Thursday, August 30, 2007


“THE BEST OF BURTON (In the Shadows of Mainstream Cinema)”

"Tim's kind of an interesting, eccentric sort-- although I don't know him too well as a person. He's the kind of guy you could talk to for three hours and still not know what he's all about. I think Tim is an intrinsically shy person, very closed, and won't open up to a stranger."
-- Bob Kane, creator of Batman (1992)

To a devoted film fanatic, the name "Tim Burton" evokes a very specific mood and atmosphere: the baroque finery of the gothic; the agony and ecstasy of the deviant; the elegance and beauty of the dark and sinister—all distilled through the mind of a Goth Peter Pan who happens to be an ex-Disney animator.
Taking a look at his body of work, it quickly becomes clear that the best of Burton's films display a strong underpinning of absurdist humor, which cohabits well with the often dark surroundings; a quirky sensibility that can be both ghoulishly macabre and hilarious at the same time. And though Burton stumbled with the lamentably horrid Planet of the Apes, he returned to the dark fairy tale whimsy of his earlier work with the moving Big Fish, which helped pave the way for his take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the stop-motion animated feature, Corpse Bride (co-directed with Mike Johnson), and the upcoming (and long-long-long awaited) film adaptation of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

It is in the light of this latest collaboration with his cinematic alter-ego, Johnny Depp, that this article looks back to view, through a looking-glass darkly, the best of Tim Burton's ouvre.

1) Edward Scissorhands (1990): a loving, moving paean to the life of the outsider, Johnny Depp's unfinished, leather-clad Pinnochio is every single one of us, incomplete and fractured, merely looking for someplace where we can belong

2) Batman/Batman Returns (1989/1992): quite possibly the most subversive of all the superhero movies made thus far; in what is, ostensibly, PG-13 kiddie fare, Burton injects strains of insanity, disfigurement, child abuse and abduction, attempted infanticide, and duality. Aided and abetted by scripts filled to the brim with zingy one-liners and double entendres, Burton targets dead-on, what Batman is all about: sex and psychology

3) Ed Wood (1994): based on the true-to-life story of the man responsible for what is largely considered the worst film ever made (Plan 9 from Outer Space), Ed Wood is another moving tribute, this time, to the misunderstood artist, the low-brow visionary whose self-belief serves as armor against the banal mundanity of life and society; with an Oscar-recognized performance by Martin Landau (as washed-up horror icon Bela Lugosi)

4) Big Fish (2003): the winsome, Technicolor fantasia of this adaptation of the Daniel Wallace novel is a brilliant return to Burton’s brand of moving, magical film making; the often tumultuous relationship of fathers and sons is explored within the context of a tale about stories and storytellers, with the ultimate postmodern turn of the storyteller becoming his own story in the end

Truth to tell, nearly all of Burton's films are worth seeing (the exception being Planet of the Apes), though Sleepy Hollow is pure eye candy with a rather lame and predictable script topped by a Scooby Doo ending.
(And lest anyone go up in arms over my choices, The Nightmare Before Christmas was based on a story by Burton, and produced by him, but directed by Henry Selick, who went on to direct the equally interesting James and the Giant Peach, and the underappreciated Monkeybone, as well as providing stop motion animation for Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and who is currently wrapping up the film adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Since Nightmare wasn't directed by Burton, it was ineligible for the list.)

So, for those of you who prefer walking the darker shadows of mainstream cinema, hearken to the works of Tim Burton, who, at his best, understands the universal truths that lie hidden in childhood bogeymen and fairy tales, and who, with a curious, innocent optimism, invites us to tread the twisted and tangled paths of the haunted forests of our own less-than-perfect existences.
And in so doing, in telling his quirky, fractured tales, he is, perhaps, opening up to millions of strangers worldwide, in the best way he knows how.

(The above article is a revised version of its identically-titled predecessor.)

(Tim Burton image courtesy of faç; Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, and Big Fish OS’s courtesy of; Ed Wood DVD cover art courtesy of

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


As I mentioned in my review of Katja von Garnier‘s Blood and Chocolate, compared to the vampire, the werewolf has always gotten the shorter end of the proverbial stick (and in the case of the Underworld films, both races get screwed).
The latest film to feature our lupine friends, Jim Isaac’s Skinwalkers, is a curious mix of win and loss.

The premise is simple: skinwalkers (werewolves to the midnight movie crowd) exist, and the race is split down the middle; there are those who think of the monthly change as a curse, while others—those addicted to the kill—relish it as a gift.
There is a prophecy (isn’t there always?) of a special child who will hold the destiny of all skinwalkers in his hands.
Rachel (Nip/Tuck’s Rhona Mitra) is the mother of Timothy (Matthew Knight; The Grudge 2), who happens to be the child in question. Ignorant of their pivotal roles in this primeval struggle, widowed Rachel and child are being cared for and sheltered by Rachel’s brother-in-law Jonas (Elias Koteas, seen recently in David Fincher’s Zodiac) and his extended family.
And when skinwalker baddie Varek (Roswell’s Jason Behr) and his hairy homeys track down the prophesied child, Rachel realizes she married into a whole heap of trouble.

First, the cons.
The depiction of both sides of the war is decidedly uneven: while there is some attempt at sketching out the relationships and personalities of the good skinwalkers, Varek and his crew are little more than loping, savage ciphers. Save for one, there is no indication of who these skinwalkers were before they became the cruel hunters they are now, no inkling of motivation other than that they’re addicted to blood. There really aren’t even any tiny quirks to make one stand out from the other.
That’s exacerbated by performances that are rather bland and one-note, sadly a shortcoming that extends even to the goodie skinwalker camp. The only actors who actually register are the always interesting Koteas, Shawn Roberts (from George Romero’s Land of the Dead and the upcoming Diary of the Dead) as Adam, and, to a limited extent, Knight.
Particularly disappointing on this front are Mitra, who doesn’t quite convince as the woman who’s been lied to for thirteen years but must now step up to fight for her son’s life, and Behr, whose Varek isn’t the intimidating baddie this film so desperately needs. Their characters are all surface, with no emotional depth to them, like skinwalkers hiding behind flimsy human facades.

The script (by James DeMonaco, Todd Harthan, and James Roday) doesn’t help matters any either.
It’s a slow starter, taking some twenty minutes to kick into gear, really seriously moving only when Nana (Barbara Gordon), bless her soul, pulls out her piece and starts to shoot up Main Street. Once the narrative’s engine revs up though, it quickly settles into a choppy ride, the film never really quite hitting a satisfying stride.
Additionally, the plot’s surprises aren’t really surprises at all. Skinwalkers is rather transparent; given how the relationships and conflicts are laid out, you can basically see how it’s all going to turn out. And it’s never a good thing, when you can anticipate the beats of a story. (It also makes the characters looks pretty stupid when the audience knows more than they do.)

But there are pros.
One: the creature design by Stan Winston Studios.
Winston, who’s given us everything from xenomorphs to Pumpkinhead to animatronic dinos, delivers lupine bipeds with unsettling facial features, something new to the werewolf catalogue.
Sure, the transformation scenes could have used more bite, but man, those beasties were sure walloped by the ugly stick.

And two: despite my less than enthusiastic response to the film, it does end on a note that actually makes me look forward to a sequel, if one is even on the cards. Skinwalkers wraps on a situation that opens the door to the possibility of a down-and-dirty genre actioneer, with loads of guns and ammo, fangs and fur.

In the end, Skinwalkers isn’t a total loss, and if the right people can come together to deliver a swift and savage sequel, then this flawed effort would not have been in vain.

Parting shot: Jim Isaac’s past directorial efforts include The Horror Show and Jason X, both dismal affairs. Skinwalkers is his best film by far.
He’s also done fx work on such David Cronenberg films as The Fly, Naked Lunch, and eXistenZ, all of which I love.
(It’s safe to say I’m a bigger fan of Jim Isaac the special effects guy, than I am of Jim Isaac the director…)
It’s also interesting to note that Isaac considers Cronenberg a mentor of sorts, and not only thanks him in Skinwalkers’ end credits, but actually cast him in a small role in Jason X.

(Original Skinwalkers OS courtesy of—the film’s release date was later moved to July; image courtesy of

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Season 4 Episode 6
“The Weho Ho”

E and Vince want Billy off Lost in the Clouds, but Ari sold the Dream Team to the studio, and to have a split at this point in the game, when Medellin isn’t even out yet could reflect badly on both projects.
But Billy apologizes to E (it turns out someone else leaked the trailer) and E reluctantly agrees to have a four-way meeting with Dana Gordon to seal the deal.
The meeting goes well enough, despite Billy’s massive ego. E however, is convinced he cannot work with Billy again. But Vinnie still wants to do the movie, so E steps down as producer. But he does go on the record as saying he thinks Vinnie shouldn’t do Lost in the Clouds, and that he thinks Billy’s best days are behind him.
In the end, Vinnie still pushes on with Lost in the Clouds.

There are two subplots in this episode, one more effective than the other.
The first involves Turtle and Drama getting sucked into bidding for a Sandy Koufax jersey under the mistaken assumption that Koufax is dying and the jersey is soon to appreciate in value. It turns out it’s Koufax’s dog that died recently, and the baseball player is in the best of health. Of course, the boys find this out after they’ve already bid on the jersey.

The second subplot is particularly good, involving Lloyd’s break-up with his lover Tom.
Depressed, Lloyd takes a leave, throwing Ari’s office into a lurch. Needing to restore order to his work life (and because he really does care for Lloyd), Ari ends up playing matchmaker, and we get to see Tom, who reveals to Ari that Lloyd cheated on him, and that was the reason for the break-up.
Ari however, covers for Lloyd and says that during the night in question, Lloyd was with him at The Bourne Ultimatum premiere. Lloyd and Tom get back together, but Ari warns Lloyd that though he may like liars, he doesn’t like cheaters.
There’s also what seemed to me to be a passing insinuation that Lloyd’s dalliance with the barrista at the Coffee Bean may not have been a one-time thing.
Say it ain’t so, Lloyd!

(Images courtesy of

Monday, August 27, 2007

reVIEW (22)

This one—a slightly altered version of a review previously published in 2004 entitled “The Politics of Paranoia”—is being resurrected because whatever the film may be saying is still pretty important.

It’s an election year in the United States. From left (Fahrenheit 9/11 and a host of others) and right (George W. Bush: Faith in the White House and a smaller host of others), documentaries are being released to help spark debate, and hopefully, influence votes. Along with these documentaries are a handful of feature films that tackle political themes or subject matter. There is John Sayles’ Silver City, with Chris Cooper; though quite possibly the highest profile of these batch of films is Jonathan Demme’s remake of the 1962 Frank Sinatra-starrer The Manchurian Candidate, which was, in turn, based on the novel of the same name by Richard Condon.

Updating the Cold War scenario of the original, Denzel Washington is Major Bennett Ezekiel Marco, a Desert Storm veteran who is beginning to doubt the veracity of his memory. Marco’s dreams are telling him that something is not quite right in his head, and the heads of the members of his former unit, among them, Congressman Raymond Prentiss Shaw (Liev Schreiber), poised to become the next Vice President, under the careful, guiding hand of his mother, Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep).
What Marco uncovers is an apparent conspiracy to position a brainwashed puppet President in the White House, dangling on the strings of Manchurian Global, a “private equity fund” which is described by one character as a “geopolitical extension of policy for every president since Nixon.” (Though I’m sure PoliSci grads out there know exactly what that means, as a mere plebeian, all I got from the context in which the line was delivered was that this was a Very Bad Thing.)

With a cast like this, one expects sterling performances, and none of the principal three disappoint. Washington’s Marco is normally a capable and confident soldier, but when faced with the possibility of being betrayed by his own brain, he is understandably on edge. Schreiber is astoundingly convincing as a charismatic political candidate, secretly chafing at the control his mother has over him. And Streep, of course, is Streep. Her Eleanor Prentiss Shaw is the proverbial power behind the throne, the matriarchal manipulator who will see her son in the White House, no matter the cost.
Sadly, Dean Stockwell and Miguel Ferrer are among the underutilized members of the cast, particularly Stockwell, who does little more than stand around and frown.

Now, as a thriller, The Manchurian Candidate is not as taut as I had hoped it would be (Demme, after all, gave us The Silence of the Lambs). In addition, the plot, in certain instances, gets either a tad predictable, or takes an all-too-convenient turn.
The film does, however, get plus points for technique.
With a script structured in fragments that usually end in a fade to black, Demme successfully emulates the nature of memory: we don’t recall every single detail. We remember things in blocks, in chunks of sight and sound. Also, to heighten the atmosphere of paranoia that runs throughout the film, Demme occasionally uses close-up shots of characters speaking directly to the camera—to us, the off-camera character they are addressing.

Now, if it isn’t quite clear, let me spell out the fact that though The Manchurian Candidate is a thriller, it is not of the characters-chasing-one-another-down-crowded-city-streets-to-a-pounding-techno-beat school, nor does it have any significant plot twists to play mindgames with the audience. Much of the tension and conflict is internal and relational: Marco struggling to maintain his sanity despite the X-Files-like conspiracy he suspects is taking place; Raymond Shaw, caught between his own best intentions, his mother’s ambition, and Marco’s increasingly agitated claims.

Regardless of the film’s pros and cons though, I do think it’s a rather sad statement that in the original 1962 film, the motivation for putting a sleeper in the White House was ideology. Today, just over four decades later, it’s economics. It’s to ensure that the man in the Oval Office will keep the perpetual war running so the people making the money off the conflict continue to do so.
At least when the Chairman played the paranoia game in `62, it was because of a belief in something far larger than a piece of paper with an arbitrarily-assigned value attached to it. Ah, well, the times do change things, don’t they?

So, if you’re going to watch The Manchurian Candidate, see it for three things: the performances, the storytelling technique, and—mind you, this could be paranoia talking—the metastory I suspect is being told: of the horrifying ease with which people can be bought and owned by third parties. That the Manchurian Globals of the real world don’t need anything as sci-fi as subdermal implants nor as James Bond as post-hypnotic commands. All they need is the right amount of money to throw at greedy, weak-willed people, and they’ll have their puppets in place, dancing to the tunes they play, ready and eager to roll over when the order is given.

Parting shot: For fans of Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, Hitchcock pops up here in a minor role, which isn’t the first time Demme has cast a musician in his films: Chris Isaak played a SWAT team leader in The Silence of the Lambs.

(The Manchurian Candidate OS and DVD cover art courtesy of

reVIEW (21)

Don’t believe the travel brochures.
Hell’s a great place to visit. Really. And you don’t even need a visa, just a container of water and a cat in your lap.
Just take a look at Constantine, a film which kicks off (after some short preliminaries) with an exorcism in a Filipino community in L.A., a sequence designed to firmly establish that this is NOT your father’s Exorcist. No creaky old Max Von Sydow chanting “The power of Christ compels you…” here; in this movie, all you need to smite some demon butt is a mirror and Keanu Reeves.

Based on Hellblazer, the DC comic from its Vertigo line of titles (non-superhero, and geared to a more mature audience), Constantine pretty much captures a certain aspect of the comic: the backstreet, DIY nature of John Constantine’s brand of magic—no chanting, no rituals, and no explanations. Stick your feet (still in their shoes, mind you) in a container of water, and presto, you get to visit Hell. Why? Because it works that way.
Now, in the comic, these little tricks fly because the writers and artists are able to create a world where stuff like this actually makes some strange sort of sense, a world where the bizarre belongs. A world with atmosphere.
Tragically, Francis Lawrence, who directed Constantine, is the kind of music video director who thinks atmosphere is something you see, rather than feel, the kind of music video director who seems to be after the pretty shot, and not much else.*

Take the film’s Hell. It’s got that post-apocalyptic L.A. After the Bomb look, with lots of open-headed CGI nasties scrambling about, but it doesn’t really convey a true sense of the Kingdom of Pain, no brimstone whiff of genuine Hellishness. The Mongolian hordes on a Sunday at Megamall are far more vicious and intimidating. Now that’s what I call “Hell.”
And, granted, the film does have its moments (Constantine battling demon half-breeds in a rain of holy water; the divine Tilda Swinton’s Gabriel getting down to business; Shia LaBeouf‘s Chas, in his final, post-end credits shot), but they’re too few, and too far between, to make any real sort of impact on the whole; a whole that ends up being a badly-paced, plodding affair, with a plot of the connect-the-dots school: bump off minor characters A and B to get major characters C and D to points E and F.

Now, though I’m dead certain there’ll be Hellblazer fans out there who’ll belabor the point that this is not the John Constantine of the comic book, that, Heavens to Murgatroid, Constantine isn’t even American, personally, I think the real problem is more that Constantine wasn’t just turned into any old Yank, he was turned into… duuude… Keanu!
Though I’ve managed to enjoy some films despite his presence (The Matrix, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dangerous Liaisons), Reeves simply doesn’t have either the acting chops or the gravitas to pull off the complexity of John Constantine, the likeable rogue, the anti-hero scoundrel haunted by far too many ghosts, playing both sides off against the middle, trying to buy his way into Heaven while struggling to keep just one step ahead of the Reaper. None of that is in evidence here. Instead, all he does is smoke, add a husky register to his voice, and look testy and vaguely constipated.

And though Rachel Weisz (of The Mummy films) tries gamely to give dimension to her conflicted Catholic cop Angela Dodson, she suffers, acting opposite the likes of Reeves. Performance-wise, the high points of Constantine are Tilda Swinton (Young Adam, The Deep End), whose androgynous beauty is perfect for Gabriel, and Pruitt Taylor Vince (Identity, S1m0ne) as Father Hennessy.
The rest of the cast are sabotaged, either by a script that leaves their characters underdeveloped and unexplored (like LaBeouf‘s Chas, who comes off as too much the loyal, eager puppy ready to learn), or because they’re forced to act alongside you-know-who.
Then of course, there’s Gavin Rossdale. Casting Bush’s front man as demon half-breed Balthazar might have been a good idea, if Rossdale could actually carry a scene, but there’s just too much of the preening rock star in him; he’s not acting, he’s performing. The confrontation between Constantine and Balthazar towards film’s end is a bizarre moment where the audience is watching the collision of a quasar and a black hole. I have no idea what that is in astronomical terms, but it’s something I don’t care to see again.
And please, don’t get me started on Peter (Spun, Fargo) Stormare’s Devil.

In the end, Constantine isn’t a complete loss. Like I said, it has its moments, and you do get to visit Hell without all the unpleasantness advertised in the brochures.
Just don’t expect too much, and Heavens to Murgatroid, don’t expect Hellblazer.
Do that, and you may actually not regret having seen the film.

* Please don’t think I’m being a snob here. There are video directors out there who understand atmosphere: David Fincher (Fight Club), Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo), Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Lawrence, though…

(Constantine OS courtesy of

(The above is a slightly altered version of a previously published review entitled “To Hell and Back.”)

Saturday, August 25, 2007

2 WOL 29 IL


The first of a quartet of HD-shot horror films from first-time feature film directors—alternatively called “Four Horror Tales,” the “All of a Sudden” series, and the “One Day Suddenly” series*—this one starts out promisingly enough, with talk of Mobius strips and truth, but rapidly settles into an unimpressive, run-of-the-mill horror movie that really has nothing new to offer the audience.

Ji-yeon (Park Eun-hye) is a toll booth attendant who receives a bloodstained ticket one evening, an unsettling phenomenon that heralds apparently supernatural events involving a serial killer who may or may not be dead, and a curse that recurs every four years, on the eponymous date in question. Murder victims start to pop up as well.
The monkey wrench here is that the purported ghost is being seen by other individuals, wearing Ji-yeon’s clothes (and soon enough, Ji-yeon herself sees the identically clothed spectre).
The question arises though, is the doppelganger trying to frame Ji-yeon (and why; an interesting premise, in and of itself), or is Ji-yeon just plain nutters and blacking out and killing people?
Sadly, that question is rendered somewhat moot by the fact that there really aren’t any chills or thrills in this (there’s probably one passably creepy moment, then all the rest are carnival funhouse “scares”), and the acting is strictly bush league. The cinematography isn’t anything to write home about, either. (If there’s one thing I can count on with a Korean film, whether I end up loving it or hating it or being indifferent about it, it’s usually rather pretty to look at. Not so here.)

The narrative also isn’t particularly strong. There is no real feeling of tension or dread, or any sense of impending doom. It’s just, Ho! Another bloodstained ticket. Ho! Another dead body!
Given that towards the end, it’s made clear why the cops were acting the way they do over the course of the film (vaguely hostile and ultimately unhelpful) as well as why one of them suddenly has to wear a cast, some may think, “Oooh, sneaky-smart!”. This is just one of those non-linear narrative tricks however (and not really well-executed here), which, ultimately, is really nothing more than a trick, and an inconsequential one at that.
Furthermore, in a feeble attempt to bolster the whole “Is it really a ghost or is it Ji-yeon?” dilemma, director Jeong Jong-hoon brings in a last minute childhood trauma, a curveball out of the narrative’s left field that wasn’t even hinted at prior to its eleventh hour unveiling.
All this points to rather sloppy storytelling.

And perhaps the final damning bit: 2 Wol 29 Il is also the sort of horror movie where people do the strangest, most idiotic things.
People don’t call the cops when they should. The cops don’t call for back-up when they should. The cops handle bloodstained evidence with their bare hands. People (including one cop) talk to themselves at key moments to voice what the audience is already thinking.
These are the sort of annoying shenanigans that you too can enjoy, if you’ve a mind.

* The other 3 “One Day Suddenly” titles: Nebeonjjae Cheung (Hidden Floor, aka Forbidden Floor); D-Day (aka Roommates); and Dark Forest.

Parting shot: 2 Wol 29 Il‘s director Jeong Jong-hoon was an assistant director on Pon (Phone), thus explaining the presence of the Pon DVD in Ji-yeon’s apartment. (Incidentally, Pon is reportedly up for the English-language Hollywood treatment.)

reVIEW (20)

With the latest Body Snatchers redux, The Invasion, about to hit theatres, I thought to look back at another recent alien invasion redux.

Steven Spielberg is the undisputed Popcorn Movie King: exhibits A and B—Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park. (By Popcorn Movie, I mean a movie that’s fun, and fun to watch, doesn’t have any deep moral truths in it, but doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence, either.)
And though there have been pretenders to the throne (Roland Emmerich: Independence Day and Godzilla; Stephen Sommers: The Mummy films and Van Helsing), and an upstart challenger (Kerry Conran: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), Spielberg still sits squarely on the throne.
It is in the milieu of the Popcorn Movie where Spielberg’s admittedly manipulative brand of storytelling is most at home, the button-pushing and emotion-cueing, welcome, and in point of fact, expected by the Popcorn Audience.
Spielberg’s post-millennial redux of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds however, is not a Popcorn Movie.

The thing is, though War is by no stretch of the imagination, a horrible movie, it really isn’t all that fun to watch. In this updated, Americanized version of Wells’ tale, Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a divorced father in charge of his two children, Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning), for the weekend. This, of course, the weekend that cruel, bloodthirsty aliens decide to put their millennia-old plan of territorial take-over into effect.
Taking a page from M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, we are treated to the Everyman’s point of view of a global crisis.
In the past, protagonists of movies of this ilk were either military men or scientists, by virtue of their profession, at the forefront of the action. Alternately, if they were civilians, they would still invariably find themselves in the middle of things, reluctant heroes, pivotal roles thrust upon them, the fate of humanity in their hands.
In War, as in Signs, the main characters are on the far-flung periphery, their motivation, to weather the storm. To survive. Thoughts of “How are we going to stop this alien invasion?” dwarfed by questions like, “How do we get to Boston?” and “What’s my daughter going to eat if she’s allergic to peanut butter?”
Of course, given that this is a Steven Spielberg film, it’s got a whole lot of Hollywood in its celluloid DNA. It is, actually, rather like the Hollywood version of Signs. And I mean that in the best and worst possible ways.

It’s got all the gee-whiz-bang CGI explosions and property damage you could ask for (the sequences of the tripods in urban decimation mode are some of the most heart-stuttering, jaw-dropping scenes I’ve seen in any alien invasion movie), as well as characters so painfully Everyman, they’re generic.
What we know of Ray is the barest glimmer of a personality. All we know is, his children don’t really know who he is. Well, kids, to paraphrase Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, You are not alone.
Ray’s kids, meanwhile, are the Rebellious, Angry Teen and Screaming, High-Strung Little Girl. Not much hope there, either.
In the void of any honest emotional connection with the film’s characters, the audience is left to do the Everyman thing and project themselves onto the scenario, which sometimes works, and more often doesn’t.
But given the Hollywood genes in War, it’s no surprise that Ray, Everyman schmoe that he is, still somehow manages to, a) damage a tripod with an axe, when trained military forces couldn’t seem to dent it with heavy artillery, and b) fortuitously find some grenades just when they can most come in handy.

Which is not to say Spielberg’s War isn’t worth its price of admission: if cars and buildings going boom are your thing, hey, knock yourself out. And there is some truly evil camerawork (undoubtedly computer-aided) as Ray and kids make their exodus from the city on the freeway, courtesy of long-time Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski.
It’s just that, as I said, it isn’t really fun to watch.
It’s isn’t fun seeing people get vaporized, or worse, turn on each other for a vehicle. Now, if this had been some sort of anti-war Statement, then perhaps I would have seen the point. But it isn’t.
It isn’t a Popcorn Movie. It isn’t a moving story of real, tangible individuals in a crisis (as was Signs). It isn’t a Statement Film.
So, in the end, I have to ask, What is it, then?

Parting Shot: Are all Earth-invading species inherently stupid? In Signs, a race whose Kryptonite is water attacks a planet that is 75% water. In War of the Worlds, they planned millennia for this, and didn’t think to bring along some cold medicine? Haven’t these people heard of advance scouts?

(War of the Worlds OS courtesy of

(The above review was previously published in 2005 under the title, “Sound and Fury.”)

Friday, August 24, 2007

reVIEW (19)

In light of Frank Oz’s upcoming Death at a Funeral (the trailer of which looks all sorts of funny), this one’s coming out of storage.

Like Keanu in bullet time, Nicole Kidman is dodging bullets as fast as they come.
An injury on the Moulin Rouge set forced her to bow out of David Fincher's Panic Room, which, along with The Game, turned out to be one of Fincher's least notable works. She was also supposed to star in Jane Campion's artily-shot but horribly flawed adaptation of In The Cut; Kidman remained co-producer, even as Meg Ryan ended up in the buff for the role.
At certain points in their development, Kidman was also attached to star in last year's Catwoman and The Forgotten, the less said of both, I believe, the better. Instead, for 2004, she starred in Jonathan Glazer's Birth, and Frank Oz's The Stepford Wives. And though neither was a box-office hit, either one was certainly better than The Forgotten, and, from all I've heard about it, Catwoman as well.

The Stepford Wives was originally a novel written by Ira Levin, the same man who gave the world Rosemary's Baby, Roman Polanski's film adaptation of which, in turn, gave us the enduring, indelible image of a frail, paranoid Mia Farrow, painfully pregnant with the Devil's child, on the run from a cult of Satanists. The Stepford Wives was no less frightening, though here, the terror was not supernatural, but rather stemmed from the realm of science.
A work that studied the horrors of conformity (for which the term "Stepford" has come to mean, informally joining the English language as an adjective), The Stepford Wives had a film adaptation in 1975. Directed by Bryan Forbes, that version delved more into the horror aspect of the tale. Frank Oz's version is, at first blush, a lighter, more comedic look at the material.
Career-driven network president Joanna Eberhart (Kidman) is suddenly and unceremoniously fired after an unfortunate incident during the unveiling of EBS' new season line-up. Following a nervous breakdown, she asks for a chance to start over with her husband Walter Kresby (Matthew Broderick) and their two children Kimberly and Pete. Off they go to the suburbs of Connecticut, to the exclusive community of Stepford, where all is not what it seems.

From its opening credit roll, accompanied by visuals from old adverts of the latest in modern technology, of products designed to make life easier and more convenient, it's evident that behind the comedic veneer of the film, there are some serious statements to be made, just as there is something deeper behind the Tupperware smiles of the eponymous Stepford wives.
In that respect, as well as its overt idea of a return to a simpler time—in Stepford, there is "no crime, no poverty, and no pushing"—it is similar to M. Night Shyamalan's The Village. (Incidentally enough, both are quite possibly last year's most misunderstood and underappreciated films.) But, whereas Shymalan never loses track of his narrative while aiming to get his Message across, Stepford's script by Paul Rudnick seems both weak in its rhythm, and genuinely confused as to the exact nature of the change the women undergo, not to mention rudely dismissive of Joanna's children, who are no sooner introduced, before they completely drop off the face of the film, mentioned thereafter, but never actually seen.

While the Stepford process in the original source material is pretty much straight-forward, in Oz's revision, there is talk of nanochips being inserted into the brain, chips which contain the Stepford program, which should mean these women are still organic after being "perfected" by the treatment. And yet we are treated to the sight of an eyeless and bald mannequin that is Kidman's dead ringer, as well as the ATM sequence (the single most chilling and disturbing visual from the entire film); both incongruous and illogical, if these are really still women with some computer chips stuck in their heads.
Given though that the narrative could have been stronger, the idea of perfection taken to its extreme, of the forced submission and commodification of women—of a wife as the ultimate consumer product, complete with personalized remote control—is difficult to ignore. Amidst the scathingly funny one-liners are harsh observations of the gender wars, of, to paraphrase the film, women wanting to become men, and men wanting to become gods.

Arguably, the reversal that comes at the film's climax might be seen, on the one hand, as a clever little reference to the third sequel of the 1975 version. On the other hand though, it could actually subvert the whole piece in one telling blow, reducing the entire idea of homogenizing the world into the Stepford ideal as a plan born of lunacy, and not a cold, calculated conspiracy.
Whichever the case, this version of Levin's novel, with its wistful, pastel nostalgia for days long gone by, is funny. The script has zingy wit and irony to spare, and with a cast that includes Bette Midler, Christopher Walken, Roger Bart, and Glenn Close, the comic timing is near-perfect.

By and large, it's sad and ironic that the film doesn't live up to the Stepford ideal, and isn't the perfect movie it could have been. But then again, as Joanna says, perfect doesn't work. In this case though, imperfect doesn't exactly work, either.
Panned by the critics, by turns confused and narratively-challenged, The Stepford Wives is nonetheless a funny comedy, and has quite a lot to say about men and women, and the world they live in, and if only for that, must be seen.
And honestly, a couple of years down the road, should I find The Stepford Wives and The Forgotten both on cable at the same time, I know which film I'd zap myself to with the remote. Do you?

(The Stepford Wives OS courtesy of

(The above review began life in 2005 under the title, “Welcome Back to Stepford.”)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

reVIEW (18)

Instead of taking a look at an old film, this installment of reVIEW is about the sadly cancelled Bryan Fuller co-created TV series Wonderfalls. Consider it a companion piece to TV Watch 2007 (3), where I heartily recommended Fuller’s new ABC series, Pushing Daisies.

“It’s a really quirky, smart, feel-good show about a pathological narcissist who wakes up one day to discover the universe has sort-of forced her to become fate’s b!tch.”
-- Bryan Fuller, when asked to describe

Classic Gen Y underachiever, Jaye Brewster (Caroline Dhavernas) has a Philosophy degree, but works a dead-end job at the souvenir shop of Niagara Falls. However, inanimate animals—wax lions, metal monkeys, stuffed donkeys—begin to speak to her, giving her cryptic instructions, which she finds herself hesitantly following, inadvertently helping others, when all she’d really rather do is nothing in particular.
That’s the quirky premise of a great TV show called Wonderfalls (one of its working titles during its development, Touched by a Crazy Person), which almost never got seen.

Fox, you see, unceremoniously pulled the plug on the show after a mere four episodes, despite the fact that it was a critical darling. Apparently, the show wasn’t racking up the ratings Fox would have liked, and the network wasn’t willing to wait for an audience to discover its witty charm.
(It should be noted that this isn’t the first time Fox has speedily kicked a show off the air. They’ve done it to Chris Carter twice, despite the phenomenal hit he gave them in The X-Files—with his virtual reality series Harsh Realm, and the X-Files spin-off, The Lone Gunmen.)

The magnitude of this injustice is compounded even further when you consider that, a) Wonderfalls was actually a really good show, and b) as I’ve pointed out before, this is a world with three CSI’s. Three CSI’s and we can’t have room for one unique show with a voice all its own, managing to fuse the inertia of Gen Y slackdom with the inevitability of destiny, turning in an existential comedy bristling with witty dialogue, and pop culture referents and metaphors aplenty.

“She’s a snarky character, so she’s going to be snarky about the things that she encounters in her life. When tchochtkes start talking, let the snark reign.”
-- Bryan Fuller, discussing Jaye

As Jaye Brewster, Dhavernas (from a host of Canadian productions) displays a refreshing, disarming quality, even when she’s in her persnickety slacker mode, and witnessing the character’s torturous metamorphosis from self-involved, aimless cynic to confused, hesitant Samaritan is a peculiar joy.
Surrounding Jaye with their own brand of insanity is her family, father Darrin (William Sadler, from The Green Mile and Kinsey), mother Karen (Diana Scarwid), sister Sharon (Katie Finneran, from You’ve Got Mail, and the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead), and brother Aaron (Lee Pace, from Soldier’s Girl).
Of particular note amongst the Brewsters is Scarwid (from What Lies Beneath and Party Monster), whose Karen is the aloof, snotty socialite who nonetheless loves her family (though she may not particularly understand them).

Ultimately, Wonderfalls is a show that manages to give us a funny glimpse at the workings of those “mysterious ways” we keep on hearing about. It’s like an Early Edition or a Touched by an Angel, but with a lot more wit, and a lot more brains; a show that displays the causality of destiny, and how every little thing we do, no matter how seemingly insignificant, impacts somewhere, on someone, thus keeping the great engine of life moving in perfect synchronicity with the Will of some higher, manifest Power, a Power that, apparently, has a pretty hip (and often absurd) sense of humor.

Parting shot: Though only four episodes of Wonderfalls were broadcast on Fox, thirteen were actually filmed, and all are available on DVD.

(Images courtesy of,,, and
(The above is an altered version of a previously published article entitled “The Causality of Destiny (Or, The Greatest TV Show You May Never See).”)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Episode 16
The Finale

Fourteen weeks and here we are.
So Will the Family Man drives off to the gates of Dreamworks, where Steven Spielberg waits with the keys to his new office.
Yes, that final scene may have smacked of anti-climax (these guys really don't know how to play up the drama), but the idea was nonetheless wicked. I mean, this is Steven Spielberg, who directed great stuff we grew up on. Will’s just been let into that great big sandbox to play with the big kids. How sweet is that? (I just hope Will’s got some shark repellent, `cause that sandbox ain’t exactly the safest place on Earth.)
At this point, I’m really curious what film Will is gonna make with that $1 million development deal.
And hey, Adam. I’m waiting to see your stuff too, dude.

Now, curious thing: Adrianna kept on stressing “winner of On The Lot 2007,” as if we could look forward to another season of OtL. Considering the show’s low ratings, I honestly thought this would be it. And who knows, maybe it is.
But if they do come back for more, I say, “Bring it on.”

I mean, this is honestly a good idea in theory. Considering there’s that new breed of bland A-list directors are out there at the moment, it’s good to get fresh blood out to La-La Land, and over the course of a season, you can get to see just how creative these young turks can get.
Of course, in the end, the winner is crowned by popular vote, so you could still get the safest, most conventional director of the lot, but still, all the other contestants get their stuff out on national television and hopefully, can attract the eye of other Hollywood bigwigs.
And no matter who wins, the votes will always come in handy. At the very least, Dreamworks can tell which contestants have got the public’s eye. The votes are also a good barometer of what the public likes to see. If, for example, the number of votes were highest during, say, Horror Night, then it could be safe to say people want to see scary sh!t in the multiplexes. So it’s a reality show and market research all in one go.

A sophomore season could also be a chance for the production crew behind the show to get it right. Even for those who stuck with OtL from start to finish (like yours truly), I think it’s an accepted fact that the show itself has got a lot of room for improvement.

Well, it’s been an interesting ride, and at the very least, the show gave me a number of new names to watch out for.
Let’s see if Will can deliver…

(Contestant image courtesy of

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

TV WATCH 2007 (4)
Odds & Ends

There were a couple of other new Pilots I also got to see aside from the three I’ve already reviewed (Chuck, Reaper, and Pushing Daisies: see TV Watch 2007 1-3 in Archive: August 2007) that I thought I should at least mention and give some of my reactions to.

Bionic Woman
Coming from Battlestar Galactica producer David Eick, I was hoping this would kick my a$$ something fierce. Sadly though, it doesn’t really get moving in any exciting and significant way.
And though it is nice to see Katee Sackhoff as some other character besides Starbuck (and there’s also a cameo from another BSG alum), there isn’t anything here that we haven’t seen before.

The Sarah Connor Chronicles (SPOILERS)
This Terminator spin-off is marginally better than Bionic Woman, though not by much.
Picking up after the events in T2, this one also doesn’t get very exciting. One of the few commendable things about this Pilot though, is Thomas Dekker, who used to play Zach on Heroes. Even back then, he showed he was an excellent young actor, and that is no different here.
Sadly, Lena Headey’s Sarah Connor just doesn’t register the way Linda Hamilton did in T2. I’m not sure if it’s because Headey’s performance isn’t as powerful as the one she gave in 300, or if Hamilton just really nailed the character’s transformation into shotgun-toting, kicka$$ momma in T2. Maybe it’s a little of both.
And Summer Glau’s teen Terminatrix is passably interesting, but if there isn’t some future romantic subplot between her and John Connor (it’s the ultimate Romeo and Juliet scenario!), the whole emotionless killing machine thing could get old really, really quickly. (And isn’t this just a variation of what she already did on Serenity?)
At the moment, Dekker is far too good for this show, so it better shape up as the season unfolds.

(Bionic Woman images courtesy of nbc,, and; Sarah Connor Chronicles images courtesy of fox,, starburst, and

Season 4 Episode 5
“The Dream Team”

The episode’s subplot has Johnny trying to look young—since he’s the old fogey on the Five Towns set—by buying a cap that requires him to get a certificate that proves he needs to take marijuana for medicinal purposes. (Yes, all for the cap.)
The episode’s meat however, lies in the main plot, involving the Medellin triumvirate.

The simmering antagonism between E and Billy comes to a head when E is accused of leaking the Medellin trailer onto YouTube, and the smackdown that we’ve all been waiting for erupts.
But E and Billy still have to be civil to each other, at least for an interview with former New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell. E manages to keep it together during the interview, but is called out by Billy just as Mitchell drives off. They’re about to do Round Two but Vince takes things in hand and makes E walk away.
In the car, E says he’ll put up with the sh!t for as long as it takes to get Medellin done and out, and then he never wants to see Billy again.

Meanwhile, Ari zeroes in on Vinnie’s next project: the film adaptation of Lost in the Clouds, which is on the fasttrack under Dana Gordon, whom Ari inadvertently got fired due to the whole I Wanna Be Sedated debacle.
But when Ari drops by her office with drinks and cupcakes, it turns out that the project is locked, with Heath Ledger topbilling and Curtis Hanson directing. So Ari goes into stealth mode and discovers Ledger is being handled by his former-assistant-turned-rival-agent Josh Weinstein. With Lloyd’s help, Ari manipulates Josh into thinking this is a bad career move for Ledger by implying there’s some homosexual subtext in the material, and that with Brokeback Mountain still in the public’s minds…
So Ledger suddenly drops out of the project, but then so does Hanson, who only wanted to work with Ledger in the first place, leaving the film dead in the water.
But Ari works his magic behind the scenes, and gets the project up and running again by selling “the Dream Team” to work on it: E producing, Vinnie starring, and (uh-oh) Billy directing.

This is a great episode, as it brings back familiar faces like Josh Weinstein and Dana Gordon (who I loved in her past appearances). There are also quick cameos from Snoop Dog and Brian Grazer, as well as the slightly longer one by Elvis Mitchell.

(Images courtesy of

Monday, August 20, 2007


At the 2005 Oscars, when Martin McDonagh‘s “Six Shooter“ won the Award for Best Short Film, there were a couple of other interesting nominees, but the one that really stayed with me though, was Sean Ellis’ “Cashback,” about an employee at an all-night grocery, whose coping mechanism for the boredom of his job is to imagine he can stop time, and walk about, unseen, in a freeze-frame world.
Well, Ellis has since turned that impressive short film into an equally impressive feature.

Ben Willis (Sean Biggerstaff, perhaps most widely seen in the first two Harry Potter films, where he played Oliver Wood) is on his final year at art school, and he’s just broken up with his girlfriend, Suzy (Michelle Ryan, about to be seen as Jamie Sommers in the new Bionic Woman TV series). Even as he suffers the acute pangs of separation, he suddenly finds that he has become “immune to sleep.” Now finding sleep apparently unnecessary, Ben gets a third of his life back. Of course, at this juncture in his life, that just means more seconds and minutes and hours wallowing in the Suzy-shaped hole in his life.
So he takes a night shift job at Sainsbury’s, an all-night grocery, where he meets a crew of colourful characters, who each have their own particular methods of dealing with the deadening job hours. As in the original short—which is actually contained in Cashback, some 15 minutes into the feature’s running time—Ben finds that his way is, paradoxically, by stopping time.

Ellis treats this fantastic conceit wonderfully, telling a tale of the beauty that can be found hidden in the most mundane of moments, of the importance of each instant in our lives, and of the possibility of miracles secreted in between the ticks of a clock’s second hand.
Ben, of course, is our anchor to the narrative. We are privy to his life and those pivotal and formative moments that inform all of our youths—that first, almost-kiss; our first sight of a naked body—through a series of flashbacks, where Ben is played by newcomer Frank Hesketh. It is through these flashbacks (and Ben’s narration, which carries us through the entire film) that we understand why Ben is the way he is, and perhaps most importantly, gain insight into the manner in which he sees beauty.
So, while Ben is our solid footing in reality, giving us a mirror in which to see ourselves as witnesses of our world, he is also our gateway into the fantastic, as he shares his ability with us.
It is a testament to Ellis and cinematographer Angus Hudson, that a technique that is fairly common in music videos (of that lone figure and the camera moving in a reality on pause) can still have the potency that it does here.
Ben moves through the fluorescent-drenched aisles of Sainsbury’s, sketching the female customers, admiring beauty, perfecting his art. Rarely has the supermarket been a setting for such transcendence. (There is a scene in Go! that captures that same sense of beauty in the utterly mundane.)

And while this is the heart that beats within the film, the visible layer of Cashback—its celluloid skin, if you will—is that of a love story, of the period of healing after being crushed by the wheels of heartbreak, and of the miraculous rediscovery of love, hiding in plain sight.
It’s also about the reality that we are all selling off our time, the seconds and minutes of our lives, and how we need to ensure that we don’t end up on the losing end in the daily shuffle to keep money in our bank accounts.
It’s about the indelibility of every single moment, of the quirks of serendipity, and the delicate, fragile, and ultimately volatile nature of human relationships, of how seeing “the wrong second of a two second story” can have damning consequences.

For all its wonder though, Cashback is not perfect.
There are, perhaps, one too many colourful characters in Ben’s life, most of whom are little more than comedy relief, and the film does fall into cliché once or twice. (It’s been awhile since I’ve been amused by a musical montage of characters preparing for a night out.)
Also, though I love that one horror movie moment of the entire film, that scene opens up a subplot that I feel could have used a little more exploration, so that its use in Cashback’s climax would have been a tad more well-earned.
Still, what works in this film far outweighs what doesn’t.

And some of what does work, are the performances of the principals, Biggerstaff, and Emilia Fox, who plays Ben’s co-worker, Sharon Pintey.
In Biggerstaff, we find that part of all of us who silently yearns for another, who admires from afar, but is initially unable to articulate that desire verbally. For some, it will be through song, for others, poetry. In Ben’s case, it is his art.
There is a genuine sense of heartfelt longing in Biggerstaff’s performance; for his ex-girlfriend, for his dream, and it is that air of honesty that makes us accept him as a character, and makes us receptive to his tale.
Fox meanwhile, convinces, particularly in the manner in which for most of the time Sharon is at Sainsbury’s (at the cash register or walking the aisles), she trudges, zombie-like, beneath the harsh fluorescents. The only time she actually comes alive, and we see the true vibrancy of the person, is when we see her outside the grocery’s confines, having a meal with Ben, cheering the lads at a football match.
It’s a little something that Cashback says, but it’s nonetheless something important: even that bored check-out girl who recites her litany of automatic pleasantries (if she’s even pleasant at all), is a person too.

It’s also interesting to note that Ben’s ability can be interpreted as simply the way in which he views the world around him. Yes, there are instances where we see the effects of his stopping and re-starting time in objective reality, but these can still be argued as being part and parcel of his worldview.
Even with that interpretation though, the message the film wishes to impart, of the importance of time and what can be found in its midst, is still the same.

Ultimately, it all comes back to the importance of each second of our lives. How we need to acknowledge time’s passage, so we can live accordingly, and not lose sight of ourselves, and the beauty that surrounds us every single moment of every single day.

Parting shot: Sean Ellis’ upcoming film is The Broken, which kicks off when, on a busy London street, Gina McVey (played by 300’s Lena Headey) thinks she sees herself drive past in her own car.

(Cashback OS and images courtesy of; DVD cover art courtesy of

Episode 1 (of 4)
“A Clean Escape”
Teleplay by Sam Egan; based on the short story by John Kessel; directed by Mark Rydell

Right off the bat, this sister series to Masters of Horror gets a leg up: I mean, in two seasons of MoH, I never saw thespians like Judy Davis or Sam Waterston on the billing, and MoSF gets both in their first go-around! Directed by Mark Rydell (who was nominated by a number of award-giving bodies for On Golden Pond)! Talk about coming out with guns blazing…
Davis plays Deanna Evans, a psychiatrist conducting sessions with Waterston’s Havelman. But as the sessions progress, we gradually come to realize there is more to this that we can readily see and what we initially assumed.

The fantastic thing about this episode is that not only do we get excellent performances from both leads (and a majority of the hour is spent on the one-on-one psychiatric sessions, so this is basically a showcase of great acting), but the narrative takes some twists and turns as it builds towards its climax.
I’d like to get into the themes of the narrative too, but that could tip off the astute and the observant as to what “A Clean Escape” is all about, so I’ll just have to leave this at a recommendation to check out MoSF.
This is a promising start and if the other three episodes are as good as this one, then one has to wonder why there are only four episodes to this series.

Parting shot: MoSF is narrated, Rod Serling-style, by Professor Stephen Hawking.

(Image courtesy of

Sunday, August 19, 2007

TV WATCH 2007 (3)

I am in awe of Bryan Fuller.
Wouldn’t you be? Not only did he bring us the unjustly cancelled Wonderfalls, but he also worked on the first season of Heroes (having written “Collision” and the astounding “Company Man”)*, and brought The Amazing Screw-On Head (review in Archive) to zany animated life.
Now he’s at the helm of Pushing Daisies, one of the best new series of this coming season.

“This was the moment young Ned realized he wasn’t like the other children, nor was he like anyone else, for that matter. Young Ned could touch dead things and bring them back to life.
“This touch was a gift given to him, but not by anyone in particular. There was no box, no instructions, no manufacturer’s warranty. It just was.”

At a young age, Ned (Lee Pace, from Wonderfalls) discovers that he can bring the dead back to life with a touch. There are, however, rules to his “gift” (which I won’t disclose here to try and save the suspense; though said rules are outlined in the first five minutes of the Pilot, they do have long-term ramifications that serve to inform the Pilot and the series as a whole).
In the wake of Ned’s discovery, he is parted from his first love, Charlotte (though he calls her “Chuck”; Anna Friel, from the Goal! films and the upcoming Bathory, where she plays the Blood Countess herself, Elizabeth Bathory). Years later (but still as a direct result of that childhood incident), he opens a restaurant called “The Pie Hole,” where he bakes exquisite pies and has a lucrative partnership with a local PI, Emerson Cod (Boston Public’s Chi McBride).

To say any more would cheat the show’s potential audience of the poignant wonder Pushing Daisies holds.
I can say this though: Fuller’s script is narrated from start to finish by Jim Dale, in a very conscious fairy tale styling. And the look of the show—which recalls the technicolour Fantasia of Tim Burton, circa Big Fish—mirrors that fairy tale motif to a tee.
Small wonder then, that the Pilot’s director is Barry Sonnenfeld, whose Addams Family films proved that he could be Burton when you couldn’t have the real Burton.
And if that isn’t enough to tantalize and to pique your curiosity, the supporting cast also includes Ellen Greene (Sylar’s kooky mom on Heroes) and Swoosie Kurtz (Locke’s kooky mom on Lost) as Chuck’s aunts, and Kristen Chenoweth (Running with Scissors and Stranger Than Fiction; reviews for both in the Archive) as Olive Snook, waitress at The Pie Hole, who lives in the apartment next to Ned’s.

The Pushing Daisies Pilot is a wonderful, heartfelt hour of life, death, and what should, by all rights fall squarely in the middle of those two extremes, love.
It’s funny, and moving, and smart. It’s vintage Bryan Fuller, and you have got to see this show.

* Over the course of Heroes Season 1, Bryan Fuller wrote most of the Claire scenes. Anyone who’s checked the Iguana out in the past will know that Claire is one of my favorite characters on the show, who also had, I feel, one of the most satisfying character arcs in the first season. I’ve also long maintained that Hayden Panettiere is one of the best of the show’s ensemble.
So thanx to Mr. Fuller, for giving Hayden all those great scenes to work on, and for helping shape a great character.

Parting shot: I never got the chance to see Dead Like Me, Bryan Fuller’s other show, though I’ve heard lots of good things about it.

(Images courtesy of abc,, and

Saturday, August 18, 2007

reVIEW (17)

With The Dark Knight currently filming and set for a 2008 release, I thought I’d take this one out of deep freeze.

Since the turn of the millennium, DC Comics has had a nearly null presence in the multiplexes, while their long-time four-color competition, Marvel, following its surprise hit in 1998 in Blade, has littered the pop culture consciousness with X-Men and Spider-Men, Hulks and Daredevils. And while DC attempted to rise to the challenge with last year’s Catwoman and this year’s Constantine, neither were what one would classify as excellent cinema.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins changes all that.

It’s been 15 years since Tim Burton’s hit, Batman, and 8 since the florid, gaudy explosion of Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin (which effectively killed the Bat franchise), and Nolan has managed to bring us the first Batman film that really and truly is, about the Batman.
Whereas past Bat films have had the tendency to play up the eccentricities of the Dark Knight’s bizarre villains, casting recognizable, A-list Hollywood names to further that agenda, Begins’ sights are firmly set on the tortured psyche of Bruce Wayne, on the dynamics of his guilt and fear, so thoroughly intertwined in the tragic murder of his parents in front of his little boy eyes.
Excellent choice, Christian Bale, to essay the Dark Knight this time out. The young actor’s physicality, intensity, and commitment (he quickly bounced back from the emaciated insomniac he played in the ultimately disappointing El Maquinista to get into shape for Begins) serve him well, as we see Wayne from more dimensions and angles than we’d previously been allowed access to. What we have is the most substantial, and thus, most credible Bruce Wayne/Batman thus far. It was, after all, Bale’s intent to give the definitive performance of the character(s), and in this, he has succeeded admirably.

Of course, even the best actor can crash and burn if the script and the director are inept. Thankfully, that isn’t the case here.
Sharing co-writing credit with David Goyer (who also penned the scripts for the Blade films, as well as Dark City), Nolan delivers a film that is decidedly more complex—emotionally and psychologically—than past Bat films, and one that clearly has more adult sensibilities. For all their dark subversiveness, Tim Burton’s Bat films had a quirky streak of humor running through them; Nolan’s Begins is far less cartoony, more grounded in the reality of the character, and the seedy, corrupt milieu of Gotham City.

Presented as a tightly-packed, urban sprawl, this Gotham is no less the nightmare of a city than the gothic noir metropolis in Burton’s films (as realized by the late Anton Furst in Batman, and Bo Welch in Batman Returns). Here, Gotham is a city where hope lies bleeding in the filthy gutter, where criminals like Tom Wilkinson’s Carmine Falcone flood the streets with drugs, line their pockets with politicians, judges, and cops, and profit from the misery of the masses. The kind of city whose hero would be a creature of shadow, treading the fine line between justice and vengeance; a hero who isn’t scared of collateral damage (though I had hoped that as Bruce Wayne, he’d have paid for all the property damage the Batmobile caused), a hero whose greatest weapon is fear.
Ideal then, that the film not only feature the villain Scarecrow (28 Days Later’s Cillian Murphy, who was actually on the shortlist to play Batman before Bale drove off with the cape and cowl), who uses a chemical to amplify his victims’ phobias, but that the story focus on Bruce Wayne’s fears as well, not simply of bats, but of the possibility of failing in his dead father’s eyes.
There hasn’t been a comic book film with this much thematic cohesion—of story, plot, and action—since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (for my money, still better than the sequel).

With material of this integrity already in hand, Nolan takes the further step of surrounding the lead star with heavy-hitting thespians like Wilkinson, Gary Oldman (as Sgt. Jim Gordon, one of the few good cops left in Gotham), Morgan Freeman (as Lucius Fox, Wayne’s personal Q), Liam Neeson (as Ducard, Wayne’s Miyagi), and Michael Caine (as Alfred, Wayne’s Man Friday). In fact, there’s enough Oscar mojo here for younger cast members Bale, Murphy, and Katie Holmes (as Wayne’s childhood friend/love interest, Rachel Dawes) to get their own gold statuettes through osmosis.

Thus, with the leathery flap of a bat’s wings, and the sturm und drang theatricality of the operatic undertones of Bob Kane’s 66-year-old Dark Knight, DC Comics has snatched silver screen glory back.
And with Bryan Singer’s eagerly-awaited Superman Returns set to take flight on June 30, 2006, DC looks to be seriously flexing its celluloid muscles, something that should give even the mighty Marvel pause.

(Batman Begins OS courtesy of

(The above review was previously published in 2005 under the title, “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Bat?”)

Friday, August 17, 2007

“The Attack of the Living Dead Afterthought”
(A Companion Piece to “Revelations”)

If you haven’t read “Revelations” (Archive: July 2007), please do so, so as to give this installment of Afterthoughts a proper context.

If you look carefully at “Revelations (Getting at the Truths of Apocalypse Cinema),” the article is more a focus on then-current zombie cinema than of apocalypse cinema in general. I took that tack (and chose that title) though, since I thought it would be an easier sell to my editor, as the mainstream movie-going audience at that time (2004) would most likely have known the doomsday scenarios of Armageddon and Deep Impact more readily than they would George Romero’s Dead films.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised though, if an out-and-out article on zombie cinema would get the greenlight today without much trouble.
And that’s because a lot’s happened since 2004, events that have brought the rotting, flesh-hungry hordes into the bright spotlight of media attention. Zombies are one of the hot trends of horror du jour, and our recently-returned dearly departed are making the most of their Moment in the sun.

With the box-office success of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, studios big and small hopped on the zombie bandwagon and brought us such excellent entries in zombie cinema as Edgar Wright‘s hilarious Shaun of the Dead and Andrew Currie‘s interesting boy-and-his-zombie tale, Fido. On the downside, we’ve also been saddled with the dead on arrival attempts at zomcoms, Dead and Breakfast, Boy Eats Girl, and Plane Dead.
Undisputed Zombie King George Romero returned to the apocalyptic world that made his career with Land of the Dead, Robert Rodriguez brought us to Planet Terror as his half of Grindhouse, and the French gave us Robin Campillo‘s Les Revenants (They Came Back), the only arthouse zombie film I’ve ever come across. Boyle also made his own return trip by producing the lacerating and explosive follow-up, 28 Weeks Later.

Meanwhile, trudging towards us from the horizon are Steve Miner’s remake of Romero’s Day of the Dead (with Mena Suvari and Ving Rhames as Capt. Rhodes, the brother that Rhames’ Kenneth from the Dawn of the Dead remake refers to; I’m going to have to assume they’re supposed to be twins), as well as Romero’s Diary of the Dead, where some college students shooting a horror movie encounter some real zombies and decide to go cinema verite.
There’s also Zack Snyder’s zombie epic, Army of the Dead (though this may not come at us for quite a while, as Snyder’s currently knee-deep in his Watchmen adaptation). In it, a father struggles to save his daughter’s life from the ravenous zombie hordes in a quarantined Las Vegas.

But what was perhaps the most intriguing zombie development didn’t quite get out the gate: CBS got a pilot together for something called Babylon Fields, a “sardonic, apocalyptic American comedy-drama where the dead are rising and, as a result, lives are regained, families restored and old wounds reopened.” Michael Cuesta (of Six Feet Under and Dexter) was set as executive producer, and directed the pilot.
Sounding like a blackly comic spin on Les Revenants, I was pretty stoked about this, but sadly, CBS chose not to pick Babylon Fields up as a series.*
I mean, am I the only one who wanted to see zombies represent themselves on the small screen? There are vampires aplenty: on the lamentable Blood Ties, and the upcoming Moonlight (yet another vampire PI) and from Alan Ball, True Blood, based on Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire books, so why not zombies?

But I guess the networks aren’t ready to release them onto the TV screen on a weekly basis just yet. Oh well…
I suppose we’ll just have to content ourselves with seeing them mill about the multiplexes. Don’t forget to buy extra buckets of popcorn. You never know. They could be persuaded to eat something else other than your brain…

* Then again, who knows? Maybe Cuesta can pull a Mulholland Drive and turn Babylon Fields into a feature film. Here’s hoping…

Parting shot: There are also “vampire zombies” (whatever those are exactly) on the way in John Moore’s upcoming Virulents, based on the Virgin Comics title.

Parting shot 2: Reviews of Boy Eats Girl, Plane Dead, 28 Weeks Later, Dexter, and Blood Ties can be found in the Archive.

(Shaun of the Dead, Fido, Land of the Dead, and Day of the Dead OS’s courtesy of; Les Revenants DVD cover art courtesy of

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Season 2 Episode 11
“The Black Cat”
Teleplay by Dennis Paoli and Stuart Gordon; based on the short story by Edgar Allan Poe; directed by Stuart Gordon

In this Stuart Gordon film, adapted from the Edgar Allan Poe tale, Poe (played by Re-Animator’s Jeffrey Combs) finds himself smack dab in the middle of one of his own macabre yarns.
With the help of a credible Combs (who shows us the tortured, boozed-out soul that was Poe), this turns out to be one of the more effective films of this season. What’s noteworthy here is that, aside from the blood and the grue, what also supplies the chills in “The Black Cat” is the horror of trying to create art in the pitiless face of poverty and true human suffering. We also become witness to the trap popularity can become and how any artist can be so easily pigeonholed by the demands of the market.

Though the ending (which does not really come as any huge surprise) does dampen the proceedings somewhat, “The Black Cat” is still a sight better than some of the other offerings of Season 2.
Members of PETA and PAWS should be advised though: this is one film you should probably steer clear of.

(The Black Cat DVD cover art courtesy of

Season 4 Episode 4
“Sorry, Harvey”

Drama is taking the mayor of Beverly Hills out for the night, as he wants his condo (presently right at the border of L.A. County and Beverly Hills) to be part of an annexation that’s up for a vote. Johnny’s sucking up to the mayor, who wants to meet Vince. So Drama ropes Vince in, to help his cause.
Meanwhile, E girds his loins for his face-to-face with Harvey, who is under the impression that they’re all going to Cannes together, in glory. E has to face the notoriously volatile Hollywood power player, and tell him, “Well, we’ve screwed you again.”

At a club, Drama sets the mayor up with Anika, who as it turns out, is a transvestite. When Drama tells the mayor, he is at first shocked, but then asks for discretion from Drama, as he feels a “connection” with Anika, and doesn’t really care what’s under the skirt.
But when the mayor leaves with Anika, exactly what’s under the tranny’s skirt is caught on camera, and pops up on the Internet the next morning, effectively sounding the death knell on both the mayor and Drama getting a nine-oh-two-one-oh zip.
And E’s attempts at telling Harvey keep on getting aborted, until Drama gets tired of the song-and-dance and blurts it out, sending Harvey into an apoplectic fit.

There’s also one of the best guest turns on the show thus far, as M. Night Shyamalan has Ari read his next script. (The details are just too much fun to disclose here. Try and watch the episode if you haven’t seen it yet!)

Parting shot: One wonders what the Entourage writers have against Harvey. (The real Harvey, I mean…)

(Episode image courtesy of; M. Night Shyamalan image courtesy of

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

TV WATCH 2007 (2)

Sam Oliver (Bret Harrison; Grounded For Life and The Loop) is having his 21st birthday, and it’s turning out to be a strange one. Dogs are chasing him, he’s suddenly become telekinetic, and the Devil (genre icon Ray Wise) tried to carjack him.
Well, no, not really. The Devil couldn’t care less about Sam’s ride.
Actually, the Devil shows up in Sam’s life to tell him that even before he was born, his parents sold the soul of their firstborn to the Devil to save Sam’s father’s life. And Sam, being the Olivers’ firstborn, is now indentured to the Devil as the Prince of Darkness’ bounty hunter, whose task on the earthly realm is to hunt down and capture escapees from Hell.
Not bad for a 21st birthday gift.

The biggest draw for me to check out Reaper was to see whether Kevin Smith (who directed the Pilot) had managed to put together something that I might actually enjoy. (The last Smith film that agreed with me was Dogma, which was quite awhile back.)
And on that score, Reaper passes muster. Undoubtedly helped by the writing team of Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas (who’ve written for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Ed), Smith pulls this one off, his triumph being more notable considering this is also an effects-heavy piece, which isn’t normally Smith’s style.

He also manages his cast well, getting some good performances from Harrison and Tyler Labine (who was excellent in the sadly cancelled Invasion) as Bert “Sock” Wysocki, Sam’s partner-in-crime. And Wise clearly appears to be having a lot of fun as Old Scratch.
What’s interesting to note though is that Nikki Reed (who originally played Andi, Sam’s co-worker and erstwhile love interest at The Work Bench) is being replaced with Missy Peregrym (Candice from Heroes). I’m not entirely certain what the reason for the change is, and considering that Reed (who may be remembered by The O.C. viewers as Sadie Campbell) wasn’t horrible in the role, strikes me as a strange casting decision.

Whatever the case though, Reaper is a fun romp, and if it can avoid the pitfalls of becoming an episodic “demonic escapee of the week” show, it may lead to some interesting places.
I also hope the show can explore how something that may appear negative (working for the Man is one thing; working for the Devil… well…) can have positive effects. In the Pilot, they successfully argue how Sam is actually doing a good thing ‘cause he’s putting bad guys away, but down the road, I’d like to see Sam transform from the slacker he is to a motivated individual who sees his calling as far more important than himself.
Now whether they can do that and still keep things funny, I don’t know, but I think it would be good if they tried. Otherwise, the show will reek too much of sitcom.

(Images courtesy of and