reel reviews
movie reviews
December '07

THE SAVAGESTHE GREAT DEBATERSTHE WATER HORSE
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET
ATONEMENTCHARLIE WILSON'S WARJUNOTHE KITE RUNNER
NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETSP.S. I LOVE YOUTHE WALKERWALK HARD
I AM LEGENDMARGOT AT THE WEDDINGCONTROLALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKSTHE GOLDEN COMPASS

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The Savages
Reviewed by Deborah Young

This movie works mostly because of the vagueness of its story. Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman play middle-age siblings (Wendy and John Savage) who are called upon to make arrangement for their aging father, Lenny (played by Philip Bosco). Lenny has started to exhibit signs of dementia.

Obviously, the two haven’t spent much time with their father recently, and both seem annoyed at the prospect of reuniting with him. So right away there’s a mystery about why they feel this way. Is there a terrible family secret? Was their father some kind of monster as they were growing up?

These questions never get answered, which makes the movie’s story more universal. The Savages winds up painting a believable picture of grown siblings who have a love-hate relationship with an aging parent. The movie explores the siblings’ conflicting feelings of compassion, annoyance and guilt.

Linney and Hoffman are both masters at playing strange and quirky characters. Both actors give powerfully low-key performances. Hoffman plays the logical and emotionally repressed older brother. Linney plays the helpless sister who can’t get her life or her career together. Both characters appear to be sleepwalking through life.

Those who want to see more melodramatic performances from these actors may want to check out Linney in Kinsey (2004) and Hoffman in Love Liza (2002). But here they are as matter-of-fact as this film, which will sneak up on audiences the same way life sometimes sneaks up on us with an emotional resonance only felt in retrospect. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 12/28/07)


The Great Debaters
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Oprah Winfrey and Denzel Washington are forces to reckon with. She’s arguably the most powerful woman in entertainment and he, a two-time Oscar winner, is one of the most highly respected stars of his day.

The collaboration of this dynamic duo is the new film, The Great Debaters. Winfrey serves as producer and Washington takes on the roles of director and actor.

“Inspired by a true story”, The Great Debaters involves the trials and tribulations of a debate team from a small African-American college in the 1930s.

Washington plays Melvin B. Tolson, the debate coach for Wiley College, an all-black school in East Texas. He is a taskmaster who, on the side, secretly works to organize oppressed sharecroppers who are exploited by white farmers and businessmen.

As an educator, Tolson’s greatest hope is that his charges will be allowed to compete with white schools and demonstrate that African-Americans possess the intelligence and work ethic to be treated as equals. He and his students must persevere, even when confronted by racism of the most violent nature.

Among the members of the debate team is a smooth womanizer named Henry Lowe, played by Nate Parker (Pride) and an overweight 15-year-old named James Farmer, Jr., played by Denzel Whitaker (no relation to either Denzel Washington or the man who plays his father, Forest Whitaker). Most surprisingly, the team also has a female member, Samantha Brooke, played by Jurnee Smollett (Gridiron Gang).

Although they’re smart and talented, they get little cooperation from white schools in their efforts to debate. When they are allowed to compete, they demonstrate considerable skills, but they also confront threats, indifference and, most disturbingly, witness a lynching.

Screenwriter Robert Eisele has supplied a script that is highly fictionalized. Although the film culminates with the Wiley debate team locked in a historic battle with Harvard, there is little historical evidence to substantiate the claim that this event actually occurred. Still, the film manages to paint a vivid portrait of an era of suppression. (Strangely, the name of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, originally tapped as screenwriter, is missing from the credits.)

Washington structures his film like a feel-good sports movie. The drama builds to a crescendo as the climatic battle comes into play. Because of the earnestness of the players and the upbeat nature of project, we’re willing to allow him to manipulate us as we cheer for the home team.

Although it’s glossy and somewhat formulaic, The Great Debaters is, ultimately, a rousing, inspirational crowd-pleaser. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 12/28/07)


The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

As legends go, the one about the creature known as the Loch Ness Monster is among the most persistent. There seems to be a good-natured competition between those who cling to the story of Nessie and proponents of Bigfoot and crop circles.

Filmmaker Jay Russell (My Dog Spike) brings Dick King-Smith’s book about Nessie to life in The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep. This affable family flick is an extremely well produced feature that takes a realistic approach to the fabled creature’s story.

The movie is framed by a narrator sequence wherein a couple of American tourists, hiking their way through Scotland, meet a local resident at a pub. This welcoming stranger (Brian Cox from Running With Scissors) diverts them with a story about the monster of the lake that he insists is the genuine article.

In flashbacks that go back to the World War II era, we learn the story of young Angus MacMurrow, played by Alex Etel (Millions). His father is off at war and his mother, Ann (the ever-reliable Emily Watson from Gosford Park), has become the temporary caretaker for a sprawling Scottish estate.

Alex discovers a barnacle-encrusted object on the shores of Loch Ness. Intrigued, he takes it home and begins chipping away, only to discover that it is an egg. Soon, a slimy little creature hatches that looks like a cross between a Thanksgiving turkey and a puppy.

Naturally, Alex has to keep his new pet a secret from his mom and prying sister. To complicate matters further, mom has hired a dour new handyman (Ben Chaplin from The New World) who might discover the creature. Worse, a British Army battalion has taken up temporary residence on the grounds. They’re concerned that the Nazis might stage an invasion through the Loch.

Alex manages to hide his discovery for a while, but the little creature begins to grow exponentially. Ultimately, he has to enlist the help of others to get it past the soldiers intent on shooting it and get it into the Loch Ness so that it can thrive.

The special effects wizards do a splendid job of bringing the creature to life. With a few minor exceptions, the monster seems very realistic.

Director Russell takes a realistic approach, willingly allowing some darker elements into this fantasy. Although it is utterly predictable, a good cast and solid production values make The Water Horse palatable family fun. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted 12/28/07)


Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The preview trailers for the Johnny Depp thriller Sweeney Todd show the popular star in ash white makeup and a fright wig, slashing about with a bloody barber’s razor. Yes, the studio wants you to know that it’s a dark and creepy horror film.

What they don’t want you to know is that it’s a musical. There’s neither a lick of vocalizing nor any mention of the show’s Broadway roots. The marketing gurus behind the ad campaign must be hoping that they can trick potential viewers into attending and then win them over once they’ve recovered from the shock of discovering that it’s full of Stephen Sondheim songs.

Well, let’s hope their ploy works. Brilliantly adapted by director Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands), this hit from the Great White Way is one of the very best films of the year.

The setting is London in the 1800s. Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean) plays the title role, a man falsely accused of a crime by the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman from the Harry Potter series) who has lecherous designs on his pretty wife. Sent off to prison for years, he secretly returns to seek revenge on those who’ve wronged him.

He soon learns that his wife poisoned herself shortly after he left for prison, and that Judge Turpin kept Sweeney’s young daughter as his ward. Now that she’s grown into a lovely young woman, the sleazy judge plans to marry her.

Sweeney takes over a barbershop on the second floor of a pie shop run by Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Quickly becoming allies with the lonely shopkeeper, Sweeney slashes the throats of his “clients” and provides their corpses to Mrs. Lovett for use in her meat pies.

While the shop thrives, Sweeney attempts to help a young lad free his daughter from the judge’s clutches. Becoming ever more contemptuous of the privileged classes, he continues to cleanse London of it’s high class scum.

Sondheim has called his play a “virtual opera” because so few of the lines of dialogue are spoken. Indeed, the music carries the story. Thankfully, Depp and company are more than up to the demands of the tricky score. Some of the songs are achingly beautiful while others ably capture the story’s nightmarish feel.

Burton’s direction is superb. His inventive camera work and creative art direction add immeasurably to the film’s sinister atmosphere.

Sweeny Todd is not for everyone. Those who have a low tolerance for violent content should avoid this lurid movie. Those who can look past the distasteful elements will discover a brilliant and thoughtful work of fine art. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 12/21/07)


Atonement
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Fans of old-fashioned, sweeping romance will find much to like in the new period drama Atonement.

Based upon the novel by Ian McEwan (The Comfort of Strangers), it is a beautifully produced melodrama that ably captures a strong sense of time and place.

Thematically, it resembles nothing less than Lillian Hellman’s famous tragedy about unsubstantiated gossip, The Children’s Hour. As in that play, a child in Atonement makes an accusation that causes irreparable damage.

The action begins in 1935 at a lush and sprawling estate in the English countryside. It is the residence of the wealthy Tallis family, where a bright 13-year-old girl named Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is anxiously awaiting the return of her elder brother, Leon. She’s written a play for him and hopes that her visiting cousins will help her perform it.

Briony’s beautiful sister Cecilia, played by Keira Knightly (Pirates of the Caribbean), is home from university and is struggling with her feelings for a lad named Robbie Turner (James McAvoy from The Last King of Scotland), the son of the family’s housekeeper.

A series of coincidences lead young Briony to believe that Robbie is a sex pervert. When she sees Cecilia making out with him in the library, she fears the worst. After a guest rapes one of her cousins, Briony falsely accuses Robbie of the crime. Only Cecilia and Robbie’s mother believe him to be innocent. Briony’s error sets into motion a series of events that the naive girl cannot change.

The story then follows a number of complicated twists as Cecilia sees her romance torn apart, Robbie sent to prison and World War II beginning to rear its ugly head. Briony then goes to great lengths to seek atonement for her misdeeds, hoping to mend fences with her sister and to set things right with Robbie.

Director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice) employs a number of showy, perhaps even gimmicky cinematic techniques. He plays with timelines and uses sound and lighting contrivances as scene cues. One lengthy tracking shot, taking place at the Dunkirk Evacuation of 1940, is an impressive cinematic feat even though it adds little to the story.

None of this is a distraction, however. Screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons) keeps the story firmly grounded, so that when McEwan’s unusual finale is ultimately revealed, it has its intended impact.

Knightly and McAvoy are attractive leads, lending the film an appeal that should broaden its reach beyond literary circles.

Atonement is one of the more handsome and affecting British imports in recent memory. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 12/21/07)


Charlie Wilson’s War
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If one can believe what one sees in the comic drama Charlie Wilson’s War, then the behind-the-scenes efforts of a randy congressman, a wealthy Texas socialite and a rouge CIA agent changed the course of history.

Tom Hanks (The Da Vinci Code) plays Charlie Wilson, a Democratic Congressman from Texas whose weaknesses include booze, broads and bundles of cash donations from special interest groups. Slick and self-assured, Charlie isn’t lacking a conscious, but he hasn’t found much use for it in Washington, DC.

Although he’s being hounded by ethics charges brought against him by a crusading prosecutor named Rudy Giuliani, Charlie manages to get some work done procuring pork for his district back home.

One of his constituents is a beautiful and wealthy Houston heiress named Joanne Herring, played by Julia Roberts (Ocean’s Twelve). She’s convinced that the United States should confront the Soviet Army, which has invaded Afghanistan. Her efforts to rid that country of the godless communists have proven fruitless.

Using her money, connections and sexual favors to influence Charlie, Joanne finally persuades him to visit Afghanistan to see things for himself. She arranges for him to meet with her friend, the current Pakistani strongman President Zia, who has wrested power from the elected leader in a bloody coup.

Zia arranges for Charlie to be taken to an Afghan refugee camp. There, he sees the horrible results of the Soviet invasion and decides to help. US officials are unwilling to join in the effort, however. It seems that the unofficial American position is to let the Soviets involve themselves in a protracted, costly and bloody war like we endured in Vietnam.

So, aided by Joanne’s machinations, Charlie conspires with a CIA operative named Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman from Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) in a clandestine effort to provide the Afghan Mujahideen with the sophisticated arms needed to shoot down Soviet helicopters.

Hanks brings his inherent humanity to the role, making Wilson an extremely likable rogue. Roberts also impresses in what is essentially a showy supporting role. Hoffman gives yet another solid performance as a smart and cynical intelligence agent who understands how to get around the maddening Washington bureaucratic hypocrisy.

Although it lacks satisfyingly cathartic conclusion, Charlie Wilson’s War is a smart, cheeky film from director Mike Nichols (Closer) and writer Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men). It’s an entertaining and cynical look at modern politics. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 12/21/07)


Juno
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Imagine the ensuing verbal high jinks if one of those Dawson’s Creek kids had ever gotten pregnant. No need to imagine any longer, just check out Juno, whose protagonist and title character can talk circles around the Dawson’s Creek kids.

Ellen Page (X-Men: The Last Stand) is an absolute hoot as the teenage girl who has sex once and winds up pregnant. And stripper turned writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking) have created a fresh take on in the teen drama genre.

First, Juno isn’t the typical teen and her baby’s daddy is no fairytale prince. They’re just two kids that got bored one day and decided to experiment with sex.

In fact, Paulie (Michael Cera) is so far from the usual suspects for fathering a child that Juno’s father (J.K. Simmons as Mac) can’t seem to find his anger when the boy is involved. Mac simply mutters, “I didn’t know he had it in him.”

Second, unlike the teen protagonists of Dawson’s Creek and movies such as Pretty in Pink, the adults in Juno’s life aren’t brain-dead or suffering from prolonged childhood syndrome. Her father and stepmother offer sensible advice and try to help Juno through a difficult situation.

And last, Juno may be a bit more insightful than expected, but she’s obviously a kid, which is refreshing in a genre that sometimes nearly deifies teens.

Juno decides to select adoptive parents for her baby. After she finds the couple she wants to parent her child, she decides to form a relationship with them, which has hilarious and mildly tragic consequences.

This movie belongs primarily to Ellen Page. She gives a superb performance and comes in second only to Cody’s witty script. How can a screenwriter go wrong with lines like “I’m already pregnant, so what other kind of shenanigans could I get into?”

So anyone looking for outrageous wit and sarcasm from teenage lips need look no farther. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 12/21/07)


The Kite Runner
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Director Marc Forster (Stranger Than Fiction) has crafted a faithful cinematic adaptation of Khalid Hosseini’s 2003 novel of the same name.

The Kite Runner tells the story of two boys who grew up in the same house in Kabul during the 1970s. One of the boys, Amir, is the son of a wealthy and revered man (Baba played by Homayon Ershadi). The other boy, Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada), is Amir’s best friend and the son of Baba’s servant.

Although the boys are from disparate social classes, Hassan adores Amir. Unfortunately, Amir betrays Hassan by failing to protect the servant boy is when he is ostracized and later attacked by upper-class boys.

Amir and his father eventually flee Afghanistan for California. There, Amir becomes a man, a published author and a husband. Then he gets a chance to go back to Afghanistan to do something selfless and courageous to atone for his childhood betrayal of Hassan.

This story is not only about betrayal between two friends. It’s also about an evolving relationship between father and son. As a child, Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) disappoints his father, Baba, who wants the boy to fight for justice for himself and others. But as Amir grows to become an adult, Baba, begins to admire his son’s bookishness and dreams big for him.

Forster biggest challenge was to create a movie with emotional power and still honor the moral sensibilities of the Afghan actors and their homeland audiences. The director chose to mute every emotional scene with the complete avoidance of any graphic content.

This evasion doesn’t ruin the film but it creates a need for strong emotional performances by the actors. It’s as if Forster told them to act like people who’ve experienced great pain but refuse to acknowledge it.

If the characters aren’t professing to their pain it’s difficult for audiences to recognize it. So what could have been a strong and insightful film has little emotional resonance. But before the closing credits roll, we come to admire the adult Amir (Khalid Abdalla) and a develop affection for his stoic father. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 12/21/07)


National Treasure: Book of Secrets
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When the over-the-top action fantasy National Treasure opened in 2004, it overcame its unfair critical drubbing and became an unqualified hit.

The inevitable sequel is called National Treasure: Book of Secrets, and it’s a well produced and entertaining time-waster that wants desperately to emulate its obvious influence, Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones flicks.

Nicholas Cage (Ghost Rider) returns playing Benjamin Franklin Gates, a scholar and treasure hunter who possesses the mind of a historian and the adventurous spirit of a secret agent. Since hitting the jackpot with his last discovery, he and his wife Abigail (Diane Kruger from Troy) have separated.

During a lecture on the Civil War, Benjamin and his father Patrick (Jon Voight from September Dawn) are confronted by a mysterious stranger named Mitch Wilkinson, played by Ed Harris (Gone Baby Gone). He claims to posses a page from John Wilkes Booth’s diary that not only debunks Benjamin’s theories about the assassination of President Lincoln, but also implicates one of Benjamin’s ancestors in that crime.

Of course, this revelation has less to do with this historical incident than it does with money, fame and power. Once Benjamin gets a chance to examine the page, he discovers that it contains a cipher that is only the first clue in unraveling the whereabouts of an ancient lost city of gold!

Benjamin enlists the aid of his dad, his estranged wife, his old pal Riley Poole (Justin Bartha from Failure to Launch) and his mom, played by Helen Mirren (The Queen). Their adventures involve the Statue of Liberty, twin desks in Buckingham Palace and The White House, a hidden cave under Mount Rushmore and the kidnapping of the President of the United States!

Thankfully, producer Jerry Bruckheimer had the full power of the Disney fantasy factory at his disposal, so the wacky enterprise has all of the Hollywood sheen necessary to pull it off.

The downside is that director Jon Turteltaub just doesn’t know when to quit. The movie rambles on far too long and he hasn’t Spielberg’s skill at mounting heart-stopping action sequences or creating a snappy pace.

But the movie has its diverting moments that include a smash ‘em up London car chase sequence. (Don’t think to hard about it, though, because it doesn’t make a lick of sense.)

Of course, the only way to enjoy this kind of absurd nonsense is to put your mind on hold and just go along for the ride. (PG) Rating: 3
(Posted 12/21/07)


PS: I Love You
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

How’s this for a new formula for a romantic comedy: Why not kill off one of the lovers in the first ten minutes of the movie?

Well, that’s just what happens in PS: I Love You, a big budget chick flick that works hard to pull at our heartstrings while simultaneously poking us in the ribs. Don’t be too surprised if you feel a bit beat up in the end.

Two-time Oscar winner Hillary Swank (Million Dollar Baby) leads the cast as Holly Kennedy, a lovely but slightly wacky Manhattan resident who enjoys quarreling with her hunky Irish husband Gerry, played by Gerard Butler (300).

Before you know it, Gerry has died from a brain tumor and Holly, understandably inconsolable, has holed up in her apartment. On her 30th birthday, a mysterious card arrives…and it’s from Gerry! It seems that while on his deathbed, Gerry began writing her a year’s worth of letters to help her to move on with her life. He’s cleverly arranged for these missives to arrive sporadically, instructing her to complete some specific tasks.

Gerry has her sing karaoke, pursue artistic interests, travel to Ireland, meet his parents, visit specific locales and, in general, get out of her rut.

Reluctantly, Holly does as she’s told. Helping her are her wisecracking friends Denise (Lisa Kudrow from TV’s Friends) and Sharon (Gina Gershon from Showgirls). Her disapproving mom (Fred Claus’ Kathy Bates) is also supportive, as is a romantically inclined bartender (jazz singer Harry Connick, Jr.).

While it may initially seem like Gerry’s efforts were positive, the constant flow of letters has the opposite of the intended effect. Holly is continually reminded of him and her loss, preventing her from moving on with her life.

Director Richard LaGravenese (Freedom Writers) has assembled a very likable cast to flesh out Cecelia Ahern’s story. It is their presence that helps make this maudlin enterprise palatable. Plus, the sequence filmed in Ireland is particularly well photographed, taking full advantage of the Emerald Isle’s scenic allure.

But, like with so many other contemporary filmmakers, LaGravenese just doesn’t know when to quit. At 126 minutes, PS: I Love You is at least a half-hour too long. It also is burdened with a number of “cute” moments that occur only in the cinematic universe of romantic comedy.

PS: I Love You is the sort of emotionally manipulative stuff that critics hate and audiences love. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 12/21/07)


The Walker
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

No one can deny the fact that Paul Schrader, the screenwriter of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, is a smart and highly moral filmmaker.

Even though the subject matter he’s drawn to is often quite lurid, he observes it with the keen and sober eye of a biblical judge. There is always a solid ethical core in his work that stems, no doubt, from his strict Calvinist upbringing.

It is frustrating, therefore, that his work as a director is so spotty. While always interesting, his films range from the solid (The Comfort of Strangers) to the shaky (Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist).

His latest effort is The Walker, a murder mystery set against the backdrop of contemporary Washington, DC. But Schrader isn’t interested making a thriller. He’s concerned with examining the reasons people conduct their lives as they do.

Woody Harrelson (No Country for Old Men) stars as Carter Page III, a longtime Washington insider who serves as an escort for ladies of the social elite. A wit, bon vivant and flaming homosexual, Carter is the son of a deceased Southern congressman.

He plays cards with the ladies and takes them to art and social events when their husbands, who are senators and powerful lobbyists, are too busy or simply disinterested. Members of his card-playing clique include Mrs. Van Miter (Lauren Bacall), Mrs. Delorean (Lily Tomlin) and Mrs. Lockner (Kristen Scott Thomas).

His genuine affection for Mrs. Lockner, the wife of a powerful senator, is put to a severe test when he escorts her to the home of a man with whom she’s having an affair. When she discovers her lover has been murdered, she asks Carter not to call the cops and to protect her from this potentially ruinous scandal.

Naturally, he obliges, but he inadvertently becomes the prime suspect in the crime.

While Schrader takes some potshots at the cold-hearted conservatism of contemporary Washington, his focus isn’t on politics. He uses the murder plot to force Carter to carefully examine his choices and consider why he’s living such a shallow lifestyle.

The dialogue is often quite acerbic, but the film is oddly paced and seems, at times, claustrophobic. (It was filmed, strangely enough, on the Isle of Man.)
Harrelson is agreeable in the role, but only after you get past the Southern drawl that sounds like he stepped out of a community theatre production of a Tennessee Williams potboiler.

Although The Walker is intelligent, it’s also lethargic and indistinct. Here, Schrader displays soul of a poet, but not the eye of an artist. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 12/21/07)


Walk Hard
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Like Dr. Frankenstein, stitching together the irreverent humor of Borat with a self-important musical biography like Walk the Line, the twisted minds behind Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story have created a monster.

Their lumbering creation is the funniest movie of the year.

A sidesplitting biopic send-up, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story may make an unlikely star out of character actor John C. Reilly (Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby). As a fictional country/rock singer whose selfish ways alienate his friends and family, Reilly expertly walks the tightrope between homage and parody. And, doggone it, he’s a helluva good singer to boot.

The movie opens with the elderly Dewey about to receive a lifetime achievement award. Standing in the wings and waiting for his entrance, he reflects on his life and hard times.

Dewey, we learn, has been emotionally scarred by an incident from his childhood on a rural Southern farm in the late 1940s. After an accident leaves his brother dead and his father placing the blame on him, Dewey channels his guilt and misery into his music. He learns the blues guitar (rather quickly) from some old black gut pickers, and then moves on to rockabilly as a teenager.

The plot then follows his meteoric rise to pop stardom, his marriage to his 12-year-old sweetheart, his subsequent gaggle of children, his sexual promiscuity, his drug addictions and rehab visits and his roller coaster career.

While it is easy to dismiss Walk Hard as nothing more than a satiric sketch lengthened into a feature film, its many inspired gags, clever songs and spot-on performances turn it into a memorably entertaining lark.

Writer Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) and co-writer/director Jake Kasdan (Orange County) brilliantly exploit every cliché from the musical bio genre. But even people who haven’t seen Ray or Walk the Line will be in on the joke.

The music (by a posse of artists like Marshall Crenshaw collaborating with the filmmakers) is terrific. Not only are the songs well written and true to the period, they’re very well performed. (Just try not to laugh at the double entendre in the tune, Let’s Duet.)

The only downside lies in the movie’s raunchiness. It would have been just as funny without the filmmaker’s indulgence in nudity and crude language.

Reilly, playing the title role with utter conviction, proves that he’s got the chops to be a star. Walk on, my friend. Walk hard! (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 12/21/07)


I Am Legend
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Famed writer Richard Matheson is best known for his many forays into science fiction and horror. The writing of this University of Missouri grad has influenced everyone from Stephen King to Rod Serling.

Perhaps his most famous work is I Am Legend, a novel that has been translated to the screen three times before. In 1964, Vincent Price starred in The Last Man on Earth, and in 1971, Charlton Heston played the title role of The Omega Man. (A low budget, direct to DVD version called I Am Omega is also available.) The story was also the inspiration for George Romero’s 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead.

Now comes I Am Legend, a big budget sci-fi extravaganza starring Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness). Directed by Francis Lawrence (Constantine) with a script by Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) and Mark Protosevich (Poseidon), it is an eerie, post-apocalyptic potboiler.

Smith plays military scientist, Dr. Robert Neville, the only human survivor of a man-made catastrophe. In flashbacks, we learn that a researcher (Emma Thompson) has created a new virus in hopes of curing cancer. This virus called “KV” has tragically mutated and killed the entire world population or turned them into flesh-eating night dwellers.

Neville, apparently immune to the effects of the virus, has spent three long years all alone in the world. He creates a fortress for himself near Manhattan’s Washington Park and spends his time killing the infected creatures by day and working on a cure in his basement lab by night. All the while, he sends out regular radio signals in faint hopes that some human survivors will hear his broadcasts.

Few actors have the charisma and presence to command the screen alone, but Smith has it in spades. While he may not be completely convincing as Neville, he creates a character that we don’t mind spending our time with.

The special effects magicians has a field day creating a stark, empty Manhattan. The film was shot on location, but the computer wizards have effectively erased all traces of humanity. The remaining empty and cavernous city resembles nothing less than the stark Monument Valley landscapes from classic John Ford flicks. While it is all too obvious that the vampire-like creatures are computer-generated, they are pretty scary, nonetheless.

Although the film is missing the tragic irony of Matheson’s original (the human becomes the monster in this new world order), it ably captures its ominous and creepy atmosphere. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 12/14/07)


Margot at the Wedding
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Watching Margot at the Wedding is akin to showing up at a party promoted as one of the year’s classiest soirees and finding a roomful of perverts and lunatics where the sophisticates should be.

Director/screenwriter Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) has created a visually appealing film that contains strong performances. Unfortunately, Baumbach seems to have forgotten that audiences need to be able to empathize with characters, even seriously flawed characters.

But the three main characters are such colossal pieces of work that it’s hard to get past their flaws to find any common ground. The title character, Margot (played by Nicole Kidman), harshly criticizes everyone she comes into contact with, including her teenage son, Claude (played by Zane Pais). To top it off, she confides adult secrets to her son and constantly talks to him about the other adults’ flaws.

The movie starts with Margot and Claude on a train. They’re going to visit Margot’s sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who’s about to marry a man Margot hasn’t met.

Pauline’s fiancé, Malcolm (Jack Black), picks up the mother and son at the station. Before long, they discover that Malcolm is a crass, free spirit who has no job (he mostly writes letters to newspapers to pass the time).

Pauline tolerates Malcolm like she tolerates her pathologically venomous sister, as though she long ago resigned herself to accept less in life.

Not a lot happens during the movie’s 91-minute runtime, but there’s lots of talking.

When the talking is done, audiences will have learned much more about these characters than they probably ever wanted to know. Margot and Malcolm both have big secrets. And Margot’s relationship with her son gets creepier and creepier. At times she seems to hold him too close and treat him too much like an adult confidant. On other occasions she acts as if she abhors him.

Margot at the Wedding contains no real resolution for any of the characters. After playing out another episode in their bleak lives, they seem destined to continue the chaos. Poor Claude seems destined to spend thousands on psychotherapy. And the audience? Well, they’ll probably leave scratching their heads and wishing they could get their hour and a half back. (R) Rating: 1 (Posted 12/14/07)


Control
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Fragile people can be jerks, too.

That simple observation could aptly sum up the unintended theme of Control, the film biography of famed punk music legend Ian Curtis.

The founding member, lead singer and songwriter for the 1970s musical group Joy Division, Curtis is best known today for having committed suicide in 1980 at the age of 23. His poetry continues to be fervently explicated by his most ardent fans.

The film concentrates on his private life in working class Macclesfield, England. Sam Riley (24 Hour Party People), an eerie look-alike for Curtis, portrays the doomed pop star. Inspired by the book, Touching from a Distance by Curtis’ widow, Deborah, the movie isn’t quite able to get a firm grasp on its subject.

The action takes place in 1973 when Curtis was still in school and working at an employment office that finds positions for the disabled. A sensitive and thoughtful lad, he marries his teenage sweetheart, Deborah, played by Samantha Morton (Elizabeth, The Golden Age.) She soon becomes pregnant.

A fan of Iggy Popp and David Bowie, Curtis decides to try his hand at rock music, especially the new and edgy sound pioneered by groups like The Sex Pistols. He falls in with some mates (played by James Anthony Pearson, Harry Treadaway and Joe Anderson) and they form Joy Division, named for a Nazi concentration camp’s sex slave ring.

Soon they’re a hit among the locals. Curtis’ complex lyrics and herky-jerky stage movements set them apart from their peers. In fact, Curtis’ seemingly chaotic motions were sometimes epileptic fits. He suffered seizures onstage on several occasions, many times without the audience knowing it.

Perhaps the medications combined with the pressures of performance led the lad to his suicide. Maybe his guilt over an affair with a Belgian journalist named Annik Honoré (Romanian actress Alexandra Maria Lara) played a part. In any event, the filmmakers are either unable or unwilling to make it clear.

Music video director Anton Corbijn, in his feature debut, succeeds at creating the stark atmosphere of Curtis’ dreary English village. Captured in elegant black and white, it’s easy to see why he’d want to escape this oppressively gloomy world. The unique musical sound of the Factory Records era is also ably captured.

Strangely, though, we never hear complete renderings of any Joy Division songs, nor do we get enough exposure to Curtis’ poetry to get a good grasp of his talents.

In the end, only fans already immersed in Joy Division will be able to form a good picture of its subject. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 12/14/07)


Alvin and the Chipmunks
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In 1958, musical impresario Ross Bagdasarian was toying with varied speeds on his home tape recorder. Noticing that he could make his voice sound funny by speeding up the playback, he stumbled upon a goldmine.

This studio creation, the novelty singing group Alvin and the Chipmunks, sold millions of records, won multiple Grammys and eventually became animated stars.

Now, Hollywood has decided that it’s time to resurrect the darling rodents for a live-action kid’s flick with our heroes brought to life through computer animation. (Much to the producers’ chagrin, this approach disqualified the movie from consideration for a “Best Animated Feature” Oscar.)

Jason Lee (TV’s My Name is Earl) stars as an unsuccessful musician named Dave Seville. He’s been vainly plugging away in pursuit of a songwriting career while working at a tedious job for an advertising agency.

One day Dave contacts an old school chum named Ian (Dave Cross from TV’s Arrested Development) who is now the wealthy head of a record label. Even his old buddy hates his music and he’s booted out of the office.

But fate has something strange in store for Dave. The office Christmas tree, recently felled from a nearby forest, contains three residents, Alvin, Simon and Theodore. These are no ordinary chipmunks, however. Not only do they talk, they sing in beautiful three-part harmony.

After shaking off the initial shock of discovering singing rodents, Dave sets about writing tunes to showcase their unique talents. Although the merry pests make a chaotic shambles of his apartment, he eventually “adopts” them. Eventually, with Ian’s help, they become music sensations.

One can’t help but cringe a bit at the movie’s inherent hypocrisy. The nebulous moral of the story is an attempt to strike at the heart of commercial exploitation. But selling dolls and tie-in merchandise is the reason movie exists in the first place.

Worse, the over-produced musical numbers cut the heart out of the simple and fun aspect of the Chipmunks appeal. For example, their hit 1958 record “The Witch Doctor” has been re-engineered into a hip-hop extravaganza. You can’t even hear an “Ooh-Eee-Ooh-Ah-Ah” for all of the electronic turbulence.

The movie’s target audience of kids eight and under probably won’t mind these distractions. The chipmunks are cute and the cast members (especially Cross) make the most of their comic opportunities.

For parents, however, Enchanted will prove to be a much more universally pleasing option for a family outing. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted 12/14/07)


 

The Golden Compass
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Guardians of our theological traditions are girding their loins for battle. Many see the coming of The Golden Compass as a direct and brutal attack on Christianity.

Of course, this is what they said about The Da Vinci Code and, as far as one can tell, the walls of the Vatican are still standing.

Philip Pullman's enormously popular His Dark Materials novels have been called the “Anti-Narnia” because of their unflattering portrait of “The Church.” In his cinematic adaptation of part one of the trilogy, writer/director Chris Weitz (About a Boy) downplays the story’s negative sentiments towards organized religion, putting the emphasis on fantasy, adventure and visual splendor.

The story takes place in an alternate universe. This parallel realm is very much like Earth, except for the fact that people’s souls take the form of animals…and they reside outside of their bodies. Called “daemons,” these spirits accompany their host humans like beloved pets.

“The Magisterium,” an authoritarian body that’s a thinly disguised sub for The Church, dominates society. Its officials are concerned about the research being done by one Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig from Casino Royale). He’s conducting a research into “dust,” a substance that enters bodies from another dimension. The Magisterium knows that “dust” exists, but insists that the populace remain unaware of it. Knowledge of its existence might somehow undermine the group’s authority.

The Magisterium’s attempts to thwart Lord Asriel’s work complicates the life of his niece, Lyra (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards) and her daemon, Pan, voiced by Freddie Highmore (August Rush). They’re sucked up into an adventure that involves a nefarious plot to separate children from their daemons.

Due to the intervention of a mysterious socialite played by Nicole Kidman (Invasion), Lyra is off to the frozen North where she encounters Ice Bears, Gyptians, Witches, Gogglers and other exotic folks. Lyra receives aid from a golden compass given to her by a schoolmaster. This metaphysical device discerns “truth.” (A handy little gizmo, for sure.)

The Golden Compass is visually stunning and the computer-generated imagery is first rate. There is hardly a shot in this movie untouched by special effects magicians. Weitz does a great job with the action sequences keeps the film moving at a pleasing clip.

The story is very convoluted, however. Those unfamiliar with the books may need a scorecard to keep track of the characters, their motives and how they all inter-relate. Plus, the movie is simply too violent for youngsters. It’s probably inappropriate for anyone under ten.

The Golden Compass isn’t as subversive as many would have us believe. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends entirely on your point of view. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 12/07/07)

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