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Családi tüzfészek

Reconceptualizes what cinema can do
Családi tüzfészek (aka Family Nest) is an intimate portrayal of a family slowly disintegrating under various pressures in late 1970s communist Hungary. The plot of the film is deceptively simple, with the occasional momentous event--including one that's relatively shocking, but plot in a conventional sense is not the focus here.

What makes Family Nest so masterful is director writer/director Béla Tarr's skill at suggesting layers of emotion, commentary and meaning through cinematography and staging. For example, early in the film there is an extended scene of the family that is the film's focus eating dinner in their crowded apartment with some friends. Tarr has the camera crammed in a small room with the cast, necessitating that almost the entire scene is shot in close-ups. There are numerous conversations and an increasing amount of bickering occurring simultaneously. The viewer cannot escape a sense of claustrophobia and chaos. Later in the scene, Tarr trains his camera on the family's television, which is showing a news story about communism. There is irony between the ideological foundations necessary for communism and what we see occurring among just this one small group.

As the film progresses, Tarr treats us to many more ironies and juxtapositions, such as the overbearing father's distorted view of his sons versus their "true nature", a carnival versus addiction and sickness, and the futility of government housing policy versus the practical requirements for keeping a husband and wife together.

Some scenes--and especially the final two shots, last far longer than many viewers will be accustomed to, but through such unusual techniques, Tarr manages to "dig in" to emotional and dramatic spaces that could not otherwise be reached. Like much of his work, it suggests a reconceptualization of what cinema can do and how it can do it.


Cidade de Spice Girl Power
A rising feminist movement is a major theme of this Brazilian film about a hip-hop Spice Girls-style singing act trying to make it in the midst of the socio-economic problems of lower class Sao Paolo. That surprised me a bit, because I wouldn't have guessed that feminism was a new idea at this point in industrialized Brazil, but I guess I just do not know that much about Brazil.

At times, Antônia - O Filme seems like a spin-off, in a manner more typical of sitcom spinoffs minus the humor, of Cidade de Deus. It occurs in the same world, with the same kinds of problems, only this time from a young woman's perspective. The "spin-off" flavor is maybe explainable by the fact that some of Cidade de Deus' production team is behind Antônia - O Filme, too, and looking at the IMDb, I see that apparently there's a television show, "Antônia", based on these same characters and using these same actors.

Friendship is also a major theme, following these Brazilian Spice Girls--named The Antônias in the film--through serious roadblocks to philia as one by one, other things intrude on their lives and they have to quit the band.

From what I can discern, at least some of the Antônias have musical careers in real life, and they're certainly good singers. With the exception of an impromptu version of "Killing Me Softly with His Song", the music they perform in the film is somewhat vacuous to my tastes, and those scenes made me feel more like I was watching a film such as Stomp the Yard, but the grittier Cidade de Deus-flavored scenes were dominant and worthwhile if not completely novel.


Good, but far from perfect
First, let me say that I like this game--enough that I'll definitely buy a sequel to it, and I won't need to rent it to try it out first.

However, I'm a sucker for racing games. After Grand Theft Auto-type, large-world, free roam and mission games, racing games are definitely my favorite--I can't remember one I didn't enjoy. But if you're not as enamored with racing games, there are a number of flaws to note with Motorstorm:

* There are only seven tracks. You're going to play them over and over and over. There can be different paths to take within a track, and in theory, the different vehicles you have to use--as different as dirt bikes and big rigs--necessitate taking different paths, but in practice, you'll probably find that mastering a particular path on a particular track will allow you to win regardless of your vehicle, so at about the halfway point, gameplay becomes more "mechanical" as you keep going through the motions.

* To deal with the above problem and make the game a bit more challenging, three tactics are used, with all of them being less than satisfactory to annoying:

  • The weather and time of day is varied. This is actually a nice feature; the problem is that it just isn't done enough.

  • A regular feature of the game is that dust and mud appear on the "camera". For some races, they're harder because so much mud splashes on your camera that you're effectively blindfolded for a few moments.

  • The AI racers become extremely annoying. They're designed just to make the game harder as it goes along. If you imagine their actions being real world behavior, it's more like you're racing against a cadre of institutionalized mental patients:

… The AI will usually perform the same relative to you for each race. If you drive like a grandpa through a couple laps, it will too, and then as you drive like a bat out of hell, using boost all the time for the last lap, it will too.

… You're going to wreck--and explode--your vehicle a lot. For most of the race, it's easy to regain your position. But on the last stretch of the last lap, that doesn't matter, and guess what? (See the following.)

… No matter how well you're doing or how far ahead you think you are, on most races, AI racers will come out of nowhere on the last stretch of the last lap, overtaking you and/or wrecking you so you can't progress. You have to come in first on most races to keep unlocking more.

… Motorstorm often seems more like smash-em-up derby than a race. AI cars can constantly explode all around you, but regardless of how much they do this, even if you drive through the track fast and clean, AI racers will be on your butt in certain sections, especially on the last stretch of the last lap.

… With the AI so focused on smash-em-up derby, higher levels are primarily harder because the AI tries to knock your vehicle into rocks, off of cliffs, etc. It will do this as if its the AI "driver's" sole purpose--as if it couldn't care less if other vehicles are blowing past, and even if you almost come to a complete stop, the AI will match your speed just to knock you into a wall.

* The music becomes repetitive. Of course, with the amount of hours you'll put in to complete this game, that's probably inevitable, even with twenty-one songs, but at times, it seems like the same five songs keep playing over and over. On a game like this, we should be able to load our own music to listen to--shouldn't that be easy on the PS3?

* The load times can be agonizing. Like some others, this is the first game I've played on my PS3. When the first track for the first race was loading, I was worried that my PS3 crashed already. It didn't. That's just how the races load.

* There is no offline multiplayer mode. I don't care much about that feature, but many do. Multiplayer is online only.

So, are there no positives beyond this being a racing game? Of course there are:

* The graphics are beautiful. I don't know if this is going to be unusual for PS3 games, but in comparison, it has actually made normal DVDs on my big-screen HD television look less than stellar to me. If part of the goal was to get consumers to check out BluRay DVDs, the PS3 is doing its job.

* Even though there aren't enough tracks or enough variation on those tracks, those routes are extremely well done. They're a heck of a lot of fun to race on.

* The range of vehicles is great. There are a lot of choices, they look good, and they handle well, with some nice realistic touches.

* The smash-em-up derby approach can actually be fun. The graphics for the wrecks and explosions are fantastic--you'll find yourself wrecking just to watch it. BUT, one of two things should have been done to make this better: either have a smash-em-up derby contest that's a different mode--NOT a race, and/or award points during the races for wrecking other cars than your own. For example, if you cause five other cars to wreck during a race, you get a position bonus (if you need it) at the end, so that if you came in second during the race but caused five wrecks, you get boosted up to first instead (of course, this should apply to all racers), or if you came in third but caused ten wrecks, you get boosted to first, etc. Each time you get wrecked instead would subtract the bonus points from one of the wrecks you caused.


Boyle in the Sun
The more Danny Boyle films I see, the more he moves up my "worst directors" list. I didn't think Trainspotting was anything spectacular, I hated 28 Days Later, and I hated Sunshine. Of course, three films out of eight (not including his television work) isn't enough to put him at the top of the worst directors list, but it's enough to make me dread seeing any more of his films.

Sunshine seems like a low budget independent film. Most of it looks bad--the cinematography, most of the special effects, the stuff that we're supposed to think is in space and not models. The performances tend to come across as slightly above amateur. The dialogue is often ridiculous, insular and jargony. Boyle directs his cast (or lets them, at least) to act pretentiously serious and melodramatic. All of the above are actually problems with all of the Boyle films I've seen to date.

But the biggest problem is that Boyle simply does not know how to tell a story here. Too much is unexplained. Too much is just skipped. Too much is like a bad acid trip (with an emphasis on bad).

As sci-fi, Sunshine doesn't have much to do with real-world science. Now, as fiction, I don't think that it has to have much to do with real-world science. But if it's going to have fictional world science, it needs to give us some grounding on what the "rules" of the fictional world are. Otherwise we're just in the dark, and events are more or less random. Of course, you could take Sunshine as more of an impressionistic work commenting on things like science vs. religion or commenting on man's obsession with everything from sun worship to authority, control, collecting/hording, ideologies, etc., but the problem is that it's not very satisfactory on those more abstract levels, either, and it's also too loaded down with techie jargon and plot developments to work on that level.

Legend of the Mummy

What the hell?
Wow, this is a bad film. I think this may be the first flick with some passable production values (you can hear dialogue, they know how to do lighting, etc.) that I've scored a 1. Others have mentioned many of the problems, but some bear repeating as a forewarning:

* Every character seems to be in a separate story/different film. Maybe this was an experimental work wherein each actor was told to write their own Mummy story/script and act out (in whatever style of their choosing, no matter how incongruous) their self-penned part while others did the same.

* Despite the multitude of actor/writers, the film primarily works as a sleep aid. Not much happens. I was starting to wonder if this wasn't really a low-budget 1970s BBC attempt to make a "relatively" boring drama.

*Actors are sometimes attacked by nothing. Maybe they were told that effects shots would be added later. That didn't happen. So most of these scenes are amusingly ridiculous.

* The various scenes of the simultaneous separate stories seem to be edited by throwing a hundred randomly selected pieces of film in the air and putting them together however they landed.

* It's not clear how many mummies are supposed to be involved in the story. There seem to be a few different ones . . . you never get to see most of them very well though. It's a mystery who most of them are, where they came from, and what they're trying to do.

* Because there are twenty different sketchy stories occurring at the same time, the film makes less and less sense as it progresses. Like another viewer, I got to a point where I started looking for more interesting things to do--like brushing my teeth--without caring if I hit pause or not . . . the movie wasn't going to make sense no matter what I did. There's a strong "everything including the kitchen sink" approach evident. I primarily entertained myself from the halfway mark by making fun of the film and writing/reciting my own dialogue, MST3K-style. For example, when they decide they all need to go downstairs for some ceremony, I'd add, "Now, we all need to do the hokey pokey." It made just as much sense as the actual dialogue.


Can be worthwhile if you know what to expect and know your tastes
Captivity is strongly in the tradition of films like the Cube series, the Saw series and the Hostel series--so subtract at least one point if you care about "originality". It also strains plausibility/believability almost to the point of occasionally seeming very close to a spoof of those kinds of films, so you need to subtract at least one more point if you care about actual world verisimilitude. And of course, the comparisons should suggest that this is a torture film. It can get pretty graphic and brutal at that, so that will have some bearing on whether you enjoy Captivity or not.

I normally don't care about originality so much, but Captivity received a slight reduction from me on that end because it fairly transparently seems like a "cash in on the trend" film. Derivativeness when it is sincere inspiration, unwitting influence or sheer coincidence are fine with me. But here, it seems more like the producers said, "Hey, these films are hot right now; what can we do in the same vein, but a bit different, and that's also more extreme in some ways so we get kids talking about it like the latest thrill ride?" Of course, I could be wrong about those intentions, but I have to go by what it seems like to me.

I also normally don't care about plausibility so much, but I found myself somewhat lamenting that they didn't just go ahead and make the absurdist spoof film instead, as they're so often closer than a cigar. Surely the time is ripe for a spoof of the genre.

On the other hand, for what it is, Captivity does its job fairly well. Elisha Cuthbert is certainly pleasant to look at, which is smart, because she's on screen about 90 percent of the time. And although the ending may be a bit predictable once you get close to it--a door must be left open for sequels just in case the box office receipts are good, it also offers enough pleasantly twisted possibilities that I'm hoping a (probably low budget, direct-to-video) sequel is made despite the paltry financial showing Captivity actually had. So, as long as you do not expect an unprecedented work of genius, you like this genre, and you have a healthy taste for cheese and tackiness, Captivity is worth watching.

The Wind in the Willows

Slightly uneven but very enjoyable
It may take some adjusting to be able to appreciate this version of Wind in the Willows. Although now distributed by Disney on home video, the quick pacing and wild abandon of Disney's 1949 version, which was half of the film The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, is not to be found here. Neither will you find the over-the-top absurdism of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" (1969), despite the presence of four Pythoners, including The Wind in the Willows' screenwriter, director and star, Terry Jones.

On the other hand, wild abandon and Pythonesque absurdism are not completely absent, but this is usually a much more mild, subtle and deliberately-paced affair which more closely follows Kenneth Grahame's original book--except for the plot developments towards the end. Jones has made sure to retain much of the book's symbolism of ideas and phenomena such as class stratification, plus he adds some of his own with more fascistic weasels. But at the same time, he also manages to produce something family and kid-friendly.

Although filled with humor, The Wind in the Willows is rarely--and rarely tries to be--laugh-out-loud funny, even though it occasionally reaches the comedic heights of Python (for example, during the courtroom scene, which features a great cameo from John Cleese). But most of the Python crew have spent the majority of their careers in an attempt to avoid being pigeonholed in that particular style--while most Python fans have experienced years of at least slight frustration at the subsequent void. Jones strikes a nice balance here, and ends up producing a very enjoyable, slightly fantastic, slightly silly romp with its own dramatic sensibilities.

The Wizard of Oz

The (Cute) CliffsNotes Version
Too many people will probably dismiss this as a cheap knock-off, a quick cash-in. Heck, the production company is "American Film Investment Corporation", which only supports those notions. Who is going to say, "Hey, American Film Investment Corporation, I bet this is some great art"? AFIC was also known as "Golden Films", but the credits here announce AFIC in bold letters instead.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss this so easily. Because although this version of Wizard of Oz isn't some overlooked masterpiece, it's very well done for a budget, abbreviated, animated version of the story, which should provide enjoyment for huge fans of either The Wizard of Oz or animation in general.

The animation style is closest to traditional American Saturday morning cartoon fare. That might turn some people off, but it's the style of programs like Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! (1969), The Jetsons (1962) and The Flintstones (1960), and I absolutely love all of those (especially Scooby-Doo), partially because of the animation, even though that style was determined more because of budget restrictions than for any artistic reason.

A great job was done in finding voice actors who closely resemble the actors from the famous 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz. It may seem initially odd that this decision was made, but it wasn't a bad idea, as this AFIC version is obviously akin to a CliffsNotes rendition of the 1939 film--although it has some significant commonalities with the original book that will please purists.

While no one should substitute this for the 1939 film (and I don't think it's a good idea to do that with kids, either), I found myself far more enamored with it than I expected--you might too if you're not too much of a sourpuss.

Meet the Robinsons

Beautifully crazed, frantic and surreal with a good message
I've mentioned this many times, but first it's important to remember that I'm biased. I don't think there's an animated Disney film that I've given less than a 10 out of 10. Heck, I give a large percentage of their live action fare a 10 out of 10, and almost never give any of their films lower than a 7 out of 10. I don't do this just because they're Disney and I'm issuing a vote to keep me in an extended, fantastical childhood (I need no assistance in maintaining an element of that, thank you); I do it because I really enjoy their work that much.

It's easy to see how many people might not care for Meet the Robinsons. It has far more in common stylistically with recent Disney films like Chicken Little (2005) and Lilo & Stitch (2002) than it does with the "classic" Disney films (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Cinderella (1950), etc.), or even their "second golden age" (The Lion King (1994), Beauty and the Beast (1991), etc.)--although it's worthwhile to note that some characteristics are not that far removed from Alice in Wonderland (1951) or even Pinocchio (1940), and you'll find things reminiscent of many other films--from Toy Story (1995) to Robots (2005) to Looney Tunes cartoons. It has an unusual, surrealistic flow, and it often seems like there's nowhere the animators won't go for a bit of weirdness.

But especially this latter fact is part of the charm to me. Meet the Robinsons may be adapted from the gorgeously drawn children's book, William Joyce's A Day with Wilbur Robinson (1993), but it seems just as inspired by Edward Lear's "Nonsense" books, which were some of my first favorites as a kid.

Visually, Meet the Robinsons is just as beautiful as Joyce's work. And beneath all the wonderfully frantic surrealism, which is loaded with quick, funny pop culture references, there's a great message here about creativity, experimentation, mindful experience and the necessity and acceptance of failure and rejection.

Children of the Corn: Revelation

Children of the Condo
Children of the Corn (CotC) scripts may have never been literary masterpieces, but for some reason, CotC 6 and 7 have scripts that seem like very early drafts--or even as if they were only partially complete and the directors decided to just wing it for the rest of the film. It's a shame because both films otherwise had the potential to be quite good.

For CotC7, a relatively oblique path was chosen (probably to the chagrin of those predisposed to purism)--it's more or less a "haunted house" film. This was promising to me, as by the time you get around to the seventh entry in a series, a change of pace is refreshing, and haunted house (really, haunted anything) films are probably my favorite horror subgenre.

For the first 45 minutes or so, CotC7 was satisfying to me. In fact, for the first 10 or 15 minutes, it seemed reminiscent of the more recent 1408 (2007), which I loved. It had a good setting, a good premise, good atmosphere, creepy scenes, a bit of eye candy, and even a bit of odd humor.

But right about the halfway mark, it starts to unravel. Mysterious characters (many supernatural) are never explained, and they keep growing in number. A couple scenes featured supernatural characters that don't cohere with the rest of the film--for example, one has a zombie or adult burn victim. The film starts getting choppy, and it begins to feel more like a series of pointless and disconnected "scary" set-pieces.

Worse, there was a stable of interesting human characters who were never explored enough--we're just teased with them and then they're usually quickly dispatched with relatively generic horror film deaths. And the crux of the story--Jamie's (Claudette Mink) missing grandmother--remains murky through the end. The biggest tragedy is that the ball was dropped. With just a bit more work on the script--another two or three drafts, maybe--this could have been one of the better entries of this uneven series.

The Lost City

Not the Godfather
Yikes--a boring film about a still very relevant political revolution? Seems like it would be difficult to achieve, but despite everything that producer / director / actor / composer / caterer / shoe-shiner / kitchen-sink-plumber Andy Garcia gets right in this tale of Havana, Cuba during Fidel Castro's rise to power, this tends to be a boring, cold, distant-feeling affair.

I think I have the main problems pegged. One, Garcia was shooting for a Godfather-like epic. That doesn't sound bad, maybe, but the problem there is that the Godfather films have a wide sprawl, a monumental seriousness, and a lot of character development segments for a huge stable of personalities. Those are difficult characteristics that can easily become a mess. Francis Ford Coppola was able to transcend the speedbumps and produce a masterpiece. Here, the results are more disjointed, sometimes pretentious, and too much just feels like padding.

Next, Garcia obviously loves music and must believe that music is an inextricable aspect of life for Cubans, so Garcia's character owns a club and there are many musical scenes. But these tend to halt any momentum otherwise achieved. The music is good, but these scenes are more obtrusive than anything Bollywood does.

Finally, maybe for box office appeal, Garcia signed on actors like Bill Murray and Dustin Hoffman, but they're wasted here. Murray especially is indicative of a more common problem with the less-famous actors--he basically functions as a prop that also tends to halt momentum.

It's a shame, because in other respects, The Lost City is a decent film. All of the technical elements are admirable. The action and more tense scenes tend to be good--they kept giving me hope. For that matter, if you watch any arbitrary five minutes in isolation, you might think you've stumbled upon a great film that you should have started watching from the beginning. But it just doesn't hang together well.

Stealing Candy

Flawed but very enjoyable
Stealing Candy certainly isn't a "perfect" film, but for what it is, it's not at all bad--it kept me more than entertained, it was both sexy and thrilling, filled with tension, and the twists were done well.

The most obvious flaws are technical, but this is clearly a low budget film. Either the original film or the DVD transfer is "low definition" rather than high, and too many times it's obvious that the cinematography goes a bit out of focus. It has almost a home video texture--for a moment, I was afraid that this was going to be a no-budget stinker.

But the script is good, the performances are fun (if a bit campy, but I like that), and Mark Lester is a capable director. It helps that Jenya Lano is incredibly sexy in this, but the thrust of Stealing Candy is a crime-thriller film with a twist--in ways reminiscent of the superior Suicide Kings (1997), but without the black comedy.

That might seem to suggest that Stealing Candy is derivative, and that wouldn't be wrong--aside from Suicide Kings, it has similarities to many other films, including another excellent heist-gone-wrong flick, Killing Zoe (1994). Most oddly on this end is that scorer Dana Kaproff must have been commanded by Lester to, "Write something that sounds like Bernard Herrmann here", and you could swear that the result doesn't just sound Herrmannian, but that it was actually lifted from a Hitchcock film. That's one of many things that telegraphs some twists to come, but Lester pretty skillfully "misdirects" us from expecting particular twists, too.

At any rate, if you're someone who subtracts major points for derivativeness and lack of technical polish, approach Stealing Candy with caution, but if you're like me--you do not demand that films belong to the cult of originality and you enjoy a bit of cheese in your thrillers (we even get the cheesiest Baldwin brother here, Daniel--I'm a big fan of the Baldwin brothers' work), then this is worth a watch.

Children of the Corn 666: Isaac's Return

Too bad
This is an unfortunate one. Children of the Corn 666: Isaac's Return (CotC6) probably has the best cinematography, best editing, some of the best effects, and some of the creepiest scenes of any CotC film to this point, but the script is a complete mess and helmer Kari Skogland does not seem to be very skilled at directing actors.

For at least the first 10-15 minutes of CotC6, I was prepared to give it at least a 9. Hannah (Natalie Ramsey) is driving to the town of Gatlin, Nebraska--the setting of the first film--and gives a ride to what turns out to be a disturbing ghost. She soon after wipes out in a cornfield, and a creepy policewoman-- nicely cast against type, takes her to a hospital to be checked out, only it's a hospital that's apparently been taken over by mental patients. This is all great stuff, well filmed, with refreshing differences from the rest of the series.

But then as the dialogue and exposition increase, the film begins to fall apart. The plot brings back Isaac (John Franklin) from the first film, with Hannah playing a major role in a "He Who Walks Behind the Rows"-religion prophecy. That maybe wasn't a bad idea, but the script feels like a first or second draft. It's choppy and just doesn't make much sense. The characters are bizarre, as if scripter Tim Sulka and co-writer Franklin kept changing their minds about dispositions every two pages. Hannah will seem gung-ho about experiencing Gatlin's weirdness one minute, oddly indifferent the next, then desperate to escape, and then gung-ho . . . Isaac vacillates between innocuous and evil. Rachel's (Nancy Allen) pendulum swings between psychopathic and protective. Maybe there were two or three completely different approaches tried, but they ran out of money, so the final film was a mash-up?

And Skogland doesn't help. She tends to encourage her cast to overact, she exaggerates the multiple personality feeling, and she makes sure that everything seems pretentiously stagy.

In the Land of Women

I guess this genre is growing on me
Well, I just got done saying that "slice of life" realist drama-comedies are hardly my favorite genre (in my review of Standing Still (2005)), and here I am giving a second one a 10 out of 10. So much for self-knowledge.

I think what most attracted me here is attitude, which was achieved through a combination of the script and the great performances (although everything else--from the locations to the music, matched nicely). I've long been a "fan" of Zen and Taoism, although a fairly casual fan (which I think is appropriate). This tale of an understated softcore "erotica" scriptwriter from Hollywood who makes a sojourn to Michigan to live with his elderly, hypochondriacal grandmother and becomes wrapped up in the lives of the females in the family across the street is a good exemplar of a realistic Zen/Taoist approach to life. It's not that every character exemplifies this, or that any of them do at all times, but that's what's realistic about it--not everything will be even-keel. Living mindfully in the moment involves doing so when we get upset or worried, too; it's part of the Zen "return to the market".

All of the main characters and most of the auxiliary characters are likable. Director Jon Kasdan infuses the film with a fair amount of very funny humor--this could have been hilarious if the aim were to just make a comedy. Everyone is going through major life trials and occasionally traumatic events. But everyone remains relatively cool, and Kasdan makes the smart move of not overplaying anything, not following melodramatic openings, and leaving threads that aren't unresolved but that resolve in very subtle and unexpected ways--and that's just like life is most of the time.

Standing Still

These "slice of life", realist drama-comedies are far from my favorite genre, but as a serious movie buff, I've seen tens of them over the years, and Standing Still is right up there with the best of them.

The only flaw I can find, really, is the title, which is a bit enigmatic (not that I mind enigmas, but it's a bit out of context here). A better title would have been "Secrets", or even "Shuffle" if something less obvious was desired, as the plot is focused on an event--a wedding--that brings a wide range of people together, some unexpected, almost all with some kind of secret, and reshuffles them in various ways--often through revelations of their secrets.

Realist movies can easily become unfocused or boring--after all, that's true of most folks' lives if we were to follow them around with a video camera and expect people who don't know them to be entertained watching the results. But Standing Still manages to create suspense, tension and a healthy dose of humor while expertly weaving together a large number of threads, all while keeping things fairly firmly in realist territory and providing satisfactory resolutions. It's also emotionally satisfying and relatively "deep", often in subtle ways, all aided by the fantastic performances. Everyone says just as much with subtle body language as they do via their dialogue, and this just as often occurs in what could tend to be read as the lighter or shallower scenes.

I wanted to see far more about every one of these characters--and we could hardly call that a flaw.

Otac na sluzbenom putu

Good despite my confusion
This is yet another film where I had some problem figuring out many plot elements and character relationships, where some of the blame might rest on having to rely on subtitles. I also do not know much of the complicated history of Bosnia, so that didn't help me to understand the context, either.

It took me at least half the film to figure out all of the character relationships, and this is really a "slice of life" story--albeit set, in the 1950s, in what's apparently a confusing, changing, communist political landscape. But it's important to know each character's relation to other characters as well as a bit of their personal backgrounds and histories with each other--character development is of primary importance, but I'm not sure it was always fleshed-out as it needed to be.

It also didn't help (as it never does in any film) that a few characters looked very similar, and at least one has a major change of appearance, and a major change back. For example, I never was completely clear on whether the woman on the train with the father at the beginning, with whom he was having an affair (he was quite the philanderer), was also the female pilot in the airshow, and also the gym teacher, who was also his brother-in-law's wife. And the reason that the father went away to some kind of prison work camp was never very clear to me either. Ostensibly it was because he made a remark about a cartoon in a newspaper, but that seems ridiculous (although maybe that's more realistic than I can imagine and is part of the point), and I kept thinking that the real reason was for the brother-in-law to get back at him for the affair with the brother-in-law's wife.

In any event, despite my confusion, this is a fairly good film, with great performances. The family's youngest son is at times a narrator and is featured in a poignant subplot, but Otac na sluzbenom putu would have benefited by making him even more of the focus and point of view.

Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny

Don't blame me, I didn't try to kill The Metal \m/
Now this is my kind of movie. Of course, I have a lot of kinds of movies--just look at a wide span of my ratings, and you'd think that I get a dollar for every high score I give out, but what I mean is this is the kind of movie that resonates with me on a creative level--it's in the vein of my fiction writing, it's what just comes naturally from me (not in the vein of my non-fiction writing, which is boring and crappy). The weird thing is that this movie has been well received, whereas I can't get agents to not ignore me even when I kidnap their female offspring and make them my love slaves, but on the other hand, I don't have one of those cool birthmarks on my ass.

Which is all to point out why this film so easily won me over. I would have liked The Big Bounce (2004) too if only Sara Foster would have had a cool birthmark on her ass.

Writers/stars/rock-out-with-cock-out masters Jack Black and Kyle Gass and director Liam Lynch waste no time getting as ridiculous as possible, and they sustain it for most of the film. I had to start hitting pause so I could laugh from the first scene. The idea of narrating the film through absurd song lyrics is funny and is executed in a way that's even funnier than the idea, even though that was funny in the first place, and you couldn't really film an idea, so maybe it's funny to try to talk about it as if I observed it, and I really shouldn't have tried to make the distinction. Let me just mention the hilarious cameos from Ben Stiller, Tim Robbins, John C. Reilly, Dave Grohl, etc. in a completely arbitrary way instead, and also put in my vote to Hollywood for more wacky low-budget surreal fantasy scenes spawned by mushrooms.

You can also tell that Black and Gass really do love the kind of music they're spoofing, which gives the film an earnestness that's a pleasantly odd fit with the absurdities. They really do love fat schlubs with bad wigs playing rushed and emotionless versions of Bourée on Venice Beach.

Curious George

I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn't this masterpiece
I had been putting off watching Curious George for a while, but I'm not quite sure why. I love animation, I still love kids' entertainment in general, and I'm a huge Will Ferrell fan, but I think I had some fuzzy, distant memory that I didn't really care for the Curious George books (and maybe I had seen a couple of the early films when I was in high school) and I was vaguely aware of a negative buzz about this film. Well, putting it off was a mistake, because this is now easily one of my favorite films from 2006--everything about it is perfect, and I have to doubt my memory about previous Curious George works (I've already ordered one of the old books and films to check out).

The first thing you notice is how gorgeous and unusual the animation is. It's highly stylized to create a complete fantasy world, and seamlessly combines high-tech and low-tech, cartoonish caricature and realistic computer-aided design.

The plot, which is about Ted (Ferrell) venturing from a fantasy New York City to Africa to try to find a huge statue that would save the natural history museum he works for, may seem to be the weakest link, but that would come from misunderstanding the focus, which is instead on a number of abstract ideas and themes.

The primary idea is relatively unusual but very welcome--a message about the extreme importance of curiosity, creativity and play. This is merged with a very positive Zen-like "go with the flow"/"live mindfully in the moment" theme, which is partially achieved via a stream-of-consciousness flow of various subplots that frequently, very enjoyably dip into silliness and absurdities.

The main plot turns out to fit perfectly with this tone, as do the choices and performances of the voice actors, including Ferrell, Frank Welker, Eugene Levy, Dick Van Dyke, Drew Barrymore and David Cross. The Jack Johnson songs also set an unexpected but perfect mood for the film.


Thoroughly engrossing
You probably can't get a much better endorsement for a horror film than this--I found 1408 fairly scary. Now that might not sound very remarkable, but I'm someone who almost _never_ finds films scary. For me to get into that state over a film, it has to resonate with me in a way that few films can.

Of course, I'm a sucker for horror in general, especially haunted house flicks--probably my favorite horror subgenre. I'm a big fan of Stephen King (down to liking the majority of King-related films), a big Samuel L. Jackson fan, and I like John Cusack. It was an excellent idea to have Cusack's character, Mike Enslin, be a jaded skeptic. I could empathize with him, because I'm also a writer and a skeptic with an interest in horror-related topics and the supernatural. I thought the unusual move of setting this in a major, working New York hotel was well thought-out. I also love the atmosphere of the hotel--the interior decoration, the design of the sets, etc.

All of the above primed me for the film, combined with some fine scriptwriting and performances--for example, the extended scene featuring Jackson's character, Gerald Olin, pleading with and trying every way to bribe Enslin into rethinking his decision to stay in Room 1408 was one of the better I've seen in some time.

The scariest moments arrive fairly early--shortly after Enslin begins his stay in 1408, but the whole film is incredibly engrossing, even if it begins to turn into more of a "rubber reality" trip by the end--ala Jacob's Ladder (1990), Memento (2000), The I Inside (2003), and maybe not just coincidentally, the too-little-known Nightmare on the 13th Floor (1990) (different than the Thirteenth Floor from 1999, even though that's another rubber reality film) . . . and that's another favorite genre for me. The ambiguities in 1408 are a lot of fun to speculate about afterwards, but they're also not aggravating, as some rubber reality films can be.

Bush's Brain

Fails to deliver
With the exception of a segment focusing on Fredrick Pokorney (a young Nevadan who died early in the Iraq War), Bush's Brain is relatively passionless. This is the epitome of a "talking head" documentary. A majority consists of interviews with men in chairs. Everyone is calm, collected and tending toward the monotone. For variety, some are interviewed standing up and/or in locations other than an office, and there are occasional clips of politics in action. But the raw material, plus the lifeless narration, plus a lack of pizazz in the editing room equals a passionless film.

Many will think that's a relatively unimportant criticism. "What matters", they'll say, "Is the importance of the information, the outrageousness of the reality the film addresses". Well, that's another big problem. Bush's Brain is intended to show two main theses: (1) that former George W. Bush Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove was effectively "Co-President" with Bush, and (2) that Rove is a shady character with a lengthy history of ethically questionable actions. I think the film fails on both accounts. (And no, I'm not a Republican. I'm also not a Democrat. I'm a Libertarian. I'm no big fan of George W.)

For the first thesis, this is far too much just a historical biography of Rove (although it's informative enough as that--I definitely learned things). Now, Rove has been involved with the Bush family for 30 years in many capacities, but all politicians have speechwriters, idea persons, etc. Absolutely nothing is done to show that Rove was unusual in his political support functions in a way that would amount to him being "Co-President" with Bush. For the second thesis, about half of the things discussed do not seem unethical to me (rather it's sometimes sour grapes), and for the ethically questionable, not enough is done to present more than one side of the story, breaking the argument that the documentary is passionless in the name of a journalistic "lack of bias".

I quattro dell'Apocalisse

Visceral and Symbolic
Although by standard genre conventions, I Quattro dell'apocalisse (Four of the Apocalypse) is definitely a (spaghetti) western, in many ways it is just as terrifying as any of director Lucio Fulci's more famous horror flicks.

The story centers on four people who end up together by happenstance--they are all jailed in a small Utah town. After most of the town is massacred, the four are set free and try to make their way together to a city 200 miles distant. Although adapted from two Bret Harte stories, "The Luck of Roaring Camp" and "The Outcasts of Poker Flat", Fulci and screenwriter Ennio De Concini amped up the violence, added a character, Chaco (Tomas Milian) probably influenced by Charles Manson (and prescient of Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow portrayal in a way that must be more than happenstance), and embedded the Biblical "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" connection.

In the Bible, the four horsemen represent the destructive phenomena of pestilence, famine, war and death. Here, there's more of a "seven deadly sins" flavor, as the four main characters represent greed/gambling, prostitution, alcoholism and insanity. Adding Chaco to the mix flips traditional morality on its head, as the four protagonists must bond as they try to help each other survive.

The penultimate act is subtly mystical--it's almost as if the remaining protagonists have been temporarily transported to heaven, although the greatest tragedy occurs in this setting, too. Fulci slyly transforms the environment during this section, a change that actually begins to occur during the previous act, with a heavily symbolic downpour.


It's surprising that no one has made this film before now, because it's not only a great idea, I'd bet it's a fantasy that many huge stars have had. Hell, it's a fantasy I have as an everyday schlub when people bug me--or even when I'm in crowds and people are pushy.

The odd thing, with the talent and money involved, is that Paparazzi has the feel of a made-for-television film. And one look at director Paul Abascal's resume gives us a likely reason--this is his only feature film as helmer so far, although he has close to twenty television credits on his resume, plus an impressive list of titles behind him as a Hollywood hairstylist (which causes me to try to remember the hairstyles in Paparazzi . . . but I just don't tend to pay that much attention to them, unless they're something pleasantly weird like Diva Zappa's hair as "The Drill Girl" in Children of the Corn 5: Fields of Terror (1998)).

But as a made-for-television film, Paparazzi is excellent, and as a major release, it's very good. While the story may be a fairly pedestrian tale of revenge--albeit a touch more clever in the end--what makes Paparazzi excel is the performances. Cole Hauser is perfect as the slightly bewildered "normal guy" suddenly catapulted to stardom. Few people can do sleazeball better than Tom Sizemore and Daniel Baldwin; they're at their best here. And by this point, Dennis Farina is such a master of playing both a cop and a thug that I expect to hear on the news that he's arrested himself.

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad

Anti-consumerist Taoism?
Generally underrated, or at least relatively overlooked, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is a favorite of mine that just keeps getting better with each viewing. I've seen it probably ten times over the years, yet I keep noticing subtle visual jokes and layers of meaning that I previously missed. For just one example, only on this last viewing did I finally notice the weasel sleeping in Toad Hall who is supported by a woman in a painting. My appreciation of the beautiful animation in general also seems to grow with each viewing.

The film consists of two halves, the first a Disneyfied version of Kenneth Grahame's "Wind in the Willows", the second a Disneyfied version of Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow". While both can be read as light, often surreal, sometimes goofy, and always-funny stories (and hence kids, young and old--time for me to raise my hand--can appreciate them), adults can easily read various "deeper" meanings into the tales.

For example, Mr. Toad's fickle manias and the predicament they lead to could be seen as a criticism of consumerism. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow could be read as an exemplification of the value of Taoist or Zen-Buddhist mindfulness and "going with the flow"--as well as a warning about letting delusions take hold instead. This isn't to say that these interpretations were intended by Grahame, Irving, or Disney's artists, or that they're the "right" interpretations, just that they're made possible and plausible by the depth of the material.

Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror

Yeah, I'm biased – so sue me
Before I start getting complaints, or at least dumbfounded looks, from people who strongly disagree with my rating, I should explain a number of ways in which I'm biased here:

* I'm an easy date when it comes to horror films in general--as long as they're technically competent, they're almost guaranteed a 5 out of 10 from me.

* I have a soft spot for long-running series. The more horror films the better if you ask me, and never-ending series seem to agree with me.

* I'm a HUGE Frank Zappa fan, so the excitement of seeing both Ahmet and Diva Zappa in the same film--and with a bit of Frank-like blow-up doll action, no less--brings my score up a notch. (My only question is why didn't they have Diva's character kill Ahmet's character?)

* As soon as Eva Mendes appears on screen, I fall in love and become hypnotized. By the way, great decision on the wardrobe, Mr. Wiley.

* I'm a big fan of "B-movie" warhorses like David Carradine and Fred Williamson.

And aside from those biases, this isn't at all a bad film, even if it can be a bit predictable. It's consistent with the Children of the Corn mythos--in so far as the mythos makes sense in general--and also extends it nicely. I can't say whether the film is scary, as I don't really find that quality in any film, but it certainly was entertaining, and the Teflon coating on the main protagonist, Allison (Stacy Galina) was an unusual touch.

De zaak Alzheimer

I had a snazzy summary line, but I forgot it
I don't know if I'm getting stupider as I get older, but I've found on a few recent films that I'm having more problems following a story when I have to rely on subtitles. At any rate, that's not a flaw with De Zaak Alzheimer, which is one of the more original thrillers I've seen recently.

The plot is fairly complex, at least in the way that it's relayed. But that's a good thing. The film is a gradual unfolding of far-reaching crime and conspiracy. The characterization here is deep, with a lot to say about complex interpersonal, political and group/institutional relationships, including quite a few ethical quandaries. The anti-hero, Angelo Ledda (Jan Decleir), is refreshingly different, as an older man suffering with the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. That may sound as if De Zaak Alzheimer is more of a drama, but it is solidly in crime-action-thriller territory, with quite a few "edge-of-your-seat" scenes. I'm anxious to see more from this director, and more Belgian films in general.

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