Silver City (BrianOrndorf)

Dimwitted Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper) is running for governor of Colorado. During a routine environmental commercial shoot, Dickie accidentally fishes a dead illegal immigrant out of the water, springing his campaign manager (Richard Dreyfuss) into action. The Pilager campaign hires private investigator Danny O’Brien (Danny Houston), a disgraced former journalist, to find out the origins of the body and put the kibosh on the story. As Danny makes his way around the various locals looking for clues, he uncovers a greater conspiracy behind Dickie’s goals for government, as well as the danger the local ecosystem is in due to rampant greed.

“Silver City,” the latest film from accomplished writer/director John Sayles, makes no bones about its purpose. Sayles has always been a messaged minded filmmaker, traveling across the globe to investigate injustices and conflicts (“Sunshine State,” “Men with Guns,” “Lone Star”), but here, in this year of “Fahrenheit 9/11” and countless other White House documentaries, Sayles turns his high beams on the man of the hour: George W. Bush.

Well, not Bush exactly. In “City,” the character is called Dickie Pilager, a bumbling government boob, thrust into office by corporate backers who need an inside man to erase environmental laws and help grease the flow of money away from the lower class. Not terribly subtle of Sayles, but a point well taken. “City” isn’t strictly an attack on the Bush administration, but in classic broad Sayles style it reaches into the plights of Mexican illegals, the death of newspaper journalism credibility, and the environmental damage being exacted on the Midwest. It’s a plateful of ideas and subplots, but Sayles is such a world-class filmmaker that “City” is never confusing or overextended.

However, the Bush similarities in the story are easily the weakest points in “City.” Sayles seems to be pushing too hard to form parallels, disrupting the smooth tone the rest of the picture maintains. This plot thread is also the grabbiest, making broad jokes that have been done to death, and satire that just isn’t as fresh as it was two years ago. Sayles has never been behind the curve like this before, allowing a stale wind to blow through “City” when laser-precise lampooning is needed.

The traditional large-scale Sayles cast is uniformly great (which includes Tim Roth, Thora Birch, Kris Kristofferson, Daryl Hannah, Maria Bello, Billy Zane, Sal Lopez, James Gammon, and Ralph Waite), though his choice for a leading man is a strange one. Danny Houston gets a rare chance to step up to leading man status in “City,” and his performance is a bizarre mix of used car salesman and bewildered supporting actor. Flashing a million-watt smile, Houston’s O’Brien is a peculiar investigator, preferring charisma and deference to traditional snooping skills. With a cast of famous faces, Houston stands out like sandals with a three-piece suit. I hope that one day Sayles can sit down and explain why this performance is so strange.

“Silver City” ends on a very vivid, effective note about the state of corporate pollution that almost completely mutes the film’s considerable flaws. “City” is easily the weakest film to come out of John Sayles, but he is still head and shoulders above his competition.

Rating: B
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End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones (BrianOrndorf)

Unlike The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, whose journeys from scraps to glory are well documented and endlessly pored over by their fans, the Ramones have always been something of an enigma. A group of New York fellows who dressed the same, sounded the same, and retained their privacy whether they wanted to or not. “End of the Century” sets out to understand the group dynamic that held the band together for over 20 years, opening up old wounds and giving fans enough fascinating info to salivate over.

Starting as an evolution of the glam rock scene in the early 1970s, Joey (born Mark Hyman), Johnny (John Cummings), Dee Dee (Douglas Colvin), and Tommy (Tommy Erdelyi) Ramone came together to spit out what they knew best: hard-driving, two-minute rock songs on subjects ranging from sniffing glue and killing johns to everlasting love and general teenage isolation. An immediate sensation in New York, the Ramones proceeded to release 18 studio and live albums, and played a big part in creating the punk rock scene (which launched the careers of The Clash and the Sex Pistols). The Ramones succeeded in conquering most of the globe, and starred in an adored cult movie, but were unable to create much of a sensation at home, where they wanted success the most.

With “End of the Century,” documentarians Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia don’t arrange a traditional discography of the band, where the tale progress from album to album, year to year. “Century” starts off at ground zero, and like a rocket with engine failure, the film flutters around picking up crucial information here and there, never achieving a consistent whole. The approach is frustrating, especially when the film doesn’t even address the classic motion picture, “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” or a good chunk of the band’s later years, which gave birth to what may have been one of their best albums, 1989’s “Brain Drain.” The goal of “Century” is not to be comprehensive (you just can’t do that in 110 minutes), but to initiate an understanding of what made this beloved band tick, even when faced with personnel changes and, ultimately, death, which took Joey and Dee Dee away three years ago.

Through archival performance footage and new interviews, the filmmakers paint a picture of a band that started out loving the music scene and embracing their cult fame, but began slowly dissolving on the inside when it became clear that their success could never break through to stardom in America. “Century” presents the three main players as time remembers them: Joey the shy, quiet frontman, Johnny the spine of the group, and Dee Dee, the lovable but heroin-soaked flake. “Century” ventures to go beyond what is commonly known, including a reveal of Johnny’s fervent conservatism (“God Bless President Bush” is his Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame acceptance speech) and restless desire to keep his band together, despite growing animosity towards his bandmates. A bombshell is also dropped when he talks openly about stealing Joey’s girlfriend away years back (he’s married to her to this day), which caused a Grand Canyon-sized crack between the former friends, which was never healed, and was only tolerated to keep the band together (this is seen clearly in Johnny’s indifference to questions about Joey’s death).

“Century” also covers violent and bizarre 1979 recording sessions with Phil Spector, Dee Dee’s hilarious dalliance with rap in the late 1980s (featuring a clip of his video, which needs to be seen to be believed), drummer Marky’s (one of Tommy’s many replacements) alcohol-fueled monkey business, and the story of C.J., who took over bass duties when Dee Dee fled the coop in 1990. The footage here is also entertaining, including one sequence where the band openly argues on stage over what song to play next. Absolutely priceless.

“End of the Century” is an excellent film regardless of its noticeable flaws, and hopefully it will prove to be a first step toward a deeper investigation into the Ramones and their curious ways. For fans, this is precious material and should not be missed.

Rating: B
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Criminal (EdwardHavens)

One knows going in that, until the very end, nothing will ever turn out the way you’ve been set up to believe, so the onus is on making the journey to the end the best it can be. But if the characters are too narrowly drawn, and act the same way we’ve seen many others in similar situations respond, the trip to the final payoff starts to drag, so when that denouement finally comes, in a scant 87 minute running time, one is likely to ask themselves “That’s itr”

The Argentine drama “Nueve Reinas” followed the tribulations of two small time con artists who team together with an older associate of one of the men to sell a forged set of rare stamps, the Nine Queens, to a businessman about to be deported. The businessman is not allowed to take any of his money out of Argentina, but he could take personal effects, such as a stamp collection. “Criminal” follows much of the same plotline as “Nueve Reinas,” transporting the action from Buenos Aires to Los Angeles, and the forged treasure from stamps to a rare Monroe Silver Certificate (an 1878 precursor to today’s one hundred dollar bill).

John C. Reilly gets his first opportunity to play the lead in a film, and does a marvelous job as Richard Gaddis, a small time conman who is in need of a new partner. While playing cards in a small time casino, Richard spots Rodrigo (Diego Luna) getting busted trying to pull a swindle on a cocktail waitress. Posing as a cop, Richard fools the casino security guards and gets Rodrigo out of the place before the real cops arrive. After pulling off a few small scams, Richard gets a call from his estranged sister Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a concierge at a four star hotel, asking him to meet her at her work. When he and Rodrigo arrive, Richard discovers an older acquaintance of his collapsed in the lobby while trying to get upstairs to see a VIP guest, and called out Richard’s name as he was falling. The older man explains to Richard why he at the hotel, and asks Richard for his help, thus setting off the chain of events that puts these two grifters into the biggest sting of their careers.

One of the things that is most bothersome about a remake like “Criminal” is that they hew so close to the original film that one wonders why spend all that time and energy creating a new workr Granted, “Nueve Reinas” might not have been the most widely seen film, but an American remake should try to bring more than new actors, a new location and some updated dialogue to the material, not unlike what Cameron Crowe did with “Vanilla Sky” a few years ago. Embrace the source material and let it be your guide, but mold it into your own distinct and unique work. First time director Gregory Jacobs worked as Steven Soderbergh’s assistant director on nine films before moving into the director’s chair here, and shows here he learned much from his boss, who produced the film under his Section 8 production banner. Jacobs proves himself a skillful craftsman, showing a steady hand with his actors and a good eye for pacing, not resorting to unnecessary camera shenanigans to make his film seem so fashionable.

“Crimimal” is a timeless work, which is also its modest downfall. The conclusion is too slight for the setup, and requires a few too many uncomfortable coincidences to make it all work. Compared to previous caper films, from “The Sting” to “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “Criminal” is a notch below in terms of inventiveness and satisfaction. But with a solid cast and a smooth fluidity, it is a film that most will likely find rather enjoyable.

Rating: B
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Resident Evil: Apocalypse (EdwardHavens)

Starting just after the events in the first movie, a group of shadowy black SUVs snake their way around Raccoon City, acquiring unspecified persons from their homes, some still in their pajamas and bath robes. Two such people being targeted are Dr. Charles Ashford (Jared Harris) and his daughter Angie (Sophie Vavasseur), but when an accident with the car transporting Sophie occurs just before the walls surrounding the city are locked down, Dr. Ashford stays at the edge of the city, determined to find a way to get his daughter out safely, before she is devoured by the flesh-eating zombie undead, born of the T-virus, which have overtaken the city.

Amongst the living still within the city is Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory), a disgraced police officer who seems to be one of the few who understands what is going on in Raccoon City. Jill teams up with Alice (Milla Jovovich), the heroine of the first film, and the pair is recruited by Dr. Ashford, who has tapped into the city’s security camera and phone systems, promising to get them out of the city if they rescue Angie and bring her to him. Teaming with Carlos Olivera (Oded Fehr), a member of an elite fighting squadron who has also been left behind in the city and been contacted by Dr. Ashford about getting his daughter out safely. However, the trio need not only fend off the living dead, but a powerful living weapon created by the Umbrella Corporation, codename Nemesis, who is being tested amongst the ruins of the city. Compounding the rush is the threat of nuclear annihilation, as Umbrella has planned to nuke the city at dawn to isolate the overpowering virus, under the guise of a meltdown at a nearby nuclear reactor.

Alexander Witt, making his feature directorial debut after working as a second unit director on such films as “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down,” is yet another member of the new school of filmmakers who goes overboard with the machine-gun style of quick editing, ear-splitting levels of sound effects and making sure the audience is one step ahead of the action, telegraphing every response to a situation. While one should never expect a film like “Resident Evil: Apocalypse” to be of the same quality as a “Godfather” movie, there is something to be said for letting an audience catch their breath for a moment or giving them a true surprise from time to time. During one fight, Witt makes sure you know how it going to end, by focusing on a specific item not once but twice, even zooming in on this item the second time around, so you really know this is an important piece. So predictable is the film that several of the people seated near this reviewer, recruited from the listeners of an urban-themed radio station, were able to accurately predict the outcome of said fight as soon as the item was shown, as well as how certain characters would react to particular situations, including exact lines of dialogue.

Milla Jovovich has already successfully made the leap from plucky girlfriend roles to butt-kicking action star, and does an admirable job. Teamed with Sienna Guillory, who is the video game character come to life, the dynamic duo make for a serious case of continued female empowerment in action movies. Mike Epps, the popular actor who has been brought in for comedic relief, does the best he can, but finds a number of his reaction lines lost in the audience responses from the situations he himself is taking action to, making his L.J. a mostly wasted character. Thomas Kretschmann, whom is best known to American audiences as the Nazi officer who allows Adrien Brody’s Jewish pianist to live at the end of the Oscar winning Roman Polanski movie, sleepwalks through his role here as the vaguely European bad guy who heads the Nemesis project and has a great scientific interest in Alice.

“Resident Evil: Apocalypse” works for what it is, which wasn’t much to begin with.

Rating: C-
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Cellular

”Cellular” originated from the fertile mind of indie film legend Larry Cohen, who film fans will recognize as the creator of such off-beat films as “It’s Alive” and “Q: The Winged Serpent,” but most people might know as the creator of last year’s “Phone Booth.” In Cohen’s original vision of “Cellular,” the hero was not a hero at all but the driver of a bank robbery crew, and the damsel in distress was not really kidnapped. Now, both hero and damsel are total innocents, thrown together by chance and circumstance, and it makes for a very standard film. Sadly, the one twist which was even mildly interesting, involving how the husband is caught up in the story, isn’t enough to pull the rest of the film out of mediocrity.

In a nutshell, “Cellular” features some bad men in Los Angeles who kidnap school science teacher Jessica Martin (Kim Basinger) and take her to the attic of an out of the way home, where the leader (Jason Statham) smashes the old phone hanging on one of the beams. The bad man wants to know where Jessie’s husband has hidden something, and she naturally does not know. But if she doesn’t give up the info by the time her son gets out of school, they’re going to go kidnap him as well. Left alone to her own devices, Jessica is able to start twisting the wires of the destroyed telephone together, to get an outside line. But without even a rotary dial to spin, she starts to touch two of the wires together rapidly to attempt to dial her number.

At the Santa Monica Pier, Ryan (Chris Evans) and his buddy Chad (Eric Christian Olsen) are on the lookout for some hot chicks, when Ryan spies his ex-girlfriend Chloe (Jessica Biel). Attempting to rekindle his relationship, Ryan instead gets an earful about his inability to be responsible about anyone or anything. Promising to reform his ways to prove his earnestness, Ryan takes on several tasks for Chloe. Naturally, this is exactly when his cell phone rings, and Ryan finds himself talking to a mysterious woman who claims to have been taken prisoner. Unable to get any policeman to help him, Ryan takes it upon himself to do his best to help Jessica. William H. Macy pops up a couple times as the first officer who Ryan tries to get help from, a soon-to-be retired beat cop who can’t help but follow-up on the kid’s outrageous claims.

Director David R. Ellis, the former stunt coordinator who made his directorial debut with New Line’s “Final Destination 2,” tries his best to jazz up the meager storyline with some action sequences, most which are as uninspiring as the situational humor cooked up by first time screenwriter Chris Morgan. Like a number of his filmmaker contemporaries, Ellis mistakes rapid-fire editing, unfocused and shaky camerawork, and shrill sound effects with authentic storytelling, assaulting our senses with a flurry of sights and sounds which would make Michael Bay proud.

While this might not be a mixture of elements to make this reviewer satisfied with the final outcome, he will admit the recruited crowd he saw this film with overwhelmingly got into the spirit of the film right from the start, often laughing at the obvious crowd-pleasing jokes and cheering along at the finish of each major action set piece. It might not be high art, but some will certainly find enough to be entertained by it to recommend it to others. Some, but not me.

Rating: C-
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