reel reviews
movie reviews
February '06

CSA: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICATHE THREE BURIALS OF MALQUIADES ESTRADA
RUNNING SCARED
EIGHT BELOWCACHE FREEDOMLAND THE PINK PANTHERCURIOUS GEORGE
THE WORLD'S FASTEST INDIANMRS. HENDERSON PRESENTSWHEN A STRANGER CALLSSOMETHING NEW

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


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CSA: The Confederate States of America
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In the opening moments of Kevin Willmott’s comically incendiary CSA: The Confederate States of America, a quote from George Bernard Shaw is featured. As Shaw aptly stated, “If you’re going to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh. Otherwise, they’ll kill you.”

Despite the fact that Willmott’s concoction is a historical send-up based on pure conjecture, he gets closer to the truth than many would like. That’s why he attempts to follow Shaw’s sage advice.

His sly movie is a faux documentary, along the lines of Spinal Tap but with a lot more on its mind. It purports to show what America would be like today had the South won the Civil War.

CSA is a satire of a Ken Burns-style documentary complete with talking heads and historical film clips. Willmott takes it one step further, however, adding cheeky commercials for products that would exist in a modern Confederate world. (Have you used your “Darkie Toothpaste” lately?) If someone were unwittingly watching CSA on television, they may think that they’ve flipped on the History Channel broadcast from an alternate universe.

The movie appears to be a British documentary that takes a look at the history of the Confederate States of America, from the Civil War, to the Confederacy’s invasion and colonization of South America, its alliance with Hitler during WWII, and its ongoing refusal to give women the vote.

While some still cling to the “states’ rights” argument, dismissing slavery as the paramount reason for the Civil War, Willmott pokes through their position with some well-placed satiric jabs. (Those apologists will undoubtedly hate this film.)

Willmott, a professor of film at the University of Kansas, made his movie in the Kansas City/Lawrence area using local talent. Sometimes, the film’s low budget is painfully evident, but Willmott and company manage to infuse the proceedings with intelligence and wit that money can’t buy. It can be slow going at times, but just when our patience is tried, we’re won over by yet another inspired moment.

When the film screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005, Spike Lee became intrigued and signed on as a producer. That makes CSA an interesting companion piece to his speculative work on racism, Bamboozled. Lee’s big-budget minstrel show was as subtle as a sledgehammer, but Willmott’s low-budget effort works much better because its anger is tempered with well-meaning humor.

In keeping with Shaw’s dictum, Willmott tells the truth…and makes us laugh. (No MPAA rating) Rating: 4 (posted 02/24/06)


The Three Burials of Malquiades Estrada
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In his feature directorial debut, actor Tommy Lee Jones reveals that his style behind the camera is much the same as it is on screen; spare, no-nonsense and realistic. These traits serve the screenplay of The Three Burials of Malquiades Estrada very well.

A story of friendship, revenge, racism and loneliness, The Three Burials of Malquiades Estrada stars the weather worn actor as a Texas cowboy whom fate hands a special burden. In order to fulfill a promise, he must go on a treacherous road trip and take an unwilling accomplice along for the ride.

Jones plays Pete Perkins, a tough-as-leather rancher who befriends an illegal Mexican alien named Malquiades, played by Julio Cesar Cedillo. A hard-working cowhand, Mal earns Pete’s respect and, eventually, they form a close bond. In an offhand moment, Mal makes Pete promise to return his remains to his rural home in Mexico in the event that anything should happen to him.

As fate would have it, something does. Mal is gunned down by a cocky, impertinent Border Patrol agent named Mike Norton, played by Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan). Because the lazy local sheriff (played by Dwight Yokam) would rather let the whole incident disappear, he ignores the evidence and has Mal buried in a pauper’s field.

Incensed by the injustice, Pete takes matters into his own hands. He abducts Mike at gunpoint, has him dig up Mal’s body, and the duo embark upon an arduous journey across the border to inter his remains in the manner he requested.

The script, by Guillermo Arriaga, has a gritty ring of authenticity. He constructs his story in a non-linear way that makes it all the more compelling. While not as freewheeling in its handling of time as his other exceptional screenplays, 21 Grams or Amores perros, it nonetheless depends largely on flashback to fill in the narrative gaps.

While his is a secondary character, Pepper’s role is probably the toughest of his career, emotionally and physically. (After seeing what he’s put through, you’ll feel vicariously drained.)

Jones is, as always, rock solid. He conveys a world-weariness that few can match and as an actor, he always knows when to stop.

His only problem as a director is that he hasn’t quite figured out when to stop. While he has a strong grip on the material, he lets the action linger longer than necessary. Although it’s rarely boring, the film’s pace would have been greatly aided by twenty minutes or so of judicious editing.

Still, he makes good use of the gritty Texas/Mexican scenery, turning in a movie as rough and as unforgiving its setting. (R) Rating: 3.5 (posted 02/24/06)


Running Scared
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In 2003, writer/director Wayne Kramer gave us the quietly effective character piece, The Cooler. William H. Macy starred as a sad sack casino employee who was used by the gaming manager (Alec Baldwin) to infect their winners with bad luck.

Well, some of that misfortune seems to have rubbed off on Kramer. Either that or he’s since been possessed by the evil spirit of an exploitation hack.

Kramer’s new film, Running Scared, is a hyperbolic, over-the-top exercise in sleaze. Sin City may have been an influence, but unlike Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s popular graphic novel, Kramer’s epic doesn’t seem to have anything on its mind other than to ratchet up the sordidness.

Paul Walker (who currently stars in Eight Below, a Disney film that is the antithesis of Running Scared) stars as Joey Gazelle, a low level Jersey mobster who serves some pretty despicable wiseguys. Things get hairy for him, thanks to some annoying neighbors.

Next door to Joey lives an abusive Russian gangster who runs the neighborhood meth lab. When he starts beating his wife, his young stepson Oleg (Cameron Bright) shoots him with a gun he took from Joey’s house. This is big trouble for Joey, because the same gun was used by his boss to kill an undercover policeman…and Joey was instructed to get rid of the piece.

This scenario sets into motion a series of events that take place over several hours. As the story progresses, the action becomes more violent, more kinetic and more absurd. We encounter a parade of pimps, whores, drug addicts, strippers, corrupt cops, pedophiles and other assorted upstanding citizens.

Kramer turns his camera into an acrobat, whooshing in and out of holes, windows, doorways and, awkwardly, even time. It’s like the kid fresh from film school who can’t wait to show off all of the tricks he’s learned.

But it is the visual display that makes Running Scared impossible to dismiss completely. While it’s gaudy, it’s never dull.

But Kramer’s obsession with all things vile is his ultimate undoing. While he lays it on thick (perhaps for the sake of humor…we have Tarantino to thank for this), he obviously wants us to enjoy this opportunity to vicariously participate in wantonness. When two child molesters are blown away by a vengeful mom, the audience cheers. This is exactly the reaction he was looking for.

Attempting to appeal to audiences’ base instinct for bloodlust is the cheap trick of a filmmaker with nothing else to say. (R) Rating: 1.5 (posted 02/24/06)


Eight Below
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The tagline, “inspired by a true story,” has been one attached to a number of films of late. The idea is to get audiences to suspend disbelief and willingly go with the flow.

In fact, “inspired by” is a sneaky caveat. The plot can be completely fictional as long as some minor element might have actually happened.

That brings us to Eight Below, a Disney adventure about a team of sled dogs and their harrowing time alone in the Antarctic. (The title refers to the number of dogs abandoned on the underside of the world, not the temperature.)

Eight Below was adapted from a 1983 Japanese film called Antarctica, which was itself loosely based upon conjecture about a 1957 event. (That’s evidentially all that’s needed for the movie to be deemed, “inspired by a true story”.) Ah, heck, let’s just call it a work of fiction and leave it at that.

Paul Walker (Into the Blue) stars as Gerry Shepherd, a guide at a US Antarctic research station. Against his better judgment, he agrees to use his crack team of huskies to take a scientist on a risky trip to search for a meteorite.

Naturally, there’s trouble. The scientist (Bruce Greenwood) breaks his leg and falls through the ice. The intrepid dogs manage to save the duo and get them back to camp just as a massive storm is about to engulf it. The humans abandon the outpost…and the dogs…just as the blizzard descends.

Gerry is prevented from returning to rescue the heroic dogs by a conspiracy between bureaucrats and Mother Nature. As he realizes that he probably will be unable to do anything for his beloved dogs, his sense of guilt and impotence becomes almost unbearable.

The dogs face innumerable difficulties as they attempt to survive for months in this harsh environment. Along with bitter cold, a shortage of food and dangerous ice floes, they encounter vicious tiger seals (slickly computer generated).

Director Frank Marshall (Alive) relies heavily on the appeal of these beautiful dogs to carry the film, and they do so dutifully. To his credit, he also keeps the customary Disney anthropomorphism to a minimum.

The scenery (Norway, Canada and Greenland suitably substitute for the Antarctic) is awe-inspiring and as long as the movie concentrates on the canines, it works beautifully. (The human element isn’t nearly as interesting.)

While its claims of veracity are greatly exaggerated, Eight Below is a sweet natured and entertaining family film. Pooch lovers will want to take along some Kleenex. (PG) Rating: 3 (posted 02/17/06)


Caché
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Ambiguity can sometimes be a useful tool for filmmakers. If you want to leave your audience guessing, pondering and ruminating, don’t give your movie a clear denouement. How many post-movie discussions were provoked by 2001: A Space Odyssey?

Of course, the technique can backfire. Often, viewers feel cheated when things are not tied up neatly or the filmmaker has failed to offer a specific point of view.

Caché, a chilling new French thriller from Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher) generates some of its creepy power by virtue of its vagueness. While viewers will likely be polarized in their reaction to this technique, the movie has an interesting sociological subtext that makes it hard to dismiss.

Daniel Auteuil (Après vous...) stars as Georges, the urbane and affluent host of a French public television talk show about literature. His wife, Anne (Juliette Binoche from Chocolate) is a successful publishing executive who balances her time so she can also be the caring mother to her teenage son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky).

On the surface, everything seems idyllic. Suddenly, a series of videotapes begin arriving mysteriously on their doorstep, and the content shatters their comfortable complacency.

These are surreptitious surveillance tapes that have recorded the family’s comings and goings. Yes, someone is watching them carefully with motives that are unclear. The only thing accompanying the tapes are crayon drawings of a boy with blood gushing from his mouth.

Without more to go on, the police can do nothing. Unless their tormentor actually harms them, the authorities will stay out of it. This leaves Georges with the task of doing some sleuthing in order to protect his family. Problem is, Georges knows more than he’s letting on.

Eventually, Georges contacts a French-Algerian man named Majid (Maurice Bénichou) whom he wronged when both were children. While Majid denies any involvement in the tapes, the memories stirred up between both men are akin to post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Haneke seems to be using this premise to make a broader statement about colonialism and the complacency of those who have profited from it at the expense of the Third World. Georges’ insensitivity and reluctance to accept any responsibility is foreshadowed in an earlier scene when he berates a black bicyclist. Although it is Georges who stepped carelessly into the road, he blames the cyclist for not looking where he was going.

While some may dismiss this film’s attempts at social commentary, it is probably its reason for existence. It is a sly but effective approach.

But the movie’s lack of conclusion is admittedly frustrating. Perhaps Haneke is implying that the story isn’t over. Maybe it’s up to us to bring it about its finale. (R) Rating: 3.5 (posted 02/17/06)


Freedomland
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Examples of good films about race relations range from last year’s Crash to Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing to Douglas Sirk’s 1959 classic Imitation of Life. These films capture the public and private symptoms of racial tensions by getting inside the characters’ heads. These films also move audiences because they focus on complex characters that occasionally act against type.

By contrast, bad films about racial tensions brim with hyperbole and clichés. In these films people always seem to be shouting about longstanding racial stereotypes. Such dramas have no gray areas. The lines between black and white and good and evil are clearly (and boringly) drawn.

Unfortunately, Freedomland falls into the bad category. The film, which is based on Richard Price’s novel of the same name, starts with an interesting premise. A white woman (Julianne Moore as Brenda Martin) turns up in an emergency room with bloody hands. She claims she’s been the victim of a carjacking in a predominantly African-American housing project.

After detective Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson) questions Brenda and starts to leave the room, Brenda calls him back. She says she just remembered that her son was in the car when it was stolen.

At this point the film appears to have promise, particularly because the tough detective turns out to be an asthmatic. When Brenda tells him about the missing child, Council begins to pace around the room, breathe hard, wheeze and swear.

Even though Jackson and Moore’s performances begin in over-the-top mode, the situation tantalizes the curious with its implicit questions: What was Brenda doing in the projects at night? Why is detective Council’s reaction so emotional?

In this role, Moore personifies pitiful. She’s pale, gaunt and either hysterical or almost catatonic through most of the film. It’s hard to sympathize with her because she seems to have no depth, no complexities. What you see in one scene is what you get in all the others: an immature and pathetic woman motivated by selfishness.

But Freedomland’s worst offense is its script. In this adaptation of his own novel, screenwriter Price has obviously tried to craft some profound dialogue. On more than one occasion the foul-mouthed Council gives Brenda spiritual advice, telling her how God works or telling her to “Let go and let God.”

Then there’s Brenda, who at one point launches into a speech about how much her son meant to her. “He gave birth to me,” she says.

These kinds of grand, serious and/or spiritual speeches alongside the overacting and the clichéd and overwrought plot sound humorous at best and ridiculous at worst. Director Joe Roth, who also directed Christmas with the Kranks (2004) and Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise, has put together another screwball comedy. But this time the comedy was sadly unintentional. (R) Rating: 1.5 (posted 02/17/06)


The Pink Panther
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The best comedy magnifies human foibles enough to render the annoying amusing and the tragic comic. But the kind of comedy that features slapstick falls and mishaps usually elicits laughter too. Pink Panther relies on the more physical brand of humor to get laughs.

Screenwriters Len Blum and Steve Martin packed the script with physical blunders. One such blunder involves a large globe falling off its stand and rolling out of the office, down the steps of the building and into the street, where it subsequently wreaks havoc in more than one scene.

In this incarnation, the bungling Inspector Clouseau (played by Steve Martin) investigates the murder of French soccer coach Yves Gluant (Jason Statham) and the theft of the Pink Panther diamond. He’s been assigned to the case by the glory-seeking Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline), who plans to solve the case (and win an award for doing so) while Clouseau is out following false leads.

Dreyfus assigns another officer, Gendarme Ponton (Jean Reno), to keep an eye on Clouseau. Ponton stands by and observes Clouseau’s antics with wide-eyed amazement, which serves to make the antics even funnier.

Martin executes every blunder with the same kind of exaggerated cluelessness as Mr. Magoo. As usual Martin slightly purses his lips and stares blankly. He appears to be sleepwalking across the screen.

By contrast, Reno clamps his lips in frustration and appears aghast at Clouseau’s utter incompetence. Reno’s air of aloofness provides the perfect counterpoint to Martin’s air of blissful ignorance.

Still, the movie is only funny about 50 percent of the time. The constant physical humor can be tiring.

In one of the film’s funniest moments, Clouseau prepares for a trip to New York by working with a vocal coach to reduce his French accent. He repeats the phrase “I would like to buy a hamburger” over and over but never quite gets it right. It’s hilarious to hear him butcher the English language.

Pink Panther delivers what viewers of this genre would likely expect: a simplistic plot, a cast of cartoonish stock characters, lots of double entendre and innuendoes, an upbeat ending and for male viewers, eye-candy in the person of pop singer Beyonce Knowles (as Xania, the girlfriend of the slain coach).

But viewers that like comedy that has more insight and wit will consider this flick merely average. (PG) Rating: 2.5 (posted 02/10/06)


Curious George
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The inquisitive simian from the late Margaret and H.A. Rey’s popular children’s books makes his big screen debut 65 years after his first appearance in print. The seven original stories sold over 25 million copies, so the most curious thing about George is why his movie appearance took so long.

Whatever the reasons for the delay may be, the animated chimpanzee is finally the star of Curious George, a sweet-natured piffle that is aimed squarely at the 5-and-under crowd.

The story tells us how George becomes lifelong friends with The Man in the Yellow Hat (voiced by Will Farrell), who is known in this movie as Ted. Ted works at a private natural history museum that is struggling to survive.

In fact, one of the few groups that come regularly include students led by a teacher named Maggie (Drew Barrymore) who obviously has romantic designs on Ted.

Bloomsbury (Dick Van Dyke), the owner of the museum, has fallen on hard times. Unless they can find a way to boost attendance, Bloomsbury’s son (David Cross) will raze the building and erect a parking garage.

Ted decides to go to Africa to find a giant ancient monkey idol to put on display at the museum. On his expedition, he encounters the title hero, a free spirited young ape that doesn’t know how to stay out of trouble.

Unable to find the idol (Bloomsbury’s son thwarted the search by tearing out a part of the treasure map), Ted returns home…along with the stowaway George. Naturally, he complicates Ted’s life and finds numerous ways to get into mischief.

The movie is (mostly) of the old-fashioned, hand-drawn 2-D variety. That may seem curiously quaint in today’s world of whiz-bang computer graphics, but there is a certain nostalgic pleasure in this seemingly simple imagery.

Some may quibble that the story is as monochromatic as the animation, but this movie is just right for small fry. Yes, adults may squirm a bit and complain that this movie lacks the pop culture elements that made Shrek and The Incredibles entertaining for the whole family. Still, it’s a pleasantly warm diversion for patient parents.

There is another aspect of Curious George that will adults will find either appealing or annoying. Pop balladeer Jack Johnson has contributed a few innocuous musical numbers to accompany the action. If you’re a fan, it’s a plus. Others beware.

While George is no Pooh, his animated adventure is a mildly diverting entry for the rug rat set. (G) Rating: 3 (posted 02/10/06)


The World’s Fastest Indian
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The lives of eccentrics often provide fodder for interesting biopics. Often, the stranger the subject (A Beautiful Mind, Capote), the better the movie becomes.

Sometimes filmmakers depend on the charm of the subject to carry the day. The 1999 David Lynch opus, The Straight Story (the tale of an old man who takes a long journey via a riding mower to visit his sick brother) is a sterling example.

Writer/director Roger Donaldson, best known for thrillers like No Way Out and 13 Days, tries his hand at generating charm with The World’s Fastest Indian. Anthony Hopkins plays an old codger named Burt Munro, a scruffy New Zealander who managed to set a number of land speed records in the 1960s.

Donaldson’s low-key picture focuses on the modest Munro as he begins his meandering journey into the record books. Divorced and all alone in his crumbling garage, Munro likes to tinker. He cobbles together parts (or manufactures parts from found objects) to reconstruct a 1929 Indian, an American-made motorcycle.

But Munro’s passion is speed. He works on his contraption endlessly in hopes of creating a vehicle that will enable him go faster than anyone else has dared. His goal is to travel to the USA and race with the big boys at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats.

His friends help him raise money for the long oceanic trip, and he works as a cook on a freighter to help defray his traveling costs. Once in America, he has some difficulty adjusting. But he meets some sympathetic folks along the way (a friendly transvestite, a lonely widow, a slick used car salesman, a Native American who rescues him in the desert, etc.) and manages to make it to the Utah in time for the big races. Trouble is, he never bothered to register.

Hopkins manages to get us to forget Hannibal Lechter and see Munro as an affable old rascal, the kind of gruff hermit that your mom would rather you stay away from. But Munro managed to make friends wherever he went.

This is basically a road movie where Munro encounters a variety of folks on his journey. None of them has enough screen time to generate much of an impression, so it is up to Hopkins to capture our fancy.

He’s fine as always, but the movie is very low key and rambling. What it lacks in narrative drive, it tries to make up for in charm…and that’s a commodity that this easygoing flick just doesn’t quite generate enough of. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (posted 02/03/06)


Mrs. Henderson Presents
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If there is something that Mrs. Henderson Presents could be known for in the future, it may be for the most innocuous full frontal adult nudity in cinematic history.

And the word innocuous could apply to the movie, too. This lightweight concoction is a mere cinematic piffle, but one with the inoffensive sheen of screwball showbiz artistry.

Inspired by actual events, Mrs. Henderson Presents tells the story of London’s Windmill Theatre, a longtime landmark that was famous for two things. It brought nudity to the British stage and was the only theatre to never have closed during the WWII blitzkrieg.

Dame Judi Dench takes the title role as Laura Henderson, a widow who, after her husband’s passing in 1937, had a lot of time and money on her hands. Like the other ladies who lunch, Mrs. Henderson was looking for a pet charitable project to take on as a hobby. Driving by a dilapidated old theatre, she has a moment of inspiration. She’ll fix up the drafty old barn and give some poor actors a little work.

She employs an impresario named Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) to put on a musical revue that would be similar to another “Windmill” theatre, Paris’ Moulin Rouge. Things go swimmingly, for a while but soon other theatres quickly copy their music hall format, and they have to find a new gimmick.

Inspired by her son who was killed in action in the First World War, Mrs. Henderson has an idea. When her son was found, he was in possession of a risqué French postcard. His mother, assuming that he’d never seen a nude woman in person, decides that she’ll make sure that other soldiers don’t suffer the same fate.

She instructs Van Damm to put naked ladies in the show and then convinces the Lord Chamberlain (who was in charge of censorship) that if the nudes didn’t move, that their posing was “art,” similar to paintings in the National Gallery. Her ploy works, and the bawdy Windmill Theatre became a smash.

Director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters) and screenwriter Martin Sherman (Bent) don’t make much of an attempt to achieve realism here. The movie has the artificiality of a TV flick, complete with numerous subplots that are only superficially enacted.

But it’s got some lively musical numbers and Dame Judi’s wily, Oscar-nominated performance to its credit. It doesn’t amount to much more than a minor amusement, but if movie audiences are like randy British soldiers, it may be enough. (R) Rating: 3 (posted 02/03/06)


When a Stranger Calls
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

“Have you checked the children?”

One of the most enduring urban legends is the old saw about the babysitter who is hounded by threatening phone calls from a homicidal maniac. When the police trace the calls, they discover that they’re coming from inside the house.

The tale was told many times around the campfire before finally being adapted into a movie in 1979. That chiller, When a Stranger Calls, starred Carol Kane as Jill Johnson, the beleaguered young babysitter.

The lovely Camilla Belle (The Ballad of Jack and Rose) plays Jill in this remake directed by Simon West (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider). The setup is the same, with a few minor variances that take into account modern technology like cell phones and caller ID.

Yes, there’s a psycho on the loose that enjoys toying with his victims before dispatching them. Jill, whose parents have taken away her cell phone as punishment for going way over her time limit, is babysitting the kids of a wealthy doctor at his isolated home in the woods.

This thriller has all of the stereotypical elements we’ve come to expect from this kind of popcorn flick. Jill is paranoid, walking endlessly around the big house tracking down every odd sound. This parade of noise turns out to be the wind, the cat, some birds, the housekeeper, etc. Each time she discovers the origin of the sound, there is a cheap scare…like the cat running out from behind a door. “Whew, that’s a relief!”

But Jill’s paranoia turns out to be well founded. Her philandering friend Tiffany drops by to chat, but soon leaves. But long after Tiffany has gone, her car remains in the driveway…and the calls continue.

The first four-fifths of this movie is of the tired “bump in the night” variety, but the film’s final reel gets it right, setting up a genuinely intense ten-minute segment that will put most audience members on the edge of their seat.

But is ten minutes enough? Most hardcore horror fans will find the movie too tame (unlike the R-rated original, this one is rated PG-13 and is blissfully free of gore) while many will feel that the payoff just isn’t enough to justify the previous 75 minutes of waiting.

A guy making this a date movie may appreciate the fact that his girlfriend will probably be halfway in his seat by the climax. Others should wait for the video, enabling them to fast-forward through all the boring stuff. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (posted 02/03/06)


Something New
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The romantic comedy genre rarely yields fresh plot points, but Something New tries a different twist by inserting a racial element. As is common in this genre, the two lead characters at first seem like polar opposites.

Uptight investment banker Kenya (Sanaa Lathan, Brown Sugar and Love & Basketball) gets set up on a blind date with free-spirited landscape engineer Brian (Simon Baker, George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead and the TV series “The Guardian”). She’s surprised that he’s white, and in her nervousness begins speaking to strangers in a Starbucks populated entirely by black people. Her antics amuse Brian who observes that she must be nervous because she’s talking to total strangers, trying to let them know that she’s aware of and proud of her black heritage.

The rest of the plot holds few (if any) surprises. Kenya’s friends and family give her much flack about dating a “white boy.” In fact, every black woman Kenya comes into contact with rejects the idea of her becoming serious with Brian. At one point the couple goes to a nightclub, and a female comic there does a routine about why she doesn’t date white men.

That Kenya’s whole social circle rejects Brian makes the whole enterprise come across as highly contrived. In real life there would be friends and acquaintances who were all for the romance and others who simply didn’t care one way or the other.

But alas this is formulaic comedy, so hyperbole is to be expected. Something New does, however, have a pleasantly surprising element: honest dialogue. The words screenwriter Kriss Turner put into the characters’ mouths rings true most of the time.

Turner, who’s written for television shows such as “Everybody Hates Chris” and “Living Single,” accurately captures some of the black community’s sentiments on the subject of interracial dating. She also dramatizes some of the idiosyncrasies of black womanhood.

In one scene Brian asks Kenya about her hair, which is a weave. It doesn’t look real to him, so he asks if she can take it off. She gets offended and asks him to leave. He’s clueless about why she’s getting so upset. He doesn’t understand the black woman’s common struggle to love herself as she is but also to conform to white society’s standards of beauty. Like Brian, many audience members will probably be unfamiliar with and thus intrigued by Kenya’s reactions.

Honesty, I wonder if I would have liked the movie better if I weren’t a black woman. Many of the sentiments expressed in the movie are old hat for me, which made the racial element of the film less than fresh. But I know there are people out there who haven’t heard this kind of discourse and will eat it up.

Also, Lathan and Baker have great chemistry once the romance gets underway. Both possess range that far transcends the genre.

Bottom line: Something New is a moderately amusing romantic comedy with two appealing lead actors and some astonishingly honest dialogue. Not bad for a comedy released during the month of February, known to movie critics as drought season. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (posted 02/03/06)




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