reel reviews
movie reviews
July '08


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

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The X-Files: I Want to Believe
Reviewed by Michael Simpson

An eerie melody from the legendary X-Files series arises when we are among a supernatural phenomenon: A priest's eyes weeping blood, a severed arm discovered in the snow by the FBI (where later the matching body is revealed under a frozen lake), and a few grim shots into darkness. But there is nothing really phenomenal about the show's second full-length feature.

David Duchovny returns as Fox Mulder, now retired from the FBI, living in a cabin and alienated from the rest of the world. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) has also retired and is now a surgeon. Despite her burned bridges with the FBI, she is persuaded to bring Mulder back into the field to solve a case involving a missing agent. Before long, they are both back in the game — their only lead a convicted pedophile (Billy Connolly) who is supposed to be psychic.

Chris Carter, this film's director, helped launch the television series back in 1993 — and fifteen years later finds himself directing this "stand-alone" film, which does not do justice to the series in any way.

Gillian Anderson told Jay Leno on The Tonight Show that she was allowed only one read-through on the screenplay before the production crew started shooting. It's clear just how little the dialogue and plot devices were thought through especially since the actors had no input on the material. (The best catch-phrase the writers came up with for the characters is, "Don't give up.") Also, there is not one innovative camera shot during this film's entire 105-minute runtime.

There are a few scares and some intriguing plot twists, but there is no real quality tension like there should be in a mystery. This was clearly made for X-Files fans, but even the fans will be disappointed in this make-believe summer thriller. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 07/2508)

The Dark Knight
Reviewed by Michael Simpson

The Joker's mouth is streaked with scars and splashed with red. His dangly yellow hair hangs in his eyes, which he pushes aside to reveal more white-layered makeup. He looks like Satan, but the scariest thing about him is not his face — it's how intellectual he is, dead set on giving Gotham a "better class of criminal."

Heath Ledger's performance as the madman looks impressive in the trailers, but onscreen he goes beyond anything Jack Nicholson's Joker could have imagined; something that won’t be forgotten.

Christopher Nolan's highly praised Batman Begins was a solid gateway to The Dark Knight. His directing ability bleeds through his work here more than any other director's take on the Batman films of the past, including Tim Burton's original film.

Gotham is now a safer place, partly due to new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who locks up half of the city's criminals without the help from a once desperately needed Batman. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is taking punches on both sides of his alter ego. The public claims Batman is a criminal. Citizens point out laws he breaks while sweeping the streets at night and punishing the bad guys during the day. Wayne's lifelong true love, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), is now at the arm of Dent, creating a love triangle that only gets worse as time goes on.

Buildings and cars (and people) start exploding. The Joker goes from a threat-serving lunatic to a serious hazard, keeping himself nine steps ahead of everyone at all times. Batman and his support team, Alfred (Michael Caine), Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), and Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman) spend a lot of time hunting down The Joker, doing anything they can to bring an end to his domino of attacks on the city.

The performances are complex and astonishing. Bale shows an unexpected side of Bruce Wayne, shadier and angrier than in Begins. This isn't about the origins of Batman, but the essence of his character — what will he do to save the city and the people he loves? The Joker and the Gotham mob (which he takes over effortlessly) know their strategies of destruction and exactly how to engage them.

So does director Nolan know exactly how to engage his audience in the magic of the best film in the last two or three years. The Dark Knight exceeds Batman Begins — alone and as its sequel. (PG-13) Rating: 5 (Posted 07/18/08)

Mamma Mia!
Reviewed by Michael Simpson

Mamma Mia! is a cheerful, somewhat mediocre musical shot on a beautiful island with a wonderful cast. The story is crafted around famous tunes by the group ABBA. But the filmmaker’s abuse of the band's music has the effect of making it hard to take a step back and grasp the real heart of the film.

The plot, though shallow and unrealistic, is more engaging than a typical movie musical. Twenty-year-old Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is getting married to Sky (Dominic Cooper) on her mother's home island off the coast of Greece. She was raised by Donna (Meryl Streep) without knowing her father and decides to invite three possible candidates — noted in her mother's old diary from two decades earlier — to her wedding day.

The probable fathers arriving on the island include Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Harry (Colin Firth) and Billy (Stellan Skarsgård) — all linked romantically to Donna in one way or another at similar points in time. None of them know Donna is not expecting them, and despite Sophie's predictions, she is unable to tell which one is her father at first sight.

Donna's two hard-partying best friends have flown in for the wedding. Some viewers will say Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters) steal the show because of their impressionistic dance moves and quick one-liners, but Meryl Streep is the true star. She doesn't let her character stoop too low, even though she's a wild one in this film. Still, just as we begin to see glimpses of the Streep that make her the best living actress of this century, the story yanks us back into another silly ABBA song, wasting those rare, heart-wrenching onscreen moments only she can deliver.

By the end every key character had a few songs under their belt — some better than others. (Brosnan looked stiff and uncomfortable during his music scenes.)

Mamma Mia was made by female director Phyllida Lloyd, who added touches are mostly targeted at women. Families will love the acting, the songs and the scenery, but the real substance of a good musical just isn't there — unlike Tim Burton's Sweeny Todd. That film was targeted to males, and even though it was dark, gory and tasteless, the excellence of its music and story outshines Mamma Mia. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 07/18/08)

Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Reviewed by Michael Simpson

The second installment of the Hellboy franchise leaps onto the screen like a bat out of the underworld — at times too cheap for its own good. The mayhem erupts quickly then fades well before we want to see the comic book beast bark into a world of studio-forced dialogue and flashy CGI. Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, as was the first Hellboy, the Mexican director has proven his cinematic talent before, particularly with the fairytale classic Pan's Labyrinth, which is by leaps and bounds better than this.

The underworld declares war on Earth. Monsters and super-powered agents working under the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) jump stylishly between real and fantasylands, combating crime and shutting down the evil that destroys our planet. Subplots include Hellboy's (Ron Pearlman) friction with girlfriend/co-agent Liz (Selma Blair) as well as Johann Krauss (James Dodd), a sharp and rising new member of the BPRD, who seems to help the division a lot more than Hellboy these days. Abe (Doug Jones) returns as the blue and strangely polite creature who falls deeply in love with Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), the evil Prince's (Luke Goss) twin sister, fighting with an army of ghouls out to destroy humanity.

One of the biggest struggles in the film is the world's fear of Hellboy, which is not resolved with much intelligence. The best scenes take place in the fantasy world, particularly with the Woodland King and the Golden Army. Del Toro's directing is crisp, but focuses on atmosphere over story—strange for this brilliant filmmaker. The camera closes in on Hellboy more than enough times, who in turn whips out another bland one-liner.

"You really piss me off" is one of Hellboy's lines to the bad guys. One wonders if that's how del Toro felt about the studio after the film was made. Still, chances for “Hellboy III” are very good, depending on how this one goes at the box office. Maybe next time, the studio will be smart enough to give Guillermo del Toro back his spot in the director's chair. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 07/11/08)

Reviewed by Deborah Young

Every superhero worth his salt has some emotional issues. Spiderman’s alter ego is a wimp with a grudge. Daredevil is blind. The X-Men’s Storm suffers from claustrophobia. Iron Man has struggled with alcoholism.

What makes Hancock unique is that he’s more destructive than helpful, and unlike most superheroes, the public hates him.

The first time we glimpse Hancock (played by Will Smith) he’s laying on a park bench. A little kid has to wake him to tell him that the police are chasing some bad guys on the freeway and that they might need his help.

Hancock’s obviously been drinking, a lot; he’s disheveled, and he wears a grimace on his stubbly face. But he flies to the criminals’ car, terrorizes them, and then spears the car on the Capitol Records building. He leaves the car there.

Word of his latest adventure is broadcast on television news. The reports make it clear that Hancock’s ruining the city, making rubble of streets with his sliding landings, and on top of that he’s rude and crude.

Fortunately for Hancock, the next person he saves is an image consultant (Justin Bateman as Ray). Ray wants to repay Hancock by gussying up the hated superhero’s image, which will be no easy task. Ray’s wife, Mary (played by Charlize Theron), is reluctant to have her husband involved with Hancock, but their son, Aaron (Jae Head), quickly takes to the superhero.

The first half of this 92-minute film is a bit of a snoozer, with Hancock destroying things and assaulting people, but after he decides to try to be a better hero the filmmakers treat us to some stunning visual effects.

In one sequence Hancock battles with someone whose powers are similar to or stronger than his powers, and it’s on. The other fighter creates a storm reminiscent of Jean’s eruption in the most recent X-Men movie. The two battle in the air, things get broken and it’s visually magnificent.

But when they return to the ground, and the plot progresses, one thing becomes painfully obvious: This plot makes no sense.

At least the last half is fun to watch, and most viewers will probably get a kick out of Theron and Smith. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 07/03/08)

Russ Simmons can be contacted at
Deborah Young can be contacted at

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