reel reviews
movie reviews
August '08

TRAITORDEATH RACE
TROPIC THUNDERHENRY POOLE IS HERESTAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS
AMERICAN TEENPINEAPPLE EXPRESS
SWING VOTEBRIDESHEAD REVISITEDTHE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR

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Traitor
Reviewed by Deborah Young

In a 2006 article in the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2006/jan/20/israelandthepalestinians.comment) Paradise Now director Hany Abu-Assad talked about his approach to telling the story of two suicide bombers. “The film is an artistic point of view of that political issue,” he’s quoted as saying, “The politicians want to see it as black and white, good and evil, and art wants to see it as a human thing."

The creators of the pensive thriller Traitor have a similar artistic vision. Their tagline “The Truth is Complicated” confirms that assessment. Then there are writer/director Jeffrey Rachmanoff’s main characters, which are hard to categorize as either heroes or villains.

Traitor tells the story of a U.S. government task force’s attempts to identify and stop the leaders of an international terrorist operation. Their initial investigation seems to implicate a Muslim-American and former U.S. special ops officer Samir Horn (played by Don Cheadle). Horn has begun hanging out with Omar (Said Taghmaoui), a faithful follower of a known terrorist leader.

A strong faith in Allah unites the two men, and they embark on an international journey together. It appears that their mission is to help orchestrate suicide bombings of American targets.

FBI agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) sets out to uncover the truth about the terrorist operation and about Samir. Is Samir a traitor who has united with his Muslim brothers to kill Americans or is there some other explanation?

For much of the film Samir’s motives and alliances are concealed from the audience as well as from Clayton. It does become clear that no matter which side he’s on he’s a traitor from someone’s perspective. It’s just not clear whether he’s working against his Muslim brothers or the U.S. government.

Rachmanoff draws a sharp contrast between Samir and Omar. Omar blindly follows his leaders, even to the extent of drinking wine, which is against traditional Muslim teaching. Samir, on the other hand, questions the orders he’s given and is reluctant to go against Islamic teachings.

Both men are zealots. Their faith is everything to them. It guides their choices.

Cheadle and Taghmaoui create believable, likeable, and sympathetic characters. Unfortunately, there are times when the script has Samir going against his established character traits and moral code without a believable reason.

There are also a couple instances during which the story drags. But for most of its nearly two hours Traitor entertains with explosions and intrigue. Plus, it provides no easy answers about who’s right and who’s wrong, thereby giving us something to ponder and to discuss long after the ending credits roll. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 08/29/08)


Death Race
Reviewed by Michael Simpson

Death Race is a monumental crash from start to finish. The mood is dark, gritty, depressing — and worst of all, the story is told through ruthless, cold-blooded characters. Usually with films like this, there's an outlet for the fans (i.e. the movie is horrible, but the action is a blast) but that's not the case here. Watching it will put you in a gloomy state of mind for days.

The year is 2012. America has reentered the Great Depression. Jensen Ames (Jason Statham) works at a steel factory to support his wife and baby girl. He loses them both when he is framed for the murder of his wife. In short order, Jensen is thrown into a prison that can only be described as a shadowy, cold dungeon. The big boss, Hennessey (Joan Allen), runs a unit at the prison which has the most popular form of entertainment in the world — viewed on the World Wide Web. Inmates are placed into cars with guns and various arsenals, each of them in an attempt to kill the others on their way to the finish line. If Jensen wins five races, he is released and walks home. If he doesn't, he stays and probably will die in a future race. That's the nature of the sport.

Jason Statham is rising quickly as the new Sylvester Stallone, only he's missing a Rocky screenplay. Death Race could have been like Statham's other adrenaline-fueled action films, The Transporter, The Italian Job and Crank — all successful with critics and at the box office. This could've had good direction, writing, music and acting if the same people would've considered a different approach.

As bad as it is, the project must have meant something to writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson. After all, he took a premise from the much milder Death Race 2000 and remade it into his own. Maybe his vision didn't come across as appealing. It happens all the time. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 08/22/08)


Tropic Thunder
Reviewed by Michael Simpson

Tropic Thunder opens scorching and never cools down. It's a movie about making a movie — a slapstick comedy crafting the Vietnam War all over again with more stars and guts than one can fathom.

An ensemble featuring Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) and Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) are the major stars on location in the tropics. There are significant delays in the production. The budget is out of control: they are making the most expensive war film ever. The air is humid, the sun is hot. Thousands of dollars worth of explosives blow up accidentally on set, dangerously close to killing several people, which, in turn, forces a sleazy studio executive, Les Grossman (Tom Cruise), to pull the plug on the whole thing.

With one last attempt to save his movie, director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) throws his prima donna stars into the jungles of Southeast Asia, praying that the hidden cameras in the trees will capture emotional acting. When drug lords fire artillery at them (and of course miss), they believe the attackers are part of the cast of terrorists and are totally fearless, which in turn makes the terrorists terrified. All the battle scenes are significant clichés from Platoon and Apocalypse Now. Stiller, who directed this, did that purposely for some laughs.

As if things couldn't get worse, the characters each have their own personal issues. Speedman has never really had a role that's defined him as a good actor. Lazarus has won five Oscars and is so committed to his role as a black man that he had pigment surgery done to make him darker. Portnoy has been making people laugh for a long time, and has grown sick of playing tasteless roles, numbing the pain by snorting heroin every day. If anyone asks, he calls the bag his "jellybeans".

The writing, directing, and score all mix together to make one wonderful comedy, but nothing tops the cast's performances, which compel any viewer to laugh wildly out of control.(PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 08/15/08)


Henry Poole is Here
Reviewed by Deborah Young

This mostly low-key film depicts faith as a spectacle as grand and as odd as a carnival freak show.

It starts with the entry of an unshaven and obviously depressed Henry Poole (Luke Wilson) into a seemingly quiet suburban neighborhood.

Poole first appears with an enthusiastic and cheeky realtor (Cheryl Hines as Meg). He oozes quiet impatience as she extols the virtues of what will become his home. Then he asks about another neighborhood house that’s not for sale.

When Meg makes it clear that the other house is not available, Henry quickly agrees to buy the house Meg is showing him. He doesn’t want to dicker about the price. He just wants to close the deal and get on with his life. “I won’t be here long anyway,” he tells the realtor.

That line becomes a regular one for Henry and one that infuses a bit of mystery into the film. The mystery is intensified by Henry’s odd, indifferent behavior, including his choice to live without many accoutrements and his rather bizarre diet.

Henry sleeps on the floor much of the time, and his meals consist of pizza, Krispy Kreme ™ donuts, and vodka. Also, he doesn’t seem to do much besides sleeping and occasionally visiting the store to pick up more pizza and vodka.

A neighbor, Esperanza (Adriana Barraza) interrupts Henry’s solitude when she discovers what she thinks is the face of Jesus on an exterior wall of his house. Henry insists that what Esperanza sees is merely a stain.

Then the spectacle begins. Miracle-seeking people first trickle and then flood in to challenge Henry’s lack of faith. And while all this is happening, Henry develops a relationship with his next-door neighbor, Dawn (Radha Mitchell) and her young daughter Millie (Morgan Lily).

Henry’s dilemma is similar to that of Father Shore (Ed Harris) in the 1999 movie The Third Miracle. However, Henry is not as complex as Father Shore. The storytellers that created Shore gave us a true believer whose faith has been shaken by things he has seen. By contrast, screenwriter Albert Torres omits most of Henry’s back story, so viewers don’t know if he ever had faith.

Plus, Henry reads more like a petulant child than a man struggling with his faith. He’s the type of character who fully commits to only one emotion at a time. For the first half of the film, he is all gloom until he decides to shift all of his emotional eggs into another basket.

Henry Poole is Here isn’t the most intellectual movie about faith, but it has definite charms, beginning with actress Adriana Barraza, who makes a clichéd character memorable. Radha Mitchell (Feast of Love, 2007) brings her quiet charm to Henry’s love interest. Child actress Morgan Lily balances the vibe of childhood innocence with true charisma, and Rachel Seifert brings an admirable amount of nuance to her small role as a grocery clerk.

The movie’s carnival of faith fails to impress, but the characters’ down-home charm atones for a multitude of script flaws. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted 08/15/08)


Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Reviewed by Michael Simpson

Star Wars is back, but without George Lucas — and it's a sappy, animated, far-fetched version. It's fairly well known that Lucas did not direct the best films in the series. (The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were done by lesser known filmmakers), but were led by his sole vision. This time it's someone else's idea, and it doesn't come close to the others.

The galaxy is in defeat as the Jedi Knights battle the Galactic Republic. Anakin Skywalker (voice of Matt Lanter) and his young Palawan apprentice, Ahsoka Tano (voice of Ashley Eckstein), are shuttled beyond the stars on a quest to establish order and restore peace in the universe. The monstrous Jabba the Hutt (voice of Kevin Michael Richardson) returns, and his presence at least makes the crime lord subplot more engaging, and looking at Hutt's hideous face does make you sick all over again. Hutt's son is missing, and the two Jedi make it an objective to find the traitors who took him. Meanwhile, a group called the Separatists is producing a massive droid army, fighting as brainless machines for the dark side.

Originally, The Clone Wars was made for television. Lucas saw it, then told producers that it was too good for TV, and had it released into theaters worldwide. It seems anything with Clones in the title does not reflect Lucas's best thinking. He came up with this wonderful universe, but when he steps away from directing again, he better choose the right people.

The film is purely about good and evil — and no in between. There's no indication that Skywalker is soon to become Darth Vader. John Williams' scores are missing. Director Dave Filoni attempts to gain loveable characters with Lego-like features and poor graphics.

Pure and simple, the magic of Star Wars is lost in a galaxy far, far away. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 08/15/08)


American Teen
Reviewed by Deborah Young

American Teen commences with an alarm clock and a voiceover explaining that it’s August 24, 8 a.m., the first day of senior year Warsaw High School in Warsaw, IN.

The four high school seniors featured in this documentary are a modern-day Breakfast Club, according to Paramount Vantage’s website. But they’re not really.

Unlike the Hollywood versions, American Teen’s protagonists have physical and emotional blemishes that make them more sympathetic to us ordinary folks. These five seniors epitomize the joys and trials of high schools past, present and future.

Each teen has a stereotypic persona, but none of their lives neatly fits into those types.
There’s Colin, captain of the school’s basketball team. Early in the movie a girl tells us that he’s “second only to Jesus in Warsaw.” What she doesn’t say (and probably doesn’t know) is that he’s under a lot of pressure. He needs to impress college scouts so that he gets scholarship offers. Otherwise he might not go to college.

Then there’s Jake, the nerdy kid who seems eternally locked in that awkward phase. He wants a girlfriend, but getting one is a challenge. As he puts it, “I do love the ladies, but the ladies do not love me.”

The artsy girl, Hannah, is a bit of a loner. She doesn’t quite fit in with her peers, and she can’t wait to get out of Warsaw. She’s determined to move to California and get a dream job in the movie industry. But first she has to graduate, and that might be a problem for her.

Of course every high school has its popular girl, and in Warsaw that’s Megan. Megan’s big concern is getting into Notre Dame, and the pressure is on.

Director Nanette Burstein (who won a directing prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival for this film) spices up the movie with a few animated sequences dramatizing these teens’ fears and ambitions. But the movie is at its best when it gives the audiences fly-on-the- wall access to these teens.

Like its subjects, this 95-minute movie is sometimes uneventful, sometimes tragic and sometimes hilarious, but it’s both a low-key and emotionally charged reminder of the alternating joys and pains of being human. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 08/08/08)


Pineapple Express
Reviewed by Michael Simpson

Yet another American comedy for stoners … the guys that brought you Superbad now bring you Pineapple Express: making one marijuana reference after another — and beyond the first half hour, the high is long gone.

Seth Rogan stars as Dale Denton, a twenty-something process server with a high school girlfriend, who spends most of his free time smoking joints. He found a dealer, Saul Silver (James Franco), who claims to have a rare kind of grass called pineapple express.

When Dale witnesses a murder committed by a police officer and drug lord Ted Jones (Gary Cole), he races off in his car but accidentally leaves behind a joint, which, because of its rarity, is easily traced back to Saul. After the cat and mouse plot is set, Dale and Saul go on a pot-crazed adventure, running from corrupt cops and angry drug dealers.

The smart quips that made Knocked Up and Superbad so loveable don't work on the same level here. Pineapple Express is very graphic, and that's part of its approach. It's hard to think of another movie that combines both extreme gore and crude pot jokes.

There's not much else to say. It's impressive, though, that Seth Rogan writes and produces most of the movies he stars in. He is going on a writing spree after his success, probably to take advantage of it while he can. There will be more of his movies, some better than others, but avoid this one if you're not a fan of him in the first place. However, being stoned could help. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 08/08/08)


Swing Vote
Reviewed by Michael Simpson

The history of the United States of America depends on the one and only vote of total deadbeat, Bud Johnson. Bud (Kevin Costner) is a beer-drinking egg inspector in Texico, New Mexico. He has a twelve-year-old daughter named Molly (Madeline Carroll) — passionate about politics and humiliated by her father — who openly speaks of how he doesn't care what he gets out of life. Swing Vote will remind many of a slightly better political comedy called Welcome to Mooseport.

It's Election Day. Molly has been nagging her dad to vote, but at night before the voting booths close, Bud has been fired and is passed out in his car. Molly ends up voting for Bud in a scene where a government official is asleep and a janitor accidentally pulls the plug out of a booth. Suddenly, a re-vote is born — and before he knows it, the paparazzi are bombarding Bud's trailer home. When Molly and Bud decide to keep the secret to themselves, the two presidential candidates, President Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper), hysterically try to win Bud's vote — going completely against what they initially stood for in their attempt to match Bud's beliefs. The funny thing is that Bud really has no idea what he believes.

Kevin Costner is very convincing. It's hard to grasp that the actor playing Bud is really a guy who has achieved superstardom. His character is not an average American. Young director Joshua Michael Stern focuses more on message than politics, though there are a lot of scenes showing tactics on how Bud can be won over, including some ingenious commercials with the candidates announcing to Bud that they have his best interests at heart (abortion, guns, immigration, environmental issues, etc).

This really is one of the best feel-good movies so far this summer. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 08/01/08)


Brideshead Revisited
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Lush green landscapes provide the perfect contrast for the emotional wastelands of Brideshead Revisited’s main characters. But the story, based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel of the same name, meanders a bit.

The film chronicles a friendship between two dissimilar young men who meet at Oxford in the late 1920s or early 1930s. The flamboyantly gay Sebastian Flyte (Ben Wishaw) hails from an aristocratic family; but the seemingly conservative Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) comes from a less affluent family.

The two men soon develop a friendship that excludes most other acquaintances. From the start it’s obvious that Sebastian has a romantic interest in Charles. But when Sebastian takes Charles to Brideshead, the beautiful estate where his family resides, Charles develops an immediate attraction to the family’s lavish lifestyle and to Charles’ sister Julia (Hayley Atwell).

Although potentially disastrous, the looming love triangle is not the worst of these character’s problems. Sebastian’s controlling and obsessively religious mother has fostered a repression within her children that has escorted them to the brink of mental illness.

Director Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane, 2007) takes us on a sometime intriguing journey with these complex and troubled characters.

Unfortunately, after we learn what we need to know about the characters’ quirks and desires, the story descends into cryptic dialogue and strange logic. Most of it focuses on the fact that Sebastian’s family is unapologetically and irrevocably Catholic, but Charles is not.

Sebastian calls it early on when he explains to Julia that Charles “is not one of us.” Charles immediately thinks his friend is referring to the differences in their social statuses, but Sebastian clarifies that Charles cannot fully comprehend their family because he is not Catholic.

Catholicism is not the villain here, although it may seem so. The screenwriters are taking a poke at something, but it’s difficult to determine what. Is it the imposition of one person’s morality upon other people? Is it the human tendency to try to fit in, even with emotionally unhealthy people?

The last 20 or 30 minutes of this film is all over the place thematically, but the film’s aesthetically balanced, alluring visuals and its complex, likeable characters make it worth the price of admission. (PG-13) Rating: 3(Posted 08/01/08)


The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
Reviewed by Michael Simpson

The third installment of the Mummy franchise is nothing short of a brainless monster. The filmmakers are too naïve to know that not only did they go down a wrong path somewhere along the way but they didn't get it right from the near beginning. Mummy cries out for better writing, directing, acting, editing — everything you can think of (minus the CGI, of course). If The Dark Knight proved anything, it's that fancy explosions and big ideas can still carry a good story.

The best part of the film is the opening: The first Emperor of Qin (Jet Li) wants to rule the world in all of eternity, and so he chooses to become immortal. He finds Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh), a witch who casts powerful spells at the wishes of her clients. When Zi sees Emperor Han kill her lover, she puts a spell on the entire Chinese army, transforming them into stone statues for the next 2,000 years.

Brendan Fraser reprises his role as adventure-loving Rick O'Connell, who has now settled down with his wife, Evelyn (Maria Bello). They find out that their only son, Alex (Luke Ford), has been booted out of college and is leading a crew through the catacombs of ancient China. He falls in love with Lin (Isabella Leong), Zi's daughter who has been guarding the tombs for several thousand years. In a long turn of events, the emperor becomes resurrected and the O'Connell family must battle Han before he takes over mankind.

The story/filming approach of The Mummy and The Mummy Returns are worlds different than the latest, mostly because Stephen Sommers directed both, where this is done by Rob Cohen. None of them are perfect, but at least the first two are funny and captivating. What the film is missing most is Rachel Weisz, who abandoned the part of Evelyn because of creative differences on the script. Weisz is what made the first two Mummy films work. Smart move on her part; Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is just another soon-forgotten action flick. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 08/01/08)


Michel Simpson can be contacted at michaelthemovieman@gmail.com.
Deborah Young can be contacted at dkayyoung@hotmail.com.

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