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For $14.96 or less, film fans can pick up the DVD for the original House of Wax, which not only includes the classic 1953 version starring Vincent Price but also its predecessor, 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum (featuring King Kong scream queen Fay Wray). You won’t get that kind of deal if you drop dough on this new version, which manages to be even worse than the 21st century renditions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Amityville Horror (the mind boggles). My contempt for this film is so great, I’m reluctant to even call it a film, as that designation automatically places it in the pantheon of works by Welles, Hitchcock, Bergman and even Ed Wood. Suitable only for unemployable teens and speech-slurring rednecks (the baseball cap-wearing yahoos seated in front of me were certainly vocal in their support of the picture), this follows a group of dim-witted college-age kids as they find themselves lost in the Louisiana wilds. They stumble across a backwoods burg and quickly become slasher fodder for the town’s resident madmen, twin brothers (played by Brian Van Holt) who subdue their victims and then encase them in wax. It takes an eternity of running time for the kids to reach the town, and even after the slaughter begins, director Jaume Collet-Serra (yes, another commercial and music video hack making his feature film bow) and scripters Chad and Carey Hayes still take time out for an obligatory interlude that allows co-star Paris Hilton a chance to striptease down to her undies. Sadistic beyond compare -- for starters, the heroine (“24’s” Elisha Cuthbert) has her index finger sliced off by pliers and her lips glued shut -- this House has been constructed by mercenaries, not moviemakers.


Aside from a smattering of one-note villains such as Brendan Gleeson’s brutish warrior and Jon Finch’s hypocritical man of the cloth, everyone is so damn noble and respectful in director Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, a p.c. drama about a period in world history that was anything but noble and respectful. Set during the Crusades, this dutiful slog through revisionist history stars Orlando Bloom as Balian, a tormented blacksmith (his wife committed suicide after the death of their child) who learns that his father (Liam Neeson) is a revered knight and decides to accompany him to Jerusalem. There, he finds himself in the middle of a growing feud between the Christians and the Muslims, both of whom lay claim to the holy city. Believing that all religions can co-exist peacefully, Balian and his allies (among them Jeremy Irons and David Thewlis) try to maintain order, but the more zealous Crusaders will do anything to force an all-out war. Comparisons to recent sword flicks like Troy and Scott’s Gladiator are natural, but despite the lofty ambitions of William Monahan’s literate yet arid script, such contrasts do this lumbering movie no favors. If nothing else, at least those other films moved; beyond that, they also featured several morally ambiguous characters (as opposed to the cut-and-dry saints and sinners showcased here), handed juicy roles to vets like Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed (Kingdom’s name actors labor mightily in colorless parts), and, in the case of Troy, made a stronger case for contemporary relevance (even today, Christians are still bullying their way into the Middle East, but Kingdom is too timid to make many lacerating observations). As the courgeous Balian, Bloom has the heroic glower down pat but brings little else to the role.


It was only a matter of time before Douglas Adams’ cult phenomenon -- which had already moved from radio to print to television -- would eventually complete the journey by edging into cinema. Yet as a movie, H2G2 is only a mixed bag, crammed with many inspired bits but never coalescing as a whole. The picture gets off to a great start, as drab human Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) learns from his alien pal Ford Prefect (Mos Def) that Earth is about to be destroyed to make room for an intergalactic freeway. These early passages present the film at its finest: Reminiscent of both Monty Python and The Fifth Element, they embody a cheeky spirit that becomes harder to appreciate once the picture begins to buckle under the weight of an overly busy plot. Zooey Deschanel is appealing as Trillian, the only human besides Arthur to make it off the planet alive, and Alan Rickman adds the right measure of resigned weariness as the voice of the perpetually depressed robot Marvin. But once Sam Rockwell appears on the scene as the manic Zaphob Beeblebrox, his grating turn sucks most of the fun out of the movie. Stay through the credits for an amusing final gag.


For a movie that’s been sitting in Miramax’s storage bin for well over a year, Mindhunters isn’t the train wreck one would have assumed. A high-tech update of Agatha Christie’s classic Ten Little Indians, the story finds a band of FBI agents sent to a remote island off the coast of North Carolina, where they’re expected to complete their training by taking part in an exercise that draws upon their skills as profilers of serial killers. But they soon realize that there’s a real killer on the island, and that he or she comes from within their own ranks. Could the murderer be the detective (LL Cool J) who joins the outfit at the last minute? The agent (Kathryn Morris) still troubled by a tragedy in her past? The FBI supervisor (Val Kilmer) who arranged the whole excursion? Or one of the other half-dozen agents stranded on the island? A couple of clues make it relatively easy to deduce the identity of the killer. Regardless, the screenplay doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny (each victim has to be in an exact location at an exact time for the villain’s scheme to work), but director Renny Harlin has churned out a fairly engrossing film that doesn’t denigrate the memory of its (uncredited) source material.


After a 15-year hiatus, Jane Fonda returns to the big screen, and young ‘uns who’ve only heard about her standing as one of the finest actresses of the 1970s will automatically assume that their parents have been pulling their legs all these years. Fonda, whose remarkable performances in Klute and The China Syndrome (among others) still have the power to stun, is an embarrassment in Monster-In-Law, betrayed both by director Robert Luketic’s mishandling and by her own rusty instincts. Fonda apparently accepted the role in the hopes that she’d end up in a monster hit a la Barbra Streisand in Meet the Fockers -- there’s no other logical explanation as for why she would subject herself to such humiliation. Jennifer Lopez, continuing to headline the sort of inane features that Fonda for the most part avoided in her heyday, stars as Charlie, a jill-of-all-trades who finds the perfect man in Dr. Kevin Fields (Alias’ Michael Vartan). All goes well until Charlie meets his mother Viola, a former TV personality who hates Charlie because… why exactly? The reason’s never clear, but suffice it to say that Viola immediately attempts to railroad the couple’s impending marriage by running Charlie off through all types of juvenile stunts. As Fonda’s wisecracking assistant, Wanda Sykes steals the show, and there’s one priceless sequence in which Viola interviews an airhead pop star clearly based on Britney Spears. Otherwise, the laughs are as scarce as Coke machines in the Kalahari.


Maybe not a “D,” but this coming-of-age yarn from writer-director-actor David Duchovny certainly rates no better than a “C.” The former “X-Files” star here plays Tom Warshaw, an American artist living in Paris who flashes back on a pivotal time during his childhood years in Greenwich Village. Thirteen-year-old Tommy (appealing Anton Yelchin) lives with his pill-popping mom, who’s in a fog following the recent death of her husband -- the fact that Duchovny’s character’s mom is played by his real-life wife Tea Leoni brings up Freudian connotations that I’d rather avoid. Meanwhile, young Tommy’s best friend is a mentally challenged janitor who gets erect watching horror flicks and who’s prone to telling teenage girls that he’s got a big penis -- as if this isn’t frightening enough, also consider that the character is played by Robin Williams in full cuddly-creepy mode. Truly, there’s much in House of D that’s ghastly -- and clearly the work of an actor still cutting his teeth on the other side of the camera -- yet there are also plenty of small moments of sensitivity and insight that save this from being utterly unbearable. Whether it’s the kid who repeatedly yells “Sabbath!” to the DJ while standing in the middle of the dance floor or the stern yet fair priest (Frank Langella) whose lame jokes don’t cut it with his pupils, there are some choice bits to offset the amateurishness.


Sydney Pollack is no stranger to the paranoia thriller. He directed one of the best: 1975’s Three Days of the Condor, in which CIA reader Robert Redford must figure out why he’s been marked for termination -- possibly by the very agency for which he punches out a living. That Pollack would now be helming something like The Interpreter points out how much cinema has changed over the ensuing decades. It takes a filmmaker of rigid moral fiber -- and a studio willing to finance such an endeavor -- to actually blanket multiplexes with a fictional tale that might ruffle feathers in high places. As one of the few movies out there that doesn’t blatantly cater to the kids or to the Tarantino fanatics, this earns high marks for remembering that movies once upon a time had meaty plots, intricate character dynamics and a relaxed storytelling style. Nicole Kidman ably portrays the title character: She’s Silvia Broome, who escaped a troubled past in her African homeland to become an interpreter at the United Nations building in New York. Late one night, she just happens to overhear two voices discussing a plot to assassinate African president Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), a former freedom fighter who’s now a mad butcher prone to slaughtering his own people. Relaying the info to the police (veteran actor Clyde Kusatsu has a couple of nice scenes as the chief), she then finds herself being interrogated by Secret Service agents Tobin Keller (Sean Penn, more relaxed than usual) and Dot Woods (a sharp Catherine Keener).

As a thriller, The Interpreter is efficient enough, and it contains one dazzling set piece in which various characters -- heroes and villains and suspects alike -- all jockey to get the upper hand. Moments like these help disguise the implausibilities that define the plot.


A Lot Like Love is a lot like When Harry Met Sally crossed with Serendipity, as two people wonder whether they’re better off remaining friends or whether the stars have something more intimate in mind. After spotting each other at the L.A. airport and then wordlessly boffing in an airplane lavatory, Oliver (Ashton Kutcher) wants to know all about his new lady friend while Emily (Amanda Peet) becomes aloof. Over the next few years, they keep bumping into each other, sometimes by accident, sometimes by design. But rather than commit to each other and get us out of the theater after a half-hour, the pair keep bumping up against labored plot developments that drive them apart and insure at least one more trip to the concession stand. While painless to sit through, the film never convinces us that these two need to be together. Part of the problem is the lack of chemistry between Kutcher and Peet, while the rest of the blame falls on scripter Colin Patrick Lynch, who creates two likable protagonists who could doubtless find happiness in the arms of countless other kids with a shared interest in junk food, Jon Bon Jovi and afternoon quickies. w


Since an alarming number of people have this pathological need to designate all movies as either “chick flicks” or “dick flicks”, I submit the new comedy Fever Pitch for their perusal. The theatrical poster - with stars Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon looking all cute and bubbly as they press up against each other - and the boy-meets-and-loses-and-regains-girl scenario would suggest that this skews female. But Fever Pitch’s true subject isn’t the love between a man and a woman but between a man and his favorite sports team. Fallon, the “Saturday Night Live” vet trying to salvage his burgeoning film career after Taxi crashed and burned so spectacularly last fall, plays Ben Wrightman, a mild-mannered school teacher who decides to ask the sexy and successful consultant Lindsey Meeks (Barrymore) out on a date. Lindsey isn’t used to dating guys like Ben — i.e. men without cash to burn and designers suits lining their closets — but she takes a chances and likes what she sees — really likes what she sees. Then he drops the bomb: He’s a Boston Red Sox fan. Initially, Lindsey thinks she can work around his undying devotion to the “cursed” team that hadn’t won a World Series since 1918 (indeed, the movie’s ending had to be rewritten during filming to incorporate the team’s miracle win last year). But her patience starts to wear thin once she realizes that he will never love her the way he loves the Sox. As the working girl who finds reality impeding on her fairy tale romance, Barrymore sparkles brightly, as she always does when faced with these sorts of rom-com predicaments. Less successful is Fallon, a vanilla comedian who doesn’t always capture his character’s overriding passion for the Sox or his burgeoning affection for Lindsey.


Sahara may be based on the bestseller by Clive Cussler, but it feels like it wants to be either a knock-off of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a send-up of the James Bond oeuvre, or an instant sequel to last year’s National Treasure. Matthew McConaughney, a semi-movie star whose appeal still escapes me, plays the role of dashing adventurer Dirk Pitt as if he were a party-hardy frat boy who ventured out into the real world after all campus kegs were tapped dry. Steve Zahn, an ersatz character actor whose appeal likewise eludes me, plays the role of Dirk’s wisecracking sidekick Al Giordino. And Penelope Cruz, a Spanish beauty whose appeal vanishes in English-language films, tags along for the ride as the dedicated Dr. Eva Rojas, although the actress seems so disinterested in what’s happening around her that it’s hard to believe her character would even have the medical know-how to prescribe aspirin. The storyline, a thick hodgepodge involving a Civil War battleship that went MIA in the title desert, a mysterious disease that’s wiping out scores of Africans, and a sneering French villain (Lambert Wilson) to placate the yahoos who fell for that “freedom fries” nonsense, never grabs viewers by the collar, making Sahara an adventure tale in which the action is more exhausting than exciting.


The problem with Woody Allen these days isn’t that he’s run out of ideas; the problem is that he’s running out of ways in which to frame these ideas in compelling contexts. Melinda and Melinda starts with a typically inspired concept: Two playwrights (Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine) discussing whether life is inherently tragic or comic both hear an anecdote involving a young woman named Melinda. The playwright who specializes in tragedies envisions the story as a downer in which Melinda is a distraught, suicidal woman who’s perpetually on the receiving end of life’s hard knocks, while the playwright known for comedies views it as a sparkling tale in which Melinda’s an endearing free spirit involved in frothy romantic entanglements. The plastic bubble that surrounds Woody Allen movies is still as firm as ever: His stories continue to take place in a hermetically sealed New York in which money is no object and everyone talks like a philosopher. But his instincts clearly aren’t as sharp as before, since the comic half isn’t especially funny and the tragic half isn’t especially heartbreaking.


Seven-year-old Damian (Alex Etel), still coping with the death of his mother, receives regular visits from history’s honored saints (Francis, Peter, etc.), so when a bag of cash lands in his lap, he figures it came straight from God and he should dole it out to the poor. But his older brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon) has a firmer grasp on the advantages of wealth and tries to convince his sibling that they should hunt for sensible business investments instead. What neither boy knows is that the loot is actually stolen, and that the thief (Christopher Fulford) is determined to recover it at all costs. Forget the tepid Robots: Parents who actually care about quality entertainment should take their kids to see this instead.


When director Robert Rodriguez first decided to bring the graphic novels by Frank Miller to the big screen, he chose to lift many of the images and accompanying dialogue exactly as they appeared on the page, with scarcely any changes in the angles or lighting that defined these individual panels. By remaining so faithful to Miller’s vision, Rodriguez has bridged the gap between cinema and comics more explicitly than any filmmaker before him, in essence leveling the playing field and not allowing fans of either medium to establish a foothold of superiority. In the manner of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, the movie is a circuitous affair in which the disparate storylines — all taking place in Basin City (Sin City for short) — occasionally overlap and characters in one vignette might appear briefly in another segment. The glee with which Rodriguez films the sadism may be off-putting, but the joy with which he pays tribute to both the comic form and film noir is positively infectious.


A textbook example of formula filmmaking at its most dim-witted. When Gracie’s superior (Ernie Hudson) comments that Gracie will be the most famous celebrity in Vegas, we use the half-second pause that follows to predict that the punchline will involve Wayne Newton. Voila: “Unless Wayne Newton’s in town!” Equally witless are the characters, starting with an offensive gay stylist (Diedrich Bader).


Applying role reversal to the original 1967 template, Guess Who stars Bernie Mac as Percy Jones, a bank loan officer who’s on the verge of throwing a 25th wedding anniversary party with his wife Marilyn (Judith Scott) when he learns that his lovely daughter Theresa (Zoe Saldana) is coming home with her new boyfriend in tow. As Percy states at one point, he’s expecting his child to bring home a Denzel Washington; instead, she drags in some punk’d white boy named Simon Green (Ashton Kutcher). For all its attention to the racial divide, Guess Who isn’t as interested in being the new Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as it is in taking its place as the next Meet the Parents.

Exploring issues pertaining to blacks and whites is fine, but as we all know, the color that truly matters in Hollywood is green.


The original Ring (itself a remake of the popular Japanese flick Ringu) established that the only way the demonic girl Samara could work her evil on the world was through the playing of the aforementioned videotape. In this sequel, reporter Rachel Keller (returning star Naomi Watts) destroys the object at the outset, so scripter Ehren Kruger decided that he might as well make up new rules as he scribbled along, thus rendering this sequel not only illogical but inconsequential as well. w


Bruce Willis has woken up in time to deliver a committed performance in this adaptation of Robert Crais’ novel. Opening with a stylized, eye-popping title sequence that might lead viewers into thinking they’re catching an early sneak of the new Batman flick, Hostage then settles into familiar crime territory with the introduction of Willis as Jeff Talley, an LAPD hostage negotiator whose botching of a tense standoff leaves him with innocent blood on his hands and prods him into moving to a sleepy community where the crime rate hovers around zero. But once three ruffians attempting to steal a car end up killing a police officer and taking a family hostage, Talley finds himself back in the sort of situation he would like to avoid.


Visually, the film is yet another triumph for computer programmers, as their blood, sweat and bytes have enabled them to create a wondrous landscape that’s a joy to behold. But whenever any of the metallic characters that populate this world open their mouths, it’s like listening to rusty bolts across a chalkboard.


Yet one more lazy sequel to a great film, Be Cool is a major disappointment that fails to capture the essence of what made Get Shorty such a memorable experience. In adapting the Elmore Leonard novel, director Barry Sonenfeld and scripter Scott Frank knew that the key to success rested in the capable hands of John Travolta, whose work as shylock-turned-movie-producer Chili Palmer remains a career best. Travolta owned that picture, yet he received more than adequate support from Sonenfeld’s playful direction, Frank’s character-driven screenplay and a stellar supporting cast that included Danny DeVito. Alas, F. Gary Gray (the tepid remake of The Italian Job) is no Sonenfeld, Peter Steinfeld (Analyze That) is no Frank, and a promising cast is largely left to flounder in the middle of a movie that never provides a compelling argument for its own existence. w


The gorgeous Kimberly Elise (The Manchurian Candidate) gets to display her acting chops as Helen McCarter, who’s stunned when her husband of 18 years, a prominent Atlanta lawyer (Steve Harris), demands a divorce and forcibly throws her out of their mansion to make room for his gold-digging girlfriend (Lisa Marcos). A huge hit with African-American audiences, Tyler Perry’s play has been adapted (by the author himself) into a movie that’s overflowing with positive Christian ideals as well as an honest assessment of the intrinsic desire for seeking retribution versus the spiritual need for giving absolution.


From the connotations of its hero’s name (Constantine was the Roman emperor who endorsed Christianity more for personal gain than for any spiritual fulfillment) to depictions of Hell that borrow heavily from the works of Hieronymus Bosch, Constantine tries hard to include heady material that will allow for post-screening discussions around the water cooler or in cinephile trades (something The Matrix accomplished masterfully with its rampant theology). But as was the case with the muddled Jacob’s Ladder, Constantine never brings its debates into focus, choosing instead to pile on its issues like so many toppings onto a baked potato.


A warm and witty comedy that unfortunately runs itself into the ground during its final act, the picture benefits immeasurably from the presence of Will Smith, who may or may not be a great actor but who is most assuredly a great movie star. He's at turns sly, suave and sexy as Alex "Hitch" Hitchens, who bills himself as the Date Doctor because of his ability to make a living by advising other men how to land the woman of their dreams. He finds his biggest challenge in the form of Albert (Kevin James), a clumsy, overweight accountant who's hopelessly under the spell of beautiful super-model Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta). But Hitch unexpectedly finds his own romantic inclinations rising to the surface once he meets Sara Melas (Eva Mendes). Mendes, who's always come across as a Jennifer Lopez who can't act -- no, wait, that would still make her Jennifer Lopez -- initially has trouble keeping pace with a leading man prettier than she is, but ends up holding her own. w



Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) runs The Hit Pit, a boxing gym located in downtown Los Angeles, with the help of his only friend, Scrap (Unforgiven co-star Morgan Freeman). Scrap serves as the facility's caretaker, yet in his day he was a plucky fighter with a lot of promise, a quality he instantly spots in the young girl who wanders into the gym intent on becoming a champion boxer. Her name is Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), and, as Scrap notes at one point during the film's effective voice-over narration, "Maggie grew up knowing one thing: She was trash." Up until this point, Million Dollar Baby contains all the familiar trappings of crowd-pleasers like Rocky and The Karate Kid. Yet what makes this portion of the film soar is the attention to character that's provided by Eastwood (as director) and scripter Paul Haggis (adapting short stories from F.X. Toole's critically acclaimed book Rope Burns). w