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Mona Lisa Smile

Arriving at Wellesley College for a brand new academic year in 1953, art-history teacher Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) is excited about her first opportunity to mold minds and confront her students’ preconceptions of life. What she gets is a class full of over-achievers (including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Julia Stiles, and Ginnifer Goodwin) who are biding their time until they can graduate, get married, and promptly have babies – thus ending their potential. Katherine is aghast at this thought, and soon pushes them to better their lives through education and simple questioning of their true purpose. She gets through to most of the students, but one in particular (Kirsten Dunst) is appalled by Katherine’s beliefs and independence, and will do her best to squash it before it sweeps up the entire campus.

A teacher breaking through her icy students and setting them intellectually free is not terribly new ground for a movie to cover. “Mona Lisa Smile” attempts to twist the formula around a bit by providing a female perspective on the subject of education’s ability to blow minds. “Smile” is a period film set in the 1950s, when women were still strictly second-class citizens, and attempts to change that were looked down upon. The film gets amazing mileage exploiting the injustices against women during this era, mostly at the expense of the male characters. Director Mike Newell (“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Donnie Brasco”) doesn’t seem to mind that his film is violently anti-male, often encouraging himself with his disheartening direction of the guys in the film to inflict as much emotional pain on the females as they possibly can, thus rendering all of them one-dimensional repressive monsters. Yeesh! All this is arranged so the main ideas of “Smile” are more pointedly executed and easily understood by the teen girls in the audience who might not have a grip on life outside of the last two decades. But for the story and the overall film, it dilutes the message and turns “Smile” into a soap opera in the worst sense. For a script about forward-thinking and progression, it sure is filled with regressive attitudes and reprehensible depictions of the relationships between men and women.

What Newell does capture with ease is the claustrophobia the characters feel as they attempt to break away from the routine. The goal for these women is marriage, with Newell creating a tight world of campus suspicion and societal prompts for the girls to keep to the traditional routes of a respectable woman. “Smile” has the outside appearance and initial construction of being another teacher-changes-student movie, with Katherine testing the girls’ knowledge of modern art – including one scene where she takes the girls on a field trip to see a painting by Jackson Pollock. But this is all a big red herring, because the film soon settles into an overdramatic vibe where each of the characters gets screwed over by a man, then destroys the happy life of the person immediately next to them. This takes the overall heart and point right out of the story, which is illustrated by the total lack of an ending to the picture. Without a buildup to a climax, “Smile” dissipates slowly, and disappoints in its reluctance to take the claustrophobic atmosphere anywhere besides the obvious.

Again, the film is set in 1953, but one would never know that by looking at star Julia Roberts. Katherine thinks outside of the box, and Roberts plays her with a modern wink in her eye to sell the reasoning behind her refusal to wear period clothes or follow period cosmetics. Still, there is a nagging undertow of disbelief in Roberts’s characterization when she looks and acts like she just stepped off the set of “Ocean’s Eleven.” This can be swept under the rug and kissed off with an easy “it’s the character” explanation. But let’s get real. The rest of the cast hugs tight to the fashion and attitudes of the time, and it doesn’t make sense to see Katherine get to the position she’s attained without playing by some of the rules. It snaps the credibility “Smile” is looking to achieve like a dry twig.

Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal does an impressive job delivering the film’s only honest performance as a student spitefully licking her wounds after an affair with her professor. Newell’s direction and the screenplay, which turns everybody into idiots at the drop of a hat, destroy the rest of the cast. Kirsten Dunst gets the worst of it, giving a shrill, quivering fit of a performance. Drag queens everywhere will appreciate it. And Julia Robertsr Well, Newell gives us the smile, the laugh, and the hair. Does anyone dare ask for anything else anymorer

Rating: D+
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Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (BrianOrndorf)

In place of pure emotion and dependable character interaction, “Return of the King” is one long (205 minutes) battle sequence that robs the story of what it really needs: a breather.

The power of the One Ring is growing stronger, as Sam (Sean Astin), Frodo (Elijah Wood), and the crazy creature Gollum (voiced and actually played in the film’s opening sequence by Andy Serkis) make their way to Mordor to complete their destiny. On the other end of the spectrum is Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), who is slowly accepting his royal future as he leads the armies of Gondor and Rohan into a final battle with Sauron’s Orc troops. The future of Middle-Earth will be decided in the human city of Minas Tirith, where the forces of evil are assembling to destroy everything that they possibly can. And in the fires of Mount Doom, Frodo must try to overcome the power of the Ring, and the treachery of Gollum, to launch the golden hoop into the fiery pits and save every dwarf, elf, hobbit, and man around.

So here we are again, at the very end of a long cinematic journey and a one-time financial risk that has paid off millions of times over for New Line Cinema. Two years ago, the “Lord of the Rings” saga began as a slightly bewildering, enthusiastically acted drama undone by sub-par special effects and the ravings of J.R.R. Tolkien fans who swore up and down that I was missing the bigger picture. In retrospect, I was missing the bigger picture, since director Peter Jackson’s DVD-only extended cuts of “Fellowship of the Ring” and the follow up, “The Two Towers,” restored important moments of character development and plot that made the two films much more enjoyable and their ideas and relationships clearer. Without the benefit of a longer DVD cut, “Return of the King” brings the hobbits and myself back to square one, and I just can’t get too excited about it.

“Return of the King” is predominantly a war film, and one made for fans of the Tolkien world who tear up at the very mention of the name “Gamgee.” Sadly departed are the unspoken and nuanced moments that made “The Two Towers” a enormous step up from “Fellowship.” “King” is meant to close the book on this saga, and the film’s mindset is exactly that. There is little time to dwell on the relationships fought for by the first two movies. Heavens, there’s barely time for dialog! Jackson and his WETA warriors bend over backwards to give the fans what they want (or deserve) with the action sequences. The film’s star attraction is the skirmish at Minas Tirith, which rages on for over half of the picture’s rather speedy 205 minutes. The special effects have been improved since “Fellowship” was released in 2001, and Jackson gives the 1s and 0s a workout like no other filmmaker has before, even in the year of the two remarkable “Matrix“ sequels. We get battling cave trolls, armies that stretch as far as the eye can see, and a battalion of the undead who float their way into combat. It’s truly amazing stuff, blah, blah, blah…Unfortunately, it takes the place of simpler but touching relationships that Jackson had so meticulously constructed in the earlier films. The crucial friendship between Aragorn, dwarf Gimli, and elf Legolas is pushed aside in “King,” only coming ’round to act as a lame punch line when the film tires of its own somber nature. I was also distressed to see Jackson do absolutely nothing with the burgeoning romantic triangle between Aragorn, Eowyn, and Arwen. That arc was ready to explode, but in “King,” it’s cast off with one line of dialog. Of course, any time devoted to these characters would take screentime away from snarling Orcs, wouldn’t itr And God forbid if that happens.

Admittedly, Jackson does what he can with Tolkien’s winding prose, and there’s plenty to commend the burly, lovable New Zealand filmmaker for in “King.” There is great overdramatic reverence to the emotional arcs of the story this time around, as if Jackson was covering his behind to make the sure the trilogy is paid off in full. The Sam and Frodo plot thread is handled almost religiously, backed by ethereal choirs and Jackson’s newfound use of slow motion. I should be grateful Sam and Frodo have something constructive to do in this movie, which was not the case in “Two Towers.” Major kudos should be thrown to Sean Astin, who nails Samwise down to perfection: a bumbling hobbit who just may be too dim to understand when to give up, thus falling into hero status without knowing it. Beautiful. It’s a powerful piece of acting, made more impressive by Jackson’s rare refusal to shatter it by cutting away to even more snarling Orcs. I also enjoyed Aragorn’s reluctance to accept his kingly status. As an actor, Viggo Mortensen seems more comfortable with a flailing sword in his hand than with a crown on his head, and the character mirrors that sentiment throughout the film. The hobbits are the real heroes in “King,” which is truly the theme of picture. But all of these plot elements are really secondary to the special effects and the battles, which is criminal when you consider the wealth of pathos the story presents organically that Jackson doesn‘t go near.

In the end, my favorite moment of the film wasn’t Shelob the gigantic spider chasing Frodo around her web, Eowyn taking the Witch King down off his flying steed, nor was it Legolas conquering a computer generated elephant with that flawless marksmanship of his (though that is neat). My favorite moment of “Return of the King” was a simple shot of a battle weary Aragorn taking his true love Arwen (who had long been given up for dead) into his arms and planting a loving kiss on her like a man faced with the prospect of standing in front of Liv Tyler should. There’s more storytelling and character in that 10 second frencher than in any 2 hour long battle sequence, no matter how shiny the creatures are rendered or how much Sam cries. “Two Towers” had persuasive moments like this in abundance. I’m not sure why Jackson decided to take the honest emotion out of “King” in favor of the grandiose, but it doesn’t have the same resonance that “Towers” did and “Fellowship” almost achieved. I suppose I’ll have to wait for the extended version of “King” next holiday season to get the meat on the bones. That hardly seems fair.

“Return of the King” is a film to love in the heat of the moment. It cannot be denied, and I think Peter Jackson has done the fans well in making sure the visual feast is served correctly. For the Tolkien novices like myself, these last two holiday seasons have been spent chasing down and sorting out a very elusive franchise. Peter Jackson has created a cinematic monster that will outlive us all, and I give him credit for sticking to his guns. But I feel as if I missed the party, and now I’m relieved that this is all finally over. For another take on “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” here at FilmJerk.com, read Amy Lawrence’s review.

Rating: C+
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Love Don’t Cost a Thing

“Can’t Buy” was a fairly unremarkable production, but has since moved on to cult status among 1980 teen film followers who find it hard to resist the tepid charms of star Patrick Dempsey. “Love Don’t” contemporizes the story of a lovable loser, Alvin (Nick Cannon), who dreams of being in the cool crowd. His chance to change his fortunes comes when the most popular girl in school, Paris (Christina Milian), needs money quick and accepts Alvin’s offer to pretend she’s his girlfriend for two weeks in exchange for cash. Now fully accepted and rid of his nerd exterior, Alvin begins to lose sight of his friends and himself just as Paris is coming around to actually finding him attractive. As you can read, just like the 1987 version, the plot is nothing spectacular.

Writer/director Troy Beyer (“Let’s Talk About Sex”) has a lot of trouble making anything about “Love Don’t” seem fascinating, entertaining, or at the very least, bearable. She keeps pretty close to the original’s structure; only making superficial changes like a new urban setting, adding heaps of homophobia, and the insertion of dated Ebonics into the script (variations on “fa shizzle“ are everywhere in the film). “Can’t Buy” was a labored film and only found success in small degrees with the breezy way it went about detailing its story. “Love Don’t” isn’t nearly as kind. The new incarnation is a excruciating motion picture experience that Beyer is desperate to liven up with whatever camera techniques she can get her hands on, which explains the overuse of handheld camerawork, low angles, and pointless use of open shutter photography in the film’s climax. In pursuing style, Beyer allows the film to die in her arms, never focusing once on story development or performances. How do we know Alvin is a smart kidr He hangs around with other nerds and has poor hygiene. Why does the obscenely rich Paris need cash in the first placer Because the script is just written that way. Beyer also stages Alvin’s essential transformation from nerd-to-popular in one measly scene. “Can’t Buy” at least gave the audience a little more than that.

Nick Cannon follows up his obscenely smug and surprisingly lauded turn in last year’s train wreck “Drumline” with his role in “Love Don’t” as Alvin. Cannon has two speeds: unreadable silence or overacting goofball. The actor ping-pongs between the two acting styles throughout the film, making the experience even more unpleasant than what Beyer is going for. Cannon’s job is to convey Alvin’s quick journey from geek to chic, but the audience is never allowed a grasp on either side for very long. Cannon might be having a ball under his afro wig and Michael Jackson impressions, but next time, he should let the audience in on the fun too. Newcomer Christine Milian doesn’t fair much better, matching Cannon’s worthless performance note for note.

“Love Don’t Cost a Thing” is aided somewhat by comedian Steve Harvey’s appearance as Alvin’s father, who pushes condoms and dated style advice on to his son. While there aren’t any laughs to be found, at least Harvey is trying to put on a show, whereas the rest of the cast relies on Beyer far too much to save the day. The title reads: “Love Don’t Cost a Thing.” But maybe it should read: “Love Shouldn’t Cost a Thing.” Save your money for a film that deserves it.

Rating: D-
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Stuck On You

For brothers Bo (Matt Damon) and Walt (Greg Kinnear), life couldn’t be better. They run a successful restaurant, Walt does a little acting, and they are hugely popular in their small Martha’s Vineyard neighborhood; the brothers have it made, relying on each other for support. But they have to: they’re joined at the liver. Bo and Walt are conjoined twins who take life‘s troubles with ease. When Walt gets the itch to move out to California and try professional acting, Bo reluctantly tags along. Soon enough, Walt lands a television series starring opposite Cher, which complicates the twins’ life to a point where they must consider separation for their lives to continue.

There’s a formula to the films of Peter and Bobby Farrelly that cannot be denied. It has survived through so many hit films (“Dumb and Dumber,” “There‘s Something About Mary“), why start complaining nowr Start with an outrageous premise featuring a subject (or subjects) that other filmmakers wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole, add a mixture of comedians, family friends, and dramatic actors trying out their funny bones, then fill the joke-free cracks of the screenplay with a warm, oozing sentimentality that attempts to justify the means. Cook at 350 degrees for two hours. Serves millions.

The last Farrelly concoction, 2001’s “Shallow Hal,” was a unique step forward for the brothers. Here was a picture that took on a huge American taboo (the obese), and featured a subplot set in a pediatric hospital burn ward. And it worked beautifully. However, the laughs were a little less, and the heart a little bigger in “Hal,” signaling a change in the road for the filmmaking duo. “Stuck On You” continues the slinking away from their usual routine. Sure, the premise of conjoined twins is almost unheard of, as is the unique casting of Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear as the twins; but this new Farrelly joint is just a little less funny than what they’ve done before, and it almost seems intentional. Far be it for me to stand in the way of an artistic change, but to see Peter and Bobby strike out with jokes is painful to watch, like Bill Buckner in the 1986 World Series (the basis of a great throwaway joke in the film). “Stuck On You” is more pleasant than laugh out loud funny, and the moments of the oozing sentimentality are force fed into a cinematic belly that cannot take the pressure. For the most part, the film is a solid good time, but this is easily the least of the Farrelly flicks to date, and I‘m even including their live action segment for the animated “Osmosis Jones“ in the count.

Suffice it to say, there’s lots of conjoined twin humor to feast on in the film. The Farrellys don’t let down the audience in showing how Bo and Walt go about their daily lives, including a rare glimpse at how conjoined twins have sex. We see the twins work their hamburger restaurant with amazing nimbleness, conquer any sport they play (often unfairly), watch Bo’s crippling stagefright even though there no actual acting involved for him (hands down, the film’s best gag), and witness the two brothers storm Hollywood, which outside of an old and clueless agent (Seymour Cassel) who demands “Kitty Carlisle money” for Walt’s big gig, doesn’t bring the expected insider humor from films set in tinseltown. Damon and Kinnear are great in their roles, and take a lot of pride in their body movement synchronicity. Damon is especially a joy to watch, as comedy is rarely handed to him. Lost in the focus is Cher, making a small supporting appearance, and unable to keep up with the film’s mood and comedic temperature. Better is Meryl Streep, who has a winning cameo as a celebrity sighting of Walt’s.

There’s a subplot about Bo’s Internet girlfriend that keeps popping up to no decent results, as well as last minute dilemma suggesting a separation for the twins. Usually at this time, the Farrellys go for sweet and sappy, and it has worked in their previous productions. For “Stuck On You,” the brake placed on the gags permanently stops the picture, and it takes a lot of conjoined twin sight gags to restart it.

I’m hoping “Stuck On You” is just a fluke misfire from Peter and Bobby, and they can regroup to deliver something truly shameful and pleasingly unnecessary to the comedic landscape again. That’s what they’re best at.

Rating: C+
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Something’s Gotta Give

Harry Langer (Nicholson, coasting big time) is a rich, 63 year-old bachelor who loves the company of younger women. When one of his latest paramours (Amanda Peet) takes him to her mother’s beach house for a weekend of sex, Harry has a mild heart attack, leaving him in the care of the mother, successful playwright Erica Barry (Keaton). Harry and Erica do not see eye to eye on relationships, but in Erica’s company, Harry begins to see the appeal of women his own age. At the very same time, Harry’s 36 year-old doctor (Keanu Reeves, charming in a way “The Matrix” films wouldn’t allow) makes a play for Erica, while Harry attempts to seduce her with his own fading charms. Erica, caught in the middle, is aghast at all the attention placed on her. But once she accepts her situation, she opens up an emotional reservoir within that affects her more deeply than anything has in years.

Three cheers all around for writer/director Nancy Meyers for attempting to buck the system a little bit and maker her object of desire a 57 year-old woman. You just don’t see that enough these days, making “Something’s Gotta Give” a noteworthy film for its graceful handling of sexuality and maturity. It’s just a shame that’s all Meyers handles with grace, because “Gotta” is a film so ripe with possibilities that its juices flow from the very first bite, but once you eat down to the core, you discover the fruit has been rotten all along.

Maybe it’s because Meyers is so proud of her screenwriting accomplishment that her film eventually fails. She certainly pats herself on the back enough with Erica being a character not only desired by everyone, but also the most successful, intelligent, and carefully lit in any room she enters. Meyers has a fondness for writing strong female characters (“Baby Boom,” “Private Benjamin“), but often these creations defy reality with their obscenely lavish lifestyles and absence of genuine moral quandaries. Erica is yet another upper class Hampton creation from Meyer, leaving sympathy for her romantic exploits threadbare at the very least. For whatever reason, Meyers always writes her characters very rich and very New Yorkian, with “Gotta” showing serious signs of this formula in its final stages of life. The core idea of Erica’s battle with herself and the two men after her is a wonderful, welcome change of pace. After years of seeing older male actors paired up with young female co-stars, this story needs to be told. Meyers is just not the filmmaker suited for filming her own script. After all, this is the same woman who decided that peaking her last comedy, “What Women Want,” with an attempted suicide scene would be a good idea. It wasn’t. And on “Gotta,” she believes comedy comes from cutting to Nicholson’s naked ass three times in one scene. It doesn’t. Hey, I thought this was a film for adultsr

“Gotta” gives Diane Keaton her best role in years, possibly decades, and she takes the opportunity to develop a rich connection with the camera and her co-stars very seriously. Erica isn’t the most complex creature, but Keaton is willing to shed some vanity (there is a nude scene) in return for being the center of attention. Keaton’s acting is as good as it’s ever been, especially when you can clearly see Meyer’s screenwriting holding Keaton back from a more deft realization of Erica. The wrinkle in the fabric is co-star Jack Nicholson. Keaton and Nicholson are wonderful performers on their own, but paired up in the film, they lack the chemistry that should be integral to the picture. Watch a scene such as Erica and Harry strolling down a beach, improvisationally chatting away, and the film stops cold. “Gotta” hinges on the fact that these two characters are meant to be together, but the actors just can’t quite sell the notion themselves. Jack acts like “Jack,” in full eyebrow mode, but he can’t muster the warmth and desire with Keaton like he can with himself. And Keaton has much better chemistry with co-star Keanu Reeves than she does with Nicholson. “Gotta” loses its structure about 45 minutes in. It then becomes a kind of theatrical, one-act play examining the romance growing between Erica and Harry. Without the sparks, “Gotta” begins to show its labored mechanics and formulaic screenwriting towards the end, at the very point the audience should be chomping at the bit for these two to realize their destiny.

It may be a long-time-in-coming turn of the tables against typical Hollywood romantic relationships, but “Something’s Gotta Give” loses all sense of reality by the time the climax pokes its head up. Meyers is a slave to convention, which would be the only explanation for the final events in the film to play out as they do. “Gotta” is perfect for Diane Keaton purists and those who don’t see many romantic comedies in their lifetime. But as a truly challenging, warm, hilarious confectionr It’s a bicycle built for two and only one wheel to work with.

Rating: C
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In America

After losing their young son to cancer, Johnny (Paddy Considine, “24 Hour Party People”) and Sarah (Samantha Morton, “Minority Report”) have uprooted their two daughters Ariel (7 year-old Emma Bolger) and Christy (11 year-old Sarah Bolger) from Ireland to take them to New York for a fresh start. Living in a building inhabited by junkies, the family tries to make the best of their situation; Sarah takes a job in a malt shop while Johnny pursues his dreams of theatrical acting. But the pain of their previous loss continually interrupts the joy of the new land, and threatens to tear the family apart when Sarah becomes pregnant again.

Based slightly on the real life experiences of writer/director Jim Sheridan’s early time in New York City (the screenplay was written with his two daughters), “In America” explores the journey of an immigrant family trying to sew their lives together after tragedy, using a complete change in surroundings to do so. Sheridan has spent his career covering the Irish experience through his Oscar-nominated films such as “My Left Foot“ and “In The Name of the Father.” “In America” is Sheridan’s first trip to the states, and because of the personal attachment to the tale, the New York world is photographed with a loving eye, even when the action takes place in crack dens and sweaty summer streets. Sheridan tones down the expected scenes of immigrant growing pains in favor of a positive look at the family building themselves a new life. While some initial troubles pass by too effortlessly for Sarah and Johnny, Sheridan has bigger fish to fry with their emotional journey than to tax the viewer with another tired “Welcome to Noo Yawk, pal” sequence.

The plot thickens a bit when the family stumbles upon the apartment of Mateo (Djimon Hounsou, “Gladiator”), an African-American artist who is slowly succumbing to AIDS in his isolation. The two sides are initially frosty to each other, but when Mateo learns of the loss of Johnny and Sarah’s baby, he integrates himself into the family and creates a much-needed warmth in the dynamic. Mateo represents a spiritual awakening for the family, seen through two symbolic sequences in which Mateo’s suffering intercuts with Johnny and Sarah’s fortunes. Sheridan tiptoes briefly on the cliche of the loveable African-American caricature, but the Mateo character turns out to be so much more than the token friend. It’s through his kindness that Johnny recognizes his chilly relationship with his two daughters. Hounsou is perfect in the role, bringing essential inner fire and warmth to Mateo, and keeping the role far away from forced sentimentality.

As a whole, “In America” straddles that uncomfortable line between idealism and reality. The pictures comes close to Frank Capra-style whimsy, but keeping the film from crossing that unbearable line is its beating heart and honesty. “In America” is a deeply touching, emotional experience that seeks out the truth in family unit relationships, while still remaining a powerful, riveting drama all on its own. Johnny and Sarah feel as real as any married couple on screen; finding themselves out of love, but desiring a return to those days when grief and frustration didn’t so easily tear them apart. Christy and Ariel also perform as “real” (non-Hollywood) children – endlessly taxing their parents with questions and forming their own thoughtful opinions on the loss of their brother. Sarah and Emma Bolger, two real life sisters, are simply miraculous in the roles. There isn’t an artificial, manufactured moment between the two of them, and they overshadow the rest of the cast with their natural abilities. In fact, their acting is some of the best I’ve seen all year.

One showcasing scene in particular has Ariel depressed in a restaurant, lamenting the fact that E.T. (the film she just watched) returned home, evoking her own homesick feelings. Slumped over, barely touching her ice cream, she captures all that earth-shattering guilt, pain, and regret a child her age can organically feel. The moment is mirrored later in the film when Mateo secretly promises Emma that he will make sure to say goodbye when he eventually passes on – or returns to his home planet, as he explains to the wide-eyed little girl. Great little intimate moments are in abundance in the film, but it all comes back down to these two acting sisters and the magic they weave.

While Sheridan sometimes makes Johnny and Sarah’s troubles disappear with alarming ease, there is such an ample supply of feeling and passion in the storytelling that it overshadowed the cynical side of me. “In America” is a beautiful, alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking film. It’s small treat in the busy holiday season, but one I urge not to miss.

Rating: A
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