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Beyond Borders Cheaper by the Dozen Girl with the Pearl EarringHouse of Sand and Fog
Mona Lisa SmilePeter PanWin a Date with Tad Hamilton!

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Beyond Borders
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

Beyond Borders suffers too much from hypocrisy and an overreaching narrative to achieve much more than borderline status. Billed as a "thrilling romantic adventure," the action takes place in a variety of devastating global hot spots, and follows the unlikely romance of an humanitarian aid worker (Clive Owen) and a London socialite (Angelina Jolie). The premise alone might give one pause.

To bring humanitarian causes to public consciousness is a noble goal, but negotiating the path between entertainment and real and distressing human catastrophe has rarely been done successfully. About halfway through Beyond Borders, one of the characters refers to aid relief fatigue, and after watching the action move across two decades and three different humanitarian crises, most filmgoers will be experiencing their own burnout. Skeletal Ethiopians, baby-killing Khmer Rouge and the "Disappeared" in Chechnya are all vividly included, but the treatment is strangely apolitical.

The romance between the lead characters is also without depth, and the early criticism of easy celebrity sponsorship paired with a perfectly coifed Angelina Jolie in contrasting outfits is plainly duplicitous. Bypass this one and send your film dollars directly to Save the Children instead. (R) Rating: 2, Posted 11/14/03


Cheaper by the Dozen
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In 1950, Hollywood made an amiable movie based on the true story of a 14-member family as told in Frank and Earnistine Gilbreth’s popular book. It took place at the turn of the century and told the gentle tale of a father and mother and their difficulties in raising twelve children.

Naturally, Hollywood knows better today. Steve Martin stars in this remake that bears little resemblance to the original. Martin plays Tom Baker, a football coach in a small Illinois town who gets a chance to coach at a big university in Chicago. He and wife Kate (Bonnie Hunt) uproot their brood and make the big move. Things get complicated when Kate writes a bestseller (yeah, right) and has to go off on a promotional tour.

Okay, the premise isn’t so awful, but the execution is. Director Shawn Levy (Big Fat Liar) makes everything seem so artificially cute that it is impossible to feel any real tension or empathy for this family. In a small, uncredited role, Ashton Kutcher makes fun of his own image as a conceited, self-absorbed actor, but it’s the only joke in the movie that works. (PG) Rating: 2, Posted 2/27/04


Mona Lisa Smile
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney


Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is rarely described without use of the term “enigmatic.” That word won’t be used, however, in describing the film Mona Lisa Smile; in fact, this picture is so transparent that filmgoers can doze through most of it and still get the gist. Every old saw is used to represent the1950s; about the only thing missing between the pin curls and the synchronized swimming is the Beaver. And the duplicity of feminist overtones in a film populated with every trite female stereotype is Hollywood frippery at its worst.

Julia Roberts plays “Modern Woman” Katherine Watson, a teacher newly employed at Wellsley College in the fall of 1953. Being from Oakland, she’s the boilerplate liberal in a culture of conservative tradition and old money. Julia Stiles, Kirsten Dunst and Maggie Gyllenhaal are students in her art history class and play, respectively, the Good Girl, the Bitch and the Tramp. While Miss Watson reeks of 21st century sensibilities and is vocally critical of Wellsley’s finishing school tendencies, most of the film’s drama centers on romantic pairings.

As the girls get partnered up according to their prescribed destinies, Miss Watson has to manage first an old boyfriend, and then a new one. To round out the cast, Juliet Stevenson is squandered as the token lesbian, Marcia Gay Harden is cloying as the Old Maid, Gennifer Goodwin plays the Ugly Duckling and Marian Seldes as the school president is the Mannish Professional.

Perhaps the most perplexing moment in this film is some advice delivered by Seldes. “I think you should look back to see how far we’ve come” rings very hollow in the final analysis. (PG-13) Rating: 2, Posted 2/27/04


Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

Sounding ominously like yet another play on the reality show fad, Win a Date with Tad Hamilton is slightly more sincere, if a tad more predictable, romantic teen comedy.

Kate Bosworth plays Rosalee Futch, who at twenty-two, is something of an anachronistic Sandra Dee, working happily with her good friends at a small-town Piggly Wiggly and still living at home with Dad (Gary Cole). When the film opens, Rosalee and her buddies, Cathy and Pete (Ginnifer Goodwin and Topher Grace, respectively) are watching the curtain fall on a romantic film starring the hunky and charming Tad Hamilton (Josh Duhamel). Pete’s disparagement of the movie in the face of the mooning girls establishes the larger picture’s character dynamics (and models film discrimination for an audience who may not appreciate the irony). Under the impression that Tad must be nice, since he plays nice guy roles, Cathy and Rosalee are further bolstered by the “Win a Date With Tad Hamilton” contest that is advertised as a charitable fund-raiser. Cathy encourages Rosalee to enter the contest and lo and behold, she wins!

Pete is mortified; he really loves Rosalee and believes Tad is not all that he appears. Tad himself is unequivocal: “I am the boy next door… if you live in a dysfunctional neighborhood.” Unfortunately, the romantic triangle excludes the two more interesting actors, Ginnifer Goodwin and Gary Cole. Gary Cole has the best scenes as Dad attempting to impress Tad, wearing a Project Greenlight t-shirt and talking shop based on hasty Internet research. Win a Date might win a few laughs, but any infatuation will be fleeting. (PG-13) Rating: 2, Posted 2/27/04


Peter Pan
Reviewed by Russ Simmons


Any child who has seen a live-action version of J.M. Barrie’s classic fantasy has seen a woman in the lead role. No matter how young the child, they always wonder why a girl is playing a boy.

Director P. J. Hogan (My Best Friend’s Wedding) must have wondered the same thing, because he cast an actual adolescent male (Jeremy Sumpter) in the role of the boy that wouldn’t grow up. It was the right decision, because this Peter Pan is a fine, well-produced adaptation that allows the hint of romance between Peter and Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood). That tension gives the movie added poignancy.

Jason Isaacs (The Patriot) is appealingly treacherous as Captain Hook, and the rest of the cast is equally fine. The real “stars” of this Peter Pan are, however, the art director and special effects team that has created a fantastic Neverland that seems both tangible and ethereal at the same time.

Of all the films available for family viewing during the 2003 holiday season, this is the cream of the crop. (PG) Rating: 4; Posted 2/27/04


House of Sand and Fog
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney


The extraordinary achievement of House of Sand and Fog is a sustained palpable presentiment of tragedy, which is consummated in the most exquisitely haunting way. Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly are phenomenal in this story of a confluence of three lives, each of which is already fractured by personal drama.

Kingsley plays Behrani, an Iranian immigrant who lives a double life of outward opulence and secretive hard labor in order to secure a good marriage for his daughter. After a successful wedding, he uses his remaining funds to buy a house at auction, a house that belongs to Kathy (Connelly) who is suffering from severe depression following the disintegration of her marriage.

Unopened bills pile up at her door and she is unaware that she is about to be evicted. The beat cop sent to remove her from the house (Ron Eldard) is sensitive to her plight, and is also eager for a reason to escape his own listless marriage.

With an inevitability that in retrospect appears avoidable at each turn, the three characters play out a tragedy that is Shakespearean in scope. House of Sand and Fog is proof that a remarkable book can be converted into an equally memorable film. (R) Rating: 4


Girl with a Pearl Earring
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

Delft painter Johannes Vermeer produced exactly 35 paintings and a great number of children but left little of service to historical documentation. What snippets are known of the artist and his life have been gleaned from scanty legal documents. Girl with a Pearl Earring is based on Tracy Chevalier’s well-received novel, which in turn was inspired by the eponymous Vermeer painting. The story’s narrative conjecture is engaging and plausible, and the film is cinematically framed with enough cultural and historical authenticity to make for a satisfying, if slow-paced experience.

Scarlett Johansson plays Griet (from the Greek margarites, meaning “pearl”) who is hired as a servant in the Vermeer household. Griet is especially perceptive, and when Vermeer (Colin Firth) recognizes her talents, he cannily diverts her from cleaning his studio to mixing his paints to finally sitting for him as his model. As sexual tensions mount in the studio, the already complex household strains are increasingly exacerbated between Griet and Vermeer’s jealous, eternally pregnant wife, overbearing mother-in-law and assorted children.

Offering metaphors for the style and iconography of the original painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring explores links between vision and beauty, love and power, purity and seduction. Fine art aficionados should be especially gratified by this art film about art. (PG-13) Rating: 3, Posted 2/27/04

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