reel reviews
movie reviews
January '07


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

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Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia) has yet to receive a Best Actor Oscar, even though he’s been nominated seven times since 1962. The Academy rectified this oversight by awarding him an honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 2003. Reportedly, he initially resisted the honor hoping to "win the lovely bugger outright."

Well, O’Toole gets another chance with Venus. In a perfect bit of type casting, he plays a renowned British actor who also happens to be a randy geezer. It marks his eighth Academy Award nomination, a new record.

The reason he is held in such high esteem is quite evident in this unusual and sometimes creepy film. In the role of the aging thespian, he has found a character that fits like a glove.

O’Toole plays Maurice, who hangs out with another elderly actor, Ian, played by Leslie Phillips from the Carry On films. Their conversations mainly revolve around the world of theatre and the aches and pains of old age.

Their decades-old friendship is threatened by the arrival of Ian’s teenage niece, Jessie, played by newcomer Jodie Whittaker. Feeling that he could use some assistance in his old age, Ian invites Jessie to live with him in hopes she’ll take on the role of caregiver.

Well, Jessie is far from the ideal person for this role. She’s shallow, self-centered and seems put out by this arrangement. Her idea of an ideal day is sitting on the couch, munching chips and watching soap operas.

But Maurice is somewhat smitten by the young lass. Just being around her helps him recapture some of his lost youth. He then tries to impress her by showing her his rarified world. Mildly impressed, she begins to enjoy some of her adventures with Maurice. But mostly she’s interested in taking advantage of his generosity.

What ensues is a manipulator’s dance where each of these needy people tries to take advantage of the other. Things get really sticky when her brutish boyfriend gets involved and when Maurice tries to take the relationship to a physical level.

In a modestly successful attempt at gritty realism, director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) has chosen to shoot the film in low-res, with ambient lighting and employing a lot of hand-held cinematography.

While Whittaker is quite good as the insensitive Lolita, this is O’Toole’s vehicle. He’s able to overcome some of the unsettling aspects of the story to make Maurice a character that we genuinely care about.

If this is O’Toole’s swan song, he chose a memorable role to go out on. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 01/26/07)

Catch and Release
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Okay, admit it. You like Jennifer Garner.

Thanks to movies like 13 Going on 30, women who might otherwise be resentful of her looks are, instead, captivated by her girl-next-door cuteness. Men, thanks to TV’s Alias, see her as sexy and dangerous while also appealingly vulnerable.

Garner’s considerable charm is put to a severe test in the new romantic comedy, Catch and Release. Her easy-going talents are the sole reason to see this otherwise tepid chick flick.

Garner stars as a Boulder, Colorado woman named Gray Wheeler who, on what was supposed to be her wedding day, is mourning the death of her fiancée, Grady, in a boating accident. (You heard right, this is a romantic comedy.)

Unable to pay the rent on the house she and her fiancée had shared, Gray opts to move in with Grady’s buddies, the fly-fishing Dennis (Sam Jaeger from Lucky Number Slevin) and the wisecracking Sam (Kevin Smith of Clerks fame). Also visiting is a photographer pal from California, Fritz (Timothy Olyphant from TV’s Deadwood).

While going through Grady’s papers, Gray discovers that he’s been making regular child support payments to a California massage therapist named Maureen, played by Juliette Lewis (Starsky & Hutch). Fritz has been aware of Grady’s indiscretions, but kept them quiet. Gray slowly begins to realize that she didn’t really know her fiancée at all.

All of this eventually leads up to an awkward romance between Fritz and Gray. While she has initial disdain for him (she witnessed his sexual encounter with the caterer at the funeral dinner), the ice thaws over time. Complications arise, however, when she discovers the extent of info about Grady that he’s kept from her.

Catch and Release is the first directing effort from screenwriter Susanna Grant (Erin Brokovich). Although most cinematic romantic comedies exist in a fantasy world all their own, they require some semblance of reality in order for us to really care about the characters. In this regard, Grant stumbles.

There is precious little that works in this disjointed effort. The pace is punctuated by fits and starts, the characters often seem self-consciously quirky and the situations seldom appear credible.

That leaves us with Garner to carry the day…and she does the best that she can. Her pretty eyebrows get a workout as Grant places her in various situations of sadness, surprise and suspicion.

Ultimately, Catch and Release is true to its title. It’s a throwaway movie. (PG-13) Rated: 2.5 (Posted 01/26/07)

Smokin' Aces
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

No matter how artfully it’s presented, sleaze is sleaze. That’s painfully evident in the new thriller from writer/director Joe Carnahan, Smokin’ Aces.

Convoluted, over-the-top and reveling in its violence, Smokin’ Aces is the kind of film that the success of Quentin Tarantino has wrought.

That’s not to say that it is without its visceral pleasures. There are some colorful characters, intense sequences and some well-choreographed mayhem. Unfortunately, it’s also silly, unbelievable and utterly lacking a moral compass.

The complicated storyline revolves around a gaudy Vegas entertainer named Buddy “Aces” Israel, played by Jeremy Piven (TV’s Entourage). A showroom magician, Israel managed to get in way over his head after being enticed by the glamour of the Vegas mob.

After befriending the local Mafia Don, Israel tried the thug life for himself, slowly gaining power that he didn’t have the savvy to handle. Eventually, he becomes a rival to his gangland friend…and that’s when the trouble starts.

That’s also when the FBI got interested. The feds offer Buddy a deal if he’ll help them bring down the mob. When he hears of the deal, the gangland boss puts a $1,000,000 bounty on Buddy’s head. (In a particularly Sicilian manner, the assassin is also expected to deliver Buddy’s heart.)

The feds put Buddy in protective custody in the penthouse of a Lake Tahoe hotel. Once word of the bounty gets out, a number of hit men (and women) race to get the prize.

The number of characters involved in this escapade rivals the cast of Spartacus. Writer/director Carnahan trots out a veritable parade of oddballs, but he has the good sense to attract strong actors to play them.

Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds are FBI agents working under the authority of assistant director Andy Garcia. They attempt to protect Israel from a colorful lineup of assassins.

There are three teams of killers, one being a bail bondsman and his pals (Ben Affleck, Peter Berg and Martin Henderson), another being a female African-American duo (Alicia Keys and Taraji P. Henderson), and the third being neo-Nazis (Chris Pine, Kevin Durand and Maury Serling.)

There are also some creepy individual killers, too, such as a makeup expert (played variously by two actors, Tommy Flannagan and Joel Edgerton) and a stealthy sociopath (Nestor Carbonell). Their efforts lead to a considerable amount of bloodletting.

Carnahan (a talented filmmaker who was responsible for the far better flick, Narc) uses these characters in a plotline with so many twists that it becomes knotted in its own absurdity.

For the crowd that enjoys a bloddy shoot-em-up, Smokin’ Aces fills the bill. Since it has little else to offer, it exists soley as a celebration of mayhem. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 01/26/07)

Letters from Iwo Jima
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

At age 76, Clint Eastwood is doing his best and most ambitious work as a filmmaker. He’s come a long way from playing second fiddle to an orangutan.

His latest movie recently nabbed the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Letters from Iwo Jima tells the story of the famous WWII battle from the Japanese viewpoint. It was filmed simultaneously with Flags of Our Fathers, a film that focused on the American perspective. (Remember, this guy will be 77 in May.)

Eastwood and screenwriter Iris Yamashita have achieved an admirable balance between empathy and objective detachment in their presentation of the historic events as depicted in the letters written by doomed Japanese soldiers to their loved ones back home.

Ken Watanabe (Memoirs of a Geisha) stars as General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the commander of the Japanese forces who have hunkered down on the small volcanic island, determined to prevent the invading Yanks from taking over. A distinguished and sophisticated military man, Kuribayashi spent a good deal of time in the United States and has some difficulty with the fact that he is essentially fighting against his friends.

The aristocratic Kuribayashi has a different perspective on the war than some of his other officers. There were many who express their dismay that he did not share their view that the Americans were ineffectual and undisciplined soldiers, and that a simple beachhead assault would subdue them. Kuribayashi insisted that miles of tunnels be constructed in the volcanic rock in preparation for the American onslaught. This was the only reason some of the vastly outnumbered Japanese soldiers survived.

Kuribayashi and fellow blueblood Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an Olympic equestrian, wonder aloud about the wisdom of trying to protect a tiny chunk of rock. Their opinions are openly viewed as unpatriotic by some of their colleagues.

Perhaps the film’s most sympathetic character is Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker who was drafted into service just as his wife became pregnant. Unlike other Hollywood depictions, Japanese soldiers weren’t all kamikaze-like in their dedication. Like Saigo, their main goal in the war was simply to survive so that they could return to their homes and take care of their families.

Eastwood creates tension as the impending American attack comes closer to reality. Once it begins, this somewhat claustrophobic film opens up into a nightmare of mayhem that makes claustrophobia seem heavenly.

With intelligence and honesty, Letters from Iwo Jima presents its anti-war viewpoint with subtly and grace. It would be an admirable work from a filmmaker of any age. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 01/19/07)

The Last King of Scotland
Reviewed by Deborah Young

When we first see Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker), he is dancing. He has just overthrown Uganda’s dictator and is being celebrated as a man of the people. He is all jokes and grins.

But as The Last King of Scotland progresses, Amin’s mood changes again and again. A darker side of his character first makes sporadic appearances and then gradually consumes him.

Screenwriters Jeremy Brock and Peter Morgan have crafted a focused script that wastes no time. Almost every scene directly or indirectly illustrates the range of Amin’s actions and reactions.

We get these glimpses of Amin through the eyes of a Scottish doctor named Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy). After graduating from medical school Garrigan decides to go to Uganda to care for poor people.

The young doctor soon becomes Amin’s personal physician and thus gets sucked into a world that is foreign to him. Amin’s world is at first almost enchanting, but it gradually becomes a nightmare for Garrigan.

The Last King of Scotland skillfully tells of a man who starts with idealistic thoughts of serving his countrymen. But along the way his fears and delusions overcome him and transform him into something barely recognizable as human.

This film could have been taken captive by clichés of a thoughtless dictator. However, the nuanced and credible performance of Whitaker elevated the film to a thoughtful study of human frailties. Whitaker creates an Amin that is sometimes funny, sometimes welcoming, and sometimes easygoing. At other times, Whitaker’s Amin is paranoid, cruel and vengeful.

In addition to Whitaker, both McAvoy and Kerry Washington (as one of Amin’s wives, Kay) give excellent performances. McAvoy plays first a naïve idealist and later a disenchanted friend and colleague to the tee. And Washington exhibits quiet charm as Amin’s isolated wife and mother of two of his sons.

Sometimes difficult to watch, The Last King of Scotland is nonetheless insightful and smart. It avoids easy characterizations and clichés and makes clear the point that one human body can house both a prince and a monster. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 01/19/07)

Pan’s Labyrinth
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Let’s get something straight right from the get-go: Pan’s Labyrinth has nothing to do with Peter Pan and is dark, violent and unsettling. It is definitely not for the kids.

The third impressive work from a Mexican director in the last couple of months (see Babel and Children of Men for other examples), Pan’s Labyrinth is from the fevered mind of Guillermo del Toro, the man behind Blade and Hellboy.

Based on an original story by del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth is easily his most ambitious, complex and intricate work. There will be those who will liken it to other fantasies for adults like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but this is far more fatalistic.

The story is set in Spain in 1944 as the Spanish Civil War is winding down. A young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) has arrived in a rural area with her pregnant mother and new stepfather, a fascist officer named Captain Vidal (Sergi López). This hard-nosed military man is determined to put down a guerilla rebellion against the Franco regime.

Ofelia’s father was killed in the war and her mother married Vidal to save herself and her family. The ice cold Vidal views the woman as simply an incubator whose purpose is to provide him with a son. He sees Ofelia as a burden and is jealous of her close relationship with her mother.

Shortly after coming to this new outpost, Ofelia spots a strange forest maze and wants nothing more than to explore it. The new maid (Maribel Verdú from Y Tu Mamá También) cautions her to stay away…but this advice is ignored.

The movie proceeds on two levels. One is the heavy drama that unfolds as the unbending Captain Vidal uses excessive methods to crush the local rebels. The other is the fantasy world into which Ofelia escapes. Although she enters this realm to get away from her distressing life, she discovers that this netherworld is every bit as frightening.

Ofelia is told by the man/faun Pan that she is a princess and must complete three scary tasks before she can return to her rightful home in the labyrinth’s kingdom.

From a technical standpoint, Pan’s Labyrinth is an amazing visual treat. This beautifully produced fantasy looks every bit as good as any big-budget Hollywood extravaganza. But del Toro’s bleak vision is far creepier than an American studio head would probably allow.

Through Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro has created a symbolic nightmare that equates fascism to death. It’s as invigorating as it is disturbing. (4) Rating: 4 (Posted 01/19/07)

The Painted Veil
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The star of The Painted Veil is not human; it’s nature (and studio-simulated versions thereof) as captured by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh. What better way to tell the story of rekindled love than with a lush, painterly backdrop of dark rivers and shapely mountain ranges.

Based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel of the same name, The Painted Veil tells the story of a scientist (Edward Norton as Walter Fane) and a socialite (Naomi Watts as Kitty Fane) whose marriage goes sour after the husband catches the wife cheating.

Walter takes Kitty to a cholera-infested area of China, where he plans to study and attempt to inhibit the spread of the disease. He also uses the isolation and dangers of the location to punish his errant wife.

The reason she strayed in the first place is because he seemed more interested in his work than in her. Now he’s thrown himself deeper into his work. He’s also bitter now and angry that he ever allowed himself to love her. He rarely even allows himself to look at her.

Ironically, their dangerous new home might be just what they need to rekindle their love.

All the romance clichés are here. There’s the wise old nun (Diana Rigg as Mother Superior) who’s an expert in matters of the heart, even though her profession prohibits her participation. There’s the eccentric (Toby Jones as Waddington) and his exotic mistress (Geisang Meiduo as Amah), who remind the married couple of passion’s wondrous possibilities.

The actors do a fine job in their roles, but there is not much for them to do here. They are merely playing types. Norton is playing the betrayed and now guarded husband. He’s cruel at home but a martyr in the world, putting his life on the line to save people suffering from the dreaded cholera. Watts plays the shallow beauty, and Jones plays the insightful eccentric.

It’s easy to predict early on what each character is going to do. However, that doesn’t spoil the beauty of this film, because the beauty is in the visuals. As we watch Walter and Kitty rafting on the murky river with lush green mountains in the background, the fact that their characters are clichés doesn’t matter. The visuals transcend the story and serve to enhance it.

It’s a slow, quiet tale that may bore some moviegoers. But The Painted Veil is also a visual treat that should win Dryburgh another Oscar nomination (he was nominated in 1994 for his cinematography in The Piano). (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 01/19/07)

The Curse of the Golden Flower
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

It’s hard to imagine films more different in execution and tone than two Chinese titles initially released in 2006. The gentle road film Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles and the expansive epic The Curse of the Golden Flower are, in many ways, antithetical.

Both films, however, are the work of one man, China’s preeminent filmmaker, Zhang Yimou. This masterful artist moves easily between big budget extravaganzas and intimate, sentimental stories. The fact that he excels at both adds fuel to the argument that he is the world’s greatest contemporary director.

The Curse of the Golden Flower is cut from the same colorful silken cloth as Yimou’s other recent costume sagas, Hero and The House of Flying Daggers. It is opulent, extravagant and jaw dropping in its beauty. Unlike those others, it features a story that isn’t nearly as satisfying.

The story involves the royal family during the Tang Dynasty of the 10th century. The machinations of these unhappy folks would make Machiavelli blush. Equally inspired by Shakespeare and Dallas, this over-the-top historic melodrama takes some getting used to.

Chow Yun-Fat (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) portrays Emperor Ping, an iron-fisted ruler who has cemented his power through violent manipulation and icy cunning. His wife, Empress Phoenix (Miami Vice’s Gong Li) is apparently suffering from anemia. Their loveless marriage was just another of Ping’s political moves, as Phoenix is the daughter of an important royal.

The empress’ illness, we soon learn, can be attributed to a fungus that Ping has instructed the imperial doctor to add to her daily medicine. In short order, she will be suffering from irreversible madness.

Three sons complicate matters. The eldest, Crown Prince Xiang (Ye Liu) is the offspring of the emperor and his first wife. He is indecisive and would not make a strong ruler. He and his stepmother have been involved in an affair, but now he’s taken up with the royal doctor’s daughter…and incited his stepmother’s wrath.

The youngest, Prince Yu (Qin Junjie), is a callow teen who, from all appearances, is simply eager to please. That leaves Prince Jai (Jay Chou), the middle son, as the heir apparent. His mother, once she’s gotten wind of the Emperor’s plot against her, tries to recruit Prince Jai to help her in a coup attempt.

The film is operatic in tone, with some eye-rolling performances that sometimes are a distraction. Opulent visuals remain as the movies’ chief attraction.

For fans of grandiose spectacle, The Curse of the Golden Flower delivers the extravagant goods. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 01/15/07)

Notes on a Scandal
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Mary Kay Letourneau and Debra Lafave have attracted a lot of attention on the evening news. Stories about these attractive young teachers who have had affairs with their underage male students are dream fodder for our tabloid times.

These sordid tales most likely inspired Zoe Heller’s popular novel Notes on a Scandal. But as the film adaptation shows, the engrossing dynamic of Heller’s story isn’t between the teacher and her student; it is between the teacher and an obsessive colleague.

Dame Judi Dench (Casino Royale) stars as Barbara Covett, a stern, world-weary teacher at a London secondary school. Her years of toil in a dysfunctional educational system have turned her into a sullen, resentful wretch with only a cat for companionship.

Her world is shaken up by the arrival of a new art teacher. Sheba Hart, played by Cate Blanchett (The Good German), is a breath of fresh air. Attractive, young, smart and unjaded, she is a bright spot in Barbara’s dark world.

Sheba is married to a much older man (Bill Nighy from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest) and cares for her two children, one of whom suffers from Down’s syndrome. After many years of stifling motherhood, she sees her new job as an adventure and an opportunity to get out of the house.

Barbara is immediately smitten with Sheba, worming her way into her good graces. One day, Barbara is shattered when she spies Sheba cavorting with a 15-year-old student named Steven (Andrew Simpson).

Thanks to Blanchett’s subtly effective performance, we can almost understand Sheba’s attraction to this young boy. This devoted and long suffering wife and mother was in desperate need of the spark in her life that this young man provided.

It doesn’t take Barbara long to see Sheba’s indiscretion as a golden opportunity. By holding this information over Sheba’s head, she’s able to manipulate her and, she hopes, expand their relationship into something much more intimate.

Barbara’s monomaniacal infatuation with Sheba is reminiscent of Glenn Close’s obsession with Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction. It is easy to see why these actresses were drawn to the roles.

In the hands of screenwriter Patrick Marber (Closer) and director Richard Eyre (Iris), the film is less tawdry than you might imagine. What it is…is scary.

For most viewers, the real attraction is the acting. Dench is gripping as the manipulative spinster and Blanchett is all exposed nerve endings as her exploited obsession.

As long as you’re going to visit this ignominious territory, you may as well travel there with classy folks. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 01/12/07)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

One has to wonder what kind of a relationship that filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar had with his mother. His body of work indicates that there must have been a very interesting dynamic there.

His latest effort is the quirky melodrama, Volver, a peculiar but intriguing fable about a strange mother-daughter relationship. In parts comic, tragic and soapy, it’s a strange brew that has an odd flavor of its own.

One of Almodóvar’s favorite stars, Penelope Cruz (Sahara) plays Raimunda, a young woman living in Madrid with her boozy husband and teenage daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo). Rainmunda and her sister Sole often travel to a small Spanish village to check in on their aging, senile aunt.

It was in this village that Rainmunda’s parents were killed in a suspicious house fire some years ago. But according to her superstitous aunt, the ghost of Rainmunda’s late mother returns regularly to care for her.

Back in Madrid, Raimunda’s world is rocked when Paula kills her stepfather who had attempted to rape her. After sticking the body in the freezer of a nearby abandoned restaurant, the duo tries to figure out what to do next.

Meanwhile, Rainmunda’s hairdresser sister Sole (Lola Duenas) has also been visited by the ghost of her long-dead mother, Irene, played by Carmen Maura. Irene has instructed Sole not to tell Rainmunda that she’s come back. You see, Rainmunda and Irene have unresolved issues between them and Irene hopes to use this second chance to eventually set things right.

There are a number of other peripheral characters that fill out the complicated plot, including a cancer-stricken friend, a portly prostitute and a film crew that Rainmunda caters to after surreptitiously taking over the abandoned restaurant.

This is easily the best role that Cruz has had since crossing over to English-language films. Her return to work with Almodóvar shows better sense than her tabloid headline-making romantic flings. Here, Cruz is a lusty, voluptuous and powerful woman and Almodóvar’s camera can’t get enough of her.

Duenas is equally good as Sole who has reluctantly accepted her role as the plain sister. Maura, another Almodóvar veteran, brings a sweet comic sensibility to her motherly role.

But this movie belongs to Cruz. She is a superwoman who, in spite of her flaws and insecurities, is a powerful force to reckon with.

While not quite in the same league with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or All About My Mother, Almodóvar makes Volver a quirky lark that his fans will fancy. So will his mom. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 01/12/07)

Stomp the Yard
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Kansas City native Columbus Short is an accomplished performer.

As a dancer, he not only toured with the national company of the stage hit, Stomp, he choreographed the touring shows of pop artists like Britney Spears, Ashanti and Brandy. He’s appeared in supporting roles in films like War of the Worlds and has a recurring role on TV’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

Although he starred in the direct-to-DVD flick, Save the Last Dance 2, he makes his big screen lead debut in Stomp the Yard, a musical drama about the world of step dancing.

Short plays DJ, a gifted young street dancer whose brazen attitude and reckless self-interest indirectly led to the death of his brother. After serving time for his indiscretions, he’s shipped off to stay with relatives in Atlanta. They’ve pulled strings to get him accepted into Truth University, a traditionally African-American institution. He’s expected to earn his way through school doing landscape work.

Although DJ initially resists the rigid confines of the institution and its strong fraternal traditions, a beautiful young coed arouses his interest.

Meagan Goode (Roll Bounce) plays April, the lovely young student that turns DJ’s head. Unfortunately for DJ, she’s the girlfriend of Grant (Darrin Henson from TV’s Soul Food) who is a big man on campus. That doesn’t stop DJ from pursuing the April, but it brings on the inevitable conflicts.

Aside from April, a campus event catches DJ’s attention. He discovers that there is a tense rivalry between two fraternities, Mu Gamm Xi and Theta Nu Theta. The former has a step dancing team called The Wolves and they’re the seven-time national champions. The latter frat’s team is called The Pythons, and they’ve been the perennial second-place squad.

April’s boyfriend is Mu Gamm Xi, so, naturally, DJ offers his superior street dancing services to The Pythons…although he must first learn the meaning and value of the fraternal order.

The script by Robert Adetuyi and Gregory Ramon Anderson is little more than a rehashing of tired clichés, but director Sylvain White (I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer) had an opportunity to use the unique dancing to make the movie something special. Unfortunately, he got in the way.

During the stepping sequences, he continually makes the mistake of using showy, frenetic camerawork, hyper editing and varying shooting speeds. Instead of allowing the dancers to create the scene, he seems to want the camera to be a dancer, too.

You can’t blame the attractive cast. But White should learn the law of movie choreography first laid down by Fred Astaire. Let the dancers dance and leave the camera be. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 01/12/07)

Arthur and the Invisibles
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The success of computer animated family fare is undeniable. Four of the top ten films of 2006 were digitally generated cartoons, each earning over $150 million at the box office.

You can’t blame the French for wanting to get involved. Writer/director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element) decided to take his chances with an original story, Arthur and the Invisibles. Mindful of his audience in the States, he cast the movie with English and American voice talent. In spite of that move, the film still has a decidedly foreign feel.

The flick starts out with a live-action sequence. A 10-year-old boy named Arthur (Freddie Highmore from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is living with his Granny (Mia Farrow) on a small farm. His grandfather has been missing for some time, leaving behind clues as to his whereabouts.

When an unscrupulous developer tries to take over and demolish the place, Arthur attempts to decipher his grandfather’s writing in order to find him and bring him back to save the day.

Arthur eventually comes to believe that the fantasyland his grandfather described in his writings actually exists in the backyard. The tiny “Minimoys” live under the ground and grandpa somehow shrunk himself to insect size in order to live with them.

With the aide of some African warriors (don’t ask), Arthur manages to shrink himself and enter this fantastic netherworld. At this point the film chronicles his adventures through computer animation.

Things are amiss among the Minimoys and Arthur (who takes a sword from a stone!!) joins in the fight against an evil fellow named Maltazard (voiced by David Bowie) while searching for his grandfather.

Like all big budget cartoons, the voice cast features famous names like Madonna, Jimmy Fallon, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Chazz Palminteri, Emilio Estevez, Snoop Dogg and Anthony Anderson. (Although French actors provide the voices for the Gallic version, the animators have obviously patterned the mouth movements for its English cast.)

The animation is often astounding. From a technical standpoint, the work here is first rate, giving Stateside animators a run for their money. There are some impressive action sequences that make the Minimoys’ world seem eerily real.

But the storyline is all over the place. We’re battered from plot point to plot point as we follow some genuinely unlikable characters. Plus, at 122 minutes, it’s just too long for the kiddies.

But what’s really lacking in Arthur and the Invisibles is the one important element you can’t generate in a computer: Charm. (No MPAA rating) Rating: 2 (Posted 01/12/07)

Little Children
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Writer/director Todd Field’s latest release has a lot in common with one of his past projects, In the Bedroom. Both films are adapted from novels, and both contain pretty dark subject matter. In the Bedroom focuses on the hidden character traits that tragedy can uncover. And the film does so with sobriety and dark candor.

But Little Children sneaks up on the viewer. It at first seems to be a breezy satire of the suburbs. Its voiceovers of characters’ thoughts evoke chuckles and the first impression that this film will be little more but a wacky ride through an amusement park of suburban angst.

However, first impressions can’t be trusted. Little Children could have been set in any neighborhood with its universal theme about human insecurities and taboo desires. The film tells the stories of a bored housewife (Kate Winslet as Sarah), an unfulfilled stay-at-home dad (Patrick Wilson as Brad), an exhibitionist (Jackie Earle Haley as Ronnie), and a retired police officer (Noah Emmerich as Larry).

Sarah feels isolated from the other mothers who take their kids to the local playground every day. So she welcomes the friendship of Brad, the only father that visits the playground.

At first the two unfulfilled parents commiserate during daily visits to the town pool. Then their desires take over, urging them into an affair.

In the meantime, Brad reluctantly befriends a retired police officer who is obsessed with the neighborhood “pervert,” Ronnie, who has just been released from prison. In some undetermined past, Ronnie exposed himself to some children, and now he was the neighborhood outcast.

The whole enterprise is as wacky as it sounds. However, the story has depth with its focus on paradoxes that create sympathy for unsympathetic characters. For instance, there’s a scene in which Ronnie jumps in the public pool while a crowd of kids are swimming there. He wears a joyful look underwater, as well as flippers and snorkeling gear.

When some of the parents discover that Ronnie is in the pool, everyone orders their kids out of the pool. Ronnie continues to swim alone, until the police arrive and summon him from the pool. Ronnie looks both sad and ridiculous as the police lead him away, and it’s easy to pity him. By contrast, another scene in which Ronnie mistreats a blind date reveals how selfish and cruel he can be.

Taken scene by scene, Little Children doesn’t seem like much. But it sticks with you, despite the ridiculous voiceovers. It’s a film that will make viewers think, laugh and reminisce about the joys and sorrows of just being human.

Despite its title, the film contains nudity and sexual content. Although thought provoking and insightful, it’s not designed with young viewers in mind. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 01/05/07)

Children of Men
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

One of the most important things that a filmmaker must decide upon regards how much information to give the audience. Too much info can make a movie seem repetitive and overloaded. Too little can leave audiences lost and bewildered.

One’s reaction to the science fiction opus Children of Men may well depend upon how much you actually want to know.

Based upon a novel by noted British author P.D. James, Children of Men is often dazzling. It is just as often frustratingly enigmatic.

Clive Owen (Inside Man) plays Theodore Faron, a seemingly indifferent bureaucrat living 2029 Great Britain. The government has become a totalitarian state and is cracking down hard on immigrants.

But the biggest problem facing society is the fact that (for reasons never revealed) no woman has become pregnant since 2009. Mankind is facing the probability of extinction due to this lack of reproduction.

While terrorists are inciting chaos in the streets, Theo takes some time off to visit an old pal named Jasper, played by Michael Caine (The Prestige), who lives out in the woods. A pot-smoking former political cartoonist, Jasper may know more about what’s going on than he’s willing to reveal.

In short order, a rebel group kidnaps Theo and demands that he obtain some transit papers for an immigrant named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) that they’re trying to smuggle out of the country. Although initially hesitant, he’s persuaded to help by the group’s leader, Theo’s former wife, Julian (Freedomland’s Julianne Moore).

As it turns out, the young woman is miraculously pregnant. They need to get her out of the country before…well, it’s not clear why they need to get her out. The only thing that’s obvious is that everyone wants her, and even the rebel groups are at odds with one another about what to do.

The screenplay, adapted from James’ novel by a committee of five, is heavy with references that make it clear that they’re trying to make a comment about the current state of society. (The rebel groups are as oppressive as their oppressors and Theo, in the midst of violent chaos, never resorts to using a gun.)

But any concerns that the filmmakers bring up are never fully developed or dealt with, leaving huge blanks for audience members to fill in on their own.

In spite of these issues, Children of Men is often stunning. Director Alfonso Cuaron (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and the scenic crew have given the movie an ultra realistic, documentary feel. There are some brilliantly executed action sequences and long hand-held shots that will leave film buffs slack-jawed.

If you’re concerned with what happens and what it all means, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re satisfied with a visceral thrill, Children of Men delivers. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 01/05/07)

Freedom Writers
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Upon hearing the plot of Freedom Writers, you might think that this story would be fodder for a tepid “After School Special” aimed a teens and tweens. It also could have found a home on the Lifetime channel as a middling, soapy flick for bored, undemanding housewives.

Thankfully, this inspiring story was adapted for the big screen by talented people who understood that audiences don’t need to be preached to or talked down to. To really resonate, a drama simply needs to have the ring of truth.

Freedom Writers recounts the difficulties and triumphs of a woman named Erin Gruwell, played here by two-time Oscar winner, Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby). A WASPy idealist, Erin decides to become a teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California. Her students are poor minority kids who have been brought up in a violent, gang-influenced environment.

With equal parts niavete and determination, Erin tries to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and break through to her sometimes stubbornly dismissive students. Early on, she learns the awful truth. These kids believe that the odds are utterly stacked against them and that they’ve got no chance of advancement in a white-dominated world. What’s the use of an education under these circumstances?

But Erin not only gets resistance from her students. Her husband (Patrick Dempsey from TV’s Grey’s Anatomy) feels neglected and that his wife’s efforts to help her students is obsessive. Even her liberal father, played by veteran Scott Glen (Training Day) thinks she’s bitten off more than she can chew.

But the biggest obstacle she faces is the educational establishment, personified by fellow teacher, Margaret Campbell (Imelda Staunton from Vera Drake). All too often, the system is viewed more as a babysitter than trainer.

But Erin comes up with a few ideas to stir things up, one of them being a communal diary that allows her students to anonomously express themselves. Slowly but surely, Erin works to gain the trust, friendship and respect of her diffident students.

Writer/director Richard LaGravenese (Living Out Loud) manages to avoid a lot of the overly sentimental minefields of the story. There are, however, some clichéd scenes, especially involving other teachers who come off as moustache-twirling villians instead of world-weary realists.

But Swank gives a solid, sensitive performance, matched by Staunton as her ideological nemisis. But the students are fine, too, especially April Lee Hernandez as an especially skeptical member of a Hispanic street gang.

Heartfelt and hopeful, Freedom Writers pushes the right buttons. Ladies, take Kleenex. (PG-13) Rating: 4(Posted 12/22/06)

Happily N’ever After
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When one thinks about the enormous amount of effort that goes into creating a feature length computer animated cartoon, it boggles the mind. It takes lots of cash and years of labor by hundreds of artists and technicians.

Considering all the money and toil that went into Happily N’Ever After, it shouldn’t be too far a field to ask a simple question: Why not spend a little more time on a better script?

Happily N’Ever After is an obvious attempt to replicate the success of the Shrek franchise. The producers apparently thought that following the same irreverent formula would generate box office success. Now that’s a fairy tale.

This handsome-looking movie features a high-concept storyline that aims to entertain the kids while being hip enough and loaded with enough pop culture references to appeal to mom and dad.

Essentially, it is a send-up that focuses on the story of Cinderella. Early on, we learn from a narrator (Rick, the royal dishwasher played by Freddie Prinze, Jr.) that the setting is Fairy Tale Land. In the opening moments of the movie, Ella’s wicked stepmother (Sigourney Weaver) has somehow managed to take over the kingdom, recruiting villains from every imaginable story in the Brothers Grimm lineup to help her in her evil reign.

With Rick as our guide, we see the events that have led to this predicament. You see, there’s a wizard (George Carlin) who guards the book of fairy tales, along with his assistants, Munk (Wallace Shawn) and Mambo (Andy Dick). Their job is to look after the scales of good and evil to make sure that everything is in balance so that the familiar tales always play out the way they’re supposed to.

When the wizard jets off to Scotland for a golf vacation, he leaves his assistants in charge, asking them to guard the scales and take care of his powerful magic staff. Mambo, bored with seeing the fabled stores endlessly repeat themselves, argues with Munk about wanting to mix things up a bit. The stepmother overhears and…well, you get the picture.

The talented voice cast gives it a good shot. Sara Michelle Geller is Ella, Patrick Warburton is dunderheaded Prince Humperdink and Michael McShane plays Rumplestiltskin.

While the animation is generally of a high caliber, the movie has few moments of real imagination or wit. For all the work that went into Happily N’Ever After, it sure seems like they didn’t really try. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted 01/05/07)

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Experts in the fragrance industry speak in their own language, with a keen focus on the complex ways in which aromatic compounds, extracts and oils are combined to achieve an endless variety of scents. They talk of woodiness, ambery, cyphre and fougère, and describe aromas in terms of “top notes, middle notes and bass notes.”

The elements used to create a perfume have to work in perfect harmony to achieve a pleasurable bouquet. The same is true of movies. All of the elements have to work together in order for a film to achieve its own cinematic harmony.

Sadly, Perfume: The Story of Murderer never finds the right mixture of elements. As a result, this adaptation of Patrick Süskind’s acclaimed novel just doesn’t smell right.

You can’t blame gifted director Tom Tyker (Run Lola, Run) for wanting to give this material a try, but some novels just aren’t meant to be filmed. What seems profound on the page can sometimes seem downright silly on screen.

Set in 18th century France, the creepy story involves one Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), an orphan brought up under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. But this odd young man possesses a sense of smell that is nearly superhuman.

Following fate and his nose, Jean-Baptiste winds up as an apprentice to a perfumer named Baldini (played by the badly miscast Dustin Hoffman). This young man finds success in Baldini’s shop due to his innate ability to mix exotic scents.

But this talented young man has a few emotional quirks. For one thing, he is a serial killer of young women. He becomes obsessed with a quest to distill the essence of virginal girls into a fragrance and experiments with their freshly killed bodies in an attempt to capture this innocence in an irresistible aroma.

The filmmakers have spared no expense in brining this disturbing story to the big screen. The production values are impeccable and the film is nearly overloaded with stunning visuals. Tyker doesn’t shy away from the grotesque images either, and manages to create a genuinely ghoulish atmosphere.

But aside from its disturbing nature, the film has a major problem on its hands. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, the movie plods along only occasionally springing to life. The most vexing aspect, however, it its infamous, climatic crowd scene. What unfolds comes off as laughable instead of engrossing.

While Perfume: The Story of a Murderer doesn’t exactly stink, it certainly reeks of pretension. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 01/05/07)

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