reel reviews

13 Going on 30Kill Bill Vol. 2Lost Boys of Sudan
The PunisherThe Whole Ten Yards

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Lost Boys of Sudan
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Early on in the new documentary, Lost Boys of Sudan, a refugee says to a friend headed for America, "This journey is like you are going to heaven."

Naturally, that is hardly the case. In this absorbing and melancholy film, we follow several teenagers as they become strangers in a strange land, experiencing additional hardships in their already harsh lives.

In over twenty years of civil war, 2 million Sudanese have been killed and some 4 million displaced. The Islamic fundamentalist government brutally cracked down on Christian tribes like the Dinkas. In the 1980s, the Dinka fathers were killed and the women and girls enslaved. The surviving boys fled into the countryside and ultimately marched to Kenya where 20,000 live in the Kakuma refugee camp.

In 2001, the US government allowed 4,000 of the "Lost Boys" to emigrate. Documentarians Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk followed a handful of them on their journey to find a better life in America. Eschewing voiceovers and interviews, the filmmakers take a fly-on-the-wall approach, allowing the boysí experiences to unfold before our eyes. Their initial stop is Houston, Texas.

With initial amusement that soon turns to compassion, we watch as the young men experience severe culture shock. Unfamiliar with the trappings of modern society and speaking little English, the boys cope with tall buildings, deodorant, garbage disposals and strange customs. (They quickly learn that their tradition of walking hand-in-hand is frowned upon in America.)

The film concentrates on two individuals. Santino Majok Chuor remains in Houston, taking an assembly line job for meager pay. The careworn lad struggles to make ends meet while attempting to obtain a driver's license and insurance—both necessary for him to maintain employment.

His friend Peter Myarol Dut fares somewhat better, moving to Olathe, Kansas. A family that has learned of his fate through a Christian charity takes Peter in, and he enrolls at Olathe East. He tries out for the basketball team and does his best to fit in. He takes a job at Wal-Mart in hopes of sending some money to his family—but the meager pay leaves him with little to spare. Hopes of a higher education hinge on scholarships that he seems unlikely to procure.

The power of this extremely low budget production is in its unblinking scrutiny of this sad situation. Even though they are surviving, these boys are still displaced, lonely and often expressing little hope. As one character forlornly observes, "Now its clear. There is no heaven on Earth." (Not rated) Rating: 3; Posted 4/23/04

The Whole Ten Yards
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

The Whole Ten Yards may be lucky to elicit a whole ten laughs from filmgoers. This follow-up comedy to the fairly-received The Whole Nine Yards is so unfunny and falls so flat that audiences may look for restitution on this extra yard. It’s not even a good bad movie; rather it’s the kind of misguided mess that will leave viewers dazed and depressed. Despite eight months of still pending, this dud’s an easy shoe-in for Top Ten Worst lists of 2004.

Thanks to falsified dental records, hitman Jimmy "The Tulip" Teduski (Bruce Willis) is living a quiet life of domesticity in Mexico with his wife Jill (Amanda Peet) who is a hitman wannabe. Jimmy’s old dentist friend Oz (Matthew Perry) is now married to Jimmy’s ex-wife Cynthia (Natasha Henstridge), and when Cynthia gets kidnapped by a Hungarian mob, Oz tracks down the only person he thinks can help. Jimmy is reluctant however, preferring these days to butcher for cuisine purposes only. Although he and Jill commit their assorted skills to Oz’s efforts to free Cynthia, the various loyalties are as nebulous as the final script. Kevin Pollak as mob boss Lazlo is the weakest character in a flimsy cast; his performance is reminiscent of a second grader telling a long joke with no punch line.

One of the biggest flaws of The Whole Ten Yards is the attempt to use black humor, which falls somewhere closer to a murky gray. The shtick is simple and stiff, the character quirks appear completely contrived, and the satire is sadistic. In one scene, Jimmy bashes an obnoxious father who is sitting with his son in a restaurant, and then cites his actions as proof of his ability to be a good parent. In another, Strabo (Frank Collison), a mobster, who has been slapped across the face in every scene in which he appears, gratuitously forwards the violence onto Cynthia, literally slapping her across the floor. A farting Hungarian granny rounds out these yucks and since this film has been downgraded from the R rating of the first installment, parents might not be entirely grateful that their children can now experience such humor too.

When the fab four finally defeat the mob, we see them driving around in a convertible discussing their futures as newly pregnant parents. Let’s just hope they decline to deliver another sequel.(PG-13) Rating: 1; Posted 4/23/04

The Punisher
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Sometimes it is evident that Stan Lee and the folks at Marvel Comics just don't know when to stop.

The latest graphic novel to get the big screen treatment is The Punisher, another revenge opus that leaves many corpses littering the cinematic landscape.

Thomas Jane (61) is appropriately steely in the title role, but that is about all that is good in this otherwise grim entry. Even the presence of John Travolta as a particularly nasty villain fails to elevate this dud.

Adapted from Gerry Conway's noted Marvel series, The Punisher concerns a successful FBI undercover agent named Frank Castle (Jane) who is in charge of a sting operation that results in the death of a novice arms dealer. Trouble is, the slain gangster is the son of a notorious money launderer named Howard Saint (Travolta) whose angry wife (Laura Elena Harring) demands vengeance.

Upon taking early retirement, Frank, his wife and son attend a beachside family reunion that includes dozens of relatives. Naturally, Saint's machine gun-toting thugs catch up with the peaceful gathering and the entire clan is rubbed out. All, that is, but Frank. He is merely wounded and is rescued by a local who finds him washed up on the beach. Once recovered and realizing he has nothing left to lose, he becomes a one-man vigilante squad—and a remarkably talented one at that.

The ensuing mayhem is yet another plunge into the realm of sadistic violence weíve become all too accustomed to.

The comic originally appeared in the 70s and had a Vietnam War era perspective that gave it resonance. This version has been updated and set in Florida, which lacks the gloomy urban underbelly that might have added some welcome grit. The filmmakers also throw in some colorful neighbors and make some half-hearted attempts at humor. The result is a movie that lacks a consistent tone.

The film also has some plot holes that detract mightily. Why, for example, is Frank so hard for Saint to kill when he makes little attempt to conceal himself? And why doesn't Frank simply cut off the head of the snake instead of futzing around with Saintís minions?

This is the second attempt to cinematically dramatize Conway's hero. The first attempt starred Dolph Lundgren in 1989, but that production was a direct-to-video release. It seems clear that the new version of The Punisher is bound to join its predecessor on the video shelves very soon. (R) Rating: 2; Posted 4/23/04

13 Going on 30
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

Anyone who once sported leg warmers and wished that she were Jessie’s Girl will identify at once with 13 Going on 30. Nostalgia for past eras however, is nothing new in filmmaking. Nor is the concept of a child stuck in an adult body. (Think Big, Freaky Friday, and Jack.) Because nostalgia has achieved a certain vogue (and commercial potential) modern audiences tend to collude in re-igniting the popular culture and icons of eras not their own. While 13 Going on 30 will have universal appeal, filmgoers aged about 35-45 will find special remembrances of times past. And the premise of a young teen getting to try on an adult life without real consequences will play into the wish fulfillment of audiences of any age.

Jenna Rink is a girl on the outside of the in-group. She's the kind of wholesome girl who sports acrylic sweaters with pink hearts and offers to do homework for the popular crowd, known in this case as The Six Chicks. She does have one great friend in Matt, who in contrast, is entirely comfortable with his own non-conformity. He’s the kind of guy who prefers Talking Heads to Belinda Carlisle, which is cause for reproach by the less eclectic watchdogs of cool. When the Six Chicks cruelly abandon Jenna at her thirteenth birthday party, Jenna wishes that she was "Thirty, Flirty and Thriving," just like the people in her favorite teen magazine.

Waking the next morning in a 30-year old body, Jenna (Jennifer Garner from TV’s Alias) is surprised to find that she has the life she always wished for, at least superficially. Not only does she now have breasts and a hunky boyfriend, she is actually an executive at Poise, her favorite magazine, along with now best friend Lucy (Judy Greer), the one-time leader of the Six Chicks. However, the success of the magazine is in jeopardy from a competitor and it appears that an inside spy has been scooping ideas. Jenna uses her 13-year old's knowledge and timely retro chic to save the magazine, but in the process discovers that her current and past selves have behaved ignominiously. Tracking down the still singular, but no longer single Matt (Mark Ruffalo), Jenna develops an awareness of what is truly important and acquires some maturity along the way.

The strength of 13 Going on 30 rests with Jennifer Garner, who is compelling and immensely likable, nailing the mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of a young teen. Jenna's bountiful exuberance encourages considerable shared delight in youthful innocence. And watching her eat with gusto at every turn is both funny and insightful. Although over-promoted in the trailers, the Thriller dance scene is priceless.
Be sure to also watch for Andy Serkis (aka gollum) as Jenna’s Editor-in-Chief. (PG-13) Rating: 3; Posted 4/23/04


Kill Bill Vol. 2
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If you're looking for a textbook example of the triumph of style over substance, you need look no further than Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill.

Amoral, utterly derivative and as empty as downtown Kansas City on a Monday night, Tarantino's bloody tale of revenge reaches its completion with volume two. Yes, ií's maddeningly unethical in its comedic glorification of violence, but it's also sensational filmmaking that is often wildly entertaining.

Uma Thruman is back as "The Bride," a hired killer once an integral member of an elite assassination squad fronted by Bill (David Carradine).

In volume one, "The Bride" tries to retire and leave Bill's deadly team after she becomes pregnant. As a reward, Bill and his crack killers (Michael Madsen, Vivica A. Fox, Daryl Hannah and Lucy Liu) beat, shoot, and leave her for dead at her wedding rehearsal. After awaking from a coma that left her incommunicado for four years, she seeks revenge and picks off those who wronged her, one-by-one.
Tarantino depicts her rampage as an over-the-top bloodbath, as the amazingly talented killer leaves literally scores of mutilated corpses in her wake.

In volume two, our lovely antihero continues her quest to wipe out her enemies and ultimately take out the man who ordered her assassination. Strangely enough, the movie takes a bizarre and circuitous route as it evolves into a twisted love story.

Tarantino's opus is a homage to the drive-in features that he loved as a kid. There are elements from Hong Kong martial arts films, Japanese samurai thrillers, spaghetti westerns, "women in chains" flicks and even bad 70s TV cop shows. (His affection for contemporary anime is also evident here.)

He imaginatively mixes his film stock, creating a look that echoes the movies he's eluding to. He even goes so far as to lift the music from many of those films and TV shows. (Sonny Chiba, a star of innumerable samurai sagas and cop thrillers, has a memorable role in volume one.)

Although the movie is nearly plagiaristic in its imitative nature, it also has a screenplay that crackles with snappy dialogue. We're never expected to take anything seriously, but to simply go along for the goofy ride.

The irritating thing about Kill Bill is its incessant tastelessness and brutality. We're expected to say, "Oh, it's all just a joke." If you can do that, then you'll find the movie extremely diverting. If not, you'll just have to grudgingly accept the fact that it is expertly made crap. (R) Rating: 4; Posted 4/23/04

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