reel reviews
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August '05


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

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The Brothers Grimm
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

As much as we want to see ourselves as open-eyed realists, pragmatic and scientific, there is a part of all of us that yearns for the fantastic, the incredible.

That is the conceit behind The Brothers Grimm, Terry Gilliam’s fantasy about the famous storytellers of yore, the team that gave us such fairy tale characters as Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty.

Rather than doing a biopic, Gilliam mounts a script by Ehren Kruger (The Skeleton Key) that postulates what might have been had the stories had some truth to them. The action takes place in Germany in the early 19th century.

Matt Damon (The Bourne Supremacy) stars as Wilhelm Grimm and Heath Ledger (The Lords of Dogtown) is his brother Jacob. Wilhelm has little patience for superstition. Jacob has, for years, been trying to live down a childhood incident where he sold the family cow for some “magic” beans. If he can find some real magic, he can get Wilhelm off his back.

The brothers work as con artists. They go into small towns where the villagers believe they are haunted by ghosts, demons or witches. With the aid of some theatrical tricks and sham assistants, they perform fake exorcisms and cleansing rites for fun and profit.

Things get sticky for the brothers when the French take over Germany. (Hey, this IS a fantasy.) The ruling general (played by Jonathan Pryce as a wannabe Napoleon) is cracking down on con men, but sends the brothers to a rural village to investigate the disappearance of a number of young people.

With the aid of a beautiful woodcutter’s daughter named Angelika (Lena Headey,) Jacob becomes convinced that an actual witch (the breathtaking Monica Belucci) has terrorized the area and is using the blood of young people to rejuvenate herself. Wilhelm, of course, is far more skeptical. Naturally, strange events occur that slowly erode Wilhelm’s cynicism.

Gilliam certainly has an exciting visual flair. All of his previous work (Time Bandits, Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) has relied heavily on dazzling eye candy. If nothing else, Gilliam’s movies a replete with effects that are truly special.

But the constant visual barrage of The Brothers Grimm becomes more than a bit tiresome after a while. It’s as if he’s far more interested in visualizing a scene than telling a story. Furthermore, a slapstick performance by the usually reliable Peter Stomare (Fargo) is terribly irritating.

Similar in tone to Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (where the production values helped cover the story’s fractured structure), The Brothers Grimm is a visual treat with an only sporadically interesting storyline. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (posted 8/26/05)

The Cave
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Many of this year’s horror films have been disappointments. Films such as Alone in the Dark and Hide and Seek have delivered clichéd and lackluster plots and few scenes that would scare their audiences. Then came the recent Skeleton Key, which turned out to be more interesting than it seemed in the trailers. Though not brilliant, it offered a few plot twists, some mystery and enough tension to hold viewers’ interest.

So I went into The Cave with hope that it might at least be moderately entertaining. But my hopes were dashed within the movie’s first half-hour.

The Cave begins with a flashback to 30 years ago in Romania. Explorers discover a cave beneath an old church. Then the scene moves to present-day Mexico, where divers explore an underwater cave. Supposedly the old church is the main entrance to the cave.

It’s unclear what significance the church or even the cave has to the story, although a snippet of dialogue early on attempts to explain the cave’s genesis. But mostly we’re left with the flimsy idea that a group of divers wants to explore the cave to make important scientific discoveries.

Likewise, the characters and their motivations are never clearly defined. Among the divers are Jack (Cole Hauser), an arrogant scout who takes on the role of team leader, Buchanan (Morris Chestnut), whose role seems mostly motivational, and Katherine (Lena Headey), a bland cave biologist.

The foreshadowing begins with an admonishment from Buchanan that is so overblown that it’s unintentionally funny. He reminds the group that one person has already died in the cave. “Respect the cave,” he says, without cracking a smile.

Soon after the divers enter the cave, something attacks one of them, and the other divers start to second-guess their decision make the journey. Then they find themselves trapped in the cave with mysterious monsters that manifest at first as quick camera movements, blurs of light and roars.

There is little suspense as the divers encounter the monsters, and because the divers’ motivations are unclear, it’s difficult to empathize with them. Within the first 20 minutes or so it becomes clear how the monsters breed, which leaves no mystery for the remainder of the film.

When one of the divers finally declares, “I think I’ve figured it out,” the statement seems absurd. Why would it take a hotshot scientist so long to figure out the obvious significance of a discovery she’d made at the start of her journey? Because the writers who created her just didn’t think about what she should know and what kinds of things that she and her colleagues should say.

That’s the primary reason that The Cave doesn’t work. The dialogue is shallow and at times inane, the characters have no visible personality, and the plot makes little sense and holds few surprises. (PG-13) Rating: 1 (posted 8/26/05)

The Aristocrats
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Heard a good joke lately? Want to repeat it?

Even if you’ve seen The Aristocrats, you may not be able to answer yes to either question. But if you have seen it, you’ve probably laughed.

A documentary about the “world’s dirtiest joke,” The Aristocrats has a tagline claiming “No Nudity. No Violence. Unspeakable Obscenity.” The only problem with that tagline is that it is spoken…a lot.

“The Aristocrats” is the punch line of a joke that professional comics tell one another for their own entertainment. Everyone knows the joke, so the challenge lies in how one tells it. If you can find a new way to make an old joke funny, it puts you in good stead with your peers.

Since the joke originated during the days of Vaudeville, comics have continued to embellish it, making it as obscene, crass and vulgar as humanly possible.

Filmmakers Paul Provenza and Penn Gillette (both successful professional comics) have recorded literally dozens of versions of the joke performed by a virtual who’s who of the world of standup comedy.

Among those offering their spin on the joke include old school comics like Don Rickles, Phyllis Diller, George Carlin, David Steinberg, Larry Storch and the Smothers Brothers. Contemporary favorites like Chris Rock, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Eddie Izzard, John Stewart and Carrot Top offer their versions or some observations about the structure of the joke itself. Even actors like Jason Alexander, Hank Azaria, Paul Reiser, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer get in on the action.

Even though the joke gets progressively filthier with each telling, there are some standout versions. Martin Mull’s version offers a witty structural twist, while Gilbert Gottfried’s incredibly crass interpretation, recorded at a roast of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, is a favorite of many comics.

Even though the movie has many funny moments, it suffers from sheer repetition. Just how many times can one bear to hear the same joke?

But that’s not the biggest problem facing The Aristocrats. Even the most liberal-minded viewers may cringe at the utter ugliness of the whole enterprise. It demonstrates that words really do have power, equal to or greater than any visual pornography. (You may never think of Bob Saget the same way again.)

Those who complain that crass language is cheapening society will find plenty of evidence to support their case in Provenza’s film.

In fairness, there is about 15 minutes of hilarity in The Aristocrats, a better average than most comedies. But you may feel the need for a shower afterward. (Not rated) Rating: 3 (posted 8/26/05)

Red Eye
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Veteran director Wes Cravens (famous or infamous for his work on the Nightmare on Elm Street films) is back with Red Eye, a thriller that could have been called “Nightmare in the Sky.” Unfortunately, Red-Eye doesn’t really take off until the plane lands.

Cool-as-December hotel manager Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams) winds up on a night flight with Jack Rippner (Cillian Murphy), who seems charming and attentive at first. Soon after the flight begins, Rippner starts threatening to have Lisa’s father (Brian Cox) killed if she doesn’t call the hotel and arrange to have one of her wealthy VIP customers moved from his regular suite to a room of Jack’s choosing.

As expected, Lisa resists. But how much can a person resist when she’s confined to a plane, trapped in the window seat with her captor next to her in the aisle seat? Not much. Consequently, one of the two most exciting plane scenes occurs in a cramped bathroom.

While in the bathroom, Lisa succumbs to helplessness and frustration and slumps to the floor. The camera spies her from above as she lies back on the floor. Obviously, the scene was meant to heighten tension, but it instead conjures images of the legions of germs that must live on the metal floors of most airplane lavatories.

When the plane lands, Lisa kicks her resistance up a notch by temporarily disabling Jack and then making a run for it. She’s got to save her father and the hotel’s VIP guest before Jack and his criminal employers can get to them.

Unfortunately, things aren’t going too well for her. Her cell phone isn’t very reliable, Jack is a relentless pursuer, and she has to rely on the hotel’s easily rattled assistant manager (Jayma Mays as Cynthia) to get the hotel guest out of harm’s way.

Red-Eye is a formulaic film with a competent cast. McAdams is at first as pleasant and alluring as she was in the romantic drama The Notebook. She knows how to communicate with her eyes, to smile with barely upturned lips. Then when her character’s survival instinct kicks in, McAdams abandons the charm for a desperate toughness. She kicks some villain butt, and it’s fun to watch.

Murphy also uses his eyes to good effect in his role as the calculating and creepy Rippner. Sometimes he’s hard to watch though, because his persona is one of evil without any visible redemptive qualities.

The fun of Red-Eye is in watching the two central characters react to each other physically and emotionally, particularly after the plane lands. Once the protagonists are on the ground, dramatic tension rises up and rescues the film. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (posted 8/26/05)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Although it is too innocuous to be considered an “MTV movie,” Undiscovered is clearly aimed at the MTV audience…the non-hip-hop MTV audience, that is.

Naturally, the filmmaker, Meiert Avis, is a music video director. He uses a lot of jerky, hand-held cinematography and low ambient light to create a “realistic” feel. Too bad the screenwriter wasn’t in on this “realism” thing.

Undiscovered is a romantic comedy…make that a Gen Y soap opera…about a pretty young model named Brier Tucket (Pell James from Broken Flowers) and her amorous entanglement with a struggling musician named Luke Falcon (Steven Strait from Sky High.)

The duo “meet cute” in New York. Luke drops a glove on the subway, and the comely Brier picks it up. Before she can return it, Luke tosses her the other glove as the doors close, parting them (it would seem) forever.

Fast forward a few months, and we find Luke trying out his songs in the tough LA music scene. Brier has traveled there to take a shot at acting. The meet again through a mutual friend, Clea (pop star Ashlee Simpson.) Call it fate…or a convenient plot device.

Although Luke and Brier seem meant for each other, Brier is involved with a philandering British rocker. She is wary of dating another musician and resists Luke’s advances. She does, however, conspire with Clea to create some buzz around Luke and promote his career.

Their efforts pay off and Luke’s career is set on the fast track. This further complicates their on-again, off-again romance. A sexy Brazilian model named Josie, played by Shannon Sossamon (A Knight’s Tale,) turns their relationship into a love triangle.

There isn’t a single original moment in Undiscovered, and the plot is utterly predictable. That leaves it to the director and cast to rise above the material. Their efforts are only sporadically successful.

While the cast is attractive (and they’re greatly aided by veterans Carrie Fisher, Peter Weller and Fisher Stevens in supporting roles) none of them have the charisma to carry the film.

The music is equally uninspired. Although Strait has a pleasant voice (he’s the lead singer with the band Tribe,) it’s hard to see what the crowds keep getting so worked up about. Simpson lip-syncs a couple of songs, too, including the title tune. Her appeal lends itself to a lot of head scratching, too.

While Undiscovered is far from awful, it is bland. It’s likely that this movie will remain undiscovered. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (posted 8/26/05)

Reviewed by Deborah Young

Valiant tells the story of an underdog, a scrawny pigeon who aspires to be a war hero. But the thin story seems like a not-so-subtle façade for a lesson about the virtues of patriotism. As the opening scenes unfolded I couldn’t squelch the playful question of a sarcastic inner voice: Did these filmmakers receive funding from Washington?

Don’t get the wrong idea though. Valiant doesn’t take itself or the subject of war serious like the 2004 Japanese anime feature Steamboy. This film contained philosophies about the evils and necessities of war, and characters that were an amalgam of morality and immorality. But with Valiant we get mostly slapstick humor, an array of celebrity voices and a story that avoids specifics about the war in which the heroes find themselves caught. It’s hard even to tell who the enemy is.

At the beginning of the movie, Valiant (voice of Ewan McGregor) longs to join the Great Britain Royal Air Force’s elite Royal Homing Pigeon Service (RHPS), which delivers vital messages behind enemy lines. But no one takes Valiant serious at first because he’s small and not very strong.

Valiant gets his wish, thanks to a scruffy new friend, Bugsy (voice of Ricky Gervais). The two wind up in boot camp with a group of unlikely heroes and soon they find themselves on a dangerous mission.

Valiant is based on the truth that animals have been used in wars and have received awards for their bravery. In fact, pigeons were the first to receive the prestigious Dickin medal for animal bravery, according to a recent BBC story ( With better execution this film might have been both educational and fun. Unfortunately, the movie contains only a hint of a story. It also lacks the depth that attracts adult audiences and the action that attracts young children.

During a recent screening, the film’s physical humor elicited laughter from the young children in the audience — those young enough to be almost uncontrollably amused by the sight of animals or people colliding. But the adult audience mostly remained silent.

Although it’s mediocre at best, Valiant is kid-friendly and, with a 76-minute run-time brief enough to be bearable for adults. (G) Rating: 2 (posted 8/26/05)

The 40 Year-Old Virgin
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Shameless, silly and smutty might sum it up. Lewd, indecent and rude would also suffice. Don’t forget bawdy, vulgar and coarse.

All of these terms rightly apply to the new comedy, The 40 Year-Old Virgin. Although a refined, respectable movie critic might hesitate to admit it, the word “hilarious” is equally apt.

Comic actor and writer Steve Carell (star of the current TV series The Office) has, for the last decade, been writing and performing in supporting roles on numerous TV shows such as The Daily Show, Freaks and Geeks and The Dana Carvey Show. His recent film appearances include small but memorable parts in Anchorman and Bruce Almighty.

Film stardom may also loom for Carell thanks to this tasteless but very funny movie. The 40 Year-Old Virgin may be an off-color, one-joke film, but the target audience of young males should make it a late summer hit.

Carell stars as Andy Stitzer, a geeky guy who has yet to have an intimate sexual encounter. Living alone in an LA apartment with his substantial collection of action figures (mostly sealed in the original packaging,) Andy is a bit of a loner.

He’s employed at a Best Buy-type electronics store. A bit too antisocial to be a salesman, Andy stays in the back room working as a technician. One day, he lets slip the fact that he’s never been with a woman. His co-workers (including Kansas City native Paul Rudd) then take it upon themselves to see to it that Andy gets laid.

But the advice that these would-be playboys dispense is less than helpful to a shy guy like Andy. Nothing seems to work out for him until an attractive single mom, played by Catherine Keener, catches his eye.

The humor is adolescent and obvious in the vein of There’s Something About Mary. But the cast handles it expertly, and Carell displays such guileless naïveté that the moments that stretch credibility can be easily overlooked.

Equally impressive is indie fave Keener (Being John Malkovich) who makes one of her rare appearances in a studio picture. Her every-woman appeal serves her beautifully as the object of Andy’s affection.

Most surprising is the movie’s sweetness. For a movie that earns its “R” rating for having “pervasive sexual content, language and drug use,” it is a lighthearted and (dare it be said?) touching movie.

Those easily offended will certainly want to avoid The 40 Year-Old Virgin. Although it runs out of steam well before its nearly two-hour length, the rest of us will enjoy a guilty pleasure. (R) Rating: 3.5 (posted 8/19/05)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Ensemble dramas that interweave seemingly random stories are extremely hard to pull off. You have to have the right cast, a compelling script and a director and editor who know how to put all of the pieces together.

The master, of course, is Robert Altman. A gaggle of wannabes has popped up since Altman perfected the genre with classics like Nashville.

Chris Terrio’s Heights demonstrates just how difficult it is to stitch together a successful film tapestry. The movie has got a great cast, good dialogue and a script based upon a successful play. Still, it falls flat.

Glenn Close (The Stepford Wives) leads the cast as Diana, an acclaimed stage and film diva. (It’s hard to image better casting than that.) She’s trapped in a loveless, open marriage and her husband is carrying on an affair with a younger actress. This, naturally, gets Diana’s goat.

Diana’s daughter Isabel (Elizabeth Banks from The 40-Year-Old Virgin) is a photographer who is getting ready to get married to her boyfriend, Jonathan, played by James Marsden (X Men.) Diana is convinced that Isabel is headed for heartache.

Things get complicated for Jonathan when a journalist researching the past lovers of a famed British photographer, contacts him. Turns out that Jonathan not only posed for some erotic pictures, but also had an affair with the cameraman. He’s kept this gay liaison a secret from Isabel.

Yet another story involves a struggling actor named Alec, played by Jesse Bradford (Swimfan.) He auditions for a play that Diana is producing, and she promptly comes on to him, inviting him to a late-night party at her apartment.

Banks gives the film’s strongest performance as the conflicted Isabel. Her understated but effective portrayal shows the subtle torment her character is undergoing.

Close, as always, is a compelling figure, and the supporting cast includes brief appearances by Isabella Rossellini, Rufus Wainwright, Eric Bogosian, George Segal and Altman regular, Michael Murphy.

But the problem with Heights lies in its screenplay. Amy Fox, who based the script on her play, simply doesn’t deliver characters that we care very much about. Maybe these stories ring true (but even that is debatable,) but we don’t get very interested in them.

What we’re left with is a well-acted series of vignettes without an effective theme to tie them all together. While it doesn’t sink to the depths, it hardly lives up to its title. (R) Rating: 2.5 (posted 8/19/05)

The Skeleton Key
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The Skeleton Key begins like a typical horror film, with eerie music and camera shots designed to startle viewers. But then the plot meanders into unexpected territory. Despite the impression the trailers give, this is not a horror film. It’s the dramatization of a tall tale, a tale about the power of hoodoo and the power of the human mind.

This tale begins with healthcare worker Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) losing a patient and then deciding to take a job in New Orleans, where she’ll provide hospice care for a dying man. When she arrives at the house of her new patient (John Hurt as Ben Devereaux), she learns that he suffered a stroke while alone in the attic.

Early on, Caroline overhears Ben’s cantankerous wife, Violet (Gena Rowlands), saying that Caroline will leave like the last girl did because she won’t understand the house. This announcement along with the mystery of why there are no mirrors hanging in the house and curiosity about what’s in a locked room in the attic cause Caroline to start nosing around.

When Caroline starts poking around strange things start to happen, which makes her even more curious. She’s told that hoodoo might have something to do with the strange things that happen in the house, which draws her even deeper into the mystery.

Like most protagonists in the horror and thriller genres, Caroline seems to thrive on adrenaline. If she thinks something dangerously supernatural is on the other side of a door, you can bet that she’ll open the door.

There’s a joke that’s been making its way around the black community for years. It usually goes something like this: You never see black folks on television talking about living in a haunted house because the minute they see signs of a ghost is usually the minute they leave that house for good.

The movie picks up on the joke by having two characters observe that although black people would make desirable residents in the house, they never stay once the supernatural shenanigans start. There might be some truth there when it comes to real people in real houses, but from the safety of a theatre seat the unfolding mysteries of The Skeleton Key provide a strong lure, mainly because the film’s premises aren’t that far fetched. There are still people in America who believe in hexes, conjures and curses, and this film toys with the idea of the existence of that kind of magic.

Add to that the allure of Kate Hudson, who convincingly portrays a character that is simultaneously vulnerable and defiant, reluctant and resolute, and you’ve got a winner. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (posted 8/12/05)

Four Brothers
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

After viewing the new action thriller, Four Brothers, the nagging question becomes, “Whatever became of the career of John Singleton?”

After making an auspicious directorial debut with Boyz in the Hood, the promising filmmaker has struggled to live up to the standard that he created for himself. Although films like Poetic Justice and Rosewood were competently made and had some redeeming features, his work on Shaft, Baby Boy and 2 Fast 2 Furious were missteps.

Now that Four Brothers is in theatres, one can’t help but wonder if Boyz in the Hood was an anomaly.

Mark Wahlberg (Boogie Nights) leads the cast as Bobby Mercer, the wayward foster son of a kindly Detroit woman named Evelyn played by Fionnula Flanagan. When she is gunned down in a convenience store robbery, Bobby and his three foster brothers are reunited at her funeral.

Bobby’s brothers include Angel (model-turned-actor Tyrese Gibson), Jeremiah (Andre Benjamin from the band Outkast) and Jack (Friday Night Lights’ Garrett Hedlund.) A motley group, these “un-adoptable” misfits were saved from life on the streets by the saintly Evelyn.

This setup might provide the background for a fascinating character study or a look into the sociological implications of mixed-race foster families. Instead, the movie becomes a violent revenge drama riddled with one inane moment after another.

Once Evelyn dies, the brothers vow to bring her murderers down. Once they begin snooping around, they discover that her death was not a part of a random robbery, but that she was the target of a mob hit. They open up a convoluted can of worms that involves corrupt city politicians and seedy underworld figures.

In fairness, the cast is solid. Even though they’re saddled with ridiculous dialogue, they manage to create involving characters. And the movie includes enough skirmishes to satisfy the needs of action junkies.

But Four Brothers has so many flaws that it’s hard to know where to begin. In an early sequence, Bobby holds the entire crowd at a basketball game at gunpoint, demanding information into the whereabouts of a hood who may know something about his mother’s death. There are no repercussions from this little indiscretion.

In another scene, a large group of heavily armed hit men riddle the Mercer house with bullets. The four brothers manage to overcome these odds and take out all of their would-be assailants. This is about as likely as Davy Crockett whipping Santa Ana’s butt at the Alamo.

For those of us who’ve been hoping that Singleton can return to his past glory, we’re still waiting. (R) Rating: 2 (posted 8/12/05)

Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Sometimes there’s a thin line between good jokes and bad taste. In its tamer moments, the latest Deuce Bigalow movie parks firmly on that line. Often, it crosses the line and journeys deep into the land of crass sexual humor and raunchy gags.

But despite it’s crude elements, Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo manages to be funny for at least one-third of its 83-minute run-time. Beneath the bawdy jokes lies a traditional comedy formula, the same formula used in wholesome sitcoms such as The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle, USMC.

Like Gomer Pyle and The Andy Griffith Show’s Barney Fife, Deuce Bigalow (Rob Schneider) is a good-hearted but unsophisticated man whose naiveté often lands him in hilarious situations. Other characters try to take advantage of him, but Deuce usually wins in the end.

This sequel follows the same blueprint as the first film, Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo (1999). Deuce gets himself into trouble, subsequently winds up “man-whoring,” and eventually falls in love.

In the first movie, he ruins his thuggish friend’s lavish apartment and has to find a way to make money for repairs. He then meets a pimp named T.J. (Eddie Griffin), who sets him up with a string of unattractive woman. Deuce has a way with the women because he reaches beyond their glaring flaws to communicate with them.

This time around, Deuce causes a tragic accident on the beach and decides to leave town to avoid legal problems. He goes to visit T.J. in Amsterdam, where the pimp now works from a leaky purple boat dubbed “Pimp of Da Sea.”

A wacky mystery ensues as T.J. and Deuce team up to catch a murderer who’s picking off the Man-Whore Society’s members one by one. Once again, Deuce dates a string of misfits, including a giant, a hunchback, and a woman who has a “male appendage” where her nose should be. The ladies’ flaws lead to silly jokes and disgusting gags that make public displays of bodily functions best left private.

On the plus side, Griffin provokes laughter as the nonchalant, smooth-talking T.J. He dons an array of costumes for the role (because T.J. is trying to elude the police, who think he’s the man-whore killer). In one scene, he’s a black version of the stereotypical Chinese detective. He wears a wig of short, straight, red hair and coke-bottle glasses with thick black rims.

As in the first film, Schneider is Griffin’s “straight man.” Schneider’s sheepish glances and understated looks render him a plausible Deuce.

But the pervasive raunchiness of Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo eclipses both actors. A few of the tacky jokes will likely elicit laughs from many in the audience, but those unwilling to cross the border of shocking into the land of disgusting should sit this one out. (R) Rating: 2 (posted 8/12/05)

Broken Flowers
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The world of Jim Jarmusch is populated with eccentric characters engaged in equally eccentric behavior, often embarking on odd road trips. Although his films (Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law, Coffee and Cigarettes) have never been big box-office hits, they have achieved “cult fave” status.

His latest effort, Broken Flowers, has all of the familiar Jarmusch touches. That means that, if you’re a fan, you’ll be in heaven. Others may find it much too dry.

Bill Murray gives a priceless, Oscar-worthy deadpan performance as Don Johnston, a middle-aged unmarried man who has steadfastly avoided commitment. The film’s opening scenes involve his breakup with his latest flame, played by Julie Delpy (Before Sunset.)

Don also receives a mysterious letter written on pink stationary. It claims that he has a grown son, the offspring of a long-lost relationship. The letter in unsigned and has no return address and no discernable postmark.

Don tells a neighbor about the letter. Fancying himself as an amateur sleuth, Don’s neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright) starts making plans for Don to look up all of his old girlfriends in order to find out about his would-be son.

Reluctantly, Don succumbs to Winston’s prodding and goes on a prolonged road trip that reunites him with four former paramours, played by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton.

We learn far more about Don on this trip than we do about any possible offspring he may have produced. Lonely and emotionally cautious, Don comes to the belated realization that he may have erred with each of these women. He also comes to discover that, in spite of his protestations, he desperately wants to find out that he is a father…and have a relationship with his son.

The humor in Jarmusch’s script comes from human reality, not from jokes or witty dialogue. He is completely reliant on his central character to present both the humor and pathos of the situation.

In Murray, he has found his perfect leading man. If ever there was a classic example of pitch-perfect underplaying, this is it. Never once does Murray stoop to an aside, a wink or any bit of shtick to produce a laugh. This is restraint of the highest order.

That said, Broken Flowers will leave may people cold. It has an inconclusive denouement, humor as dry as the desert and an understated point of view.

But Broken Flowers has Murray and, for most of us, that’s enough. (R) Rating: 3.5 (posted 8/12/05)

The Great Raid
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

At a time when American is engaged in a war that is less than universally supported by the public, it is interesting to see a film arrive on the scene about “the good war,” WWII. It’s as if the unspoken message could be taken as, “See, we sometimes fight for the right reasons.”

The Great Raid is a harrowing true story about the most daring rescue attempt in American military history, the attempt to free 511 sickly POWs from a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines.

The script was written by Hampton Sides and based upon his book, Ghost Soldiers as well as William B. Breuer’s The Great Raid on Cabanatuan. Although his dialogue may not be the best in the business, you can see that there was a concerted effort to get the facts right.

The film tells its story from three different angles. Joseph Feinnes (Shakespeare in Love) stars as Major Gibson, a leader of the soldiers imprisoned at Cabanatuan and who are slowly being starved to death. To make matters worse, the gaunt Gibson is suffering from malaria.

Another story involves one Margaret Utinsky, played by Connie Nielsen (Brothers,) a nurse working in the Filipino underground. In love with Gibson, she often manages to smuggle malaria medication to the prisoners.

The third angle involves the raid itself. Benjamin Bratt (Miss Congeniality) plays Lt. Colonel Mucci, the no-nonsense soldier in charge of setting the men free with a minimum loss. He relies heavily on Captain Prince (Spiderman’s James Franco) to help plan the raid and coordinate their efforts with the Filipino resistance.

What follows is a good old-fashioned, flag-waving war picture, the kind that might have starred John Wayne during Hollywood’s golden era. That doesn’t mean that the film glosses anything over, just that there is no doubt about whose doing the right thing, here.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about The Great Raid is that it was directed by John Dahl, best known for dark film noir thrillers like The Last Seduction and Red Rock West, and the tongue-in-cheek drive-in flick, Joy Ride. This kind of picture seems out of character in his body of work.

But clearly he intends for the movie to be a tribute to the people who sacrificed so much during that era, the men and women that Tom Brokaw refers to as “The Greatest Generation.”

Dahl delivers an action-packed yarn that spotlights the horror of war as well as the heroism that often springs from it. (R) Rating: 3.5 (posted 8/12/05)

The Dukes of Hazzard
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Once upon a time, there was a movie called Smokey and the Bandit. It starred the quintessential Southern good ol’ boy, Burt Reynolds, and featured broad comedy, car chases and crooked, redneck lawmen.

The popularity of that film inspired a TV comedy about Southern good ol’ boys called The Dukes of Hazzard, a series that featured broad comedy, car chases and crooked, redneck lawmen. The cast of this new film version includes Burt Reynolds. The cosmic circle has been completed.

In Hollywood’s ongoing attempt to cash in on known quantities (old TV series, comics, movie remakes and sequels that require minimal marketing due to audience familiarity,) a big screen version of Dukes was inevitable.

Seann William Scott (American Pie) stars as Bo and Johnny Knoxville (TV’s Jackass) is Luke, a pair of cousins who live on a Georgia farm with their Uncle Jesse (country music superstar Willie Nelson), a kindly moonshiner. Another resident of the Duke domain is the comely sex bomb Daisy (pop siren Jessica Simpson,) who uses her feminine wiles to aid in the family business.

Things get complicated for this happy clan when the local big wig, Boss Hogg (Reynolds) uses his crooked police cronies to usurp their property. His evil plan is to gather up adjoining farms and turn the whole place into a strip mine. As long as he can keep the residents distracted by a big cross country stock car race and prevent them from voicing opposition at the courthouse, Boss Hogg will turn Hazzard County into a coal black hole.

Screenwriter John O’Brien (Starsky and Hutch…do we see a trend here?) recycles old clichés from ‘70s drive-in movies, adding only a NASCAR angle to bring things into this century.

Director Jay Chandrasekhar, director of such classics as Super Troopers and Club Dread, has avoided much of the drug and potty humor that characterized his previous efforts with the Broken Lizard comedy troupe. Problem is, he didn’t replace it with much. We get some lengthy car chase sequences involving the Dukes’ souped-up Dodge, the General Lee, and some lingering shots of the shapely Simpson. That’s about it.

But it does have Reynolds chewing the scenery as an ornery bad guy. If that’s your idea of a good time, then comb your mullet, grab your chaw, jump in the pickup and head on down to the local picture show. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (posted 8/5/05)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The conflict between siblings is as old as Cain and Abel. The good brother and the bad brother, their roles are set in stone.

The remarkable Danish drama Brothers turns that concept on its ear. What if the roles aren’t inflexible? Under what circumstances might they be reversed?

Writer/director Susanne Bier has fashioned a fascinating, heartbreaking drama of familial conflict that, remarkably, also serves as an anti-war feature. This kind of depth is unusual in the flurry of summer releases.
The uncommonly lovely Connie Nielsen (Gladiator) stars as Sarah, the wife of a Danish soldier named Michael (Ulrich Thomsen), a straight-arrow family man. Michael’s brother, Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) is the black sheep of the family.

The story begins as Michael picks up Jannik, freshly released from jail on an assault charge. Things start well until Michael suggests that Jannik apologize to the victim of his crime. In a very short sequence, we see the years of drama that has transpired between these men, and the tensions that a lifetime of butting heads has wrought.

When Michael is called to duty in Afghanistan as part of the UN peacekeeping force, he leaves his wife and two young daughters behind. The girls see their Uncle Jannik as a refreshing alternative to their uptight father, and Jannik’s repressed attraction to Sarah begins to surface.

It is a credit to Bier that what transpires from this point on is utterly unpredictable. In addition, there is not a false note or a hint of Hollywood sheen to detract from the unfolding drama.

The cast is remarkable, each actor giving an award-worthy performance. It is Thomsen, however, who makes the deepest impression. His character undergoes a harrowing transformation brought about by his war experiences. Audiences are left to question what they would do under similar circumstances and wrestle with moral dilemmas that would befuddle Solomon.

Kaas is equally fine, crafting a portrait of a troubled man with conflicting desires. We fear the worst and hope for this best from him when serendipitous events present themselves.

Nielsen, an unearthly beauty, shows a range that we’ve not seen from her before. Her looks serve her well here, as we easily understand the attraction she provides for both of the men in her life.

The end result is an unsettling and challenging film that dares us to do something we aren’t supposed to do in a summer movie. It forces us to think. (R) Rating: 4.5 (posted 8/5/05)

Must Love Dogs
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Crafting a romantic comedy is certainly not brain surgery. You just have to introduce two protagonists, create tension or a misunderstanding between them, and then put them in a situation in which they gradually fall in love — the quirkier the characters the better.

Must Love Dogs falls short in terms of quirky characters. Most of the characters are pretty vanilla, but the cast and slight twists on the standard romantic-comedy formula render this movie entertaining despite its lack of brilliance.

Diane Lane (Under the Tuscan Sun) and John Cusack (High Fidelity) fall into their roles as Sarah and Jake with the ease of old pros, each a pleasure to watch.

Jake is a boat maker whose wife recently left him. Sarah’s an elementary school teacher whose husband recently left her. Now Jake’s best friend is goading him into dating a very easy and much younger woman from the office. But Jake’s not into it. He’s looking for a mature relationship with a mature woman.

Each member of Sarah’s large family is trying to hook her up with a man they know, but she’s finding it difficult to trust men, although she longs for a family. Her longings are evident in the way she stares at the diapers on the grocery store shelf and looks with envy at a small child in another shopper’s cart.

When a member of Sarah’s family signs her up with an Internet dating service, Sarah descends into dating hell. The procession of bad blind dates includes one with a man so depressed that he can’t get through the evening without sobbing. Jake is one of her blind dates, and although he’s not as strange as the others, he commits several verbal blunders. But he asks for a chance to redeem himself and Sarah takes him up on it.

Must Love Dogs is not as smart as High Fidelity in which Cusack played a young music store owner who was at first afraid of commitment. Yet the movie’s not so predictable that it elicits a chain of yawns. Sarah’s meddling family and Jake’s pushy friend add touches of truth that will surely bring laughter to the lips of many in the audience.

Christopher Plummer is both charming and amusing as Sarah’s 70-something dad Bill, who recites poetry and takes more than woman to family gatherings. One of these women, Dolly (Stockard Channing) is a hoot as an aging woman who’s determined to find male companionship, even if she has to “market” herself on Internet dating sites.

Must Love Dogs succeeds in being insightful though its not deep, amusing though not uproariously funny and adult but not crass. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (posted 8/1/05)

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