Sleepy Hollow


Christopher Walken really needs a new dental plan.

Christopher Walken really needs a new dental plan.

(1999) Supernatural Horror (Paramount) Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Walken, Marc Pickering, Lisa Marie, Steven Waddington, Claire Skinner, Christopher Lee, Alun Armstrong, Mark Spalding, Jessica Oyelowo. Directed by Tim Burton

Whenever Tim Burton concocts a new movie, critics everywhere go into a lather coming up with new hosannas in praise of his stuff. Generally, they’re right. By the time his interpretation of the Washington Irving classic came out the paroxysms of praise had become almost scary in their effusiveness. Which was – and is – fine by me.

Sleepy Hollow, after all, is supposed to be scary. However, those bookish moviegoers who have actually read the Washington Irving story and still remember it may find the liberties taken here with the source material a bit off-putting.

Ichabod Crane (Crane) is a foppish New York City constable who has been a bit of a gadfly in the NYPD of 1799. While the judges of the period are content with brute force and intimidation to solve their crimes, Crane is all for using scientific method and deductive reasoning to come to the truth. For his troubles, he is exiled to a small Dutch community in the Hudson Valley called Sleepy Hollow to solve a trio of ghoulish murders.

It seems that several prominent citizens of the Hollow have lost their heads. The trouble is their quite dead torsos are rather upsetting to those townspeople who stumble upon them. When Crane arrives, he encounters the plucky young daughter (Ricci) of a local farmer (Gambon), who imparts the story of the Headless Horseman: A somewhat rabid, bloodthirsty Hessian mercenary (Walken in essentially a cameo but still perfectly cast role) meets a bitter end in the woods near Sleepy Hollow, betrayed by a pair of wood-gathering little girls. The townspeople, who include a self-righteous priest (Jones), a timid notary (Gough), a lusty doctor (McDiarmid), a brave and burly farmer (Van Dien) and a corpulent burgomaster (Griffith) are all of the belief that the Horseman is responsible for the unspeakable crimes. Crane, of course, believes that the murderer is flesh and blood.

The game changes when Crane personally witnesses a murder, sending his faith in science and reason spinning into doubt. Unfortunately for the movie, he resolves this rather quickly; I thought it would have made for an interesting subplot to see Crane struggling between the evidence of his senses and his own rationality. Instead,  Crane and the plucky young farmer’s daughter go on a ghoul hunt, with all the violence, gore and spookiness that goes with it.

There are a lot of fairly impressive names behind the camera including Francis Ford Coppola, Larry Franco, Scott Rudin and Kevin Yagher, with Danny Elfman producing a suitably spooky score. While many of Burton’s key personnel are also in place, this seems less of a typical Tim Burton movie and more of a mainstream action/horror flick. There are a lot of missed opportunities here to bring some credible subplots into play that wouldn’t burden the plot as much as the ones that writers Kevin Yagher and Andrew Kevin Walker decided to leave in.

Burton is wise enough to leave enough atmosphere in to make for some genuinely creepy moments, but his leitmotif of announcing the Horseman’s presence with lightning and thunder effects is a bit over-the-top. Depp makes an interesting Crane, retaining much of the bumbling fright of Irving’s Crane while giving him a heroic bent for the modern moviegoing audience to identify with. Ricci is lustrous in her ingénue role.

There’s some great work in Sleepy Hollow, enough that you’ll be talking about it well after the final credits have concluded. However, with a bit more of Burton and a bit less of Hollywood, this would have been a much more hellacious ride.

WHY RENT THIS: Tim Burton loveliness. Deep and Ricci make a fine couple. Genuinely spooky.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit more mainstream than we’re used to with Burton. Over-the-top in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: The horror, gore and violence is fairly graphic. There’s some sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was one of the last two films released on Laser Disc (the other was Bringing Out the Dead).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $206.1M on a $100M production budget; the movie broke even during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beetlejuice

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: World War Z

Picture Me (A Model’s Diary)


Not exactly dripping with glamour...

Not exactly dripping with glamour…

(2009) Documentary (Strand) Sara Ziff, Karl Lagerfield, Nicole Miller, Caitriona Balfe, Missy Rayder, Cameron Russell, Gilles Bensimon, Sam Haskins, Diana Dondoe, Hussein Chalayan. Directed by Ole Schell and Sara Ziff

For most of us it’s hard to give the supermodel much sympathy. We see them as the height of glamour and fashion, wearing the latest clothes, jetting all over the world to amazing locations, partying with rock stars and generally being the envy of every little girl who just wants to be pretty. But there is a price for prettiness.

Sara Ziff is the daughter of a NYU neurobiology professor and a lawyer (her mom, who appears later in the film to fuss over her daughter’s education). However although she’s plainly an intelligent girl, he’s drawn to the world of modeling and with her fresh-faced good looks, blonde hair and sunny expression make her a natural.

Her boyfriend and her initially are taking home movies from her early days breaking into the model world. Mostly we see her reactions to things that happen in her career but as time goes by this becomes more of a true documentary about conditions in the world of modeling. We see the pressure Ziff comes under to stay thin, eventually competing with girls much younger (as in 12, 13, 14). She starts talking to her fellow models and gradually a picture of an industry in which models systematically starve themselves, are often overworked to the point of exhaustion (and the malnourishment contributes heavily to this) and on top of it are subject to being sexually abused by predatory photographers who are sadly not as rare as you might think.

Still sound glamorous? You have to understand that very few models make it to be Tyra Banks or Heidi Klum. While some can make a decent living wage or better, an awful lot of models live hand to mouth, taking dodgy assignments that often have them not getting paid or having to have sex with their photographers in order TO get paid. Keep in mind that much of the population of the modeling industry is made up of teenage girls and that is a demographic that can be – and is – easily exploited.

This is an eye-opener. The girls are undeniably beautiful and certainly as a man I’m aware of their beauty and the unconscious sexuality of the models (models are very aware of their bodies, used to having them on display so they seem almost flip about how they are occasionally viewed as sexual objects). However, those who thought that a beautiful girl can get pretty much whatever she wants out of life should watch this. These girls might well describe their beauty as a curse, something that almost invites exploitation and attracts predatory sorts into their orbits. There are no unions in this industry and quite frankly there is nobody watching over the rights of the models because there is far too much money on the table. The girls only see a fraction of that money at best.

Since making this movie Ziff has gone on to become an activist working for better working conditions for the models, and vigorously going after sexual predators in the industry. Before seeing this I wouldn’t have thought there was a need for an activist. Now I can truly say that it’s a good thing that there’s a Sara Ziff around to help these girls. For those who think of models as shallow and selfish with little going on between the ears, I give you Sara Ziff.

WHY RENT THIS: This is no America’s Next Top Model. Ziff is an articulate and intelligent woman who turns the stereotype of the profession on its ear.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Started out as a group of home movies and some of the material would seem to be less important to anyone other than Schell and Ziff.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some swearing and a few adult situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ziff graduated magna cum laude from Columbia University with a degree in Political Science.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22,369 on an unknown production budget; it probably didn’t take much to shoot this movie but I’m pretty sure it took more than that.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Model

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Vanishing on 7th Street

Fantasia 2000


Fantasia 2000

Fantasia 2000 is a whale of a movie

(1999) Animated Feature (Disney) Steve Martin, Bette Midler, James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Penn Jilette, Teller, Quincy Jones, Leopold Stokowsky, Itzhak Perlman, James Levine, Ralph Grierson, Kathleen Battle, Wayne Allwine (voice), Tony Anselmo (voice), Russi Taylor (voice). Directed by Various

 

One of Hollywood’s major curses is that it regularly seeks to improve upon a revered original. All of us can name at least one ill-advised remake, an update that litters the bowels of the septic tank of celluloid failure.

Wisely, the animators at Disney taking on the concept of Fantasia 2000 realized that they didn’t have to improve on the original so much as measure up to it. The original 1940 Fantasia is as highbrow as animation gets; it was (and is today) to standard animation features as going to an art museum is to attending a wrestling match. The same comparison can be made for the new opus.

Returning only the beloved “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence from the original (the one wherein Mickey Mouse enchants a broomstick to carry his water for him), Fantasia 2000 adds eight new sequences ranging from the simplistic geometric animation of the opening “Beethoven’s Fifth” sequence to the intricate storytelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” set to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

The animation here holds up well to the original. Check out the self-satisfied smirks on the pink flamingos in Saint-Saens “Carnival of the Animals,” which asks the age-old question “What would happen if you gave a pink flamingo a yo-yo?” (it is also the most charming and shortest of the sequences here). Check also the looks of parental concern on the whales in the gorgeous “Pines of Rome” (by Respighi) sequence. This particular part is breathtaking in its imagination, having majestic humpback whales float in the air as serenely as they plow through the water, but the world of these whales is not necessarily what it seems; the sequence’s end is a delightful lesson in perspective.

Another favorite sequence is set to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” done in the linear style of cartoonist Al Hirschfeld. It depicts a depression-era New York City in which a construction worker dreams of being a jazz drummer, an unemployed man dreams of getting a job, a henpecked man dreams of being able to let the child in him go free and a little girl dreams of more attention from her parents. In this idealized Big Apple, dreams come true amid the glitter of the lights of Broadway.

Another sure-to-be fave is Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” (yes, the graduation theme for every high school ever) which stars Donald Duck as Noah’s assistant in loading up the Ark in preparation for the flood. Donald is separated from his beloved Daisy during the frenzied boarding; each believes the other left behind. While Donald puts out various fires in his capacity as assistant (the woodpeckers within are more dangerous than the storm without) Daisy pines at the railing of the mighty ark. They are reunited as the animals disembark in a particularly poignant moment. The movie closes with Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” which portrays an anime-style nymph battling a volcano-spawned firebird.

Each sequence is introduced by a celebrity host (Steve Martin, James Earl Jones and Penn and Teller are all particularly delightful). The animation here is superb; I was fortunate enough to see it in IMAX when it was first released to theaters and it made quite the impression on me. The re-mastered “Sorcerer’s Appearance” works seamlessly with the other sequences.

This is probably a bit too long-winded for smaller kids, which is true of the original “Fantasia.” As a work of art, it’s magnificent. As entertainment, it requires patience and imagination, something for which the American movie-going public is not noted. Still, for the smart gals and fellers reading this, it is without-question a must-see.

WHY RENT THIS: Some of the most gorgeous animation you’re likely to see. Intelligent and delightful melding of classical music and animation fit for adults.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Children might find it tedious as it is a series of vignettes with almost no dialogue.

FAMILY MATTERS: Absolutely fit for family viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Officially released just after midnight December 31, 1999 making it the first movie to be released in the new millennium.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The original Fantasia is included in both the original 2000 DVD release and the 2010 Blu-Ray release. There are also a couple of animated shorts from the 1950s related to musical composition. In addition on the Blu-Ray edition there is a piece on a projected collaboration between Salvador Dali and Walt Disney that never came to fruition, although about six minutes of footage exists (shown here, along with the nearly hour long featurette concerning the piece). The Blu-Ray also has a couple of features on the new Disney Family Museum in the old army Presidio in San Francisco (well worth visiting if you are ever in the area – Da Queen and I did just that earlier this year).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $90.9M on an $80M production budget; like it’s predecessor, Fantasia 2000 failed to make back it’s production and marketing costs at the boxoffice.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Hugo

City Island


City Island

The cast realizes the catering truck is serving Tuna Surprise again.

(2009) Comedy (Anchor Bay) Andy Garcia, Julianna Margulies, Steven Strait, Emily Mortimer, Alan Arkin, Dominick Garcia-Lorido, Ezra Miller, Carrie Baker Reynolds, Hope Glendon-Ross, Louis Mustillo, Jee Young Han, Sarah Saltzberg. Directed by Raymond de Felitta

Families have dynamics that are often much more complicated than you think they are – or than they have to be. You’d think the dynamics are simple with the people who know you best, but often family members conceal things from other members and before long, you find that they are living lives much different than they let on to their own flesh and blood.

Vince Rizzo (Garcia) is a prison guard who dreams of being an actor. He and his family live on City Island, a spit of land jutting out from the Bronx that has more in common with a New England fishing village than the Big Apple. Embarrassed by his dream, he takes acting lessons in the City at night, telling his wife Joyce (Margulies) that he’s out playing poker with the boys. She’s convinced he’s having an affair.

Vivian (Garcia-Lorido) is the pride and joy of Vince and Joyce, a college girl with a bright future ahead of her. At least, that’s what they think; in reality Vivian has dropped out and is stripping in clubs to make enough cash to pay her own way through school when she’s ready to re-apply. Her brother Vinnie (Miller) has a thing for Internet porn, particularly watching overweight women eat. Yes, a chubby chaser – deal with it.

Vince sees one of the parole candidates where he works is a young man named Tony (Strait) whose last name sounds familiar. When he looks into his file more thoroughly he is shocked to discover that Tony is the son he had with a woman other than Joyce. Tony has no place to go so Vince volunteers to put him up when Tony gets out.

Joyce of course has no clue about Tony’s paternity, nor does Tony for that matter. She’s predictably unhappy about having an ex-con in the house and lets all and sundry know about it. However her frustration at Vince’s secretive behavior is beginning to blow over. Vince’s acting coach (Arkin) has assigned the class into pairs to work on a scene together. Molly (Mortimer), Vince’s partner and he begin to meet up after class – strictly platonically – and Joyce stumbles into their relationship accidentally, believing the worst. Feeling hurt, she comes on to the hunky ex-con in an effort to get revenge. Things are spiraling out of control, especially when Vince is called in for an audition for a role in a Scorsese movie.

This is a movie with a lot of heart, and a lot of soul. Yes, dysfunctional families with lots of idiosyncrasies are staples of comedies but here they aren’t quirks for the sake of quirkiness. These are genuine people, who genuinely care about one another even if they aren’t always able to display it properly. Their bickering sounds like any family and they capture the cadences of a Northeastern Italian-American family perfectly.

Garcia has always been an actor I’ve liked ever since The Untouchables and he’s at his best here. He plays blue collar as well as anybody (his role as the Casino king in the Oceans movies notwithstanding) and he brings Vince’s hopes and dreams to life as well as his failings. Margulies has never been sexier than she is here. This is a role a bit out of her comfort zone, particularly when she’s attempting to seduce Tony but that scene is one of the highlights of the movie and gives you a great deal of insight into Joyce and her bitterness – only a consummate actress like Margulies could have pulled it off.

Mortimer is another actress who has quietly built up a reputation for terrific performances and although she’s not utilized extensively here, she shines in every scene she’s in. She acts as a kind of outsider’s view, not quite part of the community but understanding it.

The filmmakers are successful at establishing a place and time. City Island, which is a real place by the way, comes to life as do the people who live there. Their lives aren’t particularly less or more wonderful than yours or mine, but the way that de Felitta presents them, I think most people wouldn’t mind the life they find onscreen here.

WHY RENT THIS: There is an authentic feeling here that gives you a sense of place and family. The family interacts less like a sitcom family and more like a real one. Garcia, Mortimer and Margulies give fine performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A few too many revelations near the end.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content (including a bit on the fetish-y side) and some inappropriate language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dominick Garcia-Lorido, who plays Andy Garcia’s daughter in the movie, is…Andy Garcia’s actual daughter.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.9M on a $6M production budget; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Two Lovers


Two Lovers

Isabella Rossellini comforts Joaquin Phoenix.

(2008) Romantic Drama (Magnolia) Joaquin Phoenix, Gwynneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini, Elias Koteas, Moni Moshonov, Samantha Ivers. Directed by James Gray

It is difficult to really find the path that’s right for you in life. Early on, your parents may choose one for you and maybe it’s a good path, but right for them, not for you. And if you have a damaged soul, it can be particularly difficult to find any path at all.

Leonard Kraditor (Phoenix) is coming off of one of those romantic break-ups that sucks your soul right out of your body and sends it spinning into the ether. He is somewhat damaged goods to begin with, having issues with bipolar disorder (which to the film’s credit is treated matter-of-factly instead of as a dramatic device) and the break-up shakes him up badly.

He winds up moving back in with his parents in Brighton Beach. He also starts working for his dad (Moshonov) in the dry cleaning business delivering garments to his customers. His mom (Rossellini) wants him to marry a nice Jewish girl (instead of the shikseh who broke his heart) and sets him up with Sandra Cohen (Shaw), the daughter of another dry cleaner. Matchmaker, matchmaker make me a match…

Sandra and Leonard seem to hit it off, but that’s before he meets Michelle (Paltrow), a neighbor who makes Leonard’s problems look positively non-existent.  She is volatile, capricious and prone to grand dramatic gestures and to top things off she’s seeing a married man (Koteas) with problems of his own. On the surface, they would seem to be bad news for one another – which is why they are so attracted to each other, of course.

Of course, Leonard’s mom is mortified; this can only end in disaster and emergency rooms and suicide attempts. Surprisingly, Sandra isn’t about to give up an essentially good man like Leonard without a fight – and Leonard isn’t willing to give up Michelle without one either. How can any man find happiness with two lovers?

The point is, they can’t. At some point you have to commit and that’s what Leonard, whose broken heart has yet to fully heal, has trouble with. It’s in many ways a very powerful look at a situation that we could potentially find ourselves in, particularly in a time where love can become as lethal as an Arizona whacko. Okay, maybe not that lethal.

This is a movie for smart people to a very large degree; there are few of the clichés that dumb down Hollywood romances so often these days and there seems to be at least an attempt to add some realism to the relationships between admittedly damaged people. While yes there’s an element of New York hip to the movie (which can be a deal killer for Big Apple haters), the filmmakers concentrate on the broken shards of Leonard and Michelle’s lives and how they are trying to reassemble something into a whole. There is no pat ending and no Romance 101 storyline. The relationships have ups and downs and Leonard winds up facing a real dilemma; both of these girls are “right” for him only in different ways, and each comes with her own drawbacks. Choosing one over the other is no easy matter and no matter how he chooses, someone’s going to get their heart broken, possibly Leonard himself as well.

The performances are suitably muted and layered with depths of pain and humanity which are gradually peeled away. This is particularly true of Phoenix and Paltrow; Shaw really doesn’t have as much to work with but she does a solid job as perhaps the only person here I’d want to spend more than an afternoon with.

The movie unfortunately garnered more press for Phoenix’ antics while promoting it; it is while doing press for this movie that he made his now-notorious announcement that he was retiring from acting to take up a hip-hop career which turned out to be an elaborate – and somewhat baffling – hoax, as well as his legendary appearance on the Letterman show that resulted in David Letterman’s now famous line “Thanks for joining us Joaquin. It’s too bad you couldn’t be here tonight.” To a degree, Phoenix wound up overshadowing the movie in terms of hype which I think wound up ultimately doing the film a disservice.

WHY RENT THIS: A well-acted, intelligent slice of life-type look at a young man who is kind of drifting through life and facing a tough decision.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The somewhat adrift central characters can be maddening. Those who don’t like New York-centric films might find reason to loathe this.

FAMILY VALUES: It has its fair share of vulgar language, a bit of sexuality (some of it fairly raw) and a little smidgeon of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is set in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn. Paltrow’s mother, actress Blythe Danner, starred in the 1986 movie Brighton Beach Memoirs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.3M on an unreported production budget; the film in all likelihood came close to breaking even or might have even made a little bit of cash.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Bigger Stronger Faster

Big Fan


Big Fan

Patton Oswalt is a New York Giants fan and lives with his mom. 'Nuff said.

(First Independent) Patton Oswalt, Kevin Corrigan, Michael Rappaport, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Serafina Fiore, Gino Cafarelli, Jonathan Hamm, Matt Servitto. Directed by Robert Siegel

Sports fandom is a double edged sword. It can bring us enjoyment, great memories and a sense of belonging to something bigger. It can also grow into obsession and overwhelm everything else in our lives.

Paul Aufiero (Oswalt) is a New York Giants fan. That might be an understatement; it might be more accurate to say that he lives for the New York Giants. His life revolves around them. He works as a parking garage attendant and lives in a closet-sized room in his mom’s Staten Island apartment. That might not be so bad if he were just starting out, but pudgy Paul is 35 with no ambition for family or career. All he really cares about is his beloved Giants.

Every night after he gets off work, he calls into the Sports Dogg radio show as Paul from Staten Island, where he has some small degree of celebrity. Usually his rants involve a reaction to what his nemesis, Philadelphia Phil has already said. Paul carefully writes down on a legal pad exactly what he’s going to say, then reads it into the phone, pacing his room like a caged animal. His rants usually wake up his light-sleeping mom (Kurtz) who beats on the wall and yells at her son to shut up, it’s 2am. He yells back, a kind of Fred and Wilma Flintstone with a New York Italian edge.

One night, he and his buddy – his only friend really – Sal (Corrigan) spy their hero, Quantrell Bishop (Hamm), a five-time Pro Bowl cornerback, at a Staten Island gas station. Impulsively they follow him to a dodgy Brooklyn neighborhood where it appears Bishop might be buying drugs, then to a downtown Manhattan strip club. The buddies follow him in, pay for their ten dollar Budweisers and work up enough nerve to meet their hero.

He’s pleasant enough at first, but when they let slip that they followed him all the way from Staten Island, he gets the impression they’re trying to shake him down. Enraged, he beats Paul within an inch of his life. Paul wakes up three days later after emergency surgery. Bishop has been suspended, the Giants are losing and the police, particularly in the person of Detective Velarde (Servitto), are anxious to bring charges against the football player and bring the incident to a close.

This brings Paul to a turning point; the Giants’ season literally rests in his hands and he simply can’t let them down. He tells the incredulous detective that he can’t remember the incident; the cop responds “Can’t? Or won’t?” Of course, it’s won’t; Paul remembers the incident clearly enough, and it haunts him like Marley’s ghost.

When Philadelphia Phil finds out that the beating victim is none other than Paul of Staten Island, Paul’s world crumbles. His hatred for his nemesis reaches a boiling point; how far is Paul willing to go to prove his loyalty to his team?

Writer/director Siegel is best known for writing The Wrestler which brought Mickey Rourke’s career back to life. This is a different kind of sports film, taken from the perspective we’re mostly used to facing on our own – that of the fan. Of course, few of us are as rabid as Paul is, but there is still the same outside-looking-in kind of feel to the movie that most of us are used to.

Oswalt is best known as a stand-up comedian (and to film fans as the voice of Remy in Ratatouille) but he does just fine in this straight dramatic role. His Paul has a life that most of us would think of as unfulfilling, but he likes it just fine. He’s completely satisfied to be without romance, ambition or curiosity. His relationship is with his football club; it’s the only thing that matters to him, the only thing that makes sense. His family doesn’t understand; really, I don’t expect most viewers will understand either. Only those who have the kind of passion Paul possesses will truly get his character.

The movie revolves around Paul to a very large extent; the other characters are on the periphery of your vision. That Oswalt can carry the movie is crucial; if he falters, the movie fails. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen. The only real glitch is I found the ending to be a bit perfunctory and even a little surreal. Then again, I might not be the kind of guy this movie is meant for, even though I consider myself a pretty rabid fan of the San Jose Sharks NHL club. While I don’t see me getting in the grill of a fan of an opposing club the way Paul does, it’s a good thing that there are fans like Paul around; makes the world seem a bit more normal, a bit more familiar. That’s all that I need to recommend this, quite frankly.

WHY RENT THIS: A decent insight into the soul of the superfan. Oswalt does a pretty solid job carrying the movie in a dramatic role.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending was a bit anti-climactic. Some of the actions of Paul border on the surreal.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of foul language here, a little bit of sexuality and some fairly adult themes. I think it best that the kids skip Big Fan.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The host of the radio call-in show that Paul regularly calls is Scott Ferrall, who really does host a sports call-in show on Sirius satellite radio.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a downloadable Quantrell Bishop poster. Woohoo!

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Law Abiding Citizen

Taking Woodstock


Demitri Martin, Eugene Levy has only three words for ya: Second City Television.

(Focus) Demetri Martin, Emile Hirsch, Imelda Staunton, Liev Schreiber, Eugene Levy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Henry Goodman, Jonathan Groff, Mamie Gummer, Paul Dano, Kelli Garner, Adam Pally. Directed by Ang Lee

From August 15 through August 18, 1969 a festival billed as “three days of peace and music” took center stage in the universe of the counterculture. It remains the granddaddy of all rock festivals, the touchstone to which all other large-scale festivals are inevitably compared. My brother-in-law Jim Ivey was one of the half million in attendance and has the ticket stubs to prove it; if you went by the number of people who claimed they were there, millions of people were at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm that day. The festival is known simply as Woodstock.

Elliott Teichberg (Martin) is an interior designer in Greenwich Village whose parents Jake (Goodman) and Sonia (Staunton) own a dilapidated hotel in White Lake, New York near the bucolic town of Bethel. The hotel is gradually going broke, run to ground by his parents’ inability to run even basic maintenance and his mother’s abrasive personality and unbridled greed.

He doubles as the head of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, authorizing permits for the city. He has a counterculture theatrical company, the Earthlight Players, taking up residency in his barn and is planning a music festival where he’ll essentially spin records to inert townspeople on the lawn of the hotel.

None of this is doing any good. The bank is about to foreclose; they have managed to finagle enough time to last the summer, but that’s it. His parents, Holocaust survivors, they’ve gone through quite a bit and as unpleasant as Sonia is, Elliott still worries.

When he hears that the organizers of a large-scale music festival have been denied permits in Walkill, New York, he recognizes the golden opportunity to save the hotel. A festival with big name performers will draw people who will fill the hotel for the weekend but also serve as a headquarters for the festival. The festival’s organizers, Michael Lang (Groff) and Artie Kornfeld (Pally), come in with a bit of a flourish and the laid-back Lang instantly takes to Elliott. When the hotel property proves to be inadequate for the size of the crowds the organizers are expected, Elliott introduces Lang and Kornfeld to Max Yasgur (Levy), a dairy farmer who is sympathetic to the idea of a rock festival.

The rest of the town, not so much. The most vocal of these is Dan (Morgan), a man whose son Billy (Hirsch) came back from Vietnam shell-shocked and broken. He feels the hippies are disrespectful to the country that his son gave so much for. The tension between the townies and the hippies (including Max and Elliott in the eyes of the town) is palpable.

Against all odds, the festival comes together; even the weather conspired against them. In the process, Elliott comes to terms with his parents and makes the decision to follow his own heart.

Ang Lee is one of the most gifted directors in the world. One of my all-time favorite movies is the Taiwanese director’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His other films – The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain, Eat Drink Man Woman among others – are always compelling, even the ones that are less successful. Here, he captures the essence of the festival nicely. He made the decision to put almost no emphasis on the music; the actual concert takes place off-screen and the only time music from the festival. Instead, he concentrates on the backstage elements behind the festival; after all, the music and the concert were already well-documented in Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock which is paid homage to in several places during the course of the movie.

Martin is best-known as a stand-up comedian and he’s a very good one. Strangely, even though this is a comedy, his role is more or less as a straight man. His deadpan stand-up delivery is mirrored here; the role is very low-key but is nonetheless still compelling. Staunton and Goodman give high-powered performances and Levy is surprisingly solid in a straight dramatic role. Schreiber shows up about halfway through the film and nearly steals the movie as the transgendered security guard Vilma. He is working on a level most of the other actors don’t attain, at least in this movie.

Sadly, the movie is a bit of a jumble. The performances are fine but they seem to be all coming from different movies. There’s no cohesion, no sense of unity; there are times you feel like you’re channel surfing while watching a single movie. That’s not a good feeling.

The movie is based on the memoirs of Elliott Tiber (renamed Teichberg here for some reason) whose version of events has been disputed by the real Michael Lang. The movie is not meant to be a documentary-like representation of what really happened; I get the feeling that Lee was attempting to replicate the spirit of Woodstock and illustrate just what a miracle it was that it got staged at all.

Woodstock remains a cultural touchstone for us even now, more than forty years after the fact. It is not only a symbol of a time, place and a movement; it remains a beacon of hope that the ideals of a generation may someday be adopted by a nation. Woodstock means different things for different people but regardless of how it makes you feel, nearly every person in the Western world is aware of its significance. This isn’t the movie that properly honors the event and I couldn’t tell you (having not been at the real one) if this gives you a sense of being there yourself. Still, it was insightful enough – and visually compelling enough – to make it worth a mild recommendation.

WHY RENT THIS: Even in his worst movies, Lee has a marvelous visual sense that borders on the poetic. Martin makes for an intriguing lead.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is a bit of a jumble; the performances, while well-acted aren’t really cohesive and feels like the movie is made up of a series of unrelated vignettes.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of drug use and nudity (hey, it was the Sixties after all) and some rough language; may be a little too much for younger folk to handle.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: No actual footage from Woodstock was used; while many of the events depicted here actually happened, they were all re-enacted for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A featurette entitled “Peace, Love and Cinema” not only does the usual happy-handed behind-the-scenes lovefest there are also interviews with the real people being portrayed in the movie.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Rudo y Cursi

Get Him to the Greek


Get Him to the Greek

Fear the Diddy.

(Universal)  Jonah Hill, Russell Brand, Sean Combs, Rose Byrne, Elisabeth Moss, Colm Meaney, Aziz Ansari, Dinah Stabb, Carla Gallo, Kristin Bell, Meredith Vieira, Rick Schroeder, Stephanie Faracy, Lino Facioli, Kurt Loder. Directed by Nicholas Stoller

At one time or another we all dream of being a rock star. Who wouldn’t want to live a life of excess, adored by millions and rich enough that we can afford to indulge our every whim?

Aldous Snow (Brand) has been living that dream for 20 years, but like the rest of the music business, his career is in jeopardy. A spectacular fall from sobriety after an ill-advised album painted the very white British rock star as an “African Child” (don’t ask) has left him on shaky ground, his professional and personal life in tatters. That’s because his girlfriend and baby momma Jackie Q (Byrne) has flown the coop and has taken up with Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich.

Pinnacle Records chief Sergio Roma (Combs) doesn’t care about any of that. He just knows his six kids need new Nikes and the record label is hemorrhaging money. He needs a great idea and fast. Surprisingly, that idea comes from Aaron Green (Hill), a lowly underling on the label publicity staff. It seems that it is the 20th anniversary of Snow’s epic Greek Theater concert that would lead to one of the biggest selling live albums in history. If the present isn’t yielding a lot of great artists, why not mine the past?

Sergio tasks Aaron with bringing Aldous from London to a Today show appearance in New York and then across the country to Los Angeles for the concert itself. Aaron, a bona fide music nerd (I can totally relate), is overjoyed. Infant Sorrow (Aldous’ band) is one of his all-time favorites. The only cloud on the horizon is that Daphne (Moss), his medical intern girlfriend, is thinking seriously of taking a job in Seattle, far from Aaron’s record label dreams.

Snow proves to be quite the handful. Evidently his fall from grace has become a spectacular drop into sheer debauchery. Aldous is more interested in banging every bird he lays eyes on, indulging in every drug that he can get his hands on and drinking every bar in London dry. Aaron, not especially a straight arrow but certainly not used to partying on the epic scale that Aldous does, panics as the time for the flight to New York comes and goes, as it does for each succeeding airline booking that he makes.

They finally get to the Today show studios, a scant 15 minutes before Aldous is supposed to be there. By now Aaron has been sucked into the rock star’s world and it is chewing him up and spitting him out. It doesn’t help matters that Aaron’s cell phone is constantly ringing with an enraged Sergio on the line demanding that Aaron take control of a situation that simply cannot be controlled by anyone. How’s that rock star fantasy looking now?

This is a spin-off from the hit comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Stoller also directed that movie and the titular character makes a cameo appearance here). Brand nearly stole it as the sober yet completely bullcrap-engorged rock star that he plays here as a drunken yet complete bullcrap-engorged rock star. Hill was also in that movie in a different role but one that had one thing in common with Aaron Green – they both worship Aldous Snow.

This isn’t nearly as funny as FSM although it has its moments. Hill and Brand, both of whom have been second bananas in lots of movies, both show they can carry one on their own. Combs, the artist formerly known as P. Diddy, Puff Daddy and quite possibly Prince, is outstanding as the Type A mogul with impulse control issues. The role reminds me a little bit of Tom Cruise’s part as studio boss Les Grossman in that both are over-the-top portrayals that work really well.

The music is pretty good here too; the songs written for Aldous Snow have a bit of an Oasis quality to them and indeed Brand’s vocals are not unlike Noel Gallagher’s, particularly on “Furry Walls” (sung during the movie’s conclusion).

The movie is meant to take the rock star lifestyle to excess, which is hard to do in and of itself. There are a buttload of female breasts (and male butts too), an enormous load of drinking staggering amounts of alcohol, a terrifying intake of drugs and more vomiting from Jonah Hill than I ever want to see again.

This isn’t a movie that is breaking any new ground. It’s funny enough to be entertaining, but certainly not the ride that The Hangover or Superbad are. It’s just a decently funny movie with a surprising heart of gold at its center that you will find easy to get at once you clean off all the vomit.

REASONS TO GO: Hill is a great straight man and Brand is zany enough to be watchable for the whole movie. The soundtrack is surprisingly good.

REASONS TO STAY: Not in the laugh-a-minute category. Most of the plot action is pretty much outrageous for its own sake.

FAMILY VALUES: Sex and drugs and rock and roll. What more do I need to say?

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The band Bob and the Yeoman on the Greek Theater marquee is a reference to Director of Photography Robert Yeoman.

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing epic here. Unless you really have to see it right away, it’s perfectly fine to wait for the home video release.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Lakeview Terrace

Max Payne


Max Payne

Mark Wahlberg finds out that this movie is for the birds.

(20th Century Fox) Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Beau Bridges, Ludacris, Olga Kurylenko, Chris O’Donnell, Donal Logue, Kate Burton, Amaury Nolasco, Marianthi Evans. Directed by John Moore

When tragedy strikes, we have a need to know who was responsible, the better to make sure they are accountable for what they did. Sometimes, however, the more important question is not who but why.

Max Payne (Wahlberg) is an NYPD detective who has the kind of life nightmares are made of. His wife Michelle (Evans) and baby were murdered by apparently drug-addled thieves who have not been caught three years later. Max works in the cold case division, where his own wife’s case rests. He is not a very companionable guy to say the least.

He is also an obsessed guy, still looking for the person responsible for the death of his family. A tip leads him to a party where he meets Natasha Sax (Kurylenko) and her sister Mona (Kunis). When Max sees Natasha’s wing-like tattoo on her wrist, he invites her back to his place for a chat. The tattoo has some significance to his wife’s murder and he intends to question her about it.

Instead she attempts to seduce him but breaks the mood with an insensitive remark about his wife. He throws her out of the apartment, leading her to walk away down a snow-covered alley to an encounter with a misshapen winged creature. The next morning, her body is discovered and Max’s wallet (which she had lifted in a snit at being tossed out on her derriere) is found at the scene. Max becomes suspect number one. His ex-partner Alex Balder (Logue) who was the lead investigator on his wife’s murder is investigating this one. The tattoo on her wrist intrigues him as well, and as he digs further he finds out a further connection to his wife’s murder. Unable to contact Max, Alex goes to his apartment to wait for him.

When Max finally does return home, it is to an apartment in shambles and the body of his friend Alex lying on the floor. Before Max can react, he is knocked out from behind. He awakens in a hospital with his dad’s ex-partner on the force (and current head of security for the pharmaceutical company Aesir which Michelle was working for when she died) BB Hensley at his side. BB assures him he will take care of him as best he can with what connections he has left on the force but that he is the prime suspect in both murders now.

As Max delves deeper and deeper into the mystery, the body count piles up and the suspects begin to die off in droves. Who are those mysterious winged creatures, and what role does Aesir play in all of this?

This is based on the 2001 videogame of the same name and while some of the plot points are similar, the movie diverges from the videogame in a lot of significant ways. Director John Moore has said repeatedly that he was trying to keep the fans of the game happy, but in the end I honestly don’t think they were.

The tone here is dark, dark, dark, black as pitch and twice as gloomy. This is cinematic depression at its finest folks, and if you’re in the mood for a good brood, this is your express train. Moore tries to capture the noir-ish look of the game and to a degree succeeds. One of the best things about the movie is the way it captures and maintains its mood. Wahlberg does a credible job in a role that doesn’t call for much more than scowling and shooting.

What eventually sinks the movie in my opinion is that the script takes too many liberties with logic and advances the plot with too many cliches. I don’t mind a cliché or two when necessary but it shouldn’t be so easy to predict what’s going to happen next. Also, the movie was sold as a supernatural thriller but quite frankly, it ain’t. Fans of the videogame will know that to be true but those of us who are less familiar with the game are going to be a trifle pissed off when the big reveal comes.

I think the videogame had enough elements in it that were worthwhile that a good movie could have been made out of it with very little tinkering. Unfortunately the tinkering that was done here was not for the better and in fact made the storyline even worse. Videogame adaptations have been, for the most part, simply awful (the Resident Evil series is a notable exception) and this one doesn’t improve the batting average. I think part of the problem is that Hollywood doesn’t really respect videogames very much and quite frankly, videogame producers have tended to sell their rights to producers and writers who might not meet the standards they’re looking for. Hopefully, before such big ticket properties as Halo and World of Warcraft hit the big screen, some of that paradigm will change. Until then we’re going to see an awful lot of movies just like this one.

WHY RENT THIS: Those who like dark-tone action movies like The Crow will probably find something in this worth liking. Wahlberg is a fine brooder.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Deviates from the videogame enough to alienate those who loved the game. The script takes far too many leaps of logic to be taken seriously.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of violence, some sexuality and plenty of foul language. Definitely a movie for mature teens or older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James McCaffrey, who voiced Max in the videogame, makes a cameo appearance as an FBI agent.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an animated graphic novel on the Blu-Ray edition called Michelle Payne that supposedly fleshes out the backstory of Max’s doomed wife but in all honesty an awful lot of this is covered in the movie as well.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Powder Blue

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief


Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Uma Thurman checks to make sure her new hairstyle is cutting edge; Logan Lerman doesn't think so.

(20th Century Fox) Logan Lerman, Brandon T. Jackson, Alexandra Daddario, Catherine Keener, Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean, Jake Abel, Rosario Dawson, Steve Coogan, Kevin McKidd, Joe Pantoliano, Melina Kanakaredes. Directed by Chris Columbus

According to ancient Greek mythology, the pantheon of Gods were in reality an incredibly horny bunch who spent a goodly amount of time rutting with humans and producing offspring who inherited some of the powers of the Gods as well as the attributes of humans. These were called demigods and many Greek heroes, such as Heracles and Perseus, were of this race. But of course we all know the Greek gods were myths…weren’t they?

Percy Jackson (Lerman) is a high school student who is a little bit…he’s not quite…he’s strange, okay? He can hold his breath far longer than most human beings are capable of and he likes to sit at the bottom of the school swimming pool because he likes to think while he’s underwater, freed of the distractions of the world of the New York City high school he goes to. His only real friend is Grover (Jackson), a young man who walks on crutches. Percy is dyslexic and suffers from ADHD which makes him a hyperactive teenager who can’t read well.

At home, things pretty much suck too. Percy’s mom (Keener), a beautiful woman who has been worn down by life and circumstance, lives in a crummy apartment with her boyfriend Gabe Ugliano (Pantoliano), a foul-smelling pig who treats his mother like dirt. Percy would love to kick Gabe out of his life, but his mother incomprehensibly refuses.

On a school field trip led by the wheelchair-confined Mr. Brunner (Brosnan), Percy is pulled aside by a substitute teacher (Maria Olsen) who turns into this hideous winged monster that Percy later learns is called a Fury and is attacked by the shrieking creature, who demands that Percy turn over “the lightning bolt” to her. Percy has no idea what this means, but the arrival of Mr. Brunner and Grover chase the Fury off.

Of course, Percy is confused about what’s happening but there’s not a lot of time for explanations. Grover, who calls himself “Percy’s protector” accompanies the boy back to his home where Percy’s mom is in the middle of serving a group of Gabe’s poker buddies. Grover tells her that they need to leave and right now. Strangely, she follows his instructions without question, which doesn’t sit well with Gabe who needs someone to fetch the beer. Grover dispatches him with his crutches and the trio gets out of Dodge.

They head for a place known only as “the camp” and almost reach the confines of it when they are attacked by a hideous gigantic bull-like monster called a Minotaur. The boys survive the attack but the Minotaur grabs Percy’s mom, who disappears in flame and smoke.

As it turns out, Percy’s teacher Mr. Brunner runs the camp and as it turns out, he’s actually a centaur named Chiron (the wheelchair was an illusion meant to mask Chiron’s plentitude of horse’s backside). As it also turns out, all the kids in this camp are the human offspring of Gods and humans, and Percy himself is the son of Poseidon (McKidd). The Gods were forbidden contact with their human offspring after they turn six months old, and so deserted their human partners. Gods as deadbeat dads…kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?

The big problem is that the lightning bolt, the most powerful weapon in the universe, has been stolen and its owner, Zeus (Bean) thinks Percy is responsible for reasons never explained. Zeus gives Percy 14 days to find the weapon and return it to Zeus at Mt. Olympus or else the Gods would go to war, a war which would devastate the earth and the humans living on it.

Chris Columbus, the man who kicked off the Harry Potter film franchise, is attempting to do the same with the popular young adult book series from Rick Riordan. Unfortunately, I don’t get the impression that this will pull in Potter-like numbers, not is it as good a film as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was.

The writers of the movie made the unilateral decision to make some wholesale changes from the book. Some of these changes were minor but several were fundamental. One of the reasons I think the Potter film franchise did so well is because the filmmakers didn’t make many changes at the insistence of author J.K. Rowling. I can understand skewing the movie to an older audience (more profitable y’see) but much of the charm and the wonder of the book has been cut out as well.

That leaves lavish action sequences and hideous monsters for the most part and these are executed well. Certainly there’s plenty of spectacle here, from the scenes in Hades and Olympus to more earthly locations like Vegas, New York City and the camp. There are plenty of well-known actors showing up here, from Uma Thurman as Medusa (and she does as good a job as anyone with a tangle of hissing digital snakes on her head) to Melissa Kanakaredes as Athena. The odd casting choice was comedian Steve Coogan as Hades – one would think Hades to be a not particularly funny character and in fact he isn’t.

The three leads have to absolutely click for this to succeed and while in some ways they do, they don’t to the extent that Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint did in Potter. Following the Potter formula of two guys and one girl at the forefront, Lerman as Percy is a bit bland. Jackson does a fairly good turn as the jive-talking African-American second banana, but the part seems a bit cliché; I would have appreciated him being a little less smart-mouthed and a little more smart. Not mentioned in my synopsis is Daddario as Annabeth, Athena’s daughter who doesn’t show up until the camp sequence. She is a brilliant strategizer and formidable warrior and is there essentially to be Percy’s love interest.

You’ll learn a lot of Greek mythology here and they use it fairly accurately and update it nicely (although in the stories, Medusa was killed by Perseus but appears here quite alive). I liked the Mt. Olympus set especially; it looked a lot like I imagined it. In fact, nearly all of the special effects sequences work magnificently.

The problem is with the script, I think. Lots of plot points are never explained or supported and some just flat-out don’t make any sense. For example, the big one is why is Percy accused of the theft in the first place? According to Zeus’ own law he isn’t aware of his divine parentage; why would he want to steal something that he has no idea of its existence?

All in all, this isn’t a bad movie by any means. It’s not a great movie either. As for kick-starting a major tentpole film franchise, I really am skeptical of the future of further Percy Jackson films. I hope I’m wrong, but they’ll need some better writing to really punch it into the popular consciousness. Until then, future Percy Jackson movies seem to be as much myth as the Gods themselves.

REASONS TO GO: A very clever use of Greek mythology in a modern setting. The special effects sequences are top notch.  

REASONS TO STAY: There are many plot holes that cause you to wonder if wholesale parts of the script were edited out. Not sure if the trio of young actors playing the leads have what it takes to sustain interest through a multi-movie series.

FAMILY VALUES: The monsters are way too frightening for younger children – you know, the core audience for the books. One family walked out of the theater we were in when their little one became upset at the Fury, and that was only the first monster encountered.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the original book, Percy Jackson is 12 years old. In the movie he is depicted as 17 years old.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely some of the big battle scenes and effects sequences should be seen in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Coraline