The Movie Report
February 2004

#412 - 415
February 6, 2004 - February 27, 2004

all movies are graded out of four stars (****)

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#415 February 27, 2004 by Michael Dequina

#414 February 20, 2004 by Michael Dequina


Against the Ropes one-sheet Against the Ropes (PG-13) ** 1/2
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The title of Against the Ropes has come to take on an added meaning in the last year or so, as this step in Meg Ryan's grand plan for reinvention has been aimlessly punted around Paramount's release schedule, the studio making no secret of its utter lack of faith in the project. Judging by the flawed but hardly awful product, this is a case of a studio simply not knowing how to position what is an inoffensively average, formulaic entertainment with a marketing-problematic point of view.

And this being a sports film, said "problem" is that the point of view is a woman's; further compounding the difficulty is that the female protagonist isn't an actual, active participant, not to mention that the sport in question is the that barely organized extravaganza of alpha-male aggression, boxing. So from a studio perspective, there isn't an easy angle for a screen version of the true story of Jackie Kallen (Ryan), the first woman to successfully break into the cutthroat, dick-swinging world of boxing managers.

Never mind that director Charles S. Dutton and screenwriter Cheryl Edwards have taken numerous liberties with Kallen's life (but preserving its "essence," as the press notes state) to shoehorn it more comfortably into a more familiar movie rubric. Jackie makes her move from Cleveland Coliseum secretary to ballsy wheeler-dealer by way of rough-around-the-edges but gifted fighter Luther Shaw (Omar Epps), thus setting up two parallel underdog stories: the traditional genre one of a gutsy young athlete moving his way up the ranks, and one in the Erin Brockovich mold, with a skanky dresser with a brash attitude to match making waves with her moxie. As can be expected, these initially parallel come to collide, with Jackie's self-absorbed ambition coming in the way of her client's best interests. Dutton and Edwards don't do the film any favors by throwing in painful conventions such as the climactic moment of H&H (hugs 'n healing)--accompanied by the dreaded slow clap, no less.

While the film thus never quite works due to the overpowering familiarity, it is more watchable than one would expect. As is usually the case with films directed by actors, the performances are what make the generally more turbulent ride at least tolerable. Epps, continuing his cinematic tour of the wide world of sports (baseball, football, track, basketball, now boxing--what's next, lacrosse?), is expectedly up to the physical challenges of the role, and he lends Luther his characteristic intensity and charisma; Dutton himself delivers a typically dignified turn as Luther's trainer. Ryan, on the other hand, is a bit jarring at first; with her harsh accent and slutwear costuming, she appears to be trying too hard to shake the America's Sweetheart image, but as she settles into the role over the running time, so does the audience with her performance. Such efforts are ultimately futile, however, when the overall picture isn't quite as convincing as some of the individual pieces.

In Brief

Kitchen Stories one-sheet Kitchen Stories (Salmer_Fra_Kjøkkenet) (PG) ***
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A plot synopsis of the Norwegian Oscar entry Kitchen Stories makes the film sound as blah as the title: sometime in the '50s, Swedish researchers were sent into the homes of bachelors in Norway to study their habits in the kitchen. From such an absurd premise (which actually has some basis in fact), director Bent Hamer tells a warm, gently funny story of the friendship that slowly develops between one of the no-nonsense observers (Tomas Norström) and his crotchety subject (Joachim Calmeyer). The beats are familiar (such as the higher-up's disapproval of the loss of complete objectivity), and the bittersweet ending seems to come not so much organically from the story but to adhere to a certain downbeat European standard; however, the charm and chemistry of the two leads and subtle, wry moments of humor make for an endearing entertainment.

Welcome to Mooseport one-sheet Welcome to Mooseport (PG-13) * 1/2
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It's natural for a popular television star to want to branch out into the movies, but Ray Romano's inaugural live-action starring trip to the big screen comes off less like a feature film than a failed sitcom pilot. Mooseport, Maine is one of those only-on-the-tube (or, in this case, only-on-the-screen) sleepy towns whose small population somehow runs the gamut of eccentrics, from a loud-mouthed geriatric to another wrinkly guy who for unknown reasons jogs in the nude. The two "o"'s in the film's title card are strategically positioned conceal the latter's bare buttocks, which ominously sets the film's quaint, would-be cutesy tone. Falling in line with that is our protagonist, simple--and oh-so-blah--hardware store owner Handy Harrison (Romano), who finds himself in a more-than-simple race for town mayor when the newly moved-in ex-President (Gene Hackman) throws his hat into the ring. Needless to say, the charismatic, seasoned politico that is Monroe "Eagle" Cole commands the townsfolk's attention over the humdrum Handy--including Handy's frustrated longtime love (Maura Tierney); similarly, Hackman trumps Romano in the screen presence department. Such is the difference between a magnetic movie star and likable TV actor, and such is the difference between a story where the audience has some modicum of investment versus one where the audience simply sits back and waits for the odd punchline to elicit a vague grin--in short, a garden variety sitcom.

#413 February 13, 2004 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

50 First Dates one-sheet 50 First Dates (PG-13) **
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As someone who isn't necessarily a fan of the broad frat boy humor of Adam Sandler's homegrown Happy Madison productions--but at least understands their lowest common denominator appeal--I had an odd reaction to Sandler's reunion with his Wedding Singer paramour Drew Barrymore. While I was never one to really respond to his brand of crude slapstick, this time the jokes felt more flat and uninspired than usual, desperate even. From projectile-vomiting walruses to Rob Schneider's hammy turn as a heavily-accented Polynesian pal of Sandler's to Sandler's androgynous co-worker (Lusia Strus), bits that usually generate at least a faint giggle from the audience were met with dead silence. Casting Sandler as a marine biologist also reeks of desperation; after all, how better to cuddly up the abrasive actor than by surrounding him with a bunch of cute animals?

Oddly enough, though, director Peter Segal and writer George Wing needn't have bothered, for Sandler is actually (gasp!) somewhat endearing on his own here as Henry Roth, an average guy whose womanizing ways change when he falls for average girl Lucy Whitmore (Barrymore)--or, at least, she appears to be average, for her short-term memory was damaged, leaving it to Henry to win her affections every day. The concept seems to be cut from the same cloth as the lame line of humor, but the love story that develops around the idea actually achieves a certain level of charm. A major reason why Sandler comes off fairly well in the film is that, for the most part, he and the rest of the cast simply stay out of Barrymore's way whenever she appears; her effortlessly beguiling performance generates both smiles and genuine poignance. Alas, she's a rare beacon of light in the dreary, silly muck. There's a sweet romance fighting to reach the surface here, but it's ultimately a losing battle against the overpowering and sour Sandler crassness.

#412 February 6, 2004 by Michael Dequina


Barbershop 2 one-sheet Barbershop 2: Back in Business (PG-13) ***
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The subtitle of Barbershop 2: Back in Business pretty much sums up the film. Mostly all of the elements contributing to the original Barbershop's sleeper success are back, and accordingly this film more than recalls the first. All of the principal cast members are back in their familiar roles, most notably Cedric the Entertainer as veteran cutter Eddie, he of the indiscreetly outspoken mind. This film, like the first, feels a little ramshackle in its episodic pacing, but there is more of a concentrated plot interest this time out--the proposed revamping of the shop's South Side block, not least of which includes a slick, franchised haircutting establishment located directly across the street. However, any new plot wrinkles are used to reinforce the familiar overlying theme of the importance of history and community.

But that latter point is the key to why the first film, and, hence, this sequel works: a warm sense of heart, and this return visit to Calvin's Barbershop is like settling back in with old friends. As in life, all of the familiar characters--Eddie, proprietor Calvin Jr. (Ice Cube), sassy Terri (Eve), ex-con Ricky (Michael Ealy), Nigerian immigrant Dinka (Leonard Earl Howze), uppity Jimmy (Sean Patrick Thomas) and cocky Isaac (Troy Garity)--have all moved on a bit since we last them, but they all remain the distinct personalities we warmly (and, at times, not so warmly) recall. New director Kevin Rodney Sullivan, taking over for Tim Story, wisely doesn't try to fix what isn't broken, instead simply realistically building on the characters' established personalities and life directions. Of course, some of the characters' lives are more changed than others--most notably Jimmy, who has left the shop for a job with an alderman (Robert Wisdom)--and there is one major new face: Calvin's wife's clumsy cousin Kenard (Kenan Thompson), who just his barber's license. In true sequel form, there is an expanded role for the original's fan favorite scene-stealer: Eddie, whose back story is further fleshed out; but instead of coming off as a blatant attempt to simply give Cedric the Entertainer more screen time, his flashback thread organically fits into the bigger picture.

What doesn't fit into the bigger picture, however, is Queen Latifah's cameo role as Gina, an ex-flame of Calvin's and a sharp-tongued stylist at the heretofore unmentioned beauty shop next door. While there is an undeniably amusing argument scene between Gina and Eddie, Sullivan and writer Don D. Scott can't quite disguise that Latifah's fairly fleeting presence serves no purpose other than to set up what in sitcom land is called a "planted spinoff"--the gimmick of introducing a single-shot guest star/character within a successful series for the express purpose of spinning the actor/character off into their own vehicle. And, indeed, the Latifah/Gina-starring Beauty Shop is on the drawing board for release this fall. Much like how Calvin's homey neighborhood is slowly being touched by slick commerce, how fitting that the appealingly laid-back Barbershop series--in a sequel subtitled Back in Business, no less--would itself be infected by bald-faced commercialism.

But such is the nature of the beast when it comes to movie sequels; after all, the reason for this film's existence is to capitalize on the original's financial success. As Calvin concludes, however, progress in the name of the dollar can bring much good in addition to the bad, and ultimately that notion holds true in the case of Barbershop 2, which retains the charm and humor that made the first film so winning.

In Brief

The Dreamers one-sheet The Dreamers (NC-17) ***
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Despite the inherent level of weight and pretension that comes with the turbulent historical backdrop of 1968 Paris, the message behind Bernardo Bertolucci's latest can effectively be summed up by one simple statement: there's more to life than sex and movies. The dreamers of the title are American student Matthew (Michael Pitt) and Isabelle (Eva Green) and Théo (Louis Garrel), siblings with whom he initially hooks up for friendship and film. But when the pair's parents go away, they're left to play, and they invite Matthew to stay in their flat--making a messy ménage of mindgames and movie-quoting that, try as they might, cannot remain hermetically sealed from the social upheaval occurring outside their walls. While the film's abundant sex scenes and nudity are indeed explicit enough to justify the NC-17 rating, they're not as erotic as Bertolucci obviously wants them to be, and the bare flesh becomes a bit numbing after a while. With the sex failing to titillate and the story ultimately rather simple-minded, it's up to the actors to make the film compelling, and they succeed--two of them, at least. While the usually annoying Leo knockoff Pitt is tolerable for once, he's no match for the seductively charismatic duo of Green and Garrel, who make the siblings and their twisted relationship warm yet disturbing, off-putting yet inviting; it's easy to see why Matthew would become so taken with them. It's too bad it's we can never quite understand what they find so interesting in him.

Miracle one-sheet Miracle (PG) ** 1/2
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Gavin O'Connor's film about the "miracle on ice," the U.S.A. Olympic Hockey Team's upset victory over the Soviet team in the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Games, hits the expected inspirational sports movie notes: young team members who don't initially get along but ultimately become (as it is explicitly spoken) "a family"; a driven, sometimes obsessively so, coach (Kurt Russell); the coach's neglected but supportive wife (Patricia Clarkson); difficult team cuts; injuries occurring at inopportune moments; the climactic Big Game. O'Connor does tackle the formula with craft: the hockey action is decently (read: coherently) staged; the period details provide ample historical context; Russell delivers a fine performance as coach Herb Brooks. That said, I couldn't help but feel that this middle-of-the-road film missed a more interesting opportunity.

The victory over the Soviets was the central goal and a milestone loaded with added symbolic value in the dead heat of the Cold War, but something rings strangely when the American team's ultimate gold medal win is treated as little more than a tossed-off closing footnote. A classic underdog-defeats-goliath scenario is, indeed, rousing, but more inspiring--and less formulaic and brazenly jingoistic--would be a story about an underdog that sets out to achieve the singular goal of defeating the favorite only to push themselves toward a greater glory. But even if that were the angle O'Connor and screenwriter Eric Guggenheim chose to take, nothing could ever excuse the closing dedication to the late Brooks: "He didn't see [the film]. He lived it."

Touching the Void one-sheet Touching the Void *** 1/2
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According to the press notes, for many years Sally Field tried--and failed--to turn British mountain climber Joe Simpson's amazing story of survival into a big-screen starring vehicle for the quintessentially all-American Tom Cruise. In this case, thank goodness for development hell, for I can't imagine a more effective film adaptation of Simpson's book than the one that finally came to pass, by Academy Award-winning documentarian Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September). By blending talking head interviews with Simpson and climbing partner Simon Yates with stunning re-enactment footage, Macdonald paints a remarkably vivid portrait of the pair's disastrous 1985 climb of the Siula Grande mountain in the Peruvian Andes, on the descent from which Simpson broke his leg and Yates ultimately felt forced to cut him loose. It goes without saying that Simpson survives (after all, not only did he live to write the book, we see him alive and well in the interview segments) so the amount of nail-biting suspense Macdonald is able to wring from the scenario is startling--which is not only a testament to Macdonald's fimmaking skill, but also to the inherent power of Simpson and Yates's story. It's difficult to imagine any of the manufactured dramatic "flourishes" that would've undoubtedly been built into any traditional feature treatment of the story would have made such a hypothetical film more effective than Macdonald's straightfoward approach. Given the documentary approach, no doubt Macdonald had a fairly limited budget to work with, which makes his recreations of their ascent and dramatic descent all the more impressive. Aiding in no small part are Mike Eley's cinematography, which makes the Andes look both breathtakingly beautiful and menacing; and the eloquent, near-wordless performances by Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron as, respectively, Simpson and Yates, which are likely to be underrated and written off as being "mere" re-enactments.


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