reel reviews
movie reviews
March '08


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

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Run Fatboy Run
Reviewed by Deborah Young

British actor Simon Pegg has a knack for portraying clueless characters. He’s mastered the blank stare. He knows how to hold his mouth agape in a silent gesture of befuddlement. He knows how to turn his characters’ frustrations into audiences’ comic relief.

Pegg carried off this dazed and confused schtick in the zombie flick Shaun of the Dead (2004) as an irresponsible regular Joe about to lose his fiancé, unless he grows up fast. He brought the subdued nuttiness back in Hot Fuzz (2007), in which he played an overachieving police officer who gives new meaning to the words “by the book.”

This time around Pegg plays Dennis, a good-hearted but socially stunted security guard. Five years ago Dennis left his then-pregnant fiancé (Thandie Newton as Libby) at the altar, but he’s kept in touch and regularly visits their five-year-old son Jake (Matthew Fenton).

When Dennis discovers that Libby is dating a successful businessman (Hank Azaria as Whit) he gets jealous and begins to regret his breakup with Libby. Then he finds out that Whit is about to run in a marathon. Although he’s a smoker and a little chubby, Dennis decides to enter the marathon too, to prove to Libby that he can commit to something.

Pegg has co-writing credits with Michael Ian Black (MTV’s The State). The writers provided a steady sprinkling of jokes and gags throughout the movie’s 100-minute run. The gags are funny because they seem to rise organically from the characters’ personalities.

There’s one running gag about Dennis getting locked out of his apartment. He seems to do it every time he leaves home. Then he arrives at the apartment door, realizes he’s locked out, jiggles the knob in frustration and then begins kicking the door. Pegg’s air of pent up frustration makes the gag funny every time.

Director and cinematic Renaissance man David Schwimmer (Friends) has done a good job of creating an ambiance and keeping the comedy grounded in reality. The script is formulaic, but the actors breathe life into the characters in ways that make us laugh with them and root for them. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 03/28/08)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Moviemaking is a gamble. You hold out hope that all of the elements will come together, but the odds of that happening are against you. But the makers of 21 took a chance.

21 is very loosely based on Ben Mizrich’s 2002 non-fiction best-seller Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions. It told the tale of a team of card counters who did just what the title suggests way back in the hazy, pre-Google days of the early 1990s.

Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) leads the cast as Ben Campbell, a brilliant undergrad student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His fondest hope is to attend medical school at Harvard, but as the son of a middle class single mom, he can’t afford the $300,000 tuition.

While awaiting word on whether or not he’s going to receive a precious full-ride scholarship, Ben is approached with another option.

One of his MIT math professors has noticed Ben’s affinity for figures. Mickey Rosa, played with smarmy charm by Kevin Spacey (Superman Returns), lets Ben in on a little secret. Mickey has recruited some of his brightest pupils to use their considerable skills for a blackjack squad.

Under Mickey’s tutelage (and using his cash), the card counters spend their weeks at school and their weekends taking Vegas for all it is worth.

After the requisite dramatic hesitation (and after some alluring persuasion from a lovely team member named Jill, played by Kate Bosworth from Superman Returns), Ben reluctantly agrees to give it a go.

Ben discovers just how profitable and addictive Sin City can be. But the naïve prodigy fails to see how Mickey is playing him and also underestimates the dogged Vegas security team led by the scary Lawrence Fishburne (Bobby).

Screenwriters Peter Steinfeld (Be Cool) and Allan Loeb (Things We Lost in the Fire) play fast and loose with the facts, but have concocted an entertainingly melodramatic opus.

Director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde) embellishes the story with plenty of fancy camerawork that helps capture the dizzying glitz that our hero is experiencing.

Sturgess is a likable lead and few actors can match Spacey when it comes to the portrayal of sleaze. The only weak link is Bosworth, who registers little but a pretty face.

When it comes to making a flashy popcorn flick, why not take a chance? The makers of 21 did, and their bet has paid modest dividends. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 03/28/08)

Stop Loss
Reviewed by Deborah Young

In its opening scenes Stop Loss brings to mind the 2004 documentary Gunner Palace. Gunner Palace documents the daily lives of soldiers who reside in a burned out palace that once belonged to Saddam Hussein. The camera follows the soldiers during their leisure time at the palace and then on missions in Baghdad.

Stop Loss begins with “home video” of the soldiers in Brandon King’s squad. The squad leader, Brandon (Ryan Phillip), and his best friend Steve (Channing Tatum) are counting down the days until their release from the army.

We get shots of the soldiers laughing and talking. One of them plays his guitar and makes up funny lyrics.

Then everything goes south with their final mission. They wind up in a firefight. Some of the men get killed.

The next time we see these soldiers they’re on a bus headed to a welcome home celebration in Brandon’s hometown in Texas. As the bus approaches the celebration, Lt. Col. Boot Miller reminds the men that they will be representing the U.S. army.

He then gives them a list of things they will not do while on leave. He tells them not to have sex with underage girls, not to get drunk and drive and not to beat up civilians, including their wives or girlfriends.

This little speech is a foreshadowing of things to come. It is also a warning to the audience that these boys have been damaged by war and thus need to be reminded of civil behavior.

Then comes the melodrama as the soldiers descend on the Texas town and begin breaking all of the lieutenant colonel’s commands. Thus the film leaves the treacherous, realistic world of Gunner Palace and descends into commentary drama, much like that featured in In the Valley of Elah (2007). But that film did a better job of avoiding melodramatic extremes.

In Stop Loss every soldier is a clichéd basket case. They are constantly plagued by flashbacks. They sleep with their guns. They drink too much alcohol. They fight.

Then Brandon finds out that he’s been stop-loss, meaning that although his contract is up with the army he’s been called back to active duty. He’s determined not to return to Iraq. So he goes on the run with his best friend’s girlfriend, Michelle (played by Abbie Cornish).

This movie seems to exist primarily to highlight the U.S. government’s stop-loss program and even ends with a blurb about how many soldiers have been stop-loss during the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The characters are secondary to the message, which is never good for a film.

Stop Loss does have an adequate cast and manages to be mildly entertaining (but much of the content is disturbing, and foul language abounds). (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 03/28/08)

Paranoid Park
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

For the final classic shot from the 1933 movie Queen Christina, director Rouben Mamoulian instructed star Greta Garbo to clear everything from her mind. He wanted her expression to be so blank that each audience member would have to read into her emotions themselves.

Perhaps director Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting) gave the same instructions to the young star of his new movie Paranoid Park. The lad spends virtually the entire movie with a look so glazed that you might expect his face to be made of porcelain.

Under some circumstances this might be an appropriate approach, but in this case, when the expressionless lead is coupled with Van Sant’s endless slow-motion tracking shots, the end result is as interesting to watch as a lethargic drip from the faucet.

Van Sant’s impressionistic flick is an adaptation of Blake Nelson’s novel about a teenage skateboarder who is wracked with guilt over the accidental death of a railroad security guard. While some may rhapsodize about the poetic nature of the filmmaking and the hypnotic atmosphere it creates, most will probably feel that the emperor has no clothes.

Granted, Van Sant knows what he’s doing. His work is highly calculated and some of his footage is visually arresting. But the pace of Paranoid Park is glacial. Patrons will wish they were watching from their homes with the fast-forward button under their thumbs.

Newcomer Gabe Nevins plays Alex, an avid skateboarder who lives in Portland with his estranged parents and younger brother. Mom and Dad are getting ready to split up, Alex is dating a girl he really doesn’t like and he doesn’t know what his future holds. The only thing that seems to engage him is skateboarding.

He and one of his pals explore the skateboarding culture of Paranoid Park. On the bad side of town, it’s a place that one would only dare visit during the day. Intrigued by some of the daring feats he witnesses, Alex decides to venture out alone one evening.

What transpires there is, at first, unclear. Van Sant gives us some clues through intermittent flashbacks, but holds back some vital information. All we know is that a railroad security guard is dead and that the police are interviewing local high school kids who enjoy skateboarding.

But little of this is really very absorbing. Van Sant seems more interested in sharing seemingly endless scenes of Alex walking or riding his board accompanied by incongruous musical choices.

For Van Sant, Paranoid Park is a self-indulgent misstep. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 03/28/08)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When news began circulating that Bill Maher had a movie at the Sundance Film Festival, attendees began to buzz about what kind of politically volatile comedy that the host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher might come up with.

Imagine their disappointment when they discovered that Sleepwalking was a sleepy family drama and that a former visual effects artist — who just happens to share the noted comedian’s name — was the novice director.

Oh well, you can’t blame the cast.

Nick Stahl (Sin City) plays James, a very likable dim bulb that is as nice and unassuming as he is gullible and easily duped. Obviously the product of a dysfunctional family life, James allows himself to be a human doormat.

Among the folks who regularly take advantage of him are his irresponsible and morally pliable sister Joleen (Charlize Theron from In the Valley of Elah). With bad taste in men and little regard for herself, Joleen is an accident waiting to happen.

When she sees the opportunity, Joleen leaves her 11-year-old daughter Tara (AnnaSophia Robb from Bridge to Terabithia) in James’ care and bolts. But Tara, tired of being chronically abandoned by her mother, is having none of it. She’s smart enough and savvy enough to know that James, who doesn’t even know how to drive, won’t be much of a guardian.

With a little manipulation, Tara is able to convince James to help her find her mom. Although he’s ill equipped for the task, James takes to the road with Tara and the duo begins an adventure that will change both of their lives forever.

Broke and desperate, they wind up at James’ father’s threadbare ranch. Although he hasn’t seen him in years, James hopes that his abusive dad (played with moustache-twirling zeal by Dennis Hopper) will help him and his “daughter.”

The movie manages to establish an appropriately somber atmosphere and the players are, for the most part, quite effective. Stahl is quite credible as our put upon hero and Robb is among our finest and most likable juvenile actors.

Theron is excellent, but hers is a small supporting role that mainly serves as a complicating device. Hopper is a bit more problematic. Director Maher allows him to go too far over the top with his nasty turn as the cruel patriarch.

Stahl’s likable loser is engaging enough to win us over, but the movie surrounding him may put you to sleep. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 03/28/08)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

One would think that the horrific newsreel footage from the “Rape of Nanking” by the Japanese Army in 1937 would be enough to tell the shocking story. The new documentary Nanking shows that the words of survivors can paint an even more vivid picture.

That’s not to say that this powerful film lacks the requisite visuals. In fact, it’s jam-packed with shocking images illustrating the horrific bombing and subsequent invasion of the Chinese capitol.

But it is the first-hand recollections of a handful of elderly Chinese civilians and former Japanese soldiers that give the film its stunning impact.

An extremely effective and emotionally affecting film by directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, Nanking makes the tragic events of 1937 seem as immediate as the evening news.

But some purists may take issue with one of the techniques the filmmakers employ. They’ve hired actors to serve as some of the talking heads. Woody Harrelson, Rosalind Cho, Mariel Hemmingway, Jurgen Prochnow and Stephen Dorff are among the players who share the words of eyewitnesses who have passed on.

But all of the words read by the actors are taken verbatim from diary entries, letters and interviews given by those who were there.

Still, these second-hand voices from the past have far less impact than the direct words of those who were there. As they vividly recall the unimaginable atrocities perpetrated upon them and their loved ones, their voices often choke with emotion. Their memory of the horror is as strong as if it all happened yesterday.

Much of the film concentrates on the efforts of a handful of Westerners who sought to create a safety zone where frightened refugees could find sanctuary. Although the Japanese Army raped, pillaged and murdered with abandon, many were saved thanks to the persistence of those who created the refuge.

The filmmakers don’t blink when it comes to showing the brutality and mayhem that took place between December 1937 and March 1938. But equally shocking is the footage of elderly Japanese ex-soldiers who recount their own heinous acts.

The film is skillfully constructed and superbly edited for maximum impact. The facts are so well documented that you’d expect them to be beyond dispute.

But, there is a growing movement in Japan to deny that the Rape of Nanking ever occurred. As the film illustrates in the final moments, some of the perpetrators are enshrined in Japan where their memory is honored by neo-militarists.

Seventy years later, the tragedy has yet to end. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 03/21/08)

Drillbit Taylor
Reviewed by Deborah Young

This latest addition to the lovable loser genre has two major flaws: the main character (Owen Wilson as Drillbit) isn’t that lovable; and the film’s plot isn’t over the top enough to elicit hoots and hollers.

Director Steven Brill (director of the Adam Sandler flicks Mr. Deeds and Little Nicky) is on familiar territory here. The surprise is that writer John Hughes (The Breakfast Club) collaborated on this story, which is unfortunate for him.

Drillbit is basically a reincarnation of Adam Sandler’s Sonny from the 1999 film Big Daddy and Jim Carrey’s Fletcher of Liar Liar (1997). All three characters have a seemingly incurable case of the can’t-help-its. They act like overgrown children, functioning with little regard for adult responsibilities.

Drillbit’s modus operandi include living outside, showering on a public beach every morning and then heading to his job of panhandling during the morning rush hour.

He answers a Web ad for a bodyguard job protecting two nerdy 9th-grade boys. They hire him, and he winds up protecting them and another boy who latches onto them. His plan is to steal from them to pay for a trip he wants to take.

Everything about the story is old hat, including the love connection Drillbit makes with a teacher at the boys’ school. Then there’s the pudgy and totally un-cool wannabe (Troy Gentile as Ryan) raps. We’re supposed to be stunned by the contrast between this boy’s appearance and his musical “skills.”

And as you may have guessed, there are bullies who have made it their life’s work to harass these boys. The bullies come up with such imaginative tortures as stuffing one of the boys into a locker and, on more than one occasion, picking two boys up while they’re going to the bathroom, which causes them to pee on each other.

The central problem is that all of the characters are forgettable. There are a few funny moments, but most of them come and go within the movie’s first twenty minutes. Wilson seems to be sleepwalking through the performance. The kids’ use a bit of profanity, which some viewers might find offensive. Plus, the sight of Wilson’s naked tush may be off-putting to some folks.

There are no surprises for this genre’s fans, some of who might actually derive mild enjoyment from this film. Unfortunately, there are no surprises for the rest of us either. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 03/21/08)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Ever seen a Lebanese chick flick? If not, you certainly have lots of company.

Caramel represents a very rare breed of film. Fortunately, this gentle movie provides us with an entertaining and enlightening glimpse into the lives of women we would likely never otherwise encounter.

Stunning beauty Nadine Labaki (Seventh Dog) demonstrates considerable skill both in front of and behind the camera, leading the cast while serving as director and co-writer of this episodic film.

Caramel focuses on the lives of five women from various generations who regularly encounter one another at a Beirut beauty salon. As they chat, commiserate and gossip, we learn some of the intimate details of their lives.

Labaki plays Layale, a single cosmetologist who is having an affair with a married man. While working with her clients, she anxiously awaits the honking of a car horn, a signal that her lover has managed to break away from his wife and daughter long enough for a brief tryst. She’s also oblivious to a kind-hearted traffic cop who is obviously smitten with her.

Yasmine Elmarsi plays Nisrine, another beautician who is awaiting her nuptials. Problem is, she isn’t a virgin and in the Lebanese Christian culture, this could prove catastrophic on her wedding night. She seeks an operation to cover her indiscretions.

We also peer into the lives of a recently divorced actress who is having difficulty dealing with middle age, a closet lesbian who struggles to hide her attraction to a client, and a tailor whose life is complicated by her elderly sister’s struggles with dementia.

While none of these stories delve very far beneath the surface, the movie is very realistic and well acted. Thanks to the capable cast and sensitive treatment, Carmel manages to be both warm and moving in spite of its anecdotal nature.

Most poignant is the story of Aunt Rose, the seamstress. Her mentally challenged sister continually threatens any hope she might have of establishing a romantic relationship in her latter years.

The sexual candor on display in Caramel is fascinating given the rigid mores of the region. This film must seem shocking in its home country even though the content is fairly mild in comparison with many Western films.

While all this might sound a bit dreary, the film is surprisingly upbeat and sunny. In spite of the stress and adversity these women endure, the forge hopefully on.

If Caramel is indicative of other Middle Eastern chick flicks, bring ‘em on. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 03/21/08)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

So, how does this happen? How does a film that won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival and reaped dozens of awards from critics’ groups around the world not even get a nomination for an Oscar?

This is just one of the mysteries involving the convoluted and outmoded procedures that plague the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It’s become a real embarrassment.

The Romanian entry 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days should have been recognized by the Academy and this snub may well lead them to revamp their rules.

A harrowing and ultra-realistic film from director Christian Mungiu (Occident), 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days depicts the efforts of a woman named Otilia, played by Anamaria Marinca, to aid a friend desiring an abortion.

It is the 1980s in a bleak, seedy and gray Romania. In the totalitarian state ruled mercilessly by Nicolai Ceauéscu, abortion is illegal. The penalties for performing or receiving an abortion are harsh, as the dictator wants to build his country’s population.

Anamaria’s friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) finds herself in the family way. Although she’s a bit of a dimwit, Gabita realizes that having a child out of wedlock would mark her as a fallen woman and ensure her a life of abject poverty. In spite of the fact that she’s too far along in her pregnancy for a safe procedure, she takes the chance of soliciting a back alley butcher with no medical expertise.

Anamaria not only helps Gabita with money, she agrees to go along with her to meet Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), the imposing and scary abortionist. The three meet in a hotel room where it soon becomes evident that nothing is going to go smoothly.

But the agony isn’t all Gabita’s. Not only does Anamaria try to help her friend, but she must also keep quiet about it to her boyfriend and his family. She also winds up paying a very dear price for her actions, one that has nothing to do with money.

What is most striking about 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (the title refers to how long Gabita waited before seeking to terminate her pregnancy) is its stark realism. The emotions that the film generates in us are strongly rooted and not based on cinematic manipulations.

All of the actors are terrific, but Marinca is a revelation in what could have been a star-making performance.

If only the Academy hadn’t dropped the ball. (No MPAA rating) Rating: 4 (Posted 03/14/08)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Some say that it possible to hate a film and enthusiastically admire it at the same time. Funny Games certainly puts that theory to the test.

It’s not that German filmmaker Michael Haneke wants us to be repulsed by his film, but he does want us to be repulsed by the violence it depicts. It’s as if he’s saying, “If you’re going to have violence in a movie, it shouldn’t be entertaining. It should be as it is in real life — horrible.”

An English language remake of his 1997 German version, Funny Games isn’t even really about violence. It’s about violence in the movies. Haneke’s fierce work steadfastly refuses to let the audience have the cathartic moments we’ve come to expect from nearly every other movie we’ve ever seen.

Naomi Watts (King Kong) and Tim Roth (Youth Without Youth) star as Ann and George, a wealthy New England couple who, along with their young son Charlie (Devon Gearheart), travel to their impressive seaside estate for a long weekend’s retreat.

Shortly after arrival, they get a knock at the door. It is a preppie named Peter (Barry Corbit from Mysterious Skin) who wants to borrow some eggs. He claims that he’s staying with one of their neighbors and that they’ve sent him on this errand.

Even though he somehow managed to get past the substantial security fence, Ann reluctantly welcomes him in. After all, he “looks” harmless. Soon, another equally innocent looking fellow named Paul arrives, played by Michael Pitt (Last Days).

It soon becomes clear that these fellows aren’t there for eggs. They’re there to terrorize, torture and ultimately murder this family. To them, it’s simply a game borne out of boredom and resentment of their privileged peers.

Early on, Haneke establishes a nearly unbearable sense of dread and that atmosphere pervades the entire movie. But he takes a big chance when he has one of the characters break the “fourth wall” and address the audience directly, saying “We're not up to feature film length yet. You want a real ending with plausible plot development?”

Haneke makes it clear that he’s toying with us. He jerks us out of the story to remind us we’re watching a movie and that he’s not about to let us enjoy the “revenge” violence that so many movies thrive on. This gimmick is both annoying and engrossing.

A commentary on complacency of the comfortable, Funny Games refuses us any comfort. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 03/14/08)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

As Oprah Winfrey opined on a recent edition of her TV chat fest, “Dr. Seuss is DEEP!”

Once again, the Queen of Daytime is right. Although the late Theodore Geisel wrote clever rhyming verse for small children, there was always a strong moral theme to his stories.

The book Horton Hears a Who! was released in 1954 and although it has gained popularity over the years, it is not among his top 20 best sellers. Still, its universal message of respect for each individual life resonates very strongly today. As Horton says, “A person’s a person no matter how small.”

Blessedly, the new computer animated adaptation of Horton Hears a Who! is a complete delight for both children and adults. In fact, it may be the best film of any kind released so far in 2008.

Beautifully animated, cleverly written, skillfully directed and featuring top voice talent, Horton makes us forget the live-action disasters that befell How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat.

CBS Sunday Morning’s Charles Osgood, a truly inspired choice, sets the scene as our narrator. Jim Carrey (The Number 23) gives voice to Horton, an elephant living in the Jungle of Nool. A busybody Kangaroo (the legendary Carol Burnett) doesn’t approve of Horton’s activities that fuel the imaginations of the jungle children.

The big-hearted and big-eared Horton hears a noise coming from a tiny speck that has landed on a small clover. With his superior auditory power, he realizes that the tiny community of Whoville resides on that speck. He then makes it his mission to find a safe place for the Whos to reside.

But Kangaroo is convinced that “If you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.” She then sets out to have the speck destroyed before the children of Nool are corrupted by Horton’s flight of fancy. But Horton has made contact with the Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell from Dan in Real Life). Just has Horton has to convince the jungle dwellers that the Whos exist, the mayor has to convince his people that Horton does.

The script by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul is inspired and often hilarious. The direction comes from animator Jimmy Hayward and art director Steve Martino in their impressive feature debut. They’ve included a dream sequence, a parody of Japanese anime, that is one of the funniest set pieces in years.

Expanding such a short story into a full-length feature is like traipsing through a minefield. But like the titular hero, Horton Hears a Who! succeeds against all odds. (G) Rating: 4.5(Posted 03/14/08)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Ultimate Fighting, the no holds barred style of mixed martial arts has, in recent years, become a phenomenon. Sociologists are scratching their heads about how this form of “human cock fighting” has amassed such popularity.

Like it or not, this brutal sport has arrived and, naturally, Hollywood is only a step behind. While Never Back Down doesn’t have anything to do with the organized “legal” version of Ultimate Fighting, it focuses on the street incarnation.

Sean Farris (TV’s Reunion) leads the cast as Jake Tyler, an Iowa native who has just moved to the mean streets of Orlando! In his first days at a new high school, he learns that his reputation has preceded him.

As shown in the opening sequence, Jake is a talented football player and a mean scrapper. Taunted by a rival during a game, he gets into a slugfest that’s recorded on home video and the resulting brawl becomes a You Tube hit.

In short order, he’s invited to a party at a lush Orlando mansion. It is the home of Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet from Who’s Your Caddy?), a school big shot and a champion mixed martial arts fighter. On the spot, he challenges Jake to a fistfight. Of course, our hero initially refuses.

But Jake, you see, has an emotional Achilles Heel. He allowed his drunken father behind the wheel, a move that led to his father’s death. The player who taunted Jake into the football brawl used this information to get Jake’s goat. Ryan does the same thing, manipulating Jake into the confrontation. Ryan, a well-trained athlete, easily whips and humiliates Jake.

So, what’s a prideful person to do? Take lessons and exact some revenge, of course. Jake signs up with a local master named Jean Roqua, played by Djimon Housnou (Blood Diamond), and trains unrelentingly.

The screenplay by Chris Hauty (Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco) is a compendium of clichés that borrows from too many films to mention. Plus, it’s riddled with false moralizing that borders on the contemptible.

Director Jeff Wadlow (Cry Wolf) does a workmanlike job and the fight sequences are ably choreographed and reasonably exciting. But there isn’t a moment in the movie that rings true and it plays upon our base desires for revenge.

Never Back Down may want to be another Fight Club, but it utterly lacks that film’s intelligence and style. At best, it’s a guilty pleasure for those who want to see a good butt kicking. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 03/14/08)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Alex Gibney has finally won the Academy Award. Although he deserved the recognition for his earlier documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Oscar finally caught up by honoring his latest effort, Taxi to the Dark Side.

Perhaps this was Oscar’s way of saying, “This is a movie that tells an important story.” If that is the case, then the golden boy is certainly right. Although there were better documentaries in 2007, Taxi to the Dark Side serves as a chilling exposé of America’s treatment of prisoners of the “War on Terror.”

The title refers to a man named Dilawar, an Afghani cab driver who had the bad luck of simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A victim of circumstance, Dilawar was arrested as a terrorism suspect, sent to Bagram Air Force Base, was beaten repeatedly and died five days later.

As it became evident that he was simply driving a fare that was a terrorism suspect, Dilawar became a martyr in the eyes of his countrymen.

But his story is just one small thread in the fabric of Taxi to the Dark Side. It’s really about how the Bush administration’s attitude toward dealing with suspects ultimately led to the scandals at Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

Gibney serves as narrator of his exhaustively researched account of how the mindset at the top percolated downward. He makes a compelling argument that the folks in charge felt shackled by the Geneva Convention’s rules regarding prisoners of war and set out to thwart them.

Through a variety of talking heads that are in a unique position to know, we learn that torture of prisoners is prevalent in spite of the official protestation to the contrary. Gibney speaks to soldiers who have been severely disciplined for following orders to get information at any cost.

He also snags folks like law professor John Yoo, who was instrumental in formulating the legal framework for the Bush administration’s new policies, and respected Naval General Counsel Alberto Mora who stridently opposed them.

The filmmaker weaves news footage and shocking photographs into his canvas, creating a bleak and disturbing picture. One of the revelations is that Americans identify the preponderance of terrorism suspects based upon evidence from paid informants. It’s quite likely that someone in need of American cash framed Dilawar.

If Oscar feels some righteous indignation, he isn’t the only one. (R) Rating: 4(Posted 03/14/08)

Body of War
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

There are two parts to Body of War, the new documentary by former TV host Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro (Troop 1500).

One part deals with the story of Kansas City native Tomas Young, a soldier who returned from the Iraq war as a paraplegic and then became an outspoken and in-demand antiwar activist.

The second part focuses on the US Congress, the debate on the floor leading up to the conflict in Iraq and the ultimate roll call vote that gave the president the power to send in soldiers to topple Saddam Hussein.

While the filmmaking on display in Body of War is rather commonplace, Young is a compelling character and his presence gives the movie an effective edge.

Early on, we meet Young after he’s returned from Iraq and is readying to marry his fiancée, Brie. But Young’s disabilities prevent him from enjoying this happy time to its fullest. He’s not just confined to a wheelchair, but also deals with constant pain, metabolic difficulties and struggles with control over his bodily functions.

So where does this newlywed couple spend their honeymoon? They travel to Camp Casey, the encampment of war protesters led by Cindy Sheehan just outside of President Bush’s Texas ranch.

Throughout the film, we see Young becoming increasingly involved in the antiwar movement, appearing on 60 Minutes, speaking with church groups, granting interviews and doing his best to use his story to bring change. All the while, we also see the physical struggles and emotional stresses that put great pressure on his shaky new marriage.

As Young’s story unfolds, Donahue and Spiro intersperse the action with sequences featuring members of congress. We see many beat the war drum and endlessly repeat the administration’s pro-war rhetoric with their canned speeches. Others, most notably Sen. Robert Byrd, resist the call to conflict, giving impassioned and reasoned arguments to the contrary.

As the film concludes, the filmmakers tie these two ends together as Young and Byrd meet and converse about their separate battles.

Do Donahue and Spiro stack the deck? Sure they do. This isn’t an objective work of journalism, but rather a fervent personal statement. But they make a compelling case that Byrd and the "Immortal 23" (those senators who stood against the war) were right and those in favor of the war were wrong…simply by using their own words.

Like much of the truth, it is a bitter pill to swallow. (No MPAA rating.) Rating: 3 (Posted 03/07/08)

10,000 BC
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Were you aware of the fact that mastodons worked as pack animals in the construction of the pyramids? Did you know that mountain-dwelling hunters led a rebellion uniting African tribesmen against the slave-holding Egyptians, bringing down their civilization?

These are just a couple of the revelations in 10,000 BC, a preposterous speculation about pre-history. No, it isn’t a comedy, but don’t be surprised if you wind up laughing…a lot.

This gargantuan extravaganza comes to us via director Roland Emmerich, the man behind Independence Day, Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow. Yes, Emmerich knows how to mount big-budget spectacles that dazzle the eyes but befuddle the brain.

10,000 BC plays like a cross between Apocalypto and 300. It presents the epic story of a reluctant hero who, as the prophecies predicted, rose to become a hero of nearly supernatural proportions.

The dulcet tones of Omar Sharif provide the narration to this saga, the story of the D’Leh (Steven Strait from Sky High), a member of a mountain-dwelling tribe of hunters that live off of the mighty mastodons.

Forget the mammoths. Things really get hairy when some “four-legged demons” (men on horseback) carry off some of their members to be slaves. One of the would-be slaves is D’Leh’s sweetheart, Evolet, played by the lovely Camilla Belle (When a Stranger Calls).

D’Leh and a handful of tribesmen set off on foot in an attempt to save the abducted clansmen. Besides the evildoers, they encounter giant, flesh-eating birds, saber toothed tigers and all manner of environmental difficulties. Their travels eventually lead them to a highly advanced desert civilization where slaves are busily constructing gigantic memorials to a demanding god-king.

The dialogue comes from the pens of Emmerich and composer Harald Kloser in his first attempt at screenwriting. The fact that English is a second language for these filmmakers may account for the banality of the wordplay, but not for the long, boring stretches between eye-popping action sequences.

Emmerich, if nothing else, has a tremendous eye. It might be easy to utterly dismiss 10,000 BC if it weren’t for the amazing visuals that he and his special effects team manage to create. A mastodon hunt early in the film is truly a spectacular set piece.

But the story is so trite and juvenile that it undermines the movie’s stupendous production values.

10,000 BC has some real camp value, however. Someone please all the guys from Mystery Science Theatre 3000! (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 03/07/08)

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Period films work best when actors and directors remember that human nature remains constant. The actions of a jealous rapper in 21st century New York would mirror the actions of a jealous sheik in ancient Egypt.

Historical costumes, music and language are just the windows to period films; the character’s motivations are their souls. So the pre-World War II backdrop of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day shouldn’t sterilize the story.

Unfortunately it does.

The execution of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a cinematic version of Winifred Watson’s 1938 novel, leaves the impression that director Bharat Nalluri and most of his cast abandoned human emotion for the grand gesture.

The highly mannered shenanigans begin when an out of work governess (Francis McDormand as Miss Pettigrew) turns up at the residence of singer Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams). Pettigrew’s the repressed and inhibited daughter of a vicar. So she doesn’t know what to make of the decadent morning-after scene. There’s a bra hanging from a ceiling lamp for Pete’s sake and a naked man in the bed of upstairs.

But Pettigrew becomes a captive audience of the bubbly and babbling Lafosse, who mistakenly thinks that an agency has sent Pettigrew to serve as her social secretary. Pettigrew continues the charade because she needs a job and food.

Soon Pettigrew becomes an accomplice in Lafosse’s romantic misadventures. The former governess attempts to advise the younger woman, who happens to be dating three men at once.

Throughout the enterprise most of the actors speak too fast, too loud and too deliberate. It’s as if they’re reciting Shakespeare and don’t understand one word of it.

The two exceptions are McDormand and Ciaran Hinds as Joe, a gentlemanly underwear designer. These two pull us into to these characters’ worlds, but we can’t stay there long because the other actors’ shouting and gesturing jolt us back to the present. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 03/07/08)

The Band’s Visit
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The makers of the sweet natured Israeli comedy The Band’s Visit may have anticipated that their little movie could cause bit of controversy. Undoubtedly, they were unprepared for the whirlwind that an Oscar snub would stir up.

While the movie touches upon Egyptian-Israeli relations, it is a language problem that has caused the real fuss. According the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, The Band’s Visit was disqualified from Oscar consideration because it contains too much English!

While English is indeed the language that the characters occasionally use to communicate with one another (after all, Egyptians and Israelis have different tongues), it amounts to only a small percentage of the film’s dialogue. The Academy’s decision seems capricious and arbitrary.

The real tragedy is that The Band’s Visit is certainly award-worthy. It is a heartfelt comedy that shows that a common humanity can sometimes overcome the artificial divisions between us.

Loosely based on a true story, The Band’s Visit relates the tale of strangers in a strange land, the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra lost in rural Israel.

The band, a neatly dressed squad made up of eight Egyptian men of various ranks and ages, was invited to play at the opening of an Arab/Israeli cultural center. After they arrive at the airport, they discover that no one has come to meet them. Left alone to find their way, they wind up in a tiny desert town far from their intended destination.

This may seem like a setup for a broad farce or a heavy-handed lecture on the merits of living in harmony. While it is often funny and implies the importance of brotherhood, this first effort from writer/director Eran Kolirin is really about individuals connecting with other individuals.

Sasson Gabai plays Lieutenant Colonel Tawfiq Zacharya, the stiff and formal leader of the orchestra. While he seems downright uptight at first, he thaws considerably after meeting an earthy Israeli woman named Dina, played by Ronit Elkabetz.

In some ways, Dina is as out of place in this environment as the lieutenant. Lonely and repressed, she longs for the social interaction that these newcomers offer. When she and the lieutenant begin to get to know one another, the potential for a star-crossed romance becomes evident.

Both Zacharya and Elkabetz give touching performances that ground the film when it sometimes threatens to become a bit too contrived and cute.

The Band’s Visit provides some welcome harmony no matter what language it employs. PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 03/07/08)

The Bank Job
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

From Rififi to The Thomas Crown Affair to The Inside Man, heist films have carved a niche as a reliable movie genre.

The latest entry is The Bank Job, a caper flick based upon a true story. While it is unclear how much of the movie is actually true and how much is calculated speculation and conjecture, it rather successful at getting us to buy into its narrative.

In 1971, the vault containing safe deposit boxes at Lloyd’s Bank of London was breached and the contents pillaged. Not only did the thieves make off with millions in cash and jewels, they got their hands on something far more valuable: information.

If the screenplay by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (The Commitments) can be believed, then the real prizes in the vault were incriminating photos of Princess Margaret in sexually compromising situations, and a ledger containing a gangster’s payouts to corrupt policemen.

Even more intriguing is the contention that the British Secret Service may have had a hand in aiding the robbers.

Jason Statham (In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale) leads the cast as Terry Leather, a small time London crook who is recruited to pull off the robbery by his ex-lover, Martine Love (Saffron Burrows from TV’s Boston Legal).

But Martine’s motive isn’t simply greed. It seems that her boyfriend, a deep cover Secret Service operative, wants something in the vault and he is the one who sets the whole affair into motion.

The first half of the film revolves around the mobilization of the gang, the planning and the execution of the heist. This aspect of the film is well mounted and involving. The second half deals with the aftermath and the impact that the robbery had on the gang as well as the victims.

Director Roger Donaldson (The World’s Fastest Indian) establishes a reasonably effective sense of time and place and the robbery sequence notches up the tension. It is in these scenes that the movie works best. In the last act of the scenario, the pace becomes a bit sluggish and our attention wanes.

Statham, taking a short break from his usual butt-kicking action mode, is well suited for the role of the none-too-bright hood manipulated by powers beyond his control. David Suchet (TV’s Poirot) is memorable as the sleazy mobster who’ll stop at nothing to get his ledger back.

While it doesn’t quite live up to its promise, The Bank Job is a reasonably entertaining and provocative bit of guesswork. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 03/07/08)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When Oscar nominations are handed out in the documentary category, they often recognize a film as much for its intentions as its merits.

That’s certainly the case with War/Dance, a movie that is undistinguished in its filmmaking quality but more than makes up for its shortcomings in heart.

While some may quibble that it soft peddles the horrors and atrocities of the Ugandan Civil War, War/Dance isn’t really about the war. Instead, it concentrates on the efforts of a group of children to find some beauty and humanity in its aftermath.

Filmmakers Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine give us a profile of displaced children living in refugee camps far from their ancestral homes. Mostly, these are orphans whose parents were either executed by rebels or were forcibly recruited for the cause.

All of these traumatized young people have seen or have been forced to participate in heinous acts that boggle the mind. One could reasonably speculate that these victims could never function normally again.

But as the filmmakers show us, their participation in an arts program proved to be a salve on their deep wounds.

The Fines focus their film on three teenage residents of the squalid Pantongo refugee camp. Rose and Nancy are girls who’ve lost most of their family member. Dominic was once forced to join the rebel cause and participated in atrocities.

The three take turns looking straight into the camera and, in a matter-of-fact manner, tell us their tragic stories. The thing that keeps them going is their concentration on a goal. The film chronicles their preparation for a music and dance competition that will take them to the big city of Kampala.

Rose sings, Nancy dances and Dominic plays the xylophone. All three are members of the Acholi tribe and will be performing traditional Acholi numbers. They work hard to perfect their talents in order to show the people in the big city that, in spite of their plight, they still have pride.

The final third of the film documents the competition where we see many colorful and exotic performances from groups that came from all around the country. Naturally, we find ourselves rooting for the children of Pantongo and the filmmakers keep us guessing about the outcome up until the end.

While the movie certainly showcases the healing power of the arts, it also leaves us with nagging questions. The competition is over and the children have returned to the refugee camps. What now? (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 03/07/08)

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