Friday, September 3, 2010


Check out the link below for The Idler's "Cinephiles" column, which features myself and Adam Simmons waxing on our favorite storytelling medium. 

In "Panic in the 70's", Adam Simmons discusses some top-notch paranoid thrillers from what is argueably one of the best decades in film, and in "It's the unanswered questions that haunt us", I discuss what makes Michael Haneke's "Cache" such a unique thriller.


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

We Refuse to Apologize for the Things we Enjoy!

Welcome to THE IDLER!

This is a place to read about things we all enjoy: Food, music, film, television, games, sports, and anything else we can think of. We cover the new and the not-so-new, but mostly the not-so-new. We’ll write about last week’s game and that new film that really caught our attention. But we’ll also write about the music that we keep listening to years later, the shows that pop up in our Netflix queue, and eating comfort foods while playing Monopoly during a recession.

Ours is a nostalgia-drenched culture, but this is not a nostalgia site. We watch films now. We listen to music now. We love Kirk Gibson, Bobby Higginson, and Miguel Cabrera. We play old video games on new machines.

We refuse to apologize for the things we enjoy.

Most of all, this will be a place for intelligent, attentive, and distinctive voices. Sometimes we’ll be clever, sometimes we’ll be thoughtful, but we’ll always be fun to read.

You can get started by reading what’s new today, or check out our columns:

The F Word—Food and eating by Jill Kolongowski

Rounding Third—Sports (mostly baseball) and poetry by Angela Vasquez-Giroux

Diary of a Casual Gamer—Games of all sorts by Gavin Craig

In the Queue—Television by Tim Carmody

The Cinephiles—Film by Adam Simmons and Kevin Mattison

Dysphonia—Music by Mike Vincent & Travis Wright

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cache (2005) - Review

Directed by Michael Haneke, Starring Daniel Auteil, Juliette Binoche & Maurice Benichou

"Cache" is maddening.  It is hypnotic.  It is menacing.  It is a voyeuristic film, always regarding from the outside when the true danger may lie within. 

It opens with a static shot (pictured in the screen cap to the left) of a relatively non-descript home in Paris.  The shot - and the environment within it - is so still that we almost think we are looking at a picture.  It is only when a lone biker passes through that we know it is live.  Later, when we hear the voices of Georges (Auteil) and Anne (Binoche) Laurent cooling discussing the footage and realize it is actually a video that had been left on their doorstep.  The footage is of their home.

It is easy for Georges to dismiss it.  He is the famous host of a book discussion program (Yeah, they have those in France. Here we have "Keeping up with the Kardashians"), after all.  It's probably just a fan.  Anne is a bit more unnerved, but carries on.  They have a teenage son named Pierrot, who is aloof and often disappears for long periods of time without telling his parents where he'll be (that part is universal).

The videos keep coming and are soon accompanied with crude, child-like drawings of violence.  Georges cannot understand how someone could get away with this.  The shot is from directly across the street.  How have they never seen anyone?  Eventually they receive new footage.  One tape features a shot of Georges childhood home, and the other is a walking shot ending at a specific nearby apartment.  Does Georges know it?  Does Anne?  If so, neither of them lets on.

Here is the real genius of "Cache":  As more tapes arrive we begin to see cracks in the Laurents' bourgeois facade.  They have a small get together where a distraught Anne seeks the comfort of a friend.  Could she be having an affair?  Why does Georges keep having nightmares involving a boy decapitating a chicken, blood in his mouth?  Where does Peirrot keep disappearing too?  These questions begin to pile on top of the big one:  just who is shooting those videos? 

Eventually, Georges visits the apartment in the video looking for answers.  He accuses the apartments owner of being involved.  The man denies it and we believe him, but these two men do know each other.  The where and the how only adds to the intrigue.  You are no doubt beginning to sense what "Cache" is really all about: the questions.  This is precisely what sets it apart from other thrillers.  It is not about the videos, it is about what the videos do the Laurents.  There will be no closure here, which leads me to the final shot. 

It is static, much like the opening, but it features a fair amount of people milling about within the frame.  There are people in the foreground, but their backs are to us.  In the background people come and go.  Two of them stop and begin speaking to each other.  We have seen these two before.  We have been given no reason to think they might know each other, but here we are.  One last question mark in a film filled with them.


CHECK OUT REAL DETROIT THIS WEEK: The Expendables and EatPrayLove Reviewed!!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Directed by Nicholas Stoller, Starring Russell Brand, Jonah Hill, Sean Combs, Elizabeth Moss & Rose Byrne

We first met rock star Aldous Snow (Brand) in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall", which was a fine comedy.  Arguably, Mr. Snow stole nearly every scene he was in, signaling that he might be a little too big a personality for his co-star status.  In that film Snow had just hopped onto the sobriety wagon.  In "Get Him to the Greek", we get to see him hop back off.

Low level music exec Aaron Green (Hill) has been charged with the (at first) enviable job of escorting his idol to a Today Show appearance followed by a career rejuvenating show at the Greek Theatre in L.A..  Trying to get a sober rock star to be anywhere on time is a task in and of itself, and as previously mentioned, Snow is far from sober.  His fall from grace was kicked off by the release of an album called "African Child", which one reviewer dubbed to be "the worst thing to happen to Africa since Apartheid". Ouch.  That's going to be a hard one to come back from!  Couple that with the fact that the mother of his child and long time musical collaborator, Jackie Q (Byrne) has just left him, and you have got a recipe for one hell of a bender.

Aaron, meanwhile, is about as green (nicely done) as one can be in the music industry.  He is a fan, above all else, yet to be jaded by the system.  Here to make sure he eventually will be is his boss, Sergio Roma, played by a surprisingly funny Sean Combs.  Aaron's fear of Sergio drives the early parts of the film as he desperately tries to keep Aldous on track while simultaneously trying to keep him placated.  As a result of the latter, Aaron spends a great deal of time inebriated while still trying to accomplish the former.  Aldous treats his nine to five just as seriously as Aaron, you see.  His nine to five just happens to be getting soused.

This is a very funny film.  And while it does touch upon some heavy business in the third act, it never forgets that it is a comedy.  And if you are wondering whether or not Snow deserved his own film, wonder no more.  Russell Brand is absolutely phenomenal in a part he appears to have been born to play.  He has got old school, British rock swagger in spades.  Even his songs border on believability ("Inside of you.  Inside of you.  There's got to be some part of me inside of you")! 

Let's face it, the sad, lonely rock star bit is old hat.  It is a testament to both Brand's performance and Nicholas Stoller's direction that Snow never comes off as a caricature.  And while Jonah Hill is perfect as a foil for Brand's shenanigans, make no mistake:  This is Aldous Snow's show.


Friday, May 28, 2010

It's a shame about Tati...

Recently I wrote a piece celebrating the release of what I had hoped would be French filmmaker Jacques Tati's swan song.  Now, my initial elation for the release of "The Illusionist", Sylvain Chomet's adaptation of Tati's original screenplay, has been clouded by confusion and disappointment.  To explain...

It appears as though Tati's grandson, Richard Tatischeff Schiel McDonald, has written a letter to Roger Ebert stating that "The Illusionist" "greatly undermines both the artistry of my grandfather's original script whilst shamefully ignoring the deeply troubled personal story that lies at its heart.".  The personal story McDonald speaks of is Tati's abandonment of his illegitimate first born daughter. 

I am an unabashed fan of Tati's work.  His films make me smile like few can.  I am also of a mind that art and the artist can exist in their own context.  All of this leaves me with an interesting conundrum:  What do I do with this information?  Should I simply ignore it?  Can I? 

It appears as though the heart of McDonald's argument is that Tati had written the film's script as a open letter to Helga Marie-Jeanne, the daughter he had abandoned.  He says it stands as Tati's only acknowledgement of her.  His claims that Sylvain Chomet and Pathe films deliberately eschewed this information for a more sentimental, decidedly pro-Tati approach is disheartening for a myriad of reasons.  Not the least of which being that that's exactly what I had hoped the film would be.

I wanted sentimental.  I wanted closure, of sorts.  But it appears as though closure is exactly what this film is denying Tati's family.  And so I am torn.  Do I view "The Illusionist" as a fan watching one of his idols walk off into the sunset?  Or as a disillusioned film critic, watching a man's legacy dissolve before me?

I believe I will have to let the film speak for itself.  After all, I cannot force myself to view it one way or another.  I must admit that there is a large part of me that wishes I had never learned anything about Tati's shame.  But perhaps I can still seperate art and the artist and simply view the film as the closure of a fine career, if not the atonement he had intended it to be.


BIG FAN - Review

Directed by Robert Siegel, Starring Patton Oswald

Attendant Paul Aufiero (Oswald) furiously scribbles notes in a lonely parking structure toll booth.  He is scripting a call he will later make to a sports radio show defending his beloved New York Giants.  His words (largely chicken scratch) are pressed deep into the paper.  Paul means business.

This scenario says all one really needs to know about "Big Fan", which was written and directed by Robert Siegel, who wrote last years Oscar Cinderella "The Wrestler".  Many thought that film was a bit too saccharine (I was not one of them).  "Big Fan" is not.  It does not pull any punches.  It does not glamorize its lead.  Paul is a damaged, obsessive individual in the beginning and, by the end of the film little has changed.  So what, then, is the point?

Well, plot-wise there isn't much going on here.  The story is simple.  Paul and his best (and potentially only) friend happen across their favorite player at a local gas station.  They misguidedly decide to tail him, which results in Paul getting severely beaten by his idol at a strip club.  This forces Paul to examine himself and his obsession.  So near as I can tell, Paul is the point. 

The film hinges on his character, both in writing and performance.  For my money half of that battle is won by Patton Oswald, who shows a depth I had no idea he was capable of.  His social dysfunctions are many, and his only friend's ability to catch every call-in he makes to that aforementioned radio show implies that he tends to be free on most nights as well.  It does not appear as though Paul has a lot going for him.

Still, Patton Oswald lends a vulnerability to Paul that keeps you invested.  You hope for the best even though you are as skeptical as anyone else in the film.  His mother, for example, is not so subtly disappointed.  She is baffled by his contentment to be a single, football loving parking attendant.  His brother, after all, is a married lawyer.  Sorry mom, they can't all be winners.

"Big Fan" is an honest, realistic and occasionally interesting character study.  I say occasionally because even though the film runs at a meager 86mins, it feels substantially longer.  There just isn't enough meat on the bone, but an admirable performance from Oswald and a few stand out scenes make this one worth checking out.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

One last trick up his sleeve...

French film maker Jacques Tati passed away on November 5th, 1982, but it would not be until 2010 that his swan song would be played.  It would come in the form of an animated film by the wonderfully talented Sylvain Chomet, who wrote and directed the equally wonderful "The Triplets of Belleville", and be written by Tati himself.  It will be called "The Illusionist", and from what I have read and seen it should be the lovely send off Tati's career deserves.

Jacques Tati was born in Les Peco, Yvelines, France on October 9th, 1907.  He was not prolific, having only made six feature films and several shorts in his career. Never the less, he left an indelible mark on cinema with his clever, whimsical comedies and his immortal character, Monsieur Hulot.

For any fan of the silent film, Monsieur Hulot should be placed alongside Charlie Chaplin's The Tramp as an icon of the genre.  This is, of course, regardless of the fact that none of Tati's Hulot films were actually silent.  Though the characters around him spoke quite frequently, Monsieur Hulot could not be bothered.  He spoke through his body, letting his lanky frame and polite gesturing do the work for him.

Now, twenty eight years after his death, Tati's final film is being released.  It revolves around a magician dealing with his obscolescence.  The film's lead looks and moves just like Tati himself.  The animation looks amazing.  My hope for "The Illusionist" is that it does what "A Prairie Home Companion" did for one of my other favorite directors, Robert Altman:  Creates a poignant eulogy and a fine bookend for a brilliant career.


Jacques Tati's Filmography:
Jour de Fete (1949)
Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953)
Mon Oncle (1958)
Playtime (1967)
Trafic (1971)
Parade (1974)

The Trailer for "The Illusionist":

Monday, May 17, 2010


Directed by Spike Jonze, Starring Max Records, James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker & Catherine Keener

We often look back on our childhoods with great fondness.  In hindsight they feel like simpler times.  In their present, however, they can often be a relentless confusion of new emotions.  

Such is the case for young Max, who is at that age where a little attention is worth its weight in gold.  How unfortunate for him that his sister is a teenager and his single mother has a new boyfriend.  We are told little to nothing about the missing father, but can infer from Max's behavior and his mothers worried looks that things went about as smoothly as they ever can in that situation. 

One evening, Max pushes himself and his mother to their respective limits.  The incident sends Max running out into the night and off to a fantasy world inhabited by the wild things, who are exactly the kind of handful their name implies.  Upon meeting Max they have a lengthy debate about whether or not they should eat him or make him king.  Lucky for Max they decide to go with the latter, although not by a wide margin.

Maurice Sendek's book is a classic.  It stands as a shining example of the power of simplicity, its illustrations giving weight to its mere ten sentences.  But how does one make a film based on a book like this?  Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers have chosen the only path I believe possible; they followed it in spirit.  And while all of the wild things will certainly be familiar to fans of the book, this is hardly a children's story. 

Truth be told, it is a pretty melancholy film.  These wild things are all id, and soon Max finds himself stretched pretty thin while trying to maintain their delicate temperaments.  Most notably, there is Carol (James Gandolfini), who is a bundle of unchecked aggression and neediness.  Not surprisingly, Max immediately gravitates towards him.  And here is where I must mention Max Records performance.

This kid has got something figured out.  Here is a role that requires a difficult balance of subtlety and child-like energy, and Max Records hits the mark all the way.  Take for example the aforementioned blow out between Max and his mother.  There is a nice moment between the two of them before he storms off to his fantasy world.  It is that moment when both mother and child realize they have gone too far.  Catherine Keener (who plays his mother) is always reliable, but the look on Max's face is what really drives that moment home.

People are most certainly going to have trouble with this one.  Thematically, it is about as literal a translation as one could hope for.  Still, some will not be satisfied.  The book manages its heavy theme in a relatively light hearted manner, but this is largely due to its length, and as previously stated this is a pretty melancholy film.  Perhaps it could have been a bit more playful and a little less morose?  Yes, I suppose that would have been nice.  Would that have made for a more honest film?  I don't think so.  At least not by a wide margin.


Monday, April 26, 2010

What do I know about anything?

It has been announced that this season of the Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel created "At the Movies" series will be its last. For me it is a sad bit of news, but it would not surprise me if you were unaware that it was even still on the air, given the multiple time slots and host changes made through out the years.

Originally aired in 1982, the show was the first of its kind and largely responsible for bringing film criticism to the masses. It made Siskel and Ebert household names. At the time, many critics viewed their now famous "thumbs up, thumbs down" rating system as an oversimplification and a mockery of the profession. They said it would be the death of film criticism. Now, with the shows cancellation, the recent firing of Variety critic Todd McCarthy and the rise of the film blog, they are hearing that death rattle once again.

Being a film blogger myself, I suppose I am part of the problem. And while there is a solid arguement for the relevence of the print critic (or print journalism in general, which is what I think people are really talking about), it is hard for me to imagine film criticism itself ever being in any real danger. I suppose the level of concern can be directly related to ones' perspective on film criticism and exactly what purpose it serves.

The bottom line is this: No one with half a brain has ever avoided a film simply because a critic said it was no good. Film criticism is not meant as a means to avoid "bad" films because, after all, what exactly is a "bad" film? One man's trash is another man's treasure, and what if I just wanted to make popcorn and watch a few cars explode? Or watch a zombies devour the flesh of their victims?

No, film criticism is, and always has been merely a means to start a dialogue. There will always be a market for that. A.O. Scott, who co-hosted "At the Movies" in its final season with Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, recently published an article in the New York Times regarding the very same idea:

"How can you do a movie justice in 60 seconds? You can't, of course - or in 800 words, or in a blog post - but you can start a conversation, advance or rebut an arguement, and give people who share your interest something to talk about."
At his or her best, a critic should make you think about a film in a way you may not have on your own.

So what we are talking about here is a venue change. As newspapers and magazines begin to crumble in this weak economy, the internet is gaining ground. Now, if you are seeking a film review you need look no further than your google search engine.

In a recent blog post on Roger Ebert's Journal, Ebert mentions his hopes for an eventual "At the Movies" revival. He believes there is still an audience for it. The nostalgiac side of me wants to believe people will sit down and watch a couple of knowledgable critics discuss the finer (and lesser) points of Hollywood's latest releases, but I am not so sure. Though the sheer dirth of film sites may make finding a critic worth his or her salt a bit harder, it is difficult to argue with the ease and immediacy of the internet.

So how about you critics take off that sandwich board proclaiming film criticisms' inevitible demise. It is not dying, just evolving. And as long as we all remember why we turn to film critics in the first place we should have no trouble embracing this new venue. Then again, what do I know about anything?

Here are a few online film sources I enjoy:
and of course,!


Friday, April 16, 2010


Directed by Martin Scorsese, Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo & Ben Kingsley

"Shutter Island" contains music plumbed from the depths of a 1930's horror film.  It is booming, melodramatic and frequently overwhelms the soundtrack.  It is also pitch perfect.

Here we have a completely immersive film.  It drenches you in its foreboding atmosphere right from the start, as federal marshals Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Ruffalo) are escorted into Shutter Island's prison turned asylum, its walls looming over them.  They have been dispatched to this hellish place in order to investigate the disappearance of one of its patients.  We are told by Dr. Cawley, an effortlessly chilling Ben Kingsley, that it is as if she simply "evaporated through the walls".  As time crawls on, you begin to feel that such a thing is possible here.

Both the staff and inmates view Teddy with a mixture of curiosity and contempt.  Or is that all in Teddy's imagination?  It is not long before he begins to question everything he sees and hears, and so do we. Nothing quite adds up.  Why does this investigation require two outsiders with no working knowledge of the facility itself?  Why does Teddy keep having flashbacks involving his aid in liberating a Nazi Death camp? 

I mentioned the score earlier.  It is fantastic, and so I have mentioned it again.  It is not the only classic horror device Scorsese uses here.  There is also a rain storm, complete with high winds, lightning and thunder, as well as the perpetual darkness within the asylums walls.  Teddy spends a great deal of time stumbling around in darkness, both literally and figuratively.

I have heard and read many complaints regarding the ending.  If you are looking for a mind blowing twist, look elsewhere.  Scorsese does not make gimmicky films, but he is an expert craftsman.  You will probably have some idea where things are headed, but the real achievement here is in making you second guess yourself along the way.  Even when the answers are revealed, you are not one hundred percent convinced.  For most of the film both Teddy and I were in the same boat, certain only of our own uncertainty.


Monday, April 12, 2010

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER - Review

Directed by Marc Webb, Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt & Zooey Deschanel

The films narrator warns you right off the bat that "this is not a love story". And while this is certainly true in the traditional sense, I believe "(500) Days of Summer" is actually, very literally, about love.

Its protagonist, Tom Hansen (Gordon-Levitt), is hopelessly passionate. He is the kind of guy who probably falls in love with one thing or another every single day. He is in love with love itself, and is eager to share it with another. Enter Summer Finn (Deschanel). Everything about her screams unattainable, yet she seems to be pretty interested in Tom. Boy meets girl. Boy eventually loses girl. That is no spoiler because, after all, you have already been warned.

The story's structure is fragmented because that is how these things are remembered. A touch. A kiss. A fight. The time you made them laugh. The time you made them cry. I cannot recall a film capturing the confusion and frustration that follows a break up quite as well as this one, save for maybe All The Real Girls, which also starred Zooey Deschanel. There is a need to pin point the one big thing that went wrong when it is often many little things.

Zooey Deschanel, who exudes a sort of effortless confidence, is perfectly cast here. We never really get to know Summer, because she simply won’t allow it. Deschanel has become an expert at playing characters like this. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's part is less flashy, but his Tom is earnest, heartfelt and also perfectly played. It is too bad for him that Summer in seeking an equal and not an admirer.

So you can see why this is not a conventional love story. You can also see why this really is a love story. If you have ever been through a major break up, then this is also your story.


Friday, April 9, 2010


Directed by Peter Billingsley, Starring Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Malin Akerman, Kristen Bell & Jean Reno

Here is a comedy functioning solely on sitcom conventions, complete with a half an hour premise stretched into feature length.  It was written by Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn, and though I would not go so far as to call them a dynamic comedy duo, I do expect a few good laughs.  In "Couples Retreat", I only managed to find a few smirks.

Jason (A woefully underused Jason Bateman) and Cynthia (Kristen Bell) are having some very non-specific marital troubles.  The film suggests that Jason is a bit tightly wound, but is that really enough to warrant discussion of divorce? Doubtful, but that is all we have to go on.  Strange that writers as smart and funny as Vaughn and Favreau would completely ignore any real plot development, but there it is.  Back to Jason and Cynthia...

The beleaguered couple manages to talk their friends (all going through troubles of their own, to varying degrees of believability) into joining them at a couples retreat so they can enjoy a nice group rate.  There is nothing to suggest things won't work out in the end, and so they do.  In fact, everyone's issues seem to resolve themselves within the last few minutes of the film.  It is as though someone told them to wrap it up.  One of the resolutions is preposterously lazy, improbably plopping a character into the story at the last second.  Deus ex machina, anyone?

All of this would be mildly forgivable if the film were at least funny.  It is not.  There are surprisingly few jokes here, and nothing that will linger beyond its fleeting moment.  It is an unfortunate animal: a below average comedy with an above average cast. 


Saturday, March 20, 2010

UP IN THE AIR - Review

Directed by Jason Reitman, Starring George Clooney, Vera Farminga & Anna Kendrick

Ryan Bingham (Clooney) is the type of man who appears to have it all figured out.  His life is concise.  So concise in fact, that he even gives seminars about how to fit your every need into a carry on duffle bag.  But that is just moonlighting.  His primary job is to fire people for employers who lack the guts to do it themselves.  In these lean times, business is booming.

Bingham spends a great deal of time on planes.  His apartment is empty, his duffle bag is full.  He finds comfort in his routine.  When a man seated next to him asks where he is from, he responds: "I'm from here".  Everything is temporary.  This status quo is eventually shattered when he is partnered with Natalie, a young up-and-comer with a big idea about how to revolutionize his industry: firing people over the internet.  No fuss, no muss.  It is hard to tell what disgusts Bingham more; the impersonal brutality of her new method or, the fact that it would mean permanent grounding for him.

This is a fine role for George Clooney.  It allows him to show us a side we rarely see through his sometimes snarky, cool exterior: vulnerability.  I believe this to be one of his best performances.  He is supported by a stellar female duo in Vera Farminga and Anna Kendrick.  Farminga is cool, funny and smart.  She is the character we are used to seeing Clooney play.  Anna Kendrick has a natural charm about her, akin to Amy Adams.  She attempts to convey her vulnerability with careful calculation, but when it rains, it pours.

I have a great appreciation for films that convey a sense of change as opposed to wrapping things up in a nice, tidy package.  People are not perfect.  They soldier on.  They try.  Bingham may not make a complete one eighty in the end, but at least he knows he can turn around.


9 - Review

Directed by Shane Acker, Starring Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly & Christopher Plummer

There is a burst of green light.  A curious looking creature, skillfully stitched together and goggle-eyed, crumples to the floor.  Eventually those goggle eyes flutter open to gaze out at the devistated world it now resides in.

So begins "9", created by Shane Aker, based on his short film of the same name.  It is the story of the title character's search for a little meaning and prupose.  Where did 9 and his other numerically named coherts come from?  What has left the world in it's current apocalyptic state?  All the while they battle a self-replicating machine made of scrap metal and bones.  It is a remnant of mankind's war-mongering and, since man seems to be an extinct species, it is now someone else's problem.  It is a relatively simple story, occassionally reducing itself to a run-and-hide formula that flirts with, but never quit reaches tedium.

But let's not kid ourselves, the real draw here is the visuals and they are stunning.  From the camera work to the lighting, "9" has a compelling look all its own.  Each incarnation of the machine is both clever and terrifying.  It is a film worth seeing.  Perhaps not for it's passable story, but certainly for its amazing imagery.


Monday, March 15, 2010


Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen, Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed & Richard Kind

"Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you" - Rashi

When your wife is requesting a divorce, your brother will not get off your couch and get a job and one of your students is simultaneously bribing and blackmailing you, that's easier said than done!  But such is the life of Larry Gobnik (Stuhlbarg), standing in awe at the turmoil that surrounds him with no end in sight.

It is almost moot to reference the films obvious link to the Book of Job, but there it is.  Larry is tested and tested again.  To what end?  That is for Hashem to know and for you to find out.  Or not, as appears to be the case here.  It is really all about the question, isn't it?  Larry stumbles from rabbi to rabbi seeking an absolute, only to be met with more questions and confusion.  Rabbi #1 tells him that it is all about perception, citing the shul parking lot as an example (insert film quote).  Rabbi #2 tells him the tale of a dentist who discovers the words "help me, save me" in yiddish on the back of a goy's teeth.  When Larry asks what happened to the goy at the end of the story, the rabbi's response is at once frustrating and completely reasonable.  And what of Rabbi #3, you ask?  You will have to see where that ends up for yourself.

The Coen brothers have a reputation for being almost frustratingly vague and, "A Serious Man" is no exception.  It is the nature of the beast.  The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.  In the bible, Job professes his innocence and faith even in the face of great torment and detractors.  Larry merely whines a lot.  And there is also the matter of the ending, which most people will find to be abrupt and unsatisfactory.  Those familiar with the story's origins will probably see it coming. 


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Spread the word

For those interested, I will now be contributing to a fantastic site called as well as Four Inches of Dirty Water.  My reviews will most likely duplicate there with a few minor format and title differences.  I will also be expanding to more essays & film theory.


Monday, March 1, 2010


Directed by Breck Eisner, Starring Timothy Olyphant & Radha Mitchell
I am far removed from George Romero's original, "The Crazies", having only viewed it once and with little interest.  It wasn't specifically that it was too talky (it most certainly was); it was that it was too shouty, if that is a word (it most certainly isn't).  Must everyone shout about everything?!  But I digress...

Breck Eisner's fine remake features better acting and far less shouting.  Not that there isn't plenty of cause for shouting given that something is making the residents of Ogden Marsh, Iowa go insane at an alarming rate.  What might that something be? Somebody dropped something into something?  Someone accidentally flipped a switch on the something or other?  Somebody ate a radioactive sandwich?  It is pretty inconsequential, actually.  There are zombies.  Well not exactly zombies, but let's not split hairs.

The story is pretty clearly defined by its three-act structure.  The first act involves the town's deterioration, the second an attempt to contain the virus and third its post-apocalyptic aftermath.  It is not entirely successful at any of these three scenarios, but much of that has to do with its 101 minute running time and not its execution. 

There are several, highly effective set pieces here.  For example, there is a chilling scene where the town doctor, played by Radha Mitchell, is strapped to a gurney surrounded by several others suffering from various stages of the virus.  One of them giggles relentlessly as another of the crazies slowly shambles amongst them with an already bloodied pitchfork.  You can infer he is not looking to bale hay.  Another is one of the scariest scene I can remember taking place in a car wash.

It is funny to see a film that is so completely conventional in its approach and entertaining despite that.  Bottom line:  If you have seen one zombie movie, you have seen them all.  This one happens to be pretty good even though there are no zombies in it; hair splitter.


Thursday, February 25, 2010


Directed by Ti West, Starring Jocelin Donahue & Tom Noonan

Building tension is an art form I fear the horror genre doesn't have much use for anymore.  A killer's strike can be startling for sure, but waiting for the killer to strike can be excruciating.  This tension has been replaced with special FX, forcing me to reiterate the old, "Just because you can, doesn't mean you should" rule.  I am not entirely sure who made up that rule, but it was probably somebody's mother.  If there is one area "The House of the Devil" excels in, it's taking that rule to heart.

Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), like all college students, is desperate for cash.  She has found her dream place, but fears she may not have enough to put down a deposit.  When she finds an ad on campus for a babysitter, she doesn't think twice.  From the moment we hear the advertiser's voice on the phone, we do.  When she arrives, she is greeted by the naturally creepy Tom Noonan, who informs her that she is not expected to babysit a child, but his mother.  Uh-huh.  Remember that part of the grand horror tradition is a protaganist's lack of common sense.  She takes the job.

From here the film takes it's time, letting the house and the silence within it do all the work.  Samantha does little but watch television, listen to her walkman and explore her surroundings.  But you are always waiting, expecting this mysterious mother to make her appearance. 

Speaking of walkmans; remember walkmans?!  That's another area where the film succeeds in spades.  It feels like it was made in the 80's.  From the opening credits to its closing moments, Director Ti West never slips up.  Still, it is hard for me to declare this one a full success.  The pacing is perhaps a bit too deliberate and the ending is merely adequite.  But then, that tends to be a problem when you have spent so much time getting there.  "The House of the Devil" is a fun, throwback horror film.  Not entirely satisfying in the end but, worth the trip there.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty & Guy Pierce

Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) stares down into the trunk of an abandoned car.  It's been packed full of enough explosives to destroy himself and the embassy it's parked directly in front of.  In his eyes there is a mixture of fear, excitement and admiration as he begins removing his safety gear.  "If I'm going to die, I at least wanna be comfortable".  For my money there's not enough fear in the equation!  But James is a thrill junkie and, in Bravo company's elite bomb disposal unit he has found the perfect supplier.

I think it's fair to say that not everyone is mentally equipped to handle such a task.  And for a while at least, James' squad members question whether or not he's got the goods.  His biggest critic being Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), who operates as James' eyes and ears while he works.  Sanborn believes James will eventually get them all killed with his blatant disregard for the procedures Sanborn trusts to keep them alive.  They are both aided by Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), a young man who begrudgingly admires James' skill while simultaneously fearing his bravado.   The thing is, James is good.  So good in fact, that despite their best judgements both men find it increasingly difficult to argue with him.  And after all, there's hardly any time for bickering.

Part of the reason "The Hurt Locker" is so successful is because of it's emphasis on character over premise.  Director Kathryn Bigelow keeps a steady eye on her subjects, allowing no room for politics or plot points. We feel Sanborn's fear as he begs James to give up on that car bomb.  There's a crowd gathering, after all, and anyone of them could be the bombs creator.  We also feel James' determination.  He will not be beaten, and his tunnel vision threatens the safety of himself and those around him.

Renner has been nominated for his role and deservedly so.  It's the kind of part that requires an almost rigorous attention to detail.  Renner is tasked with portraying a man whose forgotten how to be anything other than what he now is.  How does one return to such menial tasks as grocery shopping, or caring for ones wife and child when you've stared death in the face on a day to day basis?  It is certain that not all men return from war with this mindset. It is just as certain that no one returns quite the same. 


Friday, February 19, 2010


Directed by Gary Marshall, Starring EVERYONE

Love is in the air, everywhere you look around....

So I suppose you have to go into a film like "Valentines Day" with a certain mindset.  You either have to be willing to accept its terminal whimsy or you've got a good two hours of suffering ahead of you.  I chose acceptance rather than resistence, and it did help....but only a little. 

Here's the premise, in so much as it can be coherently described: Somebody likes so-and-so but they don't know so they like somebody else whose perhaps not so great for them because they're either married or just a crappy person and in the end things work out for the best for all involved.  There are just too many characters to really get into the nuts and bolts of it all, so that will just have to do.  There are a few halfway decent stories, though.  Julie Roberts' story is simple, sweet and has a nice little surprise in the end.  Shirley McClaine and Hector Elizondo show that love can indeed strengthen over time and, Topher Grace and Anne Hathaway make a swell young couple over coming a minor hurdle on their way to happiness.  The rest of it is pretty much fluff, varying degrees of fluffiness.  I also feel that I should warn you about the Taylors, both Swift and Lautner.  They are borderline unwatchable.

So I can't really recommend "Valentines Day", though it is relevtively harmless.  I have read several other reviews describing this film as a bit of a poor mans "Love, Actually".  I believe I'll follow suit and recommend a viewing of that instead.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

FILMS I LOVE - Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

If you can watch "Night of The Living Dead" on an old, 10" black and white television, huddled under a tent made from your own bedding, I'd highly recommend you do so. The more intimate the viewing, the better.  In fact, I believe it to be one of those rare horror films that doesn't necessarily benefit from audience participation.  It wants to scare you in a much deeper, more personal manner.

The story is simple:  A young man and woman, brother and sister, stop by a cemetary to pay respects.  It is eerily quiet.  There are no other mourners (Sometimes a small budget can be a blessing in desguise.).  As the young man teases his obviously frightened sister with the imortal line, "They're coming to get you Barbara", a shabbily dressed man approaches and attacks her.  Her brother is killed in the scuffle, forcing her to retreat to a nearby farmhouse where she encounters a small group of characters with similar stories.  After discovering a television, not unlike the ideal one I mentioned earlier, they learn from the local news that the recently deceased are "returning to life and devouring the flesh of their victims".  It 's pretty grim stuff, and having grown up on the camp of "Channel 20's Thriller Double Feature", I was ill prepared for the loss of humanity "Night of The Living Dead" portrayed.  It shook me.  Normal people reduced to mindless, souless killing machines.  We were the monsters here, our friends and family. 

What's equally interesting about the film is the manner in which it develops it's story.  For all intents and purposes, "Night" starts off as a pretty fun, campy affair.  Its zombies are stiff and clumsy.  It's easy to find them amusing and for the most part all the characters can do is watch helplessly as more and more of the ghouls shamble towards the farm house.  But there's one particular scene near the middle of the film where director George Romero signals the fun's over.  It's shortly after a failed escape attempt has left a young couple dead in their pick up truck after it had burst into flames.  As the flames die down the ghouls slowly approach and begin tearing at the charred bodies, devouring them part by part, organ by organ.  It's a long sequence and it's filmed by an unflinching camera.  Roger Ebert described this transition in his review, stating that the film had gone from being "delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying".

Some argue (and justly so) that the films sequel, "Dawn of The Dead" is the superior film.  And while it's story is larger in scope, it's social commentary more deliberate and it's SFX vastly improved, it's hard for me to agree that "Dawn" is the scarier film.  There's something about it's predicessor that just stuck with me.  Perhaps it's a scene near the end where a mother is killed by her own daughter with a trowel?  Yeah, that'll do it.



Directed by Bruce McDonald
Starring Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle & Georgina Reilly

"Pontypool", which is quite possibly the worst title I've ever heard, pays homage to it's radio roots right from the start. Shock Jock Grant Mazzy, expertly played by Stephen McHattie, croons the story of a local womans missing cat over a black screen broken only by a red, skittering sound wave. I know it sounds mundane, but there's something inatley chilling about his delivery.  "Pontypool" banks a lot on that kind of vibe.

A great deal of the film is spent watching Mazzy "do his thing", much to the chagrin of his producer (Lisa Houle) and amusement of his board operator (Georgina Reilly).  Mazzys "thing", it seems, is pissing people off.  And though we get little to no explanation as to why he was fired from his original job and plopped in the small town of Pontypool, Ontario, we get an idea.  The man lives to start trouble.  Turns out this town doesn't really need his help.  Soon, Mazzy begins receiving phone calls describing mob scenes randomly erupting all over town.  Seems some folks have taken to babbling incoherently and eventually assaulting their fellow.... Pontypoolians?  Pontypoolans?  Whatever.  Point is, the source of this zombie-like behavior is revealed to be lurking somewhere within the english language itself, begging Mazzy to wonder whether his on the spot updates might be hurting more than helping.

I realize you've probably gotten hung up on that "lurking within the english language itself" business.  I must warn you I can be of little help with any real explanation and, I wouldn't expect "Pontypool" to give you one either.  The film is far more interested in the metaphorical, it seems than the literal.  It's taking the social commentary of Romero's zombie films to an extreme, and this is really where the film begins to derail.  The power of language as well as the construction and de-construction of words  are interesting topics, but do they really have any place in a zombie film?

I suppose I appreciate the attempt to bring something new to the table, even if it doesn't quite work.  It's just that "Pontypool" gets so strange and esoteric by the later half of the film that it kind of blind sides you.  Couple that with an ending that's a bit less than satisfying and what you have is a film that's reach far exceeds it's grasp.  So just what exactly is it about the english language that's setting people off?  It's really best if we don't talk about it.

*NOTE:  Yes, I do realize how many times I used "Pontypool" in this review.  There's something hypnotic about it, don't you think? Pontypool....Pontypool......


Friday, January 22, 2010


Directed by The Spierig Brothers.  Starring Ethan Hawke, Willem Defoe and Sam Neill.

The film opens with a striking image. A little girl kneels in a field, alone, as the sun slowly rises in front of her. Inside her home we see a suicide note sitting on a desk. She is a vampire, and cannot take the idea that she’ll be trapped in the visage of a child forever. The sun rises. The girl burns.

But that’s neither here nor there. These vampires explode when they’re staked!

“Daybreakers” imagines a world ravaged by a plague that’s converted most of mankind into vampires. A world perpetually shrouded in cobalt blue and containing blood cafes and underground walkways for easy daytime travel. Things look swell from the outside, but teeming beneath this bustling vampopolis are a horde of mutant vamps, resulting from blood deprivation. That’s right. Despite gaining hightened senses and super strength, we are still unable to appropriately manage our resources! Can’t teach an old dog yadda yadda. Ethan Hawke plays Edward Dalton, a sort of vampire tree-hugger desperately seeking a cure for vampirism itself while the company he works for, headed by a greedy Sam Neill attempts to parlay the invention of a blood substitute into a means of upping the price for the real thing. Dalton’s frustration eventually forces him to meet with a small band of human resistance fighters lead by the eccentric Elvis, played by the equally eccentric Willem Defoe.

“Breakers” is the kind of film that poses a lot of interesting questions then, asks that you don’t think about them too much as tranquilizer darts begin to fly, vampires explode and mutants roar. Could it have better acknowledged the obvious parallels between our countries dwindling resources and the vampire’s blood crisis?  Sure.  Could it have delved a little deeper into some of the inner turmoil the films intro hints at, but never fully develops?  Absolutely. But I don’t get the impression the Spierig brothers had any sociopolitical agenda in mind from the start. What they wanted to do is make a slick looking vampire flick. In that respect, mission accomplished.

It’s not long before the film begins to show its true colors and the aforementioned action kicks it into high gear. That’s by no means an insult,  it's just what keeps “Daybreakers” from being great.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

THE ROAD - Review

Directed by John Hillcoat
Starring Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smith-McPhee

There is a flash of light then, a series of concussions.  The earth is left blanketed in ash.  The few survivors are left with little recourse but to scavenge like wild animals for food and shelter.  No one can be trusted.  Cannibalism has become a very real threat.  The earth quakes and the trees fall. 

The real beauty of Cormac McCarthy's novel "The Road" lies in its simplicity.  He is intentionally vague about what exactly has occurred, choosing instead to focus on the lives of his two main characters in this harsh, new terrain.  They are The Man and The Boy.  Father and son.  Even their relationship is established with elegant, minimalist dialogue:

Can I ask you something?

Yes. Of course you can.

What would you do if I died?

If you died I would want to die too.

So you could be with me?

Yes. So I could be with you.


The two of them are traveling south, towards the ocean.  The Boy hopes for warmth and human contact there.  The Man, singularly devoted to the Boy, simply hopes for enough time to teach him how to survive without him.  A bleak novel to be sure and the film, directed by John Hillcoat, is as faithful as any of it's fans could want. 

So why did I leave the theatre wanting?

I think I just believe "The Road" to be one of those rare, un-filmable books. It relies so heavily on a reader's emotional participation with its characters and environment that any re-telling, no matter how well told, will lose personal impact.  This, of course, is no fault of the films.  The visuals are striking and both Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smith are spot on as the leads.  What we're talking about here is the difference between going through something and hearing about going through something. 

I intend to see "The Road" again, as I have a feeling I will appreciate it a bit more the second go-round.  But for the time being, I'll recommend you skip the film and go right for its source material.


Sunday, January 3, 2010

"Nobodies ever made a good movie"

It's only fitting that I begin with Robert Altman, given that "Four Inches of Dirty Water" is a reference to his great film, "The Player".  Maybe not the most clever reference, but a reference none the less.  And it just felt right, which is pretty true to how Altman functioned.

He once said "Nobodies ever made a good movie".  His explanation for this comment is vague, but then many things about him were.  He couldn't tell you why he chose the shot he chose.  He couldn't tell you why he'd cast who he cast.  Or maybe he just wouldn't.  What he could tell you is that it just felt right.  I've always thought watching an Altman film is very similar to listening to jazz.  It's not about where it's going, it's about how it gets there.  His films are alive.  The camera almost constantly glides around, trying to take it all in.  The soundtrack is busy.  He insists you pay attention.  Watch, listen for the little things.  But more importantly, feel them.  Jazz is all about vibe.

Altman's "jazz" mentality is further displayed in the manner with which he dealt with actors and writers. He had no time for egos (save for maybe his own).  He only hired actors that brought something to the table, and had little interest in directing them.  If they couldn't create a character on their own, what good were they?  And when it came to writers Altman made few friends, having once said, "the only reason I have a script is so I can remember all the characters names".  Miles Davis would set up a groove, maybe work in a solo, but what's the point of having Jimmy Cobb and John Coltrane if you're not going to use them?

Some viewed him as the ultimate collaborator.  Some as a lazy curmudgeon.  I happen to greatly admire him.  I also happen to think he's made a few good movies.