“The Frozen Ground” Review

August 31, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  No Comments

The experience of watching “The Frozen Ground” is tantamount to a plane being on autopilot.   All you have to do is sit there, in silence, twiddle your thumbs, and wait.  It wasn’t an unpleasant experience… some of it was quite relaxing and the time passed pretty quickly.  However, I was never engaged.  It was a passive ride… One that we have all taken many times before.  I am already starting to forget it as I begin writing this review.

Nic Cage plays Jack Halcombe, an Anchorage, Alaska detective who is looking into a possible serial killing in the area.  One of the victims is Cindy (Vanessa Hudgens), a stripper and prostitute who managed to escape the clutches of her would-be murderer.  The accused man is Robert Hansen (John Cusack), a husband and father who is thought to be of good standing in the local community.

However, the case is not clear cut.  Cindy is uncooperative and unreliable, preferring to seek out drugs and turn tricks rather than testify against her abductor.  The facts are all circumstantial and Jack can’t seem to convince the district attorney to issue a warrant for the arrest.  “The Frozen Ground” then becomes a rather standard police procedural as they look for clues and tighten the noose around the suspect’s neck.

The acting is one of the strongest parts of the film.  Cage doesn’t “lose his shit” or go “nucking futs” in this movie.  Instead, he delivers one of his more restrained performances in recent years.  Cusack is viciously cold as the “based-on-true-events” killer.  He continues to try and distance himself from the typically Cusack-like roles that he became typecast in for so many years.  Vanessa Hudgens stars in another impressive role for her in 2013, after her effort in the masterful, “Spring Breakers”.  She is turning into a daring and interesting young actress… something I wouldn’t have predicted during the “High School Musical” era.  Even 50 Cent shows up in this film as an eighties-style pimp.  It is quite a decent ensemble.

Unfortunately, first time director, Scott Walker, doesn’t ever elevate the material beyond its seedy and morose subject matter.  Films about serial killers are awkward for directors… they do not lend themselves to artistic flare or cinematic originality.  “The Frozen Ground” is not much more than a glorified episode of “CSI”.  It is mildly interesting and nothing more.

Addendum: This is not a spoiler. I also want to point out something during the final credits.  There is a dedication of the film to the victims of Robert Hansen, followed by a photo roll-call of those victims.  I found this to be uncomfortable and disturbing.  I could understand something like this in a documentary, but not in a feature film masquerading as entertainment.  It felt out of place, exploitative and highly unnecessary.  A simple mention along the lines of “In Memory Of…” would have been a better decision.

TWO AND A HALF STARS The Frozen Ground Review

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“A Single Shot” Review

August 23, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  1 Comment

In every film, there really ought to be someone to care about… or root for… or sympathize with… or just plain like.  Sometimes, an otherwise fine film comes along and leaves you emotionally cold because the aforementioned doesn’t exist.  “A Single Shot” is crafted with care and acted with precision, but it never generates even a momentary shred of empathy or compassion.  It is despairingly bleak and relentlessly morose.

If you remember the similarly themed 1998 masterpiece, “A Simple Plan”, you will be acutely aware how such a story of “found money” can be a thrilling cinematic construct.  That film blistered your eyeballs with unbearable tension.  It featured multiple characters, some good, some very bad… and it built to a crescendo with unforeseeable plot twists and turns.

“A Single Shot” delivers much the same premise.  John Moon, played by the brilliant Sam Rockwell, is out hunting a deer in the dense forest.  When he catches a glimpse… he fires.  The animal runs.  He fires quickly again. No luck.  Silence falls upon his surroundings… until he hears the muffled coughs of his victim — a beautiful young woman gasping her final breaths in her campsite.  He hopelessly tries to keep her alive.   When she finally passes, panic sets in and he hides the body in an abandoned truck trailer.  While snooping around her campsite, John finds a lock-box stuffed with hundred dollar bills.  It doesn’t look like a legal stack of cash, so he decides to keep it.

The frustration with this movie comes primarily because the premise is so damned exciting.  I love this kind of idea.  I was hoping for a riveting roller-coaster of emotions.  Instead, the film meanders and mopes around like a depressed teenager, never really exploring the myriad possibilities.  In addition, the lead character is a miserable sack of crap who is dumber than a bag of hammers.  I certainly wasn’t sympathetic with his dilemma at any point.  And while there were some secondary characters whose lives may have been of interest and could have generated a flutter of caring, the film doesn’t take the time to explore them enough.

“A Single Shot” left me as frozen as the dead girl John ends up stuffing in his freezer.  I wasn’t invested in the outcome at all.  The movie simply ran its course and came to a meaningless end that thinks it is more profound than it actually is.  The actors all deliver fine work… most notably Sam Rockwell, Kelly Reilly and Ophelia Lovibond.  Even William H. Macy finds a small underdeveloped role that could have been really interesting.  No, the blame is not with the cast.  This film stumbles badly because the writer and director could not create a central character that audiences can care about.

TWO STARS A Single Shot Review

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“We’re The Millers” Review

August 22, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  1 Comment

Two belly laughs, 5 or 6 chuckles and a mountain of half-hearted smirks… It just doesn’t add up to enough to make this a successful comedy.  When the biggest risks and the biggest laughs take place in the outtakes and bloopers section of the end credits, you know something went wrong with the production.  It feels like the studio chickened out at the last minute and went for broad comedy, rather than edgy, bold craziness.

Jason Sudekis plays a drug dealer.  You can tell he’s a drug dealer because he is unshaven and wears a hoodie.

Jennifer Aniston plays a down-on-her-luck stripper.  You can tell she’s a stripper because she almost takes off her clothes… twice.

Emma Roberts plays a homeless punk.  You can tell she’s a homeless punk because she has a nose ring and is angry all the time.

Will Poulter plays a dork whose mother has abandoned him.  You can tell he’s a dork because of his stupid face.

Together, they pretend to be the Miller family, so that they can rent an RV and smuggle a vast quantity of weed across the border from Mexico without arousing suspicion.  Ed Helms plays the drug kingpin who will pay hundreds of thousands to get his hands on the merchandise.

“We’re the Millers” wants to have the wacky tone of films like “The Hangover” and “Bridesmaids”.  It so desperately wants to be be daring… but only ever hints at it.  It is a strip club with no tits.  It is marijuana, not cocaine.  It is rated R, but it is really a PG-13.  Somewhere along the way, it blurred the lines without crossing them.

It is a shame.  The actors are all very good, despite a few odd casting choices.  Sudekis is a random selection to be a drug dealer… but his comedic talents are enough to distract you from the decision.  Ed Helms belongs in another film.  He just seems completely out of place here.  Jennifer Aniston has evidently been doing pilates — she looks amazing as she delivers her routinely competent variation of  Rachel from “Friends”.  Emma Roberts and Will Poulter both find some amusing moments as the children in this dysfunctional family.

As the final credits rolled, I found myself thinking about the lost opportunity here.  I wanted this film to break some rules and start some fights.  Instead, I sat through something I had seen a million times before.  It’s not a horrible film… merely a way to waste  90 minutes of your pathetic little lives with an endless batch of semi-amused nods.

TWO STARS Were The Millers Review

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“The Purge” Review

August 21, 2013 |  by  |  mike horne, movies, reviews  |  1 Comment

Review by Mike Horne – contributing film critic.

It is the year 2022, the day of “The Purge”, The annual festival of legal carnage introduced by the “New Founding Fathers” of America. This one night of the year has allowed crime rates to drop to staggeringly low figures, sending the economy and jobs to new heights. The human animal has an insatiable appetite for destruction, and The Purge allows everyday Americans to release the beast and feed upon their darker desires, making America a safer and more wholesome place to live. All thanks to 12 hours of unrelenting bloodshed… God Bless America!

Ethan Hawke (“Training Day”) and Lena Headey (“Game of Thrones”) play James and Mary Sandin. We see them enjoying dinner with their children, Charlie and Zoey, in their large suburban home. Suddenly an air raid like alarm sounds off, signalling the beginning of The Purge. James sells home protection solely used for this night, something that has made him very rich, so he jumps to, turning on monitors and alarms, locking down their expensive home with metal shutters. All safe and sound then. Well, apparently not, due to a rash decision later made by his son Charlie, the only one in the family who seems to be unsure of the night and its implications.

At its core, “The Purge” is a horror movie, filled with all the blood and shocks that a fan of the genre could desire. We even have people wearing creepy masks, carrying ridiculously long blades. In true fashion, our heroes continue to make unbelievably stupid decisions and force us to shout at the screen. For the love of all that is Holy, pick up the guns and look behind you!

I enjoyed the pace of the first half of the movie, as it took its time introducing us to its characters. By the time the proverbial shit hits the fan, I actually cared about them as a family. Sadly, the rest of the movie relies too heavily on tried and tested horror thrills, and the only perk we get is Rhys Wakefield, who plays the Polite Leader of a group of rich kids, eager to exercise their right to purge. He is wonderfully menacing and perfectly over the top in this role, proving once again that the bad guy gets to have more fun. There are a few unexpected twists, but nothing that will truly blow your mind.

Where “The Purge” shines is in group discussion. To truly enjoy it, you and your friends have to ask a few simple questions. What would you do if you were the Sandins? Is The Purge a good idea? Do the needs of the many forgo the few? Would you purge yourself?

Some of these questions might reveal who you should eagerly avoid, should The Purge or Zombie Apocalypse become a reality. And if it does, just remember to look behind you every now and then… And pick up the frickin’ guns, for Pete’s sake!


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“42 ” Review

August 21, 2013 |  by  |  mike horne, movies, reviews  |  No Comments

Review by Mike Horne – contributing film critic.

America has had many romances over the years, two of the most significant being Cinema and Baseball. Thanks to Brian Helgeland (“L.A. Confidential”, “Man on Fire”), who wrote and directed “42″, we get to have both at the same time.

“42″ tells the groundbreaking life story of Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), the first Afro-American Major League Baseball player, and the only player to have his number retired for his contributions to the sport. Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), is a  forward thinking Major League Executive and he has a dream. He wants to sell more tickets to blacks, as all dollars are green. His aids obviously think he is mad, but Rickey is willing to take the risk. To aid him in this endeavour, he needs someone for them to get behind. Cue Mr. Robinson, followed by several scenes of him stealing bases and “super human” athletic feats, as he tries to earn his place in the big leagues.

As amazing as Jackie Robinson was, 1940′s America was not ready for him, so we have to endure several racist taunts, from the public, his opposition and team mates alike. The scene with the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, Ben Chapman, proves to be the most difficult, and the most touching. Aside from the racism, what follows is what you would generally expect from a baseball movie.

I was seduced by the trailer for “42″ and hoped for a sports movie of epic proportions, but after half an hour I found myself squirming in my seat uncomfortably. The first half is rushed and gives us no real insight into what it took to make Robinson what he was. Yes, we know he is black, suffers from racism and loves baseball, but I don’t know why he loves baseball, nor do I really know what makes him tick. How did he become so confident? Who taught him how to play? He just arrives, resolved and gifted – and immediately people are referring to him as a hero. Their reasons are obvious, but I want to see heroism, not be told about it. Throw in a cheesy child actor or two, and a worried viewer you have.

Thankfully the second half picks up, in both emotion and excitement. Robinson becomes more real and delivers more than home runs and quick feet. I also enjoyed Christopher Meloni’s (“Man of Steel”) brief portrayal of the Brooklyn Dodger’s adulterous manager, Leo Durocher. John C. McGinley (“Scrubs”) makes a surprisingly reserved appearance as a typical 1940′s sports commentator. I haven’t made up my mind on Ford’s grizzly and wise businessman act, but lets just say it’s not bad. Chadwick Boseman as Robinson easily makes us believe he can do all the things we see on screen, and delivers the right emotion when called for, but I can’t help but think his script was a little thin.

I feel like the movie expected me to already know this story, whereas I wanted to be shown. I wanted to see what it took to become one of the greatest sports hero’s of all time, amidst a backdrop of racism and cruelty. It came close, but just missed its mark. Is it a bad movie? No… but it is nowhere near as great as the man it is based upon. And that is a grand shame, when it should have been a grand slam.


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“The Look of Love” Review

August 20, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  1 Comment

“The Look of Love” recounts the life of Paul Raymond, the British publisher and property developer who became one of the richest men in Europe during the sixties, seventies and eighties, most notably because he added copious amounts of female nudity to every business venture he could.

He opened the first strip club in Britain.  He bought up most of Soho, the district in London that became the era’s most notorious haven for porn, prostitution and drugs.  He ventured into publishing with the adult-themed magazines, “Men Only”, “Mayfair” and “Escort”.  He was infamous rather than famous.  He was the British equivalent of Larry Flynt and Hugh Hefner.

The film is directed by Michael Winterbottom… who previously delivered great films like “Wonderland” (1999), “The Trip” (2011) and “Jude” (1996).  However, this effort doesn’t seem anything like his best work.  It is a perfunctory and ho-hum TV-quality production that, while completely watchable, never elevates to the level of cinematic art.

Steve Coogan, the superb British comedian, plays the lead role quite well.  It is an awkward role because it spans a few decades… but despite never plumbing the depths of the character, he handles the part with relative ease.  Anna Friel plays Raymond’s first wife.  Hers is a passionate performance that feels very authentic.  Tamsin Egerton plays Fiona Richmond — Raymond’s long time mistress and star of his many theatrical shows and magazine articles.  Egerton is one of the finest young actresses in the world today and she gives the most skilled performance in the movie.  Imogen Poots plays his daughter, Debbie.  She doesn’t put a foot wrong and gives the film a sense of heart and tragedy.

The screenplay portrays Paul Raymond as a selfish, heartless ego-maniac who abandons his wife and son in favor of unrestricted sex, money and drugs.  It makes him a grossly unsympathetic character — one that cannot support being the central figure in a biopic of this sort.  I think the film would have fared better if it had focused on the female perspective of his actions.  As it stands, “The Look of Love” is a just a depressing morality play about the quest for money and fame.  It keeps all the sympathetic characters at arm’s length, while it peers deeply into the blackened soul of a miserable loser.

Nevertheless, the acting is very good.  The period sets and costumes are all colorful and convincing.  The era has a vibrant charm to it.  And the story hops along at a nice pace.  The problem is that it all seems quite shallow and empty.  Were it not for Paul Raymond’s trademark solution (lots of gorgeous women getting naked), this movie would be quickly erased from the memory banks.  At least half of the 97 minutes were jam packed with boobs, butts and bush.  The director must have learned a thing or two about how to hide a mediocre production behind a wall of flesh.

TWO AND A HALF STARS The Look of Love Review

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“Lovelace” Review

August 10, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  1 Comment

Linda Boreman, better known to the world as Linda Lovelace, spent seventeen days in the porn industry.  To the general public, those days define her life.  Her anti-porn advocacy… her horrific abuse at the hands of the depraved Chuck Traynor… her upbringing in a strict catholic household… her role as mother… her health battles and two devastating automobile accidents (one fatal)… Sadly, none of those things will ever replace the first image we think of when we hear that legendary name.  The only thing the world ever remembers is the image of Harry Reems’ huge cock disappearing into Linda Lovelace’s “Deep Throat”.  After watching this film, that seems like such a tragic legacy for her to endure.

“Lovelace” stars Amanda Seyfried as the innocent young woman who had the unfortunate displeasure of meeting Chuck Traynor in her early twenties.  Having been raised with strict instructions to obey the man of the house, Linda soon found herself living a nightmare of abuse, manipulation and coercion.  When financial trouble hit the couple, Traynor demanded that she star in an upcoming pornographic film being made by some producer acquaintances.  That film turned out to be the most famous porno of all time, the 1972 classic, “Deep Throat”.

The film played several times a day at movie theaters for more than a decade.  Some estimates have the film grossing more than $600 million worldwide… more on video and, later, DVD.  Linda Lovelace’s celebrity reached far and wide.  She was every bit as famous as the “legitimate” actresses of the time.  Johnny Carson was casually throwing around her name as the butt of jokes on a nightly basis.

Sadly though, behind the scenes, Linda was being subjected to rape, battery and forced prostitution.  She never saw a penny from Chuck, who domineered her emotionally and physically.  It was an ordeal of the worst kind.  Her 1980 biography was appropriately titled, “Ordeal”.  It sold out three printings.

Seyfried is astonishing in this role.  She embodies the naive and fragile actress with such complexity and emotional nuance that it is hard to watch.  There are scenes in this film when Seyfried, without uttering a word, is virtually begging for a moment of relief from the torturous existence of her life.  Consider the exchange with her mother (Sharon Stone), when she asks to stay at home rather than return to Traynor.  When she is told to obey her husband, her eyes tells the horror of her desperation.

The entire supporting cast is magnificent.  Sharon Stone is almost unrecognizable and completely without vanity as Linda’s strict mother.  Peter Sarsgaard is cruel and despicable as Chuck.  Robert Patrick, Chris Noth, Juno Temple and Hank Azaria all deliver fine performances in smaller roles.

If there is something to quibble with, it is that the film is directed without any artistic flare or originality.  It can often feel like a TV movie.  Contemplate the difference between this and the similarly themed “Boogie Nights”… one is a masterpiece of cinema and the other is a simple reconstruction of events.

Nevertheless, “Lovelace” is a respectable film with one of the best performances of 2013.  Amanda Seyfried should be nominated left, right and center for awards at the end of the year.  I think she deserves an Oscar nomination for this effort.  If she was in a better overall film, she would be a certainty.  As it stands, she is the best thing about the movie and she makes it well worth seeking out.

THREE STARS Lovelace Review

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“Magic Magic” Review

August 9, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  No Comments

“Magic Magic” is a really spooky film about a young woman, named Alicia, who travels to Chile to visit her cousin and her cousin’s friends as they embark on a road trip to a remote house in the countryside.  Alicia is played by Juno Temple and the movie co-stars Emily Browning, Michael Cera and Catalina Sandino Moreno.

Initially, everything seems pretty normal.  Alicia is very shy and clings to the company of her cousin.  However, just as they get underway on their road trip, her cousin is forced to return to town for a day or two and promises that she will meet up with the group later.  This leaves Alicia with an odd group of semi-strangers.

One of the group members, played by Catalina Sandino Moreno, is a bossy and irritable sort.  She rubs Alicia the wrong way.  The feeling is mutual.  Another is her cousin’s boyfriend, played by Agustín Silva — a loner-type who is obsessed with hypnotism.  And the final member of the quintet is Brink, performed with maximum creep-factor by Michael Cera.  It is definitely a 180 degree turn from his usual roles.

I do not want to detail too much of the plot, because this is a film that needs to be experienced rather than explained.  Suffice it to say… things do not go smoothly and the entire trip soon becomes a severe mind-fuck with some quite scary scenes.

Make no mistake though… “Magic Magic” is not a horror film.  It is an internalized thriller that will chill your bones for 90-minutes.  Do not expect gore or momentary frights.  This is the sort of film that continues working days and weeks after the viewing.

If I have a complaint, it is that the film wears out its welcome a little.  There is an hour’s worth of material here, which has been stretched out to 98 minutes.  I did feel the urge to check my watch during the middle third of the running time.

Juno Temple is superb.  It is no wonder that she is becoming one of the most sought after actresses in her generation.  She is terrific in every film she chooses… and she usually chooses interesting films.  Her movies are already must-watch for me.  “Magic Magic” is another success for her.  It is a small film that is well worth checking out on DVD if and when it doesn’t show up at a theater near you.

THREE STARS Magic Magic Review

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“The Tower” Review

August 6, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  1 Comment

The Korean people must have something in the water over there.  Their movies are consistently amazing.  Their women are, almost without argument, the most beautiful on Earth.  Their actors are universally talented.  Kimchi might be the greatest food on the planet. K-Pop is taking over the universe.  And did I mention that their movies are consistently amazing?

“The Tower” is a mega-budget spectacular re-imagining of the 1974 disaster epic, “The Towering Inferno”.  The movie is set in Seoul on Christmas Eve.  A brand new luxury skyscraper called Tower Sky is hosting a VIP party on one of the highest of its 120 floors.  In grand fashion, the billionaire owner has arranged for helicopters to circle above the building sprinkling snow on the guests.  However, something disastrous goes wrong and one of the choppers crashes into the side of the tower, setting it ablaze.

Firefighters rush to the scene… but the infernal disaster is spiraling out of control and someone heroic is going to have to perform miracles to save the trapped souls inside.

As with all disaster movies, certain characters become our focus, in order to humanize the situation for us.  In “The Tower”, we become very familiar with Lee Dae-ho (Kim Sang-kyung), a devoted father and the manager of this landmark building.  Yoon-hee (Ye-jin Son) is one of the senior employees.  Captain Kang Young-ki (Sol Kyung-gu) is the heroic firefighter who will have to risk his life for those inside.

I cannot stress how astonishing this film looks.  Hollywood only wishes they could pull off this type of film any more.  You really feel every explosion… every dizzying scene… every emotion.  “The Tower” is one of the most epic spectacles of the past few cinematic years.  If you are anything like me, your heart will be racing.

The acting is superb.  Sol Kyung-gu is a wonderful actor.  I remember seeing him in “Oasis”, one of the most heartbreaking films I have ever seen.  He has everything you’d want in a hero role.  You believe his concern and fear and trepidation and courage.  The supporting cast is equal to the task… no weak links to be found.

There is a scene, deep into the film, with a young girl weeping with fear as she stands alone on the bridge between the two towers — the glass floor cracking beneath her feet.  It is an epic scene… one that I won’t soon forget (check out the magnificent trailer below for a sneak peek).

If there is any weakness, it is that common thread in all disaster movies… the characters all play second fiddle to the actual disaster.  It is hard to build 3-dimensional characters when you need to go full-steam-ahead into the action.  Nevertheless, that is a small quibble with an otherwise impeccable effort.

Make sure you seek out “The Tower” on DVD.  Actually… Just go ahead a make sure to start checking out more Korean cinema in general.  You will rarely, if ever, be disappointed.  With “The Tower”, just make sure to fire-up the biggest screen you have, crank up the speaker volume… and prepare for a crazy thrill ride.



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“Byzantium” Review

August 5, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  No Comments

This film will suffer, in the eyes of many, because it is yet another entry in the oh-so-tired vampire genre that has suffocated us for more than half a decade now.  If “Byzantium” had been released at the beginning of this blood-sucking cinematic wave, it might have felt a little more special.

The movie tells the story of Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) and her “older sister”, Clara (Gemma Arterton) — 200 year-old vampires who are being hunted down by other fanged fellows and decide to seek refuge in a small coastal town.  They find shelter in a run-down hotel called “Byzantium”, but their actions are all too conspicuous and trouble soon tracks them down.

Eleanor is permanently sixteen.  Clara is actually her mother, but because she “turned” before Eleanor, she appears far too young for that role.  Hence the sisterly deception they impart to everyone.  For over two centuries, Clara has supported them both by working in the oldest profession in the world.  Eleanor is aching to tell someone the truth… and often does, just to gauge their reactions.  She develops a connection with a young man she meets in the town and soon finds herself learning to trust for the first time.  Clara is not pleased.

Neil Jordan (“Interview with the Vampire” & “The End of the Affair”) directs a visually stunning film with two superbly moody and nuanced performances from Ronan and Arterton.  On the surface, it seems a surefire success… but there are problems lurking all over the place.

The film takes itself too seriously.  It meanders morosely around its subject, circling closer and closer to the final act revelations.  There are no moments of brevity or changes of pace.  Every dark film needs to take a break from time to time, or it all starts to get a little much.

I also found the male performances to be stilted and awkward.  There are a handful of significant male roles in the story — every one of them is completely outshone by the passion and intensity of the lead girls.

“Byzantium” is a gorgeous looking work of art.  Some of the scenes blew me away.  Consider the shot of Clara on the balcony of the hotel as she stares down on Eleanor and her new friend.  It is an epically beautiful still shot that could be hung in any gallery.  I was also wowed by the blood-soaked waterfall shots — especially the one of Clara standing underneath, being showered in red.  The cinematography is remarkable throughout.

I have to say that “Byzantium” is a mixed bag… a lot to love and a lot to hate.  If it had undergone another re-write to eliminate some shaky dialogue and quicken the pace… And if it had been released at a time when vampire flicks weren’t lampoonishly prevalent… I may have thought of it along the lines of “Let the Right One In” or “Let Me In”.  As it stands, the film is certainly worth a look, but it probably won’t deserve a second one.

TWO AND A HALF STARS Byzantium Review

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