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Judge Bryan Byun's Blog

• Location: Albuquerque, NM
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Blog Book Review: The Dog Walker by Leslie Schnur
March 9th, 2006 3:11PM

Leslie Schnur's The Dog Walker tells the story of Nina Shepard, a Manhattan dog walker who falls for a man she's never met, but has gotten to know by snooping through his apartment while picking up his Weimaraner for walks. Complications ensue.

I received this novel for review many months ago, and it's taken me this long to review it. I'm ashamed to admit it, but this book defeated me. The Dog Walker is my personal Vietnam. In choosing to review this book, I committed one of the classic blunders. The first being, of course, "never start a land war in Asia," and the second being "never attempt to read a chick lit novel if you have testicles."

And oh boy, is this chick lit. How do I know? Let me count the ways. First of all, it has female legs on the cover (1). All chick lit novels must feature female legs on the cover. I don't know why, but it's the law. It sports a spunky, quirky heroine (2) with a quirky, hip occupation (3) who worries about being too fat (4) and old (5) and whether or not she'll ever get married (6). Luckily, she's got a smart-alecky best friend (7) with whom she commiserates and gripes about what jerks men are (8). Also, the word "cute" appears about twenty times per page (9-4210).

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not one of those guy-guys who's constantly making fun of chick lit and chick flicks. I like Sandra Bullock. I saw My Best Friend's Wedding -- and I loved it! I'm an enemy of neither women nor women's literature. I love Jane Austen and James Bond in equal measure.

But I defy even chick lit lovers to read The Dog Walker without being at least a little bit horrified. This is the first novel by Schnur, a former editor-in-chief of a publishing house, and it reads like a story not so much composed as assembled out of parts of other chick lit books. Anyone who's ever submitted such a manuscript to Delacorte Press or Dell might want to read through this to make sure the author didn't just clip the best sections out of the slush pile submissions and change the character names. I wish I were kidding.

The Dog Walker wouldn't be so bad if it weren't so aggressively, blandly quirky. There's some genuine humor to be found in Nina's snarky observations and the zany, sitcom-style situations she gets into, but there's no sense of a genuine personality here, just a collection of familiar quirks and attitudes, bound up with a writing style so nondescript as to be practically nonexistent.

After the first few pages, I started to imagine that The Dog Walker wasn't a chick lit novel at all, but in fact a chilling psychological thriller. I mean, you've got this woman who snoops through strangers' apartments, becomes romantically obsessed with men she has never met, to the point of carrying on a fantasy affair in his apartment while he's out of town, and who, despite being in her mid-thirties, still refers to her genitalia -- in her own thoughts as "between her legs" and "there." Once I realized that this character was actually insane, and not just "wacky" insane but actually clinically psychotic, I started to really get into the book. It's almost as if Single White Female had been told exclusively from the crazy lady's point of view. Or like the first half of He Loves Me...He Loves Me Not. If Schnur had gone with that angle, she'd have had a book-length treatment for a crackling good thriller instead of just a book-length treatment for a cookie-cutter romantic comedy. And you'd better believe The Dog Walker is going to be made into a movie. (It is -- Universal acquired the rights before the book even landed on shelves. It'll star Reese Whitherspoon and be written by the geniuses behind How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.)

The final indignity I had to suffer in reading this truly atrocious novel is finding that, at the back of the book, there's a section of discussion questions for book clubs. I would love to be in the room with a book club that would read this and actually seriously discuss questions like "Do Billy and Nina learn anything valuable about each other while snooping that they might not have learned by talking to each other?" No, wait, I wouldn't want to be in that room. No. I'd sooner shave my nuts with a rusty chainsaw.

In short, The Dog Walker is a hilarious and heartwarming tale of a single woman's quest for fulfillment. It is about living, loving, and learning. Please everyone rush out now and buy this book for yourself, your friends, and your Mom. Thanks and good night.

From the Onion
September 22nd, 2005 8:52AM

Fox Cancels Apatow's 40-Year-Old Virgin

LOS ANGELES—Executives at Fox TV canceled Judd Apatow's box-office hit The 40-Year-Old Virgin Monday. "We love Judd's work, but aging virgins aren't a demographic we're looking to target," Fox Entertainment President Peter Liguori said. "Maybe it will be a cult hit on DVD." Virgin joins Undeclared, Freaks And Geeks, The Ben Stiller Show, and several unaired TV pilots on the list of critically acclaimed but canceled Apatow projects. Fox TV executives said the cancellation will allow them to focus their efforts on Stacked, starring Pamela Anderson.

))<>(( : Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)
August 1st, 2005 2:51AM

After giving my skull a good scouring out with the brain enema that is Michael Bay's The Island, I figured I was due for a refill, and Me and You and Everyone We Know, the current indie "It" movie that wowed 'em in Cannes and Sundance, seemed like a good candidate for the job.

The best compliment I can give a movie (or rather, a non-horror movie) is that I didn't want it to end, and at the end of Me and You's 90 minutes, I could have happily sat through another 90 -- and that's saying a lot, coming from someone who went in with more than a little skepticism, and who, I have to admit, didn't really want to like this film to begin with. There's a certain kind of "small" film -- painfully self-conscious, wincingly precious, desperately quirky -- that I've lately come to loathe and avoid whenever possible, ever since Natalie Portman's hamster funeral in Garden State. I'm not against indie cinema, but too many of these passionate young writer-directors don't seem to recognize the thin line between self-honesty and self-pity. Me and You bears every indication of falling into that group: an ensemble comedy-drama about "regular" people struggling to connect and to overcome their fears of connection, Me and You reminds me of the kind of film Todd Solondz might make, if he didn't hate people so much.

That essential lack of misanthropy is what elevates Me and You and Everyone We Know from just another mopey ode to dysfunctional losers to a poetic and resolutely humane portrait of humanity at its most vulnerable. Richard (John Hawkes, who played the oddball motel manager in Identity) is a recently-separated father of two boys (Miles Thompson and Brandon Ratcliff, who practically steal the movie) and works a humdrum job as a shoe salesman in a department store; July plays Christine, a wanna-be video artist who shares a "meet-cute" moment with Richard that goes painfully awry. There are other characters, with their own funny, uncomfortable, perhaps shocking subplots, and what unites them is their fundamental loneliness and confusion. What the film is about, ultimately, is the fact that, in a world that is more intimately interconnected than at any time in history, we are more disconnected and isolated than we have ever been. Which isn't a new concept, but what does intrigue me is July's suggestion that the Internet didn't create that disconnection, but enabled it, by giving us a way to touch each other without really touching, without having to reveal too much of ourselves. If the walls we create between ourselves and the world didn't exist, we'd have to invent them.

Hawkes, with his big, bewildered eyes and vulpine face, is the least likely leading man I could imagine; Richard is the kind of guy we encounter every day and discount as just another ordinary schlub. And he is an ordinary schlub; his thoughts, actions, and quirks are those of any ordinary person, just not the kind that we tend to meet in movies, where people are either 100% plain vanilla nothings or Lord Byron in a McDonald's uniform. Watching Me and You, I don't get the feeling that I'm watching some writer-director's manifesto, but that we're getting the fruits of a carefully observant artist's glimpses into people's inner lives, which are so much richer and stranger than we give them credit for, even as we marvel at our own private epiphanies.

Me and You is a little ragged around the edges; it avoids the more overt kinds of sentimentality, but it asks for a certain amount of emotional generosity from its audience. It's quirky, but not in that noxious, smug manner that marks so many films of this type. And every time you start to think that it's getting a wee bit too cute, there's a moment of startlingly accurate, unexpected truth. There's a line in Me and You (the subject line of this blog entry is an allusion to that line), delivered by a child, that's so shocking and yet so true, in a way that's undefinable and buried deep within our childhoods, that I'd be very surprised if July didn't get it from a real kid.

Many of the reviews for this film give away far too much of the story. I advise anyone even remotely curious about Me and You and Everyone We Know to just go see it, and avoid spoilers; this is a film that is best experienced a moment at a time, just like life.

Trailer Review: Zathura
July 26th, 2005 12:49PM

Here's where Zathura lost me. If you're a kid, and your house gets mysteriously teleported into outer space, so that you open your front door and look out and instead of lawn and trees and houses and cars, you see a gigantic starfield populated by planets and zooming meteors and nebulas and crap, and did I mention YOUR HOUSE IS FLOATING IN SPACE? What do you do? Do you:

a. Run screaming back inside and hide shivering in a closet until NASA sends up a shuttle to rescue you?

b. WALK CASUALLY OUT ONTO THE FREAKING PORCH ALL "WHOOOOOAAAA!"

The answer for 95.6% of children under the age of 12 who are actual people and not ridiculous screenwriter constructs is "a."

Michael Bay Lite: The Island (2005)
July 25th, 2005 1:09AM

I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a Michael Bay fan. For most film critics, especially the extremely sober, serious type who get all trembly in the knees at the mere whisper of a new Atom Egoyan film, Bay is the cinematic equivalent of Lord Voldemort. It's not hard to see why; his movies are loud, vulgar, shot like perfume commercials, edited by spastic chipmunks, and so aggressively dumb they make Tony Scott look like Ingmar Bergman.

This bothers some people. Not me. To me, there's a time and a place for the kind of movie that Michael Bay makes, and if you're gonna go that way, you may as well go all the way. Some nights you want a martini, and some nights you want cheap rotgut that'll make your head feel like an ashtray at a cigar party. Michael Bay doesn't do poignant meditations on the human condition; he does mindless, testosterone-soup action flicks that blow stuff up real good. And in that arena, he's one of the three or four best in the world. If you don't believe me, compare some weak wanna-be crap like S.W.A.T. with The Rock. When he's at the top of his game, as with Bad Boys II, Bay can inspire the kind of breathless, "Did I just see what I thought I saw?" disbelief that I only ever experience with John Woo's HK pictures. Say what you will about Bay, he can create moments of pure cinema like few other filmmakers. He paints in car crashes like artists paint in oils. He's the Michelangelo of carnage.

Which is why I started to worry about his latest flick, The Island, when I read the reviews and saw that quite a few critics who normally eviscerate Michael Bay movies actually liked this one, or at least didn't slather it with the usual spittle-flecked fury. I was hearing things like "Bay actually goes ten seconds without a cut," and "nothing blows up in the entire first act." Disturbing. The last time Bay tried to make a real movie, it turned out to be Pearl Harbor, the only one of his films that I consider a total dog. I want to see Bay do a "normal" movie the way I want to hear Motorhead do an album of Carpenters covers (actually, I'd give my left foot, or at least fifteen bucks, to hear that, but you get my point).

Having seen it, I can say that my worst fears weren't confirmed -- yes, a car was cut in half, and yes, stuff blew up real good -- but The Island didn't quite deliver what I go to a Michael Bay movie for, either. It turns out to be a reasonably entertaining sci-fi action movie, with some nifty performances by Ewan McGregor (who makes the most of his dual role) and Scarlett Johansson (who seems to have fun with the kind of character who isn't asked to do much other than get yanked around by the arm for two hours). It's Logan's Run for the 00's, with everything, including cheesy badness, that implies. You saw the trailer, you recognize the names; if you didn't get more or less what you wanted out of this movie, you were in the wrong auditorium.

Then why was it so underwhelming? I guess because I could tell Bay was ratcheting it down in this one, going family-friendly PG-13 instead of hard R. Nothing wrong with that, in theory, except that I'm left wondering exactly to whom this movie is going to appeal. As a science fiction movie, it's too obvious and shallow to approach Minority Report. As an action flick, it's too tame to replicate the "this one goes to eleven" bullet-porn of Bad Boys II. Any movie this conventional needs to be a remake or part of some franchise in order to grab and hold an audience, and The Island is neither. I went in hoping for a sinus-clearing swig of Mad Dog 20/20, and instead I got a glass of chardonnay. If this is what comes of Bay splitting from Jerry Bruckheimer, here's me hoping for a reunion, pronto.

Blog Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
July 18th, 2005 2:54PM

The thing about Tim Burton is that he hates pretty much everybody except himself, and the select few who are on his wavelength. I don't mean that as a criticism, merely as an observation. It's the theme he's been hammering on since the beginning of his career: the misunderstood freak, the lonely genius walling himself up from the ignorant masses who greedily consume the products of his imagination while secretly resenting his superiority. Burton's weakness -- and appeal -- is that he's so enamored of his heroes -- Pee Wee Herman, Edward Scissorhands, even Batman -- that he demands that we love them, too. "Love them, and by extension, me," Burton practically wails from behind the camera, "or be damned!" In Edward Scissorhands, Burton won't even risk portraying the regular, non-special folks in that film as actual human beings -- he stacks the deck by turning them into cardboard cutouts, objects of heavyhanded satire.

But you know what -- that's fine with me. I don't hold Burton's self-pity against him. And I don't subscribe to the knee-jerk, Harrison Bergeron style anti-intellectualism that demands that someone like Burton be cut down to size. Burton's neuroses and emotional issues might be a little too close to the surface of his films, but at least he doesn't bury them in modest mediocrity. In his best work, Burton lets his freak flag fly, and as with the great visionaries, even his moments of over-the-top self-indulgence are breathtaking in their audacity.

It's hard to believe that it took this long for Burton to get around to Willie Wonka. If I didn't know that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was based on a book by Roald Dahl, I'd be certain that Burton himself created the Wonka character. This film is Burton's Citizen Kane, with the Wonka factory standing in for Orson Welles' Xanadu, and instead of Rosebud we have a bit of chocolate rescued from the fireplace.

Comparisons between Johnny Depp's Wonka and Michael Jackson are not only flat out wrong (beyond the superficial similarities, there's nothing of Jackson in Depp's actual performance), but completely miss the point. Yes, there's something of Wacko Jacko in Willie Wonka. There's also something of Howard Hughes, Charles Foster Kane, Stanley Kubrick...you name the crazy reclusive genius. Whatever the book or the 70's adaptation were about, this Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is about what makes Wonka tick. Like Charles Kane, Wonka wants (though he doesn't know it at first) a family, to be loved by people completely loyal to him. Unlike Charles Kane, Wonka gets exactly what he wants, thanks to a sympathetic storyteller.

That's why the criticisms of the flashbacks to Wonka's youth as "pointless" are so wrongheaded. The backstory is clearly relevant, even central, to Burton's film, to his conception of Wonka and his journey from angry young boy to angry older man-child to mellow paterfamilias (not that he reaches that destination by the end credits, but the potential is there). In some ways, I think the previous adaptation didn't need to press this theme because Gene Wilder as Wonka exudes so much humanity, even in his coldest, meanest moments, that he provides his own counterpoint. Burton and Depp, on the other hand, have created a character who's far more oblique, far more unsettling, someone you can't look at and automatically assume that he's got a soul and a heart. This portrayal is constructed more like a mystery, where the layers peel back and you get more and more pieces to put together until some semblance of a portrait emerges. Just like Kane.

And, oh yes: the children. I thought the 1971 film was a lot harder on the kids than this version. In the earlier film, we don't get to see what actually happens to the kids, which leaves the viewer with this uneasy lack of closure, no release from the dark suggestions their disappearances conjure up. People are going to have different feelings about this, I'm sure. Personally, I think it's fine, and truer to Dahl's vision. Dahl wasn't a child-hater. He liked kids and was staunchly on their side against grownups. I don't think Wonka wants to punish the bad kids so much as their parents, who are really to blame for their horrid spawn (nowhere is this more evident in the current version than in the Veruca Salt scene), and this film corrects that balance.

Random observation: the film looks fantastic, and offers the best counter-argument of any film I've seen this year to the belief that computer-generated effects and $100+ million budgets are the Devil. Computers -- and money -- are merely tools, and when they're employed well, as in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, they can truly truly fulfill the basic purpose of a literary adaptation, which is to translate words into pictures and recreate the story in terms of those senses -- sight and sound -- that lie beyond the limitations of print.

My only major complaint about this film is Danny Elfman's score. I'm a big fan of his work, but the man is getting so repetitive that at this point I think I could compose his film scores. That said, great songs, and kudos for actually using Dahl's text in the lyrics. Maybe Elfman should take a break from film scoring and start up another rock band.

Sam Peckinpah's First Film: Deadly Companions (1961)
July 14th, 2005 2:51PM

You can see hints of the director that Sam Peckinpah would eventually become in his first film, 1961's The Deadly Companions. There are images early on, like a shot of children fighting with sticks in the street, or a hypocritical parson holding a church service in a saloon, that eerily foreshadow similar scenes in The Wild Bunch. The Deadly Companions doesn't offer the visual pyrotechnics or crackling atmosphere of his later classics, but it has a weird, almost nightmarish quality that makes it well worth watching despite its many flaws.

The film stars Brian Keith as a mysterious, taciturn Yankee cowboy known only as "Yellowleg" (presumably for the yellow-striped Union uniform pants he wears). For reasons we'll soon discover, he never takes off his hat, even when sleeping. When we meet Yellowleg, he's saving the life of a no-good scoundrel named Turkey (Chill Wills), who's being hanged for cheating at cards. Turkey, who reminds me of Warren Oates' grimy bandit character in The Wild Bunch, is a shambling, half-mad bear of a man (he even wears a brown, furry coat that accentuates the bearish appearance) who seems to be "tetched in the head," rambling constantly about his dream of forming his own republic and raising an army of Indian slaves. Soon afterwards, we meet the third member of this motley triumvirate, Billy (Steve Cochran), a smarmy gambler with a silver tongue.

The trio make their way to Gila City, where the plan is to rob a bank (Turkey apparently plans to use the proceeds to fund his new country). Yellowleg, however, has other ideas: unbeknownst to his companions, he's on the trail of the man who, years before, during the Civil War, grievously wounded and disfigured him. The bank robbery plans go awry when, in a scene that makes me wonder if Woody Allen borrowed it for Take the Money and Run, the would-be robbers go to the bank only to find that it's already being robbed.

In the ensuing shootout, Yellowleg accidentally kills the young son of a "dance-hall hostess" (I guess in 1961 you couldn't make a movie about a whore) named Kit Tilden (Maureen O'Hara). Kit decides to bury her son next to the grave of her husband, in a deserted town deep in hostile Apache territory. Yellowleg, remorseful over shooting her son, volunteers himself and his companions to accompany Kit.

The bulk of the film follows Yellowleg and Kit on their arduous, increasingly desperate journey. Turkey and Billy fall away early on, leaving Yellowleg and Kit to engage in the time-tested "two characters who don't get along but grow to love each other" road romance. Keith and O'Hara make an appealing couple (as they also did in that same year's much better known film, The Parent Trap), and despite the predictability of their eventual connection, it doesn't feel contrived or sentimental. These characters are played as people who've travelled a hard road and don't have time for a lot of romantic illusions or puppy-love foolishness. Keith in particular is a revelation for those, like myself, who mostly remember him from TV's Family Affair, where he always looked like he couldn't wait for the day's filming to end so he could go home and crawl into a bottle of bourbon. Here, he comes across like a cross between John Wayne and William Holden.

There's an oddly disjointed quality to The Deadly Companions, probably due to extensive tinkering by the producers with Peckinpah's original cut. In a way, it works to the film's favor, creating a dreamlike, hazy atmosphere (accentuated by some truly incongruous music). There are moments when the film feels almost neorealistic in its odd and messy rhythms. If you're looking for lots of stylized violence, you won't find it here; the film seems to be heading towards a bloody finale, and heads right up to the brink before becoming something else entirely, something less violent but more disturbing, and probably more apt. Peckinpah's not exactly known for his warm, romantic side, and I get the feeling his original vision for Yellowleg and Kit's relationship was a little harder-edged than it turns out here.

Still, this marriage of Peckinpah with what might otherwise have been a much more melodramatic romance makes for a strange but interesting mixture, sort of like pickles and ice cream. Not to everyone's taste, but definitely a different cinematic experience.

As a public domain film, The Deadly Companions has several DVD incarnations, and from what I can tell, all of them are pretty bad. The chief problem is that, as far as I know, all the currently available releases offer the Panavision widescreen film in a badly cropped pan & scan transfer. This makes a film that already feels a little close-in (due to the low budget) almost intolerably claustrophobic. Also, I don't know if there's a decent print of this film in existence, but the one I saw looks pretty awful -- washed out and fuzzy, and too dark in some of the nighttime scenes to make out what's going on. Audio is tinny and lacks presence. I understand that there's a new, cleaned-up widescreen release of the film on the way; while I can definitely recommend the film to fans of Peckinpah or westerns in general, I'd advise waiting for a quality DVD presentation.

You'll Believe a Four-Hour Film About Cricket Can Fly: Lagaan (2001)
July 14th, 2005 1:54AM

If you've never seen a Bollywood movie, but are curious to check one out, I can't think of a better place to start than with 2001's Lagaan, one of the most expensive Indian films ever made, and a 2002 Best Foreign Language Film nominee.

I want to describe Lagaan as "the best four-hour movie about the game of cricket ever made," but that might turn off some folks, in addition to being completely misleading. What Lagaan really is, is an amazing piece of storytelling, an adventure-romance-musical-sports movie in the guise of a rural folktale.

Lagaan takes place in the 1890's, in an India under British colonial rule. Under India's feudalistic system of the time, villages had to pay a yearly tax (called the lagaan) to their provincial Raja, who kicked a percentage of that revenue up to his British rulers. When Captain Andrew Russell, the sadistic, snarling villain of the piece, doubles the lagaan, the drought-striken village of Champaner rises up in protest, with young, hotheaded Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) at the head of the protesters. Captain Russell, spotting a prime opportunity to humiliate and exploit his downtrodden charges, offers Bhuvan and the villagers a wager: if the villagers can defeat him and his men in a game of cricket, he'll waive the lagaan for three years. But if the villagers lose, they'll have to pony up three times the tax, which would destroy the village and send them into starvation.

Anybody want to take bets on whether or not Bhuvan accepts?

Lagaan is a Bollywood film, but you don't have to love Bollywood film to love Lagaan. Despite the lengthy running time, it's quite accessible to Western audiences, and its high production values lend the film a mainstream Hollywood gloss, especially during the brilliantly choreographed and catchy musical numbers. (I dare you to come away from this film without humming at least one of its songs.) Its length gives the film room to encompass a number of genres, which means that romance fans and sports fans can both watch Lagaan and come away happy. It's one of the most complete works of entertainment I've ever seen, with a little something for all tastes.

Even the climactic cricket match, which takes up over an hour of the running time, kept this non-cricket-fan riveted. Let's face it, we all know how a film like this is going to end, but Lagaan somehow takes this predictable resolution and makes it suspenseful and unpredictable. I was quite literally on the edge of my seat during the last half hour, and so deeply in suspense that my palms were sweaty -- and this was the second time I saw the movie. I went into Lagaan as a cricket-hater, and came out of it intrigued by the game and curious to watch a match. What more can you ask from a sports movie, than that it converts people who hate the sport?

Seeing a film like Lagaan makes me wish that mainstream Hollywood came out with more four-hour movies. The expanded canvas gives the filmmaker time to develop characters and relationships in equal measure to the plot, and space to weave a richly layered story. What if a Star Wars movie paused in mid-stream to spend some time examining Mace Windu's home life, and threw in a musical number with dancing Wookies for good measure? Yeah, the very idea of such a thing is probably heretical in this attention-deficient fast-food culture, but Lagaan's unabashed melodrama, steady pace, and emotionality is the perfect antidote to movie buffs tired of today's slick, mass-produced, efficiently-told crap.

The only thing about the film that bothered me had less to do with Lagaan itself than the film industry it represents. Lagaan is accessible in large part because it's so Western in its sensibilities and techniques. From camera angles to dialogue and plot elements, much of Lagaan feels extremely familiar, and if you've seen any of the neorealistic films by Satyajit Ray, you may find yourself wondering what's been lost from Indian cinema, by its eagerness to trade some of its cultural uniqueness for crossover appeal. How ironic is it that a film that so strongly condemns Western colonialism has itself been colonized by Western artistic sensibilities?

The DVD of Lagaan is all the more disappointing because of how terrific it could have been. The print shows a good deal of scratches and wear, every speck and streak of which has been transferred to DVD. I don't understand why the print is in such awful condition, when so much of it is looks amazing. The parts of the screen that aren't marred by scratches are brilliant, boldly colored, and sumptuous. So it's dismaying to see a perfectly lit, visually splendid scene that happens to have one long streak down the middle of the frame. Extras include a text-based cast-and-crew filmography, and a lengthy (almost 20 minute) deleted scene that is entertaining but unnecessary.

Blog Review: War of the Worlds (2005)
July 11th, 2005 10:21AM

There are so many things that War of the Worlds does right, that it depicts with awe-inspiring realism and scrupulous attention to detail. A nation is invaded by shadowy aliens with unfathomable motives. There are explosions, human beings incinerated instantaneously, by the thousands. Mass panic as people descend into chaos and terror. Clouds of ash that used to be friends and neighbors descending from the skies, as opportunistic newshounds record the carnage on camcorders. Walls covered with desperate pleas for help locating missing loved ones.

Spielberg brings this dark spectacle to the screen with his usual mastery. The only problem is, we've seen this all before: on September 11, 2001.

War of the Worlds wants to be the first big post-9/11 action-adventure movie, the first Hollywood blockbuster to explicitly reference the horrors of the disaster that has defined our times. Spielberg doesn't actually set his film in Manhattan, but the New Jersey location of the film (a cute nod to the infamous 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast) comes close enough. As dysfunctional dad Tom Cruise drives his dysfunctional kids away from the epicenter of the slaughter, his terrified young daughter yells, "Is it the terrorists?" That one line was, for me, the saddest cinematic moment I've seen all year. We've become a culture that has so internalized the terrorist threat that it has replaced Martians, Communists and Closet Monsters as our children's bogeymen. When Spielberg wants to do horror, he's the equal of Stephen King in being able to tap into the darkest pit of our collective fears. With Jaws it was the fear of sharks and deep water; with War of the Worlds it's the fear of being infiltrated and destroyed en masse in our own neighborhoods.

I don't have a problem with Spielberg tapping into that national anxiety. For many people, I'm sure the film is a cathartic experience. In some ways, it performs a service for adults that much children's literature and cinema does for kids -- helping them experience their deepest fears in a safe environment, with a hopeful resolution to let them know that everything will be OK. That's right, War of the Worlds is Bambi for kids 13 and up. It's a fairy tale. And that's fine with me, and it's why I'm not as bothered as some critics by the film's breathtaking lapses in logic and plausibility. If you wanted to get hyperanalytical about the film, you could argue that Spielberg deliberately undercuts the realism of his story with these plot holes, because the unvarnished truth would be too heartbreaking.

The War of the Worlds impressed me in just about every way that I'm supposed to be impressed by a megabudget commercial thriller. I was dutifully terrified during the invasion scenes, just as I was meant to be. But the whole thing left me cold. I couldn't connect to it in any personal or emotional way, despite -- or perhaps because of -- its many attempts to connect what was happening on screen with the recent history of the real world. I think what it boils down to is that the most powerful images in the film -- Tom Cruise covered in the ashes of his neighbors' bodies, clothes from vaporized humans floating down from the sky -- are cinematic analogues of images from 9/11, and Iraq, and Madrid, and London, that are still all too fresh in my mind. I can't help watching this film and comparing it to the reality. Which would all be fine if Spielberg had something to tell me about these horrors that would put them into some kind of perspective, and illuminate the fears it channels. But it doesn't. I leave the theater feeling, not elevated or enlightened, but pummelled and depressed. Maybe I'll see the film again in ten years and have a better appreciation for it, but at the moment it hits a little too close to home.

Whither Whit?
March 17th, 2005 9:30PM

I was just standing in the kitchen washing dishes, when it suddenly hit me: Whatever happened to Whit Stillman? Stillman, of course, being the writer-director of one of the best films of the 1990's, Metropolitan (1990), the talky, witty comedy of manners that accomplished the seemingly impossible feat of making spoiled New York debutantes seem like interesting, likeable people. Stillman hasn't made a film since 1998's Barcelona, and aside from a few rumors about a biopic set in Mao-era China, Red Azalea (the project's since been killed), there hasn't been much info out there.

So I did some intensive research (i.e., thirty seconds of Googling) and found this article from a Whit Stillman fan site that brings us up to speed on Whit's recent activities:

Currently living in Paris, Stillman has been busy adapting Winchester Races, a project with British producer Stephen Evans that would combine two unfinished Jane Austen novels, The Watsons and Sanditon, into a single script. The script would merge two characters: Emma Watson, a young woman who returns to her family after a long absence during which she's been raised by her aunt, and Charlotte Hayward, an attractive country girl who is taken up by a family of comically optimistic real-estate speculators. Should it eventually get made, the film would return Stillman to familiar territory. Both Metropolitan and Barcelona were considered Austen-esque comedies of petty manners.

Great news! For a while there I was afraid Stillman would get desperate and sell out by making some kind of cop buddy flick, so I'm glad he's still making the kinds of films that appeal to maybe 5,000 people outside of Europe.

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