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11.26.04

Being JuliaAlexander Enduring Love Forces of Nature National Treasure SidewaysSpongeBob SquarePants Movie

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Being Julia
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Some films seemed designed to showcase actors in such a way as to position them for an Oscar nomination.

Such is the case with Being Julia, a soapy but effective backstage comic drama starring Annette Bening.

A British answer to All About Eve, Being Julia gives Bening (American Beauty) the role of her career as an aging 1930s London stage star who is rejuvenated personally and professionally by an affair with a younger man.

The film features a first-rate cast of American, British and Canadian actors who support Bening in style. In fact, Being Julia may well be the strongest ensemble piece of the year.

Based upon the novel Theatre by W. Somerset Maugham, the film tells the story of Julia Lambert (Bening), a talented diva laboring in a second-rate play and feeling the need for an extended break.

Her producer husband, played by Jeremy Irons (The French Lieutenants Woman), fears the financial fallout from a dark theatre but finally acquiesces.

Circumstances change Julias mind, however. A rabid American fan named Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans of The Boys From County Clare) comes into her life. Although he is penniless and half her age, Tom woos Julia and the two begin a torrid affair.

Energized by this new love, Julia sports new spring in her step and a noticeable glow. She decides to keep performing and her work is better than ever. Tom, however, has ulterior motives. He is simply using Julia to get his real lover a part in the next production.

Once Julia realizes his ruse, the heartbroken star rises to the occasion in spectacularly theatrical fashion. Hungarian director István Szabó (Mephisto) seems to be having an awfully good time with the story of these morally liberal theatrical folks.

Not only does he mine a sensational performance from Bening, but also from the terrific cast that includes veterans Juliet Stevenson, Mariam Margolyes, Bruce Greenwood, Rosemary Harris, Rita Tushingham, Maury Chakin and impressive newcomer Lucy Punch.

Most fun of all is Michael Gambon (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) as Julia¹s long-dead director/mentor/acting coach Jimmy Langton. In occasional bursts of magic realism, he appears to give Julia advice on her onstage and offstage performances.

Unlike Shakespeare, however, with Being Julia the play is NOT the thing. Here, the players are of greater interest. Bening sinks her teeth into the role and fully embodies it.

Her efforts should nail an Oscar nodŠif Oscar pays attention to this quiet art house effort. (R) Rating: 3.5


Alexander
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Feel like spending three hours on a misguided sword and sandal flick laden with bad casting, bad hair and bad accents?
If so, then Oliver Stones historical biopic, Alexander is just what you¹re looking for. A beautifully photographed and produced epic (with a reported budget of upwards of $150 million),

Alexander suffers from an ill-conceived approach and a fractured storyline that saps it of any emotional resonance. Irish bad boy Colin Farrell (A Home at the End of the World) takes the lead role as Alexander the Great, the infamous Macedonian conqueror who dominated most of the known world over three hundred years before Christ.

As played by Farrell, hes a petulant mamas boy who simply cant understand any way of life other than war. Angelina Jolie (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) plays his ambitious mother.

She gives a strong performance, but her efforts are utterly wasted. The fact that Jolie is only a few months older than Farrell makes her a poor casting choice and their scenes together seem, at times, ridiculous.

Val Kilmer, who starred in Stones biography of Jim Morrison, The Doors, doesnt fare quite as well as Alexanders father, Philip. In some ways, his party animal Philip is all too similar to Morrison. All thats missing is a backup band.

These are good actors, but they all seem utterly at sea. (That includes Anthony Hopkins as Ptolemy, narrator of the story.) Stones script gives them so little to cling to that they wander aimlessly in hopes of bumping into an illusive moment of truth.

And why was there no oversight when it came to accents? The dialects are all over the place here. There are English, Irish, Scottish, American and Middle Atlantic brogues along with Jolies unidentifiable intonations.

Oddest of all is Rosario Dawson who plays a barbarian that Alexander takes for a bride. Her character sounds vaguely Hispanic. And speaking of Dawson, she and Farrell engage in a nude sex scene where they play out some incongruous S&M game. This unintentionally funny moment may come back to haunt them both.

But the biggest problem with Alexander is the fractured storytelling structure utilized by Stone. The movie plays like a rough cut, with sequences so disjointed that it sometimes seems as though the projectionist has mixed up the reels. We are left with no sense of the man or understanding of his motives. In the hands of Stone, Alexander the Great becomes Alexander the Mediocre. (R) Rating: 2

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Sideways
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

In Alexander Paynes new neurotic comedy, Sideways, two old college friends come together for a weeklong trip through the central coastal vineyards of California. For Miles (Paul Giamatti), a recently divorced struggling writer, its a chance to celebrate his best friends impending wedding while indulging his fanaticism for fine wine. For Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a shallow has-been actor, this trip is a chance to sow his oats one last time before tying the knot. Neither man gets what he expects.

Jack falls head over heels in lust with a local wine pourer, Sandra Oh, and Miles finds himself drinking too much wine, struggling with his own self-hatred, and facing his feelings of sadness and regret over his divorce. The only brightness in his life is Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress studying to be a winemaker.

Giamatti delivers an unflinching portrayal. His characterization of Miles is superior to Woody Allens character studies in neurosis, because his performance brings out Miles appeal without relying on pity to earn the audiences affection. Giamatti and Church play off each other splendidly.

There is no earthly reason why these two men should be friends. One is intellectual, introspective and has a discerning palate for wine; the other is selfish, small-minded and could care less whether or not he is drinking merlot or Manishevitz. Still, they weave an aged, comfortable and essential friendship. In the hands of another writer or director, this premise could have resulted in a banal comedy or a sappy drama, but in the hands of Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt), it becomes a leisurely paced film about introspection, neurosis and finding tranquility.

The title, Sideways, refers to the idea that fine wine is always stored sidelong so that the cork remains moist and prevents oxygen from entering the bottle. Like fine wine, both characters have stopped growing a long time ago. Miles and Jacks careers and friendship are stagnant. Theyre not growing: theyre aging.

Their trip together doesnt bring either man happiness, but perhaps happiness is not the goal here. In Paynes last road trip film, About Schmidt, Warren realizes at the end of his married and professional life, that his existence lacks any recognition from anyone. Like Schmidt, the characters in Sideways are searching for appreciation, a feeling that anyone living in the 21st century can understand. (R) Rating: 5

Enduring Love
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

With a title like Enduring Love, one might expect a romantic comedy or a four-hankie weeper.

That is hardly the case with a new British import, an adaptation of Ian McEwans 1997 novel. The title is probably meant to be ironic or, in a worse case scenario, a warning.

There are certain romantic attachments that we hope never last. Such is the case with Joe (Daniel Craig), a college professor and wannabe novelist. Love is a puzzle to him, even though hes strongly attached to his sculptor girlfriend, Claire (Samantha Morton).

Joe, you see, is a skeptic about love. He sees all romantic feelings as the biological stimulus for procreation. He pontificates on this subject to his students or, when drunk, to his friends.

Everything changes for Joe and Claire one idyllic day when they visit the countryside for a picnic. A hot air balloon plunges to a near crash, and then begins to drift in the wind. The pilot had bailed out, but a young boy remained inside. As Joe and a group of men rush to try to rescue the boy, a gust of wind blows it back into the air.

All of the men (including Joe) let go, except for one. Hes blown hundreds of feet up with the balloon, slips and falls to his death. One would-be rescuer is Jed (Rhys Ifans), a lanky, shaggy-haired fellow who asks Joe to pray with him over the dead mans body. The horrifying experience has a profound effect on both men. Joe is guilt-ridden and unusually anxious.

When Jed asks Joe to see him several days later, Joe reluctantly agrees hoping for a catharsis. Unfortunately, the mentally unstable Jed has fallen in love with Joe, perceiving that the tragedy sparked an emotional bond between them. Joe rejects Jeds advances, but that doesnt stop him. Joe and Claire become the victims of a madmans stalking.

The cast is uniformly fine, with Ifans Jed a particularly creepy provocateur. Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) gets a bit showy with the visuals and the musical soundtrack by Jeremy Sams gets very heavy-handed at times, but their occasional overindulgence doesnt derail this intelligent enterprise.

Enduring Love is more than a British art house version of Fatal Attraction, thanks largely to Joe Penhalls intelligent script that plays a bit like a dramatic treatise on the nature of love. Its also believably disturbing. (Stay through the credits to find out what ultimately happens to the characters.) (R) Rating: 3


SpongeBob SquarePants Movie

Reviewed by Uri Lessing

Its strange that the most successful childrens shows are also the most bizarre. Among the characters our children have been captivated by are kung-fu turtles named after famous painters, cars and trucks that turn into giant robots, kids who roam the earth collecting monsters in red and white balls.

Lately, a nerdish sea sponge and his undersea friends have captivated our youth. Now with billions in retail sales and fans all over the globe under his belt, SpongeBob SquarePants is coming to the big screen.

SpongeBob has a lot in common with Pee Wee Herman. He wears the clothing of an adult (tie, slacks and white shirt) and displays the enthusiasm of a child. He wears his heart on his sleeve while staying blissfully naïve.

SpongeBobs personality seems derivate of the boys portrayed in1950s hygiene films. If he were a human hed probably find himself perpetually picked on. Yet fate, friends and his own enthusiasm always help SpongeBob remain on top of life.

In The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, our hero must save his friends by leaving Bikini Bottom on a quest to find King Midass stolen crown. He journeys with his best friend, a starfish named Patrick, who fills the role of the typical ³stupid² cartoon character. (Sam Gangee he aint!)

Together, they survive underwater biker bars, mean-spirited sea monsters and eventually end up on dry land. The most creative moments involve live-action scenes. One follows a band of pirates as they sail to the latest movie theater to catch The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. However, the most bizarre sequence involves a fight scene that takes place on David Hasselhoffs sea-borne body.

Both a riveting action sequence and an anatomy lesson involving Hasselhoffs hairy neck, back and thighs, its doubtful that this clever scene will ever be repeated. Nevertheless, like many film adaptations of cartoons, the filmmakers have to face the challenge of turning 30-minute material into a feature length movie.

The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie asks the audience to endure three times as much frenetic potty humor, repetitive jokes and screechy voice acting as they are used to. The result is exhausting.

The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is not an unpleasant experience, just one that wont have a large impact. With films like The Incredibles out there, its just not enough. (PG) Rating: 2


National Treasure
Reviewed by Deborah Young

At the beginning of National Treasure young Benjamin Franklin Gates (Hunter Gomez) is sitting in a room with his grandfather, who tells him a fanciful story about a treasure hidden by this countrys founding fathers and protected by the Knights of Templar.

Do you want to be a knight? ³Yes,² Benjamin replies. His grandfather then goes through the motions of making the boy a knight. In the next scene, the boy is gone, replaced by an adult Ben (Nicolas Cage). The camera catches the dramatic shift between intrigued boy and resolute man.

A close-up of Cages face emphasizes those sparkling aqua eyes that on close inspection look like magical gems encasing worlds of scorching heat and blinding light, and that furrowed brow that communicates both confusion and fortitude.

Once Cage enters the picture, the movie morphs into action mode. Ben is on a quest reminiscent of the one dramatized in Dan Browns wildly popular novel The Da Vinci Code. But unlike the books main character, Ben is searching for a national treasure, certainly a less noble quest than searching for the Holy Grail.

The screenwriters try to elevate the search for the fortune by linking it with the ideas of freedom and liberty, but their fictional treasure cant touch the complexity and controversy that surrounds Browns book. National Treasure has snippets of dialogue that seem to reference the current presidential administrations strikes on personal freedoms and hint at a blind side in national security that made an event like the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 possible. But these attempts at depth simply make the film seem less significant.

National Treasure is at its best when the characters have clues to decode and logistics problems to solve. To find the treasure, Ben has to decipher a string of clues, including code written on the back of the Declaration of Independence. But heres the hitch: the Declaration is locked in a room in the National Archives thats accessible to a select few and guarded by an intricate alarm system. The enigma: How will Ben get into the room, get the Declaration and escape without getting arrested?

Writers Jim Kouf and Cormac and Maryann Wibberley had the perfect story formula to make this type of movie work. They arranged for Ben, his sidekick Riley (Justin Bartha), and lady historian Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) to get into various tight spots, and then they conjured some clever ways for the trio to squeeze out.

The movies characters are likeable enough, but the true star of this film is plot, plot and plot. Despite the letdown of its tightly wrapped happily-ever-after ending, most of National Treasures 100 minutes are engaging. That makes the film a treasure (just maybe not a billion-dollar one). (PG) Rating: 3


Forces of Nature
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

As long as you can observe them from the safety of a giant screen theatre, natural disasters can be a lot of fun. The latest offering at Union Stations Extreme Screen is Forces of Nature, a visually stunning documentary from the good folks at National Geographic. Director George Casey (Africa: The Serengeti) ably captures the frightening power of volcanoes, earthquakes and tornadoes in this aptly named flick. Forces of Nature (which is not to be confused with the similarly named romantic comedy starring Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock) makes good use of some skillfully rendered computer generated imagery as well as awe inspiring footage of Mother Nature at her most furious.

Narrator Kevin Bacon begins the film with an explanation of Earths violent origins, accompanied by animation that uses the giant screen to put things into perspective. The constant activity that takes place under Earths crust is illustrated though computer graphics that seamlessly melds into actual footage of a volcanic eruption. The film then focuses on a major volcanic incident that occurred on the Caribbean island of Montserrat in 1995.

As volcanologist Marie Edmonds explains (accompanied by some amazing aerial shots), the Soufriere Hills volcano exploded in a titanic plume of ash and soot that buried the nearby town of Plymouth. Because of advance warning, no one in the city was killed.

Nineteen residents of the rural areas, those who ignored the advance warnings, were not so fortunate. Shifting to another point on the globe, the film takes a look at an even more damaging natural phenomenon. Scientist Ross Stein, an expert on earthquakes, takes us to Turkey where he and a team of colleagues worked to try to find a pattern in a series of quakes there.

A computer model they developed while studying the North Anatolian Fault helped them to predict the 1999 earthquake that rattled Izmit. Finally, the film centers on the work of Joshua Wurman and a team of storm chasers who attempt to track down a twister in Oklahoma. Driving a duo of Doppler radar trucks, Wurman and crew place themselves in grave danger as they try to precisely position their equipment in order to take readings that may give them clues into how the mysterious storms are formed.

As with most giant screen entries, the visuals are the attraction here. Forces of Nature is a painless science lesson, filling our minds by feasting our eyes. (G) Rating: 3

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