reel reviews
movie reviews
9.24.04

Bright Young ThingsBroadway: The Golden AgeA Dirty Shame
First DaughterThe ForgottenShaun of the DeadSpringtime in a Small Town

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

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The Forgotten
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

When my son turned one, my wife and I began trusting our only child to a babysitter. We had a date plan: dinner, a movie, and perhaps dessert afterwards. Our first film was Spielberg’s AI, and we watched Haley Joel Osment tortured for centuries. We decided to skip dessert and dashed straight home to make sure our little one was all right.

My son is four now, and we have found ourselves skipping a lot of dessert. The list of “children in peril” films is long and some of the worst offenders have been films like Panic Room, Minority Report, Man on Fire, Mystic River, Suspect Zero, Cellular, and Exorcist: The Beginning. Some of these films are good and others are lousy, but they all play upon the fear of a child getting kidnapped, hurt, killed or ripped apart by jackals in an extreme case. Now we have a film where a small boy is blown up, kidnapped and forgotten.

The Forgotten is a dreary film about a mother (Julianne Moore) not only grieving the loss of her son, but having to put up with everyone forgetting he existed as well. Is she insane and did she make up her son? Is this some kind of government cover-up? Why is she being pursued by National Security Agents? Whose baby is Scully carrying? (Oops…scratch that last one)

When we finally encounter the supernatural culprits, the film becomes unbearable. Not since Star Trek V: The Final Frontier has there been such a stupid omnipotent force. You’ll ask yourself, “Don’t these powerful beings have better things to do with their time than yank Julianne Moore’s chain?”

The only positive thing to come out of The Forgotten is a really cool special effect. Julianne Moore will be talking to someone and suddenly they will be ripped up into the sky and disappear. It’s a great little shocker designed to jolt the audience into consciousness. They use it four or five times, but perhaps they should have tried to work it into every scene to ease the audience’s mind-crushing boredom.

The Forgotten, unlike other conspiracy movies, is humorless. It’s also completely void of any fear, excitement or emotion of any kind. There is a ton of speculation, dead and forgotten kids, a minute amount of detective work and a heap of whining. Do you remember all those X-Files episodes where halfway through you realized that they were following a mythos storyline that you cared nothing about? The Forgotten is worse. (PG-13) Rating: 1; Posted 9/27/04


Broadway: The Golden Age
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Between the late 1930s and the late 1960s, the Great White Way enjoyed a period of unprecedented financial and artistic success. Broadway overflowed with popular musicals as well as extraordinary dramas and comedies.

That era is the subject of a new documentary called Broadway: The Golden Age, By the Legends Who Were There. Director Rick McKay (Illusions) managed to score interviews with a virtual Who’s Who of the American theatre, the surviving performers, writers and composers who helped make Broadway what it was.

McKay talks with actors Carol Burnett, Julie Harris, Uta Hagen, Ben Gazarra and Hume Cronyn, singer/dancers Carol Channing, Robert Goulet, Shirley McLaine, Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera, composers Stephen Sondheim and Jerry Herman, lyricists (Betty Comden and Adolph Green as well as producers, historians and even cartoonist Al Hirshfeld.

These artists reminisce about their theatrical experiences, the off-stage atmosphere, the people who influenced them and differences between what’s happening now and what came before.

As the talking heads describe the time, anyone could walk down Broadway and see a drama by Eugene O’Neil or Tennessee Williams, a musical by Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hammerstein or a comedy by Kauffman and Hart. Only in retrospect can this theatrical wealth be fully appreciated.

But McKay doesn’t settle on interviews alone. He intersperses the talking heads with rare film footage, stills and newsreels, which help bring the period to life.

Among the most interesting revelations is the universal awe in which actors hold a single performer, Laurette Taylor. This actress, star of the Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie, is virtually unknown today outside of theatrical circles but is considered the greatest and most influential actress of her time. McKay managed to obtain a screen test, Taylor’s only sound film appearance and includes it in the film.

Besides Taylor, Kim Stanley and Marlon Brando stand out as having a profound impact on their peers. The film includes scenes from Stanley’s performance in Bus Stop and Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Another highlight involves the truth behind the legend of the understudy. McLaine and her co-stars describe how she became an overnight sensation in Pajama Game when the star, Carol Haney, injured her knee. A similar situation occurred when Gretchen Wyler filled in for the lead in the Cole Porter musical, Silk Stockings.

For theatre buffs, Broadway: The Golden Age is a must see. For everyone else, it’s an informative and entertaining look at “one brief, shining moment,” the likes of which we may never see again. (Unrated) Rating: 4; Posted 9/24/04


First Daughter
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If this movie seems awfully familiar, you’re not having a case of déjà vu. Just a few months ago, another film was released with almost exactly the same premise.

It ain’t easy being the daughter of the president of the United States. When you’re a teenager, you’re yearning for a “normal” life that includes dating, parties and going off to college. Cutting the apron strings is hard for anyone, but it’s especially difficult when those strings are reinforced by the Secret Service.

Back in January, Mandy Moore starred in Chasing Liberty, the tale of a first daughter who fell in love with a “normal” guy who was surreptitiously protecting her as a member of the Secret Service. This time around, the role goes to Katie Holmes (TV’s Dawson’s Creek).

Katie plays Samantha Mackinzie, daughter of President John Mackinzie (Batman’s Michael Keaton) and wife Melanie (Margaret Colin from Unfaithful). She’s chosen to attend school at Redmond College in California...as far from Pennsylvania Avenue as she can get.

Naturally, this poor little rich girl can’t fit in, thanks to her assembly of bodyguards and the ubiquitous press who hound her in the middle of a heated presidential campaign. Even her headstrong dorm roommate Mia (R&B singer Amerie) has trouble adapting to all the attention.

Sam’s dormitory resident advisor, James Lamson (Marc Blucas from TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer), helps to rescue her from her gilded cage. He sneaks her out, shows her a good time, and a romance begins to blossom. But things can’t be that simple and James ultimately reveals his true motives.
Although the script is by-the-numbers director Forest Whitaker (Hope Floats) demonstrates an able grasp of this kind of romantic comedy. The presence of Keaton, sorely absent from the big screen in recent years, is also a welcome factor.

But mostly, First Daughter rests on the shoulders of Holmes and she is more than up to the task. The young actress is truly an old soul, and that inner maturity helps give the role a bit of gravity. As she has ably demonstrated with her eclectic choice of big screen material (Pieces of April, Go, The Singing Detective, Wonder Boys, The Ice Storm) Holmes is more interested in good parts than in big movies.

This more commercial venture doesn’t tax her acting chops but could secure her box office bank-ability. (Her next project is the big budget studio tent pole, Batman Begins.)

If nothing else, First Daughter could serve one noble purpose. It could help us forget Chasing Liberty. (PG) Rating: 2.5; Posted 9/24/04


A Dirty Shame
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

What we’ve come to expect from eccentric filmmaker John Waters is quirky, over-the-top adventures in bad taste. What we don’t expect is to be bored.

A Dirty Shame, sad to say, is not just a wallow in sleaze. It’s also a one-joke movie that aims to shock but becomes mind-numbingly dull after the first reel.

Waters, who has given us such classic schlock as Pink Flamingos and Mondo Trasho as well as more mainstream offerings like Hairspray and Cry Baby, returns to his vulgar roots in an all-out effort to offend as well as to teach us a lesson in tolerance. Yes, there is a method to his crassness.

Tracey Ullman (Small Time Crooks) stars as Sylvia Stickles, the sexually repressed wife of Vaughn, played by Chris Isaak (TV’s The Chris Isaak Show.) Together, they run the Pinewood Park and Pay, a convenience store in a working class Baltimore neighborhood.

Their daughter Caprice (Hellboy’s Selma Blair) is also known as Ursula Udders, a stripper with enormous surgically enhanced breasts. She’s under house arrest for public indecency.

On her way to work one day, Sylvia suffers a head injury and she becomes a sex addict. In case you didn’t get the message, Waters superimposes the word “W-H-O-R-E” a la Jean Luc Godard.

A local tow truck driver named Ray-Ray (Jackass’ Johnny Knoxville) comes to Sylvia’s aid, recognizing that she is his final “disciple.” Ray-Ray, you see, is the messiah for a band of head-injury sex addicts. They’ve been awaiting their final member so that they can achieve the ultimate orgasm through a sex act that hasn’t been invented yet.

The local “neuters” are aghast at the sexual insurgency that has taken over their neighborhood. One by one, the neighbors are transformed into sex addicts through head injuries. The next thing you know, the area looks like a scene from Dawn of the Dead, with sexual “zombies” running amok. Even the shrubbery becomes sex objects.

The film begins with an amusing shot reminiscent of the work of Douglas Sirk as the camera pans the trees to land on the Stickles household. Waters then begins his all out assault, hitting us with as many sexual colloquialisms as he can muster. It’s funny for a few minutes, but it quickly becomes utterly ineffectual.

Waters regulars make their requite appearances, including Mink Stole as a neuter, Rikki Lake as herself and Patty Hearst as the leader of a former sex addict support group. The rest of the brave cast can best be described as game.

Many sins can be forgiven in the name of humor. Monotony isn’t one of them. (NC-17) Rating: 1.5; Posted 9/24/04


Springtime in a Small Town
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Sometimes the back-story of a film is just as interesting as the film itself. In the case of Springtime in a Small Town, a little knowledge about its origins increases one’s appreciation of it.

A new Mandarin language entry from Chinese filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang (September), Springtime in a Small Town is a remake of a 1948 film by Fei Mu. Fei was dismissed as a rightist by the Communist government and his work was “lost” until long after the Cultural Revolution.

In recent years, Fei’s reputation has been restored and his films re-released. Tian’s own story is similar. Because of blacklisting, he hasn’t made a picture since the highly acclaimed The Blue Kite, which was filmed in 1991.

Reading between the lines, one can easily see this movie as Tian’s homage to Fei as well as an extremely subtle commentary on the Chinese mindset during the crucial years after World War II.

The deceptively simple tale, based on a short story by Li Tianji, takes place in 1946 in a rural area of southern China less than a year after the Japanese invaders withdrew. Dai Liyan (Wu Jun) is the only male survivor of the Dai family, a formerly wealthy and important clan.

The Dai home is largely in ruins, greatly damaged by frequent bombing. Dai and his wife Yuwen (Ju Jingfan), 15-year-old sister Xiu (Lu Sisi) and a single elderly servant Lau Huang (Ye Xiaokeng) make do in the compound’s Flower Pavilion.

Emasculated, estranged from his unhappy wife and lacking direction, Dai is suffering from a psychosomatic illness with symptoms similar to tuberculosis.

Dai’s old college friend Zhang Zichen (Zin Baiqing) drops in for a surprise visit. A dashing gent who is now a doctor, Zhang begins to shake things up in the Dai household.

As fate would have it, Yuwen was Zhang’s first love and the passion between them is rekindled by his visit. Although Dai wants to arrange a marriage between Zhang and is young sister Xiu, Zhang and Yuwen only have eyes for one another. The sexual tension between them threatens to wreck the lives of everyone involved.

On the surface, the movie plays like a simple chamber drama with soapy overtones. It can also be interpreted, however, as a sly analysis of the feelings of uncertainty and helplessness felt by the Chinese people at the end of the war and their fears about the future under Communist rule.

In any event, it’s a period piece that ably reflects the time, filtered through modern sensibilities. (PG) Rating: 3.5; Posted 9/24/04


Shaun of the Dead
Reviewed by Deborah Young

More than one or two laughs could be heard at the screening of Shaun of the Dead. The audience laughed throughout the movie.

The film’s biggest joke seemed to be that the characters were so incredibly nonchalant and oblivious most of the time. Like in the scene in which Shaun walks to the store. On his way, he encounters several zombies. One lumbers toward him with outstretched arms, but Shaun mistakes the zombie (who wants a bite of him) for a panhandler and simply waves him away. In one scene, Shaun and Ed see a man and woman huddled together outside a pub. The pair appears to be kissing. Shaun and Ed laugh it up about what they think is a public display of affection. But as the two men walk away, the camera shows he audience that the woman is in reality eating the man.

Shaun of the Dead is being billed as a romantic comedy with zombies. It is a romantic comedy of sorts centered on an underachiever (Shaun, played by Simon Pegg) and his immature sidekick (Ed, played by Nick Frost). Shaun’s girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) has grown tired of the routine she and Shaun have established. The two of them go to a pub called the Winchester most of the time, always accompanied by the wisecracking, wind-breaking Ed. The two buddies, Ed and Shaun, live in the perpetual squalor of overgrown frat boys.

The actors handle their roles well enough, although they seem charged with the same task: playing straight man to the zombies, acting as though nothing out of the ordinary is happening until it becomes painfully clear that zombies are ravaging their town.

In addition to spoofing the horror genre, the story also attempts to slide beneath the surface of horror-flick emotion. It’s clear that we’re supposed to see that Shaun loves his mother and feel for him when his mother is in danger. We’re supposed to see that Ed and Shaun have each other’s back in a pinch. But those darned zombies blind and mute us at least a little, as do the gore and guts of bodies being ripped and flesh being eaten.

But if you like zombie films and the Brits’ knack for nonchalance taken to the extreme, you’ll be joining the laughter with the rest of the audience. (R) Rating: 2; Posted 9/24/04


Bright Young Things
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

We want it both ways. We want to fantasize about participating in the lives of the rich and beautiful while, at the same time, maintaining a critical distance.

Bright Young Things
gives it to us both ways. This lively, often funny look at the lives of high society youths in Jazz Age England lets us have our vicarious fun while commenting on their shallow and frivolous world.

The first directorial effort from renowned British actor Stephen Fry (Peter’s Friends, Wilde), Bright Young Things is based upon a popular 1930 novel, Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh.

Newcomer Stephen Campbell Moore stars as Adam Symes, a struggling novelist who, upon returning from a trip abroad, has his manuscript confiscated by British customs officials who deem it pornographic. Adam has spent the £100 advance given to him by his publisher, Lord Monomark (Dan Ackroyd), and is now destitute with no book to deliver.

Adam is keen to marry his beautiful girlfriend Nina Blount (Emily Mortimer from Lovely and Amazing), who is one of the “bright, young things.” Unable to do so without substantial cash, Adam makes desperate attempts to obtain money but experiences numerous financial near misses.

A real chance comes his way upon the unfortunate suicide of Sir Simon Balcairn, played by James McAvoy (TV’s Children of Dune). A poor aristocrat, Balcairn was secretly reporting on the naughty activities of the upper crust in his “Mr. Chatterbox” column in Monomark’s daily newspaper.

With Balcairn out of the picture, Monomark forces Adam to become the new “Mr. Chatterbox.” With Nina’s aid, Adam begins making up outlandish stories about society’s wicked parties...only to find that life imitates art.

Complications arise however, and Nina is forced to choose between Adam and a wealthy but dull industrialist, Ginger Littlejohn, played by David Tennant (Sweetnightgoodheart).

Fry’s film is populated with a lot of great British actors in bit parts, among them Simon Callow, Sir John Mills, Julia McKenzie and Richard E. Grant. Most memorable are Peter O’Tool as Nina’s eccentric father and Jim Broadbent as a drunken major who may or may not be the key to Adam’s fortune.

Fry, who also wrote the screenplay, starts his film off in a frantic and superficial way, echoing the lives of his characters. A deep, underlying melancholy develops, however, as fate steps in to shake up the characters’ frolicsome world.

Smart and amusing, Bright Young Things marks Fry’s debut as a promising filmmaker. (R) Rating: 3.5; Posted 9/24/04


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