A-Z Daily Throwback Review: Undead (2003)


         Zombie films have become so commonplace that it seems silly to expect anything remotely original anymore. The Spierig Brothers seemed to think that this was a problem, because with Undead they went out of there way to throw as many unexpected twists at the audience as possible. Despite the horrible acting, extreme gore, and silly twists, or perhaps because of these things, Undead is a wild and entertaining film. It just goes to show that not all films need to be great in order to be fun to watch.


         Undead begins by introducing us to a small fishing town in Australia, which may as well be dead. Nothing exciting is happening and because of this it comes as a giant shock when a meteor shower rains down on many unsuspecting victims. The space rocks tear through flesh un-forgivingly, but surprisingly the victims don’t remain dead. The meteors somehow engage a zombie activity, which sends the town into a panic. Five survivors find themselves trapped in a farmhouse, but luckily they have an assortment of creative weapons to fend the zombies off.


         What makes Undead interesting beyond the strange involvement of aliens in the plot, the extreme and comical gore, and the awful deadpan acting, is the direction the film goes in. Most all zombie films classify it as an outbreak of some sort, and yet they never look to find a cure. Instead we know that as soon as they turn it is time to put a bullet in their brain. Undead goes in many strange directions, but the most logical is the fact that a cure becomes part of the storyline.





Parker Blu-ray review

  • Actors: Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez
  • Director: Taylor Hackford
  • Format: AC-3, Dolby, Subtitled, Widescreen
  • Language: English
  • Subtitles: English, Spanish
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: R (Restricted)
  • Studio: FilmDistrict
  • Release Date: May 21, 2013
  • Run Time: 118 minutes



             Certain actors become so well known for the type of films that they are in that this reputation can serve as a handicap if they are attached to the wrong project. With Tom Hanks, audiences expect him to be playing a character with a certain degree of likeability. With Zack Galifianakis, oddball humor is to be expected, and Jason Statham brings the demands of non-stop action. Fans don’t want to see Statham attempting to act; they want him to bring his typical bad-ass persona to each and every project. With genre actors, familiarity is preferred over variety, which actors like Christian Bale or Gary Oldman excel at. Statham’s latest action vehicle, Parker, has the storyline of a straightforward action film but gets a little too caught up in extraneous additions. The largest of these is actress Jennifer Lopez, whose character simply serves as an anchor to the film’s narrative.


             When you take away the stupid disguises that Statham wears throughout the film and the unnecessary and barely useful side-kick played by Lopez, Parker is a clear-cut crime revenge film very similar to many other action films. The title character played by Statham is a thief with a strict moral code of ethics: “Don’t steal from people who can’t afford it and don’t hurt people who don’t deserve it.” This works fine for Parker, but when he does a job with a group of thieves that do things differently, he ends up half-dead on the side of the road.


             After a quick recovery, Parker sets out to hunt down the group of men who double-crossed him (headed up by Michael Chiklis). He tracks them to Palm Beach and disguises himself as a wealthy Texan mogul in order to find out where their hideout is. Parker enlists the help of a hapless real estate agent named Leslie (Lopez) for this task, and once she discovers that he is lying, Parker can’t seem to get rid of her.


             I’m not quite certain if Lopez was meant to provide comedic relief or was simply another name actor that they could cram somewhere into the storyline. She is now too old to be Parker’s romantic lead, though the film does have some fun ridiculing Leslie for assuming Parker wants to sleep with her when he actually has a much younger lover already. Nick Nolte also shows up for a few scenes, though all of this simply detracts from the action that audiences came to see this film for in the first place.


             The Blu-ray includes a commentary with director Taylor Hackford, as well as a making-of featurette and a few other extras. These are also included on the DVD, but exclusive to the Blu-ray disc are two additional featurettes. One of them is about action and the other about the origin of Parker.


    Entertainment Value: 7.5/10

    Quality of Filmmaking: 6/10

    Historical Significance: 3/10

    Disc Features: 7/10



    Nightfall Blu-ray review

  • Actors: Simon Yam, Nick Cheung, Shawn Dou, Mike Leeder
  • Director: Chow Hin Yeung Roy
  • Format: Blu-ray, Dolby, NTSC, Subtitled, THX, Widescreen
  • Language: Cantonese
  • Subtitles: English
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: Unrated
  • Studio: Well Go USA
  • Release Date: May 21, 2013
  • Run Time: 108 minutes



             Nightfall manages to fit an amazing number of genres into one film. Though the first twenty-minutes can be somewhat difficult to predict—or even to follow—due to this overflowing style of filmmaking, it is a testament to director Chow Hin Yeung’s ability to balance it all out into a spectacularly effective detective thriller; a mystery with some film noir, more than a little family melodrama, and a good dose of well choreographed action sequences.


             The most extravagant of the action sequences opens the film and introduces us to Yuen-yeung Wong (Nick Cheung), though we aren’t given context for this sequence until far later in the film. The way the story unfolds allows the audience a brief period before being able to predict the ending, which may be a little too on-the-nose for anyone who watches a lot of mystery films or TV shows. Wong is released from prison, silently wandering the city and eating ice cream cones. The only thing the mute ex-con seems interested in is a master pianist and minor celebrity (Michael Wong), and his daughter (Janice Man).


             When the pianist’s body is found brutally mutilated, Wong is the main suspect and Detective Lam (Simon Yam) is the driving force behind the investigation. The more that Lam investigates, the more complex he discovers the case to be. The story behind Wong’s reason for incarceration in the first place leads Detective Lam down a rabbit hole of secrets and cover-ups. During all of this Wong plays a game of chess with Lam, always staying one step ahead both mentally and physically, having spent 20 years in prison preparing for his tasks.


             Despite its confusing beginning and predictable ending, Nightfall is an effective thriller with a great cast headed up by two great leads. The Blu-ray includes a making-of featurette and a trailer, though nothing beats the high definition presentation of the opening scene.


    Entertainment Value: 7.5/10

    Quality of Filmmaking: 7/10

    Historical Significance: 6/10

    Disc Features: 6/10



    The Oranges Blu-ray review

  • Format: Blu-ray, Color, DTS Surround Sound, NTSC, Subtitled, Widescreen
  • Language: English (DTS 5.1)
  • Subtitles: English, Spanish
  • Dubbed: English  
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
  • Number of discs: 2
  • Rated: R (Restricted)
  • Studio: 20th Century Fox
  • Release Date: May 7, 2013
  • Run Time: 91 minutes



             I think The Oranges is meant to be a comedy, though I would be hard-pressed to think of one moment in the film which was able to make me smile, much less laugh. The actors all seem committed to the comedy, though the chemistry is so off between the characters that it often feels as though they are all starring in different films from one another. The biggest problem is the lack of any seemingly believable connection between the two characters we are meant to believe like each other enough to break apart two families and lifelong friendship.


             Perhaps the biggest problem of The Oranges, though there are many preventing it from being more than adequately forgettable entertainment, is narrative’s confused idea of a protagonist. The film is about two families living across from each other for years, developing a long-lasting friendship which is shaken with an affair. Our narrator is Vanessa (“Arrested Development” co-star Alia Shawkat), the daughter of David (Hugh Laurie) and Paige (Catherine Keener). They also have a son named Toby (Adam Brody), who seems to be pushed towards the daughter of neighbors across the street, Nina (Leighton Meester). Nina’s parents (Oliver Platt and Allison Janney) seem especially eager for this pairing to occur, unaware that by encouraging their 24-year-old daughter to spend time across the street she might spend it with Toby’s father instead.


             Nina and David begin an affair, which is less than secret for most of the film. The movie isn’t about hiding indiscretions, but instead about the audacity that they have in pursuing an actual relationship together, right in front of their loved ones. Toby is the only one not told about this development, as he is out of town on business for a length of time, resulting on one of the film’s only memorable scenes. Years on “The O.C.” gave Brody skills at making even this poorly executed family drama slightly amusing.


             What gets lost in the midst of Nina and David’s difficulties with the affair is our narrator’s voice. Although Vanessa provides voiceover at the beginning and the end of the film, she is more of a book-end to keep this loose narrative together. Her character is missing from far too much of the film. The Oranges scratches the surface of all relationships within the film, never delving deep enough for any of them to feel sincere or true, least of all the couple at the center of the storyline.


             The Blu-ray release of The Oranges has a high definition presentation of the film, which takes place in New Jersey, despite some film goofs made more visible by the clear picture. The special features include a making-of featurette, as well as some behind-the-scenes footage. The Blu-ray combo pack comes with a DVD and digital copy of the film as well.


    Entertainment Value: 6/10

    Quality of Filmmaking: 6/10

    Historical Significance: 4/10

    Disc Features: 4/10



    A-Z Daily Throwback Review: Thank You for Smoking (2005)



    Thank You for Smoking made quite a buzz when it came out this year. The political incorrectness mixed with biting social satire pleased audiences immensely. Thank You for Smoking is clever, almost so clever that it seems to be smirking smugly at the audience during the entire 91 minutes. It’s the visual equivalence of having someone sitting beside you nudging you in your ribs and saying, “You know what I mean,” through the whole film. The problem is that by the end, I didn’t know what the film meant. There doesn’t seem to be any particular stance on any issue in the film, but instead is just biting satire at everyone’s expense. Satire is great fun, but when everything is made ridiculous it leaves you feeling as though the filmmakers are on the fence, laughing at both sides. Since audiences are bound to enter the film with one opinion or the other, they to cannot leave the film unscathed.


    Aaron Eckhart stars as Nick Naylor, a lobbyist for Big Tobacco, twisting the truth and charming people into believing that there is no proof that cigarettes are bad. He is ruthless in defending cigarette smoking which is seen when he visits his twelve-year-old son’s classroom and basically encourages the kids to try smoking, but equally wicked in attempting to win the tobacco war is Senator Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy) who is on a war path against the addictive pastime. In an attempt to make smoking cool again Nick has a plan to invest in a film as long as the lead actor smokes through the whole film.


    It took many years for this film to get made, but in the end director Jason Reitman ended up with a stellar cast which would not have been available when the project first started. Rob Lowe is a studio executive in Hollywood and Adam Brody (The O.C.) is his assistant. Robert Duvall plays Nick’s boss and Katie Holmes is a seductive reporter out to get the truth from Nick. Maria Bello and Sam Elliot also have small roles. This film is packed with stars, which is almost a fault at times. All of these actors are fantastic and their roles all seem dramatically smaller than their talent deserves.



    Safe Haven Blu-ray review



             I’m not certain what is more insulting about Safe Haven; the absurdly asinine twist ending which changes the entire genre of the film in the final few minutes, or the fact that Nicholas Sparks now has a production company with the sole intent to churn these films out with the soul-less precision of a production line. As long as people continue to buy into the fact that Sparks keeps repeating himself on page, there is no reason for him to hide the blatant similarities to far more successful works from earlier in his career. Sparks has become the romance novel equivalent to John Grisham’s courtroom thrillers; enjoyable in the first few outings and increasingly tiresome with each imitation that followed.


             Safe Haven has all the familiar elements and characters, with a few more thrown in for good measure. The female protagonist of Katie was offered to Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan was rumored to be attached as well, but the role ultimately fell into the lap of far lesser known Julianne Hough. Katie has a mysterious past and a dangerous looking detective (David Lyons) looking for her, but she manages to feel safe enough in the small town of Southport, North Carolina thanks to a widowed shopkeeper named Alex (Josh Duhamel).


             The film has all of the appropriate romantic steps, as this is Sparks’ bread and butter, and director Lasse Hallström has apparently settled into a comfortable place making these films as well. Alex slowly opens up to Katie for the first time with anyone since his wife, and Katie trusts him because he’s a gentle and good father. We have man small-town scenes of chivalry and kindness before the first kiss. If only the film had been satisfied with the romance sans suspense, I might have been able to end the review with a kind word. The suspense is predictable and forced, but it is nothing compared to the terrible twist revealed at the end. Consider yourself warned. The reason this film got such bad reviews could have been avoided had this one plot twist been left out of the book’s adaptation. I suppose this is the trouble when the author has his own production company.


             The Blu-ray combo pack includes a DVD/digital copy disc, as well as the high definition disc. The special features on the Blu-ray include an alternate ending, as well as some deleted and extended scenes. There is also a set tour and a few featurettes which are mostly just fluff footage, such as Duhamel learning how to go crabbing.


    Entertainment Value: 7/10

    Quality of Filmmaking: 4/10

    Historical Significance: 1/10

    Disc Features: 5/10



    New to Blu-ray: Band of Outsiders (1964)

  • Actors: Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey, Louisa Colpeyne, Chantal Darget
  • Director: Jean Luc Godard
  • Format: Blu-ray, Black & White, NTSC, Subtitled, Widescreen
  • Language: French
  • Subtitles: English
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.77:1
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: Criterion Collection
  • Release Date: May 7, 2013
  • Run Time: 95 minutes


             Though Jean-Luc Godard is one of the most recognizable names in the history of foreign cinema, he is also one of the more acquired tastes of cinema. Most of his film’s in the 1960s had a preoccupation with American culture, and although there are definite reminders of this consistent subject in the taste and demeanor of its characters, Band of Outsiders (Band á part) may be one of his most accessible films.


             Following up the surprise commercial success of Contempt with something a return to his New Wave roots, Godard shot Band of Outsiders in the less glamorous portions of Paris, east of the Bastille. The remainder of the film was shot in the outskirts of the city, in countryside which would soon be taken over by factories after the completion of this film. The narrative is one of a simple robbery, with a love triangle between the three planning the theft, but it is Godard’s signature style that makes this film so unexpected.


             Two aspiring crooks with a penchant for American gangster films (played by Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey) actively pursue and seduce a naïve student learning English, named Odie (Anna Karina). Mostly these three have awkward interactions with each other, including their minute of silence followed by the choreographed dance. There is also the famous sequence in which the three run hand-in-hand through the Louvre in a record visit. Eventually they get to the actual crime, stealing bundles of money from an undeserving man living in the stone villa where Odile works.


             The Blu-ray release of this New Wave classic includes the digital master of Gaumont’s 2010 high-definition restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The special features include a visual glossary of the references and quotations found buried within the film, as well as exclusive interviews, excerpts from a documentary about the New Wave, and rare behind-the-scenes footage. There is also a 1961 silent short film featuring Godard and members of the Band of Outsiders cast. The disc also comes with a booklet insert with an essay by critic Joshua Clover, character descriptions by Godard and a 1964 interview with the director.


    Entertainment Value: 7/10

    Quality of Filmmaking: 9/10

    Historical Significance: 10/10

    Disc Features: 9/10



    New to Blu-ray: The Great Escape (1963)

  • Actors: Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Garner, Jame Coburn, Richard Attenborough
  • Director: John Sturges
  • Format: AC-3, Blu-ray, Dolby, DTS Surround Sound, Dubbed, NTSC, Subtitled, Widescreen
  • Language: English (DTS 5.1), French (DTS 5.1), Spanish (Mono)
  • Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
  • Dubbed: English, French, Spanish
  • Region: All Regions
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: MGM (Video & DVD)
  • Release Date: May 7, 2013
  • Run Time: 172 minutes

  •          When playing tag-related games like capture-the-flag, it was just as important to remember to leave someone to guard the prisoners from the rival team as it was to advance on the rival team. If you didn’t watch the base, your prisoners might escape. This is essentially the same principal as was held by prisoners-of-war during WWII; the more efforts for escape meant more German soldiers needed to guard the prisoners. This was why the Germans decided to create Stalag Luft III, a maximum security prisoner-of-war camp meant to hold the most notorious escape artists. This was the Alcatraz of war camps, but the culmination of so many crafty minds resulted in the largest prison breakout ever attempted.


             The Great Escape is exactly what it advertises itself as, a prison escape film from beginning to end. There is no extraneous material about the soldiers leading up to their initial capture, and no footage of previous prison camps. All the film’s narrative is concerned with is the prison escape based on actual historical events, and we are told in the beginning by text that the details of the actual escape are kept accurate in the telling of the film. Despite the directness of the film’s narrative, The Great Escape still has a running time of 172 minutes. This is due to the ensemble cast full of lively and eclectic characters, a method of storytelling not unfamiliar to director John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven).


             This cast includes the memorable performance by Steve McQueen as the baseball-loving, motorcycle riding American with seventeen escape attempts under his belt before even arriving at the new camp. Each of the different men have tasks or special abilities that they perform in the aid of the escape. Hilts (McQueen) is especially skilled at spending an inordinate amount of time in the cooler, due to his excessive escape attempts. Hendley (James Garner) is skilled at finding items, giving him the title as the gang’s scrounger, while his bunkmate (Donald Pleasance) is a skilled forger given the task of making fake documents for the prisoners escaping. There are also tunnel diggers (Charles Bronson, John Leyton), a man in charge of dispersing the dirt from the tunnel (David McCallum), and at least half-a-dozen other jobs. The star-studded cast also includes Richard Attenborough, James Coburn, Gordon Jackson and James Donald.


             The Blu-ray release is an appropriately polished presentation of this 1963 classic, complete with a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack for Elmer Bernstein’s unforgettable soundtrack. This must be one of the top movie soundtracks to be whistled. In fact, I’m certain more people know the score’s main tune than have actually seen the film. The special features on the disc include an audio commentary by director Sturges with various cast and crew members thrown in the mix. The real bonus is the myriad of making-of featurettes. There are a total of eight, with various topics that include the true story the film was based upon.   


    Entertainment Value: 9/10

    Quality of Filmmaking: 9/10

    Historical Significance: 9/10

    Disc Features: 8/10



    A-Z Daily Throwback Review: Shakespeare Behind Bars (2005)


                William Shakespeare wrote some of the most unsavory characters in the history of theater. Anyone who has studied his works knows that plays like Titus Andronicus are far more shocking than nearly anything created today, and this is why it makes sense that convicted felon would have the most to learn from Shakespeare. As the theater group at Kentucky’s Luther Luckett prison found out with The Tempest, Shakespeare often deals with the theme of forgiveness, and that is what they need most. Shakespeare Behind Bars is a fantastic documentary that shows a positive growth experience in the least likely place.


                The theater program at Luther Luckett only does Shakespeare, which is appropriate considering the roles were all played by men when they were first written, and in the all-male prison there is no choice but to have men play the female roles. The program is a privilege and it is difficult to watch inmates make a mistake that causes them to lose the privilege to perform. The outcome for those who remain in the group is a private performance for family, and a separate performance for their fellow inmates. Each year they do one Shakespeare play and Shakespeare Behind Bars is about their production of The Tempest.


                These aren’t great actors, although they take themselves very seriously and the final production is rather impressive considering it is in a prison. What makes the documentary interesting isn’t the fact that they are good actors. It’s the fact that an art form has saved and reformed many of these men, even the ones who will never see the outside of a prison again. They are human and they make mistakes, but their stories are fascinating and Shakespeare seems to be the most positive thing in their lives.


                The DVD has an impressive prisoner commentary. I am impressed because of the fact that it is included as a feature, although I’m not sure if it is as important as the filmmaker commentary which is also included in the special features. There are also deleted scenes, which I would have been fine skipping, and bonus performance footage. Not only is theater boring to watch on tape, but as I mentioned before, the film is good for other reasons that don’t necessarily include the acting.

    A-Z Daily Throwback Review: Russian Dolls (2005)


    Les Poupees Russes (Russian Dolls) is the sequel to L’Auberge Espagnole, which showed Xavier (Romain Duris) in his mid twenties. Five years later Russian Dolls has Xavier in his thirties and failing in his career as a writer as well as his love life. He lies to his grandfather about his love life, telling him that he has a fiancé (bringing his lesbian roommate to meet him), but is surprisingly honest about his writing career. He is somewhat ignorant to the fact that his writing is going nowhere, but is well aware that the same is true about his romances.


    This does not mean that he doesn’t have romances. There are plenty of women in Xavier’s life, but he juggles relationships like he juggles bad writing jobs while procrastinating writing a novel of substance. He stays close to his ex girlfriend, Martine, but keeps himself at a distance from her romantically. When he takes a job writing a bad television soap with an old friend in London, he finds himself beginning to fall for her, but he is just as quickly called back to France to ghostwrite a young model’s memoirs. Soon Xavier is bouncing back and forth between the two jobs and the women attached to them. This truly is an international romance film.


    Russian Dolls follows the stream of consciousness of a man writing the first draft of a book, as is the source of the narration in the film. This makes for loose and casual storytelling which jumps back and forth in time as our narrator remembers things which must be learned before he can continue on the original train of thought. It’s chaotic and wildly more entertaining than the obvious and predictable journey the narrative would have felt like had it been structured more traditionally. There is a fantastical sense to the story as well. In a particularly fascinating sequence Martine, played by Audrey Tautou (Amelie), tells her son about her past love life through the metaphor of a fairy tale. As she sits on his bed dressed as a princess and unravels the story, a magical forest appears in his room and a castle sits behind them.


    Because Xavier is a writer as much as he is fascinated by the idea of finding true love, it would seem that he could easily write a love story, but each time he is given the chance he is unable to complete it believably. As he writes the story that we essentially watch in the film, he indirectly tells a number of love stories by describing the lives of those around him. Everyone seems able to find love in one way or another and the simplicity and converse complexities of these stories add layers to Xavier’s perception of love. The film even abandons Xavier for a sequence to tell the story of his friend’s encounter with a Russian ballet dancer. It is difficult not to lose faith and interest in Xavier as he intentionally hurts women who care about him, but these sort of films have a way of working things out by the end.



    A-Z Daily Throwback Review: Quo Vadis (1951)


                It may not seem that there is not as much to gain from transferring classic films onto Blu-ray as the latest CG spectacles of today, but Quo Vadis is worth having in high definition for the very fact that nothing is computer enhanced. Everything in the film is what was actually there when it was filmed, and often the costume and production designers put far more work into the film than can be picked up watching it on a DVD or VHS. This is the type of film that was meant to be seen in theaters, a reason to get people to turn their televisions off in order to see spectacle to large for a small screen. Thankfully today’s technology allows many people to have a theater of sorts in their own home, with the spectacle and sound captured along with the detail that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. In an epic film like this, running at 174 minutes, there is a great deal of detail to be seen.


                Like many other biblical epics of the time, the film revolves around a Roman soldier’s realization of the error in his blind following of the emperor Nero. Nero, played spectacularly by Peter Ustinov, is portrayed more as a whiny infant than a malicious ruler. He makes cruel and heartless decisions, but he is so far removed from the violence that he is even able to see the destruction as artwork. Far more concerned with his greatness and the praise of those closest to him, Nero is even unaware of the growing sect of Christians in his kingdom. When he is informed of them it is in order to manipulate a scenario where he will not be blamed for burning Rome.


                Robert Tayler stars as Marcus Vinicius, a Roman general who returns to Rome and falls in love with a Christian woman (Deborah Kerr) who makes him realize the cruelty of the kingdom. Although he refuses to accept her faith, Marcus stops at nothing to protect her and her family. This comes at a price, and eventually Marcus is forced to choose between loyalty to the childish ruler and the faith of the woman he loves.


                The high definition presentation of the film is marvelous, as is having the lengthy film contained all on one disc with room left for special features. There is a featurette about the conception of the biblical epic, as well as a commentary track by film historian F.X. Feeney. The overture and exit music has also been added back into the film, taken out after the initial theatrical run.  

    Exclusive Interview: A Conversation With Brian Herzlinger

    The original film musical is all but dead in the modern era of filmmaking. Although the last decade or so has had an increase in screen adaptations of popular stage musicals, such as Chicago (2002), Phantom of the Opera (2004) and the most recent Les Miserable (2012), it seems as though familiarity is all that keeps the genre thriving within Hollywood. Even when an original story is used, the musical aspects utilize familiar songs from pop culture rather than writing new music and lyrics. Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001) pioneered this method, which was followed by Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe (2007) and John Turturro’s Romance & Cigarettes (2005). Beyond the Sea (2004) uses Bobby Darin’s music as the soundtrack, as many biopic musical often do, though with the inclusion of large production numbers. With the release of The Producers, there was even a filmed musical which was adapted from the stage musical, which was adapted from a film.

    But the one thing missing from the musicals of the modern era has been original content. The first musicals were not the glossy productions we think of today. These first trailblazers were shockingly crude in technical presentation. We mustn’t forget that the very first sound film, The Jazz Singer, was also Hollywood’s first musical. Audiences didn’t watch the musicals because they knew what to expect, but to be surprised by the convention of a changing medium. The original musical is all but dead in modern filmmaking, kept alive by the passion of a few filmmakers working with lower budgets and an independent mentality. Writer/director Brian Herzlinger (My Date With Drew, Baby on Board) is the latest to join this group with the release of How Sweet It Is, an original musical released in theaters this past weekend. 

             Herzlinger is probably still best known for his debut feature, as the man who bought a camera with the intention of returning it within 30 days in order to make a documentary about the pursuit of a date with his childhood crush, Drew Barrymore. My Date With Drew cost $1,100, which helped to make it the fourth most profitable film made. He as followed that initial success up with a wide variety of projects, including being an on-air correspondent for "The Tonight Show," hosting, directing, and writing with childhood friend Jay Black. Herzlinger may have first come into the public's eye with My Date With Drew, but he had already put a great deal of work into the film industry prior to this debut, working in a variety of different positions in both production and post-production. It should come as no surprise that this versatile filmmaker would boldly go where few other directors are willing to venture, into the world of film musicals.

    The storyline of How Sweet It Is lends itself to the backstage musicals of that era, reminding me of Marx Brother’s film, Room Service (1938) in terms of plot and screwball zaniness. Comedy icon Joe Piscopo (S.N.L., Dead Heat, Johnny Dangerously) stars as Jack Cosmo, an alcoholic musical theater director with a reputation in fast decline. The opening scenes quickly establish Cosmo’s desperation when he first sells a beloved theater award to a couple of predatory fans (Todd Sherry and Shawn-Caulin Young), only to discover that this is not nearly enough to save him from the thugs who come to collect his debt. The head thug named Mike (Michael Paré) takes Cosmo to the head mob boss, Big Mike (Paul Sorvino), who happens to be a fan. In order to pay off his debt, the alcoholic director is asked to write and direct an original musical idea from Big Mike, using various lowlifes and social outcasts in the gangster’s debt and an abandoned strip club in place of a theater. The musical’s only chance at success comes with the voice of its star, Ethan Trimble (Erich Bergen), who is secretly an F.B.I. agent attempting to infiltrate Big Mike’s outfit with the help of his minor in musical theater.

    Joe Piscopo and Paul Sorvino

             I could go into more theories about the state of musicals in film, divulge more information about the film’s plot or list the impressive amount of talent gathered in this small film, including Erika Christensen, Eddie Griffin, Jonathan Slavin, Louis Lombardi and many more, but I’m somewhat frightened of the possibility that co-writer Jay Black may review this article, as he did for Chris Packham's in The Village Voice this past week.For the complete Village Voice review and subsequent review of the review, click HERE.


    After watching How Sweet It Is, I had a conversation with Herzlinger about the film and his thoughts on musicals. We ended up talking in the afternoon on Mother’s Day, which is quite fitting considering the fact that I brought my mother as my guest when reviewing My Date With Drew (2004) nearly ten years ago. There is also the nostalgic feeling I found myself having while watching How Sweet It Is. There are many aspects of the film, from costuming and production design to the story itself, which are reminiscent of a bygone era of movie musicals. My mother’s mother made it a family tradition to watch Easter Parade (1948) every Easter Sunday with the family. We have carried the tradition on each Easter, even after she passed, and I have always had a warm place in my heart for those classic musicals ever since. I, for one, am grateful to see a little life brought back to the genre.



    Question: How involved were you in the post-production process? Were you involved with the editing of How Sweet It Is?


    Brian Herzlinger: I’m always involved in the editing in my films. I come from post-production, so when I’m in the production of the actual film I’m always doing it with post-production in mind, knowing what pieces I need in order to fill the puzzle that is editing. When I’m doing a movie, I always feel like I’m making three movies for every one; the movie on the page, the one you shoot, and the one you edit. Because it’s an organic process, though I’m still telling the story, I find new ways to tell it in post-production. And I love that. My editor Blake Barrie is a great guy and a great editor. He’s edited three of my projects already and How Sweet It Is was the first one. It was a particularly difficult film to edit because of the music numbers and I was very adamant about getting a lot of footage for the musical numbers to make them feel big and that was all calculated edits in post-production to make it all work. I’m very happy with how it turned out.


    Q: Speaking of the musical aspects of the film, I felt like there was a classical vibe to the storyline. It reminded me more of older musicals than anything modern. Was that what you were going for? Were there any influences guiding you, or were you going for something completely new in terms of musicals?


    B.H.: No, you hit it on the head. I definitely was going for an homage to the older style musicals. Matt Dahan was on from the beginning. We had numerous conversations about song and musical styles, and I couldn't be more thankful to Matt for the terrific job he did on Sweet. The songs for Sweet are all original, and Matt's abilities are equally so. I love the MGM musicals where you know they’re on a stage, where you have this big background and so forth. Even in The Wizard of Oz you get that backdrop as opposed to being outside in a real environment. I love that feel. I love that stage feel. West Side Story is one of my favorites. As far as source material, [How Sweet It Is] was not a musical when it first came to me. When Jay and I were asked to write the script it was just a straight-out comedy. I didn’t love the way the material was turning out as a straightforward comedy, and I thought this story and this material about Jack Cosmo lent itself to a musical. I was able to pitch that to the financiers and the producers and they agreed and let me go for it. I was just really happy, because Jack’s story was meant to be told as a musical. And for me, that was a dream come true, because I was dying to do a musical. I love them. My favorite musical is Grease, you know? I just really wanted to get the opportunity to tell a story through that medium. In terms of influences, I sat down with the choreographer (Sarah Scherger), the director of photography (Akis Konstantakopoulos), and production designer (Niko Vilaivongs) and showed scenes from my favorite musicals. The “Welcome to Show Biz, Kid” number with Jack was influenced by Bob Fosse just in terms of a look and style. It’s a much darker and starkly lit, and with the top hat it has an All That Jazz kind of feel. The movie starts very timeless, it feels like it could be the ‘30s, from the wardrobe down to the production design. Jack’s wearing a fedora and his wardrobe was specifically designed to look classic. You don’t even know we’re in modern day until he uses his cell phone to call his daughter. And as the movie progresses, it gets more colorful. The color palette becomes more a Skittles explosion by the time we get to the “Bite of Our Lives” number, and that was something we designed from the beginning. We were working on a limited budget and a limited schedule, because it was a small movie, and so there are things you have to calculate to make it feel as big as it is in your head. That was something that was always a challenge. The idea was that he has to put on a show in this deserted strip club, so we knew we weren’t going to be able to do a big Radio City Music Hall musical kind of thing, so it was a very calculated maneuver to keep it contained in the first two acts with the musical numbers. And I feel that through the musical numbers at the end there you see what Jack’s ability has been, what everybody has been talking about, that he was this awesome producer and he rediscovers that. So, yeah, the musical numbers were definitely influenced and intended to be an homage to the classic musicals, to my favorite musicals.


    Q: In the opening shots you have some very realistic footage of L.A., with skid row and some less glamorous areas. Was L.A. always a part of the conception when you were writing this film or was it a choice because of budgetary concerns?


    B.H.: It wasn’t even about location. It was not about the location; it was about the reality. I was very adamant about getting the footage of real people in those situations in all kinds of life. So you’ll see there are people in business attire, going to work, doing the grind. There’s homeless people, there’s people getting arrested. It’s just a really gritty, kind of industrial feel, which I wanted because I wanted to establish Jack as being in that kind of a world, at least in his head. I just wanted to ground the fun we’re going to have with a reminder that there’s heart here, there’s a reality here and you’ve got to care about these guys.


    Q: Tell me about the cast. You’ve got an incredible list of talent. How did they all fall into place?


    Joe Piscopo as Jack Cosmo
    B.H.: The key to it was finding the right Jack. Going back to what I said, I love musicals, and Mary Poppins was one of my favorites. I really wanted to get Dick Van Dyke. I thought, how cool would that be? Dick Van Dyke playing Jack Cosmo! The problem was that the role is so demanding physically, and the whole thing rides on Jack. I quickly swayed myself that that wasn’t a good idea. My writing partner Jack Black and I grew up together and one of our favorite movies was Johnny Dangerously (1984). The idea is for the character of Jack is, “Where have you gone? What happened? You used to be in the spotlight and then you just disappeared.” Big Mike even says that to Jack in a scene. And we were wondering, “What happened to Joe Piscopo?” I know he’s been performing, but it’s been a long time since he’s done a movie. Anyway, we love Joe. We talked to the producers about it and we made the offer to Joe, and that was something Jay and I were really excited about. For me, I wanted to show something that people haven’t been able to see Joe do. And the balance of the act was finding someone who could sing and dance, do the drama, do the comedy…And Joe delivered in spades. I think everybody will see a Joe Piscopo they haven’t seen before, and I’m really excited about that.


    Q: You mentioned both your love of comedy, which has been long-lasting, and your friendship with Jay. I would love to hear the story of how you and Jay met.


    B.H.: Oh, that’s a great story. We met in fourth grade in the lunch line. Helen L. Beeler Elementary School. He was talking to somebody in front of me about body cavity searches, and the guy didn’t know what it was. And I knew exactly what he was talking about. It was a quote from Police Academy 2: The First Assignment.

    So I’m like, “BCS? You talking about Police Academy 2?” He was like, “Yeah!” I’m like “Police Academy 2! It was awesome.” And that was the beginning. Instant friendship. As a matter of a fact, our production company is called BCS Entertainment based on that. Jay’s amazing. He’s the number one college comedian in the country. He’s a brilliant writer and I’m lucky to have him as my partner. He’s just so good at dialogue. My strength is structure and massaging what he does, from a dialogue perspective, but he’s the driving force in the writing. He’s a great guy and a great friend.


    Q: When did your mutual love of Police Academy and comedy turn into collaboration in writing and filmmaking?


    Jay Black and Brian Herzlinger
    B.H.: Well, that’s kind of two separate things. I’ve always wanted to make movies. Jay hasn’t always wanted to make movies. He always wanted to do stand-up. That was his life dream and he achieved that life dream right around the same time that I achieved mine, when I made my first film, My Date With Drew. After My Date With Drew we had a conversation about starting to write together. And the first script we wrote together was called Three for the Road. It was a road trip comedy and it was such and amazingly awesome and productive experience. We had a blast, and so we’ve been writing since 2005. Although, technically we wrote together in 1988. Bar Trek in which we spoofed "Star Trek" and had them all drunk. It’s been a blast. For me, its been a search of putting the best team together, putting a dream team together to make my movies. For How Sweet It Is I found a wonderful director of photography, a wonderful editor and a wonderful casting director. You just start to put together these different pieces that you need in order to surround yourself with a team that can pull it off. I loved the cast. They were all terrific. They all came ready to play, they came prepared, giving 150 percent to the project, from Joe all the way down. Jay and I wrote a pilot for Paul Sorvino based on what he did with Big Mike. We decided to do a more grounded story about a mob boss and we wrote a pilot. The financiers are Rick Finkelstein and Steve Chase did How Sweet It Is. They are just terrific guys and I have a wonderful relationship with them, a wonderful partnership and they financed the pilot and we made “Paulie,” which is our half-hour pilot with Paul Sorvino, Janeane Garofalo and Michael Madsen. Jay and I wrote and Jay and I produced it and I directed. Creatively, it was an amazing experience, and that all stems from How Sweet It Is. And I’m proud to say that I have Joe Piscopo as a good friend now. It’s all about the people you meet. Erich Bergen, who plays Ethan; this was his first film and he knocked it out of the park, and he’s a great guy. Unfortunately for him, he and I are a lot alike, so we have a blast catching up. We’re good friends now too. It’s part of the creative process. Some of the best side effects are the relationships you get after you’re through working with somebody. And it’s something that I’m very aware of and thankful for. You’re just got to keep surrounding yourself with the people you want to work with and be with, and that’s one of my goals. I learned that from David Kelly. When I first came to L.A. in ’97, I was a production assistant on a TV show called “Chicago Hope” with him and Bill D’Elia, my mentor. Once you find someone you want to work with, you keep them around.


    Q: One last question about Jay, because I can’t resist. I read Chris Packham’s review in The Village Voice, as well as Jay’s review. I have to say, I thought it was spectacular. I wanted to give Jay a standing ovation. But I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.


    B.H.: He asked me if he should post it, and I was like, “You know what, do it. What the hell.” We work in a business that’s a court of opinion. That’s all it is. All they care about is that you pay the money to see the movie to make your opinion. They don’t care whether it’s good or bad. They just want to get your money. Jay took it a little harder than I did. When my first reviews for My Date With Drew came out, we got really beautiful reviews... mostly. We were Fresh Tomato Certified but there were some critics who didn’t like My Date With Drew, and I thought, “How does anybody with a soul not like My Date With Drew?” And it was Entertainment Weekly. Owen Gleiberman loved Dukes of Hazzard with Johnny Knoxville and Sean William Scott. He loved that movie. Gave it a B plus or something, and gave My Date With Drew a D! He not only bashed the movie, but he bashed me and called me a charm-less gasbag. At that moment, that hurt. I was like, “I might be a gasbag, but I’ve got charm.” My mom and dad wrote a strongly worded letter to Owen at Entertainment Weekly, but after that it doesn’t get to me. But it got to Jay and I was like, “Yeah, do it. Have a blast.” I see how the movie plays and I have not been in a screening of How Sweet It Is where the audience has not really liked it. That’s what I care about. I care about the people who are choosing to spend their money to see it. That’s all.


    Q: You mentioned your family’s support when you got bad reviews, so I’m assuming they will be seeing your film this weekend. It opens in L.A., New York and New Jersey, correct? Which are you most excited about?

    B.H.: My parents are seeing How Sweet It Is right now! They’re going to see it on Mother’s Day and Joe Piscopo is taking his mother to see it today as well. Where do I care about it opening? I was born in Brooklyn, New York, my childhood was all in Jersey and I’ve been in L.A. since ’97, so I care about all three. At least, that’s the fairest answer I can give. But if the thing opens in Pacoima, I would care about them as much as anybody else. It’s an interesting experience when you put yourself out there creatively. The only thing you can do is make a movie for yourself and the movie you would want to see. Because you can try and please everybody else and you’re just going to end up getting disappointed. It’s always about having a story to tell and being able to do that in the way you think the story should be told. That’s what I do, and if somebody doesn’t like it, that’s fine. That’s absolutely fine. You don’t have to like it. I made a movie called Baby on Board. There are things I would do differently with that film, but I still enjoy watching that movie. There are scenes in there that make me laugh out loud.. And the film had mixed reviews. I think it’s all about creating voices the audience can tap into, and hopefully what you are doing, the people who are giving their hard earned money are going to like it.

    Q: So, having made a documentary, tackled comedy and now having completed your first musical, what is next?

    B.H.: I'm very excited about a few projects I have coming up. My first project is called "The Death House." Jay Black and I wrote the script, Rick Finkelstein and Steven Chase, who produced How Sweet It Is, are producing along with Tony Oppedisano and Michael Guarnera. It's an awesome project that we describe as The Expendables of horror, with a multitude of iconic horror actors attached, including Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street), Doug Bradley (Pinhead from Hellraiser), Bill Moseley (The Devil's Rejects, House of 1,000 Corpses), Dee Wallace (The Howling, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial), Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, From Beyond), Danny Trejo (Machete, Planet Terror) and many more. I'm as big a fan of horror as I am of musicals, so I'm excited to get into production this summer!