Tag Archives: 4.5 stars

Way late review: The Kid with a Bike

Sometimes you need a punch in the gut. As much fun as action films filled with heroes of all shapes and sizes are, there are times a more intimate and sad tale needs to be told. Enter The Kid with a Bike, a French film by Luc Dardenne and Jean-Pierre Dardenne.

We’re immediately confronted with an angry 11-year-old named Cyril (Thomas Doret). He’s trying desperately to call his dad and when that number rings disconnected several times, the kid makes a break for it. A chase ensues and only takes breaks or slows down in the first half of the film as Cyril makes every attempt to find his dad who has clearly abandoned him. One of Cyril’s attempts to find his dad finds him latching onto an unsuspecting woman waiting in a doctor’s office waiting room. This brief encounter leads the woman, Samantha, (Cécile de France) a hairdresser in the neighborhood, to befriend Cyril by first getting back his bike and later providing him a place to stay on the weekends, away from the group foster home.

The behavior of Cyril as a young boy who has been abandoned is authentic. The anger he feels towards his dad is transferred on everyone else who cares enough to at least be with Cyril which is more than can be said for the father. Contrasted with the self-destructive behavior of the youth is Samantha’s love and care for the boy. Even though she finds herself over her head in taking care of him, she perseveres in a way that displays true love and grace, which is too rare in both movies and real life.

Even though he is loved, Cyril finds comfort from the neighborhood dealer, Wes, who befriends him. Unlike Samantha’s firm yet unending love for the young man, Wes gives Cyril the thrill of the moment; validation and words that serve to puff Cyril’s ego up and provide a quick allegiance to the no good criminal. Still, one can’t blame an 11 year-old boy whose dad wants nothing to do with his son to gravitate towards a male who goes out of his way to give the boy attention.

The last act in the film is a bit puzzling – neither good nor bad. The story grows a bit more complex without losing its focus on the kid with a bike and his struggle to find his way through a harsh life. Bonus points for not abusing a swelling soundtrack. In fact, there are only a couple brief moments where any music is used at all. What could have easily turned into melodramatic drip with a background track made to manipulate versus compliment the on screen drama.

A tight story focusing on a boy who struggles to find real love after his father left him, The Kid with a Bike never strays from the characters who are so real it’s easy to forget you’re watching a fictional tale. In a culture where cynicism and sarcasm rule the day, it’s refreshing to watch a film which doesn’t apologize for its melancholy nor shy away from its underlying altruism.

 ★★★★½ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: Rambo: First Blood


Rambo is a legend. He is as much a part of American pop culture as Coca Cola and McDonalds. An ’80s icon during a time when men with muscles took on the world by themselves and won. When Rocky isn’t a big enough movie franchise one must up the ante. Drop the boxing gloves and pickup endless amounts of ammo, a gun, a knife, a homemade bandanna and start a new, more violent mythology. I know this about Rambo, yet it wasn’t until recently when I saw my first Rambo flick, Rambo: First Blood. I hesitated all these years to watch any of the Rambo films because I thought they were likely mind numbing. I was wrong, at least in regards to the first in the series.

John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is a former Green Beret who served his time in Vietnam. He’s trying to find his what’s left of his brigade, walking through the remote parts of Washington. He discovers his last known living member is dead due to cancer he got while fighting the war. Rambo makes his way through a small town where he is immediately confronted by the sheriff, Teasle (Brian Dennehy) and escorted out of town. The sheriff doesn’t like the looks of this straggly vagabond.

Sheriff Teasle: If you want some friendly advice, get a haircut and take a bath. You wouldn’t get hassled so much.

Rambo isn’t pleased and after the sheriff drops him off outside the city limits he heads back into town. Teasle sees this and confronts his new nemesis. Things don’t go well and the Vietnam vet is booked in jail. The town must be run by some of the worst policemen in the world. They harass Rambo until he snaps. One flashback too many from Nam and the belligerent officers experience John Rambo up close and personal. Our protagonist flees the jail, takes a motorbike, and the chase is on.

The pursuit of Rambo by the hard headed, fun to root against local law enforcement is non-stop action filled with interesting set pieces thanks to the mountainous terrain. Watching a green beret use all his tricks against guys who fancy themselves equals makes for a good time. Just when it seems he is out numbered with nowhere left to go, Rambo pulls another rabbit from his hat. He could easily kill anyone in the group hunting him down but he lets them live. Egos are often hard to heal. Egos the size of those belonging to Sheriff Teasle and his hapless crew are off the charts, which means an all out war breaks loose. And to think, all this started because Rocky Rambo wandered through town looking for a place to eat.

Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) enters the scene when Treasle unleashes hundreds of men on the forest in all out man hunt. Trautman created Rambo. He tells Treasle to give up. These men are no match for the war machine Trautman molded. Treasle doesn’t listen and brings some more hurt on himself and those around him. If there is any misstep in a film full of archetypes it is Trautman’s character. He is there to give Rambo a voice and grow the legend even while it plays out on the screen. His hyperbolic chatter becomes almost nauseating. We want to like Rambo but his commander almost gets in the way at certain points. The action overrules the chest thumping dialogue, even if the end provides a slightly over the top monologue. Still, after all the non-stop chasing, hunting, hand to hand combat, gun fire and explosions, a shift to the quiet moment expressing deep hurt is admirable even if it is a little heavy handed.

Watching a movie so long after the main character has been established as an icon for an era is often a recipe for disaster. First Blood surprised me. In the place of camp was pure, entertaining action. Rambo may go on and disappoint me in future films. I know the drill. I’ve seen the Rocky series. But I thoroughly enjoyed the first one, which makes me wonder why I waited so long to watch it.

 ★★★★½ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: Jeff, Who Lives at Home

I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone like Jeff (Jason Segel). A thirty years old, smoking pot, living in his mom’s basement, waiting for his destiny to come to him and magically control his life. I also didn’t expect to like Jeff, Who Lives at Home as much as I did.

Jeff finds great significance in the movie Signs. The M. Night Shyamalan film has deep meaning for the man who seems to have little purpose in life other than to mooch off mom and get high. He’s fascinated that the little girl in the film has a hard time drinking water and leaves full glasses all over the house. He marvels at how those very same glasses of water play a major role in saving the girl and her family’s lives. Jeff desperately wants to find his glasses of water in life.

Pat (Ed Helms), Jeff’s older brother, is not living at home. He’s married and in place of passively seeking his destiny he tries to make it happen in the form of purchasing a brand new Porsche Boxster against the consent of his wife, Linda (Judy Greer). While Linda has been saving for a home, Pat has been dreaming of living a life he can’t afford.

Jeff and Pat’s mom (Susan Sarandon) is a widow. She makes it clear to Jeff that she’d like for him to take even the simplest steps in becoming a productive member of society. For her birthday she sternly asks Jeff to get wood glue to fix a shudder in the house. She realizes this is not asking a lot, yet it is. She knows her son.

If there are any missteps it’s likely with the mom’s story line. She plays an important role, as she struggles with being alone, being a widow. The sadness and bitterness towards her own life carries over in her sons’ lives. All of them miss the same man who they all clearly loved very much. However, mom’s actions towards the end seemed forced to move the plot forward, as we never get to know her well enough to believe the path she chooses.

The passive pursuit of discovering his destiny leads Jeff off his mission to purchase wood glue and on a journey that leads to no shortage of comedic situations. Along the way, Jeff and Pat cross paths, where we discover the brothers do not like one another. No matter, Pat has more pressing concerns when his attempt to show off the power of the Porsche to Jeff backfires and, in a strange way, leads the brothers to find Pat’s wife potentially cheating on him. The pursuit for the truth has the brothers in a smashed up Boxster swerving through traffic trying to tail Linda and her mysterious male companion. Jeff plays the part of the Flinstone’s Dino, as he pops his head out of the sunroof so he can act as the human Google Maps. The comedic chase and awkward, yet funny, detective work by Jeff and Pat goes on until it meets a rather predictable conclusion. Yet that’s not the end. The small comedy turns into something more.

I was at first convinced Jeff, Who Lives at Home was going to be another vulgar and cynical comedy; one that treats its characters with disdain by putting them through painfully awkward situations, only to watch them dangle in despair until the bitter end where there is a weak attempt at redemption. And while it is vulgar at times, there is a genuine care for these characters, all of whom are easy to make rash judgments about. The story is more than just a setup for laughs, though there are plenty of those. Jeff’s obsession with his destiny may not jive with reality but it makes for a surprisingly compelling story with an emotional payoff.

 ★★★★½ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: Indie Game: The Movie

30+ years ago the tech startup out of a garage was made legendary thanks to two Steves – Jobs and Wozniak. Today’s version may be best summed up in indie video game developers. And while there is much to romanticize about the “two guys in a garage” mythology, Indie Game: The Movie does its fair share to pull back the curtain and reveal the sometimes mind wrecking journey such a creative venture can be.

There are two games in the making. One is Fez, whose development is led by Phil Fish. The other is Super Meat Boy, developed by the duo, Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes. The discussion about what an indie game is and the short history behind it provides context for those unaware. Within that, the developers provide their thoughts on what drew them into indie games, juxtaposing the massive studio efforts with those of the two men teams we observe. There is a naivety expressed about the pureness of indie game development; as if big budget game developers only want to make money while their indie counterparts eschew money for the sake of their art. The truth probably lies somewhere in-between those extremes.

The creation of software, even one as visual as video games, is not incredibly exciting. The mundane makes up 99.99% of the work. Some might argue I was a bit conservative with that percentage. Credit goes to the filmmakers, Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, for making the process come alive on the screen. Particularly interesting was watching how Fish meticulously designs every pixel of his art until it’s just right. McMillen provides a quick overview on basic video game design, with some relevant drawings and animations thrown in to make the topic come to life.

In between getting to know the developers and being flies on a wall as they press forward with their games, there are interesting takes on the process, industry, and much more from Jonathan Blow, creator of one of the first big indie hits, Braid. Blow provides a presence of “been there, done that” and puts into perspective some of the raw emotions we see on screen from the other guys as they slave away to deliver the goods. Blow’s calm, cool mannerisms on the screen are in sharp contrast to the near nervous breakdowns we see from Fish, McMillen and Refenes. In these moments of emotional exhaustion and panic the romantic picture of two guys triumphantly changing the world with their tech creation is exposed for what it is – myth.

In order to put into a fuller perspective indie game development, it would have been nice if there was at least one representative of those who’ve tried to make a go of it but didn’t succeed, or at least failed to meet expectations. Jonathan Blow provides great insight, but he cannot speak as one who took his shot going out on his own and failed. That is not to say that Indie Game romanticizes its topic as a result. But providing a look at failure and the insights learned from those who’ve failed would help put into better perspective what the creators of Fez and Super Meat Boy face.

Since the film captures development of the games in the process of being made, the suspense is hard to miss. Whether the stakes are as high as these guys think they are, the very real possibility of being crushed by legal action or a broken promise from a large corporation feels threatening as the story unfolds. The frazzled looks and the near breakdowns on screen only increase the tension. And while it may seem laughable when put in perspective, the confession by Fish that he’ll kill himself if he doesn’t finish Fez is completely believable after hearing how his personal life during the process is crumbling around him and he’s poured everything he has into the project.

The happy ending is not quite so happy. One story is left incomplete, simply because a documentary needs to decide at some point where its story ends. The sense of accomplishment in the other story, both by sales numbers and reaction from players, is countered with the inevitable let down from reaching the goal of an incredible journey never quite living up to the ever inflating expectations.

A beautifully shot film with a near perfect soundtrack, Indie Game: The Movie is a tribute to its subjects. The end result is a well told story that embraces the insanity of the creative process and captures the magic that comes about as a result of that endless tension that nearly breaks the games’ creators.

 ★★★★½ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: Let Me In

For those looking for an exciting horror film, Let Me In is almost sure to disappoint. It’s not that there aren’t moments of suspense or gore, but it is a much quieter film. Almost meditative in its telling of the story of a lonely boy who finds solace in a young female vampire.

Some have questioned the need for Let Me In when the Swedish original, Let the Right One In, was a fine film released only two years earlier. I enjoyed the original quite a bit. Both films tell the same story well but I found this US version a more well crafted film overall.

Strange things are going on in Los Alamos, New Mexico. People are getting murdered and the motives aren’t clear. Meanwhile, a twelve year-old boy, Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee), is struggling with a different kind of evil at school in the form of bullies who torment him in some viscous ways. There appears to be no justice in sight for Owen or the people of Los Alamos. Owen is left to fend for himself. His mother, who we see little of, is an almost Charlie Brown teacher like figure. She is there, we don’t see her much, we hear her some but nothing she says really registers.

Owen sits outside in the winter cold and fantasizes about one day getting revenge on his enemies. Much to his surprise, a new neighbor girl, Abby (Chloe Moretz) is sitting behind him, quietly observing Owen. She has no shoes on and doesn’t look the least bit cold. The two have an abrupt first exchange. Eventually they strike up a friendship. Owen observes that Abby is different but doesn’t seem to mind. He craves the attention and care. Along the way Abby gives Owen advice on how to best handle his adversaries at school – hit back harder. He flinches at first and gives reasons why this is easier said than done. Abby doesn’t budge and eventually Owen follows the advice. He strikes back at the main bully with a metal pole and slices the kid’s ear. Thus begins a journey down a dark path for Owen.

Smit-McPhee as Owen and Moretz as Abby do the heavy lifting in regards to the acting, never a small task for young performers. These two do an excellent job of making their individual characters believable and the relationship between the two even more so. They’re the center of attention and there is never a moment where it feels disingenuous or over played.

The killings in the town continue and we discover who is doing the killing. And we also know when a murder or something terrible is about to happen, as the soundtrack blatantly sends its cues without any nuance. It’s not unusual for horror or thrillers to use this technique to heighten suspense but it backfires in the case where it is overused.

Modern day vampire tales seem infatuated with romanticizing the idea of those who live forever off the blood of others but somehow remain good hearted loving beings who just need to find the right mate. Unfortunately, this take on vampires betrays the original lore. Let Me In returns to vampire lore of old and shows evil in all its different forms. The struggle for Owen isn’t so much about finding a friend in the midst of his pain but that of choosing good in the face of evil. One can’t help but feel this theme running throughout the film as it’s set in the 80′s and Ronald Reagan is heard from TVs playing in the background speaking about this very struggle. Whether the evil the former president speaks of was just that is irrelevant. The choices for Owen are cloudy at first but become painfully clear as he learns more about his so-called friend Abby. It is within this struggle that I found Let Me In to be fascinating. The film’s theme is much deeper than it would first appear.

Matt Reeves, the director, leaves a distinct fingerprint on his films. He directed Cloverfield, a movie I enjoyed quite a bit. The camera work there was that of found footage, shaky to the point of nausea inducing, here it is drastically different. Every shot is meticulous. There is heavy use of shooting through or around objects. Looking through a door’s peep hole. Owen spying on his neighbors with the camera taking Owen’s point of view through the telescope. The intense car scenes are made even more so by the shot selection. If Spielberg made a horror film I imagine it would look and feel a lot like Let Me In.

 ★★★★½ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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