reel reviews
movie reviews
9.17.04

The Hunting of the PresidentMean CreekMr. 3000She Hate Me
Silver CitySky Captain and the World of TomorrowWhat the #$*! Do You Know?Wimbledon

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

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Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

Have you ever noticed that some of the most startling films are made in the most unusual ways? Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a movie that no studio in their right mind would have green-lighted. I can just see Jerry Bruckheimer’s reaction.

“So let me get this straight. There are really going to be no sets; only blue-screens, it’s rated PG, so there’s no blood or major violence, you’ve never directed any other film, and the movie takes place in the past, but the technology is greater than the stuff we have today? Son, have you seen Wild, Wild West? Don’t let the door hit you in the tuchas.”

Instead, Kerry Conran took his ten-year-old idea to Jon Avnet who funded the film out of pocket. They then took the completed, untouched film to different studios and showed them the finished product.

Of course, they all wanted the rights to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and it’s easy to see why.

The film takes place in the 1940s of film and radio serials. While the film is in color, the sparkling bright whites give the film a soft shiny power that belongs purely to black and white films. New York City (and the world) is under attack by an unseen scientist and his robot army. It’s up to Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan (Jude Law) and Lois Lane-esque reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) to save the day.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is a work of pure fun that captivates its audience. Film critic, Danny Peary wrote that Raiders of the Lost Ark was like a compilation of the greatest action scenes in other films. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow has the same feel to it. Every chase, fight and rescue bubbles with such creativity and cleverness, you will find yourself eagerly awaiting the next daring scene.

There’s even a ton of wonderful movie references thrown in for the film fanatics. The film takes the audience to the Shangra La of Lost Horizons, the undersea world of the silent 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and then straight to King Kong’s Skull Island. There’s even a cameo performance by a great actor who has been dead for 15 years!

While Van Helsing struggled under it’s own weight, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow soars like one of the many flying machines beautifully brought to the screen. Prepare for take-off! (PG) Rating: 4; Posted 9/17/04


Silver City
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The opening sequence of John Sayles’ new comic drama involves a dimwitted Colorado politician named Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper) who is filming a campaign commercial with the aid of his shady advisor, Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss).
Any similarities to George W. Bush and Karl Rove are purely intentional.

With Silver City, Sayles (Lone Star, The Secret of Roan Inish) offers us a political mystery as an excuse to lampoon the Bush administration on the eve of the presidential election. As a biting disparagement of our hapless leader, Silver City hits its target. Unfortunately, the film is one of Sayles’ weakest and its “message” lands with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

Danny Huston (21 Grams) leads the cast as Danny O’Brien, a private investigator and former journalist who is hired by Pilager’s campaign to uncover the identity of a corpse that Pilager accidentally fished out of a lake while filming his commercial. The resulting info that O’Brien uncovers exposes a cesspool of crime, corruption and environmental malfeasance that leads right back to Pilager, his family and his influential backers.

During his investigation, O’Brien encounters a number of colorful characters, including Pilager’s eccentric sister (Daryl Hannah), a neo-Nazi talk show host (Miguel Ferrer), some liberal underground journalists (Tim Roth, Thora Birch), a crusty sheriff (James Gammon) and a scary industrialist (Kris Kristofferson). Even O’Brien’s former lover (Maria Bello), a TV journalist, seems to be in bed (literally) with an influential member of the Pilager campaign (Billy Zane). When he begins to report on the cycle of corruption that he’s unearthed, he realizes that his own life is in danger.

As a screenwriter, Sayles is still among the very best in the business, and much of the dialogue in Silver City is priceless. Still, there are a couple of major flaws at the core of the film that prevent it from having the political impact that he obviously had hoped for.

The biggest problem lies with Huston. As an actor, he completely lacks charisma (surprising, coming from the son of the legendary John Huston and brother of Angelica.) Without question, the film would have been much more successful had Sayles given this pivotal role to Roth instead.

The other hindrance lies in the overly obvious sermonizing that Sayles indulges in. (Instead of showing one dead fish to illustrate a polluted lake, he insists on showing us thousands.)

But native Kansas Citian Cooper (an Oscar winner for Adaptation) is brilliant in his role, nailing the Bush persona and vocal cadence. His performance alone is enough to make Silver City timely, cautionary viewing. (R) Rating: 3; Posted 9/17/04


Mr. 3000
Reviewed by Deborah Young

The funny thing about Bernie Mac is the “dissed everyman” aura he wears like a tattered sports jacket. He’s funny in the tradition of Rodney Dangerfield, who complains incessantly about getting no respect. Or, in the tradition of Charlie Chaplin, who, in the character of the Little Tramp, resorted to boiling and eating his shoe because he had nothing else to eat. Or, in the tradition of the comic strip character Ziggy, who always seems to get the short end of the stick but keeps coming back for more.

Characters who are both pitiful and resourceful are fun to root for. So when one of Mac’s cockeyed schemes goes wrong on The Bernie Mac Show and he tilts his head to the side and gripes into the camera about his television family, it’s difficult not to laugh. It’s difficult not to empathize with his good-hearted but often misguided character.

Mac carries the same slow-burn style of humor into his role as Stan Ross in Mr. 3000. Ross is a self-centered, trash-talking baseball player who leaves the game after getting an impressive 3,000 hits (or so he thinks). After retiring, he builds a persona and a string of businesses based on his accomplishment.

Then nine years later, at the age of 47, someone discovers that Ross only got 2,997 hits. So he decides to get back into the game to get the remaining three hits.

Anyone who’s ever seen one of these underdog comedies can pretty much guess the major plot points along the way. The character has to be a jerk. He has to learn how not to be a jerk, and along the way he has to make a major contribution to his peers.

But not everything in this movie is predictable. There are a couple hilariously quirky characters and several unexpected one-liners that will make many viewers laugh aloud. A team mascot in a towering sausage suit lumbers into a few scenes and trades insults with Stan. And there’s a Japanese player whose inability to curse properly is quite entertaining.

Mr. 3000 features cameo appearances by several celebrities including Tom Arnold, Larry King and John Salley. There’s also the requisite love interest, Mo (Angela Bassett). But the funniest thing about the movie is watching Bernie Mac do his thing, scheme his schemes, take his lumps and then rise to comic redemption. (PG-13) Rating: 3; Posted 9/17/04


The Hunting of the President
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When Hillary Clinton accused her husband’s tormenters as being part of “a vast, right-wing conspiracy,” many dismissed her complaint as political rhetoric.

The documentary The Hunting of the President aims to confirm Mrs. Clinton’s claim by tracing the roots of the efforts to remove Bill Clinton from power.

The film is based upon the book The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons. Filmmakers Harry Thomason and Nickolas Perry re-frame the authors’ arguments with the aid of archive footage and the contribution of talking head commentary.

The filmmakers begin by going back to Bill Clinton’s early days as an Arkansas politico, arguing that he made a number of enemies by not awarding locals with fat government jobs. As a result, the “Arkansas Project” was born, an all-out effort aimed to discredit him.

The movie profiles a number of colorful and corrupt Arkansas characters and effectively shows why they’d try to bring Clinton down.

Among the interviewees who make the case for conspiracy are Democratic insiders Paul Begala and James Carville, and journalists Sidney Blumenthal, Jeffrey Toobin and (most effectively) David Brock.

Brock, a former writer for the conservative journal American Spectator, explains how wealthy Clinton-hater Richard Mellon Scaife (who bankrolled the “Arkansas Project” and promoted Ken Starr’s $80 million witch hunt) instructed American Spectator writers to smear Clinton. Brock later wrote a book about this called Blinded by the Right.

Much time is devoted to the Whitewater debacle (the blame placed squarely on the shoulders of a mentally unstable Jim McDougall) and the police state tactics used in the persecution of Susan McDougall.

The idea of a pro-left bias in the media is strongly dismissed. The film argues that journalists investigating Whitewater were driven by a blood-in-the-water mentality bred by the Watergate scandal. Believing that Whitewater stories could win them Pulitzers, journalists dug relentlessly for any dirt they could find.

Jerry Falwell has an amusing moment as he tries to distance himself from the video The Clinton Chronicles that he tirelessly hawked on his TV programs. Falwell now claims no responsibility for any assertions made in that infamous video, which linked Clinton to money laundering, drug distribution and other unsubstantiated criminal activity.

The film is hardly objective, however. Thomason (producer of the TV hit Designing Women) is a long-time friend and financial supporter of the Clintons, so he makes it a point to gloss over the Monica Lewinsky affair and Clinton’s subsequent perjury.

Since few Republicans will see the film, it is unlikely that The Hunting of the President will change very many minds. The choir being preached to will simply have their opinions reinforced. (Not rated) Rating: 3; Posted 9/17/04


Wimbledon
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

Somebody needs to do something about the influx of “British/American” romantic comedies. There’s just too many of them, and they are made in a cookie-cutter way.

Do we really need to see another film where a gorgeous, talented and desired American woman is whisked away by a stammering insecure British man with an inner monologue?

What’s wrong with our stammering insecure American men? You don’t have to fly across the Atlantic Ocean to find self-doubting gentlemen. There are plenty right here in the heartland. Granted, most of them tend to be nerdy, obsessive-compulsive, socially inept and film critics, but we...errrr... they exist!

In Wimbledon, Paul Bettany is Peter, a low ranking tennis pro with little ambition. At Wimbledon, he accidentally walks in on tennis pro Lizzie (Kirsten Dunst) taking a shower. Sparks fly, they fall in love and she helps him regain the will to cream the pants off of other tennis players.

Of course, in all transatlantic romance films, the lead always has to have quirky family and friends, so Wimbledon marches them in front of the screen like a parade. There’s the horny unscrupulous brother, the father who lives in a tree house, the rabbit-hating mother and the fast talking jerky agent. They all amount to a lot of noise and no charm whatsoever.

Paul Bettany is charming, and really puts in a sweet performance, but his chemistry with Kirsten Dunst is non-existent. Their scenes together are downright embarrassing and frustrating. Scenes of the couple talking in bed, exchanging tennis stories and searching the night sky for comets are boring, and slow Wimbledon down to a crawl.

Apart from Bettany’s performance, another saving grace in Wimbledon is the exciting tennis sequences. Special effects allow us to travel behind the ball. Every match is graceful and exciting. Best of all, the skill one needs to be a great player is marvelously displayed. This is such an exciting sport to begin with and it’s a surprise that we have not seen more sports films about tennis.

Perhaps if the film had stopped trying to copy films like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill while simply focusing on the game and the tournament, Wimbledon would have had a lot more punch in its serve. Instead, thanks to a whole lot of nonsense, Wimbledon barely makes it over the net. (PG-13) Rating: 2; Posted 9/17/04


Mean Creek
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Sometimes people long for revenge against those they perceive have wronged them. If that revenge comes to fruition, however, the consequences bring about serious problems of their own.

Therein lies the dilemma at the heart of Mean Creek, a new teen drama from first-time filmmaker Jacob Aaron Estes.

Mean Creek is a well-acted ensemble film that demonstrates that humanity may have civilized itself to some extent, but we’re not far removed from the brutalities of nature.

Rory Culkin (Igby Goes Down) stars as Sam, a small and timid young lad living in a rural northwest town. A large and often violent schoolmate named George (Josh Peck) often bullies him.

Sam’s brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) comes up with a plan to get back at Sam’s nasty tormenter, and they recruit a group of friends to help out.

Under the pretense of celebrating Sam’s birthday, Rocky and his pals Marty (Scott Mechlowitz) and Clyde (Ryan Kelley) plan a canoe trip up a secluded local creek. Sam invites his cute girlfriend, Millie (Carly Schroeder) to come along to join in on the fun. George, an obnoxious loner, is delightfully surprised to be asked to accompany then on the excursion.

The idea, of course, is to humiliate George. Their hope is to get him to strip down for a swim, and then take off with his clothes and leave him to walk all the way home in the nude. As the trip progresses, however, George demonstrates that his insufferable behavior is the result of deep-seeded insecurities. He even shows a willingness to bury the hatchet, and Sam wants to forgo his reprisals.

However, things don’t turn out as planned and events take a dramatic and tragic turn.

Estes’ intelligent script carefully delineates each character, and none of them seems like a caricature. All of the participants have their peccadilloes, and the baggage they carry with them helps to precipitate the eventual tragedy.

The filmmaker carefully incorporates ongoing shots of the natural surroundings, as if to emphasize the close proximity of humanity to its brutal roots. In a way, Mean Creek plays itself out as a teen take on Deliverance.

The film isn’t free of flaws, however. Some of the back stories seem a bit calculated, and Estes has yet to perfect his grip on pacing.

In spite of its shortcomings, Mean Creek is an impressive debut and a clear-eyed examination of the penalty of payback. (R) Rating: 3.5; Posted 9/17/04


What the #$*! Do We Know?
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Directors William Arntz, Betsy Chasses and Mark Vicente have put together a film that’s part documentary, part animation, part drama and part dogma. It combines clips of interviews with 14 thinkers from various disciplines (including physics, medicine and molecular biology) with a skeleton of a story about Amanda (Marlee Matlin), a photographer who’s just had a major personal crisis.

Unlike typical dramas, What the #$*! (pronounced “Bleep”) isn’t led by its main human character, Amanda. Instead, it’s driven by ideas. The human and animated beings in this movie exist only as visible surrogates for theories about quantum physics, reality, religion and human emotions.

The world of this movie is a magical one in which reality is fluid. It’s a world in which a boy by the name of Reginald (Robert Bailey Jr.) can teach a distraught Amanda about the power of perception. He can illustrate principles of quantum physics using nothing more than a basketball and a swath of cement court.

What the Bleep leaps back and forth between this magical world and an academic one where physicists, doctors and spiritual teachers sit back and pontificate. They talk about subjects such as the power of thought to shape the physical world and social environments. They also talk about sex and the arrogance of some religious philosophies. While they talk, Christopher Franke’s tinkling, new-Agey score plays an upbeat accompaniment that makes the film seem, at times, like a slick infomercial.

The occasional infomercial feel seems appropriate, because the filmmakers are obviously selling something. Like Michael Moore in his Fahrenheit 911, they’re pedaling opinions. Unlike Moore, they’re hawking philosophies about spirituality and the power of the human mind.

The pitch is sometimes made through voiceovers such as the one that reports that in the summer of 2003 a group of people reduced crime in Washington, D.C., simply by meditating. Then there’s the repeated line about thought affecting the structure of water crystals: “If thought can do that to water, imagine what our thoughts do to us.”

At other times, the interview subjects make the pitch. For instance, Ramtha, the 35,000-year-old mystic channeled by a middle-age woman known as JZ Knight, dropped this one: “We are here to infiltrate space with ideas and mansions of thought.”

However, What the Bleep is not all heaviness and light. It definitely has its funny moments. There’s a scene at a wedding reception where emotions and urges (in the form of animated characters) run amok and special effects illustrate two teenage boys’ instincts for zeroing in on the right women to pick up.

Bottom line: for those who like their entertainment served in a thick gravy of complex ideas, What the Bleep is a must-see. (Not Rated) Rating: 3; Posted 9/17/04


She Hate Me
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

There are still three and a half months left in the movie year, so anything can happen. But unless Yoko Ono decides to release another film about a fly crawling on her backside, there won’t be a worse film in 2004 than Spike Lee’s She Hate Me.

Being a fearless soul, Lee (Do the Right Thing) knows that you’re only as good as you dare to be bad. He dared to be bad, here...and succeeded spectacularly.
But She Hate Me isn’t awful simply because it’s disjointed, clumsy and absurd. It’s awful because it is so colossally pretentious. That makes it worse than films that are simply bad, like the moronic teen sex comedies.

Anthony Mackie (The Manchurian Candidate) plays Jack, a successful vice president at a big biotech firm. When a colleague commits suicide, Jack discovers that there is major corruption afoot that makes Enron look like a tea party.

After taking on the role of whistleblower, Jack is fired and his bank account frozen by the SEC. But that’s just one story.

At this point in the film, Lee virtually abandons this plot thread and begins another. Jack, you see, is the former lover of a Fatima (Kerry Washington) who is now a committed lesbian. Fatima wants to get pregnant, however, and thinks that Jack would be a perfect sperm donor. She brings along her current girlfriend, Alex (Dania Ramirez), who also wants to be impregnated.

That begins a new entrepreneurial venture for this odd trio. Fatima begins to procure lesbian “tricks” for Jack, and he gets them pregnant for a mere $10,000 a pop! Can our hero keep up with the demands of five lesbians a night? Can he down enough Viagra and Red Bull to meet the demand?

It that’s not enough, an Italian lesbian (Monica Bellucci) enters the picture to further complicate things, and once she’s with child, Jack has to deal with her Mafia boss papa, played by John Turturro.

But none of these plot twists seem to have anything to do with what Lee and co-screenwriter Michael Genet are getting at. She Hate Me is a political polemic! Throughout the film, they’re offering a scathing attack on corporate America, greed, racism, AIDS and corruption.

Lee may indeed have something interesting to say about these subjects, but these ideas are engulfed in a squishy blob of absurdity and stilted dialogue. Nothing he says can be taken seriously when presented in such a ridiculous fashion.

If Lee has lost his grip, that is indeed a sad development. If he knows exactly what he’s doing here, then that is sadder still. (R) Rating: 1; Posted 9/17/04


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