reel reviews
movie reviews
July '07


Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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The Simpsons Movie
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When cartoonist Matt Groening’s bug-eyed dysfunctional family first appeared on a segment of The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987, few could have guessed that over the next two decades that The Simpsons would become the longest running comedy in TV history.

Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie (and the actors who gave them voice) have finally arrived on the big screen and fans of the series will celebrate. Others will be at an utter loss.

True to the cheeky yellow humor of the small screen version, The Simpsons Movie is a cautionary tale about environmental issues, rampant consumerism and governmental intrusion disguised as a cynical animated comedy.

David Silverman, one of the original directors of the TV series, admitted that, “The dumber Homer was, the funnier the show was.” In keeping with that template, Homer nearly brings about the destruction of his hometown as the result of utter stupidity and apathy.

After a clever opening sequence that comments on the absurdity of paying to see a show at a theatre that you can see for free at home, The Simpsons Movie relates the sordid tale of a man’s love for a pig…and its unintended consequences.

After rescuing a pig and taking it home as a pet, Homer collects the porker’s waste in a silo. Although he was warned that the Springfield Lake was already too polluted, Homer dumps the feces in the lake, an act that causes it to bubble into a toxic disaster. The government, led by EPA chairman Russ Cargill (voiced by Albert Brooks) encases the town in a giant transparent dome in order to control the damage.

Thanks to a backyard sinkhole, Homer and family manage to escape the angry Springfield mob and head off to Alaska. When it becomes evident that the government is about to blow Springfield off the map, the family faces a strong ethical dilemma and Homer is the only one who can save the day.

The acerbic script is the collaborative effort of Groening, Al Jean, James L. Brooks and eight other writers with lengthy ties to the series. Usually, that many writers pose a problem…too many chefs spoiling the broth. Fortunately, that pitfall is generally avoided here. The writers and director Silverman (Monsters, Inc.) have created a movie that is on a par with most episodes…and three times longer!

For fans, The Simpsons Movie is as refreshing as a cold Duff’s Beer on a hot Springfield day. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 07/27/07)

No Reservations
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Food and sensuality fit together like hand and glove. For proof just look to films such as Chocolat (2000), the story of a mysterious stranger whose tasty chocolates allure men and evoke much gossip. Then there’s Like Water for Chocolate (1992), which uses cooking as a metaphor for sexual passion. And, I couldn’t leave out the daffy romantic fantasy Simply Irresistible about a young female chef whose cooking creates magic.

No Reservations is a bit more down to earth than those films. A remake of the 2001 film Mostly Martha, it tells the story of a single chef who becomes the guardian of her 8-year-old niece.

In this version, Catherine Zeta-Jones plays the food-obsessed Kate, head chef at a Manhattan restaurant called 22 Bleeker. The movie begins with Kate telling her therapist (Bob Balaban, Gosford Park, 2002) about the best way to prepare quail. She speaks of pig bladders and cooking temperatures in soft, low tones that betray food’s total seduction of her.

Kate’s boss ordered her into counseling (because of her obsessive behavior and antagonism of patrons who complain about her food). But Kate, an emotional ice cube, refuses to discuss her life with the therapist. Instead, she talks about food and sometimes takes gourmet dishes to the therapist.

Kate follows her routine at the restaurant and in counseling until life changes when a tragedy leads her to take custody of her young niece (Abigail Breslin as Zoe). Kate has no idea how to care for Zoe. She can’t even get the girl to eat.

Then Kate’s boss hires Nick (Aaron Eckhart, Thank You for Smoking, 2005), a free-spirited sous chef. Nick plays opera music in the kitchen, cooks Italian food for his coworkers, and upsets Kate’s ordered world.

Despite its many clichés, No Reservations still entertains, mainly because of its competent, likeable cast and ambiance-creating soundtrack (including music by Phillip Glass).

Even the soundtrack is a cliché, with songs that are romantic comedy staples. But these songs, such as Michael Buble’s rendition of “Sway” (sung by the Pussycat Dolls in the 2004 romantic comedy Shall We Dance) and Paolo Conte’s Via Con Me (featured in French Kiss, 1995) are song staples for a good reason. They create an aura of romance, as do scenes of the two chefs tasting food together.

Viewers of this film won’t see (or hear) much that’s new. But No Reservations recreates old themes with style. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (director of photography for Painted Veil, 2006) and director Scott Hicks (Snow Falling on Cedar, 1999) have created a visually appealing film. And actors Zeta-Jones, Eckhart, Breslin and Balaban have created characters with whom we can relate. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 07/27/07)

Who's Your Caddy?
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In an attempt to bring more entertainment options to minorities, BET founder Robert L. Johnson and Bob and Harvey Weinstein created “Our Stories”, an independent film studio. Their aim was to produce “family-friendly feature films for African American and urban audiences.”

It’s a worthy motive, to be sure. It’s too bad that their first effort is the lame and unintentionally offensive comedy Who’s Your Caddy?

Antoine “Big Boi” Patton, half of the acclaimed Hip-hop group Outkast, leads a large ensemble in this awkward farce about the efforts of a rap star to gain membership to an elite, all-white Carolina country club.

Patton plays C-Note, a phenomenally successful music artist whose father was once a caddy at the Carolina Pines Golf and Country Club. C-Note takes matters into his own hands after the stuffy head of the membership selection committee (Jeffrey Jones from TV’s Deadwood) rebuffs his efforts to join the club.

Dropping a few million bucks on a mansion that borders the golf course, C-Note and his posse move in and make their presence known. In a defensive move, the club hires an African American lawyer named Shannon (Tamala Jones from Booty Call) to find any and all loopholes in the rulebook to keep C-Note out of the club.

Naturally, after initial resistance, Shannon begins to see that C-Note’s cause is a worthy one. They set into motion a series of strategies to drag the club and its snooty membership, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

Director/writer Don Michael Paul (Half Past Dead) relies heavily on the charisma of his cast to make the movie work. In fact, he allowed so much obvious improvisation that many of the cast members ought to sue for screenwriting credit.

Among those in the supporting cast are Sherri Shepherd (TV’s The View), Faizon Love (Idlewild), Terry Crews (Norbit), Finesse Mitchell (TV’s Saturday Night Live) and Tony Cox (Bad Santa). Their considerable efforts make this mess nearly tolerable.

While much of the comedy falls flat, the biggest problem with Who’s Your Caddy? lies in its rampant use of stereotypes. While it is good to see black characters that are empowered and wealthy, there are still plenty of gangsters, dopers and hoochie mamas to push the limits of the PG-13 rating.

In spite of all the good intentions behind the production and the inception of “Our Stories”, Who’s Your Caddy? is still well under par. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 07/27/07)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Big is beautiful, and you need look no further than Hairspray for proof.

The movie musical has arrived with buoyant bouffants in tow. Rousing, energetic and infectious, this Tony Award-winning show piles the fun as high as a beehive hairdo.

In 2002, a musical version of John Waters’ hit 1988 movie of the same name opened on Broadway. Thanks to catchy tunes, engaging choreography and a feel-good vibe, it was a big improvement on the original. Now, a movie version of the musical has hit the big screen, and it may be the best of the lot.

Hairspray tells the story of Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky), a 16-year-old living in Baltimore in 1962. Short and on the hefty side, Tracy dreams of being a dancer on a local American Bandstand-style program called “The Corny Collins Show.” If she is to succeed, she must smash the barriers of prejudice surrounding race, sex and appearance.

As is the tradition with the show, a man in drag always plays Tracy’s mom. John Travolta gets the assignment here as the disapproving Edna Turnblad, donning a fat suit, prosthetics and full regalia. It’s clear that he’s having a ball with this cross-gender characterization.

The entire cast is terrific, but Blonsky’s energetic, do-or-die performance sets the tone. Christopher Walken is fun as Tracy’s dancing dad, Wilbur, and Michelle Pfeiffer also shows that she’s got the musical chops, playing an evil TV station manager who tries to thwart Tracy’s efforts.

Other notable cast members include Amanda Bynes, Allison Janney, Jerry Stiller, Elijah Kelley, Brittany Snow, Zach Efron, James Marsden and Kansas City native, Hayley Podschun.

Highlights include Wilbur and Edna’s charming duet, “Timeless to Me,” “I Know Where I’ve Been,” sung by record store owner Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), and the rousing finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”

Director/choreographer Adam Shankman might not initially have seemed the right choice (his previous credits include The Pacifier and Cheaper by the Dozen 2.) But he puts the pedal to the metal, creating an exhilarating and entertaining extravaganza, and the screenplay by Mark O’Donnell and Leslie Dixon is an improvement on Waters’ original.

The music by Marc Shaiman, with lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, is infectiously toe tapping. The score’s mix of Broadway and the ‘60s pop sound may be derivative, but it sure is fun.

In spite of the potentially chaotic energy, this well-aimed spritz of Hairspray keeps everything in place. (PG) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 07/20/07)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Reviewed by Deborah Young

This latest Harry Potter movie gets a bit Orwellian and more serious in tone than the previous movie in the series. Here, the Ministry of Magic replaces Orwell’s Big Brother, and Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) joins the members of a secret order to thwart Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), who has returned.

The adventure begins when Harry and Dudley (Harry Melling) get attacked by Dementors. Harry then gets notices that he will be expelled for using magic to protect himself and Dudley.

As though his pending expulsion were not enough trouble, a representative of the Ministry of Magic joins the staff of Hogwarts. This smiling, pink-clad woman named Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) may appear benign, but she’s actually a sadistic fascist who soon rules Hogwarts.

Dolores dumbs down the curriculum at Hogwarts in a seeming attempt to keep the students defenseless. So Harry becomes a covert instructor to his peers, who want to be armed with the best magic possible in case they have to fight dark forces.

This time around there’s more action, more danger for the protagonists and more adult themes. Like Star Wars’ Anakin Skywalker, Harry faces the fact that he has a dark side, and he has to choose between good and evil. His godfather, Sirius (Gary Oldman) acts as Harry’s compass as the boy attempts to discover who he really is.

Nick Hooper’s scored contains both grand orchestral pieces and barely noticeable sounds. It may not be the greatest standalone music, but the score serves as great background music for this fast-paced tale of intrigue.

Those with young children might take note that this film contains a death and scenes of cruelty to the Hogwarts students. But for older children and adults, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix provides 138 minutes of adventure. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 07/16/07)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When the classic Broadway play The Bad Seed was turned into a Hollywood film in 1956, the producers added an absurd final scene that changed the chilling tone of the original. They were afraid that movie audiences weren’t ready for the story of an evil child who got away with murder.

As the new movie Joshua demonstrates, contemporary producers have no such compunction. Moral ambiguity is the order of the day, so showcasing a pre-teen homicidal maniac can be done without reservations.

Although it lacks the gore and revolting graphic sadism of many contemporary films, Joshua still has enough creepy chills to please most horror fans.

The new thriller focuses on a brilliant youngster played by young Jacob Kogan. The offspring of an affluent Manhattan couple, Joshua appears to be a fairly normal child except for one thing. He seems to lack emotion.

Joshua’s parents are Brad and Abby Cairn, played by Sam Rockwell (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and Vera Farmiga (The Departed). Their lives are about to be upended as they welcome a new baby girl into their home. Joshua may not feel love, compassion or empathy for his new sibling, but resentment is a feeling he is all too familiar with.

Unusually polite, excessively neat and inordinately intelligent, Joshua makes his dad understandably proud. But Brad starts to wonder about his precocious son when he starts mummifying animals and tells him, “You don’t have to love me.”

Additionally, Abby is suffering from a serious case of postpartum depression and, ultimately, is institutionalized. Grandma has an untimely accident. The dog dies. Could this all be a coincidence or is our little overachiever also a master manipulator?

Rockwell is excellent as the harried dad who can’t quite believe that his beloved offspring is capable of heinous acts. Farmiga, one of our very best actresses, also provides strong support even though her character is annoyingly shrill.

Young Kogan is appropriately one-dimensional, a creepy canvas onto which viewers can paint their own eerie persona. Knowing Joshua’s modus operandi, it’s easy to read a lot into his slightest glance.

Director George Ratliff, best known for the documentary Hell House, allows the story by first-time screenwriter David Gilbert to unfold very deliberately. One could argue that its pace is too leisurely for its own good.

Still, Joshua is a modestly successful little thriller. It manages to create an unnerving nightmare version of parenthood. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 07/13/07)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Nostalgia can be a powerful thing. Like the red and blue tinted glasses required to successfully view a 3-D movie, some flicks require rose-colored glasses to ensure maximum enjoyment.

Men in their 30s and 40s will gladly don rose-colored glasses for Transformers, the big-screen adaptation of the popular Hasbro toy line that inspired a popular TV cartoon series.

Director Michael Bay (The Island, Pearl Harbor) may have found the ideal movie for his unique talents. With a keen eye for over-the-top visuals and a knack for staging slam-bang action sequences, Bay has taken a silly premise and, aided by a few mechanical reconfigurations, “transformed” it into a wild and entertaining opus.

Shia LeBeouf (Disturbia) stars as a Sam Whitwicky, an awkward teenager who has just received his first car. But, as we soon discover, this is no ordinary clunker. His Camaro is actually a highly advanced robot from outer space named Bumblebee. This is an intelligent piece of machinery that can change its structure to become a fierce battlefield warrior.

Some initially fearful days follow in which Sam learns of Bumblee’s powers. But it is obvious that our mechanical friend has Sam’s best interest in mind. It also doesn’t hurt that he helps Sam win the affections of a gorgeous girl named Mikeala (Megan Fox from TV’s Hope and Faith).

It turns out, of course, that Bumblebee and some of his fearsome allies are on Earth to locate a pair of glasses that belonged to Sam’s grandfather, an explorer who discovered a giant robot frozen in the arctic decades earlier. These glasses hold the key to an ongoing intergalactic conflict. In order to save Earth, Bumblebee and his friends must use the glasses in order to find a mysterious cube and prevent the evil frozen robot (Megatron, leader of the Decepticons) from awakening.

Only purists will care very much about the plot. Lots of actors show up, like Jon Voight, Anthony Anderson, John Turturro, Tyrese Gibson, Josh Duhamel and others, but they’re disposable. The only amusing ones are Kevin Dunn and Julie White as Sam’s goofy parents. Most fans will be content to see just how well that Bay and his army of computer technicians can stage a $150 million orgy of big screen action. On that count, they’re quite successful.

While his movie is overlong, terribly silly and excessively loud, Bay delivers enough eye candy to give you cavities. Put on those rose-colored glasses and go along for the ride. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 07/03/07)

License to Wed
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Robin Williams is an undeniably creative and brilliant performer. Given the right material, he can deliver sensational work.

Given the wrong material, however, and Williams can grate on the nerves like fingernails on the chalkboard. Sadly, his latest effort falls into the latter category. License to Wed is a labored, unfunny comedy that is a phony as it is manipulative.

Williams plays Reverend Frank, a minister with methods that are, to say the least, unorthodox. Before anyone can be married in his popular church, they must complete his rigorous marriage preparation course. He counsels engaged couples and pushes them to the limit to test their commitment and compatibility.

The focal couple of the film is Sadie Jones (Because I Said So’s Mandy Moore) and Ben Murphy (John Krasinsky from TV’s The Office). Obviously in love and seemingly made for each other, Sadie and Ben don’t appear to need the good reverend’s counseling. But at his insistence, they agree to Rev. Frank’s terms.

As you might expect, Sadie and Ben are put through the mill, provoked into conflict and severely shaken.

Of course, License to Wed exists in a sitcom world where excess is all too often considered a virtue and any sense of reality is simply inconvenient. The filmmakers certainly hope that we put our brains on hold and just go along for the ride. Sometimes that’s too much to ask.

Although the committee of Kim Barker, Tim Rasmussen, Vince Di Meglio and Wayne Lloyd is credited with the screenplay (obviously too many chefs, here), you can certainly consider Williams a co-writer as well. He inserts a patented parade of puns and one-liners that you can bet the farm weren’t in the original script. His efforts generate a few laughs but ultimately detract from the proceedings.

Director Ken Kwapis (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) allows this well-meaning enterprise to degenerate into a series of middling sight gags and silly complications. One particularly annoying sequence sees Sadie and Ben struggling with two mechanical baby dolls that the reverend has foisted upon them. They’re expected to go about their business while these robotic nightmares scream, kick and spew liquids from every orifice.

Of course, Rev. Frank knows exactly what he’s doing. In his efforts, he succeeds in brining out the best in them and cementing their relationship.

Unfortunately, he brings out the worst in us. We just want to shoot him. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 07/03/07)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If nothing else, the wizards at Pixar have proven two things. They’re always willing and able to raise the bar in terms of animated artistry. They also make their cartoons accessible to adults. In the case of their latest effort, however, it may not be quite as accessible to kids.

While Ratatouille is easily among the very best films that this impressive company has produced, it is clearly aimed at adults and older children. The toddlers may actually feel left out this time.

Like Toy Story, Cars, Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc., Ratatouille is beautifully rendered and intelligent. This time, however, they’ve created an art house cartoon.

Ratatouille tells the story of a French rodent named Remy, voiced by comic Patton Oswalt. Remy is a unique fellow to say the least. Unlike his furry family, he has an unusually keen sense of smell and taste. He also has ambition. Not content to simply rummage for whatever garbage he can find, Remy likes to mix flavors together to create singular taste sensations.

Inspired by a book called Anyone Can Cook by a deceased chef named Auguste Gusteau, Remy sneaks into an old woman’s kitchen to secretly learn the ropes. Through a set of unusual coincidences, Remy finds himself separated from his family and in the walls of the very Parisian restaurant that belonged to the late chef who authored the book.

Remy sneaks into the kitchen and concocts a savory soup. When it is accidentally served, it becomes a hit. A lowly garbage boy and wannabe chef named Linguini (Lou Romano) is mistakenly believed to have made it. Now, however, Linguini must repeat the feat.

Once he’s discovered that a rat made the soup, Linguini convinces Remy that they should team up. Remy hides under Linguini’s hat and by pulling his hair, sends signals that allow them to work some culinary magic together.

If all this seems a bit odd to you, you’re right. It is hard to imagine how the creative forces behind this story were able to convince producers that this would make a great movie. Thankfully, they did…and they were right.

The computer-generated imagery put on screen may very well be the best ever. While the filmmakers did not attempt photo-realism, it is often achieved. More impressive is the fact that they’ve created a wholly unique and believable environment for this story to live in.

Writer/director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) cements his position as the best in the business and the movie can boast of a smart script, sensational visuals and fine voice work. (Peter O’Toole is amusing as a scary food critic.)

The youngsters may no savor Ratatouille, but their parents will. (G) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 07/03/07)

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