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)

Ladder 49

LADDER 49 (Jay Russell, 2004)

LADDER 49 follows Joaquin Phoenix as Jack Morrison, a new firefighter at a Baltimore station. John Travolta is his mentor Captain Mike Kennedy. Jack is the lead man on the hose when the firemen go to extinguish the city’s blazes. Gradually he works his way up to a rescue position. It’s a dangerous job that causes Jack’s wife Linda to worry constantly.

LADDER 49 wants to honor firefighters for their courage and selflessness. The action scenes convey this effectively even if a couple of them are overcooked. Yet at every turn LADDER 49 undercuts itself. The firemen are shown screwing off on the job except for the rare times when they go out on a call. When they’re off the job the film portrays them getting hammered with regularity and ignoring family and friends’ warranted concerns for their safety. A more complex take on the material might have made it work, but here stock characters are propped up to fit our vision of the ideal and those trying to destroy it. Director Jay Russell demonstrated a more nuanced understanding of courage and sacrifice in MY DOG SKIP than he does in LADDER 49.

Grade: C

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

Shark Tale

SHARK TALE (Bibo Bergeron, Vicky Jenson, and Rob Letterman, 2004)

A vegetarian shark and a materialistic fish join forces in the computer-animated film SHARK TALE. Oscar the fish, voiced by Will Smith, dreams of the penthouse but is stuck at the whale wash. Through a misunderstanding that Oscar perpetuates, everyone believes that he has slain a shark. Jack Black voices Lenny, a shark who knows the truth. Rather than reveal Oscar’s lie, Lenny utilizes it in his favor. He comes from a carnivorous family of mobsters and wants to break from them. Together Oscar and Lenny plan to stage Lenny’s death, giving the shark a way out and the fish a boost to his fame and wealth.

SHARK TALE is loaded with pop culture references, frequently riffing on gangster movies and the 1970s. This desperate attempt at hipness reeks of stale jokes. The craven product placement stinks even more. You’d think that an animated film set underwater would be ad-free, but the filmmakers liberally insert billboards and products with names given an oceanic twist. Nine years after TOY STORY, the novelty of computer animation has worn off. Story and character need to capture our imagination. SHARK TALE fails because it has nothing to tell us except for some endlessly recycled jokes from other movies. In one of the film’s few nice touches, the characters resemble their voiceover actors. Robert DeNiro’s godfather shark sports the actor’s mole. The blowfish voiced by Martin Scorsese has his bushy eyebrows. Scorsese’s a real surprise. His manic line readings are funnier than anything Black or Smith says.

Grade: C-

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

Monday, October 11, 2004

The Man Behind the Curtain

Self portrait with Van Dyke (October 11, 2004)

I've been less than eager to post any pictures of myself online, so I suppose what you see above is a threshold crossing. I've been writing for since 2000, and on a few occasions webmaster Levi Wallach has asked if I have a picture I'd like to include with my bio and list of reviews. (The answer is still no, by the way, although I may come around eventually.) Most of the time I loathe having my picture taken. I realize there's a disconnect considering I'm on television, but who am I to understand my own contradictions?

I've been working on a Van Dyke for the last week and a half. (Although a Van Dyke is often referred to as a goatee, the Van Dyke has a mustache.) Growing it started out of laziness and continued out of curiosity. Does the Van Dyke make me look erudite? Yes. Does it make me look hard? Yes. Did I ever intend to keep it? No.

The caveat attached to my self portrait is that I don't usually look like that and most likely won't come tomorrow morning. With a NOW PLAYING taping looming tomorrow, the time is near for the facial hair to end up in the sink. Maybe I'll keep a soul patch. (Probably not.)

I've felt like I'm in disguise with the Van Dyke, although by no means does it render me unrecognizable. Since I like documentation, taking my own picture and, yes, even sharing it here seemed like the right thing to do. Keep the wise remarks to yourselves, though.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Jim Brown: All-American


In the Buddhist parable of the blind men and the elephant each man feels a different part of the animal. Understandably, this leads to their varying perceptions of what an elephant is.

A group of people need not be blind to hold diverging views of who they think Jim Brown is. He’s the Cleveland Browns running back and all-time NFL great who hung up his cleats while still in his prime. He’s the action star who appeared in THE DIRTY DOZEN and THREE THE HARD WAY. He’s an activist in the African-American community who founded the Amer-I-Can Foundation. He’s a controversial figure whose history with women has led to brushes with the law, including accusations of throwing a girlfriend over a balcony and raping a woman.

Spike Lee’s HBO documentary JIM BROWN: ALL-AMERICAN looks at the different facets of this polarizing man. Lee traces a familiar biographical arc, going to Brown’s birthplace of St. Simon’s Island, documenting his rise in amateur and professional football, and concluding with his post-NFL life.

Lee, a well-documented sports fan, assembles the football section with gusto. Plays are broken down so that even non-fans can appreciate what Brown accomplished on the field. The excellent use of spot shadowing helps the untrained eye follow how plays are executed.

The energy employed in showing Brown’s athletic achievements doesn’t carry over to the rest of the film, though. Usually Lee is a dynamic filmmaker, but whether it’s the documentary format or his admiration for his subject, he seems to be restraining his style rather than ratcheting up the political and social elements. JIM BROWN: ALL-AMERICAN is a staid film. Considering the provocative material, it’s an approach least expected, especially from this director.

Throughout his career Lee has been criticized for his portrayal of women. He isn’t doing himself any favors when it comes to how he handles Brown’s rocky history with women. While one of the last sections addresses the more notable incidents, including his wife Monique’s call to the police in 1999 and an accusation thirty years earlier of throwing his girlfriend over a balcony, there’s a lingering sense that we’re getting skewed versions of the truth. Most bothersome is that the women accept the blame. His wife even suggests that Brown was the victim. In separating the alleged balcony toss from the film’s mostly linear timeline, the impression is that in delaying troublesome revelations it is hoped we will already like Brown enough to forgive his transgressions. Treating the incidents with kid gloves allows JIM BROWN: ALL-AMERICAN to fit into the encomium template, but a more forthright approach is demanded.

HBO Video presents JIM BROWN: ALL-AMERICAN in its original 1.85: aspect ratio. The rich colors and image’s texture are nicely reproduced in this anamorphic transfer. Even the old game film from Brown’s college and pro days looks excellent. The Dolby Digital 2.0 surround soundtrack gets the job done in its clean presentation of the many interview soundbites. Sound effects have been added to give the archival footage more punch, a technique that calls attention to itself in an otherwise naturalistic film. Optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles are available.

The DVD cover calls this a director’s cut, a term in the DVD age that has been so grossly overused that it has almost lost any value. The DVD has a running time of 132 minutes. The Internet Movie Database entry lists the film’s duration as 140 minutes. Considering that Lee didn’t seem very picky about what he included in the DVD version, I can’t imagine that eight minutes were deleted from the cable telecast; however, assuming faulty information isn’t on IMDB, this may be one of those rare occasions where a director’s cut is shorter than the original.

The lone supplement is a Spike Lee audio commentary. Whether you agree with Lee or not, it stands to reason that it is worth hearing what an important director has to say. Not this time. This is a dry commentary track with silent stretches, particularly during the part touching on Brown’s domestic violence charges. Lee claims that he is letting two people tell their story and allowing us to decide, but it doesn’t strike me as being that simple.

Grade: C

(This review was previously published on

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Shaun of the Dead

SHAUN OF THE DEAD (Edgar Wright, 2004)

What do you do when your girlfriend dumps you and the next day you wake up to discover the city crawling with zombies? If you’re the protagonist in SHAUN OF THE DEAD, it’s time to splatter some undead brains and win back your woman. Shaun is stuck in a routine in which he goes to his dead end electronics store job and then retires to the neighborhood pub each night. His girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) fears Shaun will never change and breaks up with him. Distraught over the end of the relationship Shaun and his roommate Ed go on a bender only to awaken to a fate worse than a hangover. Zombies are terrorizing London, so Shaun and Ed set out to save his mom and Liz.

SHAUN OF THE DEAD is a romantic comedy steeped in the tradition of George Romero’s zombie films. Writer-director Edgar Wright and co-writer and star Simon Pegg have terrific fun riffing on zombie lore. The best recurring joke is that there isn’t an appreciable difference how everyone behaves in their pre-zombie and undead states, aside from wanting to munch on the brains of the living. SHAUN OF THE DEAD follows the familiar arc of a zombie film and populates the story with archetypal characters. Somehow, though, the love story and relationships become critically important and pull their dramatic weight in an otherwise silly film. Rather than standing for rampant consumerism, here the undead and potential zombies represent obstacles to two people committing to a relationship. It doesn’t sound like it should work but it does.

Grade: B-

(Review first aired on the September 28, 2004 NOW PLAYING)


WIMBLEDON (Richard Loncraine, 2004)

In WIMBLEDON Paul Bettany is pro tennis player Peter Colt, a once highly ranked competitor whose best days are behind him. He hopes to advance a round or two at Wimbledon before retiring. Then he meets rising American tennis star Lizzie Bradury, played by Kirsten Dunst. Sparks fly between them, and soon Peter is playing the best he has in years.

WIMBLEDON succeeds at being an agreeable sports romance. Much of it is conventional, but there’s a reason why film after film follows the formula. It works. Bettany and Dunst make a cute couple that is as fiercely competitive in their love lives as they are on the court. Yet WIMBLEDON strikes me as being Peter’s story. How does an athlete who is very good at what he does deal with falling short of greatness? How does his mind work as he confronts the immediate challenge of playing tennis while personal issues spin through his head? WIMBLEDON explores these competition details enough to complement the light comedy. The film may not amount to much more than the cinematic equivalent of strawberries and cream, but sometimes that hits the spot.

Grade: B-

(Review first aired on the September 28, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Intimate Strangers (Confidences trop intimes)


INTIMATE STRANGERS pairs the mysterious Anna, played by Sandrine Bonnaire, with the lonely William, played by Fabrice Luchini. They meet when Anna enters William’s office and begins telling some secrets. She mistakenly believes he is the therapist with whom she has an appointment. William doesn’t realize what’s going on until it’s too late to correct her. Even after he acknowledges that he’s not a psychologist, Anna wishes to continue their sessions.

INTIMATE STRANGERS comes from director Patrice Leconte, who has been on a role the last five years with MAN ON THE TRAIN, THE WIDOW OF ST. PIERRE, and GIRL ON THE BRIDGE. He’s among the best today at turning out films in the classic French mode. He’s interested in how humans interact and what they say to one another. INTIMATE STRANGERS is a dialogue driven film that thrills through carefully selected words and actions. Jérôme Tonnerre’s screenplay develops tension by having the characters strategically reveal and hold back information. It’s riveting, especially as the stakes get higher in Anna and William’s game. Bonnaire and Luchini thrive in this setting as they try to peel back the layers of each other. Bonnaire in particular remains inscrutable until the deeply satisfying conclusion. The score indicates that INTIMATE STRANGERS shares traits with film noir. Like William, Leconte makes us work to uncover what that might mean, but it’s worth it in the end.

Grade: B+

(Review first aired on the September 28, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow


The menacingly named Dr. Totenkopf dispatches giant robots around the planet to do his bidding in SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW. Jude Law stars as Joe Sullivan, also known as Sky Captain, the leader of an elite private air force. He and reporter Polly Perkins, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, try to thwart the evil doctor’s plans, whatever they may be.

SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW is the fanboy film of 1940 that never was. Writer-director Kerry Conran imagines an adventure cobbled together from serials, comic books, and radio dramas of the 30s and 40s, making something derivative yet unique. It’s an unironic return to screwball comedy banter and rip-roaring action through the innovative use of modern technology. Everything on screen except for the actors and props was created inside a computer. The result is frequently dazzling. Conran is free to indulge the techniques of the era to create something fresh by looking backward. Law and Paltrow’s classic appearances and demeanors make them perfect choices for this sepia-toned throwback film. Many of today’s big special effects pictures feel like the life has been drained from them by too many test screenings and studio executives. SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW is a breath of fresh air, an ambitious, stylized epic that entertains with every frame.

Grade: B

(Review first aired on the September 28, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Sunday, October 03, 2004

The 101st Post

What better way to commemorate my 100th post to this blog than a little self-promotion. My review of John Waters' A DIRTY SHAME--first available here--can be found in the latest edition of The Film Journal. Issue 10 focuses on genre cinema and features pieces by some of my film critic friends and acquaintances, so check it out. Editor Rick Curnutte has also given the site a striking new look for this issue. Today's Greencine blog entry recaps The Film Journal's contents, including a four-word quote from my review to summarize my thoughts on A DIRTY SHAME.

I have a lot of things on the back burner but hope to catch up on posting more this week and next. (My priorities are on the front burner, which is the place for them as those who have seen John Sayles' SILVER CITY know.)

(October 6, 2004 edit: Apparently the counter on my dashboard page is stuck on 99 as this is actually the 101st post.)