reel reviews
movie reviews
September '07

THE KINGDOMFEAST OF LOVETHE GAME PLANIN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON
IN THE VALLEY OF ELAHEASTERN PROMISESSYDNEY WHITE
RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTIONTHE HUNTING PARTYGOOD LUCK CHUCK
THE BRAVE ONEMR. WOODCOCKNO END IN SIGHT3:10 TO YUMA
SHOOT 'EM UP
TEN CANOESTHE 11TH HOURBALLS OF FURY
THE KING OF KONG: A FISTFUL OF QUARTERS
DEATH SENTENCE

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

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The Kingdom
Reviewed by Deborah Young

In the beginning The Kingdom seems headed in the same direction as the 2005 film Syriana, a thriller in which the oil industry is the villain. The Middle East simmers at the heart of Syriana, and plenty gets blown up in grand Hollywood style.

The Kingdom starts with a timeline of the United States’ oil woes replete with archival footage of presidents hobnobbing with Saudi Arabians and the dreary sight of sold-out gas stations. At the end of this section a statement appears onscreen: Saudi Arabia is the world’s number one oil producer, and the U.S. is the number one oil consumer.

Then the filmmakers discard the documentary style and replace it with a fictional tragedy that involves terrorists killing many Americans during a children’s baseball game in Saudi Arabia. The FBI even loses two of its own on the scene.

FBI agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) takes a team of three FBI agents to Saudi Arabia to investigate the terrorist act. When the team gets to Saudi Arabia it is met by Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom), a Saudi police officer assigned to protect the agents.

A culture clash ensues as well as a struggle against bureaucracy as Fleury pushes to gain access to the crime scene. The Americans seem to be swearing frequently, and the Saudis often telling them to stop.

Besides this kind of stereotyping of both sides we learn little about the characters and what motivates them. At the same time we get little action. The movie plods on for more than an hour of the nearly two-hour runtime while the FBI agents ask questions and try to get clearance to do their jobs.

Foxx and the rest of the cast (which includes Jennifer Garner, Chris Copper, and Jason Bateman) create realistic, likeable characters. Unfortunately, both the director (Peter Berg, who directed 2004’s Friday Night Lights) and the screenwriter (Matthew Michael Carnahan) couldn’t seem to decide whether they wanted to make an action film or a thought-provoking drama about the pitfalls of xenophobia. That turned out to be the film’s biggest shortcoming. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 09/28/07)


Feast of Love
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Director Robert Benton wears his heart on his sleeve. When looking over his body of work (Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart, Nobody’s Fool), it’s clear to see that he is a deeply empathetic man who places great value on examining human relationships.

It should come as no surprise that his latest venture is Feast of Love, Allison Burnett’s adaptation of Charles Baxter’s novel about the pain, joy and frustration that this emotion can generate.

An ensemble drama, Feast of Love stars Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby) as Harry, a semi-retired professor who scrutinizes the couplings and un-couplings of a group of people in a small college town. But his observations, which provide the film’s narration, aren’t as detached as he might like to believe.

Greg Kinnear (Little Miss Sunshine) plays Bradley, the operator of a small neighborhood coffee shop. A hopeless romantic, Bradley can’t see the forest for the trees. Little does he know that his wife Kathryn (Selma Blair from Hellboy) is in love with another woman.

Other characters in this episodic narrative include a pair of star-crossed teen lovers (Toby Hemmingway and Alexa Davalos), a randy real estate agent (Radha Mitchell) carrying on an affair with a selfish but unhappily married lawyer (Billy Burke), an abusive drunk (Fred Ward) and Harry’s wife Esther (Jane Alexander) who is coping with the loss of someone close to her.

Naturally, these are the elements of a soap opera, but in Baxter’s hands, Feast of Love most resembles a Shakespearean opus. Benton is the right filmmaker to tackle this story and he’s assembled a talented cast.

Few actors command the authority that Freeman does, making him ideal for this role. Alexander, one of our best and most sadly underused American actresses, is splendid, too. Their scenes together provide a how-to workshop on cinematic acting.

But not everything in this beautifully produced film works as seamlessly as we might like. The stories should intertwine like a finely woven tapestry, but the movie more closely resembles a wind-up clock. While all of the parts are there and are in working order, it’s too easy to see the gears turning.

Plus, Benton employs a copious degree of superfluous nudity and his cast (with the exception of the older couple) is unnaturally good looking. These are additional distractions.

Still, Feast of Love is a rare commodity in today’s multiplex shuffle. It’s a mature drama for discerning adults. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 09/28/07)


The Game Plan
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

It’s easy to be cynical when it comes to the comic fare that the Disney folks deliver. Unlike their sophisticated animated efforts, their live action flicks are often formulaic — cardboard sitcoms that resemble a string of gags more than a coherent story.

That’s certainly also true of The Game Plan, a lame bit of popcorn escapism aimed at 8-year-old girls. But it has one asset that gives it a big boost, the presence of Duane Johnson.

Yes, the wrestler-turned-actor known as The Rock has enough personal charisma to elevate this uninspired, slapdash marketing tool. Without his contributions, The Game Plan would be an unwatchable enterprise.

Johnson (Gridiron Gang) stars as Joe Kingman, a superstar pro quarterback, the franchise player for a Boston football team. A colossal egomaniac and tireless self-promoter, Joe lives alone in his slick Beantown penthouse apartment adorned with photos of Elvis with only his faithful bulldog as a companion. A selfish player, he always keeps the big plays for himself. This practice doesn’t endear him to his fellow players or aid in his team’s success.

One day, a young girl arrives at his door. This uninvited visitor is Peyton, a cute 8-year-old played by Madison Pettis from the Disney Channel’s Corey in the House. She claims to be Joe’s daughter from his brief, nearly forgotten marriage. According to Peyton, her mom has gone off to Europe for a few weeks and dropped her off so that she could get to know her long-lost dad.

Although her story might raise the eyebrows of most adults, Joe and his pushy agent Stella (played by The Closer’s Kyra Sedgwick), take her story at face value. For the rest of the movie, the duo goes through awkward bonding pains as they attempt to make the best of this uncomfortable situation.

What follows is a series of silly scenes where Joe, a stranger in a strange land, learns to live with a little girl. This macho male and swinging bachelor stumbles his way towards responsible adulthood through a string of scenes that have him making a mess of his spotless kitchen, fumbling with the chicks and winding up in tights the middle of one of his daughter’s ballet concerts.

All of this nonsense should appeal to little girls, but others will find themselves checking their watches, especially as the movie nears the two-hour mark.

Thankfully, The Rock has enough charisma to make Joe a likable character. That’s enough to save this saccharine opus. (PG) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 09/28/07)


In the Shadow of the Moon
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

One has to wonder what people thought when John F. Kennedy challenged the country to put a man on the moon and return him safely home within a decade. While some must have welcomed the entreaty, others surely saw it as folly.

That ten-year quest is beautifully chronicled in British director David Sington’s sweeping documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon. Employing talking heads and NASA footage, Sington gives us a comprehensive and inspiring look at how America responded to Kennedy’s challenge.

While the science and technology are touched upon, Sington (a producer for PBS series, Nova) concentrates on personal stories and individual observations that humanize the quest. The resulting film won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Ten Apollo astronauts share their experiences, and they’re articulate, amusing and occasionally poignant.

Those sharing their stories include Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Charlie Duke, Dave Scott, Edgar Mitchell, Gene Cernan, Jack Schmitt, Jim Lovell, John Young and Michael Collins. (One glaring omission is, of course, Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. He has steadfastly guarded his privacy and remains, like J.D. Salinger, a silently enigmatic figure.)

Much of the footage has been culled from stock that has been kept in NASA vaults and heretofore unseen. The filmmakers have digitally re-mastered this film to provide some stunning images to accompany the astronauts’ stories.

If there is a common thread in their recollections, it is the humbling nature of the experience and the tremendous impact it has had on their personal philosophies. While all of the men are quite different, they share a sense of perspective. As Alan Bean put it, “Since then I haven’t complained about the weather or traffic jams.”

Some of the most poignant scenes recall the tragic 1967 fire that claimed the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. This kind of horrible setback might have been enough derail most projects, but served as a wake-up call for all NASA personnel to realize that every seemingly tiny detail is a matter of life and death.

Given the fact that this is a British production, it should come as a surprise that the film has no jingoistic aspects. The elation and enthusiasm that is felt is that of human accomplishment, not that of one country over another.

While it may not have been the filmmakers’ intent, In the Shadow of the Moon provokes some other questions. One can’t help but wonder what we might accomplish if we employed a NASA-style quest to develop clean, abundant energy. (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted 09/28/07)


In the Valley of Elah
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In the famous final shot from Greta Garbo’s classic film Queen Christina, we see a close-up of Garbo as the troubled Swedish monarch. Director Rouben Mamoulian instructed her to let her mind go blank so that that audience could interpret her inner thoughts for themselves.

That was acting subtlety of an extreme degree. Tommy Lee Jones’ extraordinary performance in the new drama In the Valley of Elah isn’t nearly that detached, but his work is so inconspicuous that we are allowed to read a lot into what’s going on behind his eyes.

The first film from writer/director Paul Haggis since winning the Oscar in both categories for the 2004 film, Crash, In the Valley of Elah is a somber and sincere drama that examines what the war in Iraq is doing to the American soul.

Jones (A Prairie Home Companion) stars as Hank Deerfield, a retired Army MP who receives a call that his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker from Pulse) has gone AWOL after returning from active duty in Iraq. He and wife Joan (Mr. Woodcock’s Susan Sarandon) are at the wit’s end. After all, they’ve already lost one son in the Persian Gulf.

Concerned something is terribly amiss Hank decides to investigate on his own.

His greatest fears are realized as Mike’s body is found cut into pieces and burned in a deserted spot near his base. At first, the Army claims jurisdiction and is uncooperative, but Hank manages to get the local police involved, especially an upstart detective named Emily, played by Charlize Theron (North Country).

With keen intelligence and sharp focus, Hank uses his investigative skills to uncover a lot of dirt that the Army wouldn’t like to acknowledge and the local cops are too inept to find.

The movie is loosely based upon an actual incident that was written about by Mark Boal in an issue of Playboy. Haggis uses the plot to create a broader overview of what the combat conditions in Iraq might be doing to the psyches of our military men.

The biggest problem with In the Valley of Elah lies in its unchanging somber tone. Without a dramatic arc, the movie leaves us an uneasy feeling that it is somehow incomplete.

But this is more than made up for by the excellent, realistic dialogue and by the solid performances. Jones has mastered the manipulation of his craggy features so that he can relate his character’s inner turmoil with the slightest glance. An Oscar nomination is imminent.

Thoughtful and well meaning, In the Valley of Elah reflects many of the uncertainties Americans currently grapple with. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 09/21/07)


Eastern Promises
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Filmmaker David Cronenberg (A History of Violence) has never been one to shy away from gazing deeply into the ugliest crevices of the human psyche. In fact, he seems to have the curiosity of a coroner.

Eastern Promises is his latest graphic autopsy that peels back the skin of his characters to observe both the good and bad.

Viggo Mortensen (Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) stars as Nikolai, a “driver” for the Russian mob in contemporary London. While an outsider and not yet a made man, he’s eager to please and awaits his opportunity to advance in the family clan known as Vory V Zakone.

The head of this creepy group of goodfellas is Semyon, a restaurateur played by Armin Mueller-Stahl (Local Color). He exudes the kind of grandfatherly aura that belies the devil within. He is, after all, a pedophile rapist who traffics in white slavery.

An innocent young pediatric nurse named Anna (King Kong’s Namoi Watts) gets mixed up with this notorious gang when she saves the life of a baby delivered by a 14-year-old Russian prostitute who dies in childbirth. With only the girl’s diary as a clue, Anna tries to find the baby’s relatives.

But the diary is written in Russian, so Anna naively takes it to Semyon for translation. That was just her first mistake. It seems that the girl’s journal contains plenty of information that would send Semyon and his hotheaded son (Vincent Cassel from Ocean’s 13) to a permanent new residence up the river.

Cronenberg and screenwriter Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) keep us guessing as to where their story is headed…no small accomplishment in an era when audiences have seen it all. But the plot is secondary to the dark, brooding atmosphere they’ve successfully created.

But, in fact, we don’t really get to know these characters very well. Even though the actors are all terrific, we’re left with the feeling that we should have been offered more insight into their thoughts and motives.

Mortensen should get special acknowledgment for his bravery and willingness to lay himself bare…literally. The movie’s central scene is a bloody brawl wherein Nikolai defends himself from two Chechen hit men in a Russian steam bath. This particularly brutal exchange is exceptionally well executed and Mortensen makes himself eligible for this year’s full-frontal award.

While it’s undeniably smart and tense, Cronenberg’s violent opus remains a murky enterprise. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 09/21/07)


Sydney White
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Watch out Steve Urkel! Here come the seven dorks.

For those who don’t remember, Urkel was the over-the-top suspender-wearing nerd on the television series Family Matters. Viewers who loved Urkel did so despite his hyperbolically nerdy behavior.

In contrast, folks who take a shine to the modern incarnations of Snow White’s seven dwarfs will likely do so because these characters seem like the real deal: loveable outcasts.

These outcasts provide most of the laughs and the heart in the most recent retelling of the Snow White fairytale, Sydney White. This time around Ms. White (played by Amanda Byrnes of the television series What I Like About You) is a college freshman.

Early on Sydney explains through voiceovers that her mother died nine years ago and that her plumber father raised her. In college, Sydney seeks a connection to her deceased mother by pledging the same sorority that her mother belonged to, but Sydney doesn’t fit in.

A prissy, mean sorority president named Rachel Witchburn rules the Greek scene on campus. Rachel fears that she’ll lose her popularity and her boyfriend, Tyler Prince (played by Matt Long from the television series Jack and Bobby), to Sydney. Like the witch in the Snow White story, Rachel craves constant reminders that she’s the fairest in the land (translation: on campus).

But instead of going to a mirror for confirmation of her beauty, she regularly visits the Hot or Not ranking on the school’s MySpace page. Rachel’s been ranked number one on the page for like ever.

This modern version of Snow White amuses at times with its modern renderings of the fairytale. But the most amusing and interesting facets of this modern allegory about the importance of acceptance happen to be the seven dorks. Among their ranks is a science geek (Jeremy Howard as Terrence), an allergy plagued outcast (Jack Carpenter as Lenny) and a sleepy Nigerian named Embele (played by Donte Bonner).

With all the not-so-subtle moralizing about accepting people of different races, religions and sexual orientations, what rings most true and has the biggest entertainment value in this flick is that seven socially dwarfed young men just want a chance with the ladies. Too bad the other characters in Sydney White were more wood than flesh. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 09/21/07)


Resident Evil: Extinction
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When a video game series sells over 30 million units, Hollywood often sits up to take notice. Of course, the popular Resident Evil games inspired the 2002 horror flick Resident Evil and its 2004 sequel Resident Evil: Apocalypse. In combination, they took in about $100 million at the box office.

Now comes part three, Resident Evil: Extinction. As in the previous films, Milla Jovovich (Ultraviolet) stars as Alice, a butt-kicking heroine battling zombies, mutants and an evil corporation.

In essence, Resident Evil: Extinction is a bit of a mutant itself. A combination of Night of the Living Dead, Mad Max and The Birds, this grisly sci-fi action opus is an over-the-top shoot-‘em-up that unapologetically celebrates mayhem.

Although one doesn’t need to have seen the previous films to follow the plot, some familiarity certainly helps. Jovovich’s Alice is wandering around in the desert avoiding the minions of the evil Umbrella Corporation. This company is responsible for developing the T-virus that has turned much of the human race into flesh-eating zombies.

From his Umbrella laboratories deep beneath the desert, the evil Dr. Isaacs, played by Iain Glen (The Last Legion) works on an anti-virus as well as developing docile zombies that can be used as slaves and soldiers. He hopes to track down Alice because her cells have somehow fused with the T-virus making her immune to becoming a zombie. Indeed, it has given her some superhuman powers.

A ragtag group of humans is driving across the desert searching for other survivors and scarce supplies of gasoline. This convoy is led by Claire (Ali Larter from TV’s Heroes) and includes some of Alice’s former anti-corporate comrades Carlos (The Mummy’s Oded Fehr) and L.J. (comic Mike Epps).

These intrepid sojourners hope to ultimately make it to Alaska, where it is rumored that humans have created a sanctuary. For better or worse, they cross paths with Alice…who is being tracked by Dr. Isaacs and his fellow corporate scientists.

Russell Mulcahy (Highlander) takes over the directorial reins from screenwriter Paul W.S. Anderson (Mortal Kombat) without missing a beat. The action comes fast and furious, and the body count is impressive.

But, in fact, all of these movies start to blend together in one’s mind. Their formulaic nature makes the sequels seem redundant.

Resident Evil: Extinction has been touted as the final part of the trilogy. That will be true only if it turns out to be a box office stiff. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 09/21/07)


The Hunting Party
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The opening disclaimer of the new comic drama The Hunting Party states, “Only the most ridiculous parts of this story are true.”

That’s an apt way to begin this oddball movie that walks a wobbly tightrope between political thriller and satiric send-up.

Based upon a 2000 Esquire magazine story by Scott Anderson, The Hunting Party purports to show how a gonzo journalist, a cautious cinematographer and a naive intern attempt to interview/capture a notorious war criminal after the Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian War.

Richard Gere (The Hoax) stars as Simon, a television reporter with a passion for covering conflict. Like a junkie in need of a fix, he makes his way to the frontline of any and every war site he can access. Ever since an on-air meltdown lost him his network position, Simon has been providing freelance coverage for small foreign outlets… between alcoholic binges.

While in the Bosnia-Herzegovina area after the war, Simon runs into his former colleague, a photojournalist named Duck (Terrance Howard from Pride). He asks his old buddy to shoot some simple “standup” shots for him to bookend one of his reports.

But Simon has something up his sleeve. He thinks that he knows the whereabouts of a notorious war criminal known as “The Fox.” If he can score an interview with this man — a Serbian Osama bin Ladin type — it could resurrect his career. He persuades the reluctant Duck to join him on this hair-brained quest.

Their journey becomes complicated when the son of a network bigwig wants in on the action. Benjamin, played by Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale), wants to get his journalistic feet wet so he blackmails his way into this expedition.

Through a series of comical miscommunications, the locals begin to believe that this unlikely trio is actually a squad sent from the CIA. Naturally, the folks don’t much like the idea of their hero being stalked by American agents. What follows is a series of mix-ups and near misses as they encounter the local police, border agents, mobsters and private militia.

Filmmaker Richard Shepherd (The Matador) doesn’t always seem quite sure of the tone he wants to set for The Hunting Party. The movie swings wildly between its comic elements and its cold sober paranoia. You can’t fault the actors, however, who are all on their game.

If Shepherd’s aim is to point out the dizzying absurdity of a post-war situation, then The Hunting Party has hit its target. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 09/21/07)


Good Luck Chuck
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

It’s almost become a sub-genre of its own, the raunchy comedy that tries to justify its vulgar excesses by expressing “heart.”

Good Luck Chuck definitely falls into that category. Like recent (and much better) films like Knocked Up and Superbad, Good Luck Chuck pushes the boundaries of bad taste and stretches the limits of the “R” rating.

The formula requires frat boy humor and female nudity to appeal to teenage boys, and romance and sentiment to appeal to the girls. It’s quite evident that the core audience for these movies is under age 17. The studios count on lax theatre monitoring as well as cable TV and DVD sales to reach their target group with this “R” rated material.

Stand up comic Dane Cook (Mr. Brooks) stars as a dentist with a unique problem. When he was 10 years old, a lovesick young witch put a hex on him so that every woman he sleeps with will find true love with the NEXT man she dates.

When word gets out on the Internet about Chuck’s special talent, women begin knocking down his door and making his dental practice the most popular one around.

For a while, Chuck takes advantage of the situation and beds a never-ending assortment of lovely women. Naturally, Chuck meets a beautiful but klutzy marine biologist named Cam, played by Jessica Alba (The Fantastic Four) and falls head over heels.

After pursuing her excessively, Chuck manages to break through Cam’s romantic defenses. Trouble is, Chuck can’t sleep with her because that means she’ll fall for the next guy she dates.

Chuck then has to avoid sex with her while trying to find out how the curse can be broken.

Alba is undeniably attractive and makes Cam an appealing romantic heroine. Cook is also a likable anti-hero with better than average comic timing. (One can’t get over the nagging feeling, however, that Adam Sandler’s fingerprints were all over this script before it got into Cook’s hands.)

Novice director Mark Helfrich and screenwriter Josh Stolberg (Kids in America), who adapted Steve Glenn’s short story, often go for the cheap laugh. Most of the crude antics come via Chuck’s buddy, a romantically challenged plastic surgeon named Stu, played by Dan Fogler (Balls of Fury). A more annoying and odious supporting character would be hard to imagine.

While it does manage to elicit a few chuckles, Chuck ultimately runs out of luck. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 09/21/07)


The Brave One
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Tenderness and violence. Love and wrath. Grief and vengeance. The Brave One attempts to show the impact of these disparate acts and emotions on one woman’s life and by extension to remind viewers of the human potential for destructive rage.

Unfortunately for the filmmakers (and their audiences), the script’s not that deep enough to paint such a complex picture.

The story belongs to radio essayist Erica Bain, played by Jodie Foster. On air, Bain muses about her beloved New York. Off air, she walks the city with a tape recorder on which she captures the sounds of the metropolis. In her personal life, she’s planning her wedding to fiancé David (Naveen Andrews).

But Erica’s whole life changes after she and her fiancé are attacked while walking their dog in the park. Her fiancé gets killed in the attack, and Erica is badly beaten.

After being in a coma for three weeks, Erica wakes to find a stranger within. She’s afraid all the time. She’s afraid to leave her apartment, and she spends much of her time alternately reminiscing of her life with David and remembering the brutal attack.

The camera keeps us in Erica’s head most of the time, with flashbacks of the attack and flashbacks of she and David having sex, caressing or talking. We also get close-ups of Erica, of her face. Her expressions at first show fear and apprehension then later shock at herself (after she buys a gun and starts using it to kill bad guys).

Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and director Neil Jordan (Breakfast on Pluto) keep us in the moment with his close-ups and uses camera and lighting techniques to create a visual landscape that mirrors Erica’s descent into her basest instincts, her animal rage.

The script is laughably simplistic at times. Consider the line, “women usually kill things they love” as an explanation of why women aren’t the usual suspects for vigilante justice. The line, although presenting an interesting idea, can be unintentionally funny, and it’s representative of so many of the lines in The Brave One.

But the actors saved the script and hence the movie. Foster’s face conveyed emotions that no words could convey. The chemistry between Foster and Andrews was exquisite and totally believable. Also, Terrence Howard added nuance to his Detective Mercer, who in another actor’s care might have simply been a stock character.

Thanks to hot performances and despite the tepid script, many audience members will likely be drawn into the vulnerability, fear and rage that The Brave One brings to the screen. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 09/14/07)


Mr. Woodcock
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When director Craig Gillespie and writers Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert were trying to sell their comedy Mr. Woodcock to studio honchos, I suspect that they described the title character as a “Billy Bob Thornton-type.”

Miraculously, these novice filmmakers landed Thornton (Bad Santa) for the lead role, a move that saves their middling comedy from utter failure. Yes, Thornton is perfectly suited for this part and his obnoxious presence is the picture’s saving grace.

Thornton plays a sadistic high school gym teacher in a small Nebraska town who relishes the opportunity to torture the flabby, non-athletic types who populate his classes. He tries to make examples of them by using intimidation and punitive measures. His abuse tends to have a lifelong affect on the students he belittled.

Seann William Scott (American Pie) plays John Farley, the author of a popular self-help book called Letting Go, a tome dedicated to shaking off the pain of the past and living in the present. One of Woodcock’s former students, John hasn’t quite been able to practice what he preaches.

Things come to a head when John is invited back to his hometown to receive the “Corncob Key”, the town’s highest honor. When he arrives, he’s greeted with some shocking news. His mother Beverly (Elizabethtown’s Susan Sarandon) has become engaged to his former nemesis.

This revelation causes John to dredge up all of the old resentments he still feels toward his former teacher. Indeed, Mr. Woodcock is still just as loathsome as he ever was and continues in his intimidating ways.

John decides that he must put an end to this relationship and he goes to extreme lengths to sabotage the engagement.

Of course, this is the kind of sitcom setup that lends itself to exaggerated, gag-laden slapstick that we’ve become all-too familiar with. The premise is terrific, but the execution is mediocre.

This is the kind of role that Thornton could play in his sleep…but he’s got it down pat. It’s hard to imagine an actor better suited to this role. Sadly, the Oscar-winning Sarandon is completely wasted in a thankless role.

Scott does the best that he can with the material, but Saturday Night Live’s Amy Poehler, who plays his annoying literary agent, constantly reminds us of the movie’s artificiality.

What we’re left with is a lame movie surrounding a terrific performance at its core. Sadly, it just isn’t enough to make it worthwhile. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 09/14/07)


No End in Sight
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

"We used to joke that there were 500 ways to do it wrong," says Barbara Bodine regarding the American occupation of Iraq. “Little did we know that we were going to go through all five-hundred.”

That’s the kind of “liberal” remark you might expect from talking heads in a documentary like No End in Sight. But Bodine was the ambassador placed in charge of Baghdad by the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA)…a Bush administration appointee.

No End in Sight is Charles Ferguson's frightening, sobering and infuriating film about how the post-war situation in Iraq was bungled in every conceivable way. Aside from its meticulous detail, No End in Sight is distinguished by the fact that it makes its case by relying on the eyewitness accounts of those who were there, not anti-war pundits.

Among the others interviewed (who were appointed by the Pentagon or Bush administration) are Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Gerald Burke who worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) as an advisor to Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior, Major General Paul Eaton who was placed in charge of rebuilding the Iraqi Armed Forces, Marc Garalasco a senior intelligence analyst at the Pentagon and chief of high-value targeting during the war, General Jay Garner, in charge of the ORHA in 2003, and Colonel Paul Hughes, director of Strategic Policy of ORHA and CPA.

As diplomatically as they can, each of these players explains how they were ignored or marginalized while Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney made decisions from Washington. Much of the frustration is also aimed at L. Paul Bremer, a political appointee who became the “Czar” of Iraq in spite of the fact that he had no understanding of the situation and no experience in the Arab world.

Of course, Ferguson also talks to academics, journalists and others with first-hand knowledge of the situation, but it is the testimony of the insiders that exposes the hubris and ideological tunnel vision of the real decision-makers.

First-time filmmaker Ferguson skillfully integrates news footage with these interviews as he gives a blow-by-blow account of American missteps. It quickly becomes clear that the administration had not planned about how to handle the post-war situation.

Another interviewee, Lieutenant Seth Moulton of the U.S. Marine Corps, eloquently summed it up asking, “Are you telling me that this is the best America can do? No. Don’t tell me that...don’t tell the Marines who are still fighting every day in Fallujah that that’s the best America can do. That makes me angry.”

No End in Sight elicits that same emotional reaction. (No MPAA rating.) Rating: 4.5 (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 09/14/07)


3:10 to Yuma
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Like the movie musical, the Western is a film genre that refuses to die. While they are few and far between these days, there are always filmmakers who are eager to attempt a revival.

James Mangold, best known for the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, has remade a minor classic from 1957, 3:10 to Yuma. Whereas the original was a straight-ahead oater, Mangold adds a few new twists to create an interesting morality tale.

Less an action flick than it is a moral cat-and-mouse game, 3:10 to Yuma focuses on two men, each representing opposite sides of an ethical coin. As it is flipped, we’re challenged to guess which side will ultimately face up.

Based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, 3:10 to Yuma stars Christian Bale (Batman Begins) as a rancher named Dan Evans. Dealing with corrupt officials scheming to take his property for the railroad right-of-way, Dan is on a short financial string. Having lost part of his leg in the Civil War, he also seems to be hobbled by a strong sense of morality. This decency prevents him from taking matters into his own hands to deal with the bad guys in power.

Dan’s pretty wife Alice (Gretchen Mol from The Notorious Bettie Paige) and oldest son William (Logan Lerman from The Number 23) are losing respect for Dan who seems incapable of dealing with the situation. An encounter with a nasty desperado presents Dan with an opportunity to change things.

Russell Crowe (Gladiator) plays Ben Wade, the particularly murderous leader of a band of outlaws who regularly rob the stagecoaches who dare to carry railroad money across the open desert. He and his cutthroat posse have laid waste to civilians and many of the Pinkertons (led by Easy Rider’s Peter Fonda) who’ve pursued them in vain.

Ben takes one too many chances, allowing his cohorts to leave town as he lingers with a hooker. Once he’s captured, a bounty is offered to the men who will risk delivering him to the train that will ultimately take him to the gallows, and Dan volunteers.

Ben’s an intellectual outlaw whose philosophy owes a lot to Nietzsche and Darwin. While the movie has plenty of action, it’s really a war of words as Ben tries to convince Dan that his act of courage is really a futile attempt to win the respect of his wife and son.

The actors are terrific and they hold our interest even as the shoot-‘em-up elements undermine it’s credibility.

Thanks to the solid cast, 3:10 to Yuma is a welcome entry in the genre. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 09/07/07)


Shoot ‘Em Up
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Shoot ‘Em Up — The name says it all. I’d guesstimate that gunfire fills at least 50 minutes of Shoot ‘Em Up’s 80-minute run-time. Still the film has an unexpected charm.

The movie starts with a close-up of a man’s eyes. Then the camera pulls back to show us this man, Smith (played by Clive Owen), sitting at a bus stop in a dreary neighborhood.

A pregnant woman scuttles by, glancing back over her shoulder a couple times. As she disappears into one of the buildings a lanky man jumps out of a car, trash spilling out behind him. The lanky man obviously means to harm the woman.

Smith chomps a carrot and watches all of this until the lanky man disappears into a building. Then, with a look of annoyance, he follows the pair into the building.

In a matter of minutes Smith has delivered the woman’s baby and gotten into a gunfight with a small army of men inside the warehouse. Gunfire kills the baby’s mother, and Smith flees the warehouse with the baby.

The rest of the movie involves a series of chase and gunfight sequences as Smith attempts to protect the baby and to avoid an endless supply of killers led by Hertz (Paul Giamatti). Early on Smith recruits lactating hooker Donna (Monica Bellucci) to help him care for the baby. Together, they run and try to figure out who is after the baby and why.

There’s plenty of foul language, blood-splattering violence and some graphic sexual images. But the film’s martial arts aesthetic keeps the violence from becoming unbearable.

Stunt Coordinator Jamie Jones (a stunt performer in Romeo Must Die, which featured martial artist Jet Li) has done an admirable job here. The results are well-choreographed gun battles that entertain like some of the memorable fight sequences of martial artists such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

In addition to Jones, writer/director Michael Davis also had the benefit of working with Peter Pau, the cinematographer for the 2000 martial arts hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Together, the cast and crew of this movie transform gun fighting into an art form.

Owen glides across floors, swings through the air, and uses objects and people as both weapons and shields against his pursuers. All of this is tremendous fun to watch, and gives audiences small reprieves from the intense violence.

Shoot ‘Em Up pairs guns with martial arts choreography, wit and humor. The results are simultaneously appalling, funny and attention snatching. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 09/07/07)


Ten Canoes
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

"A" is for Australian. "A" is for Anthropology. "A" is for Aborigines. "A" is for Arty.

Yes, Ten Canoes is an "A" movie, for sure. The winner of the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival as well as the Australian Film Institute's award for Best Picture, Ten Canoes provides a unique opportunity for audiences to vicariously experience a foreign land and ancient culture. Interestingly, it may not be as foreign as you might expect.

Noted as the first movie shot in Native Australian languages, Ten Canoes tells two stories, one set approximately a thousand years ago and the other centuries earlier. Each effectively demonstrates the commonality of human frailty.

David Guilpulil, arguably the world’s most famous Aboriginal actor (Rabbit-Proof Fence), is The Storyteller who provides the amusing English narration. He relates these tales like an ancient Aesop, providing a moral for confused and callow youth.

Set and shot in the Australian wilderness, the first story deals with a canoe building party, led by an elderly tribal leader named Minygululu. Another member of this group is the jealous Dayindi, a much younger man who can't understand why Minygululu has three wives and he has none. In fact, Dayindi covets the old man's youngest wife.

In an attempt to explain, Minygululu tells Dayindi a long and convoluted story about their ancestors, hoping that that parallels will teach the young man a lesson.

Dutch-born filmmaker Rolf De Heer and co-director Peter Djigirr, a Native Australian, separate the stories by showing one in black-and-white and the other in color. This way, viewers are able to keep the stories straight. (The same actors appear in both tales.)

What unfolds is an Outback soap opera, complete with jealousy, suspicion, hatred, violence, confusion and love, all related with stark realism and welcome humor.

The cinematography by Ian Jones captures the unique beauty of the natural landscape. The cast, made up entirely of first-timers, performs without a trace of guile and adds greatly to the movie's authenticity.

But perhaps the most arresting aspect of Ten Canoes is its humor. These cheery tribesmen take great glee in scatological humor and earthly delights. One avuncular elder, like an Aboriginal Winnie the Pooh, is obsessed with honey and spends more time in pursuit of his passion than tending to his extended family.

Ten Canoes is quite slow moving, however, and is more successful as an intriguing anthropological study than it is a fully satisfying movie. But, like fresh honey, it has a sweetness that hard to resist. (No MPAA rating) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 09/07/07)


The 11th Hour
Reviewed by Deborah Young

It’s inevitable that people will compare this film to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. But The 11th Hour has more in common with the 2004 film What the #$*! Do We Know!?

Like What the #$*!, this film features lots of talking heads from many fields of study (including authors, economists and even a mycologist, a scientist who studies fungus). Co-directors Nadia Conners and Leila Conners Petersen intersperse the interviews with eye-catching visuals. Eye-catching in this case means images either beautiful or horrible enough to penetrate the eye and stick in the mind.

The 11th Hour has another similarity to What the #$*! It’s more visceral than scientific. It talks smart but is designed to appeal more to audiences’ hearts than their heads.

Narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, the film has three parts. It starts on a somber note with this message: “Our biosphere is in trouble.” The phrase gets repeated several times and then is followed by archival footage of disasters that include Hurricane Katrina, explosions and melting icecaps.

The movie’s second act attempts to explain the human attitudes and actions that have attributed to today’s environmental realities. Those realities include overpopulation, global warming, reduced natural resources such as trees, and pollution of oceans.

Then the final act of the film carries a message of hope. And for those who might be a little slow on the uptake the camera even zooms in on a “Hope” street sign. In this third act we get images of sustainable buildings and theories from the talking heads about the creative ways that we might go about turning things around. For instance, someone might design a club that runs on the energy of its dancers.

As hokey as it may sound the images in this film are powerful. We get glimpses of a dead body floating in floodwaters in the aftermath of Katrina. We get the natural beauty of an oak tree with curvaceous limbs reaching out against a deep blue sky and a wheat-colored landscape. We see crates being opened on the beach and crowds of penguins emerging, waddling across the sand and into the ocean.

The talking heads simply serve as human captions for the stunning images. The filmmakers are obviously trying to manipulate our emotions in the hope that a strong emotional response will drive us to change.

What I can’t figure out is why DiCaprio is in some of the shots. He’s not speaking, just standing there, which can be annoying at times. His presence appears to be an attempt at subliminal messaging that exploits the modern penchant for celebrity worship. In this scenario, responsible use of the environment is the marketing message and DiCaprio is the celebrity endorser. (Basically, it’s a sneaker ad without the sneakers.)

With its heart firmly in the right place, The 11th Hour turns out to be an information clutter that dispenses few memorable or useful facts but more than a few memorable images and a compelling emotional appeal to change how we treat the planet. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 08/31/07)


Balls of Fury
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Ben Garant, the writer/director of the new comedy Balls of Fury, is responsible for another film this year, Reno 911: Miami: The Movie. If that isn’t enough warning for you, then you’re on your own.

At least Balls of Fury eschews most of the overly raunchy elements that we were subjected to in Reno. Sadly, it isn’t funny, either.

Broadway veteran Dan Folger stars as Randy Daytona, the latest in a long lineup of recent comic “heroes” who are chubby, geeky and socially inept. Like the high school nerds from Knocked Up and Superbad, he also has a good heart.

Randy, we soon learn, is a former table tennis phenom who choked at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. After losing to the East German champ, Randy’s dad was killed by a mysterious Chinese crime lord. It seems dear old dad had been betting heavily on his son.

Flash forward nearly 20 years later. Randy is now a struggling lounge act, doing ping-pong tricks at a sleazy casino nightclub. Out of the blue, an FBI agent named Ernie Rodriguez (comic George Lopez) tries to recruit him for a secret mission.

It seems that the feds are on the trail of a notorious Triad criminal named Feng. A ping-pong fanatic, Feng stages a regular underground death match table tennis tournament that the FBI would like to infiltrate. If they can get Randy back into competitive shape, they may have a chance.

Of course, Randy is fat and out of condition, so they take him to a Chinatown teacher, Master Wong (James Hong) for lessons. There he meets Wong’s pretty niece, Maggie (Maggie Q) who is also a ping-pong master. They put Randy through the usual paces to ready him for the tournament.

Ultimately, Randy is invited and travels to the Central American jungle to meet Feng…who happens to be Christopher Walken! Of course, he’s an arms merchant and his “sudden death” table tennis match means just that…you lose, you die.

There are plenty of comic possibilities in this silly setup, but few are successfully exploited. It’s basically a mediocre Saturday Night Live sketch fitfully stretched out to feature length.

Folger is an affable hero, however. As he proved in his Tony Award-winning performance in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, he’s got the chops. The material is pretty lame, however.

The movie plays like a Will Farrell movie without Will Farrell. Balls of Fury has no bounce. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 08/31/07)


The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If someone were to tell you that one of the year’s most compelling movies deals with competitive videogame playing, you might be skeptical. Fair enough. Anyone would be.

But, in fact, the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is an extremely well made and intriguing flick that is alternately funny and touching. Who knew?

Seth Gordon, the cinematographer on the acclaimed documentary Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing, demonstrates a lot of style and imagination for his first feature effort as director. He manages to effectively draw us into this world of video freaks and geeks, and has us cheering and jeering like longtime fans.

The film focuses mainly on two individuals. One is Billy Mitchell, a longtime world record holder for the highest Donkey Kong score, having tallied an impressive 874 thousand points on that extremely difficult machine. Cagey and manipulative, Billy resembles what Jesus might look like if he had been a used car salesman.

A successful restaurant owner and entrepreneur with a line of hot sauces, Billy has an ego as big as all outdoors. The thought of anyone breaking his record might shatter his all-too obvious feelings of superiority.

The other center of attention is a mild-mannered family man named Scott Wiebe, a science teacher from the state of Washington. In spite of his persistence, intellect and athleticism, Scott’s received a lot of hard knocks. He is the affable Ying to Billy’s narcissistic Yang.

After having been laid off from Boeing and before taking the teaching position, Scott played Donkey Kong in his garage until he became an expert. In fact, as his video camera rolled, he managed to beat Billy’s record, scoring over a million points.

But after Scott sent his tape to Twin Galaxies, the governing body that certifies this sort of thing (yes, there is one), a group of Billy’s cohorts managed to find a sneaky way to disqualify him. The rest of the movie deals with Scott’s attempts to regain his crown and good reputation.

We’re also introduced to the eccentric Walter Day, the founder of Twin Galaxies, Steve Sanders, a Kansas City lawyer who was once trounced by Billy Mitchell and his now his faithful friend, as well as an assortment of players and officials who take the competition oh, so seriously

Remarkably, The King of Kong is both an entertaining backstage glimpse into the cutthroat world of competitive video gaming and an effective character study. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 08/31/07)


Death Sentence
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

So, urban crime is reportedly way down from the high levels that were witnessed during the 1970s. During that bygone era, paranoid movie audiences were treated to exploitation flicks that tapped into their feelings of helplessness.

Charles Bronson came along in 1974 with his vigilante opus, Death Wish, a bloody action drama that allowed audiences the vicarious thrill of blowing away the bad guys that populated their streets…and their dreams. It was adapted from a popular book by crime novelist Brian Garfield.

But, of course, we’ve come a long way since then, haven’t we? From the looks of things, Hollywood doesn’t seem to think so.

The new Kevin Bacon thriller Death Sentence is based upon the sequel to Garfield’s book. The concept again focuses of a justice system gone awry and a crusading avenger out to set things straight.

Bacon (Where the Truth Lies) stars as Nick Hume, an upper middle class executive at an insurance company. He’s steeped in a mathematical understanding of risk assessment. He leads an idyllic life with his beautiful wife Helen (Kelly Preston from Sky High) and teenage sons Lucas (Jordan Garrett) and Brendan (Stuart Lafferty).

Traveling back home from a hockey game where golden boy Brendan is once again the hero, Nick pulls into a seedy inner city gas station for a fill up. When Brendan steps inside to buy a drink, a group of gangbangers rob the store and one member slashes Brendan’s throat as a membership ritual.

Nick soon learns that since he is the only witness, the culprit will probably only get two to three years in jail for his crime. The stunned father decides against testifying, opting to take matters into his own hands.

Little does he realize that an alternate universe of decay and crime resides oh so close to his suburban paradise. What follows is an inevitable series of violent encounters as Nick seeks to settle the score in this urban wasteland.

Director James Wan is best known for his grisly horror chiller, Saw. He brings that gory sensibility to this disturbing flick, mounting a couple of impressive action sequences. But the movie has so many blatantly implausible elements that it’s impossible to take it seriously.

Plus, it wants to have it both ways. It purports to show the negative consequences of violence, but revels in presenting it for our entertainment.

Death Sentence deserves punishment of life on a dusty video store shelf. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 08/31/07)


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