reel reviews
7.09.04

AnchormanBefore Sunset Control RoomKing Arthur
Sleepover Space Station

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

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Anchorman
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

Is Saturday Night Live an asset or a liability to the world of film? Most SNL cast members enter the experience excited and fresh from the top Improv clubs only to exit into exhaustion and obscurity. The writing schedule is brutal. Sketches are slammed out at an atrocious pace, and the majority are shallow, tedious, repetitive and fail miserably.

Not coincidently, this evil institution has cursed us all with a slew of dreadful films by SNL alumni. Does anyone remember A Night at the Roxbury or Superstar? How about It’s Pat? Well, did anybody stand in line to buy tickets for Joe Dirt or Stuart Saves his Family? Didn’t think so.

The formula for these movies is simple: create a bizarre unrealistic character (or use your overexposed character from SNL), throw in as many ridiculous gags as you can, flash a few celebrity cameo faces here and there, and hope to God that the audience laughs. However, there are a few gems. Wayne’s World, Animal House and Caddyshack all earned the title of cult classics and are famous for their quality and quantity of humor.

Now, Saturday Night Live alumni Will Farrell, with the help of former SNL head writer Adam McKay, have created Anchorman, and it’s a whole mess of comedy. The basic premise is that in San Diego, there’s a local newscaster named Ron Burgundy (Farrell) who feels threatened by a new female anchorwoman (Christina Applegate) because she’s a woman and it’s the ‘70s.

Anchorman isn’t going for credibility though because there’s a ton of unrelated gags that add a feeling of diffuseness to the movie. Strange comic elements come and go. Ron’s dog knows Spanish and suffers a bizarre fate. Ron plays the jazz flute while practically destroying a nightclub. A burrito hits an angry motorcyclist. A violent medieval anchorman brawl occurs. There’s also a pregnant panda bear, multiple distinct celebrity cameos and linguistic jokes about what “San Diego” really means.

On the surface, there is no comedic cohesiveness. Yet somehow Will Farrell manages to hold the whole mess together.

Ron Burgundy, like many of Farrell’s other characters is a Graham Cracker disguised as crème brule. Burgundy has no concept about how pathetic he really is, and Farrell carries it off with the same appeal as Steve Martin’s wild and crazy guy. His comic timing and ensemble acting is impeccable.

While Anchorman is ridiculous, the film is also crammed with laughs and is unpredictably entertaining. Keep an eye out for The Daily Show’s Steven Carell as the mentally challenged Brick Tamland. Every line from Brick’s mouth brought forth a torrent of laughter from the audience. Anchorman is Will Farrell’s second success as a lead in a comedy. Let’s hope for many more. (PG-13) Rating: 3; Posted 7/9/04

King Arthur
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

As fantasies go, the legend of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table is as popular as they come. It has romance, mysticism and dramatic resonance in spades.

In King Arthur, director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and screenwriter David Franzoni (Gladiator) have decided to strip away those elements in favor of a gritty, more realistic speculation about the earliest days of British independence from Roman rule. It’s too bad that they didn’t find something equally compelling to replace the romance, mysticism and dramatic resonance they’ve eliminated.
Clive Owen (Croupier) portrays Arthur, one of many young Brits forced into servitude by their Roman occupiers. He and his “knights” must serve as warriors for fifteen years before they will be granted their freedom.

With their conscription nearing its end, Arthur and his knights yearn for lives of their own. Even though they’ve met their obligation, the nasty Romans (who are planning to abandon their outpost on this barbaric island) force them into one more mission.

They’re sent to rescue a Roman family from a remote northern outpost. Problem is, this area is north of a massive wall that separates them from the vengeful natives, not to mention a hoard of murderous Saxons who are beginning an invasion. In other words, their mission is impossible.

Perhaps that should be enough of a plot to ensure a gripping action film, and the movie does have a lot of bloody battle sequences. Problem is, we have little reason to root for anyone. These guys aren’t given any reason to fight (other than sheer survival) until the story comes to a close.

Some of the famous characters are on hand, including Merlin (Stephan Dillane), who is now a rebel leader, and Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), who is no longer French in this version. Guinevere (Keira Knightly from Pirates of the Caribbean) is reduced to a minor supporting role as a woman rescued from a dungeon. She does, however, strap on a leather thong and kick some Saxon butt when she’s given a chance.

The script makes some fleeting references to Arthur’s own Christianity and his struggle with the atrocities that he sees the Romans commit in the name of Christ. This intriguing plot string is, sad to say, never developed. What’s left is a lengthy excuse to put together some adequately photographed battle scenes.

Since the filmmakers decided to excise what’s great about the legend, King Arthur simply can’t cut it. (PG-13) Rating: 2; Posted 7/9/04


Before Sunset
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

Director Richard Linklater is the master of capturing feelings. Many of his films are as clear as memories and create a beautiful sense of introspection within the viewer. Never dull, his films entertain while creating a lasting impression afterwards. His latest movie, Before Sunset, is no exception and might be his simplest and most remarkable creation to date.

This film is a sequel to Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995). That film was all about a French graduate student named Celine (Julie Delpy) and an American student named Jesse. (Ethan Hawke) They meet on a train traveling between Budapest and Vienna, fall in love, explore Vienna, and agree to meet again at the Vienna train station in six months, leaving the viewer to speculate whether or not they would keep the meeting.

Nine years later we are given an answer. One of the two did not show up. Jesse, now an author, has written a romantic best seller based upon the encounter nine years ago, and he is signing copies in a small bookshop in France. When Celine shows up, they share some awkward words and decide to talk over a cup of coffee. Together, they explore Paris, talk about the past and present, and discuss their lives. There’s a deadline to their time together though, because Jesse’s flight back to the states leaves at sunset.

Unlike the first film, Before Sunset takes place in real time. This was a brave and exceptional choice because it allows the viewer to observe every word of Jesse and Celine’s conversation and take every step of their journey. The shots are long and simple, and Paris, at times, becomes just as important a character as the two lovers. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy deliver two flawless performances. Both effortlessly pick up their past characters again and their performances weave together delightfully.

Before Sunset impeccably captures the nature of conversation. The dialogue captivates without ever feeling forced or cinematic as both characters comes to grips with their feelings of frustration and love. When we first met Jesse and Celine they were at the commencement of their adult lives. Now time and their own choices have pulled them far away from experiencing anything like they did in Vienna. The viewer feels their struggle to recapture the past and the burden from the weight of time.

The film closes with a entrancing final moment and a second cliffhanger to replace the first one. One is left with the hope that this in not the last film about Jesse and Celine. Linklater, Delpy and Hawke have created a masterpiece that gracefully captures mourning for the past. Before Sunset is a significant and astonishing work. (R) Rating: 5; Posted 7/9/04


Control Room
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

Just a few weeks before the second Iraq war, American-Egyptian filmmaker Jehane Noujaim (startup.com) went to Qatar and was able to get access to the inner sanctum of the Al-Jazeera network as well as U.S. Central Command. With the war as the backdrop, Noujaim documents a telling story of serious journalism that delivers a wake up call to a culture that has abandoned news for infotainment.

Prior to the war, few Americans could name the most popular news network in the Arab world. Since having learned its name from controversial footage of Iraqi civilian casualties and American POWs, American criticism of Al-Jazeera has been high. The U.S. government accused Al Jazeera of reporting Iraqi propaganda at the same time Saddam’s regime warned that Al Jazeera would be banned from broadcasting if they continued showing American propaganda. Unlike the polemic Fahrenheit 911, Control Room follows events as they unfold and allows viewers to draw their own conclusions.

The prominent characters in Control Room are articulate, independent thinkers, and each displays some disarming incongruities. Samir Khader, a senior producer, gets steamed over a Western expert guest, who espouses a sympathetic Arab viewpoint, but is too obviously partisan.

“He’s a nut! He has no credibility!” Khader fumes.

Hassan Ibrahim, a Sudanese journalist, was a classmate of Osama Bin Laden in Saudi Arabia, attended American universities and headed the BBC Arab News service before joining Al-Jazeera. He vehemently and cynically opposes the war, but expresses optimism for a good outcome. We witness an easy kind-heartedness towards natural adversary Marine Lt. Josh Rushing who is with the CentCom press office. Although at times embarrassingly naïve, Rushing’s open-minded arguments with Al-Jazeera journalists provide exceptional lessons in sincere discourse.

Some scenes are more salient now than when the film was made. It is impossible not to cringe as President Bush announces, “I expect our prisoners to be treated humanely. Just like we treat theirs humanely.” Donald Rumsfeld insists that “liars will be caught,” and there is caustic discussion about the concept of “Shock and Awe.” The tragic and still unexplained killing of an Al-Jazeera journalist reporting from an Iraq rooftop is a troubling symbol of this war’s high degree of obfuscation.

The notion of objectivity in the media is a slippery one. The historic embedding of journalists, the New York Times mea culpa over its WMD coverage, the surge in distinctly partisan media outlets, along with persistent media conglomeration, have eroded Americans’ confidence in home-produced news. Control Room only reinforces that perception. (Not Rated) Rating: 4; Posted 7/9/04


Sleepover
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

Every decade has a film that encourages young people to break free from society’s talons and rebel. Films like Rebel Without a Cause in the ‘50s and Easy Rider in the ‘60s encouraged the younger generation to look seriously at the older generation and question their choices. The ‘70s brought One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a manifesto against institutions; in the ‘80s it was The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, not the most brilliant films ever produced, but still examinations of how teenagers are alienated by their environment. The ‘90s began with a bang with the poorly named Pump Up the Volume, an interesting and fierce film about injustice and dissatisfaction in the younger generation.

Now, as we enter the fifth year of this nameless decade, we are in desperate need of a film that tells the young people of today that they do not need to accept adults’ views of the world. One has to wonder if Sleepover is as close as this new decade is going to get.

At first glance Sleepover looks like a bad episode of “The Babysitter’s Club.” The film follows four girls celebrating the last day of eighth grade with a slumber party. Things get serious as a group of snooty girls challenge them to a scavenger hunt. When they go to high school, the winner of the hunt gets to sit by a fountain for lunch and losers have to eat by a dumpster. Make no mistake about it. These four girls are rebels! Granted, they rebel in a “rich-suburban-14-year-old-girl” sort of way. Still, during the course of Sleepover, they become insurgents.

For the sake of the “cool spot,” the head adolescent Julie (Alexa Vega) breaks so many rules she would have made Abby Hoffman proud. How many 14-year-old girls do you know who would set up a blind date with a grown-up over the Internet? (Yeah, I found this creepy too) During the course of the evening Julie shares a drink with their 8th grade reading teacher at an adult club, steals and drives an electric car, becomes a voyeur by spying on a boy undressing, defaces a security car and causes bodily injury to a security officer. She even reduced her college-aged brother to a cross-dressing servant.

The spoils of their rebellion are plenty: Two of the girls end up with boyfriends. Julie (in an ironic twist) ends up with a brand new locking doorknob, and all four girls climb a rung in the social ladder. The adults are oblivious to the chaos because they are either stupid or unmindful.

Most of the audience did not share my vision of Sleepover as a call to rebellion. The young people in the audience giggled, and in contrast, most of the adults looked like they wanted to be somewhere else. One performance, however, cracked everyone up. Evan Peters as Russell, a crazy skateboarding eighth grader, steals every scene he is in, and I hope we see more of this charismatic kid.

Let’s hope that a better, smarter, more rebellious film comes along soon because Sleepover just doesn’t belong in the same category as Rebel Without a Cause. (PG) Rating: 2; Posted 7/9/04


Space Station
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

IMAX films are often both spectacular and hokey. Space Station is no exception.

While the most exotic of all shooting locations provides a big “Wow!” element, there is still evidence of cornball. The most entertaining filming is done by astronauts showing scenes of mundane daily life and hamming before the camera; at times it’s not far from a home movie.
Space Station feels like an educational field trip; the content is simple, apolitical and palatable to general audiences. There is nothing controversial here, which is not surprising given that Lockheed Martin and NASA were the project’s underwriters. The voice-over is provided by a boyishly enthusiastic Tom Cruise, whose narration sometimes sounds like a public relations exercise, and is often at odds with the remarkable images on-screen.

The International Space Station (ISS) is an orbiting research lab. It represents the cooperation of sixteen countries, although we mostly see only Russian and American efforts in the film. In one poignant sequence, an astronaut comments on Earth viewed from space being unmarked by national borders. We follow the progress of pieces being constructed and tested in a variety of locations. We see astronauts in training using virtual reality devices and deep-sea exercises that simulate weightlessness. We see three rockets lift off spectacularly, and the vibrations rumble the theatre seats. We see a jet pack in use, but it’s anticlimactic; the shot is of barely discernable forward motion. We also see what sections of the lab look like installed on the ISS, but they’re mostly tucked away from sight and the details are sketchy. Any information about the specifics of the experiments has been left out.

Still, seeing the images of the ISS is worth the ticket price. The stillness of the station poised in the nothingness of space is eerie. In a case of truth being stranger than fiction, the incredible visuals seem more like a sci-fi film than a documentary. In the end though, it is the work and daily life of astronauts in zero gravity that is the most compelling. It’s the stuff of childhood aspirations.

The International Space Station is actually only 220 miles above the Earth. As British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle once observed, “Space isn’t remote at all. It’s only an hour’s drive away if your car could go straight upwards.” (Not Rated) Rating: 3; Posted 7/9/04


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