DVD Review: A Plumm Summer (2007)

This Family Charmer
Arrives on DVD

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Like Martin and Lewis, Abbott and Costello, and Laurel and Hardy, to Montana's own Happy Herb (Henry Winkler)-- the host of the #1 rated children's television show-- his scene-stealing marionette sidekick Froggy Doo isn't just a fuzzy concoction of felt, string, denim, stuffing, plastic eyes, and arts and crafts. No, rather he's the perfect gag man for a series that has kept children laughing for twenty-two years.

Video Clip:
Happy Herb & Froggy Doo's Safety Tip

Needless to say, while others would've simply traded up for a better stitched partner in entertaining crime, after Froggy Doo mysteriously vanishes and the F.B.I. gets involved when ransom demands and suspicious activity start creeping into Herb's small town, the gentle and charismatic TV host goes on hiatus, unwilling to continue without Froggy.

Inspired by the true story of the abduction of Herb McAllister's puppet in 1968 that garnered national media and law-enforcement attention, first time filmmaker Caroline Zelder's award winning retro film uses this peculiar incident as a stepping stone to a nice, homespun, warm and beautifully photographed work.

While on the surface, it's dressed up as a mystery, essentially it focuses on two brothers coming of age amidst not only the case they decide to solve but also as their family unit is threatened by their frequently drunk former boxing hopeful father (William Baldwin).

One of those men who just can't get past the fact that he "could've been a contender" even going as far as to imply that marriage and an unexpected pregnancy halted his dreams-- Baldwin tackles a difficult role with a predictable but believable arc when he and his sons realize they must face their fears and move on.

Narrated by Jeff Daniels (Because of Winn Dixie, Fly Away Home), Zelder's award-winning work, A Plumm Summer recalls the vintage feel of the superior yet tonally and cinematically similar movies My Dog Skip and October Sky as she-- along with her fellow screenwriters T.J. Lynch and Frank Antonelli-- manage to weave some truly tender and moving threads into what could've been a very loose and flimsy, decorative picture about a frog-napping.

As Daniels is heard on the soundtrack recalling that summer of '68 in Montana that was a whole lot more idyllic--at least in the warm-tones of the lush cinematography-- than most of us associate with that politically tumultuous year, we meet the younger version of himself as the adolescent Elliott (Chris J. Kelly).

Shortly after the puppet vanishes, Elliott teams up with his adorable, innocent brother Rocky (Owen Pearce) and a cute new girl next door (Morgan Flynn) as they decide to sleuth out the clues and help get Froggy Doo and Happy Herb back on television where they belong.

Having earned the prestigious seal of approval from both the Dove Foundation and Parents Television Council, this high-quality work that is elevated by superb craftsmanship and a truly likable cast (especially in the form of Pearce and Winkler who are ideal for their roles), Zelder's film which is slated for a DVD release on May 5th has additionally been bestowed with the 2007 Audience Award from the Austin Film Festival as well as the Vision Award for Best Family Film from the 2007 Heartland Film Festival.

Undeniably wholesome yet welcomingly filled with complex issues about the family dynamic both in the relationships of Elliott Plumm and his family as well as Happy Herb and his wife-- it's a refreshing work that should appeal equally well to adults and children.

Likewise it impresses in its DVD debut via a visually superlative digital transfer that boasts a filmmaker commentary track (with Zelder and Antonelli), a gag reel, deleted scenes, the original trailer, as well as two Behind-the-Scenes extras that bring viewers to the Red Carpet premiere along with a music video. So frog-nappers beware--neither the Feds nor a group of well-meaning kids will let you get away with a crime against entertainment. And additionally, this charming little sleeper incidentally manages to solve a crime against bad entertainment with its precious existence in a realm of too many children's releases that revolve solely around bodily humor and sarcasm.

Blu-ray Review: JCVD (2008)

Similar to Mickey Rourke’s Oscar-nominated comeback in The Wrestler in 2008, another startling second look at a man whom most of us could barely recall our first look was released in the form of director Mabrouk El Mechri’s less-publicized JCVD.

Marbouk El Mechri’s criminally underrated cerebral postmodern art film/action movie/industry satire makes you question just how on Earth directors have missed out on the natural charisma of Jean-Claude Van Damme over the last roughly twenty years. JCVD lampoons the nature of celebrity in ways that delicately blend narcissism and self-pity since Van Damme is in essence playing a thinly disguised version of himself with understated self-deprecating humor, regret, and pathos.

Regarding Van Damme's disappearance from blockbusters, obviously there were issues involving ego and temper along with drugs and drama and nonsensical quotations of which the actor references in the film. Yet surely these are the exact same issues we see making headlines with A-list actors here in the states who continue to be offered one role after the next after the next with DUI charges magically dropped to star in a blockbuster sequel, community service waived, couch-jumping overlooked etc.

In fact, if I was Jean-Claude Van Damme's agent, I would have pre-ordered the first 100 copies of JCVD to mail to filmmakers whose ability to blend drama and action (i.e. Michael Mann, Ridley Scott) seem to be a natural fit for the actor formerly known as “The Muscles from Brussels” (see below) in lieu of the routine head shots, reels, and resumes.

And far before the actor breaks down the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience in an emotionally moving confessional towards the end of the film, we feel as though that fourth wall had already been knocked down shortly after the picture began.

Of course, this all follows the wonderfully retro ‘70s style music and title sequence that plays over the film’s bravura opener that must’ve taken a ridiculous amount of time to story-board, choreograph, block, and film. In a display of movie magic and tongue-in-cheek craziness, the work launches us into what seems to be an over-the-top exhaustive parody or cinematic mix-tape of his past oeuvre as he battles dozens of characters through an overwhelming gauntlet that lasts for minutes in a single take.

Rightly complaining that at forty-seven, it’s extremely painful and far too much to complete in one take, we realize the actor is saddled with a director who could care less about Van Damme. Likewise, the onscreen filmmaker is one whom we get the feeling is pretty run-of-the-mill in his current career of making low-budget, poorly written, super fast productions overseas that go straight to disc as it’s been more than a decade since one of his works has been released theatrically in America.

Essentially, instead of the man he typified in cheesy cult favorites and guilty pleasures like Bloodsport, Lionheart, Double Impact, Hard Target, and Timecop, we’re presented with a portrait of the man who’s tired of playing a caricature or type.

Always being cast as the interchangeable hero and one who amusingly in the film loses work to Steven Seagal when the actor willingly decides to cut off that trademark ponytail, Van Damme ends up being offered work that usually casts him as war vet out for revenge.

In response, he fruitlessly pleads that fiscally, he’d surrender to scale pay in the far-less-lucrative but more rewarding work in a studio picture but investors and producers more than likely wouldn’t want to surrender the outrageous profits they can make in the essential “factory pictures” thrown together in the third world.

And ultimately, it’s in this point we understand that in the end Van Damme is damned if he doesn’t and damned if Van Damme does turn down or accept gigs since he’ll continue working to support his family and legal fees in his battle for a child who—tired of being ridiculed by for the films of her father—decides to live with her mother during a particularly unflinching child custody battle sequence.

This is exacerbated to humorous effect by the opposing attorney as he rattles off one extraordinarily VanDamme-ing laundry list of broken limbs, eye-gouges, strangulation, and death that have populated the action star’s cinematic career.

Yet it's a pseudo action JCVD film altogether and quickly into it, the star finds himself trapped in a Van Damme styled plot in his old Brussels neighborhood trapped with a small group of people during a robbery.

The largely foreign language film which flew way under the radar screening in select cities and art-houses late last fall is ultimately less of a typical Hollywood comedy a la Tropic Thunder, What Just Happened, or The Player and more one that illustrates better than the entirely fictionalized accounts like Inside Daisy Clover just what it’s like working within an industry that serves you up on a platter before ultimately chewing you up and spitting you out.

And while it can be argued that to present yourself as the subject in what is more or less a surreal docudrama can be a bit of a gamble in its egotistical presumption that a film should center on you to begin with, Van Damme’s bravery is commendable. In JCVD, he’s willing to go places and reveal things none of us would’ve expected making it far more honest, compelling, funny, startling, and sad than the self-congratulatory world of reality-television that floods the airwaves in America.

Admirably, although it does seem at times to be tinged with self-pity—always the professional-- Van Damme is an excellent sport throughout. He takes the blame for the infamous events in his past such as his bizarre tendency to interject strange philosophies in televised interviews and dealing with the double-edged sword of being a beloved public figure by a fans who alternately want him to stop and pose for snapshots but also feel they’ve earned the right to judge every aspect of his life.

Instead, intriguingly with the film, Van Damme pulls off a miraculous feat of both inviting us to judge him and then sending that judgment back out at ourselves in the most pivotal sequence wherein he speaks directly to us in an extended monologue in a way that makes us wonder how we would’ve responded to the same stimuli and opportunities yet also reminds us how foolish it is to judge in the first place.

The sequence is just one of several contradictions that make the film so supremely fascinating and intelligent. And this is especially true since the stylistically imaginative and impressive filmmaker El Mechri utilizes what could very well have been a traditional low-budget B-movie set-up about a heist gone wrong and a police standoff (right there in Van Damme’s hometown). Instead he manages to deliver a multi-layered picture that at its heart has nothing to do with the botched robbery and everything to do with a hostage who just so happens to be Van Damme.

Filmed largely in a cool steel gray color palette that emphasizes the harsh masculine tones of blacks, browns, and deep grays that suddenly flashes with some golden tinged color in what Variety indicated was most likely from “color bleaching,” the work is a knockout in its Blu-ray form from Peace Arch Entertainment with an amazing level of clarity and depth perception, zero artifacting along with excellent flesh tones and dark color separation.

Giving viewers the option of watching the film in either the original French version or via an English language track and one that also boasts Spanish and English subtitles, the disc’s one flaw is that it’s light on bonus features as we make due with deleted scenes and the original theatrical trailer. Although in the end, I guess it’s perfectly fitting for a postmodern work wherein-- by the end and although we feel he’s let us in quite a bit--Van Damme remains something of an enigma.

Thus, again he reminds us of the star he’s always been and the one we may have missed all along without realizing it. For, even as a reviewer who grew up with a healthy appreciation of martial arts films I screened with my older brother, I can barely recall the plots or sequences from his earliest work. However, having seen JCVD twice in Blu-ray form, I can tell you that I will never forget the man himself and I defy you not to feel the exact same way.

Therefore, inspired and intrigued-- I've decided to knock down my very own fourth wall and write directly to any readers in high places:

Attention, Hollywood: Jean-Claude Van Damme is more than ready for another close-up. Moreover, to Mr. Van Damme’s agent: get those screeners in the mail immediately as you’ve made a believer out of me that what we need isn’t another mindless sequel or remake but an action film with a bit more heart, soul, and that indefinable characteristic you can simply call JCVD. And now we return to other reviews already in progress-- back in critic mode, fourth wall rectified once more.


Blu-ray Review: Sin City (2005) -- Recut, Extended, Unrated 2-Disc Edition

Now Available on Blu-ray

Other Editions

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A.K.A. Frank Miller's Sin City

To hear Frank Miller explain it, the creation of Sin City was one he undertook for the most selfish reasons in deciding to build a comic book around all of the things he enjoyed drawing the most such as fast cars, hot babes, and more. And of course, to match the images with the tone, it would all be carried out in the style of film noir complete with a Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane feel of hard-boiled insanity lurking around every dark corner.

Although, truth be told—we’re all united by taste and art is the greatest bridge upon which to build a relationship-- so with the unrelenting passion of super fan and digital filmmaking genius Robert Rodriguez who damn near stalked Miller down (contacting his editor, agent, and lawyer Godfather style), Miller realized he’d found a like-minded artist who was turned on by and tuned into the exact same things.

Flash-forward more than a decade and—eager to prove his worth and mettle for the material—Rodriguez invited Miller out to his very own Troublemaker Studios in Texas for one day to run a “test.” Humoring Rodriguez by obliging to visit-- all the while wondering what on Earth a filmmaker could accomplish in a single day—Rodriguez managed to round up A-list talent like Josh Hartnett with the plea of “I don’t have the rights; help me convince Miller” to shoot what is now the opening sequence of the film as the old-fashioned, handsome Hartnett startles a beautiful blonde on a rooftop, mistakes her into trusting him for a smoke and embrace before she’s left dead for reasons unknown.

Needless to say, Miller was dazzled and honored by just how incredibly faithful Rodriguez was to his material as the two collaborated as co-directors on one of the most surprisingly visceral, visually spectacular cinematic works of 2005—complete with one mini-macabre comedy sequence filmed by guest director Quentin Tarantino-- whom Rodriguez hoped to seduce with technology as a gateway drug to encourage QT to move from film stock to all-digital filmmaking. It didn't work but boy, did Tarantino have fun as he's all over the Blu-ray and commentary tracks.

Joking that despite the enormity of the three men’s egos they were still able to get along, Miller stated that he wouldn’t have relinquished the rights to Sin City if he hadn’t had the opportunity to help direct. Throwing out the idea of a screenwriting credit and even alienating the Director’s Guild of America by Rodriguez’s incredible vision and determination to bring Miller in on the same level, he decided he didn’t want to simply make a movie of the comic but instead use the medium of cinema and turn that into the comic since at their core, he argues that they’re very similar mediums that both use still images.

The best evidence of this theorem you can see below in the aforementioned rooftop scene beginning with Miller’s drawing, the use of the green screen during production, only to digitally transform the background in the post-process to the startling and riveting finished product.

Relishing in every opportunity to be as deliciously twisted or lurid as possible—watching the film again today on Blu-ray, a few years after seeing it for a paper I wrote on modern day neo-noirs in film school—it dawned on me that for those who were disappointed by the Grindhouse film undertaken by Rodriguez and Tarantino with their respective contributions-- Planet Terror and Death Proof respectively--Sin City is the answer.

Moreover, you can see how well all the time spent watching "grindhouse" movies in the ‘70s was put to use in this alternatively exploitative and disturbing yet compelling and mesmerizing contradiction of a trashy masterpiece.

Although the second disc of this astounding Blu-ray transfer gives the filmmakers the opportunity to present the complete unrated, recut and extended version of the film which adds on a little more than twenty minutes and gives you the opportunity to watch the individual stories unfold one at a time with four specific breakdowns—aside from the Hartnett cameo that opens and closes the work-- essentially the film can be broken down into three distinct stories all directly pulled from Miller’s series of graphic novels.

A cross between vintage film noir with a bit of the old west spirit thrown into the mix (and not simply just in the scene with exotic dancer Jessica Alba whipping up the crowd with her lasso)-- the film’s characters who populate the eponymous Sin City aren’t presented to us in the traditional white hat/black hat or good guy/bad guy Hollywood standard, instead showing us the evil and the good side by side and on both sides of the law as in the case of the film’s standout storyline.

This finds Bruce Willis’ dedicated cop John Hartigan ignoring his doctor’s orders and warnings about angina in order to save eleven year old Nancy Callahan from the clutches of a sadistic pedophile, who is incidentally the son of a powerful politician. When his partner turns on Hartigan and leaves him for dead-- pinning all crimes involved on Hartigan-- he gets locked up for eight years trading his freedom to save the beautiful little girl he’d rescued who sends him weekly letters under the pen-name of “Cordelia” until one day they suddenly stop.

Fearful that she’s either grown too old to write pen pal letters to the cop that had saved her life or that something has happened to Nancy—and not knowing which thought is worse to Hartigan who states that her written words were the only thing that kept him from killing himself—he confesses to the crimes he didn’t commit and ventures back into the dimly lit, dicey streets to hopefully rescue Nancy once again.

Of course, by this point in the nonlinear narrative that jumps around with characters and storylines that overlap and blend together unexpectedly, we’ve realized that Nancy is none other than the beautiful Jessica Alba who has fallen in love with her childhood hero. But, unfortunately endings are never traditionally happy in the world of noir and especially not in the realm of Miller’s Sin City as the same themes of love, loss, and revenge are woven throughout the other tales.

Featuring a nearly unrecognizable Mickey Rourke as the battered Marv who falls in love with the angelic “perfect woman” Goldie-- a one night stand to whom he awakens to find dead,-- he tears throughout the city in order to avenge the woman he considers his true love, enlisting the help of others including his tough but tender lesbian parole officer Carla Gugino who maternally reminds him to take his anti-psychotic medication without which he has a tendency to hallucinate.

Worried that he’s been led down the wrong path by his own mind playing tricks on him, Rourke’s Marv gets far more than he bargained for when he starts down a horrifying maze of bloodshed, insanity, cannibalism, conspiracy, and mad science that are far beyond his worst nightmares.

In the fascinating but a bit overly long and meandering middle storyline that boasts a ridiculous number of gifted actors including Clive Owen, Benicio Del Toro, Brittany Murphy, Rosario Dawson, Alexis Bledel and others—the tone changes from darkly comic to terrifying as the talkative, flirtatious barmaid, Shellie (Brittany Murphy) tries to stop her married, old abusive boyfriend (Del Toro) from busting down her door where she’s presently with her new one (Owen).

And despite the fact that Del Toro has brought along a group of heavy-hitters with weapons, we all know that the man who should’ve been James Bond can easily take ‘em down as Owen chases them off into the night, venturing into Old Town which is coincidentally run by the women of the night who look after their own and exact their own brand of justice.

When things get out of hand and Del Toro’s character is killed before they discover his profession as a police officer, Owen and his ex—the dominatrix styled Rosario Dawson—begin preparing for an all-out war. Not willing to let the mafia or the cops take Old Town from the women, Dawson and her motley crew of nubile, scantily clad but deadly divas strap on guns, ropes, and ammo in a standoff that lasts far too long when a double-cross enters the equation and too much time is spent explaining what we’re seeing in a way that would’ve benefited from tighter editing.

While the men are mostly out for the kill whether it’s in the name of love, revenge, or insanity (and sure enough the second disc boasts an interactive "killing" game) and the women are either damsels in distress or vixens—essentially, the work is a depiction of violence at its most primal and carnal. Additionally, it's one that never shies away from its exploitative tendency (repeatedly on display throughout the oeuvre of Robert Rodriguez from the most over-the-top sex scene in Desperado and beyond) but despite this, the film keeps you watching for the sheer audacious aesthetic appreciation of the groundbreaking techniques employed in its creation.

Primarily filmed in black and white with flashes of color whether it’s in a woman’s blue eyes, red lips, a dress, blonde hair, blood, or the personification of evil in the form of the monstrous “Yellow Bastard"-- Sin City is that rare film you find yourself wanting to turn away from but realize you’re unable to do so since you’re riveted by this wholly creative, free-wheeling, yet painstakingly precise world concocted by Miller and Rodriguez.

While Disney’s Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Miramax have managed to nail down the Blu-ray format to an exact science with recent releases, they’ve truly outdone themselves in what has to be the second most impressive Blu-ray of the year, closely following their amazing restoration and multi-disc presentation of Pinocchio.

The level of clarity in the sound and picture makes Sin City honestly a film that looks much richer on Blu-ray than it did in the theatre as it was originally filmed with high-definition Sony cameras, so its move right into 1080 pixels helps reaffirm that for Sin City’s origins as a digital picture, “there’s no place like home” on Blu-ray.

While in these economic times, I’m usually pretty cautious in recommending readers upgrade from DVD to Blu-ray unless there’s a marked difference in quality or features viewers truly want-- I have zero hesitation this time around in advising you to move directly to Blu without passing go.

Having fun with the format itself and equipping the film with D-Box motion control along with three different audio tracks (including commentary and one Austin Audience Reaction track), you’re also given the opportunity on the first disc alone of utilizing the “Cine-Explore” feature that incorporates behind the scenes extras into the viewing experience itself.

Giving viewers the freedom to watch the individual stories separately on the second Blu-ray in their longer, uncut forms—Rodriguez continues with his grand tradition of loading discs with some truly first rate bonus features such as his short “15-Minute Film School,” along with a surprising inclusion of a “10-Minute Cooking School.”

While some of the extras are fun but not quite necessary like the cooking lesson and Willis rocking with his band—the making-of-featurettes are all quite interesting breaking down the film from the costumes, special effects, props, to interviews and play-by-play recollections with Miller, Rodriguez and Tarantino such as in the one I cited at the start of this review, “How It Went Down: Convincing Frank Miller To Make The Film.”

Although unfortunately as filmgoers master the art of digital technology and that irresistible green screen that makes anything and everything possible and unfortunately sometimes making films feel a bit cooler, artificial, and uninvolving like the beautiful but vacuous recent Miller release The Spirit-- in Sin City it feels absolutely essential in transferring the comic to the screen.

Therefore, it makes one even more excited for the 2010 announced sequel as surely Rodriguez’s wizardry and penchant for digital invention will have the opportunity to climb even greater heights five years after the first film was made.

New on DVD & Blu-ray for the Week of 4/26/09

Jen’s Pick of the Week:


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DVD Review: What Doesn't Kill You (2008)

Brian Goodman's Compelling True Story:
What Doesn't Kill You
...Makes You Stronger On Blu-ray & DVD 4/28/09

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What Doesn't Kill You

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Usually when you see, “the following is based on a true story,” you’re expecting a sports movie about a ragtag team of ambitious underachievers fighting to beat out the big, bad, better-funded school comprised of a student body that could be recruited as extras on TV’s Gossip Girl.

Typically, there’s an unlikely coach or mentor thrown into the mix who doesn’t seem to have what it takes or is prone to quit in the process but the underdog star player who has what it takes but doesn’t know it manages to help forge an alliance with him to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and bring home that trophy in films where even second place feels like first place.

Convicted criminal turned actor turned writer/director Brian Goodman’s debut work as a feature filmmaker-- What Doesn’t Kill You-- is thankfully not that kind of movie. While on the surface, it appears to be a South Boston crime movie-- involving a Wahlberg, handsome character actors, and a dark cinematographic color scheme very popular in our post Sopranos and post Departed world-- however, once you look closer, Goodman’s autobiographical picture hearkens back to earlier filmmaking of not just Scorsese’s ‘70s Mean Streets era that Academy Award nominee Ethan Hawke cites in the film’s production notes but even further back to the more old-fashioned realm of On the Waterfront as they also mention.

In this gritty, compelling, and highly authentic urban true-to-life crime drama nothing is glorified; you won’t hear Tony Bennett sing "Rags to Riches" over carefully edited freeze-frame footage or Rolling Stones infused hyper-cuts to help heighten the tension of the cocaine and helicopter sequence of Scorsese’s brilliant New York based GoodFellas and you definitely won’t see Vancouver filling in for South Boston to bring the budget down.

No, it's an intensely personal labor of love helmed by the man who lived it—Brian Goodman. Goodman grew up sleeping on the streets of Boston in the Dorchester neighborhood where as the notes from the Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and Yari Film Group Release explain, you either end up as a cop or a criminal.

Since you can’t exactly join the police academy as a young teen, Brian (played by Mark Ruffalo in the film) took the immediate way out and turned to a life of crime alongside his best friend Paulie (Ethan Hawke) as the two young men became a makeshift family as close as brothers yet also trying to fill in the gaps of the lack of active parenting by looking out for one another the best way they know how.

While the easily charismatic ladies man Paulie brings home a different girl every night, Brian struggles to support his two children primarily raised by his childhood sweetheart turned wife, Stacy (Something's Gotta Give, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip's Amanda Peet). After the boys align themselves with the local mobster Pat Kelly (in a turn by the real-life Brian Goodman), they find that the small percentage of profits gained by hijacking trucks and thefts that sustained them as youths aren’t quite cutting it as they grow too old for the “nickel and dime” jobs.

Therefore, they begin taking far greater risks which get exacerbated by Goodman’s reliance and addiction to hard drugs and alcohol. Facing hard jail time and an even harder life back on the outside—Brian and Paulie struggle to adapt to the outside world as they’re forced to make decisions which will forever alter their paths, relationships, and future.

At its heart, it is a character-based drama where human need, instinct and the almighty desire to “get by,” “get through,” and “survive” is what propels the characters throughout instead of pushing our fictitious "heroes" through the motions of a three act familiar paradigm. Goodman’s work, which began initially upon his post-jail sobriety in 1994 written in a tiny thirty-nine cent notebook from the local Osco Drug Store soon developed into a script that earned major support via friends who believed in both the man and material such as Boomtown's Donnie Wahlberg who met him through mutual family friends upon his release from prison.

Although Wahlberg could relate to the authenticity inherent in Goodman’s script since they grew up in the same areas (although the men had taken extraordinarily different paths) and it was Wahlberg (who also co-stars in the film) and screenwriter Paul T. Murray who assisted Goodman in polishing the screenplay to help it get the attention it deserved-- despite this, it’s ultimately Goodman’s movie. Moreover, it's Goodman's passion to bring his story to the screen that propelled the work from the idea stage to production over the course of more than a decade.

Years later, he formed another great alliance in actor Mark Ruffalo, whom Goodman met and admired while working on the set of Robert Redford’s The Last Castle. Feeling in his gut that in Ruffalo, he’d encountered someone whom he knew was instinctively a man with the right soul for the part—Ruffalo latched on immediately to the work, standing by it for more than the eight years it took to see it fully developed as the actor eventually presented the project to Ethan Hawke in person.

As Hawke recalls Ruffalo’s powerful words, he’d told Hawke who was working in a stage production, “I want to believe in a world where somebody can take themselves from prison and learn a few things, and write their own script and get it made, and direct it and have it turn out great… I want to believe in that world, so if you’re going to believe in it, you’ve got to help make it happen.”

Fortunately Hawke-- who revealed in the DVD’s nineteen minute making-of-featurette that he feels it’s exactly the kind of movie he wants to make and Ruffalo “is one of our great actors"-- felt as strongly as his colleague did and the two are completely convincing from the start as Ruffalo easily slips into the more emotional role of Brian who undergoes major shifts in values and personality throughout the approximately one hundred minute movie.

And, as a fan of Ruffalo’s since he first completely dazzled this reviewer in You Can Count On Me to the point that it was one of a handful of cinematic experiences I can vividly recall wherein you know you’re in the presence of an astounding new talent (just like Norton in Primal Fear etc.)—I must admit that for this film, I was particularly impressed by Before the Devil Knows You're Dead's Hawke who manages to shed his typical persona completely to the point where he looks and sounds like an entirely different actor.

Admittedly, par for the course and typical of the genre where female characters get lost in the shuffle, the always impressive Amanda Peet doesn’t have much with which to work in her few scenes (mostly opposite Ruffalo).

Moreover, I have to admit that structurally, you get the feeling that for the film to have completely paid off much better or compelled you in its wondrous, old-fashioned arc of a true human’s journey, Goodman should’ve spent maybe even five more minutes at the beginning delving into the humble beginnings of Brian and Paulie. While this would've help ed considerably in acquainting us with their stories as boys before they turned into young hoodlums—it’s still a remarkably riveting piece of material.

Quite brave and genuine for a first time filmmaker using his life as source material (especially when opening up about hard drugs and crime instead of home runs or touchdowns) without beating viewers over the head with a message—ultimately as Hawke notes, the essence of the film is one that is fixated on the choices we make in life. To this end, it reminds us in a way that refreshingly doesn’t preach the fact that at any time, we’re allowed to hit reset, take a different turn, say “no,” or opt to make a different decision than most would predict.

Humble, intimate, passionate, and startlingly real with commanding turns by its ensemble and main core of Hawke and Ruffalo in anchoring the production—Goodman’s intelligent piece of filmmaking shows extraordinary promise for the helmer and reminds us that despite the fact we may not be in the mood for darker tales of hardship at the box office right now, there’s still something well-earned and powerfully inspiring about both the film and the story behind the film of What Doesn’t Kill You.

Namely, it reminds us of the promise that no matter how many times we’re left for dead or counted out, we can always come back from things stronger as Brian Goodman did in the story that Wahlberg, Ruffalo, Hawke and others decided exemplified the type of world in which they wanted to live in seeing it was made for viewers to learn from and appreciate.