Safar e Ghandehar **/**** starring Niloufar Pazira, Hassan Tantai, Sadou Teymouri written and directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf
by Walter ChawKandahar is a science-fiction film about a terrifying and unknowable alien culture and the human anthropologist who must disguise herself to gain entry into its Byzantine infrastructure (thus often reminding me of Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow), and it is the recipient of perhaps the most serendipitous release in film history. Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Kandahar is either a stunningly incompetent film or an amazingly evocative one. Perhaps best described as both, the piece alternates between sledgehammer images and awful didactic exposition. An argument can be made, and a good one, that the plight of Afghani women under the medieval rule of The Taliban deserves to be treated as a medieval passion play, with all the implied attendant allegorical characters (the pilgrim, the fallen child, the doctor, the thief) and mannered execution.
½*/**** starring Cuba Gooding Jr., James Coburn, Randy Birch, Joanna Bacalso screenplay by Jim Kouf and Tommy Swerdlow & Michael Goldberg and Mark Gibson & Philip Halprin, based on the book Winterdance: the Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod by Gary Paulsen directed by Brian Levant
by Walter Chaw Brian Levant's Snow Dogs counts on adult audiences rationalizing that although it was terrible, at least their kids liked it. Why is it that the standards we hold for our children are substantially lower when it comes to the movies? (And if kids will probably like anything, why not expose them to something a little less offensive than Snow Dogs?) It isn't so much that Snow Dogs finds its humour in a black man getting humiliated by a pack of dogs who are smarter than him, nor that it also mines for yuks by placing a black man in mortal peril because of his suicidal stupidity. No, the moment that Snow Dogs crossed a line for me was when Cuba Gooding Jr., an Oscar-winning African-American actor (one of, what, six?), gets comically treed by a ferocious dog.
Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages ****/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B+ starring Juliette Binoche, Thierry Neuvic, Sepp Bierbichler, Ona Lu Yenke written and directed by Michael Haneke
by Bryant Frazer In the vignette that opens Code Unknown, a young girl in pigtails, maybe 9 or 10 years old, cowers against a plain wall, trembling before director Michael Haneke's static camera. If you know Haneke's work--his previous film at the time, Funny Games, had depicted the torture and murder of a bourgeois French mom and dad plus their fair-haired moppet--the image is more than a little disturbing. But Haneke immediately pulls the rug out. Rather than cry, the girl suddenly stands and smiles, looking expectantly towards the camera. Haneke then cuts to reverse angles on different children, in close-up, also looking towards the camera. The girl has an audience, and so we understand that she was giving a performance. In this case, it's a game of charades among deaf children, with the spectators attempting to guess, using sign language, what the girl was trying to convey. "Alone?" one girl signs. The girl in pigtails shakes her head. Another signs, "Hiding place?" No. Nor is she trying to convey "guilty conscience," "gangster," "sad," or even "locked up." In the face of so many impassive classmates, the girl in pigtails finally looks weary and maybe on the verge of tears for real. With that, the screen goes black, and the title appears: Code Unknown.
*½/**** Image A- Sound A Extras A starring Colin Farrell, Scott Caan, Ali Larter, Gabriel Macht screenplay by Roderick Taylor and John Rogers directed by Les Mayfield
by Walter Chaw Thinking that Oscar-winner Kathy Bates had reached a career nadir as a Bible-thumpin' mama in Adam Sandler's deplorable The Waterboy, colour me surprised to note that Ms. Bates actually plumbs a new depth in reprising that performance for Les Mayfield's painful American Outlaws. The "Dawson's Creek" Western also marks the second time that Terry O'Quinn has been in Young Guns and Timothy Dalton in The Rocketeer, leading me to conclude that I have wasted altogether too much of my life watching terrible movies.
*/**** starring Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson, Michael Ealy screenplay by Grant Nieporte directed by Gabriele Muccino
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. I'm gonna take a stab at the title: Seven pounds is how much an Oscar weighs, am I right? Will Smith reunites with his Pursuit of Happyness director Gabriele Muccino to fashion another awards-season failure that proves every bit as icky and misguided. An extended episode of "Secret Millionaire", Seven Pounds transforms a Melvin and Howard conceit into the story of an undercover Samaritan intent on changing the lives of seven worthy strangers. Why? It doesn't really matter, does it? Not when Smith, as Ben Thomas, a guilt-wracked IRS agent/aerospace engineer trying to atone for the tragedy that is his life, turns on the red-rims and the waterworks, all quivery lips like the box jellyfish Ben keeps as a pet. There's poor little Emily (Rosario Dawson), with a rare blood type and an enlarged heart (four sizes too big!); and poor little Ezra (Woody Harrelson), who can't get a second look from a truck-stop waitress because, eww, he's blind!; and poor Connie Tepos (Elpidia Carrillo), who's afraid to leave her abusive boyfriend even though her two small children are in peril. Enter Bagger Vance--er, Ben Thomas--to sweep Emily off her feet, insult Ezra to see if he has a temper (or a spine), and give Connie his house. Throughout, we're treated to flashes of the calamity that's brought Ben so low as Smith's charisma and innate likeability remain the only things keeping the film remotely compelling to the extent that it is. It's an old-timey melodrama at its heart, nothing on its mind except tugging at the heartstrings and bothering awards-season viewers with the irritating tickle that they're being diddled without their consent by another smooth-talking, empty-headed bit of unforgivable--and gross--treacle.
*/**** starring Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal screenplay by Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal directed by Mike Newell
by Walter Chaw Julia Roberts films, by and large, seem to hate men. In a real way, her pictures are as objectionable as those films regularly pilloried for objectifying women (and those like the unforgivable Love Actually that somehow slip under the radar for doing the same), functioning as something of a reactionary version of feminism that seeks to denigrate the opposite gender as the sole means toward gender equality. The big secret about films like Mona Lisa Smile is that they're every bit the big-budget Hollywood spectacle film derided by a goodly portion of its audience as puerile, predictable, and thematically reprehensible. Because Mona Lisa Smile is so much the child of formula, it's difficult to muster much energy in condemning the film by itself--by itself, after all, it's handsomely mounted and well-performed. But as a symptom of that facile societal desire for superficial uplifts and comforting negative stereotypes, the smoothness of the coating for this bitter pill deserves some measure of profound distaste.
by Bill Chambers Love him or hate him, there are simply no two ways around the fact that An Evening with Kevin Smith is one of the most entertaining standup films, if it can indeed be called that, since the heyday of Richard Pryor. Well-shot footage--compiled by J.M. Kenny, showing better comic instincts than he did as producer of the Nancy Pimental mockumentary on The Sweetest Thing's DVD(s)--from Q&As in which the entrepreneurial Smith participated at various college campuses across the United States, this 225-minute presentation opens and closes with Smith discussing his on-screen alter ego Silent Bob, the rare idiot icon made famous by the performer rather than the other way around. (It's why equating himself with such residents of the catchphrase graveyard as Pauly Shore is his least successful routine in An Evening with Kevin Smith--Silent Bob doesn't epitomize Smith's popularity.) Moreover, Smith is anything but bashful; you'll only wish he was speechless as he describes open-sore intercourse with his wife-to-be.
*½/**** DVD - Image B- Sound A- Extras B BD - Image A Sound A- Extras B starring Ben Stiller, Michelle Monaghan, Malin Akerman, Rob Corddry screenplay by Scot Armstrong and Leslie Dixon and Bobby Farrelly & Peter Farrelly & Kevin Barnett, based on the short story "A Change of Plan" by Bruce Jay Friedman directed by Peter Farrelly & Bobby Farrelly
by Walter Chaw Elaine May used to be the comedy writing and performing partner of Mike Nichols, and because I like her 1972 film The Heartbreak Kid so much, I've always wondered how much better The Graduate would have been had May directed it. Indeed, a May-helmed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? could be excruciating--well, more so. For a while, anyway, May was the brave one, ethnically and otherwise, and I don't know of many people who could've turned the premise that drives the original The Heartbreak Kid into such a delicate, even sensitive (certainly human) piece. If it were going to be remade (and it has, with Ben Stiller in the Charles Grodin role and Malin Akerman in the Jeannie Berlin role), Peter and Bobby Farrelly would seem to be the right ones for the job.
½*/**** Image A Sound A starring F. Murray Abraham, Gabriel Byrne, Geraldine Chaplin, Robert De Niro screenplay by Mary McGuckian, based on the novel by Thornton Wilder directed by Mary McGuckian
by Walter Chaw Given its cast as well as its presumption to chart the hazy intersection between predestination and circumstance, Mary McGuckian's excruciatingly dull The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the third adaptation of Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, might be the biggest miscalculation of the year. Start with Robert De Niro as the corrupt Archbishop of Lima, presiding over the inquisition of Brother Juniper (Gabriel Byrne). Six years previous Juniper witnessed the unceremonious snapping of the titular bridge, which sent five random people to their howling doom. Had they known how boring our good brown-robed pilgrim would make them out to be, I wouldn't wonder why they didn't try to float. No, Brother Juniper has decided that he's going to write the world's dullest book about this quintet of unfortunates so as to perhaps accidentally ken the mysterious workings of the Almighty in the small lives of small people.
**½/**** starring Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell screenplay by Ann Peacock and Andrew Adamson and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely directed by Andrew Adamson
by Walter Chaw I'm offended by the marketing for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (hereafter Narnia 1)--not the trailers (which are pedestrian) or the print ads, per se, but the campaign to pre-screen reels to churches and church groups, including Colorado's wildly divisive rightwing activist organization Focus on the Family. It's not something I'm terribly surprised to see from Walden Media--but it's something that strikes me as peculiar coming from the gay-friendly Walt Disney Pictures, a studio currently "suffering" a boycott from Focus on the Family that aims, in part, to force Disney to explain their "Jekyll and Hyde" products and policies. Of the two hypocrisies, fiduciary vs. ideological, I guess I'd favour one over the other, not being in the business of weighing sins, as it were.
ZERO STARS/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras D starring Kevin Bacon, Marcia Gay Harden, Miles Heizer, Marin Hinkle screenplay by Micky Levy directed by Alison Eastwood
by Ian Pugh Alison Eastwood's directorial debut makes its first--and, as it turns out, fatal--misstep by taking the wrong page from her father Clint's own career, applying a fundamentally tragic story to the straightforward misery of his winter output, thus bypassing the elegiac poetry of his late fall period. Distant wives dying of cancer, mentally unstable mothers tossing themselves into the paths of moving trains, and no one given the benefit of any examination beyond the prodding reminder that such things happen every day: Rails & Ties is another stultifying entry in the post-Crash, post-Babel cycle of cinema that doesn't want to educate or enlighten you with any perspective about these occurrences or their effect on humanity--it just wants to transform you into an emotional punching bag.
*/**** Image B Sound A Extras B- directed by William Baker, Alan MacDonald
by Walter Chaw A quick glance at the back cover of the KylieFever2002 <In Concert - Live in Manchester> DVD divulges three questions I couldn't help but answer before actually indulging in the spectacle from start to finish. The answers are that "Fever" and "In Your Eyes" are not what you think they are, and that "Locomotion" and "The Crying Game" are indeed, exactly what you think they are. The exercise, in short, is a good news/bad news scenario.
BLOOD DIAMOND */**** starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly, Djimon Hounsou, Michael Sheen screenplay by Charles Leavitt directed by Edward Zwick
APOCALYPTO ***/**** starring Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Jonathan Brewer, Morris Birdyellowhead screenplay by Mel Gibson & Farhad Safinia directed by Mel Gibson
by Walter Chaw After sending Matthew Broderick to head a Negro battalion in the Civil War and Tom Cruise to witness--and survive--the end of Feudal Japan, director Edward Zwick dispatches Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly to Sierra Leone and its own diamond-fuelled Civil War to moralize endlessly from the superior ethical vantage afforded by time and privilege. (That they also lend a much-needed nougat centre to Blood Diamond's thin chocolate coating goes without saying.) The Denzel Washington/Ken Watanabe token this time around is the oft-similarly-abused Djimon Hounsou: as the DC Comics-sounding Solomon Vandy, Hounsou seeks to trade a rare pink diamond for the life of his son, who's been molded by the evil Sierra Leonians into a soulless murdering/raping machine.
*/**** starring Wesley Snipes, Kris Kristofferson, Jessica Biel, Ryan Reynolds written and directed by David S. Goyer
by Walter Chaw A genuinely bad film, Blade: Trinity gains a little currency by banking on some of the hot topics in our cultural diaspora (blacks vs. whites, rich vs. poor, privileged vs. ghettoized) as well as sporting a pretty heady fascination with progeny and parentage. But it's not nearly enough to forgive the film's excrescent dialogue, tepid action scenes, or asinine performances. It finds David S. Goyer, writer of all three Blade films in addition to Alex Proyas's modern classic Dark City, at the helm of a feature for the second time having learned nothing from Proyas and Blade II's Guillermo Del Toro. When the director of an action film takes pains to turn off the lights right before each action scene is set to begin, begin to worry. If Goyer does anything, he confirms the idea that if you're not a brilliant writer (like Wes Anderson, say), then you probably shouldn't be directing the mediocre scripts you've written (like George Lucas, say), because writers who usher their own scripts to the screen tend to think of their word as law instead of as a good place to start. For the first time in this series, I was bored, disinterested, and didn't get any kind of blaxploitation charge out of Wesley Snipes cool-mutha-shut-yo-mouf method-spawned half-vampire avenger. If Blade: Trinity is the end of the cycle, it came one movie too late.
*½/**** Image A- Sound B Extras B- starring Amber Tamblyn, America Ferrera, Blake Lively, Alexis Bledel screenplay by Delia Ephron and Elizebth Chandler, based on the novel by Ann Brashares directed by Ken Kwapis
by Walter Chaw The quartet of best pals portrayed in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants are, we're told, complementary parts of one consciousness, which goes some way towards explaining why it is that individually they seem like machine-tooled fonts of tween didacticism. They're Judy Blume-spawned pods: the fat, brassy one with speeches about the importance of being fat and brassy; the slut with mother issues and speeches about regret; the frigid one who lightens up; and the morose one who learns to set aside her barbed irony at the expense of a disease-of-the-week urchin with a message of her own. Although the whole thing's too long as it is, there's barely enough room in the picture for each of the girls to have a complete narrative arc, and so we're given preachy shorthand speechifying in lieu of character complexity. It's a TIGER BEAT quiz about puberty and it's astonishingly irritating, even if you can spot glimmers of truth in there amid the weeping and screeching.