reel reviews
movie reviews
10.8.04

Facing WindowsFriday Night LightsI'll Sleep When I'm Dead
The Motorcycle DiariesRaise Your VoiceTaxi

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

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Friday Night Lights
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

If you are looking for a crowd-pleasing football film that proudly parades its players like gladiators, Friday Night Lights is not for you. If you are looking for a movie that follows a ragtag group of players who learn the meaning of teamwork, skip this film. If you are looking for a comedy that revels in the high jinx, playfulness and energy of its team, rent a copy of The Program.

Friday Night Lights is not your typical football film.

Based on the best-selling novel by Buzz Bessinger, the film follows a high school football team in Odessa, Texas, a town that worships football. The stadium radiates in the center of the bleak town like a Greek temple, businesses close for football games, and banners and signs cheer on the Permian High School Black Panthers.

While football thrives, everything else in Odessa is in a state of collapse. The most successful business appears to be Wal-Mart. There are hints that the schools are under funded and educational standards are low. Poverty is everywhere, and every player we meet belongs to an incomplete and dysfunctional family. All Odessa has is football, and all the adults in the town have is the desire to live vicariously through the players on the field.

We find ourselves desperately routing for the players, not necessarily for victory on the field, but for some sort of reprieve from the endless and debilitating pressures Odessa inflicts. At the beginning of the film, unsmiling quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black) is asked by a recruiter if he finds football fun. His answer is yes, but his face betrays him.

The athletes in Friday Night Lights who should be motivated by glory and fun, are instead driven by dread and fear of failure. Their only reprieve comes from the wisdom of their coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thorton), a sympathetic character that finds himself year after year under the same pressure as his team.

The film’s atmosphere is captivating. Director Peter Berg gives Odessa a washed out feel, and doesn’t let the film explode into vibrant colors until the last match of the film. He also manages to capture the tragedy of a town whose men achieve the apex of their lives at 17. The football players of Permian High School attain their greatest life moments in high school. The rest of their life is that of a spectator: a bleak prospect indeed.

Make no mistake about it, Friday Night Lights is a film about football, but it shares more in common with films from the horror genre than with its predecessors. (PG-13) Rating: 4 ; Posted 10/8/04


Raise Your Voice
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Some movies are critic proof. After all, if the target audience doesn’t care what any adult has to say about culture, they’re not going to read a movie review.

Raise Your Voice is a shamelessly manipulative and terribly clichéd film that’s aimed squarely at pre-teen girls. Any criticism that they hear about this mess will be dismissed as the ranting of an old fogy since they have seen few of the other films that this one liberally borrows from.

Raise Your Voice doesn’t feature the Olsen Twins (although it could have). Hilary Duff, from the Disney Channel’s popular show Lizzie McGuire, stars as Terri Fletcher, a 16-year-old who lives in a small Arizona town. Right after graduation, her brother Paul (Jason Ritter) is killed in a car accident.

Unbeknownst to Terri, Paul had submitted a video audition of her to a renowned summer music academy in Los Angeles. Her father (David Keith) has forbidden her to attend even though her mother (Rita Wilson) thinks it’s a grand idea. Terri and her mom conspire to allow Terri to go, under the guise of a visit to her eccentric Aunt Nina (Rebecca De Mornay).

Once at the academy, Terri finds that the going is tough. She contends with competitive colleagues, homesickness and petty jealousies...all while mourning her brother. She also has a summer romance with a guitar-playing British songwriter named Jay (Oliver James from What A Girl Wants.)

Will Terri persevere, overcome her depression and self-doubts and win the big scholarship prize while keeping dear old dad in the dark?

The music academy faintly resembles the one from Fame, but that show was never as artificial as this one. The performers there had at least a modicum of talent that made them believable as wannabe artists.

One of the biggest problems is with Duff herself. Although she is a likable actress, her vocal skills are modest at best. She never would have been accepted to a prestigious music camp based upon the ability she shows here. (A lot of studio tinkering and overdubbing is evident in her all of her solos.)

The only saving grace is the adult cast, who do their best with the stilted dialogue they’ve been given. John Corbett (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) has a couple of nice scenes as Terri’s vocal teacher.

There’s hardly a believable minute in Raise Your Voice under the ham-fisted direction of Sean McNamara (TV’s Raven). But don’t tell the kiddies. They may never know the difference. (PG) Rating: 1.5; Posted 10/8/04


The Motorcycle Diaries
Reviewed by Deborah Young

On the surface, The Motorcycle Diaries is a road-trip film about a medical student who later becomes a revolutionary. But beneath the surface, the movie takes on the subject of the passage of time. It captures the truth that time often sneaks up on people, changing them in much the same way that running water transforms stones, wearing them down to a previously unseen essence.

The movie gets its material from books written by Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Alberto Granado about a trip they made across South America in 1952 and how it shaped their worldviews. Che later became a Cuban revolutionary, a member of Fidel Castro’s administration, and then a martyr for his causes.

The movie focuses on the vulnerabilities of 23-year-old Che (played by Gael Garcia Bernal of Y tu Mama Tambien) and the antics of his sidekick Alberto (Rodrigo de la Serna). The filmmakers hammer home the concept of Che’s physical vulnerabilities and his developing sensitivity to the plight of South America’s poor people. Several times during the film, we see him having asthmatic attacks during which he gasps and sweats and appears near death. Other scenes show him sitting alone and voiceovers reveal the subjects of his contemplation.

In one contemplative scene, Che is in Peru (near the ruins of Machu Picchu) sitting atop a pyramid-shaped hill. A voiceover expresses his thoughts: conquerors destroyed this to build this (the camera cuts to a bland tract). Scenes such as these send a subtle political message about the goodness of Che Guevara and his ideals. The message ignores the complexities of the revolutionary and the violence that accompanied the revolution.

The film shows us a saintly Guevara who empathizes with lepers and mine workers. This Guevara refuses to lie about a manuscript written by a kindly doctor (it was bad) and refuses to withhold the truth from a man who has what appears to be a tumor. We see no signs here of a Guevara capable of orchestrating killings.

But to be fair, that side of the revolutionary is not what this movie is about. This movie is about the beauty of nature as seen in the mountains and rivers of South America and captured majestically by cinematographer Eric Gautier. It’s also about two young men growing up while bumming around South America.

The film does move slowly just as time sometimes does, and nothing of substance seems to be happening. The filmmakers reveal the natures of characters slowly and deliberately, through the most minor incidents, such as repeated breakdowns of the old motorbike on which the men travel throughout much of the movie.

Viewers who have the patience to get to know these characters will probably like them and the film, which mirrors the passage of time. The progression can be maddeningly boring but, after it’s run its course, it reveals the beauty buried in what at first appears to be a whole lot of nothing.

By the way, The Motorcycle Diaries opened in the KC area on Oct. 8, which is one day before the 37th anniversary of Che’s death. (R) Rating: 4; Posted 10/8/04


I'll Sleep When I'm Dead
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Usually, storytellers like to give us some background information on their characters so that we can understand their motives and actions. Occasionally, however, filmmakers try to turn this technique on its ear, forcing us to try to figure things out for ourselves.

This is the approach taken in I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, Mike Hodges’ British gangster flick that is essentially a remake of his 1971 hit, Get Carter. That film starred Michael Caine as London wiseguy who goes to Newcastle to investigate the death of his brother.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead reunites Hodges with his Croupier star, Clive Owen (King Arthur). Owen plays Will Graham, a mysterious figure that lives like a hermit and does manual labor in a rural English village.

Meanwhile, we’re introduced to a charmingly oily drug dealer named Danny (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) who is the victim of a seemingly random attack. When Danny’s buddy Mikser (Jamie Foreman) discovers him dead in his bathtub, it sets into motion a series of events that lead Will back from his self-imposed exile.

Along the way, we meet other characters that are connected to Will in one way or another. They include Helen (Charlotte Rampling), perhaps a former lover, Frank Turner (Ken Stott), a local gangster, and Boad (Malcolm McDowell) a seemingly upright auto dealer.

But it isn’t just Will who is mysterious. Because of Hodges’ approach all of these characters are enigmatic. We’re given no back-story, no ideas as to who any of these people are or what they might be doing. We’re expected to simply ride along with the story and hold our understanding until the end.

This is all fine, of course, if you’re not expected to care about or relate to any of the people in the film. That is the ultimate price a filmmaker pays for keeping audiences in the dark.

Hodges hopes we eventually find these characters compelling even if we don’t care about them. His gamble doesn’t really pay off, however. As the film draws to its inevitable conclusion, the only thing we want is a nap.

Owen is a fine actor and can be a riveting presence, but here he is simply dull. Since we don’t learn anything about him until the end (and even then we know very little), he is little more than a cardboard character seemingly devoid of humanity.

The bottom line: You’ll sleep when you watch it. (R) Rating: 2.5; Posted 10/8/04


Taxi
Reviewed by Deborah Young

I expected Taxi to be unbearably silly in an overblown comedians-gone-wild sort of way. As it turns out, the movie is silly, but it’s also funny, and some of its characters are quite endearing.

The movie focuses on two characters: street-smart, speed-obsessed taxi driver Belle (Queen Latifah) and bungling, driving-impaired cop Washburn (Jimmy Fallon).

When we first meet Belle, she’s a helmeted bike messenger. During the opening credits, she zooms through New York streets as the soundtrack bounces on Biance’s “Crazy in Love.” Belle lithely weaves the bike in and out of traffic like a stunt man with a death wish. For a finale, she jumps from one bridge to another, the bike gliding through the air. Then she’s back at the bike garage saying goodbye to her buddies, because she’s off to realize her dream of being a taxi driver.

We first glimpse Washburn when he dons a fake mustache and goes undercover as a Cuban mobster. He meets the criminals he’s trying to set up and plays the street-savvy role to a tee, Cuban accent and all.

The crooks seem to trust him until someone asks where’s he’s from in Cuba and he adlibs a ridiculous answer. The scene ends with Washburn and his partner fleeing and Washburn wrecking a police vehicle (which we soon learn is the third one he’s wrecked). His superior officer then takes his driver’s license and busts him down to beat cop.

The lives of Belle and Washburn collide when Washburn commandeers Belle’s cab and orders her to pursue four bank robbers. Happy for an excuse to speed, Belle complies, and the movie’s off and running. These two very different characters eventually team up to catch the bank robbers.

At the same time, these two actors employ their very different comedic styles to evoke a few good laughs. At times, they’re helped by Ann-Margret, who’s very funny as Washburn’s mom, a lovable lush.

Taxi was directed by Tim Story, who also directed Barbershop. Like Barbershop, this movie slows at times under the weight of an overloaded plot, and there is at least one mildly offensive scene. But Taxi’s leads have an odd but effective chemistry with each other. And there are some great one-liners that both surprise and amuse. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5; Posted 10/8/04


Facing Windows
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Are there viable parallels between the Holocaust and one’s frustrations with household drudgery? Although filmmaker Ferzan Ozptek (His Secret Life) may not be attempting to say so, a lot of people will think he is.

Facing Windows, the winner of four Italian Oscars (including Best Picture, Actor and Actress) is, at its best, an extremely well acted comic drama. At its worst, it is an exercise in overly sentimental, far-fetched romance.

Giovanna Mezzogiorno (The Last Kiss) plays Giovanna, a hard working, put upon mother of two living in an apartment in contemporary Rome. Her kindly but lackadaisical husband Filippo (Filippo Nigro from His Secret Life) has trouble keeping a job. Although Giovanna once dreamed of being a pastry chef, she’s settled on a dreary job in a chicken factory and makes confections on the side for extra money.

One day, the softhearted Filippo runs into an elderly gent who apparently can’t remember who he is. In spite of Giovanna’s reluctance, Filippo tries to help and takes the senile senior to the police station. After a prolonged wait, Filippo decides to take him home and try to figure out who he is.

Prodded by one of the children, the only word that comes out of the old man’s mouth is “Simone.” Giovanna’s attempts to discover Simone’s identity set into motion a series of events that change her life forever. The old man’s presence triggers an impulse in her that leads her into a romance with a mysterious neighbor from across the street (Raoul Bova from Alien Vs. Predator.)

Although this plot sounds convoluted, Ozptek manages to fuse the various elements into an interesting, if somewhat implausible whole. His use of magic realism helps to integrate elements of Simone’s past into the events of the present.

The real attraction here is the acting. Mezzogiorno is quite compelling as the conflicted mother who yearns for some spice in her life. She has a face that is perfectly suited for the cinema.

Veteran Italian star Massimo Girotti (Last Tango in Paris, Ossessione) plays the part of the mysterious Simone. Although his spoken lines are few, the lines in his face tell all. His subtle work here is a fitting finale to his notable career. He passed away shortly after filming was completed and received his acting honors posthumously.

Although flawed, Facing Windows is a sweet-natured, life-affirming film that deserves kudos for its actors...and its good intentions, as misguided as they may be. (R) Rating: 3; Posted 9/24/04


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