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DigTarnationL.A. Twister Ocean's 12

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Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Looking for an antidote to the saccharine yuletide offerings that Hollywood often releases this time of year? If you’re a fan of the ‘90s rock, you may have found it in Dig.

A cynical cinema vérité documentary from Ondi Timoner (TV’s Switched), Dig concerns a rivalry that developed between two formerly popular bands, The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols.

Gaining unprecedented access to the backstage lives of members of both bands, Timoner has created an exhilarating documentary that is as noteworthy as it is sad.

The drama took place over several years as both bands were beginning to make a mark for themselves. Each group was into the retro-‘60s sound and big fans of the other’s efforts.

The volatile leader of BJM was Anton Newcombe, a talented but severely neurotic musician who played dozens of instruments. He became at least as well known for his erratic behavior as his music, churning out albums with apparent ease while shunning major record labels.

Courtney Taylor, leader of the Warhols, is, in some ways, the antithesis of Newcombe. Level headed and well adjusted, he was Newcombe’s biggest fan. Although a talented songwriter himself, he admits that he never reached Newcombe’s artistic heights but got the big record contract and a huge following in Europe.

Newcombe’s self-destructive tendencies are the main focus of the film. In spite of his eager participation in what was to be a brutally honest portrait, he has since denounced Timoner’s movie. Perhaps it is because Taylor provides the narration and expresses a sad bewilderment at how their friendship deteriorated into a bitter feud. Still, Taylor readily admits his unflinching admiration of Newcombe’s artistry even as he questions his sanity.

The only downside of Timoner’s movie is that it doesn’t provide enough of either of the bands’ music for the uninitiated to make an appropriate judgment of its merit. When individuals express their beliefs that Newcombe is a rock genius on a par with Dylan and Lennon, we have to take their word for it. Others may assume that the emperor has no clothes.

What does seem clear is that Newcombe is afraid of success. By hiding behind his contention that signing on with a major record label amounts to “selling out,” he is free to fail and retain his artistic integrity. Whether his actions are conscious or not, he does everything imaginable to sabotage his own career.

Unmistakably, Dig captures the psychosis of the rock world. (R) Rating: 3.5

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

It is said that just before you die, your life flashes before your eyes. If Jonathan Caouette were about to die, he would surely have a vision something like Tarnation.

The cinematic self-portrait of a troubled young man, Tarnation is an amazing, nearly hallucinogenic film that has much the same appeal as rubbernecking at a traffic accident. Some of it is ugly, but you can’t take your eyes off of it.

Combining home movies (Caouette has been making films since he was eleven years old), still photographs, B horror movie clips and eclectic musical interludes, he has amassed a wholly original, affecting and unblinking summation of his life.

Caouette was born in 1972 in Texas. His mother, Renee, underwent electroshock treatments after falling off a roof. That “remedy” left her permanently brain damaged. With his mother in and out of mental institutions, Caouette was partly raised in foster homes where he was abused. Later, after moving in with his dysfunctional grandparents, he witnessed his mother’s rape.

After smoking some tainted pot as a very young teen, he began suffering from a mental condition diagnosed as “depersonalization.” As a result of this malady, he caused trouble for his grandparents and attempted suicide several times. Eventually, he entered the gay club scene in Houston and ultimately became involved in S&M.

Throughout his life, he escaped into the world of cinema and movie making. A self-acknowledged packrat, he amassed an astounding amount of footage of himself and his family members that he skillfully mined for this film.

Perhaps the most touching aspect of the film is Caouette’s undying devotion to his damaged mother. The movie’s opening moments show his despair at the news that his mother has overdosed on her lithium medication. From that moment on, we flash back in time to see what led up to this tragic event.

The film is remarkable enough on its own, but is all the more amazing when considering that it was made for $218.32. Caouette edited his Super 8 movies, video footage and photos on a Mackintosh using free iMovie software. (If that isn’t an inspiration for aspiring filmmakers, then they have no hope.)

Some will consider aspects of Caroette’s film to be exploitive (some of the footage of his mother and grandmother is hard to take), but Caroette’s motivation is simply to present the unbridled truth in a poetic way.

This issue aside, Tarnation is a riveting, “documentary” that stretches the boundaries of filmmaking. It comes closer to art than 99 percent of Hollywood product. (Not rated) Rating: 4

L.A. Twister
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

On the film’s official website, the director of L.A. Twister, Sven Pape, put it this way:
“L.A. Twister is an inside story and an exercise in craft. Not everybody's cup of tea. It is neither a mainstream Hollywood movie nor the artistically valuable art house film. A fellow director once told me after watching the rough cut: ‘You got a problem here. You got a tweener. You're f___.’”

That skeptical fellow director was probably right. This independently made film is a comedy about making an independent film. It’s even being distributed independently. One may admire the gumption and tenacity of such and undertaking, but in the end this effort will probably find itself independent of audiences.

Based upon a play (and webcast), L.A. Twister stars K.U. grad Tony Daly (Dodgeball) as Ethan, a despondent lad whose wife has left him. Directionless, he goes to Tinseltown to visit his friend Lenny, played by Zack Ward (Resident Evil: Apocalypse).

Lenny is too caught up in his efforts to secure some acting work to be mindful of Ethan’s woes. His efforts to gain a part in an action movie include bedding a homely casting agent, only to discover that the only role he’ll get is as an extra.

These two down-and-outers decide to make their own movie. All they’ll have to do is come up with an idea, a script and some money.

Ethan, working as a masseuse, fends off the advances of a horny middle-aged Beverly Hills wife (Susan Blakely) while giving her bi-sexual husband — a Hollywood insider — his rubdown. Lenny romances a married actress named Mindy (Jennifer Aspen) who has auditioned for his film project.

Naturally, the shady investor they secured for their movie turns out to be a phony. Against all odds (and logic), they persist.

Daly is a handsome and likable actor, and Ward, who will forever be known as the yellow-eyed bully Scut Farcus in A Christmas Story, has some tolerable comic moments.

The problem with L.A. Twister lies in its inconsistent tone. The juxtaposition of broad, satiric comedy with dramatic elements (a suicide attempt) is unconvincing. The stabs at magic realism (occasional behind the scenes footage of the making of the film are interspersed with the action) only further muddy the waters.

In the end, L.A. Twister doesn’t have a strong point of view, so neither will it have a strong chance of capturing an audience. (R) Rating: 2

Ocean's 12
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

How intriguing that every major star who appeared in Ocean’s 11 returned for this second outing.

Obviously, the actors did not receive their usual astronomical fees.

The appeal of locations like the Netherlands and Rome aside, the only conclusion one can draw is that the first Ocean film was a fun movie to make.

Why else would actors like Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Matt Damon jump at the chance to do it again? The ensemble is clearly amused, and while Ocean’s 12 is a bit muddled, the experience of sharing that amusement is pleasant.

The plot is a bit of a mess. Some mysterious person has ratted out Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his gang to Benedict (Andy Garcia), the casino owner they robbed in the first film. Now the gang must travel to Europe, gather 160 million dollars for restitution, avoid the brilliant detective Isabel (Catherine Zeta-Jones), discover who broke rule number one and named names, and steal some priceless stuff along the way.

Writer George Nolfi no longer has the original 1960 story written by George Clayton Johnson and Jack Golden Russell to guide him. With the absence of a muse, Nolfi apparently turned to Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther movies as a new inspiration, and while there are moments of ingenuity (a bit with Julia Roberts comes to mind), the result is a plotline that never inspires the viewer’s investment.

Another complaint is that Ocean’s 12 has a disappointing tendency to use its “B” list actors solely as cameos and filler. Two of the funniest men on this earth, Bernie Mac and Eddie Izzard, appear in this movie. Yet the only way their talent could have been less showcased is if they had been assigned to carpentry duty.

Other wonderful actors like Elliot Gould, Don Cheadle and Robbie Coltrane ham it up in an attempt to make the most of their screen time. The only actor whose supporting performance stands out is the great Vincent Cassel. His sheer magnitude dominates every one of his scenes.

Viewers can forgive all the flaws in Ocean’s 12, because we know everyone is having fun. Director Steven Soderbergh keeps the action light and bouncy, and allows the wonderful music of David Holmes to set the pace. Holmes’ music is the kind of accompaniment we wish other people heard when they saw us walking down the street.

Ocean’s 12 may not be smart, but it has a beat and I can dance to it. (PG-13) Rating 3

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