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January '08


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Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Diane Lane is one of Hollywood’s most underrated actresses. Although she hasn’t spent as much time in the spotlight as some of her peers, she has quietly put together an impressive resume that includes fine turns in films like Unfaithful and Hollywoodland.

It’s disheartening, therefore, to report that she’s also in the contemporary thriller, Untraceable, a sleazy and violent flick that tries to exploit common fears of the Internet.

Lane plays Jennifer Marsh, an FBI agent who works on a cyber crimes unit. It’s her job to track and shut down Internet criminals who, for the most part, spend their time stealing identities and racking up bogus credit card charges.

But on occasion, they’re faced with violent criminals who use the Internet to terrorize people. One particularly clever offender is not only a computer expert…he’s a psycho with a grudge against the media and law enforcement. Plus, he’s cynical enough to believe that online surfers will help him commit murder.

Jennifer and her colleague Griffin (Colin Hanks from King Kong) discover a website called “Kill With Me.” The site’s webmaster has kidnapped a man, cut him, and hooked him up with a surgical drip that adds anti-coagulants to his blood. As more people log on to watch, the faster the drip works, hastening his death.

All of Jennifer’s efforts to trace his site fail. When a second victim shows up online, more word gets out and more traffic comes to the site. Like a demented Rube Goldberg, our twisted techno geek finds inventive new ways to off his victims and make viewers complicit.

But things really get hairy for Jennifer when the killer involves the FBI unit that’s trying to track him down. He manages to hack into their personal information and attempts to make one of the agents his next victim.

First time screenwriters Robert Fyvolent and Mark Brinker (with the aid of veteran Allison Burnett) attempt to plow the same ground as The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en. Unfortunately, their story has none of the interesting psychological underpinnings that made those thrillers so memorable. Even worse, their villain isn’t nearly has compelling.

Director Gregory Hoblit, who made last year’s memorable thriller Fractured, loses his way here. He follows a grisly, by-the-numbers formula places Untraceable among the second-rate examples of the genre.

But Lane’s world-weary performance gives the movie a big boost. In spite of her presence, however, Untraceable is unbearable. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 01/25/07)

There Will Be Blood
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Perhaps our suspicions have been proven true. Daniel Day-Lewis can do no wrong.

With his sensational performance as a soulless prospector in Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic drama There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis has possibly cemented his reputation as our greatest contemporary actor.

In this loose adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel Oil, Day-Lewis (The Gangs of New York) provides a riveting portrayal of the greed and ruthless ambition of unbridled capitalism, embodied in a single individual. There Will Be Blood is a brutal combination of Citizen Kane and Giant…and squarely belongs in that rarified company.

Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, a rugged individualist who, at the end of the 19th century, sets out to make his mark on the world…and do it all by himself. As he readily admits, he hates most people and would prefer not to have to relate to them.

The film opens with a lengthy, stunning sequence where we see the lone Plainview mining for ore. There isn’t a word of dialogue, so Anderson communicates in a tongue we all understand, the international language of cinema.

We follow Plainview’s continuing efforts to make his fortune and he eventually turns his attention to oil in 1911. In that fateful year, one of the handful of workers he’s hired to erect a well is killed in an accident. By default, Plainview “adopts” the worker’s son.

Although he becomes as attached to the boy as an emotionally stunted person can, he ultimately exploits him in the same way as he does the Earth’s resources. In his efforts to procure capital and drilling rights, he brings the lad along claiming, “I’m a family man.”

Plainview’s fortunes change thanks to a teenager named Paul Sunday, played by Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine). He sells Plainview some valuable information about crude bubbling out of the ground on his family’s California goat farm. Plainview manages to worm his way into the community and buys up the mineral rights.

Paul’s twin brother Eli (Dano, again) becomes Plainview’s antagonist. A charismatic preacher with ambition that rivals that of Plainview, Eli proves to be an ongoing pain in the side. Their tense relationship provides the movie with its central human conflict.

Anderson, who has proven his cinematic prowess with quirky films like Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, plays it straight here, telling a direct, linear story, but employing impressive artistry in doing so.

There Will Be Blood is a harrowing indictment of the dark side of the American way, told by a visionary director and an unrivaled actor. (R) Rating: 5 (Posted 01/18/07)

27 Dresses
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Doris Day starred in a series of romantic comedies that paired her with handsome leading men like Rock Hudson, James Garner and Cary Grant. As the joke went, she managed to retain both her suitors and her virginity while becoming the biggest female movie star of her era.

Katherine Heigl (Knocked Up) fills the Doris Day role in the old-fashioned chick flick, 27 Dresses. She plays Jane, a pretty, smart and sweet-natured Manhattan professional who is always a bridesmaid, never a bride. In fact, she’s been a bridesmaid 27 times.

A romantic at heart, Jane still loves weddings and happily saves all of the un-wearable gowns that she’s been forced to don for the various ceremonies she’s been a part of.

Jane is carrying an unrequited torch for her boss, George, played by Edward Burns from One Missed Call. Unfortunately for her, George has fallen for Jane’s attractive but manipulative sister, Tess (Malin Ackerman from The Heartbreak Kid.)

A newspaper writer named Kevin, played by Enchanted’s James Marsden, complicates matters even further. An avowed cynic who doesn’t believe in marriage, he’s assigned to write an article about Jane and her many wedding appearances. Naturally, Jane and Kevin butt heads…and find themselves repulsed by and attracted to one another.

Yes, this is the kind of romantic froth that Day could have done in her sleep. Fortunately, Heigl is an attractive lead who has the affability that made Day a box office favorite.

There are plenty of predictably calculated “cute” moments, like the time when Jane and Kevin get drunk in a karaoke bar and sing “Bennie and the Jets” and when Jane dutifully models the ugly gowns in her closet as Kevin adds derisive commentary.

Oddly, Aline Brosh McKenna, the screenwriter of the cynical (and far better) flick, The Devil Wears Prada, is responsible for this retro screenplay. Here, she eschews the dark edge of Prada in favor of unapologetic sentimentality.

Director Anne Fletcher (Step Up) is best known as a dancer and choreographer. (She served as associate choreographer and second unit director on Hairspray.) As a director, she has a workmanlike if uninspired touch.

In spite of the obvious implausibility, it won’t matter to fans of the genre. They want to see good looking stars in a formulaic romantic situations complete with a happy ending.

Like Doris Day’s playful output, 27 Dresses delivers the fanciful goods. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 01/18/07)

Cassandra's Dream
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The world of moral ambiguity is one that Woody Allen is very familiar with. When he takes a break from comedy, the iconic filmmaker often returns to this theme like a recurring nightmare.

His 1989 classic Crimes and Misdemeanors and his more recent tennis drama Match Point deal with people who blithely get away with some heinous acts. In Cassandra’s Dream, he once again shows how unethical behavior has negative effects…but only on those with a conscience. Karma is dismissed as fantasy.

Ewan McGregor (Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith) leads the cast as Ian Blaine, an ambitious but repressed young man who has been running a modest restaurant for his ailing father. His brother, Terry (Colin Farrell from Miami Vice) is a hard working car mechanic with a gambling problem. While they’re decent enough fellows, they’ve got serious economic frustrations.

Ian is anxious to get out of his boring life and emulate his successful Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson from Michael Clayton). Plus, Ian has met a pretty young actress and hopes to make a good impression on her. Terry has gambling debts that threaten his girlfriend’s wishes for a new home.

Good old Uncle Howard has a proposition for the frustrated lads. It seems that there is a former business associate who is getting ready to spill the beans over some of Uncle Howard’s felonious corporate practices. If his dutiful nephews are willing to assassinate his meddling associate, he’ll make it worth their while. He’ll also continue to take care of the boys’ mom and dad.

Of course, the lads don’t immediately agree to Uncle Howard’s indecent proposal. But after they deliberate, the decision they make takes them to places they’d never imagined.

As you’d expect, Allen’s script is intriguing and intelligent. But, sadly, it is besieged by problems.

First of all, McGregor (a Scot) and Farrell (an Irishman) simply aren’t convincing as brothers. Plus, they’re both required to affect Cockney accents. On top of that, Allen’s dialogue never employs believable English dialect. (In fact, the script was originally set in America and the locale was changed to England at the request of the film’s British investors.)

But the real problem lies in the story’s awkward pace and lack of focus. The subplot that involves Ian and an actress is simply an unnecessary distraction.

While lesser Woody Allen is still better than a lot of movies, Cassandra’s Dream has to be considered among his weakest efforts. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 01/18/07)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The enormously popular Japanese monster movies have been raking in the box office dough for decades. While they were fun, they never really generated any real terror because of the fact that they were shot from a distance. We reveled from afar as Godzilla smashed Tokyo’s cardboard skyline.

The makers of Cloverfield made an astute decision to film their giant monster from the perspective of the imperiled humans under foot. Now that’s scary!

In what could be described as Godzilla meets The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield is a genuinely original and frustrating sci-fi thriller that will probably polarize audiences.

Producer J. J. Abrams (TV’s Lost), writer Drew Goddard (TV’s Alias) and director Matt Reeves (TV’s Felicity) have concocted a unique and imaginative horror movie that benefits from a very contemporary approach.

As the movie begins, we learn that what we’re about to observe is videotape taken from a camcorder that was recovered from the rubble of what once was New York’s Central Park. After some initial interference, the tape begins to reveal a riveting story.

It begins with the going-away party for a young professional named Rob, played by Michael Stahl-David (TV’s The Black Donnellys). Rob’s being promoted and shipped off to Japan, so his young Yuppie pals are throwing him one last New York shebang.

Rob’s friend Hud (T.J. Miller from TV’s Carpoolers) has been assigned the task of taping video farewells from all of the partygoers. When there is an apparent earthquake, the revelers scramble to the roof to see what’s happening. What they observe is the beginning of the end of New York, as we know it. All of the chaos is captured on Hud’s camera.

As part of the general populace, we’re not privy to any background information. For some time, we don’t have any idea about what’s going on. All we know is that there is some giant thing that is attacking the city and that it is sloughing off hundreds, perhaps thousands of murderous dog-sized, spider-like creatures and that the city is being evacuated. Whew.

Those who found the jerky camerawork of The Blair Witch Project disorienting may find Cloverfield downright nauseating. The camera is seldom still or at an upright angle. Viewers who want clarity in their storylines will be equally unsettled.

But the special effects are outstanding and the film builds undeniable tension as it creates an unnervingly realistic vision of an apocalypse.

In more ways than one, Cloverfield will shake you up. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 01/18/07)

Mad Money
Reviewed by Deborah Young

A movie with a premise like this could turn out cartoonish and unremarkable (like one of actress Queen Latifah’s previous efforts, Taxi). But that didn’t happen here because screenwriter Glen Gers (Fracture) and director Callie Khouri (screenwriter of Thelma & Louise) presented “round” characters that an audience can empathize with.

The premise is simple. Three women who work for the Federal Reserve team up to steal some of the old money that the bank destroys daily. These women are easy to empathize with because they’re like most of us, not filthy rich or desperately poor.

Unlike the characters of the 1996 film Set It Off, they’re not ticked off at the powers that be and determined to rise above “the man’s” efforts to oppress them. They are just regular working Americans tempted by the idea of a better life.

Latifah’s character, Nina, is a single mom lured by the idea of a private school education for her children. Jackie (Katie Holmes) is a quirky music lover who wants to buy instruments and toys like motorcycles for herself and her husband. The eldest of the group (Diane Keaton as Bridget) has lived an upper middle-class lifestyle for some time. Unfortunately, her husband has been out of work for a while, and she has to go to work as a janitor at the Federal Reserve.

Each of these characters has her quirks, but they don’t feel like gimmicks. The quirks and the repartee that they evoke come across as credible characteristics of everyday people.

These are people we want to root for and warn. They are people that in the course of nearly two hours we come to like. We even fear for them, because their bad choices may land them in the pokey.

The sympathy and empathy this film evokes (along with the big belly laughs) are sure signs that this isn’t an average or mediocre comedy. Any artistic work that can get audiences to feel something is indeed a work of art, regardless of the genre. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 01/18/07)

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Reviewed by Deborah Young

A little more than a decade ago director Julian Schnabel brought the life of a quirky artist to the screen. With Basquiat, Schnabel effectively recreated the ambiance of the New York art world. He also seemed to get inside artist Jean Michel Basquiat’s head, giving audiences some ideas of the artist’s personal torments.

With The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Schnabel has successfully recreated the world of a man whose mind is alive although his body is mostly useless, with the exception of one blinking eye. The film is an adaptation of the Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir of the same name.

Bauby was the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine’s French edition. At age 43, he suffered a stroke, which left him paralyzed, with the exception of the one blinking eye. However, he was able to dictate the book one letter at a time. Assistants would recite a special alphabet to him, stopping when he blinked to indicate a letter.

The movie shows what Bauby (Mathieu Almaric) sees and dramatizes his dreams and fantasies. Schnabel has done a great job of putting us inside Bauby’s head, with plenty of close-up and oddball perspective shots. The voiceovers of Bauby’s thoughts add plenty of humor as we watch the physically lifeless Bauby lying in bed or being wheeled around.

Bauby expresses his annoyance and slight amusement about being surrounded by pretty women at a time when he “can’t do anything.” His fantasizes about an affair he might have had with one of his female attendants. He reminisces about the mistakes he has made with women and his children.

But despite its many artistic virtues, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is painful to watch. It’s like staring into someone’s eyes for nearly two hours and reading his or her mind. The exercise is fascinating at times and mind-numbingly dull at others.

For that reason, this film is not for everyone. However, Schnabel has created a moving cinematic work that emphasizes the beauty of the mind. The beauty of this film is that it takes us inside the paralyzed writer’s tragic but inspiring existence. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 01/11/07)

The Bucket List
Reviewed by Deborah Young

I’ve created my own tagline for director Rob Reiner’s latest film: “Have a Kopi Luwak and a smile.”

Kopi Luwak is a very expensive coffee (think $50 a cup, hundreds per pound). It’s made of beans harvested from animal poop. It’s also a perfect metaphor for this story of two terminally ill men who decide to have one last hurrah together.

In an early scene wealthy businessman Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) produces a cup of Kopi Luwak during a business meeting, lauding its aroma and taste. Later, Cole makes the coffee in his hospital room and praises it to his roommate, Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman), who won’t have any part of the exotic drink.

But by creating a “bucket list,” things to do before they die, the two men make symbolic Kopi Luwak, harvesting sweet memories from an unpleasant circumstance. Cole’s money makes it possible for the two men to travel to exotic locals and engage in expensive hobbies such as skydiving.

Chambers makes an important contribution to Cole’s life as well. He brings a love of knowledge and a strong value for personal relationships, particularly familial ones.

Although it has some clichéd elements (the lonely rich guy, the relationship-rich poor guy, etc.), The Bucket List has three big things going for it: a good director, a strong cast and compelling cinematography.

Once these men leave the hospital the audience is treated to great shots of natural and man-made beauty (including the Taj Mahal).

Screenwriter Justin Zackham has said that he had trouble selling this script, but the idea of it has caught on. The movie’s subject matter has already unearthed discussions of life lists and finding fulfillment.

Ultimately, The Bucket List is a quiet film that explores the themes of friendship, love and finding meaning in life. The film explores these themes with humor and a dose of reality. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 01/11/07)

First Sunday
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When a filmmaker’s intentions are humanistic and compassionate, it’s easy for root for his success. Audiences are even willing to accept a lot of flaws if the movie has such positive aspirations.

It is disheartening, therefore, to report that First Sunday is a big disappointment. Awkward, lumbering and rarely funny, this ensemble comedy is unable to overcome its inherent weaknesses.

Successful playwright David E. Talbert makes his filmmaking debut with First Sunday, and he clearly has a lot to learn. The film’s pace and tone take broad and jarring swings. To coin a term, the critical diagnosis might be “cinemanic depression.”

Ice Cube (Are We There, Yet?) leads the cast as Durell, an extremely intelligent and good-hearted young man living in Baltimore who just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. His doltish buddy LeeJohn (Tracy Morgan from TV’s 30 Rock) keeps getting Durell into situations that land them in front of a judge.

Their latest escapade has earned them each 5,000 hours of community service. Durell’s “baby mama” (Scary Movie’s Regina Hall, utterly wasted) threatens to move to Atlanta with Durell’s son unless he can come up with $17,000 to pay off her debts. Since his criminal record prevents him from leaving the state, this would mean that Durell probably wouldn’t get to see his son again until he was grown.

So, how does a smart, bighearted man get that kind of cash? Why, he decides to rob a church, of course.

The rest of the movie involves the bungling robbery attempt and subsequent complications that arise from this boneheaded enterprise.

Talbert sets up the situation to show that even good people can be pushed into bad decisions by dire circumstances. But this isn’t Les Miserables and Durell isn’t starving. Talbert wants us to believe that this bright young man considered all of his options and figured that sticking a gun in innocent people’s faces, holding them hostage and taking their money was preferable to simply sneaking out of the state.

But aside from its lapses in logic, the movie isn’t very funny even though Morgan and comic Katt Williams (playing a flamboyant choir director) somehow manage to ad lib a few amusing lines.

In its favor, First Sunday has an engaging cast (along with the leads, Chi McBride, Loretta Devine, Malinda Williams and others make an impression) and a toe-tapping score by Stanley Clarke.

But, sadly, the ham-fisted sermon delivered by First Sunday fails to inspire. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 01/11/07)

The Orphanage
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Contemporary horror films are generally filled with gore, computer generated special effects and cheap gimmicks intended to give audiences a jolt.

For the most part, these elements are blissfully absent in the creepy new Spanish entry, The Orphanage. They’ve been replaced with a thoughtful screenplay, heartfelt performances and a macabre atmosphere.

But horror fans shouldn’t let this loftier approach prevent them from seeing The Orphanage. It’s still plenty creepy.

Director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Sponge Man) has obviously taken some inspiration from his producer Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and concocted a dark and ethereal ghost story where children provide adults with a link to the supernatural.

Belén Rueda (The Sea Inside) stars as Laura, a compassionate woman who spent her early years in an orphanage. As an adult, she convinces her husband to purchase the old mansion that once served as her orphanage so that she could provide a loving home for her own adopted son, Simón (young Roger Princep), who is HIV positive, and some special needs children.

Shortly after moving in, however, Simón begins engaging with a number of “imaginary friends.” Although Laura is concerned, her husband, a therapist, convinces her that Simón simply has an active imagination and that he’s completely normal.

Simón’s behavior becomes more erratic, however, and a visit by a mysterious elderly woman, claiming to be a social worker, thrusts the family into chaos. When Simón disappears, the panicked Laura begins to believe that supernatural elements may be at work.

In tone and structure, the film bears some similarities to the excellent and sadly underrated Nicole Kidman ghost story from 2001, The Others. It’s as much a psychological thriller as it is a creepfest. Both films centered on a troubled mother struggling with paranormal elements, relying on a strong central performance to carry the day.

Rueda is excellent, ably exposing her character’s empathetic nature as well as her obvious frustration and incessant drive to find her lost son.

The screenplay by Sergio Gutiérrez Sánchez draws some intriguing parallels with the Peter Pan story. While the plot gets a little too convoluted for its own good, it never fails to keep our interest.

Although most of the action takes place within the creepy old house, the movie never seems constrained. In fact, the fluid camerawork and shot compositions give it a feeling of openness and a pleasing pace.

The Orphanage shows that restraint is sometimes a virtue. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 01/11/07)

Starting Out in the Evening
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Veteran actor Frank Langella has had a good year. He has achieved numerous accolades for his performance as Richard Nixon in the Broadway hit Frost/Nixon, including a Tony Award for Best Actor.

Langella, who has played his share of sleazy villains like Dawg Brown in the movie Cutthroat Island and Skeletor in Masters of the Universe, has seldom found material that is in a class with his talent.

His film appearance in the low key literary drama Starting Out in the Evening may not prove to be his valedictory performance, but it is certainly the case of an old pro who has found a cherry role late in his career.

In the film adaptation of Brian Morton’s novel, Langella plays Leonard Schiller, an aging novelist and professor who is trying to finish one last book before he meets his maker. A young and obsessed young fan complicates his efforts.

Lauren Ambrose from TV’s Six Feet Under plays Heather, a bright graduate student from Brown who has decided to resurrect Leonard’s faded career by making him the focus of her thesis project. Having become enamored with his first two works, she clings to the romantic notion of discovering the young and dynamic Leonard behind the eyes of the old man.

After initially rebuffing her efforts to get him to cooperate in her project, Leonard relents when he realizes that this may be the only way to get his final book published. Subsequently, the two engage in an awkward emotional dance that could become a May/December romance.

Naturally, Heather’s fresh and youthful presence sparks flame of passion in Leonard — and in his work — that’s been missing in his life since the loss of his wife decades earlier. Her brashness and candor prove to be both an inspiration and an annoyance.

An important subplot involves Leonard’s neglected daughter Ariel, played by the always-reliable Lili Taylor (The Notorious Bettie Page). Leonard’s strange relationship with Heather has a carry-over affect on Ariel’s romance with her boyfriend, Casey (Adrian Lester from The Day After Tomorrow.)

Director Andrew Wagner (The Talent Given Us) takes his sweet time, establishing a realistic tone and a deliberate pace. This is a character piece, so Wagner (who shares credit for the adapted screenplay with Fred Parnes) places the focus squarely on his actors.

While all of the cast members are fine, it is Langella’s beautifully calculated performance that gives this quiet and modest drama its ultimate power. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 01/04/07)

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