reel reviews
movie reviews
April '08

HAROLD AND KUMAR ESCAPE FROM GUANTANAMO BAY
DECEPTIONBABY MAMAEXPELLED: NO INTELLIGENCE ALLOWED
FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALLTHE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM88 MINUTES
SHINE A LIGHTSMART PEOPLESTREET KINGS
LEATHERHEADSNIM'S ISLAND

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

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Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When the 2004 stoner comedy Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle ended its theatrical run, it had taken in a modest $18 million. While it isn’t much by Hollywood standards, that take was twice its budget.

But the doobie-toking grad students weren’t done. The DVD version raked in over $60 million in sales and rentals. That can only mean one thing: SEQUEL!

Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay continues the over-the-top adventures of Harold, a Korean-American played by John Cho (American Dreamz) and his Indian-American roommate, played by Kal Penn (The Namesake).

Picking up where the first film left off, we find our slacker heroes flying off to Amsterdam (where else?) when passengers on their flight mistake Kumar’s bong for bomb. Suspected of being terrorists, they’re carted off to the U.S. interment camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Through a quirk of fate, they manage to escape and go on a wacky road trip through the Southern U.S. as they try to clear their names. Hot on their heels is a twisted official from the Office of Homeland Security, played by Rob Corddry (TV’s The Daily Show).

Directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, who are also responsible for the screenplays to both “Harold and Kumar” movies, have obviously decided to up the raunchy ante. In one scene, they’ve probably set the record for most footage of bottomless females in Hollywood history.

But the shamelessness doesn’t stop at the ubiquitous drug use, nudity, borderline racism or scatological humor. No, the filmmakers take a scathing look at contemporary neo-con politics. Their no-holds-barred slap at the Bush Administration packs a surprising punch.

One of the funny/creepy aspects of the first film was the casting of Neil Patrick Harris (TV’s Doogie Howser, MD) as himself. He returns for the sequel, but this Neil Patrick Harris is a mushroom-chewing, prostitute-abusing, wild-eyed party animal.

Also back is Christopher Meloni (TV’s Law & Order, Special Victims Unit), who in the first film played a boil-covered Jesus freak called, appropriately, Freakshow. This time out, he’s the Grand Wizard of a KKK group that Harold and Kumar stumble upon deep in the Alabama woods.

As silly, gross and morally indefensible as it is, the movie also often quite funny. Even without artificial enhancement, there are enough amusing moments to make it a guilty pleasure.

Like the first film, it is best to leave your brain and moral compass at the door. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 04/25/08)


Deception
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Notice to film buffs: Aside from sharing the same title, the new suspense flick Deception has nothing in common with the Bette Davis/Paul Henreid film noir classic from 1946.

Novice filmmaker Marcel Langenegger manages to snag an impressive cast for his movie debut, including the film’s producer, Hugh Jackman (The Prestige). Although this modest thriller isn’t in the same league as the works of Hitchcock, the master’s influence can certainly be felt.

Jackman plays Wyatt Bose, a charming and gregarious Ivy League lawyer who meets a milquetoast accountant named Jonathan McQuarrie, played by Ewan McGregor (Cassandra’s Dream). Apparently sensing some sadness on the part of the shy bean counter, Wyatt quickly befriends Jonathan and the duo share a doobie after the office shuts down.

This unlikely friendship leads to tennis matches, strip club visits and eventually to a lunch date where the men accidentally switch cell phones.

On Wyatt’s phone, Jonathan picks up as a caller says, “Are you free tonight?” This phrase serves as a password into a mysterious sex club where upscale professionals meet anonymously for casual trysts. He takes advantage of Wyatt’s connections and enters a world of sexual adventures that he never knew existed.

After bedding a number of inordinately beautiful women, our shy hero meets one participant, played by Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain), and his life is forever changed. In spite of the fact that the sex club participants never exchange names or personal information, Jonathan falls in love with the mysterious girl.

This infatuation proves to be disastrous for Jonathan as someone quickly threatens to kill the girl unless he follows some specific instructions. The blackmailer demands that Jonathan use his insider access to remove $20 million from a corporate account he’s auditing and transfer it offshore.

Since the movie’s trailer gives it away, it’s safe to reveal that the blackmailer is Wyatt. He’s a cunning and ruthless con man who will stoop to any nefarious means to meet his goals.

The decadent script by Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) is chock full of implausible elements and relies heavily on our fascination with its lurid subject. But the cast members give solid performances, helping to disarm us when we call certain aspects of this melodrama into question. Jackman is especially effective, playing against type as a ruthless villain.

Unlike Bette Davis’ flick, this Deception is a forgettable bit of escapism. It can only be enjoyed if you can forgive its unconvincing details and just go along for the ride. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 04/25/08)


Baby Mama
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Tina Fey is a very funny lady. As a performer and writer for Saturday Night Live, she single-handedly saved their “Weekend Update” segments. She also recently won an Emmy for her work on the sitcom, 30 Rock.

Amy Poehler can be witty, too. Whether joining Fey at the news desk on SNL or parodying Hillary Clinton, she’s proven to have strong comic chops.

The duo reunites for the new big screen comedy, Baby Mama. Sadly, these talented gals didn’t write the script.

Fey portrays Kate Holbrook, a successful Philadelphia businesswoman. Recently promoted to vice president for a prosperous chain of health food stores, Kate is the very model of female empowerment.

But at age 37 and single, Kate hears her biological clock ticking. Although she’s decided to make the leap to motherhood with the help of a sperm bank, Kate has trouble getting pregnant. (“I don’t like your uterus,” her doctor tells her.)

Desperate, she consults an expert on surrogate parenting, played by Sigorney Weaver (Vantage Point). After a rigorous process, a suitable surrogate is found. Young, healthy and willing to carry the baby for a price, Angie Ostrowski (Poehler) seems like an ideal candidate.

But the dim-witted Angie and her white trash boyfriend Carl (Dax Shephard from The Comebacks) turn out to be a handful. When they have a split-up, Angie moves in with the wary Kate…and makes her life a living hell.

Screenwriter Michael McCullers (Austin Powers in Goldmember) does a workmanlike job in his directing debut, but lets the pace sag a bit too often. While there are many clever moments, there are also plenty of predictable, timeworn ones as well.

But you can’t blame the cast. Fey and Poehler are very attractive, likable stars and they clearly make the most of the material. The supporting cast is fun, too. Shepard is suitably goofy as Angie’s “almost common law husband,” Greg Kinnear (Feast of Love) plays the proprietor of a juice joint who becomes Kate’s romantic interest; and Romany Malco (Blades of Glory) is amusing as the wisecracking doorman.

Perhaps the oddest bit of casting goes to Steve Martin (The Pink Panther) who generates some laughs as Kate’s aging hippie/New Age boss. His idea of rewarding his well-performing employees includes five minutes of uninterrupted eye contact.

Baby Mama is a likable, if forgettable bit of fluff. But considering the leads, it doesn’t quite deliver the laughs we were expecting. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 04/25/08)


Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Ben Stein wants to have it both ways.

The former Nixon speechwriter and game show host contends that the legitimate debate involving Intelligent Design is being stifled. Academics who even mention the term, he claims, are subject to harassment, termination or worse.

He then equates proponents of the theory of evolution with Nazism.

Whew. Stein's incendiary new documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is a well produced and involving diatribe that is hampered by its one-sided and exploitative nature. It is, without question, a stilted work of propaganda.

That's not to say that it isn't a pertinent inquiry. Indeed, Stein poses the very same questions that any journalist would ask of scientists and advocates from both sides of the debate. But his movie is so heavy-handed in its use of music and imagery to promote its agenda that it is very hard to take seriously.

One could argue that Michael Moore’s documentaries lean very far to the left and that it’s only fair that those from the right should produce provocative films to support their views. Moore cherry-picks information, including only material that makes his case. (In this regard, perhaps he’s taken a page out of the Rush Limbaugh handbook.)

But even in his most biased moments, Moore never makes the glaring leaps of logic that that Stein and co-writers Kevin Miller and Walt Ruloff are guilty of. If you follow their line of thinking, then belief in evolution leads to atheism; atheism leads to lack of respect for human life; lack of respect for human life leads to the Holocaust.

To make his case, Stein interviews a number of “experts” from both sides. Under the direction of Nathan Frankowski, those supporting Intelligent Design come off as respectable looking, reasonable sounding folks framed in good lighting. The evolutionists come off as wild-eye extremists with their comments underscored by the same ominous music that’s used when showing goose-steeping soldiers.

Actually, the movie has little to do with the scientific debate, only about the alleged stifling of the debate. Those supporting evolution, we’re told, won’t let the other side make its case. There is no evidence given as to why the vast majority of scientists — even those who believe in God — resist discussing Intelligent Design. (Could it be that the theory doesn’t meet proper scientific criteria?)

In fairness, Stein has one great moment in the film. In an interview with noted atheist Richard Dawkins, he manages to manipulate the author into using the words “intelligent” and “design” into a sentence speculating about how the first living cell may have emerged.

In the end, Stein is just preaching to the choir. If a teacher was to grade him on his level of clear-eyed objectivity, he might be expelled. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted 04/25/08)


Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

A pattern is beginning to emerge from the Judd Apatow laugh factory.

The folks behind Knocked Up and Superbad have stumbled upon a formula that has, for the most part, conjured box office gold. Ratchet up the raunchy fratboy humor for the guys, but temper it with sentimentality and romance for the gals, and you’ve concocted a date movie that’s sure to bring in the teen crowd.

These movies also cleverly tap into a common fantasy. They feature lovable losers who manage to bed some beautiful girls who are way out of their league.

The latest example is Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a romantic comedy about an overly sensitive musician named Peter Bretter, played by Jason Segel (TV’s How I Met Your Mother) whose girlfriend is a beautiful but flighty TV star.

Kristen Bell (TV’s Veronica Mars) plays the title character, the self-centered Hollywood actress who dumps our poor Peter in favor of a pretentious British rocker named Aldous Snow, played by Russell Brand (Penelope).

After moping around his apartment for weeks, Peter decides to take a Hawaiian vacation in an attempt to get Sarah out of his mind. Upon arrival at the swanky resort, he runs into none other than Sarah and new beau Aldous. Of course, this makes it far harder for Peter to move on.

Sensing some trouble between these new lovers, Peter decides to try to win Sarah over. His strategy involves the pretty hotel receptionist named Rachel, played by Mila Kunis (TV’s That 70s Show). He attempts the old “make her jealous” ploy, and this approach further complicates matters.

The script, which was written by star Segel, has some clever moments, especially as he skewers TV cop shows like CSI and Law and Order. Some of the funniest scenes involve clips from Sarah’s show that feature the kind of over-the-top dialogue and “copspeak” that those shows are known for.

But it also engages in some silly overkill involving long shots of full frontal male nudity. (“Wow, look. You can see his penis! Ain’t that hilarious?”)

Segel is a reasonably likable lead and Bell has a few nice moments as the egocentric star. Brand milks a few laughs from his broad character, but Kunis gives the film’s best performance. She is very appealing as the no-nonsense hotel receptionist who becomes an unwilling romantic guinea pig.

While the movie’s pace is uneven, it has enough laughs to make it an agreeably silly option for late night cable viewing.
(R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 04/18/08)


The Forbidden Kingdom
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Forbidden Kingdom is getting lots of press because it marks the first time martial arts stars Jet Li and Jackie Chan appear in a film together. But there’s so much more to recommend this movie.

For starters, the talent behind the cameras is as impressive as the talent in front of them. The movie is directed by Rob Minkoff of Lion King fame. Action choreographer Woo-Ping Yeun directed the numerous fight sequences. Yeun has choreographed action sequences for monster films such as the groundbreaking The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This movie’s cinematographer, Peter Pau, has lent his visual aesthetic to films as diverse as Shoot ‘Em Up and the beautiful Chinese fairytale The Promise.

This phenomenal cast and crew were charged with creating a cinematic version of the Chinese Monkey King legend, a story told in the 16th Century Chinese novel Journey to the West. The challenge was to create a film that would appeal to Asian and American tastes.

Forbidden Kingdom tells the story of an American teen martial arts fan, Jason (Michael Angarano). After a tragedy, the Chinese proprietor of a pawnshop gives Jason an ancient Chinese staff and tells the boy to return it to his rightful owner.

Jason is magically transported to ancient China, where he learns that the original owner of the staff was known as the Monkey King. The Monkey King has been imprisoned for hundreds of years and the return of the staff can free him.

But, of course, Jason has to fight some dangerous folks to get to the Monkey King. The problem: He can’t fight. So he needs the help of The Silent Monk (Jet Li) and Lu Yan (Jackie Chan).

The enterprise succeeds in some areas and fails in others. Like the best historical Chinese dramas, this film features stunning costumes and painterly visuals. For instance, in one scene the Jade Emperor (Deshun Wang) appears in all white. He’s backlit, and the bright clothes and bright lights create a visual image of the idea of divinity.

Likewise, this film’s warriors appear in eye-popping costumes, some red with gold embroidery, others black with gold embroidery. The visuals of the Chinese countryside feature green lushness and splendid shots of rushing water.

But at times the story gets a bit cheesy with the character of Jason falling into the “grasshopper,” martial arts neophyte cliché. Like other neophytes — from Leroy in the 1985 film The Last Dragon to Daniel of the Karate Kid — Jason is looking for his inner warrior. Unfortunately, Jason and his inner warrior pale beside the charisma and fighting techniques of Li and Chan. The character seems to have been stuck there just to give American audiences something to identify with.

That’s a shame, because the story of the Monkey King would have been compelling without the Mr. Miyagi shtick. Regardless, this pic is worth a look for its visuals and great fight scenes. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 04/18/08)


88 Minutes
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The battle rages on. Which movie will be deemed the worst of the year? There are already some strong contenders (10,000 BC, Never Back Down), but chances are we’ll still be considering 88 Minutes for the booby prize as 2008 draws to a close.

Al Pacino’s place in movie history is secure. After appearing in classics like The Godfather, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, he can make a stinker and it won’t hurt his reputation too badly. But it’s likely that 88 Minutes will be considered the nadir of his career.

Sleazy and preposterous, 88 Minutes is a mystery thriller that attempts to ratchet up the tension while teasing audiences with the kind of sophisticated (and often bogus) investigation techniques that we’re regularly fed by TV shows like CSI.

Pacino stars as Dr. Jack Graham, a famous FBI psychiatrist who is responsible for using his brilliant intellect and unique profiling strategies to put away Ted Bundy-type serial killers.

Things heat up when Jack gets a mysterious cell phone call while lecturing at one of his college classes. The ominous voice on the other end of the line informs him that he has only 88 minutes to live. This event coincides with the nearing execution of a particularly nasty killer named Jon Forster (Neil McDonough from Flags of Our Fathers).

Jack’s testimony was responsible for putting Jon on death row, so Jack suspects that the intelligent psycho is manipulating a copycat killer on the outside. If enough doubt can be cast, Jon could get a stay of execution.

The story by screenwriter Gary Scott Thompson (TV’s Las Vegas) has more red herrings than a fish market. We’re offered a lineup of supporting players, all of who are designed to throw us off the trail.

Among the suspects is Alicia Witt (The Upside of Anger) as Jack’s teaching assistant whose jealous boyfriend is on the prowl. Amy Brenneman (The Jane Austin Book Club) is his lesbian secretary. Deborah Kara Unger (Silent Hill) is the suspicious dean, and LeeLee Sobieski (Joy Ride) plays one of his brightest students. Benjamin McKenzie (TV’s The OC) is another mistrustful student and William Forsythe (Halloween) portrays a cop who has lost his faith in Jack’s instincts.

Although director Jon Avnet (Up Close and Personal) manages to instill this mess with a little tension, he can’t escape the script’s unintentionally funny moments.

Truth be know, 88 Minutes is 108 minutes long. That’s time you’ll never get back. (R) Rating: 1 (Posted 04/18/08)


Shine a Light
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In a 1972 television interview with Mick Jagger, chat show host Dick Cavett asked the rock legend, “Can you picture yourself at the age sixty doing what you do now?”

Without missing a beat, Jagger replied, “Yeah, easily. Yeah.”

The audience laughed.

Well, Jagger has the last laugh. At age 64, he and Rolling Stone comrades Keith Richards, Ron Wood and Charlie Watts are still rocking, and the new IMAX concert movie Shine a Light provides big screen proof.

Director Martin Scorsese (The Departed) has edited together footage from two concerts the Stones performed at New York’s Beacon Theatre in 2006 as a part of their “A Bigger Bang” tour.

Scorsese opens the film with black and white backstage footage, projected in normal movie ratios, of his preparations to record the concerts. You also see the band members awkwardly meeting dignitaries like Bill and Hillary Clinton as well as Mrs. Clinton’s elderly mother. (The concerts were staged as fund-raisers for Mr. Clinton’s charitable foundation.)

Then, after an introduction by the ex-President, the screen opens up into full-color IMAX glory, capturing the frenetic performance of over twenty songs.

Guest artists Jack White of the White Stripes, Buddy Guy and Christina Aguilera join in on spirited renditions of “Loving Cup,” “Champagne and Reefer” and “Live With Me,” respectively.

While largely a concert film, Scorsese has incorporated a few select clips from interviews that the band members have given throughout the years. Most amusing are the serious-minded journalists whose questions show a guarded concern for the future of society with the Rolling Stones as popular role models.

Keeping the sex in sexagenarian, Jagger and his cohorts prove that they can still swagger as well as they rock. Screaming Generation Y fans line the stage as Jagger and company expend the kind of energy that would exhaust most folks a third of their age.

In terms of stamina, Watts probably deserves special notice. The film only chronicles one ballad (“As Tears Go By”) and one mid-tempo Country tune (“Far Away Eyes”). The rest of the movie highlights the kind of hard driving beat that the Stones are known for. In one amusing close-up, Watts turns to the camera and gives us a mocking, “Whew.”

Scorsese’s fluent camera movement and quick-cut editing undoubtedly add to the film’s energy, but it lives by the performers’ unrelenting drive.

Even those who don’t count themselves as fans will surely be impressed by their dynamism and musicianship. (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted 04/11/08)


Smart People
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

As moviegoers, we’re sometimes offered a glimpse into the lives of intellectuals, usually portrayed as a rarified breed set apart from the rest of humanity by their eccentricities.

That’s certainly true of Smart People, the new comic drama that stars Dennis Quaid (Vantage Point) as a brilliant but prickly literature professor. Although his mind is keen and his knowledge base formidable, when it comes to matters of the heart, he’s a world-class dummy.

Quaid plays Lawrence Wetherhold, a renowned faculty member at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. A widower with two teenage kids, Lawrence is an egghead whose colossal ego and self-absorption mask an underlying emotional weakness.

Although he’s had his share of flings since his wife’s death, he’s never been able to let go. He’s not above affairs, but his heart is off limits.

Just as he is hoping to get his latest book published and nab a big promotion at CMU, he suffers a concussion. (The circumstances of his injury are pure movie calculation.) The ER doc Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker from TV’s Sex and the City) informs him that he cannot drive for six months.

This is very inconvenient, given that the professor is estranged from his son James (Ashton Holmes from A History of Violence) and his Young Republican daughter Vanessa (Juno’s Ellen Page) is as self-absorbed as her dad.

Thankfully, Lawrence’s slacker adopted brother Chuck (Thomas Haden Church from Sideways) shows up to mooch in the nick of time. He can be chauffer for his sibling and enjoy a free ride for a few months.

An awkward romantic dance begins between the professor and the doctor and Chuck discovers that his teenage niece has developed a crush on him. (From her point of view, this is okay given the fact that they’re not blood relatives.) So, who winds up being the font of true emotional wisdom in this scenario? Why, Chuck the freeloader, of course.

Novice screenwriter Mark Poirier and first time director Noam Murro attempt to illuminate the dark side of intellectualism like Noah Baumbach did in The Squid and the Whale. While their movie has an offbeat likeability (thanks largely to the cast), it lacks that kind of depth.

The message that the filmmakers are feeding us is, of course, that we don’t have to feel inferior to brainy types. In fact, they seem to be implying that we average folk are emotionally superior. In this regard, Smart People is a form of cinematic comfort food.
(No MPAA rating) Rating: 3 (Posted 04/11/08)


Street Kings
Reviewed by Deborah Young

David Ayer specializes in macho and corrupt characters. His screenwriting credits (which include Training Day, Dark Blue, and Harsh Times) confirm this specialty. In addition to the writing credit, he also directed Harsh Times, a dark, shallow tale about a crazed and murderous former military assassin with ambitions of becoming a police officer.

Both Harsh Times and Training Day add balance to the story by including sidekicks who still have consciences intact. Without these sidekicks, watching the fully corrupt lead characters in action for nearly two hours would be almost unbearable for most decent, sane folks.

Street Kings follows the same plot patterns as the two earlier flicks. This time Ayer directs the story of detective Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves), a Los Angeles police officer who assumes the roles of law enforcer, judge and jury.

In the opening scenes we witness Ludlow’s execution of a gang of Asian thugs who sling dope and run a sex operation involving minors. Ludlow’s punishment excludes mercy. He even shoots one crook while he’s sitting on the toilet.

The back-story is that Ludlow is all messed up in the head as a result of his wife being killed. Now he guzzles mini bottles of vodka while on the clock, and he meticulously stalks and kills bad guys.

After his former partner is killed during a convenience store robbery, Ludlow (who wasn’t on good terms with his former partner) becomes the lead suspect in the murder investigation. To clear himself, Ludlow decides to find the real killer. In the process, he discovers that it’s not easy to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys.

Actor Keanu Reeves’ innate coolness lends credibility to Ludlow, who is little more than a self-righteous killing machine. Reeves avoids hyperbole and instead gives the character an appropriately subdued weariness.

To this movie’s credit, the lead character exhibits some humanity by showing concern for his innocent sidekick (Jay Mohr as Sgt. Clady). The picture also boasts some good performances by notable actors such as Hugh Laurie (of television’s House) and Oscar-winner Forrest Whitaker.

Unfortunately, Street Kings is built on the shaky foundation of a rambling and unreasonably complex story (along with some tacky dialogue which prominently features the word homeboy). Writers James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss gave the lead character complexity that was lacking in Ayer’s Harsh Times lead character. But they relied on rather confusing plot twists to do so.

This film deftly examines the complexities of heroism. But it’s so dark and violent that it’s tough to watch. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 04/11/08)


Leatherheads
Reviewed by Deborah Young

There’s not much romance, and the comedy comes and goes in actor/director George Clooney’s romantic comedy Leatherheads. Fortunately for the moviemakers and potential audiences, passion appears to be the center of both this movie’s fictional world and this production.

Leatherheads tells the tale of a group of men, mostly uneducated laborers, who scrape together a living playing professional football in the 1920s. The Duluth Bulldogs, the main team, is led by the fast-talking and boyishly charming Dodge Connelly (George Clooney).

As the opening credits roll we see several shots of cheering crowds in a big stadium. The tag reads “College Football-1925.” Then there’s a shot of a white cow with black spots. The cow stands alone in a field. Something rushes past the cow, twice.

It soon becomes clear that this rushing blur is a football team. Next we see the team on a small field with a few ragged bleachers and very few fans. The tag reads “Pro Football-1925.”

The pro players have few rules and few footballs. By contrast, the Princeton college team adheres to rules, plays on the spacious Ennis Field, and boasts a star, Carter “Bullet” Rutherford (played by John Krasinski).

When Connelly learns that Rutherford, an alleged war hero, draws crowds of 40,000, he decides to recruit Rutherford to play on his floundering pro team.

While trying to recruit Rutherford, Connelly meets Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger), a reporter sent by her editor to get the dirt on Rutherford. And it’s on, an instant love triangle, along with a clichéd story about the genesis of professional football.

This fictional period piece resembles the historical drama Soul of the Game (1996) about Negro League baseball greats. Connelly is the Caucasian version of Satchel Paige, a middle-age player/promoter who loves to clown around. Rutherford is to nascent pro football what Jackie Robinson was to black players, a legitimizing figure paving the way for future pro teams and pro stars.

Similar to the Negro League baseball teams, the Bulldogs exist primarily to entertain. They love the game, and they use antics to inspire their fans to love the game.

Obviously the actors here love their game too. They clip out 1920s slang and grin a lot. Watching them is like watching the performance of a passionate rock group that captures audiences with its enthusiasm rather than stellar performances.

The performances in Leatherheads, particularly those of Clooney and Zellweger, are pretty lame at times. These two actors appear totally out of their elements as they verbally spar in the fashion of Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen.

Unlike Bogey and Hepburn, Clooney and Zellweger never take the banter beyond the theatrical hinterlands of acting to the Mecca of becoming. Here’s how the routine goes: Clooney says a witty line then stops, a self-satisfied expression on his face, as if to punctuate the line; Zellweger then waits a beat before reciting her witty retort.

Fortunately, the comical surprises and energetic performances create enough laughs and lightheartedness to keep Leatherheads out of the snooze zone. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 04/04/08)


Nim’s Island
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Few daydreams are as idyllic as those that transport us to a tropical island, complete with perfect weather, plentiful food, friendly animals and an absence of clocks.

The new children’s fantasy Nim’s Island takes advantage of all of these illusions of paradise.

Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) stars as a youngster named Nim Rusoe who lives on a remote uncharted island with her dad, Jack (Gerard Butler from 300.) An eccentric scientist, Jack is obsessed with studying an exotic new species of plankton.

Nim’s days are spent playing with her menagerie of exotic pets that includes a sea lion, a lizard and a pelican. She also devotes much of her time to reading the stories of an Indiana Jones-type adventurer named Alex Rover.

Although our young heroine lives blissfully in her father’s fantastic, Swiss Family Robinson style tree house and uses a zip line to dart around the island, she’s captivated by the fantastic journeys of Rover (played out in her mind as an idealized version of her father.)

When Jack goes missing at sea, a panicked Nim sends out a frantic email to the only person she trusts to save him, her favorite author, Alex Rover. It turns out, however, that Rover is actually an agoraphobic woman played by two-time Oscar winner, Jodi Foster. The fearful author seldom leaves her San Francisco apartment, so she initially resists Nim’s call for help.

Summoning all of her courage, Alex eventually embarks on a real adventure and travels to the South Pacific in an attempt to save Nim and her dad.

Based on a popular book by Wendy Orr, Nim’s Island was directed by the husband and wife team of Jennifer Falckett and Mark Levin (Little Manhattan). Their approach to the material makes it obvious that they’re aiming this playful movie squarely at its target audience of 10-year-olds.

The filmmakers take full advantage of some beautiful Australian locales, creating a lush 96-minute getaway. The art direction is quite imaginative as well, giving the movie an overall appealing look.

But the dramatics are sometimes awkward and the forced attempts at comedy occasionally fall flat. Although it may not have been intentional, Nim’s Island certainly seems dumbed-down for the kids.

The cast members, however, are extremely appealing and appear to be enjoying their time in this heavenly setting. Plus the movie has a genial vibe that’s hard to knock.

For the kids, Nim’s Island provides a few harmless moments of escapism. (G) Rating: 3 (Posted 04/04/08)

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