Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: June 2008

Monday, June 30, 2008

DVD Review: Shotgun Stories - Small Gem is one of 2007's Best Films

by Tony Dayoub

Available tomorrow on DVD, Shotgun Stories is one of the best films of 2007. Produced by indie stalwart David Gordon Green (George Washington), first-time director Jeff Nichols' film resembles some of the quiet, rural stories Green has such an affinity for. Green has cited Terrence Malick (Badlands) as a major influence in his work, and one can see (evident in this photo) the lineage extends on to Nichols' accomplished but little seen film.

The film follows two sets of half-brothers through an escalating feud. Sparked by the intrusion of the first set of brothers to their late dad's funeral, and some unflattering remarks made about the deceased in front of the second set of brothers, the resentment builds easily between them. The late born-again father abandoned his first set of kids, leaving them with a bitter mother who taught them to hate the new family.

Michael Shannon (Bug) plays Son Hayes, the laconic and protective eldest of the first set of brothers. Estranged from his wife, who left with their son, he still holds a grudge over the rudderless life he blames his father for. Shannon never telegraphs what his character will do, playing him as a hollow man who probably isn't even aware of what his next move will be. This aids tremendously in keeping the film's story unpredictable.

The screenplay is economical and filled with pregnant pauses that ratchet up the tension. We are never subjected to expository dialogue, but the blanks are always effectively filled in for us. We are able to get a sense of the type of man his father was by the throwaway names the formerly deadbeat father gave his first set of children, Son's younger siblings being named Boy and Kid. A growing sense of doom pervades every exchange in the film. When Boy and Kid walk towards a basketball court, and a car swerves into frame behind them, you fret that it may be their half-brothers looking for a fight. As Son stands with his family at the local car wash, and you see the half-brothers pull in provocatively, you dread that his young son came along for this errand.

The movie unfolds leisurely, but you never feel less than riveted by the story. As a character piece it is stunning, each player distinctly unique in his/her own way, but each a product of their rural surroundings. They have limited aspirations but unlimited imaginations. Boy (Douglas Ligon) lives in a van, to save money, and is constantly tinkering with an air conditioning unit he hopes to hook up to the van. He also coaches a local school's basketball team, and whiles away his free time with Kid on basketball trivia.

A great movie for a weekend afternoon, Shotgun Stories is a small gem that should not be missed.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Movie Review: The Incredible Hulk - How Universal and Marvel Successfuly Course-Corrected the Struggling Franchise

by Tony Dayoub

Place me firmly in the camp of those that think that Ang Lee's Hulk (2003) is almost criminally underrated. Bringing his art house sensibilities to the project, Lee chose to focus on the complex, rage-filled father and son relationship that fueled Bruce Banner's anger management issues.

Giving it an icy counterpoint in the father-daughter relationship between his girlfriend and her dad, the movie dug beyond the superficial gamma radiation explanations of the comic book origin. Instead it showed the underpinnings of Banner's rage to be firmly rooted in real world psychology. And the film managed to tell its tragic story without ever forgetting its graphic heritage, with Lee choosing to frame the images in a dynamic, split-screen effect that replicated the artistic masterworks of a Steranko or an Eisner, masters of the comic book panel layout.

The movie failed to meet expectations at the box-office making only $132.2 million domestically after a rousing opening of $62.1 million in its first weekend. Much of the blame was laid on the feet of Lee, though I feel he was only the scapegoat for Marvel's ambitious plans for the Green Goliath. After all, if there was one franchise where they could afford to be a little riskier, it was this one. The Hulk was a property that was pre-sold even beyond such other Marvel heroes as Spider-Man or the X-Men. Those characters had been successful on the page, yes. But the Hulk had been successful on TV for five seasons in a popular series with a beloved actor, in Bill Bixby, as its lead. Marvel's directive, however, was to ignore the TV show, and be faithful to the comics. Poor Lee was blasted in the fan community for committing what amounted to an act of heresy (by the same fanboys who lash out at film producers for casting a blond instead of a dark-haired 007), for doing what fans generally prefer in these types of movies, sticking to the established comic book continuity.

When the idea to revisit the character was introduced, great pains were taken to assure its success. The fans were assured this would not be an art house retread of their beloved idol, but rather an action-packed take on the monster. The motivations behind the Jekyll and Hyde metamorphosis would be left unexamined, in favor of getting down to the nitty-gritty hulkouts that were being clamored for. I was holding my breath, unhappy that what was essentially being said was that the movie would be dumbed down for its target audience. Was it really necessary? Especially since comic fans long for the day when their favorite medium will earn the respect of others as a viable and thriving mode of delivering artistic masterpieces on the order of Alan Moore's Watchmen or Maus by Art Spiegelman?

The Incredible Hulk opened on June 13th, and guess what? The reviews weren't bad. But they were a bit in the backhanded compliment vein. Glenn Kenny, formerly of Premiere, but now blogging at Some Came Running wrote, "some CGI issues aside, it was a credible (ar ar ar) enough action thriller in the contemporary commercial comic-book-adaptation mode, and that its quality is such that it'll be better received by audiences than its initial and persistent "bad buzz" had indicated." Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman writes that the audience "may not mind that The Incredible Hulk is just a luridly reductive and violent B movie — one that clears a bar that hadn't been set very high." Not bad, but certainly not great reviews.

Here are some ways Universal and Marvel Studios circumvented the fickle fans, and successfully course-corrected their struggling franchise to the tune of $96 million-plus and counting in only its second week at the box-office.

Hire an action film director. I don't know Louis Leterrier. I have never seen a Louis Leterrier film. But I do know this... Louis Leterrier is an action director. All I have to do is see a trailer for The Transporter or Transporter 2 or Unleashed, and I can tell he knows how to direct action. Now, does he know how to direct a performance?

Recast the entire movie with actors who won't let you down. That's not to say that the first cast would have let anyone down. You had Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Josh Lucas, Nick Nolte, and Sam Elliott as the villain, General Ross... wait a sec, Sam Elliott. I like Sam Elliott, but he's not exactly villainous. And Eric Bana is great but he won't open a movie the way Edward Norton does. Okay, Ed Norton it is. and for the villain? William Hurt. Throw in Tim Roth to support him. And Tim Blake Nelson to set up the inevitable sequel's next villain. Love interest? Liv Tyler's kinda hot, and she can act, too. Oh, and by the way, Norton loves the Hulk, so he can help you rewrite the script. He's a smart guy. He'll make it even better. Louis Leterrier (you must always say his entire name)? You worry about the action... these guys have got the performances covered.

Pay homage to the character that got the butts in the seats in the first place, stupid. That character was TV's Incredible Hulk, David Banner, not comic's Hulk, Bruce Banner. Little touches throughout the movie evoke the nostalgia of watching the well loved series. From an appearance by Bill Bixby on TV (in a rerun of another of his series, The Courtship of Eddie's Father) to original Hulk Lou Ferrigno as a security guard, to a cameo by intrepid reporter Jack McGee (here working for a college newspaper), to a blisteringly quick refresher on the Hulk's origin over the credit sequence (complete with blinking red Danger Light) that paraphrases the show more than the last movie, the film is targeted at the core fans of the show. Even the title pays respect to the series.

Hedge your bets by making this movie a reboot AND a sequel. Sure, it's a new movie... I know you didn't like the first one. Oh, you did? Well, it's a sequel. See how Banner ended up in South America at the end of the first one? He's still down there at the beginning of this one. And see how he became the Hulk while working on secret government projects for his girlfriend's dad at a University lab? He returns to the lab to find his girlfriend in this one... just ignore that this one is called Culver University while the original was Berkeley. That's just to throw off the folks who hated the first flick. Ala the 007 series, the films are loosely related and invoked on an as-needed basis only, in order not to load things down with too much continuity.

Remember, it's a comic book... play by comic book rules. Ah, but you like continuity. Well, this movie is for you. Starting with the opening credits, you see documents that belong to Stark Industries, and the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division or SHIELD, both organizations that appear in Marvel's other 2008 film Iron Man. You have Banner seeking help from an expert in gamma radiation, Dr. Samuel Sterns, fated to become one of Hulk's arch-enemies, the Leader, in the comics and presumably the next film. Ex-girlfriend, Betty Ross's new boyfriend? Well, I believe they cut out the explicit reference to his name, Dr. Leonard Samson. A noted psychologist, he later becomes the green-tressed hero, Doc Samson. And Tim Roth's Emil Blonsky is warned by Sterns that he may become an "abomination" if he chooses to test one of Stern's serums in combination with the Super Soldier serum given him by General Ross. The Abomination is Hulk's greatest comic book opponent.

Get an assist from your bona fide, genuinely more successful superhero younger brother. Want to get fanboys into your less than promising new superhero flick? Bring your star hitter to the party. Iron Man is the first film of 2008 to break the $300 million mark. So when Marvel started promoting that Robert Downey, Jr. would appear at the end of this movie as Iron Man Tony Stark, offering to help General Ross with a team he's putting together, the sound of millions of fans simultaneously reaching orgasm echoed throughout the land. Now that Marvel Studios has most of its characters under one roof, it's far easier to cross-pollinate franchises, like they do in comics. Word is, that Thor and War Machine will be spun off into their own films after appearing in Iron Man 2. They'll all be reunited in The Avengers, the story of that super-team Stark and SHIELD's Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson) are putting together to stop the rampage of... you guessed it, the Hulk. Luckily, since the Hulk is CGI you don't really need Edward Norton to return for that one.

Leak info to the press, no matter how untrue it actually is. Apparently, Edward Norton was going to be conspicuously absent from the promotional tour for the film since he was unhappy with a number of his script ideas being ultimately discarded from the film. Nothing like getting a lot of free promotional mileage out of actor vs. studio controversy. And the press was all over it. But wait, who's on Jimmy Kimmel promoting the Hulk on June 12th with a hilarious film making the YouTube rounds? And what about the widely promoted Captain America cameo rumors that circulated for days on the Internet (reported on Cinema Blend and Sci-Fi Wire) with Louis Leterrier only shooting it down after finding a way to flip it into a promo for the inevitable extended-cut DVD?

And given my appreciation for the Ang Lee version of the Hulk, what did I think of The Incredible Hulk? It wasn't bad, and it's an entertaining start to what appears to be a franchise with the potential to thrive for a long, long time.

This entry first appeared on Blogcritics on 6/23/2008.

Monday, June 23, 2008

DVD Review: The Bucket List - Actors Elevate Story Past Its Cliche Roots

by Tony Dayoub

The Bucket List is a cliche-ridden movie that is elevated by the casting of Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Seeing these two veterans bring different colors to this retread of Grumpy Old Men is one of the few things to recommend about this film. It's unfortunate, too. The concept of trying to complete everything on your list of things to do before you kick the bucket is intriguing. But one keeps hoping for a twist to stave off the pervasive predictability of the plot.

When given a choice, the once promising comic director, Rob Reiner, never ventures into the more interesting of two dramatic choices presented to him. For instance, Nicholson's Donald Trump-like character might have seemed like an interesting counterpoint to the middle-class character Freeman portrays. But how much more interesting would the story have been if,in addition to the ticking clock of the two's terminal cancer diagnoses, the pair were also challenged by a lack of funds to achieve their dreams. Would the two be desperate enough to lie, cheat or steal to fulfill their life's goals? Reiner shies away from anything remotely holding dramatic interest. This is the type of film in which, when Freeman convinces Nicholson to mend fences with his estranged daughter, the dialogue fades away leaving trite sentimental music to play over the scene instead. Wouldn't it be more interesting to give a serious dramatic actor like Nicholson something substantial to sink his teeth into? Reiner has directed Nicholson to an Oscar Nomination before (for A Few Good Men). So instead of relying on Reiner, we must rely on his two wonderful actors to enhance the story.

Freeman has the more difficult job, standing in for the audience as he plays straight man to Nicholson's antics. But he has a great scene, where winding down from a round-the-world trip with Nicholson in a Hong Kong bar, he meets a beautiful woman who proposes a tryst after hearing his account of a visit to a Himalayan peak. Having never slept with anyone other than his wife, Freeman's eyes betray how tempting the offer truly is to the character. But he nobly and predictably turns it down. This despite the fact that he earlier admitted to Nicholson that his dull marriage is one of the motives he has for taking this trip with the billionaire. One wishes the film would have been brave enough to show Freeman take the woman up on her offer.

Nicholson steps up in the latter part of the film, after Freeman's condition worsens. Conscious of his friend's deeper appreciation for life, he starts to appreciate that material pleasures aren't always what they're cracked up to be. A bittersweet visit between the two segues into uproarious laughter, after Freeman educates Nicholson on the exact, repulsive way that the rare coffee he drinks is brewed. It is a moment that these two master actors elevate beyond its cliche roots.

Maybe the film's premise, rooted in mortality, was judged to be depressing enough as it is. But an interesting and potentially darkly comic take on terminal patients was creeping around on the fringes of this story. The Bucket List would have marked a strong departure for Reiner, and would have benefited greatly from Nicholson and Freeman's dramatic chops, had he opted to stretch beyond his limited storyline.

Still provided courtesy of Warner Home Entertainment.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Movie Trailer: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

by Tony Dayoub

This is probably the best trailer I've seen for a movie since the one for Forrest Gump. Don't take that to mean anything. I ended up passionately hating that film. But I do know many out there that consider it their favorite movie.

I have high hopes for this one. It reunites Brad Pitt with his greatest director, David Fincher, who directed him in Se7en and Fight Club. Based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, click on the picture above for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

DVD Review: Grace is Gone and Numb - Spotlighting Offbeat Dramatic Performances by Two Popular Comedic Actors

by Tony Dayoub

Here are a couple of smaller movies for you to check out today. What do they have in common? Each stars an actor with mass appeal in their more lighthearted mainstream appearances, John Cusack and Matthew Perry, who sometimes fail to connect with audiences in more dramatic roles. However, both of these little gems are worth your time.

The first, Grace is Gone, stars Cusack as Stanley Phillips, a dad who manages a home repair store and raises two daughters while his wife, Grace, is fighting in Iraq. When he is informed of Grace's death, he doesn't quite know how to break it to their kids, so instead he decides to take them on a trip, a stalling tactic while he figures out what to do.

Writer-director James C. Strouse never milks the story for tears, and aptly captures the solitary, insulated feel of the situation. Phillips cuts his daughters and himself off from the world while he copes with the news of his wife's death. We are never shown that Phillips is particularly spiritual, so he doesn't seem to be stalling for some kind of divine intervention. But he does seem to be waiting to get an assist from Grace, who, no doubt, always dealt with their young kids' emotional life. Phillips often calls his home while on the trip, leaving plaintive messages to his late wife that he knows will stay unanswered. Director Strouse and Cusack both use this to make us hyper-aware of Grace's absence.

The film has proven popular with audiences on the festival circuit, and it's easy to see why. While Cusack has always been a very sympathetic lead for audiences to relate to, he is aided tremendously here by the casting of two strong child actors in the role of his daughters, Shélan O'Keefe and Gracie Bednarczyk, who apparently were discovered in Cusack's native Chicago and make their film debuts here. The children act like real children do: cute, annoying, often caught up with their own mini-dramas, and sometimes clueless to everything else going on. Cusack establishes a genuine rapport with them, that of a man who's been adept at playing the caretaker, but realizes he must finally come closer to being their friend, as well.

Numb, stars Matthew Perry as screenwriter Hudson Milbank, an obvious autobiographical stand-in for the film's writer-director Harris Goldberg. Milbank is chronically depressed, suffering from a rare anxiety disorder called depersonalization. It causes the sufferer to live in a constant fight-or-flight mode of detachment from his emotions. But when he meets Sarah (Lynn Collins), he feels motivated to start finding a cure for this disorder, hoping to start a new life with his new love.

As a screenwriter, Goldberg is best known for his Deuce Bigalow films, and it shows. Numb's greatest weakness is its tonal inconsistency. It doesn't know whether to be a romantic comedy, or a serious depiction of a rare psychological disorder. Supporting player Mary Steenburgen, as Milbank's psychologist, Dr. Blaine, masterfully steals every scene she's in. Amusingly reinforcing the cliche of the "therapist in need of therapy", the normally staid doctor falls head-over-heels for Milbank, leading to a funny, and embarrassing, confession in a restaurant that is the comedic centerpiece of the movie. But is the movie a comedy? Matthew Perry's dramatic performance doesn't seem to indicate it is. He never trivializes the character's affliction, highlighting the need for further exploration of a disorder that may affect many that haven't even heard of it. His scenes are easily the strongest of the film. But they also cause you to focus on Goldberg's uneven emotional direction.

And Lynn Collin's wonderful performance as the girl of Milbank's dreams, Sarah, serves to highlight the thinness of her character. Goldberg should have focused more attention on her since she plays such a pivotal role in the protagonist's decision to seek recovery. A virtual cipher, Sarah is never given any distinctive qualities, save for her predilection of cursing when she gets high-strung... which is not really much of a quirk. It is only the ebullient personality of actor Collins that infuses Sarah with any dimension at all.

Good for a weekend rental, Grace is Gone is definitely the superior film over Numb, but both films are worth checking out if you want to see these two popular actors stretch a bit outside their familiar territory.

Still for Grace is Gone provided courtesy of Genius Products and The Weinstein Company.

Monday, June 16, 2008

DVD Review: When the Moors Ruled in Europe - A Welcome Alternate View of the Rich and Proud Islamic Culture

by Tony Dayoub

Hosted by Bettany Hughes, When the Moors Ruled in Europe is a stunningly beautiful and informative documentary that debunks a lot of the myths associated with the Moors' invasion of Europe. In the course of doing that, it also illuminates the rich and advanced Muslim society of the Middle Ages, presenting an alternative view of the Islamic culture that has, unfortunately, become our society's bogeyman post-9/11.

It traces the roots of modern society's misunderstanding of the Muslims to their expansion into Europe. Contrary to popular notions, when they invaded what is now Spain, they were welcomed by many as saviors from the more primitive Visigoths. The Muslims, who valued education highly, quickly established a number of libraries, irrigated the land, and erected architectural wonders that survive to this day (like the Alhambra, pictured above). Over time, cross-cultural pollination softened some of the more orthodox practices of the Muslim conquerors, later known as Moors, and they settled in as benevolent rulers of what were for the most part, an appreciative, newly enlightened people. But the ugly head of religious intolerance reared itself, soon enough.

Catholics slowly started chipping away at the Muslim encroachment during the time of the Inquisition. Driving them first into hiding, then into disavowing their religion, before banishing them from Spain altogether, the Catholics established their dominance over Spain. They solidified their rule over Europe during the reign of Isabella, yet a curious thing happened. The architecture and the technological advancements of the Moors became such an ingrained part of the local tradition that it was assimilated by the re-conquering Catholics.

The two-episode series does a great job of summing up some of the little-known legacy of the Moors' time in Spain. They illustrate, for example, how the architecture of the Alhambra has a seemingly ineffable harmony that is directly related to the very conscious geometrical planning of the building and the relationship with its environs. Hughes speaks to various scholars who dispel long-held myths by giving credible explanations. One example is the reframing of El Cid from heroic Moor-slayer to benevolent and well-loved ruler over a mostly Muslim people. His name is actually derived from the dialectal Arab word "sïdi", or the honorific "sayyid" which means "Lord." Illustrated throughout with cinematography depicting the still-standing architectural achievements of the Moors, the documentary serves as a tempting invitation to visit Spain and experience some of these influential buildings they left behind.

Perhaps the Moors' most long-standing and unspoken legacy is visible on the faces of many Spaniards. The majority of Spain's people still bear the strong genetic features of the invading Moors, a handsome reminder of this culture's once dominant status in pre-Renaissance Europe.

This entry first appeared on Blogcritics on 6/16/2008.

Monday, June 9, 2008

DVD Review: The Invaders: The First Season - Paranoid Sci-Fi Show Plays Even Better Today

by Tony Dayoub

Making its long awaited debut on DVD recently, is the 1967 cult favorite, The Invaders. Starring Roy Thinnes as brooding architect David Vincent, The Invaders lasted only two seasons. But what a dramatically rewarding and influential two seasons they were. The 5-disc set contains all seventeen episodes of the first season, including an extended edition of its pilot, "Beachhead". In addition to new introductions for each episode recorded by the dapper Thinnes, a half hour interview with the actor is also included. And a refreshingly honest audio commentary for this season's best episode, "The Innocents", by cult director and series creator, Larry Cohen (It's Alive), describes his limited involvement with the show once it aired, while putting the show into political context within its era.

The premise is simple. David Vincent, while driving home late one night, believes he sees a UFO landing in a desolate area. After convincing authorities of what he witnessed, they go back to that area, but with all evidence of their landing having been erased, he ends up looking like a crackpot. After further investigation on his own, he discovers several things: the aliens look like us (except most have a mutated pinkie finger); they must regenerate often or risk death; when they die, they - as well as anything they are touching - disintegrate; and they are already deeply entrenched in key positions of authority throughout the world, laying the foundation for an invasion. Most importantly, Vincent must now watch his back, as they are aware of his knowledge, and fear any setback to their plans.

With the rebirth of American society after World War II into a cultural and military superpower, the U.S. leading the anti-communist charge in Korea and the cold war, and the assassination of JFK (and his Camelot ideals), the cultural turbulence and general malaise of the late sixties was emerging. No longer able to discern evil in simple terms, the average American couldn't have been blamed for the paranoia they felt in a society that had become a little less black-and-white and more shades-of-grey. Gone was the fascistic bogeyman of Hitler, replaced by the multi-headed hydra of the Red Scare. Conspiracy theories prevailed regarding who was culpable for both a president's assassination, and the death of his alleged assassin. The time was ripe for Larry Cohen to create a show that would comment on the times, even if disguised behind the allegory of an alien invasion.

However, as he describes in his commentary, another veteran producer was assigned to run the show. Quinn Martin, producer of The Fugitive, took those duties, bringing his show's format to The Invaders. Every week, the show's grander alien mythology would serve as a backdrop to the more grounded earthly problems of other guest characters Vincent would run into. This attracted a lot of existing and future stars to the show, as their characters usually had their own dilemmas for the actors to chew on. Among the celebrities who make an appearance in the first season, are Ed Asner, Ralph Bellamy, Peter Graves, Roddy McDowall, and Burgess Meredith.

Some themes would be visited frequently in these morality plays, like adultery, or the questionable motives of the U.S. involvement in both Korea and Vietnam. Producer Martin's subtle house-style was effective in pushing these then taboo themes past the censors in a way that I doubt the in-your-face Cohen could have done. Our ambivalence over whether to trust radicals or the establishment was being reflected in the paranoia inherent in Vincent's alien conspiracy theories. "Vikor" is an episode that perfectly encapsulates this. Guest star Jack Lord plays a war hero, whose wife has turned to alcohol, since his return from Korea. Having lost a leg in the war, the self-made industrialist felt betrayed when he was turned down for a government loan to start his business. So instead he throws in with the aliens, hoping to give his wife a happy life under the new alien world order.

Martin's appreciation for stoic actors, who could still be physically dynamic (like The Fugitive's David Janssen), proved to be essential to The Invaders' alchemy. Roy Thinnes was a strong lead, generous when sharing a scene with a prominent guest star, but commanding when fighting the conspiratorial enemies of mankind. This would prove to be an essential part of the formula in subsequent series strongly influenced by the format, like The Incredible Hulk, and the casting of its star, Bill Bixby. Thinnes is still highly regarded, appearing as a recurring guest star on another show that shares its legacy, The X-Files. And as recently as August 2004, Thinnes' portrayal helped David Vincent rank number six on TV Guide's list of the Top 25 Sci-Fi Legends.

Given the current political climate's similarity to the Red Scare era that The Invaders comments on, the ultimate compliment I can pay the show is that it transcends the period's anachronisms and plays extremely well today. Definitely worth a look.

Movie Review: Surfwise and The Strangers - Two Sleepers for Those with Alternative Taste in Film

by Tony Dayoub

Surfwise opened this weekend here, in Atlanta, at the Midtown Art Cinemas, and it is a welcome breath of fresh air for those tired of the summer blockbuster rollout. Doug Pray's documentary is an even-handed look at the quirky Paskowitz clan, often referred to as the first family of surfing.

Patriarch Dr. Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz, left a promising career behind after two divorces to move to Israel in the 50s. After spending some time in the desert, learning to subsist on a diet of raw, natural foods, and introducing surfing to Tel Aviv, he returned to the U.S. where he met wife, Juliette. Together with their family of 9 children, they travelled across the country, surfing, following Doc's strict raw food diet, and observing the Jewish tradition while all lived together in a crowded 24 foot camper. In 1972, they established the world-renowned Paskowitz Surf Camp in San Onofre beach in California.

The film honestly depicts the fallout of such a nonconformist life on the now-grown children, and implies that Doc was more than a little selfish in his pursuit of his dreams. The nine siblings contemplate, on camera, whether they were well served by skipping society's obligations, such as schooling, for one. But while some bemoan their lack of business savvy or difficulty with normal societal routines, it is apparent that all nine of them have ended up leading interesting, and dynamic lives. Among them there are three rock singer-songwriters, two film producers, a chef, a surfing champion, a screenwriter, and a fashion designer, all successful to some degree.

The film is shot beautifully on high definition video, and is a fast-paced, enthralling look at family dynamics with a surf culture backdrop.

 The Strangers continues plugging away at the box office while in the shadow of the more traditional summer fare, and for good reason. Written and directed by first-timer Bryan Bertino, it captures the helplessness, loneliness, and spooky anonymity of true fear inherent in an act of random violence. And it does it swiftly (less than 90 minutes) with a minimal amount of gore. No mere purveyor of "torture porn", Bertino masterfully knows how to manipulate our fears, giving us a voyeur's look at the action that rivals De Palma's stylings, and a sound design worthy of Lynch.

To say anything more of the film would be to dispel its necessary aura of mystery. But see this one twice, once on the purely visceral level of its horror genre, and the second time as a metaphor on Americans' submission to the faceless terror that haunted us post-9/11, for a time.

For a list of current and upcoming theaters playing Surfwise go to

The Strangers is currently playing nationwide.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

DVD Review: The Andromeda Strain (2008) - Too Many Subplots Muddle an Intriguing Story

by Tony Dayoub

The Andromeda Strain (2008), released on DVD this week, is the second version of Michael Crichton's 1969 novel put on film. Having just premiered on A&E on Memorial Day, I was looking forward to seeing an updated adaptation.

The first time it was adapted to screen by directing great Robert Wise, it was very popular and suspenseful. Tracking the analysis, identification, and attempt to contain a virus from space that wipes out a whole town in seconds, Wise's movie is a minor sci-fi classic. But since much of the story depends on cutting edge science, the passage of time has not been kind to it. Much of what looked innovative or futuristic in the 1971 version looks rather quaint and dated now. So if the remake could keep the same just-the-facts-ma'am procedural tone that Wise established, and update the science, then it would be quite successful. Unfortunately, the filmmakers chose to go further than that simple improvement, and bit off way more than they could chew.

One of the most appealing things in the original version was the dry tone established by casting second-tier actors in the almost anonymous roles of the science team. Little is known of the four clinicians' backstory except what is essential to resolve the plot. That leaves us time to appreciate the painstaking application of the scientific method necessary to solve the rather imminent problem of the virus's potential to decimate mankind. Spookier still is the lack of knowledge on the origins of the virus. The effect is that of being a fly on the wall as the doctors work to contain Andromeda, the name given to the virus.

The new movie just tries too hard. The mystery is robbed of the story by giving us too much information, spending way too much time on the rather hokey origins of Andromeda. It also illustrates the destruction of the town of Piedmont, Utah. In the original, the creepiness of the desolate town was inherent in the absence of awareness one had regarding details of it's decimation.

The core characters are populated by some appealing actors, including Benjamin Bratt, Christa Miller, Daniel Dae Kim, and Viola Davis. We are privy to each of their background angst, but the fact that it usually involves some cliche doesn't invite one to dwell on it for long. Also the cast has nearly doubled in size, adding an investigative reporter (Eric McCormack), an army General (Andre Braugher), and a military doctor (Ricky Schroder). This seems to be designed to give us additional expendable folks we might identify with before they are cut down in service of the plot. So now, in addition to having to follow the scientists take on Andromeda, we also have the media's and the military's. Rather than enhancing the story it gives short shrift to each of the three parallel plots.

Maybe this was an attempt at a backdoor pilot, meant to lead into a series if successful. But between all the cutting back and forth from the military trying to cover-up the incident, to the reporter trying to survive long enough to file his story on the virus, to Bratt's lead scientist confessing his attraction to Miller, his former research associate, the show evokes one of 24'scrazy pre-teaser catch-up montages, more than it does a fully-formed, layered premise. Surprising given that the producers are Ridley and Tony Scott, and the director is Mikael Salomon, who's given us some fine TV work before. By the time you've got Kim slicing off Schroder's thumb and throwing it to Bratt while the three try to shut down a nuclear reactor, you'll be wondering if you didn't switch to one of Jack Bauer's bad days by mistake.

The DVD does have some respectable features. It has an informative commentary from the director and producer David W. Zucker. There's also the usual making-of featurette, and a pretty nice gallery of production photos and design drawings, over 100, in fact. None of these address the obvious failings of the film, which usually makes for far better commentaries than the average so-this-is-how-we-got-this-shot stories.

Saddled with too much to chew on, The Andromeda Strain's central plot of humans fighting an unknown threat on a scientific playing field is lost. Catch Robert Wise's original version instead, and you'll enjoy its suspenseful execution despite the retro science.

This entry first appeared on Blogcritics on 6/7/2008.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


by Tony Dayoub

I'd like to thank all of my readers for being patient as I went through this past month trying to keep my head above water without a computer. Why did it take me so long to replace it? Well just imagine everything that could go wrong actually going wrong. From an initial misdiagnosis of the problem that turned out to be much more serious, to trying to find the right laptop so this won't happen again, to having Fed Ex refuse to turn over the merchandise when someone didn't come to the door soon enough (this happening on a Friday, of course), it's been a disheartening ordeal. This, coupled with my Tribeca trip, has put me a bit behind on my obligations in terms of reviews, but hopefully I've made up for it by bringing you reviews of some noteworthy films on their opening dates or even earlier.

I'd also like to thank Jorge Cadenas, my go-to guy when it comes to computers, for taking the time out of his extremely busy schedule to help me every step of the way, suggesting what computer to get (a Lenovo T61p laptop), who to get it from (Alex Marquette at I.T. Xchange), setting it up for me, etc. Jorge is one in a million!

I'd also be remiss if I didn't thank my mother-in-law, Connie, for supplementing Jorge's efforts in suggesting the proper specs for the laptop. She earns her living doing working with less technically inclined folks like myself and their computer needs. If you're in Naples, Florida, and need help, call Connie Blum, your computer tutor.

And finally, a big thank you to my wife, Denise. Working long hours while 4 months pregnant is bad enough. But having to put up with her cranky husband through all of this merits some kind of acknowledgment. Thank you, and on to the reviews.

DVD Review: The Night They Raided Minsky's and If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium - Ekland and Pleshette Highlight Iffy Flicks

by Tony Dayoub

You're wondering why I have these photos of two very striking women at the top of this review. Well, let me tell you about each of them. The one on the left is Britt Ekland, featured in The Night They Raided Minsky's, recently released on DVD. The one on the right is the late Suzanne Pleshette featured in If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, also recently released.

Ekland is a Swedish actor, underrated in my opinion, whose career never gained the notoriety that her private life has. Best known for her role as Mary Goodknight in the 007 adventure The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), she also made some more than respectable appearances in such films as Get Carter(1971), The Wicker Man (1973), and Scandal (1989). But she will always be better known for marrying actor Peter Sellers, who proposed after having only seen her in a picture. She also had a long relationship with Rod Stewart, before having a series of relationships with other rockers such as John Waite and L.A. Guns singer Phil Lewis. Her daughter with Sellers, Victoria, has been in the news, primarily stemming from her association with "Hollywood Madam" Heidi Fleiss.

Pleshette was an American actor, also underrated, who was often cast as the supporting character in such movies as The Birds (1963), Nevada Smith (1966), Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971), and was a frequent guest star in a long list of TV shows including Route 66, Ben Casey, Kojak, and Will & Grace. She was best known for playing Emily Hartley on The Bob Newhart Show which led to one of the best cameos in TV history in the later series, Newhart. In Newhart's series finale, Bob Newhart wakes up describing a strange dream, about being an innkeeper in Vermont (the premise of Newhart), to Pleshette who reprises her role as Emily. Sultry and sardonic, she later played the title role in a TV biopic called Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean (1990). She died on January 19, 2008 of respiratory failure.

I tell you all this, and show you each of their photographs, because they are each the best reasons to see their respective movies.

Minsky's is a badly executed film with an interesting premise. Notable mainly for being William Freidkin's sophomore directorial effort (though it was released after his third movie), and Bert Lahr's (The Wizard of Oz's Cowardly Lion) last appearance, the story had potential. Ekland plays an Amish woman who runs away from home to join Minsky's Burlesque, and inadvertently becomes the innovator of the striptease. Her onstage sexual awakening at the end of the film is both funny and assertive, despite being surrounded by leering men. It's too bad that the film is edited past the point of comprehension. The signs are there that a lot of effort was spent in trying to save the movie, as there are numerous zoom shots which, because of excessive graininess, appear to have been created in post-production.

Belgium on the other hand is a pleasant romp that follows Pleshette on a whirlwind tour of Europe while she falls in love with their tour guide (an unexpectedly dashing young Ian McShane from Deadwood). Directed by Mel Stuart (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), it is full of cameos by John Cassavettes, Joan Collins, Vittorio De Sica, Ben Gazzara, Virna Lisi and Robert Vaughn, among others. Witty and disarming, it is enjoyable, but beyond that, it is such a trifle, that the only thing I can really hang my recommendation on is a chance to see Pleshette carry a movie.

Not bad enough to be offensive, but not great enough to be classics, don't expect anything more than the chance to appreciate these two underrated actors in these films.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

DVD Review - Diary of the Dead and Night of the Living Dead - Zombies Redux for 21st Century

by Tony Dayoub

It's the dawn of the 21st century, and George Romero reboots his zombie franchise for modern times with Diary of the Dead. The innovative Romero invented the genre in 1968 with the first film in the franchise, Night of the Living Dead, which commented on the sixties just as Diary comments on current events.

Night of the Living Dead was filmed on a shoestring budget by Romero and his crew, a Pittsburgh advertising production house aspiring to make narrative films. Listening to their commentary on the new 40th Anniversary Edition DVD, it seems like the still-friendly cast and crew had a lot of fun and learned a lot of hard lessons during filming. One of the saddest was the need for proper placement of copyright information. Because of their mistake, the film has been in the public domain for many years. Little did they know that it would be so influential. Films like Signs and 28 Days Later... owe much to Romero's horror movie in their use of setting, pace, and scary monsters.

Also attributable to the film's copyright issues are its numerous inferior releases on home video. Well, shop no more. The new edition released by The Weinstein Company and Genius Products puts all others to shame. Released with an all-new transfer and with new special features overseen by Romero, this is as close as you'll get to an "official" release. The highlights are 2 new audio commentaries with cast and crew, as well as a feature-length making-of documentary. Special treat: a seldom heard audio interview with the star of the movie, the late Duane Jones, who rarely acknowledged the film after its release.

The film of course led to a whole series of sequels, both official and unofficial. Official: Romero's Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead. Unofficial: the more humorous Return of the Living Dead series started by John Russo and Dan O'Bannon, and many remakes, including, notably, Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead. The unofficial sequels rarely displayed any of the social commentary so prevalent in Romero's films, which attacked such topics as racism, materialism, and class strife. In each of his successive films, Romero's zombies, and the world they inhabited, evolved until in Land of the Dead, the zombies are intelligent enough to strategize in their war against humans, and humans are accustomed to the post-apocalyptic cohabitation with the zombies. There wasn't much of a place left to go for Romero.

So he goes back to the beginning with Diary of the Dead, giving the zombies a new lease on life... or death. Following a student film crew caught at the beginning of the zombie apocalypse, but set in modern day, the film gives Romero a chance to comment on some new issues in a fresh new way. Shot entirely in subjective camera, ostensibly by the members of the student film crew -on video cameras, cell phones, and news cameras - there are many instances of poking fun at the cutthroat world of "emerging media" and the blogosphere. The protagonists frequently ask their subjects to restage events since they might have missed them while shooting. Filmmakers will ignore impending doom in order to get reactions from their cohorts. And cut in to the film is footage culled from such real-life tragedies as the Hurricane Katrina aftermath in New Orleans.

It is telling that such footage blends in so easily with Romero's film, proving the theme of all his zombie flicks to be correct. It is not the zombies that are the scariest creatures in his films; it is we.

Still provided courtesy of Genius Products and The Weinstein Company.