reel reviews
movie reviews
April '05


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

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Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is basically “What the #$*! Do We Know” on a spaceship. It’s a lot of theorizing and high-minded humor without much of a story.

This film adaptation of Douglas Adams’ books follows the adventures of two buddies, Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) and Ford (Mos Def). After aliens destroy earth, the two friends hitchhike through space.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide spends more time on character quirks, odd situations and comic setups than on the stories. The ubiquitous voiceover gives us more ideas than a juicy traveler’s log.

The movie also appears to be a means of poking fun at some of our society’s most visible targets: elected officials, bureaucrats and preachers. The film introduces us to the Vogons, an alien race more concerned with bureaucracy than with family and logic. We also meet a sinister evangelist who keeps his followers hyped about the supposed return of the divine hanky. And we meet a two-headed galactic president whose thoughts are fueled by lemon juice.

These characters have the potential to be interesting, but without a story it’s easy to lose interest in them. They bum around the galaxy in search of the ultimate question while the voiceover talks about them, adding frequent touches of dry humor.

Unfortunately, the characters are simply animate jokes — from Arthur (who seems destined to spend eternity in his bathrobe and slippers) to the galaxy president who sacrifices one of his heads to find the ultimate question to Marvin, a robot doomed to depression by design.

Interesting props include shovels that pop up in the desert to slap anyone with an idea and a point-of-view gun that conveys the shooter’s viewpoint to those being shot.

The most important element of a movie is its story, but the story that should have been here must have been abducted. The beginning of The Hitchhiker’s Guide entices with visions of dolphins and a cute song that gives voice to their thoughts. The opening prepares viewers for the warmth of a tall and imaginative tale. Unfortunately, the film delivers only character sketches and props that turn out to be too high-minded to be of much earthly good. (PG) Rating: 1.5 (posted 4/29/05)

XXX: State of the Union
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Screenwriter Simon Kinberg has worked as a “script doctor” to improve the scripts of movies such as Charlie’s Angel: Full Throttle. However, after listening to the sparse and shallow dialogue and observing the wandering storyline in XXX: State of the Union, my first thought is: Physician heal thine own patient.

State of the Union is Number Two in the XXX action/thriller franchise. The letters XXX refer to a secret agent with special skills. In this case the agent happens to be Darius Stone (Ice Cube). Those acquainted with Ice Cube’s screen presence will be prepared for lots of mean mugging. Those familiar with this genre will know that the hero not only saves the day but does so with flair. Unfortunately, Stone is tough without the suave exterior.

Agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) busts Stone out of prison to be the next XXX, and the moment Stone’s feet near the perimeter of the prison the over-the-top stunts begin. Gibbons arrives in a helicopter, but he’s a little later than planned. So Stone has to leap from the building and glide through the air to catch his ride.

From that point forward Stone’s movements are marked by a trail of explosions — exploding boats, cars, even a train. His best defense seems to be blowing things up, after which he usually gives a flat delivery of some kind of homeboy punch line.

It’s clear that Stone is supposed to be cool. He’s so cool that he can be backed into a corner and still escape without a trace. So cool that a knife in the hand won’t stop him from fighting. So cool that he can drive his dream car to destruction just to save the president of the United States.

The problem is that it’s not clear what Stone and his buddies are fighting for until the end of the movie. Another problem is that the charm of characters like Stone is usually that they can simultaneously be super fighters and the ultimate gentlemen.

Ice Cube, although endowed with plenty of innate charm, is playing the one note that he’s usually given to play. He looks mean. He keeps his lips locked in a grimace throughout most of the movie, although his eyes take on a boyish sparkle when he’s delivering those cocky punch lines.

In the end, this film looks like a costly excuse to blow things up. It’s a fantasy of masculinity that falls too short of exciting and way too short of clever. (PG-13) Rating 2.5(posted 4/29/05)

Dust to Glory
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

One of the great things about the cinema is that it allows us to vicariously experience some arduous adventures from the comfort of our theatre seats.

Dana Brown’s documentary Dust to Glory is a perfect example. A behind the scenes look at the grueling Baja 1000 off road motor race, Dust to Glory makes you want to wipe off the grit and pick the bugs out of your teeth.

The annual cross-country race takes place partly on paved road, but mostly crosses desert sands, rocks, hills and pits of dusty muck. It’s a challenge for the vehicle to survive, let alone the occupants. As the movie points out, there are plenty of dangers along the way.

Each year, the Baja 1000 attracts professionals (like NASCAR driver Robby Gordon), celebrities (Steve McQueen and James Garner are seen in stock footage), and plenty of amateurs. There are million dollar buggies, junky Volkswagen Beetles, motorcycles and trucks all competing for championships in different categories.

Brown, (who has had success with surf movies Endless Summer 2 and Step Into Liquid) takes on another extreme sport by employing a large crew of camera operators who man dozens of positions along the race route. He also had many cameras mounted in the race vehicles themselves and supports that footage with shots taken from hovering helicopters.

But Brown had more on his mind than just capturing the race itself. He’s interested in exploring the obsession that drives these competitors to put themselves through this arduous challenge.

He interviews many of the participants before, during (while making pit stops) and after the race in an attempt to get into their heads. We’re given a bit of background into some of their lives and hear their motivations from the horses’ mouths.

Some of the racers give fairly eloquent explanations about their reasons for coming back year after year, while other seem to need serious counseling. But for those of us who are new to the sport, the whole thing may still prove to be an enigma.

But what Brown effectively accomplishes is to put us there. Thanks to his intimate camera work, we get a better look at the race than anyone, including the drivers (who often see little more than a cloud of dust) and the thousands of spectators who line the race route. There are a number of “near misses” captured as careless fans cheat death by standing way too close to the course’s twists and turns.

Thanks to Dust to Glory, we can be there…and NOT be there. (PG) Rating: 3(posted 4/29/05)

House of D
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Actor David Duchovny (The X-Files) is a talented fellow. Not only did he star in the popular series, he wrote and directed a number of the episodes.

His first effort as writer/director/star of a feature film is a sweet-natured coming-of-age movie with its heart squarely in the right place. Unfortunately, it’s also saccharine and emotionally manipulative.

Duchovny plays Tom Warshaw, an American-born artist living in France. Having arrived late for an appointment to spend time with his son, Tom has to explain to his estranged wife just what’s going on with him.

As Tom justifies himself, we see flashbacks to his adolescence in 1970’s New York City. We learn about the unresolved issues in this life that led him to flee to Paris thirty years ago.

Anton Yelchin (TV’s Huff) plays the young Tom. He lives with his pill-popping mom (played by Duchovny’s real-life wife, Téa Leoni), a nurse who is mourning the death of her husband.

Tom’s best friend is Pappas (Robin Williams), a middle-aged, mentally challenged custodian at the Catholic school Tom attends. The duo shares a part-time delivery job for a neighborhood French deli.

The two are almost uncomfortably close. When Tom finds himself attracted to a young girl from another nearby school (played by Williams’ daughter, Zelda), Pappas reacts in anger. His jealousy leads to an impetuous act that changes both of their lives forever.

Tom gets some guidance from an unusual source. Near his apartment is the titular Women’s House of Detention. He strikes up a friendship with an inmate whom he cannot see but can communicate with from her elevated window.

This woman whom he calls “Lady” (singer Erykah Badu) starts their conversation by asking him to score her some drugs. Although he doesn’t comply, the two engage in a lengthy friendship. Lady dispenses advice to Tom regarding life and love, and he provides her with a connection to the outside world.

Most of the cast members handle their roles with skill, but Williams’ performance is problematic. He brings a lot of baggage as the comic we all know and love, and isn’t able to let us forget his underlying wit. Even though he’s playing a “retarded” man, he still provides ad libs that seem jarring coming from his character.

But the real problem is that Duchovny doesn’t know when to stop. He lays on the sentiment thickly, working hard to wring a few extra tears from the audience.

As a result, the well-intentioned House of D becomes what I’m sure he never intended. It’s cloying. (PG-13) Rating: 2(posted 4/22/05)

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

There are plenty of horror films emerging from Hollywood these days, but if you really want to see something scary, here is a blood-chilling alternative.

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room accomplishes something that might, at first blush, seem nearly impossible. It takes the story surrounding the Enron collapse and makes it easy to understand, slyly entertaining and appropriately frightening.

A brilliant new documentary by Alex Gibney (The Sexual Century), the film is based upon the exhaustive research done by Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. Their book, The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron showed how greed, manipulation, negligence and unbridled arrogance brought about the collapse of one of America’s largest companies.

Under Gibney’s cautious direction, the movie eschews the showboating and muckraking of Michael Moore’s work in favor of a meticulous outlay of the facts. He uses talking heads, news reports, stock footage, video from congressional hearings and clandestinely obtained audiotapes to carefully and establish clearly just what went down.

He also employs judicious editing to ensure that the film keeps moving and engaging our interest. The sly narration by Peter Coyote and clever use of music (by Matt Hauser) help greatly, too.

Rather than engaging in a “conspiracy theory” scenario, Gibney allows us to connect the dots ourselves. He lets us draw our own conclusions, but carefully lays out the breadcrumbs so that we can navigate our way through the woods.

What emerges is eye opening. We see how Enron boss Kenneth Lay (a close friend of the Bush family) got the Bushes to support Lay’s cause, the deregulation the power industry. That deregulation allowed Enron brokers (caught red-handed in audio recordings) to ask California power plants to shut down, thus causing the infamous rolling blackouts.

As the result of those blackouts, California Gov. Gray Davis was ousted in favor of Bush ally, Arnold Schwartzenneger. In a telling moment, when Gibney asks Davis if there is a connection, he gives a one-word response: “Hello!”

But scariest of all is Jeffrey Skilling. He was the creator of Enron’s creative accounting practice that allowed it to claim future potential profits as current cash value. That ruse led to an increase in Enron’s stock value that allowed him to continue to inflate the company’s worth. He and some of the other Enron execs walked away with over a billion dollars while stockholders and pensioners went bust.

If it’s true that evil means a total lack of empathy, then Skilling embodies it. The film implies the same of much of the corporate world. That, my friends, is scary. (No MPAA rating) Rating: 5 (posted 4/29/05)

King's Ransom
Reviewed by Deborah Young

If it wasn’t so utterly ridiculous, King’s Ransom would be downright offensive. The movie’s predominately African-American cast of characters is an incarnation of stereotypes.

First there’s Malcolm King (played by Anthony Anderson), owner of King Enterprises. He’s a wealthy businessman who’s so intelligent and focused (as if!) that he promotes a curvaceous idiot named Peaches (Regina Hall) to head his company’s marketing department. Peaches spends most of her work time oiling Malcolm’s feet (when she’s not grooming herself or bending over and inadvertently entertaining the men in the office).

Then there’s Malcolm’s wife, who just happens to be a scheming gold-digger extraordinaire. She belittles Malcolm at every opportunity but can’t wait to get her hands on his money once their divorce is final.

One of Malcolm’s top marketing execs (Nicole Ari Parker as Angela) compulsively inflates the details of her lackluster college education. Andre (Donald Faison), parking valet, is obsessed with the idea of having sex with Peaches. And Miss Gladys, Malcolm’s personal assistant, insists upon treating Malcolm like her baby boy, although the plot never explains her behavior.

The screenwriter seems to have added a white character named Corey (Jay Mohr) to the mix purely to balance this “comedy” of black stereotypes with a white underachiever. Cory still lives at home with his grandmother and can’t even keep a lowly job at Happy Shack (a burger joint).

Anyway, several of these misfits (Malcolm included) decide that they can profit by kidnapped Malcolm (or having him kidnapped). What follows is mostly goofy, contrived and for the most part, not at all funny.

One of the few funny moments in King’s Ransom is when mild-mannered Corey runs amok because he can bear all the abuse he thinks he’s suffered. He drives like a bat out of Hades to the Happy Shack, from which he was fired. When he arrives there’s a man in a hamburger suit pacing in front of the hamburger place. Corey tackles the human hamburger and starts pounding the daylights out of him. It’s just funny to watch.

Like the movie’s protagonist, the other scenes in this movie should have been kidnapped, though I doubt they would garner much of a ransom. (PG-13) Rating: 1 (posted 4/29/05)

The Interpreter
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Imagine having only two hours to develop a relationship with someone, two hours to get them to understand the range of pain and possibilities that lie beneath your public façade. The biggest challenge would be to reveal yourself quickly without seeming shallow and overwhelming with your flaws and foibles.

The makers of The Interpreter have managed to pull off such a feat. They have managed to reveal a hero who is more than just a fighting machine, more than a tough guy with a few good lines. They have also revealed us a heroine who transcends that old pretty damsel-in-distress shtick.

The Interpreter tells the story of a Secret Service agent (Sean Penn as Tobin Keller) who tries to protect a U.N. interpreter (Nicole Kidman as Silvia Bloome). Silvia has overheard a plot to assassinate the president of Matobo, a fictional African county. Eventually Silvia tells her boss what she’s heard. Then two things happen: The bad guys go after her and the Secret Service starts investigating her.

Silvia and Tobin take verbal jabs at each other during early scenes. She’s quick and sarcastic, and she thinks he should be protecting her. He thinks she’s lying about what she heard. He’s a trained skeptic who’s determined to get the goods on her. She’s somewhat idealistic; she says she works for the U.N. because believes in communication as a way to settle differences.

Gradually both characters reveal that there is much more to them that what’s on the surface. He shows his soft underbelly. She reveals her toughness.

The Interpreter touches on big political ideas like tyranny and diplomacy, but its main focus is the story of these two characters.

One of the best scenes in the film involves a phone conversation between the two. He’s staked out in an apartment across the street from hers, and he’s watching her through the window. She calls him. They stare at each other through their respective windows, each unable to sleep. She finally lies down, and she asks him if he’ll permit her to fall asleep while he’s still on the phone.

At other times the movie gets a little too Hollywoodish for its own good. A bus explodes and one of those bright movie fires erupts. An intruder lurks outside Silvia’s apartment, and creepy music swells as the camera focuses on her frightened face. The character spout lines that you just know were designed to impress, such as “Vengeance is a lazy form of grief” or “Desire diminishes (with time).”

But overall, The Interpreter entertains. It presents characters that are interesting and mysterious enough to keep viewers watching. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5(R) (posted 4/22/05)

Kung Fu Hustle
Reviewed by Russ Simmon

What would you get if you combined a Hong Kong martial arts flick with a social satire and a Road Runner cartoon? Heaven knows, but it would probably look a lot like Kung Fu Hustle.

A manic, over-the-top and self-spoofing send-up of many film genres, Kung Fu Hustle is a breathlessly entertaining (and ultimately very silly) exercise in movie mayhem.

Writer/director/star Stephen Chow’s last effort, Shaolin Soccer, became one of Hong Kong’s all-time biggest box office hits. Kung Fu Hustle has already surpassed it at home and promises to do the same around the world.

This time, the setting is 1940’s China. Chow plays Sing, a small-time hustler who wants nothing more than to be a notorious and feared mobster, a member of the ominous “Axe Gang” who have run roughshod over the province.

Sing and his rotund pal Sidekick (Lam Tze Chung) decide to take advantage of the pitiable denizens of Pig Sty Alley, a neighborhood so poor that they’ve been ignored by the Axe Gang. The duo claim to be gangsters and try to put the squeeze on some of the wily folks there.

Pig Sty Alley turns out to be the secret home of several martial arts masters who are living incognito as simple shopkeepers. Sing and Sidekick provoke a fight and are soundly trounced by these fighters, as well as the landlord (Wah Yuen) and landlady (Qui Yuen.)

It turns out that the landlord and landlady are more than just masters. Their prowess is so great that it’s supernatural, and the landlady has a set of lungs that rival the power of a twister.

This activity arouses the notice of the real Axe Gang, and all hell breaks loose. When the gangsters realize what their up against, they send for the aid of some gifted assassins. Finally, the gangsters recruit “The Beast” (Leung Siu Lung), an imprisoned killer who lives only for the challenge of a death match.

Chow eagerly and wantonly defies all logic as his story twists and turns and becomes a CGI-aided, human inhabited cartoon. One can easily see the influence of the great Warner Brothers’ cartoon masters who used aggressive violence to generate laughs.

Many will throw up their hands at this exercise in utter silliness, dismissing it as too absurd to be entertaining. They’re probably in the minority, and they’re definitely outside of this film’s target demographic.

If we are willing to throw logic out the window, then Chow is the man to throw a few well-placed karate chops at our funny bones. (R) Rating: 3(posted 4/22/05)

A Lot Like Love
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In proper Hollywood chick flick fashion, the main characters in the new romantic comedy A Lot Like Love “meet cute.”

Just prior to boarding a flight from LA to New York, Oliver (Ashton Kutcher) notices a lovely girl named Emily (Amanda Peete) breaking up with her boyfriend. Once on the plane, the two make eye contact. Although Oliver is reluctant to make the first move, the heartsick Emily has no such hesitance.

Emily corners Oliver in the lavatory and the duo wordlessly become members of the mile-high club. When Oliver later attempts to strike up a conversation, Emily says, “Don’t spoil it.”

In Emily’s mind, Oliver has one strike against him by not making the first move. Although he follows her and awkwardly attempts to start a “relationship,” his efforts only work against him. Ultimately, Oliver gives Emily his number and asks her to give him a call in seven years. That’s how long he figures it will take him to become a successful businessman.

Fate has other plans, however. The couple reunites from time to time over the next few years to enjoy a “shag” or two and then go their separate ways. From all the evidence, these two simply were not meant for each other.

But that’s not how things work in romantic comedies. When you’ve got two leads this attractive, they’ve just got to be a couple.

Director Nigel Cole (Calendar Girls) and first-time screenwriter Colin Patrick Lynch (an actor who has appeared in such films as Phone Booth and Terminator 2: Judgment Day) manage to find a few moments of truth amidst the genre clichés, and the likable stars aid their efforts.

Kutcher (Butterfly Effect) has shown a limited range in his previous work, but he is very appealing as the awkward but affable Oliver. Peete (The Whole Nine Yards) is terrific, handling both the pathos and humor of her role with equal aplomb.

But there is an awful lot of moping that goes on in A Lot Like Love. Cole makes the mistake of having our stars put on glum faces and the camera lingers on them far too long. The movie’s biggest mistake comes from these prolonged shots. (Okay, we get it already! They’re sad.)

This error in judgment adds to the film’s length (it’s at least 20 minutes too long) and breaks its otherwise peppy momentum.

Still, A Lot Like Love has its modest pleasures, and that is just what it was aiming for. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (posted 4/22/05)

Up and Down
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Robert Altman may have his faults, but as a filmmaker, he is the master of cohesion. He knows how to take several divergent storylines and weave them into a satisfying and thematically sound tapestry.

Czech director Jan Hrebejk tries the same thing with Up and Down, a social commentary about racial and societal tensions in the post-Communist Czech Republic. Although his observations are realistic and intelligent, he can’t quite manage to bring his numerous plot threads together.

The film begins as a couple of lowlife smugglers barely manage to get past the border guards and bring a truckload of Indian refugees into the Czech Republic. After dumping their load of human baggage, they speed away only to discover that a tiny baby was left behind in their truck.

They take their unwanted passenger to some gangsters who put it up for sale. That brings us to our second storyline about a security guard named Franta (Jiri Machacek) and his unbalanced wife, Mila (Natasa Burger.)

Mila yearns for a baby, but Franta is a soccer hooligan with a criminal record and the infertile couple is not permitted to adopt. When Mila learns about the Indian baby, she empties their bank account and buys the child. When Franta discovers the dark skin of this baby, he immediately realizes that no one will believe it’s his. It’s bad enough that his racist friends think that immigrants are overrunning their country.

Yet another story intrudes, that of a professor named Otto (Jan Triska) who is stricken with cancer. He longs to see his estranged son Martin (Petr Foreman) whom he hasn’t seen in 20 years. Martin travels from his home in Australia for an awkward reunion with his father and mother Vera (Emilia Vasaryova.) Otto, you see, left Vera years ago and took up with Martin’s ex-girlfriend, Hana (Ingrid Timkova.) He now wants a divorce from Vera and for Martin to give his blessing. (Are you getting all of this?)

This sets up the dinner from hell, as the alcoholic Vera spews racist bile and bitterly refuses the dying man’s request. Caught in the middle, Martin tries vainly to rise above it all.

Hrebejk and co-writer Petr Jarchovsky use these stories to make some pointed commentary about the changes their country is going through and the toll it is taking on race relations. Their outlook is unrelentingly pessimistic, but they inject some humor into their movie to prevent it from becoming a complete exercise in gloom.

The main problem with Up and Down is that it is so disjointed. You can’t tell the players without a program and there are certainly cultural aspects that simply don’t translate well.

Although it is certainly well intentioned, Up and Down is ultimately a bagful of interesting but unconnected ideas. (R) Rating: 2.5 (posted 4/22/05)

Winter Solstice
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The “empty nest syndrome” is one that is rarely explored by Hollywood. After all, the angst of middle-aged people doesn’t usually provide much entertainment value for Tinseltown’s target demographic.

That’s what makes Winter Solstice a bit of a surprise. It’s the kind of subject matter that is usually relegated to the Lifetime Channel. This earnest little drama from first-time writer/director Josh Sternfeld is well acted and realistic. It’s also very quiet, slow moving and painfully somber.

Anthony LaPaglia (TV’s Without a Trace) stars as Jim Winters, a widowed landscaper who is raising two teenage boys in a small town. (If the location seems familiar, that’s because it was filmed in Glen Ridge, NJ, the same site as the current — and very similar — film, Imaginary Heroes.)

Although his wife has been gone for a few years, the pain is still evident. Jim is having a tough time relating to his sons who are dealing with their loss in very different ways.

While Jim buries himself in his work, his eldest son Gabe (Tadpole’s Aaron Stanford) dreams of escape. Just to change his glum surroundings, Gabe is planning to give up his relationship with his longtime girlfriend, leave his job and education opportunities and run off to Florida with a friend.

Jim’s other son, Pete (Mark Webber from Hollywood Ending) has become bitterly aloof, a slacker, and is falling behind in school in spite of the fact that he is exceedingly bright.

These fellows love one another, but without the emotional buffering that their mother provided, they have no skills to show it. In fact, they rarely communicate at all except for a few offhand words and the occasional shouting match.

Things begin to open up for Jim when a woman named Molly (Allison Janney from TV’s The West Wing) moves into the neighborhood to house sit for a friend. Alone and never married, Molly provides Jim with an opportunity to share some feelings he’s kept bottled up since his wife’s death.

The cast is exceptionally good, even though it is sometimes hard to believe that the Winters’ boys are actually Jim’s sons. (There is so little resemblance that one is left wondering what Jim’s wife was up to.)

The movie is also sorely lacking humor. This is the kind of movie that begs for the occasional laugh just to temper the angst.

Still, Winter Solstice is a respectable family drama. Perhaps it will find an audience someday…on Lifetime. (R) Rating: 3 (posted 4/15/05)

Mystery of the Nile
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In April of 2004, two Americans accomplished a feat that no other adventures had ever successfully completed. They rafted the entire length of the Nile River.

On the surface, that may not seem like such a remarkable achievement…but consider the challenges; the Nile, at 3,250 miles in length, it is the world’s longest. It is populated with man-eating crocodiles and aggressive hippos, is buffeted by sandstorms; it has miles of razor-sharp, rock laden rapids; it is patrolled by gangs of merciless bandits and cuts through several countries, each with its own arcane rules. Plus malaria is as common as a cold.

Dozens of people have died trying to navigate the Nile, and many have simply disappeared. You can call it the ultimate adventure or an exercise in insanity, but in any case, it’s one wild ride.

The new film Mystery of the Nile chronicles the journey of these adventurers, documenting their historic four-month journey on the giant IMAX screen.

The leader of the expedition was a geophysicist Pasquale Scaturro, celebrated for his successful 2001 ascension of Mount Everest, accompanied by blind climber Erik Weihenmayer.

Along with Scaturro on the Nile was Gordon Brown, a kayaking expert. The duo began their adventure on Christmas Day, 2003. Amazingly, they were accompanied on their treacherous trek by massive IMAX cameras.

The movie details the many twists and turns, both literal and figurative, that these explorers encountered. Pasquale and Gordon provide narration, as do a handful of other scientists and historians who accompanied them on certain legs of the journey.

Most of this narration is uninspired, consisting of a lot of, “Wow, we made it” observations. But The Mystery of the Nile isn’t about hearing, it’s about seeing, and the visuals are appropriately stunning. We’re treated to breathtaking vistas of African landscapes that are jaw dropping, to say the least.

We’re even treated to a few side trips to explore some ancient ruins that demonstrate how remarkably advanced some of these civilizations were…and how completely they depended upon the Nile for their survival.

But the real mystery in Mystery of the Nile is how director Jordi Llompart was able to hide the titanic IMAX cameras that were along for the bumpy ride. Granted, much of the cinematography was shot from the air, but telltale shadows usually intrude. They are completely missing here.

Mystery of the Nile allows moviegoers to share in the epic journey of these adventurers. We, of course, can do it vicariously in the comfort the theatre. (No MPAA rating) Rating: 3 (posted 4/22/05)

The Amityville Horror
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The scariest scary movies are those that arouse our worst fears, fears with roots in reality. The recent remake of the 1979 The Amityville Horror (based on Jay Anson’s book of the same name) does this, at least in part.

In an early scene Ronald DeFeo walks into his little sister’s room carrying a rifle. He aims the rifle at her, and for a moment his eyes soften. “I love you,” he says.

Then the camera shows us the outside of the house. We hear a gunshot and see a flash of light in an upstairs window. We don’t see the horrible act. But we instinctively know the girl is dead.

The opening scenes dramatize a real incident that occurred in 1974, when Ronald DeFeo shot and killed his father, Ronald Sr., his mother Louise and his four siblings. The rest of the film is devoted to the much-questioned story of George and Kathy Lutz and their three children, who moved into the former DeFeo house about a year after the murders.

The movie moves from surreal to normal as it introduces the Lutz family. He’s a contractor. She’s the mother of two boys and a girl by a previous relationship, and her oldest son, Billy, is having trouble accepting George as a father figure. Other than Billy’s minor mutinies, the family appears healthy and happy.

Their move to the haunted house is documented with montages of their carefree interactions as they move their belongings from one abode to another. Then the action lurches from normal to supernatural with a mixture of humor and startling moments.

On the Lutz family’s first night in the house, little Michael hears noises coming through a vent. He’s scared but needs to go to the bathroom. He’s funny to watch as he scampers down the hall and then stands in front of the toilet looking around cautiously.

After that, more frightening supernatural occurrences disrupt the family harmony. The babysitter, Lisa, has a run-in with one of the ghosts. George’s disposition changes from warm to odd and chilly. The Lutz’s daughter Chelsea starts telling unsettling tales about her interactions with an invisible friend.

The film’s score is mostly scratchy and spare, perfect for keeping the nerves on edge. And there are a couple startling moments that will elicit small shocks of fright. However, if you’re a die-hard horror fan who’s looking for the scariest kind of scary movie to keep you awake at night, this is not the film. The Amityville Horror is, however, probably the best horror film released so far this year. (R) Rating: 3 (posted 4/15/05)

Reviewed by Deborah Young

Eleven years ago, Danny Boyle directed a dark comedy called Shallow Grave. That film dramatizes a struggle that ensues between flat-mates when they discover that their new flat-mate has died and left a pile of money behind. Their struggle over the money reveals the darkness that can lurk within the human soul.

Millions has a similar theme, but its lead characters are children and the story is more concerned with light than darkness. One day Damien (10-year-old Alexander Nathan Etel) is sitting in his cardboard house in the middle of a green field when a black Nike bag falls on the house. The bag is full of money (almost 250 British Pounds).

Damien thinks God has given him the money to do good deeds with (give to the poor, etc.), which seems to be a natural conclusion for a boy obsessed with saints. He likes to spout his knowledge of saints’ birth and death dates. He also talks to them to get their advice and to find out if any of them has seen his deceased mother.

When Damien shows the money to his older brother, Anthony (Lewis Owen McGibbon), the older boy’s mental wheels start turning. Unlike Damien, Anthony’s looking out for Number One, calculating all the gadgets he can buy with that money.

Besides the minor problems created by the difference in their values, the boys have a short period of time to either spend or convert the money before the British monetary system converts to the Euro. Further complicating matters, a crook is looking for the money.

Millions is a quiet, slow-paced film about the greedy and charitable sides of human nature, and about the ways in which people handle grief. Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script captures the soul of the lonely Damien, who desperately misses his mother and is clutching religion and goodness for dear life. Damien’s discussions with various saints (who are figments of his imagination) are the best parts of the film.

Young Etel easily steals the show as a boy who is both innocent and wise. And some of the situations the boys find themselves in are quite amusing although not hilarious. In this season of horror films that are less than horrifying and romantic comedies that are less than funny, this film emerges as a definite charmer. But watching it requires patience and the willingness to look below the film’s still surface to its odd but optimistic heart. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (posted 4/15/05)

Inside Deep Throat
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In 1972, a hairdresser named Gerard Damiano made a porno movie for roughly $25,000. (As he would later admit, it was an excuse to get laid.)

Deep Throat, the silly little flick that Norman Mailer described as “a giggle,” wound up grossing $600 million, making it (reportedly) the most profitable film ever made.
The canny documentary Inside Deep Throat examines the shock waves that were created by the release of the film and demonstrates how that movie changed America’s perception of obscenity. Thanks to the efforts of some self-righteous individuals who tried to snuff it out, Deep Throat rode a tidal wave of negative publicity that made it a “must-see” film for people from all walks of life.

Filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, who made a splash with the documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye and the dramatic film (based upon one of their earlier documentaries) Party Monster, take a long hard look (no pun intended) at how a porn film impacted contemporary morality.

Narrator Dennis Hopper guides us through a cornucopia of film clips (the porn footage is limited but very hardcore) that help to set the mood for this comprehensive (to a fault) look at the era.

The talking heads are numerous and interesting, too. Along with celebrities like Mailer, we get some noteworthy observations from Carl Bernstein, Helen Gurley Brown, Dick Cavett, Wes Craven, Alan Dershowitz, Larry Flint, Al Goldstein, Hugh Hefner, Erica Jong, Bill Maher, Camille Paglia, Gore Vidal, John Waters and Dr. Ruth Westheimer…just to name a few.

Damiano, who now lives a quiet life with his children, recounts how the film came to be, and how he never made any money on it. (His “partners,” well-known mobsters, gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse. He gave up his interest in the flick to them.)

The film also follows the ups and downs in the life of actor Harry Reems, who became the only member of the filmmaking crew to be tried and convicted of obscenity charges. (His conviction was later overturned.) Unable to find acting work outside of porn, he descended into a life of booze and drugs that took decades to emerge from. (He’s now a conservative Christian.)

The sad life of Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace is also spotlighted. Unable to shake her porn image, she was fired from every job she ever held. She died penniless in a car accident in 2002.

In the age of the Internet, the trench coat porn audiences of the 1970s may seem almost quaint. As Inside Deep Throat shows, that era is, thankfully, long gone. (No pun intended.) (NC-17) Rating: 3 (posted 4/15/05)

Travellers and Magicians
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

One thing is for certain, Travellers and Magicians (their spelling) is the best film ever made in Bhutan by a Buddhist lama. It’s also the finest cinematic achievement in the Dzongka language.

The fact that it is the only film ever made in that language and in that Himalayan kingdom doesn’t diminish the accomplishment in the least.

Filmmaker Khyentse Norbu previously made the quaint soccer film The Cup, a small but surprising hit about the efforts of some monks to obtain a TV in order to watch a soccer championship. With Travellers and Magicians, he has turned Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales into a road movie that takes place on the opposite side of the world.

It tells the story of a government employee named Dondup (Tshewang Dendup), a lover of Western culture who has been living in a remote outpost in Bhutan. He wants nothing more than to leave his backward country and head off to America, the land of wine, women and song.

After missing a bus, he begins walking until he comes upon a group of folks who are on a religious pilgrimage. These fellow travelers include a monk (Sonam Kinga) who constantly needles Dondup about his materialism.

Dondup, you see, likes Western T-shirts, listens to rock ‘n roll, and has a dismissive view of the Bhutan lifestyle. He considers his traveling companions to be backwater hicks while they see him as a shallow city slicker.

There are other plot elements in Travellers and Magicians that include a fable told by the monk about an apprentice magician named Tashi (Lhakpa Dorji). His donkey is transformed into a horse that runs off and takes him to an isolated shack. In this cinematic side trip, the movie takes a dark turn and its tone abruptly changes.

One problematic element in the movie involves Dondup’s relationship with a young girl he encounters named Sonam (Sonam Lhamo). The actress is much too young for the role, making the romantic-leaning relationship a bit creepy. (See Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba in Sin City.)

Where Norbu succeeds is in his visuals. He deftly depicts the stunning beauty of Bhutan and juxtaposes that with Dondup’s brash disregard for it. We see all too well what the fellow would be giving up to pursue his American dream.

If this film catches on, don’t be surprised to see American travel agents booking tourists for excursions to this isolated country. That would be the ultimate irony. (No MPAA rating) Rating: 3.5 (posted 4/15/05)

Imaginary Heroes
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If you start having a bit of déjà vu while watching the new Sigourney Weaver vehicle, Imaginary Heroes, you won’t be alone. Anyone who has seen Robert Redford’s Oscar-winning drama Ordinary People will probably have the same reaction.

This skillfully acted comic drama deals with many of the same themes of alienation that Redford previously explored. And, like its predecessor, Imaginary Heroes deals with a family who has to cope with the death of a child.

Weaver stars as Sandy Travis, a middle-aged, middle class mom whose son, a champion swimmer, has taken his own life. Stunned and grief-stricken, Sandy copes as well as one might expect, but the reaction of the rest of the family make it even more difficult.

Her husband, Ben (Jeff Daniels) goes into a depressive funk, unable to interact with the rest of the family except to curse them out and imply that they’re inferior to his deceased son. He insists that a meal be prepared for the dead boy and has it placed at the table for every meal. He even secretly takes a leave of absence from work to spend countless hours sitting alone, moping on a park bench.

The Travis’ other son, Tim (Emile Hirsch) seems to be taking the loss of his brother better than anyone. But, in fact, he’s hiding the scars very deeply. He keeps a journal that is filled with dark imagery that illustrates the pain that he’s buried far beneath the surface.

The film is centered on his character (as it was with Tim Hutton’s character in Ordinary People) and how, over a period of several months, secrets emerge that change everyone’s perspective.

Writer/director Dan Harris (screenwriter of X2 and the upcoming Superman film) injects some humor into what otherwise could have become an utterly morose and heavy-handed offering. Instead of being inundated with pathos, we’re actually allowed to laugh, even when tragedy strikes.

Sandy takes to smoking dope and gets busted, Tim’s girlfriend introduces him to the joy of sex, and his sister Penny (the underutilized Michelle Williams) enjoys the party life during her infrequent visits home from college.

It’s easy to see why these actors wanted to tackle these parts. Weaver, Daniels and Hirsch all have meaty roles, although one could argue that Daniels’ character is not as well written as the other two.

You may have flashbacks of Redford’s classic while watching Imaginary Heroes, but it is an example of Ordinary People-lite. (R) Rating: 3 (posted 4/15/05)

Fever Pitch
Reviewed by Deborah Young

At the beginning of Fever Pitch, the voice of Al (Jack Kehler) explains how Ben’s Uncle Jack took Ben (Jason Spevak as the seven-year-old Ben) to his first Boston Red Sox game. That day, Al reminisces, Ben became one of the world’s most pitiful creatures: a Red Sox fan.

Pitiful indeed. Twenty-three years later the small apartment Ben (Jimmie Fallon) occupies is full of Red Sox memorabilia, newspaper clippings and photos of players, Red Sox towels in the bathroom and even Yankee toilet paper. “It’s like you live in a gift shop,” Lindsey Meeks (Drew Barrymore) observes at one point.

The screenwriters reveal little about Ben, just that he’s a 30-year-old schoolteacher and that he loves the Red Sox. Ben meets Lindsey when he takes his students on a field trip to the office where she works. She’s a successful executive, although it’s not clear what her job is. Ben is attracted to Lindsey. But, as his students point out, she’s way out of his league. Why would she want to date a lowly schoolteacher?

Lindsey puzzles over the same question, first asking herself why she should date Ben, then later thinking why not. He wins her over on the first date (which turns out to be no date at all). Then, the camera clips through their courtship with brief looks at some of their happy moment.

Then the camera comes to rest on Ben and captures his time spent with his true passion: baseball. The camera’s eye lingers on the front of the stadium and in the stands during games. It catches Ben planning the season — who he’ll take to which game.

Fever Pitch is about two love affairs: the one between Ben and Lindsey, and the obsessive mental connection Ben has to the Sox. However, the movie is much more focused on the latter. Not much time is spent on the development of Lindsey’s character. She is just the shell of a woman, a caricature of an attractive, career-oriented woman who’s been lulled into submitting to the allure of a romantic fantasy by the ticking of her biological clock.

Both Fallon and Barrymore have their charms. Barrymore has mastered that head-tilted, kittenish look of befuddlement and the soft, girlish tones that hint of vulnerability beneath a polished surface. Fallon sports the wide smile and unkempt exterior of a loveable goof. Both actors are easy to watch, and their onscreen personas are likeable, but together they have little chemistry.

There are lots of physical gags and wholly unrealistic tomfoolery to cover the lack of chemistry between the film’s two stars. But the gags and tomfoolery aren’t wide enough to cover the lagging moments and plot omissions. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (posted 4/11/05)

Reviewed by Deborah Young

The foggy first scene of Sahara shows the battleship USS Iron Clad Texas under fire during the Civil War. Outside of the ship, bursts of light cut through the fog; inside, there’s pandemonium as the ship’s crew reacts to the attack. The scene is gray, ominous and full of dark romance.

Cut to the next scene. The camera scans the office of Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey), a naval historian who (judging from the newspaper clippings on his walls, the maps and model of the Iron Clad) is apparently obsessed with finding the wreckage of the sunken ship.

When we next see Dirk he’s in Lagos saving a beautiful World Health Organization doctor (Penelope Cruz as Eva Rojas) from a mysterious attacker. Rojas has stumbled upon a mysterious disease that’s killing a lot of people in Lagos and in Mali, but her bosses at the W.H.O. don’t want her to go to Mali.

She goes anyway, of course. If she didn’t there’d be no point in continuing the movie, no point in Dirk and his sidekick Al (Steve Zahn) performing dangerous stunts in a boat, blowing up things, fighting and trekking across the desert.

The plot grows more grand and ridiculous as they continue their journey. At one point, one of the characters suggests that there’s a real danger of the mysterious disease making it’s way across the water to the United States.

But this film is best watched with the logic button of your brain switched to off. McConaughey and Zahn have great chemistry as adventurous (and wacky) buddies who don’t shy away from danger. The two men have a way of looking at each other like they’re reading each other’s minds before pulling off one of their life-risking stunts.

Penelope Cruz’s character, Eva, does what women usually do in these kinds of films. She gives the heroes chances to save her, and occasionally she strikes a blow of her own to help out.

Ultimately, Sahara is about the guys and the ambiance created by nature and exotic multicultural characters. Whether the scene occurs on a bustling city street, on the river or on desert sand, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey captures it in away that seems to bring all the senses to the eyes.

Although a bit silly at times and as light as meringue, Sahara will probably prove entertaining for those who don’t over think it. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (posted 4/11/05)

Mail Order Wife
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Early on in the making of this unique documentary, narrator and filmmaker Andrew Gurland makes a confession. He has paid his subject in order to be allowed to film his story. That is just the first in a series of ethical lapses Gurland makes.

The film involves a burly and slovenly doorman from Queens named Andrew Martinez who orders an Asian wife from a matchmaking service. Gurland and co-director Huck Botko follow him as he makes his initial order, to the arrival of his bride (a Burmese girl name Lichi)…and then into utterly unexpected territory.

It turns out, you see, that what Adrian really wanted was a maid and a sex slave. When Andrew realizes what has happened, he becomes personally involved in Lichi’s life.

SPOILER ALERT: The rest of this review contains information that may lessen one’s appreciation for certain aspects of the film. Read on at your own risk.

Mail Order Wife is a put on. In the tradition of Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman, it is a “mockumentary” that uses the format to veil what is really a fully scripted comedy.

Unlike others of its ilk, Mail Order Wife looks so convincing in its cinema verité style that even savvy moviegoers may be fooled for awhile. The truly gullible may never realize that they’ve been had.

The filmmakers show tremendous ingenuity here. They demonstrate a unique way to film a dramatic movie on the cheap and, thanks to a clever script, make it as entertaining as most big-budget efforts.

All of the principals play a variation on themselves, with the exception of Eugenia Yuan (the upcoming Memoirs of a Geisha) who gives a terrific performance as the put upon Lichi. Martinez is equally good as the brutish doorman.

But Gurland has the most self-deprecating role. He shows this version of himself to be a self-centered, egotistical schmuck who can’t see the parallels between his own abhorrent behavior and that of Adrian. Indeed, he considers himself to be superior to Adrian in every way in spite of his numerous lapses in judgment.

As the film unfolds, the plot gets more and more absurd, and the humor broadens. Lichi ultimately turns the tables on both Andrew and Adrian, giving each of them a dose of justice they richly deserve.

In a priceless moment late in the film, steroid superstar Jose Canseco turns up as himself. Adrian fawns over him calling him the greatest baseball player ever. Like I said, Mail Order Wife is a put on. (R) Rating: 3 (posted 4/08/05)

Schultze Gets the Blues
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When novice filmmaker Michael Schorr explained the concept of his debut movie to potential financiers, his account must have been met with incredulity. Could it actually have commercial possibilities?

Schorr’s film, Schultze Gets the Blues, features a single German mine worker who tries to figure out how to fill his days after being forced into early retirement. The notion is not exactly a barnburner.

Still, Schorr’s little movie exhibits a droll sense of humor and an unexpectedly sweet demeanor. As a result, this modest little effort has won a slew of awards at various film festivals and has developed a cult following.

The film opens at a salt mine where Schultze (Horst Krause) is working his last day on the job. After years of toil, he is given a gift (an electric salt crystal lamp) and shown the door. Single, childless and living alone, he is utterly adrift.

Trying to figure out what to do with his time, he noodles around in his garden, plays chess and has an occasional beer with pals. Luckily, he has his accordion to keep him company.

Because he’s pretty adept on the instrument, he’s often called upon to play the traditional polkas at village events. Usually eager to comply, something happens that changes his life forever.

While listening to the radio one day, Schultze hears a strange new kind of music. Schultze is inexplicably drawn to this upbeat, syncopated sound. He then works hard to reproduce the exotica on his accordion. He later learns that this infectious style is called zydeco.

Schultze becomes so enamored with the music, that he even starts cooking jambalaya in big pots on his stove. His orderly life is altered when he tries out a zydeco tune at a local community center concert. His efforts are met with utter disdain.

To tell more might be to give too much away. This leisurely-paced film unfolds in odd ways, sending our hero on a series of unexpected, easy-going adventures.

The gentle humor in Schultze Gets the Blues is so subtle that some viewers will miss the joke altogether and be utterly bored. Schorr employs a mostly static camera and takes his sweet time in establishing the mood of each scene. This is the utter antithesis of a typical Hollywood action vehicle.

But there is a sly intelligence at play here. Schorr has something important to say regarding how one uses one’s time. The real question is: Do we have the patience to hear it? (PG) Rating: 3 (posted 4/08/05)

Animation Show 2005
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Older moviegoers occasionally complain that theatres no longer show cartoon shorts along with features. (The Pixar films are notable exceptions.)

That’s why Mike Judge (Beavis and Butt-head, King of the Hill) and veteran animator Don Hertzfeldt founded The Animation Show, an eclectic compilation of films from around the world.

These twelve shorts represent considerable diversity in content and execution, demonstrating that the creators of animated shorts persevere in spite of the lack of venues to showcase their work.

The films represented in this assemblage utilize computer-generated imagery, stop-motion animation, a combination of live action and drawings as well as traditional hand-drawn cartoons.

As in all such anthologies, there are a couple of duds among the gems, but the overall quality represented is generally impressive.

Veteran animator Bill Plympton gets things off to an amusing, if somewhat harsh hand-drawn start with Guard Dog, an Oscar-nominated cartoon about an overly protective pooch who sees threats to his master around every corner.

Plympton’s imaginative short is followed by the pointless F.E.D.S., a roto-scoped film about grocery store workers who offer small taste samples to shoppers. Luckily, F.E.D.S. is a minor misstep.

Among the impressive selections is the Australian entry, Ward 13, a nightmarish stop-motion piece about a victim of a car accident who awakens in the hospital from hell. In an attempt to escape, our hero gets involved in a chase sequence that is as exciting as any you’ll see in the best action flick.

Ever wonder what happened after the chicken crossed the road? When the Day Breaks has one possible answer in a series of fanciful interconnected stories involving human-like barnyard animals. What begins as a light, upbeat tale evolves into an unsettling and melancholy one.

A visually arresting computer-generated science fiction short called Rock Fish features a space traveling fisherman and his “dog” who hook a creature that turns out to be more trouble than it’s worth. The eye-popping effects more than make up for the somewhat unimaginative storyline.

One might debate the meaning of The Man With No Shadow, but this strange, dreamlike film made up of a single, long pan shot looks like an impressionistic painting come to life.

Hertzfeldt closes out the proceedings with his work, the lengthy and ambitious The Meaning of Life — a bit of ambiguous philosophizing is as visually interesting as it is enigmatic.

Thanks to The Animation Show 2005, a cinematic void has been effectively filled. (No MPAA rating) Rating: 3 (posted 4/08/05)

Sin City
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The opening scene of Sin City would make a good perfume commercial. It features a well-dressed man and woman on a balcony at night. A cityscape gleams in the background, and the man explains by way of voiceover his observations about the woman and his modus operandi of seduction. Of course, the commercial would have to end before the point at which we discover that he’s a killer and she’s his victim.

The scene is elegant enough to sell a high-priced perfume but ends in a cold act of violence, which is typical of what you can expect from this film. It’s highly stylized, beautiful sometimes and at other times gory and brutal. Shot mostly in black and white with a few splashes of color here and there, Sin City is the motion picture version of Frank Miller’s graphic novels, which depict the dark human dramas of the fictitious Basin City.

Sin City consists of three stories in which time seems fluid. In one story, Bruce Willis plays Hartigan, a police officer that tries to save a girl from a rapist. In another, a big brute named Marv (Mickey Rourke) pursues the murderer of a hooker who befriended him. The third story focuses on Dwight, who unwittingly sets events in motion that might bring an end to a truce between the police and the prostitutes of Old Town (which include Rosario Dawson as Gail, Jessica Alba as Nancy Callahan, and Devon Aoki as the fierce fighting girl Miho).

Each scene is punctuated by violence, although the violence is not realistic. Blood spurts white most of the time (or yellow in the case of the character called Yellow Bastard). And characters survive physical traumas that in real life would kill them.

The edge is shaved further from the violence that occurs in Basin City by the frequent voiceover narrations. The narrator speaks in that matter-of-fact, overly descriptive style used in detective stories decades ago. The narrators’ witty (or at times inane) monologue is usually funny when compared to (or contrasted with) what’s really happening in the scene.

There is no doubt that Sin City is innovative visually and full of witty dialogue, but the violence (even muted as it is) might be too much for some viewers. Also, the stories are sometimes difficult to follow as they flow from one to the next.

Sin City has been the subject of much praise for its style and for its achievement in creating a movie that looks amazingly like its graphic novel counterpart. On the other hand, it will surely be an enigma for many viewers. (R) Rating: 2.5 (posted 4/04/05)

Beauty Shop
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Sometimes a movie trailer sells a film with entertaining dialogue, intriguing images or humor. Then the film disappointments moviegoers who had bite the lure and seen it. After they’ve plunked their money down and gave up a couple hours, they discover that the movie’s best material was crammed into the trailer.

This is not the case with Beauty Shop. Looking at the trailer might actually give a person the impression that this is one of those lowbrow comedies with a few funny gags surrounded by lots of stereotypes and bawdy humor, but little to recommend it.

Beauty Shop is short on plot, but it’s also long on charm. This spin-off of the Barber Shop movies features Queen Latifah as Gina, a cosmetologist and single mother.

Gina breaks out of her job in an upscale salon run by the controlling and pretentious Jorge Christophe (Kevin Bacon) to realize her dream of running her own salon. But she has to downsize her dream of a hip, upscale salon because she can only get a $30,000 loan for the venture. So she winds up purchasing a rundown shop in the ‘hood and inheriting the beauticians who worked with the previous owner.

Her new employees aren’t thrilled about Gina’s choice to bring in a white stylist (Alicia Silverstone), nor are they pleased with her mandate that they wear uniforms (gray smocks). Gina gets a few unwanted surprises as well when she meets two local entrepreneurs who do business at the shop.

First, there’s Willie (Lil’ JJ), an obnoxious young teen who visits the shop to sell candy bars. Willie has a mouth on him and regularly flirts with the stylists and the patrons, making some bold observations about their bodies. Then, there’s the odd lady who hawks homemade dinners at the shop. Her pitch includes shrill monkey-like screeches.

Like Barber Shop, this film mostly focuses on what happens in the shop, the interactions between the stylists and the patrons. It’s more about personalities than plot. Beauty Shop is, however, less political than it’s predominantly male-populated counterpart.

At it’s core, Beauty Shop is an urban parable that focuses on a brief period in the lives of two women: One, Gina, struggles to realize her dream of running a successful business and to continue to send her daughter to a good music school. The second, Darnelle (Keisha Knight Pulliam), is trying to slide by on her looks.

Admittedly, Beauty Shop is about as shallow as a peanut shell, but it has something big: an appealing cast that easily conveys warmth. The movie also offers the positive message of self-love, but the offer is made in the spirit of lightheartedness and fun. (PG) Rating: 3 (posted 4/04/05)

The Upside of Anger
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

As the old saying goes, when you “assume,” you make an “ass of u and me.” If you needed an example to support that adage, look no further than The Upside of Anger, a new comic drama from Mike Binder (Sex Monster.)

Joan Allen gives an Oscar-worthy performance (her second already this year after Off the Map) as Terry Wolfmeyer, a Michigan housewife whose husband has run off to Sweden with his secretary. She’s been abandoned to fend for herself and her four daughters.

She finds a bit of comfort in an affair with her boozy neighbor, a washed-up former big league ballplayer named Denny Davies (Kevin Costner.) The laconic Denny ekes out a living by hosting a local sports radio show and by hawking autographed baseballs.

Although the occasional roll in the hay with Denny helps Terry let off steam, this is a woman scorned…and desperately bitter.

Embracing depression, cursing and gin, the once mellow Terry has a hard time relating to her daughters (Alicia Witt, Keri Russell, Erika Christensen and Evan Rachel Wood.) Every word from her mouth sounds indignant, even if she doesn’t mean it that way. One by one, she alienates them with her caustic manner.

Denny, however, is a bit more resilient. Although he suffers abuse at Terry’s hand, he seems to be able to cope and turn the other cheek…most of the time.

If all this sounds like a pity party to you, you’re partly right. The whining does become a bit tiresome and the characters exhibit very little respectable behavior. But there’s also a lot of good humor that helps to temper the angst.

But the main reason that The Upside of Anger works lies in the performances. Allen is sensational, delivering an utterly believable characterization. In spite of her off-putting and often nasty demeanor, you can’t help but empathize with her.

Costner makes the most of the best role that he’s had in a decade. Mellow and somewhat carefree, he yearns for a place to fit in. Acceptance by Terry and her girls supplies that vital piece that is missing in his life.

Writer/director Binder also has a nice turn as Denny’s obnoxious radio show producer. When this sleazeball has an affair with one of Terry’s daughters, Terry produces enough bile to burst a spleen.

Besides the din of whining, the film has a few other flaws that prevent it from taking a place alongside Terms of Endearment as a first-rate comic drama.

But it’s got Allen and Costner, and their efforts provide plenty of upside to the movie. (R) Rating: 4 (posted 4/01/05)

Bazaar Bizarre
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

To say that Bob Berderlla was an oddball would be the understatement of the century. The infamous Kansas City serial killer was as twisted as the name of his Westport area curio shop, “Bizarre Bazaar.”

Ben Meade’s documentary about the demented Berdella is, appropriately, as dark and unhinged as its subject. It tells the story of the shopkeeper who, in 1988, was arrested for the kidnapping, raping, torturing and murdering (and, perhaps eating) several young men in his Hyde Park home.

James Ellroy Presents Bazaar Bizarre is a hard movie to describe. Part documentary, part shock video, part musical (!), it succeeds in reflecting the curious and nebulous nature of a psychotic murderer.

As the title implies, there is running commentary provided by famed crime novelist, James Ellroy (LA Confidential.) His observations provide the some of the film’s best moments. After a talking head makes a statement or when a factoid is presented for your consideration, Ellroy is ready with a quip that gets right to the point. The man certainly knows how to turn a phrase.

Other strengths include talking head interviews with local citizens about the case. Among them are former county prosecutor Albert Riederer, the Rev. Roger Coleman, reporter Karen Blakeman and disk jockey Skid Roadie.

But the creepiest interview is with Berdella himself, one that was conducted shortly before his death while he was serving his prison sentence. Seemingly unapologetic, he laid the blame for several of the murders on the police for their failure to catch him. This is the logic of a madman.

Meade makes the curious choice of including a few numbers from his band, The Demon Dogs, led by Bill Gladden. Although catchy, these tunes do nothing to illuminate the proceedings and seem to be a self-indulgent distraction.

But the main objection many may have is in the graphic gore Meade depicts in several “reenactments” of Berdella’s murder and torture sessions. These blood-soaked segments are appropriately disturbing, setting the right dark tone, but will definitely strike some viewers as sadistic and exploitive.

But Meade is a talented filmmaker who is willing to take that risk. His aim was never to make a straight ahead documentary. As the film’s Web site states, James Ellroy Presents Bazaar Bizarre aims to be a “campy yet direct presentation guaranteed to make the viewer squirm.”

On that count, it is a resounding success.
(Not rated, but contains graphic violence and nudity.) Rating for the heartiest: 3 for everyone else: 2 (posted 4/01/05)

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