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2004 Academy Award Nominated ShortsBenji: Off the Leash Exorcist: The Beginning
Intimate StrangersGarden StateOpen WaterWithout a Paddle

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

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Open Water
Reviewed by Deborah Young

In the fall of 1998, divers Thomas and Eileen Lonergan disappeared from shark-infested waters in Australia’s Great Coral Reef. A diving boat had left them there.

The mystery of the Lonergans’ disappearance is the kernel that inspired Open Water. But what happened while the Lonergans were in the water is a mystery. Writer/director Chris Kentis’ film is the story about what might have happened, the story of what happens when human nature meets unthinkable adversity.

Handled differently Open Water could have been a big, noisy film with eerie music in the background and toothy sharks in the foreground overshadowing the human story. Instead, the film was executed in large part like a home movie of Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis).

In the beginning, we witness the couple leaving their home to go on vacation in the Bahamas. We’re given tight close-ups of everything, including their luggage, their faces and then souvenirs for sale in an open market in the Bahamas and fruit being cut. We’re voyeurs in their uneventful lives for about half an hour. We’re treated (or not) to half an hour of classic low-budget movie fare, complete with banal conversations that seem to be shouted by the actors and random camera shots of everything in the actors’ paths.

Then the film approaches redemption. Susan and Daniel get into the water and dive beneath the surface. We see them touching an eel and observing other marine life, and the cold casualness of the film begins to warm.

When they surface and discover the boat that brought them is nowhere in sight, the film starts to get interesting. From that point forward we’re observing something that feels like truth. At first the couple fails to grasp what’s happened to them, then time passes and they begin reaching for optimism, engaging in humorous repartee that seems inappropriate to their situation but highly probable.

At one point the camera shows them floating out there like two ants in a bathtub and while the camera is revealing the seriousness of their position, Susan says to her husband, “Daniel, did you just pee?”


“You’re disgusting.”

That’s just one example of what’s good in this film. Once the couple is in the water, we see a range of human emotions, from strained optimism to stubborn wit to anger and finally, acceptance.

Much of the time the camera only reveals what Susan and Daniel see, so that we can be afraid with them. We see Susan’s discomfort and hear her say that something is stinging her, for instance, but like her, we can only see the water’s surface and guess at the unseen source of her torment. Other times, the camera creeps beneath the surface to show us the horrible secrets that are hidden from the divers. We see the shark when it first bumps against Susan, but she doesn’t, which makes us fear for her even more.

There’s been a lot of hubbub about this film because the actors were in the water with real sharks. But that’s not the only thing that makes this movie special. It succeeds in unveiling complex human emotions even though that success is only achieved in the film’s last half. No matter how brief the achievement, it is still a somewhat rare and notable one. (R) Rating: 2.5; Posted 8/20/04

Garden State
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

When it comes to quirky romantic dramas, there’s a fine line between genuine originality and forced originality. Films like Saved and Love Actually seem on the surface to be unique, yet there is something uninspired and forgettable about them. However, there is nothing forgettable about Garden State, a truly impressive directorial debut by television actor Zach Branff. The film manages to be delightfully offbeat while simultaneously providing weight and depth.

Branff plays Andrew Largeman, an actor who has spent his entire adult life in a lithium-induced stupor. Largeman’s life in Los Angeles is not just empty; it is absent. His walls are bare, his apartment is nearly unfurnished and his acting career consists of one major role as a retarded football player. When Largeman learns that his mother has died, he leaves LA (and his lithium) behind and heads home to New Jersey.

There, Largeman reconnects with old high school friends, including gravedigger Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), but finds these relationships somewhat lacking. Like him, his friends are heavily medicated (granted, with illegal drugs) and their lives lack any direction. Yet this reunion serves as the perfect starting point for his reinsertion into life.

It’s only when he meets Sam (Natalie Portman), an eccentric, vivacious girl that he learns to embrace his emotions and the wonder of living. Sam, like Ruth Gordon’s Maude, loves life and takes immense pleasure in every facet of it. When she enters his world, Largeman begins to wake up. Portman truly thrives in this role and reminds the audience how misused she is in Hollywood. (Hopefully George Lucas will feel some shame).

Through his flawless direction, Branff manages to be unique while not sacrificing any emotional punch. Each scene in Garden State is carefully constructed and the dialogue remains consistently clever and inspired. The soundtrack is also lovely and perfectly captures the moods and feelings of the film. You will find yourself staying to the end of the credits and searching for the artists’ names.

This carefully paced labor of love pays homage to films like The Graduate and Harold and Maude while entering their ranks. It wins its audience over with charm, originality and beauty. How wonderful it is to see such an impressive debut! (R) Rating: 5 ; Posted 8/20/04

Exorcist: The Beginning
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

Iniquity walks the earth. He has no mercy and no shame. He profanes the sacred, tortures millions, brings suffering to the earth and is relentless. This evil knows no bounds, and yet Hollywood mysteriously continues to embrace him and pay homage to his monstrous works. Iniquity walks the earth and has a name: Renny Harlin.

Harlin’s previous works includes such soul-torturing films as The Adventures of Ford Fairlane and Cutthroat Island. His latest heresy is Exorcist: The Beginning. Apparently Paul Schrader (Affliction, Autofocus) filmed a version that Warner Brothers found too tame, so they scrapped the film, developed a new screenplay, brought on a new cast (apart from the lead) and hired Harlin.

Why a fourth Exorcist film was produced is a mystery considering the stand-alone quality of the original and the stupidity of the first two sequels. One would think studios would shy away from this dead horse; I guess the power of crap compels them.

The film follows Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård) twenty-five years before the original took place. He has lost the faith thanks to a particularly nasty encounter with the Nazis, and has turned into an Indiana Jones style archeologist. When he heads to East Africa in search of a relic, he finds the cursed spot where Lucifer fell from heaven and does battle with the evil-one in an ancient buried church.

Harlin relies on three elements to try to scare his audience. First, he uses long dark scenes that follow a “victim” on his way to a certain death. Whiney violins, creaky doors, spooky winds and creepy dark locals give the film an atmosphere similar to the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World. There’s even a sexy woman forced to leave the shower when the power goes out. Each scene has a false jolt followed by the real kicker, not a terribly original technique.

The second element is gore. Exorcist: The Beginning flashes skin disease, slit throats, axes to the head, bones shattering through skin, crushed skulls and rotting carcasses with a sense of pride, decency and sophistication of a 13 year old with a copy of “Fangoria.”

However, what downgrades Exorcist: The Beginning from a sub-par slasher film to inexcusable garbage is the third element: the inexplicable use of children as victims. Kids are graphically killed on screen throughout the film. One child is ripped apart by jackals. Another is shot point blank through the head. There’s even a child born covered with maggots.

Being an insipid uninspired filmmaker is not evil, but disguising one’s lack of talent by gruesomely killing kids on screen is really wrong. At one point, Merrin cries out to a young boy to look away from the evil. Good advice indeed. (R) Rating: 0; Posted 8/20/04

2004 Academy Award Nominated Shorts
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

On Aug. 20-21 and 27-29 (unfortunately), the Screenland Theater is offering a wonderful mix of animated shorts and live-action films that were nominated for the 2004 Academy Awards. While watching these rich and iconoclastic shorts, one realizes just how original filmmaking can be compared to most feature films.

Die Rote Jake (translated as “The Red Jacket”) follows a child’s jacket, thrown away by a grieving parent. We travel with the jacket into Kosovo where a boy finds it. This intense film layers tragedy upon tragedy, and ends with a touching and beautiful scene. We are offered little hope, but experience the power of survival: a moving experience indeed.

Harvey Krumpet is a wonderfully irreverent animated film that follows an odd immigrant from birth to the final chapter in his life. Poor Harvey’s life is one train wreck after another and yet the small moments of joy propel him forward. Each odd event and “fakt” that Harvey picks up brings the hilarity level up a notch, and Geoffrey Rush’s narration seals the deal. Adam Elliot won an Academy Award for this delightful Australian short.

(A) Torija is a Slovenian film that begins with a choir awaiting safe passage through a tunnel in war torn Sarajevo. A local farmer finds out that one member is a former veterinarian and begs for help. It seems his pregnant cows is suffering from torsion and soon the choir members finds themselves on a noble mission. Not the subtlest film in the bunch, (A) Torija is still a moving comment on what constitutes decency.

The Canadian film Nibbles can be summarized in one sentence. This cartoon shows the true story of a father and his sons on a fishing trip. Yet the pacing, repetition, intense sound and wild uninhibited animation will bring you to hysterics faster than a family of three can guzzle down a plate full of burgers.

Squash follows in real time a match between a boss and his subordinate. At first, this French film seems like a two-dimensional analysis of belittlement, but when the stakes are raised, the game becomes a fierce battle that will have you further on the edge of your seat than the last five Harrison Ford films combined. While the ending is not nearly as satisfying as the rest of the film, Squash is a wonderful exercise in tension.

Not much can be said of the final film, Perpetual Motion without spoiling this 1 minute and 30 second Student Academy Award winning film, so let’s just say it involves cats and jam and you will find yourself laughing about it days after the viewing experience — a wonderful conclusion to an enjoyable film series. (NR) Rating: 4; Posted 8/20/04

Without a Paddle
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The official credits name Fred Wolf, Harris Goldberg Tom Nursall, Jay Leggett and Mitch Rouse as the screenwriters. Director Steve Brill (Mr. Deeds, Little Nicky) claims to have contributed as well. He also admits that the actors did a lot of improvisation.

Naturally, this means that the script for the new comedy Without A Paddle is a slap-dash mess. Even without a glance at the credits, it’s obvious that a committee of incompetents wrote this juvenile opus. It also seems likely that a lot of beer was passed around while the “writers” bounced around ideas lifted from other, better movies.
A list of flicks that Without a Paddle rips off would be quite long, but it is John Boorman’s 1972 classic Deliverance that appears to be the movie’s inspiration.

The story involves a quartet of lifelong friends who, once they hit adulthood, went their separate ways. When one dies suddenly, the three remaining pals reunite at the funeral.

Jerry (Scooby Doo’s Matthew Lillard) is stuck in a boring job and dreams about surfing. His diminutive friend Dan, played by Seth Green (Austin Powers), is a successful doctor, although he’s a bit of a wimp and a washout with the ladies. The third member of the clique is Tom (Dax Shephard from MTV’s Punk’d). He’s a world-class prevaricator who has had more than his share of run-ins with the law.

When they explore their old tree house, they discover evidence that their deceased friend had been planning an excursion to find the treasure left in the woods of by the infamous bank robber D.B. Cooper. They decide to take on the task themselves, and embark on a dangerous canoe trip through the Pacific Northwest.

Along the way, a bear chases them, they stumble upon a massive marijuana field, are pursued by murderous hillbillies, and meet beautiful women who live in a tree. They also encounter D.B. Cooper’s friend Del Knox (Burt Reynolds), who has been searching for the treasure for 30 years.

The likable cast manages to breathe a little life into this pallid effort, and the stunt casting of Reynolds adds a modicum of interest for viewers who remember his role in Deliverance. If you’re old enough to remember, however, you’re probably not in the demographic group that this movie is aimed at.

Most of Without a Paddle seems forced and uninspired, but audiences willing to put their brain on cruise control may not care. (PG-13) Rating: 2; Posted 8/20/04

Intimate Strangers
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

There isn’t a single character in the French drama Intimate Strangers who is under the age of 35. That should be enough to ensure that it will be a box office failure.

If so, it would be a shame. An intelligent, tense and well-acted film from Patrice Laconte (The Girl on the Bridge, The Man on the Train), Intimate Strangers presents an absorbing, suspenseful story that keeps its roots in reality.
Sandrine Bonnaire (East/West) plays Anna, a beautiful and mysterious woman who is having marital problems. Seeking an analyst for advice, she accidentally walks past the door of Dr. Monnier (Michel Duchaussoy) and into the office of a tax lawyer named William Faber (Fabrice Luchini). There, Anna begins to spill her guts. Transfixed by her confessions, William neglects to inform Anna of her error.

Energized by her encounter with William, Anna says that she’ll return in a week, but neglects to leave her last name and number. William explains the situation to Dr. Monnier and asks what he should tell Anna. Thus begins a strange three-way dialogue infused with more than a bit of deception.

Over time, Anna explains that her crippled husband is abusive, that they haven’t had sex in six months, and that he’d like her to have relations with other men. William is riveted by Anna’s story that contrasts markedly with his own uneventful life. He also becomes infatuated with her and afraid to confess that he’s no doctor.

When Anna finally discovers William’s ruse, she overcomes her initial anger and continues her unorthodox visits.

Henry James’ novel, The Beast in the Jungle seems to have inspired the script. (When William suggests she read it, Anna rejects it as too heavy.) He takes the story in another direction however, one that will keep audiences guessing.

Laconte and screenwriter Jerome Tonnerre (A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later) are obviously unafraid to examine the psychological inner workings of middle-aged people. Here, they uncover the emotional stagnation of a man who, in many ways, is still a juvenile.

The film evokes an uncomfortable ongoing tension that some may compare to the work of Hitchcock. Unlike the master of suspense, Laconte doesn’t end his story in Hitchcock fashion.

Some viewer may feel a bit cheated by the direction that Laconte’s story takes. There are no showy theatrics or dizzying denouement. What he delivers may be less “cinematic,” but it is certainly more pragmatic. (R) Rating: 4; Posted 8/20/04

Benji: Off the Leash
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When producers promote the fact that their film imparts “wholesome family values,” it’s generally a marketing ploy to appeal to a specific demographic group. Those who believe that Hollywood is run by the devil may respond to such claims.

Benji: Off the Leash is an innocuous bit of family fluff that, by any critical standard, is merely adequate...and then only for the small fry. It will be greatly over-praised in some circles because it is so inoffensive. (The tots will say that they love it, but they’d love anything that will let them get out of the house and into a real theatre. Look at Yu-Gi-Oh, for heaven’s sake.)

This is the fourth theatrical Benji movie (the sixth, if you count a couple of TV ventures) written, produced and directed by Joe Camp (The Double McGuffin). It’s completely devoid of originality or narrative strength. But, hey, it’s clean!

The original Benji was an amazingly talented pooch named Higgins who appeared on the old Petticoat Junction TV show. Since Higgins was rescued from an animal shelter (and has since moved on to doggie heaven), Camp conducted a well-publicized search through shelters for a new Benji.

He found a 3-year-old female mixed breed terrier in Pass Christian, MS to take the role. He also discovered another adorable pup in a Chicago pound named Shaggy, and he plays Benji’s sidekick, Lizard Tongue. These two mongrels are not only cute, but they’re the best actors in the film.

In Camp’s screenplay, a 14-year-old lad named Colby (Nick Whitaker) is the son of an abusive dad named Hatchett (Chris Kendrick) who runs a puppy mill. When one of their dark colored, purebred dogs gives birth to a light colored mutt, Hatchett abandons it.

Naturally, Colby rescues the pup and secretly raises it in a shack he keeps out in the woods. Things are fine until the bungling dogcatchers (Duane Stephens and Randall Newsome) stumble upon the shack when chasing the elusive stray, Lizard Tongue.

The movie is full of silly, slapstick humor and cloying sentimentality. It also gives a light treatment to heavy subjects (child and animal abuse). Camp relies too heavily on the inherent cuteness of the dogs to carry the day, but they carry it pretty well.

There is a right way and a wrong way to make quality films about cute dogs. (Check out 2000’s My Dog Skip for an example of the right way.) Being clean isn’t enough. Those who will praise a film for what it isn’t should take a closer look at what it is. (PG) Rating: 2; Posted 8/20/04

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