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December '05


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Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When filmmaker Stephen Spielberg gets serious, good things happen. While a master of cinematic fantasy, his movies that are grounded in reality are often solemn, intriguing and socially relevant. Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan are among the best films of the last 20 years.

Munich is a fictional account of how Israel’s intelligence forces dealt with the aftermath of the 1972 tragedy in which eleven Israeli athletes were abducted and murdered by the terrorist organization, Black September. While this is a work of fiction, Spielberg creates such a strong sense of reality that some sequences have a near documentary feel.

In telling this story, Spielberg has employed hand-held, digital photography for the first time. This technique has allowed him more flexibility in creating an intense and credible atmosphere.

Eric Bana (The Hulk) stars as Avner, a young man trained as an operative for Moussad, the Israeli intelligence agency. After the terrorist incident that claimed the lives of the athletes, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Maier (Lynn Cohen) decides that the deaths must be avenged. She has her advisors draw up a plan, and she asks for Avner, whose father was once in her employ.

Avner gets the assignment, but since this operation would work outside of international law, he’s all but cut off from the government. Aside from getting Israeli money and some intelligence data, he and his band of covert operatives are on their own.

He assembles a small unit that consists of him and four other men (Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler) with differing talents that will aid their efforts.

Spielberg opens the film with a harrowing and credible reenactment of the terrorist attack. The sense of reality that he establishes in this sequence carries over into much of the rest of the film. He also uses various European locations to great advantage.

The script by playwright Tony Kushner and Eric Roth (based on the book Vengeance by George Jonas) is really all about the moral dilemma involved. Yes, Munich is a thriller, but the filmmakers want us to ponder whether or not this enterprise was warranted, what it accomplished and how it affected the individuals involved. We’re left to decide if Israel has compromised its stated values by engaging in this operation.

While arresting, Munich is far from perfect. It is overlong and sometimes preachy. There are repetitious scenes where Spielberg can’t seem to resist the temptation to hit us with a point he’s already effectively made. (Perhaps he’s become so successful and powerful that none of his collaborators are willing to tell him that the movie is in need of some judicious editing.)

Additionally, we learn very little about the people involved. The movie may have had more emotional impact if we more invested in the characters.

In spite of these flaws, Munich is a strong and purposeful movie. Unlike much of Spielberg’s output, this film matters. (R) Rating: 4 (posted 12/23/05)

Memoirs of a Geisha
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Ever see a great slugger knock the cover off of the ball, but because of the prevailing winds, an unusually deep outfield wall or an extraordinary effort by a great fielder, what might have been a homer instead drops into the glove for an out?

That’s the feeling one might get from seeing Memoirs of a Geisha, the film adaptation of Arthur Golden’s best-selling novel.

By providing sumptuous production values, focusing on extraordinarily beautiful women and establishing a strong sense of time and place, Memoirs of a Geisha has gone a long way toward its goal of being a romantic blockbuster. It’s too bad that there are some nagging flaws that prevent it from getting there.

Directed by Oscar-winning director Rob Marshall (Chicago), Memoirs of a Geisha stars Ziyi Zhang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) as a young girl who is faced with a hard life as she is forced to become an “artist.” (That is the literal translation of “geisha”.)

The story involves Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo), a 9-year-old girl from a tiny Japanese fishing village, whose poor parents sell her and her sister to the matron of a geisha house. Sad, lonely and stripped of her free will, Chiyo must learn to accept her fate and make the best of a bad situation.

One day, Chiyo meets a kind gentleman called Chairman, a wealthy businessman played by Ken Wantanabe (The Last Samurai). Accompanied by beautiful and poised geishas, Chairman is moved by Chiyo’s sad face. He treats her to the Japanese equivalent of a snow cone and gives her some money in a handkerchief. Smitten by this elegant man, Chiyo decides to dedicate herself to becoming a great geisha.

But Chiyo must overcome some obstacles. A harsh and demanding woman named Mother (Kaori Mamori) runs the geisha house, and Chiyo is basically an indentured servant. She has become so indebted to Mother that she will never be able to pay her off.

To make matters worse, her beauty has aroused the enmity of the house’s top geisha, Hatsumomo, played by Gong Li (Ju Doh). Luckily, a rival geisha named Mameha (Michelle Yogh) has offered to pay Mother off and train Chiyo herself.

Chiyo is renamed Sayuri (now played by Ziyi Zhang), and begins a long and arduous series of adventures as she prepares to offer her virginity to the highest bidder, whom she hopes will be Chairman. (The whole geisha tradition appears to be one extremely prolonged session of foreplay as the women learn to sing, dance, play instruments, dress and serve in order to become as alluring to the men as possible.)

The actresses are stunning, making the most out of their superficial characters. But the heavy accents are sometimes problematic. (This would have been better in Japanese with subtitles.) Plus, the melodrama is laid on pretty thick giving the whole affair an uneasy feel of artificiality.

The beautiful images of Memoirs of a Geisha get it to the left field wall, but its elements of affectation keep if from getting out of the park. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (posted 12/23/05)

Fun With Dick and Jane
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If you’re going to have the word “fun” in your title, you’d better make sure that you deliver.

While this remake of the 1977 Jane Fonda/George Segal satire provides brief moments of amusement, it is a largely labored and rambling affair.

In Fun With Dick and Jane, Jim Carrey plays Dick Harper, an up-and-coming executive at a company called Globodyne, a highly leveraged corporation run by Jack McCallister (Alec Baldwin) and Frank Bascom (played by the ubiquitous Richard Jenkins, who can be seen in three current films).

One day, Dick is called to the executive offices where he’s promoted to vice president of communications. The jubilant Dick tells his wife (Téa Leone) to quit her job because they’ve finally hit the career jackpot.

Dick’s first job as VP is to appear on a cable financial news show. Once he’s on the air with the host and commentator Ralph Nader, Dick finds out some disturbing news. His company is on the brink of default and he’s been made a patsy.

McCallister, who has been systematically selling off his stock, flies off in his corporate helicopter leaving the demise of the company on Bascom’s shoulders. When Dick arrives back at the office, workers are frantically shredding documents and slowly figuring out that their pensions are going up in smoke.

Without any means of support, Dick and Jane are at their wits’ end. After months of struggle without any luck finding new jobs, the duo turn to a life as petty thieves, eventually turning to bank robbery. Yes, although they’re inept in this department, they manage to turn their fortunes around the same way that McCallister did…through theft.

Most of the humor is derived from Dick and Jane’s misery. Once they’ve grown a conscience and attempt to turn the tables on McCallister instead of holding up coffee shops, the movie ceases to be a comedy and morphs into a sting operation.

Carrey is an actor with the kind of intense imagination that lends itself best to broad, over-the-top antics. While his contributions are often quite clever here, these efforts aren’t quite enough to breath life into this mostly ponderous movie. While Leone is appealing, she really isn’t given enough to do.

The filmmakers obviously were aiming at social commentary. (The closing credits give special thanks to a litany of infamous corporate executives from Enron, WorldCom, etc.) But Fun With Dick and Jane is too broad to be taken seriously and not funny enough to be effective satire. If just isn’t very fun. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (posted 12/23/05)

The Producers
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When Mel Brooks’ musical version of his 1968 movie comedy The Producers hit Broadway in 2001, it became one of the biggest box office successes in theatrical history. It also won a record-setting 12 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

After the success of the movie version of the musical Chicago, it was inevitable that a film adaptation of The Producers would follow suit.

Chicago won a number of Oscars, including Best Picture. There’s no danger of that happening here. (Incidentally, Brooks’ screenplay for the 1968 version of The Producers won him the Oscar. It was his first movie.)

While often funny, Brooks’ extravagant musical opus has some serious problems that will prevent it from making the same mark as Chicago. In a sense, it’s just too true to itself.

Brooks is responsible for the book (with Thomas Meehan), music and lyrics for The Producers and served, appropriately enough, as producer. He wanted the movie to serve as a filmed record of the play, so that it would be available to those who were unable to see the stage version.

Well, he got his wish. It’s just too bad that a play isn’t a movie.

Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick reprise their stage roles as Max Bialystock, a smarmy theatrical producer, and Leo Bloom, a meek accountant. When looking over Max’s financial records, Leo realizes that more money could potentially be made from a flop than a hit. All the producer would need to do is raise more money than needed, and when the play closed, he would have an excuse not to return the investors’ money.

The shady Max talks Leo into going through with the scheme, and the duo seek out the worst script, worst director and worst cast possible in order to ensure that their show bombs on opening night.

Choreographer Susan Stroman directs the movie version of The Producers, the same role she had with the play. Her brilliant, endlessly clever staging of the play won her many deserved accolades. For the film, she is slavishly true to the original…and that’s a big problem.

What plays well on stage (broad humor, exaggerated gestures and wildly flamboyant staging) often comes off as forced and labored on the big screen where everything is already blown up to gigantic proportions.

The cast is certainly having fun. Lane and Brodrick are an amusing team, while Uma Thurman and Will Farrell are quite funny in supporting roles. Roger Bart and Gary Beach are a scream as an outrageously effeminate gay couple.

While The Producers is overlong and far too theatrical to be a complete cinematic success, it has enough laughs and memorable moments to make it a bawdy holiday diversion. Rating: 3 (PG-13) (posted 12/23/05)

Rumor Has It...
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When characters in a movie continually invoke the name of a classic film, you invite comparisons. Rumor Has It…can’t quite live up to the association it provokes.

The premise is intriguing. The titular rumor involves an affluent Pasadena family that, if the gossip is true, was the inspiration for the book and classic film, The Graduate.

Jennifer Anniston stars as Sarah Huttinger, a smart and cynical young urban professional who has never felt that she fit in with her own family. Now living in New York with her fiancé, Jeff (Mark Ruffalo), Sarah reluctantly returns to Pasadena to attend her sister’s wedding.

She eventually learns that her late mother had an affair with a fellow named Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner) just before marrying her dad. She’s convinced that this mysterious man must have been her biological father. She decides that she must meet him in order to determine the truth.

To her further astonishment, she learns that Beau had also had an affair with her grandmother Katherine, played by Shirley MacLaine. Although Katherine tries to dissuade Sarah from seeing Beau, she persists and tracks the successful businessman down at a hotel meeting.

When Beau manages to convince Sarah that he is not her father, she is somewhat disappointed. Still, she likes him and is ultimately attracted to him. They also begin an affair, providing Beau the bragging rights of having slept with three generations of the same family.

Anniston has never been more attractive, especially stunning in a ball sequence where she’s dressed in ‘40s fashions. She also seems much more at home in this role than she did as the femme fatale in her most recent flick, Derailed.

Costner is solid as Beau, exuding an air of success and poise that makes Sarah’s attraction to him seem quite natural, in spite of their age difference. Old pro MacLaine plays the kind of woman who makes grown men shake in their boots. She knows just how to deliver Katherine’s caustic lines.

But the script doesn’t give any of them that much help. While the premise offers hope, the screenplay can’t quite deliver the goods. The attractive cast buoys this opus, making it seem better than it is.

Director Rob Reiner (When Harry Met Sally) came to this troubled project after it was well under way. He had no control over the cast and crew, except for recruiting an old friend, Kathy Bates, for a cameo role.

The biggest problem here is that Rumor Has It… fails to live up to the standard of the film it constantly calls to mind. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (posted 12/23/05)

Cheaper by the Dozen 2
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In 1948, the brother-sister duo of Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth published a memoir of their unusual childhood called Cheaper by the Dozen. The book became a bestseller, was adapted into a popular play and finally a charming film in 1950 that starred Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy.

The parents of this large Gilbreth brood were Frank, Sr. and Lillian, two decidedly remarkable individuals. Not only did they have lots of kids, they were famous efficiency experts and inventors (the electric mixer, the trash can with a foot pedal opener). The techniques they developed through “motion study” are utilized on assembly lines to this day.

That brings us to Cheaper by the Dozen 2, a sequel to the 2003 comedy that had nothing in common with the original story except the title. The makers of the update felt that the best way to make a successful family film was to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Instead of a brilliant dad, we were given an idiot dad. Instead of charm, we were given slapstick.

Sadly, they were right. The silly modern version of Cheaper by the Dozen made over $138 million at the box-office. You don’t need any other reason for a sequel than that.

Steve Martin is back as Tom Baker, a former college football coach who has taken other work to be closer to his family. (Just what he does now to support his clan is never mentioned.) His lovely wife, Kate (Bonnie Hunt) is remarkably svelte for someone who has hatched a dozen little Bakers.

On a final family vacation before some of the elder kids (Hillary Duff, Piper Perabo, Tom Welling) move away, the gang heads to a favorite spot, Lake Winnetka. With the exception of their creaky cabin, the area has been privatized and gentrified since they last spent a holiday there. The public clubhouse is now a country club.

Tom’s lifelong rival, Jimmy Murtaugh (Eugene Levy) is a multi-millionaire who has bought up most of the land around the lake. A fierce competitor, Jimmy soon challenges Tom and his family to try to defeat his disciplined clan in the big Labor Day competition.

There isn’t a moment of originality in this innocuous, by-the-numbers product, and the considerable comedic talents of Martin, Hunt and Levy are utterly wasted.

Surprisingly, the movie has some touching moments, but viewers who aren’t susceptible to sentiment may feel that they been hit with a sledgehammer of sweetness.

It is dismaying, but not surprising that scripts for a possible third installment have been neatly typed. (PG) Rating: 2 (posted 12/23/05)

Wolf Creek
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Movies that open at Christmastime are generally family friendly fare or action spectacles designed to appeal to a wide audience.

That means, one would suppose, that Wolf Creek is counter-programming.

A sadistic, grisly and off-putting horror entry, Wolf Creek is supposedly inspired by a true story of some young campers who were terrorized by a crazed psycho in the Australian Outback. (I suspect that the Australian Tourist Board will decline to give this one its seal of approval.)

Written and directed by newcomer Greg McLean, this slasher flick aims to repulse, and on that count it succeeds beautifully. After all, that’s all it has going for it.

The film opens with an ominous, if exaggerated claim: “Each year 30,000 Australians go missing. Almost none are found.” (I doubt that deranged murderers eviscerate most of them, but the point is well taken.)

Two cute British tourists, Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and (Kristy (Kestie Morassi) are doing their backpacking thing when they meet up with a hunky Sidney boy named Ben (Nathan Phillips). Sparks fly between Liz and Ben, and they decide to travel together a bit.

Ben rents an old clunker and the trio journey into extremely remote areas where, of course, they have a breakdown. A fellow named Mick (John Jarratt) comes to their rescue in a big truck, volunteering to tow them to safety. Instead of taking them to a nearby town, they wind up at Mick’s desert compound, a series of corrugated shacks.

Mick, the old jokester, drugs them, ties them up and begins to torture them to his unending delight. Judging by the dozens of rotting corpses in his tool shed, picking up tourists to slice and dice them must be his primary hobby.

Wolf Creek is the sort of sleazy fare that appeals to the basest instincts we possess. Yes, it will effectively creep you out, if that’s you’re idea of entertainment.

The movie illustrates a troubling trend in horror film today. When filmmakers lack the talent to create suspense through story, editing and camerawork, their substitute is gore.

Sure, there are gory films that have some depth. (Se7en immediately springs to mind.) But the gore in Wolf Creek and others of its ilk (The Devil’s Rejects, House of a Thousand Corpses) lay it on thick because they have no other means to move us. Without the violent, gruesome images on screen, Wolf Creek would be an utter bore.

Happy holidays. (R) Rating: 1 (posted 12/23/05)

King Kong
Reviewed by Deborah Young

One hundred and eighty seven minutes is a long time to sit in a theatre staring at a screen (unless you’re one of those people who thinks a long run-time means getting more for your money). But the latest King Kong remake manages to be entertaining for most of its 187 minutes, even though it has its share of problems.

The movie plops us in the middle of the Great Depression. A greedy movie producer (Jack Black as Carl Denham) risks everything to put a crew, actors (Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow and Kyle Chandler as Bruce Baxter) and a famous playwright (Adrien Brody as Jack Driscoll) on a ship and set out for an uncharted isle known as Skull Island.

On the ship we learn the main characters’ idiosyncrasies. Bruce Baxter is a self-centered, egotistical action hero who can’t seem to stop looking at himself in the mirror. Carl Denham is a money-hungry entrepreneur who’s determined to make a name for himself by any means necessary (including compulsive lying). In contrast, Ann Darrow and Jack Driscoll are quiet, thoughtful people who love theatre and who wound up on a ship headed for who knows where through some twist of fate.

Humor and a little mystery pull viewers through the shipboard scenes. But soon after the ship docks, the creepy oversized insects and prehistoric animals take over, and the movie starts to drag as the mere mortals battle super bugs.

Even if you haven’t seen previous King Kong movies (which include the original in 1933 and a 1976 version), you’re probably familiar with the image and idea of the gargantuan ape that falls for the fair-skinned, blue-eyed beauty. But this rendition is at its best in the few scenes that feature the ape and the pasty-faced heroine sitting quietly together or engaging in horseplay.

It’s pure fantasy and at times a bit hokey (especially when King Kong shakes Ann around like a sugar-driven tot shaking a skinny Barbie). However, King Kong has its sweet parts, its funny parts and its tear-jerking moments, despite the clichés of the story and the predictable characters.

Much of the time something seems to be missing from Jack Black’s rendering of his character. He’s not his usual hilarious self, but the lines are funny enough to elicit laughs and his deadpan delivery helps out at times. Also, the quirkiness that made Adrien Brody a refreshing option to mainstream in movies such as Restaurant and Ten Benny has been washed away here, but he still has enough subtlety of expression to be believable as a man ready to risk his life for love.

Watts is the weakest link, but her character is simply a prop anyway. The real star of this picture is that big ape. Because of him (and a few competent screenwriters), this version of King Kong will probably become a classic. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (posted 12/17/05)

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Some films can be an easy going ride. You can just sit back and let the movie wash over you. Syriana is not one of those movies.

A complex and compelling political drama, Syriana demands a viewer who is willing to remain engaged, alert and (heaven forbid) use their mind. That may be too much to ask for today’s moviegoers.

Written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Traffic, Syriana spins a web of intrigue involving big oil, big government and how the relationship between them affects foreign affairs.

While fictional, Syriana was “suggested by” ex-CIA agent Robert Baer’s nonfiction work See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism. The movie skillfully plays upon our post 9/11 paranoia and our growing suspicions about our government’s covert activities.

As in Traffic, Gaghan’s screenplay strings together several interrelated plot threads that weave together to tell a single story. They all intersect in ways that will keep audiences guessing and making assumptions about their eventual outcome.

George Clooney leads a large ensemble as Bob Barnes (loosely based on Baer), an aging, tired spy whose world-weary demeanor reflects a man who knows a lot and says very little. While a loyal soldier and a company man, Barnes finds himself in a situation that will demand that he make some moral distinctions that his job usually doesn’t require.

Matt Damon plays Bryan Woodman, a financial analyst who, as the result of a tragedy, becomes the confidant of a Middle Eastern prince. Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig) is progressive, hoping to break the pattern that keeps his oil rich nation perpetually buried in the Third World. Trouble is, his ambitious younger brother wants the throne, and he is in Big Oil’s pocket.

Yet another plot element focuses on young Muslim men who, through financial duress, come under the influence of extremist clerics who manipulate them into terrorist activism. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Wright plays a Washington lawyer who uncovers corruption while helping supervise a merger between two big oil companies.

Gaghan skillfully presents these stories (and more), and a terrific cast that also includes Christopher Plummer, Chris Cooper and Amanda Peete greatly aids his efforts.

The only problem is that there are so many characters and so many plot lines that the whole affair becomes a bit convoluted. At times, it’s hard to tell the players without a program.

But Syriana is as uncompromising as it is complex. A movie that generates intriguing post-movie coffee talk is all too rare. (R) Rating: 4.5 (posted 12/09/05)

The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Well, the “anti-Harry Potter” is finally here. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the big-screen adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ classic children’s fantasy. In keeping with its Christian themes, the emphasis is on light, not darkness.

Fans of Lewis’ books may have had some misgivings about the fact that this live-action film was to be directed by Andrew Adamson, whose only previous credits are the computer animated Shrek films. Thankfully, Adamson rises to the occasion, delivering an entertaining and engaging flight of fancy.

In fact, Adamson may have been just the right person for the job. After all, who would be better to make a movie about “the sons of Adam” than a guy named Adamson? But, more importantly he, like fellow New Zealander Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy), knows how to use computer-generated effects to enhance rather than overwhelm a story.

Lewis’ tale takes place during World War II. During the London blitz, four children from the Pevensie family are sent to a rural estate for their own safety. There, they discover an empty room with only a large armoire inside.

As they pass through the wardrobe, they enter the enchanted land of Narnia, a frozen world that is in perpetual winter due to a curse placed on it by the evil White Witch (Tilda Swinton).

The Pevenise children (two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve) are apparently there to fulfill a prophecy that would lead to the overthrow the witch. They find themselves allied with a mystical lion named Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), who is leading the resistance. Naturally, the White Witch and her evil henchmen will stop at nothing to thwart their efforts.

While Lewis’ stories are wonderful, their Christian symbolism is anything but subtle. Aslan is obviously a Christ figure and his self-sacrifice to save the kingdom reflects The Passion.

While one doesn’t have to subscribe to Christian theology to enjoy this elaborate fantasy, it probably helps. Certainly this movie will have an emotional resonance with Christians that the Harry Potter franchise lacks.

While the kids are fine, it is Tildon as the malevolent White Witch who takes the acting honors, and Neeson provides just the right sincerity and solemnity to the voice of Aslan. But the human actors take a back seat to the sensational CGI world that Adamson and Lewis have created.

While the battle sequences may be a bit too intense for toddlers, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is, nonetheless, a beautifully rendered family fantasy. (PG) Rating: 4 (posted 12/09/05)

Paradise Now
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

While movies serve largely as an entertaining escape from reality, some filmmakers stubbornly use the medium to make us face it.

Paradise Now is a film about Palestine suicide bombers. Like it or not, this phenomenon is one we ought to know about and this picture, in some small manner, helps us understand.

Filmed in Palestine by Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad and written by Abu-Assad and Bero Beyer, Paradise Now is an austere and sobering drama that is also quite even-handed in its presentation.

The story involves a couple of garage mechanics, Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) who are also lifelong friends. Like sleeper agents who wait to be called on, they simply live their lives until they get word that the time has come for them to make the ultimate sacrifice.

One day, that fateful call comes. They are to pass into Israel and blow themselves up along with as many people as they can possibly take with them. The movie then follows them through their preparations, ceremonial dinners and video farewells.

To the filmmakers’ credit, their protagonists are not fanatics. These are human beings who have grave doubts about their actions. Through dialogue between them and with others, both the pro- and anti-bombing viewpoints are carefully delineated. There is no point of view being imposed here, only an explanation of viewpoints.

The evening before he is to die, Said visits a young woman with whom he may have become romantically involved. Suha (Lubna Azabal), born in Morocco and raised and educated in France, is the daughter of a respected Palestinian leader. Although she has returned “home” to Palestine, she has Western ideas that give Said pause.

Abu-Assad uses an interesting device to allow the bombers to explain themselves while adding a little comic relief. As Khaled is making his video, he reiterates the reasons for his actions. A technical glitch causes him to have to re-record a number of times. As he does, the speech seems mechanical and unconvincing. Finally, he leaves a message with his mother that includes a shopping tip.

When Suha gets wind of what Said and Khaled are up to, she becomes the character who presents the anti-bombing argument. Her compelling contention is that the bombing not only takes innocent lives but also ultimately perpetuates the violence.

The movie takes some twists and turns that further muddy the waters. What viewers ultimately come away with is a better understanding of the frustration and discontent that leads to “senseless” violence. That is a reality we must all face. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (posted 12/09/05)

First Descent
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Extreme sporting events continue to grab the attention of young moviegoers. The latest example is First Descent, a documentary about extreme snowboarding.

Serving as both an overview of the development of the sport and a chronicle of a particular adventure, First Descent showcases five snowboarders, a couple of aging pioneers and some heavily sponsored teens, as they embark on a 12-day excursion to conquer the steepest mountain slopes in remote parts of Alaska.

This is the sort of thing that one would usually see in a 40-minute production on an IMAX screen. That, it would seem, is just as it should have been.

Directors Kemp Curly and Kevin Harrison (producers of MTV Prom Date) have made seemingly made two movies.

One is a modestly interesting look at how snowboarding evolved out of the counter-culture (read: punk) and skateboarding movements that date back to the 1970s.

Snowboarders were, not so long ago, vilified by skiers and not allowed on most ski slopes. (Their abusive behavior alienated them from many and made them heroes to others.) Now, they’re X-Game stars making extreme money.

The other movie deals with the snowboarding trip in Alaska. The common link between these two films is a single character, Shawn Farmer. This forty-year-old boarder from Jefferson City, MO was one of the pioneers of the sport and has been known as a no-holds-barred rebel. The other riders include young bucks like Shaun White, Terje Haakdnsen and Hannah Teter, and their guide, Nick Perata.

Perata and a helicopter pilot take these daring athletes to 7,000-foot Alaskan peaks to let them ride down slopes of powder so sheer and steep that you can hardly believe your eyes. Some of the footage is truly spectacular…even awe-inspiring.

Perhaps these adrenaline junkies are crazy to take these risks, but their skills are so well honed that they make these extreme jumps appear to be child’s play.

But the filmmakers make the mistake of letting their characters talk too much. There is so much idle chitchat that the film often slows to a crawl. Yes, their observations are occasionally interesting, but let’s face it; these people aren’t exactly Rhodes Scholars. Often their dialogue consists of, “That was gnarly” or “Wow, cool.”

The filmmakers would have been well advised to concentrate on the extreme footage and use some extreme editing on the rest. While the action is heart stopping, the rambling talking heads are momentum stopping.

First Descent would have made a great short subject. As it is, the astounding aerial scenes are enough to make it a mildly entertaining feature. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (posted 12/02/05)

In the Mix
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Although he has appeared in films before in supporting roles (Light it Up, She’s All That, etc.), R&B superstar Usher has never starred in his own cinematic vehicle…until now.

One might suppose that the studio would be anxious for critics to see such an opus in order to give it additional publicity. Not so in this case. Critics were kept away from advanced screenings of this romantic comedy and, as you might have guessed, this is always a bad sign.

In the Mix (formerly titled Dying for Dolly) features Usher as Darrell, a popular nightclub disk jockey who has a family link with the Mob. His father, you see, worked in a restaurant owned by New York Mafia kingpin named Frank (Chazz Palminteri). Darrell grew up playing with and becoming friends with Frank’s kids, Dolly (Emmanuelle Chriqui) and Frank Junior (Anthony Fazio).

After literally taking a bullet for Frank when a gangland war erupts, Darrell stays at Frank’s home to recuperate. Dolly, home from law school, needs to be protected. She chooses Darrell for the role. Reluctantly, her father agrees.

So…the handsome African-American Darrell spends night and day with the beautiful Italian American princess. Naturally, a romance ensues. Daddy is none too pleased.

This is the setup for a middling romantic comedy that seems quite content with exploiting clichés about Italian Americans while being very cautious not to offend others. While it isn’t heinous, it hasn’t a believable moment.

Strangely, there is little music in the film. Even the music in the nightclub scenes is largely covered over by dialogue. Even though this isn’t a musical, it would be safe to assume that you’d hear Usher perform a tune or two. After all, isn’t that why fans are expected to buy their tickets?

As a leading man, Usher has a certain appeal, although if he has acting chops, they’re not put to the test in this innocuous effort. Chriqui (Wrong Turn) is lovely, but like Usher, there is nothing here to challenge her.

Fazio has an amusing bit as an Italian kid who dresses and talks like a hip-hop wannabe, and rapper Deezer D wrings a few laughs out of his limited time as Darrell’s assistant deejay.

Director Ron Underwood (Tremors, City Slickers) has certainly had better days. Here, he’s saddled with a cliché-ridden script that few directors could improve upon.

Essentially, the studio was right. In the Mix is a movie that critics shouldn’t see. That can also be said of most of the rest of us. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (posted 12/02/05)

The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In 1955, a 14-year-old African American named Emmett Louis Till, a Chicago native, was visiting his relatives in the tiny town of Money, MS. While there, he made a fatal mistake. He whistled at a white woman.

The events that ensued there changed the nation forever.

While the story of Emmett Till is well known to many, the documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till attempts to bring it to a wider audience…and to promote some activism in Till’s memory.

After the whistling incident, two armed white men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, showed up on doorstep of Emmett’s uncle. They took Emmett and disappeared. His body was later found in the Tallahatchie River, bound with barbed wire and tied to a heavy machine fan.

Autopsies showed that Till was brutally tortured before being killed, and all of the evidence for the crime led straight to Bryant and Milam. They were tried and acquitted by an all-white jury and later bragged about their guilt to Look magazine when they realized that they could not be tried again.

This miscarriage of justice outraged the African American community, galvanizing their resolve. Many cite the incident as the catalyst for the civil rights movement.

A long investigation into the case by filmmakers Keith and Kevin A. Beauchamp eventually led to a decision by the U.S. Justice Department to re-open the case. While Bryant and Milam are long dead, some believe that there are accessories to the crime that have yet to be pursued.

It was Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, who insisted that her son’s body be returned to Chicago and lie in state with an open casket so that people could see what had been done to him. This horrible sight helped bring the case additional notoriety.

The filmmakers use talking head interviews with a number of people who were in Money at the time of the incident, as well as a good deal of newsreel footage. Perhaps the most compelling footage is of Till’s elderly uncle, Moses Wright. He testified against the defendants and bravely stood and pointed to them in the courtroom…something that a black man simply didn’t do in those days.

The Beauchamps present all of these facts in a straightforward, no-nonsense fashion. While their filmmaking skills aren’t particularly notable, the subject matter has a power and gravity that propels the movie. Sometimes, as in this case, that is enough. (No MPAA rating) Rating: 3.5 (posted 12/02/05)

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