reel reviews
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October '08


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

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Reviewed by Deborah Young

From the moment Changeling commences with a Clover Dairy truck scooting down a quiet street, it is clear that director Clint Eastwood has carefully planned his audience’s journey into another time. It’s a time during which the Red Pacific electric trains make regular trips through the streets of Los Angeles.

The cinematic journey is both maddening and captivating.

The first stop: the home of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie). She has just awakened, and as she arises from bed we see that her hair held its waves while she slept, her ruby red lipstick hasn’t smeared or worn off.

She wakes her son, Walter (Gattlin Griffith), whom she lovingly calls “sport,” and feeds him breakfast. Then she’s off to her job as a manager for the telephone company, where she glides to her operators’ assistance on roller skates strapped to high heels.

After journalist turned screenwriter J. Michael Stracynski establishes Collins as a 1920s era superwoman, something happens that darkens her world. She gets called into work on Saturday, March 10, 1928, and leaves Walter at home. When she returns he’s gone.

Weeks later the L.A.P.D. claims to have found him, but the boy they bring to her is not her son. Moving forward, she many indignities at the hands of Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan), who’s determined to keep the truth from the public because the L.A.P.D. needs to retain the positive press it got after returning the missing boy.

Stracynski uncovered this story in public records and later decided to create a script that would tell Christine’s story. According to Universal’s production notes, Stracynski pulled quotes directly from case files and public records, and incorporated them into the script.

He also incorporated sarcasm in the dialogue, jabbing comments that constantly remind viewers of the ridiculousness of the L.A.P.D.’s claims and of the great injustices inflicted on Christine.

Jolie enlivened Christine with understated charm and intensity. The settings and costumes recreated the late 1920s. Even the child actors involved project believable characters.

Both to its credit and misfortune Changeling rings true. As we were leaving the screening a fellow movie critic commented: Who wants to relive someone else’s nightmare?

Indeed, this film is so well done that many viewers will relive Christine’s nightmare and experience quite a bit of tension in the process. But those who miss it will miss Oscar-caliber performances, although those performances are, at times, wrapped in heavy melodrama. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 10/31/08)

What Just Happened
Reviewed by Mike Walker

Movie insiders and industry folks who want to commiserate about their awful lot in life might enjoy What Just Happened. For the general public it’s another story. Director Barry Levinson attempts to skewer Hollywood and the movie business, only not nearly as skillfully at Robert Altman’s classic satire of the industry, The Player.

What Just Happened covers two weeks in the life of Ben (Robert De Niro), a movie producer struggling to hold on to his claim as one of the 30 most powerful producers in Hollywood. Flakes, losers, egomaniacs and assholes, surround Ben and it’s his job to deal with those lovable folks and get a decent movie made. In between that he tries to nurture relationships with his two ex-wives, especially Kelly (Robin Wright Penn). The two wives together cost him more than thirty thousand a month in alimony.

Ben’s first challenge is to try save an action flick starring Sean Penn (himself). Ben must convince temperamental director Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott) to change a movie’s ending that is so disgusting that it nearly causes a riot at a preview screening. When told the end must change, Jeremy goes into an outrageous, full-blown crying fit worthy of the most terrible two-year old on the planet.

Speaking of fits, Ben is also dealing with Bruce Willis (himself), who is jeopardizing a movie about to go into production by refusing to shave his new beard. Who can blame Willis, who’s only getting a lousy twenty million dollars for his trouble? It’s up to Ben to solve this crisis because Willis’ spineless agent Dick (John Turturro) is terrified of Willis and suffers horrible stomach spasms at the mention of the issue.

Adding pressure to Ben’s life is a movie company CEO Lou (Catherine Keener), always calm with a slight smile, whose veins flow with antifreeze and is probably reincarnated from an earlier life as an executioner.

When Ben isn’t schmoozing directors, agents or actors, he tries to emotionally reconnect with his ex-wife Kelly. They talk endlessly about a favorite couch of Ben’s that she has re-upholstered. Those who love this film will wax glowingly about Ben’s gradual acceptance of the couch redo as a metaphor for Ben’s growth as a person. Actually, it’s more about a couple that had nothing in common except attachments to furniture.

There’s no one to like in this movie, and while it at times accurately reveals the underbelly of the Hollywood beast. Still, it’s not witty or original enough to make it all that memorable. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 10/31/08)

Zack and Miri Make a Porno
Reviewed by Mike Walker

Zack and Miri Make a Porno shows how the Philadelphia Story script would have turned out, had the writers been Beavis and Butthead. Longtime platonic friends and roommates Miri (Elizabeth Banks) and Zack (Seth Rogen) find themselves in such financial straits that they decide that the only way out is to make a pornographic movie. Let the comedy ensue.

Zack and Miri, admittedly, has some humorous scenes, and if a frat house is looking for “Let’s get drunk and watch a funny flick.” pic, this will work. The problem is that this movie rotates between going for the cheapest, dirtiest jokes possible, and suddenly trying to be a romantic comedy.

Ironically, the movie’s most poignant, and that’s using the term very loosely, moment, is when it’s time for the sex scene between Zack and Miri. It starts out hilariously as they awkwardly trip over themselves, then turns romantic as the sex is not of the hard-core type, but the sensuous, emotional kind.

Moments like these are rare. More common are moments like the one where the movie photographer, placed strategically below a constipated pornographic actress during a sex scene, receives the full brunt of her rectal relief, all over his face. That’s entertainment?

After enough six-packs, teenagers will find it hilarious when Bubbles (played by former actual pornographic actress Traci Lords) shows the talent that she’s named for, the ability to make a bubble with a wand, but with a use of an orifice other than her mouth.

Zack and Miri never misses an opportunity to substitute a cheap sex joke for a place in the script where actually writing might occur. Zack and Miri do make a porno, but director and writer Kevin Smith fails to make a movie. (R) Rating: 1 (Posted 10/31/08)

Pride and Glory
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Police officers, including several from New York’s 31st Precinct, are just wrapping up an evening football game when one of them gets a call on his cell phone. Then they all scurry off to a crime scene, a drab apartment building.

F-bombs explode onscreen as the officers discover the bodies of four of their own among the dead. And, as expected, several of the officers set out to catch the shooter and avenge their comrades’ deaths.

However, it soon becomes clear that this story is about more than a police investigation. Three of the investigating officers belong to the same family, and one of them has clearly suffered some job-related trauma.

Francis Tierney (Noah Emmerich) is the Three-One’s commanding officer. His father Francis Sr. (Jon Voight), known as “Pops,” is the chief of Manhattan Detectives. Francis Jr.’s brother Ray (Edward Norton) works in Missing Persons.

Pops persuades Ray to join a task force to catch the shooter and uncover the circumstances surrounding the killings. At first, Ray wants no part of it. He’s still reeling from some undisclosed event from the past, but Pops tells him that it’s time to let it go and get back on the street.

“You keep the rage,” Pops advises Ray, “cut the rest of it loose.”

So Ray, rage in tact, commences his quest to find the truth in a dusky world where the law and the lawless commingle.

It will come as no surprise to connoisseurs of the corrupt-cop genre that Ray winds up having to choose between his loyalty to his fellow officers (which includes family members) and his need to do the right thing.

Director and co-writer Gavin O’Connor (Miracle, 2004) creates a dark ambiance with dingy sets and hand-held cameras. Unfortunately, the script (co-written by O’Connor and Joe Carnahan who wrote Smokin’ Aces, 2006) is rife with clichés and is weakened by the constant use of the F-word to the exclusion of meaningful dialogue.

The screenwriting duo has mostly created caricatures rather than credible characters. But the film does have some touching moments, such as the scene during which Ray questions a small boy about the shooting and another in which Francis Jr.’s dying wife appeals to the conflicted commander to do the right thing.

The most compelling aspect of Pride and Glory is Norton’s nuance portrayal of a sensitive man in a tough profession, and, as hokey as it sounds, a man caught between family and integrity.

Unfortunately, Pride and Glory fails to capture the emotional dilemmas of police work in a way that resonates emotionally. It is predominately expletives and melodrama, as over-the-top as the recent cop-thriller dud Street Kings.

Those who want a big dose of macho with complexity, style and stellar performances might head off to the video store in search of Training Day or American Gangster. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 10/24/08)

Reviewed by Mike Walker

After viewing Oliver Stone’s W, Bush haters or Bush lovers will probably say the same thing:


But there is material that will make both types uncomfortable.

Stone’s biopic begins by moving back and forth between the present and Bush’s college and early “career” days. Bush (Josh Brolin) is shown going through the hazing required to gain entrance, along with all the other rich, young, privileged freshmen, to a fraternity. Forced to name a certain number of frat older brothers while being fed hard liquor through a funnel, Bush reveals three things about himself. He’s smarter than people think, he’s confident to a fault and he loves to give out nicknames. Long before there was Pooty-Poot (Vladimir Putin) or Turd Blossom (Karl Rove), there was Sloppy Seconds Sam.

Bush is portrayed in his early years as a loud talkin’ good ol’ boy party king. It’s at an outdoor barbeque that he meets his future wife, Laura (Elizabeth Banks). Desperate to gain approval, he runs for Texas Senate but loses to popular conservative Democrat Kent Hance. Bush vows never to be “out-Christianed or out good-ol’-boyed” again.

After an early lifetime of failure and disappointment, plus the burden of living in the shadow of a famous family, Bush helps his father, George H. W. Bush (James Cromwell) with his successful presidential campaign. After that, Bush finds God, swears off drinking and finds himself the owner of the Texas Rangers.

Bush decides to run for governor, against his father’s wishes, and hooks up with Karl Rove (Toby Jones). Winning despite heavy odds, Bush decides that God wants him to be president. God’s will is done, and Bush assembles his staff, Condi Rice (Thandie Newton), Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfus) and General Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright). The actors’ resemblance to the characters, with the exception of Scott Glenn’s Donald Rumsfeld, is amazing.

How does a man like George W. Bush, a C student who spent the majority of his life in a self-destructive tailspin, function in a world where he’s surrounded by — and expected to lead — extremely intelligent people with unbelievable resumes? For one thing, when comparing George W. Bush to his parents, it’s his mother, Barbara (Ellen Burstyn) and not his father that George W. takes after. It’s Barbara that’s more strong-willed, more sensitive to criticism and higher tempered than his father, the more cerebral George H. W. And it’s revealed that Bush is driven by the fear of failure, but more importantly, by an unshakable hubris and confidence that is his greatest asset and also his Achilles heel.

That conflicting trait reveals itself during high-level staff meetings when the entire team, save for Colin Powell, holds the firm belief that the U.S. must invade Iraq. Once the Bush team believes something, it’s no longer a matter of finding facts to help make a decision, but to find facts to support a decision already made. That approach to governing emerges when the discussion turns to an exit strategy for Iraq. Cheney then says, “We’re not leaving. We’re staying.” And Bush, whether in staff meetings or one-on-one sessions with his staff, shows little passion for reports or attention to detail, but always makes sure to remind his staff who is in charge and who is “the decider.”

Throughout the movie there are flashbacks — Bush wandering the Texas Ranger baseball stadium centerfield alone or fantasizing about fielding a long fly to the outfield. While these flashbacks are sometimes awkward, they give credence to the theory Bush’s real ambition was not to be President of the United States but commissioner of Major League Baseball. Had he obtained that latter position, the history of the world would be quite different.

Sometimes W wanders without a plan, especially early, and often the music score often doesn’t fit with what’s going on. And always in the back of the mind is the thought, “Did that really happen?” (The quote about never being out-Christianed actually did.)

But the film does a good job of revealing the psychology behind the Bush conservative phenomena. The actors portray the characters skillfully, resisting the temptation to go into Saturday Night Live-like parody. Bush supporters may cringe at some of the portrayals, but Bush haters will be disappointed that it’s not a two-hour Bush bash. (PG-13) Rating (3) (Posted 10/17/08)

The Secret Life of Bees
Reviewed by Mike Walker

The Secret Life of Bees is a delicious, moving story about a young teen’s emotional journey as she struggles with small town life in the racist South of the 1960s. It could be the best movie of the year.

Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) is an only child who lost her mother at age four in a terrible accident and has a father who has forgotten how to love. Lily obsesses over the loss of her mom and can’t seem to fill the gap she left behind, especially considering the way her mom died. Her closest thing to a loving caretaker is her black live-in nanny Rosaleen Daise (Jennifer Hudson).

Inspired by the new Civil Rights Act, Rosaleen decides to walk to town to register to vote, taking Lily along. That effort goes horribly wrong and Rosaleen and Lily wind up running away. The only hints Lily has of her mother’s past are a label from a honey jar and the name of town she used to live in scribbled on the back. That town is where they go. When they reach the town, a store window displays a stockpile of honey with the same label, honey made by a family in town named the Boatwrights.

The Boatwrights are three black sisters, each named after a month of the year: August (Queen Latifah), June (Alicia Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo). Lily and Rosaleen arrive at the house and Lily makes up a story and asks to stay for a while. Despite June’s objections, August lets them stay. Rosaleen helps in the house while August begins teaching Lily the art of beekeeping. For the first time in her life she begins to feel like part of a real family. Eventually, the questions that haunt Lily about her mother are resolved.

The Secret Life of Bees is a story of strong women and a rich exploration of complex family and racial dynamics. The performances make viewers care deeply about the characters, even the emotionally absent and sometimes abusive father. The strongest performance is Sophie Okonedo’s portrayal of the manic/depressive May, who’s known for going into crying jags over the smallest of things. Not far behind is the matriarchal August, who shows Lily how beekeeping is a metaphor for how to deal with life. Just as strong are the performances of the radical, angry June and Zach Taylor (Tristan Wilds), a young black man who helps out at the bee farm and becomes Lily’s crush.

Like honey, The Secret Life of Bees is a movie to be slowly tasted and savored. There are plenty of laughs and tears, joy and heartbreak along the way. (PG-13) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 10/17/08)

The Express
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Inspirational biopics are a lot like Westerns. Both genres usually favor black and white characters, and situations over the gray areas of real life. They feature flawless heroes facing obstacle after obstacle but still managing to thrive.

This simple formula is intended to ratchet up the audience’s emotions. After all, plenty of folks want to root for the underdog. But the simplicity and blatant emotional manipulation of these flicks tends to cause some eye rolling among more cynical viewers.

The genre’s latest entry, The Express (based on Robert Gallagher’s non-fiction book Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express), follows the formula but still manages to work a lot of the time.

The Express tells the story of the first African-American football player to win the esteemed Heisman Trophy. Davis’ achievement occurred during a time of great racial tension in the United States. He had to endure a lot of rejection from elementary school to college to keep playing football.

For better or worse, screenwriter Charles Leavitt and director Gary Fleder never let us forget that Davis’ life (and by extension this film) is about more than just football. It’s about crossing lines.

One of the film’s early scenes dramatizes the idea of crossing lines. A young Davis and a friend wander down railroad tracks collecting bottles. Then a group of Caucasian bullies interrupt. It turns out that Davis and friend have ventured north of Union Street, apparently beyond the boundaries set for Negroes. For this they will have to pay.

Sometimes the filmmakers inject the laugh-to-keep-from-crying brand of humor. For instance, when Davis first goes to Syracuse University one of his teammates, Jack Buckley (played by Omar Benson Miller), informs him about the scarcity of black women on campus. “You’ll find a Negro polar bear before you’ll find a Negro coed,” Buckley says.

At other times we get platitudes. And there is the inevitable moment when Davis realizes that he’s more than just a football player, that he has a responsibility to his African American fans.

Despite this movie’s clichés and visual flaws (and there are many ranging from dizzying camera pans to unintentionally comic perspective shots), the story resonates, because it’s a true story with the “magic” of a fairytale.

Rob Brown creates an affable Ernie Davis and Dennis Quaid creates a believable although sometimes mannered Coach Ben Schwartzwalder.

At the screening I attended about half of the audience was cheering during one of the final game sequences. I predict that this will be a common reaction to this typical biopic, which just happens to tell an extraordinary story. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted 10/10/08)

City of Ember
Reviewed by Mike Walker

City of Ember opens with an intriguing premise. What if a culture was forced, for whatever reason, to live underground for two hundred years, and how would they survive? The movie ends with a beautiful sunset as a few young escapees enjoy the outside for the very first time.

Unfortunately, between the beginning and the end, City of Ember is one, long dental appointment.

Two teens, Doon (Harry Treadaway) and Lizzie (Lucinda Dryzek) live in the City of Ember, whose tenants and their ancestors have lived underground for two hundred years for God knows what reason. The village, built by the famed architects Charles Dickens and Ed Wood, glows in ember from a series of lamps that make the top of the set look like the world’s largest 1950s high school gym.

Understandably, after two hundred years the generators that provide power for the city are finally giving way and breathing their last. Lizzie finds a box handed down from the first generation of mayors of the city; a box that was lost while one of her great, great grandfathers was a mayor. Meanwhile, she finds a large black thing that looks like a giant beetle claw. She gives it to Doon (try not to laugh while saying that name). Why? Who knows, but remember that box.

When the teenagers finish their schooling, they gather to get their career assignments, courtesy of the current mayor, Mayor Cole (Bill Murray). Doon finds himself a job in the pipe works department with curmudgeon mentor Sul (Martin Landau) while Lizzie becomes a messenger. Doon’s father, Loris (Tim Robbins) gives Doon a weird tool for graduation, a tool that looks like a reject from a Swiss army knife factory. Loris has no idea how the tool can be used.

The box turns out to hold clues for how to reach the outside, which no one has seen for two hundred years. Most of the rest of City of Ember is a long sequence of special effects, interrupted occasionally for no reason by city singers, led by Mrs. Murdo (Mary Kay Place).

The last part of the escape involves a mad dash down the river that powers the generator but doggone it (I borrowed that from Sarah Palin), the generator becomes stuck and nearly explodes. Doon hands Sul the tool with water rushing everywhere, and magically, the tool fixes the generator. This allows Doon and Lizzie, plus baby sister, to hop in a rectangle soap box crate and shoot down the river at NASCAR speed through tunnels with less than a foot of clearance in any direction, yet never hitting a wall. They make it to the surface where they finally and gratefully find the sun. Doon randomly drops a rock with a note on it down the hole they just came out of, and of course, in a busy, good-sized village, it lands right where Doon’s father can find it.

Small kids will enjoy this movie, although parents should be warned that there is a large, scary rat thing crawling around at times. Anyone else expecting good writing or a clever plot should take a hint from the movie and enjoy nature and the sun, instead of being in a dark theater watching this. (PG) Rating: 0 (Posted 10/10/08)

Reviewed by Mike Walker

Those who go to see Religulous, and it should be seen, will not be disappointed if they expect the usual cynical, hilarious wit of Bill Maher. Critics are calling it one of the funniest movies ever made, but it’s also one of the saddest. And the movie ends not with a blooper reel or outtakes, but a dead-serious, chilling message.

What is the result when one parent is Jewish, the other parent Catholic? And then the whole family eventually stops going to church at all? In this case it’s Maher, who spent much of his early comedy career talking about the ramifications of such a background, claiming that he went to confession but brought along his lawyer.

Maher tours the world interviewing people about their faiths, revealing nothing about his actual purpose, saying he’s making a documentary about the spiritual journey. Maher and crew begin their global travel at an American truck-stop church where he asks disturbing questions about Christianity. One trucker walks out, but the rest field his questions as best as they can, and pray for his enlightenment before he leaves.

No religion goes unscathed as Maher, an agnostic, admits to having no idea what the truth is or what lies beyond the earthly life — and that is precisely his point. Neither does anybody else. He explains that the things we once believed during the Bronze Age, we’ve since discarded, everything, that is, except our religious beliefs. Maher asks one couple that if they had been brought up to believe that Jack-in-the-Beanstalk was in the bible, while Jonah and the whale was told as a fairy tale, would they be standing here today defending Jack?

Maher’s journey takes him to the Vatican, to a gay Muslim bar in Amsterdam, to a Holy amusement park in Florida and ends in the Holy Land with Maher standing, where many predict, at the site of Armageddon. Whether interviewing a formerly gay minister who believes being gay is not only a sin, but also always a choice, or talking with a Hispanic church leader who believes himself to be the second coming of Christ, Maher takes a scalpel to the hypocrisy that permeates religion, saving his sharpest cuts for those who profit wildly by exploiting the faith of others.

At New York’s Grand Central Station, Maher interviews Andrew Newberg, MD, author of Why We Believe What We Believe, to try to figure out why people who are otherwise very smart, practical and realistic continue to believe in myths they should have given up years ago when they figured out the truth about Santa Claus. More time should have been spent with Newberg.

Woven into the documentary are very clever clips from popular culture that mock or satirize our religious culture. And the most heart-warming scenes are those with Maher’s mother and sister talking about their spiritual evolution. Mom can rival her son when it comes to being funny.

Why is Religulous sad? Because it eerily proposes that because of the religious doctrines of world leaders and the practice of war, killing and destroying the environment in the name of God, the prediction religious zealots make that the end is coming soon could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even with Bill Maher, there’s nothing funny about that. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 10/06/08)

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Take the 2000 movie High Fidelity and add the teen angst of Can’t Buy Me Love, and you’d get Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

The movie is based on Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s young adult novel of the same name. It tells the story of two teens who connect during a one-night adventure in New York City.

Like High Fidelity’s protagonist, Nick (Michael Cera of Juno) likes to make mixed tapes (well, the modern equivalent: mixed CDs). But instead of making the musical compilations for several girls, Nick devotes his efforts to one special lady, his ex Tris (played by Alexis Dziena, Fool’s Gold).

In the movie’s hilarious opening scene Nick leaves a rambling voicemail message for Tris. In the message he reveals that she broke up with him on his “b-day,” and tells her that he’s made another mixed CD for her. We later learn that the CD in question is number 12 in Nick’s breakup closure series.

Norah (Kat Dennings of Charlie Bartlett) doesn’t know Nick, but she’s intercepted some of his mixed CDs after Tris threw them away and she likes them. In fact, she fantasizes about meeting him.

Her dream comes true when she winds up at a show at which his band, The Jerkoffs, is playing. After some teasing from Tris about her romantic status (or the lack thereof), Norah approaches Nick and asks if he’ll be her boyfriend for five minutes. Then, to put on a show for Tris, Norah kisses Nick, which kicks off their night together.

Nick, Norah, Nick’s three gay band mates, and Norah’s drunken friend Caroline wind up driving around New York until early morning looking for a band called Where’s Fluffy. It begins with Nick driving Norah around in his Yugo, and his band mates chauffeuring the passed out Caroline in their van.

On the journey Nick and Norah get acquainted, Caroline gets lost, and the audience gets treated to a diverse sampling of rock.

Director Peter Sollett (Raising Victor Vargas, 2002) has created a film that lies somewhere between the emotional depth of High Fidelity and the shallowness of Can’t Buy Me Love. He’s created a 90-minute road trip during which New York becomes a magical realm of quirky characters (such as those found in a gay Christmas pageant) and earthy venues.

Along the way there is much crude humor and one very gross scene involving some chewing gum and a filthy toilet (enough said).

Nevertheless, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist introduces us to characters that are hard to say goodbye to after the credits roll. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 10/03/08)

Flash of Genius
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Though we buy their products, Americans have never had a love affair with big corporations. Creatively, filmmakers have embrace that truism, periodically turning out films depicting the big-money corporate suits as greedy, arrogant and lacking an ethical compass. Flash of Genius continues that movie-making tradition.

Greg Kinnear portrays Dr. Robert Kearns, engineer, teacher and inventor, who, in a “flash of genius” after church one rainy Sunday and a tender, wedding-night recollection of a champagne cork in the eye, sets out to invent the intermittent windshield wiper. Based on a true story, Kearns finds out his invention has been “stolen” by the Ford Motor Co. one rainy night as he is getting into his car when a new Ford Mustang goes by.

Prior to that devastating moment, we’re presented with an idyllic family of six kids and loving wife Phyllis (Lauren Green), supportive friends and stable teaching career. As the Kearns seeks to battle Ford, he tests his sanity, abandons his friends and wreaks his marriage. All of which could have been more effective on screen if the screenplay would have dealt more deeply into Kearns’ relationship with his wife and oldest son Dennis, played by Jake Abel. Of course, the avoidance of getting too much into the husband/wife dynamic could have been on purpose considering in real life Phyllis Kearns had to sue her ex-husband to get a 10 percent share of the award from Ford.

Instead, the only emotional meat of the film is in the courtroom scenes with Kinnear’s effective portrayal of an obsessed man determined to right a wrong. This is set up by Alan Alda’s abandonment as Kearns’ lawyer, Gregory Lawson, after Kearns refuses a settlement offer of $250,000 from Ford. In a restaurant scene that is suppose to be a celebration, Lawson utters a memorable line about justice when Kearns challenges him about his convictions. “This is how justice is dispensed in this country,” says Lawson, “with a check.”

Kinnear essentially carries Flash of Genius because the rest of the cast, with the exception of Alda’s brief role, appear to be not much more than fixtures reminding Kinnear’s character that he is causing emotional devastation and confusion in his righteous pursuit. Though forceful, Kinnear’s acting reminds this viewer, particularly in his approach to being defiant yet clueless to what he’s doing to people, of his role as the tragic Bob Crane in the 2002 film Auto Focus.

Marc Abraham directed Flash of Genius after previously being only producer or executive producer on a number of other films. A well-acted film with a screenplay by Philip Railsback that seems to be a first-draft. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 10/03/08)

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

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