reel reviews
movie reviews
8.30.04

Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood OrchidThe Best Two YearsHero
Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism
Suspect Zero We Don't Live Here Anymore

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

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Suspect Zero
Reviewed by Deborah Young

It's raining in what appears to be a huge deserted field. The camera zooms in on a mud-covered milk carton lying on the ground. As the rain continues to fall, it washes enough mud from the carton’s surface to reveal the picture of a missing child and the child’s name.

That’s how Suspect Zero begins, with an image that at first seems a hokey device to foreshadow kidnapping or murder or both. On the heels of this image comes another: a drenched Ben Kingsley (as Benjamin O'Ryan). He’s walking into a diner to confront a portly traveling salesman who’s sitting at one of the tables.

The eerie soundtrack punctuates Kingsley’s arrival and tells viewers, in clichéd thriller fashion, something bad is about to happen. The salesman senses trouble immediately (too quickly). He exits the diner and almost runs to his car. When he gets to the car, he fumbles the keys several times in premature panic. It becomes obvious that not only has the actor read the script, apparently the fictional character has too.

At that point, it’s easy to see the master plan of the film’s architects (director E. Elias Merhige and screenwriters Zak Penn and Billy Ray). They want us to be scared right at the start, but their attempt to stir immediate fear is a feeble one, because it’s too obvious. It is, after all, hard to be afraid when you see a benign hand pushing a plastic skeleton in your direction.

A few bizarre camera shots are thrown in to accent the creepy effect. There’s one, for instance, that focuses on a man’s shoes and pants legs at the threshold of the door. The strange perspective of the shot creates the illusion that the owner of those shoes is hanging upside down, walking into the room on the ceiling, which is more funny than creepy.

It’s a slow and painful start for a film that winds up being about something offbeat and more than a little interesting. A killer of serial killers lures an FBI agent into a bizarre search for “suspect zero.” The search involves tricks of the mind, visions and, for the agent, self- doubt. As the story unfolds there’s also a slow, seductive revelation that the FBI agent empathizes with the killer. The two men share a similar gift (or curse).

The film is short on dialogue and long on bizarre images of dead serial killers whose bodies bare the strange markings of their common killer. The camera catches the two main characters’ crimson visions of things past, present and things to come. It captures frames of a child in a swing, a woman (who we assume to be the child’s mother) hanging laundry on the clothesline, and then an empty swing cutting through the air.

In another scene, the camera projects the image of two men in a sienna desert talking, and then one shoots the other in the stomach at close range. There’s an image of a boy in the cab of an 18-wheeler, on the driver’s side, his palms to the window, his mouth locked in the oval shape of a desperate scream. Then comes the final image, a sketch of a man’s head and torso, the lines jagged as if scribbled with urgency, the urgency of a killer with a purpose.

In this film, the images are everything. They’re sometimes unreliable and sometimes telling. But connected, they form an entertaining and, in many ways, unconventional story. The artistry outweighs the flaws of plodding pace and occasional clichés. (R) Rating: 3; Posted 8/30/04


Hero
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

“Great” is a term that folks all too often throw about casually. (“What a great song.” “That was a great meal.” “He’s a great dog.”)

Film fanatics overuse it too, but they usually do so by specifying a genre. (“That was a great horror movie.”) The word has lost a lot of its power as a result of this misuse. That makes it difficult when something truly “great” comes along.

Hero may well be a great movie. Already the most popular film in Chinese history, this martial arts epic from director Zhang Yimou (The Road Home) has depth, scope and action to spare. It’s a wonder that it has taken so long (two years) for it to receive the wide U.S. release it deserves. (Reportedly, Quentin Tarantino championed the film, signed on as producer, and convinced Miramax to release it.)

A mythical drama that rivals Homer in its scale, Hero takes place in the 3rd century BC, before the unification of China. Jet Li (Cradle to the Grave) stars as Nameless, a warrior who has been summoned to receive an honor from the King of Qin (Chen Daoming).

Nameless, you see, has killed three assassins who threatened the life of the king. Those he has dispatched were legendary in their skill. Nameless explains to the king how he eliminated Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung). These stories also involve Broken Sword’s apprentice, Moon (Zang Ziyi). The king is skeptical of Nameless’ explanations and motives, and offers some possible scenarios of his own.

The film shows these various versions Rashomon-style, depicting similar scenes through differing perspectives. Each story is cloaked in a different thematic color (red, blue, white green, etc.), adding an intriguing symbolic overlay into what is essentially a visual narrative.

Director Zhang Yimou, cinematographer Christopher Doyle and fight choreographer Ching Siu-Tung have mounted some impressive, highly memorable scenes. The battle between Nameless and Sky plays like an action-packed chess match. A swordfight between Moon and Flying Snow is a lush, grandiose spectacle where the colors of the leaves on the trees regularly change in a visual chorus of operatic proportions.

This kind of martial arts opus is a staple of Eastern culture, but Western audiences may not find it quite so alien now that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has broken through.

If Western audiences do embrace a brilliant piece like Hero that would indeed be great. (PG-13) Rating: 5; Posted 8/27/04


Anacondas: The Hunt For the Blood Orchid
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

Every once in a while a film comes along that is so bad that it transcends its awfulness and blossoms into unintentional hilarity. This phenomenon is known throughout film-buff circles as the “Ed Wood phenomenon.” Anacondas: The Hunt For the Blood Orchid is so dreadful that audiences will find themselves entertained and amused by the slithery spectacle. The film should have been called “Anacondas: Pretty Twenty-something Soap Stars in Peril” because the plot is just an excuse to get a lot of young people in the jungle.

A group of scientists charter a boat to take them through the jungles of Borneo. (The role of Borneo is expertly played by Fiji.) The sole purpose of this excursion is to find the blood orchid, a flower that blooms once every seven years and is the key to immortality. How the scientists know it blooms every seven years after just discovering it is one of many plot holes.

Unfortunately, the flower is located in the exact spot that giant man-eating anacondas have designated as their mating place. (“You’re telling me there’s some snake orgy in the jungle?” one cast member mournfully wails.) Unfortunately, the writers failed to consult an encyclopedia because there are no anacondas in Borneo (or Fiji for that matter.) The CGI snakes proceed to devour one hunk after another. Will the crew survive the journey while keeping their perfect hairstyles intact?

The character development is as thin as shed snakeskin. There’s the ex-military captain, Bill Johnson (Johnny Messner) whose primary character attribute is that he’s unshaven. Perhaps we can attribute his stubble to the fact that he tends to shave with a bowie knife while brazenly delivering lines like, “Haven’t you ever seen a man shave before?” He’s also good at glowering, killing alligators bare-chested and scaring the women with his mischievous monkey.

Joining him in the hunt is a cast of beefcakes. There’s the blond southern graduate student, Sam (KaDee Strickland), the evil British corporate scientist, Jack (Matthew Marsden) who dryly explains, “I like science. I just like money better.” The African-American comic relief, Cole (Eugene Byrd) who cries out winning lines like, “We’re just going to walk toward the head hunters? Not away?” and many of today’s chiseled actors (soon to be tomorrow’s snake poop.)

Yet, somehow, despite all the snake bile thrown at them, the audience loved it. They cheered on the doomed expedition while screaming and heckling in all the right places. This film may have the intelligence of a gherkin but it certainly was more fun than The Exorcist: The Beginning or Suspect Zero. In many respects, it’s nice to see a scary movie that recognizes that it’s not going to change the genre or create a mythos but instead simply tries to elicit a few jumps, screams and laughs. That certainly is refreshing. (PG-13) Rating: 2; Posted 8/27/04


We Don't Live Here Anymore
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When embarking on an adulterous affair, you would think that smart, well-educated people would take a moment to consider the consequences.

All too often, they do not.
So it is with the characters in We Don’t Live Here Anymore, a credible, well-acted drama based upon a couple of short stories by Andre Dubus (In the Bedroom).

Four friends (all intelligent thirtysomethings who should have enough savvy to avoid self-destructive behavior) decide to embark on extramarital adventures. Their motives, of course, are all quite different.

Jack Linden (Mark Ruffalo) is a college professor who is striving to keep his head above water and provide for his wife, Terry (Laura Dern) and their two kids. Their struggles are similar to those of millions of other middle-class families, but Terry does tend to drink a bit too much.

Their best friends are Jack’s literate colleague Hank Evans (Peter Krause) and his wife Edith (Naomi Watts) who often join them for dinner, drinks and videos. At any opportunity, Jack and Edith slip off to run an “errand.” They’re having a transparent affair.

Being modern and sophisticated people, these friends don’t make a scene in front of one another, but allow their marriages to strain at the seams. One thing leads to another and, inevitably, Terry and Hank begin a loveless liaison.

Slowly and deliberately, the film illuminates the issues that drove these individuals into this situation. You may often feel the need to slap some sense into these characters, but you’ll never doubt their self-delusion. These characters are painfully real.

Ruffalo (Collateral) conveys an acute sensitivity without ever making Jack seem to be fey or weak. Watts (21 Grams) is equally good as Edith, a woman obviously smitten with Jack even though she holds out hope for her philandering husband. Krause (TV’s Six Feet Under) is believably self-possessed to the exclusion of others, while Dern (I Am Sam) displays a frightening, bitter anger at the hand she’s been dealt.

These are basically good people who are grasping at straws for a few hints of happiness. One’s reaction to their conflicts may well depend on how much of their whining you can take.

Director John Curran (Praise) and screenwriter Larry Gross (Prozac Nation) don’t hit us over the head with a moral, but allow us to put ourselves in the delicate position of their characters.

Aspects of the film can be a bit too somber and annoying, but it’s a skillfully acted ensemble piece that serves as a chilling cautionary tale. (R) Rating: 3; Posted 8/27/04


The Best Two Years
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Hollywood is still the movie capital of America, but there is another place that is responsible for a lot of film production. Because it is the center of the LDS church, Utah churns out scores of Mormon-friendly movies.

The Best Two Years is one example. Made, financed and distributed by Mormons, this lighthearted comedy is one of their higher quality features and it’s getting a somewhat wider release than usual.

Writer/director Scott S. Anderson adapted the film from his stage play, which, in turn, was based upon his experiences as a Mormon missionary serving in Holland.

Young Mormon men, you see, are encouraged to spend two years in the mission field...and most of them do. They’re given extensive training in doctrine and language at the Missionary Training Center in Utah, and then sent out to proselytize in pre-determined areas throughout the world.

Naturally, some are more enthusiastic about their calling than others. The Best Two Years centers on four young men who experience highs and lows while serving in the cities of Amsterdam and Haarlem.

K.C. Clyde plays Elder Rogers, one of four missionaries who share a tiny, squalid apartment in Haarlem. Rogers is a dispirited fellow, utterly lacking motivation. His former mission companion, you see, has returned home and stolen his girl.

His roommates are the upright Elder Johnson (David Nibley) and the vain Elder Van Pelt (Cameron Hopkins). Although they seem to be constantly at odds, at least they’re doing their jobs. Elder Rogers spends most of his time moping and photographing flowers.

Things get stirred up when Elder Rogers’ new companion arrives. Elder Calhoun (Kirby Heyborne) is a nerdy, awkward sort, a convert from Catholicism who is nervous but eager to spread the word. His utter lack of finesse is matched only by his weak grasp of Dutch.

Although initially dismayed at being paired with this geek, Elder Rogers slowly discovers that this companion’s zeal may provide just the inspiration he needed to get him out of his funk.

Clyde is very good as Elder Rogers, managing to be likable even when he’s a whining sloth.

Heyborne’s role is more difficult to pull off. Elder Calhoun, as written, is a stereotype that Anderson has saddled with utterly clichéd behavior. One’s reaction to this whole movie will depend upon whether or not you buy his knotty performance.

Although The Best Two Years is aimed at providing confirmation to the faithful, it is a rather cheery comedy for the rest of us. (PG) Rating: 3; Posted 8/27/04


Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War On Journalism
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If you weren’t at private house party screenings sponsored by MoveOn.org or at the recent Reel Democracy festival at the Screenland Theatre, you may not have gotten the message. Here it is: Fox News is biased.

Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism is a low-budget, 77-minute video assault on the cable news network that bills itself as “Fair and Balanced.” The fact that Fox is actually a mouthpiece for the Republican Party really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. The real revelation is how phenomenally effective it has become.

An incisive documentary by Robert Greenwald (Uncovered: The War on Iraq), Outfoxed shows how Fox, as conceived and executed by media mogul Murdoch and former Republican media operative Roger Ailes, has turned journalism on its head.

Under normal circumstances, a TV news gathering organization relies on its reporters to find a story, develop it with their editors and present it on air. Instead of this usual progression from bottom to top, Fox dictates how the news will air from the top down.

As Greenwald illustrates, Fox Senior VP John Moody sends out a daily memo directing his underlings on what stories to pursue and how to present them. Naturally, they’re encouraged to show President Bush in a positive light and to hold up the Democrats to critical scrutiny.

In reaction to this approach, veteran newsman Walter Cronkite (not a man known for hyperbole) is blunt in his assessment of Fox News. He characterizes it as a “far right-wing organization.”

Greenwald uses a lot of talking heads to make his point. Not only does he present the perspectives of media watchdogs (David Brock, Jeff Cohen, John Nichols, Robert McChesney, etc.), but many former Fox reporters and producers as well.

Greenwald also shows a lot of Fox footage to demonstrate the blatant conservative spin employed by the likes of Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Brit Hume. It also exposes Fox reporters’ ubiquitous use of phrases like “Some people say…” so that they can make a point without having to cite a source.

But perhaps the film’s most effective exposé is a video of a pre-interview chat between Fox White House correspondent Carl Cameron and President Bush. Their lovey-dovey dialogue centers on Cameron’s wife...an employee in Bush’s campaign!

Greenwald’s film eschews the flashy, comedic approach employed by Michael Moore, but has a similar agenda in presenting an unapologetic perspective from the left. In this regard, Outfoxed is no more “fair and balanced” than Fox is. (Where are the examples from other media outlets? What political parties do other media moguls belong to?)

Perhaps the most disturbing revelation regards Fox’s profitability and its profound influence on other networks. Bias is one thing. Changing the face of journalism is quite another. (No MPAA rating. Outfoxed can be obtained on DVD at www.outfoxed.org) Rating: 4; Posted 8/23/04


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