Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Single shaker of shame: The worst DVDs of 2008

“Why did I rent this?” These words echo across America every night. If you have to hit fast forward, it’s not a good sign. Here are 20 from this year that I wish I skipped.

1. Be Kind Rewind (2008) – Previously reviewed on this blog. Not so kind...

2. Daniel Tosh: Completely Serious - Comedians shouldn’t be assholes. Seriously.

3. The Game Plan- “The Rock” tries to emulate family-friendly Schwarzeneggers' career path, mugging embarrassingly with a child actor who should have hit him with a folding chair.

4. Get Smart (2008) - Previously reviewed on this blog. Back to your office Steve!

5. Grindhouse: Planet Terror – Rodiguez and Tarantino think that making deliberately bad, violent films is cool. It’s not and put out that doobie!

6. The Happening (2008)- M. Night Shyamalan has Marky Mark and friends trying to outrun the suicide-inducing wind. Say hi to your mother for me.

7. Heckler – Jamie Kennedy fakes us out; Instead of talking about heckling he quickly equates them with critics and then cries that they didn’t like his shitty films.

8. I'm Not There - Bob Dylan is played by a whole bunch of different actors in an attempt to capture his essence. My channels - they are a changing.

9. Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) – Looky it's 3-D! Brendan Fraser is in danger of becoming the next Nicholas Cage making bad big budget junk for a paycheck.

10. Lust, Caution –The Asian cinema cliché that really slow-moving films are more meaningful. I needed more lust less caution.

11. Married Life – Supposedly a murder-mystery that has neither.

12. Momma's Man (2008) – Like the “Step Brothers” but trying to take itself seriously. Grow up!

13. Ocean's Thirteen- The last two of this franchise milk the originality of the first with lame-ass pretty boy smugness.

14. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End – Sequel-itis again hits as big money trumps the fun with a ridiculously confusing plot and over-the-top nonsense action.

15. Redacted – Brian DePalma goes ‘Clockwork Orange’ on us and it’s an experiment in bad. War is horrific and so is this film.

16. Slacker Uprising – Michael Moore shows us how his “Slacker Nation” failed to get Kerry elected in 04. Is this relevant?

17. Sleuth – A two-man show with Michael Caine and Jude Law trading wits while boring us senseless.

18. Snow Angels - David Green makes good actors do bad things. Depressing filmmaking is not serious filmmaking.

19. Vantage Point – The"aren't we clever?" point of view can't save this conceited thriller that twists and turns into mediocrity.

20. Zoo – Bestiality attempted to be explained artistically. Yuck!

Let's have a happy new year and hope for more multi-shaker films in 09!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Four shaker roundup: The best DVDs of the year

I have no affiliation with SAG or any other organization for that matter, but much luck to Jessi as she frantically screens; I look forward to more verdicts.

Since it’s that time of year, I’ve rounded up my top 20. Of course a majority of these DVDs were released theatrically in 2007 (unless noted as a 2008 release); Like Jessi, I may have slipped a few theatrical releases in there -so sue us bitches!

You know, I saw a higher number of films this year than normal but it always amazes me how it seems constant that 75% of films made are just average or below, no matter how selective you are. Hopefully this list will help you weed out some bad ones:

1. American Gangster - Russell Crow and Denzel Washington have a lot of fun in a good old fashioned gangster flick.

2. The Dark Knight (2008) - I know Jessi heartily disagrees and it has its' bloated moments- but this was the best comic book film of the year, helped by the late Heath Ledger’s eerie Joker.

3. Eastern Promises - A knife fight in a sauna? Cool! Viggo Mortensen totally nails the Eastern European character in this great little mob film.

4. Extras: The Extra Special Series Finale - Ricky Gervais who gave us the original, succinct and far superior “The Office”, does it again by finishing his second series with a comic swipe at celebrity culture.

5. Frozen River (2008) - I second Jessi's opinion. Atmospheric and real, this look at poverty, human trafficking and cultural divide is an unbelievable indie with Melissa Leo really shining in the lead.

6. Kabluey - Previously reviewed on this blog. The funniest blue man since David Cross on "Arrested Development".

7. The King of Kong - Who knew a documentary on Donkey Kong competitors would be so compelling? The villain in this is unintentionally hilarious!

8. The Lives of Others – Humanity trumps conservative and oppressive bureaucracy in this timely German film on government vs. privacy.

9. No Country for Old Men - The sound design alone makes you want to see this film again. True the ending is unexpected and bizarre, but this film is a classic.

10. No End in Sight - This year gave us many fine documentaries on the Iraqi war, but this one is just a simple, straightforward presentation of facts as many high-level insiders openly condemn the action.

11. Persepolis - A rebellious Iranian girl comes of age in the political turmoil following the fall of the Shah. Amazing with original animation.

12. Ratatouille - The second of three animated films I’ve selected, is a great family film about a foodie vermin finding his inner chef. Brad Bird is a great storyteller.

13. The Savages – Previously reviewed on this blog. Yay dysfunction!

14. Starting Out in the Evening - Frank Langella rules as an old school intellect and author who’s become a recluse. Sort of a “Lost in Translation” for the literati.

15. Step Brothers (2008) - Will Ferrell’s best film to date and the best comedy of the year. John C. Reilly and he are man-boys who sleepwalk, fight and improvise the absurd fantastic!

16. Up the Yangtze. - Young employees on a tourist excursion boat face uncertain futures in a changing China. A unique documentary of the disruptive Three Gorges dam project as seen through their eyes.

17. The Visitor - Richard Jenkins who was the comic father in “Step Brothers”, shows his dramatic range playing a widowed, unpopular professor dealing with a crowded apartment and an empty life.

18. Waitress - Sweet as pie! A small film of dreams and the compromises of life. The tragic murder of the director and co-star Adrienne Shelly make it even more poignant.

19. WALL-E (2008) - A strange film since it is a Disney animation that would no doubt bore and depress children. If you believe in dystopia clap your hands!

20. Zodiac - I love true-life crime thrillers and this one just rocks! I am psyched that there will be a deluxe edition coming out. Plus it inspired Dirty Harry Callahan. See it punk!

(Oh- I didn't award any '5 shakers' except for "No Country.." this year and even that one's 'shakey')

Not to be Missed...Part One

Okay, so I'm in full swing on watching films in anticipation of having to vote for the SAG awards.
Here's a quick run-down of some of the best I've seen so far. Pass the salt and dig in.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
So far, this film rises far above the pack in Cinematography. A beautiful, heart wrenching, cinematic masterpiece. The story and direction are outstanding. Really, there are some films one sees that define the medium, and this is one of them. It's why we see films...and love them.

I've Loved You So Long (Il ya longtemps que je t'aime)
I'll admit that I'm biased when it comes to Kristin Scott Thomas---she is a remarkable beauty and talent. Compelling to watch. And here, in this moody, unraveling story, she is superb. For personal family reasons, this film probably affected me more than most. And the success in this French drama lies in the hands of Ms. Thomas. I loved it, tears and all.

WALL-E (2008)
A sweet, thought-provoking and engrossing tale about an animated robot? Yep. Score another big win for the talent pool at Pixar. I expect to be swept up in emotion by films with animated animals, but I didn't expect this reaction from WALL-E. An adorable, brave little...robot...and a future of obese, couch potato humans who've lost the ability to move? Sign me up. A smart tale, sweet story, and great film.

Frozen River (2008)
While Slumdog Millionaire gets my vote as a cinematic masterpiece, Frozen River shines as a gritty masterpiece. Melissa Leo 's performance is stellar. I can still feel the cold, hear the crunching of packed snow and ice, and anguish over "Ray Eddy's" life in a trailer in upstate New York. Bravo.

Doubt (2008)
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep in the same film? Truly, I must have died and gone to heaven. If you love film as much as I do, you must see Doubt. This is what all filmmakers aspire to. On every level, in every category, one of the best films ever made, in my ever so humble opinion. Streep and Hoffman are beyond brilliant. I couldn't believe that the film was over when it felt like only ten minutes had gone by.

Too much gushing for you? Tired of hearing "one of the best films ever?" Well, stay tuned...more to come. Including a palette-clearing summary of some not-so-wonderful movies.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Buried in DVDs...Stay Tuned

So this year, I was randomly selected to be part of the Screen Actors Guild nominating committee for the SAG Awards. That means I've been seeing a lot (yeah, a LOT) of films. I'm bleary-eyed but determined to see every one. Stay tuned as I share the good, the bad, and ...the mediocre.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Rachel Getting...Whatever

It took me nearly a day to finally figure out why Rachel Getting Married bugged me so much. Jonathan Demme seemed to have taken a 48-hour period of just-released-from-rehab family reunion drama and turned it into a boring, indulgent “why make this movie?” experience. If you’ve ever seen an episode of the A&E series, Intervention, you’ll know what I mean.

I just recently saw an episode of Intervention about a young woman with a revolting addiction to inhaling propellant (from Dust Off cans). The gritty realism of her self-absorbed, angry state was painful yet compelling to watch. More heartbreaking, even still, were her family’s attempts to cope with and care for her.

Watching this story was like being tossed into a washing machine. Near drowning, tumbling into bedlam, and somehow making it through to be alive again, at the end. You couldn’t help but be truly touched as the program ended with her, barely recognizable, as a pretty young woman, free of that awful addiction that had previously turned her into a monster.

In "Rachel Getting Married," however, there is nothing but the “gritty realism” of a rich Connecticut girl at her sister’s wedding. Too much time spent on overly long scenes of singing celebrations (which involved a melange of ethnic music, dance and food usually only seen in movies) and weirdness (a dishwasher loading contest? really?) had me so restless I actually got up to do my own dishwasher loading to break the boredom.

Unsympathetic characters in this fake world made the movie a failure, in my opinion. I can’t fault the actors here. I think it was the writing. For a better, more meaningful film-watching experience, check out an episode of Intervention. Gritty realism on the house.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Classics look New as Recyclables grow Tired

Egad!- Jessi and I have not been tending this blog since fall arrived. Let’s say we are both rebooting as our real lives get tangled with error messages. I did reboot my home theater here as well and have gone hi-def and Blu-Ray because I couldn’t handle the envy.

I have found bliss with this new setup and I can now see both good and bad films with excellent sound and picture. One of my first films screened was “The Godfather- the Coppola Restoration” (5 shakers) Being from North Jersey this film was practically scripture and the Blu-Ray edition is amazing. The film was shot super low-light but now you can make out things that were previously lost in the darkness (Like Lil Mikey's soul). The sound design also pops especially during the scene where Michael kills for the first time and later when Sonny pays his toll.

To see some detailed CGI on the system I rented “Spiderman 3” and “The Incredible Hulk” both again rehashing old comic book material. “Spiderman’ thankfully ends this franchise but on a bad note as spidey goes bad and Tobey Maguire even rough houses embarrassingly at a jazz club. (Don’t ask). “The Hulk” reboots confusingly since the film seems to be a sequel but the previous film (Ang Lee’s “Hulk” from 2003) had a giant Hulk downing helicopters whereas this hulk has a large but fixed size. Lou Ferrigno, the old 1980’s TV Hulk appears in the obligatory cameo. The "Hulk" is technically amazing but just loud, stupid and unecessary. I give both these films 3 shakers for tech reasons only.

All this rehashing and of comic books yet brings up a point about Hollywood today. From the 20’s through the 50’s film primarily adapted great works of literature. Producers tried hard to elevate what some saw as a pedestrian and vulgar medium. Todays' producers just seem to shoot for a low common denominator. Enough with the comic books already! Sure I enjoyed “Iron Man” and "The Dark Knight” but are these stories really worthy of the giant budgets and hype? In old times the “Buck Rogers” folk were kept in the “B Movie" category where they belong. Let’s shoot higher people- yes we can!

Then because I hate myself, I rented “Get Smart”. Steve Carrelll drags his expressionless mug around this sad rehash. (I want to laugh but I just find him boring). Instead of being the everyman fool Maxwell Smart is now multi-lingual, a brilliant analyst and a reformed fatty. The old TV Siegfried makes his cameo and Ann Hathaway is plenty sexy, but she alone can’t save this sad excuse for a flick. (I must say here “Missed it by that much!”- I apologize) One shaker dammit!

Finally I checked out “How the West was Won” one of only two feature dramatic films made in three-camera Cinerama. The elements have been joined seamlessly and the depth of field is amazing. I was blown away by this- while the story is weak- the camerawork really captures the majesty of the west. The buffalo stampede and train shootout stand out on this wonderful old school, star studded feature. I say four shakers to the old west and thanks Cinerama for leading the way to the 70 mm wide-screen format and the re-introduction of epic filmaking.

We’ve come so far technically- let’s move it forward creatively. We conquered the west and survived "Godfather III" - now let's beat remake mediocrity.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

"Outsourced" - Falling in Love with third world labor

I agree with Jessi and think this is a fun, laidback and quirky flick, however I withhold a 5th salt shaker and think that “Local Hero” was both similar and superior. Co-Writer/Director John Jeffcoat has great fun both with the clash of cultures and the fish out of water aspects of our lead character and the economic setup is timely and on target. This may, God forbid, be the first of a subgenre as the US continues to ship its jobs overseas for cheaper labor.

In "Outsourced" the cinematography is colorful and soundtrack has some great Indian music on it. My problem was that I thought the romantic angle suffered since it seemed a little too contrived and there was a lack of sexual chemistry between the leads. In fact our main character Todd (Josh Hamilton) goes from angry American to super manager to enamored lover without much change in his vacant expressions. This is a romcom man, step it up! The Indian workers also seemed a little bit too much like the comedic yet lovable African American servants as depicted in ‘Gone with the Wind’ and other older American films. Later as a xenophobic American caller leans that his product is now cheaper since it’s not made in the US, he seems pleased. So the politics of this flick are a little skewed to keep it breezy. Layoffs of call center workers occur without any negativity (most of them not even happening on camera), as social commentary takes a back seat to the humor of culture clash and romance. (“Is this wrong?” we all collectively ask)

To the filmakers credit, however, it points out the quandary we Americans face as we continue to buy cheaper products made in sweatshops in China. The bottom line is that politics aside; it’s a fun film with a lot of charm and wonderful sights and sounds while tiptoeing around very thorny issues. I also really identified with the mad quest for a real cheeseburger; a very funny scene. The US managers reminded me of the British military officers in films like “Lawrence of Arabia” as they move personnel like chess pieces while ignoring the fact that their empire is coming to an end. Asif Basra, as this films’ Gunga Din (wannabe manager instead of soldier) turns in a great performance.

Coincidentally, (and speaking of cheeseburgers) I saw another good film recently with an Indian flavor. “The Namesake” features Kal Penn (who played Kumar in the “Harold and Kumar” films) playing it straight as a self-centered yuppie who, like a lot of us, doesn’t really appreciate his heritage or the sacrifices of his parents. This film transcends the culture to tell a universal story and is very understated and touching. Irrfan Khan as the father is a standout as a decent man who defies movie stereotypes. It’s a bit rambling but still a heartfelt journey. Four Curry shakers again.

I feel like tandoori chicken now dammit!

(Disclosure: Tim has worked in call centers and had really high sales and short talk times)

Monday, September 29, 2008

"Outsourced" (2006): Sweet as Banana Lassi

‘Americans get angry over their jobs being outsourced. But aren’t so many of the products they buy made in China?’

This is just one of the smart observations made in this endearing, beautifully told story. Watching “Outsourced” feels like watching a foreign film at it’s best. Rich, intriguing characters, a reluctant outsider, and a warm, unfolding culture. An American employee is shipped off to India when the novelty company he works for decides to outsource their sales support. Josh Hamilton plays the culturally insensitive American who slowly opens his mind, and heart, to a new culture...a new way of thinking.

(<---- The adorable Ayesha Dharker)

I couldn’t help but be reminded of “Local Hero” (1983), in which Peter Riegert’s pre-Bill Murray, intricately underplayed character is sent to Scotland to buy a village where his company plans to build an oil refinery. Outsourced is a little funnier, a little lighter, but achieves the same feeling, nonetheless.

I had the honor of performing in a staged reading of one of George Wing’s works in progress when I lived in Seattle. His previous hit, “50 First Dates,” has the same romantic heart. His collaboration with John Jeffcoat has produced a thinking person’s love story, that takes a look at the day to day realities of outsourcing American jobs.

There’s no Hollywood prerequisite “edginess” here— no murders, explosions. Just an economics/love story that really blew me away. This is the first film I’m rating 5 salt shakers..... a classic, a must-see.

Friday, September 19, 2008

“Kabluey” - An icon of anxious times

A dimwitted underachiever trapped in an absurd work assignment is sent out to humiliate himself for a business that never lived up to its potential. A military wife is trapped without benefits as her husbands’ duty in Iraq is extended yet again. A grocery store cashier takes Polaroids of suspected child kidnappers while an old man loves his thermos and a local Don Juan beds everyone possible. All these folks inhabit “Kabluey” a great little film where all the characters seem trapped and desperate. The desolate roads, unfinished office buildings, second rate grocery stores, seedy motels and soulless Mcmansions are perfectly captured as a setting for our main character, a hangdog shell shocked Salman (writer/director Scott Prendergast) who spends much of this flick in a giant blue padded suit with an oversized orb head. He is simply trying to pass out flyers to rent out the unused office space in a near abandoned corporate headquarters, dressed as its' generic brand icon.

A first rate cast and well tuned offbeat tone show just how an indie can get it right where so many have gone wrong. Sure ‘Kanbluey’ has its faults but how can you resist a film where a small child evilly vows to kill our hero and then actually attempts it. Terri Garr makes a hilarious extended cameo as an insane courier and Lisa Kudrow as the lonely wife does a good job with a tough role. Most importantly the utter anxiety and absurdity of our times seems to be captured from the war to the economy and the loneliness of trying to survive while doing what’s right. Our heroes are not brand cartoon characters - just ordinary folks finding their inner good. Prendergrast seems to have channeled Chaplin (or Buster Keaton) for these modern times.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

“Charlie Bartlett” & “Be Kind, Rewind” – They Suck!

Are we down to one shaker cinema? In that case let me save time and give you two-for-one: a high school afternoon special and a video store fiasco.

In “Charlie Bartlett” (2007) we are supposed to find this Richy-Rich lovable ala Ferris Bueller. However, outside of the irony of Robert Downey Jr. as a principal trying to warn kids off drugs, this film is ridiculous and flat. Anton Yelchin as the title character tries hard and with his wealth and crazy mom alludes to “Harold & Maude” right down to a song plucked from that film that no teenager on earth would be singing. Besides borrowing from better coming of age films, the heavy handed moralizing on teen drug use, authority and personal identity are just too awkward and stagey. While I give it credit for trying to be a step up from the gross-out films of the teen comedy genre, this one is just the wrong prescription. “Superbad”, “Election” and the oldie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” show us how serious issues can be covered in a high school setting without sacrificing the laughs.

Speaking of high school, “Be Kind, Rewind” (2008) is set in Passaic, NJ which is next to my hometown hood of Clifton. However, that city will not be sending the filmmakers a “thank you” note anytime soon since the city is played up as being a major slum which is a slight exaggeration. Writer-director Michael Gondry who gave us the very good “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind “and the very bad “The Science of Sleep” puts another in the bad column. Mos Def is just not funny and Jack Black is occasionally funny but not allowed to shine. The story of a store that has all its' VHS tapes erased. (Yes Passaic has also just heard of DVDs) only to have our two heroes replace them with shorter parodies of their own making should be hilarious. Yet only some of the parodies are even funny, and they only come after an overlong setup which involves evil city officials and Fats Waller. (Don’t ask!) This film actually looks like it was slapped together by the two idiots themselves and goes from bad to almost unwatchable. How did Danny Glover, Mia Farrow and Sigourney Weaver get pulled into this mess? Be kind to yourself and miss this and re-rent “Clerks”.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

09.02.08 “Ginger Snaps” (2000): And I Snap Back

Years ago, when first auditioning for one of my agents, we had an interesting discussion about monologues. “Never do a monologue about a dead dog,” she said, referring to the monologue performed by the actor who had auditioned before me, leaving her disgusted and completely turned off.

Within the first two minutes of “Ginger Snaps,” we encounter a mother and toddler discovering the bloody, dismembered body of their dog. To alleviate any doubts as to what you are seeing, the camera then moves slowly over the bloody, furry pieces (inner and outer) of what remains of the dog.

Now I know what my agent meant. Fictional films that start out with bloody murdered dogs belong in the same amateur trash pile as monologues about dead dogs. Think I’m just being sentimental? Read the screenwriting book, “Save the Cat,” by Blake Snyder. Think I’m being overly critical of an obvious werewolf horror flick? Well, I kind of feel that story trumps all, subtlety is gold, and no one has yet been able to surpass the dark, heart-breaking beauty of John Landis’ 1981 classic, “An American Werewolf in London.”

Friday, August 29, 2008

"August" - Not a hot one

Since Jessi and I won’t always be looking at the same discs, I will occasionally try to match her- domino style, in shaker ratings. My two shaker selection would be the indie tale “August” set in the long ago time of the oft mentioned dotcom bubble burst of 2001. This film has some things going for it, including a moody electronic score that seems almost a funeral dirge. Not only a comment on the death of the optimism of the startups, but also an anticipation of the horror of September 11th which would occur the following month. It is filmed in a casual laidback style with some good cinematography. It also has a predictable plot with cliched characters.

Josh Hartnett does his best as Tom Sterling (wow- like currency), the hotshot CEO of a down and going dotcom he has started with his techie brother. They have a distant relationship that you think will lead somewhere- it doesn’t and the same goes for an ex-girlfriend architect who is so ‘brick and mortar’. His dad (Rip Torn) doesn’t respect him and quietly mocks how his suspiciously idle staff just sit around eating Oreos. The techie brother finally displays an emotion outside of that of the doting family guy, by berating Tom for sending their dad a b-list Buddha as punishment. (Like Bill Murray sending folks towels in “Scrooged”) Meanwhile the TV blasts heavy-handed reminders of the time frame- look everyone- Aaliyah just crashed! Ben Affleck is in rehab! Hartnett’s character is just an asshole and you don’t really buy all that gibberish tech jargon they make him spout about his beloved company “Landshark”. (No Chevy Chase does not reprise his SNL role)

“What do you do?” Torn pleas for the audience. Yet the purpose of the company is as much as an enigma as the soul of the characters here. David Bowie appears as an old school suit who wants to take over the firm. When you think Wall Street blue-blood- Bowie is not who comes to mind but he is welcome just because we need someone to call the main character out. If you see two documentaries of this period: “E-dreams” and “” you’ll see more compelling tales of the dotcom crash. This one is all atmosphere and set up, but it just doesn’t click.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"Jumper" (2008): Jumping through Millions

Imagine what you would do with 75 million dollars. Assuming you’re not Bill Gates, this would be a staggering amount of money. Travel the world? Make generous donations? The choices would be endless.

So when films are made with large budgets, you have to ask: was it worth it? Did that amount of money go towards the creation of something life-changing? Was it pleasurable escapism? Thought-provoking? In the case of “Jumper,” the answer would be a resounding no, no, no.

I hadn’t planned on being too hard on this flimsy story until I heard the director interviewed on the DVD extras. He said that, in most cases, films are funded for either big special effects (all shot in one location) or for numerous locations, but never both. He wanted to do a budget-doubling BOTH---huge special effects in many locations (I counted seven: New York, Rome, Tokyo, Baja, Prague, Ann Arbor, Toronto). Exorbitant? Yes. Worthwhile? No.

The story, or what should be the backbone on which every great film stands, is simplistic and underdeveloped. Hayden Christensen does his best to infuse a translucent and roughly drawn character with life. Rachel Bilson seems painfully self-aware, striking poses more suited to fashion photography.

Being a sci-fi fan, I had high hopes for this film, which opens with a shy teen hero who suddenly discovers his own ability to “jump” or teleport himself at will. In that, we have the makings of rich fantasy (the novel which inspired the film, “Jumper,” by Steven Gould, was published in 1992). Instead, the film spends too much time celebrating it’s own jumping technology, and the story becomes so shallow that the jumps become meaningless. (Hurry and jump away from Samuel L. Jackson's hot-on-his-tail executioner. For some unknown reason, Samuel L. Jackson sports a distracting and purposeless
head of bleached white hair).

(Jumping...old school ----->)

Yes, kudos go to the creative team behind the “jumping” effect. Rather than a Star Trek-like rippling camera dissolve, these “jumps” have gravity and emotional intensity behind them, made more real and believable by how they seem to follow the laws of the universe (ie. leaving the trail of a time/space “scar” behind, for several seconds after a jump, and the jump’s physical, often destructive, impact on the environment in which it takes place). If enough attention had been placed on casting and story as had been on special effects, this could have been something really good.

In an ideal world, I’d have given this project to Jon Favreau, who created a thing of depth and beauty with "Iron Man."

Friday, August 22, 2008

"Surfwise" (2007): An Experiment in Family Living

Once again, I agree with Tim's brilliant observations on this film. I saw it recently and can’t get it out of my head. More accurately, I can’t quite get my head around IT. Then I remembered the Ancestral Pueblo people of Bandelier National Monument.

If you’ve never been, Bandelier National Monument is home to the cliff dwellings and city foundation remnants of this 10,000 year old civilization. In walking the trails, you can see the foundations of housing “developments” created by this industrious people. What struck me, at the time, was the small size of the living areas. Sharing would be an understatement in these times, when communities had to work closely together in order to survive.

10,000 years later, Dorian (“Doc”) Paskowitz has lived his life as a fascinating social experiment, not unlike the Ancestral Pueblo people. A brilliant doctor with a passion and talent for surfing, he lived with his wife and nine children (yes, nine) in a small (yes, small) RV and traveled from place to place around the southern US. While the Ancestral Pueblo people searched for water to drink, the Paskowitz family searched for water on which to surf.

Much like the ancient Ancestral Pueblo people, Doc Paskowtiz created an almost absurdly close (by today’s standards) family that did most everything together. As Westerners, it’s hard to imagine growing up without a television, a school, or any space to call your own. And how would you react to living in such tight quarters that you were in the same room as your parents while they had sex? These are the cringe-worthy moments in “Surfwise” when you get a knot of sorrow for the Paskowitz kids. But then again, though their formative years were not typical according to Western society standards, you can appreciate how natural and healthy they were. Yet, the children tell some stories of near abuse at the hands of their dictator-type father. More cringing.

One of the strongest messages to come from watching the story of Doc Paskowitz is his relentless commitment to health. An exercise fanatic who abhorred sugar, he dictated the absolute necessity of physical exercise, the power of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and “a little meat,” and the natural joy of sexual expression. It’s hard not to hear his words and feel anything other than admiration (though you can eliminate the meat, in my case).

Today, the children are all successful adults. I was amazed to discover that two of the Paskowitz boys were members of one of my very favorite (though short-lived) 90s bands, The Flys.

This documentary is so well done, it’s hard to have an opinion about anything other than it’s subject matter. From a purely technical, filmmaking perspective, it certainly rates a whole lotta salt. On another level, if this film doesn’t get you off your butt and into an exercise routine, nothing will.

"Surfwise" - When Life really is a Beach

What the hell do you know about surfing?
You're from god damned New Jersey. - Lieutenant Kilgore, Apocalypse Now

A crazed megalomaniac who curses himself for not stopping an execution which occurred when he was at the “height of my powers”; A man who wanted to breed his own master race using his strong will and strict diet and discipline along with an appointed lieutenant who acted as enforcer; A man who used these young warriors to forge a separate society, outside the trappings of the opulent capitalist one which he despised. Adolph Hitler? No- a devout yet potty-mouthed Jewish doctor turned surfer named Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz.

Leaving all the trappings of an ordinary life, ‘Doc’ and his wife raise nine children in a 24 foot camper, instead of sending them to school –they take them on series of surf adventures cross-country. How could a documentary about such a bizarre Jewish doctor who becomes surf Nazi mean anything to anyone? Because unlike so many loud meaningless films coming out these days, “Surfwise” actually questions the meaning of life and the direction of our society but in a way that is not preachy. Director Doug Pray carefully paddles us through various moods and emotions. As the children age and try to actually enter society we feel their frustrations. (With one strange scene featuring a son emotionally lip synching his own song about it) The end result is entertaining, smartly filmed and edited with a great soundtrack to boot. Life’s a wave, but how many swim out and try to grab it? Is that one surf metaphor too many dudes?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Five-Shaker Cinema - A Best of List

As Jessi and I use this blog as a fun way to share our takes on films, it’s easy to see that we are not alone. Literally hundreds of reviewers screen mountains of films, with thousands of folks chiming in through message boards, blogs, and dedicated web sights along with media outlets big and small. It’s the definitive ‘too much information’ overload of our times. We just want to have fun like our old friends Siskel & Ebert did way back when.

So as we randomly sample the giant pie of current DVDs’ available I thought I’d give up some past opinions. These 118 films IMHO rate 5 salt shakers- our highest rating. I pulled these from the ratings I have already online at Netflix. Of course not a definitive list but just great films that I personally could watch over many times and enjoy. If you’re a Netflix member each film hotlinks back to their site to make it easy to add these to your queue. Film geeks love their lists- so here are some great films in reverse order of their release. If you haven’t seen some of these, I think you’ll enjoy them. If not we can get in big arguments- that’s what we’re here for right? I know I left so many out- I’m just trying people…

No Country for Old Men (2007)
Children of Men (2006)
Hotel Rwanda (2005)
Kinamand (2005)
The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
Riding Giants (2004)
Sideways (2004)
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
13 Conversations About One Thing (2002)
28 Days Later (2002)
About Schmidt (2002)
Bloody Sunday (2002)
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)
Ghost World (2001)
In the Bedroom (2001)
Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Wallace & Gromit: Three Amazing Adventures (2001)
The Endurance (2000)
You Can Count on Me (2000)
Being John Malkovich (1999)
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Fight Club (1999)
The Matrix (1999)
October Sky (1999)
The Taste of Others (1999)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Run Lola Run (1998)
Beautiful Girls (1996)
Dead Man Walking (1995)
Hoop Dreams (1994)
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Faraway, So Close! (1993)
Groundhog Day (1993)
Slacker (1991)
GoodFellas (1990)
Miller's Crossing (1990)
Drugstore Cowboy (1989)
Cinema Paradiso: Director's Cut (1988)
Wall Street (1987)
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Platoon (1986)
Brazil (1985)
Lost in America (1985)
Amadeus (1984)
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
The Big Chill (1983)
A Christmas Story (1983)
Das Boot (1981)
Airplane! (1980)
Caddyshack (1980)
The Changeling (1980)
Ordinary People (1980)
Raging Bull (1980)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Being There (1979)
Mad Max (1979)
Halloween (1978)
National Lampoon's Animal House (1978)
Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
All the President's Men (1976)
Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976)
Network (1976)
The Omen (1976)
Nashville (1975)
Amarcord (1974)
The Godfather, Part II (1974)
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
Scenes from a Marriage (Theatrical) (1974)
American Graffiti (1973)
Don't Look Now (1973)
Frenzy (1972)
The Godfather (1972)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The Graduate (1967)
You Only Live Twice (1967)
Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)
The Battle of Algiers (1965)
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)
Seven Days in May (1964)
8 1/2 (1963)
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
La Dolce Vita (1960)
Psycho (1960)
North by Northwest (1959)
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Wild Strawberries (1957)
Paths of Glory (1957)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
The Searchers (1956)
Rear Window (1954)
Ugetsu (1953)
A Christmas Carol (1951)
Strangers on a Train (1951)
All About Eve (1950)
The Bicycle Thief (1948)
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Notorious (1946)
Casablanca (1942)
Citizen Kane (1941)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Gone with the Wind (1939)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The Rules of the Game (1939)
The Petrified Forest (1936)
King Kong (1933)
City Lights (1931)
Dracula (1931)
Man with the Movie Camera (1929)
The General (Silent) (1927)
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
The Gold Rush (1925)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

08.08 “The Savages” (2008) : A Grindie* Familial Encounter with Dementia

I have to agree with Tim’s take on “The Savages.” This is no graceful swan dive into Alzheimer’s, as in “Away From Her.” Instead, things are a grisly mess, as “Jon Savage” (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and “Wendy Savage” (Laura Linney) find themselves suddenly dealing with their estranged and now dementia-addled father. Philip Bosco (“Lenny Savage”) brings us every drop of bitterness and remorse, between increasingly rare lucid moments. Against the messy, noisy backdrop of their father’s demise, it’s the relationship between brother and sister that captured my heart the most.

What is it about Philip Seymour Hoffman? Why is everything I’ve ever seen him do so completely, magically, painfully, wonderfully true? Maybe, in that old fashioned, simplistic way of looking at what makes an actor great, because there is no Philip Seymour Hoffman evident in his work...only his characters. Each one as real as you and I. Seeing Laura Linney in yet another heavy drama makes me long for the days of her brilliant innocence in "Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City." Of course she’s very talented, but when the name preceeds the character...perhaps a change of some sort is due? Er....maybe I’ll just go rent “The Nanny Diaries.”

Sunday, August 10, 2008

"The Savages" and the Angst of Adult Families

Anyone with a dysfunctional family and aging parent issues (and isn’t that most of us?) will find something relatable in this film written and directed by Tamara Jenkins. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney play siblings whose lives haven’t gone as planned and yet still seem to be in a sibling rivalry, whether it’s in obscure academic sponsorships or noncommittal relationships. When their estranged father takes a turn for the worse they are forced together, and their scenes together seem genuine, neither over-sentimental nor too contrived. There are some flaws, like most Indies I think underplaying and loose narratives are overrated (This means you Mumblecores) but I was touched by this flick, probably because it brings back harrowing memories of my own parents and family. "The Savages" seems to be a throwback to the films of the seventies when simple character studies were popular. I say keep them coming. Films like this and ‘The Squid and the Whale’ find their own pace and tell real stories and that’s a good thing. Note that Linney also played in another underrated film about siblings with Mark Ruffalo as her ne’r do well brother in 2000’s ‘You Can Count on Me’ which I’d also recommend.

"Tsotsi" and Sudden Magic Baby Syndrome

Jessi, I say- you've seen one redemptive tale of impoverished ghetto life in South Africa- you've seen them all! I am being facetious here- but I was moved more strongly by “City of God' set in the Brazilian slums in that it was equally stylized with a more dramatic, less forced story.(Although it’s follow-up based on the spin-off Brazilian series “City of Men” was less thrilling) I'm glad the main character in Tsotsi was able to open like a flower- but since (spoiler) he gunned down the mother why should I care? This might be my own personal baggage since I lost a family member in a random bit of street violence- but am I to truly believe that this man comes around due to a baby which he most likely would have killed as well? If so perhaps all gangs should be given these magic babies. Let's turn this one over to the Johannesburg Lifetime channel. I know that sounds cynical but films like these either grab you or repel you.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

"Tsotsi" (2005) : A New Presley to Love

I swear to myself that from now on, I’m going to keep a little notebook on my person at all times. Then, not only will I be able to jot down the name of some fabulous movie that I “must” see, but I’ll also be able to write down the name of the person who recommended it. That way, when I hit the eject button after viewing some cinematic masterpiece, I’ll know who to thank.

Whoever suggested I see "Tsotsi," thank you. When it arrived in the mail, aside from some vague recollection of someone telling me I should see it, I knew nothing about it.

What surfaced about all else in this film was the acting. Performances all around were phenomenal but Presley Chweneyagae (“Tsotsi”) left me in awe. Here was a character with the most base and brutal essence---who slowly opens like a flower.

The director’s (Gavin Hood) approach of shooting Presley speaking directly into the camera contributes to the gut-wrenching glory of his performance. It was a painful yet beautiful film to watch, laying bare the socio-economic struggles between the haves and have nots in Johannesburg, through the eyes of gang leader, “Tsotsi.” And, by the way, it won all sorts of awards in 2005 and 2006, including an Oscar in 2006 for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year.

Speaking of language...the only thing that caught me up was my own ignorant fault. As I said, I didn’t know anything about the film beforehand. When the dialogue began, the annoying thought of “Gee, what language are they speaking?” kept popping into my head. “Did that word sound German?” “Why are some words in English?” Chalk this up to my own fascination with language, I guess. In the DVD extras, the director makes a point of explaining how important it was to the story for the leads to speak their native language. I couldn’t agree more. And if you’d like a bit of info on the language: