Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: May 2008

Thursday, May 29, 2008

TV Review: At the Death House Door - IFC's Gripping Documentary Tackles the Death Penalty

by Tony Dayoub

At the Death House Door is a solemn inquiry into the execution of Carlos De Luna, seen through the eyes of Pastor Carroll Pickett. De Luna was a Mexican American convicted of murdering gas station attendant Wanda Lopez in 1983 in Corpus Christi, Texas. As has been happening lately in many capital punishment cases, doubt has been cast over whether De Luna was actually guilty of the murder.

Pastor Carroll Pickett counseled the inmates of the "Walls" prison unit in Huntsville, overseeing nearly 100 executions, including the world's first lethal injection. Having lost two upstanding members of his congregation, during a hostage crisis at the prison, he was a strong advocate for the death penalty when he joined the unit. But years of counseling the inmates, getting to know them as human beings, and discovering that victims' families seldom got any sense of closure from the executions, took their toll on Pickett. Alienated and lonely, he confessed his private thoughts into audio cassettes after each execution. By the time he met convict Carlos De Luna, he had begun to oppose the death penalty.

Of all the inmates that claimed their innocence to Pickett, none had struck him as more genuine than De Luna. De Luna's arrest was made with very little evidence, and another convict, Carlos Hernandez, who was a virtual lookalike, even bragged about how De Luna was convicted for someone Hernandez had actually killed. Even a knife resembling Hernandez's distinctive one had been found at the scene. Frustrated at the futility and injustice of the executions, Pickett quit and became a dedicated anti-death penalty activist in Texas, an uphill battle if there ever was one. Texas leads the country in executions, ahead of second-place Virginia by more than 4 to 1 since 1976.

Through the investigation by Steve Mills and Maury Possley, two Chicago Tribune reporters, into De Luna's arrest and its inconsistencies, the filmmakers were led to De Luna's final confidant, Pastor Pickett. Directors Steve James and Peter Gilbert (directors of Hoop Dreams) give us a grim but fascinating look into the tortured soul of Pastor Pickett. Pickett's father, bitter over his own father's murder, was influential in forming the pastor's opinion of the death penalty in his youth. Raised to keep his emotions in constant check, he would record his misgivings after each execution, amassing a collection of 95 tapes over the years. But his daughter recalls the one time anyone in his family saw him weep, screeching as he collapsed to the floor, while his then young daughter helplessly looked on.

Gripping and intense, the documentary gives a fair-minded look at capital punishment, and one man's mission to find a better alternative.

IFC presents At the Death House Door tonight at 9 PM ET.

This entry first appeared on
Blogcritics on 5/29/2008.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Movie Review: Sex and the City - The Fab Foursome Set Their Sights on Conquering Post-Single Life

by Tony Dayoub

Denise was excited when I informed her we'd be attending the Atlanta premiere of Sex and the City on Tuesday night. My wife's not one to brag, but I could tell she was eagerly anticipating the movie. Exhibit A: She pulled out all the stops in getting a babysitter. Never had I seen the woman line one up so fast. Exhibit B: She kept asking if we shouldn't get our seats earlier. Exhibit C: A smile spread across her face when she told me how her coworkers were a touch envious, "Tessa said she doesn't want to know anything about the movie when I go back to work tomorrow. She doesn't even want me to make a facial expression." Now I know how she feels when I make comments like, "Can you believe there's only a year left till the new Star Trek movie comes out?"

Then there was the theatergoing experience associated with the film. Not only were there giveaways for such items as facials, manis and pedis, or a night on the town for "you and three of your favorite girlfriends", many a female fan arrived with said girlfriends in tow, dressed a little too fashion forward for a night at the movies, but looking ready to hit the bars and order a round of Cosmos (never mind that they're so 1998). I've seen Trekkies in their Captain Picard outfits at a premiere, the odd Stormtrooper on opening day of a Star Wars flick. I was even taken aback when someone showed up in full Indiana Jones regalia to Crystal Skull's premiere last week. But never did I foresee seeing clusters of otherwise ordinary women decked out so you could easily identify which one was the Miranda of the group, which one was the Carrie, etc. Anyway, out of respect for Tessa, and those women who hold Carrie Bradshaw and her friends' exploits so dear to their heart, I will do my best to review the film without any spoilers.

First of all, I am happy to report that the film survived its jump to the big screen without also jumping the shark. Rumors which I won't directly address here, but you know them if you've heard them, prove to be completely unfounded. The movie hits all the emotional notes that it should 4 years after leaving the TV airwaves, meaning you'll laugh a little, cry a little, but mostly you'll get to revisit what it felt like to curl up on the couch every Sunday night to catch the girls on HBO a few years back. Except they are not girls, anymore. These women have left the fun single life they used to gripe about, and find that post-single life brings a whole new set of challenges.

Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and Steve (David Eigenberg) hit a big bump in their marriage, which brings her inherent distrust of men back to the forefront of their relationship. Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is now a publicist in L.A. with just one client, her beloved Smith (Jason Lewis), and she wonders when she stopped living for herself and her life started revolving around just one man. Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) is busy preparing for her whirlwind nuptials to "Big" (Chris Noth). And Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is wondering if her life with Harry (Evan Handler), and adopted daughter, Lily, can stay this happy while her friends' lives seem to be hitting major obstacles.

Writer-Director Michael Patrick King, responsible for some of Sex and the City's best storylines, does an excellent job of balancing the women's individual stories throughout the film. With a lengthier running time (about 135 minutes) than usual for a romantic comedy, the film never feels sluggish. If anything, we are so happy to see the characters, and engaged by their easy chemistry, that we wish the movie were longer.

Sarah Jessica Parker is her usual winning and witty self, and Carrie and Big's plot gets the most screen time, of course. But Miranda, easily the most interesting of Carrie's friends, is well served by her involving subplot as well. Cynthia Nixon is charming in her most neurotic portrayal of Miranda yet. Kim Cattrall is still the sexiest, despite her being the most mature (look up her age, I'm not telling you). Of the four, Kristin Davis gets the spotlight for the briefest amount of time, but her character steals the biggest laugh in the whole movie.

With cameos by four other series characters, and an assist from Jennifer Hudson (who manages to fit right in, thank you very much), as Carrie's new assistant, the movie hits its target audience right on the bullseye. And maybe more, as I saw plenty of husbands and boyfriends that were dragged to the movie having a surprisingly good time.

It will be interesting to see, this weekend, if this movie will be the first blockbuster carried to that status level by female fans.

Sex and the City opens on Friday, May 30th, in theaters nationwide.

This entry first appeared on Blogcritics on 5/28/2008.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

DVD Review: Cassandra's Dream - Serviceable Thriller Mired by Predictable Plot

by Tony Dayoub

Woody Allen's latest European foray, Cassandra's Dream, is a serviceable thriller, with a great cast of British actors. Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor play Terry and Ian, brothers who are in need of money. Dumb, but noble, Terry needs it to pay off some pretty high gambling debts. Smart schemer Ian, needs it to impress his new girlfriend, Angela (Hayley Atwell) with his latest half-baked investment plan. They turn to rich Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson) for help. But Howard takes the opportunity to enlist the boys for a favor of his own. He'll help them IF they get rid of a business partner about to sell him out to the cops over some shady dealings.

Part of the fun here is to see the spectacular cast squirm, manipulate and betray each other through the proceedings. McGregor is particularly oily in his performance, bullying his younger brother into conforming with the plan in order to avoid jeopardizing his new relationship. On the flip side, McGregor is also up to playing his character's naivete, as his actress girlfriend is obviously a golddigging tart already sizing up her next conquest before his eyes. Wilkinson is effective in his brief part, conveying his desperation while not letting the boys' inexperience in crime bring down his own plans. Farrell is the one who's most sympathetic, as his simple-minded gambler, seems to at least have his heart in the right place, if not his head. He generally has noble intentions, wanting to provide for his fiancee, but is unable to shake his gambling addiction.

The main flaw is the predictability of the plot. We've all seen this noir staple before. Sidney Lumet even depicted a variation on this theme to better effect in the superior Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. But where Lumet used pace, setting, and circumstance to affect a tone of believability and surprise, Allen's direction is mired in cliche. For example, out on a date with a coworker, Ian drives past a car broken-down on the side of the road with a woman working under the hood. He turns around to help, and meets his future love, Angela, who will lead him to his inescapable tragic fate. Now, why is it that I, a somewhat nice, average guy, rarely stop to help a stranded driver, yet these cinematic ne'er-do-wells, always do?

Allen is lucky to have actors at his beck and call, most likely because of the reputation he's earned on his older films. But he should slow down his prodigious output and put a little more effort into the stories he's been churning out lately.

Still provided courtesy of Genius Products and The Weinstein Company.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Sydney Pollack

by Tony Dayoub

Director, producer, and actor Sydney Pollack left behind a substantial body of work. Starting as an actor in the early days of television, he soon moved behind the camera, directing episodes of such classic shows as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Ben Casey, and The Fugitive, before turning to films.

After meeting Robert Redford while both appeared in the movie War Hunt in 1962, they established a deep friendship. Pollack began their professional collaboration when he cast Redford in This Property is Condemned (1966). The long and fruitful collaboration yielded many of their best known films, including: Jeremiah Johnson (1972), nominated for the Palm D'or at Cannes, The Way We Were (1973), Three Days of the Condor (1975), The Electric Horseman (1979), Out of Africa (1985), for which he received an Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director, and Havana (1990).

He had returned to acting in recent times, starting with his role as Dustin Hoffman's agent in Tootsie (1982). If he wasn't appearing in his own films, he usually saved his appearances for movies where he'd work with other prominent directors like Robert Altman's The Player (1992), Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives (1992), and Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999), as Victor Ziegler, a memorable role which he only got after Harvey Keitel, the original actor cast, could not return for reshoots due to other commitments.

As a producer, he was involved with such notable films as The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), Sense and Sensibility (1995), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Michael Clayton (2007), and even the recently reviewed HBO film Recount (2008).

No doubt because of his own experience as an actor, he was known as an actor's director, directing no less than a dozen actors to Oscar nominations, like Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, and Holly Hunter. Two of those actors, Gig Young and Jessica Lange, won for They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969) and Tootsie, respectively.

Tootsie is ranked 69th on the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 films of all time.

He died this afternoon at the age of 73.

Recommended Films - As Director: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, Jeremiah Johnson, Three Days of the Condor, Absence of Malice, Tootsie, Out of Africa, The Firm

As Actor: Tootsie, The Player, Husbands and Wives, Eyes Wide Shut

DVD Review: Sinatra - A Biopic and a Treasure Trove of Sinatra Favorites

by Tony Dayoub

To honor the 10 year anniversary of Frank Sinatra's passing, Warner Home Video has teamed up with Reprise Records (the label Sinatra himself founded in 1960), Turner Classic Movies, MGM Home Entertainment, and even the U.S. Postal Service for a unique tribute to the the singer. Among what you'll see are a commemorative postage stamp, a CD collecting 21 of his classics, and a month-long festival of films and specials on TCM. For their part, Warner is releasing a whopping 22 films, including 11 brand new to DVD, in four new collections. Also debuting is a two-disc DVD of Sinatra, the 1992 award-winning CBS miniseries.

Here's the rundown on the films:

The Rat Pack Ultimate Collector's Edition
Repackaged versions of Ocean's 11, 4 For Texas, and Robin and the 7 Hoods are great, but the centerpiece of the collection is the western, Sergeant's 3, never before released on DVD, with the core Rat Pack-ers being directed by John Sturges of The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape fame. Loaded with special features, this is the set to get for fans of the "Chairman of the Board".

The Golden Years
This one's a mixed bag, combining some of his most interesting work with some of his most forgettable. Most interesting: None But the Brave, Sinatra's only credited attempt at directing a movie; The Man with the Golden Arm, Sinatra's Academy Award-nominated performance as heroin addicted drummer, Frankie Machine, directed by Otto Preminger; and Some Came Running, a cult favorite directed by Vincente Minelli, and starring female Rat Pack member, Shirley MacLaine in an Oscar-nominated role. Least interesting: The Tender Trap, a cutesy musical with Debbie Reynolds, and Marriage on the Rocks his last film with Dean Martin, costarring Deborah Kerr. All of these are available for the first time on DVD. This set is for fans of Sinatra, the underrated actor.

The Early Years
Young Frankie Sinatra learning the Hollywood ropes in some pretty rare but unworthy films notable mostly for a look at the charismatic man he would become. All available on DVD for the first time, this set includes Higher and Higher, Step Lively, It Happened in Brooklyn, The Kissing Bandit, and Double Dynamite. This set is for fans of "The Voice".

The Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly Collection
The most disappointing set of the bunch, because it consists entirely of repackaged already released DVDs. And these are some of his most enjoyable films. Gene Kelly is disarming as the leading man, but you can see Frank starting to come into his own. Anchors Aweigh features Kelly's dance with Jerry of Tom and Jerry fame. Also included are Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and On the Town. This set is for fans of Sinatra, the underrated dancer.

Sinatra (1992)
Executive Produced by Tina Sinatra, this is a surprisingly brave, warts-and-all look at the singer. Philip Casnoff, who bears little resemblance to "Ol' Blue Eyes", nonetheless transforms into him through the power of performance. Playing him from his early twenties through his late fifties, one always forgets that he is not Sinatra. Maybe it's because he's got his walk down perfectly. Difficult job for Casnoff also, as he must remain sympathetic despite reenacting some of Sinatra's truly awful and pathetic moments. His contractual dispute with Tommy Dorsey (Bob Gunton), his serial philandering, and tempestuous relationship with Ava Gardner (Marcia Gay Harden) while wife Nancy (Gina Gershon) stays home to raise the kids, his shady connections with the mob, in the form of Sam Giancana (Rod Steiger), on behalf of the Kennedys, all get their spotlight in the surprisingly, too short 4-hour epic. Period details are captured perfectly throughout, and performances are all understated and top-notch. This DVD is a must-have for even the casual fan.

Still provided courtesy of Warner Home Entertainment.

Friday, May 23, 2008

TV Review: Recount - Satire Takes Aim at Florida's 2000 Voter Recount Fiasco

by Tony Dayoub

The new HBO movie, Recount, is a sadly funny primer on all the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that occurred during the infamous 2000 Florida voter recount. Seen primarily through the eyes of Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey), General Counsel to Al Gore's recount committee, it is more affectionate to the Democrats. But in retrospect, it is hard not to be, eight years later, as George W. Bush has the dubious distinction of having the lowest domestic approval ratings of any sitting American President in history. And that's including Nixon.

Jay Roach, of Austin Powers and Meet the Parents fame, directs the ensemble cast to what are some highly accurate caricatures of some of the major players in the unfolding comedy of errors taking place. I say caricatures because tongue is firmly planted in cheek as he surveys some of the notable incidents throughout the aftermath of the election. John Hurt (The Elephant Man) portrays former Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, as a dignified individual whose sense of decorum unfortunately delays Gore's recount team from fighting dirty earlier in the game. Ed Begley, Jr. (St. Elsewhere) plays David Boies, counsel to Gore in the Supreme Court case, Bush v. Gore, as a cavalry general coming to the rescue. If he is unable to stop Bush's recount committee from getting their way, it is simply because their leadership was simply more motivated to win. Their leader, James Baker, former Secretary of State and part of the Bush Family inner circle, is given ferocious life by virtual lookalike Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton). Wilkinson's Baker shows up to his first meeting with Gore's recount committee ready for a street fight, to the chagrin of Hurt's more gentlemanly Christopher. This sets the tone for the long battle that follows.

Of particular note is the performance of Laura Dern (Jurassic Park) as Katherine Harris, then-Secretary of State of Florida. Her delineation of Harris fits in with the image we remember, a preening and opportunistic evangelical Christian eager for her chance in the spotlight. With no concern over charges of conflict-of-interest, she was only to happy to take center stage in certifying Bush's victory, despite her post as Bush's Florida campaign co-chair. Dern's excessive makeup, gaudy attire, and padded form (Dern's slender body is far different than the shapely Harris') remind us of how ubiquitous Harris' face was on TV, at the time.

With loads of incidents to poke fun at (or cry over depending which side of the political aisle you're on), from Gore's retraction of his concession to Bush (which may have been the impetus for the Bush committee's tenacious fight), to the U.S. Supreme Court's unprecedented admonition that their decision on Bush v. Gore was unique to this specific case, Recount makes for entertaining, but biased, viewing.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - The Return of Harrison Ford

by Tony Dayoub

He's back! Not Indy. We've been expecting his return for 19 years. I refer to that other guy we haven't seen for so long. Harrison Ford is back! A little grayer, and a little more wrinkle-lined, he still displays the same twinkle-in-the-eye he always has when rendering Indy, his best-loved character. I thought that twinkle died right around the time he did Air Force One. The actor most closely associated with the mega-blockbusters of recent times had been phoning in his performances ever since then. I'm not sure if it was deliberate, but anyway... whatever the case... Indy seems to have lit his spark again in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. And to their credit, the creative team of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have made sure that the character has evolved even if the B-movie-like story hasn't, at least not by much.

The story: It's 1957, and the Red Scare wave of paranoia is cresting. Kidnapped by Soviets led by a psychic Stalin-ite (Cate Blanchett), Indy is forced to help them find a mysterious corpse, in Nevada's infamous Hangar 51, that may or may not be an alien. He foils them, of course, but not before giving us another great opening sequence. What does he get for his trouble? The FBI investigates him as a person of interest, calling his World War II military exploits into question. Into this comes a young greaser named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), with news of the disappearance of a couple of mutual friends tied to the mythological crystal skulls of the title. And spearheading the race for the skulls on the side of evil, is Blanchett's Irina Spalko.

The movie has the requisite acknowledgements to past adventures, including a quite funny one to Raiders of the Lost Ark in the opening sequence, and thematic references to The Last Crusade's young-vs.-old humor in the relationship between Indy and Mutt (sorry, Temple of Doom fans, no references to the underrated redheaded-stepchild of the franchise). The same way Connery (cinema's original action star in his 007 franchise) figuratively passed the action-hero torch to Ford in the last film, Ford seems to be doing the same to The Transformers' LaBeouf in this one. But wait a second Mr. LaBeouf. I like you and all, but you are no Harrison Ford. And the movie's epilogue has a gag that confirms Spielberg and Lucas' reluctance to bestow the young actor with the crown too quickly.

Rooted in the B-movies of the fifties, the way the earlier ones were in the thirties, the film's plot is not original, but there are plenty of surprises and treats along the way. Spalko is a formidable adversary, and probably Indy's best since Raiders. Karen Allen's return as Marion, gives the film some of the heart that had been missing in the last two films. For fans of the Young Indy TV show who hoped that the series would not be brushed under the carpet, don't worry, it's not. Aside from the rather oblique references to the show in Indy's references to his exploits as an OSS spy in WWII (he had also been a spy in WWI in the TV series), there is a more direct reference to one of the episodic adventures midway through the movie. And don't ask me why, but I was impressed by the minimal supporting part that Igor Jijikine plays as Spalko's henchman, Dovchenko. Maybe it's his resemblance to Lawrence Montaigne (The Great Escape) on steroids.

Of course, it's Ford that carries the movie. And though he actually looks a little creakier when cracking the whip, he looks like he's having more fun. Indy's physical ability has always been secondary to his charm. Maybe the increasingly morose roles he has chosen in the intervening years haven't given him the same opportunity to display the roguishness he did as Indy. But Crystal Skull allows him to while still accepting that Indy is much older. He falls a little faster when punched by the Soviets. He's a little more wistful when he sees Marion for the first time. And he is much more his father's son than he used to be, going into scientific explanations about their predicament while sinking in quicksand.

You stand to be disappointed if you go into this movie expecting the second coming of Raiders, as many in the press seem to have. After all, Raiders is arguably the best film that Ford, Spielberg or Lucas have EVER done. This is just a fun little gem more akin to The Last Crusade. Catch it at a matinee, the way you were meant to.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

DVD Review: 24 Season One Special Edition - Innovative First Season Finally Gets a Release Worthy of Its Significance

by Tony Dayoub

With the recent announcement of a 24 two-hour TV movie, premiering this fall on Fox, now is the perfect time for Fox to release a special edition of 24's first season. Fans are hungry. Season seven was supposed to premiere this past January, and in fact, a few episodes were completed. But then the writer's strike interfered. Rather than leave fans hanging between episodes while that business sorted itself out, Fox has instead rewarded patient fans with a two-hour movie. Meant to bridge the gap between season six and season seven, the movie is filming in South Africa (!), and is a significant way to lead in to the new season which takes place in Washington, D.C. (!!). These locations will no doubt prove to be quite the game-changers in a series that has a long tradition of game-changers. So much so, that the Job-like obstacles that have afflicted its hero, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), were at this point bordering on self-parody. Let's go back in time to season one for a look at an innovative series that was just starting to affirm its strong identity.

Jack Bauer, family man and federal agent, is called back to the field to prevent an assassination attempt on Presidential candidate David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert). Unfortunately, the timing couldn't be worse, as Jack's teenage daughter, Kim (Elisha Cuthbert), has been missing since last night, and his recent restored marriage to Teri (Leslie Hope), may not survive the strain of the day's events. The plot is a somewhat traditional thriller scenario. What made the series unique was its structure. Each hour would take place in real time, so that by season's end, the twenty-four episodes would correspond to the twenty-four hours in a day, thus making it, as Bauer would remind us in the opening narration every week, "the longest day of [his] life."

The production crew and its creators weren't sure if they could pull this off. As co-creator Bob Cochran explains in the documentary "The Genesis of 24" (included in the set), without time-cuts every minute would have to be accounted for. For example, if character X gets on a five-hour flight, that means he'll be absent for five episodes, and you better have another subplot you can switch over to that will carry you through that wait. David Palmer's campaign, and Bauer's family's travails would prove to be essential components to the plot structure.

24 would innovate in other ways. Palmer would become the first black President, years before Obama's run as a viable candidate. The show's frenetic pace would influence future action thrillers, like the Bourne movies, and Mission: Impossible III. And Bauer's, at times savage, relentless pursuit of counter-intelligence would put his morally compromised character in the pantheon of TV's most memorable antiheroes. It's hard to remember that back then, there may have been only Tony Soprano or Andy Sipowicz of NYPD Blue to keep him company there. Today's TV landscape is strewn with such characters like Battlestar Galactica's Bill Adama or Lost's John Locke.

Most importantly, let's not forget that the first season struggled in the ratings. It's premiere on November 2001, which featured a plane blown up by a terrorist, was coming to viewers on the heels of 9/11. After thirteen episodes, Fox seemed to renew it only because of Sutherland's Golden Globe win for the role. Going into season two, Fox did something that would pioneer the way TV series and TV DVDs in particular would continue in the future. Conscious of the show's addictive nature which invite viewers to watch the shows in large blocks of episodes, they released a quickie DVD version of season one to prepare uninitiated viewers before the second season premiere. Relying on the core fans to promote the DVD set to their friends by word-of-mouth, the gambit worked, as the second season premiered to higher ratings. And after American Idol premiered as the 24's lead-in, it really took off.

Season one's previous DVD version was bare-bones. To correct that, a special-edition was released this week with added features, such as the aforementioned documentary, and commentaries on the premiere and season finale episodes by the cast and crew of the show. It elevates the season one shows to the same level as the rest of the show on DVD. It is well worth your time and money to purchase this set, especially to relive the first season while you wait for season seven.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

DVD Review: I'm Not There - Bob Dylan... Chameleon or Cipher?

by Tony Dayoub

Look up the definition of a cipher. The first definition on for cipher is simply the word zero. Singer Bob Dylan has been anything and everything but a zero. However, as Todd Haynes illustrates in his paean to Dylan, I'm Not There, Dylan viewed himself as somewhat of an empty receptacle. As he used his chameleon-like abilities to create new personas he could hide behind, friends, fans, and particularly the press, would fill that receptacle with their own preconceived notions of who Dylan really was. Haynes found it so difficult to present Dylan in a straightforward manner, that he instead chose six actors to interpret many of his adopted personas. And if much of the stories told about Dylan or by him are apocryphal, then Haynes found the best way to tell the story. He took the advice of a character in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Among the personas appearing in the movie are the poet-like Dylan known as Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw), Rimbaud being the poet whose quotation, "I is the other," is the central thesis of the film. Young African-American actor, Marcus Carl Franklin, plays the Woody Guthrie persona. Dylan had fashioned a background story for himself as a young folk-singing hobo, who spent his youth jumping on trains to travel cross-country, a story later found out to be false. Haynes casting of the 11-year-old Franklin is a wink to viewers, making it obvious that this kid could not possibly be a surrogate for Dylan despite his stories leading one to believe it so. Jack Rollins (Christian Bale) is the Greenwich Village folkie that we closely associate with Joan Baez (or in this movie, Julianne Moore's Alice Fabian). Bale also reappears as Pastor John, the born-again Dylan of the late seventies. Jack Rollins (Heath Ledger) is the self-absorbed movie star Dylan, who's crumbling marriage is symbolized by the trajectory America takes during the Vietnam war. Richard Gere is Billy the Kid, the Dylan that retreats from public view to live a quiet life in Riddle, a town populated by characters from his songs.

The most iconic and spot-on performance, in fact, almost a transformation, is Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn, the defensive Dylan facing rejection from his folk fans after going electric. Her nomination for an Oscar is well deserved, for at no time are you consciously aware that this is Blanchett acting. You are transfixed by her charisma as the androgynous rock star at the height of his sixties-era confrontational posturing towards the press. Blanchett captures the Dylan that sees himself as a cipher, "One having no influence or value; a nonentity."

Haynes shoots each story in the style of cinema suited to the period and story being covered. For example, Blanchett's segment is reminiscent of Fellini's 8 1/2, and Gere's evokes the westerns of the seventies, like Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (which Dylan appeared in).

I was enthralled by the enigmatic film on a level that I can't quite explain. It certainly has an emotional effect on the most visceral level. But the enigmatic film resists any intellectualizing. Much of the explanations above were derived from a thorough survey of the special features included on the DVD, in stores now. I am a casual Bob Dylan fan so I did not have any reference points to lean on when watching the film. But the wealth of extras on the disc can serve as a crash-course on the singer's life and work. Special attention should be payed to the writings on the film collected under the title "An Introduction to the Film" on Disc 1. The point is that none of this should hinder enjoyment of the film, as long as you can accept its perplexing metaphorical nature.

"I is the other." As Dylan would say, I is not me... I'm not there. Haynes fractured biopic depicts the nonentity that characterizes Dylan. And perhaps his film consciously exemplifies yet another definition of a cipher, "[a private mode of communication] contrived for the safe transmission of secrets."

Still provided courtesy of Genius Products and The Weinstein Company.

DVD Review: P.S. I Love You - Pulling Punches Causes Romance to Miss the Mark

by Tony Dayoub

A clever idea gives P.S. I Love You a little more of an edge than normal. Holly Kennedy (Hilary Swank), a widow, starts receiving letters from her late husband Gerry (Gerard Butler). The letters are designed to help her deal with his death, and move on. They start out cute: go buy yourself an outfit, go out with the girls on a night out, get onstage and sing some karaoke. But by the time Gerry sends Holly on a trip to his native Ireland to a club where he used to play, and she hears the house band sing the first song he sung to her... well, there is more than a little manipulation from dear old Gerry from beyond the grave.

The film is not quite lighthearted enough to be a comedy. It is also not tragic enough to be a full-on tearjerker, either. But with a subtext that seems to be screaming that the charming Gerry, though dead, is not exactly ready to be metaphorically buried, it would have been extremely daring to veer in that direction.

The cast is there to pull it off. The two stars are genial, but better known for their dramatic roles. And with the oddball supporting cast that not only contains Harry Connick, Jr., Gina Gershon, and Lisa Kudrow, but also Buffy the Vampire Slayer's James Marsters in a strong extended cameo, the opportunity exists to do more with this film than the trifle ultimately depicted.

Neither comedy nor tragedy, the film plays more like one of those dramatic episodes of Sex and the City where Samantha was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Yeah, I'd watch it once, but it's hardly a keeper. Skip this one.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

DVD Review: Indiana Jones - Keeping up with the Joneses on DVD

by Tony Dayoub

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is one of the most anticipated sequels of the summer movie season. For the curious, it is because they want to know whether director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas can recapture the "lightning in a bottle" that made the original trilogy so popular. For fans of Harrison Ford, it is because they hope that a return to his most popular character will jump-start his sagging career. For me, it is a chance to relive the thrill of going to a movie with my family that they are all eager and excited about going to see at the multiplex.

My dad, who is an infamously impatient man when it comes to sitting still and watching a movie, was a huge fan of Raiders of the Lost Ark. So much so, that he took us to see it countless times. In fact, we saw it in Miami at the Lincoln Theater (now home of the New World Symphony), on a double bill with Robert Altman's Popeye, back when theater ushers carrying flashlights would personally seat you, and even allow you to stay for a repeat performance of the film at no extra charge. So we of course, saw Raiders, then Popeye, then Raiders again. My dad called me last week to make sure we leave some room to catch the new flick when I visit them in Miami this summer.

This weekend my new family, wife and son (with another on the way), had ourselves an Indy viewing party, and I've got a short buying guide to help you navigate through the various Indiana Jones DVDs currently available.

Indiana Jones: The Adventure Collection - Just released this week, this box set contains special editions of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Each has all-new documentaries directed by famed DVD documentarian Laurent Bouzereau, and all-new introductions by Spielberg and Lucas. The best of these documentaries is "The Indy Trilogy: A Crystal Clear Appreciation", found on the Raiders disc, in which the cast of the latest film is interviewed with regards to their favorite moments in the trilogy. Each film is also available separately on DVD for the first time, for those who aren't fans of all the movies.

The Adventures of Indiana Jones - This set, released in 2003, is for the true Indy fan. It contains all three films, and a fourth disc with over 3 hours of bonus material covering everything from the inception of the character (back when he was Indiana Smith) to audition footage of Tom Selleck as Indy (a role he no doubt laments being forced to give up, as CBS was strictly enforcing his contractual obligations to Magnum, P.I.). It also has in-depth coverage for each sequel. The drawbacks to this set were the unavailability of each film separately at the time of its release, and the fact that it doesn't have any of Bouzereau's new documentary material.

So I guess if you are a rabid Indy fanatic, you'll be forced to buy both sets.

In 1992, ABC broadcast a TV series based on the films, entitled The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Each hour-long episode was introduced by a 93 year-old Indy (George Hall... wearing an eye-patch), who would then recount a story of his exploits as a 10-year-old boy (Corey Carrier) or as a young man age 16 to 21 (Sean Patrick Flanery). Spearheaded by Lucas (with no involvement from Spielberg), he had a dual intention with the series. Primarily, he hoped that its more educational tone would inspire teachers to use it as a starting point for class discussions, as Indy would meet many famous figures of the period (1908-1920) in his adventures. Secondarily, as much of the budget was utilized to travel to actual locales around the world, he used the show to experiment with, what were at the time, new CGI effects, the results of which would manifest themselves in the second Star Wars trilogy years later.

The tone of the show was quite different. More Masterpiece Theater than "Republic serial," many fans of the movie were turned off by the often ponderous stories. Also, while Flanery's teenage Indy was charming, the 10-year-old, and 93-year old were not popular. What the show did have going for it, was its wonderful location shooting, its talent behind the camera, its use of young actors who have since gone on to greater fame, and of course, Flanery, which led to the lion's share of the episodes utilizing him. The action was amped up, and Harrison Ford was even brought on board for a rare guest appearance as a 50-year-old Indy introducing one of the adventures. But all to no avail, as the show was cancelled after its second season.

Now available for the first time on DVD as The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones, Lucas, ever the revisionist, has revised the concept yet again. Deleting all of the introductions by Old Indy (except for Ford's), he combines two hour-long episodes to form a movie. While sometimes leading to some unevenness, it is a much more effective presentation. And in keeping with his primary motivation of educating while entertaining, each episode is paired with about 5 to 8 half-hour documentaries that inform viewers of the historical figures and events Indy encounters. These are so interesting I found myself excitedly anticipating the next one more than the actual episode itself.

Volume One: The Early Years - This one covers Indy's adventures from 1908, when he tours the world with his parents, to 1916, when he runs away from home to join the Belgian army during the early days of World War I. He meets Picasso, Puccini, Freud, and Pancho Villa. While the earlier bunch of episodes starring the young Carrier can be tedious, they are greatly aided by deft direction from folks like Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco) and Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror). Once Flanery comes into the picture, the series really takes off. Look for guest appearances from, Max Von Sydow, Vanessa Redgrave, and a young Elizabeth Hurley.

Volume Two: The War Years - By far, the best of the three volumes, this covers Indy's sobering experiences in the war with no small amount of poignancy. And why shouldn't this one be the best? With talent like Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption), Carrie Fisher (Postcards from the Edge), Nicolas Roeg (Don't Look Now), and Simon Wincer (Lonesome Dove) behind the camera, and guest appearances by Catherine Zeta-Jones and Daniel Craig, this volume is the highlight of the show.

Volume Three: The Years of Change - Still better than the first, but a shade less interesting than the second volume, as Indy returns to America. He meets some famous folks while attending the University of Chicago, like Eliot Ness, and Ernest Hemingway, before heading to Hollywood to become a... stuntman!? Guest stars in this one include Harrison Ford, Anne Heche, and Jeffrey Wright.

These three volumes of Young Indy's adventures are a wonderful introduction to the character geared towards younger fans. And if you stick around to watch, you might learn something, too.

Still provided courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment.

This entry first appeared on
Blogcritics on 5/14/2008.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Big Sleep: The Current State of Things and a Few Words on Glenn Kenny

by Tony Dayoub

So here is the current state of things around here. Got back from Tribeca a week ago when the following proceeded to occur:
  • My laptop died. Thought it'd be a simple matter of replacing the hard drive and recovering some data from the old one. Turns out the whole motherboard is fried (or some such shit like that... I'm not the tech-savvy type) and the data is, to quote Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in Blade Runner, "lost... like tears in rain." Included in that data, pictures of my son's first Christmas. Lesson: Always back everything up.
  • My cell phone is dying. Which has made it almost impossible to conduct business while I wait for my new laptop, since my cell was the only way I could answer email. Working on getting that replaced as well.
  • My car could go any day now. Scary is hoping your car doesn't die out in Atlanta traffic with an unreliable cell phone to depend on.

The good news is that I've had plenty of time to watch a stack of screeners that was waiting for me when I got back from NYC. So you'll be getting plenty of reviews as soon as I'm back up, including:
Until then, let's talk about something else that has been on my mind. Premiere Magazine, a film magazine that started in France (and continues to be published there), was first published in the U.S. in 1987. Some have been critical of the American magazine for trivializing the art of film, i.e. concentrating on celebrities and box office tallies, and even putting out an annual list ranking the most powerful people in Hollywood. I was a subscriber from day one, and I can tell you that at fifteen, it was a considerable influence on my approach to analyzing cinema. Sure, if you were looking for scholarly examination of film in the context of world cinema you were probably better served by reading Film Comment (a publication I still enjoy greatly). But there was still room for Premiere's brand of journalism. Because though some would accuse it of trivializing the medium, I found it was honest in covering American film in the grander scheme of things, covering everything from independents to blockbusters, films to home videos, spotlighting actors both famous and obscure, and never letting you forget that though you may love film for its art, it was ultimately the business forces that decided if it would get made or not. Last year, Premiere, in the U.S., succumbed to the erosion of advertisement income now plaguing much of print media in the face of the rising popularity of the internet as news outlet. Many of the staff lost their jobs as it transitioned to a second life on the net, except one.

Glenn Kenny, the mag's resident film critic, continued in that capacity as the magazine became one of many entertainment sites that abound online. His singularly distinctive voice and style was one of the few reasons to continue to visit the site, as he also supplemented his reviews with a fantastic blog, "In the Company of Glenn". Not only does this man have an opinion (which I frequently disagreed with), but he is a master of the English language. You'd be surprised how few of those exist online. Here's an example of his way with words from his post on 4/21/08 entitled Monday Evening Palate Cleanser:

It vexes me. I am terribly vexed.

Why, on this mild Monday evening, do the words of Joaquin Phoenix's Commodus echo through my head?

That's a rhetorical question. I know exactly why. That answer's multi-faceted. Part of my vexation stems from encountering, in this here blogosphere, a putative paean to a particularly distinguished work of cinema, which praises the particular work at the expense of practically every other movie the director of that work ever did, trotting out heavyweight quotes the better to swat at...David Denby, who recently had the temerity to cite said director's "refinement." What such score-settling has to do with the work at hand is, naturally, beyond me. But the score-settler seems to believe he's achieved the ambition of that character in Gass' "In The Heart of The Heart of The Country," which I guess is nice for him, not so nice for those turning to him for some wit or perception. And in thinking about all this, I further think, "Dude, you really want to get into it like this?" "It" being the week, after a weekend of examining some of the other discontents readily available in the film-appraisal corner of our world. And I answer, "No, I do not."

I bring up Mr. Kenny because Premiere just terminated his position. And as NPR reported on a story on the very day Kenny announced his departure, he is but the latest casualty in a long string of critics who've accepted buyouts or have been terminated from magazines and newspapers nationwide. So a site struggling to stand out from all the others just got rid of the one person who had the most potential to help them in doing so. And another veteran film critic loses his job because of ever increasing competition from bloggers who write more often, more incoherently, and often for free.

Though I am thankful for the immediacy, and facility, that the online world affords me in expressing my views on this subject I adore, cinema, I will always defer to journalists with formal training and experience when it comes to writing. Here's hoping that Mr. Kenny will land on his feet quickly, and get on with the business of provoking us to think on cinema from his perspective, no matter how often I may disagree with it.

An archive of Glenn Kenny's blog for Premiere, "In the Company of Glenn", is up, for the moment, under my Recommended Blogs to the left. His new writings may be found under a blog he set up, all by himself, called "Some Came Running", also under my Recommended Blogs.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Tribeca Film Festival 5/1 (UPDATED) - Angelica Blandon Lights up Paraíso Travel

by Tony Dayoub

11:47 am - Waited for my table at Asiáte (80 Columbus Cir., New York, NY, 10023, 212-805-8881), one of the very best restaurants in Manhattan, and definitely the best view. It sits on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental on Columbus Circle, with floor to ceiling windows that overlook Central Park. As I wait, I see comedian Richard Lewis checking out of the hotel.

11:55am - The maitre'd invites me in to the restaurant. The crisp and clean dining room, separated from the kitchen by a wall of wine bottles, is decorated in soothing beiges and whites. The service is impeccable, with my waiter being knowledgeable about each of the plates I ask for. For the first course, I have a Red Snapper sashimi served over daikon and an avocado mousse cucumber melon gelée, in a mustard ponzu vinaigrette. It was so tasty that I was lamenting the fact that the portion was only enough for a taste. But happily, this was helpful in keeping me open to the more generous main course, Suckling Pig prepared three ways, with braised kale in a sweet plantains smoked ginger jus. The pork is prepared as a croquette (which was not heavily fried), roasted (with its crispy skin still attached), and finally, as a broiled tenderloin, which was the most rewarding.

I follow my waiter's recommendation and get the Chocolate Fondant for dessert. It is the perfect end to the meal, essentially a molten chocolate souffle, arriving in a tall cup, served next to a bowl of marscapone sorbet, with raspberry granité (shaved ice). And the biggest surprise, for a restaurant of its kind it was not too expensive. Very heartily recommended!

4:20 pm - I arrive to the Village East Cinemas to watch Celia the Queen, the new documentary by Joe Cardona and Mario de Varona. I anticipated this one with some interest, as the subject is very near and dear to me, a Miami-born Cuban. It covers the rise of the singer, Cuban guarachera Celia Cruz, starting in Cuba, then New York, and eventually Miami. This has been the only film I've arrived at so far where I've had to wait in such a long line.

The doc doesn't disappoint. It's biggest strength is the charismatic Cruz herself, and her music, of course. There is also very interesting footage of her time with Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colón, and the rest of the Fania All-Stars, the famous 70's Nuyorican conjunto, which is the unspoken heart of the film. The only drawbacks, which are easily remedied, are some unnecessary bridging sequences starring Christina Christian (formerly of American Idol) as a young Celia Cruz. I'd lose them, because the material is strong enough to stand on its own.

With fascinating interviewees, from here in the US (including David Byrne, Wyclef Jean, and Quincy Jones) to far-flung Tokyo, Celia the Queen proves that "Azucar!" can be found anywhere in the world.

6:45 pm - Paraíso Travel (pictured at top) is an accomplished Colombian film by Simon Brand, starring Ana de la Reguera (Nacho Libre), John Leguizamo (Love in the Time of Cholera), and two bright relative unknowns, Aldemar Correa and Angelica Blandon. Correa and Blandon play a young Colombian couple that become separated after arriving illegally in New York. As we follow Correa's Marlon through his travails in New York, and his search for his girlfriend, Blandon's Reina, flashbacks inform us of their painful, laborious, journey to get here after visiting the titular travel agency.

Correa is sympathetic as Marlon, haunted by the ghost of his long-missing girlfriend in a way that no one seems to understand. No one save for us, who see the sorrowful experience they went to in order to reach the U.S., only to be separated hours after their arrival. The fact that Marlon was perfectly content in Colombia until Reina convinced him to join her adds to the tragedy of their separation.

The real discovery is Angelica Blandon, whose lusty Reina is so alluring and vivacious, that her absence is deeply felt whenever the story switches to the present. Blandon is honest in her portrayal, showing Reina's desperation to come to New York to us, if not to Marlon. She is unafraid to reveal Reina's more manipulative moments, moments which could easily turn us against the character, except somehow, we are just as in love with the missing girl as Marlon is. Sly and seductive, Blandon is an actress I predict will become a big star, both in her native country and ours.

Paraíso Travel is one not to miss, and probably the best film I've seen at the festival.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Tribeca Film Festival 5/3: Speed Racer World Premiere

by Tony Dayoub

5:53 pm - Speed Racer, the new film directed by the Wachowski Brothers, had its world premiere this past Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival. Among the stars arriving via the red carpet were Robert De Niro, co-founder of the festival, and Limp Bizkit front man Fred Durst. Also in attendance were the film's producer, Joel Silver, and most of the cast, including Christina Ricci (Trixie), Susan Sarandon (Mom), Christian Oliver (Snake Oiler), and Paulie Litt (Spritle).

Also there, John Goodman, who plays Speed's dad, Pops, and is a fan of the original show, said "[The cartoon] was different from anything that was on before." When asked if he would appear in the Wachowskis' next film, he responded, "They're great. Andy gives me all kinds of great fiction to read. We're kind of tuned into the same stuff. I hope so."

Peter Fernandez voiced Speed Racer on the American version of the Japanese import, but now plays a race announcer in the new summer movie. Primarily a voice actor, he hadn't appeared in front of the camera in some time, joking, "I make a feature film every 60 years."

Kick Gurry, who plays Sparky, Speed's mechanic, spoke of the difficulty with working on a film with no actual props. "John [Goodman's] character has to design the cars, and I have to fix them. We'd always laugh, because we actually had absolutely no idea what the hell the cars were made of, or what they were doing. In fact, most of the time, there wasn't even a car sitting there. It was all computer generated."

Lead actor Emile Hirsch, echoed the sentiment, "You really have to put your imagination to work."

8:34 pm - In the movie, Speed Racer, potentially the greatest auto racer of all time, refuses to break the records set by his late brother and idol, Rex. Sought by industrialist Royalton (played with evil relish by Roger Allam) to join his race team, he refuses to betray his father, who wisely sees the depth of Royalton's corruption. But when that leads to Speed being blacklisted in the racing community, he must join the masked Racer X (Matthew Fox) to bring the villainous businessman down.

Fox deepens his voice a notch to play the mysterious Racer X. X is much more charismatic than his more famous role, the tiresome Jack in the TV hit, Lost. Clever, agile, and clad in a cool suit of black leather, I'd be very surprised if Racer X doesn't get his own movie spin-off, as he is arguably more popular than Speed.

Exciting and fast-paced, Speed Racer can be hard to keep up with if you're not tuned in. Approaching the film as if it were animated, the Wachowski's take advantage of the flexibility the medium affords in telling a story. They use wipes to transition from shot to shot rather than cuts. Foreground and background are always in focus simultaneously, as in most animated fare. Awash in brilliant colors and effects meant to duplicate some of the conventions of Japanese anime, it might lose some older folks, but kids and the young at heart should have no problem keeping up.

11:17pm - Took the train up to the Village with my friend, J.C. Alvarez, to get dinner at the Waverly Inn and Garden (16 Bank St., New York, NY, 10014, 212-243-7900). The Waverly is a bustling, hip restaurant owned by Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair. There's always a few celebrity sightings, and this night was no different. Sitting in the back of the restaurant when we arrived was Ron Perlman of Hellboy fame, and Miami Steve of the E Street Band, aka Silvio Dante of The Sopranos, Steven Van Zandt.

And the food? It was delicious, I started off with a Tuna Tartare, with avocado and dijon emulsion, that was perfect both in taste and presentation. That was followed with the Brook Trout on Cedar plank with roasted carrots, which were appropriately toasty and savory. For dessert, an awesome warm Bananas Foster served with a scoop of ice cream. J.C. enjoyed the Amish Free-Range chicken followed by a warm apple crisp, also served with ice cream.

The service was excellent, as we were well taken care of by five different waiters on a crowded Saturday night, with no one dropping the ball even once.

This was the perfect way to end my time at Tribeca, before heading home to Miami the next day.

A slightly modified version of this entry first appeared on Blogcritics on 5/5/2008.

Still provided courtesy of
Warner Bros. Pictures.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Tribeca Film Festival 5/3 (UPDATED)- Cadillac Award Winner Announced and List of the Other Awards

by Tony Dayoub

The Cadillac Award for Audience Choice was announced and it is: War Child, dir. C. Karim Chrobog.

The Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature - Let the Right One In, dir. Tomas Alfredson

Best Documentary Feature - Pray the Devil Back to Hell, dir. Gini Reticker

Best New Narrative Filmmaker - My Marlon and Brando, dir. Huseyin Karabey

Best New Documentary Filmmaker - Old Man Bebo, dir. Carlos Carcas

Best Actor in a Narrative Feature Film (tie) - Thomas Turgoose and Piotr Jagiello, Somers Town

Best Actress in a Narrative Feature Film - Eileen Walsh, Eden

New York State LOVES Film Best Documentary Award - Zoned In, dir. Daniela Zanzotto

Made in NY Narrative - The Caller, dir. Richard Ledes

Best Narrative Short - New Boy, dir. Steph Green

Best Documentary Short - Mandatory Service, dir. Jessica Habie

Student Visionary Award - Elephant Garden, dir. Sasie Sealy

All of the award-winners will have special screenings today. For more info go to the Tribeca Film Festival website.