reel reviews
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March '05


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Guess Who
Reviewed by Deborah Young

In December 1967, Columbia Pictures released a daring picture called Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? The story centers on the commotion a young white woman creates in her family when she takes her black fiancée home to meet her parents.

The story was daring at the time because most Americans regarded interracial relationships as taboo. Interracial relationships were even illegal in several states just six months before the film was released. In June 1967, a Supreme Court decision struck down those miscegenation laws as unconstitutional.

Guess Who, the modern incarnation of that classic movie, is proof of how much times have changed and how much they haven’t. In Guess Who, a young black woman, Theresa (Zoe Saldana), takes her white fiancée home to meet her parents. Theresa’s fiancé Simon (Ashton Kutcher) is awkward and unsure of himself. He makes one blunder after another as he tries to please Theresa’s father Percy (Bernie Mac). He lies (and gets caught at it) and even tries at one point to borrow money from Theresa’s father so that he can stay afloat while looking for a new job.

In the 1967 classic, John Prentice (the fiancée played by Sidney Poitier) was poised, successful and confident. The filmmakers probably had to make the character that way. After all, a white girl marrying a black man was almost unthinkable at the time. If the filmmakers wanted to challenge the bias, it was probably best to do so with an exemplary black male character, one who was actually a cut above his white fiancée in social status and maturity.

The problem appears to have been just the opposite in Guess Who, where it was probably more desirable for the white fiancée to be a little beneath his black fiancée (to satisfy the most condescending brand of political correctness). Tensions still exist (although in a more subtle way than they did in the ‘60s), so why add gas to the simmering coals.

Then there’s the issue of the actors. The 1967 film boasted a stellar cast that included Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier. In contrast, the cast of Guess Who consists of a lovable lot of performers who’ve not quite made it to the status of heralded veterans.

Kutcher with his boyish charms and understated goofiness is easy to root for, even when his mouth gets him into a mound of trouble. Bernie Mac’s deadpan delivery of one-liners can at times be hilarious. Saldana’s poise, beauty and ability to exude an air of intelligence make her a pleasure to watch.

However, actors don’t usually write their own lines, as the saying goes. But in cases like this, maybe they should. This movie takes many detours from the topic that’s supposed to be its focus (which is the parents’ reaction to the interracial relationship) and wanders into Meet the Fockers territory.

Alas, this is really a story about how dumb a man might act when his future father-in-law scares the daylights out of him. It’s also about one-liners and silly pranks designed to create a cinematic vehicle for work-hungry stars like Kutcher and Mac.

If only the script was as likeable as the cast. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (posted 3/25/05)

The Ring Two
Reviewed by Deborah Young

One major indication that a horror film is failing miserably is the audience laughing during scenes that weren't intended to be funny. Sometimes things are going so well before the laughter starts. Like in last year’s Saw, audiences at a screening I attended seemed to latch onto the interesting premise of two men imprisoned in a room by an unknown captor — until the implausible plot twists and overacting started.

Then there was Hide and Seek, which boasted two great actors (Robert Deniro and Dakota Fanning) and a premise that seemed at first rather frightening but turned out to be a series of empty teasers.

Now comes The Ring Two, sequel to The Ring, which was released in 2002. Newspaper editor Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) and her son Aidan (12-year-old David Dorfman) have moved to the small town of Astoria, OR, for a fresh start.

Unfortunately, trouble (in the form of a creepy videotape) has followed them. Rachel discovers that their troubles have begun again after she investigates the death of a local teen. She sneaks a peak at the deceased and immediately knows that the death is the work of Samara, the ghost of a child, which inhabits the tape.

Dorfman does a great job of playing a terrified and, sometimes, terrifying boy. He’s not given much to do most of the time, though. He just stands or sits around looking pale and almost catatonic. Watts’ character is all adrenaline. She’s always springing into action to protect her son or doing that goofy horror-movie thing where she walks into obviously dangerous situations, just to investigate. After watching the two for about 20 minutes, any initial empathy will likely turn to boredom.

The aesthetic of the film was, however, clever, much of the time. The visuals call attention to the ordinary: exhibits at a fair, storefronts and their signage, the seaside landscape. So when the visuals turn eerily foggy or dark, the contrast is arresting. And there is at least one scene that is visually stunning.

Too bad the story isn’t as inventive as some of the visual effects. Rather than fear, The Ring Two will likely elicit yawns. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (posted 3/25/05)

Off the Map
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Joan Allen is mostly known for her roles as prim and proper, emotionally repressed ladies. (She received Oscar nominations for Nixon, The Crucible and The Contender.)

That’s what is so surprising about her turn in Off the Map, Campbell Scott’s quirky slice-of--life drama. The previously uptight Allen exudes sensuality, openness and a heretofore-untapped earthiness as a member of an eccentric family living off the land in the high desert country of rural New Mexico.

Adapted by screenwriter Joan Ackerman from her own play, Off the Map takes place in 1974 and tells the story of an 11-year-old girl named Bo Groden (Valentina De Angelis) who lives a hermit-like existence with her mother Arlene (Allen) and father Charley (Sam Elliot).

True hippies, Arlene and Charley have eschewed modern conveniences and subsist on what they can gather from their environment. A genuine earth mother, Arlene enjoys her gardening and usually does it in the nude.

The Groden’s only real contact with the outside world is Charley’s laconic best friend, George, played by J.K. Simmons (Spiderman.)

Extremely bright and inquisitive, Bo yearns for any contact with the outside world. She spends her time practicing her skills with the rifle and bow and arrow, and writes complaint letters to companies in order to receive free merchandise.

Bo’s desire to break out of her environment is exacerbated by her father’s bout with crippling depression. This family is skeptical of doctors and drugs, so Charley simply tries to wrestle with his demons alone. It is a losing battle.

Everything changes when an IRS agent makes the trek to the Groden’s isolated home to find out why they haven’t been paying any taxes. William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost from HBO’s The Wire) soon finds himself totally infatuated with Arlene and mesmerized by the bleakly beautiful environment.

Director Scott (Final) establishes a very slow and deliberate rhythm to the film that helps to capture the pace of life in the New Mexico desert. Many viewers may find that they lack the patience for such an unhurried approach

All of the actors are terrific. Allen and True-Frost are first-rate, and Elliott has never had such a meaty role. He makes the most of it.

But the film belongs to young De Angelis. As the film’s central character, she must be both likable and believable. She gives a spunky and winning performance that carries the movie.

Yes, Off the Map is slow, eccentric and defiantly un-commercial. But if they give it a chance, many viewers will succumb to its warm and winning spell. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (posted 3/25/05)

Gunner Palace
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Early in Gunner Palace, a young soldier gives an unseen cameraman a tour of the home he shares with hundreds of other soldiers. The building, a bombed out palace in a now treacherous area of Baghdad, once belonged to Saddam Hussein’s son Uday.

As the young soldier talks, the sound of explosions play like a soundtrack in the background. Then suddenly, there’s a bang in a nearby room and a voice yelling. Two or three soldiers run into the room and find one of their own looking for a rat and commenting that the rat must be the one who ate his cookies. One of the soldiers picks up a bat and stalks around the room like he’s going to kill the rat. Another soldier comments on the oddity that they’re so preoccupied with a rat while bombs are falling all around them.

This early scene captures the dominant theme that emerges in the documentary Gunner Palace; it’s human nature that wherever we reside becomes home. For better or worse, the soldiers of the 2/3 Field Artillery Unit have made Iraq home, despite the fact that it’s a war zone and despite that it’s a world away from the country they call home.

Bombings, injuries and deaths occur off screen, which makes it easier for viewers to settle into the soldiers’ sometimes mundane daily routines — days of swimming in the palace’s huge pool, playing guitars, clowning around or going on daily patrols and nightly raids. On screen, the soldiers talk about their experiences in Iraq or explain certain aspects of their jobs. In the process, they give viewers a glimpse of what it’s like to live on the edge of danger.

At one point, a group of soldiers on patrol see what appears to be a plastic bag in the street. One of them takes the job of investigating. It could be an IED (jargon for an “improvised explosive device”). One soldier points out that trash is a common sight on the streets of Baghdad, but sometimes trash is a disguise for bombs.

Gunner Palace reminded me of an extended episode of Cops at times because it introduced so many soldiers and seemed to focus more on the activities and events surrounding the job than the personalities and personal experiences of three or four soldiers.

The camera cuts from soldier to soldier like a photographer at a talent show, capturing some of them as they break into freestyle raps, talk about their experiences or express their ideas about the war and the politics surrounding it.

This film requires patience to watch. It bounces from story to story and involves actions that may at first seem too absurd to comprehend (such as soldiers rapping in the middle of a war zone or having a cookout and pool party while bombs are exploding in the background).

But at the end of the movie’s 85 minutes, I found myself lingering in my seat, contemplating the words of one of the soldiers. He said that after the movie ends people will go into the kitchen and get popcorn, then they’ll forget him. After he made that statement, I knew I’d make a conscious effort not to forget. It’s likely that this simple film will similarly touch many other viewers.

Gunner’s Palace is very modest technically, but it does a good job of jump-starting awareness. It does a good job of paying homage to the soldiers who have lived (as well as those who have died) in Iraq. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (posted 3/25/05)

The Chorus
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The best French film of 2004 was undoubtedly Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s disconcertingly whimsical WWI film, A Very Long Engagement. Through skill, creativity and enormous imagination, it showed both the despair and hope that came out of that conflict.

Due to politics of filmdom and the silly guidelines regarding foreign language nominations, it was ineligible for Academy Award consideration. (It won the French equivalent of the Oscar.)

As it turned out, the official French nominee for the Oscar was Christophe Barratier’s The Chorus, a sweet and sentimental movie that goes to great lengths to tug at our heartstrings. (Go figure.)

An amiable little feature, The Chorus stars Gerard Jugnot as Clement Mathieu as a middle-aged, down-on-his-luck music professor. Needing to take any job he could find in 1948 France, he winds up at a boarding school for delinquent boys.

Disturbed by the prison atmosphere he encounters, he attempts to break through by organizing a choir and acquainting them with the healing power of music. Naturally, his attempts are met with derision.

The headmaster of the school is a stern disciplinarian, a man who has no faith that any of these boys can possibly be rehabilitated. He restricts activities and generally feels that an education is wasted on them. His job, as he sees it, is to keep these bad boys away from society at large. (This character is the weak link in the story. He’s just too much of a mustache-twirling villain to be taken seriously.)

But Clement, a kind-hearted soul, sees potential in these outcasts. (Although we’re given precious little background information about Clement’s past, one might assume that he and the delinquent boys could have a lot in common.)

One young boy in particular, a bright kid named Pierre (Jean-Baptiste Maunier), shows real promise. Clement surreptitiously conducts his choir practice outside of the headmaster’s earshot, and gives the troubled Pierre an opportunity to shine.

The Chorus has a similar theme to the popular Richard Dreyfuss film, Mr. Holland’s Opus. It involves the kindly teacher who understands that kids with emotional problems are often helped by participating in the arts. Both films can be viewed as shamelessly manipulative in old school Hollywood fashion.

But both have their strengths. The Chorus has a likable cast, a noble purpose and pleasing music. (The renowned French boys choir, Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Marc, supplies the vocals.)

One’s reaction to this amiable little movie will probably depend more on one’s tolerance for sentiment than an appreciation of music. (PG) Rating: 3 (posted 3/25/05)

Callas Forever
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Director Franco Zeffirelli (Endless Love) was a friend and colleague of renowned opera diva, Maria Callas. He directed her in a number of stage and television productions.

His new movie Callas Forever seems very much to be about a film project that he wished he could have made with her.

The fictional story, written by Zeffirelli, involves a director/producer named Larry Kelly, played by Jeremy Irons (The Merchant of Venice.) An obvious stand-in for Zeffirelli, Kelly hopes to pry the reluctant soprano from her lush Paris apartment where she has been living as a recluse.

The stunning French actress Fanny Ardant (8 Women) portrays Callas who, in 1977 at the age of 53, has shut the world out and is in mourning over the loss of her celebrated voice. Kelley comes up with a scheme to lure her into a new project where she doesn’t have to sing.

Kelly proposes that a full-blown production of Bizet’s Carmen be filmed with Callas lip-synching to recordings she made years earlier, when her voice was in its prime. At first reluctant to take on this venture, the petulant and demanding diva eventually relents after a British reporter (played by Joan Plowright and reportedly modeled after Elsa Maxwell) convinces her that making the movie is a good idea.

The rest of the story deals with the film’s production. (There are a few subplots involving Kelly’s gay flirtations with a young artist and Callas flirtations with one of her young co-stars, but these are superfluous distractions. A Zeffirelli movie without youth and beauty wouldn’t be a Zeffirelli movie.)

Apparently, Zeffirelli yearned to make Carmen with Callas, so this was the closest he could get. Callas Forever only comes to life in the vivid operatic scenes that are lushly produced, colorful and vibrant. It’s too bad that the rest of the film seems so dull and campy by comparison. Perhaps Zeffirelli would have been better off to just go ahead and film Carmen with Ardant lip-syncing Callas’ part…and be done with it.

Yet, the music is sublime. Opera fans will be in heaven to hear lengthy passages by Bizet and Puccini sung by perhaps the greatest voice of the century. Even those who aren’t opera fans will appreciate Callas’ skill and artistry.

Don’t expect any real depth here. The film is a fantasy that exists as a tribute to a star, not a character study. Zeffirelli can’t bring Callas back to life, but Callas Forever is his ardent attempt. (Not rated) Rating: 3 (posted 3/25/05)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Last year, the film Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary played to receptive local audiences. The documentary featured fascinating talking head footage of Traudl Junge, the titular character who worked for der Führer right up until his death.

After decades of silence, she agreed to open up and tell her story to filmmakers André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer. She died days later.

In the dramatic entry, Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich, Junge is once again a major character. As played by Alexandra Maria Lara (Leise Krieger), Junge is a naïve and faithful stenographer who narrates the story of her experiences during Hitler’s final days in the bunker.

The great Swiss actor Bruno Ganz (The Manchurian Candidate) portrays Hitler, and he doesn’t shun away from any of the complex facets of this character. Like many powerful political figures, he is both attractive and repulsive. Here is a man of principles and strong philosophical contention. In a debate, he can seem reasonable, even persuasive.

Of course, there are elements of his character and philosophy that are abhorrent. In a chilling conversation, he readily and unapologetically admits that he lacks a human trait that he considers a sign of weakness: compassion.

Aside from a brief moment in 1942, the movie concentrates on events of 1945 when the Soviet Army was invading Berlin and about to topple Hitler’s government. For all intents and purposes, the war is over, but Hitler and a handful of his henchmen remain steadfast to their “ideals,” choosing death over surrender.

The film moves back and forth between the claustrophobic action in the bunker and the devastation of the German city around it. As Hitler rants and becomes more and more delusional, plotting strategies with troops that no longer exist, his loyalists go about the city shooting perceived traitors before the Russians arrive.

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel (The Experiment) shies away from nothing and does a commendable job of combining the various elements of the story. Although he has received some criticism for making Hitler and his aides seem somewhat sympathetic (a debatable point), he realistically depicts the Nazis as conflicted human beings. (This is, after all, the first German production to take on this story. Controversy is inevitable.)

The most electrifying moment comes at the film’s conclusion. In a scene borrowed from Blind Spot, Traudl Junge, days before her death, reluctantly admits some degree of culpability. Her words will ring true for any of us who have failed to take a stand in the face of injustice. (R) Rating: 3.5 (posted 3/18/05)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Over the last couple of decades, the Japanese have carved out a unique and popular niche in the world of animation. A fanatical worldwide audience embraces their approach, called anime. Others just don’t get it.

The latest entry is the most expensive (a reported $20 million) and elaborate (10 years in the making) anime production to date. Steamboy marks the return of Katsuhiro Ôtomo, whose landmark film Akira came out in 1988.

An ornate Jules Vern-like science fiction fantasy, Steamboy attempts to make some sophisticated statements about the dangers of technology. Although the visuals are stunning, the story and characterizations leave something to be desired.

The story takes place in England during the mid-19th century. Ray Steam (voiced by Anna Paquin) is the young son of a noted inventor, Eddie (Alfred Molina.) Eddie and Ray’s grandfather Lord Steam (Patrick Stewart), another renowned scientist, have been abroad for some time working on a top-secret invention.

Their development, the Steam Ball, is a bowling ball-sized device that allows chemicals to be placed under such enormous pressure that the release of steam can generate enormous energy. Naturally, nefarious corporate entities want to use the invention for their own purposes, mostly military in nature.

The story pits the father and the grandfather against one another, and poor Ray is caught in the middle. A canny inventor himself, Ray tries desperately to figure out which family member he ultimately must support.

Ôtomo’s art direction is amazingly lush, making it easy to see where the film’s enormous budget went. It seamlessly incorporates classic hand drawn animation techniques with computer-generated graphics, creating a fantastical, retro technological world. There are many impressive moments where the mechanical creations, camera pans and realistic reflections seem plausible and otherworldly at the same time.

It’s too bad that the same can’t be said for the characters. As in nearly all anime, the settings are elaborately, imaginatively rendered, but the characters faces seem flat and emotionless. (The dubbing just emphasizes this flaw.) It’s like putting stick figures in a beautiful landscape.

The story is problematic, too. Although the “message” that scientific advancement should be approached with caution is obvious, there is a certain moral ambiguity to the film. Just as Ray is constantly confused about whether to follow his father or grandfather (or neither), we are equally at sea. Perhaps this is Ôtomo’s point, but if so, it is an unsettling one.

For anime fans, Steamboy is a must-see. For the rest of us, the dazzling visuals ultimately overcome the movie’s imperfections. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (posted 3/18/05)

Ice Princess
Reviewed by Deborah Young

What would the teen years be without drama? They wouldn’t be the teen years.

Ice Princess, the latest nod to those hyperbolic adolescent years, captures the drama of the teen years as well as the fantasy.

The protagonist, Casey Carlyle (Michelle Trachtenberg), couldn’t be a more unlikely candidate to become a glamorous professional figure skater. She’s a physics geek with a mom who’s a college professor. Casey’s mom has had her on the road to Harvard for years, but Casey also likes to skate (during brief periods when she’s not studying, of course).

To her dismay, Casey’s nothing like the skating divas at her high school. These skating princesses spend hours training with professional coaches in a rink, but Casey skates alone on the lake outside her home. The divas wear makeup and get invited to the parties, but Casey remains unadorned and ignored by the in-crowd.

Director Tim Fywell captures the feeling of alienation with humor and astuteness. In one scene, for instance, Gen Harwood (Hayden Panetierre) walks past Casey and a friend in a school hallway. The camera speed slows to catch the natural sway of Gen’s shoulder-length blonde hair and the smooth fullness of her lightly made-up face as she passes. Casey and her friend shoot Gen an admiring glance. Then the camera returns to a normal speed as the two outcasts from popularity discuss the improbably chance of getting an invitation to one of the popular kids’ parties.

The introduction of slow-motion shots definitely adds hyperbole, but it also accurately dramatizes how awed a high-school nerd might be by a popular kid.

Ice Princess is an exercise in melodrama. The actors overplay every scene. Gen snipes at her win-at-all-cost mother with the slightest provocation. Casey’s mom, Joan, (Joan Cusak) takes every opportunity to rant about the images of women in our society. And Gen’s brother, Teddy (Trevor Blumas), hollers like Casey has committed a felony when he spots her skating while he’s trying to run the Zamboni.

Still, the ‘tween and teen set will likely enjoy watching this story of self-discovery, rebellion, and ultimately, triumph. Gen discovers that she has a talent and passion that has nothing to do with what her mother wants for her. Plus, she gains the attention of a cute boy and entry to the in-crowd.

The plot carries few surprises, but the characters are likeable enough, and the story contains the stuff that teen fantasies are made of. (G) Rating: 3 (posted 3/18/05)

Reviewed by Deborah Young

Animated films such as Shrek and The Incredibles won fans by being smart and family-friendly. Their multi-layered tales tend to have an entertaining story and upbeat message for kids, and beneath the surface, jokes and observations that are direct pitches to the adults in the audience and will slide right over most of the kiddies’ heads. Robots, the latest project from the creators of Ice Age, is in this appealing category of animated films.

Robots tells the story of a Rodney Copperbottom (Ewan McGregor), a robot born to relatively poor parents. Rodney’s parents can’t afford to get fancy upgrades for him as he grows up, and Rodney observes the toll that his father’s job as a dishwasher has taken on the elder Copperbottom.

Somewhere along the way, Rodney decides he’s going be an inventor, and he keeps experimenting with an invention that will make his father’s job easier. But he ultimately has to leave home to pursue his dream of working with Bigweld (Mel Brooks), a bigshot inventor who lives in Robot City (which seems to be the robot world’s equivalent of New York).

The movie carries the inspirational message that people can typically become whatever they want, if they’re willing to work hard enough for it. The message is clear, but the screenwriters don’t hit audiences on the head with it.

But the thing that makes Robots most appealing is the originality of the idea behind it. There are no humans in the movie’s world. Yet everything the Robots do, from having a baby to working to pitching ads for new parts is surrounded by humorous references to the human world. For instance, double-entendres in dialogues about Rodney’s initial assembly are the basis of one of the film’s funniest gags.

Unfortunately, when Rodney gets to Robot City, the characters seem to multiply so that it’s hard to keep up with all of his pals. There’s also the introduction of some low-level humor (fart jokes and big-butt jokes). The plot also seems to lose its way at that point. But in the end the story makes its way back to the central theme about pursuing dream, and the film ends with a funny and toe-tapping musical number.

Like the movie’s main character, the creators of Robots appear to have pursued an admirable dream (to craft an original and entertaining animated film). Like Rodney, they made a few blunders, but everything turned out pretty good in the end. (PG) Rating: 3 (posted 3/14/05)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

You’ve got to hand it to Bruce Willis. He may not always make the best career choices, but he sure knows his way around a thriller.

Hostage is Willis’ latest venture into Die Hard-like territory, but this time the filmmakers aim for a more realistic tone.

Upon hearing the plot elements, one might think that they’re in for yet another tired rehash of well-worn movie clichés. In fact, that is the case. It would be understandable to experience a feeling of déjà vu given the fact that Hostage could have easily been yet another late night, made for cable thriller. But thanks to a strong cast, taut editing and brisk direction, Hostage is an intense and entertaining action thriller.

The movie opens with a sequence that changes the life of LAPD hostage negotiator Jeff Talley (Willis). Because of an error of judgment, innocent people die. Guilt-ridden, Talley leaves the force and takes a job as police chief in the rural Ventura County town of Bristo Camino. It is a mundane job, and his bickering wife and daughter don’t exactly engender marital bliss.

Things get complicated when a trio of juvenile delinquents decides to rob the home of a wealthy businessman named “Smith,” played by Kevin Pollak (A Few Good Men.) They invade his fortified home only to become trapped inside themselves. They take Smith, his teenaged daughter and adolescent son as hostages.

Problem is, Smith is some kind of Mafia accountant and powerful and sinister forces must make sure that important information (stored on a DVD somewhere in the house) is recovered, hostages be damned. Sophisticated thugs kidnap Talley’s family and use them to manipulate him into doing their bidding during the dangerous standoff.

Yes, this kind of territory has been covered many times in the past, but French director Florent Emilio Siri (The Nest) knows what he’s doing. In his English language debut, he builds considerable tension and presents the action at a zippy pace

The young actors acquit themselves nicely, too. Michelle Horn and Jimmy Bennett as the Smith kids make an impression, as do Jonathan Tucker, Ben Foster and Marshall Allman as the delinquents. Foster is especially creepy as Mars, the mentally unstable member of the trio of kidnappers.

But this movie belongs to Willis. His convincing performance here ranks with the best of his career. You don’t often see this much earnestness in an action movie.

Yes, Hostage is a disposable and clichéd thriller, but if you want intensity, it delivers the goods. (R) Rating: 3.5 (posted 3/11/05)

Born Into Brothels
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has come under a great deal of criticism over how it handles its documentary awards. Although Oscar has made many improvements in the last couple of years, a lot of great work is still ignored.

That brings us to Born Into Brothels, this year’s winner for Best Documentary. Truth is, it isn’t particularly well crafted. In fact, there were several better documentary films released this year.

But it is an eye-opening and heartbreaking look at the children of Calcutta’s prostitutes. If humanitarianism is the criteria, then Born Into Brothels deserves the recognition.

The film is the work of photojournalist Zana Briski (along with Ross Kauffman) and it focuses on her experiences with seven youngsters who inhabit one of Calcutta’s most notorious red light districts. Their mothers, grandmothers and often great-grandmothers are sex workers living in squalid conditions with little hope of escape.

Briski, a British citizen, doesn’t take a fly-on-the-wall approach like most documentaries. She becomes heavily involved in the lives of her subjects, making her a central character in her own film.

Determined to try to do something to improve the lot of some of the kids, Briski decides to teach them something she knows a lot about. She gives them lessons in photography. Her hope is to ultimately get them enrolled in boarding school so that she can break the cycle of prostitution and poverty.

Her photography class is a resounding success, and the children capture some images that only they could uncover in their neglected world. Briski even manages to arrange gallery exhibitions of their pictures in New York and India in an attempt to raise money for their aid.

The photos of one of the children afford him a unique opportunity. The especially talented youngster named Avijit is invited to attend a world conference for child photographers in Amsterdam.

Getting the children into boarding school is another story. Briski discovers that there are some nearly insurmountable obstacles in her way. Not only must she battle prejudice, the caste system and reluctant parents, but also the inscrutable Indian bureaucracy. The children must have proper documentation (few do in the red light district), be free of disease and have the permission of both parents. (Some have no idea who their father is.)

From a filmmaking standpoint, Born Into Brothels is not particularly notable. As a social document, it’s an eye-opening and heartbreaking look at innocents in a desperate, mostly inescapable situation. (Not rated) Rating: 3 (posted 3/011/05)

The Pacifier
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The marketing tagline for this film is “Prepare for battle.” But “Prepare for nap time” would be more fitting.

Vin Diesel stars Navy SEAL Lt. Shane Wolf. After a government scientist is killed, Wolf is assigned to protect the scientist’s wife and five children. The family needs protection because someone is still out there trying to find a top-secret invention the scientist created.

Before long, the scientist’s widow goes out of town, leaving Wolf alone with the children and their nanny. Then the nanny quits, and Wolf is left with the solo mission of caring for them.

While Wolf marches around the house barking orders at the kids, the children do what tykes do in these kinds of movies. The little ones throw up and poop their diapers, and the adolescents sneak around in an attempt to defy most of the commands they’re given.

In the process, a very predictable script unfolds. Wolf, who at first has the personality and mannerisms of a soldier robot, soon becomes domesticated, learning to change diapers and do a dance that helps little Peter go to sleep at night.

Likewise, the children learn to appreciate Wolf’s talents for fighting, organizing and just being a good pal. Unfortunately, the changes occur quickly rather than unfolding slowly and more naturally.

Diesel may be an action star, but he seems more like he’s a slapstick version of an action hero in this film. Even when he’s showcasing his karate moves and shoving bad guys through windows, it’s hard to take him seriously here because he wears a bland expression most of the time and seems to just be going through the motions.

And it would be so nice if some innovative moviemaker would come along and find something else for kids to do in comedies besides play mean, dangerous pranks on adults and boldly poop in places few kids have pooped before.

The Pacifier, directed by Adam Shankman, who also directed A Walk to Remember and The Wedding Planner, two films that had at least an ounce of warmth. But warmth and humor are mostly M.I.A. in this film. For instance, the children’s father has just been killed, but they carry on as if nothing much has happened. In fact, they seem more affected by the their new houseguest’s presence than the loss of their father.

But the worst thing is that this film is about as predictable as a trip around a go-kart track, a diversion that might, by the way, be more entertaining for families than seeing this film. (PG) Rating: 1 (posted 3/07/05)

The Merchant of Venice
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Even in the best Shakespeare adaptations, accessibility is an issue. The work of the Bard is often just too foreign to attract significant numbers at the box office.

Michael Radford’s smart and skillfully filmed version of The Merchant of Venice is one of the more easily digested versions of a Shakespearean work. It is also one of the most unusual, combining comedy with elements of tragedy and pointed social commentary.

The story is set in 16th century Venice, when Jews were confined to ghettos and forbidden to walk the streets after dusk. They were not allowed to own property and made their living as moneylenders, a profession looked down upon by their Christian neighbors.

One such moneylender is Shylock (Al Pacino), a figure who is both a victim and a villain. His lot is forced upon him, but he has made a fortune by shrewdly lending money at high interest rates. This practice has brought him scorn, especially from Antonio (Jeremy Irons), the titular character who would never charge interest from anyone in need.

The animosity between these two characters comes to a head when Antonio finds himself in need of a loan. His best friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) needs some money immediately in order to pursue the hand of the beautiful Portia (Lynn Collins).

Although Antonio is a successful merchant, his fortune is tied up in ships that are currently abroad so he has nothing to loan Bassanio. For love of his friend, Antonio goes to Shylock for the money. The scheming Shylock agrees to the loanŠbut only if Antonio agrees to forfeit a pound of his flesh if he cannot pay on time.

Pacino makes a strong impression as Shylock. Although Shakespeare has been often accused of anti-Semitism for this portrait, Shylock is a complex and somewhat empathetic character whose foibles can be partly ascribed to his environment, and Pacino adeptly exploits these elements. When his daughter betrays him, one can’t help but have pangs of compassion.

The entire cast is fine, but the real find is newcomer Collins. (Cate Blanchett was originally cast as Portia, but had to drop out due to pregnancy.) She manages to bring out the fierce intelligence and depth of the character.

Radford (Il Postino) makes excellent use of the Venetian setting and ensures that this movie is more than just an academic exercise. The classic courtroom scene has a palpable tension, even for those who are well aware of the play’s outcome.

For those leery of Shakespeare, fear not. (R) Rating: 4 (posted 3/04/05)

Bride and Prejudice
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The Indian film industry is the world’s most productive. “Bollywood” is responsible for hundreds of movies each year that appeal to a huge audience.

Indian-British filmmaker Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham) has made an attempt to introduce Western audiences to the unique style of Bollywood films with Bride and Prejudice, an English-language reworking of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

The story takes place in modern India and is a soap opera involving a beautiful ingénue named Lalita Bakshi (Indian superstar Aishwarya Rai). Her mother (Nadira Babbar) is attempting to marry off her four daughters to wealthy men, regardless of the girls’ reluctance.

When a British man of Indian descent named Balraj Bingley (Naveen Andrews) travels to an Indian village for the wedding of a friend, he brings along a rich American colleague, Will Darcy, played by Martin Henderson (The Ring). While Balraj goes for the eldest Bakshi daughter, Will is attracted to Lalita. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get off to a good start with her. He puts his foot in his mouth giving the progressively minded Lalita the false impression that he’s an unrepentant imperialist.

Things are further complicated when Lalita is wooed by a deceitful Brit named Johnny Wickham (Daniel Gillies) who has had conflicts with Will in the past.

The rest of the movie covers the convoluted route to romance between Will and Lalita, and the many obstacles that fall in their way.

But this is a Bollywood style film, which means that it is a unique mixture of sober drama, broad comedy and (most importantly) lavish musical numbers! The uninitiated may find this to be an uneasy blend, not because of the music (although some of the numbers are clunky), but because the various approaches seem jarring in the same film.

But even if one overlooks the movie’s odd structure, there are other aspects that are problematic. Most importantly, there is no chemistry between Rai and Henderson. Although Rai is stunning and quite spunky in her role, Henderson is an utter dud. He hasn’t a clue of how to breathe some life into his stuffy character.

On the plus side, the movie has an amiable supporting cast and is beautifully photographed. (The color saturation is reminiscent of the old Technicolor musicals of the ‘40s and ‘50s.)

Bride and Prejudice may find an audience in spite of its flaws. That audience, however, will probably be in India. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (posted 3/04/05)

In the Realms of the Unreal
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The contention that there is a correlation between mental illness and artistic genius is a debatable one, but it is a theory that has more than its share of intriguing examples.

A case in point is Henry Darger, a Chicago recluse who worked for decades as a janitor in a Catholic institution. When he died in 1972 at age 80, his landlords looked into his solitary room and made an astonishing discovery.

For over forty years (and perhaps much longer), Darger worked on a 15,000-page novel titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave.

It’s the tale of the Vivian Girls, seven virtuous prepubescent sisters who wage a long and bloody war against evil, slave-trading adults. Their allies are Christian forces and magical flying beasts called “Blengins.”.

This convoluted epic was illustrated with hundreds of paintings, collages and drawings rendered on butcher paper, grocery bags and any other medium that Darger could scrounge up from the dump. Inspired by illustrations in books by Frank L. Baum, comics and newspaper ads, the work has been embraced by the art world as genius. Some claim him to be the greatest self-taught artist in American history.

Director Jessica Yu, an Oscar-winner for her 1996 documentary short, Breathing Lessons, takes on Darger’s story without trying too hard to “understand” him. Her aim is to introduce audiences to Darger’s art and give what little background information that exists about his life.

The movie combines talking head interviews with the handful of people who knew him, lushly photographed images of his workplace, and altered newsreel footage of Chicago during Darger’s lifetime. Dakota Fanning and Larry Pine provide narration, including passages from the novel and Darger’s autobiographical writings.

But Yu takes it one step further. In a move that may make purists cringe, Yu has taken Darger’s comic-like artwork and brought it to life through animation. It could be argued that this approach compromises the art, but it sure makes it a lot more cinematic.

The visuals are so absorbing, in fact, that the movie can be enjoyed simply as great eye candy. Those who may not care about Darger, the person (or find him simply too enigmatic to connect with) may still take pleasure in it. The soundtrack, featuring songs by Tom Waits and a score by Jeff Beal is an added bonus.

Although it is deliberately paced, seems somewhat padded and is definitely not for everyone, In the Realms of the Unreal is a fascinating look at the work of a geniusŠor a madman. (Unrated) Rating: 3.5 (posted 3/04/05)

The Jacket
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Last year, the film The Butterfly Effect used hyper-kinetic, MTV-style visuals to tell an intriguing time-travel story. Some found it fascinating while others felt it was laughably silly.

Audiences will probably be similarly split on The Jacket, yet another drama that uses elements of time-travel to explore issues that involve moral decision-making. The biggest difference is that The Jacket employs much better actors.

Adrian Brody (Oscar-winner for The Pianist) portrays Jack Starks, an American soldier who was shot in the head by an Iranian boy during the first Gulf War. At first declared dead, Jack ultimately recovered but lost chunks of his memory…a problem that would come to haunt him.

On a snowy day in 1992, he aids a stranded motorist and her young daughter. Later that day, Jack hitches a ride with a crazed man who shoots and kills a policeman. Because of his faulty memory, Jack is convicted of the crime and sent to a mental asylum.

There, Jack is the victim of experimentation at the hands of Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson) who injects him with a cocktail of drugs in an effort to “reset” his homicidal brain. Instead, the drugs allow Jack to travel forward to the year 2007 where he meets a young woman named Jackie (Keira Knightly) who, as it happens, is the young girl he aided on the fateful day the cop was killed.

Sad, lonely and alcoholic, Jackie is emulating her mother who accidentally burned herself alive while smoking in bed a few years earlier. Jack (who can only go forward in time while in the drug-induced state) uses this insight to try to set things right for Jackie when he returns to the year 1992.

Yes, the premise, like all time-travel scenarios, is fraught with logistical problems. In order to enjoy the story, one must be very willing to suspend disbelief. But the earnest cast (that also includes Jennifer Jason Leigh, Daniel Craig, Brad Renfro and Kelly Lynch) helps make the implausible plot easier to accept.

Director John Maybury (Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon) adds a lot of visual flair to Massy Tadjedin’s adaptation of the story by Tom Bleeker and Marc Rocco. Some of his imagery is quite unsettling, giving us an all-too palpable feel of Jack’s torturous condition.

Bizarre and discomforting (and, some would add, cold), The Jacket should provide fodder for some interesting post-movie discussions. For that accomplishment alone, one must give it its due. (R) Rating: 3 (posted 3/04/05)

Be Cool
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Be Cool is an apt title for this scattered tale that focuses mostly on wannabes. The lead character Chili (John Travolta) is a movie producer who wants to be in the music business. He wants to manage the stalled singing career of Linda Moon (Christina Milian), a young singer who wants to be a star.

Linda’s problem is that she’s represented by a group of thugs who treat her more like a call girl than a singer, and they book her in sleazy bars where the clientele cares more about her looks than her singing ability. At the start of the film, she’s ready to quit the business. She’s tired of the bad gigs and the mistreatment she receives from Raji (Vince Vaughn), her manager’s main flunky.

Raji is a wannabe gangster, a young white guy who wants to be black (or as Linda puts it, “he thinks he’s black”). He struts around slinging slang like a cowboy slinging a lasso, and he tries to scare Chili out of the idea of making Linda break her restrictive contract with Nick Carr (Harvey Keitel).

Sound confusing? It is. This story is constructed in scene patches rather than with a cohesive plot with a subplot or two. There are hosts of characters with conflicting agendas: Russian mobsters, a thuggish hip-hop group and their Ivy-league educated producer, as well as Carr and his flunkies. None of these characters are fully developed. They’re mostly stereotypes.

But the basic story is that Chili is dodging bullets while he tries to get financing to record Linda Moon. Along the way he interacts with quirky characters that inject humor into the story.

One of the funniest characters is Elliot Wilhelm (The Rock), Raji’s gay bodyguard and a wannabe actor. There’s a scene in which he’s sent out to get a baseball bat to intimidate someone with. He returns with a little red aluminum bat that looks about as intimidating as a toothpick.

One warning here: Much of the film’s humor revolves around ethnicity or sexual preference. Some viewers might find this kind of humor offensive.

The bottom line: In its 114-minute running time, this sequel to Get Shorty delivers about an hour of gags that many viewers will probably find funny. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (posted 3/04/05)


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