reel reviews
movie reviews
February '07

AMAZING GRACE BREACHTHE BRIDGE TO TERABITHIADADDY'S LITTLE GIRLS
GHOST RIDERFACTORY GIRLMUSIC AND LYRICSNORBITTHE ASTRONAUT FARMER
THE MESSENGERSTHE NUMBER 23THE GOOD GERMANBECAUSE I SAID SO

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Amazing Grace
Reviewed by Deborah Young

March 25, 2007, marks the 200th anniversary of the passage of Britain’s Abolition of Slave Trade Act. Next month, Amazing Grace will be released in the United Kingdom just in time for that anniversary.

The movie dramatizes the 18-year struggle of abolitionist William Wilberforce to end Britain’s slave trade. However, some of the film’s executives aspire for something more than a great movie. Bristol Bay, the movie’s production company, has launched a campaign called The Amazing Change (www.theamazingchange.com/campaign.html). The goal: to change the world by abolishing modern slavery.

True stories and great causes don’t always translate into compelling films. In this case, however, they do.

Award-winning director Michael Apted (35 Up, 1991) and award-winning screenwriter Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, 2002) have crafted a movie that paints a believable portrait of a man whose strengths turn out to be weaknesses and vice versa. The cinematic version of Wilberforce is so sensitive that it makes him ill at times. He loves animals so much that they seem to have taken over his mansion.

In the movie’s opening scene a carriage approaches a man beating a horse during a hard rain. The defenseless horse lies on its side while the man wails on him.

The carriage stops and two men get out. One of the men informs the horse-beater that the other man is William Wilberforce. The name and face recognition provide enough incentive for the man to stop beating the horse.

Then the movie steps back in time to a period when Wilberforce wasn’t so well known. We get to see his internal struggle about whether to pursue religion or politics. We see his struggle with opiate addiction. We see his popularity rise and fall.

Though not perfect, the film features solid performances and a serviceable script. Sometimes it falls into melodrama, and sometimes it plays like a stage play with the actors talking a bit too loudly and moving a bit too formally.

But through it all we want to root for these characters. When Wilberforce (played by Ioan Gruffudd, Fantastic Four, 2005) clutches his stomach in pain and refuses opiates again, we want his addiction conquered. When he develops a friendship with the lovely Barbara (Romola Garai, Scoop, 2006), we want them to fall in love. When he’s on the outs with longtime friend Pitt the Younger (Benedict Cumberbatch), we long for them to make up.

Both educational and inspirational, Amazing Grace is worth the slog through the slow patches. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 02/23/07)


The Number 23
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Have you ever hoped that a bad movie was worse that it was? After all, there is pleasure to be had from viewing genuinely rotten cinema.

Oh, that The Number 23 was only just a bit worse than it is. Just a tiny push onto the level of the amusingly absurd would have transformed it into a camp classic.

Alas, The Number 23 isn’t quite bad enough to make it worth the ticket price.

Director Joel Shumacher (The Phantom of the Opera) tries his hand at a genre he’s unaccustomed to, the creepy drama with supernatural overtones. This is territory that David Lynch would be much more home in.

Shumacher isn’t the only person swimming in unfamiliar waters. Comic Jim Carrey (Fun with Dick and Jane) takes the leading role as a dogcatcher who becomes obsessed with a novel and its creepy numerological elements.

Carrey plays Walter Sparrow, an animal control officer who is late to pick up his wife, Agatha (The Astronaut Farmer’s Virginia Madsen) after being bitten by a menacing dog. While waiting for him, she wanders into a used bookstore and peruses a murder novel called The Number 23. She buys it for Walter and encourages him to read it.

Read it he does, and is taken with its similarities to his own life. He relates to the book’s main character named Fingerling (played by Carrey) and is disturbed to discover that he’s a murderer. His fate, it would seem, is sealed by his relationship to the number 23.

For most of its 95 minute running time, the screenplay by newcomer Fernley Phillips goes to great lengths to find connections with the number 23. It’s the sum of the numbers of Walter’s address, it’s his birthday (Feb. 3rd), he keeps waking up at 11:12 pm. (Yep, that adds up to 23.) You get the picture.

All of this is sadly reminiscent of other, better films like Darren Aronofsky’s Pi and David Fincher’s Se7en. While Schumacher manages to create some arresting visuals, he can’t sustain the pace necessary to maintain our interest.

Some wags have coined the term “Shumachered” to describe a film series messed up by a bad director. (Shumacher nearly ended the Caped Crusader’s movie career with Batman and Robin.)

But one can only wish he’d done a genuinely sloppy job here. Since his efforts are only mediocre, there are at least 23 reasons not to see it. (R) Rating: 2.3 (Posted 02/23/07)


The Astronaut Farmer
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In America, we’re taught that the “pursuit of happiness” is not only protected, but also encouraged. One should be allowed to fulfill one’s dreams.

But what happens when your dream conflicts with what is in the best interest of your family and, heaven forbid, your country?

The new family flick, The Astronaut Farmer, addresses this very conundrum, asking pertinent questions about this ethical dilemma.

Billy Bob Thornton stars as Charles Farmer, a fiftysomething rancher with an unfulfilled dream. After completing a degree in aerospace engineering and a stint in the Air Force, he joined the NASA astronaut-training program. Due to the death of his father, he had to abandon his goal of space travel in order to return and run the family ranch.

Years later, Farmer continues to pursue the dream on his own. On his remote ranch in Story, Texas, he constructs his own rocket from military surplus and abandoned NASA parts.

His wife, Audie (A Prairie Home Companion’s Virginia Madsen) and his three children wholeheartedly support his efforts, in spite of the financial drain that the enterprise has on the family.

Naturally, the locals and feds think that Farmer has a screw loose. How can a private individual (and one with limited resources) hope to do what it took the efforts of an entire nation and billions of dollars to accomplish?

But Farmer is insistent. In spite of teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and unable to secure a bank loan for the fuel he needs to accomplish his goal, he perseveres. Things get sticky with the authorities when he tries to obtain large quantities of federally regulated fuel from an Internet source.

The Astronaut Farmer was written and directed by Mark and Michael Polish, the twin brothers responsible for the offbeat independent features, Twin Falls, Idaho, Jackpot and Northfork. Those quirky, R-rated art films are a far cry from the family friendly effort they’ve produced here. If David Lynch influenced their earlier efforts, then The Astronaut Farmer owes much more Frank Capra.

The film works as well as it does thanks largely to the terrific cast. Thornton is excellent and the well-cast ensemble matches him, giving this unlikely story a greater sense of realism. (Bruce Willis turns up in an amusing cameo as another former astronaut.)

The production values are topnotch, too. The solid special effects contribute to the overall sense of verisimilitude.

While it doesn’t answer the ethical questions it poses, The Astronaut Farmer is a feel-good flick that raises them in an entertaining fashion. (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted 02/23/07)


Daddy's Little Girls
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Tyler Perry is carving a nice niche for himself in the movie industry. Daddy’s Little Girls is his third story on the big screen, and his work appears to have a solid audience. This film grossed $13.06 million in its first weekend.

People like Perry’s films because they portray African-Americans and Christians with the respect often lacking in other Hollywood productions. Unfortunately, Perry’s scripts contain little substance and they don’t challenge viewers.

Instead, they preach to the choir with the messages that black people can be solid citizens and that faith in God can uplift us during life’s low moments. The message of this particular movie is that not every black father is an absentee dad.

The lead character, Monty (Idris Elba, The Gospel, 2005), struggles financially but has always supported his three girls. The girls live with their grandmother. But when she dies, Monty finds himself in a custody battle with his ex-wife (a drug dealer).

He doesn’t have money for a good attorney. So he asks his neighbor’s boss, Julia (Gabrielle Union, The Honeymooners, 2005), to represent him. Unfortunately, Julia is an uptight snob who has a low opinion of the ‘hood and anyone who comes from there.

As usual, Perry employs a likeable and competent cast. Their mere presence elevates the material.

Even when Union’s character is demanding she comes across as slightly vulnerable. When she flashes that full smile of hers and shows those dimples, we know she’ll come around.

Elba’s air of calmness also wins us over. He has a tight-lipped expression that indicates anger smoldering just beneath the surface, but it only bursts into flame when someone tries to harm his girls.

Unfortunately, Daddy’s Little Girls holds onto a fair number of stereotypes. First, we have the successful African-American who can’t relate to less successful blacks. Then there’s the middle-aged black man who just can’t seem to make a decent living, and the rich drug dealer who runs the neighborhood.

When it comes to these kinds of films Tyler Perry is pretty much the only game in town. However, he would be wise to add some depth to his stories, before someone else enters the niche that can tell more compelling stories about black Christians. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 02/23/07)


Breach
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Kansas City native Chris Cooper, who won the Oscar for his role as the orchid thief in the quirky 2002 flick Adaptation, could have another shot at a nomination next year for his intense and disturbing performance in Breach.

Cooper (who caught the acting bug while performing at Johnson County’s venerable community theatre, The Barn) plays notorious FBI traitor Robert Hanssen in this intriguing thriller from filmmaker Billy Ray (Shattered Glass).

This is not the kind of spy movie that audiences are used to, however. Thanks to James Bond and Mission Impossible, fans have become accustomed to explosions, wild chase sequences and hair-raising escapes from mustache-twirling evil geniuses bent on world domination. In fact, the real world of spies is far more mundane.

Similar in tone to the recent Matt Damon CIA film, The Good Shepherd, Breach shows the methodical and calculated aspects of espionage while focusing on the enigmatic Hanssen, a turncoat who gave foreign agents sensitive classified material over a period of two decades.

The opening shot comes from press conference footage of then US Attorney General John Ashcroft. He states, “The arrest of Robert Hanssen for espionage should remind every American that our nation, our free society, is an international target in a dangerous world.”

No kidding. That rings especially true as we see Hanssen’s carefully crafted image, replete with flag-waving, conservative Republican values. While he meticulously groomed that image, there were startling contradictions. (He was a staunch Catholic, but he secretly recorded tapes of himself and his wife having sex, and sent them to voyeuristic acquaintances.)

Ryan Phillippe (Flags of Our Fathers) plays Eric O'Neill, a naïve young FBI employee hoping for agent status. He’s assigned by Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney from Kinsey) to be Hanssen’s clerk and is asked to keep an eye on him. Only much later does he learn that the intensely intelligent Hanssen is suspected of much more than sexual perversion.

While there is certainly some tension that builds as O’Neill begins to learn more and more about his creepy boss (and wonders whether or not he and his wife are safe), the fact that we know the outcome takes away from some of the anxiety that audiences might otherwise experience.

But Cooper’s riveting performance retains our interest even when the plot machinations do not. More than a political thriller, Breach is a character study. Cooper’s ability to add layers of complexity to the character makes him a truly scary (and oddly pathetic) presence. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 02/16/07)


Norbit
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Eddie Murphy is the odds-on favorite to win a Best Supporting Actor trophy at this year’s Academy Awards for his work in Dreamgirls. Thanks to Norbit, he may be forever remembered as the performer with the most crass Oscar follow-up in history.

Political correctness is set aside in this broad comedy about an amiable nerd named Norbit (Murphy) and the unhappy life he leads while under the thumb of his obese and abusive wife, Rasputia (Murphy, again.)

No racial or sexual stereotype is left unexploited as Murphy plays out the saga of our hapless hero. Heavily dependent on fat jokes and slapstick, Norbit will surely draw the ire of those concerned about such abusive pigeonholing.

The story begins as baby Norbit is dropped off at a Chinese restaurant/orphanage run by Mr. Wong (Murphy, yet again.) There, he meets his soul mate, Kate. He is heartbroken when she is adopted and moves away, seemingly forever.

Later, the Kong-sized Rasputia saves the young Norbit from bullies and decides to claim him for her own.

Living as a virtual slave to his philandering wife and her mobster brothers (Terry Crews, Clifton Powell and Mighty Rasta), Norbit still dreams of his lost love. Things begin to look up for Norbit when Kate (Crash’s Thandie Newton) returns to town with the dream of taking over the orphanage.

When Norbit’s affection for Kate becomes evident, the jealous Raputia makes their lives a living hell. Kate’s duplicitous fiancée, Deion, played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. (Radio), aids Rasputia and her brothers in an attempt to take over the orphanage property and convert it into a strip club.

As in past Murphy extravaganzas like Coming to America, The Nutty Professor and Meet the Klumps, the comic relies heavily on the makeup wizardry of Rick Baker as he transforms himself into multiple characters. Baker’s work is sensational, morphing Murphy seamlessly into his various roles.

The direction of Brian Robbins (The Shaggy Dog) is technically adept, if nothing else. The screenplay by Murphy, brother Charles Q. Murphy, Jay Scherick and David Ron is a virtual compendium of slurs.

Murphy delivers the lowbrow nonsense with his patented, sharply honed comic timing. Eddie Griffin and Katt Williams provide some funny cameos as pimps Pope Sweet Jesus and Lord Have Mercy. Marlon Wayans also has an amusing turn as Buster, a tap-dancing aerobics instructor who pays a booty call on Rasputia’s considerable booty.

From a critical standpoint, there is little merit to Norbit. But, for those not easily offended, Norbit might prove to be a guilty pleasure. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 02/09/07)


The Messengers
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

There is an alarming new trend that is raising eyebrows both among critics and the general public. The Hollywood studios are making sure that critics don’t get to see some of their films in time for review.

Either by not screening the films at all or showing them too late for journalists to make their deadlines, the studios ensure that bad word of mouth doesn’t hurt the all-too-important opening weekend box office figures.

As a result, the Hollywood send-up Epic Movie was the number one grossing film that opened on Jan. 28.

Some people claim that critics are out of touch anyway and that the box office numbers reflect what audiences like. Not so. One case in point is last year’s Silent Hill. Screened too late for critical review, the horror flick opened at the top of the box office charts. Exit polls showed, however, that audiences thought it was a stinker. They went to the theatres uninformed, so the studio was able to cash in before word got out.

That brings us to The Messengers, the number one movie opening on the weekend of Feb. 2. This unimpressive horror entry also benefited from audience ignorance.

Directed by Hong Kong filmmakers, the Pang brothers (Bar Paradise), The Messengers is a haunted house story that leaves a lot to be desired. The studio probably made a wise financial choice by not letting critics in the loop.

Kristen Stewart (Zathura) stars as Jess, a troubled teenager whose family moves from Chicago to a sunflower farm in rural North Dakota. Her dad (Dylan McDermott from TV’s The Practice) is financially strapped and trying to hold things together. Jess is estranged from her mom (Penelope Ann Miller from TV’s Vanished) because of an incident involving little brother Ben (Evan and Theodore Turner.)

Her folks think that Jess is acting out in order to get attention when she starts seeing ghosts. Only the genial hired hand, Burwell (John Corbett from My Big, Fat Greek Wedding), is empathetic.

What follows are numerous scenes of Jess walking around hearing bumps in the night and eventually encountering the restless spirits of the former farm residents who were brutally murdered there.

The script by Todd Farmer (Jason X) and Mark Wheaton (Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone) is strictly third-rate, however. The good cast often struggles with the lame dialogue they’re asked to deliver.

Before the studios got wise, this is the sort of mediocre product that would have gone directly to cable and video. Now it’s time for audiences to get wise. Hannibal Rising, the prequel to Silence of the Lambs, opens on Feb. 9 without a critics’ screening. You’ve been warned. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 02/09/07)


The Good German
Reviewed by Deborah young

Style can overshadow substance in a film. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is debatable.

Take for example the 1989 film The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover, with its disjointed plot and almost obsessive use of lighting and color to convey theme. It’s easy to imagine a viewer getting to the end of the film, scratching his head in confusion and uttering, “What the heck?”

That’s the response I had to the most recent film of director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, 2000). The Good German, based on Joseph Kanon’s 2003 novel of the same name, replicates the 1940s film noir style of filmmaking.

The mystery begins when someone murders a soldier named Tully (Tobey Maguire). Captain Jake Geismer (George Clooney) tries to find out who murdered Tully. In the process, Jake discovers a web of lies and cover-ups involving Nazi crimes. In the center of the cover-ups are his former lover, Lena (Cate Blanchett) and her scientist husband.

Jake snoops around a bleak, war-torn Berlin, where he encounters and questions characters such as Lena’s catty roommate, Hannelore (Robin Weigert). But it’s hard to care about Jake, his cause, or the other characters. Jake and his associates are emotionally cool (or at least lukewarm), which makes them difficult to comprehend. Without a least a smidgeon of comprehension there can be no empathy.

Emotional coolness works in many of the films made in the 1940s (such as the thriller, The Third Man or the comedy, The Man Who Came to Dinner). The actors who played in those films understood the emotional climate of the times and added emotional complexity that’s mostly missing here.

Granted, Clooney does an excellent job of dramatizing his character’s ambivalent feelings about Lena. He still loves her, but he also suspects she’s not being honest with him. Also, Weigert adds some heat to the film as a pathetic and jealous seductress.

Unfortunately, these two performances don’t save the film from its convoluted plot and its ambiance of unnatural emotional stiffness. Unfortunately, its well-executed visual style (the use of black and white film and archival footage from post-war Berlin) just isn’t enough to give it resonance. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 02/02/07)


Because I Said So
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Many people consider the term “chick flick” to be a demeaning and derogatory phrase that stereotypes women. While they acknowledge the differences in movie preferences by gender, they claim that there are plenty of movies aimed at female audiences that men like, too.

True enough. But there are also movies that appeal ONLY to women. There are many such pictures that men, in general, find annoying and hard to watch.

If we can lump those kinds of movies into one category and call it a chick flick, then Because I Said So belongs on that list. Some women may like it, but for guys, it will grate like fingernails on the chalkboard.

Diane Keaton (The Family Stone) stars as Daphne, the smothering and overprotective mother of three girls. Maggie (Lauren Graham from TV’s Gilmore Girls) and Mae (Pier Perabo from The Prestige) are married, but the youngest daughter, Milly (Mandy Moore from American Dreamz) has had nothing but bad luck with men.

As it happens, Daphne is nearing her 60th birthday and is feeling bad about her own problems with men. (The girls’ father bolted when they were very young.) Fearing that Milly will end up alone and lonely like her, Daphne places a secret Internet dating ad that says “Mother looking for life partner for daughter.”

After interviewing a dozens of losers in a hotel lobby bar, Daphne meets a successful architect named Jason (Boiler Room’s Tom Everett Scott) who seems like the ideal candidate. A guitar player named Johnny (The Good Shepard’s Gabriel Macht) overhears the conversation and, on a lark, decides to meet Milly for himself. Thus begins an endless parade of merry mix-ups.

In place of sophistication or any semblance of reality, the screen play by Karen Leigh Hopkins and Jessie Nelson (Stepmom) relies on a variety of slapstick antics, including cakes in the face and embarrassing static cling. In an awkward attempt to seem hip, the movie also employs very “modern” attitudes toward sexuality.

Shockingly, this estrogen-soaked entry comes from director Michael Lehmann, the man who gave us the minor classic, Heathers. Here, he seems to be producing a product (chick flick date movie for Valentine’s Day) rather than a real film.

The likable cast tries hard to inject some life into this labored mess, but the actions and motives of the characters are so calculated and artificial that they can’t quite pull it off.

One could say that Because I Said So is “cute.” Whether or not you think that is a good thing or a bad one will say a lot about your reaction to this tepid chick flick. PG-13 Rating: 2 (Posted 02/02/07)


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