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Cute romance
4 August 2010
Romance comes from the most unexpected places. Despite dating sites that can match up people based on their "compatability" with a lot of questionnaires and computer programs, it's either there, or it isn't. But nowhere is it more unexpected than between Kirk (Jay Baruchel), a scrawny TSA worker and Molly (Alice Eve), a blonde bombshell with a successful party planning business.

There really isn't much of a story here; like the best romances, it's more about the characters than the plot. Speaking of, "romance" is the more prominent genre at play here. Although there are a few funny scenes, this isn't "The 40-Year Old Virgin." Jay Baruchel is probably the most likable geek out there. Michael Cera may have cornered the indie crowd, but Baruchel is less alienating. And it helps that he has immense chemistry with his co-star, Alice Eve (sporting a flawless American accent). They're both nice people, and to the surprise of everyone, especially themselves, they fall for each other. And we believe it.

Jim Field Smith tells the story well; he trusts the characters enough to carry the movie instead of force-feeding us comedy where it isn't needed. This is a very cute film with a hearty laugh or two sprinkled along the way.
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Cool to look at, but that's about it
3 August 2010
In the old days of Hollywood, the spectacle was a grand, rousing story filled with enormous battles, a dastardly villain and a hero that everyone could get behind. Nowadays, it's grand and enormous, but it fails to really be rousing and draw us into the story because there's no one to really care about.

"Clash of the Titans" takes place in a time of gods and man, of heroes and myths. Zeus (Liam Neeson) created man so their continued prayers could give the gods immortality. The problem is that the gods are screwing the humans over, and they're sick of it. When the citizens of Argos destroy a statue of Zeus, Zeus allows his brother Hades (Ralph Fiennes) to get the humans respecting them again by any means he sees fit. Hades gives the King of Argos an ultimatum: either sacrifice his daughter Andromeda (Alexa Davalos), or have his city destroyed by the Kraken. But while Hades has his own plans set it motion, the gods watch nervously as Perseus (Sam Worthington), the mortal son of Zeus, journeys to find a way to defeat the Kraken and save both Argos and Andromeda.

The film, an update of the notoriously cheesy 1981 original, is loaded with special effects. For that part of the film, it works. Visually, the film is meticulously detailed and always cool to look at. Even better is the fact that we can actually see the action scenes. Louis Leterrier does not use the shaky cam to obscure what happens in the fight scenes, and apart from a few minor missteps in the beginning, the action scenes are clear and easy to follow.

Unfortunately, the acting department is where it fails. It's not that the actors are bad, it's just they're all the same: gruff, growly and brooding. Had there been a little time for character development, this could have been a worthy successor to "Lord of the Rings" (in fact, there are scenes where it is trying to be). Alas, it's just all glitz and flashy visuals.

Maybe it's just me, but I think if a human being is ripped in half or decapitated (regardless of the amount of blood shown), I think that deserves an automatic R rating. Had the roughly 10 seconds of footage been edited out or redone, this would be a bona-fide PG-13 movie. But as it is, it should have been rated R. Likewise, the images of some of the breasted creatures were covered up, despite being uncovered in the drawings from Ancient Greece. Go figure.

My rating: rated R for fantasy action/violence throughout including some intense images, and brief language.
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Creation (I) (2009)
The man behind the controversy
2 August 2010
The theory of evolution has been a lightning rod of controversy ever since Charles Darwin published "The Origin of Species" 150 years ago. I guess it was only a matter of time that the film industry made a biopic out of his life. Pity it wasn't better.

Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) is on the brink of discovering the most revolutionary idea in the history of mankind. But such an idea could not arise without controversy, and the idea that life changes over time instead of being created by God drives a wedge between himself and his devoutly religious wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly).

The film is the merging of two stories: Darwin's struggles with his faith and science, and the stress that the death of his eldest daughter, Annie (Martha West) has taken on their marriage. They're not merged particularly well, but it does keep the story moving.

Being vehemently opposed to creationism and intelligent design (which is more or less the same thing under a different name), I wanted to like the film more than I actually did. The film certainly has a lot going for it; Paul Bettany has never been better, and it has Jennifer Connelly (which speaks for itself), and the direction by Jon Amiel is superb. Unfortunately the film is saddled with a clunky and uneven screenplay that loses focus quite often.

"Creation" had a tough time getting distribution in the US. It's another case of the Christian Right trying enforce their beliefs on everyone else through censorship, but I'd be more angry if the film was of better quality.
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Payback (I) (1999)
Finally...a movie that isn't afraid to get down and dirty
28 July 2010
Typically in a mainstream movie where the protagonist is supposed to be a bad guy or an anti-hero, all we get is someone who grumbles and/or shouts a lot to make them seem more "intense." Or if they're feeling really reckless, have him commit some actual crime, like hit someone when he's not supposed to. But it's all token stuff that no one would really bat an eye at in a movie, so in the end it comes off as looking like a poser. That doesn't happen here.

The trailers make this out to be like another Mel Gibson movie; light, jokey and harmlessly mischievous. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a dark, brutal and violent movie. Not for the faint hearted.

This is a noir/revenge movie. Porter (Mel Gibson) is a low rent criminal whose wife (Debra Kara Unger) and partner, Val (Gregg Henry) betray him and steal his 70 grand from a score that the three of them took down. But Porter isn't dead, and he wants his money.

"Payback" is actually two movies rolled into one. The first half is a film noir, but unfortunately it's pretty bad. It's painfully slow, and the acting is embarrassing. Everyone just grumbles hammily, and no one seems comfortable in this kind of movie. The worst offenders are Gibson and William Devane, who plays one of the crime bosses. Devane is especially bad, if only because he was so creepy in "Marathon Man." It's not until the second half when the film finds its groove and becomes a full blown revenge movie. That's when it really takes off. Unfortunately it takes the better part of an hour to get there, and the movie is only 100 minutes.

Apart from Gibson and Devane, the acting is solid, but unspectacular. They do more or less what they are expected to. Special mention however has to go to Maria Bello and James Coburn. Bello is terrific; she's the lone ray of sunshine in the midst of crooks, psychos and endless violence. We can really feel for her, and she has great chemistry with Gibson. James Coburn is actually quite funny, something that's in very short supply in this world. Sadly he's only in three scenes. David Paymer, who is usually very reliable, is pretty annoying, and Lucy Liu is more over-the-top than she should be as a dominatrix.

Oscar-winning screenwriter Brian Helgeland has a knack for atmosphere, but not pacing. The first half of the movie is so long and dull that it threatened to put me to sleep. And despite the fact that the second part of the movie watchable, it's not good enough to justify watching it.

My rating: Rated R for Pervasive Strong Brutal Violence and Language.
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The Vanishing (1988)
23 July 2010
"The Vanishing" is what gives foreign films a bad name to the masses. It has a great premise, but the execution by George Sluzier turns a potentially intelligent and scary film into a 100 minute snoozefest.

The premise is top notch. Rex Hofman (Gene Bervoets) and his girlfriend, Saskia Wagter (Johanna ter Steege) are going to France for a vacation. Their trip is cut short when Saskia vanishes at a gas station without a trace. Rex is obviously devastated, but after three years pass with no sign of her, he still hasn't given up the hope of finding her. This is probably because he is being taunted by the man who kidnapped her.

The film gets off to a decent start. The first twenty minutes are littered with effective red herrings and good character building scenes. But once Saskia disappears, the film comes to a dead halt. The film is pretty short, but it seems to take forever. Part of the reason is because director George Sluzier inserts long pauses between the dialogue. Nothing much happens in these instances, and all they did was threaten to put me to sleep.

The acting is fine, but none of the actors have much to work with. We understand these characters, but Sluzier spends the middle portion of the movie repeated what we already know about the characters. This is especially irritating because each of the characters traits can be summed up in one word. Even worse, is the pretentious psychobabble that happens at the end. This is a long and extended sequence between the two main characters and should have been the climax of the movie that everything before it built up to. But the movie is lifeless and the movie thinks its being insightful when it's really just stating the obvious.

I really hate minimalist movies. They're boring and pretentious. It represents an ego trip for the wannabe hip director to impress critics. Here's a helpful hint: impress both audiences and critics by telling an engaging story about characters we actually care about.
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The Notebook (2004)
Hate to admit it, but I love this movie
23 July 2010
Let me be upfront and say that I am a guy. This is not my kind of movie. I don't do sudsy melodramas, which this most definitely is. I don't like chick flicks either, which this also is. I don't care if this is a well made movie. Doesn't matter. End of story.

Okay, fine. I liked this movie. A lot. It may be one of the most manipulative good movies out there, but if it works, who cares? This is plain and simply a wonderful movie.

Based on the Nicholas Sparks' novel of the same name, "The Notebook" tells two stories. One is of a summer fling between mill worker Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling) and rich girl Allie Hamilton (Rachel McAdams). The other is of an elderly man named Duke (James Garner) who is reading this story to a present day Allie (Gena Rowlands, mother of director Nick Cassevetes). But how are these two stories connected.

The answer is of course fairly obvious, and the movie wisely doesn't try to hide that fact. The film's real focus is the romance between Noah and Allie, and everything that comes between them.

The film works because of the strong performances and the equally strong direction. To say that Ryan Gosling is an unconventional leading man in this kind of a film is an understatement. Gosling burst onto the film scene in a riveting performance as a Jewish neo-nazi in "The Believer," and went on to play two other creeps and killers before landing this role. Gosling stays true to form and does not approach the role in a conventional way. He's not a model and doesn't pretend to be, but his subtle free spirit energy works, and makes him quite literally impossible not to like. Rachel McAdams is equal to him. She's a rich girl that spurns off his random advances, but Noah doesn't stop, and when she finally humors him, she realizes that, gosh darn it, she actually likes the guy.

Gosling and McAdams are supported by a strong cast of noted character actors. James Garner couldn't possibly be more endearing, willing to give up everything to be with Allie, who is slipping further and further into dementia. Likewise, Gena Rowlands is terrific as the elderly Allie, who is revisiting this story for the first time. Joan Allen is wonderfully wicked as Allie's conservative mother, who is trying to keep Allie from seeing Noah. It's a clichéd role, but Allen imbues it with so much life that the character becomes just as three-dimensional as everyone else. James Marsden is surprisingly good as Allie's new lover, rich boy Lon Hammond. Unlike many romantic complications, he's actually likable (in fact, one could make the argument that he's more likable than Noah at times). Marsden's range is quite limited, but this is his best performance. Sam Shepard is also on hand in a small role as Noah's father, but it's a good performance nonetheless.

Nick Cassevetes has done the impossible: he's made a weeper that will appeal to those who don't prefer to watch movies with a tissue at hand. He does this by taking the melodrama as far as it can go without going overboard, and by establishing a nostalgic tone for the film. Watching the movie is like watching old home movies and revisiting fond memories of the past. The film is photographed by Robert Fraisse, who gives each beautiful shot its dreamy tone.

Sometimes guys must be dragged by their girlfriends to see romance movies. Although they may put up a fight to see this one, they will probably like it as much as I did (whether they will admit it is open to question).
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19 July 2010
Of all the film genres, the one where chemistry between the actors is the most important is the romance. The goal of the romance is to get the viewer to want the characters to be together, but too often actors are matched based on their box office profitability, not whether they can make a connection between them. But every so often, a movie comes along that actually picks actors that work well with each other. This is one of them.

In 1876, Leopold (Hugh Jackman), the Duke of Albany, is being pressured to marry for the sake of bringing cash to his name. But the arrogant and proper Duke wants to wait for love. At the dance where he's supposed to choose a wife, he sees something strange. A man (Liev Schrieber) has been taking pictures of him all day with a tiny little camera. Leopold follows the man, and ends up in 2001. While there, he meets, and subsequently falls for, the man's ex-girlfriend, Kate McCoy (Meg Ryan).

This is not a departure for Meg Ryan in the least. The blonde actress has made a career out of these kinds of movies, and while she's ventured elsewhere a number of times, this is where she's always been home. What's surprising about her performance in this movie is that she's a little flat, and is outshone by her co-star, Hugh Jackman, who is positively irresistible. Cultured, sweet and polite, Jackman dominates the role and walks away with the film. Jackman is a great actor, but this is easily his best performance. Schrieber and Breckin Meyer, as Kate's brother, provide comic relief, but this is Jackman's show.

This is a solid, but overlong romance. It has all the requisite elements: likable characters, good humor, and smoldering chemistry between the leads. But it's way too long, and the film loses a lot of its vitality whenever Jackman isn't around.

Still, if you're looking for a good date movie, "Kate & Leopold" is a great option.
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Below (2002)
Creepy, but nonsensical
16 July 2010
I am at a loss for what to rate "Below." It does what many horror/thrillers fail to do: generate suspense and general creepiness. On the other hand, it makes absolutely no sense.

This is a ghost story (although the horror elements are inadequately melded onto the "U-571" ripoff story). The USS Tiger Shark has located a sunken British hospital vessel in the Atlantic Ocean. The submarine takes in 3 survivors, including a woman named Claire (Olivia Williams). The addition of a woman on board makes a lot of the men nervous because of naval superstitions of having a woman on board a navy ship being unlucky. Indeed, mysterious things start happening, and the body count begins to rise, Claire and another sailor, Odell (Matthew Davis) begin to think that the ship is cursed.

The story is not that complicated, but by trying to play with our minds and making us wonder if we saw what we thought we did, director David Twohy goes into Paul McGuigan territory: presenting key elements of the story with extraordinary subtlety and filler with the impact of an atom bomb. Needless to say, this is not the way to tell any story, much less a ghost story.

The acting is surprisingly effective. Matthew Davis has been previously relegated to supporting roles in dumb teen flicks, but he handles a headlining role with ease. Bruce Greenwood is terrific as always (even in the worst roles, Greenwood still manages to impress). Olivia Williams adds a dose of class to the proceedings, and she never goes over-the-top when she gets scared. "Hangover" fans will delight in seeing the star of that movie, Zach Galifianakis, in an early role here (and still acting just as weird).

I'm tempted to recommend the film solely on the basis that it gave me the creeps but by the end of the film I was so frustrated and lost that it didn't work for me anymore. It's a huge mess, but it's a creepy mess.
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Shocking, Brutal, Powerful
10 July 2010
I've been sitting here for about twenty minutes deciding how to start this review, and I can't think of one. Maybe it's just best to describe what the film is like. "Boys Don't Cry" is an absolutely riveting film. It held my absolute attention from frame one, and as the end credits rolled, I sat in my chair completely stunned.

A young man saunters into a bar and starts chatting up a girl sitting two seats away from him. He tells her his name is Brandon, and she appears to like him. After a burly man starts getting fresh with her, he steps in, and a brawl ensues. Brandon makes quick friends with the girl, named Candace (Alica Goranson), and her friends. But this charming, sensitive young man is hiding a secret: he's biologically female.

This film is based on the true story of Brandon Teena, a trans man who was brutally raped and later murdered by John Lotter and Tom Nissen, two men he considered his friends. As told by co-writer/director Kimberly Peirce, it is a fiercely compelling and devastating story.

Much of the reason why this film works so well is because the performances are superb. Hilary Swank won an Oscar for her portrayal of Brandon. Although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made some serious blunders in who they give their awards, this is not one of them. Swank is nothing short of incredible. I've seen "The Year of Living Dangerously," where Linda Hunt portrayed a male character (and won an Oscar for it). Hunt was terrific, but prior knowledge inhibited me from completely buying into the character. Somehow Swank manages to overcome this, and it took about ten minutes for me to stop seeing "Swank playing a guy" and just see Brandon Teena. But the physical transformation isn't the only reason why she's so good. Swank embodies the character completely to a degree that I've never seen before. Brandon is not a rocket scientist, and unquestionably naiive. He knows what he wants, but he fails to really think about the possible consequences of trying to pass himself off as a man. In fact, his penchant for trouble and his naiveté actually present the possibility of a personality disorder. Nevertheless, Brandon is a tender and romantic soul whose sensitivity makes the girls swoon over him. This is probably one of the most complex characters ever to grace the screen, and Swank creates a person who is startlingly real. This is not just a breakthrough performance; this is a performance of a lifetime.

Swank walks away with the film, but the other actors are also great. Chloe Sevigny is great as Lana, the girl who becomes romantically involved with Brandon. The development of this subplot is rather rushed, but the performances by Swank and Sevigny make it work nonetheless. Lana is a wounded soul who desperately wants to escape her life of boredom and reprehensible men, and Brandon is her escape. It's a low-key performance, but it works very well. Peter Saarsgard is an actor who plays facets of himself, but "Peter Saarsgard as a psychopath" works as John Lotter. He seems like an okay guy, but there is always the potential for violence whenever he's around. Unfortunately, Brandon never realizes this, or perhaps he is so desperate for his transformation to work that he ignores it. Alicia Goranson is very good as Candace, who's even more naiive and simple-minded than Brandon, and Jeanetta Cunningham is excellent as Lana's alcoholic mother.

The film is expertly told by Kimberly Peirce. It's not flawless (as I said, the Brandon/Lana romance is a little rushed, there's a "dream shot" that is ill-placed, and one of Brandon's crimes is confusing), but it is always compelling. She has a keen eye for establishing the setting. This is small town Nebraska, where there is nothing to do but get drunk every night and go to work to pick up a paycheck so you can drink some more. This enhances the story by creating a place where this all can happen. Boredom and a lack of education have given birth to a place where something this horrifying can occur.

This is not an easy film to watch. But for those who venture into this film will find a film that is absolutely unforgettable.
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Some big laughs
9 July 2010
I don't pretend to be well versed in the kinds of movies that "Not Another Teen Movie" lampoons. I haven't seen any of John Hughes' teen-oriented movies, but some of the big ones from the nineties have made it on the ever-growing list of movies that I have seen. Still, like "Scary Movie," which started the spoof craze (that has LONG since worn out its welcome) the humor is such that one doesn't have to view every movie that is skewered by the film.

"Not Another Teen Movie" takes potshots at a slew of teen movies, but the story (if you can call it that--it's really just a clothesline to string the gags) mainly follows the plot of "She's All That." Jake Wyler (Chris Evans) is the most popular guy in school. After being unceremoniously dumped by his equally popular girlfriend, Priscilla (Jamie Pressly), he makes a bet with his friends that he can turn any girl into the prom queen. The selection is of course Janey Briggs (Chyler Leigh, who is surprisingly on-target in her portrayal of Rachel Leigh Cook in "She's All That"). Of course, they fall for each other (duh!).

Like all saturation comedies, the humor is hit and miss. Some of the stuff is funny, others don't work or are a bit too obvious. Even during the dead spots between the big laughs, there are always some clever asides that are amusing.

None of the actors are big names (Mia Kirshner and Lacey Chabert made their names later on), and for the most part, it's not hard to see why. Chris Evans is one of Hollywood's big "why's?" He has little to no talent, yet he's making big money. Whatever appeal he may have is not on screen in this movie. He's more wooden (in a bad way) than the Freddie Prinze Jr., whom he's parodying, and he's too fatuous to be funny, even for a satire. More impressive is TV actress Chyler Leigh. She's one to watch. Mia Kirshner is solid, but not as deliciously evil as Sarah Michelle Gellar in "Cruel Intentions" (special note about this reference-it points out how twisted the plot of "Cruel Intentions is). Eric Christian Olsen is annoying (Olsen CAN act, but just not in comedy). Special appearances from Randy Quaid and Molly Ringwald are good.

The problem with the movie is two-fold. The film lacks focus and director Joel Gallen makes some of the gags far too obvious. Admittedly, the point of the movie isn't to tell a story, it's to rip other stories to shreds. Be that as it may, the film seems more like a series of comic set-pieces than an actual movie, something that didn't occur with the much funnier and successful "Scary Movie." The other problem is more serious because it ruins many of the potential jokes. A degree of exaggeration is key for humor, but even that has its limits. Unfortunately, Gallen doesn't recognize this. Then again, with someone who's background is in MTV, I guess that's to be expected.

It's no classic, but there is enough stuff to make it worth a rental.
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Dead Silence (2007)
Creepy ghost story
7 July 2010
There is something especially creepy about a normally innocent object as something to fear. Dolls are a stereotypical plaything for children; not exactly something particularly scary. But viewed through a different lens, one can see something a little more sinister. The perfectly pale skin, the unblinking stare...all the sudden the most innocent toy has become something much creepier.

Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten) is living with his wife Lisa (Laura Regan) when he gets a mysterious package on his doorstep. Soon after, he returns to his house from getting takeout to find his wife murdered, and a detective (Donnie Wahlberg) thinking he killed her. But as Jamie digs deeper, he begins to think that the answer to his wife's murder lies with the ghost story of his home town, the ventriloquist Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts).

"Dead Silence" is a ghost story. Of all the subgenres of horror, atmosphere is probably the most important for the ghost story. And believe me, "Dead Silence" has a brilliant sense of it. The film has an off-white coloring that is so strong that had it not been a horror movie, it could have been an advertisement for a beach house in "Better Homes and Gardens." The sense of decay and death is pervasive throughout each frame. If there's any reason why this movie works as well as it does, it's because of the atmosphere.

The film's successes are certainly not because of the acting. Even for a horror movie, the performances are pretty bland. All the actors have shown promise in the past, but neither Kwanten nor Amber Valetta give decent performances. Kwanten was terrific in his guest appearance on "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit," and Valetta was positively luminous in "Hitch," but they are both flat here. Not that the horror genre is known for good performance from the heroes, but that's no reason to slack off. The performances from the character actors are good, however. Bob Gunton plays a sympathetic character for a change, and Broadway actress Judith Roberts is creepy as Mary Shaw.

James Wan and Leigh Whannell were the creative minds behind the scary (and gory) "Saw." "Dead Silence" is inferior to their breakout hit, but one has to give them credit for trying something new instead of sticking to producing an endless stream of sequels (although they did do that too). Still, if you like your scary movies strong on atmosphere but (relatively) light on gore, "Dead Silence" is worth at least a rental.
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From Hell (2001)
One of the darkest films that I have ever seen
5 July 2010
"From Hell" takes place in our worst nightmares, a place so dark and scary that even walking around is enough to drive someone mad. This is a very, VERY dark film. It's so dark that it makes "Seven" look like "The Wizard of Oz." Then again, you wouldn't expect a movie based on Jack the Ripper to be light and cheery, now would you?

London, 1888. A young prostitute was murdered in the Whitechapel district. The police enlist the help of Fredrick Abberline (Johnny Depp) because of the savagery of the murder and because his opium hallucinations help him solve crimes. But more victims fall, Abberline begins to realize that these murders are connected.

The film has a brilliantly dark atmosphere. You know that odd creepy feeling you get when you read about haunted mental asylums, and images of demented doctors performing horrific experiments come to mind? That's what "From Hell" feels like. It's an unsettling feeling, and the Hughes Brothers are skillful in their employment of this unnerving feeling.

The acting is solid, although the film's best hand is the atmosphere. Johnny Depp, who according to his IMDb bio is fascinated by Jack the Ripper, plays things straight (as far as Depp can go in that direction). Heather Graham is also solid as Mary Kelly, the prostitute that Abberline develops feelings for. She speaks with a credible Cockney accent, and tones down the perkiness that she's known for to a very low level. Ian Holm and Robbie Coltrane provide good support as well.

The problem with the film is the story. Whether it was in the scripting stage or in production, the story is confusing at times, particularly at the end. This is one of those movies where you have to pay attention, or else you will get lost (which is quite possible, considering how strong the atmosphere is).

Let me make myself clear: this is a very dark and disturbing film. Most of the violence and gore are left to the imagination (which will be on overkill due to grisly descriptions of the murders), but there is no doubt that this movie deserves as hard of an R rating as can be found. Definitely not for the faint of heart or the blood-phobic.
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Good adventure yarn
4 July 2010
I love movies like this. Movies that explore new places with new ideas, people, and images. The excitement of finding a long lost city is salivating to me, and "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" attempts, and adequately succeeds, to create this adventurous spirit.

Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox) is a wannabe adventurer who is stuck in a job fixing the boiler at a museum. He thinks he knows how to find the lost city of Atlantis, but is scoffed at by the museum curators. Then he is contacted by Preston Whitmore (John Mahoney) who offers him to lead a fully funded expedition to find the lost city.

The voice talents are solid. I don't think there was any other choice for the role of Milo than Michael J. Fox. Fox's breaking voice and his ability to portray geeky eagerness and absolute shock are perfect for the character. James Garner is also effective as Rourke, the head muscle of the expedition. Rourke is a genial guy, but his motives may not be what they appear to be. Special mention has to go to Claudia Christian, who is excellent as the dangerously beautiful Helga, Rourke's right hand.

This film was directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, and produced by Don Hahn. These three were behind the production of "Beauty and the Beast," the first animated film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Although this is a good film and I definitely recommend it, it's something of a let down. The problem isn't the story or the characters, it's the animation. It's so crude that it's almost an insult to call it a Disney movie. For Saturday morning cartoons, it would be acceptable. But for a full-length theatrically released movie, it's shocking. Audiences who paid good money to see this in the theater and who are expecting something along the lines of "The Lion King," or even "Hercules," deserve better.

Nevertheless, this is a fun movie for the whole family. Maybe not the little ones because there is some violence and action, but for those in grade school, it should be a great time.
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Brothers (I) (2009)
Has its moments
3 July 2010
Despite having some moments of real power and a pair of stirring performances, I can't recommend Jim Sheridan's remake of "Brothers." It's one of those films that goes through the motions, but neglects to try to capture the essence of the story and its characters.

Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is a captain of the US Marine Corps. He has a loving wife, Grace (Natalie Portman) and two daughters. Sadly, Sam is killed in Afghanistan, and Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), Sam's wayward brother who was just released from prison, grows attached to Grace and her daughters. But Sam is not dead, and when he arrives home, the tension in the household quickly nears its breaking point.

The problem with the story is that it plays safe. There is almost no character development and a clunky storyline. What were the producers thinking? They had two Oscar nominees in their cast, and the headlining star of one of the biggest franchises in film history! It's as if they still didn't trust in their actors' abilities to create real characters (Granted, playing the web-slinger shouldn't stretch anyone's range, but money is always a bigger player than talent in the film industry).

Of the three central performances, only Tobey Maguire is surprising. He is very good. He has been in the movies for a while, but this is the first time I've actually seen him play someone other than a geek (well, play a non-geek well, because he was sorely miscast in "The Good German"). Maguire is quite good at playing the aloof Sam who is undoubtedly suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He doesn't give the best performance in the film, however. That title goes to Jake Gyllenhaal, who seems to be able to do anything. Natalie Portman is the lone weak link. It's sad; the once promising starlet's performances have taken a turn for the worse in recent years (although she's eons better than she was in "Goya's Ghosts," a film she might want to consider leaving off her resume).

I saw Jim Sheridan's earlier film, "In America," which was well made, but it was too afraid to show any real struggle, which made the conflict inert. With "Brothers," he is more open to showing real drama. Unfortunately, his approach is stale and mechanical. I'm guessing this would have been a much better film had it not been edited to its very bones. Much of the story seems to be missing.

There are some good things about "Brothers," but the film is too flawed to give it a true recommendation.
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Point Break (1991)
Good, but could have been so much better
1 July 2010
Suspenseful and exciting action sequences require three things: an attention-grabbing event, energetic camera-work, and an appropriate amount of character development. "Point Break" has the former, but not the latter. As a result, the film's countless action sequences raise the pulse, but only a little.

Ex-football star Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) has been transferred to the FBI bank robbery division in Los Angeles. He's coming right in the middle of a string of bank robberies by a group who calls themselves "The Ex-Presidents," after the masks of former presidents that the robbers wear to protect their identities. Utah's partner, Pappas (Gary Busey) thinks that the robbers may be surfers, so he sends Utah to the beaches to learn how to surf and infiltrate their ranks.

The problem with the film is that we are not given a single person to care about in this film. There isn't just very little character development, there is NO character development. One could argue that action movies like this don't need it, and to add it would only slow the film down. In many cases this is true, but as Jan de Bont proved three years later, it is indeed possible to create adequately developed characters while still keeping the pace high.

It's such a shame that this movie forgot a key element to creating a good action movie. The performances are all solid, even clichéd development probably would have done the trick. And director Kathryn Bigalow knows a thing or two about pacing an action movie.

Still, it's worth at least a rental. The action sequences are inventive enough to keep a decent level of interest, and the film is a cult favorite so you may end up appreciating it more than I did.

My rating: PG-13 for violence and language.
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Slight romantic comedy
29 June 2010
I wanted to like this movie more than I actually did. It's an original movie, and it's not based on a comic book (even one no one read). But even though the comedy is amusing and the action scenes weren't directed by a hummingbird on cocaine, it's just not worth the trip to the theater.

June (Cameron Diaz) is an average woman on her way home to Wichita to attend her sister's wedding. En route, she meets the charming Roy Miller (Tom Cruise). Before long, June is dragged on an adventure with Roy to prevent a super-powered battery from being sold on the black market.

"Knight and Day" is more of a love story than an action movie. The espionage story drives the plot, but it only serves to build the relationship between June and Roy. Cruise and Diaz have plenty of chemistry between them, but I just wish it was in a better movie. The story is too silly and the film tries way too hard for laughs, almost to the point of desperation.

The problem is that it's too understated (but not in the way that Judd Apatow movies are). Undoubtedly, this is what director James Mangold was going for. To that extent, he succeeds; the relationship between Roy and June feels like a warm glow. But this kind of romance does not merge well with an action movie plot.

"Knight and Day" is definitely watchable, but it's just not as fun as it wants to be. This is one of those movies that would do better on DVD; cuddle up with a loved one and you might think it's "Casablanca." Otherwise, it seems a little lacking.
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Surprisingly good
25 June 2010
When this movie came out, I desperately wanted to see it, but for the life of me I cannot understand why. Thirteen years later, I finally got around to seeing it. It was NOTHING like I was expecting.

"I Know What You Did Last Summer" was a teenage psychological thriller written by Lois Duncan, but Columbia Pictures turned it into a slasher movie on screen. This infuriated Duncan, whose teenage daughter was brutally murdered in 1989 (as of today, the case remains unsolved). It's a shame, because these changes hurt an already effective suspense thriller.

Four high school friends, Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt), Helen (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Barry (Ryan Phillippe) and Ray (Freddie Prinze Jr.) celebrate their last summer together. On the way home, they accidentally hit a someone. Not wanting to give up their promising futures, they dump the body into the water, intending to carry the secret to their graves. One year later, it becomes clear that someone knows what happened.

People have been calling this a slasher film, and really, this just isn't the case. For a would-be member of this genre, there's surprisingly little violence, and almost no gore to speak of (the film still deserves its R rating, however, because what violence there is, is pretty intense). The film fits better into the psychological thriller genre, and that's a good thing, because the story is the strongest part of the film.

The acting is surprisingly good. All the actors are able to show the effects of keeping a secret like this. None of their lives has turned out the way they thought they would, and their friendships are at best estranged. It's an interesting exploration that is often left ignored in most films of this ilk, especially ones geared towards teens. The actors are good enough to make this credible, and as such, it adds a level of verisimilitude to the film.

I was surprised at how effective this film was. Based on his later film, "D-Tox," Jim Gillespie appeared to have absolutely no talent in creating tension. This movie is consistently suspenseful, and the ending surprised me (then again, I am notoriously bad at guessing whodunits beforehand).

"I Know What You Did Last Summer" has been compared to "Scream," which was also written by Kevin Williamson (this film was written before "Scream," but was only put to film after "Scream's" blockbuster success). Altogether they are different movies. "Scream" is a horror movie through and through; this is a suspense story with horror film elements.

Because of the film's other successes (such as the aforementioned exploration of the characters' relationships post-trauma), I was going to give the film an 8 despite the suspense not being as high as some other films I have given the same rating. But the final scene is horrible. Not only does it not make sense, it completely abandons the credible mental stress that was present throughout the previous 90 minutes.

Still, I highly recommend the film, even if you're not a slasher film fan.

Rated R for some Strong Violence and Language.
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I'm kind of ashamed to say this, but this movie is fun
23 June 2010
"From Paris With Love" is one of those movies that in a perfect world, would be a disaster. The plot makes almost no sense, the characters are two dimensional at best, the dialogue is bland, and there is absolutely no substance to any part of this film. But it does one thing that many films try, but fail, to do: generate excitement. Normally, this would be a given in an action movie, but these days when the intelligence level is lowered to accommodate those who think MTV is the intellectual equal of "Masterpiece Theater" and teens with attention spans that are so short that a clip that lasts for more than one second is too long, a film that can get the adrenaline running must be taken notice of, regardless of its other shortcomings. After all, in a movie like this, that's all that matters.

James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is the aide to an American diplomat in France, but he's training to be a CIA agent. However, he gets more than he bargained for when he's paired up with live-wire agent Charlie Wax (John Travolta). Before he can actually register what's going on, Wax drags James on a violent adventure to take down a whole bunch of bad guys.

During the course of their careers, both John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys Meyers have displayed tremendous acting ability. But this isn't that kind of movie. All that's required of them is for Travolta to chew the scenery and Meyers to look shocked (or on occasion, sad). Both of them do their job extremely well. Actually, saying that Travolta does "scenery chewing" is an understatement. He actually devours it. Meyers is playing an American here, and his accent is so good that it's a little shocking at first. It also helps that Meyers can generate sympathy by simply standing there.

Pierre Morel's previous film, "Taken" was a successful (and original) film, but although there's even less substance in this film, it works a lot better. The reason is that "Taken" relied on character identification to generate suspense. "From Paris With Love," however, does not. In a way, it's like "Shoot 'Em Up;" the only thing the movie needs is the energy (although it helps that this film, unlike "Taken," is more competently acted and is a bonafide R rated movie, not an R rated movie edited into a PG-13 movie.

Lightweight it may be, but it does work.
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Sleeping Dogs Lie (I) (2006)
Uneven to the extreme
23 June 2010
What's your biggest secret? I'll bet you it's not as big as Amy's (Melinda Page Hilton). And as she can tell you, honesty may not be the best policy for some things. Especially when it comes to her secret.

Amy (Melinda Page Hilton) is happily engaged to her boyfriend, John (Bryce Johnson), and through their conversation, he decides that they should be completely honest with each other and share their deepest secrets. Pretty soon, they're both going to wish they hadn't.

Because I actually want this review to be published on IMDb, I can't disclose what she actually did (although when you look at the poster and the synopsis, it's kind of obvious...and the quote is on the film's page). It's pretty shocking, but that's about as far as the movie goes. For someone whose mind is this twisted, there could have been plenty of places for this movie to go. Yet after an occasionally funny first half, it delves into a romantic melodrama that still doesn't really work.

At least the acting is solid. Melinda Page Hilton must be given credit for her courage. The content of this film requires someone who is not against taking some very big risks. It also helps that she is solid in the role. It's not Oscar worthy, but it gets the job done. Bryce Johnson is a little less successful, but he's not bad. The best performance goes to Colby French, Amy's co-worker and confidant. Of all the characters in the film, he's the one I felt for the most.

Bobcat Goldthwait has a twisted mind, to be sure, but he doesn't lack the courage to do anything with this situation. This film could have been a great screwball comedy, but Goldthwait actually expects us to care about these characters and what happens to them. To an extent, I did, but not enough for the amount of time that is devoted to their dramas. The secret is shocking, but I got over it FAR sooner than the characters. Worse is his static shot selection. The film looks bland. To anyone who is not a film critic, that may not be noticeable (as a label), but everyone will know that Goldthwait really fails to draw us into the story.

"Sleeping Does Lie" isn't a terrible film, but it's not a very good one either. I'll just call it a "missed opportunity."
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Gut bustingly funny and actually endearing
22 June 2010
When I first heard about this movie, I became a little irritated. The premise seemed to me like a "romantic comedy for gays" except with a few lines to make it a "bromance." It makes sense, as most guys in the target age group (high schoolers and college aged) are quite uncomfortable discussing sexual orientation in any context (Don't believe me? Try raising the topic with your best buddies). It seemed like it was wimping out instead of taking a chance and really making a movie that could make said guys comfortable about this sort of thing.

This may be the film's intention, but it hides it well. The romance between Peter (Paul Rudd) and Zooey (Rashida Jones) is well-integrated and quite important to the story. If anything, it represents a major stepping stone.

I approached this film with much trepidation; I don't especially like Judd Apatow movies. Some of the stuff is funny, but a lot of it is too understated, like Clark Duke in "Sex Drive" or "Kick Ass" (watch the trailers of either one of those movies and when the dorky kid with glasses talks, you'll see what I mean). Worse, Jason Segel wrote and starred in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," a movie of that ilk that I didn't like at all. Fortunately, none of those characteristics made into this movie. The jokes flow naturally and the film has energy and chemistry between the actors. This result is 90+ minutes of absolute hilarity.

Peter (Paul Rudd) has always been a ladies man. Women love him, and he finds them very easy to talk to. That's one of the reasons why Zooey (Rashida Jones) falls head over heels for him, and when he proposes, she accepts. But once wedding plans get underway, he realizes that he has no best guy friends to make up his share of the wedding party. So with his friends encouragement, he sets out to find a new best guy friend. After a few disastrous "man dates," he runs into Sydney (Jason Segel), a fun loving guy with a lot of advice on how to break loose and have fun.

The best thing about this movie is that everything unfolds naturally. True, it follows the familiar beats of the genre, but nothing that happens is contrived. The characters actions are genuine and make sense from what we know about them, and that makes it more honest (not to mention effective.

The leads are great. Paul Rudd tones down the "funny smartass" personality that made him famous and instead acts like a likable guy, albeit without male/male social skills and a penchant for creating bad nicknames and catchphrases. Peter is an easy guy to like, and he has good chemistry with both of his co-stars, Rashida Jones and Jason Segel. Segel is a revelation. He's one of the most likable characters I've seen on screen in a long time. He's easy going and earnest, the type of guy anyone would want as a best friend. However, some of his philosophies on life and social skills come off as scripted, and try as he might, Segel isn't able to make them sound otherwise. Rashida Jones is also very good (looking and sounding like Jessica Alba, only more relaxed). When Peter tells her about Sydney, she's excited for him. If us guys could all have such wives, we'd be in heaven. As the gay brother who is on hand to give advice about "man dating," Andy Samberg is far less irritating and obnoxious than he was in the utterly awful "Hot Rod," which is near the top of my list of one of the worst movies ever made.

John Hamburg is making a comedy, and like the best ones, he lets everything flow naturally. The humor isn't kept on mute, or drained of energy, or kept low-key. It's totally natural, and that's what makes this such a funny, and dare I say it, touching, comedy. I was actually discussing this film with my best guy friend, and the movie reminded us quite strongly of the sort of things we would do when we were in college together. Movies that have establish that kind of a connection with a viewer don't come along very often.
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Better than the material
21 June 2010
Many films that take place in the deep south have a homey, nostalgic tone to them that feels like you're revisiting faded memories. "The Green Mile" does that, but even though it has strong performances and solid characterization, the story just doesn't quite work.

Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) is a prison guard on Death Row in a Louisiana Prison. Prisoners come in and stay until it's their turn to die, then more prisoners are moved in to take their place. One day, a prisoner is brought in, just like any other. Only this prisoner, named John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), is a towering giant of a man whose size intimidates and shocks everyone there. What's more shocking is the first thing that Coffey says: "Do you leave the lights on after bedtime? I get kinda scared in the dark." Slowly, Paul begins to question whether Coffey has indeed killed the two little girls that he was convicted of. But Coffey holds a secret that will change everything that Paul believes in.

The acting is very good and the characters are well-developed. Tom Hanks is always good, and he's great as the uncertain Paul, but he's willing to become a believer. Michael Clarke Duncan shines as the hulking gentle giant. The shock of seeing this giant man be so childlike is overcome by his terrific performance. Doug Hutchinson is terrifically vile as the sadistic and spoiled Percy; it doesn't take long for the audience to hate him. David Morse, the late Michael Jeter, Barry Pepper, James Cromwell, Sam Rockwell, Bonnie Hunt and a brief appearance by Patricia Clarkson all provide able support.

Darabont's previous film was the similarly themed but inferior (and outlandishly overrated) "The Shawshank Redemption" (it's good, but belongs nowhere near the IMDb Top 250, much less at the top). Unfortunately, the story goes into sitcom-territory in the final hour, and try as they might, Darabont and his cast can't bridge that problem.

"The Green Mile" is wholly watchable, and I don't hesitate to recommend the film. For those in a very undemanding mood and who like this kind of movie, it will probably turn out to be a real winner. Even if you're not in this group (which encompasses a large amount of people), it's still a good film.
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Body of Lies (2008)
20 June 2010
"Body of Lies" is a breath of fresh air in the Hollywood dreck of formulas and special effects. This is an intelligent and well-acted thriller that is completely invigorating. You must pay close attention in order to catch everything, but the great thing about this movie is that it's almost impossible to get lost (because there are little reminders along the way, and it is so involving to begin with).

Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a ground operative of the CIA in Jordan. His task is to find a terrorist named Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutbol), a terrorist responsible for a number of bombings all over Europe. His handler, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) watches his every movie via satellite, while on the ground he is working with the director of Jordanian security, Hani (Mark Strong). And it's never possible to serve once while working with the other.

This is what happens when Hollywood takes a chance and makes a movie for an audience that that doesn't include teenagers with IQs in the double digit range. Fortunately, it's not "Michael Clayton" either, so you don't have to be a Mensa member to get it. Nothing is easily predicted in this film, and the plot trajectory is anything but normal.

The acting is very strong. Leonardo DiCaprio continues to give terrific performances in every film that he's done, and Roger Ferris is another character to add to that list. He's a smart guy, but unlike Ed, who views things from a safe distance back in the US, he experiences everything first hand, which gives him a different perspective than the politicized Ed. Ferris is there to do the job, and he allies himself with whoever will get him closer to that goal. Russell Crowe actually acts for once instead of just grumbling and mumbling his lines to manufacture intensity (see "Gladiator" and "Robin Hood for examples of this). He's an arrogant jerk, and sees everyone as pawns in this political game, spouting Bush-era jargon whenever the need arises. He's also deceptive and a liar, which seriously irks Ferris because this nearly gets him killed a number of times. Unfortunately, Ferris is working for Ed, not Hani, who demands that he is never lied to. Strong has been making great headway into the Hollywood circuit, and he has impressive versatility. With subtle changes in his voice and body language, Strong can play a large number of characters, and Hani is among his best. He wants to catch Al-Saleem, but demands absolute trust, something that Ferris can't give. He's a powerful, and often dangerous, but likable man.

What I really liked about this film is that it functions as a sort of tug of war game between Ed and Hani, with Ferris caught in the middle. Only this time the knot is independent. This is an interesting character conflict that is deftly handled by Ridley Scott. This is character-based battle of wills is part of the reason why this film is so engaging.

This is a masterpiece of storytelling and directorial skill. Although the ending feels slightly like a cheat, I'm willing to forgive. And anyway, the difference between a 9 and a 10 is almost meaningless because they both mean that I give it an enthusiastic recommendation. Which in this case I most definitely do.
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Boring and tedious
20 June 2010
The Coen Brothers are the rebels of the film industry. They never use Hollywood conventions and formulas, and that's what makes them so unique. The Cormac McCarthy book, "No Country for Old Men," was considered unfilmable by many, yet it was lauded by critics and audiences alike (it won, though undeservedly, the Best Picture Oscar, but I thought "Atonement" was better). However, while the Coens' are undeniably talented, they are not flawless. And this time, they've created a real stinker.

There's a lot going on in this movie, very little of which is actually interesting. The main storyline revolves around a pair of nitwit gym employees (both of whom would rival Romy and Michelle for lack of brainpower) who get a hold of a disk of private information belonging to an (ex) CIA analyst, Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), and use it to get rich quick by various means.

The characters here are either idiots or too smart for their own good. None of them, however, are interesting or funny. All the actors, which include Brad Pitt (as one of the brainless gym employees), Frances McDormand (as the other one), John Malkovich, George Clooney as a paranoid philanderer), and Tilda Swinton (as Cox's wife), have given terrific performances in the past, and they certainly give it their all in this film, but it's all for naught. This movie really sucks.

Part of the problem is that it's bloated. Clooney and Swinton's roles are more or less inconsequential, and could have been almost completely written out. But the real reason is that for all the twists and shocks (something the Coens are famous for), is that it's just boring and unfunny.

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Hilarious with a heart
18 June 2010
The term "holiday movie" has become synonymous with Christmas, so it is of note that John Hughes' 1987 film centers around Thanksgiving. It really doesn't matter, however, because with a few rewrites, this film could have easily been set at the end of December.

But let's not argue semantics. This is a hilarious movie, and it works almost exclusively because of the comic skills and chemistry between its two stars, Steve Martin and the late John Candy. Both are skilled comedians, and more importantly, they are both terrific actors. It is so rare to find a person of the latter. Usually, it's the actor play the same version of themselves only spouting different lines. Martin and Candy actually create living, breathing characters.

Neil Page (Steve Martin) is a tightly-wound marketing executive working in New York City while his family lives in Chicago (how this works isn't explained, but never mind). He is desperately trying to get home for Thanksgiving, but he's about to have a serious run-in with Murphy's Law. Even worse is the fact that time and time again he's saddled with Del Griffith (John Candy), an overly friendly and chatty shower ring salesman.

Martin and Candy are perfectly cast. Martin is no stranger to playing a jerk, and that serves him well here. He has a heart, and tries to let Del down easy (sometimes), but more often than not, Del's attempts to help Neil get home get him closer to wringing the big guy's pudgy neck. John Candy should have gotten an Oscar nomination as Del. Not only is he hilarious, but he's also completely irresistible. No matter how bad his plans backfire, it is impossible not to like the guy. He's relentlessly optimistic, but it hides a deep sense of hurt and pain.

During the 80's and mid 90's there were few filmmakers bigger than John Hughes. Hughes has crafted a masterwork here because the funny moments are exaggerated so slightly, which keeps much more of the element of truth in the humor. The result is a movie that is probably as funny as the material warrants it to be.

My rating: Rated PG-13 for language.
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Has its moments
17 June 2010
"Romy and Michele's High School Reunion" is a movie that I've heard about for a long time, having seen the video stored at someone's house or whatnot. But I've never gotten a chance to see this movie until now. The verdict is while there are some funny moments, and the ending is good, there are enough dead spots to only get it a lukewarm recommendation.

Romy (Mira Sorvino) and Michele (Lisa Kudrow) are two best friends...and first class ditzes. Both of their IQs are far below what is considered normal, and the term "Valley Girl" seems to have been tailor made for them. They are living "stylishly" in LA when an old school chum Heather Mooney (Janeane Garafalo) tells them about their high school reunion. But seeing as the only reason to go to the high school reunion is to boast about their careers (neither Romy or Michele has an enviable job), they decide to lie and pass themselves off as rich and wealthy business women. And the creators of Post-It Notes.

The problem with the film is that it's too plot heavy for its own good. These two bimbos are hilarious in their own right, but Robin Schiff's screenplay (based on her play) spends too much time developing the story and not enough time letting the characters be themselves. There are plenty of flashbacks about how the Queen Bees of their school bullied them, but this material comes off as cruel, rather than funny. The movie is at it's best when it allows them to be the ultra-dim bulbs that they are, but there just aren't enough of these moments.

Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino are terrific as the leads. Romy is the smarter one, although that's not saying much. Neither one is a stranger to playing a mental vacuum, and they're pretty funny. Surprisingly, Janeane Garafalo is ineffective as the cynical Heather. The character has to add a dose of emotional damage to her character, but Garafalo goes way far over the top. Garafalo can play a dramatic character, but she's just not very good in this film. Alan Cumming is good as the geek who has long held a torch for Michele. Camryn Manheim steals her scenes as the organizer. She's one of those people who is so into this thing that she doesn't realize that no one else really cares. We all know someone like this, and that's what makes it funny.

Some people have been calling this a chick flick, and that's not necessarily true. It's not a sappy romance, and while the central characters are girls, the humor is such that members of both sexes can get it.

Fluff, but not that great fluff.
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