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by Bill Gibron

1 Nov 2008


It holds a sacred place in the science fiction fan’s heart. It’s also the source of much engorged geek consternation. Science aside, the narrative joys and plotpoint illogic of time travel has fueled a great deal of future shock cinema. From assassin androids traveling to the “past” to erase the human responsible for their eventual destruction to present practitioners running through history rewriting the record book, the notion of messing with space and chronology has delivered a fair amount of speculative sturm and drang. For many, one of the best examples of the genre is The Final Countdown. It’s ‘world at war’ storyline seems to avoid many of the pitfalls while supplying a good amount of realistic revisionism.

While on maneuvers in the Pacific, Captain Matthew Yelland receives civilian observer Warren Lasky on his ship, the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. Under strict orders from his boss, Mr. Tideman, Lasky is supposed to observe, then report back to the mysterious man responsible for the vessel’s design. This bothers Air Wing Commander Richard Owens a great deal. After passing through a freak storm, the Nimitz suddenly finds itself lost in time. The year is 1941, and the world is in chaos. In fact, the date is December 6th, one day before the Japanese attacks and destroys Pearl Harbor. Thus, a quandary is created. Does the Nimitz and its crew prevent the surprise ambush, thereby rewriting history? Or do they let events play out, recognizing that any interference could condemn their own existence? Over much onboard handwringing, a surviving Senator and his daughter may also play an important part of the overall equation.

A prime example of enthusiast devotion circumventing some dated cinematic approaches, The Final Countdown is one of the best examples of the “what if” genre ever attempted. And because of its subject matter, it’s also one of the most frustrating. For those with a knowledge of America’s battle-weary past, the concept of a modern aircraft carrier arriving in the Pacific in time to stop the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, is just too good to be true. A whole set of futuristic free associations come from the juxtaposition of contemporary technology with 1940s fighting power. Once the Japanese had been defeated, would Germany have been far behind? Would we have needed the A-bomb and millions of deaths to finally stop the Axis rampage, or could a group of misplaced modern warriors wipe out war once and for all? Or maybe, interference would have aided in a Nazi triumph?

It’s this sort of speculation that makes movies like The Final Countdown work, and for a while at least, actor turned director Don Taylor indulges them. A true Tinsel Town journeymen, the filmmaker responsible for everything from a musical version of Tom Sawyer to the first Omen sequel has a wonderful way with actors. He brings out the best in such top flight talent as Kirk Douglas (Yelland), Martin Sheen (Lasky), James Farentino (Owens), Charles Durning (the Senator), and Soon-Teck Oh (an enemy prisoner). Their seriousness and sense of purpose really drives the authenticity of what could have been contrived and rather unrealistic. For those who like action and effects however, The Final Countdown is sort of a let-down. Indeed, in those pre-CG days of 1980, the aerial dogfights and ship to shore spectacle can feel a tad…antiquated?

But thanks to the cooperation of the US Navy, which went out of its way to help the production, and Taylor’s no nonsense cinematic approach, The Final Countdown succeeds. It may be more provocative than thrilling, and does raise questions that the otherwise solid script (a group effort by four separate writers) fails to fully address, but it’s the internal mechanisms, the ability to wonder about the effect on history - and consequentially, our current global situation - that really sell the situations. Tempers may flare and scenery might occasionally get chewed (with Douglas, Sheen, and Farentino around, that’s a given), but Taylor’s matter of fact filmmaking keeps everything comparatively in check. That’s why fans keep coming back to it even after nearly three decades. 

All of which makes this, the first blu-ray release from exploitation experts Blue Underground, both completely understandable and a tad curious. With a huge stockpile of material to draw on, The Final Countdown seems like a surreal choice for the fledgling format. Indeed, when one thinks of high definition releases, a movie from 28 years ago doesn’t typically draw one’s immediate attention. Sure, fans will celebrate, but getting the uninitiated interested will take something more than definitive technical specs. Luckily, the updated transfer is truly excellent. As part of the HD process, the 1080dp image is very strong. The colors are smooth and there is a decent amount of grain. There are nice black levels, a strong sense of detail, and an impressive “modern” feel to the filmmaking.

As for the aural aspects of the release, the lossless 7.1 DTS HD Master is excellent. The speakers get a real workout during the infrequent but effective battle scenes. There is also a 7.1 TrueHD and a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX Surround mix. The DTS is the best. When it comes to added features, however, the Big Blue U grabs a few extras from previous standard DVD releases and makes them available here. The full length audio commentary is interesting, but since we are only getting the limited purview of cinematographer Victor J. Kemper (no other member of the cast or crew participates), it can be very dry at time. On the other hand, Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman (who acted as Associate Producer and played a small cameo role) gets a chance to vent about his ‘horrific’ experience on the film. The pilots involved in the production also get a 30 minute featurette that is quite fun.

Sure, some will argue that the movie is nothing more than a dolled-up propaganda film for the US Navy, the magic hour shots of planes circling the Nimitz inspiring enough jingoistic joy to get even the most sensible citizen oiled up and aiming for their nearest recruitment center. And then there’s the whole space/time continuum argument, a bubbling brain buster than can have even the most learned MIT graduate crying cinematic “Uncle”. Still, for all its specious sci-fi friction and old school stuntwork, The Final Countdown is actually quite entertaining. It may not satisfy those still smarting from their own time travel trauma, but it does meet with the genre’s provisional motion picture aims. And on the new digital format, it’s never looked better.

by Bill Gibron

31 Oct 2008


Beware of tricks and treats kiddies, for tonight is Halloween. The last Friday in the month also promises from interesting cinematic candy, though some may be a bit sour. For 31 October, here are the films in focus for the weekend of the 10th:

Zack and Miri Make a Porno [rating: 10]

With its combination of heart and hilarity, bawdy blackouts and cleverly drawn characters, Smith starts out strong and ends up delivering something that’s timeless as well as tasteless.

Thanks to its mainstreaming by the media (and the ever-present lure of easy access via the Internet), pornography has gone from stern community scandal to goofy necessary evil. It satisfies an obvious craving while providing suspect psycho-social suspicions. It also fosters a multibillion dollar industry, and as they say, money changes everything. Some adult stars have even made the semi-successful move into straight entertainment. Jenna Jameson touts her books and b-grade horror films, while Mary Carey turned her addiction into a run on VH-1’s Celebrity Rehab. Now Kevin Smith is getting into the act, turning the plight of two Pennsylvania pals who are low on cash into a clever comment on Bush’s America, human ingenuity, hardcore histrionics, and the map of the human heart.  read full review…


Rocknrolla [rating: 8]

Decidedly darker than previous Ritchie offerings, Rocknrolla struts and preens like a chuffed chart-topper with a debilitating drug habit should.

It’s been easy to dismiss Guy Ritchie as of late. The soon to be former Mr. Madonna has done little outside the limelight to distinguish himself, and the career choices he’s made since marrying the Material Girl, are suspect to say they least. He bombed with both his remake of Swept Away and the lame Las Vegas heist pic Revolver. Now Madge is pulling the plug, and Ritchie appears reinvigorated. While no one will mistake it for anything remotely original - especially in light of his two international hits Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels - Rocknrolla represents a true return to form. Inventive while staying exactly the same, Ritchie reminds us that his kind of cock-up comic crime thriller can be incredibly satisfying…and why he was once its UK king.  read full review…


Changeling [rating: 7]

Changeling is a very good movie that misses being great by the smallest of margins.

The Clint Eastwood renaissance has been a joy to behold. While many thought his 1992 Oscar for Unforgiven would mark the culmination of an amazing, four decade long career, the new millennium has seen an amazing string of cinematic gems. In the last three years alone, we’ve witnessed Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flag of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Now comes Changeling, a 1920s period piece about the notorious Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, and the one woman who stood up to the incredibly corrupt LA county police system. Naturally one expects a stumble after such a string of special efforts, but this is not the fall. Unfortunately, it also has a hard time fitting in with the rest of his considered classics.  read full review…

by Bill Gibron

30 Oct 2008


It’s been easy to dismiss Guy Ritchie as of late. The soon to be former Mr. Madonna has done little outside the limelight to distinguish himself, and the career choices he’s made since marrying the Material Girl, are suspect to say they least. He bombed with both his remake of Swept Away and the lame Las Vegas heist pic Revolver. Now Madge is pulling the plug, and Ritchie appears reinvigorated. While no one will mistake it for anything remotely original - especially in light of his two international hits Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels - Rocknrolla represents a true return to form. Inventive while staying exactly the same, Ritchie reminds us that his kind of cock-up comic crime thriller can be incredibly satisfying…and why he was once its UK king.

A local gang known as the Wild Bunch has been pulling off the odd crime for years. Consisting of One Two, Mumbles, and Handsome Bob, they usually find themselves butting heads with local crime lord Lenny Cole and his right hand man Archie. When a building business deal goes bad, the Bunch find themselves in debt big time - and Cole is holding the bill. So they take a job robbing a Russian financier. Tipped off by his sexy accountant Stella, they succeed in scoring and paying Lenny back. Only problem is, the Russian was doing business with…you guessed it, and now all parties plans are going sour. But that’s not the only problem. Lenny’s estranged son Johnny Quid, an addict ex-rocker, has stolen the Russian’s lucky painting, and won’t give it back. 

Decidedly darker than previous Ritchie offerings, Rocknrolla struts and preens like a chuffed chart-topper with a debilitating drug habit should. It features fascinating performances from a rogue’s gallery of expected talent and twists its fairly straightforward storyline into an often multifarious collection of contrivances. Yet whenever we doubt the narrative, whenever the characters create chaos where a simple set of phone calls or face to face meetings would have sufficed, we get Ritchie’s patented Tarantino-isms, and all is right with the cinematic world. It’s been a while since someone came along with such blatant Pulp fictionalization. That trend seemed to die out during the first half of the second Bush Administration. But Ritchie still revels in it, and after seeing this stunning example of same, who could disagree.

As usual, the director finds a cast who can take his flights of fancy and run like Olympic sprinters. Gerard Butler drops his 300 gruff and turns on the Scot stock charm to give One Two some compelling criminal cheek. His equally impressive accomplice, Idris Elba, makes Mumbles more than just a smooth talking tough. Elsewhere along the mobster bandwagon, Tom Wilkinson goes bald and ballsy as a bribe and buyout businessman who controls the London construction racket, while Mark Strong plays his right hand man muscle. With the added attraction of a seductive Thandie Newton as an untrustworthy bean counter, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Jeremy Pevin as a couple of Yank music managers, and various flawless bit players, Ritchie finds the right individuals for his outsized sense of character.

But it’s Toby Kebbell as former superstar and current junkie Johnny Quid that gives Rocknrolla its titular tidal wave. Walking around like a member of Romero’s zombie horde, and running his mouth in a spellbinding combination of pharmaceutical philosophy and insanity, he steals every scene that he’s in, and even lifts a few in his absence. Quid is Ritchie’s cinematic Ace, a card he plays whenever things get too familiar and unfocused. As he denigrates his fellow crackheads, calling them out for their personality flaws and lack of loyalty, we watch a man slowly destroying himself - and not giving a good goddamn in the process. Kebbell has been impressive before. He was excellent in the Joy Division/Ian Curtis bio-pic Control. But Rocknrolla should be considered his break out role, and as is typical of this kind of splash, he destroys the thing.

It’s a shame that Ritchie lost his way in a private world of public pop star surreality. There are moments in Rocknrolla that remind us of why we championed the English agent provocateur just a few short years ago. When One Two and Mumbles are being pursued by a pair of wacked out Russian assassins, the clever use of close-ups (with what appears to be cameras attached directly to the actors) draws us in to the characters’ foot chase desperation. Similarly, obvious wipes and dissolves distill the numerous competing plotpoints into sketchpad snacks - easily digested and dealt with. The remaining red herrings - what happens to Stella, where Johnny goes post-parental confrontation - are given the tricky “to be continued” treatment. Yet if the next phase of Rocknrolla is as rip-snorting as the first, we won’t really care.

In fact, it’s safe to say that once the tabloids have lost interest in the Kabbalah Queen’s ex and focus instead on where the over the hill femme fame whore is now storing her pointed bras, Guy Ritchie can get back to the business of making the kind of movies that signaled his anarchic arrival in the first place. Some may complain about the pacing, or the incredibly complicated nature of the narrative, but Rocknrolla is the kind of film that gets better as it goes along. It just begs for multiple viewing, if only to catch everything going on. Initially, we are confused by the cheats and swindles. But as the huckster dust clears, Ritchie’s real gifts as a moviemaker help us over the rough bits. They say divorce is always hardest on the kids. Thankfully, film fans seem immune from such custodial horrors. In addition, a newfound clarity usually accompanies any great purge. With Madonna gone, Guy Ritchie is reborn - and Rocknrolla is his bad-ass baptismal.

by Bill Gibron

30 Oct 2008


The Clint Eastwood renaissance has been a joy to behold. While many thought his 1992 Oscar for Unforgiven would mark the culmination of an amazing, four decade long career, the new millennium has seen an amazing string of cinematic gems. In the last three years alone, we’ve witnessed Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flag of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Now comes Changeling, a 1920s period piece about the notorious Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, and the one woman who stood up to the incredibly corrupt LA county police system. Naturally one expects a stumble after such a string of special efforts, but this is not the fall. Unfortunately, it also has a hard time fitting in with the rest of his considered classics.

On a cool Spring Saturday, phone company employee Christine Collins left her small son Wallace all alone in their quiet LA neighborhood. She promised to be home by four. When she arrived back, a little late, she was startled to find her boy missing. A phone call to the police provided little comfort. Eventually, when law enforcement became involved, Christine received assurances that everything possible was being done. Five months later, there was a break in the case. The police returned a young boy to Christine. Much to her chagrin, she immediately realized it was not her son.

Thus began a series of confrontations with officials, the media, and local agitators. Unable to control the bad press, the Captain in charge commits Christine to a local insane asylum. There, she is tormented by her doctor in hopes of forcing her to sign an acknowledgment that the boy is indeed her son. With the help of a prominent pastor and a no nonsense attorney, Christine gets her day in court. Meanwhile, the fate of her actual son, and several other missing children, may lie in the arid soil of a remote ranch where a transient and his young charge have been involved in some horrific, unspeakable acts. 

Changeling is a very good movie that misses being great by the smallest of margins. It’s overlong and dramatically drawn out, leading light Jolie given one too many scenes to weep her seemingly copious tears. The casting is suspect, everyone but our anguished lead carved out of what appears to be second tier choices. And there’s a sensational subplot - actually, the real meat of Changeling‘s narrative - which constantly threatens to be more engaging and interesting than Christine Collins’ snake pit suffrage. When tied together with Eastwood’s LA by way of True Confessions atmosphere, and a series of real life contrivances that may strike contemporary audiences as nothing but laughable, you’ve got a fascinating idea marginalized by elements that, perhaps, cannot or could not be helped.

It’s safe to say that Jolie was the perfect choice for Collins. She’s mousy without looking lost, and her radiant beauty belies a vulnerability which later becomes crucial to the story. During the opening sequences where her life as a roller-skating phone company supervisor is highlighted, we sense something strong in this woman. When faced with the prospect of taking on the exceedingly corrupt Los Angeles police department, it’s fascinating to watch that resolve disappear. Jolie also has excellent scenes with her two “sons”. Before the crime, her creative ways of dealing with her boy’s familial concerns (she is, after all, a single mother in the late ‘20s) are wonderful. Afterwards, the suspect way she treats the unfamiliar child says everything about who Christine Collins is.

Too bad no one else can really match her spirit. John Malkovich comes across as a crusader without a cause, a plot device brought in over and over again when justice needs to be metered out and audience vigilantism needs appeasement. Jeffery Donovan has it even worse. As the main “villain” of the piece, the smug Captain forcing the false child on Collins to save the department’s PR perspective, he appears to have been hired for his resemblance to Eastwood circa Rawhide. He’s a cipher, an empty space where something really evil needs to be. Along the way, there is fine work from others - Amy Ryan as a asylum inmate, Michael Kelly as the detective who breaks the mass murder case - but when two child actors steal the film outright from their more mature peers, you sense something is amiss.

Indeed, Changeling frequently stumbles over its ambitions. You can tell Eastwood (who joined the production late, after Ron Howard passed to pursue Frost/Nixon) thinks he is making a post post-modern Chinatown, a calm façade indictment of California as a last bastion of wicked wild west immorality. The police chief is referred to as a gunslinger, his men as a band of rogue hoodlums. The horrendous murders are exploited in slash and burn bits of directorial bravado, Eastwood going gonzo on occasion to paint Gordon Northcott as an unhinged if personable psychopath. The shots of early century LA are radiant in their detail, and Jolie’s life seems lived in, a series of cable car patterns and daily interpersonal rituals that the 78 year old director seems to excel at.

And yet Changeling never turns into the epic it promises to be. The loony bin business seems lifted from another, lesser b-movie experience, and the last act juxtaposition between competing court proceedings functions like a luxury the narrative can’t really afford. A good fifteen minutes could have been removed from the languid two and a half hour running time and the performances or the plot wouldn’t miss it. ‘Indulgent’ is not a word readily associated with Eastwood, and yet this film is full of instances where a little expositional economy would have elevated things. We don’t need all the conclusions, the denouements on top of already discovered truths. It’s as if the film wants to beat you over the head with how badly Collins was treated, and therefore wants to make her vindication twice as overbearing.

Thankfully, there’s so much here to enjoy that the moments of overkill don’t destroy Changeling‘s chances. Had Eastwood simply focused on the Wineville Murders, he’d have wound up with something shocking and somewhat sleazy. By bringing Christine Collins into the picture, the crime (and the equally criminal style government syndicate desperate to keep things quiet) and the fall out receive a necessary, nuanced human face. It may not live up to the Greek tragedy tenets of Mystic River, or rewrite the rules of the sports film like Baby, but then again, Eastwood doesn’t need to finesse this material. He has the truth on his side. Changeling is one of the better films you will see this year. Oddly enough, it definitely isn’t among the best.

by Bill Gibron

30 Oct 2008


Thanks to its mainstreaming by the media (and the ever-present lure of easy access via the Internet), pornography has gone from stern community scandal to goofy necessary evil. It satisfies an obvious craving while providing suspect psycho-social suspicions. It also fosters a multibillion dollar industry, and as they say, money changes everything. Some adult stars have even made the semi-successful move into straight entertainment. Jenna Jameson touts her books and b-grade horror films, while Mary Carey turned her addiction into a run on VH-1’s Celebrity Rehab. Now Kevin Smith is getting into the act, turning the plight of two Pennsylvania pals who are low on cash into a clever comment on Bush’s America, human ingenuity, hardcore histrionics, and the map of the human heart. 

For most of their lives, Zack and Miri have been friends - very good, very close friends. Even though they share most things and now live together, their relationship has remained strictly platonic. Yet life in 2008 is not easy. Mounting bills, and a lack of payment options threaten their marginal existence. As luck would have it, a chance encounter with a gay porn star at their high school reunion leads the duo to a desperate conclusion - they need to do something to solve their money problems. The answer? Make a homemade adult film. Of course, it sounds much easier than it ends up being. Rounding up some local talent and a few friends, the original plan is to produce a XXX take on Star Wars. When that production implodes, the couple must find a new venue and premise. None of this addresses the bigger concern, however - how will having sex affect Zack and Miri’s friendship?

In a year that’s seen such spry and subversive comedies as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express, and Tropic Thunder, Zack and Miri Make a Porno is the best. It represents yet another triumph for Kevin Smith (after the amazing Clerks II) and showcases a growing maturity for a filmmaking once noted for wallowing in the infantile. Sure, scatology abounds, and no one could accuse Smith of taking his subject too seriously. But when it comes time to deliver the goods, to get past the obvious T&A toilet humor and offer up something sweet and sincere, the king of the ViewAskew Universe literally rules. With its combination of heart and hilarity, bawdy blackouts and cleverly drawn characters, Smith starts out strong and ends up delivering something that’s timeless as well as tasteless.

As with most of his projects, Zack and Miri is expertly cast. Smith associates Jason Mewes and Jeff Anderson are along for the ride, and Rogen is joined by Craig Robinson a fellow refugee from Judd Apatow’s comic company. Toss in former porn queen Traci Lords and current adult star Katie Morgan, and some wonderful cameos from Kenny Hotz, Justin Long and Brandon Routh and you’ve got a can’t miss crew of talent. Smith makes the most of them, offering up his standard stellar dialogue with an improving acumen behind the camera that’s a joy to behold. Instead of a strict point and shoot stylizing, there are moments of visual intrigue that indicate a cinematic confidence that Smith seemed to lack before. And no one handles the incorporation of music into a movie in such a rich, meaningful way.

As for the leads, both Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks shine. He is less extroverted here than when paling around with his former Freaks and Geeks consorts. Instead, Zack comes across as a dreamer who needs the proper catalyst to come out of his shell. In that regard, Miri stands as the perfect foil/symbolic fixture. She’s the hot chick with a definitive dork soul, and she accepts Zack on a level much deeper than any other woman could. Together, they generate the kind of chemistry you can’t buy in Hollywood, and turn what could have been a sunny collection of smut jokes into something really heartfelt and sincere. If we don’t buy the pairing, we won’t accept the porn. Smith successfully sells us both.

Indeed, the real surprise here is the film’s solid emotional core. Smith hasn’t shied away from presenting love and devotion onscreen. Both Chasing Amy and Jersey Girl centered on the universal connections between people and how we all fumble and fail while making them. Heck, even his Clerks climate has strong ties to individual feelings, friendship, and faith. But Zack and Miri is different. We want to see these people together, to see how their lives would change should their relationship become more (much more) than just roommates. The result is revelatory. Sure, some may argue that the last act turmoil is typical for a post-modern RomCom, but Smith keeps us guessing until the end.

That all this formulaic fuzziness exists in a film which wallows in nudity, crudeness, and random genital jokes is Zack and Miri‘s final genius move. Smith’s strategy to push the limits of what is acceptable remains consistent, but there is never a time when the gratuity or gross-outs overwhelm the narrative (well…maybe once). Smith stands solidly behind his people, making strippers as friendly and multidimensional as frustrated coffee shop baristas. So when a character illustrates her unique “bubble blowing” abilities, or complains about constipation - graphically - the tackiness doesn’t damage our howling good time. Instead, Smith keeps everything rooted firmly in reality. On occasion, Zack and Miri displays a dark, depressing atmosphere that’s hard to shake. 

To some, Zack and Miri make a Porno will play like a Kevin Smith film co-opted by the mundane and measured out with one too many Inside Seka splashes. And there is definitely a demographic who will view the consistent carnality and claim all kinds of corruption and exploitation. But outside the buzzword basics, this is a great film. It’s funny, inventive, irreverent, subversive, and tastelessly terrific. It never tries to be more than a story of individuals, of how relationships are tested and interpersonal barriers are overcome. While he threatens to change things up and make a horror film next time out, Kevin Smith has finally found his real calling. As long as he continues to celebrate the marginalized and takes to championing Everyman (and woman), he might just become a wanton Woody Allen. Zack and Miri Make a Porno is proof of this. It’s one of 2008’s best.

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