Ruby Sparks (w my Audio and Written Commentary)

Ruby Sparks is a romantic comedy written by Zoe Kazan. Ruby is a fictional character thought up in the movie by a successful writer in his early twenties played by Paul Dano.

Audio commentary from ‘The Damien Riley Podcast’ episode: Ruby Sparks

Much to his surprise, one day Ruby comes to life and takes on the role of his real life girlfriend. After that a roller coaster of emotions and love lessons ensue. For me, the strongest message in the movie is about the power we try to exert over each other in relationships. It has a truly all-star cast including Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Elliot Gould, and many more. Though the film started slow for me, it picked up in the middle and became a very fun and emotion-filled ride. I read online while watching the movie that the actress playing Ruby, Zoe Kazan, is the actual writer of the movie. For this reason, the audience gets the perspective of a woman being invented and controlled by an actual woman writer. I was impressed by Miss Kazan and will look for more from her in the future.

Final Thought: Relationships are often funny but more often perplexing. This movie uses metaphor and satire in the form of this invented woman to address some of those difficult issues. Paul Dano does a very nice job as a young writer trying to figure out life and love. He has definite ideas about what Ruby should be and he writes them clearly. I felt a real-life connection to what he was doing when he “wrote Ruby.” I thought at one point, “How would I ‘write’ my wife if I had the magic typewriter?” Through most of the movie I knew I would not rewrite her one iota. I think that is the message of the movie. We want “the perfect spouse” but in reality, we don’t know what that is for us. Better to let our spouse have her/his imperfections than try to craft them into something “perfect.” If those themes sound interesting, you’ll love this romantic comedy. I give it 5/5 stars. In some ways for me it was a perfect film experience.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (w Audio Commentary)

This film in some ways is like “Fargo,” it has buffoons trying to commit crimes with disastrous results. It isn’t funny like “Fargo” though. In fact, this is one of the darker films I’ve seen in the past decade. Give a listen to my short episode on this film and see what you think.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
R | 1h 57min | Crime, Drama, Thriller | 26 October 2007 (USA)

When two brothers organize the robbery of their parents’ jewelry store the job goes horribly wrong, triggering a series of events that sends them, their father and one brother’s wife hurtling towards a shattering climax.
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Kelly Masterson
Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney

Audio commentary from ‘The Damien Riley Podcast’ episode: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Nowhere Boy

Most Gen-Xers know the attitude John Lennon of the Beatles had and the impression that left on modern culture. Milennials may not know much about him and they more than anyone should see this film. Beyond that, Boomers and everyone left living will love this film that chronicles the “pre-Beatle” years of John Lennon. It’s highly well made and the material is timeless.

Nowhere Boy (2009)
R | 1h 38min | Biography, Drama, Music | 15 October 2010 (USA)

A chronicle of John Lennon’s first years, focused mainly in his adolescence and his relationship with his stern aunt Mimi, who raised him, and his absentee mother Julia, who re-entered his life at a crucial moment in his young life.
Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson (as Sam Taylor-Wood)
Writer: Matt Greenhalgh (screenplay)
Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Anne-Marie Duff

Sam Taylor-Johnson is our director here. She is unfortunately the director also of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” We’ll give her a hat tip anyway for taking a bestselling novel and setting it to film. Although I haven’t seen it, I’m sure it isn’t all bad. Her other directorial stuff has included a musical short by R.E.M. and some other huge acts like The Weeknd. She winds big with me on that, I’m a huge music lover. As a trivia note: Director Sam Taylor-Wood married Aaron Taylor-Johnson, the actor playing John in this film.

This film is different from your average biopic. First of all it’s an adaptation of a novel on the same name. Also, it’s the story apart from the luster of the Beatles. We get this guy named John instead of the notorious Lennon. He doesn’t even look like him. That may be a plus because this story takes of out of the Beatlemania and into the psychology of a young man in England trying to fit in as a square peg. I had some issues with the film in it’s ack of rational realism. How could he have learned guitar so fast? When did he start to write songs and how did he hone them? Stuff like this is missing because it’s focused more of relationships.

He is raised by his aunt who is very strict but clearly loves him. As a late teen, his real mother re-enters his life and tells him all about rock and roll. In fact, it is she who teaches him to play music on the banjo. He starts a rock band and goes through a few key life-changing experiences that one might assume made for the attitude he brought to the Beatles. This is an excellent film I highly enjoyed watching. I wish there were more like it about the other members of the Beatles. I give this one a 9/10.

My Bloody Valentine

My score: 6/10. Now streaming on Amazon Prime. 90’s horror had a certain look about it that continued into the 00’s. IN this we see Kerr Smith pop up and in between the blood and gore, there’s an air of Dawson’s Creek that can’t be shaken. But this aint no creek, we’re in a mine now and there a killer loose.

My Bloody Valentine (2009)
R | 1h 41min | Horror, Mystery, Thriller | 16 January 2009 (USA)

Tom returns to his hometown on the tenth anniversary of the Valentine’s night massacre that claimed the lives of 22 people. Instead of a homecoming, Tom finds himself suspected of committing the murders, and it seems like his old flame is the only one that believes he’s innocent.
Director: Patrick Lussier
Writers: Todd Farmer (screenplay), Zane Smith (screenplay) | 2 more credits »
Stars: Jensen Ackles, Jaime King, Kerr Smith

Pros: A lot of action and blood. There is some nudity and scenes that are no holds barred. The brutality is fun and for a horror movie, I feel like you get your money’s worth.

Cons: The story is weak and the characters are very developed. It’s quite formulaic borrowing from all the slasher classics. There is n deep creepiness, more just slice and dice. Watches like a Buffy the Vampire Slayer et. al.

I enjoyed this one but wouldn’t recommend it as scary or interesting, just slasher fun. 6/10.

You Were Never Really Here

My Score 10/10. Now in theaters. At some level we all become the same person trying to get through her/his existence. Listen to my review in the player below.

Lynne Ramsey’s film portrays Joe at that point. He’s good at rescuing sex slaves but can he walk down the street without losing it? I’ve been a fan of Lynne Ramsay since I saw “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” She stood out as a director with something to say, or maybe what she has to say is that we need to be talking about that level we are all on.

You Were Never Really Here (2017)
R | 1h 29min | Drama, Mystery, Thriller | 6 April 2018 (USA)

A traumatized veteran, unafraid of violence, tracks down missing girls for a living. When a job spins out of control, Joe’s nightmares overtake him as a conspiracy is uncovered leading to what may be his death trip or his awakening.
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Writers: Lynne Ramsay (screenplay by), Jonathan Ames (based on the book by)
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov

Lynne Ramsay’s career started with her film “Ratcatcher.” Soon after that she directed “Morvern Callar.” These films, as I understand, are also about individuals deftly making it through a seriously fucked up situation. No one can tell these people about the world as they know what it’s about before you start. It’s dark. Still there is a beacon of survival that floats to the surface of the darkness. Her films are not filled with hope per se but they do show a way through. If there is one, we will find it. Is that hope? Maybe. Yeah, I think it is. There is a seriously jaded tone in her work and I am attracted to that. It’s as if she telling her audience she isn’t here to spoon feed them but lead them to drink at their own water source.

Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is definitely a seasoned professional, albeit jaded. He’s fucked up in the head from the war but he also knows a thing or two about saving young girls in sex slavery. Can you have one without the other? He’s not hung up on the deadly risk of his work because he seems to invite death. There are borderline hallucinatory scenes throughout. In the beginning we see him taking care of his aging mother and mock-asphyxiating himself in closet plastic. It flashes to a young by doing the same thing. We see him as seriously messed up individual who is making it as best he can unable to shake the demons and responsibilities of this world. When he picks up the hammer to do his “work” we see we’re dealing with a gifted pro but at the same time, he can handle a gun.

Joe’s use of a hammer as a weapon is a way of showing he cuts through the bullshit of appearances. To him, a gun is heavy. A hammer is light and gets it done quick. When he goes into houses, trying to find these girls he;s been hired to find, they are lived in but plain. These look just like “our” houses. I couldn’t help but think if the finger was pointing at middle America and the secret sins it hides at home. When they kill his mom, it’s one of the legs on his mental table. He doesn’t teeter, he crashes mentally. It’s hard to keep the line straight between good and evil, in fact it sort of dissolves into a vengeance chapter. As he lays on the floor with the dying assailant he holds his hand as if to say, “You aren’t fucked up man the world is.” And why does he take so much time burying him in the lake in an almost funeral like manner? Could he be thanking him for taking his mother to a better place? He seems reborn after this event. And how about the beautiful day outside? What was being said there?

I was very happy to see many critics agree this is a 100/100. It’s got very little dialog but the music acts as a narrator. It is incredible. Be ready for a slow burn that doesn’t do the work for you, you have to think and negotiate what this means for yourself. I loved it. 10/10.


On Netflix as of 4/11/2018. My Score: 7/10 Francesca Eastwood, yes the daughter, plays the glam graduate student of art who gets distracted by the crimes of others and chooses to cope with her trauma. I enjoyed this imperfect film.

M.F.A. (2017)
Not Rated | 1h 32min | Thriller | 13 October 2017 (USA)

An art student taps into a rich source of creative inspiration after the accidental slaughter of her rapist. An unlikely vigilante emerges, set out to avenge college girls whose attackers walked free.
Director: Natalia Leite
Writer: Leah McKendrick
Stars: Francesca Eastwood, Clifton Collins Jr., Leah McKendrick

Pros: Francesca Eastwood, yes the daughter of Clint Eastwood, fronts this film of vengeance. It’s interesting to watch her struggle to improve her art and finally get recognition for it. Her facial expressions add to her acting abilities. In general, this film is fun to watch. Needed more good men, most are depicted as savages. The film remnded me a bit in tone of “American Mary” though not as body horror and not as gory.

Cons: Some of the material is non-credible. Suicides and covering tracks so well no one sees for a long time what is happening. The film assumes that most women would justify killing rapists. This is somewhat dealt with in the end but not completely. I wouldn’t call it horror it’s more of a thriller.

The Wrestler

My score: 10/10. Mickey Rourke can sell anything onscreen. I find him to be one of the most emotive and credible actors living today. In this case, he’s playing a weathered wrestler at the end of his career. It’s very well made film and bring your tissue.

The Wrestler (2008)
R | 1h 49min | Drama, Sport | 30 January 2009 (USA)

A faded professional wrestler must retire, but finds his quest for a new life outside the ring a dispiriting struggle.
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writer: Robert D. Siegel (as Robert Siegel)
Stars: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood

When you are hungry, you’ll do what you have to do to eat, or you’ll die. Now, add other needs to that equation: when you need the rent, when you’re lonely, when you’re empty inside, etc. People in desperate situations do desperate things. Darren Aronfsky has become quite famous this year for his “Mother!” film. I can’t attempt to unravel that here. Black Swan is another big hit of his. In that we see Natalie Portman’s character doing what she has to do to survive in her situation as well. It gets downright horrifying.

For me, “The Wrestler” is the best film of his. Marissa Tomei plays an older stripper who is not yeat at the end of her “career” and yet she sympathizes with her “client” who is all but completely burned out and washed up in his. If you’ve ever felt “done” with what you do, you will probably enjoy this film. It’sa universal situation for us humans who have limited time to do the best job we can. Again, bring your tissue.

A Quiet Place

My score: 10/10. Depeche Mode sang, “Enjoy the silence.” But I really don’t think anyone in this film is enjoying it. We are programmed to yell out when hurt, scared, or shocked. What would you do if that spelled your demise? This is the question I kept asking in in “A Quiet Place.” Listen to my 7 min review at the player below:

A Quiet Place (2018)
PG-13 | 1h 30min | Drama, Horror, Thriller | 6 April 2018 (USA)

A family is forced to live in silence while hiding from creatures that hunt by sound.
Director: John Krasinski
Writers: Bryan Woods (screenplay by), Scott Beck (screenplay by) | 3 more credits »
Stars: Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds

John Krasinski is our director and a great one indeed. This is a film of 90 minutes that I literally wanted to be a lot longer. Trust me, my patience for long movies is characteristically low. In this case, it was done so well, I wanted to know what the characters did after the first credits appeared. That doesn’t mean I am asking for a sequel by the way, far be that from me. The central premise of being hunted by sound is powerful and it works so well. After that, the foreshadowing and character development worked together to make this film amazing. Tip of the hat to Krasinkski, who also plays the dad/husband of this family. I am utterly impressed with his work here.

A lot of times these days in films, directors use the rule of less is more when it comes to their monsters. They only show parts of the monster ad then the audience uses their far more powerful imagination. We are given the “full creature” in many scenes and this really makes the film work. We have an idea what it can do and maybe how it can be destroyed. Needless to say I am very impressed also with the CGI of this film. This is mostly because it serves the story.

I kept thinking in this film I was in “Signs.” It was like the same barbecue with different meat. Signs is more of a metaphysical/religious film whereas this one is just suspense all the way. The ending of both are birds of a feather and both films have amazing writing that makes the film worthy.

The acting is equally astounding. Metacritic has given this film an 85 and I must say I disagree. This film should be closer to 100. Millicent Simmonds (Wonderstruck) steals the show. All cast members deserve awards but her work as the deaf loving daughter broke my heart and I am sure everyone else’s in the theater as well. She was amazing and I await great things from her in the future.

Emily Blunt pays the mother with so much to lose if the creatures hear her. You feel her tedium. Noah Jupe is the brave young brother who knows what to do in the cse of a creature attack. This is labeled horror but it’s a lot about family and sacrifice. It’s suspense above all and though it starts a bit slow, patient audiences will be rewarded. In case you couldn’t tell, I recommend this film and give it a 10/10.

Near Dark

This is a forgotten gem of a vampire movie. How do you become one? How do you survive once you are one? And best of all, is Edward right that vampires shimmer in the daylight? My tongue is firmly in my cheek as I write these questions.

Near Dark (1987)
R | 1h 34min | Action, Crime, Drama | 1988 (Peru)

A small-town farmer’s son reluctantly joins a traveling group of vampires after he is turned on by a beautiful drifter.
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writers: Kathryn Bigelow, Eric Red
Stars: Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Lance Henriksen

There is so much good to share about this film but really, I needed only two names to want to see it myself: Kathryn Bigelow and Bill Paxton. Bigelow directed this as her debut and she did a wonderful job. The camera angles, editing, acting, and overall tone all add up to a scary yet adventure filled film. Having recently seen “Detroit,” her latest endeavor and a very different themed film, I am struck by her ability to cross genres and make something highly entertaining in both.

Bill Paxton plays a very scary vampire. Something to note is the process vampires go through after they turn where they have to “feed” on human blood. It’s as psychological as it is physical. Oh and some may remember Jenny Wright, the actress that bites her lip so sexy in Pink Floy’d “The Wall,” she’s in this too. She is a vampire so she’s biting other peopl’s bodies this time. It was cool seeing here. She’s very mysterious and so far I like everything she’s done. The director, the actors, including a “beautiful drifter”


I love movies where I feel like I am among the characters. This was certainly that sort of film. Gus Van Sant must have meant it that way in that there appears to be no agenda presented on how we can stop school shootings. But the shootings are there nonetheless. We track several students and a few teachers and parents going about their morning. Little is explained as everything the director wants us to see is merely shown. This was not an easy film to watch but I like how it allowed me to see inside a school shooting and draw my own conclusions. Nothing was shoved down my throat.

Elephant (2003)
R | 1h 21min | Crime, Drama, Thriller | 14 November 2003 (USA)

Several ordinary high school students go through their daily routine as two others prepare for something more malevolent.
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: Gus Van Sant
Stars: Elias McConnell, Alex Frost, Eric Deulen

I couldn’t give this film anything less than a 9/10 because it is so powerful and so halting. The director Gus Van Sant, who we know as the director of “Good Will Hunting,” has made a piece of art that shows us what a school shooting scenario looks like. This could be used in think tanks as official people look for solutions and ways to conduct preparation drills. It is just a little more than a blank canvas, we pour our own meaning into it.

The director shows us the shooters at home getting their semi-automatic rifle delivered and then practicing shooting in the garage with no parents at home. He shows the leader playing beautiful piano while the other surfs the web for more guns. But the movie shows plenty of ways and extended moments where armed teachers or staff could take out the killers. In other words, the point of view is not limited to conservative or liberal. Like I said, no solutions are given, it’s not meant that way. If interested you can look at my review of another Van Sant film that works the same way: not a case study just a case of a juvenile to look at. That film is Paranoid Park.

The actors are all unknown to me. I did recognize the drunk dad though he has a small part. I read that Van Sant made enough money off of directing “Good Will Hunting” that he could enjoy the freedom of making non-commercial films. Shouldn’t every successful director see it that way? He has given the world an amazing case to study and come up with its own individualized solutions. This film came out in 2003 and it is made to mirror Columbine. In the years since its release, we’ve suffered so many more school shootings it’s frightening.

Watch this film with high schoolers and ages up from there. It is not for kids younger than that. Have a conversation based on this film. It is an amazing piece. So, why did I give it a 9/10 and not a perfect score? Probably because it truly offers very little hope. I for one would have enjoyed it more if there were some. Perhaps I’m asking too much. My other 9 points I granted it say the rest. I recommend this film 9/10.

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