Thursday, May 29, 2008

Henry Fool (1997)



Benjamin Wood
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Score: 3/5

Hal Hartley is a one man film-making machine. According to the Internet Movie Database, he has directed 23 movies/short films. Of those, he wrote 17. In addition, he has solely (or at least helped) to compose the music for thirteen of his films. If anything, Hartley has to be called ambitious.

But are his movies any good? Henry Fool is my introduction to Hartley's film world, and unfortunately, my first response is one of mixed emotions. On one hand, Henry Fool is an almost ambient look at a drifter with delusions of grandeur and a garbage-man who finds his inner poetic genius. This aspect of the story is generally handled well, with the dynamic between Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) for the most part was able to keep me interested in the story, and wanting to see more. The peripheral storylines, however, involving Simon's sister, Fay Grim (Parker Posey), his mother (Maria Porter), a cynical priest (Nicholas Hope), and a "holier-than-thou" senator and his cronies, leave much to be desired.

The main problem seems to be that the main story is so strong that the momentary diversions seem unnecessary, adding little to the characters that the conversations between Henry and Simon did not. The story's focus is on Henry's personal demons (why he was in prison years before, why he refused to share his "Confessions" with anyone) and Simon's reluctant rise from being labeled "retarded" by his family to being a poetic prodigy, and that's where it should've stayed. The other storylines, the mother's depression, the priest's cynicism, the right-wing senator's campaign, all come and go with little fanfare, and yet take up at least a half hour of the movie.

The movie lives (and dies) on Hartley's dialogue and the performances from Ryan and Urbaniak. When they are together onscreen, the chemistry is palpable, and the dialogue seems both crisp and ambiguous. Apart, however, the dialogue drifts, and for the most part the supporting characters spout off petty annoyances rather than engage in developed introspection.

Hartley also makes two stylistic choices that continue to baffle me slightly. First, there's a scene (which seems to last at least a minute) where a character is a on a toilet and there are very loud flatulent sounds. It seems that, in a movie that seems constantly concerned with promoting the profundity of the story without alienating the viewer completely, a scene such as this only made me wonder whether the story really was all that profound, or was a ruse, much like Henry Fool's own deluded view of his own self-importance.

The second choice that puzzled me was that, for the first two-thirds of the movie, it seems that Simon Grim, and not Henry Fool, is the main character, despite the title of the movie. The last forty minutes, however, feature almost exclusively on Henry, with Simon's presence glaringly absent. The shift in focus mid-film is somewhat abrupt, and the lack of the Henry/Simon dynamic make the end portion of the film seem even slower than the rest, which is not a good thing for an already slow movie.

Henry Fool is not a failure, however. The dynamic between the two leads is engaging, and the segment of the story focusing on whether Simon's "magnum opus" is "art" or "pornography" is developed fully and powerfully. Unfortunately, the movie continues to trod along far after this storyline has reached its apex, and the ending is surprisingly rushed and anti-climatic.

It seems a shame that a movie with such promise should flounder so horribly in the end. Hartley definitely has a world-changing poem within him, but for now, it's hard to tell whether he's more Henry Fool or Simon Grim.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)



Benjamin Wood
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Score: 2.5/5

A trilogy is, as defined by Webster's Dictionary, "A series of three dramas which, although each of them is in one sense complete, have a close mutual relation, and form one historical and poetical picture." Trilogies have been around since the days of Ancient Greece, where tragedies were often performed in sets of three. Quadrilogy, meanwhile, has no current dictionary definition, and has seemingly only entered the public vernacular recently, in regards to movies that could not stand pat at being merely trilogies. Unfortunately, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (henceforth known simply as Crystal Skull) turns the great Indiana Jones trilogy into a flawed and unnecessarily long Indiana Jones quadrilogy.

The Indiana Jones trilogy always had the bad fortune to be Harrison Ford and George Lucas' "second best trilogy," paling in comparison to the Star Wars trifecta. That being said, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were both excellent films, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was a good film, most likely being remembered poorly because it was sandwiched in between two far superior films. Temple of Doom, however, is now no longer the worst of the Indiana Jones series. Crystal Skull makes Temple of Doom look like Raiders of the Lost Ark, and threatens to put a slight damper on many fond memories

Crystal Skull suffers mainly from two things: (1) The story is horrible. Not just bad compared to the other three Indiana Jones movies, but bad in general. It tries to roll four or five separate storylines into a single one, and ends up coming off as schizophrenic and ridiculous. (2) The action in Crystal Skull is hokey and requires the viewer to suspend their disbelief far beyond the levels that were needed to enjoy the first three movies.

The main plotline in Crystal Skull involves Indy trying to escape from Soviet agents, surviving a nuclear blast by hiding in a refrigerator (how's that for having to suspend one's disbelief?), escape from more Soviets, recover an ancient relic in Peru (the crystal skull for which the movie is named), escape more Soviets, take the skull to an ancient temple located somewhere in Brazil, escape a variety of traps and (gasp!) more Soviets, and ultimately find out what the power is that the relic holds. Unfortunately, it all comes off as half-assed and disjointed, with Cold War sentiments combined with government conspiracies, ancient Mayan treasure, and an ample dose of psychic powers and paranormal events. There we go, no fewer than 4 urban myths trying to combine into some sort of uber-story. Unfortunately, the whole is much, much less than the sum of its parts.

In fact, the story seems more like a George Lucas parody than anything. The main plotline combines stale historical events like the first three Indiana Jones movies with paranormal events that seem like Star Wars rejects. Spielberg's directing doesn't fare much better, with the film coming off as A History of Spielberg instead of an actual movie. He borrows ideas from many of his classic movies (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Last Crusade, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind), yet does nothing of real interest. Part of that could be the horribly obtuse story, but the laziness of his latest few works seems to have seeped into Crystal Skull as well, and the entire thing is plagued by a tinge of boredom.

All that said, there are a couple of positives which keep Crystal Skull from being a complete disaster. The actors all seem relatively comfortable in their roles, with Harrison Ford being the most exciting, showing flashes of the old Indiana Jones despite being in his mid-sixties. Karen Allen does a great job of reprising her role as Marion Ravenwood (now Mary Williams), and the chemistry between her and Ford doesn't seem nearly as forced as expected. Cate Blanchett does what she can with the material she's given, giving a fairly good (if stereotypical) Eastern European accent, and making her character bearable, something the script didn't do. John Hurt and Ray Winstone do serviceable jobs with their roles, although neither is spectacular. The weakest member of the cast, Shia LeBeouf, surprised me by not being annoying as hell as sidekick "Mutt" Williams, but he didn't win me over with his performance, either.

Secondly, the film does have some of the lighthearted humor that made the first films so enjoyable, and the banter between characters is, for the most part, enjoyable. It's nothing special (and at times you start to suspect that the "homages" to the earlier films might've just been screenwriting apathy), but it helps keep the viewers from being too bogged down by the unnecessarily stupid main plot.

It's a shame that Crystal Skull was nothing more than a mediocre retread, but it was not unexpected. More and more we seem to be buried in sequels to long dead movie franchises, and for every one that is good, there are five or more that make you yearn for the films of old. If anything, the most positive thing about Crystal Skull is that it expediated the release of the special edition DVDs of the older films. Those show what both Lucas and Spielberg are capable of.

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True Colors



Very well-played, but almost written at the level of an after-school special.

from dane youssef
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The Brat Pack actors are certainly a talented bunch. Everyone has a favorite. For me, it's a toss-up between James Spader and Anthony Michael Hall.

John Cusack was mesmerizing back in his early-days. He was a teenager, but he looked, sounded and acted very adult for his age. "The Sure Thing" put him on the map and "Say Anything..." made him a household name.

But while Crowe's "Say Anything..." was obviously a great movie, it was both a blessing and a curse for Cusack, who has rarely played anything else in his career. I know, I know. He's been in countless other movies. But "a rose by any other name..." His character, no matter what the movie, is essentially always Lloyd Dobbler.

Spader sometimes played other types besides the oily Steff from "Pretty in Pink." His typecast-breaking turn came when he played the lead in this movie.

But I know Cusack can do more. I keep waiting for him to. Which was one of my guilty pleasures of this movie.

The story and plot are the right out of the old fable about the rich man and the poor man who come together and create something special... and then the rich man betrays the poor man and casts him aside. And the poor man plots to take revenge...

Another big twist that "True Colors" has is it's twist in typecasting. Cusack specializes in playing sharp, calculated, smarter-than-average teenager... who's heartbroken and devastated... and is desperately trying to win back the girl. Here, Cusack plays a character who's as smart as the heroes he usually plays, though here he uses his intellectual gifts for evil instead of good. His goal is usually to win the girl's heart. Here he betrays the girl (and his close friend) in order to get what he wants.

And Spader usually plays blue-blooded, silver-spoon fed, upper-class yuppie scummy villains. Here he's still a rich blue-blooded yuppie. But a hero, who uses his financial connections to right wrongs and do just.

The two meet the first day of law school where there's a fender-bender and brief scuffle. Cusack angrily attacks Spader violently and blames him for the whole thing and the two have to be pulled apart. Later on, things get worse as they discover... their assigned to be roommates. Cusack smooths things over by admitting the whole thing was his fault. You'll see why.

Afterwords, the two form a fast friendship and Spader even uses his financial backgrounds and connections to help Cusack out. Later we find out that Cusack is lying about his background to fit in and the payoff feels lifted out of a soppy, moralizing and insipid sit-com where today's moral is... "If you have to be someone else to get a friend, then they're really not your friend."

Richard Widmark is great as well as the ailing senator who sees potential and ambition in Cusack after he sees what looks like Cusack doing him a favor, little realizing how dangerous Cusack is. Spader girlfriend considers breaking off the relationship for Cusack who can keep her bringing in big cash. She doesn't realize that Cusack is willing to betray her too, in order to get what he wants.

One of the major problems is that their true colors are obvious from the beginning. Cusack is clearly someone not to trust from the start and Spader all but actually walks on water. Another is that the movie is too thin. There isn't enough entry.

The movie... skims too much of the surface. And Spader's big plan and the finale is pretty tacked on.

The movie aspires to be a movie like "Patriot Games" or "Citizen Kane." But everything is routine and predictable and there are precious few new touches to this tired formula. If screenwriter Kevin Wade could've given the script a bit more depth and discovery into these characters and done a little more with the formula, this could have really been something special. The cast does what it can, but inevitably, a good cast can only take a movie so far. Still, it's worth seeing just for Cusack turn towards the dark side and Spader as a yuppie with heart.

Oh, well.

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Gone Baby Gone



Gone Baby Gone (15) - 114 min
"Ben should stick to directing and let Casey do the acting"
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, Amy Ryan
Director: Ben Affleck
5/5
Reviewer: John Park (gpd1991@gmail.com)

A young girl is kidnapped from her house. Two young private detectives (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) decide to help the mother on the verge of breakdown (Amy Ryan). A police captain (Morgan Freeman), who has lost a child himself, and a cop looking for justice by any means necessary (Ed Harris) join in the hunt for the missing child in which nothing is what it seems.

It is not surprising that Amy Ryan received so many critics’ awards in the States. Although she did not have a lot of screen time, whenever the camera was on her she was fantastic. However, she was criminally side-lined by the major awards, such as Academy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild. It was a shame that she did not end up getting the attention that she deserved.

This film proved two very important things: a) Casey Affleck can act and b) Ben Affleck is a much better director than he is an actor. Casey Affleck was a promising young lead. If he manages to maintain his brilliant qualities I believe an Oscar is an absolute guarantee. He would have won this year if it had not been for Javier Bardem (ruthless in "No Country For Old Men"). As for the rest of the cast, they worked very well together. Ed Harris appeared absolutely merciless in his role and Morgan Freeman was definitely skilful in his. Over crowded by famous and talented names, Michelle Monaghan did not seem to have a lot of room to breathe but she held her own.

As more and more was revealed about different characters, the plot began to take deep and sudden turns. A storyline that just started with a simple kidnapping developed into something much bigger with more and more shocking twists constantly being added. At the end of the film an extremely questionable decision is made, from which the audience must draw its own conclusions - effectively maintaining suspense to the very last. The film did not provide a single boring moment and was a deeply effective cop drama.

The release date of this film was pushed back to June 2008 in the U.K due to the Madeleine McCann incident but that should not in any way affect its performance: this was quite simply one of the best cop dramas I have ever seen.

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Dirty Harry (1971)



Benjamin Wood
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Score: 2.5/5

It's always tough for me to rate "classic" movies. On the one hand, it's easy to give the movies great reviews, showering compliments about the "innovation" of the movie and how, for its time, it was like the best in the business. At the same time, many "classic" movies have not aged well, and today look extremely dated and are, to put it frankly, amazingly boring by today's standards.

I was not enamored with Dirty Harry. Clint Eastwood's performance as the title character was good but not spectacular, the supporting actors were for the most part non-factors (except for the crazy serial killer, who was distracting with just how much he hammed up his performance), the story was drawn out way beyond its logical limit, and the film itself was not all that exciting or tense. In fact, the only moment I found myself truly drawn in was a scene where Eastwood has to run a bag of money around town, jumping from pay phone to pay phone as a kidnapper gives him directions that are increasingly more difficult to follow.

There's no denying that Dirty Harry was wildly influential, as you can see many of its elements seeping into later action films: gratuitous nudity that serves no real purpose, main characters who are badass yet seem to lack in actual development, the crazy killer who is the antithesis to the "wholesome" values of the protagonist, and a line repeated in a movie by the protagonist in the hopes that it is vividly remembered long after the movie has ended (in Dirty Harry's case, it's "Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"). Unfortunately, all of these elements have been repeated so many times that they have become horrible action movie cliches, and it's difficult to watch Dirty Harry in retrospect without thinking, "Man, I've seen all of this before somewhere."

One aspect, however, that continues to bug me is the constant stereotyping of minorities and gay men in the film. Black men and women are depicted as stereotypes, as criminals and those who only speak in heavy "urban slang," while gay men seem to be displayed as limp wristed and hyper-effeminate. I understand that the early seventies was still a time of bigotry and that the entertainment business is still a cesspool of horrible stereotypes (although they are much more insidious and subtle nowadays), yet I can't help but be irked by these portrayals. Am I supposed to forgive a film for these caricatures because the film was from a different era and the makers might "not have known any better?" Am I supposed to think it's funny that Dirty Harry hates everyone, "especially Spics?" Am I supposed to forgive Harry for his sexism and racism because he's trying to stop a child murderer? It creates a paradox that leaves you feeling dirty no matter which side you take: You can either root for a sexist, bigoted asshole, or you can root for someone who murders children. The film's simplistic dichotomy leaves no middle ground, and paints Dirty Harry in such a positive light that it's clear that you must be "for" or "against" certain characters.

Unfortunately, that aspect of the film has also carried into today's cinema, with heroes who have unforgiveable flaws, and yet we're forced to root for them because the antagonist has flaws which are even more unsavory. In the end, judging Dirty Harry for its influence on the action genre is easy to do. Asking whether this influence was a positive thing or a negative thing, however, is a very different question, and one that is rarely asked, and less often answered. My personal feeling is that Dirty Harry does more harm than good, but there are plenty who would disagree with me, who would say I'm reading too much into things. I'm not telling anyone to agree with my assessment of the movie, but rather I'm urging those watching to at least give thought to the topic. I can easily see people that cannot forgive Harry for his views, yet will still view this as a quintessential action movie. And maybe if I had found the action sequences to be more exciting and suspenseful I would be one of those people. Unfortunately, the film itself falls short, making it much tougher to forgive Harry for his views.

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North



If they outlawed paddling, the cane and CHILD MOLESTATION... they should outlaw THIS.

by dane youssef
danessf@yahoo.com

Here is a movie so wrong-headed, wrong-hearted, wrong-made... so worng, you'd think the old axiom of a broken clock that's right twice a day would prove. But nope. It doesn't. Not by a long shot.

One of my most depressing experiences as a child was seeing Rob Reiner's "North." In fact, as extensive internet research has shown me, it was a painful experience for many as children and stayed with him throughout adulthood.

One of the worst movies of the year. One of the worst movies of the decade. One of the worst movies ever made. One of the worst ever. And when I say "worst", I'm comparing it to thinks like the Black Plague, the Holocaust, World Hunger, AIDS and Leperocy.

Elijah Wood is a wonderboy who is constantly ignored by his parents despite his best intentions and efforts that make most parents beam like the sun with pride. He spends a lot of time feeling ignored and sits in a chair in a furniture store at the mall to think. He decides he deserves better parents than the ones he's got (who doesn't?) and divorces them.

His folks are comatose from shock, but who cares? He's already in search of better ones.

He travels all over the globe and finds surrogate folks which are not right for him. Not loving, caring, nuturing... or very funny or interesting.

His best friend from school is enthusiastic about the divorce and gets the word out to all parents that children deserve better and thing better change or else.

I was actually in physical pain watching how badly the film's plot is handled.

While it is a thrill to see Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus together as a married couple and action legend Bruce Willis in an easter bunny suit... believe me, it doesn't last. The bad outweighs the good. Oh, HOW the bad outweights the good.

The big-name celebrity bit-players are many: Dan Aykroyd, Reba McEntire, Jon Lovitz, Bruce Willis, Graham Greene, Abe Vigoda, Richard Belzer, Ben Stein, Alexander Godunov, Kelly McGillis, John Ritter, Scarlett Johansson, Lauren Tom and Alan Arkin. Films with a big-name cast doing walk-ons is kind of tricky. Often this leads to a bunch of actors embarassing themselves in bit throwaway roles for a quickie paycheck and "the sake of work." It all really depends on the film itself--the screenplay and the director.

When a film with such a high pedigree of actors and filmmaker, Mr. Rob Reiner, you have to wonder why this whole damn thing went so incredibly wrong. And then kept going. And going and going. I am reminded of the legendary quote, "Only those who dare to fail greatly, can achieve greatly." And just about all who flaunt this picture have achieved greatly at one time or another. So... there you go. The ying to the yang.

The result can be "Traffic" or "Gosford Park." And the result can be "Even Cowgirls Get The Blues" of "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas."

You know, it's funny. When I first saw the trailer for "North," I thought to myself, "Wow. This looks like a good movie. I'm gonna see this one." And yes, the trailer damn well made this look like a good one. It just goes to show you... advertisements can make anything look appealing. Hey, remember "Babe: Pig In The City?" The ads didn't make the movie look like much. But the movie was... wow.

Hey, come to think of it-- I would like to advise to eveyone who was unfortunate enough to see any more of this one that what they used for the trailers (so much as a frame more) to go out and rent "Babe II." It's an ideal antidote.

Of course, you may need a few days of bed rest and antibiotics right after seeing "North," but after that... please... don't let this one put you off movies. Or any of the truly gifted people who were associated with this abomination.

Wood is one of the most talented actors ever to grace the business and the man seems unable to do a bad job on screen. Just check out "Radio Flyer" or " for evidence. But hey, like I need to tell you, right?

But while his acting is on-par with Brando, Guiness, Hopkins and Kilmer, not every movie to come his way compliments his talents. Just after the disastrous misfire "The Good Son," this one floated it's way into theaters like a chunky, nutty, crooked turd after a whole year of improper diet. Adding further insult to injury.

It is perplexing--to the point of going cross-eyed and your whole head exploding "Scanners"-style--trying to figure out what in God's name the filmmakers were thinking.

Seriously, I actually picture Jesus H. Christ himself on the cross, thinking to himself, "I died for this... ? If I'd known, I wouldn't have bothered."

We all make mistakes, even collosal ones. Even the best of us.

Hell, especially the best of us!

Walt Disney was an anti-Semite. L. Ron Hubbard was a pedophile. R. Crumb is a racist and misogynistic sycophant. And I myself...

Well, I could go on, but you get the idea. Honestly, avoid this one about as much as you hepatitis A-through-Z. A sulfur plant leaves he aroma of an autumn meadow perfume compared to this one.

In summary, "North" is a childhood trauma that refuses to be repressed. For many, including myself. Don't let it be yours.

Still, we are all mortal. We are all human. We all make mistakes, we stumble, we falter.

No one of us are infallible. Rob Reiner has delivered us "When Harry Met Sally," "The Sure Thing," "This Is Spinal Tap," "The Princess Bride" and "The American President." Surely, we can forgive "North." Can't we?

"Only those who dare to fail greatly can achieve greatly."

And Reiner has clearly done both. Let us at this as one of humanity's greatest follies... and try to find laughter in it. Not at the movie itself, which is clearly impossible, but at the movie's expense.

Like many Jewish comedians have done with WWII, the Holocaust and the years of slavery they were subjected to in Egypt, this is just one more thing we have to learn to laugh at. Not with, AT.

OK, Mr. Reiner. You are officially forgiven. Good luck... and let's hope another abomination like this isn't in the works.

Peace...

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Who Framed Roger Rabbit



What can I say? What's left to say? It all been said... it speaks for itself...

by dane youssef
danessf@yahoo.com


Gee... What can I say?

What can be said that hasn't been said a zillion times about this movie before? By film critics, film buffs, the other user posters on IMDb and every other person who saw this one?

But you know what? I'm not here to really promote this movie, or analyze it... I'm here to write my love letter for it. We're all here to share our movie-going experiences, aren't we? Well, f*ck it, here's mine.

I still remember being a little prepubescent boy sitting in the theater watching this movie, totally amazed and astounded by what I saw. Seeing this wacky cartoons going through a routine Tom-and-Jerry-type episode... and then... it was amazing how these movie actually tricked you, convinced you to believe that human and cartoons can exist in the same universe and dimension of reality.

There are many a great pleasures and moments in this movie, one of them is the duet at a "toon" night club called "The Ink & Paint Club" where Eddie goes to get information about Roger's wife, and the opening act is a dueling duet on the piano featuring two great legends, Daffy Duck and Donald Duck (I doubt there's any biological relation there) together at last. Why did it take so long for these two to get together? Well, they are rival entertainers for rival studios, so...

But of course, the dueling duet ends in an all-out war. Come on, we both know the hatchet wasn't going to stay buried very long.

The whole movie is worth renting just to see the two great legends, Daffy and Donald, put their differences aside for one memorable dueling piano duet ALONE.

"Roger Rabbit" pioneered not only animation and film-making style, but acting, writing, directing and a meshing together of different genres.

Imagination, luck, brilliance, skill... it's all been blended so perfectly here... just like the animation and live-action.

Funny, sharp, satirical, smart, thrilling, skillful, bright, bold, hard-boiled, colorful... at even at times, a little scary.

It one three Oscars, not to mention an Honorary Award for it's Technical Advancements.

Hell, it deserved every single Oscar it got! And a few it didn't. It should've won every single Oscar that year. Maybe some from others...

God, you know, I still remember finding my little Rescue Ranger toy in my pocket and running in back-and-forth through my fingers... I remember being very careful not to loose it as I watched this. And it was hard, damn it, all of what was going up there on the screen.

There's the best of the everything here. Everyone should see it, pure and simple. It's a movie... for pretty much everybody. A masterpiece in more ways than one.

So help me God, I cannot think of a better actor for the role of the classic, hard-boiled, rock-bottom, not-too-smooth P.I. than Bob Hoskins. I don't think he's ever played a better role in his whole life. He seems to be a strange collision of Sam Spade and W.C. Fields, in some strange way.

Christopher Lloyd proves yet again (as he does in all his roles) that he's one of the most underrated actors in the business. He's known for playing the bizarre, the crazy, the wired. But his ability to play villains, particularly more sedate and low-key ones, is overlooked so much, it's grounds for a discrimination lawsuit.

Kathleen Turner is damn perfect as Roger's Mrs; especially considering that all she does here is a voice.

Roger Rabbit" pioneered not only animation and film-making style, but acting, writing, directing and a meshing together of different genres. Literature purists and scholars (yes, I mean geeks) will note that this movie is adapted from a novel by Gary K. Wolf, who specializes in science-fiction.

For those of you who are enamored with this movie and just learning this, are actively considering dropping this review right this instant and running to your nearest library and bookstore to pick up a copy to read as an addition to the movie or just out of curiosity, I should warn you that the movie is completely unfaithful to the novel.

Oh, both are clever and well-written spoofs of the whole "hard-boiled private-detective mystery noir genre," but the two are so completely different, in writing-style, character dialouge, plot, theme, even ending, you wonder why they even bothered to get Wolf's permission and pay him a royalty. Gee, usually these Hollywood types are a little more snaky and know how to exploit all these loopholes.

You've no doubt heard the old saying, "You can't please everyone, so don't even bother." Because when you try, you wind up ultimately pleasing no one. Least of all, yourself. It's strange, this movie seems like an exception to that one little rule. I mean, I know there's an exception to every rule, but this is one you're sure is completely iron-clad. This is a movie for everyone. This is a movie that will please everyone. And you know what else? It never got the credit for that. Think about what a big train-wreck this movie could have been. How many things could have gone wrong.

How many years Disney and Warner have been at war, all this time, money for a experiment that could have gone worse than than the killer bees and the atomic bomb. And yet, glory be, it didn't. We all live for days like this, filmmakers, film critics... and film lovers.

The best part? After it was all over... Roger and Baby Herman went on to star in several of their own cartoon shorts before the movie for real ("Dick Tracy" and "Honey, I Shrunk The Kids").

Good for them.

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Giving It Up



The Bastard Lovechild Of 'Sex & The City' and 'What Women Want.' A quirky re-inventive romp that makes us believe in cliches'!

by dane youssef
danessf@yahoo.com

Kublan's "Giving it Up" is a movie which is scarce in the indie field. A romantic comedy, rumored to be the worst, sloppiest, unentertaining and most formulaic of the entire genre.

But very surprisingly, "Giving it Up" is a smarter, more-thinking person's romantic comedy. A movie that seems to have filtered out the obnoxious slapstick, trite plot points, dumb characters, monotone dialouge and Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan's routines.

Oh, there are quite a few cliches' in this movie, all right. The playboy who's tired of the game and wants to settle down and develop as a person, the bookish love interest who has no patience for his antics, the sexist supporting characters, the geeky best friend, the unobtainable finally obtained... only to realize that...

And although it sounds like the storyline from "What Women Want" (which also featured Feuerstein), no two movies could possibly be more polar opposite.

But "Giving it Up" is more than that. It doesn't rely entirely on that as so many other rom-coms do.

"GIU" is a well-played, thoughtfully-written, smartly concieved look at men, women and their views on sex and drelationships.

In "Giving it Up," a New York advertsing executive who specializes in selling sex to sell products is living the "almost ideal existance." He has devoted his life to attracting the opposite sex.

And it seems to be working. He has a new stranger in his bed every night. He's making fat cheddar. His hard-nosed, sexist boss (Dabney Coleman "9 to 5," "Tootsie," "Recess: School's Out" and "You've Got Mail") loves him. His apartment is lavish and full of cosmetics to polish his vessel and keep it clean. And his superhuman libido fuels his creative fires.

Enter his new boss, Elizabeth, who has heard of him and his reputation. She's smart and genuinely attractive. And quite down to earth. Ralph (Mark Feuerstein "Woman on Top" and "What Women Want"), the playboy in question is instantly smitten with her. But she's heard the word on the street and smiles, giving him the brush off.

Ralph is obsessed. He wants her. He can have every woman except the one he truly wants. Ain't it always the way? Ralph's less-lucky-in-love buddy, Peter (Ben Weber-- "Twister" and TV's "Sex in the City") asks Ralph why? Why does he want to give up the life? Apparently, Ralphie boy feels empty. He decides to "give it all up."

He's the Falling Casanova. He tries to go celibate. He meets up with Elizabeth and informs her of his newfound desire to live a life with something besides sex and even tries to win her over with his outside sex-interests. Like his joy for Billy Wilder's Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn classic "Love in the Afternoon."

Kublan's script is smart in a "Sex in the City"-type of way. Full of realsitic conversations between men and women about dating, relationships, sex and their own views and look at it all.

The cast is paticularly strong for an indepenedent film. Feuerstein is a real charmer, Weber and James Lesure (From "For Your Love") are convincing and likeable as his best friends. Ari Larter as the foul and lecherous super-supermodel Amber is also good for a few laughs. Amy Redford is really 100% believable as a smart, intellegent, confident (and beautiful) businesswoman who hates her self a bit for falling for this falling Casanova.

See it alone for the near Oscar-worthy performance of the magnificent Dabney Coleman, more hard-nosed, sexist and snarling than ever.

Whatever it's called, wherever you live: "Giving It Up," "No Sex 4U." A rose by literally any other name. Or by it's original title: "Casanova Falling."

It's worth falling for.

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Coonskin



Don't let the title throw you. This is one to see. From the one and only Ralph Bakshi.

by dane youssef
danessf@yahoo.com

"Coonskin" is film, by the one and only Ralph Bakshi, is reportedly a satirical indictment of blaxploitation films and negative black stereotypes, as well as a look at life black in modern America (modern for the day, I mean--1975). Paramount dropped it like a hot potato that just burst into flame.

But this is a Bakshi film, controversial, thrilling, and a must-see almost by definition alone. Not just another random "shock-jock" of a movie which tries to shock for the sake of shock. It's by Ralph Bakshi. Anyone who knows the name knows that if HE made a movie, he has something big to say...

Although it's roots are based in cheap blaxploitation, "Coonskin" isn't just another campy knock-off of mainstream white film or any kind of throwaway flick. "Coonskin" wants to be more. It aims it's sights higher and fries some much bigger fish.

The movie doesn't just poke fun at the genre. Nor does it just indict black people, but actually seems to show love, beauty and heart in the strangest places.

"Coonskin" tells a story out of some convicts awaiting a jail-break. The fact that it's even possible to break out of a prison in the "Coonskin" world alone makes it old-fashioned.

One of the inmates tells a story about a trio of black brothers in Harlem named Brother Bear, Brother Rabbit, Preacher Fox who want respect and a piece of the action and are willing to get it by any means necessary. The Italian mob is running all the real action.

Big name black musicians star: Barry White and Scatman Crothers, as well as Charles Gordone, the first black playwright to take home the Pulitzer. Something big is happening here obviously.

The movie plays out like a descent into this world, this side of the racial divide. From an angry, hip, deep, soulful black man with a hate in his heart and a gun in his hand.

Bakshi's films never know the meaning of the word "subtlety." This one looks like it's never even heard of the word. But maybe a subject like this needs extremism. Real sledgehammer satire. Some subjects can't be tackled gently.

Bakshi is god dammed merciless. Here, no member or minority of the Harlem scene appears unscathed.

The characters here are "animated" to "real" all depending on what the mood and situation are. The animated characters and the human ones all share the same reality and are meant to be taken just as literally.

Bakshi never just shows ugly caricatures just for shock value. He always has something to say. Nor is blackface is gratuitously. Here, unlike in Spike Lee's "Bamboozled," he seems to be using it to try and really say something.

Like 99.9% of all of Bakshi's films, this one incorporates animation and live-action. Usually at the same time. Bakshki isn't just being gimmicky here. All of this technique is all intertwined, meshing together while saying something.

Somehow, this one feels inevitably dated. Many of these types of films (Bakshi's included) are very topical, very spur of the moment. They reflect the certain trend for the day, but looking back of them years later, there's just an unmistakable feeling of nostalgia (as well as timeless truth).

Even though the music, clothes, slang and the city clearly looks like photos that belong in a time capsule, the attitude, the spirit and the heart remain the same no matter what f--king ear it is. Anyone who's really seen the movies, the state of things and has been in company of the people know what I'm talking about.

Even some of the of the black characters are a bunny (junglebunny), a big ol' bear and a fox. One of the most sour and unsavory racist characters is a dirty Harlem cop who's hot on the trail of these "[...]" after the death of a cop. But for him, it's not just business. Nor is it for the rest of the brothers who wear the shield. It's just pure sadistic racist pleasure of hurting blacks.

The sequence involving the Godfather and his lady is one of the most moving pieces in the whole film, of which there are many. It plays out like an opera or a ballet.

The promo line: WARNING: "This film offends everybody!" This is not just hype. Proceed with extreme caution.

You have been warned...

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The Nutcracker



Of all the "Nutcrackers," this shines brightest...

by dane youssef
danessf@yahoo.com

Perhaps the best interpretation of "The Nutcracker" ever made. Baryshnikov's finest hour. And as even the most ballet-ignorant know, that bar's set pretty high.

I have seen Mikhail Baryshnikov dance in the much-praised chick-flick "The Turning Point." And I have seen him dance his own interpretation of "Don Quixote." Good. Great, even. But not as much as fellow Russkie ballerino Nureyev's stab at "Quixote." And I have seen much more of him dancing. The man defies gravity, as well as many other laws. A ballet dancer, in the country of America, has been treated like a movie star. But this may very well be his best work, artistic-wise.

Mikhail Baryshnikov is man who hardly needs an introduction, as he is a man who is synonymous with ballet. The man is a household name, Baryshnikov is at his best here, which is more than difficult, even for him. Celebrated USA ballerina Gelsey Kirkland (who was a regular partner and even girlfriend of dear Misha at the time) actually proves to be a credible match. And even takes it to a higher level than he does in HER solo scenes.

This was the first "Nutcracker" I've ever seen. I have seen several interpretations of "The Nutcracker" since then, and this one still stands as the best of the lot. There are no real children in this cast. The children's roles are played by adults in adolescent-looking wigs.

The idea to make this a movie rather than a live stage piece kind of works. It allows for more visual effects than a straight live piece would have.

There is a moment where Ms. Kirkland dances a solo all by herself, that sequence actually left be breathless. When she shakes her pointed feet like bells, the music jingles in pitch-perfect sync. She doesn't seem to be following the music at all. The music seems to be following her.

It's so beautifully and perfectly done, that as someone who takes ballet and has danced on the stage, that it actually hurt to watch.

The day that I can move as gracefully and exquisitely (on her worst day, I mean) may never come. Kirkland actually, in that one scene, manages to steal the movie away from Baryshnikov. Baryshnikov's leaps, turns, jumps and pirouettes are as breathtaking as always, and somehow never seem to get old. Misha's striking presence and Peter Pan-like mobility just.. well, makes you want to get up and dance. Or just jump around. He doesn't so much leap as much as soars.

Baryshnikov puts some little touches of humor here and there. There's a lovable old man at the Christmas Party who attempts to dance and hurts himself, as well as a toy soldier who stubs his toe. Baryshnikov has always seemingly had the soul of a child and the heart of a clown.

The Arabian Coffee Dance has been deleted for running time, I'm sorry to say. As has Mother Gigogne. Not to mention The famed "Waltz Of The Snowflakes" is a powerhouse, the ballet corps sway to the music so beautifully, for the briefest moment, we actually forget about Baryshnikov and Kirkland.

Is Baryshnikov trying to give himself more screen time, Clara or the ballet itself? Alexander Minz proves to be invaluable as a supporting player in the role of Drosselmyer. I was reminded of Fred Astaire. He moves around with his long, willowy limbs in a way that seemed almost inhuman. I seriously doubt ever got half the credit he deserved throughout his life.

He had an effective, amusing cameo in "The Turning Point." Baryshnikov continues to prove time and time again what we already know--the greatest ballet dancer of any generation will always be a Russian.

The choreography is riveting, some of the best I've ever seen. Although, the honor for "World's Greatest" go to "Singin' In The Rain." Maybe the Russian could put dances together now. He's reportedly a great teacher of dance as well.

While many of the special-effects look a bit outdated, it remains a riveting experience. After all, most ballet movies are just filmed dancing and this one takes the effort to actually be something of a movie.

The acting is not much, nor is there as much plot as is traditional, a as this "Nutcracker" focuses more on the dancing and music. The pyrotechnics (the dancer's rapidly-moving muscular limbs and the way they and the music truly gel).

Despite Mr. Baryshnikov in the title role and given prominent first billing, the star of "The Nutcracker" is Gelsey Kirkland as Clara, as this is all Clara's story.

Mnay movies have attempted to translate this legendary dance story to the screen, usually with disastrous results. For example, the mistake the 20th Century Fox movie "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker" made was if they were going to made the ballet into a movie, they should have done something for the movie that they couldn't do for a live production. Alas, they did not. It moved so slowly and the whole movie was so badly-lit, it looked like somebody boot-legged the whole thing with a camcorder.

The solo duets are just as enjoyable. The dancers, are in fact, so good that they almost threaten to outdo the leads.

It's a beautiful story, more with flair and style in it's depth. It's a revised fairy tale.

When Misha and Gels prance together, their body movements almost in perfect parallel... it's beautiful and breath-taking. They seem to be connected internally somehow. These are two people... brought together by dance. It's every little girl's dream... and that's exactly what the "Nutcracker" should be.

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P.S.



One Of The Best Of 2004. The Cast Sparkles and Beams.

by dane youssef
danessf@yahoo.com

"P.S." is one of those rare movies that tells a story which feels too good to be true--the kind that's escapist-fantasy and only seems to happen in movies and in our most desperate dreams.

But then again, sometimes we see and here that it does happen in real life. Once in a blue moon. It's every great success story. Like movie-star Lana Turner getting discovered when working in a pharmacy or Muhammad Ali's almost inhumanly-impossible success with his career in the ring, who talked like a professional wrestler.

"P.S." is a movie like that. It tells a story as sweet as a fairy tale, that maybe could happen in life. Where a woman feels like when she loses someone, she loses her chance in life. But then something else comes along that is so incredible, it feels like the divine hand. Is God giving her a do-over? And not being so subtle about it?

Laura Linney continues her streak of must-see movies and Oscar-caliber performances here as Louise, a middle-aged admissions director who's been through a real losing streak throughout her life.

She's recently divorced from her husband, a compulsive sex-addict who's diddled anyone who's set toe in his class. Her best friend seduced away her boyfriend in high school and is now married in an upper-middle class suburb to a man she threatens to cheat on if he doesn't fulfill his "husbandly duties." She's living the kind of life every woman wants to in her most cynical, vengeful, self-absorbed fantasies.

Laura's getting older, life's getting harder (and it hasn't been very charmed to begin with). She begins to see all her hopes and dreams fading fast. And things get even more interesting when see has a private one-on-one interview with a potential art student.

This guy is just her type. Not only, but... he bares an uncanny resemblance to her late college boyfriend, an art major with a passion that matched hers. This guy doesn't just look--he sounds, acts, behaves and his art is even similar. Louise is in shock.

What is this? Coincidence? Incidental? Has she been working herself too hard? Stress? Reincarnation? An escapist-fantasy movie-plot? Whatever it is, Louise is rubbing here eyes while warming up to this guy. Getting to know him... finds herself feeling something.... While trying to keep her feelings at bay. She's a skeptic. She's got one heck a heck of a track record.

One of the most refreshing things about the actress Laura Linney is that she's not just another manufactured beauty from off the assembly line. She's not just another actress. She's not "one of a million." She's just so real. She's not movie-star-ish.

She doesn't wear designer clothes wherever she goes, live in a six-story mansion of Muhulland Dr, smoke cigarettes from a long black holder and have a private trophy room for all her honors. When she acts, it doesn't feel like acting. You feel you know her. She's a real person.

The same hold true for Topher Grace, which explains his success as an actor. He seems so adult, so grown-up for his age. Grace is charismatic and seems smart, his gift and his power on-screen doesn't come from a natural Brando-like acting talent, but his face, his body, his voice, his personality. Somehow, everything he says sounds like he means it. He's so square, so on-the-level. All he has to do is speak to convince you that he's legit.

As an actor, Grace has a style all his own which may or may not be intentional. He has an Anti-Brando method. He never changes his appearance or voice at all in his roles, but he has an earnest, open-faced, true-to-life and genuinely human way in every movie he so much as touches. Which explains why Hollywood keeps throwing mountains of scripts his way and why every movie he's in, he's given a nomination for something.

This is some of the best acting either Linney or Grace has ever done so far, pure and simple.

Gabriel Bryne, one of the finest actors in the world brings his trade-mark debonair and charisma in the role of Peter Harrington, Louise's ex-husband who's nasty habit primarily caused their divorce. There scenes that poke fun and make light of his "f-----g" habit are almost worth the rental price.

Which is why he takes home award after award for nearly every movie he does, because something about his whole appearance and personality makes it come across like he's just himself being himself, not an actor.

While "P.S." may just come across as a woman's picture (and it may well be), this isn't just a moody, sensitive, overly-emotional "chick-flick" to be seen on a "woman's day." This is a movie about some people who are seriously dealing with the trials of life at a turning point of age.

Paul Rudd, who been the key performance in some damn good movies, has basically just a little cameo, but as the estranged brother, he gives us further magnified scope into Louise's little life. He's a reformed junkie with a condescending, sadistic streak towards his big sis.

The movie has a deep, human, true-to-life atmosphere all throughout. There's nary a moment that is written or executed in a way that feels contrived. Nothing in "P.S." needs willing suspension of disbelief. Everything feels so beautiful and natural as the falling of the rain.

I've read an endless number of reviews for this movie which charge Dylan Kidd with making a picture less impressive than his previous effort. Ah, the sophomore jinx. I didn't see his freshman effort, "Roger Dodger," so I'm not particularly biased. And anyway, shouldn't a film be judged solely on it's own merits? Even Steven Spielberg made "Always," "Hook" and "1941."

Listen folks, seriously, so many filmmakers are accused being cursed with the dreaded "sophomore jinx" because when it comes to art, there are people who rate novelty above all else.

Movies like "Birth and "Return To Me" have tackled this subject before, but here it feels so legitimate. Like "Rocky," this one makes us believe clichés can happen... and make us care.

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Joe The King



Whaley attempts therapy onscreen

by dane youssef
danessf@yahoo.com

Frank Whaley's "Joe The King" has been called by the filmmaker himself "semi-autobiographical." And such a story about so much pain and misery just makes to almost want to see it just to see how this guy got where he is today.

It so damn downbeat, you have to ask yourself, "How does all this turn out? This poor little guy... Is there a happy ending?"

Like a lot of actor-helmed vehicles, this one is loaded with big name walk-ons. They work, but at the same time, they disappoint. None of these characters are on the screen enough to make enough of an impact.

"Joe The King" is chock-full of trite and truths to life--the lead that seems to be born into the hard-luck life, the abusive, alcoholic loser father, the weak-willed, weak-spirited, whimpering mother who doesn't care if her husband pounds on her kids as long as he doesn't pound on her, the guidance counselor who's all thumbs--aren't they all? Not just a cliché' in movies, but what guidance counselor has ever been worth in damn in life? Was yours?

There is a moment where it is "Careers Day" in an elementary class where it is revealed that Joe's dad is the janitor. He is ridiculed an lashes out (very mildly) at an obnoxious little teacher's pet and the Dickensian teacher drags Joe and spanks him in front of the entire class. The knife is further pushed and twisted when she makes the whole thing personal by muttering angrily so he can hear, "Just like your father..."

Whaley is clearly dealing with old wounds and knows how to use them so they feel fresh and make you cringe (or worse, relate).

The movie is full of downbeat moments and times where life shows it's ugly face. It seems as if God is very skillfully finding ways to torture Joe... and then skewering it further in smaller ways. In a moment of desperation, Joe attempts to do what his parents can't seem to... save the day.

Joe is not only starving, he descends into petty theft. Then takes it even further. He attempts to dodge his father's outbursts and reach out to his brother, who is trying to eke his way into the "in-crowd" and doesn't want Joe's jinx streak to rub off on him, even to the point of at one point getting out of bed and going to go sleep the closet to get away from his brother's sad vibes.

But "Joe The King" is not just one long crying jag. There is humor, sweetness and tenderness. People may differ about the nature of the ending, but in the strangest, saddest way, it offers some hope.

The children swear in the tradition of "Stand By Me," the child-abuse or disregard in the tradition of "Radio Flyer" and the atmosphere is reminiscent of many other films about working-class life. Unlike "That '70's Show" or "Detroit Rock City" or "Dick," this movie doesn't feel like it belongs solely in the era. It takes place in the 1970's to be sure, but a story like this feels timeless.

Lead actor/title character Noah Fleiss gives one of the best performances he's probably ever given, although how many movies has he really made? And how many of them really have allowed him to shine? This is definitely the one.

Val Kilmer gives a just plain awesome turn as Bob, Joe's stinking, deadbeat drunk of a dad who's one of the biggest problems in Joe's life. He owes money to more than half the town. He dodges his creditors like bullets, drinks himself into a pathetic stupor and lashes out monstrously at his family.

Kilmer, known for playing dazzling roles and pretty-boy parts, puts on a great deal of weight and shows nastier edges that he has since "The Doors."

Since writer/director Whaley and Kilmer first worked together in that film, Whaley obviously saw how powerfully Kilmer could play a violent sadist, always under the influence of drugs. Kilmer has had trouble getting working because he's so damn difficult to work with, so the two were clearly doing each other favors. Another pal of Whaley's, Ethan Hawke plays a friendly, but utterly useless guidance counselor who hopes to get Joe out of his slump at school. And because it's Joe, he makes things a lot worse.

Karen Young is adequate in a brief supporting part as Joe's mother. And Hispanic wunderkind John Leguizamo, a natural comedic talent, takes a more dramatic turn here as a flamboyant busboy in an extended cameo at the local rat hole diner where Joe is working illegally. When the s**t hits the fan and Joe is at the center of it, it doesn't really come as a surprise that he's the only one who knew all along.

Whaley seems to capture the flavor for this kind of working class life and he seems to bring out the best in child actors, as well as his more distinguished adult friends and peers. He also sends us back to the era without hitting us hard with period music on the soundtrack from the day.

I myself was kind of surprised that this screenplay won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award (along with Audrey Well's "Guinevere"). The Open Palm nomination for the film itself, that, I can see. The dialouge is altogether realistic, without being nessicarily sharp or too memorable. And the characters are believable without being too fresh.

Writer/director Whaley does an effective job of capturing the atmosphere of this Upstate New York working-class life and bring out the best in child actors and his big-name celebrity walk-troughs.

Whaley has said that much of the story is inspired by the childhood of himself and his older brother, Robert Whaley, who is featured on the soundtrack and has a bit part.

Good ol' Frank himself also has a directors cameo walk-on as one of many who the deadbeat Bob owes money to. He makes a personal house call, and he seems madder than the others Bob owes money to. He acts as a professional collector--the leg-breaking kind. He seems ready to kill Bob and after it's over, the sins of the father are, once again, visited on the son.

So this is the Whaley E! True Hollywood story. More or less.

There is a painful sadness that runs all throughout "Joe The King," and when you look at Frank Whaley, the roles he's taking on and heard him just talk as himself, you kind of see there's something here that Whaley has in him which he brings to his roles.

Whaley deserves extra kudos for getting as far as he did after being dealt such a bad hand. A backhand, even. What of Joe? What of his friends, family, enemies, acquaintances? If you drink in this one, you can't help but wonder...

"Joe The King" doesn't break any new ground whatsoever. But this is a slice-of-life film, and while technology, trends, art, ideas and ideals are constantly changing, some things remain trite and true no matter what era or part of the universe you're living in. Whaley chooses some appropriate music for his movie and some nice visuals.

"Joe The King" is kind of an acquired taste, like many coming-of-age stories. It's more of a confessional than anything else. If you've lived a life somewhat like this, or in this part of the world or in this enviorment remotely, you'll understand...

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Super Size Me

Welcome to McDonald’s, how may I help you? The answer to this question is varied. Out of the millions of Americans who journey to the highly prophesized golden arches some may order a hamburger, others a McChicken, and still others the fabled Big Mac. And would they like fries with that? Of course they would. Would they like something to drink? Most likely they want some sort of soft drink or sugar loaded, caffeine filled refreshment. Would they like to super size their order? They will super size it in a heartbeat. In his documentary Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock goes where many people have gone before. He goes to McDonald’s. At first glance, making the not so strenuous journey to the closest McDonald’s seems quite simple. There are four McDonald’s per square mile in Manhattan. And even if it just is not in his schedule to walk to the restaurant, he can always get it delivered, for free. To many Americans this seems like a paradise. McDonald’s everyday for every meal, for one entire month seems too good to be true, or is it? Spurlock’s trips to McDonald’s are meant, not to bring more people to McDonald’s, but to keep them out. He questions the highly accessible fast food diet and puts it to the ultimate test; he will eat only McDonald’s and film himself while doing so.

Please, pay at the first window. At first glance Spurlock’s documentary might seem a bit over the top. He spends more money on his food than a family of three would. But to achieve the ultimate effect, he has to go a bit overboard. Spurlock risks his own health, and life, to show the public the deadly affects of fast food. His message is initially interpreted as a call to stop eating fast food, but it is much more than that. Spurlock effectively derides fast food, no exercise, and finally the people who purchase the food themselves. These are the ones who give the fast food companies the money to stay in business; they encourage the production of unhealthy food.

It is true that Spurlock’s very documentary can be at times a bit disgusting. He vomits in the parking lot after his first gorge on McDonald’s food. He shows a stomach stapling. He also slightly crosses a line by showing obese people at random intervals throughout the film and not disclosing why they are obese. The reasons can be inferred, but there may be other problems that the audience is not made aware of. It is also mildly nauseating to watch Spurlock eat his gigantic meals and then feel sick afterwards. This documentary is not for those who easily feel nauseous. Another criticism of Super Size Me is that Spurlock seems to have a blatant disregard for his own health. When the nutritionist recommends that he should be taking aspirin and vitamins Spurlock does not seem concerned. He replies that he can only take those if McDonald’s sells them, which of course they do not.

Here is your change; your food should be ready in a few seconds. Even with the somewhat disgusting scenes, Spurlock makes many valid points. He centers his attack on McDonald’s, but then he expands it to American’s lifestyles and the way the fast food industry functions. Spurlock makes it loud and clear from the beginning that McDonald’s, as well as other junk food industries, choose children as their targets. Children are the most easily influenced, and therefore the logical target for fast food companies looking to earn billions of dollars. Advertisements are their key weapon. Fast food companies advertise to children by strategically placing their commercials in time slots where children will see them. Spurlock presents the fact that fast food and junk food companies spend hundreds of times more money on advertising than health food companies. These unhealthy companies believe that if they can make children their consumers, that they will have these same people as consumers for their entire life. Spurlock reveals the sad fact that through the millions of advertisements that children see, they will be more likely to recognize Ronald McDonald than Jesus or President Bush. Marketing to children is a favorite of fast food companies, especially McDonald’s, whose Happy Meal is targeted at children. A new action figure, a little stuffed animal, or a colorful new plastic gadget can be obtained. A hamburger or chicken nuggets and fries accompany the highly coveted new toy. The children will eat the unhealthy, calorie packed meal if only to obtain the toy they so desire. The playlands at McDonald’s are meant to draw the children in, and keep them there to eat. Spurlock explains that especially in low-income areas, these playlands may be the children’s only chance at fun, fun they desire with a chocolate sundae on the side.

Please, drive to the next window to pick up your order. Spurlock makes it clear in his documentary that exercise and physical activity are important. He restates that every person should get at least thirty minutes of activity each day. He then visits a school and reveals the shocking revelation that many schools just do not have the money to provide this time for physical activity. Maybe people should spend less money on fast food and more on improving schools. In attempt to show the effects of a lack of exercise, Spurlock limits his physical activity. Everyday he can only walk a certain distance, much of which is used on his walks to McDonald’s.

In an effort to show that Americans do still have hope to improve, Spurlock offers some alternatives to the fast food diet. He contrasts the unhealthy, government provided, school lunch food with a lunch program in Appleton, Wisconsin that provides healthy all natural lunch food. Contrary to what most people would think, this healthy alternative costs the same, or even less, than the unhealthy food. Is there a reason the schools serve unhealthy foods when all natural foods are available at comparable prices? Spurlock makes it clear that there should be a switch to healthier foods. To provide his audience with another alternative to fast food, Spurlock introduces his girlfriend. She is a vegan. She appears to be happy with her healthy diet, but she can get annoying at times, which detracts from the appeal of alternative diets that Spurlock suggests.

Super Size Me achieves its goal of drawing attention to the growing issue in America, obesity. Spurlock then finds an easy target to place the blame; he chooses McDonald’s because it had recently been sued for serving its unhealthy food. Spurlock argues that the fast food companies are to blame, as well as their advertising techniques, and the American lifestyle in general. He wants people to think about what they eat, especially after they see the effects that fast food had on Spurlock’s body. When next asked if they should super size it, he wants Americans to think twice. Do they really need all those extra calories? Or just as important, do they even know what a calorie is? Many do not as Spurlock proves in his documentary. Spurlock seeks to educate the public on the horrific affects of a fast food diet, and he succeeds in doing so. He also succeeds in offering plausible ways to prevent obesity and improve lifestyles. Super Size Me offers a somewhat biased, but basically true version of the American fast food diet, and once people see the documentary they may think twice about going to McDonald’s or eating junk food. Thank you for choosing to eat at McDonald’s, have a nice day.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Speed Racer



Benjamin Wood
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http://www.walrusgod.com

Score: 3/5

Speed Racer is a movie that, despite having a slew of flaws that are generally fatal in the movie world, manages to be highly enjoyable, although never as great and important as it thinks it is.

Let's get the bad out of the way first, and trust me, there's plenty of it:

- Speed Racer's story is so basic and contrived that it's not only difficult to take seriously, it's also difficult to even muster the energy to pay attention to. In short, it's the story of phenom race car driver Speed Racer (Emil Hirsch), who is trying to follow in the footsteps of his equally talented brother Rex Racer (Scott Porter), who died in a mysterious car crash years ago. After winning a big race, Speed's parents, Pops (John Goodman) and Mom (Susan Sarandon), are approached with a deal from slimy race car owner Royalton (Roger Allam). If you've ever watched a sports movie, you basically know how the story is going to end up, and The Wachowski Brothers do nothing new with the formula. There's also a sports corruption subplot that centers around the enigmatic Racer X (Matthew Fox), but it follows the same cliched formula as the main plot

- The acting in Speed Racer doesn't fare any better, with most of the actors operating in one of two modes: Sleepwalking (Emil Hirsch, Matthew Fox) and gross overacting (John Goodman, Roger Allam, almost all of the other race car drivers). The only person who manages to overact without seeming distracting is Christina Ricci as Speed's girlfriend, Trixie, but perhaps it only seems palatable because of how bad the rest of the acting is in the movie.

- The movie is also directed with such an uneven pacing that it's distractingly face paced one minute and then "I can barely stay awake" slow moments later. The Wachowski Brothers have never been known as expert directors, but Speed Racer is easily their worst directorial effort yet (and only The Matrix Revolution's horrible plot keeps it being their worst overall movie).

And yet, despite all of those flaws, Speed Racer is a special effects tour-de-force, and manages to fit more colors into a 2 hour movie than would be found in a ten hour Crayola documentary. Although initially disorienting, the rapid-fire nature with which the special effects are presented makes the racing sequences in the movie intense and enjoyable.

Although bearing relatively few similarities to the anime it was based on, Speed Racer turns bad dialogue and a by-the-numbers plot and transforms them into not only an exciting movie for children, but one that can keep the parents and adult anime-nerds entertained as well. The kids will enjoy the bright colors and over-the-top silliness, while parents can enjoy laughing at the ridiculous plot and get a kick out of just how sophisticated special effects can be. The visual wizardry in Speed Racer makes the first Matrix movie look relatively tame, and for that alone I can recommend at least giving Speed Racer a chance. By all means see the vastly superior Iron Man first, but if you still have free time afterwards, turn your brain off for a couple hours and bask in the energy of Speed Racer.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Supersize Me



When is the last time you went to McDonalds, and just dug right into a large fries, slurped a shake, or took a big bite from a Big Mac? How about ninety times in one month? We all know that junk food is bad for us and that fast food is one of the worst culprits. When two young girls tried to sue McDonalds for making them obese Morgan Spurlock asked: Is McDonalds making us fat? So he went on a thirty day McDiet to find out. What he found out is what we already know: McDonalds is not good for us. However the way in which he did it is what makes the film so compelling.

Spurlock begins by covering all his bases, and seeks the treatment of three doctors and one nutritionist; even though his vegan girlfriend looks on in disgust. Despite the raw evidence that McDonalds is unhealthy and just the basic facts Spurlock embarks on "Every eight-year-old’s dream", and after making it over the three day hump he’s well accustomed to his McDiet. He quickly starts to gain weight and experiences other health difficulties including a "whoosh feeling in his penis", but did we expect him to remain completely healthy? Despite warnings from all his doctors to stop he sticks with it.

Spurlock has received criticism that his documentary is unrealistic. Such as, spending excessive amounts of money on a single meal, eating a lot in a single meal, or guzzling down so much soda! The average American does not eat that much. However, we have to ask ourselves would we have a reaction otherwise? Would Spurlock’s diet have hit home, with the same impact? The answer is no. Americans are ignorant people and we like our junk food. We are going to try and get away with as much calories in our diet as we can rationalize in our minds. So, it is necessary for Spurlock to throw a curveball of this nature.

He has also been criticized because he only ate McDonalds. Well let’s think about it. Spurlock passed several McDonalds on his way, and there are more McDonalds than several other fast food chains combined. Plus, which fast food chain spends the most on luring its customers in? McDonalds again. So, it is necessary that Spurlock singles out the biggest bully in the crowd. In doing so he grabs our attention as the audience.

His documentary is not completely based on his McDiet. Spurlock also discusses the horrors of school lunch programs. Most of the ones he went to are unhealthy so he reveals to us how it is possible to eat healthy in school, based on the lunch program of an Appleton, WI school. In doing this he reveals the ignorance of American youth. Apparently curly fries are a vegetable, and it is extra good accompanied by cola. All the while the adults, that are supposed to be promoting good health simply turn away because it will cost too much to change it. This situation, along with the growing realization that America is a fast food nation shocks us all.

Throughout the course of the month Spurlock undoubtedly gains weight, amidst other serious problems concerning his health. He gives America the swift kick in the tail that we need. Sure, some of us will go on living our lives normally, but maybe some of us will not. Watch Spurlock’s documentary and see first hand his transformation; perhaps it will inspire a different transformation of your own.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Iron Man (2008)



Benjamin Wood
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http://www.walrusgod.com

Score: 4.5/5

Superhero movies have, for the last five or ten years, become a consistent blockbuster summer release. There tend to be at least three or four every year, and for the most part, their quality has been suspect, relying heavily on CGI action sequences while sacrificing engaging stories. The one that seems to defy this is Batman Begins, which succeeded most likely because of Christian Bale's tremendous performance as Bruce Wayne and the fact that director Christopher Nolan played to his strength, which is making dark, brooding cinematic experiences. Iron Man, at first glance, seems to be pandering in the normal Superhero direction, going for action and the occasional slapstick, while constructing only the skeleton of a story around its special effects. When one looks deeper, however, it becomes obvious that Iron Man is much more than a by-the-numbers movie, and definitely sets the bar high for the rest of the summer blockbusters.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is an engineering genius, graduating from college while most kids were still in high school, and being hailed as the person who "wants to save America." He inherited his father's weapons company, and has turned it into a multi-billion dollar company. He is also a hopeless womanizer and a borderline alcoholic, and ditches award ceremonies to drink and gamble at a casino. Things change, however, when he is taken hostage after a weapons demonstration in Afghanistan, and he is forced to use his amazing intelligence to escape.

Even under the constant watch of his captors, Stark builds a weapon-laden suit of armor, which he locks himself into, and proceedes to burn down the rebel base where he was kept at. Returning home, Stark has a newfound sense of duty, and vows to stop making weapons and instead divert his company's resources to helping people, not killing them. This decision is not received well by many people, most notably Stark's business partner Obadiah Stane (a wonderfully creepy Jeff Bridges) and his military commander friend Jim "Rhodey" Rhodes (Terrence Howard). Stark, however, doesn't care, and proceeds to build a more sophisticated robot suit than the rudimentary one he built while held hostage, and devotes the use of this suit to helping those in need (his first "mission" is to save an Afghani village that is being assaulted by insurgents).

Downey plays Stark with the exact right mix of cynicism, sarcasm, and new-found activism that the character demands, and is not for a minute unbelievable in this role. In fact, if Iron Man does spawn sequels (which the movie hints at constantly), it could easily serve to resurrect Downey's career and serve to silence those that thought his best days were before he nearly ruined himself with drugs and alcohol. In fact, Downey's career mirrors Stark's in many ways, and for that reason lends even more credibility to the role.

Bridges plays Stane effectively, although his character is fairly one-sided, and Howard does a serviceable job as Rhodes. More impressive is Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays Stark's assistant Pepper Potts. She is devoted to her boss, and goes out of her way to help him, although it's clear that she harbors a crush on the eccentric billionaire and is somewhat hurt by his constant womanizing. Paltrow, an actress I usually find myself underwhelmed with, plays the role extremely well, and gives the second best performance in the movie.

Director Jon Favreau manages to capture the essences of all of these characters while also maintaining the intense action sequences and momentary slapstick diversions. No area of the film seems shortchanged, although sometimes the action sequences linger a little longer than was probably necessary. Really, the only major faults I can find with the film is that it felt long (it probably could've been just as effective if it had been shortened by about 15 minutes), and it doesn't always attempt to break completely free of the traditional superhero movie box, although it definitely plays at the very limits allowed by the genre.

Rarely are superheroes allowed to have fully fleshed out characters, and even more rarely are they allowed to really grow as characters outside of those moments where the plot demands that they do (generally when a close friend is killed or their love interest is taken hostage), and Iron Man manages to have both in spades. Stark's character constantly transforms throughout the movie, growing and changing in response to the events at hand in a way that would be expected of (gasp!) normal people. It, along with Batman Begins, shows how good a superhero movie can be when the hero is not an alien (Superman) or a mutant (Spider-man, the X-Men, the Hulk, etc), but is rather a person who just happens to possess great natural talents. It allows for them to be great heroes while keeping their humanity intact, and makes for a much more enjoyable cinematic experience.

Oh, and stay after the credits for one of the best bonus scenes ever tacked on to the end of a film. Honestly, it's not to be missed, and left me giddily anticipating a possible sequel to Iron Man.

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Saturday, May 03, 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Benjamin Wood
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http://www.walrusgod.com

Score: 3.5/5

Set in communist Romania, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a film centering around a young college girl's illegal abortion. Yet, the film is as much about friendship and human interaction as it is about abortion. Refusing to tell the audience whether the decision to have the abortion is right or wrong, writer/director/co-producer Cristian Mungiu is more freely able to focus his story on the people involved.

I mean it when I say "people" involved, and not "characters." Indeed, 4 Months is a fictional story, but the film is contructed with the barest of filmmaking flourishes, and ends up feeling as much like a harrowing hand-held documentary as it does a fictional movie. The images are grainy and sometimes almost indecipherable, and there is no music to be found anywhere in the film. Single takes can last for minutes, and a single character may be focused on for the duration of an entire conversation, something that is rare even in many of the cheaper, artier films which 4 Months will almost undoubtedly be associated with.

The acting is superb. Almost every actor is able to naturally flow into the story, and seems like a real person, and not a caricature. Laura Vasiliu infuses Gabita with the detachment and emotional distancing that sometimes comes when having to make a decision as life-changing as having an illegal abortion that could lead to either jail or death. Anamaria Marinca is even better as Gabita's friend Otilia, who has less to lose than Gabita, yet also cares even more and does everything she can to make sure that Gabita comes out of the situation okay. Vlad Ivanov, the illegal abortionist "Mr. Bebe," is believably mysoginistic and easy to hate, which is a testament to the actor's skill as much as it is the nastiness of the character. The lone exception is Alexandru Potocean's performance as Otilia's boyfriend Adi. Adi's character seems entirely peripheral (except to possibly give some insights to Otilia's motivation to so steadfastly help out her friend), and Potocean's acting does nothing to make the character more important.

Ultimately, the film, in many ways, succumbs to the power of the acting and the story. It becomes too real, too intimate, and it is just as difficult to look at the screen as it is to look away. The handheld camera is able to bestow realism, and yet also works towards disorienting the viewer. The story is simple and harrowing, and yet its realism left me wondering what the point of watching this film was. Was it supposed to be about the condemnation of banning abortion? Was it about the ruthlessness of the communist regime which ruled Romania until the 1990's? Was it more about friendship and interactions, and the ways in which we help out those who we are close to, often risking our own wellbeing for the sake of others?

4 Months might be about all of those things, or none of them. The problem I had, however, was that the only thing I could think of while exiting the theater was how uncomfortable I felt, and how I doubt that I will ever be able to sit through watching this film again, and I believe that many of the people who see it will feel the same way. Whether that's a good or bad thing, however, is ultimately up to each person to decide for themselves.

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Music & Lyrics (2007)

Benjamin Wood
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http://www.walrusgod.com

Score: 4/5

Hugh Grant has gotten a pretty bad rap when it comes to his on-screen persona. Most of this criticism comes, and perhaps rightly so, from the fact that Grant acts almost exclusively in romantic comedies, and those movies that weren't romantic comedies failed miserably (I can say that, at the time of this writing, I have not seen a Hugh Grant move that was not a "romcom"). However, to immediately dismiss an actor for knowing his strength and sticking with it has always seemed harsh to me. Hugh Grant is no Johnny Depp, but he's aware of this, and he can generally make the movies he's in at least likeable.

Drew Barrymore, similarly, has also seemed to stick with romantic comedies, although she has attempted to branch out a little more (Donnie Darko and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind being the two that stand out for me), but the past few years have seen an abundance of romantic comedies, and some very bad ones at that. In fact, I'd even go far to say that I enjoy Hugh Grant much more than Drew Barrymore when it comes to the romantic comedy...but that could be my penchant for caustic sarcasm rearing its ugly head.

Music & Lyrics, therefore, is probably going to be a "love it or hate it" type of movie. Grant plays former pop star Alex Fletcher (ironically of a band named simply "Pop!"), who has been reduced to performing at county fairs and class reunions in front of screaming middle aged women. He finally gets a break, however, when his agent, Chris (Brad Garrett), tells him that current superstar Cora Corman (newcomer Haley Bennett), being a huge fan of Pop when she was a child, wants Alex to write her new hit song. Alex finds himself in a bind, for he was never much of a lyricist, and needs to find a partner to put words to his melodies. That's where Sophie Fisher (Barrymore), the girl who waters his plants, enters the picture. Sophie has a natural talent for writing poetry, and after persistent pleading from Alex, she relents and decides to help him write the song for Cora.

So far, seems somewhat bland, doesn't it? Music & Lyrics doesn't shine because of the plot, but rather what the movie is able to do with the plot. The opening music video for Pop!'s smash hit, "Pop goes my heart," is pure eighties-throwback-goodness. Grant and Barrymore have great chemistry, and both of them seem to be on their A-game for this movie. Grant's deadpan one-liners are as strong as they've been in any of his movies, and Barrymore plays off of them very well. The main weakness of the movie, besides the conventional plot, is Bennett, whose Cora is bland and annoying. Although a satire of the vapid personalities of modern pop stars, the scenes with her seemed to drag the energy down to unmanageable levels, and neither Grant or Barrymore are able to recover it until she has left the screen.

Just because movies are derivative does not mean that they are automatically bad. Yes, Music & Lyrics' story plays out like any other romantic comedy, but has the good fortune to have better than normal dialogue, and great performances from its two leads. It had no pretense of being a "great" movie: no Oscar hopes, no strive to be remembered as one of the best movies of 2007. And that's okay. I don't go enter a romantic comedy hoping to be blown away. I go in hoping to laugh, hoping to have an enjoyable 90 or so minutes, and come out smiling. On that front, Music & Lyrics is a definite winner.

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Super Size Me



Let’s see here, from the $9.00 menu we can select: Gore with an Extra Side of Guts, Romantic Love Story Glimmering with Sap, Lough Out

Loud Comedy with Slapstick Antics, or 30 Day Fast-Food Binge Documentary Complete with Disgust and a Super Size of Bias. We could try that documentary on for size, or we could spend our dollars worth at America’s and the globe’s favorite stop for a tasty treat: McDonalds. Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Super Size Me analyzes if the addictive chain is indeed the cause or at a least possible McBlow to the hearts and livers of Americans. Not your typical run-of-the-mill documentary, Spurlock personally subjects himself to health dangers to determine if McDonalds is entirely less inviting than constant Big N’ Tasty’s, freedom fries, and secret sauce. Playing off rumors of Americans of the famous establishment and subjective insights, Super Size Me provides a tasteful watch with a meaty center, but lacks the finishing sesame bun.

Sassy Spurlock sets out on a 30-day food-fest quest to determine whether eating McDonald’s food religiously could cause any major health failures, or even if it could be done. After all, it is clear that Spurlock is a health-nut. Perhaps influenced by his granola girlfriend, Morgan Spurlock starts the starvation from real nutrients with a hand wounded. This is the one of the first biases of many that nearly overpowers the piece. This clearly contrasts with the heart of his argument: McDonalds is a vicious cycle of addiction and fast acquiring fat that is polluting our nation of space. After all, that is indeed what Spurlock knew he would find, a weight gain within his 30-day period of feasting. Within those few weeks, Spurlock managed faithfully gain over twenty pounds. Ridiculous! Of course, not many of McDonald’s happy customers are served three times a day, and usually over $10 a meal, it is no doubt that people gain weight from the overindulgence in deliciousness. Despite an early weight gain, Spurlock is determined to accolade the cashiers when a Super Sized question is taken from the fryer.

The supersized meals from McDonalds were always bought if the magic question was asked for Morgan. He most likely figured that the majority of people who regularly bought from the manipulative McDonalds would agree to a larger meal for a bit more change. Simulating the day of a strict fast food dieter, our leader shows the vicarious cycle McDonalds can package when consuming continuous product. In fact, in Day 2 of Spurlock’s experiment, he literally purges the supersized meal, as if he is disgusted beyond all belief. Clearly over exposed, the act of vomit is clearly zoomed to cameraman perfection, and the crowd feels the nausea. Borderline on symbolism, the purging could represent not only the body’s but the mind’s rejection of the nasty stuff, but instead is a poor representation of what McDonalds can do to person.

That is the fact of the matter. Morgan Spurlock focuses on what McDonalds can do to you. But what can you do to McDonalds, or even what can you not have to do with McDonalds? Spurlock tries something that nutritionists and doctors advised him to omit. Yet he continues to prove his point when his liver is comparable to a drunken sailor. He does express the American way to eat: quickly running in, no, driving aside to pick up cheap mystery meet and a frothy soda. The reality of Super Size Me is clearly biased as each day is depicted, but his message remains true. American does have an abusive relationship with fast-food chains. The grab us, link by link, one by one, until some parts of a nation are obese in one of four people. Spurlock had something to say, but the hype and argument was overpowered by too many claims and meals.

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