Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Nights and Weekends writing

My latest Instant Gratification piece for NightsAndWeekends.com is now posted. Hollywood to Blame for Punctuation Crisis is my second humor piece for the site. There's also a shorter, slightly reworked version of my review of THE HITCHER remake if my Reel Times review is too long for you. Enjoy.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Best Films of 2006

1 . THE PRESTIGE (Christopher Nolan, 2006)

On the surface Christopher Nolan's tale of dueling magicians appears to be a clever, highly entertaining film and nothing else. Ah, but as we're instructed at the beginning, watch closely. Like any good magician, Nolan makes his cinematic sleight-of-hand in THE PRESTIGE look effortless, but it takes a lot of skill to create a film that is not only a joy to watch but also a deep exploration of the costs of dedicating oneself to a craft. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman give terrific performances, the greatness of which are more apparent on a second viewing of this layered film. Supporting performances by Michael Caine and David Bowie as Nikola Tesla are little treasures to be found while sorting out this puzzle film.

2. THE DEPARTED (Martin Scorsese, 2006)

THE DEPARTED is no departure for Martin Scorsese, whose signature work finds him in the back alleyways with criminals and a taste for violence. This crackling crime film with hard-boiled wit is one of the director's funniest movies in recent memory. Screenwriter William Monahan demonstrates an aptitude for hard-bitten, vulgar, macho language similar to that of David Mamet. Monahan also keeps the pretzel twist of a plot clear, which is a big accomplishment for a film both confusing and straightforward.

3. UNITED 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006)

Director Paul Greengrass' masterful look at the events of 9/11 is difficult to watch, but this overview of what happened makes for some of the most gripping viewing you'll come across even though the end is known before the film starts. A gut-wrenching recreation of the day's confusion, UNITED 93 gains power from its fly on the wall perspective in the air traffic control rooms and doomed plane.


BORAT is the rare comedy that operates without a safety net. Star Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles’ film provides constant laughter and surprises while daring the viewer to be rightfully offended. Cohen’s total commitment to the character and control is astonishing. While Cohen’s portrayal of the fictional TV reporter may not typify what gets classified as outstanding acting, this is a great performance. In our daily lives we’d find Borat detestable, but on screen, even when being actively mean to undeserving folks, he’s completely likable.

5. THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE (Mary Harron, 2005)

THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE may be the sweetest movie ever made about pornography. Featuring Gretchen Mol's outstanding performance as the pin-up queen, the film sparkles with a frothy pop sensibility while also providing a serious examination of Bettie's Christianity. The unironic portrayal of her faith adds depth to the lighthearted film and builds to a touching affirmation of her beliefs. Visually THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE is a knockout with silky black and white cinematography accented by a few scenes in sumptuous color.

6. A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (Robert Altman, 2006)

A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION is a joyous celebration of homespun Midwestern wit and wisdom and a eulogy for it as well. The show itself is a glorious blend of rootsy music and cornpone humor that induces groans and laughs. Accompanied by live sound effects, Keillor’s extended ad libbing to fill time while his shuffled script is put back in order is hilarious, not to mention an impressive feat by people at the top of their craft. At the age of 81, it is understandable that mortality was on Robert Altman’s mind for what proved to be the director's last film. He doesn’t grapple with death, which is personified in the film, but comes to terms with it. The veteran director has long been a critical success but found commercial acceptance more fleeting. Yet A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION finds the maverick at peace with his accomplishments even if he wasn’t ready for it all to end.

7. CHARLOTTE'S WEB (Gary Winick, 2006)

CHARLOTTE'S WEB is a beautiful tale of friendship that spoons out the virtues of kindness and generosity without a medicinal taste. The characters and the film are invested with common decency, but the film is anything but stodgy. There are many funny moments that lighten the heavier themes. The voicework is first-rate, particularly Roberts' sensitive embodiment of Charlotte. She delivers her lines with quiet, dignified grace, transforming the creature with a scary exterior into something extraordinarily lovely because of what's inside. CHARLOTTE'S WEB has heart and intelligence, qualities that combine for a transcendent time at the movies.

8. NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD (Jonathan Demme, 2006)

If only all concert films could be as perfect as this document of Neil Young's two nights performing in Nashville's legendary Ryman Auditorium. NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD finds the rocker in excellent form. Director Jonathan Demme and editor Andy Keir sculpt each song to maximize the impact of the performance. It is also beautifully shot in golden tones by Ellen Kuras.

9. TRISTRAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY (Michael Winterbottom, 2005)

Michael Winterbottom distills Laurence Sterne's comic experimentation with the rules and shape of the novel and translates it into a lark on filmmaking form and technique. What is in essence a plotless film circles around itself and turns it into one of the funniest movies of the year. The versatile director playfully experiments in the making of this period piece, and star Steve Coogan fools around with and deconstructs his image. Coogan plays himself as an insecure nitwit to hilarious effect.

10. THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP (Michel Gondry, 2006)

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman tended to get the lion’s share of the credit for ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP shows that director Michel Gondry’s contributions were equally important to that film. Gondry’s whimsical and surreal visual style is perfectly suited for bittersweet stories about love and relationships. He makes churning, outsized emotions tangible through the fantastical images his characters occupy and create. Here Gondry plumbs the depths of emotions in endlessly imaginative ways. The director renders complicated primal feelings as fanciful, childlike creations, a technique that highlights a sense of wonder and a limited understanding of what is really at play.

Best Moviegoing Experience of 2006

Without a doubt, the midnight screening of SNAKES ON A PLANE ranks as some of the most fun I've ever had at the movies. The unpretentious B-movie isn't anywhere close to being the greatest achievement in cinema but so what? Seeing this goofy action-comedy with friends and and an enthusiastic crowd was what going to the movies should be.

Festival prizes

I think it's easy for my critical judgment to become compromised when seeing a lot of movies in a condensed period of time, especially if I've gone through a particularly bad stretch. Here are some of the best I saw at festivals in 2006:

-ADAM'S APPLES (ADAMS ÆBLER) (Anders Thomas Jensen, 2005)

A marvelous dark comedy about evil and faith. Wrestles with religious conviction in a way not usually seen.

-THE BOW (HWAL) (Kim Ki-duk, 2005)

-FACTOTUM (Bent Hamer, 2005)


If THE DAILY SHOW were a German film composed of sketches.

-THE MIGHTY CELT (Pearse Elliott, 2005)

2006 in Film: The Honorable Mentions

I don't know how many times I've seen critics' year-end wrap-up pieces griping about the quality of films/albums/books/etc. released in the previous 365 days. Often I disagree. I'm singing a different tune when it comes to 2006, though. More often than not I felt like I failed to be wowed. Independent and foreign films left much to be desired. The big studios' awards contenders left me mostly cold, yet somehow I've been unable to pare my honorable mentions down to the traditional ten. Go figure.

AKEELAH AND THE BEE (Doug Atchison, 2006)

Between the solid documentary SPELLBOUND and the fictional glop of BEE SEASON, hadn't we had enough movies about spelling bees? Probably. Nevertheless, AKEELAH AND THE BEE is a small charmer about an eleven-year-old girl who rises above her circumstances to find her strength and intelligence and inspire her community.

BRICK (Rian Johnson, 2005)

BRICK, a cinematic mash-up of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett detective stories with a contemporary high school drama, seems like a better idea as a stylistic stunt, but writer-director Rian Johnson’s film works quite well. This isn’t an exercise in playing dress-up. The characters inhabit a place where disappointment and pain lurk around every corner, something all too familiar to teenagers. Johnson’s sources of inspiration for BRICK put forth tough dicks and dames in a cold, uncaring universe. Glum teens are a clever and natural evolution for the genre.

CARS (John Lasseter, 2006)

Pixar's track record of extraordinary animation and smooth storytelling continues with CARS. The studio's films have always demonstrated a fondness for classical narrative virtues while using the latest technological advances to bring them to life. That philosophy finds a perfect vehicle in CARS, which boasts state of the art animation for its story reminding viewers not to discard what they have for the latest and greatest. Told with heart and wit, director John Lasseter offers a lesson in appreciating simple pleasures and slowing down in life. Larry the Cable Guy provides delightful voice work as the buck-toothed tow truck Mater. CARS is entertaining for kids and adults but doesn't strain to be hip.

CHILDREN OF MEN (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)

CHILDREN OF MEN asks the intriguing question of how we would go about our lives if we knew that humanity was on the brink of elimination. In this dazzling piece of filmmaking, Alfonso Cuarón's deft direction and Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography drop us into an immersive dystopian atmosphere. Invigorating in its ideas and style, CHILDREN OF MEN seeks hope in a world full of fear and tragedy, a place perhaps not as foreign to us as the film's future.

CLEAN (Olivier Assayas, 2004)

Maggie Cheung's exceptional performance highlights CLEAN, essentially a grittier TV movie-of-the-week about a woman fighting to overcome heroin addiction. Cheung brings heartbreaking humanity to the self-destructive rock and roller who has to get her act together if she wants her son back. Nick Nolte is very good as her father-in-law and her son's caretaker. He plays the part tenderly and sternly, communicating both his understanding of the challenges she's trying to beat and concern that she can become a responsible parent when he is unable to watch over the boy.


Although not a concert film in the traditional sense—the activity before the event and offstage are as important as the performance itself—DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY captures the energy and excitement of people gathering to put on and watch a show. Chappelle rounded up a who’s who of hip-hop stars and let them tear up the stage with their mixture of big beats and socially conscious lyrics. Chappelle’s comedy deals in race issues, but BLOCK PARTY is a uniting work. Chappelle laughs at and makes fun of society’s hang-ups, but it’s done in a way that allows people to be drawn together than driven apart. He’s an edgy comedian, but his purpose with the concert and film is to make a diverse crowd feel comfortable with one another. More than any message, that effort is likely to be remembered.

THE DESCENT (Neil Marshall, 2005)

Six women explore a system of caves in the West Virginia mountains and find more than they bargained for in THE DESCENT. This terrifying, claustrophobic trip underground makes one glad to return to the daylight outside the movie theater. Director Neil Marshall makes excellent use of the stifling space, frequently painting the screen with cavernous darkness except for the light around the characters.


This documentary about the cult singer-songwriter finds the glimmers of beauty in the artist's idiosyncratic work without lionizing him as a troubled genius. The manic-depression that drives Johnston's art and songs is a terrible burden for him, his family, and friends. THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON is a penetrating look at how art can provide an expressive release but cannot fix problems that run deep in this tortured man.

DREAMGIRLS (Bill Condon, 2006)

This whirlwind Broadway tour of Motown works its tail off to please, please, please. Edited for maximum momentum, DREAMGIRLS has nothing greater in mind than entertaining. That it does. The film trots out several showstopping numbers and sparkling performances from Eddie Murphy and newcomer Jennifer Hudson.

L'ENFANT (THE CHILD) (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2005)

Another social realism stunner from the Dardenne brothers. Although it's unexpected in a Belgian art film, it features one of the best chase scenes in any movie last year.

FLUSHED AWAY (David Bowers and Sam Fell, 2006)

Good, silly fun with rats trying to outsmart a maniacal frog who wants to flood the sewers during the World Cup. Singing slugs have never been so cute.

INSIDE MAN (Spike Lee, 2006)

With INSIDE MAN director Spike Lee takes a break from social commentaries to put forward a highly entertaining and unexpectedly funny genre film. It’s the most commercial movie he’s made, but the accessibility isn’t a negative. Rather, having a skilled director helm a standard thriller livens up what might have otherwise been an unremarkable heist film. First time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz stays a couple steps ahead of the audience and keeps plenty of surprises and twists in reserve.

JESUS CAMP (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 2006)

A remarkable, even-handed documentary about an evangelical Christian children's camp.

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2006)

Making middle class existential fears into a lovable comedy isn't the easiest thing to do, but LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE finds the humor in aiming to be the best and falling flat on your face.

THE QUEEN (Stephen Frears, 2006)

The public management and mismanagement of the royal family's response to Princess Diana's death makes for riveting viewing in THE QUEEN. Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen turn in terrific performances that find the humanity in Queen Elizabeth II and Tony Blair.


Cédric Klapisch's sequel to L'AUBERGE ESPAGNOLE captures the humor and pain of becoming responsible in young adulthood.

SCOOP (Woody Allen, 2006)

An ambitious student journalist and a magician are an unlikely team seeking to uncover the identity of a London serial killer in the Woody Allen comedy. To an extent, SCOOP is the lighter side of MATCH POINT, Allen’s thriller about the evil people are capable of doing. The move across the pond seems to have reinvigorated the director, who follows up a strong drama with one of his funniest and most effortless films in some time. SCOOP finds Allen in a playful mood that brings back the magic in his funnier work.

STRANGER THAN FICTION (Marc Forster, 2006)

Each of us is the protagonist in our own story. For IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) in STRANGER THAN FICTION, the problem is that he's the main character of someone else's story. Ultimately the film is about fully embracing life rather than staying locked in our habits and comfort zones, hardly a new moral to the story in the history of cinema, but STRANGER THAN FICTION brings vitality to the shopworn message. The film has an inventive framing device that makes the tone hard to pin down at first, but in the end, it's nice to watch a well-told story whose finish can't be predicted at the outset.

SWEET LAND (Ali Selim, 2005)

Beautifully photographed by David Tumblety, SWEET LAND is a love story not only between two people but also humanity and nature. The golden tones of the fields and crisp blue skies reveal the glory of creation and what it provides. The film breathes when the characters are on the gorgeous natural stage and clenches when manmade obstructions interrupt it. SWEET LAND values interconnectedness--in a couple, among a community, with the land, and with ancestors--and powerfully illustrates it within the story's emotional and visual content.

V FOR VENDETTA (James McTeigue, 2006)

Politics and comic book action mix to terrific effect in this adaptation of a graphic novel.

THE WAR TAPES (Deborah Scranton, 2006)

It's hard not to be filled with righteous anger after seeing THE WAR TAPES, a documentary that allows soldiers in Iraq to tell their stories directly via the digital camcorders with which they were provided. Sad, infuriating, and sometimes funny, these first person accounts are bracing reminders of the personal costs of war.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Worst Films of 2006

During my time as a critic I've probably averaged seeing 250 films per year in theaters. The last couple years that number has topped 300. 2006 may be the year that broke me. There's only so much tolerance a person can have for cinematic crap, especially when the studios serve up a steady diet of horror films that revel in ugliness and misery.

1. HOSTEL (Eli Roth, 2006)

Setting a contemptible standard for horror in 2006 (and presumably 2007), Eli Roth's HOSTEL upped the ante in on-screen depiction of fetishized violence. This is a vile exploitation film, and a poorly-made one, that’s half softcore porn and half horror porn. HOSTEL is a showcase for bare breasts, the most depraved acts of torture (represented and implied), and nothing else. There’s really no story. What Roth stitches together amounts to little more than a poorly told urban legend in which key moments occur off-screen. The leering misogyny and orgasmic joy in watching torture make this an unpleasant viewing experience of the highest order (and I don’t mean that as a compliment). Roth appears to be trying his hand at Asian extreme cinema, but for all the shock value and blood in superior films like OLDBOY and AUDITION, they operate in moral universes and contain the filmmaking prowess that Roth lacks.

2. SHADOWBOXER (Lee Daniels, 2005)

As a rule I don't walk out of films. I nearly broke it for this one. Where does one begin with what's wrong with SHADOWBOXER? Cuba Gooding Jr. and Helen Mirren play assassins and lovers. She has terminal cancer. He is her adopted son. The centerpiece of the fascinating weirdness and awfulness that is SHADOWBOXER comes in an outdoor sex scene crosscut with Gooding Jr.'s memories of his father abusing him and Mirren killing dear old dad. And then Cuba pulls out a gun and blows her brains out during the act--not a euphemism--as a mercy killing to alleviate the ravages of cancer. What the...?

3. JACKASS NUMBER TWO (Jeff Tremaine, 2006)

I admit it. I don't get it. I don't think it's funny watching these bozos risk life and limb doing their stupid stunts. The JACKASS sequel is less objectionable than the original in that fewer strangers suffer the consequences of Johnny Knoxville and crew's pranks. JACKASS NUMBER TWO is a better film than the original, so it lands at number three rather than its predecessor's number two finish.

4. BARNYARD (Steve Oedekerk, 2006) and DOOGAL (Dave Borthwick, Jean Duval, and Frank Passingham, 2006)

2006 produced a glut of computer animated movies with talking animals, so it's only fair that two of the worst animated films I've ever seen came out last year. BARNYARD and DOOGAL featured shoddy animation and overcompensated for lack of wit with attitude. BARNYARD made the tiny mistake of giving the male cows udders. Dubbed for its American release, the celebrity voices in DOOGAL weren't synced with the characters' lips. Parents might get tired of the kids watching the same Disney movies over and over, but if these are the alternatives, stick with the tried and true winners.

5. UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION (Len Wiseman, 2006)

Vampires and werewolves fight; we lose. Although not a video game movie in its conception, UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION is one in execution. It's little more than fight scenes functioning as level-completing that lead to big bosses who must be defeated to advance to more elaborate battles and more powerful foes. UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION is what an Uwe Boll movie would look like if Sony's money were behind it rather than German financiers and if it lacked any unintended laughs. At least Uwe Boll makes his incompetence occasionally entertaining.

6. PHAT GIRLZ (Nnegest Likké, 2006)

PHAT GIRLZ asks us to look for inner beauty, so maybe that's why this film looks like it was made with a camcorder shooting through a screen door. Likewise, Mo'Nique's main character has an annoying personality that's as responsible for keeping her from getting a man as much as she attributes it to her appearance. In a gender reversal, PHAT GIRLZ does for male African doctors what teen sex comedies have done for female foreign exchange students.

7. SEE NO EVIL (Gregory Dark 2006)

WWE wrestler Kane slaughters the juvenile delinquent teens doing community service in a boarded-up hotel in SEE NO EVIL. Oh joy. Other than the money wasted on the ticket, the audience has nothing to fear, just a bunch of butchery to observe. The characters don't seem all that frightened either. Upon entering a room with bloody hundreds glued to the wall, one teen marvels at all the money, overlooking that it's caked in blood and, oh yeah, there's a table with jars of eyeballs in there too. No shortage of nasty horror movies existed last year. This was one of the worst.

8. GRANDMA'S BOY (Nicholaus Goossen, 2006)

GRANDMA’S BOY is what would result if Adam Sandler and his high profile co-stars bailed on a movie and the understudies took over. A terminally unfunny story of arrested adolescence, GRANDMA’S BOY reeks of stale ideas and desperation. Comprised of what might as well be discarded jokes from Sandler vehicles—his production company made the film—GRANDMA’S BOY mucks around with drug humor, non sequiturs, and a paralyzing terror and disgust of old age.

9. BLOODRAYNE (Uwe Boll, 2005)

What would a worst of the year list be without an Uwe Boll film? The inept German director's most recent film adaptation of a video game is a disappointment because it's not as hilariously bad as his other efforts. No, Boll hasn't improved as a filmmaker. BLOODRAYNE is bad in a mundane way. What kind of fun is that?

10. BASIC INSTINCT 2 (Michael Caton-Jones, 2006)

Fourteen years after BASIC INSTINCT was released, its sequel arrived to an indifferent nation. Promising cheap thrills and controversy, BASIC INSTINCT 2 delivered the cure for insomnia. Containing less sizzle than a frozen steak in a cast iron skillet on an unplugged oven, the only passion this erotic thriller will arouse is from camp classic seekers.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Blood and Chocolate

BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE (Katja von Garnier, 2007)

Woe is the teenage werewolf caught between her love for a human and her community's contempt for mankind. For Vivian (Agnes Bruckner) in BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE, the dilemma is magnified. More than her lupine cousins, she knows the danger in revealing her true identity. Her childhood runs through the Rocky Mountains tipped off humans that a family of werewolves lived there. Their home was burned, and Vivian was the only survivor.

Now living in Bucharest and working in her aunt's chocolate shop, Vivian keeps to herself. Although she cherishes the freedom she feels while running in werewolf form, she loathes the beastly side that the others indulge. Vivian is approaching a critical time in coming to grips with her nature. Every seven years Gabriel (Olivier Martinez), the leader of the pack, takes a new wife. That time is soon, and everyone expects that she will be his chosen.

Complicating matters is her introduction to Aiden (Hugh Dancy). Vivian intrigues the American graphic novelist. She resists his initial attempts to strike up a romance for his safety as much as hers, but Aiden's persistence and charm wears her down. Aiden doesn't know about Vivian's heritage, but he's curious about the local werewolf legends. She feels she can trust him and shares stories. All of this angers Gabriel, who sends his son Rafe (Bryan Dick) to demand Aiden leave the country or else. Aiden refuses to heed the warning, putting Vivian in a position where she must choose between the man she loves and the secret society that has protected her.

Genre films can address serious topics in more accessible or entertaining ways than their higher minded cinematic counterparts. Based on a book for teenagers, BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE raises questions about the individual versus the group and tradition versus progress, but director Katja von Garnier is more interested in flaunting the film's lame special effects than mining its thematic potential.

Considering she must have had a limited budget, von Garnier would have been better served putting her effort into the story than the bargain basement effects work. Both suffer immeasurably. The human-to-wolf transformations aren't anything special despite the film's insistence on showing these moments over and over. The story features the most tepid romance possible and plenty of cringe-worthy dialogue. My favorite comes when Aiden sees the mess he's in by unknowingly becoming involved with a werewolf. Using his peculiar logic, he tells Vivian that if she cared for him, she should have ended the relationship before they met. Hey buddy, you were the one tracking her.

Is BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE a horror film? A romance? A teen movie? It's all of them and none of them. The horror aspect would seem the surest bet what with the werewolves and all, but the film makes no attempts to be scary. As far as star-crossed lovers are concerned, this pair is pretty boring. The main characters are at the tail end of their adolescence, but they're written as though they're older. Their ages are incidental anyway.

When a film is bad, it's easy to nitpick it to death. BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE provides plenty of opportunities. Romania is presented in an unflattering light, as if the old city were on the verge of crumbling, yet the chocolate shop is something out of a cheery middlebrow art film. The people must have their sweets. Conveniently enough, many of the signs are in English, including one identifying a building as City Cleaners. The sign isn't even necessary since we see what's inside before getting an exterior shot.

BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE ends with a whimper, going out on such a low-key note that it took a fellow critic to explain to me why the escape from the city isn't challenged. It's bad filmmaking, not restrained technique that lost me.

Grade: D-

Smokin' Aces

SMOKIN' ACES (Joe Carnahan, 2007)

Through the years the FBI has decimated the Mafia, but there's still a big fish in Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin) waiting to be caught. When Vegas magician turned gangster wannabe Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven) gets in a bind with the mob, the feds look to him as a prime candidate to flip and nail the old boss. Sparazza catches wind of Buddy's possible betrayal and puts out a million dollar contract on him. He not only wants the smarmy entertainer dead; he also wants his heart.

The price tag brings killers out of the woodworks in SMOKIN' ACES. Buddy is in protective custody on the top floor of a Lake Tahoe casino, but the officers watching over him have no idea what's coming their way. Contract killers Georgia Sykes (Alicia Keys) and Sharice Watters (Taraji P. Henson) plan a honey trap for the hooker-loving Buddy. Mercenary Pasquale Acosta (Nestor Carbonell) will pass himself off as FBI. The Tremors, a trio of neo-Nazi thugs, intend to use brute force. Master of disguises Lazlo Soot (Tommy Flanagan) plots to get close to Buddy by posing as one of his personal bodyguards. Ex-cops turned bail bondsmen Jack Dupree (Ben Affleck), "Pistol" Pete Deeks (Peter Berg), and Hollis Elmore (Martin Henderson) will go in dressed as hotel security. FBI agents Richard Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Donald Carruthers (Ray Liotta) are to keep Buddy safe from this full-blown, multi-pronged assault.

Writer-director Joe Carnahan trades the gritty realism of his previous film NARC for an over-the-top bullet opera riddled with dark comedy. The rat-a-tat-tat dialogue and 70s trappings of SMOKIN' ACES is pure Tarantino, although like the countless imitators, it isn't as clever as its inspiration. For all of the craziness and mayhem, it's not as unhinged as CRANK or RUNNING SCARED, films that didn't work but had some breathtaking, totally insane sequences.

SMOKIN' ACES comes closest to approaching that freewheeling lunacy in two funny scenes with Chris Pine's Darwin Tremor. His conversation with one of his dead victims, in which the corpse serves as sort of his ventriloquist's dummy, is twisted but imaginative and hilarious. The awkward nature of Lester's run-in with someone he left for dead gets milked for every last drop of humor before wrapping in the only way it could.

With a who's who cast populating the interlocking stories, SMOKIN' ACES requires an extensive amount of set-up. Three-quarters of the film, or what seems like it, involves explaining who everyone is and what they will be doing. While Carnahan does a good job of laying out the players and their tactics so that there's no confusion, the film feels top heavy with exposition. He handles the twists less adroitly, leading to a conclusion that's neither surprising nor earned.

The casual nihilism of SMOKIN' ACES gives it the detached hipness inherent in this type of film, so it stumbles badly when grasping for a moral at the end. It's impossible for a last minute pang of conscience to resonate when no loyalty to or fondness for any of the characters has been developed. SMOKIN' ACES is like a multi-player shoot 'em up video game in which the thrill comes from being bad. To finish with a flash of self-righteous humanity feels like a compromise out of step with the film's cocky strut.

Grade: D+

Catch and Release

CATCH AND RELEASE (Susannah Grant, 2007)

As if the death of her fiancé isn't enough for Gray Wheeler (Jennifer Garner) to face, she must accept that her beloved Grady wasn't who she thought he was. In CATCH AND RELEASE Gray discovers that her husband-to-be was very wealthy. He never hinted that he was rich, but as surprises go, it could be worse...and appears to be. Going through his finances turns up three thousand dollar monthly withdrawals sent to a massage therapist with a child in Los Angeles.

Unable to afford her current home, Gray moves in with her friends Dennis (Sam Jaeger), Grady's business partner at the fly fishing shop, and Sam (Kevin Smith), who finds inspirational quotes to put on herbal tea boxes. While they can give each other much needed support, emotions are swirling around the house. Dennis pines for Gray, especially when it seems that Grady wasn't as good to her as was believed. Sam feels responsible for his friend's death. Complicating matters further is that Grady's friend Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), whose presence is an unexplained irritation for Gray, is also residing there.

One day Maureen (Juliette Lewis) shows up at their Boulder, Colorado home with a little boy in tow. She's seeking some answers about Grady. Gray expects that Maureen is also looking for a sizable inheritance for the son Grady fathered with her. Despite Gray's misgivings about Maureen, she too becomes part of their family-like group.

Jennifer Garner could pull off several identities on ALIAS, but she's completely unconvincing as a grieving bride-to-be in CATCH AND RELEASE. It's as though she's still playing 13 GOING ON 30'S gawky teenager in an adult's body. Garner doesn't seem devastated so much as she's having an extended pout. During a pillow talk scene the actress delivers a misplaced honk of a laugh that is an indication she's trying too hard in the part.

While CATCH AND RELEASE is likely to put a damper on Garner's movie headlining ability, much of the film's faults can be put on writer-director Susannah Grant. The first-time director's other screenplays, including the underrated EVER AFTER and IN HER SHOES, were built around finely drawn female characters. Gray, on the other hand, is so slight that she often fades from prominence despite the film being about her growth during this painful time. (Whenever he's around, Smith's labored Jack Black impersonation pushes everyone else aside for better and, in most cases, for worse.) By the end of CATCH AND RELEASE there should be no questions about what she's learned and how she's become stronger, but the film leaves the lingering impression that she survived despite lacking fortitude.

As unfocused as the sex scene in which it looks like a kaleidoscope fell in front of the camera lens, CATCH AND RELEASE has the shaggy aimlessness more appropriate for Boulder's counterculture community. Most scenes end without purpose. Those that introduce an element to have it pay off much later--a phone call from a woman interested in Dennis and their eventual date--are scenes that should have been cut before filming began.

CATCH AND RELEASE plays as though a salvage job was attempted in the editing room, but you can't spin gold from straw. It's most apparent in a scene with Maureen giving Sam a massage. Aside from desperately hoping it doesn't go where all signs are pointing, the scene is a shambles of transitions in search of laughs. Also, how bad could Gray's big speech about the love of her life be when it's covered with voiceover?

CATCH AND RELEASE draws its title from the fishing philosophy of Gray's fiancé and buddies. The humane thing to do is throw this film back too.

Grade: D

Monday, January 22, 2007

Sweet Land

SWEET LAND (Ali Selim, 2005)

Saddled with two suitcases, a phonograph, and a nebulous grasp of the English language, German immigrant Inge (Elizabeth Reaser) comes to Minnesota to marry Norwegian farmer Olaf (Tim Guinee). Set in 1920, the couple-to-be in SWEET LAND encounters an unimagined problem in the post-World War I environment. The locals are suspicious of Germans and use their prejudice to block the marriage. In their minds Inge could be a spy or corrupter of morals. As the banker Harmo (Ned Beatty) observes, she has devious eyes.

With the wedding on hold for the foreseeable future and cohabitation forbidden by Minister Sorrensen (John Heard), Inge is placed in the home of Olaf's friend Frandsen (Alan Cumming). The bustling farmhouse is the one spot in the community where she is welcomed unconditionally. She's treated as though she were a member of the family, and Frandsen's wife Brownie (Alex Kingston) assists Inge with learning her new country's ways and language.

Although appreciative of her new friends' generosity, Inge traveled to America to take a husband. One night she slips into Olaf's house for a bath that isn't administered in front of the whole family. The next morning the quiet farmer is shocked to find her in his home, but he agrees to let her move in. She can take his bed while he will sleep in the barn's hay loft. Finally together, although not under the same roof, the couple begins their slow romance. Community opinion fails to bend at what is sill viewed as scandalous behavior.

SWEET LAND'S love story is told via flashback. Inge and Olaf's grandson Lars (Stephen Pelinski) reflects upon the history of the family homestead now that his grandparents have passed. Developers are ready to present him with a handsome $2.2 million check for the property, but the tug of the land's story makes it difficult to sell.

Director Ali Selim tells Inge and Olaf's romance in simple and modest terms while infusing it with an undercurrent of passion. The style befits the firm, hardworking characters who communicate the depth of their feelings through glances and gestures more than words. Reaser and Guinee's restrained performances hint at the interior lives that the times and circumstances would not let be shown. For modern audiences exposed to unclad bodies on a daily basis in the media, it can be hard to understand how the glimpse of an ankle might make the heart race, yet Selim and his actors make the period real and relatable.

Beautifully photographed by David Tumblety, SWEET LAND is a love story not only between two people but also humanity and nature. The golden tones of the fields and crisp blue skies reveal the glory of creation and what it provides. The film breathes when the characters are on the gorgeous natural stage and clenches when manmade obstructions interrupt it. (Note the way the camera traps Olaf and Frandsen in the frame when Olaf storms out of church after he and Inge are censured from the pulpit.) SWEET LAND values interconnectedness--in a couple, among a community, with the land, and with ancestors--and powerfully illustrates it within the story's emotional and visual content.

Grade: A-

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Hitcher

THE HITCHER (Dave Meyers, 2007)

Haven't hitchhikers gone the way of the dodo? Maybe I don't drive on enough lonely country roads to encounter people trying to thumb rides, but in this day and age, who would pick them up anyway? Whether hitchhiking is extinct is irrelevant despite the title of THE HITCHER, a remake of the 1986 film of the same name. The villain might as well be everymaniac, his preferred method of acquiring transportation aside.

Jim Halsey (Zachary Knighton) and Grace Andrews (Sophia Bush) are headed to spring break in Lake Havasu when he almost creams a shadowy figure standing in the middle of the road at night during a downpour. The man's car appears to be broken down, but rather than be good Samaritans, the freaked out couple chooses to speed away.

Several miles later Jim and Grace stop at a gas station to refuel his muscle car and themselves. He asks the clerk if he can send a tow truck, but a driver isn't available. Not long after that a rig drops off a soggy man named John Ryder (Sean Bean). The dimwitted station attendant quickly points out that this must be the guy Jim nearly hit, putting him in an uncomfortable situation with the stranger. Against his better judgment and Grace's wishes, Jim agrees to give John a ride to a hotel in the nearest town.

Sure enough, once they're on the road John pulls a knife on Grace and threatens to kill them both. They manage to wiggle out of the situation and eject John from the car, but the nightmare has just begun. The next day on the highway they see that John has obtained a lift from a family. They try to warn them, but it's too late. Jim wrecks his car. John slaughters the family and takes off. When Jim and Grace drive the murdered family's station wagon to the next populated area, they are suspected of the crime. Their worries with the law are secondary, though. John isn't done with them yet.

Too silly and stupid to be scary, THE HITCHER speeds along with no regard for logic. More thought probably went into picking the Oldsmobile 442 for Jim to drive than anything else in the screenplay. Considering the ease with which John finds Jim and Grace every time, he must have implanted tracking devices in them. If they hopped a charter plane to Alaska, one expects John would be there to greet them when they landed. He must stock multiple caches of weapons in the countryside with how well armed he is at all times. When he tries to drop a pickup truck on the college students' heads, he must have had a crane nearby as well.

Topping those howlers is a big chase, inexplicably set to Nine Inch Nails' "Closer", in which John manages to wipe out multiple police cars and a helicopter pursuing Jim and Grace. The kicker is that the couple is still believed to be responsible for the mayhem. None of the officers must have thought to report the other car. And don't get me started on the idiocy with how the final scene sets up the film's payoff.

Horror film protagonists aren't known for being Rhodes scholars, but that's what they look like in comparison to Jim and Grace. They make the worst possible decisions at every turn, which does have the side benefit of making THE HITCHER so bad it's funny. Also, the film raises the issue that it's time for a moratorium on the annoying movie habit of someone being behind the wheel while the driver's head and eyes are 45 degrees to the right.

Unlike the recent remake of BLACK CHRISTMAS and prequel THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING, THE HITCHER doesn't bother with needless backstory for John. Is it really necessary to know that the killers had unimaginably abusive childhoods, especially when such scenes are virtually the same from horror film to horror film? Omitting these scenes doesn't make THE HITCHER better, but it spares the audience from clumsy psychology. All that's essential here is that John is a killing machine.

If THE HITCHER were more interested in tone than action theatrics, it might have fulfilled its premise satisfactorily. The idea of being trapped in the middle of nowhere with a dangerous stranger has potential, but the film never gives a good sense of how isolated they are. Bad as most of JEEPERS CREEPERS was, the opening section effectively established the protagonists' distance from help. THE HITCHER is too impatient and starved for blood to let the atmosphere build.

The most frightening thing in THE HITCHER has nothing to do with the film on screen. When Grace watches THE BIRDS on the hotel TV, it's a reminder that HITCHER producer Michael Bay has long been rumored to remake the Hitchcock classic. Hopefully that's one movie murder that can be avoided.

Grade: D-

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

COFCA awards podcast

Last Friday I recorded this podcast with Columbus Alive's John Ross and Melissa Starker about the winners of the 5th annual Central Ohio Film Critics Association awards. I'm amazed I was awake enough to put sentences together, let alone ramble like I did, but I think it's worth a listen. I did and I knew what everyone was going to say.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Children of Men

CHILDREN OF MEN (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)

In the year 2027, humans are no longer capable of reproducing. It has been eighteen years since a human has given birth. No explanation exists for the problem in CHILDREN OF MEN, and no hope for a solution is on the horizon. With the extinction of the human race imminent, the world goes to hell in a handbasket. Violence and depression are at record levels. One of the most popular pharmaceuticals is a suicide pill.

Theodore Faron (Clive Owen) doesn't see much reason or value to life. He smokes like a chimney and has an ever-present bottle of whiskey in his pocket. And why not? Everyone is doomed. Do what you want while you can. A resistance group led by his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore) promises to fatten his wallet, an enticement in good and bad times, if Theodore will transport a woman from London. Initially he is in the dark as to who this woman Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) is. When word slowly spreads and he sees evidence that Kee is pregnant, the stakes are raised on her life and his as they attempt to reach The Human Project and solve the infertility pandemic.

At the heart of CHILDREN OF MEN is the intriguing question of how we would go about our lives if we knew that humanity was on the brink of elimination. Whether we have children of our own or not, we go about our daily lives with the expectation of improving things for the future. If there were no future generations, would we devolve into scared, greedy scavengers?The film posits that a world we know to be finite within our lifetime is one in which we would be susceptible to fueling our fears and worst impulses. CHILDREN OF MEN'S essence is acknowledging that children are our future, literally and figuratively, although it's more substantive than a similar sentiment in a Whitney Houston song.

From a filmmaking perspective, CHILDREN OF MEN is a dazzling piece of work. Cuarón's deft direction and Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography drop us into an immersive dystopian atmosphere. The film has already been lauded many times over for the unbroken shots that play out for minutes and for good reason. While these long takes demonstrate technical virtuosity at a mind-boggling level, the primary purpose is to enhance the reality of the environment for the audience. Whether one realizes or not that no cuts are used in the two standout sequences--an assault on a car and siege at an immigrant detention camp--the technique gives the scenes a suffocating feeling, something less easily accomplished through multiple edits. Even when not indulging single-shot scenes, Cuarón uses cuts judiciously throughout CHILDREN OF MEN, again to serve the illusion of verisimilitude.

For as bleak as CHILDREN OF MEN sounds, a vein of dark humor runs through it, both in dialogue and visuals. Kee has some fun teasing those who learn of her pregnancy and think they might have stumbled upon a new nativity story. Cuarón gets in a sly reference to a Pink Floyd album cover with the view from one character's apartment.

Invigorating in its ideas and style, CHILDREN OF MEN conceives a dystopian future, but its questions are just as relevant to our modern lives. The news is littered with tragedies. Wars rage. Fear grows. What's to keep us from chucking our best efforts? The film's answer may seem pat in words, but nevertheless, the talented people who made CHILDREN OF MEN give such hope an uncommon power.

Grade: B+

Alpha Dog

ALPHA DOG (Nick Cassavetes, 2006)

A 1999 abduction and murder case is the basis for the ripped from the headlines ALPHA DOG. Smalltime drug dealer Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) and his pals, including a heavily tattooed Justin Timberlake as Frankie Ballenbacher, are up to no good in their southern California neighborhood, but Johnny crosses the line when trying to squeeze money out of someone who owes him. Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), a Jewish neo-Nazi, can't pay up. On the spur of the moment Johnny gets the idea to take Jake's younger brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) hostage as a means of persuasion.

Johnny's gang treats Zack like a new member, and he isn't in any rush to get home. Before Zack was taken his parents confronted him about a bong they found in his room. Plus, his kidnapped status makes him the hit of the roving parties that Johnny's gang attends. It's as though no one realizes the consequences of the abduction. Zack can't just pop back in at home to clear up everything. As Johnny comes to understand what's at stake, the likelihood that Zack will be returned alive diminishes.

Like other youth gone wild films, ALPHA DOG tries to gain its immediacy by purporting to tell the gritty truth about teens today. Although the film dramatizes a specific true life case, it plays as a larger statement about amoral adolescents and their clueless, self-absorbed parents. The problem with such an endeavor, and with this film specifically, comes when it isn't grounded in any sort of reality for the average moviegoer to comprehend.

ALPHA DOG thrusts us into a world where the adults are ineffectual, if they're even around at all, and the kids roam the ranch house complexes like a pack of wolves. It's a familiar scenario in films but one that I'm guessing most audience members have never experienced firsthand. The story is coming from the streets, so it has to be honest, right? Explaining that the film is based on real characters and events doesn't release director Nick Cassavetes from convincing us that this really happened. As it stands, ALPHA DOG plays out like a hysterical vision of corrupted youth in which hip hop music and tattoos are to blame.

ALPHA DOG'S characters adopt poses that they've seen on television and in the movies, and the same goes for the young cast hamming it up as if they watched their SCARFACE DVDs too many times in preparation. Hirsch broods and puts on a menacing look occasionally, but he doesn't have enough screen time to explain why we should consider him the vilest of this rotten bunch. Timberlake acquits himself, in part because he plays the one character with any conception of the wrongness of their actions. Most of the performances are pitched over the top, particularly a twitchy Foster. When Jake busts out some wicked martial arts moves, it's hard not to break into laughter. That goes doubly for when Sharon Stone, playing Zack's mother Olivia, gives a weepy interview in a fat suit.

Stifling that response happens all too often in ALPHA DOG, a film that is otherwise dry, unengaged, and conflicted. If this weren't a true story made with the intention of nailing Johnny Truelove for his crimes, it would be freer to enjoy the youthful debauchery that it likes but resists for the sake of the message.

Grade: D-

Friday, January 12, 2007

5th annual Central Ohio Film Critics Association awards

Since I compiled nominations, set our online ballot, revealed the winners at our party tonight, wrote the press release, and sent the news to various organizations, I might as well post it here.
Children of Men and The Departed big winners in 5th annual Central Ohio Film Critics Association awards

(Columbus, January 12, 2007) Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men was named Best Film in the Central Ohio Film Critics Association’s 5th annual awards, recognizing excellence in the film industry for 2006. Best Film runner-up The Departed won the most awards, claiming the top spot for Best Director (Martin Scorsese), Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Best Ensemble, and Best Screenplay–Adapted (William Monahan).

Other individual winners include: Helen Mirren for Best Actress for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen; Dreamgirls’ Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson in the supporting performance categories, with Hudson also winning Breakthrough Film Artist; Actor of the Year Clive Owen for his exemplary work in Children of Men and Inside Man; Apocalypto’s Dean Semler for Best Cinematography; Rian Johnson for Best Screenplay–Original for Brick; and Babel’s Gustavo Santaolalla for Best Score.

Other honored films include: An Inconvenient Truth for Best Documentary; Pan’s Labyrinth for Best Foreign Language Film; Cars for Best Animated Film; and Brick for Best Overlooked Film.

Founded in 2002, the Central Ohio Film Critics Association is made up of film critics based in Columbus, Ohio, and the surrounding areas. Its membership consists of more than 25 print, radio, television, and new media critics. COFCA recently launched its official website at www.cofca.org, which contains links to member reviews and past award winners.

Winners were announced at a private party on January 11.

Complete list of awards:

Best Films
1. Children of Men
2. The Departed
3. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
4. Pan’s Labyrinth
5. Little Miss Sunshine
6. Brick
7. United 93
8. Babel
9. Thank You for Smoking
10. Casino Royale

Best Director
-Martin Scorsese, The Departed
-Runner-up: Alfonso Cuarón, Children of Men

Best Actor
-Leonardo DiCaprio, The Departed
-Runner-up: Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Best Actress
-Helen Mirren, The Queen
-Runner-up: Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada

Best Supporting Actor
-Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls
-Runner-up: Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine

Best Supporting Actress
-Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls
-Runner-up: Rinko Kikuchi, Babel

Best Ensemble
-The Departed
-Runner-up: Little Miss Sunshine

Actor of the Year (for an exemplary body of work)
-Clive Owen, Children of Men and Inside Man
-Runner-up:Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood Diamond and The Departed

Breakthrough Film Artist
-Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls
-Runner-up: Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

Best Cinematography
-Dean Semler, Apocalypto
-Runner-up: Guillermo Navarro, Pan’s Labyrinth

Best Screenplay – Adapted
-William Monahan, The Departed
-Runner-up: Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby, Children of Men

Best Screenplay – Original
-Rian Johnson, Brick
-Runner-up: Michael Arndt, Little Miss Sunshine

Best Score
-Gustavo Santaolalla, Babel
-Runner-up: Nathan Johnson, Brick

Best Documentary
-An Inconvenient Truth
-Runners-up (tie): Jesus Camp and Wordplay

Best Foreign Language Film
-Pan’s Labyrinth
-Runner-up: Letters from Iwo Jima

Best Animated Film
-Runner-up: Monster House

Best Overlooked Film
-Runner-up: The Descent

COFCA offers its congratulations to the winners.

For more information about the Central Ohio Film Critics Association, please visit www.cofca.org or e-mail info@cofca.org.

The complete list of members and their affiliations:

Kevin Carr (www.columbuScene.com, www.7mpictures.com) ; Nick Chordas (The Columbus Dispatch), Bill Clark (www.fromthebalcony.com); Nikki Davis (Columbus Alive); John DeSando (90.5 WCBE); Johnny DiLoretto (Fox 28 WTTE); Chad Dull (The Other Paper); Frank Gabrenya (The Columbus Dispatch); Jordan Gentile (The Other Paper); Kaizaad Kotwal (C Magazine, Gay Peoples Chronicle); Kristin Dreyer Kramer (NightsAndWeekends.com); Joyce Long (820 WOSU); Rico Long (820 WOSU); Clay Lowe (90.5 WCBE); Colin Mack (U Weekly); Hope Madden (The Other Paper); Paul Markoff (WOCC-TV3); David Medsker (Bullz-Eye.com); Neil Miller (www.columbusmovieguy.com); J. Caleb Mozzocco (Donewaiting.com); Lori Pearson (Kids-in-Mind.com, critics.com); Mark Pfeiffer (Reel Times: Reflections on Cinema; WOCC-TV3); Margaret Quamme (The Columbus Dispatch); Dave Redelberger (WLVQ, WHOK, WAZU); John Ross (Columbus Alive); Melissa Starker (Columbus Alive); Peter Tonguette (freelance); Jason Zingale (Bullz-Eye.com).

Friday, January 05, 2007

Freedom Writers

FREEDOM WRITERS (Richard LaGravenese, 2007)

In FREEDOM WRITERS, idealistic new teacher Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) steps into Room 203 at Woodrow H. Wilson High School in Long Beach, California ready to shape young minds and turn around troubled lives. The bright daughter of a civil rights activist, Erin chose education over law and an embattled integrated school over a cushy suburban institution because she wanted to help at-risk kids before they were beyond help.

Based on a true story, FREEDOM WRITERS takes place in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots stemming from the Rodney King case. Racial tension and gang violence is high, and most of Erin's students are caught in the mix.

Her first day on the job provides a wake up call to the challenges she will face in the classroom and from the administration. Fourteen-year-olds with rap sheets and reading levels far below their ages dominate Erin's freshman English class list. Department head Margaret Campbell (Imelda Staunton) scoffs at her optimism in spite of it all, making sure to remind her that she shouldn't wear her pearls around students for whom she's a glorified babysitter. The outlook doesn't improve when she meets the students, a surly bunch who divide themselves along racial lines and whose only unity is in detesting their cheerful teacher.

Erin tries to earn the students' respect by approaching them on their level, but the teens know she can't relate to their lives even if she uses a Tupac song to teach them about internal rhyme. She achieves a minor breakthrough when they play a game that lets the rival groups discover how much they have in common.

Real progress comes when the students are given diaries to write their own stories. Erin leaves it up to each one whether she is permitted to read their work. To her surprise, all of them choose to share. The stories of living with fear and violence touch her deeply, and she feels compelled to show the kids something outside their experiences. Whether it's buying them new books, something Margaret refuses to supply because she believes they'll destroy them, or paying to take them on a field trip, Erin invests her time and money to demonstrate her belief in their worth.

It would be easy to write off FREEDOM WRITERS as another inspirational teacher movie, not to mention one in which the white character saves the minorities, but to do so would be unfair. Writer-director Richard LaGravenese follows the template for such a story. The difference in FREEDOM WRITERS is how he shades the familiar elements.

Erin's devotion and effort--she takes on two part-time jobs to pay for books and the class trip--approaches sainthood, but it is not without a high price. Her husband Scott (Patrick Dempsey) grows frustrated that his wife is becoming a stranger to him. Unfair as it might sound to force her to choose between him and her students, LaGravenese sets the scene so that Scott's ultimatum seems perfectly reasonable. Erin wants to change the world. While she might gain admiration and a terrific sense of accomplishment, it takes a rare spouse who is willing to sacrifice and be left on the sidelines, especially when that wasn't expected.

The students' stories are told without excessive sentimentality. The audience is smart enough to observe that the kids have hard lives and don't need to have it jammed down their throats. If there's a weakness in FREEDOM WRITERS, it's in having too many students to get to know many of them well. Still, it's better to have characters we'd like to know more about than not have the slightest interest in. Eva (April Lee Hernandez), a gang murder witness pressured to lie to protect a fellow Latino, gets the lion's share of the attention. The film does a good job of explaining why lying to frame someone else is the more sensible decision.

I would have liked to have seen more about Marcus (Jason Finn). His mother kicked him out of the house for being in a gang, and he doesn't expect to reach his eighteenth birthday. There's something quite moving in how he talks about what The Diary of Anne Frank means to him and how Miep Gies, who hid Anne, is his hero. His shy request to escort the elderly Dutch woman, if they can raise the money to bring her to speak to them, is one of the film's high points.

Occasionally FREEDOM WRITERS overdoes it in depicting those who oppose Erin. Margaret and a junior honors teacher have their villainous mustache-twirling moments that aren't necessary. To Staunton's credit, she plays the part not as an overt racist but as someone who has seen failure for so long that it's easier for her to doubt that Erin's progress will have a lasting effect. Erin can come across as hopelessly optimistic, although I suppose without such an attitude, she would never take the big risks. The teacher's shoes fit well on Swank, who conveys the toughness and affection her character must have to weather the situation and make an impact.

In 1961 the Freedom Riders stood up for what they believed was unjust regarding civil rights in America. In honor of those people, Erin's students adopt the name Freedom Writers for their brave stance against the violence in their communities and the low standards expected of them. Similarly, FREEDOM WRITERS echoes its inspirational teacher cinematic predecessors with generous amounts of compassion.

Grade: B

Code Name: The Cleaner

CODE NAME: THE CLEANER (Les Mayfield, 2007)

In CODE NAME: THE CLEANER Jake Rodgers (Cedric the Entertainer) wakes up in a hotel room next to a dead FBI agent and a briefcase containing $250,000. Not only doesn't he remember how he got there, but Jake has also forgotten who he is, even his name. The painful head wound is the likely culprit for his amnesia, but Jake knows enough that he better hightail it out of there before someone finds him.

In the hotel lobby Diane (Nicolette Sheridan) greets Jake and claims to be his wife. He can't determine if she's telling the truth or not, and he doesn't really care when she brings him home to a mansion. Diane seems overly concerned about restoring his memory, though. Jake overhears her conversation with a doctor and thinks better of sticking around to find out if she is (and he is) who she says.

Jake has little to go on to remember his identity. He has intermittent flashbacks that suggest he's a special ops combat veteran, but the only physical clue he has is a hotel claim check ticket that produces a keycard for Digital Arts, a Seattle video game company. Stopping for a bite to eat at a diner across from Digital Arts, Jake encounters Gina (Lucy Liu), a waitress who claims to be his girlfriend and contradicts everything Diane told him.

If only Jake's loss of memory was extended to those seeing CODE NAME: THE CLEANER. This dire comedy deserves to be dropped in a vat of solvent to remove its stink. Directed by Les Mayfield, who helmed the equally horrendous THE MAN with Samuel L. Jackson and Eugene Levy, CODE NAME: THE CLEANER doesn't contain jokes so much as desperate flailing for attention.

Whether you think Cedric the Entertainer is funny or not is irrelevant. The best comedian couldn't get laughs from the skeletal humor. CODE NAME: THE CLEANER is a series of brainstormed ideas--Jake steps on a broken lamp, Jake hits golf balls into a residential area, Jake dances with a Dutch troupe--and little more. The performances aren't anything special, but maybe they're better than believed. How else can the actors deliver this crap with a straight face?

The mystery of Jake's true identity frustrates more than intrigues and takes an inordinate amount of time to set up. This isn't MEMENTO. The flimsy script, which incredibly has two credited screenwriters, takes more than half of the film's running time to establish first act information. We don't need to know the secret of who Jake is, but it would be nice to have some idea of what's going on rather than getting obvious misdirects. This is supposed to be a comedy instead of a thriller, not that it satisfies the expectations of either.

CODE NAME: THE CLEANER should have the alias The Watch Checker. It's one of those movies where you strain to check the time and despair that you're only twenty minutes in, then thirty-five minutes in, and so on.

Grade: F

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The History Boys

THE HISTORY BOYS (Nicholas Hytner, 2006)

Having successfully completed their A level exams, the students in THE HISTORY BOYS turn to preparing for the arduous admissions process to England's top universities. Cutler Grammar School's headmaster (Clive Merrison) wants his star pupils to be accepted by Oxford and Cambridge, so he brings in a pliable teacher to get them to focus on the task at hand rather than advancing their knowledge.

Young, thin as a rail, and fixated on the result rather than the process, newcomer Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) stands in stark contrast to Hector (Richard Griffiths), a corpulent old professor who stresses the importance of learning regardless of its daily utility. The boys adore Hector's freewheeling lessons, but they find more of that time is being pinched so that Irwin can inculcate them in how to play the admissions game to their advantage.

Hector's dissatisfaction with reduced instructional time takes a back seat when word reaches the administration that he was seen touching one of his student's gentials while giving the boy a ride home on his motorcycle.

Confirming everything that Morrissey and Belle & Sebastian songs would have you believe about what boys do at British schools, THE HISTORY BOYS takes place in a universe in which homosexuality and a teacher's wayward hands are no big deal. Although there are no indications that the film exists as a fantasy, it can be viewed in no other way. As enlightened as students might believe themselves to be today, it seems unlikely that every teenage male in a class would be gay or curious, let alone be so open in 1983.

The main trouble spot for THE HISTORY BOYS, though, is the laissez faire attitude, if not outright endorsement, regarding an instructor inappropriately fondling students and the pupils' unquestioning acceptance and implied enjoyment of it. Hector's students accept his grabby-handed motorcycle rides as though it's their duty in return for the education he's giving them, sort of like a rite of passage. In the end THE HISTORY BOYS wonders what all the fuss was about and winks at Hector's indiscretions as if they were no more than harmless pranks.

It's too bad that the film loses its way because THE HISTORY BOYS asks some interesting questions about what to learn and how to use it. Should education be pursued for its own sake, or is it only of value if it can be used to further oneself professionally? Proficiency tests and school funding are the hot topics in today's American educational system because it's felt that the exams serve no other purpose than satisfying bureaucratic requirements and that the money should be applied to teaching practical knowledge over learning that provides cultural enrichment. Is there value in taking contrarian stances in academics because the novelty is more likely to get one noticed, and is it intellectually dishonest? Like the best teachers, THE HISTORY BOYS puts such questions out there for the viewers to gnaw on and draw their own conclusions.

Director Nicholas Hytner works hard to make the stage play seem more kinetic on screen, whipping the camera around the classroom in an attempt to add motion to a script that demands stasis. In a middlebrow, theatrical way, Alan Bennett's dialogue is sharp and consistently amusing, which aids the film through its slow portions. THE HISTORY BOYS falters badly in a plot development near the end. Along with its questionable approval of the teacher's actions, the film is unable to recover. That's how it can go. A sterling career--or, in this case, a solid film--can be undone by one or two bad lapses in judgment.

Grade: C

Rocky Balboa

ROCKY BALBOA (Sylvester Stallone, 2006)

More than any other athletes, boxers are the ones who seem not to know when to hang it up for good. In ROCKY BALBOA Sylvester Stallone’s fiftysomething fighter comes back for one more tussle in the ring (and a sixth film), but he’s one former champ who holds no illusions of reclaiming the heavyweight title of his youth.

By all appearances Rocky should be a happy man. Years after his heyday he remains a beloved figure in his hometown. He runs a successful Italian restaurant named for his deceased wife and entertains his diners with tales of his boxing glory. For all the love he receives from the people of Philadelphia, Rocky still aches over the loss of Adrian and the distance that exists between him and his son Rocky Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia), who wants to escape the long shadow his famous father casts.

Rocky has no reason to believe he’ll ever fight again, but a strange thing happens when ESPN runs a virtual simulation pitting him in his prime versus current heavyweight champ Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver). The sports TV segment stirs something inside him that makes him want to go toe to toe with another boxer again. Nothing major, just some local fights if the state boxing commission will approve.

Everyone thinks Rocky is foolish for such a pursuit, but Dixon’s handlers, desperate to polish the tarnished image of their unpopular titleholder, jump at the chance to arrange a high profile exhibition between the pugilists. Rocky will get one last hurrah in the ring, and Dixon will improve his reputation with the sport’s fans. Of course, even if it is an exhibition, Rocky is determined to give it everything he’s got this one final time.

There’s no reason to believe Rocky could come close to holding his own against a much younger fighter, yet when the boxing scenes arrive, the urge to cheer him on is impossible to resist in this unabashedly corny film. The past decade at the movies, not to mention the diminishing returns of ROCKY sequels, hasn’t been particularly kind to Stallone, so it’s remarkable how quickly he endears himself to us as the title character.

The triumph of Stallone’s performance is in the dignity he brings to Rocky. After years of taking punches to the head, Rocky may not be the brightest bulb in the room, but he has a good heart. He comps meals for a needy former boxer not out of pity but because he believes it's the right thing to do. That makes you want to root for Rocky in whatever he does.

Although the big fight is a major part of the film's second half, ROCKY BALBOA'S interest is in exploring middle age and coming to grips with the reality that life is entering the latter rounds. Rocky knows that he's becoming a relic. He prefers listening to oldies on the radio and reminiscing about how the neighborhood used to be. While sweet, his delicate flirtation with Marie (Geraldine Hughes), who he once knew as a girl, is as much about finding the love he lost when his wife died. Stallone's screenplay is savvy enough to observe that Marie is aware of this fact as well. Rocky and Marie's tentative steps toward one another provide grace notes to a film in a series better remembered for jabs and knockouts.

ROCKY BALBOA possesses a keen awareness of the potentially foolhardy nature of the character's quest. In an achievement befitting the boxer, Stallone delivers a sucker punch in finding a way to make this underdog comeback story succeed.

Grade: B-

Monday, January 01, 2007

Night at the Museum

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM (Shawn Levy, 2006)

Hard up for work, Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) accepts a position as night security officer at the Museum of Natural History. His first night on the job Larry discovers that the late shift will be much more rigorous than the occasional stroll through the exhibits with plenty of time for reading books and catnapping. When the sun goes down in NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM, the displays come to life.

An Egyptian tablet in the museum's collection transforms the wax and taxidermied figures into living, breathing beings overnight, but if any exhibits are outside when the sun rises, they turn into sand. It is Larry's responsibility to keep the peace and ensure that none of the inhabitants leave the building. With a playful Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton to amuse, a diorama battle between cowboys and Roman soldiers to mediate, and a mischievous monkey to keep in line, Larry has his hands full. Former President Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) helps show Larry the ropes, but ultimately he will have to take control of the situation, even the Easter Island head slinging insults and the fierce mini-Mayan warriors.

Heavy on special effects and Stiller's shtick, NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM is a big, silly comedy with a little something for everyone in the family. The effects work is integrated well into this museum adventure, but it doesn't overshadow the basic slapstick and funny performances from which the film gets its humor. The broad screenplay might have hampered lesser comedic actors, but Stiller tailors his role so that there's some intelligence peeking out of the doofus he's playing. He would have been better off dropping the belabored scene in which he psychoanalyzes Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher), though.

The most fun in NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM is found in the supporting cast. As the crusty security guards forced into retirement, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and Bill Cobbs are a treat to watch as they needle Larry and stir up trouble. The irascible Rooney is hilarious as he itches for a fight with Larry. Steve Coogan and Owen Wilson, as the Roman Octavius and a gunslinging cowboy, make their scenes snap with humor from the strength of their personalities slicing through the middling jokes. Ricky Gervais puts his unique twist on the uptight twit running the museum.

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM is more amusement park ride than a walk through the halls of history, but sometimes a slap fight with a monkey is preferable to a lesson on Sacajawea. The film has a lighthearted nature and the good sense to keep things simple. Most films would have devoted time to a seemingly inevitable romance with Larry and a docent played by Carla Gugino, but NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM understands that such matters are unimportant when the main attraction is the zaniness that ensues when history exhibits come alive.

Grade: B-