you're looking for a nerdy romantic (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), a potentially bad cop (In the Cut) or a... well, a perplexed romantic lead (13 Going on 30), so he handles this territory very well. Witherspoon has been down the romantic comedy route perhaps a bit much lately (with two Legally Blondes and Sweet Home Alabama). Personally, I could have stood for a bit more Enid Flick (from Election) in her portrayal of a young and seemingly "type a" spirit (her first encounters with Ruffalo's character, come in the form of relentless nagging about not using a coaster on her coffee table). Ruffalo and Witherspoon carry off this story appealingly, though, with welcome contributions from Donal (The Tao of Steve) Logue and Jon (Napoleon Dynamite) Heder, who, if nothing else, gets to doff his thick specs and don his goatee . Are they looking for a new Shaggy in the Scooby Doo movies? (Kevin thought this was okay)