reel reviews
movie reviews
9.10.04

The Blind Swordsman: ZatoichiCellularCriminalEvergreen
Resident Evil: ApocalypseTouch of Pink

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

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Cellular
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

Picture yourself in Los Angeles. The weather is gorgeous. Everything is bathed in sun and the smell of sage permeates the air. There are sandy beaches and winding hills. The sky is perpetually blue and there’s a gentle breeze off the ocean. What could spoil such a natural paradise?

The answer is people. The massive overcrowding of LA has lead to some pretty obnoxious elements. Arrogant lawyers, unnecessary road construction, pushy security guards, awful retail service, loud music and lousy traffic all terrorize the population and cause citizens to bang their heads in frustration on a daily basis.

Wouldn’t it be fun to smash up all of LA’s annoyances? Better yet, wouldn’t it be great to have permission or justification for ignoring and crashing through these problems (say...to rescue a kidnapped woman)?

Welcome to the world of Cellular, a fun new suspense romp from former stuntman David Ellis.

When science teacher Jessica Martin (Kim Basinger) is kidnapped by thugs and thrown into a dusty old attic, she manages to get a ruined phone to dial a random number. The phone belongs to the cell phone of Ryan (Chris Evans) an irresponsible twenty-something with a handsome physique and a toothy grin. When he discovers that Jessica’s life is in the balance, he disregards most of society’s rules searching for a way to keep her family and her safe and his phone charged.

What makes Cellular so much fun is the joyful glee of newcomer actor Chris Evans. Evan’s Ryan is downright hammy, and his charisma, charm and reaction shots all make him a hero worth rooting for. It’s a blast watching Ryan escaping construction traffic, purchasing a phone charger with a weapon or stealing a Ferrari from a smarmy lawyer (played to perfection by character actor Rick Hoffman.)

What is less entertaining is watching the kidnappers and the heroine. Basinger’s performance is downright dull and she does little to flesh out her two-dimensional character. Her character also transforms from a crying victim into a cold-hearted action hero so quickly that, you’ll wonder if a reel of the film got lost.

The kidnappers appear to be lifted straight from the Die Hard films, and while Jason Statham adds some meat to his role as the lead kidnapper, the rest of the villains spend their screen time snarling and looking menacing. Their reason for kidnapping Basinger is ridiculously unrealistic. Once again, we are presented with dreary villains who die easily.

The bottom line is watching Evans battle the city of Los Angeles is infinitely more entertaining than watching Evans fight the standard cookie-cutter kidnappers. Cellular, while never entirely satisfying, is still a great way to release some urban angst.

So go see Cellular, obey the traffic lights, listen to an audiobook if you’re stuck in traffic, and just in case, don’t forget to keep your cell phones charged. (PG-13) Rating: 3; Posted 9/10/04


Resident Evil: Apocalypse
Reviewed by Deborah Young

There has been an incident. The citizens of Raccoon City have been exposed to the T-virus and an alarming number of them have turned into cannibalizing zombies. So begins the second installment of Resident Evil, the game-based action flick directed by Alexander Witt.

The disaster is the result of experiments gone wrong at the powerful Umbrella Corporation. Now the city must be locked down and the evidence of Umbrella’s dangerous shenanigans wiped out.

After the city’s lockdown, things get interesting. Genetically altered superwoman Alice (played by Calvin Klein model Milla Jovovich) commences to kick some butt, fighting Nemesis (one of Umbrella Corporation’s walking viral weapons) and trying to get the heck out the city. She’s joined by supercop Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory), Carlos Olivera (Oded Fehr) and Major Cain (Thomas Kretschmann).

Together they run through the city on a quest to save the daughter of Dr. Ashford (Jared Harris), one of Umbrella’s scientists. If they save the girl, they’ll reap Ashford’s promised reward — a way out of the city. As they carry out their mission, they dodge zombies and viral weapons. As the plot unfolds, the audience gets more information about why Alice can sprint down walls and fight better than a bionic man.

This movie is definitely a genre film, replete with creepy, loud music to jar the nerves and lapses in logic. (How is it, for instance, that people with the T-virus are brought back to life after dying but can be easily killed by bullets?) But it’s got some things going for it as well. It’s full of nerve-tingling action, engrossing fight scenes and humor.

Mike Epps is a hoot as L.J., a gold-plated gun-toting fast-talker who just happens to find himself on lockdown in Raccoon City during the crisis. He handles the one-liners he’s given with a cool naturalness that makes his persona funny but not buffoonish.

Basically, Resident Evil: Apocalypse is what it is: a horror film, but it’s a horror film written and directed with finesse, and it’s just plain fun to watch. (R) Rating: 2.5; Posted 9/10/04


The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In Japan, Zatoichi is a household name, a cultural icon and an all-time favorite...he’s the equivalent of our Lone Ranger.

Between 1962 and 1989, the late actor Shintoaro Katsu played the title character in 26 films and hundreds of TV episodes. These stories centered on Zatoichi, an aging vigilante samurai with frighteningly deadly skills. He also happens to be blind.

Superstar Beat Takeshi (Brother) steps into Katsu’s sandals in this new, outlandish and over-the-top action opus, playing the itinerate swordsman who roams the early 19th century Japanese countryside to dispense justice with nearly supernatural aplomb.

But Takeshi (who acts under the name “Beat” and writes and directs under the name Takeshi Kitano) is a director who has made a name for himself as more than just a movie tough guy. Like Clint Eastwood, he’s now perceived as an art house director. So, naturally, The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi has an artistic punch you might not expect from this kind of genre piece.

The story involves a couple of geishas (one a man in drag) who are out to avenge the murder of their parents at the hands of gangsters when they were tykes. Through a set of coincidences, they find themselves aided by a strange, white-haired old man who claims to be a masseur.

The corrupt mob bosses have hired a skillful samurai (yet another big Japanese star, Tadanoubu Asano) to protect them. Far from being a mere hired killer, this expert mercenary has been forced into this life because of the illness of his beloved wife.

This story serves as an excuse for a lot of bloody mayhem, and Takeshi serves it up with style. Some of it is for thrills, but much of it is for laughs. He utilizes computer-generated blood splattering to enhance the fight scenes, but, most interestingly, also uses the percussive score.

It seems the name Beat in this context refers not to violence, but to rhythm. His use of the musical soundtrack to underscore the battles gives new meaning to the term “fight choreography.” Ultimately, all this musical madness culminates in a lengthy, overblown tap dance sequence that serves as the film’s finale and curtain call. It comes off like the Japanese version of Riverdance meets Stomp!

Overlong and sometimes convoluted, The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi is a mixed bag of action, artistic pretensions and musical numbers. Sometimes entertaining and sometimes maddening, it is at the very least original. (R) Rating: 3; Posted 9/10/04


Touch of Pink
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If you’ve seen La Cage aux Folles and Play It Again, Sam, play them back in your mind as a single film. You’ll then have a pretty good image of what you’re in for with A Touch of Pink.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the makers of those films should indeed feel complimented. So should Ang Lee, whose The Wedding Banquet it also borrows liberally from.

Jimi Ministry (The Guru) stars as Alim, a young gay man living with his boyfriend, Giles (Kirsten Holden-Reid) in contemporary London. Alim, a Pakistani Muslim raised in Canada, has kept his sexual orientation a secret from his domineering mother, Nuru (Suleka Mathew).

Nuru is feeling a bit left out during the preparations for her nephew’s wedding back in Toronto. She decides to hop on a plane to England to convince Alim to return to Toronto for the wedding and to get married himself and give her some grandchildren. Fearing his mother’s wrath, Alim puts on an elaborate charade, claiming Giles is only a roommate and that Giles’ sister Delia (Liisa Repo-Martell) is his fiancÈe.

All of these plot contrivances are fairly routine, but first-time filmmaker Ian Iqbal Rashid has another gimmick up his sleeve. Alim has an imaginary friend who pops up at opportune moments to give him advice. It’s none other than the spirit of Cary Grant (Twin Peaks' Kyle MacLachlan)!

Cary offers Alim guidance based upon his film characters, his Hollywood experience and expertise on style. Does Alim ultimately find wisdom in the words of Tinseltown’s most suave leading man? (What do you think?)

Most of the conflicts in the film are smoothed over with the kind of haste found in TV sitcoms. Even Alim’s mother Nuru has an all too rapid change of heart. At one point she admits that she moved to London because of a Doris Day film. (Here’s another flick Rashid has borrowed from, 1962’s That Touch of Mink, starring Day and Grant.)

But this trifle can’t be so easily dismissed because of one strong attribute. MacLachlan is quite good as Cary Grant! He may not have seemed an ideal candidate for the role, but his accent, delivery and comic self-deprecation are all in keeping with Grant’s stylish spirit. After a short time, one is able to completely accept the fact that Alim is indeed consorting with the ghost of the deceased star.

Still, it’s not quite enough. Touch of Pink ultimately comes off as a well meaning but labored attempt to be charming. (R) Rating: 2.5; Posted 9/10/04

Criminal
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

Why are we so fascinated by the con artist? Perhaps we envy the grifter’s freedom to go anywhere he wants to go and do anything he wants to do. Perhaps we take pleasure in watching someone who lives a life of danger. In films like The Grifters and The Spanish Prisoner, we see these men and women living life on the edge, and constantly risking getting caught.

Primarily though grift films are popular because audiences enjoy the playful game-like aspects of the con. We love films like House of Games and McQueen’s The Thomas Crown Affair because we enjoy elaborate and amoral games of cat and mouse we love trying to figure out who is tricking whom. Viewers become excited watching thieves trick hard working shmoes out of their hard earned cash. In short, these movies really keep audiences on their toes.

Criminal is the latest venture in this genre and the directorial debut of Gregory Jacobs, the assistant director of Traffic and Miller’s Crossing. The movie is an English language version of the Argentinean film Nine Queens, and offers a more character driven perspective to the world of fraud.

In Criminal, we are introduced to Richard (John C. Reilly) a professional con man. He’s the sort of guy that would steal money from your grandmother. He observes Rodrigo (Diego Luna) failing to con a waitress in a casino and takes him under his wing as a partner. Richard tries to show Rodrigo the ropes and together they attempt to scam a billionaire out of a large ton of money.

Reilly’s performance is beautifully crafted. Like Richard Widmark, he is an excellent character actor who can convey both likeability and pathetical desperation simultaneously. His Gregory is amoral and slippery, and one gets the sense that despite his capability of ripping off anyone and everyone in his life, he still longs for companionship.

His only real familial relationship is his sister, Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) It’s not going so well however, because they are rapped up in a horrible legal dispute with each other. Gyllenhaal is a mesmerizing actress who conveys so much with her eyes. Her role in the film subtly shifts midway through the film and she handles the change with incredible skillfulness.

Diego Luna’s Rodrigo is a perfect foil to Richard. He is charming, sweet and instantly likable. With a face like a young Paul McCartney, he is an alluring young man and we instantly feel protective of his fate. He is, essentially, the person the audience wants to see come out of this okay and watching his fate is a source of tension and drama.

In essence, Criminal stands out from such con-films like Confidence and Matchstick Men because of the compelling characters and their wonderful interactions. There are no special effects, car chases, gunfights or dramatic pulsing Guy Ritchie-esque music. Yet Criminal manages to keep its audience apprehensive, focused, entertained and perhaps a little played too. (R) Rating: 4; Posted 9/10/04


Evergreen
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Hollywood is rife with good ideas, or so the saying goes. But good ideas aren’t enough to carry a film.

Evergreen, the debut feature of director and writer Enid Zentelis, proves that point. It starts on familiar ground. Poor girl Henri (newcomer Addie Land) meets well-to-do boy Chat (Noah Fleiss). She falls for him and then tries moving into his world.

Zentelis adds a couple of potentially interesting elements to the universal theme of love across boundaries. There’s the situation of a family coping with a seemingly normal mother’s agoraphobia. On top of that, there are two potentially interesting and entertaining characters: a jolly Native American casino dealer (Gary Farmer), who built his raggedy car from parts he smuggled out of an auto plant in his lunchbox, and a Latvian grandmother (Lynn Cohen), who entertains the audience by pelting her family with biting insights that are, at times, an absolute crack up.

Unfortunately, the movie is just a skeleton of ideas that Zentelis never fleshes out. The story starts when Henri and her mother, Kate (Cara Seymour), move into grandmom’s less-than-humble abode. The roof leaks. It’s junky. Mother and daughter have to sleep on the floor. And to top it off, Henri has to put up with her grandmother’s old school advice and interference. Grandmom thinks the girl should get a job in a factory to help the family out.

Enter Chat, a SUV-driving teen hunk who lives in a nice house and has a father with a good job and a mother who stays home and cooks. But alas, the family that Henri thinks has everything turns out to be as miserable as Henri’s own poverty-stricken clan.

That’s what this film seems to be about, misery. Zentelis has created a film that almost obsessively focuses on it. A verbal exchange between Henri’s mother and grandmom seems to capture the filmmaker’s approach to this movie.

Henri, Kate and grandmom are watching a TV game show. One of the contestants has just missed a question, and grandmom has remarked about how dumb the contestant is. Then Kate asks, “Are there any shows where the people have everything they need and are happy?” Grandmom replies in a heavily accented monotone, “Not interesting to watch.”

But it’s also not interesting to watch flat characters who seem to have no motivations other than reacting to their miseries, which is what we have here for the most part. The actors do a fair job of portraying the limited characters, but the screenwriter hasn’t given them much to work with.

Sadly, the most interesting thing about this film has nothing to do with the story and everything to do with distribution. Thanks to AMC Theatres’ Digital Theatre Distribution System (DTDS), this independent film premiered in 115 AMC theatres on Sept. 10. AMC will use the digital system to transmit the movie to theatres via satellite. The system makes it possible for theatres to play the movie live as it’s transmitted via satellite or save it in digital format for future screenings.

Digital transmission of films might be a godsend for independent filmmakers because it cuts the cost of film distribution by eliminating the need to send costly spools of film via traditional transportation to many theatres. So when this technology gains wider usage, it should become possible for more independent filmmakers to gain wider distribution for their films. (PG-13) Rating: 2; Posted 9/10/04

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