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This Weekend's Film Festival Celebrates The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of America

With it being the 4th of July, I thought a great theme for this week's This Weekend's Film Festival would be America — the good, the bad and the ugly. Once I had my theme lots of ideas and sub-themes came to mind. It's a ripe area to explore and I will definitely be visiting it again sometime. However, the lineup I have come up with captures the American spirit though politics and sports. I truly feel that American holidays celebrating America should be a time for us to not only wave flags and remember that we are lucky to be Americans, but also to reflect on the bad and the ugly parts of what being an American means to us as well as the rest of the world. This week's five films address some of our shortcomings as well as our triumphs.


An Event Honoring Walter Lantz and Woody Woodpecker

A few days ago I received an email regarding this event in Los Angeles on July 11th

Here is the link to a site for FREE tickets and more information....just click here

The text of the email follows....wish I was in L.A. on the 11th....

Headline: An Animator’s Grand Salute to Woody Woodpecker! Guess Who!

On July 11, StoryMakers Studio brings several of the biggest names in the cartoon world to the Grauman’s Chinese Theatres Complex in Hollywood:


SHOOTER (2007) (**)

Outside of an earnest performance from Mark Wahlberg and a half decent role for Michael Pena, this stupid film has very little else to offer. This film falls into the category of films that I like to call 15-minute Google movies — they're films that pretend to know what they are talking about by using what seems like about 15 minutes of Googling the given topic. Reportedly this film is based off a novel by Stephen Hunter, who is either a hack writer or very mad at the film studio. Jonathan Lemkin's screenplay actually feels like it was based on a million other films just like it. Additionally, director Antoine Fuqua (TRAINING DAY) seems to know this and just goes through the motions on this one.


Find your fantasy

Very interesting contrast last week when I caught back-to-back screenings of a pair of fantasy flicks: Stardust and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

For one, the Stardust screening was deserted - just me, one other person and a friend I brought along. (A tumbling tumbleweed blocked my view of the screen for a while). The Phoenix screening was packed - they had to bring in folding chairs for the overflow, and held the start until some bigshot could make it.

And the movies deserved their respective audiences. Want to see an uninspired, you'll-leave-the-theater-humming-the(adequate)-special-effects fantasy? Stardust (directed by Matthew Vaughn of Layer Cake) is your film. Everything's pro-forma, out of the twinkly, twee, Edwardian-British faerie school of literary fantasy, without an ounce of conviction showing anywhere; I've had more believable experiences at your average Renaissance Festival.


TRANSFORMERS (2007) (**1/2)

TRANSFORMERS starts off as a fun summer cruise, but then crashes head on into the medium strip at 100 mph and subsequently kicks it into autopilot. The first third is an entertaining global alien invasion flick in the mold of INDEPENDENCE DAY, but sadly once the Autobots show up the script flips into a juvenile, sitcom-like version of IRON GIANT. Finally in the end, we are given a conclusion with so many plot holes you could drive Optimus Prime right through them.

In Qatar, a U.S. military base is attacked by a transforming helicopter, leaving soldiers Sgt. Lennox (Josh Duhamel, TV's LAS VEGAS), USAF Tech Sgt. Epps (Tyrese Gibson, BABY BOY) and their teammates stranded in the desert. Then we move to the American suburbs, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf, HOLES) is trying to save up for his first car, going to the point where he's willing to sell his grandfather's glasses on eBay. He pines over the pretty, popular girl Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox, TV's HOPE & FAITH), who turns out to be a grease monkey. Defense Secretary John Keller (Jon Voight, DELIVERENCE) tries to make heads or tails of the robot attack, which includes a hack into the government's computer systems. To do so he calls in tech experts from all walks of life. Young, pretty, Aussie techie Maggie Madsen (Rachael Taylor, SEE NO EVIL) discovers the alien robots hacking into Air Force One computers and when she gets resistance to her idea about the hacks coming from DNA based machines, she goes to her hacker friend Glen Whitmann (Anthony Anderson, HUSTLE & FLOW) for help. Later Sam discovers that his beat-up Camero is really an alien robot named Bumblebee (Mark Ryan, THE PRESTIGE) and that his grandfather's glasses are key to saving Earth from the evil alien robot Decepticons.


RATATOUILLE (2007) (****)

I'd like to introduce you to the first real contender for Best Film of 2007. Brad Bird is the best American director working in animation today. Knowing that he came onto the project midway is amazing, because he has made the best American animated film since TOY STORY 2 and his own IRON GIANT. He has also pushed the boundaries of American animation into a more adult realm. It's still a film for the whole family, but I suspect parents will get more out of it than their kids.

Remy (Patton Oswalt, TV's THE KING OF QUEENS) is a rat with a keen sense of smell. He loves fine cooking, which puts him at odds with is moldy meat-and-potatoes father, Django (Brian Dennehy, COCOON) and simple taste brother, Emile (Peter Sohn, story artist at Pixar). When they get forced out of their home in the country, the rat clan ends up in Paris. Remy gets separated from the rest and is inspired to check the city out by a figment of his imagination in the form of his favorite chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett, TV's EVERYONE LOVES RAYMOND). He ends up in the deceased Gusteau's famed restaurant, which is now run by the short tyrant Skinner (Ian Holm, LORD OF THE RINGS), who is more interested in using Gusteau's fame to sell a line of frozen foods than to run the once five-star eatery.



Considered by some the best STAR TREK feature, this installment is a bit hokey, but serves as an excellent time capsule of its era. Taking a page from ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, VOYAGE HOME finds the 23rd Century crew of the Enterprise in '80s San Francisco. Silly humor aside, the film has a message at its core that applies to the current time, which was a hallmark of the classic TV series. It's not all that deep, but it's fun and entertaining.

Admiral Jim Kirk (William Shatner) has saved his once-dead friend Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who is coping with his rebirth and readjusting to his duel lineage as a logical Vulcan and emotional human. The Federation wants to try the crew for their actions in the third film, but a mysterious probe has come to Earth and will destroy the planet unless it can make contact with humpback whales. The problem is humpback whales are extinct. So Kirk devises a plan to travel back in time and bring back two whales. In the past, they team up with whale expert Dr. Gillian Taylor (Catherine Hicks, TV's 7TH HEAVEN), who first believes the strangely dressed Kirk and Spock are crazy.


This Weekend's Film Festival Celebrates Eclectic Cinema Starring African-Americans

With BLACK SNAKE MOAN hitting DVD this week, I thought I'd build the week's This Weekend Film Festival around cult cinema starring African-Americans. I went through a big list of possible films and picked ones that I felt complemented each other in thematic and/or tonal ways. If you like this lineup some alternative titles for future viewing could include BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, BAADASSSSS!, SHAFT or CABIN IN THE SKY. All five films have a hot, steamy feel to them, which is quite fitting for this pre-July 4th weekend. Looking for eccentric characters and eclectic stories? Than I have a lineup for you.

Kicking off the fest on Friday night is the best film from 2000 — GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI. Jim Jarmusch's genre-bending comedy/thriller mixes gangsters, hip-hop and the samurai's code of honor. Ghost Dog is a cool and calculated killer for the mob, who has a peaceful soul inside. He lives by a strict code, which gives him purpose. Jarmusch sets Ghost Dog's ways against the dying Italian mob culture. The film satirically pokes fun at gangster conventions, bringing a droll sense of humor to the film. Unique characters populate this entire film. This one is like nothing you've ever seen before. Check out my 2001 review of the film to find out more.


EL TOPO (1970) (****)

This mystical, satirical Western is like if Buñuel, Fellini and Mel Brooks made THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY for the arthouse and grindhouse, simultaneously. Every now and than you see a film so original that it's more than just something that you've never seen before, it's something that changes the way you think about film. This is one of those rare films. Alejandro Jodorowsky is a master filmmaker, who is like many of the great modern filmmakers, combining elements of cinema that have come before in a way that it makes something revolutionarily new and refreshing. This is post-modern cinema at its best, strangest and most spiritual.

El Topo (Jodorowsky) is a black clad rider, who tells his six-year-old naked son that the boy is now a man and he should symbolically burry his first toy and a picture of his mother in the desert. They ride into a town where the people have been slaughtered by outlaws. While avenging the deaths, he meets a woman he names Mara (Mara Lorenzio), who will urge him to make morally questionable decisions, which lead to his redemption in an underground community of deformed people where he meets a little woman (Jacqueline Luis), who changes his life.


NASHVILLE (1975) (****)

The quintessential "Altman" feature follows 24 major characters through five days in Nashville, leading up to a political rally/ country concert. More free flowing than any of director Robert Altman's other hyperlink films, this feature clearly has no main character and moves along on the simplest plot theme, building wonderful character moments, which lead back to its core themes of fame and politics. The "plot" is thin, but the narrative is a complex and brilliantly constructed tapestry of intertwining narratives, surrounded by nearly an hour of music.

Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson, MAGNOLIA) is a Nashville icon with his big hair and white, spangled jump suit. The film begins with him recording an insipid ballad about the bicentennial. Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin, 9 TO 5) is a white gospel singer, who is married to lawyer Delbert (Ned Beatty, DELIVERENCE), who is helping organize the political rally for third party candidate Hal Phillip Walker, who is unseen throughout the film. Linnea and Delbert have two deaf sons, which Delbert cannot relate to at all. Linnea is hounded by womanizing folk rocker Tom Frank (Keith Carradine, CHOOSE ME), who is having an affair with his bandmate Mary (Cristina Raines, THE SENTINEL), who is married to his other bandmate Bill (Allan Nicholls, SLAP SHOT). Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) is a reigning queen of Nashville, but she is mentally and physically burnt out by the pressures of the music business and her controlling manager/husband Barnett (Allen Garfield, THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY).


THE BRIDGE (2006) (****)

More than 20 people leap from the Golden Gate Bridge each year and this film watches them do it. There is an allure to the location that draws more people to end their lives there than any other spot on Earth. It's a dramatic way to go. Eric Steel's gripping documentary about the phenomenon is chilling as we watch in horror as 24 people jump from the bridge. For many this film will certainly fall into the category of a great film that they will never want to see again. For others it may be a film too disturbing to watch one time. It profoundly tries to step into the darkness that causes people to take their own lives and it's not a comfortable place to go.

Through the course of the film, we see many people jump, we see a few people stopped, we hear from the family and friends of the dead and also hear from one very lucky survivor. The 220-foot fall takes 4 seconds; most die on impact, others drown. Roughly 1,300 people have killed themselves at the Golden Gate Bridge, only 26 jumpers have survived.


ICE AGE: THE MELTDOWN (2006) (**1/2)

Luckily there's a 4-star Scrat short interspersed between the weak sitcom plot of this disappointing sequel to Blue Sky's surprisingly good debut film, ICE AGE. The characters made the original so wonderful. The new characters in MELTDOWN make the sequel annoying. And there are too many of them. This overshadows poor Manny, Sid and Diego. Scrat fares much better because he's out on his own.

Our loveable trio each has their own separate issues to deal with this time around. Manny (Ray Romano, TV's EVERYONE LOVES RAYMOND) is sad over the possibility that he may be the last mammoth alive. Sid (John Leguizamo, SUMMER OF SAM) gets no respect from the kids in their new larger tribe of various prehistoric animals. Diego (Denis Leary, TV's RESCUE ME) fears water, which is a real problem when the land of ice you live in is melting all around you. It appears that the valley where they all reside is going to flood soon, so they head off to the far end toward a rumored boat. Along the way Manny, Sid and Diego get separated from the mass of annoying characters, to end up with three other annoying characters — possums Crash (Sean William Scott, AMERICAN PIE) and Eddie (Josh Peck, MEAN CREEK) and their adopted mammoth sister Ellie (Queen Latifah, CHICAGO), who doggedly refuses to accept that she is indeed a mammoth.


ALICE, SWEET ALICE (1976) (**1/2)

Originally titled COMMUNION upon its theatrical release, this horror thriller peaked my interest when it made Bravo's top-50 horror list and features Brooke Shields first film performance. Horror fans may find the core premise an interesting twist on the slasher genre, but others will find the tone and pacing all wrong. Most of the ingredients are fresh, but the meal gets overheated and goes down rough.

Catherine Spages (Linda Miller, AN UNMARRIED WOMAN) has two daughters — the perfect beauty Karen (Shields) and the troublemaker Alice (Paula Sheppard). Alice torments her sister with creepy masks and mean pranks. We suspect that she is up to no good. Then on the day of her first communion, Karen is strangled by a masked killer who hides her body and sets it on fire. Catherine is devastated. Her strict sister Annie (Jane Lowry) moves in with her. The beloved Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich, THE NUMBER 23) tries to consol her. Her estranged husband Dom (Niles McMaster) comes into town. Det. Spina (Michael Hardstark) and Brennan (Tom Signorelli, THE COTTON CLUB) want to talk to Alice about the murder, but her family can't believe that she could be involved. But Karen's attack will not be the only victim of this killer.



Prior to making this film, director Joseph Ruben made another film called THE STEPFATHER, which dealt with a domineering male who loams over his family. Both films share similar plot themes, positive points and problems. They start convincingly and contain strong performances, but spiral off into ridiculous slasher movies in the end. Ruben sets up well, but doesn't deliver.

Laura (Julia Roberts, PRETTY WOMAN) meets and marries Martin Burney (Patrick Bergin, PATRIOT GAMES), who is suave, charming and wealthy. He seems like a catch. But after the honeymoon is over, he becomes controlling and ultimately abusive both mentally and physically. After three years of being trapped, Laura devises a plan to fake her own death then run away to Iowa to start her life anew. In her new life, she meets theater professor Ben Woodward (Kevin Anderson, CHARLOTTE'S WEB), who she has a problem opening up to. Laura is afraid that Martin will find out about her deception and come looking for her and she has every right to fear this happening.


BREACH (2007) (***1/2)

Based on the true story of the worst case of spying in U.S. history, this taut thriller relies on an intriguing central character, brought to life brilliantly by Chris Cooper (AMERICAN BEAUTY). Director Billy Ray brings the same examining eye he brought to his previous film, SHATTERED GLASS, which chronicled Stephen Glass's deception in filing fake news reports to his newspaper in an effort to succeed. Many of the same themes are addressed in this sad tale of former FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who for decades gave up American secrets to Russia.

We begin with hot agent in training Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe, CRASH) on a stakeout, where he outshines the other trainees. He's called in by senior agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney, KINSEY), who wants Eric to ride the desk of Hanssen, who is being reassigned to plan out the agency's new computer security structure and needs to be watched because he is a sexual deviant. Eric keeps an eye on the cocky Hanssen, who on the surface appears to be a staunchly religious man dedicated to his family. Hanssen pushes Eric to embrace his Catholic faith and along with his wife Bonnie (Kathleen Quinlan, APOLLO 13) tries to push Eric's lax protestant wife Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas, HOLLYWOODLAND) into their beliefs. Hanssen is blunt and can be demeaning when Eric slips up. He isn't shy about sharing his distain with the politics of the FBI, which have kept him from being promoted to a higher level. Eric is torn about keeping secrets from his wife and spying on a boss he has come to respect until Burroughs reveals that Hanssen is a traitor.


THE FOUNTAIN (2006) (**1/2)

Darren Aronofsky is a smart filmmaker. This REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is a devastating piece of cinema, which asked tough questions within a deeply layered narrative. For his follow-up, THE FOUNTAIN is a sci-fi epic that looks a various generations' attempts at finding immortal life. This topic is presented in an ethereal way with a complex plot structure that is unnecessarily convoluted creating an air of pretension when the thin concept delivers nothing all that profound in the end.

Hugh Jackman (X-MEN) and Rachel Weisz (THE CONSTANT GARDENER) play three roles each separated by 500 years. Tomas is a Spanish conquistador who travels to the Americas to locate the Tree of Life for Queen Isabel, who has promised her hand in return. Dr. Tom Creo is a current researcher looking for a cure to his wife Izzi's cancer. Then 500 years in the future, Tommy travels with the Tree of Life in a space bubble to a dying star. It is alluded to that they are reincarnated versions of the same soul, but this is more implied than made explicit. In actuality, the 2005 male and the future male are the same person, which makes the connection to the Spanish male fuzzy.


This Weekend's Film Festival Celebrates The 5 Best Live-Action Family Films of the Past 5 Years

With BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA hitting DVD this week, it felt like a perfect time to look at some of the best live-action family films of the past five years. Adults without kids tend to avoid family films, but they're often missing out on some great movies. I kind of cheated though I left out the two HARRY POTTER films and CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, because they were monster hits and kind of transcend the "family" label anyways. Plus, they'd take up more than half the list and overshadow some other lower key films that deserve some praise and extra attention. And I'm sure there are some good family films that I missed such as HOLES. I encourage readers to post their picks for the best live-action family films in the comments.


GHOST WORLD (2001) (****)

Very rarely do I see a film more than one time in the theaters. It takes a lot to spur me to give my hard earned money to a film more than once. GHOST WORLD so blew me away when I first discovered it that I didn't want it to end and I went back (while laid off from my job) to take two separate groups of friends to see it. It was the best film released in 2001 and remains one of the best films ever made about self-discovery following high school graduation.

Enid (Thora Birch, AMERICAN BEAUTY) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson, MATCH POINT) have just graduated from high school, where they were the resident eccentrics. Rebecca is excited about getting a job and moving out on her own. Enid, on the other hand, seems unwilling to accept her need to become a cog in the "real world." Via a pretty cruel prank, Enid meets Seymour (Steve Buscemi, FARGO), a forty-something manager at the corporate office of a fast food chicken chain, who can't relate to 99% of humanity so he consumes his life with collecting old jazz records and memorabilia. Enid finds a kindred spirit in the cranky old "nerd," who exists outside of the norms of society.


Separated at Birth 3: Asian-American Adolescent Magic Menace Fighters

The contenders:

American Dragon: Jake Long

Disney Channel, premiered January 21, 2005

Main Character: Jake Long, pre-teen descendant of long line of shape-shifting dragons

Supernatural responsibility: Protect New York City from supernatural menaces

Supernatural power: Can turn into a flying dragon

Mentor: Grandfather Luong Lao Shi; can also turn into a dragon

Sibling: annoying 8 year-old sister Haley; can also turn into a dragon

Pet: 600 year-old talking Shar Pei ‘Fu Dog’

and in this corner:

The Life and Times of Juniper Lee

Cartoon Network, premiered May 30, 2005



Chuck Jones is often credited to the quote, “if you can do it in live-action than it shouldn’t be animated.” With today’s technology this solid rule has weakened, but for this 1988 anime feature there is nothing in it that would have kept it from being a live-action feature at the time of production. So why make it an animated feature? As a director I wouldn’t want to put real children through the torture that these children must endure during the U.S. fire bombing of Japan during WWII. This heartrending feature is the most emotional devastating feature I’ve ever seen. It’s also one of the best animated features I’ve ever seen.

The story begins at the end with Seita, a 14-year-old boy, dying alone is a train depot. After this, we flashback to him living with his sick mother and his 4-year-old sister Setsuko. During one bombing Seita and Setsuko are separated from their mother, who is severely burned and eventually succumbs to her injuries. With their father away in the Navy, Seita and Setsuko go to live with their selfish aunt, uncle and cousin. Their aunt cares little for them, barely paying them attention unless to tell them how worthless they are or to take advantage of them. It gets to the point when the siblings must go out on their own.


Waltzing Matilda (right out the Disney door...)

A former Down Under Disney employee and Friend of the Site relays this bit of gossip:

“... a friend was at a recent studio meeting in Burbank and Ed Catmull was lamenting the closure of the Sydney studio - which is bizarre considering there were no Australians there to hear it and it was nearly 9 months after the fact. Word is the Pixar guys really regret it shutting down - had they come in a little earlier I am sure the studio would still be there now, which is such a shame. It was real waste of exceptional talent. It's not easy to have a place with over 250 people combining to work at that rate (10 feet per week) and producing such quality - it took 20 years to get to such a position…”


Oscar says 'goodnight' to "Waking Life," etc.

Interpolate this, asshole (from yesterday's AWN Headline News):

“… The significance of the change emphasizes the importance of frame-by-frame character animation, and now rules out such films as A SCANNER DARKLY and WAKING LIFE for qualification. According to Jon Bloom, chairman of the Short Films and Feature Animation branch as well as a governor, the branch was concerned that the digital rotoscoping technique utilized in these two features was not crucial enough in shaping the animated performances."


Translation: 'Best Animated Feature' is, now and forever, the official Akademy of Kinema Kiddie Kategory; no druggies or existential misfits need apply...


Annecy’s Love Affair with Paper Airplanes

Ask yourself,” What happens when you get hundreds if not thousands of animators in a theater before a screening- with a few minutes on their hands?”

The answer: Paper Airplanes!!!

The object is to see if you can create a flying vessel that will guide all the way to the stage of the main theater at Annecy.

And…if others take up a supportive role in your efforts to reach the stage- that’s okay…because it’s Annecy!

Everyone in the audience joins in- whether you are the great Italian animator Bruno Bozetto (70 plus years) or a wide eyed student in attendance at the world series of animation.

What do you expect from all those animators who are given sheets of paper before the screenings.


Wet Rats

By Joe Strike | Wednesday, June 13, 2007 at 8:28am

Why can't they make a feature cartoon about rodents without sending them into the sewers via the kind of ride you'd pay money for at a water park (without the turds, of course), i.e. Stuart Little - Flushed Away and now Ratatouille? (Oops, it hasn't opened yet, gave that one away. I better not tell you he meets Harry Lime down there and becomes his partner in an animated sequel to The Third Man entitled Harry and Me.)