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The Woodsman House of Flying Daggers

A Very LongEngagement Ocean's 12 L.A. Twister Tarnation Dig

21 Grams Against the Ropes The Barbarian InvasionsBad SantaBeyond Borders Brother BearBubba Ho-Tep
Cheaper by the Dozen
The Company ElephantThe Girl with the Pearl Earring The Good BoyThe Gospel of John
Gothika House of Sand and FogIn America
In the CutThe Human StainKill Bill, Vol. 1
The Last SamuraiLove Don't Cost a Thing The Magdalene SistersMambo Italiano
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Matchstick MenThe MissingMona Lisa Smile
MonsterMy Life Without MePaycheckPeter PanRed BetsySecret WindowShattered Glass
The Singing Detective
Something's Gotta Give Stuck on YouSylviaThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Timeline TorqueTupac: ResurrectionUnderworldVeronica Guerin
Welcome to Mooseport
Win a Date with Tad HamiltonWonderlandThe Young Black Stallion

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

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The Woodsman
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

How about this for your first film? Take on a real challenge and try making a movie about a sympathetic pedophile.

That seemingly impossible task is just what novice filmmaker Nicole Kassel has attempted with The Woodsman, the tale of a serial child molester who tries to go straight.

Kevin Bacon stars as Walter, a troubled middle-aged man who has just spent the past 12 years behind bars for repeatedly carrying on inappropriately with preteen girls. On parole, he takes a job at a lumberyard with his past indiscretions known only to his boss (David Alan Grier).

Although he tries to adjust to a new life walking the straight and narrow, Walter is still wracked with guilt and walks with his head low. (To make matters worse, he is not quite sure if he can squelch the impulses that put him behind bars in the first place. Renting an apartment across the street from a school playground is just asking for trouble.)

So, enjoying a relationship with another adult is probably out of the question. After all, he’s a bit of a hermit and utterly unwilling to talk about himself with others.

Vicki (played by Bacon’s real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick) sees this shy loner as a romantic challenge. A tough, seen-it-all forklift driver, Vicki can’t imagine that there is anything about Walter that she can’t handle. So she goes on the offensive and they begin a relationship...but one that lacks full disclosure.

Naturally, everything won’t be rosy in this scenario. The complications that Walter encounters (prejudice and vigilante persecution seem inevitable) may be more than anyone could endure.

Bacon is extremely effective as Walter, displaying a desperate desire to conquer his inner demons while seeming resigned to a long and bitter battle. Sedgwick is equally impressive as the woman who tries to look for the good in him even as she is repulsed by his deeds. Mos Def also scores as Sgt. Lucas, a policeman assigned to keep an eye on Walter. He is of the opinion that they should throw away the key with guys like Walter.

Steven Fechter’s script is intelligent and thought provoking while declining to give any easy answers. As director, Kassel doesn’t do anything flashy, opting for a low-key approach.

The uneasiness the movie generates is sometimes hard to bear, especially in an excruciatingly uncomfortable scene between Walter and a young girl he chats with in the park.

While unnerving, The Woodsman is nevertheless a competently made and sobering drama. (R) Rating: 3 Posted 1/15/05


House of Flying Daggers
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

For years, Hong Kong had the lock on martial arts films. The kinetic, action-packed karate flicks churned out by the Hong Kong’s movie factories were more than a match for the rollicking Westerns that Hollywood generated in its heyday.

But these action pictures were seldom viewed as art, either by audiences or the moviemakers. Yes, they were visually arresting and boasted incredible stunt choreography, but they rarely had any depth or artistic significance.

Now, Mainland China is getting into the act and the martial arts film is taking itself a bit more seriously. Hero, the mythical epic that became the biggest hit in Chinese film history and also enjoyed a triumphant box office run in the US, helped to cement that change.

Some said that director Zhang Yimou, one of the world’s finest filmmakers, went slumming when he decided to make Hero. His career had been in a slump and he needed the boost. That may be so, but he gave Hero a profundity that few martial arts films could rival.

His follow up is House of Flying Daggers, a visually sumptuous romantic costume drama that just happens to involve a lot of martial arts. Although it lacks the poetic aspects of Hero, it is a banquet of ocular delights.

The story takes place in ancient China during the Tang Dynasty. Two government policemen, Jen (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Ley (Andy Lau) are embroiled in an ongoing conflict with the titular group, a gang of rebels who are bent on overthrowing the oppressive government.

In an attempt to infiltrate the group, Jen sidles up to a beautiful blind prostitute named Mei (Zhang Ziyi) who is actually a phenomenally skilled assassin. Jen helps her escape from prison and then protects her as they attempt to meet up with the rebels. But things are not what they seem in these convoluted relationships. So...forget the plot. It’s all mythology and overwrought opera anyway. (Some may see the film’s melodramatic excesses as overkill.)

Zhang’s approach differs wildly from most martial arts pictures. Although he gives us plenty of action (there is a memorable “Echo Game” scene in a brothel and a stunning attack staged in a bamboo grove), he’s less interested in the kinetic buzz, laying back a bit to capture a more epic sweep.

Although it is a few notches below Hero, The House of Flying Daggers is memorable in its own right. Enjoy it as eye candy and, like an abstract painting, just try to take it all in. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5; Posted 1/15/05


 

A Very Long Engagement
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In the eyes of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, war may be hell, but life itself is heaven.

That is the inescapable conclusion that one comes to when considering Jeunet’s visually spectacular and unnervingly whimsical WWI film, A Very Long Engagement.


This stunning yet unblinking adaptation of Sebastien Japrisot’s acclaimed novel may very well be the best film of 2004. (The equally spectacular Chinese martial arts epic Hero was actually a 2003 release, making it ineligible for this honor.)

A Very Long Engagement
may seem like an odd title for a war film, but it is an apt one. Much of the story deals with the lengthy search that a young crippled girl named Mathilde (Audrey Tautou, Jeunet’s adorable waif from Amelie) embarks upon to find her missing fiancée, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel).

Manech, you see, was one of a handful of French soldiers who wounded themselves in an attempt to escape the horrors of war on the front lines. When they received a court martial for their cowardice, they were set loose for a certain death in no man’s land.

Something impels Mathilde to believe that Manech is still alive, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Her efforts to find him provide the narrative backbone to Japrisot’s tale, even though numerous, interesting subplots abound.

One of these subplots involves an infertile soldier (Jean-Pierre Darroussin from Red Lights) and his efforts to have a friend impregnate his wife (played in impeccable French by Jodi Foster!) so that he can get out of duty.

Another deals with a ruthless hooker named Tina (Marion Cotillard) who works just as hard to exact revenge for her lover’s death as Mathilde does to find Manech.

Jeunet’s camera is constantly alive and in motion, without ever succumbing to the dizzying effect that lesser filmmakers are prone to. He also utilizes a lot of special effects to achieve the magic realism that is essential to his vision. He uses them, however, in a way that the cinematic gods intended. They support the story.

In spite of the sunny, almost giddy disposition that Jeunet displays, he doesn’t downplay the ugliness of armed conflict in any way. In fact, some of the scenes are quite grisly. (This is, after all, about the “war to end all wars.”) But the film is also infused with plenty of humor, which tends to temper what could be an overwhelming sense of despair.

Jeunet is a proponent of a commodity that is rare these days: hope. (R) Rating: 5; Posted 12/22/04

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Closer
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

It’s not surprising that Closer, Mike Nichol’s new film, has critics and academy members whispering accolades.

It’s a character driven film. There are plenty of tense dramatic scenes, and there are four powerhouse actors emoting pain, tension and sadism. Yet, the film never truly makes an impact. Closer may be a moving film, but it never quite justifies it’s own existence.

The film follows four unlikable people desperately looking for some sort of intimacy. Each selfishly pursues his or her happiness while recklessly disregarding the happiness of the other three. We view one “two-person” scene after another, and watch the four chisel away at each other’s humanity until they are all suitably wrecked.


The performances are strong. Jude Law portrays Dan as insecure, untalented and unsure about how to look after himself. Natalie Portman’s Alice is confident and stalwart, and yet she seems destined to be walked over. As Larry, Clive Owen gives the richest performance as a sexually insecure dermatologist. Owen convincingly portrays a mild-mannered man who transforms into a heartless emotional assassin when anything threatens his sexuality.


The weak link in the ensemble’s chain is Julia Roberts. Her portrayal of Anna is surprisingly lifeless, and her scenes considerably slow the pacing of Closer. Roberts’ choice to take such a brooding approach is surprising, since it doesn’t quite fit with the dialogue and actions of her character.
Director Mike Nichol’s early films are treasures that will forever live in the annals of film history, but in the last twenty years his movies have all been flat and seem terribly dated. Movies like Regarding Henry, Wolf, Primary Colors, and Postcards from the Edge all received fair reviews when they came out, but now gather dust at video stores across America.

These later works do not hold up well because Nichols tends to pursue drama for drama’s sake instead of trying to infuse his work with any significant content. Closer is no exception. The film certainly is dramatic and most scenes pack an emotional punch. Yet directors like Peter Greenaway and Mike Leigh have examined sexual politics and cruelty with results that are significantly more profound.

In short, the question “Why should I care?” is never suitably addressed. (R) Rating: 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

The Machinist
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Without question, the most discussed aspect of the new psychological thriller The Machinist will be the physical transformation of its star, Christian Bale (American Psycho).

Bale’s dedication to his art is undeniable, although his judgment may be called into question. To realistically portray his character, Bale put his own health at risk by losing 63 pounds, bottoming out at less than 120 pounds. That’s dangerously thin for a man well over six feet tall. (He reportedly wanted to lose more weight, but the filmmakers balked.)

To be sure, he looks the part. One of the film’s supporting characters says to him, “If you got any thinner, you wouldn’t exist.”

The only downside to Bale’s physical alteration is that it may actually distract from his terrific performance…and his work is the backbone of this disturbing drama.

Bale plays Trevor Resnik, a machinist in a nondescript plant in a nondescript city. He’s suffering from insomnia. (“I haven’t slept in over a year,” he admits to an incredulous acquaintance.)

But that’s the least of his worries. Trevor is very troubled but he can’t quite nail down the reason. He’s beginning to be hounded at work, he’s finding cryptic post-it notes on his refrigerator, and he keeps uncovering clues that lead him to believe that someone is out to get him. A mysterious co-worker named Ivan (John Sharian) is setting him up for a fall. He distracts Trevor so much that he accidentally cuts off the arm of another co-worker.

Trevor has only two friends, and he has a tough time confiding in them. One is a prostitute named Stevie, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh (Road to Perdition) whom he visits regularly. The other is an airport waitress named Maria (Altana Sanchesz-Gijon from I’m Not Scared), and he goes well out of his way to frequent her café.

But Trevor finds little comfort. His fears increase as he tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Is he actually being set up or is he a delusional paranoid?

Screenwriter Scott Kosar’s story may not be as clever as he thinks it is, but it does hold up under scrutiny. Director Brad Anderson, who made the cult creeper Session 9, tightens the tension screws with some skillful editing and camera work. But the eerie atmosphere that the film creates comes mostly from Bale’s brave performance.

Ultimately, The Machinist is all about Bale. As long as one isn’t distracted by his appearance, then the film can be an oddly effective character study. (R) Rating: 3


 

Undertow
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

It may seem like a copout to say that one’s reaction to a film is a matter of taste. But in the case of filmmaker David Gordon Green, personal taste is a litmus test.

Green’s previous films, George Washington and All the Real Girls were intelligent, realistic dramas made on a shoestring budget. What they lacked was a narrative. Green is more interested in characters and atmosphere than story. To his fans, he’s a poet.

His latest effort is Undertow, a gothic thriller that has a far more cohesive plot than his previous works. Still, his main concern has little to do with the storyline.

Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) stars as Chris Munn, a teenager who lives with his dad and younger brother somewhere in the backwoods of Georgia. He’s feeling his oats and is continually getting into trouble.

His dad, John (Dermot Mulroney from My Best Friend’s Wedding) cares for his boys, but is somewhat aloof since the death of his wife, Audrey. Perhaps that’s why Chris is closer to his 10-year-old brother, Tim (Devon Alan).

Things are shaken up considerably when John’s estranged brother shows up unexpectedly. Deel, played with intense creepiness by Josh Lucas (Sweet Home Alabama), is a recently released con with a score to settle with his younger brother.

John, you see, “stole” Audrey from Deel. Although Deel claims that he wants to let bygones be bygones, he has another interest. He wants to know the whereabouts of some gold coins that were left to them by their father. John lies to Deel, claiming that he doesn’t have them, but his fears are superstitious. He believes that bad luck will befall anyone who profits from the coins.

When Deel discovers John’s ruse, he slits his brother’s throat. Chris and Tim grab the coins and run off, with Deel in hot pursuit.

The concept for the movie reportedly came from legendary filmmaker Terrence Malick (Badlands), whose work Green emulates. (It is probably no coincidence that Malick served as a producer on Undertow.)

Green’s real interest lies in establishing a realistic feel. On this counts, he succeeds fairly well. He stumbles, however, with the film’s pacing. This is a dark thriller that should have us on the edge of our seats, but Green doesn’t seem to care whether or not the film is suspenseful.

The viewer is left to decide if story or atmosphere is of utmost importance. It’s a matter of taste. (R) Rating: 3


 

Dig
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Looking for an antidote to the saccharine yuletide offerings that Hollywood often releases this time of year? If you’re a fan of the ‘90s rock, you may have found it in Dig.

A cynical cinema vérité documentary from Ondi Timoner (TV’s Switched), Dig concerns a rivalry that developed between two formerly popular bands, The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols.

Gaining unprecedented access to the backstage lives of members of both bands, Timoner has created an exhilarating documentary that is as noteworthy as it is sad.

The drama took place over several years as both bands were beginning to make a mark for themselves. Each group was into the retro-‘60s sound and big fans of the other’s efforts.

The volatile leader of BJM was Anton Newcombe, a talented but severely neurotic musician who played dozens of instruments. He became at least as well known for his erratic behavior as his music, churning out albums with apparent ease while shunning major record labels.

Courtney Taylor, leader of the Warhols, is, in some ways, the antithesis of Newcombe. Level headed and well adjusted, he was Newcombe’s biggest fan. Although a talented songwriter himself, he admits that he never reached Newcombe’s artistic heights but got the big record contract and a huge following in Europe.

Newcombe’s self-destructive tendencies are the main focus of the film. In spite of his eager participation in what was to be a brutally honest portrait, he has since denounced Timoner’s movie. Perhaps it is because Taylor provides the narration and expresses a sad bewilderment at how their friendship deteriorated into a bitter feud. Still, Taylor readily admits his unflinching admiration of Newcombe’s artistry even as he questions his sanity.

The only downside of Timoner’s movie is that it doesn’t provide enough of either of the bands’ music for the uninitiated to make an appropriate judgment of its merit. When individuals express their beliefs that Newcombe is a rock genius on a par with Dylan and Lennon, we have to take their word for it. Others may assume that the emperor has no clothes.

What does seem clear is that Newcombe is afraid of success. By hiding behind his contention that signing on with a major record label amounts to “selling out,” he is free to fail and retain his artistic integrity. Whether his actions are conscious or not, he does everything imaginable to sabotage his own career.

Unmistakably, Dig captures the psychosis of the rock world. (R) Rating: 3.5


The Company
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

It has been a longtime dream of Scream queen Neve Campbell to do a film about ballet. Thanks to the clout she achieved through the lucrative Scream franchise, she has finally seen that dream come true.

The Company is a fictional backstage story revolving around the members of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. Campbell wrote the story as an Altman-esque series of vignettes. Appropriately, she was able to land Robert Altman as director.

Campbell stars as Ry, a peripheral dancer with the company who, thanks to fate, gets a chance to shine as a featured performer. Her efforts are complicated by her eccentric mother (Marilyn Dodds Frank) her sous chef boyfriend (James Franco) and the company’s egocentric artistic director (Malcolm McDowell).

Ry’s tale is lightly woven into the overlapping stories of the rest of the company, as they deal with the classic conflicts of aging, jealousy, romantic entanglements, injuries, pain and financial difficulties.

Altman uses his patented fly-on-the-wall approach to the material, flitting in and out of the various stories, staying only long enough to get a sense of what’s happening and then buzzing off in search of another plot thread. The featherweight narrative serves as an excuse to showcase some very talented dancers performing choreography by some of the leading lights of contemporary ballet and modern dance.

Two numbers frame the movie. The opening sequence, “Tensile Involvement” is a stunning modern piece featuring music, sets, costumes and choreography by Alwin Nikolais. The finale, “The Blue Snake” by Robert DeSrosiers, is an excessive spectacle where the dancers are nearly overwhelmed by extravagant sets and costumes.

Other notable choreographers (Laura Dean, Moses Pendelton, Arthur Saint-Leon and Davis Robinson) also lend their talents to the effort. Campbell, a veteran of the Canadian National Ballet, trained for two years for this role and worked closely with Joffrey co-founder Gerald Arpino. She shines in an admirable version of Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine” choreographed by Lar Lubovich. (You’d better like that song because you’re going to hear it a lot!)

Altman and cinematographer Andrew Dunn make their first foray into High Definition Video with The Company, using the versatile cameras to good effect, often filming live performances from several angles simultaneously. As a result, audiences are given a palpable feel of the stage.

As a drama, The Company leaves a lot to be desired. The dancing, however, makes it an entertaining and memorable movie. (PG-13) Rating: 3, Posted 3/8/04


In America
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Paddy Considine and his character's two daughters in In America.

“Sweet” may be the operative word when discussing In America, the story of an immigrant family from Ireland that tries to make a go of it in New York City.

Filmmaker Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot) and his screenwriting daughters Naomi and Kristen, have made a semi-autobiographical movie of their experiences when Sheridan was trying to make a go of it as an actor in Manhattan.

Paddy Considine (24 Hour Party People) plays Johnny, the struggling thespian that drags his wife, Sara (Minority Report’s Samantha Morton) and young daughters (Sarah and Emma Bolger) to the States in order to pursue his dream. Much of the movie revolves around their relationship with a mysterious neighbor, Mateo (Djimon Hounsou) a Nigerian artist.

The family’s struggles are told from their eldest daughter’s perspective, gently dramatizing the ups and downs of immigration. It’s an amiable film that serves as a Valentine to Sheridan’s second home. (PG-13) Rating: 3; Posted 2/20/04


Against the Ropes
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

Former rock journalist turned boxing manager Jackie Kallen has been lionized as the “First Lady of Boxing.” She has guided several boxing careers to world championships, was twice nominated as Manager of the Year and served as commissioner of the International Female Boxers Association. Against the Ropes is a biopic starring Meg Ryan, who is sadly dubious and linguistically challenged as the gritty, glitzy Kallen from Cleveland. Claiming in an interview “This is my Erin Brockovich,” Ryan, unlike the real-life Kallen, is not able to go the distance.

Kallen is toiling in boxing middle management under a sexist and feckless boss, who has no qualms using her competency to buttress his own career. In a brazen act, Kallen buys a boxer’s contract from a local mobster named Larocca (Tony Shaloub). She steps up to the sudden challenge of manager, tracking her new investment to a ghetto neighborhood, where she witnesses a brawl and chances upon the raw talents of Luther Shaw (Omar Epps), the man she eventually turns into a boxing champion.

The film traces her relationship with Shaw (reportedly a composite of several real-life champions) and a well-trodden narrative arc. Putting her personal finances on the line, Kallen gives up her dead-end job. She hires a boxing trainer and signs a contract with Luther. Just as Luther’s career is gaining traction, Jackie hits the relationship below the belt with disparaging comments to the press and brashly treads on toes in her enthusiasm for media popularity. Her ultimate self-sacrifice is both prescriptive and ludicrous.

Unlike the real Jackie Kallen, Against the Ropes doesn’t break any rules. Charles S. Dutton makes his directorial debut and does credible double duty as Luther’s trainer, but ultimately the movie is clinched by Hollywood sentimentality. Although the fight scenes look credible, the boxing clichés are rife and the exhausted messages generated by Rocky of busting free of the slums, overcoming great odds and realizing inner strength doom the film from the start.

Feminist overtones in Against the Ropes are subverted by Kallen’s choice of career in a sport that is deeply gendered and notably commodified. She has defined being female as her biggest obstacle in this predominantly male field, but has stated that she used her femininity “as an asset rather than a liability.” Meg Ryan’s attempt to walk this fine line a la Erin Brockovich does little to augment an already faltering career. (PG-13) Rating: 2, Posted 3/8/04


Something’s Gotta Give
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton in Something's Gotta Give.

Here’s a movie made to appeal to an underserved demographic: Women over 40. Don’t be too surprised to find that it reinforces some notions that these moviegoers long to see dramatized.

Jack Nicholson, in a role he was born to play, stars as a cad who dates only beautiful young women. His life is turned upside down when he falls for the MOTHER of one of the hotties he’s having a fling with.

Diane Keaton plays a successful playwright who captures Jack’s fancy. Naturally, a hunky young doctor (Keanu Reeves) is also stuck on Diane. (Yes, here’s another fantasy that should appeal to this demographic group.)

Writer/director Nancy Meyer (What Women Want) delivers a flick with some genuinely funny moments. An expert cast (that also includes Amanda Peet and Frances McDormand) delivers Meyer’s witty lines with solid comic timing.

The movie is too long, is mostly romantic fantasy and includes some gaps in logic. The film also includes extended crying jag by Keaton is nearly unbearable. All that will be moot to those who will see this as a fulfillment of their movie longings.

This is a skillfully made ‘chick flick’ for chicks with a little gray in their feathers. (PG-13) Rating: 3; Posted 2/27/04


Welcome to Mooseport
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

Ray Romano and Maura Tierney in Welcome to Mooseport.

There’s a popular email joke that exposes film clichés by listing everything one can learn about life from the movies (All shopping bags contain at least one stick of french bread; at least one of a pair of identical twins is born evil). Welcome to Mooseport is nothing if not cliched, but one of the most disturbing and persistent lessons for women regurgitated by this date film is that it doesn’t matter how big a dingbat your romantic interest is, your ultimate goal in life should be to marry him.

Former American president, Monroe Cole, is played by Gene Hackman, who has taken on so many sleazy chieftain roles that he only needs to show up for this one to have audiences assume more of the same. To avoid his avaricious ex-wife, Monroe heads to his hometown of Mooseport (a kind of Northern Exposure on steroids) where the next mayoral election is about to take place. After city council pleadings, he finds himself in the race against local populist Handy Harrison (Ray Romano). Handy runs the local hardware store, specializes in fixing toilets, and is the local pie-eating champ.

The race ultimately comes down to winning the affections of Maura Tierney, Handy’s onetime girlfriend, and when the two men secretly compete to win her in a golf game, the film’s message is encapsulated in golfing terms: “Sometimes you just gotta go for the green.”

Handy’s appeal, “I’m not smart, I’m not beautiful, maybe I’m okay,” serves to highlight Hollywood’s glorification of mediocrity. (PG-13) Rating: 2; Posted 2/27/04


Torque
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Marin Henderson and partner in Torque.

The success of The Fast and the Furious was bound to inspire cinematic copycats, and the latest example is Torque, an utterly ridiculous but action-packed chase thriller.

Directed by music video veteran Joseph Kahn (and boy does it show), Torque is a clone of The Fast and the Furious, but with motorcycles substituting for racecars.

Marin Henderson (The Ring) stars as a biker wrongly accused of drug dealing. After he’s framed for the murder of a rival gang member, the feds as well as the murder victim’s brother (Ice Cube) pursue him.

The script could easily be in the running for worst of the year, but the snappy, over-the-top direction nearly saves it. The only thing in this flick moving faster than the cycles is the camera. It swoops and swerves in movements that defy the laws of physics as we’re vicariously placed in the disorienting action. As the film progresses, these action sequences become increasingly silly, rivaling the script’s dialogue in its lack of credibility. (The world depicted here exists only in the movies and beer commercials.)

Torque would be easy to dismiss if it weren’t for the sensational ways that the filmmakers have found to use computer generated imaging to enhance the action. The chaos becomes mind numbing, but it has a certain campy appeal. (PG-13) Rating: 2; Posted 2/27/04


Wonderland
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If Boogie Nights left you curious for more information about the "drug-related homicides" that porn star John Holmes became involved in back in 1981, this movie attempts to fill in the blanks. Val Kilmer stars as the late "Johnny Wadd" who befriends a small time pusher and becomes the go-between in the robbery of a Los Angeles crime boss that ultimately leads to grisly revenge.Dylan McDermott, Josh Lucas, Tim Blake Nelson, Janeane Garogalo, Kate Bosworth and Lisa Kudrow are a part of the large ensemble case that provides able support.

Director James Cox (Highway) employs some fairly impressive camerawork and flashy editing, depicting the story from differing points of view. (It's apparent that Cox is a fan of Kurasawa's Rashomon.) In the end, however, we really can't say for sure that we know what happened. The only certainty is that we've spent nearly two hours with some pretty desperate characters and we're left with an overwhelming desire to take a shower. (R) Rating: 2, Posted 11/14/03


Veronica Guerin
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The acting's the thing in Joel Schumacher1s Veronica Guerin, the true story of an Irish journalist and her battle against organized crime in the mid-1990s. The sublime Kate Blanchett gives a fully realized performance as the gutsy (and careless) writer who befriends underworld figures in order to infiltrate the local drug trade.

In spite of death-threats and the generally ambivalent attitude of government authorities, Guerin writes inflammatory articles that get her into trouble with everyone. Schumacher (Batman and Robin) eschews his usually flashy style in favor of a gritty, realistic approach. This helps to keep the story firmly grounded and utterly believable. (A silly, unnecessary cameo by Colin Farrell is a notable exception.)

Audiences may be divided on the issue of Guerin herself. Was she a hero or a self-serving spotlight seeker who 'had it coming?' The answer may be somewhere in between, but the movie asserts that we desperately need the Veronica Guerins of the world just the same. (R) Rating: 3, Posted 11/14/03


Underworld
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

This is just what we needed: a movie about the long-time war between vampires and werewolves.

The lovely Kate Beckinsale looks fetching in her tight leather jumpsuit, playing a vampire assassin who blows away the nasty werewolves with handguns loaded with silver bullets. Her trouble really begins when Kate takes a shine to a handsome human (Scott Speedman) who is bitten by an enemy lycanthrope. Their budding romance then becomes a "Romeo and Juliet" affair that has Kate reevaluating her priorities.

Although it is stylishly shot, Underworld never really works because we do't give a darn about these characters. Plus the incessant, darkly brooding nature of the film makes one wish that Dr. Van Helsing would come along and do away with all of these whining immortals.

Ultimately, the film becomes numbing when it should be scary, tedious when it should be thrilling and, worst of all, boring when it should be interesting. The impressive look of the film is almost enough to save it, but the plot of Underworld is still too dull to salvage. (R) Rating: 1, Posted 11/14/03


The Good Boy
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

 

Take two parts Cats and Dogs, one part ET and put it in a blender. That concoction would look an awful lot like the new kiddie flick, Good Boy.

After working all summer as a dog walker, a youngster named Owen (Liam Aiken) will, at last, be allowed to get his own dog. He accompanies his parents (Moly Shannon and Kevin Nealon) to the pound to choose his new pup. Hubble, the pooch Owne selects, turns out to be from another planet and has survived his spaceship¹s crash-landing on earth. His objective is to recruit canines to complete their original mission: colonization of Earth. Thanks to some kind of power surge from Hubbel¹s downed rocket, Owen becomes able to hear and understand dog language

The movie is sweet natured, gently establishing the fact that dogs are indeed "man¹s best friend." Matthew Broderick, Delta Burke, Brittany Murphy, Carl Reiner, Donald Faison, Cheech Marin and Vanessa Redgrave ably supply the dog voices. Although it is sometimes a bit cloying, Good Boy is an essentially innocuous movie that the kids will love and that mom and dad won¹t hate, either. (PG) Rating: 2, Posted 11/14/03


The Magdalene Sisters
Reviewed by Russ Simmons
There are instances where “tough love” is a good thing. There are also cases where attempts at tough love can run disastrously amok.

The Magdalene Sisters concerns a harrowing example of the latter. A heartbreaking account of misguided attempts at reforming “wayward” girls, the film focuses on yet another scandal in the Catholic Church.

Written and directed by Scottish actor Peter Mullan (Trainspotting), this disturbing true story takes place in the 1960s and depicts the horrific treatment that young women experienced in asylums in Ireland run by the Sisters of Mercy. Not surprisingly, the Church has condemned the film.
The plot involves four girls who have been placed in one of these institutions due to their “inappropriate” activities. Rose (Dorothy Duff) and Crispina (Eileen Walsh) became pregnant outside of marriage. Bernadette was committed because she attracted the attention of flirtatious boys. Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff) was guilty of the crime of having been raped.

In an attempt to correct their behavior, these girls are imprisoned within the asylum walls and forced into hard labor in the convent’s laundry. The Sisters of Mercy sold these services to local businesses without ever compensating the workers.

Subjected to spirit-breaking rules and humiliating conditions (in one scene, the girls are made to stand naked while nuns make mocking remarks about their bodies), those who have been interred are treated more like inmates than occupants of a convent.

The girls respond to this harsh discipline and servitude in various ways, some becoming defiant while others are driven insane. Anything other than complete compliance is greeted with severe retribution from the convent’s Mother Superior, Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan). The most unbending cinematic heavy since Capitan Bligh, Sister Bridget is the type to invite a mutiny in order to put it down.

Although harsh, the movie occasionally displays some wry humor. In one ironic instance, Sister Bridget is moved during a screening of a sunnier film about nuns, The Bells of St. Mary’s.

The actors acquit themselves nicely and the production establishes an unambiguous realism. Mullan sometimes allows the action to become overly melodramatic, however, making the film seem a bit like a ‘70s women-in-prison movie. Still, Mullan gets us emotionally involved with the characters and we root for them when they become insubordinate.

Winner of the top prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival, The Magdalene Sisters is an effective dramatic exposÈ that may cause an already troubled church to do a bit more soul searching. (R) Rating: 4, Posted 11/14/03

Matchstick Men
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

Matchstick Men seems destined for success of a singular kind. Slick caper movies have always owned a certain cache, and recent writers like Jonathan Lethem and David Sedaris have leant a certain trendiness to mental health quirks. Few actors are more interesting than Nicolas Cage, and director Ridley Scott’s resume is long and distinguished. In the final analysis, Matchstick Men’s most original component is the script, which is based on an upcoming book by Eric Garcia and deals a wallop of an ending.

Nicolas Cage plays Roy, a small-time con man, with obsessive-compulsive habits, nervous tics and a good dose of phobic affliction. He spends his solitary domestic life picking up carpet lint and ritualistically turning door handles. Roy is so tightly wound that a day without his pink pill sends him into one long paroxysm of cleaning frenzy. On the plus side, his assiduousness has enabled him to successfully run scams and squirrel away a tidy sum of money, and while his partner Frank (Sam Rockwell) is an ambitious protÈgÈ, Roy squarely asserts, “I don’t do long con.”

Frank is affectionately tolerant of Roy’s idiosyncrasies, but when Roy has an especially intense episode, Frank encourages him to get professional help. Roy’s subsequent therapy uncovers that he has a 14-year-old daughter, Angela (Alison Lohman), who wants to meet the father she’s never known. Angela’s vivacious appearance in Ron’s carefully detailed life is nothing if not disruptive, but father and daughter eventually manage to foster a working relationship. Ron’s ambivalence notwithstanding, Angela shows an impressive flimflam flare.

The collision of Roy’s personal and criminal lives is at the crux of this drama and Cage’s performance is spot on. He is entirely beguiling as the con man, and even while he’s ripping off unsuspecting victims, we’re rooting for his success. His portrayal of OCD is comical without slipping into ridicule, and the transformation that occurs through his relationship with his daughter is compassionate and real. Lohman and Rockwell are also exceptional, and deliver on this multi-layered piece, which contains an emotional depth uncommon to the con-artist milieu. An evocative soundtrack, loaded with Sinatra tunes, rounds out this sumptuous treat. (PG-13) Rating: 4, Posted 11/14/03


Sylvia
Reviewed by Russ Simmons



Despair was the muse for famed poet and novelist Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar). In this austere biographical drama, Gweneth Paltrow plays the angst-ridden writer who feeds on her own misery to fuel her work.

Paltrow is excellent in the role, exuding a clear vulnerability beneath her cold exterior. (One wonders what Plath’s life might have been like if they had had Wellbutrin back in the ‘50s and ‘60s.) Equally good is Daniel Craig (The Road to Perdition) as her philandering husband, poet Ted Hughes.

Director Christine Jeffs doesn’t place the blame for Plath’s eventual suicide on Hughes, but shows both individuals as flawed and emotionally frail. Unlike the common perception, Hughes is almost a sympathetic character as depicted here. The film is slow moving and presents little about either author’s work. The clear attraction here is the acting, and these two manage to carry the day. (R) Rating: 3, Posted 11/30/03


In the cut
Reviewed by Russ Simmons



Apparently Meg Ryan thinks that the roles she has found success with, mostly in light romantic comedy, haven’t provided her enough of an acting “stretch.” One supposes that she chose to star in In the Cut to shake up our perceptions of her. If that is the case, it is the only thing that works in this movie.

Based on Susanna Moore’s novel, In the Cut is a sleazy serial killer movie that promised to give us a feminine perspective on the genre. Director Jane Campion (The Piano) is responsible for this ill-conceived train wreck that wallows in seediness and has nothing pertinent to say.

Ryan (who bares all and engages in bland sex scenes) stars as a Manhattan teacher who spends much of her time in the city’s sleaziest areas. Things get dodgy when a killer is on the loose and she has an affair with the detective (Mark Ruffalo) investigating the case. This misguided mess manages only to be ugly. (R) Rating: 1, Posted 11/30/03


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If familiarity breeds contempt, then the remake of 1974's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre could be worthy of utter disdain. Still, it1s a reasonably competent re-working of the granddaddy of slasher films that suffers, mainly, from its lack of originality. Jessica Biel (TV's Seventh Heaven) plays one of a group of twenty-somethings who venture off the beaten track only to discover a rural area inhabited by a psychotic family that prefers human flesh in their barbecue. (Character actor R. Lee Ermey, best known as the drill sergeant in Kubrick1s Full Metal Jacket, has fun chewing the scenery as a crooked, cannibalistic sheriff.)

Although Toby Hooper1s grisly original has moments that are genuinely terrifying, time and endless imitations have lessened its unnerving effect. Marcus Nispel1s revision establishes the same eerie atmosphere, but can1t really shake the ghost of the original and establish an identity of its own. Ultimately, the main thing that this version has in common with Hooper1s is that it is equally (and unapologetically) repellent. (R) Rating: 2, Posted 12/5/03

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

Patrick O’Brian’s legendary high seas novels have been called "the best historical novels ever written" by the New York Times Book Review. Master and Commander is based on O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, which consists of 20 books, historically accurate and detailed renderings of life in British Navy during the Napoleonic wars (and beyond). The film achieves the distinct sensation of being pitched into the midst of a sweeping adventure, and the attention to nautical detail and the grandness of scale is positively breathtaking.

The story takes place during 1805 with Russell Crowe starring as “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, Captain of the HMS Surprise. We learn that that there is “enough of his blood in the woodwork” for his ship to be considered his relation. Paul Bettany plays Aubrey’s friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin, the ship’s doctor and an avid naturalist. When they are suddenly attacked by the French Acheron, Aubrey and his conspicuously young crew achieve a scant escape and the ship and many of the crew are terribly wounded. Thus begins a cat and mouse chase across two oceans, down the eastern coast of South America, around Cape Horn and up to the Galapagos Islands.

Against the backdrop of these briny goings-on, a number of elements accentuate the world of the early nineteenth century seaman. The crowded and grimy confines of the ship are tangible and belie the regulated order of Aubrey’s navy. Superstitious seafaring mythos is played out in disturbing drama and the uncanny and frequent appearance of the Acheron coupled with extremes in weather draws viewers into this otherworldly mindset. The wonder of the Galapagos Islands makes real the growing discord between Aubrey and Maturin, as one is bent on vanquishing the elusive enemy and the other seeks to chronicle extraordinary new wildlife discoveries.

The great strength of Master and Commander lies in its integrity to the historical and physical setting. The tall ships are truly magnificent and the sailing life equally arresting. Although there is plenty of drama — one sequence will remind filmgoers of the headiness of A Perfect Storm — the lack of a strong narrative arc is a shortcoming. Director Peter Weir has done well however, to emphasize characterization over plot and his actors make convincing mariners. The late Patrick O’Brian would be well pleased with the results. (PG-13) Rating: 4, Posted 12/12/03

Red Betsy
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If good intentions were the main criteria for critical success, then the makers of the quiet, sweet-natured drama Red Betsy would be dusting off their shelves to make room for the awards.

Based upon an unpublished short story by Charles Boebel, Red Betsy is a sentimental family tale that unfolds at a leisurely pace. The setting is the farm country of 1940¹s Wisconsin, but the locale could just have easily have been labeled "Rural Americana."

The story concerns the thorny relationship that a young, modern woman has with her stubborn, willful father-in-law. Circumstances inextricably bind the fate of these two opposites over a number of years, setting up an awkward tension that bubbles just under the surface.

Alison Elliott (The Spitfire Grill) stars as Winifred, a pretty town girl who falls for a strapping farm boy named Dale Rounds (Kansas City native Brent Crawford). Dale is anxious to marry Winifred and travel far from his rural home, preferably in his homemade airplane called Red Betsy. Dale’s dad Emmet, played by Leo Burmester (Gangs of New York), is none too pleased with Dale’s girlfriend. He sees her as an intruder who is putting newfangled ideas — like getting electricity — into Dale’s head.

WWII and the death of Dale’s mother utterly disrupt their lives. When Dale is killed in the war, Emmet becomes an embittered, resentful recluse, blaming Winifred for his loss. Even the birth of his granddaughter fails to change his attitude toward his daughter-in-law.

Filmmaker Chris Boebel originally conceived this project as a one-hour telefilm, most likely for PBS. That is probably how it should have been produced. As it is, this feature-length treatment of the material seems very padded.

Still, there are small pleasures to be found here. The actors are all in fine form, skillfully underplaying their roles so that these characters become recognizably repressed Midwesterners. The cinematography by David Tumblety is a plus, too, perfectly capturing the bucolic beauty of the setting, and the production values are fine for a low-budget, independently released effort.

The “moral” of the film also has an undeniable appeal, making frank criticism seem like the work of the Grinch.

Although this is a family film, that doesn’t necessarily mean that one should bring the kids. In fact, the sluggish tempo of the film will probably put many youngsters to sleep. Ultimately, Red Betsy is like its namesake airplane. It flies, but doesn’t quite soar. (PG) Rating: 2, Posted 12/12/03

Shattered Glass
Reviewed by Russ Simmons


If the recent headlines regarding fabricated stories in New York Times rang a bell for you, you may remember a similar incident that occurred at The New Republic in 1998.

The story of disgraced journalist Stephen Glass comes to the big screen with the new film, Shattered Glass. Hayden Christensen plays Glass, a charismatic smoothie who submitted dozens of false stories for the noted political magazine. With his penchant for fiction, Glass would have been much better suited for Hollywood than Washington DC.

Screenwriter Billy Ray makes a strong directorial debut in this profile of a charlatan, and Christopher gives a performance that will surprise many who only know him from Star Wars: Episode 2. The only real quibble with this otherwise convincing film is that Christensen seems a little too milquetoast for the role. This Glass doesn’t appear conniving enough to pull the wool over so many eyes.

Still, Shattered Glass is an intelligent and provocative look at ethics in the contemporary press. (PG-13) Rating: 3, Posted 12/12/03

 

Kill Bill, Vol. 1
Reviewed by Russ Simmons
For those of you who have anxiously anticipated a new Quentin Tarantino film, the wait is over. After a six-year hiatus, the indie bad boy has returned with Kill Bill, Vol. 1, a violent riot that serves as the former video clerk1s homage to many of the lowbrow films that he loves.

Uma Thurman stars as a member of an elite assassination squad who is beaten, shot and left for dead at her own wedding ceremony. After years in a coma, she awakens and decides to take revenge on those who wronged her.

This setup provides an excuse for Tarantino to indulge in some of the most vicious comic violence we1ve seen in some time. He borrows heavily from martial arts films, 19701s drive-in revenge flicks and even Japanese animŽ. (In fact, one lengthy segment is entirely animated.)

Originally over three hours long, Kill Bill has been split into two parts. Vol. 2 will come out in February. Most of the violence is played for laughs, but Tarantino also focuses like a laser beam on the sadistic part of the audience1s collective brain, daring us to enjoy the over-the-top mayhem. This movie is as empty as Science City on a Monday night, but it1s rendered by a talented filmmaker. (R) Rating: 3, Posted 12/30/03

The Gospel of John
Reviewed by Jason Aaron

John may have been a great apostle, but he wasn’t much of a screenwriter. This new biblical drama is exactly what the title suggests: a word-for-word representation of the Bible’s Book of John. While that might lend itself to an intriguing tag line, it’s not the basis for a great film. The story plays like Jesus’ greatest hits, covering the gathering of his disciples, his various miracles (like changing the water to wine, healing the blind and raising the dead), the Last Supper and, of course, his death and resurrection. Surprisingly, most of the drama here comes early, before the film bogs down with several long-winded sermons and narrations, and then rushes through the crucifixion, presumably the scenes with the most dramatic potential.

Even at its emotional high points, the filmmakers constantly shoot themselves in the foot by sticking to their strict interpretation. From a religious perspective, I’m sure it’s admirable that the film is such a faithful representation, but as a filmmaking tool the word-for-word retelling is a gimmick that prohibits the development of a polished narrative structure. By nature, a film is someone’s interpretation of the events described, just as the Bible itself has been interpreted into different versions (this film is based on the Good News Bible). Regardless of its religious significance, a good film must tell a good story. Unfortunately, the makers of The Gospel of John decided to pursue authenticity over quality.

The actors aren’t at fault for this film’s failure. TV veteran Henry Ian Cusick gives us a charismatic, human portrayal of Jesus and, thankfully, the rest of the cast is more ethnically diverse than the lily-white casts of past Bible epics. The Gospel of John is basically an illustrated, three-hour Bible reading. If you’re the type of person who enjoys reading the Bible for three hours, then you certainly don’t need me to tell you to see this film. However, if you’re simply looking for a well-told, well-structured story, I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere. (PG-13) Rating: 2, Posted 12/30/03

Gothika
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney



In the context of storytelling, even the most nonsensical plot should maintain a sense of internal consistency. A story about supernatural forces has arguably greater obligations on this score if it is to preserve the audience’s collusion in a genre that easily attracts derision. The Sixth Sense (which is called to mind in the closing moments of Gothika) cleverly maintained this fine balance with enormous success. Gothika doesn’t even come close.

Hot off her Oscar win from Monster’s Ball, Halle Berry puts in her first solo starring performance as Dr. Miranda Grey, a criminal psychologist working at a women’s prison. When she comes to after an apparent three days of catatonia, she is a ward of the prison, her husband (Charles S. Dutton) has been brutally murdered and her sanity is in question. The premise provides good bone-chilling potential. However, as Miranda works to understand encounters with the capricious ghost of a teenage girl, filmgoers will find themselves slipping from being truly unnerved to coolly contemptuous of a film with little respect for the intelligence of its audience.

Early on, Penelope Cruz as a prison inmate insists, “Your brain is the problem.” Berry’s echoing sentiments that “Logic is overrated” should not have been taken so literally by the filmmakers. (R) Rating: 2, Posted 12/30/03

Timeline
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney


Dennis Tito, the poster boy for “out-there” vacations, paid $20 million to visit the International Space station for a few days and popularized the phrase “extreme tourism.” Michael Crichton has taken that concept to new depths in the book-based film of Timeline, about a team of student archaeologists who travel to 14th century feudal France to find their missing professor.

What amounts to a Renaissance Festival in the hands of zealots, the film is a good example of the “blandiose,” a directorial mess that somehow (in the words of Marty Hughley) manages to be schlocky — grandstanding and dull all at once. The characters are dazzlingly oblivious to being in the same film together and the dialog is so banal as to be laugh-out-loud funny. When a film looks to Bob The Builder for a source quote (“Can we do it? Yes we can!”), you know something’s amiss. (PG-13) Rating: 1, Posted 12/30/03

Tupac: Resurrection
Reviewed by Jason Aaron



It makes for a good gimmick to have Tupac: Resurrection, a new documentary about the slain rap star Tupac Shakur, actually narrated by Tupac himself (“In His Own Words” goes the tagline). However, what’s presented is a two-hour collection of recycled interviews made to look like a music video. If this film is meant to serve as merely an introduction to Tupac’s troubled life or a tribute to his tragic career, then it’s a success. However, as a biographical portrait it’s a seriously flawed failure. For example, in one segment, Tupac lists some of his closest friends, such as actress Jada Pinkett Smith, actor Mickey Rourke and boxer Mike Tyson. Instead of just listening to Tupac namedrop, wouldn’t it be much more interesting to hear what those friends have to say about him?

Tupac: Resurrection only scratches the surface of a fascinating life. The most high profile moments are here: the rape conviction, his stint in prison, the rivalry with East Coast rappers, his signing with controversial rap label Death Row Records and his two separate shootings. Beyond the recycled MTV interviews and Arsenio Hall Show appearances, this film offers nothing new, which is a shame.

Tupac was an interesting character, rife with contradictions. He was an art school student who grew up writing poetry and dancing ballet, but eventually made his name as a tough-talking, self-proclaimed thug with a quick temper and penchant for profanity-laced lyrics. He frequently expressed a deep love and respect for his mother, a strong-willed, politically militant woman who raised him on her own, yet at the same time, Tupac constantly angered women’s rights groups with his misogynistic songs. Raised among the Black Panthers, he was always a socially aware yet his philosophy for black-empowerment was something he called “Thug Life,” which for him involved violence, drugs, prison and ultimately an early grave. Tupac was a rap legend, a tragic figure whose life was surely far more multi-faceted than this flashy, shallow portrait. (R) Rating: 2, Posted 12/30/03

The Singing Detective
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Robert Downey, Jr. is back. In his first film since prison and rehab (Gothika was made later and released sooner), Downey demonstrates that those who still believe in him and give him a chance in their film will be rewarded with a terrific performance.

Downey stars in Keith Gordon’s feature-length adaptation of Dennis Potter’s acclaimed BBC miniseries. It’s the story (largely autobiographical) of a writer who suffers from a painful, debilitating skin disease. While hospitalized, he fantasizes that he is a detective in a film noir narrative where people break into song and dance at the drop of a corpse.

The usually solid Gordon (A Midnight Clear) isn’t quite able to get a grip on the material in the limited amount of time that he’s given here. It’s a well-intentioned and interesting effort, but the execution seems awkward and self-conscious at times. One can almost see the grips and lights hanging from the studio ceiling. Still Downey is great, and producer Mel Gibson is almost unrecognizable in bald cap and specs playing his shrink.

Ultimately, The Singing Detective is a near miss. Downey, however, makes it a miss worth catching. (R) Rating: 2, Posted 12/30/03

The Last Samurai
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney



The Last Samurai is one of gynophobic Warner Brothers¹ five big releases for 2003, along with The Matrix Reloaded, Terminator 3, Matrix Revolutions and Looney Tunes: Back in Action. At first glance, The Last Samurai may seem original compared to this collection of disappointing sequels, but in the final analysis, formula prevails in a film that exploits Samurai tradition without providing anything new.

In the vein of Dances With Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans, the story follows a rugged white man who adopts a culture whose survival is threatened by the forces of Western supremacism. While distinctly cinematic and sweeping, these films share a fatal flaw. They attempt to tell the story of these doomed cultures, but can only do so through the wistful eyes of a white protagonist.

Among director Edward Zwick’s other credits, the acclaimed film Glory shares this trait. The Last Samurai is an epic that captures a remote time and place in historical transition, but like others of its kind, it offers primarily enigmatic otherness that results in little more than shallow romanticism.

Tom Cruise plays Captain Nathan Algren, who is barely functioning after morally dubious but highly decorated service in the Indian wars. Enticed by money into the service of the Japanese boy emperor, he is put in charge of training army conscripts, who are as green as Algren is jaded. When attacked by a band of Samurai warriors, Algren is captured and imprisoned in a remote village and housed with the family of a warrior he killed in battle. He grows to know and respect the people he was contracted to eradicate and begins to take the place of father and husband in the pastoral domicile.

But the Samurai way of life is threatened by the emperor’s advisors who once again send in the modern army, replete with the firearms Algren had helped introduce. The action is reminiscent of Civil War recreations, in which the combat is staged just yards apart in open fields, where tactics are everything, and where combatants seem destined for a sure death. The film culminates in a climactic battle in which Algren and the Samurai achieve predictable glory, their complete massacres notwithstanding.

Noted film critic Pauline Kael once saw what is arguably the most succinct statement of the primal appeal of movies on an Italian movie poster: the words “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” She concluded that “This appeal is what attracts us, and ultimately what makes us despair when we begin to understand how seldom movies are more than this.” The Last Samurai is too captivating and accomplished to elicit despair, but will be ultimately forgettable for its shallowness. (R) Rating: 3, Posted 1/7/04

Elephant
Reviewed by Russ Simmons


There are two camps when it comes to filmmaker Gus Van Sant: He is either a sinner or a saint. His latest film will inspire violence or reduce it. It is either boring or riveting. It’s an irresponsible waste of time or a constructive work of art.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

To say that Elephant is polarizing may be an understatement. It is an unemotional, rather detached look at a Columbine-style massacre set at a Portland, OR high school. Although Van Sant wrote the outline of the story, a largely amateur cast improvised most of the dialogue.

Van Sant borrowed the title from an acclaimed BBC documentary about violence in Northern Ireland. Although the title referred to the problem as “an elephant in the living room,” Van Sant assumed it referred to the ancient parable of the blind men and the elephant, where each man felt a separate part of the beast, each perceiving it differently.

Inspired by the fable, Van Sant shows the mundane scenes of a typical high school day, but does it Rashomon-style. The film’s numerous scenes are shot from several different perspectives as if reflecting the varied viewpoints of the students involved. Mostly, these scenes are long tracking shots of kids wandering the halls, gossiping, goofing off or attending class. The stories fold back on one another, giving us hints at what is to come. The resulting tension becomes almost unbearable.

Van Sant also chose to shoot the film in the 1:33 ratio, a nearly square format used in old, pre-video documentaries. This adds to the eerie realism that the film achieves.

But the element that makes Elephant unique is Van Sant’s steadfast refusal to provide any answers, show cause and effect or take any point of view on the subject. It is as if he is saying that “senseless violence” is an apt description of such events. He dares to imply that there is no explanation.

He is also attempting to prevent the audience from associating themselves with any particular character. He wants us to be detached so that we see the events…from all angles…from the outside. If something is to be learned about why this happened, we’ll have to discover it for ourselves.

There are those who believe this as a copout while others see it as a powerful statement. It’s either an utter failure or a masterpiece. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. (R) Rating: 3, Posted 1/7/04

Brother Bear
Reviewed by Russ Simmons


If Disney has a secret formula that dictates the elements in each of its animated films, one can almost see that recipe unfold in machine-like fashion in Brother Bear. The only ingredient that’s missing is the magic.

The story concerns a Native Canadian named Kenai who, through a series of mystical circumstances, is turned into a bear. Kenai must attend to an orphaned bear cub while traveling to the Northern Lights in an attempt to be transformed back into a man.

The classically hand-drawn animation is beautiful, and we meet the prerequisite cute characters and funny sidekicks while being presented with an upbeat “moral.” All of this is fairly painless, except for the six excruciatingly dull songs by Phil Collins. When the singing begins, the movie screeches to a halt.

In all, Brother Bear will probably appeal only to the very young. It isn’t a bad film by any means. It’s simply too pat. (G) Rating: 2, Posted 12/30/03

The Human Stain
Reviewed by Russ Simmons


Adapting the work of novelist Philip Roth for the movies has proven to be a difficult task for a number of talented filmmakers. Without turning the film into a virtual audio book, it is nearly impossible to take Roth’s language — the very thing that distinguishes his work — and make it cinematic.

Robert Benton (Kramer Vs. Kramer) has done a better job than most with his version of Roth’s rambling The Human Stain. The plot involves a college professor (Anthony Hopkins) who is dismissed after a long and distinguished career after uttering the politically incorrect word, “spook.” Uneasy in his newfound role of leisure, he takes up with a beautiful, young janitor (Nicole Kidman). The results are, ultimately, tragic.

This setup serves as an avenue to explore racism and the ongoing role of race in American society. Although both Hopkins and Kidman are utterly miscast, these are two fine actors who help us forget that they shouldn’t be playing these roles. In the end, The Human Stain is an admirable and unsettling look at a shameful aspect of the American character. (R) Rating: 4, Posted 12/30/03

My Life Without Me
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Sarah Polley is a notable exception to the rule. She is an extremely talented actress who has successfully made the transition from child actor (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) to adolescent (The Sweet Hereafter) to adult star (Guinevere).

With My Life Without Me, she proves once again that her talent is formidable and her acting range has yet to be fully explored.

Polley plays Ann, a young mother who discovers that she is suffering from a terminal case of cancer. She makes a list of “Things to Do Before I Die.” The film follows her quest to fulfill these promises to herself before the grim reaper comes to call.

There are other good actors in this movie (including Mark Ruffalo, Scott Speedman, Amanda Plummer and Deborah Harry), but Polley commands our attention to such a degree that the others seem to blend into the background. Although only in her early 20s, Polley has a world-weariness that belies her youth. She is an old spirit in a very young body.

Yes, Isabel Coixet’s low-budget film is a downer. Still, Polley is that rare actress who can make a modest film seem much better than it really is. (R) Rating: 2, Posted 12/30/03

Mambo Italiano
Reviewed by Russ Simmons


Take two parts My Big Fat Greek Wedding and one part Will and Grace, and the result would be something a bit like Mambo Italiano, a mildly amusing look at the troubles plaguing a gay man coming out to his traditionally minded family.
Luke Kirby (Halloween Resurrection) plays Angelo Barberini, a travel agent who longs to be a television writer. As a closeted gay in his mid-20s living with his parents in Montreal, Angelo has difficulty with his love life. Things get complicated when he decides to move in with his lover (Peter Miller), another gay man of Italian decent.

All of the tricky situations that arise are treated with the same depth as a TV sitcom. Paul Sorvino and Ginette Reno play Angelo’s parents, who are dumbfounded by Angelo’s confessions, their dialogue bearing the unmistakable ring of a half-hour television comedy. This is, however, a full-length feature, so the entire enterprise seems very padded.

Director Emile Gaudreault (Wedding Night) has reportedly stayed very faithful to Steve Galluccio’s play, which means that this probably played a bit better on stage than it does on film. It’s pleasant, but uninspired. (R) Rating: 2, Posted 12/30/03

Bubba Ho-Tep
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

No, Bubba Ho-Tep is not an offering from the eccentric folks at the Chucky Lou AV Club, but it may be someday.
If you’re wondering what really happened to Elvis Presley, this movie gives us the answer. The King, played by Bruce Campbell (The Evil Dead) is still with us and living in a Texas nursing home. One of his pals is John F. Kennedy, played by Ossie Davis (Do the Right Thing). JFK explains that his skin is black because the CIA dyed him that way.

These two elder statesmen do battle with an ancient Egyptian mummy, who is sucking the souls and life force from the retirement home residents! The nasty title character also clomps around in cowboy boots and writes dirty hieroglyphics on the bathroom wall.

The filmmakers have their tongue planted so far in their cheek that it comes out the other side. Director Don Coscarelli (Phantasm) based this comedy on a short story by Joe R. Lansdale, but hasn’t given the movie the snappy pace that this kind of over-the-top farce demands. The sporadic laughs are generated by Campbell’s sardonic performance. (R) Rating: 2, Posted 12/30/03

The Young Black Stallion
Reviewed by Russ Simmons



Disney’s first foray into the live-action IMAX arena is a prequel to the popular novel by Walter and Steven Farley.

Director Simon Wincer knows his way around horse movies (Lonesome Dove, Phar Lap), and he also knows his way around sentimental kids films (Free Willy). One might wish he knew a better screenwriter for this one.

The story takes place in North Africa at the end of World War II. A young girl named Neera (Biana Tamini) traveling in the desert with a caravan when she is forced to hide from bandits. Alone in the desert, she befriends a wild stallion. After returning home, she goes back to rescue and tame the colt. Ultimately, she enters the horse in a race to save her grandfather’s stable.

Although the dialogue and acting are pretty stilted, the movie has enough visual interest to make it an innocuous entertainment. Although many adults will find this film fairly dull, it should be especially appealing to young girls. (G) Rating: 2, Posted 12/30/03

The Missing
Reviewed by Jason Aaron


Ron Howard isn’t a bad director. He’s just an overwhelmingly bland one. And his blandness proves the undoing of his latest film, The Missing. While the trailers look terrifically spooky, the set-up seems promising and the two lead actors are both incomparable Oscar-winners, what Howard delivers is a poorly paced Western that’s only slightly creepier than Little House on the Prairie and significantly less compelling than the John Wayne classic The Searchers, of which it seems a shoddy remake.

Cate Blanchett is a fiery, widowed rancher whose absentee father, played by Tommy Lee Jones, has just recently returned home after years of living among “the savages.” When Blanchett’s daughter is abducted by a scar-faced Indian medicine man, she’s forced to form an uneasy alliance with Jones in order to track them down. The resulting scenes of family drama are well-played and rarely overdone, thanks of course to Jones and Blanchett, who both deliver typically terrific performances. It’s the action scenes that fall flat, proving convoluted, pointless and utterly devoid of dramatic impact, right up to the grossly anti-climactic finale, which plays more like a rough cut than a finished film.

The search for a vicious witch doctor, who hangs snakes from trees and buries men’s hearts, could have provided the impetus for an Old West version of The Silence of the Lambs. Unfortunately, Ron Howard didn’t have the guts for that. Thus, there’s no reason you should have to demonstrate your intestinal fortitude by suffering through this lackluster film. (R) Rating: 2

The Barbarian Invasions
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Younger viewers of The Barbarian Invasions have commented that the film is saccharin, artificial and contrived. Older viewers have found it touching, heartfelt and genuine. Yes friends, the generation gap is alive and well at the cinema.

It may be possible that French Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand (Jesus of Montreal) has delivered a piece of cinematic retrospection that younger viewers aren't quite ready for.

The Barbarian Invasions is a belated sequel to Arcand's critically acclaimed 1986 film, The Decline of the American Empire. In the first film, a group of intellectual, bohemian friends get together for a dinner party.

The sequel focuses on one character, a 62-year-old professor named Remy (Remy Girard) who is suffering from a terminal case of cancer. Thanks to his ex-wife Louise (Dorothee Berryman) and his estranged son Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau), Remy is given a unique gift. They arrange for his friends from the first film to gather around him to reminisce, commiserate and generally keep him company as he awaits his inevitable death. (Yes, there are echoes of The Big Chill resounding throughout.)

Remy, an unrepentant leftist, sees himself as the intellectual (read "moral") superior of those who disagree with him. At one point, Remy states, "My son is an ambitious, capitalist prude, while I've always been a hedonistic, socialist lech."

Ironically, it is Sebastien, a wealthy businessman, who makes it possible for his ungrateful father to have a dignified death. In fact, he arranges to have a junkie acquaintance (Marie-Josee Croze) provide Remy with illegal drugs to ease his pain. (Those who look at Canada's socialist medicine program as a model for the U.S. may have second thoughts after seeing the conditions depicted in this film.)

The setup allows Arcand to reexamine some of the same territory that the original film was known for. The characters engage in conversations about politics, letters, human relationships and, naturally, sex. In a gesture towards even-handedness, Arcand shows the strengths and foibles of those on both sides of the political spectrum.

The film won awards for Best Screenplay (Arcand) and Best Actress (Croze) at the most recent Cannes Film Festival, accolades that will undoubtedly leave many younger viewers scratching their heads.

Don't be too surprised if a talented Generation X director makes a similar movie in twenty years or so. At that time, today's naysayers (who will then be middle aged) may give you a significantly different reaction. (R) Rating: 3, Posted 2/6/04

Monster
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

On Oct. 9, 2002, after 12 years on death row, Aileen Wuornos was executed by the state of Florida. Heralded in the media as America's first female serial killer, the evidence showed she killed at least six men she encountered as customers from her highway prostitution. Her story has spawned no less than three movies, several books, one comic book and even an opera.

Monster is a biopic that explores a period in Wuornos' life during which she fell in with lesbian Selby Wall, who was sent to Florida for "rehabilitation" by her fundamentalist father. Much has been made of the performance of Charlize Theron, who is barely recognizable as the strutting, rough and decidedly unattractive Wuornos. Christina Ricci plays Selby Wall, and the character pairing is both entirely convincing and painfully harrowing as a reminder of the wretchedness of society's underclass.

When the curtain opens on "Lee" Wuornos, she is carrying a gun, with the intent of killing herself. She enters what turns out to be a gay bar for a last drink and hooks up with the similarly lonely and desperate Selby. Selby invites her back to the Christian home where she is staying and Lee is so profoundly in need of heartfelt attachment that she is soon able to ignore matters of sexual orientation. The two quickly plan a future together, but Lee's fervid insistence on taking care of Selby and Selby's complicity in the one-sided devotion becomes their undoing.

Lee is so artless she believes she can segue from a life of prostitution to an office job. When she necessarily returns to the only career she has ever known, she is brutally raped and in self-defense kills the john who attacked her. Having avoided being caught, the next time she is picked up, it occurs to her that she hates men, and it seems an easy leap to kill this one too. As her victims become increasingly less heinous, we learn more of Lee's grim story of childhood abuse and neglect and of a society who shuns her. By the time a cruel cold-blooded kill nets her final victim, Aileen Wuornos has become difficult to demonize.

Monster is a heart-breaking but even-handed study of a victim and victimizer; it's about a character whose desperate stab at love illuminates her humanity. For the filmgoers who learn about her life, this depiction will rouse a crucial but sadly futile hope for a good ending. (R) Rating: 4, Posted 2/6/04

Bad Santa
Reviewed by Russ Simmons



If you decide to plunk down some of your hard-earned dollars for the cynical black comedy, Bad Santa, you’ll probably hate it…or hate yourself for loving it.

In one of the darkest, nastiest dissections of holiday excess, Billy Bob Thornton stars as a drunken, miserable safecracker who takes on jobs as a department store Santa so that he can rob the stores blind. His accomplice, an African-American dwarf (Tony Cox), does his best to keep Thornton’s inebriated Santa together just long enough to pull off one more heist. Things get dodgy when a mall detective, played by Bernie Mac, wises up to the thieves and wants in on the haul.

Director Terry Zwigoff, best known for movies like Crumb and Ghost World, throws caution to the wind, making Thornton’s title character so vile that he’s almost from another dimension. It’s a gamble that will turn off most audiences, but could also make Bad Santa a cult classic beloved by closet cynics everywhere. (R) Rating: 3

Love Don’t Cost A Thing
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Hey, wasn’t it just a few years ago that they gave us Can’t Buy Me Love? If you don’t have a new idea, I guess you should go back to the well.

Nick Cannon (Drumline) plays a nerdy high school kid who longs to be one of the cool crowd. Working as a pool boy, he has saved $1,500 to buy parts for a car engine he’s designed for a scholarship contest. Instead of using the money as planned, he pays a beautiful classmate (Christina Millan) to pose as his girlfriend for two weeks in an effort to make him popular.

Even if you haven’t seen Can’t Buy Me Love, you’ll be able to figure this one out within a few minutes after the opening credits. What distinguishes this from the earlier version is the African-American slant. (Comedian Steve Harvey has some funny moments as Nick’s dad.) A few minor adjustments have been made to the script in order to adapt the film for this audience, but the essential “Pygmalion’ elements are still all too obvious.

In the final analysis, Love Don’t Cost a Thing is an innocuous addition to the teen comedy genre that manages to keep the sex humor to a minimum. What it lacks, of course, is originality. (PG-13) Rating: 2

Stuck on You
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

How’s this for a setup? A pair of thirtysomething conjoined twins decides to head for Hollywood because one of them wants to try a career as an actor. If this sounds like material for the Farrelly Brothers (There’s Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber), you’d be right.

Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear play the cheerful twins in a tasteless comedy that manages to mine a few laughs (and plenty of groans) from the unlikely situation.

Luckily, the filmmakers found some Hollywood types (Cher, Meryl Streep and Griffin Dunne) who were more than willing to make fun of themselves. The real laughs in the movie come from making fun of the vagaries of show business, while the humor surrounding the twins seems to fall flat.

Cher is a hoot playing herself, a once hot star that gets trapped in a contract requiring her to do a bad TV action drama. She agrees, but only if the Kinnear’s character co-stars. She figures that this will be enough to ensure the show will be rejected. Naturally, she’s wrong.

Stuck on You is pretty fun for about half of its length, but isn’t able to sustain itself for nearly two hours. Like the twins, it’s burdened with half as much material as it needs. (PG-13) Rating: 2

21 Grams
Reviewed by Russ Simmons


After making a sensational debut with Amores Perros, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu has followed up with another unique, intellectually stimulating work.

This time out, Iñárritu has made his film in English with three terrific actors. Sean Penn (Mystic River), Naomi Watts (The Ring) and Benicio Del Toro (Traffic) give admirable, heartfelt performances as three strangers who find that their lives have become entangled due to a tragic automobile accident. Penn plays a mathematician who is given the heart of one of the victims. Naomi Watts is the wife and mother who suffer the loss of her family. Benicio Del Toro plays a born-again ex-con who may have caused it all and endures the self-loathing of a man who has committed an unconscionable act.

Iñárritu mounts the action in a non-linear form. He delivers scenes completely out of sequence in order to draw us in, have us make assumptions about what we’ve seen, and draw our own conclusions before the stories ultimately fold back on one another. His unique vision and the stunning acting on display help to make 21 Grams as memorable as it is tragic. (R) Rating: 4

Paycheck
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney


Paycheck is based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, the writing genius that gave us Bladerunner, one of the best science fiction films of all time. Unfortunately, while Paycheck might pay off in the box office, its legacy will be fleeting. The story begins with an interesting premise and some alluring science fiction but has a fatal flaw in providing anticipation-busting foresight as feature of the plot early on. The moment at which the audience becomes aware that the protagonist has seen the future, the film quickly degenerates into an action flick, and an indifferent one at that.

Ben Affleck plays Michael Jennings, a “reverse engineer” contracted for special short-term projects and then subjected to memory wipes for security purposes. When he accepts a two-year assignment for a colossal paycheck, he meets the alluring Rachel (a distinctly worn-looking Uma Thurman), who works as a biologist for the same company. He “reawakens” two years later to find a packet of assorted miscellaneous items he has mailed to himself, along with a conspicuously absent paycheck. His task is to find out what brought him to this point.

Full of extraneous plot devices and faulty logic, the shlocky dialog does little to bolster an ever-diminishing narrative trajectory. (R) Rating: 2

 

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