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October '06


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

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Catch a Fire
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Who doesn’t love a hero? But the power in a hero’s story lies not in the hero’s display of strength and fortitude but in his ability to overcome his weaknesses and fears. Catch a Fire skillfully taps into the power of Patrick Chamusso’s story.

When we first see Chamusso (Derek Luke) he’s a foreman at an oil refinery in apartheid-era South Africa. He’s a charming and obviously smart, hardworking man. He maintains his sweet life as a husband, father and soccer coach by keeping his head down and acquiescing when challenged by racist authorities.

Early in the film Patrick and his family travel by car to a wedding. We see them dancing, smiling and enjoying their friends. We see Patrick and his wife Precious (Bonnie Mbuli) enjoying the glorious landscape during a moment alone.

But on their way home police officers stop them for no reason, question them and search their car. Patrick lowers his head and calls the interrogating officer “boss” while his wife pulls their two little girls close to her and tries to shield them from the sight of other black men being beaten or shot.

When Patrick returns home he once again immerses himself in his job, his family life and his duty as the coach of a boys’ soccer team. He avoids the political…until the day that South Africa’s oppressive system unravels his quiet, prosperous existence.

Chamusso’s path collides with that of Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), a cruel investigator who detains Chamusso and some of his friends on false charges. The indignities that Vos and his men put Chamusso and his family and friends through are the catalysts that thrust Chamusso into the heart of the revolution, into the military wing of the African National Congress.

Luke thoroughly convinces us as this soft-spoken family man who becomes a reluctant warrior. And Robbins uses his typically charming personal traits to create an abominable villain. As Vos, Robbins’ sparkling eyes hide his contempt. His subdued smile hides his deceit. His soothing voice softens the sharp words he speaks.

Likewise, little-known actress Bonnie Mbuli creates a three-dimensional and sympathetic Precious. Her quiet dignity and her inherent jealousy combine to render her simultaneously heroic and tragic.

With its thoughtful, spare script and terrific performances, Catch a Fire is a superb combination of intellect, emotion and action. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 10/27/06)

Running with Scissors
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

So, you think that you had a strange upbringing? Are you of the opinion that your family is dysfunctional?

Well, just take a look at the experiences of Augusten Burroughs. By comparison, you’re experience will probably seem like something out of The Brady Bunch.

Burroughs’ best-selling memoir, Running With Scissors, details the bizarre events of his formative years in the 1970s that make the word “eccentric” seem downright inadequate. On a positive note, it demonstrates how one can manage to survive a bizarre family life.

Annette Bening (Being Julia) leads a terrific cast as Burroughs’ nutty mother, Deirdre. Convinced that she’s a misunderstood genius, Deirdre longs of the day when she can break out of her middle-class domesticity and become a famous poet. Her constant nagging alienates her husband, Norman (Alec Baldwin from TV’s 30 Rock) and drives him to drink.

Things get really strange when the couple begins counseling sessions with a psychiatrist named Dr. Finch (Brian Cox from TV’s Deadwood). If Tom Cruise needed additional evidence for his claims that the profession of psychiatry is full of malfeasance, he could use Dr. Finch as a poster child.

Poor Augusten, played by Joseph Cross (Flags of Our Fathers), watches helplessly has his parents’ marriage crumbles and Deirdre becomes totally dependent of Dr. Finch who keeps her on a steady diet of prescription meds. She gives him power of attorney and leaves it to him to raise her only son.

The horrified Augusten moves in with the strangest clan since The Addams Family. Not only does Dr. Finch see cryptic signs in the color, form and quantity of his bowel movements, his mousy wife Agnes (Never Again’s Jill Clayburgh) eats a steady diet of dog food. Daughter Agnes (Gwyneth Paltrow from Infamous) is a Bible-thumping pet killer, daughter Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood from The Upside of Anger) is a sexually promiscuous teen and son Neil (Joseph Fiennes from The Merchant of Venice) is a gay man with homicidal tendencies.

When his dad is seemingly unresponsive to his many requests for help, Augusten reluctantly copes as best he can. His mother becomes increasingly detached and dependent on drugs, so Augusten becomes a friend with Natalie and Neil’s lover.


Director Ryan Murphy (TV’s Nip/Tuck) captures this disorienting confusion, but his film is never fully focused and lacks narrative drive. Plus, the characters are so odd as to be utterly off-putting.

The gifted cast gives it a boost that makes Running With Scissors far more palatable than it deserves to be. R Rating: 3 (Posted 10/27/06)

The Queen
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

For years, British actress Helen Mirren has built an impressive body of work while never quite achieving the recognition she deserves.

Her performances in kinky, offbeat movies like The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and The Comfort of Strangers stand in stark contrast to her numerous Shakespearian turns and period pieces. To date, she’s best known for her starring role on the British TV series Prime Suspect.

But in The Queen, Mirren’s portrayal of contemporary monarch Queen Elizabeth II is a revelation. The actress, known to be quite brassy and ballsy in real life, empties herself into the role of the stoic head of the house of Windsor.

A speculative look behind the scenes at the life of the queen during an agonizing crisis, The Queen is both a sharp criticism of the monarchy as well as an empathetic examination of a family living in a fishbowl.

Director Stephen Frears (The Grifters) and screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Last King of Scotland) focus on the aftermath of the tragic death of Princess Diana. When news breaks of her fatal automobile accident in France, the royal family is vacationing at their sprawling estate in Scotland. Both stunned and seemingly dispassionate, the family makes no comment.

This stiff-upper-lip attitude doesn’t play well with the public who want to see the royals share in their grief. This is an outward display of emotion that the Windsors see as somehow utterly inappropriate.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, played by Michael Sheen (Underworld) sees clearly that this detached attitude makes the royal family seem uncaring and cavalier, and the press pummels them for it. Blair tries hard to convince the queen and the family to return to London and make a public statement for their subjects.

While no one knows what went on in the minds of the royals during this difficult time, The Queen is an intriguing speculation that rings true. As played by Mirren, Elizabeth simply can’t imagine that the English people, loyal subjects that she feels she knows so well, would actually want her to lower herself to make a public statement during a time of grief.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about The Queen is that it is quite moving. Mirren, of course, is sensational, carrying the film with her realistic performance, but Sheen is also impressive as Blair, the man who tried to bridge the gap between the queen and her people.

While others will no doubt be heralded as well come Oscar night, expect Mirren to reign supreme. PG-13 Rating: 4 (Posted 10/27/06)

This Film is Not Yet Rated
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Have you been to a movie recently and wondered to yourself, “Why wasn’t that movie given an ‘R’ rating? The content was so violent/sexy/vulgar that we should have been warned.”

On the other hand, you may have pondered why a movie was rated with a strong warning. “Why did they rate this ‘PG-13’? There was nothing wrong with it and I could have brought my kid.”

Filmmaker Kirby Dick wondered the same things and tried to find out who is making these calls. His cheeky documentary, This Film is Not Yet Rated, takes a look at the Motion Picture Association of America, the body created by the Hollywood film industry to inform audiences about the content of movies.

The people making these decisions are, supposedly, parents. Their identities are closely guarded so (it is assumed) they can’t be influenced. The guidelines that they use to make their decisions are also secret. While the public has only the sketchiest idea of how movies are rated, the panel has specific rules (how many times can the “f” word be used, etc.) that govern their determination.

In an attempt to lift this veil of secrecy, Dick employed private investigator Becky Altringer, her partner Cheryl Howell and daughter Lindsey. The staked out the MPAA headquarters in Encino, California and watched as cars arrived and departed their review screenings.

Dick managed to expose all of the panel members, some of which were not parents or whose children were long grown.

Adding to the sneaky fun, Dick interviews incredulous and irritated MPAA officials and attorneys, and none of them could give any insight into how movies are rated. He also interpolates talking head interviews with filmmakers like Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), Atom Egoyan (Where the Truth Lies), Kevin Smith (Clerks), Matt Stone (Team America: World Police) and John Waters (Hairspary), to name a few.

The overriding revelation seems to be that the MPAA sees violence as acceptable and sex as taboo. It’s okay to show someone being eviscerated with a chainsaw and still get an R rating, while a glimpse of pubic hair will likely result in the NC-17, adults-only designation.

But other MPAA inanities are discussed, such as the lack of a fair and ethical appeal process. Amusingly, Dick finds that his documentary was saddled with a NC-17 rating by the board…so he appeals. He chronicles this exhausting and goofy process that never gives him any adequate explanation.

While it may not have any success in changing a well-entrenched bureaucracy, This Film is Not Yet Rated is a funny and irreverent exposé. (While Dick surrendered the rating and is allowing it to be distributed without one, it initially received the NC-17 for “graphic sexual content”. The violent scenes might have only generated an R.) Rating: 4 (Posted 10/27/06)

Flags of our fathers
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The Joe Rosenthal was a young Associated Press photographer covering the Pacific Theatre in World War II, when he snapped a photo of a seemingly innocuous scene. The raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima became one of the most famous images in history.

The events surrounding that iconic photo provide the backdrop for Clint Eastwood’s stark and ambitious war film, Flags of Our Fathers. While it serves as a fitting tribute to the many men who sacrificed so much during the battle for Japan’s tiny volcanic island, it is also a stinging criticism of trumped up heroism and the way that war is sold to the public.

Based upon the 2000 bestseller by James Bradley and Ron Powers, Flags of Our Fathers focuses on three men who were among those captured in Rosenthal’s photo and how they were exploited for their propaganda value.

Eastwood and screenwriters William Broyles, Jr. (Jarhead) and Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby) have structured their film as two intersecting storylines that jump back and forth in time. One follows the fateful invasion of Iwo Jima and the ensuing battle that became the bloodiest of the war. On February 19, 1945, American forces invaded Iwo Jima with 30,000 troops to take on 20,000 well-entrenched Japanese soldiers situated in fortified bunkers and a maze of caves. On that first day, 2,000 Americans were killed.

Five days into the battle, six Marines raised a small flag at the top of Mount Suribachi. When a Navy bigwig decided that he wanted the flag, Colonel Chandler Johnson sent some men to take down the first flag and replace it with another, larger flag. This is the raising that Rosenthal captured.

Of the men who raised the second flag, three survived the battle. The three were John “Doc” Bradley, a Navy Corpsman (Ryan Phillippe), Marine Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) and a Marine runner who saw no combat, Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford).

The second storyline follows these three who were quickly pulled from the island and sent back to the States where they became the poster boys for a war bond drive. The government, seriously strapped for cash to fund the war, desperately needed some heroes that could rally the populace. Bradley, Hayes and Gagnon filled the bill.

While Gagnon embraced the fame and enthusiastically took on the role of trumped up hero, Bradley and Hayes suffered enormous pangs of guilt. Why, they thought, should they get the credit while their comrades fought and died back in the battle? While Bradley reluctantly did his part, Hayes became increasingly troubled. He turned to alcohol, and his story was a tragic one. (Hayes’ life was the subject of the 1961 film, The Outsider, that starred Tony Curtis.)

Eastwood stages some realistic and frightening battle sequences and the idyllic scenes from the home front provide a stark contrast. This is a poised and confident film that marks yet another triumph for a filmmaker who continues to grow and improve at age 76.

Sober and intellectually sound, Flags of Our Fathers is both a respectful tribute to real heroes and an introspective critique of war. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 10/20/06)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Back in 1941, Mary O’Hara penned a beloved kids book about a young boy and his horse. My Friend Flicka became a hit movie starring Roddy McDowall in 1943 and was a popular TV series in the 1950s.

With eyes squarely on the preteen girl demographic, the makers of Flicka have updated the story for the new century, engaged in a gender change, and reworked the story into a familiar tale of teen angst and family conflict.

Alison Lohman (Where the Truth Lies) stars as Katy McLaughlin, a 16-year-old who just returned home to the family’s Wyoming quarter horse ranch after failing to complete an essay at an exclusive boarding school.

While her parents have worked hard to make sure she gets a first class education, Katy is far more interested in being a horsewoman and running the ranch. It’s probably a good thing she wants to live there, because her brother Howard (newcomer Ryan Kwanten) wants to take a college scholarship and fly the nest.

But dear old dad, Rob (country singing star Tim McGraw who was impressive in his film debut, Friday Night Lights), can’t quite wrap his brain around the situation. He’s distracted and distant from his kids because he’s struggling financially and trying to keep the ranch afloat.

Katy’s mom, Nell (Maria Bello from A History of Violence) is doing her best to be the peacemaker. These are all good people who we know will ultimately work out their differences.

The manure hits the windmill when Katy befriends a beautiful wild mustang roaming on her family’s ranch in rural Wyoming. Naturally, Rob demands that his daughter leave this dangerous animal alone. Of course, the rebellious teenager has other plans.

She names the filly Flicka and begins an attempt to tame her. When Rob sells Flicka to a rodeo for bronco busting, Katy concocts a plan to rescue her beloved pet.

Lohman is a gifted actress who brings conviction to the role, even though the script is riddled with clichés. Thanks to her effort and those of Bello and McGraw, the characters overcome their cardboard origins and emerge as a truly likable family.

The work of director Michael Mayer (A Home at the End of the World) and screenwriters Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner (Mona Lisa Smile) is competent, if uninspired. But they manage to concoct a likable, old-fashioned family flick from the remnants of O’Hara’s story.

Flicka won’t win any blue ribbons, but she’s a fair little filly. (PG) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 10/20/06)

Marie Antionette
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

After her impressive 1999 directorial debut with The Virgin Suicides and her acclaimed sophomore effort Lost in Translation (which garnered her a screenwriting Oscar), it would be easy to get excited about Sophia Coppola’s latest effort.

But while it is hardly a disaster, Marie Antoinette is a major disappointment. It is lovely to look at and has a wistful ambience, but this portrait of the infamous 18th century monarch is also utterly passionless and dramatically inert.

Coppola reunites with her The Virgin Suicides star, Kirsten Dunst, and she is well suited to play the youthful French Queen who presided over the court at Versailles oblivious to the revolution that was taking place around her.

The sumptuous production begins as the 14-year-old Archduchess of Austria is married off to Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman from Shopgirl), the French Dauphin. Utterly naïve but willing to marry the heir to the French throne, Marie was a teenager who was more interested in fashion and fun than power and politics.

To her dismay, Louis XVI is seemingly uninterested in sex. Her main function is to produce an heir, and Louis can’t consummate the marriage. Unlike his randy father, Louis XV (Rip Torn from Zoom) who is carrying on with his prostitute-turned-mistress Madame Du Barry (Asia Argento from Land of the Dead), Louis XVI is rumored to be more interested in the stable boys.

The movie spends a great deal of time waiting. We wait for Louis to get in the mood, we wait for an heir to be born, and we wait to see if Marie will decide to have a fling with a handsome Swedish soldier.

While we’re waiting, we watch Marie and her entourage enjoy the good life at Versailles, engaging in opulent parties, eating extravagant gourmet meals and donning lavish fashions. (Designer Milena Canonero’s eye-popping costumes will likely receive award consideration.)

Coppola’s screenplay is loosely based on Lady Antonia Fraser’s book, The Journey, and she decides against contrasting the conspicuous consumption at Versailles with the raging poverty that Marie Antoinette’s subjects endure in the surrounding countryside. This is Marie’s story, not theirs.

Probably the most controversial aspect of the film is its use of pop music. While the movie includes work by Vivaldi, groups like New Order, Souxsie and the Banshees, Bow Wow Wow, The Strokes, Adam and the Ants and The Radio Dept. provide the soundtrack for Marie’s life. The energy of these songs adds a welcome boost to the story’s lethargic pace.

A curious biopic, Marie Antoinette is strangely reminiscent of another, better movie about a naïve teenager: Clueless. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 10/20/06)

Man of the Year
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

You’ve got to hand it to Robin Williams. The man can wring a laugh out of just about anything with his patented, off-the-wall shtick.

For his standup routines, he uses contemporary pop culture subject matter, adds some improvisational flourishes, throws in a touch of irony and aims it at the audience at the speed of machine gun bursts.

So far, none of his films has captured his manic, onstage presence. This latest feature, Man of the Year, tries, but is only fitfully effective.

Williams seems well-suited to play late night talk show comic Tom Dobbs who, because of his pointed and straight-shooting political humor, is drafted to become a third party candidate for president. (Are you listening John Stewart?)

On his show and on the campaign trail, Tom does standup routines in lieu of policy speeches. (“I did not have sex with that woman! I wanted to.”) These scenes give Williams the chance to do his thing, pummeling audiences the way he has for over 30 years.

But the rest of Man of the Year gets in the way. Writer/director Barry Levinson (Rain Man) wants to have it both ways. He wants Man of the Year to be a comic satire as well as a stark political thriller. The result is a schizophrenic movie with two identities competing against one another.

Levinson fared much better with his 1997 political comedy, Wag the Dog. With Man of the Year, the uneasy mix of styles sinks an otherwise intriguing premise.

The competing story involves a woman named Eleanor Green (Laura Linney from Kinsey) who works for a Silicon Valley firm that has created electronic voting machines for the presidential election. She knows that there’s a bug in the system that makes it unreliable.

She tries to bring this information to the attention of her superiors, but they refuse to acknowledge the problem because their firm is readying its initial public stock offering. The resulting bad publicity could kill the company.

Because of the glitch, Tom, a huge underdog, is falsely elected. When Eleanor tries to take her knowledge public, a nefarious company bigwig played by Jeff Goldblum (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) goes to extensive underhanded lengths to thwart her efforts.

Nothing in Man of the Year rings true. When the stories of Eleanor and Tom intersect (and an awkward Hollywood romance sets in) all logic goes out the window.

For Williams’ fans that want to see their favorite comic in his standup glory, you’ll have to wait for the next HBO special. PG-13 Rating: 2 (Posted 10/16/06)

Reviewed by Deborah Young

Infamous covers the same subject as Capote, the 2005 film about Truman Capote’s experiences while researching his book In Cold Blood. But the two films certainly don’t tell the same story.

The Capote of last year’s film was all self-centered manipulation, but the Capote of Infamous (played by Toby Jones) is complex. He is by turns manipulative, vulnerable, funny and pathetic.

Infamous first reveals bits of the author’s character through the reminiscences of his friends, most of who happen to be New York society women. They tell of a good listener, a good talker, a person who suffered great disappointment as a child and learned to use humor to cover his pain. And as Capote’s friends talk about him short episodes of his life play out onscreen to dramatize each friend’s description.

After Capote learns of the murders in Holcomb, KS, he talks his friend Nelle Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock) into traveling to Holcomb with him to conduct interviews. His early encounters with the small town’s citizens provide much of the film’s comedy. The townsfolk regard him (a tiny, flamboyantly gay man who talks in a sugary soprano) as an annoying enigma, and Capote obviously suffers culture shock. Everywhere he goes folks call him ma’am, and he can’t get anyone to grant him an interview.

In one amusing scene, Capote goes to the market in search of some exotic cheeses to accompany his and Nelle’s Christmas celebration. Instead of exotic cheeses he finds an entire wall of Velveeta. The sheriff’s wife happens to be there buying cheese, and Capote asks where he can find more cheese. She tells him that this is the only cheese in the store and then asks what he and “Mrs. Kuhpoat” plan to do for Christmas. He mocks her with the remark that if this is the only cheese in the town he and “Mrs. Kuhpoat” might try cyanide.

This kind of wit along with his ability to charm despite his obvious differences with the townsfolk renders this Capote immensely likeable. His childlike penchant for self-deluding fantasy renders him pitiful. And his obvious attraction to and affection for one of the murderers, Perry (skillfully played by Daniel Craig), renders him conflicted.

The strength of Capote lay in the performance of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, but Infamous has the full package: a witty script, a cast of capable characters (including Sigourney Weaver, Sandra Bullock and Jeff Daniels), and a lead actor who has moved past acting. Jones is so believable in this role that he seems to have become the character.

Bottom line: Infamous is anything but a carbon copy of last year’s Capote. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 10/13/06)

The Departed
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When director Martin Scorsese last visited the seedy American underworld in Gangs of New York, his focus was on establishing a historical perspective.

Scorsese now sets his sights on a clash between Boston police and organized crime in the contemporary gangster drama, The Departed. It is both a return to form and a change of pace. Yes, it’s a tough, gritty melodrama, but it is also a tongue-in-cheek entertainment with a pitch-black sense of humor.

An Americanized remake of a 2002 Hong Kong flick called Infernal Affairs, The Departed is a snarling pit bull of a movie. It’s ugly, ferocious and savage, but Scorsese keeps it on his well-controlled leash.

Leonardo DiCaprio (The Aviator) leads an all-star ensemble as Billy Costigan, an undercover policeman working to infiltrate an Irish-American crime ring run by the intimidating Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson in an entertainingly over-the-top performance.).

Billy has few friends that he can count on. He’s so deep undercover that the only people on the Boston police force who know he’s working both sides are his immediate superior, Oliver Queenan, played by Martin Sheen (TV’s The West Wing), and his partner Dignam (Invincible’s Mark Wahlberg).

But Costello has an inside man, too, a hotshot detective on the Boston police force named Colin Sullivan, played by Matt Damon (The Bourne Identity). Costello had been grooming Colin for this role ever since he was a youngster. Colin manages to worm his way onto the unit that’s attempting to bust the Costello gang, becoming the protégé of egotistic Officer Elleby (Alec Baldwin from TV’s 30 Rock).

To further complicate matters, Colin’s girlfriend, Madolyn (Down to the Bone’s Vera Farmiga) is a police psychiatrist who is treating Billy for his understandable stress problems. She winds up as part of an unlikely romantic triangle.

Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven) use the setup as an excuse to wallow in sordid elements, but elevate the material to the level of a relevant examination of the similarities between police and the criminals they pursue.

The cast members, for the most part, push their performances to the edge of camp. But DiCaprio is nothing short of sensational as Billy, realistically conveying the stress of his uneasy position.

Some may complain that The Departed is gratuitously violent and has no moral compass. Whatever your take on that matter is, you’ll have to admit that it’s all been presented by a master. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 10/06/06)

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