Don Clinchy's blog

DVD Review: The Great Waldo Pepper


Great Waldo Pepper DVDDoes The Great Waldo Pepper deserve to be called a classic? Released in 1975, the saga of post-WWI barnstorming aviators has long polarized critics. Some have hailed the film as a great but often underrated character study and portrait of life in 1920s America, while others have dismissed it as one of Robert Redford's lesser efforts, a lightweight action film that offers little more than amazing aerial stunts.

With this week's re-release of The Great Waldo Pepper on DVD, the debate continues. Once again, critics and film fans can argue whether the film is a true classic or just another old movie about airplanes.

The Great Waldo Pepper opens in 1926 Kansas, where the titular character (played by Redford at the height of his career) earns a meager living as a barnstorming pilot. Waldo spends his days flying from one tiny Kansas town to the next, performing aerobatic stunts and offering rides to anyone brave enough to fly in his rickety surplus WWI biplane. Faced with dwindling crowds (airplanes no longer are novelties by this time), Waldo hopes to stay in business by teaming up with fellow barnstormer and occasional nemesis Axel Olsson (Bo Svenson). Along with Axel's girlfriend, Mary Beth (Susan Sarandon), the two join a flying circus owned by a gruff huckster named Dillhoefer (Philip Bruns).

While testing his own piloting skills in the flying circus, Waldo also seeks to top his barnstorming idol, German WWI ace Ernst Kessler (Bo Brundin), an elusive figure whose wartime exploits and aerobatic feats are the stuff of legend.

Of course, barnstorming is an exceedingly dangerous line of work, and Dillhoefer's pilots routinely cross the line between awe-inspiring bravery and complete foolishness. After two tragic events ground the aerial circus, Waldo and Axel head for Hollywood, hoping to find new careers that will satisfy their thrillseeking addictions and lust for stardom.

Review: Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore


Cats and Dogs 2

Slackerwood editor Jette Kernion was very surprised when I offered to review Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore. While I'm an open-minded film fan whose cinematic tastes include everything from local mumblecore to classic exploitation to the occasional Hollywood blockbuster, I'm not really into kid-oriented talking animal movies. And I'm totally not into watching kid-oriented movies in theaters full of, uh, actual kids. (I like kids, except when they're being disruptive during movies. Okay -- disruptive anywhere.)

But as I told Jette, sometimes a critic needs a challenge. It's easy to review a hipster-darling indie in which Catherine Keener frets about her life choices; it's far more difficult, however, to write insightful commentary about a film in which anthropomorphic dogs discuss butt sniffing. So, to test my critical skills -- and my patience -- I braved a preview screening of Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, a sequel to 2001's Cats & Dogs with a few carryover characters.

I could have done without the theater full of restless, yammering young'uns. But I must admit the movie (opening today in wide release) surprised me, in that it isn't bad. Really, it's mostly good. You and your young'uns could do a lot worse at your local multiplex.

Review: The Girl Who Played with Fire


The Girl Who Played with Fire

A few years ago, few people would have taken the phrase "Swedish crime thriller" seriously. Sweden has long been known for films as reserved as its culture; its cinematic output has consisted mostly of thoughtful, understated, often lethargic and slightly dreary films, few of which have generated much international interest. (There are obvious exceptions, of course. Masterpieces like The Seventh Seal vaulted Ingmar Bergman into the world's top echelon of filmmakers, and the indie vampire darling Let the Right One In was a not-so-surprising success in the Twilight-crazed U.S. and Europe.)

Sweden's cinematic reputation may change, however, with a trio of films based on Stieg Larsson's smashingly successful trilogy of crime novels, all international bestsellers. The first film, the taut and gripping The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, has wowed critics and audiences alike in dozens of countries and has just been released on DVD in the U.S. -- read Jette's review for more details.

The series' second installment, The Girl Who Played with Fire (Swedish title: Flickan som lekte med elden), opens in Austin on Friday. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a very tough act to follow, but The Girl Who Played with Fire is a smart, complex and chilling thriller that rivals its predecessor in most respects.

DVD Review: Harmony and Me


Harmony and Me DVDIn the middle of Harmony and Me is a very telling line of dialogue. Harmony (Justin Rice) is struggling through a piano lesson, and his teacher (Jeremy Pollet) aptly sums up Harmony's playing style and personality: "You're entangled in your dedication to precision."

Indeed he is. A quintessential Austin indie, Harmony and Me -- available today on DVD and streaming through the movie's website -- is the story of the title character, a less-than-lovable loser who can't let go of his ex-girlfriend, Jessica (Kristen Tucker). His obsession with her has gone from merely pathetic to thoroughly annoying, as he subjects his family, friends, co-workers and anyone else who will listen to his hopeless pining and incessant analyses of the relationship. Despite everyone's gentle suggestions to get over it already, Harmony isn't about to move on.

Then again, Harmony's fixation on the lovely Jessica is may be understandable (albeit completely irritating), given that the rest of his life is a mostly pointless bore. He has a drab job in a drab office, a bullying boss, a grumpy, slightly dysfunctional family and equally bored friends. His only outlet is music, but even this is more of a frustration than an escape. (His lack of any real musical talent doesn't help.) Of course, Harmony might not appreciate happiness even if he found it; he's much too analytical, self-absorbed, and prone to deconstructing everything to relax and enjoy life.

In character-driven, micro-budget indie fashion, not much happens in Harmony and Me. Its ambling, laconic pace will be familiar to fans of two decades' worth of similar films that have come before it, from Slacker to Beeswax. What sets Harmony and Me apart from the others is its astute use of music as both a story element and transitional device between shots and scenes. Harmony and Me uses the music in hilarious ways, from Harmony's halfhearted piano lessons to a very funny wedding sequence featuring Austin musician Bob Schneider as a wedding singer who sings a totally inappropriate song to the very pregnant bride. (The song's most prominent lyric is "I can't change your mind.") The film's musical aspects are often deeply ironic, and none are more so than Harmony's name, for his personal relationships are anything but harmonious.

Review: The Last Airbender


The Last Airbender

With The Last Airbender, I've officially given up on M. Night Shyamalan.

In 1999, the young writer and director was crowned the Next Big Thing for his smart and suspenseful The Sixth Sense, a nuanced and captivatingly creepy ghost story. But Shyamalan's follow-up efforts like Signs and The Village were disappointingly clichéd and forgettable. And now, the dreadfully dull and incoherent The Last Airbender (opening today in a far too wide release) has convinced me that Shyamalan has forgotten how to write and direct a watchable film. This may sound harsh, but if this lifeless, overwrought clunker is the best Shyamalan can do nowadays, I think his career has run its course.

A live-action film based on Avatar: The Last Airbender, a popular Nickelodeon animated series, The Last Airbender (apparently, some other obscure film already claimed the Avatar part) is a mystical tale about the relationship between humanity and nature's delicate balance. The film is set on a fictional Earth with four nations, Air, Earth, Fire, and Water; for a century, the Fire Nation has been waging a brutal war against the other three. The story follows the adventures of Aang (Noah Ringer), a young "airbender" who also is an "avatar" with the power to manipulate all four elements. Aang uses his extraordinary powers and enlists the help of Katara (Nicola Peltz), a "waterbender" (a lot of stuff gets bent in the film), and her brother, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), to stop the Fire Nation from enslaving the others. Meanwhile, the evil Fire Nation leaders try to capture Aang.

Review: Grown Ups


Grown Ups

In a typically highbrow moment near the midpoint of Grown Ups, a character falls face-first into a pile of poop.

This moment, one of too many like it, is an apt metaphor for my experience watching this movie. A howlingly awful mess even by summer goofball comedy standards, Grown Ups (which opens today in wide release) may be, dare I say, the worst film I've ever seen.

You read that right: Grown Ups may be the worst film I've ever seen. If this sounds like an exaggeration, it isn't. I know whereof I speak, having suffered through many a horrid film, from the infamous classics (Plan 9 from Outer Space, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!, and Ishtar) to the too-lame-to-be-infamous dreck that sullies the multiplexes year after year (there are many, but Porky’s II: The Next Day, Rocky III, and The Towering Inferno come to mind). I can assure you that Grown Ups holds its own against the worst of them. It really is that bad.

Review: Cyrus



Independent filmmakers sometimes fall victim to their own success. If they're talented and lucky enough to strike critical and box-office gold a couple of times, they may find themselves working on larger films with respectable budgets and household-name talent, if not bona fide stars. But often as not, their art suffers when it moves uptown. Higher financial stakes come with strings attached, and these once fiercely independent writers and directors are forced to make concessions to commercial viability.

Fortunately, I'm happy to report that there are no such concessions with Cyrus, the latest film from mumblecore heroes Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass. The writing and directing team that brought us The Puffy Chair and Baghead have indeed gone uptown – but they've delivered another fine comedy that is true to the talky, quirky, naturalistic form, if not other mumblecore hallmarks like a shoestring budget and unknown actors.

Cyrus is very much a boy-meets-girl romantic comedy, but I really liked it anyway. It's the story of John (John C. Reilly), an eternally sad sack who still hasn't come to terms with his seven-year-old divorce. His ex-wife Jamie (the ubiquitous Catherine Keener) invites him to a party, where his ham-fisted attempts to chat up attractive women reveal exactly why he's spent so many evenings eating take-out for one. But for once, it's John's lucky night: He meets Molly (Marisa Tomei), a friendly free spirit who finds his awkwardness appealing and ends up going home with him.

Review: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work


Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

From its opening sequence, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work takes a candid, unvarnished approach to its well-known subject. The documentary, opening Friday at the Arbor, opens with an extreme close-up of makeup being applied to Joan Rivers' natural, blemished face. The image is striking -- we're used to seeing this celebrity's famously lifted and heavily made-up public visage, but the face before us is that of an elderly and ordinary-looking woman.

The film presents Rivers' life and career as the venerable comedienne turns 75 years old, a milestone she grudgingly accepts and doesn't quite celebrate. Age, of course, usually spells the end of a show business career, but Rivers' performance dance card remains mostly full. Her busy schedule is a testament to her comedic genius, but even more so to her self-marketing savvy and unstoppable work ethic.

Thanks to extensive clips from Rivers' hilariously vulgar standup routines, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is often a riot to watch, although viewers who know her only from broadcast television may be a bit shocked at her uncensored, anything-goes brand of humor. Before she found stardom on the Tonight Show and other comedy and variety shows in the mid-1960s, Rivers made a living by pushing the envelope in Greenwich Village clubs with edgy routines about drugs, sex, and other unmentionable truths. Although raunchy comedy is no longer novel, her feisty, bitchy and self-deprecating delivery makes the material fresh and often cringingly funny.

Review: Solitary Man


Solitary Man

Watching Solitary Man reminded me of an old saying that, if quoted accurately, might offend some readers of this generally family-friendly website. So, I'll quote a slightly altered version: Your male reproductive organ can get you in a lot of trouble.

Oh, if only the film's titular solitary man would heed these timeless words of wisdom. Opening Friday at the Arbor, Solitary Man is the story of Ben Kalman (Michael Douglas), a fiftysomething divorced father with a lonely heart, a boundless libido and two major talents. His first talent is one most men would envy: an amazing ability to talk young women into bed with him. His second talent is not so enviable: an equally amazing ability to ruin his own life, usually in connection with his first talent.

Ben is a sad, selfish and thoroughly unlikeable example of middle-aged ruination, a former titan among New York City car dealers whose hubris, greed and shady business dealings cost him his business and fortune. As the film opens, he's on the verge of a comeback. But when a financing deal falls through, he finds himself broke and jobless. Ben's high-living days are long gone; he now lives in a dank apartment, borrowing rent money from his increasingly irritated daughter, Susan (Jenna Fischer), who keeps him in her life mostly so her son can see his grandfather.

Review: 9500 Liberty


9500 Liberty

In a way, it's sad that 9500 Liberty is such a timely and relevant documentary.

Opening at the Dobie tomorrow, the film chronicles a fierce and divisive immigration battle in Prince William County, Virginia, where the county board of supervisors enacted a law requiring police officers to question anyone they have "probable cause" to suspect is an undocumented immigrant. The Virginia law took effect in 2008, but the recent enacting of a similar law in Arizona gives 9500 Liberty a painful immediacy. The movie is a powerful statement about the continuing us-versus-them fight over our nation's immigration policies.

As America's demographic makeup rapidly changes, the recent history of Prince William County is increasingly familiar. For generations, the county had been a mostly white, mostly conservative semi-rural enclave. The booming economy of the past two decades brought a rapidly expanding population to the area, including many Latino immigrants seeking jobs in construction and service industries. The longtime residents never openly welcomed the immigrants (many of whom were undocumented), but for many years the two groups managed to coexist as neighbors, if not as friends.

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