reel reviews

HellboyHome on the RangeJohnson Family Vacation 
My Architect: A Son's JourneyThe Prince and MeScooby Doo 2Walking Tall

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

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The Prince and Me
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

Entirely apropos, the latest teen romance comedy The Prince and Me is set partly in the state of Wisconsin, home of the big cheese. Not quite as befitting are the references to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, although feigning madness might be helpful to endure this unintentionally tragic comedy.

Prince Edward (Luke Mably) hails from Denmark, which, like England, is a small country in Europe, so plummy accents are prescribed. (More Americans will be familiar with Danish as a tasty treat anyway.) Coming to America incognito, the Danish prince is accompanied by his manservant Soren (Ben Miller), and together they move into a college dorm. Paige Morgan (Julia Stiles) is a premed student at the same university, and when the two protagonists are thrown together, antimony abounds. However, when Paige invites Eddie to her family farm home things soon rev up over a riding mower race (presumably the five minutes of muddy macho entertainment tailored to the duped date). Ultimately Paige must choose between a career in medicine or her prince charming. Or just maybe she can have it all.

In a reprisal of her prim role from Mona Lisa Smile, Julia Stiles manages to feature in another shallow pseudo-feminist story. Although a proven talent, director Martha Coolidge (Rambling Rose, Lost in Yonkers, Valley Girl) has made a disappointing variation on the Cinderella story. Go out and buy a pastry instead. (PG-13) Rating: 2; Posted 4/9/04

Johnson Family Vacation
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

There are few annoyances greater than a movie trailer that gives away everything that happens in the film. The most egregious example in recent months was the trailer for The Prince and Me, which was essentially a Cliff Notes version of the picture. If you saw it, you had no reason to plop down $8 to see the full-length version.

That brings us to Johnson Family Vacation, a broad comedy starring Cedric the Entertainer. No, its trailer doesn’t give everything away. It simply includes every funny moment in the movie. Once again, there’s no reason to have to pay for a ticket.

Johnson Family Vacation is essentially a road picture replete with numerous ham-handed slapstick setups. Its heart may be in the right place, but the execution is strictly third rate. Even the editing seems wide of the mark.

Cedric plays Nate Johnson, an amiable insurance man who hauls his clan from California to Missouri for a family reunion. He rents a pimped-out Lincoln SUV, picks up his estranged wife, Dorothy (Vanessa Williams) and his three kids, DJ (Bow Wow), Nikki (Solange Knowles, sister of Beyoncé) and Destiny (Gabby Soleil), and hits the road.

Nate’s dream is to win the ‘family trophy’ from his uppity older brother, Mack (Steve Harvey, who is apparently in every other picture made this year). That means that Nate will have to keep his own dysfunctional clan together long enough to endure the drive, and then rally their efforts in order to surpass Mack’s crew in a number of competitive events.

En route, Nate and his brood are terrorized by a 18-wheeler, pick up a beautiful but unbalanced hitchhiker (Shannon Elizabeth), are arrested by a surly Kansas Highway Patrolman and have their Lincoln covered with concrete. They then put Aunt Edna on the roof and…(oops, sorry. Wrong movie.)

The script by first-timers Earl Richey Jones and Todd R. Jones (TV’s The Hughleys) plays like a tired sitcom, and novice Christopher Erskin’s direction is no help, either.

As he demonstrated with his standup work in The Original Kings of Comedy and his memorable turn in Barbershop, Cedric the Entertainer is a genuinely talented guy. His affable presence is the only attraction in this labored effort that wastes his talent as well as that of the rest of the likable cast.
Still, they made a funny trailer. Just make sure you catch it preceding a better movie. (PG-13). Rating: 2; Posted 4/9/04

Walking Tall
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

Walking Tall would have been more aptly called Walking Penis, but although “30 Big Ones” line our highways, the word “penis” is still publicly verboten. All the elements of primal male fantasy are on show, and as such, Walking Newly Upright can be enjoyed as a masterpiece of over-the-top masculinity.

The original 1973 version of Walking Tall was singly responsible for creating the “Hicksploitation” genre. It starred Joe Don Baker as real-life Tennessee sheriff Buford H. Pusser and became a cult classic. The same role is taken on by The Rock in this remake, and he manages to sustain an otherwise ridiculous narrative, thanks to an abundance of charisma and style.

The story opens with Chris Vaughn (The Rock) returning to his hometown in rural Washington, which is in an obvious state of deterioration. The local mill has been capriciously closed to be replaced by a casino, owned by Jay Hamilton, Jr. (Neal McDonough), an old school buddy soon to be an adversary. The town is run by Sheriff Watkins (Michael Bowen) who gets to deliver lines like, “This is my town. I’m the sheriff here,” and “You should not have come looking for trouble.”

When Chris discovers drugs are being dealt through the casino, he goes on a vigilante attack against the security guards employed there. Although he ends up on trial, he is able to convince the jury and the townsfolk that he can clean up the community. Civil rights be damned, he is found not guilty and becomes the next sheriff. After an amorous night in the jailhouse with a reformed stripper (I kid you not), Chris and his new bra-clad love face a showdown with the casino goons. Newly deputized friend Ray (Johnny Knoxville) helps save Chris’s family with a vegetable peeler, but the weapon of choice is Chris’s 2x4, variations of which he wields throughout the film.

The overt patriotic flavor of the film equated with the uber male is nothing new, but in this political era, the implications are somewhat insidious. The American flag flies over the town as a backdrop to Chris’s homecoming; Chris himself is fresh from the Army – Special Forces no less. Even the strippers at the casino are clad in firefighter get-up, and in one scene bad guys use a box-cutter carve up our hero. Our patriot on the other hand, uses brute force to resolve differences, ignores the law when it doesn’t suit his purposes, entertains a stripper in his place of work, and believes in revenge.

Fortunately, it’s just a movie. (PG-13) Rating: 2; Posted 4/9/04

Home on the Range
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If you seen Scooby Doo 2, Monsters Unleashed or Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London, you may not think that there are any pictures currently playing that adults can enjoy along with the small fry.

Thanks to the folks at Disney, there's a feature-length animated film that has just enough laughs and pleasant tunes to maintain the interest of mom and pop.
Home on the Range is a broad, slapstick cartoon that is a departure from most of the recent Disney product that has aspired to addressing more serious themes. In fact, it has more in common with the old Warner Brothers shorts that featured the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.

The story takes place in the Old West, where a show cow named Maggie (Roseanne Barr) whose owner has had his ranch usurped by an unscrupulous land grabber. He delivers his prized heifer into the care of a friend named Pearl (Carole Cook) at a small farm called Patch of Heaven.

There, Maggie meets fellow cows Grace (Jennifer Tilly) and Mrs. Caloway (Dame Judi Dench) and the other denizens of Patch of Heaven. As luck would have it, the bank is about to foreclose there, too. The only hope that the cows have is to try to catch a wanted cattle rustler named Alameda Slim (Randy Quaid) and claim the reward money which would give them just enough cash to cover the mortgage.

In spite of the interference of Buck (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), the local sheriff's karate-chopping horse, our bovine heroines continue their pursuit. Trouble is, the dastardly Alameda Slim has an uncanny ability to mesmerize all cattle with his hypnotic yodeling!

The movie is short, fast-paced and filled with gags. The animation is mostly of the old fashioned, hand-drawn variety and is often as jokey as the script. (Particularly amusing is the look of a shady character named Wesley, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Steve Buscemi, the actor who provides the voice.)

The movie also marks the return of Alan Menkin, the composer responsible for the songs in Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and numerous other Disney classics. His work, and that of lyricist Glenn Slater, is far wittier than the dreary tunes that pop composers like Phil Collins have provided for recent Disney fare. Plus, k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt and Tim McGraw supply some spirited vocals.

Home on the Range isn't among the best Disney fare, but it's an amiable popcorn movie for the whole family. (G) Rating: 3; Posted 4/2/04

My Architect: A Son's Journey
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

A disheveled and penniless man died in a Penn Station toilet in 1974 at age 73. He was alone in the world and had the address on his passport scratched out.
Because he was hard to identify, his body laid for days in a morgue awaiting someone to claim it. The body belonged to renowned architect Louis I. Kahn.

That is just one of the mysteries featured in My Architect: A Son's Journey, a compelling new documentary made by Kahn's son, Nathaniel.

Among the other fascinating nuggets uncovered about the enigmatic Kahn was the fact that he had three families. In public, he had a wife, Esther, and a daughter named Sue Ann. In secret, he had another family with a mistress, the architect Anne Tyng, and another daughter, Alexandra. With yet another mistress, assistant Harriet Patterson, he had a son.

The film details Nathaniel's quest to learn about his father who died when he was just eleven years old. Through his search, Nathaniel chronicles his father's works, which are among the most influential of the century, as well as his unorthodox lifestyle.

Kahn, a Jew who immigrated to Philadelphia from Estonia as a child, was a short, ugly, bespectacled man with an annoying voice who had no success in his career until after he was fifty years old. He bore extensive facial scars from a fiery childhood accident. Still, he was apparently a charismatic individual who had great success with the ladies.

A perfectionist with a drive that some colleagues found off-putting, Kahn had an unorthodox vision that he applied to the few buildings he designed that were eventually built. The stark, futuristic edifices include the Salk Institute in California, The Kimball Art Institute in Texas and, most grandiose, the capital building of Bangladesh...that took over 20 years to erect.

Along with family members and friends, Nathaniel interviews his father’s noted colleagues, including I.M. Pei, Frank Geary, Philip Johnson and Moshe Safdie. Most colorful is the feisty Edmund Bacon, who fought Kahn tooth-and-nail over the redevelopment of downtown Philadelphia.

Ultimately, Nathaniel's search for his father lacks the cathartic conclusion that some may yearn for. There is no discovery that serves to explain Kahn's motives or sum up his character.

But by exploring his father's work, especially the capital of Bangladesh, Nathaniel finally makes a connection. The resulting film is a notable, sometimes moving account of a son coming to terms with his own identity. (Unrated) Rating: 3; Posted 4/2/04

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Comic book characters are hot properties in Hollywood right now. From the ongoing Spider-Man franchise to a new Batman project and even offbeat ditties like Man-Thing, studios are dishing out the superhero flicks like mad. Inevitably, the trend will play out and few rotten egg films will kill the momentum and spoil everything for the whole genre (anybody remember Batman Forever?). Until then, comic book and action movie fans should just enjoy the ride. Hellboy is one of the relative high points on that ride.

Like a cross between X-Men and the Ghostbusters, the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense is a collection of government-funded, super-powered oddballs who spend their nights battling other super-powered oddballs for the fate of the world. The misfits include a telepathic fishman, an emotionally fragile firestarter and a big, red demonic manchild with a soft spot for kittens (and these are the good guys). Those up to evil deeds include a blond-haired Nazi pin-up girl, Hitler’s quietest, creepiest and deadliest assassin and the mad, immortal monk Rasputin, whose master plan involves paving the way for a bunch of tentacled chaos gods to take over all creation. Believe it or not, the movie isn’t based on an H.P. Lovecraft story but instead on a comic book series by writer/artist Mike Mignola. The main appeal of the comic has always been Mignola’s lush, atmospheric artwork, and the film does it justice with inspired visuals, including dead-on character designs and CGI effects that blend seamlessly with the live-action shots.

Unfortunately, for a setup this offbeat and imaginative, Hellboy takes itself awfully serious at times. An unrequited love and a strained father/son relationship pack far less wallop than Hellboy’s stone-fisted right cross. There are also far too many characters to share the spotlight, including the kindly, aging professor, the likable but doomed right-hand-man, the meddling, narrow-minded boss and of course, the new guy out to prove himself. Hellboy works best when the action and the witty one-liners are coming fast and furious. When it pauses for melodrama, you start to realize that at a little over two hours, it’s a little too long.

Director Guillermo del Toro previously demonstrated his comic-adapting chops on Blade II and for awhile was attached to direct The Coffin, a comic created by Kansas City artists Phil Hester and Mike Huddleston. Hellboy star Ron Perlman is no stranger to prosthetics, as he’s best known for his role as the lion-faced romantic lead in the 1980s cult classic TV series, “Beauty and the Beast.” The rest of the cast is equally strong, including the always-hilarious Jeffrey Tambor and the legendary John Hurt. The showstealer, however, is still Mignola’s imagination, which shines through despite a muddled script. If you dig this film, don’t bother waiting for the sequel, but do yourself a favor and look up one of the many Hellboy trade paperbacks and check out Mignola’s imagination at its most unfettered. (PG-13) Rating: 4; Posted 4/1/04

Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed
Reviewed by Lizzy Bordon

Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed is yet another extraordinary achievement in this golden age of nostalgic remakes and stalwart franchises. The sustained anticipation of delight and novelty makes this sequel the Citizen Kane of the Warner Brothers Studio. Audiences will thrill when Scooby announces “Ruh-Roh!” in his distinctive tenor, and the more astute will appreciate the reference to the word “Rosebud.” Profound philosophical underpinnings and cunning socio-political insights are woven deeply into this Hanna Barbera classic.

Those born after 1975 will be reassured to know that their parents’ generation, the very people now in charge of the mass media, grew up on a rich diet of clever mysteries and philosophical discourse on the nature good and evil in weekly television episodes of Scooby Doo cartoons. Filmgoers who missed the first live-action Scooby Doo release in 2002 may be surprised to find that the sequel is still graspable, although some background information might illuminate the intricacies of the plot. It should be understood that Shaggy and Scooby are not cross-dressers ordinarily, but must surrender their own self-identity by masking their masculine identities in order to unmask real villains. Furthermore, women’s clothing and African-American hairstyles are inherently amusing, and by extension, so are the people that sport them. This serves as a fanciful message to the young audience. Similarly, the candid product placements work both as a gentle reminder that solving mysteries is thirsty work and as metaphor for the undying thirst for meaning.

In Monsters Unleashed, the reputation of Scooby and the gang is threatened when an anonymous bad guy wreaks mayhem on the city of Coolsville. A monster machine re-creates a number of classic foes like The Black Knight and the Pterodactyl Ghost, and the beastie outbreak leaves Shaggy (Matthew Lillard) and Scooby (the voice of Neil Fanning and CGI script realized for this purpose) questioning their roles in Mystery, Inc. Their mutual psychological pain is distressing, but intrinsic to the depth of the story, serving as a good life lesson for youngsters. Meanwhile, brainy brunette Velma (Linda Cardellini) becomes smitten with museum curator Patrick (Seth Green), also a key suspect, while Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr.) and Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar), although under pressure from an implacable investigative reporter (Alicia Silverstone), look really great in their outfits while attempting to determine the identity of the Evil Masked Figure.

Just as Citizen Kane employs playful paradoxes, at its surface Scooby Doo 2 is as much fun as any movie ever made, yet its depths defy easy understanding. Adding richness to the personal story is the history of a period. The color coordinated vinyl knee-high boots and the idea that a man’s best friend is his talking dog encapsulate universalities that have carried Scooby and his friends through the decades. And like Citizen Kane, Scooby Doo 2 will be forever recognized as a defining example of American cinema. (PG) Rating: 5; Posted 4/1/04

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