Friday, September 29, 2006


FLYBOYS (Tony Bill, 2006)

FLYBOYS tells the stories of the first American combat pilots. Many of the volunteers had no prior flight experience when they went to France to fight Germany during World War I. Inspired by the true story of the 1917 Lafayette Escadrille, FLYBOYS follows a group that includes Blaine Rawlings (James Franco), a Texas farm boy whose family ranch was foreclosed; Briggs Lowry (Tyler Labine), a millionaire’s son out to prove himself; and Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis), a former slave’s son who had been working in France as a boxer.

FLYBOYS pays respect to the memories of the original fighting airmen and marvels at their heroism. The American flyers were not drafted or even fighting for their own country, yet they put their lives on the line every time they took to the sky. Such reverence in war films can lead to dramatic inertia, but FLYBOYS sustains a sense of wonder through its detailed depiction of training routines, military culture, and aerial combat.

Detail doesn’t always mean good. The dreadful GODS AND GENERALS was suffocated in part by slavish devotion to Civil War reenactments; however, FLYBOYS is most interesting when it shows the technology involved in preparing these young flyers. Training included being spun around in a chair and then walking a narrow beam to being pushed in a makeshift plane body on tracks and firing at targets. Their tools were perhaps even less advanced. They were given hammers to fix jammed machine guns and pistols to use as a means of avoiding fiery deaths. (They did not have parachutes.) This old-fashioned adventure works hard to stay true to the experiences that it’s slightly distracting when it turns to obvious movie moments.

The combat scenes are well executed, and the effects pass the believability test for the most part. My guess is that most of the action was shot with models—it doesn’t look like a lot of CGI is on display—and the illusion is much more realistic, save for a couple times.

As with any film constructed from a purportedly true story, FLYBOYS takes liberties with the characters. Most resemble real pilots or are composites but function as war movie archetypes. All the time goes into the meticulous documenting of what the flyboys did, leaving less for who they were. FLYBOYS rises above these flat characterizations to provide an often fascinating glimpse of the lives of early airmen.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


CONFETTI (Debbie Isitt, 2006)

The mock documentary CONFETTI satirizes the wedding industry and the couples who want to do something different for their special day. Confetti magazine sponsors a contest to put on the most creative ceremony. Two of the finalist couples’ themes—tennis and 1930s Hollywood musicals—offer the possibility of delivering stylish events that will look attractive on the cover of the magazine. The naturist couple wants to have a nude wedding, which presents a dilemma for the publication if they win.

CONFETTI is the latest mockumentary to encounter the problem of reality, or reality TV, being more outrageous than the filmmaker’s send-up. With bridezillas raging across the screens of cable television, the relatively well-behaved couples in CONFETTI don’t stand a chance of matching the level of derision that their real-life counterparts encourage.

The wedding concepts aren’t wild and crazy either, although the naturist couple’s propensity for appearing completely undressed in the film may be a shock to mainstream American moviegoers. That said, this British comedy is almost too polite. Pat jokes about overbearing mothers-in-law, the emotional gay wedding planners, and the ultra-competitive tennis couple are hardly the stuff of hearty laughs or inspired improvisations. The two funniest people in the film—THE OFFICE’S Martin Freeman and SPACED and SHAUN OF THE DEAD’S Jessica Stevenson—comprise the straight couple in comedic terms.

CONFETTI isn’t uproariously funny or all that compelling, but director Debbie Isitt has the good sense to end it on a high note. The ceremony for Matt and Sam (Freeman and Stevenson) is reminiscent of Busby Berkeley’s elaborate song and dance routines and a treat to watch.

Grade: C-

Friday, September 22, 2006

Book review posted

As previously mentioned, I wrote a book review that is now online. Literary types can read my thoughts on Douglas Coupland's JPod. He's one of my favorite contemporary authors, which probably explains the excessive referencing of his other books. It was a bit of a challenge to switch modes from films to a novel, but shaking things up every now and then is probably good for the writing muscles.

The review was written for Nights and, so I'm giving that site a temporary "exclusive" for a week or so before reposting it here (with permission, of course). In the meantime, check it out.


CRANK (Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, 2006)

CRANK hit man Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) is injected with a synthetic Chinese drug that will kill him in an hour unless he can keep his adrenaline pumping at a high level. Faced with limited time to get revenge and reveal his true occupation to his girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart), Chev tears through the city at a breakneck speed by car, motorcycle, and foot.

CRANK works overtime to be a disreputable bit of pulp fiction, and for the first half or so it’s like inhaling the cinematic equivalent of the film’s title. Statham’s anti-hero will do anything to keep his heart pounding, be it doing cocaine off a grimy floor, chugging Red Bulls, snorting one nasal inhaler after another, jabbing himself with multiple doses of epinephrine, burning his hand in a waffle iron, or engaging in vigorous public sex in front of a busload of Japanese tourists. It’s the stuff of nightmares for parental media watch groups, especially because CRANK is playing it for humor.

This devil may care attitude makes CRANK feel like an adrenaline rush, but after an energy burn comes the crash. Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s direction is similarly aggressive. Using all manner of attention-grabbing techniques like Tony Scott, they shoot Statham through a microwave oven door, slap words onto the image to emphasize points, and, in a first, use Google Earth a few times as a transition. There’s a nice section where Statham drives his car through a mall, but the only way we know at first is by looking at the background in the tightly composed close-up.

CRANK is a lot of fun for awhile, but this boisterous, violent take on D.O.A. can’t sustain the manic energy over 87 minutes.

Grade: C

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

For real?

Did you miss the televised memorial service for Steve Irwin, a.k.a. The Crocodile Hunter? No worries, if the Sydney Morning Herald has the story right.
Steve Irwin's memorial service is expected to be available on a DVD which could possibly sell millions of copies worldwide.
Uh, what?!

I thought it was kind of weird that this was televised in the first place--no, I didn't see it--but I can understand, sort of, why his fans might want to tune in. But selling a DVD? Doesn't this seem at least a little grotesque? And who are these projected millions of people interested in buying it?

It's one thing if sales of THE CROCODILE HUNTER: COLLISION COURSE enjoy an upward spike in the aftermath of his death, but offering Irwin's memorial service for purchase is all kinds of weird celebrity fascination creepy that I simply don't get. Heaven forbid that the DVD include the video of the accidental death, which I thought I read was caught on tape, or a grieving widow commentary track.

Seriously, is there anyone reading this who would purchase a DVD of a celebrity or public figure's memorial service? Is the next breakthrough industry funeral videography?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Film Footwear

I don't get many promo items, but a pretty cool one came in the mail today. Yes, I received a pair of Converse Chuck Taylor: JACKASS edition canvas high tops pictured above.

A couple weeks ago Paramount sent a postcard asking for my chuck size, or Chuck size in this case. I e-mailed it to the appropriate address, and today these size 12 kicks arrived. Like the WAR OF THE WORLDS survival radio-light with a generator crank, this is the rare studio swag that I might actually use.

The shoes are a great way to promote JACKASS: NUMBER TWO, although chances are they're wasting their time with me if the footwear is intended to sway critical opinion. (I don't think that's the purpose, but I'm sure some see it as quid pro quo.)

The first JACKASS film easily earned a spot in my worst of the year for 2002, and unless there are significant differences between that film and the new one--fat chance, I'm guessing--the sequel is likely to follow suit. I haven't seen it yet but will be reviewing it on WROV this Friday around 4:30 p.m. (You can listen live via the internet.)

Then again, the trailer for JACKASS: NUMBER TWO trumpets the bad reviews the previous movie received, so maybe this is a reverse psychology gambit to get critical beatdowns that will be useful in marketing the film as anti-establishment.

Regardless, the shoes won't be influencing my review. These sure beat those candy hearts promoting BE COOL, though.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Personal top 10 of the last ten years

The last post about the OFCS Top 100 Films of the Last 10 Years ventured into the comments. Following up on that, here's a rashly decided personal top 10 from 1996-2005.

1. AFTER LIFE (WANDÂFURU RAIFU) (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 1998)
2. MULHOLLAND DR. (David Lynch, 2001)
3. BEFORE SUNSET (Richard Linklater, 2004)
4. WAKING LIFE (Richard Linklater, 2001)
5. THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (Wes Anderson, 2001)
6. PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)
7. THE TRUMAN SHOW (Peter Weir, 1998)
8. THE SWEET HEREAFTER (Atom Egoyan, 1997)
9. IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (FA YEUNG NIN WA) (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
10. GERRY (Gus Van Sant, 2002)

This is very much a list based on mental imagery and emotional brush strokes. I favored the films that have lingered with me the longest. THE ICE STORM, my top film of 1997 at the time, may have a rightful claim to a spot in this best of the best, but I haven't seen it in nine years. Only four of these were "winners" for their respective years: THE TRUMAN SHOW, MULHOLLAND DR., PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, and GERRY. (Here's where actual US release date and IMDB release dates conflict. GERRY premiered in 2002 but didn't bow domestically until 2003.)

Hirokazu's film knocked me out on first viewing, and its power hasn't dimmed in the intervening years. If there's one film I really would have liked to have seen on the OFCS list, this is it.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

OFCS Top 100 Films of the Last 10 Years

To commemorate its tenth anniversary, the Online Film Critics Society, of which I am a member, surveyed the membership regarding the best films of the last ten years. The results are:
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2. Fargo
3. Memento
4. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
5. L.A. Confidential
6. Brokeback Mountain
7. Being John Malkovich
8. City of God
9. Mulholland Drive
10. Lost in Translation
11. Almost Famous
12. Magnolia
13. Election
14. Fight Club
15. In the Mood for Love
16. The Truman Show
17. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
18. Moulin Rouge
19. Saving Private Ryan
20. Kill Bill, Volume 1
21. Rushmore
22. Million Dollar Baby
23. A History of Violence
24. Kill Bill, Volume 2
25. Downfall
26. Hero
27. Three Kings
28. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
29. Spirited Away
30. The Iron Giant
31. Boogie Nights
32. The Big Lebowski
33. The Sixth Sense
34. Out of Sight
35. Dogville
36. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
37. Punch-Drunk Love
38. Good Night, and Good Luck.
39. Far from Heaven
40. Waiting for Guffman
41. American Beauty
42. The Matrix
43. Lone Star
44. The Sweet Hereafter
45. Donnie Darko
46. Secrets & Lies
47. The Insider
48. Ghost World
49. Toy Story 2
50. Before Sunset
51. Breaking the Waves
52. The Ice Storm
53. The Constant Gardener
54. Sideways
55. The Incredibles
56. The Royal Tenenbaums
57. The Thin Red Line
58. Chungking Express
59. Eyes Wide Shut
60. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
61. Finding Nemo
62. Gosford Park
63. The Pianist
64. Grizzly Man
65. Run Lola Run
66. Requiem for a Dream
67. The Celebration
68. Contact
69. Hedwig and the Angry Inch
70. Spider-Man 2
71. Chicago
72. Gods and Monsters
73. Jerry Maguire
74. Wonder Boys
75. American Splendor
76. Dancer in the Dark
77. Adaptation
78. Shakespeare in Love
79. Best in Show
80. Traffic
81. Crash (2005)
82. Titanic
83. The 25th Hour
84. Bowling for Columbine
85. Amores Perros
86. Elephant
87. The Aviator
88. Y Tu Mama Tambien
89. Hotel Rwanda
90. Jackie Brown
91. The Straight Story
92. Grosse Pointe Blank
93. In the Bedroom
94. Life is Beautiful
95. High Fidelity
96. The Blair Witch Project
97. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
98. Gangs of New York
99. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring
100. Amelie
We were asked to nominate up to twenty films for each year from 1996-2005. Not having kept the best of records, it was a relatively painstaking process, especially when it came to determining years for foreign films whose IMDB release dates are based on first public screening. (If I feel like it, I'll get around to posting my imperfect nomination ballot.) From there the membership was presented with a top 400 and asked to whittle it down to a top 50, with each member ranking their picks. (I confess to going through the arduous weeding process but forgetting to finish in time for the deadline.)

So, first impressions of the list? I don't know that there are many surprises. I wouldn't have figured DOWNFALL would make the cut, let alone place relatively high (#25). While I liked it a lot, I hardly think it's the third best foreign language film of the last ten years, which is how it fits within this list. Lars von Trier fared well as three of his films made the list, including a surprising showing for DOGVILLE (#35).

There aren't any real shockers. I'd wager that all of these films did well in annual polls for their respective years. GROSSE POINTE BLANK at #92 might be the one selection to come out of nowhere. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (#96) had heat at the time, but I wonder if people still think of it as well as they did then.

Sure, the list is heavy on English-language films and the prestige pictures, but in putting together a list like this, it's inevitable that one of the overriding factors is going to be the number of people who have seen the films in question. Hirokazu Kore-eda's AFTER LIFE (WANDÂFURU RAIFU) and David Gordon Green's ALL THE REAL GIRLS--if not GEORGE WASHINGTON as well--would make my list, but I suspect that they've not been as widely seen. (The only film on this list that I haven't seen is CHUNGKING EXPRESS, and there's really no good excuse why I haven't.)

Anyway, here's another bunch of ranked films for our list-obsessed culture to argue over. Have at it.

Monday, September 11, 2006

State of the blog

So things have been a little slow around here the last few months. Chalk it up to a nasty bout of writer's block or apathy. I've amassed a backlog of reviews from the TV show that I'll get to posting over the next week or so.

Call it George Lucas Disease, if you want. I'd been in the habit of writing reviews for NOW PLAYING and then expanding and tweaking them for the blog. It was an admirable idea, but combined with a general feeling of stuckness when it came to writing, it meant that I didn't post them because I needed to polish them more. You see where that got me. The desire to refine what was already "done"--the reviews were on television after all--just meant they rattled around my brain and never emerged from there. Being in my tenth year of reviewing films, seventh online, I suppose it was about time for me to cramp up for a stretch. Having a perfectionist tendency doesn't help.

I feel like the dam has been broken, so hopefully I'll be posting more regularly than has been the case recently. Credit a book review of Douglas Coupland's JPod that I wrote while on vacation. Flexing some slightly different critical muscles must have loosened up the others. I'll post that review here eventually. I wrote it for Nights and and am waiting for it to get published there before reposting it on this blog. (It should appear any day now. I'll post a link when one is available.)

Friday, September 08, 2006

Stop making my ears bleed

Nick Hornby's HIGH FIDELITY is one of my favorite books, so I was pleasantly surprised that the film turned out to be as good as it did. (It made my 2000 top 10 list.) In fact, Hornby's track record with book-to-film adaptations has been sterling. OK, the British version of FEVER PITCH pales in comparison to the Farrelly brothers' movie, but the film adaptations have distilled the essence of his novels quite well.

This is a roundabout way of saying that I was relatively horrified to learn via Stereogum that HIGH FIDELITY is being turned into a Broadway musical. Maybe that doesn't sound so bad to you, especially if you're more partial to showtunes than I am. Take a listen to four songs from the show and tell me this isn't all kinds of wrong.

I'm not predisposed to disliking everything that comes from musical theater, but admittedly it's not my favorite thing in the world either. That said, not only are these songs bad, they're anathema to the musical tastes of the characters. Record store clerks wouldn't be caught dead blaring the cast recording unless they're trying to clear the store at the end of the day. If the idea is to make something cool for those in their twenties and thirties, the least the producers could do is to put together a songbook with a little more edge than Broadway's idea of rock.

Having Stephin Merritt write the songs would have given it street credibility with HIGH FIDELITY characters like Rob and Barry while still attending to the leanings of traditional theatergoers. Otherwise it just seems backwards to take a story about serious music fans--snobs, if you will--and decorate it with songs they wouldn't be caught dead listening to. These songs do not rock.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Undermining Idiocracy

BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD creator and OFFICE SPACE director Mike Judge had a new film open this past Friday, not that anyone noticed. It wasn’t difficult to overlook. IDIOCRACY, a satire set a thousand years in the future, was unceremoniously dumped in Atlanta, Austin, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, and Toronto and left to fail per its hush-hush release.

IDIOCRACY first crossed my radar last spring when it appeared on the upcoming release grid e-mailed to critics. At the time it was titled 3001, and if memory serves, it was supposed to open in late summer 2005. As a fan of Judge's previous work, I looked forward to it despite information being pretty limited. Of course, with the sheer number of films opening each week and not a peep in the press about IDIOCRACY, I forgot about it until it turned up on the grid with a September 1, 2006 release date. I never saw a trailer, but a poster playing off of Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian man drawing showed up in at least one theater in town.

And then the posters disappeared, it fell off the grid, and it bowed with as little publicity possible for a major studio release. For comparison’s sake, September 1 openers THE WICKER MAN and CRANK were not screened in advance for the press, although industrious, in-the-know critics could gain admittance to 10:00 p.m. Thursday screenings with the proper promises. Still, in my observation both films were promoted in the typical fashion (trailers, posters, and TV advertisements). CROSSOVER, an amateurish streetball pic with limited commercial prospects, had a Wednesday night promo screening in Columbus, too late for the alt-weeklies but plenty in advance for the dailies and websites.

Could IDIOCRACY be that bad? Maybe. Nevertheless, studios release plenty of crummy films, but that doesn’t make them shy about making sure moviegoers know that their products will be at theaters near you this Friday. Even with the valid huffing and puffing about the number of films not screening for critics this year, a good number of stinkers are still shown to the press.

Regardless of IDIOCRACY'S quality, Judge’s name ought to be worth something. OFFICE SPACE was a box office disappointment but found its audience on DVD. Its home video success even spurred Swingline to make a red stapler, a treasured item that previously didn’t exist outside the film’s universe. IDIOCRACY star Luke Wilson may not be a sure-fire box office draw, but this summer’s flat comedy MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND, in which he starred alongside Uma Thurman, still managed to collect $22 million to date in box office receipts. No matter how bad the film might be, a trailer and minimal marketing campaign with Wilson’s face and Judge’s credits should have been able to pull in a few bucks at the nation’s theaters.

As it stands, most of us don’t have a chance to see it, including the residents of New York City. It is extremely rare for a major studio to release a film and not open it in NYC, which begs the question of what is really going on here. New York-based writer Bilge Ebiri is doing all he can to get to the bottom of the story, going so far as to try and coax film industry writers David Poland and Jeffrey Wells to see IDIOCRACY. On his ScreenGrab blog Ebiri points out that the few reviews out there are generally favorable, including Carina Chocano’s positive L.A. Times piece, but press coverage of the film is noticeably absent.

Regardless of if the film is unspeakably bad, a maligned masterpiece, or something in between, kudos to Ebiri for trying to bring the story to light even if he can’t see IDIOCRACY. In this age of frontloaded box office, critical opinion probably doesn’t make more than a superficial dent on the bodies of the blockbusters. Critics can make a difference with small films, and he’s doing what he can to bring IDIOCRACY to our attention. Judge’s film seems destined to film maudit status, but it would be nice if the moviegoing public could actually have a chance to determine whether such a designation is deserved or not.