reel reviews
movie reviews
April '07

NEXTYEAR OF THE DOGTHE CONDEMNED
FRACTUREIN THE LAND OF WOMENRAISING JEFFREY DAHMERVACANCY
DISTURBIAFIRST SNOWPATHFINDERPERFECT STRANGER
THE REAPINGTHE HOAXGRINDHOUSEFIREHOUSE DOGARE WE DONE YET?
BLADES OF GLORYTHE LOOKOUTTHE NAMESAKEMEET THE ROBINSONS

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Next
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

As with all time-travel related stories, how much one enjoys it is in direct proportion to how willing one is to suspend disbelief.

Next, based upon a short story by Phillip K. Dick, requires that viewers leave their natural skepticism at the door. If you can do that, then it might be just what you’re looking for.

Nicholas Cage (Ghost Rider) stars as Cris Johnson, a second-rate magician working a lounge act at a Las Vegas casino. But his act is only bad because he’s got no talent as a performer. You see…he can perform some real magic.

Since childhood Cris has been able to see a couple of minutes into his future. (This talent comes in very handy at the blackjack tables.) While this vision has severe limits, it gives him a chance to avoid nearly every imaginable pitfall.

But one vision has haunted him. He continues to foresee the image of a woman that he believes is tied into his destiny. He knows only the place and time of day when she’ll arrive, not the date. Every day, he goes to a café at the same time to see if she’ll finally walk into his life.

But things get more complicated for Cris when a savvy FBI agent named Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore from Children of Men) figures out that his abilities are real and not a trick. When a terrorist smuggles an atomic bomb into the country, Callie figures that Cris’ talents could come in handy.

But Cris doesn’t believe that he can help their cause and slips away from them. When his dream girl, Liz (Jessica Biel from The Illusionist) finally comes into his life, he tries to keep both of them beyond the reach of the feds.

Of course, if he were successful (and his special talent would make that a given) you’d have no movie. So, Cris and Liz get swept up in the battle between the feds and the terrorists.

There are plenty of reasons to dismiss this movie as hogwash. Although the premise is fresh and the limits that screenwriters Gary Goldman, Jonathan Hensleigh and Paul Bernbaum place on our hero make it more intriguing, there are still a few gaps in logic.

But director Lee Tamohauri (Die Another Day) has found some visually interesting ways to depict the time travel conundrums while staging some arresting action sequences. And Cage’s world-weary performance, while it may be off-putting to some, is wholly appropriate.

So, if you turn your brain from “11” down to about a “4,” Next may prove to be an entertaining popcorn flick. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 04/27/07)


Year of the Dog
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Year of the Dog’s protagonist, Peggy (Molly Shannon), relates to animal lovers in the same way that Annie Wilkes, the deranged literary groupie in Misery, relates to avid readers. Translation: If mental health could be measured in marbles, some of Peggy’s would definitely be missing.

Early in the movie Peggy seems harmlessly lonely. She loves her dog, Pencil, like a close relative.

Mornings the two of them stare longingly at each other as she pulls her car out of the driveway and heads down the street. Evenings the two of them eat together and then watch television together. Nights they sleep side by side.

At work, Peggy serves as a mostly silent listener to her strange and inarticulate boss (Josh Pais as Robin) and her chatty and love-struck coworker (Regina King as Layla). She also spends what seems an inordinate amount of time just hanging out at her brother and sister-in-law’s house.

After Pencil dies, Peggy throws her attentions into a relationship with Newt, a vegan who works at the pet clinic. Somewhere along the way she shifts her attentions to animal rights.

Sane animal lovers will find Peggy’s transformation troubling in the same way that people who love children find dangerously overindulgent parents disturbing. Peggy crosses the line from caring to obsessive.

Year of the Dog, which at first seemed destined for the feel-good pet movie archives, takes an abrupt turn into Psychoville, U.S.A. That might have been okay if the film’s writer/director Mike White (The Good Girl) had taken a definite viewpoint and stuck with it.

Instead, White shows us a troubled woman doing terrible things and then waffles about whether her actions are bad or good, about whether she is emotionally disturbed or good intentioned but confused. Translation: If movies are trips, Year of the Dog is an unplanned detour into the land of the lost.

The movie’s only saving grace is that it passes some lovely scenery (in the form of humorous dialogue, amusingly quirky characters, and atypical situations) on the road to nowhere. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 04/27/07)


The Condemned
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When a movie like The Condemned starts moralizing, one can’t help but snicker. It’s almost as if the filmmakers are trying to scold you for watching the very movie they’ve made.

When it comes to cinematic sleaze, at least Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez (Grindhouse) know that what they’re indulging in. They don’t make any apologies for the fact that the content of their movie is amoral at best and depraved at worst. At least they present their trash in an entertaining fashion.

But hypocrisy is only one of the many cinematic sins committed by the makers of The Condemned.

Famed pro wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin stars in this unholy marriage of The Most Dangerous Game and TV’s Survivor. It exists solely to satiate the audience’s desire to see people graphically brutalize one another.

Austin stars as Jack Conrad, a US military special operations agent left to rot in a Central American prison. Awaiting his execution, he learns that he may earn the chance for a reprieve.

A wealthy American producer named Ian Breckel (Robert Mammone from The Matrix Revolution) has an idea for a profitable reality show. He purchases 10 condemned inmates from prisons around the world and transports them to a remote South Asian location. After attaching explosive tracking devices to their ankles, he drops them on a jungle island rigged with cameras. The inmates are instructed to fight to the death and the last man alive will receive his freedom.

Breckel airs the live battle footage on the Internet, charging viewers fifty bucks a pop to see people kill each other.

Naturally, there are some formidable and fiendish folks stranded together on the island. The biggest obstacle to Jack’s survival is a British military assassin named Ewan McStarley, played by former soccer star, Vinnie Jones (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels).

Director Scott Wiper (A Better Way to Die) is also responsible for the screenplay, along with Rob and Andy Hedden (Clockstoppers). While the plot is utterly derivative, it’s not the movie’s worst feature. Nor is it the jerky handheld camerawork that makes it difficult to see the fight action that makes up a large portion of the picture’s 113-minute running time.

No, the most annoying thing about The Condemned is the filmmakers’ sanctimonious attempt to inject moral platitudes into their opus. Near the end of the film, a TV journalist lectures about media responsibility and the moral consequences of violence as entertainment.

If the filmmakers want to preach to someone, they should start with the man in the mirror. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 04/27/07)


Fracture
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Fracture features Anthony Hopkins as Ted Crawford, a geriatric version of Primal Fear’s Adam Stampler. Like Stampler, Crawford plays the space-case card to thwart the attorney with whom he’s matching wits.

But the two movie plots differ in a major way: Stampler’s attorneys spend most of the movie trying to figure out whether their client committed the crime. But in Fracture, everyone knows Crawford shot his wife.

The rub: he’s using his wit and legal loopholes to avoid prosecution. He’s found the perfect opponent in Willy Beachum (played by Ryan Gosling), an ambitious prosecuting attorney.

Beachum plans to make Crawford’s case his final victory before he quits for a job at a prestigious private firm. After all, the man shot his wife; it’s an open and shut case. Right?

Of course not. Beachum spends nearly two hours of screen time trying to find the proof he needs to convict Crawford. In the process Crawford toys with the young attorney, who has become accustomed to conning, cheating and bluffing his way to victory.

This film has two big thrills: one, watching Beachum’s life unravel as he discovers that Crawford is much smarter than he looks; and two, trying to guess what Crawford’s going to do next.

Gosling’s boyish appearance and air of hauteur provide the perfect counterpoint to Hopkins’ sophisticated manner and his deviant genius act. Gosling smirks, and we’re on edge, waiting for his next act of trickery.

Hopkins’ eyes still sparkle with life. His smile remains a mysterious expression that can in turns signal anger, power or weakness.

These two wonderful actors make the film worth seeing. They add sheen to a dull script that holds too few surprises and too many clues leading to what’s supposed to be the big plot twist. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 04/20/07)


In the Land of Women
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

While nepotism flourishes in nearly every business, in filmmaking, it’s nearly a requirement. In some cases, that’s not a bad thing.

Thankfully, the fruit of director Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat, The Big Chill) hasn’t fallen far from the tree. His son Jake made the intriguing noir thriller Zero Effect and the affable comedy, Orange County. His brother Mark wrote and produced Silverado, among others.

Now it’s son Jon’s turn. His writing/directing debut, In the Land of Women, is a smart, affecting comic drama that’s doesn’t easily fall into any category.

Adam Brody (TV’s The O.C.) stars as Carter Webb, a conflicted young man who is suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Yeah, he got dumped.

Carter, a writer of soft-core porn movies, has just gotten the heave-ho from his gorgeous actress girlfriend, Sophie (Elena Anaya from Sex and Lucia). When his mom complains that Grandma (Olympia Dukakis from Away From Her) is acting screwy, Carter decides to get out of L.A. and visit the old gal at her Michigan home. After all, maybe he can use the down time to write that novel he’s been putting off.

It doesn’t take long for Carter to realize that Grandma has become a batty shut-in who can certainly use his help. Eventually, though, he learns that she has more on the ball than he initially believes.

But Carter’s attention soon turns to the house across the street, where the estrogen level is set on “11.” He meets Sarah, played by Meg Ryan (Against the Ropes), while she’s walking the dog. Estranged from her teenage daughter, Lucy (Kristen Stewart from The Messengers), facing illness and dealing with a philandering husband, Sarah latches on to Carter as a newfound friend.

Sarah and the much younger Carter, both emotionally needy, soon find themselves attracted to one another. Trouble ensues when Carter also becomes the object of Lucy’s romantic attentions and Sarah’s health issues become more serious.

Kasdan handles all of this with a surprisingly light touch. His screenplay, while sometimes overly slick, is quite funny and fresh. He also has the good sense to populate his movie with a talented cast.

The ladies all give appealing performances, but this movie belongs to Brody. Reminiscent of a young Tom Hanks, Brody manages to present his character’s intelligence without smugness or condescension.

In the Land of Women is a strange bird. The latest contribution from the Kasdan clan is a chick flick as seen from the male perspective. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 04/20/07)


Raising Jeffrey Dahmer
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Anyone who has attended local theatre in the Kansas City area over the last couple of decades will see a lot of familiar faces in the disturbing drama, Raising Jeffrey Dahmer.

The cast of this locally lensed feature is comprised of some of the finest theatre performers the area has to offer. There is no question that these talented individuals could deliver a terrific movie if given the right circumstances.

Sadly, Raising Jeffrey Dahmer isn’t that film. Distressingly slow, this story about the notorious serial killer’s family is oddly edited and lacks consistent focus.

While the title implies that the story might be about the childhood experiences that shaped Dahmer into an adult capable of murdering and dismembering 17 people, it’s actually about his father’s torturous feelings of guilt.

Scott Cordes takes the lead role of Lionel Dahmer, a lab technician who is seen at work when he receives the fateful call informing him that son Jeffrey (Rusty Sneary) has been arrested. They then inform his wife Shari (Cathy Barnett) who intuitively asks, “Is it child molestation? Kiddie porn?”

As a crowd of media descends upon them, Lionel and Shari take refuge with Lionel’s mom, Catherine (Jeannine Hutchings). While watching the television coverage with horror, Lionel’s memory flashes back to Jeffrey’s childhood.

Racking his brain in an attempt to comprehend the unfathomable, Lionel remembers incidents that might have signaled the troubles to come. He recalls Jeffrey poisoning goldfish, collecting road kill carcasses and playing with the bones of dead animals. There were also the strange lockboxes that Jeffrey kept in his closet.

As he got older, Jeffrey battled alcoholism and dabbled in the occult. He served 10 months for child molestation and got booted out of the Army. Yes, there were signs.

Grasping at straws in an attempt to explain Jeffrey’s behavior, the media implied that his parents must have been guilty of child abuse. While these charges proved to be false, the accusations added greatly to the family’s pain.

Cordes, Barnett and Hutchings are all fine, delivering their lines like the solid pros they are. The only “name” actor in the film, Bo Svenson (Kill Bill Vol. 2) has a bit part as a police detective with a guilt trip of his own.

While they kept it blissfully free of gore, writer/producer Wood Dickinson (of the Dickinson Theatre chain) and co-writer Christopher Ryan aren’t quite able to fine-tune their ideas. More problematic are the protracted shots and lingering scenes that first-time director Rich Ambler engages in.

While you have to applaud the effort behind this kind of homegrown independent filmmaking, Raising Jeffrey Dahmer is a well-intentioned miscalculation. (No MPAA rating) Rating: 2

(Posted 04/20/07)


Vacancy
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If you think that the Bates Motel accounted for the most unpleasant accommodations in cinematic hostelry, then you haven’t yet seen Vacancy.

A thriller calculated to keep your stomach in knots; Vacancy is a fright fest that plays on the paranoia nearly everyone experiences when staying in an unfamiliar low-rent roadhouse.

Kate Beckinsale (Underworld: Evolution) and Luke Wilson (My Super Ex-Girlfriend) star as Amy and David Fox, a bickering couple on a long road trip. Traveling back to their home in Los Angeles from an uncomfortable family reunion where they pretended to be happy, they take a detour on rural roadways when a traffic backup on the freeway slows their progress.

After their BMW starts making some odd noises, they stop at a seemingly abandoned gas station. (Mistake #1.) They then let a yokel tinker around under the hood. (Mistake #2.) A mile down the road when their car conks out, they decide to walk back to the seedy motel next to the gas station. (Mistake #3.)

Told that there weren’t any mechanics available until morning, Amy and David decide to check in. The cheery but slightly odd clerk named Mason (Frank Whaley from World Trade Center) gives them the key to a “suite” that looks like a reject from a 1960s episode of the Twilight Zone.

Fumbling around with some VHS tapes sitting on the old TV, David discovers something startling. They are snuff films that were shot in the very room where he and Amy are currently staying! A quick look around the room reveals hidden cameras apparently situated to capture a killing…and they’re very likely the next victims.

Sure enough, some goons begin banging on the windows and doors in an apparent prelude to a massacre. Amy and David must use some cunning to escape this formidable trap.

Screenwriter Mark L. Smith (Séance) has come up with a nifty gimmick for his creepy little thriller, but doesn’t bother to close up some gaping plot holes that take away from the movie’s overall impact.

Director Nimrod Antal (Kontroll) deftly squeezes some tension from the setup, but also leaves some all-too-obvious flubs that will probably nag at viewers. (If the villains manage to get into the bathroom through a trap door, then why is the rug neatly replaced over it when they’ve gone?)

But the most glaring defect is the lack of a clear climax. After the obvious denouement, the movie lingers giving us false expectations of something else to come.

Still, Vacancy delivers on its modest goal. It will give you the creeps. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 04/20/07)


Disturbia
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Nowhere in the credits for the new thriller Disturbia is there mention of Cornell Woolrich or John Michael Hayes.

Their story and screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic, Rear Window, has been co-opted by Christopher B. Landon (Another Day in Paradise) and Carl Ellsworth (Red Eye). They’ve taken the basic plot elements from Rear Window and made a few clever changes to bring it into the 21st century.

Shia LeBeouf (Bobby) plays Kale, a troubled teen suffering from an emotional loss. His father was killed in an auto accident while Kale was driving, and he’s handling guilt along with sadness. (The opening sequence featuring the wreck is beautifully staged and executed.)

When his Spanish teacher makes an offhand remark about Kale’s dad, the lad reacts with a knockout punch. This act of anger gets Kale sentenced to a few months of house arrest, confined to his yard by an ankle monitor.

Although disappointed in her son’s transgression, Kale’s sympathetic mom (Carrie-Anne Moss from The Matrix) cuts him some slack. She hopes that the time at home will give him time to heal.

During his confinement, Kale spends his time peeping at the neighbors through binoculars from his bedroom window. To his delight, a pretty young girl named Ashley (Sarah Romer from The Grudge 2) moves in next door. Her bikini sunbathing provides Kale some welcome distraction, but strange events across the street are more unsettling.

Kale comes to believe that his neighbor Mr. Turner (David Morse from 16 Blocks) may be a serial killer. After all, pretty young women keep coming in…but they never seem to leave.

Director D.J. Caruso (Taking Lives) sets up the scenario very well and the suburban atmosphere is ably captured. And, blissfully, he eschews the graphic and exploitative gore that is the hallmark of most contemporary thrillers.

But Disturbia’s greatest strength is Morse. This reliable actor (Contact, The Green Mile, Crazy in Alabama) is excellent as the suspected killer who is creepy even when he turns on the charm.

While the movie adds some contemporary elements that weren’t around in 1954 (camcorders and cell phones come into play), the basic plot elements are completely ripped off from Rear Window. While workmanlike, this derivative thriller fails to live up to its predecessor.

While Hitchcock and Woolrich are no longer around to sue, Hayes is still with us. If he doesn’t see Disturbia as homage, then he might want to consider calling his lawyer. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 04/13/07)


First Snow
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Co-writers Mark Fergus and Hank Ostby (Consequence) obviously love film noir. First Snow, which marks Fergus’ directorial debut, is an ardent attempt to capture the feel of some of the greats of the genre.

Guy Pearce (Memento) stars as a sleazy New Mexico flooring salesman named Jimmy Starks. Smooth and cagey, he’s the sort of guy that reeks of shmooze. His line of bull is as slick as his shiny shoes.

But, as any astute observer will easily deduce, he’s no saint. In fact, he’s the kind of fellow that would sell his grandmother for the right price. His past is littered with people he’s taken advantage of in one-way or another.

But things begin to change for this obnoxious huckster when he decides to take in a roadside attraction. At a dusty rest stop outside of a topless bar, Jimmy sees the trailer of a fortune-teller and decides to give it a go.

The old seer, played by veteran character actor J.K. Simmons (Spiderman) makes some remarks about money coming his way from Dallas and warns him not to bet against the local basketball team. Then, apparently struck by a disturbing vision, the soothsayer refuses to say any more and gives Jimmy back his money.

Although he initially scoffs at the old timer, when the predictions come true, Jimmy returns to find out what it is that he wasn’t being told. According to the fortune-teller, Jimmy will only live long enough to see the first snow.

Now fraught with paranoia, Jimmy sees death around every corner. Will is bad heart valve do him in? Will a former co-worker he screwed over exact some revenge? Will his old friend, recently released from prison, return to confront him over the fact that Jimmy sold him out?

Pearce, who is in virtually every scene of this movie, obviously relishes the opportunity to tackle a character that undergoes some significant transformations. In the course of the film’s first act, he goes from the self-centered charlatan to self-centered paranoiac. By film’s end, he has matured into someone quite different.

First Snow has a terrific supporting cast that not only includes the splendid Simmons, but also William Fictner (Ultraviolet) and Rick Gonzales (Pulse) as annoyed co-workers and Piper Perabo (Cheaper by the Dozen) as Jimmy’s long-suffering girlfriend.

While not quite in the same class as the classic noir thrillers it attempts to emulate, First Snow is an intelligent and unsettling addition to the genre. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 04/13/07)


Pathfinder
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In the recent film 300, audiences were entertained with some comic book historical revisionism about the battle between the Spartans and Persians in 480 BC. Frank Miller, the creator of the original graphic novel, defended his over-the-top vision with two words: “F*** history!”

Pathfinder also recreates a period of history with comic book mentality. Unlike 300, it lacks the artistic vision to pull it off gracefully.

As we’ve been taught in grade school, Christopher Columbus was not the first European to land in the New World. Leif Erickson and his band of marauding Vikings did so some 600 years earlier. But why they didn’t stay and conquer this vast new territory is a bit of a mystery.

According to the disclaimer at the beginning of Pathfinder, the movie purports to be about a legend of how the Vikings were turned back. That’s an interesting claim given the fact that Pathfinder is a remake of a 1987 movie from Norway that took place in Northern Scandinavia. The plot from that movie has just been transposed to the Americas.

Karl Urban (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) plays Ghost, a young man with some interesting emotional baggage. The son of Vikings, he was the sole survivor of a boatload of sailors who shipwrecked upon a Canadian shoreline. Raised by Native Americans, he still suffers from a bit of an identity crisis.

Ghost is haunted by dreams of his childhood experiences. Unwilling to take part in the wholesale slaughter of the innocent “savages” they encountered, Ghost was shunned by his Viking father. He learned civility and honor from his adoptive parents, but was never fully accepted by the local tribes.

Naturally, another wave of Viking intruders has come to this pristine land on a conquering quest. The stone and wooden weapons of the Native Americans are no match for the forged iron swords and shields wielded by the “dragon men.”

Most of the natives flee inland in search of sanctuary. Ghost stays behind with the single steel blade that he recovered from his original shipwreck. Knowing the territory, he’ll use his cunning and superior fighting ability to protect his adopted family.

Director Marcus Nispel, responsible for the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, concentrates on action and bloodletting as Ghost does his best to take out the invaders.

Pathfinder is strangely reminiscent of the recent film, The New World, Terrance Malick’s version of the story of Pocahontas…but without the subtlety, beauty or artistic pretensions. So much for history. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 04/13/07)


Perfect Stranger
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Halle Berry is more than just a stunning beauty; she is also a fine actress.

After all, she won an Oscar for her role in the searing drama Monster’s Ball and an Emmy for the TV biopic, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. She’s got the chops when handed intelligent, well-written material.

But Berry doesn’t always exercise the best judgment when choosing scripts. Although she collected a huge paycheck for Catwoman, she probably would have skipped that one had she realized that it would become a touchstone in the history of bad cinema.

That brings us to Perfect Stranger. While it may have seemed intriguing on the printed page, this convoluted thriller will undoubtedly end up on a lot of “worst” lists for films released in 2007.

In this screwy opus from director James Foley (Confidence), Berry plays Rowena, a hotshot investigative reporter for a big Manhattan newspaper. She uses both her wiles and her beauty as tools of the trade.

After uncovering a congressional sex scandal story that was quashed by some powerful friends of her publisher, Rowena resigns from the paper in disgust. Shortly thereafter, a childhood friend is murdered. Rowena goes undercover to try to flush out the killer.

The clues point to a powerful and scary advertising executive named Harrison Hill, played by Bruce Willis (Grindhouse). Rowena’s friend was having an affair with the slick businessman, and he had plenty of motives to shut her up.

Rowena takes a temp job at the agency to get close to Hill…and gets more than she bargained for. She calls upon a computer geek pal named Miles (Giovanni Ribisi from Cold Mountain) for help, but Miles has some unresolved romantic feelings toward Rowena that only complicate matters.

Screenwriter Todd Komarnicki (Resistance), working from a story by Jon Bokenkamp (Taking Lives), takes the movie’s tagline (“How far would you go to keep a secret?”) quite literally. His screenplay, chock full of twists, turns and red herrings, is designed to throw us off track. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know when to quit. A more appropriate tagline might have been, “How far would you go to fool us?”

Director Foley, who manages to create a palpable amount of tension, doesn’t help the cause when he telegraphs some clues early on. But it’s the preposterous conclusion that makes Perfect Stranger laughable.

So, what’s a star like Halle Berry to do? The answer, most probably, is finding a new agent. In Hollywood, making the right choice is 90% of the work. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 04/13/07)


The Reaping
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Ever since Hollywood stopped making Biblical opuses, theology has been depicted solely in horror films. The Omen, The Exorcist and The Prophecy are just a few of the dozens of movies that use apocalyptic passages of scripture as the jumping off point for varied fright flicks.

Add The Reaping to that list. The plagues of the Old Testament are resurrected in the contemporary Deep South as a small town struggles to cope with some unusual occurrences.

Two-time Oscar-winner Hillary Swank (Million Dollar Baby) stars as Katherine Winter, a former Christian missionary who has lost her faith. While working with the poor in Sudan, her husband and small daughter were murdered. Since that incident, she has rejected the church, become an atheist, taken a position at Louisiana State University and worked as an expert on debunking miracles.

Having garnered a reputation for her ability to find a scientific explanation for all of the so-called supernatural phenomena she encounters, Katherine is continually sought out by people who have need of a skeptic’s perspective.

One day, Katherine gets a phone call from a priest with whom she toiled in Sudan. It seems that her face has spontaneously burned in all of the photos he has of her. When placed together, the burn patters resemble an inverted sickle…a satanic symbol. That can only mean one thing: something bad is a-brewin’.

About that time, a science teacher from the small town of Haven (David Morrissey from Basic Instinct 2) arrives in need of help. As it turns out, their river has turned to blood after the death of a local child.

So, Katherine and her associate, Ben (Idris Elba from Daddy’s Little Girls) head for the tiny swamp town to figure out what’s going on. Soon enough, they witness the bloody river, an infestation of frogs and the deaths of livestock.

The local yokels put the blame for these plagues on some “devil worshipers” who live in a shack out in the woods. Specifically, they want to kill a little girl named Loren (Anna Sophia Robb from The Bridge to Terabithia) to appease a vengeful God.

Director Stephen Hopkins (Under Suspicion) and writers Chad and Carey Hayes (House of Wax) take a very literal approach to the story by Brian Rousso. There is no humor, no tongue-in-cheek moments or campy technique on display here. We’re supposed to take all of this very seriously.

While it builds some suspense early on, the movie loses its way in the final reel, becoming way too literal and effects-laden for its own good. This previously eerie thriller morphs into an overblown spectacle.

In the end, The Reaping sows few chills. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 04/06/07)


The Hoax
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In 1969, author Clifford Irving wrote the biography of an infamous art forger named Elmyr de Hory called Fake! Perhaps Clifford’s friendship with the notorious de Hory was inspirational. His next work was the Autobiography of Howard Hughes in 1971, a work that created a media firestorm. Of course, it turned out to be a fake.

The story of Irving’s grand deception is chronicled in the intriguing new drama, The Hoax. If the events unfolded as depicted in this film, then Hughes wasn’t only an eccentric billionaire, but he was also a cunning master manipulator who played Irving and the press like a virtuoso violinist.

Richard Gere (Chicago) stars as Irving, a talented but insecure writer with financial stresses weighing heavily upon him. When his publisher rejects his latest manuscript, the desperate Irving declares that he also has the “book of the century”…and then has to make good on that claim.

Putting his head together with his wife, Edith (Pollack’s Marcia Gaye Harden) and associate Dick Susskind (Spiderman 2’s Alfred Molina), Irving decides to forge Hughes’ handwriting to some notes and begin his elaborate con game.

Once he convinces his publishers that the notes are authentic, he’s able to get them to pony up a million bucks for a book…much of it in advance. Irving then embarked on his tangled web of deception that just kept getting more complex as time went on.

Just when Irving and Susskind are desperate for material to keep their ruse alive, they manage to steal a manuscript from longtime Hughes associate Noah Dietrich (Eli Wallach from The Holiday) that’s full of insider info.

But things really get interesting when a box of files mysteriously shows up on Irving’s doorstep, highlighting bribes that Hughes paid to the brother of Richard Nixon!

Gere gives a strong performance as Irving; a desperate character you can’t like but also can’t help but root for. Molina is solid as always as his conflicted co-conspirator and Harden is terrific (and nearly unrecognizable) as Mrs. Irving, sporting a blonde wig and convincing Northern European accent.

Director Lasse Hallstrom (Cider House Rules) and screenwriter William Wheeler (The Prime Gig) place us vicariously into Irving’s shoes and we experience the ensuing tension he and his associates must have felt as they were continually at risk of exposure.

While The Hoax is an interesting historical snapshot, it’s also a compelling character study and cunning examination of the fine art of prevarication. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 04/06/07)


Grindhouse
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

“At some point in your life, you find a use for every useless talent you have.”

Those words, spoken in the giddily goofy flick, Grindhouse, could easily apply to the filmmakers themselves.

Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill) and Robert Rodriguez (Sin City) join forces in a loving homage to the sleazy movies that were once the regular product of 1970s independent cinema. (The Screenland Theatre, in their “Freakshow” series, shows actual examples of the genre on Wednesday nights.)

“Grindhouse” was the name given to inner city theatres that regularly showed cheap exploitation films, like the ones that formerly lined New York’s 42nd Street. In Kansas City, these flicks usually showed up at the drive-in.

The filmmakers go to such great lengths to recreate the ambience of the grindhouse experience that you can almost smell the body odor and feel the stickiness of the theatre seats.

The film is actually a three-hour double-bill, complete with phony “coming attractions,” bogus ads and scratchy projection. The filmmakers even leave out whole scenes, occasionally substituting a “Sorry, Reel Missing” notice.

Rodriguez’s film is called Planet Terror, a horror film dominated by strippers and zombies. Rose McGowan (TV’s Charmed) stars as an exotic dancer who lives near a military base where some chemicals have caused humans to mutate into flesh-eating fiends. She and her boyfriend (Freddy Rodriguez from Bobby) wind up battling the creatures and, when she loses her leg, she gets retrofitted with a machine gun on her stump!

Tarantino’s contribution is Deathproof, a road kill fantasy starring Kurt Russell (Poseidon) as a homicidal stuntman. The movie features plenty of hair-raising stunt work, with noted stuntwoman Zoë Bell, who plays herself, providing much of the action. (No CGI involved here.)

Rodriguez’s entry easily fares best. It’s replete with loads of tongue-in-cheek humor, over-the-top gore and exposed breasts. His cast also includes Bruce Willis, Michael Biehn (Terminator), C-movie staple Jeff Fahey and Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas.

Tarantino’s movie excels in its stunt work, but bogs down with a lot of superfluous foul-mouthed dialogue. The masters of the genre would never have let their characters drone on like this.

Three other filmmakers contribute to the amusing trailers. Rob Zombie (House of 1000 Corpses), Eli Roth (Hostel) and Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) provide sneak peeks at sleazy movies they’d undoubtedly like to make.

Grindhouse celebrates violence, perversity and the morally errant. If slumming in sleaze sounds appealing to you, you’ll find it a guilty pleasure. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 04/06/07)


Firehouse Dog
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Movies about dogs and children always have the cute factor. But sometimes the cute factor is overrated. When filmmakers depend on it, the result can be a shallow film with a rambling or incomplete story that utterly fails to capture viewers’ emotions. Such was the case with the 2005 film Because of Winn Dixie.

Firehouse Dog, however, succeeds where other films of this type have failed. The movie tells the story of a canine actor named Rexxx who because of an accident gets separated from his owner. Another series of events land Rexxx in the care of a fire chief’s son, Shane (played by Josh Hutcherson).

Both the father and son, and the firehouse have big problems. Personal tragedies have dropped the father (Bruce Greenwood as Connor) and son into separate internal worlds. The two just can’t seem to connect with each other. The boy skips school and lies to his father. The fire chief is letting the fire station in his command disintegrate, and he refuses to even sit in his office (for reasons that in time become clear).

The crew of Station 55 is equally dysfunctional, but at the same time hilarious. The crew includes the stern Joe (Bill Nunn) who loves to cook (but no one loves to eat the odd meals he prepares). Then there’s Lionel (Scotch Ellis Loring) and Terence (Teddy Sears) who can’t slide down the pole without colliding. A beautiful but tough lady, Pep (Mayte Garcia), rounds out the crew.

Each character possesses entertaining quirks, but their antics never go over the top. The actors (including the four dogs that play Rexxx) make these characters more than mere types. We can relate to their woes, and we want them to succeed.

This movie could have been no more than a caricature of reality with its gimmicky premise about a super canine that seems almost human. But far-fetched stunts involving the dog were kept to a minimum, and the story focused on relationships, relationships to which most members of families can likely relate. (PG) Rating: 3. (Posted 04/06/07)


Are We Done Yet?
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Back in 1948, Cary Grant starred in a minor comedy classic called Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. It detailed the series of disasters that a city couple endures with a home construction project in the country. (The theme was reworked for Tom Hanks’ 1986 fixer-upper opus, The Money Pit.)

Now, Ice Cube hones his newly found family-friendly image with a direct remake of Grant’s farce, Are We Done Yet? The Mr. Blandings script has been adapted in order to serve as a sequel to Ice Cube’s 2005 hit, Are We There Yet?

While Grant’s film was hardly a landmark of sophisticated wit, it seems like the work of the Algonquin Round Table in comparison to this updated version.

Ice Cube once again plays Nick Persons, a sports writer who wed a divorced mom named Suzanne (Nia Long) with two contrary kids, Lindsey and Kevin (Aleisha Allen and Philip Bolden).

Tired of the hubbub of the big city (Portland, Oregon is an urban jungle?) and expecting twins, Nick and Suzanne decide to move to the suburbs, finding a large Arts and Crafts beauty on a rolling estate. The eager beaver realtor they consult with is Chuck Mitchell (Scrubs’ John C. McGinley), a bundle of energy who isn’t as forthcoming about the house’s shortcomings as he should have been.

While minor problems start popping up, Nick tries to take care of them himself. But as the troubles mount, he has to consult with the local contractor (Mitchell) and the county inspector (Mitchell, again). Yes, it seems that the fix is in…and Nick is either too stubborn or too dumb (or both) to do the simple things to make his life easier.

Naturally, the house is plagued with dry rot, corroded plumbing, leaky ceilings, bats and raccoons. Mitchell recruits a ragtag group of construction workers (including a team of blind plumbers) to essentially rebuild the entire structure. Nick’s angry outbursts at an ongoing series of frustrations alienate his wife and kids.

The only people who will find anything remotely funny in this parade of slapstick clichés and pratfalls are the very young and those who, for whatever reason, haven’t seen too many other silly movies.

McGinley’s scene-stealing performance may be a case of grand larceny. But in defense of the other actors involved, he’s the only character who has been given anything interesting to do.

Sadly, this reinvention of Mr. Blandings could just have easily have been titled, Mr. Bland. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted 04/06/07)


Blades of Glory
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

According to the Motion Picture Association of America, the studio-backed body that gives movies their rating, Blades of Glory is rated PG-13 due to “crude and sexual humor, language, a comic violent image and some drug references.” That appropriate description is nearly a review in itself.

In this comic send-up of the world of competitive ice-skating, Will Farrell plays a leotard-wearing version of Ricky Bobby. But instead of a speedway, his venue is the ice rink.

Farrell is Chazz Michael Michaels, a bad boy of the blade wearing set who not only skates but also is a porn star and sex addict to boot. His archenemy is Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder from Napoleon Dynamite), the nice guy of the sport.

The two became mortal enemies when they tied for a gold medal. On the medal stand, they started fighting and the ensuing brawl led to a lifetime ban from the sport for them both. Chazz wound up in a low rent Ice Capades rip-off and Jimmy was rejected by his billionaire adoptive father and wound up selling ice skates.

One day, Jimmy’s stalker, Hector (Nick Swarsdon from The Benchwarmers) suggests that they bend the rules. Technically, they’re only banned from men’s singles competition. There’s no reason why they can’t compete as a pairs’ team.

So, with the help of Jimmy’s coach (Craig T. Nelson from TV’s Coach), the two try to bury the hatchet and come up with a compelling routine. But their rivals, the Van Waldenbergs (Will Arnett and Amy Poehler) try some underhanded tricks to thwart them. That includes attempting to have their little sister, Katie (Jenna Fischer from TV’s The Office) seduce both Jimmy and Chazz.

Although the idiotic screenplay is credited to the committee of Jeff Cox, Craig Cox, Busy Philipps, John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky (whew!), much of the dialogue is pure Farrell. Anyone familiar with the comic’s quirky style will hear his improvised contributions in nearly every line he delivers.

Blades of Glory is the first feature film from directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck, a duo nominated for an Oscar for their 1998 short subject, Culture. For their sake, it’s a good thing that the Academy doesn’t rescind nominations.

While much of the lowbrow humor is forced, there are some genuinely funny moments that manage to break through. The cast makes the most of the material and there is an amusing lineup of skating stars that show up in cameo roles.

While dumb, Blades of Glory is unapologetically so. Turn off your mind, and you’ll probably let the groaners skate. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted 03/30/07)


The Lookout
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Have you ever heard of the Kansas City suburb of Overland?

So, okay they left out the “Park.” And yes, they didn’t film it in its Kansas City setting. Still, the folks behind the outstanding new crime thriller The Lookout have concocted a sharp and provocative drama that adds a few new and welcome twists to the noir genre.

Joseph Gordon Levitt (TV’s Third Rock From the Sun) plays Chris Pratt, a former high school athletic star that suffered a severe brain injury while joyriding with some friends. The accident left Chris not only with mental difficulties, but also with severe guilt. Chris was driving recklessly and two of his friends were killed.

He’s living with a blind man named Lewis (Jeff Daniels from The Squid and the Whale) whom he met at a Kansas City rehab clinic. While the road to recovering all of his mental faculties is painfully slow, Chris copes as best he can. He works as a night janitor at a rural bank in a small Kansas town. His fervent hope is to eventually be able to handle a teller’s job.

One night at a local bar, Chris meets an old school acquaintance named Gary (Matthew Goode from Match Point). Gary befriends the lonely Chris and introduces him to a sexy stripper named Luvlee, played by Isla Fisher (The Wedding Crashers).

As it turns out, Gary and his posse are planning a bank robbery. They know that the bank that Chris works at will have a large haul of cash on the evening that the farmers collect from their grain harvest. By involving Chris, they’ll have an inside man that will make the heist go smoothly.

Although initially hesitant when he discovers their plans, Chris is seduced by Luvlee and reluctantly decides to give them his aid. Naturally, things don’t necessarily go as planned and Chris is forced to make some difficult ethical decisions.

Local audiences will get a kick out of references to Raytown and some of the dialogue about Kansas City “firsts” like Teflon and M & Ms. Although filmed in Canada, they found a site that somewhat replicates the Crown Center Ice Rink and the Mayor’s Christmas Tree.

For years, the script of The Lookout gained a reputation as the best un-produced screenplay floating around in Hollywood. Eventually, its writer, Scott Frank (Get Shorty, Minority Report) got the green light to helm the flick himself.

Although it is his first directorial effort, Frank does a commendable job of building tension and establishing believable characters. The only downside is the movie’s occasionally awkward pace.

But that’s a minor quibble. The Lookout has something going for it that far too many thrillers don’t: intelligence. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 03/30/07)


The Namesake
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When your humble critic interviewed filmmaker Mira Nair in Toronto a few years back, she said that she found it startling that so many Americans are surprised to hear that most Indians speak English quite fluently. She wondered aloud, “Don’t they know any history?”

This story is pertinent to anyone who may be asking whether or not Nair’s latest film is in English. While there are a few very short passages in Bengali, the characters in this family saga speak the King’s English…and do so better than many Americans.

Nair, best known for critical darlings like Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala and Monsoon Wedding, turns her attention to the story of a couple of generations of Indian immigrants living in the USA.

Based upon Jhumpa Lahiri’s best selling novel, The Namesake is a sprawling tale about a single family’s struggles and emotional adjustments as they move between two cultures.

The tale begins in Calcutta as Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) is about to enter into an arranged marriage with a total stranger, the beautiful Ashima (Tabu). Shortly thereafter, they relocate to New York where Ashoke takes a professor’s job. Ashima has difficulty adjusting to this harsh new environment, but copes thanks to Ashoke’s gentle support.

Eventually, they have a son whom Ashoke names for his favorite author, Nikolai Gogol. But with the name Gogol Ganguli, the lad has some interesting hurdles to overcome.

Once grown, the role of Gogol is played by Kal Penn from Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle fame. Raised in a Bengali home but fully Americanized, Gogol is a living culture clash. He decides to be called “Nick,” dates a WASP (Jacinda Barrett) and in general finds his family’s traditions to be stale and old fashioned. That goes double for his sister, Sonia (Sahira Nair).

But things get very interesting for Gogol when he meets Moushumi (Zuleikha Robinson), another Americanized Bengali. In her, he finds a kindred spirit who is also trying to find her own identity.

But the most interesting dynamic in the movie is between father and son. Gogol’s patient and understanding dad has more depth than anyone in the family gives him credit for. In a heartfelt scene that changes Gogol’s life, he and his father have a heart-to-heart talk about a dramatic incident in Ashoke’s life and discuss the real reason for Gogol’s name.

While the novel has been condensed, Nair allows enough time for the story to unfold at a leisurely pace that suits the material. Patient viewers will find themselves involved and caring about this family.

The Namesake is a delicate and deliberate saga that unfolds like a good read. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 03/30/07)


Meet the Robinsons
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The eye candy of 300 may have appealed to the child in you, but the content makes it unsuitable for youngsters. The eye candy of Meet the Robinsons, on the other hand, should appeal to the child in your child.

A visually stunning, family-friendly fantasy from Disney Animation, Meet the Robinsons is a computer animated time travel adventure that is also being released in “Disney Digital 3-D” in 600 theatres nationwide. (The regular 2-D version will appear in many more venues.)

The story is adapted from William Joyce’s children’s book, A Day With Wilbur Robinson, but has been substantially altered for its big screen incarnation.

The focal character is an orphan named Lewis (voiced by two actors, Daniel Hansen and Jordan Fry). Abandoned as in infant at the doorstep of an orphanage run by Mildred (Angela Bassett), Lewis is a bit of an eccentric. Now an extremely bright and inordinately creative 12-year-old, Lewis has difficulty finding adoptive parents who aren’t overwhelmed by his scientific inventions.

A budding scientist, Lewis is often up at all hours working on new contraptions much to the consternation of his sleep-deprived roommate, Michael "Goob" Yagoobian (Matthew Josten).

But before Lewis can demonstrate his innovative “Memory Scanner” at a science fair, “The Bowler Hat Man” (a villain from the future voiced by the film’s director, Steve Anderson), steals the gizmo. Another traveler from the future, Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman), comes to Lewis’ aid. In a time-traveling flying car, the duo races after the dastardly fiend in hopes of thwarting him before he has a chance to mess up the future.

The film’s first reel is zippy and amusing. But when Lewis flies into 2037, he meets Wilbur’s bizarre extended family. At this point, the movie nose dives as we are quickly introduced to an extended lineup of quirky characters that we’re never given any time to get to know or care about. This section is so manic that it annoys more often than it amuses.

But the final reel pulls things back together in a satisfying way. The kids may be a bit confused, but they’ll go along for the ride.

The real attraction of Meet the Robinsons is its impressive 3-D effects. The technology has advanced to the point that it is no longer the headache-inducing gimmick it once was. The effect here is convincing and blissfully subtle.

While Meet the Robinsons is a second-tier Disney offering, it is still an arresting visual treat. (G) Rating: 3 (Posted 03/30/07)


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