reel reviews
movie reviews
October '07

BELLADAN IN REAL LIFELARS AND THE REAL GIRLRESERVATION ROAD
THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRERENDITIONGONE BABY GONE
THE DARJEELING LIMITED30 DAYS OF NIGHTLUST CAUTION
ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE
ACROSS THE UNIVERSEMICHAEL CLAYTON
THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORDTHE HEARTBREAK KID
INTO THE WILDTHE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUBTHE SEEKER: THE DARK IS RISING

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

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Bella
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In 2006, the modest drama Bella won the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival. Just as the title suggests, the prize is not a jury award but is selected by popular vote among attendees.

Perhaps the crowds at Toronto were rewarding good intentions. Perhaps it was the fact that the movie hasn’t any sex, profanity or gratuitous violence to find offensive. Maybe it was the unabashed sentiment or the positive portrayal of Latinos that accounted for its appeal.

It certainly wasn’t the filmmaking, acting or craftsmanship. On those counts, Bella is strictly pedestrian.

Eduardo Verástegui (Chasing Papi) leads the cast as Jose, a chef working in a New York restaurant run by his brother, Manny (Manny Perez from TV’s Rescue Me). Jose is laboring under his boorish brother because his career as a professional soccer player didn’t pan out.

It isn’t because he lacks skill as a player. On that count, he should have been a superstar. But Jose has a dark secret that hangs over him like a constant rain cloud.

Jose’s routine changes considerably when Manny fires a waitress named Nina, played by Tammy Blanchard (The Good Shepherd). In sympathy, Jose abandons his post to try to find out why the usually reliable Nina had been reporting to work late in recent days.

Because of his natural empathy, Jose manages to get Nina to open up and share her frustrations. As it turns out, she’s single, pregnant and suffering from morning sickness. Now she’s out of a job and unsure of what to do with her life. The only thing that seems certain is an abortion.

Jose takes Nina to visit his parents’ home in Jersey and shows her what a strong family bond is all about. He also shares his dark secret with her hoping that his confession will provide some comfort.

Bella is the first effort from Mexican-born filmmaker Alejandro Gomez Monteverde. He obviously has a strong desire to provide a positive portrait of Hispanics, and on that count he certainly succeeds.

Written by first-timers Leo Severino and Patrick Million, Bella is a well meaning but standard morality tale with dialogue that occasional sounds like greeting card copy. Monteverde’s pacing makes it seem longer than its 91 minutes.

But the real drawback is the lackluster and somewhat stilted performances from the leads. While they’re not terrible, they certainly lack charisma.

The sweet sentiment behind Bella is unimpeachable, however. In this case, perhaps modesty is a virtue. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 10/26/07)


Dan in Real Life
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When filmmaker Peter Hedges pitched his gentle comedy Dan in Real Life to studio honchos, it’s very likely that they yawned, smiled and said, “We’ll get back to you.” After all, it’s not a film that appeals to the demographic group that buys most movie tickets.

But somehow, Hedges (Pieces of April) prevailed and has provided adults with a delightful romantic comedy that focuses on, of all things, middle-aged people.

Steve Carell (Bruce Almighty) stars as Dan, a widower and advice columnist who is doing his best to raise his three young daughters. Often at wit’s end when dealing with the girls (especially a precocious early teen who insists she is in love), he longs for some good advice in child rearing.

In spite of the fact that Dan is a good father, he manages to regularly annoy his offspring with his oppressively square ways. Things come to a head when Dan takes them to a family reunion at the extended clan’s idyllic Rhode Island seaside retreat.

During one of many moments that he winds up in the doghouse, Dan’s mother instructs him to go into town and buy a newspaper. While at a bookstore, he meets Marie (Juliette Binoche from Caché) and in a matter of a couple of hours, has fallen for the beautiful woman…even though she warns him that she’s just started a new relationship.

To Dan’s dismay, Marie shows up at the family reunion on the arm of her current boyfriend, Dan’s brother Mitch, played by Dane Cook (Good Luck Chuck).

Being the decent guy that he is, Dan tries to squelch his feelings toward Marie and she attempts to do the same. Naturally, it isn’t easy for either of them.

While Hedges’ story borders on sitcom superficiality, he infuses this script with realistic dialogue and heartfelt sentiment. Better yet, he’s recruited a pitch-perfect ensemble.

All of the roles, from the kids on up, are beautifully cast. The veterans include Dianne Weist (TV’s Law and Order), John Mahoney (TV’s Frasier), Tony-winning Broadway thesp Norbert Leo Butz (Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels) and Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada). But the movie belongs to Carell.

In a performance of substantial depth, Carell finds a way to keep his character grounded in reality while mining the role for it’s comic potential. The catchy pop score by Norwegian singer Sondre Lerche is a big plus, too.

Warm and charming, Dan in Real Life is a welcome comedy for the rest of us. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 10/26/07)


Lars and the Real Girl
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

There are a couple of elements in the new comic drama Lars and the Real Girl that are utterly plastic. In this case, that isn’t necessarily all bad.

An eccentric and self-consciously quirky story about a delusional man struggling with loss, Lars and the Real Girl is a leisurely paced tale that benefits greatly from some terrific performances.

Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson) stars as Lars, a sweet-natured thirtysomething bachelor who lives in the garage of his family home. Painfully shy, he can’t seem to make any emotional connections.

His brother Gus, played by Paul Schneider (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), lives in the main house with his pregnant wife, Karin (Emily Mortimer from The Pink Panther). Although Lars seems to function normally he’s never had a relationship with a woman.

But to the delight of Gus and Karin, Lars announces that he’s met a woman on the Internet and that she’s coming to stay with him. When she arrives, they’re shocked to learn that the “woman” is actually a plastic love doll. To Lars, however, she’s utterly real.

Taking the advice of the local doctor (Patricia Clarkson from All the King’s Men), they’re told to play along with their delusional relative and accept “Bianca” as a real woman. She tells them that Lars is simply working through a difficult period.

Not only do they accept the doctor’s counsel, so does the entire town. Everyone loves Lars (including a pretty co-worker named Margo, played by Dreamland’s Kelli Garner), so they all acquiesce to this elaborate masquerade.

Of course, this story is a fable. Nowhere in the real world would a community band together with utter unanimity to create a fantasy for an obviously disturbed individual. This is the movies so we’re asked to play along too.

But one can’t help but ask whether or not this is a good thing for our lonesome hero. Are they causing more damage by accepting his delusion? That point and an unsatisfying conclusion prevent the movie from achieving complete success.

Director Craig Gillespie (Mr. Woodcock) employs a low-key approach to Nancy Oliver’s story, creating a sweet and serene atmosphere. He gets us to root for Lars, too.

But the performances carry the day. Gosling is brilliant and a terrific ensemble, especially Clarkson as the sympathetic doctor, provides strong support.

While there are bones to pick with this offbeat character piece, it breathes life into its plastic premise. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 10/26/07)


Reservation Road
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The Biblical book of Job is the ultimate story of how bad things happen to good people. Of course, most of those who suffer from life’s slings and arrows lack Job’s saintly patience.

In the heartbreaking new drama Reservation Road, based upon the novel by John Burhnam Schwartz, Joaquin Phoenix (We Own the Night) is faced with a Job-like trial.

Phoenix plays Ethan Learner, a college professor living an idyllic life in upstate Connecticut. One fateful night, he and his lovely wife Grace (Jennifer Connelly from Blood Diamond) are driving home from a concert with their son and daughter.

Pausing briefly at a gas station, their lives are changed in an instant. Their young son, Josh (Sean Curley) steps out of the car for a moment and is struck by a passing car and killed instantly.

The driver who accidentally struck Josh is Dwight Arno, played by Mark Ruffalo (Zodiac). A divorced lawyer, Dwight was driving home after attending a Red Sox game with his son, Lucas (Eddie Alderson). Already having trouble with his ex-wife (Mira Sorvino from Gods and Generals), Dwight knows that he’ll lose visitation rights with his son if he gets in trouble with the law.

In a moment of reckless fear, Dwight flees the scene.

Already distraught from the loss of his son, Ethan is incensed that a “murderer” was responsible for this hit-and-run accident. He and the authorities search for the culprit, but Ethan becomes obsessed in his pursuit of justice, which in actually is a desire for revenge.

Meanwhile Dwight, a loving father and an ethical man, grapples with how to handle his obvious mistake. If he turns himself in, that won’t bring the child back to life. If he admits fault, he’ll lose his own son, his career as a lawyer will be over and he’ll spend years in jail. How will he care for his son then?

The cast of Reservation Road is solid. Phoenix ably expresses pain of a parent who suffers a catastrophic loss, and Connelly has some nice moments as his equally distraught wife. Ruffalo is excellent, positioning Dwight as a tragic, sympathetic character.

But strangely, Reservation Road is disjointed and lumbering when it should be riveting. Under the direction of Terry George (Hotel Rwanda), the movie generates an atmosphere that is so dark and oppressive that we simply can’t wait for it to be over.

Even Job would have a hard time sitting through this one. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 10/26/07)


Things We Lost in the Fire
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Will this film be Halle Berry’s best role in five years? Maybe.

Danish director Susanne Bier has a visual aesthetic that includes plenty of tight close-ups. At times the camera gets so close that all we can see is one character’s eye. It’s as if Bier is literally trying to get into the characters’ heads.

These odd visuals mixed with overly ambitious dialogue and dark emotional subjects create a sometimes thoughtful, sometimes over-the-top movie. Screenwriter Allan Loeb gives us the story of a grieving widow (Halle Berry as Audrey) who invites her husband’s best friend (Benicio Del Toro as Jerry) to move in with her and her two young children.

The catch: Jerry is a junkie.

Audrey’s husband (David Duchovny as Steven) was a successful developer. Their home is paid for, and she doesn’t have to worry about finances. But Jerry lives in a one-room dump with another addict. Loving Steven seems to be the only thing Audrey and Jerry have in common.

Loeb tries to show that there’s more the two characters share. This tactic works sometimes. One of the successful scenes has the two in the kitchen joking about something Jerry told Audrey’s son about preferring R2-D2 to C-3PO. After sharing a laugh with Jerry, Audrey muses that she misses “the silliness” of life with her husband.

One scene that doesn’t work involves Audrey asking Jerry what it’s like to use heroine. He responds that it’s an escape. Then she mumbles about how she really wants to escape. Jerry then launches into a little speech that seems designed to make her just say no to drugs.

Things We Lost in the Fire covers some rough emotional territory. But the writer uses the characters’ small idiosyncrasies as sources of humor. For instance, Jerry reveals to Audrey’s neighbor, Howard (played by John Carroll Lynch) that he’s a recovering heroine addict. Howard, a well-to-do businessman pauses. Then he reveals what he considers his big, dark secret: “I hate my wife.”

The joke is not a total dud, but it’s not hilarious. Similarly, this film is at neither extreme of the cinematic spectrum. It gives us a very good, nuanced performance throughout by Del Toro and a performance from Berry that is convincing through about two-thirds of the movie.

Near the end it’s easy to believe that the characters genuinely care for each other. But the visual and script blunders make this just another good film for Berry, not a great one. (R ) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 10/19/07)


Rendition
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

“Legal Rendition” is a term that applies to the transfer of a person from one country to another. “Extraordinary Rendition” is the extra-legal transfer of a person from one country to another so that they can be interrogated using heavy-handed techniques.

The political drama Rendition deals with what some have come to call “torture by proxy.” It is rumored that the United States has used this technique in order to glean information from suspected terrorists.

An earnest and somber film from director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi), Rendition provides a peek at a practice that most governments would prefer to keep on the down low.

Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain) stars as Douglas Freeman, a naive CIA analyst serving in North Africa. His life changes forever when a suicide bomber kills one of his associates. But his life isn’t the only one that is altered.

Circumstantial evidence brings about a nightmare for an innocent chemical engineer named Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally from Munich). Having just landed in the US after attending a conference in South Africa, he’s detained by authorities who think that he might have something to do with the bombing.

Since there are restrictions on how he can be questioned in the US, CIA bigwig Corrine Whitman (Evening’s Meryl Streep) has him shipped back to Africa where skilled interrogators like Abasi Fawal (Igal Naor, Munich) have no problem getting physical. Douglas is to serve as a detached observer.

While this story is unfolding, screenwriter Kelley Sane (Franchesca Page) has added a couple of accompanying subplots. Anwar’s wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon from Walk the Line) has enlisted a Senator’s aide (Peter Sarsgaard from Jarhead) to help her locate her missing husband.

We also learn about a clandestine romance between Abasi’s pretty young daughter and a university student who may or may not be a terrorist sympathizer.

Director Hood does yeoman’s work in juggling these plotlines and retaining our interest. He even takes liberties with the timelines that only begin to make sense as the film draws to an end.

The problem with Rendition is that the dialogue is pedestrian and the story’s structure gives it an akward pace. Although the talented actors do what they can to fill in the blanks, the screenplay doesn’t really give anyone enough information to create a full-blooded character.

What’s left is a modestly satisfying political thriller. At least the theme that torture is a bad idea is a message we can all get behind. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 10/19/07)


Gone Baby Gone
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Although actor Ben Affleck has an Oscar on his mantle for co-writing the screenplay of Good Will Hunting ten years ago, he has since concentrated on his acting career.

His second screenplay for a feature film (co-written with Aaron Stockard) is an adaptation of Dennis Lahane’s novel, Gone Baby Gone. He’s also chosen to make it his directorial debut. Impressively, he scores on both counts.

Gone Baby Gone is a harrowing crime drama that is riddled with intriguing ethical questions. While often unpleasant, it skillfully forces us to ponder some truly thorny issues.

Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) stars as Patrick Kenzie, a private detective in working class Boston. A native, he knows the streets and has an affinity for locals on both sides of the law.

His “agency” consists of Patrick and his fiancée, Angie, played by Michelle Monaghan (The Heartbreak Kid). In spite of their initial trepidation, they decide to get involved in a case that is obviously way over their heads.

The job involves a missing toddler. When the youngster vanishes without a trace, her aunt Beatrice (Amy Madigan from TV’s Carnivale) hires Patrick and Angie to aid the police in their investigation. They soon learn that the child is a pawn in an elaborate scenario that involves drugs, gangs and the cops.

The police chief, Jack Doyle (Feast of Love’s Morgan Freeman) is none too happy with these amateurs mudding up his investigation. He’s got a couple of veteran detectives on the case, Remy Bressant (Ed Harris from A History of Violence) and Nick Poole (John Ashton from Beverly Hills Cop), and they resent the “help.”

But their meddling uncovers a lot more than anyone had expected. It seems that the baby’s mother Helene (Amy Ryan from TV’s The Wire) is a foul-mouthed, drug-addicted malcontent with plenty of connections to unsavory underworld characters. Without a doubt, she’s an unfit mother. Although the media has made her its darling victim, she may have more involvement that anyone would like to admit.

While some may find the storyline to be a bit convoluted, Lehane and Affleck take us into territory we don’t anticipate. The ensuing complications muddy the waters, but that is precisely what makes the resulting conundrums so interesting.

Although his tendency to mumble is a bit irritating, Casey Affleck is excellent under his brother’s guidance. The entire cast is first-rate.

Affleck’s view of Boston’s underbelly is uncompromising and utterly realistic. Gone Baby Gone manages to be both ugly and gripping. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 10/19/07)


The Darjeeling Limited
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Wes Anderson tries hard to catch an emotional connection on The Darjeeling Limited. While the movie has its simple pleasures, its artifice keeps it from staying completely on track.

For Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore), “quirky” and “eccentric” are qualities to be held in the highest regard, and he has populated his latest work with some genuine oddballs.

Owen Wilson (Night at the Museum) stars as Francis, the eldest of a trio of estranged brothers who haven’t spoken to one another in over a year. Recently in a serious traffic accident, Francis is sporting some serious facial bandages. He’s not about to let his injuries interfere with an important mission.

In an attempt to reconnect with his siblings, he has come up with an elaborate scheme that he hopes will lead them on a healing, spiritual journey. He plans a trip across India on the titular railroad leading, ultimately, to a top-secret destination.

Brothers Peter (King Kong’s Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman from Marie Antionette) have reluctantly acquiesced. They’re onboard but have some serious issues pressing upon them.

While the trip starts promisingly enough, there are complications. Fueled by some exotic painkillers and Indian cough syrup, they engage in some activities that get them booted off the train. What happens after their plans are altered becomes the most important part of the journey.

Written by Anderson, Schwartzman and Roman Coppola (CQ), The Darjeeling Limited has a number of memorable moments. The dialogue between the brothers is often amusing and pleasantly strange.

But it is Anderson’s unique visual style that provides the movie’s best quality. He makes good use of the Indian locales and although some of the art direction borders on overkill, it is still arresting.

Brody and Wilson have some nice moments and ground their characters as well as such synthetic characters can be grounded. Schwartzman, on the other hand, seems to be sleepwalking through the entire picture. His character barely registers.

The movie plays more like a series of incidents than a coherent story and never quite manages to establish a flow or a dramatic arc. While it has some intriguing thematic elements, they’re never fully developed. While it’s no train wreck, the ride is a bit bumpy.

Anderson tries to move us with his story of these three brothers attempting to reconnect. Problem is, his style keeps reminding us that these characters aren’t real. Thus Darjeeling’s effect is limited. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 10/19/07)


30 Days of Night
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When it comes to originality, you’ve got to give a lot of credit to the folks behind 30 Days of Night. For a horror flick, its premise offers fright fans tremendous promise. There are only so many ways to inject new blood into the vampire genre, but the high concept fueling this thriller is a doozey.

Based upon a graphic novel by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith, 30 Days of Night is set in Barrow, Alaska where there is a month of total darkness each year. Naturally, that means the humans are easy pickings for a band of vampires on a hemoglobin bender.

Josh Hartnett (Resurrecting the Champ) stars as Eben Oleson, the presiding sheriff in the small snowbound town. As the last sundown approaches, he and the good folks of Barrow are either hunkering down for a lightless month or heading out of town.

A series of strange things begin happening as the sun goes down. A group of sled dogs have had their throats slashed. The power plant has been vandalized. Communication lines have been cut. An odd stranger comes to the local café and begins babbling about dangers to come.

Yes, the stranger is a contemporary version of Renfield, a creepy human minion who is preparing the way for a particularly nasty group of bloodsuckers. Unlike the suave, romantic figures we’re used to seeing on the big screen, these creatures are far more beastly. They owe more to George Romero than to Ann Rice.

Employing a dialect that sounds vaguely like Czech by way of hell, these savage creatures descend upon the community and pick off the residents one-by-one. With superhuman strength and speed, and no sunlight to stop them, the vampires begin a month long reign of terror. The only thing the humans can do is hide.

Director David Slade (Hard Candy) brings a grisly sensibility that may have been partly inspired by the early work of the film’s producer Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead). Visually, there are a number of inspired set pieces.

But nagging questions keep popping up. (“Where did the vampires come from and how did they get here?” “Where are they going when the sun finally comes up?” “Why don’t they just search the houses to find the hiding humans?”) Yes, logic matters even in a fantasy.

But fanboys probably won’t care too much about plot holes. 30 Days of Night serves up some chills and that’s what matters most. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 10/19/07)


Lust, Caution
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Meticulous is an apt word for work of Oscar-winning filmmaker, Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain), and is most applicable in regard to Lust, Caution.

A beautifully produced historical drama based upon a short story by Eileen Chang, Lust, Caution is giving the Chinese censors a migraine. It may never be seen there in its entirety. Here in the U.S., this erotic drama is being released with the dreaded NC-17 rating.

Set during the Japanese occupation of China during WWII and told over a five-year span, the film depicts a naïve young woman who gets in over her head in an attempt to aid her country.

Newcomer Tang Wei plays Jiazhi Wang, a pretty college drama student whose acting skills attract the attention of a fellow thespian, Kuang Yu Min (Moon Child’s Leehom Wang.) A political activist, Kuang wants to do something about the occupation. He comes up with an elaborate scheme and needs his fellow actors to help play it out.

Kuang recruits Jaizhi to assume the role of the wife of a wealthy Chinese businessman in hopes that she can get close to a collaborating official they’re trying to assassinate.

This traitorous countryman is Mr. Yee, played by Tony Leung (Hero). Cautious to a fault, Mr. Yee never lets his guard down. The underground resistance has never been able to get him in a vulnerable position.

Through family connections, Kuang manages to get Jaizhi into the mahjong games run by Mr. Yee’s wife (Twin Peaks’ Joan Chen). There, she is to subtly ply her feminine charms in an attempt to become Mr. Yee’s mistress.

Lee is in no hurry to tell his tale, preferring to let it unfold slowly while he and screenwriters James Schamus (Ride With the Devil) and Hui-Ling Wang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) create a strong sense of atmosphere.

The set, costumes and production design are finely detailed and the skillful cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (Babel) creates a strong sense of time and place.

But it is the acting that sets Lust, Caution apart. Both Wei and Leung are sensational and they have to be given extra credit for bravery. Lee puts them through some brutal paces for their explicit sex scenes that are responsible for the film’s rating.

But the sex may be the film’s undoing. Not only will these scenes prevent people from seeing it, they become an uncomfortable distraction.

Still, Lust, Caution is a notably involving cautionary tale. (NC-17) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 10/19/07)


Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Some movies rely on special effects, some on car chases and explosions. Others employ a grab bag of tricks to provoke a laugh or a jolt.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age banks completely on the performance of Cate Blanchett to generate some electricity, and she’s more than up to the challenge.

It was 1998 when the Australian actress first played the Virgin Queen in Elizabeth, becoming an international sensation. Twenty-three films and an Oscar later, she’s returned to the role that first put her on the map.

Blanchett, reuniting with writer/director Shekhar Kapur, picks up where the last film left off. After many years on the throne, Elizabeth has become resigned to her royal role. She’s given up on the idea of romance and family, concentrating instead on governing her country and trying mightily to remain grounded.

But there are some big problems afoot. A Protestant in a country that still has many Catholics, Elizabeth understands that she must be Queen to all of her people regardless of their religion. But there are those, especially outsiders, who would like to see a Catholic like Mary Queen of Scots on the throne.

In an effort to retain stability, Elizabeth has kept Mary (Samantha Morton from Lassie) under house arrest. Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), an aide to Elizabeth who wants to eliminate the Catholic threat, has been carefully monitoring Mary’s activities and correspondence.

But Walsingham is playing into the hands of Spain’s Philip II (Jordi Molla from The Alamo), who wants to install a Catholic (preferably his daughter) on the English throne. Further annoyed by the fact that his ships have been plundered by a pirate named Sir Walter Raleigh (Shoot ‘Em Up’s Clive Owen), Philip has assembled the Spanish Armada for a potential attack on England.

While those threats are pressing on Elizabeth, she’s distracted by romantic feelings toward Raleigh. Little does she know that he’s playing around with her lady-in-waiting, Elizabeth Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish from A Good Year).

Writer/director Kapur mounts his film like an old-fashioned Hollywood studio costume drama, a soap opera set against an historic backdrop. But he’s got a bit more on his mind, here. In an attempt to draw a parallel with contemporary events, he plays up the religious divide, with those in power using religion as an excuse for their imperial aims.

While the costumes and effects are more than adequate, it is Blanchett’s performance that commands our attention for 114 minutes. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 10/12/07)


Across the Universe
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Julie Taymor (Frida) is an uncompromising artist. The theatrical director and designer, best known for her renowned Broadway adaptation of The Lion King, has a unique and creative style.

She allows her unbridled visual ingenuity to unfurl in the unique musical extravaganza, Across the Universe. A trippy overview of the 1960s as seen through the romantic relationship of two young lovers, Across the Universe manages to be too much and not enough all at the same time.

Screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (Flushed Away) have fashioned their story around 30 classic Beatles tunes. They incorporate the familiar songs in a chronological narrative that creates a palpable feeling of zeitgeist.

Jim Sturgess (Mouth to Mouth) leads the large ensemble cast as Jude, a young lad from Liverpool who travels to America to find his long lost father who abandoned his mom after the war.

While in the States, Jim befriends Max (Joe Anderson from Becoming Jane), an Ivy League student who is a bit of a slacker. When Max brings his pal Jude home for Thanksgiving, he introduces him to his pretty sister, Lucy, played by Evan Rachel Wood (Running With Scissors).

While Jude is immediately smitten, Lucy’s heart belongs to her boyfriend who is off fighting in Vietnam. As the turbulent decade unfolds, the lives of Lucy and Jude continue to intertwine. When Lucy’s high school sweetheart dies in battle, she becomes involved in the anti-war movement and with Max’s bohemian New York friends…including Jude.

The story unfolds like a 131-minute cultural thumbnail of the ‘60s punctuated with occasional acid trips. No doubt, it will leave a lot of middle-age viewers feeling a bit nostalgic.

Wood and Sturgess make a charming couple and handle their vocals quite well. (Reportedly most of the music was recorded live on the set.) Bono, Joe Cocker and Eddie Izzard also make memorable cameo appearances performing I Am the Walrus, Come Together and The Benefit of Mr. Kite, respectively.

But Dana Fuchs and Martin Luther, playing surrogate Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix types, are the most impressive with their vocal interpretations.

While much of her work is certainly snappy, Taymor doesn’t quite know when to quit. The movie is overlong, spending too much time on extraneous sequences that fail to further the plot. (Izzard’s prolonged version of Mr. Kite is particularly irrelevant and easily excisable.)

Taymor’s bold experiment is kooky and off-center…and often wildly entertaining. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 10/12/07)


Michael Clayton
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

There are some corrupt corporations at work in America that put profit before humanitarian concerns. They’re aided and abetted by ethically challenged lawyers that make sure that their clients are shielded from suffering too much damage as a result of their misdeeds.

These facts shouldn’t come as a revelation to anyone but when they’re presented as well as they are by the makers of Michael Clayton, they take on added significance.

A solidly made and utterly absorbing drama from first-time director Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton hits all the right notes as it exposes an ugly side of capitalism.

George Clooney (Ocean’s 13) is terrific in the title role, a “fixer” for a big time Manhattan law firm. A former district attorney, Michael knows the ins and outs of corporate law and works behind the scenes in a moral netherworld. His job is to find a way to protect the firm and their clients, and no one asks about his means or methods.

Michael is battling some financial woes (his unreliable brother has ruined a business they were partnered in) and personal demons (gambling). He’s locked into doing the firm’s bidding when his bosses are faced with a particularly thorny problem.

A chemical company, one of the firm’s longtime clients, has been producing a pesticide that is responsible for illness and death of a number of farmers. After the usual cost-benefit analysis, they opted to cover up evidence that their product was harmful.

One of Michael’s colleagues, Arthur Edens (beautifully played by Tom Wilkinson from The Exorcism of Emily Rose) has either become mentally unstable or has grown a conscience…or both. Although he’s spent years defending the agribusiness company responsible for pesticide, he’s decided to spill the beans and the resulting lawsuits could cost them $3 billion.

So, Michael’s boss sends him out to do some damage control. His subsequent investigations lead him into uncharted territory resulting in fallout he hadn’t anticipated.

Gilroy, the screenwriter of the Bourne movies, has contributed a smart, complex screenplay that crackles with sharp, realistic dialogue. He also gives us some concise background information that helps us understand Michael’s actions.

Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton (The Chronicles of Narnia) and Sydney Pollack (Changing Lanes) are standouts in a solid supporting cast. But this movie belongs to Clooney.

In a sensational turn of impressive depth, Clooney brings this complex character completely to life…alternately strong and vulnerable, savvy and clueless.

It’s unlikely that we’ll see a better film than Michael Clayton this year. (R) Rating: 5 (Posted 10/12/07)


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If you thought that the title was long, just wait until you see the movie. Brad Pitt’s longtime pet project clocks in at nearly three hours. That will mean heaven for some and hell for others.

Deliberate and sincere, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford strips the legend of all Hollywood romanticism and replaces it with austere realism. A shoot-‘em-up Western this ain’t.

Adapted from Ron Hansen’s novel by writer/director Andrew Dominik (Chopper), the film is a compelling character study that focuses on two diverse individuals.

Pitt leads the cast as the infamous bank robber and plays him as an enigmatic and frightening presence. Like Tony Soprano or Jake La Motta, one is never sure when he’ll allow his anger to take over. As a result, those around him walk on eggshells.

As a child, young Robert Ford (Casey Affleck from Ocean’s 13) idolized James. Although his family was acquainted with the James clan, most of his information about the outlaw came from pulp novels and magazines that played up Jesse’s heroic nonconformity.

Robert made it a goal to become a part of the James gang. After all, his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) is a longtime member. But the callow teenager comes to the group just as it is devolving. Jesse’s brother Frank (playwright Sam Shepherd) is getting ready to hang up his guns. Jesse is a family man going under the pseudonym of Howard while living in Kansas City.

While he manages to worm his way into the gang, he soon realizes that there isn’t much in this lifestyle that resembles the fantasy he’d imagined. Indeed, he discovers that Jesse is a self-centered and incredibly manipulative man who’d kill his own kin at the least provocation.

The film unfolds at a leisurely pace, echoing the slow clip-clop of horses’ hooves. Director Dominik concentrates on creating an atmosphere of tension and impending doom. He also works on delineating characters rather than giving us cathartic action.

Pitt is excellent and the character he creates is genuinely chilling. But the movie’s strongest character is Affleck’s Ford. Although the actor has a tendency to mumble (a lot of the dialogue is indecipherable), he is utterly believable as a man torn by bitter jealousy.

Although the first hour is achingly slow, the movie carefully builds to a memorable climax. For many audience members, however, this may prove to be a pretentious bore. People don’t want to see their heroes demystified. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 10/12/07)


The Heartbreak Kid
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Neil Simon would be rolling over in his grave…if he were dead. Then again, the Farrelly Brothers’ remake of his 1972 black comedy, The Heartbreak Kid, might just be enough to kill him.

Ben Stiller reunites with the Farrellys for the first time since they hit comedic pay dirt with There’s Something About Mary in 1998. This time, they’ve chosen to revise Simon’s classic script that was originally directed by Elaine May and made an antihero star of Charles Grodin.

The result is a sporadically funny, overtly raunchy mess that takes the dark bite out of Simon’s screenplay and replaces it with slapstick and an overabundance of bawdy, puerile gags.

Stiller plays Eddie Cantrow, the proprietor of a San Francisco sporting goods store. Fortysomething and still single, Eddie has had some hard knocks in the romance department.

One day he sees a stunning blonde named Lila (Malin Akerman from The Brothers Solomon) being victimized by a purse-snatcher. He tries to intervene, but his lack of success still offers him a window of opportunity with a gorgeous babe.

Under pressure from his father, Doc (Stiller’s real-life dad, Jerry) and best friend, Mac (Rob Cordry from TV’s The Daily Show), Eddie asks the beauty to be his bride. To his astonishment, she says, “yes.”

On their Mexican honeymoon, Eddie realizes that he’s married a nut case. She’s annoying, debt-ridden, shallow, spacey and probably psychotic. She’s also downright dangerous in bed.

In his rare moments of escape from this harpy, he meets another vacationer, a bubbly brunette named Miranda (Michelle Monaghan from Mission Impossible III). Eddie falls head over heels in love with her and tries to hide the fact that he’s married. Not only does he hide it from her, but also from her extended family of Deep South rednecks.

For the most part, the movie grates on the nerves like fingernails on the chalkboard. Not only are the Farrellys scraping rock bottom for cheap laughs, but also the characters that populate this opus are nearly impossible to like.

Stiller doesn’t so much create a character as rely on the same shtick that he’s been doing for years. Instead of the put upon Everyman, Eddie comes off as a self-centered jerk deserving exactly what he gets.

Monaghan does what she can to center the story (her character is, after all, the only remotely likable person in the movie), but her efforts can only accomplish so much.

For those who remember the original movie fondly, this remake is heartbreaking. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 10/12/07)


The Seeker: The Dark is Rising
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Hollywood is desperate to find a fantasy juggernaut like Harry Potter. The studios are scrambling to secure another popular book series that will appeal to the teen and pre-teen audience the way the boy wizard has.

The movie moguls are looking for “tent poles” — big movies that will not only do well at the box office, but also spur profitable sequels. (The big bucks earned on the Harry Potter series helps pay for a lot of other movies.) So, a best-selling fantasy book series should be just what the doctor ordered.

One of the more recent attempts is Eragon, the tale of a teenage dragon slayer, was a disappointment. Although it took in $75 million at the box office, it cost $100 to make...not the kind of return on investment they were looking for.

Now comes The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, an adaptation of a successful series from author Susan Cooper. The budget is big, the effects are impressive and the production values are up to snuff. Sadly, it’s an utter bore.

Newcomer Alexander Ludwig stars as Will Stanton, a 14-year-old American lad living with his family in a small English town. The seventh son of a seventh son, Will learns that he is a bit more special than he’d ever imagined.

As it turns out, Will is “The Seeker,” gifted with special powers that allows him to find special medallions that will be necessary for him and a group of time-traveling warriors to battle the forces of evil. All of this comes as a complete surprise to our naive hero who isn’t sure that he wants the responsibility or has what it takes to fulfill his obligations.

But if Will doesn’t find all of these “signs,” an evil horseman played by Christopher Eccleston (TV’s Dr. Who) will take over the world and plunge it into utter darkness. Tough gig.

Director David L. Cunningham (After...) and screenwriter John Hodge (The Beach) aren’t able to establish a solid narrative footing. Although the pictures are pretty, we never really get the sense that any of the characters are in actual peril. There is a lot of confusion in the backstory that only those who’ve read the books will understand.

Worse, young Ludwig lacks the screen charisma that the role requires. A solid cast of veterans (Frances Conroy, James Cosmo, Wendy Crewson, Ian McShane, etc.) is wasted in underwritten roles.

If they want magic at the box office, the studios and The Seeker will have to keep looking. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted 10/5/07)


The Jane Austen Book Club
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

There is probably a direct causal relationship between one’s estrogen level and enjoyment of The Jane Austen Book Club. While it isn’t necessary to be a woman to get the full effect, it sure helps.

The ensemble comic drama involves the romantic ups and downs of five women (and one man) who meet regularly to discuss the works of the famed English novelist. As they take the time to read and explicate, their lives seem to directly reflect many of the incidents in Austen’s books.

Maria Bello (A History of Violence) leads the cast as Jocelyn, a middle-aged dog breeder who has never married. After a group of her friends gather for the funeral of one of Jocelyn’s pets, they decide that they ought to meet on a more regular basis.

Bernadette, played by Kathy Baker (All the King’s Men), comes up with the idea of a literary club, persuading her pals that they should focus on Austen’s six romantic novels.

Other members of the group include a recent divorcee named Sylvia (Amy Brenneman from TV’s Judging Amy), her lesbian daughter, Allegra (Maggie Grace from TV’s Lost) and an unhappily married French teacher named Prudie (The Devil Wears Prada’s Emily Blunt).

Seizing on an opportunity to find a new beau for her friend Sylvia, Jocelyn invites a man into the group. Grigg, played by Hugh Dancy (Evening), is a young, affable sci-fi nut that Jocelyn met at a bar. But Grigg, with no real interest in Austen, has romantic designs on Jocelyn.

Reluctantly, the ladies welcome Grigg into their clique. Thus begins a series of meetings where the friends chat, commiserate and bicker while dissecting Austen’s work.

While one doesn’t have to know about Austen to enjoy the movie, some familiarity is beneficial. These six people either allow the stories to influence them or they simply see their own lives depicted in the pages of the books.

Based upon Karen Joy Fowler’s 2004 bestseller, The Jane Austen Book Club marks the directorial debut of journeyman screenwriter, Robin Swicord (Memoirs of a Geisha, Practical Magic). Apparently she’s been paying attention, as her talk-heavy screenplay unfolds at a tolerable pace.

The cast is fine, including the supporting cast of flawed males that includes Jimmy Smits (TV’s Cane) and Marc Blucas (The Alamo).

The Jane Austen Book Club will delight many women. Thanks to its lighthearted approach, most men who they bring along won’t have to look at their watches too often. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 10/5/07)


Into the Wild
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Director Sean Penn used the K.I.S.S. method to achieve a great outcome with this adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s 1996 biography Into the Wild. Following the dictum “keep it simple, stupid” is not as easy as folks might think (or as easy as Penn makes it look).

A less capable director might have tried to be too deep and wound up with a hot mess of melodrama. A less capable director might not have understood how to create entertaining sequences with only one man occupying the screen for long stretches.

Penn combines awe-inspiring natural images with simple music (particularly songs by folksy singer Eddie Vedder) to bring Chris McCandless’ adventures to life.

Shortly after graduating from Emory University in 1990, McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch) donated his life savings of $24,000 to charity. Then he took off without telling his family where he was going. He then reinvented himself as Alexander Supertramp.

The movie relies on a few flashbacks and voiceovers by McCandless’ sister (Jena Malone as Carine) for insights about McCandless’ troubled family history and possible motivations for inventing a new life.

But at least half of the film’s 140-minute runtime is devoted to McCandless’ adventures as he travels from town to town and interacts with different people. We follow him from a job in a burger joint to a stint in a grain elevator to a mobile home park where he stays with self-proclaimed hippies and beyond.

Finally, we travel with him into the wilderness of Alaska and watch his paradoxical experiences of nature’s cruelty and beauty.

Penn uses small details for big punctuation. McCandless’ belt, for example, becomes a measure of his well-being. When he’s eating well and growing, he has to punch extra holes in the belt so that he can loosen it. When he’s starving, he punches holes in the belt so that he can tighten it around his disappearing mid-section.

Twenty-three-year-old Emile Hirsch does an acting job reminiscent of Tom Hanks’ Oscar-nominated performance in Cast Away (2000). Hirsch like Hanks conveys an emotional authenticity that keeps us watching. Unlike Hanks, Hirsch comes across as a naïve but determined boy at times and an insightful man at other times.

Other compelling performances include Hal Holbrook’s portrayal of a war veteran who befriends McCandless, William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden as McCandless’ parents, and Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker as a hippie couple.

One caution: this film is called Into a Wild for a reason. It contains a graphic scene of animal slaughter and a graphic dramatization of a man dying of starvation. Ultimately, this film transcends gore and melodrama. In examining one man’s quest to live a fuller life, Into the Wild elicits thought about what it means to live truly and completely. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 10/5/07)

 

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