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After suffering through the sight of Ben Kingsley disgracing himself as Guru Tugginmypudha in Mike Myers’ summer flop The Love Guru, it seemed reasonable to assume that it would be at least another year before viewers could take the Oscar-winning actor seriously again. But like both Michael Caine and Gene Hackman in the 1980s, Kingsley apparently agrees to every single script that crosses his desk, meaning that amidst all the dreck, there’s bound to be a gem or two. Elegy is one such gem. Eloquent and understated, Elegy is an adaptation of Philip Roth’s novella The Dying Animal, and it shares some surface similarities to 2003’s fine filmization of Roth’s The Human Stain, starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman. Both movies focus on the relationship between a worldly college professor and a beautiful younger woman, but Elegy is even more memorable than its woefully underrated predecessor. Its central character is David Kepesh, an English professor (and host of an NPR-style radio show on the side) who long ago walked out on his wife and son. Avoiding emotional attachments, he enjoys regular trysts with his like-minded “fuck buddy” Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), a longtime acquaintance who drops into town from time to time. Mostly, though, he partakes in one-night stands with nubile students, careful to avoid sexual harassment charges by wooing and bedding them after final grades have been posted. Over the course of the latest semester, David is struck by the beauty of Cuban-American student Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz), and he manages to charm her in the same manner as many others who came before. But this time, there’s a difference: There appears to exist a real affinity, and they end up developing a real relationship. The character of the aging intellectual becoming involved with a younger woman is hardly an original one, but through the terrific performance by Kingsley, David Kepesh emerges as one of the most complex and fully realized screen characters of the season.

Death Race

Paul Thomas Anderson currently stands as one of the most acclaimed writer-directors in America, having created such films as Boogie Nights, Magnolia and last year’s Oscar-winning There Will Be Blood. Therefore, it’s unbelievable that he’s behind Death Race, a stultifying remake of -- wait, hold on a sec. Oh, right, this is Paul W.S. Anderson, the man behind such titles as Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil and AVP: Alien vs. Predator. Ah, now it makes sense. Look, there’s nothing wrong with producing cinematic trash as long as it delivers, but Death Race, like most of this guy’s previous pictures, is about as much fun as having two flat tires during rush hour traffic. Yet it’s not like Anderson didn’t start with a reasonably sturdy foundation: The original film, 1975’s Death Race 2000, is trashy fun, a campy Roger Corman satire with David Carradine and a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone as rival drivers in a nationally broadcast sport where the purpose (along with taking out fellow speed racers) is to run over as many people as possible. In typical Corman fashion, this cult item even tried to make some sociopolitical statements amid all the gleefully executed carnage -- one example was its commentary on this country’s growing lust for bloodsport, which now seems downright prophetic in this age of reality TV and pay-per-view wrestling extravaganzas. This new Death Race, on the other hand, is so thematically tired that in a few months, it will be impossible to separate it in the mind from other junky action flicks (including wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin’s The Condemned, which sports a near-identical plotline). Here, the hero is Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), a working joe who’s falsely accused of murdering his wife (where are Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones when we really need them?) and sent to a maximum-security prison, where the best drivers compete for their freedom in a three-day demolition derby that’s televised to over 50 million Americans. On the track, Jensen’s chief rival is Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson in Stallone’s old role, and let’s just say that Sly’s two-syllable grunting deserved an Academy Award compared to Gibson’s one-syllable utterances). Off the track, his arch-nemesis is the sadistic Warden Hennessey, a steely she-beast described by one inmate as “the biggest bad-ass” in the prison. Hennessey is rather unexpectedly played by Joan Allen, who has earned three Oscar nominations in her career and by my reckoning has deserved at least three more (including a win for her non-nominated work in The Upside of Anger). Coincidentally, Allen turned 52 two days before this film opened; here’s assuming this is one birthday present she’d like to return. The most interesting aspect of this otherwise stupid and obnoxious film? It’s set in 2012, when our present Bush-driven economy finally collapses, crime is running too rampant to control, and this country has basically gone to hell. Reading between the lines, does that mean this movie is predicting that John McCain (a.k.a. the bearer of Bush’s third term) will win come November?

The House Bunny

According to the Internet Movie Database, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner has appeared as himself (or a variation thereof) in over 150 movies, TV shows and video productions, including episodes of Laverne & Shirley, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Sex and the City. Presumably, Hefner enjoys lengthier screen time in the new comedy The House Bunny, although personally I don’t think he’ll ever top his cameo in the Roman Empire segment of Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part I, wherein he sports a toga while brandishing his trademark pipe and explaining to a bevy of beauties that “It’s a new concept; I call it the centerfold.” In The House Bunny, the 82-year-old Hef serves as a father figure of sorts to Shelley Darlingson (Anna Faris), a Playboy bunny who lives at his legendary mansion and dreams of becoming the magazine’s next centerfold. But right after her 27th birthday (59 in Bunny years, she’s told), she’s kicked out of the house, although it’s not long before she finds herself with a new gig: serving as a house mother to the socially awkward girls from the Zeta Alpha Zeta sorority. Soon, she’s instructing them on how to attract boys and pledges while they’re teaching her how to depend on more than just her looks. The House Bunny was co-written by the same women (Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith) who penned Legally Blonde, and it’s safe to say that their roots are showing. This is basically an inferior version of that Reese Witherspoon hit, and it isn’t even up to the standards of last year’s similarly plotted Amanda Bynes comedy Sydney White. But Faris, a talented comedienne, strikes the proper airhead notes, and Lutz and Smith take care to feed her some funny lines now and then. Incidentally, Hefner was 27 -- the same age as Shelley in the movie -- when the first issue of Playboy (featuring Marilyn Monroe as the centerfold) hit the streets. Apparently, 27 is 59 in Bunny years, but, considering the man’s still-swinging ways, 82 is 27 in Hef years.

The Longshots

Make no mistake: We’ve seen this exact same “root for the underdog” sport movies countless times before. But we haven’t seen them starring hardcore rapper Ice Cube. And we certainly haven’t seen them directed by Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst. But the presence of this pair has absolutely no effect on the end product in terms of making it fresh or vital. None of the scenes snap, crackle or pop, and, truth be told, Durst’s staging of the football games displays a noticeable lack of imagination. On the other hand, it’s hard to completely screw up this sort of formula film, and while its claim of being based on a true story should (as always) be taken lightly, it works on occasion largely because of the two charismatic actors at the helm.lce Cube, who has successfully molded his limited thespian abilities into an agreeable screen persona, stars as Curtis Plummer, just one of the many unemployed men in the struggling blue-collar town of Minden, Illinois. With nothing better to do with his time, Curtis reluctantly agrees to look after his withdrawn niece Jasmine (Keke Palmer, building on the promise of Akeelah and the Bee) while her mother (Tasha Smith) works double shifts. As expected, Curtis and Jasmine have nothing in common -- at least until the day he discovers she has a formidable arm when it comes to tossing the pigskin. A former high school football star himself, Curtis then sets about training her for the institution’s pathetic team, which hasn’t enjoyed a winning season in ages. Jasmine makes the cut and begins to turn their season around, but is she good enough to take the outfit all the way to the Pop Warner Super Bowl in Miami? What do you think?

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Pop quiz, hotshot. Which line of dialogue does not appear in a Star Wars movie?

A) “May the Force be with you.”

B) “Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.”

C) “So this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause.”

D) “Does sweet’um want some num-nums?”

I wish I could say that the correct answer is D), but actually all four lines appear in one installment or another, with that atrocious final snippet of dialogue appearing in the new animated feature Star Wars: The Clone Wars. The early word is that only Star Wars fanatics will enjoy this latest addition to the franchise, but that’s grossly inaccurate: As someone who was 11 years old when the original film hit theaters back in the summer of 1977 and thus has always considered it a rites-of-passage milestone, I was nauseated upon stumbling out of George Lucas’ latest sorry attempt to squeeze every last penny out of this franchise. Set in the period between Episodes II (Attack of the Clones) and III (Revenge of the Sith), this focuses on the war that helped the evil Empire take over the galaxy. The principal story strand concerns the efforts of Anakin Skywalker and his teenage apprentice (Lucasfilm, meet the Disney Channel) to rescue Jabba the Hutt’s kidnapped baby boy from Count Dooku and his posse. What sort of nonsense is this? Jabba also has a swishy relative (Ziro the Hutt) who speaks exactly like Truman Capote(!). And while Jar Jar Binks is thankfully nowhere to be found, the battle droids prove to be every bit as idiotic and insufferable — and there are lots of them in the movie. The CGI animation is harsh on the eyes and proves to be aesthetically unpleasing. A couple of action sequences do manage to elevate this film out of the realm of utter despair, but for the most part, this is curdled cinema that even the fans will upchuck.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

A menage a trois between the luscious, Olympic-worthy team of Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz is one of the various expressions of intimacy found in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but viewers shouldn’t attend the movie expecting to see explicitness on the order of, say, Shortbus or Henry & June. After all, the film’s writer-director is Woody Allen, and he’s always been much more interested in exposing the intricacies of the heart than the pleasures of the flesh. Yet therein lies the major problem with the picture: Allen has basically told a tale that depends on carnal knowledge as much as anything else, and the soft-pedaling of the harsher aspects of the story make Vicky Cristina Barcelona feel, well, as if it were made by a 72-year-old filmmaker who’s tentatively stepped outside his comfort zone. The end result is an interesting misfire, and one whose overlapping themes might resonate more strongly on a second viewing. Rebecca Hall and Johansson, the female co-leads in The Prestige, here play pragmatic Vicky and impulsive Cristina, two Americans vacationing in the lovely Spanish city when they’re propositioned by the seductive, sensual artist Juan Antonio (Bardem) to join him for a weekend of food, wine and sex. Eventually, both women do succumb to his charms (albeit at different points), only to find matters growing more complicated once his fiery ex-wife Maria Elena (Cruz, stealing the show) re-enters his life. Allen can hardly be accused of phoning in this script: The movie stumbles over itself while bringing fresh life to a number of issues, among them our need for familial security versus our desire for hedonistic pleasure.