reel reviews
movie reviews
March '06

INSIDE MANTHE BIG QUESTION
TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORYTSOTSIV FOR VENDETTASHE'S THE MAN
NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD
THE HILLS HAVE EYESTHE LIBERTINEFAILURE TO LAUNCH
THE SHAGGY DOGWHY WE FIGHTDAVE CHAPPELLE'S BLOCK PARTY16 BLOCKSAQUAMARINE

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Inside Man
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

After his abysmal 2004 effort, She Hate Me, many fans and critics were ready to write off Spike Lee as a talented has been. The furious creativity that he has shown in previous years was nowhere to be found in that intolerable mess.

But, we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss someone as tenacious as Lee. He has an uncanny ability to tap into urban angst and, given the right vehicle, can exploit it.

And so it is with Inside Man, Lee’s most “Hollywood” effort yet. This is a big studio movie with big stars, a big budget and the kind of intriguing script (by first-timer Russell Gewirtz) that makes directors drool.

On the surface, Inside Man seems like an action thriller, a simple heist flick that pits a smart criminal against a savvy, seen-it-all cop. (Think The Negotiator and you won’t be far off.)

But there is more going on here. The film is also a social commentary that attacks capitalist greed. That’s probably why stars like Denzel Washington, Jodi Foster, Clive Owen, Willem Dafoe and Christopher Plummer eagerly signed on.

Owen plays a cunning thief who, in an opening soliloquy, addresses the audience directly stating, “My name is Dalton Russell. Pay strict attention to what I say because I choose my words carefully and I never repeat myself.” He then goes on to claim that he’s planned “the perfect bank robbery”. As the plot unfolds, we come to understand that his words can have many meanings.

Then we see Russell and three accomplices methodically invade a Manhattan bank, take the customers and employees hostage, and settle in for a siege. Detective Keith Frazier (Washington) and his partner Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor from Serenity) are assigned the duty of ending this matter without bloodshed.

But Russell’s demands are extreme, making Frazier’s job of meeting them very time consuming. To add to his distractions, the bank’s president (Plummer) has procured his own “expert”, a real estate broker and society heavyweight named Madeleine White (Foster) to intervene with the thieves. Frazier slowly begins to realize that this siege may have little to do with money.

The story gets progressively convoluted, but Lee keeps our attention even when the action wanes. While Gewirtz’s script has holes that show up under post-viewing scrutiny (along with a lot of questions unanswered), we’re never less than intrigued.

Washington’s assured presence leads a solid cast and Foster, in a rare unsympathetic role, is credibly insufferable.

For Lee, Inside Man represents both a return to form and a welcome venture into new territory. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 3/24/06)


The Big Question
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If ever there was an intriguing premise for a documentary, then The Big Question has it. It poses the age-old query, “Who is God?”

The filmmakers, Francesco Cabras and Alberto Molinari, were cast in small roles in Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ. While filming in the ancient city of Matera, Italy in 2003, they approached the cast and crew, getting them to open up about their beliefs. They also solicited feedback from local citizens, including a couple of priests.

You might think that a movie like Passion, especially one made by a staunch Catholic like Gibson, would have a cast of devout Christians. In fact, the company was also made up of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, atheists and agnostics. Cabras and Molinari get these individuals to offer their observations and declare their faith…or lack of it.

Many of the actors are in costume while sharing their opinions, adding a bit of irony to the proceedings. (Actor Jim Caviezel covered in blood as the Christ, smiles and casually offers a superficial remark for the camera.)

Unlike the many controversial and strident television appearances that he made while promoting his movie, Gibson comes off as downright conciliatory here. While he admits that he became a believer at 35, his testimony deals more with his modified behavior than spiritual revelation. As he freely admits, “If left to my own devices, I'd devolve into chaos."

Others sharing their thoughts include Maia Morgenstern (Mary), Monica Bellucci (Mary Magdalene) and Rosalinda Celentano (Satan). In addition to the main question, there are a few supplemental inquiries, like “Why is God always depicted as a male?” and “If you were born on the other side of the world, would your beliefs be different?” and “How do you pray?” and “What is the afterlife?”

The observations run the gamut from the thoughtful to the mundane. Two priests provide contrast, one being staunchly orthodox in his views and the other (a recovering alcoholic) refreshingly benign and non-judgmental.

While this could have been fascinating exercise, The Big Question is a flat, disconnected series of short observations, punctuated with cryptic scenes of a white dog endlessly wandering around in some Italian ruins. (Hey, God spelled backwards is Dog! Do you suppose that is what they were trying to say?)

Apparently, this project started out as a short subject…and that is where it should have stayed. The feature-length version is padded and ponderous. The bigger question might be, “Why is this fascinating subject so dull?” (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 3/24/06)


Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) couldn’t figure out how to transform Susan Orlean’s popular novel The Orchid Thief into a movie, he took an unusual approach. He wrote a movie about his inability to write the Adaptation.

A similarly clever technique is used for the comedy, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. The filmmakers, faced with a similarly hopeless task, opt to make a movie about “trying” to make a film version of the famous 18th century book.

Lawrence Sterne’s comic novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was ostensibly about the life of the titular Englishman and was narrated in his voice. Shandy, however, never quite gets around to telling his story. Once he’s shared a bit about his very early years, he digresses into a series of anecdotes about the other characters in his life and we learn nothing else about him.

Similarly, the movie never gets around to telling his story, either. After a few opening scenes surrounding his birth and some unfortunate incidents in Shandy’s early childhood, the film digresses into a satiric backstage farce as we’re made privy to the filmmakers’ petty squabbles and tribulations.

Steve Coogan (Around the World in 80 Days) plays a petulant and conceited actor named Steve Coogan, the star of the box-office flop, Around the World in 80 Days. While Coogan believes that he is the film’s lead, his co-star, Rob Brydon (24 Hour Party People) begs to differ. After all, even though Coogan plays Tristram, Brydon plays his uncle Toby…and he’s got just as much screen time.

Coogan tries to get a grip on his slippery character while dealing with the arrival of his girlfriend and young baby, an annoying dirt-digging journalist, the romantic advances of a pretty production assistant, and ongoing script problems.

Coogan’s self-effacing performance is reminiscent of his work in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, where he again played a self-absorbed thespian. This is a wily performance. If Coogan isn’t actually like these jerks, then he’s a very good actor, indeed.

Movie buffs will get a kick out of all of the on-set foolishness. (Martin Mull once said that show business was “like high school with money.” If this movie is an accurate portrayal, then his observation is dead on. Screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (Millions) and director Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo) have obviously brought some personal experiences to bear.

While not for every taste, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is a witty and bawdy cinematic experiment. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 3/24/06)


Tsotsi
Reviewed by Deborah Young

For those who grimace at the thought of subtitled movies, Tsotsi will be a welcome surprise. The actors speak tsotsi taal, a hybrid of Afrikaans, English and black South African languages, but the film’s language doesn’t matter much because the dialogue is so sparse. The actors mostly communicate with body language and facial expressions that are universal.

Based on Athol Fugard’s novel of the same name, Tsotsi tells the story of a violent young gang leader (Presley Chweneyagae as Tsotsi) whose life changes abruptly. The film’s first scenes show a young man known only as Tsotsi (which means gangster, hoodlum or thug). Tsotsi is ruthless enough to brace the body of a friendly middle-aged man while gang members thrust an ice pick into the man’s chest and kill him so that they can pick his pocket on a full train. Later we see that Tsotsi is also compassionless enough to harass and even threaten to kill a wheelchair-bound old man.

The turning point comes when Tsotsi car-jacks a rich black woman and discovers that he has unwittingly taken the woman’s baby boy, who is asleep in the back seat. He plans to leave the baby in the car, but the baby’s cries get to him. So he puts the baby in a shopping bag with the rest of his booty and takes the child home.

Flashbacks fill in the defining moments of Tsotsi’s life. We learn that his mother’s illness and his father’s brutality have left indelible marks upon his character. But caring for the baby begins to change him. Then he becomes acquainted with a young mother, Miriam (Terri Pheto) whom he forces to breastfeed the baby. The encounter with her also shows him a different side of the poor township in which he lives.

The story is an old one, but the execution of it is great. First, director/screenwriter Gavin Hood succeeds in creating a suitable atmosphere. He shows us a ragged and overcrowded shantytown with residents who appear to have adjusted to the deplorable conditions. He shows us children who live in pipes.

This film’s other great assets are its young cast and it’s energetic soundtrack, which features kwaito, South Africa’s version of rap, and its most prominent artists, Zola. Pheto and Chweneyagae, turn in very good performances despite a script with minimal dialogue. The two uninitiated actors manage to communicate much with few words.

Ultimately, Tsotsi provides a glimpse into a world of which many Americans may be unaware. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 3/24/06)


V for Vendetta
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The advertisements for V for Vendetta emphasize the connection between the creators of the Matrix trilogy (The Matrix Revolutions, 2003; The Matrix Reloaded, 2003; and The Matrix, 1999) and this film. Perhaps the resume of the Wachoski brothers will draw some viewers to the theatre, but word of mouth will likely draw more viewers.

This big-budget conduit of ideas is based on the graphic novel of the same name and is as self-important and pretentious as Sin City, Constantine and Batman, which were also adapted from graphic novels. Like other recent graphic novel adaptations, V for Vendetta brims with ideas of almost every ilk (social, political and religious), but the film contains enough originality of expression and visual splendor to make it interesting to watch.

Hugo Weaving plays a masked revolutionary known only as V. V lives in a fascist society reminiscent of the Big Brother government in George Orwell’s novel 1984. Early in the movie, V rescues a young outcast named Evey (Natalie Portman) from some abusive police officers. Then he takes her to witness the grand explosion of a government building, one of his acts of protest.

Later, V gets in a tight spot and Evey, recalling his kindness to her, helps him out, which thrusts her into the position of ally. V winds up taking Evey back to his home and detaining her there, so that she won’t divulge the location of his hideout.

What happens next is somewhat convoluted. V kills people and plots to blow up London’s parliament building. He does it all in the name of freedom and justice.

The Wachowskis have created a V that is likeable and interesting, although he’s violent and a little off the beam as well. He is one part nut case (or eccentric gentleman), one part poet/philosopher and one part freedom fighter. He frequently peppers his speech with rhymes and alliteration, which creates moments of levity and makes him seem even more eccentric.

V’s sentiments and actions seem uncomfortably relevant to this post-9/11 world. V sees violence as a means to the noble ends of justice and freedom, and he punctuates his violent acts with the beauty of timeless orchestral music.

Some viewers will likely object to the marriage of violence and artistic beauty, but this is not a gore fest. V for Vendetta is, however, overstuffed with ideas. The flood of ideas can be overwhelming at times. But thankfully this film plays with notions that are both interesting and relevant. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 3/17/06)


She's the Man
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare are, of course, nothing new. But updated and reworked material for teens has become a movie sub-genre.

Let’s see, recent examples are 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew), O (Othello), Scotland, PA (Macbeth), and even My Own Private Idaho (Henry IV).

The latest example is She’s the Man, a generally genial revision of the Bard’s Twelfth Night. (No, in spite of certain similarities, this is not a remake of the late night cable standard, Just One of the Guys.)

Screenwriters Ewan Leslie and Karen McCullah Lutz (Lutz also worked on 10 Things I Hate About You) have reset Shakespeare’s gender-bending comedy in contemporary California and the bitter rivalries are between two high school soccer teams.

Amanda Bynes (TV’s What I Like About You) stars as Viola, a girl who excels at soccer. In fact, her boyfriend admitted that she’s better than half the guys on his boy’s team. When the girl’s team is disbanded for lack of funds, Viola decides to try out for the boy’s team, only to be dismissed derisively by the chauvinist coach.

So, what’s a girl to do? Viola’s Junior League mom and her sexist boyfriend want her to give up sports and become a dainty debutante.

When Viola learns that her brother Sebastian — who recently transferred to another school — has skipped town to play with a rock band in England, she decides to switch roles with him. She disguises herself as a guy and tries out for the rival soccer team.

In proper Shakespearian fashion, a series of mix-ups and mistaken identities occur. And, of course, Viola falls in love with her new teammate, Duke (Channing Tatum from Supercross).

While the film is very broad and exceedingly obvious, it has its simple charms. Director Andy Finkman (Reefer Madness: The Musical) shows no real imagination in his straightforward approach, so he relies on his cast to make it work.

For the most part, young Bynes is up to the task. She’s in virtually every scene and is assigned the formidable task of carrying the movie on her perky shoulders... and cheerfully obliges. While never believable as a boy, Bynes’ sitcom experience has taught her how to milk a laugh without sacrificing her cuteness.

The rest of the cast just seems to be along for the ride. The only other bright spot is David Cross (TV’s Arrested Development) who hams it up as a clueless but jovial school principal.

While uninspired, She’s the Man is a pleasant intro to Shakespeare’s work for the prep school set. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 3/17/06)


Neil Young: Heart of Gold
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Filmmaker Jonathan Demme, best known for his dramatic narrative films like Silence of the Lambs and Melvin and Howard, also has a solid record for documentaries. His innovative 1984 Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense, influenced a generation of MTV video directors.

Demme’s Neil Young: Heart of Gold takes a different approach than the highly stylized Stop Making Sense. It is straightforward and unfussy, just like its subject.

Veteran rocker Neil Young is the king of melancholy. His wistful melodies and whispering vocals prod audiences like a poke on a bruise. His song, Philadelphia (from the soundtrack of Demme’s movie of the same name) is a plaintive cry that cuts straight to the heart.

Knowing Young’s style well, Demme chose not to overwhelm the music with cinematic acrobatics, but to let the performance speak for itself.

The film captures a 2005 concert that Young delivered at Nashville’s venerable Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry. In the opening sequence, Demme employees a few talking heads (people offering commentary for the camera…not the band), but he quickly shifts gears when the concert begins.

What follows is a set of earnest songs featuring Young and his longtime collaborators, including vocalist Emmylou Harris. Although Demme dutifully edits out the time between set changes and the awkward lulls between songs, the movie otherwise recreates the concert experience putting us in the best seat in the house.

Young’s health issues add an additional level of poignancy to the movie. Only days after filming wrapped, Young underwent extensive brain surgery. He and his friends knew very well that his chances were iffy and that this could be his final performance.

While Young’s music is always emotional, one gets the sense that everyone was giving it their best shot on this night…as if they’d never have another chance to get it right. (Fortunately, Young has since recuperated.)

Most of the music is from Young’s latest album Prairie Wind, a work composed when Young found out he was suffering from a potentially fatal brain aneurysm. He dedicates the recording to his father who passed away shortly before its release. (Yes, there is a sense of transience hovering over the proceedings.) In the second act, he adds some classics into the mix, like Old Man and the title tune

Fans of Young will consider this to be yet another warmhearted performance…and be grateful it isn’t his swan song. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (posted 03/13/06)


The Hills Have Eyes
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Hollywood seems hell-bent on remaking every good movie ever made. When you have a known entity, you can make the movie cheaply and not spend too much on promotion and marketing. You’ll probably make your money back in the first weekend before negative word of mouth kills it.

It’s a smart strategy. But from a critical point of view, it would make more sense to remake bad movies. After all, if they were done well the first time, there would be no need to redo them. If the originals were stinkers, a remake would provide a chance to try to get it right the second time.

Well, that approach has its pitfalls, too. One example is the remake of Wes Craven’s drive-in opus from the 1970s, The Hills Have Eyes. Their attempt to get it right the second time seems to have failed.

In fairness, there are those who think that Craven’s original is a minor masterpiece of gratuitous gore. (Wouldn’t that be mutually exclusive?) A remake, in their mind, should pay homage to its progenitor.

In any event, hope springs eternal. Even those who disdained the original may hold out hope that the filmmakers could find a clever way to update the material. Those hopes are dashed here.

Veteran character actor Ted Levine (Memoirs of a Geisha) plays Bob Carter, a former policeman who is taking his extended family on a cross-country trip to San Diego. Rather than take the freeway, he chooses the more scenic desert route.

While in a remote part of Nevada, Bob’s family has some problems. Their tires blow out while they’re driving on a dirt road far from any cell phone signals. Bob and his son-in-law, Doug (Aaron Stanford from Winter Solstice) walk off in opposite directions, leaving the rest of the clan temporarily behind.

As a fan of any drive-in horror flick will tell you, that’s when the blood begins to flow. Yes, one-by-one the various family members are picked off by a band of flesh-eating mutants left behind by nuclear testing.

The movie descends into an ongoing parade of gore, as the mutants kill, defile and consume our tidy little family.

Director/writer Alexandre Aja is well known for his dehumanizing French horror entry, High Tension. While a vile example of amorality itself, at least High Tension had some originality. There is nothing new here.

A waste of good acting talent (Kathleen Quinlan and Robert Joy also participate in the carnage), The Hills Have Eyes will, sadly, make money. The remake machine marches on. (R) Rating: 1.5 (posted 03/10/06)


The Libertine
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In the prologue of The Libertine, Johnny Depp looks into the camera and condescendingly says, “I don’t want you to like me.” On that count, he has succeeded admirably. Problem is, there is little else to like in this movie.

The filmmakers have accomplished something remarkable here. They have taken the life story of one of history’s most infamous debauchers and made it an utter bore. That takes some doing.

Depp (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) stars as John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, a renowned writer who thrived during the rein of Charles II, played by the ever-oily John Malkovich (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Charles wishes for Rochester to be his Shakespeare, an artist who will show that Charles’ reign was an enlightened one.

Unfortunately, Wilmot is one skuzzy piece of work. He wants only to overindulge in booze, sex and, most problematic for Charles, irreverence. He is disdainful of life and shows contempt for authority that is matched only by his self-loathing. Although wealthy and powerful, he seems to lack the ability to connect with anyone on an emotional level.

This coldness applies to his beautiful and loving wife, played by the beguiling Rosamund Pike (Pride and Prejudice). Instead of posing for a portrait with her, he prefers the company of a monkey. When the painting is finished, he gives it to his wounded wife as a gift.

Lacking direction, Wilmot takes a young actress/whore under his wing. Elizabeth Barry, played by Samantha Morton (Minority Report), is a reluctant protégée. At first leery of Wilmot and his tutelage, she begins to show great improvement as an actress and, like Eliza Doolittle under Henry Higgins, blossoms.

Barry begins to crack Wilmot’s emotional shell until he is overcome by venereal disease. His outward appearance becomes the manifestation of his inner turmoil. Facing death, he must decide if there is any way that someone so bad can redeem himself.

This is certainly a compelling setup, one full of dramatic opportunities. It’s too bad that first-time screenwriter Stephen Jeffreys, who based the script on his play, doesn’t take advantage of them. Novice director Laurence Dunmore also seems at a loss in handling such a cad.

Depp, however, is riveting. He gives a compelling performance that taunts the audience. He dares us NOT to care about him while showing us just enough humanity to tempt our sympathy. Morton is equally good, putting flesh and blood on the bones of her character.

But the actors can’t quite save The Libertine. This is one randy gent we’d rather steer clear of. (R) Rating: 2 (posted 03/10/06)


Failure to Launch
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Occasionally in movies, as in life, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

There is absolutely no reason for the new romantic comedy Failure to Launch to work. The premise is implausible, the script is riddled with clichés and much of the humor is delivered in a ham-fisted manner.

Still, Failure to Launch may click with audiences because of the innate likeability of its cast. It’s tailor made for critics to hate and fans of romantic comedies to love.

Matthew McConaughey (Sahara) stars as Tripp, a man in his mid-thirties who still lives at home with his parents Al and Sue (football analyst Terry Bradshaw and Oscar-winner Kathy Bates). From Tripp’s point of view, why mess up a good thing? His mom fixes his meals, launders his clothes, cleans up after him and, in general, dotes.

And when it comes to Tripp’s love life, if things get too serious with a woman he’s dating, he simply brings them over to his house. When the girlfriend realizes that he lives with his folks, she always bolts.

As Al and Sue learn, Tripp suffers from a sociological disorder referred to as “failure to launch”. So, at the urging of their friends, they hire a “professional” to administer the cure.

Sarah Jessica Parker (TV’s Sex in the City) plays Paula, an attractive young woman who specializes in such cases. Her approach is to get the guy to fall in love with her, changing his attitude about not wanting to leave the nest. Making it his idea takes the pressure off of the parents.

There are certain problems with this narrative setup. First of all, it’s hard to believe that a guy with Tripp’s successful job, looks, talent and ambitions would still want to live at home. Secondly, can anyone — even someone with Parker’s obvious charms — always make someone fall in love with her? And what’s the emotional fallout when she succeeds and then dumps the guy?

Director Tom Dey (Shanghai Noon) lacks the deft touch required for this type of frivolity. The script, by TV sitcom writers Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, seems more appropriate for a half-hour small screen format. (The ongoing gag of having Tripp bitten by a series of animals gets awfully tiresome.)

But Failure to Launch works in spite of its obvious weaknesses, and the cast can be thanked for saving it. McConaughey and Parker make an attractive couple and they have a genial onscreen chemistry. (Zooey Deschanel, as Paula’s eccentric roommate, is priceless.)

Failure to Launch is an amusing piffle. That’s just what fans of the genre crave. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (posted 03/10/06)


The Shaggy Dog
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Those who think that Tim Allen is a “movie dog” will have more evidence for their position thanks to The Shaggy Dog.

A remake of the popular 1959 fantasy that starred Fred MacMurray and Tommy Kirk, The Shaggy Dog updates the story to use modern computer generated imaging and to allow Allen to do his slapstick shtick.

Allen stars as Dave Douglas, an assistant district attorney in Los Angeles. He's a neglectful dad, working on a major arson case. It seems that a teacher has set fire to a pharmaceutical lab because of its unethical animal testing procedures. The teacher denies that he's involved but Allen prosecutes at the request of a crooked company executive, played by Robert Downey, Jr.

Dave's ambitions prevent him from connecting with his wife (Kristen Davis from TV's Sex in the City) and teenage kids, Carley (Zena Grey from In Good Company), and Josh (Spencer Breslin from The Kid). Zena is an animal rights activist supporting her teacher instead of her dad, and Josh wants to quit football so that he can try out for the school musical Grease. Fate intervenes to shake up the domestic situation.

Downey's corporation, you see, has dognapped a 300-year-old sheepdog from a Tibetan monastery in order to manipulate his DNA and create a youth serum. Escaping from captivity, the dog bites Dave, causing him to occasionally transform into a pooch, himself.

Yes, this high-concept comedy is painfully silly and employs a much better cast than it could possibly deserve. (Folks like Danny Glover and Jane Curtain show up in thankless supporting roles.) The entire cast works in service of a script that can be generously referred to as silly.

The plot bears little resemblance to the original film except for the fact that someone turns into a dog. Those who are old enough to remember it will find that the innocuous sense of absurdity has been replaced by paranoia. A cynic might see this movie as a primer for future activists.

But director Brian Robbins (The Perfect Score) understands that this story is aimed squarely at youngsters. While it would have been nice to include something that the adults might enjoy, Robbins serves only his core audience.

Ultimately, it is up to Allen to carry the day and he only succeeds in part. The litmus test for The Shaggy Dog may well lie in one’s personal feelings about the comic. If you don’t like him, the movie is one mangy mutt. (G) Rating: 2.5 (posted 03/10/06)


Why We Fight
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If good intentions were enough to make a documentary a winner, Why We Fight would rake in the awards.

This workmanlike film focuses on the evil specter that Dwight Eisenhower warned about decades ago, the military industrial complex. As the former president cautioned us decades ago, when the interests of corporations and the war machine become one, our country will be constantly in battle.

Director Eugene Jarecki, who gave us the well-chronicled and incendiary documentary The Trials of Henry Kissinger, turn his attention to demonstrating how this unholy alliance between the Pentagon and manufacturers has come into fruition.

While he eschews the humor and over-the-top theatrics of Michael Moore, the two filmmakers seem to be of one mind, philosophically. To his credit, Jarecki is measured and cautious in his approach, attempting to let the facts speak for themselves. The only downside is that his movie is a bit dull.

The film takes its title from the old WWII propaganda films that Hollywood produced to get Americans behind the war effort. Director Frank Capra (that “most American” of filmmakers) gave us good reason to fight Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo. Here, the reasons for war are quite different.

Jarecki implies that all of Eisenhower’s predictions have come to pass. He surmises that the post WWII wars came about as inevitability. When we have the war machine in place, we need wars to keep the mutually advantageous wheels turning.

Jarecki uses news footage and talking heads to make his case. He lets his interviewees speak for themselves and some of their observations are compelling. While he talks at length with liberals like Gore Vidal, he also gets some feedback from the other side, from folks like Richard Pearle and William Kristol. (Their comments are, however, limited to sound bites.)

But the most persuasive argument comes from a former Air Force officer named Karen Kwiakowski, who gave up her cushy gig at the Pentagon when she became convinced that the Bush administration ignored intelligence warnings about Iraq and coerced officials into supporting their war agenda.

There is a flip side to Jarecki’s admirably restrained approach. It’s as if he’s handed us a debater’s note cards. We’re then left to make the arguments and persuade ourselves. As a result, it is unlikely that the movie is going to change anyone’s mind about the subject.

As it is, Why We Fight is a well-researched and competently presented example of preaching to the choir. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (posted 03/10/06)


Dave Chappelle’s Block Party
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

So, what would you do if you had the world on a string? If you’re comedian Dave Chappelle, you throw a gigantic bash…and invite whoever wants to come.

Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is a wildly entertaining, high voltage documentary that chronicles, as Chappelle called it, “the concert I always wanted to see.”

Back in 2004, when the lanky comic was riding high on the popularity of Comedy Central’s The Chappelle Show (which is the biggest selling DVD of any television show in history), he decided to mount a street concert in a depressed neighborhood in Brooklyn. He asked a number music stars to perform and the roster he ultimately assembled is an impressive “who’s-who” of hip-hop, that includes Mos Def, Kanye West, Common, Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, to name a few.

But their electric performances aren’t what make Dave Chappelle’s Block Party so impressive. The genial host and filmmaker Michel Gondry (The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) are responsible for the movie’s infectious, feel-good vibe.

The film begins as Chappelle is still planning his soiree while back home in rural Ohio. There, he and Gondry’s camera meet a number of average folk (of all ages and races) who are given passes to attend the party…all expenses paid. (“Wee Willy Wonka didn’t have this many golden tickets!”)

He even invites the entire marching band from Ohio’s Central State University. They’re requested to perform as well as to attend, and the look on their faces when they get the news sets the celebratory tone for the whole affair.

While Chappelle’s off-the-cuff narration is hardly profound, it is witty and nearly always hits the bull’s-eye. This is a guy who just wants to have fun…and so do we.

Some of the film’s best moments show Chappelle as he interacts with folks from the local Boys’ and Girls’ Club who helped accommodate the performers and the rehearsal scenes that are interspersed throughout. It’s quite possible that many people who don’t like rap will still find the movie quite entertaining.

Near the concert’s end, Chappelle tells of a “technical problem” in putting together the show. He had hoped to have Lauryn Hill perform, but her current record label wouldn’t allow her to sing any of the material that they produced. So, Hill asked some of her former band mates to join her on stage…reuniting the Fugees for the first time in over seven years.

While it is sometimes profane (yes, this movie earns its “R” rating), Dave’s party is one dynamic celebration. (R) Rating: 4 (posted 03/03/06)


16 Blocks
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Bruce Willis looks worn out, tired and old. Either he’s really letting himself go or he’s getting better as an actor. Worn, tired and old is exactly how his character in the new thriller 16 Blocks should look.

Willis plays Jack Mosley, a world-weary New York police detective whose only friend appears to be Jack Daniels. He’s just putting in his time until he can get off the force…although he has no ideas of what to do with the rest of his life. Perhaps suicidal, Jack just wants it all to end.

He’s assigned a seemingly routine task. He’s to escort a prisoner named Eddie Bunker (rapper Mos Def) from jail across town to a courthouse so that he can testify in a criminal case. The distance they are to travel is a short, simple sixteen blocks.

Problem is, Eddie is to testify in a case against a corrupt policeman. Naturally, there are some of New York’s “finest” who can’t allow that to happen. They plan to snuff Eddie out long before he gets to the courthouse.

Jack, not quite as drunk as he’d like to be, decides to stop at a liquor store on the way. This side trip sets into motion a series of events that change the lives of both men forever. Jack is forced to make some uneasy ethical decisions and he has to be willing to take action on those decisions.

Directed by Richard Donner (the Lethal Weapon films), 16 Blocks gives critics plenty to complain about. It’s guilty of silly plot holes, eye-rolling coincidences and other obvious excesses. Yes, we can see many of the film’s twists and turns coming from a mile away.

But, darn it, the movie works anyway. Donner manages to establish palpable tension, infuses the movie with a breathless pace and gets us to care about these unlikely characters.

Willis gives one of his better performances, making the most this memorable role. David Morse (Contact) is nothing short of brilliant as Frank Nugent, Jack’s former partner and a slimy cop who justifies his wicked ways through moral apologetics.

But the movie belongs to Mos Def. While his characterization is broad and eccentric, it is also highly entertaining. He shows considerable screen charisma and makes us care about this peculiar fellow.

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker saddled with a weaker cast, 16 Blocks could easily have been yet another tedious shoot-‘em-up. Thankfully, the Donner party is in charge of this entertaining lark. (R) Rating: 3.5 (posted 03/03/06)


Aquamarine
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

While Jessica Simpson’s cinematic debut in The Dukes of Hazzard didn’t exactly set the world on fire, she can at least be thankful for one thing. Schedule conflicts prevented her from making Aquamarine her film follow-up.

Simpson was offered the role of the titular mermaid in this (literally) “fish out of water” comedy that was written with pre-teen girls in mind.

Emma Roberts (daughter of Eric, niece of Julia and the star of the Nickelodeon TV series, Unfabulous) stars as Claire, a young Florida girl who is afraid of the water. This is rather inconvenient for someone who lives near the beach.

Her best friend is Hailey, played by pop singer JoJo Levesque, who is facing the possibility of having to move to Australia because her mother may have found her dream job there. These are not happy days for these youngsters. Complicating their lives is the fact that they’ve both got a crush on the local beach stud, Raymond (Jake McDorman from TV’s Quintuplets).

One night a violent storm stirs up the ocean, depositing and stranding a beautiful mermaid (Sara Paxton from TV’s Summerland) in the swimming pool of Claire’s grandpa. Naturally, the girls are taken aback at first, but soon find that Aquamarine is a kindred spirit…and girl who just wants to be loved.

In fact, Aquamarine has three days to prove to her angry father that “love” exists. In order to make her point, she sets her sights on one of the local boys. In order to placate her dear old dad, she has three days to get him to say, “I love you”. Naturally, Aquamarine chooses Raymond (gasp!) to be the object of her affection.

The story is based on a popular novel by Alice Hoffman but the screenplay’s dialogue is so awkward and clichéd that it is hard to believe that the source material ever caught on. (You don’t suppose that Jessica Simpson read the script, do you?)

Director Elizabeth Allen, whose previous feature effort was a little-seen oddity called Eyeball Eddie, puts in a workmanlike if uninspired effort. But the movie’s washed-out cinematography makes it look like it was shot on outdated film stock.

Perhaps the filmmakers were counting on the story’s inherent sweetness and the appeal of the young cast to carry the day. If so, they were probably right. The young ladies are quite likable and their adventures, pleasantly innocuous.

Even without Jessica Simpson, Aquamarine should appeal to the Tiger Beat set. (PG) Rating: 2 (posted 03/03/06)


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