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Blogs WALLACE & GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT (2005) (****)

This is the best animated feature of the year. It’s a crackin’ good time. If you haven’t been introduced to the antics of cheese-loving inventor Wallace (Peter Sallis, SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING) and his dutiful dog Gromit in Aardman Animations’ Oscar-winning short films then you are missing out. But you don’t need to have seen them to love their first (and hopefully not last) feature.

The duo is running an anti-pest company called Anti-Pesto. Their clients are thoroughly happy with Wallace and Gromit’s ability to keep rabbits away from the town’s prized giant vegetables with the impending giant veg competition on the horizon. However, when Wallace tries a mind-altering experiment to rid the rabbits of the town of the desire to eat vegetables, he inadvertently creates the giant were-rabbit. Lady Campanula Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter, CORPSE BRIDE) wants to give Wallace and Gromit a chance to humanely deal with the were-rabbit before her suitor Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes, THE CONSTANT GARDENER) goes after it with guns blaring.

Blogs ZATHURA (2005) (***)

Based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg who wrote JUMANJI, ZATHURA takes the same premise of JUMANJI where children get transported into a dangerous adventure after they begin playing a mysterious board game.

Danny (Jonah Bobo, STRANGERS WITH CANDY) looks up to his older brother Walter (Josh Hutcherson, RV), who has little time or regard for his younger sibling. Having to run errands, their father (Tim Robbins, MYSTIC RIVER) puts their older sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart, PANIC ROOM) in charge one day, but she is too busy to keep a constant eye on the battling brothers. In retaliation for being hit in the head, Walter sends Danny down the dumbwaiter into the dark, eerie basement where the young boy finds an old board game called Zathura. Danny convinces Walter to play with him, which sends their house careening into space. Eventually helping them overcome malfunctioning robots and evil alien Zorgons is a lost astronaut (Dax Shepard, WITHOUT A PADDLE).

Blogs THE TRIP (1967) (*1/2)

The star rating system really fails when it comes to reviewing a film like this one. A person’s own personal beliefs on the subject of drugs come into play when watching and appreciating (or not appreciating which ever the case may be) what the film is trying to do. I guess the best place to start is to present what apparently the filmmakers were setting out to do. They wanted to make an objective look at one man’s trip on LSD.

Directed by Roger Corman (THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH) and written by Jack Nicholson, the film stars Peter Fonda (EASY RIDER) as Paul Groves, a commercial director who is getting a divorce from his wife Sally (Susan Strasberg, PICNIC). Paul wants to experience an enlightening trip on LSD, so he enlists his friend John (Bruce Dern, DIGGSTOWN) to watch over him while he’s tripping. They go to a lavish hippie hangout in the Hollywood Hills where they get the LSD from Max (Dennis Hopper, RIVER’S EDGE).

Blogs A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (2003) (***)

This Koran horror tale is part ghost story and part twisted stepparent tale. Soo-mi (Su-jeong Lim, upcoming I'M A CYBORG, BUT THAT'S OK) and Soo-yeon (Geun-yeoung Mun) have just returned from a mental institution after the death of their mother. Their father (Kap-su Kim) brings them to their country home where there stepmother Eun-joo (Jung-ah Yum, THREE... EXTREMES) lives.

Soo-mi and Soo-yeon are frightened of their stepmother, whose boisterous and blunt behavior is unnerving. Soo-mi watches over her meek and often silent younger sister like a mother, protecting her from potential torment of their stepmother. Making things scarier, a ghost begins appearing throughout the house. Soo-mi tries to explain the situation to her father, but he seems unaware of what is going on. Or maybe none of this is as it seems.

Blogs SAMURAI SPY (1965) (***)

Sasuke Sarutobi (Koji Takahashi, SANSHIRO SUGATA) is a legendary samurai of the Sanada clan who is tracking Toyotomi clan spy Takanosuke Nojiri (Kei Sato, THE SWORD OF DOOM). One day he meets the spy Mitsuaki Inamura (Rokko Toura, ZATOICHI AND THE CHESS EXPERT), who is trying to sell information to Nojiri and his master Shigeyuki Koremura (Eitaro Ozawa, SAMURAI 1: MUSASHI MIYAMOTO), which lead them to the whereabouts of leading Tokugawa spy Tatewaki Koriyama (Eiji Okada, LADY SNOWBLOOD).

Sasuke wants nothing to do with Mitsuaki’s plan because he fears that it will lead to another war, especially after he finds out that Mitsuaki has ratted out a Christian samurai named Yashiro Kobayashi (Yasunori Irikawa) in an effort to sneak by the cruel local magistrate Genba Kuni (Minoru Hodaka, MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS). While on his mission, Sasuke runs into Tokugawa assassin Sakon Takatani (Tetsuro Tamba, THE STORY OF RICKY), who wants to find Tatewaki for his own reasons. Sasuke also gets involved with Jinnai-Kazutaka Horikawa (Seiji Miyaguchi, THE SEVEN SAMURAI), an older statesmen who seems to be someone Sasuke cannot trust.

Blogs REEFER MADNESS (1936) (BOMB)

This early expose on marihuana was bad in 1936 and has only become more and more hilarious over time. This oh, too serious examination of the scourge of reefer has absolutely nothing to do with the reality of the drug. Its attempt to scare the public into action only elicits laughs.

Bill Harper (Kenneth Craig, only film performance) is a goodie goodie, who is dating the sweet girl next door named Mary Lane (Dorothy Short, THE LONE RIDE FIGHTS BACK). Ralph Wiley (Dave O’Brien, KISS ME KATE) has his eye on Mary while Blanche (Lillian Miles, THE GAY DIVORCEE) wants Bill. Ralph and Blanche both visit the apartment of Mae Colman (Thelma White, RIDE ‘EM COWBOY) and Jack Perry (Carleton Young, SPARTACUS), who get the kids hooked on pot, a drug the film claims is more deadly than heroin.

Blogs PLAY MISTY FOR ME (1971) (***1/2)

Pre-dating FATAL ATTRACTION by 16 years, Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut is the grandmother of all “from hell” films. This one being the hook-up from hell.

Dave Garver (Eastwood) is a late night DJ at a small Carmel, California Jazz station. He hopes to move up to the big time in San Francisco soon. He’s a notorious lady’s man, who is point blank to Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter, TV’s ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT) when he picks her up in a bar that he is trying to uncomplicate his life. Evelyn — who’s a fan of his show, often calling in and requesting “Misty” — seems fine with the terms. Then Dave learns that his old girlfriend Tobie (Donna Mills, TV’s KNOTS LANDING) has moved back into town and he wants to try a monogamous relationship for the first time in his life. However, the big wrinkle in this plan is that Evelyn keeps showing up unannounced and her behavior becomes increasingly more violent and erratic.

Blogs KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE (1988) (***)

The title sounds stupid, but the film is actually a really fun satire of 1950s alien invasion films. The Chiodo Brothers — Stephen, Charles and Edward — take the standard plotline for films like THE BLOB and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and turns it on its ear with the silliness of killer klowns from outer space.

Mike Tobacco (Grant Carter, FATHER’S DAY) and Debbie Stone (Suzanne Snyder, WEIRD SCIENCE) are at lover’s lane when they witness a giant shooting star. When they go to investigate, they discover a giant circus tent, which in reality is an alien spaceship. Inside the spacecraft, Mike and Debbie find cotton candy-looking cocoons with the dead bodies of townspeople in them.

Blogs INTERIORS (1978) (****)

Woody Allen has never made another film so close to an Ingmar Bergman film as this one. From the somber subject matter to the visual style, this drama feels like Bergman.

The story chronicles how Eve (Geraldine Page, SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH), a perfectionist mother with emotional problems, effects the mental and emotional stability of her family. One day at dinner, her husband Arthur (E.G. Marshall, 12 ANGRY MEN) tells his family matter-of-factly that he is moving out of the family home to try out a trial separation from Eve.

The oldest daughter Renata (Diane Keaton, ANNIE HALL) is a famous poet, who during the turmoil is unable to write. Her husband Fredrick (Richard Jordan, DUNE) is a struggling writer who resents her success. The middle daughter Joey (Mary Beth Hurt, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE) is floundering in life trying to find the right creative outlet to spend her life pursuing. Her husband Mike (Sam Waterson, TV’s LAW & ORDER) and her are in different stages in their lives, which often causes tension between them. The youngest daughter Flyn (Kristin Griffith, KING OF THE HILL) is often absent, living in L.A. and working as a TV actress.

Blogs THE ISLAND (2005) (***)

I have never enjoyed a Michael Bay film until this one. It’s a shame that it was a total disaster at the box office. With the film you get two films in one — an intriguing, moody sci-fi tale and a Michael Bay action film. They both work well, however, the thinking side of me is disappointed with the wasted potential of the second and third acts, which could have gone in many smart and provocative ways, but ended up turning into a chase flick.

Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor, TRAINSPOTTING) lives in a tightly monitored and orderly society after having been rescued from the contaminated outside world. Along with the other inhabitants of his world, they await the lottery, which provides them a trip to The Island, the only non-contaminated place still left on Earth.

Blogs THE IDIOTS (2000) (***1/2)

Lars von Trier is a very polarizing filmmaker. His cynicism borders on nihilism. He often takes truly innocent characters and subjects them to increasing amounts of unwarranted cruelty and injustice. For me, it worked to a masterful degree in BREAKING THE WAVES and less so in the heartrending DANCER IN THE DARK. Von Trier likes to work in trilogies, usually sharing themes not characters. This film, along with the two previously mentioned films, makes up his “golden heart” trilogy, where innocents are truly lost.

Here, the innocent and our conduit into the world of the story is Karen (Bodil Jorgensen), a quiet woman who has just experienced a mysterious tragedy. While dining in a nice restaurant, she meets Susanne (Anne Louise Hassing) and the mentally handicapped Stoffer (Jens Albinus, DANCER IN THE DARK) and Henrik (Troels Lyby). Most of the patrons seem uncomfortable and dismissive of Stoffer and Henrik as they wonder aimlessly around the restaurant. However, Karen gives a kind smile to Stoffer and doesn’t try to avoid eye contact with him like the rest of the people. When he grabs her arm and won’t let go, she is nice enough to escort him to the taxi, even going along for a ride with them. During that cab ride, we learn that the handicapped men are just play acting and that all three are part of a commune, which are trying to find their “inner idiot.”

Blogs THE HEAVENLY KID (1985) (**)

This teen film takes the often used premise of a dead person coming back to help someone else out, which dates back to the birth of film itself.

Bobby Fantana (Lewis Smith, WYATT EARP) is a greaser from the ‘50s who dies in a car accident while playing chicken. He is assigned to come back to Earth to aid nerdy kid named Lenny Barnes (Jason Gedrick, BACKDRAFT), who is obsessed with his school’s popular slut Sharon (Anne Sawyer) while he doesn’t notice that cute Melissa (Nancy Valen, LOVERBOY) really likes him.

It’s a tried and true plot that was recycled during the 1980s ad nausea. Sharon is dating Fred Gallo (Stephen Gregory, TV’s LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT), who loves to torment Lenny. Bobby thinks Lenny is a spazola at first, but learns to like him as he turns the nerd into a chick magnet. As Lenny gets more popular he starts to worry his parents Emily (Jane Kaczmarek, TV’s MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE) and Joe (Mark Metcalf, OSCAR) when he comes home drunk and high.

Blogs FANTASTIC FOUR (2005) (*1/2)

For a time, films based on Marvel Comics characters were amazing pieces of entertainment. BLADE, X-MEN, SPIDER-MAN and HULK were all good to great. Then DAREDEVIL disappointed and ELEKTRA and THE PUNISHER were average genre crap. And let’s not even get started on the abomination that is BLADE TRINITY. So for the most part the real big name characters resulted in good movies. Therefore, if this scenario were to hold up, the first family of Marvel — The Fantastic Four — should be great as well. Didn’t happen.

As disappointing as ELEKTRA and PUNISHER were, they didn’t make me mad like F4. As silly as the seesaw scene in DAREDEVIL was, F4 was like watching that seesaw scene for two hours. What the successful Marvel superhero movies did right was that they weren’t written for 13 year olds. FANTASTIC FOUR is so juvenile it’s pathetic.

Blogs BUKOWSKI: BORN INTO THIS (2004) (***1/2)

Director John Dullaghan (feature debut) uses archival interviews with poet Charles Bukowski and new interviews with his friends and admirers to create this complex character study of arguably the most successful modern poet.

Bukowski has become a cult figure for his raw and direct style of writing. He was an angry alcoholic who for a good portion of his life worked at the post office at night, slept minimally then woke up to drink and write. No one would describe him as attractive with his long face, large nose and scarred face from awful acne during adolescence.

Bukowski lived in poverty for a good portion of his early career as a writer. Then businessman John Martin started Black Sparrow publishing, specifically to publish Bukowski’s work with the promise to pay the writer $100 a month for the rest of his life as long as he quit his regular job to write. This proposition would bring success to both men.

Blogs THE ARISTOCRATS (2005) (**1/2)

Actor/comedian Paul Provenza and magician/comedian Penn Jillette created this film as a tribute to one classic joke. “The Aristocrats” joke starts with a man coming into an agent’s office telling him that he has just seen/or is part of the most original act ever. The man goes on to describe a performance filled with utter debauchery. When the appalled agent asks what the act is called the man says — The Aristocrats!

The description of act is where a comic has the freedom to embellish as they see fit. The joke has served as a kind of rite of passage for all comedians. The point is to see how far one will take the act. What new taboos can be stepped over with each telling.

Blogs UNITED 93 (2006) (****)

Director Paul Greengrass is not new to the topic of terrorism, having made the most compelling film I’ve seen regarding why people join terrorist groups with the film BLOODY SUNDAY. His raw documentary style is not used as a gimmick, but serves as a vital ingredient in transporting an audience into the action.

He puts us on Flight 93 as if we were one of the passengers. We never get too much background information on the other passengers, avoiding the cursory snippets into the main characters’ lives that serve as character development in popcorn disaster movies. The film allows us to view the characters via their actions on 9/11.

Some of the passengers stick out, but the film is not about any one individual, but the collective actions of the passengers and crew of United 93, the FAA and the U.S. military. If any one person does stick out, however, it’s FAA chief Ben Sliney (playing himself). It is said that each of us has one role we were born to play and for Sliney it is himself. There is a natural authenticity to his performance that an actor may not have been able to capture. In addition to Sliney, Greengrass cast real life flight attendants and air traffic controllers to play those roles in the film. This decision is a stroke of brilliance, adding a remarkable level of realism.

Blogs TSOTSI (2005) (***1/2)

Winner of the 2006 Oscar for best foreign language film, this crime drama looks at the results of the orphan crisis in Africa. Violence and AIDS often leave young children on the streets to fend for their own. It’s a brutal life and many are forced into violent crime.

Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae), which means thug, is one of those children. Along with his fellow gang members Aap (Kenneth Nkosi), Boston (Mothusi Magano, HOTEL RWANDA) and Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), Tsotsi spends his days stalking potential marks. One job turns deadly. Boston, who had previously been training to be a teacher, doesn’t have the stomach for violence. He challenges Tsotsi on whether the emotionless thug understands decency at all. This leads Tsotsi to nearly beat Boston to death.

Blogs TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY (2006) (***1/2)

Here is a delightful British comedy about the making of a movie based on a classic novel that is deemed unfilmable. Laurence Sterne's THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF TRISTRAM SHANDY, GENTLEMAN was published originally as nine volumes starting in 1759. As actor Steve Coogan describes it in the film, it was “post-modern before there was modernism to be post about.”

In the novel, Tristram narrates his life’s tale, however he is so often sidetracked with tales about his family that the book ends shortly after his birth. Sterne attempted to show that the vast experiences of life are truly impossible to capture completely in art as well as commenting on the writing process itself. The film works in the same way, commenting on the filmmaking processes and how it goes about adapting material from another medium.

Blogs POSEIDON (2006) (**)

The original POSEIDON ADVENTURE is campy and at times dated, but it knew how to build tension and make us care about its characters. The big budget remake has stripped everything that made the original work and filled the film with pointless action scene after pointless action scene.

Like all disaster films, the cast is filled with types, but other films at least try to develop the characters slightly. Robert Ramsey (Kurt Russell, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK) is a firefighter turned mayor of New York, who seems overly obsessed with his daughter Jennifer (Emily Rossum, MYSTIC RIVER) showing too much cleavage. Jennifer has secretly become engaged with Christian (HAVOC), who of course Robert does not like. Richard Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss, JAWS) is a gay man whose lover has recently broken up with him, leaving him very depressed. Dylan Johns (Josh Lucas, THE HULK) is a former Navy officer who has become a professional gambler. He quickly sets his eyes on single mom Maggie James (Jacinda Barrett, LADDER 49), whose young son Conor (Jimmy Bennet, FIREWALL) has a knack for getting himself into trouble. Elena (Mia Maestro, FRIDA) is trying to get to New York to see her sister and has been smuggled onto the boat by waiter Valentin (Freddy Rodriguez, TV’s SIX FEET UNDER). Then there’s Lucky Louie (Kevin Dillon, TV’s ENTOURAGE), a ridiculously over-the-top cliché of the obnoxious drunk sexist pig.

Blogs INSIDE MAN (2006) (**1/2)

Spike Lee is a master filmmaker, however his first real attempt at making a commercial film is filled with contrivances that undermine the overall message.

Dalton Russell (Clive Owen, CLOSER) tells us straight out that he is going to rob a bank and then walk right out the front door. Det. Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington, MALCOLM X) is assigned the case. From the stalling tactics of the robbers, he begins to think that this is more than a simple robbery. Turns out that bank owner Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer, SYRIANA) has a dark secret and incriminating proof lies within the bank. So he calls on Madeline White (Jodie Foster, THE ACCUSED), a woman whose job seems to be fixing delicate matters for rich men, to make sure that his secret is kept safe. Other key characters include Capt. John Darius (Willem Dafoe, THE ENGLISH PATIENT) and Det. Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor, DIRTY PRETTY THINGS).

Blogs GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS (2005) (***1/2)

Matt Buckner (Elijah Wood, LORD OF THE RINGS) has been recently kicked out of Harvard where he was studying journalism. He was charged with drug dealing, which was not true, but he was unable to stand up for himself against his powerful roommate, whose father is a senator. Lost at what to do next, Matt travels to England to visit his sister Shannon (Claire Forlani, MALLRATS), who has married a Brit named Steve (Marc Warren, TV’s BAND OF BROTHERS). Steve’s younger brother Pete (Charlie Hunnam, NICHOLAS NICKLEBY) is the leader of the local soccer gang… oh wait, I’d be beaten for that… football firm called the Green Street Elite.

These fans unite in support of their teams, getting drunk and usually getting in bloody fights with firms for opposing teams. At first, Pete wants nothing to do with the Yank Matt, but he decides to take him along to a match nonetheless. Pete’s right hand man Bovver (Leo Gregory, TRISTAN + ISOLDE) is greatly skeptical about allowing Matt to hang with them.

Blogs FRIENDS WITH MONEY (2006) (***)

Director Nicole Holofcener (WALKING & TALKING, LOVELY & AMAZING) chronicles a group of female friends in their 30s and 40s, who are at different stages in their lives and relationships.

Olivia (Jennifer Aniston, THE GOOD GIRL) is the youngest and has recently quit her teaching job, taking work as a maid. She is single and pines over a former affair with a married man. Jane (Frances McDormand, FARGO) is a well-established clothing designer, who has stopped washing her hair and seems angry with everything in the world. Aaron (Simon McBurney, BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS) is her caring spouse, who everyone thinks is secretly gay. Christine (Catherine Keener, CAPOTE) is a screenwriter with her husband David (Jason Isaacs, HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS). They are adding an addition on their home, which alienates them from their neighbors. Their marriage is on the rocks because Catherine can’t handle David’s aloof disregard for other people. He distances himself from the world around him so much that nothing affects him emotionally at all. Franny (Joan Cusack, IN & OUT) is a stay-at-home mom, who has fulltime help. Her husband Matt (Greg Germann, TV’s ALLY MCBEAL) makes so much money that he can spend $90 on shoes for his four-year-old and give $2 million away to charity.

Blogs AKEELAH AND THE BEE (2006) (****)

Ever since the documentary SPELLBOUND was released there has been a resurgence of interest in spelling bees. In 2005, BEE SEASON was released, which prompted the studio behind AKEELAH AND THE BEE to wait to 2006 to release this film, which is a magnificent achievement.

Director/writer Doug Atchison finds amazing ways to take the inherent structure of the competition and build real tension and drama by crafting real multilayered characters around the action. Akeelah (Keke Palmer, MADEA’S FAMILY REUNION) is a smart 11-year-old who lives in the poor Crenshaw area of Los Angeles. She often hides her intelligence behind “ghetto talk” so that the other girls won’t call her a brainiac. She is uninterested in participating in the school’s spelling bee, but is all but blackmailed into it by her principal Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong, REVENGE OF THE NERDS). Mr. Welch wants to get Akeelah to the National Spelling Bee as good PR for the failing school. He enlists his old college friend Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne, SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER), the former head of the English department at UCLA, to train Akeelah.

Blogs WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE: A REQUIEM IN FOUR ACTS (2006) (****)

This is one of the best films to come out this year. In a fairly disappointing theatrical year, it takes HBO to make something important and put it on TV. This is director Spike Lee’s best film in 14 years.

Lee took his cameras to New Orleans soon after Hurricane Katrina to chronicle what happened and what caused the worst civil engineering failure in U.S. history. He interviews dozens of people from all walks of life and color who live and work in New Orleans. In addition, he brings in experts to comment on the disaster as well as politicians and news reporters that covered the storm.

The most amazing thing we learn is how many people who lived there differ somewhat on their opinions, but for the most part they all agree that they were grossly let down by the governments that are supposed to protect them. For the most part, Lee uses talking head interviews of his various subjects, but weaves them together with news footage, creating one of the most compelling documentaries I’ve ever seen.

Blogs WORLD TRADE CENTER (2006) (***1/2)

I’m not going into the debate on whether it’s too soon for a film on 9/11, because I strongly believe that is a personal decision and can never be answered definitively. So I’m just going to focus on the film at hand.

Based on true events, the film follows a group of Port Authority officers who went into the towers to help and where buried in the rubble. Two of those men — John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage, MATCHSTICK MEN) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena, CRASH) — were later rescued. The film chronicles how the day started pretty much like any other day for these men. Officer Jimeno is on his typical patrol when the shadow of a plane passes by unusually low. The impact of the first plane is felt by all in the area. This is when the officers are called into action.

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