reel reviews
movie reviews
September '06


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

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The Science of Sleep
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Movies that attempt to dramatize the effects of a mind’s interior work can be bizarre or even downright unwatchable (as the films Naked Lunch and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas were for me). In the tradition of drug-dream films, The Science of Sleep explores tricks of the dreaming mind.

But French writer/director Michel Gondry has found a way to dramatize the effects of some of the mind’s idiosyncrasies while still making a film that we can relate to. Who hasn’t had moments of wondering whether some embarrassing incident was real or just a very vivid dream?

The film’s main character, Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal), has many moments of confusion in which his dream world and real life collide in interesting, embarrassing or funny ways. At the beginning of the movie, Stephane appears as the star of his own television show. At that point, he explains that dreams are a mixture of reality and fantasy.

From that point forward Gondry intersperses sequences of Stephane’s life with dream sequences. Stephane is an artist who works at a company that makes calendars. His mother told him that the job was a creative one. However, after moving from Mexico to France Stephane discovers that the job is far from creative (at least when he’s awake).

When he’s asleep, however, the job becomes a playground and his own domain in which he serves as a god. In one hilarious scene, he finds himself frolicking in a tub of cellophane water with the office’s frumpy assistant. In the next scene, he’s awake and repulsed by the idea of the dream.

Stephane’s love interest is a neighbor named Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). But as with most of the film, it’s difficult at times to discern which parts of the relationship are real and which are figments of Stephane’s imagination.

Stephane’s dreams reveal his fears and insecurities. At times, he seems more like a petulant child than a grown man. He seems controlled by the fear that Stephanie will reject him and acts pouty when he doesn’t react as he would like her to.

Overall, both Stephane and the film are likeable and charming, although a bit strange. But one caveat: This is not the typical film with the typical linear storyline. Like a mind, it wanders and digresses, fixates and at times veers from reality.

With its props of cardboard, cloth and cellophane, The Science of Sleep is a visual playground of ideas about the interplay between dreams and reality. It’s worth a watch, even if only as a study in visual originality. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 9/29/06)

The U.S. vs. John Lennon
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

It’s amazing how some films can resonate with contemporary audiences even though they chronicle events that happened long ago.

Such is the case with the well-crafted documentary, The U.S. vs. John Lennon. The overall tone it establishes seems all too relevant in today’s political climate.

While it follows familiar documentary structure (stock footage interspersed with talking head interviews), The U.S. vs. John Lennon manages to engage us both intellectually and emotionally. This is a case where the whole is better than the sum of its parts.

Filmmakers David Leaf and John Schinefield have been making films about musicians for many years. This time out, they concentrate on a particular incident and transform themselves into investigative journalists.

As a member of The Beatles, Lennon became one of the most recognized humans on the planet. In the post-Beatles years, he and wife Yoko Ono were often maligned for their use of fame to advance political causes. Lennon felt that he was just being himself and that if the media was so interested in what he thought about things, he would use that attention to promote the cause of peace.

Of course, in Vietnam-era America, being a “peacenik” was, for some, tantamount to treason. This was especially true for FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and the paranoid Nixon administration.

After Lennon’s famous gaffe where he compared the popularity of The Beatles to that of Jesus Christ, he became the target of conservative ire. The crafty Hoover began keeping an eye on Lennon and chronicling his activities. When he became a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, the government felt that it needed to silence this critic.

Using an old marijuana possession conviction, the US government began deportation proceedings against Lennon. While it was painfully obvious what the feds were up to, Lennon decided to fight their efforts in court. The ensuing legal battle became a protracted and well-publicized event.

The filmmakers rounded up an impressive who’s-who to provide running commentary. The interviewees include Walter Cronkite, Mario Cuomo, Angela Davis, Ron Kovic, G. Gordon Liddy, George McGovern, Geraldo Rivera, Gore Vidal and, of course, Yoko Ono.

Their intriguing observations are skillfully interspersed with a goldmine of Lennon footage, including his many talk show appearances and his famous “bed-ins” with Ono. It’s interesting to see how penning a simple message like, “Give Peace a Chance” was enough to make Lennon an anathema to many.

Sadly, if you change the name and timeline, and this film could be about events happening today. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 9/29/06)

School for Scoundrels
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If the plot of School for Scoundrels sounds familiar, perhaps you remember the recent Adam Sandler-Jack Nicholson flick, Anger Management. Maybe it strikes you as a bit like the Steve Martin-Michael Caine vehicle, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Or, it could be that your memory takes you all the way back to 1960, when the original version of this story was made into a British comedy starring Terry-Thomas and Ian Carmichael.

It’s too bad that this tepid farce isn’t nearly as good as any of them.

Billy Bob Thornton (Bad Santa) is perfectly cast as Dr. P, the obnoxious instructor in a clandestine class for overly timid men. It’s for losers who read self-help books but are, “too pathetic to help themselves.” His sessions are designed to give these fellows enough nerve to score with the ladies.

Dr. P’s class guidelines include the following decrees:
• Be dangerous. It’s cool.
• No compliments, EVER.
• Always get the girl alone.
• Wherever you are, the place is LAME.
• Relate to her.
• Lie, lie and lie some more!

As you might have guessed, Dr. P is a con man. This revelation comes late to one of his students, a “meter maid” named Roger, played by Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Heder.

Roger has taken the class to help him establish a relationship with his lovely neighbor, Amanda, played by Jacinda Barrett (The Last Kiss). When Dr. P tries to seduce the object of Roger’s affection, the demure Roger finally comes out of his shell.

Thorton is nearly able to salvage this utterly familiar and forced comedy through the sheer force of his personality. While Dr. P is virtually the same character he’s played a number of times, he’s got that persona down pat.

Heder, on the other hand, presents a problem. While he’s perfectly believable as the underachieving Roger, his transformation into an angry and courageous force is never convincing.

Michael Clarke Duncan (Talladega Nights: the Legend of Ricky Bobby) has a nice turn as Dr. P’s menacing assistant, Lesher. When he poses as a woman in a blond wig for classroom exercises, the sight gag alone is enough to generate a few good laughs.

But the real problem with School for Scoundrels is the overly pat, lowbrow script by director Todd Phillips and his writing partner, Scot Armstrong. The jokes are telegraphed and rely too heavily on frat house level antics.

While it seems almost ludicrous to recommend an Adam Sandler comedy, if you want a better version of this material, then rent Anger Management…just don’t admit it to anyone. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 9/29/06)

Open Season
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

“Look, half doe, half buck. I'M A DUCK!”

A one-antlered deer -pointing to his single horn- utters that cheeky line in the new animated flick, Open Season. As cartoon one-liners go, it’s not bad…and it gives you a pretty good idea of the kind of humor you’re in for from Sony’s entry into the expanding computer-generated cartoon market.

Open Season tells the story of a 900-pound grizzly bear named Boog, voiced by Martin Lawrence (Rebound), who lives in the mountain town called Timberline. Raised in captivity since he was a cub, Boog performs in a children’s wildlife show with his adoptive mom, a forest ranger named Beth (Will and Grace’s Debra Messing).

Boog is quite content with his comfy home in Beth’s garage. Although he looks imposing, he’s about as dangerous as a domesticated pussycat. But a series of events brought about by Boog’s chance meeting with a deer named Elliot (The Guardian’s Ashton Kutcher) changes everything.

Beth is forced to release Boog into the wild three days before hunting season begins. While she tries to make sure he’s far enough up the mountain that he’ll be safe from hunters, Elliot’s bungling manages to put them…and much of the rest of the woodland population…in harm’s way. (As usual in these kinds of movies, hunters are bad guys.)

Much of the action revolves around the sparring between Boog and Elliot, with the latter trying to help his pal adapt to the wild…but only making matters worse. (In the CGI cartoon world, Boog is the equivalent of Shrek and Elliot, the donkey.)

The movie’s climax involves an all-out battle between a horde of hubristic hunters and the wily group of animals that band together in their own defense.

While not in the same league as Pixar’s output, Open Season is on a par with most of the animated offerings we’ve seen this year. (Compared to Everyone’s Hero, it’s a masterpiece.)

Pixar veteran Jill Culton and Disney alum Roger Allers shared the directing duties for this meticulously produced comedy. Their expansive army of animators has created a visually arresting world that often seems three-dimensional. (In fact, it is being shown in 3-D at selected theatres.)

The voice cast (that also includes veterans like Gary Sinise, Patrick Warburton and Jon Favreau) helps bring the movie to life, nearly overcoming a script that meanders like a mountain trail.

While familiar, Open Season is a pleasant and painless kid flick that even answers the question about what a bear does in the woods. (PG) Rating: 3(Posted 9/29/06)

The Guardian
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If Top Gun had been about Coast Guard rescue swimmers instead of Naval aviators, it would have looked a lot like The Guardian. If An Officer and a Gentleman had been about….well, you get the picture.

Kevin Costner (The Upside of Anger) stars as an aging Coast Guard rescuer swimmer named Ben Randall living in a remote part of Alaska. He’s tops in his field but time is taking its inevitable toll.

He’s also had some bad breaks. In a mission gone terribly wrong, a number of his fellow guardians are killed, including his best friend. Plus, his wife Helen, played by Sela Ward (The Day After Tomorrow), has opted to move out.

Ben’s commanding officer, noticing signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome, decides it’s time for him to take a break from active duty. Over Ben’s protests, he assigns him to a teaching position at an elite training facility for rescue swimmers.

There the hotshot trainer meets a hotshot young recruit named Jake Fisher, played by Ashton Kutcher (Open Season). This talented but troubled lad is a much younger version of Ben. Naturally, the two clash.

While alienating some of the other instructors with his unorthodox training methods, Ben manages to whip some of them into shape. (As we’re repeatedly told, over half of the recruits drop out long before the rigorous ten-week training course is over.)

But Jake has some issues. As sure as the Lord made little green apples, Ben and Jake have their inevitable personal confrontation that becomes a pivotal turning point for both hardheaded men.

Costner fits the role like hand in glove, displaying world-weariness as well as a stern sense of resolve. Kutcher is an apt choice, too…cocky and conflicted.

But the script by Ron L. Brinkerhoff (D-Tox) is packed with clichés. He manages, however, to make it utterly apolitical. (Who can object to military types whose only job is to save lives?)

Director Andrew Davis, best known for his splendid adaptation of The Fugitive, stages some impressive action sequences and employs computer generated imaging in a seamless fashion. He also establishes a comfortable, old school Hollywood sheen that fits the material.

But how many false climaxes does a movie need? The Guardian clocks in at 139 minutes, at least a half hour of which is unnecessary.

While beautifully produced, The Guardian’s formulaic screenplay holds it back. While entertaining, it winds up being as conflicted as its protagonists. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 9/29/06)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When novice filmmaker Frank E. Flowers showed his script to potential cast members, they probably thought, “Hey, this guy could be another Quentin Tarantino”.

Certainly, Flowers’ intricate script for Haven employs the same kind of non-linear storytelling structure, hard-edged cynicism and irreverent humor as Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. But he’s still got a very long way to go to reach Tarantino’s level.

While cagey and complex, Haven’s plot is so convoluted and its various storylines so competitive, that viewers are unlikely to be able to tell the players without a program.

Bill Paxton (TV’s Big Love) stars as Carl Ridley, a Florida businessman who has been hiding some assets from Uncle Sam. His shady lawyer Mr. Allen (Stephen Dillane from Goal!) has sheltered Carl’s funds, but the Feds have seen through the deception. Carl and his teenage daughter Pippa (Venom’s Agnes Bruckner) are forced to flee to the Cayman Islands.

At this point, Flowers abruptly drops this storyline like a hot potato. He then concentrates on the tale of an island lad named Shy, played by Orlando Bloom (Pirates of the Caribbean).

Shy is an aptly named beachcomber living on the islands with his mom, a single teacher. He’s in love with a teenage girl (Zoë Saldana from The Terminal) who happens to be the daughter of a well-to-do businessman. She also happens to be black. Her over-protective brother (Half Nelson’s Anthony Mackie) happens to be involved with a gangster. And, as it happens, things get very sticky for Shy.

Eventually, the story of Carl, his lawyer and Pippa intersects with the story of Shy. By the time that happens, however, you may have forgotten about them. That’s when Flowers employs some flashbacks and recounts some of these same scenes from different perspectives. This helps bring us up to speed on how these stories relate to one another. The important question is, do we care?

Unfortunately, the answer is probably, “no.”

Flowers shows a lot of talent and a solid grasp of some intricate cinematic techniques. (Hey, he’s a recent graduate of the USC film school.) But Haven might be a bit too ambitious for its own good. The labyrinthine project is plot heavy and lacks momentum. It takes an expert to balance many storylines and still give a movie the pace it needs to retain our attention.

Haven can be chalked up as a case of over-reaching for an ambitious young filmmaker. Still, he’s obviously a promising filmmaker to keep an eye on. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 9/29/06)

All the King’s Men
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Hollywood should once again take note of this bit of sage advice: Remake the bad movies, not the good ones.

Robert Penn Warren’s acclaimed novel, All the King’s Men was made into a terrific, riveting drama in 1949. It earned Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Broderick Crawford) and Best Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge). It’s available on DVD at your local video store.

One has to wonder why Steve Zaillian, the award-winning screenwriter of Schindler’s List, wanted to tinker with a classic. That’s just asking for trouble.

Perhaps he wanted to give one of our finest actors, Sean Penn, a role that he could really sink his teeth into. If so, he’s succeeded on that count. If he wanted to get closer to the tone of the novel, he may well have accomplished that, too.

But Zaillian’s movie meanders like a rural Louisiana dirt road and is populated with a group of actors performing in supporting roles for which they’ve been woefully miscast.

Penn plays Willie Stark, a Huey Long-type politician who becomes a candidate for governor in 1950s Louisiana. (Zaillian has changed the setting from the 1930s to the 1950s.) Although he’s well meaning and sees the disparity between rich and poor as an obvious indictment of a corrupt political system, Stark is naive and doesn’t realize that mobsters (The Sopranos’ James Gandolfini struggling with a Louisiana accent) are manipulating him.

Once he realizes that his candidacy is a sham, Stark changes his tactics and begins to speak from the heart. “I’m a hick, just like you,” he tells potential voters. Naturally, his new approach wins him the election.

Watching all of this with bemused detachment is newspaper reporter Jack Burden, played by Jude Law (Alfie). From a wealthy and influential Louisiana family, Burden is just the type of insider that Stark needs. He manages to recruit Burden as an advisor.

The story is, at least in part, about how an idealistic person with good intentions can become corrupted by power. This progression should be the most intriguing aspect of this film.

Zaillian instead focuses on Burden and his role in Stark’s rise and fall. He spends time on the story of Burden’s childhood friends (Kate Winslet and Mark Ruffalo) and his mentor, a respected judged played by Anthony Hopkins. In a misguided bid to help Stark, Burden discovers some skeletons in his own family closet.

While we’re distracted by this subplot, we miss Stark’s transition from idealism to demagogy. Is Zaillian implying that Stark was corrupt all along? This is a question left unanswered,

Penn’s bravura performance manages to save the movie by virtue of its charisma-driven power. But for the far more satisfying film version of Warren’s story, check the one available at your local video store. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 9/22/06)

Half Nelson
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

While it may not become fully apparent until the final reel, Half Nelson is a powerful and moving character study dealing with some basically good yet troubled people.

Ryan Gosling (The Notebook) plays Dan, an inner city history teacher and basketball coach. His students are nearly all minorities, mostly poor and many from broken homes. He’s an idealist who tries to get his students to think for themselves and discover what’s truly relevant about understanding history.

But this likable and idealistic teacher is also addicted to coke. His efforts to help these kids while maintaining a drug habit are the two opposing forces in his life that threaten to tear him apart.

One day while smoking some dope in the school toilet, he’s discovered nearly unconscious by one of his students, a 13-year-old named Drey (newcomer Shareeka Epps). This duo forms an unlikely friendship based upon mutual empathy.

Drey, you see, has opposing forces in her life, too. The victim of a broken home, Drey lives with her mother, an overworked security guard who is nearly never home. Her brother is in prison on drug charges, having taken the fall for one of his friends, Frank (Anthony Mackie from Crossover).

Frank is the surrogate big brother for Drey, giving her money and slowly moving her into his drug-dealing business.

While Drey understands the dangers of dope and has seen what the drug trade has done for her brother, she understands that her family needs the cash. She’s a smart and good-hearted girl who must weigh heavy moral options at a very young age.

Director/writer Ryan Fleck and his co-writer and producer Anna Boden work hard to create an ultra-realistic slice of life, an un-blinking and nonjudgmental account of two flawed human beings…and they succeed beautifully.

Gosling is pitch-perfect as the smart and magnetic teacher who has managed to cover up his addiction by taking advantage of his personal charm. He knows he’s got a habit, but he deludes himself into thinking he can handle it.

Epps is equally good, never once hitting a false note as the confused teenager who has a genuine fondness for her troubled teacher.

Some viewers may be put off by the film’s painstakingly deliberate pace. The filmmakers are in no rush to tell their story and there are few moments of melodramatic action to pull us in. They rely solely on the characters to acquire our attention, and while this approach takes longer, it eventually pays off in the end.

In a season already riddled with big budget duds, the quiet drama of Half Nelson is a welcome respite from mediocrity. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 9/22/06)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Today, most people know of the air battles of WW I through the eyes of Peanut’s Snoopy and his battles with the villainous Red Baron. But this colorful period of history has enough drama, intrigue and visual potential to inspire a terrific cinematic extravaganza.

Sadly, as a drama, Flyboys never gets off the ground.

Flyboys tells the story of the Lafayette Escadrille, the famed French flying squadron made up mostly of American volunteers who joined up prior to US involvement in the war. Their air battles with the superior German fighters are the stuff of legend. (Director William Wellman covered this territory in his 1958 flick, Lafayette Escadrille that starred Tab Hunter and a very young Clint Eastwood. Wellman also directed Wings, the silent classic that is best remembered for its exciting dogfight sequences.)

James Franco (Annapolis) stars as Blaine Rawlings, a young Texas rancher who joins the French air forces after the bank foreclosed on his family’s property. He joins a team of misfits who have fled their country for a number of reasons. Most are from wealthy families, with the exception of Eugene Skinner (Abdul Salis from Sahara), an African-American son of a slave who fled to Europe seeking equality.

Jean Reno (The Da Vinci Code) plays Captain Thenault, the French officer in charge of the squadron. He’s given precious little to do with his underwritten part, but manages to avoid embarrassing himself.

The only other character that registers is Reed Cassidy (Martin Henderson from Torque), a jaded flyer with plenty of kills. He remains aloof because all of his “friends” eventually get killed.

Director Tony Bill (A Home of Our Own) does the best he can with the cliché-ridden script. Bill, reported an accomplished pilot, gives the flying sequences some visual flair.

The characters are straight out of central casting, however, and there is even a romantic subplot thrown in involving Blaine and a pretty French girl whom, naturally, he manages to rescue from the Germans. The fact that neither speaks a word of the other’s language may make them an ideal romantic couple in the minds of some.

One thing that the movie has going for it is its handsome production values. You can see that the art directors were given a sizeable budget to work with. One could make the argument that the movie looks too good.

The flying sequences are aided by a lot of costly computer generated imaging that give it the slick sheen of artifice. The filmmakers might have been better off avoiding all of the showy special effects. (Wellman didn’t need them.)

Ambitious but banal, Flyboys never takes off. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 9/22/06)

The Black Dahlia
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Let’s face it; filmmaker Brian DePalma has a dominant sleaze gene.

His affinity for the lurid has been evident in gruesomely good films (Dressed to Kill) and brutally bad ones (Femme Fatale). He would seem to be well suited to adapt James Ellroy’s walk on the weird side, The Black Dahlia.

Ellroy’s speculative novel is based around the unsolved 1947 murder of actress Elizabeth Short. Found brutally eviscerated, drained of blood and with a smile cut ear-to-ear, Short’s body was discovered out in the open and offering plenty of clues for police to follow. (Yep, this is DePalma territory all right.)

Ellroy, best known for another period potboiler, LA Confidential, built an intriguing story around this case, involving a couple of police detectives and their shadowy inhabitance of a morally ambiguous Los Angeles.

Josh Hartnett (Sin City) plays Bucky Bleichert, a former boxer and flatfoot policeman, who becomes partners with another boxer-turned-cop, Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart from Thank You for Smoking.) Dubbed “Fire and Ice,” the duo fight in an exhibition match that gets them promoted to detectives.

Their first case is seeking a murderer and rapist. During the investigation, they’re distracted by the Black Dahlia case. Blanchard becomes obsessed with finding Short’s killer and neglects his live-in lover, Kay Lake, played by Scarlett Johansson (Scoop). A romantic triangle, of course, develops between them.

But things are a bit more complicated. As the film progresses, we begin to learn more and more about the lives of our protagonists, and they’re nearly as sorted as those of the criminals they’re pursuing.

While he isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, Bucky turns out to be a better detective than you might suspect. His investigation turns up a lot of mischief that involves folks in high places.

While it is a bit hard to tell all of the players without a program, this film noir opus certainly had potential. Like Chinatown, all of the elements were there.

Alas, The Black Dahlia is no Chinatown. Hartnett and Johansson have no chemistry and their sullen demeanors weigh on the film like a ball and chain. Eckhart fares somewhat better, and Hillary Swank is impressive in a small femme fatale role…but their efforts aren’t enough.

DePalma provides a few good set pieces in this beautifully rendered production (shot in Bulgaria!!), but the movie is overly melodramatic and often plays like a self-parody. Respected British actress Fiona Shaw’s over-the-top performance as Swank’s batty mother is entertaining, but elicits unintended laughs.

You can chalk it up as a near miss, a goofy sleazefest or a turgid melodrama. Whatever The Black Dahlia is, it’s vintage DePalma. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 9/15/06)

Everyone’s Hero
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In Cars, autos not only talk, they have a culture all their own. In the new computer animated flick Everyone’s Hero, a ball and a bat also talk. The former seems much more believable.

Why? Perhaps it is because the folks at Pixar took the time to establish an entire world populated by talking cars. It was so tangible that audiences accepted this altered state of reality without hesitation.

But a talking ball and bat? Preposterous.

Everyone’s Hero is a well-meaning tale about a kid who “reveals the hero within”. (There are plenty other clichés about following your dreams, making positive decisions, being brave, etc.) Its limited success can be blamed on an inadequate script.

Jake T. Austin provides the voice of Yankee Irving, a youngster who, in the 1930s, lives in New York with his poor but loving parents (Mandy Patinkin and Dana Reeve). Naturally, Yankee is a huge fan of the boys in pinstripes.

But Yankee isn’t much of a player. In fact, he is so bad that the boys in the sandlot always choose him last. One day, Yankee stumbles across a ball that apparently flew out of Yankee Stadium. Strangely enough, this ball he nicknames Screwie (Rob Reiner), can talk and he’s the only one who can hear it.

When visiting his dad, a janitor at Yankee Stadium, he witnesses a strange man (William H. Macy) near Babe Ruth’s bat. When the bat disappears and Yankee’s dad is fired, Yankee takes it upon himself to try to find it. He sees the mystery man board a train bound for Chicago and begins an adventure to retrieve the Babe’s bat.

On his arduous trip, Yankee befriends the bat (named Darlin’ and voiced by Whoopee Goldberg), some bums (Richard Kind, Ed Helms), a Negro Leagues player (Forrest Whitaker) and his daughter (Raven Symone). He even gets a chance to meet up with the Bambino himself (Brian Dennehy).

Yankee has a less pleasant encounter with the crooked owner of the team from Chicago (voiced by the uncredited Robin Williams) who conspired to have the bat stolen.

Directed by the late Christopher Reeve (aided by veteran animators Colin Brady and Dan St. Pierre), Everyone’s Hero can’t quite get past the fact that it makes no effort to explain why two inanimate objects suddenly begin to talk. And why are they the only ones?

While it’s easy to just say, “Hey, it’s a cartoon!” a movie needs to establish its unique rules of reality and then live by them.

Even little kids need a reason to suspend their disbelief. (G) Rating: 2 (Posted 9/15/06)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Charles Bukowski was a lowlife drunk, a slacker and a contemptuous malcontent. He was shockingly profane and possessed an intractable negativity that alienated him from nearly everyone he knew. He was also one of America’s best poets.

With an utter disdain for the capitalistic notion of working for others, Bukowski engaged in as little labor as possible. He bounced from menial job to menial job (a factotum is “someone employed to do all kinds of work”), making just enough scratch to buy booze and a room (in that order). But he wasn’t lazy. He worked long and hard for himself at the only thing that mattered to him…his writing.

His semi-autobiographical novel Factotum features the adventures of his infamous alter ego, Henry Chinaski. A warts-and-all counterpart to Bukowski himself, Chinaski is the kind of guy who would like to either punch your lights out or take you to bed…depending, of course, on your gender. (Mickey Rourke played this same character in the 1987 film, Barfly.)

In the new big screen adaptation of Bukowski’s book (with additional material taken from some of his short stories), Matt Dillion (Crash) plays Chinaski, the struggling writer whose benders and encounters with Skid Row denizens became the fodder for his literary expositions.

Norwegian filmmaker Bent Hamer (Kitchen Stories) has adapted Factotum into an odd, spare little art flick that tries to capture the absurdity of Bukowski’s world.

The story depicts Chinaski’s short-lived jobs in an icehouse, a pickle factory, a bicycle shop and a newspaper (as a janitor). The jobs never last because of Chinaski’s unwavering commitment to two things, booze and writing. (As he unapologetically explains, “That may not sound noble, but it is my choice.”)

The film also covers his relationships with two women. One is Jan, played by the note-perfect Lili Taylor (TV’s Six Feet Under), one of the few women on earth who can match Chinaski drink for drink. Their on-and-off relationship lasts for years.

The other woman is Laura (Alfie’s Marisa Tomei), who introduces Chinaski to a more elite class of lowlife, a wealthy French bohemian named Didier and his stable of female barflies.

But the movie is about moments. Some are funny, some are pathetic and others are just plain dull. It’s all in keeping with Bukowski’s unique worldview. While Dillon provides some voiceover narration, the movie can’t quite find a cinematic substitute for Bukowski’s prose.

Dillion gives a terrific performance, playing Chinaski as a defiantly unhurried and willful sot. He’s like the guy who drives in the left lane of the freeway and insists on going under the speed limit.

Factotum is a hit-and-miss affair, one that is very much a matter of taste. It’s an appropriately sardonic little movie, one that is at times as frustrating as Bukowski himself. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 9/15/06)

Gridiron Gang
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Back in 1993, director Lee Stanley made an Emmy-winning TV documentary about an unusual program that attempted to turn around the lives of some wayward youth.

Gridiron Gang focused on Sean Potter, an official at Camp Kirkpatrick, a California correctional facility for youth in the Santa Monica area. Potter worked to rehabilitate some seriously delinquent young men, some of whom were killers. His controversial approach was to have them form a football team to compete with local high schools.

Director Phil Joanou (Heaven’s Prisoners) has adapted the story into a dramatic feature starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (Doom). Knowing that the manipulative story that unfolds on screen is based upon a true story makes the sports movie clichés a lot easier to swallow.

The Rock plays Potter, the frustrated official who wants to be more than a babysitter for underage gangsters. Citing the fact that 75 percent of the incarcerated juveniles wind up back in jail, Potter argues that football could teach them about teamwork and discipline, two elements clearly missing in their lives.

Potter’s idea doesn’t initially fly. First, he has to convince his reluctant superiors to allow him to form a team and then find some money for the necessary equipment. He then needs to find some high school teams willing to play against them. Plus, he has to get his team ready to play in four short weeks.

He has the most difficulty, however, convincing the prisoners. Many of these are violent gang-bangers with serious attitude problems. Plus, a number of them are from competing gangs that carry their animosity from the streets to the cells.

One’s first reaction to the script by Jeff McGuire (In the Line of Fire) may include a couple of cringes. Some of the dialogue seems trite and stilted, straight from the screenwriters’ book of clichés.

But, hold on. During the closing credits, footage from the original documentary is aired and we hear many of the exact words coming out of the mouths of the detainees. (You may not believe that a prisoner would have said, “I just want my mother to love me” to a corrections officer…but he did.)

The Rock is well suited to the role, displaying a considerable amount of personal charisma. It’s a character he can empathize with. Like Potter, he also had been in trouble with the law and credits football with straightening him out. (The Rock was a high school All-American and played college ball with the University of Miami.)

While it’s certainly manipulative and overlong, Gridiron Gang is an entertaining and spirited sports movie that is a cut above the standard. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 9/15/06)

Jesus Camp
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The Bible Belt is populated with a number of religious organizations that can be described as evangelical or charismatic. These churches believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and the influential power of the Holy Spirit.

Some people who’ve seen the controversial and fascinating new documentary Jesus Camp find this to be a scary revelation. It’s hard to imagine where they’ve been living.

Yes, indeed, the Midwest has many such congregations and they sponsor camps where youngsters are taught church doctrine, become emotionally invigorated and are encouraged to proselytize. (Some would consider these sessions to be a form of brainwashing.)

Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (The Boys of Baraka) make no judgments in their even-handed presentation of the inner workings of one such camp. To their credit, they let the audience members make up their own minds about the nature of these camps and the teachings of those that administer them.

The film focuses on the children taught by Pastor Becky Fischer, a Pentecostal minister at the Christ Triumphant Church in Lee’s Summit, MO. The opening sequence was filmed in Fischer’s church as she tells children about the “Kids on Fire Summer Camp,” a retreat for Christian youth in North Dakota that she’s hoping they will all attend.

A driven woman with a strong personality, Fischer wears her faith on her sleeve, exhorting the children to help, “take back America for Christ.” As Fischer explains, these children are an “untapped resource of potential dynamos as ministers of the gospel.”

Fischer apparently allowed the filmmakers complete access and their cameras roll on during worship sessions, meals, playtime and even bedtime.

The film centers on the experiences of three children, all from Missouri. One is Levi, a mullet-headed 13-year-old from near Fort Leonard Wood, who dreams of becoming a pastor. He fervently practices his sermons and hopes to head a mega church with thousands of members.

Ten-year-old Rachael is the product of home schooling. The film shows her boldly approaching strangers on the street and in bowling alleys, asking them whether or not they’ve been saved.

Tory is an 11-year-old, also home schooled, whose father volunteered for the war in Iraq because he felt that God directed him to do so. Confident of her gift of prophecy, Tory, like the other children, is dedicated to the fight against abortion.

The lone dissenting voice in the film belongs to Christian radio host Mike Papantino, whose nationally syndicated show, Ring of Fire, sometimes takes on fundamentalists. Although given only a few minutes of time in the film, his critical questioning of the religious right may echo the thoughts of many viewers.

Pastor Fisher is reportedly delighted with the way the film turned out. This speaks volumes about the fairness the filmmakers brought to the project. Jesus Camp imposes no point of view. That’s your job. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 9/15/06)

The Last Kiss
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Facing maturity can be a bummer. One of life’s monumental steps involves leaving your carefree youth behind and accepting the responsibilities of adulthood.

This is the central theme of The Last Kiss, a comic drama based upon a popular 2002 Italian film of the same name.

Closely following the outline of the original film, this Americanized adaptation stars Zach Braff (Garden State) as a young man who can’t quite come to grips with the fact that sewing wild oats may no longer be an option for him.

Braff plays Michael, a seemingly happy yuppie who genuinely loves his live-in girlfriend, Jenna (Jacinda Barrett from Poseidon). While the subject of marriage occasionally rears its ugly head, Michael manages to skirt the issue. As he has explained to Jenna time and time again, he doesn’t know any happily married couples.

That would certainly apply to Jenna’s disapproving parents (Blythe Danner and Tom Wilkinson). While they’d rather see their daughter wed, their own marriage is a barren wasteland.

Michael’s friends (Casey Affleck, Michael Weston and Eric Christian Olsen) aren’t good examples either. They’re all as emotionally immature as Michael and are struggling with their own unwieldy relationships with the opposite sex.

Michael’s world is turned upside down by some unwelcome news that Jenna offers: she’s pregnant. Stricken with angst and averse to giving up his freedom, he’s put to the test while attending a wedding reception.

A pretty young co-ed named Kim (Rachel Bilson from TV’s The OC) approaches Michael and makes no secret of her attraction to him. Flattered at the attention and without regard to Jenna’s reaction, he takes her phone number.

Although he knows it’s a bad idea, Michael begins an ill-advised affair that threatens his chances for happiness.

The cast is uniformly fine, with Braff displaying an easy charm that is apparent even when his character is being a total jerk. Bilson also provides a congenial turn as the naïve college student who believes Michael when he says that he’s in an unhappy relationship.

But Barrett fares best as the scorned Jenna. Her worldview is shattered not only by Michael’s infidelity, but also by her parents’ struggles with their relationship.

Director Tony Goldwyn (Someone Like You) and screenwriter Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby) don’t make too many changes to the Italian original, offering a pleasantly predictable ensemble piece.

Some wags have dismissed the film as “Sex in the City with men,” and while The Last Kiss doesn’t mine any new territory, it can still serve as an affable cautionary tale.
(R) Rating: 3 (Posted 9/15/06)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

With the possible exception of the mysterious death of Marilyn Monroe, no Hollywood suicide has been the subject of as much second-guessing as that of George Reeves.

The charismatic actor was best known as TV’s Superman, who could “change the course of mighty rives, bend steel in his bare hands.” It was a cheaply made series that few thought would fly, but it became a hit with kids and the endless reruns have cemented Reeves’ image forever in the minds of baby boomers.

Hollywoodland tells the story of a private detective’s research into Reeves’ death. Oscar-winner Adrien Brody (The Pianist) plays Louis Simo, a small-time shamus hired by Reeves’ estranged mom (veteran character actress Lois Smith) to find out what happened.

By following a trail of clues, the brash and reckless Simo discovers that Reeves (played in flashbacks by Gigli’s Ben Affleck) may well have been a victim of foul play. He uncovers a few plausible scenarios that could have led to the actor’s demise.

Reeves, you see, was a “kept man,” the lover of Hollywood grand dame Toni Mannix (Diane Lane from Must Love Dogs), the wife of MGM mogul Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins from Mrs. Henderson Presents). Toni supported the handsome actor and bought him his own Benedict Canyon home. A jealous husband would certainly have motive for murder.

Another suspect is aspiring starlet, Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney from TV’s Prison Break), whom Reeves took up with after dumping Mannix. Known for her tempestuousness, she may have killed him while in a drunken rage.

Screenwriter Paul Bernbaum (Family Plan) concentrates the story on Simo, painting him as a conflicted, worn out dick, and attempts to draw parallels between his life and Reeves’. This approach is only marginally successful.

First-time feature director Alan Coulter (TV’s The Sopranos) does a nice job of capturing the feel of 1950’s Hollywood, a time of awkward transition for Tinseltown.

The movie works best when it concentrates on Reeves’ pitiable story. Washed up at 45, unable to shake his association with Superman and desperate for money, Reeves had been used up by Hollywood and discarded. Affleck, perfectly cast, creates a strong, empathetic portrait of the actor.

But the film’s finest performance comes from Lane. She’s utterly believable as a woman hopelessly smitten with “her boy” and thoroughly devastated when she’s unceremoniously dumped.

Had Hollywoodland concentrated only on Reeves story and not gotten sidetracked with Simo’s personal life, it could have been an affecting portrait. As it is, it’s a handsomely produced and well-acted misfire. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 9/8/06)

The Protector
Reviewed by Deborah Young

A martial arts film needs two key ingredients to meet fans' expectations: enough of a plot to explain the protagonists need to fight and plenty of thrilling fight sequences. This English version of the Thai film Tom yum goong has both. Also, to its credit, the movie has as its star Tony Jaa, a renowned martial artist whose stunts inspire awe.

Jaa plays Kham, an ancestor of the Jaturungkabart soldiers. These soldiers were charged with protecting the legs and feet of the elephants that carried kings. If a king’s enemies were able to damage the legs or feet of the mighty animals, the animals would fall and the king could be killed. So the Jaturungkabart were trained to fight mightily to protect the elephants.

Kham and his father take their prize elephant and its calf to a festival. Kham’s father meets with some men there who are supposed to appraise the grown elephant for possible presentation to the king. But these men turn out to be crooks. They wind up killing the father and taking the elephant and its calf, Khorn, to Australia.

Kham leaves Thailand and goes to Australia in search of his elephants and to avenge his father’s death. Along the way he winds up fighting a lot. He fights almost everyone he meets in fact.

But the film’s most thrilling moments lie in a four-minute continuous action sequence in which Kham fight his way up four levels in a restaurant. On each level he encounters fighters who aim to stop him.

One of these enemy fighters is Lateef Crowder, a U.S. gymnast who practices the Brazilian martial art known as capoeira. During the scene Crowder and Jaa battle in a shallow pool of water and Crowder’s energetic capoeira moves heighten the intensity of the fight.

Martial arts fans will likely find much to love about this film, although the large fight scenes often lack luster, because Kham doesn’t appear to be challenged by the other fighters. But when the stunts and fights are good they’re great. Jaa shows extraordinary physical ability when he runs up walls and fences, displaying his own brand of the martial art known as Muay Thai. (R) Rating: 2.5(Posted 9/8/06)

The Wicker Man
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Remaking a cult favorite is always a tricky proposition. Purists will only deride the changes a filmmaker implements or whine about what wasn’t done to adapt, modernize or enhance the original. (Filmmakers should concentrate on remaking bad movies, not the good ones.)

That was the dilemma faced by director Neil LaBute (Nurse Betty) when he decided to revisit 1973’s The Wicker Man. A horror thriller that is often cited by fans as one of the best British exports of the era, the creepy entry from screenwriter Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth) played like the ultimate episode of The Twilight Zone.

Yes, LaBute’s adaptation makes some missteps, but it doesn’t deserve the nearly unanimous critical drubbing it’s received.

Nicholas Cage (The Weatherman) stars as Edward Malus, a California cop who is recuperating from a horrible incident where, while on duty, he was inadvertently responsible for a traffic accident that killed a woman and her young daughter.

When taking some time off to settle himself, he receives a desperate note from his former fiancée, Willow (Flightplan’s Kate Beahan) whom he hasn’t heard from in years. She begs for his help in finding her lost daughter. Willow has been living on an island off of Puget Sound with a religious cult and she fears that her daughter could be used as some kind of ritual sacrifice.

Naturally, Edward responds and finds a way to get to the desolate island retreat of the cult of dominant women, run by Sister Summersisle Ellen Burysten (Devine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood).

Gruff and unsympathetic to the cult members’ austere lifestyle, Edward pushes his weight around…and his no-nonsense approach doesn’t always work in his favor.

If you’re not a fan of Nicholas Cage, stay far, far away. His character utterly dominates this story and is in every scene. While Cage delivers his usual sturdy performance, LaBute makes the mistake of letting the actor’s intensity take over. At times it seems as if he is doing a self-parody.

LaBute, the screenwriter, contributes some clever dialogue and makes a few changes to the characters to help flesh out the story. These changes actually enhance the screenplay and add a bit of depth. On the other hand, he allows Cages’ character to make some stupid choices that don’t always ring true.

As a director, LaBute should have used more restraint. Aside from letting Cage go a bit to far over the top, he makes some choices that elicit laughter from the audience instead of chills. (Whomever thought that putting Cage in a bear suit was a good idea shouldn’t be allowed to vote.)

The Wicker Man isn’t in the same league as the original, but it should provide some goose bumps for those unfamiliar with its predecessor. PG-13 Rating: 2.5 (Posted 9/8/06)

The Illusionist
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Does the story of Cinderella lack appeal for people who know that the downtrodden sister will wind up with the prince? Probably not.

Likewise, The Illusionist remains an entertaining fable even though most adult viewers will figure out what’s going to happen long before the ending plays out onscreen. The movie is based on Steven Millhauser’s short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist.”

Fables are by nature far-fetched, and this one is no different. But for people with the patience to sit through a sometimes slow and sometimes convoluted plot, this movie can be as magical as its subject matter.

Norton plays the paradoxical Eisenheim with flare. His Eisenheim is sometimes brooding and sometimes smug but always charming and mysterious.

As a boy, Eisenheim develops affection for and friendship with Sophie (Jessica Biel), but she’s from a royal family and he’s poor. When they become too close to suit her family, young Eisenheim is run out of town.

Years later he surfaces as a successful magician. But Sophie appears lost to him. She’s engaged to marry the self-centered and cruel Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). And the prince lets Sophie know that she will not allow her to leave him and live.

Eisenheim, on the other hand, will not be outdone again. He taunts the prince with his magic, and he woos Sophie.

What transpires next includes a murder mystery and lots of seemingly supernatural stunts by Eisenheim. The two men ultimately engage in a battle of wills and cunning. The winner will get the girl or maybe neither one of them will get her.

As I said earlier, it’s obvious what will become of Sophie, but Norton, Giamatti and Sewell spice the whole endeavor so that it is familiar yet palatable and alluring. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 8/31/06)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If there is anything resembling reality in the melodramatic urban drama, Crossover (and it’s highly unlikely), then it is lost in a sea of clichés.

Anthony Mackie (Freedomland) stars as Tech, a young high school dropout from Detroit who is working on his GED.

Tech is a hotshot basketball player and is a member of an underground street team called Enemy of the State. He and his teammates take on other similar teams in contests that are supported by bettors. Each player gets a cool thousand bucks per game, $2,000 if they win. (Who needs the NBA?)

These games are a bit like pro wrestling, looser than the pros or NCAA contests. While the referees occasionally call a foul, the players are allowed to do a lot of hot-dogging as razzle-dazzle is preferred over actual skill.

For a particularly important game, Tech recruits a “ringer,” his best pal, Cruise, played by Wesley Jonathan (Roll Bounce). Cruise is a terrific player, on his way to UCLA, supported by a basketball scholarship. If word gets out that Cruise played in this game, he’ll lose his full ride.

The unscrupulous impresario who stages these clandestine games is Vaughn (Wayne Brady from TV’s Who’s Line is it, Anyway?), a former sports agent who wants to exploit the talents of these kids for his own enrichment.

Tech and Cruise meet a couple of foxes named Eboni (Alecia Jai Fears from MVP) and Vanessa (Eva Pigford, the winner on the TV reality show, America’s Next Top Model). They accompany our heroes on a trip to LA, which turns out to be a big mistake.

Writer/director Preston A. Whitmore (The Walking Dead) makes use of a lot of quick cutting to make our actors appear to be superior athletes. It’s too bad that he wasn’t able to use his editing tricks to make the dialogue seem more believable.

At least the cast is likable. While Mackie spends most of his time with a disaffected scowl on his face, he and his fellow actors so the best they can with the material. Ms. Pigford, while undeniably lovely, may want to stick to modeling after this acting experiment.

One underutilized cast member is Little JJ (Yours, Mine and Ours) who plays Up, a bespectacled teenager who helps Tech hustle some cash off of unsuspecting playground opponents. He manages to make an impression with his small, underwritten role.

Crossover is the classic example of a movie that will seem a lot better if you waited to see it for free on TV. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 9/1/06)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Back in 1943, MGM produced a family film based upon a novel by Eric Knight, Lassie Come Home. An enormous hit, the film made stars of Roddy McDowell and Elizabeth Taylor, and has since been embraced by generations of fans. It also spawned numerous sequels and the long-running TV series.

A new British version goes back to the well and the result is a beautifully rendered, well-acted adaptation of Knight’s story that skillfully tugs at the heartstrings.

Written and directed by Charles Sturridge (Fairy Tale: A True Story), Lassie focuses on the amazingly resilient collie that endures many hardships in her quest to be reunited with her human family.

The setting is Yorkshire in 1938, where the local coalmine has just been shuttered. Sam Carraclough (John Lynch from The Secret Garden) has lost his job and is forced to sell his son’s beloved collie to a wealthy duke, (the inimitable Peter O’Toole). Naturally, Sam’s son Joe (newcomer Jonathan Mason) is heartbroken. Joe’s mother, Sarah (Samantha Morton from Minority Report) tries vainly to consol him.

Lassie is taken away to the duke’s estate, where she is ill-treated by the duke’s nasty kennel keeper. She escapes several times and returns home, but honest Sam steadfastly returns her to the duke each time. Lassie finds an ally in the duke’s granddaughter Pricilla (Hester Odgers), who occasionally aids in her escapes.

But the wily duke decides to take Lassie so far away that she could never escape. He transports her to his hunting estate in Scotland, over 500 miles away with passage blocked by the Loch Ness. But, of course, Lassie makes an escape attempt anyway, and begins an arduous journey in an attempt to return to her family.

Sturridge makes good use of the beautiful scenery. (It was actually filmed in Ireland, The Isle of Man and rural Scotland.) In place of the Hollywood sheen of the original, he’s given us a gritty, realistic depiction of WWII Britain. Blissfully free of computer-generated imagery, Lassie rings true even when it ought to seem preposterous.

O’Toole is a delight as always, and the supporting cast is made up of the cream of the British crop. Peter Dinklage, best known as the dwarf from the film The Station Agent, shows up as a traveling showman who befriends our canine heroine. While is accent isn’t always on the mark, he manages to make an impression as a true dog-lover.

While many folks are turned off by manipulative tearjerkers, Lassie is so well made that even the most hardened cynic may want to take along a hankie. (PG) Rated: 4 (Posted 9/1/06)


Trust the Man
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

During his heyday, Woody Allen claimed Manhattan his personal territory, setting a series of funny, thoughtful and insightful films in the Big Apple. Although many have tried, few have been able to capture the angst of upscale New Yorkers as skillfully as Allen.

Writer/director Bart Freundlich (Catch That Kid) tries to emulate Allen with his latest effort, Trust the Man. By any standard, it is a pale imitation.

Freundlich cast his wife, Julianne Moore (Freedomland) as Rebecca, a movie star whose husband Tom (David Duchovny from The X-Files) spends a lot of his time caring for the kids while Rebecca is working. (At least it’s a scenario Freundlich knows something about.)

The story’s secondary couple is Toby (Big Fish’s Billy Crudup) and Elaine (Maggie Gyllenhaal from World Trade Center.) They’ve cohabitated for seven years, but Elaine wants marriage and kids while Toby likes the status quo. Predictably, tensions arise between the couples and their relationships are put to the test.

Tom philanders with the mother of one of his son’s schoolmates. Rebecca has trouble balancing work and family. Elaine breaks up with Toby and takes up with a pretentious German artist. A former romantic flame — who is now married — pursues the sheepish Toby.

While any and all of these conflicts have dramatic potential, none are fully developed or remotely believable. Freundlich’s dialogue seems consistently forced and contrived.

But Trust the Man may set some kind of record in terms of dangling plot threads. Toby spies on his therapist. Elaine writes a children’s book and is romantically pursued by a woman who could be a potential publisher. Tom joins a group therapy session for sex addicts and makes up stories because his life isn’t kinky enough. Rebecca fends off the advances of one of her co-stars.

None of these intriguing scenarios are resolved. It’s as if Freundlich just couldn’t figure out how to get out of any of them.

But the most egregious error comes at the film’s climax. During the opening night of one of Rebecca’s Broadway plays, both men desperately try to mend fences with their mates by publicly humiliating themselves. The audience watches the spectacle with something akin to rapture.

If not for the talented cast Freundlich was able to assemble (that also includes Eva Mendes, Ellen Barkin, Gary Shandling and Bob Balaban), this script would have languished on the shelf. And, sadly, that’s where it belongs. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 9/1/06)

Reviewed by Deborah Young

People love underdog stories because they help to keep hope alive. So even when the story’s on the big screen and we know that the little guy will triumph, the journey can be satisfying.

In the tradition of movies such as Rudy and The Rookie, Invincible is based on the experiences of a real life underdog, Vince Papale. In 1976, Coach Dick Vermeil added Papale, a 30-year-old high school teacher, to the Philadelphia Eagles’ roster.

The movie begins with a down-and-out Papale (played by Mark Wahlberg). His money’s funny. His wife has lost faith in him, and he has to work extra hours at his friend’s bar just to maintain his very meager existence.

Although the outcome is a matter of history, this cinematic version is a pleasure to watch. Cinematographer Ericson Core (Daredevil and Dancing at the Blue Iguana) directed this film, and he seems to have a knack for focusing on the ordinary in an extraordinary way.

At times watching this film is like watching a British arts film about days in the lives of simple townsfolk. That’s a good thing because it means that even though the characters are types and the story’s outcome predictable, it’s easy to care about what happens to these people. Papale’s out-of-work friends, his seemingly unsupportive father (Kevin Conway) and the pretty new bartender, Janet (Elizabeth Banks), who works with him, seem real in their quirkiness and inconsistencies.

The gravy of this film is in the performances of Wahlberg and Greg Kinnear as Vermeil. Kinnear’s laidback aura makes him a natural as the young coach who has to exude confidence in spite of his understandable insecurities. And Wahlberg, a fine actor, seems at his best when he’s playing characters perched on the edge of disaster.

I wouldn’t call this a football movie. It’s more a human interest story that happens to include some football, and the fine cast elevates the material. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted 8/31/06)

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