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Enduring Love Forces of Nature National Treasure SidewaysSpongeBob SquarePants Movie

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Reviewed by Uri Lessing

In Alexander Payne's new neurotic comedy, Sideways, two old college friends come together for a weeklong trip through the central coastal vineyards of California. For Miles (Paul Giamatti), a recently divorced struggling writer, it's a chance to celebrate his best friend's impending wedding while indulging his fanaticism for fine wine. For Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a shallow has-been actor, this trip is a chance to sow his oats one last time before tying the knot. Neither man gets what he expects.

Jack falls head over heels in lust with a local wine pourer, Sandra Oh, and Miles finds himself drinking too much wine, struggling with his own self-hatred, and facing his feelings of sadness and regret over his divorce. The only brightness in his life is Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress studying to be a winemaker.

Giamatti delivers an unflinching portrayal. His characterization of Miles is superior to Woody Allen's character studies in neurosis, because his performance brings out Miles' appeal without relying on pity to earn the audience's affection. Giamatti and Church play off each other splendidly.

There is no earthly reason why these two men should be friends. One is intellectual, introspective and has a discerning palate for wine; the other is selfish, small-minded and could care less whether or not he is drinking merlot or Manishevitz. Still, they weave an aged, comfortable and essential friendship. In the hands of another writer or director, this premise could have resulted in a banal comedy or a sappy drama, but in the hands of Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt), it becomes a leisurely paced film about introspection, neurosis and finding tranquility.

The title, Sideways, refers to the idea that fine wine is always stored sidelong so that the cork remains moist and prevents oxygen from entering the bottle. Like fine wine, both characters have stopped growing a long time ago. Miles' and Jack's careers and friendship are stagnant. They're not growing: they're aging.

Their trip together doesn't bring either man happiness, but perhaps happiness is not the goal here. In Payne's last road trip film, About Schmidt, Warren realizes at the end of his married and professional life, that his existence lacks any recognition from anyone. Like Schmidt, the characters in Sideways are searching for appreciation, a feeling that anyone living in the 21st century can understand. (R) Rating: 5

Enduring Love
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

With a title like Enduring Love, one might expect a romantic comedy or a four-hankie weeper.

That is hardly the case with a new British import, an adaptation of Ian McEwan's 1997 novel. The title is probably meant to be ironic or, in a worse case scenario, a warning.

There are certain romantic attachments that we hope never last. Such is the case with Joe (Daniel Craig), a college professor and wannabe novelist. Love is a puzzle to him, even though he's strongly attached to his sculptor girlfriend, Claire (Samantha Morton).

Joe, you see, is a skeptic about love. He sees all romantic feelings as the biological stimulus for procreation. He pontificates on this subject to his students or, when drunk, to his friends.

Everything changes for Joe and Claire one idyllic day when they visit the countryside for a picnic. A hot air balloon plunges to a near crash, and then begins to drift in the wind. The pilot had bailed out, but a young boy remained inside. As Joe and a group of men rush to try to rescue the boy, a gust of wind blows it back into the air.

All of the men (including Joe) let go, except for one. He's blown hundreds of feet up with the balloon, slips and falls to his death. One would-be rescuer is Jed (Rhys Ifans), a lanky, shaggy-haired fellow who asks Joe to pray with him over the dead man's body. The horrifying experience has a profound effect on both men. Joe is guilt-ridden and unusually anxious.

When Jed asks Joe to see him several days later, Joe reluctantly agrees hoping for a catharsis. Unfortunately, the mentally unstable Jed has fallen in love with Joe, perceiving that the tragedy sparked an emotional bond between them. Joe rejects Jed's advances, but that doesn't stop him. Joe and Claire become the victims of a madman's stalking.

The cast is uniformly fine, with Ifans' Jed a particularly creepy provocateur. Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) gets a bit showy with the visuals and the musical soundtrack by Jeremy Sams gets very heavy-handed at times, but their occasional overindulgence doesn't derail this intelligent enterprise.

Enduring Love is more than a British art house version of Fatal Attraction, thanks largely to Joe Penhall's intelligent script that plays a bit like a dramatic treatise on the nature of love. It's also believably disturbing. (Stay through the credits to find out what ultimately happens to the characters.) (R) Rating: 3

SpongeBob SquarePants Movie

Reviewed by Uri Lessing

It's strange that the most successful children's shows are also the most bizarre. Among the characters our children have been captivated by are kung-fu turtles named after famous painters, cars and trucks that turn into giant robots, kids who roam the earth collecting monsters in red and white balls.

Lately, a nerdish sea sponge and his undersea friends have captivated our youth. Now with billions in retail sales and fans all over the globe under his belt, SpongeBob SquarePants is coming to the big screen.

SpongeBob has a lot in common with Pee Wee Herman. He wears the clothing of an adult (tie, slacks and white shirt) and displays the enthusiasm of a child. He wears his heart on his sleeve while staying blissfully naïve.

SpongeBob's personality seems derivate of the boys portrayed in1950's hygiene films. If he were a human he'd probably find himself perpetually picked on. Yet fate, friends and his own enthusiasm always help SpongeBob remain on top of life.

In The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, our hero must save his friends by leaving Bikini Bottom on a quest to find King Midas's stolen crown. He journeys with his best friend, a starfish named Patrick, who fills the role of the typical ³stupid² cartoon character. (Sam Gangee he ain't!)

Together, they survive underwater biker bars, mean-spirited sea monsters and eventually end up on dry land. The most creative moments involve live-action scenes. One follows a band of pirates as they sail to the latest movie theater to catch The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. However, the most bizarre sequence involves a fight scene that takes place on David Hasselhoff's sea-borne body.

Both a riveting action sequence and an anatomy lesson involving Hasselhoff's hairy neck, back and thighs, it's doubtful that this clever scene will ever be repeated. Nevertheless, like many film adaptations of cartoons, the filmmakers have to face the challenge of turning 30-minute material into a feature length movie.

The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie asks the audience to endure three times as much frenetic potty humor, repetitive jokes and screechy voice acting as they are used to. The result is exhausting.

The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is not an unpleasant experience, just one that won't have a large impact. With films like The Incredibles out there, it's just not enough. (PG) Rating: 2

National Treasure
Reviewed by Deborah Young

At the beginning of National Treasure young Benjamin Franklin Gates (Hunter Gomez) is sitting in a room with his grandfather, who tells him a fanciful story about a treasure hidden by this country's founding fathers and protected by the Knights of Templar.

Do you want to be a knight? ³Yes,² Benjamin replies. His grandfather then goes through the motions of making the boy a knight. In the next scene, the boy is gone, replaced by an adult Ben (Nicolas Cage). The camera catches the dramatic shift between intrigued boy and resolute man.

A close-up of Cage's face emphasizes those sparkling aqua eyes that on close inspection look like magical gems encasing worlds of scorching heat and blinding light, and that furrowed brow that communicates both confusion and fortitude.

Once Cage enters the picture, the movie morphs into action mode. Ben is on a quest reminiscent of the one dramatized in Dan Brown's wildly popular novel The Da Vinci Code. But unlike the book's main character, Ben is searching for a national treasure, certainly a less noble quest than searching for the Holy Grail.

The screenwriters try to elevate the search for the fortune by linking it with the ideas of freedom and liberty, but their fictional treasure can't touch the complexity and controversy that surrounds Brown's book. National Treasure has snippets of dialogue that seem to reference the current presidential administration's strikes on personal freedoms and hint at a blind side in national security that made an event like the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 possible. But these attempts at depth simply make the film seem less significant.

National Treasure is at its best when the characters have clues to decode and logistics problems to solve. To find the treasure, Ben has to decipher a string of clues, including code written on the back of the Declaration of Independence. But here's the hitch: the Declaration is locked in a room in the National Archives that's accessible to a select few and guarded by an intricate alarm system. The enigma: How will Ben get into the room, get the Declaration and escape without getting arrested?

Writers Jim Kouf and Cormac and Maryann Wibberley had the perfect story formula to make this type of movie work. They arranged for Ben, his sidekick Riley (Justin Bartha), and lady historian Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) to get into various tight spots, and then they conjured some clever ways for the trio to squeeze out.

The movie's characters are likeable enough, but the true star of this film is plot, plot and plot. Despite the letdown of its tightly wrapped happily-ever-after ending, most of National Treasure's 100 minutes are engaging. That makes the film a treasure (just maybe not a billion-dollar one). (PG) Rating: 3

Forces of Nature
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

As long as you can observe them from the safety of a giant screen theatre, natural disasters can be a lot of fun. The latest offering at Union Station's Extreme Screen is Forces of Nature, a visually stunning documentary from the good folks at National Geographic. Director George Casey (Africa: The Serengeti) ably captures the frightening power of volcanoes, earthquakes and tornadoes in this aptly named flick. Forces of Nature (which is not to be confused with the similarly named romantic comedy starring Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock) makes good use of some skillfully rendered computer generated imagery as well as awe inspiring footage of Mother Nature at her most furious.

Narrator Kevin Bacon begins the film with an explanation of Earth's violent origins, accompanied by animation that uses the giant screen to put things into perspective. The constant activity that takes place under Earth's crust is illustrated though computer graphics that seamlessly melds into actual footage of a volcanic eruption. The film then focuses on a major volcanic incident that occurred on the Caribbean island of Montserrat in 1995.

As volcanologist Marie Edmonds explains (accompanied by some amazing aerial shots), the Soufriere Hills volcano exploded in a titanic plume of ash and soot that buried the nearby town of Plymouth. Because of advance warning, no one in the city was killed.

Nineteen residents of the rural areas, those who ignored the advance warnings, were not so fortunate. Shifting to another point on the globe, the film takes a look at an even more damaging natural phenomenon. Scientist Ross Stein, an expert on earthquakes, takes us to Turkey where he and a team of colleagues worked to try to find a pattern in a series of quakes there.

A computer model they developed while studying the North Anatolian Fault helped them to predict the 1999 earthquake that rattled Izmit. Finally, the film centers on the work of Joshua Wurman and a team of storm chasers who attempt to track down a twister in Oklahoma. Driving a duo of Doppler radar trucks, Wurman and crew place themselves in grave danger as they try to precisely position their equipment in order to take readings that may give them clues into how the mysterious storms are formed.

As with most giant screen entries, the visuals are the attraction here. Forces of Nature is a painless science lesson, filling our minds by feasting our eyes. (G) Rating: 3

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