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Recent Reviews

Recent Reviews

The Alamo, Dawn of the Dead, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Goodbye Lenin!, Hellboy, Kill Bill-Vol.2, Kitchen Stories, The Ladykillers, Osama The Passion of the Christ, The Same River Twice, Spartan, and all the rest…

The Alamo
Dir. John Lee Hancock; writ. Leslie Bohem, Stephen Gaghan, Hankcock; feat. Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric, Patrick Wilson, Emilio Echevarría, Jordi Mollá (PG-13)
In its rush to be every thing to every one, The Alamo fails to bring forth anything other than a paint-by-the-numbers rendering of that historical event that provided the rallying cry for those who would forge the then Mexican state of Tejas into a republic. But trying to focus on six major characters in two hours, as well as sundry minor characters, battles, and military strategy, is beyond the abilities of the filmmakers who bite off a larger hunk of Texas history than they can chew. And unless you have a degree in Texas history, you are unlikely to even then to know the difference between Texans, Texians, Tejanos, Mexicans, and Texicans that the film bandies about without actually explaining. Additionally, the screenplay, which was "doctored" by more writers than the Marx brothers, never rises above the cardboard characterizations of Bowie, Travis, and Houston. Only Emilio Echevarría's over-the-top portrayal of the Mexican general Santa Ana and Billy Bob Thornton's larger-than-life David Crockett manage to hold our attention - part of the time. GB

Dawn of the Dead
Dir. Zack Snyder; writ. George Romero (orig. screenplay), James Gunn; feat. Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer, Ty Burrell (R)
Loosely inspired by the second film in George Romero's landmark Night of the Living Dead trilogy, Dawn of the Dead discards most of the master's subversiveness. It makes little sense to compare the two films: The new one looks bad for treading on hallowed horror ground; the classic looks less technically convincing compared with modern special effects work. Today's Dawn may not want to force you to re-evaluate the way you live your life, but it does hope to make you laugh now and then in between shrieks. And yes, unlike in the original movies, the zombies can run. Twenty-first-century horror movies understand that viewers stopped being scared by tortoise-paced pursuers long ago. Dawn also shares other sensibilities with its cousin 28 Days Later: Both stories skip from pre- to post-epidemic with a simple cut, for instance. They're not interested in showing how the zombielicious disease spreads from one household to a whole city, they just want to drop you in the post-apocalyptic funhouse as quickly as possible. And it works beautifully. JD

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Dir. Michel Gondry; writ. Charlie Kaufman, Gondry, Pierre Bismuth; feat. Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo (R)
A clinic on Long Island called Lacuna has developed a neural technology that makes it possible to expunge particular memories from a client's brain. Exasperated by her boyfriend Joel's ambivalence and his reluctance to have a child, Clementine (Winslet) decides to wash that man right out of her mind. In retaliation, Joel (Carrey) visits Lacuna and pays them to erase Clementine from his mind, almost entirely.
With Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman proved himself a maestro of metafiction, of scripts that move in and out of the illusory world that they create. We are immersed in movie fantasy and then propelled into another layer of awareness. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind invites us to experience the romantic memories of Joel and Clementine, but it also reminds us that, like the cinematic medium itself, those memories are mutable. What we see onscreen is being deleted while we watch. SGK

Good Bye, Lenin!
Dir. & writ. Wolfgang Becker; feat. Daniel Bruhl, Katrin Sass, Chulpan Khamatova, Maria Simon, Florian Lukas (R)
A German Rip Van Winkle, Christiane Kerner (Sass) collapses into a coma on October 7, 1989. She awakens, eight months later, to a world utterly transformed. The Berlin Wall has fallen, and Christiane, a patriotic citizen of East Germany, is now living in eastern Germany, part of a newly unified nation whose guiding principle is consumerism, not Communism. However, Christiane's doctor advises her son, Alex (Bruhl), that the patient's health remains extremely fragile; any shock will kill her. Alex sets about trying to shelter his Marxist mother from any intimation that the German Democratic Republic no longer exists, devising increasingly elaborate strategies to keep his mother convinced that nothing at all has happened, that the chill is still on the Cold War. Wolfgang Becker's Good Bye, Lenin! is thus built upon a play within a film, a spectacle staged by Alex to insulate his mother from real-life historical drama. Becker uses his ingenious premise to create hilarious satire. SGK

Hellboy
Dir. Guillermo del Toro; writ. del Toro, Mike Mignola (orig. comic); feat. Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Jeffrey Tambor, Doug Jones, John Hurt, Rupert Evans, Karel Roden, David Hyde Pierce (voice) (PG-13)
Mexican native Guillermo del Toro has devoted his career to the many facets of horror. The director approached this material as a true fan, and it shows. He respects his characters, from the big red fella (played by Ron Perlman, one of the few real-life men who could match the comic creature's physical presence) to fish-man Abe Sapien, pyrotechnically challenged Liz Sherman, and the human doctor who has cared for Hellboy through an adolescence that is only now in its final phases. Fans of the comic will be surprised at the changes del Toro has made. But the changes (all endorsed by comic creator Mike Mignola) are all in the service of bringing out human truths latent in the source material. Yet around all this mushy stuff is an honest-to-goodness comic book romp, full of action and monsters and Nazi soldiers made of sawdust and clockwork. It's silly and fun, and provides Hellboy opportunities to smash things with that Buick-sized red right hand. The characters are brought to life as vividly as can be imagined. JD

Kill Bill, Vol. 2
Dir. & writ. Quentin Tarantino; feat. Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, Gordon Liu, Michael Parks (R)
Joyless dialogue is one reason Vol. 2 feels fairly anticlimactic after the first half's thrill ride. Another reason is that there simply was nothing the filmmaker could do to top the violent spectacle of the first film's "House of Blue Leaves" sequence. Instead, there's almost no fight at all once the Bride (Thurman) meets Bill (Carradine); the conflict is more emotional than violent. Still, there's a lot to like about the film, including a showcase fight scene that takes place not in a cavernous Japanese restaurant but in a cramped trailer home whose dimensions make swordfighting a challenging proposition. Vol. 2 ends with an overextended credits sequence in which many actors (from both chapters) get their names in lights twice, and even the gaffer gets a full-screen acknowledgment. Maybe this installment's long goodbye will make more sense as part of some future Director's Cut, in which the Bride meets all her enemies in one four-hour stretch - but here it's just one more small, questionable decision keeping Vol. 2 from its better half's greatness. JD

Kitchen Stories
Dir. Bent Hamer; writ. Jorgen Bergmark, Hamer; feat. Joachim Calmeyer, Tomas Nostrom, Bjorn Floberg, Reine Brynolfsson (NR)
During the 1950s, the Swedish Home Research Institute attempted to come up with recommendations for making ordinary activities more efficient. After studying the unnecessary steps that housewives take while performing routine domestic chores, it decides to investigate the patterns that unmarried men in rural Norway follow as they move about their kitchens. A squad of surveyors drives across the border and sets up operations in a small Norwegian farming community. Folke (Norstrom) is assigned to observe Isak (Calmeyer), a gruff old farmer who agreed to be surveyed only because subjects of the study were promised a horse in exchange for their cooperation. However, the recompense turns out to be only an equine figurine, and Isak balks, refusing to allow Folke into his house. Eventually relenting, Isak is nevertheless a sulky subject who resents the presence of the intruder in his household. As the distinctions between observer and observed blur, Isak and Folke begin to communicate with each other, and, in flagrant violation of research protocols, become friends. Kitchen Stories challenges its viewer's own privileged position as neutral observer. SGK

The Ladykillers
Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen; writ. Coens, William Rose (orig. screenplay); feat. Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons (R)
Tom Hanks is a ridiculously eccentric Southern gentleman who takes up residence in the home of an elderly black lady, where he hopes to use the root cellar to rehearse with his chamber-music ensemble. The musicians are actually thieves, though, who intend to tunnel from the cellar to a nearby casino vault; they keep the landlady distracted by playing classical recordings while taking pick and shovel to the loamy walls of the rehearsal room. This is the first Coen Brothers film to have so many black actors in its cast, and some viewers may walk out of the theater feeling a little itchy about the movie's racial attitudes. That's nothing new: The filmmakers routinely let stereotypes do some of their characterization for them. But that's equally true for Jews, Minnesotans, trailer-park white folk, and Texas billionaires, who are almost invariably cartoonish exaggerations - Miller's Crossing aside, there simply aren't a lot of believable human beings in the Coen Universe. That hasn't seemed to bother audiences up until now, and there's no reason it should here. JD

Osama
Dir. & writ. Siddiq Barmak; feat. Marina Golbahari, Arif Herati, Zubaidi Sahar (PG-13)
No, he is not that Osama. And he is in fact a she, a girl who tries to pass for male in the cruel androcracy of the Taliban regime. Osama is not quite as merry as Yentl without music, though it, too, is a story of how dressing for success in a misogynist religious culture means putting on pants. Barmak elicits convincing performances from the non-professionals he recruited for his cast, and his Neorealist use of handheld cameras and natural lighting furnishes the film with the feel of documentary. Yet the director gives his characters functions not personalities, making Osama seem more like an allegory of oppression than the story of a particular girl's coming of age in a particularly unhappy time and place. SGK

The Passion of the Christ
Dir. Mel Gibson; writ. Benedict Fitzgerald, Gibson; feat. James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci, Hristo Jivkov, Hristo Shopov, Rosalinda Celentano (R)
By restricting itself to the final 12 hours of Jesus' life, The Passion of the Christ revels in distress devoid of context. Watching Jim Caviezel methodically transform into a barely ambulant corpse oozing blood from every pore, one might reasonably ask: What is the point? Christian theology responds: the ministry and the resurrection. But Mel Gibson's movie offers neither. A few fleeting flashbacks to the Sermon on the Mount are insufficient to establish faith, hope, and charity as counterweights to the ferocious malice on display for all but a couple of minutes. The film provides no basis for understanding the fury that drives the Temple priests and the crowds in the streets to demand the death of a supremely loving man. It is pain without purpose, the spectacle of savage violence ravaging the Prince of Peace. At the end, a momentary image of Jesus on his feet and washed of his wounds points to the resurrection, but it hardly redeems this bloody film. SGK

The Same River Twice
Dir. Robb Moss (NR)
In the summer of 1978, Robb Moss and 16 friends spent 35 days in and out of the Colorado River, navigating by kayak, raft, and rowboat through the Grand Canyon. Moss recorded the experience in a film called Riverdogs that, more than 25 years later, is a relic of innocent exuberance, of young riparian hippies who whiled away a precious summer mostly stoned and naked. The Same River Twice examines what middle age has made of five of Moss' young adventurers. A longitudinal study of personal development, it resembles Michael Apted's 7 Up series, except that Moss' subjects are upper-middle class, the kind of privileged baby boomers whose private crises are likely to irritate more than fascinate viewers for whom The Big Chill ignited a small fire of resentment against self-indulgence. SGK

Spartan
Writ. & dir. David Mamet; feat. Val Kilmer, Derek Luke, William H. Macy, Ed O'Neill, Tia Texada, Kristen Bell, Clark Gregg (R)
The lone ranger here is Val Kilmer's Robert Scott, an ice-cold military man brought in by the Secret Service for a sensitive job. The daughter of a V.I.P. has been abducted, and he is to help rescue her before the media finds out or unknown forces make her safety irrelevant. Scott has an advantage over most movie characters of his sort: His dialogue is written by David Mamet. So what comes out of his mouth is stringently macho to the core, as opposed to the nickel-plated trash talk of your average action hero. Corrupting power in general is what this movie and its "worker bee" hero come to challenge, and this smart, nervy battle is as gripping as the conflict is timeless. JD


Films reviewed by:
GB: Gregg Barrios
JD: John DeFore
LMF: Laura Fries
SGK: Steven G. Kellman
WK: Wendi Kimura
AL: Albert Lopez
JM: Jonathan Marcus
AP: Alejandro Pérez
RP: Rich Perin
JW: Joe Weiss
EW: Elaine Wolff


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