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11.12.04

After the Sunset Bridget Jones 2: The Edge of Reason The Polar Express Zelary

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

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The Polar Express
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

Chris Van Allsberg deservedly won the 1986 Caldecott award for his book, The Polar Express, because his simple quasi-realistic illustrations captured the nature of dreams. His images were simple enough to be accessible, and yet complex enough to induce daydreams. The charming story about children who travel to the North Pole by train is magical and comforting to children, much like a good dream.

The Polar Express, as a film, owes its existence to illogical decision-making. Because it’s a film version of a book that is 32 pages long, it’s heavily padded. Instead of filming actors, director Robert Zemeckis chose to capture their performances using motion-capture technology and let computers create digital counterparts. The result is disturbing. Also, due to some bizarre sense of adoration, Tom Hanks voices every male grown-up in the film. The result is a sub-par Christmas film released almost two months before Christmas!

Since a faithful adaptation of the book would last about twelve minutes, Zemeckis decides to add a few elements of his own to the story. With time to fill, Zemeckis turns the magical train ride of the book into a disaster film that rivals “Atomic Train.” There are derailments, animals on the tracks, people in danger of being crushed, malfunctioning brakes, and general mayhem. It’s as if The Polar Express and the movie ride tie-in were being created simultaneously.

The adults in The Polar Express spout off rambling philosophies. Characters like the train conductor and Santa Claus offer us fortune-cookie wisdom on the spirit of Christmas, and I challenge you to figure out what exactly their messages mean other than, “We desperately need to fill some time!” There’s even a brand new character, the inexplicable ghost hobo who lives on top of the train. (I’m not making this up!) How many kids do you know who would find comfort in a homeless ghost who drinks his own sock juice? Who asked for this?

When the children finally do make it to the North Pole, they find themselves lost among the presents in an empty city. It seems that all the elves have gathered in the center of town and are awaiting Santa with the zeal of a fascist mob. The kids finally locate the big guy himself, he presents the first gift, and they are whisked back home.

Even if you could put aside the creepy character animation, the ridiculous padding, the eerie scenes in the North Pole and the terrifying cast all portrayed by Tom Hanks, The Polar Express is as charming as a Christmas television add in November. Spend your money on Van Allsberg’s wonderful stories instead. (G) Rating: 1; Posted 11/12/04


After the Sunset
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Looking for someone to play the part of a charming and sophisticated jewel thief?

Well, David Niven, Jean Servais, Steve McQueen and Charles Boyer are long gone. So how about Pierce Brosnan?

After all, Brosnan already has the part down, having played similar roles in The Heist and The Thomas Crown Affair and is at work on its sequel. Hey, he’s got to do something between James Bond pictures.

In After the Sunset, a comic caper flick from director Brett Ratner (Red Dragon), Brosnan plays Max Burdett, a thief of unparalleled skill and style. He can execute a heist or pick out Bordeaux with equal aplomb.

He and his accomplice/lover Lola (the unfailingly sexy Salma Hayek) have just completed their “last” burglary and have retired to a life of luxury in the Bahamas. Although often bored and sometimes tempted, they’ve vowed to leave their life of crime behind them.

A vengeful FBI agent named Stan Lloyd (Woody Harrelson) has other plans, however. Max and Lola, you see, repeatedly humiliated Stan as they successfully made off with valuables that Stan was dutifully guarding. Having tracked them down at their island retreat, he hopes to tempt them with a chance to boost one more big diamond, and then nab them in the act.

Screenwriter Paul Zbyszewski (from the TV game show The Weakest Link) and director Ratner hope to draw us into a maze of plot twists, distract us with beautiful scenery, and use the old razzle-dazzle to get us to suspend our disbelief. Their efforts are only sporadically successful.

Brosnan is assuredly suave while Hayek, Naomie Harris (28 Days Later) and the Nassau scenery provide plenty of visual pleasure. Other elements of After the Sunset are, unfortunately, a bit more problematic.

First, there’s Harrelson. He’s a funny and talented actor, but when left unbridled, as he is here, any sense of verisimilitude goes right out the window.

In supporting roles, Ratner has recruited a talented bunch including the likes of Don Cheadle (Ocean’s 11), Troy Garity (Barbershop), Obba Babatundé (The Manchurian Candidate), Chris Penn (Reservoir Dogs) and Mykelti Williamson (Forrest Gump). All are utterly wasted. (The filmmakers undoubtedly lured them with the promise of a few weeks of fun in the Bahamas.)

To be fair...although After the Sunset is very predictable and about as realistic as Rush Limbaugh excuses, it has its simple pleasures. An hour and a half in the Bahamas with Salma Hayek can’t be all bad. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5; Posted 11/12/04


Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason
Reviewed by Deborah Young

In the middle of the aptly titled Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Bridget’s former boyfriend, Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant), tells Bridget why he likes her. One reason is that she makes him laugh (at her, he says, not with her). With that revelation he sums up why this movie will be enjoyable for many.

Most adults have experienced the euphoria of new love, the disappointment of eventually realizing that the developing relationship has glaring flaws, and the subsequent desire to orb back to an old love that looks more attractive across the gulf of time. But Bridget deals with these occurrences with the dramatic emotional responses of a naïve teen.

At the beginning of the film, Bridget meets Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) at a holiday party. He’s wearing a silly sweater with a snowman whose knit scarf protrudes from the front of the shirt. Bridget’s wearing a similar sweater and bang — it’s love.

The next scene dramatizes Bridget’s fantasy about Mark. She’s running through a green field in slow motion. The camera cuts to the other side of the field. Mark is running toward her, also in slow motion.

Thus begins the journey into Bridget’s latest adventure, and her wild daydreams, and her crazy ideations, which the camera captures, sometimes in a blur, sometimes with a concrete symbol of her emotions. For instance, when her relationship with Mark seems to be falling apart, she envisions a tombstone that reads “Bridget Jones, Spinster, 1975-2050.”

In one scene Bridget is high on mushrooms and wades out into the ocean. The camera captures her high with blurred images. The soundtrack catches the slow bass of Daniel’s distorted voice as he calls to her from the shore. Back on the shore, Bridget reaches out to Daniel, miscalculates and winds up hugging herself, tipping over and falling face-first into the sand.

If anyone can pull off such wackiness, it’s Renee Zellweger (who plays Bridget). She’s mastered the clueless look of an eternally hopeful underdog, and she’s fun to watch. We want to cheer for her when she falls down or walks into a roomful of prominent businessmen with "schmutz" on her face. The male supporting actors are simply the straight men for her shenanigans. Hugh Grant and Colin Firth manage these one-note roles well, Grant playing a buffoonish playboy and Firth the good but uptight boyfriend.

Both men are handsome enough that watching them eat paste would be treat enough for some viewers. Though the plot of this film journeys to the treacherous edge of reason, the attractive and likeable actors, a good chunk of the dialogue, and the wacky visuals, make the trip worth the time and the price of a ticket. (R) Rating: 3; Posted 11/12/04


Zelary
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The children of neighboring towns would sing the derisive chant, “Zelary-celery, chicken sh — smellery.” In other words, Zelary, a tiny village in rural Czechoslovakia is not exactly a tourist destination.

Kvita Legatova’s WWII era autobiographical novella Jozova Hanule is the basis for the film Zelary, a 2003 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. As the movie clearly shows, Zelary is a town where the clock stopped ticking 150 years ago.

A sweeping epic from director Ondrej Trojan (Let Us Sing a Song), Zelary is a beautifully photographed and engaging entry that is all the more poignant because it is based on a true story.

The narrative involves a beautiful young medical student from Prague named Eliska, played by Anna Geislerova (Let Us Sing a Song). When the Nazis shut down the universities, Eliska takes work as a nurse in a city hospital.

As a sideline, Eliska and her surgeon lover also work in the resistance. When the Nazis catch on, the doctor flees the country and Eliska must find a place to hide. Her fellow resistance members arrange for her to take refuge with one of her patients. Joza, played by Hungarian actor Gyorgy Cserhalmi (Mephisto), was injured in a logging accident and was saved by a transfusion from Eliska, the only person with a matching blood type.

To escape the pesky Krauts, Eliska must assume a new identity, marry Joza and relocate to his remote mountain cabin near Zelary. Trouble is, Joza is twice Eliska’s age and is an uneducated and uncultured hick. In addition, she may have to stay with him for years and hope that no one gets wise to her true identity.

Although Eliska initially suffers from culture shock and reluctance to share a bed with the uncouth Joza, she warms to him over time. Joza proves to be a kind-hearted gentle giant who takes her under his wing and ultimately wins her affection.

Naturally, things are hardly perfect. There are brutish village men who want to take advantage of the new young beauty in their midst. The war intrudes even in this rural area, and the villagers have reason to fear soldiers on both sides. Eliska’s medical expertise comes in very handy in this harsh locale.

The chemistry between Geislerova and Cserhalmi evolves in a realistic fashion, and their mutual dependence provides the film with its heart. Although Zelary is part of an avalanche of WWII era films, its honest sentiment sets it apart. (R) Rating: 3.5; Posted 11/12/04


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