Tuesday, February 28, 2006


Tristram Shandy MovieSteve Coogan Starring Steve Coogan
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



This is a pretty tough review to write, mainly because this film definitely won’t be for the general population. If you like potty humor and in-your-face laughs, avoid this movie. TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY is a thinking man’s comedy, with jokes inside jokes inside jokes.

For those who are unfamiliar with the title (THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF TRISTRAM SHANDY, GENTLEMAN), this is in reference to the 18th century literary paperweight composing nine volumes written by Laurence Sterne (famous author John Updike has been quoted as saying, "It’s the one novel I want to read before I die"). Considered a "comedy ahead of its time," it caught on quickly with London's upper class and became quite a success. But as times changed so did the literary climate, and now the volumes are seen as ...well ...voluminous. Attempting to make a coherent film out of something so incoherently nonlinear certainly would present a challenge, too, so I was quite surprised to see that the books had been translated to the silver screen.

Or so I thought...

The amazing thing about this movie is that it did something completely unexpected: it stayed true to Laurence Sterne’s style (being possibly the first example of "
stream of consciousness" writing) but did so by not attempting to tell the story of Tristram Shandy at all. I found this to be one of the funniest aspects of the movie. I could picture the directors and producers in a room talking about the impossibility of turning the books into film and then someone saying, "Hey, why don’t we not even try?" So, in the spirit of its original author, that’s exactly what these film makers did.

The story starts out with a film maker (Steve Coogan, director of the supposed "real" movie who, in reality, is being directed by
Michael Winterbottom) trying to tell the story of Tristram Shandy while living a life within the movie itself. Basically, it’s the story of a man trying to make a film about a film within a film. It can seem somewhat confusing as the audience is ripped through scenes, unsure of where and — most importantly — when they are. To try and tell you how the movie flows would be absolutely impossible, because it has no flow ...and yet it does. The laughs are surprising and often hidden, so a watcher might have to view it several times before connecting with all of the gags (the only exception being when Coogan tries to show how funny the film’s going to be by dropping a hot chestnut down a his pants ...seeing that might be worth the price of admission for some).

I was surprisingly riveted to the screen throughout the movie, worried that I might miss something (Is the battle scene over? Will it be in the film they’re trying to make? Will there be a
love scene with Gillian Anderson?).

I think this film might get panned by quite a few professional reviewers because it is so different than anything we’re used to as movie-goers. But the high comedy can’t be denied. It’s sheer genius how it all came together (make sure to watch for the running joke on poor British dental hygiene throughout the film, too).

Click here for the Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story movie trailer!

Sunday, February 26, 2006


Reviewed by Byron Merritt

Big Thumbs Down!


It’s always risky going to the movies. You never know (for sure) what to expect. I’ve heard horrible reviews about films I found enjoyable and vice versa, so relying on professional and/or amateur film reviewers is rarely the best way for me to gauge whether or not I want to see a flick.

I knew that DATE MOVIE was directed by a couple of the guys who did the SCARY MOVIE series’, and my kids (17-year-olds, mind you) love them. I’d sat through the first SCARY MOVIE and found it relatively funny at times, if a bit crude. But there was some care taken with the filming of it (the homage paid to THE EXORCIST was actually quite well done) so I thought maybe I’d find something similar here.

No such luck....

Like SCARY MOVIE, DATE MOVIE takes its jabs at a film genre, only this time, instead of horror, it’s romance movies of the past fifty years (all the way back to THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH which starred Marilyn Monroe). But, unlike SCARY MOVIE, DATE MOVIE doesn’t pay much homage in a very artistic or funny/flattering way to these wonderful films. The jokes are just thrown in — without rhyme or reason — and shot without regard for the surrounding environment (most teenagers probably won’t give a flying whoopty-doo about that but others most certainly will). Bathroom humor rules the roost here as we see the infamous cat from MEET THE PARENTS taking a raucously loud dump in a toilet with full sound effects (yes, I did laugh here but it was about the only place), and some extremely, extremely, extremely forced sexual connotations are smeared in the audience's face by the beautiful Carmen Electra.

Pulling skits from NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, JERRY MAGUIRE, and WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (among dozens of others), the film tried too hard to use the comedy it could’ve easily pulled off with a less heavy-handed effort.

Alyson Hannigan, as the main character, Julia Jones, gives the shallowest performance of her career. Adam Campbell as her love interest, Mr. Grant Funkyerdoder (ha-ha), was entertaining but obviously trying to make more out of the script than was possible.

The rest of the supporting cast was terrible, unable to get any truly laugh-out-loud moments across to the audience.

I think the race for Worst Film of the Year has officially begun.

Click here for the Date Movie movie trailer!

Saturday, February 25, 2006


Corpse BrideJohnny Depp Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Johnny Depp (Voice)
Reviewed by Byron Merritt


Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp) is the son of wealthy fishmongers and he’s had an arranged marriage set up for him. His wife to be, Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson) is the daughter of Victorian-style royalty who are having financial difficulties. Marrying Victoria off is seen solely as a "plan (score music here)" to pull her parents out of their money-rut.

All seems to be going well until Victor fouls up his vows during the wedding rehearsal and runs off into the nearby forest. He continues to practice the vows as he stumbles through the trees, finally getting the words right and then ceremoniously placing the ring on a nearby twig ...at least that’s what he thought it was. The twig turns out to be the dead finger of the Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carter). She and Victor are now husband and wife, and she emerges from the grave to tell him so. Running away from her and plowing into a tree, Victor falls unconscious, only to awaken in the underworld of the dead.

Confusion reigns as Victor tries to tell the Corpse Bride that they cannot be married ...because he is still alive and she is dead. Well, there certainly is an easy way to fix that. But what of his living bride-to-be, Victoria? How will she take the news?

The Corpse Bride has a lot going for it, but also a few issues. The positives far outweigh the negatives, however. Most enjoyable (from my perspective) were the miniatures and the way the "claymation" flowed. The clay characters were smooth and outlandishly featured; Victoria’s mother (Joanna Lumley) has hair that looks like two large breasts pinned high above her head, the Corpse Bride is disturbingly sexy, and the pastor (a perfect Christopher Lee) appears as an imposing religious zealot.

Similar to WALLACE AND GROMIT IN THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT, the claymation is smooth and even. Although Wallace and Gromit has a more children’s feel to it, Corpse Bride makes no such claim. Necrophilia, frightening death sequences, bodily decay, and several other possibly unappetizing ideas pop-up during the film. But they are usually infused with sprinklings of comedy, which made these items less morbid.

The biggest "hole" in the movie was its script. Clocking in at just 75 minutes, there’s very little time to get acquainted with the characters and even less time spent on making sense of the movie’s ending (I’ll only comment that when the Corpse Bride said, "You have set me free." I said, "Huh?").

But the claymation, beautifully crafted caricatures, and mini-sets can’t be denied. Nor can most of the musical numbers that added a certain garish quality to it (although some of the songs seemed forced to me, while several others were spot-on).

I wouldn’t let a child under 12 years old watch it, though. Adults will laugh at the humor thrown down at death’s door, but the youngsters might not get it.

Friday, February 24, 2006


Enron DocumentaryJeff Skilling Directed by Alex Gibney
Reviewed by Byron Merritt

Just About Average Rating...

Documentary Film Review Rating: Just About Average ...

Perhaps a better subtitle for this documentary (and the book upon which it is based) would be, "The Greediest Guys in the Room." This is American capitalism at its worst. When a company like Enron can accumulate billions of dollars in revenue without having to prove where the money came from, you know there’s a problem. It’s a shameful look at how greed can override common sense and make people do horrendous things; one Enron executive killed himself in despair for what he’d done, while others pointed fingers at each other saying, "He’s to blame!" After the Enron debacle was uncovered, its stock plummeted, its billion dollar employee retirement plan (based on the company’s stock) vanished, and hundreds of jobs blew away.

The documentary takes an insider’s look at corporate mismanagement and bookkeeping oversights, but does so by looking into the lives of the men who built the company, specifically Jeffrey Skilling (CEO) and Kenneth Lay (President). The largest focus is on Skilling ...and for good reason. He’s the man with the "ideas." Initially all of these ideas sound great: taking advantage of the deregulation of California’s energy, controlling the flow of energy needs, developing web-based technologies in order to control energy-related ideas, etc. But when the need for more and more money gets thrown into the equation, all other priorities get thrown out the window. California’s rolling blackouts were a direct result of Enron’s manipulation of the State’s energy needs. By holding back power, Enron executives and day traders caused energy prices to soar, making many people instant millionaires. Enron seems unable to do any wrong. Its stock almost never drops. How can this be?

One woman, Bethany McLean (a Fortune Magazine contributor), begins to ask questions and digs into Enron’s seemingly impervious shell. She soon discovers accounting irregularities and something called the "Hypothetical Future Value" of the company’s stock. Whoa.

Living in California, I must say that I got pretty peeved watching something that cost me God knows how much in my own energy costs, and to learn that no one was asking to see accounting sheets from this powerful company. No one. Until Mrs. McLean started snooping around. I guess the big question to ask would be, "How much longer could Enron have stolen money from its shareholders and the people of California before getting caught?" It makes me shiver just thinking about it.

Although this is a great documentary because of the information it gives, its one big failing is that it’s a pretty bland topic. Alex Gibney (director) tries hard to give us a story about the men behind the math, but the film is really just about accounting and corporate greed; pretty bland material. And so the documentary itself can seem rather dull and uninviting. It’s just something to prepare yourself for if you’re expecting an energizing film.

Still, it’s great to see directors taking chances on such material and getting valuable news out to the common man. Hopefully, if an Enron-type company ever rises again, this movie’s message will be remembered and make people ask "Why?"

No movie trailer available. Sooorrry!

Saturday, February 18, 2006


The AristocratsGeorge Carlin Directed by Paul Provenza
Starring George Carlin, et al.
Reviewed by Byron Merritt

Thumbs Down


THE ARISTOCRATS is a failed documentary for many reasons, and I’ll point out the most valid ones in a second. First, though, let me explain what the film is about. It’s about a joke, a very old joke, that has mutated and grown as it’s been passed down from its vaudevillian roots. And it started out going something like this: A man walks into a talent agent’s office and says, "I’ve got a great new act, let me show you." So the guy brings in his wife and kids and they all poop on the floor, then fling themselves into the excrement, flying across the room, then pop up on the other side with their arms and heads held high and say "Ta-Da!" The talent agent then says, "Gee, I don’t know. What’s your act called?" And the guy says, "The Aristocrats."

So that’s the initial framework for the joke. But as times changed and comedy grew, so did the joke. It was basically an inside joke that is just now being let out for some air by these insider comedians who’ve known about it for years, and now the joke has been taken to completely new levels of rude, crude, and socially unacceptable telling. Beastiality, incest, and pornographic tellings abound, but the punch line — "The Aristocrats" — remains unchanged.

The format of the documentary is a smattering and haphazard pasting together of comedians staring into the camera (not on-stage, mind you) and belting out various incarnations of the joke. Most go beyond crude which, so we’re told, is supposed to make the punch-line more effective. But I found these long expletive passages boring and I yawned more than I laughed.

Another problem with the documentary was its target audience. It really isn’t for the general population; it’s more for comedians themselves. Historically, it’s an interesting take on how comedy has altered over the years by focusing on this one joke, but doing a historical recounting of comedy by telling one joke multiple times is overkill and not going to engage many people (at least many people I know).

The final nail in the coffin was that The Aristocrats was trying to be both a serious documentary about comedic changes, while also attempting to be funny. I will say that, on some level, this works because it IS interesting to see the permutations the joke has gone through, but it’s not funny. And that’s what I was expecting when I sat down to watch this. My expectations were that I’d laugh my butt off with the line-up of comedic talent listed in the movie (George Carlin, Drew Carey, Stephen Wright, Lewis Black, Andy Dick, Gilbert Gottfried, Chris Rock, and the list goes on and on), but the laughs were short in coming.

So if you’re looking for a raucously funny film to watch, this ain’t it.

Click here for The Aristocrats movie trailer!

Friday, February 17, 2006


Capote MoviePhilip Seymour Hoffman Directed by Bennett Miller
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Truman Capote’s masterpiece IN COLD BLOOD (1966) set a new standard and style in the literary world. We know that he didn’t finish another novel after it, too, which begs the question, "Why?"

Fast-forward to the 2005 film CAPOTE and we get the answer.

Mr. Capote is reincarnated in the body of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, and it is "through" him that we get to find out what happened during this snapshot time of Truman Capote’s life. A vicious murder of a family in rural Kansas takes place and Truman races there to find out if there’s a magazine story in it. But what he finds is much more than just a short periodical piece. As the murderers are captured, Truman becomes enraptured with the idea of learning why these seemingly innocuous men did something so heinous.

Truman digs deep, perhaps too deep, and we watch as every shred of decency is stripped away from him just so he can "finish the story." He bribes the prison warden and lies to the two killers (and ultimately to himself) about why he’s really spending so much time with them on death row.

In the end, it rips Truman apart, causing him to become an alcoholic and a shell of what he once was.

Occasionally casting directors get "it" right. And this time, they not only got it right by casting Mr. Hoffman in the role of Truman Capote, they bottled a bit of magic and captured it on film. David Strathairn did it, too, in his performance as Edward R. Murrow in GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, but Hoffman takes it to a euphoric level for movie watchers. His mannerisms, voice and costumes were impeccable. Many times I thought I was actually watching Truman Capote and not an actor playing him. Now that’s great acting.

If there was any failings in the movie, I’d have to say it was with its overall script. Although intriguing and genuinely creepy, it held only a small piece of what Truman Capote was. I realize that to capture all of what he was would be almost impossible ...but there you go. That’s life in the movies.

Even so, Hoffman deserves all the accolades he’s gotten and I have no doubt he’ll jump up on stage at the Oscars this year and pick up his statue.

Click here for the Capote movie trailer!

Oscar Award Winner: Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Golden Globe Award Winner: Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture

BAFTA Award Winner: Actor in a Leading Role

Thursday, February 16, 2006


Josh Hutcherson Zathura Movie Directed by Jon Favreau
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Open your imagination to the world of ZATHURA. Kids and adults alike will revel in this great story about two young brothers who find an old board-style game called Zathura that literally launches them and their home into outer-space. Danny (Jonah Bobo, AROUND THE BEND, 2004) and Walter (Josh Hutcherson, AMERICAN SPLENDOR, 2003) are the brothers and when their father (Tim Robbins, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, 1994) leaves them alone with their teenage sister (Kirsten Stewart, PANIC ROOM, 2002) for a few minutes, worlds collide and their home becomes a space-bound asteroid, but not because of any interstellar cataclysm. It’s all related to the game Zathura that the younger Danny finds and begins playing.

Their father’s beautiful arts and crafts style home is magically transported to the nether reaches of space and as the boys play the game — in an attempt to get back to Earth — more and more bizarre occurrences happen. A meteor shower pummels the house. A defective robot tries to kill the elder brother, Walter. Zorgons, weird, space-faring lizard-men, track their home because of the warmth radiating off it. A stranded spaceman joins the duo and has much more vested in the game than we could ever imagine. Walter and Danny’s sister goes into cryogenic sleep for "five turns" only to awaken in the midst of this spaceflight odyssey.

Can the boys make it home? Will they be able to finish the game? Can they put aside their sibling rivalries and become loving brothers? Why is the stranded astronaut helping them? What will Dad say when he gets home and finds out there is no home?

There’s been a lot of controversial talk amongst film-o-philes about this movie and JUMANJI. There’s no doubt that there’s an incredibly strong similarity between the two (a house being overrun by animals versus space creatures; a family in crisis that’s forced to come together; a board game that recreates a fantasy; a happy ending that occurs before adults arrive back in the picture; and so on).

Regardless of those striking comparisons, Zathura is a really fun film to watch. The two brothers are believable, and when they fight it reminded me of the great arguments I had with my brothers when I was growing up.

The amazingly beautiful arts and crafts home. It was painful watching it get destroyed piece by piece. Sitting on a gimbal, too, it was surprising (watching the special features on the DVD) to learn that director Jon Favreau used minimal digital special effects and built miniatures, etc. in order to get the desired effects for the film.

The ridiculous nature of the story allowed me to suspend disbelief and just go with it. We all know that fire doesn’t burn in outer-space (they light a sofa on fire and kick it out the door), and that a person could never survive fifteen years floating around in space in a spacesuit (the astronaut), but so what.

I was also a tad surprised about the astronaut. I’d surmised quite a bit about the movie as it continued (being able to guess pretty easily what was going to happen next and why) but when the true nature of the stranded astronaut came to light, I felt a bit choked-up (yeah, yeah, I know).

So sit back and enjoy the film, and try not to get overly critical about its obvious relation to JUMANJI.

Click here for the Zathura movie trailer!

Sunday, February 12, 2006


Felicity Huffman TRANSAMERICA MOVIE Directed by Duncan Tucker
Reviewed by Byron Merritt

With all the hype surrounding BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN this year (2005), it was surprising that TRANSAMERICA clearly got overlooked in many film award categories. Although Felicity Huffman received a Best Actress win from the Golden Globes (and an Oscar nomination), this movie really deserves MUCH more praise. Not only was the basic film better than BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (my opinion), it also had stronger supporting roles.

I need to pontificate about the unfair attitudes toward independent films, too, and how Hollyweird views them when Oscar time rolls around. If you doubt this, all you need to do is look at THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE’S reviews of Brokeback (approval rating) versus TRANSAMERICA (a negative ranking). I think this type of inconsistent approval/disapproval of similar films is also because the "big" movies get more press because they have the money to shove around for promotional purposes, while the little indies have to struggle on minuscule budgets.

If you’re man (or woman) enough to sit and open your mind to people’s problems, you’re sure to enjoy TRANSAMERICA. Dealing with the life of one man’s desire to become a woman, this film shows us the internal and external battles one might face. And when Bree (aka Stanley) decides to undergo a final surgical alteration to make her "all woman" she has to get approval by a medical doctor as well as a psychologist. The movie begins with Bree getting that approval, only to have it yanked away by the discovery of a child of which he/she is the father. Toby (an amazing Kevin Zegers), calls his father — Bree — one day with a request to bail him out of jail. Bree has to travel from L.A. to New York to accomplish this (at the behest of his/her psychologist). Bree then has to bring her 17-year-old boy across the U.S., but doesn’t tell him he/she is his father. The tension in the film is continually ratcheted up as Bree struggles to make sense of his/her own life while trying to keep his/her son from self-imploding. Bree also has to deal with his/her family during their travels across country, and it’s both funny and sad to watch the dysfunctional antics of children and adults alike.

As I stated earlier, too, the supporting cast is excellent. Not only was Felicity Huffman (DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES TV series) completely believable as a female actor portraying a man who wants to become a woman, but Kevin Zegers pulls in an awesome performance as her confused son. Fionnula Flanagan (WAKING NED DEVINE, 1998) performs the part of an overbearing mother as if born to the part. Burt Young (ROCKY series) sheds his hard-nosed "Paulie" persona in the Rocky films and becomes the reluctant supporter of his son’s choice to change into a woman. Even Graham Greene (DANCES WITH WOLVES, 1990) gives us a tough but ultimately ignorant man who helps drive Bree and his/her son across several states.

TRANSAMERICA goes beyond VICTOR/VICTORIA and BOYS DON’T CRY, and gives us the true meaning of what it is to be a person. It’s not about the sex. It’s all about the other things, family, self-worth, and all those insignificant items that add up quickly to form one giant melting pot we all find ourselves in.

What a shame more accolades weren’t given to this terrific character film.

Golden Globe Award Winner: Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture


ELIZABETHTOWN MOVIEOrlando Bloom Directed by Cameron Crowe
Starring Orlando Bloom
Reviewed by Byron Merritt

ELIZABETHTOWN is a film trying to get too many messages across in too short a time. Being a pretty big Cameron Crowe fan (VANILLA SKY, 2001), I came into this movie with high expectations. Some of them were met (music selection, unusual use of camera on characters), but the basic story and how it all came together obviously held too many challenges even in the expert hands of someone like Mr. Crowe.

The story (if you can believe it) is about a shoe designer named Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, 2005) who just lost his employer’s sneaker company nearly a billion dollars. Having dedicated the last eight years of his life to making this shoe-gone-bad, Drew heads to his apartment with suicide on his mind. But before he can kill himself, his phone rings (cliche’?) and it’s his sister telling him that their father just died. Being the eldest child, he is assigned to head to Kentucky, retrieve their father’s body from "the other side of the family" and prepare it for cremation. Drew decides to delay his own death while dealing with his father’s. So he packs up and heads to Kentucky ...but on the flight there he runs into a beautiful (if somewhat confused) stewardess named Claire (Kirsten Dunst, SPIDERMAN 2, 2004) who forms a strange bond with him. They chat awkwardly on the plane and Claire forces information onto Drew about how to get to Elizabethtown without getting lost (and, of course, he DOES get lost).

Eventually — after finding his way to Elizabethtown — Drew has to deal with his father’s side of the family. But they’re accepting, loving, and have a southern charm about them that’s centered around food and family and more food.

Drew calls Claire one night and they talk all night long, then decide to meet up again. A relationship starts to blossom, but each is held back by secrets (Claire tells Drew she has a boyfriend and Drew hasn’t told Claire about his monumental shoe failure.)

Getting involved in a stranger’s wedding, deciding whether or not to cremate Dad, dealing with family on both sides of the U.S., finding love, accepting loss and failure, traveling across the States, refinding love, and a multitude of other items are touched on in the film. But only just.
The movie’s length was obviously an issue. It was only two hours. For a film that’s trying to cover so much ground, more time was needed. The impact of Drew’s father’s death — and Drew’s travels across the U.S. with his father’s ashes — lost its impact on me because of all the other side stories (his mother’s near mental meltdown, his sister having to deal with their mother, coping with out-of-control children by having them watch a video on blowing-up a house, etc.)

On the upside, this is a story about life. It shows everything that goes on between birth and death and love and hate. It’s beautifully edited with an excellent soundtrack. It just needed more time to help completely flesh-out all of the storylines.

Friday, February 10, 2006


Reviewed by Byron Merritt



It’s tough to fathom a G-rated animated film garnering so much world attention, but there you go. Wallace and Gromit have captured ...something ....in our collective imaginations. Perhaps it’s a harkening back to simpler times. Perhaps it’s the witticism. Perhaps it’s the originality of "claymation" (clay characters shot one painstaking frame after the next). But whatever it is, it works.

Not having seen any previous works by Steve Box and Nick Park (directors), I have no comparisons to draw from with regards to their earlier award-winning claymation movies (A CLOSE SHAVE, 2001). But I can say, without hesitation, that this is a very good film for a couple of reasons.

First was the story. There’s never been a "vegetarian" monster before, but now we have one with "The Curse of the Were-Rabbit." This giant fluffy bunny has the strength of ten men and ten-times the appetite, too. Gardens are being destroyed and it’s only days before the Giant Vegetable Competition. Wallace and Gromit, founders of the "Anti-Pesto" pest control company (who drive a green van, which is just too funny, too, if you know what Pesto looks like), have their hands full. Their basement is already maxed out with captured rabbits (they don’t kill them, but are humane and take care of their pests). And now this Were-Rabbit problem. What to do?

Second was the character voices
. Peter Sallis, British-born stage actor, reprises his role as Wallace, the good-hearted pest control agent with great gadgetry. Gromit the dog, of course, is his trusty mute sidekick who saves Wallace constantly but receives no praise for his work. Helena Bonham Carter (CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, 2005) plays the voice of Lady Tottington, the love interest of Wallace and the wicked Victor Quartermaine (Hmm, where have I heard that name before?) voiced excellently by Ralph Fiennes (THE CONSTANT GARDNER, 2005). Victor wants to shoot every possible threat and now that the Were-Rabbit has been spotted, it appears he may very well get his chance. But killing the Were-Rabbit may have consequences that go far beyond simple Bunny Homicide.

Third was the way the film was shot. Watching how fluidly the claymation proceeded was astounding. Never once was there the "herky-jerky" motions most of us remember when using this kind of animation. Remember Gumby? This was light years beyond him.

Fourth were the extras. There were lots of tidbits about how claymation works and the success of Wallace and Gromit (and those that have been successful thanks to them, like various cheeses). But the thing that grabbed me the most was the inclusion of an award-winning short film called
STAGE FRIGHT. The lighting, homage to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and wonderful special effects made this an eye-popping piece of film making.

This is a really good film for parents and children alike. The kids will get a kick out of Gromit’s facial expressions and the cool antics pulled off by all the characters, and parents will get a nice trip down memory lane, remembering when times were simpler.

Click here for the Wallace & Gromit movie trailer!

Oscar Award Winner: Best Animated Feature Film of the Year

BAFTA Award Winner: Outstanding British Film of the Year

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


THE MATADOR MOVIEPierce Brosnan Directed by Richard Shepard
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Think you know Pierce Brosnan as an actor? Think again. This film reveals him as the anti-James Bond, a creepy assassin who suddenly grows a conscience in his waning years. No more REMINGTON STEELE, no more 007. This guy needs a serious injection of scruples.

When Julian Noble (Brosnan) is assigned to "rub someone out," there’s no hope for his target. That is until one day he’s contracted to take out a man in Manila and has a nervous breakdown, ending up face-down in a pile of donkey dung.

Then we move on to/flashback to Mexico City, where Julian meets up with Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear, AS GOOD AS IT GETS, 1997), a down-on-his-luck businessman who tries to befriend Julian in the hotel bar. But Julian’s antisocial behavior gets in the way often and nearly forces Danny away. But they form a sort of twisted friendship and Julian takes Danny into his confidence while watching a bullfight and shows him how to function as a killer. Danny is both terrified and exhilarated.

Six months later, Julian shows up at Danny’s house in Denver and ask for an impossible favor.

Brosnan deserves an Oscar for his performance as the confused and embattled assassin. I never, ever, ever saw Brosnan but always the character he was portraying. He completely creeped me out, even when some of his humanity returned.

Greg Kinnear was excellent as Brosnan’s alter-ego, a Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes who needs an infusion of toughness to get his life back on track. The film is strange like that, too. Both men give some of themselves to the other, but in the process lose a portion of what they once were. For Brosnan’s character, that was definitely a good thing all the way around, but for Kinnear’s, we’re not too sure.

The scenes filmed in Mexico were beautifully filmed, too. The shots of the colorful buildings, the huge stadium built for bullfighting, the cheesy bars, etc.

If you want to see a movie that’ll tickle that dark funny bone, you couldn’t go wrong here. Brosnan is masterful!

Click here for The Matador movie trailer!

Sunday, February 05, 2006


Owen Wilson Wedding Crashers Movie Directed by David Dobkin
Starring Owen Wilson
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



A lot of hype surrounded this film while it was in theaters and continued with its recent release onto DVD. I’ve lately halted when I hear resounding praise lavished on films with nary a single negative comment to be found. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN was one such film that I enjoyed but didn’t live up to the brouhaha surrounding it.

And such was the case with WEDDING CRASHERS ...

Although pleasantly funny and entertaining (note the "thumbs up" rating I gave it for sheer entertainment), the film lost much of its lighthearted punch as the story bogged down in the drama surrounding its two main characters, John Beckwith (Owen Wilson, STARSKY AND HUTCH) and Jeremy Grey (Vince Vaughn, DODGEBALL).

The basic premise is about these two longtime friends who enjoy crashing as many weddings as possible. They have hundreds of rules that each of them follows ("Rule #1: Never leave a fellow crasher alone", etc) ...that is until John falls for a beautiful woman named Claire Cleary (Rachel McAdams, THE NOTEBOOK) and all bets are called off.

John and Jeremy’s friendship appears to be on the rocks as John falls harder and harder for Claire. But problems quickly arise for him. Claire is the daughter of Treasury Secretary William Cleary (Christopher Walken, THE PROPHECY), an authoritative man who wants his daughters to marry into families of wealth and power. The Cleary family is also pretty dysfunctional ("putting the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional"). They have a son, Todd (Keir O’Donnell, IN YOUR FACE), who wants nothing to do with the family’s politics and prefers painting evocative scenes in "his own blood." The Cleary mother, Kathleen (Jane Seymour, DR. QUINN, MEDICINE WOMAN), is sexually deprived and wants young men to "touch her surgically enhanced breasts."

John clearly has a lot of obstacles to overcome ...and not just within the Cleary family. Claire's long-term boyfriend, Zack Lodge (Bradley Cooper, ALIAS), wants to know who John and Jeremy are and how they became so close to the Cleary family so quickly.

As John’s love for Claire grows, Jeremy is dragged further away from his friend by the surrounding circumstances and by another Cleary daughter with serious psychological issues that he later finds endearing.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in this film. At two hours in length, it’s one of the more long-winded comedies I’ve seen.

Mixing drama, romance and humor is always a challenge, and director David Dobkin admirably tries to hold it all together, and on some levels he does, but the ending fell flat with no laughs and zero character growth (they just expand their wedding crasher community from two to four members).

I will say that seeing Jane Seymour in such a different role surprised me. She played the part of a bored politician’s wife extremely well. But Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn were just Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn; men who never grew up. Whenever they’re on-screen together, however, there were definitely some great comedic moments ("Oh. You didn’t hear. My brother had a diving accident and he’s retarded now").

But if you’re looking for a high quality comedy, this isn’t it. It is funny at times, but when compared to such masterpieces as THE BIG LEBOWSKI or O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU, it seriously pales.

Click here for the Wedding Crashers movie trailer!

Saturday, February 04, 2006


The Ice Storm Movie Kevin Kline Directed by Ang Lee
Starring Kevin Kline
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



THE ICE STORM is a startling look at 1973 America and how lost so many people (parents, children, neighbors, etc.) became during this transitional time. The free-love of the 60s spill over into the 30 and 40-somethings of a sleepy Connecticut community and runs smack into the dysfunctional family of Ben and Elena Hood (Kevin Kline, A FISH CALLED WANDA, and Joan Allen, THE UPSIDE OF ANGER).

Ben is having an affair with his neighbors wife, Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver, ALIENS), and the boredom they both feel during their "love making" is palpable. They want something different to happen, but what that "something" is remains unobtainable. And the two’s lackadaisical attitudes toward sex, family, and the times seep into their everyday lives; even into their spouses’ and children.

Ben’s wife Elena gets caught shoplifting from the local pharmacy. Janey’s husband Jim goes away on long business trips and returns with funks of depression because of what he witnesses going on in his family.

The children of Ben and Janey are also settling into this bizarre behavior. Some of them explore sexuality in often strange ways, or run out into storms and play on ice-covered roads. Others blow things up with M80 firecrackers, or smoke pot and drink to numb themselves out.

But all of these people’s lives will change in an unalterable way during one evening; an ice storm has hit and the cold outside bashes against the cold each character feels inside. Some will live, some will die, and others will never be the same.

The attention to 1970s detail in director
Ang Lee’s movie is astounding. The sweater-vest outfits, paneled station wagons, and boxy homes were excellently filmed.

You can also feel the dark undercurrent running through the characters’ lives: the grayish landscape cinematography against the quiet homes that harbor secrets.

The cast was absolutely perfect, too. Kevin Kline (one of my favorite actors), Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen,
Elijah Wood, Tobey Maguire, Katie Holmes, Christina Ricci, and Jamey Sheridan all pull in stunning performances.

Having gushed over how well done the movie was, I do have to comment on its pacing. If you thought SIDEWAYS was snail-like, this movie may make you feel as though grass could grow faster.

Director Ang Lee has had some serious success in Hollywood as of late (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, 2005), but this earlier work is an excellent way to see how he’s grown in the intervening years.

No movie trailer available. Sooorrry!

Thursday, February 02, 2006


Dead Like MeMandy Patinkin Directed by James Marshall
Starring Mandy Patinkin, et al
Reviewed by Byron Merritt


I don't buy television series' to keep in my DVD collection. I don't own any Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs (although the show has some great acting and dialogue), nor do I own Six Feet Under or The Sopranos or any other form of long term television viewing. So what makes this one so different?

Simply put: everything!

In a time where most of what we see and understand comes through that little lighted box with a remote control near-at-hand, it is refreshing to see something different. Something unlike what Hollywood would normally put out there. I can almost hear the arguments against this show before it was released (probably similar arguments that got Wonderfalls cancelled ...another excellent show with the same production crew, so I understand). "Death! Who wants to hear about the afterlife of an 18 year old girl?!" and "This family is too dysfunctional!" and "Comedy. We need more comedy!" Let's hope some do-gooder never get's his/her hands on this excellent story concept and tries to change it to a light-hearted, feel-good series or some other ridiculously overdone theme.

So what is this series about? The focus is on Georgia "George" Lass, played perfectly by Ellen Muth. She's like millions of other post-highschool graduates out there; she has no idea what she wants to do with her life, or if she wants to do anything at all. Her mother, Joy (Cynthia Stevenson), is fed up with her daughter's attitude and forces her out of bed one fateful morning with harsh words and orders for her to "find a job and become a productive member of society." Little does George's mother know, but these harsh words will be the last she ever speaks to her eldest daughter. On George's first day in the workforce, she takes a lunch break and, as she stand on a street corner, gets snuffed out by a zero-G toilet seat that comes crashing into our atmosphere from the disintegrating Mir space station. But before she's killed, a nice black man asks her name and touches her on the back ever so slightly. George has just been Reaped. The toilet seat kills her, but her soul lives on. Rube (Mandy Patinkin) greets her as her new boss. George is to become a Grim Reaper, taking souls from the lives of those that are about to be violently ended.

The irony is smackingly wonderful: a young girl who couldn't have cared less about her own life only moments before is now in charge of the end of lives of god knows how many people. Leaving behind her family is tough, though. And it is poignantly portrayed without getting heavy-handed in the dialogue department. Her mother retreats into herself and becomes an angry woman who likes very little. George's kid sister, Reggie (
Britt McKillip), tries to contact George in the afterlife by acting out (she steals toilet seats from her school, uses a Ouji board on top of her own toilet seat in an effort to hear anything coming from the `beyond', and collects dead things like birds). George's father, Clancy Lass (Greg Kean), has an affair with one of his graduate students.

What George hadn't anticipated either was the fact that her life has/had actual meaning. She witnesses her family falling apart but is unable to do anything about it. She also has to work a regular job now (Reapers don't get paid by some surreal agency), as well as do the reaping assignments handed out to her by Rube.

Within this little grouping of Reapers are some outstanding personalities, too.
Callum Blue plays Mason, a Reaper who died while drilling a hole into his head in the 1960's in an attempt to reach "the ultimate high." He'll do anything not to work, including stealing from those who he reaps and carrying "illegals in his bottom." Jasmine Guy plays Roxy, a tough and roughshod Reaper who doesn't take anything from anyone. She'd been murdered over money. No wonder she wants to be cop. Laura Harris plays Daisy Adair, a pretty, young actress who knew and had sex with almost all the early movie stars. She's been around the block, trying to find love and acceptance. It's a funny and sad character that comes barreling off the screen.

The thing that'll pull you into this series is the dialogue and the characters. The death of an 18 year old girl and her subsequent enlistment into Reaperville can sound rather heavy. And it is. But the writers let that seep into the story and don't force it upon us (not an easy thing to do). The comedy is spot on and never slapstick or inappropriate. I let my teenagers watch a couple of the series and they were laughing out loud many times, and reaching for tissues at the more poignant moments; a testament to a great show if ever there was one (being able to hold the attention of the instant gratification age).

I cannot recommend this series highly enough.

Click here to see information on Season Two!

No movie trailer available. Soooorrrry!


Ellen Muth Dead Like Me Directed by Bryan Fuller
Starring Ellen Muth
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



There are few television series' that can continually hold peoples interests for very long. But those that can are so spectacular that they burn brightest before being snuffed out. Such is the case with Showtime's DEAD LIKE ME.

After two short but extremely sweet seasons, DLM was given the axe for unknown reasons.

This second season is just as fantastic as the first, giving us more laughs, more thought-provoking character analysis, and more gut-wrenching and tear-jerking episodes.

If you're not familiar with the premise of the series, it goes something like this:

Eighteen-year-old Georgia ("George") Lass, on her first day of work, is killed by a toilet seat that blasts into Earth's atmosphere from the disintegrating Mir space station. After the explosion, she's recruited into reaperhood by
Mandy Patinkin (Rube). And with Rube comes a clutch of other reapers, all with attitudes, personal baggage, and problems of their own. Most notable among them is Mason (played perfectly by Callum Blue), an alcoholic, drug-using reaper who knows no boundaries. In one hilarious but ultimately sad episode during this season, Mason has to reap the father of a young girl during the girl's birthday party. And Mason has to dress up as a clown to get into the party. But Mason is anything but a clown and, in fact, hates them. So when he's asked to make balloon animals for the children, he produces some very phallic looking items, much to the chagrin of the parents at the party. And then, after he successfully reaps the girl's father, he heads outside to rip off his clown nose and start drinking heavily from a whiskey bottle.

We also get to see Georgia lose her virginity and grow up a bit (even though she's still dead). And we get to witness how Gravelings are made (the beastie little creatures that cause all the bad accidents).

But those revelations pale in comparison to what happens to Rube. In one of the most heartbreaking episodes, Rube discovers that his one and only daughter is still alive, and is about to die. If you watch this and it doesn't choke you up, I fear that you're dead!

It is sad to think that there will be no further exploration of these amazing characters' lives. I will certainly miss not learning what happens to George as she grows psychologically and emotionally. I will miss not knowing if Reggie, George's younger sister, blossoms into a normal young lady. I'll miss all of these wonderful people.

Click here to see information on Season One!

No movie trailer available. Sooorrry!