All posts by Sheldon Wiebe

Freedom Writers – Not Just Another Teacher-Makes-A-Difference Movie!

Freedom WritersHow many movies are there about square peg teachers who make a difference with round hole students? Whether it's Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds, or To Sir, With Love, the cinematic story of the oddball teacher who reaches the misfit students is – even when true – a pretty formulaic exercise. Freedom Writers is different – not so much in terms of the formula [life is life, after all], but in the methodology…

Erin Gruwell [Hilary Swank] was an idealistic young, rookie teacher when she chose to be assigned to an inner-city school that had gone from an academic example to a school that suffered an almost fifty percent dropout rate. Her students took bets on how long she'd last; they congregated in racially separate groups; they openly mocked her.

 

When she intercepted a caricature of one of her black students, emphasizing his large lips, she exploded – comparing the drawing to propaganda drawings of Jews that were a harbinger of The Holocaust. Then she was shocked to discover her students had no idea what The Holocaust was!

In a burst of inspiration, she came up with a game to coax her students into revealing more of themselves to her – and giving her a way to reach them. The Line Game was pretty simple – as Gruwell asked questions, students would move to the line if they could answer in the affirmative. She began with innocuous questions like "who owns the new Snoop Dogg album?" Once the class was comfortable, she began to ask more and more difficult questions, moving into the realm of "who has lost a friend to gang violence?"

Once she saw the depths of desperation that existed among her students, she came up with an idea – to give them their own voices. Each was given a notebook and instructed to write in it – whatever they wanted – however they wanted to do it – as long as it was the truth about them. The students came to call themselves the Freedom Writers to honor the Freedom Riders who led the civil rights battle in the south in the sixties.

Freedom Writers - Ms Gruwell

To give her students figures to whom they could relate Gruwell followed up the notebooks with The Diary of Anne Frank, and others that dealt with people their own ages. Eventually, she had her entire class learning – their grades and reading scores skyrocketed.

Freedom Writers condenses Gruwell's first two years as a teacher into just over two hours, so it seems like she goes from inexperienced rookie to inspirational genius in no time, but despite the filmic timeframe, she did accomplish the things noted in the movie.

Like the film, I'm giving too much to Ms Gruwell. The more important part of the story is the lives of her students: girls who were expected to be pregnant and dropout by the age of fourteen; boys who would be overcome by gang culture and violence; everyone of them aware that they could be killed the next time they stepped outside…

While Swank gives her usual excellent performance [her perpetual smile masks worlds of insecurity and worry for her students], it is the young actors who portray the students who make the film work.

Singer/actor Mario portrays Andre, a young man whose older brother is about to be sentenced to a very long jail term; April Lee Hernandez is Eva, who has to decide between what's right and "protecting your own" – as well as being expected to get pregnant and dropout; Jaclyn Ngan's Cindy has spent time in a Cambodian refugee camp; Hunter Parrish's Ben, as the sole white kid in the class, is the ultimate pariah – and afraid of everyone else.

Freedom Writers - The Class

While we see Gruwell's problems at home – her husband [Patrick Dempsey] is proud of what she's accomplishing, but can't stay with her because, "I have no more potential!" – they exist, in terms of the film, to show that, while everyone has problems, not everyone has to worry about life and death on a daily basis.

Richard LaGravanese has done an amazing job of adapting the film from The Freedom Writers' Diary without making Gruwell just another saint among the sinners – or her students just a bunch of stereotypical punks in whatever

Happily N’Ever After – To Clever By Half?

Happily N'Ever After!The residents of Fairy Tale Land [Canada was taken, eh?] have a wee problem – Cinderella's wicked stepmother has stumbled onto the means to permanently upset the balance between Good and Evil in every fairy tale. You'd think that would make for a fresh twist on the subject, but you might well be wrong…

When the wizard responsible for the balance of Good and Evil in Fairy Tale Land [voiced by George Carlin] goes on vacation, he leaves the actual balance – and his powerful staff – in the hands of his incompetent, quarrelsome apprentices, Mambo [Andy Dick] and Munk [Wallace Shawn]. This, it turns out, is a Bad Idea. No sooner has the wizard departed, than the idiots start messing with the order of things.

Meanwhile, Frieda [Sigourney Weaver] and her two ugly daughters prepare for The Ball – leaving poor Cinderella [Sarah Michele Gellar] with a workload big enough to kill a troll. Naturally, Ella's fairy godmother intervenes and she is able to make it to The Ball. Unfortunately, just as she's dazzling the incredibly dim Prince Charming [Patrick Warburton, who is never not funny], Frieda discovers the manner in which the order of things is maintained – and manages to steal the wizard's staff.

It would probably be an understatement to say all heck breaks loose: the Big Bad Wolf eats Grandma and Little Red Riding Hood; Rumplestiltskin gets the baby, and when the prince kisses Sleeping Beauty, he falls asleep…]. Before you know it, the bad guys are in charge.

Happily N'Ever After - Sleeping Beauty

Which brings us to our narrator, Rick [Freddie Prinze Jr.], who works in the kitchen [translation: dishwasher]. Rick has a crush on Ella, who's so besotted with the idea of marrying Prince Charming that she's completely unable to see that he's dimmer than a two-watt bulb.

Of course, when the bad guys take over, they deign to chat with Rick – even inviting him to drink with them – so Rick is lulled into thinking they can't be so bad…

Happily N'Ever After desperately wants to be hip, cool and a whirlwind of wit. Unfortunately, most of the gags do. The characters are frequently way too obvious; the pacing is herky-jerky; and there seems to be little actual imagination at play.

There are a few exceptions [the witches' air force resembles a cross between the Luftwaffe and Hell's Angels; Rumplestiltskin seems to be in over his head as a potential parent, and Patrick Warburton's by-the-book prince], but by and large, the movie is predictable and far too safe. Younger children may find the movie charming, but this is one CG movie that won't work for most adults. Shrek III and Ratatouille certainly won't be worrying about this one, come Oscar

From The Producers of Underworld – The Covenant; From The Man Behind Ghostbusters – My Super Ex-Girlfriend

The Covenant Box ArtNeither The Covenant not My Super Ex-Girlfriend were well received by critics – and neither did boffo box office. And yet… neither is nearly as bad as some would have you believe…

The Covenant Box Art

The Covenant

The Covenant is really a superhero movie. The main characters in the film – good, evil, or indifferent – are descendants of five families of witches who made a pact in old Salem. Their inherited powers are incredible and will grow even more so upon reaching their eighteenth birthdays. The weakness inherent in the power is that it is addictive – and overuse of it takes time off the wielder's life.

Sure, the powers wielded by Caleb [Stephen Strait of Sky High], Pogue [Pogue Parry of NBC's Friday Night Lights], Tyler [Chace Crawford], Reid [Toby Hemingway] and Chase [Sebastien Stan] might be generated by magic, but the five use them without incantations, or any other overt magical devices. The powers are a part of them.

The plot is pretty simple: Chase wants to acquire the powers of each of the other four. The movie follows his efforts and the efforts of the others to resist him. It's not exactly brain surgery, but there are some clever plot twists [including one that is a bit too much over the top – even for an over-the-top flick like this one]; the cast does a workmanlike job, and Renny Harlin manages to keep things moving rather well.

The film's flaws are that the plot is as simple as it is; the aforementioned over-the-top twist, and the fact that Harlin succumbs to one of the biggest errors in judgment prevailing in current horror/action movies – the tone is pretty much the same throughout [grey and depressing, without any brightness to create a real contrast]. Fortunately, this is not a film that's trying to be anything more than a bit of fun – and it succeeds to some degree on that level.

It's not brilliant – most of the time, it's not even good – but it is a bit of silly fun if you're in the mood for that. While I wouldn't have paid twelve dollars to see it in a theater, it is worth the price of a rental.

Features include a very detailed commentary from Harlin, and one featurette – Breaking The Silence: Exposing The Covenant.

The Covenant – Grade: C

Features – Grade: B-

Final Grade: C+

My Super Ex-Girlfriend Box Art

My Super Ex-Girlfriend

Matt Saunders [Luke Wilson] is an architect. It's been six months since his last girlfriend dumped him and he's, understandably, a bit gun shy. So when his best friend, Vaughn [Rainn Wilson], spots a quiet-librarian-on-the-outside/volcano-on-the-inside type, he persuades Matt to approach her. She shuts him down, but when her purse is snatched and he gets it back, she looks at him in a slightly different light.

At first, her eccentric manner seems goofily charming, but after the two become involved it becomes clear that Jenny Johnson/G-Girl [Uma Thurman] may be the first superheroine who should be living in Arkham Asylum! She's needy, jealous and manipulative – the trifecta. Finally, Matt has to break up with her to save his sanity – but that just puts him in mortal danger when Jenny suspects he's sleeping with his lovely colleague, Hannah [Anna Faris]

I'm still not sure that it was an inspired idea to combine a romantic comedy with superheroics, but the result is a lot of fun to watch, in the moment. There are plenty of intriguing flourishes – for one, the meteor that gave Jenny her powers didn't do anything for her clothing, so bullets may bounce off but not before they shred her outfit. Then there's the cool [and very eighties] ripple effect that follows G-Girl when she flies, and the preponderance of classic double-initial names [Jenny Johnson, Barry Bedlam, G-Girl] – a very superhero comics thing.

Then there's the matter of pacing – while My Super Ex moves like the romantic comedy it is, the super stuff tends to throw things off just a touch. Still, Ivan Reitman does manage to hold everything together well enough to allow the performances of the leads to pull it off. Again, it's not brilliant, but it is worth a look – and if, like me, you're a bit of a comics geek, you might even find it worth owning.

Unfortunately, for us film geeks, the only features are four deleted scenes and a music video [Molly McQueen's No Sleep 2nite] – an extended version of the infamous "shark scene" was not included on my screener. What a letdown!

My Super Ex-Girlfriend – Grade: B-

Features: D

Final Grade: C+

Factotum, Little Miss Sunshine, Brothers of the Head, The Architect

Factotum box ArtMatt Dillon gives one of his finest performances in Factotum; one the year's best films, Little Miss Sunshine, follows the misadventures of a dysfunctional family as they drive cross-country in VW Miocrobus to get the youngest child to the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant; one of the worst, The Architect, is the examination of an architect whose plans for a housing project degenerated into a ghetto, and the black woman who seeks his help in getting a new and better situation for its resident; Brothers of the Head is a mockumentary about a punk band fronted by conjoined twins that feels a lot like something by David Lynch…

Factotum Box Art

 

Factotum

This little indie flick adapts the Charles Bukowski novel about wannabe writer Henry Chinaski [Matt Dillon] whose drinking is matched only by his determination to write. As he wanders from job to job, and woman to woman, writing and drinking are his only constants. When he encounters Jan [Lili Taylor], he stays with her, on and on, more than any other woman, but even she can't assuage his need to drink – though she does seem to support his need to write. At times, Henry tries to get help from his parents, gets himself picked up by a woman named Laura [Marisa Tomei], and fills mailboxes with unsolicited manuscripts.

Chinaski is generally seen as a roman a clef for Bukowski, and Dillon does a very good job of keeping Henry clamped down and focused on his writing and drinking. He makes Henry's efforts at womanizing seem more the act of a drowning man reaching a life jacket than merely an effort to get laid. Henry is aware of his desperation but not willing to give into it.

Features are: a "Making of" documentary; a trailer for the excellent soundtrack, and the theatrical trailer.

Factotum – Grade: B

Features – Grade: D

Final Grade: C+

Little Miss Sunshine Box Art

Little Miss Sunshine

This film combines the road trip and comically dysfunctional family genres for a subtly crazed and hilarious cinematic experience that revolves around the efforts of the family members – none of whom seem to much like each other [though it's clear they do love each other] – to get youngest daughter, Olive [Abigail Breslin] to California to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant.

Father Richard [Greg Kinnear] is a motivational speaker who's trying to flog his book with little to no success; Sheryl [Toni Colette] is the mom who is continually frustrated that no one seems to want to get along; Frank [Steve Carell], Sheryl's suicidal brother is the foremost Proust scholar in America; Dwayne [Paul Dano], the older son, has vowed not to speak until he becomes an Air Force pilot, and Grandpa [Alan Arkin] is an irascible old coot who only really connects with his granddaughter.

Their adventures, as they cross the country in their rattletrap VW Microbus [they have to push it to get it started] are as odd and fractured as the family itself. If Hope and Crosby had had a road trip like this, they'd have wound up in a rubber room! Which is not to say that film isn't smart – it's almost unbelievably smart and crazy witty. Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris seem to be perfectly in sync with their cast – the film is so beautifully paced, and the humor is produced so elegantly that it seems like the easiest thing to do in the world.

Features include: commentary by Dayton and Faris, and deleted scenes [including four alternate endings with optional commentary by the directors].

Little Miss Sunshine – Grade: A+

Features – Grade: B+

Final Grade: B+

The Architect Box Art

The Architect

The Architect is the latest experiment in multiple platform release for a film – within days of its theatrical release, it appeared in video stores. Of course, it didn't exactly set the world on fire from either venue – it's not very good.

The fabulous cast [Anthony LaPaglia, Isabella Rossellini, Viola Davis, Hayden Panetierre] is wasted in this adaptation of a stage play that deals with the efforts of an activist [Davis] who is trying to get a project he designed – that is now a slum – razed and replaced with a better designed series of building. She figures that, if she can get the signature of the aging project's architect [LaPaglia] on her petition, she'll have a better chance of getting what she wants. As she tries to get his help, the architect's family [Rossellini and Panetierre] is not-so-quietly falling apart – and he hasn't a clue as to why.

Essentially, the basic problem with The Architect is that it's so concerned with its message that its character development suffers – well, that and the fact that it's pacing is positively glacial. Then there's the manner in which it comes across – it feels like a filmed play more than movie – and that's despite it utilizing a few carefully selected locations, as well as sets. The amazing thing is that, despite the inadequacies of the script, the pacing and the static feel of thing, the cast gives extremely good performances. Unfortunately, that's just not enough to save the film.

Features include: a commentary by director Matt Tauber; deleted scenes with optional commentary, and the Higher Definition: The Architect episode.

The Architect – Grade: D

Features: B+

Final Grade: C

Brothers of the Head Box Art

Brothers of the Head

One of the most unlikely films of 2006 is Brothers of the Head – a mockumentary about the brief, fiery history of a punk band led by conjoined twins [joined at the liver]. Tom and Barry Howe [Harry and Luke Treadaway] are signed by a low-rent agent and set up in a house, with tutors, to become a band. The agent sees them a freakshow version of something like The Monkees, but they turn out to not only be talented, but of a particularly angry bent. Thus, when they find themselves being jeered during their first gig, they explode – screaming their lyrics and shredding their instruments, prompting a far better reaction.

As stories of this sort tent to go in real life, the tale of the Howe twins is short and blazing. They become a band, put together an album [which doesn't come out until after everything has gone to hell in the proverbial handbasket], have a few gigs and develop a lot of buzz – and then they're gone!

There are images – whole sequences, in fact – that feel like something David Lynch would do if he were to make a mockumentary about a fictional punk band composed of conjoined twins. That atmosphere is particularly evident during the band's first gig, when the brothers reveal their rather unusual connection – but several scenes in the band's house also have that peculiar texture.

Overall, Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe have done a terrific job of taking a truly odd script and bringing it to life. Clearly, they have a feel for the music, and the kind of people who might've created it. Tony Grisoni's script deals with all the usual trappings of such lives: putting the band together, rehearsals, recording, gigging, groups, the press and so forth. The unusual thing about it is that he manages to keep his characters completely relatable.

Of course, the whole thing would fall apart if the lead roles weren't perfectly cast. Harry and Luke Treadaway are twins [though not conjoined], but they can act and sing. There was the matter of learning to fake playing a guitar – but the music, composed by Clive Langer, is extremely good and adds a level of verisimilitude that makes Brothers of the Head a rewarding experience on every level.

The only feature is a collection of about a dozen deleted scenes.

Brothers of the Head – Grade: A

Features: C

Final Grade: B+

The 10 Most Interesting Films of 2006

Rocky BalboaEveryone and his dog has a list of "The Best Films of [Whatever Year]." Sometimes, though, as good as a film can be, it's just not interesting. So, this year, I've put together a list of ten films that held my interest even after I'd left the theater. They are, in alphabetical order…

Casino Royale

The danielcraigisnotbond website got a lot more attention in the news than it deserved – and Daniel Craig's Bond turned out to be one of the best [tied, in my book, with Sir Sean]. Casino Royale was a feast for action lovers and introduced a rookie Bond who was figuring it out as he went along. The script was smart; Craig was magnificent; the Bond girls were [gasp!] actual characters [played by actual actors]; the action was amazing, and the overall result was one of the best films of the year – in any genre.

Charlotte's Web

The classic children's book works because it unflinchingly deals with life and death, and doesn't shy away from the hard questions – or the value of love and sacrifice. This film adaptation is as straightforward and courageous as the book. The use of live actors and animals [helped slightly by CG], along with a tone that perfectly emulates that of the book, and some dazzling performances, makes this an instant classic.

The Departed

Scorsese's best film in a decade. A remake of an Asian film [Infernal Affairs], The Departed is a twisted crime thriller wherein the cops and the mob each have a highly placed informant in the other camp. The plot is labyrinthine, the cast [Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Leonard DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Vera Farmiga] is uniformly at the top of their respective games; the direction is as close to perfect as one can get. The Departed rocks from start to finish.

D

TV 2006 – The Cream of the Crop

HeroesTop tens are always so objective – they're colored by one's liking or disliking of specific genres; whether there's substance to the choices; even whether there's diversity. For the season of 2005/6, these are the shows that kept me coming back for more…

…in alphabetical order:

24

This year's "day" was the best since the show's debut season. Smart, twisted, adrenaline-pumping fun and crazy cool performances from Gregory Itzin and Jean smart helped to elevate the show – not that easy to do when the premiere killed two much-loved characters and almost killed another. Plus, the return of Commando chloe! What's not to love?

Battlestar Galactica

In this remarkably delicately balanced series, creator Ronald D. Moore and his creative team examine war, faith, ethics/morals, and more – and they do it within the constraints of a weekly one-hour drama. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer before it, BSG gets no respect from the masses because its title, but it works on every possible level – and to such an extent that one can only feel sorry for those whose memories of the over-the-top eighties' series prevent them from even checking it out.

Deadwood

David Milch's poetically vulgar, brutal western is filled with historical accuracy, informed whimsy, and a cast that amazes time and again. Any series that can give Ian MacShane and Robin Weigart the opportunity to do their stuff… that's worth watching! When that same series attracts actors like Molly Parker, Timothy Olyphant, Brad Dourif, and Alice Krige, you've definitely got something special.

Dexter

Based on the books by Jeff Lindsay, this series revolves around a serial killer who only targets other serial killers. Michael C. Hall [Six Feet Under] is amazing as the self-proclaimed monster who works as a blood spatter expert for the Miami police, while secretly finding and eliminating those of his ilk who had the misfortune of not having a very smart cop for an adoptive father. The series is smart, funny, weird, creepy and – most importantly – entertaining.

Grey's Anatomy

The most ethnically diverse cast on TV because they were the best actors for the roles. That's unique, in and of itself. The interweaving of medical emergencies and the complex relationships of a large group of fully realized characters makes this a series that contains boundless possibilities for both drama and humor – and switches back and forth [frequently in the space of a sentence]. Quite possibly the most purely entertaining hour on TV – and creator Shonda Rimes didn't even have to dumb it down for a common-denominator audience [don't you love shows that assume their audience is intelligent?].

 

Dexter at Work

 

Heroes

A number of random individuals around the world wake to discover that they have superpowers. Then we learn that there is someone killing them. This basic comic book superhero conceit is made appealing by the way the various characters react [some love being different; other just want to be normal – whatever that is], and a prophecy of nuclear destruction for New York City. By keeping the characters real, the show's writers make it possible to enjoy their increasingly unreal adventures.

Lost

Even with the lull that was the first six episodes of season three, Lost still more thought-provoking and enthralling than the vast majority of TV dramas. Now that we're learning more about The Others, it's beginning to look like some of the fan theories out there are, at least potentially, somewhat on target. Between developing its characters in unusual ways, turning the most unexpected things in to cliffhangers, and generally playing the viewers' minds as well as the characters', the show's creative team has created a unique world.

My Name Is Earl

This philosophical trailer trash sitcom assumes that there is an audience that is familiar with concepts like karma – and then plays directly to them. The redemption of Earl Hickey is funny not because he's a redneck, but because of his enthusiasm – every time he tries to make up for one of his bad deeds, he goes so over the top that one can't help but laugh. Jaime Pressly adds a kick as his ex-wife, Joy, and the friendship between Earl and Joy's current husband is refreshingly different.

Ugly Betty

This Americanization of a wildly popular telenovela is smart, funny, melodramatic and emotionally satisfying. Betty, of course, is the less-than-pretty assistant to the new editor for Mode Magazine – the bible of the fashion conscious. Despite the number of people determined to oust said editor – and the complexities of her personal life – Betty always moves forward. Played by the rather gorgeous America Ferrara, the dowdy Betty is this year's breakout character.

Veronica Mars

The contemporary Nancy Drew continued to be smart, funny and vulnerable while solving the mysteries of the school bus killer and the campus rapist. The series remains remarkable for having a father who is neither dim nor ignorant, and the shadings given to characters who initially seemed like complete jerks [Logan and Weevil] is refreshing.

Honorable Mentions

House

Sherlock Holmes in a hospital, this is a star vehicle for Hugh Laurie as the curmudgeonly Dr. Gregory House – who became a doctor mostly because they are seen as being right, but turns out to be quite the diagnostic genius. As the series progresses, and the supporting cast gets more to do, the show is rounding into an excellent drama – but even when Laurie's House was the main [or rather, only real] attraction, it stood well above the crowd.

My Boys

I would have thought that I'd tire of a sitcom where the female sportswriter seems unable to express herself without using baseball analogies – but such turns out to not be the case. This series about a woman who is "one of the boys" [plays poker, eats junk food, watches the game, etc.], but still has a feminine side [even if she's not always sure of how to access it], turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of the year.

We Are Marshall Doesn’t Quite Score!

We Are Marshall PosterWhen a film has its heart so firmly in the right place, it's a shame to have to say that it's not wonderful. Unfortunately, despite all the best intentions, We Are Marshall is a clunky, overbearing film that seems to wallow in its sadness…

The tragedy that struck Marshall University and the town of Huntington, West Virginia is one of the worst sports-related tragedies ever. The school's entire football squad, all but one of its coaches, and a number parents and boosters died in a plane crash minutes before they were to land at home. The date was November 14, 1973, and the result was not merely a gutted sports program, but an entire town laid emotional waste.

Despite efforts by the school's board of directors to scrap the football program, the student body refused to let it happen, but the school's program took two decades to reach its former level of glory. We Are Marshall looks at the time between the crash and the second game of the following season.

The opening minutes of We Are Marshall follow the team and coaches as they prepare to fly home after a big game. We get a feel for the team's camaraderie, and watch as one assistant coach takes over a recruiting trip so the scout can get home in time for his daughter's piano recital. In the chartered plane, we hear the pilot announce that they'll be landing soon, and to take your seats. Then, suddenly, the screen goes black.

It's a sobering prologue to the story of a town and school that are destined to fight through some of the hardest times imaginable. It's also the best part of the film.

We Are Marshall - Lengyel & Dawson

This is the film that Charlie's Angels director, McG, chose to establish himself as something more than just an action director. The opening scenes suggest that he can pull it off, too. Then things go awry.

To begin with, various of the scenes of the townspeople in shock – and grieving – tend to go on for enough beats too many that it gives one the sense that the film is wallowing in the town's grief. For another, the music – by the usually reliable Christophe Beck – doesn't so much support and enhance the film as demand the audience feel this way here, and that way there. Frankly, these two elements took me out of the story enough times that I found it difficult to buy into its positives.

The way the student body demands to keep the football program alive is one of the few genuinely touching moments in the film. Another comes when the father [Ian McShane] of the quarterback appeals to his late son's fianc

Potpourri: Jet Li’s Fearless – Unrated Edition; The Wicker Man – 2-DVD Collector’s Edition; American Pie Presents The Naked Mile


Jet Li's Fearless - Box ArtJet Li's last wushu movie, Fearless, is about the philosophy behind the martial arts – and yet it features some of his most interesting fight sequences; The Wicker Man has survived the indignity of a hideous remake, courtesy of a splendid two-disc collector's set, and American Pie Presents The Naked Mile takes baby steps back toward the heart of the original film…

 

Jet Li's Fearless Box Art

Jet Li's Fearless

Jet Li's Fearless is only the latest of dozens of Asian films based on the life of Huang Yuanjia who, in 1910 restored China's national esteem. In the film, Huang has grown to be a glory-seeking, hard partying martial arts champion who is so taken with his fame that he is easily manipulated by would-be student and disciples – to the point of near-bankruptcy.

When he kills a rival martial arts master over a perceived injustice, – and after the master's son has slain his wife and daughter – he learns that the "injustice" was a lie, and drinks himself into a stupor before fleeing to an outer province. There, he is taken in by a blind farm woman and comes to learn what is really important in life – and comes to understand his late parents.

During the same period of time, China has become subservient to a coalition of foreign powers, including the Americans, the Germans, and the Japanese. Since his return, Huang has become a champion, again, but this time, one who is humble and eschews the party life. He comes to the attention of representatives of these when he defeats an American called Hercules O'Brien, and they challenge him to a series of four matches, all on the same day. He faces a boxer, a lancer, a fencer and a Japanese martial artist.

Huang's story is used as a vehicle to expound [without a trace of preachiness] Li's philosophy – the philosophy behind his martial arts skills: the more accomplished a fighter one becomes, the more he should become a peacemaker. That may be a bit of a simplification, but it is at the heart of Li's beliefs and makes the film something more than just another wushu movie.

Li shows that he's developed as an actor and his supporting cast is mostly excellent. Ronny Wu's direction is as crisp as it needs to be, and Yuen Wo Ping's choreography is extremely good. The only real problem is that Fearless covers ground that has been told many times, already. It's Li's passion that keeps the film from becoming maudlin, or too-over-the top – Li's passion that makes it worth watching more than once.

Features include: an extensive deleted scene, A Fearless Journey – a featurette in which Li, Wu and Yuen are interviewed about the film, and The Original Theatrical Release.

Jet Li's Fearless – Unrated – Grade: B

Features – Grade: C

Final Grade: B-

The Wicker Man 2-disc Set box art

The Wicker Man – 2 Disc Set Collector's Edition

The original 1973 release of The Wicker Man became a cult phenomenon – even though it had been hacked to ribbons by its studio. The release with which we are familiar [88 min.] was still powerful enough – and intriguing enough – to get overwhelmingly positive reviews, but the original, 102 min. release hadn't been seen since then. Thanks to the discovery of a print in America, it was possible to put together a 98 min. version that captures the feel of the original release to a great extent.

The film is about a Christian police sergeant [Edward Woodward] who is called to a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a local girl. The locals insistence they've never heard of the girl – causing Sergeant Howie to begin an investigation that soon leads him to believe that the girl has been sacrificed to pagan gods to gain their favor for the year's harvest.

The cast featured a number of odd characters, and led by Christopher Lee [Lord Summerside] and Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento and Ingrid Pitt, given quietly intense performances that draw us into the web that comes to surround Howie. The script [by Anthony Schaffer] is smart, sly and an example of how to create horror though the examination of human foibles.

Robin Hardy's direction is best described as deliberate – there were music videos to influence his style, so he slowly builds a creepiness that begins to insinuate itself into the subconscious of the viewer. The result is a film that Cinefantasique called "The Citizen Kane of horror films." The Wicker Man remains as creepily effective today, as ever.

Features include: the 1973 release; an outstanding audio commentary [by Hardy, Lee and Woodward, and moderator Mark Kermode] for the restored version; The Wicker Man Enigma – interviews with Woodward, Lee, Pitt, Hardy, producer Peter Snell, writer Anthony Schaffer, and other members of the crew; the theatrical trailer; a TV spot; radio spots, and Talent bios.

The Wicker Man [88 min.] – Grade: B-

The Wicker Man [98 min.] – Grade: A

Features: A

Final Grade: B+

The Naked Mile Box Art

American Pie Presents The Naked Mile

The latest effort to cash in on the American Pie brand turns out to have a good deal more heart than the previous release in the series [Band Camp]. The story revolves around Eric [John White], the black sheep of the Stifler family – who is a high school senior and a virgin. The film opens with an homage to the original American Pie – with a tragic twist…

When he and his girlfriend, Tracy [Jessy Schram] are interrupted as they finally decide to go for it, Eric is humiliated again. In a moment of generosity, Tracy gives him a weekend guilt-free free pass – to do whatever he wants – while he and two friends visit his cousin Dwight [Steve Talley] at college. Of course, one of the college's traditions is "The Naked Mile" – hordes of students run a mile in the nude to blow off steam after exams. The run is followed by a blowout party.

Naturally, The Naked Mile is full of gross-out gags [like the opening], but there is finally a core of sweetness – that actually feels real – on which to hang the gags. The film is still nowhere near as good as the theatrical trilogy, though it has a number of great moments – some involving Mr. Levenstein, better known as Jim's Dad [Eugene Levy]; others involving an evil fraternity of little people, and one involving a heart-to-heart talk between Eric and Dwight.

Perhaps the most interesting moments come in the commentary, when writer Erik Lindsay points out that most of the events in the film were actually happened to him and his friends in college. Another interesting thing is that a movie that features hundreds of college kids running naked across campus actually panders less than its predecessor [which is not the same as saying it doesn't pander, but… it's a real distinction].

Frankly, I was amazed at how many times I laughed out loud. American Pie Presents The Naked Mile is no animal House, nor is it even another American Pie, but it is more than marginally entertaining. Enough so that I have to give it a marginal recommendation.

Features: the aforementioned commentary [by director Joe Nussbaum, White, Talley, Lindsay, Ross Thomas and Jake Siegel]; Yoga Guide For Getting Girls [tips from Ms Schram for guys contemplating the yoga mat as a place to find women]; The Bare Essentials [preparing to run The Naked Mile]; Little People, Big Stunts [behind the football sequences]; Outtakes [nothing as funny as what's in the movie]; Deleted and Extended Scenes, and Life on The Naked Mile [behind the scenes featurette].

American Pie Presents The Naked Mile – Grade: C+

Features – Grade: B

Final Grade: B-