Friday, November 28, 2008

The grand art of the epic movie

I have serous doubts that Baz Luhrmann's "Australia" will ever end up on this list, but I'm still fairly certain that any attempt to create the Australian "Gone With the Wind" should at least be maddeningly entertaining when I get to see it tomorrow (since Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire," getting perhaps the slowest rollout of all time, won't even hit ATL until next week.)

Even though I'm certain that most of the rest of the world surely has better things to do than sit in front of a computer on the day after Thanksgiving, I have to work a half day so I thought I'd spend a little time on this beforehand.

And before anyone point out that my definition of epic is just too loose to even be considered (or that I almost completely omitted war movies, which just aren't my cup of tea in general), remember that this is my list, so I make the rules. So, in honor of the return of Baz Luhrmann (surely a reason to cheer in my little corner of the world), here are my 10 favorite "epic" movies of all time. Please feel free to add any of the many, many, many I have omitted.

"The Godfather"
Though I certainly have respect for the "The Godfather: Part II," the inclusion on this list ends with the first movie, which is still simply the best movie about a crime family ever made (though you'll soon see another on this list too.)

"The Last Emperor"
There's so much to recommend in Bernardo Bertolucci's tale of Pu Yi, the titular last emperor of China, but what I enjoy most each time I go back and watch it again is the humor that comes in the proposition of handing the supposed reigns of a crumbling empire to a child. Priceless.

"Seven Samurai"
If the traditional epic has to have at least one hero, I'd argue (and be far from alone) that Toshiro Mifune's Kikuchiyo is still the best of the bunch. And though it brings me no pleasure whatsoever, it's still my duty to share that the IMDB still has a "Seven Samurai" remake listed with this rather ominous synopsis: A town in Northern Thailand recruits seven Blackwater-type paramilitary contractors from around the world to defend against an imminent attack. Don't get me started ...

Once Upon a Time in America
My parents surely wish I wouldn't share this story, but when I was 14 (old enough, probably) and my brother 11 (surely not), they took us to see Sergio Leone's rather amazing but more than occasionally tawdry gangland saga in the theater. We ended up leaving as Robert De Niro's Noodles was raping Elizabeth McGovern in the limo, a fact which still shames me to this day, because there are very few better American crime stories on film, if you're old enough to appreciate it.

"Apocalypse Now"
"The Deer Hunter" almost made this list too, but as far as Vietnam movies go this one is rightly heralded as the best because no other war movie showcases the futility and - of course - madness of war quite like it.

"Boogie Nights"
Paul Thomas Anderson drew what I felt was at least slightly more acclaim than he deserved for last year's "There Will Be Blood," certainly an epic American tale in its own right, but one that just left me a little cold. A well-made movie for sure, and both Daniel Day Lewis and an underrated Paul Dano were exceptional, but I'll take the fun of those tawdry "Boogie Nights" (and Don Cheadle selling stereo equipment in Western attire) every time.

"Bonnie and Clyde"
Though it at first comes close to romanticizing a truly notorious pair of criminals (and how could you not with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty on board?), but by the end Arthur Penn manages to craft probably the best movie about America's obsession with violence. And just still a lot of fun to boot.

"Malcolm X"
If you haven't seen Spike Lee's "Miracle at St. Anna" yet, I'd still recommend watching it on DVD, even though it's a maddeningly uneven movie. It shows touches of Spike throughout, but they were all harnessed into a single movie three times: For "Do the Right Thing," "When the Levees Broke" and here, in the movie that still stands as the single biggest Oscar snub ever in my book.

"The Fifth Element"
As long as we've been hearing the name Luc Besson, I was amazed to find he only has 15 finished or coming feature films to his credit as a director (though tons more as a producer), four of which are in the "Arthur and the ..." children's series he's now fixated on. I can still remember seeing "The Big Blue" in a French movie theater and falling for it instantly, but this goofy space opera that combines just about everything I love in movies is still my favorite Besson flick (with "Nikita" and "Leon" getting a very stylish honorable mention.)

For a story that takes place over just a few days in one city, the late Robert Altman's flick captures America in a certain time and place as well as any I can think of, and though his skill at weaving multiple story lines into a single quilt is often imitated, it's never been close to re-created. Rest in peace, Mr. Altman.

So, there you have it. Please feel free to add any that hold a place in your movie heart, and have a great weekend.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving from me and Ponyo!

Happy Thanksgiving to all, and what could be better news for a holiday than that Hayao Miyazaki's "Gake no ue no Ponyo" is well on course to hitting theaters - maybe even near me! - as "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea" as soon as April 2009.

The news from GhibliWorld is that Disney is currently holding test screenings for the U.S. version that includes the following stable of voice talent: Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Cate Blanchett, Liam Neeson, Lily Tomlin, Betty White, Fankie Jonas, Noah Cyrys and Cloris Leachman.

From everything I've read this one may be even more than most magical Miyazaki movies specifically made for children, but so what? I act like a little kid at least once every day, and I'm sure I'll fall for this tale of a 5-year-old boy's friendship with the goldfish princess Ponyo who only wants to become human, all rendered in beautiful watercolors rather than any CGI crap. (And if Tina Fey were to voice a goldfish princess, wouldn't that just be all kinds of fun?)

There's no firm date yet for a North American release, but all I've read puts it in the first quarter of 2009, and I can only say bring it on! In the meantime, there's no real video clip here, but I defy you to listen to the "Ponyo, Ponyo, Ponyo" theme song and not end up humming it for the rest of the day. Enjoy, and have a perfectly pleasant turkey day!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Video troika: Three things that caught my eye this morning

Did anyone notice that Guns N' Roses' "Chinese Democracy" has come out, 13 years in the making? I would think not, but according to Variety, at least the Chinese government took notice - and offense.

In an article Monday headlined "American band releases album venomously attacking China," the Global Times said unidentified Chinese Internet users had described the album as part of a plot by some in the West to "grasp and control the world using democracy as a pawn."

Call me crazy, but if the Great Wall does somehow come tumbling down, I'm confident it won't be Axl Rose leading the charge. As for the album, I think I'll just say meh.

There were, however, three other things that caught my fancy this morning, starting with the equally odd fact that Universal is about dump some rather serious bucks on a biopic of the late French pop star Serge Gainsbourg. Which would, of course, be in French.

Even so, I'm still convinced this could be both very cool and possibly a hit too, because Mr. Gainsbourg was just the definition of a bad dude. Along with recording silly '60s pop songs that always told you exactly what you were gonna get in the title - "Bloody Jack," "Docteur Jekyll and Monsieur Hyde," "Ford Mustang" - he also lived hard enough to make Keith Richards look like an amateur and shacked up along with the way with Brigitte Bardot, Jane Birkin and other beauties.

And, in easily his oddest move, shortly before his death in 1991 he recorded an album with daughter Charlotte titled "Lemon Incest." It's fairly tame by today's standards, but it delivers exactly what the title promises - a series of mushy father-daughter love duets that just get exceedingly creepy (and yes, I can attest to that, because I own a copy - how could I resist that?) Charlotte, of course, would go on to become a well-known actress herself, and if I can make one DVD recommendation, watch one of her earliest roles in Claude Miller's "The Little Thief" (which I was rather sad to find you can't find on Netflix, though I know it's out on DVD.)

As for the movie about her papa, Eric Elmosnino will play the singer himself, and graphic novelist Joann Sfar will direct the flick. And for his bevvy of babes, French model Laetitia Casta will play Bardot, Mylene Jampanoi will play Gainsbourg's last paramour, Bambou (I can't make this stuff up), and Anna Mouglalis will play French singer Juliette Greco, who collaborated with Gainsbourg for many years.

OK, I concede that's a lot about a flick that no one may care about one lick, but for a taste of just how sublimely silly Gainsbourg's best songs were, here's a mashup of his "Bonnie & Clyde" duet with Bardot, mixed with visuals from the film starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Enjoy.

A glimpse of "Adventureland"

I can't imagine this will be nearly as good as "Superbad," but director Greg Mottola looks like he has something pretty funny in the works for his next flick, "Adventureland." An at least semi-autobiographical tale about the summer he had to work at the titular theme park after graduating college, it stars Jesse Eisenberg (remember him from "The Squid and the Whale"?), la Bella Kristen Stewart of "Twilight" fame, Bill Hader and even Martin Starr (who will of course always be known to us Freaks and Geeks as Bill Haverchuk.) Here's the trailer for the flick, which is set to come out next spring, methinks.

And yes, "Battlestar Galactica" will be back!

It seems like forever since "Battlestar Galactica" has been on the air, and it finally returns to Sci-Fi for the final 10 episodes beginning Jan. 16. Episode 4.11 will be titled "Sometimes a Great Notion."

I'm gonna have to rent the first half of season four when it comes out soon just to get reacquainted, but I can with confidence tell you this: For a show that mixes seriously geeky sci-fi with a smart topical edge, you can't even come close to doing better than this show. Here's Sci-Fi's promo reel for the last 10 episodes, which indeed promise an action-packed sprint to the finish. Enjoy, and have a perfectly passable Tuesday.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

An often grumpy, clearly middle-aged man attempts to review "Twilight"

I tell you all that as a qualifier, so take this review with a big grain of salt but also know this from the outset: Despite its serious flaws as a vampire tale I really had a lot of fun watching Catherine Hardwicke's "Twilight."

I had almost decided to just act my age and skip it altogether, but instead opted to latch on to two friends who are fans of the series who were headed to a Saturday matinee (conveniently making me look like much less of a perv than I might have going to a movie intended for teen girls all by myself.) At my urging, we sat fairly close to the front and therefore away from the twittering masses, who as best as I could tell were very well behaved anyway.

Things didn't get off to the best of starts as the projector malfunctioned during a promising trailer for "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," and we were subjected to a 10-minute delay. Theater manager Wes Clark, who knows me well by my frequent theater visits, said he was afraid he might soon have a riot of "Twilighters" on his hands.

But once it finally got going, I found a lot more to like than I expected going in. First and foremost, Hardwicke gives the town of Forks, Washington, (a real place, evidently) a genuine sense of time and place (even though it was for whatever reason actually filmed in Portland, Oregon.) And she does so without resorting to any forced quirks to induce laughs, instead just letting the scenery speak for itself.

Second, apart from the vampires (which we'll deal with later), all her characters have a natural feel to them, starting with young lead Kristen Stewart. She already gets a gold star in my book for her turn in last year's "Into the Wild, and she makes a genuinely engaging lead. And Billy Burke as her clearly in-over-his-head single father gives the movie most of its intentional laughs, especially when he finds a vampire (though he doesn't know that) has shown up to take his daughter to the prom.

Finally on the very good side, the high school our heroine Bella attends is filled (again, minus the vampires) with the kind of kids you'd expect to find in an American high school in a small town. The main quartet (Anna Kendrick, Michael Welch, Justin Chon and Christian Serratos) are refreshingly geeky and insecure, and were an entertaining bunch to watch.

OK, so far so good, but this is a vampire story of sorts, right? Of course, and that's where it starts to fall apart more than a bit because the vamps themselves are (by design, but still) just way too corny.

I mean, I know this is a story for teens and tweens rather than a horror movie, but vampires that play baseball (I'm not kidding) and scurry after woodland creatures rather than feast on the blood of humans? Give me a break (and let's not even get into whether this actually makes them any better on the morality scale.) And what in the world is Dr. Cullen supposed to be, some kind of Noah of the undead? It was just creepy, and not even slightly in the fun, horror movie kind of way.

By the time we get any real action involving any actually menacing vampires there's only about 20 minutes left in the flick, and we've been subjected to so much treacle at that point that it just drains most of the tension right out of it.

So, if it doesn't really work as a vampire movie, does it work as a love story? Well, for its intended audience, I'm fairly certain it was just about right, but for the rest of us it gets more than a little bit ridiculous. As my two fellow moviegoers and devoted "Twilight" fans (and anyone who's read 2,000 pages of anything is "devoted" in my book) pointed out, the book is much more about character and dialogue than plot, which wouldn't necessarily translate all that smoothly to the big screen.

OK, fair enough, but what that leaves us instead is a lot of vacant staring between Bella and her vampire hunk Edward, played by Robert Pattinson. I'm sure this was intended to convey longing, but more than once just made me laugh out loud (and once earned me a sharp elbow to the ribs.) I'm really not sure what else Hardwicke could have done with this, but it just really doesn't work too well in movie form. (And if you haven't seen Hardwicke's flick "Thirteen," which was co-written by "Twilight" vamp Nikki Reed, rent it now and thank me later.)

But all that said, I left the theater with a smile on my face thanks to a sweet ending that adroitly sets up the next chapter, and that's more than I can say for a lot of flicks out there this year. Peace out.

Friday, November 21, 2008

An "Arrested Development" movie? Signed, sealed but not yet delivered

I suppose it's my duty to mention something about "Twilight," which I will bother to see Saturday afternoon, so here goes.

I was watching "Rocket Science" last night on the DVR, which is easily one of the most charming movies of 2007. My brother and I first saw it in Minneapolis, and if you haven't, just go ahead and rent this quirky teen anti-romance (I'm not really selling it very well, but trust me.)

I tell you all that to tell you this: Anna Kendrick, who starred in "Rocket Science" and apparently has the most microscopic of parts in "Twilight," has somehow managed to snag the female lead in Jason Reitman's next movie, "Up in the Air." It stars George Clooney as a "career transition counselor" - essentially one of the Bobs in "Office Space" - whose main goal in life seems to be to accumulate 1 million frequent flier miles. Not sure how Ms. Kendrick factors into all this, but congrats all the same.

But the real order of business here today is that murky realm where TV and film collide, and how Hollywood works so hard to tease the fans of dead shows with a cinematic afterlife. I had decided to swear off reporting on each slim ray of hope that there would ever be an "Arrested Development" movie, but after a few months or so going strong, today's news just makes me have to surrender to the urge.

In the latest development - and if I understand this the most solid one so far - series creator Mitch Hurwitz and backer Ron Howard have apparently signed some kind of deal for it with Imagine and Fox Searchlight. Hurwitz is apparently on board to write and direct the feature (again, if it ever happens), and Howard will be around to help out, and I assume narrate.

The actors (some of whom I'm sure could sorely use the work) have been teasing that this would happen ever since the show got canceled. I'd imagine even big movie star Michael Cera would come back to play George Michael Bluth again (and since I now mention "Chuck" every day, Tony Hale - whose parents reportedly live somewhere very near to or even in my town of Macon, Ga. - has been very funny as the new assistant manager of the Buy More.) Please, make this happen already!

Is "Pushing Daisies," well, pushing daisies?

It brings me no joy whatsoever to share this next bit of news.

The truly dismal facts are these: ABC has opted not to pick up three shows - "Dirty Sexy Money", "Eli Stone" and the only one of these I care about at all, "Pushing Daisies" - for a full season.

What does that mean for "Pushing Daisies" fans? Well, if I have this right, it means that after last Wednesday's "Oh, Oh, Oh, It's Magic," we have only seven more episodes left of TV's only primetime fairy tale for adults.

Given the rather poor ratings for season 2 so far I suppose you can't really blame ABC, but I'm gonna do it anyway. How in the world did they expect a show this odd - with an admittedly small but devoted following - to survive after only putting out nine episodes before the strike intervened and then none again until this October? Was there anything so compelling on ABC this summer that they couldn't have taken nine hours out of their primetime schedule to reintroduce viewers to this magical tale?

OK, that's enough from me on that, but here's what series creator Bryan Fuller had to say to the Hollywood Reporter's James Hibberd:

"I can't help but feel immense pride when it comes to 'Pushing Daisies.' I'm grateful TO everyone and FOR everyone who brought the show to life and for the very loyal audience that embraced us. If we are indeed dead on ABC, we now have to convince DC Comics to let us tell the rest of the season's story lines out in comic book form and convince Warner Bros. features to let 'Pushing Daisies' live again as a movie."

I'd imagine that last bit is even more of a pipe dream than an "Arrested Development" flick, but I'll at least spring for the comic book. Just sad, sad news all around.

In the only bit of good news from ABC, however, "Scrubs" is about to come back to life, and I can only say welcome back. The hospital comedy returns beginning Tuesday, Jan. 6, at 9 p.m., in the time slot it started with way back before being moved all around (and pre-empted all the time) by NBC. We'll get two weeks of back-to-back episodes before it settles in for its regular half-hour run.

The full "Coraline" trailer

One of the more tedious of my weekly newspaper duties is to figure out what's playing at our three Middle Georgia movie theaters and compile capsule reviews from the wire. I say tedious, but I do enjoy seeing which movies manage to stick around way longer than what should be their shelf life.

The most recent example was the magical "The Nightmare Before Christmas," which was re-released in 3-D (which did very little to enhance it) just before Halloween and somehow managed to stick around in one of our theaters until this week. Very odd.

And I tell you all that to tell you this: Here's the full trailer for "Coraline," a coming collaboration between writer Neil Gaiman and animation director Henry Selick (the director of "Nightmare Before Christmas.") As you'll see, it's the story of a young girl who discovers a parallel universe in the crawlspace of her dingy apartment, and it's one of the movies I'm really looking forward to for 2009. Enjoy, and if you happen to see "Twilight" before I do, please feel free to share your thoughts.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Will the X-Men mutate into ... sassy brats?

I'm not sure this is the move that's gonna get the masses to tune in for genuine classics on Sunday nights, but adding Laura Linney (for my money the best actress working right now) is certainly a good one for PBS' Masterpiece Theatre (oops .. that's somehow "Masterpiece Classics" now, I believe.)

Linney will replace Gillian Anderson when the series returns Jan. 4. The 2009 installment, which runs through May, will include four works - "Little Dorrit," "The Old Curiousity Shop" (with Toby Jones), "Oliver Twist" (with Sophie Okonedo, huzzah!) and "David Copperfield" (with Harry Potter, Maggie Smith and Sir Ian McKellen) - as part of "The Incomplete Charles Dickens." Also coming this season will be "Tess of the D'Urbervilles (the premiere) and apparently yet another version of "Wuthering Heights."

I can't say I'll tune in for all of it, but I'm on record as saying I'll watch just about anything with Laura Linney in it, so (even though she's just the host) I'll probably have to at least check out some of the Dickens stuff.

But today's post is about something rather less haughty - Josh Schwartz's impending entry into the real of the X-Men. Sounds like a disaster in the making, I know, but bear with me.

I often fail to remember how old I'm supposed to be (don't you have to to watch TV nowadays?), but even I didn't bother to tune in for Schwartz's "The O.C." With his two current shows, however, you can count me a solid fan.

I know I have no business watching "Gossip Girl," but it remains just the most addictive brand of trash. Besides, thanks to Schwartz, the show has a surprising amount of heart, and lately it's had Wallace Shawn to boot too, so what's not to like?

His other current show, "Chuck," is one I've just recently come around to but am now hooked on enough to become a weekly viewer. It certainly does get more than a bit repetitive as seemingly every new character turns out to be an evil Fulcrum agent (Chuck's ex .. really?!?!), but it's still a very funny spy game.

But does any of this fluff qualify Mr. Schwartz to take on the "X-Men" franchise? From the outset it has to at least be said he certainly can't do any worse than Brett Rat did with the utter crapfest that was "X-3," and they're handing Schwartz a (one can only assume sassy) young wave of mutants for "X-Men: First Class."

Schwartz will pen the flick based on the comic book series (which I haven't read), and will probably step into the director's chair too, though he doesn't yet have any experience in that realm. Given his TV record, we should at least expect this to be fun - and hopefully not too stupid - as it introduces characters like Angel, Beast, Cyclops, Iceman, Jean Grey and Professor X at the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning. And "Chuck," as sublimely silly as it is, features action sequences a cut above most of what you get on TV nowadays, so I'd say there's some hope on that front too.

Whether Schwartz manages to pull this off or not, it seems we're still gonna get a big dose of "X-Men" in the near future (not all that surprising given that, as bad as it was, Ratner's flick took in a rather impressive $456 MILLION worldwide.) Next summer will see Hugh Jackman in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" (Origins? Really? Why the heck do we need that?) and probably in 2010 we'll get Sir McKellen as Magneto in another "Origins" flick.

Well, I've certainly said enough about all that, but I'll just close by saying I'm now thoroughly convinced that Baz Luhrman's epic "Australia," coming next week with Mr. Jackman and a certain Aussie you may have heard of named Nicole Kidman, will be a real winner (and at a reported cost of at least $120 million it certainly should be!)

A simply splendid glimpse of "Where the Wild Things Are"

Even though they put their stamp clearly on the pic, I just want to make clear that this was swiped directly from A.I.C.N. It was just so pretty that I couldn't resist.

In quite possibly the longest interview I've ever read, the site's Moriarty engages director Spike Jonze about all kinds of subjects, including (eventually) when - if ever - we'll get to see his take on "Where the Wild Things Are." I still have no idea if it will look anything like what Spike imagined when he first took on my favorite childhood tale by Maurice Sendak, but word from the director is it won't be until at least next October until we finally get to find out.

A true shame that, but enjoy this truly beautiful pic - which was enough to bring a broad smile to my face even at the very early hour that I rise - and have a perfectly passable Wednesday.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Demko's DVD shelf: The wonder of "Wall-E" and the future of Pixar

Actually, the coolest news I could find out there this morning is that Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who crafted the simply splendid Harvey Pekar bio "American Splendor," are now about to give the same treatment to Sam Kinison for HBO.

The duo are adapting the Kinison bio "Brother Sam" for Tom Shadyac (who, yes, has "Patch Adams" on his resume) to direct and Dan Folger (star of "Balls of Fury") to play Kinison. Folger can be a pretty annoying presence on screen, but, frankly, so could Kinison, and having seen Folger in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" I can attest he can be a genuinely funny guy, so keep your eyes on this one.

But here today, however, it's about this week's DVDs and - more specifically - the wonder of "Wall-E." Looking back on my mid-year movie report, I had "Wall-E" fifth out of 10, not exactly a stellar rating giving that "Ratatouille" was my single favorite movie of all of 2007. I stand by that, but I will concede that, just as froggy director Guillaume Canet's "Tell No One" has delivered the best closing 30 minutes or so of this year with its amazing reveal, the first third of "Wall-E" is easily the best beginning to any movie of this year.

Watching our hero go through his daily routine and seeing robo-love slowly unfold with the tempestuous Eve (or, as he says, Ev-a) was without exaggeration magical. Here's what I had to say in my original review:

As corny as this certainly sounds, if you've seen Pixar's "Wall-E" (and if you haven't, why the heck not?), can you think of any movie in any genre for the last 20 years or so that had more to say about the power of love?

Well, robot love, of course, but the story of Wall-E and Eve still just grabs you faster and keeps you fully attached longer than almost any love story that I can think of (some might mention "The Notebook," but for simple entertainment value and much more, "Wall-E" just blows that away.)

It does lose a bit of steam as the movie slowly gets more and more conventional, but Andrew Stanton has still crafted a real charmer worth picking up on DVD. And more on Pixar coming in just a bit, but first two more DVD picks this week.

"Tropic Thunder"

When it comes to comedy, I have a broad range of likes, from the sweet (Woody Allen's "Vicky Christina Barcelona" and Peter Sollett's "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" have lasted as two of my favorites from this year) to the truly crude.

In the latter category, there have been two truly tasteless moments in 2008 that I have to admit just made me howl. One is the anal sex joke that comes near the end of Kevin Smith's mostly satisfying "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" (which you won't hear any more about here since this is still linked from a family-friendly newspaper) and the other is Robert Downey Jr.'s "full retard" speech in "Tropic Thunder."

I just assumed that, given how much he appeared in the trailer, the best of his jokes as the black-faced method actor Kirk Lazarus were revealed there, but for once I was wrong. It's worth at least renting "Tropic Thunder," especially if you haven't seen it, for his retard speech alone, but there's also plenty of more crude capers (and more than a bit too much Jack Black), plus the rather funny mockumentary "Rain of Madness" to boot.

"Monty Python Holy Trinity"

I'm ashamed to say I own only one of these movies, "Monty Python's Life of Brian," on DVD. That one has just always had a special place in my heart, I think because amazingly enough I first watched it at a meeting of our Episcopal church youth group. Blasphemy, but not really all that harmful, methinks.

This week, for the rather reasonable price of $29.99 at Amazon, you get that flick packaged with the classics "Monty Python's Meaning of Life" and "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" with extras in a six-disc set. Not sure I can spring for it now - with Christmas coming up and all - but I have a feeling I will at some point in the fairly near future.

More on Pixar, present and future

I'll close today with a couple of clips. The first is "Burn-E," the Pixar short you'll get if you spring for "Wall-E" on DVD. It uses a lot of "Wall-E" in sharing the exploits of the welding robot, but the moment when he hangs his head in shame is just pretty cool.

Second comes the second trailer for Pixar's next flick, "Up," which rather ominously uses the first minute or so to simply extol the virtues of Pixar flicks past. Once it gets going we do get see our septuagenarian super hero (voiced by Ed Asner) and his flying house (ring any bells? I know there aren't that many original thoughts left at this point, but it would seem this steals rather directly and recently from Hayao Miyazaki!) Anyways, enjoy the trailer, and have a perfectly pleasant Tuesday.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Bland, James Bland: The full report

Before anyone points out just how quixotic it is to rail against a movie that's already raked in more than $70 million domestic or call me some kind of elitist, don't bother. I love Bond movies and especially "Casino Royale," but this one simply didn't measure up on almost any front.

Since the movie clearly did, let's start with the theme song, which would be instantly forgettable if it weren't simply so awful. As someone who has just about every minute of "Icky Thump" seared onto my brain, I just can't imagine how Jack White, with vocals from Alicia Keys, could manage to come up with something so generic. Given the worldly appeal of the Bond franchise, I have to wonder if they even gave consideration to someone like M.I.A., a little rough for sure but much more interesting.

And after that, from the outset, you know there's gonna be problems with the action in "Quantum of Solace." I'm OK with the grand introductory set pieces being a thing of the past, especially since this one picks up immediately where "Casino Royale" left off and starts with a nifty enough car chase. But from there it just gets muddier and muddier, and giving full credit to my friend Chris Stanford for this line, I sure wish it hadn't delivered its camera work "shaken, not stirred."

Worst of all, it's just Bond imitating Bourne, and more specifically director Marc Forster imitating the apparently seizure-ridden camera antics of Paul Greengrass, and for such an iconic franchise that's just sad. Before I let this rant go, a challenge to anyone who liked this more than me (and I'm sure there a lot of you out there): Name one action sequence in "Solace" that sticks in your mind two days later (the opera house take was indeed pretty cool, but not enough to satisfy.)

All of which could be forgiven if the story from Paul Haggis and two others or the direction of Mr. Forster gave this latest Bond tale much urgency at all. I mean, we all know that Bond is out for revenge this time for the death of Vesper Lynd (the sorely missed Eva Green), but by the second (and not last) time we see Daniel Craig's Bond drop a body for no productive reason and Dame Judi Dench's M. chide him for it, it quickly gets little but old.

Much worse, the sinister plot being hatched by billionaire Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) is as ludicrous as anything ever cooked up in a Bond flick, but with all the fun drained out it's also just extremely monotonous. I don't want to give anything away, but like just about every story nowadays it's "green." I'm all for saving the planet, but is putting eco-plots in movies (and on NBC all week, apparently just to annoy me as I try to watch my new favorite spy "Chuck") really gonna make any difference?

And the by-the-numbers approach of this Bond installment is hardly helped by director Forster, who has the distinction of making easily one of my least favorite movies ever in "Monster's Ball" but also one I really like quite a bit in "Stranger than Fiction." Here, however, he's clearly overmatched, and not just in the action scenes. At least twice early on - I guess in an effort to move the story along - he has M. simply mention a new lead, and the immediate next image is that new cityscape, with it name plastered on it in case we viewers are, like Robert Downey Jr. explained in "Tropic Thunder," "full retard."

OK, I've certainly gone on long enough about what's wrong with "Quantum of Solace," so was there anything good? Of course. Daniel Craig clearly has the soul to pull off the new Bond we saw unveiled in "Casino Royale," even if his character here is almost completely devoid of it. And what little wit there is in "Solace" - formerly a very welcome attribute of Bond himself - comes almost exclusively from Dench, who can just be wickedly funny in any circumstance (watch "Notes on a Scandal" if you're somehow still not convinced.)

Finally, what about the babes, a key component of any Bond movie? Well, Olga Kurlyenko is certainly leggy and pouty enough to make me at least consider destroying the world. But what she isn't, and I fault the rather poor excuse for a story here again, is particularly sultry, removing almost all the potential sparks from her encounter with Bond. And the secondary babe would have been much more memorable had she been played by Christina Hendricks of "Mad Men" - as I mistakenly thought when I saw the first pics of "Quantum of Solace" - instead of the rather forgettable Gemma Arterton.

So, almost a complete miss for me, but with more than $70 million in the U.S. vault alone, Daniel Craig and James Bond will certainly live (not "die," as that awful theme song says; sorry to harp on it, but it's really just tremendously bad) to see a 22nd (I think I have that right) installment, and I'll certainly give him another chance. Peace out.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bland, James Bland

A full review to come tomorrow after I've had some time to sleep on it, but I have to just quickly say that the gap between "Casino Royale" and "Quantum of Solace" may be the biggest movie dropoff ever. Not awful, but pretty darn close, especially for a movie that will have made well more than $50 million by the time I get around to writing a proper review. Stay tuned ...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A new (old) spy I've finally found, and a dastardly plot against "The Wizard of Oz"?

First off, a bit of news to digest (if you can).

Before I spill any bile on his vision, let me just say I like John Boorman a heck of a lot. Best known for "Deliverance" - which I don't think I'll ever be able to bring myself to watch again - and "Excalibur," I'd have to say I prefer to those "Hope and Glory" and, most of all, "The General." If you haven't seen this flick starring Brendan Gleeson as Irish robber Martin Cahill, I really can't recommend it highly enough.

Now, however, it seems that Mr. Boorman is more than a little deep into a CGI-animated adaptation of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." I'll let that sink for a second before I have anything at all to say about it.

I've included a shot of the concept art of Dorothy, courtesy of AICN (where you can see a heck of a lot more.) I had hoped until a few years ago that, even with all evidence to the contrary, there still were at least a few classic movies that were truly untouchable. Silly me.

Boorman, in fact, is far from the first person in recent memory to take on this magical saga, but it just might be the first one I'll give a chance to. If I have my info right, Todd McFarlane had been toying with a really sadistic take on the tale (no thanks!), and there was "Tin Man" on Sci Fi, which couldn't hook me even with the presence of Zooey Deschanel and Alan Cumming.

So, why give John Boorman a chance? Well, I've never read L. Frank Baum's original book (a rather serious shortcoming on my part), but from what Variety had to say about this Boorman is sticking closer to that work and will come up with quite a different tale from the original movie (can you imagine, for example, that the Tin Man was a munchkin? Wild.)

Besides, I have to confess that I had the pleasure of seeing "The Wiz" in New York when I was a kid, so I guess there really isn't anything that's all that sacred (but please keep your hands off of "To Kill a Mockingbird"!)

A late comer to the party with "Chuck"

I watch far too much TV already, so I'm always hesitant to commit to any new series just to have them snatched away just as I was getting into the game. It seems that "Pushing Daisies" may be gone after its 13-episode run ordered so far, and while I won't be terribly surprised, I will miss it dearly.

And it's that fear of TV commitment that kept me from ever tuning into NBC's "Chuck" despite mounting evidence that it was really, really good. Now, with two of my co-workers - Stephanie Hartley and Karen Ludwig - practically begging me to watch it, I've finally given in (and, to be as crude as possible, it has been a rather long while since a woman begged me to do anything, so how could I resist?)

Since everyone already has spies on their minds with Daniel Craig back as James Bond in "Quantum of Solace" (and I will indeed be checking that out this weekend, despite some really bad early reviews), I thought I'd offer a very late plug for "Chuck," which is much funnier and just plain fun than I ever would have imagined.

I'll be catching up on it this weekend thanks to Netflix, but if you think you can just picture a modern "Get Smart" starring slackers and a seriously hot Yvonne Strahovski as reluctant spy Chuck's (Zachary Levi) handler (no need to be crude there, people), you should tune in too (though most everyone who would like this is probably well into it already.)

And, though I promised the makers of the sensational documentary "In a Dream" that I would review it soon (and I will!), I'll just wrap this up with the latest TV spot for David Fincher's upcoming "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (because I really do have to get to what is still my paying job.) Enjoy, and have a perfectly pleasant Thursday.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Vampires, vampires everywhere!

Eleven movies in four days is quite a bit, even for a weirdo like me, but I still have to say that the folks at the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival put on one heck of a show.

I can't say any of the flicks I saw were awful, and well more than half of them were very good to outstanding. Though I'll be taking on full reviews of a few throughout the week, here's the breakdown:


Let the Right One In: Vampire mania is about to hit big time with something called "Twilight," which I'm way too old to enjoy, but there's another vampire movie out there now if you live in one of America's big cities (or many other places in the world) that's truly creepy. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson's "Let the Right One In" is the best horror movie I've seen in many years, and a movingly twisted love to story to boot. I'll offer a full review tomorrow, so please feel free to come back for that, but if you can, see this great flick as soon as possible. Besides, according to MTV, President-elect Obama is even reading the "Twilight" books along with his daughter Malia (as if he didn't have enough on his plate already), so maybe I'll have to give it a chance after all.

A Secret: Claude Miller's film about how World War II tore apart one family, and the personal act of betrayal at its core, is as dynamic as Truffaut flicks like "400 Blows," and I'm not exaggerating one bit when I say that.

In a Dream: This astounding documentary by Jeremiah Zagar starts out as a portrait of his father, Isaiah Zagar, who has covered 40,000 feet of Philadelphia with his beautiful mosaics. As it delves deeper and deeper, however, you get a painting of a very troubled man and the effect he has on the people all around him, including his devoted wife, Julia. Difficult but very entertaining all the same, like the best documentaries are meant to be.

The Grocer's Son: I have a fairly low tolerance for sentiment in movies unless it's delivered with a well-developed story to suit it's heart ("Chocolat," for example, is just a movie I simply can't stand.) Writer/director Eric Giuardo's simple story here is one many people will be able to relate to, about a son who returns from the city to run his father's small-town grocery after the pere suffers a heart attack. Funny, romantic and beautifully shot.

Man on Wire: The fun in this "documentary" about Frenchman Philippe Petit's high wire stunt between the Twin Towers in 1974 comes in trying to keep up with what is actual historic footage and what has been re-enacted for the sake of this movie. If that sounds corny, it really isn't. It comes off as one big trick you won't mind one bit falling for, and when you finally get to see Petit on the high wire it's well worth the wait.

Tell No One: Like "The Usual Suspects," this complicated but absorbing thriller from Frenchman Guillaume Canet is one I had to see twice to truly appreciate. After viewing it in August, I was sure the story - from a novel by Harlan Coben - just didn't add up, but after watching it again on Sunday I'm now fairly certain it does. If you can keep up, you get a flick with all the conventions of a truly mind-bending thriller, with the bonus of a great performance from leading man Francois Cluzet, action scenes that pulse with genuine intensity, and a "reveal" that just might be the best 30 minutes of film I've seen all year.

Very good

Trouble the Water: I thought that after watching Spike Lee's tremendous "When the Levees Broke" I'd never want to see another documentary about Hurricane Katrina, but husband-and-wife team Carl Deal and Tia Lessin certainly proved me wrong. Though their flick, produced by Michael Moore's shop, overreaches more than a bit, it's very effecting when it focuses on the husband and wife at its core, two people you will grow to love as you see their harrowing, handheld camera account of what it was like to be trapped in the attic as Katrina bore down on the Crescent City.


Wendy and Lucy: I had extremely high hopes for this flick from director Kelly Reichardt, but I have to say it just left me more than a little cold. Michelle Williams certainly delivers a great performance as one half of the titular duo, Wendy, a truly down-on-her-luck woman who loses her dog, Lucy, and spends most of the movie looking for him. I'm really not giving too much away since not much happens in this flick at all, but I liked Reichardt's "Old Joy" quite a bit, so I'll definitely give her another chance next time.

Under the Bombs Philippe Aractingi's movie about the aftermath of Israel's 2006 bombing campaign in Lebanon certainly wasn't uplifting fare for a Sunday morning. In Lebanon's Oscar hopeful, Aractingi focuses on the story of a woman searching for her son and the cab driver who takes her on the very wild ride to try and find him. Almost all of the other "actors" who appear in the film are Lebanese people who survived the bombing campaign and tell their stories, giving the movie a very one-sided and didactic feel, even though the story has a genuine urgency to it.

Mister Foe This very odd little flick from director David MacKenzie stars Jamie Bell (yes, "Billy Elliott") as a teen with a nasty habit of spying on people and an even more troublesome oedipal complex. Even with a solid cast that includes Sophia Myles, Ciaran Hinds, Claire Forlani and Ewan Bremner (remember Spud?), this one just has a far-too-familiar feel as it tries to deal with some truly twisted subject matter.

And, finally ...

Mirageman: As silly as it is, I really can't fault this flick too much because it delivered exactly what it advertised: A Chilean flick about a superhero called, obviously, Mirageman. As our low-tech street vigilante develops into the people's hero, you do get a fairly sly commentary on tabloid news and just a fun way to spend 90 minutes or so.

I plan to write full reviews of at least "Let the Right One In" and maybe a few more in the coming days - before Bond! - so please feel free to check back, and have a perfectly passable Monday.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Hail to chief Obama

I really don't have anything terribly elegant to say that our new president-elect didn't have to say last night. I'm honored to have done my tiny part for his campaign, and I truly believe that his rather stunning victory last night will usher in "a new spirit."

However, and anyone wanting to make jokes about Democrats and lack of work can keep them to themselves, I'm taking a week or so off from doing this to go see my parents and attend the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival. Though it's hardly the big time, Rehoboth has come a pretty long way since I last attended about 10 years ago to offer a large and diverse slate of films. I'll share my thoughts about all of them when I return, but the three I'm most looking forward to are the Katrina documentary "Trouble the Water," the Swedish (not Mexican, as I somehow thought) vampire movie "Let the Right One In" and director Kelly Reichardt's "Wendy and Lucy."

And, even if you didn't vote for President Barack Obama (I'll admit, I get giddy just typing that), take this time to reflect on the historic nature of what just happened. I believe the call for unity he issued in victory Tuesday was unique, and I sincerely hope it will be embraced by all. Now more than ever, peace out.