reel reviews
movie reviews
August '07


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

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Resurrecting the Champ
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When living in someone’s shadow, people are often tempted to do regrettable things. In order to break out and establish their own identity, they sometimes make bad decisions.

Once such character is the focus of the new drama, Resurrecting the Champ, which is ostensibly a sports movie. Actually, it’s really a cautionary tale about journalistic ethics and the lengths that some will go to get a good story.

Loosely based on articles in the LA Times magazine written by J. R. Moehringer, the fictionalized story involves a struggling sports writer named Erik Kernan (Sin City’s Josh Hartnett) who seizes upon a unique opportunity.

After leaving a boxing match, Erik sees some punks beating up a homeless man (Samuel L. Jackson from Black Snake Moan) known on the streets as “The Champ.” Erick soon discovers that this street dweller identifies himself as “Battling” Bob Satterfield, a one-time heavyweight contender.

When these two losers cross paths, it’s evident that they’re both in need of resurrection. Erik, a sportswriter for the Denver Times, has never been able to prove himself the equal of his dad, a noted sportscaster. Separated from his successful writer wife (Kathryn Morris from TV’s Cold Case), Erik also is struggling to retain a relationship with (and impress) his young son (Dakota Goyo).

Erik convinces Bob to allow him to write a series of articles about him. In his efforts to make the most of this opportunity, Erik manipulates Bob and makes some ethically questionable calls.

Jackson’s cagey and convincing portrayal of the aging boxer is easily the best thing about this modestly successful film. There are also some interesting supporting performances from veterans Alan Alda as Erik’s pushy editor and Peter Coyote as a grizzled boxing manager.

Hartnett’s performance is another matter altogether. He’s in the difficult position of playing a dishonorable fellow who must also win our sympathy. Instead, he comes off as a pitiful excuse for a journalist…and not a particularly convincing one at that.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the movie is its inside look at the newspaper business. Director Rob Laurie (The Last Castle) is a former entertainment journalist, so it’s a world he knows well. Plus his favorite movie is All the President’s Men, so we see similar office dynamics at work.

But the movie never quite delivers on its promise. It looses its way in the final reel and the conclusion is anticlimactic.

Still, thanks to Jackson, Resurrecting the Champ has a bit of a punch. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 08/24/07)

September Dawn
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Late in this “historical” western, a character yells out, “Kill me…just kill me.” Your intrepid critic was tempted to yell back, “No…kill ME!”

This excruciating, embarrassingly inept drama purports to tell the story of a tragic incident that took place in 1857, the “Mountain Meadows Massacre.”

Here, verbatim, is the text taken from the movie’s poster:

“On September 11th, 1857, in an unspoiled valley of the Utah Territory-
And in the name of God-
120 men, women and children were savagely murdered.
Who ordered the massacre, and why, has been hidden in a cloak of secrecy and conspiracy.
And the reputation of one of this nation’s mightiest religious figures has been preserved and protected. Until now.”

Yes, the filmmakers imply that none other than Brigham Young (Terence Stamp) ordered the slaughter to keep “Gentiles” from settling in Mormon territory.

Jon Voight (who also appears in another of the year’s worst films, Bratz!) stars as a firebrand Mormon bishop named Jacob Samuelson who rules his flock with unquestioned authority…that is, with the exception of one person, his son Jonathan (Trent Ford from The Island).

Bishop Samuelson is initially friendly to the wagon train of settlers who claim to be “just passing through” on their way westward. They need bit of time and some supplies before they can resume their travels.

A pretty young participant in this wagon train catches Jonathan’s eye. Emily Hudson (Tamara Hope from TV’s Whistler) provides enough reason for Jonathan to want the outsiders to stay. When dear old dad sees that romance is in the air, it incites him to consider drastic action against the unworthy rabble.

After receiving marching orders from on high (Brigham Young), the Mormons disguise themselves as Native Americans and plot to wipe the sojourners off the face of the earth.

Director Chris Cain (Young Guns) and co-writer Carole Whang Schutter may not have anti-Mormon sentiments, but they certainly show the church in an extremely negative light. Perhaps an argument can be made that their real aim is to criticize those who blindly follow religious extremism, but members of the LDS church may feel like they’ve been lumped together with Osama Bin Laden. (The church, incidentally, officially denies that Young had any involvement in the incident.)

All of this may be a moot point, however. The dialogue is so stilted and painfully (or laughably) clichéd that any power the movie might have had is utterly sapped.

September Dawn is September dumb. (R) Rating: 1 (Posted 08/24/07)

The Nanny Diaries
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The 1964 Disney classic Mary Poppins featured a magical nanny who was able to use her unique talents to persuade some wealthy, neglectful parents pay more attention to their children. Its moral about the importance of family came through loud and clear.

The Nanny Diaries tries to do the same thing, but without the magic…or the music…or the entertainment value.

Scarlett Johansson (The Prestige) stars as Annie Braddock, a recent college graduate who is about how she’ll apply her learning in the real world. Annie, it seems, is a bit of a lost soul.

Through a coincidence in Central Park, Annie impresses Mrs. X (Laura Linney from Breach), an Upper East Side socialite. On the spot, she offers Annie the job of being the nanny for her young son, Grayer (Nicholas Reese Art). It seems that Mrs. X hasn’t been able to keep a reliable nanny for her seemingly bratty boy.

Seeing this as a stopgap until she decides what she wants to do, Annie takes the gig. But she has to keep the news a secret from her hard working mom (Broadway veteran Donna Murphy) who wants her to pursue a lucrative corporate career.

Of course, Annie soon realizes that Mrs. X and her philandering, workaholic husband Mr. X (Sideways’ Paul Giamatti) care more about their designer duds, opulent apartment and blueblood parties than they do their son. But this revelation is less shocking than discovering that all of the other nannies she encounters are experiencing the same thing.

The story is based upon the popular book by former nannies Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. Their story has been reworked a bit by filmmakers Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, the team responsible for the highly creative flick American Splendor. Here they show some of that artistic ingenuity by employing some magic realism.

Through Annie’s imagination, we see some unique exhibits at the Museum of Natural History. The anthropological displays include those of the elite upper crust Manhattanites along with the aborigines. There’s even a scene where an umbrella floats down off of an office tower for Annie to fly away on. A more obvious allusion to Mary Poppins would be hard to imagine.

But other than Annie, the characters in The Nanny Diaries aren’t any more lifelike than those in the aforementioned exhibits, including the obligigory hunk (Fantastic Four’s Chris Evans) who comes to her rescue.

For a better, more eloquent treatment of this subject matter, stick with the Disney original. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 08/24/07)

My Best Friend
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Just what is “friendship” and how important of a role does it play in our lives?

That’s the central question in the lighthearted French comedy, My Best Friend from acclaimed filmmaker Patrice Leconte (The Widow of St. Pierre).

Daniel Auteuil (Cashé) stars as Francois, a middle-aged antiques dealer who bears a bit of a resemblance to Ebenezer Scrooge. A divorcée estranged from his college-aged daughter, Francois is miserable…but he doesn’t know it. He’s spent his years selfishly manipulating those around him utterly unaware of the fact that nobody likes him.

Francois finds himself at a loss when his business partner, Catherine (Julie Gayet) implies that he’s friendless. Assuring her that he does indeed have friends, Catherine challenges him with a bet. He has a month to introduce his best friend to her or she wins a valuable Greek vase that he’s just purchased for their shop.

Taking the bet, Francois begins his search. Sure enough, he soon realizes that he’s alienated everyone he’s come in contact with. He then sets out to make a friend in order to win the wager.

But Francois is stymied until he meets an amiable cabbie named Bruno (Dany Boon) who seems to make friends with ease. In an attempt to learn Bruno’s technique, Francois hangs out with the affable driver and observes his sociable behavior. Whenever he tries Bruno’s approach, however, Francois fails.

This story certainly had the potential of becoming saccharine and sappy, a poor man’s Christmas Carol. Obviously Leconte believes in what he’s preaching, however, and portrays it with a sincerity that makes it palatable.

Auteuil manages to make Francois a sympathetic character in spite of the fact that he’s an utter boor. He subtlety conveys the loneliness that Francois is experiencing, a feeling of emotional detachment that he’s been in denial about until forced to reckon with it.

Boon is equally good as Bruno, who is also a bit of a lost soul. He shows that even the most gregarious people can have trouble with relationships.

In tone and structure, this sweet-natured movie resembles the work of Hollywood veteran Frank Capra. Taking a page from Capra’s sentimental classics like It’s a Wonderful Life and Lady for a Day, Leconte implies that most people are basically good and, if steered in the right direction, will prove it.

That message, when delivered in an entertaining way as it is here, will fall on grateful ears. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 08/24/07)

Mr. Bean’s Holiday
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

One could easily dub Rowan Atkinson’s latest flick with an alternative title: The Little Movie That Could. After all, his low-key slapstick comedy has been a European smash since opening in April, taking in $179 million.

Mr. Bean’s Holiday is now debuting in the US. Although its prospects for conquering American audiences aren’t as rosy, this family-friendly romp generates enough laughs to ensure it will become a modest success stateside.

Atkinson created the character of Mr. Bean for a popular British TV show that ran from 1990 to 1995. It showcased the bungling antics of an affable but none too bright fellow, a “child in a grown man’s body” as Atkinson has characterized him. In 1997, he took the character to the big screen for the first time in Bean and later transformed his adventures into a television cartoon series.

Our hero, Mr. Bean, is a largely silent fellow who manages to get into one fine mess after another. (Atkinson owes a lot to the great silent comedians as well as the French filmmaker, Jacques Tati, whose classic 1953 comedy Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is an obvious inspiration.)

The film begins as Mr. Bean wins a church raffle, awarding him a rail adventure to the French Rivera, a video camera and $400 cash. The giddy Brit then sets out on his cross-country holiday that is to culminate in Cannes during the famous yearly film festival.

Of course, nothing goes smoothly. Along the way, Bean manages to miss his train connection in Paris, lose his money and passport, and cause a Russian film director to get separated from his 10-year-old son who is now all alone on Bean’s train.

Bean then spends the remainder of the film trying to reunite the boy with his father, make it to the French beach and chronicle his adventures via his new video camera. He also crosses paths (and crosses) a pretentious American filmmaker (Wilem Defoe) and befriend a pretty but struggling French actress (Emma de Caunes).

Director Steve Bendelack and writers Hamish McColl and Robin Driscoll use this setup to allow Atkinson the opportunity to engage in plenty of slapstick moments and elaborate sight gags. Many of these are genuinely funny and demonstrate crack comic timing. Unfortunately, there are also lulls in the action that may cause some of the youngsters to squirm.

But overall, Mr. Bean’s Holiday is a likable lark, an affectionate embrace of the bungler in all of us. (G) Rating: 3 (Posted 08/24/07)

Rocket Science
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Violent Femme’s “Kiss Off” lyrics epitomize Hal Hefner’s life experience: Behind my back I can see them stare. They’ll hurt me bad, but I won’t mind. They’ll hurt me bad; they do it all the time …

Hal (Reece Thompson) is the teen runt protagonist of writer/director Jeffrey Blitz’s latest film, Rocket Science. Like the many cinematic misfits before him, Hal marches to the beat of a brass band while his peers k-rump to rap.

But Hal carries on, resigned to his role of stuttering, lonely outcast — until fast-talking debate champ Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) comes along. She convinces the slumping, suitcase-wheeling boy that he can conquer his severe speech problems and become an award-winning debater.

After much cajoling from Ginny, Hal agrees to give debate a try.

With the big debate looming Hal continues his dreary life with his self-absorbed mother, his antisocial older brother and his mother’s Asian boyfriend and his son, who have become accoutrements at the Hefner home. These quirky characters drive the film more than the simple plot.

Like all the quirky characters from Charlie Brown to Cosmo Kramer these folks do and say in public what most of us would keep to ourselves. There’s the quiet teen boy who shocks Hal by reaching behind his bed and whipping out a magazine with a sexy male centerfold; and a mother who has loud sex with her boyfriend, and both adults seem oblivious to the fact that their children can hear from nearby rooms.

These quirky characters are accompanied by suitably quirky music, including Violent Femme’s “Kiss Off,” and Eef Barzelay’s “I Love the Unknown” (performed by Clem Snide). These songs’ lyrics summarize Hal’s sad but sometimes humorous existence and his inner struggles more than the overstated voiceovers that play intermittently throughout the film.

Viewers who care more about the journey than the destination will enjoy this movie — they might view it as the character in Barzelay’s song views his bus trip: They asked him Hey, where’s this bus going? And he said well, I’m not really sure. Well then how will you know where to get off? And he said the place with the most allure. Because I love the unknown. I love the unknown. He says he loves the unknown … (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 08/24/07)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

As far as Hollywood is concerned, the terms “teen comedy” and “raunchy” now go hand-in-hand. Thanks to the success of American Pie and others of its ilk, we’re now offered Superbad, a coming-of-age farce that takes “raunchy” to a new level.

Jonah Hill (Knocked Up) and Michel Cera (TV’s Arrested Development) play a couple of nerdy high school seniors who only have a few short weeks of school left before graduation. Seth (Hill) is a portly slacker whose hormones are reaching new and barely controllable levels. Evan (Cera), while equally horny, seems to have a stronger grip on his self-control…and an eye for a cute schoolmate named Becca (Martha MacIssac from Ice Princess).

Things are heating up between these lifelong buddies because Evan will be going off to a prestigious school (Dartmouth) while Seth’s so-so grades will only be able to get him into a state school. This inevitable parting of the ways makes Seth insistent that they find some girls and get laid before graduation.

Most of the movie’s action takes place on a single fateful night. They’ve been invited to a party…but with a caveat. They must score some booze to bring along. Naturally, Seth sees this as the opportunity to get some girls drunk and primed for sex.

One of their buddies, a particularly geeky dude named Fogell (newcomer Christopher Mintz-Plasse) scores a fake Hawaiian ID and attempts to buy a $100 stockpile at the local liquor store. This brings him into contact with a couple of goofy cops, Michaels and Slater. Michaels is played Hot Rod’s Bill Hader and Slater is played by one of the movie’s screenwriters, Seth Rogen (the star of Knocked Up).

What follows is a farcical series of complications that puts our heroes in conflict with cops, classmates and assorted lowlifes. It often hits the bulls-eye, but the over-the-top cop characters are a constant reminder that we’re watching a movie, not eavesdropping on the lives of real people.

While there is little in the way of nudity, Superbad sets a new standard for frank, bawdy sex talk. The juvenile frat-boy humor may be a turn-off for some viewers, but it will score big points with others.

The redeeming value of Superbad lies in its unequivocal, three-pronged message: Underage sex and drinking is bad. Women should be treated with respect. Friendship is a valuable treasure.

Superbad is wrong in so many ways. But it is right in a few important ones. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 08/17/07)

Death at a Funeral
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Once upon a time, there was a production company in England that became known for it’s outstanding comedies. Ealing Studios produced classic farces like Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob and The Ladykillers. These movies made international stars of Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers.

Director Frank Oz (the man behind Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels and What About Bob? as well providing the voices of Miss Piggy and Yoda) attempts to recapture the flavor of one of the old Ealing farces with Death at a Funeral.

Assembling a crack British acting ensemble aided by two Americans (Peter Dinklage from Elf and Alan Tudyk from Knocked Up), Oz and screenwriter Dean Craig (Dirty Little Secrets) offer a broad door-slammer that goes into bawdy territory that Ealing couldn’t have entered in the 1950s. (As its tagline states, “From director Frank Oz comes the story of a family that puts the F U back in funeral.)

After the death of his father, a grieving Daniel (Matthew McFadyen) is charged with making all of the arrangements for the funeral. He is also dealing with his demanding mother (Jane Asher), discontented wife (Keeley Hawes) and irresponsible brother (Rupert Graves).

Once the guests arrive at their stately upper middle class country home for the services, things begin to go awry. Complications pile high as the wrong body is initially delivered to their home, one guest (beautifully played by Tudyk) accidentally ingests some acid, and an irascible senior citizen named Uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughn) has trouble with his bowel movements.

But the biggest glitch comes via Dinklage’s character. It seems that he and Daniel’s late dad were secretly homosexual lovers. He’s arrived at the wake with compromising photos and begins to blackmail the family, demanding big bucks.

Oz certainly knows his way around this sort of oddball comedy, achieving an accelerating pace that this sort of venture demands. One can see all of the gears working in Craig’s screenplay, however. It’s certainly got all of the stock elements of a door-slamming farce and adds nothing new to the genre except a few choice expletives.

It’s the cast that really makes the film work. The British vets are solid, but it’s the Yanks who get the plum roles. Dinklage gives a finely nuanced performance as the blackmailing dwarf and Tudyk is brilliantly funny as the blitzed-out guest.

While it never achieves the stature of the classic Ealing farces, Death at a Funeral is one lively corpse. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 08/17/07)

Arctic Tale
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When March of the Penguins tramped across movie screens in 2005, it raked in an amazing $127 million in worldwide box-office receipts to become one of the most successful documentaries in history.

Now, thanks to a new nature flick from the folks at National Geographic, we’re granted vicarious access to the opposite end of the world. Arctic Tale focuses on cute polar bears and walruses struggling for survival against the usual odds as well as coping with the added complications brought on by global warming. It plays a bit like March of the Penguins meets An Inconvenient Truth.

Featuring some beautiful images photographed on and below the ice, this well-meaning documentary comes from the husband and wife team of director Sarah Robertson and cinematographer Adam Ravetch.

Although the storyline is a work of fiction cobbled together from footage reportedly shot over a span of several years, the filmmakers manage to create the illusion that it focuses on the lives of two particular animals. With its anthropomorphic approach, this is clearly a movie designed with kids in mind.

As we learn from the narration provided by Queen Latifah, Nanu is a female polar bear cub and Seela is a female walrus pup. They each initially are completely dependant upon their mothers but soon learn the survival skills necessary to endure their harsh environment.

The film cuts back and forth between the stories of these two characters, showing their struggles as well as their fleeting joys. Late in the film, as even the small fry might presume, the two eventually cross paths.

Linda Woolverton (The Lion King), Mose Richards (Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure) and Kristin Gore (daughter of Al) wrote the narration for Arctic Tale, eschewing the straightforward approach employed by Morgan Freeman in March of the Penguins. Instead, they’ve opted to create cutesy characters and give them human attributes. This approach might make the movie more kid friendly, but adults may find it off-putting.

The strength of the film lies in its visuals. Not only do we see the magnificent, otherworldly beauty of the Artic, but also its frightening decline. (As the closing credits claim, if the ice sheet continues on its present path of decline, the habitat of the walrus and polar bear will be completely gone by 2040.)

Although their heart is clearly in the right place, the makers of Arctic Tale haven’t found a way to make their movie more interesting than a typical Discovery Channel offering. It’s well meaning but dull. (G) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 08/17/07)

Reviewed by Deborah Young

There may be nothing new under the sun. New stories may just be a retelling of ancient tales. But once in a while an original storyteller comes along and captures his audience with the element of surprise.

Stardust has quite a few surprises. Based on Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, it tells of an awkward young man who wants to win his “true love.”

Charlie Cox (Casanova, 2005) plays the gawky Tristran, whose goal is to win the affections of Victoria (Sienna Miller, Factory Girl, 2006). Unfortunately, Victoria’s affections belong to the handsome and skilled swordsman Humphrey (Henry Cavill, Triston+ Isolde, 2006).

Tristran puzzles over how to win Victoria from his more coordinated rival.

One night Tristran meets with Victoria to share wine and express his affection, and the two see a star fall from the sky.

Tristran tells Victoria that he will fetch the star for her in exchange for her love. Then he’s off on an adventure that takes him beyond a magical hedge into a treacherous and supernatural world.

Along the way, he meets witches, pirates and his long-lost mother, and he learns that stars have a life beyond what he could have imagined.

Those who found Johnny Depp’s rendition of Jack Sparrow to be a hoot just have to see Robert De Niro’s rendition of the gender-bending Captain Shakespeare. Michelle Pfeiffer’s portrayal of the evil witch Lamia is a close second.

Stardust gets a bit violent at times with disturbing visuals that might not be suitable for wee viewers. However, the movie marries a captivating story with delightful performances from a very capable cast that includes Peter O’Toole and Rupert Everett.

The real star here is the plot, which takes viewers down unexpected alleyways and then whisks them back to the comfort of familiar territory. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 08/10/07)

Daddy Day Camp
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

One may be tempted to wonder what’s going on in the head of actor Cuba Gooding, Jr. The Oscar-winning star of films like Boyz in the Hood, As Good as it Gets and Jerry McGuire has, of late, shown very bad decision-making in his choice of film projects.

If there was ever someone in dire need of a new agent, it’s Gooding.

His latest film is a mind-numbingly bad family flick called Daddy Day Camp. A sequel to Eddie Murphy’s 2003 comedy Daddy Day Care, Daddy Day Camp is so awful that even Murphy (who made Norbit, for crying out loud) wouldn’t touch it. They couldn’t even get Jeff Garlin to reprise his role of overweight buddy Phil for this movie. The filmmakers had to settle on journeyman TV character actor Paul Rae for the part.

In this awkward sequel, our hero Charlie Hinton (Gooding) has managed to make his day care facility a financial success. Now, he feels that it is time for him to branch out into additional projects.

Because of (or in spite of) his own terrible summer camp experiences as a child, Charlie decides to take his son Ben (Spencir Bridges) to his old retreat, Camp Driftwood. Once he and his pal Phil make it to the ramshackle camp, they realize that it’s about ready to close, the victim of the success of nearby Camp Canola, a spot for rich, spoiled brats.

Charlie decides to try to revive the camp, opting to buy if from its aging owner, Uncle Morty (Brian Doyle Murray from TV’s Yes, Dear). Part of his motivation lies in the fact that Camp Canola’s owner is the no good Lance Warner (Lochlyn Monroe from Deck the Halls), who used to routinely trounce Charlie in the yearly Summer Camp Olympiad.

Naturally, this setup provides plenty of opportunities for fart jokes, slapstick violence and other assorted cheap shots. But that’s not where the movie goes bad. It really sinks when it tries to inject sentimentality by introducing a rivalry between Charlie and his estranged father, Col Buck Hinton (Norbit’s Richard Gant), a retired Marine. Charlie calls on his dad’s expertise when things at the camp really start going downhill.

Daddy Day Camp marks the first directing effort of actor Fred Savage (TV’s The Wonder Years). It’s clear that the world of sitcom obviousness has stifled his creativity. It’s hard to imagine a more inauspicious debut.

Or maybe he just needs a new agent, too. (PG) Rating: 0 (Posted 08/10/07)

Becoming Jane
Reviewed by Deborah Young

There’s bound to be a bit of déjà vu here for those who’ve seen Pride and Prejudice. Becoming Jane is a version of the same flick. But the names have been changed to uh … reflect reality.

How much of Becoming Jane is real and how much fiction is up for debate. Screenwriters Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams started with scanty details of an encounter between Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy. What reached the screen is a beautiful speculation of how that encounter affected Austen’s storytelling, particularly in Pride and Prejudice.

Here, Anne Hathaway (The Devil Wears Prada, 2006) plays an unfashionably intelligent Jane. Her first encounter with law student Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy, Last King of Scotland) is not a good one. Visiting “the country” on his uncle’s orders and against his own wishes, he happens upon Jane reading one of her stories at a gathering of family and friends. The reading bores him. He later expresses his dislike of her fiction, and she overhears him.

Then it’s on. During other encounters she makes it clear that women can be intellectual. He argues that she needs to live a little more before she can write great fiction.

In the background a subplot looms. It’s about the need for Jane to marry well, a theme in Pride and Prejudice. Jane’s father (James Cromwell as Mr. Austen) takes one side of the argument, saying that Jane should live the life she wants. Her mother (Julie Walters as Mrs. Austen) says she should marry to ensure a comfortable and secure future.

With this thread of argument woven throughout the film, the filmmakers have done an admirable job of dramatizing some of the societal pressures that Austen must have been under. Screenwriters Hood and Williams created verbal sparks for the romantic protagonists. Cinematographer Eigil Bryld has used stunning photography to bring lavish landscape to life. And director Julian Jarrold has pulled the whole enterprise together into an appealing romantic fantasy.

The downside is pacing. The film moves a bit slow in the first half of its 120 minutes, but its worth the wait to see characters develop and the story play out.

Whether Becoming Jane adequately reflects reality is beside the point. What the film does and does well is create a dramatic reality that will make viewers fantasize and think. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 08/10/07)

Rush Hour 3
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Is America ready for another “third?” So far this year, Hollywood has provided us with the third incarnation of the Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean, Bourne, Spider-Man and Ocean’s franchises (along with additional installments of Die Hard, Harry Potter, Fantastic Four, The Hills Have Eyes, Hostel, Daddy Day Care…the list goes on).

This may mean that either that Hollywood is completely out of new ideas or that the studios are only willing to finance sure things. Most likely, it is a combination of the two.

That brings us to Rush Hour 3, the latest comic crime caper from director Bret Ratner (X-Men: The Last Stand). Once again, martial arts master Jackie Chan is teamed with funnyman Chris Tucker in a buddy flick with plenty of action and broad comedy.

This time out, a set of odd circumstances force our heroes to track down members of a secretive Chinese crime syndicate known as ‘The Triad.’

Chan is back as Chief Inspector Lee, a Chinese lawman who has been assigned to protect his country’s ambassador who has traveled to the US to address the World Criminal Court. During a speech where he promises to reveal the names of members of the crime syndicate, he’s shot and seriously wounded by a would-be assassin.

Naturally, Lee goes in pursuit of the gunman, and the ensuing chase sequence not only reveals the surprising identity of the shooter, but also puts him back in an awkward partnership with LA Detective James Carter (Tucker)…now working as a traffic cop.

Once the dust settles and they’re able to check out a few of the clues, they’re off to Paris in hot pursuit of the bad guys. Not a bad assignment for a lowly traffic cop.

The plot, of course, is just an excuse to allow Chan to engage in his impressive acrobatic martial arts choreography and for Tucker to crack wise and play up his phony bravado.

The picture is extremely well produced and makes good use of the Parisian locales. Ratner even manages to snag some heavyweights for minor roles, including Max Von Sydow as a shady World Court official, acclaimed French filmmaker Yvan Attal as a cabbie who gets involved in the action and even Roman Polanski (!) as the head of the Parisian police!

While Chan is great, Tucker will either strike you as funny or as grating as fingernails on the chalkboard. In either case, Rush Hour 3 is a mildly diverting lark. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 08/10/07)

The Bourne Ultimatum
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Since Robert Ludlum’s amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne first appeared on the big screen in 2002’s The Bourne Identity, audiences have witnessed the development of a solid big screen thriller series.

The sequel, The Bourne Supremacy, was even better. Now the so-called finale in the trilogy The Bourne Ultimatum has arrived and it may well be the best of the lot.

Once again, Matt Damon (Ocean’s 13) plays the super talented CIA killer, and he’s still struggling in vain to discover his true identity. It seems that he was the victim of brainwashing at the hands of some covert “special ops” types. Now that he’s showing remorse for his senseless killings, he’s become a danger to certain shady officials in the agency and they’ve sent other “assets” to liquidate him.

Using investigative and deductive skills that are on a par with his abilities as a hit man, Bourne gets closer and closer to finding out who he is and why he’s been sent out to kill. One lead takes him to London where a reporter has written articles about him with info culled from an inside source. He tracks down the journalist but puts both of them in grave danger as a result.

Thanks to his intense training and sharp intellect, Bourne is able to stay one step ahead of the CIA’s sophisticated tracking technology and an agency big shot named Noah Vosen (David Strathairn from Good Night and Good Luck) who wants him dead. Meanwhile another CIA official, Pamela Landy, played by Joan Allen (The Upside of Anger) quickly figures out that Vosen is up to no good and that Bourne needs help.

The Bourne Ultimatum is as much a travelogue as it is a thriller. After he manages to outmaneuver agents in Moscow, Bourne’s adventures lead him to New York, London, Turin, Madrid, Paris and Tangier. It is in that Moroccan city that the film provides one of the greatest foot chase sequences in movie history.

Director Paul Greengrass (United 93) employs a lot of breathless hand-held camerawork, turning his cinematographers into stunt men. The extended chase shots put audience members in the thick of the chase, flying us through windows and over rooftops. Somehow, Greengrass manages to do so without the headache-inducing jerkiness of his imitators.

The Bourne Ultimatum is an intense, high-octane thriller that benefits greatly from Greengrass’ realistic, pseudo-documentary shooting style. The cast and production values are first rate, helping provide a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 08/03/07)

El Cantante
Reviewed by Deborah Young

An accurate description of El Cantante would be: the Hispanic version of Ray (2004), the musical version of Gia (1998), and the salsa world’s equivalent of Basquiat (1996). All of these movies tell the stories of drug-addicted celebrities.

In the case of El Cantante the celebrity is Hector Lavoe (played by Marc Anthony). Lavoe was a Puerto Rican Salsa singer popular during the 1970s and 1980s. Unfortunately, the movie sheds more light on Lavoe’s drug use and his dysfunctional relationship with his wife, Puchi (Jennifer Lopez), than on his music career.

The movie begins in 2002 with a black and white interview with a pale, world-weary Puchi. Then viewers are whisked back into the 1980s. Puchi is wearing a sleek, form-fitting red dress and a luxurious fur.

She kisses her kid goodbye and jumps in a limo. When she reaches her destination she sashays into the building and bursts into the dreary room where Hector sits nodding out with other addicts. Puchi leads Hector out of that room and into a limo where she shaves and spruces him up and then rewards him with a little nose candy.

As the movie progresses Hector’s addiction worsens. The movie volleys between Puchi’s tart, candid, expletive-sprinkled exposition and scenes of Hector performing and self-destructing.

Viewers will get a realistic glimpse into an addict’s life with its constantly alternating bouts with pleasure and pain. But the movie fails to illustrate why Hector was considered a great singer or how he was unique.

Instead, we get the Reader’s Digest version of his songs interspersed with melodrama.

El Cantante is a biopic cliché that is over-the-top in its efforts to wrench sympathy from the audience. To its credit, the movie still manages to present two main characters for which we root and feel.

Praise for this feat belongs to Marc Anthony for his convincing portrayal of the drug-addled singer and also to the chemistry between Anthony and Lopez. Their onscreen relationship puts the funk in dysfunctional. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 08/03/07)

Hot Rod
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Loren Michaels must know what he’s doing. The creator of Saturday Night Live has had some success producing movies featuring SNL veterans (Wayne’s World, Tommy Boy, Mean Girls, etc.).

Now comes Hot Rod, a comedy Michaels is presenting that stars current SNL cast member Andy Sandberg. He and his partners Jorma Taccone and Akiva Shaffer of the comedy team Lonely Island, have created some funny digital video shorts for SNL that have become sensations on YouTube. In fact, their rap music send-up called Lazy Sunday has become one of the most viewed videos in Internet history.

Their first feature, written by Pam Brady (Team America: World Police) is an oddball comedy about an inept Evel Knievel wannabe named Rod Kimbal. Rod is a nerdy fellow who lives with his mom Marie, (Sissy Spacek), stepfather Frank (Ian McShane) and half brother, Kevin (Taccone).

Since Rod idolized his late father, a stuntman like Knievel, he also wants to prove himself a worthy daredevil while showing up his nasty stepfather, Frank. Their violent rivalry is a source of constant commotion at home.

Rod’s goofy posse of slackers, (Danny R. McBride from All the Real Girls, Bill Hader from Knocked Up and Taccone) are constantly aiding him in his seemingly suicidal efforts to try out new and daring stunts. Most of these, obviously inspired by TV’s Super Dave Osborne, end up as bone-crushing accidents.

Rod’s awkward flirtation with his cute neighbor, Densie (Isla Fisher from The Wedding Crashers) at first seems hopeless, but she eventually becomes a part of the hapless gang.

Things get serious when Frank’s heart begins to give out. In need of a transplant, Rod and his friends concoct a moneymaking scheme to pay for the expensive operation. They’ll create a stunt so daring that people will pay big bucks to see it. Rod wants Frank to get well so that he can whip him once and for all.

Directed by Lonely Island’s Shaffer, Hot Rod is an uneasy mix of Napoleon Dynamite and Jackass. While if has a few funny moments, there aren’t enough to sustain a feature length film. In fact, there are more laughs in their video short Lazy Sunday than in this entire movie.

The movie Hot Rod most resembles is Napoleon Dynamite. The filmmakers obviously wanted to emulate that surprise hit’s offbeat, quirky humor. Even the line delivery exhibits similar timing and affinity for the non sequitur.

Alas, Hot Rod is only fitfully amusing. Hey, Loren. How about finally doing Church Lady: The Movie? (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 08/03/07)

Bratz: The Movie
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In 2001, MGA Entertainment (Micro-Games America) introduced “Bratz”, a collection of dolls that became wildly popular among very young girls.

The American Psychological Association expressed concern over the overt sexuality of the dolls. Parental groups decried the unrelenting materialism that these dolls seemed to promote. Their makeup and clothing caused some to refer to them as pint-sized “hoochie mamas.”

Whether or not the message that Bratz sends is a positive one (female empowerment) or a negative one (early sluthood), their impact is undeniable. They’ve become some of the world’s most popular toys. They’ve spawned many ancillary products such as animated movies and videos, games, CDs, play sets, fashion accessories and dozens of other Bratz-inspired dolls (Bratz Boyz, Catz, Dogz, etc.).

That brings us to Bratz: The Movie, a live action comedy about the high school tribulations of four teens with a “passion for fashion.” Loud, annoying and unintentionally offensive, it is a bona fide contender for worst film of the year.

The story finds our four young ladies on their first day as high school freshman. These inseparable friends are pretty, clothes conscious and as shallow as a kiddie pool. In high school, they discover that their bond of friendship isn’t as strong as they’d thought it was.

The Bratz represent four ethnic groups. Cloe (Skyler Shaye) is a Caucasian soccer jock; Yasmin (Nathalia Ramos) is Hispanic with a gift for music; Sasha (Logan Browning) is an African-American who wants to be a cheerleader and Jade (Janel Parrish) is a science nerd with an Asian mother and Caucasian father.

With their varied talents and interests, they’re drawn to different cliques at Carry Nation High School. A wedge is further driven between them by an evil teen mover and shaker named Meredith (Chelsea Staub), the conniving daughter of Principal Dimley (Jon Voight!!). By the time they’re juniors, they’ve gone their separate ways.

Trying to find something positive to say about Bratz: The Movie is like grasping at straws. The girls are cute, the food fight is fun and Staub gives a solid performance in her clichéd villainess role.

But the racial stereotyping is distressing and, in spite of the snappy music and quick-cut editing, the movie is slow moving and mind-numbingly dull. There’s even a character (Yasmin’s brother) whose flirtation with an underage girl has the unintentionally creepy air of pedophilia.

Bratz: The Movie may appeal to eight-year-olds. Let’s hope it’s a phase they quickly get over. (PG) Rating: 0.5 (Posted 08/03/07)

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