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.

My Photo
Location: Washington D.C.

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

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Joel Siegal Dead at 63

Joel Siegal, one of the most recognizable faces and notable voices of film criticism died on Friday after a long battle with colon cancer; he was 63. Known for his common sense reviews and punny one-liners, Siegel was one of the first print critics to parlay his writing job into a television career, most notably on “Good Morning America.”

I sat next to him at a screening just a few weeks ago. He looked frail, twenty years older than he actually was, and required assistance in and out of the theater. But he died doing what he loved right up until the very last minute.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A Lot to Talk About V

Thoughts on tonight’s On The Lot.

Jessica deserved to go, NYU classmate or not. She offered nothing and won’t be missed.

Despite being yanked out of her comfort zone, Shalini did a good job with Doctor in Law. It had a beginning, and a middle and no true end, but it still left a good taste in my mouth.

Adam's Discovering the Wheels was somewhat creative and certainly ambitious but it was also...pointless. What was it about, exactly? A Ford commercial? Hmmmm…

Will’s Nerve Endings was macabre and yet still "adorable" — quite funny with a great ending.

Hilary’s sperm bank robbery film, Under the Gun was, dare I say it, actually funny and inventive. After her earlier stuff, I didn’t think she had it in her. (Thankfully she added plenty of wide and medium shots instead of her usual claustrophobia.) I was pleasantly surprised even if it did go awry at the end.

David's How to Have a Girl was just ok. Nice premise, but it lacked something in the execution.

Zach's Die Hardly Working was delicious and smile inducing — as all his film are. Jenni didn't hurt either. It was the anti-effects short, and he continues to nail it week after week. If I was one of the other contestants, I’d be tempted to just throw in the towel now. Watch his latest film here.

Either Adam or David will be going home next week. But what do I know? Each week the worst offenders seem to hang around. I guess that helps Zach shine all the brighter each week.

P.S.: What is it with Gary's new literary quote every week?!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard

Live Free or Die Hard begins with a bang. Several of them, actually. It launches straight into the action within seconds of the theater lights going down and doesn’t stop until the lights come back up. Deafeningly loud and breathtakingly kinetic, the action is nonstop, fiercely uninterested in giving the audience a chance to breath.

When Det. John McClane (Bruce Willis) is sent on a routine assignment to pick up a young computer hacker for questioning, he is the last person to imagine that young Matt Ferrell (Justin “Mac” Long) is the unwitting pawn in a conspiracy to bring down the United States government. But when the entire computer-based infrastructure of the country begins to collapse, it isn’t long before McClane and everyone else realizes the country is under assault.

In a crippling 4th of July attack, the terrorists strike at America’s transportation, finances and utilities. With the nation debilitated and plunging into anarchy, computer mastermind Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) takes advantage of post-9/11 infrastructure consolidation and in a move that is as much to make a point as it is to make money, prepares to walk off with billions of dollars.

But high-tech Thomas Gabriel never counted on low-tech John McClane.

As usual, the Feds are out of step, but with Ferrell’s technical know-how, McClane single-handedly takes on the terrorist network. The stakes have never been higher. As if saving an entire country wasn’t enough, Gabriel kidnaps McClane’s estranged, now college-aged daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) as insurance. Unfortunately for the bad guys, Lucy is, most definitely, a chip off the old block.

There is a line in Ocean’s Thirteen in which a character tells our heroes, “You’re analog players in a digital world.” There is a similar line in Live Free or Die Hard, but it seems to fit here far more organically than it did in Oceans. Live Free or Die Hard exults in its throwback hero from another era. For all their technical wizardry, the bad guys are no match for McClane’s old-school ingenuity and brawn.

In the same way, Live Free or Die Hard itself feels like a nostalgic throwback to an earlier time. As more and more movies rely on massive CGI enhancement and Hong Kong choreographed wire-rigged fights, Die Hard revels in good, old-fashioned fist fights and real, immaculately executed stunts. While the film does incorporate some digital action, it is largely limited to one particular scene (a completely unnecessary and implausible truck vs. jet battle) and never overwhelms.

The action in Live Free or Die Hard is as high octane as anything you’ve ever seen. Have no doubt about it, Bruce Willis most definitely still knows how to kick ass and leave carnage in his wake. The stunts are phenomenal, especially those by Frenchman Cyril Raffaelli. (Like Sebastien Foucan in Casino Royale, Raffaelli is one of the disciples of parkour, a style of free-running movement based entirely on momentum and ricochet. Reminiscent of early Jackie Chan movies, Raffaelli dazzles with the untapped potential of the human body.) The seductive Maggie Q plays Gabriel’s beautiful paramour, setting up an East vs. West showdown and one of the most satisfying, down-and-dirty moments of the film.

It’s great to see Bruce Willis back in the role that made him a star. His usual cranky, wisecracking, sardonic self, Willis’ McClane is certainly older than the barefooted hellion that scampered around Nakatomi Towers in 1988, but he is no less convincing. (I am reminded of recent pictures on the internet showing a much older Harrison Ford donning the immortalized hat and whip for the next Indiana Jones film). McClane is most certainly not a superhero. In a cinema awash with indestructible deities, McClane — always in the wrong place at the wrong time — is a beaten, bloodied mess by the end of the film. Par for the franchises’ course. And as far as being a hero is concerned, he tells a shell-shocked Ferrell that all heroics have gotten him is a divorce and estranged children. “Then why are you doing this,” Farrell asks. “Because there’s no one else,” McClane replies.

Director Len Wiseman (the delectably slick Underworld films) has made a movie with little to no character development. Does he consider the first three films as set-up enough or does he realize that we don’t go to action films for character-driven plots? Wiseman seems to borrow elements from and even pay direct homage to a number of action films that have gone before his, including Goldeneye, T2, True Lies and, of course, the other Die Hard films. There are the familiar troupes: witty, testosterone-fueled exchanges over walkie-talkies, fiery action in elevator shafts, etc.

If there is one major fault to Live Free or Die Hard, it is that at some point well into production, the decision was made that an R-rating would hurt its commercial viability and a slightly more family friendly PG-13 version was decided on. Unfortunately, large amounts of the R-rated dialogue had already been recorded, forcing the filmmakers to go back over their earlier work and complexly retool what existed. The result is a sort of Japanese dubbing effect in which the character’s mouths are out of sync with what they’re saying. It is, in a word, distracting. It is also fundamentally disappointing — even the now famous Die Hard mantra, “Yippe-Ki-Yay…” doesn’t escape unmolested.

As Live Free or Die Hard appeared on everyone’s radar screens, magazines and websites fell all over themselves trying to compile lists of the best action films ever made. Almost without fail, the original Die Hard finds itself in the top spot. While certain action classics haven’t aged well, Die Hard, with its story of a man trapped in a skyscraper overrun with terrorists is still an undisputed thrill ride from start to finish. Live Free or Die Hard isn’t nearly as smart a film, but it certainly is a fun, entertaining one. Don’t think too hard — just lean back, enjoy the ride, and remember a simpler time when Hollywood built sets rather than virtual environments, created jaw-dropping stunts instead of digital animation, and threw real punches instead of graceful, cartoon ballets.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

"Blade Runner: Final Cut" Finally Arrives

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Oh Bliss!


This is an abridged version of a review I wrote for Christianity Today Movies. To read the rest of this review, click here.

Let’s face it, we all come to Michael Moore’s films with our own established preconceptions just as Moore arrives onscreen with his rather renowned baggage. For those people who loathe his methods and politics, he is, as the great film critic Pauline Kael said, a peddler in “gonzo demagoguery.” For those who celebrate his zealousness and guerilla tactics, he is a prophet, calling forth repentance in the public square.

Moore began preparing for Sicko almost ten years ago. Inspired by a segment in his TV show, The Awful Truth, Moore got the idea to make a film tackling the absurdities of the American healthcare system. Then came the Columbine shootings. And the Iraq War. After the dust settled from Fahrenheit 911— the highest grossing documentary in film history — Moore found himself returning to his shelved idea. After all, healthcare affects more Americans than either gun violence or terrorism.

There are no congressional ambushes or CEO confrontational stunts in Sicko. Moore seems to be channeling the great social critics of the past, like Mark Twain, stating his argument and framing his ideology clearer than ever before. Sicko is less angry and antagonistic than his former films, incorporating a surprising amount of joviality for a subject as painful as this. You can say things in comedy that you can’t say in drama. Moore has somehow managed to utilize both in a way that will make you laugh yourself sick. This is his most accessible and enjoyable film, and he might just win some fans with this one.

While many would assume Moore is out to slay the dragon of America’s nearly 50 million uninsured citizens, he’s not. It’s about the millions of others who dutifully pay into their insurance each and every month and when it comes time to draw upon that reserve, find themselves ensnarled in bureaucratic red tape. America currently ranks No. 38 in global health care — just above Slovenia. Touting the best medical care known to man, Americans are far from the healthiest people on the planet, nor do we have the longest life expectancies. There are third world countries with lower infant mortality rates than the United States.

Moore populates his film with profiles of ordinary Americans whose lives, in one way or another, have been forever altered by collisions with the healthcare system. It is through their stories and tears that the oft times overwhelming colossus of healthcare is distilled into very real, very personal vignettes.

There is the man who cut off two of his fingers and was told he had only enough money to choose one to be reattached. There is the woman who was charged for an unapproved ambulance ride after she was rescued unconscious from the scene of a car crash. There is the debt-ridden couple who now live in their daughter’s basement because their insurance refuses to cover their cancer and heart treatments. There is the mother who was turned away from the hospital because she didn’t have the right insurance. There are the disowned 911 rescue workers now suffering debilitating respiratory infections as a direct result of their heroic efforts at Ground Zero. There is the dazed patient dumped by her hospital at a homeless shelter because her insurance had run out.

Sicko continues Moore’s tradition of assailing power structures, but unlike his last films, there is no singular entity for his incisive scalpel, but rather a triumvirate composed of HMOs, pharmaceutical companies and hospital bureaucracy. Sicko traces the origins of HMOs back to Nixon’s White House with some jaw-dropping revelations, and insists that private health insurance companies are driven by pure greed. It is in the HMO’s best interest to pay out as little as possible. Each approval is money they lose; each refusal is cash in their pocket.

A former insurance worker admits that her career advanced the more people for whom she refused care. “You didn’t fall through the cracks,” another says, “Somebody made the crack and swept you toward it.”

The pharmaceutical companies fare little better. Moore argues they jack up the prices of their drugs, making them next to impossible to afford for those who need them the most.

We live in the richest country on Earth, Moore states, so why don’t we offer free, universal healthcare to those most in need? Other, poorer countries manage universal healthcare and do so spectacularly. An exercise in compare and contrast, Sicko leaves America behind for almost half its running time, traveling to Canada, Great Britain, France and even Cuba to examine how they take care of their sick. At each location, Moore visits with expatriates who offer him uniquely duel-sided views of the debate. One by one he vanquishes the conservative myths that claim socialized medicine is destroying those countries that have adopted it. And with each visit, his premise that universal healthcare is doable is strengthened.

The truth is, socialized organizations are not alien to Americans at all, and far from the Red menace alarmists would like us to believe. Everything from our police and fire departments, public school, libraries and postal service are all managed by the government on a not-for-profit basis. Why should medicine be any different?

Despite the accusations of manipulation, condescension and playing fast and loose with the truth, Moore’s brand of commentary is difficult to resist. Doubtless, there will be those who can find the holes in his arguments and point out the film’s glaring oversights. And almost certainly they would be right to do so. Moore is decidedly uninterested in showing both sides of the story. His is a polemic world of diatribes and invectives. And though it might have been nice if, during the two hour running time, he had taken a moment to suggest what universal healthcare might cost the American taxpayer, it is enough, I suppose, to simply start the conversation.

While Sicko includes facts, statistics and graphs, it’s ultimately much more interested in how this drama plays out on a human level. The question is not why this utopia does not exist, but why we don’t even care to try to make it so. For Moore, it is not about politics; it is about morality. Profit, he argues, should never enter into the equation where a person’s health is concerned.

It has been said that a country can be judged by how well it treats its poorest citizens. If that is true, America is in dire straits. Sicko is a David versus Goliath story and anyone who doesn’t hear its clarion call to revolution isn’t paying attention.

Friday, June 22, 2007


Pixar hasn’t made a bad movie yet. Sure, some may have been better than others, but in terms of producing a dud — it simply hasn’t happened. Well, you can stop holding your breath. Not only is Ratatouille not a bad movie, it is easily one of Pixar’s best!

Ratatouille is the story of Remy, a French rat trying to live the American dream. (Imagine making your film’s protagonist a rat! Mickey Mouse is one thing, but vermin?!) Remy has an extremely discriminating palette. While his father, brother and rest of his colony gorge themselves on rotting trash, Remy wants only the finest foods and dreams the impossible dream of one day working in a five-star gourmet restaurant. His inspiration is the late Chef Auguste Gusteau, who appears to him with advice much as Obi Wan Kenobi did to Luke Skywalker.

When Remy, separated from his colony, finds himself in the sewers beneath Paris’ famous Gusteau restaurant, he knows it is his destiny to work there. But how to fulfill that destiny? That is when fate brings along a down-and-out garbage boy named Linguini, and together they form the ultimate odd couple. Remy, who knows how to cook but obviously can’t be caught in the kitchen, hides in Linguini’s hat, and steers the young man’s clumsy body like a marionette by pulling his hair this way and that. It is a ridiculous conceit — but it works like a charm. Before long, the pair are on their way to becoming the greatest chef Paris has ever seen.

Ratatouille is enchanting filmmaking. Few filmmakers can pull off unadulterated magic like Pixar. There is an almost physiological reaction that occurs when the Pixar logo lamp bounds onto the screen. It is the herald of something special and wholly unique. True, there are still 2-D artists who decry the rise of computer animation. High-falutin technology it may be, but there is no denying that Ratatouille possesses the heart of soul of all the 2-D (and 3-D) masterpieces that have come before it.

Pixar’s computer animation just gets better and better. Ratatouille employs some of the most luxurious sophistication yet seen in any CG-animated film. There is so much going on. The animators have outdone themselves creating a world of breathtaking detail and minutiae. Paris is palpable, be it swaddled in the warm light of a setting sun or prowling the damp stink of the sewer. But more than that, the Gusteau kitchen, where most of the action takes place, is incredibly dense and complicated. To master their furry friends, the animators kept live rats on their desks, and for the human subjects, they studied such Gallic heroes as Brigitte Bardot and Charles de Gaulle!

What is amazing about this or any other Pixar film is that you completely buy the characters, be they human or animal. Much of that credit has to belong to the stellar voice cast including popular stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt, Brian Dennehy, Brad Garrett, Janeane Garofalo, Academy Award nominees Ian Holm and the legendary Peter O’Toole as a food critic more walking corpse than man. Oh yes, and let’s not forget Pixar’s good-luck charm, John Ratzenberger.

Unlike other Pixar entries, Ratatouille is full to the brim with classical physical comedy. Channeling Buster Keaton, the filmmakers have crafted several exhausting sequences in which Remy dashes between people legs, leaps across furniture and is catapulted through space. It’s a dangerous world when you’re only a few inches high. The result is a thrill ride equal to that of any amusement park.

Pixar’s geniuses have always made films as entertaining for adults as they are for children. Ratatouille may be their most mature-skewing film yet. Don’t worry, your kids will still squeal with delight, but you and your older children will also walk away enthralled. Like all of Pixar’s films, Ratatouille is a morality play wrapped in a cotton candy shell. It encompasses the great themes of unconditional friendship, something Pixar has mastered before and mines again here. But more than that, Remy’s aspirations for something better, and his desire to buck the expectations of others while staying true to himself is a universal premise especially resonant with teens and adults.

Ratatouille is a delicious, delightful stew of a film, a classical fairy tale told with the language of 21st century technology. Like all good fairytales — to say nothing of animation — the real magic is in taking a premise that is utterly unbelievable and fashioning it into something completely convincing.

It's been popular lately to make fun of the French. But they will love this movie — and so will you. It is a work of pure joy and whimsy.

Note: The opening short, a Pixar trademark, is as fun as the feature. Lifted is about an extra-terrestrial trainee being judged on how well he can handle an abduction.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


You may not see a better film this year than Once and chances are you haven’t even heard of it.

Once, an Irish export, was one of the most talked about films at Sundance and now that it has bowed nationally, it is an instant critical darling. Fresh off the cinematic vine, Once is the sort of sacred piece of filmmaking that comes along only once in a very great while. Released in the midst of the brain dead summer lineup, Once is the anti-blockbuster that couldn’t have come at a better time.

He’s (Glen Hansard) a Dublin street performer with a broken heart who channels his soul through a gnarled guitar each night. She’s (Markéta Irglová) an immigrant single mom estranged from her husband and doing odd jobs to get by. They meet on his street corner where they instantly strike up a conversation about music...and vacuum cleaners. She’s a musician as well, and the next day she takes him to one of her favorite spots in the city, a piano store where the owner lets her play unmolested. There, as they play together for the first time, their music coalesces, mirroring the harmonizing of their hearts.

Over the coming week, they are inseparable. Their relationship is entirely platonic; they never so much as kiss. Their feelings are instead conveyed in intensely personal songs, which she convinces him to record. Watching them craft their music is pure, unadulterated magic, as if we were able to catch some reflection of the moment God spoke creation into existence. In the end, their relationship must end. Once sets up a resolution that, while bittersweet, allows their bond to forever remain in a state of euphoric memory.

Once is a musical, though not in the traditional sense. There is no score, only the music produced by the characters onscreen. Almost without exception, the songs — reminiscent of Radiohead, Travis and Coldplay — are allowed to play in full. The soundtrack is mesmerizing and heartfelt, an echo of one of the best music films ever made.

Neither Hansard or Irglová are actors. Both are professional musicians in Ireland where Hansard formed the extraordinarily popular rock band, “The Frames.” Their naturalistic acting style, reminiscent of all the film’s performances, is further enhanced by the film’s cinematography, shot with over-the-counter digital camcorders through which we see working-class Dublin as if in a rough, grainy home video.

Once is a film about the love of music, our need to express ourselves in it and its singular ability to enfold and transport our histories, hopes and agonies. The film is one of the most authentic and genuine things I have ever seen. It will renew your faith in all that is beautiful, transcendent, graceful and simple in movies. It will renew your faith in the art form itself.


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

Walt Whitman, in the extraordinary “Song of Myself” said, “I am large. I contain multitudes.” The quote refers to the human propensity for self-contradiction, and the seemingly impossible ability of a person to not simply juggle, but fully integrate incongruous paradoxes within themselves.

Robert Hanssen is such a person. A 25 year FBI veteran with an impeccable service record, Hanssen (Chris Cooper) is “an FBI version of Willy Loman” — a loving husband, father of six children, and a devout Catholic who attends mass every day.

He is also a sexual deviant and a deeply embedded Russian spy.

Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) is a young, confident FBI case officer with big ideas for how to improve the Bureau and, in turn, make agent. When Special Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) recruits him for a sensitive, internal affairs operation to monitor Hanssen, Eric sees his opening.

At first, Eric is not told that the FBI suspects Hanssen of being a spy. Implying that Hanssen’s propensity for posting clandestine sexual encounters on the internet between he and his wife (Kathleen Quinlan) could pose an embarrassment to the Bureau, Burroughs assigns Eric to be Hanssen’s assistant and tells him to inform her of his new boss’ every move. Only weeks into the assignment, Eric confronts Burroughs, telling her that he thinks she is on a witch hunt; the man he has gotten to know, while odd, is completely above board. It is only then that he is let in on the true scope of the investigation.

Thus begins a convoluted and dangerous game of cat and mouse as Eric tries to help the FBI make a case on a man he has grown to admire, without losing his sanity, his marriage, or his life in the process.

Breach tells the true story of one of the largest intelligence infiltrations in American history and the largest internal manhunt conducted in the FBI’s history (the Bureau assigned more than 500 agents to bring down the mole). Working clandestinely for almost two decades, the information Hanssen passed on to the Soviets and later the Russian government was incalculable — as was the fallout it produced.

Breach is very good at letting us know these facts. (The film fusses with the facts very little). The problem is, it is lousy at showing us. In an odd and unlikely turn, the film sacrifices plot on the altar of (genuinely tremendous) character development. If the film had spent just a bit more time showing us the other side of Hanssen’s duplicity, or at the very least its ramifications, Breach would have been a far better film. As it is, when Burroughs tells Eric that he just helped take down the worst spy in American history, it is impossible for us to feel the appropriate gravity of her comment.

While everyone in the film gives terrific performances, it is Chris Cooper who steals the show. Even in the role of a traitorous, duplicitous pervert, Cooper is completely sympathetic. While his motivations are never explained (nor were they in real life), we buy his compartmentalized life, replete, as it is, with contradictions that we accept as capable of co-existing beside each other. The final shot of the film, which is Cooper’s, is gut-wrenching.

Breach, a slow-burn thriller told from the inside out instead of the outside in, is not a great film. But it could have been — and with only the slightest bit of extra time and effort.

It will have to settle for being simply a very good film.

To read the full review, click here.

Bond Gets a New Director

Marc Forster, the director of Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland and most recently, Stranger than Fiction is to take charge of the 22nd James Bond film, Daniel Craig’s second outing as the suave spy! Known for exceptionally creative and inventive filmmaking, Forster is nonetheless not experienced with action films. This should be interesting. Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis, who polished Casino Royale’s script, will develop. Untitled as of yet, the new film is expected to hit theaters in November of 2008.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Lot to Talk About IV

OH COME ON! America, you sent Marty--a genuinely talented (if egotistical) filmmaker--home over Kenny!? COOOOOOOOME OOOOOOOOONNNNNNNNN!

Will’s Glass Eye was cute if far too unevenly paced. Compared to most of what would come after it though, it was positively luminescent.

Blood Born's visuals didn’t fit its story. I bet Jason didn’t intend for the moment the audience laughed out loud. It was a muddled, over-stylized mess.

Lost lacked any sort of cinematic direction. It had decent dialogue, but it was a message film without a clear message. I didn’t think much of Mateen’s first film either. I'm completely unmoved.

Gotta love Carrie Fisher’s comments after my fellow NYU film school alum Jessica’s The Orchard: “That was my least favorite thing next to adolescence and being left by a man for a man. The only thing scary about it was that it could have gone on longer.” Jessica’s film was possibly pretentious but definitely slow and monotonous. (Also, why do so many of these filmmakers feel the need to play around with hyper-styalization just because they now have the sort of equipment that allows them to do so?) For me, Jessica is kinda like Hillary in 2008—we need more women in her position, but she’s not the one.

Can Zach tell a story without effects? Sunshine Girl proves absolutely, yes. His second film was once again, the undisputed crowd and audience favorite. Two for two. Simple and darling, Zach’s film, while not perfect, was still the best of the evening and still shows that he is indubitably the one to beat.

P.S.: I am amazed (and encouraged) how many older, married filmmakers the show chose.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Hilarious and All Too True(ish) Onion Story

Harsh Light Of Morning Falls On One-Night Stands DVD Collection

The Onion

Harsh Light Of Morning Falls On One-Night Stand's DVD Collection

MILWAUKEE, WI-Traci Pearle wonders if she would have felt the same way about Marc if she knew he was the proud owner of Rollerball.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


Joshua is a film about a child who coldly, methodically orchestrates the complete and utter collapse of his family in an attempt to reanimate it again in his own image.

Make no mistake about it, Joshua is a horror film of the most chilling kind.

Brad and Abby Cairn (Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga) appear to be the perfect Manhattan couple in the perfect Upper East Side apartment whose perfect lives begin to splinter with the arrival of their second child, Lily.

“Do you ever feel weird about me, your weird son?” 9-year-old Joshua (Jacob Kogan) asks his dad one night shortly after his mother and newborn sister have returned from the hospital. “You don’t have to love me, you know.” Joshua’s question seems innocent enough. An only child for so many years, it is only natural that he be jealous and somewhat thrown off by the sudden attention lavished on his new sister.

Weird, however, doesn’t begin to describe him. A child prodigy whose schoolteacher suggests moving him ahead a few years, Joshua is a piano virtuoso who is always impeccably attired and maddeningly polite to the point of coming off as an emotionally detached automaton. His best friend is his uncle Ned (Dallas Roberts), a gay actor for whom Joshua feels a closer affinity than his own parents.

The film marks the passage of time by the noting the baby’s age in days. Each new day seems worse than the last. Abby, whom we learn has a history of mental instability, is driven to despair by the baby’s unrelenting, unremitting crying. While she unravels before our eyes, Joshua continues to creep us out, always appearing out of nowhere, disemboweling his stuffed animals and morbidly studying mummification. Abby’s despair leads to post-partum depression which itself spins off into something dreadfully resembling full on madness. For his part, the longsuffering Brad seems almost unflappable. The more his wife careens into despondency, the warmer and more attentive he becomes.

Meanwhile, chilling incidents continue to orbit young Joshua. The family dog dies under mysterious circumstances as do the hamsters in Joshua’s classroom, and Brad’s mother plunges to her death at the bottom of a staircase where moments before she had been holding her grandson’s hand. Too late Brad begins to piece together what a raving Abby seemed to have reckoned much earlier — their son is not what he seems. If they accept Joshua is brilliant, does it not also follow that he could be brilliantly evil? Is it unthinkable to imagine him applying his voracious, prodigious intelligence for nefarious ends?

Suddenly paranoid and convinced Joshua is out to kill his little sister, Brad takes to bolting his bedroom door from the inside and padlocking all the kitchen cabinets to prevent tampering. The child psychiatrist he employs to examine his son, only comes away convinced Joshua is the victim of child abuse. The once jovial and unflappable Brad begins to fray at the seams just like his wife before him.

One by one, Joshua wears the adults around him down until they crack and eventually shatter under the crushing pressure. So darkly diabolical is Joshua’s manipulation of people and events that when Brad finally implodes and lashes out on his son with appalling violence, we actually want to cheer him on. What’s sincerely shocking about Joshua is how effectively it makes us fear and loathe a small child.

In the Bible, Joshua is the Hebrew leader in command of the children of Israel when they march around the titanic walls of Jericho and bring them crashing to the ground. It is no accident that the Joshua of this film possesses the same name. Throughout the film, allusions to the fragility of family and home are made. Having at one point in the film built a tall structure out of blocks of wood, Joshua removes one innocuous piece near the base and with it, brings down the entire construction. His intercession in the annihilation of his own home and family is far more than metaphorical. In the process, Joshua becomes a sly, 21st century commentary on the soul-numbing effects of feminine domesticity, child rearing and the collapses of the family unit.

Comparisons to The Omen are unavoidable, but unfair. Joshua is a deliciously slow, methodically paced, brilliant piece of cinematic suspense crafted in the image and soul of Alfred Hitchcock. The casting is impeccable. Known primarily as a comedy actor, Sam Rockwell (Galaxy Quest, The Green Mile) gives a dramatic performance as riveting as he is customarily hilarious. The hauntingly beautiful Vera Farmiga, introduced to the world last year in The Departed, proves she is going nowhere but up. And Jacob Kogan, in his first film, is spellbinding.

Joshua turns an otherwise adorable picture of a handsome young boy pushing his little sister’s stroller into an image of stark terror and petrifying horror. The film is the ultimate birth control. If you plan on one day having kids, don’t see this film. If you already have children, you will never look at them the same way again.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

It doesn’t suck.

Or maybe I went into the theater with such low expectations that it couldn’t possibly be as bad as my imagination had concocted.

I’ll confess right off the bat that I’ve only marginally been exposed to comic books and graphic novels. Just this week, in fact, I asked some fanboy friends to help me remedy this glaring oversight in my pop culture education. That said, I’ve enjoyed plenty of comic-to-screen adaptations, but have never been able to muster the slightest interest in "The Fantastic Four." Of all the Marvel franchises, "The Four" seem the hokiest, the most dated, frankly the most ridiculous superheroes out there.

Despite being pretty by-the-numbers superhero stuff, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is indeed better than its predecessor and may be (gulp) better than Spider-Man 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, its summer blockbusters forerunners (I know, that’s not saying much). But if you get to the theater and discover you’ve made a big mistake, don’t lose heart. Surfer is mercifully short — not even an hour and a half long.

Unlike some movies, Surfer’s plot can be summed up in just a few words: The Silver Surfer, a servant of the evil, planet-gobbling Galactus arrives on Earth to prep it for destruction just as two of our heroes are finally getting hitched and dreaming about embarking on a “normal life.” Needless to say they drop everything to save the planet, are forced to align themselves with their old nemesis, Dr. Doom, and discover that the Surfer may not be the monster they think him to be — in fact, he just may be their salvation.

The simple plot may actually work in Surfer’s favor. The film completely lacks any sort of pretentious philosophical subtext which, when done right elevates the typical comic adaptation but when mishandled, sinks it. Instead, Surfer just aims to be a crowd-pleaser. This unfortunately means that the story is clunky (the coming global apocalypse doesn’t seem to really phase anyone) and the Saturday-morning-cartoon dialogue is completely banal and juvenile.

However, if you are one of those rabid-at-the-mouth fans who doesn’t care about any of this and just wants me to cut to the chase and get straight to the Silver Surfer, I can completely put your mind at ease — he is, well, fantastic. He soars through space, carving through the atmosphere with digitally rendered finesse and grace. A fully CG character, the Surfer is completely believable at every moment, a true digital marvel. Alas, the rumors about his master, Galactus’, shall we say, non-corporeal nature, are all true, but that doesn’t mean that he too doesn’t come off as breathtaking and terrifying. Weta, the team of digital artists behind The Lord of the Rings, have once again outdone themselves. Sadly, the rest of the effects, doubtless farmed out to other houses are a mixed bag, lacking the sort of seamless integration that one would assume to be pretty standard fare by now.

In fact, the Surfer comes off so well that the Fab Four are completely uninteresting next to him. Despite the fact that we are supposed to be excited for Reed (Ioan “I prefer to remember you as Horatio Hornblower” Gruffudd) and Sue’s (Jessica “haaawt” Alba) wedding, or concerned about narcissistic Johnny’s temperamental powers, their characters are dull, lifeless, and without spark. This is the Surfer’s movie and even they seem to know it.

For the next film they should just kill off Mr. Fantastic and his pals and let the Surfer carry the show. That film I might actually want to see.

Trailer Park

I haven’t done this is a while, but there are a few new trailers out there of which I wanted to make people aware:

Actually the first one is a downer. I’m not at all impressed with The Invasion. Touted to be a reimagining of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers films, it looks instead to be a perfect, uninspired carbon copy. Let’s hope not as everyone involved is top-notch.

The teaser for I Am Legend is out. Maybe I am just excited about this one because half of it was filmed around the corner from where I go to school, but this trailer makes for a wonderful, spooky feel. It reminds me of Cillian Murphy walking through a decimated London in the superb 28 Days Later.

The sumptuous Cate Blanchett epic Elizabeth is getting a sequel and it looks absolutely magnificent. Check out The Golden Age here.

The trailer I am most excited about is for a film I have heard little to nothing about, the Roshomonesque political thriller Vantage Point. Starring Dennis Quaid (someone I always root for) and the great William Hurt, Vantage Point has one of the best trailers I’ve seen since the resplendent Little Children. If the film is as good as the marketing…

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Evan Almighty

It makes sense that the sequel to 2003’s hit Bruce Almighty should star Steve Carell instead of Jim Carey. Hilarious as Carey was, everyone knows Carell absolutely stole the show as the prissy, narcissistic Evan Baxter. His scene as a verbally flummoxed anchorman is reason alone to return to Bruce Almighty again and again.

But don’t call him anchorman Evan Baxter anymore. That’s Congressman Evan Baxter to you. While it’s hard to imagine the preening egoist from the first film with a beautiful wife and kids, that is exactly who Evan Almighty reveals to have been by his side all along. Having just won the seat as the newest freshman congressman from New York, Evan packs up his family and moves them lock, stock and barrel in his brand new Hummer to a brand new housing development just outside Washington D.C. for his brand new job.

As they climb into bed their first night in the new house, Evan’s wife Joan (the always luminous Lauren Graham, and yes, pun intended) mentions that she just prayed with the boys that their new life in Washington would go well. When Evan mentions that he doesn’t believe in prayer, Joan reminds him of his campaign pledge to “change the world.” That’s a pretty tall order without any help, she tells him. Later that night, while Joan is fast asleep, Evan slips to his knees beside the bed and asks God to him in his quest to change the world.

Be careful what you ask for — you just may get it.

It’s not that Evan didn’t expect God to answer his prayer; he simply didn’t expect him to do it in person. When Evan wakes up the next morning, a man shows up claiming to be God (Morgan Freeman) and tells Evan that he wants him to build an ark. “You want to change the world,” God says, “So do I.” Needless to say, Evan is a tad bit skeptical, despite being given a copy of “Ark Building for Dummies.” But God has an eternity of patience and a funny sense of humor.

Almost immediately, odd things begin to happen. Deliverymen show up on Evan’s doorstep with truckloads of lumber and ancient hand tools. Animals begin to stalk him. And his normally fastidiously maintained appearance disintegrates when no amount of trimming will stop his hair and beard from growing and growing…and growing. Begrudgingly, Evan begins to build the ark, despite not having any idea what it’s for. Needless to say, his Capitol Hill staffers don’t exactly feel the crazy Gandalf look is his best PR move. The public takes him about as seriously as the onlookers recorded in the Book of Genesis did Noah. The butt of jokes and derision, Evan is humiliated at work and increasingly alienated from a family that takes his religious zeal as a mid-life crisis. While Evan is on the verge of losing everything he holds dear, the ark begins to take shape, and thousands of animals begin showing up at the construction site, two by two or course.

Evan Almighty is not as good as its predecessor. Whereas Bruce Almighty sustained laughs throughout its running time, Evan Almighty seems satisfied with limiting them to the film’s first few acts. Carell is funniest when dealing with his transforming appearance, the arrival of the animals, and a particularly uproarious montage during which I had tears running down my face watching him hurt himself in any number of ways while trying to begin construction of the mammoth boat. The Steve Carell of the second half has more in common with his subdued character in Little Miss Sunshine —his trademark zaniness is traded for a calmer turn that, while not nearly as funny, is still consistently amusing, entertaining and ultimately uplifting.

Evan Almighty is peppered with amusing supporting characters and colorful cameos including John Goodman, Wanda Sykes, Molly Shannon, Jonah Hill and “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart and Ed Helms.

The special effects are impressive, especially when you consider that each of the thousands of animals had to be inserted and integrated into the scenes one at a time. When the flood waters come, the digital artists outdo themselves creating a raging wall of water that sweeps through the countryside and sends the mammoth ark careening into downtown Washington D.C.

As with the first film, Evan Almighty is interested in teaching us a moral lesson or two between guffaws. While the reason behind the ark amounts to an elaborate endorsement of environmentalism and the need for human beings to live in harmony with nature, the film is also a meditation on holding fast to faith even in the face of overwhelming skepticism, and the need for random acts of kindness in a world increasingly ruled by self-interest.

Despite whatever shortcomings Evan Almighty may have, this story of an extraordinarily funny man put in absolutely outlandish circumstances is uplifting and constantly entertaining. When it lags or doesn’t always live up to our expectations, it is still superior to most of the stuff playing the theaters next door.

To read this story in its original form, click here.

Introducing the Dwights

There is something about independent Australian films. They have a knack for examining the lives of deeply flawed people in gritty, less-than-perfect situations and yet still, somehow, end in such a manner than allows you to leave the theater feeling good both about the characters and yourself.

Case in point: Introducing the Dwights.

Dwights stars Brenda Blethyn as Jean, a risqué comedienne who calls herself The Raunchy Homemaker and still hopes to make it big despite being “on the wrong side of 50.” She was a rising star once, back in her native England, but she married John (Frankie J. Holden), a traveling musician from Australia and moved Down Under with him where she promptly became pregnant. Little did she know that John would be a one hit wonder, her eldest son would be mentally handicapped, her marriage would end in a bitter divorce, and she’d have to sacrifice her dreams of stardom to work menial jobs in order to feed her family.

Despite living the highjacked life of a fry-cook, Jean nonetheless still considers herself a star. The sort of larger than life personality that sucks all the attention out of a room and focuses it on herself, Joan constantly courts the proverbial spotlight, always insisting on being the very center of attention. It’s hardly a surprise then that her youngest son, Tim (the shockingly handsome Khan Chittenden), is painfully shy.

21, living at home, and a one-man moving service with a small truck paid for by his mother, Tim meets Jill (Emma Booth) one day while on the job and is instantly smitten. Tim is dreadfully awkward around Jill yet somehow musters up the courage to ask her out on a date. Introversion is not something with which the precocious Jill is familiar and she quickly finds herself equally charmed by her timid suitor.

Used to having Tim on which to test out her material or schlep her to her vaudevillian shows, Jean is far from happy with Tim’s sudden divided loyalties. She constantly calls him in the middle of his dates to remind him to pick up milk on the way home or some other such rambling bit of inconsequence. These calls usually arrive at the most inappropriate moments, such as when the nymphomaniac Jill takes the sexually inexperienced Tim under her expert wing. While Jean talks about sex from the stage, her son is experiencing the real thing for the first time in his life. Tim’s sexual awakening is an embarrassing and awkward learning curve. At first, Jill misinterprets Tim’s sexual terror as disinterest and disgust.

One night, as they lie in each other’s arms, Jill asks Tim when she’s going to meet his parents. Tim takes a long time to find the right words. “My parents…” he finally manages to choke out as a kind of confession, “…are entertainers.” He might as well have said, “My parents are serial killers.”

Jean does finally meet Jill, though she pretends to never be able to remember the girl’s name. Terrified of being alone with her handicapped son (Richard Wilson) and unwilling to let her Tim go, Jean tries to manipulate him back to her side with guilt. When that doesn’t work, she employs the same acidic wit and sarcasm that has given her some modicum of success on her comedy circuit. At first directed only at Tim, the humiliation and ridicule eventually finds itself leveled straight at a wilting Jill. After one too many nights of watching him defer to his mother’s every whim, Jill gives Tim an ultimatum: “You need to make a choice. It’s her or me.” Tim’s cannot possibly make both women happy and his choice will send one of them spiraling into a meltdown.

Believe it or not, Introducing the Dwights is a touching comedy, albeit a heartfelt, bittersweet one. Beneath every comedy runs an eddy of sadness, and Dwights never loses sight of the sort of humor that is deeply embedded in everyday life, even a life caught in the gravity of agonizing transition. As Jean tries her hardest to come between her son and his coming of age, Tim has to find a way to juggle the emotions of the two women in his life he cares about most without losing himself in the fray.

While every actor involved with Dwights is spot on, it is the film and theatrical veteran Blethyn who rises above the rest. Her role as a bipolar mom laughing uproariously one moment and disintegrating into despair the next is sure to catch Oscar’s attention. It is to her very great credit that no matter how cruel Jean gets, we never stop liking her. Her hysterical resistance to going gently into that good night and inability to grow old gracefully constitutes the film’s emotional core. Yes, Introducing the Dwights is a melodrama, but this melodrama handles its emotional manipulation with such subtle honesty that it takes on an impressive degree of realism. If the denouement strains a certain amount of believability, it is, arguably, completely satisfying.

A Lot to Talk About III

Some impressions from On the Lot last night.

Andrew Hunt's film, Polished, about an unappreciated janitor who gets even with his snobby co-workers, was fun if forgettable.

David May's Love at First Shot was nothing to write home about, though I did love some of the geek-boy dialogue.

Shira-Lee’s Beeline was certainly entertaining and enjoyable, even if it didn’t have the zing-factor from her earlier film. You have to say this about her though, she consistently delivers.

Why is Marty Martin the victim of so much loathing? In a show that is all about big-budget, commercial viability, Marty is top notch. Continuing to channel Tony Scott, he’s made films with visual flair, terrific aesthetics and kinetic editing. He has more polish, style, and straight cinematic appeal than almost anyone in the competition, but no one seems to recognize it. Could it be that his bloated ego is getting in the way?

Kenny, utterly oblivious that this isn't an experimental film show made yet another misfire that had me reaching for the fast-forward button. Carrie hit it dead on—go direct music videos where your talents can be appreciated; either narrative filmmaking or the rules of the show utterly elude you.

I can’t believe Trevor was sent home over Hillary. This is the second week in a row in which the obviously inferior candidate was saved from elimination at the expense of a far better artist. Am I watching the same show everyone else is voting on? While Hillary can write, she seems to have no comprehension whatsoever of directing or cinematography.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Hero Worship

I held out for as long as I could but the peer pressure was just too great. When your brother and one of your best friends practically beg you to do it, how can you say no?

I watched Heroesthis weekend.

That’s right, all of it. All 23 episodes. I practically didn’t get up from my couch for two days straight.

And it was worth every minute.

Mixing the X-Men with Dark City, Marvel with The Matrix, even Harry Potter and 9/11 with Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” Heroes is a phenomenally ambitious story (especially given the scope of its single season thus far) with a long narrative arc. Powered by a massive, surprisingly complex mythology, Heroes gathers a large ensemble of characters to tell a story that literally transcends time and space.

Einstein postulated that we only use the merest fraction of our brain’s potential. What would the human animal be capable of were it able to harness its full potential? What will the next step in human evolution look like? Could it include the sort of abilities presently regarded as supernatural and relegated to the realm of superhero fantasy?

Heroes tries to answer those questions in an undeniably exciting and entertaining frenzy of plot twists, doppelgangers, and breathless cliffhangers.

How will saving Claire Bennet, a high school cheerleader from Odessa, Texas, save the world? (If there was a more effective marketing juggernaut than “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World” this year, I don’t know about it). And who is Noah Bennet — a loving father and paper maker or a cog in a shadowy governmental organization intent on tracking down every last person with special abilities?

Is Peter Petrelli mad or does he really possess a sponge-like ability to leach powers from those around him? And if he has the power, what about his morally-ambivalent brother running for powerful political office?

While Isaac Mendez falls into a trance and paints the future, can the charming Hiro Nakamura, a computer programmer from Tokyo (I love the subtitles!) with the ability to manipulate the space-time continuum, stop his dire predictions of a firebombed New York City from coming true?

And who or what is the malevolent Sylar: a victim of genetics Professor Mohinder Suresh’s father’s research or a serial killer who hunts super-powered individuals to steal their abilities?

Every last cast member in Heroes is terrific, creating an ensemble in which — for a show submerged in traditionally black and white comic book lore — we are never quite sure who is good and who is bad. Heroes integrates industry giants like Maclom McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) with Hollywood’s up-and-coming like Brick’s minxy Nora Zehetner to comfortable mainstays like J.J. Abrams alum, Greg Grunberg. Still, the fan favorite guest star award would have to go to George Takei (Star Trek’s Sulu), just one nod of a series obviously in love with Star Trek and not ashamed to admit it…nearly every episode. Not that all these great cast members hang around all that long. As in Lost, these characters have a habit of coming to sudden (and surprisingly gory) ends. Saving the world is dangerous business.

Heroes is the sort of ultimate wish fulfillment, fun television you can (and do) cheer out loud for. It has the unique ability to stimulate both mind and heart. Not necessarily intellectually profound, it is, instead, that rare creature that is as viscerally enjoyable as it is though-provoking.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Paris, je t'aime

Once upon a time, I lived in Europe. During those years, I spent months traveling through 20-some countries, ravenously ingesting everything from the cosmopolitan hustle and bustle of cities to the languid charm of rural towns. I generally left a place satisfied that I was coming away with a good, over-arching impression of the culture. All except Paris, this is. Paris defies quick summation. Paris mocks guidebook encapsulation. Even after nearly a week’s visit, I left Paris haunted by the idea that so much remained unseen, untried, unexperienced.

Paris, je t'aime feels like a compilation of student films. I intend nothing derogatory by that comment. Indeed, “Paris, je t'aime” feels like an anthology of student films in the best possible way — imbued with a certain neophyte whimsy, vibrating with life and passion, and fresh in a way that can only come from unfettered enthusiasm.

The assignment was simple: 18 world-renowned directors including the Coen brothers, Gus Van Sant, Gurinder Chadha, Wes Craven, Isabel Coixet, Walter Salles, Alexander Payne, Oliver Assayas, Alfonso Cuarón, Christopher Doyle and Tom Tykwer would each be given three days to film a five minute segment about love in a different geographical section of Paris. This is not Paris according to Rick Steeves, but Paris as the Parisians know it — a city of breathtaking beauty tucked into alleys and hidden nooks none but the locals ever see. The intension was not so much to make a movie about love (or the loss of it) in Paris but to make a movie in love with Paris. The result is a sort of cinematic map of the City of Lights that burrows through the very rich and the very poor, the young and the old, the old guard haves and the immigrant have nots.

The all-star cast is a cornucopia of French, British and American talent, including Natalie Portman, Maggie Gyllenhaall, Fanny Ardant, Elijah Wood, Nick Nolte, Bob Hoskins, Juliette Binoche, Emily Mortimer, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Rufus Sewell, Barbet Schroeder, Ludivine Sagnier, Gena Rowlands, Miranda Richardson, Steve Buscemi and Gérard Depardieu. Heavyweights to be certain, they are comforting, recognizable faces in an otherwise exotic landscape, familiar touchstones on a unfamiliar journey.

From a downtrodden mime to a blood-sucking vampire, the shorts seem to run the gamut. Here a mother, stricken with grief, imagines one final encounter on the street with her dead son. Here a Parisian teenager discovers the flashpoint of love with a young Muslim girl. Here an American actress falls head over heels with a blind Frenchman. Here one African immigrant treats the fatal wounds of another. Here an English couple finds their relationship rekindled in the most unlikely of places — a cemetery. Here, a philandering husband decides to devote himself to his wife after he discovers she is dying of cancer. Here a middle-aged American woman reflects on her life as she travels the city alone.

These are but a few of the stories that comprise “Paris, je t'aime.” The separate segments are like individual words — somewhat nonsensical by themselves, but when placed beside each other, form a love letter to a city and its people. In the end, though the films are not linked in a traditional sense, one cannot help but come away with the impression that we are all — no matter our age or station or religion — intimately connected.

18 films feels like too many, and perhaps it is. But the cinematic pastiche we are left with is so charming and so enchanting, that all is quickly forgiven. There is something here for everyone. If you know Paris, prepare to fall in love all over again. And if you have never been, consider this your seductive invitation to a metropolitan romance unlike anything you’ve experienced before.

(“Paris, je t'aime” was the brainchild of French TV director Tristan Carné and film producer Emmanuel Benbihy. Plans are now underway for several more versions, among them, “New York, I Love You.”)

To read this story in its original form, click here.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Paris is Burning

Normally I wouldn’t lower myself to even address this issue, but today I am going to. After two days and a whole lot of bull about what a maturing experience jail will be, Paris Hilton is being released to home arrest. The reason? The poor little dear lost her appetite and wasn’t sleeping well. Oh, we’re sorry — if jail is uncomfortable, by all means return to your mansion and parties and friends and serve the remainder of your sentence there.

Utterly ridiculous and shameful! As if we weren’t already convinced that the criminal justice system flies to pieces in the face of celebrity and money, this certainly puts a fine, indisputable point on it. (Why didn’t someone take care of this with the business end of a filed down toothbrush when they had a chance — just kidding!)

It’s called punishment! You broke the law and so you get punished. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable and miserable — that is the whole point! House arrest? Excuse me?! She should be forced to do hundreds of hours of community service. Paris getting her hands dirty for the first time in her life is exactly what this spoiled, famous-for-being-famous young woman needs.

The other option I can think of is Survivor: Fight to the Death where Paris, Lindsay Lohan and Tom Sizemore are all thrown on a deserted island and the winner is the one who successfully kills and eats the other contestants after 30 days. (Girls, if you get tubby Tom early, he’ll last quite a while. Unfortunately for you, Tom, there isn’t a whole lot to chew on the ladies…)

Meow Mix

It isn't enough that Hollywood is intent on making a (second) live-action version of He-Man, now they have rumaged through the 80's animated toybox a bit further and this time pulled out a Thundercats development. What's next? Voltron or G.I. Joe? Well, yes actually. Somebody please stop them before they find Scooby Doo, Inspector Gadget, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Transformers. That would just be too much.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A Lot to Talk About II

It was an unremarkable week On the Lot. Only five films screened and none of them very remarkable. Though I was very unimpressed with his craft, I did enjoy Adam Stein's gutsiness in taking the short film assignment and transforming it into a musical. What I was impressed by--and it truly pains me to say this--was Michael Bay's commentary. It was lucid, spot-on, and frankly merciless.

The reaction among my friends to my watching the show has been decidedly negative. Something about wallowing in the muck. They may be right. Truth is, I could care less for the reality theatrics...I just like seeing the work the filmmakers produce. Too bad they're not all as good as Zach's Danger Zone.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen

Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and the gang are back. But this time the job isn’t for love or money. It’s about getting even.

When ruthless casino owner Willy Bank (Al Pacino) double-crosses Danny’s friend and mentor Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould), he has no idea so many people will take it so personally. Danny mobilizes the team for their most ambitious and riskiest heist yet — to bring down Bank’s newest casino on its spectacular opening night, obliterating Bank’s finances as well as his impeccable reputation.

Of course Bank’s casino is nearly impregnable, protected by layer upon layer of integrated security measures all under the control of one of the world’s most advanced artificial intelligence systems. For Danny and his team to succeed, they have to execute their plan flawlessly. Interestingly, much of this planning goes on just offscreen. While the characters scour vast blueprints and consult detailed computer models, we are never allowed to see what they see. Director Steven Soderbergh is more interested in showing us what is going down, than in telling us. It’s a refreshing change in this or any movie, and in addition to complementing the audience’s intelligence, it also heightens the suspense. The execution of their intricate plans, complete with elaborate disguises and complicated ruses puts the Mission Impossible films to shame.

Unfortunately, the payoff isn’t equal to the remarkable build-up. Ocean's 13 is one long set-up for a wholly unsatisfying and impotent climax. This is, quite simply, an underwhelming film. After we’ve watched it all play out, we can’t help but cross our arms incredulously and ask, “That’s it? That’s the resolution? That wasn’t so tough!” For all its talk about impossible odds, unachievable goals and unattainable objectives, Ocean’s Thirteen is so intent on forcing us to watch for the slight of hand that it forgets to execute the trick in the first place.

We’ve seen this all before. There are few, if any, surprises. While we enjoy watching the plot progress, the rhythm and endgame are predictably predetermined. Why? Because it’s exactly the same as in the other two films. Same characters, same old shenanigans — only the geography and a few of the details have changed.

One thing that has always worked in these films is the undeniable chemistry of its stars, especially the devastatingly good-looking and infinitely charming Clooney and Pitt. When they first stroll on screen, it is as if we are seeing dear friends after a long absence. Even as the film disappoints, you never stop rooting for the characters. But with all this talent, is it wrong to have expected more?

Pacino, an undeniably titanic actor, is almost forgettable as the baddie. Those expecting a scene chewing, over-the-top performance will be disappointed by his bland, unremarkable portrayal. Ellen Barkin, as Bank’s right hand woman, fares somewhat better, especially in a hilarious scene with Matt Damon’s nose late in the film.

Unfortunately, Ocean’s Thirteen is only intermittently funny. Aside from a droll Oprah gag, the best lines come near the end when Clooney and Pitt each rib, not each other’s characters, but their actors persona and their extremely public lives.

“Maybe you should settle down. Get married. Have a couple kids,” Clooney tells Pitt.

“Next time, try keeping the weight off between jobs,” Pitt retorts.

It is a witty, self-referential wink in a film obsessed with looking and sounding like half a dozen films that have gone before it.

Ocean’s Thirteen is always watchable — a fun, colorful, snappy film that wears its snazzy exterior so well you might be distracted from the fact that it’s actually hollow underneath. While crossing this Ocean won’t exactly leave you sea sick, it won’t get you any closer to where you want to be either.

To read this story in its original form, click here.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Surf's Up

I know what you’re thinking. Not another penguin movie. Sure March of the Penguins (or should we go back and start with that trio of penguins in Madagascar…oh, it’s so confusing!) was fantastic, heartwarming family entertainment, and, yeah, Happy Feet was ok, but enough’s enough, right? Wrong. The third times the charmer.

Surf's Up is the story of Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf), a teenage resident of Shiverpool, Antarctica who has dreams of becoming the greatest surfer in the world, just like his idol, Big Z whom he met briefly as a young child before the legend’s untimely death at the hands of a crushing wave. Trouble is, the only one who believes in Cody is Cody. His family and friends mock his dreams and when a surfing scout comes to Shiverpool with an invitation to compete in a surfing competition in Hawaii, Cody jumps at the chance to leave the backwater town in his wake.

Hawaii may seems like an odd place for penguins, but if the Galapagos is good enough for Darwin’s water-bound birds, Hawaii is good enough for a teenage penguin with a chip on his shoulder and a whole lot to prove. However, things don’t go swimmingly for Cody in the beginning. In fact, they go so badly that he finds himself ready to throw in the towel. The only one who seems capable of turning Cody’s fortunes around is the Zen-like Geek (Jeff Bridges), a down-on-his-luck ex-surfer who may or may not be Cody’s “dead” hero, Big Z, hiding from his own legendary status. Geek can teach Cody a thing or two, but is Cody willing to listen? Theirs is the classic relationship of the hesitant mentor and the impatient apprentice. The kid might just learn something if he’s willing to admit that he doesn’t already know everything.

Surf’s Up is an ESPN-esque mockumentary with penguins where the humans should be. Cameras and intruding boom mikes follow the characters around, allowing for one-on-one interviews. Sure, it’s a cartoon, but the acting is disconcertingly natural for an animated film. This idea carries through into the animation itself — while the animals are drawn with cutsie personification, the natural world around them is rendered with breathtaking naturalism. These two elements collide during the surfing sequences, making for scenes in which the camera follows silly-looking penguins through moves impossible to duplicate in reality, but which come off like beautifully choreography.

While the always-impressive LaBeouf is fantastic here, even buried beneath layers of computer-generated paint, it is Bridges who completely steals the show. Bridges plays Big Z as if he were channeling The Dude in The Big Lebowski, and the result is an infectious and hilarious character who just gets better and better as the film goes on. Other characters include Sheboygan surfer Chicken Joe (Jon Heder), the beautiful lifeguard Lani (Zooey Deschanel), competition promoter Reggie Belafonte (James Woods), and the bully Tank (Diedrich Bader), the reigning king of surfdom who has won every award there is, a point he loves to remind whomever will listen. Oh yeah, and how could I forget the Ewok penguins…

While nowhere near as clever or as meta-layered as the always-brilliant Pixar offerings, Surf’s Up is one of the better CG cartoon offerings to date. It belongs to that refreshing group of animated films that suffuse enough adult humor to bypass the children’s radar but hit mom and dad right in the funny bone (just between you and me, I think the chicken may be a bit stoned). Finally, parents can go to the movies with their kids without having to feel guilty for shelling out a ticket for themselves. But there is plenty here for the adults to like on their kid’s behalf. Big Z teaches Cody to think of others before himself, convinces him that the journey is more important than the destination and that fun and friendship are more important than winning.

Either the third act resolved itself too quickly and tidily, or I was enjoying myself more than I realized, and wanted to stick around with the little tuxedo-clad surfers longer than the credits allowed. I think the little girl in the seat in front of me would have agreed — she spent the last quarter of the movie acting out her favorite scenes using her seat as the surfboard.

To read this story in its original form, click here.

Sunday, June 03, 2007


Tried to watch the MTV Movie Awards tonight. Not normally the sort of thing I go in for, but I told myself I was watching to stay culturally literate. Five minutes in they revealed that Blades of Glory was nominated for Best Picture. I couldn't hit "Erase This Recording" on my DVR fast enough. Guess this is one cultural touchstone on which I’m gonna have to plead ignorant.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Leo's in Town

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were in my neighborhood over the weekend--across the street to be precise--shooting Sam Mendes' new film, Revolutionary Road. They were doing interior apartment set-ups that required the crane lifts pictured here (now broken down), to blast massive wattage into the building, creating day for night conditions. Pretty impressive stuff.

Friday, June 01, 2007


We went to Jersey Boys tonight. I found myself sitting next to Lynda Milito, the "Mafia Wife" in the entertainment news the past year or so who is suing HBO and The Sopranos for stealing her life's story. The litigation is ongoing--as is her resolve to see her life on the big screen.

BSG to End

Hollywood Reporter announced this morning that the upcoming fourth season of Sci Fi Channel's critically lauded Battlestar Galactica will be the final season.

Supposedly, the decision to conclude now is wholly a creative one.

"This show was always meant to have a beginning, a middle and, finally, an end," producer/creators David Eick and Ron Moore said yesterday. "Over the course of the last year, the story and the characters have been moving strongly toward that end, and we've decided to listen to those internal voices and conclude the show on our own terms. And while we know our fans will be saddened to know the end is coming, they should brace themselves for a wild ride getting there -- we're going out with a bang."

The fourth season will be comprised of 22 episodes, to launch with a two-hour special entitled “Razor” in November and pick up again in early 2008.

While I am, of course, saddened to see one of my favorite television programs vacate the airwaves, I more than enthusiastically endorse going out on top. Star Trek: The Next Generation, of which Ron Moore was a part, bowed when it was the number one syndicated show. It never even gave itself a chance to go downhill. I very much appreciate the fact that those behind BSG care more about the integrity of the narrative line than their bottom-line.