reel reviews

Bobby Jones, Stroke of GeniusEnvyGoodbye Lenin!
Laws of AttractionMan on FireVan Helsing

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Reviewed by Russ Simmons

With all of the talent involved in Envy, one could easily be forgiven for thinking that this comedy might have some redeeming virtues. Wrong.

The word “waste” keeps coming to mind. A waste of talent, a waste of money, a waste of time…and, oh yes, it’s about waste…doggie waste!
Ben Stiller (Starsky and Hutch) and Jack Black (School of Rock) star as best friends, a couple of working stiffs at a 3M plant who just can’t seem to get ahead. Black is an inveterate dreamer who always gets low marks for “focus” on his performance reviews. Stiller is a realist who thinks that he and Black should just accept their limitations.

One day, Black has an idea for an aerosol spray that would eliminate dog poop. He’ll call it Va-poo-rize! He asks Stiller to join in his quest to develop it and invest $2,000. Stiller scoffs, but Black’s idea comes to fruition thanks to the help of a clever scientist. Black makes millions and builds an ostentatious mansion across the street from Stiller’s modest home.

Stiller’s resentment over Black’s success becomes almost unbearable. Ultimately, his envy leads him into a string of bad decisions that result in “comic” mayhem. (Stiller kills Black’s prized white stallion with a bow and arrow. Ain’t that hilarious?)

It is almost impossible to believe that this outrageously ill-conceived mess is the work of Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Diner). The only interesting directorial touches come in the opening sequence that involves a continually revolving camera. Problem is, this gimmick is pointless and starts to become a bit dizzying after a while.

Another Oscar winner, actor Christopher Walken, has an extended bit as a creepy barfly who Stiller meets while trying to drown his sorrows. Instead of being funny, his character succeeds at making everyone feel uncomfortable…especially the audience.

Stiller and Black are gifted comics who, given the right vehicle, can be very appealing. Here, their mannerisms seem to backfire on them. Stiller’s brooding self-pity act is simply annoying here, and Black’s over-the-top slapstick gesticulations seem like they belong in another movie. Rachel Weisz (The Mummy) and Saturday Night Live’s Amy Poehler are, appropriately enough, utterly wasted in the roles of the dutiful wives.

In a perfect world, someone would indeed invent a spray that could vaporize waste material. Then we could use it to spritz each and every print of Envy. (PG) Rating: 1; Posted 5/7/04

Van Helsing
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

Van Helsing's opening scene is a stunning and extraordinary tribute to Universal's monster movies of the 1930s. The elaborate, electric workshop of Dr. Frankenstein sparks and shines in glorious black and white. A maniacal Dr. Frankenstein celebrates the animation (well... reanimation) of his creation. Angry villagers storm the castle, furious over the doctor's grave robbing. The doctor is killed and the monster flees, carrying the lifeless body of his master. Shadows, clouds and flame cover a bleak landscape, revealing the powerful monster escaping into a decrepit windmill, but safety is short lived, as the fragile building is set ablaze. With a cry of sorrow, the beast is consumed by the inferno.

The scene lovingly captures the strange otherworldliness that James Whale painstakingly created for his two masterpieces: Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Whale's world was a world of shadows, and which shadow would bring forth the monster? When he appeared the audience felt a peculiar mix of dread, fear and ecstasy.

Sadly, after this impressive beginning, color fades into the frame and all life quickly fades from Van Hesling. We are introduced to Gabriel Van Helsing. Be aware! This is not Bram Stoker's fragile, intellectual Abraham Van Helsing, but a caped, immortal superhero struggling to regain his lost memories (involking shades of Wolverine from the X-Men series). He receives assignments from the Vatican's version of MI-6 to rid the world of all monsters and evil. His latest assignment: kill Dracula.

This is no easy task. Dracula (Richard Roxsburgh) has the help of three she-vampires, hundreds of goggled monster ewoks, two werewolves, a ballroom of the undead, a pair of castles that rival the Chrysler building, and trillions of unborn, undead, baby flying things.

Van Helsing enlists the help of vampire hunting warrior-princess Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), Frankenstein's lumbering monster (Shuler Hensley) and wimpy but smart comic relief sidekick Carl (David Wenham), and he arms himself with a spinning throwing star shooter, a Batman-like catapult and a stake-shooting Gatlin gun.

The end result is a bloated and disastrous mess. Writer and director Stephen Sommers is less interested in developing the characters and more interested in smashing them into things. Jackman and Beckinsdale are thrown through glass windows, slammed into rocks, pitched from buildings, hurled out of moving carriages and smashed through castle walls. The computer-generated effects, while impressive, arrive so furiously that they go by in a blur.

The audience is not awed or amazed but overwhelmed and exhausted by the massive amount of visual data before their eyes. Even the monsters are exaggerated in size and strength until they become as inflated and unreal as Macy's Day Parade floats.

Van Helsing's opening scene promises scares, thrills and fun. Instead, the film delivers a shapeless mass of sights and sounds. For true horror excitement, check out the Universal DVD release called the “Legacy Collection.” It contains all of the classic Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolfman horror films. These films offer the macabre and the undead. Sadly, all Van Helsing has to offer is a poor premise beaten to death. (PG-13) Rating: 1; Posted 5/7/04

Laws of Attraction
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

They say that familiarity breeds contempt. In the case of movies, however, some people find familiarity to be an appealing trait.

Laws of Attraction has a script that could have been written in the 1950s with Doris Day and Rock Hudson in the leads. (Indeed, its plot has similarities to the Tracy-Hepburn classic Adam’s Rib that goes all the way back to 1949.) But the target demographic for this romantic comedy skews older, and that audience often takes comfort in knowing just where a movie is going.

Pierce Brosnan (Die Another Day) stars as a sharp-as-nails but eccentric divorce lawyer named Daniel Rafferty. He meets his match in attorney Audrey Miller, a smart but sexually uptight opponent, played by Julianne Moore.

The romantic sparks star to fly, but they play coy with one another while facing off in a number of cases. Things really get thorny when they take on the divorce of a philandering rock star (Michael Sheen) who is estranged from his designer wife (Parker Posey). On a trip to Ireland to perform due diligence, they down a little too much Guinness and wind up…well, you’ve probably guessed by now.

Viewers of this film will probably wind up in two camps. One will find the couple’s romantic tit-for-tat exchanges to be breezy and charming, heading for the inevitable happy ending. The other will yawn, awaiting something…anything…original.

Moore and Brosnan are admittedly appealing in the lead roles, and they do the best they can with the uninspired material. It’s no stretch for audiences to accept the fact that these two are attracted to one another.

Sheen and Posey, on the other hand, are straight out of central casting. The usually competent Posey is so annoying in this role that you’ll find yourself hoping that someone will drop a safe on her head. Francis Fisher, who plays Moore’s mom (even though she’s a mere 8 years older) is wasted in a typically oddball supporting role.

Director Peter Howitt, who did a spectacular job with his film debut Sliding Doors, is at a bit of a loss here. His work is utterly proficient, but he can’t seem to find a way to make Laws of Attraction anything more than a disposable popcorn flick.

If the marketing geniuses at the studio find a way to get the target audience into the theatre, then all of the film’s flaws will probably be a moot point. For many, this is exactly the kind of comfy entertainment that they’re looking for. (PG-13) Rating: 2; Posted 4/30/04

Bobby Jones, Stroke of Genius
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Legendary sports writer Grantland Rice once said, “It isn’t whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

The person he was referring to was an eccentric fellow named Bobby Jones. A temperamental young amateur who loved the game of golf, Jones excelled in spite of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles he faced.

Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ) takes the title role in Bobby Jones, Stroke of Genius. In this sincere and handsomely mounted period piece, Caviezel injects his character with a simmering intensity that is, for the most part, convincing.

The film begins with Jones’ triumphant return to Scotland’s St. Andrews golf course, where he had previously won the British Open. Receiving a hero’s welcome, he recollects the path that brought him there and the film unfolds as a series of flashbacks.

Set mostly during the '20s and '30s in Georgia, the story documents Jones sickly childhood when his affluent parents (Connie Ray and Brett Rice) refused to allow him to play a rough game like baseball. Thanks to his father’s love of golf and the game’s low level of intensity, Jones learned to excel. He persisted in spite of his grandfather’s disdain of the frivolous sport, especially since it was often played on the Sabbath.

Early on, the Atlanta Constitution’s sports writer O. B. Keeler (Malcolm McDowell) noticed Jones’ raw ability and becomes a lifelong friend. Keeler followed Jones’ career as he evolved into a nearly unbeatable force, arguably the greatest golfer who ever lived. His battles against the bohemian pro Walter Hagen (Jeremy Northam), the greatest pro of the day, became the stuff of legend.

The movie follows Jones’ personal growth, as well as his attempts to follow the wishes of his parents, wife (Claire Forlani), grandfather and legion of fans. He also coped with painful varicose veins and a serious nervous condition that went undiagnosed for decades. Still, he excelled. Although the clubs he used were primitive by today’s standards, current players using tools made with space age polymers would welcome his scores.

Writer/director Rowdy Herrington emphasizes Jones’ love of the game. He retired at age 28 without ever accepting a penny for his efforts. (At one point, a character proclaims, “Money is going to ruin sport.” The audience responded to that line with enthusiastic applause.)

Although it never rises above the superficial or achieves narrative momentum, the film is an affectionate portrait of a sports figure that deserves legendary status. (PG) Rating: 3; Posted 4/30/04

Goodbye Lenin!
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

You may not have known it, but the fall of the Berlin Wall was an unpleasant event for some. Those who found favor in the eyes of the East German communist government and towed the party line lived relatively comfortable lives.

With Goodbye Lenin!, writer/director Wolfgang Becker takes a gently comic look at this tumultuous time, only occasionally succumbing to sentimental urges. Becker’s agreeable film is set in 1989 in East Berlin. A teenage boy named Alex Kerner (Daniel Bruhl) is fed up with the repression in his homeland and hopes for reunification. One day, he joins in on a protest march that is crushed by the riot police. Seeing her son beaten by the cops, Alex’s mother, Christiane (Kathrin Sass) has a heart attack and falls into a coma. (Stick with me. Yes, this is a comedy.)

As she lay in a comatose state six months, big changes occur. The Berlin Wall falls, Western influences invade and the city is utterly transformed. Familiar products disappear from store shelves, advertising overruns the landscape, and the usually drab attire is replaced by colorful fashions. Christiane, who apparently was a true believer and actively involved in party politics, would find this situation to be a devastating blow.

Amazingly, Christiane regains consciousness. Warned by doctors that any shock could prove to be fatal, Alex decides to keep the truth from her. He and his friends and family embark on an elaborate charade, changing their mother’s environment so that it appears exactly as it did before the reunification.

All of this could have made for a predictable situation comedy, but Becker throws in some welcome twists that give the film some intrigue.

Alex gets a job selling satellite dishes and befriends a wannabe moviemaker whom he enlists to create fake TV broadcasts for Christiane to watch. He finds romance with a pretty Russian nurse (Chulpan Khamatova) whose aide proves invaluable. He even finds out the strange truth about his MD father who abandoned the family years earlier and defected to the West.

Becker doesn’t stop there. He keeps us guessing about the story’s direction right up to the end. He keeps a couple of cards up his sleeve, providing the film more emotional satisfaction.

While Goodbye Lenin! has a leisurely pace; it is nonetheless a surprisingly amiable work. Thanks to a bright cast, subtly and believable approach and intelligent plot variations, it’s a low-key charmer. (R) Rating: 3; Posted 4/30/04

Man on Fire
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If they ever started giving an Oscar for 'Most Valuable Player' (that is, the actor who carries the film through sheer presence), then Denzel Washington would have to start building more mantels to handle his honors.

In Man on Fire, the second adaptation of A. J. Quinnellís novel (a 1987 version starred Scott Glenn), Washington scores as a former CIA counter-terrorist named John Creasy. Plagued with guilt from his years as a killer, Creasy has climbed into a bottle and lost all connection to humanity.

Creasy visits a former associate (Christopher Walken) in Mexico who urges him to take a job as a bodyguard. It seems there's been a rash of kidnappings and wealthy Mexicans are paying good money for protection. Reluctantly, he agrees.

An aristocrat named Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony) hires Creasy to protect his precocious daughter, Pita (Dakota Fanning). Through the relationship with his new charge, Creasy reconnects and discovers some purpose in his life. Naturally, Pita is kidnapped and Creasy is shot and left for dead at the scene.

When the cops botch the ransom drop, the kidnappers vow to kill the child. Even before he has recovered from his wounds, Creasy goes on a murderous vigilante rampage to wipe out anyone involved in the kidnapping ring.

The film can essentially be divided into two parts. The first is by far the most successful. There is a real sense of verisimilitude as the suicidal Creasy finds redemption in the love of a child. Washington, a consummate actor, is matched by the amazing Fanning, arguably the best child actor in the business today.

The second part of the film is more problematic. Creasy's retribution is ugly, sadistic and seemingly endless. For someone who has just reconnected with the human race, he shows little hesitation to rub it out.

Director Tony Scott (Top Gun) tries to rev things up through cinematic gimmickry. He uses hand-cranked cameras to slow down and speed up the action, employs multiple exposures, diverse subtitles, varied film stocks and quick-cut editing to give the viewers a visual jolt. Sometimes his techniques work, and sometimes they seem downright overindulgent.

But the biggest problem with Man on Fire is its length. Clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours, this is one thriller that could have used some judicious editing.

Still, we have Denzel, and he's given a major assist by the gifted Fanning. The MVP has saved yet another movie. (R) Rating: 3; Posted 4/23/04

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