reel reviews
movie reviews
September '05

APRES VOUSTIM BURTON'S CORPSE BRIDEROLL BOUNCEFLIGHTPLAN
LORD OF WARJUST LIKE HEAVENTHE THING ABOUT MY FOLKSVENOM
THE MANAN UNFINISHED LIFE
THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSETHE CONSTANT GARDENER
ASYLUMUNDERCLASS A SOUND OF THUNDER
Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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Après Vous
Reviewed by Deborah Young

A good guy who gets himself stuck in a complex situation is the start of good comedy in any language. Watching the guy trying to wriggle out of the tight spots he creates for himself can be very funny, if it’s done right. The director and cast of the 2003 French film Apres Vous do it right.

Popular French actor Daniel Auteuil plays restaurant manager Antoine. Antoine spreads himself thin covering for his peers at the restaurant and trying to please his girlfriend Christine (Marilyn Canto), who wants to be a priority once in a while.

At the beginning of Apres Vous, Antoine is running late for a date with Christine. He takes a shortcut through a park and discovers a despondent man (Jose Garcia as Louis) who is getting ready to hang himself from a tree. Antoine saves Louis’ life and takes him home.

It turns out that Louis is distraught over his lost love Blanche (Sandrine Kiberlain). Antoine decides that he can help Louis by getting him a job as a wine steward at the restaurant and tracking down Blanche.

But Antoine has no idea how complicated things will get as he insinuates his way into Blanche and Louis’ lives. Antoine even seems to switch places with Louis for a while, becoming an emotional wreck.

Apres Vous’ tells a familiar tale that involves a romantic triangle, but these actors make the drama fun to watch. Each actor plays his or her role with a subtlety that heightens the comic situations. Auteuil manages a convincing portrayal of a man who is both sophisticated and innocent. Garcia masters the slow movements and hunched posture of a depressive. And Kiberlain makes an art of cluelessness.

Apres Vous is a slow, subtle character study about a bond that develops between two men and about how a woman complicates the men’s relationship. It’s a familiar story elevated by artful execution. (R) Rating: 4 (posted 9/23/05)



Tim Burton's Corpse Bride
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Because of the sophistication of modern computer imaging technology, it’s becoming harder and harder for filmmakers to impress audiences with visual razzle-dazzle.

Tim Burton (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) knows this all too well. After all, there are few filmmakers who can rival his visual flair. So rather than embrace computer-generated graphics, Burton has taken a step back in order to make a new visual statement.

Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride is a macabre animated musical fantasy made with stop-motion photography. This is the painstaking process whereby dolls are manually manipulated and photographed frame-by-frame in order to present the illusion of movement.

Stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts) once told this reviewer that he feared his art form was dead after seeing the life-like results that Jurassic Park had achieved through computer generated imaging. Burton is not about to let that happen.

But, in fact, Burton has embraced some technologies that make stop-motion better than ever; giving his characters a heretofore unseen level of natural-looking movement.

Oh yes, the movie has a story. Set in Victorian England, Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride tells the tale of Victor Van Dort (voiced by Johnny Depp), a shy young lad whose social climbing parents (Tracy Ullman and Paul Whitehouse) decide that he must “marry up.”

They arrange to have Victor wed Victoria (Emily Watson), daughter of the prominent Everglots (Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney). Victoria’s parents only agree to the nuptials because they’re short on cash.

Problem is Victor is an anxious fellow who has a bit of trouble memorizing his vows. He takes a stroll in a graveyard to rehearse his lines. As he places a ring on a twig and says, “With this ring I thee wed,” the twig turns out to be a corpse’s finger protruding from a grave. To his astonishment, the corpse (Helena Bonham Carter) comes to life and Victor discovers that he’s married to the undead!

Following her into the underworld, Victor tries to figure out how to get out of this awkward predicament.

Character development and some aspects of the storyline are pretty sketchy, and the denouement is strangely anticlimactic. But the film works in spite of these flaws, thanks largely to its stunning visuals and the superior voice talent involved.

Burton and co-director Mike Johnson (who worked as a technician on Burton’s earlier stop-motion effort, The Nightmare Before Christmas) have succeeding in creating a tangible alternate world. In the most literal sense, it’s worth a look. (R) Rating: 3 (posted 9/23/05)



Roll Bounce
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Anyone old enough to remember the 1970s knows that there was plenty to be embarrassed about. The gaudy music, hairstyles and fashions are all ripe for satire.

The new comedy Roll Bounce manages to wring a few laughs at the expense of the disco era, but the pleasures it holds are simple and few.

Young rap star Bow Wow (Johnson Family Vacation) stars as X (born Xavier), a teenager living on Chicago’s South Side in 1978. A lad who loves to roller skate, X is dismayed when he learns that his neighborhood rink is closing up.

He and his skating pals learn that in order to keep enjoying their favorite pastime, they have to travel to Sweetwater, the more upscale rink on the other side of town. Although they ruled the roost at their neighborhood rink, they’re perceived as rough, low-class and graceless by the hotshot trick skaters of Sweetwater.

Top dog at Sweetwater is a slick, Afro-sporting dude in gold lamé and spandex who goes by the name of Sweetness (Wesley Jonathan from The United States of Leland). A skating stud who has never been defeated in competition, Sweetness holds court at Sweetwater like Elvis at Graceland.

Naturally, our poor blue-collar heroes work hard to put together a nifty skating routine in order to gain some respect and win the next big Sweetwater contest. Complicating matters is X’s attraction to Sweetness’ former squeeze, a hottie named Namoi (Venom’s Meagan Good).

Director Malcom D. Lee (Undercover Brother) and screenwriter Norman Vance, Jr. (Beauty Shop) manage to get a little bit comic mileage out of this premise, and the soundtrack helps with the overall sense of nostalgia. But the movie makes some serious mistakes by trying to have it both ways. It mostly plays like a parody, but inserts some tired subplots.

X is dealing with the recent death of his mother, and he takes his frustration out on his unemployed father (Chi McBride from Waiting.) In one overwrought sequence, X takes a baseball bat to his dear old dad’s car. The scene is totally out of sync with the rest of the movie. Plus, the story is supposed to be about poor South Side kids but the mean streets look like the nicest suburbs this side of Leave it to Beaver. Add to that the lackluster skating scenes and you have real problems.

But the biggest error is that the movie doesn’t know when to quit. In spite of the likable cast and the flick’s overall good nature, at 112 minutes, Roll Bounce rolls on far too long. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (posted 9/23/05)



Flightplan
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

There is a fierce intelligence that burns in the eyes of Jodie Foster. Regardless of the role she plays, that fire is always there.

That’s why one wonders why she didn’t see the problems inherent in the script of her latest film, Flightplan. A psychological thriller with political overtones, Flightplan is a tense action flick that tries to be so much more.

The two-time Oscar-winner (Silence of the Lambs, The Accused) plays Kyle Pratt, an aircraft engineer who, along with her six-year-old daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston), boards a souped-up, state-of-the-art jumbo jet called a 474. Kyle, recently widowed, is accompanying the body of her husband from Germany to New York for burial.

Shortly after takeoff, Kyle takes a nap. When she awakes, she discovers that Julia is missing. After frantically searching, she enlists the help of the crew to aid in finding her. The staff is skeptical because no one saw Kyle board with a little girl, and Julia is not on the passenger list. In fact, there is no record of her having a ticket.

After doing a little research, the flight crew learns that not only did Kyle’s husband die recently, her daughter did as well. There can be only one explanation: Kyle’s a nutcase, crazed by grief.

Unable to accept the fact that her daughter is dead, Kyle presses on with her search. As fate would have it, she helped to design the very plane that she’s on, so she knows every nook and cranny of the gigantic craft.

This plot setup gives Foster a role she can sink her teeth into, playing both the bereaved wife and a borderline psycho. But the film has a few twists and turns that turn us away from psychological thriller and into something else altogether.

Foster, as always, is solid and convincing as a woman at her wit’s end, and Peter Sarsgaard (Skeleton Key) is equally good as an air marshal who has the unenviable task of keeping an eye on the unruly Kyle.

Director Robert Schwentke (Tattoo) seems to know his way around a thriller, and builds palpable tension throughout film. But his efforts and those of his able cast are all but undone by some problematic aspects of the script.

To state them outwardly in this review would require the use of spoilers, so let is suffice that the movie has plot holes that you could fly a 747 through.

Yes, Foster is undoubtedly bright. Too bad the same can’t be said of the screenwriters. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (posted 9/23/05)



Lord of War
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

“There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation,” says gunrunner Yuri Orlov. “That's one firearm for every twelve people on the planet. The only question is: How do we arm the other 11?”

That cheeky statement might be funny if it weren’t an actual quote.

Lord of War, based on a true story, is an inside look at the life of arms dealer, Yuri Orlov, played by Nicholas Cage (National Treasure.) It’s an alarming glimpse at apathetic amorality.

Cage plays a former citizen of the Soviet Union who relocates to the United States where his family, posing as Jews, sets up a business. Dissatisfied with his lifestyle as a humble restaurateur, Yuri learns how easy it is to buy and sell guns in America and, ultimately, around the world.

The fast money involved is just too attractive to pass up, so he enlists the aid of his younger brother, Vitaly (Panic Room’s Jared Leto.) Yuri prospers but Vitaly has a coke habit that poses problems for them both.

In spite of his success and uncanny ability to cover his tracks, Yuri attracts the attention of federal agent Jack Valentine (After Sunrise’s Ethan Hawke.) Certain of Yuri’s illegal activity but unable to pin him down, the ethical Valentine always remains a few steps behind.

Writer/director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) takes a satiric, tongue-in-cheek approach to the material. He has Yuri deliver the unapologetic narration in the first person, explaining and justifying his actions all along the way.

The opening sequence is a visually arresting look at the life of a single bullet, from the factory to it’s final resting place in a human skull. It’s a long tracking shot utilizing sophisticated computer generated imaging as well as conventional filming techniques. It may be a bit heavy-handed, but it sure makes its point.

The film gives us a frightening, behind-the-scenes look at the arms trade. (Reportedly, the filmmakers worked with many arms dealers in the production of the movie. Apparently it is far easier and cheaper to procure thousands of real AK-47s than to use props.)

Cage is fine, as is the whole cast. The only thing keeping Lord of War from complete success is it’s irreverent approach that plays almost like a parody. One might compare it to Paddy Chayefsky’s Network in its over-the-top style, but Niccol’s script isn’t nearly as successful.

But it does have some memorable lines. As Yuri dryly notes, “Without operations like mine it would be impossible for certain countries to conduct a respectable war. I was able to navigate around those inconvenient little arms embargos.” (R) Rating: 3.5 (posted 9/16/05)



Just Like Heaven
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Ghost, the popular 1990 romantic fantasy starring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, had a comic subplot involving Whoopi Goldberg.

In a similarly ethereal flick, Just Like Heaven, it is the comedy gets the emphasis.

Reese Witherspoon (Sweet Home Alabama) plays Elizabeth Masterson, a doctor who works round-the-clock at a San Francisco hospital. Her devotion to her community service prevents her from having any personal life.

One night while driving on her way to a blind date, she has a car accident that leaves her in a persistent coma. Her spirit, however, was somehow ejected from her body and is unaware of the whole situation.

Things get more confusing for Elizabeth’s spirit when it returns to her old apartment to find that a young landscape artist named David Abbot (Mark Ruffalo from The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) has recently relocated there.

David is in a funk. Having just lost his wife, he’s moved into Elizabeth’s apartment and spends his days in despondence — drinking, sleeping and watching the tube. He begins to think that he may be losing his mind when Elizabeth shows up to eject him from “her” apartment. David, fate would have it, is the only person who can see her.

Elizabeth begins to realize that she may indeed be dead, and her initial animosity towards David slowly begins to morph (you guessed it) into romantic feelings. It seems that fate has thrown these two together, but they don’t know why.

Adapted from a novel by Mark Levy, the script by Peter Tolan (Guess Who) and Leslie Dixon (Freaky Friday) is utterly uninspired, and director Mark Waters (Mean Girls) can’t really find any way around its predictability. Plus, some notable character actors like Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) and Donal Logue (American Splendor) are utterly wasted.

Most disturbing, however, are the uncomfortable parallels with the Teri Schiavo case. Here, Elizabeth’s ghost stands by her comatose body and begs her unhearing sister NOT to pull the plug! One can’t help but wonder if this sort of subject matter is suitable for a romantic comedy.

But the movie still works surprisingly well, and that’s all due to the contributions of Witherspoon and Ruffalo. These likable and attractive stars help us forgive the movie’s flaws. It is a tribute to their skill as actors that they manage to breathe life into these cardboard characters.

Without the stars, Just Like Heaven would drift away like a weightless apparition. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (posted 9/16/05)



The Thing About My Folks
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

We all have our favorite performers, but few of us get the chance to work with them.

Paul Reiser made it happen. The actor, best known as the creator and star of the TV series Mad About You, had always been a fan of veteran character actor Peter Falk (TV’s Colombo.) The only star who could always make Reiser’s father laugh, Falk became Reiser’s idol.

When writing the script for his sentimental family drama The Thing About My Folks, Reiser always had Falk in mind. Loosely based upon some incidents from Reiser’s life, the gentle flick stars Falk and Reiser as, appropriately enough, father and son.

Reiser plays Ben Kleinman, a writer living in New York City with his wife, Rachel (Elizabeth Perkins from Must Love Dogs,) and two small daughters. One night, his father, Sam (Falk) arrives unannounced at his door. Strangely, he is alone.

Sam, you see, has been married to Ben’s mother, Muriel (Moonstruck’s Olympia Dukakis) for 47 years. Turns out she left him with only a “goodbye” note on the refrigerator, giving no indication of why she’s left or where she’s gone.

Ben decides to ask Sam to tag along as he goes to see some rural property he’s thinking about buying. He’s anxious to leave the big city for a healthier environment in which to raise his children. On this journey, he figures that they’ll put together the pieces and figure out just what mom is up to.

The ensuing road trip becomes a time of revelation and reconciliation for these men who have been somewhat estranged over the years. They indulge in activities that Sam never had time for when Ben was growing up. Busy building his business, Sam was something of an absentee father.

The duo go fishing, play pool, do some country line dancing, take in a minor league baseball game and generally get to know one another. They also bicker endlessly as they come to discover that some of their long held assumptions about one another were just dead wrong.

Falk is priceless in a role that was, literally, meant for him. Reiser is likable, too, as a mensch whose main flaw is his penchant for not paying enough attention.

Reiser’s script eschews belly laughs in favor of gentle, sentimental humor. In the film, he’s clearly enjoying spending time with his childhood idol. For the most part, audiences will enjoy his company, too. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (posted 9/16/05)



Venom
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The plot: A ghoulish fiend terrorizes a group of high school kids, and he dispatches them one-by-one in graphic, grisly fashion.

Friday the 13th? A Nightmare On Elm Street? I Know What You Did Last Summer? Is it any of their countless sequels?

Nope. This one is Venom. (Its original title was The Reaper, but I suppose the producers were afraid that too many critics would call it “grim.”) But if you’ve seen any of the other movies, you’ll know exactly what you’re in for.

Venom stars Agnes Bruckner (Blue Car) as a teen named Eden who is about to leave her small Louisiana hometown of Backwater (yes, that’s its name) and go to school at Columbia. A swampy bayou town, Backwater is also the home of voodoo practitioners.

One night a voodoo priestess unearths a suitcase full of snakes from an endangered burial ground, hoping to relocate it to a safe place. These snakes, you see, are used in rituals to suck the evil out of sinners. This particular valise of reptiles contains the sins of countless murderers, rapists and other assorted villains.

As the horrified Eden watches by the roadside, the priestess (with snakes in tow) has an auto accident. Her car (with a mechanic named Ray inside) plunges off of a bridge into the swampy waters below. As Ray is repeatedly bitten, the evil within the snakes is injected into him, transforming him into a maniacal, unstoppable killing machine.

Ray begins a graphic murder spree, offering bloody corpses as sacrifices to the spirits of evil. Eden and a group of her friends are, naturally, Ray’s main targets.

The script is by Brandon Boyce (Apt Pupil,) Flint Dille (Fievel Goes West) and John Platten, a video game writer. (Yes, Venom is reportedly based upon a video game that is still in development.) As you might guess, their work is utterly derivative. But even though there aren’t any surprises, the movie does have a few of the kinds of jolts that horror fans crave.

The moments that work are largely due to the workmanlike contributions of director Jim Gillespie, who, surprisingly enough, also made I Know What You Did Last Summer. Some sharp editing and creepy scenic design help, too. It might even upset you that a shameless horror rip-off has a few moments that will undoubtedly make you jump.

But these few chills still aren’t really sufficient enough for Venom to merit the ticket price. The snakes aren’t the only ones who suck. (R) Rating: 1.5 (posted 9/16/05)



The Man
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Director Les Mayfield’s latest project runs for only 83 minutes, but even such a brief period feels like forever because nothing compelling happens. That’s a shame because The Man has quite a few hilarious one-liners and features two very capable actors (Eugene Levy and Samuel L. Jackson).

Levy plays Andy Fidler, an obliviously upbeat dental supply salesman who goes to Detroit for a professional convention. His convention plans get delayed when a crook (Luke Goss as Joey) mistakes him for undercover ATF agent Derrick Vann (Samuel L. Jackson). Vann has arranged contact with Joey as part of a sting operation to bust the man who killed his partner. The sting involves buying illegal guns.

After Vann discovers that Joey thinks Fidler is the contact, he decides to use Fidler to reel in the bad guys because they’d never suspect the tame-looking suburbanite of being (or working with) a policeman.

Fidler doesn’t want to get involved but Vann coerces him, first by shooting him in the butt with a “training bullet” and later by just bullying him.

Vann and Fidler are a stereotypical odd couple. Fidler grins a lot and engages in happy chatter with everyone he meets while Vann acts surly most of the time and trusts no one (even his mother, he reveals at one point).

It’s a familiar formula that’s been used in films such as Beverly Hills Cop, Bad Boys and the recent Taxi with Queen Latifah. But the formula works best when there’s lots of action. It can be a hoot to see the partners’ different approaches in action as they wriggle out of tight situations or outsmart clever criminals.

Unfortunately, The Man is mostly talk. The two men verbally spar while driving around (or just sitting in the car), and there are few suspenseful moments.

Director Mayfield has failed to recreate the moderate charm that was present in his 1999 film Blue Streak, in which Martin Lawrence played a thief posing as a police officer to recover a diamond he’d stolen years earlier. In Blue Streak, Lawrence’s over-the-top antics rendered the movie mildly stimulating if not thoroughly exciting.

But in The Man, both lead actors seem best suited to play straight men rather than the comic lead, and the film just doesn’t contain enough action shots, enough chases or enough energy to sustain an audience’s interest. Screenwriters Michael Berry, John Blumenthal, and Steve Carpenter added insult to injury by including flatulence jokes in the film’s last half hour.

The tagline for this film is: “One guy walks the walk. The other talks and talks.” Unfortunately, the both characters’ talking overshadows the walking, which makes this film drag, and drag, and drag. (PG-13) Rating: 1 (posted 9/9/05)



An Unfinished Life
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Maybe Robert Redford tried to be the romantic leading man for too long. His recent film appearances have been few and far between, allegedly because of the lack of good roles.

Well Redford has found the right part to play in the new drama, An Unfinished Life. As a bitter, grizzled old cowboy who has come to resent the hand that life has dealt him, Redford delivers a fine, subtle performance, one likely to land him an Oscar nomination.

Mark Spragg and his wife, Virginia Korus Spragg, have carefully adapted the screenplay from Spragg’s popular novel. Needless to say, it’s a pretty faithful version.

The movie deals with themes of resentment, acrimony and regret. Although these topics may not seem like the elements of an uplifting family drama, An Unfinished Life manages to make them so.

Jennifer Lopez (Monster In-Law) plays Jean Gilkyson, the single mother of a nine-year-old girl named Griff (newcomer Becca Gardner.) Escaping from an abusive boyfriend (Dreamcatcher’s Damian Lewis,) Jean and Griff drive to the Wyoming ranch of her estranged father-in-law, Einar Gilkyson (Redford.)

Einar, a divorcee and a recovering alcoholic, is surprised to see Jean, whom he blames for the death of his only son. He’s even more surprised to discover that he is a grandfather. He’s been spending most of his time tending to the wounds of his cowhand, Mitch Bradley (the ever-reliable Morgan Freeman,) who was horribly mauled by a bear.

Reluctantly agreeing to allow Jean and Griff to hide out at the ranch, Einar begins the slow and painful process of healing other wounds, those of the heart.

An Unfinished Life could easily have been a cloying Lifetime TV movie. It certainly makes use of emotional manipulation and psychobabble that, in less skillful hands, would have been quite hard to bear.

But director Lasse Hallström (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules) knows how to rein in these elements, grounding them in a reality that makes them palatable. Plus, the stunning cinematography of Oliver Stapleton makes Wyoming seem positively idyllic. (Actually, the movie was filmed in Kamloops, BC, Canada.)

The actors are all fine, with Freeman a customary standout. But Lopez is equally good, giving her best performance since Out of Sight. Plus, young Gardner is the embodiment of guilelessness.

But this movie belongs to Redford. He subtly underplays the role allowing the audience to fill in the blanks. His career may be waning, but perhaps he’s learned that it only needed adjusting. (PG-13) Rating: 4.5



The Exorcism of Emily Rose
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Let’s get one thing straight at the outset: The Exorcism of Emily Rose is not a horror film.

The movie is an intelligent, thought-provoking courtroom drama that features elements of the supernatural as background for a real-life murder case. Fans of shallow frightfests featuring zombies, demons, vampires and axe murderers will be mightily disappointed.

Loosely based upon a German incident that took place in the 1970s, The Exorcism of Emily Rose deals with the buildup to and the trial of a Catholic priest who is blamed in the death of a young coed who believed that she was possessed by demons.

Laura Linney (Kinsey) plays Erin Bruner, a hotshot defense attorney trying hard to earn partnership in an elite law firm. She’s been doing well, but is consistently passed over. Her big chance comes when the local Catholic archdiocese requests that her firm defend a priest named Father Moore, played by Tom Wilkinson (Batman Begins.)

The charge against him is negligent homicide. He is accused of preventing the young victim, Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter from White Chicks) from receiving medical care while he attempted the ritual rite of exorcism. A church-going, straight-as-a-rail prosecutor, played by Campbell Scott (The Secret Lives of Dentists,) intends on nailing Father Moore, exposing him as an example of religious extremism.

Centered on this courtroom battle, the film tells Emily’s story largely in flashback. As we see the events leading to her death, the filmmakers show us Emily’s perspective as well as those of the witnesses.

Given Scott Derrickson’s brief directorial résumé that includes titles like Ghosting and Hellraiser: Inferno, one could reasonably expect a grisly horror flick. Instead, he keeps the gore to a minimum. (Amazingly, the film is rated PG-13.) Yes, the movie is scary, but delivers its frights in a thoughtful manner.

Derrickson and co-writer Paul Harris Boardman make the wise choice of having the audience decide whether or not the incidents are the results of supernatural phenomenon. Mundane things like epilepsy and mental illness are quite possible, too.

Not that the film is without flaw, however. There are some elements of the film that seem a bit too pat. In order to make us consider the possibility of the paranormal playing a role in Emily’s demise, Derrickson introduces some doppelgangers and has one character die a bit too conveniently.

But the film is skillfully produced and acted, making The Exorcism of Emily Rose one of the best horror films since The Sixth Sense. That is…if it IS a horror film. (PG-13) Rating: 4



The Constant Gardener
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

As Africa suffers, much of the world looks away. From the crisis in Sudan to famine caused by tribal wars, political corruption, drought and desertification, the African populace is enduring great hardships.

The film world has given us an occasional glimpse into the contemporary problems in Africa (Hotel Rwanda and the upcoming The Lord of War are significant examples,) but Hollywood has largely shied away.

Novelist John Le Carré attempted to shine some the light on the African dilemma with his political thriller, The Constant Gardener. The new film adaptation by Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (The City of God) focuses on some of these problems without sacrificing the entertainment value of a suspenseful story.

Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient) stars as Justin Quayle, a low-level British diplomat serving in Kenya. He is the living example of British reserve.

Justin’s dynamic wife, Tessa (The Mummy’s Rachel Weiss) is an animated liberal, the antithesis of her diffident husband. Tessa cannot bear to see the suffering of the Kenyans and becomes involved in an underground network of activists trying to figure out the root of the problem. She keeps her activity secret from Justin, who would try to stop her for her own protection.

When Tessa is found brutally murdered, British High Commission officials claim that she was having an affair with a local doctor and that her death was a crime of passion. These bureaucrats expect Justin to accept their explanation and allow them to handle the matter.

To everyone’s surprise, Justin takes it upon himself to get to the bottom of his wife’s death. He journeys across three continents and uncovers a massive web of corporate corruption that puts his own life in peril.

Fiennes is perfectly cast as the emotionally repressed Quayle. He brings a natural quality of aloofness to the role, but his detachment is shattered by his love of the vivacious Weiss.

Mierelles, whose showy visuals gave dynamism to City of God, doesn’t let his camera acrobatics get in the way of the story.

But the movie isn’t without its problems. Because of the story’s structure and the extensive use of flashbacks, the film has difficulty attaining narrative momentum. Most problematic, however, is the length. The film goes on long after we understand what the conclusion will be. Some judicious editing may have resolved both problems.

Still, The Constant Gardener has the sheen of class, and it serves the noble purpose of forcing our attention to problems we might otherwise ignore. (R) Rating: 3 (posted 9/2/05)



Asylum
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If you’ve got some terrific actors, an intriguing storyline, fine production values and an award-winning screenwriter, you ought to have a pretty good chance of making a decent movie.

Famed playwright Patrick Marber (Proof) based his dark screenplay for Asylum on a novel by Patrick McGrath (Spider.) Director David Mackenzie, responsible for the acclaimed (and sexually explicit) thriller, Young Adam would seem to be an appropriate choice to handle this material. Natasha Richardson and Ian McKellen are among our more accomplished thespians.

Well, sometimes the whole is less than the sum of the parts. Asylum should have worked but is, instead, an exercise in frustration.

Richardson (Maid in Manhattan) stars as Stella Raphael, the wife of a doctor who has recently taken a supervisory role at a British mental institution in the early 1960s. Their arrival is unwelcome news to Dr. Cleave (X-Men’s McKellen), who was passed over for the position.

There is little affection between Stella and her husband, Max (Underclassman’s Hugh Bonneville.). The austere atmosphere of their home life is tough on their young son, Charlie (Gus Lewis.)

In need of companionship, Charlie befriends an asylum handyman named Edgar, played by Marton Csokas (The Great Raid.) Stella is immediately attracted to the strapping Edgar, who also happens to be one of Dr. Cleave’s patients. Edgar’s been incarcerated in the institution ever since he pummeled his wife to death in a fit of jealousy.

Edgar’s violent past doesn’t seem to bother Stella, and the two begin a torrid affair. Things get sticky for everyone when Edgar escapes the institution and the lovesick Stella makes up excuses so that she can visit him in his London hideout.

As with any film, one must suspend one’s disbelief and accept the actions of the characters in order to become emotionally involved in the story. Director Mackenzie and screenwriter Marber do little to establish motivation for Stella’s erratic behavior. As a result, we find ourselves constantly questioning her choices.

McKellen’s character seems to serve the same purpose as a “McGuffin” in a mystery. His presence throws us off the path, making it difficult for us to figure out where the story is going. Problem is, his role is fairly inconsequential and we feel cheated as a result.

A tragedy occurs late in the storyline, but since we’ve given up on believing anything in this film, this misfortune elicits little more than a passing shrug.

This is one Asylum best left locked up. (R) Rating: 2 (posted 9/2/05)



Underclass
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Déjà vu can occur at any time. Sadly, the feeling that you’ve seen it all before is very common when attending Hollywood movies these days.

Underclassman is a perfect example. Every idea, joke and story element has been recycled from many other, far better films. This comic action thriller is a strictly “by-the-numbers” exercise.

Nick Cannon (Drumline) stars as Tracy Stokes, a second generation LA cop who is trying to become a detective like his late, respected father. Although well meaning and talented, Tracy is impatient. Captain Victor Delgado (Cheech Marin) overlooks Tracy’s foibles out of respect for his father, a former colleague.

Although he’s been on duty as a bike cop (and manages to screw that up) events unfold that afford Tracy another chance.

At an upscale prep school, an investigative reporter for the academy’s newspaper is murdered. The cops need a young-looking informant to pose as a student and gather inside information. Tracy fits the role and begins taking classes. (Having received only a GED, Tracy likes the idea of another chance at high school.)

Tracy, a streetwise African American, is a bit of a fish out of water at this elite academy. He has a quick wit and an ebullient personality that he can’t hide. Although he rubs some people the wrong way, he manages to make some friends thanks to this brazen persona and his considerable basketball skills.

Tracy becomes particularly interested in his Spanish class, due to the fact that is teacher is a Bonita Chiquita played by Roselyn Sanchez (Rush Hour 2.) She agrees to tutor him privately (sounds like a Mary Kay Latourneau situation to me) and the lessons come in handy.

As it happens, some of the kids that Tracy is investigating are being blackmailed into participating in an international auto theft ring! Could drug kingpins be far behind?

The derivative script by Brent Goldberg and David Wagner (these are the geniuses behind that classic, National Lampoon’s Van Wilder) is mind numbing. If one would begin a set of movies it steals from, the list would be too long for this column.

The direction by Marcos Siega (Pretty Persuasion) is pedestrian at best. The movie sparks occasionally to life thanks to Cannon’s energetic performance. (He’s given a credit as co-creator of the story.)

Although Cannon is a talented guy, some wags have tagged him “Eddie Murphy-lite.” That apt description ought to tell you why this film seems so familiar. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (posted 9/2/05)



A Sound of Thunder
Reviewed by Deborah Young

A Sound of Thunder is a lot like one of those promising amateurs who appear on TV contests such as American Idol. It has a lot of potential but lacks consistency.

The movie is based on Ray Bradbury’s short story of the same name. A Sound of Thunder has a great premise. It’s a futuristic tale about a greedy entrepreneur, Charles Hatton (played by Ben Kingsley), who makes a fortune with technology that enables people to “jump” back in time to the prehistoric world for a few moments. The trip concludes with Hatton’s wealthy clients getting the opportunity to shoot a dinosaur.

The whole enterprise is a mixture of circus and dinner theater, and Hatton is just a used car salesman who’s gone high tech. He doesn’t seem to care about science or history. What he cares about is money. So he ignores the warnings of Sonia (Catherine McCormack), a scientist who says that his time-travel enterprise will one day cause great harm to the world.

It turns out that Sonia is right. During one of their jumps, the time-travelers change something in history, and the modern world is affected. The movie’s characters wind up fleeing from unfamiliar and dangerous plants and animals, which means they have to find a way to set the world back on its familiar evolutionary course before it’s too late.

Unfortunately, the computer-generated images in A Sound of Thunder don’t do the subject matter justice. During the film’s first half-hour, the CGI is so shoddy that it’s laughable. In several scenes characters are walking on the sidewalks, but it looks like the scenery is moving while the characters march in place. Then there are the dinosaurs that look more like enlarged versions of children’s toys than a real animal.

At other times, the movie shows images that ignite the imagination: animals that are one-third reptile, one-third ape and one-third bat; an eel-like creature that is simultaneously beautiful and frightening; a giant orange butterfly that looks like a moving miniature painting. We also get believable images of human despair and the chaos that nature can cause.

Kingsley’s portrayal of the greedy, slick-talking Hatton is fun to watch. The veteran actor smiles slyly and clips out his outrageous lines with a matter-of-fact tone that renders them more hilarious than they would normally be.

However, much of the dialogue and situations in A Sound of Thunder was too hokey to be redeemed, even by an actor of Kingsley’s skill. However, what it lacked in depth it made up for in just plain fun (particularly unintentional humor), but it might be fun best savored after the DVD is released. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (posted 9/2/05)



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