reel reviews
6.18.04


Around the World in 80 DaysThe Battle of AlgiersDodgeball: A True Underdog Story
The Stepford Wives
The TerminalValentin

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

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The Stepford Wives
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

“Well, they meant well.”

That comment, made by a viewer upon leaving an advanced screening of The Stepford Wives, is a succinct example of damning with faint praise. It’s quite apt, too.

The Stepford Wives is a remake (make that “send-up”) of the 1975 thriller based upon Ira Levin’s popular novel. The original was a chilling commentary on the male reaction to the then-prevalent women’s rights movement, specifically the touted Equal Rights Amendment.

This treatment is a post-feminist satire, a half-hearted attempt to point out where the movement went wrong.

Like the original, The Stepford Wives tells the story of a family that moves from New York City to suburban Connecticut. Nicole Kidman (Dogtown) stars as Joanna, a ball-breaking executive who has been fired from her job as a high-powered network television bigwig. With Joanna near a breakdown, her husband Walter, played by Matthew Broderick (Election) talks her into the move to Stepford.

There, Joanna is taken aback by the women who live there. They’re all beautiful, slim, great cooks and immaculate housewives. All except for those who’ve just moved there. Joanna discusses the zombie-like qualities of the Stepford women with newfound friends Bobbie (Bette Midler), a successful writer and Roger (Peter Bart), the feminine partner of Stepford’s only gay couple.

Naturally, it doesn’t take long before these three discover that the men in Stepford are up to no good. The head of the men’s association (Christopher Walken) and his Betty Crocker clone of a wife (Glen Close), obviously know more than they’re willing to tell.

Director Frank Oz (Bowfinger) and screenwriter Paul Rudnick (Jeffrey, In and Out) attempt to mine this territory for laughs while adding a little social commentary on where society has progressed, or regressed, since 1975. The problem is, they’re not really sure what they believe.

But the main trouble lies in the film’s utter lack of consistent tone. Here is one movie that just can’t seem to decide what it wants to be. Is it an all-out comedy? Is it a thriller? It simply isn’t funny enough to be the former and far too broad to be the latter.

Rudnick (who also writes a popular column in Premier magazine under the pseudonym Libby Gelman-Waxner) does manage to get in a few amusing licks at network TV and hints what it the movie could have been had he gone all with way with his “gay” spin.

In the end, The Stepford Wives has about as much heart as a robot. (PG-13) Rating: 2; Posted 6/18/04


Around the World In 80 Days
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

Around the World in 80 Days is a masterpiece. This taut story follows the adventures of Phileas Fogg as he travels by boat, train and elephant to win a bet. The story not is not only gripping, but it is also a wonderful adventure. The characters are also delightful and smart as they plan, improvise, discover and investigate. Around the World in 80 Days nurtures inner fantasies about exploring the world, encountering new cultures, exotic forms of transportation and the spirit of freedom. Yes, Around the World in 80 Days is a superb book.

Which is why it so offensive that such a terrible movie adaptation was ever made.

It is difficult to understand why the producers of Around the World in 80 Days where only interested in the concept of the book. My guess is that Cliff’s Notes were involved. All the magic of Jules Verne is tossed away in favor of creating a loud obnoxious Jackie Chan Vehicle.

It’s ironic that this film is less about traveling and more about beating the crap out of people all over the world. Phileas Fogg (Steve Coogan), Lau Xing (Jackie Chan), a covert relic-recovering sidekick (don’t ask), and Monique (Cecile De France) fight ninjas in France, battle sword wielding bodyguards in Istanbul, engage in Kung Fu warfare in China and battle a needle-nailed dominatrix on the unfinished head of the Statue of Liberty in America. I heard from a reliable source that the Koala wielding spiked Aborigine robots from Australia were cut for time. Look for them on the DVD.

All spirit of exploration has been painstakingly replaced with unconvincing CGI and unpersuasive sets. While Verne’s book is all about the thrill of travel, this film rarely allows us to see the main characters going anywhere. Cutesy overblown computer animated segments show us where they are going. We do not encounter new cultures or interesting people, but instead encounter celebrities in one embarrassing cameo after another.

Jules Verne really outdid himself with Around the World in 80 Days. After your done reading this review, go to the local bookstore and pick it up. It’s not even a little dated, and is considerably more thrilling than this latest bloated summer yawner. (PG) Rating: 1 ; Posted 6/18/04


Valentin
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Can a confused, cross-eyed, pint-sized, neglected South American child be a compelling focus for a major motion picture? If his name is Valentin, the answer is, “probably so.”

Valentin is a sweet-natured, semi-autobiographical film from Argentinean filmmaker Alejandro Agresti (La Cruz). In it, the filmmaker recalls his childhood with both fond memories and heartache.

Set in an Argentinean city in the late 1960s, it concerns an eight-year-old named Valentin (Rodrigo Noya) who has been abandoned by his parents and lives with his loving but resentful grandmother (Carmen Marua). He lives in a dream world, longing to be an astronaut almost as much as he longs for his neglectful and sometimes abusive father (played by the filmmaker) to return with a new mother so that he can finally have a family.

Valentin’s mother, we are told, ran off with a cabdriver. His dad’s “business obligations” keep him away and he only returns for visits when it is convenient or if he needs a favor.

Valentin’s grandmother, a lonely widow whose children have been a disappointment to her, uses her grandson as a sounding board for her complaints. Her only comfort is the memory of her doting husband whom she adored.

Valentin, an unusually bright and precocious youngster, finds ways to befriend many of the adults in his life. He is also something of a master manipulator, getting them to do things that they otherwise wouldn’t do.

He uses his persuasive charms to get a doctor to make an unusual “house call” on his ailing and unwilling grandmother. He gets the alcoholic piano player next door to give him lessons. He also manages to get the amiable pianist to fix his grandmother’s broken down television. But his greatest feat of manipulation comes in his efforts to procure a family for himself. His efforts involve Leticia, one of his dad’s girlfriends, played by the particularly lovely Julieta Cardinali.

One’s reaction to Valentin may largely depend on Noya’s performance. He is an extremely cute lad who is nearly impossible to dislike. Although he is manipulative, he is never malicious. His motives are admirable, even when they serve his own purposes.

But one aspect of Valentin is problematic. The action seems to imply that a major, life-changing event is about to occur. That does indeed happen, but the dramatic payoff is merely a postscript that leaves the film with an abrupt denouement.

Still, Valentin is an innocuous little film with more than a little charm. (PG-13) Rating: 3; Posted 6/18/04


The Terminal
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

The opening scenes of The Terminal flawlessly recap what it’s like to be delayed at an airport. The endless florescent lights, the sounds of thousands of footsteps and tired conversation, the echoing tiled floors, the river of annoyed and exhausted people, and the detached unfriendly employees are all perfectly captured. Airports are places that breed frustration.
Enter Victor Navorski (Tom Hanks). This poor soul is about to suffer a fate that would tear any of us to shreds. When he arrives at the airport in New York City, he learns that there has been a massive coup in his country, and as a result he is not allowed to return to his country or enter the United States. The airport becomes his purgatory.

During the first half of the movie, Hanks’ Navorski shares many traits with Jacques Tati’s Mr. Hulot. In two of Tati’s films, Mon oncle, and Playtime, Mr. Hulot stumbles through a cold modern society. He is not a part of this world, and belongs to the more caring, simple past. Hulot never fits in, and yet he is never completely overtaken by despair. He simply exists as a contrast to his environment.

Victor Navorski skillfully stands out against the airport environment. He attempts to make a bed from old airport chairs. He earns food money by returning luggage carts. Victor even attempts to battle the cold modernism of the airport by strolling the terminal wearing a bathrobe and slippers. Navorki is not the master of his environment, but we feel kinship with him as we watch his spirit never waiver. He simply makes the best of it.

Sadly Stephen Spielberg's addiction to pathos takes over and takes over The Terminal.

Slowly, the sounds of the airport terminal are replaced with John William’s sappy score that tells you just how you should feel. Navorski’s quirks are replaced with ridiculously heroic deeds and implausible nobility.

Do we really need a cruel airport autocrat (Stanley Tucci) to try to crush Navorski’s spirit? Do we really need to see Navorski become the terminal’s hero? What are we supposed to make of Victor when he creates a fountain for a stewardess (Catherine Zeta-Jones) that he has talked to for all of 20 minutes? Does Navorski’s reason for coming to America in the first place have to be so implausible that it shatters any of the film’s believability? All of these elements detach us from the film and reduce it to fantasy.

What begins as a clever examination of how individuals battle cold, modern systems everyday quickly turns into a long winded, two dimensional, unsatisfying fairytale. Unfortunately, The Terminal’s conclusion was as awkward and aloof as O’Hare Airport in December. (PG-13) Rating: 3; Posted 6/18/04


Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Okay, okay. There is no way that a silly, sophomoric comedy like Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story should get a positive review. It’s just the sort of lowbrow and inane Hollywood drivel that critics always complain about.

Though it is every bit as ridiculous as most of the other idiotic comedies out there, there is one big difference. This one is genuinely funny.

Ben Stiller, who gives a performance so broad that it would be considered over-the-top even for a Saturday Night Live sketch, stars as White Goodman, an obnoxious fitness geek who is the owner of a company called Globo Gym. (Their catchy slogan is “We’re better than you, and we know it!”) His rival is a small-time operator named Pete LaFleur (Vince Vaughn), owner of a low rent club called “Average Joe’s.”

White takes advantage of Pete’s casual bookkeeping efforts, and sets his sights on taking over his operation. Unless Pete can come up with $50,000, he’ll face foreclosure, and White can step in.
One of the nerdy members of Pete’s gym suggests that they enter a dodgeball contest that has a grand prize of $50,000. Naturally, when White gets wind of their efforts, he enters an elite group of his own athletes to thwart Pete’s team.

Writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Terry Tate, Office Linebacker) has pretty good satiric aim, targeting some of the vacuous aspects of the fitness craze.

But his movie excels because his cast ably sells the insanity. Along with Stiller and Vaughn, the cast includes Christine Taylor (the real Mrs. Stiller) as Kate, a bank lawyer who winds up on Vaughn’s team thanks to her impressive underhand throwing ability and disdain for White.

Rip Torn is sardonically funny as Patches O’Houlihan, a wheelchair-bound former dodgeball “star” who becomes coach for Pete’s team of misfits. Stephen Root is especially amusing as a middle-aged nerd who helps inspire his teammates by exploiting his underused temper.

Gary Cole and Jason Bateman add color as idiotic commentators for ESPN-8 (“The Ocho”) who cover the dodgeball finals in Las Vegas. Lance Armstrong, William Shatner and Chuck Norris also show up in peculiar cameo roles. Hank Azaria has an amusing bit as a young Patches O’Houlihan who appears in a 1950s era instructional film about the violent aspects of the game.

Dodgeball sometimes stretches itself a bit thin, but compared to those of its ilk, it’s guilty pleasure. (PG-13) Rating: 3; Posted 6/18/04


The Battle of Algiers
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

 

Richard Clark, the former advisor to George W. Bush who recently testified at the 9/11 Commission hearings, said that anyone who wanted to understand what was going on today in Iraq should watch the film The Battle of Algiers.

Someone was listening. New prints of that 1965 film have been struck and are being screened throughout the country.

The Battle of Algiers is a stark, realistic drama filmed in black-and-white by director Gillo Pontecorvo (Burn!). Although it is a drama, it feels very much like a documentary, giving a news-like account of the resistance of the Algerian people to the French colonialists.

The story begins in the 1950s, when ragtag groups of Algerians began a terror campaign against the French police forces. (The French had occupied Algeria for 130 years prior to these uprisings.)
The film begins at the end of a torture session, where French troops have beaten an Algerian citizen until he relents and gives them the location of some of the resistance leaders.

Then, the action flashes back to the events that led up to this moment. Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) is a small-time crook who is recruited by resistance forces to do some of the dirty work that they feel needs to be done. This not only includes assassinating police officers, but also getting rid of morally questionable natives like drunks, prostitutes and informers.

The action follows the desperate acts of the terrorists, as well as the brutal reprisals of the French officials and their efforts to crush the freedom movement, regardless of the cost. The French succeed in their quest to put down the rebellion, but lose Algeria when the French public tires of the bloodshed. Algeria won its independence in 1962.

What is most interesting about The Battle of Algiers is not its status as a seminal film about grass roots resistance or even its parallels to current events in Iraq. The unique thing is the fact that it was one of the early films to utilize authentic locations and amateur actors in an all-out effort to get the “feel” of reality. (Some of the actors were actual members of the resistance.)

The drawbacks are the film’s washed-out subtitles that are extremely hard to read, as well as the detached approach that prevents viewers from making an emotional connection with the characters.

Still, The Battle of Algiers serves a worthy purpose. It re-emphasizes the urgency for us learn from our history. (Not rated, but contains violent images.) Rating: 3; Posted 6/18/04


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