reel reviews
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November '06


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

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Reviewed by Russ Simmons

After seeing the first feature film by this writer/director in ten years, you may wonder what he’s been doing all this time.

The filmmaker is Emilio Estevez, the “Brat Pack” actor best known for 1980s fare like The Breakfast Club and Young Guns. With Bobby, he shows that he’s also an accomplished craftsman who knows how to make a good movie.

Bobby is an ensemble film in the vein of the work of the late Robert Altman. It tells the story of a number of people who were present at LA’s Ambassador Hotel on the fateful evening in 1968 when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Estevez manages to create a real sense of zeitgeist as we see several stories unfold simultaneously. An acting company of well-known stars took minimal salaries to participate in Estevez’s vision.

Interpolating newsreel footage with scenes recreated at the Ambassador Hotel (crews were dismantling the aging hotel around them as the actors scrambled to film their scenes), Estevez gives us a sense of Kennedy’s importance at the time as well as telling a story that parallels contemporary events.

In one story, William H. Macy plays the hotel manager who has his hands full getting the place ready for Kennedy’s primary victory acceptance speech. He also has to deal with a racist kitchen manager (Christian Slater), a much younger girlfriend (Heather Graham) and his suspicious wife (Sharon Stone).

Another story involves a young girl (Lindsay Lohan) who has agreed to marry one of her friends (Elijah Wood) so that he can avoid the draft. As she tells him, “If marrying you tonight keeps you from going to Vietnam, then it's worth it.”

Yet another tale involves a shallow socialite (Helen Hunt) and her understanding husband (Martin Sheen). They’re attending the victory party, along with the hotel’s retired doormen (Harry Belafonte and Anthony Hopkins). Kennedy is to be introduced by a singer (Demi Moore) who is battling the bottle as well as her husband (Estevez).

Nick Cannon, Shia La Beouf and Joshua Jackson are among the Kennedy campaign workers, and their story is told alongside that of the kitchen staff (Laurence Fishburne, Freddie Rodriguez) and the local drug dealer (Ashton Kutcher).

All of the stories come together as the tragic events of the evening unfold.

It reportedly took Estevez over seven years to get the project off the ground. While this patchwork quilt of a movie isn’t quite as successful as most of Altman’s work, it succeeds in its own modest way to tell some vivid stories while honoring the memory of a beloved statesman. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 11/22/06)

The Fountain
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Writer/director Darren Aronofsky knows how to take viewers inside his characters’ heads.

With Pi, his 1998 psychological thriller, he takes viewers inside the head of a mathematician obsessed with using math to find order in the world. Aronofsky keeps viewers in that character’s head with stylized camera techniques. He shot everything from the character’s perspective and employed lots of eerie close-ups, sometimes focusing on a single eye or a hand with pills in it.

With his 2000 drug film, Requiem for a Dream, he got so deep inside the heads of his drug-addled characters that I found it impossible to watch the film to the end.

It’s a human tendency to make judgments while watching a scene play out, even at the movies. But it’s hard to get a multidimensional read on what’s really going on when you only have one character’s perspective. It’s hard to know where the character’s delusions end and where reality begins.

Aronofsky’s single-perspective technique forces audiences to puzzle over life issues with the character, to become participants rather than mere observers. Add to that a penchant for heady tales of obsession and quests for meaning, and this filmmaker could end up with a brilliant film or an overwrought mess of dime-store theory and laughable visuals.

The Fountain straddles the fence. It exhibits a potential brilliance but at times the filmmaker’s execution of the story makes the images on screen unintentionally funny.

This film begins with a biblical quote from Genesis about God expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden to keep them from eating of the tree of life and living forever. Then, we’re transported to 16th-Century Spain where Queen Isabel (Rachel Weisz) charges Tomas (Hugh Jackman) with finding the tree of life, the secret to immortality. If he finds it she will become his queen.

From this point forward we’re warping back and forth between the 16th Century and a distant future. In that distant future Tomas has become Tom Creo, a scientist working feverishly to find a cure for cancer, before it kills his wife, Izzi (Rachel Weisz).

The love story of Tom and his wife takes a small role in this film. The big story is Tom’s obsession with finding the secret to immortality. We’re mostly inside Tom’s head. The dialogue is spare. And Aronofsky often takes us outside any known timeframe and into a timeless space.

Aronofsky transports us back and forth through time and uses close-ups (of the fine hairs on the back of Izzi’s neck, for instance) and odd visuals (such as a bald Tom floating in a starry sky) to illustrate the depth of Tom’s passion or the tranquility that he sometimes grasps but can’t seem to hold onto.

The Fountain has some interesting (though not new) ideas about immortality and how to hold onto life. But it’s too repetitious, too ethereal and too preachy. Aronofsky clubs us over the head with the idea that you must die to live.

Still, Aronofsky’s blunders don’t destroy the film. The Fountain manages to be both interesting and thought provoking, although it’s incomprehensible at times. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 11/22/06)

For Your Consideration
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

It’s hard to imagine another filmmaker having as much fun at what he does than Christopher Guest.

Along with co-star/co-writer Eugene Levy and a gifted repertory ensemble of comic actors, Guest has been making some truly memorable satires over the last several years. Among them are Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind.

His latest effort takes a well-timed bite the hand that feeds him. For Your Consideration skewers Hollywood and that elusive and illusory phenomenon called “Oscar Buzz”.

Catherine O’Hara leads the sizable cast as an aging actress named Marilyn Hack (you gotta love that name), who is working on a small-budget project called “Home for Purim.”

Directed by Jay Berman (Guest), Home for Purim tells the story of a small town Jewish family set in the 1940s. This is the type of film destined for a week’s run at the local art house and then to gather dust on the shelf at the video store.

But something odd happens on the set. Because of a series of miscommunications, a rumor begins to circulate on the Internet. Ms. Hack, it seems, may be receiving an Oscar nomination for her role in “Home for Purim.”

At first, Marilyn feigns disinterest. She ultimately cannot deny her desire for the golden statue and the prestige it offers. But the rumors begin to snowball and other members of the cast seem to be under consideration as well. This leads to petty squabbles, jealousy and resentment on the set.

It also leads to publicity. An Entertainment Tonight-style TV show picks up on the buzz and things get turned upside down on the little movie’s back-lot stages.

Guest’s regular ensemble members are present and accounted for. Harry Shearer plays a Shakespearian actor, best known as a wiener on a TV commercial, and Levy is his clueless agent. Parker Posey plays a petulant star, Michael McKean is the frustrated screenwriter and Ed Begley, Jr. is a foppish makeup artist.

Most memorable are Jane Lynch and Fred Willard as fatuous TV hosts who ask inane, rhetorical questions and Jennifer Coolidge as an intellectually challenged producer. (When asked what a producer’s role is, she replies, “To pay for a lot of stupid things…like snacks.)

For Your Consideration holds the Hollywood scene up to some well-deserved ridicule. While it isn’t among Guest’s best work, it is also an affectionate spoof that has a few surprising moments of heart.

And O’Hara is terrific. Yes, she deserves serious Oscar consideration. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 11/22/06)

Deja Vu
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Time-travel movies always face the Terminator conundrum, a simple problem that requires that we not examine the story too closely.

If the cyborg travels back in time to fulfill his mission, why doesn’t the opposing robot simply go back five minutes earlier and kill him as he arrives? This thorny dilemma can be applied to just about any similar storyline.

The new sci-fi thriller, Déjà Vu tries to nip this complication in the bud with a technological glitch that limits the frame of time in which one can travel. Still, that restriction invites logical entanglements of its own.

For one to enjoy this new thriller from director Tony Scott and star Denzel Washington, you just have to let it go. If you can do that, then you might have some fun with this well-produced popcorn flick.

Washington stars as Doug Carlin, an unusually smart and gifted agent with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Things get very difficult for him after he’s called to investigate a terrorist act in the port of New Orleans.

Someone has bombed a ferryboat killing hundreds of soldiers and civilians. Doug starts looking for clues when an FBI agent named Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer from Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang) approaches him for help.

After initially trying to pick his brain without filling him in on what’s really going on, Pryzwarra and his task force finally admit what’s going on. By manipulating satellite technology and quantum wormholes, their scientists have accidentally created a portal that allows them to watch (and ultimately travel to) the world as it existed exactly four days ago. They’re limited to four days…no more no less.

Through this portal, Doug observes the killer, a nutball played by Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ), and one of the victims he killed prior to the bombing, a pretty young woman named Claire, played by Paula Patton (Idlewild). Doug falls for her and insists on traveling back in time to try and save her.

Scott, who previously teamed up with Washington on the gritty thriller, Man on Fire, has a penchant for showy camera work, and Déjà Vu is no exception. We’re in for some dizzying visuals, which, for the most part, serve the script by Tony Rossio and Bill Marsilii fairly well. The initial ferry bombing sequence is extremely well shot.

The movie can’t connect emotionally, so one’s enjoyment of Déjà Vu will largely depend upon whether or not you’re willing to accept some huge leaps of logic. Otherwise, it will seem like you’ve seen it all before. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 11/22/06)

Casino Royale
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

British actor Daniel Craig is blonde…er, Bond, James Bond.

The fair-haired star of movies like Layer Cake and The Road to Perdition takes his place alongside a notable handful of men who have played the super spy, and Craig is more than up to the challenge. The gifted leading man may be the best Bond since Sean Connery.

The franchise has gone full circle, going back to Ian Fleming’s original 1953 novel Casino Royale for Bond’s latest cinematic adventure. Although the setting is contemporary, the movie’s story takes place as if none of the other Bond films ever existed.

The script by Neil Purvis/Robert Wade (Goldeneye) and Paul Haggis (Crash) takes a far more realistic approach than what we’ve become accustomed to. Gone are the over-the-top electronic gadgets, the tongue-in-cheek humor, the standard special effects and the super villains out to rule the world.

Here, we meet a conflicted and considerably darker Bond as he receives his double-O status for the first time. An early sequence shows him executing a couple of officially sanctioned hits in order to earn his license to kill.

The bad guy is a creepy arms dealer/financier named Le Chiffre, played ominously by Mads Mikkelsen (King Arthur). A sinister bloke who weeps blood from his left eye, Le Chiffre helps terrorists, insurgents and other troublemakers move their money around. He’s had some financial setbacks however, and goes gambling with his clients’ cash.

The Bond girl in this installment is a fellow British agent named Vesper Lynd, played by Eva Green (Kingdom of Heaven). While she initially finds Bond gruff and reckless, she eventually succumbs to his considerable charms.

Director Martin Campbell (The Mask of Zorro) has mounted some terrific action set pieces, including an extensive foot chase at an African construction site, a bomb scare at the Miami airport and the destruction of a historic building in Venice. He lets his stuntmen carry the day rather than the special effects crew. His only error is letting the whole enterprise go on too long. At over two hours and twenty minutes, Casino Royale will make you regret buying that large soda at the concession stand

Thankfully, the screenplay is crisp. Haggis, brought in as a script doctor, has added some tasty dialogue between Bond and Lynd that helps to establish their characters as well as build some sexual tension.
But best of all is Craig. While he won’t make anyone forget Connery, his is an arresting and credible Bond.

The franchise is in good hands. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 11/17/06)

Happy Feet
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Ever wonder what would happen if you combined Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with March of the Penguins? Probably not, but if you did, you’d probably concoct something similar to Happy Feet.

Directed by Australian filmmaker George Miller, who made the Mad Max movies as well as the family favorite, Babe, Happy Feet is an entertaining if markedly flawed computer animated adventure.

Like Rudolph, Happy Feet tells the story of a misfit who must prove that he is still worthy even though he can’t conform to the “norm” that society demands of him.

Elijah Wood (The Lord of the Rings) provides the voice of Mumbles, an Emperor penguin living in the Antarctic who can’t find his “heart song”, the melodic voice necessary to procure a mate. In fact, poor Mumbles can’t even carry a tune.

But boy can this little fellow can tap dance! Sadly, this talent only alienates him from his parents (Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman) and most of the rest of the penguin population. Some of the elders believe that he’s brought a curse upon them, diminishing the fish population they depend upon.

Mumbles then embarks upon a long journey across the icy wastelands to find his voice and see if he can find out why the fish population is dwindling.

Naturally, this is all set to music. A number of classic pop, R&B and easy listening tunes are interpolated into the toe-tapping action.

Robin Williams (RV) shines in multiple vocal roles, including Lovelace, a Barry White-type penguin crooner who is seen as an oracle, and Ramon, a tiny Hispanic penguin Mumbles befriends. Brittany Murphy (Sin City) demonstrates some impressive singing chops as Mumbles girlfriend Gloria.

Visually, the film is dazzling. The animation is flawless and Miller’s camera movement helps to invigorate the movie and overcome the shortcomings of a very poorly written screenplay. An artfully mounted sequence features Mumbles and some friends using the icy Antarctic mountains as toboggan slopes. (These scenes should play well when the film is shown in its IMAX incarnation.)

The lighthearted atmosphere changes dramatically when the well meaning but exceedingly heavy-handed environmental message is delivered. This lengthy side trip will cause kids to squirm and nearly sinks the movie, but Miller somehow manages to pull us back in.

Aside from this sequence (and a couple of frightening ones as Mumbles’ life is threatened by a tiger seal and some hungry killer whales), Happy Feet is an entertaining lark for the small fry.

And, don’t try to fight it. Your toes will be tapping. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 11/17/06)

Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Back in 2003, Natalie Maines, the lead singer for the phenomenally successful country girl group The Dixie Chicks, made an off-the-cuff comment to her audience during a British concert. A single sentence forever changed her life and the lives of the other members of the group.

As America was preparing to invade Iraq, Maines said, “We’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

Those words were enough to cause a firestorm of controversy that not only threatened their careers, but their very lives.

The new documentary, The Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing is an intelligent, enlightening and thought-provoking film that is as much about the consequences of speaking one’s mind, as it is the freedom to do so.

Directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Koppel (Harlan County, USA) and newcomer Cecilia Peck (daughter of Gregory), Shut Up & Sing is a striking cautionary tale that shines some light on America during the Bush administration.

Before the flap, The Dixie Chicks ruled country radio. Not only were they the most successful country girl group, they had sold more records than any girl group in history. When Maines made her infamous quip, the trio (which also includes sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire) had the number one record. It quickly plummeted off the charts in a backlash of red-state rage.

Conservative pundits like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity condemned them, radio stations stopped playing their records and political groups organized protests where Dixie Chicks records and posters were smashed and burned.

The filmmakers were given a remarkable amount of access, allowing them to be a fly on the wall as the three women, their manager and family members weighed in on the controversy. Maines, in particular, demonstrates a willingness to be completely open as she confronts the loss of sponsors, concert dates and death threats.

The movie also has some surprisingly moving moments as it touches on the trio’s soul searching as they reexamine their place in music with unwavering unanimity. They steadfastly believe that they’ve done nothing wrong.

Some fans may be surprised to hear the expletive-laden language these chicks employ. Their vocabulary seems a bit foreign coming from the mouths of America’s former sweethearts.

But the film’s greatest strength lies in it’s editing. The film is pieced together in a manner that keeps everything in sharp perspective and adds a pleasing pace and momentum that is often missing from documentaries.

If nothing else, The Dixie Chicks-Shut Up & Sing shows these three women to be tough birds, indeed. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 11/17/06)

Al Franken: God Spoke
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When making the 1993 documentary The War Room, filmmakers Christ Hegedus and C.A. Pennebaker got unprecedented access to the inner workings of the Bill Clinton presidential campaign. As we learned, “It’s the economy, stupid”.

Hegedus, with Nick Doob (The First Amendment Project) as co-director and Pennebaker as producer, has turned his camera on another contemporary political figure, comedian Al Franken. The former Saturday Night Live star has, in recent years, emerged as a notable liberal pundit.

The film focuses on his efforts to take his message to the radio airwaves through a risky venture called Air America. It also touches on his literary work, including bestsellers like Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.

In addition, this exercise in cinema-verite, fly-on-the-wall filmmaking follows him as he battles famously with Fox News commentator, Bill O’Reilly and the lawsuit brought against Franken when O’Reilly accused him of defamation.

Among the celebrities Franken chats with are Al Gore, Ann Coulter, Robert Kennedy, Jr., Michael Moore, Sean Hannity, William Safire, Karen Hughes and Henry Kissinger…to name a few.

Franken’s friendship with the late Minnesota U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone comes through as a major factor in his political motivations. When the Democratic Party held a memorial service after his death, the Republicans attacked them for exploiting his memory and turning it into a political rally. Franken saw the Republican attack as below contempt.

At the movie ends, Air America is struggling and Franken is seriously considering a run for Wellstone’s senate seat.

This is very entertaining territory, of course, and Franken is a genuinely funny man. He also has an innate ability to immediately detect obfuscation and never hesitates to challenge the politicos he encounters.

The film succeeds as a snapshot of its subject. Franken, warts and all, comes off as someone who genuinely feels that he has a mission. As he’s stated, “I take what they say and use it against them. What I do is jujitsu. They say something stupid, and I subject them to scorn and ridicule. That’s my job.”

But the movie meanders and is so lacking in focus that it undermines the interesting aspects of Franken’s journey. This aimlessness is a major flaw that often makes the whole enterprise comes off more as a series of outtakes than a coherent documentary.

But it has Franken in his irritating and irascible glory. That’s enough to make this sketchy documentary worth a look. (No MPAA rating) Rating: 3 (Posted 11/10/06)

Stranger Than Fiction
Reviewed by Deborah Young

It’s a commonly held notion that a clown’s comic antics usually hide a tragic persona. Whether that’s true or not, watching a comic actor play a tragic role can be engrossing. Doubters need look no further than Punch-Drunk Love, in which Adam Sandler plays a seriously angry version of his typical petulant man-child character.

In similar fashion, Stranger than Fiction puts Will Ferrell in a role that flips his usual screen persona. Ferrell usually plays frustrated underdogs who are in turns depressive and manic. These underdogs’ struggles produce a wacky brand of comedy.

But here, Ferrell plays it rather straight as Harold Crick, a regimented tax collector. Crick hates his job and has no personal life. He’s not a man prone to wacky behavior, and the only funny thing about him is that he’s so strange in his obsessions with structure, time and counting everything in sight.

Every morning Harold wakes up at the same time. He brushes each tooth a certain number of times and counts the brush strokes. He also counts the steps from his spare apartment to the bus stop.

Harold lives alone. He spends his evenings alone, and his only friend is a co-worker, who Crick sometimes talks to at work.

Harold’s life begins to change when he starts hearing a woman’s voice narrating his life, speaking his thoughts and anticipating his actions. At first, it’s an unwelcome distraction. He seeks the advice of a shrink and later, the counsel of literature professor Jules Hilbert (played by Dustin Hoffman). Eventually, he gets used to the narrator’s voice and starts to ignore it, until the day that the narrator predicts his “imminent death.”

At that point, Harold begins to brainstorm with the literature professor about how to stay alive. But even during the crisis Harold remains bland and resigned most of the time.

That’s the biggest problem with this movie: Harold is too bland. He’s definitely an interesting character. He’s quirky but benign, caring but socially inept. His (and the movie’s) fatal flaw is that he lacks a sense of urgency. Also, the movie moves much too slowly, unveiling Harold’s character and the plot at a pace that would frustrate a snail.

Then there’s the unfortunate specter of author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) who has the disgusting habit of spitting into tissues and then extinguishing her cigarettes in them. Her quirkiness does absolutely nothing to move the film forward. She seems merely a product of the screenwriter’s overindulgence.

Stranger than Fiction has an extremely inventive premise and is at times organically funny. It also dramatizes an interesting argument about the relation of comedy to tragedy as Crick tries to figure out if his story is comic or tragic. But ultimately, the movie’s pacing makes it a snoozer at least a third of its 113-minute runtime. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 11/10/06)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

With their previous efforts Amores Perros and 21 Grams, director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga used a fractured narrative structure and nonlinear storytelling technique. Through flashbacks and flash-forwards, several stories were artfully weaved into a single tapestry.

Babel has been touted as the final installment of this trilogy. It employs the same time-bending techniques to tell a story of miscommunication and its tragic effects.

One story thread involves Brad Pitt (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) and Cate Blanchett (The Aviator) who play a troubled married couple who travel to Morocco in an attempt to salvage their crumbling marriage. She is mysteriously shot and gravely wounded while riding on a tourist bus in the remote desert.

A second story focuses on a Moroccan peasant who buys a rifle to shoot jackals that threaten his herd of goats. He gives the gun to his young sons who are in charge of watching over the animals. One of the boys decides to randomly shoot at passing cars and busses. He doesn’t think that the bullets will reach far enough to hit the vehicles.

A third story deals with the children of Pitt and Blanchett who are staying with their Mexican nanny back in San Diego. Since their parents are delayed in Morocco, she decides to take the kids to Mexico for her son’s wedding ceremony. There, the action of her wayward nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal from The Science of Sleep) complicates things considerably.

The fourth narrative thread involves a disturbed deaf-mute Japanese teenager. Tragic events have led her to make awkward sexual advances at adult men.

Iñárritu skillfully blends these stories, turning them into something of a mystery of miscommunication. By extension, it can also be seen as a canny cry for gun control.

These tales of unrelenting suffering are excruciatingly grim. While three of the stories manage to blend well, the fourth tale (that of the Japanese teen) has a tenuous relationship to the others. Making the connection between them is a big stretch.

One of the biggest problems with Babel is its length. It has many scenes that linger far too long, padding the movie out to an uncomfortable two hours and twenty-two minutes. These stories are already hard to watch, making them seem lengthier than they actually are. Clearly, Iñárritu has become too enamored with his carefully staged scenes and didn’t want any of them on the editing room floor.

Well acted and intelligent, Babel is also an unyielding test of endurance. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 11/10/06)

A Good Year
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In a flashback scene from the new romantic comedy, A Good Year, one character talks about the key to comedy…timing!

Ironically, this is exactly where the movie falters. It takes a deft touch to pull off this kind of fluff and clearly director Ridley Scott (Gladiator) doesn’t quite have a handle on it.

Russell Crowe (Cinderella Man) plays Max Skinner, a self-absorbed, egotistical banker who isn’t above unethical, even illegal behavior if he can gain a few bucks. In the film’s opening scenes, he’s seen manipulating the London bond market and making a big profit for his company.

While gloating over this success, Max gets word that his Uncle Henry (Albert Finney from Big Fish) has passed away and that Max has inherited a small French vineyard. Max, however, was estranged from his uncle and hadn’t spoken to him in over ten years.

Things were quite different during his childhood, however. Uncle Henry raised the young Max (Freddie Highmore from Finding Neverland) after the death of his parents. A bon vivant who never married but had many liaisons, Henry was obviously a big influence on the youngster.

While the storm clouds hover over him and his bond maneuvers, Max takes a holiday and travels to France to see about unloading the vineyard and making a tidy profit. While there, the memories of his childhood come flooding back and Max begins to wonder if he’s missed something along the way.

His efforts to sell the estate are complicated by the arrival of a pretty young American girl named Christie Roberts, played by Abbie Cornish (Somersault). She claims to be Uncle Henry’s illegitimate daughter and had arrived there in an attempt to meet the father she never knew.

But Christie isn’t the only problem Max has encountered in France. He also becomes enamored with a stunning French beauty named Fanny (Marion Cotillard from Big Fish), a worker at a local restaurant.

One’s reaction to this kind of slight fare will probably depend less upon one’s feelings about romantic comedy than about one’s feelings about Russell Crowe. He is in virtually every scene and is called upon to carry this enterprise on his charismatic shoulders. The problem for him is, he’s playing a world class jerk.

Marc Klein’s script is based upon a book by Scott’s old pal, Peter Mayle. (Both have property in Provence.) The filmmaker paces the movie like he’s taking a leisurely vacation…and that’s likely the case.

While nothing rings true in this movie bon bon, it’s a visually appealing travelogue disguised as a tepid romance. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 11/10/06)

Harsh Times
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Screenwriter David Ayer has had commercial success with the goofy action flick, The Fast and the Furious. He’s also responsible for the screenplay for Training Day, the gritty crime drama that won Denzel Washington an Oscar.

His directorial debut, Harsh Times, is set on the same mean streets of LA as those earlier flicks and, like Training Day, provides a flashy role for its lead actor. Unlike his previous movies, however, it is an annoying and painful experience.

Covering much of the same thematic territory as Training Day, Harsh Times focuses on a strong-willed psycho who manipulates a submissive friend. Sadly, it’s never as compelling or clever.

Christian Bale (The Prestige) plays Jim Davis, a veteran of the Iraq war who suffers from an extreme form of post-traumatic stress syndrome. His dreams are filled with violent images of battle sequences where he apparently slaughtered countless combatants.

His fondest dream is to become a member of the LA police force and to bring his fiancée, a young Mexican woman, home with him. But Jim’s a dangerous psychotic whose violent temper occasionally flares at inopportune moments. Plus, he has a habit of dabbling in drugs, booze and petty crime.

He’s devastated when he learns that his application has been rejected. He leans on his old pal Mike Alonzo (Freddie Rodriguez from Poseidon), who is also unemployed. They go out partying while Mike’s lawyer wife, Sylvia (Desperate Housewives’ Eva Longoria) thinks they’re job hunting.

Jim uses his strong personality to control the pliant Mike, continually getting them into one scrape after another. The movie consists mainly of a series of drug-fueled misadventures that further inflames Jim’s psychosis.

But things take a turn when Homeland Security comes calling. Yes, they know that Jim is a loose cannon and that he failed his lie detector and drug tests, but they need a Spanish-speaking agent who is willing to blow people away in Columbia. If he’s willing to pull the trigger, they’re willing to overlook his shortcomings.

Now Jim has to decide whether to stick with his fiancée or take the gig in Columbia. What’s a sociopath to do?

Ayres’ rapid-fire, street slang dialogue may occasionally be a bit hard to decipher, but the actors deliver the lines credibly. His pacing, however, is all over the place. Plus the action is nearly unbearable, jerking awkwardly from scene to scene.

Bale gives a powerful if occasionally overwrought performance, one that is nearly too much for the screen. His work is the main attraction here, but it’s not enough to justify seeing this unrelentingly grim and pointless exercise. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 11/10/06)

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In recent years, Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou has been known for martial arts action adventures like Hero and House of Flying Daggers. He has helped to elevate this popular popcorn genre to a higher artistic level.

But Zhang is also known for quiet, sentimental works like The Road Home and Not One Less. These small but significant films were simple but profoundly moving.

His latest effort, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is a return to the less flashy style of those earlier films. But this uncomplicated story of a man’s effort to make amends with his estranged son is every bit as powerful.

The film’s star is veteran Japanese actor Ken Takakura (Black Rain), who is best known for his tough guy roles in Yakuza (gangster) films. He’s often cited as the “Japanese Clint Eastwood.”

The 75-year-old Takakura plays Gou-ichi Takata, an elderly fisherman who is alienated from his only son, with whom he hasn’t spoken in years.

Takata’s daughter-in-law Rie (Shinobu Terajima) makes contact with him, informing him that his son Ken-ici is suffering from a serious bout with cancer. She asks him to visit, but when he arrives at the hospital, Ken-ici refuses to see his father.

In an effort to mend fences between the two, Rie gives Takata a videotape to watch. It features his son on one of his many trips to China to film folk opera performances for Japanese television. On this particular tape, Ken-ici attempts to capture a renowned singer named Mr. Li in a famed opera, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.

Since Mr. Li had a cold that day, Ken-ici was unable to film the performance. He, however, vows to return and film another day.

Takata takes it upon himself to travel to China in his son’s place to film Mr. Li. The journey he embarks upon is far more difficult and complicated than he’d ever imagined.

Takata encounters one bureaucratic and logistic obstacle after another, hardships that would have forced most people to give up. But his will is unbendable and he preservers in a valiant attempt to fulfill his son’s dream.

This stunningly photographed road movie transports us into a world that most of us would never otherwise be able to visit. We’re taken to the desolate countryside and stark mountainous areas that are remarkable in their stark beauty.

But most importantly, Zhang provides us with a story that is universal in its scope, underscoring the importance of family. He does so by artfully manipulating our emotions with a deceptively simple tale.

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is a return to form for Zhang that further cements his position as one of the world’s best filmmakers. (PG) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 11/03/06)

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When Johnny Knoxville heard the news that his movie Jackass 2 was number one at the box office, he asked the pertinent question, “What’s wrong with this country?”

You may wonder the same thing if a new faux documentary finds an audience.

There are perfectly sound reasons to repudiate Sacha Baron Cohen’s new comedy as foul, contemptible and unscrupulous. Plus, it has footage that should have earned it an NC-17 rating. But this R-rated comedy can’t be so easily dismissed.

“Wrong” in every conceivable way, Cohen’s film (based upon a character from his HBO comedy series Da Ali G Show) has some of the funniest and most outrageous footage of the year.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, stars Cohen as a dim-witted Kazak journalist and his efforts to film a TV special for his home country. The victims he interviews are unaware that this politically incorrect reporter is putting them on, so their honest reactions are priceless.

If you thought that the South Park guys went too far with their satirical farce, Team America: World Police or that the Jackass cast exceeded boundaries with their crude stunts, you ain’t seen nothing, yet.

Borat, you see, is misogynistic, racist, crude and utterly backward. If Jethro Bodine from The Beverly Hillbillies had been a crass, over-sexed foreign journalist, he’d look a lot like Borat.

The film opens in Borat’s home country as he begins to film the video journal of his travels. Upon arriving in America with his sidekick, Azmat (rotund character actor Ken Davitian), Borat begins his man-on-the-street interviews. He manages to offend everyone he meets.

Along the way, Borat sees Pamela Anderson in Baywatch and is immediately smitten. He makes it his goal to travel across the country to Hollywood and make her his new mate.

It is amazing that Cohen managed to avoid arrest during his adventures. He asks a gun shop owner what gun is best for killing Jews. He attends a dinner party at the home of Southern socialtes and invites a corpulant prostitute. He crashes an evangelistic prayer meeting and gets “saved.”

Perhaps most outrageous is Borat’s nude wrestling match with Azmat that spills over into a hotel ballroom filled with nattily attired conventioneers.

While the film is sometimes labored and has a sledghammer’s subelty, Borat has moments of razor-sharp satire that cut right to the heart of thinly veiled American prejudices.

While many will find the proceedings to be outrageously low, others will see Borat as completely wrong…in all the right ways. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 11/03/06)

Flushed Away
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The folks at Aardman Studios have staked their claim to dominance in the world of stop-motion animation. The characters Wallace and Gromit have hit box office pay dirt.

Purists may gasp, but for their latest animated flick, Flushed Away, Aardman has abandoned stop-motion in favor of computer-generated imagery. Depending on one’s point of view, this is either an artistic step back or an unfortunate economic necessity…or both.

Happily, though, Flushed Away is a visually arresting and thoroughly amusing feature that is in keeping with the high standards they’ve previously achieved.

Directed by first-timers (but longtime Aardman animators) David Bowers and Sam Fell, Flushed Away looks like other Aardman films that created their three dimensional looking world out of clay.

Hugh Jackman (The Prestige) provides the voice of Roddy, the pet rat belonging to an upscale Kensington family. With the run of the place, Roddy lives a life of luxury. While he doesn’t quite realize it, the only thing that he’s missing is meaningful companionship.

Things get complicated when a scruffy sewer rat intrudes on his domain and flushes Roddy down the loo. There, deep in the London sewer system, our wimpy hero discovers a rat civilization constructed completely of garbage. (The inventive art directors make it look a lot a London streetscape.)

Although his only wish is to return to his affluent home, Roddy soon discovers that things are amiss in the sewers. A rotund amphibian named Toad (Ian McKellan from X-Men) has nefarious plans to destroy the rat community by flooding it during the busy bathroom break during an upcoming soccer final.

Reluctantly, Roddy joins forces with a pretty, no-nonsense rat named Rita, played by Kate Winslet (All the King’s Men). The captain of a sewer tugboat, Rita has her own personal reasons for opposing Toad and his minions.

Other notable voices include Bill Nighy (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest) and Andy Serkis (King Kong) as oafish gangsters and Jean Reno (The Da Vinci Code) as a petulant French amphibian assassin.

Like all good animated films, Flushed Away makes an effort to appeal to the adults as well as the kids. There are plenty of jokes and cultural references that will fly over the youngsters’ heads but will certainly resonate with mom and dad. (How many kids know who Tom Jones is, anyway?)

While some may find it a bit noisy, Flushed Away is a fast-paced and engaging farce that lowers itself to cartoon heights. (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted 11/03/06)

Pearl Diver
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Don’t let the title fool you. Pearl Diver is set about as far from a tropical locale as one can get.

A big winner at this year’s Kansas International Film Festival, Pearl Diver is an austere drama that’s set in the tiny rural Mennonite community of Goshen, Indiana. This low-budget, independent production is slowly making the rounds since it was first screened in 2004.

Joey Honsa plays Hannah, a young woman who left the community to pursue a writing career in the big city. A tragic event from her childhood has left her estranged from her sister, Marian (Amy Jean Johnson), who is still an active Mennonite.

Coincidentally, another tragedy brings them together. Marian’s young daughter is the victim of a farming accident that threatens her life. Hannah travels to Goshen in hopes of being useful.

Back in Goshen, Hannah reunites with some old friends, including an elderly neighbor named Isaac Epp, played with restrained dignity by Yevgeni Lazarev, professor of Moscow Art Theater Studio School and the Theater Academy of Russia. (While his role does not seem immediately pertinent, Isaac holds a key bit of information that will be profoundly important to the sisters.)

Hannah also rekindles a friendship with Isaac’s son Adam (Christopher Collard), a farmer who longs to be a concert pianist. Their relationship has all the underpinnings of a romance, but the filmmakers don’t tip their hand.

It just so happens that Hannah is secretly writing a memoir about the childhood incident that has divided her and Marian. While writing this account of her childhood is a cathartic, therapeutic exercise for Hannah, Marian is distraught and angry when she discovers that her sister wants to publish it.

Writer/director Sidney King is in no hurry to tell his story. In fact, the pacing is so achingly slow that it will undoubtedly turn off many viewers. But he uses the time to create a tangible world that few of us have had the opportunity to visit, and the deliberate tempo also allows the actors to create characters that seem utterly authentic.

King also makes good use of the Indiana countryside. In the flashback sequences that are well integrated into the film, King helps us understand why this place is both so attractive and so alienating for Hannah.

While it utterly lacks the flash that most movies aspire to, Pearl Diver is a movie that has a quality that most films lack: dignity. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted 11/03/06)

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