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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.

Blogs Nik, Nancy, Kirby and Molly have a home

Dear friends

Great news!!!

As of 1 October Nik, Nancy, Kirby and Molly have a home!!!!

We are in the very center of Gent in a VERY tiny house (yes, that's right we
actually found a house) with a private patio no less.

We invite you all to come visit us but no more than two people at a time
because any more than that will have to sleep in the bath tub (yes, we have
the luxury of a bath tub)

Please continue to write us at our post office box.

Pictures included . . .

Love,

Nik, Nancy, Molly and Kirby

Blogs KROK International Festival of Animation

Well, dear friends, here is what hapened at KROK after I finally arrived on
the boat -- it was smooth sailing from then on. I also do discuess the
animation least you think that I was not in the screening room.

I hope this gives you a little flavor of this unique Animation Festival.

Cheers,
Nancy

------

THE 13TH ANNUAL KROK INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL of ANIMATION by Nancy
Denney-Phelps

The KROK International Festival of Animation is my favorite annual event.
Each year it is a seagoing experience in which 200 animators from around the
world spend 14 days steaming down rivers while watching animation and having
the opportunity to make truly lasting friendships. It alternates between
being held in Russia and Ukraine. This year participants gathered in Moscow
on August 7 at the Dom Kino, home of the Russian Filmmakers Union, for the
overnight bus ride to Nizhniy Novgorod. There they boarded the river cruiser
Marshall Zhukov to watch animation, eat, drink, to dance under the stars
until sunrise, and to have far too much fun!

Blogs My Trip to KROK With Fran Kafka

Dear Friends:

This year my KROK article will be in two parts. This episode is about my
train trip to KROK so even if you are not interested in Animation (which I
can not possible imagine) I think that you will enjoy the story of my
travels. The Festival article will follow in a seperate e-mail as will
photos of the trip and festival.

Hope this finds all of you well, that you had as wonderful a summer as I
did.

Nancy
PS Nik's comment about this whole thing was "I'm certainly glad I wasn't
there."

----

KROK - GETTING THERE WITH FRAN KAFKA WAS HALF THE FUN? By Nancy
Denney-Phelps

On Saturday, August 5th as I sat at the window of the train in Gent,
Belgium, waving goodbye to Nik, I was full of thoughts of KROK, my favorite
international animation festival. Little did I suspect that my three-day
train trip to Moscow would turn into an adventure of epic proportions.

Blogs THE LIBERTINE (2006) (***)

This film is the story of John Wilmot, a.k.a. the Earl of Rochester, who was a top playwright at the time of Charles II, whose cynical view of the world lead to a life of debauchery and an early death.

As played by Johnny Depp, he introduces the film by stating bluntly that you will not like him nor doe he desire that you like him. Depp is again stupendous in the difficult role, which doesn’t sugar coat the character, but allows us to see the world from his point of view and understand a bit of his passion, which was what attracted people to him.

Charles II (John Malkovich, DANGEROUS LIASIONS) has banished Wilmot for bringing up the king’s mistress in front of his in-laws. However, Charles calls back Wilmot when he needs him to write a play in his honor. Everyone knows that Wilmot is talented, however he cannot bite his tongue or play along with the game. His brutal honesty and biting barbs against hypocrisy do not improve his standing.

Blogs THE HILLS HAVE EYES (2006) (**)

I really liked Wes Craven’s gritty original THE HILLS HAVE EYES. It was scary and fascinating. Alexandre Aja, whose HIGH TENSION was a solid horror film until he ruined everything with an absolutely lame twist in the end, was assigned the duty of remaking Craven’s early horror classic. Funny that Aja, along with his co-writer Gregory Levasseur, would remove everything that made the original wonderful.

The general plot is the same. A family breaks down in the desert and are besieged by a family of mutant cannibals. The family dynamic is the same. Big Bob (Ted Levine, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) is a retired cop who likes to tote around his guns. His wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan, APOLLO 13) is a conservative, church-going woman. Their young son Bobby (Dan Byrd, FIRESTARTER 2: REKINDLED) is the first to discover that the hills have eyes and is petrified by the fact. The middle child is an attractive blonde named Brenda (Emilie de Ravin, TV’s LOST), who wishes she were not on this family vacation. The oldest sibling Lynn (Vinessa Shaw, EYES WIDE SHUT) has a young child and is married to the annoying, “non-violent” Doug (Aaron Stanford, X2: X-MEN UNITED).

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

This independently produced murder mystery peaked my interest because it involved the sideshow and Mike Patton, the lead singer of Faith No More. I was hoping for a surreal thriller, but received a poorly acted, mess of a narrative.

The film tells two parallel stories of abuse with Patton playing two roles and Karen Black (FIVE EASY PIECES) playing two roles as well. Jimmy (Jak Kendall, film debut) and his mother Eleanor (Black) are tormented and tortured by their hard-drinking brother/son David (Patton). Sandra (Black) works for a traveling sideshow where her and her fellow performers are under the harsh rule of carnival owner Frank (Patton).

David is obsessed with Sandra, who doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. After hearing, Sandra perform Jimmy wants to go on the road with her to set himself free, but she knows that being with Frank is no form of freedom. As secrets are laid bare, David goes missing. And as a wonderfully constructive opening shot reveals has been buried in a shed. Female police officer Ed (Susan Traylor, HEAT) is on the case to find out what happened to David and who is responsible.

Blogs PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN'S CHEST (2006) (**1/2)

Like many I was really looking forward to seeing the PIRATES sequel. So you can understand my disappointment when I went to see it and it turned out to be just a 2 1/2 hour trailer for PIRATES 3. Gone is the magic of the first film. Gone is the originality. You know a sequel is in danger when it has to recycle the jokes from its predecessor.

Like the MATRIX sequels, PIRATES seems to only have enough story for one new film, but not two. Only MATRIX blew all its new stuff in the second film where as (I hope) PIRATES is waiting to end strong. DEAD MAN'S CHEST opens with the interruption of the rain drenched wedding of Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightley, PRIDE & PREJUDICE) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, LORD OF THE RINGS). During the ceremony, they are arrested by Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander, THE LIBERTINE) for freeing known pirate Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, FINDING NEVERLAND). However, Beckett is interested very little in justice and more in blackmail, sending Will out to retrieve Sparrow’s compass in an effort to save Elizabeth.

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.

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