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January 2007 Reviews

By Shawn McKenzie 01/14/2007

Here are my reviews of the movies that were released in January of 2007 (other than the reviews I have already done from the month.)  Check back later as the month progresses.

Go directly to my reviews of Freedom Writers, Arthur and the Invisibles, Alpha Dog, Stomp the Yard, Smokin’ Aces, Catch and Release, Epic Movie, and Seraphim Falls.

Freedom Writers Review

Here we go again with another version of 1995’s Dangerous Minds.  It starts out with news footage of the L.A. Rodney King riots from 1992.  Flash forward to 1994 and we meet 23-year-old Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank), the brand new freshman/sophomore English teacher at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California.  Apparently, Wilson used to be a top high school…until Dr. Carl Cohn (Robert Wisdom) of the Long Beach Unified School District instituted racial integration…and soon it dropped the overall test scores.  Erin’s inspiration for being a teacher at this specific school was her father Steve (Scott Glenn), a former civil rights advocate.  Almost immediately, she is hated by most of her students.  Eva (April Lee Hernandez) hates cops and white people, because they unjustly jailed her father (Ricardo Molina.)  Andre (Mario) is living on the streets because his mother (Palma Lawrence Reed) kicked him out for selling drugs.  He has a problem with Jamal (Deance Wyatt), another student with a bad attitude.  Sindy (Jaclyn Ngan) is a Cambodian student who spent time in a concentration camp.  She has problems with Eva.  Ben (Hunter Parrish) is the only white kid in the class, and he is nervous about that fact.  Disillusioned Marcus (Jason Finn), quiet Brandy (Vanetta Smith), and honors student Victoria (Giovonnie Samuels) are others in Erin’s class.  Department head Margaret Campbell (Imelda Staunton) tells Erin not to try hard to teach these kids, because she considers them thugs who have no respect for the school’s teaching materials.  Erin’s job is to babysit them essentially until they can get through the curriculum.  Racist junior/senior honors English teacher Brian Gelford (John Benjamin Hickey) agrees that the integration has taken the school’s standing down.  Even her husband, Scott Casey (Patrick Dempsey), isn’t supportive (mainly for selfish reasons.)  Most disappointing is that her father thinks that it is pointless to teach these kids anything (Steve thinks that she should finish out the year and line up a new job after that.)  With no one helping her, Erin takes on two extra part-time jobs to pay for teaching materials.  She buys journals for the kids to write their life experiences in, buys the book The Diary of Anne Frank for them to read (she thinks they will be able to identify with Frank’s persecution), takes them on field trips to the Simon Weisenthal Holocaust Center, and invites Frank’s protector Miep Gies (Pat Carroll) to speak to the class.  I gave the movie the benefit of doubt because the acting was good (especially the always good Swank), but its predictable story (I don’t care if it is a true story or not) went down the same line I have seen several times in several movies, dating all the way back to 1955’s Blackboard Jungle.  Dempsey does nothing to capitalize on his “Grey’s Anatomy” role here in his brief appearance.  Even though it is predictable, it is possible that it will be inspirational for kids who haven’t ever seen Dangerous Minds or the several other imitators that have been released since then.


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Arthur and the Invisibles Review

French filmmaker Luc Besson may have had some success with his series of Arthur children’s books, but he doesn’t do the best job at adapting them.  Using the 2002 original book and its 2003 sequel, Arthur and the Forbidden City, as the movie’s template, it tells the tale of 10-year-old Arthur (Freddie Highmore), a British boy living with his grandmother (Mia Farrow) in a country house in Connecticut in the 1960s.  His mother and father (Penny Balfour and Doug Rand) are a little busy when he isn’t in school, so he spends his summers with Granny.  Arthur’s grandfather Archibald (Ron Crawford) used to tell him stories about the Minimoys, a tribe of tiny people.  Unfortunately, Archibald left three years ago for an expedition, and he hasn’t been seen since.  When a land developer named Davido (Adam LeFevre) tells his grandmother that if she can’t pay off the mortgage in 36 hours, then the farm will become his, in which he plans on building a series of houses over it.  Arthur knows that Archibald buried some African rubies somewhere in the Seven Kingdoms of the Minimoys, which happens to be in the backfield of the farm.  Finding his grandfather’s key and map, he discovers that the porthole to the Minimoy world opens every ten moons (ten months)…and conveniently, that night it would open.  A Massai Chief (Jean Bejote Njamba) tells Arthur how to contact the Minimoys.  After convincing the 299 ½-year-old Betameche (voice of Jimmy Fallon) that he needs their help, the young-looking Minimoy has the Ferryman (voice of Emilio Estevez) shrink Arthur down to Minimoy size (and, for some reason, they make him look like a Troll Doll.)  Betameche introduces Arthur to his father, the King (voice of Robert De Niro), along with his sister Princess Selenia (voice of Madonna)…who will turn 1,000 years old in two days and will take over as the ruler of the Minimoys.  Arthur also meets Miro the wizard (voice of Harvey Keitel), who is concerned about his rat-looking son named Mino (voice of Erik Per Sullivan), who has gone missing.  Arthur tells them that he needs their help in finding the rubies, because if he can’t find them, then their whole world will be destroyed.  They know that the rubies are in the forbidden kingdom of Necropolis, which is ruled by the evil Maltazard (voice of David Bowie) and his lispy son Darkos (voice of Jason Bateman.)  Maltazard, whom the others refuse to speak his name, has a plan to take over the other six kingdoms.  Arthur, Princess Selenia, and Betameche contact the Travel Agent (voice of Chazz Palminteri) to take them to Necropolis, where they run into the Rastafarian-like Max (voice of Snoop Dogg) and Koolomassai (voice of Anthony Anderson), who assist them in retrieving the rubies.  While the tale is cute and the animation isn’t bad, it isn’t exactly what I would call a classic.  First…they already did this story last summer with The Ant Bully (and they did it better.)  Second…it had one of those anachronistic scenes that always drive me crazy.  At one point in the movie, Arthur and his friends are dancing to an LP record containing songs like the Bee Gees’ 1977 hit “Stayin’ Alive” and Bowie’s 1983 hit “Let’s Dance”…and this is supposed to take place in the ‘60s!  Third…it’s a little creepy that 13-year-old-at-the-time Highmore falls in love with 46-year-old-at-the-time Madonna.  I know that 1,000 Minimoy years equal 10 human years in the movie, making their characters relatively the same age, but it’s still disturbing.  Arthur and the Invisibles isn’t the best…but at least it’s better than Happily N’Ever After.

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Alpha Dog Review

Based on the real life story of Jesse James Hollywood, one of the youngest people to appear on the FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list, the movie is about an upper-middle class teen named Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) who is the drug kingpin of his neighborhood in Claremont, CA.  It’s November of 1999, and Johnny has his lieutenants Frankie Ballenbacher (Justin Timberlake), Tiko “TKO” Martinez (Fernando Vargas), Pick Giamo (Vincent Kartheiser), and their lapdog boy Elvis Schmidt (Shawn Hatosy) run the drug trade.  Johnny gets his drugs from his dad Sonny (Bruce Willis), who hangs out with old codger Cosmo Gadabeeti (Harry Dean Stanton.)  Johnny’s girlfriend is Angela Holden (Olivia Wilde.)  Everyone obeys Johnny, except for Jewish skinhead Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), who owes Johnny $1200.  Ray decides to vandalize Johnny’s home, and Johnny and associates retaliate by coming over to Ray and girlfriend Wanda Haynes’ (Heather Wahlquist) hotel room to confront him.  They don’t find Ray there, but they see Ray’s 15-year-old half-brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) walking down the road.  They impulsively decide to kidnap him, which Zack doesn’t mind…since he can’t stand being around his parents Olivia (Sharon Stone) and Butch (David Thornton), who have recently busted him for having a bong in the house.  They all begin to like the kid, including friends Keith Stratten (Christopher Marquette) and Susan Hartunian (Dominique Swain)…the latter of which thinks that they should give him back immediately before they get into any trouble.  Zack also meets Julie Beckley (Amanda Seyfried), who along with her friend Alma (Amber Heard), turns him into a man in a swimming pool.  After consulting family attorney Bob Nolder (Bobby Cooper), Johnny realizes that he could get a life sentence for kidnapping, so he goes to drastic measures to silence Zack for good.  Since the case is ongoing, I don’t know how closely the facts in the movie corresponded with the real story (I doubt that the real 15-year-old actually had a pool threesome in real life), but based on my brief research of the real case, it looks pretty close.  Either way, I enjoyed the film, and I found the performances of Timberlake and Foster especially entertaining.  Hirsch was somewhat boring, despite being the main character.  Also, Stone in a fat suit at the end of the movie was confusing and weird, but so far director Nick Cassavetes’ movie is one of the better movies coming out of 2007.

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Stomp the Yard Review

Why can’t a dancing movie ever have an interesting story?  Darnell James “DJ” Williams (choreographer Columbus Short) is a gifted 19-year-old dancer who competes in underground competitions in Los Angeles with his younger brother Duron (R&B singer Chris Brown.)  When the movie opens, DJ and Duron have just won a competition, but their rival competitors felt slighted, so they start a brawl.  College-bound Duron is killed, and DJ is arrested.  The court allows DJ to move to Atlanta to live with his aunt Jackie (Valarie Pettiford) and uncle Nate (Harry Lennix.)  Nate is the head groundskeeper for Truth University, and DJ will work for him while going to school at the same time.  For some odd reason, DJ immediately moves into the dorms, where he meets his new roommate Rich Brown (R&B singer Ne-Yo) and Rich’s friend Noel (Jermaine Williams.)  While registering for classes, DJ meets April Palmer (Meagan Good), who happens to be the daughter of the school’s president, Dr. William Palmer (Allan Louis.)  One day, he sees a stepping face-off, and he gets in the face of April’s boyfriend Grant (Darrin Henson) with his dancing skills.  Grant happens to be a member of the Mu Gamma Xi Wolves fraternity step team, led by Zeke (Laz Alonso.)  The Theta Nu Theta Pythons, led by Sylvester (Brian White), are the Wolves’ rivals.  Stepping is a synchronized form of dancing that is normally practiced at African-American colleges.  After DJ shows off his dancing skills, both fraternities want him to pledge, but he isn’t interested.  He eventually ends up joining the Pythons…mainly to tick off Grant and to impress April.  After pretending to need the tutoring services of April, DJ ends up dating her, which upsets her dad…who uses his influence to get DJ kicked out.  The very predictable plot is only saved by some very good dancing (except for the parts when they start krumping…a dance that was featured in the 2005 David LaChapelle documentary Rize.  For some reason to me, krumping looks like someone having a seizure standing up.)  When I first saw the trailers for the movie, I thought that it looked like the stepping version of the 2002 movie Drumline (a very good movie, by the way), but it ended up looking more like the 2004 movie You Got Served (which was a fairly bad movie, by the way.)  The acting in this movie is slightly better than in Served, and apparently Good has been promoted from Served’s sassy best friend to girlfriend (Short was also in Served as a background dancer.)  If you are a fan of Brown, don’t expect to see him for very long (I can’t even remember if he had any lines or not.)  Stomp the Yard may have grossed $25.9 million over its four-day Martin Luther King Jr. Day opening weekend, and it has already earned back all of its $14 million budget, but unless you really like dancing, don’t expect to see anything unique or original.

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Smokin’ Aces Review

Smokin’ Aces is the It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World of graphically violent mob movies.  Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven) is a Vegas magician/card trick player-turned-mobster who is under the tutelage of mob boss Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin.)  Buddy has messed up and he wants to make a deal, through his manager/lawyer Morris Mecklen (Curtis Armstrong), with the FBI to rat out the mafia in exchange for leniency.  While on a stakeout outside Sparazza’s house, FBI agents Richard Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Donald Carruthers (Ray Liotta) overhear one of Sparazza’s henchmen, Serna (Alex Rocco), make a phone call to Loretta Wyman (Davenia McFadden) about how the boss wants the heart of Buddy and is willing to pay a $1 million for anyone who can cut it out of him.  Messner and Carruthers immediately contact their superior Stanley Locke (Andy Garcia) that a hit has been ordered on Buddy.  Loretta is the handler for hitwomen Georgia Sykes (R&B singer Alicia Keys in her acting debut) and Sharice Watters (Taraji P. Henson), who have been assigned to take Buddy out.  Unfortunately, news of the $1 million hit has filtered out to several other unsavory types.  Former cop turned bounty hunter Jack Dupree (Ben Affleck) and his two associates, “Pistol” Pete Deeks (Peter Berg) and the hesitant Hollis Elmore (Martin Henderson), get the information from cross-dressing herpes-inflicted mob attorney Rupert “Rip” Reed (Jason Bateman) about the assignment.  Darwin Tremor (Chris Pine), Jeeves Tremor (Kevin Durand), and Lester Tremor (Maury Sterling) are three psychotic neo-nazi brothers who kill people and beat each other up without thinking.  Pasqual Acosta (Nestor Carbonell), a.k.a. “S.A. Gerald Diego,” is a sadistic torturer who who has become a legend in the world of torture.  Lazlo Soot (Tommy Flanagan) is a master of disguise who can practically morph into anyone he wants…and do it very quickly.  Buddy is currently holed up in the Nomad Hotel & Casino in Lake Tahoe, surrounded by bodyguards Sir Ivy (rapper Common in his acting debut), Russian Hugo Croop (Joel Edgerton), and Bernard “Beanie” Alfonso (Christopher Holley), and he is high on coke while partying with hookers.  It’s a race between the FBI and the hitmen to get to Buddy first.  I didn’t find myself liking writer/director Joe Carnahan’s 2002 flick Narc like everyone else, but I thought that this movie going to be better based on the trailers.  While it was better for me than Narc, it wasn’t as good as I had hoped.  The trailers focus on the crazy Tremor brothers, but in my opinion, Flanagan’s character was the most memorable hitman, and Bateman was the funniest character (even though his appearance was very brief.)  Ironically, Reynolds played the least funny character, which is odd, because he is usually the comic relief.  Smokin’ Aces sizzles a little, but it isn’t overall smokin’.


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Catch and Release Review

Gray Wheeler (Jennifer Garner) is a woman living in Boulder, Colorado, who was supposed to get married, but her fiancé, Brady Douglas, accidentally died right before their wedding during a bachelor party-fishing trip.  According to Grady’s lawyer Eve (Tina Lifford), he didn’t have a will, and since they didn’t get married, she can’t afford the house that they had rented together.  She asks Grady’s friends…Celestial Seasonings herbal tea company employee Sam (Kevin Smith) and fishing shop co-owner (with Grady) Dennis (Sam Jaeger)…to move in with her to cover the rent.  Unfortunately, L.A. film director Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), another one Grady’s friends, has weaseled his way into the house as well.  She doesn’t like Fritz, because she accidentally listened to him having sex with the caterer (Sonja Bennett) at Grady’s funeral (Gray was in the bathroom trying to get away from everyone when Fritz had his little bump-and-grind.)  One night, a cell phone rings in the house.  Realizing that it was Grady’s cell, she checks the last ten messages and discovers that Grady had been sending an Encino, California masseuse named Maureen Monette (Juliette Lewis) and her 3-year-old son Mattie (Joshua Friesen) $3000 a month for several years through a secret $1 million bank account.  Gray confronts Fritz, who confirms that Mattie is Grady’s son, but that the boy is eight years old, and that he met Maureen long before he had met Gray (Grady and Gray had been together for six years.)  Maureen and Mattie show up on Gray’s doorstep inquiring about the latest payment, and even though Gray is a little upset that Fritz lied about Mattie’s age and the fact that Grady had met Maureen after he and Gray had began dating, eventually moves in with the group of friends.  Gray and Grady’s mother Ellen (Fiona Shaw) both want a DNA test to find out if Mattie really is Grady’s son, because if he is, then he will receive Grady’s inheritance.  Meanwhile, Gray and Fritz start developing feelings for one another, much to the dismay of Dennis, who is secretly in love with her.  Gray also tries to deal with the fact that she never really knew Grady.  The number one reason I was curious about the movie was that I wanted to see if Smith could act in his first prominent role outside of his Silent Bob character.  Fortunately, he is a natural actor who is obviously funny, but also realistically does the sad, dramatic scenes effectively.  Garner is cute (something that she did well in her 2004 movie 13 Going on 30), and Olyphant wasn’t bad as the leading man.  The problem is that the movie starts out promising and heartbreakingly funny, but it devolves into a clichéd chick flick.  Erin Brockovich screenwriter Susannah Grant makes her theatrical directorial debut with this movie, and if she can avoid the ending’s trappings again, then maybe she will be an original voice in the world of female-centric films.


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Epic Movie Review

Epic Movie is a little better than last year’s Date Movie…but not by that much.  Lucy (Jayma Mays) is one of four grown orphans who don’t know each other, until they all fatefully receive Golden Tickets to Willy Wonka’s (Crispin Glover) chocolate factory.  She is the adopted daughter of the Louvre’s museum curator Jacques Saunière (David Carradine) in Paris.  She is a bit of a dimwit, but the breakdancing curator leads her to the ticket before he dies.  Unfortunately, a self-flagellating albino monk named Silas (David Whatley) follows her.  The second orphan, Edward (Kal Penn), lives in a Mexican monastery with dreams of being a luche libre wrestler.  He gets beaten up by one of Nacho Libre’s (Jareb Dauplaise) orphans, Chanchito (Rico Rodriguez), and finds the second Golden Ticket.  The third orphan, Susan (Faune A. Chambers), is on her way to meet her new adoptive parents, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, when snakes overrun her plane.  Samuel L. Jackson (James Walker Sr.) shows up and saves her by tossing her out of the plane.  She lands on top of Paris Hilton (Alla Petrou) and finds the third ticket.  The fourth orphan, Peter (Adam Campbell), is a X-Men mutant whose power is sadly sprouting tiny little chicken wings.  Wolverine (Groovy), Storm (Kahshanna Evans), Rogue (Lindsey Kraft), and Cyclops (Tad Hilgenbrink) tease him for it, and he is embarrassed when he attempts to ask Mystique (Carmen Electra) to the homecoming dance.  When headmaster Magneto (Jim Piddock) interrupts the attempt, Peter finds the last ticket.  As the four orphans arrive at the chocolate factory, they discover that Willy is a creepy freak, so they escape through a large wardrobe filled with fur coats that leads to the magical land of Gnarnia (with a silent “G” to avoid copyright.)  Lucy meets the faun Mr. Tumnus (Hector Jimenez) and his boyfriend Harry Beaver (voice of Katt Williams) who warn her about the White B***h (Jennifer Coolidge) and her little assistant, Bink (Tony Cox.)  The B***h seduces Edward, and the others have to rescue him and save Gnarnia.  Various characters help them, such as the pirate Captain Jack Swallows (Darrell Hammond); a grown-up Harry Potter (Kevin McDonald) and Ron Weasley (George Alvarez) with a pregnant Hermione (Crista Flanagan); and a lion named Aslo (Fred Willard)…who looks a little like the lion from The Wizard of Oz.  Aaron Seltzer and writing partner Jason Friedberg made their directorial debut with this movie.  They are the “two of the writers of the Scary Movie series” as advertised in the trailers, and they co-wrote Date Movie as well (along with 1996’s decent Leslie Nielsen spoof Spy Hard.)  While I appreciated that their targets were epic blockbusters rather than romantic comedies (my main problem with Date Movie was that it was redundant to spoof a comedy), they still messed up by going after other comedies, such as Nacho Libre, Click, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, Borat, and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.  Also, their attempt to go after some MTV shows like “Cribs,” “Punk’d” (with a Ashton Kutcher look-alike played by MySpace: The Movie creator David Lehre), and “Laguna Beach” (with the real Lauren “L.C.” Conrad appearing in a cameo) fell flat.  I did find myself laughing, but it never reached the heights of any of the Scary Movies.  Believe it or not, I could see a potential Epic Movie 2 being better than the original…as long as they concentrate on actual blockbusters that take themselves way too seriously.

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Seraphim Falls Review

Gideon McLellan (Pierce Brosnan) is a former Civil War captain who is now being pursued by Confederate Army Colonel Morsman Carver (Liam Neeson) and his posse: Hayes (Michael Wincott), Parsons (Ed Lauter), Pope (Robert Baker), and the Kid (John Robinson.)  Carver is hunting Gideon in Nevada’s snowy Ruby Mountains for reasons unknown, but it happened in Seraphim Falls, and it has something to do with Carver’s wife Rose (Angie Harmon.)  Gideon is wounded at the beginning of the movie, but he still manages to take out Carver’s henchmen one by one.  There aren’t many Westerns that are made today, and this one is pretty good.  Director David Von Ancken has mostly done television, but this movie shows that he can helm an entertaining theatrical film (even if it doesn’t revive the Western genre.)  I am curious though…why did Von Ancken cast the movie with two Irishmen as the leads?

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