reel reviews
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April '06


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

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Reviewed by Russ Simmons

An award-winner at last year’s Kansas International Film Festival, 11:59 is the first feature from filmmaker Jamin Winans. While it possesses the exasperating flaws of many a debut, it also demonstrates that this newcomer has real promise.

Independently made in Denver on a shoestring budget, 11:59 is a mind-bender. Is it a science fiction opus, a political thriller, the story of a reluctant psychic or the tale of a man going mad? Whatever it is, Winans isn’t telling.

Raymond Andrew Bailey stars as Aaron Doherty, a cameraman for a big city television station news department. In the opening sequence, we see him and reporter Lisa Winder (Laura Fuller) in hot pursuit of a story lead that their fiery producer, Adele (Liz Cunningham) has provided.

A suspected child murderer is running (literally), chased by police helicopters. Aaron and Lisa get to him first and Aaron, camera in hand, corners him while he professes his innocence. “I’ve been setup” is his claim.

Because Aaron’s dogged persistence got his station the scoop, he gets Adele’s profuse praise. She wants him to meet corporate suits that’ll be visiting the next day.

Trouble is, Aaron never shows up to meet them…or to photograph the suspected killer as someone guns him down on the courthouse steps. Where was he on the most important day of his professional life?

Aaron wants to know that, too. It seems that he’s missing 24 hours of his life. After hitting a disco on Monday night, he passes out and wakes up in a rural wheat field on Wednesday.

Frustrated and confused, Aaron hitches a ride back into the city and tries to put together the puzzle of his missing day. He tells Adele the far-fetched details about what happened, but she’s unsympathetic and he’s too stubborn to get help.

Winans (reportedly a film school dropout) obviously knows a lot of cinematic tricks and can’t wait to show them off. He uses a lot of tricky hand-held camera movement, quick cross-cutting, flashbacks, foreshadowing and symbolic magic realism. His technique is often a lot more interesting than the story he’s come up with.

The movie also suffers a bit from some awkward dialogue delivered by actors who don’t always have the skill to artfully pull it off. While sincere, the performances have little nuance making them seem one-dimensional.

While Winans’ 11:59 leaves us dangling, its visuals are intriguing. Perhaps it is a harbinger of good things to come. (No MPAA rating) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 4/21/06)

American Dreamz
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Writer/director Paul Weitz seems to be trying hard to create a clever comedy. In 2004, he wrote and directed In Good Company, a moderately smart comedy that examined corporate culture and corporate America’s fixation on youth. The film had some funny moments and a definite viewpoint. But it lacked the resonance of a cult classic like Office Space, which managed to be hilarious and capture some truths about the sources of working stiffs’ frustrations.

Now Weitz has turned his attention and his pen to America’s obsession with celebrity. American Dreamz tells the story of the host of a television show that’s reminiscent of the wildly popular American Idol with a focus on two of the contestants.

Weitz tips his hand early in the movie. After breaking up with his girlfriend, host Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant) meets with his staff to discuss the selection of participants for the upcoming show season. "Bring me some freaks,” he says in the same matter-of-fact tone that would be used to ask for another piece of toast.

On their freak search, the show’s staff discovers a ruthlessly ambitious small-town girl, Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), and a show-tune singing Middle-Eastern man named Omer (Sam Golzari). Sally seems willing to exploit anything or anyone to become a star. Omer has been sent to America as part of a terrorist sleeper cell, but when he discovers his cousin’s stage and sound system, he can’t resist his desire to sing. Fortunately for Omer, the staff of the American Dreamz show happens by while he’s singing.

Omer’s character opens a path for the secondary storyline, which involves a plot to kill U.S. President Staton (Dennis Quaid). Weitz appears to be satirizing the Bush administration here, with results that are sometimes hilarious. President Staton discovers newspapers and becomes obsessed with them. He stays in his pajamas for weeks reading newspapers and books, to the dismay of his vice president (Willem Dafoe), who wants the president to continue to be a dumb puppet.

The funniest aspects of American Dreamz are Quaid’s facial expressions of sheer helplessness and confusion, Omer’s over-the-top performances and the terrorists’ fascination with the same American luxuries and cultural tastes that they denounce. Unfortunately, Weitz botches the attempt to really say something of lasting significance. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 4/21/06)

The Sentinel
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Take a look at any TV police series that’s aired in the last 25 years and chances are that director Clark Johnson has helmed some episodes. Among his credits are The Shield, NYPD Blue, Sleeper Cell, Third Watch, Homicide: Life on the Streets, Law & Order and The Wire…just to name a few.

That workmanlike record has provided him the cachet to try his hand at feature films. His first effort, 2003’s S.W.A.T. was, oddly enough, based on a TV police series. It was a garden-variety action flick that stretched credibility a bit. (Colin Farrell took a licking and kept on ticking in a way that would have impressed The Terminator.)

Clark’s second feature effort shares something in common with all of his other work. It is slick, efficient and competently mounted.

While The Sentinel isn’t a police drama, per se, it deals with intrigue in the Secret Service. It’s a political thriller that has lots of detective work and shoot-‘em-up action… so it isn’t such a stretch from Clark’s typical oeuvre.

Michael Douglas (Traffic) stars as veteran Secret Service agent Pete Garrison. Something of a legend among his peers, Pete once took a bullet for President Reagan. (The movie opens with footage of the attempted assassination of Reagan…a move that some viewers will undoubtedly find offensive.)

Pete’s reputation is about to take the hit, however. The murder of an agent (played by Johnson) sets into motion an investigation that shows that, for the first time in the Secret Service’s 144-year history, they have a mole. Someone is out to kill the President from the inside.

Keifer Sutherland (TV’s 24) plays David Breckinridge, another agent who tries to put the pieces together. He and his beautiful new partner Jill Marin (Eva Longoria from TV’s Desperate Housewives) put the pieces together and discover that all of the evidence points to Pete as the main suspect.

Pete could probably have defended himself against the charges except for one complication. He’s been having an affair with the president’s wife, played by Kim Basinger (Cellular), and had to lie about it during a polygraph test.

Naturally, Pete has to flee the authorities and attempt to solve the mystery himself and the save the President.

Admittedly, Clark and screenwriters George Nolfi (Ocean’s 12) and Gerald Petievich (Boiling Point) create a real sense of paranoia. The Sentinel does a competent job of maintaining our interest and keeping us guessing.

But there is nothing inspired or unusual here, so the film never quite shakes the TV feel. It is, in other words…workmanlike. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 4/21/06)

Friends With Money
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

One should give credit where credit is due. If a movie is well acted, well written and thoughtful, the filmmakers deserve a pat on the back.

So be it. Friends With Money qualifies for the kudos. Unfortunately, it’s also annoying, pretentious and terribly self-satisfied. So much for kudos.

Jennifer Anniston (Rumor Has It) leads a solid acting ensemble in this low budget, independent entry. It’s the story of a single, working class woman named Olivia (Anniston) and her three rich married girlfriends in Southern California.

A former teacher, Olivia is now working as a maid, a development that her posse can’t quite come to grips with. Franny (Joan Cusack from Ice Princess) offers to pay for counseling. She may need it herself, as she and her husband perpetually overindulge their children.

Jane, played by Frances McDormand (North Country), just thinks Olivia needs a swift kick in the pants. This criticism is from a woman who has stopped washing her hair and whose husband may be gay

Christine (Capote’s Catherine Keener) is a bit more sympathetic, but she’s having enough problems dealing with her crumbling marriage to a jerky screenwriter be too worried about Olivia’s situation.

The friends meddle in Olivia’s life, fixing her up with a personal trainer, played by Scott Caan (Into the Blue). He turns out to be a louse, tagging along as Olivia cleans people’s houses. He’s there to snoop around, have sex with Olivia and pick up a few extra bucks for “helping out”.

When things go wrong with him, Olivia finds another man, a poor, over-weight slob named Marty (Bob Stephenson from Thumbsucker) to hook up with. They are an unlikely pairing and their relationship seems tacked on by the screenwriter in an attempt at amusing quirkiness. (Revelations about Marty resemble something out of How to Marry a Millionaire.)

Writer/director Nicole Holofcener (Lovely and Amazing) certainly has a talent for writing sharp dialogue and assembling a crack acting ensemble. If this movie is any indication, however, she needs to expand her horizons a bit and get out of pity-party mode. Friends with Money comes off like the work of someone who desperately needs to get some new friends of her own.

If your idea of a good time is sitting around and listening to rich people whine and complain about their problems, then Friends With Money is just what you’re looking for. The rest of us are busy enough with problems of our own. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 4/21/06)

Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dance and Charm School
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Filmmaker Randall Miller is best known for light, lowbrow comedies like Class Act, The Sixth Man and Houseguest, as well as numerous TV entries. He’s also known for a 1990 short subject, Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dance and Charm School.

The short told the story of a kid named Steve (Elden Hensen from Lords of Dogtown) who, in the early ‘60s, was forced by his mother to attend the titular institution. While there, he became infatuated with a girl named Lisa.

Miller has retained the footage of that short and incorporated it into and expanded feature set in 2005, using the original footage for flashbacks.

Steve, played as an adult by John Goodman (Beyond the Sea), is trying desperately to keep a promise that he made to Lisa way back when. When still kids, they vowed to meet at Miss Hotchkiss’ class on the fifth day of the fifth month of the fifth year of the new millennium.

Seriously injured in a car wreck on the way to meet Lisa (whom he hasn’t seen in 40 years), Steve asks the man who stopped to help him to go and meet Lisa in his stead. Frank (The Full Monty’s Robert Carlyle) reluctantly agrees.

But Frank has his own baggage. He’s still grieving from his wife’s suicide and has become a bit of a recluse. His experience with the dance school changes his life forever.

This high-concept comic drama is calculated to tug at our heartstrings, and it occasionally succeeds, thanks mainly to the first-rate cast.

The ensemble includes a couple of Oscar winners, Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny) and Mary Steenburgen (Melvin and Howard), who are joined by Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters), Sean Astin (The Lord of the Rings), Donnie Wahlberg (Annapolis), Adam Arkin (Hitch), Camryn Manheim (TV’s The Practice), Sonia Braga (TV’s Alias), David Paymer (In Good Company) and Danny DeVito (Be Cool), just to name a few. Whew. (Hensen, now an adult, also appears in a brief contemporary role.)

The biggest problem with is that the movie lacks credibility. It might as well have been a full-blown musical given the strange, alternative universe that it has created for itself.

Goodman is given the thankless job of narrating the flashback sequences…with the lower half of his body crushed by the accident. He tells the lighthearted tale of his encounter with his childhood sweetheart while obviously awaiting the grim reaper.

There is an uncomfortable eeriness in Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dance and Charm School where Miller and company had obviously hoped for sweetness. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 4/21/06)

The Wild
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Okay, stop me if you’ve heard this one.

There’s this computer-animated movie about a lion in the New York Zoo. He and a group of his funny animal buddies escape the zoo, stowaway on a steamship and head for Africa. Then one of them is mistaken for a god and worshiped by a group of native animals, climaxing in a big, choreographed production number. Trouble is, they’re going to sacrifice some of our heroes to their deity. Our animal friends then must figure out how to get back home to the safe confines of the zoo before they’re all killed.

Sound familiar? If you said, “I know that one. It’s the plot to the DreamWorks film Madagascar that came out last year,” you’d only be half right. It’s also the plot for Disney’s second attempt at a feature length CGI cartoon (Chicken Little was the first) without Pixar. (There’s got to be a plagiarism suit in there, somewhere.)

The Wild was (if you believe the studio line) in the planning stages before Madagascar. If so, they should have spent less time on the animation and more time on the incredibly lame script.

While the technical aspects of The Wild are stunning (Madagascar’s visuals seem awkward by comparison), the screenplay is an amalgamation of clichés, ham-fisted slapstick, familiar characters and plot contrivances.

Keifer Sutherland (TV’s 24) lends his voice to Samson, the lion king of the zoo. He regales his young son, Ryan (Greg Cipes from TV’s Teen Titans) with stories of his heroics in the wild. All the while, he’s trying to give his son the confidence to find his own roar. But Ryan is insecure and doesn’t think he has what it takes to be his father’s son (shades of The Lion King!) and runs away. Samson and his friends take after him in hot pursuit.

The talented voice cast gives it the good college try, but they can’t quite overcome the script’s inadequacies. Jim Belushi (TV’s The World According to Jim) is a streetwise squirrel in love with a giraffe (Janeane Garofalo from TV’s The West Wing). British comic Eddie Izzard plays a Koala named Nigel and Richard Kind (TV’s Curb Your Enthusiasm) rounds out the animal clique as an addle-brained anaconda. William Shatner (TV’s Boston Legal) is the bad guy, a wildebeest named Kaza, who wants to be at the top of the food chain.

The Wild may seem like an example of déjà vu, but it’s really just Hollywood standard operating procedure. When you don’t have a good idea of your own, go with someone else’s. (G) Rating: 2 (Posted 4/14/06)

Scary Movie 4
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Back in 1980, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker created a new film genre with the zany movie send-up, Airplane. They stretched a series of sight gags, non sequiturs and puns, previously the realm of TV sketch comedy, into a feature-length satire.

Sequels followed, as well as new franchises that included the Naked Gun and Hot Shots movies. Their work inspired many others, good and bad. (See the recent Date Movie for an example of the genre gone terribly wrong. It takes talent to pull off this kind of thing.)

Among the admirers/imitators of Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker were the Waynan brothers. Their horror movie parody, Scary Movie, was as much homage to Airplane as it was a movie satire.

After two successful outings, the Wayans’ turned the reigns of the Scary Movie series over to the guys that inspired it. David Zucker directed, and frequent collaborator Pat Proft and Craig Mazin aided in the screenplay. It was the funniest (and least crass) Scary Movie so far.

Now comes Scary Movie 4, directed by Zucker with a screenplay by Jim Abrahams and Mazin. It employs the same tried-and-true formula for success. They pick popular contemporary movies and skewer them through a fast-paced barrage of gags. They throw a lot of ideas against the wall, and many of them fall flat. The ones that stick, however, make Scary Movie 4 a funny, lowbrow popcorn flick that should please anxious fans.

Anna Faris (Waiting) is back as our naïve heroine, Cindy Campbell. She gets a job nursing a disabled woman at a haunted house that sits next door to the home of dockworker Tom Ryan (Craig Bierko from Cinderella Man). This setup allows the filmmakers to work elements of The Grudge, War of the Worlds and Saw into a single plot.

But those aren’t the only targets. Brokeback Mountain and Million Dollar Baby are among the mainstream titles that get a work-over.

Many stars appear in brief cameo roles (some unaccredited) including Charlie Sheen, Shaquille O’Neal, Mike Tyson, Bill Pullman, Carmen Electra, Anthony Anderson, Cloris Leachman, Michael Madsen, Regina Hall and even Dr. Phil. And, of course, you couldn’t have a Z/A/Z movie without Leslie Neilsen, who appears as an addlebrained president.

While the movie is a bastion of bad taste and will certainly not appeal to everyone’s sense of humor, there is an undeniable and pervasive sense of fun in Scary Movie 4. Can’t wait for the sequel. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 4/14/06)

Sophie Scholl
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Only recently has the highly regarded German cinema attempted to grapple with the most difficult aspects of the country’s history. For the most part, they’ve left critical cinematic examination of the Nazi era to outsiders.

Downfall, an impressive 2004 production that took an unflinching look at the last days of Hitler, was among the very best films of the year. The recipient of numerous international film awards, Sophie Scholl has more than a little in common with Downfall. Not only is it a painstaking production that aims its criticism straight at the heart of the destructive Third Reich philosophy, but it also features actress Julia Jentsch.

Jentsch plays our title character, a college student who was a part of the “White Rose” underground resistance group. They distributed anti-Nazi pamphlets that demonstrated a growing angst in the German populace. They were critical of the war effort and questioned the need to expend so many lives.

No, not everyone marched in lockstep with Hitler’s views, but many were too afraid to speak out. When you consider what happened to dissenters, it isn’t too hard to understand their reluctance to air their views.

As the film begins, our heroine and a handful of her comrades are secretly printing out leaflets on reams of hard-to-find paper. They mail many of these critical essays, but are short of envelopes and postage. Sophie’s brother, Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) decides that the remainder should be distributed by hand.

Naturally, his friends see this as a dangerous move. Hans’ zeal overcomes their concerns, and he and Sophie decide to disseminate the leaflets on the college campus the next day. They wait until everyone is in class and the doors are closed before ascending three floors to set the papers out. In a moment of childlike impulsiveness, Sophie knocks a stack of the papers down three flights to the foyer below.

Naturally, a janitor spots this paper flurry and Sophie and Hans are captured. They’re brought before the local authorities for prosecution as traitors.

What follows is a lengthy dialogue between Sophie and her accusers. At first, she lies to protect herself and others. When the evidence becomes overwhelming, she fesses up. Her philosophical conversations with authorities provide a compelling and fascinating debate. Screenwriter Fred Breinersdorfer and director Marc Rothemund have reportedly based their work on recently released police reports, transcripts and actual testimony.

Much of the criticism of Sophie comes from those who believe that she should keep quiet during wartime and that criticizing the government during such a crisis amounts to “demoralizing the troops”.

Sadly, Sophie Scholl’s 60-year-old story has undeniable resonance for contemporary audiences. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 4/14/06)

Thank You for Smoking
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In a telling moment from the new satire, Thank You For Smoking, the head of the Academy of Tobacco Studies says, “We don't sell Tic Tacs. We sell cigarettes. And they're cool, available and addictive. The job is almost done for us.”

But even so, the tobacco industry struggles with an increasingly negative image. They need a sharp, erudite spin-doctor who can minimize the damage done by do-gooders and health nuts. That’s where Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) comes in.

In this smart and sassy new comedy, audiences are invited into Naylor’s “bizarro” world of inverse morality. We find ourselves rooting for a guy who could justify selling his grandma to Al Qaeda.

Based upon the cheeky novel by Christopher Buckley (son of conservative pundit, William F. Buckley), Thank You For Smoking marks the filmmaking debut of Jason Reitman, son of director Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters). While the genes are obviously good, the younger artists demonstrate a gift for clever sarcasm that their fathers must surely envy.

The movie begins with Nick appearing on an episode of the TV gabfest, The Joan Lunden Show. One guest is a teenage boy suffering from cancer, allegedly the result of smoking cigarettes. In an artful twist of logic that would make Fox News anchors envious, Nick calmly asserts, “It's in our best interests to keep Robin alive and smoking. The anti-smoking people want Robin to die."

Thus, we begin to understand Nick’s unapologetic universe. His best pals are known as the MOD (Merchants of Death) squad. One is Polly (Maria Bello), a mouthpiece for the alcohol industry and the other is Bobby Jay (David Koechner), a NRA spokesman. This trio of Washington lobbyists meets regularly to share their shameless trade secrets.

Nick’s archenemy is Sen. Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy), an activist who wants to put a picture of skull and crossbones on each pack of cigarettes. Nick is generally able to deflect the senator’s efforts through obfuscation (the cheese from Finistirre’s home state clogs people’s arteries ... no worse than cigarettes).

But problems arise for our hero thanks to a beautiful reporter named Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes) who sleeps with Nick and learns his secrets. Naturally, she includes them in a newspaper exposé about Nick’s efforts on behalf of Big Tobacco.

Eckhart, who played a similarly smarmy character in In the Company of Men, gives a wickedly sharp performance, and a first-rate cast that also includes Robert Duvall, Rob Lowe and Sam Elliot provides able support.

Artfully skewering our epidemic hypocrisy, Thank You For Smoking hits the satiric bull’s-eye. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 4/7/06)

Lucky Number Slevin
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Have you ever heard of the “Kansas City Shuffle?” As Bruce Willis explains it in the convoluted crime thriller, Lucky Number Slevin, “It’s when they go left, you go right.” Got it?

If you don’t, it probably doesn’t matter. Lucky Number Slevin is something like a cartoon, anyway. You’re not supposed to take it seriously enough to worry about details. And yet, it is one of those movies that will elicit conversations that start with, “Now, what happened to such-and-such ... and why?”

Josh Hartnett (Sin City) stars as a young man who is having a bad day. He finds himself the victim of mistaken identity and this unfortunate coincidence will probably mean that he will soon be killed. Bummer.

Slevin (Hartnett) is staying in a friend’s New York apartment when the next-door neighbor, Lindsey (Lucy Liu from Charlie’s Angels) drops by for a cup of sugar. Noticing his broken nose, she asks what happened.

“Bad luck comes in threes,” is his reply. He lost his job, was forced to move out of his apartment, found his girlfriend in bed with another man and got mugged. (Okay, that’s four things, but who’s counting?)

But things only get worse for Slevin. He’s picked up at his friend’s apartment by hoods who think he’s the other guy. He winds up in front of a mob boss named, appropriately, The Boss, played by Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby). Since he owes over $90 thousand in gambling debts, he’s asked to complete a task. Kill the son of a rival gangster, and everything will be square.

The rival gangster is known as The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley from Oliver Twist), so called because; well ... because he’s a rabbi. To add to his woes, a world-class hit man called Mr. Goodkat (Willis) is following him, as is a NYPD detective, played by Stanley Tucci (Shall We Dance).

If all of this seems contrived and convoluted, it is. This is the kind of high concept melodrama that lives and dies by its twists and turns. For the most part, screenwriter Jason Smilovic (TV’s Karen Sisco) covers his tracks. While his story is very far-fetched, he seems to have skillfully filled in the plot holes.

Director Paul McGuigan (Wicker Park) takes a page out of the Tarantino handbook, and has fashioned an artfully nasty, morally questionable opus.

The supporting cast is first-rate, and Hartnett manages to throw off the tongue-in-cheek dialogue without embarrassing himself.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether or not you understand what happens in Lucky Number Slevin. It’s twisted, decadent fun. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 4/7/06)

Take the Lead
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Fans of last year’s feel-good documentary Mad Hot Ballroom know about a program that allows kids in New York public schools to take dance lessons and display their moves in a yearly competition. While that movie focused on junior high kids, a new dramatic feature steps up to the high school level.

Take the Lead stars Antonio Banderas (The Legend of Zorro) in a movie “inspired by” (oh, be careful with those two words) the true story of dance teacher Pierre Dulaine.

In this dramatic re-imagination of Dulaine’s story, the former professional dancer decides to freely offer his services to the “worst” kids (that is, those who are sent to detention) at an inner city school. A brief scene in which Dulaine witnesses a kid vandalizing a car is the only hint we have at his motive.

After brief resistance by the skeptical school principal, played by the always-reliable Alfre Woodard (TV’s Desperate Housewives), Dulaine is allowed to try to reach these problem kids. He is thrown into the lion’s den, a basement storeroom where detention is held.

Of course, the kids initially balk as his “corny” moves and outdated music. But, as in any formulaic Hollywood script, he wears down their resistance. They come to appreciate the “old school” dancing and add a bit of their own hip-hop style.

While there are plenty of groan-inducing clichés in Take the Lead, there is also a positive vibe that helps the movie overcome the trite, stereotypical elements of the script.

The attractive cast helps, too. Banderas is dashing, as always, and the kids are a likable bunch. The reluctant dancers include Rob Brown (Coach Carter), Dante Basco (Biker Boyz), Yaya DaCosta (TV’s America’s Next Top Model), Laura Benanta (TV’s Starved), Jenna Dewan (Tamara) and Jon Ortiz (Narc).

Take the Lead is the first feature film from veteran music video helmer, Liz Friedlander, who has worked with artists like Blink 182, R.E.M. and Babyface. It is, therefore, somewhat surprising that the movie is as traditional as it is. None of the style and flash of MTV is evident here.

And where’s the dancing? While there are plenty of moves, one can’t help but think about TV’s Dancing With the Stars when witnessing the film’s climactic competition. There is so much quick-cutting that we really can’t tell whether or not any of these dancers are any good.

But, why gripe? Take the Lead achieves its modest goals. It’s a sweet movie with its heart in the right place. The message: Kids + dancing = Good. Kids + neglect = Bad. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 4/7/06)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

As an eight-year-old, one’s sense of humor tends to gravitate to the scatological, the lowbrow and the violent.

Benchwarmers, a new comedy produced by Adam Sandler’s company, Happy Madison, unashamedly panders to the eight-year-old in all of us. If giving someone a wedgie is your idea of a laugh riot, then Benchwarmers is right up your alley.

Alan Covert and Nick Swarsdon (Grandma’s Boy), two men better known for their acting than their writing, are responsible for the sophomoric script. The director, Dennis Dugan (Big Daddy), is also a thespian that has moved behind the camera. This is obviously a case of the Peter Principal at work.

It should be made clear that Benchwarmers is a bad movie in every conceivable way. The screenplay is utterly moronic, the direction is amateurish and the acting is over-the-top. There is absolutely no way that this movie should work.

BUT ... strangely, Benchwarmers is a pleasingly silly enterprise that very well may make you laugh even while you’re dissing it.

Three Saturday Night Live alums, Rob Schneider, David Spade and Jon Lovitz, are joined by Napoleon Dynamite star Jon Heder in a story about nerds (go figure) who form a baseball team.

Gus, Clark and Richie (Schneider, Heder and Spade) are three geeky adults who happen upon a youngster named Nelson (Max Prado) who is being picked on by some bullies at the local ballpark. After rescuing the young lad, they discover that Nelson’s dad, Mel (Lovitz) is a billionaire. Mel makes the trio an unusual proposition.

In an attempt to strike a blow for nerds everywhere, Mel suggests that they form a three-man team to take on little league teams in a baseball tournament. The winner gets a bells-and-whistles stadium all their own.

Mel hires Reggie Jackson to coach the hapless guys, and they perform better than one might expect. (Parents will love the fact that, as a part of their training, Jackson has them smash mailboxes with baseball bats.) Gus, Clark and Richie become Internet stars as word spreads of their exploits. They inspire nerds everywhere ... until word leaks out that Gus may have been a bully as a child.

The supporting cast from Benchwarmers includes nasty coaches (Craig Kilborn, Tim Meadows), sports figures (Bill Romanowski, Dan Patrick), babes (Molly Sims, Rachael Hunter), and other SNL stars (blink and you’ll miss Sandler and Norm MacDonald).

While Benchwarmers is admittedly imbecilic, it accomplishes a remarkable feat. If you are still in touch with that eight-year-old in you, it will make you laugh ... a lot. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 4/7/06)

Find Me Guilty
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The operative question is this: Can Vin Diesel be a serious actor?

The action star, best known for films like Pitch Black, XXX, The Fast and the Furious and the comedy, The Pacifier, was in at least one noteworthy drama, Saving Private Ryan. But his contributions to Ryan were minimal. So the question still stands.

Diesel attempts to stretch his acting muscles with Find Me Guilty, a courtroom drama inspired by actual events. To further legitimize his efforts, the director and co-writer of this project is none other than the legendary Sidney Lumet (Serpico, Network, The Verdict, etc.)

The story involves the infamous trials of the Lucchese crime family in the late 1980s. (Much of the courtroom dialogue was reportedly culled word-for-word from actual court transcripts.) The feds tried twenty defendants together under the RICO (Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization) Act. If the government could find one of them guilty, then all would be guilty as co-conspirators.

One defendant was Giacomo "Jackie Dee" DiNorscio (Diesel), a drug dealer for the mob. Already in prison for a previous crime, Jackie Dee had had enough of lawyers. Facing years in prison anyway, he decides that he’s got nothing to lose…so he’ll serve as his own lawyer.

While the judge (Ron Silver) is reluctant, he concedes to let Jackie Dee defend himself. The co-defendants, including mob boss Nick Calabrese (Alex Rocco) and his lawyer (Peter Dinklage), are leery. If Jackie Dee screws up, they all go down.

Their fears seem well founded as Jackie Dee turns into Shecky Green whenever he stands before the jury. He seems more interested in getting a laugh than making his case. (“I’m not a gangster,” he quips, “I’m a gag-ster.”) Skirting contempt of court on numerous cases, Jackie Dee nearly sinks things for his co-defendants, his life-long friends and family.

While Lumet strives for realism, this drama is at its core, a comedy. That makes it similar to some of his best work. While it never reaches the “dramedy” heights of his comparable movies (Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City), it is a reenactment of the events that is both engaging and realistic (Diesel’s wig not withstanding).

The supporting cast is solid, with Dinklage (the dwarf best known for his work in the film The Station Agent) an unruffled standout. Annabella Sciorra has a brief but memorable turn as Jackie Dee’s ex-wife, Bella.

But the movie rests on Diesel’s broad shoulders, and he plays the role like an amiable teddy bear…an approach that fits.

So, the question remains; Can Vin Diesel be a serious actor? If this courtroom flick is our only measure, then the jury is still out. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted 3/31/06)

Ice Age 2: The Meltdown
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When the computer animated feature Ice Age debuted in 2002, it grossed over $176 million at the box office, establishing 20th Century Fox as a real player in a field previously dominated by Disney/Pixar and Dreamworks.

When a movie becomes such a phenomenon, a sequel is inevitable. Happily, like Toy Story 2 and Shrek 2, this one is on a par with its predecessor. Director Carlos Saldanha, who co-directed the original, manages to recapture the magic.

Ice Age told the story of an unlikely group of animal friends that fate bonds together as they attempt to save a human child and return him to his family. This group faces further peril in the sequel, as our heroes flee the impending meltdown of a glacier that will cause their entire valley to be deluged.

Manny, the Mammoth (Ray Ramano), his pals Diego the Saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary) and Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo) warn their counterparts about the upcoming disaster. To make matters worse, Manny is despondent because he believes that he may be the last of his species.

On their long trek to safety, the trio encounters a couple of mischievous possums, Crash (Seann William Scott) and Eddie (Josh Peck). Reluctant to join the pilgrimage, Crash and Eddie consult their “sister,” Ellie (Queen Latifah). Ellie, you see, is actually a mammoth that was raised by possums. Naturally, she has no way of knowing she isn’t a possum.

The animation is first-rate, skillful both technically and in the animators’ ability to create unique characters. Leguizamo’s voice work is particularly effective, and he’s matched by the clever contributions of Scott and Peck. Jay Leno is also memorable, lending his voice to a slick street character known as Fast Tony.

While it is not a musical, Ice Age 2: The Meltdown has a toe-tapping sequence that features our bone-headed, lisping sloth, Sid. He’s captured by a sloth tribe that plans on sacrificing him to the lava gods. The scene evolves into an amusing Busby Berkeley extravaganza.

But the best thing about Ice Age 2: The Meltdown is Scrat (voiced by Ice Age co-director, Chris Wedge). A saber-toothed squirrel, Scrat spends the entire movie as a background character in pursuit of a precious acorn. Fate places plenty of obstacles in his way. It is a tribute to the animators’ artistic skills and comic timing that these sequences work so well.

To quote a precocious five-year-old overheard leaving the screening, “Ice Age is cool”. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted 3/31/06)

Winter Passing
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

After viewing the quirky drama Winter Passing from first-time filmmaker Adam Rapp (a writer for TV’s The “L” Word), one thing can be said for certain: Zooey Deschanel is a terrific actress.

While she’s not classically beautiful, doesn’t possess a remarkable voice and lacks sex appeal, she may yet become a star. She’s got one very important thing going for her. She’s not like anyone else.

The daughter of famed cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Passion of the Christ) and actress Mary Jo Deschanel (TV’s Twin Peaks), and the sister of Emily Deschanel (TV’s Bones), Zooey obviously has good genes.

But it is her innate quirkiness — and her ability to make it believable in each character she plays — that makes her one of a kind. She can go from low-budget art house fare (All the Real Girls, The Good Girl) to big budget Hollywood studio fair (Elf, Failure to Launch) without missing a beat.

Returning here to her low-budget roots, Zooey plays Reese, the estranged daughter of a JD Salinger-type reclusive author named Don Holdin (Ed Harris). (Coincidentally, Zooey was named for Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.)

Living as a struggling actress in New York, Reese is offered big bucks if she can get her father to turn over the publication rights to the letters he wrote to her late mother. Strapped for cash, she reluctantly returns to the family home in Michigan to give it a try.

There, she discovers that her father has abandoned the house to a former writing student, Shelley (Amelia Warner) and a socially stunted wannabe musician named Corbit (Will Farrell). Living in a ramshackle garage on the property, Don seems very disinterested in his own health.

In this environment, Reese is like a stranger in her own home. Although she initially feels resentful and dejected, she slowly warms to these newcomers as she learns more about them.

Warner is quite good and Farrell effective in a surprisingly restrained performance. While Harris is always solid, writer/director Rapp hasn’t given him enough to do. This is a character with no place to go.

While all of these characters are interesting, there is very little dramatic momentum in the film. There is no real catharsis, no climax. Most of the conflict is downplayed to the point of tedium. That leaves us with Deschanel to carry the film.

Luckily, she’s up to the task. Winter Passing is much like the actress — eccentric, odd, unusual…and strangely likable. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 3/31/06)

Basic Instinct 2
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The 1992 sleazefest Basic Instinct established Sharon Stone as one of the coldest — and hottest — femme fatales in cinematic history.

Although pleasurably lurid, Basic Instinct walked a tightrope of camp. It came close to devolving from a film noir thriller into a hilarious self-parody. (The next teaming of director Paul Verhoven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas would get them to that campy plateau. It was the pricelessly cheesy Showgirls.)

In Basic Instinct 2, Stone returns as icy heiress and crime novelist Catherine Davis Tramell. In the opening sequence, she contributes to the death of a soccer player by driving her car into London’s Thames River. Perhaps it was because they were having a sexual encounter at 100 mph. Maybe his death came as a result of having been injected with a drug that makes one somnolent.

Facing possible murder charges, Catherine is forced to undergo a psychological diagnosis by a court appointed shrink, Dr. Michael Glass (David Morrissey from Derailed). The good doctor decides that Catherine has a “risk addiction.” She can only feel alive when pushing the envelope. While it certainly makes her dangerous, it doesn’t make her a killer. The charges are dropped.

Against his better judgment, Michael agrees to take Catherine on as a patient. Naturally, he finds her sexually attractive. While she has a frosty demeanor, she’s far from frigid. She captivates him with the stories of her relentless sexual encounters and her obsession with death.

Strangely, murders begin happening around London, all with ties to Catherine…and Michael. Either she is somehow involved or this is one woman with extraordinarily bad luck.

Screenwriters Leora Barish and Henry Bean don’t stray too far from the sordid atmosphere of Eszterhas’ original. There is a lot of sex and lust on display that add to the giddy air of amorality.

Director Michael Caton-Jones (This Boy’s Life, Rob Roy) shows considerable skill by keeping the silly shenanigans from becoming too ridiculous. The supporting cast of British acting veterans, including Charlotte Rampling and David Thewlis, helps, too.

Stone’s acting here consists mainly of steely gazes and sly smiles. Thankfully, she’s remained fit. The 48-year-old actress looks sensational in and out of her clothes and one can believe that an otherwise reasonable psychiatrist might be willing to risk his career for a chance to jump her bones.

But in the final fifteen minutes, the movie deteriorates into a series of groan-inducing moments that render Caton-Jones’ efforts utterly ineffective.

One can sum it up in three words: Basically it stinks. (R) Rating: 1(Posted 3/31/06)

Ballets Russes
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

You’ve got to hand it to the filmmakers behind Ballets Russes. They really did their homework. As a result, they’ve come up with a meticulously comprehensive documentary about the groundbreaking modern ballet troupe.

Or, more correctly, “troupes.” In fact, as the film demonstrates, the famous dance company was actually comprised of two competing groups.

Skillfully combining talking heads with archival footage, directors Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine have fashioned a movie that will serve as an informative introduction for newcomers and a satisfying overview for ballet aficionados.

Enormously influential, shaping dance in America and around the world, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was founded in 1932 by impresarios Col. Vassili de Basil and Rene Blum, a resurrection of an earlier entity founded by Serge Diaghilev in turn-of-the-century Paris. He attempted to create a company consisting of émigrés who had fled their native country during the Russian Revolution.

The company brought together the finest dancers, artists and composers of the day in a flurry of collaborative creativity. Only in retrospect can we appreciate the teaming of artists like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso with composers like Igor Stravinsky and Claude Debussy and choreographers like Leonide Massine and George Balanchine.

The film, scrupulously chronological, moves us little by little through the development of the companies and the backstage soap opera that accompanied it. Due to infighting, the company split into two factions, one run by Massine, and the other (dubbed “The Original Ballet Russe”) by a businessman, Colonel Wassily de Basil.

Thanks to their extensive touring of Europe, Australia and the Western Hemisphere…including small towns in Missouri…ballet gained a foothold in our culture that can still be felt today.

There is a surprising treasure trove of film presented from their earliest of performances, accompanied by the accomplished narration of Marian Seldes. But the film works as well as it does because of the reminiscences of people who had been company members throughout the years. It is quite amazing to hear the recollections of some spry senior citizens as they tell of things they experienced over seventy years ago.

The dancers interviewed include “Baby Ballerinas” Tamara Tchinvarova, Irina Baronova and Tamara Toumanova, as well as Nathalie Krassovska, Tania Riabouchinskaya, George Zoritch, Frederic Franklin (still performing at age 90) and Marc Platt, who appeared in a number of Hollywood musicals.

Their warm reminiscences make Ballets Russes a memorable and moving history lesson. (No MPAA rating) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 3/31/06)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

ATL (urban shorthand for Atlanta) is a movie about African-Americans and roller-skating, and features a cast that includes a number of rap artists. However, don’t confuse it for last year’s tepid Bow Wow vehicle, Roll Bounce. This one has a bit more on its mind.

Screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism (Drumline) adapted ATL’s script from a story by Antwone Fisher (Antwone Fisher). She attempts to capture an element of the black teen experience that is not exclusive to the Atlanta scene.

Rapper Tip Harris (also known as T.I.) stars as Rashad, a high school senior who lives with his uncle George (Mykelti Williamson from Forrest Gump), a janitor. Since the death of his parents in a car wreck, Rashad has been playing the role of father figure for his 14-year-old brother, Ant (newcomer Evan Ross Naess).

Rashad’s plate is full. He works for his uncle cleaning office buildings, attends school full-time, skates competitively with his crew (Jackie Long, Jason Weaver and Albert Daniels) on Sunday nights, and tries to keep his eye on his wayward sibling.

Although Rashad saves money for his little brother’s future, Ant would rather take the easy way to riches. He becomes the underling of a small-time drug dealer named Marcus (Big Boi from the hip-hop group Outkast).

Things are further complicated for Rashad, thanks to a romantic entanglement with a beautiful skater named New-New (lovely newcomer Laurie London). Although she hangs out in the underprivileged part of town, she’s actually a rich debutante, the daughter of a major business mogul (veteran Keith David). When Rashad discovers her secret, he feels betrayed…and takes it out on all of his friends.

While many of the plot elements of ATL are straight out of the “Big Book of Hollywood Clichés,” this one has a refreshingly honest feel, thanks largely to its affable cast. Director Chris Robinson, an MTV video veteran making his feature film debut, manages to keep the camera acrobatics to a minimum, stressing the simplicity of the story.

But the best thing about ATL is its soundtrack. A constant positive vibe is produced by the underscoring that will undoubtedly produce a lot of toe-tapping and head-bobbing. The soundtrack CD that this movie will produce will probably live on a lot longer than the film itself.

Although ATL is relatively forgettable as cinema, it will undoubtedly find an audience eager for its infectious sound and its undying goodwill. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 3/31/06)

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