reel reviews
movie reviews
May '06


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

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X-Men: The Last Stand
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Will there be a cure for the mutants? Will Magneto and his band of terrorists conquer the disparate talents from Xavier’s school? Will a resurrected mutant with all the power in the world fail to control her lusts and destroy everything in the process?

If these questions mean nothing to you, then you’re not a member of the target audience for X-Men: The Last Stand. The third installment in the phenomenally popular franchise based upon the Marvel comics is a slam-bang, big budget science fiction adventure that answers many fans’ questions.

The mutants are back and the stakes are high as a pharmaceutical company finds a cure for their mutations. This is welcome news for some of the victims of genetic transformation, while others see it as the ultimate threat.

Since humans now have a potential weapon to use against the mutants, many fear they’ll be forced to conform. This concern sparks an uprising led by Magneto (The Da Vinci Code’s Ian McKellen) that leads to an apocalyptic confrontation.

Director Bret Ratner (Rush Hour) taking over the reins of the franchise from Brian Singer (The Usual Suspects) assumes you’ve seen the previous films and doesn’t bother with too much exposition. That leaves him free to start in with the over-the-top action…that seldom lets up.

Most of our heroes are back, including Wolverine (Hugh Jackman from Van Helsing), Storm (Catwoman’s Halle Berry) and schoolmaster Xavier (Star Trek’s Patrick Stewart). A newcomer called The Beast (Kelsey Grammer from Fraiser), the US Secretary of Mutant Affairs, joins our merry band in their valiant effort to save the world from Magneto and his terrorist crew.

Also returning is Jean Grey (Famke Janssen from TV’s Nip/Tuck), a mutant killed in the previous episode. She is miraculously resurrected, but this time as her evil alter ego Phoenix, a mutant with virtually unlimited power.

The previous films found some depth with the subtext of racism and homophobia. Ratner downplays these themes in favor of a breakneck pace and great eye candy.

There are a few minor plot problems, mostly focused on Phoenix and the dilemma of limitless abilities. One is tempted to say, “If she can read minds, why doesn’t she just…?” “If she is so powerful, why doesn’t she resurrect herself?” “Why doesn’t she exert her control over the mutant hoard?” Alas, those are questions you can’t ask and still enjoy the movie.

While it has some of the machinations of Greek tragedy, you can’t take X-Men: The Last Stand quite so seriously. There is enough kinetic energy to make it an enjoyable popcorn flick. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 5/26/06)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

“Ask any dope rat where the junk's spraying and they'll say they scraped it off that, who scored it off this, who bought it off someone; after four or five connections, the list always ends with the Pin. But I betcha you got every rat in town together and said show your hands if any of 'em actually seen the Pin, we'd get a crowd of full pockets.”

That kind of cryptic, slang-laden dialogue is the sort of thing we’re used to hearing in Hollywood film noir mysteries. But those lines are uttered by a teenage character from Brick, a drama set in a contemporary California high school.

At first blush, Brick is a little hard to take. One’s first reaction might be, “Hey, kids would never talk like this.” Once the realization hits that the movie is a snarky homage to film noir thrillers, it becomes a guilty pleasure.

Writer-director Rian Johnson, in an impressive feature debut, has taken the conventions of a classic Hollywood crime flicks like The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon and Chinatown and transplanted them to a unique setting. While his effort will certainly appeal to film buffs, it may well leave others scratching their heads.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (TV’s Third Rock from the Sun) stars as Brendan, an exceptionally bright kid who gets caught up in a web of deception involving drugs, murder and corruption. He’s a classic brooding anti-hero, traveling some blurry ethical lines as he attempts to find out what happened to his missing girlfriend.

Slowly, but surely he puts together the clues that lead to a character named The Pin (Lukas Haas from Witness), a drug dealer who holds court over his underworld crew in the basement of his mother’s modest track home. It seems that he’s having a bit of trouble over a missing brick of cocaine and the questionable loyalty of his muscle, Tugger (Evergreen’s Noah Fleiss).

As Brendan puts together the pieces of the puzzle, he works both sides, as a snitch for the vice principal and a potential gofer for The Pin. He also has to fend off the seductive charms of a femme fatale named Laura, played by Nora Zehetner (TV’s Everwood), who is alluring but impossible to trust.

The dialogue, a strange blend of Sam Spade and contemporary slang, is often hard to decipher. This makes the convoluted plotline even more difficult to follow.

The key to enjoying Brick lies in not taking it too seriously. It’s an intriguing movie experiment that will appeal to fans of hard-boiled crime stories. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 5/26/06)

The Da Vinci Code
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Remember National Treasure, the movie that had Nicolas Cage dodging cops and crooks while searching for a treasure that America’s forefathers allegedly hid during the American Revolution? Remember how some critics panned the film, saying that it was too long on action and too short on accurate history and thought-provoking dialogue and situations?

Those who remember should get ready for the déjà vu. The controversy surrounding Dan Brown’s book of the same name latched onto its cinematic version way before its release. And word of mouth has it that some clergy members are urging their parishioners to shun the movie.

But alas, the hype turns out to be more compelling than the film. Like the book, the movie contains a self-flagellating priest, corrupt members of the Catholic organization Opus Dei and talk of a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Still, this movie isn’t compelling as dogma. In fact, it’s only slightly interesting as action drama.

Tom Hanks plays professor Robert Langdon, an expert in cultural symbols. While visiting Paris, Langdon gets pulled into a murder mystery that starts with the killing of the Louvre’s curator Jacques Sauniere (Jean-Pierre Marielle).

Police interrupt Langdon’s book signing to whisk him away to the scene of the crime. Supposedly, the lawmen want Langdon to interpret cryptic messages left by the dead curator.

But before long Langdon discovers that he’s the only suspect in the case. He then finds himself on the run with an unlikely ally, a police officer named Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou).

The plot sounds intriguing, and it could have been. Unfortunately, director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (Cinderella Man and A Beautiful Mind) seem mesmerized by subject matter. Rather than creating a fast-paced thriller featuring religious zealots and secular skeptics, they created a loquacious cinematic thesis around the theory that Jesus was nothing more than a man.

At times the movie’s dialogue beats the audience over the head with its philosophizing. For instance, in one scene Langdon tells Sophie that faith is everything, because there’s really no proof about whether Jesus was God or man. In another scene, Langdon asks Sophie if she believes in God. Her answer is no, but she believes that people can be kind, sometimes. In another we get the shocking image of a priest flogging himself and drawing blood while praying before a huge crucifix.

The Da Vinci Code also has moments of nail-biting suspense, such as the scene in which the two protagonists flee the Louvre with the police in tow or scenes in which they face what appears to be certain death. Even though these characters tend to be lackluster, we’re drawn in at times just because of the situations these people find themselves in.

The final verdict: Although it’s not “A” material, The Da Vinci Code still deserves a passing grade because of its sometimes-alluring plot. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 5/19/06)

Over the Hedge
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Compared to the crisp, fluid, three-dimensional visuals of computer animated cartoons, classic, hand-drawn, two-dimensional animation seems, well…downright flat.

The Hollywood studios have pretty much abandoned traditional animation techniques in favor of their technologically advanced cousins. (Hopefully, some holdouts like the Japanese will keep “painted” cartoons in the theatrical race.)

This summer’s CGI fare includes a new Pixar/Disney offering, Cars, Columbia’s hopes dwell in Monster House, Paramount sends us on a trip to the Barnyard and Warner Brothers will present The Ant Bully.

Disney was the first out of the shoot, hoping to get a jump on the season with The Wild. Unfortunately, that clone of Madagascar suffered from a weak script and under-performed at the box office.

Disney’s blunder gives DreamWorks a distinct edge in the race for animated dominance. The folks responsible for Shrek hit us early with Over the Hedge, a tale of animal antics in suburbia based upon the popular comic strip.

Bruce Willis leads the voice cast as RJ, a raccoon who is also a con artist. After angering a bear (Nick Nolte) by stealing his stash of junk food, RJ manages to convince a group of Midwestern woodland creatures to “go over the hedge” to a newly constructed suburban subdivision. He plans to have them “forage” from the humans to repay the angry bear.

RJ convinces them that they can live well by salvaging from humans. After all, they leave plenty of good food around, and there’s no point in letting it go to waste. And, he can replenish the bear’s supply and avoid becoming a snack himself.

Things go well until a harried human employs “the Verminator” to rid the area of all non-human species.

The animation is terrific and the animals are undeniably cute. Among the other voice talent are Gary Shandling as a reticent turtle named Verne, William Shatner and Avril Lavigne as dad and daughter possums, Wanda Sykes as a skunk with an attitude, and Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy as the heads of a porcupine clan.

But the movie is nearly stolen by Steve Carell as a squirrel named Hammy. His manic voice work is a perfect match for the skittish rodent who gets really dangerous when hopped up on caffeine.

While it won’t make anyone forget Shrek, Over the Hedge is an amusing trifle that will undoubtedly click with the kiddies and has enough laughs to keep their parents from going over the hill. PG Rating: 3 (Posted 5/19/06)

Nelly Don: A Stitch in Time
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In the first half of the last century, one of the most successful and influential garment companies was located in Kansas City. Its founder’s life story is a fascinating and colorful one.

Nelly Don: A Stitch in Time is a vibrant, well-constructed documentary that manages to be as entertaining as it is informative. For those interested in Kansas City history, it’s a must-see.

Nell Donnelly Reed was one of the first female self-made millionaires in American history. Born in Parsons, Kansas in 1889, Reed died in Kansas City at the ripe old age of 102. Her ten decades were filled with dramatic successes, losses, tragedies and triumphs.

Reed started a company that sewed ladies house dresses in her living room. The popularity of these modestly priced garments, designed by Reed to be pretty, practical and easy to manufacture, made her an overnight success. In a short time, the company provided fashionable clothing for women around the country.

The culmination of extensive study and documentation, Nelly Don: A Stitch in Time is a far from a dry history lesson. Filmmaker Terence M. O’Malley’s shot-on-video feature is compelling for two reasons. Firstly, its subject is a remarkable one. Secondly, it’s skillfully made.

O’Malley, a relative of Reed’s, demonstrates a considerable amount of finesse, creating a visually arresting documentary. Although he makes extensive use of still photographs, he takes a page from the Ken Burns stylebook, manipulating the photos in creative ways that help to maintain our interest. This is, after all, a movie.

He also incorporates talking head interviews with people who know a lot about the subject, including Reed’s grandsons, former employees and historians like Jane Flynn.

For the most part, O’Malley takes a chronological look at Reed’s life, depicting her early years, her turbulent first marriage, her business success, her affair with famed Missouri Sen. James A. Reed whom she later married, and, most dramatically, her infamous kidnapping.

The parade of characters in her life reads like a who’s who. Along with Reed, some of the more flamboyant folks include political boss Tom Pendergast, mobster Johnny Lazia, columnist H.L. Menken, and even Oscar-winning actress Dorothy McGuire, who portrayed Reed in a 1950 NBC radio drama, when Reed was 61-years-old. (O’Malley makes good use of audio clips from that show throughout the film.)

Reed’s rich life deserves this kind of cinematic attention. It also whets one’s appetite for a dramatic reenactment. (How about Ashley Judd in “The Nelly Don Story”?) (No MPAA rating) Rating: 4 (Posted 5/12/06)

Reviewed by Deborah Young

Director Wolfgang Peterson’s latest project may be a mess, but it’s quite an entertaining mess. The director of Troy (2004) and The Perfect Storm has both succeeded and failed with this remake of the 1972 film The Poseidon Adventure.

For the uninitiated, the movie (based on Paul Gallico’s novel of the same name) tells the tale of a cruise ship capsized in a storm. The passengers fight to survive while the ship plunges into the sea.

Filmmakers’ biggest challenge with this kind of film is making the characters interesting and sympathetic. To be entertained, the audience needs to either care about the plight of the main characters or be captivated by the suspenseful situations.

In the case of Poseidon, we know little about the characters, but the frequent thrills pull us through the story. The small cast of survivors, led by former NYC mayor Robert Ramsey (Kurt Russell) makes its way through the sinking ship, past dead bodies and around fires. They swim through small passageways, swing from dangerous heights and try to protect each other.

This small cast of characters (including Emmy Rossum as Ramsey’s daughter, Jennifer) remains in harms way for about two-thirds of the movie, and watching can be emotionally tiring at times. But there are riveting moments, such as the one in which they all have to swim through a small passageway that’s flooding rapidly. They have to find a way out before they drown.

In between the thrills, the protagonists speak in brief and often silly dialogue, which reveals little about the characters’ lives outside the ship. But their prior lives aren’t really relevant because the film focuses on the imminent danger the characters face.

Poseidon is far from cerebral fare, but it is entertaining, although maddening and overacted at times. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 5/12/06)

Art School Confidential
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Filmmaker Terry Zwigoff certainly has a thing for comics.

His brilliant 1994 documentary, Crumb, profiled one of his heroes, famed underground comic master, R. Crumb. His first dramatic feature, Ghost World, came in 2001. That terrific movie was an adaptation of a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes.

Zwigoff and Clowes have teamed once again for an adaptation of Clowes’ comic, Art School Confidential. It chronicles the escapades of a naïve freshman in his first year at a highfalutin art institute in New York.

Max Minghella (son of Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella and one of the stars of Syriana) takes the lead role of Jerome Platz, a midwestern kid eager to shed the confines of his repressive conservative home and venture into the bohemian world of art.

Early scenes establish the fact that Jerome was picked on or ignored in his childhood. His dream is to become the next Picasso, giddy with the prospect of an endless parade of money and sex.

When he arrives at art school, reality hits hard. Although he’s talented, Jerome is only one of many gifted students there — a small fish in a big pond. These initial scenes, in which the art school culture is clearly depicted, are the most distinctive and entertaining in the movie.

All of the art school “types” are precisely delineated. We see the Goths, the slackers, the druggies, the aging hippies, the sexual adventurers, the film geeks, the disillusioned professors and even the empty-nest moms.

Jerome pursues a pretty young art model named Audrey (Sophia Myles from Tristan + Isolde), only to find that this cynical miss has her eye on a rare school jock named Jonah, played by Open Window’s Matt Kessler.

The film works best when it depicts the strange and often-pretentious art school world, delivering a number of genuine belly laughs in the first reel.

Sadly, the film takes a big wrong turn when it introduces a melodramatic serial killer element to the plot. While it allows the filmmakers to inject a coherent narrative thread, it also takes away from the story’s good vibe.

The cast is fine, though, with Minghella proving to be an affable lead. Strong support is provided by John Malkovich as a failed artist working as a professor, Angelica Houston as a cynical teacher and Steve Buscemi as a coffee shop/gallery owner. While Jim Broadbent is also fine as an alcoholic artist, his role is a thankless one.

Art School Confidential is half of a great movie that seems to propose that the whole idea that artistry can be “taught” is a bogus one. If it had avoided the plot gimmicks, it would have painted a memorable portrait. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 5/12/06)

Goal! The Dream Begins
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

According to conventional wisdom, familiarity breeds contempt. That truism doesn’t always hold true for movies…especially sports movies.

We’ve seen all of the clichés a hundred times. There’s the athlete who has a dream, the disapproving parent, the sweet and supportive girlfriend, the jealous rival, the inevitable roadblocks to success and, of course, the dramatic climax during a rousing sporting event.

But, of course, these elements are just what audiences want and that’s what Goal! The Dream Begins delivers.

Yet another “inspirational” story, Goal! The Dream Begins stars Mexican TV star Kuno Becker (Lucia, Lucia) as Santiago Munez, a young illegal Mexican alien living in Los Angeles. He works as a gardener with his father, Hernan (Tony Plana) during the day and as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant at night.

In his spare moments, he plays soccer with an amateur squad around the barrio. One day while playing in a LA park, his impressive moves are spotted by a former British pro, Glen Foy (Stephen Dillane from The Hours). Glen offers to get him a tryout with Newcastle United, a major league squad in Great Britain.

But, of course, there are complications. Santiago’s dad refuses to let him go, insisting that pursuit of this dream is futile. He goes so far as to steal the money that Santiago has been saving for the trip to England. Plus, as an illegal, he can’t fly there from LA without getting caught and being deported. To make matters worse, Santiago suffers from asthma.

Naturally, these are all obstacles for our hero to bravely overcome. He manages to get to England where he endures a whole new set of problems, including skeptical coaches, resentful players and a big money star named Gavin Harris (Alessandro Nivola from Junebug), who introduces Santiago to life in the fast lane.

The film is utterly calculated. The script comes from a committee (Mike Jeffries, Adrian Butchart, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais) whose members have obviously seen a lot of sports movies, borrowing liberally from everything from Rocky to Miracle.

The seams are all too apparent in the direction, too. The approach taken by director Danny Cannon (I Still Know What You Did Last Summer) is the standard, by-the-numbers execution.

But the movie works just the same. Becker is an attractive, agreeable leading man, and a team of veteran British actors lends him able support.

We know exactly where the movie is headed and that’s just where we want it to go. And it has something else in common with Rocky. Two sequels are already in post-production. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted 5/12/06)

Mission: Impossible III
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Writer/director/producer J. J. Abrams is the creative force behind TV blockbusters, Alias and Lost. (While you may think that he is obsessed only with action, it is interesting to remember that he also brought us soapy hit Felicity.)

Paramount hopes that Abrams will lend his magic touch to the big-screen Mission: Impossible franchise. He apparently was given free reign (and a budget of somewhere in the vicinity of $135 million) to bring his vision to the big screen.

Tom Cruise returns as super secret agent Ethan Hunt. He’s now working only as a trainer for the IMF (Impossible Missions Force), not an active agent. Besides, he’s engaged to a pretty doctor named Julia (Michelle Monaghan from Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang) and isn’t interested in participating in any operations.

Ethan has a change of heart after he’s contacted by one of his superiors, John Musgrave, played by Billy Crudup (Big Fish). He informs Ethan that on of his favorite trainees (played by Felicity star Keri Russell) as been abducted by an evil arms dealer named Owen Davian, played with slimy intensity by Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote).

Nathan teams up with other IMF agents (Ving Rhames, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Maggie Q) for a daring rescue attempt. The ensuing mayhem hardly endears Ethan to the cunning Davian, who vows to hurt anyone Ethan loves…putting the unsuspecting Julia in harm’s way.

Abrams and his cast do a lot of globetrotting, injecting Mission: Impossible III with a good deal of energy. They mount vivid and dynamic action scenes in places as diverse as Germany, the Vatican, Washington DC and Shanghai.

The stunt work is spectacular, especially during a sequence where Tom jumps from the top of one Shanghai skyscraper to another. Expert special effects are put to good use, too, especially during a helicopter chase sequence and a scene where the bad guys rescue the captured Davian from a secure IMF convoy.

While the supporting cast is able (Lawrence Fisburne has some memorable moments as a IMF honcho), this movie is all about Tom Cruise, and he’s more than up to the challenge. He’s in every scene and he commands attention as the seemingly indestructible spy.

Abrams script, co-written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (The Legend of Zorro) humanizes this superman just a bit, giving him a love interest that plays a major role in the proceedings.

While it is easy to dismiss the over-the-top daring-do as overblown bologna, if you don’t think about it too hard, you’ll enjoy yourself. It’s impossible not to. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 5/05/06)

The Promise
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Many of Hollywood’s recent efforts seem designed to say something of lasting significance. But in the end, most of them turn out to be shallow and awkwardly self-conscious.

By contrast, The Promise combines serious with funny, whimsical with instructional, sensual with ethereal. The result: a visually stunning, often funny movie that has something to say but doesn’t take itself too serious.

The film by Chinese writer/director Kaige Chen is a sometimes over-the-top fable about a little orphan girl, Qingcheng (Cecilia Cheung), to whom a goddess (Hong Chen as Manshen) gave a choice and then a promise.

The goddess asked the girl to choose slavery or riches. But there was a catch, if she chose riches she would most likely lose every man she loved.

Long story short: Qingcheng chose riches, and then the real story begins as the story jumps forward 20 years. The now gorgeous Qingcheng is a princess and soon she will fall in love with two distinctly different men. But one question hangs in the air, along with the falling pink petals of Cherry Blossoms (which are abundant in this film): Can Qingcheng change her destiny or is she doomed to a loveless life?

This beautiful film relies on customs and rich colors to create a spectacular world where men can outrun horses and martial artists glide through the air as though untethered from gravity. Of course part of the credit for The Promise’s visual beauty goes to cinematographer Peter Pau, who was the cinematographer on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).

The Promise has an otherworldly ambiance reminiscent of the quiet and reverent Kundun (1997), a dramatization of the Dalai Lama’s story. But it has moments of wild and hilarious fantasy that bring to mind the comic Kung Fu Hustle (2004).

There’s one scene in which a slave, Kunlun (Don-Kun Jang) runs through a herd of animals that appear to be bulls or ox. He gets faster and faster, the dust rising beneath his feet. As he outruns the animals, including the horses of soldiers, his legs scissor across the ground like a human incarnation of the cartoon character Roadrunner.

Such scenes elicit laughter with their cartoonishness. Then come the moments of sheer beauty. For instance, there’s one scene in which Princess Qingcheng, dressed in a garment of white feathers floats through the air. In another, Kunlun dons the beautiful “crimson armor” and rides a horse draped with royal red cloth.

The Promise is an adult fairytale with English subtitles. It moves slowly at times, its strength lies in its beauty. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 5/05/06)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

You know you’re in trouble when the best thing that you can think of to say about a movie is that it has some nice songs by Jimmy Buffett.

And, frankly, it’s a shame. The new Disney offering, Hoot, should have been a fine children’s flick. After all, it is based on an award-winning novel by Carl Hiaasen, is full of beautiful Florida scenery, was co-produced by Frank Marshall (Eight Below) and has some talented folks in the cast. How could it have gone so wrong?

You can lay the blame squarely in the lap the writer/director, Wil Shriner. A gifted comic and former talk show host, Shriner has been spending the last several years directing TV shows like Fraiser and Becker. That experience apparently didn’t prepare him properly for this feature debut.

Logan Lerman (The Butterfly Effect) leads the cast as Roy Eberhardt, a young kid who moves to Florida from Wyoming. His dad, you see, is a Justice Department employee who is often transferred. Roy rarely finishes a school year in the same place.

Dressed in attire appropriate for Wyoming, the newcomer gets labeled as “Cowgirl” by a local bully who targets him for abuse. He also inadvertently annoys a pretty young soccer player named Beatrice (Brie Larson from 13 Going on 30).

Perhaps in reaction to this hostile environment, Roy becomes obsessed with a barefoot boy he sees running along his school bus route. After following him, Roy discovers that this kid, nicknamed Mullet Fingers (Cody Linley from Rebound) is a runaway who is also a freelance environmental activist.

Mullet Fingers is trying to protect the habitat of a large group of ground-nesting owls whose homes are threatened by the impending construction of a waffle restaurant. He regularly vandalizes the construction site in an effort to derail the efforts of a nasty developer.

The adult cast includes Luke Wilson (The Family Stone) as a bungling policeman, Tim Blake Nelson (Syriana) as a suspicious construction foreman and Buffet (who also serves as co-producer) as a kindly science teacher.

All of their efforts go for naught. Shriner’s script is disjointed and his pacing sputters. In spite of the high-profile nature of this project, it comes off like the effort of amateurs. Kids hoping to at least enjoy some animal action will be disappointed, too, as the owls appear all too fleetingly.

While the movie’s heart is squarely in the right place (and it may amuse undemanding 6-year-olds) most viewers won’t give a hoot. (PG) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 5/05/06)

Kinky Boots
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

It’s a shame, but his will never be a household name. After all, how many people can pronounce Chiwetel Ejiofor?

An extremely talented British actor of African extraction, Ejiofor has made memorable supporting appearances in such recent films as Inside Man, Serenity and Four Brothers. But his lead role in the art house hit, Dirty Pretty Things demonstrated that this is truly an actor to contend with.

His latest lead role would certainly be considered a stretch. The masculine, square-jawed Ejiofor plays a drag queen named Lola in the quirky new British comedy, Kinky Boots.

In the new tradition of ribald (but sentimental) comedies from England like The Full Monty, Calendar Girls and Mrs. Henderson Presents, Kinky Boots is an adaptation of a reportedly true story.

The plot involves a young man named Charlie Price, played by Joel Edgerton (Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith). After the untimely death of his father, Charlie inherits the family shoe factory that he wanted nothing to do with. He soon realizes that the plant is deeply in the red and that his father had continued to keep his employees working long after the profits dried up.

Faced with going belly up, Charlie reluctantly begins a series of layoffs. But all of his efforts won’t enable him to compete with cheap imports. Things begin to look bleak.

Happenstance leads Charlie to an epiphany. After seeing a London drag show featuring Lola performing for a theatre full of cross-dressers, Charlie realizes that the delicate women’s shoes they’re wearing can’t support the weight of full-grown men. He decides to create a line of sturdy, fashionable shoes for the well-dressed transvestite.

Charlie invites Lola to help create some appropriate footwear. When the colorful Lola appears at the rural plant, the uptight, working class Brits aren’t exactly eager to join in the enterprise.

Of course, the road to acceptance is full of merry mix-ups. A fine cast of British thesps breathes some life into the standard script from TV warhorses Geoff Dean and Tim Firth. Another veteran of the telly, Julian Jarrold, makes a serviceable feature directorial debut.

But the success or failure of Kinky Boots rests on the broad, sequined shoulders of Ejiofor. While it is doubtful that he’d be a great success as a drag queen (even in pumps he seems a bit too butch), he brings an emotional credibility to the part, providing an unexpected bit of pathos.

In the end, however, Kinky Boots is a pleasant but forgettable comedy that will look good in Ejiofor’s portfolio. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 5/05/06)

United 93
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When the trailer for United 93 played in New York City, audience members reportedly booed and threw bags of popcorn at the screen. AMC theatres promptly pulled the offending preview.

Many have complained that it is just too soon to make a movie about the tragic events of September 11th, 2001, and that such a film would only serve as exploitation and/or trivialization of the tragedy.

While United 93 is certainly excruciating to watch, it is in no way exploitative or trivial. This meticulously crafted reenactment is a remarkable document of an unprecedented event and it treats its subjects and subject matter with the utmost respect.

Director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy) does for the events of 9/11 what his earlier film, Bloody Sunday, did for the infamous massacre of Irish civilians by British troops in 1972. It offers an ultra-realistic recreation one of the darkest days in American history, providing viewers a surrogate memory of the anguishing details.

While there are a few familiar faces in the cast, Greengrass avoids using stars. His aim is to create as realistic a portrait as possible, and stars would detract from that goal. He also eschews melodrama, opting to be a fly on the wall instead of a probe into the thoughts and motives of those involved.

The film opens with the hijackers waking to morning prayers, and follows their seemingly banal routine as they prepare for the biggest day of their lives, sacrificing themselves for the sake of their cause.

Greengrass avoids imposing any judgment, respecting the viewer enough to allow him to do that for himself. (One telling passage inter-cuts scenes of the nervous terrorists praying to Allah with shots of frightened passengers reciting the Lord’s Prayer.)

What is most remarkable about United 93 is the detail. This movie is achingly real. Greengrass achieves authenticity by using hand-held cameras and using actual transcripts of phone conversations, cockpit transmissions, ground control documents and military records whenever possible.

He also has a number of people play themselves, including the actual air traffic controllers, FAA officials and military personnel who were involved in the events that day. They do a remarkable job, avoiding all histrionics and exaggeration.

The movie takes us back-and-forth between the activities of those on the ground with those on flight 93. Even though the outcome is well known, the tension is hard to bear as we witness the chaos and confusion on both sides. The message that comes clearly through is that we were utterly unprepared…and we still are.

Greengrass knows that when you have something this big, it is best to let the events speak for themselves. In this regard, United 93 is eloquent. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 4/28/06)

Akeelah and the Bee
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The phrase feel-good movie usually applies to movies with cute characters, lots of clichés, an uplifting message and/or a manipulatively sentimental story. Most feel-good movies could accurately be called cinema lite.

Akeelah and the Bee fits into the feel-good category but also transcends it. The film has something important to say, and its plot also holds a surprise or two.

The movie tells the story of Akeelah Anderson (played by Keke Palmer). She’s an 11-year-old African-American girl who lives in poor South Los Angeles and attends the rundown Crenshaw Middle School. When Akeelah’s principal, Mr. Welch (Curtis Armstrong), discovers that she can spell, he sees an opportunity to get good publicity for the school.

Welch encourages Akeelah to train for upcoming spelling bees, with the goal of going to the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. During her quest to qualify for the national spelling contest, Akeelah develops a friendship with a kid from a wealthy neighborhood and gains a mentor in the starchy and somewhat mysterious Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne).

Larabee insists that Akeelah drop the ghetto slang while she’s training with him. He introduces her to the writings of black intellectuals such as W.E.B. Dubois, and he challenges her to let her strengths show.

“I ain’t down for being called no freak and no brain,” Akeelah tells Dr. Larabee at one point. But Larabee won’t accept that mentality. He has Akeelah read a framed poem that hangs on his wall. The poem by author Marianne Williamson begins, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…”

Williamson’s poem captures the film’s theme that people (in this case, inner city kids) should not shy away from being the best that they can be. The movie takes a big stab at some kids’ practice of mocking achievers and encouraging mediocrity through peer pressure.

Despite its obvious message, Akeelah and the Bee is not a plot-thin message film. The movie delivers likeable characters, an upbeat story and some funny dialogue. Plus, the actors, including Angela Bassett as Akeelah’s mother and Lee Thompson Young as the little girl’s older brother, give stellar performances.

But best of all, the movie almost abandons the common Hollywood practice of sprinkling four-letter words. Akeelah focuses on the multi-syllable words that are the tools of a group of young, ardent spelling aficionados. It pairs big vocabularies and lofty ideas with a soundtrack rich in soul music, such as the Spinners’ “Rubberband Man.” In short, Akeelah succeeds in being smart without being pretentious. (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted 4/28/06)

Killer Diller
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Missouri native and MU grad Tricia Brock was in Kansas City talking with friends about a book she loved by Clyde Edgerton. Brock, a writer (TV’s Twin Peaks) and director (TV’s Grey’s Anatomy), apparently displayed infectious enthusiasm. Her friends decided to help her produce a movie adaptation of Edgerton’s story.

The film, Killer Diller, was shot entirely in the Show Me State, at Central Methodist College in Fayette as well as locations in Booneville, Columbia and Glasgow, using lots of local talent to supplement the Hollywood faction. (The novel was set in North Carolina, but Brock adapted the story to fit her home state.)

The end result is an upbeat and entertaining tale about the importance of tapping into human potential.

William Lee Scott (The Butterfly Effect) leads the cast as Wesley, a headstrong young car thief who can’t quite seem to stay out of trouble. He winds up at a halfway house run by a minister named Ned Sears (Fred Willard from Best in Show). Wesley is guarded and overly protective of the shiny guitar he keeps in its case under his bed.

The halfway house is loosely affiliated with the local Baptist bible college, run by Ned’s snooty brother, Deermont (John Michael Higgins from Fun With Dick and Jane). Ned’s pride and joy is his gospel band made up of inmates at the halfway house. Problem is, Ned is an uninspired pianist and has the group performing old, corny chestnuts like Bringing in the Sheaves.

Wesley shakes things up when he meets a mentally challenged savant named Vernon Jackson, played by Lucas Black (Sling Blade). Although Vernon is somewhat autistic, he is a sensational pianist. He’s so good, in fact that in blues parlance he’s referred to as a “killer diller”.

Over the objections of his protective father, Holister (W. Earl Brown from TV’s Deadwood), Vernon joins the halfway house band. Their blues-inspired gospel makes them a hit on campus, giving Ned some leverage over his uptight brother.

But things get complicated when Wesley persuades his fellow band members to play some secular music at a local nightclub, performing as “The Killer Diller Blues Band”.

Scott is charismatic in his first lead role and the rest of the band is likable. But it is Black’s Vernon that makes Killer Diller work. His is a nuanced performance that could easily have come across as forced or overly melodramatic in the hands of a lesser actor.

Killer Diller is an old-fashioned crowd pleaser that is as catchy as a Taj Mahal blues hook. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 4/28/06)

Stick It
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Expectations are everything. Keep them low and you’ll seldom be disappointed.

The formulaic teen flick Stick It is better than it has any business being. Given the fact that it is chock full of Hollywood clichés, this movie should be as appealing as cold leftovers. And yet, Stick It has some funny dialogue, arresting visuals and a charismatic cast to its credit. Who knew?

Filmmaker Jessica Bendinger, making her directorial debut, is the screenwriter responsible for the surprise 2000 hit Bring it On, a tongue-in-cheek look at cheerleading. Here, she does the same for gymnastics.

Missy Peregrym (TV’s Smallville) leads the cast as Haley Graham, a spunky teenage tomboy who is something of a juvenile delinquent. Domestic troubles have led her to get involved in risky behavior, mainly of the extreme sports variety.

After crashing through an expensive window on her BMX, she is sentenced by a judge to…heaven forbid…gymnastics camp!!

Missy, you see, was a former champ who “choked” and walked away in the middle of a major competition. This left her with plenty of enemies who lost out on team medals as a result of her actions.

But Haley had vowed never to compete again. Her new coach, Burt Vickerman (the always reliable Jeff Bridges) aims to help Haley get her head on straight. But Burt has his own baggage and may not be the ideal candidate to “rehabilitate” this lost soul.

Stick It also has a likable supporting cast that includes Joanne, the requisite spoiled brat played by Vanessa Lengies (Waiting), and a cute Asian gymnast named Wei Wei (Nikki SooHoo from Fields of Mudan). There are also a couple of amusing moments provided by Haley’s slacker friends Poot (John Patrick Amedori from Love is the Drug) and Frank (Kellan Lutz from TV’s The Comeback).

Stick It is tailor made for teen and pre-teen girls, and it is unlikely that many others will want to see it unless they’ve been dragged there by their daughters or girlfriends. These reluctant viewers could actually enjoy themselves a bit…if they’re willing to get past the script’s obvious manipulations.

Bendinger’s record as a screenwriter is spotty. While Bring It On had its clever moments, her adaptation of the fantasy Aquamarine left a lot to be desired. She’s on firmer footing with Stick It, but parents should be warned that there is some unnecessarily crude language that may be inappropriate for the younger kids.

If you aren’t looking for much, Stick It will turn out to be a pleasant surprise. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 4/28/06)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In the world of television situation comedy, Father Knows Best is the exception to the rule. In most cases, Dad is an incompetent who is regularly upbraided by his precocious kids and ridiculed by his much-too-pretty wife.

But, of course, dumb old Dad has his heart in the right place. The family members know he loves them and they eventually appreciate his zany misadventures.

The new Robin Williams comedy RV follows the same formula. And, as you might have guessed, it never rises far above the level of TV sitcom.

In RV, Williams plays Bob Munro, an uptight, overworked, upper middle class business executive for a soft drink manufacturer. Bob is clinging to the corporate ladder in spite of the fact that he’s getting older and bright young MBAs are scheming for his job.

Bob’s pushy boss nixes his Hawaiian vacation, one that his family has been anxiously planning for months. Instead, Bob learns that he must attend a business meeting in Colorado.

Having made promises to his family, Bob tries to smooth things over by renting a giant recreation vehicle to drive his nagging wife and bratty kids to Colorado. He never admits, however, that his plans include the business meeting.

Hi-jinks ensue as city boy Bob vainly tries to operate the enormous, gaudy vehicle he’s rented (dubbed the “green turd” by his loving family) and keep them in the dark about the real reason for the trip.

Williams is always good for a few laughs, and he works so hard to get them here that you fear he might burst a blood vessel. Saddled with a lame, uninspired script, he squeezes it with all of his might and manages to get a few drops of blood from the stone.

As his wife, Jamie, Cheryl Hines (TV’s Curb Your Enthusiasm) is given little more to do than react with exasperation and sing off-key renditions of Beach Boys’ tunes. Pop idol JoJo (Aquamarine) gets the thankless role of the spoiled teenager and Josh Hutcherson (Zathura) plays Bob’s Game Boy addict son.

Jeff Daniels (The Squid and the Whale) and Kristen Chenoweth (Bewitched) have some nice moments as Travis and Marie Jo Gornicki, hicks straight out of central casting, which are part of a clan that Bob reluctantly meets at an RV camp.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black) obviously knew he had a puny screenplay to work with, so he overcompensates with broad slapstick and excessive sight gags.

R.V. is a slickly produced star vehicle that Williams saves from obscurity by sheer force of will. (PG) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 4/28/06)

Hard Candy
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In 1999, Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike released an extremely unsettling horror flick called Audition. In it a middle-aged man “auditions” a group of young girls to potentially take as a bride.

One of the girls turns the tables on the old man. She spikes his drink with a drug that, while paralyzing him, leaves him with heightened senses. She then goes about torturing him in the most hideous ways imaginable. As it turned out, the lass had been sexually abused and the experience left her a bit bonkers.

Some of that same territory is covered in the new drama Hard Candy. Well written and directed, this harrowing film covers a controversial topic in a manner that is definitely not for the squeamish.

Ellen Page (Mouth to Mouth) plays Hayley Stark, a 14-year-old girl who meets a middle-aged man in an Internet chat room. Jeff Kohlver (The Phantom of the Opera’s Patrick Wilson) arranges to meet with Hayley at a local coffee shop.

After they meet and engage in some obligatory chitchat, Jeff drives the youngster to his home and attempts to ply her with cocktails. A successful fashion photographer, Jeff lives in a scrupulously tasteful home with “art” photos of nubile young girls adorning the walls.

Reluctant to take the screwdriver that he’s offered her, Hayley insists on mixing the drinks herself. She slips Jeff a Mickey and when he awakens, he’s tied to a chair and about to get the third degree.

Hayley turns out to be quite a precocious and resourceful femme fatale. Insisting that Jeff must be a pedophile or else he never would have brought her to his home, she ransacks the place looking for kiddie porn or any signs that he’s a pervert.

Once she’s found what she thinks she’s been looking for, she begins to inflict some misery, threatening to complete a surgical procedure on Jeff unless he cooperates with her “investigation”.

What follows is a series of events that the Marquis de Sade would find quite entertaining.

Page is sensational, delivering a subtle but solid performance, convincingly delivering screenwriter Brian Nelson’s cryptic dialogue. Wilson is equally good as someone you wouldn’t want to relate to, but feel forced to.

The main problem with Hard Candy is that our little Hayley is a bit too sophisticated and cunning to be completely credible.

Veteran music video director David Slade uses a bit of unnecessarily showy camerawork, but manages to create a claustrophobic atmosphere that is wholly appropriate.

Hard Candy is 103 minutes of cinematic torment. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 4/28/06)

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