reel reviews
movie reviews
June '06


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The Lost City
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

It’s easy to see why actor Andy Garcia (Ocean’s 11) wanted to make a movie about his native country. Cuba in the late 1950s was a colorful and turbulent place that could provide a sensational backdrop for a riveting historical drama.

With his feature directorial debut, The Lost City, Garcia shows that he’s also got some talent for work behind the camera. He has obviously been paying attention to the fine filmmakers that he’s worked with, but the director he tries to emulate most is Francis Ford Coppola, with whom he worked on The Godfather: Part III.

The Lost City tries to be nothing less than a Godfather-style, sweeping epic set during the Cuban Revolution. While it has many fine moments, it doesn’t quite live up to that lofty goal.

Garcia plays Fico Fellove, the owner/operator of a popular Havana nightclub called the El Tropico. It’s a haven for the wealthy living the good life under the rule of President Fulgencio Batista.

But things are not well in Cuba. Fico comes from a prominent, wealthy family that has prospered under Batista, but they are distressed by his oppressive, authoritarian ways.

While Fico and his two brothers want change, they are bitterly divided on how and what should happen. This familial division is reminiscent of the Blue/Gray conflicts during the American Civil War.

While his brothers pursue alternate methods of political opposition, Fico’s position of “neutrality” is threatened by a visit from Meier Lansky (Dustin Hoffman). The infamous gangster wants to become “partners” with Fico and turn his nightclub into a casino.

All of this turmoil is observed and commented on with bone-dry wit by an eccentric known only as “The Writer” (Bill Murray). Presumably a nightclub entertainer, his main role is as comic relief from the deadly seriousness surrounding him.

Oh yes, there’s a love story, too. One of the brothers is killed, and Fico takes up with his former sister-in-law, played by the stunning Elite supermodel, Inés Sastre. The revolution shakes things up for them, too.

Lushly filmed in the Dominican Republic, The Lost City elegantly captures the feel of the era or, at least, seems to. It is certainly how many of us might have imagined it. It also is filled with toe-tapping music of the time, establishing a real sense of zeitgeist.

But Garcia has yet to master the fine art of cinematic pacing. At 143 minutes, the film is overlong, burdened with lengthy, repetitious scenes.

In the end, The Lost City is a good-looking film that could use a lot of judicious editing. (R) Rating: 3
(Posted 6/23/06)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Have you ever been to a poorly acted community theatre production of the classic tale, A Christmas Carol? You may well have rooted for its success because you believed in the life-affirming themes of the story, but were also turned off by the hokey execution that muddies the sentiment.

That’s the feeling one gets when viewing the latest Adam Sandler opus, Click. It’s sophomoric, illogical and rarely funny. But, hey, its heart is in the right place.

Sandler plays Michael Newman, an overworked architect with an all-too-pretty wife (Kate Beckinsale) and two adorable kids. His self-absorbed boss, played by David Hasselhoff, could care less about Michael’s personal life. If he wants to be partner someday, he’ll need to devote all of his time to the firm.

But Michael is a decent sort who would like to have more control over his time, if only he could. One day he meets an enigmatic figure in the “Way Beyond” section of a Bed, Bath and Beyond store and his life is changed forever.

Michael meets Morty (Christopher Walken) who gives him a mystical remote control that allows him to freeze, rewind and forward-wind his life at will. If he is tired of arguing with his wife, he need only fast-forward to the end where they kiss and make up.

But, of course, it’s all too good to be true. Like a Tivo, the instrument begins to assume Michael’s “preferences”. It starts making choices on its own, fast-forwarding at will. While Michael would like to get rid of the spooky remote, Morty explains that it cannot be returned.

A Christmas Carol is one of the many obvious inspirations for Click, with Morty serving as the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. When Michael looks back at his life, he sees what a jerk he’s been.

The theme is all about enjoying the moment, loving your family and using your limited time on Earth to do the things that make you happy. This, of course, is all good. It’s too bad that the same can’t be said of the execution.

The script relies heavily on flatulence gags, jokes about fat people, penis size and related, lowbrow sexual innuendo. It also suffers from dramatic swings in mood, from silly to somber.

These problems make it difficult for the sentiment of the themes to latch on. What should be moving instead comes off as uncomfortably maudlin.

Here’s a tip: Wait until Click comes out on video so that you can fast-forward through it. (PG-13) Rating: 2
(Posted 6/23/06)

Waist Deep
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

There is a good movie buried somewhere in the urban crime thriller Waist Deep. Unfortunately, you may never find it.

Tyrese Gibson (Baby Boy, Annapolis) stars as O2, a recently released convict who gets a parole job as an armed security guard. (How such a program can be possible is just one of the movie’s nagging questions.)

His no-good cousin, Lucky, played by Larenz Tate (Crash) says that he can’t pick up O2’s son, Junior, from school. O2 has to leave his post in order to pick up his boy and conveniently takes the security guard gun along with him.

Wouldn’t you know it? O2 is carjacked and the thieves tear off in his car with his young son in the backseat. Because he’s got a gun, O2 is able to knock off a couple of the bad guys, but the driver manages to get away with the car and Junior.

Because he’s a convicted felon with two strikes against him, O2 realizes that his use of a gun will put him away for good. He’s got to find his son on his own and flee the cops, too. He enlists the aid of a beautiful woman named Coco (Meagan Good) who helped distract him during the robbery.

As it turns out, a gangster named Meat (The Game) is holding Junior, demanding a $100,000 ransom. O2 and Coco go on a crime spree to raise money for the payoff.

Whew. That may seem like a plot heavy setup, but the first reel of Waist Deep is the best in the movie. It’s action-packed, compelling and energetic. Then, it slowly degenerates as one implausible scene is heaped upon another. (And don’t even get me started on the finale that the filmmaker never bothers to explain.)

Waist Deep was written and directed by Vondie Curtis-Hall, the director of Mariah Carey’s infamous bomb, Glitter. While this movie is definitely a step up from that disaster, it has big problems of its own.
While the early action sequences get us involved, the movie’s pace slows considerably as the story progresses. The romantic angle never quite works, but Curtis-Hall tries just the same.

Plus, the movie is a violent action picture that incorporates scenes of neighborhood protests against violence. Either Curtis-Hall is trying to be ironic or he wants it both ways.

The game cast is the most appealing thing about Waist Deep, but they can’t quite save themselves from sinking all the way in. (R) Rating: 2
(Posted 6/23/06)

An Inconvenient Truth
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In the opening moments of his new documentary An Inconvenient Truth, the narrator introduces himself to a receptive audience by saying, “I'm Al Gore. I used to be the next President of the United States.” After some laughter, he asks, “Why is that funny?”

But Gore knows exactly what he’s saying. He once quipped that he’d be easy to pick out in a room full of Secret Service men. He’d be the stiff one. Thankfully, Gore is a stiff no longer.

After leaving office (and after his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2000) Gore focused his energies on an issue that has ignited his passion for years: global warming. Since then, he estimates, he’s spoken to over 1,000 audiences on the subject.

With a careful, step-by-step approach, Gore lays out the frightening facts. There is no longer a controversy among scientists. Global warming is happening and human activity is the culprit. When politicians claim that the jury is still out on the subject, they are either citing old data or quoting quacks with a vested interest in the status quo. (Upton Sinclair is quoted as saying, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”)

Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (TV’s Alias, Deadwood, 24, etc.) opens up Gore’s lecture and fashions a compelling and visually interesting movie from it. But the film relies on Gore’s gravitas to carry the day, and he’s more than up to the challenge.

While Gore mostly sidesteps politics, the filmmaker stumbles when he adds scenes that have to do with the 2000 presidential race and the Florida balloting controversy. This makes the whole enterprise seem a bit like an exercise in sour grapes.

Another quibble has to do with Gore delivering the bad news. The film may have had more impact if he’d had some scientists on to back him up. After all, Gore carries baggage as a politician. There are those who will be predisposed to dismiss his words as those of a potential candidate with an ulterior motive.

But, in fact, these are minor flaws in an otherwise strong documentary. Even the most ardent opponent will have a difficult time dismissing the carefully presented information.

So, we have a problem, and 98 minutes of An Inconvenient Truth’s 100-minute running time is dedicated to making that fact crystal clear. That leaves little time for a solution, but Gore optimistically opines that we can resolve it. He then suggests that viewers log on to to see how to become a “carbon neutral” consumer.

Stark, honest and undeniably frightening, An Inconvenient Truth is a wake-up call that people of all political persuasions should heed. (PG) Rating: 4.5
(Posted 6/16/06)

Sir! No Sir!
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

To young people, the Viet Nam war is ancient history. In view of the current events in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is a history worth revisiting.

The documentary Sir! No Sir! concentrates on American soldiers who, after experiencing the horrors of the war in Viet Nam, became resistors.

As they tell their own stories, we come to learn that these once gung ho military men and women discovered that the war in Indochina was an unjust one. Their consciences would not let them remain silent…and they paid a price for their outspokenness.

While unremarkable in its execution, Sir! No Sir! still resonates thanks to the compelling stories that these former soldiers tell. Largely a combination of talking heads and newsreel footage, the movie includes the observations of several individuals and of the swift and harsh retribution they endured when they spoke their minds.

Tears well up in the eyes of Louis Font as he recollects the disappointment that his parents had in him when he became the first West Point graduate to refuse to take part in a war. He says to them, “But you always taught me to do what is just, what is right.” To the camera he adds, “And I really felt that I was doing the right thing.”

Director David Zeiger (TV’s Senior Year) recounts how a number of coffee houses sprang up around military bases in the 1960s and became safe havens for political thought…until the military cracked down on them. (Zeiger reportedly worked at one such café called Oleo Strut, just outside of Fort Hood in Texas.)

The oppression of underground newspapers is also depicted and Zeiger makes the case that the only way that the military could stifle insubordination was to stifle thought.

The movie also spends time dealing with an incident that took place at a military prison at The Presidio in San Francisco. There, after one of their fellow detainees was shot and killed by MPs, the men in the overcrowded facility shouted and chanted…and came close to being summarily executed.

One non-military interviewee is actress-activist, Jane Fonda. (Her son, actor Troy Garity, serves as the film’s narrator.) She recounts her involvement in a series of shows for military personnel that were patterned after USO shows presented by Bob Hope. These, “Free the Army” shows helped cement her reputation as anti-American in the minds of many.

While apologists for Viet Nam will dismiss it as leftist propaganda, Sir! No Sir! offers these former soldiers something they rarely had during the war: a public voice.(No MPAA rating) Rating: 3
(Posted 6/16/06)

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The best elements of this third film in the Fast and Furious franchise are actors such as Lucas Black (as Sean Boswell), Sung Kang (as Han) and Nathalie Kelley (as Neela). Black’s character, Sean, is a high school racing buff who just can’t seem to stay out of trouble with the police. As a result, Sean and his mother have moved from town to town.

At the beginning of the movie Sean gets into trouble again. He challenges one of his classmates to a drag race. The prize is to be the classmate’s girlfriend.

The initial race is by far the best scene in the movie. The scene mixes humor, suspense and great crashes. But then Sean winds up at the police precinct, and his mother decides she’s had enough and ships him off to live in Japan with his father.

In Japan he hooks up with a group of racers who specialize in a racing style known as drifting, which involves taking the car into controlled skids. Unfortunately, the shots of the drifting look more than elegant choreography with cars as the dancers. Instead of high speeds, suspense and the illusion of danger, we get automobile ballet.

In addition to the automobile ballet, we get what’s typical with this genre: lots of young girls standing around, looking cute and lots of male posturing. As far as racing goes, there’s little of interest to watch after the first thrilling race in the Unite States. However, adolescent boys will probably get a kick out of the exotic cars and beautiful girls.

That doesn’t diminish the charm of this young cast, which includes rapper Bow Wow (as Twinkie). Bow Wow is a natural and he charms here as an army brat who has a little street sales game going. Likewise, Black is likeable and funny as this fish-out-of-water character that wins over some of the Japanese racers with his cockiness and southern drawl.

Unfortunately, there’s just not much of a plot here. The movie still could have been salvaged with a string of awe-inspiring racing scenes, but no such luck. (PG-13) 1.5
(Posted 6/16/06)

Nacho Libre
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Nacho Libre, a new comedy starring Jack Black (King Kong) is an unusual commodity. While it is hardly a disaster, it is an exercise in utter silliness. One’s reaction to its juvenile humor is completely a matter of taste.

But by any critical measure, this movie should have been a bomb. The script is skeletal, the production values are mediocre and the cast, save Black, has been given precious little to do.

But quirkiness has its value, too. As Napoleon Dynamite aptly demonstrated, it also has an audience.

Black plays our title hero, raised in a Catholic orphanage in a tiny, rural Mexican village. Now a cook at the orphanage, Nacho has to make due with what little resources the monastery can provide. He dreams of a day when he can add fresh, delicious ingredients to the slop he’s forced to serve.
But he also has another dream. Impressed by the worshipful reaction that Mexican sports fans have to “luchadores” (wrestlers), he wishes that he could be a part of that world. Plus, he’d like to impress a beautiful nun who has just arrived at the orphanage, Sister Encarnación, played by beautiful Mexican actress Ana de la Reguera.

One day, Nacho decides to become a masked wrestler. He recruits a street thief to be his tag-team partner and he begins a strange double life. By day, he cooks for the orphans and by night, is a wrestler who never wins a match. But since he gets paid even when he loses, he’s able to upgrade the kids’ food.

That’s about it for the script. Black is relied upon to flesh things out, adding a lot of shtick and slapstick action to fill in the blanks. Remarkably, Black has some very amusing moments, all of which are probably improvised.

Writer/director Jared Hess, who is responsible for the quirk-fest Napoleon Dynamite, goes for more oddball laughs here. His wife Jershua (a native of Olathe, KS) is also credited as screenwriter, as is veteran Mike White (School of Rock). But it’s hard to imagine what they did. The movie plays like an exercise in stream-of-consciousness.

The bottom line is this: Do you think that Jack Black is funny? Can he be funny without a script? If the answer to either question is “yes,” then Nacho Libre just may be right up your alley. Otherwise, it is a flavorless snack. (PG) Rating: 2.5
(Posted 6/16/06)

The Lake House
Reviewed by Deborah Young

A movie that makes absolutely no sense can still be quite entertaining. Look no further than The Lake House for proof. This romance ambles back and forth between past and present while telling the story of a man and woman who seem destined to be together. The problem is that they live two years apart, and the commute doesn’t seem possible.

Actually none of it seems (or is) remotely possible. However, Sandra Bullock (as Kate Forster) and Keanu Reeves (Alex Wyler) render these characters so likeable and believable that it’s almost impossible to avoid rooting for them.

Alex is an architect turned developer (to the chagrin of his father, who’s an accomplished architect and Alex’s architect brother). Kate is a doctor. Both of them find a retreat in the all-glass lake house designed by Alex’s father.

Alex goes to the lake house in an attempt to glean more about his father by living in and contemplating the house of glass. Kate goes to the lake house to forget the tragedy that she regularly encounters at her job.

Soon Alex and Kate discover that they can pass letters back and forth through time by simply putting the letters into the mailbox in front of the house, each, in turn, retrieving the other’s letters. As they correspond, they discover a connection and then begin to plot ways to bridge the time gulf to meet each other.

As in most romantic comedies, both characters tell their friends and family members about their attraction. The friends and family members discourage both from pursuing the relationship. But Kate and Alex push ahead, and the filmmakers create a spatial connection between the characters by placing them in settings together (although they never touch when they’re supposed to be living in different years).

All of this sounds hokey, and it is. But Reeves and Bullock have so much chemistry and appeal that rooting for them becomes easy, even though the premise is about as far-fetched as it gets. (PG) Rating: 3
(Posted 6/16/06)

A Prairie Home Companion
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

On July 6, 1976, a strange radio show debuted, broadcast live from the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota. A Prairie Home Companion starred writer Garrison Keillor in a subtle parody of old time radio shows.

With low-key, deadpan wit, Keillor used this format to elucidate upon the peculiarities of midwestern culture. Over the years, the show steadily grew in popularity and now 4.3 million listeners tune in every week on National Public Radio stations around the country.

Director Robert Altman (Gosford Park) and screenwriter Keillor have concocted a quirky film version that is utterly faithful to the feel of the radio show. Fans will find it all very familiar, but this time they’ve got a backstage pass.

Keillor’s story concerns the show’s “last broadcast” before a mysterious corporate entity (Tommy Lee Jones) closes the doors for good. He uses this setup as a starting point to ruminate on the subject of death. (Yes, it seems that Keillor has been thinking about his mortality a lot lately.)

Keillor plays G.K., a thinly disguised version of himself, and show regulars Sue Scott and Tim Russell play a makeup artist and stage manager, respectively. Other cast members Tom Keith, Jearlyn Steele, Robin and Linda Williams, Prudence Johnson and the Guys All-Star Shoe Band are also on hand.

Kevin Kline plays Guy Noir, a private eye hired as a security cop at the Fitzgerald. He observes a mysterious woman (Virginia Madsen) moving around backstage. He tries to ascertain her identity, but the regular chaos surrounding the show’s production thwarts his efforts.

Meanwhile, the musical guests play out an ongoing backstage soap opera. Among them are the singing duo, Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and Rhonda (Lily Tomlin) Johnson, accompanied by Yolanda’s suicidal daughter, Lola (Lindsay Lohan).

Other musicians include the randy Old Trailhands, Dusty (Woody Harrelson) and Lefty (John C. Rielly). Things get sticky when one of the show regulars, Chuck Akers (L.Q. Jones) passes away during the show.

Keillor’s script structure perfectly meshes with the classic Altman style. It is a patchwork quilt of subplots united by a single narrative thread. The actors (with the possible exception of Lohan who seems a bit like a fish out of water) fit flawlessly into Keillor’s off-kilter universe.

While the film will undoubtedly captivate Keillor’s fans, those new to his droll sense of humor will probably find it a tad difficult to warm up to. While often very funny, A Prairie Home Companion has an irrefutable morbid streak. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5
(Posted 6/09/06)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Just when it looked like the venerable Disney animation division (the once dominate force in feature-length cartoons) was going down for the count, along came a fortuitous partnership with a company founded by Steve Jobs and John Lasseter.

Since 1995, the creative computer geeks at Pixar have saved Disney by cranking out hits like Toy Story and Finding Nemo…six straight blockbusters in a row.

Make that seven.

With Cars, Pixar-Disney has struck gold once again, forging a zippy, eye-popping computer animated treat that will undoubtedly heat up the summer box-office.

Fueled by barrels of imagination, Cars takes on the world of NASCAR, and it’s a match made in product-tie-in heaven. The story involves a hotshot racecar that takes a wrong turn off of Route 66 and the side trip changes his narrow worldview.

While on a westward journey to a race in California, circumstances find champion racecar Lightning McQueen stranded in the remote desert town of Radiator Springs. There, he gets into a bit of trouble with the law and is ordered to stay in the tiny burg until he repaves the city’s main drag.

The egotistical McQueen tries desperately to shun this obligation, but his experiences with the townsfolk teach him a thing or two about friendship and humility.

The animation is breathtaking. While the work of other studios has also become incredibly sophisticated over the last few years, Pixar still has an undeniable edge. The images are so crisp and clear that it’s easy to suspend one’s disbelief and accept this kooky alternate universe where cars are people and tractors are cows.

The talented voice cast includes Owen Wilson (The Wedding Crashers) as McQueen, Bonnie Hunt (Cheaper by the Dozen) as his love interest, a coupe named Sally Carrera. The rest of the all-star voice ensemble includes Paul Newman, George Carlin, Michael Keaton, Cheech Marin, Larry the Cable Guy and Jay Leno. They’re joined by come cleverly cast choices that include NPR’s the Tappet Brothers, Richard Petty, Mario Andretti, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhart, Jr. and Bob Costas.

But what makes Cars run are the clever asides, the commitment to detail and an unapologetic love of pop culture. This is reflective of the personality of the project’s producer/director, John Lasseter, who also helmed Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and A Bug’s Life.

While its screenplay isn’t quite in the same league as some of the previous Pixar efforts, Cars has plenty of zippy appeal for kids of all ages. (Don’t forget to stay through the credits.) (G) Rating: 4
(Posted 6/09/06)

The Break-Up
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

As they showed in their 1996 breakthrough film, Swingers, Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau have a sensational rapport that elevates every scene that they’re in together. The same is true in The Break-Up.

Notice that these scenes are between two buddies and not between Vaughn’s character and his leading lady (and off-screen romantic interest), Jennifer Aniston. This is the primary problem plaguing this offbeat “romantic comedy”.

Vaughn (who conceived the story), screenwriters Jay Lavender and Jeremy Garelick and director Peyton Reed (Down With Love), decided to forego most of the customary romantic, chick flick interplay and concentrate instead on the bile that builds up between the feuding lovers. In a daring move, they make the lead a real jerk.

Instead of the predictable boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl and boy-gets-girl-back scenario, we’re given movie that takes a chance by mixing up elements of the genre. Vaughn’s character is so self-centered here that many audience members may not want this couple to succeed.

That’s not to say the movie isn’t funny. It often is, thanks mainly to some well-delivered, cheeky dialogue. But things take a serious turn. Whereas the first reels are set in the sitcom-y world of movie fantasy, the filmmakers abruptly change the tone making the movie a bit schizophrenic.

Vaughn plays Gary, a Chicago tour guide who has the gift of gab. He uses the same carnival huckster style that he effectively employs on the tour bus in his approach to women. Aniston’s character, Brooke, is a salesperson at an upscale art gallery who is initially charmed by Gary’s dynamic energy. They quickly become a couple and move into a condo together.

It doesn’t take long for Gary’s true colors to shine through. He’s a lazy, self-absorbed sort who can’t understand why Brooke isn’t willing to wait on him hand and foot. It’s not that he is mean; he just never tries to see things from her perspective. This lack of empathy drives the stake into the heart of this relationship.

When the inevitable blowup occurs, Gary refuses to move out. He insists that she leave or that they share the condo they’ve purchased together. Thus ensues a titanic battle of wills.

The movie has a terrific supporting cast that includes Vincent D’Onofrio, Judy Davis, John Michael Higgins and Jason Bateman. But the only one who shares the screen with Vaughn…and comes out ahead…is Favreau. Their scenes together are priceless.

You have to give the filmmakers credit for their willingness to take a chance and tinker with the genre. But as a result of this alchemy, The Break-Up is as irritating as it is funny. (PG-13) Rating: 3
(Posted 6/02/06)

Down in the Valley
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Edward Norton is one of our best actors. His most recent screen appearances have been in thankless supporting roles in films like Kingdom of Heaven, The Italian Job and Frida.

Thankfully, he’s back in a leading role in the ambitious drama Down in the Valley, a movie rife with possibilities. He gives a riveting, honest performance that elevates this tricky project.

In this bold work from writer-director David Jacobson (Dahmer), Norton plays Harlan, a displaced South Dakota cowboy working as a gas jockey at a Southern California service station.

Things change for him in a big way when a car full of teens stops in for a fill up.

Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood from Thirteen) is immediately attracted to this unique fellow and invites him to come with them to the beach. Harlan quits his job and tags along. Quickly, Harlan and the underage Tobe become a couple.

Of course, Tobe has some problems. She and her younger brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin) are being raised by their single dad, a brusque cop named Wade (played by the ever-reliable David Morse). While he loves his kids, Wade lacks tact and has difficulty expressing his emotions. Naturally, these kids are primed to rebel.

Harlan becomes the catalyst for this rebellion. While he seems altogether sincere to the kids, Wade quickly sees through him. He fears that there may be more to Harlan than meets the eye.

He’s right, of course. Harlan isn’t really a cowboy, but a petty thief who recites dialogue from cowboy movies into the mirror in his cheap motel room. He is Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickel with a pair of six guns strapped around his waist. As you’d expect from this situation, things don’t go well for this dysfunctional family.

Jacobson’s movie is a valiant attempt to make some poetic statements about American Western mythology…and its disappearance. He manages to conjure images that may remind some viewers of the work of John Ford or Howard Hawks. He employs panning shots that show pristine grassy hills leading to a bluff that overlooks the valley. Instead of a vista of God’s expanse, we see a suburban hell.

Jacobson’s heart is in the right place, but he takes some serious wrong turns. The movie’s violent climax doesn’t ring true, a scene that takes place on a Western movie set comes off as simply pretentious, and the whole affair is overlong and padded.

But we have Norton’s moving performance that saves the movie from oblivion. As a symbolic artwork, Down in the Valley sputters. As a vehicle for Norton, it soars. (R) Rating: 2.5
(Posted 6/02/06)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When you hear a filmmaker talking about making their “elemental trilogy,” it is usually reasonable to consider them hopelessly pretentious.

In the case of Toronto-based Indian filmmaker Deepa Mehta, she may actually be onto something. Her latest film follows Fire and Earth. Naturally, it’s called Water.

Water focuses on an aspect of Indian society that will seem quite strange to Western audiences. Although the film takes place in the late 1930s, many of the customs presented in the film survive in modern Indian culture.

In the film’s opening sequence, an eight-year-old girl named Chuyia (Sarala) is crossing the river, accompanying a corpse. The elderly man was not her father or grandfather, but her husband. A victim of an arranged marriage, Chuyia is clueless as to her fate but hopeful that her parents will save her.

Alas, she is being taken to an ashram where, under Hindu guidelines, she is to live out the rest of her life as a widow. Apparently, Chuyia’s bad karma is to blame for her husband’s death. She is to reside there in poverty with other women who found themselves in a similar situation.

Chuyia’s head is shaved and she joins the mostly elderly women there wearing simple white sheets, subsisting on charity and sleeping on mats in rat-infested rooms. Most of these women are corpses themselves, just waiting to die. The spirit of life has been drained from most of them.

But Chuyia is too young to give up, and her lively disposition reinvigorates some of the cloistered residents. She makes friends with a beautiful young widow named Kalyani (Lisa Ray) who prostitutes herself to bring money into the colony. Kalyani’s forbidden pet, a puppy, plays a role in changing both of their lives.

While this setup may seem austere, Mehta adds some plot elements to broaden the appeal. There is an unlikely romance that blossoms between Kalyani and a handsome and affluent young man named Narayan (John Abraham), a follower of Gandhi. This fellow is so forward-thinking that he’s willing to risk the wrath of his family to pursue his love.

While this storyline may seem overly melodramatic, remember that this is an Indian movie. Most of the films from Bollywood are over-the-top musicals. Even the most earnest and sober dramas have extensive musical interludes and snazzy production numbers. The fact that Mehta resists having her leads break into song can be considered an act of artistic reserve.

Production on this film was delayed for years due to threats from Hindu extremists. Mehta finally completed her work in Sri Lanka and it stands as an accomplishment of individual expression. Mehta’s Water is appropriately refreshing. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 6/02/06)

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