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Blogs LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006) (***1/2)

August usually isn’t the month to find the best of the summer movies, but this year Hollywood has saved the best for last. This is the funniest film I’ve seen since THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN — the ending had me laughing so hard I was in tears. Fox Searchlight paid $10.5 million at the Sundance Film Festival for the rights to distribute this film, which was a huge amount for an indie production. They got their money's worth.

Written by Michael Arndt and directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (all making their feature debuts), the film is a quirky, sometimes dark, comedic road picture, which skewers the notion of winners and losers. The family in the center of the story is headed to California in their VW bus after 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin, SIGNS) is accepted into the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant.

Blogs THE DESCENT (2006) (***1/2)

Last year around Halloween the magazine Total Film released its list of the best horror films of all time. One on the list stuck out — THE DESCENT from 2005. I knew nothing about it, but being that it was new and made the list, I was totally intrigued.

I learned that I was a British film made by Neil Marshall, whose DOG SOLDIERS went direct to SCI FI Channel in the U.S. and was not very good. THE DESCENT is not only a huge improvement over Marshall’s first film, but stands as the best horror film released widely in U.S. theaters since SCREAM. This film knows what’s scary and why it’s scary.

Following a tragedy in her family, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald, TV’s MI-5) agrees to accompany her friends on a spelunking trip in the Appalachian mountains. Her friend Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza, THE GREAT RAID) wasn’t there for Sarah after the tragic event while Beth (Alex Reid, LAST ORDERS) was right by her side, knowing that Juno is holding a secret from Sarah. Accompanying the trio are motherly Rebecca (Saskia Mulder, THE BEACH), Rebecca’s med student sister Sam (MyAnna Buring, 2006’s THE OMEN) and the punked out Holly (Nora-Jane Noone, THE MAGDALINE SISTERS).

Blogs XX/XY (2003) (***1/2)

This character piece about an emotionally immature man who has only shallow, revengeful feelings is quieter and more contemplative than you may think.

Coles (Mark Ruffalo, YOU CAN COUNT ON ME) is an independent animator who meets college student Sam (Maya Stange, TV’s MCLEOD’S DAUGHTERS) at a party after watching her in the subway earlier that day. They hook up that night… but with a twist. Sam invites her friend Thea (Kathleen Robertson, TV’s BEVERLY HILLS 90210) to join them. It doesn’t end right, but Sam still wants to see Coles. That first encounter taints their relationship from there out.

Coles is the kind of guy who doesn’t feel deeply about anything outside of himself and has a vindictive streak as well. After a painful break up, the film jumps forward 10 years. Coles has given up on being a filmmaker and now works for an advertising agency, which he hates. He’s been dating Claire (Petra Wright, TV’s ALIAS) for six years with no talk of getting married. Coles runs into Sam and they agree to meet up with Thea.

Blogs WITHNAIL & I (1987) (***1/2)

This British cult comedy finds two unemployed actors in 1969 leaving London to holiday in the country. Marwood (or I) (Paul McGann, 1996’s DOCTOR WHO) is a paranoid man who worries about everything. Withnail (Richard E. Grant, GOSFORD PARK) is a highly educated drunk, who stumbles through life thinking he’s better than everyone as a cover for his utter failure as an actor.

To get out of the city, Withnail cons his gay uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths, HARRY POTTER) into loaning them his rundown cabin in the country. Marwood’s on-edge personality mixed with Withnail’s snobby manic behavior makes for a lot of funny moments. When they arrive in the country, the film mines the contrast between the boozed out and drugged up Withnail and Marwood and the conservative locals.

Blogs THE SWORD OF DOOM (1966) (***1/2)

Director Kihachi Okamoto (KILL!, ZATOICHI MEETS YOJIMBO) creates a stylish samurai tale that stands out due to its central character who would be a villain in any other film. One could compare it to other samurai films, but better comparisons would be TAXI DRIVER, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER or DAHMER.

Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai, RAN) is a sociopath. Making things worse for everyone else is that he’s the best samurai around. Our introduction to him is him cold bloodily murdering an old man (Kamatari Fujiwara, KAGEMUSHA) as he prays. Subsequently the old man’s granddaughter Omatsu (Yoko Naito, RED BEARD) is adopted by the thief Shichibei (Ko Nishimura, LADY SNOWBLOOD), who has her stay with a mean flower arranger.

Blogs SLEEPOVER (2004) (*)

Where is John Hughes when a generation of teens need someone to supply them with films that do not constitute mental abuse? This tween concoction is a collection of caricatures taped together with clichés.

It’s the summer before Julie Corky (Alexa Vega, SPY KIDS) begins her freshman year in high school. She wants nothing more than to sit at the fountain during lunch instead of the tables by the dumpsters and date the school’s skateboarding, prep hunk Steve Phillips (Sean Faris, who was 22 when he made this film and sure looks it, YOURS, MINE AND OURS).

To celebrate the end of the junior high, Julie is having a sleepover, inviting her best friend Hannah (Mika Boorem, HEARTS IN ATLANTIS), bubbly Farrah (Scout Taylor-Compton, TV’s CHARMED) and blonde, socialite Stacie (Sara Paxton, AQUAMARINE), who skips the silly sleepover because she’s going to the high school dance with Todd (Thad Luckinbill, JUST MARRIED). Julie replaces Stacie with the heavy girl Yancy (Kallie Flynn Childress, TARGET). Julie’s mom Gabby (Jane Lynch, BEST IN SHOW) still treats her like she’s a little girl and her father Jay (Jeff Garlin, TV’s CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM) is your typical clueless film dad that supplies needed plot devices and comic relief when needed.

Blogs THE PHENIX CITY STORY (1955) (***1/2)

Similar to many 1950s crime/message movies, THE PHENIX CITY STORY distinguishes itself with a raw and unflinching look at violence that was uncommon for the era. Based on the true story of Phenix City, Alabama, the film chronicles the men who stood up to 100 years of organized crime in an effort to clean up their town.

The film begins with a very dated documentary segment, which interviews some of the real life people involved in the story. Because it is completely separate from the fictionalized narrative, its weakness can be quickly forgotten. It’s like a bad newsreel was just tacked onto a good movie.

John Patterson (Richard Kiley, BLACKBOARD JUNGLE) is a young lawyer, who after working in Germany, has returned home to Phenix City. His father, Albert (John McIntire, PSYCHO), is the town’s lawyer, who has stayed out of the way of organized crime, which is run by Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews, TORA! TORA! TORA!), a portly fellow who hides his dark streak behind a genteel southern demeanor.

Blogs PAPARAZZI (2004) (*)

Here’s a film that’s trying to make a statement on a subject it has no real knowledge of.

Bo Laramie (Cole Hauser, GOOD WILL HUNTING) has been plucked from obscurity to become the biggest movie star in the world over night. Him, his wife Abby (Robin Tunney, TV’s PRISON BREAK) and their son Zach (Blake Michael Bryan, JURASSIC PARK III) have moved to L.A., where Bo has an altercation at his son’s soccer game with a paparazzi photographer named Rex Harper (Tom Sizemore, BLACK HAWK DOWN).

The incident is a set up to get Bo to assault Rex while he’s being secretly filmed and photographed by other soulless photographers Wendell Stokes (Daniel Baldwin, KING OF THE ANTS), Leonard Clark (Tom Hollander, THE LIBERTINE) and Kevin Rosner (Kevin Gage, CHAOS). The evil paparazzi hound Bo relentlessly, causing a car accident (ala Prince Diana) that sends Abby to the hospital and puts young Zach in a coma. Now Bo wants revenge by any means.

Blogs ONCE WERE WARRIORS (1994) (****)

I never took director Lee Tamahori as a truly serious filmmaker, having directed ALONG CAME THE SPIDER, DIE ANOTHER DAY and XXX: STATE OF THE UNION. And his recent arrest for propositioning a police officer to perform sexual acts for cash while dressed in drag made him look like a strange Hollywood concoction. However, his work in the ‘90s is actually quite underrated, consisting of this film, THE EDGE and MULHOLLAND FALLS (unseen by me, but it has its fans).

ONCE WERE WARRIORS is clearly his masterpiece made with great care and passion. The native Kiwi brings to brutal life the state of Maori culture in modern New Zealand. Beth Heke (Rena Owen, A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE) is the mother of five children, living just above the poverty line. Her family lives under the explosive violence — both mental and physical — of her husband, Jake (Temuera Morrison, STAR WARS: EPISODE II - ATTACK OF THE CLONES).

Blogs KOYAANISQATSI (1983) (***1/2)

KOYAANISQATSI is one of the most successful experimental film of all time. It’s the first film in a trilogy of films that deal with the conflict between modern man and nature. Director Godfrey Reggio believed that non-narrative films could reach a wider audience if they tackled important issues in a compelling way.

He also believes that film, as a collaborative art form, should be made with the director working as an equal with the cinematographer and composer. For the film, Reggio is the conductor working hand in hand with cinematographer Ron Fricke and composer Philip Glass, whose haunting score drives the film and becomes the star of the production.

The film begins with beautiful and expansive shots of nature. Grand landscapes bathed in light. Reggio uses time-lapse photography to animate the changing of time over the vistas, from the movement of clouds to the changing of day to night. This serene section is then instantly disrupted by an explosion that rocks a mountainside captured in slow motion.

Blogs ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS (1958) (***1/2)

This early thriller from director Louis Malle (AU REVOIR, LES ENFANTS, ATLANTIC CITY) drips with irony and tension from the opening until the end. It presents a film noir scenario of lovers in a murder conspiracy with a classic locked room mystery.

Florence (Jeanne Moreau, JULES AND JIM) desperately talks with her lover Julien Travernier (Maurice Ronet) over the phone. Their passion is the kind typical of a French film. After the call, Julien proceeds to carry out an elaborate scheme to murder his boss Simon Carala (Jean Wall) — Florence’s older husband. Julien’s plan is brilliant, but one mistake committed in a rush will unravel a progression of events, leading to the downfall of two couples. That second couple is young flower girl Veronique (Yori Bertin) and her two-bit hood boyfriend, Louis (Georges Poujouly, DIABOLIQUE). We don’t learn much about Florence and Julien in the beginning; just that they are in love. We watch as Julien carries out his devious, but ingenious, plan, but dread what will happen after he leaves a key piece of evidence behind. Things only get worse from there.

Blogs THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK (1959) (***1/2)

Based on Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s play that was based Anne Frank's actual diaries, George Stevens’ film production is able to capture the harrowing experience of the Frank family hiding in a store attic for nearly two years from the Nazis.

Told from the point of view of 13-year-old Anne (Millie Perkins, WALL STREET), the film takes place mainly in the hiding place. At first, Anne is accompanied by her sympathetic and supportive father Otto (Joseph Schildkraut, THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER), her demanding and conservative mother Edith (Gusti Huber), her quiet, older sister Margot (Diane Baker, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), battling couple Petronella & Hans Van Daan (Shelley Winters, LOLITA, & Lou Jacobi, AVALON) and the Van Daan’s 16-year-old son Peter (Richard Beymer, WEST SIDE STORY). Shop owner Kraler (Douglas Spencer, THE THREE FACES OF EVE) and his secretary Miep (Dodie Heath, SECONDS) bring the Franks and Van Daans food regularly. During working hours, however, they must remain entirely quiet, often remaining completely still for hours.

Blogs THE DEVIL AND MISS JONES (1941) (****)

Here is a perfect example of a premise that has been stolen for years, yet still retains a freshness due to perfect performances and an universal tale that transcends time.

John P. Merrick (Charles Coburn, GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES) is a reclusive millionaire, who is troubled by union protests at his department store. He decides to take a job incognito in the shoe department to find out who the agitators are. Salesperson Mary Jones (Jean Arthur, MRS. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON) takes Merrick under her wing after the old man ruffles the feathers of the department’s snobby manager Hooper (Edmund Gwenn, LASSIE COME HOME). Older clerk Elizabeth Ellis (Spring Byington, MEET JOHN DOE) also takes a liking to the seemingly helpless Merrick, who appears to be too poor to buy lunch. Mary ends up taking Merrick to a union meeting led by her boyfriend, Joe O’Brien (Robert Cummings, KINGS ROW).

Blogs DELICATESSEN (1991) (***1/2)

Mixing post-apocalyptic sci-fi with black comedy and a dash of romance, DELICATESSEN is a dish that may be too exotic for some tastes, but for others it will make their mouths water.

The film begins with a man dressed in garbage (Pascal Benezech) trying to escape from his apartment in a trashcan. However, his cannibalistic employer Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus, A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT) catches him first and butchers him. In this futuristic world, food is scarce, especially meat. So Clapet the butcher sells human flesh to the tenants that live in the apartments over his deli. He keeps hiring new handy man as a front for getting his next victim.

Clown Louison (Dominique Pinon, AMEILE), after losing his partner in a tragic incident, takes the job next. The apartment building is full of eccentric characters including: Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), the nearly-blind daughter of Clapet; the voluptuous Mademoiselle Plusse (Karin Viard, TIME OUT), who is having an affair with Clapet so she can get free food; brothers Robert (Rufus, METROLAND) and Roger (Jacques Mathou, THE HAIRDRESSER'S HUSBAND), who make those little boxes that when turned over sound like cows mooing; Aurore Interligator (Silvie Laguna, JEFFERSON IN PARIS), a tormented woman who hears voices in her head that drive her to try elaborate suicide attempts; Georges (Jean-Francois Perrier, VINCENT & THEO), Aurore’s snobby husband; the crude couple Marcel (Ticky Holgado, THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN) and Madame Tapioca (Anne-Marie Pisani, LES BOYS II); the Tapiocas’ troublemaking boys (Boban Janevski & Mikael Todde); Marcel’s mother-in-law (Edith Ker); and the strange man in the basement known as the Frog Man (Howard Vernon, ZOMBIE 5), who lives in a water-filled apartment with frogs and snails. I should also mention the gun-toting Postman (Chick Ortega, WINGS OF DESIRE), who is in love with Julie.

Blogs BREAKING AWAY (1979) (****)

I love this film. I’ve seen this film nearly a dozen times and it still makes me laugh every time. The film is more than any category it may be labeled in. It’s a coming-of-age, sports film, but deals with the subject matter honestly with great insight.

Set in Bloomington, Indiana where the University of Indiana is located, the film deals with the divide between the wealthy college students and the locals who live in the town. Dave Stoller (David Christopher, CHARIOTS OF FIRE) is a townie, or as the film refers to them — cutters, which is a reference to the stone cutting factory where many of the townsfolk work. Stoller has just graduated from high school and dreams of becoming a professional cyclist. He is so into the Italian cycling team that he has learned Italian, speaks with an accent and drives his father, Raymond (Paul Dooley, POPEYE), nuts with opera music. He hangs around with a group of other cutters, including bitter, former high school quarterback Mike (Dennis Quaid, FAR FROM HEAVEN), sad jokester Cyril (Daniel Stern, CITY SLICKERS) and short, hothead Moocher (Jackie Earl Haley, THE BAD NEWS BEARS), who is secretly engaged to supermarket clerk Nancy (Amy Wright, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR).


My two-and-a-half star review of the original UNDERWORLD concluded with — “In the end, the filmmakers set up a promising possibility for a strong sequel. Hopefully, they use the first film as the backstory and focus on developing Selene and Michael’s relationship as the main crux of any future installments in this inevitable franchise.” The filmmakers must have missed my review.

We do feel in this film a greater connection between vampire Selene (Kate Beckinsale, PEARL HARBOR) and werewolf/ vampire hybrid Michael (Scott Speedman, TV’s FELICITY), but it goes nowhere. The Romeo & Juliet-like tale is gone. There’s little internal struggle present here, just Selene and Michael running from the bad guys.

Blogs ONE MISSED CALL 2 (2005) (**)

The original ONE MISSED CALL wasn’t anything more than a clever take on the ghost/grudge genre of Japanese horror films. The sequel mines the same territory with less scares and a very convoluted ending.

Again, people start receiving cell phone calls from themselves in the future that predict their demise. After her friends die at the hands of the curse, Kyoto (Mimura) and her boyfriend Naoto (Yu Yoshizawa) along with investigative reporter Takako Nozoe (Asaka Seto) try to find the origin of the grudge before it kills them. At first they believe it’s the same curse that killed in the first film, but it soon seems that this is a new killer ghost, possibly originating in Taiwan where Nozoe’s estranged husband (Peter Ho) lives. The only main returning character is Detective Motomiya (Renji Ishibashi).

Blogs Zagreb Animation Festival


If you remember my article about the Zagreb International Festival of
Animation two years ago you may recall how much I loved the Festival. From
the moment you arrive you feel that you are with family. The Festival's
director Margit Antauer, affectionately known as Buba, does everything to
make you feel welcome and her fabulous staff works overtime to try to tend
to your every need.
This year's event took place June 12-17. As I settled in to watch the
opening awards ceremony and the first competition program, little did I know
that this would be one of my rare spates of carefree animation watching
here, thanks to the ASIFA International board and committee meetings which I
needed to attend. True to past years, the opening competition program was
very strong, ranging from the National Film Board of Canada's Louise by
Anita Lebeau which I wrote about in the Annecy 2005 article, Ivan Maximov's
Wind Along the Coast which we screened at our two farewell performances in
the Bay Area and John Canemakers' Oscar winning film Moon and the Son: An
Imagined Conversation. Following the screening, there was a lovely welcoming

Blogs AU REVOIR, LES ENFANTS (1987) (****)

Louis Malle’s film based on his own childhood experiences during WWII takes its time and builds slowly to an ending of true emotional power. Because he takes his time and creates real characters, he does not need to resort to melodrama to make us weep, because we are watching events transpire to our friends.

Set during Germany’s occupation of France, Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) is the son of rich parents, who send him off to boarding school against his will. He’s an outgoing popular kid at school with a vein of bully and troublemaker in him. A new kid comes to school named Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejtö), who is often picked on by the other students. He’s smart and musically talented, but he doesn’t pray like all the other Catholic boys and whenever a German officer is around he gets really nervous.

Blogs THE TALENT GIVEN US (2005) (***1/2)

There’s a strange pull to this film, because the people in it seem so real. Director/writer Andrew Wagner actually uses his real family to play the lead characters. How much of the story is based off of these people is unknown, but we have to believe they are playing exaggerated versions of themselves.

Allen (Allen Wagner) and Judy (Judy Wagner) are a retired couple who have a bumpy relationship. After he loses money in the stock market, which we learn is something he’s done before, Allen goes out and buys a van — for family trips he says. However, Allen and Judy don’t see much of their kids, two of them living in Los Angeles. Their actress daughter Emily (Emily Wagner, TV’s E.R.) comes to visit from L.A. and with their other actress daughter Maggie (Maggie Wagner, ONE FINE DAY), Judy decides to take a spontaneous trip to L.A. to see their son Andrew (Andrew Wagner).

Blogs STAY (2005) (***)

This strange thriller presents a world that seems real at first, but becomes more and more unreal as time goes on.

Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor, MOULIN ROUGE!) is a psychologist who is filling in for his sick friend Beth Levy (Janeane Garofalo, THE TRUTH ABOUT CATS & DOGS). Beth’s patient Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling, THE NOTEBOOK) has set his car on fire on the freeway and tells Sam that he intends to kill himself on Saturday. Sam is conflicted on what to do, but he knows he has to try and stop Sam from hurting himself.

He feels reluctant to talk to his girlfriend Lila (Naomi Watts, KING KONG), because she once tried to kill herself by slitting her wrists in the bathtub. Things start to get weird when Henry claims Sam’s blind confidant, Dr. Leon Patterson (Bob Hoskins, MERMAIDS), is really his dead father. Sam wants to learn more about Henry so he seeks out the young man’s supposedly dead mother (Kate Burton, EMPIRE FALLS), who lives in an empty house with a vicious dog.

Blogs THE SISTERS (2006) (***)

Based on Richard Alfieri’s play, which was based on Anton Chekov’s THE THREE SISTERS, director Arthur Allan Seidelman brings together a talented cast for what amounts to a filmed play.

Olga Prior (Mary Stuart Masterson, FRIED GREEN TOMATOES) is the oldest sister and is called the “serious one.” Marcia (Maria Bello, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE) is the middle sister — the “pretty one” — who has married psychiatrist Dr. Harry Glass (Steven Culp, TV’s DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES), who wed Marcia to “save” her. Irene (Erika Christensen, TRAFFIC) is the youngest sister, who has a dark secret she is keeping from her family. Andrew (Alessandro Nivola, JUNEBUG) is the brother, whose trophy fiancée Nancy (Elizabeth Banks, SLITHER) is not liked at all by the family.

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

Director Eli Roth (CABIN FEVER) touches brilliance with this film, but ruins it with some of the vile cynicism that has infested recent horror films.

Paxton (Jay Hernandez, CRAZY/BEAUTIFUL) and Josh (Derek Richardson, DUMB AND DUMBERER) are two American college students who have gone to Europe to have endless nights of drinking, drugs and sexual conquests. They hook up with a wanderer from Iceland named Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson, film debut) who joins them in their debauchery in Amsterdam. Paxton is the definition of obnoxious American while Josh is more sensitive, yet follows Paxton’s every move. Oli is just a wild and crazy guy. They learn of a hostel in Slovakia that has the hottest women in the world, who just live to hook up with an American.

Blogs FIREWALL (2006) (**)

On some level FIREWALL works like all “family in jeopardy” thrillers work. However, if you’ve seen a few of them then you know what is going to happen.

Jack Stanfield (Harrison Ford, PATRIOT GAMES) is the chief security tech at a big bank that is in the process of merging with another big bank. Of course this merger is creating tension between Jack and his right hand man Harry (Robert Forster, JACKIE BROWN) and Gary Mitchell (Robert Patrick, TERMINATOR 2), the man in charge of making the transition from one owner to the other. Jack’s wife Beth (Virginia Madsen, SIDEWAYS) is an architect and that’s about all we know about her. Jack’s kids are Sarah (Carly Schroeder, MEAN CREEK) and Andy (Jimmy Bennett, HOSTAGE), who has a convenient deadly allergy to nuts.

Blogs DERAILED (2005) (**)

This modern film noir plays well for its first two acts, but jumps the tracks in the end. It wants to be a film noir, but it wants a happy ending, which is actually vicious when one thinks about it. Moreover, the criminals are so stupid in the end that one cannot believe they would be smart enough to pull off their original crimes in the first place.

Charles Schine (Clive Owen, CLOSER) is an advertising exec, whose daughter, Amy (Addison Timlin, film debut), is suffering from Type 1 diabetes. His wife, Deanna (Melissa George, 2005’s THE AMITYVILLE HORROR), and him worry constantly about their child’s health and the financial strain that it puts on their family. One morning, Charles rides to work on the train and realizes he has no money to pay for his ticket. Sexy stranger Lucinda Harris (Jennifer Aniston, TV’s FRIENDS) offers to pay for him, which Charles feels obligated to pay back.