"ATONEMENT"


        MOVIE: ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
    DVD EXPERIENCE: ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)

    STARRING
    James McAvoy as ROBBIE TURNER
    Keira Knightley as CECILIA TALLIS
    Romola Garai as BRIONY TALLIS (AGE 18)
    Saoirse Ronan as BRIONY TALLIS (AGE 13)
    Vanessa Redgrave as BRIONY TALLIS (OLDER)

    Rated R
    Studio: Focus Features

    Directed by: Joe Wright

I’ll have to admit that when I first saw the trailers and the posters for “Atonement,” I wasn’t exactly excited. I had seen Joe Wright’s beloved film “Pride & Prejudice,” and I was bored to tears. This pretty much has to do with the fact that I find Jane Austin highly overrated. And haven’t there been enough “Pride & Prejudice” films, anyway?

Now, “Atonement” is not a Jane Austin story, but it could be, if Jane Austin hardened up her subject matter a bit. It’s a period piece and has the beautiful look we’ve come to expect from a Joe Wright movie. However, instead of dealing with the angst of love that never happens, “Atonement” deals with some heavy issues.

Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) is a childhood friend of Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley). However, now that they’re all grown up, they have a special attraction. Of course, Cecilia is at a higher social level than Robbie, but that doesn’t stop them from stealing a love affair. The only fly in this ointment is Cecilia’s younger sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan), who misinterprets a sordid letter from Robbie to Cecilia and is thrown into a panic when she sees them in a passionate embrace.

Briony’s reaction sets in motion a sequence of event that rips the young lovers apart. As Briony lives the rest of her life, she reflects on her sister’s love affair, and when she’s old enough to realize what really happened, she searches for atonement. (Clever, how I worked that in...)

I was pleasantly surprised with this film, considering how much I was dreading it. While it appeals to the crowds who like period pieces, it also deals with some very real and very adult issues. Instead of all the Jane Austin repression, Wright deals with the harsh realities of war, love and revenge. It is a sweeping piece that can make a good date movie simply because the men can enjoy the harder story elements while the women swoon over the atmosphere.

I will say that I was taken by surprise at how well this movie did during the award season. While I enjoyed it, I didn’t think it was worthy of all the accolades it got. But kudos to the filmmakers for taking home a Golden Globe as well as a case of other awards throughout the season. The film was very deserving of the awards for cinematography (although the 360 money shot was a bit distracting, if not well conceived) and score, which uses a brilliantly devised rhythm section held together with a typewriter.

The DVD comes with a nice slate of special features, including Joe Wright’s commentary track that can also be heard over the movie’s deleted scenes. There’s an extensive documentary about the making of the film, and another focusing on how the beloved book was adapted into a screenplay.



"NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN"


        MOVIE: ***** (out of 5 stars)
    DVD EXPERIENCE: **1/2 (out of 5 stars)

    STARRING
    Tommy Lee Jones as ED TOM BELL
    Javier Bardem as ANTON CHIGURH
    Josh Brolin as LLEWELYN MOSS

    Rated R
    Studio: Miramax

    Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Only a few times each year do I see a movie that is so gripping, so powerful, that I find myself saying that it is easily the best of the year. In 2006, this happened with “The Departed,” and we all know how that ended up, Academy Award and all. In 2007, history repeated itself when I saw “No Country for Old Men.”

I have been a fan of the Coen Brothers since I saw “Raising Arizona” in high school. With very few exceptions (dare I remind everyone of “Intolerable Cruelty”?), pretty much every film they touch is a brilliant masterwork. This is the case with “No Country for Old Men.”

The film follows a regular guy (Josh Brolin) from a trailer park in West Texas who stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong in the desert. He discovers a satchel of money and takes it from the dead drug dealers. However, he doesn’t realize that a sociopath (Javier Bardem) has been sent to retrieve the money. Also following them both around the country is a small town sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones).

Not since “Fargo” have the Coen Brothers made such a perfect movie. Based on a book by Cormac McCarthy, “No Country for Old Men” unravels into something you’d never expect. The brothers make some daring choices in the film, from not using a musical soundtrack (save one scene) to taking their time with the shots and letting the movie breathe.

At its core, this is a thriller, but it is very hard to categorize. The dialogue is, in many ways, hilarious. Tommy Lee Jones offers a dry delivery that makes even the most eerie lines seem humorous, but never out of place. The acting is superb, and it is often overshadowed by Javier Bardem’s Oscar-winning performance. Still, the whole cast does well, including great smaller roles by people like Woody Harrelson and Kelly MacDonald.

The pacing of this film reminds me of why the Coens are such expert filmmakers. In a season when it’s tempting to have the movies run north of 2 1/2 hours, they actually keep things to the two hour mark. Even though some shots are long and drawn-out, it’s not indulgent. These only serve to make the punctuated, explosive action sequences that much more thrilling.

It’s a cliche to say that don’t make films like this any more, and I suppose it’s also inaccurate. Because very few ever made films like this. The art that comes from the Coens is unique, not just in the contemporary context, but throughout history as well.

You don’t get better filmmaking than “No Country for Old Men” in 2007, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better film in the past ten years... at least until you hit “Fargo” from 1996.

The DVD comes with a sizeable making-of documentary which thankfully isn’t too self-congratulatory to the directors. There’s also a spotlight on working with the Coens, which also isn’t too congratulatory (well, maybe just a little). Finally, the features are wrapped up with a spotlight on Tommy Lee Jones’s character.



"DAN IN REAL LIFE"


        MOVIE: *** (out of 5 stars)
    DVD EXPERIENCE: ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)

    STARRING
    Steve Carell as DAN BURNS
    Juliette Binoche as MARIE
    Dane Cook as MITCH BURNS
    John Mahoney as POPPY BURNS
    Emily Blunt as RUTHIE DRAPER
    Dianne Wiest as NANA BURNS

    Rated PG-13
    Studio: Touchstone

    Directed by: Peter Hedges

Steve Carell has gained a reputation for being one of the nicest funnymen in Hollywood. After being thrown some choice supporting roles (e.g., “Anchorman” and “Bruce Almighty”), one huge hit (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”) and a popular television show (“The Office”), the industry has been desperately trying to find a niche for this guy.

He’s had his missteps, mainly because as dynamic as Carell is, he’s hard to nail down into a stereotype. He’s not an action star or a romantic lead. Yet, everyone loves him – from the studios to the audiences. And flops like “Evan Almighty” aside, he might have struck paydirt with “Dan in Real Life.”

This movie follows a widower name Dan Burns (Carell) who has three daughters. He’s trying to be everything he can to them, while writing an advice column about parenting in the newspaper. But things aren’t as easy as he makes them out to be in his column. Two of his daughters are teenagers, and with no spouse to balance things out, the family is a bit of a powder keg.

Things come to head in his life when Dan takes his girls on an annual family getaway, and he meets a woman named Marie (Juliette Binoche) in town that he is instantly attracted to. The problem is that she’s the new girlfriend of his brother. Dan must resolve his family issues over the weekend while fighting with his new feelings for Marie.

In the hands of a lesser actor, “Dan in Real Life” would be quite unbearable. But Steve Carell brings a level of honesty and empathy to the role. He might seem like the king of goofy, inappropriate comedy, but the guy’s longevity might lie in heartfelt, adult roles like this.

I’ll admit that on the surface, “Dan in Real Life” isn’t my cup of tea. I prefer a little more dysfunction in my dysfunctional family comedies. Think of this as “The Family Stone” light, without all the sex. In many ways, this is too warm and fuzzy for me.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks in this film is Dane Cook, who ruins the screen whenever he’s on it. The guy was overexposed in 2007, and this movie works in spite of him. The other stumbling block is the unrealistic idea that a family this big could live for a weekend in such a small house. Seriously, if you stuck my family in a remote cabin for a weekend, the film would more closely resemble “Saw IV” than this movie.

The DVD comes with a ton of deleted scenes with commentary by director Peter Hedges, who also lends his voice to a feature commentary as well. There’s also a series of outtakes and two featurettes, one on the making of the film and the other on the music.



"HITMAN"


        MOVIE: *** (out of 5 stars)
    DVD EXPERIENCE: **1/2 (out of 5 stars)

    STARRING
    Timothy Olyphant as AGENT 47
    Dougray Scott as MIKE WHITTIER
    Olga Kurylenko as NIKA BORONINA
    Robert Knepper as YURI MARKLOV
    Ulrich Thomaen as PRESIDENT MIKHAIL BELICOFF

    Unrated
    Studio: Fox

    Developed by: Xavier Gens

One of the warning signs of a bad movie is that it comes from the video game realm. While there have been a few exceptions, like “Mortal Kombat,” the cinematic landscape is riddled with awful video game adaptation. Sure, much of these stinkers are the responsibility of Uwe Boll, but not all of them.

Considering this tarnished pedigree, “Hitman” actually is an okay movie. Oh, there are problems with it... like how can a guy in a black suit and red tie with a shaved head and a barcode stamped on his neck be so good at blending in? And that’s not the whole of it. There are holes in the plot that you can sail a battleship through. But you shouldn’t see this movie for the logic or characters.

You should see this movie for the action and gunfights... oh, and for Olga Kurylenko.

The convoluted story follows the most conspicuous hit man in the world wages war against his mysterious benefactors. Timothy Olyphant is ironically perfect for the role because of his knack for wooden acting.

Still, the film delivers on what you’d expect. Plenty of crazy action, lots of gunplay and a slick production design. And, I know it’s going to make me sound like a pig, but newcomer Olga Kurylenko makes the film worth it with her achingly sexy style and several well-placed nude scenes.

If you know what you’re getting into, “Hitman” can be fun. And the DVD comes as an unrated selection with some more violence, some more blood and a little more Olga.

One of the special feature I found quite interesting was a spotlight on the Hitman game that inspired the film. Not only did you get a somewhat disturbing look at the psychology behind the game (considering it’s a test to see how well you kill people), but it also gives noobs like me a chance to see what the game looks like. And I have to say that the computer generated hit man looks more realistic than the comparably scrawny Timothy Olyphant does in the movie.

Other special features include a making-of documentary, spotlights on all the weaponry of the film (which is quite extensive), a featuette on the score, deleted scenes and a gag reel.

I’ll admit that I like “Hitman” better than I really should have. I honestly don’t know why. Maybe it was because it was such a fluffy, popcorn movie. Or maybe it was Olga Kurylenko...

Yeah, maybe that’s it.



"BACHELOR PARTY 2: THE LAST TEMPTATION"


        MOVIE: ** (out of 5 stars)
    DVD EXPERIENCE: **** (out of 5 stars)

    STARRING
    Josh Cooke as RON
    Sara Foster as MELINDA
    Warren Christie as TODD
    Greg Pitts as JASON
    Harland Williams as DEREK

    Unrated
    Studio: Fox

    Developed by: James Ryan

Do you think there is anyone out there that thinks a sequel to “Bachelor Party,” made more than twenty years after the original, is a good idea? Well, someone at the studio thought so, because it’s out there. And it’s everything you would expect it to be.

In the DVD special features, the filmmakers insist this isn’t a remake, but rather a re-imagining of the classic comedy. In this version, Ron (Josh Cooke) has proposed to his beautiful and rich girlfriend Melinda (Sara Foster). However, her gold-digging brother-in-law Todd (Warren Christie), tries to sabotage things so he can have her instead. In order to do this, Todd takes Ron and his buddies to Miami for the bachelor party to end all bachelor parties... and he hopes he can get evidence of Ron cheating on Melinda.

In its defense, a sequel to “Bachelor Party” never had a lot of promise, but at least the film delivers in the T&A department. Does that make me a pig? Sure, but is anyone not expecting at least some nudity in a film like this? In some ways, this film reminds me of the “American Pie” direct-to-DVD sequels... at least they can be a nice dose of eye candy.

There are some funny moments in this movie, and it’s not entirely unoriginal. The characters are cut from the same cloth, with the nerd and the buffoon both clearly cut out in the movie. There’s also plenty of inappropriate politically incorrect humor (like a Jewish guy having a crush on Hitler’s great granddaughter), as well as a well-placed stripper fight in the middle of the movie.

But it doesn’t hold a candle to the classic original, and it only serves as a testament to Tom Hanks’ prowess as an actor. Josh Cooke stumbles throughout the movie, trying to play the honorable guy and crazy buddy at the same time while Hanks did this seemingly effortlessly in the original.

I suppose I shouldn’t get down on the studio for trying a sequel to this film. After all, Fox was the king of raunchy comedies in the 1980s, giving us “Bachelor Party,” “Porky’s” and “Revenge of the Nerds.” There were plenty of substandard sequels for these other flicks. Why not complete the process.

Ultimately, I wouldn’t recommend “Bachelor Party 2” unless you check out the first five minutes of the commentary track and play the cast’s drinking game while watching it. As a matter of fact, that’s not a bad idea, and it might even make the movie funny after all.

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