reel reviews

America's Heart and SoulThe Big Animal Latter Days
Lewis & Clark: The Great Journey WestThe Notebook
The Saddest Music in the World
Spider-Man 2

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Spider-Man 2
Reviewed by Jason Aaron

It’s easy to call Spider-Man 2 the best superhero film of all time, but it’s far more than just that. Though it may be a little early to start compiling a Best Of the Year list, Spider-Man 2 will surely rank among the best-scripted, best-directed, most moving, most awe-inspiring and most downright enjoyable films of 2004. Even with keeping the same director (cult legend Sam Raimi) and cast (including stars Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst), this sequel improves on its predecessor in virtually every way.

The Green Goblin, the villain of the first film (played in a rare ham-fisted turn by the usually reliable Willem Dafoe), looked more like a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger than a dangerous evildoer. Spider-Man 2 gives us Doctor Octopus, a misguided scientist with a set of creepy, metallic arms. Veteran character actor Alfred Molina is perfect as Doc Ock: never over the top but always menacing. In one truly inspired scene — like something straight out of Raimi’s Evil Dead — those snake-like arms of Ock’s slaughter a roomful of doctors and nurses.

Spider-Man 2 is conversely funnier and more serious than the original film. It’s hard to imagine any movie with a spandex-clad main character being more emotionally powerful than this one. The script nails everything that makes lovable loser Peter Parker (Maguire) such a compelling and enduring character. His web slinging and crime fighting may earn him the adoration of children everywhere, but it certainly doesn't help him hold down a steady job, keep up his grades or commit to the woman he loves.

Even his super-strong alter ego Parker can't win, what with publisher J. Jonah Jameson (brought to life in another hilarious performance by J.K. Simmons) slamming him as a menace in every issue of the “Daily Bugle” newspaper and Parker's best friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco), dead-set on getting vengeance against the wall-crawler in the name of his late father, Norman Osborn, a k a the Green Goblin.

As if all that wasn't enough, now Spidey seems to be suffering a bit of superhero performance anxiety, causing his powers to short out at the most inopportune moments (like when he’s swinging between skyscrapers).

Spider-Man 2’s screenwriters (including Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon) deserve huge kudos here, as this is one of the best written action films since Die Hard or even Raiders of the Lost Ark, and actually it's far more moving than either of those two. Spider-Man 2 even manages to turn crime-fighting clichés into movie gold, as Spidey and Doc Ock stage battles during a bank hold-up, atop a brownstone, in an abandoned warehouse and on a moving subway. The subway battle is undoubtedly the film's highlight, complete with amazing visuals and a touch of post 9/11 New York style solidarity that comes across as surprisingly stirring and sincere. Spider-Man 2 is very conscious of its status as a post September 11th hero film, what with Spider-Man battling evil alongside the NYPD and FDNY. This is super heroics, 21st century style.

While the original film's computer generated effects sometimes bordered on the cartoonish, Spider-Man 2 showcases the most effective blend of CGI and live action to date. The wizards at Edge FX should go ahead and clear off a space on their mantles for Oscar statues. Hardcore Spidey fans will love seeing the film's little nods to the character's rich comic book history. Wonder why Peter's college professor only has one arm? Stay tuned. Any significance to Jameson's son being an astronaut? You bet.

Comic fans are going to cherish this movie like they cherish the weathered boxes of bagged and boarded books stored in their parent’s basements (I can make that joke because I still have comics in my parent’s basement). However, the moviegoers who'll really be blown away by Spider-Man 2 are the ones who aren't expecting it, the ones who couldn't care less about a comic book, but instead just want to see some Hollywood escapism at its most refined. This is it, true believers!

The effects are flawless, the jokes fresh, the character well defined, the emotions real and the action inspiring. Overall, this is the once and future Citizen Kane of comic book superhero flicks. This is as good as it's ever gonna get. The superhero film genre stretches all the way back to the Superman serials of the 1940s and includes everything from Batman and the X-Men to Howard the Duck and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Finally, after 60 years of hits, misses and downright disasters, superheroes have a bit of cinematic perfection to call their own. After all the times they've saved the world, don't they deserve it? (PG-13) Rating: 5; Posted 7/6/04

Lewis & Clark: The Great Journey West
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Want a quick and entertaining historical refresher to prepare yourself for all of the Lewis and Clark Expedition celebrations going on around town? It would be hard to find a better choice than Lewis & Clark: The Great Journey West. It's now playing at the Extreme Screen Theatre at Union Station.

A giant screen production from National Geographic, Lewis & Clark is a visually stunning overview that helps drive home the point that this undertaking was an amazing achievement. As narrator Jeff Bridges points out, it was, in 1804, "the equivalent of a mission to the moon."

When Thomas Jefferson recruited Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to chart a route from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean, few thought that it actually could be done. In fact, when the party hadn't been heard from after several weeks, most assumed that they were all dead.

Amazingly, the expedition only lost one member, and he expired early in their journey from natural causes. Perhaps they all should have died. As the film demonstrates, fate stepped in numerous times to save them from certain doom.

The movie is a beautifully photographed visual log. There is no dialogue or dramatic screenplay. The action is reenacted, but Bridges' narration serves to fill us in on the details of the remarkable journey.

Director Bruce Neibaur utilizes a lot of aerial photography to sweep over the purple mountain's majesty, giving audiences the visual rush that is now required from IMAX and related giant screen formats. It's as if the adventurers were being watched over by a protective bird, soaring above the action like a guardian angel.

Highlights of the journey include the numerous encounters with (mostly) friendly Native Americans, close encounters with wild animals, buffalo stampedes and brushes with death on perilous river rapids.

The importance of their young Shoshone guide, Sacagawea is emphasized, too. Without her frequent intervention to help the members of the expedition find food and placate the natives, it is virtually certain that none of them would have survived. York, Clark's slave, is also given his due as an important participant who eventually received his freedom as a reward for his contributions.

At a zippy 42 minutes in length, Lewis & Clark: The Great Journey West should be able to hold the interest of even the most fidgety youngster. It also serves as an engaging Cliff Notes guide to an important historic milestone. (G) Rating: 3; Posted 7/02/04

The Big Animal
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

If standing in an enormous line to see a live action comic book sounds a bit daunting, you might want to hit a brand new art theater and check out The Big Animal instead. This curious gem comes all the way from Poland, and was penned by the brilliant social filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski before he died. The story is simple, elegant, thought provoking and at times frightening.

Zygmunt Sawicki (portrayed by the film's director Jerzy Stuhr) lives a simple life with his wife Marysia (Anna Dymna). He arrives on time every day to his bureaucratic job, lives in a fenced-in home on the edge of his village, and plays the oboe in the town's band.

One evening, a traveling circus leaves behind an enormous camel that wanders up to the couple's home. Instead of turning it in, Sawicki decides to keep it. The camel is a blend of exotic possibilities and emotional excitement, and Sawicki embraces it with a newfound joy. The beast also captivates his wife, and the couple becomes closer as they cherish the animal. Consequently, they sacrifice their former existence.

As the Sawickis are captivated, the rest of the village becomes upset, judgmental, hateful, and eventually completely isolate them. A public servant nervously explains to Zygmunt that he has no idea how to tax the beast. People first laugh and later shun Sawicki as he walks through the town with his camel. Sawicki is subtly humiliated and kicked out of his band. We never see the camel disrupting the lives of the town, but just his presence seems to infuriate the villagers because it does not fit into their schema of life.

As in Henri-Georges Clouzot's film Le Corbeau, seemingly simple people are revealed to be angry, jealous and petty. Kieslowski has written a film about how people, when confronting something new, often react with anger and even vengeance. The film also focuses on the unconquerable spirit of dreams. The Sawickis never succumb to hatred.

Director Stuhr keeps the film simple and direct. The pacing never dwindles. The photography of Pawel Edelman (The Pianist) is exquisite, and the only element that mars The Big Animal is that, at times, the subtitles display grammatical errors.

The Big Animal is a touching film and a perfect way to introduce Kansas City to the new Screenland Theatre. Located one block west of 17th and Broadway, the Screenland is an elegant little theater, with recliners in the center aisle and state of the art sound. A charming film in a charming new art theater: Who could ask for more? (Not Rated) Rating: 4; Posted 7/02/04

America's Heart and Soul
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

In the same hot summer month that Control Room and Fahrenheit 9/11 are due to inflame hearts and minds, America's Heart and Soul will appear like cool relief. Timed to be released on the 4th of July weekend, and flying high on the documentary film trend, this patriotic piece signals as heartily as a flag, reminding citizens that America is full of distinctly interesting and compelling lives.

Director Louis Schwartzberg traipsed about the country with a 35 mm camera, capturing urban and rural landscapes and the folks that inhabit them. Explaining on the film's website, "Everyone dreams of hitting the road, traveling around the country like Steinbeck," Schwartzberg's reference to the quintessentially American writer is not incidental. Reflecting characteristic Steinbeck themes, Heart and Soul draws inspiration from the land and cultural diversity, and affirms the strength of the human spirit, capturing the native speech, folklore and humor of the particular regions he visits. Also reminiscent of Steinbeck, Schwartzberg frequently champions the forgotten and disenfranchised, and poeticizes the rustic.

About 25 vignettes are featured, and include an acrobatic flyer, a gospel singer, a blind mountain climber, an Appalachian rug weaver, and an "explosive artist." What binds the film is that its subjects are passionate about what they do; each "character" approaches life with a certain amount of conviction, if sometimes obsessively.

Although a first time director, Schwartzberg has plenty of experience as a cinematographer, and his experiential bias shows. He captures his subjects beautifully against gorgeous scenery and underscores the essence of colorful individuality. One short sequence shows cliff dancers whose choreography encompasses aerial, vertical and horizontal dynamism. It's a breathtaking piece of cinematography.

Featuring a new song by John Mellencamp (arguably the music industry's closest Steinbeck equivalent), America's Heart and Soul avoids political overtones in a peculiarly un-Steinbeck-like approach. It should come as no surprise that Disney, the same company that tried to freeze the distribution of Fahrenheit 9/11, is avidly promoting America's Heart and Soul. The film lacks a core subject and narrative trajectory, and its persistent apolitical stance often gives it a whitewashed feel that ultimately makes Heart and Soul more akin to the overplayed song with the shared name. Many of the people are fascinating, but by including so many, Schwartzberg sometimes leaves us feeling unfulfilled.

America's Heart and Soul is a sincere collection piece, albeit without a central thesis. For Americans looking for an alternative to uncomfortable political films, this upbeat movie is a good choice. Its success may actually ride the coattails of backlash against its more gritty rivals. (PG) Rating: 3; Posted 7/02/04

Latter Days
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

TIf you love stereotypes, stock characters, stilted dialogue and contrived situations, then Latter Days may be right up your alley. On the other hand, there may be other flaws that could spoil things for you.

The first directorial effort from screenwriter C. Jay Cox (Sweet Home Alabama), Latter Days is a romantic drama with a twist. This story of star-crossed lovers involves a male Mormon missionary who falls for another man.

Steve Sandross plays Elder Aaron Davis, a sincere but naive young man just beginning his two-year stint as an LDS missionary in Los Angeles. A closeted gay proselytizing for a church that condemns homosexuality, Aaron struggles with this internal conflict.

Things get more complicated when Aaron meets Christian (Wesley A Ramsey), a shallow and promiscuous gay man who lives in the apartment complex that Aaron and his mission companions move into. An aspiring actor working as a waiter at a trendy restaurant, Christian makes a $50 bet with some of his co-workers that he can seduce one of the missionaries.

Christian's "gaydar" points to Aaron, and he makes him his target. Trouble is, Aaron is an earnest person who only wants to do God's work. When he compares himself to this man of conviction, the ironically named Christian begins to question his life choices and realizes how shallow he really is.

Christian begins to fall in love with Aaron, and the feeling is mutual. When some of the missionaries catch Aaron and Christian in a romantic kiss, it is the beginning of a soul damaging scandal.

Cox, a former Mormon who reportedly based both characters on aspects of his own personality, has an ax to grind. The Mormon Church, which considers homosexuality an abomination, is ridiculed as an intolerant and hypocritical organization. Problem is, Cox's approach is so heavy-handed that his movie nearly becomes a Michael Moore-style polemic. Cox nearly gives the elders moustaches to wickedly twirl.

The actors are likable, even when the dialogue lets them down. Thankfully, there are some solid pros (Jacqueline Bisset as a troubled restaurateur and Mary Kay Place as Aaron's intolerant mom) that make the screenplay seem better than it is.

A popular feature at gay film festivals, Latter Days is getting a pass because of its gay-friendly stance, not because of its filmmaking. The movie has a preachy, holier-than-thou attitude that may annoy even those who may be sympathetic to its point of view. (Not rated, but features adult language, situations and copious nudity) Rating: 2; Posted 7/02/04

The Notebook
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

The key to a successful romantic film is getting the audience to fall in love. This is not as easy as it sounds because filmmakers have about 5 minutes to complete this task, and an hour and a half to sustain a genuine and amorous atmosphere. Courting the audience is a lot like a first date, and when a movie is successful, the audience will think back fondly on the film like an old flame.

In contrast, The Notebook is like a vicious manipulative stalker that deserves to be chucked in jail for indecent behavior and gross misconduct...and, well, just being a really lousy movie. The Notebook is about as romantic as a drunk belting bad poetry under your window at 3 a.m.

The premise of a romantic film is a lot like a person's appearance. It's the hook that draws one in. The Notebook's premise is about as attractive as an infected nose ring. In a nursing home, the elderly Duke (James Garner) reads to Allie (Gena Rowlands) from a notebook that documents a great romance in an attempt to cure her degenerate brain condition. (Is Alzheimer's disease romantic?) We watch flashbacks of young love blossoming between working class Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling) and rich socialite girl Allie (Rachel McAdams). But Gosling and McAdams are about as flat as notebook pages, so their characters struggle to do something interesting.

Gosling does his best Leonardo DiCaprio impersonation, and McAdams spends the majority of the time screaming: She screams on a Ferris Wheel, she screams for joy, she screams at Gosling in anger, she screams at her rich tightwad parents when they forbid her to see her love, she screams while making love and she screams for happiness when a new man proposes to her. (Is screaming romantic?)

All of this takes place in a fantasy version of North Carolina where the sun always sparkles across the lake and the moon is always full. Characters come and go. The film even appears to kill off Calhoun's best friend and dad so he can spend more time alone with Allie. Black people are reduced to scenery either dancing and singing on Calhoun's porch or silently serving Allie at her house. (Is racism romantic?)

The ending of the movie, however takes the cake as the most contrived ridiculous ending that has ever concluded a romantic movie. It's like a last desperate attempt to get the audience to cry, and one gets the sense that director Nick Cassevetes and writer Jan Sardi would spray the audience with teargas if they could.

In your next search for that perfect romantic movie, the one that touches your soul and induces memories of beautiful days with a new exciting person, please show some common sense and file a restraining order against The Notebook. (PG-13) Rating: 0; Posted 7/02/04

The Saddest Music in the World
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Some folks love turnips, bagpipe music and leisure suits. They're not wrong. It's just a matter of taste.

Some folks love Guy Maddin, the fiercely eccentric Canadian filmmaker responsible for such peculiar fare as Archangel and Tales of the Gimli Hospital. Here's an artist who knows his work isn't commercial. He would probably resent it if the public at large embraced his peculiar vision. (He reportedly said he took his movie to Sundance so that he could pee in the hot tub.)

Maddin's latest concoction is The Saddest Music in the World, adapted from a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day). True to form, it's a trip to Weirdsville.

The story takes place in frigid Winnipeg during the depths of the Great Depression. A beautiful beer baroness named Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini) has decided to sponsor a contest. In reaction to an English newspaper's description of Winnipeg as the "world capitol of sorrow," Lady Port-Huntly has offered $25,000 to the person or persons who perform the saddest music in the world.

The contest unfolds like a twisted version of American Idol, with numerous elimination rounds (Eskimos competing against African pygmies, etc.). At the end of each round, the winners are whisked down a slide into a giant vat of beer.

Throughout the contest, we're made privy to Lady Port-Huntly's bizarre back story that led her to becoming a double amputee sporting glass legs filled with beer. We meet her ex-lover Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), his current lover Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros), Chester's dad, Fyodor (David Fox) and brother Roderick (Ross McMillan).

The actors perform their dialogue in an over-the-top, anachronistic style that fits with Maddin's retro filmmaking. Maddin shot the movie in 8mm black and white (with a few washed out color sequences) and then blew it up 35mm to achieve the look of an ancient reel discovered in a musty basement. The action was shot on a refrigerated soundstage on sets that look like German expressionism as re-imagined by Walt Disney.

All this, one supposes, is good for a few laughs. Problem is, it just isn't all that funny. One could argue that the whole enterprise is mind-numbing pretentious. Maddin's gimmicky visual style is quite arresting for a time, but eventually one yearns for more.

Although some of us would like to point out that the emperor has no clothes, others love Maddin's twisted vision. Then again, some people love borscht. (Not rated) Rating: 2; Posted 7/02/04

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