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Benji: Off the Leash!

Surely you remember when Benji was Canine Rex, king of all dogsr

No, huhr I can’t blame you. It has been 17 years since the last installment of the franchise, after all. Well, whether you like it or not, Benji is back in the new “Benji: Off the Leash!” Hey, maybe not the world’s greatest title, but at least be glad he isn’t “off the hizzle fo shizzle” or something.

And indeed, this is not particularly a “modernization” of the legend, except insofar as we must be up to at least Benji v4.0 by now. (After all, this is the 30th anniversary of the original “Benji,” and as the equally late Lorne Greene could have assured you, that’s 210 of our years.) Set in placid suburbia, “Off the Leash!” makes absolutely no attempt to stamp itself as a product of the 21st century. We begin with Colby (Nick Whitaker), a boy who I’d guess is supposed to be around 10 years old, but to whom school is nonetheless a distant rumor. In classic fairy tale fashion, Colby lives in misery with an abusive stepfather (Chris Kendrick) and a frightened mother (Christy Summerhays). Evil Stepdad has a whole bunch of dogs in the backyard. He keeps them in cages and breeds them far more often than is healthy. Thankfully, we don’t get to see the latter part, but we do see one of the results: The canine who would be Benji is born to the breeder’s most prized dog. But since he’s white, rather than black like his mom, Evil Stepdad can’t sell him as a “pure breed.” So, over Colby’s objections, Stepdad tosses the dog across the room and then abandons him. That’s the kind of guy he is. (A dog tosser, that is. Any racial subtext is presumably unintentional.)

Colby often seeks refuge in a fort located in the woods outside of his home. He seems to have constructed it out of the husk of an old school bus. It has a few fun gadgets, such as a water wheel to provide drinking water for any critters that happen by. (Unfortunately, the gadgets are abandoned as soon as they’re introduced. I would have liked to see a totally tricked-out fort, just to make the film even more of a kid’s daydream.) Naturally, soon enough, the dog no one wanted shows up at Colby’s rusty schoolbus door.

Turns out that the life of a dog can be pretty… rough. “Rough”r Get itr Kinda sounds like the sound a dog makesr

Fine, be that way. Turns out that the life of a dog can be pretty complex. Ur-Benji makes a friend, a shaggy, affable dog, named Lizardtongue, who puts Gene Simmons to shame. But Lizardtongue has enemies, two bumbling dogcatchers (Randall Newsome and Duane Stephens), and they’re set on corralling one or both of the wandering pups. Lizardtongue also isn’t the sharpest canine in the pound — ruled as much by his stomach as his head — and the lure of the food provided by a kindly old man (Neal Barth) may break up the burgeoning friendship. Meanwhile, all the over breeding has made Mom quite sick, and naturally, our hero would like to be reunited with her. And of course, surrounded by a home life that defines “battered woman’s syndrome,” Colby has mother issues of his own.

So there’s a lot going on, which ensures that the film moves at a good pace and stays interesting. It also strikes a nice balance in terms of tone. If you compare the way children’s movies were 30 years ago to the way they are now, it might seem inconceivable that a film that explicitly attempts to be a throwback to that era could come off anything besides hopelessly dated and saccharine. “Off the Leash!” manages to avoid that, though. In between the realistic-looking, very sick dog and the abusive dad, we are definitely not living in Lollipop Land. It won’t scare your children, and of course, everyone gets their comeuppance in the end. But just as importantly, it won’t insult your children’s intelligence either. Personally, I was glad to see that the film depicted such a significant social issue at all, and that it sought to teach kids why it’s a bad thing. And for slapstick comic relief, you’ve got the dogcatchers. Not that they’re funny, but maybe the kids will laugh. Maybe.

After “animal” flicks like “Garfield: The Movie”, “Cats and Dogs” and “Good Boy!” which mostly consist of computer graphic artists showing off what they can do with pixels, it’s heartwarming to see real animals doing things that animals really can do. When the two dogs get stuck in a garbage can… hey, it might not be something out of the “Die Hard” series, but if you were a dog, that would be a real problem! And if a dog wants to get over a tall fence, that’s going to be quite a process! It was very gratifying to see these realistic “stunts” performed without outside aids. The “acting” coaxed out of the canine leads is also impressive. Lizardtongue and his pal show more chemistry than most “buddy” movies involving humans, going from exuberant excitement to forlorn despair. However, I’d suggest you leave before the ending credits, in which the filmmakers congratulate themselves for the lack of CGI. Part of “keeping it real” is humility, after all.

There’s also a note of self-congratulation in one of the film’s basic plot conceits. Suffice it to say that a young child in 2004 probably won’t understand the significance of being named “Benji,” and the film never really explains why that’s so important.

In the current social climate, there’s no doubt that certain folks will seize on “Benji: Off the Leash!” because “there’s finally a movie to which you can take the whole family.” That’s more of a partisan statement than a true one. There are still many fine family films being made. “Off the Leash!” is a long way away from “Finding Nemo” or “Babe.” It traffics extensively in cliches, with largely cutout characters, and you can’t exactly call it witty. But it beats a failed comedy like “Garfield”, or a gross out-fest like “The Cat In the Hat” that isn’t even suitable for children to see at all. “Off the Leash” takes the idea of making a dog movie for kids seriously, and that’s why it largely succeeds.

Rating: B
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She Hate Me

If Michael Moore had no idea how to make a movie or what he wanted to say with a film, he would be turning out stuff like the abominable “She Hate Me.” Instead, while Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” has done its part to shape the political climate of a crucial time in American history, Spike Lee’s attempt at social relevance will likely have approximately the same cultural impact as “Around the World in 80 Days” or “Catwoman.”

“She Hate Me” does show some visual flair, as demonstrated in the opening credits. The credits depict the fetishistic importance that our society places on money, lovingly exploring the various bills that we constantly exchange, and all the strange markings on them that we constantly ignore. The final sight we see is a picture of George W. Bush on the — legendarily counterfeit — three-dollar bill.

We then launch into the story of Jack Armstrong (relative newcomer Anthony Mackie). Jack works at Progeia, a pharmaceutical company that has come up with an AIDS vaccine. Turns out, though, that this vaccine isn’t going to be approved by the FDA. Jack discovers this, and is also present when the vaccine’s creator (David Bennett) commits suicide, for reasons that are either unclear in the script or obscured by Bennett’s impenetrably thick German accent. The image of this poor guy impaled upon a doughnut stand will stick with you, but if we don’t understand the characters’ motivation, it’s flash without substance. Sure, we know that something shady is going on when someone throws themselves out of a window, but it’s an artistically cheap way to get there.

All this bad news prompts the Evil CEO Woody Harrelson to freeze his employees’ 401(k) plans before they can pull their investments out of the company. (Harrelson, admirably, restrains himself from recommending hemp as an alternative cure.) Jack is admonished to keep quiet, both by Harrelson and by the corporate second-in-command, played by Ellen Barkin in a Martha Stewart haircut. Why does she have a Martha Stewart haircutr Sure, she works at a corrupt company and Martha Stewart has been convicted of insider trading… but is there any meat to the allusion beyond thatr Not in this script, there isn’t. Allusions to the idea that the rich and powerful might not want an AIDS vaccine to exist at all also end up unexplored.

Jack can’t ignore his conscience. He calls the SEC and reports the unethical behavior. Predictably, he’s fired. In a scene that defies all pretenses of realism, we then see Harrelson making a phone call warning other companies not to hire this troublemaker. We soon discover that he is 100% successful at this goal. Did he call up every company in the worldr Jack also finds his bank account frozen — can I ask how, and whyr Again, Lee is content to paint the “bad” guys with the “bad” stick, evading explanations of how they’re motivated or how they realistically use their power to shape society.

Anyway, Jack can’t get a job. I guess that, despite being the unmarried and childless vice-president of a huge corporation, he has no savings. And I guess it never occurs to him that he could move to another country, or back home with his parents, or really, anywhere besides his super-swank Manhattan apartment. And I guess he’s not willing to sell any of the luxurious possessions that we see in the apartment, either. Yes — and don’t you hate it when this happensr — he has NO CHOICE but to make money by impregnating lesbians.

“Well, hold up a minute,” you perhaps might be thinking. “If a lesbian wants to get pregnant, wouldn’t they go through the usual, well-established medical proceduresr If they wanted to have sex with guys, they wouldn’t be lesbians.”

I’ll skip ahead a bit and tell you what the explanation is. Jack has the magic stick. 100% success rate.

If this holds up for you as an explanation, please continue.

Fatima (Kerry Washington) is the one who comes up with the brilliant scheme. She was Jack’s old girlfriend, but now her significant other is a woman, Alex (Dania Ramirez). Fatima invites over a bunch of her lesbian pals who would like to have children. The women to “see the merchandise.” Jack complies. Since the merchandise is large enough, they all agree to the plan. Again… can I ask how this makes senserr But, I guess you can’t argue with results. More and more folks wanting Jack’s services show up, making Jack and Fatima richer and richer. In many of these scenes, the tone of the movie is total farce. But then suddenly, when Jack and Fatima are alone together, it’s all Very Serious (and Long, and Stilted) Conversations. One of the “serious” conversations ends with Fatima yelling, “Do you want me to say itr Fine… I… LOVE… PUSSY!”

And if you don’t like lesbians who want big dicks, maybe you’ll like a lesbian basketball team that makes Jack their bitch!

You might well think that, at this point, the movie had spiraled completely out of control. Did I mention the frequent Watergate re-enactmentsr Yup, a wasted Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Dirty Pretty Things”) is stuck playing Frank Wills, the janitor who discovered the Watergate break-ins. Lee wants to parallel Wills’ whistleblowing to Jack’s own. In Lee’s opinion, doing so requires extensive re-enactments of the break-in, and appearances by all of the main Watergate players.

I guess I hadn’t mentioned that. Okay, did I mention that we’ve also got rapper Q-Tip, playing Jack’s best friend Vadar That Vada has his own fertility worriesr That he delivers a lengthy and incredibly stiff explanation of the movie’s title (derived from the nickname of a player in the now defunct XFL) that makes zero senser And that we also spend a good amount of time with Jack’s brother and his feuding parentsr And that Monica Bellucci and John Turturro show up, toor And that Turturro delivers almost the entire “Meeting of the Five Families” scene from “The Godfather” as a monologuer Have you looked up “lengthy” or “unfocused” in a dictionary latelyr Because they might have new entries.

It all ends up in front of a Congressional hearing. Apparently, Jack’s report to the SEC did nothing but get him indicted by the SEC (this also goes unexplained.) Jack acts out what I suspect might be Lee’s dream: He gets to go in front of Congress and come off as a hero despite delivering what amounts to an incoherent rant. Wills is referenced again, and a dramatic picture of real-life whistleblowers from Time magazine is thrown on the screen. You can see what Lee is going for here, but since the “whistleblowing” plot was presented so unrealistically and has also been ignored for about the last hour and a half of the movie, it falls totally flat. Then Congressmen start grilling this guy — who, again, is facing a SEC hearing — about his sex life… can we seriously buy thisr Lee himself doesn’t seem to know how these plotlines might be connected. The love triangle between Jack, Fatima and Alex then gets resolved in the way you would probably expect from a straight guy.

If I haven’t made it clear what I think, “She Hate Me” is a total mess. Its message is beyond confused, and its tone changes more often than Lee’s beloved Knicks shoot bricks. Mackie and Washington are talented actors, but there’s no way they can bring life to characters who are over-the-top comedy caricatures in one scene and thoughtful, young, affluent African-Americans in the next. Jack Armstrong does enough after the whistleblowing to make us forget about his initial heroic act; despite having the name of literature’s All-American Boy, he’s hardly sympathetic. Only the minor players like Q-Tip, Ramirez (a nice, restrained performance), and Paula Jai Parker (hamming it up in a Li’l Kim parody) come off well.

Perhaps the movie would have worked if it were a total sex farce. The scenes depicting Jack’s “business transactions” are funny in a raunchy sort of way, despite their total nonsensicalness in terms of character motivations. If we were able to take the nonsensicalness in stride, there may have been a film there. But in a script that is elsewhere trying to make a nuanced critique of society, it’s impossible to take them as such.

In any event, to transform this into something quality would have required editing it so much as to make it a different film entirely. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to deal with that voice in my head screaming at the movie I’m watching to just END already. I guess I never appreciated how rare that is before now. If you wish to re-live that experience yourself, then by all means check out “She Hate Me.” Otherwise, be forewarned that this movie hate you.

Rating: F
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Napoleon Dynamite

As any child of the 1980s knows, “nerds” come in many flavors. There are the shy nerds. Even if you took it upon yourself to pry these wallflowers from their hiding place, you wouldn’t get much of a response. Then there are the relatively outgoing nerds. Those folks may not talk much to the popular kids, but within the nerd society, they are the big shots and hardly stop to catch a breath as they pontificate about operating systems or anime. And, finally, as I said before, there are the nerds.

Yes, our red-headed hero carries the unlikely name “Napoleon Dynamite.” (Elvis Costello fans may recall that this was an alias that Costello used on his album “Blood and Chocolate.”) Director Jared Hess relates that he got the name from a strange man he met in Chicago, and didn’t know that most likely, this mysterious transient had copped it from Elvis. “I wish I could change it now,” Hess says. This high school student from Idaho looks through perpetually squinted eyes at a world that is a somewhat disturbing cross between the world of today and the world of the Bangles and Kool Moe Dee. Although his reclusive older brother Kip spends most of his life in those newfangled Internet chat rooms, Napoleon kicks it ’80s style with his frizzy white-boy perm, swank moon boots and those huge glasses that are staples of any embarrassing yearbook picture. And the rest of his class has a similar sense of style: Pastels dominate fashions, “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper gets cranked at the school dance, and Napoleon’s lone female friend Deb (“Waterworld”‘s Tina Majorino) has a ponytail pulled so tightly to the side that you could probably use it to swing her around the room. Napoleon is played by 26-year-old Jon Heder, who — like much of the cast — is making his feature film debut. The gangly Heder doesn’t look anything like a high school student, but it works in this instance, as towering over his peers only brings his misfit status into more vivid relief. Hess ably emphasizes his character’s isolation by using slow, wide camera shots that showcase the quiet Idaho landscape.

Anyway, the fact is that just looking at Napoleon is funny. Heder had already played the character in a short film that played at the 2003 Slamdance Festival, and in an interview, often talked about “Napoleon” as if the nebbish were right there in the room. On the surface, at least, Napoleon is either truly laid-back or borderline autistic: He can’t even be bothered to open his eyes fully or glance in someone’s direction. Napoleon lives largely in a fantasy world, in which he is one step away from gaining the skills of a ninja and where spinning tales about how he spent his summer shooting wolverines will prevent a beatdown from the jocks (it doesn’t work). But real life begins to intrude on his teenage reverie in a variety of ways. First his grandmother injures herself in a dune buggy accident, leaving Napoleon and his 32-year-old brother “alone.” This brings about the return of Uncle Rico (Jon Gries of “Real Genius”). Rico is a former high school quarterback who lives in regret that Coach didn’t put him in the big game. Now, he hawks Tupperware and “breast enhancers” with equally little sense of shame. Another interloper into Napoleon’s world is a new student, Pedro (Efren Ramirez), who is every bit his equal in underreaction and nonconformity… and who unwittingly becomes his competition for the hand of Deb. The simmering tension, however, doesn’t stop Napoleon from backing Pedro’s underdog bid for the class presidency against the prohibitive favorite, perky cheerleader Summer (Haylie Duff — yes, her sister.)

If those last couple of sentences give the impression that this is all leading up to a boilerplate “Revenge of the Nerds” resolution, well, you can rest easy. Much like its lead character, “Napoleon Dynamite” is not about to start playing by the general rules of society. Indeed, in a plot development that has no basis in the reality of any high school of which I know, the presidential election ends up being settled by a dance competition. And although we presume that lessons are indeed learned, they’re not exactly dwelled upon, as the 86-minute film makes a quick dash for the exit.

Although folks might expect more than 86 minutes for their ticket fee these days, it’s probably for the best, because “Napoleon Dynamite” is, to an extent, a one-joke film. Much like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, you will most likely recognize the lead character as the prototype of someone you’ve met yourself. It’s easy to laugh both with him and at him, as he spouts outdated slang (“Dang!” “Sweet!” “Retarded!”), and gets into surreal scrapes involving things such as a bar of Chap Stick or an unhappy llama. However, much like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, there’s not that much meat here besides the well-realized lead character and some physical humor. Uncle Rico’s desire to correct his past wrongs is drawn out at length and then put to rest via a “dick joke.” He then continues to pop in for some more moderately amusing, but ultimately random and directionless, scenes. Despite a valiant effort by Ramirez, who matches Heder blank stare for blank stare, the character of Pedro remains enigmatic. Summer and the other “popular kids” could hardly be more cliche or undeveloped. Since the film’s climax is based around a nominal showdown between Pedro and Summer, these turn out to be major flaws.

What’s designed to be the “big ending” ends up, just like the rest of the film, a gag based on physical humor and the “wackiness” of the Napoleon character. Not that that’s bad; it’s a helluva lot more than most “SNL” movies deliver, I can tell ya. Still, it’s not exactly the level of humor — along with other emotions — that Wes Anderson was able to wring out of the triumph of a deadpan teenager in “Rushmore.”

“Napoleon Dynamite” can’t really claim to be much more than a funny film. But it can make you laugh, and it can give you a character you’ll remember for quite a while. And that is, indeed, pretty sweet.

Rating: B+
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Calendar Girls

“Calendar Girls” is based on a real story that riveted the United Kingdom, and at least made enough impact in the U.S. to sell 250,000 calendars. Let me explain that. As the real-life folks involved would no doubt have insisted, one has to begin explaining the story of “Calendar Girls” with the story of John Clarke. John Alderton deftly portrays this relatively young man who faces fatal leukemia with a sense of humor. After John passes away, his wife Annie (Julie Walters) has a simple wish: She wants to contribute something to leukemia research… or, at the very least, she wants to get a couch for the visiting room of the local hospital that isn’t quite so uncomfortable. Her boisterous friend Chris (Helen Mirren) has a typically outrageous idea about how to raise the money. You see, both Annie and Chris belong to the Women’s Institute (WI for short), a very staid English institution. I’m talking staid, as in, lectures about broccoli are often the highlight of their weekly meetings. The Institute’s annual calendar often portrays their elegantly dressed members engaged in stereotypically “female” activities… either that, or nature scenes. Chris playfully suggests that a lot more money could be made if the WI put out a nude calendar. A photographer refines Chris’s initial inspiration: Why not photograph the women of the Institute, engaging in their typical calendar activities like flower arranging, baking, etc…. but, all sans clothesr The props would be carefully arranged to cover up the “naughty bits.”

Well, unsurprisingly, it takes a lot of convincing to get this to happen. First the WI gals have to be talked into posing, and then the larger WI organization has to be convinced to allow it. Once the calendar gets printed, it turns out that the idea of middle-aged women getting their kit off (sorry, I’m in the mood now) has appeal to the English… or, more likely, that the images poked fun at the WI’s image in just the right way to tickle the Anglo funny bone. There’s far more demand for the calendar than anyone could possibly have anticipated. Soon the “Calendar Girls” are national celebrities (and tabloid fodder)… and soon after that, once they cross the pond to America, international celebrities as well.

Lord knows that there aren’t too many films that have not just one, but several, quality roles for middle-aged women (never mind roles that require said women to go nude.) But “Calendar Girls” most definitely does, and the sheer novelty of seeing some grey hairs and wrinkles on screen is sure to make many folks very happy. Top that ensemble off with two stellar actresses — two-time Oscar nominee Walters as the relatively shy Annie, and the legendary Mirren dominating scenes as Chris — and you definitely have a formula for a crowd-pleaser. Even a theater full of jaded critics seemed to be hanging on every witticism and dryly absurd situation put together by “Saving Grace” director Nigel Cole.

But “Calendar Girls” avoids the trap of becoming a mere comic romp by exploring issues beyond naughtiness: mourning, friendship and fame. On the rare occasions that a film does center around older women, it’s almost a cliche that at least one of said older women will somehow rediscover their sexuality. Although there is an element of that here, Cole smartly doesn’t make it the primary emphasis. The Calendar Girls aren’t “liberated”, so much as made far more notorious than they ever expected. As the phenomenon grows, Annie starts to believe that the calendar’s original goal — to honor her husband — is being lost. Annie feels that fame is going to Chris’ head and making her less attentive to her family, while Annie would be happy to have any family at all. The tension and resentment all comes to a head when the Girls come to Hollywood to do “The Tonight Show.” To be honest, many of the scenes that play this out are more than a little clunky. Luckily, Walters and Mirren are able to kludge together something decent out of it.

“Calendar Girls” is a feel-gooder that gives its audience a lot more credit than a Hollywood version of this tale most likely would. It’s still a fluffy dessert, but you won’t feel guilty afterwards.

Rating: B
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21 Grams

“21 Grams”, of course, does not really carry a culinary meaning in this film’s context. Rather, it symbolically represents the amount of weight lost by a human body upon death (Referring to the soul, this is of course an urban myth). And, indeed, death suffuses the lives of all three of our protagonists. Mathematician Paul Rivers (Penn) needs a heart transplant very soon if he is to stay alive. And well-to-do Cristina Peck (Watts) and ex-con Jack Jordan (Del Toro) are about to be connected by a nightmarish, mortal tragedy, that soon expands to include Paul in its radius as well.

As with Inarritu’s previous effort “Amores Perros,” the story of “21 Grams” changes its focus seemingly at random between the three main characters, moving in no kind of set order. The beautifully crafted script by Guillermo Arriaga ties everything together masterfully. Despite the complexity of the storytelling method, I was never confused for a second. Quite the opposite, in fact… I was on the edge of my seat waiting for the unexplained gaps in the story to be filled. The ultimate resolution, if you think about it, might be cheesy as hell in others’ hands, but the way in which it unfurls here makes it seem as natural as anything.

This is the type of movie where you don’t want to spoil a thing…one where you just tell all your friends to “go see it,” and you refuse to tell them any more than that. Suffice it to say that Jack — the one with a criminal past — is a deeply religious man, burning with the fervor of the newly converted. Indeed, he puts God above his own family. When the unthinkable happens, Jack is forced to question the existence of the deity in whom he formerly believed as if he was renting the next room over, and the shock nearly destroys him. Del Toro will make you, too, a believer. Cristina has to confront her tragic past so that she can move on with her life, while Paul has to make the most of whatever time he has left.

A gritty, realistic shooting style (almost all shots are done with a handheld camera) reflects the warts-and-all portrayals of the characters. None of these folks is a saint, by any stretch of the word. Jack vacillates between negligence and self-pity, while Paul — no simple invalid — is guilty of using people and of selfishness on an almost epic scale. Penn, who really is looking more and more like Robert De Niro as time goes on, expertly captures Paul’s swings between aimlessness and determination. Charlotte Gainsbourg puts in a good performance as Paul’s long-suffering girlfriend. Cristina is the least complex of the three main characters, but Watts plays her scarred character with a nice volatility (I’d be remiss to mention that the two young actresses playing her daughters are as cute as buttons as well). Despite — or more likely because of — their faults, we feel for all of these characters as their struggle to do what they feel they must leads them through tragedy and into redemption. Penn, Del Toro and Watts wring out everything they can give here, and convey their characters interior lives to complement the big dramatic moments well.

If you enjoyed the visceral, intense moviegoing experience of a film like “Requiem for a Dream,” then “21 Grams” is the movie for you to see this winter.

Rating: A
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