Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Gandhi


"Generations to come will scarcely believe that such a one as this walked the earth in flesh and blood."

That tribute from Albert Einstein was one of many paid Mohandas K. Gandhi after he was assassinated by a fellow Hindu who disapproved of the leader's tolerance of other religions. For the sweeping film biography of this slightly built man who became a towering 20th-century political presence, Richard Attenborough shot almost entirely in India--including Porbandar, Gujarat, the place where the leader of the Indian Nationalist Movement was born. Eventually, the people of India would call Gandhi "Mahatma," or "great soul," because of his revolutionary method of non-violent civil disobedience, which he first used as a young attorney in South Africa to defy British laws that unfairly made Indians second-class citizens.

After 21 years in South Africa, Gandhi would return to India and, five years later, lead the fight for independence using the same non-violent approach. After the British gave India home rule in 1947, Gandhi was saddened that, despite all his efforts and teachings, a split between Hindus and Muslims led to riots and the eventual formation of two states-India and Pakistan. Had he lived long enough, he certainly would have taken consolation in the fact that his methods inspired Dr. Martin Luther King to use passive resistance to lead the Civil Rights Movement in America. But assassination seems an ironic but all-too-common end for pacifists.

Although Attenborough's sprawling film logs in at 191 minutes, it has the same riveting quality as David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia." It's a biographical epic that gets to the heart of the character and also captures the spirit of the age. Then again, the historical figure is so fascinating and the script, direction, editing, and performances are all so convincing that it's hard not to be moved by Gandhi's story and by the phenomenal portrayal given by Ben Kingsley, a half-Indian who was also born in the state of Gujarat.

"Gandhi" was Attenborough's and Kingsley's master work, with Attenborough walking off the Academy Awards stage with statues for Best Picture and Best Direction, and Kingsley taking home the Oscar for Best Actor. Out of 11 nominations, "Gandhi" won eight. It was also honored for Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, and Best Original Screenplay-failing to win only for Make-up, Music, and Sound.

In accepting the award for Best Picture, Attenborough remarked that it wasn't the film or the director that the Academy honored that evening, but Gandhi himself. It's easy to see why he would be so sensitive to the shadow that Gandhi cast, because the scene from the movie that required the most extras-some 300,000-drew two-thirds that number as volunteers, people simply wishing to pay tribute to Gandhi once more in this remarkable funeral-procession scene.

"Gandhi" has a similar feel to "Lawrence of Arabia." The cast itself feels like a Who's Who of British cinema, with people like John Gielgud, John Mills, and Trevor Howard putting in appearances. The pacing is unhurried but certainly not slow, the cinematography makes the land and its people a major character in the film, and it begins with the main figure's death, the rest recalled in flashback. There are also dramatic jumps in time. We never, for example, get the sense that Gandhi was in South Africa as long as he really was. But while both heroes are pursued by media, those characters and their storylines aren't quite as developed in "Gandhi" as they were in Lean's film. That's really my only complaint about this otherwise-perfect film. Some of the characters, like the journalists, seem only tangential to the thrust of the narrative, and their interaction with Gandhi does little to further illuminate his character or theirs--only to underscore the fascination with Gandhi that the world had. And frankly, there are better ways to do that.

ans of the film will be glad that Sony finally put some thought and work into the bonus features. The "Special Edition" had only an interview with Kingsley talking about the film, four newsreel clips on the real Gandhi, quotes from Gandhi, and a photo gallery. This new, two-disc version offers 90 minutes of new material, with a director's commentary and nine short features added to the previous materials. It's not exactly the epic treatment, but this compelling story of activism finally gets the package of extras it deserves.
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Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny


Sometimes it's best not to look back; you can't go home again.

After establishing himself in recent years as a pretty good comic actor, even a serious actor, in films like "High Fidelity," "The School of Rock," "Envy," "King Kong," "Nacho Libre," and "The Holiday," Jack Black decided to go back to his roots, so to speak, to the HBO series, "Tenacious D," that helped establish him as a star in the late '90's. I'd say after watching this new, 2006 film, he's better off where he is today.

Not that "The Pick of Destiny" is entirely awful. Fans of Jack Black, Kyle Gass, and the musical duo Tenacious D may find some joy here, and non-fans may find some of the duo's songs clever (if remarkably profane). It's just that beyond a few tunes, the doesn't add up to much more than a made-for-HBO affair, which may seem like short measure for a full-priced DVD.

The movie--cowritten and directed by Liam Lynch, whose work has been mainly in TV stuff--recounts the formation of the two-man rock band, with a greater emphasis on Jack Black's character (whose name in the movie is Jack Black or JB) than on Kyle Gass's character (whose name in the movie, not surprisingly, is Kyle Gass or KG).

Things start off with a short, preliminary cartoon that sets the tone by featuring intestinal gas and farts, then goes on to some incredibly foulmouthed (but humorous) song lyrics. We see young Jack stuck in an ultraconservative Missouri household that believes rock-and-roll music is the work of the Devil (a belief later confirmed in the film), with the father (ironically played by musician Meat Loaf Aday) tearing most of the rock posters off Jack's bedroom walls. But he leaves one, for Ronnie James Dio, the old rocker formerly of Rainbow, Black Sabbath, and Dio), to whom young Jack prays for guidance. Wouldn't you know it, the picture comes to life and Dio tells Jack to sneak out, head for Hollywood, and work like hell.

When he leaves home, Jack looks about twelve years old; when he reaches Hollywood, Jack looks his age, about thirty-six. Remember, this is a comedy. There, Jack meets Kyle, another wannabe rock singer, and together these two losers decide to form a band and win an open-mic contest. But first they learn about the POD, "The Pick of Destiny," a mystical, supranatural guitar pick created by Satan and used by every great band in history. If only they could get their hands on it, they'd be instantly famous. The rest of film involves their quest to steal the guitar pick from the Rock-and-Roll History Museum in Sacramento, California, and use the pick to their advantage.

Along the way, the two leads meet a number of actors in colorful cameo roles, most of whom are funnier than they are. Among these cameos are the aforementioned Meat Loaf, plus John C. Reilly, Amy Poehler, and David Krumholtz, but the two standouts are Ben Stiller as the manager of a guitar store and Tim Robbins as a one-legged wacko. Their characters were the only ones who made me smile.

Apart from the cameos, the movie limps along from one satiric rock song to another, with only the music to carry it. Left to its own devices, the plot is tedious, slow, and unfunny. Nevertheless, the music has a kind of "Spinal Tap" or "Rocky Horror Picture Show" quality to it that can be amusing, if you don't mind the plethora of obscenities it contains. There's a brief parody of "A Clockwork Orange" that's cute, too, and a deft classical riff, but that is about the extent of the film's creativity, the rest of it filled with bathroom humor and foul language. Incidentally, the fellows name their band after birthmarks each of them has on their butt, Jack "Tenac" and Kyle "ious D." It's destiny, you see.

How much you like the film may depend on your tolerance for watching a couple of overweight, middle-aged men acting silly as struggling rock musicians with writer's block. It a one-note gag that goes on far too long.
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Going to School in India


When a seven year old asked U.K. schoolteacher Lisa Heydlauff, "What is it like to go to school in India?" she answered by writing an award-winning book, Going to School in India. After that, she expanded the project to include a series of short films narrated by Indian children who tell about their home and school experiences. And that turned into a DVD which benefits the non-profit Going to School Foundation. School isn't compulsory in India and not nearly enough children attend, so the Foundation was formed in order to promote a "school is fun" attitude among Indian youngsters. But while Heydlauff's project is aimed at Indian children, "Going to School in India" will be of interest to children everywhere.

Filmed in the up-tempo, quick-cut style of "Popular Mechanics for Kids," with a kid narrator and non-stop, infectious Indian music playing in the background, these vignettes of life in India provide an excellent way to show Western children how some children would do anything to have the education that many here take for granted. But it's not all woe-is-them, we-have-it-great. Some of these clips are bound to inspire a little jealousy, if not a spirit of romantic adventure that might lead to some of our children wanting to see and learn about more of the world.

Take the opening sequence, "Going to School in the Lake." If I saw this segment when I was a kid, I'd be looking for ways to coax my family to move to Kashmir. In this beautiful northern section of India we meet 12-year-old Ramesh, a young girl who lives on an island with her family in a house on stilts. Like Venice, the only form of transportation is boat, and we see Ramesh and her sister paddling their canoe-like boat to go to a school on another island. There, they learn about the flora and fauna of their world, but they also learn things that children everywhere learn: reading, writing, and mathematics. Vikash Nowlakha directed this short film and most of the others on the DVD, which use kid narrators and, presumably because of the language barrier, dubbed voiceover narrators interpreting for the youngsters. The strength of "Going to School in India" is how personal the narrations are. These children know they have one shot to communicate with others, kind of like unseen pen pals, and they share items that are special to them, things they like to do for fun, and even what their ambitions are.

From a virtual paradise it's a real culture-shock to hear from 11-year-old Saddam what life and school is like in the bustling, traffic-congested city of Bombay. We're shown a tiny corner where he lives with his family. No TV, and just one game, which he proudly shows children elsewhere-the audience that each of these young narrators has been told they should address. Children in the U.S. and elsewhere who take the bus to get to school will find it fascinating that Saddam's school is the bus. The Door Step School has slates and educational materials on it, and for two hours a day. Then the school moves to another location and another group of children. The rest of the day isn't spent goofing off, though. Saddam is shown selling things on the streets in order to help his mother. His dream? To become a famous Bollywood actor and dancer, and he shows us a few of his moves.

"Going to School from a Tribe" introduces us to 10-year-old Sauda. There's a nice gender balance among the narrators, and we learn that while girls didn't fish in Kashmir they are allowed to use bows and arrows in Sauda's village. At school they take nature walks and, during PE or recess, take to the trees like monkeys, scampering up and down the vines that hang from gigantic Banyan-like trunks. The series shows how different school is for children in different parts of India, and how teachers instruct students in the basics but also try hard to make school fun. Why? Well, because they want students to return the next day, and if school isn't compulsory, it had better be fun. Here at the Government Primary School in Tarjasanji, Gojapati District, Orissa, students play a learning game where they pretend to negotiate in the marketplace. They learn how to bargain and, when all else fails, to trade for what their families need. And one of them plays a dog who steals some food from a vendor and is subsequently "beaten" (not really) by the merchants.

"Going to School in a Boat" is narrated by a youngster who is "eight years old, but might be nine." She is the first in her family to go to school, and Western children will be astounded to see that her entire family lives on a large canoe-shaped boat. They boil fish there (their only mean), they sleep there, and they play there. She takes a school-boat to a thatched-hut school on the mainland where she "still feels wobbly" from being on the water so much. There, with other friends, Durg, Veera, and Dana learn skills that their parents never learned.

amesh lives under similarly stark conditions. In "Going to School in a Mud Desert," we see his family's thatched hut, a small simple structure that rises from an endless cracked mudflat that is full of water just once each year, and dry the rest of the time. Ramesh thinks that all children in the U.S. live in "palaces," and certainly parents can point that, by comparison, many American homes are palatial.

Girls will be even more profoundly affected to hear Gamlesh tell how she must go to a special school at night, lit by solar lanterns because her village has no electricity. This, after working all day to tend the family's goats and do other chores, while the boys attend the government school. Boys don't have to work until they are 10, because they are expected to attend school by day. It's only the girls who really want to learn that are featured in "Going to School in the Dark." Gamlesh's classes include mock exercises in parliamentary procedure, grooming these young women to help change the laws that make them second-class citizens. "It is very different to be a girl in my world," the 12 year old says.

Diversity (and triumphing over adversity) is celebrated in "Going to School on Wheels," which shows 12-year-old Haider being picked up by classmates every day and wheeled through the streets in his wheelchair. As with the other segments, the conditions of the school are quite different, and the landscape also varies significantly. Most of the children in these segments clearly love school, but none more than Haider, who says that he would have no friends if it weren't for school. There, he comes to life, and says he wants to learn to become a teacher so that he can work with children like him with disabilities.

"Going to School on a Mountaintop" introduces us to a harsh climate where it is "very cold" with lots of snow. Nine-year-old Skarma brushes his teeth with a toothbrush left outside on a rock next to a standpipe and uses the cold water for his personal hygiene. In Tukla, there are no roads, and one striking image is that of prayer flags flown like laundry on clotheslines for "the old women with decayed teeth." Young children are taught to brush their teeth, but for the old ones, only prayer will help. There's a similar sense of the spiritual in "Going to School in a Monastery," where we're introduced to Lobzang, a 10 year old who's been living at the school since he was six.

"Going to School in India" won Best International Short at the Kids First! Film Festival and Best Family Film at the Big Bear Lake International Film Festival, San Diego International Children's Film Festival, 2006 South Asian International Film Festival, LA International Children's Film Festival, and Newport Beach Film Festival.

Collectively, the segments run around 76 minutes. "Going to School in India" is distributed by Master Communications (www.master-comm.com), but the foundation also has a website (goingtoschool.com). All proceeds from the sale of the DVD go toward promoting education in India.
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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Evil


One of the worst things that can be said about any film-domestic or foreign-is that it reminds the viewer of another, more prestigious or better produced film. It is inevitable with the sheer number of films released every year there will be some overlap in ideas, situations and characters. After all, Hollywood isn´t the only place producing films, now is it? There is a diverse group of people who call themselves filmmakers, all of whom borrow ideas from other productions. Sometimes, though, a concept sounds too much like an existing film. Those are the times a level head associated with the production needs to step back and reevaluate the situation.

Luckily, "Evil" is not one of those times.

"Evil" (otherwise known as "To Kako" in its native Greek) is "Dawn of the Dead" mashed together with "28 Days Later" with a sprinkling of every 1980´s Hollywood horror movie ever created. The story centers in Athens, Greece, and follows a group of ordinary people (a young girl, a cab driver, an architect, etc.) struggling to survive as they are pursued by bloodthirsty zombies-their former neighbors, family and friends. Really, that´s the entire plot of the movie.

For an 83-minute production, "Evil" has a lot going for it. Yes, it borrows quite heavily from dozens of movies we´ve already seen, but it also knows how to have fun within the context of the story. For example, in the middle of running from a mob of zombies, one of the female characters takes off her shoe and flings it down the street. Somehow, the heel imbeds itself in a zombie forehead. It´s certainly not designed as a comedic moment; it just comes off that way in the context of the story.

The production values, such as they are, bring to mind the seminal American zombie movie, "Dawn of the Dead". Visual effects that don´t look remotely realistic (spurting blood and heads being split down the middle, to name two) seem like a twisted combination of legitimate and slapped together. More accurately, they feel like a relic of the 1970s before effects and makeup masters like Stan Winston and Rick Baker became the norm and not the exception.

And that´s not a bad thing, being compared to a pillar of the genre like "Dawn of the Dead". Unlike that film, though, there is no deep meaning behind "Evil". We´re not going to learn the meaning of life or even how to survive a zombie attack. It´s good, old-fashioned (albeit Greek) fun. There´s little more you can ask for in a movie that takes itself so seriously yet opens itself up for laughter at the same time.

The characters, by and large, are unimportant. The plot is unimportant. Which makes "Evil" all the harder to accurately review. I will admit I don´t have a proper frame of reference to judge this film against any other Greek productions and holding it up to an American film isn´t fair. The only criteria behind the film must have been to make it fun. And it is fun, if only for the various zombie kills. One piece of the movie does puzzle me, though: the ending. Without spoiling too much, if this group has survived-more or less-the previous 82 minutes, then why in the world would they run into the one place they couldn´t get out of? What is the point? Did they simply give up? Is there a part of the movie I missed where a rescue was due to arrive but never did? Was it a miscalculation? I kept waiting through the end credits to see if clarification was coming. It didn´t.

American horror movies aren´t particularly known for their acting. Based on "Evil", I´d venture to say that phenomenon is not confined the American genre. The assembled actors tear into their roles with gusto, though that´s not saying a whole lot considering the amount of running, jumping, yelling and action on the screen. In short, this isn´t an actor´s film; it belongs to the makeup and digital effects crewmembers. Those effects, the ones that should carry productions like this, don´t do the job as well as they probably should. Had the special makeup effects lived up to their role in the production, would "Evil" be a better movie?
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The Return


At first glance, "The Return" would seem to be another in the line of repetitive remakes of a more successful Asian horror film. The cover art certainly bears a resemblance to the omnipresent pale faced ghost with long, black hair. The film also stars Sarah Michelle Gellar (now sporting said black hair), who shoots a hat trick by following up "The Grudge" and "Grudge 2" with another spooky film. But, "The Return" isn't a remake nor is it truly a horror film. It also isn't very good movie. In fact, it's a paint-by-numbers affair wherein the filmmakers do everything superficially correct, but add no meat to the bones.

Gellar plays Joanna Mills, a traveling sales rep for a trucking firm. She enjoys being on the road constantly to ensure that the "bad things" don't ever catch up with her. The film opens with a young Joanna (Darrian McClanahan), who was recently in a car accident, accompanying her father, Ed (Sam Shepard), to a carnival. There, she is frightened by a strange, long-haired man in denim. Grown up, Joanna now lives in St. Louis and hasn't been home for a long time.

Joanna finally decides to return in order to win over a lucrative contract. She makes brief stops to visit her father and an old friend. Her return home also brings about odd visions and memories. While on the road, she comes across two crashed cars. The next morning, Joanna awakens in the middle of a field with no sign of any accident. These occurrences bring her to the small town of LaSalle, which she has vivid memories of, despite never being there before. She eventually finds a connection with Terry Stahl (Peter O'Brien), a man whose wife was murdered years ago. Stahl has been somewhat of a pariah in town since the killer was never caught and many point the finger at him.

While "The Return" isn't a remake of an Asian horror film, it does follow the formula of the lead character experiencing supernatural events and investigating their origins. Like the majority of Asian horror films, "The Return" does many things right when it comes to the visuals. Director Asif Kapadia made his feature-film debut with the highly-acclaimed, period adventure "The Warrior." Here, Kapadia does a fine job in creating the look of the film and composing some stylish shots. However, it just feels like he's read a Dummies Guide on how to make a thriller. One scene has Joanna hiding out in a darkened barn when a hand suddenly bursts through a wall desperately trying to grab at her. Yes, it's well done, but it's also a sequence that's been used countless times before.

The main problem lies in a script that feels incredibly paper thin. The characters are never fleshed out and it seems as if sections of the story were left out on the cutting room floor. Not surprisingly, the film clocks in at just under an hour and a half so it wasn't as if the movie was running long. The story is supposed to be about Joanna's world being turned upside-down, but we never get a sense of what her life is like beforehand. Thus, there's no tension. We don't know how things have changed in her life.
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Alexander Revisited


"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." --Edward Hickson, "Moral Song"

It probably took less effort for Alexander to conquer the world than for Oliver Stone to get the version of the movie he wanted out to the public. This is the third edition of his "Alexander" that Warner Bros. have issued. First, there was the theatrical version, 175 minutes; then there was the Director's Cut, 167 minutes; now there's "Alexander Revisited," presumably Stone's last word on the subject, 214 minutes. For the Director's Cut, he removed eight minutes of material; not happy, he has now restored about forty minutes. The film comes in two parts, with a director's introduction and an intermission.

"If at first you don't succeed, to hell with it!" --Charles E. Fritch, short story

The years 2004 and 2005 were big on sword-and-sandals epics from big-name directors. We had Antoine Fuqua's "King Arthur" (2004), Wolfgang Petersen's "Troy" (2004), Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven" (2005), and Oliver Stone's "Alexander" (2004). I can't say that any of them--movies or directors--succeeded to any remarkable degree, nor am I convinced that making an interminably long film even longer helps the situation much.

In his introduction to "Alexander Revisited," Stone tells us that this third version of the movie was done exclusively for the home DVD audience, and that it now resembles those epics of his youth, with an intermission at just the right time between the two parts. The intermission, he says, makes the film seem less rushed and gives viewers a chance to look back on what they've just seen and think about it.

He explains that he changed the movie's structure, starting "on a different note with the battle of Gaugamela up front, and in between we have the story of Alexander's youth and how he became such a great leader." Therefore, in theory, you start with a much stronger Alexander at the beginning and you're shown how he gradually got there. You should also see the family relationships better as Alexander grows up. At least, that was the intent of the new edit.

Stone continues his introduction by saying it was a totally new experience for him to recut a film without the restrictions of length or studio interference, without critics, uncensored, unrestrained, a freedom he had never had before. He goes on to say, "Those of you who liked the first 'Alexander' I think will like this even more. Those of you who hated it, I think you're going to hate it even more, but I think it's crazier and it's better that way. And I can go to my grave with a good conscience." Lastly, he tells us in a printed insert that we can "rest assured this my last pass, as there is no more footage to be found." OK, I won't argue. Stone probably did make a better film this time around, just not a wholly memorable one. Let's take a look at this third version.

"Fortune favours the bold." --Virgil, "The Aeneid"

Let's begin by making it known that Alexander was a Macedonian, a king of ancient Macedonia, which in the 4th century B.C. achieved predominance over Greece, as "Revisited" makes clear. Present-day Macedonians made such a fuss about this matter during the movie's theatrical run, they practically besieged movie houses worldwide. Now, if only director Oliver Stone had been able to engender as much passion in his recut movie as the Macedonians did in their concerns about it, this over-lengthy film might have had a chance of entertaining us.

As it is, Stone's "Alexander Revisited" is too long and dragged out to be any more effective than his first two versions were. In real life, Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.) was a king of Macedonia, a ruler of Greek city-states, and a conqueror of the Persian Empire from Asia Minor and Egypt all the way to India. In Stone's portrait of the man, he seems a little less than "Great." He's, like, Alexander the Lukewarm, the Insignificant, or perhaps Alexander the Jabberer, he talks so much.

I suppose we figure on a lot from the director of "Platoon," "Wall Street," "JFK," "Born on the Fourth of July," "The Doors," and "Salvador." We may forget that he also gave us such clunkers as "Nixon" and "Any Given Sunday." Nor does everyone remember the man's excesses. When Stone does something, he periodically gets carried away with it, leading some critics to believe that he can become too obsessed with his subject matter. So it is with "Alexander Revisited," where Stone wants to do a comprehensive character analysis, a historical documentary, a battle epic, and possibly even a parable about our own times all rolled into one gigantic, three-and-a-half-hour product. Stone overextends himself. Anyway, let me list a few of the things I liked and a few of the things I didn't like about this newly expanded extravaganza.

Strengths:
1. I liked the opening credits, which are quite beautiful, artistic, and creative.

2. I liked the settings and set designs, starting with the renowned port of Alexandria, Egypt, and then on to the ancient city of Babylon. This is spectacle on a scale of Cecil B. DeMille and a delight to the eye.

3. I liked the costumes and pageantry, particularly Alexander's triumphal entrance into Babylon, which must be one of the most spectacular scenes ever filmed.

4. I liked the musical score by Vangelis. It may not be as remarkable as his score for "Chariots of Fire," but it's got some good, subtle, simple tunes working for it, as well as a few instances of big-screen grandeur.

5. I liked Val Kilmer as Philip, Alexander's lustful, boisterous, libertine father. "All your life, beware of women" is the best advice he finds for his son.

6. I liked parts of the battle sequences, especially the CGI and aerial shots in the early sequence against Darius. It's brilliantly reenacted and powerfully conveyed, despite my reservations about close-ups below. I liked the director's devotion to realism, meaning that the fighting is bloody and riotous in the extreme.

7. I liked some of the newly added material, especially those parts that helped clarify Alexander's character, as well as a few more poignant segments. A scene among the wounded directly after the battle of Gaugamela is quite touching.

8. I liked the greater emphasis in "Revisited" on the philosopher Aristotle (Christopher Plummer), Alexander's teacher, as he discusses with him and his boyhood friends the importance of male relationships, emphasizing a proper perspective on dreams, ambition, reality, and desires of the flesh.

9. Speaking of which, I liked Stone's more open treatment of Alexander's homosexuality this time around. Homosexuality and bisexuality were common practices in ancient Greece, but Stone never explored the ideas for any specific purpose the first time around. Nearly every other scene made some reference to Alexander's love for his boyhood friend and adult lover, Hephaistion (Jared Leto), or his eyes for male dancers and so on. Yet Stone did little with this behavior before but hint at things. Now he is more explicit, with scenes involving Alexander and Hephaistion and Alexander and a young Persian attendant. Moreover, the first cuts of the movie barely mentioned Alexander's new wife's envy of Hephaistion, an envy that lasted for a couple of minutes in a single scene and was heard of no more. But this time we see more of it. And besides that, we also see more of his new wife, and I mean that literally. "Revisited" contains more nudity and sex than the first renditions, and anything is a help.

Weaknesses:
1. I still didn't care for the way the story kept jumping around in time. Yes, Stone has tried in "Revisited" to iron out the erratic timeline of the first movie and make things more linear, but it's not enough. The film begins in 323 B.C. at the death of Alexander, then moves ahead forty years to a scene of old Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) as he dictates Alexander's history to a scribe (and to us). After that, the narrative flip-flops around, starting with Alexander's triumph over Darius, the King of Persia (against overwhelming odds), and then going back and forth in Alexander's life from his boyhood to his manhood, back to his childhood, ahead to his teen years, back again to his boyhood, forward again to his adulthood. It's not quite so disconcerting this time around, with the narrative a trifle more direct, but I continued to find the director's storytelling more than a bit convoluted and distracting.

2. Although I think Colin Farrell is a terrific actor, I didn't care for his casting as Alexander, either as a teen or older. The myths said that Alexander was born of Zeus, a myth that his mother, reputed to be a sorceress, continued to foster. But I found Farrell too old for the part of the teen Alexander and too wimpy, whiney, and indecisive as the adult Alexander. He's supposed to be a puzzling, unsettled character of whom we must ask, how did he manage to conquer half the known world at such a young age? Was he a great strategist, a great leader of men, a great warrior? In Farrell's (and Stone's) hands we never find out. Alexander seems merely a restless, sometimes petulant, ofttimes conflicted individual who has nothing better to do than conquer countries and name new cities after himself (something like seventeen or more "Alexandrias"). He seems entirely devoted to individual freedom, and he is most generous to his defeated enemies, yet many of his own people saw these traits as weaknesses. We see them only as contradictions that are never resolved in a military man. Worse, Farrell never dominates the screen as the heroes of other big-screen epics did. Looking back, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Clark Gable, even the stars of "The Lord of the Rings" were able to hold our attention, no matter how big the production was around them. Farrell tends to get lost in the surrounding spectacle.
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Out Of Sight


There was a time when "Sex, Lies and Videotape" director Steven Soderbergh was on a roll. "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic" garnered him two nominations and one Academy Awards victory as Best Director. The third film in his trifecta was "Ocean´s Eleven," which was a tremendous success. However, a couple films before Soderbergh was thrust into the directorial stratosphere, Soderbergh directed the wonderful ensemble film "Out of Sight" which featured the up and coming stars George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez and helped pave the way to the success he would soon find. The film would reclaim only thirty eight million dollars of its estimated forty eight million budget, but has since become a bankable catalog title.

"Out of Sight" features not just Clooney and Lopez, but familiar faces Dennis Farina, Luis Guzman, Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Don Cheadle, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson and Albert Brooks. Don Cheadle is an actor I enjoy and consider a talent that is not used as much as he should be. Steve Zahn, Ving Rhames and Michael Keaton are also very entertaining personalities that tend to be overlooked for bigger A-List names. Of course, Samuel L. Jackson is simply the man. This is the supporting cast, however, and the primary reason to watch "Out of Sight" is for its two main stars. "Out of Sight" was one of the first successful outings for Clooney to build upon his success on the television hit show "ER" and one of the first starring roles for "Lopez" after her involvement in the film "Selena."

Out of all of Soderbergh´s films, "Out of Sight" is perhaps my favorite. I do enjoy the Danny Ocean series and thought "Traffic" was brilliant, but it is a film that is hard to sit down and just watch and relax. With Clooney, Zahn, Rhames and Cheadle, "Out of Sight" is a film I´ve watched perhaps four times, but it has kept my attention each and every time I´ve done so. Of course, I despise "Erin Brokovich" and still resent the fact that Julia Roberts somehow won an Oscar over more deserving actresses. The story is fresh and unique and the misfit characters that come to life at the hands of the very strong supporting ensemble cast are the film´s greatest strength and the primary reason I enjoy it so much. Rhames´ "Buddy" the religious criminal is one of the more entertaining and unique characters I can remember seeing.

With Clooney´s wit and charm and an young and innocent Jennifer Lopez batting her lovely eyes, the two possess very good chemistry; an important aspect of a film that is a part-time romantic comedy. Clooney is the charismatic and clever con-man who has robbed more banks than anybody, but has never brandished a gun. When it comes to charisma, but with a hint of a bad boy side, is there really anybody else in Hollywood that can pull this off better than George Clooney? Yes, he didn´t exactly amaze us as Batman, but when it comes to charm, charisma and cleverness, Clooney is one of the best. Lopez was not the big celebrity she would become at the time of "Out of Sight" and in this film; she was a pretty face without a big name. I´m not sure that Lopez could have made this film a few years after she did and her lack of superstardom helped her maintain an innocence and naive ness that stemmed from this being one of her early roles.

The film is adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel. I´m a huge Quentin Tarantino fan and, therefore, have been introduced to the veteran author´s works through cinema. Leonard has since become one of my favorite novelists and Soderbergh does a fine job of adapting the book to the big screen. The films that Leonard has had brought to the big screen have typically been more violent, and "Out of Sight" is not without violence, but Soderbergh gives is a more tender feeling that what Tarantino, Barry Sonnenfeld and others have done. The tenderness, of course, stems primarily from the chemistry between Clooney and Lopez, but also from the friendship shared between Clooney and Rhames´ characters. With Elmore Leonard´s story, the talented ensemble cast has a great story to act out and does so greatly with "Out of Sight."

The general gist of the film is that Jack Foley (George Clooney) is a bank robber who is nabbed, but manages to escape. He is stopped shy of freedom by a lovely U.S. Marshal, Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). However, his best friend, Buddy (Ving Rhames) is there to kidnap the young police officer and shove her in the trunk of the vehicle with Jack. The two talk and find an interest in one another. Foley is looking for one more big score and travels to Detroit, where he and Buddy are re-introduced to their former jailmates Snoopy (Don Cheadle) and Glenn (Steve Zahn) and an opportunity to hoist six million dollars of rough diamonds from Dick Ripley (Albert Brooks). Karen and Jack struggle between their respective roles as cop and robber, but a strong romantic interest in the other. Snoopy is looking to benefit from Jack and Glenn´s planned robbery and screw the other two men out of more than money.

As I´ve said, "Out of Sight" is a great film to sit down and relax to. With Cheadle and Rhames, two of my favorite actors are present and Steve Zahn is his usual scene stealing self. Of course, Clooney is fantastic and Lopez has what I consider to be her best role. Michael Keaton and Dennis Farina do not have large roles, but they do well with the time they share on screen. Samuel L. has only a cameo, but any film that has Sam Jackson in it surely benefits. The story that is based on an Elmore Leonard novel is superb and Steven Soderbergh masterfully combines the talent and story and provides a film with wit, charm, humor and excitement. "Out of Sight" is a film that crosses many genres. It is a romantic comedy, but it is a crime caper film. It is a comedy, but an action film. The film contains absolutely no Julia Roberts. With all of this going for it, I think it is Soderbergh´s most entertaining film.
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Superman: The Movie


The original "Superman" film was released in 1978 and starred the relatively unknown (and unfortunately late) Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. Warner Bros. had originally wanted a bigger name star such as Paul Newman to portray Clark Kent / Superman, but filmmaker Richard Donner was very impressed with Reeve and his decision proved to be the correct one as Reeve is now the iconic embodiment of Superman. After strong screen tests, Margot Kidder landed the role of Lois Lane. To give the film some starpower, Marlon Brando got top billing as Superman´s father, Jor-El. Gene Hackman was cast as the villainous and highly entertaining Lex Luthor. Regardless of the bigger names in the film, Christopher Reeve won the world over as Clark Kent and his red-cape wearing alter-ego, Superman.

The first film in the series finds Jor-El sending his son off to the distant and primitive planet of Earth to find refuge as his home planet of Krypton is on the brink of being consumed by their dying sun. Jor-El also imprisons three villains into a crystal prison that will carry them endlessly through space. Oddly, I never quite understood the need to send three prisoners off of a planet ready to be pulverized by its supernova sun, but this little plotline sets up the entire debacle known as "Superman II." The son of Jor-El lands in Smallville, Kentucky and is discovered by Jonathan Kent (Glenn Ford, "Teahouse of the August Moon") and his wife Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter). They adopt the boy that they find inside of a meteorite and name him Clark. They know of his powers, but raise him in a manner that perfectly facilitates a secret identity of the nerdy and uncharismatic Clark Kent.

Clark arrives in the big city and finds his calling as Superman and quickly rescues a lot of innocent people who find themselves facing danger and death. Having taken a job working for a newspaper, Superman becomes the target of a media frenzy and Clark helps Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) get an exclusive interview with Superman and fulfills his desires to spend more time with Lois, whom has caught his romantic yearnings. All is not well and the supervillain Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) puts together a plot that will allow him to own a tremendous amount of beachfront property after he plunges California into the sea and incapacitates Superman with a small dose of Kryptonite.

Running at a lengthy 151 minutes, the first film of the Superman franchise feels like a very long and slow building story for much of its running length. A few daring rescues do take place and the flying sequences were quite tremendous for their day. A scene where Superman rescues Lois Lane from a helicopter accident has become one of the more memorable scenes in the series. If it weren´t for the incredible acting of Christoper Reeve as both Clark Kent and Superman, I don´t feel this film would have succeeded. I never found Margot Kidder appealing as Lois Lane and though Gene Hackman did have a few very good lines, he seemed out of place as Lex Luthor. The whole plot to destroy California to simply obtain some high priced real estate worked, allow for a lot of plot holes. For instance, after Superman rolled back time, how did he stop the missiles?

Highly flawed, at time tedious, "Superman: The Movie" still succeeds as a picture. When the film is running along nicely, it is one of the better comic book adaptations to ever hit the big screen. Watching Clark grow up on the farm and stumble around New York City are high points of the film. His interactions with Lex Luthor and the doldrums of the grand finale are low points. There are a lot of fans of the man in red and blue tights and they hold this picture in very high regard. Director Richard Donner made a lot of great decisions, but I feel he left his first effort directing the Man of Steel bordering on a greatness it could have achieved with just a bit more vision, better pacing and greater conflict between Lex Luthor and Superman.
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Moon Phase - Phase 2


Kouhei, an occult magazine photographer with a mysterious gift for taking photos of paranormal creatures, finds his life getting more complicated every day. In "Moon Phase" volume 1, he encountered Hazuki, a beautiful young vampire girl who followed him from overseas to his home in Japan. She was quickly adopted into Kouhei's family by his grandfather – who insists she wear cat ears at all times- and now she looks upon Kouhei with a serious brother complex.

Hazuki is a bratty and violent girl who likes to boss Kouhei around. She claims he is her slave, and she constantly reminds him of that fact. Her possessive and bossy behavior is in complete contrast to the frilly dresses, ribbons, and bows she always wears. Daily life with a spoiled and immature vampire girl takes a toll on poor Kouhei, who always ends up cleaning up Hazuki's mistakes. Hazuki has always been alone, and doesn't know how to relate to others. This results in some misuse of her powers. Kouhei continues to resist Hazuki's lolita charm, thank goodness, and he still treats her like an annoying kid sister. He may be a pathetic wimp, but at least he has some common sense.

Meanwhile, the mysterious vampire, Elfriede, returns to threaten Hazuki and convince her to return to the castle. She also has an unusual interest in Kouhei. This leads to some revelations about the nature of vampires and their social structure. Hazuki's constant refusals to return home backfire when a more sinister presence arrives to take her back by force.

This volume continues to tease the audience with hints of Luna, Hazuki's serious alter ego. Hazuki has few memories from her time as Luna, but the results of her Luna transformation are painful for Kouhei.

"Moon Phase" Volume 2 contains episodes 6-10 of this 26-episode series. The first couple of episodes continue to address Kouhei's daily life around the bratty Hazuki. Again, the cute and spooky atmosphere in this series is very nice. I like the balance of comedy and horror. However, I am still put off by the lolita complex factor of the plot. Considering how young Hazuki is supposed to be, I found all of the suggestive artwork for her to be rather creepy. Fortunately, the gothic lolita aspect of the series is toned down a little bit in favor of introducing more villains and bringing in some conflict and angst. Shallow relationships grow deeper in this volume, and some secrets are revealed.

I like the fact that this show is not entirely slapstick. There is some comedy, but it is not over the top. The art is extremely cute and the character designs are attractive when they are not pandering to the gothic lolita fans. The DVD cover art for volume 2 is not as outright adorable as volume 1, but it is still eye-catching.

The background music continues to be my favorite part of this series. It is haunting and dark, with a lot of soft cello and violins. Very lovely. There are some lively vocal pieces played during the fight scenes that are also attention grabbers. I must get this soundtrack. The opening theme, "Nekomimi Mode" is hypnotic and cool, while the alternate opening music for episode 9, "Tsukiyomi Mode" is also addictive.

am curious to see where this show will go. The introduction of the villain provides some much-needed relief to the cutesy lolita plot, and the exploration of the show's vampire mythology is a welcome change from pointless fan-service. The villain is a good one, and the tension he brings looks like it will really kick-start the plot.
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Star Trek: The Animated Series


"Star Trek" lasted for only three seasons in its first television series. Regardless of the relatively short run, the series gained a faithful fan base and those behind the series heard the cries for more "Star Trek." A new live-action series was not the first revitalization for the starship Enterprise; an animated series carried the torch before the series went theatrical. The animated series is noteworthy for having most key members of the crew providing voice talents. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, James Doohan, DeForest Kelley, George Takei and Nichelle Nichols all lent their familiar voices to the animated series. Only Walter Koenig failed to make an appearance in the animated adventures. However, even with key members of the television series reprising their roles, the animated series would barely survive past one year and was axed after just a handful of episodes in its second series. While most may not realize that Captain Kirk and his crew had a second shot at television, the series is beloved by fans and provided an opportunity for the Enterprise to undergo bigger and grander adventures that were not possible with the special effects of the time and it served as a bridge between the original television series and the first motion picture.

The 1966-1969 original television series was campy and fun. William Shatner was iconic as Captain Kirk and slept with blue alien babes and wrestled with unusually dressed aliens. He shot anything that looked threatening and the red security guy always died. The crew typically escaped injury and at times, the series played out like an old western in space, with Shatner as the all too familiar gunslinger who swept through each and every town looking for adventure. In contrast, the 1973 animated series had the advantage of having limitless worlds and creatures as a result of animation, but never seemed to capitalize on that fact and ultimately was far more reserved and less entertaining that the live action original series. Instead of just zapping the bad alien, Kirk discussed situations with Spock, Bones and the rest of the crew. Intelligent and thought out plans were put into play and every series had a life and death situation that needed to be rectified. Spock had a far more expanded role than what he had in the television series, but with Kirk playing closer to Picard and not the Kirk we know and love, the animated series lacks greatly in oomph.

Because of a strike by the Writers Guild of America in 1973, a higher breed of writers produced material for the animated series. During the strike, writers were not able to write for live action series, but animation did not fall under the restrictive guidelines. This allowed for detailed and plot heavy episodes, but a majority of the episodes carry familiar themes from the television show. For instance, one of the iconic episodes of the original series was "The Trouble With Tribbles." In the animated series, "More Tribbles, More Troubles" builds upon that well-loved live action episode and burdens it with political dealings, double-crossing and complicated discussions on reproduction. It continues on with the Tribbles story, but fails to keep the spirit. "Mudd´s Passion" finds the space age shyster peddling a love potion to a pretty blonde member of the crew who madly loves the Vulcan-blooded Spock and yearns for the pointy eared science officer to return her passion. Watching an animated Spock trying to be animated with love was painful and the character of Mudd lacked the spirit of the original series. "Yesteryear" finds Spock time traveling to his youth and performing tasks that are necessary to maintain his own survival. Spock´s father Sarek is seen in this episode.

In addition to the three episodes briefly discussed here, there are nineteen more half hour episodes contained on the four disc DVD edition of "Star Trek: The Animated Series." Sixteen of the episodes are considered to be part of the first season and six episodes comprise the second, shortened and final season where the original crew of the starship Enterprise graced the small screen. The list of episodes are as follows:

Season 1:
1. Beyond the Farthest Star
2. Yesteryear
3. One of Our Planets is Missing
4. The Lorelei Signal
5. More Tribbles, More Troubles
6. The Survivor
7. The Infinite Vulcan
8. The Magicks of Megas-Tu
9. Once Upon a Planet
10. Mudd´s Passion
11. The Terratin Incident
12. The Time Trap
13. The Ambergis Element
14. The Slaver Weapon
15. The Eye of the Beholder
16. The Jihad

Season 2:
1. The Pirates of Orion
2. Bem
3. The Practical Joker
4. Albatross
5. How Sharper Than a Serpent´s Tooth
6. The Counter-Clock Incident

I had intended to write a brief summary of each episode and give it a letter grade. Halfway through the list, I realized I was giving almost every episode a letter grade of C or D. "Beyond the Farthest Star" was one of my favorite episodes, as Kirk busted out with the blasters early on and this episode started the series out on a good foot. After that, I enjoyed the Lorelei Signal and its Amazon women in space theme. "The Magicks of Megas-Tu" was downright cheesy and strange, but I liked it. "Once Upon A Planet" finds "Alice in Wonderland" going insane. Though hokey, I enjoyed this episode as well. "Mudd´s Passion" was unique and felt much like a typical original series episode. "The Slaver Weapon" was an uneven episode, but held my interest with its interesting objects of war and the discoveries of their purposes. "The Jihad" was another of my favorite episodes. I enjoyed the overall story and conflict prevalent in the half hour adventure. Season two was very run-of-the-mill and for the most part, it neither impressed or depressed me. "The Albatross" was the episode I liked the most and allowed McCoy one of his best episodes.

There were a few episodes that I simply had to scratch my head and wonder if there were drugs involved. "The Infinite Vulcan" just threw everything we knew and loved about James T. Kirk out of the window. The oversized clones were bad enough, but if any episode found Kirk using too much intellect, it was this one. Picard didn´t arrive for over a decade later. "The Terratin Incident" was another laughable flop. Watching Kirk save somebody from a fish tank because everybody became action figure sized was an example of what bounds to not break when animation is the medium of choice. "The Eye of the Beholder" featured twenty foot slugs that made Spock look like a special education student. Need I say more on that one? Finally, "How Sharper than a Serpent´s Tooth" had not only an unusually spoken title, but took upon itself to predate "Stargate" and present an absurd tale where aliens have links to the old Aztec and other ancient civilizations.

I hate to say that "Star Trek: The Animated Series" was boring. There were certainly a couple episodes I thoroughly enjoyed. By eliminating the bounds of photographic reality and the physical capabilities and attributes of the actors, the animated series allowed for stories and plots that would have been near impossible to film in the early Seventies. The problem is, many of these episodes came across as pedestrian and repetitive. The show gave us adventure and excitement, but the animated characters almost seemed sedated. Were the actors bored with providing voice to their characters? The animated series was also to have been a children´s series, but with all the philosophy and intellect that was spewed, it was more suited to adults than children and lacked the pure fun and adventure of the original television series. It was certainly nice to have the actual talent involved in the series and in that regard, "Star Trek: The Animated Series" was quite historic.

Those hard core Trekkies out there are going to want to grab hold of this series. I´m not a "Star Trek" fan, but I did love the original series and think that Captain Kirk would kick Picard´s butt into the next universe. I watched the films, but paid little to no attention to any of the following series. Until I saw the LaserDisc box set back in the early Nineties, I didn´t even know that an animated series existed. Shatner, Nimoy and others are part of this show and many of the episodes do ring true to the characters that Gene Roddenberry created. I´ve heard that Roddenberry requested that the tales and adventures of "The Animated Series" were stricken from the official canon. Not being overly knowledgeable about the universe of Star Trek, I´m not sure of the full impact that would have on the series, but I would tend to think that some of the sillier and more absurd plots are happily forgotten. If they can ignore Richard Pryor as being part of the "Superman" canon, then I suppose this can fly too. With the release of this series onto DVD, all of "Star Trek" can now be spun on little five inch discs. For Trekkies, life is good, is it not?
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Friday, February 23, 2007

Night of the Living Dorks


Being a fan of horror-comedy films, or "splatstick," can be tough; it's been years since Peter Jackson left the genre to go on a walkabout with a bunch of blinged-out midgets, and the void has never truly been filled. The annoyingly overrated "Shaun of the Dead" from 2004 and the countless "Scary Movie" sequels have failed to quench my thirst for a gore-and-guffaws cocktail. Perhaps much like its influential predecessors, the Grand Guignol Theater and Vaudeville, slapstick was dead. Just as I was ready to pull the plug on this genre of horror, a package arrived in my mailbox from the land of schnitzels, and splatstick found itself a most unlikely savior…the Germans.

While it's only February, "Night of the Living Dorks" or "Die Nacht der Lebenden Loser" as it is known in its native Germany, is the most fun I've had watching a movie this year. Philip (Tino Mewes) and his best friends, uber-nerd Konrad (Thomas Schmeider) and pot-head Weener (Manuel Cortez), are the three biggest losers at Friedrich Nietzsche High School. I doubt this was a real school, but how cool would it have been to attend Nietzsche high? After making fun of Goth classmate Rebecca's (Collien Fernandes) voodoo presentation, the guys agree to go to the cemetery and watch the Goths perform a resurrection ceremony in an effort to prove to the dorks that voodoo is real. Just like all high school Goths, they are only attracted to the imagery of the macabre offered at wholesale prices courtesy of Hot Topic, not the history behind it. In one of the film´s funniest scenes, the ill-prepared Bauhaus fans put together a ritual with a six-pointed star, a frozen chicken in place of an actual animal sacrifice, and other hilarious mistakes, culminating in the spreading of ashes of the undead…that they bought off EBay. After accidentally inhaling the Internet-obtained ashes, the trio of losers scoff at the Goth's unsuccessful attempt to prove the powers of Satan and pile into Weener's van and head off into the night. Little do they know of the dark origins of those ashes and how the Goths might have been more successful than the dorks thought.

Like most stoners, Weener spends a lot of his time crafting new implements to smoke pot out of, proving comedian Dennis Leary's popular opinion that "Smoking pot doesn't lead to other drugs; smoking pot leads to carpentry." Weener unveils his newest creation, the "Smokemaster 3000," while driving his "Mystery Machine" style van. During their drive home from the cemetery, the bong malfunctions, filling the van with smoke and causing them to crash. The boys wake up in the morgue, and after some hilarious scenes realize with glee that they have joined the undead. Instead of wallowing in self pity, the lads embrace their new powers, "Teen Wolf" style, and even though they're now indestructible zombies with an insatiable appetite for human flesh, they still have time for wild parties, a little gym class revenge, and maybe even love.

The problem with most splatstick films is the directors´ and actors´ inability to work on both sides of the genre. Films like "Shaun," "Scary Movie," and the miserable "Freak Out" telegraph every joke and skimp on the blood or scares. It's hard to dissect the success of "Dorks"; there's no real way to explain the achievement of writer/director Mathias Dinter's film other than to say he "gets it." "Dorks" never talks down to its audience, the cast is terrific, and the dialogue is on a par with the best teenage writers like John Hughes or Joss Whedon. Plus the movie´s got the nudity and gore angles covered. The only real hurdle this film has is the horrible English dub that haunts the disc. The English language track is unforgivably bad; it's so obnoxious and distracting that one could almost assume it was done on purpose. It's one of those hack jobs so awful in presentation that somebody would have had to work harder to make it this terrible. Thankfully, Anchor Bay was kind enough to include the original German audio track and some English subtitles; unfortunately, the average viewer will never know they exist. I believe most viewers will be so turned off by the out-of-sync dubbing that they'll never get through the first fifteen minutes of the film before they drop it back into the mailbox and patiently await a new arrival from their "queue." Perhaps I'm underestimating the public; after all, this is a movie where the main character is forced to use a staple gun to reattach his "bait and tackle."
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Cave of the Yellow Dog


They say in movies, you should never work with animals or children. Thankfully, "Cave of the Yellow Dog" doesn´t follow that rule. Thus, we are awarded with a heartwarming tale of a girl and her dog. At the same time, the film provides us with an in-depth look at a way of life that many are not familiar with.

The film comes to us from filmmaker Byambasuren Davaa transplanted from Mongolia to Germany, where she studied film and currently works. Davaa gained notice from her first feature-film, the documentary "The Story of the Weeping Camel" which was influenced by Robert Flaherty´s "Nanook of the North" and followed the lives of people living in the rural fields of Mongolia. "Weeping Camel" was nominated for an Oscar, an impressive achievement made more so by the fact that it was done as part of her graduate thesis. I´ve seen plenty of student films that aren´t even close to award-worthy.

With "Yellow Dog", Davaa returns to the same subject matter of "Weeping Camel" by following the everyday lives of a family living in the countryside of Mongolia far away from the hustle and bustle of the city. The family live in a large tent called a yurt, roughly the equivalent of a mobile home. They tend to their sheep and when it´s time to move on to new grazing land, they pack up their belongings and move on.

One day, the eldest daughter Nansal (Nansal Batchuluun) is sent out to collect dung. While performing her task, she comes across a little dog all alone inside a cave. Naturally, Nansal takes the dog home with her and names him Zochor. The mother doesn´t seem to mind, but Nansal´s father is none too pleased. Fearing the dog may have been raised by wolves and could be dangerous, he tells Nansal to get rid of him. In the end, Zochor proves that he can follow in the paw prints of Lassie or Benji when he comes to the rescue of the family´s missing son.

The main storyline is simply a thin thread. The main meat of the film comes from the pseudo-documentary feel that allows the audience to observe the lives of this family. These aren´t actors, but real people that were discovered by the director. No script, other than a general guideline, was written. These people really live like this and Davaa allows the camera to linger to capture it all. At one point, young Nansal is sent off to watch the sheep. It´s quite a site to watch this diminutive girl riding across the vast plains on a horse that´s ten times bigger than she is. Even the dog isn´t an actor. He isn´t a trained animal, just a stray mutt they found.

Concurrently, "Yellow Dog" deals with the encroaching influence of modern city life. The city never makes an appearance in the film, but its influence can be seen in many scenes. One child remarks in amazement to her mother about how people in the city "pee inside." Another scene finds the father returning home with gifts for the family, such as a plastic ladle and a battery-operated toy dog. When the ladle melts in the cooking pot, Nansal turns it into a bowl for Zochor. Davaa never argues against the urbanization of this nomadic way of life nor does she ever call for it to be preserved. She just presents it for what it is.
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The Prestige


Yes, yes, I liked the movie. But what I'd really like to mention first is Hollywood's continued tendency for coincidence. Or is "coincidence" too generous a term? The year 2006 saw three major motion pictures about stage magicians and their legerdemain--Woody Allen's "Scoop," set in the present, and "The Illusionist" and "The Prestige," set in the nineteenth century. What's more, "The Illusionist" stars one of my favorite actors, Edward Norton, while "The Prestige" stars a host of big names, like Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, and David Bowie. Heck, two of the films, "Scoop" and "The Prestige," even co-star Scarlett Johannson. I mean, what are the odds?

Fortunately, I not only liked "The Prestige," I liked the other two films as well. Maybe I'm just a sucker for magic acts.

Anyway, to really begin, let's start with what the title means. The word "prestige" derives from several earlier sources, as noted here from the Random House Unabridged Dictionary: "F. (orig. pl.): deceits, delusions, juggler's tricks <>." In the parlance of today's performers, the "prestige" refers to the final segment of a magician's act. The first stage is the "setup" or the "pledge"; the second is the "performance" or the "turn"; and the third stage is the "prestige," where the magician actually carries out the illusion. The movie "The Prestige" pretty much follows this pattern. So, as with "Scoop" and "The Illusionist," expect more than cinematic sleight of hand from this film.

Co-written, produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan ("Memento," Insomnia," Batman Begins") and adapted from a novel by Christopher Priest, "The Prestige" recounts a rivalry between two London stage magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), known as The Great Danton, and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), known as The Professor. The story unfolds in a series of sometimes confusing flashbacks after Borden's conviction for the murder of Angier.

We get the backgrounds of the two men as they break into the business of magic together and as they move on to an intense hatred of one another that starts when Angier accuses Borden of (accidentally) killing his wife during a stage performance. From that point on, Angier and Borden sabotage one another's act, each trying to upstage the other and become in the public's eye the greatest magician in the city, in the country, in the world.

Borden is clearly the better magician, his "Transported Man" illusion something that Angier dedicates his life to learning or stealing. Angier, however, is the better showman, more capable of captivating and delighting his audience. It isn't long before their rivalry becomes deadly.

Along the way we meet John Cutter (Michael Caine), who designs and constructs the apparatuses for illusion; Julia Angier (Piper Perabo), Angier's wife and assistant; Sarah Borden (Rebecca Hall), Borden's wife; and Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johannson), Angier's new assistant after his wife dies and the object of some romantic interest. Most enigmatic of all are the celebrated, real-life scientist and inventor, Nikola Tesla (David Bowie, almost unrecognizable), and his assistant, Alley (Andy Serkis). People of the day considered Tesla's experiments with electricity "real magic," and these experiments come to play an ever-increasing role in Angier's life.

The movie, the plot, and the characters are all about misdirection. Secrets, tricks, and lies abound, and the story would have us ask what is real and what isn't. When do we and the performers stop "performing"? When is anybody actually himself? Whom can one trust, when, and under what conditions? It is unclear if even the characters themselves understand who they are.
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When a Woman Ascends the Stairs


"When a Woman Ascends the Stairs" has to be one of the all-time great art-house titles. Like "Celine and Julie Go Boating" or "My Dinner with Andre" the title promises a film in which nothing whatsoever happens and all but assures that nobody not already inclined to watch a movie called "When a Woman Ascends the Stairs" will ever see it. That would be a shame, because like "Celine and Julie Go Boating" and (to a lesser extent) "My Dinner with Andre", Mikio Naruse´s 1960 film is a masterpiece.

Actually, quite a bit happens during the course of the film; I would even call it a shockingly violent film even though nobody gets shot or stabbed. Keiko (Hideko Takamine) is a Ginza bar madam who has earned respect in her small world because of her refinement and class. She never gets drunk and she doesn´t sleep around, which only makes the businessmen who frequent her bar desire her even more. The other Ginza girls respect her enough to call her "Mama" and it would seem that Keiko is in full control of her life.

Keiko cannot control time, however. As she approaches the ripe old age of 30, she must make some difficult decisions before her looks begin to fade. She can open her own bar and vault from "mama" to "boss lady" but this requires money, the kind of money that only the rich married man who comprise her legion of admirers have access to. The "easy" solution is to agree to become a kept woman and thus guarantee an ample flow of funds. This is the ultimate dream for most of the other Ginza hostesses, including her young and libidinous friend Junko (Reiko Dan), but Keiko is too proud and too stubborn to submit to her fate so easily.

This might lead you to think of "When a Woman Ascends the Stairs" as a story of liberation, but instead Keiko finds one door after another slamming shut in her face. Naruse depicts a world of limited and ever dwindling choices. Keiko´s life is circumscribed by the rigid demands of the patriarchy and the cold reality of economics. She needs money; the men have all the money. Those are the simple rules Keiko must play by, but she fights them as gamely as she can. She even resists help from the bar manager (Tatsuya Nakadai, looking like he wandered in from one of Seijun Suzuki´s yakuza films) who carries a torch for "mama" but won´t admit it.

Through her travails Keiko wears a placid expression, but the film´s incessant return to the same locations (such as the titular stairs which lead up the Ginza bar) suggests a hysterical undercurrent roiling just below the serene surface. You can picture the shrieking cartoon harpy of Annette Bening´s character in "American Beauty" ready to burst forth at any moment. Keiko´s ultimate breakdown isn´t nearly as "Oscariffic" but it is just as complete and just as devastating. When a smiling Keiko returns to her old stomping grounds in the film´s final scene, she is an utterly defeated woman.

Mikio Naruse is a director whose name you either know well, or not at all. Many die-hard cineastes consider him one of the Japanese masters on par with Ozu, Kurosawa, and Mizoguchi. Most American viewers have never seen one of his films, due in part to the fact that he did not work in internationally marketable genres such as period melodramas or samurai films. Remember that it took plenty of time for Ozu´s domestic dramas to find an international audience. It has taken even longer for the "women´s films" of Naruse to spread abroad.

Naruse gets compared most often with Ozu, but the resemblance is only superficial. Naruse employs much more editing in his films, and also focuses more on the lower classes and modernist characters than the traditionalist Ozu. Both directors bring an understated sensibility to the material, allowing the drama to unfold with as little interference from other distracting elements (like color or elaborate sets) as possible. Naruse´s preference for economy made him a favorite of studio executives because he could always bring a picture in on time and under budget. Maybe that makes him a closer comparison to Clint Eastwood than to Ozu.

"When a Woman Ascends the Stairs" is not the fey art flick the title suggests, but a potent and sensitive drama that resonates long after the film ends. Keiko´s bloodless evisceration is so harrowing and violent, I can´t help but think of the similar fate suffered by Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) in Martin Scorsese´s "The Age of Innocence." Marty´s film is brilliant, one of his very best works, but Naruse´s masterpiece is even better.
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Stranger Than Fiction


When I was in grad school, one of the students in a fiction workshop wrote a short story about a group of characters huddled in darkness, meeting while the author was sleeping in order to decide what they could possibly do to change their apparent fates. He wasn't the only one experimenting with authorial intrusion and character-author interaction. At the time, postmodernism was in full bogus flower, and it seemed as if everybody was writing playful and self-conscious "metafiction." So "Stranger Than Fiction" seemed like old stuff to me--20-year-old stuff, to be precise. And to butcher a famous quote from Gertrude Stein, "A gimmick, is a gimmick, is a gimmick." Still.

But I will say this: the concept of a person waking to the notion that he's a character in a novel--the way Kafka's hero woke one day to discover he had turned into a cockroach--is an interesting one. It's also not overly far-fetched if you compare it to anyone who's ever felt his/her life governed by a supreme being or life force, or if you consider how often authors say their that characters have taken on lives of their own or surprised them in some way. But it is a gimmick, and like "Click," one that comes with its own set of rules that tend to break down at some point in the film.

Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, and IRS auditor who is so methodical that he counts the number of times he brushes--flossing is another story. He sees numbers everywhere, emphasized by figures that pop up on the screen to show the way his mind works: kind of robotic, actually. Though he never becomes more animated, Crick's mundane life begins to change when he discovers that there's an English woman doing a voiceover narration of his actions and thoughts.

"All right, who just said, 'Harold just counted brushstrokes,' and how do you know I'm counting brushstrokes?" he demands. It's enough to make you paranoid, if all the IRS agent-haters haven't already pushed you over the edge. "Not now," he shouts later, when the narrator's voice starts to intrude at a who needs this time. It's to the credit of screenwriter Zach Helm and director Marc Forster ("Finding Neverland") that they don't linger too long in the anxiety zone, quickly moving Harold from an initial encounter with a psychiatrist to sessions with a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman) who's initially skeptical but agrees to help when Harold tells him the line that's most worrisome is, "Little did he know that this seemingly innocuous act would result in his death."

"Little did he know?" Professor Jules Hilbert perks up. "I've written papers on 'Little did he know,'" he says. "I've taught classes on 'Little did he know.'" And so he agrees to help Harold try to identify who the author is who's trying to do him in.

Meanwhile, just as Harold starts to take on a life of his own apart from the author's direction (and here's where the logic starts to stretch just a bit), the story comes to life with the introduction of a quirky, sexy, tattooed baker named Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal)-named, apparently, for the mathematician-philosopher who believed that our access to truth is limited by our own reason. All of the actors are wonderful, but with Ferrell and Hoffman playing it respectively low-key and deadpan, Gyllenhaal's warmth and energy really gives the film a much-needed shot of adrenaline. So too does Emma Thompson, who turns in a wonderfully believable performance as an eccentric, neurotic author famous for killing off her characters in creative ways. Fortunately for Harold, Karen Eiffel has writer's block. No amount of visualizing or pretending seems to be enough to enable her to come up with a wonderful way of killing him off. And that buys him the time to try to seek her out, confront her, and plead for his life.

ore than Harold, the woman sent to Karen Eiffel by the publisher to "help" her seems a victim of plot, and Queen Latifah seems more bland and lackluster than usual in the role. Even Tony Hale ("Arrested Development") seems to do more with a much smaller part as Harold's best friend at the IRS. But the rest of the performances are superb--the kind that makes you want to re-watch the movie again, just to see certain scenes.

The screenplay itself is clever and interesting for the first two-thirds, but then questions intrude and we start to feel the heavy hand of the author of this script. Except for the energy that Gyllenhaal brings, "Stranger Than Fiction" is also surprisingly even-keeled, with no great number of ups and downs or crises that take the film significantly beyond the deadpan tone that predominates. But the screenplay is just interesting and clever enough that, combined with dead-on performances, makes "Stranger Than Fiction" entertaining. Gyllenhaal and Thompson are especially wonderful to watch.

"Stranger Than Fiction" is rated PG-13 for "some disturbing images, sexuality, brief language and nudity."
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Monday, February 12, 2007

Boynton Beach Club


This low-budget, limited-release film was originally titled "The Boynton Beach Bereavement Club," but the DVD marketers wisely chose to shorten the title so that it seems more evocative of the old "Beach Blanket" films and less of a downer. You can even see the wheels inside the PR copywriters' heads turning and feel their body English as they reach and stretch to describe this film: "Join the good times at the 'Boynton Beach Club'--where the fun never sets!" and "Celebrate life, love, and finding happiness again in this heartwarming comedy that proves 60 is the new 40!"

Okay, but if you're expecting a traditional romantic comedy geared for geriatrics, you might be disappointed. For one thing, aside from moments you can count on both hands, "Boynton Beach Club" doesn't deliver all that many laughs. It also doesn't follow the typical structure (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl) of a romantic comedy, nor does it incorporate nearly as many plot twists that complicate a romantic comedy and quicken the pacing, sometimes so much that we have to term them "screwball."

If anything, "Boynton Beach Club" comes closer to what we've seen on television--a more serious and protracted episode of "Golden Girls," or a seniors cruise version of "The Love Boat." Though there's no ship, the tone, pacing, background music, and interwoven stories are certainly evocative of that popular '70s show, and enough B-list and former A-list celebrities who were highly visible that decade climb the gangplank. Joseph Bologna, Dyan Cannon, Sally Kellerman, and Brenda Vaccaro are joined by Len Cariou and Michael Nouri in what turns out to be a slice-of-senior-life ensemble film set in the retirement community of Boynton Beach, Florida. Welcome to the world of water aerobics, sympathy casseroles, all-you-can-eat buffets, pinochle groups, senior dances, bereavement clubs, and grandchildren in the pool.

Much of "Boynton Beach Club" feels authentic, and we have a number of things to thank for that. Director Susan Seidelman's mother, Florence, who lives in Florida, knew plenty of seniors who were unexpectedly single after being with the same person for 40-50 years--sometimes, since high school. She was the one who got the idea for the film and submitted a rough script to her daughter, who restructured it and punched it up a bit with the help of Shelly Gitlow. And thanks to the low-budget nature of the film and the fact that it was so far from big cities with card-carrying SAG members, we get, as extras, real seniors from Boynton Beach where it was filmed. Some of them, we learn on the commentary, were even members of the real bereavement club.

The film opens promisingly enough, with an engaging character named Marty (a Florida comedian in real life named Mal Z. Lawrence) doing his morning exercise routine to the headphones' tune of "Mama Loves Mambo." It's not exactly power-walking that he does, nor is it dancing because he covers as much ground as the walkers, but the screen is filled with energy when he's on-camera. Then, in an early sequence, he's struck by a car driven by a woman yakking on her cell phone as she was backing out of her driveway. And he's killed. That sets the whole plot in motion as we meet his widow, Marilyn (Vaccaro), an overweight woman who suddenly has to learn how to pay the bills, how to drive, and how to do everything else that Marty did when he was alive. We're also introduced, via funeral, to Jack (Cariou), who is suddenly inundated with tuna casseroles and lasagnas and single elderly women who all want to make themselves available to him if he needs anyone to "talk to," which of course is code for "hook up with."

Without comparing the rough and shooting scripts it's impossible to tell where things began to go off-the-mark, but it seems that all the authenticity of senior life has the unfortunate counterweight of clich├ęs that transcend the generations. But the biggest problem is that infernal background music and pacing that's so slow and leisurely it makes you feel like you've been standing in the wrong line at the supermarket-the one where the customers just have to talk about their grandchildren or aches and pains while blissfully unaware that the line behind them is growing. There's just not a strong narrative arc. Everything seems even-keeled, with no crises or sub-crises of any consequence to add variety. Even the relationships proceed without many obstacles and without any real complications except for a few lies followed quickly by acceptance.
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Usual Suspects


That's true, which is why the movie stands up under (and even invites) multiple viewings. But at times you get the feeling that "The Usual Suspects" is too self-consciously clever for its own good, starting with the title. If you consider the context of the famous "Casablanca" allusion, that line is spoken near the film's end. Nightclub owner Rick is at the airport saying goodbye to his old flame and the leader of the resistance she married. When a Nazi major tries to stop them, Rick shoots and kills him. Moments later, the police arrive, and to save Rick's life, his old friend and chief of police tells the officers, "Round up the usual suspects." It was pure diversion and sleight-of-hand--as is this film, especially if you consider that it begins where "Casablanca" left off.

Here, the usual suspects are rounded up in one of the early sequences, and viewers become like those French gendarmes who've been deliberately sent off in the wrong direction. As the narrative bounces back and forth between the past, recent past, and present, viewers are asked to try to make sense of it all, like the police. "I wanna know why 27 men died for 91 million dollars worth of dope that wasn't there" onboard a ship that became the site of a deadly shoot-out, the sergeant says. Who is killing whom, and why? Is it all drug-related, or is it bigger than that? Is a never-seen crime kingpin named Keyser Soze involved, or is he just a myth? Compounding the challenge is that the narrator might be unreliable. Nothing is terribly clear for much of the film, which asks that readers be patient and take one clue at a time. Are we being had? Well, before "Pulp Fiction," the answer might have been "yes." Since then, though, viewers have become used to challenging films that fragmentize and deliberately rearrange the narrative so that it forces us all to work harder to understand what's going on. Just don't work too hard, because the ending might lead you right back where you started.

Kevin Spacey won a Best Supporting Actor for his role as the "gimpy" petty criminal who's rounded up with four other felons and ex-cons after a truck loaded with gun parts turns up missing. That was the recent past, but because we also see them involved in the present-time fiasco aboard that burning ship in the harbor, we're left trying to piece together how they got from point P to point Z, and speculate on how anyone got to P in the first place. There's police corruption related to the drug trade and drug lords that we're plenty challenged to

The narrator is Verbal Kint (a name so heavy-handed and loaded with meaning that it could have appeared in an Ian Fleming novel), and Spacey plays the kind of low-life we normally associate with snitches and narcs. He doesn't have full use of his hands, his feet cross over themselves so that it's hard for him to walk, and he's the type that, in prison, would have been somebody's "girlfriend." Interrogating him much of the time are two cops--a determined custom's officer named Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) and a tough sergeant named Jeffrey Rabin (Dan Hedaya).

The four men who are brought in for questioning are McManus (Stephen Baldwin), a top-notch entry man who's a little crazy; McManus' partner Fenster (Benicio del Toro), a latino who speaks English so fast and so butchered that the cops think he's using Spanish; Hockney (Kevin Pollak), the explosives expert who doesn't care about anything; and Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), the former cop who did time in prison for murder and may or may not be trying to go straight now. At first we think they're rounded up randomly, then we think it was fate. Finally, we learn it wasn't fate at all, but a very deliberate attempt to get the men together for a number of specific "jobs," each one more difficult and explosive than the other.
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Sunday, February 11, 2007

obi - Heart Under Blade


"Shinobi: Heart under Blade" is a rare live-action release from FUNimation, a company known more for their animated offerings. However, if "Shinobi" is an example of the live-action films they can license, I heartily hope they bring more stuff over. "Shinobi" is a fantastic, action-packed, ninja-filled, thriller that has plenty to keep both guys and girls entertained- outrageous fighting action and angst-ridden romantic drama.

It is Romeo and Juliet. With ninjas. As ninjas make everything better, this movie is much more fun to watch than your average Romeo and Juliet story. Set during the Tokugawa Shogunate of the 1600's, "Shinobi" tells the tale of two rival ninja clans- the Kouga of the Manjidani and the Iga of the Tsubagakure, who currently exist under a fragile peace treaty. The Tokugawa, fearing the power of these ancient clans and knowing that their feud could eventually disrupt his rule, decides to play them against each other in order to eliminate them both. His plan is disguised as a contest to help him determine who will be the heir to the Shogunate. The top five fighters of each clan must do battle, and whichever side is left standing will decide who the heir will be. The contest is a ruse, of course, a framework for the Tokugawa to manipulate the clans into annihilating each other.

Unfortunately, the forced fighting disrupts a secret love affair. Oboro Iga, the heir to the Tsubagakure clan and a fierce warrior in her own right, is in love with Gennosuke Kouga, the heir of the Manjidani clan. They have been meeting secretly in the woods, dreaming of a time when their clans would find real peace and they could get married. Now, thanks to the Tokugawa's cruel plan, they are compelled to meet on the battlefield not as lovers, but as enemies. What follows is a furious, violent, and fantastic series of ninja duels between the rival clan members, each with his or her own supernatural ninja skill. Oboro and Gennosuke struggle to find a way out of their impossible situation, but fate presses down heavily upon them. The time of the ninja is coming to an end.

Watching "Shinobi" is a lot like watching a live-action version of anime. In fact, FUNimation has also released the animated version of the same story, known as "Basilisk". What "Shinobi" has going for it is great special effects and fine performances by lead actors Yukie Nakama and Joe Odagiri. I am a big fan of Yukie Nakama, having enjoyed her comedic work in the live action "Gokusen" television series (how I wish that would be released on DVD here). "Shinobi" reveals her to be an excellent dramatic actress too. She really brings a luminous, yet somber and pessimistic edge to her character. Her performance is deep yet restrained, very fitting of the cool colors worn by her character's clan. Nakama does a good job of conveying suppressed passion behind formal speech patterns. Odagiri's Gennosuke is more outwardly passionate and hopeful of finding a solution to their problem. Clad in warm earthen colors, Gennosuke is the gentle, soft heart of his clan, and he has no wish to fight. Unfortunately it will take more than optimism to avoid their cruel fate.

The special effects are believable, and really bring the characters to life. I watched the anime before seeing this live action version, and wondered how they would translate some of the crazy ninja techniques. The effects team in "Shinobi" does a great job of recreating moves and attacks in imaginative yet plausible ways through a combination of wire work and CG. The look of the film is realistic, unsaturated, and somewhat gritty. It is not quite as aesthetically slick as some Hong Kong action films these days, but it is still a beautiful film thanks to the impressive scenery and costumes.
The plight of star-crossed lovers is a universal and timeless story, and the historic Japan of "Shinobi" provides an elegant yet violent backdrop. This is a film that is well worth watching.
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After Innocence


In recent years, more than 150 prisoners in the United States have been exonerated by DNA evidence after spending years, sometimes decades, in prison for crimes they did not commit. Yippee! Now the truth has set them free, and they live happily ever after. Not quite. As the film´s tagline reads "freedom is just the beginning" in an arduous journey for these exonerees whose legal status is yet to be determined by the flawed justice system that wrongly imprisoned them in the first place.

Vincent Moto spent more than ten years in jail for a rape and robbery he did not commit. In 1996, he was set free, the first man in Pennsylvania to be exonerated by DNA evidence. For Moto, this was less a happy ending than a new and bitter beginning. When convicted criminals are released on parole, they are provided funding and other governmental support as they reintegrate into society. Remember, these are actual guilty people. What does a man who was wrongly imprisoned for ten years get from the same system after he is exonerated? About five bucks for cab fare. As Moto sums it up, he was told: "We made a mistake. Now go home." Moto not only receives no support from the state, he cannot even get his criminal record expunged because, for some inexplicable reason, this action requires a hefty fee that he cannot raise.

If that sounds incredible, you´ll be equally amazed by the story of Wilton Dedge. Dedge spent over 20 years in prison for a conviction on sexual battery and burglary. In 1996, he became the first Florida prisoner to appeal his case based on DNA evidence, evidence which proved his innocence. Three years later, however, Dedge was still in prison because the Florida D.A. argued that Dedge filed his appeal inappropriately. Innocence was irrelevant in the eyes of the Florida D.A. Dedge was convicted fair and square on evidence presented at the time, so he should stay in jail. Case closed. After several years, and a team of lawyers, Dedge was finally released in 2004.

The prisoners are only part of the story, of course. Their cases would never make it to court if not for the work of groups such as the Innocence Project and that of "DNA Attorney" Barry Scheck, as well as many others. The documentary follows their work as well as the lives of the prisoners with attorney Nina Morrison of the Innocence Project becoming one of the principal cast members.

Most people take for granted that what they see and hear, and how they remember it, is generally accurate. Otherwise, how could we trust anything our senses relate to us? It is therefore understandable that most people resist the well-proven fact that eye-witness testimony is simply unreliable. Our memories are too vague and too pliable (we re-remember events as we construct them after the fact) to function with the certainty of objective, scientific testing. The case of Ronald Cotton bears this out most strikingly. In 1984, rape victim Jennifer Thompson-Canino identified Cotton as her attacker. It just so happened that the real criminal was another man who bore a passing resemblance to Cotton. Cotton was eventually set free on DNA testing, but only after serving 11 years in jail. Thompson-Canino works along with him to raise awareness over the unreliability of eyewitness testimony.

ith such a proven degree of uncertainty in the legal system, how could any country possibly sanction the death penalty? Former Illinois Governor George Ryan, a life-long supporter of the death penalty, came to the same conclusion in 2003 when he commuted the sentences of all death row inmates in the state.

The wheels of justice grind slowly. With DNA exonerations a relatively new phenomenon, the law offers no universal remedy for these unfairly convicted men. What could possibly be fair compensation to someone like Nick Yarris, who spent over 20 years on death row in solitary confinement, during the first two of which he ws not even permitted to speak? Individual exonerees, working along with support groups and legal aide, are blazing new ground in each new case filed against the state. Some meet with success and big cash settlements; others struggle just to find work in a world that still views them as criminals.

Director Jennifer Sanders has crafted a passionate and moving film about a subject that should shock just about any viewer.
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