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.

[xrr rating=4.5/5 label=” “]

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

[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5BvQSgr-DPU[/youtube]

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.

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[xrr rating=4.5/5 label=” “]

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

[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjptQSfuTy8[/youtube]

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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.

[xrr rating=4.5/5 label=” “]

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

[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrDf6Ih8kHw[/youtube]

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.

[xrr rating=4.5/5 label=” “]

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

[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhaT78i1x2M[/youtube]

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.

[xrr rating=4.5/5 label=” “]

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

[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=reRRAEVHq8E[/youtube]

Way late review: Margin Call

September 2008. Feels like it’s been about ten years since then yet it’s only been a little over three years. Margin Call does its best to capture a 24-hour period at a fictitious investment bank during that dark economic reality.

From the start the tone is ominous. The soundtrack is dark and menacing. An army of HR consultants marches through the floor of the investment bank. The worker bees are alarmed and rightfully so. More than half of them are going home without jobs to return to tomorrow. One of those hit by the layoff is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a risk analyst who was close to breaking open what we now know was one of the horrible truths behind the financial crisis. Investment banks were leveraged beyond reason but that was OK because the math added up – until it didn’t. As Dale leaves the building with an escort, he hands over a thumb drive to his co-worker, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto). Dale tells Peter to “be careful”. Peter digs into the numbers and starts plugging away. He cracks the code and stares at numbers that show his employer soon losing more money than the firm is worth. the matter is quickly escalated up the food chain. The moments are intense, as the soundtrack never lightens the mood and every character realizes what is at stake, not just for them personally or even as a bank but for the entire US economy, if not world economy.

The cast is stacked. As The Company Men taught me, you can still make a miserable movie with top notch talent. Margin Call doesn’t disappoint. Everyone is on top of their game and no one hams it up, not even Kevin Spacey who plays a sales manager. In fact, this may be one of Kevin Spacey’s best performances in years. Instead of playing the smarmy know-it-all boss, Spacey takes on a multi-dimensional character.

The film is dialogue heavy, not quite at Glengarry Glenn Ross levels though. There are moments where points are being made through conversations between two characters, but never so much so that it feels forced. Writer and director, J.C. Chandor, does a good job of mixing up the scenery, which is a big challenge in a film that revolves around a 24-hour period of time and in a single location. He gives his characters reasons to move beyond the office building and makes good use of that variety.

The tone never changes throughout, for better or worse. It’s a slow burn of a film. Certain characters seem to grow the 24 hour time span while others start a new path in their life that is likely to be filled with regret. The ending is as sad and poignant as one can imagine without resorting to cheap plot twists. Margin Call serves as an admirable tale for our times.

[xrr rating=4.5/5 label=” “]

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

[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTfUENx6uRs[/youtube]

Way late review: Rocky Balboa

It only took about 16 years for Hollywood execs to burn Rocky V from their memories in order to allow Sylvester Stallone one last Rocky film – Rocky Balboa. Unfortunately for Stallone this meant he was just about 60 years old. As if making one last Rocky film wasn’t hard enough.

The boxing world has changed since our favorite underdog champion left the ring. Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver) is destroying the competition. In fact, he’s destroying it with too much efficiency. Boxing fans and critics alike don’t think highly of Dixon. His attitude is beyond arrogant. There are claims that the young champ only enters fights he knows he can win. Everyone questions Dixon’s heart. No one seems to question his physical abilities.

Enter Rocky. Long retired from boxing we learn that he’s lost Adrian to cancer a few years earlier. Balboa is crushed by this loss but carries on with his life. He runs a restaurant named after his late wife. He also attempts to keep a relationship with his son, Robert (Milo Ventimiglia), who has grown up, has a job where he wears a suit to work everyday and resents being in his dad’s shadow. And, of course, Paulie (Burt Young) is still around with his cigars, drinking and sour yet somehow always entertaining attitude.

On the anniversary of Adrian’s death, Rocky stumbles into the old bar he would hang out at. There he meets Marie, or “Little Marie” as Rocky knew her in the first film. Little Marie was the young girl Rocky walked home in the first movie and was left at the girl’s doorstep with a “Screw you Creep-o!” Marie bar tends and Rocky strikes up a friendship with her. He becomes a father figure of sorts for her son, “Steps”. In previous films, Stallone would have used these new characters as plot devices. Instead of plot devices we get a feel for the genuine friendship Marie, her son and Rocky develop. And it’s clear that Rocky longs for friendship as he misses the love of his life and struggles to maintain a relationship with his only child.

In the midst of all this day-to-day getting on with life, there is an interest by the media in comparing Mason Dixon to boxers of the past. ESPN runs a special where boxing experts discuss how they think an in-prime Rocky would do against the current heavyweight champ. The verdict is deafening to Dixon. All but one expert feels that Rocky would win the bout. To make matters worse, a computer simulation of the fight shows Rocky crushing Dixon. This causes Dixon to seek advice from his old trainer, who was pushed out by Dixon’s entourage once Dixon became successful. It’s in this moment that we see a softer side of Dixon, which is maybe the only problem I had with the film. We see this humbled young man go to his mentor and seek honest advice. Dixon is almost too likeable in this scene, which makes his transformation back to the egotistical punk he becomes later hard to process.

All this talk of boxing and the glory days of boxing has Rocky itching to get back in the ring. Nothing big, just some local fights. The board doesn’t want to approve Rocky for readmission even though the former champ has cleared all the medical tests. After a passionate speech by Balboa the board concedes. It doesn’t take long for Dixon’s promoters to pick up on this news. They’re after a Rocky Balboa vs. Mason Dixon fight in Vegas. They convince both fighters it’s a good idea and the date for an exhibition in Vegas is set.

In probably one of the more emotionally honest moments since the original, Robert and Rocky have it out. All that pent up frustration from both of them in regards to their relationship (or lack thereof) is fair game, including a defiant Rocky pleading with his son to stop making excuses for why his life is the way it is. The message sinks in for Robert and he finds himself supporting his dad in training for the big fight.

Yes, there is the typical training montage. And then the fight is on. The current champ can’t stop talking trash. The cinematography of the fight scenes has never been better. It’s all believable even when taking into consideration Stallone’s age. The ending is satisfying. It’s a sweet farewell to a character we’ve seen battle both in and out of the ring over thirty years.

Somehow Stallone managed to pull off the biggest Rocky upset of all by making Rocky Balboa a very good movie. In fact, I would argue it is second only to the original. An amazing feat.

[xrr rating=4.5/5 label=” “]

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

[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9RcbcsMck1s[/youtube]

Way late review: Moneyball

Baseball, America’s past time. That is not what the movie Moneyball (based on the best selling book of the same name by one of my favorite authors, Michael Lewis) is about. Nor is it about sabermetrics, the analysis of baseball metrics that overcomes the subjective with the objective. True, baseball and sabermetrics are key to the story of Moneyball but at the heart is Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt). The struggle of a once can’t miss pro baseball prospect to make sense of the game he was supposed to have dominated in his playing days.

The Oakland A’s lose to the New York Yankees in the 2001 postseason. Worse, they are set to lose at least three big name players to free agency. Beane pleads with the team’s owner owner to up the budget. The A’s are a small market team. They do not have the luxury of $100M+ per year to spend on players. They have less, far less. Try under $40M. In what is a great scene, Beane meets with his staff. They’re analyzing their options, desperately seeking replacements for their star players. The talk is so subjective it’s funny. Comments on potential candidates range from speculation about what makes so-and-so a good player on the field to the status of that player’s love life and what it says about his ability to win. The look on the general manager’s face turns from subtle frustration to total disbelief. He points out that there is no point in trying to beat the Yankees, Red Sox, and other big market teams at their game. The A’s can’t compete. They don’t have the budget. Plain and simple. This leaves Beane’s staff flummoxed. Beane is no better off.

Beane meets with the Cleveland Indians. After a peculiar meeting discussing trades, he sets his sights on Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a recent Yale graduate and lowly worker bee for Cleveland. Brand doesn’t so much care about baseball as he does about the metrics he believes everyone else is missing that could change the way major league baseball teams are assembled. The Oakland A’s general manager takes Brand away from the Indians after he calls the economist major and asks if Brand would have drafted Beane as a high school prospect. Brand stumbles around until Beane drags it out of him – Brand wouldn’t have drafted Beane in the first round and definitely wouldn’t have given him a signing bonus. Brand would’ve taken the well hyped prospect in the ninth round. This seems to convince Beane that the young economist graduate is onto something, which is telling. Throughout Moneyball we’re shown flashbacks to a young up-and-coming Billy Beane who all the pro scouts love. He can’t seem to reconcile how badly those scouts missed on him (and so many other prospects over the years) and how he isn’t going to fall into the exact same trap. He places his hope in Brand’s controversial allegiance to the Bill James invented sabermetrics. Turns out James’ ideas were not highly respected within mainstream baseball and Moneyball goes on to show how unconventional those ideas could be when implemented in real life by the Oakland A’s.

While Billy Beane is a calm figure in all situations we sense that he’s only moments away from self-imploding. He can’t watch an A’s game, not even on TV. He struggles to tune the game in on the radio. He’s aloof with his players, never getting close as to avoid the awkwardness that arises when moves need to be made. Never mind the fact that Beane was once a player and could probably relate better than most in the front office with the players. Even in his personal life we see Beane as appearing calm but never comfortable. In one scene he sits and waits for his daughter in his ex-wife’s home. The ex-wife and her new husband try to strike up some small talk. It’s awkward and clear that Beane is doing his best to hold back his true feelings in that moment. He plays a passive aggressive game with his ex and her husband when he learns that his 12-year old daughter now has a cell phone.

There is a point in the film where the GM goes “all in” with his plan. The drama is not so much on the field as the A’s struggle early in the season and many call into question management’s wisdom in replacing star players with has-beens and no names. The real drama is that of Billy Beane and his struggle to reconcile the contrasts of his days as a golden prospect who turned out to be a bust, his new role as baseball’s contrarian general manager, and his superstition (never attending games for fear he brings bad luck). Brad Pitt’s performance is so finely nuanced that it’s easy to forget we’re watching one of the biggest names in Hollywood perform.

If there is anything bringing Moneyball down it is the second act where the Oakland A’s turn things around. That act drags on a bit too long, bringing too much focus to the on the field play which is not a strength of the movie. There are some special moments and scenes as we watch the team start to put it all together and go on a historic win streak but the overall length detracts.

Watching Billy Beane struggle, even after he experiences a wild amount of success, makes Moneyball a special film. Most would have had the Oakland A’s GM triumphantly proclaiming his loyalty for his team and ended it in a great David vs. Goliath story. Instead we get Billy Beane the always appearing calm figure who is never quite sure what to make of this game of baseball. Even in success he is unsure. His final decision to stick with the underdog feels like it’s filled with doubt. As if Beane’s decision to stick with the A’s or go with the incredible offer from the Red Sox is lose-lose. To Billy Beane, there is no sure thing. The obvious first appeal of anything cannot be trusted.

[xrr rating=4.5/5 label=” “]

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

[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AiAHlZVgXjk[/youtube]

Way late review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Wait, I thought Tim Burton killed the Ape franchise with his 2001 rendition of the classic. He didn’t succeed. I’m thankful he didn’t because Rise of the Planet of the Apes is close to a perfect sci-fi action flick.

Rather than focus on the human protaganist, Rise takes a fresh approach by making the genetically enhanced, lab born ape, Caesar (Andy Serkis) the center of attention. Will Rodman (James Franco) is a genetic scientist desperately searching for a cure to Alzheimer’s disease. His search is personal, as Will’s dad, Charles (John Lithgow), suffers from the disease. Right away we learn that Will is on to something, as an ape known as “Green Eyes” shows greatly improved intelligence as a result of the proposed cure, ALZ-112. Things turn sour as Green Eyes goes crazy, wrecks havoc on the lab and is shot. The other apes are put down as the company fears ALZ-112 is deeply flawed. Unbeknownst to Will and his co-workers, Green Eyes flipped out trying to protect her newborn. Rather than put the chimp down, Will sneaks him home.

Will quickly learns that Caesar is not an ordinary chimp. Caesar shows signs of incredible intelligence. This leads Will to eventually give his dad ALZ-112 he smuggles from the company. Charles returns to his normal self while Caesar continues to exhibit extraordinary acumen. As years pass Caesar desires to get out of the house, to enjoy life like the children he observes from his attic window. Will takes Caesar to the Redwoods but Caesar soon realizes that he is treated more like a pet than a human. Will breaks down and shows Caesar the building where Caesar was born and his mom died. This moment ultimately leads to Caesar’s descent. He realizes he’s not human yet he’s not just an ape.

Meanwhile, Will notices that his dad’s disease is back with a vengeance. It’s so bad that Charles goes outside one morning, hops in a neighbors running car, and proceeds to smash it into the cars parked in the front and back. The neighbor comes out and freaks out. He yells and gets in Charles’ face. Caesar observes this from the attic window and takes action. This is Caesar’s ticket to the ape sanctuary where Will promises Caesar he’ll be back home soon.

It’s at this point in the film that the ape sanctuary turns into a prison film. Caesar is the new kid on the block. He’s never been around other apes. He doesn’t completely understand apes who are not intelligent like he is. The lessons for him are rough. Caesar is homesick and more confused than ever. The fact that all of this is completely believable with computer animated apes is astonishing. After hearing and reading interviews with cast and production crew members, I’m convinced now more than ever that Andy Serkis should be nominated for a best actor award. His performance mixed with the technology take this movie to new heights.

The ape sanctuary has some of my favorite moments in the film and one of its worst. If Rise is guilty of anything it’s of some over the top archetypes. The most obvious example is Tom Felton playing one of the sanctuary workers. Felton’s performance is so absurd that by the time he utters a famous line from the original movie I simply rolled my eyes. It was completely expected, as Felton proved he was nothing more than the sinister prison guard.

The movie zooms past at an exhilarating speed. There is no time for exposition. The storytelling is precise. Every small moment has a purpose. For example, Caesar draws the attic window on the wall of his cell at the sanctuary only to erase it once he decides he’s going to lead an ape rebellion. Charles’ struggle to play a piano song prior to ALZ-112 and then gracefully playing a composition afterwards. The use of green eyes to show that an ape has been exposed to the cure. All these are small ways that tell the story rather than spend precious time better spent elsewhere.

While Caesar works overtime to put together his plans, Will works overtime to find a new cure for Alzheimer’s and convinces his boss that it’s time to reopen the project. The boss buys in once he learns that Will’s dad showed great improvements for a period of time and Caesar showed increased intelligence. The prospects of a drug that makes you smarter is too much to resist. Will’s boss wants research on apes to return and to go full throttle.

Eventually the big pay off happens. Some of the best action sequences I’ve seen in a long time take place. Awesome action set pieces. One brilliant call back to the original movie. So much good action in the end that we forget that we’re rooting for the end of mankind as we know it.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes may not get a lot of love on people’s top films of 2011 but it should. It’s one of those rare sci-fi action films that is so well paced and executed that you forget the challenge it overcame, following a long line of predecessors, many of which weren’t all that good and some that were simply awful.

[xrr rating=4.5/5 label=” “]

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

[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EbCoDf44oCE[/youtube]

Way late review: Hanna

Hanna is part Bourne, part modern day fairy tale. It is more interested in sights, sounds, and odd characters than intricate plot development. The narrative holds together just as long as you don’t spend too much time thinking about the details.

Straight from the movie synopsis: Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is a teenager raised and trained by her father (Eric Bana), an ex-CIA operative, to become a highly skilled assassin. But when she’s sent on a deadly mission across Europe, Hanna takes to an English family and starts longing for a normal life.

The fairy tale elements of Hanna are important, as we have characters on the screen who make no sense otherwise. Take Cate Blanchett playing the role of the wicked witch…errr…Marissa, a CIA official. Then there is Marissa’s chosen henchman, Isaacs (Tom Hollander), sporting a 70’s track suit, slick backed blond hair and playing the part of the wolf. Isaacs even yells out from his car, “Run little piggy!” as he hunts down Hanna’s father. The final act of the movie is set in a run down Brothers Grimm theme park. If the veiled hints and references to a fairy tale were missed before, it’s hard to ignore by the last scenes of the movie.

Unlike modern day fairy tales told in cute animated flicks, Hanna never loses its grit or grasp of reality. Even while the Chemical Brothers soundtrack pumps noisy electronic tunes and the cinematography flashes (literally at times) with colorful action set pieces. The actors never break out of their character, which keeps the near perfect tone throughout. Those who need to be over the top (Blanchett and Hollander) are and those who need to be less so are just that (Ronan and Bana). There is never a sense of anyone ironically winking at the camera. The action is real and so are the stakes, even when the characters do seem straight out of the pages of children’s tales written long ago.

Hanna was entertaining throughout, avoiding the temptation to add unwieldy plot twists and characters (I’m looking at you Harry Potter). The tone of the film hit me just right. The experimentation within the action genre was a great success. While not a fan of sequels in general, I wouldn’t mind seeing Hanna 2.

[xrr rating=4.5/5 label=””]

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

[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ugireeCoYyU&hd=1&t=7s[/youtube]