reel reviews
movie reviews
October '05

NORTH COUNTRYDREAMER: INSPIRED BY A TRUE STORYDOOM
GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK
STAYAT LASTDOMINOELIZABETHTOWNTHE GOSPEL
TWO FOR THE MONEYEVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATEDHAPPY ENDINGSIN HER SHOES
WALLACE AND GROMITWAITINGOLIVER TWISTTHE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED
PROOFA HISTORY OF VIOLENCE SERENITY INTO THE BLUE
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North Country
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The real life story of Lois Jenson’s sexual discrimination case against Eveleth Mines began in 1975. The case took nearly 14 years to play out. It eventually blossomed into a class-action lawsuit, which included years of court time and eventually culminated in a multi-million dollar settlement for 15 women.

In contrast, the cinematic version of the story begins in 1989, involves little court time, and plays out in slightly more than two hours. In North Country, Josey Aimes moves to Minnesota with her two children, Karen (Elle Peterson) and Sammy (Thomas Curtis), after fleeing from an abusive husband.

After Josey gets to Minnesota, a friend convinces her to apply for a job at the local iron mine because the pay is good. Unfortunately for the women who work at the mine, their male co-workers don’t want them there and go to extreme measures to make work unpleasant for the women. The harassment ranges from mild pranks, such as slipping a plastic penis into one of the women’s lunchboxes, to physical assault.

While these events play out, the camera occasionally cuts to a television screen in someone’s home. We see images of Anita Hill testifying during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) seems determined to drum the connection into our heads: sexism was alive and well in the 1980s, but maybe Anita Hill’s testimony was a sign that women had finally gotten fed up enough to speak out against sexual harassment.

Caro does a good job of capturing dreary images of the mines and catching the male antagonizers at their scummiest. At the screening I attended audience members verbalized their disgust at some of the harassment and during moments of triumph for the women, more than a few audience member clapped.

North Country succeeds at eliciting emotions. All adults understand the emptiness and rage that feelings of helplessness can evoke. The filmmakers played on these common experiences with simple images and simple dialogue.

The only downside is that the film did not portray enough human complexity. It would have been a stronger film if it had captured the misgivings of some of the men about the harassment. It would have been a stronger film if it had shown more of the personal issues that kept most of the women working in such an emotionally toxic environment.

But I imagine most viewers will be so caught up in the emotion of this simple film and the superb performances of Charlize Theron and Thomas Curtis they’ll they won’t be too concerned about the extremes the film presents. (R) Rating: 3 (posted 10/21/05)



Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Writer/director John Gatins knows how to rehash inspirational clichés. The 2005 sports film Coach Carter, which he wrote, proves that with its worn messages about the rewards of hope and discipline. Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story pedals the same messages. But this time, it’s a horse rather than a coach that motivates the main characters to be all they can be.

Eleven-year-old Dakota Fanning plays Cale Crane, the daughter of horse trainer Ben Crane (Kurt Russell). Cale seems to have inherited a love of horses and horse racing from her father and grandfather (Kris Kristofferson as Pop Crane).

Ben buys a horse that has broken its leg and was about to be shot before he intervened. Cale falls in love with the horse while it’s recuperating at the family’s previously horseless horse ranch, and Ben thinks that he can make some money with the horse (either by breeding it or racing it).

Ben and his father (who lives on the same land as his son) don’t communicate with each other. The riff between them, though never clearly defined, has something to do with Ben’s inability to make an independent living training racehorses.

Cale and Ben aren’t close either. She loves horses, and Ben seems to want to protect her from the business of horseracing. Her grandfather tells her racing stories and encourages her love of racing despite his son’s disapproval. Then in walks the injured horse to bind the fractured family together.

Dreamer tells a traditional underdog, horseracing tale, much like those told by the 2003 movie Seabiscuit and the 1979 film The Black Stallion (a charming film featuring veteran actor Mickey Rooney as horse trainer Henry Dailey). All of these films feature horses that are long shots and washed-up jockeys and/or trainers. Unfortunately, Dreamer lacks the slightest bit of freshness. Anyone who has seen a film in this genre will know every plot point immediately.

Fortunately, this flick employs actors skilled enough to carry the clichéd story with style. Dakota Fanning, who’s becoming much more than just a child star, manages to combine an air of childlike naïveté with a sophistication that is far beyond her years. In this role, Fanning’s combination of these opposite traits lends humor and light-hearted realism to her role. And veterans Russell and Kristofferson firmly support the young actress with their understated performances.

So although the film is certainly not the cinematic dream of a lifetime, it does provide modest and good-hearted entertainment. (PG) Rating: 3 (posted 10/21/05)



Doom
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

For the most part, popular video games that have been turned into films (Mortal Combat, Super Mario Brothers, etc.) leave much to be desired. Even the more palatable ones (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) fail to rise very far above the level of mediocrity.

With Doom, you can add yet another patchy title to the woeful list.

Wrestler-turned-action star The Rock (Walking Tall) stars in this ultra-violent science fiction entry that puts soldiers in peril after they are sent from Earth to Mars to protect the inhabitants of a scientific outpost.

In the distant future, a “portal” is found on Earth that connects to the Martian surface. This transport gateway that allows humans to beam up to the red planet was left by a mysterious but advanced (and now dead) civilization.

A super corporation is using the Martian settlement to conduct some ethically iffy experiments. A group of doctors is secretly manipulating human genetic code in an attempt to create superhuman beings.

After some mysterious deaths, a band of elite Marines is sent up there to take control of the situation.

The Rock plays Sarge, the tough, no-nonsense leader of these soldiers. He and his men serve the corporation that, apparently, has merged with or usurped the government.

Once they’ve assessed the grisly situation, they realize that they’re up against an enemy that they can’t quite define. Some of the scientists have become “infected” and are mutating into fast, deadly creatures…each one quite different from the other.

After sending most of the residents back to Earth, Sarge and his talented but very undisciplined troops do battle with a large group of strong and speedy mutants.

Sarge’s best soldier is John Grimm, a former resident of the Martian colony whose sister Samantha (played by Rosamund Pike from Die Another Day) is one of the imperiled scientists. Things get sticky between John and Sarge over the right way to handle their terrifying situation.

This entire plot serves only to set up some action sequences that mimic scenes from the video game.

The production values are sound, The Rock and Urban are charismatic leads, and Pike is easy on the eyes. Still, the film has an overall atmosphere of silliness that it just can’t shake.

Director Andrzej Bartkowiak is renowned as a cinematographer (Terms of Endearment, The Verdict, Deathtrap) but his record as director of violent action fare (Exit Wounds, Cradle 2 the Grave) has been spotty. Doom does nothing to enhance is reputation.

But Doom has a built-in audience that should make it critic proof. I guess that “Pac-Man: The Movie” is inevitable. (R) Rating: 2.5 (posted 10/21/05)



Good Night, and Good Luck
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In the early 1950s, the “Red Scare” sent chills throughout the country, threatening the civil liberties of Americans everywhere. Politicians exploited a climate of fear to advance their own agenda. (Sound familiar?)

The most egregious offender was Minnesota Republican Joseph McCarthy, head of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Utilizing tactics of innuendo, insinuation and guilt by association, he engaged in a witch-hunt that ruined the lives of many loyal Americans.

Famed television journalist Edward R. Murrow wasn’t about to take this lying down. Seeing the damage being done, he put his neck in the guillotine to take on McCarthy and his cronies, challenging the senator on his weekly news program.

This epic confrontation is beautifully chronicled by actor/director/writer, George Clooney (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) in his new film, Good Night, and Good Luck. (The title was Murrow’s famous sign-off.)

David Straithairn (Blue Car) plays Murrow, the principled, no-nonsense newsman who was, at the time, one of the most trusted people in America. Against the wishes of his boss, Bill Paley (Frank Langella) — who was afraid of losing the show’s sponsor, ALCOA — Murrow persisted in his confrontation with McCarthy and the results were historic.

Most of the action takes place in the CBS newsroom, and Clooney captures it in crisp and creamy black-and-white. (The dead-on art direction certainly helps Clooney establish a sense of zeitgeist.)

Straithairn is splendid as Murrow, not so much acting as embodying the character. Clooney is also good in the role of Murrow’s producer, Fred Friendly. A fine supporting ensemble that includes Jeff Daniels, Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey, Jr. and especially Ray Wise (Twin Peaks) as suicidal anchor Don Hollenbeck, greatly aid their efforts. Clooney’s co-writer, Grant Heslov, also appears briefly as Don Hewitt.

Clooney makes a smart move by having McCarthy play himself. Rather than bringing in an actor to paint a villainous portrait, he uses archive video footage to let McCarthy hang himself.

The film is book-ended by a scene where Murrow addresses a group of media professionals. Cogent and cautionary, Murrow’s speech became the TV journalism equivalent of Eisenhower’s “Military Industrial Complex” oration.

The only flaws in Clooney’s impressive effort are the lack of a dramatic climax and an uncertainty left about the movie’s timeline.

These are minor errors, however. Good Night, and Good Luck is an intriguing and important film that serves as both a document of the past and a comment on the present. (PG) Rating: 4.5 (posted 10/21/05)



Stay
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Robert Redford once said (although he undoubtedly was not the first to opine it), “You’re only as good as you dare to be bad.”

With his intriguing entry Stay, director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland) bravely dares…and the results of his courageous effort are mixed at best and colossally pretentious as worst.

One could venture to describe what this movie is about, but its theme is far too nebulous to pin down.

Ewan McGregor (The Island) stars as Sam Foster, a New York psychiatrist who gets more than he bargained for when he fills in for an ailing colleague.

He meets a reluctant patient named Henry Letham, played by Ryan Gosling (The Notebook). Henry is a talented artist who has been deeply despondent since the death of his parents, an event that he blames on himself. He also has been hearing voices and seems to have an uncanny sixth sense. He admits to Sam that he’s decided to take his own life during the upcoming weekend.

Believing him to be a danger to others as well as himself, Sam becomes obsessed with helping the young man.

Sam, you see, couldn’t prevent his girlfriend Lila (The Ring’s Naomi Watts) from a suicide attempt, and he doesn’t want to repeat his failure. His own feeling of inadequacy fuels his fixated behavior.

This brief plot synopsis only scratches the surface of what’s going on in Stay. There are additional characters, such as a blind man played by Bob Hoskins that Henry is convinced is his deceased father, a mysterious woman who may or may not be his mother (Kate Burton), and the drugged-out therapist that Sam is filling in for (Janeane Garofalo).

It’s easy to see why Forster would be interested in the challenge afforded him by David Benioff’s screenplay. Its dense and convoluted story required the director pull out all the stops to bring the varied elements together. There is a lot of flashy work on display, but to what end?

Stay winds up looking like an experiment by a recent film school student who can’t wait to show off all of the nifty tricks he’s learned. Even those who welcome the use of risky techniques that push the envelope may be tempted to say, “Hey, just hold the camera steady for one minute!”

While well acted and never boring, Stay offers a payoff that will leave audiences scratching their heads. Forster dared to be bad, and succeeded. (R) Rating: 2 (posted 10/21/05)



At Last
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The recent devastation that Hurricane Katrina wrought on the city of New Orleans adds a poignant touch to the new romantic drama At Last.

Filmed in the Crescent City only months before the tragic disaster, At Last serves as a picturesque reminder of what that city once was and, sadly, may never be again.

Inspired by the true story of its filmmakers, director Tom Anton and co-writer Sandi Russell, the film focuses on a love affair deferred.

Martin Donovan (Saved) stars as Mark Singleton, a middle-aged family man who is stuck in a passionless marriage. His wife is indifferent to their relationship and has personal ambitions that don’t necessarily include her husband and children.

One day, Mark stumbles upon some letters that his mother, Carol (played with hard-drinking zeal by Brooke Adams) had hidden from him. They were love letters that he had written to his high school sweetheart, Sara, over twenty years earlier. Mark had tried to stay in touch with Sara after he and his family had moved away to another city. The disapproving Carol had intercepted her son’s notes from the mail to ensure Sara never received them.

Mark also finds letters that Sara had sent to him asking why he’d never written to her. To his shock, Mark realizes that his censorious mother had effectively squelched his only chance at true love.

Impulsively, Mark finds out where Sara, played by Kelly Lynch (Charlie’s Angels), is currently living and sends her the letters. He also suggests that they get together to talk things out. As it happens, Sara is also in an unhappy, abusive marriage, and it is taking a toll on her relationship with her teenage daughter.

Secretly, they rendezvous at the New Orleans French Quarter home of Mark’s eccentric artist brother, Earl (The Dukes of Hazzard’s M. C. Gainey.) Once past the awkwardness of their initial meeting their love is rekindled and the duo must decide what to do about their dilemma. A death in one of their families further complicates the situation.

Donovan and Lynch make a handsome, if a somewhat bland romantic pairing. Even while we’re rooting for them to get together, we’re far more interested in the scenic setting and the more interesting supporting characters.

Gainey is likeable as the bohemian Earl, but Adam’s Carol is the most intriguing character. This underused actress (Days of Heaven, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Dead Zone) is too young for this role, but her gaunt, ghostly look and slight frame make her believable as a senior citizen. She brings some lived-in depth to what could have been a cardboard role.

While At Last is an amiably slight romance, it may best serve as look at New Orleans at the height of her beauty. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (posted 10/14/05)



Domino
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Violence is the punch line that punctuates Domino’s dark humor. The offbeat and at times surreal story pays homage to the madness of the bounty hunting profession and the life of Domino Harvey.

As the opening credits roll, a written acknowledgement announces that the film was inspired by Domino Harvey’s life. The next words to appear onscreen (“Sort of”) epitomize this movie’s playful tone and hint at the biographical abstractions to come.

From the central character’s initial understated voiceovers, it’s clear that the story will be told with tongue squarely in cheek. Like the real Domino Harvey, the film’s central character (played by Keira Knightley) works as a model and then becomes a bounty hunter.

Director Tony Scott (Man on Fire and Enemy of the State) and writer Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) make no attempt to present a realistic version of Domino. Instead, they present a tough superhero type who resolves every conflict with her fists. When a model taunts her, she decks the model. She smacks one of her partners, Choco (Edgar Ramirez) when he angers her. She pops the mother of one of the criminals right in the face.

A loud “thwack” underscores each event in which Domino’s fist connects with a face. It would not have been any more absurd if white-lettered words had popped onto the screen to further highlight the punches: “pow,” “bam,” “whack!”

Domino teams with bounty hunters Ed (Mickey Rourke) and Choco. In time she gains the respect of the bounty hunter community and even becomes Bounty Hunter of the Year. Soon the three partners are starring in their own reality show with two actors from the cast of Beverly Hills 90210 (Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green playing themselves).

With a camera crew in tow, Domino, Ed and Choco go after a gang of robbers known as the First Ladies. Along the way they run into trouble with the mob and the FBI.

Knightley, Rourke and Ramirez succeed in breathing life into these gritty characters, a melodic and lyrically parallel score creates the right ambiance, and witty dialogue abounds. But the situations are so far-fetched and the characters so one-dimensional that watching their story play out quickly becomes boring.

Also, some viewers likely will be offended by the abundant violence and brief but notable sexual content in the film. Although this film’s art is easy to recognize, it’s the kind of art that seems to wink at violence (as did the recent Sin City and Mr. & Mrs. Smith). (R) Rating: 2 (posted 10/14/05)



Elizabethtown
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Ever take a lengthy road trip, listening to some favorite CDs along the way?

Filmmaker Cameron Crowe did, and the songs he listened to inspired him to write the screenplay for his latest film, Elizabethtown. As in all Crowe films (Singles, Say Anything, Almost Famous, Jerry McGuire), the soundtrack is as much a character as those played by cast members.

A semi-autobiographical romantic comedy, Elizabethtown tells the story of a despondent shoe designer named Drew Baylor, played by Orlando Bloom (The Lord of the Rings trilogy). Depressed because his failed shoe design has nearly bankrupted the company he works for, Drew contemplates suicide.

At the moment he is about to do himself in, Drew gets a call from his sister informing him that his father has died. Drew takes a late flight back to Elizabethtown, Kentucky, his dad’s hometown where his father was visiting relatives when he passed away.

On the flight, he meets an eccentric flight attendant named Claire, played by Kirsten Dunst (Spiderman 2). As a sweet-natured and empathetic kook who is a pop music connoisseur, Claire sees through Drew’s anxiety and lends some moral support.

Once in Elizabethtown, Drew reacquaints himself with his extended redneck family members, including Aunt Dora (TV’s down home cook Paula Deen), Uncle Dale (musician Loudon Wainwright III) and a bevy of down-home oddballs. They want to give his dad a big, traditional Southern funeral and burial while he and his mom (Susan Sarandon) and sister (Judy Greer) want him cremated, per his wishes.

Crowe works hard to make his large cast of characters the kind of loveably offbeat folks who populated the films of Hollywood veterans Preston Sturges and Frank Capra. That’s a tall order to fill and Crowe’s lightweight effort often seems strained.

Dunst is wonderful as Claire, bringing a believably winsome quality to a character that seems overly written. Bloom doesn’t fare as well. He hardly registers as the aimless fellow who is saved by Claire’s affections. Sarandon is completely wasted, and performs a somewhat embarrassing tap dance at her husband’s memorial.

But darn it, the film does have its charms. In spite of the fact that it is overlong and works far too hard to be charming, Elizabethtown is nearly saved by the infectious soundtrack that inspired it.

Obscure tunes by icons like Tom Petty, Elton John and The Hollies are featured along with newcomers like eastmountainsouth, Helen Steller and My Morning Jacket.

Elizabethtown is an amiable popcorn flick, thanks largely the uplifting zip provided by its soundtrack. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (posted 10/14/05)



The Gospel
Reviewed by Deborah Young

There’s definitely money to be made with Christian-themed films. Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ proved that. The Gospel targets a potentially valuable segment of the Christian market: enthusiasts of black gospel music.

The trailers for the film emphasized the presence of gospel musicians; the sweetness of the music; and those trailers hinted that there might be an interesting story. Unfortunately, The Gospel delivers little more than brief cameos of gospel artists such as Yolanda Adams and Fred Hammond.

The film’s thin story features Boris Kodjoe as successful R&B singer David Taylor. David returns home when he finds out that his father, the pastor of a big church, is ill. It’s a simple Prodigal Son story.

Early in the movie we learn that David had attended a youth ministry program and had planned to become a minister. But he changed his plans because he was angry that his father always seemed to put church before family.

We only get a brief glimpse of David’s life as an R&B singer. For a few brief moments he’s on stage at what appears to be a packed nightclub. For much of the song he’s shirtless and singing a suggestive invitation to “undress your man.”

Soon after that he’s back home at his father’s church, directing and singing in the choir, and making a play for one of the female choir members, Rain (played by former American Idol contestant Tamyra Gray).

It could have been an interesting story about how ministers struggle to balance home and church or about how bad memories can drive preachers’ kids from the church. The filmmakers could have shown us some of the relationship dynamics that drove a wedge between father and son.

But instead the filmmakers turned in a bland and meandering story that dealt plenty of clichés and little to make us think. The camera work was shoddy, with too many quick pans and stray shots that did little but distract from the story.

The movie’s last 10 or 15 minutes were high drama, both warm and touching. And people hungry for a film with good gospel music and an uplifting message will probably devour this simply because films like it are few. As for me, I’m waiting for a gospel film with good music, a thoughtful story and beautiful camerawork. (PG) Rating: 2 (posted 10/14/05)



Two for the Money
Reviewed by Deborah Young

In the 2000 movie Boiler Room, Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi) took the easy road to success by becoming a stockbroker in a disreputable brokerage firm. He made big bucks while some of his clients lost everything, and the whole experience changed him.

Two for the Money is basically Boiler Room except that the newer film focuses on “sports advisors,” people who sell betting tips to sports gamblers. Matthew McConaughey plays Brandon Lang, a college quarterback turned sports advisor.

When we first see Brandon he’s playing in the last game of his career. He gets sacked and injures his knee. Six years later he’s hit rock bottom, as a voiceover explains. At that point he’s making his living as a phone rep at the Jessica Simpson Hotline.

Then Brandon gets a job recommending sports teams to bet on. He predicts point spreads and winners and losers, and he’s good at it. He’s right more than 80 percent of the time. Still he makes less than $12 an hour.

So when Walter Abrams (Al Pacino) calls Brandon with a job offer making big bucks recording his phone predictions, Brandon can’t refuse. Brandon goes to work for Walter, and Walter spends a year transforming him from a simple, jeans-wearing sports enthusiast to a slick tailored-suit-wearing salesman.

Pacino is both endearing and repulsive as the controlling Walter, an ex-gambler who’s made a career of selling picks and predictions through his television show and phone sales operation. Pacino is great at playing a passive-aggressive manipulator. He can smile and adapt the body language of a harmless flirt while speaking the meanest lines imaginable. Pacino makes a perfect Walter and Walter has no shame.

At one point Walter goes to a Gambler’s Anonymous meeting and tries to convince the ex-gamblers to gamble again (after all, they’d be great clients for his enterprise). In another scene, he fakes a heart attack to teach his protégé a lesson.
McConaughey and Rene Russo (as Walter’s wife, Toni) provide the perfect counterpoint for Pacino’s manic character. McConaughey seems to be playing to type as the good-natured but naïve Brandon. Russo portrays an understanding and longsuffering wife with cool restraint.

Unfortunately, the script thwarts the actors’ efforts. The story lacks depth. We learn little about Brandon’s relationship with his family and new co-workers. We never learn what binds Walter and his wife together.

Two for the Money still manages to entertain. Pacino, McConaughey and Russo make it worth a look. (R) Rating: 3 (posted 10/07/05)



Everything is Illuminated
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Sometimes a film can be admired more for what it attempts to do rather than what it actually accomplishes.

Such is the case with Everything is Illuminated, a movie that doesn’t really work as its makers intended. It doesn’t pack the emotional punch that was obviously intended. Still, it has its gentle pleasures.

Based upon the popular novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated purports to be about the author’s search for meaning in life by learning more about his family’s history.

The writing and directing debut of actor Liev Schreiber (The Manchurian Candidate), Everything is Illuminated is a road picture that tries mightily to be profound while also being whimsical. That’s a tall order especially for a novice filmmaker. He concentrates on a single plot thread from Foer’s sprawling narrative, that of Foer’s journey to an ancestral home.

Elijah Wood from the Lord of the Rings trilogy stars as Foer, a Jewish American writer who is a compulsive collector. Any item dealing with his family is packed in a Ziplock bag, catalogued and pinned to a series of bulletin boards.

In an attempt to get a grip on family history (and his own identity), Foer takes a trip to Ukraine in an attempt to learn the identity of a woman seen in an old photograph with his late grandfather. They were acquainted prior to WWII and, apparently, she was instrumental in saving his life.

Foer employs the aid of a Ukrainian family that has a tour business specializing in helping rich Jews find out about their heritage. The word “eccentric” may be an understatement with this group.

The twentysomething translator, Alex (musician Eugene Hutz) is a wannabe “gangsta” adorned with chains and infatuated with African-American culture. His grandfather (Boris Leskin) is a “blind” anti-Semite…and serves as their chauffeur!
The threesome set off with the grandfather’s neurotic dog, Sammy Davis, Jr. Jr., in search of a village that no longer exists. Foer hopes to find someone who remembers what happened to the Jews there and, specifically, the fate of the woman in the photo.

What they discover is meant to be poignant, and an unlikely coincidence is intended to bring the story full circle.

Hutz and Leskin are amusingly peculiar but the usually reliable Wood is practically robotic. Dressed in a black suit and Coke bottle glasses, he hardly registers as a real person. It is difficult to derive any sense of emotional connection with such a seemingly detached observer.

Although the film is pleasant, beautifully photographed and thoughtful, it utterly fails to live up to its title’s promise. (R) Rating: 3 (posted 10/07/05)



Happy Endings
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Can one plant their tongue in cheek, openly flaunt movie convention and deliver a thoughtful comic drama at the same time?

That is the tightrope act that writer/director Don Roos is attempting with Happy Endings, an ensemble piece about sex and deception among a group of people living in LA.

The film tells several interwoven stories that culminate in a single climax. (Yes, this is one of those movies that have come to be called “Altmanesque” after filmmaker Robert Altman’s patented genre.)

Lisa Kudrow plays Mamie Toll, a counselor at an abortion clinic. She’s the one in charge of making sure that the women who come in for the controversial procedure are sure that this is a decision they can live with. Coincidentally, in a story told in flashback, Mamie once had to make the same decision and opted to give birth and give up the child for adoption.

Another story deals with a sexy and manipulative young woman named Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who fakes a romance with a closeted gay man (Jason Ritter) in order to get close to his wealthy dad (Tom Arnold.)

Yet another concerns a gay couple (Steve Coogan and David Sutcliffe) who deceive their good friends, a lesbian couple (Laura Dern and Sarah Clarke), in order to find out if one of them (Coogan or Sutcliffe) was the sperm donor who has fathered their child.

An additional plot thread (an aggravatingly problematic one) has Mamie getting erotically involved with a blackmailing film student (Jesse Bradford) who knows the whereabouts of the child she put up for adoption many years ago. He wants to make a documentary about their “reunion.”

Roos has his heart in the right place, a flair for funny dialogue and an interestingly offbeat approach. (He uses title cards, like in the old silent movies, to occasionally comment on the action.)

But there are certain aspects of Happy Endings that keep it a notch below his previous films of The Opposite of Sex and Bounce. Unlike those earlier movies, Roos has populated this one with an overabundance of annoying characters.

Most irritating is Bradford’s character. There is no way that this creep would end up bedding Mamie…unless she is a hardcore sadist, and nothing in this movie supports that option.

The actors are fine, especially Gyllenhaal and, surprisingly enough, Tom Arnold. They help to elevate Roos’ pleasant but inconsequential movie that, thanks to an upbeat finale, lives up to its title. (R) Rating: 3 (posted 10/07/05)



In Her Shoes
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Wow, who would have thought it? Here’s an unapologetic chick flick that may wind up on some top ten lists this year. (Yes, there are a few more months to go, but this is a sound comic drama worthy of contention.)

Adapted by screenwriter Susannah Grant from Jennifer Weiner’s novel, In Her Shoes is a smart, funny and winning story of sisterly love and conflict.

Cameron Diaz (Charlie’s Angels) plays a dim but sexy young woman named Maggie. (No snide comments about type casting, please.) She has gotten by on her looks, seems unable to keep a job and is promiscuous without remorse.

Her sister Rose (Toni Collette from About a Boy) is Maggie’s opposite. A hard-working, reliable and smart lawyer, Rose is also plain looking, overweight and suffers from low self-esteem. An affair with her self-interested boss provides the most action she’s seen in years.

When her wicked stepmother throws Maggie out of her home, she ends up mooching on Rose. When Maggie does something utterly irresponsible, the incident threatens to destroy their sisterly bond once and for all. Rose throws Maggie out, leaving her to fend for herself.

By chance, Maggie discovers some letters that lead her to a grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) she never knew she had. Naturally, she tries to mooch off of her, too. But this newfound relationship has a profound effect on Maggie, and brings about a change in her relationship with Rose.

Okay, a story about the bond between sisters and a grandmother may not seem like the kind of plot that could propel anything outside of a Hallmark card, but In Her Shoes possesses traits that make it a winner.

First of all, it has a funny and touching script. Second, director Curtis Hanson, best known for two-fisted guy movies like LA Confidential, The River Wild and 8 Mile, makes sure that the film never degenerates into treacle. Yes, it’s sentimental, but the humor keeps that element in check.

But the most important factor is the acting. Diaz fits her role like a glove, and the old vet MacLaine plays her part with savvy understatement.

Still the honors go to Colette, who makes Rose a full-blooded and utterly believable character. If Diaz was meant to play Maggie, then Colette is Rose. (Oscar, are you paying attention?)

So, go-ahead guys, take your date to In Her Shoes. Not only will she thank you, but also you’ll be making a painless sacrifice. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (posted 10/07/05)



Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Computer generated imaging has changed animation forever. Still, there’s something to be said for the special visual magic that stop-motion animation provides.

The recent release of Corpse Bride demonstrated that the old school form (puppets photographed frame-by-frame to achieve the illusion of motion) is capable of achieving an otherworldly feel that is quite different from CGI.

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is the first feature-length film starring the amiable duo made famous through Oscar-winning shorts like The Wrong Trousers.

Wallace (voiced by Peter Sallis) is an eccentric British inventor and a fanatic cheese lover. His faithful dog Gromit is his best friend and seems to possess more commonsense than his impractical master.

The duo run a business called “Anti-Pesto,” a varmint-control company. They keep the neighborhood gardens free from voracious bunnies. Being humane, our heroes don’t kill the rabbits but take them home and keep them fed.

Things get complicated just prior to the Giant Vegetable Competition hosted by Lady Tottingham (Helena Bonham Carter). A strange creature has been invading the gardens that are supposed to be protected by Anti-Pesto. A gigantic, ravenous hare-like creature has been coming out when the moon is full and is wreaking havoc, threatening the viability of the popular competition.

A vacuous gold digger named Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes) is after Lady Tottingham’s fortune. An avid hunter, he is unsympathetic to Wallace and Gromit’s no-kill policy. He makes it his quest to kill the Were-Rabbit and win Lady Tottingham’s hand.

Creator Nick Park (known for those popular “counting sheep” commercials) uses claymation techniques — molded clay — to populate his film. But the look of it is amazingly detailed and he and co-director Steve Box are able to achieve a great deal of expression from their “actors.”

They’ve also created a number of amusing Rube Goldberg-type contraptions that Wallace has developed to make life easier. (In fact, Wallace may have unwittingly instigated the Were-Rabbit invasion when one of his gizmos goes wrong.)

The movie is squarely aimed at younger children, but they’ve injected some humor that only the parents will appreciate. (The toddlers aren’t going to read the pun-filled signs that adorn the movie set.)

There’s also an amusing homage to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well as the greatest stop-motion movie of them all, King Kong.

While not in the same class as Park’s earlier effort, Chicken Run, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is an amusing flick where the operative word is “cute.” (G) Rating: 3 (posted 10/07/05)



Waiting
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

With the recent releases of The Forty-Year-Old Virgin and The Aristocrats puerile, tasteless humor has gained a renewed popularity.

Some will see this as a sign that our culture is rebelling against the staid, suffocating morality of George W. Bush’s America. Many others will see it as evidence of the decline of Western civilization. Problem is, both of these views may very well be right.

That brings us to Waiting, a crass and shameless comedy about a group of young people who work at an Applebee’s-type chain restaurant. The flick is filled with disgusting, infantile behavior, foul language, crude sexual innuendo and blatant homophobia.

And, much to the dismay of this critic, it’s often quite funny.

Ryan Reynolds (The Amityville Horror) stars as Monty, a twentysomething waiter who is the coolest guy at Shenanigan’s. He is always ready with a sarcastic retort, but has a bad habit of sleeping with underage girls.

You know you’re in trouble when the first question that Monty asks of a new Shenanigan’s trainee is, “How do you feel about male frontal nudity?” He’s serious, of course, as the popular “game” played by male employees is one in which they conspire to find ways to get another guy to look at their kibbles and bits. If the unsuspecting victim looks, the perpetrator gets to kick them hard in the rear.

Monty’s best pal is Dean, played by Justin Long (Herbie, Fully Loaded). Dean is wondering if he shouldn’t have stayed in college instead of winding up in a dead-end job waiting tables and sleeping with a co-worker.

Monty’s foil is a perky blonde named Serena (Scary Movie’s Anna Faris). She’s a savvy chick who knows how to milk tips from her male customers and play the “put-down” game with the best of them.

All of the folks who populate Waiting are cardboard characters who exist to set up all the sleazy jokes that first-time writer/director Rob McKittrick can come up with. Nothing, it seems, is off limits.

The movie is a parade of sexual and scatological references, drug use, racial insensitivity and all sorts of disgusting behavior. Surprisingly, much of it works. (You may think twice about sending back an undercooked steak after seeing what the kitchen staff does to the food of complaining customers.)

Yes, Waiting is shameless in every conceivable way. You may well feel ashamed for laughing. (R) Rating: 2.5 (posted 10/07/05)



Oliver Twist
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Director Roman Polanski’s version of Charles Dickens’ famous novel combines visual artistry with a whimsical rendering of some of the classic characters.

In this version of the story, the naïve and vulnerable orphan, Oliver (Barney Clark), flees the cruelty of a workhouse and takes to the streets. He winds up in London in a public marketplace. There, he meets the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden), a thief and pickpocket who makes crime look as crafty and entertaining as a skillful magician’s sleight of hand.
Dodger takes Oliver home with him to a warehouse he shares with a stooped old man named Fagin (Ben Kingsley) and several other young thieves. Fagin feeds Oliver, cleans him up, and then begins to teach him the art of thievery.

Eventually, Oliver gets a shot at the life of a gentleman. But the catch is that he first has to free himself of Fagin and the cruel and violent Bill Sykes (Jamie Foreman), who don’t want to let him go. Syke’s girlfriend Nancy (Leanne Rowe) takes pity on Oliver and tries to help him, but she has to cross Sykes to help Oliver.

Oliver Twist is a commentary in story form. It tells of the dark consequences of a society that is apathetic to the needs of the poor, particularly poor children. The tale can be told with realism or as fantasy. Polanski chooses a combination of realism and fantasy.

Many of the scenes in Polanski’s Oliver Twist provide dramatic contrasts of light and dark reminiscent of the Baroque paintings of Caravaggio and Rembrandt. Sitting at long tables in the workhouse dining room, the orphans are arranged and lit in a manner reminiscent of paintings that depict Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper. The boys in Fagin’s warehouse sit and stand beneath the glow of candlelight, as artfully portrayed as subjects in a commissioned painting.

In a recent interview in American Cinematographer, the film’s cinematographer Pawel Edelman is quoted as saying that he and Polanski used drawings of 19th Century artist Gustave Dorè as an inspiration for the film’s camerawork. The painterly look of the movie serves, as a constant reminder that what is on the screen is art not life.

Then there’s Kingsley’s portrayal of Fagin. Stooped and fitted with a large prosthetic nose, the nearly unrecognizable Kingsley speaks with a British accent that sometimes makes his words incomprehensible, and he looks like a stereotypical witch. He even wears a big black hat in a couple scenes. His characterization is pure fantasy.

But then there’s Sykes with his very realistic air of criminal evil. The cuts he inflicts on Oliver appear so real that many viewers will likely turn away from the screen. The blood that splatters the floor when he commits murder appears gruesomely real.

Though far from a cinematic masterpiece, Polanski’s Oliver Twist is an interesting and visually appealing adaptation of a classic. There are gaps in the story but the artistry of the film is undeniable. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (posted 10/03/05)



The Greatest Game Ever Played
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Let’s face it. Golf, as fine a game as it is, is not the best spectator sport. The scenery may be nice, but the play is visually bland. In addition, it is a very leisurely paced affair not prone to generating heart-pounding excitement.

These are the problems inherent when filmmakers tackle the subject of golf. There have been noble attempts to inject humor (Tin Cup) and pathos (Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius), but the end results have been less than spectacular.

Bill Paxton (Frailty) gives it the old college try with The Greatest Game Ever Played, a Disney production based upon Mark Frost’s noted book. Paxton’s concerted attempts to build some dynamism and tension into this gentle story are extremely evident. It’s a bit like watching the veins pop into the forehead of an Olympic weightlifter.

The story is based upon an actual incident that is legendary in golf circles. In the 1913 US Open, a young American amateur defeated the man many still consider the greatest professional golfer of all time. It’s one of the more famous “David and Goliath” scenarios in sports.

Shia LaBeouf (Constantine, Holes) plays 19-year-old Francis Ouimet, a working class lad who once met his idol, the great British golf champion Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane from The Hours). The experience inspired him to take up the sport.

Although far too poor to be able to join a country club, Francis is able to hone his skills by working as a caddy. And, since his home is just off the course, he manages to indulge in his passion in spite of the disapproval of his French immigrant father played by Elias Koteas (Crash).

Thanks to the clandestine support of his mother and the backing of some of the forward-thinking club members, Francis is able to compete as an amateur.

As fate would have it his main rival is none other than Vardon. But class conflicts on and off the links are a bigger problem for Francis than playing against the man he reveres.

Paxton makes extensive use of computer generated imaging to try to give the movie some visual flair, allowing us a peek at the “golfer’s eye-view.” Some of it works but much of it is heavy-handed. It also succumbs to the artificiality of many old fashioned Disney flicks.

But, it also has the tender heart and good nature of an old fashioned Disney flick. Like the sport itself, it’s amiable, but not thrilling. (PG) Rating: 2.5 (posted 9/30/05)



Proof
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If you need further evidence that Gwenyth Paltrow is a first-rate actress, here’s Proof.

David Auburn’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play (adapted by the author and Rebecca Miller) could be considered an interesting companion piece to the film A Beautiful Mind. Both deal with brilliant mathematicians. Both illustrate their struggles with mental illness. And both provide a first-rate acting showcase for their leading player.

Paltrow is quite stunning in the role of Catherine, daughter of a famed mathematics professor (Anthony Hopkins). Sacrificing her own education and social life, Catherine stayed in their Chicago home to care for her father, who struggled with a long and losing battle with madness. Upon his death, Catherine fears for her own sanity.

Hal, one of Robert's former students (Jake Gyllenhaal), comes to Catherine's home to pour over the professor's books to see if he did any noteworthy work in his final years. Hal hopes to find evidence of a major breakthrough that would propel his own stagnant career.

Also invading Catherine's life is her estranged sister, Claire (Hope Davis), a New York-based career woman who is convinced that Catherine cannot take care of herself. Their sibling rivalry only complicates matters as Catherine struggles to find herself after her father's death.

Auburn's script is often acerbically funny and although the characters here are inordinately brainy, they're never too distant for the audience to relate to. Although some may quibble that the script is a bit too self consciously clever, there can be no argument that it provides meaty roles for its players.

Paltrow does a remarkable job of balancing Catherine's cynical side with an endearing vulnerability. Gyllenhaal is an affable Hal, while Davis is pitch perfect as the pushy but well-meaning Claire. Hopkins’ role is brief but he makes the most of his character’s varying moments of dementia and lucidity.

The only quibble with Proof is that director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) isn’t quite able to free the story from its theatrical roots. There is rarely a moment when you are unaware that this is a filmed version of a stage play. While it wouldn’t be necessary to change the setting (99 percent of the movie takes place in Catherine’s home) perhaps some varied camera movement might have made it more cinematic.

But this is a minor point. Intelligent movies are always welcome, and there are still filmmakers willing to take the risk to make one. Here’s proof. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (posted 9/30/05)



A History of Violence
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

David Cronenberg is a man who knows a bit about violence.

A director of sleazy horror films in the ‘70s (Rabid, The Brood), Cronenberg evolved into an edgy, thoughtful filmmaker in the ‘80s (The Dead Zone, The Fly) and into an art house director in the ‘90s (The Naked Lunch, Crash).

What has remained a constant in his oeuvre is graphic, intense violence. One could easily interpret his focus on brutality as an obsession.

His latest film, A History of Violence is, therefore, right up his alley.

An adaptation by screenwriter Josh Olsen from of a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, A History of Violence is the story of a man who tries to avoid confrontation, but it follows him like a fixated stalker.

Viggo Mortensen (Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) stars as Tom Stall, a peace-loving family man who, along with his lovely wife Edie (Maria Bello from The Cooler) runs a diner is a small Indiana town.

One day near closing time, a couple of murderous thugs attempt to rob his diner and rape a waitress. Tom goes into ninja mode and dispatches the bad guys with apparent ease. Seen as a hero, the media pounce on his story and he becomes a minor celebrity.

As a result of the publicity, some Philadelphia gangsters lead by Carl Fogarty (Pollack’s Ed Harris) come for a visit. They seem to think that Tom is actually a former wise guy named Joey…and that he has committed some acts that need to be revenged. Is Tom really Joey or is this a serious case of mistaken identity?

As the mayhem builds, one can almost hear the echoes of Al Pacino’s Don Corleone saying, “Just when I thought that I was out, they pull me back in.”

Mortensen and Bello find solid grounding for their characters and they make an extremely appealing couple. Harris is appropriately sinister as a scar-faced mobster.

The star, however, is violence itself. Although on far more artistically solid ground, one could almost see this film as a contemporary equivalent of Charles Bronson’s Death Wish movies. Here, we deal with a reluctant vigilante who engages in violence as a defense mechanism, not as revenge.

But the end result is disturbingly similar. We are engaged in a bloodbath that is thrust upon us…and we, like Tom, are forced to deal with it.

Well-made and unsettling, A History of Violence fits into Cronenberg’s body of work like a fist in the face. (R) Rating: 3.5 (posted 9/30/05)



Serenity
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Geek alert!!!

Be very careful when attending a screening of Serenity on opening week. You may be in the company of crazed fanatics who mourned the demise of the short-lived television show, Firefly, the series that inspired it.

Serenity was written and directed by Josh Whedon, the man behind TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. (These series also have their own ardent fans that, like the Star Wars and Star Trek nerds before them, are more than a bit obsessive.)

In the case of Serenity, the obsession is completely understandable. An extremely well written and executed science fiction action thriller, Whedon’s creation is a vibrant and exhilarating movie that tackles questions of moral ambiguity in the context of galactic governmental corruption! You don’t have to search far for any hidden subtext here.

The story takes place some 500 years in the future, as we follow the exploits of the crew of Serenity, a spaceship for hire captained by Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion).

Similarities to Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon could be construed as homage to the Star Wars epic. After seeing Serenity, however, one wishes that George Lucas had let Whedon write his scripts. The dialogue is sharp, the story construction is tight and the action is well paced. All of these elements were missing in the most recent Star Wars installments.

Malcom seems to be amoral, hauling illegal cargo after having been on the side of the losers in a space turf war. But Malcom just needs a cause, something noble to fight for. He finds it in a teenage girl named River (Summer Glau).

Malcom and his crew have been hired by River’s brother Simon (Sean Maher) to get her to safety. A telepath who has been programmed by the evil Alliance to be a super fighting machine, River was rescued by her brother and they are now on the run. She’s a problem for everyone onboard because she is mentally unstable and may go off into “destroy” mode at any moment.

More importantly, River may have some inside information that the Alliance boys don’t want to become public knowledge. They send a super assassin ominously know as “The Operative” (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a few thousand troopers to snuff her out.

Fans will be happy to see series regulars Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin and Jewel Staite back onboard.

But the best news is for neophytes. You don’t have to be a Firefly geek to enjoy the rush of a terrific science fiction flick like Serenity…but you may become one. (PG-13) Rating: 4.5 (posted 9/30/05)



Into the Blue
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Into the Blue has an interesting premise, a fetching female protagonist (Jessica Alba as Sam) and a dapper leading man (Paul Walker as Jared). But these elements aren’t enough to save a film that’s long on pecs and abs and short on story.

We first see Jared and Sam on Jared’s leaky old boat. Right away it’s clear that he’s a dive bum who dreams of finding a big treasure someday. She’s the girlfriend who plans to stand by her man even though he has little more than a dream (and integrity).

While on a leisure dive with Sam, his friend Bryce (Scott Caan) and Bryce’s lady friend, Jared wanders onto the edge of his dream-come-true when he finds pieces of what appear to be a large buried treasure. However, Jared doesn’t have enough money to pay for the equipment needed for the colossal dig.

Enter temptation in the form of a sunken plane. The four divers discover that the plane is full of cocaine (more than enough to finance a dig). The squeaky clean Sam and Jared say they won’t even entertain the option of selling the cocaine, but Bryce and his girlfriend have other ideas.

So Jared winds up with a moral dilemma. He also has to choose between love and money (because Sam won’t stick around for any shady goings on).

This film has lots of diving scenes and lots of shots of underwater creatures. There’s also a bit of mystery and suspense as the divers go head-to-head with drug runners.

Unfortunately, there are too many lulls in the action, too many scenes in which the featured couple just play lovey-dovey for the camera. Alba and Walker do have chemistry, but that chemistry would be better displayed in the context of a real story.

The characters’ motivations are quite thin. Jared wants to score a big treasure to jumpstart his diving career. Sam just wants to be with her man and enjoy the wonders of the underwater world. Bryce is all about the Benjamins. And the drug runners’ actions make little sense at all (They scoff at the opportunity to reap hundreds of millions of dollars from the buried treasure while fighting to save their less valuable dope.).

So the film falls flat. Plot yields to the shallowness of appearances, and the audience is made to suffer through another flick where flesh trumps substance. Into the Blue is not terrible, but it’s probably not worth the price of admission. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (posted 9/30/05)



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