MORIARTY's RUMBLINGS Re: SHREK; SPY KIDS; McCOOL'S; CHEATERS; Spoilers In Trailers; Valenti & More!!
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
What day is it?! Where am I?! Who the Hell took my pants?!
When you're immersed in a major project, the way Harry Lime and I are right now, you tend to lose all sense of what's going on outside your particular corner of the world. I do, anyway. I get a sort of tunnel vision, and unless I am forcibly dragged out of the Labs, kicking and screaming, I find it incredibly easy to become a hermit during these periods of creative possession.
Thankfully, I've been lured topside at least four times in the past week. As a result, this week’s RUMBLINGS is chock-full of geeky goodness for you. It's a cornucopia... a plethora of material. Spilling over, as it were. I’m trying to make up for all my time sequestered, so let’s get right to it!
SHREK IS DREAMWORKS' LATEST HERO!!
If you want to blame anyone in town for my fascination with the test screening process, blame Jeffrey Katzenberg. When I first moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 1990, I managed a theater in Sherman Oaks where Disney did most of their test screenings. It seemed like once a week I'd see Katzenberg and Eisner show up for the start of the movie, then huddle in the lobby during the film, checking in on key moments, sitting in with the focus group. Eisner skipped a lot of lesser Touchstone and Hollywood efforts, but not Katzenberg. He was hands-on, involved no matter what size the production was. I was impressed by just how much of the responsibility for those films Katzenberg seemed willing to shoulder. That's not even taking into account the many stories I've heard from Disney animators about how Katzenberg took part in the process of making films like BEAUTY & THE BEAST and THE LION KING and THE LITTLE MERMAID and ALADDIN.
It didn't surprise me that Dreamworks set up an animation unit to try and challenge Disney when it started. It only would have surprised me if Katzenberg had ever left animation behind. It's been the thing he's professed the most personal pride in over the years. He was part of the team that actually got an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. It’s something he’s passionate about, something he feels he’s particularly good at. Whenever Dreamworks releases a major theatrical animated feature, I’m going to pay attention. THE PRINCE OF EGYPT. ANTZ. CHICKEN RUN. These are good films. These are films that rival the quality of any animated features being done anywhere right now. Each of them is totally different in style, in execution. Heck, even a failed effort like THE ROAD TO EL DORADO is visually extravagant, produced with real care and craft. Now we can add SHREK to the list of successful animated experiments for this company, another step forward for Katzenberg and the talented team of people who have hung with this film over almost six years of development. It’s a crowd-pleasing comedy with a big heart, a visual marvel, one of those films you’ll find yourself staring at, dumbfounded by some detail of the incredible fantasy world that’s been created for this knowing parody of fairy-tale conventions that belongs right next to William Goldman’s classic THE PRINCESS BRIDE in any collection.
When I went to see the film last Thursday at the Writer’s Guild theater, the evening started with Katzenberg making a presentation before the film, a sort of history of certain milestones in recent animation. I thought it showed real respect to open the presentation with a slide of Walt Disney and a quote from him talking about how technology is a necessary part of animation, and how the art form only stays vital as long as new technology is embraced. The presentation traced the period of time from THE LITLE MERMAID to THE LION KING at Disney, a run of hits that rivals anyone’s record ever. Katzenberg spoke of how the process was essentially unchanged at Disney for the first 25 features they made. Despite the introduction and refinements of multi-plane photography, the basic process of drawing and painting a film by hand stayed the same. Then, starting with THE LITTLE MERMAID, Disney pushed the envelope with their CAPS system, a computerized ink and paint package. On that first film, Ariel was originally designed with 11 colors in her palette. In order to save over $750,000, they scaled the design back to only seven colors.
Today, there’s thousands of colors available in even the most basic animation package, and costs don’t really change no matter how many you use. Getting to that point was a process of moving from milestone to milestone, from the breakthroughs of BEAUTY & THE BEAST where an entire film was finally inked and painted in a computer and where the iconic ballroom sequence made use of a swooping camera move that would have been unthinkable in conventional animation to the first 2D/3D mix in a single sequence in the wildebeest stampede sequence of THE LION KING. In 1995, TOY STORY broke ground as the first fully computer animated feature film ever released, and since that time, there have been two very different schools of animation in this country. There are those who are keeping the traditional appearance of the animated feature alive, like Dreamworks did with PRINCE OF EGYPT or EL DORADO, and there are those who are utilizing new technology to create sights we’ve never seen before, like this team. This is definitely a better feature than Disney’s DINOSAUR last year or even Dreamworks’ earlier ANTZ, and it’s on par with the work that Pixar is doing now. The subtle performance work in the faces of the main characters is what really makes this movie special. You believe in who you’re watching, and you forget that these are big-name actors. Instead, they simply become these incredibly stylized characters we’re watching, fascinating and fallible and wonderfully written. To fully appreciate just how good a job Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and the other writers who have toiled on this along the way have all done, compare Eddie Murphy’s performance in this film as the Donkey to his work in Disney’s MULAN. In both films, he plays a comic sidekick role. In this film, though, he’s also allowed to play many shades, and he manages to do genuinely mature, touching work at times. There’s something very special about the interplay between him and Mike Myers as the title character, the ogre named Shrek. In many ways, Myers allows himself to be the straight man, giving Murphy many of the film’s biggest laughs. It’s generous work. In fact, that’s exactly how Katzenberg described it when he brought Mike up to speak before the film. Myers was funny and seemed to be genuinely pleased with the film. He spoke about how much he liked the moral lessons of the film, and I had a moment or two where I worried that what we were going to see would be heavy-handed, preachy, or in some way obvious about its message and its storytelling agenda.
Nope. SHREK has a feather touch. Right up front, the movie seems like it’s going to be a rapid-fire comedy, and it is indeed “AIRPLANE-funny,” as Hercules The Strong put it, for a while. The introduction of John Lithgow as Lord Farquaad is one of the great bits of film absurdism I can remember. The jokes some so fast that even the misfires don’t matter. They’re gone and there’s five other home runs to take their place before you can even process what you heard. When an unabashed emotional core finally reveals itself in the film’s second half, it doesn’t feel grafted on. We don’t have to cheat our way to it. Instead, it’s earned by these characters. The film is about how people are never just what they appear to be, and that forces the script to paint each of our leads with genuine depth. When I first heard Mike Myers speak in voice-over, I was afraid he was just going to play Shrek as another variation on his trademarked SCOTTISH VOICE. Instead, he vanishes into this expressive green face, and Shrek becomes a living, breathing marvel. He’s got such expressive eyes, such a subtle range of emotional reactions, that it’s hard to believe we’re not looking at an elaborate makeup. With Princess Fiona, the Cameron Diaz character, it goes further than that. She’s a human character, and there are things she does that simply don’t look like animation. They don’t have the forced naturalism of rotoscoping or motion capture, either. Instead, by using the slightest bit of exaggeration, the animation team has given an inner life to Fiona. We can see what she’s thinking, read her face as we would another person’s. It’s wonderful stuff. And all of that visual pizzazz wouldn’t matter if it weren’t for the actual interplay between the characters, if we didn’t care about them by the film’s end.
Basically, Shrek is an ogre who likes living alone. He’s convinced himself that no one will ever be able to see past his horrible exterior to appreciate who he is inside. As a result, he chases off anyone who approaches his swamp, using terror to build a wall against the outside world. When Lord Farquaad orders all the fairy-tale creatures in the realm to be rounded up and dumped in Shrek’s swamp, the ogre has no choice but to go see Farquaad. He takes a talking donkey who knows the way to the castle with him, and a very funny friendship begins to develop between the two of them on the way there.
During this whole first stretch of the movie, the Disney jokes are flying fast and furious, and anyone who grew up on Disney movies or going to Disney parks will find themselves gasping for laughter in several places. Once Farquaad talks Shrek into going on a quest to find and rescue Princess Fiona, though, the film’s sense of humor starts to turn more towards the characters themselves, leaving behind the satirical edge for something a little more mature. Robin Hood and his Merry Men show up for a very funny sequence later on, but even that leads to Fiona revealing something that surprises Shrek.
The film has had a lot of hands on it over the years, from the early days when Chris Farley was involved as the voice of Shrek and they were considering either an all motion-capture film or a mix of live-action and CG to the most recent incarnation of the story, and it’s Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson who get the credit for finally pulling it all together. Elliott and Rossio’s screenplay continues to prove their sure hand for writing smart commercial pictures that you can feel good about enjoying, guilt-free high concept. The score for the film is wonderful, and it’s no surprise. After ANTZ and CHICKEN RUN, I would expect nothing less from the team of Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell. They deliver another fresh and memorable piece of work here.
The next Farrelly Bros. film, SHALLOW HAL, deals with many of the same ideas as SHREK, albeit in a very different manner, and it’s something that merits real discussion in today’s culture where we turn supermodels into role models. In particular, there’s a lovely twist at the end of the film involving Fiona that says volumes about beauty and what it is that we are attracted to in people. The subplot involving the Donkey says the same thing in another way, and it’s great that these images are going to be seen over and over by kids this summer. We’re at a point in our national dialogue where reminding people of the basic tenets of tolerance is an important thing, but no one wants to be preached at. A film like this is a secret weapon in engaging that dialogue. Watching this film is like telling someone you’re just going to have a pillowfight, then hiding a brick inside: you expect something light and fluffy, and you end up getting clobbered. SHREK is indeed the laughfest I’d heard it was, but thankfully, it’s much more than that, too.
SPY KIDS IS GIANT FREAKIN' FUN!!
Not only is SPY KIDS one of the best examples of what kind of FX are possible on a lower budget right now, and not only is it the best live-action kid’s film since BABE: PIG IN THE CITY, but it’s also the first time Robert Rodriguez has ever made a film that works from end to end, every scene delivering the goods, every gag paying off. It’s the Robert Rodriguez film I’ve always wanted to be able to fall in love with, and it’s such a delight that I found myself laughing out loud at the sheer audacity of what he’s accomplished here.
I’ve always liked bits and pieces of Robert Rodriguez movies, and it’s been frustrating for me. It’s obvious that he’s a guy with a great visual imagination, and he has a deft touch as an editor. When you see some of the great action sequences from DESPERADO or the taut, tense first half of FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, it’s obvious this is a guy who knows how to put it together. But then you’re confronted with the cocktease that is the ending of DESPERADO or the bad WWF-in-makeup second half of DUSK or the muddled THING tributes that make up much of THE FACULTY. For my money, the best thing he’s touched before this new film was his segment of FOUR ROOMS, which, not coincidentally, is where the idea for SPY KIDS originated. “I always wanted to do a big family action adventure movie,” Rodriguez said, “and then the idea came to me when I was making FOUR ROOMS with Antonio Banderas. In that film, he plays the father of two children and the kids wear tuxes. I remember looking at those kids and thinking: wow, they look like little James Bonds. Now that would be a great angle for a family movie.”
What’s resulted from that simple first idea is pretty much pure imagination, a film that unfolds with the logic of a bedtime story, and with the same breathless energy. In fact, the film opens with Ingrid Cortez (the adorable Carla Gugino) telling her children Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara) the story of “The Spies Who Fell In Love” as they get ready to go to sleep. This opening sequence is as good as anything Rodriguez has done so far in his career, a superb little mini-movie that primes the audience for what’s to come. He’s done that before, though, made great individual sequences, so I found myself almost waiting for him to suddenly make the misstep that would send the film veering off-target.
Never happens, though. Instead, the movie works overtime to please, and the supporting cast of characters provides a great, eccentric sense of life to the film, especially Alan Cummings and Tony Shaloub as Fegan Floop and Mr. Minion, the bad guys of the piece. Both of them do very good work here, their character dynamics subtly shifting over the course of the film. Danny Trejo and Cheech Marin both do solid work in smaller roles, and I certainly hope that if SPY KIDS 2: ISLAND OF LOST DREAMS happens, both of these actors are called back to play more important roles in the proceedings. Same with the star who shows up as Devlin, head of the OSS, in the film’s final moments and funniest cameo.
There’s so many things that Rodriguez gets right about this film that it’s hard to know where to start. The gadgetry in the film is genuinely inventive, and as soon as the Buddy Pack is introduced, I started smiling. The sequence that follows lives up to the promise of such a great toy, and so do all the sequences that follows. Rodriguez made a specific aesthetic choice here that I think pays off spectacularly: there are no guns in the film. Instead, he stages genuinely exciting action scenes that don’t rely on bullets for their tension and sense of peril, and it’s exciting to watch how hard he works to keep it all logical within the world he’s created. There’s a big action sequence that takes place on a playground, another brilliant move. It’s the world that kids know. They’ll identify with Carmen and Juni. It’ll be easy for them to imagine being Carmen and Juni. There’s a real and funny rapport between the two young actors that makes it easy to accept them as siblings. Daryl Sabara has a natural gift for comic timing, and Alexa Vega is already a gifted lead actress. They both find a wealth of subtle notes to play in the material as written, and by the end of the film, I wasn’t just ready for a sequel... I wanted a TV series at the very least, a place where I could go to see these characters over and over. Banderas gives one of his very best comic rogue performances, layering on the ham and cheese with the precision of a surgeon. I don’t think there’s ever been a matinee idol so willing to subvert his good looks in such a knowing way. He and Gugino generate a genuine spark between them, and they both balance their love of spying with their love of their kids with ease. It’s a lovely duet between them.
The design of the film has been criticized by some who have seen the trailers, saying it looks like something from Juenet and Caro. I disagree. This past summer, the Paterfamilias of the Moriarty clan went to Spain, and he brought me back a thick sheath of photos of La Sagrada Familia, one of the masterworks of one of my favorite architects, Antonio Gaudi. To me, the world of Floop looks like what would have happened if Dr. Seuss had tried to describe his particular vision of the world to Gaudi, and it’s lovely both to look at and play in. There’s all sorts of little touches, like the chair that Banderas and Gugino are tied to or the shape of a skylight or the design of the Guppy sub, that just sell this world, make it memorable and special.
This is due in large part to the wonderful collaborators Robert brought in on the film. Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro is one of my favorite guys out there right now. His work on DESPERADO and JACKIE BROWN is magnificent, reminiscent of some of the great work of the ‘70s. This film has a wonderful playful look that Navarro’s never used before, and it’s great to see what he’s come up with to compliment the work of production designer Cary White and costume designer Deborah Everton. They’ve guaranteed that every scene in the film has an energy, a sense of whimsy, that really sucks the viewer in. This is a fantasy world I want to believe in, and to me, that’s the ultimate goal of a fantasy film. This is escapism in its purest form. It’s unafraid to take strange left turns and show us a truly demented little Danny Elfman musical number and let Terri Hatcher run around with half her hair burned off and violate every rule of physics known to man. It’s unafraid because it’s so good-natured, so determined to entertain. There’s even a brief bit of product placement that doesn’t come off as crass, but instead as a legitimate gesture from brother to sister, the kind of thing a kid would do to say “I’m sorry.” This is the film that parents always complain about wanting to take their kids to see, just like THE IRON GIANT was, and these are the types of movies that frequently fail. They’re not part of the pre-sold machine. I hope Dimension is ready to push this film and continue to push it, ready to support it long enough to let word of mouth build on the film. Once kids see it and start talking to other kids, there’s a chance for this to be a monster hit, but it has to be given room to grow. If parents don’t support the film, then they forfeit all right to complain in the future.
THE YEAR OF MIKE GILBERT HAS BEGUN!!
Gotta say it: ONE NIGHT AT MCCOOL’S is a lame title. It even annoys me to type the title. We’ve been reporting on this film on this site for over two years now as it’s made its way through the development process, as it was casting, as it was shooting, then through the testing process. Earlier this year, we ran some photos from the film, and based on those pictures, the presence of Matt Dillon, and the description of the film as a story about a beautiful woman who plays three men off each other using sex as a bait looked like WILD THINGS 2, something many of you pointed out in Talk Back at the time.
As a result of all of this, I pretty much tuned the film out. It just didn’t look like something I was interested in. I had people tell me the script was great, that the film was testing well. Didn’t matter. Not interested. Even when we hosted the trailer, I didn’t take a look. Just not my thing. When a friend over at USA Films contacted me about coming to a screening, I debated trying to beg my way out of it. Still, I had been hearing some buzzing about the film, and a quick poll of ten friends that afternoon revealed that five had heard it was very good, two had heard it was crap, and three didn’t know what it was. I decided to take a chance on it, and so it was that Henchman Mongo and I headed over to Beverly Hills, top down, enjoying the current warm weather in LA. Wolfgang Puck just moved into the building where the USA Screening Room is, so there was some sort of reception going on in the lobby of the building when we arrived. Mongo mumbled something about the buffet table, but a quick shock from his radio-controlled electric collar convinced him to follow me into the screening room. It’s a good thing we took our seats early, too. The room filled up with what seemed to be a senior citizens group of some sort, being seated in waves. By the time the lights went down and Drew Barrymore and Tom Green slipped in, they had to sit in the front row.
Now that I’ve seen the film, I want to officially declare 2001 “The Year Of Mike Gilbert.”
Who’s that? Well, back in the fall of ’97 and the spring and summer of ’98, I was working at a closed-captioning company. One of the guys who worked there was named Mike Gilbert. Good guy, really into movies. He worked a different shift than I did, and we’d pass each other in the mornings like Ralph the Sheepdog and Wile E. Coyote in those great Warner Bros. cartoons. In those few moments, we’d chat about movies and, in particular, about Mike’s obsessions with Liv Tyler and Angelina Jolie. Well, the movie gods have answered his prayers finally. This year, he’s got MCCOOL’S to kick off his spring, TOMB RAIDER to make his summer, and THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING to seal the deal at Christmas. I have total faith in Peter Jackson, I love the TOMB RAIDER script, and having seen it, I think MCCOOL’s is, despite that title, wicked fun, a knowing riff on those great noir films where a femme fatale black widow manipulates her man or men into doing terrible things before she destroys them and moves on.
If you’d told me the premise for this film and told me that Liv Tyler was going to be the maneater in the film, I wouldn’t have believed it. I think she’s had her best success with smaller roles like in THAT THING YOU DO! or HEAVY. The few leads I’ve seen her in have left me unconvinced of her ability... until now. Maybe the credit belongs to Harald Zwart, the Norweigian commercial director who’s making his American feature debut with MCCOOL’S. He manages to give a wonderful candy coating to this silly sex farce, but he also finds grace notes to play that actually suggest something else going on under the surface. It’s those smaller moments that really make the film work. Without them, things would seem too broad, these characters too unlikeable. Zwart is crafty, milking the enjoyably wicked, occasionally goofy script by Stan Seidel for all it’s worth. Seidel unfortunately passed away last year, so he didn’t get to see the finished film, but it’s a good bet he would have been impressed by how well it all comes together, especially some nervy visual gags near the film’s conclusion involving Goodman, Reiser, and a wooden Indian. The film is very cleverly constructed, starting with Randy (Matt Dillon) meeting the seedy, hysterically coiffed Mr. Burmeister (Michael Douglas) at a bingo parlor, where Randy’s arranged to drop off the payment to have his girlfriend Jewel (Tyler) killed. Randy sits with Burmeister, playing bingo, and telling him how Jewel has ruined his life and exactly why she deserves to die.
At the same time, Detective Dehling (John Goodman) goes to see his brother, Father Jimmy (the always-great Richard Jenkins), to confess the details of his obsession with Jewel. We see many of the events we saw in Randy’s account unfold again, this time for Dehing’s point of view. It’s good work from Goodman, and it’s nice to ee. He does a lot of films, and when he’s not given something great to do, like he is when he works with the Coen Brothers, he can look like he’s going through the motions more than anyone in town. Here, he’s ready to play, and he nails both sides of Dehling. There’s his sweaty, desperate panic around Jewel, but there’s something almost virtuous in the way he views her, the way he keeps comparing her to his dead wife, who we finally see a photo of late in the film, a moment that somehow manages to be both poignant and one of the movie’s big laughs.
He looks especially virtuous when contrasted with the worldview of Randy’s degenerate lawyer cousin Carl, played at full-weasel by Paul Reiser, one of the great film weasels. His work in James Cameron’s ALIENS is defining, and I’ve never really believed him in his various “nice guy” roles like the long-running but mediocre MAD ABOUT YOU. Carl’s a filthy pig, driven literally fuck-crazy from the very first moment he meets Jewel. She uses his need for kink to control him, and we see the way his mania evolved as he describes it to his new therapist Dr. Green, played with a great sense of growing exasperation and incredulity by Reba McIntyre, who seems to be developing into a sharp comic performer.
Seidel’s script is great groundwork, but it’s Zwart’s deft visual work that really makes the film shine. When he pulls his RASHOMON and shows us he same moment from three different perspectives, he makes the most of the opportunity. He gives each guy’s point a view a different visual style, a signature, but it’s nothing as extreme as what Soderbergh did in TRAFFIC with all the different locales. Instead, it’s little things about each version of the story. Hemlines and bustlines on Liv Tyler’s costuming. The way she’s lit. Dehling sees Randy as a vicious thug, a scumbag who doesn’t deserve Jewel. Randy sees Carl as a drooling pervert who can barely keep from dryhumping Jewel in front of him. It’s quite telling that each of the guys sees himself as a hero and all of the other men in the film as undeserving of Jewel’s attention.
Make no mistake. This is a broad comedy first and foremost. In some ways, it reminded me of a more consciously audience-friendly NURSE BETTY, a farce that played for keeps last year. This time, there’s been a decision made to turn this into a live-action cartoon, a film that could really work if it finds a particular audience, an audience that is willing to buy into the film’s tone and sense of humor. There’s a lot of kicks along the way. Personally, I was hypnotized by Michael Douglas and his amazing toup. He looks exactly like his father in this movie, and it’s nice to see him take a small role like this and just have fun. Marc Shaiman’s score is great. The use of songs like Morcheeba’s “Love Is Rare” or “Sexy Body” by the Jungle Brothers or Ween’s “Take Me Away” or Johnny Cash’s “Wanted Man” really works in each case, and there seems to have been great care taken in selecting how the songs pay off what we’re watching, right down to the moment when the opening notes of the Village People’s “YMCA” literally got howls from the crowd. There’s a few things that wore on me in the movie. Eric Schaeffer turns in largely unpleasant work in his few minutes onscreen, and Andrew Silverstein, as he’s billed here, is distracting in his thankfully-small double role. I think most people will always think of him as Andrew Dice Clay, and whatever baggage they have isn’t going away just because he’s billed differently. Overall, though, these are minor things. After the long dry season of movies we’re just emerging from, a gem like MCCOOL’S deserves your attention and rewards it.
CHEATERS EARNS ITS GRADE!!
Well... I’ve certainly said my fair share about this film as it’s made its way through production. I read and reviewed the script at the start of last year, and I was the one who posted Gregor Samsa’s negative review when he and John Robie saw the film at an early test screening. My opinion of the script and their opinion of the film couldn’t have been more different, and when I spoke to Robie just the other day after finally seeing the film myself, he still professed to hate it.
I can’t imagine why. Seriously. It’s one of those experiences where I’m totally mystified as to why people would react so negatively to an imperfect but very interesting attempt at doing something very different in the teen genre. One of the things that I think is important to emphasize is this:
CHEATERS is not a comedy. At least, not in the AMERICAN PIE way where everything’s basically for laughs, and character detail is something you use to pad your way to the next joke.
More importantly, CHEATERS is not a film about cheating. At least, not in the sense that it glorifies the act. Not at all.
Handsome Davis. Andrew Gurland. There’s a thin line separating one from the other. Handsome is the main character in this semi-autobiographical story of four friends, their senior year, and the one common bond they share. Andrew, whose nickname is not-so-coincidentally “Handsome,” is the writer and director of this film, and whatever your reaction is to this very unusual little picture, it’s due to his unique take on drama, comedy, truth, fiction, and all the grey area in-between.
From the film’s opening moments, a celebratory luau where Handsome (Trevor Fehrman) and Victor (an unrecognizable Matthew Lawrence) dance around a flaming gradebook, pissing on it to put it out, it seems reasonable to assume that this is going to be just another raunchy teen sex comedy. I’m concerned that the first impulse would be to sell it that way, too, and it would be a mistake. It would only piss the audience off if they expect some wacky hijinks R-rated gross-out, only to get this somewhat somber little PG-13 look at the things that kids hold onto in order to make it through high school. Besides, Gurland first made a splash with the controversial FRAT HOUSE, a documentary he codirected with Todd Phillips, who went on to make last year’s hit ROAD TRIP. His short films like FUCK GRAMMAGLIA UP are rude and crass and deeply funny. Why shouldn’t we expect that he’s made a comedy for his first theatrical feature?
Because he’s up to something completely different, that’s why.
I think maybe it’s hard for someone like John Robie, who despite his extensive record as a cat burglar and his ownership of the biggest cathouse in Los Feliz is actually a very decent guy to understand what it’s like to carry around guilt over something very wrong. Especially when it didn’t seem wrong at the time. Me, on the other hand... I’m evil. I’ve been evil all my life. I was a particularly rowdy youth. Just a couple of weeks ago, I got a great e-mail from a childhood friend of mine, Chris, someone I haven’t talked to in over a decade. We e-mailed back and forth a few times, then traded phone numbers, and within a few hours, we were on the phone, talking, catching up. He started asking me questions about things that had happened back in the summer of 1986, and I got embarrassed. At the time, I was going through a particularly boisterous phase of my life, and I was raising some serious hell. For the past decade-plus, that’s the image of me that he’s walked around with in his head. It’s mortifying, and as soon as I realized it, I became very self-conscious. It’s hard to take an unflinching look at things you’ve done that maybe weren’t so great, and Gurland has done something unexpected here: he’s cast himself as the bad guy.
Sure, Handsome is the character at the center of the film, and the narrator of the film as well, but that’s all smoke and mirrors. Handsome’s not the good guy here. Instead, that role is filled by Sammy (Eldon Henson), his best friend since childhood. They meet in kindergarten, when both of them are teased for different things. Handsome is just recovering from the chicken pox, and everyone calls him “dot-face.” Sammy, a fat kid, throws a fit when his mother drops him off, and everyone dubs him a baby right away. Handsome reaches out and offers to be Sammy’s friend, and a bond between the two of them asserts itself right away. When people make fun of Sammy for being no good at spelling, Handsome figures out a system of cheating that allows Sammy to win a spelling bee. It’s an act of pure friendship, truly generous, and it’s easy to make the jump for the relative innocence and altruism of that gesture to the senior year of high school for the friends, now joined by Victor and Applebee (Martin Starr), the kid who writes crazy small, a must for anyone making great crib sheets. The four of them have gotten so good at cheating that they have stopped even pretending to pay attention in their classes. This is what seems to piss off some viewers, the idea that these characters are cheating and getting away with it.
But that’s the same kind of shortsightedness that led some viewers to think FIGHT CLUB was a pro-violence movie. CHEATERS shows us how well these four friends have settled into the details of cheating, how much they enjoy being able to curry favor with almost anyone in the school by helping them out on a particular test or assignment. We also see the resentment brewing in some of the other students who watch Handsome and his gang coast along. One of them, Julie (Maggie Lawson), is a fairly cute girl who starts to develop an interest in Sammy. She’s the one who wakes him up to the idea that what he and his friends are doing is wrong, and they’re hurting their own eventual chances in college, or of even getting into college. Sammy’s a good kid, and the best material in the film is when we see him work to balance the various things he wants. He wants to keep his closest friend, the one person who took a chance on that fat kid in the kindergarten class. He wants to do well enough at school to get into a real college. He wants to make his own choices. His struggle to turn these simple wants from wishes to fact is what I responded to most in CHEATERS, and I’m thrilled they used Eldon Henson, one of the best young actors working. He was so great in THE MIGHTY, a film that no one saw, that it’s almost a shame. It’s one of those early roles that it hard to live up to. He continues to prove himself as an enormously likeable performer here, as does Martin Starr, one of the alumni of NBC’s gone-but-not-forgotten FREAKS & GEEKS. He was also featured on this week’s episode of ED as a kid who is tormented by his gym coach. In some ways, Starr is like the male version of Heather Matarazzo, the one and only Dawn Weiner. Starr specializes in playing troubled kids, kids who feel like they don’t quite fit, and it’s nice to see that even within such a narrow niche, he’s been able to find different notes to play each time, things that make each of the characters different. I like “Napplebee,” as Victor insists on calling him, and I think he lends valuable support to the film.
This film isn’t perfect. Far from it. I think there’s an early scene involving breaking into the ceiling of the school that just doesn’t work. More importantly, there’s the film’s ending, which is shockingly abrupt. It’s frustrating because the film is just starting to make its ultimate points, and suddenly it’s over and done with. Gurland leaves us only half-satisfied.
That can be fixed, though. It’s not difficult. A little judicious editing and the right voice-over can impart the things we need to hear from Handsome in those final moments. Besides, grousing about the ending keeps me from giving praise to Mary Tyler Moore as Mrs. Stark or Dixon Cohee and Lachlan Murdoch as Greedy and Horny. It prevents me from pointing out how Trevor Fehrman does such a good job of playing that kid with the smug smile who seems to know everything and have it oh-so-easy, only to reveal in the most subtle of ways that he’s masking a very basic fear of losing his friends, a fear of embracing oncoming adulthood. Right now, New Line’s looking at a September release for this film, right after kids go back to school, and that’s the perfect time for it. For anyone who is interested in a small, personal film that just happens to be set in high school rather than anything that would conventionally be called a “teen film,” then keep your eye out for CHEATERS when it hits screens later this year.
ROSEBUD WAS A WHAT?!
You’ll notice how well-behaved I was about spoilers in my McCOOL’S review above... in all the reviews, actually. I’m trying to find the balance I’m comfortable with in discussing spoilers in reviews. Some people have written me to complain, while others write to beg me to go even further, reveal even more. My goal is never to ruin a film, though. Instead, I’m just trying to discuss the movie and use examples to support my opinions or observations. Still, I don’t know why I worry about it. After all, the prime offenders in the distribution of spoilers are the studios themselves.
For example, have you seen the trailer for ONE NIGHT AT MCCOOL’S yet? If the answer’s no, and you’re at all interested in the film based on my description above, then avoid the trailer. If a TV spot comes on, avoid it on the off-chance they it might repeat the same offense as the trailer. I’m not going to say what they showed, and I’m not going to say what scene is ruined, but I will say this: it seems to me that when you’ve got a joke scene that literally blows the back door off the theater, you don’t give away the visual punchline to that joke in the trailer. You just don’t do it.
Or take the current TV spots for Paramount’s ALONG COMES A SPIDER. This is supposed to be a cat-and-mouse game between Morgan Freeman’s Alex Cross character and a mysterious psycho. Only problem is, Michael Wincott is obviously the creepy psycho based on the audio we hear in the commercials. He’s got one of the most distinct voices in the business, a set of pipes as ravaged and raspy as Tom Waits. This is bad casting if his identity is supposed to be secret throughout the movie, but the bad idea is compounded by the notion of using Wincott’s voice in the TV spots. I literally don’t feel like there’s any reason I need to see this movie now. Not the slickest of advertising moves, Paramount.
Hell, I know a pretty groovy spoiler from Kevin Smith’s new JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK, something I didn’t get from Mysterio. Kevin made an allusion to it recently on his own message boards, telling fans that he shot a cameo by a certain masked vigilante close to his heart. Now, knowing what I know, that’s damn close to being a spoiler. All I would have to do is fill in the name of the vigilante and the context of the scene. It would be easy. But it would also take away from the kick of that particular joke when it flashes by onscreen later this year, and that would be a shame. It’s a good joke, and it’s a genuinely cool move by Kevin to include the cameo he did, both by the vigilante and by the filmmaker currently entrusted with bringing that vigilante to life. I’m impressed that he did it. As a result, I’m going to keep the secret. If Smith spills the beans between now and the release of the film, then that’s his own choice.
I feel pretty hands-off when it comes to certain aspects of other films, as well, and it’s always on a case-by-case basis. Harry and I decided in conversations very early on that we wouldn’t show images of Gollum here on AICN or of the Balrog, since those are among the key things you will see in the upcoming LORD OF THE RINGS films. Granted, posting those images would result in massive traffic for a few days to those particular items, but that’s not what all this should be about. It should be about geeking out on all these little details, all these little puzzle pieces, and being smart enough to realize when one of those pieces is too big, when it stops being fun and starts hurting your ultimate enjoyment of the film.
Now if only we can convince the studios to wise up about their own material. Hell, Steve Martin complained about the trend to show everything in the trailer these days on Sunday’s Oscar telecast. I think people are ready to be surprised again. They want it. They need it. It’s one of the particular things they go to the movies for. I think it was a major part of the success of THE SIXTH SENSE, and I remember how hard I worked with my initial script review for that film and in my review of the movie itself to keep from ruining anyone’s enjoyment of the twists and turns of that particular narrative.
I just can’t get over that MCCOOL’S trailer...
What were they thinking?!
HEY, JACK, I'LL TEACH YOU RIGHT FROM WRONG!!
Jack Valenti’s got one weird-ass job, no doubt about it. He’s the official Washington mouthpiece for the industry, but he’s also the self-appointed final word on all things moral in the world of film. He defends the industry even as he cuts the balls off of it. If there’s ever been a guy torn between two masters, Valenti is it, and the pressure finally seems to have gotten to him in recent weeks.
In the initial article I found online, the Reuter’s story I read, Valenti discusses the idea of teaching classes in right and wrong. Ethics classes. Mandatory moral training.
Oh, Jack... no, no, no. You’re barking up the wrong tree here. Hell, that’s not even a tree you’re barking up. It’s a lightpost. You have completely lost your bearings. You are the head of the MPAA. You are not a moral leader. You are not a beacon, leading children to the path of righteousness. If you want to preach, then how about giving up your seat to someone who’s still interested in movies? Until then, you have no business even proposing an idea like this. It’s wrong-headed, it’s condescending, and it’s not going to do anything except create even more battle lines in the ongoing debate about the role that movies play in the moral lives of viewers.
How about this? If you’re all hopped up to be part of the educational process, how about you get involved in creating some sort of comprehensive media education program in this country? We need to train kids to read and process and understand the media they are exposed to, whether it’s a movie or an album or a newspaper or CNN or the Internet or a video game. We need to give kids the proper tools to negotiate the almost impeneterable maze of images and ideas that we bombard them with. This negates any need for an ethics class. An aware consumer of media is able to take from it only what they want to and tune the rest of it out. Hell, these days we shouldn’t restrict these classes to kids. There are any number of adults I’ve met who could use a refresher course in these ideas.
I’m not going to attack or belittle Valenti to make my point. There’s no point in doing so. His idea will never go anywhere, anyway. It’s impractical, and there are issues raised by the very proposal of it that would have severe negative ramifications for any kids who went through Valenti’s proposed program. I’m surprised that someone who has been as crafty as Valenti for as long as Valenti has would do something so hamhanded and obvious, so deeply against the best interests of the industry. I think it’s about time Valenti start seriously reassessing what it is that he does, and how well he thinks he’s doing it these days.
BITS AND PIECES!!
Is it just me, or does anyone else find the premise of MTV’s new show BECOMING just a little too stalker-friendly for comfort?
Holy shit... if the scoop that COMING ATTRACTIONS ran today is true, there’s a pretty great notion in there for who the villain of STAR TREK X will be. One complaint already about this film: cloning? Isn’t there another long-running, very successful SF franchise that’s doing something with cloning in their next upcoming episode? Hmmmm... awful close there, Paramount.
Based on my almost irrational love for FAWLTY TOWERS and Basil Fawlty, I flipped when I read the news that John Cleese is coming to TV. I have no idea what to expect from his new series HMO, but I do know that Cleese has been at the center of any number of near perfect comic enterprises now – MONTY PYTHON, FAWLTY TOWERS, A FISH CALLED WANDA. I certainly look forward to whatever shape the show finally takes, as long as Cleese remains involved.
Is it true that they’re developing three separate treatments for X-MEN 2? Boy, I’d love to get a look and compare all three.
AND IN CONCLUSION...
Since Harry’s in New York for the next few days, I’m going to try to get you another RUMBLINGS tomorrow, this time with reviews of some of the strangest and most interesting new scripts I’ve stumbled across in recent weeks and at least one new DVD review for something coming to shelves in the weeks ahead. In addition to all that crunchy chocolaty goodness, I’m also going to bring you a story called...
THE BIGGEST BUTTHOLE IN HOLLYWOOD!!
... and no, I'm not talking about Bruce Willis' new porn-star anal goddess girlfriend, Alisha Klass, either. Why would you even ask me that? You’re dirty, you know that? Jeez... grow up, okay?
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March 29, 2001, 7:50 a.m. CST
by WHAT YOU SAY
Was he built to suit a larger character actor such as Farley? Either way, I see this movie being added to the list of "classic" CG films such as Toy Stoy 1&2.
March 29, 2001, 8 a.m. CST
Hey Bruce in a new Seymore butts movie, I'd pay good money for that. Good career move. Alisha kicks ass. Or at least takes it up the ass pretty good.
March 29, 2001, 8:30 a.m. CST
Why doesn't AICN or movie-list etc. post spoiler ratings when they host trailers?For example the Cast Away teaser would get a spoiler rating of 3.BUT the FULL trailer would get a 9.I think it would help because those people who don't mind finding out key plot points would watch trailers with high spoiler ratings.If on the other hand you are like me,and want to actually BE SURPRISED when we watch the film,we wouldn't watch anything over a 5 for example.We have great spoiler warnings before reviews and articles,why not trailers?
March 29, 2001, 8:32 a.m. CST
by Mr. Biege
Did I miss a memo, or have you ever mentioned whether or not the rest of the "Best of the 90's" were ever going to happen? Let us know if you are going to finish it, or have put it in the rear view mirror. Okay? They were GREAT stuff...
March 29, 2001, 8:45 a.m. CST
by I am_NOTREAL
...the main villain in "Along Came A Spider" is known almost right away, at least in the book. There is another "twist" at the end that involves a SECOND villain...of course, there's no telling how they'll set it up in the movie. As an aside, I wonder why almost every single villain in a suspense thriller has to have a secret identity--twists don't make a movie! Look at Seven--John Doe didn't turn out to be Morgan Freeman or Brad Pitt or their boss, and it was still more effective than "Kiss the Girls," "Urban Legends," and "Screams" 1-3 combined! I used to like Patterson's stories before he revealed himself to be a blatant cheater with the single most dishonest "suprise killer" of all time in one of his books. Anyway, the point about spoilers in trailers stands, just wanted to set the record straight...
March 29, 2001, 9:13 a.m. CST
Lucky to have seen both movies, or at least the nearly finished Shrek. Shrek is simply the best CGI movie ever made, sets new standards of animation and comedy. McCools provides us with Michael Douglas' best performance in years, he is his father in it, end of story and Reiser is fantastic. 2 great comedies for 2001, how often can you say that of a year ?
March 29, 2001, 9:14 a.m. CST
No dissing of that film on my watch, please. Next to The Ten Commandments, it's perhaps the GREATEST bad film ever made. Just the explanation of how driving stakes through vampires' hearts is easy because becoming a vampire automatically turns the flesh squishy is enough to qualify this film as a work of genius. And can anyone tell me where I can buy a bottle of Sleaze Tequila?
March 29, 2001, 9:20 a.m. CST
I love to watch trailers, but I hate spoilers. If I'm in the theater watching a trailer for a movie I don't know much about, and it starts to look good, I will try to pick the right moment where I think they're about to start dropping spoilers and I will literally close my eyes and put my fingers in my ears and start humming until someone pokes me and tells me the trailer's over. (If they just poke me and don't tell me the trailer's over I keep humming, cuz you know, I don't want to get spoiled just cuz someone poked me for humming.) Robert Zemekis is a huge offender in this category, because he's actually responsible for his spoiler trailers himself; it's not just some unprincipled marketing department, it's the unprincipled director. He did it with CAST AWAY and WHAT LIES BENEATH too. Trailers typically give away the funniest jokes, the biggest stunts, the most important plot twists, sometimes even the friggin' climax of the film (MIB comes to mind). I know some marketing data allegedly suggests that people are more likely to see a film if you tell them everything in it first. I don't know who those morons are; I figure if I've already seen a condensed version of all the best stuff in your movie, why do I need to sit through all the boring parts? Whereas a trailer that teases me without showing me everything, I figure the film's still got some surprises I want to see. DOWN WITH SPOILER TRAILERS! Yah!!! Peace out, SDG
March 29, 2001, 9:23 a.m. CST
This is a funny sexy flick. I saw an advance screening last week & really enjoyed it. Liv looks GREAT! It's like Maxim magazine comes to life filled with goofy humor.
March 29, 2001, 10:09 a.m. CST
If this movie is anywhere as sexy as the pictures and clips I've seen on the website - I'm there baby! Liv's popping out of her clothes. The trailer made me laugh too. Matt Dillon's always good for comedy, so this one looks like a keeper!
March 29, 2001, 10:16 a.m. CST
Frank Oz did it right with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Anyone remember that trailer? Michael Caine and Steve Martin are just walking on the riviera and they push someone into the water for no reason at all. The best part about it is that this NEVER HAPPENS IN THE MOVIE. I wanted to see the movie and I hadn't even seen one frame of the actual film. THAT is what a trailer should be.
March 29, 2001, 10:57 a.m. CST
Moriarty and DuPont (and the odd juicy rumor) are practically the only reason to read AICN.
March 29, 2001, 12:53 p.m. CST
by All Thumbs
Moriarty, I don't care what people say about you being long-winded, I would rather see long Rumblings like these with markers so we can skip around (I couldn't finish it yet, just skipped to the Valenti and trailer parts). I also want to note that Valenti's idea is a little too late, anyways, because many schools are already putting "morality" into the curriculum. They have lessons about values and respect and other similar issues.***Mr. Touchdown, if the surprise that pissed you off is the one that pissed me off, then we stopped reading Patterson for the same reason. Why let us get connected to a new character like that only to...
March 29, 2001, 1:01 p.m. CST
The trailers for the Matthew Broderick Godzilla were great-especially the one with the fisherman on the dock. Granted, I never saw the movie because word of its wretchedness reached me first, but I remember thinking that I wanted to see it BECAUSE of how little was revealed and therefore how much surprise was left. It's frustrating to think there are people out there who feel exactly opposite and are contaminating focus groups as we speak.
March 29, 2001, 1:13 p.m. CST
Just like I think it should be MANDATORY to teach ALL kids about financing, taxes, and investing. The world is changing and it's a DAMN shame that the educational system hasn't kept up with it. Of course I am talking about a system and a country that still debates whether evolution ought to be taught in schools and whether or not we should expose kids to sexual education! Gimme a break America! Give kids information that they NEED to know. Not that reading, writing, and arithmetic aren't important but they need to learn about life! If not when they're kids AT LEAST when they're teenagers! Oh, yeah, and I was not gonna see Shrek because to me the trailers made the CGI look kinda...I dunno...ugly. But then I heard they were gonna take pot shots at Disney and I though, "Oh, yes, I am so there..." Still can't wait for Atlantis though! Call me a hypocrite if you must!
March 29, 2001, 1:39 p.m. CST
You're a hypocrite. ^_^ And the one night at mccools website is a total piece of flash shit. Plant.
March 29, 2001, 2:02 p.m. CST
And I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED, the first Babe. I found the sequel really disturbing (not in a good way), although for personal reasons I find any movie with Mickey Rooney in it disturbing.
March 29, 2001, 4:39 p.m. CST
by gah rides again
That is such a great movie. It totally surprised me in so many ways. Far superior to the first...
March 29, 2001, 4:42 p.m. CST
by gah rides again
I thought he compared Spy Kids to Babe 2? Everyone I've showed Babe 2 to has liked it...
March 30, 2001, 1:47 a.m. CST
by Jesus Q Einstein
The sequel stinks. Simple as that.
March 30, 2001, 2:59 a.m. CST
Don't know if any of you guys have noticed this or not or if it's common knowledge but I'll ask anyway. In the film Heat, WTF is growing on Val Kilmer's left elbow? Seriously, check out the scene in DeNiro's house when Kilmer wakes up. It's horrible.
March 30, 2001, 7:37 a.m. CST
Trailers - They are both a blessing and a curse. Blessing: The pale "My Best Friend's Wedding" rip-off "The Wedding Planner" with J-Lo. It gave away the whole film, which didn't look like much. Curse: "The Negotiator", one of the best films of 1998, featured a trailer that, until the last 10 seconds, was great. What happens? A shot of Chris Sabian (the terrific Kevin Spacey) saying "now you'll have to deal with both of us". See, that's the thing: The line doesn't appear in the film AT ALL. Whoever inserted that shot deserves to have wounds all over his body, then be dropped in a vat of salt and lemon juice. "One Night at McCool's" - Liv Tyler as a woman who men fantasize about and are willing to kill over. Did somebody say miscasting? I know I did. To you Tyler fans out there, don't misconstrue: I just don't find her as attractive as I do someone like Elizabeth Hurley or Laura Prepon, to drop some names. As with Alicia Silverstone (Tyler's co-star in "Crazy") in "The Babysitter", it just doesn't make sense.
March 30, 2001, 8:29 a.m. CST
Leonard Nimoy is not dead. The only TOS cast member who is passed is Deforrest Kelley. Even fat ass James Dohan is still alive and pumpin' out kids at 85 years old. And as far as Leonard Nimoy being in the next Trek film...Don't count on it. He turned down a part in ST: Generations because he thought it was silly. I don't think he will go for this cloning bit.
March 30, 2001, 9:50 a.m. CST
by Buzz Maverik
It follows Valenti from his early days growing up marooned a desert island with his classmates Ralph and Piggy, through his time in the infantry in WW I. Young Jack was recooperating from a near fatal mustard gas attack in a field hospital where he was taunted daily by Ernest Hemingway who was likewise healing from a liason with a French peasant lass. When Valenti next resurfaced, it was a humiliating period for him in which is was one of Joan Crawford's kept boys, a situation that was the inspiration for SUNSET BOULEVARD. Glory days were ahead for Jack when he became a joke writer for Richard Nixon, and finally as guardian of Hollywood's fragile morality.
March 30, 2001, 10:19 a.m. CST
March 30, 2001, 2:33 p.m. CST
Ok, I just took Moiarty to task and now and have to go after the talkbackers too. "Literally" is not an emphasis word. It is the opposite of figuratively. It means you are not kidding or exaggerating, and the most basic meaning is the right one. "Punchline literally blows the doors of the theatre" is just wrong. It is a figure of speech, the opposite of literal. "literally feel like..." is bad because there is no figurative meaning. "Literally stick my fingers in my ears, close my eyes, and humm." Is CORRECT usage. It means they are not exaggerating. "literally turning into a vampire" is poor. People might use "turning into a vampire" figuratively, but not in a vampire movie. If someone is "literally on fire" that means they are combusting. If it "literally sucks" it's a vacuum. That's my rant for today. I hate trailers that give away the movie.
March 31, 2001, 6:18 a.m. CST
WTF, Moriarty, Star Wars doesn't have exclusive rights to cloning, a very old Science Fiction ingredient. You may as well say that Star Wars is going to have spaceships so Star Trek can't! Absurd! And also, why are you saying "nice going, Paramount"? They didn't think this RUMORED plot up. It's old Rick Berman and his lap-dog ass kisser Brannon Braga who are steering this tub; they're the ones who are really responsible. Sure, Paramount might okay everything, but blaming the studio alone is just small sighted. But complain that they don't fire Berman and Braga's asses and I'll support you. NOTE: That has to be a rumor since Nimoy was asked to work on Generations and Deep Space Nine and both times said he felt he was "done with the character," Hollywoodese for "offer me more money," which Berman wasn't prepared to do. And also since Berman doesn't get paid as much when they use stuff from the original series--things that he didn't help create or recreate for Next Generation and Beyond, the chances of going back and using Spock heavily are pretty slim.
April 1, 2001, 7:34 a.m. CST
by gah rides again
I watched Spy Kids last night and it was frickin' great. So imaginative... Made me feel like a kid again and even my cynical ass could find little fault with it at all. Very enjoyable for all ages and a great family film.
April 6, 2001, 7:56 a.m. CST
by Carey N.
What Moriarty said reminded me of the Bone Collector trailer. I recognized Leland Orser's voice in the trailer, and when I saw the movie, I just waited for him to show up.
June 21, 2001, 2:07 a.m. CST
As of today Shrek is the #1 grossing movie of this pretty dismal year. It's always the same routine from Hollywood, 6 months of dreck, then the big budget drivel, then mad grab for an Oscar "literally" in the last week of the year. Freddy Got Fingered was capital G God-awful but I really mourn the state of humanity when trash like the Animal is a commercial success.
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