Friday, December 31, 2004

Hello Goodbye

2004 is almost over, 2005 is almost here. I'm up to my eyes in writing and listmaking, so I don't have much to say other than thanks for reading this past year. There should be no shortage of posts over the next two weeks, and I'm kicking around a few ideas regarding how to improve the blog. Have a safe New Year's Eve, and I'll see you on the other side of 2005.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Holiday ramblings

Behind the wheel on a wintry I-70 (December 24, 2004/Mark Pfeiffer)

As it is for many, the time between Christmas and New Year's is a busy one for me. I'll be spending 2004's final days keeping stats for eight basketball games played over today and tomorrow, finishing (rather, starting and finishing) a piece for the next issue of The Film Journal, and summarizing my Film Journal and Central Ohio Film Critics Association ballots. On top of that there are some other things I'd like to get done, but then again, I intended to take another crack at reading MOBY-DICK during the downtime over Christmas, and I never opened the book.

I've posted a photo of what road conditions on I-70 were like around the Dayton area two days after the record snowfall. All the grime on my windshield helps make this my homage to THE BROWN BUNNY. What is typically a two hour drive turned into a three and a half hour ordeal with plenty of nervewracking moments. It'd be clear sailing at the speed limit for a stretch until becoming bumpy, icy terrain that demanded slow speeds. Several times I felt like the car would spin out if it weren't wobbling equally in both directions. And there's nothing like having a semi bearing down on you with nowhere to go in those conditions.

I've been tracking down Charles Burnett's films after seeing his powerful NIGHTJOHN at the Wexner Center's Children's Film Festival earlier this month. NIGHTJOHN was made for The Disney Channel, but it's subtler and more artful than you'd think. Of the three films that I've managed to see--a poor sampling since two of the three are TV movies, with THE GLASS SHIELD being the lone theatrical feature in the trio--NIGHTJOHN is definitely his best. After returning home on the 23rd from a failed attempt to drive to my parents--they called to tell me I-70 was closed--I watched THE WEDDING, his Oprah TV movie that I had on my DVR. Halle Berry stars. The film also features Lynn Whitfield and ALIAS' Carl Lumbly, who played the title character in NIGHTJOHN. Patricia Clarkson and Marianne Jean-Baptiste have small parts, so the cast is fairly impressive for a television melodrama. The film peels back the history of a wealthy black family on Martha's Vineyard in the 1950s as the wedding of the youngest daughter approaches. The bride-to-be's groom and great-grandmother are white. The family's history, interracial and otherwise, is complicated and all about keeping up appearances. THE WEDDING provides a different view of African-Americans at this point in history, something which probably attracted Burnett, but the script is a soppy mess.

Jhumpa Lahiri's INTERPRETER OF MALADIES and THE NAMESAKE are two of the best books I've read this year. I read in the latest issue of Cineaste that Mira Nair will be directing a film version of THE NAMESAKE. She should be the right director, and the film jumps onto my list of the most anticipated in 2006. This bit, from Karin Luisa Badt's introduction to the interview, causes a little concern, though:
"This should be closer to a film produced on her own terms. A bicultural story about a young Tamil woman caught in a communal conflict, it promises to let Nair delve into what she excels at: thoughtful and esthetic examinations of the human striving to belong (particularly that of women), told in a style at once compelling and gentle."
While THE NAMESAKE focuses on the young woman in the beginning, the story is about her son, the titular namesake. I'm hoping that Badt misunderstood instead of Nair completely changing the film's focus, a possibility that this comment implies.

Two more items for today... It's increasingly rare that I see films in multiplexes outside of press and promotional screenings. While I'm aware of the "pre-show entertainment", the euphemism for advertising before the trailers, I didn't realize how out of control it's getting. Seeing BLADE: TRINITY at a Cinemark theater was a real eye opener. 25 minutes from the start time, at least ten of them advertisements, the film began. That's totally unacceptable. It was one of the deciding factors in choosing to see the crummy horror pic DARKNESS last night at AMC Easton rather than Movies 16 in Gahanna. (Movies 16's quoted running time for the film led me to believe there were 27 minutes of pre-movie content.) The AMC theaters in Columbus have switched to digital projection for the now-animated slides and videos that play before the movie. They still had the "pre-show entertainment", but to their credit, it began before and ended at the advertised start time. Sure, there were still ten minutes of trailers to watch, but I don't think most people, such as the Captive Motion Picture Audience of America, are vexed by trailers.

As for DARKNESS, it lacks any connective tissue or reasonable amount of sense, even for a genre movie. It may be the first film I've seen where, rather than saving one for DVD release, the ending and what seems like an alternate ending are contradictory. This is prime evidence for losing a film in the editing room.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

It takes The Village Voice

The 6th annual Village Voice film critic's poll turns up an interesting crop of winners and nominees. With SIDEWAYS winning practically every other critics group's prizes, these poll results provide a nice contrast.

BEFORE SUNSET won Best Film, so naturally Richard Linklater landed atop the Best Director category. The winner of Best Performance played the film's title character, but it wasn't Jamie Foxx for RAY. (He placed 14th in the poll.) Imelda Staunton won for Mike Leigh's VERA DRAKE. Best Supporting Performance went to Mark Wahlberg in I ♥ HUCKABEES. (SIDEWAYS' Virginia Madsen and Thomas Haden Church were a close #2 and #3.)

Charlie Kaufman won Best Screenplay for ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. PRIMER was named Best First Film. Best Documentary went to LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF. Christopher Doyle won for Hero. CAFE LUMIERE was tabbed as the Best Undistributed Film.

I enjoyed seeing that Leslie Camhi and James Quandt cast votes for the Weeping Camel and Baby Camel as Best Supporting Performer in THE STORY OF THE WEEPING CAMEL, not that I thought the camels were worthy shortlist candidates but because, well, they voted for a camels.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004


SPANGLISH (James L. Brooks, 2004)

SPANGLISH features Paz Vega as Flor Moreno, a Mexican immigrant who comes to Los Angeles hoping for a better life for her daughter. For her first several years in the United States Flor rarely ventures outside the comfort of the Spanish-speaking community where she lives. When she accepts a housekeeping job for the Clasky family, Flor gets a crash course in the dysfunctional lives of the upper class. Teá Leoni and Adam Sandler star as high-strung Deborah Clasky and mild-mannered star chef John Clasky.

James L. Brooks’ forte as a writer-director is locating the comedy and humanity in his characters’ foibles. With SPANGLISH he misplaces that sensibility. Deborah is a self-absorbed, emasculating harpy who, on her best day, might charitably be described as thoroughly unpleasant. Blame Brooks and Leoni for this movie-wrecking character. Brooks wrote her as all hard edges. Whether Deborah is chiding Flor not to play fetch with the dog or bemoaning the state of her marriage, Leoni’s shrill performance is wince inducing. Brooks struggles to define SPANGLISH, garbling the storylines in an unfocused film that only skims the surface in its two hours plus running time. SPANGLISH plays like a rough cut in which the Clasky marriage and Flor’s relationship with her daughter fight for primacy. Neither storyline nor characters get developed satisfactorily, so the threads are stitched together like a poorly sewn quilt. As Deborah’s alcoholic jazz singer mother, Cloris Leachman gives the film much-needed comic relief, but in keeping with this ramshackle production, she appears and disappears without explanation.

Grade: C-

(Review first aired on the December 21, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Flight of the Phoenix

FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (John Moore, 2004)

In FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX a transport plane crashes in the Gobi Desert. Pilot Frank Towns, played by Dennis Quaid, doesn’t expect imminent rescue. During the storm the plane’s communications were severed, and they went off course to the point where he doesn’t know if they’re in Mongolia or China. Giovanni Ribisi is the mysterious passenger Elliott, an aircraft designer who believes he and the oil drillers onboard can fashion another plane from the wrecked remains.

Growing up I remember how my dad would identify some stupid action film we’d run across flipping through channels. He’d usually say, “What crazy movie is this?” The description wasn’t complimentary, but we’d end up watching for a while anyway. I know he’d say the same thing if he ever comes across FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX on cable some time. This is a monumentally dumb film populated with characters that behave in the most self-sabotaging ways possible. It is not in the film’s favor that the TV series LOST provides a smarter approach to the stranded survivor story. Both put the characters in compelling situations. LOST uses it for a character study that’s among the most surprising and insightful on television. FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX ignores the human drama to focus on cockamamie setbacks that are harder to swallow than the plane’s motor oil. I laughed a lot during FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, which would be fine if this was a comedy. What a hoot this film is. Ribisi is hilarious as the plane designer, who’s more an adenoidal Aryan robot than a person. I enjoyed this remake of Robert Aldrich’s 1965 film for all the wrong reasons, so maybe that’s a validation of some sort.

Grade: D+

(Review first aired on the December 21, 2004 NOW PLAYING

Meet the Fockers

MEET THE FOCKERS (Jay Roach, 2004)

As Greg Focker, Ben Stiller invites his fiancé’s parents to MEET THE FOCKERS. The sequel to MEET THE PARENTS again finds Greg fretting about the impression he’s making on Robert De Niro as stern future father-in-law Jack Byrnes. This time Greg worries how his free-spirited folks, played by Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand, will behave around the rigid Jack.

MEET THE PARENTS tapped the humor found in the anxiety of seeing one’s in-laws for the first time. That’s only half the battle, though. Hoping one’s own family isn’t the source of embarrassment can be just as stressful. Both films’ strength derives from the interplay between son-in-law and father-in-law. Greg’s intense desire to please and Jack’s determination to torment him make ripe comedy. Despite his best efforts Greg continues to put his foot in his mouth and walk on eggshells around Jack. When Jack asks Greg to throw a brick at his tank of an RV to prove its impenetrability, the outcome cements Jack’s seeming infallibility and Greg’s incompetence. Stiller and De Niro have mastered the slow burn and use it to good effect here. De Niro excels as the emotionally constipated Jack, scrunching up his face and tightening his posture at the latest perceived indignity.

MEET THE FOCKERS is mildly amusing on a relatively consistent basis, but joke repetition and a greater emphasis on outrageousness and vulgarity release a strong scent of the writers’ desperation. Greg’s birth name Gaylord is flogged for laughs long after it remains to be funny, and several scenes remind us of their better variations in MEET THE PARENTS. The unrelenting sex talk and forced absurdity, like the remnants of Greg’s bris ending up in the fondue pot, feel out of place in this film. MEET THE FOCKERS has its moments but plays like a less funny version of the original.

Grade: C+

(Review first aired on the December 21, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Blade: Trinity

BLADE: TRINITY (David S. Goyer, 2004)

Wesley Snipes hunts vampires for the third time in BLADE: TRINITY. As if it isn’t enough having bloodsuckers perpetually chase you and keeping in check your own vampiric urges, now Blade has the FBI pursuing him. Blade’s nemeses set him up for the murder of a human as a means of beginning their endgame. The vampires have found the original Dracula. Some convoluted mythology explains how he can pave the way for them to walk during the day. Assisting Blade in the fight are the Nightstalkers, led by Whistler’s daughter Abigail, played by Jessica Biel.

Guillermo del Toro’s BLADE 2 improved upon the original. He blended the right mix of comic book action and horror while advancing the BLADE mythology. David S. Goyer, who has written all three films in the series, takes over the director’s reins for BLADE: TRINITY and undoes everything that del Toro accomplished. This visually flat, dramatically incoherent film puts a stake through the heart of the series. In one of the odder developments, Blade becomes an afterthought in his own film. He may not be about much more than his warrior skills and the push/pull of his mixed physiology, but compared to the one-liner machines that are the Nightstalkers, he’s a fully realized character. BLADE: TRINITY devotes an inordinate amount of time to the Nightstalkers and their wisecracking ways. Goyer must have wanted to make a comedy. The jokes and dialogue sound like cut-rate Kevin Smith material. That’s most noticeable with Ryan Reynolds, as Nightstalker Hannibal King, and his note-for-note stealing of Jason Lee’s schtick. Rather than the salvation BLADE: TRINITY delivers the destruction of the comic book’s cinematic treatment.

Grade: D

(Review first aired on the December 21, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Monday, December 20, 2004

Happy Anniversary

This blog is officially one year old today. How time flies. My first post embodies my constant struggle when it comes to writing. Notice how I say that I don't plan on writing full-length reviews here then proceed to do just that. The writing ebbs and flows--obviously it was doing the latter that night a year ago--and I can never quite control it.

I have figured out how to best utilize this space, though. This format is ideal for publishing my NOW PLAYING reviews. While too many things go unwritten, are left half-formed in my head, or are mostly finished in a notebook without getting tacked up here, at least I know that I have a good place for all those thoughts to be stored if I'd just get my lazy behind in action. I promise to be better, but please don't hold me to it.

One recent change you may have noticed is that the archives are now broken down by month rather than week. I don't think I've been so productive that finding things should be too difficult this way. (There's always that search bar at the top of the page too.)

A quick impression... Tonight I saw Joel Schumacher's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. I've never seen Andrew Lloyd Webber's play and don't remember seeing any of the previous film versions. (I have dim memories of seeing something similar to this as a kid--parts of it seem familiar--but essentially I'm tabula rasa regarding PHANTOM.) Some early moments, with the candles, lace, and prog-like music adorned with synthesized hand claps, play like an 80s music video, preferably for some goth pop act. As expected the production design is opulent, and Schumacher's broad strokes practically define bombast. I don't view these things as bad, especially for a story that's not concerned with subtlety. The concluding stage scene and its aftermath provide a rousing conclusion, swelling the emotions in ways the rest of the film doesn't. Characterization is given short shrift, but the archetypal BEAUTY AND THE BEAST arrangement is all the story requires. Emmy Rossum sings like an angel. The film smells of Oscars--the Academy would have gone gonzo over this in the mid-60s--and it should get a few nominations, more if it connects with audiences.

And with that done I need to procrastinate writing for tomorrow's show.

Roger Ebert's Best and Worst of 2004

It seems like every year critics reveal their best and worst lists earlier than the year before. Since all things Oscar drive everything movie-related after Thanksgiving, the award program's move to a February date appears to have pushed up list publishing. (It's certainly affected when the critics groups, including the Central Ohio Film Critics Association, decide their annual winners.)

Roger Ebert's picks for the year's best and worst films are now out there for all to see. If you've followed his writing, none of the films making his Top 10 will come as a surprise.
1. Million Dollar Baby
2. Kill Bill Vol. 2
3. Vera Drake
4. Spider-Man 2
5. Moolaadé
6. The Aviator
7. Baadassss!
8. Sideways
9. Hotel Rwanda
10. Undertow

My Top 10 will likely include KILL BILL VOL. 2 and THE AVIATOR. SPIDER-MAN 2 currently resides there but may get bumped in favor of a film I've yet to see. (Of Ebert's favorites, I haven't seen MILLION DOLLAR BABY, MOOLAADE, HOTEL RWANDA, or UNDERTOW, none of which I'll see before December 31 when my COFCA ballot is due. I expect to see MILLION DOLLAR BABY and HOTEL RWANDA before I make my "final" Top 10 for NOW PLAYING.)

Where Ebert and I part ways, though, is in regard to his worsts of the year:
1. (tie) Troy
1. (tie) Alexander
2. Christmas With the Kranks
3. The Girl Next Door
4. Dogville
5. New York Minute
6. The Grudge
7. White Chicks
8. Resident Evil: Apocalypse
9. The Whole Ten Yards
10. The Village

I gave positive reviews to five of these eleven films (TROY, DOGVILLE, THE GRUDGE, RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE, and THE VILLAGE. (I'll freely admit that giving a pass to RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE is the most suspect according to the critical mass. As for THE VILLAGE, I'm still amazed that my position on the film is contrarian.) Two are in my Top 10--DOGVILLE and THE VILLAGE--with the von Trier film the current claimant for the top spot.

What I don't understand is how TROY, ALEXANDER, and DOGVILLE, films which received two star reviews from Ebert, ended up on his worst list. Ebert gave one star to the following films, yet none earned a spot among the worst:
Anatomy of Hell
A Cinderella Story
A Dirty Shame
Raise Your Voice
Team America: World Police

To be sure, quantifying film quality according to stars, grades, or any other scale is fluid rather than concrete. Maybe in retrospect Wolfgang Petersen, Oliver Stone, and Lars von Trier's films seem worse to him than those listed above, or perhaps it's a matter of artistic aspiration. These one star films consist mostly of studio hack work. TROY, ALEXANDER, and DOGVILLE shoot for greatness, so they fall harder when, in Ebert's estimation, they don't succeed.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

There's no late fee except for the late fee

In the comments to yesterday's entry about Netflix, Levi directed me to to this story about Blockbuster's elimination of late fees. Tell me if something doesn't sound wrong with this:
DALLAS-- Blockbuster Inc., the nation's biggest movie rental company, says it will eliminate late fees on games and movies as of Jan. 1-- but if you keep them too long, you buy them.

Blockbuster announced Tuesday it will continue to set due dates, with one week for games and two days or one week for movies, but will give customers a one-week grace period at no additional charge, beginning New Year's Day.

"Doing away with late fees is the biggest and most important customer benefit we've ever offered in our company's history," John Antioco, Blockbuster Inc. chairman and chief executive, said in a prepared statement. "So as of the first of the year, if our customers need an extra day or two with their movies and games, they can take it."

However, renters who keep the movies or games past the grace period will automatically be charged for purchasing the DVD or tape, minus the rental fee, Blockbuster said.

Customers will still be allowed to return the movie or game over the next 30 days for a refund of the purchase price, but will be charged a "minimal" restocking fee, the company said.

If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck...

Sounds to me like a longer rental window, not an elimination of late fees. After all, what is a "'minimal' restocking fee" but a late charge under a different name?

Blockbuster executives must know that they're fighting for their company's survival at this point. The first major hit they took was DVDs being priced for sell-through rather than rental. I can't imagine that this so-called elimination of late fees is going to fool anybody. For example, I've had HEAVEN'S GATE from Netflix for about two months. (I've made abortive attempts to watch it but start getting drowsy early into its epic running time.) Under this new Blockbuster policy, I'd have already purchased it. If I did return it, I'd still end up paying an additional fee. This is better for the consumer how?

There is a way to beat Netflix at its own game, or at least improve upon it. Offering a "like it, buy it" program is one area where a theoretical DVD rental business could get a leg up on the competition. Netflix isn't set up for sales whereas Amazon already stocks DVDs for purchase. It wouldn't be hard for them to offer subscribers a discount on the purchase of a DVD they've rented. I want to say that Netflix offered something like this back in their early days--when you rented on a title-by-title basis rather than subscribing to a monthly plan--but maybe it was an idea that was floated to their customers instead of a reality.

Speedy delivery

The following is not a paid endorsement, but I'd be more than happy to take any money they'd like to throw my way.

Unless you want to rent DVDS that are out of print/non-region 1/very obscure, Columbus residents have no reason whatsoever to continue going to the video store. A couple weeks ago I mentioned my satisfaction with Netflix. Since then Netflix has made an improvement that can't be beat: two day turnaround time. It now takes one day for my returned DVD to get to the company and another day for me to get the next DVD in my queue. Yesterday Netflix received THE GLASS SHIELD from me and sent out Howard Hughes' HELL'S ANGELS, which arrived in my mailbox today. This is happening during the holidays, which traditionally produces the most volume at the post office.

The new Dayton hub is likely the reason for the quick turnaround. Who knows why Columbus doesn't have a distribution center, but if Dayton can handle DVD returns this quickly, it wouldn't make any difference. Two day turnaround--return a DVD Wednesday, have a replacement Friday--is the kind of magic number that will keep the company competitive as other big guns enter the fray. (There have been rumors that Amazon is going to roll out a DVD rental program. The company's infrastructure, with distribution centers across the country, should make them a prime player if they choose to challenge Netflix.)

OK, Netflix doesn't make sense for those people who don't rent much or those content to utilize free library checkouts; however, if you rent a lot, Netflix's turnaround window has shrunk to the point where it can't be ignored.

Thursday, December 09, 2004


The day has arrived! Today brought sex and violence via KINSEY and BLADE: TRINITY, pushing my 2004 moviegoing total to three hundred different films seen theatrically. The milestone has been reached, with 22 days to spare even! I estimate that I'll see twelve more films this year, which suddenly seems like not that many.

Let's go to the movies

I'll save the big announcement for later tonight, primarily because there's nothing to announce yet. In the meantime, read Charles Taylor's excellent piece on the cinema as a national uniter. He also puts in good words for 13 GOING ON 30 and MR. 3000, two unassuming, good-natured comedies that deserved far more box office success than they received. (Let's just ignore his dig at SIDEWAYS.)

Wednesday, December 08, 2004


CLOSER (Mike Nichols, 2004)

CLOSER covers four years in the tangled affairs between two couples in London. Natalie Portman and Jude Law are Alice and Dan, who meet when she is struck by a car. Julia Roberts and Clive Owen play Anna and Larry, whose inadvertent meeting leads to a long-term relationship. Eventually Dan and Anna’s trysts come to light, which leads to interpersonal warfare that will scar all four.

While the four protagonists of CLOSER successfully engage in physical intimacy, they are incapable of making emotional connections. Director Mike Nichols’ film of Patrick Marber’s play keeps the characters distant when sharing the same space, whether it’s through a camera, an internet sex chat room, or a strip club’s private room. For these people, love means conquest and possession, with each person constantly evaluating their power over their partner. Nichols’ most lauded films, such as WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? and CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, scrutinize sexual politics with the same detachment found in CLOSER. The dialogue is often lacerating, as lovers wield words like lashes, striking out to get what they desire. None of the characters are sympathetic, but they’re always compelling to watch, much to the credit of these four actors. Portman gives the most textured performance. She uncovers layers of ferocity and vulnerability unseen in anything she’s done previously. Owen casually alternates between charm and menace with great skill. Roberts does some of her most subtle work. A well-directed, well-acted film, CLOSER'S characters bare their teeth and their souls.

Grade: B

(Review first aired on the December 7, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Enduring Love

ENDURING LOVE (Roger Michell, 2004)

In ENDURING LOVE a couple prepares to enjoy a picnic in a beautiful English field. Joe appears to be on the verge of proposing to Claire. Then the bucolic setting is disrupted when a hot air balloon, skimming the ground and drifting out of control, comes into view. Joe and two others rush to assist the man trying to keep the balloon earthbound. Three fail to hold onto a rope while one would-be rescuer hangs on too long and then plummets to his death. Joe feels guilty and believes he let go first. He wants to forget the incident, but Jed, a stranger who also tried to help, keeps approaching him with an alarming frequency. Jed believes the tragedy was meant to bring them together.

ENDURING LOVE’S title refers to something that must be survived rather than a lasting condition. Joe becomes painfully aware of love’s messy, unpredictable nature. Joe believes that love--and everything that could be summarized as “character”--is nothing more than biological reaction. Jed’s intense fixation on him, whether based in religious mania, romantic obsession, or a combination of the two, fails to be explained through such scientific rationale. In fact, the balloon incident challenges Joe’s worldview. Human actions and reactions can’t be readily quantified in and explained via mathematical equations. Director Roger Michell explores these headier themes through a thriller’s structure. As Joe, Daniel Craig gives a solid performance in the tradition of Hitchcock’s wrong men. Rhys Ifans grounds the unhinged Jed with a puppy dog’s demeanor, giving his zealous nature a frightening edge. ENDURING LOVE is often thrilling in its depiction of obsession’s destructive power.

Grade: B+

(Review first aired on the December 7, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Being Julia

BEING JULIA (István Szabó, 2004)

Annette Bening stars as a theatrical diva in BEING JULIA. The London stage of the 1930s is Julia’s world. Everyone else is blessed to occupy it or so she thinks. Tired of the daily grind, Julia asks her husband to close the theater for a period. She changes her mind about needing rest upon meeting Tom, a young American fan who fawns over her and attends to her carnal desires. When she learns that Tom has been using her to advance in the local scene, Julia puts on a performance to settle the score.

When the ingénue character invites Julia to see her perform, she mentions that her part is better than the play. That’s also an apt description of BEING JULIA. Bening sinks her teeth into a juicy role. She gets the best one-liners. The final scene, tailor-made for award shows, allows her to play to the rafters while vanquishing Julia’s competition and embarrassing her enemies. Bening comports herself with style, attitude, and intelligence. She gives Julia a larger than life personality, and it’s great fun to watch her take control of everyone. The film, though, lacks the vitality found in Julia. While much of BEING JULIA’S appeal stems from no one being as fabulous as she is, the lack of a worthy sparring partner diminishes the fun. In the middle section Julia takes a vacation to get away from it all. The character may have needed it, but the film can’t recover from these plodding scenes. BEING JULIA works best as an actress showcase than as an overall entertainment. Bening is worth seeing, but I’m not sold on the film.

Grade: C

(Review first aired on the December 7, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Christmas with the Kranks


What better way is there to get into a festive spirit than having it crammed down your throat? The holiday-skipping protagonists learn this in CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS. As Luther and Nora Krank, Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis are usually in a celebratory mood come late December; however, with their daughter planning to spend Christmas in Peru volunteering with the Peace Corps, the Kranks decide to bypass the holiday entirely and go on a cruise. Their refusal to participate in any seasonal customs enrages the neighbors and establishes a battleground outside the Kranks’ home.

The first half of CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS portrays a suburban nightmare, a world where the holidays equate with knee-jerk conformity and excess consumerism. This scenario presents a terrific opportunity for a satiric examination of enforced Christmas cheer and misplaced priorities, but director Joe Roth and screenwriter Chris Columbus end up siding with the fascist neighbors. The Kranks may be selfish and ungenerous, but that doesn’t put their bullying, self-righteous friends and acquaintances in the clear. The ugliness extends to the prefabricated “winter” setting, cinematography that reveals every wrinkle in the stars’ faces, and Curtis’ shrill performance. We’re told that it’s the thought that counts when given gifts. The same doesn’t apply to unwelcome holiday films. CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS is one of the year’s worst.

Grade: F

(Review first aired on the December 7, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

For those of you scoring at home

Fans of movie music and critics trying to determine the year's best film scores can currently listen to samples from twenty films at Movie City News. The streaming music has been hiccup-free in my listening, a surprise considering my prior experiences with Real Player. The music from THE INCREDIBLES (from ALIAS composer Michael Giacchino), THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES, SIDEWAYS, and THE TERMINAL sounds best to my ears. I liked the music in BIRTH a lot but wasn't as taken with the selection provided here.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

One for the road

"Kentucky's soft drink" delivery systems (Mark Pfeiffer/November 27, 2004)

In this day of national distribution for almost everything, it's always interesting to come across local or regional foodstuffs and beverages. Saturday I drove through central and southeastern Kentucky on the way to Abingdon, Virginia. At the gas station I saw the vending machines for the awkwardly named Ale-8-One (or "A Late One") and knew that I had to try it.

"A Late One", not a cold one (Mark Pfeiffer/November 28, 2004)

The bottle's label has a picture of G.L. Wainscott, the soft drink's creator, and this brief description of the beverage:
Our Uncle Lee was an eccentric old gentleman, but there's nothing odd about his creation ALE-8. This unique blend of fruit, ginger, and other secret stuff has been a Kentucky tradition since G.L. mixed up the first batch in 1926.

(Go here for more Ale-8-One history.)

It tastes different than other ginger ales, but I don't know how to describe it. (I drank it Sunday night, so I don't have any on hand to sample while I write this entry.) From a distance the bottle and the label might give the impression that one is tipping back another amber-colored beverage, a potential hazard if you're drinking one of these while driving. (A bottle opener is required too. There's no screwing off the cap.)

Apparently Ale-8-One isn't exclusive to Kentucky. Well, yes, Cincinnati has it too, but the distribution map shows that it is available in Dayton. Hmm, I might have to hunt down some more the next time I swing through there.

While I'm on the subject of soft drinks, I tried the new Pepsi Holiday Spice. To be honest, I didn't taste much holiday spice (whatever that is), but it might not have been cold enough to stand out. Subtle additional flavoring is probably a bonus, but the verdict is still out on this "limited edition" soft drink.

Monday, November 29, 2004

DVD rentals

I spent a few days with family for Thanksgiving and then drove to southwestern Virginia to announce a couple basketball games on the radio, so I'm trying to get back in the swing of things now that I've returned home. In retrospect, it probably is for the best that I will have gone eight days without seeing a film since being bludgeoned by Oliver Stone's boring monstrosity ALEXANDER.

In the meantime, I came across this Los Angeles Times article about Netflix entering into an agreement to distribute DVDs of Independent Spirit Awards nominees to the organization's members. Of more interest to me, though, was some surprising information regarding what Netflix subscribers rent:

Overall, Netflix controls only 8% to 9% of the DVD rental market. But the company accounts for one-third to one-half of all rentals of "indie" and low-budget movies. According to Sarandos, the Netflix executive, specialized films often outperform mainstream studio movies rented via the service.

For example, 1 in 4 Netflix subscribers have rented "The House of Sand and Fog," the critically acclaimed drama that made little at the box office. The New Zealand film "Whale Rider," whose young star Keisha Castle-Hughes earned an Oscar nomination but whose ticket sales totaled about $20 million, has been rented on Netflix more than either "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" or "The Hulk."

I've been a subscriber for almost a year and am pleased with the service. Turnaround time is fast enough--I can drop a DVD in the mail on Monday and get a replacement Friday--and the selection is much larger than any of the nearby chain rental stores provide. (I'm also glad Netflix recently dropped the monthly subscription rate.) My rentals are predominantly the indie/arthouse titles, foreign films, and classics, but my pattern is skewed because I see all of the blockbuster titles when they play in theaters.

Both of these films made my 2003 Top 10, so I'm surprised--and thrilled--that HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG and WHALE RIDER have found audiences that might not have had the opportunity to see these films at their local theaters. Neither film's release pattern would be a textbook example for Jonathan Rosenbaum to dissect if he were to update his book MOVIE WARS, but the theatrical gross versus home video rental performance of each would bolster his argument that more people would see smaller films if they were given better access to them.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

A Lightbulb Moment

Watching television tonight I had one of those realizations that caused a metaphorical lightbulb to click on over my head. No, I didn't come up with a plan for world peace or hit upon an idea that would make me fabulously wealthy. I figured out where I had previously seen KRAA! THE SEA MONSTER actress Candida Tolentino.

In my original version of the review I said:
Aspiring performers should note that while this up-and-coming actress rose from an entry-level role to parts considered worthy of Oscar nominations, a quick look at the rest of the cast reveals non-starter careers. (Candida Tolentino, who plays Lt. Able, looks very familiar from minor roles in recent films, but her Internet Movie Database filmography lists no other credits. Either I'm confusing her with someone else or she changed her name and didn't have this tracked back to her.)

As it turns out, that wasn't quite right. She's one of the contestants on the reality TV series THE REBEL BILLIONAIRE: BRANSON'S QUEST FOR THE BEST. On the show she's identified as Candida, the CEO of a raw foods company. THE REBEL BILLIONAIRE website also says that she is a vegan raw food chef and real estate investor. Somehow "cast member of KRAA! THE SEA MONSTER" didn't make the cut.

Of course, anyone who watches much reality television understands that many of the participants are actors or models. The ones who aren't probably hope to break into those fields. (Just look at the disproportionate number of these folk on the new season of THE AMAZING RACE.) Don't let "bartender", "barista", "hostess", or "waiter" fool you either. The producers can only tag so many competitors as actors or models without shattering the illusion that these are "regular" people. For instance, Chip McAllister, half of last season's winning AMAZING RACE team, was in HAMBURGER...THE MOTION PICTURE.

Don't misunderstand. I don't think any of this is a big cover-up; however, for all the hue and cry about how reality TV was taking jobs from actors (and writers), it appears that the genre has merely distributed gigs to those who failed or those who will.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason


Renée Zellweger returns as the neurotic British thirtysomething in BRIDGET JONES: THE EDGE OF REASON. Colin Firth and Hugh Grant also reprise their roles as her suitors. The sequel picks up shortly after the conclusion of BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY. Bridget and Mark Darcy are a happy couple, although her insecurity strains her confidence. She suspects that Mark may be doing more than taking business meetings with his pretty colleague Rebecca, played by THE REAL WORLD: LONDON alum Jacinda Barrett.

The thrill of pursuing one’s beloved drives most romantic comedies. It isn’t an accident that these films usually conclude when the lovers are brought together. Whether the characters are starting to date or getting married at film’s end, they’ve fulfilled their search, leaving them and the audience satisfied. BRIDGET JONES: THE EDGE OF REASON’S foray into her post-“happily ever after” life then faces the problem of what to do now that the heroine has what she wants. Unfortunately, the solution in the sequel is to contrive a silly break-up and bang out an over the top, ham-fisted replay of the original. Bridget Jones’ appeal is that she’s a regular woman with pluck who triumphs over common embarrassments and indignities. How then do you explain Bridget in a Thai women’s prison singing Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”, one of the worst scenes in any movie this year. BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY was a charming trifle. THE EDGE OF REASON is toxic swill. It’s one of the worst sequels to a good film.

Grade: D

(Review first aired on the November 23, 2004 NOW PLAYING)


SIDEWAYS (Alexander Payne, 2004)

English teacher and failed novelist Miles Raymond and his actor friend Jack take a week-long tour of California wine country in SIDEWAYS, the new film from director Alexander Payne. Paul Giamatti stars as the depressed and divorced Miles. Thomas Haden Church is the freewheeling Jack. He’s looking to blow off some steam before he gets married at the end of the week. If Jack can help Miles forget about his ex-wife, all the better. Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh play the women the guys meet.

Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor favor prickly characters. Miles joins Laura Dern’s pregnant patio sealant huffer in CITIZEN RUTH, Reese Witherspoon’s excessively ambitious student in ELECTION, and Jack Nicholson’s curmudgeon in ABOUT SCHMIDT. Payne and Taylor excel at getting underneath these tough exteriors and portray these people for what they are, warts and all. Payne’s fluid direction and the four principal actors’ sterling performances in SIDEWAYS bring out the characters’ humanity with humor and deep feeling. Giamatti is especially good as Miles, a wounded man aware of who he is but incapable of letting others see it. The comedy and drama of these rich characters’ lives make SIDEWAYS a film to be savored.

Grade: A-

(Review first aired on the November 23, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie


Life in tranquil Bikini Bottom will never be the same unless a sponge and a starfish can come to the rescue in THE SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE. The popular Nickelodeon cartoon features the squeaky-voiced fry cook SpongeBob and his best friend Patrick Star. In their first film SpongeBob and Patrick are called upon to find and return King Neptune’s crown so they can save SpongeBob’s boss Mr. Krabs. The stolen crown is part of Sheldon J. Plankton’s scheme to ruin Mr. Krabs’ business and become an undersea overlord.

At 90 minutes THE SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE can be a little much to endure, and it isn’t as clever as the filmmakers think. Still, SpongeBob’s resilient, Pollyana-like nature is hard to resist. The film possesses a generous spirit and successfully uses a go-for-broke strategy in telling jokes. A live action scene in a souvenir shop, SpongeBob and Patrick’s visit to a biker bar, and the songs are among the film’s best moments. These scenes showcase the writers’ strength in supreme silliness. At times THE SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE’S unconventional nature can seem too carefully calibrated, as if it’s trying too hard to be hip and goofy. The cartoon is so hyperactive that it is probably best suited for watching as a television series than ingesting it all at once as a feature film.

Grade: B-

(Review first aired on the November 23, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

After the Sunset

AFTER THE SUNSET (Brett Ratner, 2004)

In AFTER THE SUNSET Pierce Brosnan and Salma Hayek are Max and Lola, expert thieves who retire to the tropics after a final job in which they pilfer a diamond from the feds protecting it. Hoping to salvage his reputation, disgraced FBI agent Stan Lloyd, played by Woody Harrelson, tracks them down and tantalizes Max with information about a diamond being exhibited nearby on a cruise ship. Lola wants Max to focus on writing his marriage vows instead of stealing another rock, but the challenge facing him and the chance to embarrass Stan again may prove too great to ignore.

The Onion’s music writers compose an annual feature in which they pick each year’s least essential albums. They’re not selecting the worst, just those that are utterly unnecessary. If there were a least essential film list, AFTER THE SUNSET would be a lead candidate. I’ve seen at least fifty worse films this year but few as mediocre and inconsequential as Brett Ratner’s latest. AFTER THE SUNSET is completely derivative of Elmore Leonard’s books and the film adaptations of his work, like OUT OF SIGHT and THE BIG BOUNCE. The dialogue mimics the terseness without the snap or humor. Almost every word sounds recycled from another movie. The new stuff, such as a Tarantino-like riff on the music of The Mamas and the Papas, is pale imitation. Ratner keeps this breezy caper moving along, but his workmanlike direction lacks excitement. Apparently his biggest challenge was to find how many different ways he could shoot Hayek bending over in low cut tops. There are worse ways to spend ninety minutes than watching AFTER THE SUNSET, but there are many better things to do too.

Grade: C-

(Review first aired on the November 23, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Kraa! The Sea Monster

KRAA! THE SEA MONSTER (Michael Deak, Aaron Osborne, and Dave Parker, 1998)

Anyone who has seen the awful B-movies of yesteryear can attest that bad movies hold the potential of being great fun to watch. Why else would Ed Wood's body of work or the poorly executed genre pictures of fifty years ago still find viewers who laugh themselves silly at the chintzy effects work and wooden acting? Unlike the typical standard used to judge art--or popular entertainment if the "a" word seems too high-falutin'--formal ineptitude is essential to the enjoyment of these particular films. Ideally the makers intended to produce good films even if they were working in schlock. Most bad movies are ordinary. The "good" bad movies display that the makers were serious in the efforts. For example, the failed, self-conscious spoof THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA demonstrated that it's not funny when the filmmakers are in on the joke. The humor comes from conviction in incompetence.

I don't hold any illusions that KRAA! THE SEA MONSTER was made with the highest artistic intentions, but the makers of this low budget, straight-to-video GODZILLA-STAR TREK-MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS hybrid turned out a cheap knock-off without the winking acknowledgements, not as if that would have excused the movie's shoddiness.

Lord Doom (Michael Guerin, with the voice of Jerry Lentz) resides on the cold, dark planet Proyas. In an effort to acquire a home with a more temperate climate, he dispatches the two hundred foot tall monster Kraa to Earth. Once the planet wrecker for hire has wiped Earth clean of civilization, Lord Doom and his diminuitive minions will move in.

The Planet Patrol team

Earth's only hope is Planet Patrol, protectors of the cosmos with more than two thousand outposts in the universe. Station 1645's multicultural teenage crew discovers the problem and attempts to intervene, but cannons breach the station's hull and knock the systems out of commission before headquarters can be alerted.

The crew is able to contact reserve interstellar police officer Mogyar (voice of J.W. Perra), an Italian-accented, semi-aquatic creature that resembles a turtle if it just had a shell, a retracted head with a rotting flesh-like face, and hands. Mogyar doesn't have any weapons aboard his pyramid-shaped ship, but he has a plan to harness the power of some secret weapons in Naples. Unfortunately he mistakenly crash lands in New Jersey. A biker and a diner owner are willing to help Mogyar, but before you know it those pesky feds have detained them all. Meanwhile, Kraa continues his world-destroying rampage, and Planet Patrol works on repairing their station.

Without a doubt KRAA! THE SEA MONSTER is grade A crud. The inattention to detail extends to the typo-riddled credits. The story is so thin that it must have been written on tissue paper. The production values are mostly laughable, except for a daytime sequence with Kraa that turned out well compared to the city miniatures. The acting and dialogue is hokey, but how else could it be? These aren't seasoned performers reciting Shakespeare.

Released in 1998, Full Moon Pictures likely wanted KRAA! to leech off of Roland Emmerich's GODZILLA remake. (Kraa tears through an advertisement for the competition, if there was any question.) Strangely enough, with the guy in the rubber suit stomping on obvious miniatures, KRAA! is truer in spirit to the GODZILLA films than Emmerich's expensive boondoggle, not that KRAA! merits favorable comparison to those Japanese films.

Even without the shameless appropriations from GODZILLA, KRAA! is thoroughly derivative, borrowing from several sci-fi and fantasy sources. Lord Doom looks similar to Skeletor, behaves like Darth Vader, and opens the film with the line "revenge is best served cold," a mangling of a familiar Klingon aphorism. Planet Patrol is a generic blend of the STAR TREK crew and the Power Rangers. Their station resembles the Death Star. Director Alex Proyas' DARK CITY came out in 1998, which must have been all that was needed to name the dark planet after him.

So yes, KRAA! THE SEA MONSTER is a bad film that wouldn't deserve to darken a theater's screen or air beside bargain basement syndicated television programs. Yet it is eminently funnier,in that special "bad" way, and more watchable than CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS.

Alison Lohman as Planet Patrol member Curtis in Kraa! The Sea Monster

Normally I wouldn't waste my time watching something like KRAA! There are too many great films--or even mediocre ones--I haven't seen to make devoting an hour-plus to this junk worthwhile. Still, I was very curious to view KRAA! because it features the debut of Alison Lohman. She was outstanding in WHITE OLEANDER and MATCHSTICK MEN. I would go so far as to say that her performance in Ridley Scott's film was the best screen acting of 2003, be it leading or supporting, male or female. She's one to watch and can next be found in Atom Egoyan's WHERE THE TRUTH LIES. In her small role as Planet Patrol's psychic empath Lohman is unexceptional. (I expect the same is true in the 1999 sequel PLANET PATROL.) Considering the paucity of the material, this comes as no surprise. Reduced to delivering lame, overused jokes about Curtis' questionable psychic abilities, Lohman earns her first screen credit and adds an embarrassing curiosity to her filmography.

Aspiring performers should note that while this up-and-coming actress rose from an entry-level role to parts considered worthy of Oscar nominations, a quick look at the rest of the cast reveals non-starter acting careers. Candida Tolentino, who plays Lt. Able, has just one other minor credit on her Internet Movie Database filmography, although she is currently a contestant on the reality TV series THE REBEL BILLIONAIRE: BRANSON'S QUEST FOR THE BEST.

Koch Vision Entertainment presents KRAA! THE SEA MONSTER on DVD in the 1.33:1 ratio. I doubt this was shot in a ratio wider than this--it appears to have been composed for 4x3 TVs--but technical information is hard to come by on this title. It's a low budget film released as a budget DVD, so don't expect reference material. The video looks soft and has a grainy texture. All things considered, it looks okay. The 2.0 English language track cleanly presents the dialogue and sound effects. No subtitles are available. The DVD does have chapter stops. Ordinarily I wouldn't consider chapter stops a feature, but with a cheap title like this--I bought it for about $5--you never know.

Six Full Moon Pictures trailers are included. I wouldn't tell any parents that KRAA! THE SEA MONSTER makes good viewing on a family movie night, but content-wise it doesn't have anything unobjectionable for the kids. (The DVD box shows a PG rating.) The same can't be said for the trailers, which promote such titles as THE EROTIC HOUSE OF WAX and THE EXOTIC TIME MACHINE. Almost all of these trailers contain nudity. You have been warned.

I'm giving two grades for KRAA! THE SEA MONSTER. Obviously a film this bad merits Grade: F. Working from that assumption, it's more like Grade: C. Not a prime "good" bad movie, but one that has its moments.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Odds and ends

Glowing leaves at Ohio State (Mark Pfeiffer/October 28, 2004)

A bargain bin’s selection of a photo, some ramblings, and links…

Are you keeping up with LOST? As with ALIAS, a family drama masquerading as a spy series, it isn’t what it appears. Oh, sure, the characters are stranded on a mysterious island, but that’s just the attention-grabbing scenario so that the creators can tell stories about people adrift in their personal lives being confronted with and forced to move through their past problems. LOST’S simple yet brilliant stroke for remaining viable through a season with twentysome episodes is to focus each show on a different character. With more than forty castaways and the secrets of the island, it can easily sustain multiple seasons without keeping them lost for years. LOST boasts some of the finest character-based storytelling that serial television offers. Bully for the ABC programming executives who are wisely moving ALIAS from 9:00 Sundays to Wednesdays. Bringing the J.J. Abrams shows together should give a ratings boost to Jennifer Garner and company.

I love, love, love WAKING LIFE, Richard Linklater’s transporting animated existentialist film. Wiley Wiggins is the main listener and participant in the philosophical discussions. He’s also a real person who keeps this blog. The first time I came across his blog he was linking to a news item about the lawsuit filed against Linklater by some guys who were the basis for characters in DAZED AND CONFUSED. (The Yahoo! News link seems to be dead. The AP story is also here.)

I took the photo of leaves during the John Kerry rally at Ohio State. There was a lot of waiting and then some more. Finding interesting things to shoot helped pass the time. (Not having to be selective with your shots is one major area where digital far exceeds film.) The bank of lights flooding the stage was also illuminating the leaves so that they gave off this glow.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Thai Me Up, Thai Me Down

This past weekend the Wexner Center hosted Thai film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul and showed three of his feature films, including this year's Cannes entry TROPICAL MALADY (SUD PRALAD). Weerasethakul possesses talent, but I'm not sure that TROPICAL MALADY, BLISSFULLY YOURS (SUD SANAEHA), and MYSTERIOUS OBJECT AT NOON (DOKFA NAI MEUMAN) realize his potential. All three films are difficult, which isn't a problem unto itself, but the oblique non-narratives become tedious after awhile.

Using the exquisite corpse technique to propel MYSTERIOUS OBJECT AT NOON, Weerasethakul tells the closest thing that amounts to a story in any of his films. On top of this construct he mixes documentary and fiction so that the disctinction between them are blurred. He interviews the people of Thailand and has them develop the story about a teacher and a crippled boy. The result can be ragged, but Weerasethakul effectively captures the spirit of the people. A girl who tells her part of the story via sign language is absolutely adorable, and a group of school kids concoct a hilarious conclusion that would be expected from boys of any culture. Of Weerasethakul's three films I felt most positive toward MYSTERIOUS OBJECT AT NOON, although seeing it split over two nights may have improved my opinion of it. (A reel and a half remained on Friday night when the power went out.) That said, I'm mixed on it.

In introducting BLISSFULLY YOURS and TROPICAL MALADY Weerasethakul advised the audience to absorb the images rather than think about what is being shown. That may be the right strategy, but it doesn't help after yet another long sequence of people driving. (Since GERRY was my top film of 2003, I realize the inherent hypocrisy of me being critical of such things. The difference is that Van Sant's film had a foreseeable destination whereas this film doesn't appear to be going anywhere.) When a credits sequence started about fifty minutes into BLISSFULLY YOURS, I thought I might have slept through half of the film. Instead it's a signal that the film is leaving the humdrum everyday world and entering into its Edenic section. Weerasethakul skillfully uses the sound design to evoke an otherworldly place in nature and has an eye for beautifully composed shots, but it feels like eternity is passing.

TROPICAL MALADY is more of the same, except this time the two sections are split into two male lovers enjoying themselves out on the town and a metaphorical tale of a soldier hunting a heavily tattoed young man who can also assume the form of a tiger. Weerasethakul's visual mastery comes to the forefront in the second half with the jungle sequences. Some of the best shots, like the moon's illumination of the contours of the soldier's face, are in almost total darkness. A wide shot of the tiger in a tree and the soldier below holding up a flashlight is stunning. TROPICAL MALADY'S second half contains Weerasethakul's strongest work, but his preference for the experimental over narrative too often gets in the way for my tastes.

I don't believe Weerasethakul is staging global cinema's equivalent of PUNK'D, with the world's critics and cineastes as the unwitting participants, but his films' affectations--subtitled monkey chatter in TROPICAL MALADY--and slow pulses, followed by the subsequent critical gushing, provide perfect ammunition for those who believe foreign film lovers think they're smarter than people with less adventurous tastes. Weerasethakul's films are important viewing for those keeping tabs on world cinema, but based on these films, I'm not sure he has yet become all he's cracked up to be. MYSTERIOUS OBJECT AT NOON, BLISSFULLY YOURS, and TROPICAL MALADY demand repeat viewings, and I can see revisiting them another time to see if they've revealed themselves more clearly. For now, the verdict is still out.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Today's special

Pollo frito made by yours truly

EVERYDAY ITALIAN is one of Food Network's better shows, by which I mean the food seems relatively simple to make and I won't have to run to the grocery store to buy a bunch of ingredients that I don't have. Tonight I took a crack at making pollo frito. In other words, fried chicken. The difference in this recipe is marinating the chicken in lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil for a minimum of two hours and frying it in olive oil. It took longer than the instructions stated, but I didn't put as much oil in the frying pan as directed. Yes, the chicken was delicious, and no, I haven't eaten it all.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004


BIRTH (Jonathan Glazer, 2004)

BIRTH delivers Nicole Kidman as Anna, a woman who appears to be finally moving on from the death of her husband ten years ago. Anna is engaged to Joseph, played by Danny Huston, but she hesitates at the marriage when a ten-year-old boy named Sean tells her that he is the reincarnation of her deceased spouse.

Director Jonathan Glazer focuses a glimmer of Kubrick onto this sober chamber drama and floods it with Buñuel to evoke BIRTH’S heightened unreality. Invoking the Spanish surrealist master is by design. Co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière wrote BELLE DE JOUR and THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE, among other Buñuel classics. BIRTH channels the style and tone of those films exceptionally well, but ultimately the dramatic resolution is unsatisfying. Kidman again demonstrates why she is one of the most interesting contemporary actresses. As the gamine Anna, she slogs through an emotional muddle. In one of BIRTH’S best moments Glazer holds the camera on her face for a long time to allow an intimate view as she processes the idea that her dead husband has returned. The film’s formal qualities are second to none. Harris Savides’ cinematography casts a gorgeous pall over the family’s baroque apartment. The use of music, including Alexandre Desplat’s original score, complements the darkened physical and emotional interiors. There’s much to admire in BIRTH despite its storytelling shortcomings.

Grade: C+

(Review first aired on the November 9, 2004 NOW PLAYING)


RAY (Taylor Hackford, 2004)

Taylor Hackford’s biopic RAY looks at the most important years in the development of Ray Charles into one of the nation’s great entertainers. Jamie Foxx stars as the popular singer and musical innovator whose personal life was riddled with drug addiction and womanizing.

RAY is packed with terrific music, a quality that helps the bloated running time pass by more easily. It was a wise decision to have Foxx lip sync to Ray Charles’ recordings. Any imitation of a voice as distinctive and familiar as his would distract. Foxx’s performance came prepackaged as one of the year’s best and the prohibitive Oscar favorite for Best Actor. Without a doubt, he is very good. Foxx is restrained as someone who exists in the popular imagination as larger than life. On a technical level he has Ray’s gestures and body language down. As the film gets deeper into its two and a half hours, the shapelessness becomes a problem. Hackford doesn’t have an end in sight, just more markers that must be reached along the journey. RAY is a flawed film, but Foxx’s captivating acting and a bustling soundtrack smooth the rough spots.

Grade: B-

(Review first aired on the November 9, 2004 NOW PLAYING)


ALFIE (Charles Shyer, 2004)

Jude Law stars in the remake of ALFIE thirty-eight years after Michael Caine played the title role of the unrepentant womanizer. Alfie drives a limousine for a living, but he’s more accomplished at and more interested in steering women into bed. Alfie wants freedom and a variety of women rather than a long-term relationship, but he reaches a point where he is forced to reexamine his way of life.

If ever there was someone born to be a movie star, Jude Law has to be it. His timeless good looks and effortless charisma make him the kind of leading man that Hollywood would produce from genetic experiments if they could. Law’s ability to charm us while we disapprove of Alfie’s actions is his greatest strength. Alfie directly addresses the audience throughout the film. This tactic could have been a tired gimmick, but instead it endears us to him. We become part of his very small circle of friends. Even if we question his decisions, there’s a thrill in seeing what’s it like to be a ladykiller of his caliber. Director Charles Shyer doesn’t judge Alfie or reform him. Rather, he depicts him warts and all to discover what’s beautiful and sad about his life.

Grade: B-

(Review first aired on the November 9, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Friday, November 05, 2004

Trailer Park

(I'm going to give the politics a rest because I can't muster the energy for it, or anything else really. If ever the Hugger Busker was needed here, now is the time. I do have a few movie-related thoughts--imagine that--to plop down here, so we now return to our regularly scheduled programming.)

Since I've become a film critic, one aspect of moviegoing that has lost its luster is seeing trailers. Chances are I've seen some of them dozens of times, so the prospect of sitting through a two-minute preview of TAXI or RAISING HELEN becomes an endurance test. It isn't unusual for me to welcome a bad film's opening just so I won't have to suffer through the trailer again.

Nevertheless, I was interested to see the new STAR WARS trailer before my second viewing of THE INCREDIBLES. The theater where I saw it didn't have the EPISODE III trailer attached. I did get an early look at next year's Pixar film, CARS, which looks to be another sure thing from a studio that has yet to make a misstep.

Over at the arthouse I saw the trailer for HEAD IN THE CLOUDS yet again. I've always had a laugh at one line in the trailer, and this time I made a point to write it down. The voiceover includes the purple, parodic statement, "Forced to choose between desire and duty, they chose both." This is funnier than anything in that Jimmy Fallon-Queen Latifah movie, by the way.

The trailer for SEDUCING DOCTOR LEWIS reminded me of the strategy taken for foreign-language films. Don't let the audience know the film isn't in English. (The film in question appears to be a French-Canadian production.) The only dialogue we hear from or between characters are names, English words or those incorporated into the language, and easily understood foreign phrases (bon jour). Otherwise the plot is revealed through voiceover or text.

The trailer for VERA DRAKE, the new film from Mike Leigh, goes to great pains to obscure what the title character does. It's not for fear of spoiling the film but rather to smooth over content that would probably have people running from the theater than lining up to see it. If you're paying close enough attention you can probably figure out that Vera Drake is an abortionist. In all fairness, the word 'abortion' or a variant is only spoken three times in the film. Still, how many people plan to spend a Friday night watching a film about an abortionist, even if it is balanced and well made?

One other observation... The SIDEWAYS trailer adds another beat to the joke when Paul Giamatti asks Thomas Hayden Church's character if he's chewing gum while they're doing a winetasting. In the film the scene ends when he asks if he's chewing gum. The trailer cuts to a reaction shot of Church responding affirmatively and Giamatti telling him to spit it out. For what it's worth, the film's version works better.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Here we go again

I just returned from downtown Columbus, about a block from the statehouse. Needless to say, the state capitol is likely to be the focal point of the nation and the world as the election mess of 2000 repeats. (The statehouse's west side was satellite truck central, if it's any indication.) Like all good sequels, we have a new location for counting votes and other legal challenges post-Election Day. At least the Democrats learned something from last time. The same goes for ABC, CBS, and CNN.

To say that I'm deflated would be understating things. I worked the phone banks for ten hours and was getting positive results. I felt like things were going the right way and fully expected a fun evening. Not quite. Jerry Springer was at the election party, though, for whatever that's worth.

My brain's totally fried at this point, so it's time I get some much needed sleep. Can Kerry pull it out? I have no idea, but the fight's still there.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Election Day

I had a political diatribe percolating, but I have neither the time nor the rancor for spleen-venting this morning. It's probably for the best as I'm not interested in engaging in some political war of words. So, go out and vote. I'll be working the phone banks here for the Kerry-Edwards campaign in hopes of swinging this state the right direction. I feel confident in the Democratic party's chances. Hopefully there'll be room for celebration here later tonight.

Saturday, October 30, 2004


Today I passed last year's total for films seen theatrically, thus setting a new personal high for obsessive moviegoing. This morning's screening of THE INCREDIBLES, the aesthetically astonishing new Pixar film, broke 2003's 270 films. Early in the evening I added FESTIVAL EXPRESS for good measure. The music documentary has some good footage of The Band, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Buddy Guy, and others, but some of the numbers are dated curiosities--what was the deal with Sha Na Na anyway?--or downright dull (Ian and Sylvia and the Great Speckled Bird, which is also possibly one of the worst band names ever). Including these performances was necessary to reflect what the concerts were like, but they really drag down the flow. The party scenes on the train are about as much fun as being the only sober person at a party where everyone else is inebriated.

But 272! And before November! Yikes!

Friday, October 29, 2004

More R.E.M. concert photos

R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe and Mike Mills

R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills

For your viewing pleasure, here are two more photos I took at Wednesday night's R.E.M. concert in Cincinnati. Whether I had the wrong scene setting on my digital camera, these guys move around too fast, or I move the camera too much when depressing the shutter, the smeared quality came out in more of these photos than I would have liked. Actually, I think the close-up of Mike Mills is pretty cool even if it is less than perfect technically. Click on it to see a bigger version. You'll get a better look at the ghost-like quality that one can easily achieve with a pinhole camera but which I didn't plan on capturing here. Or maybe I'm a regular Duchamp with a camera--for some reason I'm reminded of NUDE DESCENDING A STAIRCASE, although this isn't as abstract--and don't know it.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

The Boss on the Oval

Bruce Springsteen performing at a John Kerry rally at Ohio State (October 28, 2004/Mark Pfeiffer)

I've been on my feet almost all day for the John Kerry rally on the south Oval at Ohio State, so don't expect much in the way of words from me now. It pays to volunteer; otherwise I would have been nowhere near close enough to get even this pixellated shot with the digital zoom pushed to its limit. (I'd guess that I was fifty feet from the stage.) Check back in future days for more pictures and, if I can spare them, some words. For now, this article provides a good summary of what transpired, even if it is about the preceding event in Madison, Wisconsin.

Singing for change

R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe singing "Man on the Moon" in concert at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati (October 27, 2004/Mark Pfeiffer)

"We're R.E.M. and we approved this concert."

My front row seat afforded me a good spot for photos, although it turns out that many of them have a smeary quality because the band didn't stand still. (Imagine that.) I'll post the setlist, my observations, and some other pictures later. If all works out right, I should have some pictures of Bruce Springsteen performing at the John Kerry rally this afternoon at Ohio State. For now, bed beckons...

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

I ♥ Huckabees

I ♥ HUCKABEES (David O. Russell, 2004)

We’ve had FREDDY VS. JASON and ALIEN VS. PREDATOR. Now comes another big showdown, existentialism versus nihilism, otherwise known as David O. Russell’s I ♥ HUCKABEES. Jason Schwartzman hires existential detectives Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin to uncover the meaning behind his coincidental encounters with an African man. Schwartzman’s environmentalist character Albert is also embroiled in a bitter philosophical dispute with his friend Brad, a department store executive played by Jude Law.

I ♥ HUCKABEES might be too smart for its own good, but that also seems to be the point. Russell extols liberal activism while deflating its self-importance with witty wordplay and slapstick. Underneath the dense philosophical banter and face-bashing with rubber balls lays a trenchant awareness of how practicality must accompany idealism to keep the dreams alive. Otherwise people become like Mark Wahlberg’s fatalist fireman spraying his hose on the lawn of a burning house. Righteous anger can be sustained for only so long before becoming all-consuming. Russell and co-screenwriter Jeff Baena pack the dialogue with lots of big concepts and complex philosophy, but that’s balanced with inventive sight gags and terrific physical comedy. For instance, Hoffman and Tomlin’s maneuvering through lawn sprinklers is priceless. I ♥ HUCKABEES is very silly and intellectually satisfying. That combination doesn’t come around often.

Grade: B+

(Review first aired on the October 26, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

The Grudge

THE GRUDGE (Takashi Shimizu, 2004)

The title cards for THE GRUDGE explain that when someone dies in a state of extreme anger or sadness, the emotion lingers in that place as a curse capable of harming the living. Sarah Michelle Gellar is Karen, an exchange student going to school in Japan. She helps at a care center, and one day she’s sent to an invalid American woman’s home, a place where strange things are happening.

Asian horror has enjoyed a renaissance the last few years. The American remakes are slowly arriving. First came THE RING, an above average creepfest, and now we get THE GRUDGE, which director Takashi Shimizu remade from his own film JU-ON. Eschewing plot and a linear timeline for a stylish exercise in mood, Shimizu sets the scenes with long silences and chilling images. This haunted house movie favors slow building terror over things jumping out of the dark, although the jump moments are effective too. Upon reflection, THE GRUDGE doesn’t add up to much. The back story isn’t especially surprising, and the characters lack dimension. Yet it works because Shimizu’s pacing and restraint eases us into the horror, like lobsters put into lukewarm water gradually raised to a boil.

Grade: B

(Review first aired on the October 26, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Team America: World Police


SOUTH PARK’S Trey Parker and Matt Stone bring their vulgar brand of comedy to the marionette action film TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE. A foul-mouthed THUNDERBIRDS-like fighting force travels around the globe to battle terrorists. For their latest mission they recruit a great stage actor to infiltrate a terrorist cell.

The first half of Parker and Stone’s audacious film contains some of the funniest moments from any movie this year. Their merciless mockery of Hollywood action clichés, particularly those found in Jerry Bruckheimer’s productions, couldn’t be more accurate. That puppets are reenacting the carnage, and in one scene, vigorous gymnastic lovemaking, makes it even funnier. Stone and Parker also get comedic mileage from the limitations of working with puppets, sneaking in postmodern jokes regarding the difficulty of executing precise marionette movements. The gags aren’t quite as inspired in TEAM AMERICA’S second half. Parker and Stone stoop to borderline homophobic humor and espouse questionable politics. Those issues aside, TEAM AMERICA is probably worth seeing for the extreme makeover scene alone. And when’s the last time a film has challenged MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE for the best projectile vomiting scene? TEAM AMERICA isn’t for the easily offended, but for those with stronger constitutions, it's worth a look.

Grade: B

(Review first aired on the October 26, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Around the Bend

AROUND THE BEND (Jordan Roberts, 2004)

Four generations of men are brought together in AROUND THE BEND. Michael Caine plays the family patriarch Henry. He raised his grandson Jason, played by Josh Lucas, and lives with Jason and his son Zach. Jason’s father, Turner, a small time criminal played by Christopher Walken, has been out of touch for years but returns shortly before Henry dies. Henry’s final wish was for Turner, Jason, and Zach to take a road trip following a map and instructions he left in several fast food bags.

AROUND THE BEND is composed of familiar stuff for indie film debuts. Writer-director Jordan Roberts’ film oozes sentimentality for the plight of these mildly eccentric characters on a journey to reunite a broken family. The problem isn’t the film’s gooey center but the flavorless, formulaic substance surrounding it. Walken is always a good hedge to keep the proceedings from becoming too conventional, and indeed his trademark weirdness is welcome as it pokes through AROUND THE BEND. In a driving scene Turner cranks up the radio only to have Jason demand that he turn it down. Turner explains that Henry wanted them to play it loud and gets Jason to concede. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he explains that he was just kidding. Walken plays it beautifully, spicing an overly glum film with his mischievousness.

Grade: C-

(Review first aired on the October 26, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Saturday Night Lame

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE may be a television institution, but who cares when it's this lame? I didn't watch the show for several years but saw parts of it over the last year or so. I've seen the new episodes this season. Does anyone really think this show is remotely funny? The political sketches are painful to watch because they're little more than winking rehashes of the debates. The funniest thing in the opening HARDBALL sketch was how red Will Forte turned when doing his Zell Miller impersonation. He looked like his head really was going to explode. Of course, isn't this, oh, almost two months after Zell challenged Chris Matthews to a duel? Way to be timely.

The funniest part of the show was when musical guest Ashlee Simpson walked off stage during her second song. The band started playing, and then you heard her vocals being piped in. She did a little dance, the vocals from her hit single were brought up again, and she left. When the cast gave their goodbyes Ashlee said that her band played the wrong song. Way to live up to the old "show must go on" ethos and just walk off. I'm not convinced that it was the band's fault but a snafu caused by whoever potted up her prerecorded vocals at the wrong time. (I didn't watch her first song, but it would seem that she was lip syncing.)

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Guided By Voices No Longer

My signed Guided By Voices Vampire on Titus/Propeller CD

Thursday night Guided By Voices played their farewell Columbus show at the Alrosa Villa. Despite being a big GBV fan, I didn't go to the concert. It was a simple matter of mistakenly thinking they were playing next week, which would have made for a busy three evenings since I'm seeing R.E.M. in Cincinnati and a Q&A with Claire Denis at the Wexner Center.

I first saw Guided By Voices in 1994 at Special Occasions in Dayton. I seem to recall that the venue had previously been a restaurant and was being operated by Trader Vic, a local record store owner. It wasn't a big place or a natural performance space, but the concert was something of a musical revelation. I knew of GBV from articles in the Dayton Daily News and sampling their VAMPIRE ON TITUS/PROPELLER album at area record shops. Their story was a good one then (and still is). The band had gone through (and would go through) many permutations while making a bunch of four track recordings at their homes. Lead singer Robert Pollard, the GBV mastermind, was a local elementary school teacher.

So here were these "older" guys, especially for a mostly unknown rock band, pumping out rough sounding pop nuggets reminiscent of classic Beatles and The Who. GBV played very short songs--four minutes would have been epic length--punctuated with a fair amount of noise that gave their live performances the lo-fi sound found on their records. I hadn't heard anything like it and was hooked. I also got Pollard to sign my copy of VAMPIRE ON TITUS/PROPELLER, a nice memento of the evening unlike the mild tinnitus I still have in my right ear. (Wear those earplugs kids!)

Little did I know at the time how prolific GBV was. In an age when most bands release albums every two or three years, Guided By Voices has been an exception. Just take a look at their huge discography. I became a more serious fan after I started using the internet in 1995. There I found out about all of these other albums, singles, EPs, and bootleg live records. I also got onto Postal Blowfish, the fan e-mail list. Obtaining the newest GBV proper or side project release was fun when it wasn't frustrating. Like the baseball card explosion, which watered down the market with anyone and everyone putting out sets, the deluge of GBV releases got to the point where it was hard to keep up with everything.

I remain a fan even if my level of obsession with all things GBV has waned in the last five years. The recent albums haven't matched the greatness of BEE THOUSAND, ALIEN LANES, and UNDER THE BUSHES, UNDER THE STARS, but Pollard has still been doing good work even if it tends to repeat his better days. The concerts are usually a blast, at least when they don't devolve into situations where fans constantly parade across the stage to sing along or when the band is very sloppy (musically and drunk). I found out about Thursday's show in time to go, but with the biggest part of my music collection reserved for one group and a decade of concerts, it didn't seem necessary.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

What I'm Watching On TV

The sixth season of THE AMAZING RACE is finally on CBS' fall schedule. With the current season of SURVIVOR proving to be lackluster so far--would someone please step up and be interesting?--and the season premieres of ALIAS and 24 delayed until January, this is just what the TV doctor ordered.

The best new series I've seen is LOST, the latest from ALIAS creator J.J. Abrams. Since I have a digital video recorder in my cable box, I have returned to watching the above average comedy SCRUBS. I decided to give JOAN OF ARCADIA a shot. I'm surprised to find it to be more nuanced than I expected. The plan is to stick with it a while longer.

Director Robert Altman and writer Garry Trudeau's TANNER ON TANNER four-episode series on the Sundance Channel has left me underwhelmed. The new episodes focus on Alex Tanner (Cynthia Nixon) and her documentary film about her dad. Alex got on my nerves in TANNER '88, and she's more irritating in this.

Oh, MYTHBUSTERS has new episodes on Discovery. If you've never seen this show, you should.

Moviegoing Milestone Passing

In 2001 I started keeping track of how many films I saw theatrically. (It's possible I left out some as I didn't begin the list until July 18, 2001 and hadn't made any edits to the list after December 21. I just added RUSH HOUR 2, which was accidentally omitted.) That year I finished with a respectable 238. It's interesting to look back and see what films I had more or less forgotten. Whether I disliked them (JUST VISITING, WHAT'S THE WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN?) or liked them (BORN ROMANTIC, HEARTS IN ATLANTIS) didn't matter.

In 2002 I kept more thorough records, including my grades and the dates and locations of the screenings. I also listed some DVDs of films I saw for the first time. (For what it's worth, I don't believe the DVD list to be exhaustive.) My total for the year increased to 260.

My 2003 list should include everything I saw, whether I'd seen the films before or saw them on television, screener tape, or DVD. The yearly total grew to a personal best 270.

Take a peek at my 2004 list and it's safe to say that my 2003 total will be toast. I passed the 2001 total on September 30 when I saw SILVER CITY. Last night I passed my 2002 total when I saw the new remake of ALFIE. 2003 may fall before October ends. There's an outside chance that I could reach 300 before December.

I realize that many will consider such movie gorging a tremendous waste of time. For those people it probably would be. For me, expanding the number and types of films I see helps refine my opinions.

OK, enough numbers talk. If I get my act together, I'll finally post a long moldering review of EVERGREEN and hopefully complete my write-up of I ♥ HUCKABEES.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Silver City

SILVER CITY (John Sayles, 2004)

John Sayles’ latest film SILVER CITY dips into the political world, in particular the Colorado governor’s race. Chris Cooper plays Dickie Pilager, the dim bulb son of a well-connected, well-heeled Congressman. During a campaign ad shoot at a lake, Dickie reels in a corpse. His advisers keep the incident out of the press and hire discredited journalist turned private investigator Danny O’Brien, played by Danny Huston, to find out who they believe is trying to sabotage Dickie’s election.

SILVER CITY isn’t among Sayles’ best films, but this cynical view of contemporary American politics and big business provides enough sizzle to make it worth a look. The first half has its funny moments, with Dickie’s mangled syntax and tortured logic clearly echoing a real world counterpart. Sayles gets in his jabs, but SILVER CITY’S strength is connecting the dots in the media and political cycles. Sayles traces how rumor, conjecture, and outright lies seep into the discussion and drive it. He also illustrates how those in power can be dirty while keeping their hands clean and innocent yet somehow corrupt. Essentially SILVER CITY is a reworking of CHINATOWN, with Huston’s private eye walking in Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes’ shoes. SILVER CITY doesn’t reach the artistic level of Polanski’s classic, but it works as an insightful dissection of how things are done today.

Grade: B-

(Review first aired on the October 12, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Raise Your Voice

RAISE YOUR VOICE (Sean McNamara, 2004)

Hilary Duff plays an aspiring singer at a performing arts school in RAISE YOUR VOICE. Duff is Terri Fletcher, a bubbly Flagstaff, Arizona high school student who earns admission to a competitive summer music program. Overprotective dad fears for her safety in Los Angeles and refuses to let her go. Terri’s mom and aunt decide that it’s important she attend, so they concoct a story that will get her to the school while keeping her father in the dark.

Hilary Duff’s persistently sunny disposition makes her a likable movie presence, but I’ve yet to see anything from her that demonstrates much beyond a “let’s put on a show” high school drama club enthusiasm. Duff’s as squeaky clean as anyone since Sandra Dee. RAISE YOUR VOICE even makes her character’s prominent but non-discussed Christianity a valuable quality. While Duff’s perky, go-getter attitude is appreciated, her effort is mostly wasted in a watered down FAME retread. The pop songs, like every element in RAISE YOUR VOICE, are vanilla and instantly forgettable. It doesn’t help that Duff lacks the musical chops for the limited classical repertoire in the film. I suspect that someone else is singing for her in those scenes or that the vocals have been so highly processed to eliminate any trace of her voice. RAISE YOUR VOICE also could have done without Terri’s cartoonishly priggish, toothpick chomping father, who serves as the film’s dramatic engine.

Grade: C-

(Review first aired on the October 12, 2004 NOW PLAYING)