Sunday, July 30, 2006


Eight BelowPaul Walker Directed by Frank Marshall
Starring Paul Walker
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Raise your hand if you cried when Old Yeller got shot. Come on. Don’t be shy. You know who you are. Okay, now don’t you feel better about admitting that?

Disney knows what sells. It’s either action/adventure (Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest) or fuzzy animal stories (Eight Below). And here we get a bit of both. The action takes place in the Antarctic (although the film itself was never shot there) and focuses on eight dogs left behind at an outlying station for months and months. Their owner, Jerry Shepherd (Paul Walker, THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS) is forced to leave his mushing team behind after an accident and a freak snow storm. Months pass and he’s still unable to return to the base and he soon realizes the dogs must be dead. But he wants to return and give them a proper burial. The film wanders back and forth between Jerry and the dogs as we watch Jerry fight to return to them while witnessing the dogs break free of their chained collars and survive in one of the most desolate climates the world has to offer. But can all of them survive? Some are old and others inexperienced. Jerry won’t realize how resilient his team is until his return.

Based on a true story, Disney has "Disneyfied" the events, of course. In the original Japanese film based on actual facts (titled Nanyoku Monogatari), only two of the fifteen dogs survived. But we can’t have that in a Disney film now can we?

The thing that bugs me most about the movie isn’t the fact that Disney changed the death-to-survival ratio but that they felt the need to change it from a Japanese telling to an American one. Why? Are we afraid to expose our children to other cultures? Or do we think they won’t understand various cultural differences?

Even though I’m bothered about that, I found the film heartwarming ({sarcastic} big surprise) and well filmed. The story did feel a bit forced, though, especially when its makers gave human qualities to the dogs (altruism, bravery, etc.). But still, it’s a great way to draw your audience into the story, and is really the only way to make the movie watcher empathize with nonhuman characters.

Click here to watch the Eight Below movie trailer!

Friday, July 28, 2006


The Devil Wears PradaMeryl Streep Directed by David Frankel
Starring Meryl Streep
Reviewed by Byron Merritt


Can you say Oscar nominee? If you can, then Meryl Streep’s performance in The Devil Wears Prada should be first on your lips and list. Her witty, cool, and wickedly abrasive character portrayal of Miranda Priestly certain warrants at least that.

Simply put, The Devil Wears Prada is about corruption. Not political or business, but personal. The big question we're asked is "How much of yourself are you willing to let go of to get what you want? Or what you think you want?" In this Summer’s blockbuster comedy-drama, this question is not easily answered.

Miranda Priestly has given up everything to become the president of Runway Magazine, the most expensive, most popular fashion periodical to ever hit the racks. Raising the magazine to such a prestigious level has caused Miranda to sacrifice everything — marriages, vacations, family. Her latest need, however, is fairly simple: a new office assistant. Enter Andy Sachs (
Anne Hathaway, HOODWINKED) a frumpy looking young lady who recently graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism. Andy tries to use her position at Runway Magazine as a stepping stone to bigger and better jobs but is soon sucked into the high-price, high-pressure world of fashion. She rapidly becomes Mrs. Priestly’s direct assistant and has to be on-call 24/7. This wreaks havoc on her relationship with boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier, ACROSS THE HALL) as she shows up late for dinners and even bypasses his birthday party.

A dawning awareness of what she’s become (or might become) soon hits Andy and she’s forced to make a decision that’ll affect the rest of her life. Should she stay with Mrs. Priestly and end up a wealthy but ulcerative design assistant? Or should she follow her original dream of becoming a journalist? In a set of excellent circumstances where Mrs. Priestly really needs her, Andy finally makes her decision. It’s a "stand up and applaud" moment for many viewers and even Meryl Streep’s Miranda character seems pleased with Andy’s choice ...right before she yells, "Go!" to her driver at the end of the film, indicating she may have approved of Andy’s choice but she’s already made her own.

Anne Hathaway pulls in a "beauty" of a part as Andy Sachs. Mrs. Hathaway is a great looking lady (even when "frumped" up) but I’d be willing to bet she’s never been a size six! She’s so tiny!

Meryl Streep’s performance is simply amazing. Her bitchy, bossy, hardheaded, businesswoman performance was absolutely perfect! When she first meets Hathaway’s character and says, "You don’t have any fashion sense."

And Andy says, "Well I do, it’s just—"

"That wasn’t a question," Streep interrupts.

That exchange sets the stage for this dynamite relationship between the two.

If Streep doesn’t get at least a few award nominations this year for her performance, I’ll be highly disappointed.

Click here for The Devil Wears Prada Movie Trailer!

Thursday, July 27, 2006


Six-String SamuraiJeffrey Falcon Directed by Lance Mungia
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



A post-apocalyptic, spaghetti western, rock-n-roll Samurai film? Yep. That pretty much sums up SIX-STRING SAMURAI. It’s quirky. It’s B-movie all the way. It’s wonderful.

What we have here is a film shot on weekends on a minuscule budget in and around Death Valley, California. It also pays homage to many films; every Clint Eastwood spaghetti western ever made, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Night of the Living Dead and, of course, The Wizard of Oz, just to name a few.

The movie was dubbed giving it a hokey spaghetti western feel that matched the production values perfectly (very low). "The Kid" in the film (Justin McGuire) was a carbon-copy of the mangy little guy that follows Mel Gibson around in Beyond Thunderdome. There’s a family of cannibals and "The Windmillers" who represent the slow brain functions from Night of the Living Dead. And then there are the multiple references to The Wizard of Oz ("Just follow the yellow brick road").

The story’s focus is on Buddy (Jeffrey Falcon), a six string carrying, Samurai sword wielding bad ass who wants to be the new "King" of "Lost Vegas." But first he has to get there. Traveling across the desert wasteland of the post-apocalyptic world, Buddy (who looks remarkably like Buddy Holly) has to slash, punch, and scratch his way toward The Emerald City (another Wizard of Oz reference that we see, Lost Vegas looking very much like the gateway to Oz’s hometown). Along the way Buddy picks up "The Kid", a young boy who’s mother was killed by humans resembling troglodytes. The Kid doesn’t speak (initially) and only screams/moans whenever he wants Buddy’s attention. But The Kid is good with mechanical objects (cars, motorcycles, bicycles) and the two form a grudging relationship as they travel together. The only issue between them is Buddy’s priceless guitar which he nurtures more than The Kid the beginning. But Buddy can play his six string as potently as he can don his sword, giving him a good shot at becoming the King of Lost Vegas.

On Buddy and The Kids’ tail, however, is Death (represented as the four horseman of the apocalypse ...but without their horses). Death wants to be/remain the King and kills anyone who gets in his way, leaving a lot of rock-n-roll wannabes as corpses. And in front of Buddy and The Kid is the Russian Army (Oh! Did I forget to mention that the USSR took over the U.S. after it nuked us in 1957?)

After much bloodletting, Death and Buddy have their day on the sand. First comes a guitar duel (Death wields a wickedly good six string himself!), then the sword. But what will happen if Buddy wins? Can he be a true father-figure to The Kid? And what would happen to The Kid if Buddy died? Would Death take the little tike, too?

There are A LOT of well choreographed fight sequences (perhaps one or two too many). The camera work was done with an eye toward professionalism, never being herky-jerky or under -over exposed. The acting was okay. And the story was so ridiculous that suspending disbelief was quite fun. The dialogue often set the tone for the entire production, giving us some great bits like...

Death: "You have failed me for the last...hey, nice shoes." Then we watch Death kill the men wearing the shoes and walk away with new footwear.

The musical score is also pulled off well. The Red Elvises leant their music and themselves for the production (they are the ones with the nice shoes mentioned above). Their musical numbers reminded me very much of The Stray Cats (a band I liked).

If you don’t mind low production standards but enjoy spoofs with a good, if somewhat ridiculous, script, then slip this little B-flick into your DVD player and bask in its foolishness. You won’t be disappointed.

No movie trailer available. Sooooorrrrry!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


Mary-Louise Parker WEEDS Created by Jenji Kohan
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



WEEDS is a complicated series currently airing on the cable network SHOWTIME, the same corp. that brought us DEAD LIKE ME and other controversial television. And WEEDS certainly is wonderfully bizarre.

Mary-Louise Parker (THE WEST WING) stars as Nancy Botwin, a recent widow with two children and a cash flow problem. She lives in the fictitious town of Agrestic in Anywhere Suburbia, America. In fact, the shows lead-in goes through great pains to show us how common an area she and her family live in. This is vital since most of today’s drug culture tends to live right under our proverbial noses. And the drug, as the title intends, is marijuana, often considered shameful by some to be considered "illegal" while others throw tantrums about its gateway significance. But Nancy has to feed her family and she’ll do whatever it takes to ensure their survival.

In the midst of this seemingly benign town we have a troop of old and new pot smokers. The older generation is exhibited by none other than Kevin Nealon (ANGER MANAGEMENT) whose character, Doug Wilson, is a bored and immature accountant. Self-centered and completely useless in terms of assisting his neighbors, his character is absolutely fantastic. You could easily picture him still in high school if it weren’t for his extremely receding hairline and the family minivan he drives. The newer generation is brought to light by Nancy Botwin’s brother-in-law, Andy, played by the excellent Justin Kirk (FLANNEL PAJAMAS, 2006). He has no direction in life and is now firmly entrenched in Nancy’s home. His failings at life are mirrored through his careless attitudes toward women or growing in any meaningful way. But once in a while — just occasionally — he’ll make a remark of wonderful profoundness that blows Nancy away. He also is a much needed father-figure (although a VERY screwed up one) for Nancy’s two boys, Shane (Alexander Gould, FINDING NEMO) and Silas (Hunter Parrish, RV). It is Silas, the high schooler, whom we get to see experiment with the emerging drug culture that surrounds his household. Although initially unaware of his mother’s "business", he quickly reveals to the viewer that he’s "not stupid" about what’s happening under his own roof.

Nancy’s friends are a mixed bag. Celia (Elizabeth Perkins, BIG), is a member of the PTA, has a child who suffers with being overweight, and recently found out her husband had an affair with the local, and beautiful, Asian tennis instructor. As the series progresses, we learn that Celia has breast cancer and this comes as devastating news for someone so infatuated with one’s appearance (as seen through the mother-daughter relationships). The Shepard’s, a black family that live in a "bad part of town", act as Nancy’s suppliers of the green leaf. They battle finances versus keeping their business strictly business whenever Nancy comes around (which fluctuates as her business expands and contracts).

The wonderful thing about this series is that it puts a mess of moral material in the viewer’s lap. What is wrong with marijuana when Percocet and other heavy narcotics are readily available via a doctor’s prescription? Is it wrong for a person to support their family by dealing in something as shady as drug trafficking? Can a woman be both a loving and compassionate mother while at the same time selling something potentially addicting? Is it hypocritical for someone to sell "the stuff" while at the same time punishing their kids when they catch them doing some of it? Quite a moral quagmire, I’d say.

The other thing that makes this series work is it’s sexy. Mary-Louise Parker has that ...something about her that makes her both a respectable looking woman and just a tad slutty. She’s a sexual being who struggles with life in the shadow of her husband’s death and has to decide what’s best for her, her kids, and her husband’s memory; most times these things are in direct opposition of each other. Elizabeth Perkins mirrors much of Parker’s character in that she too has that respectable/slutty look but also some uppityness ...until her cancer rears up. Then she becomes more introspective and the slut takes over, for a while.

The series producers also put in a deaf and sexually promiscuous girlfriend for Nancy’s son, Silas. This added an entirely new dimension to Silas’ character as he’s forced to grow-up without a father to guide him through this teenage sexual minefield and he finds solace with the deaf girl’s household more than with his own whenever internal family problems arise.

This first season took about two episodes to get rolling, but once it did there was no stopping it. You really need to open your mind to the possibilities surrounding this show. It’s not JUST about drugs. It’s about the people that are shoved into this niche group for the sake of survival, and it’s captivating to watch how their flawed lives intermingle. Pot smoker or not, these characters are headed for interesting days. Season two has already been purchased by SHOWTIME, which would indicate WEED might be picking up speed and continue smokin’ for some time.

Click here for the Weeds series trailer!

Sunday, July 23, 2006


Reefer Madness: The Movie MusicalChristian Campbell Directed by Andy Fickman
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



I’m not mad, I tell you! I’m not! It just soothes my nerves. A little reefer never hurt anyone, right? Right?!

Don’t listen to that cretin who comes to town to explain the dangers of "marihuana." That lecturer (
Alan Cumming, X-MEN 2) is the true enemy. He feeds fear into your hearts and minds (Bushism?)! He is the one fertilizing your prejudices. That film he shows you? All lies! One hit of the "deadly reefer" does not drive you toward insanity. It doesn’t, I tell you!

Jimmy Harper (Christian Campbell, PRETTY DEAD GIRL) is alive and well, I say! He lives in Humboldt County, California (or was it Berkeley), caring for his wife, Mary Lane (Kirsten Bell, VERONICA MARS) and their thirteen children. Their lives DO NOT (do you hear me!) mimic Romeo and Juliet’s in any way! Fatalistic nihilism my butt!

Jack Stone (Steven Weber, WILL & GRACE) is a nice businessman. He sells pots and seeds (okay, so some of them look a bit suspicious but COME ON!) And when Mae Coleman (Ana Gasteyer, SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE) yells at him, well, she deserves what she gets!

And invoking a song by Jesus! Oh, puhlllease! Is this really necessary? I touched "marihuana" once (well, maybe ten times ...this week) but that doesn’t mean I need divine intervention from a Tom Jones-ish Christ figure who belts out Vegas-style songs from the cross, does it? I think not.

And what about Ralph (
John Kassir, TALES FROM THE CRYPT)? That poor, misunderstood cannibal. If you leave him alone without food of course he’s going to revert back to his man-eating methods. Can we really judge him so plainly?

This show is a sham, I tell you! A sham! And I won’t stand for it! That lecturer is the true drug. He’s the addiction. Believe him not!

(This review in no way condones the use of ignorance by the makers of the
original Reefer Madness — 1937 — nor is its intent to sway those with a penchant for drugs, sex, and more drugs away from their chosen recreation)

Click here for the Reefer Madness movie trailer!


A Prairie Home Companion movieKevin Kline Directed by Robert Altman
Starring Kevin Kline
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Having been familiar with Garrison Keillor’s A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION radio series for many, many years now, I went into the theater to watch this flick with great expectations. Not only was Garrison going to be IN the film, but he’d also written the screenplay. What more could us fans want?

Perhaps my expectations were too high ...

Now I LOVE listening to the radio. I enjoy stories being told to me — Lake Woebegon is one of my favorite montages — and I like the way Mr. Keillor’s tales tickle my funny bone. The fake sponsors (Duct Tape, Ketchup Advisory Board, Powder Milk Biscuits, etc.), imaginary characters ("Guy Noir, Private Eye") and general tomfoolery add a quaint quality to the listening experience that harkens back to radio-days gone by. But does this translate well to film?

It might have had the story been a close-up view of the actors, characters, or stories. Combining all three into a 105 minute film could be challenging for any director, and Robert Altman (GOSFORD PARK) gives it his best but unfortunately fails to deliver.

Not only was the movie slow to get going, it also held zero character development. We’re plopped into the middle of a cast of characters with very little knowledge as to how they got where they are or why (one of the cast, whom we know for maybe 120 seconds, dies but his demise held no impact because we don’t know enough about him to care). The fact that we view the radio show by watching its progression was only moderately entertaining and the only memorable moments were when "bad jokes" are being told by a couple of bristling cowpokes (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly). Many of the characters come and go in mere minutes and we (the viewer) are never given the opportunity to get close to them. The exception to this was Kevin Kline who plays fictional-character-turned-real-life-detective, Guy Noir. His constant hand/finger injuries are quite funny and it is through his eyes that we see most of the action.

I would tell you what the story is about, but I don’t want to bore you. It just isn’t that interesting. And I HATE saying that! I’ll continue listening to A Prairie Home Companion on my local National Public Radio affiliate, but I won’t be watching this film again. Sorry Mr. Keillor.

Click here for the Prairie Home Companion movie trailer!


Hope DavisNext Stop Wonderland movie Directed by Brad Anderson
Starring Hope Davis
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Hope Davis has become what I like to call a hidden success. Her movies don’t make a gazillion dollars at the box office and you’d probably hardly notice her if she passed you on the street. But what she does — and does well — is create lovable and memorable characters on celluloid. Most recently she was paired with Greg Kinnear in THE MATADOR, a role in which her underused talents still shone brightly with every scene she appeared.

I decided to watch NEXT STOP WONDERLAND for the sole purpose of checking to see how well Mrs. Davis stood as an actress in a starring role. I wasn’t disappointed.

The story is that of a nurse named Erin (Davis) who comes home one day to find her boyfriend, Sean (Philip Seymour Hoffman, CAPOTE) moving out. Angry and spiteful, Erin quickly decides that being alone is okay. In fact, she firmly entrenches the philosophy of aloneness within herself ...until...

Erin’s domineering mother, Piper (Holland Taylor, THE TRUMAN SHOW), discovers her daughter’s recent break-up and places a personals ad in the newspaper for her. Initially upset by this, Erin eventually decides to take on the task of dismissing all of the loathsome men who try to court her. The comedy here is striking and philosophical as the men do whatever they can to get into her pants only to be rebuffed by Erin’s formidable intellect.

On the other side of Boston (where this story takes place) we find Alan Monteiro (Alan Gelfant, TURN OF FAITH), a plumber turned marine biologist who volunteers at the local aquarium. He’s struggling with debt, school (still working on his biology degree), and an aggressive younger classman who’s infatuated with him. Strangely enough, too, is the fact that his brother is one of the guy’s trying to bed Erin via the personals ad.

As Erin and Alan mingle within their own circles, they come close to orbiting one another but never quite make contact. Brief glances, telephone calls that pass them by, invitations to the same restaurant parties, the two seemed destined to fall into one another’s arms ...yet these encounters slip past. It’s wonderfully frustrating to watch, and these "almost encounters" are never forced.

But in the end, director
Brad Anderson doesn’t let us down. Serendipity intervenes and the two strangers end up hugging one another on a transit train after a strange set of circumstances pulls them together.

Romantic comedies are okay if done right. You know the type that kind of make you feel, eh, just okay; You’ve Got Mail, Pretty Woman, Sleepless In Seattle. But this flick gives you more for less. Made as an independent film on a $1 million budget, Hope Davis’ excellent acting and the perfect script make for some thought-provoking and downright funny moments. While those other RomComs I mentioned have a basic "feel-good" to them, NEXT STOP WONDERLAND has much more. The philosophy, romance, and comedy all build to a very satisfying conclusion and one that will invite discussions about the probabilities of fate versus happenstance.

No movie trailer available. Soooorrrry!

Thursday, July 20, 2006


TSOTSI moviePresley Chweneyagae Directed by Gavin Hood
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Many movie reviewers view foreign language films with a smidgin of contempt. There’s an underlying current of the "why do we have to put up with these things" type mentality, especially from U.S. reviewers. It’s not entirely self-evident when reading these reviews, but you get that feeling deep down that American film makers, producers, marketers, and reviewers swallow these foreign film pills with a hint of displeasure. I’m sure much of that discomfort comes from the fact that some of these films drain a certain percentage of money out of their deep pockets. Personally, I say "More power to ‘em!"

The reason I bring this up is because
TSOTSI is one of those films that could’ve taken off in the American mainstream had it had a significant marketing budget. It did, after all, win multiple film festival awards, snagged the American Film Institutes Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize Special Mention, as well as picking up an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. But because of the mentality of movie makers in the fabulously wealthy Hollywood arena, marketing of these vitally important foreign imports often gets hamstrung in favor of such film dregs as DATE MOVIE and THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN. I don’t say these things without any source. Go up and ask your average young adult or teenager about TSOTSI and they’ll more often than not simply stare at you as if you’d just requested they give you the mathematical equation for nuclear fission.

There’s something to be said for these low-budget films (although I’m not sure what TSOTSI’s shooting costs were, I feel confident it didn’t come close to the two dregs I mentioned above). These little-known gems give us stories that go beyond our normal film viewing range. And TSOTSI is one that I’m proud to say I watched with joy (this is a also disturbing and I’ll tell you why in a moment).

Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) is a "thug" in Johannesburg, South Africa. He’s your typical amoral gangster who doesn’t have a shred of "decency" in his young body. He also has a group of stragglers who follow him around like puppies, putting pressure on Tsotsi to come up with their evening’s entertainment; they steal, they rob, they kill. But one day, when Tsotsi decides to do a job by himself, he makes a moral mistake (and I mean he makes a mistake according to his own moral code, which is to say he causes something good to come out of something terrible). He shoots a woman after stealing her car and drives away with a new BMW. But as he travels awkwardly down the road (he doesn’t drive very well) he hears a cooing sound in the backseat. Startled, he turns around and discovers a baby in a carseat. Initially unsure of what to do, he takes the baby home with him and nurtures the child as best he can (which isn’t very good). He soon learns that he has to watch the baby closely; ants attack the infant, and it gets hungry and poops constantly and needs to be bathed. Tsotsi forcibly procures the assistance of a widowed neighbor who recently had a child. He convinces the woman -- at gunpoint -- to breast feed the child and threatens to kill her if she tells anyone about him and the baby. A strange relationship develops between these two as the film progresses.

Torn by his own poor upbringing, Tsotsi has to decide what to do with the child when he learns that its mother is still alive. The police, too, are closing in on him and his gang of thugs have disbanded. Tsotsi’s choice to care for the child has put him on a path of physical destruction, but has also led him to deeper choices, those of compassion and morality.

In the end, Tsotsi battles his internal demons in order to make the right choice for the baby, and it’s a startling realization. We watch a person we absolutely loathed in the beginning of the film turn ever so slightly into a "decent" young man, and it’s disturbing as a viewer (for me, at least) to empathize with someone initially devoid of humanity. But that’s where TSOTSI succeeds and so many American films fail. American movies want you to see most things in black and white ("Here’s the good guy and here’s the bad"). But TSOTSI brings us into these lives and does so without spoonfeeding us what’s right and what’s wrong. The gray areas are sweeping and uncomfortable, something that packs an emotional wallop at the end of the film (I was bubbling like an idiot as tears streamed down my cheeks).

TSOTSI deserves the little notoriety it’s received. In fact, it deserves much, much more.

Click here for the Tsotsi movie trailer!

Oscar Award Winner: Best Foreign Language Film (South Africa)

Golden Globe Award Nominee: Best Foreign Language Film (South Africa)

BAFTA Award Nominee: Best Film Not in the English Language

Friday, July 14, 2006


Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ...and Spring movieYeong-su Oh Directed by Ki-duk Kim
Starring Yeong-su Oh
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



A recent blockbuster film, MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, blew my mind with its sumptuous cinematography, settings, and costumes. It was pure eye-candy, through and through. Looking at the cost of production, $85 million, one can easily see the care director Rob Marshall took with each and every shot. Now let’s move on to SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER ...AND SPRING (SSFWAS), director Ki-duk Kim’s sparkling success.

Shot in one location on a high mountain lake in Korea, and using only a handful of actors/actresses, SSFWAS accomplishes the same wondrous scenery with only a fraction of the GEISHA budget.

The story is that of a monk and a young boy in training to become a monk. They live in a monastery that floats, raft-like, on a pristine mountain lake. The monk teaches the boy life lessons: how to pray, caring for one’s home, and treating nature’s creatures with respect. We view their experiences through the title’s seasons, sometimes leaping a few years ahead, watching the boy grow, mature, and learn how tough life can be. As the story progresses, the boy battles his demons, learns by hard example, then comes full-circle to become the very thing he so recklessly tossed away (his faith in God/Buddha and his trust in his old mentor, the monk).

The script is a simple one, not delving into side-plots, but giving us a glimpse at how extraordinary life truly is. This isn’t just the life of a boy and his master, though. This is everyone’s life with all its trials, follies, and triumphs. But through all of this simplicity there’s the camera work. It is (to use a cliche) breathtaking. The changes in season are stunning, and the lighting, angles and scope of the landscape are visually perfect.

It’s also interesting to note that the film is only 103 minutes long and has maybe 30 lines of dialogue. The scenery tells the story more often than anything the actors say, which is also impressive.

Not surprising, the movie is slow but viewers probably won’t notice because of the oohing and ahing most will do while sitting drinking in every lush scene.

Click here for the Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ...And Spring movie trailer!


SPACEMAN movieDavid Ghilardi as Spaceman Directed by Scott Dikkers
Starring David Ghilardi
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Trying to convince you (those who choose to read this) that this campy movie is worth every minute of your time will be my toughest job here, as I’m going to say some things that will seem at odds with each other when referring to this film. But I’m going to give it a go anyway and hope that you bear with me for a few moments...

If you watched the TV series Batman (starring Adam West) and thought the BAM! BOOF! and CRASH! pop-ups were cool whenever he and Robin got into fights with the Riddler, the Joker or some other dastardly villain, or if you didn’t mind the fact that the early rocket propulsion system of Flash Gordon was accomplished by a fourth of July sparkler, you’re the right person to watch SPACEMAN. I’m not saying you need to be a simpleton in order to watch this! Quite the contrary, you just have to be the type of person who’s not overly-critical of such things.

SPACEMAN is ...I’m not sure how to put this without sounding ridiculous’s the best B-movie, low-budget, science fiction, romance, kung fu/gangster film I’ve ever seen.

I literally stumbled upon SPACEMAN when nothing else was on TV. I was looking for something different, something refreshingly out-of-the-ordinary, but I had no idea what I’d clicked onto when I found SPACEMAN. At first glance, I was ready to turn it off. The production value was obviously very low. The filming was grainy or overexposed in places and the costumes were immediately laughable. But I decided to give the story a try. I’m very glad I did.

It’s the story that pulls you through and makes this film a definitive triumph. The script is sheer genius and the acting is good.

Spaceman (
David Ghilardi) starts out as a four-year-old child who is abducted from his front yard by aliens. Twenty-five years later, Spaceman crash lands back on Earth and finds himself unprepared for a world he barely remembers. His brain has been altered, and he is trained for combat and submission to a "commander". Any commander will do, really. So, in order to make himself feel more comfortable, he finds a job so that he has a commander (a boss). His first job is as a stock boy at a supermarket. But problems quickly arise as Spaceman has to improvise when his commander (boss) isn’t around. When he witnesses a shoplifting, he takes matters into his own deadly hands and injures the thief, thus getting himself fired. Spaceman tries other locations for possible employment, including the military, the FBI, and the Mob, but none will have him.

During all of this, there’s a love story building between Spaceman and a pretty apartment neighbor named Sue (Deborah King). She’s drawn to his physical nature ...even though Spaceman can’t procreate without orders from his commander.

Back to the FBI and the Mob ...

The FBI find out about Spaceman and try to capture him and his family and friends, only to find that Spaceman is no one to mess around with. His deadly demeanor ends any conflicts he encounters. Trying for a job as a hit man, Spaceman is even rebuffed by the Mob ...for a while. Sound interesting? It really is.

Give SPACEMAN a try. And trust me, you’re going to want to turn it off after the first fifteen minutes. Don’t! Watch closely, enjoy the story and be thankful that this campy little film (only 88 minutes long) isn’t trying to be some big blockbuster movie on half a shoestring budget. It never tries to do that. It pays homage to a time when rocket ships didn’t have blue screens with CGI and had to tell a story about people; those funny, threatening, flawed, and ridiculous people!

Click here for the Spaceman movie trailer!

Thursday, July 13, 2006


Syriana movieGeorge Clooney Directed Stephen Gaghan
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



I felt lost in Syriana, as if I were a small rat in a huge maze.

Told through multiple storylines, the film’s focus is on oil addiction and how it affects everyone connected with it, from the hardworking Persians in the oil fields to the glutenously rich Sheiks and American tycoons. The bad thing about Syriana is that the message stands out more than the film or — unfortunately — its characters. It’s a valid message that we need to (must!) hear. We live in a global economy and that economy directly influences other nations. From Russia to China and Iran to the U.S., each action one takes will send waves through the other.

Murder and pushing business are co-mingled in Syriana as we see Bob (George Clooney plus 30 pounds) working for the CIA in the Persian Gulf. He’s never asked why he does what he does. He simply knows that he’s doing it for the good of his country. But when the U.S. turns its back on Bob, he has to make a decision, and it’s something that will change the course of his life.

Interspersed with Bob are others whose deeds end up causing deadly results. No fingers are pointed at anyone being at fault for this (one of the big bonuses of the movie), and it is this that pulls the viewer into the story. Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright, ANGELS IN AMERICA) plays an attorney searching for a way to make a large oil company merger happen without attracting legal problems. His hard work and initial goodness are muddled by the end as he discovers what he has to do in order to affect such a merger.

Byran Woodman (Matt Damon, THE BOURNE IDENTITY) is a high level financial advisor for corporate America who loses his son to an accident (?) at an Arab/American party, only to be sucked into the lives of the people responsible for his son’s death.

There are at least three other side-stories going on, but I’m not going to bother with them for one simple reason: they’re too damn confusing! And that’s the big downside to Syriana. It tries to make too many connections in too short a time. Several times I had to stop and ask myself, "Now what does this guy/gal have to do with the story again?" I’m a pretty astute viewer but several of these characters’ purposes went beyond my threshold of understanding. For instance, Danny Dalton is played by Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou), but I have no idea what his purpose was in the film. He’s got maybe two minutes of screen-time and that’s it. And Jeffrey Wright’s character (Bennett Holiday) has what I think is a father waiting for him when he gets dropped off at his house and they have some sort of angry altercation for completely unknown reasons. And Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer, THE NEW WORLD) plays a powerful political figure but how, why, and where he flexes this muscle is never shown nor explained.

Making people connections on film is fun and a basic requirement for enjoyable cinematic experiences. But if you overload your audience with these connections, the whole can seem like a bramble of fractured stories that never come to fruition. And that’s certainly the way I felt when I saw Syriana.

So why the thumbs up? Look at this: George Clooney, Christopher Plummer, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Cooper, Robert Foxworthy, Matt Damon, Alexander Siddig, Tim Blake Nelson, William Hurt, Amanda Peet, and the list goes on. Now THAT’S an ensemble cast! The acting is excellent.

The message of over-dependence on oil is something everyone in the world needs to know about and this movie certainly puts it center stage. The slimy business dealings, the underhanded political tactics, and the jihadists against Western involvement in Eastern affairs are all brought into focus without forcing the issues down our throats. Nice job.

With all of the horribly shallow films available for us to watch (
DATE MOVIE), this one certainly tips the opposite end of the scale. Just be forewarned, you may feel as though you’re in a maze with no reference points and no way out.

Click here for the Syriana movie trailer!

Oscar winner: Best Actor in a supporting role

Oscar nominated: Best Original Screenplay

Bafta Award Nominee: Best Actor in a supporting role

Golden Globe Award Winner: Best Actor in a supporting role

Golden Globe Nominee: Best Original Score -- Motion Picture

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


Pirates of the Caribbean 2 movieJohnny Depp Directed by Gore Verbinski
Starring Johnny Depp
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY) is back and he’s in bigger trouble in Dead Man’s Chest. Along with him, of course, comes Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, ELIZABETHTOWN) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, 2005), the two would-be married lovers whose wedding is interrupted by the corrupt and unscrupulous Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, 2005 ), a true marketeer for the East India Trading Company.

The continuing story. Jack, sashaying his way across the Caribbean, is trying to continue his infamous ability to cheat death. Problem is, though, is that he owes a life-debt to the dreaded Davy Jones (come full-on as a character and not just a small piece of sea karma by Bill Nighy, SHAUN OF THE DEAD). Davy Jones and his barnacled crew take the souls of those not willing to venture into the Great Unknown and apparently Jack had met Mr. Jones previously and wrangled a deal: he’d captain the Black Pearl for 13 years, and now that 13 years is up. So, in true Captain Sparrow fashion, Jack decides to cheat, steal, manipulate, and do whatever is necessary to save his skin. Even if it means finding the heart of Davy Jones (which is stowed away ...somewhere, waiting to be found). The more trouble is that Beckett wants the heart of Jones so that he can control the seas (he who controls Davy Jones’ heart controls something called the Kracken, a mythological beast ...more on that in a minute) and thus be the only trading ships on the ocean. But Will Turner also needs the heart in order to save Elizabeth from the deadly clutches of Beckett who has promised to hang both Will and Elizabeth if he doesn’t get it. The race is afoot! And what a race it is!

As far as summertime blockbusters go, you’d have a pretty tough time finding something as entertaining as Dead Man’s Chest. The action is incredible, the dialogue fun, and the special effects first-rate. Johnny Depp, as always, inhabits the role of Jack Sparrow. His mannerisms, line delivery and antics are just a sheer joy to watch. Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom are also fun to watch but not nearly as much as Depp (who steals every scene he’s in).

There are problems though (Argh!). Length is an obvious issue. At 2 and ½ hours, younger kids might find it a bit irritating to sit through something so long. Indeed, little youngsters should avoid the film altogether as it has some rather gruesome if not downright frightening scenes in it (gaining its full PG-13 rating by having images of eyeballs being plucked out of living and caged pirates, etc.) The other problems involve the meshing histories. A tenuous connection between Davy Jones and The Flying Dutchman can be made, of course (the true captain of the Flying Dutchman was NOT anyone named "Davy Jones" but the myth is adequate enough to have him helm the ship). The other issue is Davy Jones’ mythological undersea monster, the Kracken. The Kracken is a beast related to Greek and Norwegian mythology, not something as current as Davy Jones (who’s myth started, I believe, in the early 1700s). My only other movie experience with the Kracken was in the sad, sad, sad B-movie CLASH OF THE TITANS (maybe not a true B-movie, but it sure felt that way!) I will admit, however, that Dead Man’s Chest got the creature’s features down more appropriately according to legend.

At any rate, this is a wonderful summer film. Blockbuster? Definitely. Disney has done something amazing in their marketing, too: pulling stories from rides at their theme parks is a sure way to ensure that people come back to Disneyland and Disney World time and time again. Sheer genius.

Click here for the Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest movie trailer!


RED EYE movieRachel McAdams Directed by Wes Craven
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



Accomplishing a successful thriller is not an easy thing to do. You’ve got to have a good script, great acting, a threatening atmosphere, and adequate directing. Pulling off a good psychological thriller is even tougher, most of the aforementioned items needing to be ratcheted up a few notches. The standard by which I use to gauge these types of films is (no surprise) THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Perfect in every way, this film is a top-shelf example of the genre.

Director Wes Craven is better known for his slasher-thrillers (NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, SCREAM, etc.), but here he’s taking a shot at something a bit less bloody. And while RED EYE succeeds on a few levels, it fails miserably in several others.

The story. Lisa (Rachel McAdams, THE FAMILY STONE) is flying from L.A. to Miami and is about to meet up with a psychopath, Jackson (Cillian Murphy, BATMAN BEGINS). Their first meeting is in the airport prior to boarding and it appears as if a romance is blooming between the two. But once aboard the Red Eye flight, Jackson quickly reveals his true scheme for getting so close to Lisa. Lisa is the manager of a high-profile Hotel in Miami and many politically active people stay there. One of these people must die, according to Jackson and whomever he represents. Jackson also has an ace up his sleeve: he’s got a man with a gun sitting outside Lisa’s father’s house and if this politician doesn’t die, Lisa’s father will. So Jackson orders Lisa to move this political figure to another room, one with a more exposed balcony. Lisa calls the hotel (while they’re in the air) and orders the room switch. But what will become of the politicians family? And Lisa’s father?

The good. Compartmentalizing the story in an airplane was genius. This forced close-up shots of the actors in this constrained environment and leant an explosive atmosphere to the movie. You could feel Rachel McAdams’ character wanting to burst free of the plane. Cillian Murphy is just flat-out creepy. He can play the bad guy extremely well and I hated his character (that’s a good thing).

The bad. Once they leave the plane, the story gets a bit silly. We lose the compartmentalization feel and get into the standard chase scenes which were pretty weak. There are also side stories which we briefly glance but are never given insights to. The one that leaps out at me is the little girl flying alone for the first time. What was her purpose in the movie? I also thought the older lady that Lisa gives her book to was a bit forced. To ramp up the excitement, I would’ve liked to have seen Jackson kill the old gal on the plane then try to hide it. And, again, after we leave the plane, the story devolves into a standard storyline that is completely predictable. Does Lisa’s dad survive? Does Lisa? Do the politician and his family get away without being assassinated? Will Jackson get away with his plan? If you know predictable films, you know the answers to all of these without ever watching RED EYE.

Finally, let me say that Mr. Craven needs to stick to his chosen genre and not try and branch out like this unless he’s willing to go all the way. And by all the way, I mean give us a story that we don’t already know the ending to.

Click here for the Red Eye movie trailer!

Saturday, July 08, 2006


The World's Fastest Indian movieSir Anthony Hopkins Directed by Roger Donaldson
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



The World’s Fastest Indian is NOT a Native American. I was naive enough (when I first saw the title) to believe this might be so. Oh well. Even so, I wasn’t disappointed. Indeed, I was educated. Never having heard of the astounding accomplishment of this aged New Zealander, I now feel honored to have been privy to a man of unique stamina and determination.

Burt Monro is this man—one of indeterminate age but obviously old enough to collect his pension—and has been working on his 1920 Indian motorcycle for four decades. His goal is to make it go faster ...and faster ...and faster. But his methods appear substandard. He works (and lives) in a shed without appropriate casting material. His gas cap is a whiskey cork, his brakes non-existent. But Burt has a dream. He wants to set a land-speed record in Bonneville, Utah at the salt flats. Thus our journey begins. But getting from New Zealand to the U.S. is costly and Burt doesn’t have much money. So we watch him struggle with finances and dilapidated equipment in order to make his dream a reality. Once in the States, Burt befriends everyone he meets with his easy-going manner and his dogged determination. He runs into crooked car salesmen and horny older women (Burt is somewhat of a "hound-dog" himself). But through it all, regardless of where he stops, he has the underlying need to keep moving toward Bonneville. And, finally, he makes it there ...only to be told that he should’ve registered months ago and can’t participate in the speed ceremonies. Crushed beyond words, Burt musters the support of the local speed freaks and finally gets his day on the salt.

And, much to the surprise of the officials (who thought he’d crash and burn or maybe hit 100 miles per hour), Burt accomplishes the impossible: a new land speed record! At one point, his Little-Indian-That-Could went over 200 mph!

This is an extremely entertaining film for two basic reasons. First is because it’s a human interest story that everyone can identify with: going after your dreams regardless of what others say or how old you are. The second is because of Sir Anthony Hopkins. His performance was the fuel that drove this film. His mannerisms and accent fit Burt Monro’s to a tee (you’ll discover this if you watch a few of the DVD’s extra features).

There were a few blips and bumps in the film (the rapid telling of a relationship with a woman in the U.S. which felt forced for time, etc.), but these were easily overlooked by Mr. Hopkins performance and the incredible story. My hat’s off to director Roger Donaldson. His passion for Mr. Monro (and this material) shone through like sun on a silver platter. Nicely done!

Click here for The World's Fastest Indian movie trailer!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


Darwin's Nightmare DocumentaryHubert Sauper Directed by Hubert Sauper
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE is truly that: a nightmare. Filmed on-location in Tanzania along the banks of the massive Lake Victoria, director Hubert Sauper puts the lens of his camera in the face of everyone involved in this human atrocity …from those who aid it, to those at the bottom of its global circumstances.

The focus is on the gigantic Nile Perch, a freshwater fish of unbelievable size, who was unfortunately introduced to Lake Victoria and has decimated the native fish population. On the upside, however, is the new economy brought by the Nile Perch. Million dollar fish packing operations abound and jobs are available …but only to a few hundred natives. The remainder live in squalor and on starvation’s doorstep. All of the fish, without exception, is flown out of Africa to richer, more affluent, neighboring continents (mostly Europe). The money being made by the IMF and a few select companies is impressive, but can it last?

Mr. Sauper has done something extraordinary. Without putting in any bias, he has allowed this story to unfold on its own. I’ve never, EVER, seen a documentary like this. I was appalled by the educational system in Tanzania (basically nonexistent) and yet startled by the realization that none of the Tanzanians know or care about the globalization that is causing much of their problems (again, an educational issue). One of the natives that Mr. Sauper interviewed even wished that war would spill over from Angola and into Tanzania so that he could have “better work”. Incredible!

AIDS, of course, is an ever present item in Africa, and Tanzania is no exception. But the additional problem here is that there are few facilities to care for the infected. On many of the large islands on Lake Victoria, there are no doctors, hospitals, or dispensaries. Prostitution is widespread as women become widowed and have no source of income. Children are on the street, fighting for fists full of rice, early victims of AIDS after losing their parents. And what is the world doing about this …?

The hidden side-story in the documentary is “what’s on the planes when they land in Tanzania.” High-level officials say, “Nothing.” But truth be told (by one of the pilots interviewed) sometimes weapons are shipped in on the planes, destined for war-torn areas of Africa. No food. No humanitarian supplies. Nothing else makes it in to Tanzania. We (the world) take from Africa, and all we give it is more death and destruction. This isn’t stated directly in the film, but is easily surmised through the interviews.

Finally, there’s the airport. Almost as much a character in the film as anyone, this landing field (I hesitate to call it an airport) is a ramshackle building with flies, bees, and broken equipment, resulting in many airliner mishaps throughout the years. A testament to the unspoken fact that the world has no intentions of developing this area. We’ll take until there’s nothing left, then we’ll leave Tanzania and her people to her final verdict. Death!

No movie trailer available. Sooorrrrry!
Oscar Nominated: Best Documentary

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


11:14 movieRachael Leigh Cook Director by Greg Marcks
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



In the vein of LOVE ACTUALLY, 11:14 gives us a set of intersecting storylines but in a very black comedy way. And while I enjoyed Love Actually very much, 11:14 I enjoyed only marginally. Don’t get me wrong, it is entertaining. But a few times during the viewing I said, "No way would it happen like that."

11:14 focuses on several lives that are forever changed at exactly the same moment, and how each overlaps the other in strange and often chuckling ways. The film starts out with Jack (Henry Thomas, E.T.) driving down the road, half-drunk, when he runs over someone in his car. Terrified that he’ll go to jail, he quickly tucks the body into the back of his car’s trunk. Norma (Barbara Hershey, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS) approaches the accident in her own car, sees Jack, and quickly surmises that he’s hit a deer ("Happens all the time right around here"). She helpfully calls the police to notify them of the accident and drives away. Officer Hannagan (Clark Gregg, LIVE FROM BAGHDAD) shows up on the scene and uncovers the truth. Or is it the truth? Did Jack really hit and kill this guy?

We back-pedal to another group of lives, a trio of young boys out for a good time. They’re driving around, drinking, and letting ...everything hang-out. In fact, one of them decides to pee out the window and it is during this time that the driver accidentally runs into a young woman in the middle of the road, instantly killing her. How terrible. Or is it? In the process of slamming on the brakes, the young man who was peeing out the window loses his manhood, too. Ouch!

Another set involves Buzzy (Hilary Swank, MILLION DOLLAR BABY) and Duffy (Shawn Hatosy, THE POSTMAN) who are workmates at a local convenience store. Duffy needs cash and decides to rob the store (with Buzzy’s approval). Trouble is, Buzzy wants him to wound her so that it looks like she was trying to protect the store and won’t get fired. A gunshot overheard. A bowling ball. A missing set of keys. All of these things lead to some rather outlandish yet darkly funny hijinks.

The final set of lives (mostly) are the family of the aforementioned Norma (Hershey). She’s married to Frank (Patrick Swayze, GHOST) and they have a daughter named Cheri (Rachael Leigh Cook, SHE'S ALL THAT) whom starts all of this pandemonium. It is her who is on the phone with Jack (Thomas) at the beginning of the film and it is this that causes Jack to get into the "accident". It is also Cheri who is responsible for the death of a young man by having sex with him in a cemetery and causing a headstone to fall on his head, thus crushing his brains out. She’s not a very nice lady, out for "the money", and she’s using everyone, including her father, in order to get what she wants. She is the one who’s responsible for the dead guy that Jack hits; he didn’t run-over and kill anyone. It was Cheri’s father throwing the body of the bashed-in-brains guy off an overpass and landing on Jack’s car. She’s also the young woman who gets hit and killed by the trio of boys out having a good time. And she’s been pretending to be pregnant and needing money from her boyfriends in order to get an abortion. One of these boyfriends, as it turns out, is Duffy, who would use the money from his robbery in order to pay for Cheri’s procedure. But her death puts a quick end to that and closes pandora’s box.

Twisting the viewer’s perceptions is the game here, and it’s pulled off pretty well. The story was entertaining and I kept watching, only to be amazed at how these lives intersected.

The only downside is the impossibility of certain aspects. Most notably is the cop, Officer Hannagan, who is the only law enforcement official we ever see. Considering all of the death, shooting, accidents, and other bizarre occurrences, the police would’ve been swarming over these scenes. But no. All we see is one lone officer with no crime scenes. Not likely.

Still, the story moves along a great clip and the audience is entertained by the unfolding stories.

No movie trailer available. Soooorrrrry!