Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Day 9 recap at the Cleveland Film Festival

A view from the aisle seat before DISAPPEARANCES (Mark Pfeiffer/March 24, 2006)

(Writer's note: most of this was written between films at day 9 of the festival. Time constraints have kept me from finishing it until now, but I've retained the writing on location tone to it. Still to come is my overall recap.)

Today I set a new personal high for most films seen in a day: seven. (Technically, I suppose it's only six since the last began at midnight, but they're all part of the ninth day of the Cleveland International Film Festival and have been seen in one trip to the cinema.) Fortunately, it's also been the single best day of the fest for me.

The Polish omnibus film SOLIDARITY, SOLIDARITY features short films from thirteen directors reflecting upon the trade union's twenty-fifth anniversary. I'll be the first to admit not being well versed on the workers' movement. Although some of the cultural history is lost on me, the film is organized well and uses a variety of approaches to convey everything that the uninformed might need. Director Andrzej Wajda, the most recognizable of those involved with the project, generated the idea for the film and contributes the next to last short.

A general theme among the shorts are fighting against complacency that may be settling in. The filmmakers push to remember what existed under Communist apparatchiks even if reform has not created a perfect society. It's interesting to see how the Polish are struggling with freedom and how in even a short time people take it for granted.

The third short is one of the simplest and one of the best. We see the Gdansk shipyard workers working on their demands and how they decide to present them. The film then transitions to some of the participants talking about the experience. Schoolchildren then walk through the historic place and learn what these men did. The short effectively ties together the past and the present.

Kim Ki-duk's THE BOW is set on a fishing boat in the middle of the ocean. An old man and a beautiful girl live on the boat. He found her when she was six, and she has lived on the boat, never going to land, for ten years. He intends to marry her when she reaches her seventeenth birthday. The only people they encounter are the customers the old man brings to the boat. These men ogle and fondle the girl but only until the old man gets his bow and fires arrows at them.

One of the young fishermen takes a shine to the girl and she to him. He wants to free her from the confinement of the boat, but the question becomes whether she would want to leave and if the old man would permit her to do so.

THE BOW'S two main characters speak no words in the film. Their relationship is told entirely through body language, and it's a triumph of directing and acting that their feelings are so clear.

The ending raises questions that are better answered after reflection, something which there isn't much time of at a film festival. This tale about strength and beauty was the best film I'd seen at Cleveland to this point.

FACTOTUM is a strong contender for the best of fest (so far) title. This Bukowski adaptation is fused with the filmic sensibility of Jim Jarmusch. It's directed by Bent Hamer, whose deadpan KITCHEN STORIES was similar in comic construction to guys like Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki. The story of beautiful losers played by Matt Dillon and Lili Taylor is quite funny. The humor is as dry as the chronic boozers are soused.

ADAM'S APPLES finds a neo-Nazi landing in a country church for community service. Director Anders Thomas Jensen's marvelous dark comedy about evil and faith tops the two very good films I'd seen before it. Faith, in the form of a pathologically forgiving minister, is pitted against reason and the ex-cons helping him at the parish. This Biblical allegory shot through with pitch black humor asks how far one must go to see the good in people and the potential they have rather than their sin. ADAM'S APPLES is an often surprising film that wrestles with religious conviction in a way not usually seen.

The first miss of the day came in the form of the documentary HOW TO EAT YOUR WATERMELON IN WHITE COMPANY (AND ENJOY IT). The film profiles Melvin Van Peebles and his many accomplishments. Perhaps best known as the writer, director, and star of SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG, Van Peebles has also worked as a novelist, playwright, recording artist, and Wall Street trader. It's evident that he's a smart guy with diverse talents, but the film is a little too enamored of its subject to get under his skin.

To the detriment of the documentarians is BAADASSSSS!, the narrative feature Melvin's son Mario brought to the screen about the making of SWEETBACK. BAADASSSS! laid Melvin bare as he worked to bring his vision alive. HOW TO EAT YOUR WATERMELON has nary a critical word about him. It's not that the documentary needed to be judgmental; it just needed to go deeper. HOW TO EAT YOUR WATERMELON is more comprehensive in naming Melvin's achievements, but it's a one-dimensional view of a multi-faceted man.

Set in 1932 Kingdom County Vermont, DISAPPEARANCES puts more effort into getting the right period details and appropriate locations than in crafting a compelling narrative. Kris Kristofferson stars as Quebec Bill, the head of a farming family in desperate need of hay. To save the farm he returns to his old ways of whiskey running and takes his son along for the first time. DISAPPERANCES dabbles in magic naturalism, and the story often doesn't make a lot of sense. Even though it isn't that complicated, this tedious film is pretty muddled.

Capping things off at midnight was FUCK, a documentary about the strongest swear word. This tiresome film in praise of crudity is built around interviews with a predictable mix of bluenose conservatives and liberal comedians and commentators. It amounts to little more than a series of cheap shots directed at those who would dare be offended by public vulgarity. The filmmakers argue against censoring one's self-expression no matter what, as if being offensive is an inalienable right. FUCK, which claims to have 629 usages of the word and its innumerable variations, is like a little kid who realizes he can get a rise out of adults by saying something dirty. Yeah, yeah, how edgy. At best there's a half hour's worth of content padded out to three times that. Unlike the completely filthy (and frequently funny) THE ARISTOCRATS, there's little to no artistry and creativity on display here.

For what it's worth, I debated whether or not to list the title as it was in the festival program--F*CK--because I've made a conscious choice not to use such language on this site. (The sign outside the auditorium listed it as F DOC.) I won't be making a habit of it, but the title is what the title is. Obviously it's intended to provoke. I wasn't offended by the film. I was bored by it. And I imagine that using the uncensored title will turn up all sorts of fun results in the search engines.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Mini Cleveland Film Festival update

Sorry for the lack of updates since Thursday night. I have a big recap of Friday at the Cleveland International Film Festival nearly ready for posting, but with record crowds and tight windows between screenings, there's just not been time to complete it.

With three films left on my screening schedule (BUCKLE BROTHERS, WASSUP ROCKERS, and THE FRENCH GUY), I think it's safe to say that the best films I've seen and will see are Anders Thomas Jensen's ADAM'S APPLES, a dark comedy about religious faith; Kim Ki-duk's THE BOW; Bent Hamer's FACTOTUM, a deadpan riff on Bukowski; and Pearse Elliott's THE MIGHTY CELT, a wrenching boy and his dog story. The first three I saw consecutively on Friday. I wrote about THE MIGHTY CELT in my second post from Thursday's festival coverage.

When all is said and done, I'll have seen 37 films over six days. Only once have I really struggled with staying awake, something which surfaced at this morning's 9:45 a.m. screening of RYNA. I was already in sort of a funk after discovering my driver's license and other cards had fallen out of my wallet, but luckily a visit to my car turned them up. The film was dull too.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Wrapping the Cleveland Film Festival's eighth day

It can't, it won't, and it don't stop. At least not until Sunday night. Continuing with updates from my viewing at day eight of Cleveland's film festival...

The Hungarian film THE PORCELAIN DOLL has striking visuals courtesy of saturated colors (minus one section in black and white), a quality I'm guessing is courtesy of computer enhancement. If not, bravo to the cinematographer. Regardless, it's a distinctive, good-looking film. The whimsical opening credits lead one to believe a zany comedy is to follow. It doesn't. Instead the three fables that follow use magic realism to tell cautionary or woeful tales. The stories unfold among a group of Hungarian farmers, played by the same actors who may or may not be the same characters from one story to the next. There's no through line with the three pieces either. Also, THE PORCELAIN DOLL is largely dialogue-free, which increases the film's dramatic inertia.

The Canadian mock documentary THE LIFE AND HARD TIMES OF GUY TERRIFICO succumbs to the same problems that other Christoper Guest/THIS IS SPINAL TAP wannabes face. I have no idea how much was ad-libbed and how much was scripted, but depending on the actor or real-life musician, the performances feel too rehearsed or too free form. Guest's movies look effortless but are surely anything but. The pretenders like GUY TERRIFICO aren't skilled enough to recreate that kind of improvisation.

The film traces the mysterious life and presumed death of Canadian outlaw country singer/songwriter Guy Terrifico. In addition to his bandmates, manager, and lover, interviewees include Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, and members of Blue Rodeo as themselves. Terrifico seems modelled on Gram Parsons, although the character could just as well be the generic boozer and pill-popper.

THE LIFE AND HARD TIMES OF GUY TERRIFICO is straight-faced about the music. It isn't jokey, but since the film is intended to play as comedy, it seems like an odd choice. The recreated vintage footage is very well done, but it amounts to nothing more than a long empty gag. That it ends on a serious note is indicative that the filmmakers never found the proper tone for the material.

Up to this point I’ve seen 21 films at the festival but nothing that has knocked my socks off. The unlikely de-socking came via THE MIGHTY CELT. The drama draws its name from the Irish hero Cucchulain, which is also the name that a boy gives to a greyhound he’s training for races. The boy, Donal (Tyrone McKenna), works for Joe (Ken Stott), an unpleasant dog trainer who’s constantly criticizing the youngster for being too soft. (Joe obviously cut out any softness in himself. If a dog proves itself unworthy on the track, he takes a hammer to its skull, puts it in a bag, and dumps it in the lake. Not exactly OLD YELLER, is it?)

Donal is the son of Kate, a single mother played by Gillian Anderson. She hasn’t seen Donal’s father in ages. Like her brother, he’s a likely victim of Northern Ireland’s war more than a decade prior. O (Robert Carlyle), Kate’s old flame and one of her brother’s fellow warriors, returns to town looking to move on from the violence that was part of his younger days. His decision is viewed as traitorous by some of the townsfolk, including old Joe.

THE MIGHTY CELT might have been a great movie for children, but the occasional use of some strong language and one intense scene is likely to put off most parents from letting their kids watch it. This is an unflinching film that examines what it is to be decent and what the cost of retribution is.

Like the greyhounds that factor prominently in it, THE MIGHTY CELT’S storytelling is lean and muscular. The accents may be hard for
American ears to understand at times. (I struggled at times.) Anderson’s Irish accent sounds authentic, at least in that hers is as thick as the others. Anderson and Carlyle have some nice scenes together as their characters get reacquainted.

I need to do a little research to determine if my read of THE MIGHTY CELT is supportable. Assuming I have the details correct, it plays out as a veiled allegory for the state of Northern Ireland and what is the best way to move forward after years of conflict. Is it proper to toe the hard line and continue to shed blood, or is strength found in not partaking in retaliation and vengeance?

The last film of the day for me was the Thai pic MIDNIGHT, MY LOVE. A shy cab driver becomes enamored with one of his regular pick-ups, a gorgeous prostitute who doesn't mock his preference for the golden oldies radio station he listens to in the taxi and the past in general.

The film is full of lush romantic longing between these two people living hard, lonely lives. Although not explicit, MIDNIGHT, MY LOVE addresses the real issues that prostitutes would face every day (depersonalized sex, STDs). The hooker with a heart of gold is a common film character, but in almost every instance the duties and consequences of their employment are glossed over.

Deep into its 105 minutes MIDNIGHT, MY LOVE takes some strange, unforseen turns. We find out some revealing details in the taxi driver's background, but nothing can prepare the audience for a couple bizarre moments in it.

MIDNIGHT, MY LOVE appears to be making a strong argument for the ways of the past and living in the past, but in throwing some third act curveballs into the mix, such a viewpoint isn't as rose-colored as it seems. The idealized past is shown to be an illusion that can hold people back, although the basic values are worth retaining. MIDNIGHT, MY LOVE'S ability to surprise is as valuable as its evoking of deep, unspoken love.

The schedule was much more accommodating to posting on Thursday's screenings than Friday or Saturday likely will be. Keep checking back. Hopefully I have a couple more entries left in me while up north.

Back to Cleveland Film Festival blogging

Although a squealing noise from underneath the hood of my car added some drama to the trip to Cleveland this morning, the vehicle is driving fine. It's a good thing because I got up early to swing by the local auto mechanic's shop and get a more expert diagnosis of the problem (and if it needed to be worked on immediately). They're closed for the week--vacation, I guess--so my fingers are crossed that it isn't a big deal.

So I'm back at the 30th Cleveland International Film Festival inhaling films like a sprinter sucks down air after a race. So far today I've seen A WONDERFUL NIGHT IN SPLIT, a Croatian film whose title must be intended as irony because watching this dreadful movie is anything but wonderful. The film is set on New Year's Eve and tells three stories which occur from the same 10:00 p.m. to midnight window. There are incidental overlaps among the three stories, not that the connections add anything. Each story concerns drugs. There's a man leaving for Munich to complete a narcotics sale, a woman in desperate need of a fix who prostitutes herself to score some dope, and a young couple seeking somewhere for her to lose her virginity, an experience heightened by dropping acid. Some nice black and white cinematography aside, A WONDERFUL NIGHT IN SPLIT wallows in the misfortunes of these characters without anything interesting to say about them or their situations.

A nice change of pace was THE WORLD ACCORDING TO SESAME STREET, a documentary whose primary focus is the start up of a Bangladeshi version of the educational children's TV show. SESAME STREET and its offshoots air in more than 120 countries. The Children's Television Workshop is sensitive to charges of cultural imperialism and go to great effort to ensure that the international versions of the program are tailored to specific cultural needs and customs. It's fascinating to see how the Bangladesh production company with whom they've partnered runs with the SESAME STREET model and make it their own, all the while uncertain if the government will approve of the show for the single state-run network.

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO SESAME STREET also visits Kosovo for the genesis of two versions of the show. The challenge of mounting the show is increased with ethnic strife between Kosovar Serbs and Kosovar Albanians, who are united in wishing to educate the children but are still wary of the other side because of the violent history and current events between them. This section of the film is a little underdeveloped, but it shows a different struggle in producing the show.

The documentary highlights how these various SESAME STREETS are made with the best of intentions to educate children who otherwise may receive little or no schooling. It's an extraordinary endeavor but one that appears to be well worth the tremendous difficulties faced in bringing them to air.

I have four more films on tap for tonight but should get out of Tower City Center before midnight, which will be nice. Maybe I can even catch the tail end of an NCAA game at the hotel. More later when time permits.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Note for GreenCine Daily readers

First of all, welcome.

My more comprehensive reviews from films seen at the Cleveland International Film Festival are forthcoming. If you scroll down the page, you can see the three entries I made while in a rush at the festival this past weekend. I saw seventeen films in that period and have twenty more scheduled for this Thursday through Saturday. Needless to say, writing about all that and keeping up with the day job is a tremendous drain on time.

A big thanks to the folks at GreenCine Daily for noting what I do here.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Ebertfest 2006 films


After obsessively checking the Ebertfest site for the past two months, the films playing the 8th annual Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival have been announced.

The Thumbed One offers his perspective on the films playing this year's festival, something which helps clarify the one choice that to me seemed out of step with its purpose.

And no, I'm not talking about MY FAIR LADY, which follows in the tradition of opening the fest with a film in 70mm. Ebert has said many times at the festival that "overlooked" goes deeper than commercial performance and critical reputation, although those qualities may factor into the equation. Anyway, if he wants to play it, he can justify a film's inherent overlookedness one way or another.

This year's selections, in the order in which they will play, are:

MY FAIR LADY (George Cukor, 1964)

One of the festival's greatest pleasures is seeing a classic film in the best presentation possible. Sure to be a great way to lift the festival crowd's spirits. Too bad it wasn't VERTIGO, which rumors had as the potential opener last year.

MAN PUSH CART (Ramin Bahrani, 2005)

Call it pre-overlooked. Ebert has made a habit of bringing in a couple films he sees at Sundance. Not only does this give an assist to films that need it, but in this case, the showcase might be the necessary nudge to gain distribution for it.

DUANE HOPWOOD (Matt Mulhern, 2005)

Here's a perfect example of what the festival is about. I know next to nothing about this indie. It was released last year and disappeared in the blink of an eye.

RIPLEY'S GAME (Liliana Cavani, 2002)

Never released theatrically in the U.S. Its domestic premiere was on IFC.

SOMEBODIES (Hadjii, 2006)

I had no doubt that if the movie was any good (in Ebert's opinion, of course), it was a sure thing. Festival director Nate Kohn co-produced the film with his wife.

THE EAGLE (Clarence Brown, 1925)

The Alloy Orchestra accompany Rudolf Valentino.

SPARTAN (David Mamet, 2004)

Nice. One of my honorable mentions from 2004. Indicate you heard me.

MILLIONS (Danny Boyle, 2004)

Unlike the unconventional choices from other years, maybe this is a little too recent or too obvious for the children's matinee. Nevertheless, MILLIONS deserves another chance to find an audience. One of my 2005 honorable mentions. I predicted DUMA in this slot. I expect it'll be at Ebertfest before too long.

CLAIRE DOLAN (Lodge Kerrigan, 1998)

I'm a little surprised Kerrigan's KEANE wasn't picked, but going for a title a few years older makes sense with all the other selections that are three years or younger.

JUNEBUG (Phil Morrison, 2005)

I was mixed on JUNEBUG last fall, although it seems like something right up my alley. I'm really curious to take another look at it. For what it's worth, I was a big supporter of Amy Adams on my OFCS and COFCA ballots in the recent awards season. She's currently scheduled to be present for the post-film Q&A.

BAD SANTA (Terry Zwigoff, 2003)

Here's the one that seemed like an iffy choice to me. Zwigoff's LOUIE BLUIE played at the festival two years ago. Aside from MY FAIR LADY, BAD SANTA has the strongest claims to being a hit, and a recent one at that. Then I read what Ebert had to say:
Terry Zwigoff, director of "Bad Santa," will be at the festival with his personal print of what he calls "Really, Really Bad Santa." The original "Bad Santa" (2003) starred Billy Bob Thornton as an alcoholic department store Santa who used his job as a cover for robberies. It was rated R on general release, and then additional material was added for an "unrated" DVD. Zwigoff says the print he's bringing includes material not even on the DVD.
Good enough for me.

U-CARMEN E-KHAYELITSHA (Mark Dornford-May, 2005)

The only "what in the world is this" title for me. A musical has become the standard closing film. This year it's a South African version of CARMEN.

It's an eclectic bunch of titles, which keeps things interesting, and I've only seen four--five if you count BAD SANTA--of the films playing. See you in Urbana-Champaign.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

A Quick One While I'm Away

Amazingly I've been able to see twelve films at the Cleveland International Film Festival in the past two days and still get a decent night's sleep. I have five films on the schedule today--already watched the Australian drama THREE DOLLARS--to complete my first of two three-day sessions here. I had better luck Saturday with what I saw, and today's picks may improve on yesterday.

Sorry for keeping it brief, but my schedule is very tight. I've been taking notes after each film, so more in-depth reviews will be forthcoming upon my return home. For now it's going to have to be quick impressions and talking about keeping my energy up on smoothies and other food court offerings.

Still to come today are ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE (from the director of the original INSOMNIA), THE KING, the Oscar-nominated SOPHIE SCHOLL, and MEASURES TO BETTER THE WORLD.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

More Cleveland Film Festival blogging

Two films down today and already I've had better luck than with six yesterday. After posting last night I saw FOUR LANE HIGHWAY, an American indie that's standard first film stuff. Next up was QUO VADIS, BABY?, an Italian film from the director of I'M NOT SCARED. My hopes were probably pinned highest to this film since it had a little more of a pedigree than anything else I'd seen. I'll have to have time to hash out my thoughts on it. It held my interest and ends with a nice stylistic touch, but I'm not sure if it amounts to anything or not (or if all of the music references, like the repetition of Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer", mean anything in a larger context).

Finishing the day (or starting Saturday morning, if you will) was the midnight movie KARLA. This drama about a notorious Canadian serial killing couple caused somewhat of a ruckus at last fall's Montreal festival, but it wasn't worth the fuss, if just because it gives the film more attention than it deserves. THAT 70S SHOW'S Laura Prepon plays a much too accommodating wife and willing participant in her husband's abductions and rapes of young women. KARLA isn't as graphic as I expected it might be, and it isn't in the business of making excuses for the couple, although I suppose it's possible to view Karla as more of a victim than a perpretator. I didn't stick around to hear director Joel Bender talk about his movie, which may have been for the best since the film was subjected to some derisive laughter.

Today I've enjoyed the Icelandic music documentary SCREAMING MASTERPIECE, which focuses mostly on the adventurous rock scene. I also like the droll Danish comedy DARK HORSE, although it loses its way in the last twenty minutes or so. I've got four more films to go today and probably no chance of posting again until tomorrow. A daily podcast is available on the Cleveland International Film Festival site, so check it out if you're so inclined.

As for me, I've wolfed down my Japanese food for an early supper and need to scramble to get to the midnight movies doc.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Cleveland blogging

I have a few moments to catch my breath and post from the Cleveland International Film Festival, so I figured I'd post a couple photos and some initial impressions.

I'm not quite sure how I'm going to be posting updates up here. There's not really enough time between films to post reviews, and with my plan of trying to see seventeen films in three days, there's not much time for writing after the films. It's pretty much all cinema all the time, with bathroom breaks and meals squeezed in where possible.

I had no idea that St. Patrick's Day was such a big deal in Cleveland. Tower City Center was jammed shoulder to shoulder with the holiday celebrants. Apparently there was a major parade around here, which required me to park farther away than I preferred. At least a shuttle was provided. (The festival is taking place at Tower City Cinemas.)

I'm halfway through my slate of films for the day. Nothing notable so far. I started with RED MERCURY, a British thriller in the most sedate sense of the label. Three Pakistani terrorists in possession of a dirty bomb hold the occupants of a London restaurant hostage. Everyone involved is way too casual about what's happening. The Dutch drama GUERNSEY is put together well mostly via master shots, but it's too uneventful to amount to much. The British kids' film 5 CHILDREN AND IT is a poor man's THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE.

I've spotted Bob and Melissa Starker and should catch up with them at FOUR LANE HIGHWAY at 7:30. For now, I should provide grab something to eat and mosey on over to the theaters.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

NCAA Tournament picks

Last minute bracket completers are welcome to take a gander at my NCAA Tournament picks, but don't count on this being a winning entry. (You'll have to click on the image to be able to read it unless you've been eating your carrots.) I've had good years and decent success at picking the overall winner, but I don't think I've snagged any pool money for awhile. I've not paid as close attention to college basketball this year as usual, which might be to my advantage as these things go. My "research" consisted of watching the selection show, featuring an insufferable Billy Packer and Jim Nantz boohooing that the power conferences didn't get more teams, and scanning the special section in Monday's USA Today. (Considering how fast those issues disappear, I'm amazed I found one at a Barnes & Noble in the late afternoon.)

As much as I love the first and second rounds, today's the only day I'll have to watch with any regularity. Tomorrow I'm off to the Cleveland International Film Festival for the weekend, so I'll have to catch glances at the games when time permits between films.

Good luck with your bracket, except those in the same pool!

The Hills Have Eyes

THE HILLS HAVE EYES (Alexandre Aja, 2006)

Packed into an SUV and Airstream trailer, the Carter family embarks on a family vacation to San Diego via the back roads of New Mexico. Typical of fathers, Bob (Ted Levine) wants to take the scenic route through the rocky foothills. A gas station attendant tells him of a path that isn’t on the map but will provide nice scenery and a shortcut to the interstate. Thinking he has a hot tip from a local, Bob follows the directions, but the family has driven into a trap that will leave their vehicles wrecked and them stranded while the mutant cannibals living in the abandoned mines stalk them.

The mutants in THE HILLS HAVE EYES were created when decades prior some miners refused to leave the area during the government’s atmospheric tests of atomic weapons. They and their offspring prey on unsuspecting travelers on their remote land.

Bob decides to walk however many miles back to the gas station to try and get help. Son-in-law Doug (Aaron Stanford) goes the other direction in hopes of finding assistance. Remaining at the trailer are Bob’s wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan), Doug’s wife Lynne (Vinessa Shaw) and their baby, and the other two Carter kids, Bobby (Dan Byrd) and Brenda (Emilie de Ravin).

Director Alexandre Aja demonstrated some talent for horror filmmaking with HIGH TENSION, although it was ultimately ruined by an atrocious English-language dub and a ridiculous twist that took screenwriting cheating to another level. In keeping with the trend of increased gore, his remake of Wes Craven’s 1977 film is a brutal, blood-soaked experiment in terror. I’ve objected to the horror porn of HOSTEL and WOLF CREEK, but what separates THE HILLS HAVE EYES from those films is that Aja isn’t coding the violence toward the victims as something for audiences to enjoy. It’s horrible and terrifying, but the identification is with the Carters, not the psychotic killers.

Aja isn’t faultless, though. When the women are attacked, they are also the victims of sexual degradation. These disturbing and thoroughly unnecessary violations are rarely forced upon male characters in horror films (and not at all in THE HILLS HAVE EYES). A baby is also put into peril several times, a shameless dramatic device if ever there was one. THE HILLS HAVE EYES is frightening enough that it doesn’t need these distasteful elements to boost the intensity.

THE HILLS HAVE EYES is scary, something that a lot of today’s horror films aren’t as they compete in the game of one-upmanship in quantity and quality of gore. As in WOLF CREEK, tension is built via the desolate location. (The film also effectively uses the claustrophobic interior of the trailer.) The New Mexico landscape is beautifully photographed, a cruel beauty as it turns out, and the attack scenes take place in good lighting so we can actually follow what’s happening. Aja doesn’t cloak everything in darkness, although the nighttime scenes are nerve-wracking as we wait for the mutants to descend upon the family.

THE HILLS HAVE EYES could have been improved with a little tightening—the last thirty minutes or so tread the same ground—and the subtext regarding the government being responsible for making these villains into what they are isn’t particularly well conceived. Aja introduces other ideas too—the Carters are pistol-packing Republicans and most likely Christian while Doug is a gun novice and Jewish—but doesn’t do anything with it other than having Doug echo Dustin Hoffman’s character in STRAW DOGS all the way down to the shattered glasses. These quibbles aside, THE HILLS HAVE EYES is a scary, well-made film if you have a stomach for this sort of thing.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Dave Chappelle's Block Party


With the help of several big names in hip-hop and R&B, Dave Chappelle put on an outdoor concert in September 2004. Kanye West, The Roots, and the reunited Fugees were among the artists who came to Bed-Stuy for a day-long celebration of music and comedy. DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY is the document of the event and lead-up to it. Chappelle lives on a farm near Yellow Springs, Ohio and goes about his hometown (and nearby Dayton) handing out golden tickets that will take care of all his guests' needs getting to and returning from New York for the concert. He adds some local flavor to the show by inviting the Central State University marching band to come and perform.

Although not a concert film in the traditional sense—the activity before the event and offstage are as important as the performance itself—DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY captures the energy and excitement of people gathering to put on and watch a show. Chappelle rounded up a who’s who of hip-hop stars and let them tear up the stage with their mixture of big beats and socially conscious lyrics. Accompanied by the CSU band, West burns through his hit single “Jesus Walks”. Dueling soul divas Erykah Badu and Jill Scott add their distinct styles to the rap-heavy bill. In a happy accident, The Fugees reunite since the record label wouldn’t give permission for Lauryn Hill’s solo material to be performed. Chappelle is the concert’s giddy emcee, goofing with Mos Def and the musicians to the delight of the crowd.

Although he is the host and organizer, the fun for Chappelle is in being able to bring people together to have a good time. He seems astounded at his good fortune to be in a position to give back. His much-publicized walking away from a $50 million contract had not yet occurred, but it must have weighed on him as he strives to share his success with these communities. The concert scenes pulsate with life, but the best moments are Chappelle’s interactions with his fellow Ohioans and the regular people of New York. The joy is in giving as he invites a convenience store worker who sells him cigarettes to come to the concert and the marching band to play. One senses that the big grin that spreads across his face at these times means more to him than the millions he eventually turned down.

Chappelle’s comedy deals in race issues, but BLOCK PARTY is a uniting work. Chappelle laughs at and makes fun of society’s hang-ups, but it’s done in a way that allows people to be drawn together than driven apart. He’s an edgy comedian, but his purpose with the concert and film is to make a diverse crowd feel comfortable with one another. More than any message, that effort is likely to be remembered.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


AQUAMARINE (Elizabeth Allen, 2006)

A storm washes a mermaid ashore just in time to assist best friends forever Claire (Emma Roberts) and Hailey (JoJo) in AQUAMARINE. Hailey’s mom has accepted a job in Australia, and the impending move is wrecking the girls’ summer. Along comes Aquamarine (Sara Paxton), a teenage mermaid who is swept from the ocean into a beach club pool during a nasty storm. Aquamarine believes in true love and needs to prove its existence so she can avoid an arranged marriage. If Claire and Hailey can help her, she can grant them a wish.

Aquamarine sets her designs on Claire and Hailey’s lifeguard crush Raymond (Jake McDorman). She has just three days to win his affection and get him to proclaim his love for her before her father summons her home. The task is complicated by the fact that Aquamarine can only have legs while the sun is up. Even then she can’t get them wet.

AQUAMARINE is an agreeable comedy that should appeal to middle school girls curious and worried about the transition to adolescence. It’s all about shopping sprees, puppy love, and youthful insecurity. This tween fantasy plays to its audience without insulting them. Positive qualities aside, AQUAMARINE generates little enthusiasm other than its ability to cater to an underserved audience. Aquamarine is Claire and Hailey’s surrogate, but she acts less mature than her new friends. There’s some humor in her following the advice that Claire and Hailey have gleaned from magazines, but most of it plays out like standard sitcom fodder.

Except for a few puns, relatively little is done with the remarkable fact that there’s a mermaid in their midst. The tired fairy tale device of Aquamarine having to rush off as the sun is ready to set is too much of a driving factor as well. AQUAMARINE is pleasant enough and perfect for its target demographic, but it’s a run of the mill movie that wouldn’t stand out among the various cable TV offerings for its audience.

Grade: C+

The Shaggy Dog

THE SHAGGY DOG (Brian Robbins, 2006)

Dave Douglas (Tim Allen) is the kind of father who is dedicated to his job and oblivious to the fact that he’s losing his family. His daughter Carly (Zena Grey) is angry with him because he’s prosecuting one of her favorite teachers, an animal rights protester accused of setting fire to a research laboratory. His son Josh (Spencer Breslin) would rather fail math so he can’t play football rather than tell dad that he prefers the stage to the gridiron. Dave’s wife Rebecca (Kristin Davis) can see these problems but can’t convince her husband of them.

In THE SHAGGY DOG Dave is representing a medical research firm that is secretly working on extending life exponentially. Their subject is an abducted Tibetan sheepdog whose biology reverses nature so that seven years in human time is like one year for him. The dog gets loose and is brought to the Douglas household, where he bites the pet-averse Dave. Shortly thereafter Dave develops a dog’s habits and transforms into a sheepdog.

His new perspective allows him to relate differently to his family, but his wife and kids believe he’s more absent than ever. Dave also uncovers the bad work his medical clients are doing, but convincing a judge and jury will be difficult since his erratic courtroom behavior has had him removed from the case.

Like everyone in Hollywood, Disney likes to dip into its back catalog and update previous successes for new generations. This remake of 1959's THE SHAGGY DOG is heavy on the special effects, some of which are convincing and some of which aren’t, but the biggest difference is how the film becomes another commentary on the lamentable state of today’s parents. While there’s plenty of silliness for the kids, the film emphasizes how Dave doesn’t put his family first, how this threatens his marriage, and how his kids are pulling away from him. Such stuff is misplaced in what is supposed to be a lighthearted family movie. The same goes for the animal rescue content, which injects ideological material into a story where it isn’t a good fit.

Allen has his role as the misfit dad down pat, and he proves to be a talented physical comedian when he behaves like a dog in a human’s body. If only THE SHAGGY DOG had more scenes with him acting like a dog and fewer with him supplying voiceover when Dave is a dog, then it might have been funny enough to cancel out the more serious themes driving it.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Breakfast on Pluto

BREAKFAST ON PLUTO (Neil Jordan, 2005)

In BREAKFAST ON PLUTO Patrick Braden (Cillian Murphy), otherwise known as Kitten, goes on a quest to find the mother he has never known. She abandoned baby Patrick on the steps of an Irish priest's home and left for London, or so go the rumors. This mysterious woman is an object of fascination for Patrick, an unusual sort in his own right. Upon reaching young adulthood, the gender bending Patrick leaves Ireland for London in search of her.

Broken into more than thirty chapters, BREAKFAST ON PLUTO’S novelistic feel can seem disjointed, but ultimately the structure frees the film to flit from one interesting encounter to another with a minimum of connecting material. (Imagine OLIVER TWIST meets MIDDLESEX, if Jeffrey Eugenides' hermaphrodite protagnoist was replaced with a transvestite.) Part of the fun of Neil Jordan’s film is seeing Patrick the chameleon adapt according to the characters he meets and odd situations in which he finds himself. Like the androgynous rockers Patrick meets, the era is one in which society's conventions are challenged at every turn.

For as much outlandishness as there is in Jordan's heady film, it boils down to the wounded spirit beneath the surface of the life ecstatic. The director rhymes an early scene in a confessional with a pivotal dialogue between the performer and hidden customer in a peep show booth. In both cases the individuals are physically separated and, in theory, anonymous. The circumstances permit greater disclosure and intimacy for these characters than they have been able to achieve face to face.

Patrick’s maternal search in BREAKFAST ON PLUTO is a comic journey, but slowly it accumulates a great deal of poignancy. Murphy’s performance mixes innocence and wry bemusement to create a strange yet endearing character. Watching this transvestite Candide pour out his soul in the midst of a magician’s hypnotism act is heartbreaking.

Grade: B

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Diary of a Chambermaid (Le Journal d'une femme de chambre)


Jeanne Moreau and Jean Ozenne in Diary of a Chambermaid

Director Luis Buñuel’s DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID tracks the great French actress Jeanne Moreau as Célestine, a domestic servant who leaves Paris to work at a country manor. Célestine soon discovers that her bourgeois employers are riddled with obsessions. Madame Monteil (Françoise Lugagne) is a sour, chilly woman who is fixated on cleanliness. Madame does not satisfy the sexual appetite of Monsieur (Michel Piccoli). He has made a habit of fulfilling his desires with the chambermaids, and he quickly takes a shine to Célestine.

Madame’s father, Monsieur Rabour (Jean Ozenne), may have the strongest obsessions. His fetishes have devoured him so completely that he makes a request to call Célestine by the same name he used for those preceding her.

Célestine does what is necessary to keep her position secure. She accommodates the old man’s obsessions, observes Madame’s commands, and rejects Monsieur’s advances while leading him to believe she possesses the indulgent sexual history he imagines she has.

Jeanne Moreau

For much of DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID we do not see who Célestine is. She is the tabula rasa on which others fill in her assumed characteristics. In addition to her employers, the gardener Joseph (Georges Géret) thinks she is sympathetic to his anti-Semitic and nationalistic beliefs. Captaine Mauger (Daniel Ivernel), the neighbor who detests the Monteils, is captivated by Célestine and views her merely as a tool to get what he wants. (Of course, Célestine regards him in the same terms, although her motivations are less clear for the majority of the film.)

Buñuel is nothing short of merciless on the bourgeoisie. As one would expect from him, DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID is both disturbing and humorous. Dark obsessions manifest themselves in violence and hypocrisy. Monsieur Monteil alleviates his sexual tension through hunting. Joseph’s strident philosophies and anger are realized in despicable form. The Captaine’s actions become increasingly hostile. Monsieur Rabour is terribly pathetic, but his forwardness is funny in a sad way. It’s almost as if his development was arrested in childhood. His daughter stands in for his mother when he yells for her to leave him alone while he’s secretly having his fetishes satisfied in a locked room. Madame is incapable of discussing her physical distance with her husband but can openly talk about it with a Catholic priest who comes in search of donations.

Françoise Lugagne, Jeanne Moreau, and Michel Piccoli

Célestine is a tricky character because while she observes the rotten souls of these people, souls that are infested with malignance as the house is populated with rodents, she also wishes to lead this lifestyle eventually. Célestine takes shocking steps to realize her goals as well as do what is right, and sometimes the two cross in unappetizing ways. No character escapes untouched by scandal.

Three specific moments in the film neatly encapsulate the cruelty in these lives and their distaste, if not outright hatred, for beauty. One is implied mostly through audio. Joseph kills a goose for a meal, but he relishes the elongated suffering he inflicts upon it. In one of DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID'S strongest visuals, a butterfly on a flower is shot with a gun and obliterated. Probably the most disturbing image is evidence of a corpse with snails crawling on it. None of these moments are explicit the way they very likely would be if depicted today, but they are hauntingly resonant and all the more powerful.

Jean Ozenne and Georges Géret

DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID is a piercing examination of the bourgeoisie and its obsessions. Buñuel shows us the horrifying actions and results with varying amounts of drama and humor like only he could.

Grade: A-

(This is a revised version of my Criterion DVD review. Follow the link for more information on the quality of and features on the DVD.)

Monday, March 06, 2006

Oscar reactions

If you're going to go down, go down in flames, right? Out of the pool, I insisted to those at an Oscars party that CRASH was not going to win Best Picture. No how, no way. I didn't buy into the final week buzz of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN being upset, and nothing was going to change my mind. Clearly, I was wrong.

I got 16 of 24 categories correct. Obviously Best Picture was my biggest whiff. Best Cinematography going to MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA was one of the larger surprises, if merely because the critically maligned film's three awards tied it with BROKEBACK, CRASH, and KING KONG for the night's biggest statuette haul. Like it or not--I did--CRASH succeeded because it was well-liked. Word of mouth drove its box office and helped to keep it a viable Academy Awards candidate even though it's spring release date was not to its advantage. I imagine Lion's Gate worked hard on the film's campaign, but I view the win as a sign of broad support rather than a marketing triumph.

I missed all three short subject categories, a likely scenario since I was picking them almost totally blind (or as blind as possible when going by the little info in Entertainment Weekly). I should have known better than to go against KING KONG in a technical category (Best Sound Mixing). Despite my pick here, I nearly changed my mind on my pool sheet and went with TSOTSI for Best Foreign Language Film. Should have done it, although it wouldn't have cost me. The biggest surprise of the night wasn't CRASH winning; it had to be Best Song going to "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp".

As for the show, Jon Stewart did a good job, although it seemed like he got a chillier reception from those in attendance than I expect he did from home viewers. (I don't expect he'll be invited back next year, but maybe I got the wrong vibe.) Stewart wasn't a sycophant, and he didn't settle for the easiest jokes in most cases. The fake negative campaign ads were a hoot.

The show moved swiftly enough, but is there a compelling reason for those themed montages that have no bearing on anything?

George Clooney again proved that he's about the coolest cat in the room. The naked pleas for people to see movies in theaters instead of waiting for the DVDs is too little too late, I fear. The studios' rush to cash in on DVD and the theater owners' inability to manage disruptive customers have marginalized the experience for too many. Robert Altman's acceptance of the Lifetime Achievement Award was a great moment. Let's hope it's not the last time he's seen at the ceremony.

And with that, the awards season ends for a spell.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Predicting the Oscar Winners

Mercifully the awards season has almost come to a close. While it's fun making top ten lists and voting here and there on year-end awards, most of the Academy Awards' steam has been lost by the time they arrive. (Remember when the ceremony was a couple weeks later than this year's Olympic-delayed show? Never again, please.) Sure, I'm interested and will watch, but the Oscars seem like an afterthought now. We've already endured three full months of awards from various guilds and critics, individually and collectively, that the winners in the major categories are practically preordained.

With that said, here's where I predict the winners and miss enough to make the previous statement look foolish. Copy these picks for your Oscar pool at your own risk. (And for those in the pool in which I'm participating, I reserve the right to last minute changes, so don't think you can outmaneuver me by reading this.)

Best Picture
Will win: Brokeback Mountain
If I voted: Munich

I'm not buying this week's trendy CRASH pick. Entertainment writers have gone weeks without anything interesting to write about these awards. Pushing CRASH as the likely winner is a way to revive a dead story.

Best Director

Will win: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain
If I voted: Steven Spielberg, Munich

I like MUNICH a little more than BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN but am perfectly happy with Ang Lee and his film winning. Who would have thought that Spielberg, one of the all-time greats, would make two terrific films in the same year, the pop entertainment WAR OF THE WORLDS and serious, awards-friendly MUNICH and be an also-ran?

Best Actor
Will win: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote
If I voted: Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line

You can't go wrong with any of the nominees, although my distaste for HUSTLE & FLOW taints the appreciation I have for Terrence Howard's performance.

Best Actress
Will win: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line
If I voted: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line

There are last minute whispers that Felicity Huffman might eke out a win for her TRANSAMERICA role. I realize my opinion on this is in the minority, but Huffman's performance is little more than a stunt (and not a wholly successful one) in a film that is one contrivance after another. Her preoperative transsexual character is a parody of Oscar-trolling roles.

Best Supporting Actor
Will win: George Clooney, Syriana
If I voted: George Clooney, Syriana

Surprisingly, none of the five nominees were on my ballots for the Central Ohio Film Critics Association or Online Film Critics Society. (The closest, in a sense, was a vote for Ed Harris in A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, who was passed over for William Hurt.) The triple-nominated Clooney--directing and writing for GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. and acting for SYRIANA--surely has to win something, and this is the most favorable category for him.

Best Supporting Actress
Will win: Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener
If I voted: Amy Adams, Junebug

Weisz has been cleaning up in the precursors, so the assumption is she'll win the Oscar.

Best Original Screenplay
Will win: Crash
If I voted: Match Point

CRASH gets the consolation prize here. I'd go for Woody Allen's best film in years.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Will win: Brokeback Mountain
If I voted: Munich

Even if CRASH were to pull off an upset in Best Picture, this one has to be a mortal lock for BROKEBACK.

Best Animated Feature
Will win: Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
If I voted: Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Let's here it for traditional animation! There should be no question which film is the best of the bunch.

Best Animated Short
Will win: One Man Band
If I voted: not applicable

Having seen none of these, the smart money is on the Pixar entry.

Best Art Direction
Will win: Memoirs of a Geisha
If I voted: Pride & Prejudice

The one positive consensus opinion regarding MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA was how great it looked.

Best Cinematography
Will win: Brokeback Mountain
If I voted: The New World

A tough one if I were voting but a no-brainer for an Oscar pool.

Best Costume Design
Will win: Memoirs of a Geisha
If I voted: Pride & Prejudice

GEISHA's studio can take solace that the film nabbed a couple awards, even if they're not in the high profile categories that they anticipated before it opened with a thud in December.

Best Documentary Feature
Will win: March of the Penguins
If I voted: Murderball

Penguins are cute and the film was a big hit. MARCH OF THE PENGUINS was a decent nature doc, but MURDERBALL was one of the year's best films, let alone the best documentary.

Best Documentary Short
Will win: God Sleeps in Rwanda
If I voted: not applicable

Having seen none of these, I'm going with the one whose title leads me to believe it's the bleakest of the bunch.

Best Film Editing
Will win: Crash
If I voted: Munich

Typically I view this category's winner as the one requiring the most editing--in other words, epics tend to do well here--but none of these films meet that criteria enough. This becomes a secondary vote on Best Picture, and with BROKEBACK nowhere to be seen, CRASH takes it.

Best Foreign Language Film
Will win: Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
If I voted: Paradise Now

The rule of thumb that Holocaust films are sure things in the foreign film and documentary categories may be going by the wayside. Nevertheless, SOPHIE SCHOLL sounds like a potential Academy favorite. Of the films in this category, I've seen PARADISE NOW and TSOTSI. PARADISE NOW strikes me as being too combustible to win. In spite of comparisons with CITY OF GOD--unearned, in my opinion--TSOTSI is not as edgy as I expected, so it's comfortable tale of a thug's redemption may prove to be a winner.

Best Live Action Short
Will win: The Last Farm
If I voted: not applicable

Having seen none of these, I'm going with the one whose title sounds like it's downbeat and uplifting.

Best Makeup
Will win: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
If I voted: Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Mr. Pibb and Red Vines equal crazy delicious. Welcome to the category where if you're a fantasy film or make the beautiful performers less pretty, chances are good you'll get nominated.

Best Original Score
Will win: Brokeback Mountain
If I voted: Brokeback Mountain

Some nice choices are in here with MUNICH and PRIDE & PREJUDICE in addition to the likely winner.

Best Original Song
Will win: "In the Deep" from Crash
If I voted: "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp", Hustle & Flow

This category becomes more irrelevant with each passing year. I couldn't tell you what the songs from CRASH and TRANSAMERICA sound like. "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" ought to win by virtue of being utilized in the body of the film as much for its inherent catchiness.

Best Sound Editing
Will win: King Kong
If I voted: War of the Worlds

That horrific squawk the alien machines make in WAR OF THE WORLDS would be enough to earn my vote.

Best Sound Mixing
Will win: Walk the Line
If I voted: War of the Worlds

Every year around this time I forget what the distinction is between this and Sound Editing.

Best Visual Effects

Will win: King Kong
If I voted: King Kong

It's amazing that the third STAR WARS prequel didn't make the cut. As impressed as I was with WAR OF THE WORLDS, I'll grant that KING KONG has some amazing effects in it that probably merit its win.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Whit Stillman Speaks

Being a fan of director Whit Stillman requires a lot of patience. He's made just three films since 1990 (METROPOLITAN, BARCELONA, and THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO), the most recent having been released eight years ago. Rumored projects have come and gone with no results and often little news. There was the DISCO novelization Stillman wrote, but that's been about it.

The silence has been cracked with Criterion's release of METROPOLITAN on DVD. To promote the DVD Stillman has been making the interview rounds,as much as someone off the pop culture radar like him can. The best and most comprehensive interview I've come across is Noel Murray's at The Onion AV Club. Although Stillman doesn't reveal any details about his possible fourth film, it sounds like he's closer to seeing it through than his unmade film of an unfinished Jane Austen novel, adaptation of Anchee Min's RED AZALEA, or story of Francis Marion, "the Swamp Fox".

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Ebertfest site update

Probably all one of you have any interest in this, but since checking the Ebertfest site for the announcement of this year's lineup is a daily habit of mine, I'll point out that the site has been given a new look. The FAQ states that the films will be announce in late February/early March. I wouldn't bet on an announcement until after the Oscars--say Tuesday, March 7--but you'll hear no complaints from me if it's earlier than that.

Jarod, whose site I linked above, predicts these films will be at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival this April. THE EAGLE is a slam dunk because it's on the Alloy Orchestra tour schedule. I talked about the other predictions in my January film festival entry.

Eight Below

EIGHT BELOW (Frank Marshall, 2006)

A team of sled dogs is left behind to survive the Antarctic winter in EIGHT BELOW. Jerry Shepard (Paul Walker) trains and cares for the pack at the scientific outpost. He leads a visiting scientist’s expedition to find a meteorite from Mercury. Although an encroaching storm threatens to cut short the search, Jerry agrees to put off their return a little while longer at the request of Dr. Davis McClaren (Bruce Greenwood), the scientist responsible for funding the trip. Fighting their way through the storm, Jerry and Davis make it back, but Davis breaks his leg en route and Jerry has frostbite.

With the evacuation window shrinking, the team tells Jerry that they must leave immediately to get them medical attention and get out safely. Jerry insists that the dogs come along, but there isn’t enough room on the plane for them. He’s told that a return flight will be made for the dogs, so they are chained in place to keep them from running off. The inclement weather prohibits any rescue for months, though. Once back in the United States, Jerry works tirelessly to get back to Antarctica, whether it means finding that the dogs have perished or not.

If director Frank Marshall had been willing to take a risk, he might have concentrated EIGHT BELOW’S second half exclusively on the dogs and their predicament. The humans are less interesting once they leave the cold, especially when all Jerry does is fail to convince anyone to take him back to Antarctica and mope about it. The film’s best scenes focus on the dogs as they wriggle out of their chained collars and struggle for self-preservation in the harsh climate. EIGHT BELOW doesn’t anthropomorphize the dogs or play down the jeopardy they are in, creative choices that bolster the film’s realism. While this is a family film, there are some moments that may scare kids. In the best and most nerve-wracking scene, a leopard seal emerges from an orca’s carcass to chase off a dog looking for food. (After EIGHT BELOW and their villainous role in MARCH OF THE PENGUINS, seals need a better agent.)

EIGHT BELOW presents spectacular shots of the frozen land and documents the adventure of traversing the icy waters and terrain. It fits well into the tradition of live action Disney animal films that capture the imaginations of kids while possessing enough intelligence and thrills to entertain parents too.

Grade: B-