reel reviews
movie reviews
February '08

THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRLPENELOPECITY OF MENBONNEVILLESEMI-PRO
VANTAGE POINTCHARLIE BARTLETTBE KIND, REWIND
DEFINITELY, MAYBESTEP UP 2 THE STREETS
JUMPERDIARY OF THE DEADIN BRUGESTHE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES
YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTHFOOL'S GOLDPERCEPOLISOVER HER DEAD BODY

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The Other Boleyn Girl
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The selfish machinations of Britain’s King Henry VIII have been seen on the big and small screens in numerous historical recreations. Normally, the cinematic monarch is portrayed as an egotistical manipulator.

Anne Boleyn, one of his ill-fated wives, is generally perceived as a tragic figure, just another victim of Henry’s relentless obsession with leaving a male heir.

But the new film The Other Boleyn Girl takes a different view.

Based on the novel by Phillipa Gregory, this handsome costume drama focuses on Anne’s lesser-known sister. This version of the story can be viewed as an example of historical revisionism or simply a fanciful upscale soap opera.

Scarlett Johansson (The Nanny Diaries) takes the title role of Mary Boleyn, the demur younger sister of the duplicitous Anne, played by Natalie Portman (Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium).

Since Henry (Munich’s Eric Bana) has no sons, he’s very discontented with his current wife, Katherine of Aragon (Spanish actress Ana Torrent).

The ambitious Duke of Norfolk (David Morrissey from The Water Horse) decides that he should marry off one of his nieces to the king, or at least provide him with a mistress who will produce a male heir. He invites the king to visit his struggling brother’s estate to check out the Boleyn girls.

As fate would have it, the king fancies the married Mary over the older, single Anne. Although Mary is reluctant, she beds Henry and eventually falls in love with him. The furious Anne, initially sent to France to punish her for an unapproved marriage, sets out to thwart her sister and make the king her husband.

The stars do a respectable job with their roles, although their Mid-Atlantic accents are sometimes a distraction. (With two Americans and one Aussie in the leads, this was inevitable.) As written, this Henry is a bit of a milquetoast monarch and Bana doesn’t bring much energy to the role. Portman is a bit more effective, but lacks the fiery spirit to make Anne as riveting as she should be.

Johansson, on the other hand, gives a poignant performance as the powerless Mary, the true victim of this scenario. She can do little as her sister betrays her and hopes of happiness evaporate.

TV director Justin Chadwick gives the production a polished sheen, but races through important plot points leaving us with the sense that an entire reel is missing.

In the final analysis, The Other Boleyn Girl is a decorous costumer, but nothing to lose your head over. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 02/29/08)


Penelope
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Cinematic feminist fairytales such as Woman on Top, Simply Irresistible and Waitress start with a self-doubting or oppressed female character who possesses an unusual or magical characteristic. She learns to appreciate herself and her uniqueness. Then she gets a chance at romance with a man who loves her just the way she is.

The formula contains the best parts of romance and feminism. These whimsical tales give us strong, independent women and romances with Prince Charming figures.

Penelope is a feminist fairytale aimed at the pre-teen set. All of the elements of the adult feminist fairytale are there.

First we have the pitiful protagonist, Penelope (Christina Ricci). She’s born into a wealthy family but cursed with the face of a pig. Her parents (Catherine O’Hara and Richard E. Grant as Jessica and Franklin Wilhelm) hide her away in their mansion until she’s 25. Then they try to hook her up with a “blue blood” to marry, because they’ve been told that the love of someone within her station will break the curse.

Enter element number two: the charming frog (a scruffy James McAvoy as Max). He seems to accept Penelope for who she is, but is he a prince?

Last but not least is the prince (Simon Woods as Edward Vanderman Jr.). Unfortunately, the sight of the snout-endowed princess repulses the uptight prince.

The story is moderately entertaining with its voiceover narratives and little fairytale twists (let’s just say some of the characters aren’t who or what they first appear to be). Also, the actors are likeable, even though they’re playing characters of limited range.

But screenwriter Leslie Caveny spoiled the fantasy by repeatedly clocking us upside the head with the moral. And in case someone in the audience still doesn’t get the point, near the story’s end a small boy explains: “It’s not the power of the curse, it’s the power you give the curse.”

Okay screenwriter Leslie Caveny and director Mark Palansky, here’s the moral of my review: It shouldn’t be about the moralizing; it should be about the story. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted 02/29/08)


City of Men
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Back in 2002, filmmaker Fernando Meirelles gave us the riveting, Oscar nominated social thriller, City of God. This unblinking look at crime in the violent slums of Rio (known as favelas) opened the eyes of the world to a chronic problem in South America’s largest country.

City of Men is something of a follow-up, although it is not a sequel, per-se. While it has many of the same cast members as City of God and also takes place in Rio’s ghettos, director Paulo Morelli based this film on a popular Brazilian TV series.

Reprising their roles from the TV version, Douglas Silva plays Ace and Darlan Cunha plays Wallace, lifelong friends who have depended upon one another for companionship and survival on the mean streets of “Dead End Hill,” a drug-infested neighborhood run by Ace’s gangster cousin.

Both Ace and Wallace are fatherless. Wallace’s was shot when he was small and Ace never knew his dad. As Ace is about to turn 18, he decides to do some research to find his father so that he can have his real name on the ID card he’ll soon be issued.

Wallace, a security guard, is struggling to support his wife and infant son. Inexperienced in parenthood, Wallace forgetfully leaves his boy on the beach, nearly losing him forever. Ace serves as his conscience, reminding him that their lives would have been much better if they had parents to depend upon.

But this friendship will be severely tested by circumstances beyond their control. A gang war breaks out, forcing Ace’s cousin and his gang to temporarily flee “Dead End Hill.” Ace and Wallace, who have heretofore managed to avoid involvement in the gangs, are forced to choose sides.

To further complicate matters, Ace discovers his father’s identity and tries to build a relationship with him. As a result of this revelation, both Ace and Wallace learn things about their families that bring them into serious conflict.

Director Morelli, who co-wrote the screenplay with Elena Soarez, doesn’t establish the same sense of urgency and pace that Meirelles brought to City of God. Plus, the story is saddled with some manipulations and coincidences that seem tacked on and contrived.

But the cast is terrific and Morelli uses footage from the TV series to serve as flashbacks. The scenes of these actors, years younger but in the same roles, adds some depth and authenticity to the story.

While not in the same league as City of God, City of Men is a compelling film that teems with urgency in spite of its flaws. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 02/29/08)


Bonneville
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If The Golden Girls were to make a road movie, it might look something like Bonneville, a maudlin but tolerable flick designed to click with older female audiences.

Jessica Lang (Broken Flowers), Kathy Bates (P.S. I Love You) and Joan Allen (The Bourne Ultimatum) star in this fanciful comic drama that is the pre-geriatric version of a coming-of-age movie.

The ladies play three Mormon women from Idaho whose close relationship is put to the test when tragedy befalls one of them.

Lang plays Arvilla, a recently widowed woman whose much older husband took her on many travels during their 20-year marriage. Still struggling with her grief, she made plans to fulfill her husband’s wishes to have his ashes scattered.

Arvilla’s snooty stepdaughter Francine (Christine Baranski from Relative Strangers) is angry that her father was cremated without her permission. She insists on taking his ashes to be buried next to her mother in California. If Arvilla resists, Francine will force her out of the family owned house.

To buy time, Arvilla agrees to deliver the ashes to Francine in California in time for the planned memorial ceremony. She wrestles with the decision of either fulfilling her husband’s request or giving in to Francine’s demands.

Recruiting her pals for the trip, Arvilla, Margene (Bates) and Carol (Allen) jump in Arvilla’s classic Bonneville and head west. Along the way, they pick up a hitchhiker, meet a romantically inclined trucker (Tom Skerritt from TV’s Brothers and Sisters), go gambling in Vegas, camp out in the desert and go boating on Lake Powell.

For all three women, the trip becomes a voyage of self-discovery as they all participate in adventures they’d never encountered in their sheltered Idaho lives.

All three of these actresses are accomplished pros. Both Lang and Bates are Oscar winners and Allen is a three-time nominee with many other trophies on her mantle. They do their best to infuse this mundane script with a little bit of energy.

While they do manage to make Bonneville watchable, Lang seems oddly out of place in her role. She’s reduced to doing little more than whining and weeping, and the character simply doesn’t suit her.

The film might have been more effective had she traded roles with Allen. If Allen played Arvilla, she probably would have been able to convey greater complexity and made the character less mushy and more earnest.

As is, Bonneville simply hasn’t enough fuel to complete the trip. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 02/29/08)


Semi-Pro
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Will Ferrell is no stranger to sports movies. He lampooned the world of NASCAR in Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby and competitive ice-skating in Blades of Glory.

Now Ferrell applies his peculiar brand of comedy to basketball with Semi-Pro, a daffy look at a struggling American Basketball Association team during the style-challenged 1970s.

Ferrell plays Jackie Moon, the owner/player/manager of the Flint, Michigan Tropicals, a weak ensemble of misfits that can only draw a handful of fans to see their anemic brand of hoops. The best Jackie can do is mount elaborate promotions to get a few spectators through the turnstiles.

The only money Jackie has comes from the royalties he receives from his one-hit-wonder R&B record called “Love Me Sexy.” The few bucks it generates can’t quite keep the team afloat.

Jackie’s big chance to save the franchise comes from the oncoming merger of the ABA and the NBA. If his terrible team can finish in fourth place, they have a chance of being one of the four teams make the transition to the NBA.

The only good player on the team is Clarence “Coffee” Black, played by Andre Benjamin (of the band, Outkast). In a move to bolster his chances, Jackie trades the team’s washing machine for a washed-up NBA has-been named Monix (Woody Harrelson from No Country For Old Men).

The complications that arise in the fitful screenplay by Scot Armstrong (The Heartbreak Kid) are straight out of the book of sports movie clichés. What makes Semi-Pro somewhat tolerable are the asides (quite obviously ad-libbed) and the “we’ll get a laugh at any cost” attitude that the genial cast brings to the effort.

Ferrell allows the raunchiness factor to be edged up considerably from his previous efforts, easily earning the picture its “R” rating. No, this movie isn’t for the Elf crowd.

But the filmmakers score best when taking advantage of the nostalgia factor, making fun of the styles and trends of the disco era.

Ferrell could have mailed this performance in. Jackie Moon is so similar to the other characters he’s played in movies (and, for that matter, the endless parade of sketch roles he played for years on Saturday Night Live) that he’s virtually interchangeable. Thankfully, a strong supporting cast is there to help.

Dunderheaded, lowbrow and vulgar, Semi-Pro is no slam-dunk. Still, it scores enough laughs to please most hardcore Ferrell fans. (R) Rating: 2.5(Posted 02/29/08)


Vantage Point
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In 1950, famed Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa made a film called Rashomon, a drama about a crime as seen from a number of different points of view. The term “Rashomon” is now used to describe any film that borrows this technique.

The latest example is Vantage Point, a political thriller about an attempted assassination of the President of the United States. While it has some of the visceral pleasures of a gimmicky action melodrama like Mission: Impossible, it also has some plot holes and corny elements that nearly sink it.

Screenwriter Barry Levy and TV director Pete Travis may have bitten off a bit more than they can chew for their first feature, but you can’t really fault them too badly them for overreaching.

Dennis Quaid (American Dreamz) leads the cast as Thomas Barnes, a Secret Service agent who is back at the side of the President (William Hurt from A History of Violence) after an extended leave of absence. It seems that he’s got a case of nerves after taking a bullet for his boss.

They’re in Spain for a conference on, as luck would have it, terrorism. At an open-air rally in front of a large crowd, the president takes a bullet to the chest. Moments after pandemonium that breaks out, a large diversionary explosion takes place that claims the lives of many others.

Just as Thomas tries to find some sense in the chaos, the movie flashes back 15 minutes. We then see the events from the point of view of another character. This pattern continues throughout the film until, at the film’s finale, all of the pieces of the puzzle are laid out.

Others involved in the action include another Secret Service agent (Matthew Fox from TV’s Lost), a TV news producer (Sigourney Weaver from Holes), an American tourist (The Last King of Scotland’s Forest Whitaker) and some wily revolutionaries.

Travis manages, for the most part, to ably juggle the time-fractured elements of Levy’s complex screenplay and he mounts a very effective car chase that provides the movie with its action set piece.

But the movie is loaded with implausible elements and coincidences that border on the laughable. Some of the dialogue is also a bit suspect. (Do Spanish terrorists always speak to one another in slangy English?)

In order to enjoy Vantage Point, just grab the popcorn and temporarily disengage the critical side of your brain. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 02/22/08)


Charlie Bartlett
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Teen angst has been a launching pad for some memorable movie plots. John Hughes is famous for creating some of the masterpieces of this genre: The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles.

Charlie Barlett takes a page from all of these films. It starts with a troubled teen character that has haunting secrets and troubles at home. Then this movie broadens its story’s scope with a plot that closely resembles the 1990 comedy/drama Pump Up the Volume.

In both films, an alienated, lonely teen seeks to add purpose to his life by “helping” his peers. In both cases unintended and serious consequences ensue.

This time around, a teenage boy (the title character, Charlie, played by Anton Yelchin) finds a way to take his mind off of his problems at home and become more popular at school. He reinvents himself as the school’s unofficial psychiatrist. He holds daily counseling sessions in a bathroom and dispenses medicine to his peers.

The story may be a reincarnation of Pump Up the Volume, but Charlie Bartlett feels fresh. Screenwriter Gustin Nash has injected plenty of wit and humor into the screenplay. Director John Poll has pulled it all together to create a light, funny film that sometimes surprises.

One hilarious moment comes early in the film when Charlie takes Ritalin prescribed by his psychiatrist. It makes him high, and he jumps out of bed one night and runs out into the street in his underwear. He yells, sings, and jumps around.

What makes this scene really funny is the contrast between the suit-wearing, briefcase-carrying, passive Charlie Bartlett presented in earlier scenes and this hopped up nut.

Some of the movie’s characters and situations are old hat for this genre. There are the typical flawed authority figure (Robert Downey, Jr. as Principal Gardner) and the loveable hoodlum (Tyler Hilton as Murphy). And as fans of this drama might expect, Charlie winds up dating the off-limit girl, the principal’s daughter, Susan (Kat Dennings).

Yet Charlie Bartlett rises above the clichés with an affable cast and dialogue that elicits frequent laughter. This is teen angst extraordinaire. (R) Rating: 4(Posted 02/22/08)


Be Kind, Rewind
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In the real world, the character played by Jack Black in Be Kind, Rewind would probably be institutionalized. The character played by Mos Def would have trouble managing his checking account, let alone a video store.

But this isn’t the real world. It’s the surreal cinematic netherworld of French filmmaker Michele Goundry (The Science of Sleep). For his new comedy, Goundry intends to transport us into a kinder, gentler, more whimsical alternate universe. Instead, we land in the bizarre realm of clunky eccentricity.

Black (Margot at the Wedding) stars as Jerry, an oddball who lives in a trailer near an inner city Passaic, NJ video store run by Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover from Shooter). Taking off on a road trip, Mr. Fletcher leaves his run-down video store in the hands of an irresponsible employee named Mike, played by Mos Def (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

In a bizarre twist that seems like it belongs in a Three Stooges short, Jerry becomes electrified when trying to sabotage a power plant. When he enters the video store, all of the VHS tapes (no, they haven’t upgraded to DVD) are erased. When Mike discovers that Jerry has accidentally destroyed Mr. Fletcher’s entire video inventory, he searches for options to satisfy their customers.

The obvious solutions (borrowing video from somewhere else, renting some DVDs and make video copies) manage to elude them.

Desperate to keep the store from going under, the duo, along with some enterprising neighbors, makes their own truncated versions of popular movies. Among those that they re-create are Ghostbusters, RoboCop, King Kong and Rush Hour. These zero-budget “sweded” films begin to catch on. It isn’t long before there are long lines at the store. Not only do people want to see these new versions of their favorite movies, they also want to be in them.

In his terrific, Oscar-winning feature The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Goundry’s flair for the dreamlike was put to good use in the service of an intriguing theme. Here, this ethereal style seems to exist only for itself.

But Goundry certainly has a unique and captivating eye. The nifty art direction, while certainly gimmicky, is diverting enough to make the movie worth seeing. Few other filmmakers have enough imagination and flair to pull this sort of thing off.

But in terms of content, Be Kind, Rewind is as blank as the demagnetized tapes. It’s really nothing more than a mildly diverting misstep from a gifted visual stylist. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 02/22/08)


Definitely, Maybe
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Give the ladies the time-tested “boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl back” romantic comedy plot, and they’ll be happy. Right?

Well, the makers of the new chick flick Definitely, Maybe have aspired to something a bit higher…and their efforts have paid off.

Ryan Reynolds (Smokin’ Aces) stars in what one character calls a “romantic mystery.” Through a series of flashbacks, we learn bits and pieces of one man’s love life and we’re challenged to fill in the blanks.

Reynolds plays Will Hayes, an ad agency executive who has just been served divorce papers. His 11-year-old daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin from Little Miss Sunshine) wants to know why her parents are splitting up. Is her dear old dad incapable of a true commitment?

After some hesitation, Will decides to tell Maya the story of his various romantic entanglements. Up front, however, he informs her that he’s changing the names of all of the women involved so that she won’t know which one is her mother.

We then flash back to 1992 when Will was involved with his college sweetheart, Emily (Elizabeth Banks from Fred Claus). An aspiring politician, Will gets a “dream” job as an intern with the Bill Clinton presidential campaign in New York. Reluctantly, he must temporarily leave Emily behind in Wisconsin.

At the Clinton headquarters, he meets a pretty but cynical young woman named April (Hot Rod’s Isla Fisher) who runs the copy machine. Initially, they don’t hit it off, but eventually the romantic spark becomes palpable.

Will also spends some quality time with Summer (Rachel Weisz from The Fountain), a magazine journalist who is having an on-and-off affair with an acclaimed writer named Hampton, played by Kevin Kline (A Prairie Home Companion). Will uses Summer to aid in a political campaign, and Summer uses him to further her career.

As Will relates these stories to Maya, she tries to figure out which one is her mom. Along the way, she learns a lot about the complicated nature of romantic entanglements.

Reynolds displays a lot of charisma and uses his character’s self-deprecating humor to good effect. All of the women are equally appealing and Kline makes the most of his character’s brief on screen moments.

Writer/director Adam Brooks (The Invisible Circus) never lets us get lost in this fractured timeline and gives each of his actors just enough time to develop likable (if not always believable) characters.

Sophisticated and sharp, Definitely, Maybe is definitely date-worthy Valentine’s fare. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 02/15/08)


Step Up 2 the Streets
Reviewed by Deborah Young

There are two major subcategories of musicals: those that accent a moving story with great music and dancing, and those with thin plots designed simply to pull the cast members from one musical or dance routine to another. The 1980 film Fame belongs in the first category. It provides a sometimes tragic, sometimes humorous portrayal of the lives of aspiring performers.

Step Up 2 the Streets is definitely in the second category, which would be fine if the dance routines were compelling. Consider musicals such as Breakin’ (1984) and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. These movies’ plots and production values were total stinkers, but the movies had two major assets: popular hip-hop artists and compelling dance routines.

Unfortunately this film just doesn’t have enough awesome musical numbers to make it worth the price of admission. Anyone who’s ever seen a hip-hop musical has seen all of these moves before. Rather than going to this film, just have a V-8® or stay home and watch a tape of America’s Dance Crew, which, by the way has more innovative dancing than this film.

That being said, there are a couple young performers in this film that are a pleasure to watch, Briana Evigan (Andie) and Adam G. Sevani (Moose). Both have an affable screen presence. Sevani has the gift of being a great dancer but not looking like one. So his performances are a surprise and a pleasure.

Ultimately, there’s little chemistry between the male and female leads, and only one decent dance routine, which comes in the movie’s final scene. For those who need an immediate dose of Krump dancing, try renting the 2005 documentary Rize. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 02/15/08)


Jumper
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

“Wanna get away?”

That line from those ubiquitous Southwest Airlines ads certainly provides fodder for the imagination. Who wouldn’t like to possess the ability to simply pop from one place to another in the blink of an eye?

In the new science fiction thriller Jumper, Hayden Christensen has that astonishing ability. Simply by concentrating on a locale, he is instantly transported there.

Of course, in the world of sci-fi, every remarkable gift has its price and the complications of teleportation certainly plague our hero.

Christensen (Awake) plays David Rice, a man with a “genetic abnormality” that gives him this unique power. As a 15-year-old in a small Michigan town, he accidentally discovers this talent when he falls through the ice on a raging river. He simply thought about the library, and was instantly teleported there.

Shortly thereafter, he leaves his unhappy home with his abusive dad (Michael Rooker from Slither) and zips off to New York. He learns how to use his abilities to rob banks and support a lavish lifestyle.

Things go well for David until he discovers that he is not the only person with this talent and that there is a group of vigilantes called Paladins that have been waging a centuries-old effort to kill off all Jumpers. After all, as Paladin Samuel L. Jackson (Snakes on a Plane) likes to say, “Only God should have this ability.”

Because of the relentless efforts of the Paladins, Jumpers must live solitary lives. If they have loved ones, the Paladins will use them as bait for their elaborate traps.

Naturally, our hero makes the mistake of contacting his old high school sweetheart, Millie (Rachel Bilson from TV’s The OC). Once he realizes that he’s put her life in danger, he has to do much more than simply avoid the Paladins.

Director Doug Liman (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) has turned Steve Gould’s novel into a fast-paced action travelogue that makes good use of locales in London, Cairo, Rome, Tokyo and the Grand Canyon.

In some respects, this setup creates conundrums similar to those we’re sometimes bothered by in time-travel movies. In order to enjoy it, one has to simply ignore the film’s big lapses in logic. Plus, David’s idiotic choices sometimes make it difficult for us to root for him.

But Liman keeps the pace crisp and the movie short. We’re able to pop out of the theatre before Jumpers wears out its welcome. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 02/15/08)


Diary of the Dead
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

So, how many times can you beat a dead horse? For that matter, how many times can you beat a dead zombie?

Director George A. Romero, who single-handedly created a horror sub-genre with the 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead, goes back to the grave once again to see if he can scare up some new twists on an old theme with Diary of the Dead.

Romero employs a no-name cast and, going back to his low-budget roots, attains a bit more realism than he achieved on his last opus, Land of the Dead.

But Romero’s fifth “Dead” flick (not counting the remakes done by others) isn’t as scary as its predecessors or as philosophically interesting. This time out, he tries to freshen up the proceedings by employing a contemporary gimmick.

In voiceover narration, we’re told that what we’re about to see was compiled from various video footage and edited together after an initial zombie attack. The purpose, it is implied, is to inform us about what really happened so that some untrustworthy government forces won’t be able to pull the wool over our eyes.

The plot involves a group of college kids who are shooting a student horror video somewhere in the woods outside of Pittsburgh. When they hear rumors that the dead have reportedly been rising to devour the living, they pack up their gear and head back to campus. The director, however, hangs on to his digital camcorder in order to document the carnage.

We follow our ragtag band of amateur filmmakers as they encounter one horror after another. Yes, civilization is crumbling and in our YouTube world, it needs to be captured on video.

Along with the obvious confrontations with flesh-eating zombies, our group of students has to deal with the ensuing chaos brought about by the unexplained plague. Can they trust one another? How do they deal with the breakdown of society and the paramilitary groups that pop up in response to the resulting anarchy?

Romero uses the same jerky, hand-held techniques that were employed in The Blair Witch Project and, more recently, the Godzilla riff Cloverfield. He manages to create a bit of tension this way and Romero ably exploits a couple of “gotcha” moments that this approach affords him.

But beyond a few unique shocks, Diary of the Dead has nothing to offer except C-level acting and synthetic dialogue.

Perhaps it’s time we left the dead buried for good. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 02/15/08)


In Bruges
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Acclaimed British playwright Martin McDonagh is known for pitch black comedies laced with liberal amounts of violence and dark social commentary. His first effort as a director was Six Shooter, the winner of the 2006 Oscar for Best Live Action Short.

It is easy to see why his first feature film, In Bruges, has been so eagerly anticipated. While it certainly has flashes of the brilliance McDonagh has displayed in his plays, his film debut isn’t quite in their league.

After a child is accidentally killed during the contract murder of a priest, Irish hit men Ken (Brendan Gleeson from The General) and Ray (Colin Farrell from Cassandra’s Dream) are sent to Bruges, Belgium to lay low for a while.

Ken, a closet romantic, takes advantage of the opportunity to enjoy the cultural treasures that this beautiful medieval city has to offer. The dimwitted Ray, on the other hand, is bored to tears. He spends most of his time in a pub, anxious to get back to Dublin.

But their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) has other plans. There is a specific reason that he’s sent these two assassins to Bruges and when the true purpose of their trip is revealed, things get pretty complicated.

Ray gets romantically involved with a beautiful drug dealer (Clémence Poésy from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) but coke, sex and booze do little to improve his frame of mind. Neither does his absurd encounter with an American dwarf. In fact, he’s nearly suicidal due to the guilt he feels for killing an innocent child. Ken, on the other hand, is dismayed to learn the nature of his next assignment.

McDonagh’s profane dialogue is often hilarious. While his characters are often behaving in reprehensible ways, we’re continually amused by their antics.

The performers deliver terrific performances. Farrell has never been better or had a role so perfectly suited to his rough-edged charm. Gleeson’s world-weary killer is an ethically challenged Oliver Hardy to Farrell’s drug-fogged Stan Laurel. Fiennes, playing a cold-blooded mobster, is chilling even when displaying sharp comic timing.

But while there is much to admire here, one can’t help but yearn for more. When the film degenerates into its inevitable bloodbath, it seems somehow too calculated and contrived.

Still, In Bruges represents an impressive debut for someone who could be considered the intellectual alternative to Quentin Tarantino. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 02/15/08)


The Spiderwick Chronicles
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Although the box office results of recent fantasy novel adaptations have been a mixed bag, Hollywood is still convinced that there is gold in them thar tomes. It’s just a matter of properly mining it.

Paramount has staked its claim for The Spiderwick Chronicles, a series of fantasy novels by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black. For the movie, the five books have been condensed into a single 97-minute adventure.

The Spiderwick Chronicles is greatly similar to another family disappointment from last year, Arthur and the Invisibles. Both starred Freddie Highmore, both involved a fantasy realm in the back yard, both involved benign and malevolent fairies and both may be too scary for little kids.

But, thankfully, that’s where the similarities end. The Spiderwick Chronicles is a far better and more entertaining opus than Arthur…and has fewer of its inconsistencies.

Here, Highmore plays twin brothers Jared and Simon Grace. They’ve just moved with their mother (Mary Louise Parker from TV’s Weeds) and older sister Mallory (Premonition’s Sarah Bolger) into a creepy old Victorian estate somewhere in rural New England.

Jared is angry with his mom because of her recent split with his dad and the resulting financial trouble that has caused them to be uprooted from their home in Manhattan and transplanted to this rundown family property.

Rummaging around the old house, Jared stumbles upon a book written by his great uncle (David Straithairn from Good Night and Good Luck). It turns out to be a field guide to a fantastic netherworld that exists, invisibly, within our own. All sorts of bizarre characters, some good and many bad, populate this hidden realm.

In spite of the clear warnings, Jared reads the book and unwittingly puts himself and his family in grave danger. It seems that an evil, shape-shifting ogre named Mulgarath (Nick Nolte from Clean) wants the secrets held in the book. With the information contained therein, he can dominate the elfin world.

Naturally, there are many computer-generated characters, including Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short) the protector of the book, and a bird-loving goblin named Hogsqueal (Seth Rogan).

The production values are first rate and the film moves at a pleasing pace. The main downside is that the movie may be a bit too intense and scary for its target audience. In fact, it could give nightmares to anyone under 10. While it’s rated PG, a PG-13 would probably be more appropriate.

For older children and adults, The Spiderwick Chronicles is a modest, but pleasant pipe dream. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted 02/15/08)


Youth Without Youth
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Francis Ford Coppola’s latest film calls to mind the 1980 movie Somewhere in Time, in which a playwright travels back in time. He follows his soul mate through lifetimes. It’s the ultimate romance.

But though it includes the elements of reincarnation and romance, the story of Youth Without Youth is much more complex than Somewhere in Time. Based on Romanian author Mircea Eliade’s novella of the same name, the film explores themes of identity, aging, human history and knowledge.

The movie tells the story of Dominic Matea (played by Tim Roth). His story begins in his 70th year of life in 1938. He is lonely and suicidal. Then he gets struck by lightening and regains his youth. He also becomes a hyper intellectual.

Dominic discovers that he can speak ancient languages and even create new languages. Then he meets a young woman (Alexandra Maria Lara as Veronica), who apparently has been struck by lightening also (although we never see it on screen). As a result she gains knowledge of ancient languages and seems to be channeling a woman from another era.

The couple treks through a cave in search of clues about the life of the woman inside Veronica. Dominic and Veronica speak to each other in ancient languages and begin to discover the origins of human language. But then the weight of their knowledge begins to hurt them in various ways.

Whew, what a lot of ground for a two-hour movie to cover! To his credit, Coppola creates a visually compelling picture that despite its odd plot is never unintentionally funny. But the film is difficult to connect to emotionally.

Maybe deep philosophical stories just don’t translate well to the largely visual medium of film. Or maybe the director didn’t simplify the story enough for film.

But this isn’t the first time such an enterprise failed.

The recent adaptation of Gabriel Garcia’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera had the same problem. The filmmakers tried to create a literal adaptation of a great figurative work and wound up with an unintentionally funny mess.

Youth Without Youth didn’t fail as miserably but it suffers from “art film syndrome.” In other words, it’s a bit too heady, and a bit too talky. It is the work of a master filmmaker whose eyes have ascended so far into the heavens that he’s lost sight of his earthbound audience. Still, those who enjoy an enigma will have fun puzzling over this one. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 02/11/08)


Fool's Gold
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The effects of star power and personal charisma are often considerable. The right actor can elevate an otherwise colorless flick. When a film pairs a couple of personable actors and they demonstrate chemistry together, the resulting alchemy can give any movie a real boost.

Thankfully, Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson have plenty of individual charm and when they join forces, the results can be memorable.

When they last co-starred in the 2003 romantic comedy How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, they showed how their presence could make a bad movie bearable. They’re called upon to do exactly the same thing in the middling action farce Fools Gold.

For the most part, they’re able to pull it off. Even when you find yourself scoffing at the ridiculous and mindless antics the filmmakers offer, you still appreciate the fact that it’s served up by a couple of likable pros.

McConaughey plays Ben “Finn” Finnegan, a treasure hunter with tunnel vision. As irresponsible as he is irrepressible, Finn is obsessed with finding a sunken Spanish galleon known as the Queens Dowry. His research has convinced him that the ship is somewhere near a Bahamian island.

His fixation on finding the treasure has left him deep in debt to a gangster/rap star named Big Bunny (Kevin Hart from Soul Plane) and estranged from his wife Tess (Hudson).

As luck would have it, Finn finds an artifact that convinces him that he’s close to the treasure on the very day that he accidentally sinks his boat. Tess, ready to divorce Finn and return to her hometown of Chicago, is dismayed when she learns the fate of the boat. After all, she had all of her money tied up in it.

Finn tries to mend fences with Tess while continuing to pursue the sunken booty. She takes a job on the luxurious yacht belonging to a British millionaire named Nigel Honeycutt (Donald Sutherland) and, before long Finn has convinced the mogul and his ditzy daughter (Alexis Diena from Broken Flowers) to join him in his treasure hunt.

Director Andy Tennant (Hitch) and co-screenwriters Daniel Zelman and John Calfin (Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid) fill their opus with calculated cuteness and the broad slapstick. Their screenplay doesn’t feature a single original moment or, for that matter, a believable one.

While Fool’s Gold doesn’t dig up any cinematic treasure, it does have a couple of gems in leading roles. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 02/08/08)


Persepolis
Reviewed by Deborah Young

What can be made of an animated film that bears the name of an ancient empire’s capital city, a city eventually destroyed by a powerful ruler? It seems like the name would be too pretentious or heavy for this genre, but it fits this artistic work to a tee.

Initially, watching Persepolis is like witnessing a “Cathy” comic strip slide right out of a newspaper and onto the big screen, with a little assistance from CGI wizardry. Cartoonists Vincent Parronaud and Marjane Satrapi direct the film, which compared to the sophisticated animation in films such as A Scanner Darkly (2006) and Ratatouille (2007), seems visually primitive.

The characters are simple geometric shapes mostly drawn in basic black and white. But the film’s intellect and humor catapult it above the mundane and way above the average. Persepolis (based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novels Persepolis and Persepolis 2) tells the story of Satrapi’s coming of age during the 1970s and 1980s in Iran.

We first see Marjane (“Marji”) as an idealistic little girl who dreams of being both a prophet and a karate master. Then she gradually becomes aware of the injustices in her country. She also learns of her family’s history of revolutionary activism and the tragic consequences thereof.

She suffers the pains of puberty and learns the hard way that being outspoken often leads to a heap of trouble. Politics are a huge part of her world. So politics are a huge part of this movie.

But the political viewpoint of Persepolis never becomes overwhelming, because it’s filtered through the lens of a girl who’s discovering herself. As in most lives, her self-discovery causes pain, but it also creates some funny situations.

In one scene Marji talks in voiceover about physical changes that are making her feel awkward: her chin seems to be overtaking her face; her butt’s growing; her breasts are blossoming. Through the miracle of animation, we witness all of this happening in seconds, and it’s hilarious.

This is a very “writerly” movie, which is why the simple animation style works here. There are no visual distractions to pull us from the main attraction: the growing pains of a girl and a country.

In its first 15 minutes Persepolis appears to be on a rocket to the land of failed cinematic experiments. We get voiceovers, cerebral talk and plain visuals.

But then the story illuminates everything around it. It’s a story as beautiful and as tragic as the ancient Persian city whose name it bears. (PG-13) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 02/01/08)


Over Her Dead Body
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

About the best thing that can be said for the awkward, sputtering romantic farce Over Her Dead Body is that it manages to avoid most of the raunchiness that currently dominates Hollywood’s comic output.

Eva Longoria Parker from TV’s Desperate Housewives has top billing in this flatfooted fantasy, but from what we see in the final print, hers’ is a supporting role. This is a prime example of a movie that appears to have been tinkered with by studio honchos who were afraid they had a bomb on their hands. Their fears have been realized.

Parker plays Kate, a pushy, obnoxious bride who expires on her wedding day when an ice sculpture falls on her head. (Good riddance.) Even in the afterlife, she finds ways to rub people the wrong way.

Coming back to Earth as a ghost, she discovers that her fiancé Henry (played by Kansas City’s own Paul Rudd who is far too good for this material) has consulted a medium in an attempt to contact her. You see…he’s had trouble moving on with his life.

Henry consults a psychic named Ashley (Lake Bell from TV’s Boston Legal) and, much to Kate’s chagrin, he finds her very attractive. Not ready to let Henry go, Kate decides to “haunt” Ashley, the only person who can see her.

Insisting that Ashley isn’t right for Henry, Kate uses her newfound spirit powers to complicate and ultimately sabotage this budding romance in every imaginable way. But this is a “comedy” of course, so her methods are calculated to generate chuckles.

You know that you’re in trouble when you find yourself noticing a film’s clumsy editing and grainy photography. The herky-jerky pacing that first-time writer/director Jeff Lowell brings to this goofy opus prevents it from ever attaining the lighthearted atmosphere it obviously strives for.

Parker’s character is so annoying that she becomes an ongoing irritation instead of the amusingly quirky eccentric she’s supposed to be. Poor Rudd is reduced to an observer’s role, leaving one to speculate that his occasionally clever asides may have been improvised on the spot. Jason Biggs (American Pie) is cast in a role so insignificant that it appears to have been an afterthought.

That leaves Bell with the responsibility of carrying the film. While she possesses a modicum of charm, it isn’t enough to bring this enterprise to life.

Over Her Dead Body is dead on arrival. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 02/01/08)

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