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THE MATRIX (1999) (****)

What else can one say about the film besides that it's the best action/sci-fi film that has come out in ages. It's smart and a lot of fun at the same time. The Wachowski Brothers, who first made the highly stylish and highly recommended crime thriller BOUND, brought an anime aesthetic to live-action for this film. The bullet time effect has become a landmark in visual effects history, but it's how the visuals are used in service of the story that truly makes this film awesome.

The film follows Neo (Keanu Reeves, SPEED) as he stumbles upon a band of rebels led by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne, WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?) and discovers that the world he lives in is not what it seems. Morpheus believes that Neo is the Chosen One, a prophesized leader whose superhuman skills will free all humans from the oppression of the mysterious Matrix and their powerful agents, lead by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving, THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING). Neo doesn't believe he's special and Morpheus's crew is divided. Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss, MEMENTO), Morpheus's second in command, wants to believe with her whole heart, while Cypher (Joe Pantoliano, BOUND) is tired of the rough life of a rebel and has lost faith.

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IN COLD BLOOD (1967) (****)

Based on the Truman Capote novel of the same name, the story follows the flight and eventual capture of Perry Smith (Robert Blake, LOST HIGHWAY, TV's BERRETA, and most recently the front cover of major tabloids for be charged with the murder of his wife) and Dick Hickcock (Scott Wilson, PEARL HARBOR, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT) after they slaughter the Clutter family.

Perry is the dreamer of the two killers. He wants to be a Country Western star and dreams of discovering buried treasure. However when it comes to the crime, the reality of the situation seems to wake him out of his often-childlike daze. Hickock is the mastermind behind the crime; the only problem is that he's not very bright. He plans the robbery on a tip he heard in prison and seems to decided on murder as just a matter of fact detail of the crime.

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HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1990) (****)

Here’s another amazing film that presents apprehensible behavior and let’s the audience think about what they are watching. This is a horror film on the level of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. With layered characters and deep themes, this is far more than just another splatter fest.

The film follows real life killer Henry Lee Lucas (Michael Rooker, MALLRATS, CLIFFHANGER), his sidekick-in-crime Otis (Tom Towles, THE ROCK) and Otis' younger sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold). The film depicts Henry as a cold-hearted killer, who commits his murders out of sexual frustration, which was spurred on by a troubled childhood. As the plot unravels, Otis joins in on the murders. Though, Lucas is a killer, he reveals his softer side to Becky, who begins to fall for a guy who would clearly be classified as another "wrong guy" in a life full of wrong guys.

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HAPPINESS (1998) (****)

Your life will be changed after watching this film. You will think about movies and people in a different way after seeing this film because you have never seen any film like it before. This isn’t a movie for everyone I suppose, but for those willing to challenge their way of thinking this film is a must.

The story follows three New Jersey sisters Joy (Jane Adams, MUMFORD), Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle, TV’s PRACTICE, MEN IN BLACK II) and Trish (HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS). Joy is a hippie/ wanna-be-singer/ slacker, who doesn't have much luck with relationships even when she is the one breaking up with someone, as we see when she breaks the heart of the fat man named Andy (Jon Lovitz, CITY SLICKERS II). Her sisters worry about her after she quits her job “to make a difference” as a strikebreaker at the local adult education center. This new job leads to her getting involved in a dangerous relationship with a Russian thief named Vlad (Jared Harris, Richard Harris’ son, MR. DEEDS).

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MEN IN BLACK (1997) (***1/2)

Fun is the best way to describe this film. Forget all of the fancy visual effects and modern dialog, because this one owes a great deal to classic action comedies where the key to the film's success was the relationship between the central buddies. Tommy Lee Jones's Agent K and Will Smith's Agent J are among the best screen buddies of recent years.

The story follows the secret government agency called the Men in Black, which protects space aliens living on Earth and keeps the knowledge of their existence from the general population. James Edwards (Will Smith, ALI, INDEPENDENCE DAY) is recruited to join the agency, but the ultra serious Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones, THE FUGITIVE, BLUE SKY) doesn't think the brash rookie has what it takes. The plot follows Agent K and the newly named Agent J as they attempt to stop a killer alien bug, which disguises itself as a farmer named Edgar (Vincent D'Onofrio, ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING), from destroying a galaxy, which would lead to the destruction of Earth.

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THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001) (****)

This is the third film from Wes Anderson (BOTTLE ROCKET, RUSHMORE) and he doesn’t disappoint with yet another comedy classic. Anderson creates an eccentric cast of characters brought to life from an amazing cast. Every aspect of the production from the sets to the costumes serves the quirky material well. The story centers around Gene Hackman's brilliant performance as the patriarch of a dysfunctional family of his own making.

The film follows the attempts of Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman, HOOISERS) to reconcile with his family after he gets thrown out of his apartment. His wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston, ADDAMS FAMILY, GRIFTERS) wants to finally get a divorce so she can marry her accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover, LETHAL WEAPON), but Royal doesn’t like the idea. Their three kids were all geniuses when they were young, but have faded since then.

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AMELIE (2001) (****)

This is one of the most uplifting films I have seen in ages. A blissful feeling washed over me while watching it unfold. For two hours, the world didn't seem so cruel. People have problems in the film, but they become infected with the joy of living and that's what the film does to its audience.

The story follows a shy, quirky French girl named Amelie (Audrey Tautou), who decides her new goal in life is to do things to make people's lives better. She had a strange childhood marked with tragedy, but instead of becoming bitter, she develops a rich fantasy world in her mind. Her father Raphael (Rufus, THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN) sinks into a closed off world, living in his garden. Not that the doctor was engaging before the death of his wife, he would only touch his daughter when giving her an example, upon which her heart would race, leading him to believe she had a heart condition. Throughout the course of the film, she brings together people who hate each other, raises hopes with lies and love letters, sends a garden gnome around the world and even seeks an elaborate comeuppance on a mean shopkeeper. See the whimsy yet?

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CLERKS (1994) (****)

The film that launched the career of Kevin Smith (DOGMA, JAY & SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK, CHASING AMY) is one of the funniest films that I've ever seen. Filmed in only a few locations in New Jersey on black & white film, this no-budget comedy quickly became the most profitable film of all time at the time of its release. Compared to its budget of $27,000, its earnings of $3.15 million in theaters were enormous. Smith made the film by maxing out his credit cards. Part of the indie craze that ignited in the early 1990s, CLERKS showed that talent is more valuable than budget.

The flick follows the wacky events during one business day in a small town convenience store. Dante (Brian O'Halloran, MALLRATS) is called in on his day off, which starts his day off badly and it only gets more frustrating from there. He's wrestling with his indecision on whether to stay with his current girlfriend Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti, DIG) or get back together with his old high school flame Caitlin (Lisa Spoonhauer). His best friend Randal (Jeff Anderson), who works at the video store next door, doesn't have any useful advice. He's more interested in debating the morality of blowing up the Death Star because you kill all the innocent contract employees in the process.

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THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957) (****)

What can you say about this movie besides — classic. If you haven't seen it, you should be ashamed of yourself. It's action-packed, dramatic and funny all at the same time. It uncovers the British, Japanese and American point of view during WWII all in the same film. And David Lean's (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, DR. ZHIVAGO) Oscar-winning direction is near perfect.

The story follows the building and then attempted destruction of a bridge in India, which the Japanese want to use as a main means of transport. Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa, SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON) is in charge of a prisoner camp, whose prisoners will construct the bridge. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness, STAR WARS, LADYKILLERS), a British officer, and his men are captured and brought to Saito's camp. Already at the camp is American soldier Shears (William Holden SUNSET BLVD., WILD BUNCH), who has a lot of secrets.

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DIRTY DANCING (1987) (***1/2)

Here's a classic that's considered one for good and bad reasons. Yeah the film is cheesy at times, but that's part of its charm. Come on, how many times have you said, "No one puts Baby in a corner?"

The story follows Baby Houseman (Jennifer Grey, FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF, BOUNCE) as she develops a heated romance with the summer resort's dance instructor, Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze, ROAD HOUSE, GHOST). Come on Johnny Castle -- why not just call him Rod Brickhouse? When Johnny's partner Penny (Cynthia Rhodes, FLASHDANCE) gets hurt, Baby volunteers to fill in. So Johnny has to teach her how to dance. Baby's father Jake (Jerry Orbach, CRIMES & MISDEMEANORS) doesn't approve of hanging out with the help though. He's far more pleased with Lisa (Jane Brucker), his other ditsy daughter, and her choice of boys, Robbie Gould (Max Cantor), a medical student.

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TWIN FALLS IDAHO (1999) (****)

The first time I saw this film — it made me want to rush out and make a movie. Not very many new films affect me in that way. This film became an art house hit in 1999 and won awards at the Sundance Film Festival. It's a remarkable film debut from Michael Polish, who also stars in this melancholy character study.

The story follows conjoined twins, Blake and Francis Falls (Mark and Michael Polish respectively). Blake is the stronger of the two and his heart is what keeps the sick Francis alive. Because Francis is on the brink of death, the brothers check themselves into a seedy hotel and hire themselves a hooker named Penny (Michele Hicks, former model, MULHOLLAND DRIVE). Penny is a prostitute out of desperation. She is initially scared of the twins, but after having to return to their room for her purse, she starts feeling sympathy for them. Noticing that Francis is sick, she calls on a client/doctor named Miles (Patrick Bauchau, CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER), who reveals that Francis' heart is failing. Have the Falls brothers checked into the Idaho Hotel to die?

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LEGEND: THE DIRECTOR'S CUT (1985) (***1/2)

The director's cut of Ridley Scott's (BLACK HAWK DOWN, BLADE RUNNER GLADIATOR) cult classic breathes new life into the film. The longer version benefits from a better narrative flow. The motivations of the characters are clearer and the entire story takes on a more mythic quality.

The story is a classic fairy tale where the Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry, ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW) kills the last of the unicorns so that the world will fall into darkness forever. A young forest boy (Tom Cruise) has to save the princess (Mia Sara, FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF) as well as the last unicorn.

Some director's cuts make the film leaps and bounds better, but this one just clarifies the story. The studio monkeyed with the film a lot at the time of release -- insisting that it be cut down and that a pop band do the soundtrack. Most of the added footage makes adds more life to the story. However, some of the scenes could have stayed the way they were -- especially the first scene with the unicorn as well as the ending. If you watch the making of documentaries Scott feels the classical Jerry Goldsmith score creates a more epic feel for the production, however the new wave Tangerine Dream soundtrack sounded more fairy tale-like. In my opinion they could have kept the pop soundtrack (except for the last very cheesy song).

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I AM SAM (2001) (**)

There are films that people think are good that are so average that they infuriate me even more -- this is one of those films. They anger me like TV psychics anger me. They manipulate people's feelings. They pretend to be about something, but know nothing about the subject they speak about. They are frauds.

This story follows Sam (Sean Penn, DEAD MAN WALKING), a mentally challenged man who fathers a daughter named Lucy (Dakota Fanning, FATHER XMAS). Sam gets help with taking care of her from eccentric hermit Annie Cassell (Diane Wiest, LOST BOYS). Then the evil, uncaring child services come and want to take the child away. In comes big-ticket Beverly Hills lawyer Rita Harrison Williams (Michelle Pfeiffer, WITCHES OF EASTWICK), who finds Sam the perfect case to do pro bono and prove that she isn't a bloodsucking lawyer. For a time Lucy is placed with foster mother Randy Carpenter (Laura Dern, JURASSIC PARK), who seems good for the child, but is portrayed as an insensitive snob.

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MONSTER'S BALL (2001) (***1/2)

What a powerful film this is. The story is gritty, painful, honest and unflinching. The characters feel like they came from a novel. The performances from Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry are great — Berry's Oscar is well deserved.

The story follows the tragic events in the lives of Hank Grotowski (Thornton) and Leticia Musgrove (Berry), which lead up to them forming a relationship that transcends their pasts because all they really need is someone to comfort them. I simply love the way the film builds their relationship. Nothing is forced, even though their coming together means they must cross huge huddles. Hank is a cop who works death row. Leticia is the wife of Lawrence Musgrove (rapper P Diddy), a man on Death Row where Hank works with his son Sonny (Heath Ledger, 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU). A lesser film would be centered on the fact that Hank keeps his connection with Leticia's husband from her, but this film is more real about it.

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OCEAN'S ELEVEN (2001) (***)

This flick is the last of the major heist flicks, which included HEIST, SEXY BEAST and THE SCORE, which came out last year that I hadn't seen yet. It's more fun than THE SCORE, but not nearly as good as HEIST or SEXY BEAST.

The story follows Danny Ocean (George Clooney) who sets up a hit on three casinos almost a few seconds after he steps out of prison. Ocean's crew of 11 crooks is littered with quirky characters who swing for the fences with fun characterizations. Julia Roberts plays Ocean's ex-wife, Tess, who we find out is married to Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), the man who owns the casinos Ocean is planning to hit. The scene where Ocean meets his ex in the restaurant contains some of the best dialogue that I've heard in a long time. It reminded me of the cool lines in many of the 1930s screwball comedies and film noirs.

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ROSE RED (2002) (***1/2)

If you didn't catch this TV mini-series when it was on TV, you need to catch this on video. Written by Stephen King, this mini-series is one of the better King horror adaptations in quite some time. The longer format allows enough time to build real tension and develop a great myth surrounding the central haunted house.

The story follows a group of psychics who are brought together by psychiatrist Dr. Joyce Reardon (Nancy Reardon, CHAPLIN) to awaken a long dormant haunted house called Rose Red. Steven Rimbauer (Matt Keeslar, WAITING FOR GUFFMAN) is a telepath who is the owner of the house, a descendent of Ellen Rimbauer (Julia Campbell, 2000's BOUNCE), the original cursed owner of the house where she lived with her abusive oil tycoon husband John (John Procaccino) and African maid Sukeena (Tsidii Leloka), who may all still be haunting the large estate.

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SPIDER-MAN (2002) (***1/2)

This flick ranks up there with SUPERMAN, Tim Burton's BATMAN and X-MEN as one of the best comic book flicks of all-time. The film does total justice to the character of Spider-Man and has a perfect balance of character development and action.

In the beginning, we find Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire, THE ICE STORM), a high school nerd who gets picked on constantly. With his parents dead, he lives with his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris, THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL) and Uncle Ben (Cliff Robinson, CHARLY). He adores his pretty and popular next-door neighbor Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst, INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE). His only friend is Harry Osborn (James Franco, TV's JAMES DEAN), the troubled slacker son of scientist Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe, PLATOON), who is developing high tech weaponry and a super strength serum for the military.

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MAGNOLIA (1999) (****)

I've recommended this film to many people before, but this review is more of a reaction to someone I know saying the film was pointless. I beg to differ. The key element that makes this film wonderful is that it can't be locked down into a one-sentence description. You couldn't even say what it's about in one sentence really. It works as a character piece and a meditation on the complexity of life. Director Paul Thomas Anderson was asked what the message of the film was and he said, "To be good to your kids." The film tackles loss, regret and forgiveness. What each character, and there are lots of them, is going through is paralleled by another character.

John C. Reilly (PERFECT STORM, WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE?) plays a hopelessly good-hearted cop named Jim Kurring, who desperately tries to help (and get a date) with self-destructive drug addict Claudia Wilson Gator (Melora Walters, BOOGIE NIGHTS). Claudia struggles with the pain of her abusive father Jimmy Gator, (Philip Baker Hall, BOOGIE NIGHTS), who works as a host of a TV game show. The producer of the game show, Big Earl (Jason Robards), struggles with his guilt over mental abusing his son Frank (Tom Cruise), who has become a misogynistic dating guru. Julianne Moore plays Robards second-wife Linda, who struggles with her infidelity, which parallels her husband cheating on Frank's mother. Philip Seymour Hoffman (FLAWLESS, PATCH ADAMS) plays a good-hearted nurse named Phil who tries to reunite Big Earl with his son. William H. Macy plays former TV show whiz kid, Donnie Smith, who can barely pay his rent. Jeremy Blackman plays inquisitive young quiz kid Stanley on Jimmy's program, who father Rick (Michael Bowen, JACKIE BROWN) is a tyrant who drives his son deeper and deeper into his own shell.

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TRAINING DAY (2001) (***1/2)

Did Denzel give the best performance of the year? Out of the nominees, the only other one I have seen so far was Russell Crowe in A BEAUTIFUL MIND. And it's hard to say if one performance was better than the other. Both performances hold their films together. Washington adds so much believability to the role as the corrupt cop that you tend to side with his evil philosophy from time to time. The devil is a persuasive creature.

Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke, DEAD POETS SOCIETY) is a rookie working uncover for the first time. His mentor on his first day is Alonzo Harris (Washington). Trial by fire doesn't quite capture the full extent of Jake's initiation. Alonzo is the meanest, dirtiest and most crooked cop in all of Los Angeles. Or is he just playing the rookie to see how he'll react? Or could it be all of the above?

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MULHOLLAND DR. (2001) (****)

This film quickly moved into third place on my top ten list after watching what I feel is David Lynch's best "dream state" movie yet. Personally ELEPHANT MAN will always be my favorite from him, but this is a very close second. For creative people, this is one of those films that really gets the creative juices flowing, because it's working outside convention at every step and inspires with its creativity.

Rita (Laura Elena Harring, THE FORBIDDEN DANCE) escapes her own murder by driving her car off the windy roads on Mulholland Dr. The crash leaves her with no memories. She finds her way to an abandoned apartment where she meets Betty (Naomi Watts, DANGEROUS BEAUTY), a fledgling actress literally straight off the bus. They travel around L.A. trying to discover Rita's identity. The twisted tale involves a famous director, mobsters, a cowboy and an actress named Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George, DARK CITY).

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ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976) (***1/2)

This cult film is so freakin' cool. It's John Carpenter's first full-fledged theatrical feature, which he produced soon after film school and right before HALLOWEEN. The plot is simple; a small group of cops and convicts get surrounded by a multi-racial bloodthirsty gang in an abandoned police station.

Inspired by John Ford's RIO BRAVO, attacking Indians are replaced with gang members. After cops kill six members of their gang, the Street Thunder leaders make a pact to wage war on the cops and citizen of Los Angeles. It's New Year's Eve and only a skeleton crew is working Precinct 9, Division 13 station, which is set to close. Newly promoted Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker, TV's ROOTS) is given the glamorous duty of babysitting the station over the holiday. His only company is officer Chaney (Henry Brandon, THE SEARCHERS) and secretaries Leigh (Laurie Zimmer) and Julie (Nancy Loomis, HALLOWEEN). Meanwhile, officer Starker (Charles Cyphers, COMING HOME) is transferring three prisoners to a new prison when one gets violently sick. So he orders the bus to stop at Bishop's station. One of those prisoners happens to be notorious killer Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston, THE FOG). As the gang lays siege on the jail, cops must team with criminals to saves their lives.

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THE LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS (2001) (***1/2)

I must admit I have not read the book, so I can't comment on its adherence to the novel. But as a straight fantasy adventure film it's wonderful. The epic scope of the visuals is amazing, breathtaking. George Lucas was so right when he said we are in a time of filmmaking where any image or idea is possible.

The tale begins in the land of the hobbits, a small race that live simple lives. Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm, THE SWEET HEREAFTER) has held onto for years a magical ring that holds great power. He hands over the responsibility to his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood, THE ICE STORM), who has always been curious about his uncle's adventures. Once, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, X-MEN) discovers the hobbits possess the One Ring, he travels to see Saruman (Christopher Lee, ATTACK OF THE CLONES), the leader of his order, to find out what should be done next. Now an agent of the evil Sauron, Saruman imprisons Gandalf and sends ringwraiths to kill Frodo and take the ring so Sauron can rule the world.

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THE COLOR OF PARADISE (2000) (***1/2)

Right now there is a renaissance of sorts going on in Iran. As the country becomes more liberal and moves closer to democracy, art is peaking, especially film. Some of the most successful films of late at international film fests have been Iranian. Majid Majidi, director of this film, was nominated for an Oscar for his CHILDREN OF HEAVEN in 1998, the only Iranian filmmaker to ever receive an Academy Award nod. For COLOR OF PARADISE, the simple story about a blind boy and his family is so tender and absorbing that it grips you from the first frame to the last.

The widowed father is searching for a new wife from a rich family and wants a way of "ridding" himself of the burden of his blind eight-year-old son. Mohammad (Mohsen Ramezani), the blind boy, is full of life and likes learning at the school for the blind the same things seeing children learn. Mohammad is not completely unloved, cared for by his grandmother (Salameh Feyzi), his older sister (Farahnaz Safari) and younger sister (Elham Sharifi). His father Hashem (Hossein Mahjoub) finally finds the boy an apprenticeship with a blind carpenter. While the opportunity looks good for Hashem, he underestimates what his son can do, and more so doesn't care what he wants.

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