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by Bill Gibron

12 May 2008

Leave it to film’s last agent provocateur to do what a sloppy stoner comedy couldn’t. A couple of weeks ago, when the lackluster lampoon Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay opened, audiences were treated to a last act exercise in paltry political commentary. Briefly, our Asian/Indian heroes try to reclaim their good patriotic name after being mistaken for terrorists. Through a series of stodgy misadventures, they somehow wind up in Crawford, Texas. There, they hook up with our current Commander In Chief, and after a few blunts, the supposed purple haze induced belly laughs begin.

Now, there is nothing new with painting our sitting President as a foolish frat headed party boy. It was a legacy that he carried across two elections (and two wins), and South Park savants Trey Parker and Matt Stone did something similar - and far funnier - with their 2001 sitcom That’s My Bush. Comedy Central cancelled that sage-like series, only to revive the leader as loser ideal with their Our Gang rip-off L’il Bush. Since the advent of humor, government officials have born the brunt of satire and comic criticism. The powerful have always found themselves in mirth’s machine gun sites.

Mostly, it’s viewed as harmless fun, a chance to knock down an elected official with the only weapon remaining inherent in the people - the freedom of speech. Of course, the current administration has used every post-9/11 tactic they can to curb such rights, but leave it to the jesters to maximize what few liberties are left. The portrait painting is also kind of lame. Bush is dumb. Bush is out of touch. Bush is controlled by advisers out to forward their own agenda, not that of the nation. None of this is new, and seldom is it clever. But it avoids the real problems with this presidency, so it’s also more or less ignored.

Where someone like George W. really needs to worry however is when someone serious takes up their cause. In this case, Oliver Stone has just announced the final casting on his proposed limited biopic on our 43rd executive officer (Entertainment Weekly offered a sneak peek in this week’s edition). The project, entitled W., will begin filming in a few weeks, and while not every role is set (the writer/director is still looking for someone to play vilified VP Dick Cheney), Stone seems ready. With the suddenly hot Josh Brolin parlaying his No Country for Old Men cred into the title part, and supporting turns from Elizabeth Banks (as Laura), James Cromwell (as Daddy Bush Sr.) and Ellen Burstyn (as Momma Barb), this promises to be another controversial send-up of history.

It’s well worn territory for the criminally underrated filmmaker. Even though he owns two Oscars (for Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July) and has made several sizeable box office hits, including Wall Street, Natural Born Killers, and Any Given Sunday, it’s his political pictures that have raised (and equally reduced) his reputation. Many see JFK as a misguided masterpiece, a conspiracy theory tricked out as actual fact, while Salvador is too liberalized to explain the Central American crisis of the mid ‘80s. He’s taken on Fidel Castro (his 2003 documentary Comandate) and made one of the most jingoistic films about the terrorist attacks of seven years ago (World Trade Center).

Yet for anyone looking to gain some insight into what Stone might be attempting here, they need look no further than the brilliant deconstruction of the only US President ever to resign from office. 1995’s Nixon was seen, at the time, as the perfect combination of man and material, a subject that Stone could really sink his teeth into while exploring the post-Vietnam Watergate watershed that drove a decade into decadence and indecision. Yet, oddly enough, the famous burglary celebrated by the Washington Post and its pair of supercop journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Berstein, was a minor part of the narrative. Instead, Stone looked for a big picture pronouncement, hoping to highlight the paranoia and pettiness that drove this leader to illegal acts of insane arrogance.

While some considered the hiring of Anthony Hopkins antithetical to the movie’s designs (how a British actor best known for playing a suave serial killer could take on one of the most American of political icons was frequently questioned), it turned out to be a masterstroke. Stone wasn’t looking for a mimic, or worse, a Rick Baker manufactured make-up version of Nixon. He wanted to showcase the human being inside. What Hopkins did was genius. By finding out what made this predatory political animal tick, he literally turned into the crooked Commander in Chief. It’s impossible to watch this film 13 years later and not see the media made images present in the UK thespian’s mannerisms.

Apparently, W. won’t be so broad in its scope. Nixon went from the leader’s days as a poor California boy to almost every electoral benchmark in his career. In recent interviews, Stone likened this latest project to The Queen, a narrative that takes seminal events from the subject’s life and shows how they add up to the man we see today. In comparison to Nixon’s “symphony” he says, W. will be more like “chamber music.” Of course, there are other hints at the approach within his comments. He calls Bush “an alcoholic bum”, pointing to his “conversion to Christianity” as the driving force in his professional and political decisions. For a director who never skirted scandal, embracing hot button concepts like addiction and religion seems par for the course.

Yet just like Nixon, one expects extensive dramatization in order to get to the essence of an area. One thing films can be faulted for is such a shorthand concept of truth. It’s impossible to cover all facets of an individual’s personality, even with the jaded judicial notice of an already clued-in audience. Composites have to be created both in characterization and circumstances. Stone is often raked over the coals for taking such a condescend view, but within the language of film, it’s literally impossible to deal with an entire lifetime in three hours. Of course, some might argue with the intent of those who try, but with all great art comes even greater ambition - and hubris.

Additionally, W. is planned for an Election 2008 release date. That means that Bush will still be President when the movie is in theaters - barring any production delays or problems (like the upcoming Actors Guild strike). How that will affect Stone, or his cast, remains to be seen. Additionally, movies like this usually strive to set the tone for someone’s legacy. Nixon wanted to humanize someone that was systematically demonized. It may have wound up doing a little of both. Similarly, W. has the potential for shedding some light on the current Commander’s often puzzling decision making process. It could also go Harold and Kumar all over his rationale.

No one expects Oliver Stone, a serious moviemaker, to have the President of the United States snorting coke off a stripper’s treasure trail, but it’s clear that a subject like George W. Bush places such a sequence in the realm of dramatic possibilities. Even early script reviews have argued that W. balances the administration’s tendency toward bumpkin burlesque with real insights into how the politics of fear work. Maybe Stone will settle for something in the middle. Or we could be seeing the unmaking of an already undone leader. One things for sure - this is one man who may be wishing the world saw him as a dope smoking stooge after all. The truth may be far more telling - and terrifying.


by Bill Gibron

11 May 2008

In one week, we critics will know for sure. The time frame is ten days for the rest of the moviegoing rabble. Barring any cosmic collision or other Earth shattering event, the fourth (and hopefully, final) installment in the chronicles of one ‘part-time’ professor Henry Walter “Indiana” Jones, Jr. PhD will finally unfold. It’s been an astounding 27 years since the original Raiders of the Lost Ark redefined the popcorn action movie, setting up a series of like minded entertainments that would come to dominate the ‘80s. In between there have been two sequels (Temple of Doom in 1984, Last Crusade in 1989) and a TV series outlining the archeologist’s earliest exploits.

And now, a mindboggling 19 years since the last motion picture wrapped up the man’s myth quite nicely, reputation ruiner George Lucas and his blackmailed partners in crime Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford, are reviving the series for one last shot at…well, some kind of glory. Given the god awful title of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the top secret project has seen its far share of controversy. From Ford playing the character at his advanced, AARP-like age (he’ll turn 66 this July), to the pre-production hoopla over the hiring - and unexpected firing - of writer Frank Darabont (who handled similar chores for the property when it was on television), fans have prayed that none of Mr. Star Wars Prequel’s pedestrianism transferred over to this title.

As of today, all signs point to pathetic…or at the very least perfunctory. The trailers have taken the original movies’ mystique and washed it in a veil of forced nostalgia. It wasn’t until recently that we actually got to see parts of the plot, and the From Russia with Love meets Apocalypto vibe isn’t fooling anyone. Now comes the first major death blows - anonymous early reviews on websites like Ain’t It Cool News. Spielberg and company are livid, publically complaining that the first “official” showing for critics won’t be until Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull plays Cannes on 18 May (the same day it screens for other media outlets around the US). Yet somehow, secured to a surreal policy revolving around blind bidding and state’s rights, a few exhibitors have seen the movie - and their opinion is not pretty.

In general, most believe the film won’t match the hype, that obsessives who’ve languished over their VHS/DVD copies of the trilogy will be greatly underwhelmed by what’s onscreen. They point to the well-hidden plot (more on this in a moment) and over-familiarity with the material as weak points, while giving marginal praise to what Spielberg and his capable cast do behind the camera (though Shia LaBeaof suffers the harshest words). While it represents the smallest majority of those who will finally establish the critical consensus on this highly anticipated summer stock, it’s clear that, at least out of the starting gate, Lucas’ decision to reprise this franchise is meeting with high expectations and less than satisfied reactions.

And then there is the storyline. Without going into heavy spoiler territory (and if you want to walk in completely unaware, skip this paragraph and move on), Dr. Jones is a now a WWII vet, compelled by the Soviet government to find the legendary Crystal Skull. Apparently, it’s actually part of an alien skeleton (located in Area 51 - how original) and once returned to its rightful resting place, it provides a source of great power. LeBeaof plays a character named Mutt Williams, who may or may not be Jones’ son, and Marion Ravenwood is back as well. The trailer promises Ama-zombies, jungle car chases, and the standard stunt physicality that made these movies so memorable.

Clearly, any return to this character and these movies creates an almost impossible level of fan frenzy. It’s the reason that Temple of Doom consistently remains the least loved entry in the franchise. Of course, coming on the heels of the brilliant masterpiece that is Raiders, it’s not hard to see why. But as with most one-sided perspective, forged out of personal want more than medium needs, a sequel must suffer through the classic cinematic Catch-22. It has to provide more of the same while being different enough to warrant its existence. It has to recapture the old magic while making new, retelling the same story with the same characters while bringing a freshness to both.

It’s a dodgy motion picture paradigm, one that few filmmakers have ever successfully maneuvered. Peter Jackson may have won an Oscar for The Return of the King, the last installment in the Lord of the Rings epics, but many look at The Fellowship of the Ring as the franchise’s best (good luck with those Hobbit prequels, Guillermo). Similarly, The Matrix may have redefined the artform - at least for a few years - but the subsequent slam bam revisits created more hatred than holiness. Spielberg himself, perhaps the only director capable of capturing lightning in a bottle more than once, has been reluctant to revisit his oeuvre. Over the course of 24 feature films, he’s only been involved in four sequels - the three Indiana Jones films, and a Jurassic Park repeat.

Of course, he’s the only director who could pull this off. While marginalized by minds who think it’s easy to make sharks suspenseful, flying saucers fascinating, aging white men heroic, or animatronic extraterrestrials believable, he stands as one the greatest auteurs of all time. While his participation in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull seemed obvious, a lot had changed in his career since Dr. Jones and his Dad rode off into the sunset nearly two decades ago. Armed with a couple of Oscars, and more than enough industry and commercial cred, going back to this already established property seemed antithetical to his own career needs. Of course, imagine the uproar had Lucas left him out of the project all together, or worse, decided to direct it himself.

Perhaps that’s why everything has felt a little forced since the very beginning. The fourth film was announced a couple of years ago, and comments by Ford even indicated the ticking time clock bomb hanging over everyone’s head. While age is never a major issue in Hollywood (the biz will reconfigure any narrative to meet what they consider to be profitable demographic designs), having someone your grandfather’s age play a rough and tumble man of action pushes the boundaries of believability. The early pre-reviews don’t criticize Ford or his performance - they leave most of the vitriol for Master Shia - but with his sagging star power and paltry box office returns, Indie isn’t innocent either.

As the time clicks away to the planned press screening, as both sides gather ammunition and prepare for a fight, as the turnstiles twist and the money starts rolling in, only time will dictate the final legacy for the Indiana Jones franchise. If this movie makes scads of cash (outside the critical accord), you can bet that the suits will be slobbering for more. If it fails to attract an overwhelming financial windfall, this may be the man-myth’s last hurrah. Whatever the case, it may be time to gear down the rabid love for the series to something more realistic. Sadly, like the serials that inspired them, the time may have long since passed for this particular product. 

by Bill Gibron

10 May 2008

Film fans look to DVD for one thing mostly, and that’s contextual clarity. We want to understand the artistic decisions made, to get close to the production and feel the organic flow of filmmaker and star, script and screen time, each element adding its own particular aroma and spice to the overall cinematic stew. More times than not, the medium leaves us wanting. The powers that be spruce up a failing film with lots of EPK bells and whistles, but end up giving us any real making-of means. Then there are the instances where a multidisc special limited edition box set experience goes overboard, providing insight wrapped in more minutia than any brain can handle. The perfect DVD experience is one that explains itself while also letting the film do an equally fine job complementing the conversation.

For example, The Great Debaters has issues, as both a movie and as an example of the home theater format. On the product side, this two disc collector’s edition from Genius Products and the Weinstein Company uses historical perspective and cast/crew interviews to highlight the already present subtext involving race, region, and the reality of the times (the 1930s). Missing, of course, is a commentary from star/director Denzel Washington discussing any aesthetic or pragmatic decisions. Equally absent is a justification for all the fact fudging that goes on in the narrative. Wiley College and its students did defeat a prestigious school in 1935 as part of a speech competition. It was not Harvard, however, but the University of Southern California. And to this day, there are issues with the event itself, since it may not have been “officially” sanctioned by any national debate organization.

The story offered is satisfying, if occasionally stilted. Young James Farmer Jr. (a revelatory turn by young Denzel Whitaker) is desperate to be on Wiley’s debate team. At 14, he’s a protégé, attending school where his father (Forrest Whitaker, no real life relation) is President. Into his life comes three compelling figures. One is teacher Mel Tolson (an oddly disheveled Washington), the inspirational head of the forensics squad. In his spare time, the Professor champions the rights of sharecroppers and supports Communism. The others are fellow students Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) and the sultry Samantha (Jurnee Smollett).

He’s a womanizing drunkard, spending far too much time at out of the way juke joints. She’s a big city gal with even bigger personal dreams. Together, they form the basis of a team that succeeds beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. Of course, there is trouble and intolerance all around. Yet even in the dangerous Jim Crowe South, they manage to make a name for themselves - so much so that Harvard comes calling, issuing a challenge: be the first ever black university to take on the prestigious Boston college. It’s an opportunity too good to pass up - even if events conspire to make the journey more difficult than it should be. 

Part of the problem with The Great Debaters is that’s it’s an amazing true story tempered by a series of scattered ambitions. It strives to take on so many heavyweight issues and important causes that it ends up underselling each and every one. There’s the inherent human interest, a group of compelling characters, many hot button historical pitfalls, and an attractive “overcoming adversity” angle. Toss in the always dramatic issue of ethnicity and skin color, and you’ve paved your way to awards season glory with nothing but the best intentions.

Yet Washington’s turn both before and behind the camera is awfully shallow. He takes a story that should soar and reconfigures it as a stodgy, over-simplistic pile of preaching. It could also be the star’s limited experience behind the lens. After all, he’s only directed one other film - 2002’s Antwone Fisher - and the lack of expertise means he’s more journeyman than genius. There is very little visual or artistic flair here as he barely skims the surface of the subjects being explored. Of course, it’s not all his fault. Screenwriter Robert Eisele substitutes grandstanding for guts, going for the cheap shot vs. the choice moment. The result is a message movie that unnecessarily stacks the deck in favor of feelings that no one would ever challenge.

Right away, the gratuitous manipulation is noticeable. Wiley did not debate the 317 year old institution back in the ‘30s, and the team’s triumph over USC was undermined by charges that the competition fell outside the parameters of the proper governing bodies. Both facts find no purchase in this overly earnest exercise. While the DVD gives producers a chance to argue that the modifications keep the ‘spirit’ of the story intact, the truth is that it only makes things maudlin and melodramatic. Since we’ll instantly care about these kids no matter what (bigotry has that kind of sway over an audience) there is no need to make the triumph any bigger, the stakes any higher. Yet that’s exactly what The Great Debaters does.

Similarly, Washington is far more interested in showing Texas as a raging hotbed of horrifying injustice than dealing with the intricacies of debate. There’s a diabolical drawling sheriff (John Heard) who has “failure to communicate” written all over his puffy red face (never mind the neck) and a typical Southern citizenry who use gentility to mask outright personal disgust. We even get the mandatory moment when the educated, erudite black man - in this case, the direct and dignified university President - gets demeaned by a couple of card carrying bumpkins, the better to establish the obvious social dynamic at play.

Let’s face it - racism is a repugnant part of our nation’s notoriety, and no story like this can avoid the subject. But you’d figure with individuals behind the scenes like Washington, Whitaker, and producer Oprah Winfrey, there’d be more thought behind how it’s portrayed. Instead of a constant, the prejudice around Wiley appears like an occasional inconvenience. The only time the fear factor works is during a late night drive when the team comes upon a particularly disturbing lynching. The mob mentality is pure evil incarnate.

In addition, you’d figure a film about the power of words would have something more solid to say on the subject. But aside from a midpoint putdown of a student’s desire to know more about Tolson, and the last act oration, the speeches are constantly compromised. Washington wants to have it all - the great performances, the stellar cultural commentary, the obvious underdog vs. the establishment take down, the smaller interpersonal moments that make a movie sing. And while his cast is quite capable and willing to work with him, (young Whitaker is especially good, encompassing great wisdom while still lost in an adolescent’s torn psyche), he shutters their performances. In its place are questions left unanswered and inferences all but unexplored.

Still, what’s on the screen is engaging and interesting, almost from rote. We know where the movie is going from the minute the team is announced, and the dynamic between the students is as clear cut as broken glass. There will be petty jealously, personal doubts, and the last act decision to rise above both. The debate scenes feel truncated and underdeveloped, as if the creative team figured no one would sit through an actual exchange of ideas. It’s a mainstream, middle of the road approach that keeps this film from finding the inspiration inside the situation.

And yet we cheer. We want Wiley to win, to take down the decent (if slightly stuffy) Harvard men and show them that color creates no boundaries, just plausible positivity. We enjoy the acting and delight in seeing fresh new faces tear into the established stars. There are moments of great joy, great sorrow, great interest, and great contrivance here. Oddly enough, only the debaters themselves wind up being similarly grand. As a movie, The Great Debaters misses too many possibilities, and harps on too many ancillary issues, to be stellar. As a DVD, it misses a golden opportunity to put all our personal qualms to rest. Instead, it continues to tow the motion picture party line. This makes both formats solid, but that’s all.



by Bill Gibron

8 May 2008

SUMMER’S HERE!!! and for the weekend beginning 9 May, here are the films in focus:

Speed Racer [rating: 10]

Forget all the curmudgeonly criticism that argues for this movie’s optical overload capacity - Speed Racer is a modern masterpiece

Candy colored dreams descend down physically impossible angles, shapes shifting across plains of apparent non-reality while simultaneously simulating real life. Cartoon icons come to life, reduced to clichéd contradictions in a classic tale of good vs. very, very evil. Family is the focus, but not to the detriment of all that effervescent eye candy, and modern technology never trumps the skills inherent in masterful moviemaking. This is what the Wachowski Brothers have created with their homage to the classic ‘60s anime series. Speed Racer is that kind of a thesaurus level triumph. One needs an extended vocabulary to work out the descriptions necessary to explain this amazing movie. read full review…

[email protected] [rating: 9]

[email protected] is a classic. May we all live to be so youthful in spirit and soul.

Aging in America is its own prison, a metaphysical place where family members forget their loved ones because the stench of mortality is too great to bear. Even worse, because of horrific diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, the elderly are viewed moreover as ticking time bombs, burdens placed on relatives for reasons that are uncomfortable and unavoidable. It may seem like a trap, but the prison is more than reciprocal. So how refreshing is it to see a group of septa- and octogenarians expressing themselves in song as part of the community chorus. Even better, these good timing geezers use The Ramones, David Bowie, and Sonic Youth, as points of aural full review…

Surfwise [rating: 8]

(Surfwise) delivers facts with fanciful shading, sequences that explain the lure of the ocean with images of the vast waves washing over their would-be conquerors.

When it hit in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, surfing symbolized youth and vibrancy, extreme sporting reduced to sun, fun, and lots of bikini clad babes. But on the fringes of the misdiagnosed fad (it had been around long before Jan, Dean, and the Beach Boys discovered it) were those who viewed the ocean as one big spiritual adventure, a karmic mountain worth climbing and conquering as often as possible. Such a seafaring sage was Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz. As one of the sport’s important pioneers, he left his job as a general physician (and a couple of bad marriages) to go on an odyssey of surf self discovery. And once he found his newest bride Juliette, he fathered a family of nine kids, raising them to be as free spirited and audacious as full review…

Redbelt [rating: 7]

(S)omewhere in Redbelt‘s running time it a mean, lean extreme fighting machine desperate to get out of all the metaphors and machinations.

David Mamet - a name that means theater at its very best. With such plays as Sexual Perversity in Chicago, American Buffalo, and Glengarry Glen Ross, he has literally helped the arcane aesthetics of the stage to grow up and mature. With dialogue that crackles with witty profaneness and a keen ear for newfound colloquialism, his efforts are usually a feast for the ear, and the brain. And now, apparently, it’s time to address the brawn - at least, when it comes to his work behind the camera. As a director, Mamet has given us such complex fare as House of Games, Homicide, and Spartan. None would be considered films of far thinking physicality. His latest endeavor, Redbelt, juxtaposes Asian codes of honor and duty with the growing phenomenon of mixed martial arts. It makes for a sometimes sloppy combo. read full review…

Other Releases—In Brief

What Happens in Vegas… [rating: 3]

According to self-help gurus and others profiteering from the lovelorn and the lost, men are from Mars and women are from Venus. In this latest lame Romcom from Hollywood’s hopelessly quixotic hackworks, the cosmic realignment has put both parties squarely up Uranus. Making a pair of mismatched New Yorkers (she a power hungry professional, he a sarcastic himbo slacker) hook up over a Sin City shindig of too much booze and not enough brains is the very definition of a cliché. Having them win a $3 million dollar jackpot is aggravating icing on the cake. And let’s not even mention the court ordered six months of nuptials. Leave it to scorched Earth scribe Dana Fox to distill 100 years of he/she cinema into jokes about toilet seats and male horniness. She’s not helped by director Tom Vaughn. He relies on montages to get his mindless messages across, aiming for the cheap seats while never forgetting to pander, pander, pander. Luckily, stars Cameron Diaz and Ashton “I Have a Career, Why?” Kutcher keep things from meandering over into outright nausea. They salvage what little chemistry the movie can generate. The rest is just a pain in the asteroids

by Bill Gibron

8 May 2008

When it hit in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, surfing symbolized youth and vibrancy, extreme sporting reduced to sun, fun, and lots of bikini clad babes. But on the fringes of the misdiagnosed fad (it had been around long before Jan, Dean, and the Beach Boys discovered it) were those who viewed the ocean as one big spiritual adventure, a karmic mountain worth climbing and conquering as often as possible. Such a seafaring sage was Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz. As one of the sport’s important pioneers, he left his job as a general physician (and a couple of bad marriages) to go on an odyssey of surf self discovery. And once he found his newest bride Juliette, he fathered a family of nine kids, raising them to be as free spirited and audacious as he.

Thus Surfwise, the excellent new documentary from Doug Pray (Hype! Big Rig) arrives at its first dramatic hurdle. How does a utopian philosopher, part hippy, part hedonist, seem relevant to a drastically reconfigured Type-A society? Especially when the veneer of the Paskowitz’s lifestyle seems so outwardly…odd. Luckily, Pray provides archival footage of the family, as well as current conversations and interviews, painting context and offering clarity where sunswept vistas and well tanned bodies exist. We soon learn that, for little kids, lost in the fantasy fallacy of their nomadic existence, living Dad’s dream was not such a bad way to pass one’s youth. But once adolescence struck, and with it the typical, hormonally charged sibling rivalries and social urges, the Paskowitz clan began to implode.

Pray’s approach comes straight out of the three act story arc school of narrative. Part one focuses on Doc, how he came to his decision to ‘drop out’, and the slightly seedy sex-capades he indulged in before settling down again (he even offers the tacky ‘test scores’ he gave his physical conquests). Part two describes the full blown family dynamic - breakfasts of heavy multigrain gruel, nights sleeping stacked literally one on top of the other. In the middle are idyllic days of beach bum luxury, sequences of rampant poverty and need offset by a chance to live freely, cleanly, and as fully as possible. Doc believes in something called ‘optimum health’, a notion that we can never be completely disease free. But by getting in touch with our inner happiness and sense of well being, we can become happy. 

Part three provides the payoff, the bickering and backbiting that drives the Paskowitz clan apart. As we are introduced to each and every sibling - oldest Dave, followed in quick succession by Jonathan, Abraham, Israel, Moses, Adam, Salvador Daniel, only daughter, Navah, and ninth child, Joshua - we see how different they appear from their past personas. Each carries a grudge against the others (issues over money, control of the family name, and other competition complications are everpresent) and a huge shoulder sized chip regarding their dad. Most complain about the lack of a formal education, one angry son arguing that, to pursue his dream of being a doctor, he needed ten YEARS of schooling just to catch up.

Others offer more ambivalent condemnation. It’s clearly a case of love/hate, the recognition of an early life in pursuit of pleasure with a middle age bill continually coming due. Most striking is Israel/“Izzy”, a former world champion who now argues with God over the birth of his autistic son. Similarly, David has a supremely self-serving moment when he sings a dark Goth tinged dirge to his father, anger amplified by lyrics that seem more like a whine than wisdom. Pray makes a major mistake during this awkward, off putting moment. Instead of breaking in, or intercutting something that would suggest Dave is doing this on purpose, he simply lets the man reel and rant. It’s not an example of true emotion - it’s showboating for the sake of sensationalism.

Clearly, Doc Paskowitz’s major flaw as a parent was instilling within his kids a feeling of social invincibility and elitism. All strive to be stars, either in the music or motion picture biz. The dejection they wear on their faces, bar bands barely making it, career choices seeing more valleys than peaks, provides a nice counterbalance to all the warm wistfulness. Granted, we do get glimpses of the shoddy campers the family lived in for years, and the bohemian element that surrounded the Paskowitz brood does tend toward shock come time to face the real world. But it seems like for many in the family, normalcy means another kind of specialness. They can’t just be farmers or clerks or plumbers. Something about Doc and the name Paskowitz turns even the most level headed member into an angry adult child.

Fortunately, the head of the now scattered household keeps things in perspective - sort of. Wildly Jewish, he grows somber when he realizes he did nothing to help save his brethren during the Holocaust, and while he’s noted for bringing surfing to Israel, attempts to join their army got him laughed out of the ranks. Still, faith is very important to Doc, and you can sense it whenever he speaks. Maybe it’s a messianic complex taking over, or his decision to parlay his particular story into a self-help book and website, but there is a definite sermon on the mount quality to his catchphrases and lifestyle buzzwords.

Pray’s participation comes in the focus, and Surfwise only slips up once (the aforementioned song by Dave). The rest of the time, the director delivers facts with fanciful shading, sequences that explain the lure of the ocean with images of the vast waves washing over their would-be conquerors. This is a gorgeous movie to look at, sunsets providing proof that nature delivers the best light show in town. And since the story is equally compelling, we wind up with a winning combination. Again, few contemporary minds will see what the Paskowitz clan did and think that mimicking it makes sense. After all, we are all caught up in our sullen suburban malaise and need for creature comforts. But there is something inspiring about this tribe that hit the open road to discover the world and themselves. Sadly, what they found wasn’t always pretty or pleasant.

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