reel reviews
movie reviews
November '07



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

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I'm Not There
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Bob Dylan is, was and always will be a bit of an enigma. Like a chameleon, he seemed to change is persona at will throughout his long and storied career.

Plus, his most ardent admirers hung on his every word, according them the weight of scripture. Their varied attempts at deciphering the meaning of Dylan’s lyrics and public pronouncements were, no doubt, the subject of both amusement and amazement to him. As he often said, “Hey, I’m just a songwriter.”

It’s only appropriate that a film about his life is every bit as ambiguous as its subject. Todd Haynes’s ambitious and sometimes pretentious biopic I’m Not There is a fascinating cinematic experiment. Rather than attempt to present a coherent narrative about the singer/songwriter, Haynes (Far From Heaven) chose to depict Dylan’s various personas through several fictitious subplots.

But that’s not the only curious thing about the movie. Haynes also cast six different actors to embody these separate characters.

One calls himself “Woody Guthrie,” representing Dylan (nee Zimmerman) as a child. A precocious African-American kid named Marcus Carl Franklin is terrific in this showy role. Ben Whishaw (Perfume) represents his teen years, testifying before some nameless committee.

Christian Bale (Batman Begins) plays Jack, a sub for Dylan’s mid-career years as a folk singer that converts to Christianity. Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain) is Robbie, a self-indulgent movie actor whose philandering ruins his marriage.

In the film’s weakest and most overly ambitious segment, Richard Gere (The Hunting Party) plays Billy, a combination of Dylan and Billy the Kid. (Film buffs may recall that Dylan acted in Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 Western, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.)

Amazingly, the actor who best captures the Dylan’s persona is Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth: The Golden Age). In a stunning performance, she portrays Jude, a singer that stands in for Dylan during his controversial conversion to the electrified sound and dalliance with drugs.

Haynes concocts a cinematic jambalaya by mixing in differing movie styles. One minute it’s a documentary and the next it’s a Western. A segment may be in color, or it may be in black-and-white. It’s as if Haynes had edited together bits and pieces from several different short films reflecting Dylan’s life.

In the end, it’s a mixed bag. Haynes deserves a lot of credit for his skillful and intriguing incorporation of various cinematic techniques. His film sags badly in places, however, dragging us along through some pretentious excesses.

Do we get to know Dylan a bit better? That is something that the artist himself probably can’t answer. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 11/30/07)

August Rush
Reviewed by Deborah Young

We twenty-first century Americans are a skeptical bunch. So it’s difficult for us to avoid balking at blatantly contrived stories, even those that might be gloriously uplifting if we would just open ourselves to their ethereal fantasy.

August Rush could not be more contrived. It puts a modern spin on the “Oliver Twist” story. This time the orphan, Evan (Freddie Highmore), is not really an orphan, although he’s spent his young life in a boy’s home. And he’s a musical prodigy.

On the day of his birth Evan’s mother (Kerri Russell as Lyla Novacek) was told that the boy died, but she believes he’s alive, and she’s determined to find him. Evan’s father (Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Louis) had one memorable encounter with Lyla, and he’s still pining over her ten years later.

The love of music creates a psychic bond between these three physically separated characters. Lyla graduated from Julliard and plays cello. Louis sings rock ballads and plays guitar.

Director Kirsten Sheridan chooses to cut back and forth between scenes of Lyla playing cello, Louis singing and eventually, Evan’s performances. These cuts provide a constant visual remind of the musical connection between these three, even though their musical styles differ.

In an early scene we see Evan conducting a symphony of wind and grass, every element of nature serenading him as he bends, sways and waves his arms in glee.

Bullies taunt Evan at the boy’s home because he says he knows his parents are alive; he can feel them. So Evan runs away to New York, where he meets a young street musician, who leads him to an underground gang of young musicians led by an unscrupulous man, Wizard (Robin William), who’s similar to Oliver Twist’s Fagan.

A series of magical coincidences propel this story to its conclusion. So the skeptic within has to be silenced for the story to be enjoyed.

August Rush offers much here to enjoy: capable and charismatic performances by Highmore, Williams and Meyers, and the mere presence of Terrence Howard (as a social worker) and Russell.

To top it off, cinematographer John Mathieson (Kingdom of Heaven and Phantom of the Opera) gives us some great visuals. The movie also includes a great soundtrack, which features the music of composers as diverse as Bach and John Legend.

For those skeptics who can silence the critic within, August Rush offers charm and childlike fantasy. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted 11/21/07)

No Country For Old Men
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Here’s some sage advice: If you find a bundle of cash that you know belongs to vicious drug lords, leave it alone.

That’s just one of many lessons to be learned in No Country For Old Men, a compelling and disturbing drama from Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo). Based on the acclaimed bestseller by Cormac McCarthy, it is a supremely violent epic that despairs of the inescapable violence it showcases.

In a star-making performance, Josh Brolin (Grindhouse) portrays Llewelyn Moss, a South Texas good old boy who finds himself in a peculiar situation. While engaged in some desert hunting, he stumbles upon the horrific scene of a drug deal gone wrong. Among the drugs and bodies littered about, he finds a briefcase with $2.4 million dollars in cash.

Rather than reporting it, he decides to keep the dough. Unfortunately for him, a sociopathic killer named Anton Chigurh (chillingly played by Javier Bardem from Love in the Time of Cholera) has been sent to recover the loot.

Although Llewelyn is pretty clever and stays ahead of the hitman for a time, Anton is an unstoppable killing machine that cannot be controlled, even by his own bosses. This relentless assassin leaves a trail of blood and mayhem in his wake making full use of an unusual weapon, a compressed air gun used for the slaughter of cattle.

Following at a distance is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, impeccably played by Tommy Lee Jones (In the Valley of Elah). Outmatched by the situation and seemingly incapable of stopping the inevitable horror, the good sheriff can’t do much but observe the sorry state of affairs and commiserate about it.

The three lead actors are all legitimate Oscar contenders, each giving consummate performances. But the supporting cast members, down to the tiniest walk-on role, are all spot on. Kelly Macdonald (Trainspotting) is particularly memorable as Llewelyn’s put upon wife, Carla Jean and Barry Corbin (TV’s Northern Exposure) also makes an impression in a lengthy chat with Jones that comes near the film’s finale.

The dialogue, much of which was lifted directly from McCarthy’s novel, crackles with sharp observations and colorful regional slang.

No Country for Old Men has an ending that seems abrupt and ambiguous. This may frustrate many viewers, causing them to dismiss the whole enterprise. But this complex work from McCarthy, filtered through the keen and cynical eyes of the Coen Brothers, is an intelligent, thoughtful thriller that brilliantly portrays a bleak worldview. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 11/21/07)

The Mist
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Director Frank Darabont has been responsible for some of the best cinematic adaptations of the works of Stephen King. Audiences embraced his versions of King’s rare non-horror titles, The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption.

Now Darabont takes on one of the horror master’s full-blooded frightfests, The Mist. Expanding the eerie short story into a feature-length film, Darabont embraces the chilling side of King just as he did his humanistic side.

Thomas Jane (The Enforcer) leads a large cast as David Drayton, a graphic artist who lives with his wife and small son just outside of a small Northeastern coastal town. A large storm has blown through, damaging his home and that of many of his neighbors, leaving most of the area without power.

He and his son trek into town to pick up supplies, taking along his estranged next-door neighbor, a judge named Brent Norton, played by Andre Braugher (Poseidon).

As they arrive at the grocery store, a strange fog descends on the entire area. This phenomenon is unusual, but the townsfolk have no idea of the trouble they’re in for.

While picking out their goods at the store, a bloodied man enters claiming that there is something in the mist…and it’s killing people. Naturally, his ravings are dismissed. Shortly thereafter while David and some of the men are attempting to start up the backup generator in the storage room, strange tentacles writher under the garage door, grab a stock boy and eviscerate him.

When the men tell the others that there is indeed something strange in the mist, Brent dismisses their story as an elaborate hoax. He then encourages some of the folks holed up in the store to leave.

A religious fanatic named Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden from Into the Wild) claims that God’s wrath is to blame for the horrors descending upon the village. She manages to whip some of the villagers into a frightened frenzy as they await Armageddon.

Sure enough, things don’t get any better as the strange entities from the mist begin to wreak havoc upon the area. David and a small group of townspeople grapple with the option of waiting it out like sitting ducks in the store or making a run for it in the fog.

Darabont utilizes sharp state-of-the-art visual techniques to bring the creatures to life and his chilling revisions of King’s story have received the author’s seal of approval.

With The Mist, Darabont and King have achieved their primary goal…to creep us out. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 11/21/07)

This Christmas
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

There are a number of cinematic yuletide standards that play out during a family reunion. But there aren’t many that present an African-American perspective.

This Christmas helps to fill that gap. This affable holiday offering is as full of clichés as Santa’s bag is full of goodies, but it is presented in a warm-hearted and genial way.

Loretta Devine (TV’s Grey’s Anatomy) leads the cast as Ma Dear, the head of the Southern California Whitfield clan. She’s anxiously preparing for the Christmas rush when most of her children are coming back home to celebrate.

Her far-flung family doesn’t gather together often. Since their father abandoned them to pursue a career as a jazz musician, the siblings have often fought and have gone their separate ways.

Most of the kids are unaware of the fact that their mother, who runs a modest dry cleaning business, has taken up with another man. Joe (Delroy Lindo from Domino)

The only child left at home is “Baby” (Chris Brown from Stomp the Yard), a teenager who has been keeping a secret from his beloved mother. He, too, wants to become a professional musician. He knows that Ma Dear will disapprove, so he’s gone to great lengths to conceal his passion.

Plus, his big brother Quentin (Irdis Elba from American Gangster) is a sax player who hasn’t been home in four years. Ma Dear isn’t about to lose another son to the music world.

Kansas City’s Colombus Short (Stomp the Yard) plays Claude, a military man who has come home with a secret of his own. He’s married a white girl. Plus, sister Lisa (Regina King from Ray) is having serious marital and economic problems thanks to her no-good philandering husband, Malcome (Laz Alonso).

Sister Kelli (Sharon Leal from Dreamgirls) hasn’t been able to have a lasting relationship. The youngest girl, Melanie (Lauren London from ATL) changes her college major every time she changes boyfriends.

In other words, the Whitfields are a typical American family.

The complications that these people experience are not unusual and the familial conflicts they endure aren’t out of the ordinary, either. But that is part of the charm of This Christmas. It reflects a family that we can all relate to.

Writer/director Preston A. Whitmore II has improved his game considerably from his most recent effort, the very weak basketball entry, Crossover. Here, he lets his likable cast carry the day.

While modest and easily forgettable, This Christmas goes down as easy as a rich slice of holiday pie. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 11/21/07)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When you give your movie the title Enchanted, you’re just asking for trouble. After all, vicious film critics are circling, just waiting to tell you why your flick can’t possibly live up to the hype.

However, in this case, we have a rare case of truth in advertising. Enchanted, as it turns out, is a delightful fantasy that takes a clever premise and instills it with all the magic that the folks at Disney can muster.

A self-effacing, tongue-in-cheek romantic comedy, Enchanted is a fairy tale send-up that unashamedly embraces the very conventions it’s satirizing.

The story involves characters living in a Disney animated fantasy. Like so many previous animated classics from the folks at the Mouse House, it begins with an off-screen narrator (in this case, Disney veteran Julie Andrews) reading the first pages of a storybook.

This animated tale involves a young girl named Giselle (Amy Adams from Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) who, accompanied by her woodland friends, is singing of her desire for True Love’s Kiss. A passing prince named Edward (James Marsden from Hairspray) hears her lovely voice and proposes on the spot.

The upcoming nuptials upset the plans of evil Queen Narissa, Edward’s stepmother, played by Susan Sarandon (Mr. Woodcock). A wicked sorceress desperately clinging to power, Queen Narissa thwarts the marriage by pushing Giselle into a magical well that transports her to a bewildering new world.

Giselle, now live action, emerges from a manhole in midtown Manhattan. An eternal optimist, she knows that Edward will eventually return to save her. In the meantime she befriends a divorce lawyer named Robert, played by Patrick Dempsey (TV’s Grey’s Anatomy) and his 6-year-old daughter, Morgan (Rachel Covey from Duane Hopwood).

The rest of the film is a cheeky but sweet lampoon of Disney fantasy as the confused fairytale character struggles to figure out this strange place called reality.

Director Kevin Lima (Tarzan) and writer Bill Kelley (Blast From the Past) had the full Disney aggregation at their disposal, so the movie has great production values and a polished sheen.

Adams is perfect as Giselle and the filmmakers include a lot of inside jokes for Broadway and movie buffs. (Jodi Benson, the voice of The Little Mermaid and Paige O’Hara, the voice of Belle from Beauty and the Beast play supporting roles.)

Even though the filmmakers have produced an eye-winking, elbow-poking joke that makes fun of the Disney’s fairytale esthetic, they also implicitly ask, “But don’t you love it?” In fact, we do. (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted 11/21/07)

Darfur Now
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

“It’s so sad to see that light get dimmed down…and it’s just gone. You don’t know if it will ever come back.”

Those are the haunting words of actor Don Cheadle describing the children clinging to life in a Sudanese refugee camp. Cheadle is one of six people at the heart of Darfur Now, a sobering documentary from writer/director Ted Braun that helps to illuminate the current situation in that war-torn African country.

Cheadle is one of the “outsiders” who bring the humanitarian crisis that is taking place there into sharp focus. Braun shows his efforts to bring attention to situation that the United States government has branded “genocide.”

Darfur, a region of Sudan larger than France, has become a place where 200,000 citizens have been murdered and another 2.5 million displaced. A horseback militia group known as the Janjawid is responsible for most of killing, but the film argues that they are aided, abetted and financed by the Sudan government. For political reasons, they want the empty the area of certain ethnic groups.

But Braun doesn’t stop with Cheadle. He divides his film up between the actor and four others who are directly or indirectly involved.

“Insiders” include a displaced woman named Hejewa Adam who has become an anti-government rebel. Sheik Ahmed Mohammed Abakar is a Muslim leader within one of the camps trying to maintain order among hundreds of refugees. Another frustrated individual is Pablo Recalde, an official with the World Food Program who desperately strives to save the displaced citizens from starvation.

The other outsiders are Adam Sterling, a California waiter who led efforts to get his state to end all investments in Sudan and Luis Moreno-Ocampo, a prosecutor with the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The film follows Moreno-Ocampo’s attempts to build a case against Sudanese officials.

By dividing the focus of his film between these individuals, Braun has sapped the film of much of its potential power. While it helps to give us an overview of the situation, it breaks up the momentum and we don’t connect emotionally with any of them.

But, of course, the main reason that the film exists is to attract attention to the crisis and to help us better understand it. In that respect, it is a resounding success.

As an example of filmmaking, this well-meaning project is not particularly distinguished. But Darfur Now accomplishes its primary goal, vividly reminding us of a catastrophe that is taking place right under our noses. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted 11/16/07)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Although professors of English Literature may cringe at the liberties taken in Hollywood’s new version of Beowulf, audiences looking for a visual spectacle probably won’t mind this revisionist adaptation.

Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis, best known for popcorn flicks like Forrest Gump and the Back to the Future trilogy, is certainly on the cutting edge of cinematic technology. His efforts to create a new visual universe explain his embrace of a computerized animation method called “motion capture.”

First put to extensive use in Zemeckis’ holiday offering Polar Express, motion capture involves a technique where actors are photographed performing their roles against a blue screen. The players are covered in thousands of tiny dots that record their slightest movements and facial expressions. A computer then captures that information and relays it to a computer where their likenesses…or wildly altered version of them…are transferred into a virtual fantasy world.

This enables the animators to place the actors in fanciful environments heretofore unavailable to filmmakers. While the results are often stunning, the technology still has a long way to go.

All of this newfangled science is put to use in Zemeckis’ new take on the classic story, which has been altered considerably by screenwriters Neil Gaiman (Stardust) and Roger Avary (Silent Hill). In an attempt to appeal to modern audiences, the writers have injected strong sexual overtones and dark themes into the adventure tale.

Veteran British tough guy Ray Winstone (The Departed) performs the title role. (Unlike most of the other stars, the visual image of this 50-year-old bulldog has been changed considerably.) A mighty warrior, Beowulf has traveled to the Danish mead hall of Heorot to save the king (Anthony Hopkins) his wife (Robin Wright Penn) and the villagers from a horrible monster named Grendel (Crispin Glover).

Traveling to a remote cave in an attempt to slay the creature, Beowulf is confronted by its beautiful mother (Angelina Jolie). He discovers that sexual intimacy between the king and the monster’s mother may be at the heart of the conflict. He too, however, may succumb to the seductive demon’s sexual allure.

Of course, none of this erotic intrigue can be found in the original poem. But, hey, how can Hollywood do it otherwise? (The film deserves an “R” rating, not the wishy-washy “PG-13” that the MPAA has assigned it.)

The main problem with Beowulf is also its strength. The visuals (especially in the spectacular IMAX 3-D version) are breathtaking. The technique, however, is less successful with human expression. At times, the roles seem to be played by reanimated figures from Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum.

A mixed bag, Beowulf succeeds as a spectacle and fails as a compelling drama. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 11/16/07)

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Reviewed by Deborah Young

This film’s main characters, two brothers, don’t reap the rewards of the blessing “May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.” Instead, their misguided attempt to achieve their versions of heaven on earth fails.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead opens with lots of nudity as the more affluent brother, Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), has sex with his wife (Marisa Tomei as Gina). We learn through their postcoital conversation that they’re in Brazil and so happy that Andy’s thinking about moving there.

Later scenes reveal that the couple isn’t as happy at home as it appeared in the first scene.

Andy eventually convinces his divorced and broke brother, Hank (played by Ethan Hawke), to commit the “victimless crime” of robbing their parents’ jewelry store. The plan is for Hank to use a toy gun. No one will get hurt. The two brothers will make a fortune, and their parents will use insurance money to recover their losses.

Unfortunately, something goes terribly wrong and both brothers face awful consequences.

Screenwriter Kelly Masterson uses nonlinear storytelling techniques to create suspense. The movie jumps between past, present and future, showing scenes from the characters’ lives before and after the robbery. These scenes fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces. Eventually, we get a clear of these characters’ lives, their secrets and their blunders.

The standout performance comes from Phillip Seymour Hoffman. He takes a very unlikable character and endows him with such sadness and complexity that we can empathize with him. This character type is Hoffman’s strength as proven by his performances in Love Liza (in which he played a grieving widower who huffs gas) and Capote (in which he played the title character).

Albert Finney also does a brilliant job as a father and husband whose pain and anger carry him far from what would be considered a father’s traditional role and responses.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead takes us to gloomy places. The characters’ vices include drug use, illicit affairs and murder. But director Sidney Lumet’s latest effort ultimately succeeds in presenting a heavenly good dramatization of hellishly dark lives. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 11/16/07)

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Halfway through Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, the titular toy store throws a temper tantrum. This revelation should tell you a lot about what you’re in for with this whimsical children’s fantasy.

Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman and Jason Bateman star in this well produced story of a Willie Wonka-type retailer whose magical store is experiencing a potentially catastrophic crisis.

Oddly, this holiday feature is not based upon any book. Filmmaker Zach Helm has gone to great lengths, however, to make it seem as if it were. He has divided the story into chapters, each of which is accompanied by illustrated pages.

But this original work is the first directorial effort from writer Helm, the screenwriter of Stranger Than Fiction. Like that Will Farrell comedy, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is a creative lark.

Hoffman (Perfume) plays Mr. Magorium, a 243-year-old storekeeper. His unusual shop is filled with playthings, baubles, trinkets and curios, all of which seem to have a life of their own. Naturally, you have to be open to the possibility of magic in order to see it.

Portman (V for Vendetta) is Molly Mahoney, the manager of Mr. Magorium’s boutique. An aspiring pianist and composer suffering from writer’s block, Molly is a sweet-natured lass who is insecure and seemingly unable to fulfill her potential.

One day, Mr. Magorium decides that he should hire an accountant to sort out his unruly books. He decides to take on Henry Weston, an uptight suit played by Bateman (The Kingdom). Of course, he is unable to perceive the enchantment all around him.

The fourth character rounding out the story is the narrator, a youngster named Eric, played by Zach Mills (The Santa Clause 3). A hat aficionado who has a hard time making friends, Eric finds a home-away-from-home at the unusual store.

The big problems begin when Mr. Magorium decides that its time to shake off this mortal coil. He wills the store to Molly, but she doesn’t think that she’s got the magic to keep it going.

While the movie has some warm moments, it never quite captures the bewitching atmosphere it strives for. The biggest problem is Portman. While she has proven herself to be a fine actress in the past, there is an important element missing from her portrayal here. Molly undergoes a major change, but we never really see that important transition in Portman’s performance.

While fun, Mr. Magorium is a forgettable family fantasy. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted 11/16/07)

Lions for Lambs
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

“If you don't STAND for something, you might FALL for anything.”

That tagline from the ads for Lions for Lambs sums up the movie’s theme. It’s also the least didactic thing about the whole enterprise.

Directed by Robert Redford (The Legend of Bagger Vance), Lions for Lambs is a well meaning but excessively preachy political diatribe that takes aim at America’s military involvement in the Middle East, the passivity of the American press and the gullibility of the American public.

Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom), Lions for Lambs tells three interlocking stories. Generally, depicted in simultaneous fashion, the three scenarios consist mostly of polemics.

Meryl Streep (Rendition) plays Janine Roth, a correspondent for a big time TV news network. She’s been called into the office of an up-and-coming Republican Senator named Jasper Irving, played by Tom Cruise (Mission: Impossible III). The smooth politico wants give the skeptical reporter a scoop. He’s involved in a “new” strategy to ensure victory in Afghanistan.

The second story involves a college professor named Stephen Malley (Redford) who is having a meeting in his office with a smart but lazy student, Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield from TV’s Sugar Rush.) He’s trying to convince the lad to get involved and not sleepwalk through his class…or life.

The third story tracks two soldiers who are engaged in Senator Irving’s new surge in Afghanistan. Earnest (Michel Pena from Crash) and Arian (Derek Luke from Antwone Fisher) wind up stranded on a frigid Afghan mountain peak awaiting rescue while Taliban soldiers close in on them.

The actors acquit themselves well (reportedly Redford allowed them to improvise some of the dialogue), but none come off as credible characters. Instead, they’re pawns on Carnahan’s chessboard, moving into pre-designed patterns to make political and ethical points.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, Redford and Carnahan can’t quite resist hitting us with a sledgehammer. The movie comes off as a shrill and excessively pushy. The filmmakers seem so frustrated with the sad state of current affairs that they pound their points long after making them.

This is particularly disheartening, especially since there are many viewers who are undoubtedly sympathetic to their message. But the choir doesn’t need to be preached to and those of a more conservative inclination are going to be turned off by the liberal sermonizing.

Redford and Carnahan may well be right, but their message will likely fall on deaf ears. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 11/09/07)

Fred Claus
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When one considers the recent cinematic treatment of the North Pole, it is easy to feel that Hollywood has been dumping a lot of coal in our stockings.

Usually, a comic like Tim Allen plays good old St. Nick as a bungling idiot and the movies are dumbed down in a misguided effort to reach the youngsters. (Hey, haven’t any of the studio execs seen Miracle on 34th Street? You don’t need to talk down to the kids to make a good Christmas movie.)

Luckily, Fred Claus is a step up from the Tim Allen-style yuletide drivel. It’s more on a par with the cheeky Will Farrell fantasy, Elf. While it satirizes our beloved holiday icons, it does so with a bit of heart.

The fast-talking, wisecracking Vince Vaughn (Into the Wild) is well cast as St. Nick’s older brother, Fredrick. In the amusing open sequence, we learn how a rivalry developed between Fred and his saintly sibling, played as an adult by Paul Giamatti (The Nanny Diaries).

A few centuries after their estrangement, Santa is hard at work preparing for the annual Christmas onslaught. Fred, a chronic underachiever, is in New York City trying to pull off a deal to open an off-track betting facility. Due to some unwise choices, our hero winds up in the slammer.

In need of bail money and unable to contact his estranged girlfriend Wanda (Rachel Weisz from The Fountain), Fred reluctantly calls his brother at the North Pole. Santa agrees to bail him out and give him cash for his business…if Fred will come to his workshop and help out during the holiday rush.

Shortly, Santa’s head elf Willie (John Michael Higgins from Evan Almighty) appears to whisk Fred up to the North Pole where he’ll work in the “naughty and nice” file room.

This arrangement starts out well enough, until an efficiency expert named Clyde (Kevin Spacey from Superman Returns) shows up to give Santa’s operation the once-over. As it turns out, Clyde has ulterior motives for ruining Christmas.

Writers Dan Fogelman and Jessie Nelson don’t provide enough laughs to sustain the enterprise, so director David Dobkin (The Wedding Crashers) relies heavily on his ensemble of actors to carry the day. Thankfully, he’s assembled a talented bunch.

Although it’s manipulative and at least a half hour too long, Fred Claus is a sweetly sentimental flick delivered by pros, a harmless holiday treat. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted 11/09/07)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Back in 1972, Anthony Shaffer’s hit play Sleuth became a hit movie starring Lord Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. Directed by Joseph L. Mankeiwicz (All About Eve), it is considered by many to be a modern classic.

In a bit of stunt casting, Caine appears in the updated version of the mystery thriller, but this time taking the role originally played by Olivier. This new adaptation of Sleuth is less a remake than it is an odd re-imagining of Shaffer’s twisty battle of wits.

Caine plays Andrew Wyke, a successful and wealthy author best known for his popular murder mysteries. A young man named Milo Tindle, played by Jude Law (All the King’s Men) has come to Wyke’s sprawling country estate in rural England. Their meeting will be a memorable one.

Tindle, you see, has taken Wyke’s wife as his lover. A much younger and more virile man than Wyke, Tindle has come to ask the Wyke to give his wife a divorce. But Tindle is a poor hairdresser who will have a tough time providing for this woman in the manner to which she has become accustomed.

Although Wyke is very unhappy being cuckolded, he proposes a possible solution. He’ll let Tindle steal expensive jewels from his safe. Tindle can hock them for a lot of cash and Wyke will collect the insurance money. Everybody wins.

But, of course, this manipulative intellectual is simply playing with Tindle. He’s setting him up for a game of cat and mouse that will teach the upstart a lesson about stealing another man’s wife.

While this plot setup is the same as the original, Nobel prize-winning writer Harold Pinter (The Homecoming) has added an even darker edge.

Director Kenneth Branagh (As You Like It) stages the action in the gray interiors of Wyke’s ultramodern mansion. The oppressively austere setting appropriately reflects the ice-cold nature of the entire enterprise.

Pinter’s dialogue becomes the focus here, not the characters. It’s an interesting difference, but also a bit of a distraction.

Caine is magnificent. He has matured perfectly into the role and always seems credible. Law, while more than competent, poses a bit of a problem. His character makes an important transformation, but it isn’t a convincing one.

Sadly, this Sleuth is a bit of a mixed bag. With so much talent involved, the real mystery is trying to figure out why it doesn’t really work. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 11/09/07)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

For those asking the question “Whatever happened to Wes Bentley?” we have an answer: P2.

When he arrived on the scene in the Oscar-winning drama American Beauty, audiences and critics took note of this talented young actor who gave a solid and earnest performance as a disaffected teenager struggling under the confines of a bad family life.

Although he’s been seen sporadically since (the adventure drama The Four Feathers is probably his highest profile project), Bentley certainly hasn’t lived up to his initial promise. So what’s the Julliard-trained thespian up to now? He’s playing a psycho in a cheap horror flick.

In P2, Bentley portrays Thomas, a security guard at a midtown Manhattan office tower’s underground parking garage. (The title refers to one of the garage floors where some grisly mayhem ensures.)

Thomas has been using the building’s ubiquitous security cameras to spy on a pretty business executive named Angela, played by Rachel Nichols (Resurrecting the Champ). Obviously hard up for a date, he’s figured out a way to set up a romantic liaison with her.

The scene is Christmas Eve, and everyone has left the building except for a couple of guards and the overworked Angela. There’s going to be a total building lockdown for the holiday, so Angela is trying to finish up her tasks so she can drive to her sister’s house for the family celebrations before it gets too late.

Thomas, however, has other plans. He’s sabotaged Angela’s car and done away with the other security guard. He chloroforms her, puts her in a party dress, chains her to a table in the security office and begins to fix them both a nice holiday dinner. Now that’s the way to a woman’s heart.

Anyone who has seen a horror film in the last thirty years will not be surprised by what happens next. Angela turns out to be fairly clever and manages to get out of her confinement. A cat-and-mouse game ensues between these two as Angela attempts to escape from her unwanted suitor.

P2 is the first directing effort from French actor Franck Khalfoun. His writing collaborator is Alexandre Aja, the man responsible for the reprehensibly grisly gorefest High Tension. Their intention is simply to creep us out, but the movie’s silly dialogue, nagging plot holes and reliance on horror film clichés turns it into an excruciating waste of 98 minutes of our lives.

To P2, we say PU. (R) Rating: 0.5 (Posted 11/09/07)

Lake of Fire
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Perhaps it is appropriate that a documentary about abortion is as thorny and frustrating as the controversial subject it covers.

Lake of Fire is the work of Tony Kaye, the director best known for the drama American History X. Overlong, overwrought and annoyingly repetitive, it is also deeply disturbing and often frightening.

Over a period of nearly two decades, Kaye shot footage of distinguished talking heads (Noam Chomsky, Alan Dershowitz, Nat Hentoff), abortion rights supporters (Sarah Weddington) and pro-life activists (Randall Terry). Kaye has interpolated these interviews with news footage and (strange) iconography.

Shot in stark black-and-white and in 35-mm, the film is visually arresting. Kaye’s alternating use of extreme close ups and long shots is, however, utterly exasperating. So is his manipulative use of choral music that is obviously intended to heighten our emotional reactions.

But in spite of these considerable flaws, Lake of Fire is often compelling. Among those interviewed by Kaye is Paul Hill, a fundamentalist Christian who once regularly picketed abortion clinics. Looking as clean cut and well spoken as an insurance salesman, Hill calmly made his case that abortion is murder.

Later, Hill took the law into his own hands, murdering a doctor and a clinic employee.

You can’t complain that Kaye doesn’t give all sides of the debate a chance to express their points of view. In fact, he allows some of his subjects to ramble excessively. But in letting them talk, he also gives them enough time to fully expose themselves.

Another notable subject is Norma McCorvey, better known as “Jane Roe” from the infamous 1973 Roe vs. Wade case. Today, she has converted to Christianity and is a much sought after speaker who talks of the evils of abortion.

But the segment that works best comes late in the film. It follows a 28-year-old woman who goes to a clinic to end an unwanted pregnancy. We’re privy to the brief counseling she undergoes, her personal confessions and the aftermath of the procedure. Even though she is thoroughly convinced that she has made the best decision for her life, her emotional anguish and second thoughts are painfully clear.

The film contains graphic footage of aborted fetuses may prove to be too much for many viewers to bear. (One scene shows a medical technician dutifully measuring the severed limbs and crushed skulls that have been extracted during an abortion procedure.)

Lake of Fire is complicated and sad, raising important questions that both sides of the abortion debate continue to grapple with. (No MPAA rating) Rating: 3 (Posted 11/09/07)

American Gangster
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The first scene of American Gangster gives us a glimpse of the protagonist, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), before he becomes a major supplier of heroin to the Mafia. Lucas and his boss, crook and drug dealer Bumpy Johnson (played by Clarence Williams III) stand before a bloody man seated in a chair on the street. They watch as men douse the seated man with gasoline. Then with a single movement Lucas tosses his lit cigar, and flames engulf the man.

In the next scene Lucas watches from the front of a crowd as Johnson stands at the back of what looks like a moving truck and hands out turkeys to neighborhood people.

These two scenes provide a great example of the contrasts emphasized throughout the 157-minute movie. Using the 2000 New York magazine story about Lucas, “The Return of Superfly,” by Mark Jacobson for at least part of their inspiration, they created a symmetrical story about the intersection of honesty and dishonesty, about self-delusion and about greed.

Lucas has the trappings of a successful businessman: multiple legitimate businesses, millions of dollars, and a lavish home. He keeps a daily routine that includes rising early and eating breakfast at a diner. He talks of his hard work and his “brand” of heroin, known as blue magic.

To their credit, director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian refuse to let viewers forget the nature of this man’s business and the consequences of the business. In several graphic scenes, the camera lingers on people injecting themselves with heroin and, in some cases, lying dead in almost obscene poses, needles still in them.

The filmmakers also manipulated the story to evoke thought.

Some critics consider manipulation a bad thing, but it can be high art if done well. Scott and company do it well here, particularly with their thinly veiled comparisons between Lucas and Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the “honest” police officer that winds up pursuing the drug smuggler.

Early on, Crowe’s character, Roberts, turns in nearly a million dollars in unmarked bills, although he could have easily kept it without getting caught. Now he flaunts his honesty like a merit badge. But during their divorce proceedings his wife reminds him that he’s not really an honest man. He cheated on her with other women and shortchanged their son with his absences.

So Roberts and Lucas prove to be alike in their compulsion to delude themselves. Their quirky and determined characteristics and great performances by Ruby Dee (as Lucas’s mother), Josh Brolin (as crooked Detective Trupo) and others, propel us through this cinematic version of the story.

American Gangster is not the action feast that the title might imply, but it is a well-acted, layered tale of human foibles that includes a bit of history about the drug trade in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 11/02/07)

Bee Movie
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The funniest moment in the computer-animated comedy Bee Movie involves a mosquito (voiced by Chris Rock) who accepts a position as a lawyer. “I was always a blood-sucking parasite,” he cracks. “All I needed was a briefcase.”

If the flick had more lines like that, Bee Movie might have been a smash. As is, it is an affable time-waster that should keep the kiddies reasonably distracted for ninety minutes.

Produced and largely written by Jerry Seinfeld, Bee Movie tells the stranger-in-a-strange-land story of Barry B. Benson, voiced by Seinfeld. A New York City bee who recently graduated from college, Barry must now choose which job he is to take in the hive. He’d better like it, because he’ll do that job for the rest of his short lifespan.

As the result of a series of coincidences, Barry leaves the hive with a squadron of Air Force-type studs, the bees responsible for gathering nectar and pollinating the flowers of Central Park. As he ventures out into the greater world outside of the hive, he is reminded that he is to never speak to a human. That is one of beedom’s major rules.

Naturally, he winds up befriending a florist named Vanessa Bloome (Renée Zellweger) and demonstrates that bees can, in fact, speak.

But what really gets Barry in a buzz is when he discovers that the nefarious humans have been stealing honey from bees and marketing the sweet result of bee labor in supermarkets around the world. He feels that this injustice must not stand and sets about to sue the major honey companies.

Okay, that premise is a big stretch, but anthropomorphism has always been big in the cartoon world. In many other cases (like this year’s Surf’s Up and Ratatouille) the filmmakers have been more successful in making their alternate universe seem real. In Bee Movie, we’re always aware that this is a stand-up comic’s elbow-poking joke.

Seinfeld has recruited a number of his showbiz pals to provide character voices, including his TV sitcom co-stars Michael Richards, Patrick Warburton and Carol Leifer. Other pals helping out include Matthew Broderick, John Goodman, Oprah Winfrey, Rip Torn, Kathy Bates, Barry Levinson and Megan Mullally. Amusingly, Sting, Ray Liotta and Larry King play animated versions of themselves.

While the animation is strong, it can’t match the level of artistic or technical sophistication achieved by the folks at Pixar. The bar has been placed very high.

But Bee Movie suffers only by comparison. It may not be a honey, but it’s reasonably sweet. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted 11/02/07)

The Martian Child
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If the faint spirit of Steven Spielberg comes to mind while you’re viewing the sentimental “dramedy.” The Martian Child, it probably isn’t a fluke.

Netherlands-born filmmaker Menno Meyjes has frequently collaborated with the world’s most famous director. He’s responsible (at least in part) for the screenplays to Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” “The Color Purple” and “Empire of the Sun.”

Plus, the movie deals with an extraterrestrial…sort of.

John Cusack (1408) stars as David Gordon, a successful science fiction writer whose latest space adventure, Dracoban, is being turned into a film and, his publisher hopes, a successful literary series. He’s been contracted to write a sequel but he’s having writer’s block.

David, you see, is recovering from the death of this wife and is having a hard time concentrating on the task at hand.

Lonely and in need of being needed, David considers adoption. Recalling his own childhood as an outsider, he decides to see if he can be of some help to a problem child.

As it happens, a local orphanage has a curious 6-year-old with a special concern. This precocious lad named Dennis (Bobby Coleman from Friends With Money) is under the impression that he is from Mars. He’s utterly convinced that he is here to do some research into human behavior until his alien pals come back to rescue him.

David, a sci-fi expert, might seem to be a good fit for this imaginative child. But David’s sister, Liz (Cusack’s real-life sister, Joan) tries to dissuade him, warning him of the difficulties of parenthood even when two adults are present. Taking on an emotionally challenged and perhaps delusional child would be too much for anyone.

But David’s good friend Harlee (Amanda Peete from TV’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) encourages him to take the plunge.

Although he has his doubts, David decides to go ahead with the adoption. He soon learns that life with this peculiar and disturbed tyke will be far more challenging than he had ever anticipated.

Yes, this is the kind of flick designed to remind us of the value of family while tugging at our heartstrings. While it is shamefully manipulative, the terrific cast makes it palatable.

John Cusack delivers an earnest and honest performance making David a character we can root for. Young Coleman is equally good, avoiding the mawkishness that often marks the work of young thespians.

Like Spielberg, Meyjes manages to keep his extraterrestrial weeper well grounded. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted 11/02/07)

Wristcutters: A Love Story
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Jaded filmgoers want it both ways. They want movies that break new ground and take them places they’ve never been before. They also want the comfort of familiarity. What’s an artist to do?

Well, you’ve got to give some bonus points to Croatian filmmaker Goran Dukic (How I Saved the World). His quirky little comedy Wristcutters: A Love Story manages somehow to be both wildly original and strangely derivative at the same time. That means that it’s probably too odd to find an audience.

Based on a short story called Kneller’s Happy Campers by Etgar Keret, this quirky flick gives us a look at a bleak alternate universe where people are transported after they’ve done themselves in. (The alternate title: Pizzeria Kamikaze.)

Zia (Patrick Fugit from Almost Famous) offs himself after a devastating breakup with his girlfriend. But rather than finding an end to his emotional pain, Zia winds up in a kind of purgatory populated with suicide victims. This parallel dimension is very much like Earth, except that it is a depressing, run-down version where colors are washed out and no one is able to smile. Cheery it ain’t.

Working in a mundane job at a pizza shop, Zia seems resigned to his unhappy fate. One day he befriends a Russian émigré named Eugene (Shea Whigham from The Lords of Dogtown). It seems that his entire family committed suicide, so they all reside together in the afterlife.

Zia experiences some strange stirrings that cause him to believe that his former lover, Desiree (Leslie Bibb from Talladega Nights) has also committed suicide and, therefore, is somewhere close by. He and Eugene embark on a road trip to find her.

Along the way, our intrepid duo meets a hitchhiker named Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon from A Knight’s Tale). Since she is the victim of an accidental drug overdose, she believes that she’s in her current plane by mistake. She’s looking for the “people in charge” to correct this error and send her back home.

The flick is really a romantic road movie that just happens to be set in purgatory. The quirky characters and oddball setting is the only thing that separates this from something that might star Sandra Bullock.

The only real problem with this movie is that it seems very padded. Yes, this is a short story expanded to feature length…and we feel the stretch.

Weird and somewhat touching, Wristcutters makes a modest mark. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 11/02/07)


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