reel reviews
movie reviews
March '07

REIGN OVER MEPRIDETHE LAST MIMZYSHOOTER
PREMONITIONCLIMATESI THINK I LOVE MY WIFE
THE LIVES OF OTHERS300MISS POTTER GRAY MATTERSBELIEVE IN ME
ZODIACBLACK SNAKE MOANINLAND EMPIRE
HAND OF GODMOJAVE PHONE BOOTH

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Reign Over Me
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The latest film of writer/director Mike Binder takes its title from The Who’s song “Love Reign O’er Me,” the last song in the group’s 1973 rock opera Quadraphenia. Like the song, the movie tells the story of a man in crisis, a man caught in a storm of emotions that could destroy him or leave him stronger for having survived it.

Adam Sandler stars as Charlie Fineman, a former dentist who lost his wife and two daughters during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Since his family’s death Charlie has quit his job, grown his hair long and become a recluse. He spends most of his time in his spare apartment playing video games and obsessively remodeling his kitchen over and over.

One day Charlie’s former college roommate, Alan (Don Cheadle), sees him leaving a paint store. Alan gets Charlie’s attention, but Charlie doesn’t recognize him at first. The two men start hanging out together, and Alan soon discovers that Charlie has changed. In addition to being dazed most of the time, Charlie lives like a child. He aimlessly rides his scooter through the streets at night. He listens to his Walkman through a headset to block out thoughts and words that he’s not willing to face. He also throws tantrums, seemingly without provocation.

None of this stops Alan from befriending Charlie though. The reason for Alan’s loyalty is twofold: He has no other friends, and he feels sorry for Charlie and wants to help him.

It’s easy to empathize with both men and to be moved by their growing bond. It’s also easy to be amused by Charlie’s antics and some of the men’s conversations.

Sandler uses his wacky expressions and his vocal drones and yells to convey vulnerability, rage and a dry sense of humor. His character’s unpredictable, explosive personality combined with Cheadle’s subdued predictability provides the perfect counterpoint for a moving and funny buddy flick.

Reign Over Me is the relatively rare film that encompasses sadness and joy with balanced portions of comedy and drama. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 03/27/07)


Pride
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Do people really need another inspirational sports flick? No, but there’s no doubt that people will always crave these stories of underdog triumphs, particularly when the stories sprout from real life.

Like cinematic predecessors such as Coach Carter and Remember the Titans, this film tells the story of one man who turns a group of unprepared, challenged teens into a winning team. Pride is based on the life of Jim Ellis, who in the early 1970s formed a winning swim team at an inner city community center.

Terrence Howard plays a charming but flawed Ellis. As usual, Howard exudes confidence, dignity and just enough hubris to make his character bearably flawed. Howard flashes the natural smile of his, even when his character goes through rough patches, and his enthusiasm and grace under pressure seems to penetrate the screen.

Near the beginning of Pride a prestigious academy rejects Ellis as a potential teacher. Clearly, Ellis has been rejected because of his ethnicity, which annoys him, but he continues his job search.

At the unemployment office he learns that despite his impressive education, manual labor is the only work available to him. So he takes an assignment to pack up an inner city community center that has lost its government funding.

At the community center, he finds a beautiful pool inside and a group of restless teens outside. He cleans up the pool and then invites the teens to swim there.

Anyone who has seen one of these inspirational sports flicks can guess what happens next. However, the most alluring aspect of Pride is not what happens in it but how it plays out on screen.

The young actors who portray Ellis’ team come across as thoroughly believable. Like the young stars of the classic Cooley High, these young actors convey first directionless energy (foolish exuberance) and later a mature ability to focus on their desires and their futures.

As a result, this film is as uplifting as Cooley High is tragic. It may be clichéd but it will likely satiate many inspiration joneses. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 03/27/07)


The Last Mimzy
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Although the title and advertising make it look like a children’s fantasy, The Last Mimzy is a full-blown science fiction thriller that just happens to be aimed mainly at kids.

Based upon a 1943 short story by Lewis Padgett that was published in Astounding Science Fiction Magazine, the movie is as much a social commentary as it is a time travel mystery. (And in case you were wondering, the connection with Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky is tenuous at best.)

Newcomers Chris O’Neil and Rhiannon Leigh Wryn star as Noah and Emma Wilder, a brother and sister whose lives are in for a big change. Mother Jo (Nip/Tuck’s Joely Richardson) is a bit of a worrywart and dad David (Tim Hutton from The Good Shepherd) has work duties that often keep him at a distance from his family.

One day at the family’s ocean side retreat near Seattle, they stumble upon a mysterious black box. It’s filled with strange, noise-making objects including a stuffed rabbit that Emma dubs Mimzy. As it turns out, Mimzy is a robotic emissary from the future on an important mission to save the planet.

Of course, Noah and Emma keep this all a secret from their parents. But some changes take place that mom and dad can’t help but notice.

Suddenly Noah, a heretofore-struggling student, is imbued with strong intellect. He figures out how to manipulate spiders through the use of sound waves. Emma manipulates some enigmatic rocks from the box and discovers that she can levitate.

A power burst from one of the bizarre objects causes the entire city to go into a blackout, so an official from Homeland Security named Nathanial Broadman (Michael Clarke Duncan from Sin City) tracks the burst to the Wilder family home and brings in an invading force of G-men.

There are a lot of things going on in The Last Mimzy that are never adequately explained but they don’t necessarily detract from the proceedings. While the kids probably won’t understand the implications of the time travel story, the visuals and kid-centric filmmaking should keep them involved.

Bob Shaye (the founder and CEO of New Line Cinema) chose this project as his first directorial effort in 17 years, and he shows a few signs of rustiness in his technique. Still, he manages to make the most of a screenplay that has an awful lot of fingerprints on it.

The Last Mimzy’s charms may be modest, but they’re charms nonetheless. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted 03/23/07)


Shooter
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If you took The Manchurian Candidate and mixed in a heaping helping of Rambo, the resulting movie might look a bit like the new political thriller, Shooter.

Mark Wahlberg (The Departed) stars as Bob Lee Swagger, a former Marine Corps sharpshooter, one of the best snipers to ever hold a rifle. He left the service and has lived like a hermit since he and his best buddy were abandoned as acceptable casualties when a military operation in Africa went bad. His friend died, but Bob Lee managed to escape thanks to his cunning and sharply honed survival skills.

Years later, Colonel Isaac Johnson (Dreamgirls’ Danny Glover) contacts him at his cabin in the mountains. It seems that they’ve uncovered a plot to assassinate the president and they need his expertise to discern whether or not the plan is feasible. If they can get Bob Lee to figure out the logistics, they can thwart the plan.

But that’s only how it seems. He reluctantly agrees to help only to find out too late that Col. Johnson is part of the intricate scheme and that Bob Lee has been set up as the fall guy.

But thanks to the very skills his military training afforded him, he’s able to escape and try to untangle the plot and root out the real bad guys.

The film is loosely based on Stephen Hunter’s popular novel, Point of Impact, whose main character was inspired by legendary real-life Marine Corps sniper, Carlos Hathcock.

Wahlberg is well cast in this tough guy role, ably handling much of the extensive stunt work himself. Other cast members include Kate Mara (Brokeback Mountain) as a woman he gets to help him, Elias Koteas (Zodiac) as a dirty insider and veteran Ned Beatty as a corrupt senator.

But the movie’s lucky charm may be Michael Peña as an FBI agent who ultimately comes to Bob Lee’s aid. Peña has appeared in three straight Best Picture Oscar nominees, Million Dollar Baby, Crash and Babel.

But director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) may have relied on Peña’s luck too much. His movie has the structure of a solid thriller, but it succumbs to its excesses. Not only are the villains far too over-the-top to be credible, but also Bob Lee’s feats of superhuman daring-do are so far-fetched that they may elicit laughs instead of thrills.

Although it is often entertaining, Shooter is a little too exaggerated for its own good. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 03/23/07)


Premonition
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Remember that old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial that features the collision of someone eating peanut butter with someone eating chocolate? One says to the other, “You got chocolate on my peanut butter.” Then comes the response, “You got peanut butter on my chocolate.”

Premonition is a cinematic version of the same type of phenomena. Romance collides with religion and the supernatural in this sometimes baffling, sometimes intriguing film. The Lakehouse meets Final Destination here as Bullock’s character, Linda, senses that her husband Jim (Julian McMahon) is about to die and attempts to prevent his demise.

Every time Linda wakes up, she faces a different set of circumstances. For instance, she lies down next to her husband at night. Shortly after she wakes up the next morning, a police officer informs her that her husband has been killed in a car crash. She then has a meltdown during which friends visit (dressed in black) to acknowledge her grief.

She goes to sleep again. This time she wakes up and her family is intact again. Her husband is alive.

The movie goes back and forth like this for a while with neither Linda nor the audience aware of which set of circumstances represents reality. The lack of clarity draws us in.

A very capable cast also draws us in. It’s easy to empathize with Bullock as she runs around frantically trying to save her husband. McMahon has little to do here, but he plays the role of a confused and concerned husband to the tee. Young actresses Shyann McClure and Courtney Taylor Burness as Megan and Bridgette Hanson also give convincing performances.

This film’s problem is its convoluted story line. The same thing that makes the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup a hit makes this movie a mess. Two great tastes may taste great together, but too many disparate ideas in one film make for audience confusion.

As the closing credits rolled during the screening I attended, more than one voice could be heard saying, “I’m lost.”

Those who try to make sense of this film will be confused. It’s an entertaining flick that just doesn’t make much sense. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 03/16/07)


Climates
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

How many films have you seen that explore human relationship in both the sunny and snowy climes of modern Turkey?

That unfamiliar setting may well be the major draw for viewers of Climates, a sometimes-wrenching drama about a particularly indecisive man’s love life. It certainly can’t be the movie’s slug-like pace that makes it seem like a three-hour flick instead of a one hour and thirty-seven minute one.

Winner of the 2006 Cannes Film Festival’s FIPRESCI (International Film Critics) Prize, Climates is alternately absorbing and frustrating. When it works, it is stunning. During the long, long lulls, it’s excruciating.

Writer/director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Distant) casts himself as Isa, a middle-aged college professor. His girlfriend Bahar (played by real-life wife Ebru Ceylan) is a much younger art director for a Turkish television show. The age difference seems to be weighing on them both.

The opening shows the couple on vacation in a warm southern region of the country, photographing ancient temple ruins for Isa’s class and/or thesis project. His first question to Bahar is, “Are you bored?” She may not have been, but the excessively long shots of her in deep contemplation might make that a better question for the audience.

While lounging on the beach and dining with friends, the couple’s low-key bickering makes it clear that there is trouble in paradise. When Isa announces that it is time for them to break up, Bahar’s response is initially quiescent. She later makes an irrational and dangerous move that demonstrates that she’s taking it much harder than he is.

Months later, the lonely Isa is having second thoughts. He hooks up with an old flame (in a particularly violent encounter that is clearly on the edge of rape), but that rendezvous isn’t satisfying for him.

He then sets out to find Bahar, who is working with her TV production team in a remote, desolate and wintry rural Turkish locale. Once again, his crushing indecisiveness rears its ugly head.

This is clearly a smart, well-constructed and carefully acted piece. The emotional impact that Ceylan is after is severely blunted by the achingly slow pace and his insistence on those long, lingering shots. One can almost hear voices from the theatre yelling, “Okay, come on…get on with it, already!”

What could have been a riveting one-hour drama is, instead, a challenge to the viewer’s patience. In a theatre, you can’t reach for the fast-forward button. (No MPAA rating) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 03/16/07)


I Think I Love My Wife
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Boys will be boys. It’s a common expression in America. Beneath the expression lies the belief that men are simply slaves to their hormones. That brings us to Chris Rock’s latest big-screen effort.

I Think I Love My Wife (a remake of Chloe in the Afternoon) tells the story of a faithful but bored husband (Rock as Richard Cooper). Richard is a successful and respected banker. His wife (Gina Torres as Brenda) teaches for a living, and the couple has two young children (a boy and a girl whom Richard adores).

The problem: Richard and Brenda have settled into a dull routine, both in and out of the bedroom. Their lives consist of tending to the kids, having predictable outings with their married friends, falling asleep with their backs turned to each other, and then getting up in the morning to do it all again.

Enter Nikki Tru (Kerry Washington), an old college friend of Richard’s. She’s beautiful, unattached and a bit wild. She starts showing up at Richard’s office everyday, and Richard starts to neglect his home and family to follow her around.

“Will Richard abandon his stable life for this fantasy woman?” That’s obviously the mystery that’s supposed to keep viewers interested in this story.

However, it’s hard to be too interested, because it’s hard to empathize with Richard. It’s difficult to understand how he could contemplate leaving his wife for someone as crass and immature as Nikki, even though she is physically beautiful.

Nikki sprinkles her conversation with the F word, lights up cigarettes everywhere without regard to whether smoking is allowed or not. She doesn’t keep her appointments. She unapologetically uses men to support her financially and emotionally.

This woman’s list of flaws is so long that it’s difficult to believe any sensible, mature man could consider her as anything more than a casual fling (and a really sensible man wouldn’t even go there).

Granted, Richard has moments of clarity and rationality, but his lingering attraction to Nikki is a problem. To buy that he would risk everything for such an undesirable woman is to buy that men really are nothing more than helpless slaves to their sexual urges.

This is a Chris Rock film, which means there were some laugh-out-loud moments. Unfortunately, the dialogue (with its heavy use of the F word) is about as smart as a first-grade reader, and the characterizations of both men and women are almost too shallow to stomach. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 03/16/07)


The Lives of Others
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Some eyebrows were raised at this year’s Academy Awards when the German entry, The Lives of Others, upset the heavy favorite, Mexico’s Pan’s Labyrinth, and walked away with the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

While Guillermo Del Toro’s vivid fantasy is certainly a remarkable movie, The Lives of Others may well be the better picture. It’s an extremely well made and affecting drama that works as a political thriller as well as a fascinating character study.

The story is set in Communist East Germany in, appropriately, 1984. The Berlin Wall still stands and loyal bureaucrats are all too happy to tow the party line. The Lives of Others focuses on a secret service agent whose life is forever changed by a wiretapping assignment.

Ulrich Mühe plays Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, a captain in the feared East German secret service, Stasi. Hard-line and seemingly emotionless, Wiesler is the type of fellow that makes Dick Cheney seem warm by comparison. He’s able to manipulate and coerce admissions of guilt from anyone unfortunate enough to attract suspicion.

He’s assigned to eavesdrop on a noted playwright named Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Although the party has given its seal of approval to Dreyman’s work, a bloated and powerful minister named Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) holds him in contempt. It seems that Hempf is attracted to Dreyman’s attractive girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), a star of the East German stage.

The jealous Hempf pressures the butt-kissing Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) to find some dirt on Dreyman. Grubitz recruits Wiesler to bug his apartment in order to come up with something — anything — to pin on him.

After weeks of surveillance, Wiesler slowly gets involved in the lives of his quarry. His professional reserve begins to erode and his voyeurism transforms into something akin to concern. The richness of their lives forces him reexamine his own…and he’s none to happy with what he finds.

Remarkably, The Lives of Others is the first feature film from writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Its script is dense and the direction gives the film a feel that is both authentic and chilling.

Mühe, who has picked up numerous awards including the Lola (the German version of the Oscar), gives a riveting performance, subtly conveying the troubled soul beneath the ice-cold facade.

While Oscar sometimes makes choices that eventually come back to haunt him, it’s clear that The Lives of Others is a worthy recipient. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 03/09/07)


300
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Thanks to success of Sin City (along with the advent of sophisticated computer generated imagery) a new sub-genre of films has been created that may as well be dubbed “cine-graphic novels.”

Graphic novels, like Frank Miller’s Sin City, have an otherworldly look that, heretofore, the movies have been unable to replicate outside of the world of animation. Reportedly director Robert Rodriguez used Miller’s comic book as a storyboard for Sin City, imitating its look and feel by combining live actors with CGI sets.

300 is the newest member of this genre, yet another adaptation of one of Miller’s works. Director Zack Snyder and his team of special effects wizards have created a visually arresting film that transports audiences into the alternate universe of comic book historical revisionism.

300 tells the story of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. In that famous engagement, the King of Sparta and a small band of warriors held of an invading horde of Persians with strategic cunning and sheer determination.

Gerard Butler (The Phantom of the Opera) stars as King Leonidas, the leader of the “free” people of Sparta. Raised to be a fearless warrior from childhood, Leonidas was as much a forged weapon as any metal spear.

While still a small child, the scrappy Leonidas was able to defeat a wolf by luring the attacking creature into a mountainside crevice where its size and strength advantage could be neutralized. That lesson in strategy would pay off for him later in life.

The vast and undefeatable army of Persian God-King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro from TV’s Lost) is on its way to cut a swath through Greece. Because of the duplicitous machinations of a Spartan council member named Theron (Dominic West from Hannibal Rising), Leonidas is unable to get permission from the Spartan council to have the army defend the land.

Leonidas takes 300 of his finest soldiers to handle the battle on their own.

The action that follows is a violent bloodbath that can only exist in a world where the laws of physics are very different from those we’ve come to know. It’s carnage as art.

Director Snyder (The Dawn of the Dead) understands that this is all about the “look,” and this is the movie’s undeniable strength. In a strange way, it is also what works against it.

There are two worlds in this movie. One is Sparta, the struggling democracy that seems like a real place. The other is the battlefield where anything can happen. Because the visuals remind us that this isn’t reality, it can’t create a sense that the protagonist and his allies are ever in any peril. That emotional disconnect blunts the film’s impact.

But it is still an impressive visual experience, and that’s the only way it can be appreciated. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 03/09/07)


Miss Potter
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Like the storybooks written by its subject, the new biopic Miss Potter is pretty and sweet. Sadly, it’s also as stiff as the proverbial English upper lip.

Texas-born Rene Zellweger revives the English accent she struggled with in Bridget Jones’ Diary, adding an upscale edge to play Beatrix Potter, the creator of the ever-popular Peter Rabbit stories.

Turn of the century England certainly looks comely in this respectful flick that focuses on what made Potter unique. It wasn’t her writing style or her graceful illustrations that made her stand out. It was the fact that she was single, female and took care of her own business affairs.

That’s quite an accomplishment for a Victorian woman. In fact, she may have been the personification of the changeover to the Edwardian era.

But if the film is accurate, her independent streak wasn’t necessarily self-imposed. She was unlucky in love and would have gratefully accepted her reluctant family’s support for her writing endeavors. Her mother and father mostly dismissed her efforts as a hobby and openly expressed their disapproval of women conducting business matters.

Ewan McGregor (who co-starred with Zellweger in the fluffy romantic comedy, Down With Love) plays Norman Warne, the powerless younger brother of a duo of publishers. Assigned to the frivolous work of shepherding Potter, he tirelessly champions her work. Not only do Norman and Beatrix become romantically involved, but Norman’s sister Millie (Gosford Park’s Emily Watson) winds up as her best friend.

The film also touches briefly on Potter’s love of animals, her environmentalism and her struggles for sex and class equality. But mainly it’s a portrait of a nice woman who was just stubborn enough to get what she aimed for.

Director Chris Noonan, who hasn’t made a film since his 1995 family smash, Babe, adds only the briefest elements of fantasy, using animation to occasionally bring Potter’s illustrations to life. (Potter’s penchant for talking to her creations raised a few eyebrows back in the day.)

Well-known Broadway director and lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr. takes his first stab at a screenplay here, and it’s as respectful and reserved as a Victorian tea party.

The filmmakers ultimately rely on Zellweger to carry the movie. The popular actress acquits herself adequately, but one wonders if the part shouldn’t have gone to the brilliant and underutilized Watson instead. Sadly, she’s not a box office draw.

Aimed at adults, the lightweight Miss Potter is both likable and forgettable. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted 03/09/07)


Gray Matters
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Okay, let’s try to be fair about this. Gay people deserve phony, poorly written romantic comedies, too.

Awkward and artificial, Gray Matters is the kind of rom-com that Sandra Bullock would have passed on regardless of the sexual orientation factor. But its pervasive cheeriness prevents it from becoming a painful cinematic experience.

Heather Graham (Boogie Nights) stars as Gray, an advertising executive for a hip, edgy New York agency. Although she’s smart, pretty and successful, she still lives with her brother Sam, a surgical intern played by Tom Cavanaugh (TV’s Ed).

Best friends and nearly inseparable, Gray and Sam love to ballroom dance and talk about old movies from the 1940s. But these thirtysomethings have little luck in romance.

In an attempt to rectify the problem, Gray and Sam borrow a dog to meet singles in a Manhattan dog park. Sure enough, they meet a gorgeous woman named Charlie (Bridget Moynahan from I, Robot) who is a newcomer to the city. In typical romantic comedy style, Sam and Charlie meet cute and its love at first sight.

They decide to run off to Vegas and get hitched after only knowing one another for a few days. The want Gray to be the maid of honor and the trio jumps on a plane for Sin City. Gray, of course, thinks that Sam and Charlie are jumping the gun and she tries to dissuade them from making this rash decision.

But their minds are made up. On a girls’ night out before the wedding, Gray and Charlie have a bit too much to drink and, when they get back to their hotel room, begin to kiss. Charlie is too drunk to realize what’s happening, but Gray is mortified. She comes to the realization that she’s a lesbian and that she’s in love with her brother’s fiancée.

Gray confides her fears to her eccentric therapist (In the Bedroom’s Sissy Spacek), but doesn’t tell her brother or her best friend, Carrie (Saturday Night Live’s Molly Shannon). The most help she gets is from a Scottish cab driver named Gory that she’s befriended, played by Alan Cumming (Sweet Land).

All of the melodramatic elements of the movie are handled in the most featherweight manner. If there is a moral to the story, it’s that people should just be encouraged to be themselves no matter what.

Novice writer/director Sue Kramer obviously loves old Hollywood because her script is chock full of references to other, better flicks. While Gray Matters is innocuous, you’d be better off checking out the real thing on Turner Classic Movies. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 03/09/07)


Believe in Me
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

“Inspirational” sports flicks are a popular movie genre. In the last year alone we’ve seen titles like Invincible, Gridiron Gang, We Are Marshal, Facing the Giants and Glory Road.

Believe in Me can be added to that growing list. A well-intentioned family film based on a true story, its cheerful enthusiasm helps overcome some of its obvious flaws.

If nothing else, Believe in Me serves as a cinematic salute to a gentleman who served as a mentor and positive influence to many folks in the Sooner State. While it’s a fictional account, it parallels the life of legendary coach Jim Keith.

Jeffrey Donovan (Hitch) plays Clay Driscoll, a young and ambitious basketball coach who arrives in the small town of Middleton, Oklahoma in the 1960s in order to take over a high school hoops program. He takes along his long-suffering wife, Jean (Samantha Mathis from The Punisher) whose main ambition is to start a family.

Upon arrival, he meets the town boss named Ellis Brawley, played by Bruce Dern (The Astronaut Farmer) in full-force villainy mode. A rancher, banker and head of the school board, Brawley runs everything in the county. He informs Clay that he’s given the position of boy’s basketball coach to “someone more qualified.”

But Clay is given an option. He’s offered the job of coaching the Lady Cyclones…the girl’s team. Of course, this is rural Bible Belt country in the 1960s where women’s sports is either looked upon with disdain or, at best, simply tolerated.

At first, he balks. But financial pressures force his hand and he reluctantly takes on the hapless girls’ team, assuming it to be a temporary position. The team he takes on lacks the most fundamental skills and has to use hand-me-down men’s uniforms and equipment. (Hey, this was long before Title 9.)

Plus, the girls have family problems, self-esteem problems and money problems. How, you may ask, could anyone turn this ragtag group into a winning team? (If you did ask, you obviously haven’t seen too many sports flicks.)

Writer/director Robert Collector (whose last directorial effort was Nightflyers in 1987) adapted the film from a novel called Brief Garland by Newberry Award-winning writer, Harold Keith (Jim’s uncle). The screenplay is a compendium of clichés, but they’re delivered with sincerity by a likable cast.

Believe in Me is the sort of thing that doesn’t hold up to critical scrutiny, but its earnest good will makes it hard to knock. (PG) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 03/09/07)


Zodiac
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Those who are still creeped out about the recent news surrounding the arrest of the BTK killer may find Zodiac almost too much to bear. But brazen and methodical slayers like these fascinate us more with their correspondence than by their inexplicably violent actions.

Director David Fincher, who explored serial killer territory with his 1995 film Se7en, now brings us Zodiac, an exhaustively detailed account of the people who pursued the clever title killer who began terrorizing the San Francisco Bay area in the 1960s.

An extremely well cast ensemble presents the story of the press and law enforcement officials who worked tirelessly to track down clues in an attempt to bring the madman to justice.

Jake Gyllenhall (Brokeback Mountain) stars as Robert Graysmith, an editorial cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle. When the killer begins sending ciphers and cryptic messages to the paper admitting responsibility for local murders, Robert, a puzzle fanatic, becomes obsessed with tracking him down.

But the main investigating reporter for the chronicle is a substance-abusing hothead named Paul Avery, played by Robert Downey, Jr. (Fur), and he doesn’t take Robert seriously. Only when Robert shows that he’s picking up on a lot of clues others have missed does Paul begin to listen.

The main cops on the case are Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo from All the King’s Men) and Inspector William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards from TV’s ER). These hardworking gumshoes find that bureaucracy, red tape and police turf boundaries are their main impediments in solving the case. These obstacles give them more headaches than the ingenious killer’s clues.

The screenplay by James Vanderbilt (Basic) was adapted from Graysmith’s book. The script crackles with sharp and realistic dialogue and finds room for some welcome humor. While he offers up a number of red herrings in this mystery, they’re always presented in an entertaining fashion.

Fincher and his production crew manage to capture an authentic sense of time and place. Since the story takes place over many years, Fincher also uses some ingenious gimmicks to show the passage of time. One such sequence shows a time-lapse film of the Transamerica Tower undergoing construction.

Gyllenhall, Ruffalo and Edwards are all solid, but Downey stands out in the kind of role he was born to play (and, in large part, has lived). Talk about verisimilitude!

The only real problem with this extremely smart and dense film is its length. At 160 minutes, it isn’t quite as riveting as it could have been. A few edits to improve the pace is all that this disturbing and intriguing film needs. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 03/05/07)


Black Snake Moan
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The interesting thing about “The Blues” (the musical style, not the mood) is that it can make you feel either exhilarated or depressed.

The same can be said for Black Snake Moan, the schizophrenic and sordid melodrama from writer/director Craig Brewer (Hustle and Flow). It is so over-the-top with its Deep South histrionics that it is often laughable. At times, however, it has a sincerity that makes it difficult to dismiss.

Samuel L. Jackson (Snakes on a Plane) stars as Lazarus, a dirt-poor farmer, and former blues vocalist and guitar player. Recently, his wife dumped him in favor of his younger brother. To say the least, Lazarus is in a foul state of mind.

One day, he finds a homely young woman named Rae (Christina Ricci from Cursed) lying unconscious on a dirt road near his threadbare farm. Drug-addled, beaten up and dumped in this rural area, Rae is wearing only the slightest wisp of clothing.

Rae, you see, is a hardcore nymphomaniac who gladly fornicates at any opportunity. Her sexual proclivities have led her to this sorry state and Lazarus does what any concerned citizen would do. He chains her to his radiator! He then takes it upon himself to cure her of her wickedness. (This is what he only wished he had done with his philandering wife.)

The duo engages a protracted conflict of wills. Lazarus, who has little to live for, is willing to sacrifice a lot to “save” this wanton girl. Rae fears the worst, having suffered sexual abuse as a child. Will these two lost souls ever come to a point where they can help each other?

Things get complicated because Rae and Lazarus aren’t the only people in this movie with problems. Rae, you see, has a husband named Ronnie (pop idol Justin Timberlake) who just began a stint in the Army. While Ronnie is off at boot camp, Rae’s raging libido has taken over.

But as fate and contrived plot machinations would have it, Ronnie is drubbed out of the service for some serious mental problems of his own and returns to town looking for his wayward wife, handgun in tow. (Hey, don’t blame the messenger for giving too much away. All of this is in the trailer!)

While the movie is absurd and sleazy, it is never boring. It also has a great blues soundtrack that allows Jackson an opportunity to get in a few licks of his own. Much of the acting is overwrought, but Timberlake shows some surprisingly impressive chops.

Just like music it celebrates, Black Snake Moan has some blue devils of its own. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 03/05/07)


Inland Empire
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The key to enjoying a David Lynch movie is to NOT get too caught up in trying to decipher what its all about. Yes, Lynch probably has an idea, but whatever he’s trying to say isn’t nearly as interesting as the way he says it.

His latest foray into the absurd and the eerie is Inland Empire, a 172-minute, shot-on-video creepfest. It plays a bit like a nightmare on mushrooms. Reportedly, he wrote it as he went along and it certainly plays that way.

The subtitle, “A Woman in Trouble” says it all. Laura Dern (Wild at Heart) plays an actress named Nikki Grace. She lands a big role in a Hollywood melodrama called On High in Blue Tomorrows.

What she doesn’t know is that the screenplay, in its original form, was a Polish production that had to be shut down because the stars were murdered. A mysterious curse now haunts this script and Nikki finds out about it all too late.

That’s about as much linear plot as you’re going to get here. The rest is all an exploration of the dark inner workings of Lynch’s subconscious.

As the film progresses, we’re introduced to parallel universe subplots that fold back and intertwine with the one we’re grounded in. Lynch keeps you guessing, though, making it impossible to know where the truth, if there is any, actually lies.

Other actors onboard include Justin Theroux (Mulholland Drive) as Nikki’s co-star, Devon Berk. Jeremy Irons plays the confused director of On High in Blue Tomorrows, and Harry Dean Stanton (The Big Bounce) is his mooching assistant. The underutilized and nearly unrecognizable Julia Ormond (Sabrina) shows up as Devon’s homicidal (?) wife.

No one in the cinema today can create a sense of dread and foreboding quite like Lynch. The viewer is always plagued with the idea that something bad is about to happen and we’re never quite sure what it’s going to be.

As in all of Lynch’s films, there are the absurd musical moments. One in Inland Empire involves a group of prostitutes who suddenly jump up and do a dance to the tune of The Locomotion.

Say what you will about Lynch, but there can be no denying that Dern delivers a spectacular performance. Brave and with a total lack of vanity, she allows Lynch to submerge her into his madhouse. It’s a bit like watching a contestant on Fear Factor lowered into a crate of tarantulas.

Those who hate Lynch will have to forgive the rating, which is based on an admiration of the filmmaking, not necessarily the content. Fans of Lynch, on the other hand, will have another nightmare to celebrate. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 03/05/07)


Hand of God
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

How’s this for a frightening double-bill? Start with last year’s acclaimed documentary Twist of Faith and follow it with Hand of God.

In the 1940s, the Bing Crosby classic Going My Way reportedly sent people flocking to the Catholic Church. These newer films may have the opposite effect.

Like Twist of Faith, Joe Cultrera’s Hand of God is about one man’s experience of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest. It focuses not only on the incidents themselves, but also on the subsequent psychological damage they caused and an attempt to seek justice.

Hand of God conveys a keen sense of immediacy and intimacy, largely because the victim’s brother made it. Access to family, friends and home movies add greater depth to the story of 53-year-old Paul Cultrera

In the 1960s, young Paul was an alter boy and dedicated Catholic, the son of Italian Americans living in Salem, MA. There he comes under the influence of a “cool” young priest named Father Joseph E. Birmingham.

Paul is immediately taken with the friendly father, who drives a splashy car with red leather interior. His family, who display undying trust of the Church and its priests, encourages the friendship between the two.

But during confession, Paul asks for forgiveness for masturbation. Father Birmingham suggests counseling “therapy” in his private quarters. The naive boy senses that the priest’s sexual advances are wrong, but dares not question his authority. Thus begins a long period of abuse.

Paul suffers emotional damage that plays out long after the abuse has ended. Only years later does he talk about the incidents and decides that he should report the abuse to the Church.

He finds that the Catholic authorities are not very forthcoming about Father Birmingham, who has since passed away. In a clever move, Paul places an anonymous ad in the paper asking about the priest. To his astonishment, he receives reams of letters from men who were abused by him.

Through thorough investigation, Paul discovers that the church not only knew about the abuse, but also covered it up and continued to assign Birmingham to different parishes.

In between the home movies and interviews, Joe Cultrera splices unnecessary arty shots like alter boy figurines being crushed by vices. While these heavy-handed images don’t detract from the movie, they don’t really add much, either.

What stands out is Paul’s story and the damage that Church authorities allowed. With or without the arty flourishes, it’s a disturbing, searing indictment. (No MPAA rating) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 03/02/07)


Mojave Phone Booth
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The movies, a medium all about communication, spend a lot of time talking about the lack of it.

The latest example is a quirky, low budget independent feature called Mojave Phone Booth. It’s also a textbook case of a growing genre, the multiple storyline film.

The fictional plot was inspired by an actual phone booth that became popular via the Internet in 1997. Because it accepted incoming calls, the phone just outside of Las Vegas attracted folks looking for empathetic strangers to talk to. The site took on mythic proportions, as people gathered at the booth to chat with whomever happened to call. (The phone company eventually pulled the plug when the Parks Service complained.)

Director John Putch (TV’s Grounded For Life) and writing partner Jerry Rapp (Moving Alan) have fashioned a mildly engaging drama on a shoestring budget (reportedly under $40,000). Four separate but interlocking stories involve characters that have trouble communicating.

The first deals with the strange tale of Beth (Annabeth Gish), a young woman with an obsession about recording tape. She sees the abandoned remnants from tape recorders, video cameras and the like everywhere she looks. As the technology is about to become obsolete, could this be the badly timed effort of aliens to communicate with us?

Involved with two men and unable to commit to either, Beth’s insecurities are compounded by the fact that someone keeps breaking into her car and stealing her stereo.

Another story involves Mary (Tinarie Van Wyk-Loots), a young woman who asks her friend Rachel (Jacleen Haber) for some financial help not knowing that Rachel is a hooker. Rachel attempts to recruit her for a three-way with a wealthy client (Steve Guttenberg).

The third plot thread has a lesbian couple, Alex (Christine Elise) and Glory (Joy Gohring), who are at their wit’s end because Glory believes an alien possesses her. The final tale regards a blackjack dealer (Robert Romanus) who is suicidal over his recent separation.

All of these trouble souls find some comfort in Greta (Shani Wallace), the enigmatic voice on the other end of the titular phone line. She acts as something of a telephonic counselor.

While this multi-story flick never approaches the verisimilitude or depth of the work of masters of the genre like Robert Altman or Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel), it has an oddball aesthetic sense of its own.

Whatever the filmmakers intend to tell us remains unclear. Once again, miscommunication reigns. (No MPAA rating). Rating: 2.5(Posted 03/02/07)


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