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The Last Place on Earth • TroyWilbur Wants to Kill Himself


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The Last Place on Earth
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

There's nothing like a good cry. The Last Place on Earth is probably not the first place to look for it.

The third film that Panorama Films has opted to debut in Kansas City (The Bread My Sweet and Her Majesty being the first two), The Last Place on Earth is an unapologetic attempt to tug at our heartstrings that is only marginally successful in getting us to pull out the Kleenex.

The story concerns a stressed-out young banker named Rob Baskin (Dana Ashbrook from TV's Twin Peaks) whose mother (Phyllis Diller) has just passed away. Her last request is for Rob to scatter her ashes in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In spite of the objections of his new boss, Rob takes a few days off to fulfill his mother's wishes.

While on his road trip, Rob notices a stalled car on the highway and offers a lift to the driver, a caterer named Ann Field (Tisha Campbell-Martin from TV's My Wife and Kids). The persuasive young woman convinces Rob to take her to her next job and to help her prepare an elaborate anniversary meal for a gay couple.

Rob, an uptight and suspicious sort, is at first put off by Ann's quirky and forthright personality. In fact, he accuses her of being the most annoying person he has ever met. Unless you¹ve never seen a movie before, you¹ll soon realize that the two are about to embark on a quixotic romance.

Naturally, things can't be that simple, so one of the characters has to come down with a potentially fatal disease. Apparently writer/director James Slocum (An American Summer) felt that this was the only way to add some weight and solemnity to an otherwise frothy tale.

Campbell-Martin is quite appealing and surprisingly capable in the role of Ann, demonstrating a depth that her sitcom work doesn't afford her. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Ashbrook, who lacks the charisma needed to generate the romantic spark the film aspires to.

Slocum and cinematographer David Dechant make good use of the mountain scenery, and it¹s fun to see veterans like Diller, Billy Dee Williams and Brock Peters in supporting roles. To his credit, Slocum handles the interracial aspects of the romance with a deft, matter-of-fact approach that is quite welcome.

But The Last Place on Earth devolves into emotional manipulations with its Love Story plotting. It's a crying shame. (Not rated) Rating: 2; Posted 5/17/04


Kitchen Stories
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If quirkiness alone were enough to make a film successful, then Kitchen Stories would be settling in for a long run.

An eccentric little comedy from Scandinavia, Kitchen Stories has a plot that is inarguably unique. The story takes place in the years following WWII, and concerns a scientific researcher and the reluctant subject of his study.

Folke (Tomas Norstrom) is an employee of the Swedish Home Research Institute. In an effort to design the most efficient kitchen for the modern home, the institute embarks on a project to record the traffic patterns of people in their kitchens. Folke is sent to Norway to observe an elderly farmer named Isak (Joachim Calmeyer) as he goes about his daily routine.

Isak has second thoughts about his decision to volunteer (he wrongly thought he was going to get a free horse out of the deal) and initially refuses to cooperate. Although he eventually acquiesces and allows Folke to erect an awkward observation perch in his kitchen, Isak takes to cooking his meals in his bedroom. He even drills a hole in his bedroom floor in order to observe the frustrated Folke in his perch below.

The research begins in earnest when Isak eventually returns to using his kitchen. Due to the rigors of the scientific methodology, the men are supposed to ignore one another's presence. Slowly but surely, they begin to interact. First, it's a cup of tea, then a bit of tobacco for the pipe. Eventually this interaction leads to conversation and, ultimately, a warm friendship.

Director/writer Bent Hamer and his co-writer Jorgen Bergmark have a bit of fun with the button-down seriousness of the researchers and take great delight in exposing the whole enterprise as a bureaucratic joke. (The head of the project is depicted as flying around Scandinavia in a private plane loaded with champagne and a shapely mistress.) There is also sly humor to be found in the art direction that depicts the extraordinarily neat convoy of compact trailers on their way to their various assignments.

But to say that the approach is subtle is a considerable understatement. Waiting for the relationship of Folke and Isak to grow is like waiting for the Norwegian winter ice blanket to melt.

But we do slowly warm to the chilly characters and, also, the movie.

Kitchen Stories may be understated, but this peculiar and unassuming film eventually reveals its modest charms. (Not rated) Rating: 3; Posted 5/17/04


Troy
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

Early on and repeatedly in Troy, the mighty warrior Achilles reveals his desire for his name and reputation to live on long after he is dead. No doubt, writer David Benjoff scribed these scenes with a big grin on his face. No costs were spared. The most expensive actors were being brought in. Armies of hundreds of thousands of computer-generated soldiers were ready to do battle. “Achilles wants remembrance, Well he’ll get remembrance!” must have been the battle cry for this film. One wonders if Achilles would have appreciated the fact that 4,000 years after his death, $200 million were spent so everyone would picture Brad Pitt when they heard the name “Achilles.”

Troy condenses Homer’s ten-year war into a couple of months. Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom) steals away the drop-dead gorgeous Helen (Diane Kruger) from the Greek brute Menelaus (Brian Gleeson) and whisks her away to Troy. Menelaus’ brother Agamemnon (Brian Cox) sees this as the perfect opportunity to be greedy and naughty, so he sends the entire Greek army to do battle with Troy.

Each side has its champion. Greece has the bigheaded Achilles who has no loyalty to Agamemnon or to Greece; he just loves to fight for honor and glory. As a result, Achilles is either sticking his sword into someone, jutting his chin up in the air with an expression reminiscent of Popeye, washing the blood from his muscular frame or doing anything he can to get the Greek army to chant, “Achilles! Achilles!” The character of Achilles does develop throughout the film though. As he finds love and faces personal tragedy, his cheeks puff out more and his breathing becomes quick and huffy—like a bull: in short, another standard portrayal by superstar Brad Pitt.

In contrast, Troy’s champion Hector (Eric Bana), the heir to the kingdom, wants what is right for all his people and his family. Bana’s performance is extraordinary, because he captures the pain, sorrow and loneliness of one who is aware that he is in the midst of a tragedy that others do not recognize. The morose Hector remains the most charismatic character in the film. One hopes that Bana will soon find a role that matches his craft, because his performance, sadly, is as out of place in Troy as James Lipton would be at Wrestlemania.

Please don’t misunderstand. Troy is entertaining. Director Wolfgang Peterson’s dynamic direction keeps things going at a steady pace. Troy as a locale is beautifully realized, and the battlefields are almost as important as the battles. Slopes, hills and beaches play important roles in every skirmish. Scenes of thousands of ships sailing, armies clashing, and fiery night attacks are beautifully executed.

Unfortunately none of these diversions disguise this melodrama that offers no insights or ideas on war itself. Mind you, Troy throws out lots of questions. Is war glorious? Is combat dehumanizing? Is conflict fun? Are wars necessary? Are people who chose to recklessly go to war unjust? These questions are tossed out, marched over and thrown away without ever fully being explored. And all that we are left with is the overwhelming feeling that if Achilles had seen this movie he would have been pissed. (R) Rating: 2; Posted 5/14/04

Breakin' All the Rules
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

Breakin’ All the Rules is a lighter-than-air romantic comedy that will not affect the face of humor or filmmaking. This “comedy of errors” is not exactly groundbreaking, and the movie provides insights into the nature of romance, love and sex that are about as profound as an Ann Powter self-help book. Yet, there is something quite refreshing about this ball of fluff.

Jamie Foxx plays Quincy Watson, a smart book editor who is cruelly dumped by his fiancé in front of his friends and family. He abruptly quits his job and devotes all of his energy to writing a book on how to properly break up with your mate. When the book becomes an instant best seller, Quincy finds himself offering advice to his womanizing cousin Evan (Morris Chessnut) and his wimpy boss Philip (Peter MacNicol). Things get a little screwy when Quincy falls in love with Evan’s soon-to-be-ex, Nicky (Gabrielle Union).

What saves this light-hearted comedy from mediocrity is that the film doesn’t underestimate its characters. There are no car chases, only a few physical gags, and none of the characters are over-the-top. Instead the film gets its momentum from real characters and entertaining one-on-one conversations. Topics range from Quincy’s alcoholic pug to eratomas (tumors that grow hair, teeth and brain tissue). Hidden in these conversations are intelligence and charm, and these genuine duets flesh out the relationships in the film.

Jamie Foxx and Gabrielle Union develop a sweet on-screen romance. In an age when characters tend to fall in love with each other at the drop of a hat or as an afterthought to the events of the film, it’s refreshing to watch people enjoying each other’s company. And while this is a nonsensical comedy, the farce never overwhelms or interrupts Quincy and Nicky’s interactions. Breakin’ All the Rules may be fluff, but it is patient, character-driven fluff. (PG-13) Rating: 3; Posted 5/14/04


Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The best film currently playing in Kansas City also has the worst title.
Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself is the latest work from writer/director Lone Scherfig, who made the award-winning romantic comedy, Italian For Beginners. Once again, she shows a unique ability to find comic resonance while dramatizing heartfelt emotions, and she does so without ever succumbing to saccharine sentimentality.

Jamie Sives (Before You Go) plays Wilbur, a suicidal Scottish lad who lives with his older brother Harbour (Adrian Rawlins) behind the used bookstore that their late parents left to them. Although Wilbur is a bright enough young man, he is completely incompetent at the task of doing himself in. Harbour serves as Wilbur’s protector, a job that has left him penniless and unattached.

Into their lives comes a destitute woman named Alice (Shirley Henderson) and her young daughter Mary (Lisa McKinlay). Harbour strikes up a relationship with Alice, but Wilbur’s erratic behavior threatens to put the kibosh in their budding romance.

Scherfig and co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen walk a minefield with the plot they’ve concocted for themselves. Most writers would stumble, making their characters either too cute or overly melodramatic. There is also the danger of emotional manipulation, which would offend many of today’s sophisticated audience members.

Miraculously, Scherfig and Jensen are able to find plenty of gentle comedy in this scenario while tapping into genuine pathos. The strength of the film lies not only in the funny and believable dialogue, but also in Scherfig’s low-key approach to filmmaking. There is no Hollywood sheen on this production. In fact, the film sometimes seems dark and underexposed. This only adds to the realistic quality that the movie achieves.

Some may find the deliberate pace of Wilbur a bit off-putting. Scherfig makes no attempt to speed the story along, preferring to linger with the characters. This careful approach allows us to better empathize with them and makes the film’s conclusion all the more poignant.

The cast is exceptional, too. Sives is both irritating and likable as Wilbur, and Rawlins demonstrates an inherent decency as Harbour. Henderson (Intermission) is quickly emerging as one of the most guileless actresses working today. She’s also plain enough to seem like a real person while being pretty enough to be an attractive romantic star.

Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself
manages to be life affirming without ever seeming like the work of a Pollyanna. In today’s cynical age, that’s a welcome development. (R) Rating: 5; Posted 5/7/04


Godsend
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

Sadly befitting a film about cloning, Godsend is a carbon copy of so many sci-fi/horror flicks that have gone before. Riddled with clichés and junk science, there is nevertheless a sustained element of creepiness, mostly through the performance and physical presence of Cameron Bright who plays the young clone. This looks to be 11-year-old Bright’s breakout year, with two more major releases pending.

When their eight-year-old son Adam (Cameron Bright) dies in an accident, parents Paul and Jessie Duncan (Greg Kinnear, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) are open to manipulation by Dr. Richard Wells (Robert De Niro), who offers the bereaved pair a chance to recreate their son, quite literally. The Duncans agree to relocate to a remote town, sever all ties with friends and family, and undergo the required treatment in effort to clone their lost son. The enterprise seems supremely successful and the Duncans pointedly name their new baby Adam.

However, after Adam II reaches the same age as Adam I, things start to go disturbingly wrong. Adam begins to have night terrors and blackouts, and his parents suspect that he has an awareness of his predecessor. Although now firmly a family friend, Dr. Wells is proprietary and doesn’t want Adam seeing other doctors. Paul becomes increasingly suspicious, but Jessie seems to be under the spell of Dr. Wells, and is frightened about losing this son too, should the wider world find out what they have done.

In cinematic tradition, science and morality go hand-in-hand; all good filmgoers know that you just don’t mess with God’s plan. Where advanced technology goes, evil scientists follow. Given the ethical controversies, Godsend draws on a broad Christian ethos. Jessie plays Eve to Dr. Wells’ devil figure, and Adam is just an innocent pawn, creepiness notwithstanding. Paul, as the rational white patriarch is the man of sacrifice, action and honorable intentions. The overt story however, is notably free of the complexities surrounding the real issues of cloning.

Godsend will perhaps be most remembered for a share of mild controversy in the marketing sphere. Again derivative of others, the publicity includes a bogus website (www.godsendinstitute.org/home.html) with a remarkably professional look, welcoming people to the Godsend Institute. In the spirit of “any publicity is good publicity,” Lions Gate has also published a second phony online petition designed to appear as a protest to the Godsend Institute and the “cloning madness.” (Not surprisingly, the same publicist behind the Blair Witch Project web chatter, was also involved this project.) A number of unsuspecting folk have been caught up in the fiction, some of whom have made calls to an 800 number to ask about cloning a loved one.

Godsend works in the way of many Hollywood films. It’s a diverting way to spend a couple of hours, but won’t sustain the conversation through a restaurant meal afterwards. (PG-13) Rating: 2; Posted 5/7/04


Her Majesty
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Back in 2002, Panorama Entertainment, a film distribution company, took a chance on Kansas City. They decided that one of their films, the romantic comedy The Bread, My Sweet starring Scott Baio, would begin its theatrical run here.

Thanks to good word of mouth, what was initially intended to be a two-week run at The Rio Theatre ultimately became a fourteen-week run. Kansas City, it would seem, is an excellent launching point.

Panorama is testing the Kansas City waters once again with Her Majesty, a sweet-natured family film written and directed by Mark J. Gordon. (Gordon spent a week here, attending screenings and conducting Q & A’s.)

Gordon’s film takes place in rural New Zealand in 1953. It focuses on a bright 13-year-old girl named Elizabeth Wakefield (Sally Andrews) who is obsessed with the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth. She begins a letter-writing campaign to persuade the Queen to visit her small community of Middleton when she embarks on her royal tour.

Much to her astonishment, Middleton does indeed wind up on the Queen’s itinerary. Elizabeth and the other denizens of her small town begin their eager preparations, but one resident doesn’t share their enthusiasm. An elderly Maori woman named Hira Mata (Whale Rider’s Vicky Haughton) has nothing but resentment for the crown. After all, her grandfather, a tribal chieftain, was murdered and had his land stolen by English invaders. To make things worse, Hira Mata’s home is an ugly hovel, an eyesore right on the route of the Queen’s motorcade. Plus, many of the residents are convinced that she is a witch.

Elizabeth decides to make nice with Hira Mata and, ultimately, make her residence more presentable. But as she gets to know her better, Elizabeth discovers that she is a remarkable and wise old woman and their friendship changes her life.

Many people complain “They just don’t make ‘em like they used to.” Well, here’s an exception. Her Majesty is an old-fashioned and unabashedly sentimental entertainment. One could easily picture Haley Mills in the title role if Disney had filmed it in the early 1960s.

Andrews has a well-scrubbed appeal and Haughton projects the proper battered dignity as Hira Mata. One could nitpick, pointing out the many overly calculated and manipulative moments in Gordon’s script, but the movie is so well intentioned that doing so would seem like the work of the Grinch.

Panorama is pinning its hopes on KC audiences. Their enthusiasm is so strong that they’re launching another film (The Last Place on Earth) here on May 14. And yes, the director will be on hand to meet and greet. (PG) Rating: 3; Posted 5/7/04

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