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Saved! (2004)
2 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Christians Unite! If you see it, you will laugh..., 23 September 2004

Before I begin, let me say that I am not, nor have I ever been, a Communi...I mean, Christian. Okay, that is not necessarily true. I was raised a Catholic, but that was a long time ago and I have since ceased such practices. So just to make everything abundantly clear - I am not a Christian nor do I play one on TV. I have known, however, quite a few of them, and yes, I have even called some of them "friend". A brave and difficult admission for me to make in this century.

After all, being a Christian is not what it used to be. Just look at how "The Passion of the Christ" failed to gross a billion dollars or how our own President George W. Bush - a devout Christian - only mentions God in about 99.9% of his speeches. It appears the end may very well be in sight for Christianity. How else could you explain the decision of the studio heads to release Brian Dannelly's "Saved!" in only a few hundred theaters? If it had opened in any more [like other films starring Mandy Moore], it would have only poisoned the minds of the youth and finally toppled this most sacred religion. This film must be feared or, at least, that is what many Christians would lead you to believe.

For those too blinded by their own faith to simply denounce the film without seeing it, let me say that you just don't know what you're missing. In fact, 'Saved!' could very well be more enjoyable for Christians than for those who are not. While some of the jokes are pretty broad, there are quite a few subtle jabs at humor that only those intimately familiar with Christian life could appreciate. Take for the example the entire character of Pastor Skip, wonderfully played by Hal Hartley fave Martin Donovan, and his fundamental need to connect with people on a variety of different levels. His use of outdated slang with his students, while an obvious play for laughs, is never overdone to the point of buffoonery like in countless other comedies. Here Pastor Skip is as real as any religious leader you might find in an affluent suburban community.

It becomes abundantly clear by the end of the first act that 'Saved!' is not actually poking fun at Christianity itself, but the actions its followers take in the name of God. Look at how our heroine Mary [Jena Malone] uses Jesus as an excuse to lose her virginity to her recently outed gay boyfriend [Chad Faust]. Or how Hilary Faye [Mandy Moore] uses Jesus to form a clique as popular and as exclusive as any high school cheerleading squad. The end result of these actions could be interchangeable with any other teenage comedy/drama, but here it is the selfish misinterpretation of Christianity that drives them.

By the end of 'Saved!', I began to get the feeling that the film was just as much another teen movie as it was a biting satire. A combination I haven't seen since the likes of Michael Lehmann's 'Heathers'.

Rating [on a 5 star system] : 3 1/2 stars

Skins (2002)
2 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
A missed opportunity for everyone involved., 20 September 2004

Watching Chris Eyre's "Skins", I couldn't help but feel a bit guilty. Here I was watching a seemingly realistic film about modern Native Americans made by a director of Native American descent and all I kept thinking about was how poorly structured it was. For years, I have waited for an important Native American filmmaker to emerge and take his place next to Spike Lee as the voice of his people. A filmmaker who would give us an honest and heartfelt view of his world while at the same time destroying the stereotypes perpetuated by Hollywood for the better part of a century. So it is with deep regret that I inform you that such a filmmaker has yet to show his face.

Going into the film, I was absolutely confident I was going to walk away praising it to everyone within earshot. After all, it is not everyday, or year for that matter, that you get to sit down and watch a film with such a unique point of view. Color me surprised then when I sulked off with a completely opposite reaction. A reaction as angry and depressing as the film itself.

With the indie success of "Smoke Signals", one would think that director Eyre would've been in an easier position to finance and film this sophomore effort. And, if that is indeed the case, why is it that "Skins" feels even more amateurish than his first film? From the lighting to the editing to the incredibly poor storytelling, the film fails to meet even the most modest expectations for a low budget production. Even the proven talent of actor Graham Greene is wasted in scenes staged with pathetic attempts at humor and pathos. The perfect example being the shot of his final goodbye, which has all the subtlety of a ten ton nuclear blast.

But, amid all of the clichés and shameless manipulation of emotion, the film does have one saving grace and that is the performance of lead Eric Schweig.

As police officer Rudy Yellow Lodge, Schweig moves through the story with both authority and vulnerability. Two conflicting traits that add some much needed credibility to his little foray into vigilantism and his reactions afterwards.

By the end of "Skins", I couldn't help but wonder if the novel by Adrian C. Louis was somehow misinterpreted here. If I was to hazard a guess, I would have to go with yes - because why waste your time turning bad literature into an even worse movie.

Ration [on a 5 star system] : 2 stars

Tiptoes (2003)
5 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
An interesting failure, 15 September 2004

Regardless of what you think of the film, you have to give Gary Oldman credit for not only wanting to play a dwarf, but actually getting to do it. In this age of warped political correctness, even the greatest actors working today are limited to roles within their own race, age, gender, and overall physical appearance. Gone are the days when actors like Paul Muni and Marlon Brando applied some make-up and transformed themselves into strong, sympathetic characters from the East. And lest we forget the great Jose Ferrer who played diminutive French artist Toulouse-Lautrec in John Huston's "Moulin Rouge". A film that I am sure provided some pointers on how to make a 5' 11" actor look half that size.

In "Tiptoes", Oldman plays Rolfe, twin brother to Steven played by Matthew McConaughey. Not only do these twins look nothing alike, but Rolfe also happens to be a dwarf while Steven appears to be perfectly normal young man - on the outside at least. As twins go, Rolfe and Steven are not very close. In early scenes of them together, you can't help but sense an underlying current of envy and guilt in their relationship. A feeling that only dumb luck made one more normal than the other. And when Steven's girlfriend Carol, played by the always lovely Kate Beckinsale, announces her unplanned pregnancy, the issue is once again raised as there is a chance their child may be born a dwarf.

For what it's worth, "Tiptoes" has its heart in the right place. There are moments in the film where it tries to break new ground and show us not only what it would be like to be a dwarf, but also what it would be like to simply be in their social circle. The film also gives us a look at three very different romantic relationships - Steven & Carol [of normal size], Rolfe & Sally [dwarfs], and Maurice & Lucy [dwarf & of normal size]. And while each one appears physically unique, we soon find out that the problems that rip them apart are not.

But it doesn't take long for all these seemingly sincere moments to take on the semblance of an ABC Afterschool Special entitled "Dwarfs are People Too." Take the scene in which Carol meets Rolfe for the first time. We can't exactly be sure what her reaction is going to be, and Beckinsale plays it beautifully. When Rolfe asks her who she is, she answers as her hand unconsciously moves over her stomach. A motion used to both identify her relationship with Steven and the fear for what her baby may become. All in all, an excellent scene. But moments later, the whole sequence ends on a incredibly manipulative note of false sympathy and sentimentality with Carol caring for an exhausted Rolfe. Even the score milks the sequence for everything its got.

As for the performances, only actors Gary Oldman and Peter Dinklage really provide anything worthwhile here. Despite some poor direction, Oldman brings in a quiet and subtle performance, while Dinklage - complete with a phony French accent - gives us a character completely different than the one he played in "The Station Agent". I will say, however, that Oldman's performance is undercut by some truly awful special effects created to maintain the illusion of dwarfism. You can't help but laugh when you see him obviously sitting inside a couch with fake legs propped up near his waist.

Overall, the film is to be commended for trying something new, even if it failed miserably. And it is aptly named as it does tend to "tiptoe" around every important point it is trying to make.

Rating [on a 5 star system] : 2 1/2 stars

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Chuck Connors could have been a contender. He could have been the next Boris Karloff. Instead of The Rifleman...which is what he is., 14 September 2004

At 6' 5", Chuck Connors is an imposing figure. With his wide jaw line and menacing grin, the man looks like he could chew on a handful of nails and spit them out as bullets. He is that mean looking. At the same time though, he exudes a kind of country boy charm within a heroic Gary Cooper-like stature. This is a man who could play the hero as easily as the heavy.

In David Schmoeller's "Tourist Trap", Connors uses this mix of varying characteristics to his advantage. When we first see him limp onto the screen as wax museum curator Mr. Slausen, he appears as a friendly and accommodating old man in overalls. Like the four young people who cross his path after a bout of car trouble, we don't exactly trust him but can't figure out why. Could it be because one of the group is missing - a man killed by some telekinetically controlled mannequins?

So here we have our setup for horror - one lonely and mysterious old man holed up in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of mannequins - four young people [three women & one man] who will allow themselves to be separated and killed until there is only one left - and the telekinetic killer who likes to parade around in doll masks and may or may not be the deranged brother of Mr. Slausen. The only question left is - does it all work? Well, not exactly.

In it's favor, the film does boast a truly phenomenal score by composer Pino Donaggio. Donaggio does here what Jerry Goldsmith did for "The Omen". The score does not simply serve to enhance the scares in the film, but seems to be the point of creation. The scene in which Tanya Roberts [yes, that Tanya Roberts] finds herself surrounded by mannequins is a perfect example. While the mannequins hover above her fallen body, Donaggio's score gives them voice and turns what could have been a laughably bad scene into a truly frightening one.

I must admit too that I did enjoy the whole killer with telekinesis angle. If only because it added another dimension to the killings and helped to create a more supernatural atmosphere. I also loved the fact that the telekinesis is just to be accepted and enjoyed by the audience without an explanation - which I am sure would have been a waste of time. And score one more point for having a killer with a collector mentality. It is always more interesting to watch a killer kidnap his victims and keep them tied up in the basement than to just have him slaughter them in the middle of some darkened woods.

But for me, everything that I enjoyed about the first hour was quickly overshadowed by a final half hour that left me scratching my head. How are these mannequins built? Are they made out of real people? Why is the killer suddenly dismantling what we thought was Jerry? From whose point of view are we seeing these mannequins come to life? Has Molly gone completely insane now? And what is the deal with that final shot? All questions that I would normally never ask during a horror film, but in the case of "Tourist Trap", I had to. I guess I am not susceptible to mass Molly.

Rating [on a 5 star system] : 2 1/2 stars

13 out of 15 people found the following review useful:
The sex is always better on the other side of the fence..., 14 September 2004

Sophisticated sex comedies are always difficult to pull off. Look at the films of Blake Edwards, who is arguably the master of the genre, and you will find just as many misses as hits. For, if a film of this nature ever fails to work, it can never fall back on the tried and true toilet humor of a teen sex comedy [i.e. "American Pie"], or warm the audience with the sentimentality of a romantic comedy [i.e. Julia Roberts' entire career]. It can only maintain a push to the end, and hope that the audience can appreciate the almost required irony of it's resolution.

Written by husband/wife team Wally Wolodarsky and Maya Forbes, "Seeing Other People" opens with engaged couple Ed & Alice [Jay Mohr & Julianne Nicholson] only seconds away from rear-ending the car in front of them. As the frame freezes, we unexpectedly hear the thoughts and fears of both characters. From here on out, we welcome that the story about to unfold will enjoy a point of view from both sexes.

Two months shy of their vows, Ed & Alice already look and act like an old married couple. In an early bathroom scene, their actions alone show us just how comfortable they are with each other and how long they have been together. So when the line to propel the plot forward is uttered - expectedly from the least likely of the two - it is as if the very relationship itself is calling for a change, even if it means it's own destruction.

Once all the ground rules are set [Ed can not sleep with her mother or, for that matter, Salma Hayek], the two head off in their separate directions in the hope of finding some meaningless sex to strengthen their relationship. At first, everything seems to go as planned as their daily trysts only help to fire up the passion between them. But predictably, as the deeper emotions of regret and jealousy begin to emerge, they soon find themselves growing apart and on the verge of breaking up. All of these actions leading to a resolution you may or may not like - depending on your own degree of cynicism.

For a comedy like this, you need a solid cast with supporting characters just as strong as the leads. And director Wolodarsky does not disappoint. Here he has cast two of my favorite actresses as sisters - Julianne Nicholson & Lauren Graham - and allows them to play to their strengths. For Nicholson, who has always reminded me of a young Shirley MacLaine, she brings an air of naivete and vulnerability to Alice even when her actions seems less than so. And as for Graham, an actress who has proven she could outperform an entire Howard Hawks ensemble, she steals every scene she is in with an edgy "no BS" persona.

As for the guys, Jay Mohr is serviceable here as is Josh Charles. "Malcolm in the Middle"'s Byron Cranston has to be applauded for taking on a British accent and letting it all hang out. But the real treat here is Andy Richter and his sub-plot involving single mother, Helen Slater. While his scenes almost seem to belong in another movie, they are by far the funniest and his dead panned delivery steals the show.

For an independent production, "Seeing Other People" has a more personal and introspective feeling - something that would be noticeable absent from a big Hollywood film of this kind. Not to mention that this film also has some genuinely funny moments - unlike, say, most Hollywood comedies in general.

Rating [on a 5 star system] : 3 1/2 stars

7 out of 12 people found the following review useful:
"Meow...again", 12 September 2004

So you sat through the first "Ju-On : The Curse" and thought it was pretty creepy. Your only complaint was that the ending left you confused and wanting more. Well, be careful what you wish for because here we have "Ju-On 2 : The Curse" and it may leave you wanting less.

For whatever reason, "Ju-On 2" starts off with teacher Shunsuke Kobayashi visiting the home of one of his students. It appears Toshio hasn't shown up in a while. Sound familiar? It should. Because for the first 30 minutes, you are simply watching the last 30 minutes of the first "Ju-On" - shot for shot.

But the real question here is how does this supposed sequel stand up against the original. Well, for starters, it is less confusing. Once you move into the new footage, the movie stays in a linear time frame right up until the end. It even helps in explaining some of the more confusing elements from the first movie.

As for the scares, you get more of the same here and this only serves to make them less effective. When we first saw a ghostly Kayko crawling around in the original, it was totally unexpected and genuinely creepy. However, in the sequel, you would've thought she'd entered the walking stage by now ala a toddler. But no, she's still hugging the ground and moving slower George Romero's dead.

And here is one aspect of these movies, particularly this one, that I find curious. When approached by these ghosts, every character seems to be frightened to the point of where they can no longer at even the most basic level. Running away? Out of the question. Walking away? I don't think so. Screaming for help? Only if you can stop your whimpering to belt one out. For the most part, these scenes do work, and are punctuated with some incredibly effective jump cuts. But there are times when watching a man slowly crawl away from an even slower ghost just seems plain silly.

So, with all that being said, should you give "Ju-On 2 : The Curse" a look? Absolutely - but only if you can somehow seamlessly merge the two movies together and cut out the half hour of repetition.

Rating for "Ju-On : The Curse" [on a 5 star system] : 3 1/2 stars

Rating for "Ju-On 2 : The Curse" [on a 5 star system] : 2 1/2 stars

Rating for both movies combined as one [on a 5 star system] : 3 1/2 stars

Blue Car (2002)
16 out of 19 people found the following review useful:
"...touch the inner nerve.", 10 September 2004

Ah, the romantic enigma that is the English teacher. Only Hollywood could bring these bookworms into the heroic light usually reserved for legendary leaders and men of action. Look at Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society" and you'll find the prime example of this species. A man who moves throughout his classroom spouting lines of inspiration as important as any presidential address. A voice who encourages his students to embrace their independence and seize the day.

Now meet David Strathairn as Auster in "Blue Car". A man who actually looks and acts like the disheveled English teacher you had in high school. An inspiration only to those too lost and vulnerable to find it elsewhere. Like Meg - an 18 year old girl whose gift for poetry is the only good thing to emerge from an otherwise miserable life.

Played by Agnes Bruckner in a brilliantly understated performance, Meg writes about what she knows. And, unfortunately for her, all she knows is pain. The pain of her parent's divorce and the abandonment she felt when her father drove away for one last time in his blue car. While her classmates laugh at her poem, her teacher pulls her aside and tells her to "dig deeper". At first, it appears he may be trying to further untap her hidden talent, and help her to begin a kind of healing process. But, as he takes her under his wing, his motives seem to grow less noble and more selfish as it appears he is the one in need of healing.

Writer/Director Karen Moncrieff takes on an obvious point of view for the film. In every scene, we can't help but connect with Meg. Everyone seems to want a piece of her. From her mother to a passing acquaintance with a true delinquent, we watch as they befriend her and then cast her aside after she fufills their need. After a while, you just sit back and begin to wonder how much more of this she can take.

It should come as no surprise then that the relationship she nurtures is the one with Auster. In her mind, he can be all things for her - mentor, friend, lover, and most of all, father. It is her changing view of him that anchors the film and, when she finally sees him for what he is, leads her to an ending we can only hope will be better for her.

Rating [on a 5 star system] : 3 1/2 stars

Ju-on: The Curse (2000) (V)
3 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
"Meow...", 8 September 2004

Made for Japanese television, "Ju-On : The Curse" has one almost fatal flaw.

It was shot on video, not film. Personally, I can't stand the sight of video. Everything about it screams amateur night. Even when it is used to evoke a more realistic mood, it still comes off as someone else's cheap home movie.

Be grateful then that director Takashi Shimizu choose the format for obvious budget constraints, and not so he could bounce around like your Uncle Ted at a backyard barbecue. It may have worked for "The Blair Witch Project", but here it would have been simply disastrous.

This film only works because of it's mood. A mood created by still shots and slow pans. The mise-en-scene alone allows you to forgive the limitations of the video format. Director Shimizu clearly knows how to compose a shot, and gets some of his biggest scares by leaving the horror in the background - sometimes even out of focus. And lest I forget to mention that most of the movie takes place during daylight hours - a real rarity for the horror genre. As the characters explore the home of the "cursed", they willingly approach the darkness instead of being enveloped by it.

As for the story, it is a disjointed mess. I love films with a varied time structure. Flashbacks, flash forwards, Rashoman-like views - I'll watch and enjoy them all. In this movie, however, it serves no purpose other than to confuse the viewer. The only reason I could think of for playing the scenes out of order was that the killings that spurned the curse were more climatic than the ones that followed.

In the end, more questions are raised than answered, and the final shot is predictably confusing. But for those seeking closure, you can check out part 2 and hope they make a part 3 to tie up that ending.

81 out of 93 people found the following review useful:
"They call me Mister Tibbs!", 7 September 2004

Whether he likes it or not, Sidney Poitier will always be remembered first and foremost as the first black actor to continuously star alongside and above his white counterparts. Just look at the opening credits to "In the Heat of the Night" and you will see that not only does he get an above the title starring credit with method maniac Rod Steiger, but his name also appears first. Something that could have easily been switched around and overlooked considering the importance of each character. But for this socially aware thriller born of the turbulent sixties, it had to be, most definitely, a conscious choice.

For Poitier, this film, along with "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?", marks the last of his civil rights driven roles in which his character's race is an all important plot element. From "Edge of the City" to "The Defiant Ones", Poitier excelled in bringing intelligent and commanding three dimensional characters to life. A feat he had to succeed at if his films were to gain the trust of a predominantly white audience and push for racial equality. Call him the Jackie Robinson of Hollywood.

When we first see Poitier as Virgil Tibbs, he is stepping off the train in the small Mississippi town of Sparta. Although we can only see him from the waist down, we do get a quick glimpse of his hand and from that we are aware of his race. An important fact for the audience to dwell on later when Rod Steiger as sheriff Gillespie, standing over a dead body on Main Street, and calls for his deputy to round up any strangers for questioning. From that moment on, director Norman Jewison establishes the racial tension that will only grow more and more intense as the film goes on.

Sometimes, the film is far from subtle in exploring the issue of racism. Endicott's plantation, complete with tall white pillars and a black jockey lawn ornament to guard them, is a perfect example. What starts off as a surprisingly civil conversation between Tibbs and Endicott quickly turns heated and unpredictable. From that moment on, the experience will serve to cloud Tibbs' judgment and bring his own flaws to the surface, making him almost as complex a character as Gillespie.

And it is the complexity of Gillespie that got Steiger the Best Actor Oscar over Poitier in 1968. This man has heart, but not made of gold, and his motivations are far from pure. He is simply a man who believes in doing his job, and doing it as just as possible - even if it means arresting a friend for murder. Take for an example the scene in which Tibbs is surrounded by a gang of blood thirsty locals. When Gillespie arrives to save the day, he simply gives them a warning and tells them to go home. It is only when they insult him personally that he becomes angry and takes a swing. His action is just - his motivation almost vain.

In the end, after the murder is solved and racial injustice is swept back under the rug, Tibbs and Gillespie say their farewells and continue on with their very different lives. Each one better off for knowing the other.

Rating [on a 5 star system] : 5 stars

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
"You've got some red on ya.", 6 September 2004

Before viewing "Shaun of the Dead", I considered Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Dreamers" to be the best film in the continuing year of 2004 [USA release year]. Now I am not too sure.

Yes, a romantic comedy with zombies - as the tagline states - may very well end up being the best film I have seen this year, and I find that incredibly refreshing. From the opening nod to George Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" to a downright absurd final shot, "Shaun of the Dead" blazes a clear path into horror parody via social satire. Obvious shots of Shaun staggering out of bed to go to work to his bus ride packed with equally spaced-out passengers work surprisingly well thanks to our knowledge of what is to come. In fact, the humor of the first act relies almost entirely on that knowledge as when Ed threatens his roommate Pete during an argument with "And the next time I see you, you're dead!". I can only wonder how those scenes would play to someone unaware of the film's title and subject matter.

Once the characters finally catch up with the audience, the film moves comfortably into horror territory with equal amounts of practicality and absurdity. When Shaun and his best friend Ed encounter their first zombies in the garden, they begin by tossing random objects at their heads to kill them. Everything from toasters to Shaun's prized vinyl collection. And when that doesn't work, it's off to the shed for a shovel and cricket bat. From that point on, every move Shaun makes for his own survival makes complete sense, even it rarely works out for comedic purposes.

In it's final act, the film does grow surprisingly dark as some characters meet less than pleasant fates, but that doesn't hinder the hilarious epilogue. A two minute epilogue that takes one last jab at our society and perceived humanity.

Better than "28 Days Later" & the "Dawn of the Dead" remake, "Shaun of the Dead" is, most importantly, an instant classic and I can't wait to see it again.

Rating [on a 5 star system] : 4 1/2 stars