reel reviews
movie reviews
June '05

GEORGE A. ROMERO'S LAND OF THE DEADRIZEBEWITCHEDBATMAN BEGINS
TURTLES CAN FLY BATMAN BEGINSHERBIE: FULLY LOADED
ISLAND OF THE SHARKS
THE PERFECT MANMR. & MRS. SMITHTHE HONEYMOONERS
THE ADVENTURES OF SHARK BOY & LAVA GIRL IN 3-DHIGH TENSIONLORDS OF DOGTOWN
THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS
LAYER CAKE

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

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Rize
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When riots erupted in Los Angeles after the Rodney King beating in 1992, Tommy Johnson tried to do something to uplift the residents of South Central LA and provide a positive way for kids to release their pent up energies.

He adopted the persona of Tommy the Clown, and entertained throughout the inner city with some energetic hip-hop dancing. His frenetic style evolved into a dance craze now called “krumping.”

The new documentary called Rize, directed by famed fashion photographer David LaChapelle, is essentially a video essay about this impressive art form. The dancing is so vigorous and fast-paced, that the film begins with a disclaimer that no sequences have been accelerated and that everything is shown in actual speed.

LaChapelle first introduced many to this craze with two acclaimed short films, Clowns in the Hood (2003) and Krumped (2004.) The latter found a receptive audience at the Sundance Film Festival, and LaChapelle debuted this feature-length adaptation there in 2005.

Best known for his Vanity Fair shoots, LaChapelle structures his film more as a moving photo than as a linear documentary. Yes, he touches on the history of the dance form, but what he is really interested in is visual...and justice cannot be paid to this kind of dancing through still photography.

He also introduces us to Tommy the Clown and his posse, as well as members of a number of krumping troupes that have formed over the last decade. We also see their preparations for a krumping contest, “Battle Zone V” held before thousands of rapt fans at LA’s Great Western Forum.

These competitors aren’t just creative with their flaying gyrations. They’re inventive with their names, too. Among the participants are Swoop, Baby Tight Eyez, Lil Tommy, Lil C, Dragon, Swoop, Miss Prissy, El Nino, Bix X, Daisy and Quinesha.

Their moves seem to refocus the energies of anger into artistic expression. Yes, the rage is there, but this form of expression seems to be a cathartic experience for many of them.

But that’s about as deep as the movie gets. Although LaChapelle introduces some riot footage and quotes from Martin Luther King, he doesn’t really explore the social underpinnings of the development of krumping. These touches on social relevance seem half-hearted and undeveloped.

But that doesn’t distract from the dancing. What is captured on film is visually arresting, and that is more than enough to make Rize a treat for dance enthusiasts of all stripes. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (posted 6/24/05)



Bewitched
Reviewed by Deborah Young

What if a washed up actor decided to remake the Bewitched television series, which first aired from 1964-1972? And what if he unknowingly cast a real life witch in the role of television witch Samantha? Then what if the witch and the actor fell in love?

The plot of the new Bewitched movie grew from this kind of brainstorming said writer/director Nora Ephron during a recent interview with Charlie Rose. And it shows. The movie starts with a great premise, but after 10 minutes or so the story meanders into “what if” territory, leaving audiences to wonder who the characters really are.

Nicole Kidman plays Isabel Bigelow, a witch who wants to give up magic for a normal life. Isabel conjures a new life for herself, complete with house, yard and credit cards. Then she gets hired to play Samantha on a modern Bewitched sitcom mainly because she can wiggle her nose like the character Samantha.

Enter love interest Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell), a washed up actor who’s trying to make a comeback by playing Darren (Samantha’s husband) in the series remake.
Isabel feels an immediate attraction to Jack because, as she puts it, he looks a bit unkempt, and he’s kind of pathetic. However, when they start taping the show,

Isabel figures out that Jack picked her as a co-star because she’s an unknown, and he thinks he can upstage her.

But Isabel’s not having it. So the nose twitching and ear tugging begins as she uses magic to get even.

Writer/director Ephron clearly intended to craft a clever romantic comedy with an interesting spin on the Bewitched sitcom. Unfortunately, Ephron and her co-writers failed to see beyond the premise to a story.

Audiences are left with too many scenes that involve the taping of the television show, too many scenes that appear improvised and don’t advance the plot or give insight into the characters.

We get shots of Jack hamming it up on the show’s set and using every opportunity to prevent Isabel face from appearing on screen. We get shots of Isabel standing by silently while Jack takes over the show. Then we witness the standard romantic comedy tiff between Jack and Isabel, which soon pivots to a relationship of flowers and emotional fireworks.

Ephron is no stranger to romantic comedies. She wrote and directed both Sleepless in Seattle (1992) and You’ve Got Mail. Both movies arouse viewers’ emotions by revealing important elements of the main characters’ personalities and by showing what makes them happy or sad, and then developing a romance that audiences can relate to.

In contrast, Bewitched just bounces from joke to joke, from gag to ridiculous gag without much thought of story or character. And that’s a shame, because Ephron had a wonderful cast of actors to work with. Kidman succeeded in stripping her aura of aristocratic distinction to play a believable version of the simple and sometimes naive witch. Shirley MacLaine shows her flair for comic timing as Iris Smythson/Endora. And Michael Caine, with his British accent and air of sophistication, is a natural fit for the role of Isabel’s snobbish father Nigel.

Most of the actors in this film actually resemble the characters in the sitcom, which is what sets this film apart from other recent remakes. Unfortunately, the script is as shallow as a sitcom script, which will probably leave some audience members playing “what if.” But this time the first question might be: What if I left the theater now? (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (posted 6/24/05)



Turtles Can Fly
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

There have been many films that have dealt with man’s inhumanity to man. Usually, these movies show horrific acts perpetrated by brutal force. Often times, however, that inhumanity is perpetrated by inaction.

Turtles Can Fly, the first dramatic film to come out of Iraq since the American invasion, deals with a forgotten people, Kurdish refugees, who eke out a living near that country’s border with Turkey. These nation-less nomads are left to their own devices because outsiders simply aren’t aware or don’t care enough about their welfare.

A Kurdish Iraqi, filmmaker Baham Ghobadi (A Time for Drunken Horses), has attempted to shine the spotlight on the plight of his people. Abused and exploited by Saddam Hussein and refused entry into Turkey to join fellow Kurds, they exist in a desolated limbo.

This particular story takes place in a Kurdish refugee camp just before the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. One of the residents is an enterprising young loner called Satellite (Soran Ebrahim), so named because of his expertise at hooking up TV dishes. He leads a group of kids in the only work they have around the refugee camps. They pick up land mines and sell them to shady arms dealers.

Many of these kids have been permanently maimed by the thousands of mines placed there over decades of conflict. One such boy is Hengov (Hiresh Feysal Rahman,) who lost both arms to exploding mines. He lives in a makeshift tent with his pretty younger sister Agrin (Avaz Latif) and a blind orphan toddler they’ve “adopted.”

But Hengov has a gift. It seems that he is a clairvoyant…and he predicts an American invasion coming in the near future. He also foresees a tragic fate for his beloved sister. The victim of rape and abuse even though she is under the age of 10, Agrin is depressed and considering suicide. The weight of life is heavy on her, especially since she and her brother took in the orphaned baby.

Ghobadi gets good performance from his young, non-professional cast, many of them actual land mine casualties. And, yes, film is as depressing as it sounds. But Ghobadi also injects humor to leaven the sadness.

While some of the dramatic elements of Ghobadi’s film don’t quite seem to always fit comfortably together, it is still a heartfelt story. His aim is to point out the plight of a repressed people, and on that point succeeds emphatically. (Not rated.) Rating: 3 (posted 6/24/05)



Herbie: Fully Loaded
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The loveable Volkswagen that starred in its own TV series in the 1960s and several spin-off films is back in Herbie: Fully Loaded. He’s a car that can think, drive himself and help his owners with their problems. In this latest film he completely steals the spotlight from his human supporting cast.

At the beginning of Herbie: Fully Loaded newspaper headlines pop up on the screen to document Herbie’s racing career and personal life, his rise as racing car 53, his love affair and his gradual fall into a losing slump.

When Herbie’s racing career hits bottom, he winds up at Crazy Dave’s Scrap & Salvage yard.

But Herbie refuses to go quietly into the scrap heap. He instead wheedles his way into the life of Maggie Peyton (Lindsey Lohan), a young woman born into a family of auto racers. Before purchasing Herbie for $75, she’d just graduated from college and was preparing to leave home for a dream job at ESPN. But her plans change after she meets Herbie.

Those who’ve seen this kind of film will know instinctively how the story ends, but the ride through the story will be a laugh-filled pleasure for many. The makers of this film got it right (most of the time) with music that heightens the comedy and actors that make the fantasy tale seem almost plausible.

In one scene, Maggie is racing Herbie (with Herbie in control most of the time) against reigning NASCAR champ Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon). “Born to be Wild” plays in the background as Herbie lurches through the streets, exercising his own will, to the surprise of his new owner. The hyperbole that emerges with the combination of that song and a teen racing a beat-up VW makes the scene hilarious.

But the actors’ performances avoid the hyperbolic. Lohan managed to grin her way through the movie’s wild situations without overplaying. She reacted to Herbie’s magical powers as though they were just another fact of life that she’d recently discovered.

Her mechanic friend, Kevin (Justin Long), takes a little longer to accept Herbie’s abilities. Long’s low-key screen presence and his character’s quiet affection for Maggie make him the perfect love interest for her.

In a recent screening of the film the audience’s laughter could be heard loudly and frequently. Herbie: Fully Loaded doesn’t always make sense (for instance, why would a car that can move and think on its own wind up in a junkyard, and why would it have to be repaired by humans if it’s magic). But the story manages to make the VW a sympathetic and endearing character, and the story takes cute to a whole new level. (G) Rating: 3 (posted 6/24/05)



George A. Romero's Land of the Dead
Reviewed by Deborah Young

In an early scene of George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead, the baritone drone of a tuba hits the ear before the sight of the musician assaults the eyes. When the camera pans to the performer, our eyes come to rest on three zombie men. One is playing the tuba, another is reeling in front of him with a trombone and the third zombie is beating a red tambourine.

“It’s like they’re pretending to be alive,” says Cholo (John Leguizamo)

Cholo’s comrade Riley (Simon Baker) shoots him a look of quiet annoyance and replies: “Isn’t that what we’re doing — pretending to be alive.”

That line is neither uproariously funny nor strikingly profound, but it provides a clue that the filmmaker behind Land of the Dead has planted philosophical and political messages beneath the guts and gore of this zombie film. The messages are simple and tend to take the idea of tolerance to the outer limits of rational, but they also add spice to a film that in less capable hands would have been nothing more than a feast of violence.

Zombie fans will recognize the name of the writer/director in the movie’s title. George A. Romero directed and co-wrote (with John A. Russo) Night of the Living Dead (1968), and he wrote and directed Dawn of the Dead (1978).

His latest movie is as typically American as the recent Shaun of the Dead was typically British. The movie’s main character, Riley, is self-righteous, brooding, and sometimes tolerant to a fault. He accepts the developmentally disabled Charlie (Robert Joy) while others choose to make fun of Charlie. At times, Riley even seems concerned about the rights of the zombies (at least those who aren’t trying to eat him alive).

Riley winds up on a mission with a band of misfits, which includes Charlie, a hooker (Asia Argento as Slack), and an oversized Samoan named Pillsbury (Pedro Miguel Arce). Their goal is to save a city of people from Cholo (who’s threatening to blow it up) and the zombies (some of whom would like to make a meal of the city’s inhabitants).

To complicate matters, the zombies are evolving. They’re learning to shoot and use weapons, and some of them even appear to be developing a crude form of thoughtfulness. Romero has even made some of the undead characters sympathetic.

But despite the sometimes-clever plot and interesting characters, this is still a movie about mayhem and violence. As such, it contains many graphic scenes of blood, guts, bone and savagery. So it’s not suitable for the kiddies or for the faint of heart, but it will likely capture the attention of horror fans and some horror novices (at least during the moments when their hands aren’t covering their eyes to block out the gore). (R) Rating: 3 (posted 6/24/05)



Batman Begins
Reviewed by Jason Aaron

In 1989, director Tim Burton's Batman helped shepherd super-hero films in a bold new direction. Featuring the dark humor of Jack Nicholson's Joker, the brooding, offbeat performance of Michael Keaton as Batman and the outrageous gothic architecture of Oscar-winning production designer Anton Furst, Batman was darker than any comic book film, helping pave the way for more intense adaptations like X-Men and Sin City.

Unfortunately, the three Batman sequels got progressively worse. The final two, directed by Joel Schumacher, were closer in tone to the campy Batman TV series of the 1960s than to the character's contemporary portrayal in the comics exemplified by Frank Miller's moody masterpiece “The Dark Knight Returns.”

With the release of director Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, you can forget all about those other Bat-films. This is how Batman should have been done from the beginning. Nolan (Memento) and screenwriter David Goyer (Blade) compiled the Greatest Hits version of Batman's 60+year old origin. There's the murder of his parents, of course, plus his training, his aversion to guns, the reason why he dresses like a bat, his first meeting with cop (and future police commissioner) Jim Gordon and the birth of the Bat-Cave, Bat-Mobile and Bat-Signal.

Nolan and Goyer took bits from the character's original origin as created by Bob Kane in 1939, mixed it with the best of the comic from the 1970s, when Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams created the villainous criminal mastermind Ra's Al Ghul, and then stirred in a heaping helping of Frank Miller's “Batman: Year One,” a gritty retelling of the origin from the ’80s. There are also a few original tweaks to the tale, leaving us with a superhero origin story that plays like the honest emotional progression of a young boy overcome with guilt, fear and anger in the wake of his parents’ murder. Burton's Batman film simply skipped over all of that, expecting viewers to assume that the natural reaction of any boy who sees his parents gunned down before his eyes is to put on a costume and fight crime.

In Batman Begins it all actually makes sense and rings true, from an emotional standpoint. Christian Bale follows up his shocking, emaciated performance in The Machinist (a great film, now on DVD) with an intense, nuanced, star-making turn as the man behind the bat cowl. While co-star Katie Holmes may be grabbing all the headlines these days with her romantic escapades, it’s Bale who steals the movie. He’s only overshadowed by the script itself.

One of the things that Nolan and Goyer hit on that no one else has ever brought to screen is how creepy Batman should seem. When “Bats” first appears in costume, the scene plays more like something from Alien than your typical bout of fisticuffs. Criminals get sucked into the darkness with no idea what sort of creature they’re fighting.

Couple all that with a surprising number of laughs, most courtesy of co-stars Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, an epic scale, slick visuals and one hell of a car chase, and you’ve got yourself a damn fine summer blockbuster. The ending may seem somewhat over-the-top and anti-climactic compared to the near-perfection of the film’s first two acts, but nevertheless, Batman Begins certainly feels like the of something grand. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (posted 6/17 /05)



Mad Hot Ballroom
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

It may be too simple to describe Mad Hot Ballroom as a combination of Spellbound and Strictly Ballroom…but the comparison is apt.

This crowd-pleasing documentary may not have depth, but it possesses a trait that is often shunned by filmmakers. It’s downright cute.

Mad Hot Ballroom relates the story of an experimental program that began in New York City schools in 1994. Under the sponsorship of the American Ballroom Theatre, 11-year-olds in several public schools are given an intense, 10-week training program in ballroom dancing. This instruction ends in a citywide competition.

One can almost hear a wail from those who think that there is far too much frivolity in contemporary education and not enough reading, writing and arithmetic. But as this movie shows, this kind of training and competition can have a positive effect on the social and emotional well being of the youngsters involved.

Director Marilyn Agrelo and producer Amy Sewell take a look at some of the kids and instructors involved. They concentrate on three teams, one from Tribeca, one from Bensonhurst and one from Washington Heights. The kids in these schools come from various ethnic and social backgrounds. (The fifth graders from Washington Heights are nearly all Dominican.)

The camera follows these kids as they stumble their way through the unfamiliar world of foxtrot, meringue, rumba and swing. Many of the boys are initially reluctant, but thanks to some dedicated teachers and principals who believe in the program, many of their concerns fade as they become more accomplished on their feet.

The instructors include some masculine role models to show the boys that dancing isn’t necessarily an activity for sissies. Rodney Lopez becomes like a big brother to some of the fatherless boys, while Alex Tchssov, a Russian, shows them the international sophistication of ballroom dance. Like basketball, dancing can be cool.

But the movie is about the kids, and we root for them without hesitation. Although the filmmakers don’t dig to deep (social issues are only lightly touched upon) with the individual kids, they concentrate on the group dynamic. It can be fascinating to see how the kids communicate while in a clique.

After the intense training period, a competition is held at New York’s World Financial Center. The tension is palpable as the kids work hard to earn the top prize.

Yes, Mad Hot Ballroom is cute. But when delivered with the kind of sincerity on display here, it is a welcome trait indeed. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (posted 6/17 /05)



Island of the Sharks
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The Pacific island of Cocos, some 300 miles west of Costa Rica, was reportedly the inspiration for Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. No golden cache could be any more beautiful than what lies beneath that island.

Cocos, you see, is also referred to as by some as Island of the Sharks, and that is the title of a visually dazzling 1999 IMAX feature finally playing at the Kansas City Zoo. In the waters flowing around this volcanic island is an amazing landscape teeming with colorful life.

The unique structure of the island draws coldwater currents up from far beneath the ocean. This nutrient-rich water supports a wide variety of marine life that displays nature’s uncanny level of symbiosis.

But this profusion of life exists in a delicate balance. As the film demonstrates, the effects warm El Nino currents (perhaps the result of global warming) can have a devastating effect on the circle of life. Without the infusion of cold, nutrient-rich waters, the coral begins to die and the underwater landscape threatens to become a wasteland.

This is just a part of the fascinating natural drama that unfolds regularly beneath the sea, and director Howard Hall and his team of underwater photographers capture some amazing images for the giant IMAX screen.

The screen is filled with imposing schools of marauding sharks, including white-tip, hammerhead, black-tip, silky sharks and many of their carnivorous cousins. But the movie isn’t must about sharks.

Perhaps the most arresting scene involves a huge school of small fish, including sardines, which are “herded” into a frenzied, floating mass by sea lions. The mammals cause the school to panic and swirl together (in a formation that oceanographers call a “bait ball”) where they are trapped close to the surface of the water.

The sea lions then take turns darting into the teeming ball of fish for an easy lunch. Soon they are joined by marlins that also take their turn at the trough. The feeding doesn’t end until the last remaining member of the school is devoured. With this kind of predator efficiency, it is a wonder that any of fish survive to reproduce.

As narrator Linda Hunt explains, this aquatic jungle seems as foreign to man as the landscape of another planet. Thanks to the peering eye of the IMAX camera, this is a wondrous realm audiences can vicariously explore from the comfort of our theatre seats.
(G) Rating: 3.5 (posted 6/17 /05)



The Perfect Man
Reviewed by Deborah Young

For moviegoers, summer is typically the time for teen angst and mega explosions; and this spring’s film offerings are an appropriate prelude to a typical summer. Viewers of Hillary Duff’s latest flick, The Perfect Man, will get a good dose of teen angst.

Duff plays Holly Hamilton, a frustrated teen who feels like a “gypsy” because her mother, Jean (Heather Locklear) moves the family to a new town whenever romance sours. Holly writes about her misery in a daily Web log, but her mother seems oblivious about the girl’s misery.

We take the journey from Kansas to New York with this family, a single mother with two daughters. Along the way, we hear ad nauseam about Holly’s angst over the family’s transient lifestyle. We hear through voiceovers and in her conversations with friends. For the first 20 minutes of the film we hear it said in various words, dramatized in various actions: Holly doesn’t want to move anymore.

The Perfect Man follows this genre’s tradition with an adult main character that is lacking emotionally and a teen that steps in to save the day (or at least tries to save the day). Jean is desperate for romance. So her daughter Holly decides to create a secret admirer that will quell her mother’s romance jones, at least temporarily. With romance tips from her friend’s Uncle Ben (Chris Noth), Holly creates a bit of mystery for her mother.

It’s easy to guess what happens next. There’s a misunderstanding in which Jean thinks the plump everyman baker she works with may be her secret admirer. Then there’s the old thwarted plan plot twist, which makes it necessary for Holly to find a real man to stand in for her fictional admirer.

There are few surprises. However, most of the cast handles the whole affair with poise and natural charm, which the exception of Locklear, whose performance is a bit hyperbolic. But, she is, after all a teen playing a teen. So heightened emotional responses are probably typical.

Pre-teen girls will probably get a kick out of this one. (PG) Rating: 3 (posted 6/17 /05)



Mr. & Mrs. Smith
Reviewed by Deborah Young

As the opening credits of Mr. & Mrs. Smith roll, Jane (Angela Jolie) and John (Brad Pitt) Smith are talking into the camera. They’re telling an unseen marriage counselor some of the details of their lackluster relationship.

The couple’s first few words reveal their lack of interest in each other. John can’t remember whether he met Jane five or six years ago. Jane slips in corrections to John’s version of their story in a cool monotone. What follows will likely evoke a similar lack of interest from audiences.

Writer Simon Kinberg, who also penned XXX: State of the Union, has painted a convincing portrait of a bored couple that needs to discover their mutual passions. Unfortunately, Kinberg has also created a grim picture of a boring and shallow couple who, beneath their modern Ozzie and Harriet façade, have little in common except violence.

Jane serves dinner every night at seven. John hates her cooking but always chokes it down and then smiles wide, as if he’s been treated to the world’s most delicious delicacy. Mornings, they give each other a quick peck and leave for their respective offices (although neither seems to know where the other works).

Then the audience gets a glimpse of their secret lives. They’re both professional assassins (although it’s never clear who they work for or why their bosses want the targets dead).

This movie, like its protagonists’ quiet suburban image, is one big cover. It’s simply a stunt fest hiding beneath a plotless premise.

Jolie and Pitt comport themselves like ballroom dancers. They walk and stand with bodies rigid, chests poked out, and expressions that reveal nothing about their characters’ feelings (or whether the characters are capable of feeling at all).

The only time John and Jane seem to enjoy themselves is when they’re fighting, when they’re tussling, shooting, knifing and/or breaking things. In one rather disturbing scene John knocks Jane down and kicks her again and again (although she’s hidden behind a piece of furniture and we are left to imagine that she’s being kicked in the side). She retaliates by kicking him in the groin.

Perhaps this is modern humor, a rethinking of the old-fashioned notion that a man fighting a woman is deplorable. Maybe the new idea is that if a woman can run with the big boys she can also endure their punches.

There’s nothing new about the idea of intertwining murder-for-hire and romance. The 1999 film Love and Action in Chicago does so with a guilt-ridden government assassin who falls in love with a woman who has no idea of what he does for a living. True Lies follows a bored housewife who spices up her life by teaming with her spy husband. Neither of these films is high art, but both have two things Mr. & Mrs. Smith doesn’t: a plot and characters who have discernible motives. (PG-13) Rating: 1 (posted 6/10 /05)



The Honeymooners
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Hollywood doesn’t have a very good track record lately when it comes to adapting old TV series for the big screen. If you don’t believe me, just consider remakes such as Fat Albert, The Brady Bunch and Leave it to Beaver. The TV shows were sometimes touching and often funny, with a bit of a moral thrown. But the modern motion picture remakes feature a bunch of flat characters, which come across as downright corny and unsophisticated by today’s standards.

The Honeymooners is the latest entry into this unfortunate canon of remakes. Cedric the Entertainer plays the rotund, entrepreneurial and bumbling New York City bus driver Ralph Kramden, portrayed by Jackie Gleason in the TV series of the mid-1950s.

We meet the latest incarnation of Ralph a few moments before he meets his future wife Alice (Gabrielle Union). The film then fast-forwards to his proposal, in which he promises Alice that he’ll make something of his life, that he’ll be more than a poor bus driver.

We fast-forward again, and a few years have passed. He’s still a poor bus driver. Alice is a waitress. The couple still doesn’t have their own home. And Ralph’s scheming begins. He’s determined to get enough money to buy an elderly neighbor’s house, but what he possesses in ambition, he lacks in knowledge and ability.

Those who’ve seen Gleason in the role will realize that Cedric spends half of the movie trying to imitate him. Cedric’s imitation involves lowering his voice, twisting his mouth in an overblown display of social pretension and bellowing in an accent more suitable for Buckingham Palace than New York City

Likewise, Union sometimes raises her voice as if to mimic her predecessor in the role (Audrey Meadows). But most of the time, Union is a subdued (though frustrated) Alice. She smiles wide and uses her facial expressions to show her disappointment, her anxiousness or her sense of hope. In one scene she watches Ralph from a distance. He’s saying cruel things to Ralph. She focuses her marble-shaped eyes on Ralph and lowers her head a little, and her disappointment comes through.

However, the best performance in this film comes from Mike Epps (playing Ed Norton). He uses that wide smile of his and those childlike eyes to bring life and to add range to the character. His Norton is funny, a little pathetic and very sympathetic (even though the character as written seems to have been dropped from another world). When he breakdances in the park, we want people to give him lots of dollar bills. When Ralph insults him, it’s easy to feel his pain.

In keeping with Hollywood tradition, The Honeymooners is a remake that pays too much homage to the past and almost ignores the present. But the performances of Union and Epps raise the substandard script to standard comic fare. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (posted 6/10 /05)



The Adventures of Shark Boy & Lava Girl in 3-D
Reviewed by Russ Simons

Yep, the youngsters are going to want to see this one, especially if they were fans of the Spy Kids franchise.

Director Robert Rodriguez (Sin City) is certainly a family man. Interspersed with his violent, R-rated offerings; he gave us the creative Spy Kids movies as entertainment for his own youngsters.

With The Adventures of Shark Boy & Lava Girl in 3-D, Rodriguez has taken it one step further. His seven-year-old son, Racer, developed the movie’s story. It shows.

Like Spy Kids and Sin City, The Adventures of Shark Boy & Lava Girl in 3-D was filmed at Rodriguez’s studio in Austin, TX in front of a green screen. The actors are inserted in to a virtual world created by computer-generated imaging. In this respect, Rodriguez knows what he’s doing.
The movie’s biggest drawback lies in its stream of conscious storytelling. It really feels like they were making it up as they went along.

A ten-year-old lad named Max (Cayden Boyd) has some vivid dreams. He records these fantastic visions in a comic-like journal. While at school in the class of Mr. Electricidad (TV’s George Lopez), a bully steals Max’s colorful diary and vandalizes it. To everyone’s surprise, two of Max’s fantasy characters show up to enlist his help.

Shark Boy, a half-boy, half-shark (played by champion martial artist Taylor Lautner) and Lava Girl (Taylor Dooley), a cute miss with unusual heat generating powers, come to whisk Max off to another planet. Since Max has created them and the world they live in, they need his guidance to save Planet Drool.

The evil Mr. Electric (Lopez) has taken over Planet Drool and is attempting to rid the universe of dreams once and for all.

Problem is, Max doesn’t know how to control his dreams. For most of the movie, he’s at a loss to do anything to help.

All this serves as an excuse for some creative visuals that bring Planet Drool to life. In an apt adolescent flight of the imagination, it is filled with carnival rides, giant cookies, a “train of thought” and, most significantly, a “stream of consciousness.”

All this will appeal to young boys, but others may feel left out. The story is awkward and lacks emotional resonance. Plus, the 3-D visuals work only sporadically and can actually induce headaches.

Unlike Spy Kids, this isn’t a family film because it will work only for one segment of the family audience. (PG) Rating: 2.5 (posted 6/10 /05)



High Tension
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If nothing else, the makers of High Tension can be commended for delivering on the title’s promise. This movie does indeed create an atmosphere of undeniable tension.

A French entry into the “slasher” genre, High Tension is admittedly well made, but it is also an unremittingly ugly gore-fest. It exists for one reason, and one reason only: to gross us out.

The plot involves a couple of college students on holiday. Cécile De France (Around the World in Eighty Days) stars as Marie, who travels to with her roommate, Alex (Maiwenn Le Besco) to an isolated country house where Alex’s family lives. The plan is to spend a few quiet days there. No such luck.

A mysterious trucker shows up at night and begins violently dispatching the family members. Marie simply tries to hide as the body count rises.
The movie employs an interesting plot twist that makes everything a bit more interesting. Unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t cover their tracks so the twist doesn’t make any sense.

Reluctantly, one must admit that director Alexandre Aja (Furia) is a talented fellow who knows what he’s doing with a camera. His fluid visuals and canny editing make this flick one of the better entries in this category to come along in a while. (It should come as no surprise that Aja has been tapped to direct the unnecessary remake of Wes Craven’s 1977 “classic,” The Hills Have Eyes.)

The main problem is one of ethics. The only reason this film was made is to slice, dice and disembowel people for the entertainment and delight of those who enjoy seeing people get brutally murdered. This is a movie that has no ulterior motives, no point of view other than to support a very dark worldview.

Fans of this type of movie may dismiss this criticism as unnecessarily puritanical. But superior horror films that deal with gore (The Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, etc.) also engage our minds. The granddaddy of the genre, Psycho, was rich in its layers of sophistication.

Others may also justify the gore by saying, “Hey…it’s only a movie. It isn’t really happening, so don’t take it so seriously.” But there isn’t a tongue-in-cheek moment in High Tension. It revels in the bloodshed.

Another problem is with dubbing. This version is not subtitled, so the characters speak in French while other actors read their lines in English. Sometimes it looks as awkward as a bad Kung Fu movie.

High Tension is a skillfully executed exploitation flick. It can correctly be cited as “horror porn.” (R) Rating: 2.5 (posted 6/10 /05)



Cinderella Man
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Cinderella Man pays grand tribute to the resilient human spirit in the form of early 20th Century boxer James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe). In so doing the film’s creators have woven deftly around a danger that’s always present with a period piece — that modern audiences might not relate to the historically distant characters and situations.

Director Ron Howard has succeeded in crafting a movie that transcends the subject matter of boxing and draws us into the world of an underdog who finds himself on top of the world for a while and then at the bottom of a crowded heap of human suffering brought on by the Great Depression.

Early in the movie, we see a close-up of the dresser in Braddock’s bedroom. The dresser contains an expensive-looking watch, a jewelry box and a few other trinkets. Then the camera fades into a shot of Braddock’s dresser in 1933. The watch is gone, and the top of the dresser is empty. The spacious home in which Jim and his wife Mae (Renee Zellweger) lived has been replaced by a dingy apartment. The couple now has three children. The family table has little food on it.

Howard uses such small details to paint a picture of poverty and despair. We only see the couple relating to each other in a few scenes, but those scenes are powerful because of the perceptions they conjure. Our brief experiences of Mae and Jim together give us the impression that Jim loves her and his children enough to endure almost any humiliation or hardship.

But Mae and the children are only flesh and bone props put in place to explain Jim’s motivations. Besides Jim, the most memorable character in Cinderella Man is Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), Jim’s obnoxious and tenacious manager. The two men’s personalities counter each other. Jim is shy and humble; Joe is bold and showy.

Cinderella Man bears a striking resemblance to A Beautiful Mind, for which Howard won the Best Director Oscar. Both films tell the story of a man returning from adversity. Both feature the superb acting of Russell Crowe (who has the ability to make us forget that we are watching an actor on a screen) and the sharp but spare writing of Akiva Goldsman. Both movies draw viewers into the central character’s world with universal issues.

However, A Beautiful Mind displays a more rounded main character, one who is tragically flawed but loveable. In contrast, we mostly get an idealized version of Cinderella Man’s Braddock. We see him in maddening situations in which most people would at least crack (if not break), but Braddock never breaks down (although he comes close in one scene).

Howard makes up for this minor flaw with visually and emotionally rich boxing scenes. In the ring, Braddock comes across as wholly human, full of paradoxes, weaknesses and strengths.

Both boxing fans and non-fans will likely be on the edges of their seats during the fight scenes and not far from the seats’ edges during the rest of the film. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (posted 6/03/05)



Lords of Dogtown
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In the 1970s, Southern California experienced a severe drought. Residents were prohibited from filling their swimming pools, so the landscape was littered with empty basins.

A group of slackers from Venice decided to put these unfilled facilities to use. They broke into backyards and used the pools for skateboarding. They took a pastime that had heretofore been limited to flat surfaces and inadvertently created a whole new extreme sport.

The story of these accidental innovators was told in Stacey Peralta’s excellent autobiographical documentary, Dogtown and Z Boys. Aware that the audience for a documentary is limited, Peralta wrote a screenplay for this dramatic version, filmed by director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen.)

On the surface, Lords of Dogtown plays a bit like a soap opera with skateboards. There is plenty of backbiting, bickering and the like; all punctuated with impressive action sequences. What the film lacks is narrative drive and a consistent tone.

Heath Ledger (A Knight’s Tale) plays Skip Engblom, the owner of a surf shop who decides to sponsor a team of skateboarders called The Zephers. He recruits the pool invaders to enter into skateboard contests and show up the staid competition.

The team members include Peralta (John Robinson from Elephant), Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch from The Girl Next Door) and Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk from Raising Victor Vargas.)

Their intertwining stories weave in and out of one another like boarders on a half-pipe. Alva, who is portrayed as immensely talented and equally egotistical, goes on to become the first superstar of the sport. Peralta, of course, ultimately turns to filmmaking, while Adams takes to drugs and crime, flirting with life as a skinhead.

The young cast members ably inhabit their roles, but Ledger’s performance takes a bit of getting used to. Sporting an unwieldy set of phony teeth, he talks through them with a noticeable lisp. (It is unclear whether or not this speech impediment is an intended affectation or if Ledger is just struggling the dentures.)

Although it is a largely comic role, Ledger plays Engblom as both an advocate for the boys and also their exploiter. His fate seems predestined.

Although the film’s strength lies in its skateboarding action (staged by none other than Alva himself), its weakness is in the inconsistent tone presented by Peralta and Hardwicke.

What we’re left with is an informative, modestly entertaining film that will appeal mainly to aficionados of the sport. (R) Rating: 3 (posted 6/03/05)


The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If ever there was an estrogen-drenched chick flick, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is it.

The good news is that the film is entertaining enough to possibly find a wider audience than its obvious demographic.

Based upon Ann Brashares popular novel, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is aimed squarely at teen and pre-teen girls and, to a lesser extent, their moms. Although overtly sentimental, it mostly avoids the pitfalls of hankie-wringing overkill.

The story involves four inseparable teenage girls. Their mothers met in an exercise class for pregnant women and the foursome have been lifelong friends.

The inevitable summer arrives when the girls will be separated for the first time. While rummaging in a second-hand clothing store, they stumble upon a magical pair of jeans that fits each of them perfectly…in spite of the fact that they are all different sizes and heights.

They decide to share the pants, each one wearing them for a period of time and writing to the others of their experiences while donning the sacred garment.

Carmen (America Ferrera from Real Women Have Curves) is a half-Hispanic girl who goes off to spend the summer with her dad, played by Bradley Whitford (TV’s The West Wing.) He’s about to marry into a WASP nightmare.

Bridget (Blake Lively from Sandman) goes to a soccer camp where she throws herself at a counselor to ease the pain from her mother’s death.

Lena (Alexis Bledel from Sin City) travels to Greece to reconnect with her relatives. There she has a star-crossed romance with a local boy whose family is an enemy of her grandparents.

Tibby (Amber Tamblyn from TV’s Joan of Arcadia) is a wannabe filmmaker who is left behind to work at a discount store for the summer. The dispassionate member of the foursome is forced out of her emotional shell through a relationship she develops with a little girl suffering from leukemia.

Any description of this plot will probably be enough to send most males running frantically out of theatre. Fear not. Even though the movie clearly wasn’t intended for guys, it may induce a reluctant tear or two from dads who are persuaded to tag along with their daughters.

The success of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants lies in no small part with the charm of its young cast. These are young women you won’t mind spending a bit of quality time with. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (posted 6/03/05)



Layer Cake
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In his directorial debut, British producer Matthew Vaughn (Snatch, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) makes quite a case from himself. He may be the real talent behind the success of those Guy Ritchie films.

Layer Cake, adapted for the screen by the novel’s author J.J. Connolly, is a violent and ugly gangster flick. It is also a giddy guilty pleasure, full of surprises and stylish filmmaking flourishes.

The opening sequence demonstrates that Vaughn is in full command of the medium. He uses his camera in a lengthy series of panning shots, artfully setting up the movie’s back-story. As the camera continues to sweep left and right, it seamlessly moves us from place to place and back and forth in time, giving us the film’s plot setup by skillfully exploiting the language of film.

Daniel Craig (Road to Perdition) plays an unnamed British cocaine dealer who sees himself not as a gangster but as a businessman. He abhors violence, conducts his business in a highly professional manner and has a legit business on the side. He isn’t a part of the “brotherhood” that makes up the underworld he constantly deals with and is planning to take his ill-gotten gains and leave the profession.

He gets an unpleasant surprise when a kingpin named Jimmy (Kenneth Cranham) informs him that he’s making too much money to be allowed to quit. Jimmy, you see, is his gangland boss. Instead, he’s “persuaded” to tackle an assignment that is out of his area of expertise.

It seems that the teenage daughter of one of Jimmy’s associates (a smooth-talking mobster played by the venerated Michael Gambon) has taken up drugs and run off with a heroin addict. Craig’s character is delegated the task of finding her and reporting back to Jimmy.

Of course, Jimmy has ulterior motives and the double-cross is on. But as the movie unfolds, we can’t ever be sure who is double-crossing whom.

The plot takes more twists and turns than Vaughn’s acrobatic camera. Although his style is in keeping with the flashy, MTV video fashion, it works beautifully and only occasionally seems like cinematic overkill.

Vaughn’s debut is doubly impressive. Not only is he a skillful craftsman, but he also shows considerable depth. Layer Cake is a cautionary tale that demonstrates the fact that, in spite of the wealth and prestige that crime can provide, the thug life is always an unhappy one. (R) Rating: 4.5 (posted 6/03/05)




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