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APOCALYPTO (2006) (***1/2)

Tackling many of the same issues as his BRAVEHEART, Mel Gibson's APOCALYPTO is an edge-of-your-seat adventure made all the more compelling via its unique setting. Gibson knows how to dramatize action and make us care about his characters.

Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood, SPIRIT: THE SEVENTH FIRE) is a young Mayan warrior, who cherishes his family — pregnant wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez, film debut) and young son Turtles Run (Carlos Emilio Baez, film debut). He listens intently to the wise advice of his father Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead, TV's INTO THE WEST) and he loves to poke fun at his younger brother Blunted (Jonathan Brewer, DREAMKEEPER), who is having a hard time conceiving a child. However, their idyllic life comes crashing down when their small village is attacked by Mayan warriors looking to take slaves. Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo, THE NEW WORLD) leads the savage warriors, which include the slimy Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios, screen debut).

Blogs

CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (2006) (***)

For the last few years, director Zhang Yimou has been crafting epic, martial arts fantasies like HERO and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS. CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER may be his most epic yet. However not in the action set-piece sense of the world, but more so like a Shakespearean tragedy.

Empress Phoenix (Gong Li, MEMORIES OF A GEISHA) is slowly being poisoned by her heartless husband Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON). The Empress is having an affair with her stepson Prince Xiang (Liu Ye, THE PROMISE), who is sleeping with Chan (Man Li, film debut), daughter of the imperial physician (Dahong Ni, TO LIVE). Returning home from battle is middle son, Prince Jie (Jay Chou, HIDDEN TRACK), who is torn between his devotion to his mother and his loyalty to his father. Jie is idolized by his younger brother Cheng (Qin Junjie, film debut). Also figuring into the mix is a mysterious ninja (Chen Jin), who holds dark secrets to the Emperor's past.

Blogs

INVINCIBLE (2006) (***)

Ever since their success with THE ROOKIE, Walt Disney Pictures has carved out a nice niche for themselves with a host of inspirational sports films. For the most part, they have all worked quite well.

INVINCIBLE is based on the true story of Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg, THE DEPARTED), a bartender who never played college football who tries out for the Philadelphia, Eagles during an open try-out and makes the team. Papale is down on his luck — big time. He can't keep a steady job teaching and his wife has just left him. And to make matters worse his beloved Eagles stink. College coach Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear, AS GOOD AS IT GETS) is hired to turn the Eagles around. As a good-will gesture to the Philly fans, he holds an open try-out. At first Papale is not interested in trying out, but his friends push him. Papale's talents stand out and he is the only person at the open try-outs to be invited to training camp. Now Papale has to balance between holding his own against the more experienced players, his newfound celebrity and the pretty barmaid Janet Cantrell (Elizabeth Banks, SLITHER).

Blogs

LADY IN THE WATER (2006) (**)

Not nearly as awful as it was made out to be, M. Night Shyamalan's bedtime story for grown-ups stumbles via the filmmaker's self indulgence and lack of 100% commitment to his risky experiment.

Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti, AMERICAN SPLENDOR) is a lonely handyman at The Cove apartment complex. One night he finds a narf (aka water nymph) in the swimming pool. As legend states, the creatures of the Blue World will visit humans from time to time to inspire them. However, the narfs are in danger as grass-like wolves called scrunts stalk the water creatures. So Cleveland sets out to help the narf named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard, THE VILLAGE) find the writer she is supposed to inspire.

Blogs

THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE (2006) (***1/2)

By Rick DeMott | Thursday, December 28, 2006 at 11:54am

This interesting biopic looks at the seemingly contradictory personality of famed pin-up model Bettie Page. Driving its appeal is the infectious lead performance of Gretchen Mol, who previously had smaller roles in DONNIE BRASCO and ROUNDERS. This is a star-making performance, which is sadly being forgotten now that it's Oscar season.

Beginning when Bettie was young, the film chronicles her life under the rule of her religious mother Edna (Ann Dowd, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS) and her brief, abusive marriage to Billy Neal (Norman Reedus, THE BOONDOCK SAINTS). After the tragedies of her early life, Bettie bounces back and moves to NYC to take a stab at acting, where she falls into modeling, which leads to nude posing and later fetish films for the nice couple Paula (Lili Taylor, SAY ANYTHING…) and Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer, BROKEN FLOWERS). The story follows Bettie's career leading up to Senate hearings on pornography run by Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn, GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK.).

Blogs

SCOOP (2006) (***)

By Rick DeMott | Wednesday, December 27, 2006 at 6:00pm

Even when Woody Allen isn't working at his best, he still makes films infinitely wittier than most comedies produced today. Even when he's being silly, he never dumbs down the content. He has mined the world of murder mysteries before and returns again in SCOOP.

Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson, MATCH POINT) is a beautiful, yet awkwardly direct, American journalism student visiting her wealthy friend Vivian (Romola Garai, I CAPTURE THE CASTLE) in London. During a magic act performed by Sid Waterman (Allen), Sondra is visited from the great beyond by the recently deceased reporter Joe Strombel (Ian McShane, TV's DEADWOOD), who is compelled to inform her of a big scoop he overheard while floating down the River Stix — Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman, X-MEN), son of Lord Lyman, may be the Tarot Card Killer. So Sondra recruits Waterman to pose as her father and help her get close to the possible killer. However, the dashing man wins her over and she has a hard time believing that he may be a murderer.

Blogs

M. HULOT'S HOLIDAY (1953) (****)

By Rick DeMott | Wednesday, December 27, 2006 at 4:40pm

For all intents and purposes, this entire film is one long string of gags. So why is it so great? It's because director/star Jacques Tati is able to weave the gags into an overall story that riffs on many of the fond feelings folks have toward summer vacations as well as linking them to the central character Monsieur Hulot.

The film begins as vacationers arrive at a small seaside hotel for summer holiday. Hulot travels there in his old-fashioned automobile, which seems like it could bust apart at any moment. We don't even see Hulot until about 10 minutes into the film when his arrival through the front door wrecks havoc as the wind from outside disrupts the activities of the people relaxing in the lobby.

Blogs

UMBERTO D. (1956) (****)

By Rick DeMott | Wednesday, December 27, 2006 at 3:25pm

Vittorio De Sica is chief among the neo-realists of the post-WWII era. His BICYCLE THIEVES is considered one of the greatest films ever made. He would write simple stories, filmed them with pacing that lacked any hint of manipulative drama and cast untrained actors who he felt embodied the parts naturally. This tale about an old man and his dog is a shining example of the power that those details combined can create.

Working from a screenplay by Cesare Zavattini, the tale begins with a crowd of elderly pensioners marching in the streets demanding an increase in their meager wages. Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti, only film performance) is retired from the public works office and can now barely support himself and his loyal pet dog, Flike. He is way behind on his rent and his snobbish landlady Antonia (Lina Gennari, THE SIGN OF VENUS) threatens to evict him if he doesn't pay the full amount that he owes by the end of the month. As the situation gets worse for Mr. Ferrari, he struggles to make ends meet while retaining his dignity.

Blogs

AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH (2006) (***1/2)

In a compelling way, this documentary presents the startling scientific data on the looming global warming crisis. Part of why it's compelling is that it's presented by Al Gore, who has taken the issue as a personal crusade. Compelling and Al Gore in the same sentence, you say? Yes. Gone is the Gore-bot 3000 of the 2000 election.

The film has two threads interwoven — Al Gore's slideshow presentation on global warming and personal reflections on Gore's life. I've read some critics who said that the "Gore worship" parts are distracting, however I couldn't disagree more. The personal information presented about Gore helps bring an emotional connection to the issue. This is key to the overall effectiveness of the film, because it makes a complex issue that seems to affect the average person from a distance more personal. How can politicians or even scientists make the average Joe care about global warming, if they can't understand it? This film succeeds in doing so, because it makes us see global warming and its effects.

Blogs

CONQUEROR WORM (1968) (**1/2)

Originally titled WITCHFINDER GENERAL in England, this film is set during the British civil war between the Royalists and Parliamentary Party when men were paid by locale magistrates to torture confessions of witchcraft out of innocent citizens. The U.S. title, CONQUEROR WORM, really has nothing to do with the story, having been taken from an Edgar Allan Poe poem as a way to capitalize on the popularity of star Vincent Price's other Poe films. For the U.S. release, the distributors also included Price reading a Poe poem over the beginning and end segments.

Loosely based on historical fact, Price plays Matthew Hopkins, a witchfinder who coldly moves along the countryside doing God's work, which is murdering "witches." It's one of Price's best performances, as well as one of his more interesting characters. The plot is simple — after Hopkins elicits sexual favors from his fiancée Sarah (Hilary Dwyer, THE BODY STEALERS) and murders Sarah's uncle John (Rupert Davies, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD), young solider, Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy, DEATH BECOMES HER), sets out for revenge. Aiding Hopkins is his torturer John Stearne (Robert Russell, 1967's BEDAZZLED).

Blogs

BLOOD DIAMOND (2006) (***1/2)

Director Edward Zwick, who has made his career up of smart action films, makes his most socially conscience film to date. This film takes a scathing look at the diamond industry at the end of the 20th Century. Blood diamonds or conflict diamonds are being smuggled out of civil war torn places like Sierra Leone to fund the bloody slaughter of people within Africa.

The film begins with Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou, IN AMERICA) walking his son Dia (Kagiso Kuypers, film debut) to school when RUF rebels raid their village gunning down anyone in sight. Solomon is able to get his family to safety, but he is captured in the process and sent to a mining camp to dig for diamonds. While there, he finds a huge pink stone well over 100 carats and makes the very dangerous decision to pocket the jewel. In jail, smuggler Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio, THE DEPARTED) learns of Solomon's pink diamond from the murderous rebel leader Capt. Poison (David Harewood, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE), who vows to find the diamond himself.

Blogs

CHINATOWN (1974) (****)

This neo-noir simmers with sin and corruption. J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST) is a former cop who worked the seedy streets of Chinatown where he eventually became so disillusioned by the violence and sleaze that he left the force and became a private eye. However, that move still doesn't remove him from violence and sleaze as he becomes notorious for making his living taking incriminating pictures of people. His life seems to be trapped in a vicious circle of meaning well, but always causing others to get hurt.

Then walks in his next case, Mrs. Mulwray wants her husband Hollis (Darrell Zwerling, GREASE) followed, because she suspects that he is cheating on her with a younger woman. So Gittes watches the big wig in the water department as he battles others in the city government who want to build a new dam to supply much needed water to the drought plagued city of Los Angeles. When Gittes and his men get shots of Hollis with the young girl, they end up on the front page of the paper, which is followed by the real Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway, NETWORK) wanting to sue and finally Hollis' murder.

Blogs

IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967) (****)

This crime mystery is one of my all time favorite films. The murder of a prominent businessman plays a central role in the narrative, but the homicide is not what the film is about.

Officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates, BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA) finds the dead body of Philip Colbert in an alley. The small town of Sparta, Mississippi doesn't see crimes like this one, so gruff police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger, ON THE WATERFRONT) sends out his officers to pick up any and all possible suspects. Sam finds black man Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier, A PATCH OF BLUE) at the train depot and arrests him without question. When the chief interrogates Virgil about where he got the large sum of money in his wallet, Virgil says he earned it — as a police officer in Philadelphia.

Blogs

BREAKING AND ENTERING (2006) (***1/2)

By Rick DeMott | Wednesday, December 13, 2006 at 1:00am

Writer/director Anthony Minghella (THE ENGLISH PATIENT) crafts a multilayered drama that investigates the criminal heart in all of us.

Will (Jude Law, CLOSER) is a landscape architect working on a project to turn an impoverished area of London into a viable quarter. He lives with his long-term girlfriend Liv (Robin Wright Penn, NINE LIVES) and her autistic daughter Beatrice (Poppy Rogers, FROM HELL). Will and Liv’s relationship is on the rocks. Will and his partner Sandy (Martin Freeman, HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY) set up their new office in the very neighborhood they are trying to revive. However, this leads to several break-ins, conducted by free runners, including Miro (Rafi Gavron, film debut), who works for a group of immigrant crooks.

Blogs

FORBIDDEN GAMES (1952) (****)

This is the kind of film that makes you smile and laugh right up to the point when it rips your heart out. It does so while tackling grand issues of life and death and the loss of innocence in the confines of a simple plot.

Paulette (Brigitte Fossey, READY FOR LOVE) is a five-year-old girl fleeing Paris as the Germans bomb the city during WWII. Along the crowded road leading out of the city, her parents and her dog are gunned down by machinegun fire. She almost instinctively realizes her parents are dead. While he's trying to catch a runaway cow, 10-year-old Michel Dolle (Georges Poujouly, ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS) discovers the young girl, who clutches her dead dog, and takes her to his father (Lucien Hubert), who begrudgingly takes in the girl only so his neighbors won't, making them the heroes.

Blogs

Our trip to Espinho, Portugal

Dear Friends:

This article is about our trip to the CINANIMA Animation Festival in
Espinho, Portugal in November. Tomorrow I leave for my last week of
teaching in Lucerne, Switzerland and a short visit with my son in Munich.
In a few weeks I will write a long update about our (very happy) life here
in
Gent and the adventures and mysteries of our first holiday season here.

Warmest Regards,
Nancy

30th CINANIMA INTERNATIONAL ANIMATION FESTIVAL

If an animator friendly festival with excellent screening conditions and top notch animation is not enough for you, then you need to go to Cinanima, 6 through 12 November in Espinho, Portugal. Added to all of the above was the beautiful beach right outside of our hotel room with warm water and after the cold weather I had just left in Switzerland it was sometimes difficult to go into the screening room. The 30th Anniversary of the Festival offered so many delights that my efforts were well rewarded.

Blogs

CLERKS II (2006) (***1/2)

By Rick DeMott | Wednesday, December 6, 2006 at 12:25pm

This sequel to director Kevin Smith's breakthrough indie sensation returns 10 years after the events of the first film to see where its main characters are now. Well they're pretty much in the same place as they were before.

The film begins with the convenience store — where Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) worked in the original — burning to the ground. Then we jump a few years forward in time with the duo flipping burgers at the Mooby's fast food joint. It's Dante's last day for he is moving to Florida with his fiancée Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach, JERSEY GIRL), where he will work in his future father-in-law's car wash.

Also returning is drug dealers Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), who are now fresh out of rehab and hanging out in front of the Mooby's. Added to the cast are Mooby's manager Becky (Rosario Dawson, ALEXANDER), who didn't plan to be working fast food for so long when she moved back home to care for her sick uncle, and Elias (Trevor Fehrman, CHEATS), a LORD OF THE RINGS-obsessed conservative Christian who Randal loves to torture.

Blogs

ALI G INDAHOUSE (2002) (*1/2)

By Rick DeMott | Wednesday, December 6, 2006 at 11:30am

Everything from the satirical edge to the perfect timing to the audacious originality that made BORAT so good is missing from Sacha Baron Cohen's first attempt to take characters from his DA ALI G SHOW to the big screen. ALI G INDAHOUSE is sunk by an awful sitcom plot and tired, recycled juvenile humor.

In the film, Ali G is a wanna-be gangster, who works at a youth center teaching kids how to "Keep It Real." When the center's funding is pulled, he chains himself to a fence in a pitiful attempt at a hunger strike. However, this incident gives deputy prime minister David Carlton (Charles Dance, SWIMMING POOL) an idea. Because his political party is looking to court the youth vote, he believes Ali G will fit the bill and ultimately bringing down the Prime Minister (Michael Gambon, GOSFORD PARK), giving Carlton the chance to take over.

Blogs

THANK YOU FOR SMOKING (2006) (***1/2)

This satirical comedy actually works better as a character study than a poignant attack on Big Tobacco. At its center is the fascinating Nick Naylor, chief spokesman for Big Tobacco's pseudo-health organization. And he's played perfectly by Aaron Eckhart (IN THE COMPANY OF MEN).

Naylor is a major wheeler and dealer and his moral flexibility is like a wet noodle. But he has to be as the face defending tobacco to the public. As such, his only friends are the MOD (Merchants of Death) Squad — Polly Bailey (Maria Bello, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE) and Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner, ANCHORMAN) — who represent the alcohol and gun industries respectively. His boss BR (J.K. Simmons, SPIDER-MAN) needs him to figure out a way to increase sales for the top boss Doak "The Captain" Boykin (Robert Duvall, THE APOSTLE) is pressuring him. Naylor comes up with the idea to make cigarettes cool again by getting a sponsorship deal with a Hollywood film. So he travels to L.A. with his son Joey (Cameron Bright, BIRTH), who just idolizes his father.

Blogs

WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (2006) (**)

The opening third of the original WHEN A STRANGER CALLS is one of the tensest sequences in horror film history. However, due to a completely random middle act, the film squanders all of its potential. So when I heard they were remaking it, I finally thought now here is a chance to make a great horror flick. Again for some reason Hollywood isn't listening to me.

The remake takes the opening third of the original and stretches it out to 87 minutes. Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle, THE BALLAD OF JACK AND ROSE) has run up her cell phone bill and her parents have taken away her phone and car as punishment. Additionally, she has to babysit to pay back her mom and dad. So her father drives her out to a huge, gorgeous house in the middle of nowhere to sit for Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis (Derek de Lint, DEEP IMPACT, & Kate Jennings Grant, UNITED 93). Soon after arriving she begins to get creepy phone calls.

Blogs

Composer Nik Phelps; filmmakers - music for your film!

Nik and Nancy Phelps have finally completed their relocation to Gent,
Belgium, and the new music studio is set up and ready to go. We now have
the cherished Belgian work permit, and will be taking on new projects
starting after the new year.

Nik has just finished music for Nina Paley's upcoming feature, Sita Sings
the Blues, is currently working on animation projects for animators Lance
Taylor in Canada, and Jordie Doubt in Switzerland, and will be providing
music for the politically topical website of John Grimes and Robin Chin in
the United States ( www.fizzdom.com ) We are currently putting together our
spring 2007 production schedule, so contact us now for music for your
animation, documentary, or film project. You may not think that original
music is affordable, but you will be surprised. Ask us about our reasonable
rates and check out our web site at www.niksprocket.org

Blogs

GIMME SHELTER (1970) (***1/2)

By Rick DeMott | Thursday, November 30, 2006 at 11:27am

This now classic rock documentary set out to record The Rolling Stones during their 1969 American tour and ended up capturing a killing during the free concert at Altamont.

The film foreshadows the tragedy at Altamont at the start with members of the band including Mick Jagger watching the footage from the concert. Then we move into performances from the road of some of the Stones' classic songs, including at the time rough versions of new songs, "Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses." As part of the tour, we also get a sexually charged performance from the opening act, Tina and Ike Turner.

As the tour rolls along, directors Albert and David Maysles intercut footage of the organizers trying to work out the details of the free concert. It becomes quickly apparent than with the hundreds of thousands of people expected to come to the event that the organizers have gotten themselves in over their heads. Hiring the Hell's Angel motorcycle club as security probably wasn't a good idea too.

Blogs

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946) (****)

By Rick DeMott | Wednesday, November 29, 2006 at 5:37pm

Visually original and emotionally powerful, this telling of the classic fairy tale is still a magical experience even though it is now 60 years old. The story is as everyone knows — the beautiful Belle (Josette Day, 1933's THE BARBER OF SEVILLE) gives herself to the Beast (Jean Marais, 1950's ORPHEUS) as his prisoner to spare the life of her father (Marcel Andre, THE STORM WITHIN), who fell into debt with the Beast after picking a rose from the creature's garden for his daughter.

Before this conflict starts, we look into Belle's life with her family. She serves her snobby sisters Felicie (Mila Parely, THE RULES OF THE GAME) and Adelaide (Nane Germon, LES BICHES) like Cinderella. Her brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair, 1957's FUNNY FACE) has gotten the family into great financial trouble. Because she is so dedicated to her family, especially her father, Belle will not even consider the proposals of Ludovic's arrogant friend Avenant (Marais).

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