DVD QuickTakes Archive
10th & Wolf
You never like to see a great cast wasted on a piece of crap like “10th & Wolf,” and though the indie flick did see a limited theatrical release earlier in the year, it would have been better off left for dead on the direct-to-DVD market. This is the kind of movie that pops up in the Wal-Mart bargain bin with the hope that some schmuck will buy it based on the big names alone, and unfortunately, it’s only a matter of time before this happens. Reportedly inspired by a true story from the FBI agent known as Donnie Brasco (as if it really matters, since the character doesn’t even appear in the story), “10th & Wolf” tells the tale of Marine Sgt. Tommy Santoro (James Marsden), who returns home after a dishonorable discharge to discover that his little brother (Brad Renfro) and cousin (Giovanni Ribisi) have taken over the neighborhood as a couple of mafia thugs. When a Sicilian immigrant threatens to take over their turf, however, Tommy is forced to join arms with his family and protect what’s rightfully theirs. Regrettably, what sounds like a cool little crime drama quickly turns into a clichéd gangster flick with all of the usual trappings. Instead, check out the real thing ("Donnie Brasco"). You'll be glad you did.
“3000 Miles” documents the “infamous” Gumball 3000 Rally, an auto race from Lon to Los Angeles. But don’t think this is a movie for the auto fanatic alone. In this feature, pro skaters Tony Hawk, Bam Margera and the stars of “Jackass” all enter the race this time out. You would be right to think that much mayhem and wackiness would ensue, but for the most part, there’s just a lot of driving scenes edited together in a hip format with beat-heavy music playing in the background. There is one scene, where a Rolls Royce Phantom completely wipes out, that is quite the jarring spectacle, but other than that, there are a lot of scenes of pit stops, speeding tickets, and guys saying “fuck.” There are a couple of pointless skating and biking scenes when the guys get tired of driving every now and then, and see things they’d like to trick off of. And Bam does manage to jump off a bridge after losing a bet, as well as pissing all over a Lamborghini. Hooray. In all, “3000 Miles” is a very flashy, well-put-together movie. There’s just not a lot of substance underneath the sheen.
The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
As it goes, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit wasn’t so lucky after all. The first of Walt Disney’s major cartoon stars, the rights to the character were lost in 1928, requiring Disney to create a new lead for his black-and-white shorts. Thus came the birth of Mickey Mouse, a direct descendant of Oswald visually. In fact, with the exception of mouse ears instead of rabbit ears, Mickey is, for all intents and purposes, little more than an improved version of Oswald. Eventually re-securing those rights after nearly a century, the Walt Disney Treasures label has finally released 13 of the cartoon rabbit’s silent shorts for everyone to enjoy, accompanied by new musical scores recorded by Robert Israel. Unfortunately, with the exception of Disney fanatics, there’s really nothing on the two-disc set that begs to be seen. The animation is crude and several of the shorts feature the same plots as future Mickey vehicles. The addition of the full-length documentary on Disney animator Ub Iwerks (“The Hand Behind the Mouse”), and a collection of his pre- and post-Oswald work, doesn’t help in justifying the high price tag.
The Alfred Hitchcock Box Set
Although it bears no such subtitle, this set could reasonably be dubbed “The Early Years,” given that the most recent of the five films dates from 1931. The late Sir Alfred Hitchcock was unarguably a master of suspense, and there are certainly hints of his evolving genius within this material. The first pair of films, “The Ring” and “The Manxman,” are both silent pictures. The former, about a romantic triangle between two boxers and the woman they both love, features a classic moment of Hitchcockian directing when he allows the viewer to experience a knock-out by having the camera lens receive the blow. The latter is a classic story of betrayal. Of the sound pictures, “Murder!” is a courtroom drama, “The Skin Game” reveals the perils of blackmail, and “Rich and Strange,” is about a shipwreck. The first two tend to be a bit standard, minus the occasional shot that screams Hitchcock. “Rich and Strange” will be revealed as an oft-forgotten classic of his filmography; it’s less about watery suspense and more about martial relationships. The packaging of the set is particularly nice – the discs come in a box meant to resemble a movie script. The only special feature is an interesting 15-minute documentary, “Pure Cinema: The Birth of the Hitchcock Style.” On the whole it’s rather disappointing that there is no audio commentary on any of the films from, say, Drew Casper or Steve Haberman, a pair of Hitchcock scholars who were clearly available, given that they contributed to the documentary.
Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem
Picking up where the first “AvP” left off, “Requiem” finds the victorious Predator on a journey back to its home planet when it discovers that it has a bit of a stomachache. Turns out, the Predator was impregnated during its trip to Antarctica, and before you know it, a chestburster is climbing its way out and causing havoc. Though they may be master hunters, the Predators clearly have no common sense, because the idiot shoots down his own ship, causing it to crash land on Earth and unleashing a whole litter of Alien facehuggers on an unsuspecting town in Colorado. Leading the human resistance is Steven Pasquale (“Rescue Me”) and Reiko Aylesworth (“24”), but much like the original film, the humans run around like cattle and only get in the way of the real battle between the Predator-Alien hybrid and the new Predator cleaner sent in to cover up the mess. Though the action sequences are entertaining, there’s very little point to the actual story at hand. It’s as if they couldn’t agree on a decent plot, so they just came up with a lame excuse that would allow the two monsters to duke it out again. “Requiem” has all the markings of an ultimate fanboy wet dream, but when your movie clearly favors the Predator as the hero, just what group of fans are you catering to?
American Pie Presents: Band Camp
Please, no more booze at the Universal pitch meetings. This straight-to-video installment of the “American Pie” series stars Stifler’s brother Matt (Tad Hilgenbrinck, apparently schooled on acting by watching the “Ace Ventura” movies), who pulls a nasty stunt on the school band and is forced to attend the infamous band camp as punishment. Matt has heard the stories of everyone’s favorite nympho flautist, so he gets a whole bunch of high-tech video equipment with plans on making a “Bandees Gone Wild” movie, but his feelings for band leader Elyse (cute-as-a-button Arielle Kebbel) complicate matters. It’s filled with shots of topless, well endowed counselors (played by Playboy models, including the lovely Angela Little), yet there’s nothing terribly sexy about it; likewise, the movie’s filled with jokes, yet there’s nothing terribly funny about it, either. The premise is rife with potential, but all concerned chose to go the safe route, to the movie’s detriment (the movie’s most subtle joke is casting porn star Ginger Lynn Allen as the school nurse). The main question is: how on earth did they get Eugene Levy to appear as a camp advisor?
American Pie: The Naked Mile
If there’s one thing that the guys behind “The Naked Mile” want you to know, it’s that midgets and boners are funny. So funny, in fact, that they’ve decided to use them as the foundation of just about every joke. In some cases, it works (the boner competition – where two guys duke it out in a battle of pharmaceutically-induced hard-ons – is pretty damn hilarious), while others, like the subplot involving a fraternity made up entirely of little people, feels completely pointless. In the fifth installment of the gradually declining comedy franchise, the story shifts its focus to Erik Stifler (the cousin of Steve and Matt) and his two pals as they head up to the University of Michigan to participate in The Naked Mile, a wild weekend of partying that concludes with a mile-long streak through campus. Along the way, Erik’s cousin Dwight joins the festivities to help the youngest Stifler finally get laid, and Eugene Levy returns as – believe it or not – the founder of the famous race. The rest of the original cast still hasn’t been hit up for cameo roles (though I have to assume Thomas Ian Nicholas is dying for the work), but these direct-to-DVD flicks are better for it. Especially “ Naked Mile,” which far exceeds its predecessor “Band Camp” in more ways than one.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone how genuinely horrible “American Soldiers” really is. Directed by Sidney Furie, the man behind “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” and featuring some of the shittiest dialogue and worst acting to ever be recorded, the film is an over-the-top love letter to the U.S. Army. And though the story is supposed to take place in a war torn Iraq, it looks exactly like Ontario, Canada (where the movie was shot) with the exception of smoke machines and some cleverly placed Arabic graffiti on the walls. I mean, are there even pine trees in Iraq? No? Then you’d be probably be smart not to have any in the background of every shot! This is modern day cowboys and Indians nonsense, and unless you enjoy the sort of yee-haw-good-home-cooking-Arab-killing fun that this redneck-produced film promotes, you’ll want to stay far, far away. Oh, and the next time you decide to honor our troops, try being a little more discreet about it.
I confess, the original “Animal” escaped my notice – it probably escaped yours, too. Despite starring Ving Rhames, Terrence Howard, and Chazz Palminteri, that one went straight-to-DVD and flew well below my film geek radar. (In fact, when I got the call to review “Animal 2,” I thought I’d be seeing a DVD-only sequel to the regrettable Rob Schneider comedy, “The Animal.”) In “Animal 2,” Mr. Rhames is back as Animal — a reformed hardcore thug-turned forced prison gladiator trying to save his neglected younger son from a phony murder charge – but Howard and Palminteri are long gone, replaced by much lesser known actors. The director of the first film has also flown the coop, replaced by Ryan Combs of “I Accidentally Domed Your Son” infamy. Strangely, however, “Animal 2” is no great disgrace. Thanks to a fast enough pace, some decent fights, a good performance from Rhames and a competent supporting cast, most notably K.C. Collins as Animal’s endangered younger son, “Animal 2” occasionally peaks into the Roger Corman zone of propulsive exploitation, sincerity, and violent amorality. But then the dopier-than-necessary plot kicks into gear and things just kind of slowly degenerate…and I’m suddenly wondering why the DVD copy states that Animal is incarcerated in Northern California’s Folsom Prison, while everyone’s car has Michigan license plates and, boy, doesn’t Detroit, California look an awful lot like Toronto, Ontario?
Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Film For Movie Theaters
If there’s one thing positive to say about the “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” movie, it’s this: the DVD case is friggin’ sweet. No, seriously. The DVD cover art for the film is, on a short list, one of the greatest pieces of DVD-related art of all-time. Unfortunately, that’s where the praise ends, because “ATHFCMFFT” is one of the dumbest movies ever created. Tailor-made for the ADD crowd (which even excludes fans of the Adult Swim TV series), the film is an incomprehensible piece of flaming dog shit that, if nothing else, probably started as a dare down at Williams Street. I really enjoy some of the stuff those guys do over there (namely “Robot Chicken” and “The Venture Bros.”), but the closest “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” has ever come to entertaining me is with the character of Meatwad (whose voice is cool to listen to) and the show’s hip-hop-inspired theme song, which is too short for its own good. Ten-minute episodes are one thing, but when you try to stretch the same concept out into an 80-minute feature film, you’re just asking for trouble. The movie plays a lot like a game of Who Can Make Up the Dumbest Shit on Earth, and unless you’re already in on the joke, chances are you never will be.
Calling “The Aristocats” a Disney classic is like saying McDonald’s hamburgers are made of real meat. It might be true, but it probably isn’t. Of course, when you’re not one of the Disney elite, it only makes people forget even more, so it’s nice to see the Mouse House show it still cares with an updated DVD release designed to reel in a new generation of fans. The story is about as simple as Disney movies go: a millionaire wills her entire estate to her high-society cat, Duchess, and her three kittens, but when the woman’s butler finds out that he’s second in line, he kidnaps the felines and drops them off in the middle of the French countryside. Desperate to return home, Duchess must rely on the help of a male alley cat named Thomas O’Malley to save the day. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Disney made several variations of the same movie over the course of a 20-year span; the closest films being 1955’s “Lady & the Tramp” and 1961’s “101 Dalmatians.” As a result, “The Aristocats” ends up serving as the poor man’s version of both – and it looks like it too. Though Disney usually does a stand-up job of remastering their films, “The Aristocrats” DVD features animation that is so rough you can actually see the early pencil lines beneath all the color. There’s also not a whole lot of music throughout (despite the fact that an actual jazz band appears in the movie), and though the 79-minute runtime is ideal for children with short attention spans, they’d likely still prefer to watch a far superior Disney title instead.
Ask the Dust
The period romance – which opens with struggling writer Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) deciding on how to spend his last nickel – is one of those films that is just teeming with potential, but never advances further than a few teases. The main character, Bandini, is your average Hollywood schlep who, among other things, tries to impress a girl (Salma Hayek) during his first trip to the ocean, only to nearly drown in the process. He also thinks that forcing sex flaunts confidence and always blows his money on material items like clothes, shoes and cigars. Of course, this is also supposed to help in writing his next big story (to date, he’s only published one), but while he chases a relationship with the sexy Mexican barmaid, his story quickly becomes a novel. Unfortunately, as the months (or years) pass by, not much happens other than the two dreamers chitchatting about romance and race issues. Well, we do get to see Hayek naked, but that comes at a very big price: several shots of Farrell nude in the same scene. Not exactly what most guys are hoping for when they sit down to watch a chick flick with their significant other, so instead, rent “Desperado.” It’s barrels of fun for both parties.
Attack of the Gryphon
It’s not exactly a Herculean feat for a straight-to-the-Sci-Fi-Network film to inspire this writer to let loose with a constant stream of “MST3K”-styled one-liners as the events unfold onscreen. But only 20 minutes into “Attack of the Gryphon,” even my mother-in-law was so fed up that she burst out at one of the characters, “You can’t kill a ghost with a sword, you dumb-ass!” There really ought to be some kind of Standards & Practices for exactly how big a lie you can get away telling on a DVD box, because the suggestion that this film is “an epic tale of myth and legend” is a major, major whopper. “An epic string of Medieval clichés” would be a far more accurate description, but even that doesn’t provide adequate warning for the dollar store computer effects used to bring the gryphon to life, the disconcertingly poor acting of Amber Benson (it turns out that her performance as the shy Tara on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was the extent of her range), and the inability of anyone in the film to maintain any sort of accent for more than a few lines at a time. Only in the scenes where Larry Drake offers his scenery-gnawing performances as the villainous Armond does “Attack of the Gryphon” rise to the point of being laughably bad. Otherwise, it’s just plain excruciating.
As a follow-up to “Nine Queens” – the brilliant Spanish crime caper starring Ricardo Darin and Gaston Pauls – director Fabian Bielinsky’s “The Aura” doesn’t even begin compare, but it’s still a decent thriller that fans of international cinema will enjoy. The film stars (surprise surprise) Darin as Esteban Espinosa, a quiet taxidermist who suffers from random fits of epilepsy. He also has a photographic memory and often fantasizes about planning the perfect heist, but he never expected to actually take part in one. While on a hunting trip with his best friend, Esteban accidentally kills a man, only to discover that the victim is actually part of an elaborate heist to rob an armored truck. Instead of calling for help, he takes his place. Because there is almost no one to interact with for the entire first hour, “The Aura” can feel a bit slow at times, but once the heist is set into motion, the film gradually becomes more exciting. It’s no “Nine Queens,” but it’s still one of the better caper films not to come out of Hollywood.
My relationship with French cinema is of the love-hate variety. Most movies that come out of the European country rub me the wrong way, while a select few (like “Amelie” and “The City of Lost Children”) are a true delight, and though I walked on to “Avenue Montaigne” with hesitation, I walked off pleasantly surprised. The story follows small-town girl Jessica (Cecile de France, “High Tension”) as she arrives in France looking for a fresh start waiting tables at a chic bistro on Avenue Montaigne. Little does she know just how much of a part she’ll play in the transformation of the bistro’s colorful cast regulars – including a popular TV actress (Valerie Lemercier), a wealthy art collector (Claude Brasseur), and a classical pianist (Albert Dupontel) – or how her relationships with these people will jumpstart her own change. Designed to resemble a Robert Altman-like collage (where not-so-everyday people have everyday conversations), the film may think it’s geared towards the snooty art house crowd, but there’s something so refreshingly simplistic about it that it comes off as mainstream.
Much like the Michael Keaton thriller “White Noise,” writer/director Joby Harold’s “Awake” attempts to exploit a little known phenomenon by basing an entire film around a rarely discussed medical experience. Dubbed “anesthetic awareness,” the situation occurs in a small percentage of surgery patients who, though completely paralyzed, are conscious of everything they’re experiencing; including pain. Unfortunately, though the research supporting this medical phenomenon certainly holds more scientific weight than EVP, it’s ultimately made into a farce by Harold’s amateurish exaggeration of the experience. Of course, it never helps when your lead is the incredibly wooden Hayden Christensen. As young business tycoon Clay Beresford – who overhears a nefarious plot by his doctors (Terrence Howard and Fisher Stevens) to have him killed during his heart transplant – Christensen isn’t nearly as bad as past performances, but he’s just as uneven. The same goes for the movie itself, which starts out pretty tame but is given a welcome jolt as soon as Christensen goes under the knife. It’s too bad, then, that the story’s biggest twist can be seen from a mile away, or “Awake” might have been more shock and less schlock.
Away From Her
A study of the impact of early onset dementia on a long-married couple isn’t the sort of movie that the Bullz-Eye demographic usually goes for. But if you need to spend time thinking about the big issues of life — love, death and the fact that nothing ever stays the same — you may actually want to check out this strong feature writing and directorial debut by 20-something Canadian actress Sarah Polley (“Dawn of the Dead”). “Away from Her” stars Julie Christie (“Dr. Zhivago,” “Heaven Can Wait”) as Fiona, the loving wife of Grant (Gordon Pinsent), a devoted academic who's spent 20 years trying to make up for an adulterous affair with a younger woman. When Grant reluctantly places his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife in a rest home, he is startled to find, after an enforced 30-day separation, that his wife now treats him like an acquaintance and is carrying on a sort of love affair with Aubrey, a severely disabled fellow resident (Michael Murphy). Worse, when Aubrey’s wife (Olympia Dukakis) removes the man, Fiona becomes despondent and deteriorates rapidly. This is not easy subject matter, but this is not a film without hope and there are moments of real melancholy beauty and unexpected gentle ironic humor, as well as an absolutely heartbreaking and merciless performance by Ms. Christie. I’m very glad I saw this one.
Whoever came up with the idea to cast Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz in a film together should be given the Nobel Peace Prize. No, seriously. There’s nothing quite like watching the two smoking hot Latin actresses in action, especially when you’re name is Steve Zahn. The veteran comic relief man spends most of his time either in deep lip lock with one of the ladies or smothered between their corset-induced cleavage. Not a bad day’s work if you ask me. Unfortunately, while the dream of a threesome with the two actresses is more than enough reason to rent this movie, “Bandidas” is far from the amusing western romp it sets out to be. Centered around a pair of Robin Hood-like female bandits (Hayek and Cruz), the film is almost as kooky as that god awful remake of “Wild, Wild West” we were all subjected to back in the day; except instead of a usually brilliant Kenneth Branagh as the laughably ridiculous villain, “Bandidas” features a usually dreadful Dwight Yoakam in a role that’s well-deserving of a Razzie.
Beavis & Butt-Head Do America
It’s official: Beavis & Butt-Head just aren’t funny anymore. Of course, the adolescent slackers never were as entertaining as their popularity suggested (save for Beavis’ always-hilarious The Great Cornholio shtick) and the duo’s big screen debut is proof of this. Perhaps one of the most pointless films that you’ll ever experience, “Beavis & Butt-Head Do America” attempts to squeeze a legitimate story out of a paper-thin concept that never deserved more than the ten-minute shorts it originated from. It’s nice to see that writer/director Mike Judge wasn’t afraid of the Powers That Be interfering too much with his creation, or we probably wouldn’t see political jabs like the one that takes place in the US Senate. There are also a few other memorable moments – like the film’s opening sequence where the pair mimic King Kong and Godzilla, or when they meet their adult counterparts – but it’s mostly all senseless garbage.
Sometimes, a film never has any chance in Hell of getting out of the art-house circuit and into mainstream release. “Bee Season” is one of those films…and that’s somewhat of a surprise, if only because Richard Gere – who stars here as a father who gets a little overexcited about trying to see his daughter, Eliza (Flora Cross), make her way to the National Spelling Bee – still has a reputation of being a mainstream motion picture icon. At a glance, you might think, okay, spelling bee, this is kind of a fictionalized version of the 2002 documentary, “Spellbound” – though the fictionalized version of “Spellbound” is the forthcoming “Akeelah and the Bee” – but there’s a subplot involving Gere’s wife, played by Juliette Binoche, who seems to be slowly going mad. Also, simultaneous to Gere’s character taking his daughter under his wing, his son (Max Minghella) is, well, having a bit of a religious conversion. Minus the madness, there are several ingredients for a nice family film here, but the tone of the film – as created by co-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel – is, more often than not, rather depressing. Flora Cross does a fine job as Eliza as she tries to decide if she wants to succeed at the spelling bee for herself or simply because her father wants it of her; the dream sequences, intended to demonstrate how Flora finds the spellings of words within her mind, are consistently successful. But while there are hints of the emotional angst of “The Ice Storm” within “Bee Season,” when all is said and done, the intended impact proves ultimately unsatisfactory.
Beyond the Gates
Years later, the 1994 Rwandan genocide still holds a special horror. To put it glibly, over the course of about three months, members of the small African nation’s majority tribe were brainwashed and/or forced (by a well-organized media and organizing campaign) to exterminating any and all members of the nation’s minority tribe, mostly by machete. Almost as shocking was the complete impotence – you might say cowardice – of the worldwide community (that means us) in failing to do anything to stop the bloodshed. Like the far better known and inherently less downbeat “Hotel Rwanda,” “Beyond the Gates” (titled, more aptly, “Shooting Dogs” in the U.K.) is a partially sanitized but compelling and heartfelt look at the human costs of this unspeakable crime. The film focuses almost exclusively on two white foreigners, John Hurt as a Catholic priest in charge of a technical college and Hugh Dancy as his earnest and well-meaning right hand. The screenplay by David Wolstencroft allows us to see their close relations with their Rwandan students and friends and, some rather forced spiritual redemption notwithstanding, does not flinch from the essential bleakness of its story. Furthermore, director Michael Caton-Jones made the wise choice of using actual locations inside Rwanda and employing genocide survivors as crewmembers. The result is a stronger sense of urgency and reality than you might expect from a rather polite British film. Of course, it’s possible that no one should make a realistic version of the story, which would call for George Romero levels of gore and horror. On the other hand, the Rwandan genocides deserve more than two effective, restrained, well-acted and tidy mainstream films.
Ever since catching an episode of Simon Pegg’s cult television series, “Spaced,” I’ve become a big fan of the British comedian, but not even I knew much about the direct-to-video release of “Big Nothing” when it arrived on my doorstep. The black comedy from French writer/director Jean-Baptiste Andrea has managed a relatively low profile, especially considering Pegg’s recent success with the release of “Hot Fuzz.” Oh, and it was the catalyst for Pegg and co-star David Schwimmer’s future collaboration, Schwimmer’s directorial debut “Run, Fat Boy, Run.” In the tradition of films like “Fargo” and “The Ice Harvest,” “Big Nothing” tells the story of a foolproof plan gone wrong when a couple of amateur criminals get caught up in a web of trouble. Schwimmer stars as Charlie, a struggling writer who teams up with an aspiring scam artist (Pegg) to blackmail a corrupt reverend, but when their paint-by-numbers plan suddenly collapses, the two men are left cleaning up their own mess. Despite being the weakest of the six “Friends,” Schwimmer is only mildly annoying in the lead role, while Pegg (doing his first-ever American accent) steals the show as his day-old friend. The movie is much too uneven to recommend to just anyone, but fans of Pegg’s brand of humor should definitely consider giving it a look.
As far as remakes go, “Black Christmas” is a pretty humdrum affair. Based on the classic 1974 slasher film of the same name, the story centers around a group of airhead sorority sisters terrorized by a relentless (and oddly yellow) killer after he escapes from prison. Written and directed by Glen Morgan (best known for creating the “Final Destination” series), the 2006 update doesn’t hold a flame to the original. The film never seems to know if it wants to be a serious slasher movie, or a gory but totally tongue-in-cheek farce in the same vein as “Final Destination.” Furthermore, by constantly jumping back and forth in time to expose more of the background story on the killer, the movie loses a lot of built-up suspense. Long story short, if you absolutely have to watch a Christmas-themed horror movie, you’d be better off checking out the original. And if you want to watch one that will make you laugh, pick up a copy of the highly criticized “Silent Night, Deadly Night.”
We’re using the B-movie rating scale on this one, in case you were curious. A man returns to sell his share of his family’s New Zealand farm, only to discover that his brother is performing genetic engineering that has turned their sheep into flesh-eating killing machines. The ensuing action is every bit as awesomely silly as you expect it to be. The movie is possibly the bloodiest New Zealand import since Peter Jackson’s “Dead Alive” (that’s a good thing, if you weren’t sure). In fact, Jackson’s effects shop WETA is the movie’s real star, creating some hilarious killer animatronic sheep. We’ll give writer/director Jonathan King points for trying to give his characters some semblance of depth (the non-evil brother has a deep-seated fear of sheep), but the movie is at its best when it throws character development aside and gets its gore on. A word of caution: under no circumstances is this movie to be seen while sober (we didn’t). The filmmakers didn’t take the movie too seriously, so there is no reason for anyone else to.
Blind Woman's Curse
Those who have never seen a pinky movie before would be wise to pick up “Blind Woman’s Curse” as their crash course into the genre. If you don’t enjoy the strange stylings of Japanese horror-erotica, then you’ll at least find a decent revenge tale carefully woven throughout. Cult siren Meiko Kaji (of “Lady Snowblood,” the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill”) stars as Akemi Tachibana, a novice yakuza boss forced to protect her students against a power-hungry rival gang and a mysterious blind swordsman seeking revenge. While the quality of the film is debatable (the production value is low and the fight scenes are badly edited), there’s no denying that this is exactly the kind of work that influenced guys like Tarantino to make movies. Hardcore fans of Japanese samurai and yakuza films will certainly enjoy the action sequences, while those who relish in Rob Zombie’s early work will get a kick out of the more surrealistic horror bits.
It might not be one of the defining films of the ‘80s, but the helicopter chase flick “Blue Thunder” still makes for good viewing nowadays. Starring Roy Scheider and Malcolm McDowell, “Blue Thunder” was a special military helicopter entrusted to police pilot Frank Murphy (Scheider) for testing purposes. Murphy and his partner, Lymangood (Daniel Stern), discover that the ‘copter can see through walls with heat sensors, pick up on whispered conversations with its high-test microphones, and blow the living hell out of most anything, thanks to its serious weaponry. McDowell plays the villain, but then, his reputation for playing the villain precedes him, so you probably figured that already. This special edition includes audio commentary from director John Badham, as well as a 45-minute documentary on the making of the film, including new interviews with Scheider, Badham, and co-writer Dan O’Bannon. Turns out McDowell wasn’t the first choice for a bad guy; he only got the gig because Bryan Brown (“F/X”) was already booked. The computers in this film are so antiquated now that you’ll probably giggle at them, but the “1984”/“Big Brother is watching you” plot of the film is, if anything, even more disconcerting nowadays, and the chase scene during the last 15–20 minutes of the movie is as well-choreographed as anything in “Top Gun."
Considering the latest addition to the rap sheet of actor Tom Sizemore (on May 8, he was hauled in after police found two bags of suspected methamphetamine and smoking pipes in his car) you’d think we’d feel guilty about ragging on the fact that “Bottom Feeder” is yet another crappy straight-to-video movie on his resume. And, yet, we don’t. But we will say that, as bad Tom Sizemore movies go (and they’re practically a genre unto themselves), this one has a few moments of cheesy fun. The premise of the film revolves around a drug which, when administered to a patient, causes rapid skin regeneration and cellular growth. Unfortunately, if the dosage isn’t just right, the recipient’s cells continue to grow and his appetite becomes ravenous in an attempt to take in more mass. Inevitably, the scientist who created the drug ends up being injected with his own creation and wanders through an underground tunnel system, eating everything in his path. Sizemore plays a city maintenance man, and, naturally, he and his crew end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. There’s plenty of gore, of course, but that gets old quickly. What makes the film sporadically watchable are the disparate characters, like a ridiculous Rastafarian, an evil millionaire (who’s played by Charles Fitzpatrick as if he’s a ‘60s Bond villain), and a silent Asian henchman, but make no mistake: “Bottom Feeder” is still pretty awful.
Breaking and Entering
Best described as “Closer” Lite, Academy Award-winning director Anthony Minghella’s latest film takes a fascinating look at the lives of two very different Londoners brought together under the strangest of circumstances. Jude Law stars as Will Francis, a successful architect working on a city development project that is continuously being sabotaged by street thieves looking to make a little extra money. When he finally tracks down one of the boys involved (Rafi Gavron), Will is introduced to his mother, Amira (Juliette Binoche), a Palestinian widow who just barely escaped from her war-torn country. Tired of his on-again-off-again relationship with his long-time girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn), Will begins a torrid love affair with Amira only to discover that she’s using the affair as blackmail against reporting her son. The lead performances are all top-notch, with Binoche’s widow serving as the most compelling of the trio, while supporting turns by Martin Freeman, Ray Winstone and Vera Farmiga help to keep the film feeling fresh. It’s a very slow film indeed, but for those who enjoy watching a movie about real people, “Breaking and Entering” is one of the best of the year.
Bridge to Terabithia
While watching the Disney-produced adaptation of the children’s novel “Bridge to Terabithia,” all I could think was, “This sure is a lot like ‘My Girl’.” Granted, the 1991 family comedy didn’t feature any of the fantasy elements that can be found in “Terabithia,” but the major themes are pretty much the same. The film stars Josh Hutcherson as Jesse Aarons, a lonely preteen who’s bullied by his classmates because his family lives dangerously close to the poverty line. When the imaginative Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb) befriends Jesse and invites him to join her in the magical world of Terabithia, however, the two unlock a friendship that will change their lives forever. Unfortunately for the two friends, “Terabithia” shares another thing in common with “My Girl”: an unexpected death, one that will make any grown man cry no matter how hard he tries. This alone is enough to classify the movie as a dangerously emotional experience for children, but the real kicker is this: though the posters and trailers for the movie heavily promote “Terabithia” as a fantasy film, there’s very little actual fantasy to be found.
Taking just over two years to complete and earning millions of fans along the way, the Flash-produced graphic novel, “Broken Saints,” is beyond impressive; it’s extraordinary. Written and directed by Brooke Burgess, the 12-hour fantasy-horror epic – spread across 24 chapters and originally distributed via the World Wide Web (for free) – tells the harrowing tale of four strangers caught in the middle of an impending Darkness. All having received a series of apocalyptic visions luring them to a city in the West, the serialized comic pits the forces of Good versus Evil, while the truth behind a global conspiracy hangs in the balance. The filmmakers have done an incredible job with utilizing the current age of technology to its fullest extent, and while the animation isn’t exactly groundbreaking – or the stylized homages to cyber-punk films like “The Matrix” doubtful – “Broken Saints” is a one-of-a-kind experience that will likely appeal to just about anyone who loves all things anime, horror or science fiction.
Brothers of the Head
The “mockumentary” – or fake documentary – has been done so many times now within comedy that when someone turns around and tries to do a dramatic one, it’s hard to lose one’s self in it right away…and when the subject of the mockumentary is a pair of conjoined (Siamese) twins who have been taken under the wing of a music promoter during the ‘70s and made into a music group, it’s even harder to treat it seriously. Based on the novel by author Brian Aldiss and directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe (“Lost in La Mancha”), the brothers referenced in the title are Tom and Barry Howe, who, if you were to accept this as true, invented punk rock a good year or two before the Sex Pistols and the Clash came onto the scene. Historical inaccuracy aside, the music does indeed kick ass (it’s almost entirely written by super-producer Clive Langer, minus a co-write with Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks and a cover of “Every Little Moment”) and by the end of the film, you’ll be surprised to find that, yes, you are caught up in the story. Overall, however, the whole conjoined-twins aspect is ultimately just too weird. There’s no doubt a larger point to the story, about how anyone can be made into a hit performer with the right marketing spin, but it’s buried beneath the murky strangeness of the premise.
Bruce Lee: Ultimate Collection
If Alfred Hitchcock holds the title for the most DVD reissues, then Bruce Lee comes in a close second. The latest release of the legendary kung fu master’s small catalog of features has been released under the moniker “Bruce Lee: Ultimate Collection,” but is far from it. Featuring all new digital video transfers and 5.1 Dolby Surround audio tracks, the box set includes five films (“The Big Boss,” “Fist of Fury,” “Way of the Dragon,” “Game of Death,” and “Game of Death II”), but fails to include his most famous film of all time, “Enter the Dragon.” How can a collection be deemed ultimate without this film? Better yet, how can “Game of Death II” be included in this same set with only a brief appearance by Lee via old stock footage from past movies? The special features are also few and far from making this set anything close to an ultimate collection, and if you’re aching to pick up these same films (minus “Game of Death II”) in one convenient package, you’re better off checking out the “Master Collection” that was released in 2002, and contains the excellent documentary, “Bruce Lee: The Legend.”
Would you say that you’re a big horror fan? If so, you might be surprised to discover that William Friedkin’s “Bug” isn’t quite the surefire genre-pleaser that the trailers made it out to be. In fact, there’s nothing even remotely horrific about it, and though the chance of redemption always lingers around the corner, you’d wish you weren’t so patient. This is a movie where the main character (Ashley Judd) sacrifices her friendships, sabotages her beliefs and, most importantly, ignores all logic because a stranger (Michael Shannon) has convinced her that the government is using him as the host for a deadly army of bugs. Don’t worry, it’s actually more ridiculous than it sounds, and instead of a creepy horror flick about killer bugs who bury themselves into people’s skin, the film is actually a character study on how the schizophrenic delusions of one man can rub off on others. Based on the off-Broadway play by Tracy Letts, “Bug” is easily one of the worst movies of the year. Aside from its blatantly misleading ad campaign and D-list acting (save for Harry Connick Jr., who’s the sole bright spot of the film), Friedkin’s latest effort is a scare-free catastrophe that will make you wish you could travel back in time to warn all those involved.
The Butterfly Effect 2
The concept of “The Butterfly Effect” – being able to travel back in time and repair past mistakes, only to find that the cure is sometimes worse than the original disease – was an interesting one, which is why it managed to be an eminently watchable flick (even with Ashton Kutcher and Amy Smart as its dramatic leads). And because it was the concept, rather than the cast, that kept viewers enthralled, someone at New Line realized, “hey, we can do a sequel even if we don’t put any familiar faces in it!” Great theory. Unfortunately, it apparently didn’t occur to anyone that they might actually need a halfway decent script or even remotely likeable characters. The first film focused on a guy who suffered through a ton of emotional trauma during his youth, and used his time-traveling abilities to help both himself and his girlfriend. In “The Butterfly Effect 2,” however, Nick (Eric Lively) has no such grand plans. After wrecking his car at the beginning of the movie – killing his girlfriend and their two friends in the process – he initiates the so-called Butterfly Effect to try and get his life back. He then begins changing the past to make things better for himself. Eventually, however, he fucks up, then proceeds to spend the rest of the movie trying to fix everything. The scope of the film is limited to going back and forth within only about a year, so it’s not what you’d call a grand expedition. When it ends, it blatantly and unabashedly sets up “The Butterfly Effect 3.” No thanks. If I could change time, I’d go back and watch the original flick again instead.
As far as romantic comedies go, “Cake” is no worse than the usual theatrical fair we’re used to throwing our money at, so when a film like this is dumped directly to DVD, it begs to ask the question: why? It’s got a cute girl (Heather Graham acting her blondest) and a great supporting cast (including Sandra Oh, Taye Diggs, Cheryl Hines and “Scrubs” alum Sarah Chalke), not to mention a story that’s far more interesting than expected. Okay, so it’s a bit formulaic at times, but if you’re in desperate need for some fast food entertainment (read: cheap and satisfying), then this is the perfect rom-com to help lighten the mood.
There aren’t words to describe how incredibly terrible a movie “Captivity” is, but I’ll do my best. The last straw in a series of over-the-top horror flicks dubbed as torture porn, the film stars Elisha Cuthbert as Jennifer Tree, a top fashion model who’s abducted one night at a charity event in the city. When she awakens to discover that she’s the latest victim in a sick game of torture and obsession, Jennifer forms an unlikely bond with a male victim (Daniel Gilles) being held captive in the next room. While the movie earned tons of controversy for its questionable marketing campaign, “Captivity” isn’t nearly as disgusting as the last few “Saw” and “Hostel” films. The torture sequences are all shot blurrier than a Paul Greengrass action scene, and much of the damage done to Cuthbert’s character is all done as a joke – whether it’s pretending to burn her face with acid or obliterating her Bichon Frise with a gross pointe blank shotgun blast. Unfortunately, most of the concept is lost in gaping plot holes (like why a famous supermodel would ever be seen -- or left -- alone on her own, not to mention why the police would suddenly become suspicious of the killer four days after the fact). Cuthbert, who couldn’t act her way out of a one-on-one with a mountain lion, continues to prove why she hasn’t been able to find steady work, while the film’s big twists (both of which seem to be used in every other horror film these days) can be seen from a mile away.
You know a movie is desperate for a good pull quote when SexGoreMutants.co.uk makes the front cover. “Carved” plays out like a mash-up of assorted J-horror movies past, with the spirit of the slit-mouthed woman terrorizing children (see: “The Ring”) in a sleepy suburban town. The woman was very angry when alive (ahem, “The Grudge”), and her spirit seems to travel from person to person as some kind of airborne illness (they stumped us with this one). But the end result isn’t scary, or even occasionally creepy. Nor, sadly, is it particularly bloody, making it one of the most horror-free horror movies to come down the pipe in years. Of course, despite all this, some American studio will likely remake it anyway.
Of the many short films that have been expanded into full-length features, Sean Ellis’ “Cashback” falls somewhere in the middle. The original short doesn’t have a purpose so much as a really cool concept: Ben (Sean Biggerstaff, or Oliver Wood from the first two “Harry Potter” films), an aspiring art student working the night shift at the local supermarket, imagines stopping time, allowing him to then undress all of the supermodel customers and sketch their nude bodies in his art pad. What the feature film brings to the fold is exactly what one needs when expanding an 18-minute short: a story. In this case, it’s Ben’s break-up with his longtime girlfriend that causes him to develop insomnia, and it’s the colorful cast of characters at the supermarket who help him pass the time. Stuck in an “Office Space”-esque environment where your boss is definitely not your best friend, the workers spend the dragging eight-hour shift in a variety of ways, including sticking tape over their watches to avoid looking at the time, and tricking female customers into buying “sex toys disguised as shampoo bottles.” The movie is well shot, with lots of I-just-got-out-of-film-school trickery, but it’s most certainly not for everybody. Though the middle of “Cashback” becomes a little too much like a teenage sex comedy, the final product has “art movie” written all over it. This probably won’t be Ellis’ best work when all is said and done, but it’s a helluva first try.
Cheech & Chong's Up in Smoke
It’s been almost 30 years since the release of the classic comedy “Up In Smoke,” brought to us by the legendary comedy team Cheech and Chong. The “High-Larious Edition” DVD was just released, and it should find a home alongside all of your classic pot-smoking-humor movies. But more than that, “Up In Smoke” was a great film, one that used the witty comedy of its creators to deliver a light but funny storyline: two out-of-work stoners who drive a van made of marijuana from Mexico to Texas with the Feds hot on their tail, never to be caught. Along the way they do crazy things (like smoke a joint made of dog shit), pick up hot hitchhikers who like to show their boobs, and piss on the same Federal agent’s leg twice. “Up In Smoke” pokes fun at just about everyone and everything, and it will make you laugh whether you’re a pot smoker or not. This DVD also comes with bonuses such as interviews with Cheech and Chong, commentary by Cheech and director Lou Adler, and the original trailer.
As an idea, "The Chumscrubber" works brilliantly. As a film, however, it's little more than a copy of the other teen angst cult films that were far better executed, like, say, “Donnie Darko.” And in place of a man in a bunny suit, the film’s martyr takes the form of a video game character called The Chumscrubber. Unfortunately, this concept is introduced way too late in the story. Still, it’s hard to deny a film that has managed to secure one of the best ensemble casts of 2005, including Glenn Close, Ralph Fiennes, Allison Janney, Carrie-Anne Moss, Rita Wilson, Jamie Bell and Justin Chatwin, among others. The black comic moments are certainly there – such as an incredibly gruesome eyeball slice and a scene involving neighbors arguing over the parking situation for one character’s wedding (Wilson) and the other’s son’s wake (Close) – but there aren’t enough moments like these to classify the movie as a dark comedy. Instead, director Arie Posin is left with a community of interesting characters with nothing particularly interesting for them to do.
Circle of Iron
There’s a lot of history surrounding the martial arts epic “Circle of Iron.” The film, originally conceived by the late Bruce Lee, was meant as his star-making debut, but when production was halted due to the nature of the script, Lee went off to become a star in Hong Kong. By the time the film had gotten back on track, Lee was no longer interested in the project and it was shelved. Five years after his death, the rights to the film were bought and Lee was replaced by David Carradine in the multiple-role lead. Also know as “The Silent Flute,” the film follows a young martial artist, Cord the Seeker (John Cooper), on a quest for the Book of All Knowledge. Fully embracing the Zen mentality that Lee so proudly practiced, Cord takes part in a series of tests and challenges on his way to total enlightenment. Carradine plays the blind master that leads him on the journey, as well as the three martial artists (the Monkeyman, Changsha and Death) who he must face before moving on to the next challenge. For the most part, he does a good job of delivering unique performances for each. Unfortunately, the film itself suffers from a certain level of B-movie cheesiness, and it really makes you wonder how much better it would have been had Lee and James Coburn starred as originally planned. Still, kudos to Blue Underground for finally offering fans a digitally remastered print of the film. The two-disc special edition also includes an excellent interview with David Carradine, a short history of Lee’s involvement and a copy of the final draft script.
Oh, how far Burt Reynolds has fallen. The veteran actor was once considered one of the coolest guys on the big screen, and was even revving up for some sort of mini-comeback (“The Longest Yard” and “The Dukes of Hazzard”) over the past few years, but now it seems like the old fart may have to throw in the towel. Or at least he better after starring in this piece of garbage. “Cloud 9” follows the same, tired sports underdog formula that you see a dozen times every year. When small-time hustler Billy Cole (Reynolds) discovers that he can make some extra cash by forming a beach volleyball team, he decides to revolutionize the sport by adding some much needed sex appeal. This includes the recruitment of four sexy strippers (each one representing a different major ethnicity) and training them to become superstar athletes. The film tries hard to create laughs, going so far as employing the help of D-list cameos by Tony Danza and Gary Busey, but the movie is so bad that you’re bound to get a migraine watching it.
Clueless: Whatever Edition
No discussion of the best comedies of the ‘90s can go without mention of Amy Heckerling’s “Clueless,” a whip smart and wildly funny spin on Jane Austen’s “Emma.” Alicia Silverstone as fashion genius and resident matchmaker Cher has never been better, embodying both sage wisdom and blissful ignorance. The supporting cast is gold, with then-unknowns Brittany Murphy and Breckin Meyer as the new kid and the stoner, respectively, and Paul Rudd as her stepbrother Josh. Even better is Dan Hedaya as her pit bull lawyer of a father (“Son, I have a .45 and a shovel. I doubt that anyone would miss you.”). The extras contain all new interview footage with the entire cast (except Silverstone, curiously) breaking down the movie, the slang, and how they knew they were making a classic. Indeed they were.
Colma: The Musical
“Colma: The Musical” doesn’t care if you think musicals are lame. That’s your problem. And, when it sings, it’s something like magic; when it talks, it’s more like every other zero-budget first feature ever made. That’s its problem. Flatly rejecting the “Moulin Rouge” style of too-fast-for-the-human-eye editing, director Richard Wong lets us know early that he’s up to something special, giving us two musical numbers back to back in a brilliantly choreographed “oner” — a single freaking eight minute shot. As for the music, the virally infectious, synthy neo-pop-rock score by H.P. Mendoza, who also plays one of the leads and wrote the screenplay, is free of pretense and worth a listen on its own. All of this is plenty to drive the film through its first third. But its story of three suburban youngsters dealing with failing romances, families and friendships, as well as the aftermath of high school and the foremath of everything else, becomes strained despite a cast of talented and mostly likable amateurs. It gets incredibly old by the third act, when writer Mendoza allows the behavior of his three leads to become increasingly random and selfish just to keep the drama going. But then, there’s another great number. Like the life it portrays, “Colma: The Musical” is kind of confusing and a little bit sad — it’s just a rewrite away from being the best traditional live-action musical in decades.
Putting aside the sheer irony that someone named Tom Brady directed a football film, “The Comebacks” is 42 different shades of bad. Done in the style of genre spoofs like “Scary Movie,” “Not Another Teen Movie” and “Date Movie,” the film stars David Koechner as Lambeau Fields, the worst coach in the history of sports, and the new skipper of the Heartland State University football team. Already equipped with a ragtag group of potential superstars – including flashy wide receiver Trotter, all-star running back Aseel Tare (which Fields mispronounces “ACL Tear”), and kicking sensation Jizminder Featherfoot – the coach completes his team with the recruitment of Lance Truman (Matthew Lawrence), a strong-armed QB with a nasty habit of fumbling the ball. Unfortunately, while Brady and writers Ed Yeager and Joey Gutierrez could have created an intelligent spoof of the underdog sports genre, they instead chose to aim below the belt with every joke. What Koechner can’t fix on the page he makes up for with enthusiasm, but even that can’t save this travesty – nor will cameos by Will Arnett, Bradley Cooper, Dax Shepard and Jon Gries as a group of football-crazy townsfolk. In the end, “The Comebacks” isn’t quite “Epic Movie” bad, but it’s pretty darn close.
Comics on Duty: We Love You, Mrs. Bevins
The good people behind Comics on Duty are clearly doing their country a great service by giving the troops stationed abroad something they desperately need: laughter. This makes “Comics on Duty: We Love You, Mrs. Bevins” all the more disheartening, because the comics presented here, with the exception of director John Bizarre, just aren’t that funny. (Note to Sarah Tiana: you’re lovely, but quit talking about how loose you are.) To add insult to injury, the production looks and feels cheap, from the bargain-basement music to the awkward editing, not to mention the subtitles saying ‘your’ instead of ‘you’re’. Were there no proofreaders nearby? Some very funny people have participated in Comics on Duty in the past (Blake Clark, to name but one), but watching this video, you couldn’t help but think that the troops were hosed this time around.
Crazy Legs Conti: The Zen and Art of Competitive Eating
Many scoffed when poker tournaments began popping up on ESPN. After all, cheerleading is more of a sport than sitting around playing cards, right? Apparently not, but if there’s one “sport” that trumps the sheer ridiculousness of poker, it’s the (hot) dog eat (hot) dog world of competitive eating. In the first (and hopefully only) film highlighting the sport, newcomer Crazy Legs Conti travels across the country in an attempt to break into competitive eating. From earning the title of the Oyster King, to his qualification into the Nathan’s Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest, Conti splits his time between working on his technique and admiring the Zen-like focus of six-time world champion Takeru Kobayashi. Conti is so obsessed with the Japanese eating force, in fact, that he actually dedicates the last 10 minutes of the film to the dude. And it makes sense, too -- why watch a film about the 16th-ranked competitive eater in the world when you could learn a lot more from watching the best?
The field of awful, unnecessary straight-to-video sequels grows larger every day, but “Creepshow III” vaults to the top of the worst-ever list. The first danger sign comes with the absence from the credits of Stephen King and George A. Romero, co-creators of the “Creepshow” franchise. (Not that they should be complaining; their reputations are surely the better for it.) Instead, the reins of command have been passed to co-directors Ana Clavell and James Dudelson, neither of whom seems to have the slightest familiarity with the concepts of timing or pacing. All five of the interwoven tales within “Creepshow III” are killed stone dead by beating a darkly humorous concept into submission until well after viewers have begun screaming, “Oh, for God’s sake, WE GET IT!” The material – which ranges from “well, at least the concept was interesting” to “exactly what the hell was that even about?” – is in no way helped by a cast filled top to bottom with unfamiliar faces, many of whom are making their motion picture debut. You want a bottom line as to how bad this movie is? If you go to the section of the film’s official website that’s designated for discussion, you’ll find the following message: “Due to the questionable contents posted in this forum, a unanimous decision was made to have it closed.” Wow. The level of abuse being hurled at the film must’ve been off the charts. Yet, the only thing I regret more than having seen “Creepshow III” in the first place is never having had the chance to join in.
A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash
Far be it from us to recommend something so thoroughly depressing, but every person living in the free world owes it to himself to see “A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash.” Compiling the opinions of scientists, politicians and activists from around the world, “Crude Awakening” documents the oil booms and subsequent busts in three cities across the world, then goes on to explain in shocking detail how much energy the world consumes, how much (that is to say, how little) crude oil is left, and how the alternative fuel sources currently being developed (ethanol, wind power, solar energy) will not produce remotely as much bang for the buck as oil (oh, and they also explain how we’re a good 30 to 50 years away from hydrogen power). This information serves in sharp contrast to the commercials and short films from the ‘50s and ‘60s scattered throughout the movie, promoting oil as the background of our development. The overall message, like it or not, is: we’re fucked.
Cry-Baby: Director's Cut
This 1990 musical take on the 50's greaser films may not be John Water's most recognized feature, but it's certainly one of his best. The cult film stars Johnny Depp fresh into his "I'm-not-a-teen-idol" phase and features notable performances by Iggy Pop and Traci Lords. It's a shame we don't get to hear Depp's singing voice in the movie (it was dubbed over by someone else), but then again, maybe it was for the best. Since extinct from any DVD format, the new director's cut single-disc release delivers a satisfying collection of extras that fans will absolutely love. Fans of Depp might not be so thrilled.
C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America
In theory, “C.S.A.” should’ve been one of the best documentaries of the year, but director Kevin Willmott sabotages his own brilliant idea – of what would happen if the South had won the Civil War – by trusting it in the hands of an inferior filmmaker: himself. Under the guise of a documentary being produced by a British television station, “C.S.A.” retells the history of America through fabricated movie segments, television commercials and actual stock footage. Of course, this means that Abraham Lincoln not only failed to free the slaves, but was also forced to go underground after losing the war. It’s pretty evident that the filmmakers aren’t afraid to go the distance (especially with Spike Lee on board), and the faux doc only gets more controversial with every minute, whether it’s discussing Drapetomania (which was actually thought to be a real-life disease that produced runaway slaves), or airing commercials for the slave control drug Contrari, the “COPS”-like program “Runaway,” and the Slave Shopping Network. The film even tries to sneak women, homosexuals and every other minority into the mix, single-handedly turning the country into a Nazi-like establishment, but it’s mostly about the non-reformation of African-Americans in society. A pretty outrageous theory indeed, but one that eventually had to be discussed. It’s just too bad that a guy like Dave Chappelle didn’t think of it first.
Did we really need another Quentin Tarantino-produced film that doesn’t have a Quentin Tarantino feel to it? Why can’t the director spend more time creating his own projects instead of stamping his name across low-budget indie flicks all over Hollywood? Even worse is the fact that resident “Jackass” Johnny Knoxville thinks he can pull a Jim Carrey by dumping his comedic roots and attempting a dramatic acting career. There’s just one problem, of course: he isn’t an actor. We could only be so lucky to see Knoxville and the rest of the “Jackass” alum give up their hopes of becoming big Hollywood stars. Well, at least Steve-O’s no longer getting play on MTV. It’s a start.
Danny Roane: First Time Director
Any fan of Andy Dick’s will probably want to see this. And whether that want is based on wanting to see if Dick made a complete disaster of a flick, or pulled a rabbit out of his ass is entirely up to you. Like most of Dick’s work, it fails as much as it succeeds, with some portions of the movie being laugh out loud funny in an uncomfortable way, and then other bits just falling flat. Of course, this was originally shown on Comedy Central, which would explain the annoying bleeping of the word “fuck.” You’d think they would have changed it for the DVD. Ah well. My only question is what the hell happened to the once gorgeous Sara Rue? The lady was more than fine as she used to be, but has now lost too much damn weight and doesn’t look good at all as a blonde. Ah, the pressures of Hollywood. Other notables such as Jack Black, Ben Stiller and members of Dick’s own family also make cameos. “Danny Roane” is at least worth a solid rental if you like Dick’s work.
The Dean Martin Double Feature
Sony presents a Dean Martin two-fer, but it’s an odd one. There is no chronological rhyme or reason to the pairing – one’s from 1959, the other’s from 1967 – and, really, the only thing the two flicks have in common is a case of mistaken identity. But then, that’s such a comedic plot staple that it’s a pretty weak link to tie the two films together. Still, it’s Dino, so why complain? Just enjoy. Mind you, of the pair, you’ll get far more enjoyment out of “Who Was That Lady?” It’s an underrated late ‘50s classic teaming Martin with Tony Curtis in one of the latter’s first post-“Some Like It Hot” roles. Curtis’ wife (Janet Leigh) busts Curtis being kissed by his lab assistant and threatens divorce until Martin, playing Curtis’s best friend, concocts the idea of pretending that they’re both FBI agents, and that the lab assistant is a Russian spy. Martin, whose character works at CBS, has the prop department draw up a fake FBI identification card for Curtis, claiming it’s for a show, but after making it, the prop man gets suspicious and reports them to the real FBI, and, well, things get hairy after that. “How To Save A Marriage (And Ruin Your Life),” however, is a bit too sprawling, and not nearly as funny, but at least you get to see Stella Stevens in a negligee, and lemme tell ya, that goes a looooooong way.
Death at a Funeral
It’s been awhile since Frank Oz last stepped behind the camera to direct a film, but it’s been even longer since he stepped away having completed one as enjoyable as “Death at a Funeral.” Comprised almost entirely of British-born actors, the film stars Matthew MacFadyen as Daniel, an aspiring writer currently living with his wife and parents in the family’s countryside estate. When his father passes away, Daniel is put in charge of the funeral, but when a series of unexpected events – including a drugged-up in-law (Alan Tudyk) and a blackmailing dwarf (Peter Dinklage) – threaten to ruin the social gathering, Daniel must do whatever it takes to save the day. While most of the British actors aren’t as recognizable as their two American co-stars, they all play an important role in the success of the film. Andy Nyman and Kris Marshall, in particular, prove to be an effective duo, but it’s Tudyk’s performance that rightfully earns a majority of the laughs. In the end, there are probably more smirks and grins than flat-out laughter to be had in this darkly comical tale, but it’s still a refreshing change from Ben Stiller and his endless supply of recycled sight gags.
We totally didn't expect the whole lesbian tie-in, but when is two beautiful girls (like Jordana Brewster and Sara Foster) kissing on screen a bad thing? Unfortunately, model-turned-actress Devon Aoki sees limited on-screen action, and she plays a French girl. Don't forget, two negatives don't make a positive. Still, the film unloads a steady supply of sharp wit and works perfectly as a satire on the "Charlie's Angels" super-spy types; whether or not you actually get the joke is a completely different subject.
While you’d be within your rights to look at the cover of “Deep Blue,” which features a baby penguin and one of its parents, and say, “What a cheap shot, trying to steal some of the audience for ‘March of the Penguins.’” But you don’t have to crawl very far out on a limb to suggest that, if “March of the Penguins” hadn’t come out in 2005, it would’ve been “Deep Blue” that received the accolades of being the best nature documentary to hit theaters since “Winged Migration.” It was nothing but dumb luck that found those penguins stealing this film’s thunder, so if a few more rentals result from the penguins-on-the-cover maneuver (and it’s not false advertising, there are penguins here), more power to ‘em. “Deep Blue,” produced by BBC Worldwide and narrated by Pierce Brosnan, deserves any rave you can throw its way; the cinematography is absolutely gorgeous as the viewer gets a rare view of life in and around the sea, from the polar bears on the shores to the seagulls in the air to the jellyfish, dolphins, and killer whales within the ocean’s depths. Despite the G-rating, however, you might well hesitate to let your kids watch the flick without at least a preemptory warning that this is the real world of nature…and no matter how cute an animal you may be, somewhere within the food chain, you’re somebody’s supper. (Let’s just say that we discover that “killer whale” isn’t just a clever name.) Those moments, thankfully, occur infrequently; indeed, the words “underwater ballet” perfectly summarize several of the scenes. The onscreen imagery coupled with the score by George Fenton and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra make “Deep Blue” a true sight to behold.
The Devil Came on Horseback
Even as the crisis in Darfur has become a popular, celebrity-backed cause and is routinely mentioned by politicians ranging from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, trying to make the unfathomable cruelty of ethnic genocide comprehensible is no easy task. This documentary by Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern attempts to bring the ongoing disaster in Sudan down to size by focusing on the story of former U.S. Marine Capt. Brian Steadle. Steadle took a job monitoring a cease-fire in the decades-long Sudanese civil war, only to find himself witnessing numerous atrocities undertaken by government-backed ethnic gangs, including the torture and mass killings of children and women, and the use of rape as a weapon of war. Unarmed and unable to stop the horrors he witnessed, Steadle left his position, and eventually both he and his sister became fulltime activists on behalf of the people of Darfur. Unfortunately, the film is less than deft at bringing out the humanity of either the Darfurians or their American would-be benefactors, and is frequently bogged down by annoying camera and editing tricks designed to artificially pump up the film’s drama. Nevertheless, “The Devil Came on Horseback” is a decent primer in the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe with its echoes of the senseless mid-‘90s slaughter in nearby Rwanda. It’s just a shame that it is only in the film’s final few minutes that we get any sense of the heroic Steadles or, more importantly, the people of Darfur.
The last thing you’d expect from anyone connected with the sketch comedy group “The State” is a coming-of-age drama about clam diggers in the 1970s, but alas, this Katherine Dieckmann-directed film is just that. Set in a quiet Long Island community where the sea trade is a way of life, “Diggers” stars Paul Rudd as Hunt, a third-generation digger with aspirations for bigger and better things. Joined by his three childhood friends (played by Ken Marino, Ron Eldard and Josh Hamilton), the group’s livelihood is threatened when a big corporation forces their way into the business, leaving each of them to reconsider their respective futures. There’s not much plot behind Marino’s script, but much like last year’s “The Groomsmen,” it’s the performances that ultimately make the difference. And for the most part, they’re superb all around, especially Marino, who upstages Rudd despite having less screen time. My biggest regret is that the film’s three actresses (Maura Tierney, Sarah Paulson and Lauren Ambrose) didn’t have more to do than play the foil to the leading men. All in all, an enjoyable little indie flick tailor-made for anyone who frequents the film festival circuit.
“Dinocroc” was released as part of the Roger Corman Sci-Fi Collection, but don’t set your hopes too high; it’s cheesy and it certainly has moments of fun, but it’s neither good nor bad enough to become a significant highlight in Corman’s production filmography (hence the right-down-the-middle-rating). The film deserves kudos, however, for winking at the audience early on at about how seriously you should take things when it has a boy putting up posters for his lost dog…which only has three legs and answers to “Lucky.” Don’t get me wrong, the façade of seriousness technically never falters…but, really, high drama’s just not in the cards when your movie’s about a genetically-altered crocodile and its cast of characters includes an Australian croc hunter (played by Costas Mandylor) who, at one point, actually says, “Crikey!” Still, the always-dependable Charles Napier – a staple of grade-B movies from as far back as 1970’s “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” – treats the script like it’s Shakespeare and plays the drama (such as it is) for all it’s worth without overacting, and, although you know some characters are croc food from the get-go, the devouring of at least one individual comes as a legitimate shock. And what of the monster itself…? Well, the effects are 3D computer animation and look pretty cool, but when the dinocroc interacts with the actors…well, let’s just say it ain’t “Jurassic Park.”
We’ve seen plenty of films and television shows about dirty cops (“Training Day” and “The Shield” being among the best), but the story coursing through “Dirty” delivers a new spin on the tale. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Clifton Collins Jr. (yep, they’re both juniors) star as former gang bangers-turned-cops who get dragged into a dirty situation when they hook up with a crooked police lieutenant (Cole Hauser) looking to cover up a scandal within the department. Unfortunately, while the film starts off with a bang, it falls apart midway through and is dragged into been-there-done-that territory. The performances by the film’s stars aren’t to be debunked, however, especially Gooding Jr., who hasn’t been this much fun to watch since his Golden Globe award-winning role in “Jerry Maguire.” Channeling a Tre Styles-like energy from his “Boyz n the Hood” days, Gooding Jr. speaks with the confidence of a bull, going so far as harassing the local gangsters with things like: “I bet this reminds you of Valentine’s Day. When your daddy would beat you, and then make love to you.” Even Collins Jr. is a pleasure to watch, but it’s nothing compared to the sudden change that Gooding Jr. has made from starring in silly Disney movies about talking animals. And while “Dirty” can certainly go down in the books as an overall disappointment, anything is better than a “Snow Dogs 2.”
For those of you looking for a reason to sneak Jenny McCarthy back into the spotlight, stop it! Stop it right this moment! She knows she can’t act, so why does she bother putting us through this torment? And no, just because you’re willing to make yourself look like an ass when no one else will, it’s not going to help you become a movie star. Neither will showing your tits or doing gags about having your period inside of a grocery store. In fact, for any of us who did still have a giant crush on you, forget it. Images of you squatting in a pool of your own blood have destroyed the chance of you ever popping up in our dreams ever again. Ever. Let's just say that she's perfect for a guy like Jim Carrey.
Dirty Sanchez: Unrated and Uncensored
“Makes ‘Jackass’ look like the Teletubbies’” claims Maxim on the front of this disc’s box. Whatever. This British take on the whole “extreme stunt” genre is far less amusing than “Jackass” and 10 times as gross. Yes, buddies Pritchard, Dainton and Pancho get the vomit bubbling with plenty of vomit of their own. Hey, let’s cut off some body parts! Fun! Let’s tattoo a penis! Great! Let’s get liposuction without anesthesia, and then make someone drink the sucked-out fat mixed with blood when they lose a bet! Yeah, this is definitely the kind of crap I want to watch. Wait, you mean there are also ripped-off antics like snorting wasabi that Steve-O did eons ago? Hell, let’s all plunk down for some of that action! If you’re into gross-out humor in general, and have the IQ of an infant, you’ll probably like this dreck. Otherwise, stick to any of the “Jackass” releases and watch how these things are really done -- dare I say -- even “tastefully.”
As a longtime fan of French director Luc Besson, it doesn’t take much to convince me of checking out any high-energy action flick that’s been stamped with his seal of approval. Taking place in the very near future (2010, to be exact), the unpoliced ghettos of Paris, France have been isolated by a surrounding wall. When a nuclear missile is hijacked from a government vehicle and then snuck into the barrio, an undercover cop his paired up with a local criminal to track down the bomb and save the district from annihilation. Featuring the same kind of high-flying, off-the-wall stunts that Thai star Tony Jaa has recently brought over to the States, “District B13” is like a non-stop, kung-fu circus of acrobatic martial arts that you won’t be able to peel your eyes away from. In the spirit of Besson, the action flick is all style and no substance, but it’s a visually stunning portrayal of what a film like “Gymkata” could have been.
DOA: Dead or Alive
In the spirit of other video game adaptations like “Street Fighter” and “Mortal Kombat,” “DOA: Dead or Alive” is shallow filmmaking at its absolute best. Sure, the negative reviews greatly outweigh the positive ones, but that’s to be expected when critics hold every film they see up to the same standards. It’s simply not fair with a movie like “DOA.” The plot is about as lame as they come and the acting isn’t the greatest, but this ain’t Shakespeare -- it’s a movie based on a video game known for three things: fighting, hot women and volleyball. Director Corey Yuen (“The Transporter”) makes sure there’s plenty of each sprinkled throughout the film. Despite a recent statement by Jaime Pressly about how embarrassed she was with the final product, the white-trash beauty actually delivers one of the best performances of her career. No joke, and she makes for an alluring action star to boot. The movie itself isn’t really that bad, either. It features great action and some nice cheesecake too, and when all is said and done, that’s all anyone can expect.
Four movies in and it looks like Marvel and Lionsgate are finally settling in to a groove, because although Doctor Strange isn’t the most popular superhero in the Marvel Universe, his first feature-length film is the best of the bunch yet. Set up as an origin story, the film follows the trials and tribulations of Dr. Stephen Strange. A car accident renders his hands completely useless, and desperate for a cure, Strange journeys to Tibet where a sorcerer named the Ancient One teaches him how to utilize his natural talent for magic. Accepting his strange abilities, and joining the rest of the sorcerers in their ongoing battle with the evil spirit Darmammu, Strange discovers that he now has the power to heal using much more than his hands. Though both “Ultimate Avengers” flicks were decent rentals, I nearly gave up hope in the series of direct-to-DVD animated features with the release of the god-awful “Invincible Iron Man.” Nevertheless, Marvel has rebounded quite nicely with this fourth film, and though the character has been given a drastic makeover in order to draw in new fans, diehard “Strange” fanatics should enjoy it as well.
Dog Bite Dog
I have a love/hate relationship with HK cinema, and it has to do with the fact that so many films that come out of the industry are almost always ruined by one of three things – acting, pacing or story. In the case of “Dog Eat Dog,” it’s all three. The film stars Edison Chen as Pang, a Cambodian orphan-turned-hitman whose latest job in Hong Kong has landed him at the top of the Most Wanted list. Among those chasing him down is Wai (Sam Lee), a renegade detective who isn’t afraid of doling out a little tough love. When the out-of-control killer murders the rest of the team, however, Wai goes to unthinkable extremes to get revenge. Short on the action it promises, “Dog Eat Dog” is an extremely boring thriller with little plot and even less dialogue. The acting isn’t any better, and while Chen continues to prove that he’s one of the hardest working hacks in the business, Lee delivers one of the most over-the-top performances of his career. And that’s not even the worst of it. “Dog Eat Dog” features perhaps the dumbest cops in the history of cinema, and you’ll likely be shaking your head at some of the many nitwit decisions they make throughout the course of the story. Still, the film itself looks great, and director Pou-Soi Cheang should at least be proud of his stylish cinematography. Unfortunately, that’s about the only positive thing to be said for this wannabe action thriller.
The Dog Problem
After watching countless direct-to-DVD films over the past few years, it’s nice to finally come across one that doesn’t completely suck. Written and directed by Scott Caan (best known for his role in the “Ocean’s” films), “The Dog Problem” is a light and fluffy romantic comedy about the unlikely relationship between a man and his scrappy dog. Giovanni Ribisi stars as Solo, a struggling writer who, after spending all of his money on therapy, must find a cheaper solution to grounding his emotional problems. The result? A dog that he doesn’t necessarily want, but learns to appreciate nonetheless – especially when it leads to meeting a new lady friend, Lola (Lynn Collins), the clichéd stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold who helps teach Solo about the finer things in life. Sound familiar? Of course it does, but it’s the no-frills way in which Caan attacks the material that makes the film a better-than-average debut.
Done the Impossible
It’s safe to say that while almost everyone has heard about the triumphant return of “Family Guy” to primetime television, the tale of Joss Whedon’s critically acclaimed “Firefly” has remained drastically overlooked. The history behind the cinematic rebirth of the short-lived sci-fi series hasn’t gone completely unheard, however, thanks to an unrelenting group of fanboys (and girls) known throughout the geek underground as Browncoats. Banding together via online forums and fan sites, the Browncoats not only proved just how popular the series was with incredible DVD sales (it still holds a firm spot in Amazon.com’s Top 50), but also headlined a grassroots campaign that led to Universal’s eventual production of a full-fledged motion picture. “Done the Impossible” is the story of this once-in-a-lifetime achievement, made for the fans, by the fans. Chronicling the life cycle of “Firefly” from its 2002 premiere on FOX to the theatrical release of “Serenity” three years later, “Done the Impossible” compiles interviews with fellow Browncoats, passionate cast/crew members, and the all-important Joss Whedon into a 79-minute documentary about the “rise and fall and rebirth” of the cult series. Narrated by “Firefly” alum Adam Baldwin, the fan doc succeeds as a companion piece to the series and film, but it would have worked much better as a special feature on the DVD release for “Serenity.” Or better yet, a re-released Fan Edition of “Firefly.” Still, it’s hard to deny the alluring selection of bonus material, including an in-depth (and I’m talking comprehensive) Interactive Timeline, five hours of extended interviews, audio commentary by the filmmakers and much more.
Don't Drink the Water
In 1969, Woody Allen wasn’t the comedy superstar he’d become a few years later, so when his first Broadway hit became a film, he was not involved. The results must have been a nightmare for poor Woody; it’s definitely a disaster for viewers. “Don’t Drink the Water” stars rotund comedy legend Jackie Gleason as a cigar-chomping New Jersey caterer on a trip to Europe with his wife (Estelle Parsons) and his attractive, recently engaged daughter (Joan Delaney). When their plane is hijacked and sent to the mythical Iron Curtain nation of Vulgaria, a mishap causes them to be mistaken for spies and they take refuge in the American embassy, currently being run by the incompetent son of the American Ambassador (Ted Bessell). While small traces of Allen’s wit survive, veteran comic Howard Morris’s directorial malpractice ensures that almost nothing works. Consistently wrong choices and poorly blocked scenes ruin each and every joke, while unusually obvious continuity errors abound. To make matters worse, the actors appear to have been instructed to play things “big,” so they scream and mug as if they’re playing the show at Shea Stadium. The rest of the time, Morris relies on short, but extremely annoying, titled close-ups of the actors mugging horribly. Gleason and Parson, two major talents, are apparently instructed to run around a lot for no reason, and probably deliver the worst performances of their respective careers. In 1994, Allen was finally able to make his own version of “Don’t Drink the Water” starring himself and Michael J. Fox, which also recently became available on DVD. I haven’t seen it, but it has to be better. It has to be a lot better.
The Doom Generation
“This is the story about this hot chick and her loser boyfriend that begins one night at a nightclub where they listen to techno music. So anyway, they leave the club only to have this bleeding dude jump in the back of their car. This chick curses a lot and they visit many fast-food restaurants, rob a convenience store, and meet up with people played by Margaret Cho, Amanda Bearse, Parker Posey, Perry Farrell and Peter from “The Brady Bunch.” Anyway, in the end, they all become way more than friends and wind up being chased by a bunch of crazy neo-Nazis who want to kill them when all they want is to ride off smoothly into the sunset eating Doritos.” I couldn’t have said it any better myself – which is why I’m using the studio’s summary in my review of the film. Why, you might ask? Well, because “The Doom Generation” is such a giant clusterfuck that (A) I didn’t want to waste any time coming up with my own summary, and (B) because it proves just how stupid this movie really is. I mean, honestly, are we really supposed to care about a trio of losers who spend their days getting high, murdering people, eating junk food and having disgusting pig sex, because if so, please kill me now. Film school students take note: this mindless shit might have passed as groundbreaking back in ’95, but it won’t get you anywhere today.
Down in the Valley
Edward Norton is a hard cat to keep track of, but that’s probably due to the fact that he’s more or less been MIA from Hollywood for the past three years. Then again, it’s really no surprise why he’d choose a character-driven tale like “Down in the Valley” for his homecoming after his last two roles – as the villain in the 2003 summer blockbuster, “The Italian Job,” and as King Baldwin (AKA the Leper King) in Ridley Scott’s period epic, “Kingdom of Heaven” – resulted in such limited performances. Unfortunately, while Norton puts on his best show since “Fight Club,” the movie – about a wannabe cowboy who falls in love with a young rebellious girl (Evan Rachel Wood) – overstays its welcome well before the climax arrives. The film also brings up several questions, perhaps most importantly why a teenage girl would even be dating some 30-year-old nutjob who thinks he’s a cowboy, and why her father (David Morse) would have such a difficult time convincing her otherwise.
Dr. Doolittle 3
No, you didn’t blink and miss this sequel in theaters; it’s a straight-to-video special. And, no, Eddie Murphy has not fallen so far that his movies are going straight to video (he’s not doing much of anything lately); he’s nowhere to be found. Hell, he’s so far out of the picture that his character’s very existence is only referenced once, and that’s when he’s being spoken to on the other end of a telephone conversation. The star here is Kyla Pratt, who’s played Maya Doolittle, the doctor’s daughter, in the previous two flicks. Although at the end of the second film, it was Charisse – played by Raven Symone – who found that she’d inherited her father’s ability to talk to the animals, sometime off-screen, Maya apparently picked them up as well…and they end up coming in handy when she’s sent to summer camp at a dude ranch. Returning as the voice of Lucky, the Doolittle’s family dog, is Norm MacDonald, who receives no credit for his work (he didn’t accept any on the previous flick, either) but probably doesn’t care, since he likely only took the gig to pay off some gambling debts, anyway; meanwhile, the only other celebrities offering their voices to animals are Gary Busey and Danny Bonaduce. Kids might dig the flick, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else will. The humor’s sophomoric, the jokes aren’t that funny, and there’s absolutely nothing that occurs in the film which can’t be predicted from reading the back of the box. The first two films were consistently cute, but this one barely limps across the finish line.
“Dragon Wars” is definitely one of those so-bad-it’s-amusing flicks, so it’s easy to give it a rating right down the middle of the scale. The acting and dialogue are terrible and the story is so damned convoluted you might as well not try to make any sense of it, but at the end of the day there’s something redeeming about the film. Basically, the story is this: a big, bad serpent and its demonic minions come to wreak havoc in Los Angeles. Our heroine (Amanda Brooks) is a reincarnated lass with the power from heaven itself to turn the monster into a dragon. Meanwhile, a reporter hot on the trail of the story discovers he is a reincarnated hero as well and much zaniness ensues. The CGI effects are as cheesy as any you’d find in one of those original Sci-Fi Channel movies and the action is of course over the top. Korean filmmakers sure know how to do it bombastically, if nothing else. Enjoy.
Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight
Any geek worth his salt knows a thing or two about Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. Undoubtedly influenced by the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the two fantasy authors created their own otherworld filled with elves, trolls, witchcraft and wizardry as a supplement to the Dungeons & Dragons game module, Dragonlance. Originally devised as a trilogy – “Dragons of the Autumn Twilight,” Dragons of Winter Night” and “Dragons of Spring Dawning” – the Dragonlance brand quickly grew, and almost 200 novels later, it’s still going strong. It makes perfect sense, then, that Wizards of the Coast would want to extend that brand to a completely different medium. But with the release of the first book on DVD, it appears animation may have been the wrong choice. Unfortunately, it’s probably also the only way to bring the Dragonlance stories to a larger audience, and although the decision to adapt “Autumn Twilight” with a combination of animation and CGI is very unflattering, diehard fans will still want to check it out. It’s a decent summarization of the novel, and though the B-list cast (including Lucy Lawless, Michael Rosenbaum and Michelle Trachtenberg) does little to enhance the characters, Kiefer Sutherland is dead-on as the wizard Raistlin. For those who know nothing about the Dragonlance books, “Autumn Twilight” will probably be written off as yet another “LOTR” clone, but D&D fans know better.
It may come as a bit of a surprise to discover that Rupert Grint is the first of the “Harry Potter” trio to pursue work outside of his regular gig as Ron Weasley, but the kid’s a damn good actor. Though co-star Daniel Radcliffe has garnered most of the attention for his participation in the stage production of “Equus,” it’s Grint who has the best chance of breaking away from all the “Harry Potter” hoopla and carving a future in the business. In “Driving Lessons,” Grint stars as Ben Marshall, a shy teenager who wants nothing more than to pass his driver’s test and escape the repression of his evangelical Christian parents (Laura Linney and Nicholas Farrell). When he gets a job tending to over-the-hill actress Evie Walton (Julie Walters, who also plays Grint’s mother in the “Harry Potter” films), Ben is tricked into going on a cross-country adventure that shows him the world as he’s never seen it before. A delightful little UK flick that’s both charming and occasionally funny (if not only for Walter’s insistence on swearing like a sailor), “Driving Lessons” may not be an entirely convincing breakthrough performance for Grint, but it certainly shows major potential.
Dull. Boring. Insipid. Take your pick, because while all three words mean exactly the same thing, choosing a specific term of endearment is about the only fun you’ll have with the Mexican-produced “Duck Season,” about two boys lounging around eating snacks, playing video games and staring at a duck painting for an entire afternoon. The film tries to impress its audience with an offhanded attempt at characterizing what it’s like to enter adulthood, but none of it is at all very interesting. In fact, it’s quite distressing to see the complete lack of attention to, well, just about everything to do with this movie. It’s an absolute pain to sit through (that is, if you can even make it past the opening slideshow of Mexcio-based still photographs), and if you do, well, then there still isn’t much of a reward waiting for you at the end of it all. This is what happens when a rising director (in this case, Alfonso Cuarón of “Y Tú Mama Tambien”) slaps his name on a piece of crap, instantly transforming it into some sort of important art film. I mean, who is this movie even supposed to appeal to? Oh, that’s right… nobody.
The Dudesons Movie
Three words: “Jackass” in Finland. These four friends actually pre-date “Jackass,” and have won the respect of American Jackasses Bam Margera and Steve-O (both of whom appear in this movie). The movie is equal parts TV show and part documentary, focusing more on the individual personalities than setting up a series of stunts and pranks, though are plenty of both of those as well. The Roman candle Gatling gun is a nice touch, though the boys destroy nearly everything they own in the making of the movie. In the end, the “Jackass” guys are much, much better, but we’ll give the Dudesons an extra star for including several scenes of hot, topless women. Yep, we are just that shallow.
The Dukes of Hazzard: The Beginning
As if Universal’s “American Pie” sequels weren’t unnecessary enough, Warner Brothers has decided to offer a prequel to “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Yes, for those of you who always wanted to know how Bo and Luke Duke ended up in Hazzard County, the truth can now be revealed. If you’re one of the fans of the original show who was insulted by the 2005 feature film, then this’ll probably give you a stroke. The only cast member who could be bothered to return was Willie Nelson, but let’s just presume that he was high at the time -- a very reasonable presumption, I think you’ll agree -- and try not to hold it against him. Otherwise, the roles are filled by people with too much time on their hands or absolutely no quality control when it comes to picking scripts. Relative unknowns play Bo, Luke and Daisy; the role of Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane has been taken over by Harland Williams; and instead of Burt Reynolds as Boss Hog, we get Christopher McDonald. (Jesus, does that guy collect bad sequels? He was also in “Grease 2,” “Wild Orchid 2,” “Another Midnight Run,” “Best of the Best 3,” “Spy Kids 2,” and even one of those straight-to-video “American Pie” flicks!) Sherilyn Fenn’s turn as Boss Hog’s oversexed wife, Lulu, is actually rather amusing. Fenn clearly relishes the chance to mock the sexpot roles of her earlier career. But even after you’ve adjusted your expectations accordingly for anything “Dukes of Hazzard”-related, “The Beginning” is still incredibly dumb. And if you’re wondering: Yes, “unrated” does mean that a bunch of bare boobies have been added to the version of the flick that premiered on the ABC Family Channel.
Following in the footsteps of martial arts superstar Tony Jaa, Thai action hero Dan Chupong headlines this latest import that delivers more of the same death-defying stunts and Muay Thai-themed action. Chupong stars as Siang, a monk-turned-Robin Hood figure seeking revenge on the cattle rancher who murdered his parents, only to be dragged into a dangerous rivalry between two powerful magicians. Taking the classic martial arts model and fusing it with elements of the Western and sword-and-sorcery genres, “Dynamite Warrior” feels fresh without alienating its core audience. Unfortunately, a dynamite warrior he is not. It’s possible that some meaning was lost in the translation of the title, but Chupong’s character is more of a firecracker cowboy than anything else. Of course, “Firecracker Cowboy” doesn’t sound nearly as cool as the chosen title, so I can definitely understand why it might have been changed. Nevertheless, there are plenty of knees and elbows to the heads to keep any action nut happy, as well as a first for the genre: a charismatic leading man who can actually act.
Eat My Dust: Supercharged Edition
Look out, Roger Corman is attacking everyone’s senses again by reissuing his flicks in packaging that exclaims he is the “Reigning King of Independent Films.” In whose narrow universe, exactly? At any rate, we have Corman’s ‘70’s car chase flick starring Ronny Howard here all goosed up with a featurette called “How to Crash on a Dime: The Making of ‘Eat My Dust!’” as well as the original trailer tacked on for good measure. Neither is very exciting, and this movie doesn’t hold up so well all these years later. Big surprise. Car chase flicks were all the rage back in the ‘70s, but now they all look very quaint in most instances. Howard was already reaping great rewards by starring on “Happy Days,” so having him in this movie was certainly a credit to Corman because the film itself is pretty flaccid. Boy sees pretty girl. Boy needs to impress her with his souped-up ride. Boy and girl soon find themselves running from the law. Yee-haw. Take it away, Duke boys!
In so many words, “Edmond” is a bonafide clusterfuck that’s undeserving of a proper review. It’s also David Mamet’s worst screenplay to date. Deliberately pretentious and unbelievably self-absorbed, the film plays out like a series of short films with only one thing in common: a horny William H. Macy, whose title character, upon getting advice from a two-bit fortune teller that he’s “not where [he’s] supposed to be in life” decides to leave his wife and embark on an all-night sex romp. The problem is, Edmond is an incredibly cheap bastard. Whether it’s getting a lap dance from a pushy stripper (Denise Richards), a clean fuck from a high-class call girl (Mena Suvari), or a ten dollar peep show from a pink-haired whore (Bai Ling), he’s constantly trying to bargain the cost of having a good time. For instance, after giving Ling’s character a twenty dollar bill (with the promise of getting a ten back in change), instead of just sitting back and enjoying the show, he goes on a verbal rampage commanding the prompt return of his ten dollars. The story eventually goes off on a whole another tangent, opening up a study into the mind of a seemingly normal human being with very abnormal behavioral problems, but it never transfers to the big screen quite like horror director Stuart Gordon hoped it would. This may have been written by Mamet, but it feels more like a cheap imitation.
Did we really need another based-on-true-events Disney film? This is the third (the others being “Glory Road” and “The Greatest Game Ever Played”) in almost as many months, and at the rate they're going, the studio won’t have much to draw from in a couple years. In fact, they’ve already made a movie very much like this one, and it only came out a few years ago. It was called “Snow Dogs,” and it sucked, and though “Eight Below” doesn’t stoop as low as the whole talking dog bit, it’s almost worse because of it. Paul Walker stars as Jerry Shepherd, one part of a five-man Antarctic explorer team who is forced to leave his team of sled dogs behind when a brutal winter storm hits. After reading a summary of the film, you’re led to believe that Jerry returns to the base camp to brave the snow storm and rescue his dogs, but the movie is actually about him wandering around the sunny States looking for financing so that he can return. Just a little misdirection, wouldn’t you say? Anyways, the movie quickly turns from Disney adventure film to “March of the Penguins”-look-a-like in the snap of a finger, and if you fell asleep while watching the latter film, then there won’t be any stopping you from snoozing during this one
Eight Days a Week
As every dirty old man’s standard joke goes, this movie has at least two things going for it. To clarify that, let’s just say that any film that begins with Keri Russell (“Felicity”) running through a sprinkler in a white t-shirt with no bra, so that her perky nipples are standing at attention and waving at the camera, is one which is at least worth your consideration. A quick plot summary: nerdy Peter (Josh Schaefer) is smitten with his next-door neighbor (Russell), who tries to let him down gently by telling him that they’re “just friends”…but, as all too few women realize, those are two words that rank right between “you’re fired” and “it’s cancer” in the category of Things You Never Want To Hear. Inspired by his grandfather, Peter camps outside his true love’s house and refuses to leave until she realizes he’s the right one for her…a move which doesn’t sit very well with her boyfriend. After seeing this teenage romantic comedy at the Slamdance film festival in 1997, Roger Ebert said of the film, “I no longer fear that the future of the cinema resides in special-effects epics where things get blown up real good,” but it’s possible he oversold it a bit. While the dialogue does accurately capture the sex-crazed mindset of the average teenage boy, so many things occur within the plot that aren’t based in reality – like the way Peter’s father gets fed up with his son’s actions and has a garage sale to sell off all his possessions – that it’s hard to get completely lost in the story. Still, the boyfriend is such an asshole that it is, at least, easy to find yourself rooting for Peter. Slight, but pleasant.
If Andy Lau’s “Infernal Affairs” is the Hong Kong equivalent to “The Godfather,” then surely Johnnie To’s “Election” can be likened to “The Sopranos.” A procedural crime drama that favors backroom debates over gun-blazing set pieces, the film follows the biennial election between two of the Wo Shing Society’s most promising members: Lok (Simon Yam) and Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai). When the former is given the title as the new chairman, however, his hotheaded opponent unleashes a plan to steal the job right out from under him. What ensues is a race to find the Triad’s ancient Dragon Head baton – a symbol of the group’s true leader – that, if not handled democratically, could result in a civil war. “Election” isn’t shy about its bland story, but while the first half of the film is both tedious and confusing, it serves as an excellent prologue to To’s follow-up feature. Simply put, 100 minutes isn’t enough time to understand the politics of the Triad culture, or even get acquainted with its characters, but it is quite an achievement for a man best known for his highly stylized shootouts; especially considering the film explores a brewing gang war without ever firing a single bullet.
Wowie. This movie still cooks. Yes, it’s the 1974 X-rated import from France that set tongues wagging and actually gave softcore porn a respectable name in the theatres. This was one of those flicks that I caught on cable TV late at night as a kid in those adolescent days, and was bowled over. It’s still pretty damn sexy through and through, though that soundtrack has to be one of the most hilarious things ever. This new edition of the film has been remastered and it looks like a peach. It’s also unrated which means…what, I’m not exactly sure, considering the thing was already originally rated X. Ah, but that one scene with the cigarette will live in your memory long after the movie has faded away. “Emmanuelle” was the template for a slew of films that followed, most of which never got it half right. If you love skin cinema, you owe it to yourself to check out this one.
Disney may have beaten HBO to the punch by releasing their version of ancient Rome a few months earlier, but it doesn’t deliver the same bite, despite strong performances by "24" alum Dennis Haysbert and James Frain, and Colm Feore. Wrapped nicely in to a five-hour package, the made-for-TV miniseries features all of the politics, but none of the full-frontal sex that “Rome” offers. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s clear that HBO won the war with sharper writing, better acting and stunning production design. Even more surprising is the decision to cover Caesar’s demise within the first hour, but then again, the events that follow are much more pertinent to the history of Rome’s rise and fall.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Positively staggering. Alex Gibney’s analysis of the Enron scandal is refreshingly simple (unlike, say, Vanity Fair’s convoluted whistleblower article on the same subject), and lays the story out in a manner that is easy to understand. By the time the story reaches its tragic conclusion, the viewer is not left with a sense of outrage – though that is certainly one emotion that will spring to mind – so much as a sense of astonishment that the ruse lasted as long as it did. Gibney does get heavy handed with his imagery and song selection (“That Old Black Magic” plays while panning over an oil field), but he gets the tone of the piece just right. The most surprising aspect of the story is that former California governor Gray Davis, who was burned at the stake for the rolling blackouts that took place under his watch, looks like a martyr here, once we learn exactly what Enron’s traders were doing to exacerbate California’s energy problem. Ken Lay certainly didn’t mean to do it, but in the end, he became the best argument against deregulation that you’re likely to find.
Talent doesn’t always equal success, and though the cast of Mark Rydell’s “Even Money” includes two former Oscar winners, two Oscar nominees, a two-time Golden Globe winner, and a Golden Globe nominee, the film buckles under a weak script and a been-there-done-that story about the intertwining lives of three gambling addicts. Kim Basinger stars as Carol Carver, a bestselling author who’s managed to single-handedly wipe out her family’s life savings on the casino slots. When she meets a lonely magician (Danny DeVito) looking for a little company (and hoping to turn an extra buck), the pair get the lowdown on a fixed college basketball game and risk everything they own. What they don’t know, however, is that even though fellow addict Clyde (Forest Whitaker) has been promised a clean slate if his younger brother (Nick Cannon) throws the game, he’s still not entirely convinced that’s the best move of action. Tim Roth co-stars as the monopolizing bookie behind the plan, while a near-unrecognizable Kelsey Grammer makes a fleeting appearance as the detective hot on his trail. Unfortunately, the big message isn’t quite as powerful as the filmmakers hoped it would be. Everyone already knows the dangers of gambling, and the fact that he lets the worse offender (Basinger) off the hook completely nullifies any point they’re trying to make. The next “Crash” this is not.
Everything You Want
Basic cable network ABC Family churns out made-for-TV romantic comedies quicker than Land ‘o Lakes can produce tubs of butter. This isn’t exactly great news for those looking for something a little more original, but if you’re expecting anything new from a genre infamous for recycling the same tired story, you’d better be well prepared for some hard-boiled disappointment. The film, about an art school student (Shiri Appleby) with an imaginary boyfriend (Orlando Seale), is like “Sweet Home Alabama” meets “Proof,” and it wouldn’t be complete without a real flesh-and-bones kind of guy (the incredibly mundane Nick Zano) to vie for her love. Okay, so the acting isn’t particularly great and the obligatory musical montage is present, but these minor problems don’t exactly distract from more pressing matters, like: how has this beautiful girl managed to go throughout her entire adolescent life without a single boyfriend? It’s simply impossible to imagine. And while “Everything You Want” has plenty of things I’d rather not have, the inexplicable charm is obviously still there. Nine out of ten desperate women agree.
Eye of the Beast
Why the hell can’t James Van Der Beek catch a break? After “Dawson’s Creek,” the guy made a ballsy move by appearing in the cast of “The Rules of Attraction,” but instead of getting him more parts, it apparently killed his career stone dead. Since then, the guy’s been limited to doing TV guest spots and straight to DVD features. Even worse, it seems like the guy’s all but given up any hope of making it as a serious actor. If he hasn’t, then why the hell has he joined dudes like Gary Busey and Michael Madsen in one of the films in Genius Products’ “Maneater Series?” Van Der Beek plays Dan Leland, a researcher who arrives in a small town to figure out why there aren’t nearly as many fish in the sea as there used to be. The answer: a giant squid. Take the general plot of “Jaws” (small fishing village/seaside tourist town terrorized by sea creature), throw in special effects somewhere between “It Came From Beneath the Sea” and Ed Wood’s “Bride of the Monster” (i.e. not very good), and a script that’s slightly better than your average Sci Fi Channel movie (which is exactly what this is), and you’ve got “Eye of the Beast.” The worst part: Van Der Beek is good in it. For God’s sake, would someone please get this man a role in a decent movie for a change?
“Factotum” might just be one of the most pointless movies I’ve seen all year. This is the fictionalized story of real-life author Charles Bukowski (Matt Dillon), an out-of-work, out-of-luck aspiring writer who spends most of his days either finding a new job, getting fired from that job, writing on his yellow legal pad, or his personal favorite, drinking. Dillon is great as the dismal Bukowski, and supporting turns by Marisa Tomei and Fisher Stevens help to keep things interesting, but although the movie is only 90 minutes long, you can’t help but feel like there’s no end in sight. For many, this should be considered one giant waste of time, but that doesn’t discount someone else from finding it as darkly comical as the people who made it. If you truly must see a depressing movie, however, this shouldn’t be your first pick.
Family Guy Presents: Stewie Griffin - The Untold Story
After Seth McFarlane’s “Family Guy” was unjustly taken off the air in 2002, the fate of the animated series was unknown. Then, due to incredible DVD sales, “Family Guy” was revived by Fox for television, but not before a direct-to-DVD movie was greenlit as well. The result is an 88-minute film that feels a lot like three episodes stitched together, but the laughs are just as big. Fans of the series can expect just about everything they’re used to watching on TV and more, namely because there aren’t any censors to tell McFarlane “no” on some of the more risqué jokes. The biggest problem with this single-disc release is the high sales price, which is going for just over $20 in most retail stores. Talk about a commitment.
Fellowship of the Dice
It’s tough coming up with a precise star rating for “Fellowship of the Dice,” a mockumentary which lovingly skewers the world of role-playing games. Described on its cover as “‘Spinal Tap’ meets ‘Dungeons & Dragons,’” “Fellowship” follows the experiences of Elizabeth (Aimee Graham) as she escapes the boredom of her house arrest and stays away from her addictions by being drawn into a role-playing game. As a “newbie,” the other players are torn between being concerned that the quality of the game will suffer and, at least in the case of the male players, being smitten by Elizabeth because she’s a total hottie. The roundtable events make up the focus of the film, but they’re interspersed with moments from Elizabeth’s conversations with her probation officer as well as occasional comments from folks who appear to be actual gamers (as opposed to actors). As a former gamer myself, there’s no question about the frightening accuracy of the gaming sequences and the disturbingly nerdy way the gamers interact with each other conversationally. But the issue is that it’s so accurate, viewers from outside the “cult” who watch the film will offer up more blank looks than laughter. At the heart of “Fellowship of the Dice” lies a funny, sweet film about friendship. Too bad you already have to be in with the in-crowd (so to speak) to truly appreciate it.
Anyone who’s ever worked within some facet of the movie business has no doubt been accused of being a film geek at some point in their life, but no one comes even close to the hopeless protagonist of writer/director James Westby’s endearing comedy. Featuring the same, wry comedic sensibilities of past indie hits like “Clerks” and “Napoleon Dynamite,” the aptly titled “Film Geek” follows Scotty Pelk (Melik Malkasian), a socially inept video clerk, on his quest to get a life. After he’s fired from his job at the video store for annoying the customers and co-workers, Scotty (who has also been waiting seven years for the first hit on his fan site, scottysfilmpage.com) begins to fall deeper into social remission when he meets the lovely Nico (Tyler Gannon), a fellow film enthusiast who doesn’t quite share the same passion for the art form, but nonetheless enjoys the company of the über-geek. Malkasian, the unknown star of the film, does a great job with the more serious portions of the story, but his best scenes come when he’s rattling off pointless film facts (nasally voice and all) to random people who could really care less who Jean-Luc Goddard is. Running only 72-minutes in length, the film’s dreadfully slow pacing makes it feel much longer than it really is, but “Film Geek” still scores as one of the funnier movies this year.
Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children
It’s been nearly ten years since the release of “Final Fantasy VII” for the Sony PlayStation, but it remains the most popular chapter in the ongoing RPG series. A follow-up was inevitable, but after the colossal theatrical flop that was “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,” I don’t think anybody was expecting it in the form of a feature film. Then again, “Advent Children” is less of a film than it is a series of cool, in-game cinematics stringed alongside an incredibly basic plot. The attention to detail is truly impeccable, and Square Enix has once again isolated themselves as the best computer animators in town. Whether it’s the textured skin on the film’s CGI characters or the discernible threads that make up our hero’s zip-up sweater vest, it couldn’t be any closer to the real thing. In the end, there’s no real discernible story to speak of – something about a mass infection and the return of an evil being called Sepiroth (who was destroyed at the end of “FFVII”) – but it’s sure purdy to look at.
When the Weinstein Co. and Genius Products partnered up in 2006 to begin importing Asian genre films under the Dragon Dynasty label, it was assumed that they would focus solely on cult classics from the Shaw Brothers and modern classics like “Police Story” and “Hard Boiled.” When the well ran dry, however, they were forced to rely on newer releases to preserve the series. In “Flash Point,” the unofficial prequel to the label’s first title, Donnie Yen stars as Detective Ma Jun, a ruthless cop who’s building a case against a trio of drug-smuggling brothers. When evidence is destroyed, witnesses murdered, and his undercover partner (Louis Koo) discovered by the group’s leader (Colin Chou), Ma Jun goes against his superior’s orders and takes the fight to them. Unfortunately, it takes nearly an hour to get there, and though the final 25 minutes are comprised almost completely of non-stop action, it doesn’t make up for the fact that a) the story isn’t very interesting, and b) nothing particularly exciting happens prior to the final act. It’s almost as if director Wilson Yip needed a reason for his star to get into a bunch of fights, because even though Donnie Yen barely features into the main story, he’s the highlight of the entire film. Forget “Never Back Down” – if you really want to see Mixed Martial Arts at its absolute best, look no further.
The Flying Scotsman
The U.K. has been dominating the true-life sports genre as of late – not the well known stories, mind you, but the smaller, more personal ones that are ultimately more rewarding. “The Flying Scotsman” continues the tradition with the autobiographical tale of world champion cyclist Graeme Obree. Played by Johnny Lee Miller in one of the best performances of his career, the film follows the young Scot on his journey to break the one-hour world record -- on a bike made out of washing machine parts. Of course, it isn’t much of an inspirational story if our hero doesn’t experience some hardship on his way to becoming a champion, and “The Flying Scotsman” has plenty of it. Along with butting heads with the World Cycling Federation over the safety of his riding style (a more upright position that they deem too dangerous, if only to discourage him from competing), Obree must also battle a history of depression. Ex-hobbit Billy Boyd and veteran actor Brian Cox pitch in with excellent supporting roles, but it’s ultimately the fact that Obree’s life makes for such an interesting film that seals the deal.
Fortunes of Captain Blood / Captain Pirate
Once again, Columbia Pictures digs into its non-unsubstantial film vault and pulls out another two-fer of movies you used to see late at night on your local stations before the cable channels bought up the rights to them. Possibly not by coincidence, this pair of pirate pictures – “Fortunes of Captain Blood” and its sequel, “Captain Pirate” – comes out just as “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” is setting box office records. What better time for folks to satisfy their pirate jones for a reasonable price, eh? As it happens, these are both very pleasant diversions, though “Captain Pirate” certainly has the edge as the most fun of the two. “Fortunes of Captain Blood” finds Peter Blood – a physician by trade, turned pirate by being sentenced to slavery for the crime of saving the wrong patient (according to the English government) – in Jack Sparrow’s stomping grounds: Tortuga. When members of his crew are sold into slavery, Blood (Louis Hayward) puts on an outrageous Spanish accent and infiltrates the prison to rescue them, making for a slight but fun adventure. In “Captain Pirate,” however, Blood is retired and once again making his living as a doctor when he’s accused of ransacking a port. It’s a classic whodunit, with Blood reuniting his old crew and setting out to clear his name; maybe it’s just because it’s in color (“Fortunes” is in “glorious” black and white), but it zips along and makes for a highly enjoyable diversion.
Friends with Money
You’d be hard-pressed to find a decent Hollywood flick starring Jennifer Aniston (the closest she ever got to the A-list was marrying Brad Pitt), but her indie career has never faltered, and with the release of “Friends with Money,” the actress continues her streak of brilliant performances as the sorry-ass plain Jane with potential. Centered on Aniston and her three “friends with money” (Joan Cusack, Frances McDormand and Catherine Keener), the film examines all four women’s lives (and how money affects it) as they each deal with separate issues involving their marriages and careers. As a comedy, the film definitely has its moments – mostly from McDormand’s absurd public outbreaks and the constant gay accusations of her husband (Simon McBurney) – but as a drama, the story never really pushes the limits. It’s a shame, too, since you rarely come across such rich characters in films these days, let alone seven of them (including the three husbands) all nicely packaged as a small circle of friends. And while the film may give the impression that it’s only for women, this is perfect for both you and your wife to enjoy. Just make sure to compliment her plenty in the days leading up to your date night, or you’ll definitely hear about it after you’ve finished watching it.
The masters of crappy horror flick distribution, THINKFilm, have unloaded another golden turd upon us all. You’ll remember this is the company that released the godawful “House of Usher” flick I reviewed not too long ago. Well, in “Gag” we have the poor man’s version of “Saw.” Actually, what we really have is one of the most poorly written, terribly acted and unintentionally hilarious movies seen in quite a while. “Gag” follows two burglars in a theft attempt gone horribly wrong, as they stumble upon a house in which a serial killer is torturing his victims one after another. The torture scenes play more like bad porn than horror (Forced incestuous fellatio! A small wooden stake jammed up a dude’s ass while his pants remain on!), especially the segment where some pennies are heated in a pan on a stove and thrown on the victim’s stomach, to which the line “How ‘bout I throw some pennies atcha?” is literally said aloud. Comparing this to “Saw” is more than a long shot at best. How James Gunn, writer of the excellent “Slither,” gushed about this piece of crap in a quote on the back of the disc’s box is beyond me. On top of all this, the villain – as played by Brian Kolodziej – looks like nothing more than a more muscle-bound Dana Gould. And Dana Gould is not scary. And neither is “Gag.” Somewhere, a landfill is waiting for the remaining copies.
The Game Plan
Only two short years after the blockbuster success of “The Pacifier,” the Mouse House has struck gold again with “The Game Plan,” a tale so eerily familiar that it could have been a sequel. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson joins the ranks of fellow action-heroes-gone-soft as self-centered star quarterback Joe Kingman. While busy preparing for the upcoming playoffs, Joe receives an unexpected surprise when the 8-year-old daughter he never knew existed shows up on his doorstep. Claiming that her mother sent her there for a month while away in Africa, Joe’s initial reaction to Peyton isn’t a positive one, but as the days pass and their bond grows stronger, he begins to warm to the idea of having her around. Regrettably, the relationship between Johnson and young Madison Pettis isn’t very believable. The former WWE superstar plays his character a little too conceited in the opening minutes, and it’s hard to imagine that Kingman would make such a dramatic life change in a matter of days. Of course, this is the only way the story can work, and while watching The Rock paired up with a bedazzled-obsessed ballerina has its moments, most of it just isn’t as funny as you’d expect from a film that absolutely dominated the box office during its theatrical release. Kyra Sedgwick pops in for an entertaining turn as Kingman’s snooty agent, but much like the story itself, even her character can be found amidst a hundred other movies just like it.
Garfield Gets Real
Let’s put it this way: “Garfield Gets Real” is worth your time more than the cat’s theatrically released flicks. The kids will definitely like it, and that’s who it’s geared toward. This all-new CGI-animated movie features Garfield and his pals eschewing the cartoon strip life for the real world. Of course, you can see what’s coming a mile away just from that description, but as I said, this one’s for the kids and as such it’s pretty good viewing for that demographic. Garfield creator Jim Davis wrote the story, and famous voice actor Frank Welker (you probably know him best as the voice of “Fred” on “Scooby-Doo”) supplies Garfield’s speaking voice. For those who are really into Garfield (and God knows there are still plenty of them around), the featurettes on this disc will please the diehards, while the package also sports two DVD-ROM games, “Punt a Pooch” and “Whack-a-Wawa.” All in all, this is a pretty nice little package for the Garfield fan in your life.
I’ve never really been a big fan of religious-themed horror movies (including the granddaddy of them all, “The Omen”), so it wasn’t at all surprising to sit through the entirety of “The Gathering” completely unimpressed. The film – about a cursed group of wanderers who once witnessed the crucifixion of Christ – doesn’t actually go anywhere during its exhaustive 87-minute runtime, and it’s probably due to the fact that the story’s far-fetched theory doesn’t gain steam until the final act. Probably titled for the amount of dust the film has been collecting in the Miramax vaults for the past four years, “The Gathering” is one of those flicks that the Weinsteins retained the rights to following their split from Disney, and now trying to cash in by any means possible. Featuring a great cast of talent that includes Christina Ricci, Stephen Dillane and Ioan Gruffudd, this direct-to-DVD flop yells out paycheck role if there ever was one.
Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film
For almost 30 years, slasher films have been carving up the box office, despite a general loathing by critics, and it’s about time they finally got their due. From the genre’s sudden rise in popularity during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, with the arrival of horror classics like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th,” “Going to Pieces” examines the state of the slasher film during the decade. It explores aspects like influences (Italian filmmakers Mario Bava and Dario Argento, for example), the surge of holiday-themed films (like “My Blood Valentine” and “Happy Birthday”), and the eventual critical/parental outrage to films like “Sleepaway Camp” and “Silent Night, Deadly Night.” Unfortunately, the Starz-produced documentary, “Going to Pieces,” is far from the be-all and end-all homage that it desperately wants to be. Interviews with industry pros like John Carpenter, Wes Craven and Tom Savini definitely help validate the genre as a necessary part of Hollywood, but most of the titles covered are so forgettable that’s it difficult to imagine anyone really giving a damn.
Perhaps only second to King Kong on a list of the greatest big-screen monsters of all-time, Godzilla’s cinematic debut in the mid-1950s led to the development of a legendary franchise spawning numerous sequels and a place in Japanese pop culture. Of course, the original film (titled “Gojira”) was more of an antinuclear drama than the cheesy, monster mash sequels that most people are familiar with, and while Godzilla’s climatic thirteen-minute destruction of downtown Tokyo remains a defining moment in cinematic history, it was the film’s political message about nuclear testing that helped garner all of the critical attention. And while most Americans have only seen the bastardized U.S. reissue of the film (which was heavily edited to drop the politics and include a brand new role featuring Raymond Burr, among many other things), the 98-minute Japanese version has finally been made available in a two-disc DVD set that includes both movies. The film doesn’t quite hold up to the standards of today’s special effects (Godzilla was played by a guy in a suit, as opposed to the Hollywood standard of using Ray Harryhausen’s time-consuming stop-motion animation), but it’s a classic nonetheless.
Supposedly based on Elizabeth Shue’s own childhood struggle of playing soccer with “the boys,” “Gracie” tells the story of a 15-year-old girl (Carly Schroeder) who, after the sudden death of her soccer star brother, decides that she wants to play for the men’s varsity team. Why is there no women’s team, you ask? Well, because it’s 1978, and at that time, soccer was still considered a men’s only sport. That doesn’t stop Gracie from chasing her dream, but between convincing her family and the school board that she has what it takes to compete, she’s facing an uphill battle. What the filmmakers fail to realize, however, is that it’s convincing the audience that’s more important, and by the looks of things, she’s not very good. One would think that those involved in the film (including alleged soccer nuts Elizabeth and Andrew Shue, who not only co-star, but also lent a hand in writing the script) would have made sure that the film looked realistic, but it’s far from it. Rules and details are thrown out in favor of stirring up more dramatic tension, the main lead is a complete brat, and the payoff is one of the most anti-climactic conclusions in the history of the genre. Karen Berg of OK! Magazine (whoever that is) states that “if you liked ‘Bend It Like Beckham,’ you’ll love ‘Gracie’.” Why, because they’re both about girls playing soccer? Puh-lease. “Gracie” doesn’t contain even a tenth of the creative integrity that “Beckham” so gloriously displayed, and unless you want to create even more national embarrassment about the sport, just leave “Gracie” where it belongs: collecting dust on the shelf.
The Great New Wonderful
Of all the films made about 9/11 thus far, it’s shocking to think that one of the best was made by the same guy who directed “Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle” and “Dude, Where’s My Car?” Okay, so Danny Leiner might not earn your respect as a serious director, but “The Great New Wonderful” is most certainly a serious film. Weaving five stories against the backdrop of a post-9/11 New York City – including Maggie Gyllenhaal as a frazzled pastry chef, Jim Gaffigan as a reclusive office worker, and Olympia Dukakis as a tired wife looking for some much-needed excitement in her life – the film takes a unique look at how people deal with post-traumatic stress. There are still plenty of comedic moments (most of them black, like when Stephen Colbert tells a couple that their estranged child is “an incorrigible monster with a heart made out of shit and splinters”), but that doesn't make it any less serious. Plus, where else are you gonna find an unselfish 9/11-themed film that doesn’t feature airplanes or firefighters?
Green Street Hooligans
Riding in on the heels of the 2006 FIFA World Cup, the ultra-violent soccer hooligan film, “Green Street,” has finally been released in the States, and it couldn’t have come any sooner. For those wondering what all the fuss is about (and by that I mean the tens of thousands of Englanders who were banned from Germany to prevent fights from breaking out), “Green Street” is the perfect commentary on football (never say soccer) culture across the pond. Elijah Wood stars as Matt Buckner, a recently-expelled Harvard journalism student who travels to England to stay with his sister (Claire Forlani) and her new husband. Before long, Matt is introduced into the live-and-let-die world of the Green Street Elite, a gang of soccer hooligans for West Ham United, and despite being a Yank, he quickly earns the respect of the other members. To be frank, Wood isn’t very convincing as a down-and-dirty fighter, but he’s perfectly believable as the overseas newcomer who quickly discovers the drug-like euphoria that comes with kicking a few heads in. This movie is all about the fighting, and while it certainly doesn’t justify hooliganism by an stretch of the imagination, it offers great insight into the phenomenon.
Nearly a decade after the release of Ted Demme’s “Beautiful Girls,” actor/director Ed Burns has attempted to replicate the film’s success with his own story about a group of friends wrestling the difficulties of growing up. With only one week to go before tying the knot with his pregnant fiancée, Sue (Brittany Murphy), Paulie has pulled together his four groomsmen – big brother Jimbo (Donal Logue), cousin Mike (Jay Mohr) and their two friends, Desmond (Matthew Lillard) and TC (John Leguizamo) – for one last hurrah. However, what’s meant to be a fun-filled week of hanging out with the boys quickly turns into a downpour of eight-year-long grudges and life-changing secrets. Unfortunately, while the casting is virtually impeccable (it was nice to see Lillard playing a responsible human being, for once), the story juggles far too many problems between the characters to make it feel realistic. Because of this information overload, the pacing of the film makes the final runtime (98 minutes) feel thirty minutes longer than it really is. It’s a shame, really, since an updated version of “Beautiful Girls” would have done the coming-of-age buddy genre wonders.
Guardian of the Realm
The cover of this action-horror flick – part of the “an ancient evil has been unleashed” genre – would have you think it’s something along the lines of “Hellraiser,” but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. If you’ve seen “Men in Black”…or you were a regular viewer of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (the TV series, not the movie) and remember the Initiative…you’ll watch “Guardian of the Realm,” then shrug and say, “It’s been done. And God knows it was done better than this.” Basically, you’ve got a secret, vaguely-governmental underground organization that battles demons on Earth. You’ve also got a chick and a dude who bear such an obvious and surely-intentional resemblance to Buffy and Angel – down to the sexual tension – that you’ll never stop being aware of it. The CGI special effects are pretty decent for a low-budget flick like this one (though ultimately on par with your average “Dr. Who” episode), and the script by Ted Smith and Wyatt Weed is full of pop culture references, but the acting is anywhere from weak to excruciating. Even though it looks good, at 110 minutes, “Guardian of the Realm” feels at least twice that long.
Sometimes, it pains a critic to give a film a bad review, and by opening this sentence with that statement, you’ve probably already guessed that “Hack!” is indeed such a film. There are so many reasons to want to like this horror homage. There are unabashed imitations of death scenes from other films; wink, wink – nudge, nudge character names like Mr. Argento, Mr. Carpenter, and Sheriff Stoker (though it’s uncertain whether Sheriff Radley is a tribute to filmmaker Radley Metzger or the character of John Radley from “Offerings”); and more conversations about horror films that you can shake a stick at. There’s a fun cast, including Danica McKellar (Winne Cooper on “The Wonder Years”), Burt Young and Tony Burton from the “Rocky” movies (they were Paulie and Duke, respectively), and Travis Schuldt (Elliot’s ex, Keith on “Scrubs”); plus genre favorites like William Forsythe, Juliet Landau (who played Druscilla on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel”) and Kane Hodder, a.k.a. the definitive Jason Voorhees from the “Friday the 13th” flicks. Throw in some fabulous bare breasts from Gabrielle Richins and a pretty decent twist ending, and, yes, you’d think it’d worth more than two stars. Unfortunately, a fair amount of the dialogue is trying too hard, and several of the requisite horny college students aren’t the greatest thespians the world has ever seen. “Hack!” is worth a rent for horror fans, but despite being a loving homage to the slasher genre, it’s just not that great a movie.
Hannah Takes the Stairs
Hannah (Greta Gerwig) is a pretty, often casually nude, young woman who half-heartedly dumps her attentive, ultra-slacker boyfriend (Mark Duplass) after he quit his job in an effort to figure out how to be happy. It’s not like she’s an avid careerist who despises laziness. She spends most of her workdays joking around with her adoring, semi-geek bosses (Kent Osborne and Andrew Bujalski), Chicago-based TV sitcom writers (?) who don’t seem to spend all that much time writing. A bit needy, she almost immediately takes up with the nerdier, but more ambitious, of the two friends. Still, it’s not long before her new boyfriend’s tendency to spend at least some time working starts to grate, and she starts to take an interest in his more laidback buddy. It’s not that she means to do any harm, she just has a hard time not pursuing every available option. Directed by Joe Swanberg, this semi-comedy is an example of a cinematic movement that has been dubbed “mumblecore,” but it’s really just a low-key, improvised indie flick about neurotic twenty-somethings that avoids the actory histrionics of most improv-dramas, as well as the hijinks of unscripted comedies like “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” The result is a sexy, often uncomfortably realistic film about people who think too much, talk too much, and work too little. It will annoy many and doesn’t always make sense, but it’s kind of haunting and leaves plenty of room for thought.
Harry and the Hendersons
You know you’re a child of the ‘80s when your eyes light up at the mention of “Harry and the Hendersons,” a slight but highly enjoyable family film about a Bigfoot on the loose in Seattle. Actually, if you’re not familiar with the movie, that makes it sound like a horror film, while in truth, Harry – the Bigfoot in question – is one of the most loveable creatures ever fabricated for the silver screen by makeup master Rick Baker. The story is best summed us thusly: on the way home from a family camping trip, the Hendersons hit Harry with their car, and father George (John Lithgow), in a colossal moment of poor judgment, decides to strap what he believes to be the dead body of the beast to the roof of the car and take it home. Of course, Harry isn’t dead, and when he wakes up, the Hendersons freak out until they realize that this Bigfoot is a gentle creature. Unfortunately, Harry’s being hunted by the famed French Sasquatch hunter, Jacques LeFleur (David Suchet). The Hendersons team up to save Harry from capture and, inevitably, they enable him to return peacefully to the wild. There’s a lot of “E.T.” to this story, and, although it didn’t score the same commercial success, it’s remembered fondly by many (including this writer), resulting in this very nice special edition with lots of special features. Next question: when will we see the subsequent TV series on DVD?
Harry Knuckles & the Pearl Necklace
With a title like that, you can’t really resist taking a look, mostly because, let’s face it, it sounds like it’s gonna be porn…although, to be fair, the fact that it’s credited to “the people who brought you ‘Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter’” works in its favor as well. Unfortunately, it’s easy to argue that the film never rises above the humor of its title. It seems that writer Ian Driscoll and director Lee Demarbre – who were also responsible for the short film, “Harry Knuckles and the Treasure of the Aztec Mummy,” which is also included here – are trying to pay simultaneous tribute to both crap ‘70s drive-in flicks and early ‘80s straight-to-cable spectaculars, but the result too often feels like a student film that only earned a D+. Harry, played by Phil Caracas, is Canada’s favorite super spy (no jokes about the limited competition, please), and he’s on the case to find an actual pearl necklace that’s been stolen by…wait for it…the Bionic Bigfoot; his exploits take him into a virtual-reality scenario, find him teaming up with the Unknown Gas Station Attendant, and battle a pair of ninja nuns. There are lots of slightly funny bits about Harry’s adventures; in particular, his one-liners are right up there with vintage Schwarzenegger (“Let’s show them our theater of pain!”), but they’re spread out over a 116-minute running time that, at times, seems to go on for several hours. In the end, you’ll most likely find that the aforementioned short film will suffice for all your Harry Knuckles needs.
If you were to take all the bits and pieces that didn’t make the final cut of “Training Day,” recast the Ethan Hawke and Denzel Washington roles, and then dumb down the dialogue with an excessive use of “dude” and “dawg,” you’d probably end up with something that looked a lot like David Ayer’s directorial debut, “Harsh Times.” And for good reason, too. The writer/director wrote the screenplays for both films, but where “Training Day” delivered a refreshingly realistic look at police corruption, “Harsh Times” just feels like more of the same thing. Of course, the story is drastically different – Christian Bale and Freddy Rodriguez star as two friends who drift further into a world of petty crime, violence and drugs as they attempt to make something of themselves – but you would hardly notice. Most of the film is spent with the two guys as they drive around town getting high and drunk, or causing trouble in places they probably shouldn’t. The underrated talents of both actors are completely wasted in this mess of a film that takes nearly two hours to arrive at a conclusion we already knew was coming. Want to make better use of your time? Go watch “Taxi Driver” instead.
Oh no, somebody’s gone and burnt Orlando Bloom’s beautiful face! Well, actually, it’s just the area around his left eye, but you’d think his entire face was melting off by the way he’s reacting to it. You’re not the freaking Man without a Face, dude, you’re just a little crispy around the edges and you’re still pissed that the love of your life has resorted to acting like a five cent whore. This is one of many subplots in the direct-to-DVD flick starring everyone’s favorite arrow-slinging elf, and though the producers have shamelessly exploited their Oscar-winning efforts by emblazoning the front cover with the line, “From the makers of ‘Crash’,” the two movies have very little else in common. Sure, there’s that whole many-stories-intersect-to-become-one thing going for it, but it’s not executed quite as well as you’d expect. The cast also features some notable talent (including Bloom, Bill Paxton and Stephen Dillane), but the story is absolutely horrendous. The studio seems to feel the same way (“Haven” was completed nearly two years ago), and the only reason it’s even seeing the light of day is because the Little Indie That Could beat out That Gay Cowboy Movie for the coveted Best Picture statue. Avoid this at all costs. That is, unless you haven’t already been mesmerized by the giant close-up of Orlando on the front cover.
I don’t understand horror fans. Take “Headspace.” The DVD is covered with plaudits for the film; it won Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography at the New York City Horror Film Festival, Best Monster Movie at the World Horror Convention, and is called “the scariest place on Earth” by Stuart Gordon, creator of “Re-Animator.” So why is it that I could barely get through it? I mean, is it just me? I like a good scary movie as much as the next guy, but the acting here is pretty awful (even though the cast includes Sean Young, Dee Wallace Stone, and Udo Kier), the gore is gratuitous rather than scary, and there are three different premises going on, which is probably two too many. The thing is, each premise – a guy who suddenly finds he can use 100% of his brain power, a mother suddenly going insane and trying to kill her family, and murderous creatures killing their way through a city – is arguably interesting enough for its own movie, but here they’re all crammed together and with too much going on at once, it’s all just a big mess. Clearly, however, the producers love the end result; the DVD has commentary, a making-of featurette, tons of deleted, extended, and alternate scenes, an isolated music score, and more. Maybe if you’re a huge fan of the genre you’ll enjoy “Headspace.” Me, I was ready to escape to my happy place within about 15 minutes.
This action-packed Hong Kong thriller starring two of the industry's hottest stars (Ekin Cheng and Leon Lai) doesn't match up against some of this year's other Asian releases, but it's certainly one of the better films recently made available to the US audience. The plot may seem a bit tired to fans of the Hong Kong film scene, but since when have you expected any better? The film doesn't warrant anything more than a rent (if you can even find a copy), and if you're sent on a scavenger hunt to track one down, just give up.
The Hidden Blade
Those looking for an action-filled samurai flick will be seriously disappointed by Yoji Yamada’s subtle tale about a low ranking samurai (who’s never killed a man, let alone unsheathe his sword in defense) struggling to adhere to the traditions of his ancestors. And while the other countrymen spend their days learning about the ways of the West, the samurai is assigned to track down and kill a fugitive who happens to be a childhood friend. Along the way, he also rescues a family servant from certain death, only to discover that she’s the woman he’s been in love with for years. Despite the shortage of swordplay, the film does deliver a fascinating character study far more satisfying than any blood-washed epic (except maybe the Akira Kurosawa classic, “Seven Samurai”), but it moves far too slow to hold the attention of your average American moviegoer. The film was nominated for 12 Japanese Academy Awards, however, and though the acting is difficult to judge (they are speaking in another language, you know), there’s no denying Yamada’s beautiful representation of the Japanese countryside. It ain’t Tom Cruise, folks, but seriously, who’s complaining?
High School Musical
Packed to the core with more important “messages” than an after-school special, the Disney Channel’s “High School Musical” is no less a tribute to famous love stories like “Romeo & Juliet” than it is to popular musicals like “Grease” and “West Side Story.” In fact, the made-for-TV film – which has been winning over the hearts of teenagers since its premiere in January 2006 – is exactly like “Grease” for a new generation. The tale tells of two high school students – star basketball player Troy (Zac Efron) and nerdy honor student Gabriella (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) – who meet by chance at a New Year’s Eve karaoke contest. After making a connection on stage, however, they go their separate ways and prepare for the beginning of a new school term. As luck would have it, the two star-crossed lovers meet again when Gabriella transfers to Troy’s high school, and though it’s considered highly inappropriate by the duo’s respective cliques, they audition for the upcoming school musical. Adversity strikes when a brother/sister duo (played brilliantly by Ashley Tisdale and Lucas Grabeel) challenge the couple for the leading roles, and Troy is ostracized by his fellow teammates. The film can seem a bit preachy at times, and because this is a Disney-produced feature, the cheese factor is turned way up. Still, the music isn’t half bad considering most of the songs contain lyrics like “Everyone is special in their own way / We make each other strong / We’re not the same / We’re different in a good way.”
High School Musical 2
I don’t think anyone can fully explain the whole “High School Musical” phenomenon, but take my word, it goes something like this: my niece (who’s getting close to the 10-year-old mark in her life) and her friends absolutely love Zac Efron and the songs he “sings.” They think he’s cute and dreamy. They’ve watched the “High School Musical” movies a million times and know all the lyrics. So there you have it. It’s literally the little girls who make this shit go around and around. If you loved the first one, you’ll love “2” too, as it’s filled with more of the same obnoxious songs and dance routines with nary a hint of entertaining “acting” to be seen. God bless Disney for making another monster. However, it just makes you wonder why there wasn’t a young audience out there who also lapped up “From Justin to Kelly,” as it’s right in the same camp as this stuff. Oh well, maybe they can tap Justin Guarini for “Community College Musical: The First Semester” whenever it’s made. I’m sure he’s not busy doing anything important.
A “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” wannabe through and through, but with a twist ending that completely voids any investment the audience has made in the lead characters, "High Tension" could easily be labeled as amajor waste of time. The film will also disappoint horror buffs due to its low body count, but some of the death scenes are as creative as the original “Friday the 13th.” Ultimately, though, there’s not much to expect from this movie except an extensive lesbian masturbation scene (why?) and an opening sequence that shows the killer getting head from just a, well, head.
It never really occurred to me that so many people were hoot-and-hollering for Hollywood to adapt a film based on the popular YA novel. Then again, after seeing how badly it flopped in theaters, it’s hard to believe that was the case. Taking place in a small Florida village desperate for an economic boost, the people of Coconut Cove are excited to hear that a Mother Paula’s Pancake House will be opening in their city. But when three teenagers discover that the regional manager of the popular restaurant chain is going to break ground on top of a government-protected owl sanctuary, they form an unlikely bond to stop construction by any means possible. Co-starring Luke Wilson as a bumbling cop and Tim Blake Nelson as the wary foreman, “Hoot” carries a strong environmental message that, unfortunately, most kids probably don’t care about. The all-new Jimmy Buffet soundtrack (as well as his supporting role as a science teacher in the film) will undoubtedly be a welcome surprise for parents forced to watch this with their kids, but it’s no “Harry Potter.” Most kids would much rather see the magical tales of an adolescent wizard than learn about how to save burrowing owls from near-extinction.
The Hottie & the Nottie
Joel David Moore stars in this disaster of a romantic comedy as Nate Cooper, a commitaphobe slacker who, following a break-up with his latest girlfriend, decides that the only way he’ll ever be happy is to be with the woman of his dreams, Cristabelle Abbott (Paris Hilton). When Nate tracks her down in LA, however, he discovers a roadblock sitting in his way: June (Christine Lakin), her ugly, ever-present BFF. Determined to find June a boyfriend so that he may have Cristabelle all to himself, things get complicated when the titular nottie’s inner (and outer) beauty begins to emerge. It takes a certain kind of person to be willing to sit through a movie like “The Hottie & the Nottie.” You have to either be a film critic, a big fan of Paris Hilton or, alternatively, hate the scandal-prone celebutante with the red-hot fire of a thousand suns. Simply put, “The Hottie & the Nottie” is one of the worst films of the year – but not for the reason you might think. Though Hilton clearly isn’t a very good actress, she’s far from the worst thing about the film. That particular distinction goes to an actor who, I kid you not, goes by name The Greg Wilson. It takes a pretty big douchebag to throw an article in front of their name (ahem, The Edge), but it takes an especially large douchebag to do so when he doesn’t display a single hint of talent. Still, while the acting is subpar and the story is unrealistic, you have to give a little credit to a movie that includes a line like “A life without orgasms is like a world without flowers.”
If there’s just one thing you should take away from this review, it’s that I’m not crazy. Now, you’re probably asking yourself, “Why is this guy talking about his sanity in a review for ‘The Hustler’,” and the answer is simple: I don’t like it. The story is bland, the pacing is horrendous, and despite some excellent performances from Paul Newman and George C. Scott, it simply doesn’t deserve all the critical acclaim it’s received over the years. The film gets off to a wonderful start as the audience is introduced to “Fast Eddie” Felson (Newman), a laid-back pool shark whose talent with a cue stick lands him in a world of trouble when he challenges billiards legend Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) and loses. But when the story switches focus to his struggle back to the top, it’s virtually impossible to keep interest. This is a movie that could have remained in the dank, smoke-filled billiard hall for all 132 minutes without much objection, but once Felson is removed from his environment, there’s not much left to admire about a guy who really only shines while shooting pool.
I Trust You To Kill Me
Did you hear the one about the famous Hollywood actor who goes on tour as the manager of a struggling indie rock band? That’s the focus of the documentary, “I Trust You To Kill Me,” which follows Kiefer Sutherland and his rock ‘n roll quartet, Rocco DeLuca and the Burden, as they brave the European bar scene in an attempt to spread word about their upcoming album. Unfortunately, the band isn’t quite as extraordinary as Kiefer makes them out to be, and while the music doc is initially supposed to be about their slow and steady rise to recognition, the director decides about ten minutes in that it’s much more fun to film Kiefer’s late-night antics instead. Kiefer gets drunk, misplaces his phone and wallet, and even hurls himself into a Christmas tree in the middle of a hotel lobby. And when asked if he loses a lot of stuff when he goes out at night, this is his reply: “Two wives… two lives. Uh, yeah, I have.” Granted, it’s nice to see a celebrity that isn’t particularly obsessed with how the public perceives him – not to mention his loyalty to the band (he gets the name of their album tattooed onto his arm in some archaic Icelandic ruin script) – but this guy has got to seriously grow up.
I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With
In this semi-improvisational romantic comedy by Jeff Garlin, the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” co-star plays James Aaron, an out-of-shape Chicago actor who’s looking for a little love and a big break. When he discovers that a local production company is remaking Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” (his all-time favorite film), James sets out to land the title role. When he’s denied a chance to read for the part, however, he heads to a nearby ice cream parlor to drown his sorrows. Instead, he meets Beth (Sarah Silverman), a surprisingly upbeat and eccentric single who immediately takes a liking to James, prompting him to wonder if he’s finally found someone to eat cheese with. Though Garlin isn’t exactly leading man material, the Second City alum has wisely chosen to surround himself with actors like Silverman and Bonnie Hunt – attractive women in their own right, but not necessarily unattainable. He’s also invited friends like Amy Sedaris, Dan Castellaneta and Richard Kind to stop by in supporting roles, and though the improvisation that takes place is almost indistinguishable from the scripted lines, it doesn’t really help the story rise above its mediocrity. The film as a whole is pretty uneven, and though it serves well as the perfect intro course to “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” I can’t imagine the average moviegoer being even remotely interested.
This two-disc set of the Independent Film Channel series is indeed a bit of any eye opener when it comes to sex in Hollywood. Of the four episodes included here, the one featuring censorship is probably the most interesting, as viewers will get to see the history of sex in cinema before the Hayes code, during it, afterward, and then culminating in Jack Valenti’s movie ratings system that we know to this day. Many films are discussed by various writers, critics, and other talking heads like Dita Von Teese (who always comes off as annoyingly calculated and phony). Unfortunately, the basic clutch of films covered in the first episode gets regurgitated for the others in the set, so by the time you’re watching yet another clip from “Midnight Cowboy” or “Last Tango in Paris,” you begin to get the point one time too many. Still, “Indie Sex” is a fun and entertaining series, and well worth at least one viewing of each episode by film buffs interested in the subject.
There’s not a whole lot going on in “The Invisible,” the latest supernatural thriller from the producers of “The Sixth Sense” – a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed since seeing the film’s promising first trailer. Then again, it’s pretty difficult to catch lightning in a bottle more than once nowadays, and ghost stories aren’t any different. The film stars Justin Chatwin as Nick Powell, a teenage golden boy who’s brutally attacked one night and left for dead. When he discovers that he’s trapped in a ghost limbo where no one can see or hear him, Nick must reach out to the one person who knows he’s still alive: Annie (Margarita Levieva), the troubled teen responsible for Nick’s disappearance. Completely lacking any of the intrigue and mystery that you’d expect from a story like this, “The Invisible” isn’t so much a thriller as it is a moody YA drama about two very different people who feel invisible to those around them. Unfortunately, that’s not what audiences were expecting, and though the movie does dabble in the supernatural, the filmmakers have no problem breaking set rules as long as it’s convenient. That isn’t just lazy – it’s downright unacceptable.
…and so will you as you continue to hope that this horror film will get better. Here’s a time-saving spoiler: it doesn’t. Cerina Vincent (“Cabin Fever”) plays Danny St. Claire, a voluptuous park ranger who favors tight tank-tops and has a secret she’s keeping from her kinda-sorta boyfriend / fellow ranger Justin (Dominic Zamprogna) about the drunk driving accident that killed her best friend. I’d say don’t worry about all that drama, but it’s more interesting than the monster that’s terrorizing the pair. The first few minutes provide a setup where some archeologists accidentally release a creature from its subterranean lair, but while the premise sounds interesting – what are the origins of this thing? – it’s never really explored. There’s also a briefcase given to Danny that seems like it’s supposed to be plot-related but which is never opened and, indeed, is totally forgotten by the film. The direction by Steven R. Monroe tries to be Sam Raimi circa the first “Evil Dead” movie, but it’s been done before and it’s certainly been done with better scripts than this. By the way, fans of Vincent’s oeuvre of work – specifically her role as the forever-topless Areola in “Not Another Teen Movie” – will be shocked to find that she doesn’t bare her bosoms here (or, if she does, the sex scene is shot so much in the shadows that you can’t see anything). Kudos on going legit, Cerina! Let’s hope the next step up in your career involves you making a halfway decent film.
When news broke about “Jackass 2.5,” I have to admit I was a little excited. The “Jackass” movies have always been great for cheap laughs, but this time around, it looks like Paramount is the one who’s laughing. Billed as an unofficial follow-up to “Jackass: Number Two,” the direct-to-DVD sequel is seriously lacking the quality we’ve all come to expect from Johnny Knoxville and Co. Remember the 40-odd minutes of deleted scenes that appeared on the DVD for “Number Two?” Yeah, well the stunts that appear here are even worse. Not only are they not funny, but they rarely ever work. Of course, this is why they weren’t included in the first place. Even more disappointing is the film’s not-quite-full-length-feature runtime (64 minutes) and the fact that it all plays like a making-of featurette where the cast and crew discuss failed stunts. Some of the bits are mildly funny, but they’re hardly worth a separate release.
The John Ford Film Collection
While it’s invariably going to be thought of by the general public as being the lesser of the two John Ford box sets being released by Warner Brothers in 2006, there’s nothing shameful to be found in this five-disc collection of films from one of America’s greatest directors. All five films – “The Lost Patrol,” “The Informer,” “Cheyenne Autumn,” “Mary of Scotland,” and “Sergeant Rutledge” – are on DVD for the first time, which automatically makes it a worthy purchase for fans of classic cinema, but let’s examine the films individually for a moment. “Cheyenne Autumn,” Ford’s last Western, is perhaps a bit too sprawling for its own good at 150+ minutes, but the cast, which includes Richard Widmark, Karl Malden, Sal Mineo, Jimmy Stewart, and Edward G. Robinson, makes it worth watching, as does the gorgeous cinematography. “The Lost Patrol,” about a British army unit stranded in the Mesopotamia desert, is creepy (thanks to Boris Karloff, naturally) and claustrophobic, while the Oscar-winner “The Informer” is an early example of the film noir genre. You might snooze off and on during “Mary of Scotland” (starring a very young Katharine Hepburn), but the same can’t be said for “Sergeant Rutledge,” a fascinating and harrowing tale of an African-American cavalry officer – played by the late Woody Strode – accused of rape and murder for little reason other than the color of his skin. Nope, John Wayne isn’t in any of these…but don’t let that stop you from picking it up.
Karas: The Prophecy
It shouldn’t go without being said that full-length anime features rarely make any sense, and in the case of Tatsunoko Productions’ latest release, it couldn’t be any more true. Throughout the entire 80-minute runtime of “Karas: The Prophecy,” the audience is kept entertained with action-packed battle sequences and razzle dazzled with the kind of unparalleled artistry that you just don’t find in American animation. I didn’t, however, understand a single portion of the bullshit storyline that was being crammed down my throat, despite the fact that I had just read the description on the back of the cover only moments before sliding the disc into my DVD player. This is to be expected, though. To this day I still don’t think I completely understand “Akira,” and that's perhaps the greatest anime title ever produced. Fans of the popular Japanese art culture will rush out to buy this film regardless of its unconvincing plotline, but what really grinds my gears is the studio’s futile attempts at marketing the disc by placing the names of B-actors who have nominal roles (like Matthew Lillard and Piper Perabo) on the front cover. Don’t you get it? We don’t care if that dude who played Shaggy in the “Scooby-Doo” movies lent his voice to the film. Just give us some pretty sword fights and we’ll be more than happy to pay the outrageous price.
Keeping Up With the Steins
Call it the Jewish “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” if you must, but the Miramax family comedy “Keeping Up with the Steins” is nothing like the 2002 runaway hit. The film stars Jeremy Piven as Adam Friedler, a (gasp) Jewish Hollywood agent in charge of planning his son Benjamin’s (Daryl Sabara) upcoming bar mitzvah party. Desperately trying to outshine the more recent “Titanic”-themed party thrown by former business partner, Arnie Stein (Larry Miller), Adam’s grand plans are put on hold when his long-lost father (Garry Marshall) unexpectedly shows up on his door step. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two films is that while “Wedding” was funny, “Steins” most certainly is not; with the exception, of course, of Piven, who’s still on top of his game despite the lame script. It isn’t because of the source material either, but rather the drastic change in focus from the ridiculous competition between the two Jewish dads to the blossoming relationship between the son and grandfather. We’ve seen this movie one too many times before, so why couldn’t the director (Scott Marshall, son of Garry) have just stuck with the original premise? The movie is called “Keeping Up with the Steins.”
Kickin' It Old Skool
If you haven’t already done so, please stop sending hate mail to Jamie Kennedy’s agent. After all, it’s not his fault that studios continue to spend millions of dollars every year to finance starring vehicles for the comedian-turned-actor. Of course, if more of his movies turned out like the breakdance comedy “Kickin’ It Old Skool,” maybe we wouldn’t hate the guy so much. The film, which centers on a teenage breakdancer who awakens from a coma 20 years after a nasty fall, shows promise early on, but as soon as Kennedy enters the room, the laugh-per-minute ratio drops dramatically. That isn’t to say that the movie doesn’t still earn a few giggles along the way, but they’re usually the result of Kennedy’s co-stars Bobby Lee and Michael Rosenbaum. The biggest problem with the film is that Kennedy’s character doesn’t awaken as a child in a man’s body – he’s just plain retarded. This is mostly a sign of how bad of an actor Kennedy really is, but as long as you fast-forward through all the bad parts, “Kickin’ It Old Skool” is still watchable. Plus, there’s a must-see cameo of David Hasselhoff wearing a shirt that says “Don’t Hassel the Hoff.” If that doesn’t scream ‘80s memorabilia, I don’t know what does.
What’s with the sudden surge of movies lately featuring older men in sexual relationships with minors? First it was “Down in the Valley,” and now this. That wasn’t the first question that popped into my head after finishing director James Marsh’s latest film, though, but rather “Why in the world is this film titled ‘The King’?” Unfortunately, the answer wasn’t quite as complicated as I had expected: the main character’s name is Elvis. Oh, duh. Talented up-and-comer Gael Garcia Bernal stars as the oddly named protagonist who, upon getting discharged from the Navy, travels down to Texas to confront a local pastor (William Hurt) about a fling he once had with his mother. It’s too bad we don’t learn more about the event other than that it resulted in an illegitimate child (Elvis), or maybe the audience would sympathize more with the title character. Instead, he comes off as a poisonous snake trespassing into a Garden of Eden-like household filled with loving Christians, and though Marsh tries to uphold a sense of mystery, anyone that’s ever read the Bible knows exactly what’s going to happen.
In a word, crapola. It makes you wonder why a film like this gets made. Sure, it has John Malkovich in the starring role as artist Gustav Klimt, but it doesn’t have much else. Malkovich doesn’t offer much himself here, acting in director Raul Ruiz’s film in such a dull, near-comatose fashion that it’s all you can do to keep any interest in the character. The dialogue is un-engaging and rambles on incessantly, and the script is pretentious enough to weigh down the entire production in its own pompous, hollow explosion of boredom. Fans of the actual artist will find absolutely nothing to like here, and will gain zero insights into the person. What could have been a decent flick turns into one of those snooty period pieces that has absolutely nothing supporting it behind its “important” façade. If you want an art history lesson, read a book on the man or find some other bit of media on him, but stay as far as possible from “Klimt.”
A juicy piece of cold war history that’s also a job of work to watch, this 1967 feature from the ultimate aesthetic bomb thrower of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard, deals with a group of young people from well-to-do backgrounds sharing an apartment and, between lengthy philosophical, political, and artistic discourses, planning terrorist acts inspired by China’s Communist Chairman Mao. Led by a “Little Red Book” quoting actor (Jean-Pierre Léaud, “The 400 Blows”) and his winsome, but even more ideologically committed girlfriend (Anne Wiazemsky, Godard’s wife at the time), it’s clear this seriously naïve group isn’t, in John Lennon’s phrase, going to make it with anyone, anyhow — but boy do they talk about it. Never very comfortable with ordinary dramaturgy, Godard, a fanatical far leftist at the time himself, toys with avoiding it altogether here. The film is mostly a series of intense conversations touching on long dead controversies and rift that were then current among Europe’s more extreme left, leavened with bits of impish humor and cartoonish, primary-color-fueled compositions (lots and lots of red, naturally) courtesy of the director and his great cinematographer, Raoul Coutard. Godard’s next film was probably his masterpiece — the compelling, freaky and hilarious “Week End” — but it also famously proclaimed the “end of cinema.” The destruction of conventional, watchable cinema was already largely in practice here. (For all the visual rock and roll dazzle of “La Chinoise” with none of the work, see the snazzy trailer.)
Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure
It’s so easy to kick a Disney sequel, but the first ridiculous thing about this release is that, although it was originally a straight-to-video release, they’re attempting to lump it in with the actual Disney classics by reissuing it and slapping a “Limited Time Only” sticker on the front. Blasphemy!!! Ahem. So Scamp – voiced by Scott Wolf (“Party of Five”) – is the son of Lady and the Tramp, and, basically, he’s rebelling against his perfectly good family life, deciding that the world of junkyard dogs is far more his style. In the process, he meets a little cutie named Angel (Alyssa Milano), but he’s also introduced to Buster (Chazz Palminteri), who used to run with Tramp and is still bitter that Tramp left the streets behind in favor of his Lady. It’d be a sucker’s bet to wager against Tramp returning home with Angel in tow, wiser for his experiences on the streets. It’s a traditional Disney plot line that embraces the importance of family, so it’s a fine movie for kids…but at only 63 minutes in length, much of it padded with schmaltzy Melissa Manchester songs, there’s way more fluff than substance. While “Scamp’s Adventure” is undeniably cute, it was never going to be anything other than a pale imitation of the original…and, strangely, in the making-of featurette, they end up unintentionally playing up how poorly it stacks up by constantly showing clips from the original alongside this sequel. The makers of “Scamp’s Adventure” were clearly trying to pay tribute to a classic film, but, despite the film’s occasional charms, they fell far short of the mark; it still looks and feels like the straight-to-video sequel it is.
As the final installment of Park Chan-wook’s critically-acclaimed revenge trilogy, “Lady Vengeance” (or “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance,” as it’s known on the other side of the world) is an excellent piece of filmmaking. Centered on a beautiful woman who was blackmailed and wrongfully imprisoned for murder, the story picks up thirteen years later just as she’s being released from prison. Hatching an elaborate plan for revenge while inside, the woman must now rely on her former cellmates to make her plan a reality. Not nearly as ultra-violent as the trilogy’s first two chapters, “Lady Vengeance” still bears the same sinister mark that the Korean director brands on each and every one of his films. The pacing is to be specifically commended, because while it’s slow goings for the first 90 minutes, the final half-hour delivers one of the best cinematic payoffs of the last five years. It’s spine-chilling to say the least, and yet you can’t help but applaud Park’s beautiful composition of a truly disgusting premise. If you’re a fan of revenge films like “Oldboy” and “Kill Bill,” or just a regular Asian cinema nut, you won’t see a better offering from either genre this year.
Le Gai Savior
What do you do when you’re not yet 40, the world’s most celebrated cinematic renegade, you’ve made your masterpiece (1967’s “Week End”), and it ends with the words “end of cinema?” If you’re Jean-Luc Godard, the Johnny Rotten of the French New Wave, you try to prove it by making movies that dispense with traditional meaning entirely. Still an oddity nearly 40 years after its release, “Le Gai Savior” (which means something like “The Joy of Knowledge”) is an interminable, exquisitely filmed, cinematic conversation between two archly doctrinaire Marxist students (Julie Berto and New Wave stand-by Jean-Pierre Leaud). The subject at hand is language as the enemy of the extreme social change that they advocate. The dialogue takes place entirely on an empty, darkened stage and examines the very notion of language, while being interspersed with a collage of random material and bizarre and often irritating sound effects and narrations by Godard himself. Nearly unwatchable for most of its length, it is also all but impenetrable. (Godard scholar Colin MacCabe has written that Godard’s films from this period “address an ideal audience.” I guess I’m not a member of that audience.) It is also, like Godard himself during this period, horribly politically obtuse. If only he had known that the puritanical, repressive, murderous Maoist Chinese government he so admired — despite his fierce opposition to these same tendencies in the West — would, within a couple of decades, be enabling many of the world’s most rapacious capitalists.
Legend of the Black Scorpion
Clichéd as it may sound, “Hamlet” is one of my all-time favorite literary works, so when I discovered that director Xiaogang Feng’s latest period drama was designed as a loose adaptation of the classic Shakespearean tale, I was understandably excited. After all, how can you go wrong with a movie that combines “Hamlet” with kung fu and Zhang Ziyi? Apparently, it’s very easy. Though the basic story thread remains intact (i.e. the Prince plots his revenge on the uncle who cowardly poisoned his father), the various changes ultimately result in a shallow retelling. For instance, the queen (Zhang) is now the stepmother (and former lover) of the young Prince Wu Lan (Daniel Wu), while classic characters like Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been completely lost in translation. Not even the Ophelia of the tale has a very large role, and instead, the movie focuses more on the relationship between the Empress and her new Emperor (You Ge). It’d be all fine and well if Xiaogang weren’t trying to recreate “Hamlet,” but what exactly is the point of using the story as a blueprint if you aren’t going to follow it?
Leroy & Stitch
Is there a completely separate department at Disney’s animation studio that focuses solely on cranking out direct-to-video sequels to popular animated films? If so, shame on them for producing this latest crapfest, which stars the same characters from the original “Lilo and Stitch” film. Wasn’t a DTV sequel and a weekly television series enough? And couldn’t they have just as easily implemented this 70-minute tale (about Dr. Hamsterviel breaking out of prison and cloning an army of red Stitch look-a-likes) into a three-episode story arc on the animated series? All interesting questions, but none of which lead to Michael Eisner lining his pockets with even more money. Yes, folks, he’s that rich.
Let's Go to Prison
One would think that a prison comedy, written by three members of The State (Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon and Michael Patrick Jann) and directed by Bob Odenkirk, would be one of the funniest movies you’ve ever seen. But alas, “Let’s Go to Prison” is one of the worst comedies of the year. Based on the novel “You Are Going to Prison” by Jim Hogshire, the film stars Dax Shepherd as John Lyshitski, a career criminal with a personal vendetta against the judge who repeatedly sentenced him to time in jail. Discovering that the judge has recently died (thus ruining his plans for revenge), John hatches a new plan that lands the judge’s only son, Nelson Biederman IV (Will Arnett), in prison along with him. The laughs are few and far between in this 84-minute comedic dud that would have been better off released straight-to-DVD. While it’s nice to see Arnett pursuing a film career now that “Arrested Development” is off the air, the actor has a difficult time making such lame material even remotely entertaining. Mark this up as yet another letdown from the “Reno 911” boys, and let’s never talk about it again.
The Life and Death of Peter Sellers
The award-winning HBO biopic of the incredibly eccentric Peter Sellers takes an inside look at the adult years of the British-born actor who struggled with his non-traditional lifestyle outside of the movies. The beginning of the picture crawls through all of the introductions, but Geoffrey Rush turns in a brilliant performance as the oddball Sellers. He also gets plenty of help from an all-star cast of talent, as well as the fact that made-for-TV movies just don't demand the same kind of respect as theatrical releases.
Lights! Camera! Elvis! Collection
It seems like every August we’re inundated with Elvis marathons on AMC and TMC, re-issues of his best-selling albums (which is to say all of them), and re-releases of his most popular movies. This year is a particularly special occasion in that every one of the musician-turned-actor’s films is being released (in some capacity) on DVD to celebrate the occasion. Paramount has decided to tackle their eight-film catalog in the easiest (but most frustrating) way possible: cram them all into one DVD box set. This business model certainly has its ups and downs: those looking to collect every film can do so at a discounted price, while those who only want a certain few are forced to buy the others. But that’s not the biggest problem with the blue velvet-encrusted box set release. Instead, it’s the sheer disregard for giving any of the films their due. True, most of the films – which include “King Creole,” “G.I. Blues,” “Blue Hawaii,” “Roustabout,” “Girls! Girls! Girls!,” “Fun in Acapulco,” “Paradise Hawaiian Style,” and “Easy Come, Easy Go” – aren’t exactly classics, but surely they deserve better than taking an old DVD version and sticking it in a new box.
For what it’s worth, “Little Children” should have been nominated for an Academy Award, perhaps just as much as “Children of Men.” Unfortunately, we have idiots running Hollywood, and though it’s unclear whether the use of the word “children” in the title had anything to do with its unjust omission, the fact that the film’s main themes deal with infidelity and child molestation certainly didn’t help. Based on the novel by Tom Perrotta, “Little Children” tells the story of a group of adults experiencing some truly life-defining moments. Kate Winslet stars as Sarah Pierce, a suburban mom who begins a torrid love affair with a passive househusband (Patrick Wilson) when they meet by chance in the local park. Meanwhile, a convicted pedophile (Jackie Earle Haley) returns to the neighborhood to live with his mother, only to be constantly stalked and threatened by a recently fired cop (Noah Emmerich). The performances are all top-notch, and the inclusion of an actual narrator is both brave and effective, but it’s the simple-minded script that makes the story accessible to such a broad audience.
The Little Shop of Horrors
Sure, you’ve probably caught the musical version of the film at some point, and you might even have heard something about how Jack Nicholson had a part in the original version…but have you ever seen the original? Well, if not, then now’s the time, as it’s been re-released via Legend Films with both a colorized version as well as a restored version of the original black-and-white…and, better yet, it now comes with a very funny audio commentary from Mike Nelson, late of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” When he observes that it’s “light on the horrors and heavy on the little shop,” he’s not kidding…nor is he off-base when noting that there’s no rhyme and reason to when the film wants to be a comedy and when it wants to be scary. (“I don’t think I’ll ever understand how they decide when to play the wacky music.”) If you’re buying this for Nicholson, don’t waste your time; he’s only in it for about five minutes, if that. If you’re an MST3K fan, though, get in early, as the first 5,000 copies are autographed by Nelson.
This dreadfully boring tale isn’t about the city, but rather a girl named after the city (Jessica Biel) that the film’s coke-snorting protagonist (Chris Evans) is trying to win back. He finally gets his big chance at a going-away party for London, but instead spends the entire time locked away in the bathroom with his superficial bartending friend (Joy Bryant) and dealer (Jason Statham). The rest of the film is made up of “deep” conversations about love and religion, but none of it is even remotely interesting. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that the cast chemistry (Biel, Evans and Statham all worked together before on “Cellular”) was enough to generate a winning combination, but it doesn’t even come close to making this film any easier to sit through. Scene-stealer Isla Fisher (“The Wedding Crashers”) and rising comic Dane Cook also briefly appear as the party host and guest, respectively, but their limited roles are so brain-numbingly unnecessary that I can’t imagine why either of them would sign up for this. Film students beware: this is how bad movies are made. Coincidentally, this is also how you prevent yourself from ever getting another job in Hollywood.
Based on the true story of the Lonely Hearts Killers, Jared Leto and Salma Hayek star in this true crime drama as the romantically involved con artists/serial killers who place ads in the classifieds in order to meet single women to swindle and kill. Their crime spree goes unnoticed at first, but when the bodies begin to pile up too high to keep hidden, two New York homicide detectives (John Travolta and James Gandolfini) pick up their trail, crossing into Michigan. Written and directed by the grandson of the lead detective, “Lonely Hearts” is a decent crime drama for fans of the genre, but it’s not likely to register on the radar of most moviegoers. Despite receiving top billing, Travolta and Gandolfini do very little throughout the course of the film. In fact, the film focuses more on the criminals than the cops, and as such, a majority of the workload is dumped on their co-stars. Leto is unimpressive as usual, but Hayek delivers a near-flawless turn as the psychotic Martha Beck. She’s no Bonnie Parker, but she makes for an interesting femme fatale at a time when strong female characters were virtually non-existent.
It’s shocking to think that there is only one company in the world that is still making pinball machines, but after watching “Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball,” you might wonder how there is still one company in the world making pinball machines. The movie documents the story of Williams Co., who created some of the most groundbreaking pinball machines in history (“Black Knight,” “High Speed,” “Addams Family”), though the advances in technology also meant rising costs and slimmer profit margins. In 1999, the company went for broke, creating the Pinball 2000 design that melded pinball play with computer graphics. The distributors loved it, but Williams’ second Pinball 2000 title, based around the can’t-miss property “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” killed them, forcing the company to abandon pinball permanently for the far more lucrative slot machine sector. Try as the film may for a tearful farewell, the company’s decision to quit pinball seems quite understandable when all is said and done. Thorough, but dispassionate.
The Luci & Desi Collection
For all their success as a couple on the small screen, real life husband and wife Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz never really parlayed that charisma onto the silver screen; in fact, they only appeared together in three films together. It was on the set of the first one – the musical Too Many Girls – that they met, and the remaining pair – “The Long, Long Trailer” and “Forever Darling” – were both done in the midst of the run of “I Love Lucy.” All three films have been lovingly packaged together by Warner Brothers as “The Lucy and Desi Collection,” and fans of the duo will get a kick out of the set. Each contains bonus features of some sort, either a musical short from the era, a behind-the-scenes segment, or a cartoon. (In fact, my all-time favorite “Droopy” cartoon, “Dixieland Droopy,” is included with “The Long, Long Trailer.”) Of the bunch, certainly the one that remains an unquestionable classic is “The Long, Long Trailer,” which is full of lots of funny sight gags and plays like an extended “I Love Lucy” episode…and that’s intended as a compliment. “Too Many Girls” is of particular interest because it features a score by Rodgers and Hart, but “Forever Darling” is a bit too much like “The Long, Long Trailer, Pt. 2,” given that it takes place on a camping trip. Still, it’s interesting viewing because it offers early appearances by sitcom legends Natalie Schafer (Mrs. Howell on “Gilligan’s Island”) and Nancy Culp (Miss Hathaway on “The Beverly Hillbillies”).
Man About Town
The direct-to-DVD market is filled with hundreds of titles produced specifically for the Rental Store Fast Track, but every once in a while, a film destined for theatrical release is pulled at the last minute and dumped onto DVD. “Man About Town” is one such film. Ben Affleck stars as Jack Giamoro, a Hollywood talent agent who enrolls in an adult education writing class to “broaden [his] horizons,” but when his personal journal is stolen by an aspiring screenwriter/journalist (Bai Ling) threatening to expose his secrets, Jack is forced to reexamine the direction his life is headed. With a supporting cast made up of B-movie alumni like John Cleese, Kal Penn, Adam Goldberg, Rebecca Romijn and Gina Gershon, one can certainly understand why Lionsgate had originally intended to release this in theaters. The film is loaded with enough star power to entice the average moviegoer, but the studio’s sudden case of cold feet seems to indicate that early screening reaction wasn’t as strong as desired. You’d be right to think so, too. The film crashes and burns at about the 40-minute mark – just after Affleck (who is brutally beaten up) visits the dentist for some cosmetic work and walks out looking like Bugs Bunny – and never really recovers. Oh well: another one bites the dust.
Man in the Vault
From John Wayne’s production company, Batjac, comes the reissue of this 1956 thriller starring William Campbell. The name doesn’t ring a bell, you say? Well, if you were a “Star Trek” fan, you’d know it without blinking an eye; Campbell had two major roles in the original series, appearing as the god-like (and Q precursor) Trelane in “The Squire of Gothos,” then as Klingon commander Koloth in the classic “The Trouble with Tribbles.” He was always more of a character actor, the sort who inspires you to say, “Oh, that guy,” but he never made it as a proper matinee idol…and it may well be because of films like this. Campbell plays Tommy Dancer, a locksmith who’s asked by a mobster to use his talents to break into a cash-filled safety deposit box. The film has high film-noir aspirations, but, for one, it’s just not very exciting, and, honestly, Campbell doesn’t cut all that charismatic an onscreen figure. It’s not legitimately bad, but then the words “The End” appear onscreen, you’ll shrug your shoulders and likely forget you ever saw “Man in the Vault.”
Supposedly an action star-turning vehicle for WWE personality John Cena, “The Marine” may not have accomplished what it originally set out to do, but it does succeed as a tongue-in-cheek action comedy thanks to the ever-so-snarky Robert Patrick and his band of oddball sociopaths. The villains actually get more screen time than the hero, and the film is ultimately better for it, since Cena quickly proves a sorry excuse for an action hero. The film – about a recently discharged marine (Cena) whose wife (Kelly Carlson) is kidnapped by a group of merciless jewel thieves – mimics the classic action films of the ‘80s (namely Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Commando”) and turns the kitsch factor all the way up. From putting an important, deal-breaking phone call on hold so that he can confirm an upcoming appointment with his cable company, to giving the camera a playful look when one of his goons comments that Cena’s character is just “like the Terminator,” Patrick’s compliance with the lighthearted nature of the script only makes it that much easier to sit back and enjoy. This isn’t a great film by any means, but for those that simply must see this, you’ll still have a pretty good time.
If American horror films these days are nothing but cheap knockoffs of creepy Japanese ones, then “The Marsh” is just that: yet another silly direct-to-video horror/thriller with absolutely nothing new to offer the genre. The story centers on Claire Holloway (Gabrielle Anwar), a successful children’s author with violent visions. After consulting her doctor, Claire decides to take a much-needed vacation at the Rose Marsh Farmhouse – the same house, mind you, that she’s been seeing in her nightmares. Wait, what? How the hell is one supposed to relax when you’re knowingly living in a haunted house? Exactly, which is the main reason why I found “The Marsh” so grossly idiotic. Not to mention, it features the same creepy kid we’ve all seen in countless horror films over the past five years (“The Ring” and “The Grudge” come to mind). The filmmakers would like you to believe that this is a quality movie – they did, after all, manage to persuade Forest Whitaker to sign on for a throwaway role as a paranormal specialist – but it only feels that much more forced. There’s nothing “classic” or “chilling” about this (no matter what Hugh K. Grant of DVD Times says), and it’d better left to rot away in the bargain bin down at your local Wal-Mart.
Martin & Orloff
Fans of the comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade will absolutely love this debut comedy written by and starring UCB alum Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts, but there's little chance anyone else will enjoy this 90-minute romp. Cameo appearances by David Cross, and "SNL" staples Amy Poehler and Tina Fey will hardly win you over either, but it's nice to see some familiar faces in an otherwise non-star-studded feature. That said, there's a very good reason this film is debuting on DVD.
Move over Olsen Twins, there’s a new sister act in town and they’re just as bad as you. Hilary Duff, perhaps best known as that other teenie bopper who once rivaled Lindsay Lohan for the Queen Supremacy of Teenie Boppers, and Haylie Duff, perhaps best known for being the older sister of Hilary, star in this tale about two sisters who are thrust into poverty when their father’s cosmetics company faces investigation. This your classic rags-to-riches story, except without the rags, since the two girls are never actually poor at any point during the film. Sure, their bank accounts are suspended, but their share of the company is still worth $60 million each! Oh no, what will they do? In fact, if they weren’t such grade-A airheads, they probably wouldn’t have burnt down their million-dollar mansion, or managed to get their Porshe stolen. Plus, they still have all their fancy clothes, because, well, who wants to see a movie about two of Hollywood’s hottest up-and-comers slumming it in the city? To make matters worse, the film tries to force some silly life lesson on its audience, plays off Hilary’s character as some kind of brainiac (despite the fact that she doesn’t even know how to use an iron), and has even recruited Angelica Huston for the role of Respectable Guest Star. What a waste of her time, not to mention anyone who spent their hard earned money on this superficial crap.
Matthew McConaughey DVD Collection
An onslaught of actor-themed movie collections has been flooding the DVD market lately, and the most recent offering features (of all possible candidates) Matthew McConaughey. The Southern-fried actor’s box office success is appropriately represented in this three-disc affair collecting rom-com blockbusters like “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” and “Failure to Launch,” as well as in the Clive Cussler action flick, “Sahara.” Of course, for those of you who already own these films on DVD, there’s no reason to concern yourself with this new release. Packaged in a set of slim-cases and crammed into a cardboard box featuring some of the most unoriginal box art I’ve ever seen, the collection doesn’t include any other special features that don’t already appear on previously released versions of the film. Moreover, at an asking price of $40, the set costs ten dollars more than if you were to purchase all three films individually from Amazon.com, so what, exactly, is the advantage of buying this set? I certainly don’t see one, especially when Paramount would have been much better off securing the rights to the more closely related “Wedding Planner” as a replacement for “Sahara.”
Melinda & Melinda
To say that this is one of Woody Allen’s less enjoyable films is the understatement of the century. The movie is actually split up into two very similar stories – one tragic, and the other comedic – but both begin with the introduction of a girl named Melinda (Radha Mitchell) at a dinner party. Both stories follow similar plot arcs throughout, but the tragic tale is too dull to keep interest in. The other half is much more entertaining, with Will Ferrell playing the closest thing to the customary Allen role, but the lack of a true paranoid lover (complete with Allen’s witticisms) results in an overall disappointment.
Midnight Express: 30th Anniversary Edition
Director Alan Parker’s (“The Wall”) “based on a true story” 1978 flick featuring the tale of drug smuggler Billy Hayes being jailed and tortured in a Turkish prison can still be some harrowing stuff after all this time. Brad Davis as Hayes puts up a tough performance that manages to kick through the film’s occasional flaws and less riveting performances from his costars. This special edition of the film includes the expected bonuses, such as a director’s commentary by Parker, production featurettes, photo galleries, and the original trailer for the film. Some of this work comes off as a bit dated now, but given that the film originally debuted in 1978, perhaps this was unavoidable. Still, it holds up overall and better than similarly minded period pieces of the time. After all, this was indeed the late ‘70s when drugs were in high fashion and here came a movie to show that not all was sunshine and happiness at the core of it all. Certainly worth a rental if you haven’t seen the movie before now.
“Modern Romance” really deserves a full-length review rather than a quick take, but since Columbia couldn’t be bothered to include a single special feature on this DVD release…not even the movie trailer, for God’s sake!...then it’s only appropriate that we apply a similarly limited amount of effort when writing it up, wouldn’t you say? Even in this highly un-special edition, Albert Brooks’ treatise on love, while not exactly modern anymore (his character’s drug of choice is Quaaludes), remains one of his funniest films. As film editor Robert Cole, Brooks is stuck between a rock and a hard place: he’s not happy with his girlfriend, Mary (Kathryn Harrold), but, as soon as he breaks up with her, he realizes that he’s also not happy without her. The scenes where Robert’s talking shop at the office – alongside director James L. Brooks and a very young Bruno Kirby – are a bit too Hollywood-insider for the average filmgoer, but they don’t take up too much time; the primary focus is on Robert’s romantic confusion. Robert’s post-breakup reinvention phase is particularly hilarious, as he decides to take up jogging and is totally taken advantage of by a sports store salesclerk (played by Brooks’s brother, Bob Einstein a.k.a. Super Dave Osbourne). You might cringe a bit as the film progresses and Robert gets maybe a little too stalker-y on Mary, but if you’ve ever broken up with someone, instantly regretted it, but couldn’t bring yourself to admit that you were wrong, you’ll find this film really funny. Disconcertingly familiar, perhaps, but still funny.
My Best Friend
François (Daniel Auteuil) is a high end antiques dealer and no one’s social pariah. He’s got a beautiful woman (Élisabeth Bourgine) who likes him enough to tolerate sex without emotion (what’s the French for booty call?); a grown-up daughter (Julie Durand) he barely talks to; lots of business acquaintances; and absolutely no actual friends. This situation leads to an unlikely bet between François and his lesbian business partner (Julie Gayet) in which the borderline sociopath of an art dealer wind ups having 10 days to produce a verifiable “best friend.” A hyper-friendly, trivia-nerd cab driver (Dany Boon) turns up -- can he be the savoir of our unlikable hero? Director/co-writer Patrice Leconte’s “My Best Friend” is a platonic version of every comedy you’ve ever seen in which a bet leads someone to start up a new relationship, only to find that they actually enjoy the company of the new person, leading to complications once the wager is revealed. The plot is forced, and the first two-thirds are often painful to watch and not particularly funny, though the expert cast softens the pain. Finally, a revelation/plot contrivance in the third act reveals just why the lovable cabby is even lonelier than François, and brings some real feeling to the story. This leads to a compelling but ridiculous climax involving the French version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” All in all, “My Best Friend” is kind of agreeable and poignant. Still, you’d be much better off watching Leconte’s earlier film with Daniel Auteuil as a knife-thrower smitten with ultra-hot Vanessa Paradis (1999’s “The Girl on the Bridge.”) Subtitles aside, it’s one love story most guys won’t mind watching.
The Mystery of Eva Peron
You don’t have to be a fan of Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals to be intrigued by the life story of Eva Peron. Born the illegitimate daughter of a rich merchant, Eva Duarte was a long-struggling young Argentine actress whose marriage to a politically ambitious former colonel twice her age allowed her to become Evita, the most powerful and charismatic woman in the history of Latin American politics. To her fans and detractors, she was more than Angelina Jolie, Mother Theresa, Anne Coulter and Imelda Marcos rolled into one – she was either a near saint or the worst thing that ever happened to Argentina. So great was her popularity with the nation’s masses, she was nearly chosen to run for her nation’s vice presidency alongside husband Juan Peron. When she died of cancer at age 33 in 1952, she was all but beatified by adoring masses and feted with one of the most elaborate funerals in 20th century history. Dramatic stuff, obviously, but this 1987 Spanish-language documentary renders it next to unintelligible. Though “The Mystery of Eva Peron” contains enough historical footage to make it essential for serious Argentine history enthusiasts and scholars and, maybe, super-fans of “Evita,” writer-director Tulio Demicheli crafts an all-but impenetrable oral history of the driven and enigmatic woman’s life and death. No doubt, there are the makings of a great documentary here – and this might well play better to those intimately familiar with mid-century Argentine history, but Demicheli’s strategy of allowing his subjects to endlessly babble on with their version of history makes for a headache-inducing 112 minutes that can easily leave a viewer still mostly in the dark about both Eva Peron and Peronist history.
The Nanny Diaries
Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, “The Nanny Diaries” stars Scarlett Johansson as Annie Braddock (no relation to boxing legend Jim Braddock), a recent college graduate who takes a job as a nanny for a Manhattan socialite known only as “Mrs. X” (Laura Linney). No, that’s not her real name, but because the film tries to mimic the original novel as best as possible, the characters are all stuck with stupid nicknames, like Mrs. X’s husband, Mr. X (Paul Giamatti), and Annie’s Ivy League love interest, Harvard Hottie (Chris Evans). The story is also told like an entry in a field diary (comparing the habits of lost civilizations to that of rich New York mothers), and while some might find it cute (read: women), “The Nanny Diaries” fails to rise above the usual clichés and trappings of the average chick flick. Johansson does her best not to suck in the lead role, and for the most part, she does just fine, but Linney is wasted as the one-dimensional Mrs. X, a stereotypical socialite with little emotional range. The movie itself is a heaping mess, and unless you’re able to look past the obvious ridiculousness of the setup, “The Nanny Diaries” is a film better left for your girlfriend to watch alone.
Nate and Hayes
No doubt looking to cash in on the summer release of “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” Paramount has released the 1983 Tommy Lee Jones pirate flick, “Nate and Hayes” for the first time on DVD. The film actually shares a lot of similarities with the first “Pirates” film, “Curse of the Black Pearl,” in that they both feature a notorious buccaneer (Jones) who teams up with a pretty boy apprentice-in-training (Michael O’Keefe) and his beautiful fiancée (Jenny Seagrove) to defeat an evil pirate. Of course, the stories aren’t completely similar, but one really has to wonder where director Gore Verbinski got the idea for his rescue mission finale at the end of “Black Pearl.” And while there’s no specific reason why you should choose this movie over the Disney blockbuster, it’s still an enjoyable rental for fans of the pirate genre.
National Lampoon's Pucked
It’s not like we really expect anything bearing the National Lampoon logo to be funny anymore, but, dammit, we had just the slightest bit of hope for “Pucked,” the story of a man who tries to start an all-women’s ice hockey team. There were just too many things going for it for us to dismiss it out of hand. First, it’s directed by Arthur Hiller, who helmed “Silver Streak,” “Outrageous Fortune,” “The Lonely Guy,” and Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite” and “The Out-of-Towners.” Second, it stars Jon Bon Jovi, who, while not necessarily the greatest actor, is generally charismatic enough to be watchable. Third, it co-stars Estella Warren, who’s really hot, Nora Dunn and Cary Elwes, both of whom are generally funny, and Curtis Armstrong, who, um, played “Booger” in “Revenge of the Nerds.” Needless to say, however, it was three up, three down for “Pucked.” Presumably, Hiller was asleep at the wheel for most of this production -- the film drags like nobody’s business. Part of that can probably be blamed on the script, which is way light on laughs (some people can take not-very-funny lines and make them funny, but those people are definitely not in this cast). But the worst miscalculation was casting Bon Jovi as a depressed loser, then having David “Bud Bundy” Faustino play his more successful best friend. Casting against type is one thing, but come on, that’s just ridiculous. All right, boys, go ahead and put another black mark by the Lampoon’s name. Sigh.
National Lampoon Presents: Jake's Booty Call
There’s a minor debate raging at the Bullz-Eye offices as to when the words “National Lampoon” officially became a synonym for “a product utterly devoid of humor.” Jason Zingale says “Van Wilder” is pretty good, but I’m still leaning toward “Christmas Vacation” being the end of the road. Ah, well, it’s a moot point, as, no matter where you choose to place the end of the yardstick, it doesn’t change the underlying fact that “Jake’s Booty Call” does not end the losing streak. It’s not even close…well, not unless you consider it a laugh riot that the title character’s first line in the film is, “Hey, ladies, you girls look like a bucket of Kentucky Fried Fuck all wrapped up in original skin.” I don’t even know what that means, but even though it made me laugh, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t legitimately funny, and that’s the film in a nutshell. Some of the things that come out of Jake’s mouth make you laugh, but it’s because the lines are head-shakingly moronic…but, then, would you really expect Keats and Yeats from a playa like this guy? From a technical standpoint, it’s interesting that “Jake’s Booty Call” is the first feature-length film produced using Flash animation, but it also means that there’s about as much motion as there is legitimate comedy. You know, Jason, “Van Wilder” is looking funnier all the time.
National Lampoon Presents: Pledge This!
As you can probably imagine, this movie sucks. So bad, in fact, that the studio actually made it impossible for me to pause the DVD that was sent for review. No problem, really, since I was still able to press stop and shred the screener disc well before the thirty minute mark. In the latest trashing of the once-respected National Lampoon brand, “Pledge This” stars Paris Hilton as the bitchy head of a South Beach sorority and Kerry Kinney (of “Reno 911”) as one of her unlikely pledges – a thirtysomething stay-at-home mom with the most disgusting boob job in both the history of plastic surgery and special effects. As can be expected, not a single funny thing happens during the first act of the movie, and the last hour probably followed suit. At least the producers were smart enough to put one good looking (and talented) actress in the film: Noureen DeWulf, the smoking hot Indian girl from “American Dreamz.”
Welcome to the world of Neverwas, a magical land where talented actors come to earn a paycheck for a movie many people will never even see. Distributed by Miramax and no doubt lost in the shuffle during the departure of the Weinstein brothers, “Neverwas” is one of those movies that are so bad, not even an all-star cast could make it remotely interesting. Aaron Eckhart stars as Zach Riley, a psychiatrist who returns to his hometown for a job at the institution where his father was a regular guest. It’s there that he meets Gabriel Finch (Sir Ian McKellan), another recurring patient who is not only familiar with the fantasy land created by Zach’s author-dad, but also claims he’s a proud member of its community. The cover of the DVD would make you believe that “Neverwas” is a fantasy film for all ages to enjoy, But its PG-13 rating and incredibly mature subject matter (not to mention a complete lack of anything fantasy related) quickly prove otherwise. There’s a reason this film wasn’t released in theaters, and it just might have something to do with its alternate title: “NeverShould’veBeenMade.”
Night of the Living Dead 3-D
There are several reasons why I’ve never liked movies filmed in 3-D, but aside from the obvious – the gimmick factor, unwelcome headaches, and the fact that a studio only utilizes the technology when a film sucks – “Night of the Living Dead 3-D” has something much bigger going against it: the 3-D doesn’t work. While using a more advanced method may have resulted in the kind of campy fun you can only get at a midnight movie, the remake of the Romero classic chooses to go the old school, low-budget route – which is to say that it looks like a purple-hued movie trying to be 3-D. Only moments after throwing on the provided two-cent glasses, it became clear nothing was going to be popping out of the screen any time soon. In fact, you could even tell where the filmmakers were trying to implement the 3-D by the blue and red lines that could still be seen with the glasses on. It’s too bad. This direct-to-DVD stinker had great potential, but while D-list star Sid Haig is entertaining as always, “Night of the Living Dead 3-D” easily tops the list as the worst 3-D film, zombie film and remake of the past decade. Next time you head to the video store, make sure you ask for a treat and not a trick.
The Night of the Shooting Stars
Considered a masterpiece by many, this occasionally moving and exciting 1982 festival winner and arthouse hit tells the story of a group of civilians taking an ultimately violent stand against Italian and German fascists just prior to the allied liberation of Italy in 1944. Written and directed by Italy’s Taviani Brothers, “Night” is a late example of neorealism, a style that attempts to combine “fly on the wall” realism with flourishes of emotion. I’ve never cared for the style very much, but the problems that undo “The Night of the Shooting Stars” go well beyond my personal impatience with its genre. The main issue is that the film focuses almost equally on a large number of characters and, with a length of 103 minutes, there doesn’t seem to be enough time to get to know them well enough to care about what happens. Also, the story is recounted by a woman telling her children about some mostly very grown-up events that happened when she was six, most of which she could not have personally witnessed or understood at the time. In that case, you might expect some very non-realistic stylistic flourishes or displays of childlike imagination, but, with the exception of single brief fantasy sequence, it is all mostly presented in pretty but literal fashion. Curious viewers are probably better off starting with Robert Rosellini’s 1945 “Rome, Open City,” shot only months after the Nazis had left the city and the only purely neorealist film I’ve ever loved.
“Nine Lives” is a film detailing the lives of nine people who are involved in a cycle of anonymous homosexual encounters and the repercussions that go along with their behavior. More of a psychologically weighted flick than a strictly sexually based one, the film excels at telling its tale in a poignant and dramatic fashion that never tips the scale too far into hyper melodrama. The cast includes Dennis Christopher of “Breaking Away” and “Chariots of Fire,” and “MADtv” regular Debra Wilson. Here! Films is obviously dedicated to bringing quality films to its target audience, and while “Nine Lives” doesn’t always work perfectly due to some slightly stilted acting here and there, for the most part it’s a well-crafted film that works well as a stirring drama. Director Dean Howell has created a solid flick that dares to take a few chances and works more often than not.
No Umbrella: Election Day in the City
This 26-minute film of the goings-on during the 2004 Presidential Election at a ward in a poor section of Cleveland will make your blood boil. Councilwoman Fannie Lewis begins petitioning the Board of Elections for more voting machines for her ward at 8:30 in the morning, where the wait to vote is already an hour and a half. The machines come an hour later…without any inserts, which renders the voting machines useless. Her attempts to get the situation resolved in a timely manner produce the textbook definition of red tape and bureaucracy, along with a few unguarded moments of racial tension (the white voters are all assumed to be voting for Bush, etc.). Ohio residents should take note of a text card at the end that says “…a Congressional report ‘massive and unprecedented voter irregularities and anomalies throughout the state of Ohio’ caused by ‘intentional misconduct and illegal behavior, much of it involving Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, the co-chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Ohio.’” Blackwell’s now running for governor of Ohio. Yikes.
Notes on a Scandal
Seeing as how the trailer ruins just about every major plot point from “Notes on a Scandal,” it’s difficult to watch the film from an untainted point of view. That doesn’t necessarily mean there still aren’t things to admire about the final product. The story revolves around Barbara Covett (Dame Judi Dench), a seasoned history teacher who makes up for her lack of friends by taking care of her cat and writing in journals. Enter Sheeba Hart (Cate Blanchett), a younger, more attractive woman who joins the faculty as the new art teacher and quickly becomes the center of attention for Barb. When she spies her new friend getting – ahem – comfy with a younger student (Andrew Simpson), however, Barb decides to blackmail Sheeba into devoting herself completely to Barb. For those of you who’ve already seen the trailer, you know what happens next, and while the ending is more than a little anti-climatic, the film is still well worth watching for the performances alone. Dench, in particular, is fantastic in her role as Barb, the social vampire who leeches on to Sheeba and sucks her dry. She might just be the coldest villain in all of cinema last year, and it’s a great addition to her resume. Still, despite what the four Academy Award nominations might suggest, this is most certainly not Oscar material. It’s a decent guilty pleasure for those of you who love your psychosexual thrillers straight and to the point, but nothing more.
The Notorious Bettie Page
If you were to learn one thing about HBO just by looking at their filmography, it’s that they love making biopics. Upon doing this, however, you’d also learn something else: they’re not very adept when it comes to the actual selection of the subject. Their latest project, about ‘50s pin-up model Bettie Page (Gretchen Mol), couldn’t serve as a better example. The movie is just plain boring, and though Page’s influence on pop culture is certainly intriguing, the story of how she got there is not. As a God-fearing Christian woman who slipped into leather and lace and shocked America as the country’s most infamous fetish model, the plot isn’t just paper-thin, it’s anorexic. Long before the popularity of nudie mags like Playboy, pornography was not only considered highly immoral, but illegal as well, and though the script attempts to comment on these specific injustices (via a subplot involving David Strathairn as a straight-and-narrow Senator), it’s introduced much too late in the film to make any difference. It’s a good thing the ex-It Girl is easy on the eyes or it could have really spelled disaster. Mol is pitch-perfect in the lead role (and seems willing to do just about anything to get that point across), but much like Page’s aspiring acting career, this is too easily forgotten.
The OH in Ohio
As the unofficial running joke of the movie business, the city of Cleveland may as well be the shit stain of America. Therefore, it may come as more than a surprise that somebody actually wanted to make a film about the infamous Mistake on the Lake. Then again, the film, which stars Parker Posey as a career-minded thirtysomething who has never experienced the big “O” for which the movie is cleverly titled, takes more than its share of jabs at the economically challenged city, including the comically tragic situation regarding the Cleveland Public Schools. Unfortunately, there isn’t much substance in this 88-minute romp, and though both Posey and Paul Rudd (who plays her sexually distressed husband) both deliver fantastic performances, the conclusion feels pretty darn lackluster; especially after watching Posey orgasm for about twenty minutes straight.
On a Clear Day
This feel-good tale about a fiftysomething Scotsman who trains to swim the English Channel is like watching a true story Disney flick, except with the peace of mind that the corrupt children’s studio isn’t making millions off some watered-down version of the real thing. Of course, the events that transpire here are fiction, and yet somehow still feel more autobiographical than any sports underdog movie Disney has released in the past five years. Starring Peter Mullan as the recently-fired dockworker who takes on the monumental challenge, the lovely Brenda Blethyn as his wife (who also has a few secrets of her own), and Billy Boyd (Pippin of “Lord of the Rings”) as his goofball friend, “On a Clear Day” performs much in the same way as other British hits like “The Full Monty” and “Calendar Girls.” The film is also a delightfully simple tale about a broken man with something to prove, and though it carries a slightly more adult tone, “On a Clear Day” delivers the kind of pure family entertainment that Disney used to excel at.
Once in a Lifetime
There’s a beautiful statement at the beginning of “Once in a Lifetime” – the new documentary about short-lived pro soccer team, the New York Cosmos – that equates the game of soccer to a theatrical play. The analyst then goes on to assert that the reason why Americans have never fully embraced the sport at a professional level is because our attention spans are too short. Hence, the reason why sports like baseball and football are so popular. Despite this awful truth, however, the North American Soccer League (NASL) was still born, and though founder Steve Ross (of Warner Brothers) is highly accredited for turning the sport into an overnight sensation, he is also blamed for its eventual downfall. Bringing in players like Brazilian superstar Pelé and Italian egomaniac Georgio Chinaglia into the mix certainly helped to fill the seats, but their talent with the ball came at a price. This is the classic tale of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, and how one man’s passion for the sport of soccer changed its future forever. Unfortunately, we’ve heard this story more than once before, and while any fan will love watching the old highlight reels of Pelé, Chinaglia and fellow Cosmo teammates Franz Beckinbauer and Carlos Albert in action, there’s not quite enough to hold your interest for the entire 97 minutes. Then again, maybe it was just my short attention span…
One Last Thing
After sitting through the first half of “One Last Thing,” the new drama starring Cynthia Nixon (“Sex & the City”) and newcomer Michael Angarano (“Will & Grace,” “Sky High”), I still couldn’t figure out why it had been given the direct-to-DVD treatment. The film, about a 16-year-old cancer patient (Angarano) who’s given one final wish before he dies, is absolutely loaded with potential. And then it hit me, the reason why this movie wasn’t deemed “good enough” for theaters: the second half. Taking more cheap shots at the human emotion than any other tearjerker within the past five years, “One Last Thing” becomes a little too sappy for its own good. You have to give the kid some credit, though. Reneging on his first wish to go fishing with some Philadelphia Eagles linebacker, he decides to make a new request: a secluded weekend with supermodel Nikki Sinclair (Kate Bosworth look-a-like Sunny Mabrey). Ethan Hawke also cameos as the kid’s dead father, but surprisingly, his name isn’t anywhere to be found in the credits. And get this: he has the third biggest role in the film. Oh, and one last thing… be sure to grab a box of Kleenex. You’re going to need it.
Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior
One of the most talked about import films of the year doesn't have that much going for it, but it does feature some of the coolest action sequences ever witnessed on film. Is this worth sitting through a boring plot for? You bet. But it's nothing you'll want to see more than once, especially since the music video-style editing offers multiple views of newcomer Tony Jaa's amazing stunts as they're being performed. A bit cheesy, we know, but incredible nonetheless.
Yet another documentary about the JFK assassination, only this one delves into the two sides of believers: those who think Kennedy was shot alone by Lee Harvey Oswald, and those who fall on the conspiratorial side of the fence. But before you go jumping to any conclusions, this isn’t a flick filled with delusional nobodies spouting off their crackpot theories. Authors like Norman Mailer, newscasters like Dan Rather, and many others all toss their two cents into the mix. Robert Stone’s film winds up giving viewers a fresh take on the tale, without delving into how it was done, how it could have been done, ad nauseam (although these things are touched on briefly). What “Oswald’s Ghost” does successfully is offer up the birth and growth of the conspiracy theory phenomenon and how it affects the public, press, media and world at large, not to mention politics and the White House itself.
Oh, how Wes Bentley’s star has fallen. After being hailed as the newest It Boy for his role in 1999’s “American Beauty,” the young actor disappeared from the mainstream film scene before finally remerging as the cheesy baddie in “Ghost Rider.” Several months later, he made another villainous appearance, this time as the psychotic stalker in the low-rent thriller “P2.” The film stars Rachel Nichols as Angela Bridges, a career-minded workaholic who is the last to leave the office on Christmas Eve, only to discover her car won’t start. Thomas (Bentley), the building security guard, offers to help, but when Angela turns down an invitation to share a small Christmas dinner with him, Thomas reveals his true intentions. What follows is your basic victim/killer cat-and-mouse game, and while the film features all of the usual horror trappings (sexy heroine, psychotic stalker, stupid cops), it does manage to rise above some of the more recent duds in the genre. Still, while “P2” is quite an achievement for such a minimalist production, the conclusion resorts to moments of such extreme disbelief (and over-the-top acting by Bentley) that it practically destroys everything it has been working up to.
PTU: Police Tactical Unit
Acclaimed Hong Kong director Johnnie To has been around for quite some time, but it wasn’t until the late 90s that he finally began receiving recognition for his work behind the camera. In 2003, To released the crime drama “PTU,” and it marked his first step toward becoming the award-winning director that he is today. A loose adaptation of the Akira Kurosawa film “Stray Dog,” “PTU” tells the tale of a clumsy detective (Suet Lam) who loses his gun to a group of young thugs, and the loyal police sergeant (Simon Yam) who helps him track down the culprit. What follows is a slow-boiling plot to retrieve the weapon before daybreak, all while the after-effects of a triad assassination threaten to get in the way. Though I’ve been an unrequited fan of To for years, “PTU” isn’t my cup of tea. Like most of his recent films, the story is incredibly simple. In fact, almost too simple. At a seemingly brief 88 minutes, there is so little development to the actually story that To has to stretch each and every minute to make it count. As a result, it’s mostly just waiting around for something to happen, and though the climactic Mexican standoff may be enough for some viewers, it doesn’t make the rest of the film any less of a bore to sit through.
The Panama Deception
To my mind, there is absolutely no doubt that something shameful happened when the United States invaded Panama in late December 1989. Even so, I cannot support Barbara Trent and David Kasper’s Oscar-winning 1992 documentary, “The Panama Deception.” True, the reissue of this film is a welcome reminder that our current foreign policy catastrophe is part of a heinous, long-range pattern; it’s bracing to see the smirking visage of future Vice President Dick Cheney lurking at Pentagon briefings — boy the man loves an unnecessary war. And, yes, its upsetting depiction of the devastation caused by the invasion is an important reminder that, even when American fatalities are low, aerial and ground attacks always involve mass civilian slaughter. Still, neoconservative thinking in the final days of the Cold War is never discussed, and the event just seems to be the result of bad people doing bad things for no particular reason. With the exception of a couple of hapless representatives of the Pentagon, interview subjects range from activists and distraught victims to sensible mainstream liberals to intelligent radicals to loose-cannon former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark (today a political pariah). Missing entirely from the film is the world’s most famous Panamanian: musician, actor, and liberal environmental activist Ruben Blades. Blades, an outspoken critic of the U.S.’ heinous 1980s foreign policy in Latin America, ran for President of Panama in 1994 and is now that country’s Minister of Tourism. Though we can hear both Sting and Jackson Browne on the soundtrack, Mr. Blades is nowhere to be found in “The Panama Deception.” Why?
Paris Je T'aime
A cinematic experiment that fails more often than it succeeds, “Paris Je T’aime” is still worthy of applause. Essentially a collection of 18 different shorts on the conjoining themes of Paris and love, the film features the work of some of the industry’s best directors as they examine the city and its magical allure. Of the directors I’m most familiar with – Gurinder Chada (“Bend It Like Beckham”), Joel & Ethan Coen (“Fargo”), Christopher Doyle, Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men”), Wes Craven (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”), Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) and Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) – only a few of their films actually strike me as quality entries. Chada’s “Quais de Seine” features a sweet, interracial relationship that’s reminiscent of “Beckham,” Tykwer’s tale about a blind Frenchman and his happenchance relationship with an American actress (Natalie Portman) delivers the same unique style that can be found in his other films, and Payne’s “14th Arrondissement” feels like a female version of “About Schmidt.” But the others are all washouts in comparison. True, Cuaron’s single-shot film is technically amazing, but it lacks the strong storytelling that’s necessary in a five-minute film. In fact, of the 18 shorts that appear, it’s the lesser-known directors who deliver the better segments. Vincenzo Natali’s tale about a man (Elijah Wood) who falls in love with a vampire is certainly the most original of the bunch, while Isabel Coixet’s “Bastille” is the most heartwarming. The end result of combining all 18 films isn’t as powerful as Tristan Carne hoped it would be, but watching them individually is still just as rewarding.
It certainly has some steep competition, but “Pathfinder” is one of the worst movies of the year. Supposedly based on the idea that an army of Vikings ravaged North America 500 years before Columbus landed on shore, the movie tells the tale of a young Viking boy left for dead by his own people, only to be rescued by a tribe of American Indians. Fifteen years later, the Vikings return to wage war once again, unaware that one of their very own (Karl Urban) will be waiting for them, ready to fight. One part “Apocalypto” and one part “Conan,” the movie may look like a cool little action flick from the trailer alone, but it’s far from it. Director Marcus Nispel (perhaps best known for re-imagining Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) has a good eye for visuals, but that’s about where his talent as a filmmaker ends. In fact, the fight sequences aren’t even that good, with a majority of the action amounting to Urban’s character battling a group of Vikings, running away to the next location, and then fighting some more. This process repeats itself throughout the course of the 99 minutes, with very little plot development along the way. Clancy Brown dons some make-up and armor to play the Norse leader, and Urban is always mildly entertaining as the hero. But when you’ve got characters saying things like “Run and you may live, fight them and you will die,” well, you know you’re in store for a truly horrible movie.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Based on the best-selling novel by Patrick Suskind, “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” is an intriguing tale about a serial killer straight out of the Hannibal Lecter School of Crazy. The killer in question is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), a French peasant blessed with one of the finest noses in Europe who lands an apprenticeship with a local perfumer (Dustin Hoffman) to learn more about the trade. Though he could easily become the best perfumer in Paris, Grenouille takes a different route when his desire to capture the orgasmic essence of a beautiful young woman leads to a life of murder and obsession. Unnecessarily long and shockingly graphic (the depiction of Grenouille’s birth is enough to make any mother gasp), “Perfume” could have been so much better had director Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) been willing to trim some of the fat, but it’s beautiful to watch nonetheless. His own obsession with woman of bold, unusually red hair plays its own part in the film, and though the colors aren’t the perfect substitute for smell itself, they do perform better than expected. It may not be quite as powerful as Grenouille’s holy perfume – which ultimately leads to a citywide orgy, and then another of Lecter-like proportions – but it’s also no two-bit scratch-and-sniff.
Direct-to-video college comedies are a dime a dozen these days. They usually feature a group of sex-obsessed friends (including the mandatory Stifler wannabe), a wide array of hot women, and lots and lots of nudity. Karl DiPelino’s “PIGS” features only two of these three, however, and you’d be surprised to discover which one is missing. Still, the film isn’t any better or worse because of it, and though the plot (college stud Miles accepts a challenge to sleep with one woman from each letter of the alphabet) is definitely unique, it quickly falls into the same generic and formulaic pratfalls that you’ve seen several times before. It’s simply not as raunchy as a movie titled “PIGS” should be, and the lead actor switches between his fake American accent and his seemingly natural Australian accent so many times that it’s hard to keep track of just who he’s supposed to be. A completely nonsensical ending makes the entire experience even worse, and though the “American Pie” series has dramatically declined in quality, it still offers far more laughs than you’re bound to find here or in any other direct-to-video comedy.
Pixar Short Films Collection
As redundant as this set is – a good 80% of its contents are recycled from the DVD releases of every Pixar movie, audio commentaries and all – this collection of Pixar’s short films is a treat. Combining the films that opened each Pixar movie in the theaters with the contents of the 1996 VHS release “Tiny Toy Stories,” it is fascinating to watch how quickly they improved; the jump in quality from 1984’s “The Adventures of André and Wally” to 1987’s “Red’s Dream” is extraordinary, and they were still eight years away from making “Toy Story.” The biggest problem with the disc is its asking price: $29.99 is easily twice as much as a set with this much reused material should cost, especially one with a running time of only 54 minutes. The films are great – “For the Birds,” in particular, still cracks us up – but as Happy Gilmore said, the price is wrong.
Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea
John Waters narrates this oddball documentary about the Salton Sea – a place near Southern California that was once a happy, groovy utopia known as the “California Riviera” that quickly turned into an ecological dump. The focus is on present-day locals, and there are plenty of “freaks” to make the film bounce along at an enjoyable pace. It’s certainly a film worth seeing once and getting the lowdown one of the California’s strangest creations. With music by Friends of Dean Martinez and featuring Sonny Bono, you’d almost think this whole thing was one strange b-movie, but it’s not. Also packed in are the requisite commentaries, deleted scenes, and some other oddities like the short films “LSD A Go Go” and “Leonard & the Mountain.” If you have any friends who like offbeat flicks, then you just stumbled on an easy Christmas or birthday gift for them. Dig it. They certainly will.
Plunder of the Sun
In its time, “Plunder of the Sun” – another reissue from John Wayne’s Batjak Studios – was probably viewed as a low-budget action/drama that tried to reproduce the feel of a Humphrey Bogart vehicle without actually having to pay out a Bogie-sized salary. As a result, it’s Glenn Ford who plays Al Colby, an American insurance adjuster caught up in a theft and a mystery that unfolds amongst the archeological ruins of Mexico, from Monte Alaban to the Oaxacan Valley. All told, though Ford’s smart-ass take on Colby is enjoyable to watch (though you’re never quite sure if it’s an act or if Colby really is a jerk), “Plunder of the Sun” isn’t what you’d call a true classic…but you’d never know that from this Special Edition. Taking great pains to fill the disc to the brim, Paramount has included an audio commentary by Ford’s son, Peter, and film historian Frank Thompson, as well as featurettes about Ford’s experiences making the film, about actor Sean McClory (a regular in Batjak pictures), and a lengthy one about the historical importance of the various sites used in filming. Given this special treatment, if you’re already seen “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” or “The Maltese Falcon” fifty times, “Plunder of the Sun” ain’t that bad an alternative.
I’m not exactly sure what to make of this direct-to-DVD film starring Peter Weller and Bridget Moynahan. On one hand, it’s certainly unique – the whole wild animals angle has never really made it to the big screen aside from that silly FOX reality series. On the other, it’s being marketed as a horror film when there’s absolutely nothing scary about it. Sure, a few unlucky victims get ripped to shreds by a pack of lions, and it is “inspired by true events,” but does that really make for a horrific experience? Not really. In the end, “Prey” will probably only appeal to a very small slice of the horror audience, and while that may not have been the filmmaker’s original intent, it’s about the best they can hope for from a movie that takes its best talent (Weller) and shields him from all the action. The guy was RoboCop for crying out loud (not to mention one of the best villains in the history of “24”) – give the man a chance!
Based on the true story of the most infamous “serial killer” to ever live, “Primeval” tells the tale of Gustave, a 25-foot crocodile residing in the Ruzizi River of Burundi, Africa. In actuality, Gustave isn’t much of a serial killer (because, you know, he’s not a human being), but leave it to Hollywood to prove us wrong. The film stars Dominic Purcell as Tim Manfrey, a successful TV producer who’s most recent news story about a corrupt politician has gone under fire. In an attempt to win back the approval of his boss, Tim agrees to participate in the documented capture of the killer croc. Joining him on the trip is his friend/cameraman (Orlando Jones), an animal journalist (Brooke Langton), a Steve Irwin-like croc hunter (Gideon Emery), and a real croc hunter (Jurgen Prochnow), but as they soon discover, there’s a good reason why Gustave has never been captured or killed. There are so many things wrong with “Primeval” that it’s virtually impossible to pinpoint the many offenses. Perhaps most importantly, the film is a political thriller disguised as a horror movie. Despite feeling a lot like a D-grade version of “Anaconda” (which was already a B-movie in its own right), “Primeval” spends more time analyzing the political climate of Africa than dealing with the so-called star of the film. When Gustave finally does get screen time, however, it’s a disappointment. The special effects are pretty touch and go throughout the course of the film, and the weak script begs to ask simple questions like: why don’t they just bomb the shit out of the river?
Fans of Asian cinema must have a very high tolerance level, because a majority of the stuff that does make it to America is just pure crap. This isn’t to say that their market it completely devoid of quality films, but they’re much harder to come by without running into second-rate clones of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Hero,” and any other surprise hit on this side of the world. After a young girl makes a deal with an enchantress blessing her with eternal beauty, the orphan princess (Cecilia Cheung) begins to regret her promise when she meets the love of her life – the famous General Guangming (Hiroyuki Sanada) – only to later discover that it’s actually the general’s slave (Dong-Kun Jang), who was ordered to wear his legendary crimson armor after being badly wounded in battle, and thus pulling him into a silly love triangle involving the princess and the general. Unfortunately, while the film certainly looks pretty, any frequent viewer of Asian cinema has seen this story replicated several times before. It’s this lack of imagination that is perhaps the biggest problem plaguing Kaige Chen’s latest epic, “The Promise,” which mixes the high-flying mythology of “Crouching Tiger” with the brightly-colored cinematography of “Hero,” and though a pleasantly entertaining introduction encourages the audience to stick around for the long haul, the film crashes and burns shortly after.
Protocols of Zion
Filmmaker Mark Levin started hearing rumblings post-9/11 about how the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings was the work of the Jews, as foretold in the 19th century book “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which has been debunked more times than “The Da Vinci Code.” Levin then decided to learn more about why so many different groups hold such blind hatred for the Jews, and the results are staggering. He interviews skinheads, separatists, Christians and Arabs, all of whom are happy to share their anti-Semitic views. Levin shows no fear of getting in the faces of his subjects – “I’m not here to defend the media, but do you actually think the Arab media isn’t biased, too?” – though not in a Michael Moore ambush kind of way. The Arab and the skinhead press copies of “The Protocols” (the skinhead can’t keep it in stock), though the Arab claims that he prints it solely because it’s a big seller. Best of all are his encounters with various people on the streets, who tell Levin that no Jews died on 9/11 because they were all told not to go to work that day. Even better is the guy citing Mayor Michael Bloomberg as evidence that New York is run by Jews. “What about the eight years before him, when Rudy Giuliani was the Mayor?” Levin asks. The man thinks for a second, then yells, “JEW-liani!” Wow.
Adapted from the best-selling memoirs of the same name, “Prozac Nation” doesn’t have much to offer the average moviegoer, and its incredibly slow paced narrative is a bit wearisome. Still, as the depressed and incredibly irrational Elizabeth Wurtzel, Christina Ricci delivers yet another spot-on performance worthy of critical praise. This is a must-see for any fan of the underrated actress, or any lover of indie art house flicks, but beware the possibility of falling asleep.
Russian nuclear power plant technician Timofey Berezin (Paddy Considine, “The Bourne Ultimatum”) manages to avert a disaster at his nuclear power plant. For his trouble, he is accused of wrongdoing and put on a lengthy, unpaid suspension. And, oh yeah, his bosses fail to tell him that his exposure to radiation is at such a level that he is lucky to last out the week. With his beloved wife (Radha Mitchell) and young son stuck in a town that is, quite literally, not on the map of Russia, Timofey decides to sell the only thing of value he can grab — 100 grams of weapons grade plutonium — to the first shady character he can find. That turns out to be Shiv (Oscar Isaac), a tough, fairly brainless thug who nevertheless is a regular Albert Schweitzer/Einstein compared to the hellish crooks he works with. Written and directed by first-timer Scott Z. Burns and based on a story by Ken Kalfus, the first half of this HBO production is an emotionally draining social issue drama about a doomed family, while the second half lurches into an ultra-black-humor thriller about two relatively decent men on the precipice of committing a crime against humanity. This is tough stuff, and the shifts in tone threaten to induce emotional whiplash between tears, violence and sick humor, but affecting performances by Considine, Mitchell and newcomer Oscar Isaac pull the film together.
If you thought that Broken Lizard’s “Club Dread,” was a major disappointment in comparison to their cult hit “Super Troopers,” then you’ll definitely hate the watered-down film debut by the comedy troupe. The film does show signs of budding talent from the five-man group (especially from Kevin Heffernan), but the script is nowhere close to being as funny as their later work. Overstaying its welcome a lot faster than I could have imagined, the film is sluggish and incredibly amateur in execution. “Puddle Cruiser” features the kind of script that every aspiring filmmaker writes early in his career, and the groups’ lack of experience in writing dialogue is quite apparent within the opening five minutes of the feature. Still, if you’re a fan of their work, and eagerly awaiting their upcoming film “Beerology,” this might be just the thing to hold you over.
The Puffy Chair
After a failed musician (Mark Duplass) purchases an old burgundy armchair on eBay for his father’s birthday, he embarks on a cross-country road trip with his girlfriend Emily (Kathryn Aselton) and younger brother Rhett (Rhett Wilkins) to visit his childhood home and deliver the bizarre gift. And just like every other road trip movie before it, “The Puffy Chair” is filled with its share of twists and turns, including some unexpected problems with the chair, as well as a spur-of-the-moment wedding between the protagonist’s slacker brother and a stranger. Written and directed by the Duplass Brothers, the film is shot a lot like a documentary (with the camera almost serving as another character) and it only makes the story feel that much more realistic. These are normal people dealing with normal situations, and while this probably sounds incredibly boring to some, it ultimately results in some darkly comic material. Very reminiscent of early Wes Anderson, “The Puffy Chair” isn’t a great piece of filmmaking by any means, but it does offer a sneak peak at what could very well be Hollywood’s next great brotherly duo.
Scarier than any movie you will see this year – or maybe ever, according to one of the blurbs on the back cover of this J-Horror flick from Kiyoshi Kurosawa. That person surely saw a different movie. The story is centered around a group of friends who discover one of their friends has inexplicably committed suicide, and the rest try to figure out why. One ominous clue comes when the least tech-savvy of the bunch loads up a disk the dead friend was working on and opens up a site where people can communicate with the dead. From there…well, not much happens. Everyone just sort of goes away, with no real rhyme or reason behind it. The movie’s message is clear – in today’s techno-savvy world, people have a tendency to become disconnected – but shouldn’t horror movies, be, well, scary? Instead, “Pulse” plays out more like an art film than a horror film. An American remake of “Pulse” comes out in July. Even if it is only a little bit scary, it’ll be scarier than this.
Put the Needle on the Record
This documentary was filmed on location at the 2003 Winter Music Conference in Miami, a yearly convention/gathering of the brightest stars and up-and-comers of the dance/electronica field. For one week, the South Beach is packed with DJs and their fans, producers and marketing staffs. Director/producer/writer/cinematographer Jason Rem interviews them all. It starts with a quick history of the conference, and how important it is for the electronic dance music scene, and some of the awards that are presented. It shifts to explaining the history of EDM, some artists giving equal credit to the disco DJs mixing on the floor as to Kraftwerk. From there the scene progresses onto the warehouse parties of Chicago and New York, and then onto the ‘90s explosion of the different styles. Trance, techno, jungle, et al are given a quick explanation by a DJ who specializes in the style, and then Rem cuts to a sample of that. Not least because of the interviews and anecdotes found in every minute of the film, this is a comprehensive primer for those wanting to learn about EDM, and for those who want to learn more. And oh yeah, The Chemical Brothers are in it, too.
Queer Duck: The Movie
Low expectations can almost always make a bad movie better, but what happens when the movie is actually good? You laugh. A lot. And how could you not laugh at a film entitled “Queer Duck: The Movie,” the 72-minute direct-to-DVD feature based on the Showtime series of the same name? Written by Emmy Award-nominated “Simpsons” scribe Mike Reiss, “Queer Duck” is loaded with more throwaway gags and politically incorrect musical numbers than a weekly episode of “South Park,” and somehow, still manages to be less controversial. The main character is actually considered a positive character in the LGBT community. The plot is fairly simple: Queer Duck is gay. Actually, he’s incredibly gay, and when he leaves his partner (Openly Gator) for a famous ex-diva (Lola Buzzard), Queer Duck begins to question his sexuality. Along for the ride are friends Bi-Polar Bear and Oscar Wildcat, a television evangelist hell-bent on eliminating all of the homosexuals in the world, and various other characters voiced by famous actors like Mark Hamill, Tim Curry and David Duchovny (as Tiny Jesus). Unfortunately, Duchovny has all of four lines in the entire film, and the other actors don’t make up for much more. Instead, you’ll have to rely on the film’s witty dialogue and charming character to keep you entertained, and luckily, there’s plenty to go around, with great musical numbers like “Let’s Play Gay Baseball” (“One catches, one pitches / We’re just a bunch of silly bitches”) and hilarious caricatures of well-known celebs like Rosie O’Donnell, Bob Dylan and Barbara Streisand.
Anyone dumb enough to donate their own sports car to be demolished in a movie deserves a smack in the face, but for real estate investor Daniel Sadek, “Redline” is punishment enough. Essentially a “Fast and the Furious” wannabe starring a stable of soap opera actors, the underground racing film is one of the worst investments anyone could ever make. In Sadek’s case, it’s a $26 million disaster that resulted in the destruction of three cars from his personal collection (including an Enzo Ferrari, one of only 400 ever made), and some of the lamest racing scenes ever filmed. Seriously, though, I never thought it possible to screw up a race sequence involving some of the coolest, fastest and most expensive automobiles ever made. Yet director Andy Cheng injects so little life into the action that you feel like you’re watching a car commercial. Not even the most diehard gearheads will find much to enjoy about “Redline,” which is quite a statement to make considering the cars should have been the film’s main draw.
How’s this for original? Five students on their way to a party find themselves faced with a dilemma when the highway they’re traveling on is suddenly closed for no apparent reason. As luck would have it, they find themselves right next to a “deserted travel oasis.” Of course, they decide to just have a party of their own right there, but as their bad luck would have it, they start seeing a bunch of creepy shit and before you know it, this thing called “The Reeker” is preying on them one by one. Terrific. Did I mention the happy-go-lucky gang is led by a blind grad student with heightened senses? Jesus, from what comic book and other b-movies did writer/producer/director David Payne get this stuff? There’s a big twist ending, too. Meh. “Reeker,” like so many other flicks of its kind, is one big hit and miss affair. It isn’t terrible and it isn’t really memorable. And like other horror flicks on DVD that fall under the “unrated” banner, the fact that this edition is unrated makes no difference at all. A turd will still stink no matter what clothes you dress it in.
Reel Indies: No Sleep ' Til Madison / Simply FOBulous
I love that there’s a label like Reel Indies around to release low-budget movies onto DVD, but there’s gotta be more worthy films out there than “Simply FOBulous” and “No Sleep ‘til Madison.” While the latter is blessed with the good fortune of having rising comic Jim Gaffigan as its star, the all-Vietnamese cast of “Simply FOBulous” is, well, simply horrible. It’s bad enough that the actors don’t know how to act, but I’ve seen movies made by high schoolers that look and sound better than this one. You can only use the “we didn’t have a budget” excuse so many times, and “No Sleep ‘til Madison” is a perfect example. The film is about a thirtysomething who chooses an annual pilgrimage to the Wisconsin High School Hockey Tournament over his girlfriend. It doesn’t have an impressive cast or a particularly good script, but at least it looks like a movie you might have seen at some obscure film festival a few years ago. Nevertheless, fans of Gaffigan will likely want to pass on this dark comedy, because though he’s hilarious up on stage, he’s not nearly a good enough actor to pull off this kind of role.
Dear Sarah Michelle Gellar: consider yourself officially on notice. Sarah, baby, you need to quit it with these horror movies. It was understandable when you signed up for a couple of teen slasher flicks in the mid-90s because, well, you were still in the process of making a name for yourself. But after seven years of slaying vampires as Buffy, it was well past time to move on to bigger and better things. You didn’t listen, and now it’s getting out of hand. Of the last four films you’ve made, two of them were grounded in the horror genre and opened less than a month apart. That, my friends, is scary. “The Return,” however, is not. In fact, it may be one of the most uneventful horror films ever made. Gellar plays Joanna Mills, a woman haunted by visions of a brutal murder. So, being the nosey reporter that she is, Mills heads for a small town in Texas to investigate, only to discover that the townie responsible for the crime doesn’t take too kindly to complete strangers sticking their nose in places it doesn’t belong. There’s little suspense to be wrung out of the concept, and absolutely no violence to please the gorehounds, so why would anyone still want to see the film? Quite simply: Sarah Michelle Gellar. But the poor box office receipts seem to indicate that not even she is worthy to pay to look at anymore.
Return to Neverland
Since the advent of the DVD, Walt Disney Studios has taken it upon themselves to make sequels to some of their most beloved animated flicks from years past. A lot of these movies often seem like bad ideas or quick cash-ins with no respect to the original film. Luckily, “Return to Never Land” is a success, and doesn’t feel rushed or forced. This time around, Captain Hook kidnaps Wendy’s daughter Jane in a case of mistaken identity. Jane doesn’t believe in having fun, so when Hook whisks her away, it’s Peter Pan and Tinkerbell to the rescue. No, it’s not as classic as the original, but this film has nothing to be ashamed of, either. It’s certainly a lot classier than most other direct-to-video movies aimed at the pre-teen set, and even adult viewers will find it enjoyable. The disc also features “Tinker Bell’s Challenge Game – Quest for the Light” and deleted scenes.
It might seem like Guy Ritchie has been absent from the movie business for quite some time – and, well, he has – but not for as long as you’d think. After the cinematic clusterfuck that was “Swept Away” (hey, at least he scored a wife out of the deal), Ritchie took a break from filmmaking to become a father. In 2005, he returned to the genre that started it all with “Revolver,” and three years later, the crime thriller finally makes its grand debut in the States. The film stars Jason Statham as Jake Green, a conman seeking revenge on the crime boss (Ray Liotta) who sent him to prison. When an expensive game of chance lands Jake between a gun and a hard place, he must rely on a pair of loan sharks (Andre Benjamin and Vincent Pastore) to get him out of trouble. While the first act of the film is certainly promising, it doesn’t last for long. Overly pretentious and barely comprehensible, Ritchie’s script slowly devolves into a muddled mess of psychobabble that only David Lynch would understand. Though his trademark style remains a talking point for many, Ritchie also tries some new things (like mixing animation with live action) that just don’t work. Here’s hoping the director’s next film – 2008’s “RocknRolla” – fares better, because this “Revolver” is loaded with blanks.
Rising Son: The Legend of Skateboarder Christian Hosoi
The biopic is a popular genre in Hollywood these days, mostly because it usually generates some form of over-the-top melodrama from its subjects’ pathetic lives, and while “Rising Son” is technically a documentary, it doesn’t stray too far from Tinsletown’s more recent barrage of drug-related biographies. Too often we have heard the rags-to-riches story about a fantastic talent who rose to prominence only to throw it all away in favor of drugs. In this case, it’s skateboarding legend Christian Hosoi, and while his ongoing rivalry with a young (and unproven) Tony Hawk is certainly an interesting subplot, the inevitable upshot of his 24-hour rock ‘n roll lifestyle remains the key focus. It’s an unfortunate miscue on the part of the filmmakers, and one that happens time and time again. If you must, just a rent a cool skateboarding video and be done with it.
The Ritchie Boys
One of the most satisfying ironies of World War II is that the very hatred and brutality that motivated Adolph Hitler to start the war hastened his defeat. The Führer’s oppression of Jews and intellectuals caused many of Europe’s best minds to flee the continent following his selection as Chancellor in 1933, providing the allies with thousands of gifted natural enemies of the Third Reich. Strangely enough, after 60 years and countless “History Channel” features, not all of these anti-Nazi émigré efforts are well known. “The Ritchie Boys,” a Canadian-German co-production from documentarian Christian Bauer, tells the story of how the U.S. military drafted a number of highly intelligent so-called “enemy aliens” – mostly recent Jewish immigrants from Axis-controlled nations. The U.S. shrewdly took advantage of their fluency in German language and culture, not to mention their natural motivation and hatred of Nazism, to turn them into interrogators, spies and psychological warfare operatives – but only after rigorously educating the young intellectuals in the ways of war at a de facto military college at the unlikely location of pastoral Camp Ritchie, Md. Fortunately for Bauer’s documentary, several of these “boys” are still very much alive – and incredibly sharp-witted, honest and funny. Their vast intelligence comes through not only in their compelling and often hilarious stories and interactions, but also in their often diabolical, but surprisingly gentle, methods. This terrific contribution to the enormous body of World War II documentaries is no whitewash of the horrors of war, and includes some discussion of its lingering psychological impact. Thanks to the humanity of these now elderly “boys,” it is an engaging, hilarious and moving – if often appropriately harsh – tribute to the virtues of freedom, tolerance and common decency.
Robin B Hood
Jackie Chan must be a big fan of Vin Diesel. How else can you explain his latest film, “Robin B Hood,” a boring action-star-turned-babysitter comedy that’s clearly Hong Kong’s answer to the “The Pacifier?” In it, Chan plays Fong Ka Ho, one part of a three-man burglary outfit with a nasty habit of gambling away his earnings. When the trio is offered a job worth $7 million, however, they jump on the opportunity without asking any questions. What they soon discover, though, is that the job involves kidnapping the baby of a corporate billionaire, and when one partner is captured during the heist, the other two are left playing nanny until a new deal is made. Though Chan and co-star Louis Koo are clearly having fun during the film’s sillier moments (i.e. flinging poo-filled diapers at each other), several of the baby-centric scenes are completely unnecessary to the story. The movie is excessively long at 126 minutes, and it ends up feeling more like 180 minutes by the time Chan has finally saved the day. All of the pre-baby scenes are great – Chan and Koo should definitely team up again for a real action flick – but after the baby is introduced, the story becomes gradually more ridiculous with each passing minute. The budget isn’t Hollywood big, and the stunts lack that old-school flavor, but despite its many downfalls, “Robin B Hood” should still entertain the Jackie Chan faithful.
The Royal Tramp Collection
It’s difficult to recommend a movie that is so obsessed with the age-old crotch joke that the villain actually has a counterattack called Draw Back The Penis, but Stephen Chow’s “Royal Tramp” is still mildly amusing, if only for its Looney Tunes-esque brand of humor. In the film, Chow plays a local pimp who, after saving the leader of the rebel army, is sent undercover to protect the Ming emperor from an assassination attempt. The sequel, “Royal Tramp 2,” continues the tale of Chow’s bumbling protagonist as a beautiful warrior targets him for revenge. Unfortunately, due to the first film’s ungodly slow pacing, mediocre action sequences, and over-the-top comedy, most people will never even make it to the second disc. It’s a shame, really. Chow is one of the more entertaining actors in Hong Kong (and one of very few who doesn’t depend on martial arts to land gigs), but he’s made far better movies than this. Diehard loyalists will no doubt feel obliged to add the “Royal Tramp” films to their collections, but everyone else should probably just forget these were ever re-released.
When the screener for “Sayonara Jupiter” arrived in my mailbox, I took one look at the description on the back and thought to myself, “How in the world have I never seen this film?” As Japan’s answer to “Star Wars,” the sci-fi epic (and trust me, it’s an epic in every sense of the word) starts off as a literal rip-off of Lucas’ space western – from the blocky title credits to the John Williams-esque theme music. Then, something completely unexpected happens: absolutely nothing. The film is filled with so much filler material (perhaps because there’s no actual plot) that the chance anyone could enjoy this piece of crap is beyond impossible. I mean, did we really need a trippy dream sequence involving the main character and his girlfriend floating around in space … naked? At just over two hours long, you’ll be treated to a slew of dreadful American actors (most likely former porn stars whose only shot at going legit was in a Japanese flick), while shameless marketing plugs (“McDonald’s: The hamburger that soars”) flourish on the screen. “Sayonara Jupiter” is the stuff “Mystery Science Theater 3000” was made for - but even that may be too much of a compliment.
Eight things I’ve learned from watching “Scorpius Gigantus.” 1) Beware any film that claims to be “in the tradition of” any other film, as it will invariably prove to not even be a tenth as good as the film to which it is being compared. 2) Although he’s been producing films for 52 years, one hallmark of all Roger Corman films still remains constant: the special effects are crap. 3) Any money that Corman saves by going with crap special effects never goes toward hiring a cast that can actually act. 4) Some male soldiers are chauvinist pigs who don’t approve of women in the military, but they’ll change their tune pretty damned quick as soon as they’ve got a giant cockroach on their ass. 5) The only people shadier than the government are scientists. 6) Whenever a scientist wants their precious biological experiment to be taken alive, if the scientist doesn’t meet an ironic death at the hands of their creation by, say, the first two-thirds of the film, they will invariably demand that their creation be killed after all…usually after the death of half a dozen innocent people. (Your numbers may vary.) 7) As soon as any character says, “That’s the last we’ve seen of them,” you can safely turn off the film, knowing with complete certainty that not only is it not the last we’ve seen of them, but, indeed, that a sequel will appear at your local video store within one year’s time. 8) Next time you pick up a movie in the video store that has Jeff Fahey as the star, just put it down and step away from the rack. (Only possible exceptions to this rule: “Body Parts,” “Impulse,” and “The Lawnmower Man.”)
The Second Track
This memorable East German thriller from the government-owned DEFA film studio could easily have been a worldwide success, but its subject matter — the lingering moral legacy of Nazism — made it uncomfortable material for the former Soviet-block nation on its original release. Now, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and 46 years after its 1962 release, Joachim Kunert’s film is available worldwide for the first time, and it turns out to be an exciting and subtly disturbing piece of work. “The Second Track” opens when Brock, a middle-aged railroad foreman (Albert Hetterle), witnesses a robbery. He gets a good look at one of the robbers, Runge (Walter Richter-Reinick), but suddenly denies having seen him commit the robbery. The two men clearly have some kind of shared history, but the criminal Runge has no idea what it is and worries that Brock might be up to something. He assigns his younger cohort (Horst Jonischkan) to strike up a relationship with Brock’s pretty musician daughter, Vera (Annekathrin Bürger), to investigate the nature of the connection between the two older men. Though attentive film buffs will spot some obvious homages to Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” in its stark, black and white imagery, the resemblances are mostly on the surface. This is a more overtly serious film than those comparisons suggest, touching rather directly on the holocaust and the sometimes impossible, often reprehensible, moral choices that ordinary Germans made on a daily basis during the Nazi era. Running less than 80 minutes, this is an emotionally loaded, low-key suspense film that, like last year’s Oscar-winning surprise hit “The Lives of Others,” is no joy ride, but rewards the viewer’s close attention in unexpected ways. Highly recommended.
I’m getting a little sick and tired of straight-to-DVD taglines that suggest the film is better than it really is. In this case, the makers of “Secuestro Express” attempt a killer marketing con by proclaiming that the film is made by the guys behind “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” and “Sin City.” Unfortunately, the only thing all three films have in common is their producer, and not the real talent involved, or “Secuestro Express” would have been fantastic. Instead, the Spanish-speaking film looks to imitate the recent kidnapping thriller “Man on Fire,” both through narrative and style, but fails horribly in the process. The faux documentary approach comes off amateurish, while the dull performances feel more appropriate for a three-minute rap video.
See Arnold Run
This weak made-for-TV movie about Arnold Schwarzenegger's impulsive run for the governorship of California offers the dead-on casting of Roland Kickinger as a young Arnold. The decision to have Jurgen Prochnow play the present day Governor was a bad one however, with the veteran actor sounding and resembling nothing like Arnold in any way. With no special features to speak of, this is hardly a disc that you'll want to own. Then again, the coolest bonus material in the short history of DVD still wouldn't change the fact that the movie is one of the worst you'll see all year.
See No Evil
In 2002, WWE Films was born, and after co-producing two films starring The Rock (“The Rundown” and “Walking Tall”), the company decided they were finally ready to make a film of their own. “See No Evil” is the first of what looks to be many independently-produced WWE films starring characters from their hit wrestling shows, and it should have been its last. Starring Kane as a psychotic killer with a fondness for tearing people’s eyes out, the film follows the usual horror mold of dropping a group of no-name actors into a creepy environment for the villain to slowly pick apart. Unfortunately, not even the seven-foot tall, 400-pound actor can instill a sense of terror in this ridiculous premise, which looks even worse than most low-budget horror flicks. Complete with a Jason-esque Oedipus complex, Kane’s taciturn hulk isn’t very creative when it comes to killing people. The formula is quite simple, and almost all of the victims get dragged away by some primitive hook-on-a-chain where one of three things happens: they die by eye-gouging, get chopped to pieces by an axe, or both. And in the end, there’s simply not enough substance here for even the most diehard of horror fans to enjoy.
Seed of Chucky
There was a time when Chucky could have been considered one of the greatest horror icons in the history of the genre. The "Child's Play" films were some of the scariest horror flicks of the 80', but the series took a turn for the worst with the horrible franchise killer "Bride of Chucky." Now, the murdering doll has become more of a parlor joke than a real threat, following the studio's decision to introduce more humor into the scripts. In the latest Chucky installment, the introduction of the not-so-killer-doll Glen (voiced by former Hobbit, Billy Boyd), makes the end product seem more like "Oliver Twist," and less like the 80's Chucky we were once terrified of.
Tom Wilkinson might just be one of the most underrated actors in the business, and he proves his excellence yet again in the overseas romantic thriller “Separate Lies.” After a short run in theaters, the film has been given the boot to DVD, but you shouldn’t think too much on 20th Century Fox’s nonchalant treatment of it. Based around a seemingly happy couple (Wilkinson and Emma Watson) that is torn apart by an affair and the death of a friend, “Separate Lies” is the short-and-sweet version of the typical sex-and-lies drama with a British twist. The “other man” is played by Rupert Everett with the same shiftiness you’re used to seeing from the actor, but he looks awfully sick, as if he’s recovering from an eating disorder.
Shadows in the Sun
The cover to “Shadows in the Sun” unabashedly trumpets the film as being “in the tradition of ‘Under the Tuscan Sun,’” but in addition to the very obvious fact that Joshua Jackson is no Diane Lane, in truth, the only thing linking the two films is that they both take place in the Italian countryside. Jackson plays a book editor and aspiring author who’s been assigned the task of finding a reclusive author (Harvey Keitel) and trying to get him to come out of his self-imposed retirement and produce another literary work; in the process, he meets the author’s daughter and falls in love with her…which you really can’t blame him for, given that she’s played by the gorgeous Claire Forlani. Giancarlo Giannini (“Hannibal”) offers the best work among the supporting characters, as a chain-smoking priest who’s friends with Keitel; he scores the best line in the film when, after helping Keitel throw Jackson in a lake (because he really, really doesn’t want to write another book), he baptizes the editor, who’s sitting in water up to his lap. “But I’m Jewish,” complains Jackson. Giannini just blinks, says, “Not anymore,” and strolls away. Jackson gives a nice, understated performance, and Keitel does his usual solid job, but the script is a bit too schmaltzy. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but let’s just say that in addition to being happy, every plot thread unfolds predictably. A pleasant enough viewing experience, but it’s like taking a road trip while using one of those StreetPilot systems: the ride’s nice, but when you already know where you’re gonna end up, it’s not really much of an adventure.
The Shaggy Dog
It’s not every day that a Disney film starring Tim Allen is released. No, more like every year. And while I’d typically recommend someone slash their wrists before sitting down to watch yet another family film starring the Toolman, the 2006 update of “The Shaggy Dog” is (surprise surprise) a rather entertaining kid’s flick. This doesn’t necessarily mean that adults will be lapping it up as well, but at least it’s not a complete bore, thanks most in part to a strong comedic performance by Robert Downey Jr. as the crafty mad scientist. Allen does his “Santa Clause” thing as the unfit father-type, whose transformation into the shaggy dog reveals a brand new insight into his family life (his son doesn’t want to play football, but star in the school production of “Grease”; his daughter is a passionate animal rights activist; and his wife just wants a little loving). It’s also probably his best film since 1999 – a year that found the actor in the both animated hit “Toy Story 2” and the sci-fi comedy “Galaxy Quest.” Of course, the obligatory “Who Let the Dogs Out?” montage delivers a foreseeable sliver of cheesiness, but I’m willing to let that one slide, if only to hoard all my rage for this year’s “The Santa Clause 3.” Ugh.
It’s a rare occasion to find a direct-to-DVD film that’s both enjoyable and good enough to have been released in theaters, but “Shanghai Kiss” certainly fits the bill. Ken Leung stars as Liam Liu, a struggling Hollywood actor who can’t seem to land roles other than those that require he speak Chinese or know kung fu. Enter Adelaide (Hayden Panettiere of “Heroes”), a 16-year-old free-spirited genius who meets Liam on the bus one day and immediately falls in love. Liam isn’t exactly ecstatic about finding “the one” in a girl half his age, so when he gets word that his recently passed grandmother has left him a house in Shanghai, Liam boards the first plane to China. What he doesn’t realize, however, is that although the foreign city has much to offer a stranger with nowhere to go, Liam’s true place is in California, doing what he loves most. The film also features Kelly Hu (“X2: X-Men United”), Joel Moore (“Dodgeball”) and James Hong (“Big Trouble in Little China”) in limited roles, but the only reason to check it out is for Leung’s amazing performance. I’ve been keeping an eye on the 37-year old Asian-American actor over the last few years, and as far as I can determine, he’s about as close to a hidden talent as they come. Leung isn’t just an underrated talent, though – he’s one of the best of his generation, and “Shanghai Kiss” is more than enough proof of that.
It’s been nearly a decade since Francois Girard’s last film (the Academy Award-winning “The Red Violin”), so it’s no surprise that “Silk” feels like the work of a skilled director who’s forgotten how to direct. Based on the novel by Alessandro Baricco, “Silk” stars Michael Pitt as Herve Joncour, a French soldier who’s enlisted by a silkworm merchant (Alfred Molina) to travel to Japan and replace a diseased batch of eggs. While there, Herve falls for the beautiful concubine of a local warlord, and as the years pass, their secret relationship threatens to tear his marriage apart. Though the story is initially promising, “Silk” eventually exposes itself for what it really is: a poorly constructed love story that eventually crumbles underneath its boring premise. There are far too many problems to discuss in such a short entry, but if there’s one thing worth mentioning, it’s that no man in the world (past or present) would ever sacrifice a relationship with Keira Knightley for some Japanese broad who may or may not be interested in him.
After several years of writing about film, I still don’t understand why a studio would be willing to entrust millions of dollars to a man who – despite writing a few screenplays over the course of a decade – has never directed a movie in his life. Ray Liotta stars as a hotshot D.A. with his eye on the mayor’s office, but when one of his deputies is arrested for killing a man (she claims to have done it in self-defense), a stranger emerges to suggest a different spin on the story. Unfortunately, the movie is so obsessed with flooding the final act with more double crosses and fake endings than you can count on two hands, it makes “The Usual Suspects” look like “Citizen Kane.” This is one of many reasons why “Slow Burn” performed so badly during its short theatrical release. Another is directly tied to why it was even released in theaters (although limited), because no matter how great your cast may be, it means absolutely nothing when the film crumbles at the hint of even the smallest degree of logical scrutiny.
Gregg Araki’s latest film, the stoner comedy “Smiley Face,” is so goddamn stupid that you really have to wonder how the guy is still making movies. Yes, I understand that they’re all financed by small independent studios, but surely these people have better things to waste their money on than a film that plays like an 85-minute anti-drug advertisement. In it, Anna Faris plays a burnout actress who accidentally eats her roommate’s pot cupcakes, and in an attempt to replace them before the day is out, becomes involved in a series of misadventures that ultimately ruins her life and the lives of all the people around her. Sounds a lot like “Harold & Kumar,” right? Not so much. Though Araki nails the so-simple-only-a-pothead-could-mess-it-up storyline, there’s nothing particularly humorous about Faris’ situation. The cast is superb (Faris, John Krasinski, John Cho) – except for maybe Adam Brody as Faris’ Rastafarian pot dealer – but they’re all completely wasted (no pun intended) in one of the most pointless movies of the year. “The Doom Generation” was bad, but “Smiley Face” is even worse – if only because of the talent involved.
Another year, another romantic comedy. And though “Something New” doesn’t offer anything entirely different, it’s different enough to be considered a fresh take on the genre. This doesn’t mean, however, that the film isn’t completely predictable. When making a film about a black woman (Kenya McQueen, played by Sanaa Lathan) who’s forced to choose between loving a poor, white man (Simon Baker) or a rich, black man (Blair Underwood), the mandatory racial conversations are inevitable. It also means that, in order to teach any sort of moral lesson, the black woman has to choose the white man in the end. I know, I know. It’s not fair, nor would it probably happen if this was based on real life, but because it’s imaginary, the pill is that much easier to swallow. The film’s many subplots are actually more captivating than the central love story, including great supporting performances by Alfre Woodard and Donald Faison (of “Scrubs” fame) as Kenya’s mother and little brother, respectively. And yet, despite the fact that “Something New” still feels like every other romantic comedy ever made, the film really makes you think. And at the end of the day, that’s all we ask for from a solid cinematic experience.
The long-awaited film from director Katsuhiro Otomo ("Akira") is a visually stunning piece of animation, but the story comes off a little flat after its been dragged out for just over two hours. This is certainly the director's least interesting piece of work thus far, but the DVD is packed with awesome special features, and the American voice acting is top-notch, especially considering that the lead hero is voiced by a girl (Anna Paquin). Unless you're a diehard fan of the anime scene (and I don't mean "Dragonball Z"), then Otomo's "Steamboy" won't have much of an effect on you.
Mix two parts “Save the Last Dance,” one part “You Got Served,” and add a dash of “Dirty Dancing,” and you’ll come pretty darn close to replicating “Step Up,” the fifth urban dance flick in almost as many years. Using the ultra-elite Maryland School of Arts as its setting, the movie drops Baltimore street dancer, Tyler (Channing Tatum), at the front steps of the private academy when he gets in trouble with the law and is sentenced to community service. It’s there that he meets Nora (Jenna Dewan), a talented performer who runs into a little bad luck when her partner sprains his ankle mere weeks before her senior showcase. Luckily, Tyler is a nice guy (read: he wants to get into her panties), and so he offers to step in as her new partner. For anyone that hasn’t seen this movie before – about a rebel with skillz who meets a prim and proper girl of technique – will probably find themselves in the minority, but they also might get a little more enjoyment out of it than others. “Step Up” is about as predictable as you can get, and while Tatum proves yet again why he’s one of the better up-and-coming young actors in the business, there are simply better versions of the same story that are worth seeing instead.
Steve Martin: The Wild and Crazy Comedy Collection
“The Jerk” is hilarious. “Dead Men Wear Plaid” is funnier than you think. Even “The Lonely Guy” has more laughs than you’ve heard, particularly if you think Charles Grodin is funny, too. So why does this recent recycling of Steve Martin films rate only half a star? Not because it was given the laziest possible title that a Steve Martin collection could possibly have, although that helps. No, it earns this rating because, although it was released on Feb. 13, 2007, it includes previews for the DVD release of “The Wedding Date,” “Father of the Pride: The Complete Series,” and the special edition of “The Big Lebowski,” all of which came out in 2005. Yes, kids, that’s right -- not only is Universal unnecessarily reissuing old films in new packages, but they can’t even be bothered to remove the previews that were at the beginning of the last reissues of the films! You’d like to think this will humiliate the studio and not only inspire the firing of the person responsible, but also result in a little more care when compiling future collections. Realistically, the best we can probably hope for is a shrug of the shoulders and a dismissive “meh.”
Stomp the Yard
For those of you who have ever seen “Drumline” (and for those that haven’t, I strongly suggest you do), watching the dance drama “Stomp the Yard” feels all too familiar. It features a fish-out-of-water protagonist (Columbus Short) who’s given a second chance at life when he’s shipped off to an elite school, a sexy up-and-coming black actress (Meagan Good) as the love interest, and a national championship in Atlanta where the two rival schools must face off again after the judges announce a tie. And you know what happens next: dance off! Unfortunately, where “Stomp the Yard” promises to entertain with exciting dance sequences, it fails miserably. Not only is the art of stepping (or crunking, for that matter) an acquired taste, but nearly every move looks the same. Even the abysmal “You Got Served” featured better choreography than this mess, but the dancing is the least of your worries. Bad dialogue, illogical plot developments (he’s a convicted felon for defending himself from a gang attack? Puh-leash), and a forced love story make “Stomp the Yard” one of the worst box office hits of the year.
Stomp! Shout! Scream!
It’s a tightrope walk to pay tribute to three separate genres of ‘60s movies – the beach party flick (think Frankie and Annette), the rock and roll movie (believe it or not, even Herman’s Hermits had their own movie in 1966), and the old-fashioned monster movie – without drifting into parody. Somehow, however, “Stomp! Shout! Scream!” pulls it off just about perfectly. The creation of Jay Edwards, who both wrote and directed the film, “Stomp! Shout! Scream!” has two primary storylines: one involving an all-girl rock band called the Violas, the other about a creature called the Skunk Ape terrorizing a small Southern beach town…and, wow, what a coincidence that, when the Violas’ vehicle breaks down, they end up stranded in that very town! The inevitable romantic tension arrives when the band’s lead singer, Theodora (Claire Bronson), finds herself pursued by two different guys: the mechanic working on their car (Hector Garcia) and the professor who comes into town (Jonathan Green). Predictably, the city’s police force is completely incompetent when it comes to chasing the creature terrorizing the citizens. Actual dialogue: “I don’t like baloney sandwiches, but, now, fried baloney, that’s okay. (Pauses and points) Hey, that looks like a Skunk Ape!” By not constantly winking at the viewer to be sure they’re in on the joke (the big exception certainly being the dream sequence where the Violas perform a lovely song called “Syphillis”), the film proves to be not only a perfect tribute to the aforementioned ‘60s genres but, in fact, a really enjoyable film in its own right. If you can’t catch “Stomp! Shout! Scream!” on the big screen (though you really should, since it’s still making the indie film festival circuit), this DVD release makes up for it by including commentary, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and deleted scenes.
Strangers with Candy
During its short-lived run on Comedy Central, “Strangers with Candy” earned the admiration of critics and fans alike for its quirky (but hilarious) take on the after-school special. Now, five years later, the whole gang is back for a big-screen prequel that chronicles the first weeks of former boozer, loser and user Jerri Blank’s (the ever-adorable Amy Sedaris) return to high school. Reviving their roles as the anti-Darwin science teacher and openly-gay art instructor, respectively, Colbert and Dinello are joined by a star-studded cast of actors who really have no business in a “Strangers with Candy” movie, including Matthew Broderick as a hot shot science teacher, Sarah Jessica Parker (no doubt supporting her husband’s decision to appear) as the school grief counselor, Ian Holm as an eccentric doctor, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a board member. That doesn’t mean that their cameos aren’t enjoyable, however, and it only helps to give the film a little more respectability. Unfortunately, the concept loses much of its appeal during its transition into a 90-minute feature and the joke gets old quick; a lot quicker than it would when spanning several twenty minute episodes. Nevertheless, die-hard fans will still eat this up like – ahem – candy.
Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie
With the recent release of Capcom’s “Street Fighter Alpha Anthology” and the upcoming port of the original “Street Fighter II” onto Xbox Live Arcade, it only seems appropriate that an uncut version of the classic animated film is also made available to the legion of diehard fans. With only five minutes of story for every twenty-five of action, the plot is ridiculously crude, but it works perfectly for a video game that didn’t have much of a story in the first place. Featuring Ryu as the hero of heroes – and meeting up with nearly every other character from the series along the way – the Japanese fighting legend is unexpectedly forced into a worldwide conflict between the U.N. and a terrorist group led by the notorious M. Bison. The new double-sided DVD includes two versions (English and Japanese) of the film, and along with featuring longer cuts of each, they’re also uncensored, which means they contain graphic violence, explicit language, and nudity. It’s not much, but for anyone who ever dreamed about Chun-Li naked can see it here in all of its hand-drawn glory. Yes, she’s hot, but she’s also animated. And yet, despite the fact that this is a cartoon, the animated film is ten times better than that god-awful live-action crapfest starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Raul Julia (bless his soul).
Who would’ve thought that a movie with no plot and bad acting could be so enjoyable? Okay, so there’s a basic premise to the story – something about two brothers who are trying to break in to the world of professional Supermoto – but that’s hardly worth paying attention to. The real gems of this film can be found in the many exciting Supermoto races that fill out the rather flat storyline, as well as the quick 82 minute runtime. The sheer fact that you actually develop some sort of feeling for these characters is incredible, especially considering they’re little more than pretty cardboard cutouts, and yet the audience feels compelled to cheer for the main characters. Mike Vogel (“Grind”) co-stars in yet another extreme sports film, but unlike the former, “Supercross” has potential. It may not be much, but it’s enough to warrant a rental.
What red-blooded American male…or a heterosexual male from any country, really…doesn’t enjoy a good old-fashioned erotic thriller? This one was a straight-to-cable special, but instead of coming from Skinemax, “Survival Island” comes by way of Showtime. There’s precious little sex, of course, and what there is can in no way be defined as graphic, but Kelly Brook spends virtually the entire film in a white bikini, and she looks smoking hot in it. Billy Zane gets what must by now be his 73rd opportunity to play an asshole, but what’s more notable about his performance is that his bald head and facial hair make him look for all the world like Tobias Funke from “Arrested Development.” Plot-wise, you’re looking at two men and a woman stranded on a desert island, so it’s romantic tension a go-go, with Latin lover Juan Pablo di Pace getting to utter heavily accented lines like, “Your husband…he treat you like sheet!” It’s actually surprisingly enjoyable to watch, mostly because of Zane, who delivers half of his lines like he’s in a comedy…though, more often that not, I’m pretty sure they weren’t written to be funny.
Sympathy of Mr. Vengeance
What starts out as a slow-paced drama about a man who is trying to save his sister from kidney disease gradually becomes a taut revenge film focused not on good and evil, but on two very different men placed in the same situation. And then you remember that you’re watching a Park Chan-wook film, and that anything is possible. This includes a handful of bizarre characters and several disturbing scenes of raw violence, which incidentally is the main allure of the director’s work. The first chapter of Park’s premeditated revenge trilogy, “Sympathy” is actually the second installment introduced to American audiences, with the award-winning “Oldboy” appearing in limited theatrical release and landing on DVD earlier in the year.
Tales from the Crypt Presents: Ritual
If you’ve been waiting with bated breath since “Bordello of Blood” for the next “Tales from the Crypt” movie…well, you’re probably in a real minority. But whatever you do, you shouldn’t get too excited about “Ritual.” Talk about a waste of a brand name; the Crypt Keeper only shows up at the beginning of this tale of voodoo and murder, not even bothering to pop up for a bad pun at the conclusion. Jennifer Grey stars as a doctor who, after getting her license revoked for trying to save a patient by breaking hospital policy (a move that would’ve probably worked if only the patient hadn’t died), finds work on a Jamaican plantation, serving as a private physician for the brother of a wealthy American (Craig Sheffer). Kristen Wilson (the mom in the “Dr. Doolittle” flicks) spends a lot of time looking sexy, and Tim Curry shows up just long enough to show that he’s got more charisma than the rest of the cast combined. There’s a good reason this flick has languished in the Dimension Films vault since 2001; it’s slow-paced, has several actors doing atrocious Jamaican, and not nearly enough in the way of scares. The scenery’s great...and that’s the landscape as well as the scene where Wilson wanders around naked…but the Crypt Keeper probably won’t be the only one who’s bailed out before the closing credits.
In what could easily be described as the most overlooked film of the year, Donal Logue’s directorial debut takes a comical stab at the world of celebrity tennis that, with any luck, will have the same effect on tennis that “Sideways” had on wine. Starring Logue and writing partner Kirk Fox as out-of-work actors who share a love for the game, the pair join the celebrity tournament circuit with hopes of finally making a name for themselves, but quickly discover that it’s a lot harder (and more serious) than it looks. The film also boasts a supporting cast that includes the likes of Jason Isaacs and Paul Rudd, but the real star of the film is Fox, who could very well be the long-lost brother of Luke and Owen Wilson. In fact, his resemblance to the sibling duo is so bizarre that it’s almost like watching a movie about Richie Tenenbaum. “Tennis, Anyone?” isn’t without its faults, however, and at just under 140 minutes in length, the film runs into some major pacing problems that make the story drag more than it probably should. Still, first-rate black comedies are tough to come by, especially when they’re dependent on word of mouth, so take my advice: on your next trip to the local video store, take a closer look. You might find an amazing film right under your nose; specifically in the “T” section.
This Film Is Not Yet Rated
Director Kirby Dick isn’t the only filmmaker to ever question the authoritarian rule of the infamous Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), but he’s the first one to actually do something about. Kicking off the film with a mock-up of the classic green band trailer graphic that modifies the standard text to read “The Following Movie Will Never Be Approved For All Audiences,” it’s clear that the Academy Award-nominated documentarian isn’t afraid of pushing a few wrong buttons. Featuring interviews with some of the industry’s most controversial independent directors (including Kevin Smith, John Waters, Matt Stone and Mary Harron), authors and former MPAA raters Steven Farber and Jay Landers, “This Film Is Not Rated” seeks to uncover the mysterious process behind how a film is rated. Going so far as to hire a team of female private investigators to expose the names of every rater and appeals board member within the organization (both of which were kept confidential until now), Dick unearths the kind of evidence that most people already knew but could never prove. Like how the appeals board is made up of theater chain executives, studio presidents, and film buyers. Or how straight sex garners an R rating, while gay sex garners an almost automatic NC-17; a rating in which Dick describes as encompassing anything from “a senior citizen gangbang to a Pedro Almodovar art film.” The icing on the cake, however, comes when Dick submits his own movie for a rating and gets the dreaded NC-17. Still, while the film isn’t exactly a great documentary, it does warrant the attention of every cinephile.
This is England
One look at writer/director Shane Meadow’s profile image on IMDb, and you can begin to see the resemblance between him and the semi-autobiographical main character of his new film “This is England.” Taking place in a small town during the heyday of the British punk movement, the film stars Thomas Turgoose as Shaun, a troubled 12-year-old boy grieving the recent death of his father. When a group of local skinheads befriends the eager devotee on the cusp of summer break, however, Shaun is introduced into a world filled with girls, parties, shaved heads, Doc Martins and Ben Sherman t-shirts. But when the gang’s former leader, Combo (Stephen Graham), returns home from a three-year stint in prison with plans of rebellion, friends are pitted against one another and loyalties are tested: namely Shaun, who looks at Combo as a father figure despite his violent mood swings and racist views on life. At its core, “This is England” is a relatively straightforward coming-of-age tale about a boy looking for answers to life, but Meadow subtly hints that it’s about much more. Along with mentions in the script of race, blue-collar workers and politics, the director also uses stock footage from the early 80s as bookends for his story. Unfortunately, this only detracts from the more interesting main plot of Shaun and his foray into the life of a skinhead. Turgoose delivers an incredible performance as the film’s lead, while Joe Gilgun offers some much-needed charisma as his skinhead protector, Woody. Let’s hope we see more of both in the near future.
This Island Earth
Otherwise known as “the movie that Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot, and Mike Nelson savaged during “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie”…and as a result, I’ll be damned if I can watch “This Island Earth” without hearing the trio’s snarky comments over top of the dialogue. (Ironically, “MST3K: The Movie” is out of print on DVD; why some evil genius didn’t include it as an easter egg on this disc is beyond me.) If this is your inaugural experience with “This Island Earth,” however, you’ll find a rather enjoyable sci-fi yarn. Scientist Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) gets caught up in an experiment being conducted by aliens from the planet Metaluna; the aliens – led by a white-haired, large-foreheaded fellow named Exeter (Jeff Morrow) – have sought volunteers from Earth’s scientific community to help create a defense shield for their planet, tempting the humans with science beyond anything on our planet. The hype on the back of the box that the special effects of “This Island Earth” “were 2 ½ years in the making” seems designed for nothing but disappointment for kids today; I mean, the film was made in 1955, so no matter how long they took, they still ain’t no great shakes. (The alien mutants no doubt helped inspire those in “Mars Attacks!”) Nor, for that matter, is the acting; the closest thing to a “name” in the cast is Russell Johnson, a.k.a. the Professor on “Gilligan’s Island.” Still, the premise is entertaining and there’s enough fun to be had to make it worth seeing. Just don’t forget to judge it by the standards of the era in which it was made.
Through the Fire
Chronicling the life of high school basketball sensation Sebastian Telfair as he prepares to make the jump to the big leagues, the ESPN-produced documentary is an excellent portrayal of what it’s like to be one of the fastest rising sports stars in the world. Of course, the experience would have been a lot better if they had done this a year earlier with King James, but it’s still a great rags-to-riches Cinderella story that deserves to be told. Whether or not Sebastian was actually ready for the NBA, however, is a completely different tale, and one that may be told in a few years.
Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball
It’s shocking to think that there is only one company in the world that is still making pinball machines, but after watching “Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball,” you might wonder how there is still one company in the world making pinball machines. The movie documents the story of Williams Co., who created some of the most groundbreaking pinball machines in history (“Black Knight,” “High Speed,” “Addams Family”), though the advances in technology also meant rising costs and slimmer profit margins. In 1999, the company went for broke, creating the Pinball 2000 design that melded pinball play with computer graphics. The distributors loved it, but Williams’ second Pinball 2000 title, based around the can’t-miss property “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” killed them, forcing the company to abandon pinball permanently for the far more lucrative slot machine sector. Try as the film may for a tearful farewell, the company’s decision to quit pinball seems quite understandable when all is said and done. Thorough, but dispassionate.
Tom Hanks: Comedy Favorites Collection
Don’t kid yourself: no one will ever look at this set and say, “My God, these really are my favorite Tom Hanks comedies!” In fact, with the possible exception of the underrated Joe Dante flick, “The ‘Burbs,” no one has ever looked at any of these films and said, “This is my favorite Tom Hanks comedy.” Printing the words “3 HILARIOUS MOVIES!” in a gigantic font on the back of the box may find Universal slapped with a false-advertising lawsuit. “Dragnet” is less a Hanks film than an excuse for Dan Aykroyd to trot out his best Jack Webb impression for an hour and 42 minutes, and “The Money Pit” is amusing slapstick, but it’s a trifle at best. Included are an alternate ending of “The ‘Burbs” and a making-of featurette for “The Money Pit,” but these are hardly huge selling points, given that these items were already available on the previous issues of the respective films. Save your money and get that two-disc special edition of “Big” that’s coming out in May, instead. Guaranteed, there are more laughs in that one flick than in all three of these.
This movie has more flaws than you or I have teeth. (I spent all 89 minutes of this movie coming up with that opening line, I’ll have you know.) I’m sure Stephen J. Cannell believes that he’s doing the world a favor by leaving television behind, switching gears, and writing horror movies, but let me assure you that, on the whole, we’d all be better off if he focused his energies elsewhere. The idea of a horror movie revolving around the Tooth Fairy was done in less than spectacular fashion via “Darkness Falls,” so maybe Cannell thought, “Hey, here’s our chance to do it up right!” Not so much. The premise here is that there’s this witch, see, and she takes kids’ teeth and then kills ‘em. Things open with a flashback sequence that takes place in 1949, and it’s actually pretty strong, but after that, things slow down to a snail’s pace. Most of the gory shots in the film are way over the top; one of the main characters gets decapitated, another gets his johnson cut off with an axe (resulting in the wonderful line, “Chuck, what’s your dick doing over there?”), and, yawn, one fellow meets his maker via a wood chipper. Oh, well: at the very least, it conclusively proves that “Fargo” did the definitive wood chipper death scene and no other film need ever attempt it. There are some witty moments, as when a new age type tells 10-year-old Pamela that “evil has pervaded this house” and she rolls her eyes in response and says, “Tell me about it,” but most of the laughs arrive via the ridiculously over-the-top performance by Peter New as a redneck gas station attendant (as a Hyundai owner, I had to laugh when he called the car a “Korean leaf blower with windows”). It’s a nice touch having ‘70s scream queen P.J. Soles pop up briefly, but it only serves to remind us that she’s not a very good actress…which, if nothing else, means her abilities live up to the material.
There’s something about human trafficking that just doesn’t feel real, and that’s the biggest thing working against a movie like “Trade.” Whether it’s because I can’t imagine so many people ignoring an abduction, or because of the lengths the kidnappers go to accomplish such a task are beyond ridiculous, there’s something to be said of the fact that it happens so frequently each year. The film puts the hot topic front and center when 13-year-old Adriana (Paulina Gaitan) is kidnapped in Mexico and taken to the U.S. to be sold as a sex slave. With her older brother, Jorge (Cesar Ramos), following closely behind, his desperate search is given an extra boost when a Texas cop named Ray (Kevin Kline) agrees to help. Unfortunately, Kline doesn’t actually enter the story until about 35 minutes in, and even then, it’s in a very limited role. This will no doubt piss off those who see Kline’s face and name on the front of the DVD, expecting him to be the star of the film. It’s terribly shady marketing on the part of Lionsgate – especially when the movie itself isn’t very good – and probably the reason why it never received a proper theatrical run. Still, if you’re adamant about learning more on human trafficking, but don’t want to pick up a book, Tony Scott’s “Man on Fire” will do the trick.
Not so much a sequel as it is a continuation of the original story, “Triad Election” (AKA “Election 2”) shares many of the same themes as the first film, but does so in a fashion fans of Hong Kong cinema are more familiar with. The rules are virtually the same in this second outing: Lok’s (Simon Yam) two-year term is coming to a close, but instead of stepping down like tradition demands, the power-hungry chairman decides to force his way back into candidacy. Opposition is virtually nonexistent until Jimmy (Louis Koo) – who’d rather leave the gang altogether to run a legitimate business – learns that the only way to earn the government’s backing is to knock Lok off his throne. And so the mood is set for yet another battle between the two candidates, but this time around, Lok is the aggressor. Fans of HK cinema (and To’s work in particular) know that Yam is at his best when he’s playing the villain, but his character is much too subdued (read: a wuss) to come across as even remotely threatening. Other characters (like Nick Cheung’s Jet) still don’t get the attention they deserve, making a third and final “Election” not only welcome, but expected.
If there’s one thing I learned while watching the horror comedy “The Tripper,” it’s that Ronald Reagan really didn’t like hippies. Then again, who did? It even goes so far as to print the following quote from the President at the beginning of the film: “A hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane and smells like Cheetah.” OK, fair enough, but is the basic concept of a hippie slasher film entertaining enough to last 100 minutes? David Arquette’s directorial debut certainly begins with the sort of disturbingly comic moments you’d expect from a horror film of this nature, but after an opening that includes a little kid attacking a hippie with a chainsaw, it’s well over an hour before that humor returns. Taking place at a present-day Free Love music festival in some northern woodland town, the film follows a group of treehuggers (including Lukas Haas, Jaime King and Jason Mewes) as they’re stalked by a serial killer dressed like former President Reagan and his hungry K9, Nancy. Supplementing the cast are a few other familiar faces – like Paul Reubens (as the concert promoter), Balthazar Getty (as one of the girl’s psychotic ex-boyfriends) and Tom Jane (as the town sheriff) – but with the exception of Jane’s straight-edged asshole, the uninspired cameos do little more than distract the viewer. This is one of those films that could have easily become the next great midnight movie had only a more seasoned filmmaker been in charge.
Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story
Director Michael Winterbottom serves up a tall order with his latest film, which tries to do the impossible: adapt the comic novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman for the big screen. In fact, the director goes one step further by making his adaptation about the fictional production of the film, and in doing so, only further proves why the story is so notoriously unfilmable. Skipping between the 18th Century (where the novel takes place) and the 21st Century (where filmmakers struggle to finish production on the movie version), “Tristram Shandy” is an absolute mess from the very beginning. You see, Steve Coogan stars as himself, the main lead in a film about Tristram Shandy, but because Winterbottom uses the filming of the movie as a means to tell another story – that of Tristram Shandy, the novel – the actor is just as much himself as he is the role that he’s playing, Tristram’s father. This goes much the same way for many of the other actors in the film, but because Coogan also acts as narrator – and interacting with characters in the story – it can be difficult to follow. Occasionally, Coogan charms the audience with lines like “That is a child actor pretending to be me. I’ll be able to play myself later,” but the darkly comical script doesn’t deliver quite as often as it should. Still, the cast is a virtual who’s who of British talent, including Stephen Fry, Rob Brydon, Naomie Harris, Jeremy Northam, Kelly MacDonald and Dylan Moran, so it’s refreshing to see that Winterbottom has done at least one thing right.
Tristan + Isolde
Wait a minute, the Irish aren’t supposed to be the bad guys! Well, that’s what “Braveheart” taught me anyway. Billed as the first real epic love story (you know, before all that Romeo and Juliet mumbo jumbo), “Tristan + Isolde” is actually a lot better than the critics would have led you to believe. In fact, it’s more like the legend of King Arthur than that pansy Shakespearean tale, which means we get to see some pretty cool battles along the way. Taking place in the Dark Ages during a territory war between the Brits and the Celts, our two star-crossed lovers (played by James Franco and Sophia Myles) meet by chance when Tristan (a British warrior) is poisoned during combat and Isolde (an Irish princess) mends him back to health. This is, of course, where the whole “Romeo and Juliet” reference comes in to play, but we’ve seen this set-up so many times before that it hardly deserves the comparison. The real story is about the love triangle between Tristan, Isolde and the British king (played by resident medieval baddie Rufus Sewell). And while you probably shouldn’t rush to the nearest video store to pick this one up, you’d be wise to keep it in mind for the next time you’ve got a lady in the house.
Trust the Man
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a romantic comedy that I actually enjoyed (2004’s “Love Actually,” for anyone keeping track), but writer/director Bart Freundlich’s “Trust the Man” is so refreshing that I was genuinely surprised to discover that the film never found any success at the box office. True, the story is just as formulaic as most in the genre, but it does have one thing going for it: charm, and lots of it. Centered on two New York couples with relationships spinning out of control, the film stars David Duchovny as Tom, a stay-at-home dad whose marriage to thespian wife, Rebecca (Julianne Moore), has become less about intimacy and more about their roles as mother and father. Meanwhile, Rebecca’s slacker brother, Tobey (Billy Crudup), is having trouble committing to his family-minded girlfriend of seven years, Elaine (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and must learn to win her back by any means possible. Despite this being an ensemble effort, Duchovny and Crudup are clearly the best things about this film, while the girls play it straight for the sake of the story. This may look like your standard romantic comedy, but anytime the man in the relationship can enjoy a movie just as much as the lady, you know there’s nothing normal about it.
The Aussie-produced “Two Hands” is one of those movies you’d expect to find in the Wal-Mart “2 for $11” bargain bin. The film, which has been waiting for its grand DVD debut for nearly six years, features two Aussie stars (Heath Ledger and Rose Byrne) and a burnt-out veteran (Bryan Brown) in the lead roles. The story centers around a nobody teenager (Ledger) who manages to botch his first job for the local mob, and if it were any more reminiscent of past films from guys like Tarantino or Ritchie, you could call it a remake. Still, despite the poor acting and mostly-lifeless script, there are a few key moments that could very well be some of the funniest in crime film history, including the biggest foul up in a bank heist ever. Director Gregor Jordan has since gone on to make “Buffalo Soldiers” and “Ned Kelly,” and while neither are particularly outstanding features, they’re far better than this tripe.
Tyler Perry's Daddy's Little Girls
Movies like Tyler Perry’s “Daddy’s Little Girls” should be made for the sole purpose of helping the general public discern between good and bad filmmaking. It’s not that the movie is one of the worst of the year, but it’s simply another retread of every urban romance film ever made. This time around, the story revolves around a mechanic (Idris Elba) stuck in a custody battle for, you guessed, his little girls. When a high-powered attorney (Gabrielle Union) agrees to represent him for free, the two discover that, despite their differences, there’s more to their relationship than just business. While it’s good to see writer/director Perry branching out into genres other than comedy (this marks the first film without his trademark Madea character), the movie plays out more like Romance 101 than anything with even a hint of originality. It’s a real shame, too, since there’s some promising talent behind this film, namely Elba, whose three-year stint on HBO’s “The Wire” remains one of the best small screen performances of the past decade.
Over the past five years, Marvel Comics-created characters have done so well on the big screen that the comic book publication had to finally open their own movie studio. Now, with even more page-to-screen adaptations in the works, and plenty of sequels on the way, Marvel has decided to establish themselves in the direct-to-video market, namely with animated features starring their franchise stars. The first, an adaptation of the recently-produced comic series “The Ultimates,” focuses on an updated version of the classic Avengers team with characters like Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and the Hulk not aging a single year. And though the film isn’t particularly amazing, it’s short and sweet (running under 80 minutes), and should satisfy any fanboy in a five mile radius.
Ultimate Avengers 2
It’s only been a couple of months since the release of the first “Ultimate Avengers” film, and in that short period of time, Marvel’s new direct-to-DVD animation studio has managed to produce a follow-up adventure starring the famous superteam and the return of everyone’s favorite villain, the Nazis. Regrettably, the sequel doesn’t pack nearly as much punch as the first film – which is strange, considering it only runs 72 minutes in length – and the Incredible Hulk’s role is relegated to a pointless reemergence that doesn’t even come until after the Ultimates have destroyed the enemy. I can't really say I was disappointed though, since the Hulk is probably the dumbest comic book character ever created. Fans of the mean green machine still get a nice little subplot with Bruce Banner, however, who's been locked away under the care of General Fury ever since the Ultimates' last battle. Of course, there are a few new things worth looking forward to, like Tony Stark’s War Machine outfit and the introduction of the Black Panther, but it still comes up short of its predecessor. Oh, and a main character dies, which was more than a bit unexpected. Still, this isn't any better than kiddie fodder. Fanboys beware.
Just what you're looking for in a good B-movie. Cheesy dialogue, an absurd plot, humor and gratuitous violence. Produced in the same vein as the "Evil Dead" series and other zombie comedies like "Shaun of the Dead," "Undead" is a low-budget film straight out of Australia that takes a hilarious look at what happens to a group of strangers when their small town is overrun by zombies. This could be worth owning for fans of the genre, and for everybody else, this may be some of the most entertaining drivel you've ever seen. And it will completely satisfy your rental woes come Halloween.
Undisputed II: Last Man Standing
You may know by now that while the direct-to-DVD market isn’t exactly overflowing with quality films, it’s more than profitable enough to continue this tirade of churning out sequels to movies that shouldn’t have even been made the first time around. Still, this low-budget approach to marketing does have a positive effect on a handful of titles, and while the original “Undisputed” had absolutely no right being released in theaters, its sequel, “Last Man Standing,” feels right at home. The film pretty much follows the same formula as its predecessor: a former U.S. heavyweight boxing champion (Michael Jai White) is framed and thrown into a Russian prison where its mobster financer runs an underground fighting competition for high rollers. As can be expected, the plot is almost nonexistent – with a majority of the action taking place inside the ring – but while the fighting sequences are some of the best that I’ve seen in a long time, the filmmaker’s decision to cap it all off with a warm, buttery ending is beyond foolish. What’s with senseless action movies these days and their incessant need to mean something in the end? Can’t we just watch a bunch of guys beat the shit out of one another without having to think about it? Better yet, how about giving the main character a different nickname and last name from the guy in the original? It’s clear that they’re not the same person, and frankly, it’s downright insulting.
Vengeance is Mine
True cinema fans know that when it comes to watching your favorite movies on DVD, there’s nothing quite like the Criterion experience. While other studios continue to knowingly flood the market with a new version of a specific film every few years, when Criterion puts out a release, you can be certain that it truly is the definitive edition. Imagine my aggravation when one of the company’s latest releases, the 1979 Japanese Academy Award winning “Vengeance is Mine,” arrived on my doorstep with few special features. Based on real events, the film stars Ken Ogata as Iwao Enokizu, a seemingly good-natured Japanese man who murdered five innocents and conned several more during his 78-day run from the police. Director Shohei Imamura offers a blinding look at the inner evil within all of us in this engrossing character study of a man who at first is arguably misunderstood, but then slowly transforms into a cold-blooded killer. Unfortunately, the DVD release is hardly a complement to the material. With the exception of a newly restored digital transfer and a short video interview with Imamura, the only other special feature is a 32-page booklet featuring an essay by film critic Michael Atkinson, another by Imamura, two print interviews with the director, and a map detailing Iwao’s days on the run. Not exactly the experience that many will be expecting, but considering its drastically lower asking price ($21 compared to the usual $30 or more), it’s still quite a bargain for fans of the film.
Every time a teen horror movie is released, a kitten is killed. It’s probably not true, but it might just help in stopping the production of these low-rate horror flicks. “Venom” isn’t any different from the horror movies you’ve seen before: a killer is on the loose and his victims just so happen to be a group of dumbass kids with one strong female character in the bunch. That female character, of course, is the only one to survive with the hope that she can come back for the sequel. Instead of some silly monster or crazy townie as the killer, “Venom” is about a crazy townie that is turned into a silly monster when two voodoo-possessed snakes (carrying the souls of hundreds of mass-murders, no less) attack him in the middle of a Louisiana swamp. The man is impervious to gunshot wounds, as we discover when the kids try to shoot him, but not kicks to the head, oddly enough. A good boot to the noggin will give you more time to run away, but that hardly matters since the killer is bound to mysteriously catch up to his victims on foot. Yawn. The one good moral of the story is to never, ever, steal from a scary dead man, because you’ll die a very painful death – like, say, by way of a high pressure air hose.
And playing the role of the crotchety old man is… Peter O’Toole? Whoa, that guy’s still alive? Indeed he is, and delivering one of the finest performances of his career as Maurice, a veteran actor who strikes up a most peculiar relationship with his best friend’s grandniece when she arrives in town to take care of the aging man. Nothing more than a rude and dismissive adolescent in the eyes of her granduncle, Maurice sees promise in the young girl when he begins to educate her on London culture, becoming romantically interested along the way. Aside from having one of the creepiest movie posters of the past decade, “Venus” is actually an interesting film, but it lacks the snap, crackle and pop that you’d expect from one with such a disturbing premise. Then again, it wasn’t exactly the Year of the Creepy Old Man, now was it? With both O’Toole and Jackie Earle Haley losing out in their respective Oscar races, the Academy voters remained consistent in their habit of nominating tragically flawed characters but never actually awarding them the golden statue. And while the audience for such a film can certainly be described as niche, “Venus” remains one of the more original movies of 2006.
Wallace & Gromit: Three Amazing Adcentures
Aardman has been rather shameless in its attempts to reissue, repackage, repackage its product (as the Smiths’ song goes). By our count, this is the third time Aardman’s Oscar-winning short films, featuring bird-brained inventor Wallace and his trusty dog Gromit, have been released (most recently in 2005 to coincide with the release of the full-length film “Wallace & Gromit in: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit”), but it is difficult to argue with the quality of the product. These films are fantastic, though the debut feature “A Grand Day Out” is pretty rough to watch today. The big sell for the latest installment, though, is the addition of two films starring Shaun the Sheep, which are arguably the funniest bits on the entire set. If you have yet to add Wallace & Gromit to your video library, this is a must-own.
Jet Li and Jason Statham may be a match made in Action Movie Heaven, but the filmmakers forgot one essential ingredient for the recipe to work: a focused plot. Yes, “War” does have something resembling a story – something about an FBI agent (Statham) hunting down the rogue assassin (Li) who killed his partner – but it’s not so much about the former as it is about Li’s character plotting a gang war between the Yakuza and the Triads. There’s not a whole lot of reasoning as to why Li’s assassin is doing this, but the director attempts an explanation by force-feeding the audience an 11th hour twist that ends as abruptly as it was created. It’s a damn shame to waste two very charismatic leads in roles that require very little of them (Li, for instance, just stands around looking menacing for two-thirds of the film), but I was willing to overlook that as long as we got to see the two fight in the end. We do, but not quite in the capacity that you would have hoped. It’s just one of many issues plaguing “War,” but it’s the one that matters the most. This movie has direct-to-video written all over it, and were it not for the fact that Li’s and Statham’s names and faces were plastered on the front of the poster, that’s most likely where it would have ended up.
No, this is not a prequel to the classic cult film (though a remake is underway), nor is it a review for the Korean epic of the same name. The “Warrior” in question is actually the Anthony Minghella-produced Hindi film that the U.K. surprisingly used as their official selection for the 2006 Academy Awards. The film didn’t win, however (getting beat out by African favorite “Tsotsi”), which is probably why this is the first time most people are even hearing about it. The story - about an ancient warrior searching for redemption after years of service to a brutal Indian warlord - is about as straightforward as one would anticipate, but it just doesn’t hold your interest for the length of the film. “The Warrior” does feature some pretty striking visuals, spanning from golden deserts to the snow-capped Himalayas, but it’s simply not enough to impress. Riding in on the coattails of such foreign commercial successes as “Hero,” Miramax also promises “exciting samurai-style action sequences,” but the warrior’s blade is as dull as the film.
The Wendell Baker Story
One of very few indie films actually worth seeing this year, “The Wendell Baker Story” puts a new twist on the coming-of-age tale with a title character that may sound bad on paper, but is actually a hero in disguise. Luke Wilson plays loveable loser Wendell Baker, a con artist whose latest scam (an illegal driver’s license business run out of a trailer) lands him in prison. Making the most of his time while locked away, Wendell secures a job at the Shady Grove retirement home upon release, but it’s far from the caring community it appears to be. Head nurse Neil King (Owen Wilson) is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and when Wendell catches wind that he’s being set up as the fall guy for an elaborate moneymaking scheme, Wendell joins up with the home’s colorful residents (including Seymour Cassel, Harry Dean Stanton and Kris Kristofferson) to battle for control of Shady Grove. It’s no secret how a movie like “The Wendell Baker Story” gets greenlit. The film is a Wilson brothers’ affair (Luke wrote, co-directed and stars as the title character, Owen co-stars opposite his younger brother, and little-seen elder Wilson, Andrew, splits the directing duties), and when your family is made up Hollywood stars, well, it’s a lot easier to convince a studio to invest in a project. Of course, it also helps when the script isn’t bad, either, and though many people will never see the film, let alone hear about it, fans of Luke and Owen can rest assured that it ranks as yet another must-see black comedy in the siblings’ blooming repertoire.
White Noise 2
While the first “White Noise” flick could have and should have been interesting, due to its central subject of electronic voice phenomena (EVP) and the star power of Michael Keaton, the end result was pretty lame. So here is “White Noise 2” which has b-grade star power (Nathan Fillion and Katee Sackhoff) and even less to do with EVP. This time around, it’s all about the tired idea of having the power to ascertain when someone is about to die, and how changing the natural order of events can wreak its own special brand of havoc. Not particularly creepy yet 100 percent done before, “White Noise 2” is your typical straight-to-video sequel that fails to make any real mark. Perhaps one of these days someone will make an honest flick based around EVP that doesn’t waste its time with typical Hollywood detours and generic horror movie clichés. Until then, people interested in the phenomenon will have to keep waiting, as movies like this miss the mark by a mile.
Who is Henry Jaglom?
One answer to the above question is, “a much more interesting film subject than filmmaker.” Still, attention must be paid, Henry Jaglom has been making independent films since a time when about the only other person doing non-genre indie films was his fellow actor, John Cassavettes. And, whatever I might think, he has certainly earned more than his share of important friends and fans, including ultimate maverick actor-director Orson Welles (who was such a close friend that he described their friendship by saying that he and Jaglom were “girlfriends”). This entertaining 52-minute mini-feature largely ignores Jaglom the filmmaker to concentrate on Jaglom the personality. Our initial impression is of a larger than life, ultra-neurotic master of emotional confrontation, which he seems to see as a crucial aspect of both his life and his art. Later, a more unpleasant picture emerges: Jaglom is shown resorting to tantrums and bullying when his supposedly freeform style of filmmaking fails to produce the results he wants, even though he claims to want no particular result. An additional half-hour DVD-extra interview allows Jaglom, circa 2008, to rebut the scenes he feels are unfair — but his very correct criticism of the documentary is that it doesn’t deal enough with his approach to making films. Which is not to say Jaglom doesn’t endorse the film. In fact, he gives it away frequently, especially to prospective actors so they have an idea what they’re in for. Even including the interview, the documentary leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Like just how Jaglom works or how he got started in the business as a young hippie or, more frustratingly for me, how he managed to afford being a regular at L.A.’s finest restaurants, while his only job is making films that hardly anyone sees?
Who Made the Potatoe Salad?
Lord knows you want to see former child stars successfully transition into legitimate actors once they reach adulthood, but, even so, it’s hard to call this vehicle for Jaleel White (Urkel from “Family Matters”), written and directed by the creator of “My Baby’s Daddy,” anything other than an attempt at being “The Black ‘Meet the Parents.’” And, no, that’s not a racist statement. If that wasn’t Damon “Coke" Daniels’ intent, then he’s probably as pissed as anyone about the back of the DVD box, which is emblazoned with the words “Get Ready To MEET THE PARENTS In A Hilarious New Comedy!” “Hilarious” is definitely an overstatement, but there are a few funny moments in “Who Made the Potatoe Salad?” Fortunately for White, he’s responsible for most of them; he gets to play the straight man for a change, and his reactions are sometimes priceless. Unfortunately, the stuff he’s reacting to is, for the most part, pretty ridiculous. White plays a cop who arrives at his fiancé’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, only to find out that her dad’s a Black Panther, her brother’s a thug, and her grandparents, despite their age, remain decidedly amorous. Slapstick silliness, racial epithets, and obscenities abound. Laughs, however, do not.
Wild Style: 25th Anniversary Edition
This will certainly be considered heresy by old-school hip-hop aficionados, but in terms of filmmaking, “Wild Style” is a mess. It is the first film to document the burgeoning New York rap scene, which makes it an important movie, to be sure. However, that important movie is littered with bad acting, bad dialogue, and the sorriest excuse for a plot that you will ever find. As an historical document, though, it’s fascinating. We see the origins of about a dozen Beastie Boys songs in the raps performed throughout the movie, and the scene with two rap groups having a war of…words? Ah, such innocent times, and the movie could have used many more moments just like it. This 25th anniversary edition comes with a bunch of lo-fi extras, including reunion concerts from 2002 and 2007 and a series of new interviews with Fab 5 Freddy, director Charlie Ahearn, graffiti artist Lee Quinones and Chief Rocker Busy Bee. Props to Ahearn for getting the word out on hip-hop, but “Wild Style” is remembered far more fondly than it perhaps deserves to be.
This film, a favorite of Vincent Price fans, is finally available in its pure director’s cut form. This usually doesn’t mean a lot in most instances, where the term “director’s cut” is splashed onto a DVD, but in this case it certainly does. When the film was originally released in the U.S. in 1968, it was retitled “The Conqueror Worm” as an Edgar Allan Poe tie-in, even though the two were unrelated in every way. In some versions of the film, gratuitous topless scenes were added here and there against the director’s wishes. All of this is now gone, with the correct title restored. The film helped break Vincent Price from his previously campy mold and portrayed him as a cold and vicious character through and through. Disturbing violence and an unsettling ending with no compromises make it all one hell of a roller coaster ride from the late ‘60s that far outlasts many of the other flicks released in the horror genre at the time. If you’re a Vincent Price fan and haven’t seen this one, do so. If you’re a horror buff in general, this is also a nasty little movie that will get under your skin in all the good/bad ways.
Any child of the ‘80s should be familiar with the term “guilty pleasure,” because while many of our childhood films bring back fond memories of growing up in the cheesiest decade of the last hundred years, none of them were actually any good. And in the case of “The Wizard,” it couldn’t ring any truer. The 1989 Fred Savage vehicle pays far more attention to shamelessly promoting Nintendo and Universal Studios than it does with the actual story about two runaway brothers (Savage and Luke Edwards) who hitchhike their way to California to compete in the ultimate video game championship. Throw in a rocking soundtrack highlighted by The New Kids on the Block’s “Hangin’ Tough,” a kiddy casino sequence that has little girls dressed like cocktail waitresses selling candy, and tacky dialogue like “I love the Power Glove; it’s so bad,” and you’ve got a contender for one of the worst films of the decade. Of course, that’s what makes a guilty pleasure so enjoyable to watch, because while the “Rain Man”-meets-“Tommy” concept won’t win any awards for originality, it’s the cool video game nostalgia that really hits the spot. And if that’s not enough to convince you that it’s from the ‘80s, you needn’t look any further than the uninspired casting of Christian Slater as Savage’s older brother.
After falling head-over-heels for the crossword-inspired dorkumentary, “Wordplay,” and then spending a couple hours researching the subject, it became evident that the nerd underground is a lot larger than I initially thought. “Word Wars” is one such instance, following four premiere Scrabble players (all nationally ranked in the top 50) on their way to the 2002 National Championship in San Diego, CA. Unfortunately, where “Wordplay” delivered a suspenseful narrative with likeable characters, “Word Wars” fails completely. Not only is the film a complete bore for most of its 80 minutes, but all four of the subjects are complete assholes, including #1 ranked Joe Edley, “GI” Joel Sherman (who is a disgusting slob), Marlon Hill (another slob, who is also a poor mooch) and Matt Graham (not a slob, but still poor). Along their journey, the three non-champions whine about how the tournaments don’t offer enough money, while Edley’s egoistical nature is, quite frankly, a complete joke. Fortunately, Edley sucks it real bad at the national tournament, and you can’t help but smile because the jerk finally lost. Other “highlights” include listening to Marlon talk about smoking weed and watching him “pick up” a girl in Tijuana, watching the vast amounts of “brain enhancers” that Matt takes throughout the day, and the disgusting throwing-up sounds that you constantly hear from Joel (who has acid reflux) in the background. This is amateurish filmmaking at its best, and there’s probably a good reason that this was never given a theatrical release.
The last time we heard from director James Gray was way back in 2000 with this mediocre crime thriller starring Hollywood A-listers Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix and Charlize Theron. Their performances here aren’t nearly as powerful as some of their latest work (“Aeon Flux” aside), but it was pretty evident that all three actors were on the edge of breaking out as “The Yards” was just being released. James Caan is typecast as a veteran mobster, while both Faye Dunaway and Ellen Burstyn are both burdened with motherly roles that could have easily been played by less-able actresses; and that’s meant as a compliment to their talent. It’s curious that Gray was able to get such a strong ensemble cast for a rather lackluster script. It’s not that the story isn’t good; it’s just that we’ve seen it countless times before and “The Yards” fails to bring anything new in to the mix.
Year of the Dog
It seems like Molly Shannon has been trying to break into the movie business for quite some time now. In fact, her first major film role dates all the back to her junior year on “SNL.” While the actress continues to get better with each role she takes on, her performance in Mike White’s “Year of the Dog” is still a long way away from making a name for herself. In the film, Shannon stars as Peggy, an avid dog lover who experiences an emotional breakdown when her own pup dies one night. What seems like a tragedy quickly turns into an opportunity, though, when she meets a possible lifemate in animal activist Newt. (Peter Sarsgaard). Unfortunately, instead of the quirky romantic comedy that the previews promised it would be, “Year of the Dog” takes an issue like dealing with the loss of a pet and turns it into a silly obsession. This is all-too-familiar territory for writer/director Mike White (who previously tackled a similar theme in the indie “Chuck & Buck”), and while supporting turns by Laura Dern and Josh Pais help to keep things interesting, “Year of the Dog” is far from Best in Show.
Yo-Yo Girl Cop
Kenta Fukasaku has inherited quite the fetish from his late father: blowing up innocent teenage girls. One would think he had gotten it out of his system after taking over the directing duties on “Battle Royale 2.” And yet, he simply can’t help himself from making his latest film, “Yo-Yo Girl Cop,” all about schoolgirls with bombs strapped to them. Based on the “Sukeban Deka” manga -- about a teenage special agent who fights crime using a steel yo-yo -- Fukasaku’s adaptation places the child’s toy in the hands of a new heir to the title: Saki Asamiya, daughter of the original Sukeban Deka. Called to action when a group of suicide-happy hackers unveils an apocalyptic plot to destroy the entire city, Saki soon uncovers that the terrorists are really just a bunch of teenagers in disguise. While it’s certainly a ridiculous premise to make a movie about, “Yo-Yo Girl Cop” is classic Japanese fare at its strangest. Unfortunately, while the back of the DVD exclaims “intense non-stop action,” there’s very little to be found. In fact, with the exception of the big finale (which includes a girl-on-girl fight with both women decked out in leather get-ups), it’s far from the guilty pleasure I was hoping for.
You Kill Me
Save for his Oscar-nominated performance in “House of Sand and Fog,” Sir Ben Kingsley hasn’t made a movie worth watching in seven years (2000’s “Sexy Beast”), but with John Dahl’s black comedy, “You Kill Me,” the veteran actor returns with a role actually worth being remembered for. Kingsley stars as Frank Falenczyk, a hitman for the Buffalo-based Polish mob with a bit of a drinking problem. When he fails to kill Irish mob boss Edward O’Leary (Dennis Farina) one night while passed out in his car, Frank is sent to San Francisco to sober up. Assigned a babysitter in real estate agent Dave (Bill Pullman), Frank is forced to attend AA meetings and work at the local funeral home until he’s able to kick the habit. Traipsing through the film wearing a black suit and skullcap, Kingsley is quick to jump back into the role of the fast-talking badass, but unlike the foul-mouthed Don Logan, Frank is a killer with a soul. The story – while sharing the same basic criminal elements of “Sexy Beast” – is also told in a very comedic way, and this is what ultimately makes “You Kill Me” such a fun romp to watch. Dahl isn’t necessarily reinventing the wheel with the action comedy (which is also incredibly light on the action), but he does deliver a movie that most moviegoers will enjoy.