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AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Read About Mary Elizabeth Winstead in ‘Faults’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Read About Mary Elizabeth Winstead in ‘Faults’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Mary Elizabeth Winstead in ‘Faults’ Review

As anyone who likes movies knows, there are times when what you enjoy differs far from the rest of the populous. With a film festival, rarely do you have other opinions to go on. You have to just scour the descriptions and maybe see a trailer in order to determine which films to see. In choosing to see “Faults,” I was not hamstrung by such little information. I did have a recommendation. It was from the same person who drove me to see “Wild Tales,” which I loved. “Faults” was supposed to be a thriller about mind control. It happened to star one of the biggest names (in an independent film) in the festival, Mary Elizabeth Winstead. The cast spoke during a Q&A afterward, one of them being Lance Reddick (Cedric Daniels from “The Wire”), all waxing rhapsodic about how urgently they wanted to be involved based on the script. To be honest, it knocked my respect down for him a peg. At least with Winstead, she has built-in excuse of being the writer-director’s (Riley Stearns) wife.

Winstead is not the problem at all here. Nor is her co-star, Leland Orser. In fact, they’re commended for doing yeoman’s work with the material. Orser plays Ansel Roth, a pathetic and broken down mind control “expert.” At least that’s how he passes himself off. He’s written a couple of books and used to have a TV show, but has fallen into such a downward spiral (perhaps caused by an unfortunate incident with a subject years beforehand) that he performs seminars at hotels for crowds of less than twenty people (if you can call less than twenty people at a seminar “a crowd”; some people think three is enough). He has no money to pay for food, attempting to reuse a free-meal hotel voucher he cashed in the day before. He wears the same lifeless brown suit on a daily basis. And he owes a financial debt to his manager under the threat of physical force doled out by Mick (Reddick).

Ansel is given life when, during one of his seminars, he is approached by a couple who feels they’ve lost their 28-year-old daughter, Claire (Winstead), to a cult called “Faults” (put an article like “the” in front of their name and be verbally beheaded). Ansel is hired to find her, deprogram her warped mind and restore the child her parents know and love. They’ll pay handsomely enough to remove Ansel from his underwater finances. However, the stress of his past failures entangle him with Claire to the point of where it’s no longer clear whom is controlling the mind of whom.

“Are you seriously asking me to give my best for this thing?”

The pity prize of the day is that at least the film looks good. Thanks to the progression of digital cameras, no longer are film festival indies reduced to looking like as ragged as Kevin Smith’s “Clerks.” But, that hasn’t been the case for a while now.  Visuals need to be supported by other storytelling elements. I mentioned acting was not the issue. In fact, I would say it’s superb. Stearns was smart enough to turn the camera toward his wife and let her give a performance she’s not often afforded the luxury of being able to give. A big hand should be given to Orser, too, whom I only recognized from a line or two in “Saving Private Ryan,” but has the leading man qualities actors normally given those roles lack. I’d be very pleased to see him have another starring turn.

As for the film, I’d be just as pleased to never see it again. Stearns said afterward that he was obsessed with cults and mind control when he was younger. Obsessed-over subjects turned into movies tend to go just a couple of ways. They can excel as a labor of love or the filmmaker can assume the audience knows just as much about the subject as they do, barring the viewer from ever actually stepping into their world. It’s certainly more the latter than the former. Although the cast raved about the life the script had, it appeared stillborn when committed to screen. The experience was devoid of little suspense or tension, just a few bouts of weirdness and a twist about as shocking as a little hand buzzer you might encounter at Spencer’s Gifts for a dollar. Someone please send Ansel Roth to deprogram this movie from my memory.

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Danny Boyle’s ‘Trance’ Puts Viewers in Mind-Spinning State: A Review

Danny Boyle’s ‘Trance’ Puts Viewers in Mind-Spinning State: A Review

Danny Boyle’s ‘Trance’ Puts Viewers in Mind-Spinning State: A Review 

Simon (James McAvoy) is an auctioneer indebted to criminals in Trance. When an absurdly expensive painting is stolen by Simon to help clear his debt, an accident occurs (he gets knocked in the dome) which leads to his obtaining amnesia. The rest of the film deals with uncovering the whereabouts of the painting.

To find out where the painting is, the criminal group, led by Franck (Vincent Cassel), goes the usual rout of torture. When that doesn’t work, they enlist a sexy psychiatrist/hypnotist, Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to unlock Simon’s mind. Eventually, she becomes embroiled in the plot heavily, trying to help find the painting due to her own boredom (or not). The plot weaves tangled strands of yarn in various directions as the con-game is played out in the film and on the audience.

‘Trance’ attempts to metaphorically blow minds. Subtle.

Trance is stylishly shot, with neon hues and warped camera work, and includes a solid, pulse-pounding soundtrack. The beauty can’t cover up its convoluted plot that shows itself layer by layer until all is “explained” in the end. These sorts of films can work (Confidence comes to mind), keeping the audience guessing in a whodunit fashion. However, Boyle’s piece seems too contrived and focused on style over substance.

This was billed as a return to Trainspotting-like form for Boyle in some parts. Alas, this simply is not the case. Perhaps the blame lies with the script, based on heavy trickery and deception. Perhaps Boyle deserves some wrist slapping too, since a director of his caliber should be able to do better. Films that need this much explanation rather than simply having the audience watch something unfold tend to fail. Regardless of Dawson’s full frontal sighting, Trance will leave you less dazed and more confused than Richard Linklater’s coming of age classic. In the end, that is simply not enough.

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Vince Vaughn Backed ‘The Internship’ (2013) Movie Review

Vince Vaughn Backed ‘The Internship’ (2013) Movie Review

Vince Vaughn Backed ‘The Internship’ (2013) Movie Review

Reliable comedic duo (depending on who you ask) Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, re-team for the fish out of water comedy, The Internship. The movie delivers a storyline that their aging stars and many Americans alike would theoretically be able to relate to, that of a changing world after losing the only career that they’ve ever known. Cast away to a world where their skills may not be needed, the friends seek to put their lives back together after an ouster from a luxury watch company.

The Internship, which serves as a large-scale ad for Google in many ways (not a good one, I might add), sees the affable duo improbably land an interview (with fake resumes in part, which are never called into question), then an internship with a shot at full time jobs at the tech behemoth. Google is a corporate playground run by kids with no life experience and that is the advantage the leads can play to survive.

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The star interns look the part at Google in the bland ‘The Internship.’

The movie was shot for a reported $58mil and made $44 domestic and $93 total after international receipts. The script was penned by Vaughn, which was surprising to me. In many ways, he is the only thing going for it, as it’s cast of geek stars are lame and caricatures at best, with wooden, one-note performances, most notably from Max Minghella (The Social Network). The script is bland and by the numbers with only its stars doing their best to save it from oblivion. Alas, Owen Wilson’s schlubby-schtick is way past its due date, so Vaughn has a go alone and can really only do so much. Rose Byrne co-stars as well.

Directed by Shawn Levy (Night At The Smithsonian), there is nothing notable or particularly poor from him, other than letting a night club scene go on far too long with predictably feeble results. The film tries to tell an uplifting tale about continuing to fight the good fight, but with the end predictable from word one, there is nothing really to root for here. The Internship can’t be saved by semi-genius cameos from Will Ferrell and more shockingly, Rob Riggle. You get a handful of laughs at best, but the cringe-worthy, eye-rolling moments far outnumber them. There’s no way these guys deserve the job or your time.

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Lukas Haas & Madeline Zima Led ‘Crazy Eyes’ Movie Review

Lukas Haas & Madeline Zima Led ‘Crazy Eyes’ Movie Review

Lukas Haas & Madeline Zima Led ‘Crazy Eyes’ Movie Review

Adam Sherman’s 2012 “just another love story” Crazy Eyes is a classic example of how to blow money on a film. The Lukas Haas and Madeline Zima (Californication) led vehicle is about two twenty-somethings looking for love in all the wrong places. Haas’ Zack is a millionaire with a sick bachelor pad in the Hollywood Hills. His spare empty home hides the fact that he is continuously lonely and therefore seeks out companionship from his vast network of trollops a dial away on his cell phone.

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Potentially interesting leads go to waste in the dismal ‘Crazy Eyes.’

One such dame is Rebecca (Zima), who like most young adults, particularly in a city that can be as disconnected as L.A., can’t make up her mind about what she wants. Thus, Zack and Rebecca may be perfect for eachother, if we (or they) really cared to find out. Crazy Eyes, Rebecca’s nickname as well as the title of the film, is a series of alcohol-fueled attempts to get laid between Zack and Rebecca. Zack endlessly pursues her (for no discernable reason, other than possibly physically, though he has several others to fill that void) and continuously comes up short. The film is supposed to be fun, real or both, and while it serves a slight glimpse at dating in the modern era in a big city, the script and execution is such a mess it’s a head-scratcher at best.

Crazy Eyes cost a reported $10 million to make. It’s shot in LA and New York, but with the vast majority of scenes filmed in a bar and a house, it’s hard to envision where that money went. Alas, this film is a classic example of “the script, the script, the script” rule, where no amount of money or talent can overcome a bad screenplay. The film earned a whopping $6,106. Yes, you read that right, a massive $84 earned in its “2nd weekend,” consider it a blown cost and a frustrating example of things gone terribly wrong. How the producers and filmmakers could come to an agreement that this was a quality penned film is beyond me. For those wanting to waste 90 minutes and learn what not to do in a movie, feel free to feast your own crazy eyes on this one. Ugh.

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Master of Schlock Spielberg Ups The Ante, A ‘Lincoln’ Review

Master of Schlock Spielberg Ups The Ante, A ‘Lincoln’ Review

‘Lincoln’ Review: Director Steven Spielberg Mocks Audiences & Filmmaking With Biopic

Steven Spielberg has made hands down one of the years most boring films with his awards contender Lincoln. The film, which chronicles the passing of the 13th amendment to the constitution, where Lincoln and constituents freed the slaves, has about as much drama as paint drying. This is a shame, particularly considering the multitude of acting talent that is present for the film, including the sterling lead Daniel Day-Lewis. His Lincoln is unfortunately a reserved, understated gentle man whose convictions manifest themselves in one of thousands of diatribes throughout the picture.

Did I say diatribes? Yes, this film is almost entirely made up of scenes of Lincoln talking to those about the slavery issue with requisite arguing back and forth. Scenes go from the white house to the courtroom to the senate and house floor and on and on and on. No fewer than four different people were heard audibly snoring during the film for a reason. The film has a serious tone and one stamped by a continuous score that tells the audience how we should feel during each scene. A stirring speech about why there shouldn’t be slavery is given, set to the appropriate orchestral backdrop, repeat ad nauseum. Goodness.

Lincoln holds court with the powers that be in a riveting scene. #OrNot

Lincoln did an amazing thing by freeing the slaves. He did the right thing, the constitutional thing and the difficult thing, particularly given the times and opposition he faced. What the audience unfortunately faces in Spielberg’s picture is one that should have been made for the history channel, not on a large screen in a medium far underused for the purposes of this piece. Virtually no scope is to be found in Spielberg’s direction that made this worthy of being a big screen endeavor. The largeness of the ideas at play are ruined by the smallness of his film. It’s remarkable if not entirely predictable.

Spielberg has done this sort of thing before, with Amistad and Schindler’s List coming immediately to mind. The films don’t allow for the viewer to experience any feeling on their own as the themes and strings hammer home the point for you. Spielberg’s film should not be an Oscar contender in many instances (save for costume or set design and DDL’s performance) and the way he has made it, should not have been made for the silver screen. Viewers are left to shake their heads at this missed opportunity.

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Another Earth Movie Review

Another Earth Movie Review

Movie Review of 2011’s Indie Another Earth

When the discovery of a mirror Earth is found in the sky, MIT-bound student Rhoda (Brit Marling) is driving her car, only to look up into the sky for the discovered star. Her distraction from the road causes a fatal accident when her vehicle slams into another, which is carrying a family of (soon to be) four. Rhoda lands in prison for a 4-year stint and her life changes drastically. Another Earth is an ambitious film that takes chances in telling its tale of a possible mirror existence and the outcome of actions.

Upon release from jail, Rhoda is withdrawn and distant, preferring a flat air mattress on a hard floor in the attic to her old cushy bed and bedroom. She takes a janitorial job far beneath her intelligence level, simply to remain as isolated as possible. Ultimately, she becomes curious to meet the man (William Mapother) who survived the coma from her fatal crash and lost his wife, child and child to be in the accident. Their relationship begins slowly but goes to different areas of growth and consequences.

Another Earth Has A Big Story and Performance but Small Budget

First time director Mike Cahill, working with a limited budget (the film is notably grainy and was supposedly shot in 720p) keeps things moody. The film asks several questions about the mirror Earth and would we would do if we could meet ourselves. What type of questions would we ask? What would we say to ourselves? What about alternate universes? Another Earth blends sci-fi, drama, a redemption story, exploration and a love story into a jumbled mix. Cahill knows this all too well, which is why the film ultimately fails. Cahill knows that the film can’t be properly marketed and audiences “won’t get what they are expecting.”

Brit Marling in Another Earth

Brit Marling's Rhoda wonders if those birds are from Another Earth or Winged Migration extras.

The movie is held together by a strong performance from Marling, who seems central to nearly every scene and was also a co-writer of the project. Mapother, better known as the cousin of Tom Cruise, gives his character weight and the appropriate mood shifts, but he seems to be punching a bit over his pay scale here sadly. Maybe it’s the material, maybe it’s him and while it’s a tough acting role, it’s still a bit hard to tell.

Unfortunately, what Another Earth offers is a multitude of questions asked with little answers. Along the way, the story remains slow and mildly engaging, but not enough substance keeps the audience moving forward with the characters. Discoveries lead to more questions not answers and even though that is really the point, a book might do the material better justice than this film. The budget constraints probably don’t help matters, but the film has to be judged on its own merits and sadly, it doesn’t quite live up to anything transcendent. Despite having no expectations, it’s hard not to feel let down in the end.

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‘Ong-Bak 2: The Beginning’ Review

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A few years ago, a new talent was unleashed upon the unsuspecting public in the form of Muay Thai martial arts sensation Tony Jaa. Jaa was the star of Thai film Ong-Bak, which after two years in release and a couple of celebrity endorsements, namely Quentin Tarantino and RZA, the film made its way onto U.S. shores and a new hero for all fans of martial arts films, replacing Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, was born. Jaa carried a similar athletic reputation with him and the requisite “he does his own stunts” mantra, making him an instant person-of-interest in future action films. His Muay Thai style displayed in the film contained a ton of brutal elbows and thumping knees landed upon his opponents, eliciting a resounding “wow” factor from audiences. Though the film’s plot had much to be desired, the feats contained within made it a bit of a cult classic and now years later, Jaa has returned to the well that made him famous outside of Thailand, with Ong-Bak 2: The Beginning.

The first difference from the initial film is an obvious one as the story no longer takes place in a modern day cityscape, but the 15th century Thai jungle. Ong-Bak 2 is a prequel if ever there was one. The story focuses on Tien, a young boy born into nobility, but after the murder of his parents is stripped of his title and relegated to poverty. When in horseback transit to another village, with a bodyguard, Tien is ambushed by a rival tribe and the bodyguard sacrifices himself in hopes of Tien making a great escape.

The guard’s efforts don’t hold up for long, as Tien is picked up almost immediately by the gang of thieves. Tien’s first instinct, however, is not one of fear, but instead he enacts an insubordination and resistance to authority destined to get him killed. This is indeed the gang’s plan, as they force Tien to walk the plank into a muddy pit inhabited by a ferocious crocodile. Tien displays all the mighty heft and angst toward the crocodile as he does his captors and his rambunctiousness is rewarded and his life spared.

After his display of skill, Tien is taken to a martial arts training ground with tons of young students, like a Muay Thai Hogwarts. With a childhood consisting of learning an unwanted dance, Tien is able to quickly adapt to his new surroundings as his acquired skills transfer fittingly to his new teachings. Over a short period of time Tien earns rank in the training ground and is soon promoted to the number two man in charge. However, the breeding is solely for future thieves and murderers and in order to avenge his parents’ death, he must take down the very man who helped him get back on his feet.

The croc's breath is positively abhorrent.

The croc's breath is positively abhorrent.

Ordinarily, I’m the type to think it unfair to compare one film to another, especially when determining quality. I believe each film should be given a chance to stand on its own two and not be beholden to any film which came before it. This ideology has to go somewhat by the wayside when discussing sequels, though. It’s inevitable to compare it to parts of the same franchise as they’re supposed to be a continual telling of one story, just in multiple parts. Ong-Bak 2 pales in comparison to the original in many ways and should hardly be considered part of the same franchise, though Ong-Bak 3 is said to fill in the cap between the two. Therefore in George Lucas-ian logic, the chronology of the franchise will eventually be 2, 3 and then 1, forever dooming any child learning to count based on the Jaa-starring series.

As the film’s star, making his directorial debut (as co-director alongside mentor and writer Panna Rittikrai), Tony Jaa had a lot riding on this film. He seems to have taken his position so seriously he is said to have broken down during the middle of the shoot and retired to the jungle, undergoing a personal Hearts of Darkness in the process. He had good reason to be stressed. It’s impossible to blame the filmmakers on desiring to create an artier or more respectable film than the primary entry, but despite that film’s storyline shortcomings, it at least had the action to fall back on. Ong-Bak 2 possesses an even less engaging story, compared to its predecessor, but sadly has not even a handful of the athletic and artfully violent prowess.

The first 60 of the film’s 90-minute runtime will leave action fans sorely disappointed and disheartened. Though Ong-Bak was mainly an exercise in showcasing Jaa’s talent, it did so greatly. With dialogue sprinkled thinly across the film’s surface, Ong-Bak 2 appears to perhaps solely exist to bank off of the Ong-Bak name. Jaa displays little of what made him famous, aside from an overlong 10-minute period toward the film’s end, but done so in a straightforward and somehow disorienting manner, rendering the effect as lackluster. The film’s final pathos is largely devoid of dramatic heft, regardless of how you’re “supposed” to feel

To say I was disappointed by Ong-Bak 2: The Beginning would be understatement, though not a feeling entirely unanticipated. Jaa’s Ong-Bak fallow-up, The Protector, was a letdown from his first film, but at least was able to deliver on an impactful, visceral level. Ong-Bak 2 will leave you yearning for the new discovery once again and perhaps have you doubting Jaa will ever see another uptick in his career trajectory. We would rightfully have felt robbed if Jaa had chosen to let Ong-Bak stand by itself, but these poorer efforts only dilute the initial classic. Instead of spending your life with Ong-Bak 2, give the original one more spin and remember the promise that once was.

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‘Amelia’ Review

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“You can vote? But you are woman?…In Kazakhstan, we say God, man, horse, dog, woman, then rat and then small [crustacean].” Those are Borat’s words when discovering a female head-of-household was allowed to vote, during a door-to-door meet-and-greet alongside congressional candidate, James Broadwater, in a segment for “Da Ali G Show.” Although humorous to think even his country hadn’t caught up with the times, there was an era in which even the United States ignored a woman’s right to vote. It wasn’t until 1920 when the 19th Amendment went into affect. That was right in the middle of when Amelia Earhart was in pursuit of becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, thus breaking down another wall in the crusade for equal rights.

As far back as she could remember, Amelia Earhart always wanted to fly planes. She’d stare up at them from the ground, surrounded by hayfields as the iron giants flew up above. No fear was struck in her, unlike the classic scene from North By Northwest, but more of a serene loneliness. She liked being by herself and being her own person, not having to conform to somebody else’s sense of time and rules. This independency from others continued to dominate Amelia’s form of thought as she ascended through the piloting ranks.

After logging 500 solo hours in the pilot’s seat, Amelia was given a chance in 1928 to become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, just one year after Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight. The catch was that all she needed to do to qualify for such a feat was to be flown by two men, while Amelia could only play the role of backseat flier. Though problems emerge with her male crew, Amelia is determined to make it across the ocean come hell or high water and practically wills the team into the record books. She remains unsatisfied with her “achievement,” however, and vows to be the first female in the pilot’s seat to reenact the feat.

Her “historic” flight was set up by publicist George Putnam, who is determined to create a celebrity persona around Amelia after her trip around the Atlantic, regardless of where she sat inside the plane. She’s featured in corporate print ads and speaks at sold out concert halls. Eventually, George becomes enamored with his female subject and asks for her hand in marriage. Amelia, being the independent woman she is wants to pull a Beyonce, but eventually caves. George continues to orchestrate Amelia’s quest for personal glory through the air, but their relationship faces turbulence while grounded, due to the presence of Gene Vidal (author, Gore’s father), who is the director of the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Air Commerce.

The only time Amelia is truly happy, by herself.

The only time Amelia is truly happy, by herself.

The funny thing about Amelia is it depicts its title character not as someone who is into pushing for women’s rights, but is much more of a selfish loner only out for number one. George and Gene warn of her image in the media as someone who indulges in literal flights of fancy for her personal gain. Newspapers report she shills herself for endorsements like a real-life Krusty the Clown, purely to lavish more attention on her accomplishments. Sure she encourages a young female flier and starts an organization of female pilots called The Ninety-Nines, but those scenes are glossed over with nary a hint of meaning. The film portrays its star exactly like the media contained within it pretends to condemn.

Rather than focusing on her accomplishments or her courage to push the boundaries and confinements of women’s suffrage, the film is far more concerned with Amelia’s romantic exploits. It seems like a huge misfire given the character and heroics she brings to the table, but it could at least be partially forgiven if her romantic transgressions were in the least bit interesting. The script by Ron Bass (Entrapment) and Anna Hamilton Phelan (Girl, Interrupted) wants you to feel for Amelia’s relationship with both George and Gene, but there’s so little spark from the disinterested Amelia, why should we bother to care when she doesn’t? Due to this oversight, director Mira Nair’s film is largely devoid of any drama, aside from the inevitable final scene of Amelia’s life.

From the outset, it would seem a biopic on the life of Amelia Earhart would be an actor’s dream about a strong, determined and successful Midwestern girl. I’m sure those were the traits that attracted the two-time Oscar-winning Hilary Swank. She brings her typical tour-de-force self to the character, complete with hick-like accent and a stubborn wonderment to it all. Sadly, the material handed to her almost assures her of not reaching the heights she achieved in her two previous statue-winning performances. Much the same can be said of both Richard Gere’s George and Ewan McGregor as Gene. They’re both competently solid, but have next to nothing to work with, especially McGregor, whose character is practically superfluous.

What could have been an important film for audiences, cast and crew alike was instead dumbed down to be both dull and boring. If the film was served as a history lesson of sorts, it could have been made tolerable, but instead was more of a filmic 1930s issue of “Us” magazine. The stars deserved better with the effort they put into it, but the material doesn’t justify the hard work.

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