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Magical Reality
28 April 2005
What do you think when you hear the term "reality show"? Does it mean dirty, gritty, hard to watch? Surviving on a Pacific island? Someone following people around 24 hours a day with a hand-held camera, recording every yawn, belch, and insult? People diving off skyscrapers attached to a bungee cord? It can also mean just watching a family going about the business of being a family, and staying a family, in spite of the fact that not everybody shares everybody else's DNA. It means Erich Segal was wrong as hell, because sometimes love does indeed mean having to say you're sorry, and then prove it, because your family's future depends on it.

So sometimes the show lives up to the commercials, and everything's light and airy, and they're having parties for Hollywood royalty, and the only one who's disaffected by the process is three-year-old Maya, who for once isn't the center of attention. And sometimes we see a different side of the fairytale life, the side that has ogres and demons in it, and maybe Prince Charming wasn't always so charming after all. Sometimes we see magical reality, the big house on the hill, California sunshine and lots of love. And then there's a storm and a mudslide, and reality intrudes on perfection.

Are they aware that there's an intruder in the house, a guy with a camera who shouldn't be there, and usually isn't, but there he is? Of course. Does that make a difference? How could it not? It's like Heisenberg's principle in physics—being observed changes the object being observed. But does that mean it isn't reality? Of course not. You can bet your life no one has yet said, "Okay, Celeste, take it from the top and this time, cry a little louder!" (She's one year old.) You can tell kids, dogs, and cats to be on their best behavior, but you still hold your breath while the camera's on them. They're all beautiful, to be sure, but all the halos are a bit tilted. So are Mom and Dad's. And that's where the reality comes in. Yeah, Dad gets to do romantic things like go off to work on a movie, but when he's home, he's got his "honey do" list just like all other dads, and just when he's stretched out on the couch to enjoy a well-intentioned but probably not very expert foot rub from one of the kids, he hears his name being called, and he gets that "omigod" look in his eyes. One more chore to do before he can collapse. Find a husband who can't identify with that one. Or a wife who hasn't been disappointed by Mr. Right. Maybe there were times when the Van Diens felt like they'd dived off a skyscraper, and both of them wondered if the safety line would hold.

It's the best of both worlds, reality and fantasy, beautiful people with some not-so-beautiful problems. It's the offspring of three different relationships trying to mold themselves into one family. It's two people trying to guide a fairytale romance through the inevitable clash with reality so it will come out intact and functioning on the other side. Sometimes it's hard to watch (because of the subject material), sometimes it's fun, but they're an engaging bunch and it's an entertaining hour.
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Anonymous Rex (2004 TV Movie)
Dinos--ya gotta love 'em
8 December 2004
Warning: Spoilers
Looked like it might be a fun scifi-monster movie—mutated dinosaurs living among humans AS humans? Nice spooky little shot of a normal-looking guy walking along, close up on his face, and one eye turns all yellow and feral with vertical pupil, then he walks on, looking just like everyone else. Fun stuff.

But guess what? The story is being told by the monster. How's that grab ya? In flashbacks. And not only that, before you can decide this is too crazy for words, the movie starts jabbing a little bit at itself. It's funny. The "dinos" get high on ordinary spices, like basil and rosemary and thyme. Shades of Alien Nation slags getting pie-eyed on sour milk, but why not? And guess what else. The dinos aren't as bad as all that. They have families and jobs and friends and species-specific quirks (everybody knows that triceratops are herd beings and like to have lunch in groups) and—how timely can we get?—radicals who don't like being made to fit in for the sake of survival and would like to let dinos be dinos. That is to say killer carnivores. The top of the food chain. Thus the central conflict of the movie. There are also some pleas for toleration of differences that might strike some as heavy-handed, but actually they didn't do a bad job of showing how painful it can be to spend a lifetime "passing," or living in the saurian version of the closet, which used to involve rubber disguises which evolved into 21-century hologram-creating electronics.

They touched a lot of bases in this movie, kept it moving, kept the characters interesting and more than one-dimensional, and took themselves just seriously enough to give you something to think about. And then there was the secret of the big bad private eye's daughter… but that would require a spoiler alert.

Dinos. You gotta love 'em, claws and all. They're tough, they're smart, they're adaptable, and mostly don't act like they should all be deported to Jurassic Park. But still, would you want your daughter to marry one? Maybe the moral was We aren't like you, and maybe we aren't as benign as we'd like you to believe, but we aren't as bad as your worst nightmares about us either. We are what we are, but you'll never know what that is as long as we have to pretend to be what you are. That isn't an abstraction for a lot of people living on the planet right now, it's just what they have to deal with. Ask anyone in Michigan who has to live with the consequences of Proposal Two.

But I don't want to end on a surly note. It was a pretty good movie, if a bit hard to categorize. It had action, love, murder, intrigue, food for thought, even comedy. Anonymous Rex. Shoulda known from the title.
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Road Rage (2000 TV Movie)
A fleshed out video game but kinda fun
4 November 2004
There seems to be a craze to make movies from original sources such as comic books and even video games, and some of them have been quite successful. So I really wondered if a movie called Road Rage was going to resemble those noisy theater lobby games where hyped up virtual cars go flying madly around a screen moving faster than warp speed, to the accompaniment of blasting rock music, and how long they could keep it up anyway. The answer is, it did resemble the games, and they kept it up for about 100 minutes of really harrowing chases interspersed with just enough character exposition to keep you wanting to stick another quarter in the slot so the game wouldn't stop.

The plot was rudimentary and the characters rather sketchy, but somehow I found myself really getting into the chase, wincing as I watched careening cars, exploding fireballs and demolished structures, and wondering if we were ever going to see behind the darkened windows of the demon truck, and just who was going to survive the mayhem. It didn't take long to get to the point where I want to see the Neanderthalean Bo get squished between a rock and hard place, or bus and mountainside, or whatever current obstacle course was being presented, but this wasn't entirely Luke & Leia vs. Darth and the Dark Hordes. The rescued Sonia could be a mouthy and irritating, and Jim wasn't ready to roll over on his back and surrender to the alpha wolf before doing a little stunt driving himself, after which he shouted in a burst of testosterone-fueled glee, 'I'm the man!' As Sonia rightly pointed out, there was a certain amount of just plain old Y-chromosomal orneriness in both hunter and prey, and she wasn't always certain she wanted anything to do with any of it. Not until one of them tried to shoot her, at any rate. That pushed her over the edge; she not only cried and screamed, she retaliated.

The characters' reactions may not always seem consistent or credible, but on the other hand, do we really know how we would react in a situation like this? Sometimes the surprising reaction to being scared witless is to make a stupid joke; then we might shift into defiance, or cry, or throw up-terror manifests in myriad ways. The ending was reminiscent of Speed, with one creepy difference-the last spoken word in the movie. Were we supposed to be left with a feeling that perhaps Fate had engineered a minor tragedy here, that this wasn't just a couple of simians acting out 'the same old story, a fight for love and glory'? Nah. Couldn't be. It was just a fleshed-out video game. Wasn't it?
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The Vector File (2002 TV Movie)
Must see for Van Dien fans, fun thriller for everyone else
24 September 2004
Warning: Spoilers
(The end of para. 2 contains a not very surprising spoiler, sort of.)

This movie is a must-have for Casper Van Dien fans and a nice little made-for-TV action-thriller for the rest of the world that is suffering through a nothing-good-on-TV night and looking for something to rent. There aren't a whole lot of surprises, except perhaps that India Oxenberg (Van Dien's daughter both in and out of the movie) is a good actress for her age, and his much-put-upon character, who runs the gamut of unknown assailants, suspicious cops, and a tottering marriage, is finally allowed to take revenge in a rather novel way involving a swimming pool and some brute force, and let's just leave it at that.

The Vector File, as we learn fairly soon, involves viruses, plagues, and possible apocalyptic chaos, and naturally is of interest to every nefarious SPECTRE type organization on the planet. But to a child who gets confused by all the keys and buttons on dad's computer, it's mainly useful as scrap paper to draw pictures on. And therein lies the reason for all the chasing, shooting, kidnapping, drowning, asphyxiating, car bombing, and battering with driftwood. There's quite a bit of mayhem, real and surreal, involving death, near death, and fear of death. But this isn't Quentin Tarantino, it's made for TV, so it's not incredibly bloody, and most of the people you'd expect to be left standing at the end of the movie actually are. And if you're careful about what your kids hear, hold their ears the 3 or 4 times somebody gets perturbed and uses four-letter words beginning with 's' and 'f'-at least in the unexpurgated version, or maybe TV down under is just different.

Periodically there is some beautiful New Zealand scenery to look at, and Van Dien fans will love seeing him looking scrumptiously scruffy in a beard and t-shirt throughout the movie (costumes were obviously not a big part of the budget this time around). Call me soft in the head, or just fascinated by the notion of show business 'dynasties,' but there's just something nice about watching the real daddy/daughter duo facing the bad guys together. And we kinda sorta suspect the estranged couple played by real-life husband and wife Van Dien and Catherine Oxenberg will probably wind up together again before the movie's over too. At least if they can settle the matter of the anchovies. As for what that's all about, you'll have to rent the movie and find out for yourselves.
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Big Spender (2003 TV Movie)
9/10
A fun family movie from Animal Planet
8 September 2004
Warning: Spoilers
(There's a "spoiler" that's not really a spoiler in paragraph 3.)

There are two ways you can approach movie criticism: try to judge by some absolute standard, or come a little closer to reality and realize that not every movie is Gone With The Wind, and in fact most aren't even trying to be. There are classics and cult favorites and monster hits nobody remembers 10 years later. So, here's this nice little movie called Big Spender, which right away makes me think of Shirley MacLaine and Chita Rivera except that in this case, it's the name of one of the characters in the film, who happens to be a horse. In fact the whole movie is sort of a big commercial for The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, which tells you something right off the bat. This isn't Turner Classic Movies, it's an Animal Planet original. It has an agenda, part of which is to not offend anybody because it's trying to sell you something while it's entertaining you.

What we have then is a rather formulaic and predictable story that relies heavily on simply whether you like the protagonists or not. Luckily you do. First and foremost is Eddie Burton, a small-time but incorrigible convict who seems to be rather well intentioned but just can't seem to shake the loser label he's worn all his life. About the best and most positive thing he's done is produce a sweet little 8-year-old son, whose fate comes into question as the movie goes on. Also at risk is the retiring racer Big Spender, who is dramatically saved from the dogfood factory by being fortuitously splashed all over the front pages of the local papers. However, even the TRF ranch proves not to be a totally safe haven, as its continued existence depends on the whim of the government and whoever else can be persuaded to donate funds.

Can Eddie survive prison, and his own occasionally sharp tongue, earn a certificate in 'horse management' (or whatever it's called), become employable, and make a home for himself and his child? Will the pretty jockey find a place in their lives? Will Big Spender, seen initially as little more than a wheezing bag of bones, recover and find a new lease on life? Will the TRF ranch itself survive? Do we ever really doubt that the answer to all the above is yes?

The ranch is not Tara and it is not run by Gerald O'Hara but Graham Greene doing another of his crusty curmudgeons with heart of gold, wry wit and a twinkle in his eye, and as usual he's great fun to watch. Casper Van Dien does a nice turn as the irresponsible but ultimately redeemable Eddie, whose past sins are never spelled out, but who just couldn't be that bad and still have such a soft spot for kids and animals.

There's more than a little overtone of Seabiscuit-everyone deserves a second chance, and in rescuing we are rescued-and we have no doubt that man and horse are destined to follow parallel paths when we see that they both love the same kind of peppermint treats. And when Big Spender is described as having been up to his knees in his own manure when he was rescued, we're smart enough to make the connection between him and Eddie. But we can't help pulling for the skeletal stallion with a sweet tooth and the feckless and temperamental Eddie. We just know they've got the right stuff in them somewhere and want to see them bring it out of each other. It's just a sweet little family movie, but then that's all it ever intended to be. Get some popcorn and watch it with the kids.
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Chasing Destiny (2001 TV Movie)
9/10
'A charming and funny love story where fate takes surprising turns.'
29 August 2004
Anyone who has rented more than two videos knows that you can't always rely on the words on the back of the box to give you an accurate description of the movie within. So this time you'll get a nice surprise. This is not a big splashy movie. There is one short, funny chase, but no car chases, and although there are a few guns in evidence, no one comes anywhere near getting shot. This is what you might call a relationship movie, moved along by scenes involving lovers who may (or may not) be separated by deception, a parent and child trying to patch up a, well, patchy relationship before it's too late, and old friends just trying to survive in a world they've almost outlived. The cast works well together and makes you hope that everything will turn out well for all of these characters.

Casper Van Dien as the writer turned repo man turns in a performance that is smooth, funny, sexy, charming, and even subtle. Johnny Rico a romantic quoting Swinburne? Tarzan writing poetry? Well, yes. It works. Bobby Moritz may have a slick side, but you believe that he can be redeemed by love. Back To The Future's wild-eyed crazy man as a cranky but toned-down and ultimately lovable retired rock star? Well, yes again. After all, he's dying, he's not supposed to have the nutty professor's manic energy and purpose, and Christopher Lloyd shows that he has more gears than over-the-top. Roger Daltrey is almost unrecognizable, but still likable, as a seventies leftover who has neither cut his hair nor lost his talent-or stopped drinking-and Lauren Graham as the woman Bobby may (or may not) be destined to love forever plays sassy but vulnerable very well. The only scenes that are funny are the ones that are supposed to be, everything moves right along, you can actually care about the fate of the characters, and the ending jam session is a blast. A charming and funny love story-just like the box says.
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Modern Vampires (1998 TV Movie)
A film for vampire fans and misc. collectors
29 August 2004
Modern Vampires is the tale of a crew of ghastlies enjoying the night life of L.A. in relative obscurity until someone goes on a killing rampage which brings them to the attention of the local police, as well as the local don, Count Dracula, who likes discretion so much that he even has a special cleaning service for messy vampires. That tells you something about how seriously this movie takes itself. Who's doing the killing, why, and what to do about her (yes, her) is the basis of the plot. A parallel plot involves Dr. Van Helsing on another of his famous vampire hunts, so the predatory vampiress is triply threatened.

This is not an easy film to characterize. It's about vampires, yes, but they're not so much scary in the traditional sense of Lugosi and Lee as they are just kind of creepy and weird, and as disgusting as they are terrifying. They turn their victims into human sodas to be drunk in underground nightclubs They transform into gargoyle like creatures that seem to have more in common with modern sfx-driven horror movies than the original vampire legend. And for God's sake don't ever make love to one of them. That too has taken on new and dire consequences.

The film also explores the notion of degrees of vampiric evil (no surprise to any Buffy fan). Casper Van Dien's character Dallas has made two vampires to save them from unhappy fates, so humans are obviously something more than just food to him. These vampires have all kinds of family arrangements, from mafia like to almost normal human variety. There is even one who is eternally pregnant, a bizarre state of affairs surpassing even Ann Rice's child vampire Claudia, whose role, to some extent, is played by the (s)punky young vampire portrayed by Natasha Wagner. Although physically mature, she is an emotional child who gives a whole new meaning to the phrase 'instant gratification.' And Van Helsing himself, a reputed Nazi collaborator, may not be a paragon of virtue. So nothing is quite black and white in the undead underworld of Los Angeles.

If you simply have to see every vampire movie ever made, you must see this as well. If you're a fan of Casper Van Dien or Rod Steiger, they're protagonist and nemesis, and you shouldn't miss the chase. Van Dien manages to look good even in fangs, which these particular bloodsuckers sport 24/7 and have to talk around as well as sometimes explain to the curious. If you're fascinated by show business dynasties, catch it for Natasha Gregson Wagner, who is at times eerily reminiscent of her mother Natalie Wood. Just be warned-everything in this movie is a bit overdone. The comedy becomes slapstick, some scenes are more disgusting than truly horrible, and the sex is approached as either grotesque or tongue-in-cheek, or occasionally fang in neck. They even throw in a bit of Lesbian activity, but the most interesting scenes involve Van Dien and Wagner-as visually arresting a couple as you'll ever find anywhere-who, before the movie ends, have managed to swap almost every bodily fluid imaginable.

MV can't decide if it's horror, comedy, romance or satire, and so mostly falls short of being really satisfying in any category, but it delivers some characters who can be fun to watch, notably Van Dien and Wagner as the young (in vampire terms) lovers fleeing the old vampire patriarch whose will they have defied. Rod Steiger looks and acts like a cross between Uncle Fester and the decrepit Van Helsing portrayed by Olivier in Dracula 79. And sometimes you just have to laugh at the homeboys who receive The Dark Gift like it was an STD, almost a satiric comment on AIDS stood on its head: this infection lets you live forever, if you don't mind being a homicidal maniac for the rest of your unnatural life.

To enjoy MV, you just have to turn off your critical faculties, pass the beer and pizza, and take it for what it is.
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Chasing Destiny (2001 TV Movie)
9/10
'A charming and funny love story where fate takes surprising turns.'
26 August 2004
Anyone who has rented more than two videos knows that you can't always rely on the words on the back of the box to give you an accurate description of the movie within. So this time you'll get a nice surprise. This is not a big splashy movie. There is one short, funny chase, but no car chases, and although there are a few guns in evidence, no one comes anywhere near getting shot. This is what you might call a relationship movie, moved along by scenes involving lovers who may (or may not) be separated by deception, a parent and child trying to patch up a, well, patchy relationship before it's too late, and old friends just trying to survive in a world they've almost outlived. The cast works well together and makes you hope that everything will turn out well for all of these characters. Casper Van Dien as the writer turned repo man turns in a performance that is smooth, funny, sexy, charming, and even subtle. Johnny Rico a romantic quoting Swinburne? Tarzan writing poetry? Well, yes. It works. Bobby Moritz may have a slick side, but you believe that he can be redeemed by love. Back To The Future's wild-eyed crazy man as a cranky but toned-down and ultimately lovable retired rock star? Well, yes again. After all, he's dying, he's not supposed to have the nutty professor's manic energy and purpose, and Christopher Lloyd shows that he has more gears than over-the-top. Roger Daltrey is almost unrecognizable, but still likable, as a seventies leftover who has neither cut his hair nor lost his talent-or stopped drinking-and Lauren Graham as the woman Bobby may (or may not) be destined to love forever plays sassy but vulnerable very well. The only scenes that are funny are the ones that are supposed to be, everything moves right along, you can actually care about the fate of the characters, and the ending jam session is a blast. A charming and funny love story-just like the box says.
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The Collectors (1999 TV Movie)
An unassuming but interesting movie with something for everyone
25 August 2004
The Collectors is an unassuming but interesting movie that has a little bit of everything-cops, killers, shootouts, buddies, comedy, and love (both requited and –un). The plot revolves around two semi-unsavory characters, Ray and A.K., who collect unpaid mob debts, and when they can't, heads may roll. But somehow we never really feel much menace from these guys, who are played for sympathy by Casper Van Dien and Rick Fox.

Van Dien's A.K. in particular, who at times projects an almost childlike likableness, would really like to get out of this risky business and be law-abiding, if he could afford to, but he won't leave his partner, who still feels loyalty to the boss who rescued him from the streets. And A.K. would really like to see his buddy settle down and marry his girlfriend Lyla, a beautiful hooker who is also caught in a no-win, no-way-out profession. Ray is a master of rationalization who neatly compartmentalizes his life, in fact occasionally seeing his job as being a way to improve the world by ridding it of scum. A.K. is just getting tired of it all, but he does make a moral distinction between killing a pimp who murdered a very young prostitute and killing debtors for late payment. Perhaps one last job, and taking one big chance involving deception and theft, will enable them to run, hide, and start over.

Will Ray and Lyla escape their sordid lives and find true love? Will A.K. ever get through to the beautiful cop (Catherine Oxenberg) who's been pursuing him so long, but who, he's convinced, is really attracted to him or she would have killed him by now? Is it love, bad luck or bad aim? We suspect but don't find out until the end of the movie, where we get a couple of surprises.

Van Dien fans will especially love the rooftop scene where A.K., watching Ray and Lyla share a tender moment, fantasizes about doing the same with Lt. Bailey. With hindsight, we know we're watching Van Dien and Oxenberg falling in love right before our eyes.

By some accounts, The Collectors contains ad libbed material that made the cut. Perhaps that's why the main characters seem so natural and likable-it's like watching Butch and Sundance do NYC, but we hope they'll meet a kinder fate. Rent it and see.
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