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Film Reviews

360 Review: Big Fan

Robert Siegel’s Big Fan has only one thing going for it: a brave performance by comedian Patton Oswalt.  But because Oswalt plays such an unflinchingly sociopathic loser, the film becomes hard to care about.

Paul Aufiero (Oswalt) is little more than a man-child with a pathological interest in the New York Giants’ performance.   He and his friend Sal (the terrific and underused Kevin Corrigan) go to every Giants game, but sit in the parking lot and watch on television.  They eat and drink junk food like children (“Anything in a green bottle is gonna kill you.”), and when Paul isn’t watching the game, he’s working as a parking lot attendant, crafting carefully-worded diatribes he can spout off during a local sports radio show.   Paul lives with his mother, and his room looks like a child’s, capped off by a poster of his quarterback hero above his bed.

But when Paul and Sal see the player at a local gas station, they decide to follow him into town to a strip club where Paul misspeaks, causing the QB to pound him into a coma.  Once awake, Paul’s mania becomes clearer: less interested in the doctor’s report than Sal’s game updates, Paul fakes amnesia to prevent a local cop (Matt Servitto) from getting an incriminating statement that will keep the QB off the field, and the Giants out of the win column.

Paul’s relatives seem to accept his life, making the same protestations about his nowhere existence at family gatherings but never pressing him to change.  Once injured, his lawyer brother Jeff (Gino Cafarelli) pushes him to sue, but Paul won’t hear of it.  Fixated on making sure the Giants win their crucial few remaining games, he shuts down any sensible input.  And with an arch-enemy like “Philadelphia Phil” taunting him nightly on the radio, Paul ends up acting out in a drastic and foolish way.

Siegel does a nice job as a first-time director, though the story is so scant that we’re treated to multiple montages and drawn-out scenes that seem to pad the film’s run time.  And Oswalt makes such a compelling schlub, you hate that the character is ultimately so unlikable.  When Paul sees an article about the outcome of his choices, there is a misguided pride that creeps across his face; he knows what he’s done and yet he cannot tell anyone for fear of being known as The Guy Whose Hero Pummeled Him.

With its focus on a truly unpleasant character (no matter how well-played) and a leftover sense of wanting, Big Fan is ultimately lacking.  To quote Sal: “You don’t go for 2 when you could have gone for 4.”  

(Big Fan is currently available on DVD and Netflix’s “Watch Instantly” service, which can be viewed via an XBOX 360.)

DVD Review: The Cove

Louie Psihoyos’ guerilla documentary The Cove focuses on a team of activists setting out to obtain evidence of Taiji, Japan fishermen employing horrific methods when catching dolphins.  The film swings sharply between gorgeous shots of natural settings and underwater activity, interviews with activists, health professionals and International Whaling Commission members, and the stunning footage of what really happens in a Taiji cove where dolphins are systematically slaughtered for their meat.

Ric O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer who worked on the television show Flipper, has spent the last 35 years speaking out against captive cetaceans and has undertaken a number of rescues.  Frequently placing himself in harm’s way, O’Barry has repeatedly aggravated local fishermen and authorities as well as incurred the wrath of political and corporate entities that benefit from dolphin sales.

While the documentary’s main message is the cruelty toward and slaughter of the dolphins, there is also considerable evidence that once killed, the dolphin meat has a level of Mercury toxicity 10,000 times greater than “allowable” levels, thus making it a potential danger if used in, for example, a nation-wide school lunch program.

The Cove is striking in many ways, and deserving of greater attention than lip-service placement on a number of Best Of 2009 lists.  Considering the impacts alleged in sister films Food, Inc. and Collapse, the season of documentary condemnation rolls on. 

(If you want to help, or just want to calculate your mercury intake, go to .  The Cove is currently available on DVD.)

Review: The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Nicolas Cage gets a bad rap, and perhaps Werner Herzog gets too good of one.

On the one hand, rather than admit Cage underplayed his role (to great effect) in 2009’s science fiction drama Knowing, critics tended to harp on his haircut.  Cage made a boisterous start as a young actor, and has been a prolific performer over the years.  Before and after his Oscar-winning performance in 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas,  he has balanced art-house favorites and mainstream, sometimes highly profitable films, for better or worse (no one is going to say the remake of The Wicker Man is a defensible film).  If he’s made a mint with Disney, he’s also been in a number of critical darlings and given evocative performances in a string of films somewhere in the middle.  It’s this Cage, the goggle-eyed, wildly gesturing madman found in films as diverse as Raising Arizona, Vampire’s Kiss, Wild at Heart and Snake Eyes that gets some of the best notices.

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Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Filled with striking images and terrific acting, Parnassus is that rare fantasy film where the strange and the unexpected mingle politely with delicate human emotion.

Terry Gilliam's 'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus'

One of the many joys to be found at Austin’s Fantastic Fest is a series of “Secret Screenings” that occur throughout the program week, where films remain unannounced until moments before the lights go down. This past September we were treated to a diverse set of surprises that included The Men Who Stare at Goats, Robogeisha and A Serious Man. It was a real pleasure to discover Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnussus was one of them, but even more so that the film is a terrific return to form for the director. After dreary disappointments of clutter (The Brothers Grimm) and grim detachment (Tideland), the lovingly rendered Parnassus brings Gilliam back to a jovial dream-world that feels pleasantly familiar to some of his earlier films, and he excels at conveying such good-natured whimsy.
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Review: Sherlock Holmes

Good-looking, briskly paced and filled with clever wordplay and physical action.

Guy Ritchie's 'Sherlock Holmes'

Until Sherlock Holmes, the phrase “period piece” would not have been attributable to Guy Ritchie.  But one of the most surprising and pleasing aspects of the director’s new film is that he gets the look and feel of Victorian London down so well that if it weren’t for the slow-motion, bare-knuckle fight scenes and recurring, signature “here’s what really happened” sequences, you might not have thought it was a Guy Ritchie film at all. The set design, costumes, re-imagined architecture, background images and infrequent, almost flawless CGI effects depict the sprawling city quite well. Ritchie more than adequately pegs the sense of a different, tumultuous age, right down to the tools and jargon used by each character. The depth of these surroundings allows the viewer to more easily swallow Holmes’ shenanigans as the film’s mystery unfolds.
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Review: Avatar

Not a great film, but it does its best to provide an engaging, eye-popping, (almost) three hours of fun.

James Cameron's 'Avatar'

I recently bought an HD television, and within the first hour had seen so many crisp, vividly detailed images that I knew it would be hard to ever go back and watch things without that advanced technology.  James Cameron’s much-ballyhooed, long-anticipated Avatar feels like it should have garnered that same response, a kind of technological ecstasy that would be difficult to disregard.  But the killing joke of Cameron’s new film is that for all its lush beauty and enjoyable action, the vaunted advances of its 3-D format are completely unnecessary, and sometimes a hindrance.
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