reel reviews
7.15.04

The Clearing De-Lovely I Robot Napoleon Dynamite Shaolin Soccer

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

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Napoleon Dynamite
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

People laugh. The reason remains a scientific mystery. Some folks will chuckle at a certain joke while others remain utterly bemused. This is an even greater enigma. Trying to explain how the sense of humor works is, as Solomon might have said, “like chasing the wind.”

Napoleon Dynamite is very funny…or it isn’t. The one thing everyone can agree on is that it’s one odd little movie.

A short film called Pecula debuted a few years ago at the Slamdance Film Festival. People laughed. Director Jared Hess felt emboldened. He used the short as a calling card to raise funds to make a feature length version. The expanded film made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January and many people laughed. Some didn’t.

Napoleon Dynamite focuses on a somnolent-looking nerd, played to perfection by Jon Heder. The gangly and curly-haired teen lives in the sleepy village of Preston, ID with his grandmother and older brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell). When their grandma is injured, their scheming Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) comes to stay with them.

These fellows have no clue as to how odd they really are. Kip is an Internet geek who, at age 30, finally has a relationship with someone he met in a chat room. His online romance is an African-American woman from Detroit named Lafawnduh (Shondrella Avery) and her visit to Idaho is a memorable one.

Uncle Rico is a former high school football hero who lives on past glories. He’s also an inept entrepreneur who makes most used car salesmen look sincere.

Napoleon is a decent sort of chap who marches to his own drummer. Although socially inept, he does manage to befriend a fellow named Pedro (Efren Ramirez), a newly arrived student from Mexico. He helps Pedro run for class president and find a date to the school dance. For the most part, Napoleon overlooks the affectionate glances of a classmate named Deb, (Tina Majorino).

Plot-wise, that’s about all there is to it. The humor isn’t derived from jokes or situations, but from the quirkiness of the characters. These oddballs might have stepped out of a Cohen Brothers’ film but unlike those broad satires, there is no ridicule or mean-spiritedness at play here. Hess likes the characters he has created…and so do we.)

Even if Napoleon Dynamite is only erratically funny, it is unquestionably original. It’s as consistently quirky as its characters. So, go ahead. Laugh. (PG) Rating: 3; Posted 7/22/04


De-Lovely
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

Cole Porter was a prolific songwriter. So prolific that there are Cole Porter lyrics to describe almost any occasion. De-Lovely is so arranged that every definitive moment is underscored with a Porter song — brassy in its beginning with Anything Goes and melancholy at the end with Blow Gabriel Blow and In the Still of the Night.

As fecund as his lyrics were, Cole Porter never fathered children. Manifestly gay, Cole Porter is portrayed in De-Lovely as more gaily bisexual, which is at least an evolution from the 1945 film Night and Day, in which Carey Grant not only straightened him out, but perpetuated the wildly fictionalized tall tales that Porter generated and maintained throughout his life.

The opening moments of De-Lovely show theatrical lighting and staginess, introducing audiences to a kind of Dickensian revue structure for this biopic. Although at first jarring, the form is an apt metaphor for a man who projected one image to the world and lived another.

Kevin Kline as Cole Porter has been so well aged, that the actor is largely unrecognizable beneath the convincing makeup. Jonathan Pryce plays a shady character known only as Gabe (a Marley equivalent but without any personal history), who prods Cole through flashback stages of his life, beginning with his introduction to his wife Linda, (Ashley Judd). Essentially a love story, De-Lovely paints two complex and spirited personalities with broad brushstrokes, and a certain directorial primness is at odds with the people they apparently were. However, the colorful sampling from the Cole Porter songbook saves the film from being a simple gawp at the outré. Rendered by current performers like Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette and Diana Krall, the performances work as tender tributes.

The character of Linda Porter at first glance seems favorably distant from Judd’s prior roles as women victimized by homicidal misogynists. However, there is something sadly self-deprecating in the abstemious marriage choice Linda makes. Formerly involved in an abusive marriage, Linda’s relationship with Cole in the film is portrayed as intimate, if mostly platonic. As Linda tells him, “You don’t have to love me the way I love you. Just love me.”

Cole is rather more passionate and insatiable. “I wanted every kind of love that was available,” he says. “I can never find it in the same person or the same sex.”

Linda Porter came to the marriage with wealth of her own and she uses her social network to further Cole’s career. She introduces him to Irving Berlin and is instrumental in their move to Hollywood and his subsequent success in major films.

De-Lovely invokes a bygone musical era with a poignancy that may even affect younger viewers. Certainly, popular songs of Cole Porter are so ubiquitous they are likely to become familiar for many years to come to those who may not be able to name the original composer. De-Lovely may not cause filmgoers to become wholly de-lirious, but it’s easily a de-lightful salute to a talented man. (PG-13) Rating: 3; Posted 7/15/04


I Robot
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

If you are looking for proof that Hollywood has completely run out of ideas, check out I Robot. This science fiction action film is the latest from director Brian Proyas, the creator of the wildly original Dark City. Disappointingly, I Robot is the polar opposite of his past work. While Dark City was passionately imaginative and wholly compelling, this film is slick and over produced. Unlike Isaac Asimov’s book, I Robot offers nothing unique to the world of science fiction.

The film takes us to the year 2035. Humans rely on robots in every facet of society. Robo-phobic Del Spooner (Will Smith) is a smart-alecky renegade cop investigating the apparent suicide of the brilliant robot designer Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell). Smith, once again, portrays the same “cop with attitude” that he portrayed in Men in Black, Bad Boys, and Wild, Wild, West, and he seems just as bored with the role as we are. Somebody in Hollywood needs to remember Smith’s groundbreaking performance in Six Degrees of Separation and start writing some quality work for this gifted actor.

Spooner joins up with the anomalous manic-depressive robot, Sonny (Alan Tudyk). Sonny the robot tries to comprehend love, friendship and struggles with the meaning of a wink. The concept of artificial life fraught with emotions is a common theme in science fiction, and Sonny really has nothing new to offer to the genre. He’s basically a rip-off of Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

With the help of a female scientist (Bridget Moynahan), Spooner uncovers a robot conspiracy that threatens humanity. The robots are driven to revolt and Spooner must save the day. Wait... artificial life revolting? The robots are stronger than us? Humanity’s only hope is a robot that has learned about human emotions? Isn’t that the plot from The Terminator?

I Robot earns some recognition by creating some wonderful effects. The designs of the robots are impressive. There’s a wonderful insect like quality to them, and the subtle effect of seeing various gears and workings below the robot’s translucent faces is peculiarly effective. Apple could have designed these robots with their unique appearance and smooth quality.

The action sequences are also exciting. One particularly inventive sequence has Spooner battling two truckloads of robots while racing down the highway. (One coldly tells Spooner, “You are having a traffic accident.”) The armies of robots, moving like insects and spreading chaotic order, are breathtaking. These scenes help prod along the numbing storyline and sub par mystery.

But spectacular images do not make up for the poor writing in I Robot. As Isaac Asimov himself wrote in Writer’s Digest magazine, “You may have heard the statement: ‘One picture is worth a thousand words.’ Don’t you believe it...as soon as it becomes necessary to deal with emotions, ideas, fancies — abstractions in general — only words will suit.” (PG-13) Rating: 3; Posted 7/15/04


The Clearing
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

The Clearing has little in common with traditional summer fare. While cineplexes are showing Spiderman and Anchorman, filmgoers seeing the trailer might mistakenly expect more distilled manliness from The Clearing. However, this kidnapping story is not a breathless thriller; there are no explosions, clever plot contortions or facile negotiations. The men in it are marred in ways that are neither romantic nor humorous. Like the recent Italian kidnapping film I’m Not Scared, The Clearing showcases characters without audacious machismo and gender idealization. It’s a realistic portrayal of a family faced with the kidnapping of one of its members.

Though written by Justin Haythe, the idea for the film began with Dutch director Pieter Jan Brugge, who along with many compatriots had followed the saga of a high profile kidnapping in the Netherlands. He wondered what it was like for the woman who was left behind. The woman in this case is Eileen (Helen Mirren), who is married to childhood sweetheart, Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford), a successful car rental businessman, “the man Hertz and Avis are afraid of.” Together they have two grown children and a grandchild, and enjoy a luxurious lifestyle. Wayne is kidnapped at gunpoint by Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe) who claims, “This has nothing to do with me. I’m just doing my part.”

The story has two distinct timelines: one in which the kidnapping takes place, the other following how the family responds, first to the missing Wayne, then to the news that he has been kidnapped, and finally to the miserably endless trial of simply not knowing what has become of him. There are also several flashbacks to moments in Wayne and Eileen’s shared life.

Much of the exposition has to do with marriage, loss and the pursuit of the American dream. Wayne’s objection, “I worked hard my whole life. I don’t deserve this!” is contrasted with an awareness of his historic absence as a father and husband. “I’m just getting to know my children,” he pleads.

Arnold is also married but a comfortable lifestyle has been elusive. He has been unemployed for eight years, and through necessity, he and his wife live with his wife’s father. “It’s a household of disappointed people,” he observes.

Eileen is the family anchor. Discussing her reaction to Wayne’s disappearance, son Tim (Alessandro Nivola) confides to his sister (Melissa Sagemiller), “I think mom thought he left her.”

“He’d never do it,” she assures him. “He’d be lost without her.”

Eileen is a stoic, unexcitable woman, whose coolness is balanced with tenderness toward her family. She’s determined to do what it takes to get her husband back.

The performances by Redford and Mirren are especially lean and well acted. There’s a kind of sparseness to the characters that provides an opportunity for viewers to project their own explication. How well filmgoers relate to the characters will determine how they judge the film. Just don't go looking for any explosions. (R) Rating: 3; Posted 7/15/04 ®


Shaolin Soccer
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

So here’s the deal with Shaolin Soccer. Stephen Chow is a national treasure in Hong Kong. His films are a rich combination of Tsui Hark’s mystical epics, John Woo’s crime dramas, Jet Li’s “wire-fu,” and the Three Stooges. The mixture is bizarre, absurd, disjointed and ultimately hysterical. Chow’s movies are as logical and giddy as a second grade classroom.

Shaolin Soccer, when it was released in 2001, left such a strong impression that Miramax quickly purchased the rights to it. They immediately began dubbing it (with Stephen Chow dubbing his own dialogue), digitally altering posters and signs in the film into English, and re-editing the movie so that it had a more western feel. The hope was to turn Stephen Chow into the next Jackie Chan.

Somewhere along the line things went wrong. Perhaps it was the uproar of Hong Kong film fanatics disgusted with Miramax’s versions of other films like Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master II. Or Perhaps test audiences were too alienated by the randomness of the humor. But Miramax made the decision to restore most of the cut footage, scrap the dubbed version, and release a subtitled edition primarily to art houses. This is the version the Screenland Theatre is showing.

Shaolin Soccer is a joy from start to finish. A crippled former soccer champ (Man Tat Ng) discovers Shaolin master, Sing (Stephen Chow), with a kick powerful enough to put a can into the stratosphere. Together, they put together the most mystical soccer team ever assembled to face off against the world’s most ruthless and nefarious squad, Team Evil.

Watching the Shaolin team in action is incredible. You have never seen soccer games like these. This is not the American Youth Soccer Organization! This is the “I Could Be Killed By A Ball Going 5,000 Miles Per Hour” Soccer Organization. The visual effects are not only funny and exciting but also elegant. The image of Sing repeatedly kicking a soccer ball into a target drawn on a brick wall is stunning. Players fly through the air. The ball spins, twists, transforms into a dragon, sets goal nets afire, and plows through players like they’re bowling pins.

But the film’s quirky elements and frenetic chaos are all grounded by Sing’s relationship to Mui (Vicky Zhao). Mui cooks sticky buns using the art of Tai Chi (in one of the film’s greatest scenes.) She is shy, quiet and her face is covered with warts, but Sing is enchanted by her skills. It’s wonderful how their interactions can be touching, humorous and visually dynamic simultaneously.

Shaolin Soccer is a frivolous pleasure. Goofy characters, random jokes and an irreverent look at romance all mix seamlessly. In a time when CGI effects are overused and under whelming, this film uses its digital effects to awe us and induce waves of laughter. And when Mui takes the field... No... That would be spoiling it! (PG-13) Rating: 4; Posted 7/15/04


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