Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe / *** (PG)

Lucy: Georgie Henley
Edmund: Skandar Keynes
Peter: William Moseley
Susan: Anna Popplewell
The White Witch: Tilda Swinton
Mr. Tumnus, the Faun: James McAvoy
Prof. Kirke: Jim Broadbent

And featuring the voice talents of:
Aslan: Liam Neeson
Mr. Beaver: Ray Winstone
Mrs. Beaver: Dawn French
Mr. Fox: Rupert Everett
Maugrim: Michael Madsen

Buena Vista presents a film directed by Andrew Adamson. Screenplay by Ann Peacock, Adamson, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely; based on the novel by C.S. Lewis. Running time 139 min. Rated PG (for battle sequences and frightening moments).

C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia is a play on the fantasies of children. Lewis used his series of fantasy books to progress Christian ideals into a tale children would want to visit and return to again, and in the process he created a mythology, much like his friend and fellow Oxford alumnus J.R.R. Tolkien did with The Lord of the Rings, that became a lasting fascination in British literature. In this, the first live action version of the second book in the Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, audiences will find a world just a fleshed out and magnificent as the recent Lord of the Rings film trilogy and much more grown up and frightening than the children’s book upon which it is based.

LW2 (as it has become known on the web and is much easier to type out) tells the story of four siblings – two girls, Susan (Anna Popplewell, Girl with a Pearl Earring) and Lucy (new comer Georgie Henley), and two boys, Peter (William Moseley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) – who are separated from their parents due to World War II. They are sent to the stuffy mansion of a Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason) under the care of the cold Mrs. MacReady (Elizabeth Hawthorne, The Frighteners). In this kid unfriendly environment the children are left to their own devices when it comes to being kids and eventually a game of hide and seek leads the youngest, Lucy, to a wardrobe that hides in it the doorway to another world.

The world on the other side of the wardrobe is a land called Narnia. It has been cast into an everlasting winter by the White Witch, Jadis (Tilda Swinton, Constantine). Jadis has falsely claimed the throne as Queen of Narnia, and her tactics of terror keep her in power over the woodland creatures that populate Narnia. Lucy is lucky to stumble upon Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy, Wimbledon), a Faun – half human, half goat – who helps her escape detection from the White Witch to his own peril. When Edmund follows Lucy into the wardrobe, however, Jadis is the first being he meets. She convinces Edmund to bring his siblings to her, and when all four children enter Narnia they learn of a prophecy, which foretold their coming and states that their fate and Narnia’s are intrinsically intertwined. When it is learned that the great lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson, Batman Begins) is on the move again, the children must choose a side.

Director Andrew Adamson (Shrek) is certainly a student of the Peter Jackson School of Glorious Realizations of Fantastical Lands through Digital Effects and Grandiose Natural Settings. His Narnia could come directly out of Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth in the Rings trilogy. Narnia is not quite so gloomy as that world, but it is no coincidence that Jackson’s Weta effects and costume shops were responsible for much of the look and atmosphere of the film. Narnia is world of talking beavers and centaurs (half man, half horse creatures) more so than the trolls and orcs of Tolkien’s world, but many of the latter do slip in to Lewis’s as well. This gives Narnia a much more severe and dark delivery than it has ever received before, something a little heavier than Lewis’s young people’s literature naturally suggests.

Much has been made of Narnia’s religious allegory nature, which is obvious to people who know anything about C.S. Lewis. Aslan’s Christ-like sacrifices for his people and subsequent resurrection and Edmund’s Judas figure betrayal of his loved ones are fairly thinly veiled, but nothing is so blatant as to overshadow what is really a children’s fantasy. This is as it was in Lewis’s book and is presented here with no greater emphasis on the Christian themes, but they are there for those who want to look.

What stuck me the most about this adaptation of LW2 is how much more adult it seems than the story I remember reading as a child. Since the adaptation is fairly faithful to the original material, I am tempted to think this has more to do with the fact that I am no longer a child than the material itself being changed. Adamson has said that he took liberties with the final battle in the film, which takes up twenty minutes of the film. He stated that Lewis only devoted about a sentence to it in his book, which is more of an exaggeration than his film’s version of that battle actually is, but he does allow much of the brutality of war show in this depiction of the battle. This could be a little harsh for younger viewers.

Whatever the maturity level this film is aimed toward, it is a good movie. It retains both the details and adventure of its source material and tells a good story for people who may not be initiated into the world of C.S. Lewis. It doesn’t present something quite so epic or far reaching as The Lord of the Rings, and perhaps that is the difference between Tolkien and Lewis right there. Lewis was trying for something simpler and perhaps more accessible. His work was inspired by a more personal attempt to deal with World War II; Tolkien was a little more interested in the nature of man and his place in the world as a whole. The Lord of the Rings rose to the level necessary to tell that story, the same is true of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Lords of Dogtown / *** (UR)

Jay Adams: Emile Hirsch
Tony Alva: Victor Rasuk
Stacy Peralta: John Robinson
Sid: Michael Angarano
Kathy Alva: Nikki Reed
Skip Engblom: Heath Ledger
Philaine: Rebecca De Mornay
Topper Burks: Johnny Knoxville

TriStar Pictures presents a film directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Written by Stacy Peralta. Running time: 107 min. Unrated director’s cut, originally rated PG-13 (for drug and alcohol content, sexuality, violence, language and reckless behavior, all involving teens).

To be honest, I was never any good at skateboarding. But when the 80’s skate craze, born of the stars of professional boarding known as the “Bones Brigade”, hit Topsham, Maine; I was there with my entire non-in-crowd clique. I had the “rat tail” hair cut and went to the local bike shop, with its corner dedicated to capitalizing on the skate punk craze, to pick up my first wide board. I was torn between that cool squiggle of the Alva boards that I can only assume is Tony Alva’s actual signature of his last name, and the pure alien sounding nature to the Powell-Peralta boards. I eventually went with Powell-Peralta for my first board, but when I landed a sad ramp launch in just the right way to snap that board in half about a year later, I went back an got the most badass Alva model I could find.

Lords of Dogtown tells the story of skateboarding’s rise from just a novelty sport to the father of the X-games sport that it is known as today. It concentrates on the three inaugural stars of skateboarding in the seventies: Tony Alva, Jay Adams and Stacy Peralta. Beginning when the three future stars were merely wanna be surfers for the Zepher board shop team in Venice, California. The reckless nature of this particular youth culture is evidenced immediately as we are introduced to these characters and the supporting cast as they attempt to surf the choice waves under the Venice Beach Pier, where the obstacles can be deadly.

When the season is against the waves weather-wise, the reckless nature of these kids is not abated. Street skating is their escape when the waves are down, and they are always searching for ways to make skating more like surfing. The key to this trick is the invention of the polyurethane wheels which allow the boards to grip the concrete so they can carve back and forth just as they do on the waves. These kids are skilled enough in their practices that it takes no time for them to develop a new style of skateboarding based on surfing and soon Zepher shop owner and Guru Skip Engblom is putting together a team for competition. As they gain notoriety for their revolutionary style of skating, they become known as the Z-Boys of Dogtown.

Dogtown is not in the greatest economic condition and as such these children come from a harsher climate of life than most think about when they think of Southern California. Adams (Emile Hirsch, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) seems to struggle the most without a father and with a mother who either did one too many hits of acid in the sixties or just stopped maturing at the age of twelve. Alva (Victor Rasuk, Raising Victor Vargas) has a strained relationship with his father, who would like his son to aspire to something that could get him out of the slums. Peralta (John Robinson, Elephant) is the only one of the team who has a job, and Skip gives him a hard time about being “one of us,” even denying him a spot on the team until he wins the first skate competition as an individual, not on the Zepher team. Engblom doesn’t let Peralta go home that evening without an invitation to be on the team.

The Z-Boys live with a constant need to push the limits of life. It reminds me of Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of The Outsiders in the way these kids try to breathe in life through reckless abandon. Be it partying too hard for their own good, exploring drugs and sex at ages that would frighten any parent into finally sitting down with their kids to discuss the drug and sex issues, or just looking for the perfect carve. While all of these avenues are explored in detail in this film, it is that final category that leads the Zepher team to invent the practice of skating a drained swimming pool during a summer drought that leave many of the area’s private swimming pools unused. It is in this final category where the film also finds its greatest moments with some skating sequences as good as any of those old Bones Brigade videos that I used to watch with my skating crew and dream of a life being paid only to skate.

Another area where Lords of Dogtown excels is in its casting. The three leads; Hirsch, Rasuk and Robinson; come off of some rousing independent efforts, and director Catherine Hardwicke does a wonderful job carrying that independent flavor over to a more mainstream picture here with her actors’ cut-from-life portrayal of their characters. Hardwicke does an even better job pulling career transformative portrayals from a couple of her supporting cast members, Heath Ledger and Rebecca De Mornay. De Mornay (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle) is nearly unrecognizable as Adams’s tripped-out mother, Philaine. And Ledger (The Brothers Grimm) proves that if Oliver Stone filmed The Doors today he would have a perfect replacement for Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison. The film is as much about the downfall of Ledger’s character, Skip Engblom, as it is the Z three; and I think it is a glimpse of what Morrison might have been if he hadn’t become a world famous rock star.

Hardwicke also delivers that raw nature of independent film to her directing style, which tells the story in the chaotic nature that reflects the lives these people led. Hardwicke, a former production designer, is coming off rave reviews from her first directing effort Thirteen. Lords of Dogtown is a less significant story than that teen drama, but proves her strength in empathizing with and capturing the realities of youth culture.

Screenwriter Stacy Peralta also comes off of critical successes as a sports documentarian, including his own documentary on this same material Dogtown and the Z-Boys. For his first dramatized script he shows a good ability to capture naturalistic dialogue, although his structure favors the documentary format and he over-sentimentalizes the conclusion of the story, which involves a fourth Z-Boy, Sid (Michael Angarano, Sky High), who succumbs to cancer.

Unfortunately for Lords of Dogtown its audience appeal is probably fairly narrow. I’m not sure how much people who aren’t into extreme sports are going to care about these characters, or even how their lives are changed by their unlikely fame. But for those who are into skateboarding and youth culture, this story holds many intriguing moments and a good deal of gnarly skating footage. For the true disciples of the sport, the film is peppered with cameo appearances of the sport’s legends, including all three of the Z three featured. Peralta in particular provides the source of his signature headband look as the director of the Charlie’s Angels episode in which he apeared at the height of his fame that suggested it to keep the hair out of his face. But my favorite cameo was by boarding giant Tony Hawk as an astronaut who shows negative ability on a board.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

King Kong / **** (PG-13)

Ann Darrow: Naomi Watts
Carl Denham: Jack Black
Jack Driscoll: Adrien Brody
Capt. Englehorn: Thomas Kretschman
Preston: Colin HanksJimmy: Jamie Bell
Hayes: Evan Parke
Bruce Baxter: Kyle Chandler
Lumpy: Andy SerkisKong: Andy Serkis

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Peter Jackson. Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson. Based on the original film story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace. Running time: 187 min. Rated PG-13 (for frightening adventure violence and some disturbing images).

I’ve been reading books about 70’s cinema lately, what many critics call the last great decade in Hollywood filmmaking. It was the age of the auteur, when studios allowed directors free reign to make the films they wanted to make, the way they wanted to make them. Many great directors were cultivated during that decade when the box office and the art house became one, including Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Terrance Malick. Since then the auteur director has had to rely on independent film companies to get their films made and most of the great auteurs of the 70’s have either died, become studio suits themselves, or simply faded away. It seems only Spielberg and Malick are still making movies the way they want to anymore. Even George Lucas is making films more for his fan base now than for himself. With King Kong Peter Jackson may just prove to be the first great director to rise up through the studio system since that memorable decade.

Jackson, fresh off the ultra successful Lord of the Rings trilogy, says the original 1933 King Kong inspired him to become a film director when he saw it for the first time at the age of nine. I myself held a similar passion for the material. I remember one fall day in particular in which I kept excusing myself from yard clean up duty with my father to sneak in and watch it every two minutes. I would even reenact the entire Skull Island sequence in the woods with friends, each taking our turns getting shook off some fallen log in the woods by our imaginary Kong.

Jackson’s own love for the material shines through in every frame of this loving remake. He and fellow Rings scribes Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens have a great deal of fun paying homage to the original Kong by interweaving lines of dialogue from that screenplay by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace into various scenes that play up their corny nature, including using some for dialogue in the movie within the movie. There is even a scene where Jack Black’s movie producer/director makes a reference to that original King Kong production when he asks if he can get Kong star Fay Wray to be in his latest jungle adventure. His assistant tells him Wray just started a picture for RKO. “Cooper must have got her,” he responds.

The filmmakers also have a good deal of fun playing with the notion that in the original Kong Fay Wray’s love interest is a typical male bravado-driven sailor character named Jack Driscoll. In the new version Ann Darrow (the Wray character) is first taken aback by the rugged nature of the captain of the Venture, Englehorn (Thomas Kretschman, Downfall); this is a scene where some of those original lines are exchanged. Later Ann mistakes the more intelligent looking sound engineer for Driscoll, making for an embarrassing Meet Cute with the real Driscoll. But Adrien Brody’s (The Pianist) Driscoll in this Kong is a hero of a quite different nature, a man who understands more about the inner workings of human nature and love than his way around a gun or a ship.

The film opens in a gloriously reproduced 1933 Manhattan, where producer/director Carl Denham (Black, School of Rock) is about to have the plug pulled on his latest film by the studio. In his own typical brash nature, Denham steals the existing reels of his pictures and rushes the launch of a sea voyage to a location shoot. He has told everyone on his crew that they will be filming in Singapore, when in reality he has obtained a map to an uncharted island where he plans to film its discovery. To incorporate this discovery into his latest jungle adventure film he has enlisted the gifted New York playwright Jack Driscoll to pen his screenplay. But Driscoll has no plans to sail with Denham to continue writing the script on location, and in a scene that wonderfully illustrates and foreshadows the cutthroat lengths to which Denham is willing to go to get the film he wants Black gets his chance to chew the scenery as only he can.

Denham is also short a leading lady since his actress has bailed on him and Wray is not available; but in Ann Darrow, an out of work vaudeville performer, he finds his perfect damsel in distress, and more importantly the costumes will fit her. Naomi Watts (Mulholland Dr.) seems perhaps an over qualified actress to play the wide eyed starlet, but she brings a depth of character that plays heavily into the Beauty and the Beast nature of the King Kong myth.

The film has a fairly light tone, save for a few ominous glances from the crew of the Venture when they discover their true destination, until the ship wrecks on the rocky shores of the aptly named Skull Island. When the film crew lands on the island itself to begin filming things go from bad to worse, and suddenly the movie becomes more than your average adventure flick. The people they find inhabiting the island are savage and feral, we will learn this is the rule of Skull Island. They are like some sort of Lord of the Rings beasts, but with human faces; and they desire Ann for sacrifice to the giant ape Kong.

The middle section of the film takes its audience on a fantastical adventure through the island as the film and ship’s crew chases the giant ape in a rescue attempt. The inhabitants of the island are obviously what captured Jackson’s imagination in the original, as it did with most fans with its stop motion animation of dinosaurs great and greater. With the technological advances of CGI made by Jackson’s own Weta Digital and grandiose sets from Weta Workshop, the dinosaurs and other giant beasts become the greatest yet. With action sequences that span from a ten dinosaur pile up to one of the nastiest death scenes ever awarded an actor for Andy Serkis’s Lumpy the cook, probably given in appreciation for being the acting model behind Kong here and Golem in The Lord of the Rings, to the strangest high flying fight ever seen between Kong and no less than three T-Rexes; there is no doubt Jackson’s imagination had even Spielberg saying, “Well, I never would have thought of that one.”

But what really makes this film work it the solid relationship built between Watt’s Darrow and Serkis’s Kong. No longer is Kong just some giant perverted ape obsessed with a scantily clad human female. Kong is given a back story here as the last of his kind; and Darrow makes a genuine empathetic connection with the beast. This relationship serves to strengthen the final act of the film, when Denham captures the ape and brings him to back to New York as “The Eighth Wonder of the World” attraction, so it no longer plays merely as a spectacle of a B-movie monster destroying well-known landmarks of the Big Apple. There is true sorrow to be found in Kong’s fate, as well as the fate of the human characters in the film and when Black utters the final words of dialogue (the very same ones as in the original), “It was beauty killed the beast,” there is a depth to them that goes beyond the clever play on Kong’s obsession with the blonde heroine.

I can imagine some people might feel Jackson goes too far with some of the spectacle sequences (mostly on Skull Island), but the film itself is sparked from spectacle. It is an adventure of pure fantasy, stemming from a fairly absurd premise. Even in 1933 the idea that an island containing all these prehistoric beast remaining undiscovered is outlandish to say the least. It is a tale for a Saturday afternoon monster feature program, but Jackson uses all his resources of story telling to both pay homage to the original production and turn it into something beyond Merian C. Cooper’s original. Jackson’s Kong is like a forest grown up from the single sapling planted by Cooper at the dawn of cinema. It is a feast of cinema that embraces the escapist entertainment and emotional expedition which only the medium of film can give.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Yesterday/ **** (R)

Yesterday: Leleti Khumalo
Beauty: Lihle Mvelase
Teacher: Harriet Lenabe
Doctor: Camilla Walker
Husband: Kenneth Khambula

HBO Films presents a film written and directed by Darrell James Roodt. Running time: 96 min. Rated R (for pervasive strong violence).

Yesterday is one of those films that inspires critics to write proclamations about it like, “a celebration of life” and “a beautiful, touching human experience”; and while those phrases obviously do come to mind (since I wrote them here for you to read); such clich├ęs are really beneath a film this delicate and beautiful. Yesterday also has the distinction of being the first ever Zulu language film to be nominated or even submitted for the Foriegn Language Academy Award, and while this is also notable enough for me to mention in the first paragraph of my review of it, it is also something that loses its importance under the pleasure of viewing the film itself.

Yesterday tells the story of a mother and daughter. The mother is named Yesterday (Leleti Khumalo, Sarafina!), the daughter Beauty (Lihle Mvelase). They live in the small village of Rooihoek in South Africa’s Zululand. Yesterday’s husband (Kenneth Khambula, I Dreamed of Africa) is a mine worker in Johannesburg and lives away from home most of the time.

Life in Rooihoek is hard for these families without fathers (most of the men work in the mines). It is harder for outsiders in the village. Yesterday was an outsider before her marriage and it took many years for her to be accepted as one of the townspeople. Yesterday befriends a teacher (Harriet Lenabe, Hotel Rwanda) who comes to the town looking for work and finds an opening. Beauty is a year away from being old enough for school, and Yesterday is very excited for her daughter for the opportunity to go to school she never had herself.

Yesterday falls ill and must go to see a doctor in a town that is over a two hour walk away. When she arrives, the line to see the sole doctor is long; and she is turned away until the following Tuesday, when the doctor will return. It takes several weeks before Yesterday can see the doctor (Camilla Walker), who eventually informs her of the disease she suffers from. I am reluctant to reveal what is wrong with Yesterday, as then it becomes yet another notable facet of the film that distracts from its simple beauty. Yesterday’s illness is very important to the film and what it is about, but I will leave that to the viewer to discover.

What impressed me first about this important work were the beautiful landscapes in this harsh African wilderness. The Dark Continent is often depicted as a dirty, restrictive place, where life is oppressive and there is little joy. The world shown here by director Darrell James Roodt (Sarafina!, Cry, the Beloved Country) is one that is full of beauty and has a complete spectrum of life’s emotion. The photography and lighting by cinematographer Michael Brierley (Second Skin) captures a beauty that feeds the meaning and emotional power behind the story, yet still shows what a beautiful world it is in which these people live their lives of triumph and tragedy.

Yesterday finds herself in between two worlds. One that holds modern disease and medicine, and the industry in which her husband must make their living; and that of the village where witch doctors still practice the healing of its own, and any nonconformity is viewed as an affront against the community. Through all this Yesterday keeps her chin up with a lofty spirit. She lives only for her daughter and Beauty’s entrance into school becomes a goal for Yesterday to live for. Even her husband offers her no empathy; but when he needs her, she is there. Yesterday gives to all in her life the strength of all that she feels came before her, and so she is a hero beyond aspirations.

It is hard to write of this film and not take an exalted tone, but that is really where a film of Yesterday’s simple power belongs. It never received a true theatrical release in this country, only appearing at a scattering of film festivals, and premieres this month on HBO. An early 2006 DVD release is planned; and it is a film that should not be missed.

Once again the MPAA ratings board has pulled an atrocious play on nonsensical judgment with award of an R rating for this picture. Not only is the rating abusive to the gentle and educational nature of the film, but their reasoning behind it makes less sense than any they have ever cited before. I feel ashamed even reporting it. “For pervasive strong violence.” There is a scene of domestic violence in the film. One scene. Less than a minute in length. And the violence is actually obscured by the setting, it occurs off screen essentially. Very tastefully done. I have no clue of where they culled the descriptor “pervasive”. Aghast am I.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Walk the Line / ***½ (PG-13)

John R. Cash: Joaquin Phoenix
June Carter: Reese Witherspoon
Vivian Cash: Ginnifer Goodwin
Ray Cash: Robert Patrick
Sam Phillips: Dallas Roberts
Luther Perkins: Dan John Miller
Marshall Grant: Larry Bagby
Carrie Cash: Shelby Lynne
Elvis Presley: Tyler Hilton
Jerry Lee Lewis: Waylon Malloy Payne
Waylon Jennings: Shooter Jennings

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by James Mangold. Written by Gill Dennis and Mangold. Based on Man In Black and Cash: The Autobiography by Johnny Cash. Running time: 135 min. Rated PG-13 (for some language, thematic material and depiction of drug dependency).

Early on in the Johnny Cash musical biopic Walk the Line we see a young boy looking up to a radio, listening to the 10 year-old June Carter, as if this device were some doorway to gain entrance into Valhalla. This boy is J.R. Cash, who will grow into the country folk legend who recorded an album live in Folsom Prison. His father yells at him to shut that noise box off, or some such sentiment, and the kid has no reaction what so ever. After he is yelled at two or three more times, his brother Jack, “the good one”, pleads with him to shut it off before their father comes in the room. J.R. relents for his good natured brother and the course of his life is set, at least up till that famous concert.

The film opens just moments before that famous concert with Cash staring at a table saw blade. It is really no surprise when the film then flashbacks to his childhood that his brother will meet an untimely end involving such an instrument, but that incident of his brother’s death marks Cash for life and provides him with both a self loathing and a drive to become something better. Their father, played with frightening severity by Robert Patrick (Copland), clearly favored the older brother and harbors much resentment toward J.R. that he survived, while his good son died.

The film barely mentions Cash’s service in the military as the place where he first develops his own musical talent, and after his service he never seems more out of place than as a family man trying to drum up a living as a door-to-door salesman. This is where Joaquin Phoenix’s (Gladiator) performance as the Man in Black first begins to emerge as the greatest yet of this fine actor’s already impressive resume. It is role built for a glorious performance, embodying an icon and revered artist, who is a hero but has descended to the depths of the human soul to become the great man people recognize. In that sense Phoenix has it made, but Phoenix grounds the role solidly in that “Man in Black” persona. He makes no excuses for the bastard Cash was most of the time; and unlike last year’s big musical biopic Ray, writer/director James Mangold (Identity) and co-writer Gill Dennis (Without Evidence) don’t try to forgive the character his demons, because his struggle with the vices of fame and fortune are not really what this movie is about.

After seeing the film my wife asked me why they didn’t title the movie Ring of Fire; perhaps Cash’s most popular work and one that figures into his romance with June Carter, who also wrote the lyrics. While those “Ring of Fire” lyrics could be said to fit his life of living hard and abusing drugs; the lyrics of the Cash penned song “I Walk the Line” are much more fitting to the film’s true subject, which is that awkward romance between Cash and Carter.

You’ve got a way to keep me on your side
You give me cause for love that I can’t hide
For you I know I’d even try to turn the tide
Because you’re mine, I walk the line

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep my eyes wide open all the time
I keep the ends out for the ties that bind
Because you’re mine, I walk the line.

Although Cash wrote this song long before he finally won Carter’s hand, it seems, in the light of this film, this song could only have been written about her.

Carter is just about the perfect role for Reese Witherspoon (Legally Blonde), whose warm heart, intelligence, and good nature become the object of Cash’s obsession and the guiding light of both Cash’s life and this film. Witherspoon has the spunk necessary to allow the audience to understand how she could have toured along with the adolescent personalities of a group of performers that included Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison (although you never see Orbison partaking in the party nature of the other kids). God! What anyone today wouldn’t give to have seen that tour.

While all the drinking, drugs and general bad behavior of the rock star scene here is breaking no new ground (although even that part is solidly told), it is the unconventional romance between Carter and Cash that makes this film unique. As I said before, no apologies are made for Cash’s proclivities, which make it hard to find romantic appeal in the character, for both the audience and the character of June Carter. But it is that same good-heartedness of Carter’s that Cash has strived for his entire life trying to live up to his dead brother’s image, which makes it possible to believe that Carter truly sees the good in this man or can love him despite his darker natures. It is these contrasting personalities and their unlikely effectiveness together that Phoenix and Witherspoon so adeptly tap into in a way it is hard to imagine from any other pairing, which drives this romance to its happy conclusion on stage in Toronto when Cash’s proposal is finally accepted by Carter.

But I cannot let another important element of Phoenix and Witherspoon’s portrayals of this famous couple go unnoticed. These actors, along with finding unique attraction of personalities, perform their own vocals impeccably in this music heavy drama. It is striking how much these two sound like these wonderful singers. Even as the credits roll and we hear an original recording of Cash and Carter, only an owl’s ear can distinguish the difference between theirs and the actors’ voices.

It is truly surprising to me that the filmmakers actually pulled off the feat of this strange romance. I don’t remember disliking a character’s action in a film as much as I did Cash’s, especially in contrast to Carter’s, and still wanted these two lovers to end up together so much. Perhaps the fact that I knew they did, and that even their latter days were the stuff of story books (he died only four months after she did in 2003), had me on their side to begin with. But much credit goes to the performers who make these icons so down to earth and the movie seems less like a heightened reality and more like some couple’s true life meet cute… without the cute.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire / ***½ (PG-13)

Harry Potter: Daniel Radcliffe
Hermione Granger: Emma Watson
Ron Weasley: Rupert Grint
Dumbledore: Michael Gambon
Alastor Moody: Brendan Gleeson
Hagrid: Robbie Coltrane
Cedric: Robert Pattinson
Viktor Krum: Stanislav Ianevski
Fleur Delacour: Clemence Poesy
Lord Voldemort: Ralph Fiennes

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Mike Newell. Written by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling. Running time: 157 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images).

The Harry Potter film series has truly entered the realm of the serial series. The magical world of wizards and giants and trolls and dragons has become a place audiences return to every year and a half to see old friends, meet new people and face ever growing challenges. We return to watch Harry and his friends, Ron and Hermione, grow from children through adolescence into adulthood, eventually. And we come back to learn the destiny of Harry, whose fate becomes increasingly more intertwined with the mysterious evil wizard who is responsible for his parents’ deaths, Voldemort.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the fourth film based on the popular adolescent book series by J.K. Rowling depicting the fantasy world where those with the gift of magic are schooled from childhood at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. As the series has progressed it has matured from a child’s fantasy to something a little more in depth, a little more intense, a little more meaningful. As the first film in the series to receive a PG-13 rating from the MPAA ratings board, Goblet of Fire gives us the darkest and most intense Harry Potter yet.

The movie opens in the summer before Harry’s fourth year at Hogwarts at the Quidditch World Cup. Explaining what Quidditch is would take too long and proves my point about how involved the viewers of the Harry Potter films must be by this point. The ceremonies are interrupted by an attack organized by the followers of Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), who has spent years reconstituting himself after a spell intended to kill the infant Potter backfired. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is fifteen as he begins his fourth year at Hogwarts, not yet old enough to participate in the inter-wizard school competition the Triwizard Tournament. Somehow, however, his name ends up in the drawing of contestants and he must participate in the series of challenges set forth to him and his three elder piers, Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson), Viktor Krum (Stanislav Ianevski) and Fleur Delacour (Clemence Posey). Harry is given pointers on how to survive these trials, which include facing a full grown dragon, by the school’s new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Alastor “Mad Eye” Moody (Brendan Gleeson).

As with each of the previous Harry Potter sequels Goblet of Fire introduces a few new teachers, villains and friends. The most notable of this episode’s cast additions are the introductions of Mad Eye Moody and the often talked of but as yet unseen (until now) Voldemort. The casting of Brendan Gleeson (Kingdom of Heaven) and Ralph Fiennes (The Constant Gardner) continues the producers’ string of perfect casting choices for the series. Gleeson, always a brutish hulk, has a warmth to him that makes you want to trust him as someone to take Harry under his wing; but he also carries an instability to his presence that sells the “mad” of his nickname (the “eye” he gets from the makeup department, with plenty of quease) and makes you question whether his intentions for Harry are pure. Fiennes has touched upon his darker tendencies before this turn as Voldemort, which carries some echoes of his performance as a serial killer in the most recent adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon. Fiennes seems to be drawn to roles in which he appears to have no face. Miranda Richardson (Sleepy Hollow), however, is wasted in her role as the witch tabloid reporter Rita Skeeter, whose role in the story is cut down considerably from the book.

One of the most wonderful things to observe with the Harry Potter films is the growing maturity of the three main characters; Harry, Hermione and Ron. These are kids who age like real kids despite their fantasy environment. Harry is dealing with a crush along with the pressures of the Triwizard Tournament. Ron feels betrayed by Harry’s inclusion in the tournament along with living in denial about his feelings for Hermione. Hermione also harbors feeling for Ron, but finds herself crushing on Viktor Krum. It’s high school soap operatics all over again.

As the characters have matured only a bit through their growing pains in the third installment, the direction by Mike Newell (Mona Lisa Smile) has come much further back to earth. Although I greatly enjoyed the raw directorial style of Alfonso Cuaron for Prisoner of Azkaban, Newell’s toned down style serves the action well in Goblet of Fire. The adaptation, while necessarily cutting heavily from the book, comes across as a solid treatment that doesn’t hint at missing pieces like the third installment did.

The greatest drawback of this fourth picture in the series is the loss of John Williams as the score composer. Patrick Doyle’s (Secondhand Lions) score lacks the adventurous spirit of Williams’ work. Even when Doyle works Williams’ established Harry Potter themes into his composition, they lack strength. Doyle so far has scored mostly stuffy British society flicks, and was a poor choice to take over for Williams in my opinion. Harry Potter demands a dramatic composer accustomed to the action genre, preferably with the opera based techniques that Williams incorporates into his work. Alan Silvestri would have been my choice, but hopefully Williams bowed out because he was booked with four other scores to compose this year, all big budget releases, and will return for the next Potter.

Harry Potter has become as much of an adventure for the audience by this time as it has for the characters in it. Unfortunately for those who haven’t been in on it from the beginning, you’ve missed the boat; but you can always go back and watch the series from the first film (which admittedly loses a great deal on a small screen). But as one who didn’t miss the boat, this reviewer can’t wait until the summer of 2007 to visit with his friends at Hogwarts for another, even darker adventure. I can only hope that the absence of screenwriter Steve Kloves (Wonder Boys) will not have as noticeable an impact on the material as Williams’ nonattendance this time around.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Chicken Little / **1/2 (G)

Featuring the voice talents of:

Chicken Little: Zach Braff
Buck Cluck: Garry Marshall
Abby Mallard: Joan Cusack
Runt of the Litter: Steve Zahn
Foxy Loxy: Amy Sedaris
Mayor Turkey Lurkey: Don Knotts

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Mark Dindal. Written by Steve Bencich, Ron J. Friedman, and Ron Anderson. Running time: 82 min. Rated G.

As an actor, the sad fact is natural ability is a necessity for the craft from which the artist is formed. As a critic I have a great appreciation for the natural ability of successful actors and feel there is a lot more natural ability out there than many actors are willing to admit. But when that natural ability is not there, “acting” becomes a chore of stretching and mugging and overexertion that is usually more painful to the observer rather than the practitioner. Watching Disney’s first solo foray into the now CGI dominated market of animation Chicken Little, I was reminded of what it is like to watch someone who is not so naturally skilled in acting. They know what they are trying to achieve, but they go at it with too much gusto, too much willingness to please, yet not enough confidence to convince.

The movie picks up just as Chicken Little (voiced by Zach Braff of NBC’s Scrubs) is doing his infamous deed of claiming that the sky is falling. The town is in chaos thinking the world is coming to an end. Mayor Turkey Lurkey (Don Knotts, Pleasantville) is proving his own name true. A mother rabbit provides one of the movie’s best sight gags as she pulls a train of twenty or so screaming baby rabbits out of a stroller before it is hit by a truck. But it appears that Chicken Little has mistaken a falling acorn for a piece of the sky. His reputation is ruined along with his father’s, a former high school sports hero named Buck Cluck (voiced by Garry Marshall, Orange County).

A year later Little has yet to live his reputation as the town crazy down. His only friends are other misfits, like the ugly duckling Abby Mallard (Joan Cusack, Toy Story 2) and the biggest little pig you’ve ever seen Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn, Sahara). Little yearns for the former notoriety of his father, his father’s support and attention, and the popularity of the current high school sports star Foxy Loxy (Amy Sedaris, Strangers with Candy). Eventually Little achieves some positive notoriety, but when yet another piece of the sky falls upon his head, he fears it may all just crumble away as the sky itself appears to be.

Chicken Little is the first CGI animated feature Disney has produced in house, rather than through the Pixar Animation Studio, and it is obvious they are trying to make a noticeable break with that independent studio while trying desperately to live up to the high standards of quality that Pixar set for the industry. Chicken Little drops the realism Pixar has so far tried to achieve with their animation for a more cartoony look (a look Blue Sky (for Fox) and Dreamworks Animation have already dabbled in with their CGI features). I’m not sure I understand the point of CGI over traditional animation if you’re going for a cartoon look, but it does create a unique appearance that helps develop the feel of this particular barnyard animal universe.

Chicken Little is not an outright failure. It is filled with many wonderful moments and images and laughs. But it seems a bit unfocused, as if the writers had a bunch of sight gag ideas but couldn’t really figure out how to work them into the story of Chicken Little itself, which certainly never had anything to do with the main plotline provided here. I’m trying not to spoil what the whole sky falling thing is all about in this picture for those people who have never seen a preview or any promotional materials for this movie before, in other words – the deaf and blind. Although the explanation in itself seems a desperate excuse to come up with some sort of logic to the sky falling even though it really has nothing to do with the point of Chicken Little’s story.

The backgrounds are often filled with the film’s funniest moments, which would probably require multiple viewings to discover them all. There’s the bird trying to get into a store that just can’t help but run into the storefront window pane until he knocks himself unconscious. A penny distracts Mayor Turkey Lurkey at a key moment, but the punch line comes when he nonchalantly ducks back into the frame to pick it up. And the writers and director really miss an opportunity by neglecting to utilize one of the story’s most sparkling personalities in Foxy Loxy. An increase in her involvement could have opened many more possibilities in terms of where the plot could go. And she was funny, both looking and acting, as the town bully/snob/superstar.

While Chicken Little falls short of the plateaus Disney reached while employing Pixar, it is an indication that the studio is not entirely lost without them. Chicken Little is really not so grand a story as it is trying to be here, and any lessons it has to teach would be better served in a subtler, more toned down experience. Perhaps Disney’s computer generated animation division should take one of their own film’s lessons to heart and stop trying so hard to be what they think people want them to be (read Pixar) and relax into just being themselves.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Me and You and Everyone We Know / *** (R)

Richard: John Hawkes
Christine: Miranda July
Peter: Miles Thompson
Robby: Brandon Ratcliff
Sylvie: Carlie Westerman
Michael: Hector Elias
Andrew: Brad Henke
Heather Natasha Slayton
Rebecca: Najarra Townsend
Nancy: Tracy Wright

IFC Films presents a film written and directed by Miranda July. Running time: 95 min. Rated R (for disturbing sexual content involving children and some language).

Have you ever felt like a character from one of those depressing slice of life independent dramas where everyone is so screwed up they could never hope to function in a happy Hollywood comedy of romance and sparkly enlightenment? Writer/director/ performance artist Miranda July certainly has, and her debut film Me and You and Everyone We Know is an expression of just how those depressing independent film characters can enjoy just piece of the happy life offered up by Julia Roberts and Kate Hudson performances.

Me and You… executes a strange sort of balancing act, teetering on the edge of one of those psychologically downgrading slice of life studies of human nature that make you feel most of the characters would be better off giving it all up, while somehow staying aloft as nearly a romantic comedy, where characters are actually capable of be both screwed up and happy. It is like a version of Todd Solondz’s film Happiness that is actually happy.

Like that indie favorite, Me and You…tells multiple stories with several character arcs centered on one family. Richard, played by Deadwood’s John Hawkes, has just ended his marriage, literally going down in flames. In a strange outcry, he lights his own hand aflame in front of his two boys, Peter (Miles Thompson, 13 Conversations About One Thing) and Robby (Brandon Ratcliff), as a ceremonial testament to the breakup of the family. Richard is a shoe salesman in the local mall and moves into an apartment complex with his boys in part time custody.

It is not long until Richard observes a customer at work who appears to have an outlook on life that matches the sensibilities of someone who would light his hand on fire to culminate the end of a relationship. Christine, portrayed by the film’s writer and director Miranda July (Jesus’ Son), is a driver for the elderly and a performance artist trying to get a gig at a local studio. She is not interested in the salesman so much as the honesty Richard seems willing to throw in about himself during his pitch, and soon the two are walking to their cars together living an entire lifelong relationship in the span of time it takes them to reach their parking spots.

Meanwhile Richard’s boys are experiencing all the internet has to offer, and in one of the film’s most humorous?… scary?… enlightening?… let’s just say effective scenes, the teen, Peter, teaches his little brother Robby, who is six, about internet chat rooms. After explaining how people like to pretend to be something they are not in these chat rooms, Robby quite innocently suggests a conversation subject that means something completely different to him than the sexual innuendo Peter understands it will be taken as in the chat room. As the film plays out the audience finds the character that encourages further input in this online conversation is someone who we are surprised to find involved in another portion of the plot.

Peter is getting his own sexual education from two girls, Heather (Natasha Slayton) and Rebecca (Najarra Townsend), who have found themselves the objects of sexual obsession from an adult who is aware of the legal ramifications of cavorting with minors. This man happens to be Richard’s co-worker, Andrew (Brad Henke, North Country), and he finds a very clever way to fraternize with the girls without drawing undue attention to his solicitations. But Peter also finds a much more loving relationship with a neighbor girl named Sylvie (Carlie Westerman, A Cinderella Story), who has grand plans for her future.

Often times these ensemble pieces can be difficult as every life in them seems to be in such turmoil and upheaval, and this film is really no different on that front. Doom and heartache, depression and tragedy seem to knock at the door throughout, but somehow these characters seem to raise their own spirits above the cruelty of human existence. July imparts a unique outlook on that human existence in this film that I can’t say I’ve seen before, even in those indie ensemble flicks this one so often invokes. Her characters are all strange, but their quirks turn out to be positives rather than downfalls.

I’m having trouble figuring out exactly how good, or even great, this film is. This is one of those reviews where the critical constructs, like star ratings, make the discussion of a film more difficult. I personally wasn’t as affected by this movie as I expected to be, given the critical buzz surrounding its festival run and theatrical release; but I did enjoy it and cannot deny its originality. For people looking for a feel good indie effort, they may find the sense of dread that follows these characters around a distraction although none of the participants actually succumb to those darker leanings. For indie fans that have grown tired of the morbid tendency of these ensemble pieces to show just how terrible all of our lives actually are, they will find this a refreshing piece of original filmmaking from a woman who will most certainly be a major creative force in the independent film movement.

Another point I feel must be made about this film has to do with the explanation the MPAA gives for its “R” rating. “Rated R for disturbing sexual content involving children…” The “R” rating is earned and the reasoning behind it accurate, but what the word “disturbing” implies is dark and twisted which is something this picture delightfully avoids. Certainly I can think of many conservative public figures that will find the idea that children are even aware of sexuality a very disturbing thought; but the MPAA’s description leaves out the innocent nature in which these children explore their own particular, under-informed ideas of sex. The six year-old isn’t even actually talking about sex, it is only us perverted adults that see his ideas as sexual. And the teens are only trying to figure out this thing that has been presented to them as such an enigma that it can only be expected to pique their curiosity. The sexuality in this movie is more a statement on how adults view sex than some exploitation of the children involved, but the MPAA has always made it a point to confuse the issue of sex in ways that only encourage sex as a deviant activity rather than a normal one.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Last Days / **** (R)

Blake: Michael Pitt
Luke: Lukas HaasAsia: Asia Argento
Scott: Scott Green
Nicole: Nicole Vicius
Detective: Ricky Jay
Salesman: Thadeus A. ThomasRecord Executive: Kim Gordon

Fine Line Features and HBO Films present a film written and directed by Gus Van Sant. Running time: 97 min. Rated R (for language and some sexual content).

I was sitting in a bar waiting for a friend after a day I was supposed to be in classes on that 5th of April in 1994. It was as rare a thing for me to be in a bar, in the afternoon or any time, as it was for me to be seen in my classes. I was there for the wings more so than the beer. My friend, who knew of my obsession with music, had even gotten me to provide a couple of album reviews for the student newspaper he edited, arrived with a somber look on his face. I inquired what was wrong, and he looked at me with emptiness in his eyes. “Kurt Cobain died,” he said. I didn’t say much. Not because I was so heartbroken, or because I was being my typical silent self, but because I wasn’t really sure what that even meant.

There was a time when the loss of a rock icon was a nation shaking event. Janis, Jimi, Mama Cass, Lennon, they all stood for something. When Cobain died, the world shook; but nobody was really sure why. He was the symbol of the grunge rock movement, but nobody ever really understood him the way people understood what those 60s icons were about. We only knew that we had lost an immense talent.

Gus Van Sant’s Last Days loosely depicts those mysterious final few days of a very thinly veiled Cobain type of rock musician. Actor Michael Pitt (The Dreamers) plays Blake and looks so shockingly like Cobain in this film that it is hard to believe at times that this is not some video document of Cobain’s own final days. Van Sant even places Blake in signature Cobain apparel; the wide striped shirt, the thrift shop cardigan, the alien eye sunglasses.

But Last Days is no mere idolatry of a rock icon. This film is the final part in Van Sant’s “death trilogy.” To be honest, I knew nothing of any sort of trilogy until the release of this third part. Van Sant, after a couple of studio films including the yawner Finding Forrester, decided to go back to his indie roots. The first was this trilogy’s opener Gerry, death from a friend. The second was his Golden Palm winner the haunting Columbine High School inspired Elephant, death from a stranger. And Last Days represents death from the self. I can’t speak for Gerry, as I have yet to see it, but Days follows the Elephant M.O. of offering no kind of comment or judgment upon the story it depicts. It is at its most and least a document of events and never anything else. We witness Blake wandering through the woods, mumbling incoherently. He makes himself a bowl of cereal and a bowl of macaroni and cheese during the course of the film. He spends a large portion of the story passed out. We see his entourage and their strange struggle to find something worth doing, or perhaps they do find what they are doing worthwhile.

This entourage, which includes characters portrayed by Lukas Haas (Mars Attacks!) and Asia Argento (Land of the Dead), seem kind of like parasites that have attached themselves to the Pacific Northwest coast castle property of Blake’s more so than to the man himself. If there is any judgment given in the film it is with these characters in the way they pester Blake with their own personal wants and needs, like a plane ticket home, a bigger TV or proper heating for the house, as if their personal lives are his primary responsibility like he were their parent. Scott (Scott Green) warns Luke off such bothersome troubling of Blake while participating in it himself only moments beforehand. Perhaps they represent how many perceived what Cobain’s marriage to Courtney Love to be.

But Blake’s eventual death does not really seem to be brought on by his “friends’” behavior so much despite the fact he tries to avoid much contact with them. There seems to be little concern from any of the characters about each other at all, including Blake’s own concern for what the others want from him. Without any real relations between them, it would be hard to conclude his feelings toward them had anything to do with his suicide.

Van Sant, while offering no forced explanations as to the reasons why Blake commits suicide, does still enjoy a good deal of emotional manipulation of his audience. With his obvious real life inspiration of Cobain is so easily recognizable, Van Sant expects his audience to know the outcome and plays with their perceptions of what is going on as such. He has Blake walking around for much of the film with a shot gun, the suicide weapon of Cobain. “When’s he gonna do it?” the audience must ask.

Van Sant also overlaps his timeline in much the same way he does in Elephant, so he can tell each characters’ story without interruption through key points in the plot. This allows him to reveal certain plot points in a way that will allow them to change our perception of what we have already seen and inform the story as a whole with stronger clarity in the end. Scott’s behavior toward Luke is one of the better illustrations of this effect. Scott seems to pick on Luke, who appears a bit slow, but as their true relationship is revealed so are the audience’s inaccurate assumptions, thus providing the audience with insight into itself as well as the characters.

I realize that many people will hate this film, which will seem to some as if it is just some incoherent idiot wandering around a castle in a dress with a bunch of stoned out occupants that have no concept of the real world and how it works. In that way the film is kind of a meditation on a lifestyle and further exemplifies how little we understood this musical genius. For a good portion of the film I thought that although it had my interest, maybe it was just some pretentious portrait of the typical tortured artist, but there is a point when Blake just sits there in his studio and performs a song for himself. The song, written and performed by Pitt, does an excellent job of capturing the spirit of Cobain and the film. Suddenly, I relived my own personal joy of listening to Cobain’s music. I realized, as Van Sant must have as well, how important it was to remember the artist when looking at the man. I remembered how vital Cobain’s music was.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist / ** (R)

Father Merrin: Stellan Skarsgard
Father Francis: Gabriel Mann
Rachel: Clara Bellar
Sergeant-Major: Ralph Brown
Emekwi: Eddie Osei
Major Granville: Julian Wadham
Cheche: Billy Crawford

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Paul Schrader. Written by Caleb Carr and William Wisher Jr. Running time: 111 min. Rated R (for strong violence and disturbing images).

There is a craft to writing that gives it the illusion of magic. Many think good storytelling has to do with the inclusion of a great many details; but more important to creating magic with a story than what is put into it, is what is left out. Warner Bros. has desperately tried to franchise The Exorcist, one of their most successful -- both critically and commercially -- horror films, for over three decades. They have tried telling the stories of different principals of the original, both prior to and following the events of that first film; but save for The Exorcist III: Legion, which is the only to attempt to tell a very different story than the original, all their efforts have fallen short, and Legion did not do well commercially.

Their latest effort was their greatest fiasco, in which they tried to zoom in on the little information that was given about the Father Merrin character in the original movie. The first film states that this aged man who performs the exorcism has previously performed one in Africa in his youth during which a priest was killed. That little tid bit of information provides the audience with much to ponder about this no nonsense character who can tap into and combat an evil that no one else in the film seems to understand. Warners has now tried to tell Merrin’s story not once, but twice (that isn’t even counting the flashback sequences in Exorcist II: Heretic), and have failed on both occasions to tell a compelling story.

Last year’s release Exorcist: The Beginning and now Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist may well prove that the less said about Merrin’s past, the better. In fact, Warner Bros. knew this, but forced the two movies upon an unsuspecting public anyway. Disappointed with what director Paul Schrader (Auto Focus) produced, Warner Bros. hired Finnish director Renny Harlin (Deep Blue Sea, The Long Kiss Goodnight) to make an entirely new film. Re-casting many of the principal characters and hiring a new writer to produce a new shooting script from William Wisher (T2: Judgment Day) and Caleb Carr’s original. Harlin’s film was a critical and commercial disaster. So Warners decided maybe they should give Schrader’s version a shot in the market with a limited release in theaters at the beginning of the summer of 2005 and a higher profile DVD release. Well, although Schrader’s version looks like a masterpiece compared with Harlin’s, Warners should have just let the franchise slip quietly away after the beating it took from the first version.

Schrader’s version opens during the Nazi occupation of Poland where a young Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard, King Arthur) is forced by a German officer to make a terrible choice that will test his faith in God and himself until something as undeniable as coming face to face with the demon Pazuzu forces his hand back into the graces of God. His rediscovery of faith in both versions of this film are perhaps their weakest aspects.

Merrin tries to escape his memories of the war by taking a sabbatical from the church and pursuing his love of archeology to a site in North Africa where a Byzantine church has been discovered, apparently buried on purpose. The dig is under the supervision of the British Military, whose Major Granville (Julian Wadham, The English Patient) clashes with the local tribesmen. Merrin and the church representative, Father Francis (Gabriel Mann, The Bourne Supremacy), and the camp’s doctor, Rachel (Clara Bellar, A.I. Artificial Intelligence) take a charity case helping a cripple from the local tribe, Cheche (Billy Crawford, Everlasting Love). Eventually, Cheche is miraculously healed and Granville demonstrates an uncharacteristic aggressiveness toward the tribesmen.

Here’s the thing. It would be tempting to say this film was a worthwhile effort in the way it takes the demonic possession seriously rather than exploitatively as in Exorcist: The Beginning, but the truth is I nearly fell asleep during the first forty minutes of run time. Then it gets really good for the next forty minutes or so; but the last twenty minutes – the exorcism itself – while not as garish as the one in The Beginning, is nearly as ludicrous.

Schrader makes two major mistakes in his approach to this material. First, he does not play to his own strengths as an auteur. Leaving the screenplay in the hands of Wisher and Carr disregards his own keen attention to human nature he has demonstrated in his own screenplays from Taxi Driver to Affliction. While the character of Merrin here does fall in with Schrader’s typical flawed hero themes, Merrin is not really flawed in the dark ways most of Schrader’s heroes are. His dark secret was something he was forced into; and while Skarsgard is the perfect vessel to carry the weight of Merrin’s guilt, this clearly good man is not as compelling as the typical Schrader warped protagonist.

Second, Schrader does not seem to place any importance on the pedigree of this material. It is almost as if he purposely removed all references to the original Exorcist, save for the name Father Merrin. I’m not even sure the name of the demon Pazuzu is mentioned in the film, although it is easily found in the film’s press materials. But more importantly he seems to miss what made that original film so successful: the full involvement and detailed portrayal of the Catholic Church and its stance on demonic possession, and the everyday approach to the horror making it more palatable and frightening to the audience. Merrin never even notifies the church of the exorcism in this story claiming, “There is no time!” And the character of Cheche is never given the screen time to discern the difference between his real personality and that of the demon which possesses his body.

The Exorcist is a unique film that truly defies its genre, a dramatic horror film that works as both a frightening experience and an evocative one. The only other film in the series that works on the same dramatic level was the one that also came from the mind of The Exorcist’s original creator William Peter Blatty. Perhaps only Blatty himself can fully understand what elements are necessary to make this material work. Perhaps Warner Bros. should take their cue from Blatty himself and retire the material for good.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Amityville Horror / ** (R)

George Lutz: Ryan Reynolds
Kathy Lutz: Melissa George
Billy Lutz: Jesse James
Michael Lutz: Jimmy Bennett
Chelsea Lutz: Chloe Grace Moretz
Lisa: Rachel Nichols
Father Callaway: Philip Baker Hall

MGM and Dimension Films present a film directed by Andrew Douglas. Written by Scott Kosar. Based upon the novel by Jay Anson. Running time: 90 min. Rated R (for violence, disturbing images, language, brief sexuality and drug use).

What is with all these horror remakes lately? It isn’t that they shouldn’t be made. But it is like they are being made by fans who never really understood what they were about. The original Amityville Horror told a tale that was “based on a true story,” but it also told a tale of shifting values in the family unit. As the seventies came to a close the free love of the sixties and the partying of the seventies was taking its toll on the family unit. There was a break down of family values going on in society as a whole and the story of the Amityville killings was a reflection of that. Now, The Amityville Horror has been remade after about twenty-five years since the original,plus numerous sequels and a television series. Through all that the point has been lost.

Before I go too far down the negativity road, however, I should give the film some credit for at least acknowledging the original film’s focus on family values, by going a little deeper into the family dynamic than that film. The Lutz’s are a broken family that is trying to reestablish itself as a whole. Kathy (Melissa George, 2003-04 season of Alias) has been through a divorce and carries with her three children, Billy, Michael and Chelsea. She recently re-married to George, who finds himself in the unenviable position as the replacement dad. The oldest, Billy, seems to be taking the transition to having a new father figure the hardest.

Ryan Reynolds, as George, continues his bid to become a legitimate movie actor, shaking off his TV sitcom days of Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place for more serious action oriented fare such as Blade: Trinity and this high profile remake. He doesn’t do a bad job. He very good at getting that sticky situation of being the new dad across and his charm could very well win those kids over.

In an effort to start their life anew, the Lutz’s decide to buy a new house on Long Island. It will be a stretch for George’s contracting business to bring in enough funds; but the house, or rather mansion, is such a bargain they can’t turn it down. Of course, the reason it is such a bargain is because it was the sight of a grizzly murder. A young man killed his parents and siblings one night and then took his own life. In his journals he claimed the voices he heard in the house told him to do it.

Reynolds’ performance becomes even more dynamic as the house itself is soon possessing George. Some might consider Reynolds a sort of poor man’s Jim Carrey, but like Carrey he proves capable of carrying both the comedic and dramatic aspects of his role very well. His evil turn is just as dark as his lighter moments are relieving.

Reynolds, however, is just about the only thing this movie really gets right, and even that is not quite right when compared to James Brolin’s George Lutz in the original. Brolin’s Lutz is a darker character to begin with, so the changes in his personality once the house starts to take over are subtler. Reynolds’ Lutz has a total personality change that should be a much less forgivable shift for his family to witness. Now, Reynolds does just what the script requires of him, so the blame falls more on first time director Andrew Douglas and screenwriter Scott Kosar (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre).

Douglas and Kosar seem to have caught on to the wave of J-horror, as they utilize a good deal of Japanese ghost horror flick techniques that are for the most part effective, however these creepy ghosts seem to draw the audience’s attention from the potential menace of the house itself.

The scariest scene in the original involves a priest, Father Callaway here (Philip Baker Hall, Magnolia), who goes to bless the house and is attacked by flies and told by the house itself to “Get out!” In that version the line is whispered. This time around the house screams it and the flies are such a quick assault on the priest that there is no time for the tension of the scene to grow. Kathy Lutz is also quite religious in the original, but in this one she only seems to find religion out of nowhere just so this signature scene could be inserted into the picture.

The new version places the story back into its original 1970s time period, making it a “period piece,” however there really is very little sense of these events happening in any time other than the present. Save a few wide collars and references to a couple of toys from that time that the kids play with, like Operation, the production design does little to transport its audience into the heart of the seventies. Again it seems as if they are trying to evoke the memory of the original film, but they don’t give it the proper substance.

While family morals are still a topical subject, this new version of Amityville, like too many of these horror remakes, is more interested in shocking its audience with baseless images than actually tackling the frightening moral issues families face today. And instead of following this idea of the family horror through to the end, as the original did so effectively when the recovered George realizes he has left the family dog behind in the basement, the area of the house where the evil seems to be the most concentrated; this new version gets sidetracked with an explanation of just how this particular property became a hot spot for evil. Needless to say the prolonged reasoning for this evil entity is a lame duck that has little to do with what has been presented to the audience up to the point of the film’s climax. The Amityville Horror certainly had the potential to be a worthwhile remake, but without enough reason on the writer and director’s parts for remaking it to begin with, this house collapses from its poorly structured foundation.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Land of the Dead / *** (UR)

Riley: Simon Baker
Cholo: John Leguizamo
Slack: Asia Argento
Charlie: Robert Joy
Kaufman: Dennis Hopper
Big Daddy: Eugene Clark

Universal Pictures presents a film written and directed by George Romero. Running time: 97 min. Unrated director’s cut (contains pervasive strong violence and gore, language, brief sexuality and some drug use).

Three and a half decades ago George Romero turned horror on its head with a nearly Z level zombie flick effort that became a cult hit in Night of the Living Dead. Since then a bevy of remakes, look alikes and not really sequels although they claim to be have followed in his footsteps of zombie related gore fests, but only twice before has he revisited his zombie universe himself. Unlike the copycats, Romero likes his zombies to make some sort of social commentary. His original Night was a banner bearer for the civil rights movement, Dawn of the Dead (the original 1978 version, not the 2004 remake), the best of the series, was a scathing indictment of the American mindset of materialism, while Day of the Dead merely reiterated Dawn’s sentiment with twice as much gore. Finally, Romero returns to his abominable creation with Land of the Dead. The message has changed once again, but so have many other aspects.

The story picks up after the world has been overrun by zombies and the last surviving humans have re-established lives of routine and productivity in a walled city, where societal structure has already delineated a class system with the rich living in luxury high rises while the working class once again struggle through the squalor of the streets. Corruption has re-rooted itself into the way of life, but keeping the living dead outside the walls is the utmost concern.

We are introduced to two zombie hunters. Riley is the Boy Scout type who has designed and built a special living dead arsenal on wheels called Dead Reckoning. Cholo is an opportunist who uses his skills as a zombie killer to run favors for the upper class tower dwellers in hopes to secure his own spot in the lap of luxury. Simon Baker is given a better opportunity to play the action hero here than he was earlier this year in The Ring Two. John Leguizamo (Assault on Precinct 13) takes yet another opportunity here to chew scenery in his own skillful way. Another scene muncher, Dennis Hopper (Speed), is also along for the ride as the financial and power hungry self-appointed ruler of the walled city Kaufman, and Romero gives him all the choicest lines. “In a world where the dead are returning to life, the word ‘trouble’ loses much of its meaning.” and, “Zombies, man. They creep me out.”

The real “scene chewers” however, are the zombies themselves. This will be quite an attraction to Dead fans to see that Romero has not gone squeamish in his old age, the gore percentage is up to his standards despite the more accomplished acting and higher production values. In fact, the dead themselves are one of the biggest changes and plot developments of the story. It appears that the dead have begun to evolve. They learn how to use weapons and actually look out for their own well being to a small degree. Everything in baby steps. One zombie, Big Daddy (Eugene Clark, TV’s Tek War),in particular takes an aggressively proactive role in the fate of his fellow zombies as he leads an attack on the city itself. I don’t think it is entirely an accident that this lead zombie is African American, a reference back to the original Night, where a black man was the only person with the capacity to deal with the zombie situation rationally.

With the civil rights movement almost 40 years old and materialism turned to such a global scale that it has become a moot point, Romero has turned to more topical material. This time he focuses on less universal issues and takes aim at the current White House administration and the War in Iraq. First, the power and social structure of the walled city shows the corruption inherent in a government run as a capitalistic venture. Thugs, like the gambling underlord Chihuahua (Phil Fondacaro, The Polar Express) are utilized to keep the working class distracted from active involvement in bettering their situation and Hopper’s Kaufman is more interested in protecting his own investments than with the security of the people he so graciously rules. The zombies are also starting to develop their own quazi-culture that the living humans are making no effort to understand. Instead the humans are forcing their will upon the zombies who attack back in more of a revolutionary manner than in past Dead films. The human state of being has become based on fear without asking many questions, much like the Bush administration’s “War on Terrorism.”

Unfortunately, Romero also falls victim to one of the illusions of the Bush administration, the illusion that action equals results. Romero takes the action-oriented introduction of Dawn and draws it through the entire feature of Land. As a result Land of the Dead plays much more like an action adventure flick than an issue-driven horror film. There is much more plot in this film than in previous films in the series, including the theft of Dead Reckoning. As Riley forms a team to track the war machine down, the focus is shifted away from Romero’s moral lessons.

Land of the Dead actually makes for a fairly involving action picture, so the drawbacks are not fatal. Romero has the skills as a storyteller and director to tell a compelling adventure, but Land lacks much of the resonating power of the first two Living Dead movies. Perhaps Romero is slowly becoming one of the living dead himself. Hopefully, he sticks around long enough to give us a resurrection.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Crash / * (R)

Jean: Sandra Bullock
Graham: Don Cheadle
Officer Ryan: Matt Dillon
Officer Hanson: Ryan Phillippe
Ria: Jennifer EspositoRick: Brendan Fraser
Cameron: Terrence HowardChristine: Thandie Newton
Anthony: Chris “Ludacris” Bridges
Peter Waters: Larenz Tate
Daniel: Michael Pena

Lions Gate Films presents a film directed by Paul Haggis. Written by Haggis and Robert Moresco. Running time: 100 min. Rated R (for language, sexual content and some violence).

What ever happened to the race issue? Is Spike Lee the only director allowed to make a film critiquing the Land of the Free on tolerance? No, in fact many other directors make comments here and there, but few are willing to take the modern race problem on in full engagement and Paul Haggis’s film Crash may be evidence as to why. Crash is an overwrought, schmaltzy, embarrassment of an indictment on the American condition of prejudice and racial hatred.

Film critics Roger Ebert and his former counterpart Gene Siskel often said the success of a movie lies not in what it is about, but how it is about.* Haggis’s intentions with this film are no doubt noble in nature. He tries to deal with the subtleties of racism in this country. The things people do without even thinking about it that have serious racist implications. Unfortunately, he fails to present these subtle ideas in a subtle manner. Instead he overstates his case against us inhumane beings with the heavy-handedness of pure dreck.

Haggis borrows director Robert Altman’s modus operandi of telling multiple interweaving character storylines to create a complete universe reflecting, in theory, several points of perspective. Haggis does not, however, impart Altman’s unique sense of reality on events. He imbues his film with an almost other worldly quality, as if it were some sort of fantasy, utilizing angelic voices on the soundtrack and numerous slow motion takes. It is as if he is going for some sort of operatic style, and he succeeds at that, but it seems to be in direct conflict with the material at hand.

Most of the film is presented in flashback. The film opens after a car accident involving two police detectives (Don Cheadle, Oceans Twelve and Jennifer Esposito, Taxi) and an Asian American woman. After we discover that these detectives are already at their crime scene where a young man has been discovered murdered at the edge of the highway, the film jumps back to the previous day and builds to the point at which the audience came in again. Usually a device like this has an importance in the overall picture of the story, but here it seems designed merely to conceal a surprise relationship between two of the film’s characters.

Like most of these character pastiche movies, all of these characters’ lives overlap and interlock. There are the two detectives who are also sleeping with each other, the upper class politician (Brendan Fraser, The Quiet American) and his wife (Sandra Bullock, Miss Congeniality), the wet-behind-the-ears idealist rookie cop (Ryan Phillippe, Gosford Park) and his bigoted veteran partner (Matt Dillon, City of Ghosts), the Hollywood affirmative action/ forced diversity black television director (Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow) and his trophy not-quite-so black country club wife (Thandie Newton, The Truth About Charlie), the two gang banger thieves (Chris Bridges, a.k.a. Ludacris and Larenz Tate, Ray) spouting modern racist pseudo-philosophy, a Persian family of shop owners who are mistaken for Arabs, and a Hispanic locksmith (Michael Pena, Million Dollar Baby) who has moved his family to a better neighborhood so his daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) doesn’t have to grow up with the threat of drive-by shootings. Save for Daniel, the locksmith, every one of these characters is blatantly and rudely racist in almost every situation in which the audience finds them. Raising their voices for all the hear when making some vulgar comment about someone of differing ethnicity or background, these characters seem almost proud of the fact that they can offend and alienate friends, family and strangers alike at any given moment. And all the characters are racist at the same level. There is very little variation of degree to the bigotry presented here.

Writers Haggis and Robert Moresco attempt to inject some humanity into these characters by filling out their lives with the tragedy of life and some sort of backwards morality arc, but this method can hardly compensate for the grossly exaggerated racist caricatures which he establishes for each from the beginning. Dillon’s veteran LAPD bigot is probably the best example of this. His character is the most proud of his racism although the others aspire to his level. First we see him essentially sexually assault the Hollywood TV director’s wife during a racially motivate traffic violation stop, then to punch the point home he berates a black desk jockey at his father’s health insurance provider’s office for the poor coverage, not implying, but outright stating a more qualified white employee would be better suited for the job of assisting clients. Then he becomes the hero cop when he saves a woman from a car accident who ironically is that same Hollywood television director’s wife he molested on the street earlier in the film. Aw! All is forgiven. Not really, but to show that the guy really does have it tough we also get to see him struggling with his father’s failing bodily functions throughout the film.

Phillippe’s pure-minded rookie offers a ray of hope along with the locksmith and his daughter, but it is fleeting and fake hope respectively. My hope is that Phillippe protested and threatened to drop out of the picture if the writers didn’t promise to at least attempt to explain his character’s utterly unmotivated turn from total tolerance to full out racial profiling at the turn of a radio station dial. But that explanation must have been cut from the film without Phillippe’s knowledge. Maybe he’ll sue. And what the filmmakers do with the fate of Daniel’s daughter is outright dramatic exploitation and should be taught in film school as something even lower than a cheap shot at the audience’s heartstrings. It probably is, but not with the negative connotation I infer here.

So often genre pictures, like comedies or horror films, are judged harshly for their exploitative nature. This comedy relies too heavily on fart jokes, or that horror flick just jolts its audience to death without providing any thought provoking terror. But it seems that drama is never as adroitly scrutinized. Yes, there are powerful performances. Yes, Haggis paints some beautiful pictures and establishes a connected universe. Yes, the film carries an important message about tolerance. But the heavy-handed nature of its delivery detracts from its effect. I can’t remember the last time the rotation muscles in my eyes got such a workout. I got dizzy my eyes were rolling around in their sockets so much during this film.

Are we just supposed to accept this bigotry as the way it is and always will be because there is not discrimination as to who is infected by it in this movie? If everyone were as intolerant as the people in this film, the state of race relations in this country would be much worse off than they are today. We might look like a country like Rwanda, where genocide knocks at the door on a daily basis. By the final shot in the film where another car accident brings the movie full circle and we see the health insurance desk jockey jump out of the ruined car spewing racial epithets at the driver who rear ended her, whose racial orientation is really a moot point by this stage in the film, I thought maybe I was supposed to applaud because she was a bigoted jackass too.

* I feel it should be noted, since I invoked his name in my negative review of this film that, Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert felt very differently about this film than I did. You can read his four star review by clicking his link located under my ratings chart.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit / ***½ (G)

Featuring the voices of:
Wallace: Peter Sallis
Lord Victor Quartermaine: Ralph Fiennes
Lady Tottington: Helena Bonham Carter
PC Mackintosh: Peter Kay
Mrs. Mulch: Liz Smith
Rev. Clement Hedges: Nicholas Smith

DreamWorks Animation and Aardman Features present a film directed by Nick Park and Steve Box. Written by Bob Baker, Mark Burton, Box and Park. Running time: 85 min. Rated G.

For some reason stop motion animation seems like one of the most magical of the film arts, which are so often characterized as magical to begin with (at least by film freaks such as myself). Many critics suggest the very nature of its illusion; essentially taking still photographs of clay puppets -- 24 frames for every second of run time -- with just the slightest of adjustment between each shot and putting them all together to form the illusion of movement; makes this animation format so fascinating to audiences. Another reason might be because it is so rarely seen, especially on the big screen. The time involved in creating a feature-length stop-motion animation is so great studios are not keen on the idea of investing in such an endeavor that may not capture an audience. In the characters of Wallace & Gromit, however, Aardman and DreamWorks have a property that has already proven its ability to please the masses with three previous Oscar nominated shorts, two of which won the coveted trophy.

Wallace & Gromit are… wacky absent-minded inventor and his trusty dog who saves his master from his own folly, respectively. In this their first feature-length adventure The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, we find master and dog the proprietors of a successful pest control company, wittily named Anti-Pesto, in a city obsessed with vegetables. A city with such a large obsession with large veggies it is undoubtedly going to have a large rabbit problem, but not until Anti-Pesto is commissioned to solve the problem humanely and Wallace (Peter Sallis) begins to experiment like a mad scientist with ways to psychologically motivate the bunnies off veggies does the town have a problem with a large rabbit. A were-rabbit, that craves veggies on a manic level when the moon is full, a result of Wallace’s inventions in a scene that recalls Victor Frankenstein’s monster creation and countless other schlock scientists from B horror movies.

Like creators Nick Park and Steve Box’s previous claymation feature Chicken Run, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit delights in referencing a pantheon of classic films. While Chicken Run ran the gamut of prisoner of war films, from Stalag 17 to The Great Escape; Were-Rabbit stays mainly within the tamer regions of the horror genre riffing on films like Jaws, The Hound of the Baskervilles, King Kong, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and even legends like Jack the Ripper along with the direct references to Universal Studios classic monsters like Wolf Man. Even more so than making specific film references in the genre of classic monsters, Park and Box succeed in evoking the feel of those classic films in their miniature sets and environments. Every stand-by location, from the mad scientists’ lab and dungeon to the gothic mansion to the church and graveyard, is utilized, bringing back memories from childhood of Saturday afternoon horror marathons on the Boston local stations. The townspeople even form an angry mob by the end of the program with crazy coots calling for someone’s head and people brandishing pitchforks and torches.

One element of the classic horror monster film is a love triangle of sorts. Wallace plays the part of the tortured scientist, who is seen with sympathy by the rich philanthropist, in this case Lady Tottington (Helena Bohnam Carter, Corpse Bride). But of course the good Lady has other suitors, such as the hotheaded, big game hunter Lord Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes, The Constant Gardner), who pretends to be sincere when all he is after is her fortune. The fact that he is not entirely honest is made clear early on when his toupee is sucked up into Wallace’s humane rabbit vacuum. Another great laugh is nabbed when Quartermaine loses his hair a second time near the end of the story. His replacement cap successfully emasculates him.

The strength of the Wallace & Gromit vehicle lies in the mute Gromit. The dog acts as the audience’s eyes, the commentator on the events, and the true brains of the operation. It is Gromit who solves the mystery of the Were-Rabbit and Gromit who provides most of the film’s hard laughs. Gromit himself is caught up in the town’s obsession with veggies and plans to enter his own giant gourd in the annual contest that everyone is anticipating. He treats his prize veg with the care of a parent nursing a sick child, and when he is forced to choose between helping his friend Wallace and possibly sacrificing his gourd, the results are both touching and humorous.

It is often hard to express the joy certain pictures carry with them. I mean just look at the supporting character names: PC Macintosh? That’s just great! Wallace & Gromit capture something that has been lost in films for some time. It is in a format (claymation) from a simpler time in movies. It is a movie that is fun for what it is, not for what it is trying to be and it has a mind for other films made in the same fun nature. Wallace & Gromit themselves are uncomplicated characters that are just a joy to be with. With a solid shot at anther Oscar nod now that the Academy has added an animated feature category, hopefully this will not be the last time this duo finds their way onto the big screen. The animation may actually be a trick, but the results are certainly a treat.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Rock School / ***½ (R)

Paul Green, C.J. Tywoniak, Will O’Connor, Madi Diaz Svalgard, Tucker Collins, Asa Collins, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Eric Svalgard, Andrea Collins, Chris Lampson, Monique Del Rosario, Brandon King, Lisa Rubens, Lisa Green, Jimmy Carl Black.

Newmarket Films presents a documentary directed by Don Argott. Running Time: 93 min. Rated R (for language).

The opening of the documentary Rock School shows us a twelve year old playing the guitar riffs of Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” as if he were the legend himself. The kid plays the famous solo note for note, exactly as we all know it from Santana’s studio recording. We think from this introduction that this will be a film about musical prodigies taking a whack at a pop culture rock movement that we’d all like a taste of. Some might even get the impression from the perfect mimicry that the musical landscape of the child performers will merely be a stale replica of the rock music many of us idolize. Instead Rock School is a testament to the power of music and how wonderfully it can be used as a tool for teaching lessons of life and maturation of self. Even more so it is an amazing character study of Paul Green, the man who founded one of the most popular independent music programs in the country and was the basis for the character portrayed by Jack Black in the movie School of Rock.

We learn that Green was a struggling musician, trying to run the racket of being in a band, getting gigs, getting his kicks doing what he loved, playing rock music. Of course, it wasn’t the life we get to read about and see in the rock magazines. He was poor, struggling and dealing with typical non-success problems like band break ups and even successful band problems like artistic differences. As a kick, he would get together with kids and do sort of tutorial/appreciation session that eventually evolved into his own rock school. The Paul Green School of Rock Music soon had a list of thousands vying to enroll to its rock teachings for 9 to 16 year-olds. There are different programs for different skill levels and each program level gets practical experience by putting on themed concerts. In this film the beginner program puts on an evening of Black Sabbath songs while the All-Star group practices for a Frank Zappa tribute festival held in Germany each year called Zappanale, which serves as the climax to the film.
We start out by meeting several of the school’s students of various levels of accomplishment.

There are the Collins twins, Tucker and Asa, who in Green’s own words “will probably never be any good.” CJ is the twelve year old from the opening, who is already a guitar god and clearly is the school’s biggest success and star. Madi seems to be Green’s favorite in the way his own child might be “favored” in his program. He is clearly harder on her than any one else because he “sees so much potential in her.” He ridicules her at first for wanting to play Sheryl Crow songs, but she ends up soaring in her moments in the Zappa All-Stars. And Will is Green’s personal hard luck case, a kid who was never given a chance in life before Green asked him to attend his school. Although Will is “piss poor” according to Green “and will probably never get any better,” he is the best example of the school’s success and worthiness as an institution that can shape and improve the lives of its students.

The parents also are represented in a few cases. Andrea Collins is a great example of one of those parents who is living her own dream vicariously through her children, which may explain why the twins’ commitment level isn’t quite up to some of the other student’s standards. She describes her self as like a “soccer mom” but with a different twist. It is clear who is really getting something out of the school during a scene in which she is preparing the twins for their Black Sabbath concert as she discusses with them why one of them can have an inverted cross on his head and the other can’t. It has something to do with the particular Ozzy Osborne outfit each is wearing.

Green himself is a character above and beyond anything Jack Black presents in the Hollywood movie with all the cute kids. Sure I could see Black playing this guy as he really is, but then no one would like him anymore. Green is a raving maniac who yells at his students, curses incessantly and is stuck in a time of music that is revered but most certainly past. He admits that he probably couldn’t have made in the rock world today because he is really in love with the rock world of 1972. But it is his passion and devotion to the music that he does love that drives this school and fills so many of his students with a purpose in life.

Green cannot be accused of not caring. There is a scene with his infant son where he is already trying to get the kid to strum a cord. “They are never too young to start… Can you say Jethro Tull?” He preaches rock as a way of life where there are no boundaries and he utilizes no boundaries in his teaching. He tells the nine year olds in his beginner group that the Black Sabbath concert is not about them or the music, “It’s about Satan.” He does not adhere to the current trend in education of never comparing students, but freely tells students, “She is better than you. What are you going to do about it?” He berates students for not understanding that these are classics that must be played in complete reverence. “Realizing you made a mistake isn’t enough! Don’t make mistakes! Not on ‘Rebel Yell’!!!!!”

Perhaps the most moving part of this film is the growth of Will. When Paul met Will, he was a kid whom no one had ever given a chance. It was thought by his family and doctors that he was mentally handicapped until a late age. He had attempted suicide on several occasions and had no friends. Green gives Will no special treatment. He was one of the kids who received the “Rebel Yell” lashing, but Will never speaks ill of Green. Will realizes that Green played an important role in his life and speaks more intelligently than anyone else in the film’s closing moments when he speaks of how he and Green finally parted ways.

I had my own rock mentor during my formative years in my best friend Trevor Walsh. He instilled me with a passion for listening to music, if not actually playing it. Music has meant a great deal to me in my life and Green’s passion for it displayed in this movie perfectly exemplifies how powerful music can be to all it touches. His passion overflows even into those whose don’t share it on the same level. The closing comments offered up by the twins say it all: “Party on,” and “Long live rock.” And the final concert by the Zappa All-Stars carries those seeds of discovery that can draw you into an obsession like music. My obsession continues and I’d like to ask my buddy Trev, “Do you have any suggestions for a good starting place to begin exploring Zappa?”