Sunday, December 25, 2005

This "Ringer" is humor-challenged

I'm not sure what I was expecting from a movie about a guy who pretends to be retarded to rig the Special Olympics, but it certainly wasn't this.

Ricky Blitt, a writer for the sharply satirical and usually dead-on "Family Guy," has made "The Ringer" into just another pedestrian generic-guy-learns-life-lesson-and-gets-the-girl flick (if that gives too much away, I'm sorry. Believe me, there's not much suspense here.)

I miss the days when Johnny Knoxville was just a "Jackass." I never caught much of the TV show, but the movie is the definition of guilty pleasure, just tons of laughs. No one learned anything, or at least they shouldn't have.

Here, he just wants to be Adam Sandler, but we already have one too many of those.

The principal fault of "The Ringer" is that Knoxville's character, Steve something-or-other, is supposed to be likable. He's just duped into this scheme by his evil uncle, national comedic treasure Brian Cox, whose star turn is long overdue.

How much funnier would it have been if Knoxville played this one in "Jackass" form, as someone vile enough to take on such a stunt, and then to get his comeuppance at the hands of the people Cox repeatedly refers to as "tards?" Loads more than "The Ringer" is.

On the bright side, the mentally challenged actors are in on what little joke there is, and they are all charming. Can you laugh at these people? Well, I can, and not feel guilty at all, because they are funny as hell, and they know it.

They make every scene they are in with Knoxville better, which sends mixed signals at best about his future in movies. There's a sweetness to it all, but not nearly enough to carry a feature-length flick.

In case you can't tell, I take my humor like I do my coffee, black. Dave Chappelle's blind white supremacist Clayton Bigsby who, unbeknownst to him, is black? Hilarious. The "South Park" episode in which Cartman thinks he can take down the Special Olympics and handicapable Jimmy gets hooked on steroids? Infinitely funnier than "The Ringer," which stole its premise but forgot to hijack the jokes.

Satire should have a bite along with its bark, and at least one target. "The Ringer" has none, and still manages to miss them all.

I was supposed to see "The Producers" today, but Young Jeezy made sure that wouldn't happen by not taking the stage at Money's this morning until just after 2 a.m. Perhaps that's the standard in hip-hop circles, but for someone who is often in bed by 9:30 p.m. it was a stretch.

I attempted to take some photos for The Telegraph with a friend's digital camera, but the scene was chaos and I probably failed epicly. Great show, but definitely my oddest Christmas morning yet, and I simply don't have the energy to sit through two hours of Nathan Lane.

Tomorrow I'm heading to NYC to see my family, and also some great movies. Check in at week's end for a head's up on some that will eventually even hit Macon.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Peter Jackson's truly great ape

What kind of pull did Peter Jackson have after turning J.R.R. Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy into an international box-office sensation? Enough to make what is at its core a $200 million midnight movie.

His take on "King Kong" is a goofy love story about a very beautiful woman and a very big ape. And an often very glorious one at that.

For anyone unfamiliar with the story, it starts out in Depression-era NYC. How do we know it's the Depression? Not because, like in "Seabiscuit" and many other earnest, well-meaning flicks, a narrator tells us so, but because we see it vividly with our own eyes. Jackson couldn't have re-created it any better if he had spent his huge stash of cash on a time machine.

In rapid succession we meet Naomi Watts' Ann Darrow, a struggling Vaudeville actress who has just lost her performance space, and Jack Black's Carl Denham, a more-than-slightly malevolent huckster who also happens to make movies.

Jackson is a master at the calm before the storm, and the care he takes in building these early scenes is reminiscent of the opening scenes of "Fellowship of the Ring" in the Shire, still my favorite part of the "Rings" trilogy.

The story lags a bit as we meet the crew who have been hoodwinked into transporting Denham, his starlet and the screenwriter he abducts for the voyage, an entirely out of place Adrien Brody, to Skull Island.

We have to wait awhile for the big payback, but when it comes, it's gigantic. Jackson's take on Skull Island, home to Kong and many other creepy creatures, takes cues from "Apocalypse Now" and "Jurassic Park" and melds them into something you've never seen before.

Jackson stretches the limits of his PG-13 rating even before we get to see Kong. The natives are enough to terrify anyone regardless of age. Like Steven Spielberg, Jackson has become a master at building suspense, so that even when you know what's coming, you'll still almost jump out of your seat.

I won't reveal everything you'll see on Skull Island, but here's a taste: Terrifying T-Rex's, spine-tingling spiders and a dinosaur stampede that will make you forget all about "Jurassic Park." I won't tell you how, but at one point, Naomi Watts ends up dangling from the tooth of a T-Rex. Wild, weird and wonderful.

The action on the island is almost non-stop, with small gaps between the set pieces, just enough to catch your breath, or, as in the audience I saw it with, let out some nervous laughter. Unlike the monotonous car chases and explosions that populate most "action" movies, these scenes are so unique that they keep you riveted the entire time.

And then, of course, there's Kong. It's what CGI technology was made for, to create fantastic creatures that, if you let yourself believe, look entirely real.

Jackson's Kong is clearly king of Skull Island, but you can see it hasn't been an easy reign. Kong is old, scratched-up and weary. He's still a brutal monster, of course, but an almost human one at moments. It's a true accomplishment for WETA, the special effects company that has worked with Jackson since "The Frighteners," his first dabble into big-budget territory.

Watts does a solid job of selling the preposterous idea that she cares for the great ape. And no cracks about monkey love are necessary here. It's more an understanding of Kong's plight that you see in her eyes, and she makes you believe in it.

As Kong is finally brought to NYC and put on display, Jackson wisely wraps things up quickly. If I hadn't already known going in, I never would have guessed the movie was three hours long. It's a brisk ride that rarely takes its foot off the gas.

In one truly odd scene near the end, Kong and Watts glide as gracefully as an ape can across a frozen pond in Central Park. It's unsettling to watch at best, but captures Kong's quest for beauty in one perfect moment.

It's a little strange that Jackson chose to make Carl Denham, the moviemaker within the movie, more of a con man than in the 1933 original "King Kong." But you get the sense that Jackson is more than a bit of a shyster himself. He had to be laughing as he created one of the best B-movies of all time, albeit with an A-plus budget.

Is it flawless? No way. It's far too ambitious to be. But it is by far the most fun I've had at the movies this year.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Nothing is connected

George Clooney said he wants the new political thriller "Syriana" to test viewers. Well, while sitting through it I did flash back to high school, to a civics class taught by my wrestling coach.

Screenwriter and director Stephen Gaghan takes the same heavyhanded approach Mr. Dietrich did back then, and complicates matters by biting off much, much more than he can chew.

Using the same tactic he did successfully with "Traffic," Gaghan packs his script with multiple storylines and characters intended to interconnect and teach us something about how the U.S. government is conspiring with conglomerates to run the world. The main problem is that, although its poster boldly proclaims "Everything is connected," this fractured attempt at agenda filmmaking leaves us with a complicated mess.

Without giving too much away, I'll try to run down the many players and plots in "Syriana." George Clooney plays a CIA agent left out in the cold while on a mission to the Middle East, Matt Damon is a commodities "expert" who backs a reform-minded heir to the throne of an Arab country and Jeffrey Wright is an attorney charged with making sure the merger of two American oil companies passes muster with the Justice Department.

As if this isn't enough, along the way we get Damon struggling to save his marriage to Amanda Peet, Jeffrey Wright struggling to care for his alcoholic father, played by William Charles Mitchell, and an additional storyline about young Arabs who turn to radical Islam after struggling to find steady employment. Whew!

That's a lot of struggling to ingest, with no time left over for anything resembling character development. Why should we care for any of these people when we know next to nothing about them? Gaghan sorely misses director Steven Soderbergh, who added a human touch to "Traffic" that kept viewers engrossed as the story became more and more complicated.

Given my world view, I'm predisposed to like movies like this. I'm a nut for conspiracies, and I love agenda filmmaking as a genre.

For a nearly flawless example, check out this year's "The Constant Gardener," which this morning garnered a deserved Golden Globe nomination for best dramatic picture.

In that searing indictment of drug company practices, we get Ralph Fiennes as a British diplomat who seeks answers after his wife mysteriously disappears in Africa. It tackles a complicated subject, but director Fernando Meirelles, director of the even better "City of God," always keeps Fiennes' plight front and center. As complicated plot twists pile up, you (well, I, at least) never get lost because there's a very human story to follow.

This is sorely lacking in "Syriana," relegating it to agitprop rather than entertainment. For a political movie out now, Telegraph entertainment writer Maggie Large reccomends "Good Night, and Good Luck," which she said is a great movie about journalism. I'll be checking it out this weekend, after I recover from KING KONG!

Saturday, December 10, 2005

For Narnia, and for Aslan

There are several ways to look at "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" (which will henceforth be referred to as "Narnia" to save me some keystrokes and you a little time.)

Given C.S. Lewis' religious conversion just before starting the "Narnia" series, you can view it as thinly veiled Christian allegory. Given Peter Jackson's epic treatment of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy by Lewis' comrade J.R.R. Tolkein, you can also view it in comparison to those movies. But I wouldn't recommend either approach.

"Narnia," which was written by Lewis for four children who came to stay with him during World War II, is best viewed through the eyes of its young heroine, Lucy Pevensie. Through the eyes of a wide-eyed child, which most of us still have hiding inside us somewhere, it's nearly perfect.

Watching Georgie Henley's Lucy go through the wardrobe for the first time, her reaction was the same as mine: sheer wonder. Director Andrew Adamson of "Shrek" fame, with the help of the New Zealand countryside and some very real looking CGI snow, nailed the look of the winter-bound Narnia perfectly. It was just as it looked in my mind, where it had existed until now.

The initial encounter with Mr. Tumnus the faun is also just as I pictured it, down to his legs, which are a technological marvel. Try not to laugh as he stamps his hooves to knock off the snow.

The children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and young Lucy, are refreshingly unremarkable. They're not remotely cool. They're just very believable pasty-faced Brits.

As they journey through Narnia and meet the beavers, I had a fearful flashback to Eddie Murphy's wiseass donkey in the "Shrek" flicks. There's no place in Narnia for such cheap humor, and Adamson luckily holds his worst impulses in check. Instead, we get British actors Dawn French and Ray Winstone as clever but never crass CGI talking beavers.

Tilda Swinton as the White Witch Jadis was a bit of a letdown, getting by mostly on the fact, that, in real life, she looks much like a witch. Liam Neeson as the voice of Aslan is, likewise, very one-dimensional, all nobility and little spirit. Lewis saw the world of good and evil in very strict terms, making neither terribly interesting.

Without revealing too much to anyone unfamiliar with the story (if such a person exists), Adamson keeps the action brisk as the Pevensie children make their way to their destiny, the epic battle between the forces of Aslan and those of the White Witch.

The battle is a joy to behold. Think what it would be like to see all kinds of creatures, real and mythological, converging on the field of battle. Minotaurs vs. centaurs, leopards vs. rhinos, and even armed beavers. Then forget all about it, because Adamson makes it crazier than you can imagine.

Because Lewis, and apparently Adamson, intended these scenes to be appropriate for children of all ages, there's no blood and guts. This isn't a realistic battle, it's a fantastic one, in every meaning of the word. Seeing as Lewis gave Lucy a potion that will magically nurse the wounded back to life, the vagaries of war were clearly not really on his mind.

The true test of whether you can swallow all this is how you react to Santa Claus showing up about 2/3 of the way through. It's straight from Lewis' mind, since the White Witch had banned Christmas when she created perpetual Winter, and only the ascension of the Pevensie children to the Narnia throne can bring about its return.

If you're too cynical to believe that, move on. This movie isn't for you. Myself, I'm very, very cynical. But for a little over two hours in the magical world of Narnia, I forgot all that and just let my inner child come out. And he had a blast with this flick.

P.S. I'll be going to either "Syriana" or "Good Night, and Good Luck" tomorrow, and will post something about it in the next couple of days. Check back if you'd like. Everyone's welcome. Then, finally bring on KING KONG!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

No "Narnia" for you

Sometimes life isn't fair, and sometimes it's cruelly so. In my case, it's usually the latter.

I had my heart set on seeing "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" at Riverside United Methodist Church Wednesday night. When I arrived at the church, however, I was told that the kind people at the church would be talking about C.S. Lewis and the Chronicles, but, like most of the world, would have to wait until Friday to see the movie.

This after I was told on Tuesday, after asking if I would need a ticket and being told no, just show up. I didn't actually ask, will you be showing the movie? After all, the listing in the Praise Dates in The Telegraph said the church "presents" "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

I guess it's what I deserve for being less than inquisitive. For a moment I considered giving up on organized religion altogether, but I'll get over it. And I still can't wait to see the movie with the rest of the world this weekend.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Of pride, prejudice and Oscars

Did the world really need another "Pride & Prejudice?" Perhaps not, but I sure did.

As I was watching the SEC championship game Saturday night with some friends of mine, the subject of Joe Wright's new big-screen adaptation of Jane Austen's best novel came up (because, I always want to talk about movies, and I brought it up.)

Someone asked how the story that had been told so well in A&E's celebrated five-hour miniseries could be condensed to a little more than two hours. "Did they just talk really fast?," one smartalec asked.

Well, in a way, yes. Wright keeps the action brisk and screenwriter Deborah Moggach keeps the barbs sharp. They understand that although "Pride & Prejudice" is an epic love story, it is even more a comedy of manners, or more often the lack thereof.

The reason Austen is so tempting an author for filmmakers is her books are above all else about class envy and its ills, which have only intensified over time. To pull off her vision, you need two perfect foils, the apparent snob and the latent snob, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet.

Luckily we get Keira Knightley and the until-now unknown (at least to me) Matthew MacFadyen.

I've adored Knightley ever since the delightful popcorn nugget "Bend it Like Beckham," and here she has a role that actually requires some acting. She knows that, though a wise-cracking, impetuous young woman on the outside, Elizabeth is the most vulnerable character in "Pride & Prejudice," and she conveys this with her eyes as much as her voice.

A co-worker said she found Knightley's bad wig to be a distraction, but that was her biggest beef about the movie, so she liked it almost as much as I did.

As Mr. Darcy, MacFadyen is nearly perfect, as snotty and insolent as he can be. I can only think of one big-screen Austen hero I've liked more, Ciaran Hinds as Captain Frederick Wentworth in 1995's "Persuasion." Check it out.

In smaller roles, Donald Sutherland works well as the pater familias of the Bennet clan, though his charm tends to make you overlook Mr. Bennet's many faults, and Dame Judi Dench shows up about halfway in as a perfectly brusque Lady Catherine de Bourg.

But the real star here is Wright, who as far as I can tell had never directed anything beyond TV miniseries before this. His large ensemble scenes in particular, the balls, have a kinetic energy that make them hard to keep up with but well worth the effort.

Oscar talk

Is it ever really too early to talk about the Oscars? I think not, and "Pride & Prejudice" has me primed for it.

If I were a betting man, which I no longer am, I would lay odds on "Good Night and Good Luck," "Memoirs of a Geisha," "The Constant Gardener," "Walk the Line" and "Pride & Prejudice." My own list would be "Broken Flowers," "A History of Violence," "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" and "Pride & Prejudice," with the the last spot reserved for the upcoming "Munich," "King Kong" or "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

As for actresses, it will definitely be a youth movement, with Knightley leading the way along with Reese Witherspoon from "Walk the Line" and Ziyi Zhang from "Memoirs of a Geisha." I'd also love to see Rachel Weisz from "The Constant Gardener" on this list, but I rarely get exactly what I want.

Look here for a Wednesday night (well, 'round midnight anyway) review of "Narnia," courtesy of a pre-theaters screening at Macon's Riverside United Methodist Church.

Monday, November 28, 2005

A rant about "Rent"

When it comes to the songs of "Rent," I am a true believer.

I believe that these people are artists struggling against a system designed to keep them down, not self-indulgent deadbeats who just don't want to pay their bills. I believe that New York can be the Bohemia these beautiful people are singing about so passionately. It was this passion which beat down reality, listen after listen.

Unfortunately, director Chris Columbus doesn't believe. How could he and still take this story and make a movie from it that is, against amazing odds, often boring?

The songs are still there, and with the original cast members mostly on board, they sound great. Daphne Rubin-Vega, who played Mimi in the Broadway show, opted out because she was pregnant, and she is sorely missed. If I'm not mistaken, the actress who played Joanne on Broadway backed out, I assume after taking a reassuring look at her bank account, on the principle that, at 42, she is too old to play an angst-ridden 20-something.

In translating the remaining stars' efforts onto film, however, Columbus made two crucial errors right from the start.

First, rather than even try to set the story in anything that looked like the New York of the late 1980s, before Giuliani and gentrification "cleaned it up," he has his cast decked out in what is clearly period attire and singing through the streets of what is clearly 2005 Manhattan. Any of the other directors who were rumored to be interested in this project, notably Martin Scorsese, Baz Luhrmann and Spike Lee, would have leaped at the challenge of re-creating this bygone era rather than cower from it.

Apparently Columbus took the movie's mantra, "No day but today," very literally.

Second, he took at least a third of the book from the musical, the parts between the mostly memorable songs, and changed them from sung lines to simple dialogue. It disrupts the flow tremendously, and leaves the impression that Columbus would have been perfectly happy to present "Rent" as a play if it weren't for all these darn lyrics Jonathan Larson left for us to enjoy before he died of a brain aneurysm on the musical's opening night.

Despite Columbus' best efforts to destroy it, by sheer will his actors bring some scenes in "Rent" the movie to vibrant life. Most notably, Wilson Jermaine Heredia is perfect as the drag queen Angel Dumott Schunard. You'll never think of Santa Claus the same way again after you see his most dramatic entrance. He makes every scene he is in better, and Jesse L. Martin (Det. Ed Green to you "Law and Order" buffs), plays off this energy in a great turn as Angel's lover Tom Collins.

Apparently it's the season to play gay if you want to be taken seriously on screen. Look soon for Cillian Murphy (hopefully presented at some point by the Macon Film Guild) dragged out in the film adaptation of Patrick McCabe's fantastic novel "Breakfast on Pluto," and just try not to think about "South Park" if you get to see Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal play gay cowboys in "Brokeback Mountain."

Only Broadway officionados should recognize the name Idina Menzel at this point, but that won't last long. As the drama queen Maureen in "Rent" she's flirty, funny and always seemingly unaware of what's she's going to do next and who it might affect. It certainly doesn't hurt that she's also sexy as hell.

Which brings us, by rough segue, to Rosario Dawson as Mimi, clearly the ringer in this project. Before I say anything bad about her, let me say this: It's not her fault. She clearly tried very hard, and her gymnastics at the Cat Scratch Club almost make you forget that she's fully clothed in her strip-club routine to the great song "Out Tonight."

Her problem is that no sparks fly between her and Roger, played on film and on Broadway by the vapid Adam Pascal. As she smolders, he barely burns at all, and mostly ruins her performance. She sings fine, and is a great actress. If you want to see her in a much better movie about New York, check her out with Ed Norton in Spike Lee's "25th Hour."

As an ensemble, the cast gels perfectly for the show-stopper "La Vie Boheme," wisely filmed in the tight confines of a restaurant where its stars get to dance on tables, moon authority figures and do all the other things we would if our ego finally lost its eternal struggle with the id. Heredia and Martin are also a joy to watch prancing down the sidewalk to the musical's best love song, "I'll Cover you." But these moments are unfortunately not the norm.

After about two hours, the gentleman in front of me felt the need to check the time on his neon-green cellphone, but I didn't mind. Columbus clearly knew as well as we did that it was time to wrap things up, so he went straight for the director's crutch: the montage.

Instead of seeing Mimi sing "Without You," a powerful song on paper, we get scenes of Angel's health deteriorating, people fighting and other things needed to wrap up the story, but never do we see anyone singing. At this point, it goes from musical number to background music, and the change is jarring.

Despite all my complaints, I still believe in "Rent." And I really did want to believe the director of "Home Alone" and "Mrs. Doubtfire" could deliver it for me on film. But I've been lied to before, and I'll get over it long before I get to see Peter Jackson's "King Kong." If that's not any good, I'll really be depressed.

Monday, November 21, 2005

"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash,"
and this is my movie

Warden: Mr. Cash, try to refrain from performing any tunes that remind the inmates that they're in prison.
Johnny Cash: You think they forgot?

As the opening credits of "Walk the Line" rolled to a crescendo of stomping feet in Folsom Prison, I couldn't help but be worried.

What would Hollywood do with the story of Johnny Cash, a man who spent most of his professional life flipping off anything that could be called the establishment?

What I quickly learned, however, was that it is me who is woefully ignorant about the life of the late man in black.

Several years back at one of our annual old book sales I picked up the holy trinity of books about Cash, by Cash: "Cash," "The Man in Black" and "The Man in White." Had I bothered to read the first two volumes, I would have learned that the story of Johnny and June Carter Cash is one of burning, yearning love that burns even brighter on screen in "Walk the Line."

Though it manages a large ensemble cast with ease, all the characters except Joaquin Phoenix's Johnny and Reese Witherspoon's June are wisely kept in the background. When those actors are playing Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and, most memorably, Waylon Payne as a delightfully wicked Jerry Lee Lewis, that's no small feat.

On paper it would seem to be monotonous as Johnny asks for June's hand and is rebuked again and again, but the sparks between these two are so hot it rarely gets boring on screen.

Like Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles before him, Phoenix invokes the spirit of Johnny Cash with almost chilling precision. From the smallest detail, down to the almost-cleft upper lip, he is the young Johnny Cash. And in early scenes from "Walk the Line," when he's on tour with his Sun Records mates, his singing and stage presence are pitch perfect.

He gets upstaged, however, by a shockingly good Reese Witherspoon. Until now I thought her range only went from cute to really cute, but again, I was wrong. Her skill in playing June Carter from the precocious young talent who was overshadowed by the other members of the Carter clan to the savior who would rescue Cash from his worst demons is fun to watch. Until now, I only would have expected to see Reese and Oscar in the same sentence in yet another revival of "The Odd Couple."

I've been railing for years, mostly at work to anyone who has the misfortune of sitting near me, about Hollywood's inability to cast Southerners to play Southerners. They let Nicole Kidman murder one of my favorite books, "Cold Mountain." Perhaps after this tremendous star turn from Nashvillean Witherspoon, who threatened to abandon the project if it weren't shot in and around Memphis, someone will get the message.

Before they died, Johnny and June anointed the two young stars to play them in "Walk the Line," just as Ray Charles did with Jamie Foxx. It's tempting and almost impossible not to draw more connections between the two biopics, but doing so only shows the glaring faults of "Ray."

Though Jamie Foxx was electric as Charles, and well-deserving of his Oscar for Best Actor (though personally I would have voted for Don Cheadle in "Hotel Rwanda), I was bored during much of the movie. When Foxx isn't bringing Charles to life on stage, it plays out like a very overly melodramatic TV movie, often dragging to the point of audience distraction (well, my distraction, anyway.)

By focusing on a short period of time, from about 1955-1968 or so, and almost exclusively on the love story at its core, "Walk the Line" avoids many of "Ray" 's pitfalls and keeps the story moving at the driving, train-like pace of Cash's signature songs.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some reading to do.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

"Chicken Little" vs. films for the child in all of us

Duke Phillips: Why do you have to be so critical?
Jay Sherman: I'm a critic.
Duke: No, your job is to rate movies on a scale from "good" to "excellent".

I feel a lot like poor Jay Sherman, star of the short-lived animated TV series "The Critic," in trying to criticize "Chicken Little." After all, to paraphrase what John Prine said about Elvis, $40 million in box-office receipts in one weekend can't be wrong.

Well, I think it is. To sum it up briefly and move on, I didn't like "Chicken Little" for one very important reason: It wasn't funny. I don't ask for a lot from children's movies, but that's where I draw the line.

It does look great, but if this is Disney's attempt to catch up with the innovators at Pixar, they've got a lot more work to do.

I defy you to give me one original gag from "Chicken Little." I'll save you the effort: there weren't any. In its defense I also can't think of any blatant product placement either. It's just a mindless tale filled with stock characters that, thankfully, was over in about 75 minutes or so.

Lest I seem like a grumpy old man, which in many ways, I am, let me just say that I love children's movies. "Babe," with its timeless tale of the pig who wanted only to be a sheep dog, is as good in my mind as "The Godfather."

What I love about the best children's movies is the power of imagination, the sensation that for those 90 minutes or so you truly are somewhere else. It's a forgotten - and perhaps lost - art.

Though few people saw it when it hit theaters in 1999, Brad Bird's "The Iron Giant" is my favorite animated film. Bird, who worked on "The Simpsons" and would later create Pixar's behemoth "The Incredibles," has a sly wit that is mostly kept in check here.

It's simply the tale of a young boy in the 1950's who befriends the "Iron Giant," a robot who has fallen from the sky voiced by a then-unknown Vin Diesel. Whether as a heart-tugging tale of friendship or an allegory about cold-war paranoia, it works on all levels.

Hiyao Miyazaki has been called "the Disney of Japan," which I'm sure at the time was meant as a compliment. Disney the company, in fact, struck a deal with Miyazaki to dub his films with English-speaking stars. Their first, and still best, collaboration was the magical "Kiki's Delivery Service."

It features a young Kirsten Dunst as the voice of Kiki, a 13-year-old witch forced to make her way in the world in her mandatory year of independence. Kiki, for reasons that go blissfully unexplained, chooses to make her new home in a European seaside village, where she uses her shaky broom-flying skills to operate the titular "Delivery Service."

Though Miyazaki's style is sometimes lumped into the broad category of "anime," it truly is unique, more like a moving impressionist painting. And as Kiki and her wisecracking cat Jiji, voiced by a subdued Phil Hartman, move through it, they meet colorful characters who will stick in your mind a lot longer than annoying pig with a penchant for disco in "Chicken Little."

When Peter Jackson got geeked up enough to take on "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy I was fairly excited. And except for the 18-or-so endings of "Return of the King," they're great movies, but my favorite part still remains the first 30 minutes or so of "The Fellowship of the Ring" that takes place in the Shire, home of the lovable hobbits.

It made me flash back to the made-for-TV animated version of "The Hobbit," reviled by Tolkein enthusiasts everywhere but loved by, well, at least me. Directors Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. stripped Tolkein's tale of much its mythology and made it simply the story of the reluctant adventurer Bilbo Baggins, yanked from his life of comfort by Gandalf (voiced by the late John Huston) to help a band of dwarves recover their treasure from the dragon Smaug.

The best thing I can say about this oddity is that I was 7 years old when it came out, and I love it as much now as I did then. I learned to play the piano to its songs, and on some days still can't get "The Greatest Adventure" out of my head. Though it prompted some hipster at to say "Tolkein would have cried," I laughed and learned a lot.

I'll close with some words in defense of Disney. It's all so easy to attack the 500-lb. gorilla, but I've loved many Disney films. One of my favorites was "Bedknobs and Broomsticks." Made by the same director, Robert Stephenson, it's essentially "Mary Poppins" retold with Angela Lansbury instead of Julie Andrews as a kind witch instead of a nanny.

With the aid of a magical bed, Lansbury and her three young charges rise to the defense of England during World War II, doing battle with corrupt booksellers, animated-lion royalty and, eventually, invading Germans. It's all tremendously silly, of course, but also a pioneering blend of live-action and animation. It was restored for DVD in 2001 to its original length of a whopping 139 minutes, and I guarantee it will hold the attention of children young and old until the very end.

Sadly, my all-time favorite Disney movie can not be purchased on DVD, because the company quietly retired it after a 40th-anniversary re-release on video in 1986. I'm talking about the much-maligned and very un-PC "Song of the South."

Released in 1946 as the first Disney movie starring professional actors, its Joel Chandler Harris' beloved Uncle Remus stories brought to life and used to help our young hero Johnny deal with the separation of his parents. At least that's what I thought it was as, my mother tells me, I was "dancing in the aisles" to "Zipa-Dee-Do-Dah" and falling in love with B'rers Rabbit and Bear.

To certain adults who lobbied to have Disney pull it from video shelves, it is also, undoubtedly, an unrealistic and atrocious portrait of the reconstruction era in the South, and Uncle Remus can be seen, I suppose, as a fool who simply excepts the Jim Crow status quo with a smile.

I never saw it that way. To my 7-ear-old eyes, Uncle Remus, played by James Baskett, was just a kind old man, who happened to be black, and told great stories. As every children's movie should.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Cures for the workin' man's blues

"So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that's on the worst day of my life."
Ron Livingston as Peter Gibbons in "Office Space"
If you haven't felt that way at least once in your life you're probably not a terribly introspective person. Personally, whenever I do, I find the workin' man's revenge fantasy "Office Space" to be the perfect cure.
Out this week is a so-called "special edition" that features a 26-minute retrospective featurette "Out of the Office" with director Mike Judge and the cast members, plus some deleted scenes. Not much in the way of extras, but probably enough to lure some suckers out there.
That quibble aside, "Office Space" is one of the oddest - and sheerly cathartic - comedies around. In its honor, I present my 1o favorite movies about the unfortunate necessity of working. If you've found a way around it that won't get me locked up, I'm all ears.
10. "Night on Earth" Jim Jarmusch offers five simultaneous cab rides in five different parts of the world: Los Angeles, New York City, Paris, Rome and Helsinki. All are darkly funny, but a pre-"Life is Beautiful" Roberto Benigni as the kind of mad cab driver you can only find in Rome steals the show. This one also contains what must be the best French-English line ever about a blind cab driver from the Ivory Coast: "Ivoirien! Get it?" If you know of a better one, let me know.
9. "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control" Errol Morris is simply the best documentary maker in America, no matter what that rotund rabble rouser from Flint has to say. Though he finally won an Oscar in 2004 for "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara," "Fast, Cheap" remains my favorite from his wide body of work. In interviews with four truly odd characters - a wild animal trainer, a topiary gardener, a robot designer and an expert on the naked mole rat - Morris shows how obsession can lead to inspiration. Plus, the naked mole rats are just plain cool.
8. "Super Troopers" Before he became an expert in squeezing Jessica Simpson's ample booty into Daisy Dukes, Jay Chandrasekar was - and still is - the leader of a crazy comedy troupe called Broken Lizard. This juvenile, often peurile but always funny flick about some truly inept Vermont highway patrolmen is their masterwork, if you can call it that. Admit it, jokes about cops are funny because we know we would never want to do their thankless work, and the Broken Lizard boys exploit this truth to the extreme.
7. "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" - Anyone who had the misfortune of sitting through "Elizabethtown" may have forgotten that Cameron Crowe can be a very funny guy. Based on Crowe's book about his year undercover posing as a high school student in California, this one deserves all the blame for creating a monster that is now devouring our movie screens: The teen comedy. Unlike the pablum produced weekly now, however, "Fast Times" is genuinely rude and real, and it makes this list for poor Judge Reinhold's performance as Brad Hamilton, whose meltdown behind the fast-food counter is priceless.
6. "Clerks" It must pain Kevin Smith to learn he peaked as an artist so early. Personally, I think I did when I played the Buddha in a community theater production of "The King and I" when I was about 10 years old. May not sound like much, but you try sitting still for 10 minutes in stage makeup. It ain't easy. "Clerks" is the only movie I know of that almost earned an X rating just for dialogue. Still very funny 11 years later, this one works even if you've never had to make change behind a counter, or, like me, make the biscuits every Saturday morning at McDonald's.
5. "The General" If you can call thievery a job, then few people were better at it than Martin "The General" Cahill, who managed to steal $60 million and become an Irish folk hero before meeting his inevitable demise. As good as any of the great '30s gangster flicks (except perhaps the perfect "Little Caesar",) John Boorman's biopic stars Brendan Gleeson as Cahill and Jon Voight as the cop who relentlessly pursued him, and they're both perfect.
4. "Riff Raff" Before he flashed the world in "The Full Monty" and played the terrifying Begbie in "Trainspotting," Robert Carlyle was a real workin man's hero in Ken Loach's "romanticy comedy" about surviving in Margaret Thatcher's Britain. Loach, like any good Socialist, is painfully earnest, and the "English" is so rough that it has subtitles for us Yanks, but this portrait of life just above the poverty line on a construction crew is sharply funny before it takes an even sharper turn to bleak reality.
3. "Mississippi Masala" Indian director Mira Nair knows more about the American South than many of its native sons and daughters, as she proves in this tale of pride, prejudice and passion. Denzel Washington plays Demetrius, the struggling owner of a carpet-cleaning business in Mississippi who falls in love with an Indian woman, the exquisitely beautiful Sarita Choudhury in her film debut. What sets this apart from other romantic comedies is the tight-knit clan of Indians who, of course, work in a hotel and are fiercely protective of their young women. You can't call it a stereotype when it rings so true. It's a unique culture clash and a fun tale.
2. "Local Hero" The late Burt Lancaster appeared in an astonishing 88 films, according to the Internet Movie Database (, but to me he'll always the hapless oil company executive Happer, who pays an analyst to verbally berate him in this little '80s gem. Lancaster sends Peter Reigert to Scotland to buy an entire village so the company can build a refinery there, and what he finds has enough local color to blind you and charm to spare.
1. "The Snapper" OK, this one is more about the pain of not working, but it's my column, so deal with it. Roddy Doyle's Barrytown trilogy, "The Commitments," "The Snapper" and "The Van," are the equivalent of popcorn flicks on paper. You can read them all in a few days and you'll smile the whole way through. Though Alan Parker's movie of "The Commitments" has many charms, Stephen Frears' "The Snapper" is even better. This made-for-television flick for the BBC stars Colm Meaney as a Dubliner who has to deal with being on the dole just as he finds out his daughter is about to have a baby out of wedlock and won't tell him who the father is, the ultimate Catholic shame. I'm not sure the word "eejit," proceeded by an expletive unsuitable for print here, has ever been put to better use than in this portrait of Irish family life. My favorite exchange:
Dessie Curley (Meaney): I haven't cried since I was a kid.
Sharon Curley (Tina Kellegher): You cried during the World Cup.
Dessie: Sober, Sharon! Sober!
You can find most of these flicks at any reputable video store, and maybe even Blockbuster. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Reel Fanatic: "A History of Violence" and the fear factor

Canadian director David Cronenberg doesn't directly ask any questions in "A History of Violence," but he leaves the audience with many as the closing credits roll. And that's exactly as it should be.

In it he gives us what seems to be the ideal American family, Midwestern diner owner Tom Stall and his beautiful wife and two seemingly perfect children. As Stall, Viggo Mortensen tells us early on that he is "the luckiest son of a bitch in the world," and since he says it after a scene of pure sexuality with the radiant Maria Bello, it's almost impossible to disagree with him.

But as briskly as Cronenberg introduces our protagonists, he brings their world crashing down around them even faster.

Stall becomes a local hero after he thwarts an attempted robbery of his restaurant with surprising precision, killing the assailants. Among the unwanted visitors this brings on is a one-eyed Ed Harris, who claims to have known Stall in his former life as a Philadelphia mobster. It's a Rashomonic quandary: Who do you believe?

Though I've enjoyed almost all of Cronenberg's many films, his last two have been his best.

After years of reeking brutality writ large on the screen in films like the chilling "Dead Ringers" and the simply disturbing "Crash," 2002's "Spider" marked a definite turning point in which Cronenberg began focusing on the consequences as much as the horrific acts themselves. In that flick, Ralph Fiennes delivers his finest performance among many as a mentally disturbed man who finally confronts the moment in his childhood that drove him to madness.

Likewise in "Violence," it's the moments before and after the violent acts that matter most. In many ways its a simple story, taken from a graphic novel by John Wagner andVince Locke, and we find out the truth about Stall fairly early on. It's the fallout that really hits home, burned into our brains by two of the best performances you'll see on the big screen this year.

As Stall, Viggo Mortensen is on a consistent slow burn, never tipping his hand until he has to about who he really is. Bello is even better. We believe every moment as everything she believes in is ripped from her by fear and distrust, and its often painful and uncomfortable to watch.

An aside: As violence envelops Tom Stall, his son learns to mimic what he sees around him, leading to two intense moments you won't soon forget. As these unfolded on screen, the woman behind me felt the need to yell very loudly, not exactly a "yee-haw," but definitely a joyful noise. Though she was clearly a part of the audience Cronenberg was trying to reach, she completely missed all of the points he made.

Demko's DVD shelf

Let's make this week a tribute to the great nation of Canada. It's often easy to forget they've given us so much more than Bryan Adams.

How I wish I could have gone to "Degrassi Junior High." This Canadian series came out in the early '80s and ran for three years, plus an additional two as "Degrassi High," on PBS in this country. It was a welcome companion to its American counterpart, the sublimely silly "Saved By the Bell."

Though "Degrassi" was as heavy on the melodrama as the sudsiest of soap operas and the kids seemed to confront a different after-school special issue each week, it was also very real and very funny, a predecessor to the sorely missed "Freaks and Geeks" (

You can now revisit these cool kids all over again as "Degrassi Junior High: The Complete Collection," hits DVD this week. You can buy it at while supporting public television at the same time.

Monday, October 17, 2005

"Elizabethtown" is one
long, painful road trip

I'm virtually certain that if I ever met Cameron Crowe, I would like him a lot. Actually, after seeing intimate films like "Say Anything" and the nearly perfect "Almost Famous," I kind of feel like I already know him.

But as it is with every friend, there comes the painful, awkward moment when you have to tell them that something they've clearly worked very hard on, and poured their heart into, simply isn't any good. So, it truly pains me to say that "Elizabethtown" is simply awful.

The flaws are too many to list, but I'll do my best. The primary problem is that our lead characters, played by Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst, are vacuous, annoying people. The kind you would run into a burning building to get away from.

Sure, they look good. I would probably enjoy watching Dunst eat a peanut butter sandwich, and the ladies obviously love Bloom. That Crowe made them so loathsome is somewhat of an accomplishment, though not one to be lauded.

The story is a familiar one, most of it, in fact, ripped from Crowe's previous movies. At the onset, in pure "Jerry Maguire" fashion, we see Bloom's Drew Baylor finding out he is responsible for costing his shoe company $1 billion, and ready to kill himself. This is all spilt out so fast that you have no time to decide if the world would miss him.

From there he has to go back to the title town in Kentucky because his father has died. We meet the supposedly colorful characters from this stock Southern brood so fast that I couldn't tell you one of their names. It was, however, nice to see Loudon Wainwright III again as an uncle.

I guess Dunst's Claire, a stewardess he meets on the trip down there, is meant to be some kind of angel. Why she cares about him except, of course, that he looks like Orlando Bloom, is never explained.As these two "connect" in an all-night cell-phone encounter, you'll want to claw your eyes out just to feel something real. Bloom looks vaguely disinterested throughout, a kind of vacant gaze that, I guess, should show he is in pain. I know I was.

During Drew's Southern adventure, you'll see scenes that appear to be ripped straight out of "Almost Famous." The wedding party in Drew's hotel tries in vain to re-create the electricity that was found in the hedonism of those rock 'n' rollers in "Famous," and you'll just cringe as Susan Sarandon, as Drew's mother, does Kate Hudson's forlorn solo dance from "Famous," this time as a supposedly cathartic act at her husband's funeral. It's unwatchable.

There are moments of pure joy among the ruins of "Elizabethtown," reminders that Crowe was, and surely will be again, a great writer and director. You'll laugh out loud when you see the words KISS forever in the oddest place, and the Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute at the funeral is priceless.

I've heard that Crowe made about 20 minutes of cuts after "Elizabethtown" got a harsh reception at the Toronto Film Festival. He didn't go nearly far enough. The last 20 minutes of the final cut, Drew's meaningless road trip through the American South, could also have been chopped off and would have been an improvement.

Please, Mr. Crowe, don't take this the wrong way. As we're reminded more than once in voice-overs in "Elizabethtown," "there is a difference between a failure and a fiasco." Well, you've made your fiasco, and there's nowhere to go but up.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Wallace & Gromit & laughs galore

When I was in college, a good friend told me she would no longer accept my opinions about movies because, as she put it, I like everything.

While that wasn't true then and is less true now, as Richard Nixon put it best when talking about art, "I know what I like."

I've reached the point in my life when I can tell in advance when I won't like a movie, and am therefore surprised when it happens. I tell you all this as a qualifier before delivering this unconditional love letter to the creators of "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit." Accept it for what you will.

Although I had never heard of Nick Park, and certainly not Aardman Animation, I remember seeing in 1992 a series of claymation commercials for British Electric featuring cute sheep, chickens and other creatures talking about how much they enjoyed electric heating. They had the same sly wit that Park has perfected in his signature characters: British batchelor Wallace and his silent canine companion Gromit.

If you've never heard of them, don't let that stop you. They're instantly accessible characters, and in "Were-Rabbit," the laughs fly fast and furious.

In their first feature-length flick, the duo have a pest-control company called, of course, Anti-Pesto. Just in time for the town's annual giant vegetable contest a terrible beast called the Were-Rabbit starts ravaging all the gardens, and our heroes have to stop it.

The true joy in watching it unfold, along with the great animation, is the voice work of Peter Sallis as Wallace. He makes noises you'll hear no other human being make to bring to life Wallace's many eccentricities. Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter also clearly had fun as, respectively, Wallace's nemesis, Victor Quartermaine, and the noble but ditzy Campanula Tottington.

And the jokes. I thought they might go over the heads of younger viewers, but I found them laughing louder than me at exchanges like this:

Quartermaine (after his hairpiece has been sucked up in the bunvacc: I want my ... toupee.
Wallace: Oh, yes, of course. We take checks or cash.
Quartermaine: No, you idiot. My hair is in there.
Wallace: Oh, no, only rabbits in there. I think you'll find the hare is a much larger creature.

A G-rated flick for moviegoers of all ages? I'm just crackers for it.

"The Gospel" makes a lot of joyful noise

The late Steve Goodman once said the song "I'll Fly Away" proves you don't have to know much about Jesus to enjoy spirituals. In the same vain, I ask: Do you have to be black to enjoy gospel movies? No, but it probably helps.

Rob Hardy's "The Gospel" has been released into theaters, rather than straight to DVD, thanks to the trailblazing work of Tyler Perry. After Perry's "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" made $22 million in its opening weekend and more than $50 million at the box office, Hollywood executives realized it's not really about black and white, it's about green. And there's much of it to be made in this welcome new genre.

"The Gospel" tells a simple and familiar tale, basically that of the prodigal son, in this case Boris Kodjoe, who returns to his childhood church after his father, the pastor, becomes ill. It features solid performances, in particular from Idris Elba and Donnie McClurkin as rival pastors who square off over the church's future. The story, though it drags at a few points, is told soap opera-style: Short scenes that mostly move at a brisk pace.

What really makes "The Gospel" sing, if I can put it that way, is the music. About half the movie is gospel singing by great choirs, most of it arranged by Kirk Franklin, culminating in the inevitable revival featuring gospel greats like Yolanda Adams and Martha Munizzi. The scenes are electric. (One quibble: Why put McClurkin in a musical movie and not let him sing?)

Filming scenes with large groups of people is difficult to pull off. For examples that work perfectly, check out the end of Robert Altman's "Nashville" or the beginnings of Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" parts one and two. Hardy himself succeeds in bringing to life the world of black churchgoers in the spirit, and you will feel in the moment.

As I left the theater, my dark side couldn't help wondering if Tyler Perry ever had to sit in a room full of Hollywood executives and tell them that black people are much more than the pimps, pushers and thieves we usually find in movies. One thing I do know is he won't have to again.

Demko's DVD shelf

If it weren't for sports, I could probably get rid of my cable TV and get along just fine. It's not that I don't like some of what the networks offer us, it's just that I much prefer watching the shows on DVD, so I can watch them in order, or if I'm feeling particulary couch-potatoish, in a marathon viewing session.

This week is a bonanza for TV on DVD: three of my favorite shows.

For topical humor that spares no targets, you still can't get much better than "South Park." Though the show has lost some of its edge over the years, the sixth season, out this week, features the pitch-perfect parody of "Lord of the Rings" in which our little foul-mouthed friends go on a mission to return the one video.

I'll also be Netflixing the second season of "Arrested Development," which is somehow still on the air on Fox. If you watch it, you know why it's great, and if you don't, I probably can't convert you.

Finally there's the first season of "Veronica Mars." Veronica, a sort-of teenage private eye played byKristen Bell, is the rightful successor to Joss Whedon's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," but without the superpowers. It's not too late to catch up on the running mystery and jump on board for season two, now unfolding on UPN.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Reel Fanatic: 'Serenity' is old
fashioned sci-fi done just right

Fall is the best time of year for film buffs.

After the bombast of summer - and this one was particularly atrocious - you get to see not only the movies that are being dangled as Oscar bait, but also those that were too tricky to market in the crowded summer.

One of those little gems is Joss Whedon's "Serenity," the unlikely successor to "Firefly," Whedon's space Western that only lasted 15 shows on Fox. The movie, theme and storywise, lifts huge chunks from the original "Star Wars," but this is more a valentine than a ripoff job.

Its likeness to "Star Wars" is, in fact, much of Whedon's point in making "Serenity," I think. It shows us how great sci-fi movies used to be, something George Lucas himself forgot about the time he came up with those wretched little ewoks in "Return of the Jedi."

The story of "Serenity" is that of Capt. Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and the ragtag band (not ragtime band, as the kind folks at pointed out to me) of petty thieves that make up his crew on the spaceship Serenity. Fillion is Harrison Ford down to every facial gesture, and boy have we missed him.

Also aboard the Serenity is a seer with a secret, a freaky psychic named River Tam played by newcomer Summer Glau, who is exactly Whedon's type for a heroine. Like Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy the famous vampire slayer, she's a waif-thin powder keg about to blow, and Glau is definitely a star on the rise.

What River knows could bring down the all-powerful force that controls the universe - in this case the Alliance - that is requisite for any sci-fi adventure. To take her out, the Alliance dispatches an assassin known as the Operative played with chilling precision by Chiwetel Eijofor, the English actor who co-starred with Audrey Tautou in Stephen Frears' criminally under-seen thriller "Dirty Pretty Things."

To reveal more about what River knows or where the movie goes from there would ruin it for everybody, but trust me, as the Serenity crew flees from the Operative and works to reveal its dangerous secret, you'll love the ride.

Two things set Whedon's work apart from the other fluff filling up our movie screens: great dialogue and a finale that really delivers.

Fillion, in particular, plays his reluctant hero role to the hilt, delivering this speech to rouse his troops: "Y'all got on this boat for different reasons, but y'all comin' to the same place. So now I'm asking more of you than I have before. Sure as I know anything, I know this. I aim to misbehave."

Whedon has been a master of banter for years, with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" his college course, "Angel" his graduate work and now "Serenity" his graduate thesis.

As for the finale, Whedon, who both wrote and directed "Serenity," isn't afraid to show that actions have consequences. I'll just say that in the final standoff between Serenity's crew and the Operative's Alliance troops, not every one will survive, and that's very refreshing.


If I were a millionaire, I'd probably buy at least four DVDs a week. Everyone must have at least one vice, and this is one of mine. As it is, I have settled for the next best thing: Netflix.

Just out is the fourth season of the only show that rivals Whedon's best work for witty dialogue, the WB's "Gilmore Girls." In this season, young Rory (Alexis Bledel) heads off for college at Yale, while Lorelei (the greatly underappreciated Lauren Graham) is left behind in Stars Hollow, a quirky little town full of characters that will be instantly burned on your brain.

As Paris (Liza Weil) once told Rory when they were preparing for a high school debate, this show is all about "wpm's" (words per minute.) The usually dead-on pop culture references fly very fast, and you'll connect with the characters almost as quickly, even if you missed the first three seasons.