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Monday, April 29, 2013

BREAKING DAWN -- movie review by porfle

(This review originally appeared at in 2006.)

Don't you hate it when a movie fools you into thinking it's really good by being really good -- most of the way through, anyway -- and then it suddenly tries to dazzle you with a twist ending that just leaves you sitting there thinking "Huh? What happened to my good movie?"

BREAKING DAWN (2004) is what might be called a "surprise letdown" movie, an offshoot of the "surprise ending" movie such as THE SIXTH SENSE or FIGHT CLUB, which had interesting twists that jazzed the story and caused everything that took place up till then to make a weird new kind of sense. But the twist at the end of BREAKING DAWN doesn't do that -- instead, it robs the story of the supernatural elements that made it interesting in the first place and shucks off all the questions it has raised with a simple feel-good cop-out.

The story is instantly compelling, as we see an eager young medical student named Eve (Kelly Overton of THE RING TWO) assigned the task of entering a forboding mental hospital to try and help a very disturbed patient named Don Wake (James Haven, who you may know better as the creepy Angelina Jolie's even creepier brother), who we've already seen being dragged kicking and screaming down a dimly-lit corridor by two attendants. The bloody demise of a young mother in her kitchen, seen in flashback at the beginning of the movie, seems to have been his doing although it was never proven conclusively. But this gaunt, cadaver-like scarecrow, who sits in wide-eyed catatonia when he isn't flipping out, seems capable of anything, and we fear for Eve's safety as she enters the room with him and closes the door.

This is a make-or-break final exam for Eve, who is told by her teacher, Professor Simon (TERMINATOR 2's Joe Morton), that "if you fail this, you will not become a doctor." Frustrated by her lack of progress with Don in the first few days, she sneaks into the hospital's computer and reduces the dosage of his medication. This is the sort of trick a young James T. Kirk might've pulled at Starfleet Academy, but here it seems like a bad idea. It does, however, make Don a bit more communicative. He begins to tell her things -- weird things -- about how "they" are watching, and that they're coming for him, and they'll be coming for her, too. He tells her of a little girl he once knew who was happy and full of life, but now she can't see the sun anymore because of something painful that happened to her. And he gravely tells her to beware of someone named Malachi. In a state of extreme agitation in which he must be restrained, he warns her, "Don't drink anything! Don't eat anything!" as she leaves, shaken.

Eve, of course, tries to pass this off as psychotic delusion until strange things begin to occur in her everyday life. She wakes up one night to find an old Chinese woman in her apartment who appears to be searching for something while uttering a cryptic phrase that Don had ominously spoken that day. She begins to hallucinate, seeing herself in the bathroom mirror with the same gaunt, rings-around-the-eyes expression as Don. Anything she eats or drinks suddenly makes her sick. Worst of all, she finds that she is being stalked by a dark, cloaked figure who looks like a cross between the killer in HOUSE OF WAX and the Wicked Witch of the West.

Frantically she presses Don for answers. He responds by grabbing her head with both hands and crying, "You have to feel it! You have to feel her pain!" Her mind is suddenly filled with images of a little girl running, and a young woman lying on the kitchen floor in a pool of blood. She does feel the little girl's pain. And she knows that whatever's happening isn't just an insane person's delusion, but something real and terrifying that is taking over her life and making her doubt her own sanity. As she nears the end of her mental rope she begs Don to help her. "Break me out of here," he tells her. "I can help you, but you'll have to break me out of here."

So far, so good, right? Up to this point, BREAKING DAWN is a very creepy, atmospheric movie, with plenty of well-timed shocks that'll have you jumping out of your chair and a succession of nightmarish images to give you the shivers. The mystery of what's going on in the mind of Don Wake and why Eve is so profoundly affected by it makes you want to know more. And the story thus far has been so dark and spooky that you just know it's going to lead to a really horrific, edge-of-your-seat finale. But then, just when you least expect it, comes the surprise letdown -- that is, the twist ending. Suddenly all the mysterious stuff you thought was so dark and compelling is swept away as though it never happened. You thought you were watching a horror movie? Nope, sorry. You've been watching a feelgood movie that ends with a sunny smile and a wistful theme song.

But until the last ten minutes or so, BREAKING DAWN is a terrific horror movie. Kelly Overton is consistently interesting to watch as Eve, and James Haven is the perfect Don Wake. First-timer Mark Edwin Robinson's script and direction could hardly be better, and Ken Glassing's cinematography perfectly captures the mood of the story. I would've considered it one of my favorite films of the past year or so if it had followed through to the end without wussing out. But just like 1935's MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, which was one of the best horror movies of the 30s until the "Scooby-Doo" ending, BREAKING DAWN left me not only disappointed, but stunned by how a movie this good could suddenly skid off the road and crash into a tree with the finish line in plain sight.

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Friday, April 26, 2013

PAWN -- Blu-Ray review by porfle

I guess DOG DAY AFTERNOON would be the king of all hostage crisis flicks that came before or since, at least to those who can't remember as far back as THE PETRIFIED FOREST and a pre-stardom Humphrey Bogart terrorizing a bunch of innocent people in a remote diner. Blazing its way into this often nail-biting genre comes an entry that isn't quite as good as those two classics but definitely holds its own--the riveting action drama PAWN (2013).

The story begins with weary cop Will (Forest Whitaker) entering a late-night diner for a cup of coffee and noticing that everyone in it is acting funny. We pretty much know what's going on even before we see Michael Chiklis as ruthless bad guy Derrick hiding under the counter with a sawed-off shotgun pointed at the very nervous Charlie (Stephen Lang, TOMBSTONE, MANHUNTER), who can barely pour that cup of coffee for the increasingly suspicious cop.

We know that all hell is going to break loose any second, which it does with a lot of gunfire, blood, and sheer panic. What we don't know is that what appears to be a simple interrupted robbery at first is actually just the tip of an iceberg that includes dirty cops covering their tracks, a mysterious crime boss passing himself off as a harmless hostage, trigger-happy thugs with a deadly agenda, and a safe containing the film's McGuffin--a hard-drive with some damning information that certain people will do anything to keep from being exposed.

I'm loathe to give away any more because most of the fun of watching PAWN is the constant stream of surprises. Just when you think you've figured out how it's going to go there's a neat plot twist that puts a new spin on everything, or the sudden death of a major character whom we assumed would be around for most of the movie. The introduction of a police negotiator played by rapper Common has us expecting the usual hostage exchange demands and whatnot, but even that (overly) familiar situation soon flies apart in a hail of gunfire as a series of skillfully cross-edited storylines keep the suspense steadily increasing.

Directed by cinematographer David A. Armstrong (the SAW series, SAM'S LAKE), the film boasts good old-fashioned solid camerawork rather than a bunch of shaky-cam and confetti editing to make it visually interesting. Likewise, the cast is outstanding with burly Chiklis a terrific, violence-prone villian brimming with sarcastic one-liners in an accent that sounds like he stole it from Jason Statham at gunpoint. There's the always-great Forest Whitaker and Stephen Lang (the latter now gracefully entering geezerdom) and, as the scary "Man in a Suit" whose motives are unclear yet definitely not good, there's Ray Liotta back in queasy-creepy mode where he belongs.

The heart of the story involves the character of Nick (Sean Faris of FREERUNNER and GHOST MACHINE), just released from prison that day and now caught up in the hostage crisis with the cops thinking he's behind it all. Nikki Reed plays his pregnant wife Amanda, who is kidnapped and threatened by Liotta's character. (Interestingly, Reed and Whitaker recently appeared together in yet another hostage-crisis-in-diner thriller, CATCH .44.) Faris makes a good, believable hero and his final confrontation with Chiklis gives the film a satisfactory payoff which--along with some really cool closing credits--makes up for a rather bland ending.

The Blu-Ray/DVD combo from Anchor Bay is in 2.40:1 widescreen with Dolby 5.1 sound and subtitles in English and Spanish. The bonus feature is a making-of short, "Pawn: Behind the Scenes."

PAWN starts out with an instantly tense, suspenseful situation and just keeps getting better and better. It may not be the best movie of its kind you ever saw, but it definitely knows how to entertain.

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Blu-Ray/DVD combo



Wednesday, April 24, 2013

BELLA -- movie review by porfle

(This review originally appeared online at in 2008.)

Director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde's BELLA (2006) is a heartfelt but slow-moving character drama in which a woman torn by a difficult choice (uh-oh, sounds like I'm writing a tagline here) is given counseling and emotional support by a man trying to make up for past mistakes.

Jose (Eduardo Verástegui) was an up-and-coming soccer star until he accidentally ran over a little girl and spent four years in prison. Now he's the head chef at his adopted brother Manny's swanky Mexican restaurant in Manhattan. His co-worker Nina (Tammy Blanchard) just found out she's pregnant and is considering an abortion because she's "not ready." When Manny fires her for being habitually late, Jose abandons his post and spends the day with her, giving her moral support and trying to persuade her to have the baby and put it up for adoption.

They have dinner with Jose's parents and brother Eduardo (Ramon Rodriguez), who's there with his new fiancee. The close, familial wonderfulness of it all gives Nina second thoughts about having an abortion, although she still doesn't think she can handle motherhood at the moment.

Overall, I found the film to be thoughtful, yet languid and not particularly involving. Following Jose and Nina around as they talk, do stuff, have gently meaningful conversations, and give us a cook's tour of NYC made me feel restless after awhile. The family sequence is pleasant but somewhat indulgent and a little too perfect. The best part is probably when Jose tells Nina the whole story of his tragic accident.

Verástegui portrays Jose as a nice, conscientious guy who's making the best of what life has dumped on him while suffering lingering guilt over the death of the little girl. Blanchard gives Nina a kind of gawky likability, although she's a bit too ingratiating for me. I kept hearing director Monteverde in my head saying, "Don't ya just love 'er?"

As Jose's parents, Angélica Aragón and Jaime Tirelli are the usual wise, warm, earthy ethnic mom and pop that Caucasian characters often find exotic and irresistible. My favorite is Manny Perez as the manic Manny (alliterative, ain't it?). I liked him as "Antwan" in ROCKAWAY and he's funny here, all frantic and emotional as he tries to hold his restaurant together.

If the IMDb forums are any indication, BELLA is a source of contention between the pro-life and pro-choice crowds. However, people from both sides claim that the film espouses their viewpoint. I didn't pick up any overtly preachy vibe myself, although the choice Nina eventually makes is implied to be the right one.

The way it's revealed to us at the end is kind of strange--I wasn't sure I'd understood it at first. It left me feeling naggingly unsure about Nina's character, and while I approved of her choice, her handling of it makes her seem more flaky and irresponsible than I'd originally thought. For me, this turned what should've been a tear-jerker ending into more of a head-scratcher.

BELLA is an okay movie--great, in fact, if you go by all the film festival praise it's gotten--but it just didn't do much for me. After replaying the first scene, which shows a lone Jose sitting on the beach wistfully watching children at play, it occurred to me that the whole story might be more effective if I simply thought of it as the guilt-ridden Jose's wish-fulfillment daydream.

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