November 2005

Seriously Long Movie

by Alan Rapp on November 30, 2005

in Movie Reviews 

Syriana is Arabic for pretentious long movie.  The dramatic telling of US Policy in the Middle East tries to blend many fractured stories together into one gigantic mess of a picture.  Despite fine performances the stories never come together, nor are we ever presented a compelling reason to care about a single person or event.  More of a lecture than a movie, and a rather boring one at that.

2 Stars

Syriana, in it’s own way, is a character study.  The problem is rather than a flesh and blood character the focus of the study is the abstract and multi-faceted US Policy in the Middle East.  While I think this might make for a fascinating documentary or book (it’s based off of Robert Baer’s See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism) as a movie I found it boring, hard to follow, impossible to care about, and overly pretentious.  Despite good performances from most of the cast all I got from this film was a wasted two hours that felt much more like five.

The movie involves several different threads that only are related in that they are facets or results of the US Policy in the Middle East.  We get George Clooney, who despite what trailers may have led you to believe is not the star of the film but only one of the ensemble, as a CIA expert in the region mistrusted by his co-workers for his unerring honesty.  Of what he is actually an expert on is never fully explored or explained as his story is only about 35 minutes of the running time.

We also have a story involving an oil company under investigation for illegal activities.  Christopher Plummer, Chris Cooper and Jeffery Wright head this storyline.  Wright plays an ambitious up and comer willing to deal and sacrifice to get ahead.  Once again we get characters and story that if fully developed could have made for the backbone of a strong movie but here are relegated to about 40 minutes of compressed time.  There is also a side-story about Wright and his character’s father which is hamfistedly hinted at several times but again never satisfactorily explored.

There is the story of two Iranian brothers who are out of work and are taken in by Islamic extremists in hopes that they might join the cause.  Truthfully told this storyline never worked for me since again the characters haven’t been explored fully we don’t care if they find God, become terrorists or open a fruit stand in the middle of Mardi Gras.  This story takes up about 40 minutes of the movie.

There is also the story with Alexander Siddig in the film’s best performance.  He plays the revolutionary prince who wants to transform his country into a stable democracy which the US will never allow to happen.  His story intersects with investment officer Matt Damon who loses something precious at one of the Emir’s hotels and is befriended at hired by Siddig.  Damon’s character is the only character whose home life is explored in the film and Amanda Peet gives a good understated performance as his wife.

There are many good performances in the film; if the story and characters had been developed and the focus had been a more personal and intensive character study I would have been much happier.  Siddig, who I’ve been a fan of for years, gives the film’s best performance as the man who would be king.  Prince Nassir is a complex character that I enjoyed watching.  The other performance that stands out for me is Matt Damon as the Swiss investment officer.  It’s not surprising that these two provide the best scene in the film where they discuss business and the death of Damon’s son.

The movie is broken up into several different stories that are only peripherally related.  The film seeks to take a look at the effect of US policy in the Middle East which is all well and good, but it goes about it by setting up an abstract main character like US policy which is more important to the director than any of the individual stories.  Because of this all the stories suffer.  We are constantly being pulled out from one story into another, back and forth, not allowing us to fully understand or inhabit the characters and their situations.

The film has quite a bit to say, too much if you ask me.  After a short action scene we are moved into a period introducing character after character as each is explained and set up through words not actions.  It’s information overflow.  Writer/Director Stephen Gaghan knew he had too much to cover and this is a poor excuse for trying to shove it all down the audience’s throat at once.  We get a board meeting where oil executives talk about the situation in the Middle East.  We get CIA talking about the situation in the Middle East.  We get Damon’s character giving interviews and talking about the situation in the Middle East.  We get two brothers talking about their situation.  Yap, yap, yap. 

By the time the movie shows us anything most of us have tuned out or fallen asleep.  The early lecture scenes are not helped by the shaky hand held photography at slightly upward angles.  If I didn’t know better I would assume they were filmed by a midget with cerebral palsy.

There are only two scenes that actually create any audience reaction (that’s not much for a two hour film).  The first is the desert scene between Damon and Siddig.  The second is a torture scene that is neither well set up nor executed as we are yanked away from it and shoved back into another story just as things were getting interesting. 

Also, for characters that travel across the globe we see precious little of them doing so.  Characters apppear in Washington or Geneva and in the next scene they are walking around the desert.  There are numerous little problems like this that drove me nuts that I can only assume are in the film due to the editing process of trying to get this film close to the two hour mark.


I’ve seen three movies (Syriana, Traffic, and Abandon) written by Gaghan and I’m not a fan.  I find his films to be too abstract and impersonal, all issue and no emotion, and lacking any meaning or relevant point.  This film wastes good performances in an attempt to try an be a morality tale or pseudo-documentary of the US policy in the Middle East.  The problem is we already understand that the US policy is screwed up in that region and the film adds no new information or solution to the problem.  A waste of money, time, and talent that never comes close to achieving anything worthy of what it took to make.

Fawlty Towers

by Alan Rapp on November 30, 2005

in Uncategorized

John Cleese considers his work on Fawlty Towers to be some of the best of his career.  Cleese co-wrote and starred as hotel owner Basil Fawlty for twelve hilarious episodes that originally aired on the BBC in the late 70’s.  The entire collection is available on DVD and for fans of Cleese or just comedy it’s a must have.

Fawlty Towers
4 & 1/2 Stars

How good is Fawlty Towers?  Well, the British Film Institute ranked it the number one television program of all time beating out Doctor Who, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and The Prisoner (read my review of The Prisoner here).  Add the fact that John Cleese considers it some of the best work of his career and you know you’ve got something pretty special here.  Written and performed with then wife Connie Booth Fawlty Towers is comic gold.

Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) owns a small hotel with his wife Cybil (Prunella Scales) in the sleepy hamlet of Torquay.  Not cut out for the hotel business Basil grouses, ignores, intimidates, spies on, and insults everyone.  In Basil’s view there is only the one thing wrong with the hotel business – the customers.  Cybil (Prunella Scales) is the shrewish wife who spends most days talking on the phone and leaving the business to Basil so she can complain about his horrid management style. 

To help them they have a small band of characters.  Manuel (Andrew Sachs) is the bellhop, waiter, and handyman who speaks little English and understands even less.  The only stable influence is maid Polly (Connie Booth) who despite her best efforts finds herself pulled into Basil’s half-baked schemes again and again.

Cleese is at his best in the role as the maniacal Basil who as my Grandmother might say is just dumb enough to be dangerous.  His seething hatred for his customers and wife boil out into such hilarious outbursts and incidents that you are amazed and entertained with each viewing; he plays the part with such wicked glee.  Surrounded with a good cast Cleese takes the character into all sorts of unsuspected places and provides laugh after laugh.

The three disc collection is bursting with extras including director commentary for every episode by the series two directors John Howard Davies and Bob Spiers.  There are long interviews with Cleese about his experience with the show and extras on the real life character on which Basil was based.  There are featurettes on the hotel and the town of Torquay as well as fun clip segments arranged by theme.


A Touch of Class
Tired of the riff-raff staying at the hotel Basil has taken out an ad in a newspaper to attract a higher level of clientele.  The problem is it attracts a confidence man who, when he is found out, sends Basil up the wall.

The Builders
To save some money Basil hires a less reputable contractor to work on the hotel while he and Sybil go away on holiday.  On returning he discovers that the dining room has been completely walled up and has to find a way to fix it before Sybil kills him

The Wedding Party
Misreading the situation Basil suspects that promiscuity and fornication may be going on right under his nose.  Not in his hotel!  He spies to try and find the truth creating a series of unfortunate incidents.  The final scene is priceless.

Hotel Inspectors
After learning that hotel inspectors are in town Basil goes into overdrive trying to please the guests he believes might be inspectors while ignoring and offending everyone else only to find out the hotel inspector might not be who he thinks.

Gourmet Night
To help bring in a higher quality of customer Basil arranges for a gourmet night.  Problems ensue when the chef drinks himself into a stupor because Manuel spurns his romantic notions.  Basil tries to balance the proceedings instead of cancelling the dinner.

The Germans
Both Cybil and Basil end up in the hospital.  Cybil for a normal operation and Basil for a concussion and head trauma caused by a stuffed moose head and an ill timed fire drill.  Basil returns to the hotel in his concussed and medicated state and can’t quite stop from telling the German guests about WWII.  (For my money the best episode of the series)

Communication Problems
Basil tries to hide his horse track winnings from Cybil who doesn’t allow Basil to gamble.  At the same time a deaf customer has replaced a large sum of money.

The Psychiatrist
Basil just knows the new male guest has smuggled a girl into his room and is out to prove it.  The pychiatrist couple watch and comment on Basil’s eccentric behavior.

Waldorf Salad
A very paticular American customer wants a Waldorf salad but the kitchen is closed and he won’t take no for an answer.

The Kipper and the Corpse
Two customers rile Basil.  The first is a woman who demands special attention and service for her dog; the second is a corpse which Basil and Manuel try to smuggle out of the hotel in a laundry basket.

The Anniversary
Cybil leaves thinking Basil has forgotten their anniversary.  As her friends arrive for the surprise party Basil had planned he has to figure out something to do.  Unwilling to admit Cybil is gone he fabricates lie after lie and even involves poor Polly into standing in as the sick Sybil who is near death’s door.

Basil the Rat
The health inspector is coming and Manuel’s pet rat, affectionately named Basil, is on the loose.


This is truly an astonishingly funny show.  My only real complaint is that there were only twelve episodes made.  A nice DVD to add to your collection and since each episode is thirty minutes in length it’s a nice thing to pop in whenever you’ve got a little free time and need a quick pick-me-up or a good laugh.  So if you’re in need of a holiday why not spend the night at Fawlty Towers?

The Rainbow Connection

by Alan Rapp on November 29, 2005

in DVD Reviews 

  • Title: The Muppet Movie
  • IMDB: link

the-muppet-movie-posterJim Henson’s The Muppet Movie remains one of the fondest memories of my childhood. It begins with a frog, a banjo, and a dream.  The “approximate” retelling of how the Muppets met and made their way to Hollywood is still a joy over twenty-five years later.  There’s just something tangible about the muppets that even the best CGI hasn’t been able to achieve.

We begin in the swamp where Kermit the Frog dreams about a life in Hollywood.  Hearing from a passerby Bernie the agent (Dom DeLuise) that there are openings for frogs in Hollywood Kermit leaves the swamp to make his dreams come true.  On the way he picks up companions such as Fozzie the Bear, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Ralph the Dog, and Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.  The road to Hollywood is not without it’s bumps however.  Kermit and his new friends must deal with the spurned Doc Harper (Charles Durning) who desperately wanted Kermit for the spokesman for his Frog Legs Restaurant.  Kermit’s constant refusals make Hopper mad enough to make sure Kermit has hopped off his last lily pad.

[click to continue…]

The Human Face Behind the Trigger

by Louis Reyna on November 28, 2005

in Uncategorized

In the last thirty years much has been written about “The Godfather” films and their social relevance, Part I having been released toward the end of The Vietnam War, and Part II being released just after the Watergate scandal blew up. It’s been said that the Corleone family’s story is an allegory for Big Business in America and also The American Dream in general; that the films helped usher through the most cynical generation- my generation.

The Godfather Trilogy

I’d been with Barnes & Noble about a year, working part-time in the music and DVD department. I was ringing a purchase for a young man. He was wearing a tie and slacks. He appeared to be in his late twenties- a businessman, probably on his lunch break. While I was scanning his CD’s he looked over my shoulder, at the wall of DVD box sets behind me. After a moment he furrowed his brow and lifted his chin. “How much for the trilogy?” he asked.
I looked behind me, confused. For a second, I thought, The Star Wars Trilogy? I turned back to him. “Which trilogy?”

He let out a deep, frustrated sigh. “‘The Godfather’,” he replied. And then he added, in a condescending tone: “When someone refers to The Trilogy, they’re talking about ‘The Godfather’”.
I was both stunned and offended.
There I was, forty-two years old. I had seen “The Godfather” on the big screen- when it first came out. Since then I have seen Parts I and II at least 100 times each. I can quote whole passages from both films. Hell, I could even tell you that the actor who plays Genco Abbandando in Part II is an extra in Part I, just a face in the crowd in the scene where Sonny beats the crap out of Carlo. Yet that morning I was being educated by a twenty-something on the finer points of ‘the trilogy. He probably first saw the films when he was a teenager, on USA Network during a holiday marathon.

I shouldn’t have been offended, though. He was a guy. And “The Godfather” is a guy thing. Ever since it shot out of the gates in 1972 as a blockbuster, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” films continue to be a cultural phenomena among men. And the reason why is because it portrays serious men doing serious business for high stakes, namely big money and murder. And all of this business is done outside of the law. As much as “The Art of War”, “The Godfather” films have become a primer for conduct and strategy among businessmen, from gangsta rappers to Trump-style boardroom exec’s. Who among them aren’t familiar with the phrases “Keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer” or “It’s business not personal”? Sure, “The Godfather” romanticizes violence among those ‘businessmen’, much the same way “Saving Private Ryan” romanticizes battle among soldiers. But in “The Godfather” films there’s a reason behind the murders. There’s even a reason for how the victims are killed: Paulie Gatto’s body is left in the car (poetically, with The Statue Of Liberty in the distance) to be found as a message that the Corloeone’s knew he was a traitor. And even the Don’s oldest son Santino’s massacre is a message from his enemies: he was a violent man in life. It was only fitting he should suffer a violent death.

But more than being a cultural phenomena, “The Godfather” (Part I) is just plain and simply a GREAT FILM. And for many reasons. It’s a great story told in sweeping, operatic style: After the opening wedding sequence, the villain- a shrewd drug trafficker named Virgil Solozzo (Al Lettieri)- exploits the crime family’s weakness by attempting an assassination on the aging and myopic Don (Marlon Brando) in an attempt to open up the heroin trade on the east coast. Because of that assassination attempt, the youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), is inexorably drawn into the family business, a life he had chosen to reject, setting him on a course where he finds his One True Destiny.

In addition to the logic behind the bloodletting, there’s also the human element in the films. Yes, there had been many fine gangster films before “The Godfather”, but none of them had so effectively contrasted the business of murder with the family lives of the men pulling the triggers. There are small touches: the way Vito brushes the face of the little boy as he’s taking his daughter out to the dance floor during the wedding scene; when Clemenza tells Rocco Lampone to watch out for the kids while they’re backing out of the driveway… the get well cards strewn on the Don’s bed after he’s brought back home from the hospital. But the most effective scene is when the Don is gunned down on the street outside of his office. A lesser director would have ended the scene when Vito finally slumps to the ground. But Coppola shows Fredo, the wimpy son who had been subbing as the Don’s bodyguard, weeping openly over the body of his father. Sure, Fredo was ‘weak and stupid’, but he was also a soldier in Clemenza’s regime, yet there he was, sitting on the curb and sobbing like a child. It’s a touching and tragic scene because of the performances of Marlon Brando and the late John Cazale.
Which brings me to the acting.

There’s an old saying that acting is REacting. And this is true in “The Godfather” films. If you’re an aspiring actor- or if you’re an actor whose career is going nowhere because you suck- then study the actors faces in the films, especially the scene at the beginning of Part II, where Michael is pleading with Connie to stop whoring around and stay at home, close to the family. Connie knows that Michael was responsible for her husband,Carlo’s, death- which is exactly why she’s whoring around. In the scene, Talia Shire’s face is pregnant with both longing and contempt- longing because she wants to do what Michael is asking, and contempt for his calculated and ruthless tactics.
The films, especially Part I, are a clinic for acting and writing. If you’re an aspiring screenwriter, read the book and then compare what Coppola did with the script; how he took Mario Puzo’s sprawling pulp novel and made it into a lean, efficient film. There aren’t many three hour films that clip along as easily as this one.

In the last thirty years much has been written about “The Godfather” films and their social relevance, Part I having been released toward the end of The Vietnam War, and Part II being released just after the Watergate scandal blew up. It’s been said that the Corleone family’s story is an allegory for Big Business in America and also The American Dream in general; that the films helped usher through the most cynical generation- my generation.

I can’t write authoritatively about any of that. All I know is that “The Godfather” Parts I and II are immensely entertaining. They’re filled with great acting, writing, drama, action, intrigue and scandal. People get shot up and shit gets blown up. The films taught me, at an early age, to “try to think the way people around you would think” and that “behind every great fortune there’s a crime”. They also taught me that behind every trigger there’s a human face with a family that they love, and that they may weep openly or quietly if a member of that family is harmed- and avenge that harmful action, either with cool calculation or wild ferocity.

Oh, yeah… and the films also taught me that a director should not cast a not-so-good actress in a lead role in the third installment of a film series that has become a cultural phenomena- even if that actress is family.

End of the Year

by Alan Rapp on November 28, 2005

in Uncategorized

Well the turkey has been eaten and the Christmas tree is up.  Hard to believe December is almost here.  Here’s a quick look at what to expect from us before the bells ring silent on 2005.


It’s been a big year here at RazorFine and despite some normal growing pains we’ve weathered the year quite well and look forward to a big year in 2006.  But before we can get there we still have one final month of this year.  Here’s a little preview of what you’ll see…

This month expect a look back at the year: Top 10 lists for the best (and worst) movies of the year, our Oscar predictions, some Midterm Report Cards for TV, and a year end recap examining the year that was.  We’ll also give you a list of some of our favorite holiday films in time for your yuletide family fun.

We’ll also bring you new reviews for the late holiday and Oscar push.  What will you see?  Stephen Gaghan’s (Traffic) latest Syriana with George Clooney as a terrorist expert for the CIA, the retelling of C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia begins with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Stephen Speilberg gets serious again in Munich, Charlize Theron’s live action portrayal of the animated assassin Aeon Flux, Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane reprise their Broadway roles in the new version of The Producers, and Peter Jackson has this little movie about an ape.

All that, more DVD (Nowhere Man release date is December 27 baby!!) reviews and essays, plus a suprise or two.  Thanks for the great year folks, check back with us throughout the end of the year and let’s take 2005 out with a bang!