reel reviews
movie reviews
September '08


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

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Miracle at St. Anna
Reviewed by Mike Walker

Spike Lee directs his version of Saving Private Ryan so skillfully that he almost pulls it off. Miracle of St. Anna, while beautifully shot, tries too hard and tends to fall back on the racial stereotypes that he ironically works hard to overcome.

While most of the movie takes place in Italy in 1944, it opens forty years later with an older black man, nearing retirement, watching a John Wayne World War II movie. In the Duke’s day blacks on the big screen were relegated to servant or cook status, ignoring the fact they also saw duty fighting on the front. The camera pans the old man’s living room and finds his Purple Heart award, and with it his disgust of the war’s portrayal in the film before him.

Miracle travels back to Italy in1944, where a black regiment is trying to cross a river when it encounters heavy fire. Switching back and forth between combat shots and commentary by the German version of Tokyo Rose known as Axis Sally, the movie is at its finest as it gruesomely captures the horrors of war while German loudspeakers broadcast Axis Sally’s propaganda, a devastating condemnation of America’s treatment of blacks that is painfully close to the truth. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, a helmet peacefully floats gently down the river, past the pained and bloody faces of the men killed as they tried to cross.

The only survivors are the four main characters, Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), the top ranked officer, Hector Negron (Laz Alonso), the Puerto Rican, Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy), whose number one priority is climbing into the pants of Italian women. Finally, there is Lee’s most lovable yet stereotypical character, Private Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), big, lovable, naïve, not very smart yet wise in certain ways. It’s impossible not to like Train yet he’s so typecast that it’s hard not to wonder if he, too, wants to go back home to get into the shrimpin’ business.

Train saves a little boy, Angelo Torancelli (Matteo Sciabordi) that he finds during battle and they bond, communicating with each other despite the language barrier. The shell-shocked boy refers to Private Train as the Chocolate Giant. The survivors and Angelo spend a large part of the film hiding with an Italian family in a small village surrounded by Nazis. The only English speaker in the family is Renata, (Valentina Cervi), a strong, attractive woman who acts as head of the household, and also stirs the passions of the men, especially Cummings.

During this part Lee effectively deals with the ugly themes and inhumanity of war. He is at his best when he transcends his usual racial diatribes and explores the psychology behind prejudices in general, whether they’re sexual, racial or national, and what happens when groups are labeled without regard for individual differences. Is it possible that some Nazis actually had a heart? Could it be that every white American soldier looked down on all black soldiers, or did at least a few hold them in respect? Were all Italian underground fighters incapable of disloyalty to their cause?

The film never really drags, but some of its 160 minutes could be cut without consequence. The miracle aspect of the movie detracts from the film and makes for a conclusion that’s a little trite. But Lee does evoke emotion and makes one think, and expands his skills as one of today’s top directors. (R) Rating 2.5 (Posted 09/26/08)

The Lucky Ones
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Those who have served overseas in a war zone know what’s it’s like to get out, be it for good or just on leave. Either way, there’s always a picture or a plan in mind once back in the states. But it hardly ever turns out the way it’s dreamed about.

For Cheever (Tim Robbins) it’s going home for good to his wife and college-bound son in St. Louis. For Colee (Rachel McAdams) it’s giving a prized guitar to the family of a fellow soldier that saved her life in Iraq. For TK (Michael Pena), it’s a trip to Vegas for needed stimulation as a counter to an injury that men shiver in contemplating. They’re The Lucky Ones, a film directed by Neil Burger, who also directed and co-wrote The Illusionist (2006).

In some ways, The Lucky Ones is an insider movie, one that vets, particularly Iraq War veterans, can relate to — a buddy road trip among three soldiers who don’t have to talk much about what they’ve seen in order to come together in friendship. Not surprisingly, the three have emotional baggage that makes mainly for humor amid the adventure rather than a tragic recounting of war or a political debate about its righteousness.

Cheever discovers his quickly — his wife has “moved on,” preferring a single life to resuming their marriage. Amid that turmoil, his son has been accepted to Stanford and needs 20 grand in three weeks. Colee idolizes a dead soldier named Randy and passionately guards his guitar, a relic reportedly connected to Elvis TK worries about his manhood, his upper-mobile ambition tied to an affair with a female officer and surviving a third tour in Iraq.

The three ride across mid-America, from New York to St. Louis to Kansas City to Denver to Vegas. And plenty happens — a lot of it very funny and touching — with talk of the dead Randy, his guitar and a story about a casino robbery overshadowing the storyline. Amid the situations, people pop up here and there, going out of the their way to do things for the three soldiers, be it a rental van, use of Slim Jim, an invite to a ritzy party or free sex. And many of those folks say “thank you” to the three Iraq War veterans. An accurate depiction in the real world and one that makes me ponder the contradiction of a public accepting an endless war while supporting soldiers who continue to die or suffer injuries because of it.

The Lucky Ones is a believable story from accomplished actors giving us a taste of real characters trying to connect within themselves in the strange land of America. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 09/26/08)

Lakeview Terrace
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The trailers for Lakeview Terrace give the impression that it is an edge-of-your-seat psychological thriller reminiscent of the 2002 movie Changing Lanes.

In Changing Lanes Samuel L. Jackson played a desperate father that missed a custody hearing because of a fender bender with an attorney and set out to get revenge. Jackson managed to transcend mere acting to become a desperate, self-pitying man driven by rage.

The Changing Lanes character’s instability created suspense. You wanted to watch to see what he’d do next, and because the character was likeable you hoped he wouldn’t let his rage get him into too much hot water.

In Lakeview Terrace Jackson plays a similar character. This time he’s Abel Turner, a rigid police officer whose wife died three years ago.

Early in the nearly two-hour story screenwriters David Loughery (Money Train, 1995) and Howard Korder (The Passion of Ayn Rand, 1999) establish Turner as someone who has a very clear moral compass. The problem is that he tries force his way of thinking on everyone else. This principal applies to both small and large matters.

In an early scene Turner’s son Marcus (Jaishon Fisher) goes to the breakfast table wearing a Lakers jersey. Abel shoots the boy a serious look and reminds him that he’s not supposed to wear that jersey because Abel doesn’t approve of the player that it represents. Abel makes the boy change the shirt.

When an interracial couple (Kerry Washington and Patrick Wilson as Lisa and Chris Wilson) moves in next door we get to see Turner in rare form. He refuses to turn off a security light that shines into his new neighbors’ bedroom window. He seems to be monitoring the couple’s every move, and he keeps dropping verbal clues that he doesn’t approve of the interracial relationship.

Unfortunately, the story takes too long to unfold. The screenwriters spend at least an hour trying to establish that Able is a nut case. And they never provide a compelling reason for his actions and reactions.

On top of that, Jackson’s performance is so gimmicky that it’s hard to take the character seriously. For example, Able sashays away from the camera after many of his verbal zingers. The comical walk creates unintentionally funny moments.

Lakeview Terrace is not a nail-biter like Changing Lanes or a suspense fest like last year’s Michael Clayton, but it has enough plot twists to compel viewers to stay in the seat, and it has Kerry Washington. She’s the best thing about this film. Her character’s trusting nature and later indignation come across as genuine, making the character one for which audiences will likely cheer and fear. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 09/19/08)

Random Lunacy
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The subtitle of this film is Videos from the Road Less Travelled, a very appropriate moniker for a documentary about a man who chose to live without a “regular” job. The movie consists of interviews of the grown children of a man known as Poppa Neutrino interspersed with Neutrinos videos of his travels with his family.

Neutrino has traveled in the United States and abroad (including trips to Mexico and Europe). He and his family have built rafts that they’ve lived on. They even allegedly traveled across the Atlantic on one of their rafts.

But Neutrino’s missing teeth and leathery face give a clue that his life hasn’t been easy. He says he chose homelessness, because he didn’t want to be tied to a job, he wanted to live life.

His children seem to look back on their experiences with fondness, although they recall knowing that their peers considered them freaks. They also recall being very dirty at times.

By telling this family’s story, Random Lunacy examines what it means to live unencumbered and challenges our assumptions about what gives life value.

The film, like the family it chronicles, is earthy. It tells its story using simple images and interviews. Yet its intriguing simply because it takes us into a world that of which we may be unaware. Not rated. Rating: 3

Random Lunacy plays at the Kansas International Film Festival on Friday, Sept. 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the Glenwood Arts Theatre. The festival runs for seven days (Sept 19-25) and features 52 films. For more information about the Kansas International Film Festival, visit (Posted 09/17/08)

Ghost Town
Reviewed by Mike Walker

Fans of romantic comedies like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle can breathe easier, thanks to Ghost Town, directed by David Koepp. And thanks to the curmudgeonly self-centered dentist Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais), Ghost Town is safe for diabetics who need to watch their sugar intake.

Pincus plays a Manhattan dentist whose sole purpose in life is to avoid being annoyed by others. He usually succeeds, especially in a profession where you get paid handsomely for shoving things in people’s mouths so they can’t talk. This plan works very well until Pincus undergoes a routine surgery that goes wrong, leaving him technically dead for seven minutes. He wakes up to see crowds of people everywhere he goes. Normally, this wouldn’t be an unusual in Manhattan, but in this case all the people Pincus sees are dead.

Chief among the dead following Pincus around is Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), a charming yet controlling jerk who truly loves his still-alive wife, Gwen (Te’a Leoni), who lives in the same apartment as Pincus. Herlihy, as are all the other stiffs following Pincus around, hasn’t moved on to the next world because of issues that remain unresolved in this one. Herlihy wants to stop his wife’s impending marriage and harasses Pincus into helping him out.

Director David Koepp paces the action so that it is funny without being silly. What really makes the movie is the sometimes funny, sometimes acerbic wit of Pincus, who could almost be accused of having a case of Tourette’s. Both Pincus and Herlihy, despite being jerks of different types, are likeable.

The predictable talking to ghosts in public scenes is there (Ghost, Heaven Can Wait), and the finale flirts with triteness, but stops just in time. And in the midst of the humor and slapstick are moments of real sadness. Most compelling of all the characters are the nameless cast of the dead cursed with wandering Manhattan until their unfinished business is resolved. Stellar supporting efforts come from Pincus’ dentist associate (Aasif Mandvi) and Pincus’ surgeon (Kristen Wiig), who seems more concerned about surgical liability and achieving the ultimate in fake tanning than her patients.

The wit and comedic timing of Pincus and a script that knows when it’s about to go too far make Ghost Town worth seeing. (PG-13) Rating 3.5 (Posted 09/12/08)

The Women
Reviewed by Deborah Young

If this movie were a dance, it would be the Charleston, full of kicks and hyperbolic movement. The cinematic “kicks” of The Women come in the form of mannered performances by an impressive cast of actresses.

Writer/director Diane Lane has created what’s clearly intended as a modernized version of Clare Booth Luce’s stage play and the 1939 movie adaptation about gossip and infidelity. It tells the story of a woman whose world gets rocked by the news that her husband is cheating on her.

Lane has written for television series such as Murphy Brown, the long-running series featuring Candice Bergen, which is known for its wit and biting humor. So we know Lane’s got the comic chops, but something went awry here.

The characters here wear modern clothes and reside in a 21st century New York, but at least for the first hour of this 114-minute movie the characters come across as relics.

The first character we meet is Sylvia (Annette Benning). The camera follows her as she struts down a sidewalk and then into and around Saks, her small dog in her arms. She’s chatting on her phone and just being fabulous in clichéd high society snob fashion.

Soon Sylvia hears a rumor that the husband of her friend Mary Haines (Meg Ryan) has taken a mistress. Sylvia can’t wait to break the news to her other close friends, who are also in Mary’s inner circle. Inevitably the news gets back to Mary, which sparks the drama.

Unfortunately all of the main characters come across as clichés, and the actresses appear uninspired. They seem to be imitating their favorite early 20th century characters, you know, the types of women who flitted rather than walked, women who swooned when tragedy struck.

This film is a veritable who’s who of popular actresses, including Bette Midler, Meg Ryan, Candice Bergen, and Carrie Fisher. It’s a shame their talents weren’t put to better use. But somehow a timeless theme has been turned into a stale story mired in the past. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 09/12/08)

Reviewed by Mike Walker

In a time where action movies splatter brains on the screen before you’ve reached the fake butter on your popcorn, director Brad Anderson revives the lost art of the suspense thriller in Transsiberian.

Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) are a young couple finishing up a church mission trip in Beijing. nstead of flying straight back to Iowa, they decide opt for romance and adventure, taking the Trans-Siberian Express. Had they known what waits, they would have gone to Branson.

Early on they meet another young couple, Abby (Kate Mara) and her exotic, foreign boyfriend, Carlos (Eduardo Noriega). The train leaves the station, building not just steam, but Hitchcockian tension, sexual and otherwise. The two couples are crammed together in a small sleeper and it’s only a matter of time until something or someone explodes.

Happy-go-lucky Roy, trying to ignore the fact that his marriage to Jessie is troubled, naively believes everyone on the train is an innocent friend, while the more worldly Jessie tries to control her obvious attraction to Carlos. Roy, a big train buff, gets off the express to look at an old steam engine and misses the train as it leaves the station after the short stop. That leaves Jessie alone with Carlos and Abby and that, as they say, is where the fun really begins.

Later in the journey a new friend appears, ex-KGB detective Grinko (Ben Kingsley). Jessie’s time alone with Carlos turns disastrous, leading to a tangled web of drug trafficking, murder, and lies.

One of the running themes in Transsiberian is the extreme cold, not only in the temperature but also in the icy stares of strangers. As the intensity skillfully builds, simple things like a drip from a faucet or a slight roll of a vodka bottle are enough to send a chill up your spine as your stomach muscles continue to clench. Kingsley pulls off the ex-KGB detective without looking like a character from Rocky and Bullwinkle. It’s a thriller with a complex structure and subtext so often missing from today’s action flicks. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 09/05/08)

Michel Simpson can be contacted at
Deborah Young can be contacted at

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