reel reviews
movie reviews
May '07

WAITRESSPIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD'S END
AWAY FROM HERSHREK THE THIRD28 WEEKS LATERGEORGIA RULETHE EX
THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEYAFTER THE WEDDING
SPIDER-MAN 3LUCKY YOUBLACK BOOK

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Waitress
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If Fried Green Tomatoes had been reworked as a TV sitcom, it may have played a lot like the new comedy, Waitress. Oddly enough, that’s not a bad thing.

In fact, Waitress is a low-key charmer that manages to overcome its obvious flaws. Like Splenda, it’s artificially sweet but it wins us over with its sunny romanticism.

But sadly, this lighthearted bit of Southern-fried cornpone will always be remembered as the last work of budding filmmaker Adrienne Shelly. The actress/writer/director was tragically murdered in her Manhattan apartment a few months after shooting was completed.

Keri Russell (TV’s Felicity) stars as Jenna, a waitress and baker at a small town Southern café. Her specialty is pie. Having inherited a talent for baking from her mother, Jenna concocts one unusual creation after another, usually inspired by her current mood. (One memorable treat is called, “I Hate My Husband Pie.”)

Yes, in spite of her upbeat nature, Jenna is an unhappy camper. Stuck in a marriage to a self-centered, controlling and possessive bore named Earl (Jeremy Sisto from TV’s Six Feet Under), Jenna finds some escape from reality in creating her unique desserts.

But things get worse when Jenna discovers that she’s pregnant. Although she’s afraid of Earl, she’d secretly made plans to leave him. With a baby on the way, she’s unsure of what to do.

Keeping her condition a secret from Earl, Jenna strikes up a friendship with the town’s new physician, a handsome and empathetic young man named Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion from Serenity.) Naturally, the duo engages in a tempestuous love affair in spite of the fact that Dr. Pomatter is also married.

Shelly (who also plays one of Jenna’s daffy coworkers, Dawn) walks a tightrope as she balances the cutesy elements of her script with the serious aspects of Jenna’s predicament.

Kerri’s sunny performance is a big plus. Her personal appeal helps the movie generate its homespun appeal. Fillion is also likable as the fumbling physician who doesn’t know quite how to handle this awkward situation.

Other memorable supporting characters include Cheryl Hines (TV’s Curb Your Enthusiasm) as yet another waitress and seasoned veteran Andy Griffith as curmudgeon with a heart of gold.

As with movies such as Babette’s Feast and Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, Waitress will make your mouth water. The pies are so lovingly prepared that you may leave the theatre with hunger pangs.

Like Jenna’s pies, Waitress is full of empty calories. But, darn it, it’s kinda tasty. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 05/25/07)


Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Thank heaven for Johnny Depp.

As the overblown pop culture phenomenon known as Pirates of the Caribbean sails to its long and very windy conclusion, his performance as the rum-swigging and slightly fey Captain Jack Sparrow single-handedly keeps the ship upright.

Part three of the cliff-hanging trilogy finds our hero in Davy Jones’ locker — an odd aquatic version of purgatory. As you may recall, a giant sea monster consumed him at the end of part two.

It’s up to the dashing William Turner (Orlando Bloom) and the porcelain-skinned Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightly) to bring him back from the dead. They need his aid in putting an end to the evil squid-faced Jones (Bill Nighy), who is, in turn, being manipulated by the cunning and corrupt Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander).

But lovers William and Elizabeth can’t save him alone. They recruit the help of voodoo priestess Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) and their former nemesis, the shifty pirate Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush).

The production values of this phantasmagoric enterprise are stupendous. While the budget is a closely guarded secret (rumored to be over $225 million), director Gore Verbinski (The Ring) and his vast crew of artists and technicians appear to have put it all up on the screen. As pure spectacle, it’s hard to beat.

But the screenplay is a total mess. It’s so full of twists, turns, back-stabbings, loose ends and machinations that viewers will need a bracket chart like the NCAA basketball tournament in order to keep everything straight.

In spite of the overblown and convoluted nature of the script, Verbinski manages to find time in his 168-minute opus for some dull stretches.

But will any of these flaws matter? In terms of box office success, the answer is “no.” Expect this one to clean up, racking up obscene numbers as it makes its assault on some of the all-time records. Fans expect an amusement park ride, not a coherent story, and At World’s End gives them just that.

At some point in the movie, viewers will stop caring about who does what to whom and why, and just take it in on visceral level. And frankly, for this kind of opus, that’s an appropriate approach. (The vast majority of viewers will never know how the story ends because a critical plot element isn’t resolved until a scene that follows the final credits!)

But the best thing about this trilogy is Johnny Depp’s sterling performance. He’s created one of the most memorable characters in movie history and that’s reason enough to take the ride. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 05/25/07)


Away From Her
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Julie Christie has been on the big screen all too infrequently in the last several years. Since her Oscar-winning turn in the 1965 drama, Darling, she has captivated audiences with her beauty and talent.

With unforgettable roles in movies like Dr. Zhivago, Far from the Madding Crowd, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Heaven Can Wait, Christie has made an indelible impression that caused Al Pacino to describe her as “the most poetic of all actresses.”

Still sunning at age 67, Christie tackles her best role in years in the heartbreaking drama, Away From Her. The directorial debut of actress Sarah Polley (Dawn of the Dead), Away from Her tells the story of an aging couple facing the creeping menace of Alzheimer’s disease.

Christie portrays Fiona, longtime wife of Grant, played by veteran Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent (The Good Shepherd). The retired couple face Fiona’s rapidly advancing mental condition with as much grace and dignity as they can muster. But while Fiona shows resignation to her plight, Grant has far more difficulty accepting it.

We follow their story from Fiona’s brief bouts of forgetfulness to her realization that it won’t be long before she will be unable to care for herself. Against Grant’s wishes, she signs the papers that will have her eventually committed to a long-term care facility.

Polley’s screenplay, adapted from Alice Munro’s short story The Bear Came Over the Mountain, is sure-handed and sound. Poignantly, the dialogue touches on some of the indiscretions from Grant’s past as a college professor. Although he dallied with some of his students, he always returned to the forgiving Fiona.

Grant’s heartache at his wife’s affliction is exacerbated by the fact that his infidelity is one of the things that Fiona hasn’t forgotten.

Away from Her boasts some fine supporting performances, too. Oscar-winner Olympia Dukakis (In the Land of Women) is touching as Marian, the wife of another Alzheimer’s patient who strikes up a friendship with Grant.

Kristen Thompson (The Republic of Love) is excellent as a sympathetic nurse. In one particularly well-focused scene, she manages to nail Grant for his self-pity while managing to avoid appearing insensitive.

Polley, who has been acting since childhood, has clearly been paying attention. Her direction is adept and belies the fact that this is her first effort. It certainly looks like the work of a veteran.

The only things working against the film are its unwavering sense of melancholy and slow pace. It won’t appeal to everyone, but its honesty and splendid acting give it dignity. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 05/18/07)


Shrek the Third
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The Shrek franchise was to animated films what The Matrix was to action films: a fresh approach to an old genre. The Matrix wowed audiences with its unusual fight scenes (people running up walls and floating through the air) and its complex philosophies, which birthed numerous analytical books. Likewise, Shrek captured viewers with its treasure trove of allusions to fairytales, movies and pop culture.

Like The Matrix, Shrek has been oft imitated. Just as other flicks copied The Matrix’s ethereal martial arts style, animated features copied Shrek’s witty allusions. So cinematic elements that once created surprise have become expected features of established subgenres. When they work, viewers still fancy them, but familiarity has stolen their wow factor.

Not to say that Shrek the Third does not elicit laughter. It does, but the movie is not packed with clever allusions. It contains a modicum of pop-culture references. But it’s not as complex as Shrek or Shrek 2.

Shrek the Third begins with Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) and Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) filling in for the king and queen of Far Far Away. The king is sick, and his daughter and son-in-law are supposed to temporarily substitute for the royal couple.

However, it soon becomes clear that the king is dying. Shrek knows he’s not cut out to be king. The loveable ogre also discovers that there’s another heir to the throne, Artie (Justin Timberlake).

The catch: Shrek has to convince Artie, unpopular high school kid, to accept the throne. The other catch: Prince Charming is trying to steal the throne from Shrek and Artie.

Prince Charming has solicited the help of various fairytale villains. Princess Fiona has several fairytale women on her side. Shrek has the help of his two buddies Puss In Boots (Antonio Banderas) and Donkey (Eddie Murphy).

The softhearted ogre still captures us with his big brown eyes, winning smile and blundering ways. Plus, the verbal jousts between Puss In Boots and Donkey contain enough cleverness to elicit smiles if not frequent laughter. And the movie’s 93-minute runtime is just long enough to reacquaint viewers with an affable character and add a new chapter to an entertaining story, and short enough to avoid viewer boredom. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 05/18/07)


28 Weeks Later
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

No, these aren’t your daddy’s lumbering zombies. These living dead are fast, bloodthirsty and filled with rage.

When the British horror opus 28 Days Later arrived in theatres in 2002, it ushered in a unique spin on the zombie genre, reinventing the flesh-eaters in a more frightening incarnation.

The sequel, 28 Weeks Later picks up where the first ended, with London a virtual ghost town, the victim of a bizarre virus. This bug had instantly turned folks into enraged killers. Over six months have passed since the initial outbreak and most of the zombies have died of starvation.

The US Military has led an international force to occupy London that now, it seems, virus free. They intend to repopulate the city with people who were lucky enough to escape the initial onslaught.

In a brief and scary prologue, Don (Trainspotting’s Robert Carlyle) and his wife Alice (Catherine McCormack from Dangerous Beauty) are holed up in a country cottage, hiding from zombies. When the attack gets serious, Don runs, abandoning his wife and others to the marauding herd.

Fast-forward six months, and Don is working in London as a building manager as the armed forces are repopulating the city. He’s happily reunited with his children Tammy and Andy (Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton) who were safely away during the outbreak. Naturally, they want to know about dear old mom, so dad lies through his teeth.

Their idyllic reunion is short-lived, however. Through a series of coincidences, the virus manages to get past the military barrier and the next thing you know, the kids are fleeing from daddy’s aggressive affection.

Since the outbreak has gotten out of hand, the commanding general (Idris Elba from Daddy’s Little Girls) gives orders that the whole area be firebombed. But Don’s kids may have immunity to the virus, so a sympathetic American doctor (Rose Byrne from Wicker Park) and an American soldier (North Country’s Jeremy Renner) try to help them escape.

The movie is graphically gory, undeniably creepy and incorporates some impressive special effects. There are also a number of jolts, enough to probably satisfy horror fans.

But director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (Intacto) employs way too much jerky, hand-held camerawork. Who shot this movie, the zombies? Plus there are a few too many lulls for this kind of creepfest.

Still, 28 Weeks Later fills the zombie gap, giving fans their fix. It will probably be enough to last them until Resident Evil: Extinction hits theatres in September. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 05/11/07)


Georgia Rule
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Who says a movie shouldn’t make us laugh and cry? The best ones do.

Director Garry Marshall’s latest film, Georgia Rule, definitely elicits laughter but instead of crying viewers will likely puzzle a bit over the story line and over its connection to reality.

Lindsay Lohan (Bobby, 2006) plays Rachel, a troubled teen who has been banished to her grandmother’s house for the summer. Apparently she’s been acting out at home, and her mother (Felicity Huffman as Lily) thinks granny (Jane Fonda as Georgia) can whip the girl into shape.

Grandmother and granddaughter turn out to be similar souls. They both blurt their thoughts without editing, and they’re both stubborn. So, of course, they butt heads … until grandma discovers that her granddaughter might have been sexually abused.

At that point Rachel’s alcoholic mother gets into the act, and the three go round and round. The central question: Was she or wasn’t she molested?

One thing’s for sure. Rachel has somehow learned to use her sexuality to manipulate men. She uses it to gain the affections of an innocent Mormon boy (Garrett Hedlund as Harlan), and she tries to use it to seduce her mother’s old boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney as Simon).

Rachel may be the film’s main focus, but she’s not the only one with problems. Georgia is hooked on routine and order, so much that a psychiatric diagnosis of her would probably uncover obsessive-compulsive disorder. Lily is an alcoholic who has chosen to ride her husband’s success rather than create her own.

This film could have been a great character study, a moving look at the aftershock of sexual abuse. Some of Rachel’s behavior is textbook. Unfortunately, Georgia Rule only provided moderate insights (mixed with dozens of Hollywood clichés).

Still it’s worth the price of admission to see these three actresses’ interpretations of three complex and troubled women. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 05/11/07)


The Ex
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The Ex marks the first film that Charles Grodin has made in well over a decade. The sardonic star of movies like The Heartbreak Kid and Midnight Run often played the well-meaning schlemiel who always seemed to screw up.

Now, however, Grodin is relegated to playing the dotty father-in-law. The well-meaning schlemiel role in The Ex goes to Zach Braff (TV’s Scrubs).

This sitcom deals with an immature lad named Tom Reilly (Braff) who just can’t seem to be able to keep a job. His latest gig is working as an assistant chef in New York City, and Tom is hoping for a promotion so that he can support his beautiful wife, Sofia (Amada Peete from TV’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) and the child she’s about to bear.

But Tom loses the restaurant job on the very day that Sofia delivers their son. He realizes that he’s got to take the advertising job that his father-in-law, Bob (Grodin) has offered him in Ohio. So, baby and belongings in tow, Tom and Sofia head off for the Midwest.

But life in Sofia’s hometown isn’t all wine and roses. The advertising agency that Tom joins is the kind of zany workplace that exists only in sitcoms. But the goofy atmosphere is the least of Tom’s worries. Far worse is Chip Sanders (Jason Bateman from TV’s Arrested Development), Sofia’s former high school boyfriend. Bob has placed Tom under Chip’s management…exactly where Chip can manipulate him.

Chip, you see, has never gotten over Sofia and is resentful of Tom for stealing the girl of his dreams. With Machiavellian cunning, he sets traps for Tom to fall into. Given the fact that he’s a paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair, everyone (especially Bob) only sees Chip’s genial facade.

Tom reacts in foolish (and sometimes violent) ways to every challenge he meets. He simply makes matters worse for himself, a fact that Chip observes with great glee.

Director Jesse Peretz (The Château) and writers David Guion and Michael Handelman (Dinner for Schmucks) manage to milk quite a few laughs from this contrived affair, thanks in large part to the likable cast. But their shrill movie wears out its welcome and can’t overcome the fact that so many of the movie’s characters are terribly annoying.

While The Ex may provide some small pleasues, it will seem a lot better if you wait to see if for free on cable. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 05/11/07)


The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Director Ken Loach (Bread and Roses) is an unapologetic socialist. All of his films promote a left-wing agenda and present Loach’s perceptions of social and political injustice.

Pointing this out is no criticism. Indeed, Loach may be preaching, but he does so with a great deal of integrity. All of his films strive (with varying degrees of success) to hold a mirror up to our world, not falsify it.

His latest work is The Wind That Shakes the Barley, a historical look at the Irish independence movement in the 1920s.

Cillian Murphy (Red Eye) leads a large ensemble cast as Damien O’Donovan, a bright young lad who has just finished medical school and is about to head off to London to work in a hospital.

But fate has other plans. Damien’s brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) is up to his eyeballs in the Irish resistance to the British occupation. Although Damien has resisted Teddy’s efforts to get him to join in, events ensue that change his mind.

Natives aren’t allowed to gather for any reason, but Damien and his buddies get together for a friendly game of hurling. When the British peacekeepers round up the players to rough them up a bit, things get out of hand. The Brits’ brutal tactics lead to the death of one of Damien’s friends. Next thing you know, Damien has sworn allegiance to the Irish Republican Army.

The film concentrates on depicting the guerilla movement from the perspective of this small group of friends. Things get even more complicated after a peace accord is signed between the British and the Republican leadership. The signed agreement meant that Irish self-rule would still depend upon loyalty to the King and the dividing of Ireland. This idea doesn’t sit well with some and a civil war ensues. The brothers wind up on opposite sides of the conflict.

It’s quite clear that Loach means for his story to be seen as parallel to what’s happening today in Iraq. He and screenwriter Paul Laverty seem to be pointing up the folly of military occupation and the idea that one can win hearts and minds through force. They also lay blame for the civil war on the occupiers, depicting how their interference can turn brother against brother.

Loach’s ultra-realistic style gives the story a sober and gritty force, but it is also unabashedly one-sided and his stubborn reluctance to use close-ups robs the film of some of its emotional impact.

Even so, The Wind That Shakes the Barley is a sobering reminder that we don’t always learn from past mistakes. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 05/11/07)


After the Wedding
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The term “soap opera” usually carries a negative connotation. Normally when someone describes a film as “soapy,” they mean that it’s contrived, episodic and overly melodramatic.

While all of these things could apply to the Oscar-nominated Danish film After the Wedding, the movie is made with such class and care that it transcends the normal boundaries of the convention.

Shot with handheld digital cameras that greatly enhance the story’s realistic feel, After the Wedding sneaks up on you, creating an undeniable emotional connection.

Mads Mikkelsen, best known as the blood-weeping villain from Casino Royale, stars as Jacob, a Danish expatriate working in a squalid orphanage in India. Having squandered his youth and committed some regrettable indiscretions, he’s making amends by caring for a large number of disadvantaged kids.

But money is running out and the facility is faced with imminent closure. One option remains, however. A mysterious Danish billionaire may become a benefactor. But before any money is appropriated, the successful industrialist insists that Jacob come back to Denmark and meet with him face-to-face.

Reluctantly, Jacob returns home and finds that matters with this enigmatic philanthropist named Jorgen (Rolf Lassgard) are, to say the least, complicated.

When Jacob is invited to the wedding of Jorgen’s daughter Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen), he discovers that Jorgen’s wife Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is a former lover…one he wronged in his wild oats youth.

Jacob’s trip home, it seems, has very little to do with charity. The cunning Jorgen has set up this meeting for his own mysterious reasons. A master manipulator, Jorgen is arranging things and his motives don’t become clear until late in the film.

Even though you can see some of the story’s melodramatic elements coming from a mile away, others are a genuine surprise. Even the one’s that are predictable work beautifully because of the terrific actors and the film’s overall realistic tone.

The entire cast is strong, down to the smallest supporting roles. While Lassgard has one self-indulgent scene of disproportionate exaggeration, it is forgivable given the rest of the film’s restraint.

The “Dogme” movement championed by fellow Danish filmmakers has influenced director Susanne Bier and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, who earlier collaborated on Open Hearts. (Dogme is the school of ultra-realism that eschews obvious Hollywood slickness.) But they don’t adhere to strict Dogme principles here, utilizing only those aspects that enhance their film.

Undeniably moving, After the Wedding is a rare soap opera that truly elevates the genre. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 05/11/07)


Spider-Man 3
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In A League of Their Own, Tom Hanks famously asserts, “There’s no crying in baseball!”

After seeing Spider-Man 3, one might be tempted to amend that to “There’s no crying in superhero movies!” In fact, if all of the extraneous weeping were edited out, Spider-Man 3 would be twenty minutes shorter…and far better.

In fairness, the third installment of the phenomenally popular franchise has all of the elements we’ve come to expect. It’s got plenty of action, spectacular special effects and lots of daring-do. If they’d have jettisoned the mawkish elements, the flick could have taken its place among the summer’s best popcorn flicks.

Toby McGuire is back as Peter Parker, part-time newspaper photographer and full-time geeky science student. Thanks to Peter’s successful double life as a crime fighter, New York City is enjoying a period of relative calm.

Peter’s sweetheart, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), has just scored a gig singing in a big-time Broadway musical. Naturally, things can’t be ideal for long.

While the duo is enjoying some romantic time in the park, a meteorite lands nearby, releasing a black blob that attaches itself to Peter’s motorbike. The enigmatic goo ultimately slithers onto Spider-Man’s super suit and turns our hero to the dark side. Mary Jane gets canned from her show, but Peter is too self-absorbed to care.

To make matters worse, an escaped convict (Sideways’ Thomas Hayden Church) has stumbled into some kind of scientific experimentation facility and his molecular structure his accidentally altered. He becomes Sandman, a super villain who can manipulate himself into a gigantic sand behemoth. (It just so happens that he is the robber who gunned down Peter’s beloved uncle.)

Plus, Peter’s former pal, Harry (James Franco) has taken on the identity of his villainous dad, Green Goblin. He’s still angry with Peter for his father’s death and vows revenge.

But that’s not all! The aforementioned black goo also infects Peter’s smarmy rival photographer, Eddie Brock (Traffic’s Topher Grace.) Venom, yet another bad guy, is born.

Will Spider-Man shun the dark side and return to his noble ways? Will he reconcile with the estranged Mary Jane? Will he save yet another damsel in distress, this time played by Bryce Dallas Howard (Lady in the Water)? Will he be able to handle three villains at once?

More importantly, will he just stop crying?

Director Sam Raimi and his crew of expert craftsmen deliver a competent, if overlong action opus with dashes of welcome humor. While not on a par with the previous two, Spider-Man 3 still spins an entertaining web. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 05/04/07)


Lucky You
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

After several delays of its release date, the studio finally scheduled Lucky You to open on May 4. While often a bad sign, release delays don’t always mean that the movie is bad. But now Lucky You opens on the same day as Spider-Man 3. While it isn’t bad, Lucky You is certainly unlucky.

Eric Bana (Munich) stars as Huck Cheever, a hotshot Vegas poker player who, while extremely skilled and mathematically astute, lets his emotions get in the way of his game. As a result, he’s usually broke and spends a good deal of time at the pawnshop.

The fact that he is estranged from his father, two-time World Series of Poker champion L.C. Cheever (the inimitable Robert Duvall), is one of his main problems. His anger and resentment often affect his play, especially when dear old dad is one of his opponents.

His devotion…or, perhaps, compulsion…for gambling has also had a detrimental effect on his love life. Naturally, things change when he meets a pretty but mediocre lounge singer named Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore from Music and Lyrics.)

Huck’s charm goes a long way toward winning over the reluctant Billie, but when he “borrows” money from her purse to gamble, she thinks that she’s being played. Huck can’t understand why she’d be mad. After all, she knows he a gambler.

While their relationship is a rocky one, Huck starts to reexamine his life, especially his self-imposed distance from his father. His attempts to qualify for the World Series of Poker…and assert his autonomy…comprise most of the movie’s action.

Director Curtis Hansen (8 Mile, LA Confidential) reportedly took a lot of liberties with the screenplay by Eric Roth (The Good Shepherd). While the trailers might lead you to believe that this is mainly a romance, the main dynamic is the father-son conflict.

But the fact that the picture deals with poker is either a strength or weakness, depending upon one’s outlook on the sport. Hansen devotes a lot of screen time to various games and chitchat about strategies. In this regard, the movie is like golf. You either get it or you don’t.

The cast is likable and the presence of Duvall elevates the film considerably. (One confrontation scene between Bana and Duvall in a casino restroom is brilliantly acted.)

But Lucky You is also overlong (2 hours, 4 minutes) and not particularly inspired. What’s left is a modestly interesting behind-the-scenes look at pro poker. In card parlance, it’s a “push.” (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 05/04/07)


Black Book
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

For the last 20-odd years, director Paul Verhoeven has been making some slick Hollywood action flicks as well as over-the-top schlock. On the better end of the spectrum are special-effects fantasies like RoboCop and Total Recall. But he’s also responsible for sleazy Basic Instinct and the abominable Showgirls.

With his latest effort, Black Book, Verhoeven goes back to his home in the Netherlands to make a period piece about his country during World War II. True to form, it showcases Verhoeven’s complete command of the technical end of moviemaking as well as his inability to resist excess.

The stunning Carice van Houten (Bonkers) plays Rachel, a Jewish woman hiding from the Nazis. Working with members of the underground resistance, Rachel is reunited with her family as they attempt to flee the country.

But thanks to a snitch, Nazi soldiers gun down the boatload of refugees and take their loot. Rachel, the only survivor, manages to hide under the water and makes her escape. She then is recruited to aid the resistance in their ongoing efforts to thwart the occupiers.

Rachel dyes her hair to look less Jewish and the wily and talented woman manages to get a job as a secretary at Nazi headquarters. Thanks to her beauty, she manages to capture the attention of Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch from The Lives of Others), the German commanding officer. She begins an affair with Müntze in order to pass vital intelligence info to her friends in the resistance.

But Müntze isn’t quite the monster that you might expect. In fact, he’s been trying to negotiate with the locals to end the ongoing bloodshed. He’s certain that his country is going to eventually lose the war and just wants to keep the peace until the inevitable end.
Clearly seeing his compassionate side, Rachel falls for him.

But many more complications arise that pose problems for this unlikely couple. There are botched rescue missions, inexplicable infighting among the resistance and more than a few awkward twists and turns.

Verhoeven’s epic is extremely well produced and eye-catching. But like all Verhoeven movies, he just can’t seem to resist overkill. The movie is far too long and is guilty of a number of false climaxes. Plus some of the plot elements stretch credibility to the limit.

But most egregious is Verhoeven’s insistence on including copious amounts of gratuitous nudity. It is quite obvious by now that he is a voyeur and he brings his neurosis to all of his work.

But van Houten is a revelation. Her performance is reason enough to endure Verhoeven’s excesses. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 05/04/07)


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