reel reviews
movie reviews
February '05

MAN OF THE HOUSE DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN THE SEA INSIDESON OF THE MASK
NASCAR: THE IMAX EXPERIENCE
CONSTANTINE
BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIEHITCH
BAD EDUCATIONPOOH’S HEFFALUMP MOVIEALONE IN THE DARK

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

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Man of the House
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

There are a few telltale signs that might indicate that a movie you’re about to see is a bad one. Here are some questions to ask:

Has it sat on the shelf for an extended period? Was it released within the first two months of the year? Are more than two people given credit for the screenplay? Is Christopher Lambert in it?

But the most surefire question to ask is this: Did the studio decline to screen it for the critics?

When it comes to the movie Man of the House, “yes” is the answer to more than one of the questions. The studio decided to give it a “stealth” opening, making sure that critics didn’t make box-office matters worse by publishing bad reviews on opening day.

It isn’t that the movie is that bad. It’s just dull, unfunny and a total waste of time.

Tommy Lee Jones stars as Roland Sharp, a veteran Texas Ranger, who is assigned to keep watch over a group of cheerleaders from the University of Texas who witness a murder. Because the crime involves some particularly ruthless and dangerous types, Sharp must stay with them 24/7, taking on the guise of a cheerleading assistant.

This setup has comic possibilities, of course, as the rough, no-nonsense Ranger has to deal with petulant teens, panties hanging in the bathroom and “that” time of the month.

Will the time he spends with these young ladies soften up the old goat? Will he date the beautiful literature professor (Anne Archer)? Will he ultimately enjoy a better relationship with his estranged daughter? If you’re asking these questions, you failed to ask the more pertinent questions posed earlier in this review.

You can’t really blame the actors for this debacle. Jones is always good, as is R. Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket) as his superior officer. The cheerleaders are well cast and likable, too. Cedric the Entertainer turns up as an ex-con preacher, a role that seems to have been tacked on in an effort to generate a little energy.

Director Stephen Herek has made some decent films (Mr. Holland’s Opus, The Mighty Ducks), but he is utterly at sea here. (In fairness, the movie shows some of the distinct signs of studio post-production tinkering.)

The fatal flaw lies in the script. Screenwriters John J. McLaughlin, Scott Lobdell, Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (note the number) simply don’t have a good handle on this premise and the results are painfully awkward. .

Any more questions? (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (posted 2/28/05)



Diary of a Mad Black Woman
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Humor is at its best when it grasps little truths about life and then inflates them enough so that they can be viewed with clarity. Writer Tyler Perry has managed to create great moments of this kind of humor in Diary of a Mad Black Woman.

During the past six years, Perry has made a name for himself by writing, directing, and producing touring stage plays for predominant black audiences. His plays, which include I’ve Been Changed and I Can Do Bad All By Myself, are reportedly grossing millions. He also collaborated with Bishop T. D. Jakes on the play Woman Thou Art Loosed, which hit the big screen in October 2004.

Diary of a Mad Black Woman is an adaptation of Perry’s play of the same title. It is the story of an emotionally and physically abused woman who finds a way to get revenge and (in the end) to heal. Kimberly Elise (The Manchurian Candidate) plays the lead character, Helen, the wife of a successful lawyer, Charles (Steve Harris, formerly of The Practice).

When we first see Charles and Helen they’re on their way to an award ceremony. Charles is receiving an attorney-of-the-year award. The two are dressed to the nines and looking radiant, but Helen’s voiceovers hint that all is not well at home.

Charles turns out to be a cruel cheat who sends his wife of 18 years packing. Helen then seeks refuge at her grandmother Madea’s house.

When Madea (played by Tyler Perry) enters the picture, the fun begins. Madea is the John Shaft of no-nonsense grandmas. She packs a gun, but her greatest weapons are words. She can soothe with soft words or rip someone to shreds with her sharp and ever-ready wit. And she’s the true star of this movie.

Diary of a Mad Black Woman deals with some serious situations and offers some subtle Christian self-help. But the movie is at its best when it’s funny, and it’s funniest when Madea is in the picture.

Tyler Perry plays the role of Madea with flare and insight. He almost seems to be channeling the spirits of the feisty, down-to-earth grannies and aunts who are the souls of quite a few African-American families. Perry also plays a younger man, Brian, and an older man, Joe, whose verbal sparring matches with Madea provide quite a few laughs.

This film’s most attractive features are humor, good music and affirming messages. Diary of a Mad Black Woman falls into clichés and oversimplification during its serious moments. But the movie redeems itself with the best kind of humor, with situations and people that are quirky enough to remind you of real life and over the top enough to lure you into a hilarious fantasy. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (posted 2/25/05)



The Sea Inside
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The sea is a great metaphor for both life and death.

The human spirit often swells with the power and emotion of a dark sea tossed by strong winds. And for some people, death is the calm after the storm.

In The Sea Inside, 55-year-old Ramon Sampedro (Javier Bardem) remembers a calm aqua sea that almost took his life. He envisions his 25-year-old self diving off a cliff, hitting his head on the surface below the shallow water, and then floating face down, waiting for the last sweet breath to pass from his suspended body.

Instead, an arm intervenes, yanks his face out of the water and unknowingly plunges him into the immobile life of a quadriplegic, a life he didn’t want. Sampedro then spends nearly 30 years fighting for legal permission to have friends assist him in ending the life he sees as merely a fragment of a life.

The film’s story is based on the real life and legal battles of Spanish poet and memoirist Ramon Sampedro. At age 25, he had traveled the world as a ship mechanic, and then a diving accident left him paralyzed.

Javiar Bardem portrays Sampedro as a charming, intelligent lady’s man who smiles even when his words are hard. It’s easy to become captivated by Bardem’s soft eyes and natural charm, although he is confined to a bed during most of the movie (with the exception of dream or fantasy sequences in which he walks or flies).

Despite Ramon’s physical condition, two women, Rosa (Lola Duenas) and his lawyer Julia (Belen Rueda), fall in love with him. Ramon returns Julia’s feelings, probably because she has a degenerative disease and can understand his struggle better than other people in his life.

Co-writer/director Alejandro Amenabar’s handling of this somber, controversial subject is superb. So rather than a dark downer, audiences get a thought-provoking, life-affirming film about a man who wants to die. Amenabar finds a way to respectfully acknowledge Sampedro’s wish for death while also seriously considering opposing viewpoints.

For instance, Amenabar dramatizes the strong disagreement between Ramon and his brother Jose (Celso Bugallo), who thinks Ramon should choose life rather than death. Amenabar also shows the ambivalence of Rosa (Lola Duenas). She wants to convince Ramon to live but wonders if loving him means accepting his choice to die.

Reportedly, Amenabar wanted to pay homage to Ramon Sampedro’s life without encouraging suicide or offending people who choose to live with paralysis or degenerative illnesses. Entertainment website IndieLondon quoted Amenabar as saying that he wanted The Sea Inside to “be a tribute to the ones who pass away, and a balm for the ones who remain.”

Amenabar succeeded in telling a balanced story. He also succeeded in crafting a visually appealing film that captures the beauty of landscapes and seascapes as well as the blacks, whites and grays of human relations and desires. (PG-13) Rating: 4.5 (posted 2/25/05)



Son of the Mask
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Want to take the kiddies to a film where you may very well wind up having to explain the facts of life to them? That may be the unintended result of seeing Son of the Mask.

The long-delayed sequel to the Jim Carrey hit, Son of the Mask stars Jamie Kennedy (Malibu’s Most Wanted) as Tim Avery, a wannabe cartoonist whose dog stumbles upon the magic mask left over from the initial film.

As in the original movie, this mask was the creation of Loki, Norse god of mischief, played in this sequel by Alan Cumming (X2). Lokis dad, Odin (Bob Hoskins from Beyond the Sea) is mad because Loki cant locate the powerful mask.

Once donned by an unsuspecting human, the mask gives the wearer powers to conjure cartoon-like manifestations. Tim, who is working to break into the cartoon biz, puts on the mask and makes quite an impression on his boss (comic Steven Wright).

While still wearing the mask, Tim slips into his bed and impregnates his wife, played by Traylor Howard (TVs Monk). Nine months later, their son Alvey is born…and he has all the powers of the mask! Things could get sticky for parents who may be forced to explain why the baby has magical powers even though hes not wearing the mask. (Theres even a moment where Loki refers to Alvey as, “my son.”)

Most of the films action revolves around the problems Tim encounters when his son starts using his powers and when the vengeful Loki finally turns up and causes trouble for everyone.

The game cast is completely overpowered by the constant barrage of special effects that turn the real world into a chaotic cartoon inspired by the work of the late genius, Tex Avery. Unfortunately, the result here is downright creepy.

When Alvey begins to do his magical thing, its like hes demon-possessed. (He even revolves his head and spews green vomit all over Tims car.) It’s clear that this baby is dangerous, and his antics could actually scare young children.

The script, by Lance Khazei (TVs CatDog cartoon series) has failed to take this into account. Whats funny in an animated world can be very strange and frightening when translated into a real world setting. Although director Lawrence Guterman (Cats & Dogs) has a strong handle on the effects, the drama leaves much to be desired.

So if you want to take the family to a kiddie version of The Twilight Zone and follow it with a discussion of the birds and the bees, Son of the Mask is right up your alley. (PG) Rating: 1.5 (posted 2/18/05)



NASCAR: The IMAX Experience
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If you’re one of the few local folk who have yet to make it out to the Kansas Speedway or if you just don’t understand the draw of NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing), the Kansas City Zoo has a movie for you.

NASCAR: The IMAX Experience is a striking primer into America’s fastest-growing sport. Utilizing the giant IMAX cameras, director Simon Wincer (TV’s Lonesome Dove) recreates a convincing race day ambience. Plus, he places audience members behind the wheel, giving us a vicarious, stomach-churning driving experience.

The clear, 60mm image projected on the giant IMAX screen and the 12,000 watts of audio power generate a feel of locale that no other theatrical venue can duplicate.

Narrated by Keifer Sutherland, the 40-minute movie gives us a brief overview of the history of stock car racing and explains how the sport has become a national phenomenon. It also introduces us to superstars like Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte and Darrell Waltrip.

For fans, it also offers something many will find fascinating. Going behind the scenes to some of the elaborate NASCAR garages, (one is aptly nicknamed, “Garage Mahal”) the movie shows how an army of engineers and mechanics labor over a vast array of machinery to create the impressive racing vehicles. How these multi-million dollar rockets can still be called “stock” cars is an unanswered question.

The sheer amount of money involved is mind-boggling and so is the ever-present barrage of corporate logos that adorn every available inch of car and uniform space. When it comes to “product placement,” nobody holds a candle to NASCAR. One viewing of this film should qualify as a year’s worth of advertising consumption.

Unlike the giant screen at Union Station, the IMAX Theater at the Kansas City Zoo is not equipped to show the movie in its original 3-D format. (One hopes that the two venues will some day work together so that local audiences can see these movies in the manner in which the filmmakers intended.) Still, this 2-D version is an impressive spectacle in its own right.

It may be no more than a glorified infomerical for the sport, but NASCAR: the IMAX Experience creates an exciting racing atmosphere. You can almost smell the fumes. (PG) Rating: 3 (posted 2/18/05)



Constantine
Reviewed by Jason Aaron

When plans were first announced for a film based on the mature readers’ comic series “Hellblazer,” fans were incensed that their favorite blond British magician John Constantine was to be played by brunette American Keanu Reeves. However, now that those fans can see the finished film, they’ll realize that the star’s accent and hair color should have been the least of their worries.

The Constantine of the comics is a dark, complex conman and arrogant, chain-smoking, street-wise troublemaker whose feats of magic are usually pretty down to earth, even when he’s tangling with demons, angels and talking swamp creatures. In one particular storyline that found Constantine in prison, he somehow tricked a group of Islamic thugs into facing west for their morning prayers, thus making them turn their backs on God.

The film version of Constantine is like a cross between the Exorcist and James Bond, fighting demons with a wealth of occult gadgets, like holy brass knuckles and a gun that shoots dragon’s breath and sanctified bullets.

While Alan Moore, the legendary comic writer who first created John Constantine in the pages of Swamp Thing, is generally regarded as the best writer to ever work in the field, his various comic book creations have consistently spawned wretched film versions (see From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). Constantine is not a complete waste, but it’s damn close.

Reeves is his regular wooden self, a demeanor that worked fine when he was back inside the Matrix but hasn’t worked for anything else. Significantly more gifted acting-wise is co-star Tilda Swinton (The Deep End), who plays the angel Gabriel, and Swedish actor Peter Stormare (Fargo), who has a fun cameo as the devil. Unfortunately, those bits of inspired casting are evened out by the grossly uninspired casting of rock star Gavin Rossdale as the demon Balthazar. He strolls through scenes trying desperately to look spooky.

The plot involves the discovery of the powerful Spear of Destiny, the spear that pierced the side of Christ. It turns up in Mexico, launching plans for demons to start invading the earth. This is the first film for director Francis Lawrence, who previously directed videos for Britney Spears and Will Smith. He imbues Constantine with all the slick visuals and vacuous content of the standard music video. This is a comic book movie that’s actually more “comic book” than the comic book it’s based on.

Just save the $7 you’d spend on a ticket and go buy a couple comics instead. Tell them I sent you. (R) Rating: 2 (posted 2/18/05)



Because of Winn Dixie
Reviewed by Deborah Young

At the beginning of Because of Winn Dixie, the camera zooms in on 10-year-old Opal (played by 11-year-old Anna Sophia Robb). In turns, she nods and tugs at her ear like a big-league catcher signaling a pitcher. Then she throws the ball, and the camera drops back.

When the camera exposes more of the scene, viewers see that the girl is alone on grassy terrain. She runs to an imaginary base. “Safe,” she yells, waving her arms.

By way of a voiceover, Opal talks about her life and in the process answers some of the questions the first scene might elicit. She lives with “the preacher,’ and she has no friends. Her mother left long ago, and Opal and the preacher recently moved to the small town of Naomi, FL. But Opal can’t seem to connect with any of the kids in town.

The preacher (played by Jeff Daniels) turns out to be Opal’s father as well as the town minister. But he’s so emotionally distant most of the time that it’s easy to understand why Opal refers to him as if he’s some unrelated man of the cloth with whom she just happens to live.

The camera follows Opal on her bike rides through town and an old convenience store where her father holds church services. It also catches glimpses of the other children as Opal explains through voiceovers how she feels about the other kids.

Then Opal prays to God for a friend. A scruffy stray dog that Opal encounters in the Winn Dixie store seems to be the answer to her prayers.

The rest of the film is one big dog-day afternoon, evening or morning, with occasional appearances by quirky adult characters and four other children, all of who seem mere props. The supporting human cast was even upstaged by the pets from the local pet shop where Opal takes a part-time job.

This film’s director, Wayne Wang, has directed at least two moving relationship films: The Joy Luck Club and Chinese Box. Both films took on the subtleties and paradoxes of human relations. But Winn Dixie, although good-hearted and cute as a shaggy dog, fails to sore to the levels of provoking or enlightening cinema.

However, if you like dogs and kids, this might be a good movie to catch with the family. (PG) Rating: 2.5 (posted 2/18/05)



Hitch
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Making a good romantic comedy requires many of the same skills that it takes to be a good date. Director Andy Tennant’s latest release shows how to do both.

Will Smith plays suave date doctor Alex “Hitch” Hitchens. His job is to help men get past that first date and increase their chances of having a meaningful relationship. And business seems to be good. Hitch lives in a swanky apartment and dresses like a male model who’s perpetually poised for a gig on a high-end champagne commercial.

Hitch’s latest challenge is Albert Brenneman (Kevin James of TV sitcom The King of Queens), an overweight, self-conscious klutz who dreams of a relationship with Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta, Raising Helen). Of course, Allegra is way out of Albert’s league. She’s wealthy and attractive, and she has the attention of many men. So how in the world will he get her to notice him?

That’s where Hitch comes in. He offers several tips that he says will help any man have a better chance of building a relationship with any woman. Tennant seems to have applied the same tips to build a formula comedy that’s a bit above average.

Hitch advises his clients to first catch the attention of their intendeds. In an early scene, we see Hitch’s clients using elaborate (and hilarious) schemes to get ladies’ attention and, alas, it works.

The makers of Hitch primarily used casting to capture the attention of a potential audience. And what a good job they did. Will Smith’s charm and good looks are sure to attract lots of ladies and his cool factor will get some men into the seats. Albert Brenneman appeals to the Joe and Jane Averages in the crowd.

Tip #2: Listen to what the lady says. Don’t just stand there thinking about how good her lips look, really listen. Although this script has its share of flaws, it’s obvious that the writer has been listening, because so much of the dialogue, advice and problems rang true. That veracity about human nature elevated this comedy above the formula.

As a result, Hitch will probably elicit lots of laughs from lots of audiences for many years to come. The only downside is that it’s difficult to imagine Will Smith becoming so nervous that he loses his cool, which is what happens when his character, Hitch, tries to impress Sara, a newspaper columnist who becomes the object of his affection.

But although this flaw renders Sara and Hitch’s onscreen romance rather superficial, it doesn’t ruin the film. There are still enough laughs and good-natured fun to make Hitch a great date. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (posted 2/11/05)



Bad Education
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Some people are upset. Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education was not nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film.

According to Academy rules, a country can only submit one title per year for such consideration. Spain chose to offer The Sea Inside as its official selection, making Bad Education ineligible. (The person who should really be upset is Jean Pierre Jeunet. His French film, A Very Long Engagement is ineligible due to a technicalityŠand it is probably the best film of the year in any language.)

But there may be another reason why Bad Education wasn’t nominated. It simply isn’t among Almodovar’s best efforts.

Gael Garcia Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries) stars as Angel, a drag queen attempting to find work as an actor. He looks up an old childhood friend, now a successful filmmaker, named Enrique (Fele Martinez).

Angel leaves Enrique a script based upon their childhood experiences. The boys were chums in a strict Catholic school during the 1960s. Because the priests deemed that the boys “relationship” was inappropriate, they were separated. The real problem, however, lied with the priests themselves.

One of the priests, Father Manolo, loved Angel and sexually abused him. When he deemed that Angel and Enrique were getting too close, he put a stop to their friendship.

The film jumps back and forth between past and present as Angel and Enrique make the film about their experiences. The script shows them taking revenge on the priest who abused them, and highlights their efforts to put the script to film.

As the action unfolds, we’re not always quite sure what is being filmed and what is reality. Is the duo actually exacting revenge, or is this just a part of the screenplay that’s being shot? And who, by the way, is who?

The premise is intriguing and Almodovar films the story with a nod to Hitchcock. One can’t help but be reminded of the convoluted nature of such classics as Vertigo, and the film’s title sequence invites the comparison.

Almodovar has a lot more on his mind than a salute to the master of suspense, however. He uses the story to comment on morality, hypocrisy and deception in contemporary society. The structure of the film is admirably complex and well executed.

But somewhere along the line, there is a “disconnect.” The film becomes so drawn-out and far-fetched that we really have a hard time caring about how things turn out.

Although it’s been wildly over-praised in some circles, Bad Education provides a good education in melodramatic excess. (R) Rating: 3 (posted 2/11/05)



Pooh’s Heffalump Movie
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Even though today’s moviegoers are generally somewhat jaded, hope springs eternal. We’re always yearning for a movie that will be better than we expected.

Thanks to the folks at Disney, Pooh’s Heffalump Movie is one such warm and pleasant surprise.

The latest in a long line of films dating back to 1966 featuring Winnie the Pooh and his friends, Pooh’s Heffalump Movie is aimed squarely at the rug-rat set. It may not be much like the work of A.A. Milne, but thanks to a funny and sweet-natured script by Brian Hohlfeld (Piglet’s Big Movie) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Jungle Book 2), it is an extremely amiable treat.

Things are calm in the 100-Aker-Wood until some strange noises upset the sleep of Pooh and his friends. The next day, they discover giant footprints around their homes that frighten them. Rabbit is convinced that a dreaded Heffalump, a scary creature that lives in a neighboring forest, where no one dares enter, made these huge imprints.

Since this Heffalump as caused damage, Rabbit convinces Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore and Piglet to join him in a quest to capture the horrible monster. Naturally Roo wants to join in on the adventure, but he is deemed too young and his mother, Kanga, doesn’t want him to grow up too soon.

Naturally Roo sets off alone to seek out the beast and finds, to his surprise, that the Heffalump he meets is a fun-loving youngster much like himself. Roo tries to convince his new friend, Lumpy, to come to the 100-Aker-Wood. Lumpy, however, has been told by his mother never to enter that terrible place. Once Roo persuades Lumpy to join him, complications arise.

The film is beautifully animated in the traditional style, and the voice talent is exceptional. Jim Cummings ably imitates the late Sterling Holloway, Pooh’s original voice, and provides the same service as Tigger, first performed by the late Paul Winchell. He and Brenda Blethyn as Mama Heffalump and young Kyle Sanger as Lumpy nail their respective characters.

Carly Simon has penned a few pleasant new songs for the film, as she did for Piglet’s Big Movie, and these ditties are catchy, too. (Just try to avoid humming them as you leave the theatre.)

Although the movie carries a gentle message of tolerance, director Fran Nissen doesn’t beat us over the head with it or let his film linger too long (65 minutes.)

Pooh’s Heffalump Movie is a family film in the best sense of the word. The whole family will like it. (G) Rating: 3.5 (posted 2/11/05)



Alone in the Dark
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Alone in the dark begins with a prologue scrolling up the screen. A rather long scroll but an interesting backstory nonetheless. It tells of the Abkani, an ancient tribe that released a great evil into the world with a tragic result.

Then Edward Carnby (Christian Slater) introduces himself. “I’m Edward Carnby, and I’m here to protect you from the things you don’t believe in.”

The story, which is based on a video game, is interesting at first. Carnby is a paranormal investigator who was raised in an orphanage. He was once a member of a paranormal investigation unit, but now he works on his own.

Early on a mysterious stranger attacks the cab Carnby’s riding in, and it’s all down hill from there. People disappear, and then mysterious creatures attack. No one really understands where the creatures came from or why they’re attacking.

These creatures look like dinosaurs from the depths of an oil tank (black but about as scary as Mickey Mouse). The filmmakers tried to infuse spookiness into the story with gimmicks such as blurs of motion and sounds that are a cross between moaning ghosts and growling tigers.

The promise of a dark but witty tale fell into a pit full of bland dialogue and, at times, emotional hyperbole. In one scene, Carnby visits his girlfriend Aline (Tara Reid) at the museum where she works. She’s a bit miffed with him because he hasn’t kept in touch. They argue briefly, and then bam, she punches him in the face, adding slapstick where it didn’t belong. Of course, Carnby doesn’t seem fazed by Aline’s over-the-top action.

Apparently, director Uwe Boll remained unfazed as well. The movie appeared to be on automatic pilot after the first five minutes or so, while the characters succumbed to the inevitable dangers of evil unleashed and the actors succumbed to the inevitable pitfalls of a bland script.

At least when the story’s part of a video game, a person can interact with the characters on the screen and get the adrenaline pumping. But in the theatre, the only reward is 96 minutes in the dark with a dull plot that an army of special effects couldn’t buff to a shine. (R) Rating: 1 (posted 2/11/05)



   

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