Search form

AWN Blogs


NO END IN SIGHT (2007) (****)

Who is Charles Ferguson, the maker of the best film thus far on the Iraq War? He made millions selling his company Vermeer Technologies, the creator of the first visual website development tool FrontPage, to Microsoft. He served as a senior fellow at the political think tank, the Brookings Institute. He holds degrees from Berkeley and MIT, where he has also taught. He was originally a supporter of the invasion of Iraq. And now he has made a sobering, infuriating and honest chronicling of the Bush administration's disastrous handling of the war from the lips of those who served in the administration.

Ferguson doesn't go for theatrics or sentiment with his film. The facts are damning enough. Thirty-five people were interviewed for the film including: General Jay Garner, who ran Iraq reconstruction before L. Paul Bremer replaced him; Ambassador Barbara Bodine, who headed the Baghdad embassy until her differing opinions led to the Bush administration firing her; Richard Armitage, former Deputy Secretary of State; Robert Hutchings, former chairman of the National Intelligence Council; Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff; and Col. Paul Hughes, who worked for both the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).


CLUELESS (1995) (***1/2)

Classic literature is mined for teen films quite often. How many ROMEO AND JULIETs in high school have we seen? Director Amy Heckerling (FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH) based CLUELESS on Jane Austen's EMMA and infused it with hip Beverly Hills glamour and slang. As for teen versions of classic lit, this is about as good as it gets.

Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone, LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST) is the prototypical dumb blonde, it seems. She obsesses about clothes, boys and the here and now. Along with best friend Dionne (Stacey Dash, RENAISSANCE MAN) and Dionne's boyfriend Murray (Donald Faison, TV's SCRUBS), they make it their mission to transform New York City transplant Tai (Brittany Murphy, DEAD GIRL) into the next cast member of BEVERLY HILLS 90210. Cher deeply disapproves of Tai's initial choice of boys — a tokin' skater named Travis (Breckin Meyer, GARFIELD). She tries to find Tai a more suitable suitor like the hottie Elton (Jeremy Sito, TV's SIX FEET UNDER). While she is playing matchmaker, Cher sets her eyes on the new boy in school Christian (Justin Walker). All along, Cher's former stepbrother and law student Josh (Paul Rudd, KNOCKED UP) watches Cher's manipulations with a wry smile, injecting a sardonic comment from time to time as he helps Cher's father Mel (Dan Hedaya, THE HURRICANE) work on a big lawsuit.


This Weekend's Film Festival Celebrates One Damn Good Week for New DVD Releases

As I was looking down the list of films hitting DVD this week, I was struck by how many good titles were being released. I didn't want to deny extra exposure for any of them, because they're all so good. So I just decided to dedicate this week's lineup of This Weekend's Film Festival to five great new titles on DVD. It's an eclectic mix to say the least. Three films are new to DVD, one is an older films getting re-released and one of them is actually a short film collection. We have animated masterpieces, a humorous and touching documentary, a fun true-life biopic and a mysterious neo-noir.

The Friday night feature is the only cheat in the overall premise for this week's lineup. TALK TO ME (which actually came out last week) didn't fit into my Halloween theme, but I feel it well deserves special attention. Don Cheadle's performance as the original shock jock, Petey Greene, is Oscar worthy. Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the radio exec that believes in the ex convict, and Taraji P. Henson, as Petey's faithful girlfriend, both reserve recognition for their work as well. The film chronicles the rise of Greene from his time in prison to his fame on the radio to his disastrous performance on the Tonight Show. Director Kasi Lemmons doesn't direct in a flashy way; she just allows the pace to naturally flow, driven by the strength of her spectacular cast. Cheadle is electric and completely convincing as the abrasive and smart DJ. As I said in my original review, "What makes Petey Greene’s story so captivating is the man’s honesty. He tells it how it is whether you want to hear it or not."


LIFTED (2007) (****)

This brilliant spoof of alien abduction stories is the first film from famed soundman Gary Rydstrom. Of course, the sound is perfect, but Rydstrom translates his sound skills to make a hilarious short with perfect timing.

In the story, teen alien Stu must look over a huge board of switches to lift a deeply slumbering farmer from his bed. For each mistake, the looming glutinous supervisor, Mr. B, scribbles down notes on a clip board. Will Stu succeed or will be lose his cool?

Rydstrom's timing and pacing is impeccable. For all intents and purposes, the film is a single joke, however it's still funny upon repeated viewings. The slapstick is perfectly combined with character. Stu's reactions are wonderfully exaggerated. There is a classic squash and stretch cartoon vibe to this short, which is a landmark for CG animation. The character design is also superb. The gelatin-like bodies of the aliens are unique. Stu with his oversized helmet adds to the character's emotions and personalities. You get a quick sense that he is young and inexperienced just by his look, while you sense the opposite from the stoic Mr. B.



Featured as a supplement on the CARS DVD, this short is the worst one based on characters from a Pixar feature and is one of the weaker shorts the studio has done. More so than MIKE'S NEW CAR and JACK-JACK ATTACK, the film feels like a product not a short that needed to be made.

Filled with the characters from CARS, Mater the Tow Truck (Larry the Cable Guy) sneaks around Radiator Springs trying to scare or play tricks on various inhabitants. As a way to get back at him, Sheriff (Michael Wallis) tells Mater the spooky tale of the ghostlight, which haunts the streets of the town in the dark. So as Mater heads home, his tires shake with fear that the ghostly blue light will find him.


ONE MAN BAND (2006) (***)

With its three previous shorts featuring dialogue, Pixar goes back to its tradition of no dialogue shorts with this entertaining production. Directed and written by Mark Andrews and Andrew Jimenez, the film relies on music strongly to tell its simple story.

Bass is a busker who plays various percussion instruments all at once. A young girl named Tippy comes to the courtyard where Bass performs to make a wish in the fountain. So Bass plays her a tune to earn her coin instead. But then Treble, a one-man string section, shows up to lure the little girl away. Each musician will pull out all the stops to convince Tippy that they deserve her lone gold piece.

With its piazza and period setting, this short has a worldly style that is new to Pixar shorts. Like many the Pixar shorts, the story is simple, but what makes it fun is the great gags that the filmmakers come up with. The directors worked closely with the composer to come up with the music, which is key. The tunes work as the voices of the characters, helping build their personalities. Bass is subtly built as a tired veteran performer, while Treble is flashier and comes off as a bit of a shyster.


JACK-JACK ATTACK (2005) (***)

Out of all the Pixar shorts featuring characters from their feature films, this is the best one. Originally included as bonus material on THE INCREDIBLES DVD, the short actually began as a scene in the movie, but was cut when Brad Bird felt it was funnier to reveal Jack-Jack's powers at the end of the film.

The bookend story features Kari, the Parr's babysitter, being interviewed by secret agent Rick Dicker about what happened when she was babysitting Jack-Jack. At first Kari reassures Mrs. Parr (aka Elastigirl) over the phone that she can handle anything the baby can throw at her. Well, soon Kari will discover how over her head she is when little Jack-Jack starts to wreck havoc in the house with his superpowers. As Kari frantically tries to take control of the situation, the events lead up to the final events in THE INCREDIBLES feature.


BOUNDIN' (2004) (***1/2)

Writer/director Bud Luckey, who is best known at Pixar for designing TOY STORY's Woody, makes a singularly original short in the canon of the studio. The tone skews unapologetically young and old fashioned. The tale is told in song and springs forward with a moral unlike any other film from Pixar.

A young sheep dances proudly with his impressive coat of wool. However, when he is sheered and left in the rain, everyone around can't help to laugh at the pathetic sight. Then along comes the mythical creature, the jackalope, who teaches the young lamb that life will have its ups and its downs and all you have to do is bound and rebound.

The design work on this Oscar nominated short is bright to the point of adding energy to the story. It also features some amazingly subtle animation that wonderfully captures the emotions of the poor little lamb. The animators wonderfully balance the lamb's bravado at the start and his sheepishness (couldn't help myself) once his white coat is gone. The message of taking life's problems in stride is full of optimism, which in our cynical age is quite striking. Luckey was inspired to make the film from the image of a newly shorn lamp, which was an image ingrained in his mind since his childhood on the Great Plains. The film is sentimental, but in a good way.


MIKE'S NEW CAR (2002) (***)

Made for the MONSTERS, INC. DVD release, MIKE'S NEW CAR seems like an afterthought. Not that the film isn't funny, but it seems like an average gag that just happens to feature the lovable Mike Wazowski and Sulley characters. It's little confectionary compared to many of the other Pixar shorts.

In the story, Mike is excited to show Sulley his brand new six-wheel car. However, when they get inside to take a ride, nothing goes right. That's the story. In addition to being the first Pixar short to star characters from their features, the short is also the first to contain dialogue. One of the treats is that Billy Crystal and John Goodman returned to play Mike and Sulley, respectively. Crystal is especially funny.


FOR THE BIRDS (2001) (***1/2)

Making it two in a row, FOR THE BIRDS won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short for this simple and quite funny cartoon. Like GERI'S GAME, the short was a technical experiment. This time the Pixar wizards were testing realistic feathers. And also like GERI'S GAME, the technical never gets in the way of story.

A flock of small, plump birds begin to perch on a telephone wire. Then a large bird lands on the telephone pole and dopily waves to the feathered clique, who can't help but make fun of her. However, their rudeness finally lays their true personalities bare in the end.

Truly past technical constraints at this point, the film, directed by Ralph Eggleston, is bright and colorful. The design work nicely conveys the personalities of the characters. Four of the birds have names — Chipper, Bully, Snob and Neurotic. That says it all. With a nice subtly, one can easily pick out which bird is which via their actions. It’s that kind of attention to detail that makes the film special. A lesser filmmaker would have made the flock of birds one collective personality, however Eggleston adds nuance to each of the callous feathered foursome. FOR THE BIRDS is a crowd pleaser that proves that when it comes to story sometimes, simplicity can work wonders.


GERI'S GAME (1998) (****)

Pixar's second Oscar winning short, GERI'S GAME, was the first film made after the success of TOY STORY. Though the film was a research and development tool to test CG humans and cloth simulation, none of the experimenting hurts the ability of the filmmakers to tell their story. Directed and written by Jan Pinkava, it's Pixar's masterpiece in the short form.

Geri is an old codger who sets out to play a game of chess in the park one day. His opponent is himself. The first Geri is a slower, spectacles-wearing fellow with a gentler personality. The second Geri is sprier and likes to taunt the other Geri as he makes one successful move after another. But what the second Geri doesn't know is that the first Geri is wiser than he seems.


KNICK KNACK (1989) (***1/2)

KNICK KNACK is a transitional film in the history of Pixar for many reasons. It was the last short before the company moved onto its first feature film TOY STORY. It also stands as the first of their shorts that doesn't seem to be a product of tackling any certain technical challenge. Writer/director John Lasseter was making a film for the joy of it, and we can tell.

On a shelf of various knickknacks from different vacation spots, a snowman trapped in a snow globe looks on jealously as fellow knickknacks from sunnier locales relax and party. A blonde from Miami beckons the snowman to join them, but all his attempts to free himself end in disaster. When he finally finds an exit plan, things don't turn out as he would have hoped.


TIN TOY (1988) (***1/2)

Pixar's first Academy Award winning film, TIN TOY, expands on many of the advances technically and storywise that their previous film RED'S DREAM attempted. It also stands a precursor to their first animated feature TOY STORY.

A baby has just received a new tin one-man band toy. Tinny the toy is happy to have a new home until he witnesses the destructive nature of a giant baby. The little toy runs for his life and discovers why toys get lost and what his real purpose is supposed to be.

In RED'S DREAM, Pixar attempted its first "organic" human character, but for TIN TOY the baby was the first to have life-like bendable knees and arms. In comparison to today, the baby looks weak. However, unlike RED'S DREAM where the clown character's design was distracting, this time the baby is good enough and the story is compelling enough to overcome some of the technical limitations.


RED'S DREAM (1987) (***)

In their third CG animated short, Pixar started to go more ambitious. John Lasseter and his team had the lighting challenge of setting the story at night, expanded on the detail of the locations, attempt liquids (which are still difficult) and expanded the score of the story by doubling the running time. As for story, it's their first short that has a fully developed theme. However, some bad character design with their first organic character dates the film and serves to distract the audience from the more fleshed out plot.

It's a rainy night. Eben's Bikes is having a sale. Red, a lonely unicycle, sits in the corner with 50% off tag. He dreams of getting bought and performing in a circus act. In his dream, he works with the juggling clown Lumpy, and actually goes on to outshine his human operator.


LUXO JR. (1986) (****)

Pixar's first Oscar nominated short film is also their first classic. John Lasseter was learning how to make CG models and decided to take inspiration from the architect's lamp on his desk. Still impressive for its detail, the early CG animation holds up very well. However, as what would become a staple of the Pixar way of making films, it's all about character.

The story is simple — Luxo Jr. is a young lamp who is learning to play with a rubber ball with his father. Lasseter is able to create amazing amounts of personality in his two inanimate stars. Luxo Jr. is an energetic and precocious little guy. He's full of curiosity like many young children are. His father is calm and patient. Like a good parent, he is tired by the boundless energy of his kid, but encouraging and sympathetic.



More of an experiment than a short film, THE ADVENTURES OF ANDRE & WALLY B was Pixar's first CG animated short. It was made when Pixar was still part of Lucasfilms. The short was first CG work for Pixar head and TOY STORY director John Lasseter, who was restricted by only being allowed to use geometric shapes to build his characters and sets. Alvy Ray Smith, who was a computer graphics artist on 1982's STAR TREK: WRATH OF KHAN, is credited as the film's writer.

As for the story, Andre is a wide-eyed fellow with a big black nose, who is just waking up from a nap in the forest. Wally, a bee, begins to taunt him. Andre distracts Wally and makes run for it. The 3D animation is dated by current standards and the sound design is awkwardly integrated. Much of the sound is standard cartoony sound effects. To their credit, even in this early example of CG, the Pixar artists were skilled in bringing personality to their characters. Andre clearly has a Bugs Bunny vibe. As a historical document it's amazing to see the advances that have been made in computer animation since 1984. Any true animation fan should check this out. Those just looking for entertainment will be disappointed.



The 34thFlanders International Film Festival held in Gent, Belgium (October 9 – 20) primarily celebrates film music’s relation to the visual language of film. That said, it also includes some fine animation, including two of the thirteen short films nominated for the 2007 European Film Awards (PRIX UIP). Each of the 13 films in this competition had already won a PRIX UIP award of €2000.00 at one of the major European festivals, and the winner will be announced on 1 December in Berlin and awarded a €10,000.00 grand prize.

One of the two contenders is Joanna Quinn’s delightful Dreams and Desires – Family Ties, which has already garnered the Grand Prix at several festivals such as Annecy and Zagreb. It qualified for the PRIX UIP by capturing the prize at Tampere International Film Festival in Tampere, Finland. I have written extensively about Beryl, the heroine of the film, and her whimsical screwball adventures in several previous articles, so I won’t repeat myself, except to say that the film gets better with each viewing. Nik and I did get to spend a lovely afternoon with Joanna and her scriptwriter husband Les Mills while they were here for the Festival and my next article will be an interview that I did with these two very talented and fun people. Joanna and Les also were gracious enough to take time out from their busy festival schedule to give a short Saturday morning master class at KASK School for the advanced students


BEE MOVIE (2007) (***)

Jerry Seinfeld's big return is a B- at best. It's like honey sweet, satisfying, but it's not something that goes to your head. Even more so than Pixar's RATATOUILLE, this is an animated film for adults, which is not a negative comment in the least. Visually the little ones might find some of the sillier or more brightly colored moments entertaining, but most of it will buzz right over their heads. Where the film really succeeds is in creating its world. The parallels between the bee world and the human world are at times ingenious.

Barry B. Benson (Seinfeld) has just graduated from college. Because of their short life span, bees only have to go for three days. Barry and his best friend Adam Flayman (Matthew Broderick, ELECTION) go off to their first day at the hive, where they have to choose one job to do for the rest of their lives. This idea scares Barry, who decides to head out into the outside world to see what is out there. Along his journey, he ends up almost swatted by the brutish Ken (Patrick Warburton, TV's THE TICK) if it were not for the pretty florist Vanessa (Renee Zellweger, BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY). Barry breaks bee law and talks to Vanessa to thank her for saving his life. Quickly, Barry is smitten by Vanessa, and on a trip to the grocery store, he discovers the truth about human's theft of honey. So with the help of Vanessa, Barry decides to sue the human race.


This Weekend's Film Festival Celebrates the Best Horror Films of the 21st Century (Thus Far)

In time for Halloween, horror films seem like the obvious choice for This Weekend's Film Festival. As I did earlier in the year when I picked the best five live-action family films of the past five years, this lineup will be dedicated to the best horror of the 21st century. And I'm using 2001 as the start date, because it's actually the real start of the 21st century. There has been a great deal of great horror in the last seven years. However, the five films I have selected are really good examples of the genre. Prepare to be thrilled, but there is some challenging cinema here as well. So let the countdown begin.

Coming in a #5 and starting off the lineup is SESSION 9. As I said in my original review from 2001, "This is one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen." The story follows five asbestos removers who are under a very tight deadline to clear out and old asylum. This truly frightening film is a psychological thriller. The creepy location is just a setting; it's the demons haunting the souls of the five men that bring horror to their lives. One of the workers becomes obsessed with recordings of an old patient in the mental institution, and as we get closer to hearing the session 9 tape the more tension we feel. This horror nail-biter features a great cast including Peter Mullan, Josh Lucas, David Caruso, Stephan Gevedon and Brendan Sexton III. Director/writer Brad Anderson makes a horror film where the threat of something terrible happening is far more frightening than ghosts popping up at every turn.


BASIC INSTINCT 2 (2006) (**)

Okay, the original BASIC INSTINCT is a total guilty pleasure. It’s delectable trash. When the sequel was released, it was universally trashed. I wasn't going to rush out to theaters to see it or even rent it, but I awaited its arrival on cable. I was expecting grand camp, and received some of that, but for the most part this is a lame thriller that twists and turns down obvious or illogical roads.

We begin with crime writer Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone, CASINO) driving over 100 mph down the streets of London as footballer (soccer player for the Americans) Kevin Franks (footballer Stan Collymore) pleasures her. Her excitement is so great that she drives the car off a bridge and into the river, where drugged up Franks drowns. Detective Roy Washburn (David Thewlis, HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN) believes she did it on purpose. So he enlists court psychiatrist Michael Glass (David Morrissey, HILARY AND JACKIE) to rule on her mental state. After he meets the sexually provocative Tramell, Glass believes that she is addicted to risk. As things go with Tramell, she tries to seduce everyone around her, working her way into Glass treating her. Then people start turning up dead and Glass is thrust into a murder mystery that involves newspaper reporter Adam Towers (Hugh Dancy, ELLA ENCHANTED), his ex-wife Denise (Indira Varma, KAMA SUTRA), his colleague Milena Gardosh (Charlotte Rampling, SWIMMING POOL) and famed psychoanalyst Jakob Gerst (Heathcote Williams, ORLANDO).


THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967) (***1/2)

As the final film supervised by Walt Disney, THE JUNGLE BOOK stands a historical transition for the Mouse House. With star casting and character designs based on those actors, the film stands as the close of the golden age and the beginning of the modern age of Disney animation. For better or for worse, it served as a flagship for the way animated features would be made at the studio for decades to come. Despite its flaws or unwanted precedents, it is hard to deny the charms of the irresistible songs and loveable characters.

Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman, THE MANY ADVENTURES OF WINNIE THE POOH) is a baby abandoned in the jungle and discovered by wise panther Bagheera (Sebastian Cabot, 1960's THE TIME MACHINE). Adopted by a wolf pack, the boy's life is put in danger when the stealthy killer tiger Shere Khan (George Sanders, ALL ABOUT EVE) returns to their part of the jungle. Bagheera volunteers to take the boy to a man village. When Mowgli learns where he is going, he isn't happy. So when he meets slacker bear Baloo (Phil Harris, 1973's ROBIN HOOD), he wishes to live with the lazy bear on the bare necessities. Along the way, Mowgli will meet a marching unit of elephants led by Colonel Hathi (J. Pat O'Malley, 1971's WILLARD), be kidnapped by the monkeys of the temple of King Louie (Louis Prima), get hypnotized by boa constrictor Kaa (Sterling Holloway, MEET JOHN DOE), encounter a foursome of mop-top vultures and come face-to-face with the deep-voice orange and black terror.


AWAY FROM HER (2007) (****)

This heart-rending account of a couple dealing with Alzheimer’s disease from the point of view of both the afflicted and the helpless observer is an impressive feature-directing debut by actress Sarah Polley. The young filmmaker handles the heavy material with grace, subtly and maturity that is surprising for someone 28 years old. With this film, we not only have one of the best films of 2007, but the dawn of a truly talented filmmaker.

Grant (Gordon Pinsent, THE SHIPPING NEWS) becomes quietly worried when he begins to see the signs that his wife Fiona (Julie Christie, MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER) may be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. When her condition worsens to the point when she is afraid to leave the house because she is unsure if she can find her way back, she decides to enter an assisted living facility. The policy of the home is that new patients cannot receive guests from the outside for 30 days so they can become accustomed to their new surroundings. Grant doesn’t like this rule, but Fiona can’t bare him staying too long because it is so sad. When Grant returns for his first visit, Fiona doesn’t remember him and has developed a very close relationship with fellow patient Aubrey (Michael Murphy, X-MEN: THE LAST STAND). Intercut with Fiona’s journey to the home are scenes of Grant meeting Aubrey’s wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis, MOONSTRUCK); the two have the same thing in common as Fiona and Aubrey do, only from the other side.


Kiev Weekly Interview with Nik and Nancy

While Nik and I were in Kiev for the KROK International Festival of Animation we were interviewed by Dmytro Ivanov for the KIEV WEEKLY. The article can be read in either English and Ukrainian at the web address listed below. The photo was taken while our boat was docked in Yalta.


THE MEMORY OF A KILLER (2005) (***1/2)

This Belgium/Netherlands co-production was originally released in 2003. It finally made its way to the U.S. in 2005 as an art house release. What one might find surprising about the film is that it's not an art house film. This slickly stylized thriller has more in common with Hollywood blockbusters than European dramas. The central plot of "cops after a killer" is fairly standard, but what makes this film special is the beguiling performance from Jan Decleir as a highly skilled assassin who is beginning to show the signs of Alzheimer's.

We start with detective Eric Vincke (Koen DeBouw, EXIT) involved in a child prostitution sting with his juvenile-acting partner Freddy Verstuyft (Werner DeSmedt). Then Angelo Ledda (Decleir, ANTONIA'S LINE) comes to town. He's assigned to kill two people and retrieve a lockbox. When Angelo refuses to kill his second target for personal reasons, he becomes the target. As he discovers the details of his mission, he forms his own personal vendetta against his clients, toying with the police that he is cleaning the streets of the crooks they cannot catch. Vincke will get ensnared in a cat and mouse chase with the hired killer and learn that the affair could blow the lid off layers of government corruption.