reel reviews
movie reviews
November '05

RENTTHE ICE HARVESTJUST FRIENDSYOURS, MINE AND OURSBEE SEASON
WALK THE LINEHARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIREDERAILED
GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN'KISS KISS, BANG BANGPRIDE & PREJUDICE
SHOPGIRLJARHEADCHICKEN LITTLETHE SQUID AND THE WHALE
CAPOTEPRIMETHE WEATHER MANTHE LEGEND OF ZORRO
Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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Rent
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Thanks to the success of the Oscar-winning musical Chicago, some Broadway fare has been put on the fast track to make the transition to the big screen.

Rent, the popular rock musical based on Puccini’s La Boehm, is just one example. (Mel Brook’s film version of his stage hit The Producers is due in theatres on Dec. 21.)

The winner of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award, Rent updates the story to New York City’s East Village in the 1990s. The starving artists aren’t battling tuberculosis, as in Puccini’s opera, but struggle with AIDS and drug addiction, instead.

Six of the eight main cast members are from the original Broadway production. Anthony Rapp plays Mark Cohen, a struggling filmmaker who is a squatter in a rundown tenement. His roommates include Roger Davis (Adam Pascal), a wannabe songwriter and a teacher named Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin). Both Roger and Tom are HIV positive.

Their lives are about to be upturned by their landlord, Benny Coffin, III (Taye Diggs), a former roommate who has “married up” and is now about to evict them. Wanting to gentrify the buildings, Benny tries to get the boys to leave willingly and take the other tenants with them.

Further complicating things is the fact that Mark’s girlfriend Marueen (Idina Menzel) has left him for a female lawyer named Joanne (Tracie Thoms). Another tenant, a beautiful stripper named Mimi (Rosario Dawson) is hotly pursuing a relationship with Roger. He resists her advances because of his disease. Tom takes up with a drag queen named Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) who has the worst case of full-blown AIDS.

The action takes place over a one-year period (“One hundred twenty five thousand, three hundred minutes”) and follows the ups and downs of these various relationships.

Director Chris Columbus, best known as the director of the first two Harry Potter films, does a commendable job of opening up the action and keeping things moving. His fluid camera is a substitute choreographer, giving movement to what could otherwise be stagnant scenes. A talented cast, handling the vocal work with aplomb, is yet another strength.

Some may grouse about the fact that the movie is rated “PG-13”, and they have a point. The movie deals frankly with adult themes and features expletives that would have, not long ago, earned it an “R”.

While the stage version of Rent had Jonathan Larson’s catchy tunes and an excellent first act, the second act left something to be desired. The movie version suffers the same fate as act two plods and meanders, never recapturing the momentum of the first.

Still, half a great musical is better than none, so you have to give Rent its due. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (posted 11/23/05)



The Ice Harvest
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

So just what does Billy Bob Thornton have against Christmas, anyway? His latest film, The Ice Harvest, has the same holiday bashing spirit as his 2003 black comedy Bad Santa.

In The Ice Harvest, Thorton plays Vic, a sleazy Wichita businessman who, along with a dim-witted lawyer, attempts to abscond with $2 million belonging to a Kansas City mobster on Christmas Eve.

John Cusack (Must Love Dogs) plays Charlie, the mob lawyer who hatched the scheme. Although he had the idea, he doesn’t have the nerve to pull off a job like this. That’s why he enlisted the aid of Vic, a cynical jerk with ice water in his veins. Problem is, Charlie isn’t sure that he can trust Vic once the cash is stolen.

A frequenter of Wichita’s strip clubs, Charlie goes to one of his favorite haunts on the eventful night with amorous intent. You see, he’s always had his eye on the club’s beautiful proprietress, Renata (Gladiator’s Connie Nielsen). He reluctantly lets her in on his scheme in hopes that she’ll run off with him after he gets the dough.

But things aren’t about to go smoothly. Charlie has to deal with his neglected kids and his unfaithful ex-wife…and her current husband, a lush played by Oliver Platt (TV’s Huff). Plus, he discovers that a hit man is on the prowl, so Charlie begins to fret that the mob boss might have gotten wind of his plan.

The script by Robert Benton and Richard Russo, who also collaborated on Twilight and Nobody’s Fool, is often mean-spirited and nasty, all done for comic effect. We may feel guilty when we chuckle at the violence, but we reluctantly do.

Director Harold Ramis (Analyze This) portrays Wichita as frozen tundra, a cold and forbidding place. (The movie was actually filmed in Canada, and there are some gaffs that give it away. While the cars sport Kansas’ license plates, they’re mounted on the front of the car.)

Broad-minded citizens of the Sunflower State may enjoy the dark humor aimed at their home’s stodgy image. Platt’s character refers to it as “Kan’s Ass.”

The actors are in fine form and clearly having a dandy time. It is Platt, however, who steals the show. His character is fun to watch, as long as he’s on the screen and not in your car.

Bitter, decadent and often caustically funny, The Ice Harvest gleefully drives a stake into the heart of Christmas cheer. (R) Rating: 3.5 (posted 11/23/05)



Just Friends
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In the recent lowbrow “laffer” Waiting, Ryan Reynolds (The Amityville Horror) teamed with Anna Faris (Scary Movie) to considerable comic effect.

Reynolds and Faris are together again in Just Friends, another uncultured comedy that doesn’t rely quite as heavily on the raunch factor that fueled their previous effort.

Just Friends features Reynolds as Chris, a successful music executive living the “good life” in Los Angeles. Handsome and self-assured, he makes great money and is an expert with the ladies.

He’s reluctantly been assigned to manage one of his former conquests, a rowdy pop princess named Samantha James (Faris) who is as nutty as she is demanding.

When a fire in the corporate jet they were flying in is forced land in New Jersey (Samantha put aluminum foil in the jet’s microwave), Chris realizes that he is near his hometown, a small berg that he hasn’t visited in ten years.

Chris, you see, was once a very overweight and clumsy fellow. He was humiliated one night when he finally confessed his love for his longtime friend, Jamie, played by Amy Smart (Starsky and Hutch). Amy, you see, was a pretty and popular cheerleader who only dated jocks.

While Chris has outwardly changed, he is still the same overweight kid on the inside. He decides to pursue Jamie, now a bartender, and make her a conquest. This would be his revenge.

In spite of these plot elements, this is still a one-joke movie. The whole idea revolves around whether or not the formerly fat Chris will win the heart of Jamie…and if she could be interested in the slim jerk that he has now become.

Reynolds is a talented actor with sharp comic timing. He’s also blissfully willing to sacrifice his dignity for a laugh, as he did in National Lampoon’s Van Wilder. It’s a good thing, too, because the material that director Roger Kumble (The Sweetest Thing) and screenwriter Adam “Tex” Davis (Spring Break Lawyer) provide is pretty weak stuff.

But it is Faris who steals the movie. Her character is a canny send-up of pop divas Brittany Spears and Christina Aguliera. Playing it for all it’s worth and chewing the scenery with dopey glee, Faris nearly saves the picture…nearly.

But her efforts aren’t quite enough to keep Just Friends from its inevitable mediocrity. This is a comedy that might be a passable time waster when it shows up on cable, but isn’t worth your box office bucks. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (posted 11/23/05)



Yours, Mine and Ours
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Some movies merit a remake. On a rare occasion, a talented filmmaker can find a way to improve upon or update a film in a way that makes it a pleasing alternative to the original.

The 1968 comedy, Yours Mine and Ours deserved no such effort. While pleasant, the family film that starred Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball is hardly a work that needed a reincarnation.

However, there was a little film that came out in 2003 called Cheaper By the Dozen. A remake of the 1950 family classic, the newer version substituted tepid slapstick humor for the original’s charm. Although it was a travesty, it made over $138 million at the domestic box office.

Understanding the thirst that audiences have for harmless family fluff like Cheaper By the Dozen, the producers of Yours, Mine and Ours followed the same formula. Excising the charm (and believability) of the original and inserting broad slapstick, they feel that they’ll mine box office gold. Sadly, they may be right. (Incidentally, the sequel Cheaper By the Dozen 2 is due in theatres by Christmas.)

Directed by Raja Gosnell (Scooby Doo…and that should be enough to scare you right there), Yours, Mine and Ours stars Dennis Quaid (The Day After Tomorrow) as a widower with eight children named Frank Beardsley.

Frank marries Helen North (Rene Russo from The Thomas Crown Affair), a widow with ten kids. That is the beginning of the merry mayhem that ensues throughout the movie.

The kids, you see, don’t like the new arrangement and the tension builds as they try to cope with so many new family members. Ultimately, they decide to unite in an effort to make things so difficult that their parents will want to get a divorce.

This is a Nickelodeon production, so there has to be a lot of slime. The filmmaker’s go out of their way to find ways to get everyone up to their neck in muck. (Quaid gets dumped in a pool of slime in the middle of a Home Depot-like store. How his pool of slime got there is never explained.)

In an effort to update things a bit, the screenwriters make sure that the majority of Russo’s children are adopted, therefore ensuring that we get a full range of ethnicity. This may be the only element that adds a bit of interest to the proceedings.

While ham-fisted in its execution, this is the kind of family fare that is critic proof. It really doesn’t matter if it’s any good. If the youngsters get a laugh and there are no bad words, parents will relent. (Yours, Mine and Ours 2, anyone?) (PG) Rating: 2 (posted 11/23/05)



Bee Season
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Family dysfunction can be the starting place for good drama. If you have any doubt, consider American Beauty in which Kevin Spacey plays a father trapped in a mid-life crisis. Then there’s the recent Winter Solstice, which follows a father and his two sons trying to get on with their lives after the loss of the woman of the house. Both films deliver both an entertaining story and insight into human behavior.

Bee Season also features a family in crisis, but the crises of each family member and the story specifics are both ambiguous in the cinematic version of Myla Goldberg’s novel. The story focuses on young Eliza Naumann (Flora Cross). In one of the movie’s early scenes, Eliza’s brother Aaron (Max Minghella) is driving her to the district spelling bee.

Aaron’s sister recruited him to drive because she thought her father (Richard Gere as Saul Naumann) was ignoring the announcement she has slipped under his office door. It turns out that the announcement simply got lost in the mess on the floor of her father’s office.

After the district bee, there is another bee and the preparation for that bee. Her father helps her study for the bee while her brother and mother (separately) engage in their own secret activities.

Theme takes center stage in this movie. It’s clear that the movie is about people struggling to find their way, about broken people trying to become whole. The story specifics, however, aren’t clear (unless you’ve read the book). We see Saul’s wife Miriam (Juliette Binoche) coming and going, going alone into other homes. But it’s never clear (until the end) what’s she’s doing on these solitary excursions.

Aaron is off pursing a religious philosophy. We see him going to a Krishna center to chant and meet a girl who wears bright robes and eats no meat. But screenwriter Naomi Foner (Losing Isaiah, 1995) gives us almost no background with which to compare the family’s current behavior.

Granted, it would have been impossible to provide every detail of the 274-page novel, but there should have been enough details to make the story coherent. In the novel, for instance, Eliza was an underachiever before everyone discovered that she was a spelling savant. Her brother, Aaron, was the focus of father Saul’s attention until Eliza’s gift was discovered.

Including these two simple details would have added clarity. But the filmmakers opted for a cryptic story that captures the philosophic essence of Goldberg’s novel. For viewers who like to puzzle over a movie and discuss it for days, this flick will provide more than a little satisfaction. But those who want a clear-cut story, this film will likely be an exercise in frustration. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (posted 11/23/05)



Walk the Line
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Last year, Jamie Foxx leapt to the top of the cinematic echelon thanks to his impressive, Oscar-winning performance as the legendary Ray Charles.

This year, Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator) attempts a similar feat with Walk the Line, a biopic about country music legend, Johnny Cash. (Eerily, both Charles and Cash worked with the actor that ultimately portrayed them…but neither lived to see their life story hit the big screen.)

The script, written by Gill Dennis and director James Mangold (Girl Interrupted), is based upon Cash’s autobiography, co-written by Patrick Carr. It’s a warts-and-all telling of his rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches life.

The film’s excellent first act begins as Cash is waiting to go onstage for one of his famous prison concerts. Staring at a table saw in the prison wood shop, he is reminded of a childhood incident. A lengthy flashback sequence focuses on a tragic event in his early days that reverberated throughout his life.

Eventually, we pick up with Cash as a young man going into the military. While serving in the Air Force in Germany, he buys a guitar to further his love of music. During his time overseas, he pursues a long-distance romance with Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) the lady who would ultimately become his first wife.

Back stateside, he struggles to make ends meet while supporting a new family. Although Vivian pressures him to take a “safe” job with her father’s business, Cash continues to try to break into the music business. A memorable audition session with Memphis mogul Sam Phillips of Sun Records changes everything.

On concert tours with other artists like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, Cash meets his longtime crush, singer June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) of the legendary Carter Family. Naturally, sparks fly between them that initiate family friction and compel Cash to escape into the world of drugs.

Phoenix and Witherspoon, who both sing and provide their own instrumental accompaniment, are excellent as the star-crossed pair. Even as some of the dialogue degenerates into standard biopic clichés, they deliver the lines with a conviction that makes them believable.

Mangold delivers a first-rate beginning to his film, but the second act meanders and loses a bit of its momentum. While we never lose interest in the stars, we tire of some of the standard plot elements.

Perhaps the biggest revelation is that Cash was far from the iron-willed rebel that his image and music would imply. He was an extremely needy and weak man who deeply depended upon Carter’s strong personality to keep his life on track.

Thanks to fine performances and toe-tapping music (you don’t have to be a country fan to like this movie, but it helps), Walk the Line is a modestly successful précis of the “Man in Black”. PG-13. Rating: 3.5 (posted 11/18/05)



Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Harry Potter’s back, and his fans will love it. Those who haven’t read author J.K. Rowling’s books or seen the other movie adaptations will probably be able to follow the basic story. But without knowledge of all the little idiosyncrasies of Harry Potter’s world, the story is flat and meandering.

Harry is a 14 year old now. He’s definitely growing up (as evidenced by his obvious infatuations with some of the girls), but he’s still not old enough to compete in a dangerous Tri-Wizard competition.

The minimum age for participation is 17 because the challenges involved can lead to death. Unfortunately for Harry, one of his enemies wants him to compete. So when the goblet of fire spits out the names of the chosen ones, Harry’s name is there among them.

The plot is a simple one: The contestants have to complete three challenges, and the one with the best score wins. If the screenwriter had gotten straight to the point, the film would have been no longer than 45 minutes. But instead he decided to treat us with a teen soap opera of sorts.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’s three central characters do what teens do best. They get jealous of each other for various reasons. They dance. They act insecure. They flirt. And while they’re just being kids, the tournament is on hold.

Although the action scenes are at times spectacular, there are wide gaps between them during which little of consequence happens. In one exquisite scene, the contestants are running through a grassy course with killer vines that rise from the ground to entangle them. In another, Harry fights a very cantankerous dragon.

The cinematography is as splendid as if a fairytale illustration had materialized in the real world. The atmosphere appears slightly foggy at times yet the blues are deep and rich. The world of the movie is beautiful and treacherous at the same time.

Fans will likely revel in the film’s visual richness and inside information. But to the uninitiated, the 157-minute movie will likely be perceived as a lovely film that takes the long road to a short story. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (posted 11/18/05)



Derailed
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Hitchcock has been dead for a long time, but filmmakers have worked hard to keep alive the suspense thriller genre he so artfully mastered.

Derailed is an entertaining example that stars Clive Owen (Sin City) and Jennifer Aniston (Along Came Polly) as a couple who begin a brief extramarital encounter only to find that it is the beginning of a nightmare.

Owen plays Charles Schine, an advertising executive who is also a loving family man. He and his wife Deanna (Melissa George from The Amityville Horror) are working hard to save money for an operation for their young daughter, who is suffering from a rare form of diabetes.

The pressure that Charles and Deanna are experiencing has put a strain on their marriage. While still committed to one another, the romance has fizzled.

One day while on his commuter train from the suburbs to his city office, Charles meets Lucinda Harris (Aniston), a beautiful and equally lonely financial analyst. Although married and with a daughter of her own, Lucinda finds herself attracted to Charles. Over a few days, they talk on the train and decide to meet for dinner. When they decide to have an affair, everything begins to go awry.

At the cheap hotel where they go for their tryst, a thug (Irreversible’s Vincent Cassel) breaks into their room, beats and robs Charles and rapes Lucinda. Shortly thereafter, he contacts Charles to blackmail him. Unless he comes up with $100,000, he’ll expose the affair and ruin both of their lives.

That, as in all good thrillers, is just the beginning. What follows is a roller coaster ride that finds Charles facing numerous ethical dilemmas and dangerous encounters as he tries to keep this episode from ruining his life.

The movie is set in Chicago, even though most of it was shot in England. Nonetheless, the locales are, for the most part, pretty convincing.

Owen and Aniston make an attractive pair, even if they seem a bit miscast. (The casting alone provides the audience with clues they shouldn’t be privy to.) Cassel is a menacing heavy and rapper RZA has an amusing bit part as Winston, an ex-con whose aid Charles enlists in his desperation.

In his first English language film, Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom (Evil) manages to build a considerable amount of tension.

While the setup and execution is competent, Derailed telegraphs its plot developments. We know exactly where this train is going long before it gets there. (R) Rating: 3 (posted 11/11/05)



Get Rich of Die Tryin'
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is a very appropriate title for this movie, which is loosely based on the life of rapper 50 Cent. The movie is all about the famous (and sometimes infamous) American dream: work hard, get rich.

The catch is that the main character, Marcus (50 Cent), works hard in an illegal business, which means risking life and limb for the almighty dollar. Marcus sells cocaine, and he’s good at it, so good that he becomes the “boss” of his own crew. He’s so good that’s he’s able to purchase an immaculate white Mercedes, even though he doesn’t have a driver’s license.

But Marcus is also troubled. He grows up mourning the loss of his mother, a drug dealer from whom he inherited his entrepreneurial spirit. He’s consumed with the idea of avenging her death.

The movie walks us through Marcus’s entry into the world of drugs after his mother’s death. His first motivation for selling drugs is that he wants a new pair of sneakers. His mother always gave him the best of everything (as a voiceover explains). Once she’s gone, he gets the best of everything for himself by becoming a master salesman.

A local drug dealer Majestic (played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) takes the boy under his wing and trains him in the art of being a boss over his own crew. Majestic’s advice to Marcus includes a caution against loving anyone. “Love’ll get you killed,” Majestic tells the teen Marcus and his crew.

In one of a series of hokey voiceovers, Marcus explains that he and his crew were “dedicated to one thing and one thing only: getting paid and getting laid.” This dialogue and more like it chisels Marcus’s criminal activity into what could be construed as an understandable attempt to transcend unfortunate circumstances.

Perhaps in the hands of a more capable actor, Marcus would have been a more complex character, more conflicted, a misdirected artist trying to find his way through poverty and sadness. But 50 Cent’s one-note performance renders the character an unapologetic, clueless thug who speaks softly and with childlike diction, and who doesn’t understand the gravity of his bad choices.

I expected this film to be better, largely because it is directed by Jim Sheridan (In America and My Left Foot), written by Terence Winter (The Sopranos and Diagnosis Murder) and includes Terrence Howard (Crash and Hustle & Flow) in the cast. But at best the movie is just slightly above average. Also, violent scenes (such as a man stabbing another through the stomach with a sword) might put off some viewers, as will the abundant profanity and quite a bit of nudity. (R) Rating: 3 (posted 11/11/05)



Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In the closing moments of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, one of the characters turns to the audience and says, “Thanks for coming, please stay for the end credits. If you're wondering who the best boy is, it's somebody's nephew. Um…don't forget to validate your parking, and to all you good people in the Midwest, sorry we said ‘fuck’ so much.”

That should give you a pretty good indication of what you’re in for.

In his directorial debut, noted screenwriter Shane Black, best known for the Lethal Weapon franchise, has decided to send up the film noir genre. With its well-known conventions, the genre provides wide targets for satire. But with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Black offers a movie that is more homage than spoof.

Utterly self-aware and often too clever for its own good, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is also rude, ribald and fitfully entertaining.

Based in part upon Brett Halliday’s novel Bodies Are Where You Find Them, Black’s movie is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, but plays more like its tongue is sticking out.

Robert Downey, Jr. (The Singing Detective) plays Harry Lockhart, a New York wannabe actor and petty thief. Through happenstance, he finds himself in Hollywood at the home a big time movie producer who decides to try him out for a potential role as a private eye.

To study for the part, he’s teamed with a real life private dick called Gay Perry (Alexander’s Val Kilmer) who, as his nickname implies, is gay. (Hey, this is Hollywood, after all.)

One night while on a seemingly routine stakeout, the two witness a murder. This begins a plot so convoluted that you’d be hard pressed to find anyone involved with the movie who would be able to explain it.

But it hardly matters. The filmmakers are less interested in a conventional plot than they are in demonstrating how hip they are.

But the movie works as well as it does because of its cast. Downey is brilliantly funny as our hapless hero and Kilmer is also impressive in an underwritten role. Luckily, he gives the part a significant injection of charisma.

Michelle Monaghan (North Country) plays Harmony, Downey’s former childhood sweetheart and a struggling Hollywood actress. Although she is a decade too young to be believable as Downey’s schoolmate, their chemistry is undeniable. Their dialogue together is delivered with expert synchronicity.

Black’s opus is a bit too self-satisfied, but may provide a guilty pleasure for those seeking a decadent laugh. (R) Rating: 3 (posted 11/11/05)



Pride & Prejudice
Reviewed by Deborah Young

No one would expect the cinematic version of Jane Austen’s novel to be a thrill ride, and it certainly isn’t. But Pride & Prejudice is beautifully filmed and well acted with a story line that has the power to seduce viewers.

Sure, the story is an antiquated one. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet aim to marry their daughters off to men, and quick. Their daughter Jane (Rosamund Pike) is considered the family beauty. They plan to get her hitched to the wealthy Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods).

Although the family’s focus is on the affair between Jane and Mr. Bingley, these two aren’t the focus of the film. They couldn’t be because they’re just too smitten with the bland glee of mad love. The redheaded Bingley grins incessantly and looks like a devoted puppy, Jane being the object of his hypnotic affection. Equally boring in her fondness, the pale, blond Jane plays hard to get, and coyness doesn’t translate into good drama.

The couple to watch is the witty Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley) and the brooding Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen). From the moment they meet, Darcy seems determined to avoid having a good time and to avoid a romantic attraction. But Elizabeth reels him in by responding to his dark moods with biting sarcasm.

Knightly is the star of this picture, although it’s difficult to regard her as the less attractive sister. But watching her strut and verbally spar is a joy. She’s the opposite of boring glee. We want to see her dander up, just so we can have the pleasure of hearing her tart comebacks.

Also Judi Dench shines (as usual) as Lady Catherine de Bourg, a snob who’s determined to keep Darcy and Elizabeth apart. Lady Catherine meets her match in Elizabeth, but it’s a hoot to watch her try to intimidate the young woman (to no avail, of course).

Those with a heightened sense of visual aesthetics and enough patience to endure a dramatization of seventeenth-century manners will likely enjoy this film’s quiet beauty. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (posted 11/11/05)



Shopgirl
Reviewed by Deborah Young

It’s better to be an old man’s sweetheart than a young man’s fool. At least that’s how the saying goes. But the screen adaptation of Steve Martin’s novella Shopgirl provides a poignant dramatization of the downside of being an old man’s sweetheart.

The movie’s protagonist, Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes), is a lonely young woman who sells gloves at Saks by day. By night she mopes around her tiny apartment, talks to an unseen cat and occasionally tries to coax it out of hiding.

At the beginning of the movie, a voiceover tells us that Mirabelle desperately wants to connect with someone. So when the rude and clueless Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman) asks her out, she accepts. The date is so bad that it’s hilarious (the kind of hilarity that makes a person double up laughing and then launch into the ugliest of ugly cries).

Jeremy takes Mirabelle to a bus stand across the street from an IMAX theatre. He chatters about nonsense as the two sit on the bench and stare at the theatre. Finally, she asks whether they’re going in. No, he says, I just usually sit out here. Bottom line: He wants her to pay her own way, which she eventually offers to do. And, of course, he accepts.

Not that night, but later (after her loneliness has overruled her best judgment), Mirabelle sleeps with Jeremy. But before the ridiculous relationship can bloom, another man walks into her life (Ray Porter played by Steve Martin).

Although Ray is much older (and much wealthier) than Mirabelle, he buys her expensive gifts, cooks breakfast for her and seems attentive to her needs (at one point he even takes her to the doctor and plays nursemaid while she’s feeling under the weather).

She’s got a wealthy lover who dotes on her. What else could she want? Love. She wants love. On the other hand, Ray has decided that, because of the age difference, this relationship can be about nothing deeper than sex.

The lack of commitment from Ray propels the story, because he and Mirabelle have divergent ideas about their relationship, which leads to story complications. But the story is deepened by the complexity of the three central characters. They all start out thinking they know what they want. In the end, they all learn that they really wanted something more meaningful than they’d originally thought.

As the characters discover their true desires, a bittersweet and moving story unfolds. Martin, who wrote the screenplay and the novel on which the film is based, has crafted a mature, insightful story that will likely become a classic. And Martin, Danes and Schwartzman turn in fine performances that provide a perfect mixture of humor, sadness, realism and entertaining quirkiness.

The best thing is that Shopgirl turns out to be much more than a tale about May-December romances. At its core, the movie examines human desire and acknowledges the emptiness that we sometimes discover after getting what we thought we wanted. In a sea of shallow romantic dramas, Shopgirl is a pearl, a precious rarity. (R) Rating: 4 (posted 11/11/05)



Jarhead
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Just how interested are you in a movie about waiting?

One might wonder just that after viewing Sam Mendes’ latest effort Jarhead, based upon the best selling Gulf War memoirs of Marine Anthony Swafford. As much as anything, Jarhead is an exercise in frustration. The soldiers are frustrated, their officers are frustrated and, ultimately, the audience is frustrated.

A war movie without the war, Jarhead stars Jake Gyllenhaal (Proof) as Swafford, a young man who had always wanted to serve his country. A talented marksman, Swafford is among the gung ho Marines who are excited when they learn that they’ll be deployed to help protect the Kuwaiti people from a probable invasion from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Swafford and his cohorts wind up in Saudi Arabia, assigned to protect the oil wells of an important US ally. There, they wait…and wait…and wait. Months of desert boredom take their toll on this rowdy group of jarheads (Marines).

Jamie Foxx (Stealth) plays Sergeant Siek, the no-nonsense soldier who runs Swafford’s unit. Although he had the opportunity to have a cushy job back home taking in $100,000 a year, he chose to be a Marine because of his love of the Corps. (Seeing the miserable conditions he lives under, one might question his sanity.)

Swafford’s best friend is Troy (Peter Sarsgaard from Flight Plan), a fellow jarhead (and sniper cohort) who was obviously born for the job. Trouble is, he’s got a secret criminal record. When Sgt. Siek gets wind of Troy’s past, he asks Swafford to keep an eye on his partner until his tour is over and he gets drummed out.

The “action” involves the soldiers’ lives as they cope with the utter boredom they endure while awaiting an opportunity to ply their trade. As one jarhead laments, “Are we ever going to get to kill anyone?” Even the most ardent pacifist, impatient with the movie’s lack of dramatic momentum, might be tempted to yell, “Okay, shoot somebody already!”

Mendes, who scored with previous films like American Beauty and Road to Perdition, is taking a great risk with Jarhead. He’s created a character study masquerading as a war movie. He’s demonstrating that the toll that war takes is great on individuals, even when they don’t fight.

While well acted, produced and directed, Jarhead has an inherent problem. A movie about waiting simply isn’t very cinematic. (R) Rating: 3 (posted 11/04/05)



Chicken Little
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Trying to be all things to all people doesn’t always work. Yet the makers of animated films continue to try. Films such as Shrek, Robots and The Incredibles offer something for children and adults. Witty dialogue and literary or cultural allusions pepper the films as a draw for adults, and the incessant action and colorful visuals are for the kids.

But every animated film can’t be as witty as Shrek. Not every animated film can transcend generational boundaries like The Incredibles. The creators of Chicken Little seemed to grasp the concept that it’s possible to make a good film that unapologetically targets children with a simple story and a blatant moral.

Chicken Little starts with the events memorialized in the classic children’s book. Something hits the little chickadee on the head, and he thinks the sky is falling. From that point forward the story lodges itself in the 21st century.

The small, nerdy Chicken Little becomes a laughingstock in his town, Oakey Oaks, because of what everyone thinks is a fool’s mistake (he was hit on the head by an acorn, and made the incorrect assumption that the sky was falling). Little’s shame is memorialized in books and films (as it probably would be in modern America).

In this rendering of the story, Chicken Little is partially correct. Although the sky is not falling, a panel from an alien ship has fallen and hit him on the head. Now, he and his friends have to save the town from an alien invasion.

But saving the town isn’t Little’s first priority. His biggest desire is to make his father proud of him, to erase the shame he incurred after the sky is falling incident. Little’s father was a jock in school, but Little is a nerd. He feels like he has to earn his father’s love and respect, and his father has no idea how to connect with his son. It’s a story many kids will probably identify with, and it’s told with humor and more than a splash of cuteness.

This film is Disney’s first fully computer-generated project, and it succeeds in presenting memorable characters that will likely become classic. But Chicken Little is a children’s film, and tykes under 10 will probably eat it up with a spoon, so to speak. And the characters are cute enough to make the experience mildly amusing for adults as well. (G) Rating: 3 (posted 11/04/05)



The Squid and the Whale
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Here’s a revelation: Divorce is hard on the kids.

While that may not be news, the semi-autobiographical film The Squid and the Whale certainly brings the point home.

Noah Baumbach, best known as the screenwriter of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (and who had a memorable cameo in that film), takes a difficult moment from his own life and uses it as self-therapy. In The Squid and the Whale, he shows that while divorce involves the parents, it certainly takes its toll on the whole family.

Jesse Eisenberg (Roger Dodger) plays Baumbach’s alter ego, Walt Berkman, a young man coping with common teen angst in Brooklyn during the 1980s. He tends to idolize his father, while his little brother Frank (Owen Kline) favors his mom.

Walt’s dad is Bernard Berkman (Good Night, and Good Luck’s Jeff Daniels), a novelist who flirted with greatness. It’s been years since he’s had a successful book and Bernard has become embittered and frustrated. He cannot find a publisher for his most recent opus and reluctantly works as a college professor to make ends meet.

Laura Linney (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) plays Walt’s mother, Joan. Although she’s lived in her husband’s shadow, she is a talented writer in her own right. She begins to have some success, a fact that gnaws at her spouse, further complicating their relationship.

Bernard is the kind of unctuous, conceited intellectual who feels superior to just about everyone he knows. When he pontificates about literature, Walt worshipfully apes his observations even if he hasn’t read the books his dad is talking about.

Joan, feeling cut off from her self-absorbed husband, has affairs (including one with Frank’s tennis coach, played by William Baldwin). When she finally decides to end their marriage, she becomes a villain in Walt’s eyes. Bernard moves out and an ongoing tug-of-war ensues for the kids’ allegiance and affection.

The kids express their frustration in different ways. Walt, in an attempt to impress everyone, passes off a Pink Floyd tune as his own at the school talent show. Frank does some odd things at school with unmentionable body fluids.

The whole ensemble delivers strong performances. Anyone who has experienced a family breakup will squirm with familiarity at the tension these characters experience.

But an abrupt conclusion and bleak outlook prevent The Squid and the Whale from complete success. While smart and sincere, it’s a difficult film to like. (R) Rating: 3 (posted 11/04/05)



Capote
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Truman Capote, the famed writer of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, was a man who craved the spotlight. His giant ego needed constant stroking as if he were compensating for some deep-seated insecurity.

That is the impression one gets from viewing the new biopic, Capote. Although it admiringly highlights his genius, it also depicts him as a deeply flawed and often highly unethical human being.

Philip Seymour Hoffman (Happiness, Boogie Nights) manages quite a feat in his portrayal of this literary legend. He not only captures Capote’s well-known effeminate voice and mannerisms, he does so while creating a completely believable character. This is a superlative performance that should be a lock for an Oscar nomination.

The film is less a biography as it is a character examination that focuses on one period of the author’s life, the time that he spent in Kansas researching his nonfiction classic, In Cold Blood.

Looking for a way to expand the possibilities of the novel, Capote hoped to write a journalistic account of an actual incident, but to present it in a form closer to that of a fictional novel. After seeing a small news story about the murder of a rural Kansas family, he became intrigued.

Sent to Kansas by an editor to cover the case for a possible magazine article, Capote realized that he had found the subject that he was looking for. This grisly, apparently random act of violence needed to be examined and understood.

Capote went to Kansas along with his lifelong friend, writer Harper Lee (Catherine Keener from The Forty-Year-Old Virgin), who served as his research assistant. Greasing a few palms to get exclusive access to the killers, Capote set out to win their confidence and cooperation.

The movie touches on Capote’s close relationship with the murderers, especially Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.). The filmmakers imply that Capote fell in love with Smith over the many months of interviews and consultations he had with him. When Smith asked for Capote’s help in getting a stay of execution for an appeal, however, Capote demurred. Without Smith’s death, Capote had no book.

Documentary filmmaker Bennett Miller (The Cruise) gives Capote an austere, low glamour feel. He and screenwriter Dan Futterman (working from a book by Gerald Clarke) portray Capote as a fascinating, but morally bankrupt individual whose ego usually sabotaged close friendships. (When Lee achieves success with her own book, To Kill a Mockingbird, Capote opines to her, “I don’t know that all the fuss is about.”)

While Capote is interesting, it lacks enough dramatic momentum to make it a truly satisfying movie. The appeal of this spare drama lies in the outstanding performance of its star. Hoffman is Capote. (R) Rating: 3 (posted 10/28/05)



Prime
Reviewed by Deborah Young

At times, Prime feels more like a stage play than a movie, mostly because of the mannered and over-the-top performance of Meryl Streep. But the film benefits from a witty, funny script and a lovable cast of characters.

Ben Younger, the writer/director of the razor sharp drama Boiler Room, has crafted another light-hearted film that examines some of the heavy issues that divide us. In Boiler Room, those issues primarily involved ethnicity, the perceptions one racial group might have about another. In Prime, Younger mostly focuses on age, in particular, the so-called May-December romance.

Prime captures the romance of 37-year-old Rafi Gardet (Uma Thurman) and 23-year-old Dave Bloomberg (Bryan Greenberg), a couple of opposites. She’s a business professional with a posh, comfortable apartment. He’s an unemployed artist who lives in a room at his grandparents’ house. She associates with models and gallery owners. He hangs out with a guy who has never dated the same woman twice and regularly throws pies in the faces of former dates.

All the elements of a typical romantic comedy are here, including a disapproving mother (Meryl Streep as Dave’s mother, Lisa). Except this time the disapproving mother is also the girlfriend’s therapist.

As Rafi’s therapist, Lisa finds herself in an ethical dilemma when she learns that her patient is dating her son. And when Dave and Rafi discover that Dave’s mother is Rafi’s therapist, they feel quite uncomfortable about the situation.

This could have been a dingy, one-note comedy that turned into an extended gag. Instead, Prime attempts to examine some of the issues faced by chronologically mismatched lovers. Physical attraction plays a prominent role. Nearly every scene involving Dave and Rafi involves them ripping each other’s clothes off at some point. But the two are at different life stages, which makes both of them worry about the future of their relationship.

These topics are old hat, and the interactions between Dave and Rafi are seldom surprising. Fortunately, Dave’s mental voyages save the day by adding freshness and humor, and just when a viewer might think that she knows how Prime is going to end, the plot swerves onto another road. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (posted 10/28/05)



The Weather Man
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Hamlet was melancholy. Dave Spritz, a weatherman for a Chicago TV station, is agonizingly depressed. Whereas Hamlet found some enlightenment in his constant self-questioning, Dave finds none.

That, in a nutshell, is what the comic drama, The Weather Man is about — constant brooding with nothing learned as a result. Cheery this ain’t.

Nicholas Cage (The Lord of War) plays Dave, a middle-aged man who has lived his life in the shadow of his famous father, an award-winning novelist played by Michael Caine (Batman Begins).

Separated from his wife (Prime’s Hope Davis) and kids, Dave tries to put the best face on things. On camera, he’s an upbeat and personable celebrity. Off camera, he couldn’t be more different. Dour and morose, Dave is someone no woman would want to be married to. He, however, cannot figure out why his wife no longer wants nothing to do with him.

To make matters worse, his social skills are abysmal. At every opportunity, he says the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Dave finds some hope in his otherwise dismal life when an important job offer with a New York TV station comes his way. Now Dave must decide whether or not to take the gig that will further separate him from his family. Can one find happiness both personally and professionally?

Like Hamlet, Dave speaks in long soliloquies (as voice-over narration) as he tries to figure out where he went wrong. Mostly, he just can’t see the deep flaws that lie squarely within.

Screenwriter Steve Conrad clearly has some interesting things on his mind and his dialogue is often memorable. (One ongoing gag makes Dave the regular target of resentful people throwing fast food at him, a phenomenon he chalks up to living in the spotlight.) Problem is, we’re so turned off by this character that we pay little attention to what he’s saying. It’s like when an irate parent is lecturing us. We tune out.

Director Gore Verbenski (Pirates of the Caribbean, The Ring) obviously wants to establish himself as a filmmaker worthy of more than popular escapist fare. He and Conrad go for the dark comic tone that has been successfully achieved in recent years by filmmaker Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Sideways.) Their efforts aren’t nearly as fruitful.

But The Weather Man does have some fine performances. Cage and Davis are both fine, and Caine is heartbreakingly real as a man who loves his son and is deeply disappointed in him at the same time.

The forecast: Gray and gloomy. (R) Rating: 3 (posted 10/28/05)



The Legend of Zorro
Reviewed by Deborah Young

If movies were students, The Legend of Zorro would definitely be a class clown. This second film in the franchise features lots of acrobatics, an overstated musical score and lines that give new meaning to the word ridiculous.

The first scenes play out with the hyper-energy of hip-hop dance sequences. Zorro (Antonio Banderas) swings through the air and somersaults across dusty roads. At one point, the masked one flings his hat Frisbee style and knocks a scarred gunman named McGivens (Nick Chinlund) off his horse. With this simple, bloodless act, Zorro stops McGivens from shooting into a crowd of innocent people.

McGivens wants to hamper the election that precedes California becoming part of the American union. Unfortunately, this villain’s transparent motivation is the only motivation in the film that’s fully explained. The film’s other villain, Armand (Rufus Sewell), hates America (although it’s unclear why), and he’s devised a plot to bring the country to its knees (although it’s unclear exactly how he plans to execute his plot). Zorro just wants to protect his town and America.

The whole enterprise centers on the ideals of loyalty to family, community and country. So “legend” is a very appropriate descriptor in the moniker of this film. The Legend of Zorro tells a tall tale a testosterone-driven hero who fights hard, drinks and loves his woman and child. In everyday life, the hero masquerades as the cultured family man Don Alejandro de la Vega. But when his people need his help, he dons a mask and becomes the fearless Zorro.

Zorro’s love for his ex-wife Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) gives him another reason to go after Armand. While attending a party thrown by Armand, Zorro discovers the wealthy gentleman is dating Elena. Zorro winds up getting drunk and vowing that he’ll entice his estranged wife back to him. “Nobody leaves my Tequila worm dangling in the wind,” he tells the somewhat amused Armand.

And just as Zorro always devours his Tequila worm, his son Joaquin (Adrian Alonso) commits his small frame to every battle that comes his way. Unaware of his father’s second identity, the lad seems determined to be the family hero.

Alonso is the best thing about this film. His insolence and physical agility are a pleasure to watch, and he appears a natural fighter. By contrast, everything Banderas and Zeta-Jones do comes off as staged and stiff, and they lack chemistry with each other.

However, those who love the Zorro character will probably get a kick out of this action-packed piece of cinematic nonsense. (PG) Rating: 2.5 (posted 10/28/05)




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