4/30/2010

Movie Review: Nice Guy Johnny (2010)


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Even though he's saddled with a name that immediately calls to mind Dustin Hoffman's Ratso from Midnight Cowboy, instead of yelling at people that he's “walking here,” Johnny Rizzo (Matt Bush) is a young man best described by his Uncle Terry (Edward Burns) as “nice to a fault.”


Although it's eluded him so far, the audience and Uncle Terry are quick to realize that Johnny Rizzo is stuck in one of those coasting relationships since college that is soon to result in marriage to a woman who uses phrases like, “I'm not being a bitch, I'm just trying to help.”

Given a deadline by his fiancee Claire that he should be making fifty grand a year by the age of twenty-five or he'll switch careers from being a sports talk DJ during the insomniac shift to a manager at a moving box factory, Johnny arrives in New York City ready to give into the interview and remain a man of his word.

Yet thankfully for both the audience and our “nice to a fault” lead, Johnny's bartender and toxic bachelor Uncle Terry has other ideas for the weekend that don't include bitchy help or cardboard boxes as a road trip to the Hamptons is quickly hatched.


While it's Terry's mission to see his nephew experiment with infidelity or at the very least walk to the edge of the line he shouldn't cross (that Terry desperately wants to shove him over), Johnny remains staunch in his promise until he meets a beautiful blonde named Brooke (Kerry Bishe) who boldly and bluntly tells him to promise her he won't accept the job.

However, the job is one thing and the girl is something different altogether as Johnny tries to keep his emotions in check and remain that old fashioned, gentlemanly nice guy even though he's begun to find himself attracted to the recent California college graduate tennis pro.


Weighing his passion for broadcast journalism with his promise to Claire, Johnny is in for one long weekend in Edward Burns's ninth romantic tinged New York dramedy. And as the writer/director revealed, Nice Guy Johnny was inspired by his own personal struggles whether or not to give into the studio system and direct a big budget romantic comedy he hasn't written or remain true to his passion for chatty films in the vein of his heroes like Woody Allen, Louis Malle, and Francois Truffaut.

Obviously since Nice Guy Johnny was the result of the process as opposed to the latest studio rom-com, it's pretty safe to see the direction the admittedly predictable film is heading but much like its main character, Johnny is unfailingly likable. And while it sticks pretty solidly to Burns's niche about New York men battling with their love lives and Peter Pan syndromes, thankfully there's something a bit more poignant and less gimmicky about Johnny than say, the less successful Groomsmen.

Arguably Burns's strongest film since Sidewalks of New York, yet one that may threaten to get overlooked since it uses zero stars as Mr. Burns is the most recognizable face you'll see onscreen, Johnny, which also reunites him for a fourth time with his talented cinematographer Will Rexer is one of his most visually breathtaking as well, having been shot on the flattering RED camera.


Able to enhance nearly every scene to a polish worthy of films with ten times the budget, save for a crucial scene at a bonfire that's so dimly lit I had a hard time making it out while viewing it in HD through Tribeca Film Festival Virtual, Johnny shows a new, contemplative and far artier side of Burns without shedding the same “boys will be boys” camaraderie for which the director's work is famous.

While again I wish he would flesh out his female characters a bit more than having Johnny choose between the helpful bitch and the bonfire bombed blonde since we're not quite sure Brooke does much more than reflect back to him what he really wants in life which is the opposite of cardboard boxes, it remains one of the director's most mature and universal works. Likewise, it's one that's similarly ideal for online screenings such as the way I first encountered Burns' Nice Guy since everyone viewing can identify with the need of its lead to identify their passion in life.


Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I viewed an online press screening of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

Movie Review: Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010)



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In retrospect it's ironic that the motto of the hip Washington D.C. restaurant managed by Jack Abramoff promised “liberal portions in a conservative setting,” since essentially that's been the motto of his life as well in taking liberal portions of money that belonged to others (including readers) under the guise of his conservative setting.

Wildly charismatic and overwhelmingly passionate, Abramoff was as successful as he was for the simple reason that he was just that good at being bad, willing to go that many extra miles past the line lobbyists should not cross to get what he wanted.

Yet the tragic thing is, he never really did get what he wanted which was the type of life he read about on the pages of the spy novels he cherished since what he failed to realize is that in fiction, you can escape the rules whereas in reality, the rules and the law will inevitably catch up with his cloak and dagger existence.



And since he loved spy novels and films – going so far as to practice Judaism after seeing Fiddler on the Roof as a kid before he became a Born Again Christian – it's only fitting that someone should tell his “ridiculous truth is much stranger than dreamed up political fiction” story on film, which is exactly what Oscar winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side) has done in this richly entertaining yet extremely informative documentary.



Releasing in May from Magnolia Pictures, Casino Jack and the United States of Money focuses on all the various incarnations and turns that Abramoff has undergone from President of the College Republicans to movie producer to lobbyist to his involvement in overseas sweatshops, a connection to a mafia style killing and the Enron worthy way he ripped off Indian casinos.



The movie employs pop culture throughout from just the right musical cue to really drive home his thesis or add an ironic subtextual counterpoint to certain scenes. And Gibney's stellar achievement is especially intriguing since, although he turns his lens on just one man, the story of Jack Abramoff and his “Gimme Five” associates that reached into the realm of the Bush Administration is so richly complicated that it took the download and reread of the extensive production notes and background information to fully grasp all of the data he was hoping to convey in this jam-packed feature.



Like a cat with nine lives, it seems that politically and professionally, Abramoff lived enough lives to comprise an entire litter of kittens and unfortunately we get a little lost at times in between the major scandals like the Northern Marianas Islands 21st century version of slave labor all for green and the “Made in the USA” label and his Indian casino fraud.

With the benefit of so many first person accounts, some of which were made possible by a Nightline employee who served as a co-producer, Gibney uses Jack Abramoff's story as an allegory to illustrate the terrifying fact that this is merely one man who is set to leave incarceration in 2010 and that the lobbying game along with all of his associates and others not on our radar yet are still waiting using politicians as pawns to influence policy any way that can benefit them financially.



With the added blindspot of their fierce religious nature and the belief that they can do no wrong if they think they're fighting for what is holy and right (even when it seems like blasphemy for people to deign to decide what a higher power would want in the first place), Gibney's work serves as a warning call to voters that business as usual will only promise more lobbying Abramoffs in Washington and fewer and fewer Mr. Smiths as seen in the quintessential Capra classic.



Despite some of the confusion, which I'm hoping will either persuade viewers to take a second look and/or preferably augment the experience with more research on their own, Casino Jack and the United States of Money remains not just timely since we're reminded how much is spent on lobbying each and every year instead of things that could benefit citizens but also that it's our duty to remain engaged and aware of just how liberal of portions our members of congress are treating themselves to in the money hungry setting of Washington D.C.

Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC;
All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com
Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I viewed an online press screening of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

TV on DVD: Merlin -- The Complete First Season (2008)



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Even if you're unable to put them all in the right chronological order or discern which individual came first and what side of the fence they're on, when you hear words and phrases like King Arthur, Knights of the Round Table, Camelot, Excalibur, Lancelot and Guinevere, Sword in the Stone, Avalon and Merlin, you have an instant recognition and connection to the mythological legend that makes this origin story reboot that much more universal.



Using a Smallville inspired approach, Merlin the series appears to be royal England's version of its very own Superman in beginning right at the very beginning of the tale of the powerful sorcerer Merlin (Colin Morgan) back when he was a teenager trying to hide his penchant for magic from the land of Camelot where it is banned.



And despite its repetitive nature, which may have worked better when aired on television one week apart since most episodes follow the same story arc of trouble in Camelot, near-death, secret use of magic and/or a battle saves the day, it's a multi-generational charmer.

Moreover, thanks to the lavish production values, spirited cast, and epic scope that sets up major plot points early on using a breadcrumb approach as we briefly meet Lancelot and anticipate the future of the series, Merlin actually drew even greater audience numbers when it aired in the United States as the first British series to play on a major network (NBC) in decades.



And although it takes great liberties with the traditional legend, its adventurous set-up may actually encourage viewers to pick up the various books that have adapted the tale to try and figure out what is going to happen down the road when we finally get past the “hide the magic” set-up and into situations of actual life and death as opposed to the poisoned potion/shield/food supply of the week approach.

While generations familiar with the storyline may grow a bit anxious for more concrete plot development, its ingenious blend of literature and freewheeling fun is sure to attract fantasy minded Generation Y viewers as Merlin first arrives in Camelot to work under the tutelage of the court physician Gaius (Richard Wilson) before he saves Prince Arthur (Bradley James) from certain death and is given the “promotion” by King Uther (Anthony Head) to look after his son full time as Arthur's manservant.



Given its colorblind casting and progressive attitude, soon Arthur befriends his manservant Merlin and in turn grows fond of other lower class subjects such as the lovely Guinevere (Angel Coulby) who serves his father's ward, the lady Morgana (Katie McGrath).

Nicely revealing that perhaps Merlin isn't the only one to have magic he's hiding away so as to avoid execution, the series which also includes the great advice giving dragon (voiced by John Hurt) surprises viewers when we learn that a member of the royal family may actually have the gift as well.



Obviously, given the dialogue of one being born with it and unable to help magic – which can be used for good or evil – the series works as a nice allegory on differences between people and accepting others for who they are regardless of race, disability or orientation etc. but this interpretation – similar to that found in X-Men about “outsiders” -- is one that is likely to occur to most on a subconscious level since above all, Merlin is just plain fun.

Wonderfully cast and gorgeously filmed in a way that made me wish it was also available on Blu-ray to see the kingdom come alive in 1080 pixels, this five disc set that includes all thirteen episodes also includes wallpapers, video diaries and behind-the-scenes footage on a separate special features disc.



Despite its origin plot-line which ensures that unfortunately not much happens in the first season since it's just meant to establish and work as a building block to the next installment, Merlin is easily engrossing. Furthermore, although the series that is also produced by the same network that has brought viewers both Doctor Who and Torchwood may not make you feel like you're ready to join the Round Table just yet, but it definitely makes you anxious for the following season, which is the mark of a successful series all around.


Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC;
All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com
Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

Blu-ray Review: Battleship Potemkin (1925)

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In addition to its status as a mandatory part of any reputable Introduction to Film classroom around the country and being famous to Generation X as the movie that inspired Brian De Palma's thrilling staircase sequence in The Untouchables, Battleship Potemkin is also arguably the most famously influential film of all time in terms of the field of editing.

And despite the fact that Sergei Eisenstein stated that he wanted the potent musical score rewritten every twenty years to keep the movie up to date in its revolutionary message, the high definition bow of Eisenstein's powerful 1925 masterwork of emotional propaganda and inventive montage proves that the original score still carries the same punch it always did as it comes thundering through your media room speakers in DTS-HD 5.1 surround sound.

The most faithful release of Potemkin to date finds Eisenstein's 1,374 shots fully restored to its original presentation – managing to give us the thorough picture on a film that, having been banned, greatly censored, cut and carelessly tossed around the public domain in some countries, has often played to audiences in a way that doesn't represent the director's original vision.

Restoring all of the text card inserts so that the 146 shots of words (newly translated to English) now perfectly balance out the action and sync up rhythmically the way it was intended back in 1925, the way the film unfolds in a primal fashion still manages to stir audience members a full eighty-five years after release, as few silent films can.

Part of Eisenstein's “The Year 1905 Series,” Potemkin chronicles the mutinous revolt of a mistreated Odessa crew as they overthrow their Czar Cossack tormentors and later inspire a communist revolution.

Intriguingly, it's a cinematic contradiction in the way that it appears to be so purely simplistic to the point that Pauline Kael labled it cartoonish yet at the same time its epic sequences such as the drama on deck section seem as though they've forever informed the way we look at action on film whether we were familiar with Potemkin or the many films it's inspired.

Surprisingly, it's still violent even by today's standards as you may not recall just how propagandist and in-your-face Eisenstein's Odessa Steps montage is in contrast to De Palma's version.

Furthermore, the painstakingly preserved work from Kino is a staple for anyone who considers themselves a film devotee and it's one that proves that it's still Untouchable in inciting a cinematic revolution as you'll notice that you view films with a more critically fixed eye on juxtaposition for at least a full week each time you take in this foreign classic.

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Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC;
All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com
Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

Blu-ray Review: Crazy on the Outside (2010)



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Three years after Tim Allen's Tommy was sent to the slammer for pirating Lars and the Real Girl for Ryan Gosling entertainment deprived Chinese citizens, he's released back into the world only to discover – like many cons – that life isn't exactly a Ryan Gosling chick flick when you're in front of instead of behind those prison bars.

Thrust into another grand scheme that was hatched spontaneously during an inspired viewing of Gigi by his sister Viki (Sigourney Weaver), Tommy discovers that his cover story to their elderly grandmother is not that he's been doing time in stripes but spending three years for work abroad in France.



Although he doesn't speak a word of the language and he isn't quite up on the full phony back-story that also includes a fake fiance who's involved in the French space program, Tommy plays along, anxious to make something of his life with the hope of restarting his deceased father's old painting company.

Stuck working in a pirate themed fast food joint in the interim – an ironic touch for the writers to make the former DVD pirate into a fry-cook pirate – Tommy's life gets even crazier on the outside when old contacts including his partner in crime Ray Liotta and an old flame (Ed's Julie Bowen) surprise him out of the blue bearing all sorts of propositions involving new Chinese connections and a love affair under the nose of wealthy flat screen TV salesman Kelsey Grammer.



Determined to get his life back on track in a way that's far less complicated than one of Viki's forever evolving scenarios, Tommy realizes that life has plans of its own that don't follow the Big House rules especially when he becomes attracted to his parole officer (Jeanne Tripplehorn).

While traditionally it'd be safe to assume that – given this much talent from Allen's old TV stomping ground -- Crazy on the Outside was the result of favors being called in to make the funny man's directorial debut a reality -- the bottom line is aside from a few lapses in tone, Crazy is just flat out funny, thanks primarily due to the zany screwball inspired script.

However, particular thanks is owed to Allen's Galaxy Quest co-star Weaver whose talent as a comedienne is sorely undervalued except by those like Allen and Heartbreakers co-star Ray Liotta with whom she proves she can volley with the best of them and her on-screen Crazy husband J.K. Simmons (Juno) is no exception.

Despite some of the predictable plot-points, the humor always surprises and Allen's sheer likability as a genuine nice guy trying to go straight – even if he uses the most extreme ways of proving just that – makes him quite an easy hero for whom to root in this little-seen independently made title recently released to DVD and Blu-ray with exclusive retail store engagements via 20th Century Fox.



Crazy on the Outside is presented in a nice clean and crisp transfer that serves the film well in duplicating a theatrical experience most of us were unable to explore since Allen's film had an extremely limited run.

In addition to Fox's typical Blu-ray excellence, Outside also contains a short behind-the-scenes extra and a ho-hum gag reel that incidentally showcases Allen's professionalism in remaining collected while others crack up to save money and prevent wasted film stock, in case Allen and company decide to make a Ryan Gosling pirate feature as his follow-up directorial effort.


Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC;
All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com
Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

Movie Review: The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)


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It doesn't matter how many times you change jobs, lovers, religions, clothes and houses since the one thing that stays with you that's just as adhesive, unmistakable, exclusive and singular as your fingerprint is your passion. Discovering the passion of another is like being given a key to their soul, understanding what pushes them forward in life even if something in their eyes seems to hearken back to the past.

And it's precisely the secret in the eyes of a photographed man that begins to obsess Argentinean criminal prosecutor Benjamin Esposito (a flawless Ricardo Darin) as he embarks on a twenty-five year quest for justice in a brutal rape and murder case that still haunts him in his retirement.


While some men write their memoirs, Darin's Esposito decides to write about the case instead. After fifty false starts fail to get him more than five lines into the opening page, Benjamin visits his old workplace. He decides to discuss the case with his former superior, Irene, realizing only then that they'd never really discussed it together back when it was pending since she was a new colleague at the prosecutor's office and he spent most of his time trying not to freeze up whenever the lovely woman walked into a room.


And by putting everything on paper including the thoughts, feelings, secrets and players behind-the-scenes, the audience realizes that perhaps Benjamn will finally gain closure regarding both what happened back in 1974 and what his own future will hold. Namely, the events of the Morales mystery coincided with the first pings of a generational unrequited love story in which he fell hard and fast for the then soon-to-be-married Irene (Soledad Villamil).

A story of what if, the solace and sadness of memory, coming to terms with truth, and above all love, Son of the Bride director Juan Jose Campanella's Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film is one of the strongest, most peculiar, and intellectually satisfying works I've seen thus far in 2010.

Like another favorite in the form of Ghost Writer, which also centered on the burden of truth, passion, and putting the past on paper, it's rooted in a sophisticated classical style in its filmmaking technique and storytelling approach including overlapping plots and characters whose plights serve as echoes and more.


Yet unlike Writer, Campanella does a lot more in terms of playing with the camera to jolt us right to attention, putting us directly into the subjective shoes of our lead actor while also pulling away simultaneously frequently to illustrate that he is merely one man in a sea of others all undergoing their own journeys of passion.

Arguably Darin's strongest performance in years following acclaimed turns in The Education of Fairies, Son of the Bride and Nine Queens (which was remade in the states as Criminal), Secret's unusually existential, Kafkaesque film's narrative web unravels methodically and precisely.


Intriguingly it changes tone often and weaves buddy comedy courtesy of Darin's best friend -- the often drunk but brilliant employee (Guillermo Francella) -- into the mix along with romance via both Esposito and the Morales case as the torch carried by the surviving husband is a damn near Shakespearean take on Zodiac.

Beautifully executed, intellectually satisfying and filled with enough surprises to fuel a long conversation after the movie's credits roll, Campanella's Academy Award winning work which will no doubt satisfy the same audience who was taken in by another foreign winner The Lives of Others a few years earlier, is yet another reminder of why cinema remains such an unwavering passion for this reviewer.

Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC;
All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I attended a press screening of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.