reel reviews
movie reviews
10.15.04

Festival Express Final CutShall We Dance?
Team America: World PoliceThe Yes Men

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

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Team America: World Police
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

Trey Parker and Matt Stone deserve credit for creating an entirely new form of satire. When South Park first aired on television, audiences were exposed to offensive situations, harsh satire and crude humor. Yet, it came from such a benign source (construction paper cut-out children) that any discomfort or offense was diluted. This contrast generated a marvelous amount of humor and cleverness.

Now Parker and Stone attempt to create a similar type of comedy with Team America: World Police. Apparently the duo loved the puppets in The Thunderbirds so much as children that they decided to revive Gerry Anderson’s "Supermarionation." Now, they contrast marionettes and action heroes, and the results are a bit more mixed than South Park.

The film chronicles Team America, a team of six puppets dedicated to keeping the Earth safe from terrorists. Each has their own specialty, but basically they’re all gun-toting patriotic puppets. They are the personification (or puppet-ification) of Bush’s policies of policing the world as they shout patriotic slogans, blow away terrorists, chase villains and annihilate innocent bystanders and global landmarks. The puppet heroes also take on politically active Hollywood actors and the puppet personification of Kim Jong Il (the funniest marionette in the film.)

Political humor has never been Parker and Stone’s forte and their jibes at Bush’s foreign policies are redundant and uninteresting. The first time Team America recklessly invades a foreign country (France) and turns it to rubble, it’s somewhat funny. But future attacks are tedious. Likewise, attacks on the left are equally benign. In this turbulent political time, surely Parker and Stone could have found more interesting liberal targets than annoying egotistical actors. Watching Hollywood joining up with Kim Jong Il, and getting killed in painful ways is not satire; it’s just stupid.

Parker and Troy do hit the mark when they take on Jerry Bruckheimer’s action films. They blast away every single one of Bruckheimer’s techniques with the precision of a sniper, and the audience laughed itself to tears watching familiar clichés enacted by puppets. There's the little girl bumping into and staring wide eyed at a villainous terrorist, over-the-top patriotic songs like “Freedom Isn’t Free” and “America, F*ck Yeah!” and scenes of massive destruction. One particular portrays a terrorist attack on the Panama Canal. The scene is shot-for-shot Bruckheimer, the human/puppet contrast shines through and it’s brilliant!

But is Team America: World Police funny? Absolutely! So what if the political satire is as thin as wax paper? Who cares that some of the jokes fall flatter than a pancake. In the end, the gleeful action, absurd silliness and crude pleasures outweigh the film’s weaknesses. In the opening scene, a member of Team America challenges an Arab terrorist to a kung-fu battle, and what results is so fascinating that it personifies why Team America works. The answer lies with the puppets. (R) Rating: 3; Posted 10/15/04


Festival Express
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

“I couldn’t keep up with them, man. They were partying all night long. Every time I went to bed, I thought I was going to miss something.”

That’s how blues legend Buddy Guy described an unparalleled event in rock history that took place in the summer of 1970. Canada’s answer to Woodstock, the Festival Express was the brainchild of promoters Ken Walker and Thor Eaton.

They came upon the idea of renting a private train for five days and populating it with some of the most influential musicians of the time, traveling from Toronto to Calgary and performing three concerts along the way. They stocked the train with musical instruments, good food and copious amounts of booze hoping to create a jamming party atmosphere. On that point, they were an unqualified success.

Among the luminaries who joined in the fun were The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, Guy and Sha-Na-Na.

Cinematographer Peter Biziou (an Oscar-winner for Mississippi Burning) was along for the ride, too, and shot 75 hours of footage that captured the partying, the jam sessions as well as the onstage performances. Due to a dispute between the film’s producer and the promoters, the footage was “lost” for over 30 years.

Director Bob Smeaton (The Beatles Anthology) developed Biziou’s negatives, added talking head commentary from some of the people involved, and the resulting documentary Festival Express is a must-see for fans of these artists.

The performance highlights include The Dead’s “Don’t Ease Me In” and “New Speedway Boogie,” The Band’s rendition of “The Weight” and “I Shall Be Released,” Guy’s frantic take on “Money (That’s What I Want)”, and the Burrito Brothers’ “Lazy Day.”

Most affecting is Joplin, only two months prior to her death, commanding the stage with “Cry Baby” and “Tell Mama.” As she said to the promoters on closing night, “Next time you throw a train, man, invite me!”

A priceless sequence on the train involves drunken bassist Rick Danko of The Band leading a spirited jam of “Ain’t No Cane on the Bazos,” accompanied by Joplin, Garcia and Phil Lesh. At one point Garcia turns to Joplin and admits, “I loved you from the first time I heard you. Now you know.”

The tour was an utter financial bust. Incensed by the outrageous $14 ticket price, thousands of fans crashed the gates, fought with police and demanded free concerts. (Talk about zeitgeist!)

Festival Express is a notable historical document that has caught on with moviegoers and may prove to be a goldmine on DVD. The promoters may make a dollar or two, yet. (R) Rating: 4; Posted 10/15/04


The Yes Men
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

“There’s a lot of garbage in politics...and this is obviously the garbage man.”

That was the reaction of then Texas governor George W. Bush when he was running for president. The comment regarded a biting parody website that mirrored his official website.

Chillingly, Bush went on to say, “There ought to be limits to freedom.”
Thus, “The Yes Men” were born. These pranksters who created the faux Bush website, Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum, were incensed by W’s comments, and the resulting publicity gained them notoriety and a following of like-minded folks who became members of this loosely organized group.

The documentary, The Yes Men, is a crudely filmed but modestly entertaining entry that shows how the group ultimately evolved into the foes of the World Trade Organization.

Bonanno and Bichlbaum, you see, also had a domain name that closely resembled that of the WTO. When they started getting hits, they created a site that looked official, but contained outrageously fabricated info. Unaware that theirs was a parody site, people from around the world started inviting them to appear at important meetings and seminars.

The boys decided to impersonate official representatives of the WTO and give presentations that demonstrated the evils of that organization. They received funding from various liberal groups (including musician/record executive Herb Alpert!) to facilitate their ruse.

The camera follows them to a conference in Finland where Bichlbaum demonstrates a prototype of a “Management Leisure Suit.” This gold jumpsuit had an inflatable phallus-like device that supposedly had a video monitor so that the manager could spy on his workers. To the dismay of the Yes Men, everyone at the conference thought they were serious.

Another episode recounts their presentation before a group of business students. There, Bonanno and Bichlbaum discussed the WTO’s plan to recycle human waste from first world countries and reconstitute it into McDonald’s hamburgers for third world countries!

The movie has a sniggering, holier-than-thou feel that assumes the viewer already has knowledge about why the WTO is a bad thing. Little effort is made to explain why they’ve taken them on.

Filmmakers Dan Ollman, Sarah Price and Chris Smith simply follow the Yes Men around and let the pranks speak for themselves without the benefit of narration. Although the end result is sometimes quite funny, the movie leaves you yearning for more illumination.

This is the kind of “documentary” that the success of Michael Moore has wrought. (Moore even appears in the film.) Unfortunately, the filmmakers haven’t the talent or sense of humor to make The Yes Men as successful as his work. (R) Rating: 2.5; Posted 10/15/04


Shall We Dance?
Reviewed by Deborah Young

It’s usually fun to watch movies about characters finding or rediscovering passion — regardless of whether the passion is ignited by playing a guitar or dancing or trying to seduce someone. The fun part is watching a lukewarm life become hot with the character’s desire to do something new, achieve something or just get out of a rut.

Characters like Jennifer Beals’ Alex from Flashdance, Prince’s The Kid from Purple Rain, and Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham from American Beauty have the ability to pull us in with their enthusiasm. Alex loves to dance but ballet school seems too long a shot, so she buys lots of costumes and works obsessively on the routine she performs in a topless bar. The Kid craves what his musician father never had, an audience and some recognition. He gets up on stage, plays his guitar and gyrates, trying to win the audience’s affection. Burnham aches to escape his mid-life routine, so he quits his job, takes up jogging and weightlifting and tries to become the hunk he thinks he needs to be to seduce a teenage girl.

Watching these movies is fun, even though two of them are hardly masterpieces of cinema and one of the main character’s desires are repulsive. But the actors do a good enough job of convincing audiences of their characters’ passion that viewers can get caught in the sparks, if only for a few moments.

The makers of Shall We Dance seemed to aspire to that kind of filmmaking. Unfortunately, Shall We Dance fails to create the kind of vibe that makes viewers feel like cutting loose on air guitar or doing a solitary waltz around the living room.

The film’s protagonist, John Clark (played by Richard Gere) is a probate attorney. We learn about him first through voiceovers that reveal the philosophies of life he’s concocted while observing his clients. Then we see him riding a train home. As the train passes Mitzi’s Dance Studio, he notices a beautiful young woman (Paulina, played by none other than Jennifer Lopez) in the window. And, of course, after passing the studio and observing the woman a couple times, he decides to take ballroom dance lessons to add some spice to his life.

At the dance studio, John meets a trio of lovable misfits who’ve joined the beginner’s dance class to add a little sunshine to their lives. Bobbie, a garish blunt middle-age woman played by Lisa Ann Walter, wears an array of loud dance costumes and constantly pelts the others with her blunt observations about their flaws and her philosophies about what motivates them. Chic (Bobby Cannavale), an uptight homophobe regales the group with his macho talk. Vern (Omar Vincent Miller), an overweight and obviously self-conscious young man, sweats through the dances and, at first, says little to the others about his true motivations for joining the class.

Lopez has little to do in this film. She plays an attractive, weepy dance instructor who mostly stands or dances in silence while men admire her. Throughout most of the movie she’s the human equivalent of a beautiful ceramic vessel that appears perfectly formed but leaks. She oozes sorrow, and that’s pretty much the only side of her character that we get to see.

The owner of the studio, Miss Mitzi (Anita Gillette) simply smiles her way through her classes and occasionally takes a nip from a flask hidden in a cabinet at one end of the dance floor. Then there’s John’s coworker, Link, a bald middle-age man who hides his love of ballroom dancing from his co-workers.

All of these characters could be interesting, but they’re not, because they’re portrayed as caricatures of people, clichés rather than rounded characters. We learn little about their lives and motivations until the last half-hour of the film, at which point I had ceased to care.

Also, melodrama trips up Shall We Dance. Lopez sulks around constantly, glaring in silence. When she does speak, she usually winds up sobbing. Susan Sarandon (who plays John’s wife) shows her fear of losing her husband with a wide-eyed hysteria that brings to mind the overblown emotional antics of Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy.

The film does have a few funny moments, but not enough to make it worth the expenditure of time and money. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5; Posted 10/15/04


Final Cut
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

As science fiction films go, there are thrillers, there are special effects epics and there are cautionary tales meant to give you the creeps.

Final Cut is intended to be the latter, but it also a deadly dull example of a premise that’s much more interesting than its execution.

The first dramatic feature from Lebanese writer/director Omar Naim, Final Cut stars Robin Williams in a futuristic story that has more than its share of implausible attributes.

Williams plays Alan Hakman, a man with an unusual occupation. He’s a “cutter,” something of a cross between a funeral director and a film editor. In the future, the wealthy elite have a memory chip (called a “Zoë”) implanted in their brains as infants. This chip records everything that their eyes and ears perceive.

At the end of their lives, the cutter downloads the data and puts together a highlight reel of the person’s life (called a “Re-memory”) to show at their funeral. Naturally, this brings up a number of ethical issues. What do you show? What do you delete? What if the cutter discovers evidence of misconduct by the deceased or someone he’s associated with?

Not only does Hakman deal with a particularly disturbing incident observed while working on a project, he also discovers a clue to a troubling event from his own childhood. All the while, he’s dealing with other disquieting issues.

His girlfriend (Mira Sorvino) becomes enraged when she discovers that he decided to pursue her after seeing her in the memory of her deceased boyfriend. Plus, there’s an activist named Fletcher (Jim Caviezel) who is committed to bringing an end to Hakman’s profession.

The film’s intriguing premise came to Naim when he was editing a documentary. As Naim realized, "There is a false myth of objectivity that became very apparent as I was cutting that film. By moving pieces around and inter-cutting, the context of what people were saying completely changed."

If only the execution of his film were as interesting as that observation. There is so much exposition and so little action in Final Cut that one wishes that the movie had a better “cutter.”

Caviezel is underutilized and Sorvino seems lost. But the biggest problem is with Williams himself. He gives a one-note performance that seems to be a mechanical reproduction of his characterizations in One Hour Photo and Insomnia.

But, sadly, Final Cut is no Insomnia. In fact, it is a cure for it. (PG-13) Rating: 2; Posted 10/15/04


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