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Blogs This Weekend's Film Festival Celebrates Visual Effects

With the Visual Effects Society Festival this coming weekend, I thought it would be a great idea to center This Weekend's Film Festival on movies featured on the VES' 50 most influential visual effects films list. The lineup comes from a sampling of four-star films from across the list. I selected one film from the first ten films on the list then another one from the next ten films and so on.

What struck me when I looked over the complete list of 50 films (which you can find here) is that for the most part they're all good films. The list does seem to skew toward recent visual effects accomplishments, but it doesn't leave out many of the obvious landmark achievements of yesteryear. Many of the films are some of the greatest entertainments of all time. So does this mean that great visual effects only appear in great films or is it that we only remember the great visual effects if they are in great films?

Blogs CITIZEN KANE (1941) (****)

Widely considered the greatest film ever made, and for good reason, CITIZEN KANE matured filmmaking by combining established techniques with new innovations. No first film has ever been as influential as Orson Welles freshman turn behind the camera. The fact that he also starred in, co-wrote and produced the film only heightens the accomplishment. But does the label of "the greatest film ever made" hurt it? I'm sure the label and it's stark black & white cinematography scare away younger audiences, who have all seen THE GODFATHER (which is often a close second as the greatest of all time). What those film viewers are missing is a thoroughly modern film. Made over 60 years ago, the film has not aged a bit.

Blogs SURF'S UP (2007) (***)

Last year penguins danced in HAPPY FEET; now penguins catch the big wave in SURF'S UP. This animated mockumentary looks great and has enough heart and laughs to be a step up from Sony Picture Animation's first animated film, OPEN SEASON. But more so than Sony's MONSTER HOUSE, the film suffers a bit from having a stock hero, leaving the flare to the supporting cast. Nonetheless, the characters are likeable and the laughs are enough that this film is the best time I've had at the movies this summer so far.

Cody Maverick (Shia LaBeouf, HOLES) lives in Shiverpool, Antarctica and has dreamed of becoming a professional surfer ever since famed Big Z came to visit his town when he was a small child. A film crew interviews Cody as he sets out to prove his mother Edna (Dana Belben, HAPPY TREE FRIENDS) and older brother Glen (Brian Posehn, TV's THE SARAH SILVERMAN PROGRAM) wrong and make it off the block of ice where he was born, succeeding as a pro athlete. Determined, he all but forces himself on talent scout Mikey Abromowitz (Mario Cantone, TV's LAUGH WHORE), who works for the Don King-like surf promoter Reggie Belafonte (James Woods, SALVADOR). We learn that Cody's idol Big Z disappeared during a surf tournament, leaving the arrogant Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader, TV's THE DREW CAREY SHOW) behind as the reigning champion. Cody makes friends with laid-back Chicken Joe (Jon Heder, NAPOLEON DYNAMITE) and pretty lifeguard Lani Aliikai (Zooey Deschanel, THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY), but a clash with Tank leaves Cody finally in the care of the Zen-like Geek (Jeff Bridges, THE BIG LEBOWSKI).

Blogs THE DEAD GIRL (2006) (****)

Practically an anthology of five short films that share plot and thematic similarities, this gripping independent production shows how one particular brutal death effects many lives as well as universal issues of life and death. Director and writer Karen Moncrieff, whose first film BLUE CAR dealt with dark, touchy emotional territory as well, brilliantly constructs an episodic feature that feels like a whole, but could conceivably work as parts. This is a remarkably good film.

The story begins with Arden (Toni Collette, THE NIGHT LISTENER), a mousey woman who cares for her bedridden and mentally abusive mother (Piper Laurie, CARRIE), finding the mutilated body of a woman in a field. The media attention that surrounds the murder just upsets Arden's mother more and brings Arden to the attention of an intense, tattooed grocery store worker named Rudy (Giovanni Ribisi, SKY CAPTAIN), who is obsessed with serial killers.

Blogs PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END (2007) (**1/2)

After a triumphant start to this franchise, I'm sad to report that the final installment in the original trilogy is only partly successful, leaving me vastly disappointed in all the potential wasted. Convoluted, over-long, dramatically weak in too many areas, contrived and often unfunny, this bloated exercise in over spending on razzle-dazzle to distract audiences from a void of enough new ideas will probably satisfy some with a solid conclusion, but others might find the time invested not worth the journey.

With Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander, THE LIBERTINE) wielding his control over Davy Jones (Bill Nighy, SHAUN OF THE DEAD), Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, ELIZABETHTOWN), Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley, PRIDE & PREJUDICE), Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, SHINE) and Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris, TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY) must begrudgingly team up to help save Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, ED WOOD) from Davy Jones's locker, so that the nine members of the pirate alliance can free goddess of the ocean, Calypso, and stop Davy Jones from terrorizing the sea.

Blogs This Weekend's Film Festival Celebrates Romance

Well, I'm three for three on keeping the This Weekend's Film Festival alive as a weekly segment on this site. Because there wasn't any worthwhile DVD releases this Tuesday to build the lineup around, I had to come up with another theme to tie the films together. It's far from Valentine's Day, so why romance you might be thinking. Well, it's my 5th wedding anniversary on June 1st and in celebration I thought it was as good as time for any to look at five great films for the romantic at heart. Some of the films in the lineup are fairly straight forward… but I know you're gonna want to know how a zombie film, which I referred to in my original review as "the goriest film I've ever seen," works into this week's group of films.

Blogs FAST FOOD NATION (2006) (***1/2)

Despite some structural problems, FAST FOOD NATION shines with intelligent debate, an impressive cast and a layered approach at looking at the entire fast food industry from the corporate level to the meat supply level to the store level. Based on the bestselling non-fiction book, director Richard Linklater and co-writer Eric Schlosser find a way to bring out a bit of the human side behind the disturbing facts that were revealed in the original tome. Seen side by side with the documentary SUPER SIZE ME, one may never eat a fast food hamburger ever again.

For the film's corporate look, the fast food chain Mickey's is riding the success of their new burger the Big One. Marketing exec Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE) is sent to Colorado to investigate one of their beef supply facilities after an independent report reveals a high level of crap in the meat, literally. For the supplier side, we follow a group of illegal Mexican immigrants — Raul (Wilmer Valderrama, TV's THAT 70S SHOW), Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno, MARIA FULL OF GRACE) and Coco (Ana Claudia Talancon, THE CRIME OF FATHER AMARO) — as they cross the border and get jobs at the meat packing plant. On the local store level, Amber (Ashley Johnson, TV'S GROWING PAINS) is working to make enough money to go to college, because her mother Cindy (Patricia Arquette, FLIRTING WITH DISASTER) can't afford to send her.

Blogs ANNECY PLUS

Dear Animators:

This year Bill Plympton will be attending THE PLATFORM FESTIVAL OF ANIMATION in Portland, Oregon instead of The Annecy Festival of Animation. Bill has asked Nik, Jonas Raeber and myself to carry on the ANNECY PLUS tradition that he started two years ago. If you had a piece of work rejected by Annecy please send it to us so that we can consider screening it at the ANNECY PLUS show.

We are now into day 15 of a postal strike in Gent and no one is sure how long the strike will last so it is best to send DVD's via UPS or Fed Ex to:

Nancy Denney-Phelps

Donkersteeg 31

B-9000 Gent Belgium

We will be leaving for Annecy on 8 June so please send your work right away!!!

Blogs This Weekend's Film Festival Celebrates Letters From Iwo Jima & Apocalypto

Wow here it is the second weekly This Weekend's Film Festival. I never know how difficult it will be to get around to a regular column on Rick's Flicks Picks, but I'm at least two for two. Like last week, I'm building this week's theme around film(s) newly released on DVD. Two of my favorite from 2006 arrived on DVD yesterday — LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA and APOCALYPTO. They're completely different films, but I've found some interesting companion pieces for the lineup that will pull this week's festival all together.

The Friday night, opening night film, WE WERE SOLDIERS, ties together the two films in the obvious themes of war and Mel Gibson. The APOCALYPTO director stars in this Vietnam war film, which like the companion pieces of FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA looks at both sides of a single battle. Another similarity is that SOLDIERS looks at the affects of war at home like FLAGS. America "wins" in both SOLDIERS and FLAGS/LETTERS, however America far outnumbers the Japanese in the latter while America is the underdog in the former film. It's an interesting contrast to look at the unflinching way all three films deal with war and the uncertainty of it all. How does being outnumbered feel when you win in the end versus losing in the end? How is battle different yet the same when decades separate the battles of World War II and Vietnam? While SOLDIERS may be more flag waving than Clint Eastwood's two epic movies, the three films all share an even handed tone that never undermines the complexity of human conflict during war. If you want to learn more about this film, read my original review.

Blogs THE OFFICIAL STORY (1985) (****)

Winner Best Foreign Film at the 1986 Oscars, this harrowing tale of political awakening works more so on an emotional level than an intellectual one. This does not mean that the film is absent of ideas, because it is filled with Argentinean history and the political strife that enveloped the nation in the 1980s when the government was rounding up dissidents, who were often never seen from again.

Alicia (Norma Aleandro, SON OF THE BRIDE) is a high school history teacher. Her husband Roberto (Hector Alterio, SON OF THE BRIDE) is a rich businessman, who has dealings with the country's elite as well as the government. Alicia knows little about the rallies in the streets of her city where poor mothers seek information about their missing children. She only knows what has been written down in books. Alicia is a great mother to her adopted daughter Gaby (Analia Castro), who just turned five.

Blogs MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939) (****)

One of the key reasons MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON works at all is that the aw-shucks attitude of its title character isn't the attitude of the whole film. This isn't a LEAVE IT TO BEAVER worldview going on here. Director Frank Capra, known for his flag-waving sentiment, is fairly cynical about how government works. The Senate in this 1930s film almost feels modern. The film is actually a cry for a noble institution to hold up to its noble ideals.

When a vacancy opens up in the U.S. Senate, naïve Midwesterner Jefferson Smith, who has made a name for himself working with underprivileged boys, is picked to fill the spot. His father was good friends with Sen. Joseph Paine (Claude Rains, CASABLANCA), who supported Smith's appointment. Smith idolizes Paine, but he doesn't know that he's been chosen as a patsy. Paine hopes to use Smith as a way to help pass a bill, which will make corrupt businessman Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold, THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER) a lot of money and insure him a shot at the presidency.

Blogs HOT FUZZ (2007) (***1/2)

What writer/director Edgar Wright and co-writer/star Simon Pegg did to the zombie film in SHAUN OF THE DEAD, they turn around in HOT FUZZ and do the same to the buddy cop genre. They certainly know their actions flicks, referencing specific bad actioners like POINT BREAK and BAD BOYS II while skewering the whole genre with pointed jibes, post modern references and a subtly that often walks the edge between homage and satire.

Officer Nicholas Angel (Pegg, SHAUN OF THE DEAD) is the best cop on the London police force. He's so good that his superiors are looking bad, so he gets a promotion to sergeant in a sleepy village where the top crisis is when a swan gets loose. Angel takes his job very seriously. He follows the letter of law precisely. Inspector Frank Butterman (Jim Broadbent, MOULIN ROUGE) tells him that he needs to lighten up and that some rules need to be bent for the betterment of the village. But Angel has a hard time letting things slide such as Butterman's police officer son Danny (Nick Frost, SHAUN OF THE DEAD) driving drunk. Angel quickly becomes a celebrity of sorts in town and Danny begins to idolize the former big city cop. However, when a brutal traffic collision seems a bit fishy, Angel starts to suspect that something is rotten in Sanford and everything seems to point to Machiavellian grocery store owner Simon Skinner (Timothy Dalton, LICENSED TO KILL). When Angel starts to voice is worries to his fellow officers, the intense and crude inspectors Andy Wainwright (Paddy Considine, IN AMERICA) and Andy Cartwright (Rafe Spall, GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS) think he's nuts, because there hasn't been a murder in the village in 20 years.

Blogs SHREK THE THIRD (2007) (***)

I walked into this movie not expecting much due to the lackluster appeal of the trailers. I walked out thoroughly entertained, more so than I expected to be. However, now a week after having seen it, I barely remember it and really can't recall anything that really stuck out as spectacular. Shrek is approaching middle age and so is the franchise. SHREK THE THIRD is like going to your high school reunion — it's entertaining to visit with old friends, but those wild and crazy guys aren't like they use to be. That being said, Shrek's latest tale isn't boring and at least moves the franchise into a logical direction instead of just spinning its wheels with a rehash of what worked in the first film.

Blogs This Weekend's Film Festival Celebrates Pan's Labyrinth

This is the first edition of the This Weekend's Film Festival. Hopefully, this will become a weekly feature of the site. But who knows what will get in the way. Each week will have a new theme. The only criteria for the fest's lineup are that I've already reviewed the film and that it's at least available on DVD. For the most part the films will be three star flicks, but a there may be an occasion to embrace less than positively reviewed films. I hope to bring attention to films I like and hope this is a fun way to encourage people to check them out and even better… have a fun thing to do on a weekend or two.

This week I'm building the lineup around PAN'S LABYRINTH, which just arrived on DVD. I felt it was the best film I saw from 2006. So the Friday evening film is Guillermo del Toro's fairy tale for adults. Fantasy films are on the rise lately thanks to the LORD OF THE RINGS series. Del Toro took many risks with this dark story that takes deep emotional issues and presents them on a grandly magical scale. The layered story works on more than one level. Visually arresting, the film will leave its images imprinted on your mind forever. For more on the film, read my original review.

Blogs DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2006) (***1/2)

This Oscar nominated documentary chronicles the long trail of child abuse inflicted by Father Oliver O'Grady and how the Catholic Church covered it up and allowed it to continue. More of a chronicle of what happened then a deeper look at why, the film succeeds the best when it deals with the way the sexual abuse affected its victims, which does not include just the grown children, but their families as well.

Part of the film's intrigue comes from the interviews with O'Grady, who now lives on a church pension in Ireland. The smile on his face and the lack of real remorse for what he has done only makes O'Grady's chronicling of his actions more chilling as well as fascinating.

Blogs CHARLOTTE'S WEB (2006) (***)

Quick to remind us of its friendship message, this adaptation of E.B. White's children's classic comes to life with a wonderful voice cast and great visual effects. It's sentimental OUR TOWN-like narration from Sam Shepard brings the material to the brink of being too maudlin, but the film's good heart and good intentions save it from being a sap fest. There could be a subtler rendition of this story, but Gary Winick's version keeps true to the heart of the book and does it in a first rate way.

Wilbur (Dominic Scott Kay, THE WILD) is the runt of a litter of piglets. Fern (Dakota Fanning, WAR OF THE WORLDS) saves Wilbur from the chopping block and adopts him as her pet. When he gets too big to be a house pet, Fern takes Wilbur to stay in the barn at her uncle's house. The menagerie of animals in the barn begrudgingly co-exists and warns Wilbur that spring pigs don't ever see a winter. Wilbur then befriends the outcast spider Charlotte (Julia Roberts, PRETTY WOMAN), who with the bribed help of hungry Templeton the rat (Steve Buscemi, FARGO), begins to write words about Wilbur in her web, which causes a sensation.

Blogs DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY (1974) (***)

One of the car flicks mentioned in GRINDHOUSE, it's not as deep as TWO LANE BLACKTOP or as thrilling as VANISHING POINT, but it's funnier than both of them combined. With the antagonistic banter between the male and female leads and cops ending up in rivers or crashing into telephone poles, I was often reminded of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT. However, DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY isn't a silly slapstick affair, but a character driven tale that also happens to be humorous.

Larry (Peter Fonda, EASY RIDER) runs out on his one-night stand Mary (Susan George, STRAW DOGS) to join his partner Deke (Adam Roarke, THE STUNT MAN) in robbing a grocery store. The robbery goes fairly smooth with no one getting hurt… but then Mary gets in the way. She notices Larry's car and makes it so he has to take her along with him, which at first doesn't make Deke very happy at all. Hot on their trail comes Capt. Everett Franklin (Vic Morrow, TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE), a non-conventional police officer who doggedly goes after the thieves as he butts heads with the politicized members of the police force.

Blogs SLITHER (2006) (**1/2)

This humorous horror outing has moments of wit, but often mistakes curse words with subversive satire. As horror the film is more creepy rather than scary. As a comedy, it's more of a gross out chuckler than a dark satirical howler. Some of the grosser moments are neither scary, creepy nor funny… just plain sickening.

Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion, SERENITY) is a small town police chief, who still has a flame for his childhood sweetheart Starla Grant (Elizabeth Banks, THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN), who is married to the older Grant Grant (Michael Rooker, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER), the richest man in town. When Starla shuns Grant's sexual advances, he heads out to a bar where he meets a woman. Their foray into the forest results in Grant being possessed by an alien entity that wants to devour all living things on Earth.

Blogs BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945) (****)

David Lean is best known for his epics like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI and DR. ZHIVAGO, however he started his career with several adaptations of Noel Coward followed by Charles Dickens. In BRIEF ENCOUNTER, we see the strong character development, which exemplifies his larger canvassed films. This film is an intimate portrait of an affair, which never feels like it was originally a play. Lean combines setting and mood perfectly to paint a heartbreaking tale of love and loss.

In a wonderful use of non-linear storytelling, the film opens with the end of the affair between Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson, IN WHICH WE SERVE) and Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard, THE THIRD MAN). The couple is disrupted by a chatty lady as they talk quietly in the café. We sense something is wrong. On the way home, Ceclia flashbacks to a few weeks prior, to when she first met Alec in that same train station café. Celia is bored with the routine of her life and finds Alec exciting. Both are married and their relationship starts off innocent until they fall in love.

Blogs Nancy's article about AnimaBasauri 3 in Spain, with pictures.

Hi friends,

Here are my impressions of the third year of a wonderful festival that takes place in Basauri, Spain, near Bilbo in April.

Love to everyone,
Nancy

ANIMA BASAURI 3 INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF ANIMATION
by Nancy Denney-Phelps

Like last year, a highlight was the chance to see animation from Spain, Mexico and South America, films that are rarely seen in other festivals. Of the 74 shorts that I watched, 19 were from Spain, 3 were from Brazil, and Mexico and Chile each had 1 film. I particularly enjoyed Ugly’s Night, Manuel Gonzalez Mauricio’s new take on boy meets girl, depicting two disfigured people who meet and fall in love.

Blogs SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007) (***)

A rollercoaster ride in both a good way and a bad way, the third installment in the Spidey film franchise brings viewers to the highs of some well-developed conflict and the lows of forced melodrama and silly spoofy jokes. Though there are only a few bad parts and one awful part, many of the good pieces don't fit together completely, forced together by contrivances. I wouldn't say it’s a mess, but it's an untidy entertainment that satisfies on its own merits, but disappoints in comparison to the far superior second installment.

Peter Parker (Toby Maguire, ICE STORM) is flying high — he's about to ask Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst, MARIE ATOINETTE) to marry him, he's doing well in school and Spider-Man is the champion of the city. It seems to be the same for Mary Jane — she's starring in a new Broadway musical and is madly in love. But things start to break apart between them on various fronts. Peter's best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco, TV's JAMES DEAN) attacks him, seeking revenge for his father's death in the first film, and is injured. Mary Jane becomes hurt by Peter's fame and inattentiveness, especially when his pretty lab partner Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard, THE VILLAGE) comes into the picture. Peter develops a rivalry with fellow photographer Eddie Brock (Topher Grace, TV's THAT 70S SHOW), who is dating Gwen. And then Peter and his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris, 1999's SUNSHINE) learn that the real killer Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church, SIDEWAYS) has escaped from prison and has been accidentally transformed into the Sandman, a creature who can expand into a giant sand beast. However, this thief has noble goals for his actions, trying to save his sick daughter. Oh, yeah, and then this alien black goo falls on Peter, increasing his aggression and cockiness and later turns Brock into the evil Venom.

Blogs TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962) (****)

Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Harper Lee, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a beguiling indictment of bigotry and much, much more. There is so much going on in this film that to boil it down to one theme is very hard. To say it's about learning to walk in another man's shoes to understand what they are like is to neglect the equally powerful coming of age, loss of innocence and noble parenting themes that are part of its power.

The story is told from the point of view of the children of small town lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck, GUNS OF NAVARONE). Scout (Mary Badham, THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED) is his tomboy daughter, who also narrates the film as a recollection. Jem (Phillip Alford, SHENANDOAH) is his older son, who gets into a fair share of trouble, but spends a greater deal of his time keeping his sister out of worse fixes. For the summer, they become friends with a peculiar young boy named Dill Harris (John Megna, THE CANNONBALL RUN). They inform Dill about the many legends of their town. Mean old Mrs. Dubose (Ruth White, MIDNIGHT COWBOY) hides a Confederate pistol under her lap blanket when sitting on her porch. Nathan Radley (Richard Hale, BEN-HUR) is the meanest man in town and keeps his grown son Boo (Robert Duvall, APOCALYPSE NOW) locked up in the basement because he's dangerous. The Radley house is a constant realm of fear for which only the bravest kid dares to go on the porch or peer into the window.

Blogs AUNTIE MAME (1958) (***1/2)

Theatrically melodramatic and filled with slapstick and wit, AUNTIE MAME combines humor and heart wonderfully. This is all driven by a fascinating central character, which is brought to life perfectly by Rosalind Russell.

Patrick Dennis (Jan Handzlik) is orphaned when his father passes and he must go to New York City to live with his eccentric aunt Mame (Russell, PICNIC). Patrick's father sets up his son's trust with a conservative bank and puts Dwight Babcock (Fred Clark, SUNSET BLVD.) in charge of making sure that his son doesn't become a freak at the hands of his "crazy" sister. Mame loves Patrick and tries to do the best for him, fighting the influence of Babcock as best as she can. However, Mame's lavish lifestyle comes to a crashing end when the stock market plummets and she loses all her money. Mame keeps her head up as she struggles to survive and keep Patrick in her life. However, she has a hard time when a grown Patrick (Roger Smith, MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES) wants to marry Gloria Upson (Joanna Barnes, THE PARENT TRAP), a girl from a "top-drawer" family.

Blogs Return of the Archive

If you've read the history of this blog than you know many of the reviews came from a newsletter that I've been doing on a regular basis since 2001. I was able to get a good chunk of the older reviews up before the blog launched, but there are still about 800 more to go. So I finally have been able to get back to tackling the archives that aren't already posted. When I post new archival reviews, I'm going to post a little recap of what's new in the world of older reviews. There's no ageism at Rick's Flicks Picks… a good movie is a good movie no matter when it was made and the same can be said about a good review.

$ (DOLLARS) (1971)
This is a really fun heist comedy starring Goldie Hawn and Warren Beatty that has been sadly forgotten.

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