Friday, January 30, 2004

Talk About the Passion, Part Two

Came across this New York Times article by A.O. Scott about the history of Jesus in the cinema and what THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST'S place is in the tradition. Here's the L.A. Times' examination of the film's marketing strategy. (You will need to register for free at both sites to access the articles.)

Talk About the Passion

Give Mel Gibson credit. He's made a religious movie--in Aramaic, no less--that has been one of the most buzzed about films for months. But Mel, it's time to give the self-persecution stuff a rest.

The fourth item finds Gibson stating he may never work again because THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST could kill his career. I find that to be highly doubtful even if the anti-Semitic rumors flying around THE PASSION turn out to be perceived by many. Gibson is still one of Hollywood's most bankable stars.

I think it will be difficult to discern if the rumors are "true". Like many things, anti-Semitism can be in the eye of the beholder, especially since, in this case, I expect the disagreement is going to come in terms of interpretation and the degree of intensity with which Gibson states those beliefs. Gibson has been on the defensive, a tactic necessary largely because THE PASSION has been screened only for those friendly to his viewpoint. It's been a good way of stirring up publicity and interest, but the strategy has also allowed concerns and charges to mount against the film, as if not showing it to Jewish leaders or film critics means he has something to hide.

It is impossible for me to have an opinion on the matter because I haven't seen the film; however, I do feel certain on three issues surrounding the film. First, I believe Gibson has made the film he wanted to make. He put up his own money and made less commercially appealing choices. Whatever the end result, I don't think there is any doubt that THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is his vision.

Second, by showing the film to religious and politically friendly audiences, Gibson has rallied them to promote his film as a tool for witnessing. I think he's sincere in his desire to use the film in that manner.

Third, the controversy is more than he could have hoped for. Almost every day there's a new item or quote about the film. The controversy is helping the future box office, not hindering it. One thing our culture supports at practically every turn is that it doesn't matter what you've done or how notorious you are as long as it makes money. THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST seems poised to make a financial splash--it's the film I'm asked about the most--and that's not going to end Gibson's career.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

2003's Best Albums

I hastily assembled a list of my favorite albums of 2003 for an online discussion group poll, so I thought I'd share it here. I didn't devote a lot of thought to the order past the top six. Yes, it's random. Yes, there are many albums I didn't hear, so it is by no means definitive. Yes, I'm too tired to devote much time to it now other than posting it. Check back at another time for possible insight into why I picked these albums.

2. The New Pornographers ELECTRIC VERSION
3. Kathleen Edwards FAILER
4. Radiohead HAIL TO THE THIEF
5. The Strokes ROOM ON FIRE
8. Lucinda Williams WORLD WITHOUT TEARS
10. Allison Moorer SHOW
11. Guided By Voices EARTHQUAKE GLUE
12. The Minus 5 DOWN WITH WILCO
13. Beulah YOKO
14. Gemma Hayes NIGHT ON MY SIDE

A special mention goes to Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison HAPPY HOLIDAYS, a self-released EP on which Willis displays a jazzier vocal style.

Speaking of Kelly Willis, I ended up watching Food Network's $40 A DAY at 2:00 a.m.--yes, I should have been sleeping--because the episode was set in Austin. Show host Rachael Ray, whose giggly persona can be irritating, opened the show with a stop at Waterloo Records. (Hey, I've been there!) Willis' most recent album EASY received a nice mention from a store employee. It was cool, and sort of strange, to stumble upon a plug for one of my favorite artists in a food show. Originally I thought one of the restaurants that Ray visits was a setting in WAKING LIFE, but I'm convinced that my first impression was incorrect. After all, how much could one show push my buttons?

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Some Random Musings

Is there any reason to watch the USA mini-series TRAFFIC (2004), which is based on the Steven Soderbergh film TRAFFIC (2000), which was based on the UK mini-series TRAFFIK (1989)? I considered tuning in but haven't felt like investing the time in what seems like a pointless endeavor. Here's one writer's opinion.

I heard the New Hampshire primary results on the radio as I drove home from THE PERFECT SCORE screening, so I didn't feel compelled to watch the cable news dissection of the vote. I should have tuned in to see if CNN and MSNBC were using the same titles they deployed in their coverage of the Iowa caucuses. One channel dubbed it "Battle in the Heartland" while the other used "Battle for the White House". Remember how after 9/11 some commentators thought that the use of military and war terms for sporting events and other non-combat happenings should be reconsidered. I think those days are over.

One of the worst lines I've heard in any movie of late is in the THE PERFECT SCORE. Erika Christensen plays the class salutatorian. She explains that she froze while taking the SAT because she "got caught up" in a word problem about a woman getting on a train at midnight and a man who boards three hours later. She wondered who the woman was, where she was going, and what she was feeling. I don't remember the exact line, but trust me, it is laugh out loud funny because her character is entirely serious.

I'm more interested in seeing SURVIVOR: ALL-STARS this Sunday than the Super Bowl. SURVIVOR: THE AUSTRALIAN OUTBACK'S Elisabeth and Rodger, two of my favorite Survivors, aren't participating, but Rupert, PEARL ISLANDS' real-life Hagrid, should be a lot of fun to watch.

I guess today's update features me channelling Larry King's USA Today column, minus the ellipses.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

And the Nominees are...

The 76th Annual Academy Awards nominations were announced this morning. Definitely some surprises. Of the 40 nominations I predicted, 26 were correct. I was right on four out of five nominees for Picture, Director, and Actor; three out of five for Actress, Supporting Actress, and the screenplay categories; and a pathetic two of five on Supporting Actor noms. 65% is a respectable number, but I would have scored higher if I'd listened to my gut.

My instinct was that COLD MOUNTAIN would not receive a Best Picture nomination, but Miramax's Oscar juggernaut convinced me that they could push the film into the Best Picture race. No guts, no glory. Should have gone with the racehorse.

In the director race, I picked Jim Sheridan over Fernando Meirelles (CITY OF GOD). I don't know that anyone could have seen Meirelles being nominated or CITY OF GOD being recognized in four categories. Not bad for a foreign film that opened a year ago. Notice that I did predict Gary Ross would not be nominated for Director if SEABISCUIT grabbed a Picture slot.

The Actor nominations were probably the easiest call, although Jude Law was unexpected, especially with COLD MOUNTAIN being frozen out of most of the major categories. I didn't have a lot of confidence in my Russell Crowe pick, but it is unusual for three Picture nominees not to have any acting nominations. The Actress nominees feature a couple surprises. Samantha Morton is almost always certain to do interesting work--SWEET AND LOWDOWN, JESUS' SON, MORVERN CALLAR--but I didn't think she'd be singled out for IN AMERICA. I'm most pleased with the nomination for WHALE RIDER'S Keisha Castle-Hughes. Her presence here is most unexpected because the marketing campaign was pushing her for Supporting Actress. Beating out the likes of Jennifer Connelly and Nicole Kidman is no small feat. Don't shrug off her nomination as a novelty because she's in her early teens. Castle-Hughes anchors the film with poise and subtlety rare in performers her age.

As for Supporting Actor, I picked Paul Bettany largely on the theory and history of Picture nominees carrying acting nominations. The same was true of Sean Astin, although he looked to be the strongest contender of any LORD OF THE RINGS actors. Peter Sarsgaard may have been more of a long shot--should have taken fellow Lions Gate player Alec Baldwin (THE COOLER)--but had a legitimate shot. Give me some credit for leaning toward Baldwin and Djimon Hounsou even if I didn't put them in the top five.

I was right that Patricia Clarkson would be nominated, just wrong on which category and which film. (She has a terminal illness in PIECES OF APRIL, so I should have known to favor that performance.) I guess only one indie queen was allowed, so no Hope Davis or Scarlett Johansson. Holly Hunter (THIRTEEN) comes as no surprise even if I didn't predict her nomination. Shohreh Aghdashloo (HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG) can prepare her "it's an honor to be nominated" line because this category should finally get Renee Zellweger her Oscar. Don't count out Clarkson, I suppose, but this is Zellweger's to lose.

Of the screenplay nominations, THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS and CITY OF GOD are the shockers. Even if LOST IN TRANSLATION loses in the other categories, it seems poised to pick up a win for Original Screenplay. The same goes for MYSTIC RIVER, although I think it will win at least one acting prize.

A few other random observations... No Cinematography nomination for THE RETURN OF THE KING is very surprising. Since this is the third time around, did the Academy get tired of it? MASTER AND COMMANDER proved surprisingly strong, finishing with ten nominations. I didn't see that coming. This should be a huge boost for a pretty good film. The acting nominations, particularly the supporting categories, show more diversity than usual. Believe it or not, Coppola is the first American woman to get a Director nomination.

All in all, I think this is an interesting set of nominees, even if some of my favorites didn't make the cut.

Monday, January 26, 2004

Get Yer Predictions Here!

The following predictions have not been extensively researched. Any theories expressed in the decision-making may even be faulty. These are shooting-from-the-hip prognostications, names and films being flipped out from the stream of consciousness. Start the timer...and...go!

Best Picture

RINGS, RIVER, and LOST are locks. Take 'em to the bank. I seriously flirted with not putting COLD MOUNTAIN on the list. I would be surprised, but not stunned, if it doesn't make the cut. The film has practically no heat. That said, if it grabs one of the five noms, I expect Miramax will try their damnedest to win.

My perception is that MASTER AND COMMANDER is more respected than SEABISCUIT, which could well win by a nose (rim shot, please). Both seem to be well-liked mass entertainments that never quite became phenomenons at the box office. If all was fair, HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG--too depressing--or IN AMERICA--just never caught on, for whatever reason--would slip past both. I give the edge to IN AMERICA as the dark horse.

Best Director
-Clint Eastwood (MYSTIC RIVER)
-Jim Sheridan (IN AMERICA)

Every year the directors and pictures don't match by one. Sheridan seems like the best bet to be recognized but not have his film get nominated for the top prize. SEABISCUIT'S Gary Ross will be odd man out if SEABISCUIT gets a Picture nom. Since I'm predicting it won't, I'm going for Minghella as the one who gets ignored. Weir's good even if MASTER AND COMMANDER comes up short in Picture. He was nominated for THE TRUMAN SHOW despite that film getting shafted, wasn't he?

Best Actor

Kingsley, Murray, and Penn are sure things as far as I'm concerned.

Repeat something enough and people will start to believe it. That's how I look at Depp getting a nomination. Sure, he deserves it--what a memorable, whacked out performance--but since when did that matter? This is probably one of the most beloved and talked about performances of the year, and I think all of the buzz pays off here. Plus, if the Academy is going to go for an all-out comedy performance, I see them favoring this over Billy Bob Thornton's hilarious piss take in BAD SANTA.

If MASTER AND COMMANDER is going to get a Best Picture nomination, it follows that Crowe would be honored too. He's very good as Aubrey, a role tailor-made for him, but it sure looks slight compared to the tremendous performances he's racked up over the last several years.

Best Actress
-Patricia Clarkson (THE STATION AGENT)
-Jennifer Connelly (HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG)
-Charlize Theron (MONSTER)
-Naomi Watts (21 GRAMS)

Sundance 2003 established the drumbeat that it was Clarkson's year. She won't win--Theron might as well be given the Oscar now--but a nomination will be a nice capper on a career year. People are finally realizing that Connelly is pretty terrific and chooses interesting work. She holds the screen with Kingsley, which is no small feat. It was nice to see Keaton get a part worthy of her talent, even if I'd withhold a nomination on the basis of that endless crying jag that isn't funny at all in SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE.

I had written a nice paragraph explaining why THIRTEEN'S Evan Rachel Wood would be nominated instead of Nicole Kidman, but then I realized I had left Theron out of the list of nominees. Oops. I still think it's an outside possibility. OK, so I'm going out on a limb a little with Wood, but if you want to recognize that hysterical, alarmist film, its talented young star ought to be who gets the attention. Clearly there is some support for the film and for Wood. Witness the Golden Globe nomination. The lovefest for Kidman isn't over yet--DOGVILLE will probably land her here next year--but this year the Academy picks the coltish Wood, who bears a faint resemblance to her.

Except, of course, that I went with Watts over both of them. (Maybe the Academy confuses their Aussie actresses.) Seriously, though, Watts is stunning--take a look at the scene when Penn comes to her home and she vents everything--and should have been nominated and won for MULHOLLAND DRIVE.

Best Supporting Actor
-Benicio Del Toro (21 GRAMS)
-Tim Robbins (MYSTIC RIVER)
-Peter Sarsgaard (SHATTERED GLASS)

Astin and Bettany get nominated due, in no small part, to their films being up for Best Picture. Astin seems to be the one RINGS performer with any buzz. Bettany is very good, and there's a nice storyline with he and his wife--Connelly--being nominated together. Robbins has to be the favorite for his haunted performance. SHATTERED GLASS hasn't really had any momentum, but the nuance and focus Sarsgaard shows in it should stick even if the film hasn't. Alec Baldwin (THE COOLER), Albert Finney (BIG FISH), and Djimon Hounsou (IN AMERICA) could surprise, especially the latter if his film picks up a couple other major nominations.

Best Supporting Actress
-Shohreh Aghdashloo (HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG)
-Marcia Gay Harden (MYSTIC RIVER)
-Scarlett Johansson (LOST IN TRANSLATION)
-Renee Zellweger (COLD MOUNTAIN)

Johannson is really a lead, but that's how the politicking of Oscar campaigning goes. (It's even more ludicrous that Keisha Castle-Hughes from WHALE RIDER was being positioned for this category because she is clearly the film's main character.) Zellweger is very popular, and she's probably one of the most memorable aspects of COLD MOUNTAIN. For some, that's not necessarily a positive thing. I liked how she played the hill woman, but the nature of the performance is sure to make this the most divisive of all the nominees.

Aghdashloo isn't riding the coattails of Connelly and Kingsley. Her character and performance are as key to HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG as the leads. It's been a pleasant surprise to see support for her build during awards season. I'm not sure where all the love for Gay Harden in MYSTIC RIVER came from, but considering that she has the most substantial female role in what is sure to be a multiple-nominated film, picking her is a no-brainer. Davis has done solid work for years without much notice. That changes now.

This will be the last time you hear it from me, but Alison Lohman should be nominated for MATCHSTICK MEN. I think it may be the best performance of the year, male or female, lead or supporting. It won't happen, but allow me to stump for her this last time.

Best Original Screenplay

Not a whole lot to say here. No need to explain why LOST IN TRANSLATION is here. THE STATION AGENT is the little film with a big heart and loyal supporters. IN AMERICA is the year's feel-good film with a heartwarming autobiographical basis. 21 GRAMS and DIRTY PRETTY THINGS are the flashiest. The former experiments with structure while the latter mixes several genres into something original.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Hmm, four Best Picture nominees here. Three condensed epics and one genre piece turned into Shakespearean tragedy. AMERICAN SPLENDOR is a fascinating distillation of Harvey Pekar's comic books. That it echoes Woody Allen's ANNIE HALL won't hurt it.

How well will I do? We'll find out soon enough.

Don't Encourage Them!

In today's column, Richard Roeper speculates that in the future the Oscar nominations will be announced in a primetime, hour-long special. Don't encourage them! The process is already dragged out enough that the last thing we need are protracted announcements dispersed between commercial breaks and commentary by self-proclaimed Oscar experts. (Currently the nominations are quickly announced at the crack of dawn on the West Coast to accommodate the network morning shows.)

Roeper is probably right that a primetime show would be an attractive package for the high bidder, yet the more I think about it, the more it doesn't seem likely the Academy would take this approach. After all, this program would have to be exclusive to one network, which doesn't equal the media onslaught we have now. (The three broadcast networks will cover the nominations live, as will E! and, I suspect, the cable news channels.) While it would make perfect sense for ABC, home of the Academy Awards ceremony, to host such a show, is exclusivity worth losing the free publicity on your competitors' airwaves?

Then again, it's all about the money. If the Academy were offered a deal they couldn't refuse...

The Brief History of the Chicken Sandwich

Ate at the intentionally spelling deficient Chick-fil-A for lunch. The walls are adorned with the franchise's history, including their claim to have introduced the world's first chicken sandwich more than 35 years ago. Can this be right? The chicken sandwich is that young, or do they mean their particular type of chicken sandwich? Surely the chicken sandwich isn't a recent culinary innovation. Regardless, their chicken sandwich is the best around by a long shot.

On a movie-related tip, look for my predictions of the Oscar nominees later tonight.

No Surprises

Thinking about the Golden Globes winners, I couldn't get the chorus of Radiohead's "No Surprises" out of my head. Truly, there were no surprises for the informed observer. The big winners were THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (Picture, Drama; Director; Original Score; Original Song), LOST IN TRANSLATION (Picture, Musical or Comedy; Actor, Musical or Comedy; Screenplay), and MYSTIC RIVER (Actor, Drama; Supporting Actor). Diane Keaton and Charlize Theron, as I predicted, won the lead Actress categories, with Renee Zellweger capturing the Supporting Actress statuette.

It's easy for me to say that none of these were surprises since I made just one prediction. Take a look at David Poland's Oscar columns and Oscar City Centre at Movie City News and tell me the Globes didn't play out according to the script.

I watched bits and pieces of what appeared to be a rather dull show. Bill Murray's acceptance speech was funny and sort of indifferent, which probably won't win him any fans in the Academy. Then again, from what I've read, Sean Penn didn't attend. Why that should matter demonstrates how truly political the votes are. It isn't necessarily about rewarding the best.

It seemed like every time I changed the channel to the Globes someone from ANGELS IN AMERICA was winning a TV award. One of these days I'll actually watch some of the acclaimed HBO programming that gets awards by the truckload. Glad to see THE OFFICE win even if the BBC show and Ricky Gervais were the trendy picks for the HFPA to make.

In other Sunday night television viewing, the Travel Channel's WORLD POKER TOUR: HOLLYWOOD HOME GAME wasn't as entertaining as Bravo's CELEBRITY POKER. The best part of of CELEBRITY POKER was listening to the casual interaction between the players. The game was a lot looser and more enjoyable TV. The announcers for WORLD POKER TOUR dominated, covering up the celebrity chitchat with too serious commentary.

Last night's MYTHBUSTERS wasn't quite as good as other shows. The breakstep bridge myth forced the guys to put in a lot of effort for not very interesting results.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Globe Trotters

The Golden Globes are tonight, and I just can't muster up much interest to watch them. I'm far more interested in the end results of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association's awards, the nominees for which I was tabulating yesterday. The shortened awards season has taken the wind out of the Globes' sails and made them seem less relevant, if they ever really were, since the winners cannot affect Oscar nominations. (Academy Awards noms will be announced Tuesday morning.)

Maybe the larger issue is that I don't have the proverbial horses in these races. My top films are mostly non-factors, as are some of my favorite performances (Nick Nolte in THE GOOD THIEF, Zooey Deschanel in ALL THE REAL GIRLS, Alison Lohman in MATCHSTICK MEN). I'll still watch the Academy Awards whether or not I have a vested interest in who wins. The Globes' credibility is suspect anyway, and their overstated importance is more irrelevant than usual this year. I might sample them during commercial breaks for the new episode of MYTHBUSTERS. Then again, ALIAS is a rerun, so I may tape a couple shows and watch a DVD instead.

I don't even remember what films and performances are nominated, but if Charlize Theron doesn't win Best Actress for MONSTER, I'll eat my hat. Although deserving, she wouldn't be tops on my ballot. The Golden Globes voters are savvy to the conventional wisdom. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association must know that Theron is very likely to get an Oscar nomination and be a favorite to win. I wouldn't put it past them to be like the so-called strategic voters--frontrunners casting ballots for who they think others will favor--in this year's Democratic primaries. From everything I've read, the HFPA is most interested in sustaining their image as predictors of Oscar success.

Friday, January 23, 2004

Baby, It's Cold Outside

Aside from opening the front door and taking a step to pick up the newspaper, I hadn't set foot outside all day until a little after 5:00 p.m. I've been busy tabulating the Central Ohio Film Critics Association award nominations and taking it easy on a day off. I knew it was snowing for most of the day but hadn't paid attention to how much. My bad.

I left to meet a friend for dinner and two films of the Kurdish cinema playing at the Wexner Center. I bailed on the plan after forty-five minutes in the car and maybe two miles travelled. The good thing is that I didn't make it to the interstate. Who knows how long I would have been stuck on 270 and 71 if I'd slogged it out long enough to get that far.

Since I was out already and needed to go to the grocery store, I headed to Meijer. Saw a car do a U-turn by driving over the grass-on-raised-concrete median on Polaris Parkway. Slick move, pal. I wanted to get at least another pair of thermal underwear, but wouldn't you know it, they didn't have any. None. I looked everywhere in the men's clothing section to no avail. I didn't even see where they would keep it. There weren't any gaping holes on the shelves, so it's not like they had a run on it and were out. I located an employee and asked if they had any. Nope, just a 2X dark blue thermal undershirt that had been returned today. I recall encountering this problem last year when it was really cold in the middle of winter. Do I need to stock up in July?

In other random thoughts, Tuesday I saw a tow truck towing a tow truck. I was going to make a sly comment comparing this to Ouroboros, but now that I've read a little more about the symbol, I'm not so sure that I'd be right.

Weekend Preview

Lots of things to catch up on, so let's get right to it...

THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT (Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber) (1/22/04, Marcus Crosswoods) Grade: D+

Could the fluttering of a butterfly's wings lead to a typhoon halfway across the world? Chaos theory suggests that it is possible, and the thriller THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT attempts to affirm the idea that the smallest change can trigger a chain reaction leading to monumental shifts.

As a child Evan Treborn (Ashton Kutcher) suffered from blackouts. Doctors couldn't find any physiological problems but recommended that he keep a journal to help in plugging the holes in his memory. The blackouts eventually stop, but when he reads one of his old journals, Evan's past vividly comes to life. He has discovered a way to travel through time. He jumps at the opportunity to change the traumatic history he shares with his friends. Evan finds that alterations to the past put he and his friends on different paths, but the changes aren't always for the better.

Evan's top priority is to save Kayleigh (Amy Smart). His first time travel intervention involves confronting her sexually abusive father (Eric Stoltz). When Evan returns to the present, it appears that everything is right with the world, even if it means he's now one of the fraternity guys he used to dislike. He and Kayleigh are in love and at college together, but the unintended consequences of his actions lead to other problems, necessitating more fiddling with the past.

THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT is absolutely shameless in its fascination with and portrayal of all the ugly things that can happen in life. Directors and co-writers Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber use the cheapest tricks in the book to manipulate the audience. Among the unpleasantries are child molestations, prison sex, a mother and baby blown up by a mail bomb, and a dog put in a bag that is to be set on fire. The depictions of these acts aren't necessarily graphic--often Evan has a blackout before we see what happens--but Bress and Gruber are as subtle as a sledgehammer to the foot in trying to elicit viewer sympathy. This tack fails as the tragedies escalate to the point of being laughable. Kayleigh becomes a heroin-addicted hooker with a big facial scar. Evan may need to fellate a neo-Nazi felon at one point and loses his arms in another scenario.

Those indignities may be what attracted Kutcher to the film. He gets to stretch, shifting from his doofus roles to a dramatic part. While we should be glad that his flirtation with drama didn't translate into him making an insufferable message movie in which he portrays an alcoholic trying to overcome addiction or a physically challenged person whose struggles uplift everyone, THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT won't change opinions of Kutcher the actor. It's hard to take him seriously when the story developments are so extreme. Plus, his comedic associations carry over when they shouldn't. In one scene he runs down the hall in a psychiatric ward. The moment is supposed to be tense, but the way he runs makes it play as comedy.

THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT comes off as a poor man's DONNIE DARKO. With this film and FINAL DESTINATION 2, which Bress and Gruber co-wrote, they show interest in exploring fate. As seen through both films, their worldview is really quite pessimistic, even if THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT softens it in the end. Try as you might, you can't outwit or change fate. It isn't the most reassuring sentiment, but as a reflection of post-9/11 times, it indicates how many feel.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

That's not realistic!

During yesterday's NOW PLAYING taping, Paul criticized TORQUE for not being realistic. The scene in question features two guys on motorcycles chasing each other onto the top of a moving train. I'm not going to defend TORQUE or the execution of the scene, neither of which are all that good, but when it comes to action films, I think my current tastes favor the unreal.

Off the top of my head, my favorite actions moments from 2003 films include the fight scenes in SO CLOSE, the desert scenes in THE HULK, THE ITALIAN JOB'S subway chase, essentially all of KILL BILL VOL. 1 (love the House of Blue Leaves section), the samurai versus the Japanese army in THE LAST SAMURAI, the big fight on the French ship in MASTER AND COMMANDER, COLD MOUNTAIN'S opening battle, and the outlandish motocross sequence in CHARLIE'S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE, a film with ridiculous action only.

COLD MOUNTAIN, THE LAST SAMURAI, and MASTER AND COMMANDER are all of the classical school of epic filmmaking action. THE ITALIAN JOB and THE HULK present typical Hollywood action. (Come to think of it, there's was probably a pretty good chase or two in 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS.) SO CLOSE, KILL BILL VOL. 1, and CHARLIE'S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE are heavily stylized Hong Kong actioners that go over the top to varying degrees. For my money, these are the films that really delivered the goods.

When done right, that absurd Hong Kong flair and freedom from the laws of physics excites me most in today's action movies. Granted, this style is being done to death and isn't always directed and edited very well, but I like the idea of two motorcyclists jumping their bikes on a moving train in pursuit of each other. The scenario's sheer ridiculousness is exhilirating. It's the action equivalent of melodrama, a heightened, stylized degree of spectacle, or action as opera. Think big, bold gestures. John Woo's style is often called operatic or balletic. Seijun Suzuki's insane movie about assassins is called PISTOL OPERA. (By the way, this movie is visually stunning but a mixed bag in terms of narrative and making heads or tails of what's happening.)

Whether unrealistic action is good or bad depends on the film's context. In TORQUE'S case, you expect the bikers to push their motorcycles past the limits of believability, to deliver the thrill that quickens your pulse while you think, in a good way, "I can't believe what I'm seeing!" Maybe the film would have been better sticking to a range of crazy but plausible stunts. The reliance on CGI effects cripples the action scenes because they look so incredibly fake. Still, there's something I respect about the stunt's conception even if the execution fails. I'd love to see someone pull it off.

A Sort of Homecoming

The excuses are gone. With a computer at home again, I should be able to attend to this blog in a more immediate manner. No more having to wait until the library or Otterbein computer lab opens. (By the way, huzzah to the Westerville Public Library. Their computer stations seem to be full at all times, but aside from a user time limit if people are waiting, they don't restrict what you can do. The Bexley Library, which I visit occasionally if I have some time to kill between films at the Drexel, blocks signing in to personal Yahoo! services--fantasy football, discussion groups, e-mail--and frowns on e-mail use. Boo!)

If I am so moved, I can write in the wee hours of the morning. I fear that my sleeping patterns are going to be thrown off. I'm not off to a good start if you notice what time I'm writing this entry.

Ended up seeing WIN A DATE WITH TAD HAMILTON! again. Definitely a superior romantic comedy when compared to the likes of ALONG CAME POLLY, which, I reiterate, is funny enough despite being undistinguished. THE GOSPEL OF JOHN is a well-intended attempt to bring the Bible to life, but did Christopher Plummer have to read the whole book? I felt like I was watching the film with the descriptive audio service, which probably isn't that far from the truth. What he says, we see. More on these at another time...

Monday, January 19, 2004

The Persistence of Hair

Have you ever noticed that when a film flashes back to a character's childhood, that person's haircut is often in the same style the present-day character has? I'm sure I could find plenty of examples if I so desired. I just happened to make this observation while cutting video for tomorrow's NOW PLAYING. To tease our February 3rd show, I edited a piece from THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT Ashton Kutcher's childhood character has a haircut that mirrors him as an adult. Some guys find a style they like and stick with it, but this movie shorthand seems really silly in this particular case.

About time for me to wrap up work on the show. Now I can go home and find out what's going on in the Iowa caucuses.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

A Winter's Day

It's a cold, dreary January day, and I can't really summon up the energy to do much of anything. Slept in until 10 this morning. Then I read the paper and drank coffee. I intended to go into the office early so I could write a blog entry. I was listening to The Strokes' ROOM ON FIRE while going about the morning routine and decided that I'd rather rock out to punchy garage rock than drag myself to work an hour ahead of crew call.

We covered the Otterbein women's basketball game against John Carroll this afternoon. In an astounding feat of prognasticating prowess, I predicted an OC win by fifteen or more. The Cardinals won 65-50.

I keep the official statistics on the Stat Crew system. I've done it for a long time and don't make too many mistakes. (They're usually easy to clean up if I do make them.) Imagine my aggravation when a look at the final box score shows three rebounds too many. I went through the play-by-play line by line and couldn't find them, so it took some creativity to even up shots and boards. It turns out I wasn't wrong. Less than twenty minutes after we wrapped up the game, I'm called regarding a problem with one player and Otterbein having six points too many. Some glitch in the program read one player's three misses as good shots, even though it doesn't appear that way in the play-by-play and hadn't in the gametime scoring while the game was in progress. Computers. Fixed the stats again and then rolled over to the computer lab with the intention of updating this blog.

As you can see, if you've made it this far through more typical blog fare, nothing has worked out as planned. (More gratuitous blog stuff: I ate some Classic Pizza--hooray for sponsored basketball games--and drank a Mountain Dew. Now you're up to date on today's food consumption.) I feel like I've worked out enough of my ambivalence through the above blather, so here's something more in keeping with this site's purpose.

Yesterday presented a tripleheader of movies: MONSTER, TEACHER'S PET, and ALONG CAME POLLY. The first film started at the Lennox at 12:05, and the last ended around 6:10. (Remarkably, I still wouldn't not have been able to watch all of LA COMMUNE (PARIS, 1871), playing at the Wexner Center tomorrow, in this time. I'd considered going, but I don't think I have the patience right now to endure a film that runs five hours and forty-five minutes.)

MONSTER (Patty Jenkins) (1/16/04, AMC Lennox) Grade: B-

MONSTER is most notable for a deglamorized Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos, considered the nation's first female serial killer. Theron is being buzzed about for an Oscar, and she will undoubtedly be nominated. I thought she was capable of doing better and more interesting work than her career had provided so far, and her performance in MONSTER bears that out. Theron becomes another person. Yes, the makeup, false teeth, and Method pounds she piled on help in the transformation, but her awkward body language and use of her eyes are just as critical to the performance. (It is dispiriting to think that, for actresses especially, one has to be "uglified" to be recognized for doing good work. Think Halle Berry in MONSTER'S BALL, Nicole Kidman and the prosthetic nose in THE HOURS, and Hilary Swank in BOYS DON'T CRY.)

I kept wondering who Theron reminded me of as she swaggered like a trucker. Strange as it sounds, she sort of looks like Philip Seymour Hoffman. (Those photos probably won't convince you--I'm not that sure of it myself--so maybe it's how she moves her body that reminded me of him.)

I think MONSTER is worth seeing primarily for Theron's acting. I wasn't crazy about the film. There's a pretty impressive shot as Aileen sits under an overpass as the title comes up, and the film held my interest. I'll be recommending it, but I'm not sure what compelled Roger Ebert to pick this as the best film of 2003.

TEACHER'S PET (Timothy Bjorklund) (1/16/04, AMC Lennox) Grade: B-

Talk about a change of pace, next up was TEACHER'S PET, which, like DISNEY'S THE KID, I refuse to refer to with the studio's possessive in the title. To my knowledge, this animated children's film has not been promoted much. It didn't merit an advance screening in Columbus, an unusual situation since most children's films are shown here for critics.

I'm unfamiliar with the TV program on which the film is based, but this short feature--IMDB claims it is 68 minutes--contains enough laughs and ingenuity to merit a recommendation. Nathan Lane voices Spot, a blue dog who dresses up like a boy and goes to school with his boy master. Like Pinocchio, Spot wishes he were a real boy. TEACHER'S PET is about what happens when Spot is made human. (The results are expected and unexpected.)

The voice casting features some impressive names for what looks to be a low priority release. Kelsey Grammer, David Ogden Stiers, Paul Reubens, Wallace Shawn, Jerry Stiller, Estelle Harris, and Megan Mullally are all in on the fun. The film makes liberal and effective use of songs. The animation is very basic and also kind of ugly, but it zips along with funny lines and catchy tunes to make it worth your time. Not essential viewing--I don't want to oversell it. Plus, it'll probably be on home video in a couple months.

ALONG CAME POLLY (John Hamburg) (1/16/04, AMC Lennox) Grade: B-

ALONG CAME POLLY completed the afternoon. A Ben Stiller-Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy sounds promising, but a mid-January release date raises skepticism. If the early weekend estimates are an indication--it looks to be number one at the box office--Universal released the film at the best time. It's a funny, diverting picture but nothing that will stick with you.

Stiller is a master at playing uptight guys. In ALONG CAME POLLY he's Reuben, a risk analyst at an insurance company. Despite his calculations, his marriage to Lisa (Debra Messing) was riskier than he thought. (On the first day of their honeymoon in St. Barts, she cheats on him with Hank Azaria's French scuba diving instructor.) Back home he runs into junior high school acquaintance Polly (Aniston). They don't appear to have much in common--she's a free spirit partial to spicy ethnic food and salsa dancing, he has irritable bowel syndrome and doesn't like to dance--but before long they grow fond for each other.

The trailer and ads have emphasized the gross humiliations Stiller's character suffers. Those parts, including most of a bathroom scene modeled on the one in DUMB AND DUMBER, aren't the films strength. Stiller does his slow burns and awkward, cocksure gestures with amusing results. Aniston bounces off him well, even if she isn't given much to do. Polly turns out to be little more than the stereotypical male's fantasy complete with convenient resistance to commitment. (At times her character and the film almost venture into THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY territory regarding her being an ideal, although this has none of the Farrelly Brothers' film's texture.)

Philip Seymour Hoffman gets a lot of laughs as Reuben's friend Sandy, a former child actor known for being in one hit film. He's essentially doing Jack Black's schtick, but who cares if he's funny.

The necessary relationship conflict is contrived solely to transition action to the third act, but luckily ALONG CAME POLLY shrugs off this development. Reuben and Polly hit a bump in the road, but the film doesn't dwell on it. I could have done without yet another romantic comedy that ends with one character racing to catch another going to the airport. (Can we please put a moratorium on this device?) I laughed enough, though.

Friday, January 16, 2004

2003's Worst Films

Just one more look back to 2003's films and I can put it in the past...mostly. (There's still the matter of fine-tuning the lists and taping NOW PLAYING'S Best of 2003 and Academy Awards preview shows.) With no further ado, here are my picks for the worst films of 2003:

10. FROM JUSTIN TO KELLY (Robert Iscove)

Trashing the AMERICAN IDOL movie doesn't exactly require going out on a limb. Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini may be able to belt out watered-down pop standards, but that doesn't make them actors. More or less a GREASE redux on the beach, it's as insipid as you'd expect. I held out the hope that SHE'S ALL THAT director Iscove might bring his light touch with Generation Y's version of PYGMALION to FROM JUSTIN TO KELLY. No such luck. After all, this is the same guy who directed the plodding BOYS AND GIRLS.


The Dr. Seuss name gets dragged through the mud again with this tone deaf, live action THE CAT IN THE HAT. I disliked Ron Howard's HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS more than THE CAT IN THE HAT. THE GRINCH misfired in its ambitions, but THE CAT appears devoid of any. Essentially a regurgitation of Mike Myers' tired comic riffs--the parody of the infomercial guy with the sweater and glasses must be at least ten years past the expiration date--the film vomits on the spirit of the Seuss book. The jokes are frequently suggestive and unnecessarily so for a children's film. (Luckily the family-friendly ELF was already in theaters when THE CAT IN THE HAT was released, clarifying how you can make a movie for the kids that is equally appealing to adults without stooping to inappropriate humor.)

8. BAD BOYS II (Michael Bay)

Speaking of being in bad taste, BAD BOYS II is defined by it. A bloated specatcle teeming with excessive vulgarity and violence, Bay's film vividly desecrates corpses for laughs in one action sequence. Considering how many edits are in BAD BOYS II, the editor must have been paid by the cut. The action scenes are virtually incomprehensible with the machine gun edits.

7. GODS AND GENERALS (Ronald F. Maxwell)

GODS AND GENERALS is not the longest film I've seen, but it certainly felt like it. If the year's worst films were based solely on length, this would be a shoo-in for the top spot. Acted and staged as stiffly as a freshly starched collar, GODS AND GENERALS drags on for a dreadfully dull 231 minutes. Civil War reenactors may thrill at the attention to historical detail in costumes and settings, but just because the jacket buttons are accurate for the times doesn't make the film engaging. Even worse, GODS AND GENERALS seems conveniently revisionist and apologist when concerning the Confederacy.

6. BOAT TRIP (Mort Nathan)

If BOAT TRIP isn't the lowest point for an Academy Award winner--Cuba Gooding Jr., in this case--then it has to be close to the bottom of the barrel. This rancid, low-rent comedy about two straight men who accidentally find themselves on a gay men's cruise ship is the sort of film an actor shouldn't have to make after winning an Oscar. It comes as no surprise that BOAT TRIP is rampantly homophobic and not funny at all. And who buys Gooding and Horatio Sanz as best buds?

5. HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES (Rob Zombie)

Zombie's de facto TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE remake offers nothing other than delighting in a freak family's slaughter of an admittedly irksome group of lost young adults. It's plenty gruesome and cringeworthy, but it isn't particularly scary. There's also something disheartening about the horror movie trend that asks us to identify more with the killers than the victims. HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES is amateurish, which may almost be a virtue in gorehound pictures but doesn't make for good filmmaking.

4. THE REAL CANCUN (Rick de Oliveira)

If you think of America's college students as upstanding individuals, you might change your tune after seeing THE REAL CANCUN. The premise is similar to that of the producers' MTV show THE REAL WORLD: record the actions of a group of twentysomething strangers living in an expensive house. For THE REAL CANCUN, the randy young adults celebrate spring break in Mexico. The bacchanalia caught on film paints the worst possible picture of these college-age men and women, namely that all they think about and engage in is binge drinking and casual sex. There's not a likable person among the sixteen in the film.

3. SUPER SUCKER (Jeff Daniels)

With the title SUPER SUCKER, the putdowns almost write themselves. The tagline "a new comedy that doesn't sucks!" makes it even easier. Daniels wrote, directed, and starred in this regional release about competing door-to-door vacuum cleaner sellers. One beleagured group of sellers capitalizes on the discovery that a discontinued drapery attachment can double as the domestic woman's sexual pleasure device. To say that SUPER SUCKER is a comedic vacuum is too easy and too true.

2. IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY (Fred Schepisi)

I have attended Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival the last three years, and each time the last film I have seen before going to the festival has been rotten. First came the mediocre DRIVEN, then the awful JASON X. I didn't think it could get any worse, but IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY topped the FRIDAY THE 13TH in outer space movie for awfulness.

Kirk, Michael, Cameron, and Diana Douglas appear in this seemingly neverending film about family dysfunction. Who cares about the characters healing old emotional wounds when they are all jerks who never really display any understanding of what brought them where they are?

1. MARCI X (Richard Benjamin)

Believe it or not, BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE wasn't 2003's lamest race comedy based on how terminally unhip white people are. MARCI X didn't offend or enjoy box office success like the socially backwards and bafflingly popular Steve Martin-Queen Latifah vehicle, but it did feature two execrable Lisa Kudrow rap performances.

Kudrow is the Jewish-American princess who takes over her father's record company during a national controversy over the hip hop artist Dr. S (Damon Wayans). Cultures collide, laughs are supposed to ensue. How bad is MARCI X? I saw MY BOSS'S DAUGHTER, a pretty terrible Ashton Kutcher movie, before this. It looked good in comparison.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Missing the Cut: Runners-up to the Best Films of 2003

You want more good films, you got it. In a lesser year, these might have made my honorable mentions:

AMERICAN SPLENDOR (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini)

ANNIE HALL filtered through the world of midwestern underground comics. Strong performances from Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis. Has one of the year's funniest scenes in the discussion of REVENGE OF THE NERDS.

BAD SANTA (Terry Zwigoff)

As vulgar as it can be, but funny, funny stuff if you go for it. Is there anyone more perfect than Billy Bob Thornton to play an alcoholic thief posing as a department store Santa?

BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM (Gurinder Chadha)

The familiar underdog sports movie gets new life in focusing on an Indian girl (Parminder Nagra) living in England with her conservative family. She wants to play soccer and is encouraged to do so, except from mom and dad. A warm, funny movie with a lot of energy.


Overachieving high school Asian students gone bad.


I remember being impressed with Byler's debut film when I saw it at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival. Can't say I recall a lot about it now except for solid characterization, Jacqueline Kim's very good performance, and artful DV cinematography.

DAREDEVIL (Mark Steven Johnson)

A really entertaining comic book film.

DEMONLOVER (Olivier Assayas)

One of those films that lingers, especially the haunting final shot that casts everything preceding it in a new light.

ELF (Jon Favreau)

This instant holiday classic is full of the Christmas spirit. Will Ferrell is hilarious too.


A quintessentially French film exploring family and politics.


Audrey Tautou performs a wicked riff on the AMELIE persona by which she is strongly identified.

THE HULK (Ang Lee)

THE HULK took a beating from the public and some critics maybe because it's one of the most artfully made and intellectual comic book films. Lee's innovative use of the frame like the comic book page makes the film sizzle.


A rousing adventure on the ocean.

MONDAYS IN THE SUN (LOS LUNES AL SOL) (Fernando Leon de Aranoa)

A sobering view of unemployment and the effect on these individuals. A beefed up Javier Bardem commands the screen.

PHONE BOOTH (Joel Schumacher)

Colin Farrell is trapped in a phone booth with a sniper waiting to strike him down if he won't confess his sins. A thriller with an Old Testament worldview.


A coming of age film that makes THIRTEEN look like a sham. Strong, natural acting from all, with the most memorable performance coming from Altagracia Guzman as the grandmother.

THE SCHOOL OF ROCK (Richard Linklater)

As a washed-up rocker who lies about his background to be a substitute teacher, JacK Black gets the role he was born to play. The film is instructive about rock's history and how songs are formed, and it's very funny too. Good performances from the kids in the classroom as well.


A well made film that overstates the historical importance of the race horse. Smooth, mainstream moviemaking that tells an interesting story.

THE SON (LE FILS) (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne)

Christian ideals in practice. A powerful film that shows how tough it can be to forgive and the need for it.

STONE READER (Mark Moskowitz)

Dow Mossman wrote a well-received book in the Seventies and then wasn't heard from again. Documentary filmmaker Moskowitz searches for the writer to learn what happened to him. A film that understands the impact a great book can have on the reader.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

2003 Honorable Mentions in Film, Version 1.0

OK, I admit that the unveiling of my honorable mentions is anticlimactic since I revealed my Top Ten yesterday, but ten days ago I spoiled much of the surprise in listing what films were in the pool. I still have a few major contenders to see before I can let the proverbial ink dry on the 2003 list.

I've limited my honorable mentions to ten, an arbitrary number to be sure, but I'll acknowledge those that couldn't push their way into the top twenty (or twenty-one, as it turns out).

(EDITORIAL NOTE 1/15/04: Make that eleven honorable mentions and the top twenty-two. I forgot BIG FISH. 1/3/05: Make that thirteen honorable mentions and the top twenty-four. I forgot SHATTERED GLASS, which made my "official" list on the TV show, and saw THE COMPANY after making this list. Yes, it's almost a year later, but I have now fixed it.)

28 DAYS LATER (Danny Boyle)

Easily the best zombie movie in who knows how long, 28 DAYS LATER examines how humans behave when thrust into one of the worst situations imaginable. The virus Rage infects much of England's population--and who knows how much of the world--and turns the hosts into bloodthirsty monsters. Society has broken down, leaving the uninfected to fend for themselves. Boyle brings a group of people together and follows how they interact now that their focus is on satisfying the most basic of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It's scary too, a quality missing from most modern horror movies.

BIG FISH (Tim Burton)

Burton's most mature film to date also ranks among his best. As the film's weaver of fantastic yarns Edward Bloom (Albert Finney as the character in his older year) demonstrates, no matter what life deals us, we write our own stories. BIG FISH transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary, something we can see if we let ourselves. The contentious father-son relationship is at the film's core and is movingly resolved. Less notice has been given to the grand love story, but it's the other key component in BIG FISH. Edward Bloom is so in love with life and the woman he wants to marry that he is capable of doing anything.

THE COMPANY (Robert Altman)

I’m basically illiterate when it comes to understanding ballet, but I found THE COMPANY fascinating. Aside from a few familiar actors and the characters’ dramatic arcs, this could almost be a documentary look at what takes place in a ballet company. In essence, THE COMPANY is plotless, which allows us to focus on the grace and strength of the dancers. Naturally performance pieces dominate. Altman’s excellent camera placement, Andrew Dunn’s silky DV cinematography, and Geraldine Peroni’s judicious editing beautifully construct the dance sequences. Star Neve Campbell pushed to get this film made as a labor of love. Her passion shines through. Malcolm McDowell injects THE COMPANY with his hilarious turn as the company’s director.

DOWN WITH LOVE (Peyton Reed)

Renee Zellweger and Ewan MacGregor have a ball as Doris Day and Rock Hudson types in this imitation of early Sixties sex comedies. Eva Ahlert and Dennis Drake's witty screenplay and the delightful period sets and costumes transport us to another era when the actors engaged in intercourse of the verbal kind.

FINDING NEMO (Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich)

The Pixar crew continue their track record of making beautiful, imaginative films for everyone. Terrific voice casting--Ellen Degeneres steals the film as a fish with no short term memory--lots of humor, a resonant story about parental anxiety, and splendid computer animation add up to one of the studio's best.


As strangers who meet in a Japanese hotel, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson expertly walk the fine line in their May-December relationship. Coppola's second feature mixes comedy and pathos, often concurrently. Murray's sadsack movie star singing Roxy Music's "More Than This" in a karaoke bar is not only a great song interpretation but also the condensed feeling of this wistful film.

MYSTIC RIVER (Clint Eastwood)

An actor's showcase within a director's showcase. Eastwood helms his best film in years in winding together the stories of three boyhood friends now adults whose lives have gone in drastically different directions following an incident many years ago. Sean Penn scorches the screen with his rage. As the childhood victim, a haunted Tim Robbins seems to evaporate before our eyes.


Marriages decay like teeth if they do not receive the proper care. In this case, Campbell Scott thinks he saw wife Hope Davis kissing another man. (As the scene is shot, her behavior is inconclusive, a wise strategy for this film.) Rather than talk about what's happening between them, he lets his suspicions get the worst of him, which only harms the relationship more. THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS is a painful and truthful film about marriage.


How much are you willing to change for the person you love? Adam (Paul Rudd) lets himself be remade into whatever girlfriend Evelyn (a sharp-tongued Rachel Weisz) desires. What he loses in the process is more than a few pounds and some uncool clothes. LaBute is unsparing in judging his characters, and none get off easy in this very funny, very pointed satire of modern love.


Although the film's conclusion is never in doubt, it’s an effective thriller made all the stronger by the desire to see the fabricating reporter Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) get his comeuppance. Glass stands as one of the year’s best movie villains. Christensen plays him as the golden boy who parlayed his affability into a cover for his journalistic misdeeds. His puppy dog charm and sympathy deflect more stringent questioning of his actions. Complicit in the scandal is a media culture that now values entertainment and celebrity over a rigid search for facts. In part, Glass was able to pull the wool over the eyes of his co-workers because his stories grabbed attention. As The New Republic editor Chuck Lane, Peter Sarsgaard serves as the film’s moral center. He delivers a nuanced performance that conveys a quiet rage as it becomes evident that they’ve all been duped. Billy Ray’s terse direction strips the incident to its basics. He depicts what Glass did and how it rattled the industry. The film is also spot on in its newsroom detail and performances.


Sort of a Hong Kong answer to the CHARLIE'S ANGELS movies, and that's not a bad thing. Two sisters (Qi Shu and Zhao Wei) working as hired assassins have a female police detective (Karen Mok) hot on their track. Yuen shoots the action sequences well, favoring longer takes and wider shots to showcase the fantastic setpieces.

TAKING SIDES (Istvan Szabo)

In the aftermath of World War II Harvey Keitel is a U.S. Army major trying to dig up dirt on Stellan Skarsgard's German conductor in TAKING SIDES. It's a gripping depiction of what happens when the zeal to crush the enemy trumps an open search for the truth.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

2003 Top Ten in Film, Version 1.0

It hasn't been easy to whittle down my favorite films of 2003 into a neat and tidy Top Ten list, but I've finally scratched out a tentative version. (OK, I cheated too since I've gone with one tie, giving me eleven films in the Top Ten.) Honorable mentions to come tomorrow, hopefully.

1. GERRY (Gus Van Sant)

GERRY is the sort of pick that plays right into the snobby film critic stereotype, but this existential masterpiece boasts pure filmmaking at its finest. I didn't have issues with the more commercial projects that Van Sant made before this, but as works of art, none compare to GERRY.

2. HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG (Vadim Perelman)

Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley are in peak acting form as the recovering alcoholic and Iranian immigrant battling over ownership of a northern California home. The county incorrectly insists she owes business taxes and takes the property from her. That she ignored the county's correspondence for months has led to this drastic measure. The house is auctioned at less than market price and purchased by Kingsley's character.

HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG views this slippery dilemma through the perspective of both characters. Neither are to blame and both are to blame for the situation that develops. Perelman is very perceptive in letting us understand what happens when both sides believe they are morally right in a dispute.

3. ALL THE REAL GIRLS (David Gordon Green)

Here's one of the year's most romantic and funny movies, yet it's not a romantic comedy according to the genre's conventional perception. As he demonstrated in GEORGE WASHINGTON, Green again shows that one of his strengths is establishing place and mood. It's all about the small moments. ALL THE REAL GIRLS also features Zooey Deschanel's breakout performance.


Divining the thorny truth from the real-life child molestation case is even more difficult after seeing this amazing documentary. Jarecki reveals one surprise after another, and in the end, we're not quite sure what to think.

Whether Arnold and Jesse Friedman are guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted is almost secondary. It is obvious that the family members are in denial and compartmentalizing the actions of the accused to astonishing degrees. This is a fascinating portrait of a dysfunctional family, complete with their home videos as it all falls apart.

5. KILL BILL VOLUME 1 (Quentin Tarantino)

Tarantino loves watching and making movies. He compresses this passion into KILL BILL VOLUME 1, a dizzying melange of his fetishes and favorite movies and music. It's proto-feminist subtext aside, this is all about style, which Tarantino has in spades. If you're looking for the best action scenes of 2003, this is the place to look. The House of Blue Leaves sequence is as bloody and brilliant as any setpiece from last year. Uma Thurman delivers a fierce, focused performance as the unnamed Bride wreaking revenge on those who murdered her wedding party and left her and her unborn child for dead.

6. MATCHSTICK MEN (Ridley Scott)

As mainstream films go, they don't get much better. Nicolas Cage is a con man who gets his heart stolen by the teenage daughter he knew he never had. Consistently funny and surprisingly touching, MATCHSTICK MEN also keeps us on our toes in the tradition of other con men movies.

Alison Lohman was awfully good in 2002's WHITE OLEANDER, and she's even better here as Cage's daughter. Her note-perfect portrayal of a teen ranks among the year's best performances, lead or supporting. She should have been a lock for an Oscar, not to mention on the fast track to stardom. Cage isn't bad either.

7. CITY OF GOD (CIDADE DE DEUS) (Katia Lund/Fernando Meirelles) and BUS 174 (ONIBUS 174) (Jose Padilha) (tie)

These startling films about the children living in Brazil's slums are opposite sides of the same coin. CITY OF GOD is a fact-based drama that uses the whiz-bang energy of Scorsese films like GOODFELLAS to pry our eyes open to the depraved conditions there. It is hard to shock audiences, but I can't imagine anyone watching this film not to be jarred by the violence children perpetuate in the streets. To be sure, this is tough stuff, but it calls to attention a situation in desperate need of repair.

The documentary BUS 174 tells the story of a young man who grew up in the slums and ends up hijacking a bus. The reporting digs deep, putting the incident into a context that doesn't excuse the hijacker's actions but understands how it reached the boiling point. Expertly edited, it's as tense as the best Hollywood thrillers.

8. WHALE RIDER (Niki Caro)

This heartwarming coming-of-age tale follows a Maori girl who wants to participate in her tribe's traditions but faces opposition from an unlikely source--her rigid grandfather. Keisha Castle-Hughes is remarkably assured as the twelve-year-old Pai. Free of too over politicizing and sentimentalizing, Caro's smooth storytelling communicates the need for a bridge between the ways of the past and the necessary evolution to reach the future. WHALE RIDER is a joy that can adults and children can equally enjoy.

9. IN AMERICA (Jim Sheridan)

This immigrant family's fable is another triumphant feel-good film. IN AMERICA speaks to the promise that this country offers those looking to make new lives here. Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton emote beautifully as the parents still deep in grief from the death of their son. Sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger are so precious as their daughters Christy and Ariel. Sheridan builds this family you want to see succeed, and you're there with them through the minor and major events as they try to rebuild a home in a foreign land.

10. DIRTY PRETTY THINGS (Stephen Frears)

It's a thriller, a romance, a social drama, and one terrific film. Chiwetel Ejiofor is compelling as the illegal Nigerian immigrant plugging away at various jobs in London, and as a Turkish maid, Audrey Tautou proves she can play more than the winsome pixie. Frears immerses us in the underground world to show how those on society's fringes keep things moving but are exploited much to our obliviousness; however, Steve Knight's DIRTY PRETTY THINGS screenplay invests us in the characters and the scenarios they face so that the polemicizing serves as flavoring instead of the flavor.

Monday, January 12, 2004

My Own Private Computer

The end of my home computer fast may be in sight. My brother Philip has been working on getting one together, and if all things work as planned, I should be back up and running on January 20. It sure will make keeping up with this easier.

For about a year I've known that director Gus Van Sant was coming to Otterbein for a presentation of some kind. I've also known that I might be involved with it in some way. Today I learned that I will introduce him at a presentation/Q&A with students and at An Evening with Director Gus Van Sant. During An Evening with... I'll also be on stage with Van Sant and another person to keep the discussion moving. Should be fun. I suspect that his visit should prompt the Drexel to open ELEPHANT soon, or at least I hope it does.

In other non-movie news, I found my driver's license after failing to locate it for a little more than a month. I had cashed a check to replenish the station's petty cash and never taken my ID out of the bank envelope. Too bad I found it after I got a replacement, which ran me about twenty bucks.

After an excellent new episode of ALIAS I finally watched FAST, CHEAP & OUT OF CONTROL. When the time neared to make my Best of 1997, I had this on my list of unseen films worth consideration. It never did make it to Columbus. If it had, it might have made my honorable mentions. Errol Morris is a great documentary filmmaker. FAST, CHEAP & OUT OF CONTROL, like his other films, features fascinating subjects. In this case, he interviews a topiary gardener, a naked mole-rat specialist, a wild animal trainer, and a robot scientist. Yet the film isn't really about them and their quirks. Rather, it tells about what man strives to do in an effort to control life in the face of nature and time. It's a thought provoking film, but I'll have to save more comments for another time.

Friday, January 09, 2004


The word overrated is popping up a lot now that the awards season is in full swing. AMERICAN SPLENDOR, LOST IN TRANSLATION, and MYSTIC RIVER are the films that seem to be bearing the most brunt of the backlash. I liked all three and wouldn't consider them overrated; however, I understand how someone seeing these films now, after months of critical praise, might find them to fall short of expectations. It's the rare film that can live up to the hype, especially at this time of year when many critics and studio marketers are kicking it into overdrive.

In preparation for compiling my Best of 2003 and associated lists, I thought I'd also find those films whose critical acceptance boggled my mind. Surprisingly, just two stood out. (I considered including RESPIRO, an Italian film that left me incredibly bored, but I couldn't generate enough bile for it.)

THIRTEEN (Catherine Hardwicke, 2003) may be one of the most ovverated films of the last few years. It currently has 96 "fresh" and 22 "rotten" reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, which translates into a fairly high 81% fresh rating. (The cream of the crop rating is an astonishingly high 89% fresh.)

This cautionary tale about a thirteen-year-old girl (Evan Rachel Wood) who rebels in ways straight out of parents' nightmares (or worse) struck me as the biggest bunch of baloney I'd come across all year. It's a film that purports to tell the truth of what life is like for today's teenagers. I think it shares more with the reactionary juvenile delinquent films of the 50s and 60s than any semblance of reality.

In all fairness, THIRTEEN likely reflects the experiences of some teenagers, although I suspect, and hope, that their number is fewer than Hardwicke would have us believe. I find it very difficult to swallow that this film accurately portrays the average teenager. Look, life isn't THE LIZZIE MCGUIRE MOVIE, but it isn't THIRTEEN either.

The filmmakers and marketing campaign trumpeted the fact that THIRTEEN'S co-writer and co-star Nikki Reed based the film on her life. The film has been getting a lot of mileage out of this tidbit, positing Reed as Everyteen. THIRTEEN strives to confirm all the worst fears and suspicions about kids these days, but does that make it more honest or true, even if it resembles one girl's story? I don't think so.

The mostly favorable reviews for CAMP (Todd Graff, 2003) also baffle me. The movie follows several teenagers at a performing arts summer camp. Teen angst drenched in Sondheim musicals, CAMP hits almost all sour notes. Cliched, wafer-thin characters and Graff's surprisingly incompetent incorporation of the performance scenes make for a highly amateurish film that pulled in 56 fresh reviews out of 81, equalling a 64% fresh rating. (The cream of the crop was even more enthusiastic with a 73% fresh rating.)

For a movie so in love with the songs and performing them, CAMP couldn't have used them more incorrectly. Most of the numbers aren't shown in their entirety, which makes no sense considering that's the main appeal of the film. The audience didn't come for the tinny dialogue and flat acting. They want to hear the teens sing. Why Graff favors the lesser than sitcom-level dramatics and acting over the musical scenes, the film's one strength, is a mystery diminished only by why the majority of critics praised it.

Keep looking for those promised reviews in addition to some of 2003's overlooked films. Time for me to endure MY BABY'S DADDY.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

The Critical Eye

Matt Zoller Seitz wrote an interesting piece about critics and their Top Ten/Best of lists for today's New York Press.

On classifying a film as the best or worst or signifying some trend in cinema, Zoller Seitz says, "It's all part of the same transparent game: We're trying to wrap our personal, in some ways inexplicable response with an outer layer of importance. The essence of every piece of criticism is the same: You might not like this, but I sure as hell did."

I think that's a very good encapsulation of criticism. We critics state our views with authority, and the heat we receive from readers and viewers when our evaluations differ is due, in large part, to the perception of us being the men and women on the mountain passing down proclamations. All reviews should be read with the understanding that the words "in my opinion" are implicit.

Don't think, though, that I'm taking a relativist view on criticism. Not all opinions are equal. By definition, no opinions are wrong, but some opinions are better than others. It's not so much a value judgment--critic X is right and critic Y is wrong--but rather a matter of separating the informed from the less informed and uninformed.

We don't disregard expert opinions of doctors and mechanics, for instance, but when it comes to critics--movie experts, in theory--their opinions are frequently dismissed for various reasons. (Granted, critics aren't certified, and anyone with a computer, a website, and the initiative to collect his or her thoughts into a review can claim to be a critic.)

I think much of the distrust of film critics stems from cinema's populist appeal. If asked, most would probably say they like movies and are fans. The popularity of the movies and most people's familiarity with them permits the average moviegoer to assume a particular level of expertise that may not exist in artistic fields with less wide appeal and exposure. For example, the regular person isn't as likely to refute an art critic's review of a contemporary painting.

Ultimately, Zoller Seitz's asserts that "...I now read critics not because I trust their opinions, but because I feel that I've gotten to know them well enough to be able to split the difference between their opinions and mine, and make a decision on whether to see a particular movie (or watch it again). When a critic steers me wrong, or fixates on particular details for reasons that strike me as counterproductive, I don't feel mad or betrayed. I remind myself that everybody is different and every day and every week is different, and that if that critic had written the review in a different frame of mind or experienced a different upbringing, his verdict might not have been the same."

Psychology was one of my college majors. I don't remember who said it, but the statement that we're always betraying ourselves, leaking out personal information all the time, stuck. Film reviews are full of the critic's worldview, eccentricities, and experiences.

I was a big fan of LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN--the NBC years--when I was in high school. I really liked how Letterman deconstructed television and his program, although I doubt I would have put my enthusiasm in such terms then. That's one of my aims with this blog, to make the process of reviewing films more transparent.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

TV Pitfalls

Yesterday we taped the first regular episode of NOW PLAYING with an hour-long duration. The first show we ever did, way back in 1997, was an hour, although it was an Academy Awards preview and Best of 1996 review special. How odd is that--our first show was a special episode and not a normal one.

Anyway, a half hour program that, on average, features eight films is over and done with before you realize it. Due to problems with the station's production schedule, we weren't able to tape on December 22. With an abundance of holiday films to review, we crammed eleven of them into last night's hour-long taping. Talk about the luxury that the extended time gave us. Our discussions and reviews felt more complete, which shouldn't come as a surprise with double the time to talk about each film. Granted, we were discussing some really good films whose complexity demanded longer explanations and evaluation.

Time seemed to move very slowly yesterday, and it slowed down even more during taping. Silly as it sounds, an hour-long program, 54 minutes of which is the show, is a lot of time. For that matter, two and a half minutes seemed like an eternity when you're usually whipping through discussions in half that time. Not that this was a bad thing. The interesting thing was noticing that I was gassed by the time the taping was finished. Keeping up your focus and concentration for that long, especially at the end of a busy day, can take a lot out of you, even if it is just talking about movies.

Of course, time seemed to stop when the teleprompter decided to start spitting out glitches. We didn't stop taping--much to my chagrin at the time--when my review of PAYCHECK kept returning to the beginning after I read the first line. So there I am, metaphorically naked since we didn't have b-roll, blank as can be. (It didn't help that I wrote that review back on December 22 and pulled lines from it for the show. I didn't know it as well as those I'd written more recently.)

The prompter crapped out two more times, once on Paul's toss to the CALENDAR GIRLS clip and on my review for THE YOUNG BLACK STALLION. Ad libbing a toss isn't too difficult, and Paul did just fine. Luckily, my review of Disney's pretty but vacuous IMAX film was in broad brushstrokes--not much happens in its 45 minutes to get specific anyway--so I could wing it without a lot of trouble. Being covered by video helped too.

The moral of the story for those of you not in TV Land is this: when the person on-air looks like a jackass--which I most assuredly do in this case, although you won't find me looking at the tape to confirm my suspicions--it's not necessarily his or her fault. The talent is at the mercy of the crew. Is it embarrassing? You better believe it. I prefer to look like a buffoon from my own mistakes, of which there have been enough but not on this occasion.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

A brief note

Just time for some housekeeping today. The archives should be fixed. I nearly passed out when I went to check my PAYCHECK review and couldn't bring up anything on the site that was older than this week. (I wanted to cherrypick the review for tonight's NOW PLAYING taping.)

Went to Starbucks last night to aid with the writing. It definitely helped, although perhaps that was too much caffeine too late at night because I was still wide awake at 2:30 a.m. I know Starbucks gets a bad rap--yes, there's practically one on every corner, but the indie coffee shop within walking distance shutters around 6:00 p.m.--but the coffee and music are good. Nice to hear Joe Henry, Sarah Harmer, and Kathleen Edwards played over the in-store system. The environment is right, but I may have to rethink drinking the dark roast after 9:00 p.m.

It's show time. Signing off for now...

Monday, January 05, 2004

Sketches on Godard

Work has kept me pretty well occupied today. Since I face a lot of writing for tomorrow's NOW PLAYING taping, I'll keep this update brief and, in a way, more in keeping with how I intended to use this blog. Perhaps it's appropriate that I do so with the film in question, as it shares the impromptu, jazzy spirit of BREATHLESS.

First time seeing this seminal New Wave film. It's a good thing that I've seen a decent number of films from Godard's contemporaries. Otherwise I'm not sure how much of this I would have appreciated.

BREATHLESS (A BOUT DE SOUFFLE) (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960) (DVD, 1/4/04) Grade: B+

The title is supposed to refer to Michel Poiccard's (Jean-Paul Belmondo) spiritual exhaustion, but it could just as well refer to the film's pace. This film moves. BREATHLESS possesses a vitality, a thrum of modernity, that I don't get from most of today's films. It's quickened pace is essential, but my favorite part of the film is the approximately 20-minute sequence with Michel and Patricia (Jean Seberg) goofing around doing nothing in her apartment. The cinematography of these two beautiful people is simply stunning. Godard finds unique ways of commenting on the action within the confines of the space, using the posters as point and counterpoint without being too obvious.

Is Godard also having fun with the title in regard to how the film is resolved? BREATHLESS is so loose that I wouldn't put it past him to use the title as a wicked little joke.

I wonder if John Lurie's characters in Jim Jarmusch's films are supposed to echo Belmondo here like he recalls Bogart. None of them are conventionally handsome, and memory seems to remind me that they all dress alike.

Seberg is radiant. Godard could have made a film comprised of the study of her face and kept it interesting. (One could argue that much of BREATHLESS is just that, a study of the two lead actors' visages.)

It's interesting to see how experimental Godard already is at this early date. I remember being duly impressed with CONTEMPT when I caught it during its theatrical re-release a few years ago. I was really put off by IN PRAISE OF LOVE. I'm fairly certain these three are the only Godard films I have under my belt. I can see what makes him such an exciting filmmaker and why he may ultimately irritate me as he makes a more radical progression.

Sunday, January 04, 2004


The last few days have proven that trying to write for this blog from the public library is very difficult. The computer stations are always full, so the 30-minute time limit and the attendant loom like the sword of Damocles. At minimum it usually takes me an hour to write an average-sized update, with a modicum of proofreading included. The inconvenience of no home computer should be less of an obstacle this upcoming week. School resumes at Otterbein, meaning that I can get into my office seven days a week if I so choose.

The bonus of this home computing hiatus is the discovery that I can still write in the ancient way of longhand. There remains the issue of being in the mood to write, but I've found that sitting in a coffee shop with a cup of joe or doing the same thing at home expediates inspiration. When it comes to being in the right frame of mind, like real estate, it's all about location, location, location.

The time limit means, however, that it's nigh impossible for me to sit here and crank out reviews. I have almost two finished and hope to complete another one or two later today, but I have to fuss with them too much to type them here. The reviews already promised are coming. Also look for my takes on HE LOVES ME, HE LOVES ME NOT and FOURTEEN HOURS.

I haven't finalized a Top Ten for 2003, although GERRY, HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG, ALL THE REAL GIRLS, and CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS are virtually assured locks. In the meantime, here are the other films up for consideration in the Top Ten: 28 DAYS LATER, BUS 174, CITY OF GOD, DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, FINDING NEMO, IN AMERICA, KILL BILL VOL. 1, MATCHSTICK MEN, MYSTIC RIVER, THE SHAPE OF THINGS, SHATTERED GLASS, and WHALE RIDER.


Some of those honorable mention candidates don't stand a chance, but I included them since they were rated B+. I gave DEMOLOVER and THE FLOWER OF EVIL B's, but both have stuck with me and merit consideration.

OK, I've hogged this work station long enough, so it's time for me to be going. Review writing beckons, assuming I don't get caught up in watching MYTHBUSTERS or televised poker when I get home.

Saturday, January 03, 2004

What the World Needs Now...

From December 23, 2003 through January 1, 2004, I didn't set foot in a movie theater. Crazy as it sounds, that's probably the longest stretch I've gone without doing so in some time. (A look at my screening log would probably reveal that it was the longest time all of last year.) Such is life when you've seen all the holiday releases before Christmas arrives. How else to get the new year going than a trip to the multiplex?

I wanted to see ELF again, and the reduced show times are a strong indicator that its days in the theater are numbered. I expect it will hang around through the end of January, but chances are that it may be down to one screening a day by that point. If it can make it through the month, it will have played for almost three months, an eternity in modern day theatrical exhibition. I also was curious to check out WIN A DATE WITH TAD HAMILTON!, which was unspooling in public sneak previews. (A look at the calendar showed that I might miss the eventual press screening, giving me as good of an excuse as I needed to go.)

What sight greeted me and my fellow moviegoers at the theater? A simple sign that read: Attention Guests. Our country is on high security alert. By attending a movie, you will be subject to a visual inspection of all backpacks, handbags, or purses over 8 1/2 x 11. Thank you for your cooperation and have a safe holiday season.

Is it me or is there a disconnect in linking the logic in the country being on high security alert, a warning which was underlined on the sign, and the need for a movie theater to inspect patrons' possessions? Sure, a terrorist act could be carried out anywhere, and there's nothing preventing a movie theater from being a target. If that's how we're going to treat this orange threat level, then why aren't we being patted down at the supermarket, the mall, and the gym?

If anything, this warning seems designed to deter film piracy under the guise of domestic protection from terrorists. If the intention is to thwart potential pirates, the sign is redundant, not to mention a gross abuse in taking advantage of the current climate. Other postings address what items are subject to search and will not be permitted into the theater.

It's all quite laughable, though. While security was on the premises, one ticket taker was the only person between the ticket counters and the theaters. Maybe if I had a big bag with me someone would have come over, but I highly doubt it. That's the way it should be too. I've grudgingly become accustomed to the sham that is the security shakedown that takes place prior to advance screenings to which the public is also admitted. Either the guard runs the wand around you or performs just a visual check. It slows things down, but I suppose it's the price one pays to see STUCK ON YOU four days early. Supposedly guards are also watching the audience during the screening for signs of anyone taping from the seats.

The process amuses and aggravates me. It's insulting to be treated like a criminal, especially when before the film a representative warns and scolds the audience about the illegality of recording the movie. Some guards go berzerk when an audience member tries to take in a cell phone that can take pictures or capture video. Last time I checked, those phones don't have very much storage capacity and aren't going to be grabbing high quality images.

The irony is that clamping down so tightly a couple days before a film's release doesn't eliminate the problem. When a film opens, the same measures are not being taken. (It's also true with public sneak previews. I went through no security to see WIN A DATE WITH TAD HAMILTON! three weeks before it opens.) Anyone willing to run the risk of being caught can probably get a camcorder into the multiplex because these tougher security procedures are largely absent--for good reason too. I don't think most moviegoers go to the theater to record the film off the screen. Although they probably won't admit it, I think the studios realize this. They can get away with inconveniencing people at advance screenings because no one paid to attend. Try the same thing on a Friday night, and paying audiences are more likely to raise a fuss. Of course, it's also highly impractical to extend this security to every screen in the nation.

It would be nice if the piracy issue were being approached and combated in a sensible manner. I don't deny that studios have a problem, although I'd wager that the biggest percentage of piracy takes place under the studios' noses, whether on their lots or from people affiliated with the companies.

As for the films, ELF was just as delightful as the first time I saw it. WIN A DATE WITH TAD HAMILTON! turns out to be a funny and really sweet romantic comedy that should make Kate Bosworth and Topher Grace stars. Since I've already far exceeded the library's time limit, reviews will have to be forthcoming. (Sitting in a coffee shop, I scratched out most of an ELF review in the time between films last night.)