Cell 211 (2009, 110 minutes, Rated R, in Spanish with subtitles) 4 out of 5 stars

Tense, gritty, and engaging from the opening frame.

Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann) is starting a new job as a prison guard at a high security jail. He goes in the day before he’s supposed to start to get the lay of the land and show some initiative, only to be knocked unconscious in the early stages of what becomes a massive convict riot. Abandoned and left in a cell when his fellow guards flee for their safety, he awakens and is forced to act as though he is an inmate as the days-long riot unfolds, soon finding himself in a cat and mouse game with the shady characters inhabiting the jail, the negotiators sent in by the Spanish government, some dastardly prison guards, and the “boss” of the inmates, Malamadre (translated to “Bad Mother” and played excellently by Luis Tosar).

The movie is suspenseful and very well-acted. Rarely do I notice casting in a movie, but it’s great here. The convicts are colorful characters, and one in particular stands out (the one who finds Juan at first, his character’s name is never given). It isn’t a perfect movie by any stretch, and is nowhere near as good as 2009’s Un Prophete (another foreign-language prison film- go watch it immediately if you’ve not yet seen it, brilliant). There are several plot elements that strain believability, but on the whole, this is an entertaining, well-paced movie. I would be shocked if we don’t seen an Americanized version of it soon.

4 out of 5 stars

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Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (2011, 89 minutes, Rated R) 3 out of 5 stars

Relatively entertaining if not great documentary chronicling Conan O’Brien’s stage tour following his departure from The Tonight Show in early 2010. Part of the settlement offered to him by NBC included a gag order on any radio, TV, or internet appearances for the next 6 months. It said nothing about doing live shows, so off Coco goes on a 4-months long nationwide tour with us the viewer coming along.

We’re given a lens into Conan’s home life, him riffing with (and often punching) his writing staff, the pre-production of the show and Conan in the immediate minutes after having performed, his self-imposed obligation to signing stuff for fans, and more, but nothing that’s horribly more interesting than anything just listed. What’s obvious is that Conan has the trait that most dedicated performers have, that being the need to be in front of an audience and to “be on”. He says as much himself throughout, yet also bemoans the baggage that comes with such a quality.

Jim Carey, Jack Black, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and various other celebrities make brief appearances throughout. Has some fairly funny parts, but wasn’t nearly as funny as I was expecting it to be.

Worth catching if you’re an absolute Conanaphile but not a must-see by any means.

3 out of 5 stars

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Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008, 95 minutes, Not Rated (would be R)) 5 stars out of 5

As compelling and emotionally grueling as it gets. Kurt Kuenne‘s ode to his murdered friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby (and to Andrew’s child and parents), is easily one of the best documentaries I have ever seen but also one I am certain I will never watch again.

Bagby was 28 years old when he was murdered, presumably by his on-again off-again girlfriend, who was never actually tried for the crime after a dizzying array of judicial malfunction in the Canadian court system. Bagby was a larger than life person, a doctor with an unwavering devotion to his patients and beloved by his friends and classmates. A single child, his parents David and Kathleen are featured quite a bit by Kuenne, and from them it is easy to see how an exceptional person like Andrew was molded.

I’ll keep the other details of the ordeal the movie is based on sealed, as above was all I knew going in and there’s a lot more than just that. The movie is at times hilarious (Bagby had been acting in Kuenne’s movies since they were children, and we see ample footage), maddening, heart-wrenching, inspiring, depressing, and uplifting, and intensely so in each of those instances. Ultimately it reminded me that there are both monsters and saints in the world. David and Kathleen Bagby are two special people- the world would truly be a better place if more of us were just a fraction more like them.

Recommended but be prepared. I’d be shocked if anyone who watches this isn’t moved to tears at least once.

5 stars out of 5

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Senna (2010, 106 minutes, PG-13) 4 out of 5 stars

Recommended documentary about Brazilian Ayrton Senna, who won three Formula One racing championships before his death at age 34.

This got good reviews, but I was somewhat skeptical. I have no interest in car racing (I didn’t even know the distinction between Formula One and NASCAR prior to seeing this), and was figuring I would find it pretty dull. The first 15 or so minutes did little to allay those fears, but by the end, I was sitting there white-knuckled with my hand covering my mouth. It is very gripping material and presented very effectively.

Senna must have had a video-camera on him close to 24/7 for most of his career because there’s tons of behind the scenes coverage the viewer is presented with from the Formula One circuit in the 80s and early 90s. Senna was an interesting man and a very aggressive driver, to the point where he was suspended for 6 months for causing multiple accidents in Formula One events. His fierce rivalry with opponent and sometimes teammate Alain Prost is fascinating and makes the Ricky Bobby/Jean Girard tug of war seem tame.

The movie succeeds in not only shining a light on Senna, but also shining a light on the general Formula One scene. I’ll never be a fan of watching race car driving, but I’ll be damned if the movie doesn’t present it in an interesting and compelling fashion.

It also has to be said that the on-car camera footage that is shown from the Formula One races is a million times better than any car chase you’ve ever seen in an action movie. Amazing how fast these guys are driving and how quickly they need to respond.

Highly recommended.

4 out of 5 stars

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In a Better World (2010, 119 minutes, Rated R) 4 out of 5 stars

Highly recommended meditation on violence from Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier. Won the 2011 Best Foreign Film Oscar.

The movie unfolds in both Denmark and an unnamed African country, where in each we see the effects and limitations of both violence and non-violence. Anton (Mikael Persbrandt, who looks a lot like Michael Keaton and sounds just like Hans Gruber) is a recently-separated doctor who spends periods of times in Africa treating villagers, many of whom have fallen victim to the violence of a sadistic local warlord. Back in Denmark, his son, Elias (Markus Rygaard), is a bullied grade-schooler. Elias soon befriends a new boy at his school, the angry Christian (William Johnk Neilsen), who has recently moved to Denmark from London following the death of his mother. Christian shows Elias how to fight back against the bullies, and before long Christian enlists Elias in escalatingly malicious acts against those they feel have wronged them. At the same time, Anton finds himself dealing with a situation in Africa involving the warlord that tests his steady moral compass, and threatens to throw it way off kilter.

There are some worthy side-stories going on as well, but that’s it in a nutshell and without giving too much away. Very good. Asks some difficult questions about violence as a solution and provides some harsh answers. Definitely fairly heavy stuff, and a pretty sad, emotion-evoking movie in general, but a very well done one. The entire cast is great, especially the 3 mentioned above, including Rygaard and Neilsen who are both pretty young. Amazing cinematography- some beautiful shots.

Definitely recommended.

4 out of 5 stars

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Rare Exports (2010, Rated R, 84 minutes, subtitled) 2 out of 5 stars

Very disappointing comedy/fantasy/horror that isn’t quite any of those things.

I don’t know much about the origins of the story of Santa Claus, but here the Fins put a twist on it, imagining that he was not a benevolent, gift-doling diabetic but instead a nasty old man who reviles in punishing those who misbehave. And a US/British-led archeological dig in the mountains near a Finnish village has also just awoken the vengeful geriatric and his “elves” (who, speaking of geriatrics aren’t elves at all but instead zombie-like, fully-naked old men who help Santa with his diabolic plot). Once reindeer start getting slaughtered, equipment disappearing and other odd things, the villagers band together and take a stand before Santa and his minions escalate their diabolism.

Sounds like it should be a pretty decent horror/comedy, maybe something like Gremlins. And in fairness, with a bigger budget maybe it would have been. But as is, it’s underwhelming on essentially every front. Not really funny, not scary at all- Santa’s never shown and the most frightening thing about the elves is the amount of shriveled penis the viewer is made to endure. In fairness, it is cold in Finland.

In fact, watching it you’re struck that it is essentially a kid’s movie. Next to no gore, very little onscreen violence, no swearing, no sex. But it’s rated R. When I read the synopsis and saw the R rating, I figured this would have all of the aforementioned. This leads me to believe it received the R rating almost solely on the basis of the amount of screen-time the naked elves are given. I know the MPAA can be weird with their ratings, so I wouldn’t be shocked if this was the equivalent of a PG movie when released in Europe, but it got slapped with an R here for all the dong shots.

End sidebar. Not recommended. To be fair, my expectations coming in were an R-rated horror/comedy that provides a little twist on the Santa myth. In reality, it’s a sterile, low-budget, family Christmas movie. But a mediocre, at best, one of those anyways.

2 out of 5 stars

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The Guard (2011, 96 minutes, Rated R) 3.5 out of 5 stars

Entertaining if uneven comedy with a great performance from Brendan Gleeson. He plays Gerry Boyle, an extremely politically incorrect, foul-mouthed Irish cop in a small town in County Galway who has little use for following by the book procedure when it comes to his job or his life outside work. Gerry’s also a good man beneath his abrasive surface however, immune to corruption and a good son to his dying mother (played by Fionnula Flanagan, the matriarch from the Showtime series ‘Brotherhood’).

Don Cheadle plays FBI agent Wendell Everett, who finds himself in Galway as part of an international drug investigation. He soon crosses paths with Boyle, and after a rocky start, mostly due to Boyle’s aforementioned offensiveness, the 2 become a formidable duo in trying to stop a murderous crew of drug smugglers (each played well by Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong, and David Wilmot).

The movie is fairly by the numbers in terms of plot, and there are also some holes in the story along the way (do Irish cop cars not have dashboard-mounted cameras?). The end also turns into a bit of a mindless action movie. That said, the characters in it are great, well written, and very well acted. The cinematography is very striking, accentuated by deeply saturated colors throughout. It’s very pretty to look at. Rarely am I struck by a movie’s lighting but it’s noticeably good here.

Not something you need to rush out and see, but definitely worth a look, if for nothing else to see Gleeson in a great role. One of his best.

On a side note, Mark Strong continues to impress. Guy just has a stout screen presence in everything I have seen him in. I’m also keen to see what director/writer John Michael McDonagh has up his sleeve next. Given that this was his directorial debut I am impressed.

Lastly, be forewarned that the accents in this are hard to understand at times.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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