Click here to return to the Shaking Through Home Page

 

  Shaking Through.net WWW

 

 Archive Home | Movies | Music | Books | Comics | Editorial

 
   

Movie Archives: Most Recent | Highest Rated | Alphabetical

Movies: Shakethrus: 2006 | 2005 | 2004 | 2003 | 2002 | 2001

December 31, 2002

Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary
Andre Heller, Othmar Schmiderer, Austria / Germany, 2002
Rating: 3.8
The equivalent of a cinematic deathbed confession, Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary is a no-frills interview with then 81-year-old Traudl Junge. Junge passed away the day the film debuted at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival, and Blind Spot grants us a fascinating window into a woman desperately trying to reconcile how she could have worked for one of the most despised men in history, yet fondly remember him as a soft-spoken father figure. Even Junge, who in her early twenties worked as Adolf Hitler’s personal secretary from 1942 until Berlin fell in late April 1945, seems to have gained little insight into the enigmatic man, who could be so polite and gentle in person and yet order the deaths of millions as a matter of national policy. For Junge, the position was merely a job (she was never a member of the Nazi party and, by all accounts, was utterly apolitical), and her true ambition in life was to be a dancer. Such desires went out the window during the war, however, and the young woman found herself in the Fuhrerbunker, recalling with chilling clarity an officer noting “That was a direct hit” as Hitler’s fatal suicide shot sounded. Blind Spot uses no archival footage or photos to decorate its narrative; there's just Junge, speaking to the person behind the camera. Most fascinating is Junge watching the initial interview footage at a later date and mouthing the words she’s speaking, amending certain observations and attempting to put other comments in a more focused light. Blind Spot’s most emotionally compelling moment comes when Junge attempts to explain her indifference to Hitler and the Nazi crimes as youthful naiveté. But then she mentions Sophie Scholl, a girl near her age, who opposed the Nazis and was executed in 1943, and it’s obvious Junge wishes she had seen more clearly the atrocities being committed in the name of National Socialism.

::: Laurence Station

Top

December 30, 2002

Antwone Fisher
Denzel Washington, USA, 2002
Rating: 3.5
Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington's directorial debut is neither a disappointment nor a breakthrough. In bringing the true story of Antwone Fisher (based on the real life Fisher's own screenplay) to the big screen, Washington presents a sturdy, if unimaginatively executed, narrative that tracks a young seaman with serious rage issues as he attempts to come to terms with his troubled past. To say that Fisher was born behind the proverbial eight ball is an understatement. Fisher's father was killed shortly before his birth -- which ultimately took place in an Ohio correctional facility. Sent to an orphanage, young Antwone eventually wound up in a less than charitable foster home, forced to endure mental, physical and sexual abuses. Newcomer Derek Luke displays artfully subtle craftsmanship in the lead role, bringing a sensitivity and guileless sincerity to Fisher. This role could easily be played over-the-top, but the decision to keep Fisher's conflicted nature low-key and simmering elevates the film above the realm of melodramatic potboilers. A scene in which Fisher tracks down his birth mother is powerful for what isn't said (thanks in no small part to the consistently impressive Viola Davis), rather than falling into the too-easy trap of overly emotional histrionics. The climactic journey Fisher takes back to his hometown of Cleveland, in order to put his childhood demons to rest, gives the film a much needed push after the first half's pedestrian doctor-patient visits. A subplot involving the troubled marriage of Fisher's Naval psychiatrist, Dr. Jerome Davenport (Washington), subtracts more than adds to the primary story. Antwone Fisher also lacks any real surprises, and thus ultimately feels dramatically flat. But it boasts an emotional honesty all too rarely seen at cineplexes these days.

::: Laurence Station

Top

December 30, 2002

The Hot Chick
Tom Brady, USA, 2002
Rating: 1.3
Imagine you're a big Hollywood studio executive, and a producer walks in with the following pitch: Thanks to a pair of magical earrings, Rob Schneider switches bodies with a snobby teen cheerleader and spends the majority of the movie acting effeminate and exchanging beauty secrets with fellow cheerleaders. That's the premise of The Hot Chick, a film so sub-par that it actually makes one pine for Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. Tom Brady (not the New England Patriots quarterback and most recent Super Bowl MVP -- though his involvement would certainly add to the pitiably low amusement factor) moves beyond merely penning Schneider's material (last year's The Animal) and does a by-the-numbers job in the director's chair, monotonously placing Schneider in one awkward "female" situation after another. At least the mother of all body switching flicks, 1976's Freaky Friday, benefited from the far more appealing Jodie Foster in the lead. The Hot Chick is rude, crude and socially unacceptable. Jessica (Rachel McAdams), stuck with Schneider's consciousness inside her, immediately takes up stripping, while Jessica's girlfriends, dealing with Rob Schneider's hirsute physique demand he drop his shorts for them after easily buying into the fact that their best friend has indeed undergone a serious makeover. As if to counterbalance such lowbrow sight gags, the film tries to impart a positive message as well, offering the sage insight that "To thy own self be true" is the key to happiness. The Hot Chick proves that studio heads will, given the right muscle (Adam Sandler served as Executive Producer and has a small role), greenlight just about anything -- even a Dud-on-Arrival such as this one.

::: Laurence Station

Top

December 30, 2002

Lovely and Amazing
Nicole Holofcener, USA, 2001
Rating: 3.8
Writer-director Nicole Holofcener's 1996 feature film debut Walking and Talking focused on loneliness and the complex and complicated bonds between two female friends. Lovely and Amazing, her follow-up (interrupted by her helming of several episodes of HBO's wildly popular Sex and the City) drills down even deeper into the female psyche, this time concentrating on the loving but strained dynamics between a mother (the great Brenda Blethyn) and her three daughters. Catherine Keener (who also starred in Walking and Talking) portrays Michelle, the oldest daughter, an unemployed wannabe artist struggling to keep her marriage intact while raising a young daughter. Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) is a frustrated actress, yet to find the right person to share her ups and downs with, while the youngest, adopted eight-year-old Annie (standout Raven Goodwin), pines to shed her black skin for that of her white mother and siblings. Sticking with the same unflinchingly naturalistic tone of Walking and Talking, Lovely and Amazing allows the audience to slip into the lives of its characters, observe them making both wise and unwise choices, and then step out without ever truly seeing any resolution to their various problems. Holofcener knows exactly what she wants, however, and her confidence in not browbeating her viewers with dramatic confrontations and life-altering incidents adds undeniable veracity to the proceedings. This is life: more a series of bumps in the road than violent collisions. While it might not be everyone's cup of tea, Lovely and Amazing is nonetheless an engaging, if intentionally downbeat, little gem of a film.

::: Laurence Station

Top

December 30, 2002

Unfaithful
Adrian Lyne, USA, 2002
Rating: 2.0
Though director Adrian Lyne may find it classier to cite Claude Chabrol's well-regarded 1969 film La Femme Infidele (The Unfaithful Wife) as the inspiration for Unfaithful, the true stimulus behind this soft-core tale of sex and murder appears to have come from checking out old episodes of Zalman King's Red Shoe Diaries. At least those guilty-pleasure sleaze-fests didn't pretend to be anything deeper or more respectable than they were. By contrast, Unfaithful adopts a somber, "important" tone out of all proportion to its tawdry plot. Simply put, Lyne, who's had success with similarly titillating marital crisis efforts (Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal), hits rock bottom here. The main problem stems from the fact that seemingly happily married Connie Sumner (Diane Lane, crying an awful lot) lives the upper middle class suburban dream: Doting husband (a steady Richard Gere), adorable son (Malcolm in the Middle's Erik Per Sullivan) various fund-raising activities to help her feel fulfilled. Despite all this, one ridiculously overblown (pun intended) windy day in New York's Soho district, Connie encounters -- and soon begins a torrid affair with -- a hunky book dealer (Olivier Martinez). Naturally, Connie's husband grows suspicious, and ultimately confronts Martinez with the requisite crime of passion taking place. With Connie and her husband sharing in the culpability of the affair gone wrong, and inexplicably finding their union strengthened because of it, the film's larger message seems to be that it's all right for a woman to have a fling, even if it leads to murder, as long as the status quo of her world isn't disrupted too greatly by the minor indiscretion. Unfaithful is morally bankrupt and should have ditched the self-serious tone altogether given its inane plot. Better instead if Lyne had consulted Zalman King for a few shamelessly appropriate pointers on lust and how best to get away with manslaughter.

::: Laurence Station

Top

November 30, 2002

Pumpkin
Tony R. Abrams, Adam Larson Broder, USA, 2002
Rating: 2.0
There's something telling about the fact that two directors worked on Pumpkin. That the film wants to be scathing satire, yet still possess a heart of gold, reflects the inherent (negative) tension at play throughout the movie. In its tale of a sorority girl (Christina Ricci) who falls in love with a Special Olympics (called Challenged Games here) athlete (Hank Harris, as the titular character, easily giving the best performance in the film), Pumpkin hopes to have it both ways. It aims to skewer hypocritical behavior while offering a genuine love story between two people from completely different backgrounds. Ricci does fine work, but is bogged down by scenes that introduce her character to the ugliness of the world (apparently for the first time, given her trite, privileged background) through images of dead birds, crawling rats, and maggot-infested garbage cans, yet then has her cluelessly attempting to set Pumpkin up with an overweight friend in an attempt to deflect her feelings for the young man. If Pumpkin had stuck to one course -- either vicious send-up of contradictory social attitudes toward the handicapped or heartwarming tale of a young girl's redemption via exposure to a previously foreign world, it might have held together far better than it does in this overlong, hodgepodge train wreck of a tale.

::: Laurence Station

Top

November 30, 2002

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood
Callie Khouri, USA, 2002
Rating: 2.5
For a film professing to be about the mysteries of, and strength derived from, sisterhood, there's very little of it to be found in this adaptation of the best-selling Rebecca Wells novels Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Little Altars Everywhere. Callie Khouri, who won an Oscar for her Thelma & Louise screenplay in 1991, assembles a powerhouse cast for her feature film debut. Unfortunately, the tale of an estranged mother (Ellen Burstyn) and daughter (Sandra Bullock) reconciliation in South Louisiana (said daughter having been "kidnapped" back home by mom's fellow Ya-Ya sisters, a closer-than-blood sorority of kindred spirits) traffics more in pat melodrama than in any rich insights into the deep bonds of a group of women forged 60 years earlier. The trio of Mother Vivi's fellow Ya-Yas -- Necie (Shirley Knight), Caro (Maggie Smith) and Teensy (Fionnula Flanagan) -- is ripe for exploration, especially given the many ups and downs the women have shared. But despite innumerable flashbacks (with a strong Ashley Judd as the young, reckless Vivi), the film stays mired in a modern soap opera, following a predictable course toward a too-easy hug-and-make-up conclusion.

::: Laurence Station

Top

November 30, 2002

Scooby-Doo
Raja Gosnell, USA, 2002
Rating: 1.7
The popular Hanna-Barbera canine gets a live-action makeover in this muddled feature that can't decide whether to revel in hipster retro irony (for grown-up fans of the 1970s cartoon) or play it straight to appeal to a whole new generation of cartoon-loving kids. Thus, Scooby-Doo is stuck in the middle, neither self-aware nor just plain fun. Director Raja Gosnell (Big Momma's House, Home Alone 3) manages a workmanlike effort, and Matthew Lillard's Shaggy is genuinely inspired at points, but the obvious drug references (Shaggy's love interest is named Mary Jane, for example) prove incompatible with the inherent silliness of the plot (concerning a haunted theme park the Mystery Inc. gang is commissioned to investigate). The performances run from the sturdy (Linda Cardellini proves far sexier than one would expect as Velma) to the just plain terrible (Freddie Prinze, Jr., doing a disservice to the depth of the cartoon Fred, Sarah Michelle Gellar's Buffy-wannabe Daphne). Rowan Atkinson does what he can as Mondavarious, the man who runs Spooky Island, but the plot is cardboard-thin and the CGI horrible. Rather than render Scooby-Doo as a realistic looking Great Dane, the film offers up a CGI version of the cartoon Scooby that might have worked had the entire movie been created on the computer, a la Toy Story. The end result is one big mess.

::: Laurence Station

Top

November 30, 2002

The Powerpuff Girls Movie
Craig McCracken, Jeong Chang-Yul, Kim Jong-Ho, USA, 2002
Rating: 2.0
Craig McCracken's Cartoon Network hit hits the big screen with less than Powerpuff-inspired results. Those expecting the film to follow the tried-and-true Powerpuff Girls formula, resulting in essentially an extra long episode, will be sorely disappointed: the film serves as an origin story (which stretches on far too long, whereas the TV series dispenses with the pertinent facts in the opening minute). Worse, it's a vehicle for ho-hum moralizing on the blessing and curse of great power. In a nutshell: Professor Utonium (voice of Tom Kane) accidentally spills Chemical X into a formula of sugar, spice and (the always hard to track down) everything nice, thus creating a trio of super-powered little girls: prudent Blossom (voice of Cathy Cavadini), optimistic Bubbles (voice of Tara Strong) and headstrong Buttercup (voice of Elizabeth Daily). After causing much trouble in Townsville, the girls eventually learn to use their powers for good, taking on Professor Utonium's ex-lab assistant, a Chemical X-exposed monkey named Mojo Jojo (voice of Roger L. Jackson). All of the exposition drags the film down, and it's obvious such excessive background shading was driven by some preconceived notion subsequent features would follow. Sadly, the running time exposes the fundamental vacuity of the plot and there's simply not enough Powerpuff spunk to merit a recommendation. Stick with collected episodes on DVD instead.

::: Laurence Station

Top

November 11, 2002

Bowling for Columbine
Michael Moore, USA, 2002
Rating: 3.0
Liberal bomb-thrower Michael Moore (Roger & Me) raises some interesting questions in Bowling for Columbine, and manages to generate a good number of laughs in the process. And he's certainly passionate about the issue of gun violence in America. But passion and a camera crew aren't substitutes for substance, and it's on that score that Columbine is sorely lacking. By turns engrossing and frustrating, the film flits from subject to subject at random, and fails to tie them into any coherent points: Militia members, Oklahoma City bombing suspect James Nichols and NRA president Charlton Heston come in for their share of give-'em-enough-rope embarrassment, but no dots are connected. (Moore's grating, passive-aggressive interview technique actually has the unintended effect of making us feel sorry for an ambushed Heston, who slowly totters away from the interview, incredibly leaving Moore and crew alone on the actor's estate). Elsewhere, he spends a lot of time asking why America boasts such a ridiculously high gun homicide rate compared to Canada, with no easy answers. But tellingly, even though he concedes that the availability of guns isn't necessarily the problem (they're easy to come by in Canada as well), he spends a lot of time badgering K-Mart to stop selling ammunition, as if such an act would really have prevented the tragedy at Columbine High School (about which scapegoat Marilyn Manson proves surprisingly level-headed and astute). Moore's efforts here, with two Columbine survivors, and elsewhere on behalf of a six-year-old gun victim, smack of opportunistic carpetbagging. At the end of the day, this overlong, directionless documentary ignores its own caveat: despite going to great pains to establish that we live in a media-perpetuated culture of fear (a very real root cause of gun violence, to be sure), Moore essentially spends a couple of hours trying to make us upset and afraid.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

Top

October 23, 2002

Knockaround Guys
Brian Koppelman, David Levien, USA, 2001
Rating: 2.2
The plot of Knockaround concerns the son of a Mafia wise guy frustrated that he's never risen in the mob's ranks. Ironically, the film itself -- a direct descendent of mobster classics like The Godfather and GoodFellas -- is a mediocre effort that certainly will never be mentioned in the same breath as its older, more highly respected forebears. Surely, that's not what Brian Koppelman and David Levien intentioned when they shot the film back in 1999, only to have it shelved, awaiting a direct-to-video destiny until Vin Diesel went and became a major box office player. As a result of his fame more than his role, Diesel gets second billing, since the film's primary focus is Matty (Barry Pepper), son of mid-level New York mob boss Benny "Chains" (Dennis Hopper). Matty's resentful that he's considered too soft for hardcore mafia activities. Failing in an attempt find legitimate work, Matty convinces his father to let him handle the transfer of a half-million in cash from Washington State to Brooklyn. Dad agrees, and Matty arranges for the woefully unreliable Johnny Marbles (Seth Green) to fly to Spokane and pick up the loot. Unfortunately, Marbles loses the money during a pit stop in Montana, and the cash winds up in the hands of a morally questionable sheriff (Tom Noonan) who wants to keep it. Predictably, Matty and his crew of junior mobsters are forced to go to the small town and attempt to recover the money before the big boys back east take notice. The resolution is pedestrian and flat, while Knockaround Guys on the whole is obvious, uninteresting, and poorly paced -- a lasting contribution to the not-so hallowed halls of mediocrity.

::: Laurence Station

Top

October 12, 2002

Igby Goes Down
Burr Steers, USA, 2002
Rating: 3.8
If J.D. Salinger's iconic Holden Caulfield grew up, got married and had a family, it might resemble the dysfunctional, WASP-y brood that inhabits the darkly cynical Igby Goes Down. Down, the work of first time writer/director Burr Steers, draws on its creator's own eccentric upper crust upbringing to tell the story of Igby Slocumb (fantastically realized by Kieran Culkin), an angry, disaffected 17-year-old rebelling against the privilege and wealth he's had the misfortune to be born into. Igby's schizophrenic father (an under-utilized Bill Pullman) has been locked away in a mental hospital, while his self-absorbed, emotionally detached mother (an icy Susan Sarandon) is dying of breast cancer. Throw in a status-conscious, collegiate big brother (Ryan Phillippe), and it's obvious which bitter well Igby's many issues spring from. Like his spiritual forefather Caulfield's flight from a Pennsylvania prep school, Igby escapes the stifling Georgetown socialite scene -- and the Midwestern military school his mother has jettisoned him off to -- to explore the highs and lows of New York City. Hanging out at one of his godfather's (Jeff Goldblum) many rental properties, he enjoys the company of a junkie choreographer (Amanda Peet) and begins a doomed-from-the-start relationship with aimless Sookie Sapperstein (Claire Danes), whose radical difference from Igby in age and social class hinder any chance of happily-ever-after romantic bliss. The conceit of Igby "going down," i.e., following his father in a slow descent from sanity, proves the film's strongest element. Indeed, some of the most affecting scenes involve Kieran's younger brother Rory as a 10-year-old Igby, who has the misfortune of watching his father go mad. Unfortunately, Steers veers astray from his lead, when the film should have stuck with his vantage point throughout. And it's this lack of focus on Igby that ultimately drains energy from the film, taking what could have been a fascinating character study and turning it into an unnecessarily panoramic twirl through the visual equivalent of a Hamptons cocktail party.

::: Laurence Station

Top

October 07, 2002

Murder by Numbers
Barbet Schroeder, 2002
Rating: 3.5
By virtue of its title, this capable if unsurprising thriller sets itself up for some obvious and well-deserved barbs. And, yes, it does hew all-too-faithfully to the kind of well-worn Hollywood formula for which terms like "cookie-cutter" were coined. Sandra Bullock, straining at the edges of her comfortable screen persona and only mildly succeeding, plays Cassie Mayweather, a homicide detective known as "the hyena" to her male colleagues because of her tough exterior. Cassie comes loaded with designer cop-drama baggage: questionable behavior (including seducing her partner, a straight-arrow Ben Chaplin), murky, sepia-toned memories and a tendency to relate to the victims of her investigations. Oh, and a strong antipathy for smug, successful golden boys, from a wooden D.A. she once dated, to high school cad Richard Haywood (Ryan Gosling). The popular Haywood and brainy, sullen Justin (an attention-grabbing Michael Pitt) have committed the murder Cassie's currently investigating (it's the boys' methodical thrill-kill planning, rather than the script, to which the title refers), but she can't seem to prove it, especially after the drug-dealing high school janitor the boys frame for the crime winds up dead, allegedly by his own hand. Pieces fall comfortingly into place like tumblers in a well-oiled lock, and darned if Cassie doesn't end up confronting her troubled past in the process. (Bullock's tidy line to Pitt at the end about dealing with one's past -- meant for herself as much as for him, don't you see! -- is the film's one true groaner moment.) Still, despite its reliance on trite standbys (does the world need another crusty police captain who doesn't listen to our spunky heroine until the end of the film?), Murder by Numbers paints inside its lines with competence and charm, and never aspires beyond its station. A perfect popcorn flick rental.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

Top

October 02, 2002

Life as a House
Irvin Winkler, USA, 2001
Rating: 3.0
Before one can rebuild oneself, he must first come to an acceptance of just who and what he is. Right out of the gate, this jerky, schizophrenic tearjerker stumbles over that obstacle, as it can never quite make up its mind what kind of film it aspires to be. At times, Life as a House is content with its easily-defined status as a populist family drama. But at others, due mainly to its jumpy editing, rushed pacing and self-consciously "edgy" subplots (involving teen prostitution and largely pointless explorations of May-December sexuality), Irvin Winkler's fluttery film seems to aspire to a quirky social commentary on the order of American Beauty. There are some similarities: George (an always-able Kevin Kline) is fired from his job, and like Kevin Spacey's Lester Burnham, George comes face to face with his mortality: he's got cancer, and less than six months to live. But what Winkler and screenwriter Mark Andrus (As Good as It Gets, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood) critically fail to realize is that Life as a House is too clunky and too obvious in its symbolism to be effective. George more or less commandeers his sullen teenage son Sam (a pouty, screechy-voiced Hayden Christenson -- what did Lucas see in him, anyway?) to help tear down his dilapidated old house (i.e., the past) and build a snazzy new one (the future, anyone?). Mary Steenburgen and the beautiful and talented Jena Malone are largely wasted, and Kristen Scott Thomas tries valiantly to invest her one-note role as George's ex-wife (falling in love all over again, natch) with some depth. Life as a House is a likable popcorn flick, but its heavy-handed attempts to become something more are more distracting than helpful. Still, one wishes it had succeeded.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

Top

September 25, 2002

The Salton Sea
D.J. Caruso, USA, 2002
Rating: 2.0
Southern California speed freak subculture gets the star treatment in this revenge noir from first-time director D.J. Caruso. Val Kilmer plays Danny Parker, a crystal meth-addicted former trumpet player who spends his time getting high and turning fellow users, or "tweakers," over to a pair of corrupt cops, Garcetti (Anthony LaPaglia) and Tanner (Doug Hutchison). The standard final big score/setup, involving noseless crank dealer Pooh Bear (Vincent D'Onofrio, having way too much fun), includes a few interesting twists and turns, but the script wimps out in a big way regarding the fulfillment of Danny's too-obvious death wish. Ultimately, however, Salton Sea is hobbled by its unnecessary and irresponsible glorification of its characters' terrible addictions. Caruso attempts to present Sea as mere entertainment, with the back-door justification that it simply depicts the reality of addiction. This is a cop-out: No matter how creatively it's shot, there's nothing cool about addiction, and no amount of hyper-kinetically framed scenes can erase its obvious miseries. Perhaps even worse, we're treated to an attempt to see just how many idiosyncrasies can be piled onto these characters, which further trivializes their plight. And the existence of a (relatively) happy ending undermines what should have been a sad commentary on the hopeless world of drug addicts, instead of a drama that glorifies and glances over their pain. In the end, Salton Sea is mainlined darkness without a soul.

::: Laurence Station

Top

September 25, 2002

Barbershop
Tim Story, USA, 2002
Rating: 2.8
Barbershop is an enjoyably lighthearted comedy that takes an unnecessary and decidedly under-committed stab at drama. Rapper/actor Ice Cube (Friday, Anaconda) plays Calvin, two years into running the barbershop he inherited from his deceased father. The shop is in imminent jeopardy of foreclosure if Calvin doesn't come up with enough money to cover the property taxes, so -- feeling backed into a financial corner and burdened by the obligation to follow in his old man's footsteps -- he impulsively sells the business to local loanshark Lester (an appropriately villainous David Keith). Lester means no good for the longtime south side Chicago meeting place; he plans to turn it into a "Gentleman's Club." Naturally, Calvin has a change of heart and tries to return Lester's money to him, but there's a catch: Lester wants double what he paid by the end of the day. It doesn't take Miss Cleo to predict that things will probably work out fine for Calvin and his friends in the end, but the plot isn't really the point of Barbershop, which is more concerned with the establishment's contribution to the community, serving as a central meeting place of sorts for the neighborhood denizens. Employees and customers trade verbal barbs continuously, with Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer), an old-old school, particularly opinionated barber who's not afraid to take sacred cows of the black community (Rosa Parks, Jesse Jackson, et al.) to task, getting most of the best lines. The rest of the cast comports itself equally well, including Sean Patrick Thomas, a college-educated know-it-all, Michael Ealy as a two-time convicted felon with the proverbial heart of gold, Troy Garity as the token white guy out to prove his "blackness," and rapper Eve as a single woman just looking for the right man -- and the culprit who keeps drinking her apple juice. While it doesn't break new ground, either in its social commentary or comedic insights, Barbershop is still a reasonably well-constructed, appealing place to kill an hour or two.

::: Laurence Station

Top

September 22, 2002

Trapped
Luis Mandoki, USA, 2002
Rating: 2.6
Journeyman Hollywood director Luis Mandoki adds to a resume full of solid, if unremarkable, mainstream fare (Angel Eyes, When A Man Loves A Woman) with Trapped, a workmanlike kidnap thriller that suffers, much like the kidnapping it documents, from poor planning. Kevin Bacon, exuding a likable blend of smarm and menace, plays kidnapper Joe Hickey, who with the help of soft-spoken accomplice Marvin (an effective Pruitt Taylor Vince), spirits young Abby Jennings (Dakota Fanning) away, practically under the nose of affluent designer Karen (Charlize Theron). Joe then glues himself to Karen's side, even as his wife Cheryl (Courtney Love) intrudes upon the serenity of Karen's husband, rising star Dr. Will Jennings (Stuart Townsend), at a medical conference, as part of a seemingly well-executed scheme. Complications ensue, naturally, but these early scenes critically lack a sense of tension. Early on, there are clues that there's more to this kidnapping than meets the eye, that Trapped may be a smarter thriller than it is. But Joe's ultimate motive -- revenge -- proves a disappointing trope that calls into serious question Joe's previous kidnappings: Were they just practice for this, the supposed main event? To make matters worse, Joe's plan is full of more holes than Charlie Brown's Halloween ghost costume: He doesn't account for Abby's asthmatic condition, and the instability of his collaborators renders his successful kidnapping track record doubtful at best. The cast does the best it can with what it's given, which is considerable: Bacon and the precocious Fanning (I am Sam) are excellent, Townsend and Theron are utterly believable as the desperate parents, and Love comports herself nicely as Joe's abused, hesitant partner. But solid acting and a few well-placed thrills aren't enough to overcome the frustration we feel at Trapped's inability to transcend its genre constraints and clumsy plotting.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

Top

September 22, 2002

Possession
Neil Labute, USA, 2002
Rating: 3.4
Neil Labute (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors) takes his first crack at directing material not of his creation, and the results aren't half-bad. Adapted from A.S. Byatt's acclaimed 1990 Booker Prize winner for the big screen, Labute's tale of parallel modern and Victorian era romances, framed by a literary-sleuthing device, works primarily on the strength of a strong cast and the director's clever juxtaposition between the two periods. Labute regular Aaron Eckhart plays Roland Michell, who, in the course of literary research, unearths a letter that casts doubt on the faithful-husband image of famed 19th-century poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam): It appears to Michell that Ash had indulged in an affair with lesser-known poet Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle). To prove his theory, Michell joins forces with British LaMotte expert (and distant relation to the woman) Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow). Naturally, Roland and Maud grow closer as they discover the truth of Ash's relationship with LaMotte. The parallels between the two relationships provide Possession with its strongest element, contrasting the expected reserve of the Victorian romance with the difficulties of love in faster paced, less intimately communicative modern day. A lame subplot involving rival scholars on the hunt to uncover the same truth about Ash -- including an embarrassing grave-robbing sequence -- undermines Possession's overall effectiveness, but it's still an enjoyable tale painted against the oft-stodgy backdrop of academia.

::: Laurence Station

Top

September 22, 2002

Frailty
Bill Paxton, USA, 2002
Rating: 3.3
Frailty takes the classic "let me tell you a story" framing device -- done ad nauseam in countless horror films -- and makes it work, primarily on the strength of its ideas regarding Biblical justice of an Old-Testament-God severity and the near God-like power a parent wields over his obedient children. The film opens with Fenton Meeks (Matthew McConaughey) arriving at FBI headquarters in Dallas on a dark and stormy night, eager to relate the tale of how his brother is the so-called God's Hands killer, responsible for a string of recent slayings. Agent Doyle (Powers Boothe), the man in charge of the case, proves an eager listener, and Fenton recounts his tale in flashback: He and his brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) are awakened one night by their widower father (director Paxton -- whose extensive other acting credits include A Simple Plan and Apollo 13), and told that he's been visited by God. The Almighty has apparently told the senior Meeks that the Apocalypse is near, and that Satan has set demons loose in the world disguised as ordinary people. It's up to father and sons to seek out these demons, expose their true natures and destroy them. Thus the boys, are drawn into dad's murderous mission, with the older Fenton showing a greater reluctance than his more devout younger brother. Paxton's direction is solid, and the photography -- by veteran DP Bill Butler (Deliverance, Jaws, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) -- appropriately dark and moody. The screenplay, by first timer Brent Hanley, falls into the trap of trying too hard to outwit the audience by throwing in a poorly telegraphed "gotcha" ending. This regrettably undermines the emotional depth of the film's central theme: the ruin misguided parents can bring upon their too-dutiful children. Frailty is creepy, and enjoys its share of genuine jolts. But the trappings were there for it to be so much more.

::: Laurence Station

Top

September 22, 2002

Hollywood Ending
Woody Allen, USA, 2002
Rating: 3.2
A literal take on the old saying that "love is blind," Hollywood Ending stars veteran director Woody Allen as Val Waxman, a down-and-out filmmaker who, despite a pair of Oscars to his credit, finds that no one wants to work with him; he's considered too eccentric and unmanageable to trust with a big budget film. In Val's favor is ex-wife Ellie (a strong Tea Leoni), who convinces her current fiancée, studio head Hal (Treat Williams), to let Val direct The City Never Sleeps, a noir drama set in 1940s New York. While Val wants the job, he's daunted by emotional tension stemming from the fact that Ellie left him for his new employer. Compounding matters is the fact that the weekend before the big shoot is set to begin, Val loses his sight, a malady that experts quickly diagnose as psychosomatic. Val's blindness leads to a requisite series of amusing sight gags (pun intended): Val falling off of raised sets; Val frustrated by his inability to effectively communicate with his non-English speaking cinematographer; Val unable to appreciate an up-and-coming actress's (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen) ample talents as she tries to seduce him in her dressing room. To his credit, Allen declines to go for the easy, obvious message (that Hollywood films have gotten so lame a blind person could direct them), opting instead for a more tender lesson regarding love: Val never saw the beauty in Ellie when they were married. With a trite title like Hollywood Ending, it's obvious that Val will win the girl in the end: What's not so apparent is whether Waxman (and Allen himself) will end up making a bad motion picture in the process. Ending's pacing proves terminally slow in the film's early going, and many of the one-liners fall flat, but Allen still knows how to wring genuine humor out of total chaos.

::: Laurence Station

Top

September 22, 2002

The Count of Monte Cristo
Kevin Reynolds, USA, 2002
Rating: 2.5
Director Kevin Reynolds, now completely liberated from his indentured servitude to Kevin Costner (Waterworld, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), takes a crack at Alexandre Dumas the Elder's famous tale of betrayal and revenge. The Count of Monte Cristo recounts the story of poor Edmond Dantes (James Caviezel), a seaman with the misfortune of carrying in his possession a letter from the exiled Napoleon, which gets him mistakenly viewed as a treasonous agent by his so-called friend Fernand (a snarkily effective Guy Pearce). Dantes is sent off to D'If prison, the place innocent men who know too much are sequestered, and Fernand marries Dantes' fiancée, the fair Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk). Dantes makes the most of his time in jail, learning swordfighting and courtly manners from fellow incarcerated innocent Abbe Faria (an eager Richard Harris), who generously lets Dantes in on the location of a hidden treasure so that he might properly exact revenge on the vile Fernand. Dantes subsequently makes his escape and Reynolds faithfully follows the well-known plot to its obvious conclusion. The director's lack of deviations actually proves the film's weakest point. After all, Monte Cristo has been adapted so many times over the past century that it becomes an exercise in redundancy to offer a to-the-letter take yet again, especially if nothing new or insightful is added. As a workmanlike, Classics Illustrated-worthy effort, this Count succeeds, but one might as well see a far better version (try Claude Autant-Lara's 1961 adaptation, with Louis Jourdan as Dantes), especially if it's just a rehash of the already too-familiar particulars.

::: Laurence Station

Top

September 20, 2002

Kissing Jessica Stein
Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, 2002, USA
Rating: 3.0
Kissing Jessica Stein possesses a certain undeniable charm, even if it doesn't offer any real insights into the serpentine world of singles on the prowl in New York City. Based on Lipschtick, an off-Broadway play created by the two female leads, Stein is the story of the titular Jessica (Jennifer Westfeldt), who's nearing thirty and feeling pressure from her mother (a great Tovah Feldshuh) to meet the right man and settle down (especially in light of her younger brother's impending marriage). Jessica tries her best to make meaningful connections with the opposite sex, but can't seem to meet the right person, until she comes across a personal ad quoting her favorite poet (Rilke, for those keeping score). The hitch? The ad is placed by the sexually adventurous Helen Cooper (Heather Juergensen). Seemingly straight Jessica, feeling a connection to Helen's ad she hasn't felt in any of her actual encounters with men, reluctantly takes a chance on a meeting, and the film goes through the tried-and-true "will this work?" motions so endemic to romantic comedy. The chemistry between Westfeldt and Juergensen proves Stein's greatest asset as the film unspools its big questions: Will Jessica take Helen to her brother's wedding, thus letting the cat (that she's found Mr. Right may very well be a Ms.) out of the bag? Will Jessica's former college sweetheart (and current boss) rediscover the passion he once had for her? Will Jessica and Helen stay together, or is just a fleeting fling? Fortunately, Stein avoids a clichéd "breakup-but-get-back-together-by-the-closing-credits" resolution. The resolution it does offer, however, doesn't sufficiently justify the development of the characters, especially considering what they've gone through -- a first time same sex relationship for both. Kissing Jessica Stein is light, safe, and won't challenge any sexual stereotypes. As a breezy comedy about lust in the Big City, however, it succeeds just fine.

::: Laurence Station

Top

September 15, 2002

Changing Lanes
Roger Michell, USA, 2002
Rating: 2.0
As a morality play examining the extremes of good and evil in all of us, Roger Michell's Changing Lanes sports unquestionable potential. The characters -- up-and-coming lawyer Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) and down-and-out recovering alcoholic Doyle Gibson (Samuel L. Jackson) -- have a minor fender bender along New York's FDR Drive on Good Friday. Which turns out to be a not so great day, as both men are rushing to vitally important engagements. Banek has to reach a hearing so he can deliver a file that will secure his firm control of a $100 million charity fund, while Gibson needs to be in divorce court (coincidentally, both are heading to the same general location) to tell his wife he's just secured a house for her and his two boys, thus preventing her from leaving him and moving to Portland, Oregon. Changing Lanes turns on this chance encounter, wherein Gibson's vehicle is incapacitated and Banek, rather than give the man a lift, abandons him with the not-very-Good-Samaritan phrase: "Better luck next time." Unfortunately for the hotshot attorney, the file he needs to present to the judge to garner all those ill-gotten millions for his company gets left behind with Gibson, and the rest of the film traces the two mens' actions as they attempt to punish the other via increasingly violent and vindictive means. If Changing Lanes were nothing more than an existential riff on the dark nature lurking within everyday people, it might have worked. Regrettably, Michell frames it as a taut, urban drama. Furthermore, the script -- by Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin (The Player) -- isn't based in any plausible reality. Gibson and Banek play out their Spy vs Spy match in bustling New York City as if it's one big ethical playground devoid of real people leading actual lives. The supporting cast, meanwhile, is mainly employed to philosophize on abstract notions of greed, fate, and goodness. For such a realistically shot film, moving the cast about like chess pieces in a match between Nietzsche and Camus comes across as obvious and forced. A real waste of an intriguing idea and a solid cast.

::: Laurence Station

Top

September 9, 2002

My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Joel Zwick, USA, 2002
Rating: 2.5
There's a wonderfully staged scene in Woody Allen's Annie Hall where Allen's character visits ladylove Hall's family for dinner and the screen splits, contrasting the buttoned-up WASP aspects of the Hall household on one side with Allen's remembrances of his loud Brooklyn Jewish heritage on the other. My Big Fat Greek Wedding takes this one-note set piece and extends it over a ninety-minute period, reinforcing the point that no joke should overstay its welcome. In the case of Greek Wedding, we get brash, full-blooded food lovers of Mediterranean origin contrasted with reserved, snobbish, card-carrying country club members of Northern European stock. The results are neither original nor insightful. Based on the one woman show starring Nia Vardalos, Greek Wedding features Vardalos as Toula, a 30-year-old unmarried woman doomed to a life of old-maid waitressing at Dancing Zorba's, her father's tackily named Greek restaurant. Enter tall, handsome and unaffected schoolteacher Ian Miller (John Corbett of Northern Exposure and Sex and the City fame), and it's love at first sight for Toula; the two begin dating, fall in love and eventually get engaged. Toula's father has a difficult time accepting that his daughter has fallen for a non-Greek, and thus the Hellenizing of Ian commences, complete with a baptism in a child's wading pool at an Orthodox church. The film is light and sweet, with little tension to be found. The actual Greek wedding of the title proves the least important aspect of the story; It's all about Ian and Toula's zany courtship, wherein Greeks and WASPs learn to love one another despite their two-dimensionally-shaded differences. It's a plot that might have worked in the first half of the last century, when waves of immigrants were coming into the country and there was a genuine sense of cultural identity in one's neighborhood. But Chicago in the present day is certainly more ethnically homogenous than Greek Wedding makes it out to be. If you're in the mood for a good old-fashioned clichéd tale of saccharine sweet romance, you could do a lot worse.

::: Laurence Station

Top

September 2, 2002

Pauline and Paulette
Lieven Debrauwer, Netherlands/France/Belgium, 2001
Rating: 2.5
Lieven Debrauwer's first feature film is a light Belgian soufflé centering on a group of sisters whose lives are turned upside down when the death of oldest sister Martha (Julienne De Bruyn), leaves the care of mentally retarded Pauline (Dora van der Groen) to the remaining two siblings, neither of whom wants to be bothered with their likeable, but high-maintenance, relation. Neither sister will see a dime of Martha's fortune unless one of them takes Pauline in, saving her from life in an institution. Pauline, whose inner sweetness transcends the difficulty of her care and feeding, favors the unattached, opera-singing Paulette (Ann Petersen) over Cecile (Rosemarie Bergmans), newly entered into a relationship, and the film ends much the way one would expect, especially given the film's title and too-familiar, seemingly pre-ordained structure. There are few surprises to be found in this warm-hearted yet sad little comedy, but fine performances and solid camerawork make it a moderately watchable first effort nonetheless.

::: Laurence Station

Top

September 2, 2002

Birthday Girl
Jez Butterworth, UK/Australia, 2001
Rating: 2.7
Mild-mannered milquetoast John (Ben Chaplin), a timid British bank employee all too accepting of the predictable, passionless rut his life has become, sends off for a Russian mail order bride, rationalizing that his long hours and rural home make meeting women difficult. Enter Nadia, a striking young woman whom Jon is chagrined to discover knows no English, despite her online profile (he orders her from a website cheekily called From Russia With Love). John wants to send her back, but falters after she tearfully initiates sex. Soon, he's more or less settled into an awkward domesticity despite the troubling fact of her sudden inability to speak a language in which they'd presumably communicated online. But since Nadia looks like (and is played by) Nicole Kidman, he understandably swallows his doubts. Unfortunately, not much that happens afterward is as easily understandable. John doesn't put up too much of a fuss when two more Russians, Nadia's friend Yuri (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his new pal Alexei (a genuinely unsettling Vincent Cassel), suddenly appear looking for a place to crash (on Nadia's birthday, hence the otherwise completely inconsequential title). Needless to say, things are not what they seem, one thing leads to another, and soon John is a fugitive from justice (although he all-too-easily saunters his way across the countryside for the rest of the film). Once the truth about Nadia and her cohorts is made clear, none of the three principals (John, Nadia and Alexei) behaves in a remotely plausible or consistent fashion, leading to an ending both inanely predictable and appallingly anticlimactic. Chaplin, Cassel and especially Kidman give fine performances; along with Moulin Rouge and The Others, Birthday Girl lays to rest any doubts as to her talent. But like a birthday cake, ultimately Birthday Girl proves a forgettable confection.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

Top

August 31, 2002

The Kid Stays in the Picture
Nanette Burstein, Brett Morgen, USA, 2002
Rating: 3.5
This adaptation of legendary Hollywood producer (and former Paramount studio head) Robert Evans' audiobook memoir of his near half-century in the trenches of Tinseltown, covers the key True Hollywood Story bullet-points of Evans' life: his discovery, in the Beverly Hills Hotel swimming pool, by actress Norma Shearer; Evans' eventual move behind the camera (complete with an epiphany that he'd rather be a first-rate producer than a second-rate actor); his subsequent triumphs (Rosemary's Baby, Love Story, Godfather, Chinatown); and a couple of disasters (The Cotton Club, and the 1983 murder of would-be investor Roy Radin, leading to a scandalous trial in which a tangentially involved Evans was called to testify, to the obvious detriment of his reputation). But Point-A-to-Point-B timeline aside, Picture turns on Evans' ability to regale us with his incredible life story (as with the audiobook, Evans himself narrates), and he certainly doesn't disappoint. Evans refreshingly lays everything on the line, whether discussing the love of his life, Ali McGraw, and her decision to run off with Steve McQueen after appearing with the actor in The Getaway, or the cocaine addiction that nearly ruined his health and career. The film's major drawbacks are a lack of archival footage to draw from (still images constitute the majority of the visuals, and, while cleverly displayed, are too stilted and artificial-looking) and an obvious lack of objectivity (Evans is the writer and narrator, after all). But for those interested in Hollywood's history during the last fifty years, The Kid Stays in the Picture offers an absorbing look into the mind and manias of one of the industry's most colorful and daring personalities.

::: Laurence Station

Top

August 31, 2002

The Cat's Meow
Peter Bogdanovich, UK/Germany, 2001
Rating: 2.5
In November 1924, film producer Thomas Ince fell ill on a yacht belonging to newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and was taken ashore, where he died shortly thereafter. Referred to as "The Whisper Told Most Often" in Hollywood gossip circles, the death of Ince (hammily handled by Cary Elwes in the film) was rumored to have been brought about by everything from Alexander the Great-worthy indigestion, to an accidental shooting resulting from a lover's triangle involving Hearst (Edward Herrmann), starlet -- and Hearst mistress -- Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), and Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard). Director Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon) chooses to explore the more dramatic lover's-triangle option, and assembles a fine cast to help him fabricate the events that took place on Hearst's yacht during the ill-fated voyage (highlighted by Joanna Lumley's portrayal of best-selling author Elinor Glyn). Regrettably, Bogdanovich and screenwriter Steven Peros fail to infuse the material with anything revelatory. The Cat's Meow is a poorly paced, blandly-framed, by-the-numbers affair, with Hearst stomping around the boat, gun in pocket, determined to catch Marion and Chaplin in flagrante delicto while the rest of the guests drink, cajole and get high. Since no one will ever really know what happened, Bogdanovich could have gone hog-wild, making his tale far more entertaining and outrageous than it is. As it stands, one can almost sense the reverence he had for the subject matter and its Jazz Age Who's Who list of big shots, celebs and hangers-on. In the process, Bogdanovich recasts "The Whisper Told Most Often" as a stale, rote piece of second-hand gossip, and where's the fun in that?

::: Laurence Station

Top

August 30, 2002

What Time is it There?
Tsai Ming-Liang, Taiwan/France, 2001
Rating: 4.3
Themes of time, distance and loneliness are artfully explored in What Time is it There?, Malaysian-born, Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang's fifth -- and most mature -- feature film since 1992. Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng plays Hsiao Kang, a watch seller on the streets of Taipei, whose father has just passed away and who, along with his more outwardly grief-stricken mother, is having difficulty coming to terms with the loss. When a restless young woman, Shiang-Chyi (Chen Shiang-Chyi), on her way to Paris, buys Hsiao Kang's personal watch, he forms a unique bond with her, and sets about changing all of the timepieces and clocks he comes across to Parisian time. Hsiao Kang's obsession is as much about feeling connected to someone, even a total stranger, as it is a reaffirmation that he, not the timekeeping devices that he depends on for his livelihood, is in control. Shiang-Chyi, meanwhile, discovers Paris to be just as isolated and lonely as Taipei, her quest for companionship unfulfilled, save for her seemingly trivial material connection to Hsiao Kang. The grim, minimalist tone is wisely tempered by a mordant wit that keeps the film from becoming too downbeat, while the acting is superbly understated and appropriately naturalistic. Tsai infuses his study of alienation with a spare, poetic beauty, aided in no small part by gifted cinematographer Benoît Delhomme (Artemisia, The Scent of Green Papaya, The Winslow Boy), whose spacious shots of Taipei and Paris expertly accentuate the film's central conceit: how people can be utterly alone in the world, no matter how bustling or crowded their physical locations.

::: Laurence Station

Top

August 24, 2002

We Were Soldiers
Randall Wallace, USA, 2002
Rating: 2.0
War is hell. Making a movie about war, however, is far simpler. If you're screenwriter turned director Randall Wallace, adapting We Were Soldiers Once...and Young by now retired Lt. Gen. Harold Moore and reporter Joe Galloway for the big screen is a mere matter of money, logistics and hubris. In November 1965, then Lt. Col. Moore led the First Battalion, Seventh Cavalry (indeed, the same outfit Custer marshaled to its doom at Little Big Horn) to Landing Zone X-Ray in Vietnam's Ia Drang Valley, a North Vietnamese-controlled region appropriately nicknamed "The Valley of Death." In what would turn out to be one of the first significant engagements of the war, Moore's men, outnumbered more than 4-to-1, valiantly held their own against the numerically superior opponent (thanks in no small part to some excellent air support) and ultimately drove the enemy back. Employing Wallace's ham-fisted, artless direction and Gibson's overly stoic performance as Moore, We Were Soldiers manages athletically staged battle sequences more gory than stirring, more exhausting than invigorating, like a camp for war games played on a football field rather than across actual terrain. Tired clichés abound, from the dying grunt's behest to "tell my wife I love her" to Gibson's obligatory "leave no man behind" guarantee. We Were Soldiers is all manufactured earnestness, with the dutiful wives waiting back home for their respective husbands to return, or for that little white envelope to arrive explaining his fate; and all surface, with the individual depth of the characters lost in two-dimensional coatings of grim bravado and overzealous posturing. The men of the 7th Cavalry, and those who fought and died against them, deserved far better than this obvious, leaden and bloated travesty.

::: Laurence Station

Top

August 24, 2002

Last Orders
Fred Schepisi, Germany/UK, 2001
Rating: 3.0
Last Orders, adapted from Graham Swift's 1996 Booker Prize-winning novel by director Fred Schepisi, follows the journey of a band of lifelong friends to cast the ashes of one of their cohorts into the sea, per the deceased's last request. From the London pub in which the group congregates to the day long road trip to the sea, Schepisi uses location and conversation to liberally cut between past and present, as the buddies recall the good and bad times they shared with recently-departed Jack (Michael Caine as the older, JJ Feild the younger). The closer-than-others-suspect relationship between Jack's closest friend, Ray (Bob Hoskins) and Jack's wife, Amy (Helen Mirren), proves the highlight of the film, as the two veteran actors convey the obvious affection felt between their characters (who had a brief affair years earlier) and the strained decorum and respect for the dead by which they keep their true feelings in check. The performances (including those of veteran English actors Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings and Ray Winstone) are top drawer, and the pacing appropriately spacious and leisurely. The film's main drawback comes in the telegraphing of events, where characters in the present make obvious hints at past secrets that are then reenacted faithfully as too-staged set pieces. Indeed, the flashback sequences stand as the film's weakest link, and are too brightly lit, as if not one of the past-70-year-old friends' mnemonic faculties has faded with time. Adding a bit of ambiguity, of lost scraps of information and possibly inaccurate claims, would have added greater depth, achieving the weightier examination of time and mortality that the film clearly strives to achieve. Regrettably, there's a nagging facileness to Last Orders that undermines the final effect.

::: Laurence Station

Top

August 18, 2002

Tadpole
Gary Winick, USA, 2002
Rating: 3.0
Will the tadpole learn to swim and hopefully make his own way in the world? That's the key question director Gary Winick asks in this breezy, promising, but underdeveloped serio-comedy of sexual manners set in Manhattan's Upper East Side over a Thanksgiving weekend. 15-year-old Oliver Grubman (a young, but not that young looking, Aaron Stanford) comes home from prep school to his history professor father Stanley (John Ritter) and attractive stepmother Eve (Sigourney Weaver). Oliver falls hard for his stepmother, and spends a great deal of time working up the courage (not to mention finding the right opportunity) to announce his true feelings to her. In the interim, he manages to bed Eve's forty-something best friend Diane (a wonderful Bebe Neuwirth), and nearly charm the pants off a group of similarly aged ladies with his keen, Voltaire-inspired insights and fluent French phrasings. The digital video photography is appropriately intimate and the dialogue accomplished, yet Tadpole is undermined by two fundamental drawbacks: 1) Aaron Stanford is a fine actor, but, for true veracity, the role should have gone to an actual 15-year-old, and 2) the character of Eve is never fully explored to justify either her stepson's infatuation or her own emotions regarding the boy's advances. Ultimately, Tadpole winds up stunted by a lack of commitment to the seriousness of its ideas regarding desire, self-discovery and the fragility/resiliency of the human heart.

::: Laurence Station

Top

August 18, 2002

Storytelling
Todd Solondz, USA, 2002
Rating: 2.5
Storytelling, a sub-90-minute exploration of the duality of perception and truth, has its moments but ultimately feels unfinished and poorly focused, partly due to the fact that only two ("Fiction," and "Non-Fiction") of three stories originally intended for the film made the final cut. (The excised "Autobiography," involving James Van Der Beek, of Dawson's Creek fame, as a conflicted high school jock who engages in anal sex was purportedly removed due to inferior quality, a shocked studio reaction, or both.) The too-brief opening "Fiction" involves a lily-white college student, Vi (Selma Blair), who has a one-night stand with her black creative writing teacher, the cruel, controlling, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom). When censors balked at the graphic nature of the sex scene, Solondz placed an obnoxious red block over the characters, yet left in the most shocking element: What Scott demands Vi say while having his way with her. Feeling violated by the incident, Vi writes an emotionally charged story relating the encounter and, upon reading it in class, she's accused of wallowing in racist stereotypes by her fellow students and given only slight praise from Mr. Scott for an improvement in the quality of her "fiction." Solondz's attempt at probing the thorny issue of race relations barely registers, settling for shock value over actual enlightenment. The longer "Non-Fiction" follows budding documentarian Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti) as he records the life of an upper-middle-class suburbanite family, choosing the eldest son and disaffected high school senior, Scooby (Mark Webber), as his main subject. When Toby eventually screens the finished film for an audience, the dysfunctional reality of the family -- their poor communication and lack of emotional depth -- is treated as high comedy rather than the sad tragedy it truly is. Solondz's perverse fascination with the banality, hypocrisy and the emotional isolation of suburban life was explored far more effectively in his prior films, Happiness (1998) and Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995). In comparison, Storytelling does nothing to further our understanding of, or horror at, his preferred milieu.

::: Laurence Station

Top

August 18, 2002

Dogtown and Z-Boys
Stacy Peralta, USA, 2001
Rating: 3.3
A documentary chronicling the lives of disenfranchised sidewalk surfers riding the asphalt waves in mid-'70s Los Angeles, Dogtown and Z-Boys is an involving, if overly self-important, look at the evolution of radical skateboarding, from its roots as a way for low-rent neighborhood surfing fanatics to take their waterborne moves onto dry land, to the form's latter-day X-Games popularity. A casual, near ego-less Sean Penn narrates the exploits of some adventurous teenagers known as the Z-Boys, whose groundbreaking use of drained swimming pools introduced vertical aerodynamics to the then-moribund world of skateboarding. The stars who cashed in and maximized the commercial potential of their abilities (namely Tony Alva and the film's director, Peralta), are poignantly contrasted with the fate of the most naturally gifted member of the gang, Jay Adams, who got burned by the spotlight and eventually wound up serving time in prison for a drug offense. The fact that Dogtown was put together by those who lived it considerably weakens the overall objectivity of the film, and this lack of impartiality dampens the harder edge the story might have had regarding the breaking of the Z-Boys once the big name skateboard manufacturing sponsors entered the picture. The issue of the outfit losing its collective innocence is briefly touched upon, but isn't explored as deeply as it might have been in the hands of an actual outsider.

::: Laurence Station

Top

August 18, 2002

Super Troopers
Jay Chandrasekhar, USA, 2001
Rating: 2.0
The five-man comedy troupe Broken Lizard offers up this offbeat take on a group of Vermont State Troopers in competition with the local police force for recognition and additional funding by the penny-pinching Governor. One of the outfits has to go, and thus the two sides play an ongoing game of one-upmanship, highlighted by fisticuffs at crime scenes and attempts to swipe key evidence from the other's impound. The real opportunity comes with exploring the boredom of law enforcement in a less than challenging environment, where the occasional speeder proves the weekly highlight. Yet rather than exploit the lengths to which the troopers will go to shake the monotony of their jobs, Super Troopers goes for the old Us against Them routine, like a rural Police Academy sequel with fewer belly laughs. The characterizations are likeable and refreshingly underplayed by the Broken Lizard ensemble, and it's disappointing that a clichéd plot was inserted into what might otherwise have been a left-field take on isolated cops and the theme of how the normal rules don't apply in a location devoid of the expected trappings that require so many regulations. In the end it's the Broken Lizard team versus the non-Broken Lizard squad, with little mystery as to who will win out in the end, and that's a real shame given the inherent potential of the source material.

::: Laurence Station

Top

August 11, 2002

Blood Work
Clint Eastwood, USA, 2002
Rating: 2.4
Adapted for the screen by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) from the novel by Michael Connelly, Blood Work sports an undeniably intriguing premise: A retired FBI agent with a bum ticker receives a heart transplant and is subsequently contacted by the sister of the woman whose organ he received, asked to investigate her seemingly random and senseless murder. As directed by Clint Eastwood (who also stars), Blood Work becomes a casually paced, by-the-numbers police procedural that badly squanders its promising potential. Eastwood plays the ex-detective, Terry McCaleb, as a careworn, septuagenarian Dirty Harry, now living on a houseboat and doing his best to do nothing at all. Into his life appears Graciela Rivers (Wanda De Jesus), sister of the woman to whom Terry owes his life, and despite adamant protestations from his doctor (Anjelica Huston in an underwritten, wasted roll) to stay retired, McCaleb's back in the game. Which is exactly what the killer wants. Thus begins a cat and mouse game, complete with tried-and-true crime drama clichés, such as the rival cops (Paul Rodriguez and Dylan Walsh) who think McCaleb's butting his nose in where it doesn't belong, to the comic relief sidekick (Jeff Daniels) and the inevitable romance with the woman he's trying to help. Blood Work's most blatant misstep, however, is the ridiculously obvious-from-the-outset identity of the killer, which, when revealed, isn't even dramatically handled. Eastwood tips his hand way too early, providing the audience with more than enough neon signposts to whodunit, and it's exasperating to sit through the next hour and a half watching allegedly bloodhound-savvy investigator McCaleb stumble over obvious clues without the slightest hint of recognition. Perhaps if Blood Work had simply given away the psychopath's identity straight up, then at least a feeling of suspense would have been generated as the audience cringed at the sight of McCaleb and others opening themselves up to the killer's discretion. The performances are decent, the production competent, and there's something refreshing about Eastwood not trying to act younger than his age. But Blood Work still falls woefully short of maximizing its considerable potential.

::: Laurence Station

Top

July 21, 2002

Eight Legged Freaks

Ellory Elkayem, USA, 2002

Rating: 1.5

The missing hyphen in the title is the least of horror spoof wannabe Eight Legged Freaks' myriad problems. Directed by Ellory Elkayem, Freaks takes a dying Arizona town called Prosperity (irony duly noted), inserts a canister of radioactive sludge into the water supply, and then sits back and ploddingly follows a gazillion oversized mutant spiders as the nasty critters attack the town's folksy inhabitants. The intent here is to take the knowing-wink approach of post-modern parodies like Scream and apply it to the classic 1950s monster B-movie. Problem is, an excellent little film called Tremors did the same thing back in 1989, and the makers of that deserved cult classic understood what the Freaks team completely misses: If you're going to do a send-up, you've got to play it straight. Never once should your characters realize they're making light of, or paying homage to, the particular genre in question. Freaks is too self-knowing in its insights to create a palatable sense of terror; poor dialogue and horrendous pacing only serve to compound matters. (Though, to the effects team's credit, the spiders look pretty cool.) The cast is fairly competent, led by David Arquette as the town's prodigal son, back from a decade long exile and determined to get the local mine up and running. Kari Wuhrer capably handles the role of the local sheriff (and Arquette's obvious love interest), while Scarlett Johansson fulfills the obligatory rebellious-yet-good-natured-daughter duties with workmanlike proficiency. Coming to a video rental outlet near you in about three months.

::: Laurence Station

Top

July 14, 2002

Reign of Fire

Rob Bowman, USA, 2002

Rating: 2.7

Set during the present day, a sleeping dragon is awakened within the bowels of London, and all hell breaks loose. Flash-forward twenty years, and the human race has been nearly wiped out by a swarm of the fire-breathing, no-longer-mythical creatures. Rob Bowman (X-Files) keeps the action at full throttle for most of Reign of Fire, aided in no small part by excellent set designs and convincing computer generated flying reptiles. Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale portray pumped up heroes whose ultimate quest has them tracking the biggest dragon of them all to the heart of downtown London. Reign of Fire's main limitation is that it doesn't dare big enough; James Cameron proved with 1986's Aliens that a B-picture could rise above its built-in limitations and offer a thrill ride with genuine character development and a truly memorable ending. Reign of Fire's climax is fairly pedestrian and too straightforward (especially when compared to the far more dramatic and tactically involving battle that occurs in the middle of the movie). There's also never any sense that a larger world exists outside of the U.K. The feeling of isolation and lack of epic depth knock Reign of Fire down a few critical notches, but for sheer entertainment value, it more than adequately does its job.

::: Laurence Station

Top

June 30, 2002

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

Peter Care, USA, 2002

Rating: 2.7

Based on the novel by late author Chris Fuhrman, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys follows the rebellious exploits of a group of Southern-reared Catholic schoolboys growing up in the 1970s. Francis (a too-pensive-for-his-own-good Emile Hirsch) and daring, conflicted Tim (impressively handled by Kieran Culkin), along with two other cohorts, spend their days goofing off and creating comics casting themselves as overly-muscled superheroes (garishly brought to life by Spawn creator Todd McFarlane's production studio) who battle motorcycle-riding, sadistic nun Pegleg, based on one of the boys' teachers; the strict, passionately devout Sister Assumpta (Jodie Foster, working with a woefully undeveloped, clichéd near-caricature). Jena Malone plays Francis' love interest, Margie Flynn, a girl with a dark family secret. Margie's situation artificially inflates a story that could have worked just fine, given less plot and more emphasis on the humorous (and subsequently tragic) trouble the disaffected, bored altar boys get themselves into. But ultimately, the focus is lost as director Care jumps from the bond between Francis and Tim, to the superheroic world Francis imagines in his mind, to Margie's dysfunctional home life. All while leaving Sister Assumpta and Father Casey (a genial, chain-smoking Vincent D'Onofrio) -- seemingly the only other person running the school the students attend -- with very little to do, save scold the troubled lads and pray for the safety of their everlasting souls.

::: Laurence Station

Top

June 23, 2002

The Bourne Identity

Doug Liman, USA, 2002

Rating: 2.8

Bourne Identity director Doug Liman (Swingers, Go) had a key choice to make with the fundamental structure of this film. Should he have the audience know as much as his amnesiac lead, Jason Bourne, as he struggles to discover the truth about his identity after being pulled from the water by Mediterranean fishermen with two bullet holes in his back, thus building a sense of mystery? Or should he allow the audience to know more than Bourne, thus (presumably) ratcheting up the suspense quotient as moviegoers watch an unwitting Bourne move from one dangerous predicament to the next? Liman goes for the latter, more convoluted suspense model, which means the lead better find himself in some pretty hairy situations and not too easily outwit those working against him. Sadly, Bourne (Matt Damon, working with an average script) overcomes his foes with relative ease, thus rendering any great suspense impotent and making the film not so much a thrilling joyride as a plodding, by-the-numbers affair saddled with a drawn-out conclusion. The late Robert Ludlum's book, on which the film is loosely based, managed to draw out the discovery of Bourne's true identity, thus allowing the reader to pick up scraps of information along with the character. A 1988 made-for-TV movie, starring Richard Chamberlain in the lead, managed to do the same. Liman plays his hand way too early, leaving very little guesswork for Bourne or the audience, and the end result is a paranoid thriller with very little paranoia to it. John Frankenheimer's 1962 Cold War classic The Manchurian Candidate and 2000's Memento are two examples of how a character picking up the pieces of a murky past can be done right. The Bourne Identity looks good, and boasts some solid performances, but it simply never convinces us that Bourne has little more to worry about than figuring out why he has an apartment in Paris and a Swiss bank account with a whole lot of currency, a slew of passports and a gun in it. Providing Liman and Damon go on to complete Ludlum's trilogy (The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum), hopefully they'll allow a little more mystery to creep into the proceedings.

::: Laurence Station

Top

June 2, 2002

Undercover Brother

Malcolm D. Lee, USA, 2002

Rating: 2.5

Undercover Brother is to '70s blaxploitation urban heroes as Austin Powers is to swinging '60s British spies. The similarities are so obvious that it's little surprise Michael McCullers, one of the Powers franchises' screenwriters, was brought in to help flesh things out. In a nutshell, Undercover Brother (a solid Eddie Griffin), is recruited by the covert organization B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. to stop the international conglomerate The Man from mind controlling black people through the ingredients in fried chicken. While there are a few humorous bits -- the highlight being Undercover Brother and two thugs playing spectator to the shamelessly erotic catfight between White She Devil (Denise Richards) and Sistah Girl (Aunjanue Ellis) -- the film ultimately lacks teeth. The movie laudably preaches racial tolerance, but rather than challenging stereotypical ideas whites harbor about blacks (and vice versa), Undercover Brother chickens out with a preachy, overly-simplified "all are one" message that comes off as uninspired and flat. If the film was merely a second rate Austin Powers knockoff, and set its goals at an appropriately lower level, it may have proven an entertainingly vapid, sub-90-minute ride. Unfortunately, the hammer of racial harmony falls far too often to ignore the bigger Message director Malcolm D. Lee (cousin to the more renowned Spike) and Three Kings screenwriter John Ridley (creator of the Internet cartoon on which the film is based) attempt to force through. Brother's slapstick milieu is the wrong format for such proselytizing, and its ham-fisted delivery just makes things worse. The acting is reasonably strong, especially Saturday Night Live mainstay Chris Kattan as Mr. Feather, a conflicted arch-enemy who can't shake the funk in his own soul. As 1988's I'm Gonna Git You Sucka! proved, the best satire is one that's not afraid to cast razor-sharp barbs (such as Antonio Fargas' ridiculously overdone Flyguy strutting around in platform shoes containing mini fish tanks) in order to get a laugh. Undercover Brother plays it safe and thus manages a mildly amusing, but hardly enduring examination of a culture and people it can't decide if it wants to skewer or hug.

::: Laurence Station

Top

May 27, 2002

Insomnia

Christopher Nolan, USA, 2002

Rating: 3.0

In Insomnia, his follow-up to 2001's surprise indie hit Memento, director Christopher Nolan tackles a 1997 Norwegian film of the same name, transplanting its basic structure from the upper reaches of Norway to outer Alaska. Al Pacino plays detective Will Dormer, under fire for corruption from his Los Angeles home base, who, at the behest of an old friend and the local sheriff, is sent away to help solve the murder of a young female. While tracking the murderer, Dormer accidentally kills his partner, Hap (Martin Donovan), and unwisely covers it up. Nolan does a good job of examining the moral ambiguity of both Dormer and the one person who understands him best, mystery novel writer (and certifiable maniac) Walter Finch (an appropriately creepy Robin Williams). Finch witnesses Dormer's shooting and uses this information to cut a quid pro quo deal with the beleaguered detective, feeling that his murder of the teenaged girl was accidental as well. Dormer's inability to adjust to the sunlit nights and titular condition that results from it are nicely handled as he strives to blot out any light from penetrating his room and, jointly, escape his deeply troubled conscience. Unfortunately, a movie so keen on suspense reveals its hand far too early to sustain the tension required to keep an audience's attention through its obvious and belabored climax. Earnest young cop Ellie Burr (an utterly wasted Hilary Swank) ventures into danger, with a sleep-deprived Dormer arriving for the last minute rescue, and there's never a moment that seems surprising or fresh. The lone transcendent scene comes late in the film, when Dormer admits planting evidence to nab a bad guy back in L.A. to Maura Tierney (underused as the sympathetic woman running the lodge where Dormer stays). Nolan frames his shots well and does a good job creating the disorienting day for night of Alaska, but fails to wring anything riveting or revelatory from his intriguing but ultimately unfulfilling Hollywood thriller that wasn't already explored in the original film.

::: Laurence Station

Top

May 20, 2002

About A Boy

Chris and Paul Weitz, USA/UK, 2002

Rating: 3.5

About A Boy, the third big screen adaptation of a Nick Hornby novel (after 1997's Fever Pitch and 2000's High Fidelity), introduces us to Will Freeman (Hugh Grant, all but typecast now as the likable scoundrel with a hidden heart of gold), a dedicated bachelor and self-centered egoist who, despite John Donne's famous observation to the contrary, firmly believes that every man is, indeed, an island. Freeman doesn't have to work (beneficiary of steady royalties from a Christmas jingle his late father penned), and micro-manages his existence around dating, shopping and television, the perfect model of layabout indifference. Cue 12-year-old social outcast Marcus (the talented Nicholas Hoult) and his near-suicidal mother Fiona (a strong Toni Collette), who enter Will's charmed, if shallow, life in a roundabout fashion when Will joins a single parent's support group in hopes of meeting new conquests. True to form, Will winds up forming a bond with precocious young Marcus. The performances are uniformly strong and the direction by the Weitz brothers (of American Pie fame) is solid, if a little too heavy-handed in the interior monologue voiceover department. Will's actions clearly convey his feelings, be they sarcastic or sincere, yet having Hugh Grant reiterate them immediately afterward for the audience proves a bit much. In its argument as to what constitutes a family these days, About A Boy refreshingly avoids the easy out of a clichéd ending (Will adopting Marcus, or marrying his mother, etc.). And thus the moral of the story -- that everyone needs the company of others to stay sane -- ultimately endears rather than grates.

::: Laurence Station

Top

April 24, 2002

Kandahar

Mohsen Makhmalbaf, France/Iran, 2001

Rating: 3.0

Set in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, Kandahar follows the quest of Nafas (Niloufar Pazira) to illegally reenter the country three days before her sister -- whose legs were blown off by a landmine years earlier -- can carry out an intended suicide during the last eclipse of the 20th century. During her arduous trek through the war-torn wastes, Nafas encounters four distinct guides, each representing a different atrocity plaguing modern day Afghanistan: a defeated Afghan refugee; a fatherless young boy expelled from an Islamic religious school; an African-American militant turned healer; and a one-handed thief who claims to be the victim of a landmine accident. These encounters turn out to be the most structurally sound elements of an otherwise disjointed and unsatisfying narrative. The story is based on journalist Pazira's own unsuccessful attempt to reach a friend in Afghanistan after the Taliban took power. But the film is considerably less successful as a fictional odyssey through a harsh and hostile environment than it is as an exploration of modern war-ravaged Afghanistan. Substituting Iranian for Afghanistan desertscapes, director of photography Ebrahim Ghafouri captures stunning and indelible images, the most impressive coming when a group of legless men race on crutches to retrieve parachuting artificial legs dropped from a Red Cross helicopter. But director Makhmalbaf's lack of closure regarding the plot is frustrating -- we never learn whether Nafas ever reaches Kandahar and saves her sister. If the entire point is -- contrived from information gleaned via the closing frame -- that all of Afghanistan has been under an eclipse since the Taliban arrived, fine. But it needs clearer delineation to have the necessary punch so that audiences don't have to be left guessing as to what the ultimate point of the movie is, other than one of oppressed futility. The film runs a scant 85 minutes, so this was obviously an intentional decision, perhaps meant to reflect the ambiguity of international press regarding the conditions within Afghanistan (pre-September 11th). Yet Kandahar isn't a documentary, it's a feature film by one of Iran's foremost directors, and as such one would have hoped that the staging and acting were up to Makhmalbaf's usual standards. Sadly, the murky conclusion hampers an otherwise fascinating and utterly disquieting look at a place alien to many Westerners who up until recently couldn't have cared less about its people or politics.

::: Laurence Station

Top

April 18, 2002

Monsoon Wedding

Mira Nair, India/USA, 2001

Rating: 3.0

Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah) is marrying off his only daughter, Aiditi (Vasundhara Das), to a young Hindi engineering student from Houston. Set in modern day Delhi, this (mostly) light-hearted look at the stress-filled preparations leading up to the big ceremony works best when it sticks to Lalit's frustrations over money and the care and feeding of a veritable army of visiting relations. English, Hindi, and Punjabi are sprinkled liberally throughout, with many characters using the various dialects interchangeably as they gossip, argue and discuss the future of an India coming to grips with a world undergoing rapid cultural and technological change. Vijay Raaz steals the show as Dubey, Lalit's wedding planner and the secret admirer of serving girl Alice (Tilotama Shome). But the film is undermined by cheap plot contrivances, the most glaring of which is the dramatically well-played, but too forced "dark family secret" that emerges right before the wedding, and a canned ending that's too pat to resonate beyond the moment. Once the credits roll it's as if the characters no longer exist, and Nair clearly intentioned a deeper connection. True family crises can't be wrapped up so neatly beneath a wedding tent, as if enough laughter and dance will wash away the bombshell dropped hours earlier. It's a cheap way out and severely weakens an otherwise solidly entertaining and quite handsomely mounted film.

::: Laurence Station

Top

April 8, 2002

National Lampoon's Van Wilder

Walter Becker, USA, 2002

Rating: 1.5

Van Wilder (an affable Ryan Reynolds) is a seventh-year über-senior who's become all things to all undergrads at Calvin Coolidge College. Unfortunately, mega-moneyed Van Sr. (a dignity-intact Tim Matheson) decides to cut off his son's tuition, feeling the time is way overdue for Van the Man to venture out into the real world. To stay in school, Van becomes a party liaison for eager fraternities willing to pay top dollar to guarantee a good time. Enter Gwen (sparkly-eyed Tara Reid), a determined journalist for the school paper who's been ordered by her editor to dig up the dirt on the legendary Wilder. Incredibly, the weakest part of the film is the earnestly blossoming romance between Wilder and Gwen. What works best are the scatologically inspired gags (a laxative-spiked protein shake) and excessively gross gross-out humor (take a horny dog, a batch of fresh éclairs and... never mind). The film would have been better served playing to its lowbrow strengths throughout, instead of trying to force true love into a movie that isn't likely to become the date flick of choice for discriminating couples.

::: Laurence Station

Top

March 17, 2002

Resident Evil

Paul W.S. Anderson, USA, 2002

Rating: 2.0

Director Paul Anderson appears intent on cornering the market when it comes to computer game-based adaptations. The success of 1995's Mortal Kombat (contrasted with the not-so-stunning box office for 1997's non-byte born Event Horizon) appears to have persuaded Anderson to take another stab at the Quake-influenced world of low-plot/maximum-violence filmmaking. Resident Evil stars Milla Jovovich and Michelle Rodriguez as two members of a commando team charged with infiltrating the Hive, an underground research facility controlled by the ubiquitous (and unimaginatively named) Umbrella Corporation. A biological experiment has gone horribly wrong and the Hive's Red Queen supercomputer -- in a classic ultra-self-defense-mechanism move -- has killed off all the employees, who subsequently rise from the dead, extremely ravenous. Fans of George Romero's zombie films will appreciate the small band of the living fighting off the plodding-but-determined undead, and it's to Anderson's credit that the film is utterly unpretentious in its goals (save for gratuitous Lewis Carroll references, including the Red Queen and naming Milla's character Alice). Evil understands its B-grade cheese-factor status and doesn't deviate from the stock characterizations and gruesome deaths its target audience expects. There's no anti-corporate message here, just relentless action. While Anderson lacks the mastery of suspense evident in more highly evolved brethren (such as James Cameron's Aliens), it still manages a workmanlike effort, and for that alone merits prime matinee-price consideration.

::: Laurence Station

Top

March 10, 2002

 

The Devil's Backbone
Guillermo Del Toro, Mexico/Spain, 2001

Rating: 2.8

Spanish director Guillermo Del Toro's intriguing supernatural yarn of duplicity and sin, set within a boy's orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, sports enormous potential. Themes of ghosts, isolation, unrequited love and greed are ripe for deep exploration. Sadly, Del Toro oversimplifies matters by neatly tying up all of his loose ends, and reducing what could have been a fascinating study of a Catholic-tinctured haunting into a pedestrian revenge tale. The acting is solid (despite the flat two-dimensionality of the characters) and the film is visually accomplished, with the image of an unexploded bomb protruding from the center of the orphanage courtyard serving as a marvelous symbol of the uncertainty and horror of all warfare. But too much plot undermines any psychological understanding of the effects abandonment and betrayals have on children. Devil's Backbone is a finely crafted work, yet ultimately just another study in barbarism winning out over a more complicated, thoughtful solution.

::: Laurence Station

Top

March 2, 2002

 

Iris
Richard Eyre, USA/UK, 2001

Rating: 2.8

The life of renowned Anglo-Irish philosopher/novelist Iris Murdoch and her unique, eccentric relationship with husband John Bayley receive an irritatingly fragmented once-over in this adaptation of two reminisces by Bayley (Elegy For Iris and Iris: A Memoir). Given the density of his source material, director Eyre chooses a disconcertingly awkward approach, electing to intercut the old Iris (a wonderful Judi Dench) and John (played to doddering, professorial perfection by Jim Broadbent) with the young couple in courtship (an energetically free-spirited Kate Winslet and reserved-to-a-fault Hugh Bonneville). This rapid cross-cutting across some forty-odd years stunts any sense of change or growth (other than the obvious superficial advance in years), thus robbing the proceedings of the necessary dramatic tension. A more linear narrative would have imparted a far weightier emotional impact, allowing us to witness young Iris' rise to critical fame (supported by the ever-faithful/near-sycophantic John), and, crucially, her harrowing mental decline due to Alzheimer's. As it is, there are two separate couples to follow, neither receiving the adequate screen time they so rightfully deserve.

::: Laurence Station

Top

February 23, 2002

 

The Queen of the Damned
Michael Rymer, USA, 2002

Rating: 2.0

Sketchily drawn from the second and third novels of author Anne Rice's wildly popular series The Vampire Chronicles, The Queen of the Damned attempts to cram a dauntingly broad storyline into its too short running time. The task proves beyond the ability of director Rymer, who manages some interesting action sequences (think Matrix with fangs), but fails egregiously in adequately pacing the film. Rice's mythology is far too elaborate to be properly addressed in the space allotted by the movie. While visually arresting, the film is simply too choppy and awkwardly structured. Prime example: the true climax arrives on a Death Valley concert stage two-thirds of the way through, and the good versus evil vampire showdown that follows is turgid by comparison. The actors do what they can with a serviceable script, with Aaliyah (as the titular Queen Akasha) and Stuart Townsend (as the vampire Lestat) exuding a natural chemistry. Ultimately, Queen would have worked far better as a television mini-series, allowing the characters (both mortal and immortal) the necessary screen time to properly explore the hows and whys of their respective actions.

::: Laurence Station

Top

February 12, 2002

 

Brotherhood of the Wolf
Christophe Gans, France, 2001

Rating: 2.5

An Asian martial arts fight-fest masquerading as a French period film. Brotherhood of the Wolf strives to cram every genre known to modern cinema (from historical costume drama to Matrix-style action sequences!) into its overlong two-and-a-half hours. Perhaps cutting back on the excessive stop-motion photography would have shaved an hour off its running time, producing a tight, generally appealing whodunit. As it is, the fight choreography is decent (but not groundbreaking), the acting serviceable (save for the emotionally committed work of appealing ingénue Emilie Dequenne), and wardrobe appropriately garish. As for the creature (the "Beast of Gevaudan," which legend whispers stalked hapless peasants during the mid-18th century), well, the old adage "less is more" applies here, the better to ratchet up the suspense and scare with shadows rather than bloodily rent tendons. Brotherhood is fun, but so illogical and haphazardly paced that the end result leaves little to hold onto. Save the lesson that attempting to satisfy all moviegoers with a little bit of everything runs the risk of missing the intended mark entirely.

::: Laurence Station

Top

January 12, 2002

Gosford Park

Robert Altman, USA, 2001

Rating: 3.9

Excise the murder mystery and there's a really great story here about how people treat one another, regardless of class or station. There's also a nice contrast between British reserve and American directness. Yet, Hollywood needed a hook, and that's where the classic "well-dressed dinner guests gathered around a body, wondering who could have done it" device comes in. To Altman's credit, he wisely spends as little time as possible on the actual murder and gives the inspectors who show up hardly any screen time. Good thing, since the real treat here comes in keeping track of all the uniformly wonderful performances, bedroom shenanigans, betrayals, alliances and nasty infighting. As a class warfare piece, it pales next to Renoir's classic Rules of the Game. But Gosford Park manages to make its points without overstating them, and while a tad overlong, it holds together nicely at the end.

::: Laurence Station

Top

January 6, 2002

The Royal Tenenbaums

Wes Anderson, USA, 2001

Rating: 3.5

A deliberately over the top examination of a dysfunctional New York family blessed with three child prodigies, all of whom have had their struggles upon reaching adulthood, The Royal Tenenbaums is an undeniably enjoyable, albeit uneven ride. There's a definite sense that director Wes Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson (who also plays the role of lifelong family friend Eli Cash in the movie) wrestled with how serious (or not) the film should be. The end result of this thematic tug of war offers scenes of outright hilarity, such as when Margot Tenebaum (Gwyneth Paltrow) recounts how she lost a finger, contrasted with a incredibly bloody suicide attempt by brother Richie (Luke Wilson) that comes out of the blue and alters the entire tempo of the movie. Gene Hackman's performance as outcast family patriarch Royal is an absolute joy to watch. Hackman alone is worth the price of admission, elevating The Royal Tenenbaums from a well made but wildly unfocused character study to a joyride through the inner workings of a true scoundrel's mind.

::: Laurence Station

Top

January 4, 2002

A Beautiful Mind

Ron Howard, USA, 2001

Rating: 2.7

The complex story of Nobel Prize winner John Forbes Nash Jr., a deeply troubled paranoid schizophrenic, is reduced here to a thinking man's Forrest Gump. Director Ron Howard's broadly painted (and frustratingly dumbed-down) biopic of Nash's life fails to adequately explain the brilliance of the mathematician's work or to critically, honestly explore the demons that possessed him. Howard's great revelation: Love is the answer. The idea that "all you need is love" is an insult to those suffering from the disease of schizophrenia. Russell Crowe does what he can with a poorly written lead, but is ultimately reduced to cheap physical interpretations of the character, rather than internalizing the mercurial, fragile mind of Nash. This is not so much a serious film as it is a slick, Hollywood stab at Oscar-worthy, troubled-soul material, certain to get the Academy members salivating come voting time. Very disappointing.

::: Laurence Station

Top

Site design copyright © 2001-2011 Shaking Through.net. All original artwork, photography and text used on this site is the sole copyright of the respective creator(s)/author(s). Reprinting, reposting, or citing any of the original content appearing on this site without the written consent of Shaking Through.net is strictly forbidden.

 

   
 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
Archived Reviews

Most Recent

Highest Rated

Alphabetical

Features

Best Of Lists: All | 2005

Oscar Picks: 2006

Clemenza's Corner