reel reviews
movie reviews
December '06

THE GOOD SHEPHERDDREAMGIRLSWE ARE MARSHALL
NIGHT AT THE MUSEUMSWEET LANDTHE HISTORY BOYSROCKY BALBOA
THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESSERAGONCHARLOTTE'S WEBCANDYBLOOD DIAMOND
AMERICAN HARDCOREAPOCALYPTOTHE HOLIDAY
THE BEAUTY ACADEMY OF KABUL
THE NATIVITYTURISTAS

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

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The Good Shepherd
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The Central Intelligence Agency is often viewed as cold, calculating and enigmatic organization where pragmatism trumps ethics and emotions are inherently absent.

Perhaps it is appropriate that Robert De Niro’s film about the CIA, The Good Shepherd, is cold, calculated and enigmatic. Matt Damon plays its main character, and he could be described in much the same way.

While it may be an apt approach, this sense of detachment prevents viewers from establishing any emotional connections with the characters, greatly blunting this intelligent film’s impact.

The Good Shepherd unfolds like a sweeping epic reminiscent of The Godfather saga. Clocking in at 167 minutes and told on several temporal levels, the story gives a sweeping overview of the development of the spy agency by focusing on the activities on one man.

Damon (The Departed) plays Edward Wilson, one of the CIA’s original agents. Wilson has a background that makes him an ideal candidate for his position. The son of a military man, Yale graduate and member of the secret Skull and Bones society, Wilson is a patriotic man with connections who knows how to keep a secret.

Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Wilson witnessed his father’s suicide while still a youngster…and has been emotionally guarded ever since. While in college, Wilson is befriended by an FBI agent, played by the always-reliable Alec Baldwin (The Departed). The smart but stoic Wilson is asked to spy on his poetry teacher (Michael Gambon from The Omen), who may be a Nazi sympathizer. Thus, Wilson’s cloak-and-dagger career begins.

From there, we watch Wilson’s life unfold as he reluctantly marries a debutante he’s impregnated (Angelina Jolie) and is recruited by a General Bill Sullivan (De Niro) to work with British spies during WWII.

As a spy, he quickly learns that no one can be trusted. With cards held so closely to his chest, Wilson seems incapable of establishing emotional connections. This detachment costs him dearly in his relationship with his wife and son.

Once the war is over and the USSR looms as a threat, the CIA is formed and General Sullivan once again calls on Wilson to serve his country. The film concentrates a lot of time on the Cold War and Wilson’s relationship with the rival KGB.

Screenwriter Eric Roth (Munich) has provided a sound, perceptive script and De Niro’s direction is sure-handed. Plus, the movie establishes an effective sense of zeitgeist. But the film is achingly slow-paced and is never as absorbing as it wants to be.

But the real problem with The Good Shepherd lies in Damon’s character. There is precious little offered to give us insight to his inner life and we can’t relate to any of his motives. Therefore, we simply don’t care about what happens to him.

If Roth and De Niro are asking us not to care, they’ve succeeded. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 12/22/06)


Dreamgirls
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When it opened on Broadway in 1981, the musical Dreamgirls was a smash. The award-winning play about a Supremes-style vocal group had a toe-tapping score, a vibrant cast and dazzling production values.

Director Michael Bennett knew what he was doing when he emphasized pizzazz over storytelling. The show needed some dazzle to overcome the soapy script.

Director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) took a cue from Bennett and made sure the same elements that made the stage version a success were exploited for his big screen adaptation. Happily, his efforts have paid off.

Dreamgirls is a comic drama set during the early1960s when the Motown sound was beginning to develop. While it is a fictional story, it closely follows the saga of Motown founder Barry Gordy, Jr. and his tumultuous relationship with Diana Ross.

Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx (Ray) leads the cast as Curtis Taylor, Jr., a car salesman and slick entrepreneur. Taylor is convinced that a fortune could be made if African American music could be packaged in a non-threatening way and marketed to white audiences.

One of his early acts is a girl group he spots singing backup vocals for a Detroit R&B singer, James “Thunder” Early, played by Eddie Murphy (Daddy Day Care). Taylor manages to wrest control away from Early’s manager, Marty Madison (The Shaggy Dog’s Danny Glover) and concentrates his efforts on re-packaging (and wooing) the ladies.

The distressingly melodramatic elements of the story are offset by a pleasing pace, great production values, engaging music and some genuinely dynamic performances. But the play lives or dies on the strength of one performance.

In the Broadway version, Jennifer Holliday stopped the show with the transitional number, And I am Telling You, I’m Not Going. It’s an aggrieved soliloquy delivered by a woman spurned.

Thankfully, American Idol castoff Jennifer Hudson is given the chance to perform that song in the role Holliday originated. She nails it, knocking out the back wall of the theatre with her powerful, heartfelt rendition. She’s a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination.

Murphy also gives a strong performance and pop star Beyonce Knowles is able to overcome some of the awkwardness she demonstrated in her previous films, The Pink Panther and Austin Powers in Goldmember.

Although contemporary movie audiences aren’t used to the artificial conventions of the musical, Condon skillfully eases us into the numbers so that it isn’t jarring when characters start singing “out of the blue.”

Dreamgirls is a rousing, crowd-pleasing extravaganza that is the sort of thing Oscar lives for. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 12/22/06)


We Are Marshall
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Hollywood appears determined to use sad flicks inspired by real events to make us shed a few cleansing tears before the year ends. Viewers whose eyes remained dry after Bobby and Pursuit of Happyness might still find occasion to shed some tears while watching We Are Marshall.

The movie focuses on a town and university in crisis. A plane crash has just claimed the lives of most of Marshall University’s football team, coaches and some fans and supporters.

A few remaining players want to build a new team to honor the fallen athletes. University leaders consider finishing the year without a team, and the town struggles with its collective grief.

But a group of outspoken students and the remaining players from the original Marshall University team win a campaign to rebuild the team. The university hires an eccentric coach (Matthew McConaughey as Jack Lengyel), and he recruits and begins training a new team. Unfortunately, the new players are younger than most in the NCAA and very inexperienced.

We Are Marshall runs slightly over two hours. Most of that time is committed to showing Coach Lengyel’s efforts to build a winning team (or at least a team that wouldn’t lose all of its games). There’s plenty of footage of the new team practicing and playing.

The rest of the film is devoted to capturing the emotions of the grieving town.

We get a glimpse of the mixed emotions of Red Dawson (Matthew Fox), an assistant coach who through a last-minute change of plans happened not to be on the fallen plane. Dawson agrees to help with the new team but is conflicted about whether the team honors or disgraces the memory of the deceased players.

Then there’s Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie), one of the few remaining players from the original team. Ruffin’s determined to lead the new team to at least one victory in spite of injuries that make playing painful for him.

Into these grieving lives comes the whimsical Coach Lengyel, who solicits the help of unlikely allies to build a new team. His exuberance exceeds optimism as he seeks a winning strategy for the lackluster team and deals with opposition from some of the town’s bereaved citizens.

McConaughey breathes life into the eccentric coach. In fact, his presence on screen enlivens the entire enterprise. Likewise, Nate Ruffin turns in a powerful, nuanced performance as a grieving but determined player.

Overall, We Are Marshall suffers from too much melodrama and too much footage of the inexperienced team practicing. This movie has heart and at least two memorable performances, but it lacks a strong script and a cohesive story. It turns out to be one part soap opera and one part sports flick wannabe.

Still, We Are Marshall will undoubtedly elicit a few tears. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 12/22/06)

Visit http://www.marshall.edu/library/speccoll/virtual_museum/Memorial/ to read about the real story of the fallen Marshall University team.


Night at the Museum
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If one could grant an award for “best premise,” an argument could be made that Night at the Museum should be so honored.

A comic fantasy aimed squarely at the kids, Night at the Museum deals with the exhibits at Manhattan’s Museum of Natural History. At night, you see, they magically come to life.

Ben Stiller (Meet the Fockers) plays Larry Daley, a down-on-his luck divorced dad who has a hard time keeping a job. A perennial screw up, Larry is in dire need of a job so that he can retain visitation rights with his young son.

The museum (in downsizing mode and eager to have some of its elderly employees retire) has an opening for a night guard. This innocuous job seems to fit Larry’s limited skill set, so he gives it a try.

On his first night, Larry meets the geriatric trio he’s replacing. One is the affable Cecil (Dick Van Dyke), another is the irascible Gus (Mickey Rooney) and the third is the laid-back Reginald (Bill Cobbs).

Cecil takes Larry on a tour of the premises and informs him of the routine. At one point, Cecil warns him, “It can get a little spooky at night, so you might wanna put a few lights on. The most important of all to remember, don't let anything in or out.”

Out?

Yes, as Larry quickly learns, a curse from an ancient Egyptian tablet causes everything at the museum to spring to life at night. Not only must our bungling hero contend with the gigantic T-Rex skeleton and the stuffed wild animals that roam around looking for prey, but also he has to avoid the wrath of the dioramas.

Attila the Hun rampages along with the Neanderthals while the tiny models of cowboys (led by Owen Wilson) and Roman soldiers (led by Steve Coogan) battle one another. Along with trying to keep the peace, Larry has to keep them indoors. If any of them are outside at sunup, they turn to dust.

Although the chaos nearly drives poor Larry insane, he’s aided by the encouragement of the wax model of Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams).

While the direction by Shawn Levy (Cheaper by the Dozen) and script (adapted from Milan Trenc’s book by Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon) are strictly standard, the production values are top notch. When things get reanimated, they provide an eye-popping visual delight.

But there is precious little here for anyone over 9 years old, so see if you can get someone else to accompany them. Better yet, take them to the museum. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted 12/22/06)


Sweet Land
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Ideally, serious cinematic work should challenge us, take us places we’ve never been before or cause us to look at an issue in a way we’ve never previously considered.

But sometimes, what we really want is a movie to confirm and reinforce our worldview. If you believe in the inherent goodness of people, and that hard work and honesty will ultimately allow you to win out in the end, then Sweet Land is the movie for you.

Directed by novice filmmaker Ali Selim, Sweet Land has a somewhat austere, European flavor. While it is unlike most American films, one could argue that its heart is squarely in the heartland.

Selim’s screenplay, based on the short story A Gravestone Made of Wheat by Will Weaver, is a very well crafted one that tells a sentimental story that is blissfully devoid of treacle.

The plot exists in three time frames. One section takes place in the present and involves a young man who must decide what to do with the family farm after his grandmother Inge (Lois Smith) passes on. Via flashbacks, he remembers the day years earlier when his grandfather died. While mourning her husband, Inge recollects her experiences decades earlier as a new arrival in America.

Most of the film’s action takes place in the 1920s and involves Inge (now played by Elizabeth Reaser from The Family Stone) and her difficult life as a mail order bride. Arriving in rural Minnesota lugging a gramophone and a wrinkled photo of her husband-to-be, Inge has no idea of what she’s in for.

Inge meets her intended, Olaf, played by Tim Guinee (Ladder 49). An immigrant from Norway, Olaf is painfully shy and has only a tenuous command of the English language. Inge, a German, has no grasp of the language at all.

Although they establish a cordial relationship, the Norwegian-American community views Inge with suspicion. After all, America fought the Teutonic hordes in the Great War. The local minister, Minister Sorrensen (John Heard) refuses to marry them.

While awaiting an opportunity to marry, the duo lives together (he sleeps in the barn and she in the house) and tends the farm. This shameless situation makes them the target of indignation. They also have to contend with the local banker (Ned Beatty) who is taking advantage of poor farmers and usurping their properties one-by-one.

The actors, especially Reaser, are impeccable. Although it’s extremely slow moving, the movie captures a real sense of the time and place and never rings false.

A pleasant surprise, Sweet Land has modest aims and clearly exceeds them. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 12/22/06)


The History Boys
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

There is a right way and a wrong way to seduce underage boys. You can manually grope them in the crotch while they ride on the back of your motorcycle, or you can subtly befriend them, win their affection and then take them out for drinks.

The former method is merely harmless horseplay. The calculating technique is the preferred approach. That appears to be the unintended (?) message in the new film, The History Boys, a coming-of-age story set at a 1980s English prep school.

This disappointing film is an adaptation of the hit play that re-teamed playwright Alan Bennett and director Nicholas Hynter who had previously collaborated on the hit, The Madness of King George.

The film uses the same cast that appeared in the acclaimed National Theatre production that Hynter directed. The production also received six Tony Awards including Best Play for its Broadway incarnation.

So, ethical quibbles aside, what went wrong?

Reportedly, the movie was filmed at a breakneck pace during a five-week shoot while the actors were busy appearing in the National Theatre production. But that alone doesn’t quite explain why the film lacks emotional resonance.

The rotund and jocular Richard Griffiths (Venus) repeats his Tony winning performance as Hector, the school’s long-time “general studies” teacher who emphasizes the popular arts. He also is the one with roving hands.

Hector’s students are stressed out over their rigorous preparations for exams that will determine whether or not they’re admitted to Cambridge or Oxford. Hector is equally anxious about whether or not he’ll be admitted into their drawers.

The school’s headmaster (broadly overplayed by Clive Merrison) decides to hire a coach to help the boys with their difficult test preparations. Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore in a lifeless performance) emphasizes practicality and pretense over honesty and genuine knowledge. Naturally, he’s the sly pedophile.

The titular boys give solid, if somewhat stagy performances. Unfortunately, their characters don’t have much time to develop beyond single dimensions.

The movie’s best performance comes from veteran Frances de la Tour (The Cherry Orchard) as the boy’s prickly history professor, Mrs. Linott. She’s sensational, deftly handling some of Bennett’s spicy lines.

So, with good actors and an intelligent script (reportedly based upon Bennett’s personal experiences), why isn’t the movie more successful? Perhaps the biggest problem with The History Boys is that it always seems like a theatrical piece in spite of Hynter’s use of open space and hand-held camerawork. Sometimes plays just don’t translate well to the big screen.

If one can get by the obvious apologetics, The History Boys can be viewed as a mildly amusing slice of British educational life. (R) Rating: 2.5(Posted 12/22/06)


Rocky Balboa
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Those words certainly can be applied to the approach that Sylvester Stallone takes for his return to the franchise that made him a household name. In the sixth (and, hopefully, final) film of the boxing fantasy, Rocky returns.

For the 1976 classic, Rocky, Stallone earned an Academy Award for Best Screenplay and the movie shuffled off with the Best Picture Oscar. (While Rocky isn’t in the same class with the movies it beat out — All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver, Network and Bound for Glory — it certainly was the popular favorite.)

The series got progressively sillier as it went on, but stuck closely to the formula. The underdog faces a seemingly insurmountable challenge, goes through rigorous training, and triumphs in a long, climactic boxing match.

In Rocky Balboa, our hero has aged considerably and taken some financial hits. He’s still living in Philadelphia and running a restaurant where he endlessly repeats stories of his glory days to the eatery’s patrons.

He’s somewhat estranged from his son, who grew up in his dad’s formidable shadow. His brother-in-law, Paulie (Burt Young) is reluctantly facing forced retirement. And Rocky is lonely.

Adrian (Talia Shire seen only in flashbacks) has passed away and Rocky spends most of his time visiting his late wife’s gravesite and talking with her about his problems.

One day, a cable sports channel airs a computer fantasy match that pits Rocky (in his prime) against the current champ, Mason “The Line” Dixon, played by Antonio Tarver. (Tarver is a real-life boxer who appeared on TV’s The Contender and is a former light heavyweight champ.)

When Rocky wins the make believe computer bout, Dixon and his handlers are enraged. As a publicity stunt, they approach Rocky with the idea of an exhibition match. They figure that the publicity will be good for their fighter and give him something to do while he’s waiting for a real contender to challenge him. Rocky seizes the opportunity and…well you get the idea.

In reality, a man of Rocky’s age wouldn’t last long against a champion in his prime. But, hey, this is the movie fantasy set in a world where anything can happen.

Stallone’s script has its share of clichés and is aware of its limitations. But once you hear Bill Conti’s famous theme music kick in, it’s hard not to get caught up in the movie’s ebullient spirit.

Rocky 7, anyone? (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted 12/20/06)


The Pursuit of Happyness
Reviewed by Deborah Young

A person’s life story may be inspirational. But it’s how the story is told that determines whether it becomes a great book or movie.

Pursuit of Happyness (adapted from the autobiography of the same name) is the cinematic version of Christopher Gardner’s story. In the early 1980s Gardner was a homeless single father. His life changed when he won an internship with Dean Witter Reynolds in 1981.

In reality Gardner was in his late 20s at the time. But on the big screen, Gardner (played by Will Smith) appears much older. His hair is graying, and he wears the weariness of time and disappointment on his face.

This cinematic version of Gardner is both bland and predictable. He rarely gets upset and seldom complains as he drags his son and belongings around San Francisco from apartment to hotels to shelters.

Although the story has the ability to inspire, the filmmakers have failed to focus on a few potent scenes that will bring the story to life. Instead, the movie rambles (often aimlessly) for nearly two hours through Gardner’s struggles.

Smith does an adequate job of playing Gardner, and his son Jaden (as Gardner’s five-year-old son, Christopher) is cute and often funny.

But the best thing about this film is the setting. We see San Francisco in its splendor and shame. We get many scenes of Chinatown, which Christopher goes to preschool. And the most touching scenes are those in which hoards of homeless people stand in line waiting for space in a shelter. Hundreds are turned away.

Likely many people will gravitate to this movie because of its inspiring story. I wish it had been told better. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 12/15/06)


Eragon
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Eragon is “dragon” with the letter “e” substituting for the “d”. It sounds like the kind of thing that a 15 year old would come up with.

Well, that’s exactly what’s happened. A 15-year-old novelist named Christopher Paolini penned the sword and sorcery fantasy and its sequels and found himself atop the bestseller list. Naturally, after the success of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a cinematic version of Paolini’s stories was a certainty.

The resulting flick, Eragon, plays like a reworking of the basic plotline of Star Wars. While George Lucas heavily borrowed from other sources, too, Paolini’s story so closely follows the Luke Skywalker tale that one might wonder whether a lawsuit is forthcoming.

Consider the similarities: Eragon (played by newcomer Edward Speelers) is a teenager raised in an isolated area by his uncle. He was placed there as protection from the grip of an evil ruler who has illegally gained power through the use of dark forces. Eragon has the force…or, that is to say, the innate power to do magic and communicate telepathically with dragons.

Problem is, all the dragons have been killed off by the evil ruler. But one last dragon egg finds its way to our youthful hero, and, with the aid of an Obi-Wan Kenobi-type mentor named Brom (Casanova’s Jeremy Irons), Eragon learns to harness and utilize his powers.

Of course, there is a powerful Darth Vader-like wizard that Eragon must contend with. Durza, played by Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty), has captured a Leia-type princess named Arya, played by Sienna Guillory (Love Actually). If Eragon is to save the day, he must first rescue the pretty princess from the clutches of the dark lord.

While all this is, of course, derivative, the film is magnificently produced and visually stunning. That’s probably because its novice director Stefen Fangmeier is a special effects expert who perfected his skills on films like Dreamcatcher, Signs and Lemony Snicket.

But Fangmeier has yet to learn about dramatic resonance and pacing. His movie looks good but doesn’t flow or build the kind of tension it needs to make the narrative work.

What does work is Iris, the dragon. Not only is she a visual marvel, the voice is skillfully provided by Oscar-winning actress Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener).

Any quibble may be a moot point to the book’s legion of fans. For that matter, the movie’s target audience of boys aged 12 and under will probably enjoy its middling thrills. (PG) Rating: 2.5(Posted 12/15/06)


Charlotte's Web
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

E.B White’s timeless classic, Charlotte’s Web has been captivating children since it was first published in 1952. Filmmakers attempted to replicate the book’s magic in a fitfully successful animated movie that appeared in 1973.

A new live action version faces the same hurdles as the previous effort. It attempts to be charming and, on a modest level, achieves some success.

Dakota Fanning (War of the Worlds) is arguably our best child actress. She leads the cast as Fern Arable, the daughter of a farmer (Kevin Anderson), who talks her dad out of disposing of a runty piglet.

Keeping him as a pet, Fern names the wee piglet Wilbur and raises him on a bottle. When he gets a bit bigger, he’s sent a short distance away to her uncle’s farm where he’s to be fattened for slaughter as part of the Christmas feast.

Upon his arrival at his new home, Wilbur meets the residents of the barnyard. Along with the horse, cows and ducks, Wilbur meets an unusually clever spider named Charlotte. They become fast friends, and Charlotte uses her wiles in an attempt to save Wilbur from his inevitable fate.

The voice cast includes Julia Roberts as Charlotte, Robert Redford as Ike the horse, Oprah Winfrey as Gussy the goose, John Cleese as Samuel the sheep and Kathy Bates and Reba McEntire as cows Bitsy and Betsy. But the voice accolades must go to Steve Buscemi as the slimy rat, Templeton.

After the success of the live action/computer generated version of White’s Stuart Little franchise, Paramount must have figured that producing Charlotte’s Web was a no-brainer. Utilizing the computer-aided wizardry that made the talking farm animals from Babe seem so realistic, the studio folks have crafted a fantasy that works well as a visual treat.

The computer-generated imagery is so good here that it is sometimes hard to tell when the animals are real and when they’re created out of bits of bytes. The special effects coexist seamlessly with the live action world.

Although White’s book had 192 pages, many of them were taken up with illustrations. This is a short story that should have been told in a half hour, or at a maximum, one hour. Stretching it out to feature length (97 minutes) means that the film has a very sluggish pace that may turn many youngsters off.

But many little girls will love Charlotte’s Web. Only a Grinch would knock its gentle message of tolerance. (G) Rating: 3 (Posted 12/15/06)


Candy
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Drug addiction is bad and those caught in its web face a world of hurt.

If you have yet to learn that simple message, then the new Australian drama Candy should do the trick.

Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain) stars as Dan, a young man who manages to often seem carefree in spite of the fact that he’s got a giant monkey on his back. He’s an aspiring writer who first experiments with heroine for its “mind-expanding” properties.

Dan’s girlfriend is a pretty art student named Candy, played by Abbie Cornish (A Good Year). Pulled willingly into Dan’s world of drug abuse, Candy tries shooting up and nearly dies. She then immediately asks for more.

Befriended by a chemistry professor named Casper (Munich’s Geoffrey Rush), the drug-addled duo has little difficulty finding ways to score some pharmaceutical diversions. Seeing Casper as a kindly uncle type, Dan and Candy fail to see the consequences of this unhealthy friendship.

In spite of the fact that both of these people are smart, good-looking and full of promise, their lives quickly devolve as their only concern is scoring the next hit. When Casper proves to be an unreliable source of funding and all of their resources are tapped out, Dan turns to petty thievery and Candy becomes a prostitute.

While Candy’s mom strongly senses that this duo is doomed, her father puts on blinders. When Candy tells her parents that she’s pregnant, the news is a delight to Candy’s dad and a horror to her mom. (Veteran Australian actors Noni Hazlehurst and Tony Martin acquit themselves quite nicely as Candy’s tortured folks.)

As you might guess, things don’t get much better. The script — adapted from Luke Davies’ novel by the author and the film’s director Neil Armfield (Twelfth Night) — is divided into three parts titled “Heaven”, “Earth” and “Hell”. The plot closely follows that checklist of descent.

Ledger is excellent as the young man whose feelings of self worth are eroded not only by his addiction, but by the realization of what his actions have done to Candy.

Young Cornish, who has received two Australian Film Institute awards as Best Actress, is a revelation. The reasons for Candy’s self-destructiveness aren’t initially clear, but thanks to an outstanding performance by Cornish, we come to a reluctant understanding of her pain.

The biggest problem with the movie is that it is so unrelentingly grim. Yes, it’s appropriately dour, but audiences will want to throw in the towel long before our addicts do.

Still, Candy is a skillfully acted film that stands as a starkly effective cautionary tale. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 12/15/06)


Blood Diamond
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Of the recent films set in Africa (such as Catch a Fire, Hotel Rwanda and Tsotsi), Blood Diamond most resembles Hotel Rwanda. Both films manage to zoom in on the compelling stories of individuals and pull back to expose the big picture of a nation in conflict.

Blood Diamond exposes harsh realities of the conflict diamond trade through the experiences of a diamond smuggler (Leonardo DiCaprio as Danny Archer), a journalist (Jennifer Connelly as Maddy Bowen) and a victim of revolutionaries (Djimon Hounsou as Solomon Vandy).

At the beginning of the movie Solomon is a happy family man in Sierra Leone. He has a wife, two daughters and a son. In an early scene Solomon jokes with his son, feigning shock that his son has the audacity to want to attend school every day.

But soon the rebel army known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) captures Solomon and forces him to mine diamonds to support their rebellion against the government. Solomon’s wife and daughters become refugees, and his son becomes one of the RUF’s many child soldiers.

While mining diamonds Solomon finds a valuable pink diamond and buries it. Then he escapes the RUF and, in his quest to find his family, he becomes involved with the fast-talking Danny Archer and the hungry journalist Maddy.

Each character’s desires are as transparent as glass. Danny wants Solomon’s diamond. Maddy wants an exposé about the smuggling of conflict diamonds, and how “reputable” jewelers in western countries ultimately buy them. Solomon wants his family back.

The filmmakers capture these characters’ desires through their actions mostly. The dialogue is spare.

The trio is on the move throughout the movie. As they travel toward the place where Solomon buried the diamond we see hoards of people running to escape bombs and gunfire. We also get a glimpse of the RUF’s training tactics with its child soldiers.

Director Edward Zwick skillfully juxtaposes images of lush green African terrain with horrid images of human brutality (children blindfolded and forced to shoot people and bodies lying dead in the streets). And the three lead actors succeed in losing themselves in their characters.

Ultimately, Blood Diamond is a rare find, an action film with a conscious. The script does not bludgeon us about the evils of conflict diamonds. Instead it uses witty dialogue and charming, tragic characters to evoke questions to which many concerned viewers will likely seek answers long after leaving the theatre. (R) Rating: 4.5(Posted 12/15/06)


American Hardcore
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

As with many things in life, you either get it or you don’t. Surely that is true of punk rock. Not the music, which can be invigorating and frenetically exciting, but the “scene,” the “hardcore scene”.

The new documentary American Hardcore attempts to be an overview (can we actually call it “nostalgic?”) of the hardcore punk scene in the USA during the feel-good Reagan years.

Through amateur video footage, news clips and talking head interviews, director Paul Rachman and writer Steven Blush explore the brief period in the 1980s when American kids took inspiration from British punk and turned it into an anarchist musical movement.

Basing the narrative on his book of the same name, Blush tracks down some of the key players of the short-lived period, many of whom are now middle-aged and sporting receding hairlines and potbellies.

It would be an understatement to say that these people held society in contempt. These folks made up the disaffected youth who survived the hormonal, drug-fueled frenzy that filled some kind of undetermined emotional void.

But this isn’t a movie about the development of punk and makes no effort to explain the roots of the music. It’s more interested in exploring the chaotic nature of the specific timeframe when bands like Black Flag, Circle Jerks, D.O.A., Flipper, Gang Green, Jerry's Kids, MDC, Minor Threat, Poison Idea, 7 Seconds, SS Decontrol, TSOL and Zero Boys ruled.

While Henry Rollins talks a bit about his experiences as the famous front man of Black Flag, it is the African-American hardcore punk band called Bad Brains that gets most of the attention.

All of the participants speak in nearly hushed tones when referring to the Bad Brains, extolling their unmatched musicality, frenetic performances and sophisticated lyrics. But no amount of third person praise can convey whatever power and influence this band might have had.

While the film gives us some performance footage (and, blissfull, occasional subtitles so that we can make out the lyrics), it never manages to convey what all the fuss was about.

Fans who already have some background knowledge may have a better grasp of the significance the era had. For all their efforts, the filmmakers fail to capture and impart a true sense of why this movement was important. As an historic overview, however, it is modestly successful.

What comes through loud and clear, however, is that these punks were angry and dissaffected…and boy do they miss it. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 12/08/06)


Apocalypto
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Mel Gibson is now better known for his recent drunk driving arrest and anti-Semitic tirade than he is as an actor and filmmaker.

If you think that his run-in with the law demonstrates that he’s got some demons to work out, just wait until you see Apocalypto, his stunning new film that sets a new Hollywood standard for violence.

Set in pre-Columbian Mexico, Apocalypto is a harrowing chase movie and revenge flick, reminiscent of films like The Most Dangerous Game and The Naked Prey. Both are stories about humans hunting other humans.

Cast with a mostly amateur cast of indigenous peoples of the Americas, Apocalypto is a visually amazing movie, shot almost entirely in the Mexican rainforests. If nothing else, Gibson’s epic allows us to visit a time and place that have been lost forever in the mist of time.

Written by Gibson and Farhad Safinia, the story involves a peaceful jungle tribe living a somewhat idyllic existence in harmony with nature. Their world is turned upside down by an invasion by Mayan warriors who are looking to pillage and take slaves back home for nefarious reasons.

Rudy Youngblood leads the cast as Jaguar Paw, a member of the humble hunting tribe. His world is literally destroyed by the invading vandals who violently subjugate his people. Although he is captured, he manages to hide his pregnant wife and small son in a deep forest hole, vowing to return and rescue them.

The Mayan’s, you see, have some problems. Not only have their crops been faring poorly, but also there is a horrible plague that is infecting the land. From their point of view, the only way to solve this problem is by sacrificing humans to the sun god until his thirst for blood is satisfied.

The actors deliver their dialogue in what is presumed to be an ancient dialect, so Gibson’s words are shown as subtitles. It doesn’t need much translation, however, as the movie is made up of nearly all-breakneck action.

The film is beautifully produced and photographed, making wonderful use of the jungle setting and a painstakingly re-created Mayan city. Viewers are totally immersed in this eerie foreign landscape.

While Gibson introduces some intriguing ideas and hints of spirituality, the movie degenerates into a far-fetched chase flick that, wittingly or unwittingly, prods us to tap into our base desires for revenge. It’s ultimately a highfalutin’ art house reworking of the themes from Death Wish.

But it is the emphasis on horrific violence that overtakes Gibson’s high-minded aspirations and torpedoes some remarkably directed sequences. This film should have received an NC-17 rating for graphic gore.

Mel, the doctor will see you now. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 12/08/06)


The Holiday
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Some people find the term “chick flick” to be condescending. They see it as a way to dismiss films that appeal mainly to female audiences.

There may be some truth in their concern, but it is hard to imagine a better way to characterize the work of filmmaker Nancy Meyers.

The writer/director is responsible for estrogen-drenched fare like What Women Want, Something’s Gotta Give and Baby Boom. If there were a poster child for the “chick flick” movement, it would definitely be Meyers.

Her latest opus is The Holiday, a romantic comedy that takes place in a world that only exists in Hollywood fantasy. It’s designed to give you the warm fuzzies and provide an escape into a world that you wish you lived in.

Cameron Diaz (In Her Shoes) stars as Amanda, a wealthy Hollywood denizen who makes her living by editing movie trailers. After breaking up with her no good boyfriend (Edward Burns from The Sound of Thunder), she decides that it’s time to take a vacation.

Surfing the web, she discovers a site where people offer a temporary “house swap,” an arrangement allowing folks switch locales for a limited time. She decides to go to England to stay in a quaint cottage offered by Iris, played by Kate Winslet (All the King’s Men).

Iris, also having romantic woes, jumps at the opportunity to travel to the West Coast and stay in Amanda’s luxurious mansion during the Christmas holiday season.

Naturally, both women have brief encounters with men they meet while staying at one another’s home. But, of course, there are plenty of bumps in the road along the way.

The men who get involved in the romantic whirlwind are Iris’ mysterious brother, Graham, played by Jude Law (All the King’s Men) and Miles, played by Jack Black (Nacho Libre), a Hollywood film composer.

The movie also has a sweet, but unnecessary subplot involving one of Amanda’s elderly neighbors who is befriended by Iris. Veteran character actor Eli Wallach (The Misfits, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) plays a retired Hollywood screenwriter who is reluctant to receive a lifetime achievement award. (Coincidentally, Wallach was just so honored by the National Board of Review.)

Many viewers will undoubtedly get swept up into the sentimental world that Meyers has created. A likable cast, especially Winslet, makes Meyer’s often-hackneyed dialogue seem credible. Their personal appeal elevates the film considerably.

But Meyers’ movie is way too long, clocking in at 138 minutes…a half an hour after wearing out its welcome.

But all this is of little concern to fans of the genre. The Holiday will provide them with a winsome yuletide escape. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 12/08/06)


The Beauty Academy of Kabul
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The Taliban inflicted unfathomable misery upon the women of Afghanistan when the religious zealots took power over the country in 1996. During their rein, women were subjugated in ways that Westerners find hard to comprehend.

The documentary, The Beauty Academy of Kabul may seem like a trifling movie at first glace. After all, it’s only about the establishment of a cosmetology school in the Afghan capital after the Taliban were forcibly removed from power by American forces.

But there is more to this movie than what immediately meets the eye. It is a simple, straightforward film about some American and British volunteers who donated their time to set up the titular school. This is a film that is as much about the triumph of the human spirit as it is about the superficial world of makeup and hairstyling.

Director Liz Mermin (On Hostile Ground) takes her camera along as a charitable group called Beauty Without Borders sets up an institute to train would-be Afghan beauticians. Told without narration, the movie allows us to be flies on the wall as the good will gestures unfold.

Along the way, we meet several Afghan women who were among the few chosen by lot to participate. It seems that there were many women eager to shed their burkas and create a bit of glamour in their lives.

Perhaps the most moving aspect of the film can be found in the simple joy the participants experience by being able to pursue their avocation without fear of reprisal. While we hear some horrific stories of life under the Taliban, these women tell them with a matter-of-fact bluntness and without self-pity. It’s as if they’ve simply decided to put it all behind them and move on.

The film gives us only a hint at the circumstances that proceeded the fall of the Taliban, but provides plenty of stark graphic evidence of what years of war have done to the city of Kabul. Around the beauty school is a world in ruin, a landscape where hardly a single building stands that hasn’t felt the impact of years of bombardment.

Surprisingly, we learn that many of the women had clandestine beauty shops operating out of their homes. Many women, even the wives of Taliban officials, would get their hair and makeup done to wear under their burkas.

While women’s rights in Afghanistan are still are medieval compared to the Western world, The Beauty Academy of Kabul shows that immense gladness can be found in the smallest of advances. (No MPAA rating) Rating: 3 (Posted 12/08/06)


The Nativity
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Near the end of the holiday TV classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas, our titular hero expresses his frustration at the seasonal hubbub that emphasizes shopping, decorating and other assorted trivial pursuits. He screams out, “Does anyone know what Christmas all about?”

The new film The Nativity Story attempts to answer that question. Blissfully lacking mention of Santa Claus, reindeer and nutcrackers, this new film is a well-produced drama that tells of the birth of Jesus as told in the biblical book of Luke.

Astonishingly, this reverent film comes from Catherine Hardwicke, the production designer-turned-director who earlier gave us the nervy R-rated films Lords of Dogtown and Thirteen.

Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) stars as the Virgin Mary, the young woman who is chosen by God to bring his only begotten son to humanity. Not only is the pregnant young woman the subject of familial shame, she must cope with the anger of King Herod (Ciarán Hinds from Munich), who has heard the prophesy of a coming messiah and commands that all Jewish children be killed.

Plus, the nasty Roman tax collectors make life even more difficult.

Luckily, Mary’s fiancé, Joseph (Oscar Isaac from All About the Benjamins) is a very understanding fellow. In a dream, an angel tells him that the Holy Spirit has impregnated Mary and that he should continue with their wedding plans.

The film features a parallel story, that of the three wise men, Melchior, Balthasar and Gaspar. We follow their travels as they follow the star in the East, providing the film with its only venture into comic relief.

Castle-Hughes has the unenviable task of playing a sinless person. Fortunately, she takes the Greta Garbo approach, subtly underplaying the role to allow the audience to project their own feelings and notions onto the teenage girl.

The wonderful Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo (The Lake House) is also memorable as Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, the woman who takes in the young Mary and believes her story.

Screenwriter Mike Rich (Finding Forrester) provides an earnest and faithful adaptation, sticking very close to the source material as well as the accepted legends that have developed around the story of Jesus’ birth over the years.

As befits the work of an art director, The Nativity is a beautifully rendered production that strives to tell a fantastic story in a realistic way. It’s a visually arresting and stirring adaptation that will appeal to the faithful and provide some perspective for skeptics. (PG) Rating: 4 (Posted 12/01/06)


Turistas
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

For those who can’t get enough of the gore provided by flicks like Saw and Hostel, Tinseltown has come through for you once again. Turistas is the first release from Fox Atomic, the “edgy” new arm of the venerable studio.

The flick has the distinction of being the only Hollywood studio film ever made entirely in Brazil. It is doubtful, however, that the Brazilian Chamber of Commerce and Bureau of Tourism are particularly happy about the outcome.

A cheaply made horror entry from director John Stockwell (Into the Blue), Turistas deals with a group of American, Australian and British tourists who wander a bit too far off the jungle trail…and pay a very big price. It seems that the old wives tales about organ harvesting are actually true.

Josh Duhamel (TV’s Las Vegas) plays Alex, an American tourist who has been coerced in to a trip to Brazil by his sister, Bea (The Girl Next Door’s Olivia Wilde). She and her friend Amy (Guess model Beau Garrett) are the adventurous type. When their bus overturns in the remote Brazilian countryside, the trio hooks up with some other, equally clueless sightseers.

Luckily, one of them speaks Portuguese. An Australian named Pru (Melissa George from The Amityville Horror) speaks with the natives and finds out about a nearby pub. She leads the Americans and a couple of Brits (The Hills Have Eyes’ Desmond Askew and Fallen Angels’ Max Brown) to the bar where they proceed to get smashed.

After awaking from their stupor, the group discovers that all of their money and possessions are gone. Pru befriends a local teenage boy who tells them of his uncle’s house a short distance away. They follow the young man into the jungle, much to their dismay.

Naturally, their lives are in danger. Not only do they nearly drown in a series of caves they have to swim through, but also the “uncle” runs an operation where he removes body parts for sale on the black market. Yes, it’s a memorable but unhappy trip. (This is not too much exposition, as any viewer will see it all coming anyway.)

With the exception of a grisly scene where one of our misguided globetrotters is eviscerated on the operating table, Turistas isn’t overly gory. Essentially, it is a seemingly endless chase scene where the vacationers are trying to get away from someone.

First time screenwriter Michael Ross and director Stockwell mix elements from a handful of other, better horror flicks, filling their opus with timeworn clichés. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 12/01/06)


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