reel reviews
movie reviews
8.13.04

Alien vs. PredatorBaadassss!CollateralThe Holy Land
The Princess Diaries 2: The Royal EngagementMaria Full of GraceYu-Gi-Oh!

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

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Alien vs. Predator
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Pairing monsters from separate hit horror films is a time honored Hollywood tradition. (1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman is a minor classic. Last year’s Freddy vs. Jason was also a box office hit.)

So, it should come as no surprise that two of cinema science fiction’s premier creatures should come finally together. (An Alien trophy head displayed in Predator 2 was intended as a joke for film buffs, but can now be viewed as foreshadowing.)

Although a popular comic book series about ongoing battles between these two space baddies has been around for a few years, no mention is made of it in the film’s press notes. They give credit to the movie’s writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil) for coming up with the story idea.

The mayhem takes place in 2004, as weather satellites pick up a heat impulse emanating from Antarctica. Billionaire industrialist Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen) quickly assembles a crack team to explore the area. They discover a recently dug tunnel that leads 2000 feet under the ice to an ancient pyramid similar to those built by antediluvian civilizations in Mexico and Cambodia.

As it turns out, the highly advanced Predator species has visited Earth many times in the past, enslaving humans and forcing them to erect these edifices. Under these structures, they’ve placed Queen Aliens to produce offspring for their young sportsmen to hunt and prove their mettle!

By the time Weyland’s team of explorers figures out what’s going on, it’s too late to avoid a lot of multi-species bloodshed.

Climber Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan from Out of Time) and archeologist Sebastian de Rosa (Under the Tuscan Sun’ s Raoul Bova) eventually conclude that they’re going to have to choose sides in order to survive.

The casting, with the exception of Henriksen, is uninspired. The actor played Bishop, the helpful robot, in Aliens and Alien 3. (We can now assume that this robot character from those films was ultimately modeled after the industrialist tycoon whose company would eventually create them.)

Lathan’s character is a strong, action-oriented female lead, very much in Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley mode. Unfortunately, she’s asked to carry a movie that is burdened with some silly histrionics, hackneyed dialogue and computer game-inspired dramatics.

But the movie has terrific production values, and it’s fun to see these two cutups in the ultimate death match. In the final analysis, AVP is suitably agreeable drive-in fare. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5; Posted 8/13/04


Baadassss!
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When Melvin Van Peebles’ shocking, X-rated drama Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song opened in 1971, it was a unique and revolutionary film. It inspired a whole new genre of filmmaking that became known as “blaxploitation.”

Van Peebles’ son, Mario (New Jack City) had a small but significant part in the film. Baadassss! is the younger Van Peebles’ homage to his old man and that landmark film, a respectful but sometimes critical dramatic chronicle of the movie’s creation.

Melvin Van Peebles wrote, directed, produced, starred in and scored (along with Earth, Wind and Fire) Sweetback. Mario handles many of the same chores here, playing his father and giving an account of how the movie came to be made.

In 1969, the elder Van Peebles had just finished a modestly successful Hollywood comedy called Watermelon Man, starring Godfrey Cambridge. He now hoped to strike out in a new direction and make a film that addressed the social ills facing black America. The studios balked.

His convictions became an obsession, one that fueled both his considerable ego and his ongoing self-doubt. In spite of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that continually plagued him, Van Peebles got the film made and distributed independently.

In a dramatic treatment that often plays like a documentary, the younger Van Peebles depicts these conflicts in an interesting, if sometimes self-indulgent fashion. This unblinking portrait shows the elder’s tenacity as well as his occasional cruelty.

Mario gives a convincing portrayal, and he is aided by a fine cast that includes Ossie Davis (Bubba Ho-Tep) as Melvin’s father and David Alan Grier (TV’s Life With Bonnie) as Clyde Houston, a porn producer who helps get the movie made. Rainn Wilson (TV’s Six Feet Under) is also memorable as Bill Harris, a white stoner who aided Van Peebles in putting together a racially diverse crew to make the movie on a shoestring budget.

The film provides some interesting revelations (Bill Cosby saved Sweetback with a last minute infusion of cash, the Black Panthers were early champions) and serves as both an inspiration and cautionary tale for wannabe filmmakers.

But mostly, Baadasssss! is a son’s story of his complicated relationship with his dad. That aspect of the film...probably the reason it was made as a drama instead of a documentary...is the one that needed more fleshing out.

The pseudo-documentary approach makes one long for a real documentary about Sweetback. What the younger Van Peebles has made, however, is still a modestly entertaining behind-the-scenes look at the making of an iconic film. (R) Rating: 3; Posted 8/13/04


Yu-Gi-Oh!
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

The movie Yu-Gi-Oh! is the latest chapter in the phenomenally successful series of cartoons, books and most importantly cards. The cartoon follows the adventures of a boy, Yugi, who is possessed by an Egyptian pharaoh who assists him in playing other young boys at an elaborate card game that brings forth monsters. No, it’s not a David Lynch film, but the latest concept from Japan, an advanced and noble country that brought us Kurosawa, Godzilla and sushi.

Yu-Gi-Oh! presents itself as a kid’s movie with monsters, and this only partially accurate. In point of fact, this film has more monsters, creatures and warriors than any film this year. There are dragons, mummies, demons, comic book people, witches, wizards, robots, princesses, queens, kings and children with mutated, wide eyes. (That last one may be a misconception of mine due to the Japanese animation)

But Yu-Gi-Oh! is less a monster movie than a documentation of a game of cards. The last movie that so completely documented a game was the four-hour Indian cricket epic, Lagaan. Every single round, card and turn is documented with tremendous accuracy. The game appeared infinitely more complex than Chess or Go! Do kids really play this game?

They do, and many children in the audience were well versed in the rules. The child behind me analyzed the match with the rigor and tenacity of a chess fanatic interpreting a Kasparov-Spassky match. Another boy insightfully whispered to his mother the merits of each card played. In the ‘80s, the Soviet Union developed chess schools for children where all other curriculum was dropped in favor of chess instruction. Perhaps we should be developing Yu-Gi-Oh schools here in the states.

Of course, this will never happen because of the tendency of Yu-Gi-Oh! to elicit powerful headaches in adults. (Yu-Gi-Oh translates from the Japanese into “Intense migraine in elders.”) The film’s shoddy animation, loud soundtrack, painful dialogue and stupefying inanity will make grown–ups feel their IQs dropping by the second and long for anything else — even Pokemon! (PG) Rating:0; Posted 8/13/04


The Holy Land
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Eternal conflicts, emotional, sociological and political, are at the heart of the new Israeli film, The Holy Land from first-time filmmaker Eitan Gorlin. The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Slamdance Film Festival, The Holy Land exposes us to a side of the country that we’ve not seen before.

Oren Rehany plays Mendy, a young rabbinical student at an Orthodox school in the city of Bnei Brak. Although he is earnest and wants to please his conservative and devout parents, the young man has other things on his mind.

Mendy, you see, is feeling his hormones. He’s becoming extremely horny and distracted, taken to slipping copies of erotic literature into his books of scriptures while in school. When his teacher notices his erratic behavior, he’s given a unique option.

His Rabbi suggests that he go to Tel Aviv and find a Gentile prostitute in order to “get it out of his system.” Mendy heeds the advice and heads to a local strip club. There, he meets a beautiful Russian émigré named Sasha (Tchelet Semel) who promptly gives him an erotic “massage.”

Mendy becomes hopelessly infatuated with Sasha, and she becomes the object of his obsession. After meeting Mike (Saul Stein), the owner of a seedy Jerusalem bar where Sasha hangs out, Mendy moves there to be near her and takes a job behind the bar. The naïve Mendy then becomes an unwitting participant in some shady dealings with the people he meets in the saloon.

The film immerses the audience in a foreign world and culture, especially the dark underbelly of the Holy Land that few Westerners have experienced. (Reportedly, Mendy’s experiences are loosely based upon those of Gorlin, himself.)

Rehany is aptly oblivious as the lovesick Mendy, and Stein is intimidating and sleazy as the bar owner he befriends. Albert Illuz, who portrays an Arab smuggler that the duo become associated with, adds some unorthodox theology into the mix.

The acting honors go to Semel, however. She is heartbreaking in the role of the Russian girl whose hopes for a better life are consistently dashed.

Although the premise is intriguing, the story meanders as it deals with the problems, both contemporary and ancient, that Israeli residents face. In addition, the story becomes quite predictable, sapping it of some of its emotional resonance.

Although it isn’t as absorbing as one might hope, The Holy Land has elements of classic tragedy suggesting that there’s nothing new in human relationships. (R) Rating: 3; Posted 8/13/04


Maria Full of Grace
Reviewed by Liz Sweeney

Films about drug trafficking usually revolve around gritty, tough-guy mobsters, slimy inner city dealers and corrupt cops. The action has a wholly male aspect, and heroes and antiheroes alike are elevated to iconic status, often undermining any inherent anti-drug messages. Female characters are either romantic pairings or crack whores, in either case, obligatory adjunct trimming. Maria Full of Grace offers a divergent orientation, putting a female face on the drug trade in a rather more chilling than cool look at the other side of the War on Drugs.

Catalina Sandino Moreno is remarkable as Maria, a young and spirited Columbian woman working on a factory line. Her job is to assemble rose bouquets, the kind oblivious Americans snap up in places like Sam’s Club. The irony of packing beautiful flowers with bleeding fingers for meager earnings is not lost on Maria, who chafes at her dead-end situation and is frustrated by the people who heedlessly box her in.

“I don’t know why everything is so difficult for you,” laments her mother.

Her boyfriend is also baffled by Maria’s need to break out. When she climbs to a rooftop and urges him to join her, he responds, “You can come down the way you went up — alone.”

Maria’s choices are thus outlined in unambiguous terms: conform to a lackluster prescribed destiny or jettison the established order for solitary precariousness. Her options for escape are regrettably few; poverty defines her choices and her decision to become a drug mule is a statement about the exploitation of women’s bodies for commercial enterprise.

When the newly pregnant Maria meets Franklin (John Álex Toro), he offers a glimpse of freedom, connecting her to a drug exporter who promises her $100 per “roll of film” she successfully transports across the U.S. border. Under the tutelage of a fellow mule, Maria painfully learns to swallow the huge pellets, sacrificially planning for the fruits of her labors to bless fruit of her womb.

Her mission is not the routine trip she is promised. Maria careens from the horrific dangers of drug trafficking to issues of survival as an illegal immigrant. Her resolve and strength propel her and she ultimately emerges with the grace to determine a new life, but not before audiences have also been scarred by the experience.

By exposing the canard of the War on Drugs, Maria Full of Grace becomes an instructive and bona fide commentary unsullied by hypocrisy. (R) Rating 4; Posted 8/13/04


Collateral
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

How does director Michael Mann capture urban twilight so well? Driving in a city after the sun has gone down is such a specific and dynamic experience, and he captures it flawlessly in many of his films. Mann captured the essence of Chicago in Thief, and Miami was more a developed character than Crocket and Tubbs ever were on his television hit, Miami Vice. Now Mann has aimed his sights on Los Angeles for Collateral, an exciting and engaging thriller with more charisma than anything released this summer.

The film’s premise is basic. Cabdriver Max (Jamie Foxx) picks up sociopath contract killer Vincent (Tom Cruise) who forces him to drive from one hit to another. This is the kind of plot we might find in an HBO original movie, but what makes this film brilliant is that the characters and locations are so perfectly refined that the film becomes a pure thriller with few distractions.

When a character is on screen for the majority of a movie, the actor playing that role has tremendous control over the project. Their performance must be flawless or the film itself will magnify and intensify those flaws. Foxx shines as Max, creating a sympathetic and heroic lead that struggles to keep himself (and later others) out of harm’s way. Foxx manages to simultaneously show Max struggling in killer Vincent’s web, while giving him a moral and emotional strength that raises a strong level of empathy in the audience.

As Vincent, Cruise, like Denzel Washington in Training Day, uses his incredible charisma as a weapon. His killer is ruthless and without feelings, yet we are less intimidated by his ability to kill without conscience and more intimidated by his attempts to befriend and gain acceptance from Max. His ultimate goal is to take Max’s soul and conscience.

Recent action-adventure thrillers like I Robot and Catwoman use flashy MTV visuals, elaborate CGI effects and unrealistic escapes from danger to keep the audience engaged. Collateral’s strategy is exactly the opposite. Quiet scenes and haunting moments propel the audience through this nightmarish experience. One scene that is particularly effective takes place when Vincent takes Max to a quiet half-empty club. For a moment, Max lets his guard down and consequently the audience does as well. Just when everyone is feeling a little safer, the film really lets us have it! (R) Rating: 4; Posted 8/11/04


The Princess Diaries 2: The Royal Engagement
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When Disney’s comic fantasy The Princess Diaries opened in 2001, it took in well over $100 million at the box office. Not bad for an innocuous, derivative sitcom directed with indifference by Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman).

But little girls love fantasies about princesses and their parents appreciate wholesome entertainment even when it lacks originality. So, naturally, a sequel is just what the accountant ordered.

The Princess Diaries 2: The Royal Engagement picks up the action five years after our heroine, a klutzy American teenager named Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway), discovers that she is the rightful heir to the throne of a tiny European country called Genovia. The reluctant royal must now go to Genovia and learn how to rule.Luckily, she has her grandmother to aid her. Queen Clarisse Renaldi (Julie Andrews) is a bit weary of the demands of her reign and is ready to relinquish her crown. Unfortunately, Genovian law demands that the 21-year-old princess be married in order to take over as Queen. When the parliament decrees that the princess marry within 30 days, grandma and her court snap into action to find a suitable mate.

Of course, there is a villain who is out to thwart their plans. Vicount Mabrey (John Rhys-Davies from The Lord of the Rings) wants his nephew, Sir Nicholas (newcomer Chris Pine) to inherit the crown. A fan of Machiavelli, Mabrey schemes to prevent any nuptials from taking place...unless Sir Nicholas is involved.

The initial film was based upon a popular series of novels by Meg Cabot but the story that screenwriter Shonda Rhimes (Crossroads) came up with for this sequel has taken the familiar characters in another direction, one that might anger purists.

Luckily, Hathaway is likeably clumsy as Mia. She also is a natural beauty who possesses a self-deprecating appeal that is beneficial to Marshall’s slapstick approach.

But it is the regal presence of Julie Andrews that ultimately elevates the movie. Looking splendid at age 69, Andrews glides through the film with an easy grace that befits movie royalty. She even gets to sing a tune...the first time she’s attempted to do so since botched surgery on her vocal nodes a few years back nearly stole her voice forever. The song, Your Crowning Glory, hardly taxes her (and she’s aided on the vocals by The Disney Channel’s Raven), but it is still a treat to hear her have a go at it.

There isn’t a second of originality in The Princess Diaries 2. If you’re an eight-year-old girl, that won’t matter one bit. (G) Rating: 2.5; Posted 8/11/04


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