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Japanese StoryJersey Girl
The Ladykillers
Never Die Alone

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The Ladykillers
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

There are a few things certain with a movie steeped in gallows humor. It will be broad, it will be dark and someone’s gonna die.

And so it is with The Ladykillers, a reworking of the classic British black comedy from 1955 that starred Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers. The original, a minor gem from Ealing Studios, dealt with a gang of bungling thieves who find their plans thwarted by a sweet little old lady.

In the new version helmed by the Cohen Brothers (Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty), Tom Hanks plays a loquacious Southern gentleman, the brains behind a plan to rob a Mississippi riverboat casino.

Hanks rents a room in a home that belongs to an elderly woman (Irma P. Hall) due to the house’s proximity to the riverboat’s shoreline safe. His plan is to tunnel from the lady’s basement directly into the safe. He puts together an inept gang of hoodlums to implement his scheme, giving the doddering Hall plenty of reasons to be suspicious.

The Cohen Brothers make little attempt at realism here, choosing to set their story in a world that exists solely in the movies. Their dialogue is often quite funny, even though much of it would never be uttered by a real human being.

Hanks has a field day in the role of a verbose man of letters who dresses in the finery of another era and utters his flowery dialogue through a set of silly false teeth.

One could argue that Hanks isn’t “acting” but, rather, “performing.” In either event, it is a skillful feat that is exactly what the Cohen Brothers are after. (Jennifer Jason Leigh was unduly criticized for her broad performance in the Cohen’s Hudsucker Proxy that mimicked the vocal mannerisms of comedy stars of the 1930s like Jean Arthur and Katherine Hepburn. It was a tongue-in-cheek turn that paid homage to a past era…precisely what the Cohen’s had in mind.)

The other actors are equally good, especially Hall and the hopeless gang of crooks that includes Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, Tzi Ma and Ryan Hurst. The ubiquitous Stephen Root (Jersey Girl) also scores some laughs in the tiny role of the casino manager.

The Ladykillers will not be everyone’s cup of tea. It finds its humor in human suffering. Still, for those unafraid to laugh at pain, it’s an audacious and often goofy lark. (R) Rating: 3; Posted 3/30/04

Jersey Girl
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In spite of a string of flops and a year of bad publicity, Ben Affleck boldly marches on.

In Jersey Girl, the former “Bennifer” re-teams with his old pal writer/director Kevin Smith, whom he worked with on Chasing Amy and Dogma. A romantic comic drama that depends heavily on Affleck’s personal charisma, Jersey Girl is, at best, a hit-and-miss affair.

Affleck plays Ollie Trinke (nope, I’m not kidding), a high-profile music publicist living the high life in Manhattan. His life changes when he falls for and weds a beautiful woman (played by the unbilled Jennifer Lopez) who soon becomes pregnant.

Things are tragically complicated for Ollie when his wife dies in childbirth, leaving him with a baby daughter that he is ill equipped to care for. In a fit of frustration, he curses the reporters at a press conference, permanently sabotaging his career.

Like a dog with his tail between his legs, Ollie retreats to the New Jersey home of his widowed father (George Carlin) and takes a job on the city road crew. There, he raises his daughter (Raquel Castro) and eschews romance until a pretty video clerk, played by Liv Tyler (The Lord of the Rings), comes along.

This movie is a bit of a departure for Smith. He aims for a more mainstream audience here, leaving behind the edgier material that he demonstrated in films like Clerks, Mallrats, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. His inspiration seems to come from the works of Norah Ephron and Rob Reiner, filmmakers who appeal to middlebrow, middle America.

Affleck is one of those actors who, like Nicholas Cage, seems to have as many ardent detractors as admirers. In fairness, he’s actually quite good here. He has a natural affinity for Smith’s dialogue and seems quite at home in the role. Still, his persona seems to have an effect for many people similar to that of fingernails on the chalkboard.

Tyler, on the other hand, is little more than bland. She doesn’t elicit any response from the audience because she doesn’t project anything more than a pretty smile.

The precocious Castro is quite appealing, ably delivering her lines even when they don’t always ring true.

Therein lies the main problem with Jersey Girl. It’s sweet and amiable, but is never quite believable. It tries very hard to be a “feel good” movie that emphasizes the importance of family over career. It’s easy to buy into the sentiment, but not the circumstance. (PG-13) Rating: 2; Posted 3/30/04

Never Die Alone
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

It would be completely understandable to wonder out loud about whatever happened to the once promising career of filmmaker Ernest R. Dickerson.

Best known for his excellent work as Spike Lee’s cinematographer, Dickerson has also shown promise as a director. His debut, Juice, was a strong, compelling drama about the difficulties that confront inner city youth. It boasted a terrific performance by Tupac Shakur and another fine one from Omar Epps.

Dickerson’s choices since then have been somewhat puzzling. Yes, there was a certain amount of campy fun to be found in Tales of the Crypt Presents: Demon Night, but decisions to make films like Bulletproof and Bones are enough to make one wonder what kind of advice he’s been getting.

That brings us to Never Die Alone, an unrelentingly ugly drug-thug movie that seems to wallow in violence and reinforces stereotypes that African American filmmakers claim to disdain. The movie was booed when screened at the Sundance Film Festival, and many journalists who were invited to the film’s interview sessions declined after the screening.

Rapper DMX stars as King David, a small-time drug dealer who manages to find himself in an early grave. Left for dead after an altercation with rivals, King David is aided by a stranger named Paul, played by David Arquette (Eight Legged Freaks), who takes him to a hospital. Realizing he is about to die, King David gives Paul a set of audiotapes that spell out the details of his sordid life. A writer struggling to find his muse, Paul listens to the tapes and decides to write King David’s story.

The rest of the film is told through flashbacks as we learn about King David’s rise and fall. He turns out to be one nasty human being who left behind a string of corpses. His cruelest actions were saved for those that he “loved.”

To say that the movie is repellent is perhaps an understatement. Dickerson’s skill as a cinematographer is evident, but the screen is fairly saturated with blood making it utterly unpleasant to watch. (Oddly enough, there isn’t any rap music on the soundtrack until the closing credits.)

Undoubtedly, Dickerson meant Never Die Alone to be a cautionary tale, warning viewers about the horrors of the world of drug abuse. In execution, however, the film seems to become a celebration of machismo, homage to a thug who did things his own way. (R) Rating: 1; Posted 3/30/04

Japanese Story
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

Directed by Sue Brooks, and from an original script by Alison Tilson, Japanese Story won eight 2003 AFI awards (the Australian Oscar equivalents) and six major national Film Critics Circle prizes as well, making it one of the most honored Australian movies ever. Japanese Story will receive critical acclaim in this country too, but the cultural and historical metaphors will go unrecognized by most American audiences.

Japanese Story stars the versatile Toni Collete (Muriel’s Wedding, The Sixth Sense) as brash Perth geologist Sandy Edwards. When Sandy gets cornered into acting as a virtual tour guide for Japanese client Tachibana Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima), she is peevish and ill equipped to deal with the cross-cultural issues. In contrast with her more experienced associates, she neglects to exchange business cards with the newly arrived Tachibana, and he duly assumes she is merely his driver. This cultural divide serves as the film’s prominent motif. Before long, at Tachibana’s urging and against her own better judgment, Sandy finds that she is driving ever further into the remoteness of the outback.

The scenic backdrops are arresting. Equally dramatic is the pickle in which this odd couple finds themselves, miles from nowhere with their 4 x 4 finally bogged in the desert sand. Oblivious to the seriousness of the situation, and steadfastly refusing to use his cell phone to call for help, Tachibana instead chooses to deplete the battery life on irrelevant chitchat. The need to save face eventually gives way to an apprehension of real peril however, and Tachibana is resourceful about working to help save them. The shared adversity ultimately unites them, and the two become lovers in what has to be one of the most erotic sex scenes in recent film history.

The blossoming relationship between Sandy and Tachibana is at once real and unlikely. Tachibana is already married and they both seem aware that their time together is finite. Small and inadvertent cultural misunderstandings become their ultimate undoing in a most unexpectedly dramatic way. How Sandy endures this trial is the touching subject of the latter part of the story.

There exists a persistent exoticism of Australia to the American psyche, and “The Bush” as a journey of self-discovery is a ubiquitous emblem in Australian cinema. More recently however, the outback has become a place in which the troubled sub/urban soul can find solace. Of particular significance is the idea of Australian identity, which has long been a subject of national soul-searching, from a torrid history with the indigenous Aborigines, the “White Australia” policy and prolific anti-Asian sentiment, to the more recent multiculturalism. Understanding Japanese Story as analogous to the contemporary paradoxical search for national identity in the face of diversity lends the film great richness and depth. Alison Tilson has added a masterful portrayal of Australian culture to its cinematic tradition. (R) Rating: 4; Posted 3/25/04

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