reel reviews
movie reviews
July '06


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

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The Ant Bully
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

No, you’re not experiencing déjà vu when watching The Ant Bully. You’re probably just recalling that computer-animated films have explored this territory before. (Remember A Bug’s Life or Antz?)

The Ant Bully is the latest entry into the CGI field from Warner Brothers. (When they saw the box office performances that their rival studios have enjoyed with this genre, they jumped on board along with everyone else.)

Complete with the requisite eye candy and celebrity voice talent, The Ant Bully is a pleasant addition to a crowded slate of family features this summer.

As we learn at the outset, Lucas (voiced by young Zach Tyler) is a smallish kid who is often picked on by a neighborhood bully. Why torment Lucas? As the thuggish goon explains, “Because I’m big and you’re small.”

Frustrated by his inability to fend off the bully’s aggression, Lucas takes out his anger on an anthill in his yard. He stops the ants, knocks down their mounds and floods their domain with the water hose.

From the ants’ perspective, this gigantic killer is called “The Destroyer”. Constantly in fear of their lives, the ants search vainly for a way to deal with this disaster.

One of the colony members, a sorcerer named Zoc (Nicholas Cage), comes up with a plan. He develops a potion that shrinks Lucas down to ant size. Now at a manageable size, they must come up with a suitable punishment for this aggressor.

The kindly Queen Ant (Meryl Streep) takes pity on Lucas and decides that he must learn what it is like to be an ant. She requires that he learn to forage and scout and pull his own weight around the mound. Otherwise, he’ll be eaten.

Zoc’s girlfriend, Hova (Julia Roberts), befriends Lucas and helps him learn the ropes. As he reluctantly assimilates, Lucas realizes that he must help the ants fend off an even greater threat. You see he had previously hired an exterminator (Paul Giamatti) to fumigate the entire lawn.

Of course, Lucas learns the importance of friendship, cooperation and civility from his experiences. (Adults may also see a not-so-subtle message about the dangers of militant aggression that is sadly pertinent in today’s world.)

The animation is imaginative and eye-catching. The voice talent (especially Giamatti) is strong, and also includes memorable work from Bruce Campbell, Lily Tomlin, Regina King and Ricardo Montalban.

While not quite in the same league as Cars and Monster House, The Ant Bully is a beautifully produced family flick with a painless message about tolerance. That’s no small thing. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted 7/28/06)

Miami Vice
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

You can’t blame director Michael Mann for wanting to go back to the well. Although he’s gained a solid reputation as a filmmaker (Heat, Collateral, The Insider), he’s best known as the creator of the hit 1980s TV show Miami Vice.

Along with popularizing pastel colors, fast boats and an alligator named Elvis, Miami Vice made stars of Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas as slick detectives Crockett and Tubbs.

For the big screen version, those roles are played by Colin Farrell (The New World) and Jamie Foxx (Ray). As always, they’re up to their neck in criminal intrigue.

Mann changes the style for his film adaptation, going for the more “realistic” look of digital, hand-held cinematography. This approach gives the action a gritty, natural appearance…but the screenplay takes it in a different direction altogether.

The plot involves international intrigue involving high-level drug smuggling. After the FBI botches an undercover operation and the identities of their operatives are blown, Crockett (Farrell) approaches the Feds and proposes that he and partner Tubbs (Foxx) take over. After all, the bad guys don’t know them. They’re city cops, after all.

Reluctantly, they’re given permission to approach these shadowy international underworld figures by posing as transport experts. Traveling to various Central and South American locations, they eventually win the confidence of the drug lords and become their conduits into Florida.

Things go along swimmingly until Crockett falls for the beautiful Isabella (Chinese superstar Gong Li), a kingpin’s mistress. This complication leads our heroes into deep water that threatens not only them, but also all of their co-workers.

The dialogue is a jumble of nearly indecipherable cop-speak. Add in a lot of foreign accents, and Miami Vice becomes very hard to follow. But as the plot begins to make sense, other aspects of the story don’t.

One could easily wonder how a couple of city cops could assemble the souped-up boats, private jets and military ops that they utilize in their endeavors. Plus, their expertise in any number of areas gives them a skill set that James Bond would envy.

But, in fairness, there are some excellent scenes in Miami Vice. Unfortunately, they take WAY to long to get there. (At two hours and ten minutes, it could use a good pruning.) Plus the best actor in the movie, Foxx, is utterly wasted.

In a nutshell, Miami Vice could have been an excellent action flick. Due to its flaws, it’s merely a good one. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 7/28/06)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

After is latest trip to the dark side (the murky and morally ambiguous Match Point), Woody Allen stays in London but reverts to his old ways.

Apparently reinvigorated by his new shooting locale, Allen covers some of the same territory as Match Point, but does so in comic fashion. Fans who’ve become bored with Allen’s “serious” fare should find some amusement in this typical Allen farce.

Scoop stars Allen, his new favorite leading lady Scarlett Johansson (The Island) and Hugh Jackman (X-Men) in a murder mystery with a supernatural twist.

Johansson plays Sondra Pransky, a student journalist visiting friends in London. While attending a magic show staged by The Great Splendini, nee Sid Waterman (Allen), Sondra is asked to come on stage to aid in a trick. While in Sid’s vanishing box, Sondra encounters the spirit of Joe Strombel a recently deceased journalist (Ian McShane from TV’s Deadwood).

The clever Strombol temporarily slips away from the Grim Reaper and manages to pick up the “vibrations” of a journalist to share the scoop he received from another recently departed soul, a murdered secretary.

Strombol informs Sondra that an aristocrat named Peter Lyman (Jackman) may well be the infamous “Tarot Card Killer” who has been terrorizing London prostitutes.

Sondra takes it upon herself to see if she can uncover enough evidence to link Lyman with the murders. In spite of his initial reluctance, she manages to recruit Sid’s help in her investigation. They pose as father and daughter to see just how much they can find out.

Naturally, Sondra and Peter become romantically linked. While she still has her suspicions about him, she ultimately succumbs to the charms of this handsome blueblood.

Allen is his usual, anxiety-ridden self, spouting some memorable, off-the-cuff one-liners. (When asked his religion, he replies, “I was born into the Jewish persuasion but I later converted to narcissism.”)

Johansson is an attractive lead, but her character isn’t always consistent as written. In the early scenes, she seems to be a ditzy, naive college kid. Later in the film, she seems downright sophisticated. Allen writes her character as a foil to himself, giving her lines that are often funny, but not necessarily believable.

Jackman, on the other hand, has little to do but pose and look handsome. (His character is nearly interchangeable with the one played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Match Point.)

Although Scoop can’t be included among the best of Allen’s work, it is an amusing trifle that should please his increasingly restless fan base. (PG-13) Rating: 3(Posted 7/28/06)

Lady in the Water
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan is as much an enigma as his movies.

While he insists that he doesn’t make horror films, his biggest box office hits like The Sixth Sense, Signs and The Village are straight out of the Twilight Zone.

His latest cinematic curiosity is Lady in the Water, a flick that was inspired by a bedtime story he made up for his kids. One may well wonder whether or not these youngsters will grow up to be well-adjusted adults.

Shyamalan’s bizarre concoction is hard to peg. It’s even harder to come up with an idea of just what demographic group he might be aiming for. It isn’t scary enough for horror fans or absorbing enough for lovers of fantasy. Plus, it’s too intense and convoluted for kids.

Paul Giamatti (Sideways) plays Cleveland Heep, the superintendent of a very modest apartment complex in a suburb of Philadelphia. One day, he happens to spot a strange creature living beneath the swimming pool!

It turns out that the creature is a “narf” named Story (Brice Dallas Howard from The Village). This mermaid-like entity is part of a race of water people from the “Blue World” who’ve been separated from humans for centuries. (Some of the rambling background on “narfs” is explained in an animated prologue.)

For reasons the film only touches on, Story is trying to break through to humans, but some scary beasties called “scrunts” are trying to stop her. These wolf-like killers live in our lawns and have grass for backs, explaining why we never see them. (No, I’m not making this up.)

Cleveland galvanizes the residents in an all-out attempt to protect Story from the malevolent scrunts and help her return to the Blue World. When he explains why he needs their help, not a soul questions his sanity or expresses the slightest hint of disbelief.

You can’t blame the terrific cast for this debacle. Giamatti actually manages to give a terrific performance and Howard has an ethereal quality that works will for her role. The supporting players include such noteworthy performers as Jeffrey Wright, Bill Irwin, Mary Beth Hurt and (hilariously) Bob Balaban as a petulant, know-it-all film critic. (Spoiler: Balaban’s critic meets an ugly end in what is undoubtedly Shyamalan’s vicarious revenge.)

While Shyamalan has a knack for creating suspenseful scenes, his screenplay for Lady in the Water has some of the wackiest, most unintentionally funny dialogue in recent memory. There are moments where even Shyamalan’s biggest fans will be rolling their eyes.

Film buffs may be aware of some background intrigue that plagues the movie. Shyamalan, whose previous work was produced by Disney, felt slighted when executives at the Mouse House dared to question some elements of the script. He ran to Warner Brothers and, given his box office track record, they jumped on board. The Disney folks are looking awfully smart right now.

While he may never accept it (and blame others for not understanding his vision), Lady in the Water is, in fact, Shyamalan’s utterly fascinating miscalculation. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 7/21/06)

Monster House
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The works of Aardman Animations, the folks that gave us Wallace & Gromit, have proven that there is still some life in stop-motion clay animation in our computer-generated world.

The makers of the new feature Monster House like the look of clay, too. Although their movie was created in the computer, they went to great lengths to capture the same tactile, three-dimensional quality that gave everyone from Gumby to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer their unique appearance.

This style works well for this strange and entertaining tale about an old creepy house that the neighborhood kids discover is actually alive!

The story involves a youngster named DJ (voiced by Mitchel Musso) who lives across the street from a dilapidated old house occupied by a cranky old geezer named Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi). He’s always chasing the neighborhood kids away and stealing any toys that may have accidentally ended up in his yard.

It just so happens that it is Halloween and DJ’s folks (Catherine O’Hara and Fred Willard) are going away for a few days. DJ is left in the care of a neglectful babysitter named Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her slacker boyfriend, Bones (Jason Lee). (Other guest voices include Kevin James, Nick Cannon, Jon Heder and Kathleen Turner.)

When DJ and his chubby pal Chowder (Sam Lerner) dare to go into Nebbercracker’s yard to retrieve an errant basketball, the old coot comes outside and has a heart attack when scuffling with DJ. After he’s courted off in an ambulance, DJ begins to believe that Nebbercracker has died and that his malevolent spirit has possessed the house itself.

DJ, Chowder and a preppie candy seller named Jenny (Spencer Locke) take it upon themselves to explore the old edifice to see if their suspicions are accurate.

Director Gil Kenan and his animators have a field day bringing the creepy old house to vivid life. Windows become eyes; a rug becomes a tongue and shattered boards form jagged teeth as the haunted habitat seeks its revenge.

The technicians use a technique called “motion capture” to translate facial expressions into animated performances. The cast acts out the script with tiny dots on their faces that can then be interpolated onto the visage of the computer-generated characters. (This is the same technique pioneered by Monster House producer Robert Zemeckis for his 2004 effort, The Polar Express.)

But all of the whiz-bang gimmickry would fall flat without a decent story. Thankfully, Monster House has a script with enough wit to fill the bill.

Monster House is a welcome return to the netherworld of clay. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 7/21/06)

My Super Ex-Girlfriend
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Ever think twice about breaking up with your mate because you feared that they might engage in some nasty retaliation? What if that mate had super powers?

That’s the dilemma faced by Luke Wilson (The Family Stone) in the new comedy, My Super Ex-Girlfriend.

Uma Thurman (Kill Bill) stars as mild-mannered Jenny Johnson who, due to an encounter with a radioactive meteorite earlier in life, has many superhuman abilities. She lives a double life as G-Girl, a caped crime fighter in New York City.

Wilson plays Matt Saunders, an average Joe who meets the sexy Jenny on the subway. After dating for a while, he comes to realize that she is needy, possessive and mildly psychopathic. When he decides to cut her off, she turns on him and makes his life a living hell.

Wilson has an easy-going appeal and Thurman is appropriately unnerving as the anxiety-ridden caped crusader. Anna Faris (Scary Movie 4) is fetching as one of Matt’s co-workers on whom he’s got a major crush, and comic Eddie Izzard has a nice turn as the villain, Professor Bedlam.

But it’s Rainn Wilson (TV’s The Office) who gives the film’s funniest performance as Vaughn, Matt’s oafish best friend. He spends most of his time hitting on a disinterested bartender and giving Matt bad advice on lovemaking.

The script by The Simpsons’ Don Payne is something of a head-scratcher. It’s certainly clever and has some genuinely funny sequences, but one might well wonder what target audience he had in mind.

The film gets most of its laughs from sexual innuendo, racy dialogue and mildly erotic slapstick. (When Jenny and Matt have sex, their bed crashes through the wall into the neighbor’s apartment.)

It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to presume that a movie about superheroes, even a send-up like this one, would appeal mainly to grade school kids and adolescents. The movie’s content makes it inappropriate for that crowd. Yes, the raunchy content is fairly mild by today’s relaxed standards (the film scrapes by with a PG-13 rating), but how many parents want to explain the birds and the bees to youngsters after seeing a comic book movie?

Veteran director Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters, Stripes, Meatballs, etc.) does a workmanlike job with the material, establishing a familiar old school feel.

For older teens and adults, My Super Ex-Girlfriend is a mildly amusing piffle. It falls short, however, of super. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 7/21/06)

Strangers With Candy
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Strangers With Candy has one big thing working against it. Its lead character is annoying, repulsive and thoroughly unlikable.

But those same qualities helped make Comedy Central’s sitcom of the same name a minor cult favorite, and that elite group will find the movie version to be a sarcastic treat.

The collaborative effort of actress Amy Sedaris and fellow comics Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello, the series Strangers With Candy focused on the bizarre behavior of Jerry Blank (Sedaris), a drug-addled ex-con who decides to go back to high school…at the age of 46. (Reportedly, this was inspired by an actual incident!)

Jerri is a homely bisexual who has no “stop” button in her brain. She can be annoying, sexist, racist and (to put it mildly) politically incorrect. But she has no clue as to her own repulsiveness. In fact, when she says or does something absurdly depraved or censurable and people around her react with dismay, her attitude seems to be, “What’s the big deal?”

As played with over-the-top abandon by Sedaris, Jerri is a totally unique and oddly impressive comic invention. She seems to be daring us to hate her, distancing ourselves enough from her absurd behavior so that we can laugh at her from afar.

But this approach is as dangerous walking a tightrope. When you push an unlikable character on people long enough, they can stop laughing and transfer their displeasure to the movie itself. In a twenty-two minute sitcom, the character doesn’t wear out her welcome. A feature-length film is another story.

That’s part of the problem with Strangers With Candy. The other is that its absurd, off-color humor is very much a matter of taste. Some will find it hilarious while others will be simply irritated.

But that’s not to say that there aren’t pleasures to be had in this nasty concoction. It has, in fact, many funny moments for those who are inclined to tune in to its gleeful mean-spiritedness.

Colbert (The Colbert Report), who co-wrote the script with Sedaris and director Dinello, turns in a droll performance the frustrated science teacher who does his best to ignore Jerri’s distressing presence. (The movie also has some amusing cameos by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Allison Janney, Ian Holm and Todd Oldham, whose pictures are featured in the lunchroom.)

While Jerri Blank is definitely laugh-worthy, she can really wear out her welcome. (R) Rating: 2.5

(Posted 7/14/06)

A Scanner Darkly
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Watching the sometimes-disorienting images of A Scanner Darkly, one occasionally gets the sense of being high.

Perhaps that was intentional, given the fact that this science fiction story is all about the nebulous world of drug addiction. Perhaps it’s an accident. In either case, it is very disquieting.

Based upon a 1977 novel by acclaimed writer Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly is the second animated feature from filmmaker Richard Linklater (School of Rock). His initial effort in this genre was his 2001 mind-bender, Waking Life. But purists may not consider his technique to be “animation” at all.

What Linklater is doing is actually a high tech example of “rotoscoping”. That’s where the actors are filmed and then their performances are, basically, painted over. Back in the day, this was done by hand, frame-by-frame. Linklater and his crew utilize computer technology. Sometimes the effect is startling and, at others moments, simply annoying.

Indeed, the visual style of A Scanner Darkly may be the litmus test for audience members. If it gives you a headache, your reaction to Dick’s story of drug-induced paranoia may not matter.

Keanu Reeves plays Bob Arctor, an undercover policeman living in a fascist state in the near future. (Hey, this is one of the few times that Keanu actually comes off as animated.)

After years of drug busts, he has himself become addicted to Substance D, a nefarious narcotic that’s use eventually leads to madness.

Among Arctor’s “friends” are a fast-talking but inept drug dealer named Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.) and a goofball slacker known as Luckman (Woody Harrelson). The dialogue between these amusing supporting characters provides the movie with its most memorable moments.

Winona Ryder plays Donna Hawthore, a woman who Arctor dates and occasionally gets high with. While she seems more level headed that his other acquaintances, she is something of an enigma.

As the story progresses, Arctor’s grip on reality loosens. He begins to believe that he has unwittingly been a part of some infernal conspiracy. Is he paranoid, or is he on to something?

In Waking Life, Linklater imaginatively employed animation to embellish the stories, but misses the opportunity, here. (The exception is when Arctor dons a high tech cloak to disguise himself, and the resulting collage of facial images is visually intriguing.)

The strength of A Scanner Darkly lies in its sharp dialogue, but you’ve got to get past the mostly blurry imagery in order to take it all in. If you’re not prone to headaches, it may be worth the effort. (R) Rating: 3

(Posted 7/14/06)

Little Man
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Let’s face it. The Wayans brothers aren’t afraid to go there. Where, you ask? Why anywhere a cheap laugh can be mined.

As they demonstrated with Scary Movie and White Chicks, the comedic siblings are ready and willing to explore scatological, sexual and racial avenues…any place where others fear to tread. Their fearlessness has paid of in box office gold.

With their latest effort, Little Man, writer/director Keenan Ivory Wayans and writer/actors Marlon and Shawn alter their path only slightly, attempting a bit of sentiment along with the lowbrow humor.

Marlon stars as Calvin, a hardcore criminal, recently released from a federal penitentiary. While he’s as hard and ruthless as they come, Calvin is different in one respect. He’s only about two feet tall.

A criminal accomplice named Percy (Saturday Night Live’s Tracey Morgan) picks up Calvin from the pen and they immediately rob a jewelry store, nabbing a plumb-sized diamond.

On the run from the cops and from a nasty gangster who wants the rock (Chazz Palminteri), the duo stumbles upon a nice, middle-class couple, Darryl (Shawn Wayans) and wife, Vanessa (Kerry Washington). Darryl desperately wants a child, but Vanessa is hesitant. Calvin comes up with the idea to pose as a baby and be placed on their doorstep.

Darryl and Vanessa decide to keep the baby for the weekend, just until they can contact Child Services. The rest of the movie deals with gags derived from a grown man posing as a baby.

Much of the humor in Little Man is derived from slapstick, especially of the painful variety. Characters are hit in the crotch so often that the movie may well have set a new record in this category. Once is funny, twice is amusing. All of the additional examples (and there are many) are simply gratuitous and annoying.

But there are a lot of laughs here, mostly courtesy of Marlon. His rubbery face has been skillfully superimposed on the bodies of a child and a dwarf through masterful digital manipulation. His facial expressions add a lot of subtext, giving us something to laugh about when the script lets us down.

While rated PG-13, Little Man flirts with the more restrictive R designation. A few years ago, a movie with this much sexual innuendo would have easily been categorized for the “17 and above” crowd. Relaxed standards on cable and broadcast TV have changed all that.

Silly, obvious and labored, Little Man is a mixed bag at best. But it’s got Marlon’s expressive visage to carry the day. Once again, the Wayans’ have hit pay dirt. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5

(Posted 7/14/06)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Sexual awakening can be either a joy or a nightmare. How one handles this delicate right of passage can have a lifelong effect.

Filmmaker Cate Shortland takes on the challenge of depicting this awkward time for a confused 16-year-old girl in the film, Somersault. Her movie is alternately frustrating, absorbing, frightening and moving.

Somersault is the first film to ever sweep the Australian Academy Awards. It won in all thirteen categories in which it was nominated, including Best Film, Actor, Actress and Director. Not bad for a low budget effort that took seven years to get made.

Abbie Cornish stars as Heidi, an extremely pretty and equally naive 16-year-old girl living with her mother in a lower middle-class neighborhood in Canberra, Australia. All hormones and heartache, Heidi compulsively edits her elaborate scrapbook and yearns to find a meaningful emotional connection.

Heidi’s life changes after she comes on to her mother’s hunky boyfriend. When Mom comes home unexpectedly, she finds the two kissing. Wracked with shame, Heidi runs away from home.

She takes a bus to the ski resort town of Jindabyne in Southeast Australia. Her plan is to hook up with an old acquaintance, but he hangs up on her. Without a place to stay, Heidi goes home with a guy she meets in a bar and, for his trouble, has sex with him.

Of course, it’s only a one-night stand. Heidi catches the eye of a young farmer named Joe (Sam Worthington), and they wind up at a local motel. Joe, Heidi hopes, will provide her with an actual relationship. But Joe has big problems of his own.

Heidi manages to talk Irene (Lynette Curran), the owner of the motel, into allowing her to rent an apartment there. She then takes a job at the local convenience store and hopes that Joe will help her sort out her life.

Shortland’s film is painstakingly slow as it deliberately tells Heidi’s story. But viewers’ patience is paid off as this extremely realistic story builds to a moving climax.

Cornish is sensational as Heidi, capturing that awkward stage where gullibility and innate intelligence often collide. (Viewers will be relieved to know that Cornish was actually 22 when this explicit movie was filmed.) She is memorable as a manipulative Lolita who learns the difference between love and sex the hard way.

Although it sometimes seems unfocused and a bit protracted, Somersault is a heart-wrenching movie that makes its points about adolescent angst with little trace of moralizing. (No MPAA rating) Rating: 3.5

(Posted 7/07/06)

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Johnny Depp has played some zany characters. Some have been annoyingly odd, such as the incessantly stoned Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). Others have been creepy but benign, such as Willy Wonka of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. But his latest zany role is a return to a character that earned him an Academy Award nomination in 2004 (for Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl).

If only a well-acted character or two were enough to sustain an entire movie.

Depp’s whimsical portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow enlivens the Pirates enterprise. It’s not difficult to imagine Sparrow’s tipsy, effeminate demeanor getting annoying. But in a world of barnacled and worm-faced characters, Sparrow doesn’t seem quite so weird.

Depp imbues Sparrow with a sort of otherworldly everyman quality. He performs the gigantic task of making the character both slippery and likeable.

The movie has other notable characters as well, such as the crafty Davy Jones (played by Bill Nighy) and the tomboyish Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley). These actors create a few entertaining moments in a film with an exhaustingly circuitous plot.

This tangled yarn starts with Elizabeth and her beau Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) trying to save their own necks by searching for Sparrow to convince him to turn himself over to the law. The plot never again addresses Sparrow turning himself in.

We’re immediately thrust into a story that isn’t a story at all but a series of action-filled events punctuated by colorful characters. At times these events thrill the senses but strung together they become a tiring affair — 150 minutes of disconnected actions and reactions that would drain the heartiest of souls. PG-13 Rating: 2. (Posted 7/07/06)

The Devil Wears Prada
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Implausible situations and a preachy tone permeate The Devil Wears Prada. Yet the movie has two elements that render it immensely enjoyable: Meryl Streep and her young co-star, Anne Hathaway.

Streep plays Miranda Priestly, the uptight and demanding editor of an influential fashion magazine, “Runway.” Priestly is not only self-centered and mean, but she is very predictable.

Miranda can be counted upon to toss her coat and purse on her assistant’s desk every time she enters the office. She can be counted upon to call her second assistant by the wrong name at every encounter. She can be counted upon to make unreasonable demands upon her staff.

Such a predictable, seemingly flat character should become an annoyance before long, but Miranda doesn’t. She won’t totally turn off viewers because Streep is a consummate pro that is accustomed to playing women who’ve slid just beyond the edge of insanity (Streep did this brilliantly in her Postcards from the Edge role).

With Streep there always seems to be some paradoxically sane and gentle character trait just beneath a rough and nutty exterior. Also, Miranda has the boon of some pretty witty dialogue from screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (Laws of Attraction). Just when the idea of someone wanting to work for such a jerk starts to seem impossible, Miranda lets fly a stinging but hilarious zinger, and it’s impossible not to admire her relentless audacity.

Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway of Princess Diaries) turns out to be the perfect protagonist to endure Miranda’s antagonism. Andy is an aspiring journalist who recently graduated. She has a great deal of disdain for the fashion industry, but winds up at a fashion magazine because every other magazine and newspaper in the city has turned her down.

Before long, this simple girl starts to change, because she wants to prove to her boss that she’s good. She begins to think that if she pleases Miranda, doors to editorial suites will open for her. Then she faces a crossroad. Who will she become, a loyal friend and girlfriend or a self-centered, cutthroat workaholic?

The whole enterprise rings false and trite at times, but these two actors are fun to watch. Plus young Hathaway has an air of hopeful naiveté that makes her easy to root for.

Though far from deep, The Devil Wears Prada has enough truth about the slipperiness of ambition and enough wit to recommend it. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 6/30/06)

Superman Returns
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

It’s quite obvious that writer/director Brian Singer (The X-Men) was a big fan of the Superman movies that starred Christopher Reeve. The film is dedicated to the memory of Reeve and his late wife, Dana.

But there is a lot more than that dedication to demonstrate Singer’s affection for those films. His new opus, Superman Returns truly plays like a sequel, staying very close to the tone, look and feel of director Richard Donner’s flicks from the late 1970s.

Singer’s story has our hero, now played by newcomer Brandon Routh, returning to Earth after a five year journey to the ruins of his home planet, Krypton. A lot has happened since the Man of Steel has been gone.

His former paramour, Lois Lane (now played by Kate Bosworth from Beyond the Sea) has moved on. She has a fiancée named Richard White, played by James Marsden (The X-Men) as well as a 5-year-old son, Jason (Tristan Lake Leabu).

Lois also harbors ill will towards Superman for leaving her without explanation. She even wrote an angry article called “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” and won a Pulitzer Prize for her efforts. Even though he saves her life when an airplane ride goes terribly wrong, she still isn’t too happy to see him.

While Superman/Clark Kent still has his eye on Lois, he’s got other fish to fry. It seems that his old nemesis, Lex Luthor is back. Kevin Spacey, who won an Oscar for his last collaboration with Singer, The Usual Suspects, takes the role of the dome-headed villain.

Luthor travels to the Artic to explore Superman’s “Fortress of Solitude” in order to take advantage of the advanced technology stored there. (This set is not only an exact recreation of the set used in the Reeve movies, but archive footage of Marlon Brando as Superman’s father, Jor-El, is used as well.)

When Luthor gets his hands on some creepy Krypton crystals, you know that things are not going to go well for our caped hero.

Superman Returns has tremendous production values and some riveting scenes. (Superman’s rescue of a doomed 777 flight is an amazing set piece.) But the movie is also overlong, somewhat rambling and occasionally loses focus.

Still, Routh wears the tights with flair and captures the nerdiness of Clark Kent with the same humor that Reeve skillfully achieved. Plus, the story opens up some intriguing new emotional and ethical avenues for Superman to explore.

Thanks to Singer and the magicians at Warner Brothers, Superman’s return is heartily welcome. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 6/30/06)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

On the surface, a documentary about crossword puzzles wouldn’t seem like such a barnburner. After all, who wants to see a bunch of geeks huddled over their newspapers solving puzzles? Bor-ing! It just isn’t cinematic.

Well, anyone who presumes that to be the case hasn’t seen Wordplay, an endearing and involving documentary that is much better than it has any business being. In the opinion of your humble critic, it was the best film to play at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Director Patrick Creadon and co-writer Christine O'Malley take a lighthearted look at the fanatics who spend endless hours deciphering the word games concocted by folks like Will Shortz, editor of the phenomenally popular New York Times crossword puzzles and regular National Public Radio contributor.

The filmmakers take a cue from the popular 2002 spelling bee movie, Spellbound, focusing on a handful of competitors as they prepare for the 2005 national championship that takes place yearly at the Marriott Hotel in Stamford, CT. Shortz founded this august tournament in 1978.

Literally hundreds of puzzlers from around the world gather in a cutthroat contest where they match wits for the modest prize money and the adulation of their peers.

But as they give us some background on these word wonks, the filmmakers also provide face time with an eclectic group of brainy celebrities who also enjoy the mind-bending word game.

Among the puzzle enthusiasts who are featured are former President Bill Clinton, his one-time adversary, Bob Dole, the host of TV’s The Daily Show, Jon Stewart, popular singing duo The Indigo Girls, New York Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina and filmmaker Ken Burns.

The amusing moments with these dignitaries are juxtaposed with those of the contest participants as the gird their intellectual loins for the tournament challenge.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Wordplay is that it manages to build some palpable tension. While the puzzling is supposed to be all fun and games, it takes on tremendous consequence for those involved.

Like Spellbound, viewers will find themselves caught up in the excitement and choosing whom to root for. The final moments are as nail biting as anything that Hollywood flicks like Rocky have to offer.

While much of the success of the film relies on the power of the personalities involved, credit must be given to Creadon and O’Malley who, with their first feature film, have demonstrated a keen understanding of what it takes to make a successful documentary.

Like the puzzles themselves, Wordplay is a smart and amusing diversion. (PG) Rating: 4
(Posted 6/30/06)

The Devil and Daniel Johnston
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The world of creative genius (and its link to madness) is the focus of this fascinating documentary about a singer/songwriter who is held in high acclaim in many circles.

For years, Daniel Johnston recorded scores of songs on a tape recorder in his hometown of Chester, West Virginia. Some of his work caught on, recorded by folks like Pearl Jam and Tom Waits.

But Johnston has battled mental illness his entire life and managed to wreck his own career on a number of occasions. The lines between creativity and insanity are often blurred.

Filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig utilizes a lot of Johnston’s home movies as well as his own handheld footage to chronicle the life of this musical oddball. He also incorporates talking head interviews with family members and friends who have all experienced the joy and the suffering of their association with the troubled Johnston.

Feurzeig also makes copious use of Johnston’s disturbing artworks, many of which have been featured in chic art galleries.

Born into a Christian fundamentalist family, Johnston became enamored with the Beatles as a kid and fancied himself as a troubadour. He filmed and recorded himself obsessively and self-promoted a cassette of some of his basement recordings. People took notice when Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain wore a tee shirt hyping Johnston’s tape, “Hi, How Are You?”

Johnston first gained some minor notoriety when he was featured as a street musician when MTV was visiting Austin, Texas. Out of that exposure, he got a big-time record deal, but nothing sold and his erratic behavior ruined his relationship with many of those who tried to help him. He became schizophrenic and, in a particularly unwise move, abused LSD. He spent years in a mental institution.

Perhaps Johnston’s most ardent admirer and supporter was Jeff Tartakov, a one-time manager who strived diligently and tirelessly to promote Johnston’s music. For his trouble, he was unceremoniously sued.

While the movie doesn’t seem to purposefully set out to prove a link between mental illness and musical ingenuity, it does seem to imply that a lot of people think the link exists. In truth, Johnston’s output may not be, as some claim, on a par with Bob Dylan. But much of Johnston’s cult appeal has to do with the fact that he’s obviously unbalanced. Many then assume him to also be a great artist.

In any event, the film is a chronicle of madness. It’s sad, creepy and uplifting, all at the same time. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 6/30/06)

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