Friday, December 31, 2004

Hello Goodbye

2004 is almost over, 2005 is almost here. I'm up to my eyes in writing and listmaking, so I don't have much to say other than thanks for reading this past year. There should be no shortage of posts over the next two weeks, and I'm kicking around a few ideas regarding how to improve the blog. Have a safe New Year's Eve, and I'll see you on the other side of 2005.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Holiday ramblings

Behind the wheel on a wintry I-70 (December 24, 2004/Mark Pfeiffer)

As it is for many, the time between Christmas and New Year's is a busy one for me. I'll be spending 2004's final days keeping stats for eight basketball games played over today and tomorrow, finishing (rather, starting and finishing) a piece for the next issue of The Film Journal, and summarizing my Film Journal and Central Ohio Film Critics Association ballots. On top of that there are some other things I'd like to get done, but then again, I intended to take another crack at reading MOBY-DICK during the downtime over Christmas, and I never opened the book.

I've posted a photo of what road conditions on I-70 were like around the Dayton area two days after the record snowfall. All the grime on my windshield helps make this my homage to THE BROWN BUNNY. What is typically a two hour drive turned into a three and a half hour ordeal with plenty of nervewracking moments. It'd be clear sailing at the speed limit for a stretch until becoming bumpy, icy terrain that demanded slow speeds. Several times I felt like the car would spin out if it weren't wobbling equally in both directions. And there's nothing like having a semi bearing down on you with nowhere to go in those conditions.

I've been tracking down Charles Burnett's films after seeing his powerful NIGHTJOHN at the Wexner Center's Children's Film Festival earlier this month. NIGHTJOHN was made for The Disney Channel, but it's subtler and more artful than you'd think. Of the three films that I've managed to see--a poor sampling since two of the three are TV movies, with THE GLASS SHIELD being the lone theatrical feature in the trio--NIGHTJOHN is definitely his best. After returning home on the 23rd from a failed attempt to drive to my parents--they called to tell me I-70 was closed--I watched THE WEDDING, his Oprah TV movie that I had on my DVR. Halle Berry stars. The film also features Lynn Whitfield and ALIAS' Carl Lumbly, who played the title character in NIGHTJOHN. Patricia Clarkson and Marianne Jean-Baptiste have small parts, so the cast is fairly impressive for a television melodrama. The film peels back the history of a wealthy black family on Martha's Vineyard in the 1950s as the wedding of the youngest daughter approaches. The bride-to-be's groom and great-grandmother are white. The family's history, interracial and otherwise, is complicated and all about keeping up appearances. THE WEDDING provides a different view of African-Americans at this point in history, something which probably attracted Burnett, but the script is a soppy mess.

Jhumpa Lahiri's INTERPRETER OF MALADIES and THE NAMESAKE are two of the best books I've read this year. I read in the latest issue of Cineaste that Mira Nair will be directing a film version of THE NAMESAKE. She should be the right director, and the film jumps onto my list of the most anticipated in 2006. This bit, from Karin Luisa Badt's introduction to the interview, causes a little concern, though:
"This should be closer to a film produced on her own terms. A bicultural story about a young Tamil woman caught in a communal conflict, it promises to let Nair delve into what she excels at: thoughtful and esthetic examinations of the human striving to belong (particularly that of women), told in a style at once compelling and gentle."
While THE NAMESAKE focuses on the young woman in the beginning, the story is about her son, the titular namesake. I'm hoping that Badt misunderstood instead of Nair completely changing the film's focus, a possibility that this comment implies.

Two more items for today... It's increasingly rare that I see films in multiplexes outside of press and promotional screenings. While I'm aware of the "pre-show entertainment", the euphemism for advertising before the trailers, I didn't realize how out of control it's getting. Seeing BLADE: TRINITY at a Cinemark theater was a real eye opener. 25 minutes from the start time, at least ten of them advertisements, the film began. That's totally unacceptable. It was one of the deciding factors in choosing to see the crummy horror pic DARKNESS last night at AMC Easton rather than Movies 16 in Gahanna. (Movies 16's quoted running time for the film led me to believe there were 27 minutes of pre-movie content.) The AMC theaters in Columbus have switched to digital projection for the now-animated slides and videos that play before the movie. They still had the "pre-show entertainment", but to their credit, it began before and ended at the advertised start time. Sure, there were still ten minutes of trailers to watch, but I don't think most people, such as the Captive Motion Picture Audience of America, are vexed by trailers.

As for DARKNESS, it lacks any connective tissue or reasonable amount of sense, even for a genre movie. It may be the first film I've seen where, rather than saving one for DVD release, the ending and what seems like an alternate ending are contradictory. This is prime evidence for losing a film in the editing room.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

It takes The Village Voice

The 6th annual Village Voice film critic's poll turns up an interesting crop of winners and nominees. With SIDEWAYS winning practically every other critics group's prizes, these poll results provide a nice contrast.

BEFORE SUNSET won Best Film, so naturally Richard Linklater landed atop the Best Director category. The winner of Best Performance played the film's title character, but it wasn't Jamie Foxx for RAY. (He placed 14th in the poll.) Imelda Staunton won for Mike Leigh's VERA DRAKE. Best Supporting Performance went to Mark Wahlberg in I ♥ HUCKABEES. (SIDEWAYS' Virginia Madsen and Thomas Haden Church were a close #2 and #3.)

Charlie Kaufman won Best Screenplay for ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. PRIMER was named Best First Film. Best Documentary went to LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF. Christopher Doyle won for Hero. CAFE LUMIERE was tabbed as the Best Undistributed Film.

I enjoyed seeing that Leslie Camhi and James Quandt cast votes for the Weeping Camel and Baby Camel as Best Supporting Performer in THE STORY OF THE WEEPING CAMEL, not that I thought the camels were worthy shortlist candidates but because, well, they voted for a camels.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004


SPANGLISH (James L. Brooks, 2004)

SPANGLISH features Paz Vega as Flor Moreno, a Mexican immigrant who comes to Los Angeles hoping for a better life for her daughter. For her first several years in the United States Flor rarely ventures outside the comfort of the Spanish-speaking community where she lives. When she accepts a housekeeping job for the Clasky family, Flor gets a crash course in the dysfunctional lives of the upper class. Teá Leoni and Adam Sandler star as high-strung Deborah Clasky and mild-mannered star chef John Clasky.

James L. Brooks’ forte as a writer-director is locating the comedy and humanity in his characters’ foibles. With SPANGLISH he misplaces that sensibility. Deborah is a self-absorbed, emasculating harpy who, on her best day, might charitably be described as thoroughly unpleasant. Blame Brooks and Leoni for this movie-wrecking character. Brooks wrote her as all hard edges. Whether Deborah is chiding Flor not to play fetch with the dog or bemoaning the state of her marriage, Leoni’s shrill performance is wince inducing. Brooks struggles to define SPANGLISH, garbling the storylines in an unfocused film that only skims the surface in its two hours plus running time. SPANGLISH plays like a rough cut in which the Clasky marriage and Flor’s relationship with her daughter fight for primacy. Neither storyline nor characters get developed satisfactorily, so the threads are stitched together like a poorly sewn quilt. As Deborah’s alcoholic jazz singer mother, Cloris Leachman gives the film much-needed comic relief, but in keeping with this ramshackle production, she appears and disappears without explanation.

Grade: C-

(Review first aired on the December 21, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Flight of the Phoenix

FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (John Moore, 2004)

In FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX a transport plane crashes in the Gobi Desert. Pilot Frank Towns, played by Dennis Quaid, doesn’t expect imminent rescue. During the storm the plane’s communications were severed, and they went off course to the point where he doesn’t know if they’re in Mongolia or China. Giovanni Ribisi is the mysterious passenger Elliott, an aircraft designer who believes he and the oil drillers onboard can fashion another plane from the wrecked remains.

Growing up I remember how my dad would identify some stupid action film we’d run across flipping through channels. He’d usually say, “What crazy movie is this?” The description wasn’t complimentary, but we’d end up watching for a while anyway. I know he’d say the same thing if he ever comes across FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX on cable some time. This is a monumentally dumb film populated with characters that behave in the most self-sabotaging ways possible. It is not in the film’s favor that the TV series LOST provides a smarter approach to the stranded survivor story. Both put the characters in compelling situations. LOST uses it for a character study that’s among the most surprising and insightful on television. FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX ignores the human drama to focus on cockamamie setbacks that are harder to swallow than the plane’s motor oil. I laughed a lot during FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, which would be fine if this was a comedy. What a hoot this film is. Ribisi is hilarious as the plane designer, who’s more an adenoidal Aryan robot than a person. I enjoyed this remake of Robert Aldrich’s 1965 film for all the wrong reasons, so maybe that’s a validation of some sort.

Grade: D+

(Review first aired on the December 21, 2004 NOW PLAYING

Meet the Fockers

MEET THE FOCKERS (Jay Roach, 2004)

As Greg Focker, Ben Stiller invites his fiancé’s parents to MEET THE FOCKERS. The sequel to MEET THE PARENTS again finds Greg fretting about the impression he’s making on Robert De Niro as stern future father-in-law Jack Byrnes. This time Greg worries how his free-spirited folks, played by Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand, will behave around the rigid Jack.

MEET THE PARENTS tapped the humor found in the anxiety of seeing one’s in-laws for the first time. That’s only half the battle, though. Hoping one’s own family isn’t the source of embarrassment can be just as stressful. Both films’ strength derives from the interplay between son-in-law and father-in-law. Greg’s intense desire to please and Jack’s determination to torment him make ripe comedy. Despite his best efforts Greg continues to put his foot in his mouth and walk on eggshells around Jack. When Jack asks Greg to throw a brick at his tank of an RV to prove its impenetrability, the outcome cements Jack’s seeming infallibility and Greg’s incompetence. Stiller and De Niro have mastered the slow burn and use it to good effect here. De Niro excels as the emotionally constipated Jack, scrunching up his face and tightening his posture at the latest perceived indignity.

MEET THE FOCKERS is mildly amusing on a relatively consistent basis, but joke repetition and a greater emphasis on outrageousness and vulgarity release a strong scent of the writers’ desperation. Greg’s birth name Gaylord is flogged for laughs long after it remains to be funny, and several scenes remind us of their better variations in MEET THE PARENTS. The unrelenting sex talk and forced absurdity, like the remnants of Greg’s bris ending up in the fondue pot, feel out of place in this film. MEET THE FOCKERS has its moments but plays like a less funny version of the original.

Grade: C+

(Review first aired on the December 21, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Blade: Trinity

BLADE: TRINITY (David S. Goyer, 2004)

Wesley Snipes hunts vampires for the third time in BLADE: TRINITY. As if it isn’t enough having bloodsuckers perpetually chase you and keeping in check your own vampiric urges, now Blade has the FBI pursuing him. Blade’s nemeses set him up for the murder of a human as a means of beginning their endgame. The vampires have found the original Dracula. Some convoluted mythology explains how he can pave the way for them to walk during the day. Assisting Blade in the fight are the Nightstalkers, led by Whistler’s daughter Abigail, played by Jessica Biel.

Guillermo del Toro’s BLADE 2 improved upon the original. He blended the right mix of comic book action and horror while advancing the BLADE mythology. David S. Goyer, who has written all three films in the series, takes over the director’s reins for BLADE: TRINITY and undoes everything that del Toro accomplished. This visually flat, dramatically incoherent film puts a stake through the heart of the series. In one of the odder developments, Blade becomes an afterthought in his own film. He may not be about much more than his warrior skills and the push/pull of his mixed physiology, but compared to the one-liner machines that are the Nightstalkers, he’s a fully realized character. BLADE: TRINITY devotes an inordinate amount of time to the Nightstalkers and their wisecracking ways. Goyer must have wanted to make a comedy. The jokes and dialogue sound like cut-rate Kevin Smith material. That’s most noticeable with Ryan Reynolds, as Nightstalker Hannibal King, and his note-for-note stealing of Jason Lee’s schtick. Rather than the salvation BLADE: TRINITY delivers the destruction of the comic book’s cinematic treatment.

Grade: D

(Review first aired on the December 21, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Monday, December 20, 2004

Happy Anniversary

This blog is officially one year old today. How time flies. My first post embodies my constant struggle when it comes to writing. Notice how I say that I don't plan on writing full-length reviews here then proceed to do just that. The writing ebbs and flows--obviously it was doing the latter that night a year ago--and I can never quite control it.

I have figured out how to best utilize this space, though. This format is ideal for publishing my NOW PLAYING reviews. While too many things go unwritten, are left half-formed in my head, or are mostly finished in a notebook without getting tacked up here, at least I know that I have a good place for all those thoughts to be stored if I'd just get my lazy behind in action. I promise to be better, but please don't hold me to it.

One recent change you may have noticed is that the archives are now broken down by month rather than week. I don't think I've been so productive that finding things should be too difficult this way. (There's always that search bar at the top of the page too.)

A quick impression... Tonight I saw Joel Schumacher's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. I've never seen Andrew Lloyd Webber's play and don't remember seeing any of the previous film versions. (I have dim memories of seeing something similar to this as a kid--parts of it seem familiar--but essentially I'm tabula rasa regarding PHANTOM.) Some early moments, with the candles, lace, and prog-like music adorned with synthesized hand claps, play like an 80s music video, preferably for some goth pop act. As expected the production design is opulent, and Schumacher's broad strokes practically define bombast. I don't view these things as bad, especially for a story that's not concerned with subtlety. The concluding stage scene and its aftermath provide a rousing conclusion, swelling the emotions in ways the rest of the film doesn't. Characterization is given short shrift, but the archetypal BEAUTY AND THE BEAST arrangement is all the story requires. Emmy Rossum sings like an angel. The film smells of Oscars--the Academy would have gone gonzo over this in the mid-60s--and it should get a few nominations, more if it connects with audiences.

And with that done I need to procrastinate writing for tomorrow's show.

Roger Ebert's Best and Worst of 2004

It seems like every year critics reveal their best and worst lists earlier than the year before. Since all things Oscar drive everything movie-related after Thanksgiving, the award program's move to a February date appears to have pushed up list publishing. (It's certainly affected when the critics groups, including the Central Ohio Film Critics Association, decide their annual winners.)

Roger Ebert's picks for the year's best and worst films are now out there for all to see. If you've followed his writing, none of the films making his Top 10 will come as a surprise.
1. Million Dollar Baby
2. Kill Bill Vol. 2
3. Vera Drake
4. Spider-Man 2
5. Moolaadé
6. The Aviator
7. Baadassss!
8. Sideways
9. Hotel Rwanda
10. Undertow

My Top 10 will likely include KILL BILL VOL. 2 and THE AVIATOR. SPIDER-MAN 2 currently resides there but may get bumped in favor of a film I've yet to see. (Of Ebert's favorites, I haven't seen MILLION DOLLAR BABY, MOOLAADE, HOTEL RWANDA, or UNDERTOW, none of which I'll see before December 31 when my COFCA ballot is due. I expect to see MILLION DOLLAR BABY and HOTEL RWANDA before I make my "final" Top 10 for NOW PLAYING.)

Where Ebert and I part ways, though, is in regard to his worsts of the year:
1. (tie) Troy
1. (tie) Alexander
2. Christmas With the Kranks
3. The Girl Next Door
4. Dogville
5. New York Minute
6. The Grudge
7. White Chicks
8. Resident Evil: Apocalypse
9. The Whole Ten Yards
10. The Village

I gave positive reviews to five of these eleven films (TROY, DOGVILLE, THE GRUDGE, RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE, and THE VILLAGE. (I'll freely admit that giving a pass to RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE is the most suspect according to the critical mass. As for THE VILLAGE, I'm still amazed that my position on the film is contrarian.) Two are in my Top 10--DOGVILLE and THE VILLAGE--with the von Trier film the current claimant for the top spot.

What I don't understand is how TROY, ALEXANDER, and DOGVILLE, films which received two star reviews from Ebert, ended up on his worst list. Ebert gave one star to the following films, yet none earned a spot among the worst:
Anatomy of Hell
A Cinderella Story
A Dirty Shame
Raise Your Voice
Team America: World Police

To be sure, quantifying film quality according to stars, grades, or any other scale is fluid rather than concrete. Maybe in retrospect Wolfgang Petersen, Oliver Stone, and Lars von Trier's films seem worse to him than those listed above, or perhaps it's a matter of artistic aspiration. These one star films consist mostly of studio hack work. TROY, ALEXANDER, and DOGVILLE shoot for greatness, so they fall harder when, in Ebert's estimation, they don't succeed.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

There's no late fee except for the late fee

In the comments to yesterday's entry about Netflix, Levi directed me to to this story about Blockbuster's elimination of late fees. Tell me if something doesn't sound wrong with this:
DALLAS-- Blockbuster Inc., the nation's biggest movie rental company, says it will eliminate late fees on games and movies as of Jan. 1-- but if you keep them too long, you buy them.

Blockbuster announced Tuesday it will continue to set due dates, with one week for games and two days or one week for movies, but will give customers a one-week grace period at no additional charge, beginning New Year's Day.

"Doing away with late fees is the biggest and most important customer benefit we've ever offered in our company's history," John Antioco, Blockbuster Inc. chairman and chief executive, said in a prepared statement. "So as of the first of the year, if our customers need an extra day or two with their movies and games, they can take it."

However, renters who keep the movies or games past the grace period will automatically be charged for purchasing the DVD or tape, minus the rental fee, Blockbuster said.

Customers will still be allowed to return the movie or game over the next 30 days for a refund of the purchase price, but will be charged a "minimal" restocking fee, the company said.

If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck...

Sounds to me like a longer rental window, not an elimination of late fees. After all, what is a "'minimal' restocking fee" but a late charge under a different name?

Blockbuster executives must know that they're fighting for their company's survival at this point. The first major hit they took was DVDs being priced for sell-through rather than rental. I can't imagine that this so-called elimination of late fees is going to fool anybody. For example, I've had HEAVEN'S GATE from Netflix for about two months. (I've made abortive attempts to watch it but start getting drowsy early into its epic running time.) Under this new Blockbuster policy, I'd have already purchased it. If I did return it, I'd still end up paying an additional fee. This is better for the consumer how?

There is a way to beat Netflix at its own game, or at least improve upon it. Offering a "like it, buy it" program is one area where a theoretical DVD rental business could get a leg up on the competition. Netflix isn't set up for sales whereas Amazon already stocks DVDs for purchase. It wouldn't be hard for them to offer subscribers a discount on the purchase of a DVD they've rented. I want to say that Netflix offered something like this back in their early days--when you rented on a title-by-title basis rather than subscribing to a monthly plan--but maybe it was an idea that was floated to their customers instead of a reality.

Speedy delivery

The following is not a paid endorsement, but I'd be more than happy to take any money they'd like to throw my way.

Unless you want to rent DVDS that are out of print/non-region 1/very obscure, Columbus residents have no reason whatsoever to continue going to the video store. A couple weeks ago I mentioned my satisfaction with Netflix. Since then Netflix has made an improvement that can't be beat: two day turnaround time. It now takes one day for my returned DVD to get to the company and another day for me to get the next DVD in my queue. Yesterday Netflix received THE GLASS SHIELD from me and sent out Howard Hughes' HELL'S ANGELS, which arrived in my mailbox today. This is happening during the holidays, which traditionally produces the most volume at the post office.

The new Dayton hub is likely the reason for the quick turnaround. Who knows why Columbus doesn't have a distribution center, but if Dayton can handle DVD returns this quickly, it wouldn't make any difference. Two day turnaround--return a DVD Wednesday, have a replacement Friday--is the kind of magic number that will keep the company competitive as other big guns enter the fray. (There have been rumors that Amazon is going to roll out a DVD rental program. The company's infrastructure, with distribution centers across the country, should make them a prime player if they choose to challenge Netflix.)

OK, Netflix doesn't make sense for those people who don't rent much or those content to utilize free library checkouts; however, if you rent a lot, Netflix's turnaround window has shrunk to the point where it can't be ignored.

Thursday, December 09, 2004


The day has arrived! Today brought sex and violence via KINSEY and BLADE: TRINITY, pushing my 2004 moviegoing total to three hundred different films seen theatrically. The milestone has been reached, with 22 days to spare even! I estimate that I'll see twelve more films this year, which suddenly seems like not that many.

Let's go to the movies

I'll save the big announcement for later tonight, primarily because there's nothing to announce yet. In the meantime, read Charles Taylor's excellent piece on the cinema as a national uniter. He also puts in good words for 13 GOING ON 30 and MR. 3000, two unassuming, good-natured comedies that deserved far more box office success than they received. (Let's just ignore his dig at SIDEWAYS.)

Wednesday, December 08, 2004


CLOSER (Mike Nichols, 2004)

CLOSER covers four years in the tangled affairs between two couples in London. Natalie Portman and Jude Law are Alice and Dan, who meet when she is struck by a car. Julia Roberts and Clive Owen play Anna and Larry, whose inadvertent meeting leads to a long-term relationship. Eventually Dan and Anna’s trysts come to light, which leads to interpersonal warfare that will scar all four.

While the four protagonists of CLOSER successfully engage in physical intimacy, they are incapable of making emotional connections. Director Mike Nichols’ film of Patrick Marber’s play keeps the characters distant when sharing the same space, whether it’s through a camera, an internet sex chat room, or a strip club’s private room. For these people, love means conquest and possession, with each person constantly evaluating their power over their partner. Nichols’ most lauded films, such as WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? and CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, scrutinize sexual politics with the same detachment found in CLOSER. The dialogue is often lacerating, as lovers wield words like lashes, striking out to get what they desire. None of the characters are sympathetic, but they’re always compelling to watch, much to the credit of these four actors. Portman gives the most textured performance. She uncovers layers of ferocity and vulnerability unseen in anything she’s done previously. Owen casually alternates between charm and menace with great skill. Roberts does some of her most subtle work. A well-directed, well-acted film, CLOSER'S characters bare their teeth and their souls.

Grade: B

(Review first aired on the December 7, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Enduring Love

ENDURING LOVE (Roger Michell, 2004)

In ENDURING LOVE a couple prepares to enjoy a picnic in a beautiful English field. Joe appears to be on the verge of proposing to Claire. Then the bucolic setting is disrupted when a hot air balloon, skimming the ground and drifting out of control, comes into view. Joe and two others rush to assist the man trying to keep the balloon earthbound. Three fail to hold onto a rope while one would-be rescuer hangs on too long and then plummets to his death. Joe feels guilty and believes he let go first. He wants to forget the incident, but Jed, a stranger who also tried to help, keeps approaching him with an alarming frequency. Jed believes the tragedy was meant to bring them together.

ENDURING LOVE’S title refers to something that must be survived rather than a lasting condition. Joe becomes painfully aware of love’s messy, unpredictable nature. Joe believes that love--and everything that could be summarized as “character”--is nothing more than biological reaction. Jed’s intense fixation on him, whether based in religious mania, romantic obsession, or a combination of the two, fails to be explained through such scientific rationale. In fact, the balloon incident challenges Joe’s worldview. Human actions and reactions can’t be readily quantified in and explained via mathematical equations. Director Roger Michell explores these headier themes through a thriller’s structure. As Joe, Daniel Craig gives a solid performance in the tradition of Hitchcock’s wrong men. Rhys Ifans grounds the unhinged Jed with a puppy dog’s demeanor, giving his zealous nature a frightening edge. ENDURING LOVE is often thrilling in its depiction of obsession’s destructive power.

Grade: B+

(Review first aired on the December 7, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Being Julia

BEING JULIA (István Szabó, 2004)

Annette Bening stars as a theatrical diva in BEING JULIA. The London stage of the 1930s is Julia’s world. Everyone else is blessed to occupy it or so she thinks. Tired of the daily grind, Julia asks her husband to close the theater for a period. She changes her mind about needing rest upon meeting Tom, a young American fan who fawns over her and attends to her carnal desires. When she learns that Tom has been using her to advance in the local scene, Julia puts on a performance to settle the score.

When the ingénue character invites Julia to see her perform, she mentions that her part is better than the play. That’s also an apt description of BEING JULIA. Bening sinks her teeth into a juicy role. She gets the best one-liners. The final scene, tailor-made for award shows, allows her to play to the rafters while vanquishing Julia’s competition and embarrassing her enemies. Bening comports herself with style, attitude, and intelligence. She gives Julia a larger than life personality, and it’s great fun to watch her take control of everyone. The film, though, lacks the vitality found in Julia. While much of BEING JULIA’S appeal stems from no one being as fabulous as she is, the lack of a worthy sparring partner diminishes the fun. In the middle section Julia takes a vacation to get away from it all. The character may have needed it, but the film can’t recover from these plodding scenes. BEING JULIA works best as an actress showcase than as an overall entertainment. Bening is worth seeing, but I’m not sold on the film.

Grade: C

(Review first aired on the December 7, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Christmas with the Kranks


What better way is there to get into a festive spirit than having it crammed down your throat? The holiday-skipping protagonists learn this in CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS. As Luther and Nora Krank, Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis are usually in a celebratory mood come late December; however, with their daughter planning to spend Christmas in Peru volunteering with the Peace Corps, the Kranks decide to bypass the holiday entirely and go on a cruise. Their refusal to participate in any seasonal customs enrages the neighbors and establishes a battleground outside the Kranks’ home.

The first half of CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS portrays a suburban nightmare, a world where the holidays equate with knee-jerk conformity and excess consumerism. This scenario presents a terrific opportunity for a satiric examination of enforced Christmas cheer and misplaced priorities, but director Joe Roth and screenwriter Chris Columbus end up siding with the fascist neighbors. The Kranks may be selfish and ungenerous, but that doesn’t put their bullying, self-righteous friends and acquaintances in the clear. The ugliness extends to the prefabricated “winter” setting, cinematography that reveals every wrinkle in the stars’ faces, and Curtis’ shrill performance. We’re told that it’s the thought that counts when given gifts. The same doesn’t apply to unwelcome holiday films. CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS is one of the year’s worst.

Grade: F

(Review first aired on the December 7, 2004 NOW PLAYING)

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

For those of you scoring at home

Fans of movie music and critics trying to determine the year's best film scores can currently listen to samples from twenty films at Movie City News. The streaming music has been hiccup-free in my listening, a surprise considering my prior experiences with Real Player. The music from THE INCREDIBLES (from ALIAS composer Michael Giacchino), THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES, SIDEWAYS, and THE TERMINAL sounds best to my ears. I liked the music in BIRTH a lot but wasn't as taken with the selection provided here.