Sunday, September 28, 2008


This week’s movie:

I used to be smart once.

I have this theory that we are all born knowing everything. All the mysteries of the universe - the sum total of human knowledge PLUS everything humans have yet to discover - is all there right in our heads from birth. But because the human brain has a limited volume, any acquired experience must ultimately push something else out. The upshot of this is that the older we get, the more we experience, the stupider we become. Ironically, babies are just not physically equipped to deal with omniscience. They might, for example, understand that quarks spontaneously decay in a degenerate spin field, but believe that this just a trivial matter that must be obvious to everybody - and instead, content themselves to totally dominating every other human surrounding them.

Humans tend to peak around 12 or 13 years old - that is, until puberty hits and our bodies betray us - when the sudden influx of new information and priorities herald the exodus of every single other bit of useful data - leaving one in hormonal dufusity, instead of philosophical brilliance. Adults don’t understand children. We adults think that we are mentally superior - but the truth is that we just can’t comprehend the utter vastness of a child’s mind that is totally unencumbered by the details of the adult world. The adult world is is designed , from very first principles, to fill the mind with insignificant trivia in an effort to keep us from figuring out too much of the world because, after all, we’re at the age where if we knew too much, we would surely hurt ourselves.

Kids know better than to try to explain themselves to us. I can remember a time, I think I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, when I told my mother I didn’t want to go to school that day. She asked, “What’s the matter? Do you feel sick?” I thought about it for a second and replied, “Yes. Yes, I do.” I just somehow knew that she wouldn’t have understood if I told her that I had this idea for time travel and I needed a little uninterrupted time to work out the details. …..and I did it too! …..I just wish I could remember how it worked……

Children instinctively know what they need to do and do it. It often doesn’t make sense to adults but then, we are not as well-informed. For instance, I have a friend whose (then) 8-year-old son, Jeffery, had cut off all his hair with the kitchen shears. He then taped it all to the living room wall. When they asked him why he had done it, he just shrugged his head and mumbled, “I don’t know.” They thought he was brain damaged, but he’s not. Children just don’t bother to explain themselves to us - we just wouldn’t understand. Maybe the slight weight of his hair was applying just enough pressure on his brain to interfere with with his meditations and needed to rid himself of it to complete his journey of enlightenment …………..or maybe he was just brain damaged.

The 12-year-olds in this week’s (month’s) movie find themselves faced with a tragedy and have to find some way of dealing with it. They each do it in their own particular way, and although the adults don’t seem to understand any of it, the kids know what they need to do. And though each is different, they all have the same sort of logic, proven by the fact that they all see a resolution of one form or another.

It’s refreshing to see a film that portrays pre-adolescent characters in a realistic way, without reverting to Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys cleverness, or Disney-style cuteness. These children are not Hollywood stereotypes, they are not precocious, they’re not super-heroes, they’re not geniuses (except as mentioned above), they are undergoing changes that they themselves don’t understand.

In a Hollywood film, these kids would have to negotiate all the normal hazards normally facing your typical movie pre-teen. For example, they would have to put up with humiliating put-downs by the “cool” popular clique at school, tyrannical school principal, clueless parents, bullies in the neighborhood, and probably a pair of inept crooks. They would end up solving their problems by: making the cool clique a little less cool; detective work to expose the principal’s plan to skim school funds; make the cheerleading team by beating the team captain in the big competition; put on a musical; get the girl; stand down the bully by not backing down; set up booby traps that torment the crooks until they turn themselves in to the police; or maybe - all of the above. This stuff doesn’t happen in this film. Instead, they ………………well, I let you find out for yourselves.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend’s son Jeffrey, who cut off all his hair. I feel that if I can understand this behavior, I can maybe reawaken the lost memories of my own youth - or maybe of yesterday at least. So here are some possible …………


  1. Needed to lose half an ounce of weight - the quick way.
  2. Watched a late-night showing of the film Westworld, with Yul Brenner, on cable.
  3. Wanted to convince himself that he, contrary to his parents’ accusations, was NOT the Antichrist, by checking his scalp for the tell-tale “666″. Fortunately, he found only a harmless “999″.
  4. Watched a late-night showing of the film The Magnificent Seven, with Yul Brenner, on cable.
  5. In order to save for a 10MeV magnetron, for his “Space Drive” experiments, he decided to cut down on extravagances, like shampoo.
  6. In an effort to stave off ecological disaster by global warming, cut off his hair and polished his scalp in order to increase the albedo of the Earth and reflect more light back into space. …..and it would have worked too if not for you meddling adults!
  7. Watched a late-night showing of The King and I, with Yul Brenner, on cable.
  8. Employed the following train of logic: Everything costs money; money is made of paper; paper is made from trees; trees grow in the forest; forests convert carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to oxygen; there are rain forests in South America; The Conquistadors explored South America looking for gold; there is money to be made in gold; everything costs money; wouldn’t it be a good idea to cut off all your hair and tape it to the wall?
  9. Watched a late-night showing of The Ten Commandments, with Yul Brenner, on cable.
  10. Step 1 in his “fuzzy wall” project.

Parent advisory: This film is rated R by the MPAA, which means that the young 12 year old stars cant legally go to see their own movie. The film portrays young children dealing with tragedy and changes within themselves in a very realistic and no-nonsense way. This often frightens off many adults who feel that children shouldn’t see such things - that is, until they have to go through it themselves. I, personally, didn’t find anything very disturbing about it, but if you have young children, you may want to preview the movie first and then decide if you want to watch it again with them.

Cut off all your hair and watch 12 AND HOLDING


watch the trailer

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


This week’s movie:


No one eats poop in this movie!

I find that a good indicator of the quality of a comedy is whether or not anyone ends up eating poop. In a lesser comedy, one that’s not intrinsically very funny, the film-maker will try everything in the Porky’s / American Pie / National Lampoon bag-o-tricks - even if it doesn’t fit - to try to get you to laugh. It often works because they know it will stimulate a little dangley bit on the underside of the brain that causes you to find amusement in the stupidest things - it’s a cheap shot - they don’t even have to work for it. You’ll probably laugh because you can’t help it, but you’ll immediately regret having done so - it’s not really funny when you think about it, and it gets old very fast. It’s an old trick. The old vaudevillians were always trained that when the audience wasn’t responding - do a pratfall - they have to laugh, they can’t help it. What can I say, humans laugh at stupid stuff. Why else would people tune in to television every week to watch home movies of people falling down, or getting hit in the nads with a soccer ball, or getting a pie in the face? This week’s movie, WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY, is funny from the opening scene to the very last fade-to-black. You’ll laugh, guaranteed, but those laughs will have been earned the hard way - with clever dialog and sincere adherence to the story’s premise and material.

The film is a parody of music biopics like the Johnny Cash bio, Walk the Line, and the Ray Charles bio, Ray. These films are the obvious target material for parody, but it also includes references to Jim Morrison, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles. I’m sure you may recognize others. But this isn’t like the Wayan’s Brothers Scary Movie kind of parody or even like the Abrahams and Zucker Airplane or Naked Gun parodies. It doesn’t use topical references and slapstick to solicit laughs. It doesn’t have to. It is true to it’s source material in that it works entirely within the context of the story, in the correct time-line. For example, it doesn’t make references to Brittany Spears or Paris Hilton during the part of the story that takes place in the 60’s. They could have - and they could have gotten big laughs by doing that. The problem with that is that ten years from now, nobody will remember Brittany Spears or Paris Hilton and so the humor will have been lost. I suppose that you could also argue that in ten years, nobody will remember ‘Walk the Line’ or the other films that are being parodied here - but that’s okay, the movie works just as well on it’s own.

Judd Apatow and Co. have been very prolific lately with hits like The 40 Year Old Virgin, Superbad, Knocked Up, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. WALK HARD is as funny as these others, but it’s a different kind of comedy. For one thing, it’s not as crude as those (this is a lie) and there’s also not much profanity (another lie), and it doesn’t have as many “adult” situations (big lie), it also doesn’t depict excessive drug use (big lie), and never once strays into the realm of bad taste (a whopper!). Okay, it’s lewd and raunchy and politically incorrect - but so what! this is an adult comedy, not intended for children. Adult comedy should not be dumbed down to please the censors or conservative “family values” groups. There are no family values in this movie - just funny bits. You can’t be afraid to laugh here - just go for it. You’ll still respect yourself in the morning.

DEWEY COX (lot’s of obvious fun made with the name) is a fictional character, but he might as well be real. He’s familiar enough to be Johnny Cash or Ray Charles (I know Ray is black - work with me here) or Bob Dylan or any other veteran of a VH1 “Behind the Music” special. It’s funny, not so much because of the jokes, but because of the familiarity. We recognize all of the traits because we’ve seen then before - we’ve grown up with them. They may be exaggerated in this film, but that just serves to underscore them more effectively. As a plus, all new songs were written for the film and are performed by the actors themselves, and you know what? They ain’t bad.

I keep saying that this movie is funny - but just how funny is it? Let me see if I can come up with some analogous levels of funny.

  1. This may seem a bit cliche, but if I said it was more fun than a barrel of monkeys, that’s saying a lot. I mean - think about it. Imagine a real barrel full of actual monkeys - how funny would that be! Let’s just downplay, for the moment, the fact that chimps eat their young. They could marmosets or macaques or how about howler monkeys - yes, a barrel of howler monkeys! Now, that’s what I call ‘funny’.
  2. I’m reminded of rotifers. Rotifers are a class of microscopic aquatic invertebrates. Despite their small size, they are the undisputed comedians of the undersea world. There’s an old rotifer joke that goes, “There are three rotifers in a row on the edge of a barnacle. The rotifer on the left spins its tentacles clockwise, drawing passing food into itself. The rotifer on the right spins its tentacles counter-clockwise. The rotifer in the middle can’t spin its tentacle either clockwise or counter-clockwise without entangling them with one of its neighbors. Instead, it repositions itself upside down and eats the barnacle. The left and right rotifers stare at their now bloated comrade and one comments - That’s what happens when you don’t exercise.” …………………………………………………………….Trust me. If you were a rotifer, you’d be rolling on the floor laughing right about now.
  3. Let’s consider a funny scenario. You are carrying a large pane of glass when you slip on a banana peel. Just at that moment, the participants of a high speed car chase intersect with you. You hit the ground and throw out your back. The cars shatter the glass showering you with pointy shards. The tires of the car grind them into your flesh. A bystander screams and accidentally overturns a produce cart, causing the fresh-cut lemons to roll in your direction, squirting fresh lemon juice into your wounds. Finally, a policeman comes up to you and hands you a citation with a heavy fine for 1) littering (broken glass), and 2) loitering. ………………………………………..okay - so maybe it wouldn’t seem that funny to you…………..
  4. If funny was a candy bar, The Jerk would be a Hershey bar with almonds. National Lampoon’s Animal House would be a Kit Kat bar. Clerks would be a Cadbury Egg (obscenely sweet). The dark comedy, American Psycho, is a Dove Extra Dark Chocolate bar. Stanley Kubrick’s, Dr. Strangelove, would be an exquisite Godiva Assortment. Any movie with Larry, the Cable Guy (I think he eats poop in most of his movies) would be practical joke chocolate - you know, the kind that looks like chocolate but is really a powerful laxative. In this context, this week’s film, WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY, is a Jaguar. I know it’s a car, but as much as I like chocolate, a Jaguar is still better than any candy bar.
  5. What is the funniest animal? Some say kittens or puppies because they make you laugh but that’s incorrect. The subtle difference is that kittens and puppies are cute, not funny. Another misconception is the Hyena, because “they’re so funny that they make themselves laugh”. The truth is, it’s not so much a laugh as a sneer. They think so highly of themselves that they constantly laughing smugly at the inferiority of others. They’re not at all funny and you just want to slap that stupid grin off their face. Dogs - you ask? No! Dogs eat poop, which means they’re trying way too hard and can’t think of anything funnier. Is it monkeys - no! Monkeys are only funny in a large group, as in “a barrel of monkeys”. A solitary monkey is rather sad and just a tad creepy. No, the funniest animals are the lemurs - heh heh, those guys……….
  6. What is the funniest country? Of course, one’s first impulse is to say “Turkey”, an unfortunate name. I mean, how can you take a country with a name like Turkey seriously? Or what about Greece (another unfortunate name)? ……and the really odd coincidence is that they’re right next to one another on the map. You would think that that would be a pretty funny part of the world, but no! Funny names do not funny countries, make. The funniest country is Madagascar. Why? Lemurs - heh heh, those guys…………………
  7. Oh, and by the way, when did clowns transition from funny into disturbing? When I was a kid, clowns were funny, period! Then slowly, over the years, they seem to be regarded more as creepy evil killers of children than the clowns I remember. I’m guilty of it too - but I don’t remember how it happened. Was it the film, Killer Klowns from Outer Space?, or was it Ronald McDonald, lackey of the evil corporate multinational mega-company, who alway struck me as someone who would eat small children if he had his way?
  8. What’s the funniest movies ever made? I suppose that’s an unfair question since everybody has a different sense of humor. But let’s suppose you think of your vote for the five funniest movies of all time. Leave a comment below and tell me what they are. Here are mine, today - if you ask me tomorrow, this list may be slightly different. In no particular order: Monty Python and the Holy Grail; Airplane; Clerks; This is Spinal Tap; Young Frankenstein; and South Park - Bigger, Longer & Uncut. Yes! Yes! I know that’s six! So sue me! SO what’s your five (or six)?
  9. SO, I almost forgot the point of #8. WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY is not on that list. It’s not one of the five (or six) funniest movies of all time - but it is the funniest movies I’ve seen so far this year - and I’ve seen quite a few.
  10. Finally, what’s the funniest category from above? Is it candy bars, or countries or animals or movies - or is it something else? Who cares? Funny is funny. Although it’s in short supply in a lot of the world, humans need comedy, we need to laugh. If we didn’t occasionally laugh ourselves silly or piss our pants and fall on the floor (heavy drinking produces the same result but is not a viable substitute), we would be sad and angry all the time until our innate urge to kill someone overcame our innate urge to just say f*** it.

WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY. Don’t pass up this really funny film - it may save someone’s life.


watch the trailer

Sunday, June 29, 2008


I’ve realized that the reason I can’t think of anything to write anymore is that I’ve run out of words. Or worse yet, I’ve overused the ones I had - There’s only so many times you can call a movie “quirky and funny” or say that the film maker “got it right” or that this is “the best movie of the year” - and get away with it. So, I’m in search for new words, but since the internet is one big world community, I’m asking you, the readers, to send me some new and interesting and “quirky” words that I can use in my next video recommendation. Simply click on the “Comments” link, at the bottom of this post, to leave your suggestions.

Monday, June 23, 2008

“….my computer has run out of t’s”

I suppose this happens to everybody at one time or another.

For reasons which i can’t explain, I seem to be in some kind of writing funk. I can’t seem to come up with a single word to write ………….well - except these. I think if I can get through this next article (coming soon), I’ll be OK. So, be patient and I’ll get back into the swing of it in another week or so. In the meantime, feel free to browse through the FranksFilms archive at past recommendations - good movies all around.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


This week’s movie:


I cried at the end of Old Yeller.

Of course I was only six, but still …… so what? I also teared up a bit for Grave of the Fireflies, and Love Story, and Ghost, and My Girl, and Bambi, and Pandora’s Box, and The Bridge to Terabithia, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. You know …….the usual tear-jerkers. The point is, I consider myself relatively normal. My black sense of humor non-withstanding, I usually react to films the same way that most people do. So - when I say that I found this week’s movie, about an afterlife populated by people who have committed suicide, rather sweet and endearing, it’s not because I have a warped sensibility (I do, but that’s not why), it’s because the movie really is sweet and endearing.

Now, before you say, “Oh God! Not another one of these oddball freaky FranksFilms-esque movies! Why can’t you review ‘normal’ films like Made of Honor or What Happens in Vegas?” The truth is, I see a lot of movies like those and some of them are pretty good - but there’s nothing new or different or unusual about them. I know exactly what to expect, and I get it - they’re predictable, they’re pure entertainment, audience satisfying, seat filling ticket selling commodities but they won’t raise any new issues or make you think uncomfortable thoughts or make you look at the usual in an unusual way. Whereas, the films that I feature here typically have an unusual hook or do something exceptionally difficult or take chances that have a great payoff. WRISTCUTTERS: A LOVE STORY does all these things.

A young man, Zia, commits suicide (guess how) when he becomes disconsolate after his girlfriend dumps him. Now you might think, there’s no excuse for that, suicide solves nothing, nobody is worth killing yourself over … which i say, you haven’t seen his girlfriend - she pretty hot. The irony is, his is relegated to an afterlife two or three notches more depressing than the one he left behind. He is assigned a depressing job, lives in a depressing apartment with a roommate he hates. He considers committing suicide again but, who knows, he might end up in a worse place - I mean, where do you go if you’ve committed suicide from the suicide afterlife? I mean really, it boggles the mind.

Zia does make friends. Eugene, a failed Russian rocker, killed himself on stage during a show. They pick up girls together and compare suicide stories. Eugene lives with his family. Yes, his entire family committed suicide - not all at once. They are happy (somewhat) but it’s not easy to be happy here. You can’t smile, there are no stars in the sky, the landscape is bleak, nothing works right, there are no good jobs and no good apartments - what do you want? You’re dead - make the best of it.

All this so far is just a set up for the story. From a chance meeting, Zia is given a piece of information that sets him off on a journey - a quest of sorts - almost impossible, given the circumstances - but as he tells Eugene, “Do you have anything better to do?” He needs Eugene. Eugene has a car - a depressing one - the kind each of us has had at one time or another. Along the way, they pick up a hitchhiker, Mikal, who is on a quest of her own. She is looking for the PIC (People In Charge) because, she claims, she is there by mistake and would they please send her someplace nicer. They meet up with, and stay for a while at a small commune led by Tom Waits, and find a camp belonging to a suicide cult who, it seems, have been transported there en masse. They’re still up to their old tricks, so maybe we will find out what happens if you kill yourself in the suicide afterlife after all.

We never really find out why all the suicides end up here. Perhaps they’re given this opportunity to work things out in a way they weren’t able to in life. Maybe they’re forced to find happiness in a placed devoid of it. Maybe, if they find it, it’ll no longer be so damn depressing. Funny things is, although the landscape is stark and the circumstances are depressing - the movie isn’t. The movie is funny, and sweet, and happy and whimsical. In a bleak existence, miracles can (and must) still happen. Performing one seems to be a rite of passage - and one can still find friendship and purpose and even love.

The clever story and dialog contain lots of satire and social commentary. In the novel, “Good Omens” by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett, One of the characters (a demon from hell) drives an antique car and points out a fundamental, if unwritten, law of nature that - “…any cassette left in a car for more than a fortnight turns into ‘Best of Queen’” In WRISTCUTTERS: ….., Eugene’s car points out another well know rule - any object that falls under the front seat, disappears from the known universe and is never seen again.

And finally, as the title implies, this is a love story - simple true and unpretentious, without gimmick (well …….except that it takes place in the suicide afterlife) - characters find love the way real people do (well …….that is, except that it takes place in the suicide afterlife). It is a universal story (except ……well, you know…..).

I know that suicide is a serious subject and that we shouldn’t make light of it - but the film never makes light of the suicides. It just proposes the concept that your life is unfinished and maybe there are still things you need to do. Besides, war is a serious subject and we still have films like Mash and Catch-22. Also, killing is very very serious, and yet Live Free or Die Hard is still a fun time at the movies, as is The Matrix and the Indiana Jones films and the James Bond films. So I don’t want to hear another word about it.

In the film What Dreams May Come, Robin Williams kids are killed in a car accident. He and his wife are beyond grief, but at least they have each other. A short time later, he is also killed in a car accident and goes to heaven (the real heaven). The mother, on the other hand can no longer cope with the grief and being alone and so - kills herself. She doesn’t go to heaven - not even a suicide’s version of it. Instead, she is sent to hell (yes! hell). It hardly seems fair. WRISTCUTTERS: A LOVE STORY, although it has a lot of suicides, is far less depressing - it’s much fair-er.

“Oh, Frank - I don’t know. This sounds really strange and bizarre. I don’t know if I would like this.” Yes - that’s the point. Films that are different are also original - and you might like a type of movie you haven’t seen before. But you won’t know until you try it. Of course, if you don’t like to try anything new, you could watch Sleepless in Seattle over and over and over and over …..

Over the years and thousands of movies, I’ve made some observations about romantic comedies. For instance: The plot to 80% of all romantic comedies: Boy and girl meet, they like one another, they fall in love, things are going great but one of them has a dark secret that the other can never find out, the other finds out, they break up, the one with the secret tries and tries to get the other one back, they get the other one back in the end, love conquers all. The plot to nearly all of the other 20% of romantic comedies. Boy and girl meet, they hate one another, they constantly fight and argue, during one particularly harsh shouting match - one reaches out and kisses the other, they realize that they actually love each other, love conquers all. I think that this genre needs new material to revive it - so I’m proposing 10 different and unique romantic plot lines for possible future films. I’m throwing them out there - fell free to use them as you wish.

  1. A single woman lives on a houseboat on Puget sound. Every time she falls asleep, she dreams of a romance with a single man from the East Coast, who dreams of her when he’s asleep. Time zones notwithstanding, they carry on a hot and heavy courtship every night. It’s called “Sleeping in Seattle”.
  2. A man with multiple personalities discovers that two of his selves have fallen in love and plan to get married - but a forth personality wants to put an end to this by stealing himself away from himself.
  3. A man with ten wives has an affair with a woman with ten husbands. Much of the movie involves trying to figure out exactly how many adulteries were committed.
  4. Everybody loves robots, but the truth is that most robots don’t get along with other robots. Two robots buck tradition by moving in together into a small 1 bedroom above a flower shop. The flower shop lady can’t understand why suddenly she always hears clanging metal. Perhaps she needs to get those pipes fixed - yeah, the pipes, that’s it.
  5. Two comatose patients suddenly become aware of each other when their telemetry monitor wires accidentally get crossed. He admires the occasional dips in her EEG’s alpha waves. She is turned on by the cute way his EKG spikes between the Q’s and the R’s every time he “sees’ her. The hospital staff get confused when her EKG suddenly develops a second fainter faster heartbeat.
  6. Co-joined male Siamese twins fall helplessly in love with co-joined female Siamese twins. The courtship runs into a roadblock because they can’t seem to get any ‘alone time’. After coming up with what they consider to be the ideal solution, an 18 hour operation by a team of surgeons separates the two sets of twins - then they reattached the male/female couples together. In a surprise twist, the couples, upon waking, are aghast when they find that they have been mistakingly attached to the wrong mate.
  7. A beer-guzzling hockey-loving man and an opera-going martini woman truly despise one another. Unfortunately, because they have spent most of their lives watching romantic comedies, they realized that they must eventually fall in love. In a bold move, they decide to get married to bypass the whole ‘falling in love’ progression and move straight to boredom.
  8. The His and Hers towels have been getting rather ‘cozy’ lately. Hers likes His casual, somewhat disheveled unfolded look, and His likes the feel of the fabric softener Hers has been washed in. It’s hard to ignore the other since they’re always hung side by side. One day, Hers leaves for a few minutes and comes back totally drenched. His is consumed with jealousy, and would like to storm off, but is fated to always hang next to Hers. The outcome is a bit predictable, I’ll admit, but with such likable attractive characters, this is one hell of a thrill ride.
  9. An anthropomorphic animated tale, the kind that Disney is so good at. Mandy’s biological clock is ticking. She’s a praying mantis who is down on love, but throughout the story, her heart softens a bit by the advances of Jerry, a charismatic wise-cracking male mantis. Finally, she can resist no longer and allows herself to fall madly in love with him. In the climatic ending, Mandy and Jerry share one long intense passionate kiss ……,before she bites Jerry’s head off. Love conquers all.
  10. Bill declares to the world, “I love chocolate cake!” His friends tease him, “Well, if you love it so much, why don’t you marry it!” - And so he does. On their 50th anniversary, he tells her, “You’re as fresh as the day you were baked.” It’s all the sugar, she tells him.

WRISTCUTTERS: A LOVE STORY - you’ll love this story.

official wristcutter’s site

watch the trailer

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


This week’s movie:


When I think about it, I realize that it could have all gone terribly wrong!

I never doubt the power of a film to reestablish faith in my fellow human beings ……especially those human beings in the film. Film people are so fascinating. When they’re well written, they lead fascinating lives, they experience perfect fascinating romances, they have exciting and fascinating adventures, and - and this is very important - always say just the right things - fascinating. They have problems - they resolve problems. They have conflicts - they resolve conflicts. They sometimes die, but you can always restart the DVD …….and there they are again! The Kinks’ song says, “I wish my life was a non-stop Hollywood movie show.” Maybe they were onto something.

BUT ………when a film is NOT well written or directed or produced, it could easily all go terribly wrong.

I live in small town USA. It’s not really that small. It’s not small enough for everybody to know everybody else - but it IS small enough for a lot of people to know a lot of other people, plus there are little sub-communities of families and neighbors who are very close-knit. But I can only imagine an entire town, even a small one, pulling together the way people do in this week’s film, LARS AND THE REAL GIRL.

Now here’s where this review can all go terribly wrong. If I tell you the premise of this movie, and I don’t do it carefully, you will never ever want to see this film - or worse, you can wait to see it, having a certain expectation of it, and be totally disappointed. I’ll probably get this wrong, and I may have to do this more than once, but here goes. Lars, an emotionally disturbed introvert, buys a life-like sex doll so he won’t be so alone …….and his family and small town friends are shocked …………and ……….dang! This is all going terribly wrong. Let me try this again.

Lars …….(so far, so good) ….has issues. He doesn’t say much, he doesn’t go out, and he doesn’t like to be touched. He has many many emotional issues. He now lives in the garage behind the house where his brother and his brother’s wife live. He is incapable of having a normal relation with anybody, even though the young woman at work is clearly interested in him. One day, a co-worker shows him a site for realistic love dolls - and so, he orders one - Bianca. He invents a back-story for her (I don’t know, maybe they each come with one). Since he can’t connect with real people, he decides to get himself a fake one.

When he shows up at his brothers for dinner, he insists that she be treated like a real girl, and so she gets her own place setting. He speaks to her and speaks for her. She’s been in an accident and is confined to a wheelchair. Also, she’s very religious and it wouldn’t be right for her to sleep under the same roof as him, and would it be OK for her to room in the big house with his brother’s family? They take him to see a psychologist who tells them that Lars is just working through some issues, and maybe the best thing would be if everyone just accommodate Lars and go along with it. Reluctantly, they agree and soon the whole town is going along with it.

Now, here’s where the film could have all gone terribly wrong.

In a lesser movie, lewd raunchy sexual jokes would have been made about the various purposes to which ‘real dolls’ are traditionally used. The brother would have stopped in at Bianca’s room for a nightly quickie because he, in flash of self-awareness, discovers that he is doll-curious. There would have been a scene where Lars is lifting Bianca from the wheelchair and is caught off-balanced. He fumbles and somehow she ends upside down and her dress falls down, leaving Lars with a face full of anatomical correctness - just as a pair of old ladies happen to walk by to be conveniently shocked. Or worse, they would animate Bianca whenever Lars was alone with her so that she could give him advice ……and only by making love to her can he truly be cured (I’ve actually seen this movie). Or worse than that - she’s magic, or possessed and causes evil things to happen in town and actually kills to satisfy her doll blood lust. As the death toll mounts, Lars must find a way to save the day - and himself ……and cure himself in the process (come to think of it, I’ve seen this movie too). And, if that isn’t enough to get a laugh, someone, somewhere in the movie, somehow would manage to end up eating poop (sadly …….I’ve seen this one too).

But none of these things actually happen in this film.

Let me make this perfectly clear - nobody in this film ever has sex with the doll. If you were hoping for that, then this movie is not for you. In addition, you’ll never see it naked. The movie isn’t about that. This movie IS about two things. The first is how everybody in town quickly adapts to the situation and accepts Lars’ new girlfriend into their community. I suppose they think it’s interesting or fun (it’s fun to play with dolls), or maybe they just get into the spirit of the thing. Soon, Bianca is the most popular girl in town. The girls take her for ladies’ night out, they do each others hair, girl talk - that sort of thing. Soon, she’s everywhere - working here - volunteering there - going to parties - sometimes she brings Lars.

The other arc of the story has to do with Lars. With Bianca, Lars suddenly begins to interact with other people. He gets invited out, sometimes to parties, sometimes just out - and he goes! He also starts working out his issues, with the help of his sessions with Dagmar, his doctor (psychologist), and with Bianca. During their many walks out in the woods, he starts to open up. In many ways, this entire film is about Lars’ journey of self-recovery.

Lars is not an easy character to get right. The entire success or failure of this film hinges on being able to portray his character without overacting or appearing ignorant or pathetic. Lars is none of these things. He’s smart - smart enough to know he has problems and needs help. He smart enough to know that people realize that Bianca is not real but in his way, asks them to go along for his sake, and he’s smart enough to know when he doesn’t need Bianca any more. The film has a great cast - everybody is perfect for their roles (Patricia Clarkson, who plays the doctor, is one of my favorite actresses, and she doesn’t disappoint here), but it would have all fallen flat if it wasn’t for Ryan Gosling who plays Lars. I haven’t seen every one of his movies, but I’ve seen some, and he’s been outstanding in every one. In particular, his virtuoso performance in Half Nelson earned him a well deserved Oscar nomination.

In other words, it doesn’t all go terribly wrong. Not like some other movies I could mention.

  1. Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace. How it all went terribly wrong. The original Star Wars invented a new formula and was fresh and different and exciting. The recent series tried to use the same formula, and so now it just seams old and stale and boring. How to fix it. New formula - plus lose Jar Jar.
  2. City of Angels. How it all went terribly wrong. This was supposed to be an English language remake of the very excellent Wings of Desire (one of my favorites) but they either didn’t watch the original movie, or didn’t understand the original movie, or didn’t even know there was an original movie, or ….they just purposely wanted to make an awful movie. How to fix it. Watch the original movie, dammit! Call Wim Wenders on the phone to explain it to you.
  3. The Number 23. How it all went terribly wrong. This is supposed to be a thriller - it would help if it was thrilling. How to fix it. Add some scary bits, suspense, action, intrigue. When all else fails, get someone to eat poop.
  4. Snakes on a Plane. How it all went terribly wrong. Catchy title, but premise is just too outlandish. Even Samuel L Jackson’s ‘m…..f…… snakes’ line cannot redeem it. How to fix it. Go the other way. Make it more outlandish. Make it bizarre! No - make it freakishly bizarre! At least then you’d remember it.
  5. Lady in the Water. How it all went terribly wrong. M. Night Shyamalan’s last film could have - should have been great. Instead, it was just OK. The plot was too complicated for this kind of film, it doesn’t have a pervading motif, it tries to be more than one kind of movie. How to fix it. Rewrite rewrite rewrite!
  6. The Hulk. How it all went terribly wrong. Ang Lee’s Hulk - not the excellent TV show Hulk. The best think about the Hulk in the TV show (and in the comics) is not the Hulk part - It’s the Bruce Banner human part, and how he deals with the fact that he’s the Hulk and doesn’t want to be. The Hulk is not all that interesting. He smashes things, and says “Hulk smash!” and then smashes the crap out of lots of other things, then lumbers or jumps off. There’s only so much smashing you can take before you want to smash something yourself. How to fix it. Make Hulk smart! Then - he could muse about things, for example - he could ponder the significance of the army tank, comment on it phallic representation, espouse on man’s technological superiority in the creation of such a construct while, at the same time, regretting the use to which it is put - a seemingly paradoxical superposition of constructive and destructive influences - oh, the folly of humanity ………..all this just before he smashes it to tiny bits.
  7. In the Cut. The Meg Ryan sex movie. How it all went terribly wrong. This is not how you want to see Meg Ryan. Meg is sweet and funny. You want to see her in a romantic comedy with Tom Hanks, all cute and smiley. You don’t want to she her nude on a bed with her hands busy between her legs. It’s too shocking. It’s like seeing your own grandmother naked. It’s like seeing Minnie Mouse naked. How to fix it. Replace Meg Ryan with someone you’re comfortable seeing naked, someone you would expect to see naked. Maybe Jenna Jameson.
  8. Battlefield Earth. How it all went terribly wrong. First of all, somebody put film in the camera. Then the scripts were delivered on time. The actors showed up. They were able to reserve a studio. Yes, a whole series of events occurred in just the right sequence to allow this movie to be made. How to fix it. Go back to step one and prevent the film from entering the camera.
  9. P.S. I Love You. How it all went terribly wrong. This film was miserably miscast. Some people should not should not should not play romantic comedies. How to fix it. Modern romantic comedies have upped the ante. Perhaps a realistic, anatomically correct sex doll would help.
  10. Mr. Woodcock. How it all went terribly wrong. In a comedy, it’s essential that you have at least one likable character instead of monochrome, one-dimensional archetypes (I have never used the word ‘archetypes’ ever in my life). The amazing thing is that the film-makers watch the dailies and say, “Yes!! That’s a keeper!” …..and mean it! How to fix it. This would work better as a drama or as a very dark comedy - plus, somebody has to die!!!!!! ….maybe everybody - yes, everybody!!!! MWAAH HA HA HA HA HA HA.

If you think I’m getting a bit carried away by a movie whose story is based on a life-like sex doll, then I’m not the only one. FIlm critic, Roger Ebert writes,

Only after the movie is over do you realize what a balancing act it was, what risks it took, what rewards it contains.

You can read his entire review here. Joe Morganstern of the Wall Street Joural writes,

It’s nothing less than a miracle that the director, Craig Gillespie, and the writer, Nancy Oliver, have been able to make such an endearing, intelligent and tender comedy from a premise that, in other hands, might sustain a five-minute sketch on TV.

And Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat of ‘Spirituality and Practice’ write

One of the best films of the year about the love, kindness, and hospitality of a Christian community for a lost and lonely soul.

On the tomatometer, it’s praised by 81% of the critics, but by 91% of regular viewers (like you and me). Common Sense Media rates LARS a PAUSE:15+, meaning that it’s age appropriate, on average, for age 15 and above, but know your kid - if your kid is highly sensitive, then maybe that age should be push higher, if your kid is pretty savvy, then maybe that age could be push much lower.

It could have all gone terribly wrong - but it didn’t.


watch the trailer

Friday, April 18, 2008


This week’s movie:


World War Two was not my fault! Honest!

They tell me my ancestors came from Germany - maybe three generations before me. That’s way before WW2, isn’t it? That’s even before WW1 (which, by the way, was also not my fault). But I still have the German name and when I give it, in certain circles, some people still say, “That’s German, isn’t it? The Nazis started WW2 you know.” To which I have to remind them - my name may be German but I am not. Besides, I wasn’t in Germany during the war, and I was pretty young - too young to fight. To which they’d ask, “Really? How old were you?”, and I’d say, “Approximately ……….oh - about minus ten.”

The Holocaust notwithstanding, Germans sometimes get a bad rap for the war. I know plenty of Germans and some of them - a few of them - one or two ……, three …….. half a dozen at least - are pretty decent people. Now, I’ll admit that these are not war-era Germans - these are ‘far removed from the war’-era Germans. Still …….. I imagine that, even during WW2, there were good Nazis as well as bad, evil Nazis. I know people who will hate me for saying this stuff, but it’s true. In fact, it’s true for virtually every ethnic group you can imagine.

Having said all that, it’s still pretty hard not to villainize Nazis in WW2 related movies. It’s pretty cut and dry in films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Blues Brothers, just to name a few. Now, movies where you don’t have a clear cut bad guy tend to make you think. Quite often this is good. But films where you do have a definite villain to oppose tend to be more pure entertainment - such as the movies mentioned above - and such as this week’s movie BLACK BOOK.

BLACK BOOK is not a great film, in the same sense that a Stephen King novel is not great literature. Oh course that doesn’t stop it from spending 5 months on the best-seller list and it doesn’t stop it from being one hell of a thrill ride.

The story is not very original. I’m sure everybody’s had this happen to them. Rachel is a young Dutch woman who has the misfortune of living in Nazi occupied Netherlands during WW2 and who also has the misfortune of living in Nazi occupied Netherlands while, at the same time, being a Jew. She and her family are sheltered by a non-Jewish couple (no, her name is NOT Anne Frank!). When an opportunity comes along to escape, they take it - transport is arranged by boat - but they are double-crossed (cue the strings - Da Da Daaaaaaaaah!) which, I’ll just say this, is also not my fault. Rachel joins up with the underground and goes undercover to find out who is responsible. By chance, she encounters a German commander and becomes his mistress (cue the strings again - Da Da Daaaaaaaaaah!). It is a position that allows her great freedom of movement and access to information - and who’s going to question her? It sounds straightforward but it’s not. There are countless twists and turns before the end. What’s really happening? Who was really behind the double-cross? Who will get out alive? Can love conquer all? Where’s Waldo?

Rachel is played by the incomparable Carice van Houten. You’ve probably never hear of her but I suspect that will change now. She has had a number of smaller roles up to now, but here she has a chance to show off all her talents. I say this in the ‘male’ sense. She is very very talented. Müntze, the German officer, is played by Sebastian Koch who was terrific in The Lives of Others, one of my favorite films from last year. Will Rachel find what she’s looking for? Will she take out her revenge on Müntze or will he turn out to be a rather decent egg?

This film has a wide appeal because it’s possible to enjoy it on more than one level. If you are a normal movie-watcher, you will enjoy the suspense and the drama and the political intrigue and the mystery. You will appreciate the quick witted dialog, and the cat and mouse word play.. You will also enjoy the sudden and unexpected plot twists (Uh-oh! What’s she going to do now?????). If you enjoy movies more on a simpler level, well there is shootin’ and a fightin’ and a lovin’ and the nakedness - yes, the nakedness. But, if instead, you have higher standards in films, and demand things like character development, subtlety, and realism - I guess BLACK BOOK will just have to become a guilty pleasure. If you don’t enjoy this film, that’s not my fault either - I just make recommendations.

I know it sounds like I’m being defensive, but I get blamed for a lot of things that I didn’t have anything to do with. So …..let me get this straight once and for all time. Here are the things that are not my fault. To be fair, I will also list things that were my fault - just so that I’m not being too one-sided.

  1. Not my fault: The Great Flood. No, I really have no way of making it rain and flood the Earth, and I wouldn’t if I could, no matter what some people may think. My fault: Flooding in my basement. I should have gotten it fixed a long time ago, but didn’t.
  2. Not my fault: Extinction of the dinosaurs. As much as I would like to take credit for the event that paved the way for us mammals (at least those of us that are mammals), it had nothing at all to do with me. My fault: Extinction of ants and cutworms on my front lawn. That chemical stuff I put on my lawn kills everything. My apologies if you are an ant or cutworm aficionado.
  3. Not my fault: Destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria. I’ve never even been there. I’m betting it was someone who took out a book, and tried to read it and said, “It’s all Greek to me!” My fault: That funny smell in the refrigerator. I was supposed to toss that egg salad way in the back – but it was way in the back and I completely forgot about it.
  4. Not my fault: The presidency of George W Bush. I didn’t want to make a political statement or anything – but I often get blamed for this for some reason. But, get this, I didn’t even vote for him – so back off. My fault: Proliferation of dandelion weeds in my entire neighborhood. I’m the only one who doesn’t de-weed his lawn, and my weeds propagate all the way to the end of the street. The way I figure it, weeds are green – so little on my lawn is – and they’re hardy, and require no watering, or care. Sounds to me like Darwin’s choice.
  5. Not my fault: The Rise of the Machines. In the Terminator films (and the Matrix films for that matter), machines take over the world. Fans who are really into this are looking for a scapegoat. “Frank, don’t you make robots?” My fault: That thing that’s hanging from the ceiling in my upstairs hall. It was starting to come off so I thought if I pull it down, I could fix it and put it back up securely. But it would only come down halfway – I can’t pull it off nor can I get it back up. So now, it just sits there, half hanging down.
  6. Not my fault: Global Warming. This is a huge issue. It involves vast amounts of greenhouse gases, most industrialized nations, power plants, industrial smoke stacks, and two or three SUV’s. I don’t think I can take the rap for all that. My fault: Global Warming. I drive a car, I waste electricity, I consume more than I should, and I don’t make enough of a fuss to stop myself and everybody else from doing the same.
  7. Not my fault: The Titanic. When they interviewed the survivors afterwards, many of then claim they saw me on board, drilling holes in the hull, and opening the floodgates (floodgates were later considered to be a bad idea for a ship). This is just preposterous! I mean, who brings a drill on an ocean cruise? My fault: I reproduced the movie still (above) without the expressed written permission of Sony Pictures Classics or their representatives.
  8. Not my fault: The Bomb. When I tell people I majored in Physics, they often respond, “You people invented the Bomb! We could all die at any time because you guys built the Bomb!” I usually just apologize but really, it wasn’t me. My fault: Da Bomb! Yo, yo, check it out, suckka! Like, this sh**’s da bomb!
  9. Not my fault: Those low-waist tight jeans that make your midriff bulge out and hang over the belt. Who the hell thought that would be a good look? My fault: My midriff that bulges out and hangs over my belt - even though I’m not wearing a pair of those jeans.
  10. Not my fault: AIDS. People think it was me, but I know for a fact, that a female Macaque monkey, named Clara, was behind it all. All scientists know this but, curiously, nobody’s talking. My fault: World hunger. Yep, that was me. Sorry – my bad.

In Dutch, English, German, and Hebrew with subtitles. Common Sense Media gives BLACK BOOK a PAUSE:17+ rating saying, “Intense mature WWII drama taps into base human instinct.”

So what’s the deal with the ‘black book’? Sorry, I’m giving nothing away. You’ll just have to tune in to find out. Take out BLACK BOOK from your local library or any other video or DVD source this week.


watch the trailer

Friday, April 04, 2008


This week’s movie:


The Tower of Babel was a cruel joke ……………….funny though.

Here’s a question for you. If everybody in the world spoke the same language, would we fight less …..or more? I’ve been to other countries. Places where I neither understand nor speak the language - where I don’t know what anybody is saying, and where nobody knows what I’m saying. And yet - I’m still here. Contrary to what many people believe, one can survive this experience.

Have you ever watched a foreign language film with the subtitles OFF - and wonder what they were talking about? I do this sometimes. Some languages sound so exotic (Asian languages especially. You would think maybe French - but in French films, I’m too busy watching the lips move to care watch they’re saying - and besides, I know just enough French to get really confused) ………so, what was I saying? Oh yeah - some languages sound so exotic, that I pretend that they’re saying, perhaps, one of the following, but am often wrong

  1. What I imagined: “You want to know who I am? I am… I am the Invincible Sword Goddess, armed with the Green Destiny that knows no equal! Be you Li or Southern Crane, bow your head and ask for mercy! I am the dragon from the desert! Who comes from nowhere and leaves no trace! Today I fly over Eu-Mei. Tomorrow… I topple Mount Wudan!” ——-What was actually said: “I left my car’s lights on. Does anybody have battery cables?”
  2. What I imagined: “Your laugh is a sudden silvery wave. Your smile spreads like a butterfly.” ——- What was actually said: “You have a little …….er ………mustard on your face ………no, lower - there you got it.”
  3. What I imagined: “To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them.” ——-What was actually said: “Get the butter”
  4. What I imagined: “Rosebud.” ——-What was actually said: “No, seriously, get the butter.”
  5. What I imagined: “My momma always said, ‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’” ——- What was actually said: “Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?”
  6. What I imagined: “There’s only one proper way for a professional soldier to die: the last bullet of the last battle of the last war.” ——- What was actually said: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.”
  7. What I imagined: “The way your dad looked at it, this watch was your birthright. He’d be damned if any slopes gonna put their greasy yellow hands on his boy’s birthright, so he hid it, in the one place he knew he could hide something: his ass. Five long years, he wore this watch up his ass. Then when he died of dysentery, he gave me the watch. I hid this uncomfortable piece of metal up my ass for two years. Then, after seven years, I was sent home to my family. And now, little man, I give the watch to you.” ——- What was actually said: “The way your dad looked at it, this watch was your birthright. He’d be damned if any slopes gonna put their greasy yellow hands on his boy’s birthright, so he hid it, in the one place he knew he could hide something: his ass. Five long years, he wore this watch up his ass. Then when he died of dysentery, he gave me the watch. I hid this uncomfortable piece of metal up my ass for two years. Then, after seven years, I was sent home to my family. And now, little man, I give the watch to you.” …………… sometimes, I get it right!
  8. What I imagined: “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” ——- What was actually said: “If I remember her appetite, I don’t think we have enough gin in this joint.
  9. What I imagined: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” ——- What was actually said: “Frickin’ fava beans - I hate those things!”
  10. What I imagined: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” ——- What was actually said: “Yes, you must give us all a good spanking.”

It’s very difficult not to misinterpret what you don’t understand. Thus you have the main premise of this week’s video recommendation, THE CUCKOO. The story revolves around three characters in Northern Europe near the end of Second World War. The first is Ivan, a captain in the Soviet Army. He has been arrested by the Russian secret police an is being transported back for disciplinary action when their vehicle is bombed. Ivan is the only survivor, though unconscious. He is found by Anni, a Lapp woman whose reindeer farm is nearby. She drags him back to nurse him to health. Anni’s husband left for the war four years earlier and never returned. She hasn’t seen a man since.

Meanwhile ……. Veiko, a Finnish soldier, has lost his will to fight. At that time Finland allied themselves with Germany until 1944 when they said, enough is enough. The Germans punish him in two ways. They dress him in a Natzi uniform (they were smart enough to understand that everybody hated the Natzis) , and then they chain him to a large rock, and then leave him for dead, as eventually Russians will come along and shoot him - or he’d shoot himself - or he’d starve to death. Instead, after a time, he escapes the chains and stumbles onto Anni’s reindeer farm.

I know it sounds like I’m giving you the whole story but really, I’m just setting up the premise. The story isn’t about everything I’ve mentioned so far, it’s about what happens down on Anni’s farm - by the lake. You have three people - from three different countries - speaking three different languages - and no one can understand what the other two are saying. Complicate this with the fact that the Russian thinks the Finn is really a German (because of the uniform), his sworn enemy. The Finn wants nothing at all to do with fighting and considers the Russian to be an ally against the Germans. And Anni, the Lapp woman, ……….hasn’t seen a man in four years.

Things get interesting.

There are many funny moments, as when they have a three way conversation, each one talking about a completely different subject. There are many tense moments when the men, whose instincts have been honed by many years of fighting war, clash with misunderstanding. There are also many heartwarming moments when the men, whose instincts have been honed by a lifetime of trying to impress women, decide that sometimes it’s more important to make your host happy than it is to kill your enemy. They don’t understand each other’s language - but sometimes that’s not necessary - there are other ways to get your message across. Anni’s a woman, and she knows how to make men understand.

KUKUSHKA (translation: THE CUCKOO) takes place during World War Two, but it’s not about the war. It transcends the war to illuminate the beauty that is the human spirit, and raises questions. If you consider men who are wartime enemies and then take away the war, are they still enemies? If the saving angel of Anni wasn’t there to keep them in line, would they try so hard to come to understand one another? And …..If everybody in the world spoke the same language, would we fight less …..or more?

THE CUCKOO was the darling of the independent film festival circuit in 2002, when it was released. I don’t know about the rest of the movie-going world, but here in the US, it passed virtually unnoticed. I didn’t even pick up on it from my usual sources of such information. It was a discovery made late at night, on a weekend, in my neighborhood video store - when the shelves are nearly empty. I saw it, idly picked it up, read the back cover, and was sold (besides, I could not leave empty handed!). I am constantly amazed that great, thoughtful, smart, refreshing, and entertaining films like this seems to pass unnoticed by 98% of the population and yet movies like College Road Trip (tomatometer: 6%) is, as of this writing, enjoying its 4th week at my local cinema. Maybe that’s why I never go out to the movies anymore.

THE CUCKOO scores a 91% on the tomatometer.

Common Sense Media, who judges age appropriateness for movies, doesn’t have a rating for this film (seems they’ve never heard of it either), but if were I were to hazard a guess, I would give it an ON:13+ (recommended for anyone 13 years or older - maybe 11 or 12 if they’re pretty savvy).

THE CUCKOO is a feel good movie with a positive, heartwarming, and life-affirming message. Do yourself a favor and give up and hour and a half of mind-numbing soul-robbing “reality-based” television, and watch this film instead - just for one night.

You may have to look in more than one place for it - but it’s certainly worth the effort.


view trailer

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


This week’s movie:


I’m writing this recommendation because I’m a firm believer in symmetry.

During my many years of studying Physics, I’ve developed a deep appreciation of symmetry in nature - of balance. I don’t believe much in God – but if I did, Physics would be his playbook, his Bible. Physics describes the rules that God himself follows right down to the atomic level. You want to know how he created the universe? Physics tells you. It describes the basic building blocks that form every rule and law of nature from the microscopic to the cosmological. For every particle there is an antiparticle. For every equation there is a symmetric (or antisymmetric) equation that link different phenomena. Balance is key. You eat a balanced diet for good physical health. You balance work and play for good mental health. For every action there is a reaction. For each heads there is a tails with equal probability. The only reason we tolerate evil is because we know there is also good to balance it. Wax on ………wax off.

What all this got to do with this week’s video recommendation? Nothing - except………..

A couple weeks ago I recommended the film Across the Universe. It was an upbeat movie, celebrating the joy of love and music and being alive. It was meant to make you feel good about yourself and say, “Life is great. All is right with the world! Koo-koo K’choo!”

GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES is the other side of the coin. It’s the anti-particle of a feel good movie. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a feel-bad movie - it just probably won’t pat you on the back of the hand and say ‘there there’ and make you feel good - and you’re not likely to say “All is right with the world.” by the time it’s over - because sometimes it’s not.

First, you may notice from the photo that it’s an animated film. “Oh! So it’s like, what? …..a cartoon?” Yes…… is like what - a cartoon, but not like any you’ve ever seen. It is, without a doubt, one of the most emotionally devastating films, animated or otherwise, ever made. Film critic, Roger Ebert, in his review writes, ” Grave of the Fireflies is an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation.” You can read his entire review here. Animation expert, Ernest Rister, compares it’s emotional impact to Schindler’s List (which was made some five years later), and wrote, “It is the most profoundly human animated film I’ve ever seen.”, and I imagine he’s seen quite a few.

The story is an adaptation of the novel “A Grave of Fireflies”, by Akiyuki Nosaka, and is based on his own experiences: A teenage boy and his very young sister find themselves orphaned and homeless near the end of World War II, when their town of Kobe, Japan is firebombed. Their subsequent tragic struggle for survival makes up the bulk of the film. I don’t think I’m giving anything away because the ending is shown in the very first scene – the rest is told in flashback. What follows is the most honest and realistic and heartbreaking story you’re ever likely to see. It’s not cute, or whimsical, or overly dramatic, or gimmicky – relief doesn’t magically arrive at the last minute – because, in real life, it rarely does.

The film was animated by Isao Takahata, who with longtime friend and collaborator, Hayao Miyazaki, founded Studio Ghibli of Japan. Miyazaki is responsible for many of the very best in animated features, such as My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away from FranksFilms past recommendations. Whereas Miyazaki deals in fancy and imagination, Takahata, instead, goes for the emotional punch in the gut.

“Geeeez, Frank. This sounds really depressing. Why would I want to watch such a downer of a movie and feel depressed all day?”


Because most of the time it’s not depressing at all. Because between the beginning where you find that the main characters have died, and the end where the main characters die, there are many moments of joy and beauty. Because there are moments of play and of many little victories. In fact, much of the film is funny and heartwarming. Even though you know the fate that awaits them, you want it not to be true, and I think this is largely what gives it such incredible poignancy – you try not to think that they will eventually die. And because of balance. You can’t subsist totally on a diet of romantic comedies, or teenage comedies, or action adventure ….comedies. Balance says you must also see films like ‘Schindler’s List’, and GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES.

This is widely considered an anti-war movie. However, the message isn’t rammed down your throat. No one person or side is held up as responsible or maybe everybody is. War is no stroll through the fun house – unless that fun house is in an abandoned haunted theme park in a Stephen King novel. This is one very intense, emotional, joyous, sad, powerful, and beautiful film. I challenge any breathing, feeling person not to be moved by it. Is it a tear-jerker? Hell yes! So what? Don’t be such a baby!

Don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s an animated movie. This is a serious film, depicting serious events. The fact that its semi-autographical makes it all the more compelling. If you’re looking for a movie to share with your small children, this might not be the one. There is no profanity, or adult situations (I don’t consider war to be an adult situation. War affects children no differently than adults.), but children have a deep-running sense of injustice, and the eventual fate of the main characters may haunt them for a long time to come (it may haunt you too, for that matter). However, it is an important enough film to be a ‘must see’ for teenagers and older. If you do watch with younger kids, watch it with them to talk them through it.

Now, if you’re teetering on the edge of deciding whether or not to see this film, I direct you to 10 different film critics – each with their own reactions. Feel free to follow the links to their reviews.

  1. Roger Ebert: Ebert’s my ‘go to’ reviewer when I’m looking for insight into what makes a film good. He speaks at length on GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES – watch the video here.
  2. FranksFilms: Me. I’m my own ‘go to’ guy when I’m trying to decide whether or not I like a film. I liked GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES even though it made me feel sad. Refresh this page to read my review.
  3. Gene Siskel: I know he’s dead but, through the magic of the internet, he can speak to us from the grave …………………………………………of the fireflies. You probably saw that coming.
  4. John A. Nesbit: Reviewer for Old School Reviews. Cried like a baby for the entire second half.
  5. Jürgen Fauth: Reviewer for ‘’. Like it so much that decided maybe anime not so bad after all. Decided back after seeing Pokemon, the Movie.
  6. 6. New York Times: Gave such a great review that people went in droves. The next day marked the Great Facial Tissue Shortage of 1988.
  7. bdod5489: I have no idea who this is. But had trouble typing his review because keyboard kept getting salty wet.
  8. Tasha Robinson: Reviewer for the A.V.Club. Didn’t want to like it because it risked looking like an anime nerd – but couldn’t help herself. But, damnit! She ain’t watching no DragonballZ!
  9. Jon Turner: Reviewer on the Studio Ghibli website. He may be more than a little biased – what do you think?
  10. Aaron V.F. PICAR: I don’t know who this guy is – but he has a great website dedicated to using GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES as a classroom teaching tool. If you are considering watching it with your children, this site provides guides and topics for discussion.

GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES is a serious film that seriously deserves serious consideration. I’m serious here!

Seriously enjoy this film.

view trailer

Friday, February 29, 2008


This week’s movie:


There are two kinds of people in the world….

People are always saying this – about all sorts of things. But if you think about it, it’s the most absurd generality – that is, it’s true about almost everything. Examples may include: “There are two kinds of people in the world ………”

  • …those that put people into two categories, and those that don’t.”
  • …those that like to carve dinosaurs out of baked potatoes, and those that don’t”
  • …those with ears shaped like bake potatoes that are then cut in half then baked some more – maybe with a little pat of butter, and those with ears shape like potatoes that haven’t been baked at all.”
  • …those who like to keep a baked potato on a string around their neck, and those that prefer to keep their baked potato …… ……….elsewhere.”

…and I haven’t even begun to explore the myriad possibilities of other types of baked vegetables. However, the saying only really has any meaning when it is used to make a distinction between group groups of people that are approximately equal in number – like I’m about to do.

There are two groups of people in the world – those that “get” this week’s film, ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, and those that don’t.

This does not imply anything bad about the people who don’t, although I’m pretty sure before I’m done I’ll end up saying insulting about those idiots – but I won't because it’s not really true. This is a really polarizing film. That is, the people who get it believe this movie is a brilliant and artistic celebration of everything we remember about the 1960’s, set to the music of The Beatles, joyous and uplifting ………..while those that don’t get it believe this film is just a pretentious bit of rubbish which blasphemes the music of The Beatles. There seems to be very little middle ground. Just to illustrate the point, the film scores 50% on the tomatometer. Click on the link to go to the tomatometer site and look at the reviews. All the reviews seem to cluster at one extreme or the other.

Now, obviously, I’m on the positive end. That is, I get it – otherwise I wouldn’t be recommending it here. The question is, which side are you on? What type of person are you? Will you love or hate this movie? I’ll try to give you enough information to decide whether you should risk watching it. You might say, why think about it at all? Why not just watch the movie and decide for myself? Because if you hate it – you will hate it so much that you’ll realize that you are capable of more hate than you ever thought possible and it will be a frightening revelation, the likes which no human should face, especially without a baked potato.

…..besides, you may never trust my judgment again.

So I am listing various reasons why you may either hate or love this film. Some of these are exactly the points that critics use to justify their assessments.

  1. Do you like musicals? Some people hate them – I mean – hate them a lot! Hate them - like an Old Navy commercial. I, on the other hand, like musicals (not Old Navy commercials). ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is a musical.
  2. “It’s just a string of music videos….” This is somewhat true. However, I think it’s appropriate that the story is told through music video-like sequences considering that it was The Beatles that pretty much invented the music video. At some point in their career, they stopped making public appearances. But they were still making records that had to be promoted and so they had to make some sort of appearance. So, they would be scheduled to “appear” on some TV show or another - but instead of performing live on the show, they would send along a film that they made of themselves doing crazy things while their new song played in the background ………in other words - a music video. The concept has since, er….., caught on. So, in the context of this movie, music videos are more of an homage or a nostalgic device than a gimmick.
  3. It doesn’t have a conventional straightforward narrative. ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, although it does tell a story (the main characters’ journey through the 60’s), was intended instead to be an artistic showpiece for Beatles-era social and political comment. It’s not even intended to be a particularly accurate one - like an impressionist’s rendition of a decade, imparting ideas but blurring many of the details. The narrative, though not the main focus of the film, is not particularly hard to follow. It’s also not that important.
  4. “It’s contrived. It seems fake, unrealistic!” (See #2 & #3 above) The film is intended to provide an impression of a decade as seen though the (sometimes psychedelic) lens of Beatles songs. All of the characters have names from the songs. There’s the main character, Jude; his best friend, Max, who looks honest enough but, who knows, he could have killed someone with a silver hammer; Max’s sister, and Jude’s love interest, Lucy; they rent a room from Sadie (and yes, she is indeed sexy) who is a Janis Joplin-like singer; a black Hendrix-esque guitarist named Jo-Jo; Prudence who likes girls but is afraid to admit it (although it’s painfully obvious to everyone around her) until she meets lovely Rita (who might be a meter maid - the film doesn’t get into that); and a host of others. There are lots of song references and many of these are tied into cultural references of that era. Like art, this is the paint used to make the picture. The film’s palette is made up of songs and images rather than plot elements.
  5. “Why should I watch a bunch of actors sing Beatles songs? I’d rather just see The Beatles sing their own songs!” ………….yes. Good luck with that.
  6. “The Beatles are turning in their graves ……..the dead ones, that is.” Actually, the remaining members (plus Yoko) viewed a screening of the film before its release and gave their approval.
  7. “It’s no better than that awful movie, “Sgt. Peper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band - you know, the Peter Frampton / BeeGees thingy from the 70’s.” Dude ……are you kidding me? Go back and watch that again ……..if you dare ……….and make that statement again ………if you dare!
  8. “No plot.” People really harp on that “no plot” thing. It does have a plot: Jude, a British lad from Liverpool, comes to the states to search for his dad. He meets and befriends Max, and then his sister, Lucy, and falls in love. They go to the city and rent a room from Sadie, and meet Prudence (who comes in through the bathroom window) and Jo-Jo, the guitar player. Jo-Jo and Sadie hook up and form a band, Max gets drafted and goes to Nam, they ride on the Magic Bus and drink electric Kool-aid. The whole thing culminates with a rooftop public concert (just like The Beatles). Not a lot of plot, I agree - not as much plot as, for example, Family Plot, or The Plot Against Harry, or Plot 9 From Outer Space - but the plot is not as important here as being entertained.
  9. DNA: An NOH attaches to one side of an amino acid about two-thirds the way down the 11th chromosome. As a consequence, the images and sound from ACROSS THE UNIVERSE are directed to the right hemisphere of the brain where it stimulates the artistic centers, releasing copious amounts of dopamine, causing you to smile and tap your toes and say - everything is right with the world, and - what a great movie this is! However - if the NOH strand attaches to the opposite side (about a 50-50 chance) of the amino acid about two-thirds down the length of the 11th chromosome, the information stream is directed instead to the left hemisphere of the brain where the logic centers look at it and say - what the %^$# is this &*%!? - this is a load of rubbish! - where’s my baked potato?
  10. What side of the DNA is your NOH on? I don’t know if there’s a way to predict it. I’m not sure what the outward signs would be - but I’m prepared to conduct a scientific survey. Answering the following questions will give me a means to probe into your psyche at the NOH level: 1. Home fries or hash browns? 2. Do you take butter or sour cream with your baked potato? 3. Do you prefer baked Russets or Yukon golds? 4. Do you ever get the urge to pop a Mr. Potato-head into the microwave? 5. Eat the skin - or not? …………….if you answered “fruit bat” to any of these questions, you ………..well, you may not have understood the questions……

Julie Taymor directs. Before directing movies, she was an art director and choreographer, having spent a lot of time on Broadway. Her films have a unique visual quality from Frida to the film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus (a FranksFilms recommendation).

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE has a number of cameo appearances such as Joe Cocker, Bono, Eddie Izzard, Selma Hyjak (as the Bang-Bang-Shoot-Shoot nurse - all five of them in fact), and others.

Enjoy ACROSS THE UNIVERSE with a baked potato

………..or popcorn is good too.

view trailer