the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Location: Washington D.C.

Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Friday, July 28, 2006

Heading to Manhattan on a Wing and a Prayer

So, I originally started this blog as a chronicle of my experiences in New York City as a graduate film student at NYU. But as school doesn’t start until September, I’ve been using it during the summer as a repository of film reviews and the like (which I will continue to do once school starts).

In many ways, perhaps, this post is the first “authentic” Film Snob entry.

While I already changed my Blogger Profile listing to "LOCATION: New York City," the truth is, we're not there yet. Not for another few weeks. This Saturday we'd planned on flying to Manhattan to meet with a broker who has secured some apartments for us to look over. Truth is, we didn't want to use a broker, but were convinced by friends and family in NYC that it would otherwise be impossible to find a place from Colorado. Why are we broker adverse? They charge anywhere from 15-20% of a year's rent for guiding you to a place to call home. And with monthly rent running at around $1,500 for just a small studio, you can imagine how many thousands we'll end up paying just in the broker's fee alone.

Turns out we may not need to pay it after all. Our broker called this afternoon to say that she is stuck in Florida on family business and won’t be able to meet with us. So, in roughly 24 hours we're heading into the most treacherous housing market on the planet all alone and without reinforcements.

I've been scouring Craig's List all night, pounding out dozens of e-mails for possible apartments. To give you an idea of how hot the market is (we were told apartments generally rent the same day they go on the market), below is a picture of one of the "possibilities."

Coffin-sized apartment: $1,600

Picture that makes it look as if it was just hit by a tornado: $25

The fact that you don't care because people like Brandon are so desperate they'll still end up coming by to give it a look: Priceless.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Lady in the Water

I was trying to ignore the critics on this one.

In the days leading up to its opening, Lady in the Water was getting sunk by terrible reviews. While I was certainly concerned, I also remembered that The Village got similar treatment and I esteem it to be M. Night Shyamalan’a best film and the finest of that year.

I’m afraid that the lion’s share of critics are right. Lady in the Water does not work and is, at least in my opinion, his first miss-step as a filmmaker. While I love where Night’s head and heart are at, I think he tried to communicate them in a way that was clumsy, cumbersome, lacking in suspense and menace, and frankly, unexciting.

The Bob Dylan-soaked Lady in the Water is about an apartment super named Cleveland Heep, a sad-sack of a man who we will later learn is harboring agonizing demons. Heep is not the quintessential everyman, he is something even more pathetic. One night he discovers a naked woman in the complex pool. She says her name is Story and that she is a narf, an ancient creature sent to humanity to save it from itself. But there are evil forces stalking her, intent on killing her and any chance for humanity’s future with her. Believing her tale to be true, Cleveland sets about gathering the tenants to protect her on her way home.

If it all sounds a bit too far fetched to be believable, it is. That is both Lady in the Water’s greatest strength and it’s greatest weakness. Night originally developed the story as a bedtime tale for his children and later thought it would make a good movie. It is intended to play like an ancient myth, and indeed, is compared within the film to the ancient Asian fables.

Myths always involve elements of the supernatural world crashing into our own tidy, rational existences. We accept that. But we don’t accept it in this film and, quite frankly, I am not sure why.

When the great myths of our disparate cultures were crafted, they were set in the time periods in which their authors lived. I wonder if the contemporary readers of Jack and the Beanstalk guffawed at giants and cloud-ascending plants. If they did, then we are not so different. If they did not, and their lives allowed for elements of magic and supernatural intrigue to flesh out all-too-human issues, then it is the 21st century that is all the poorer for it. (There is a scene in which a giant eagle swoops down to rescue one of the protagonists. My initial reaction was one of incredulity--despite the fact that the actual shot is easily the most spectacular in the film. My second reaction was a guilty admission that the same thing happened in The Lord of the Rings and I sure didn’t have a problem with it that time. Was it simply because the context of LOTR allowed for the possibility of giant eagles while the context of Lady in the Water, on its face, did not?)

Night’s films are all message driven, and since the dawn of time, human beings have used various forms of mythology to communicate greater truths. What more likely vessel for his messages than a film crafted to look and feel like an ancient story of good vs. evil? And there are some great messages in this film. Hope, even in the midst of utter and absolute chaos (TV’s throughout the film showed video of helicopters on the attack, eerily reminiscent of nightly news images from Lebanon), is always to be sought after. We all, each of us, have a purpose and a part to play in the greater production of human history, even if we don’t know what it is or how we are to go about unleashing it.

But Night trips himself up just as the story gets interesting. While he’s always made cameos in his films, in Lady in the Water, he gives himself a supporting character role, and not just any role--he’s the guy who, inspired by Story’s magic, writes a book that will change the world. That combined with the gruesome (and the film’s only) killing of a film critic (obviously I wasn’t the only one who thought The Village’s reviews were off base) make for Night’s most egotistical, self-indulgent and self-absorbed film.

And yet, I found myself oddly moved. It’s more than the fact that Night is obviously--even here--an extremely rare and talented filmmaker. Of his generation, he alone, perhaps, is the true auteur, always bending toward originality and creativity, even if it is not always decipherable or coherent. And that represents a certain amount of laudable bravery. If there is a very tenuous line between genius and madness, Night walks it.

Will Lady in the Water sour me to future Night projects? Not at all. If anything, the worse things get in the world, the more we need “Story’s” like his. Even the ones that don’t quite float.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Crappy Movie in Disguise

The other day at a showing of The Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, a friend and I saw the new trailer for the Transformers movie. He quickly grew animated and began pointing at the screen, an almost incoherent stream of excited gibberish coming from his mouth.

I know what he was feeling. As a child of the 80's, I well recall the fond memories of sitting down to the great Transformers cartoon or playing with the toys long into the night. However, unlike him, I am not the least bit excited for this film's release next summer. I wish it weren't so, but I predict the Transformers movie is going to suck.

How can it be otherwise? Michael Bay is at the helm.

End of discussion.

The only glimmer of anything even remotely optimistic (pun intended)--though it is not enough to offset the film's inevitable crash and burn--is that it was announced today that Peter Cullen, the original voice of Autobot leader, Optimus Prime, will also voice the live-action version of himself. Nice touch.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Trek XI Teaser Poster Revealed @

More info here.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

The second one always sucks.

It’s called the sequel curse. It’s not a scientific hypothesis of course, but like the lesser-known but even more accurate Star Trek “even movies are great/odd movies suck” rule, it certainly holds water. And when it comes to Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, it holds a hell of a lot of water. Enough to sink a ship...or a film, to be sure.

The first installment of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl surprised everyone. It was a rousing, lively, hilarious, magical free-for-all of fun that decided that if it was a film based on an amusement park ride, the least it could be was amusing. Unfortunetly, its sequel is based on one of those Disney rides that recently broke free of the tracks, careened out of control, cartwheeled into a tangled mess of twisted plot and gnarled screenplay and, if it didn’t kill everyone aboard, they certainly wished they were dead at the end of it.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is nothing more than filler--a stopgap movie that feels so lazy, overstimulated and uninspired that when the credits roll, you are bound to look at the person next to you and say, “Did we really just sit through two and a half hours of noisy action sequences, convoluted plot twists that go nowhere, and numerous false endings only to be told that we’ll still have to plop down another $10 next year just to find out what happens?” This isn’t a film--it’s a two and half hour trailer for a third Disney cash-cow in this accidental trilogy.

All the ship’s company are back. From the scurvy knave, Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), stalwart Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), and mermaid Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) to lesser but no less recognizable supporting players. Problem is, no one seems to be having any fun (least of all the audience). I kept waiting for some moment where I could say, “Now there’s the Jack Sparrow we all know and love.” I gave up right about the time he died. (Oh stop fretting, you don’t reaaaally think he’s dead do you?). Will Turner’s is about as interesting as barnacle growth, and if Elizabeth isn’t underused, she’s misused as a cross-dressing, sword-wielding Amazonian who can’t decide which man she loves--the boring one or the one who struts around with more feminine grace than she.

The same filmmakers came back for the second ride too. This one has the same producer (“Jerry Bruckheimer is the Devil” bumper stickers to be sold soon; act now and also get “Michael Bay is Satan” for no extra price), same director, same screen-writers, etc.

Yes, everything from the first one is back except the plot, amusing dialogue, comic timing, and charming characters. Other than that, everything you loved about the first movie is in this one too.

Oh, there are good elements to be sure. The effects are generally spectacular. So much so that, with a cast this uninspired, the CG characters give more lively performances than the humans. The best is Davy Jones, portrayed by the wonderful character actor Bill Nighy who’s juuuuust visible beneath a writhing mass of squiggly octopus tentacles. Then there’s the Kraken, a massive, mythological beast with tentacles the size of redwoods that can split a ship in two and suck in down to you-know-who’s locker in a matter of seconds.

It’s the actions scenes that director Gore Verbinski does well. Two in particular, with our heroes battling it out on a rolling water wheel as it careens through the jungle is especially nice. Another, when they are trying to escape from cannibals who have imprisoned them in cages hung above high chasms is a whimsical scene strait out of old Speilberg movies or Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner cartoons.

This is a far darker film, in both cinematography and tone. And the movie is sucked dry of any sort of humor because of it. A few memorable bits aside, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is a soggy movie, with no interest in coherence, emotion, economy or fun. But what do the filmmakers and Disney care--they’ve already made a zillion dollars. It will be interesting to see if there is any delayed backlash to Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End when it comes out next summer.

This movie is the very definition of water torture. In one of the film’s multiple endings, a certain beloved characters is gobbled up by a huge special effect. Nope, no metaphor there at all.

I knew I should have listened to the ninja.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Is Night D.O.A.?

As of right now, 24 hours before it debuts in theaters, M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water is drowning under blistering reviews. Granted, a lot of the heavys have yet to report, but it's beginning to remind me very much of the critical reaction to The Village. I don't know why that discourages me--I thought The Village was the year's best film!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

“In 39 years I have never written these words in a movie review, but here they are: You owe it to yourself to see this film. If you do not, and you have grandchildren, you should explain to them why you decided not to.” -- Roger Ebert

I do not exaggerate when I say that Al Gore's global-warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, may just be the scariest movie you will see this year. While you may be tempted to think that I am making a joke at Al Gore's expense (and who could blame me?), think again.

As the film started, Gore gave a quick encapsulation of the phenomenon of global warming, which necessitated an ever-so-brief defense of its scientific validity. I found myself reminded of a recent "National Geographic" article on Darwinian evolution that began by saying:

“Evolution is a theory. In the same sense, relativity as described by Albert Einstein is 'just' a theory. The notion that Earth orbits around the sun rather than vice versa, offered by Copernicus in 1543, is a theory. Continental drift is a theory. The existence, structure, and dynamics of atoms? Atomic theory. Even electricity is a theoretical construct. Each of these theories is an explanation that has been confirmed to such a degree, by observation and experiment, that knowledgeable experts accept it as fact. That's what scientists mean when they talk about a theory: not a dreamy and unreliable speculation, but an explanatory statement that fits the evidence.”

Is An Inconvenient Truth controversial? Not in the least. Unless you are among the sliver of people who feel that global warming is one of the biggest hoaxes perpetrated on mankind. Never mind the fact that of more than 900 peer-reviewed studies on global warming in established, recognized journals, NOT ONE has challenged the idea of global warming. (On the flip-side, more than 53 percent of articles in the mainstream media have presented it as a theory or been sure to include refutations from a handful of talking heads, many of whom, like Bush-aide Philip Cooney who routinely red-penciled the conclusions of impartial government scientists and, when exposed, resigned and took a job with Exxon Mobil, are bought-and-paid-for by the oil industry.)

Following this film's debut, the Associated Press contacted more than 100 top climate researchers, including vocal skeptics of climate-change theory, for their opinion on Gore's facts. Those who had seen the film came away with an overwhelming impression: Gore got the science right.

This isn't new news. Much as some might like to lead you to believe that global warming is a new fad, it is not. It is old news with an ancient back story and far-flung ramifications. Whatever your party affiliation. I challenge you to sit though this film and not walk out of the theater profoundly affected. Don't make the mistake of thinking this is a partisan issue. It's not. It is, as Gore calls it, a moral issue.

The film is essentially a fascinating and relentless cinematic version of a scientific slide show lecture Gore has been presenting and refining for nearly 30 years, concisely laying out the case that our own carbon-dioxide emissions are becoming increasingly trapped in the Earth's atmosphere and are systematically destroying this planet. Casual in both dress and demeanor, this is the ex-vice-President as you've never seen him before and perhaps wish he could have been six years ago. There is a passion here few have ever seen.

The debate is over. The scientific community agrees the planet is heating up, that we are primarily responsible, that the effects are catastrophic, and that we have only a tiny fraction of time to reverse the coming cataclysm.

Gore has enough graphs, charts, time-lapsed photographs and scientific studies to convince even the most ardent skeptic. Calmly and with humor, Gore shows us evidence that the ice caps are melting, the ocean levels are rising, the weather has gone mad, temperatures are skyrocketing (since humans have kept records, the ten hottest years on record have occurred in the last fourteen years and of those, 2005 was the hottest ever recorded) and if we don't act soon—probably within the next decade—we face a apocalyptic future. Once the tipping point is passed, we will begin the slide towards the destruction of most life on this planet.

The most shocking thing of all is the photographic evidence. Gore doesn't need to hype the doom and gloom. The before and after pictures he shows are more than sufficiently horrifying. There's no spinning the pictures.

Where there were once monolithic, thriving glaciers, vast fields of rock remain. Where massive polar icecaps sat, indestructible and immovable, the arctic shorelines have begun to experience rapid erosion. Perhaps most alarming of all are the images dealing with the Antarctic ice shelf and the glaciers of Greenland. These titanic structures are melting, breaking up and tumbling into the sea. If only one of them, or large enough sections of both were to melt completely, sea water levels would rise to the point that every coastal city in the world, including New York, Shanghai, San Francisco, Calcutta, Miami and thousands of others would be underwater.

With these pictures and reams of irrefutable data, Gore shows that global warming is no longer a hypothetical theory. It is fact and the evidence is everywhere, not the least in the floods, hurricanes and droughts that we're seeing all over the world.

If things are even half as bad as Al Gore says they are in An Inconvenient Truth, we are very likely looking at the end of all humankind. It. Is. That. Serious.

Gore treats his audience like adults, laying out a detailed, lucid and cogent explanation of what is, perhaps, the most pressing issue of our collective history. Gore doesn't waste his time preaching to the choir. On the contrary, this film directly and respectfully addresses the queries and concerns of skeptics, methodically piling evidence on top of evidence, until the truth is obvious and unmistakable.

"It sometimes takes time to connect all the dots when accepted habits and behaviors are first found to be harmful. [But] a day of reckoning might come when you very much wish that you had connected the dots more quickly."

Gore compares our complacency to act with civilized Europe's reluctance to confront Nazism in the previous century. We are entering a “period of consequences,” he says, invoking Winston Churchill, in which we must decide and we must decide before it is too late.

“[Many] are quite literally afraid to know the truth," Gore says. "Because if you accept the truth of what the scientific community is saying, it gives you a moral imperative to start to rein in the 70 million tons of global-warming pollution that human civilization is putting into the atmosphere every day."

If this sounds alarmist, it is. And yet, you won't see Al Gore running around like a man with his hair on fire. In fact, this is not a pessimistic film. The truth may be inconvenient, dire even, but it is not hopeless.

There are no action stars or superheros to save the day. In fact, in an odd twist, this is a film in which we all star as both villain and victim. And agent of change. We mustn't give into despair, Gore warns. This nation ended slavery, gave women the right to vote and put a man on the moon. It can accomplish nearly anything. It can certainly lead the rest of the world in stopping global warming. And it even tells us how. Unlike many of the energy assets mentioned in An Inconvenient Truth, “political will is a renewable resource.”

Virtually everyone who sees this movie will be galvanized to do something about global warming. And everyone should see this movie.

Monday, July 17, 2006


I write film and TV reviews at Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

Tsotsi, the first Miramax release without the fabled Weinstein brothers at the helm, bodes well for the future of the production company that turned independent filmmaking into a Hollywood juggernaut. The Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film is well-deserving of the honor, a film that is simple without being simplistic, profoundly moving without ever once veering into sentimentality, an emotionally honest tale of redemption that does not ignore the fact that we live in a world of cause and consequence.

Adapted from acclaimed South African playwright Athol Fugard's only novel, Tsotsi was originally set in the 1950s. Writer/Director Gavin Hood has updated it to the post-apartheid present to reveal a tragic reality: for many black South Africans, little in life has changed. Tsotsi does more than just expose South Africa’s criminal underbelly, it starkly depicts the deep social rifts that threaten to destabilize the country as a whole.

Disenfranchised by whites and wealthy blacks alike, South Africa’s poor are besieged by crime, drowning in poverty, and blighted by AIDS. In highlighting the disparity, Tsotsi makes a powerful statement about what’s still wrong in post-apartheid South Africa. Like another Oscar-nominated foreign film from last year, Paradise Now, Hood allows the camera to speak volumes by simply contrasting the expansive ghettos in the same frame as the city’s glittering skyline.

Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae in his first film) is a teenage street thug. Tsotsi isn’t even his real name. It’s slang vernacular for “thug.” His real name we won’t discover for the majority of the film. No one in Tsotsi knows his name either, even his own loose knit gang--dim-witted yes-man Aap (Kenneth Nkosi), Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), a psychopath who lives up to his name, and almost-school teacher Boston (Mothusi Magano)--who leave their Johannesburg slums (that have the feel of the Japanese shantytowns in Kurosawa’s Dodes'ka-den) each night in search of prey in the affluent city where they steal and kill without second thoughts.

Well, one of them has second thoughts. Boston confronts Tsotsi after the murder of man on the train, demanding to know if the young man has any decency in him. We don’t assume so. Our impression of Tsotsi is pure, unmitigated, ice-cold evil. That anything could change that impression is unthinkable. When Boston pushes Tsotsi too far, asking him if he’s ever loved or been loved in return, Tsotsi erupts, beating him to a bloody pulp.

Fleeing into the night, the nerves of his abusive and agonizing childhood unearthed, Tsotsi finds himself in front of the kind of home he’s never been inside--large, opulent and guarded by a wall. When a Mercedes pulls up in the driving rain and a woman gets out to open the security gate, Tsosti steals her car and shoots her when she resists.

It isn’t until he is miles down the road that Tsotsi realizes he is not alone. In the back seat, a small baby coos and cries. Why doesn’t he just kill it? Abandon it? Even leave it at a hospital or church? Apparently none of these thoughts occur to Tsotsi. He places the child in a large paper bag ironically emblazoned with the words “Expect More” and heads back to the shack he calls home.

Why he cannot abandon the boy is revealed in a series of flashbacks where young David, as Tsotsi was once known, watches his mother slowly dying of AIDS and his violent father drink himself into a monster. Suddenly, it becomes almost comprehensible how Tsotsi, abandoned as a child and left to fend for himself, could evolve into a kind of monster himself. Looking at the helpless baby in front of him, a lone spark of goodness jumps to life within the darkness of Tsotsi’s soul.

It does not roar into a flame all at once, of course. Chwenayagae’s performance brings great credibility to Tsotsi's transformation. It isn’t sudden and it isn’t complete. It's a gradual process and we see each step. (When a director can take a deplorable monster and, within the relative blink of an hour and a half, turn our reaction from disgust to sympathy, he’s a filmmaker to watch.)

Unable to feed the baby, Tsotsi enlists (at gunpoint) the help of a young widow with a small child, Miriam (Terry Pheto in her first film). At first Miriam obeys because she is afraid of Tsotsi and his gun. After all, a story she tells later makes it clear that Tsotsi or another hoodlum like him robbed her of her husband. But later, she breastfeeds the child because she cares for the baby and maybe even Tsotsi. There’s is not a romantic relationship. Their encounters are far too brief and too charged with danger for that. Instead, Mariam acts as a sort of angel to Tsotsi’s demonic rage. Perhaps he sees his own mother in her gentle touch and melodious song. By being kind and willing to care Tsotsi’s young charge, she is both a balm to the young man’s deepest pains and a roadmap from madness to sanity.

Ultimately, Tsotsi is convinced that he must return the child. But doing so will put him face to face with the angry husband and wife, now paralyzed from her injury and an antsy police force. In the final scene, Tsotsi, now, for the first time in the film wearing white, is surrounded on the street in front of the house by police officers, their weapons drawn on him as, weeping, he returns the child to his mother’s arms.

One journey has been completed but another is about to begin. If the first dealt with redemption, the second must address consequences. For the film Tsotsi, both journeys are inescapable. Tsotsi surrenders to his captivity, freer than he’s ever been before in his life.

To read the full review, click here.

The Devil Wears Prada

The Devil Wears Prada isn't a brilliant film, but it certainly is an entertaining one. Reminiscent of bygone Hollywood social comedies, Prada is both an examination of the fashion world as well as a commentary on business and a cautionary melodrama about what can go wrong when our life's energies are misdirected. The former conceit works splendidly and it is here that Meryl Streep--in all of her icy, caustic wrath--comes of brilliantly (as does Stanley Tucci who, in many ways, steals the show).

The second conceit is not as convincing, through no fault of Anne Hathaway who makes the transformation from girl next door to glam queen with delicious believability. The Cinderella, fairy tale aspects of the film just come off as too preachy to truly work.

But it is funny and it is fun. It reminded me of the full page ads found in so many fashion magazines upon which the film's primary set pieces are based--slick and glossy and wonderful to admire. Then we close the magazine and pick up "The New Yorker" for something with a bit more substance.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Sleepy Time

Is it just me, or does this film look delightful...?

Friday, July 14, 2006

Slate: Fleeing the Scene

Slate's opening line says it best. I would run screaming from this movie if it weren't from the mann (pun intended) who made the magnificent and frankly, perfect, Heat.

How odd that on a shoot with known bad-boy Colin Farrell, it's Foxx who goes off the deep end.

There are plenty of films in history that had rough, even apocalyptic shoots and still turned our great. I hope this is one of them...

"If it weren't for the talent of Michael Mann, a movie version of Miami Vice would almost certainly be as awful as it sounds. And even with the talent of Mann, Universal is fighting negative early buzz about the film. What's clear is that the movie is dark, R-rated, and hardly a nostalgia-fest for fans of the television show."

Read the rest of the article here.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Superman Returns

There’s an incredible scene in Superman Returns where the Man of Steel has caught a gigantic globe--the Daily Planet, as a matter of fact--which only moments before had been falling from atop a skyscraper to a populated street below. As he lowers it gently to the ground, he takes on the iconic pose of Atlas, the Greek god who was tasked with keeping the world balanced upon his shoulders. In many ways, Superman had a similar task; one many felt he forfeited when he left Earth for five years in search of his obliterated home-world. Things got very bad in his absence.

To use a phrase made famous by Ayn Rand, Atlas shrugged.

But this film didn’t.

Superman Returns, while flawed, does not disgrace the mythology. Far from it. It is a bombastic, rousing, explosive burst of summer fun and fantasy, enriched by its predecessors and rejuvenated by the new blood and slavish religious devotion of director Bryan Singer.

I do not fully understand those who have felt the need to tear this film to pieces. Yes, certain characters, even main characters, fail to fully inspire emotionally. Yes, Kate Bosworth, though a fine actress, is totally miscast here. Yes, Spacey, while having his moments, does not come close to the gleeful wickedness of Gene Hackman. Yes, Luthor’s land-grab plot is, well, ridiculous.

But does anyone seriously believe that this film is worse than, shall we say, Superman III or IV? Worse than the film that would have been made with Nicholas Cage in the tights?

I defy anyone who says they did not get chills when John William’s score opened with the classic credits sequence or Marlon Brando’s voice wafted over the speakers or Superman recycled his line about the safety record of flying.

I am the first to slather the praise on Christopher Reeve. He was and still is the definitive Superman. When Reeve fell from that horse years ago, I was physically sickened. One of my heroes, an unfellable one at that, was felled. But Reeve is gone. And while that is a tragedy, we must judge this film on its own merits.

And it has more than enough merits to go around. There’s no other way to say it--this is a awe-inspiring film.

There are moments of immense and breathtaking beauty. Superman has never been more believable in flight. He moves with a grace and elegance we’ve never seen before. He is majesty in motion. When he is not soaring through the cosmos, he floats in it. There is a scene where, with Lois Lane draped in his arms, he drifts past the massive, aforementioned Daily Planet sphere that is, quite simply, poetry in motion. His home is the sky and when he rests, if he rests, it is hovering high over the globe, basking in the sunlight, listening to the world below him.

The special effects are jaw-dropping (though I recommend NOT seeing the film in a 3-D IMAX environment--while novel, the 3-D effect is muddled, distracting and lacks the sort of clarity for which you beg during effects-laden sequences). Jumbo jets plummet from the sky, a young Clark Kent discovers his powers, a luxury yacht comes to a titanic end, continents shift and earthquakes threaten to tear Metropolis apart. One very minor effect--Superman lowering a runaway car safely to the ground--is an iconic image taken directly from the early comics.

The special effects aren’t the only special thing on the screen. I loved watching Eva Marie Saint, an actress who stared in several of my favorite movies (North by Northwest and On the Waterfront) and who, in an odd six degrees of Superman, stared opposite Marlon Brando in the latter.

Although Brandon Routh, who is 26--the same age as Reeves when he first put on the cape--appears young, perhaps just too young for the part, he mimics Reeve’s mannerisms and voice with astonishing panache--particularly as Clark Kent. That a no-name actor would be chosen to helm the biggest movie of the summer is a daring choice on Singer’s part. But it was the right choice. By the end of the film, Routh is Superman. (Sadly, the same cannot be said for Bosworth who is simply too young to inspire the necessary gravitas for her role).

Superman returns (though now he stands for “Truth, Justice...all that stuff” instead of “The American Way”--the result of the necessity for movie marketing overseas we’re told). The plot--about Lex Luthor’s attempt to grow an entirely new continental land mass from the same crystals that produced Superman’s Fortress of Solitude--is silly, I grant you, but, in many way, operates more like a sub-plot. The dominant emotional thread of this movie is far more Superman’s disappearance and what that means to humanity. And, of course, what it means to Lois Lane who has a young child who may not be the son of her current boyfriend as he’s been told. A grand piano will answer that question nicely.

This is a film primarily about fathers and sons--both how much we inherit from our fathers and our fathers’ desire that we grow to eclipse even them. This paternal imagery dove-tails into a strong use of Christian imagery. From his heavenly father’s opening line, “They can be a great people, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all--their capacity for good--I have sent them you, my only son” to a snatch of dialogue between Superman and Lois... :

Lois Lane: The world doesn't need a savior...
Superman: Listen...
Lois Lane: I don't hear anything.
Superman: I do. I hear everything. You wrote that the world doesn't need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one. a sacrificial beating Superman endures that plays like a scene cut from The Passion of the Christ, to a heavenly ascension, etc. Singer sculpts and manipulates the Christian mythology into a form that works on a meta-religious level.

If past films emphasized Superman’s humanity, this one plays off of his divinity, going so far at one point as to refer to him as a god, and underscores the lonely gulf that must necessarily exist between the god and the people he loves and protects. Most superheroes are humans who have undergone some sort of transformation to make them into the supernatural beings that they are. Superman is unique in that his super powers are part of his very foundational nature; they define him.

Superman is also something else among summer movies: old-fashioned. I’m not just talking about the reuniting of characters first developed over 70 years ago, but of the manner in which the film was made. While very serious things occur, the violence rarely moves out of the realm of a cartoon. In fact, you can count the number of people who die in this film on one hand, and aside from one who passes from natural causes, all of them are bad guys. I don’t say this in some sort of smug, prudish, family-friendly rant, but as an acknowledgment of a film that, at its heart is playful, fun and harkens back to a time of simpler filmmaking--all without losing its very contemporary veneer.

Superman Returns, while not perfect, delivers everything it promised. It is a dazzling film crafted in the spirit of the comic books, filled with splashy effects, punctuated with larger-than-life characters, surprisingly tender, and rollicking fun.

You’ll leave the theater believing even you can fly.

Thursday, July 06, 2006


“We have to overcome the idea that everyone is the same.” --Thumbsucker

It started out as a slightly above-average teenage coming-of-age story. Three fourths of the way through it, I was enjoying myself but not about to rush into the streets screaming its name at the top of my lungs.

And then came the final act.

And. Everything. Came. Together. Beautifully.

And with that, a good film became a great film. What a beautifully humane and life-affirming movie. The sort we rarely see. There are plenty of films, especially those centered around teens, that are bleak and frankly, exploitative in nature. They seem to revel in the fact that they are without hope. And then there's Thumbsucker.

Justin Cobb (Lou Pucci) seems to be your normal 17 year old. Except that his greatest comfort is also his greatest thorn in the flesh—Justin still sucks his thumb. Justin's thumbsucking is the film's metaphor for whatever makes us different, the thing others can't accept, the symbol of everything we fear or dislike about ourselves.

Justin lives in a soulless suburb with a father (Vincent D'Onofrio) who is emotionally vacant, frozen out of any ability to carry on a meaningful conversation with his son, let alone tell him he loves or is proud of him, and a mother (Tilda Swinton) who certainly loves him and tells him so, but is, at times, little more than a teenager herself.

At school, Justin is a loner, unable to connect with anyone, least of all the girl he likes. His grades are plummeting. Justin's new age orthodontist (Keanu Reeves) is sympathetic to his discomfort. He recommends connecting with his power animal to overcome his problems. When that doesn't work, Justin turns to sex and drugs in order to cope.

Then comes a guidance counselor's advice the Justin begin taking Ritalin. Soon everything changes. He joins the debate team and learns that he has a gift--he excels at shredding his opponents. Unfortunately he also begins shredding those he loves, causing him to throw his pills out. It seems, at least to him, that he is doomed to a life as either a loner or a monster. (All of this mischief is set to the delightful music of the Polyphonic Spree through the late Elliot Smith. )

That's the gist of the first few acts.

What makes Thumbsucker so empathetic is that it understands that it's never easy to be a teenager—to be tossed about on the whims of peers just as confused as you are; to have parents who simply don't understand where you are coming from. On the crest of adulthood, teens often don't have the experience or life-knowledge to know what to do. Thumbsucker doesn't deny that it's a big, bad world out there. But it does ask for a little compassion.

In the final act, Justin has been accepted to NYU (way to go Justin, I hear it's a great school!) and just before he leaves, stops by to see his orthodontist, Perry, one last time. But the office has changed. And so has Perry. For whatever reason, Perry is a humbled man, no longer spouting new age fixes or self-help creeds. He may not be as confident as the last time we saw him, but he seems more...content. Justin asks him why.

“I stopped trying to be anything. I accepted myself and all of my human disorder. You might wanna do the same. Justin...there’s nothing wrong with you.”

“It felt like everything was wrong with me.”

“That's 'cause we all wanna be problemless. To fix ourselves. We look for some magic solution to make us all better, but none of us really know what we're doing. And why is that so bad? That's all we humans can do. Guess. Try. Hope. But, Justin, just pray you don't fool yourself into thinking you've got the answer. Because that's bullshit. The trick is living without an answer. I think...I think.”

Yes, yes, yes! Absolutely beautiful.

One of the things that makes Thumbsucker so wonderful is that nobody in it is a villain. All the characters are flawed and addicted to something—be it drugs or control or fantasy—but they are all, in the end, simply human. Thumbsucker doesn't excuse addiction or misdeeds, but it is insistent that we begin looking at those things we tend to inflate to right or wrong issues and begin seeing them as flaws, yes, but flaws that make us who we are and that we be OK with that.

Funny, wise, moody, vulnerable, adorable and nuanced, Thumbsucker is a film we can cheer for--in the street or in our living rooms.

Why We Fight

I write film and TV reviews at Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

In Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning masterpiece, Shindler's List, Liam Neeson shares a dance with his estranged wife in a posh club. Last she saw him, he was a struggling business man. Now he is wealthy beyond either of their wildest dreams. How, she wonders, did he amass this wealth.

“There's no way I could have known this before, but there was always something missing,” he muses. “In every business I tried, I see now it wasn’t me that was failing, it was this thing, this missing thing. Even if I’d known what it was, there’s nothing I could have done about it, because you can’t create this sort of thing. And it makes all the difference in the world between success and failure.”

“Luck?” his wife asks.

“War,” he proclaims.

* * *

On January 11th, 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his final address as President of the Untied States. Customarily a time to reflect on an administration's successes, Eisenhower instead chose to use his last minutes before the American people to pass on a grave warning:

“Beware the military-industrial complex.”

In an extraordinary clarion call, this man who rose to become the most powerful military general in the country before going on to become President, warned his fellow countrymen that they ignored the rise of militarism in America at their own peril. Eisenhower felt that the money and focus lavished on the country's fighting forces was obscene when Americans' basic needs were going unmet.

His words echo throughout the documentary, Why We Fight, a shell-shock of a film.

Director Eugene Jarecki makes the link between Eisenhower's America and George W. Bush's America with shocking ease. But don't mistake this for a partisan attack piece. Far from it. Jarecki faults Democrats and Republicans alike (after all, he holds up Eisenhower, a two-term Republican as his paradigm). Jarecki is not after parties. He is after what he and many others see as a debilitating cancer eating away at the body politic.

What, the film literally asks, is this country fighting for? Jarecki is concerned that we always dip our wars in sweet tasting words like liberty and freedom. We wrap the flag around all our actions. It's far easier to say we must vanquish the evildoers than to ask the hard questions such as, did we do anything to bring this upon ourselves?

“We have an obligation to spread democracy throughout the world,” John McCain says in an interview.

Is that what we're doing, Jarecki asks with Why We Fight? Democracy at the point of a bayonet? Save the world by taking it over? Capitalism may be winning...but is it at the price of democracy? When does America go from a force for good to a force for imperialism? Make no mistake, the film argues, while the shape may be different than those in the past, we are an empire.

In his farewell address, George Washington (noticing a theme?) warned of the danger of maintaining a standing army. He did not want the fledgling country to become like that of the Roman empire. In order to maintain what we have--the power, the clout, the prestige, the resources, the way of life--we must have standing armies and bases in foreign countries to put them on. Controlling our own land is not enough, we must be able to control the world. To do so, we must be it’s sole superpower.

We say we don’t use our military for conquest or domination. Don’t we, Jarecki asks? We have over 700 bases on every continent except Antarctica. Our garrisons encircle the planet. We currently occupy or squat in large parts of the Middle East--the lifeblood of our country’s energy.

Today, the U.S. spends more on defense than all other nations combined. The defense budget is far and away the largest portion of the national fiscal pie. This alone should be enough to give us pause. The thing that is truly disturbing, Why We Fight argues, is that our military is run, not for what benefits the country, but for what benefits defense corporations. The Military Industrial Complex is controlled by the civilian Defense Industry and the think-tanks puppet-masters. More than at any other time in our history, the people making the decisions and implementing policy have absolutely no accountability to the voter. Here’s where the film’s rubber meets the road. The Pentagon and military contractors are unquestionably in bed with one another other, Why We Fight asserts.

We live in an era of permanent militarization. When war is this profitable, you’re going to see more of it. You will, if necessary, invent reasons to go to or maintain war.

In it’s boldest, though hardly groundbreaking assertions, Why We Fight postulates that post 9/11 was used as an excuse for a very calculated and pre-developed foreign policy of world domination.

Iraqi exit strategy? What exit strategy? There’s no need for an exit strategy when you never intend on leaving.

Wake up, Why We Fight chides. We have all failed to ask the right questions or hold anyone accountable. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. And we have not and are not being vigilant.

Nowhere is it written that America will go on forever.

To read the full review, click here.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

I write film and TV reviews at Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

“The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” It’s the sort of book many of us own and hope others see on the bookshelf when they come over for dinner. Which is to say, none of us have ever read “Tristram Shandy” but we hold on to it because we keep telling ourselves that one of these days we will.

The odds are against it. Posited as a fictional autobiography of an English gentleman, Laurence Sterne's bawdy and untamable 18th-century novel is a meandering hodgepodge of digressions, narrative fractures and literary rabbit trails. “Tristram Shandy” is a singularly impossible and sprawling piece of literature that is almost unreadable, let alone unfilmable.

Don’t tell that to Michael Winterbottom.

No stranger to literary adaptation (having directed both Jude and The Claim from works by Thomas Hardy), Winterbottom must have known from the beginning that Tristram Shandy could not be approached in the same realistic, reverential way. His decision? Turn it into a post-modern romp with equal parts literature and lunacy.

Just as Sterne couldn’t fit his novel within the confines of a common book, neither does its adaption fit into the neat, tidy confines of a movie. Instead of trying to run from Sterne's innovative and often confounding use of flashbacks, flash-forwards, cross-cutting, and direct-address voice-over narration, Winterbottom embraces it, chucking a conventional narrative for something equally perplexing. He decides to make a movie about the making of movie based on incomprehensible book that was, in many ways, about the making of a book. Need me to run that by you again?

As it turns out, the movie-within-a-movie Tristram Shandy never really seems to get around to filming the book, leaving the Tristram Shandy that you have in your DVD player as an uproarious satire on the travails of modern movie-making. The film is a ceaseless volley of digressive, meandering subplots and glimpses at the undercarriage of the filmmaking process--dirt and all. The movie-within-a-movie conceit isn't new, and it often comes off sanctimonious and self-aggrandizing. But not here. Tristram Shandy is charming, witty and irresistibly playful.

Not satisfied with layering the simultaneous stories of Tristram’s tumultuous birth and frustrated adulthood, the film also interrupts the action to allow its principle character time to address the camera. And of course, the camera never really stops, because even when someone calls cut, it settles onto the actors as they dart about the set.

Tristram Shandy has several main characters, including British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. They are played by, respectively, British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Gillian Anderson even stops by. Yes, that Gillian Anderson. They do not play themselves exactly, of course. If they were, Coogan and Brydon would come off as insecure, pompous, preening maniacs, playing an egotistical tug-of-war for first billing on screen and on set. (Coogan demands that the costume department add an inch to his heels so he'll appear taller than his rival). That the leads play satirical versions of themselves is just one of many ways in which Tristram Shandy lets it be known that it is completely self-aware and in on the joke. Other actors include Stephen Fry, Jeremy Northam, Kelly MacDonald and Naomie Harris who are wonderful in that deliciously understated British way.

To read the full review, click here.

Spaced Out

The nominations are out.

No Battlestar Galactica aside from a few technical catergories. Someone over at the Emmys needs to pull their head out...

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Everything is Illuminated

I watched Everything is Illuminated again this holiday weekend. I saw it at the Telluride Film Festival last September but was so tired at the time of the viewing that it deserved another look. I knew I’d liked it, I just wasn’t sure how much of it I remembered.

What a tender, beautiful, bittersweet, transcendent film. It doesn’t reveal it’s writhing agony until the final acts. What begins in quirks and idiosyncrasy moves into a dark place where profound sadness and profound closure co-exist side by side. It is a film of pain that resurfaces and even though it is washed in redemption, still demands a bloody sacrifice.

The purpose of the film--a man’s search of his family’s roots--turns out to be a Hitchcockian MacGuffin of sorts; the spark but not the fire that lights the engine of the film’s soul. That comes in the most unexpected of places. Leiv Schreiber, in his directorial debut, does a deft and invisible job of shifting the material from broad satire and silliness in the film’s opening salvos to pathos and solemnity in the closing notes.

I am proud of Elijah Wood. His acting choices since The Lord of the Rings have been incredibly brave (Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Sin City). This film is no exception.

I was right about my hunch. A film equal parts farce and tragedy, Everything is Illuminated was well worth a repeat viewing.

Nacho Libre

I have to admit, I enjoyed Nacho Libre, even while realizing it was not anywhere near as good as I hoped it would be or should have been. It’s unfortunate. Jack Black as a fat Mexican friar who moonlights as a professional wrestler dressed in stretchy pants should bring the house down. Instead it merely provides some momentary pleasant diversions.

While it began strong, the film could not sustain the whimsy and melancholy it created in the first 20 minutes and, in fact, required to be a truly great comedy. The later half of the movie feels formulaic and conventional, the joyous spontaneity lost. You see where it is trying to go and the fact that you can and it can’t quite get there, makes it all the more disappointing.

Sure Jack Black is always. Héctor Jiménez is lovely and grotesque in the finest tradition of director Jared Hess’ films. And Ana de la Reguera is angelic. But the rollicking parts are greater than the overall sum, a movie perhaps best seen in trailer form where it’s individual moments are allowed to shine and carry the laughs. And those endearingly ridiculous moments are the ones I chose to take with me from the theater.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Overwhelmed by Underworld

I know, I know, the title of this blog is indeed "The Film Snob" which would seem to indicate that movies such as The Apu Trilogy or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie should occupy the bulk of my posts. And I suppose, by and large, they do and will.

However, once and a while you’ll have to allow me a guilty pleasure.

I have these from time to time... Films that aren’t going to garner any awards from anyone (least of all myself) but nonetheless give me smiles and a wonderful sense of fun when the closing credits begin to roll.

The Underworld films (Underworld and Underworld: Evolution) are such examples. (Good luck getting me to admit to the others here!)

The first of the two is the more superior, but both operate as monster movies for the new century. Though their heart may be the same as their mid-20th century predecessors, their packaging is certainly the product of everything Hollywood’s high-tech wizards can throw at the screen. The result is stylish, gothic, uber-violent, pornographically gory, and oh-so loud. And let us not forget Kate Beckinsale in black leather. The in-your-face sort of mayhem that a movie about vampires in a war against werwolves creates makes for an undeniably entertaining experience.

The Underworlds and movies like them (the one’s that work anyway) are the cinematic equivalent of Chinese food. While you’re eating, they’re delicious and filling. Just so long as you realize that you’ll be hungry again for something a lot more substantial as soon as you get up. But we all need a sweet treat now and then, don’t we?

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Roger Ebert Seriously Ill

According to the Chicago Sun-Times Web site, 64-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert is in serious condition at a Chicago hospital following an emergency operation to repair complications from an earlier cancer surgery. His vital signs appear to have stabilized. Mr. Ebert has already had four cancer surgeries in the past several years.