Kicking & Screaming   (Tremendous)
          This is a toned-down Will Ferrell, starring in a sweet movie about youth soccer.
          That might be disappointing to fans of Ferrell's more raunchy work in Old School or Anchorman.  But it's good news for parents looking to take kids to a funny movie.  If you think Will Ferrell is funny--regardless of the story--you'll think this is funny.
          And Will Ferrell is funny.  He's moved to Bill Murray territory:  he has a presence that is funny.  The movies may not always live up to it, but there's an attitude there that makes you laugh.
          Ferrell is calmer than usual for the first half of Kicking & Screaming.  He's a soft-spoken guy who runs a vitamin store.  He's a contrast to his father (Robert Duvall), an ultra-competitive businessman who runs a sporting goods franchise.  Duvall's competitve streak meant he didn't play his less-than-athletic son while he was coaching youth hockey.  It also meant that when Ferrell got married and had kids-- Duvall did the same.
          So the two end up competing on the soccer field when Ferrell takes over his son's team.  To get under his father's skin, he enlists his father's greatest foe:  Mike Ditka, playing himself in some very funny moments.
          Once Ferrell discovers coffee, he becomes more high-strung, and he becomes the do-anything-for-a-laugh Ferrell we're used to.
          Aside from the moments with Ditka, it's up to Ferrell to carry the movie.  I'd say the biggest drawback is how little the kids are given to do.  A couple of them are cute and interesting to look at.  But they aren't given stories or backgrounds of their own, and a couple of them are not really great actors.  There should have been a lot more comedy coming from Ferrell and his grade school brother.
          I mentioned this is a family movie.  There are a couple of adult-themed jokes, but I think they're disguised enough that if your kids don't know they're jokes, they won't ask.

King Kong  (Tremendous)
          The original King Kong often makes critics' all-time best lists, as they talk poetically about its primal themes: the instinct in us that wants to take the person we love and protect them, the idea that sometimes we just want to be protected, and the classic line that "beauty killed the beast."
          But when a young Peter Jackson saw Kong, he was grabbed by the special effects. He cites it as the reason he got into making movies. He saw it as a child and loved the clay figures and their stop-motion effects. He wanted to make a remake his entire career, and after becoming one the biggest directors ever with the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, he earned the clout to make it happen.
          He must have been pent up with the excitement of making Kong, because he didn't just do a remake, he did a three hour remake.
          That's really ambitious, considering we know what's going to happen at the end. I'll put a SPOILER ALERT up now that I'm going to talk about the ending. I'm shaking my head while I do it, but you never know who hasn't seen it.
          It's the same ending. It's the same beginning. It's the same middle. Jackson loved the original too much to go messing with it. It even takes place in the 30s so while it's a retelling using modern-day technology, it's not a modern-day retelling.
          Instead of messing with Kong, Jackson enhanced it. He has the technology now to make Kong and the other animals of Skull Island look amazingly real, so he throws in new scenes to show them off. He even put back in a scene with the adventurers attacked by giant spiders that was considered too intense for audiences in 1933. It's pretty intense for audiences in 2005 too. Sure there were giant dinosaurs breathing down their necks and a giant ape kidnapping a woman, but nothing freaked the audience out at my screening more than seeing a human-sized spider crawl all over a guy.
          That's just part of the Skull Island portion of the movie, the third of the movie that earns Kong its recommendation. The dinosaurs are even better than Jurassic Park's. There's an incredible scene where raptors chase brontosauruses (or something close enough), and our heroes get caught in the middle. Dinosaurs fight with Kong in extended action scenes worthy of Indiana Jones. Amazingly, a giant, computer-generated ape manages to move as fast and do stunts just like Indy would.
          The giant ape of course is King Kong, himself an amazing special effect. I mentioned the body movements above, but it's his facial expressions that make the character real. You can see his rage when Anne Darrow (Naomi Watts) is in danger, his affection for her during quiet moments, and even his sense of humor in a priceless scene where she does a vaudeville dance to keep the big guy entertained.
          Skull Island is the movie's second third. The other two thirds frankly aren't as good. Those themes that critics go on about get a little lost in the movie's length. It takes a good hour before Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody and crew even set sail. While it's a nice tribute to the original to have the film take place in the 30s, it's annoying that the people speak as if they were in a 1930s movie. It makes them campy and cartoonish.  Kong himself is more convincing in this modern retelling, but the people aren't.
          The Brody-Watts romance is forced and rushed, which seems odd for a three hour movie. She has better chemistry with the ape. Jack Black is good for some laughs but is too over-the-top to be taken seriously when he needs to be.
          By the time we get to the final third, we know the special effects are amazing, but we realize there's another hour to go and Kong hasn't even climbed the Empire State Building.  We feel for Kong-- he's not at home, he wants to find Anne and he has planes shooting at him for all directions. But you're kind of thinking "just die already."
          Despite the problems with the first and last thirds, the thrills of the second make King Kong a "Go See"-- especially now while it's on the big screen as opposed to video. If you're going to go see a giant ape climb the tallest building in New York, you really need to see it all big. It's like Titanic, a way-too-long movie I'm glad I saw in the theater, but have yet to watch at home.

Kingdom Of Heaven   (It Is What It Is)
          Believe it or not, a movie about the Crusades seems to be about religious tolerance and living together in peace.
          Actually, Kingdom Of Heaven is not so much about the Crusades as it is their aftermath, as we see Christians overseeing an uneasy peace in Jerusalem with the Muslims who still live there.
          Orlando Bloom goes to Jerusalem looking for his own salvation after his wife has committed suicide and he has committed a murder.  He finds himself becoming a leader and trying to avoid an inevitable battle that neither side can really win in the long run. 
          The issues often seem more political than religious.  The movie's message seems to be that we're all the same-- and to prove that point, the two sides could be interchangeable.  The words "Muslim" and "Christian" are just words-- we never really see any aspects of their faith.  We know who they're fighting, but they never spell out what they're fighting over.
          I like that message-- that we're all the same.  The problem is once we've established that, it's hard to pick sides when the fighting starts.  And boy, do they fight.  And fight.  And fight.  The climactic battle is big, bloody and spectacular (this is directed by Gladiator's Ridley Scott.  The fights here look just as good as they did in Gladiator). 
          But that battle just keeps going and eventually made me lose interest.
          I guess you can't do a short movie about the Crusades.  But while the "war, what is it good for?" message is great, once I got it-- I got it.
          (Special note for our talk radio friends:  there is criticism out there that the movie is anti-Christian.  But you know-- you make a movie about the Crusades, a couple of Christians are going to come off a little aggressive.  Every story with a conflict has to have a villain or two.  In this case, sometimes, they're Christians.  On the hit show 24, sometimes they're Muslims.   Just enjoy the story.)

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang   (Tremendous)
          Back in the 80's, writer Shane Black invented the cop-buddy film with Lethal Weapon.
          That's what the press materials for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang say. Me, I find it hard to believe nobody did a movie about cops who were friends before that. (48 Hours just came to mind as I type. I'll think of more) Still, Lethal Weapon was a template for a ton of movies about mismatched cops who become best of friends while solving crimes.
          Black pretty much vanished from Hollywood in recent years, but he's back with a fantastic movie that plays with the type of film he's given credit for inventing. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has some of the moments we've seen over and over, but just as you're about to roll your eyes, narrator Robert Downey, Jr. lets you know he knows you've seen it before too.  "Too Hollywood."
          Downey is his usual hyper self, and he's given lots of great dialogue to throw at us. He plays a street thug who, while on the run, ducks into a movie audition. He gets the part, gets away and is flown to Hollywood to meet a real-life private investigator who can coach him on his part. Here comes the mismatch: he's teamed up with a gay P.I. (Val Kilmer) named Perry, who goes by-- Gay Perry.
          The two are a great team, with Kilmer's sarcasm working hysterically to shut Downey up. Kilmer sometimes gets in some great zingers, sometimes he doesn't, (my favorite: "look up idiot in the dictionary, you know what you see? The definition of the word idiot.") but because he tries so hard, I think Gay Perry always hits.
          Kilmer and Downey are hysterical throughout, and the story itself is pretty decent. The mystery and its solution are ludicrous when you really think about them, but Kiss Kiss Bang Bang doesn't give you time to do that.  It's one great scene and then-- bang bang-- there's another one.  (If Robert Downey, Jr.'s character were here, he'd apologize for me for writing such a line.  Too Hollywood.)


Land Of The Dead   (aka George Romero's Land Of The Dead)      (Tremendous)
          I won't spend too much time on George A. Romero's Land Of The Dead because if you don't like gross-out horror movies, no review is going to convince you.  But if you do, you will love this.
          It's Romero's fourth zombie movie, after Night Of The Living Dead, Dawn Of The Dead and Day Of The Dead.  This time, we are looking at a world where the zombies have taken over... and are getting smarter.  To update you on your zombie lore, they eat brains.  If they take a bite out of you, you will become a zombie yourself.  The only way to beat them:  lop of their heads.
          Ah, but things aren't as simple anymore-- the zombies are starting to figure things out-- bright lights aren't distracting them anymore, and they're learning what guns are for.  Now they can inch closer to the city, and to Fiddler's Green, the towering haven where the rich live above them.
          If you want to get all serious about it, the Fiddler's Green thing provides some real world symbolism.  The rich live above it all, while the poor are left to fend for themselves.
          You'll think about that only briefly though.  You'll be too busy squirming (or in my case, laughing) as you watch the creative ways Romero has found for humans to blow zombies away and for zombies to get at and munch on humans.  My favorites:  a girl with a pierced belly button learns why they're dangerous and a zombie who can fight with one head dangling behind his back.
          Like the zombies, I have an admiration for brains.  In this case, Romero's.  I ate this movie up.

The Legend Of Zorro   (Tremendous)
          Zorro is a workaholic.
          Antonio Banderas is back as the swashbuckling hero of 1800's California, and this time he's dealing with real-life problems, the type that would plague him if he was the swashbuckling hero of 2005 America. His wife Elena, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones (ok, granted, that wouldn't be a problem) thinks he's spending too much time Zorro-ing and not enough time as a husband and father. Their son thinks his father is weak, and in a variation on the Clark Kent-Superman-Lois Lane triangle, worships Zorro and wishes his father was more like him.
          They're almost the same heavy themes covered in this week's The Weather Man, but The Legend Of Zorro still manages to be fun. You can't get too deep into the dissolution of a family when dad wears a sombrero, mask and swings from rooftops. Sure, he's a lot like Batman (actually Zorro was an inspiration for Batman), and Batman Begins got dark.  Zorro though is a sillier character, and the people who made this movie know that.
          So they make the banter between Zorro and Elena playful, even when they're fighting over her relationship with another man. Zeta-Jones first got noticed in The Mask Of Zorro, both for her looks and for her chemistry with Antonio Banderas. They continue that chemistry here.
          The action is pretty good too. Zorro is no Indiana Jones (poor guy, he pales to both Batman and Indy), and the action sequences are well-done if not necessarily innovative. The popcorn movies of summer are gone-- if Zorro were up against Batman, Star Wars or War Of The Worlds, he'd get lost. But in late October, he leaves his mark.

Letters From Iwo Jima   (Tremendous)
lint Eastwood knows that sometimes you have to fight.

          Maybe he learned that as Dirty Harry, or maybe he learned it while making Flags Of Our Fathers, the outstanding World War II drama he made at the request of Steven Spielberg.  While making that movie, he discovered he wanted to make Letters From Iwo Jima, a slightly better World War II drama about the soldiers on the other side of the pivotal Pacific drama.
          The Japanese soldiers in Letters From Iwo Jima had to fight for a number of reasons:  they were honor-bound by their government to do so, it was expected of them, and let’s face it:  World War II probably had to be fought.  Fate made it so they had to fight us, if only to lose.
          You watch Letters and you know why they lost.  Japan was hanging on to an outdated set of standards when it came to battle.   The movie (which is entirely in Japanese with English subtitles) is filmed in an odd grayish, brownish color, as if to symbolize how our future allies were twisted mirror images of us.  
          And they sure are opposites here.  U.S. soldiers of course know the risks they take in battle, and while they know they could die, death isn’t expected of them.  They probably aren’t told that once they succeed at their mission that they’re then “allowed to die.”  At this point in the war, they know they’re going to lose, but surrender is not an option.  So while we attack from the air, they bury themselves in holes, essentially trapping themselves.  A scene in Letters involving the disposal of well… their own waste… is the perfect symbol of how backwards everything is.  They dispose of it by going back up to the surface instead of burying it beneath them.
 Still, these are brave men depicted in Letters From Iwo Jima.  They are doing the bidding of their Emperor because they are told to, but they aren’t depicted as sharing his values.  A baker drafted into the war is a symbol of the movie’s point.  In his flashbacks we see how he’s drafted, and he says some things in private that in America, would make him a hero.  In 1944 Japan, if he said them out loud, he would have been considered a traitor.
          The lead commander, suspected of being an American sympathizer, is played by Ken Watanabe, the go-to-guy for directors who need Japanese men to play lead roles in their dramas.  He is outstanding as a noble commander willing to die for his beliefs, who as the battle goes on, is willing to adapt to what needs to be done.  He represents either a time when Japan was honorable but not so pig-headed or the Japan that will become our ally when the dust settles.
          Letters From Iwo Jima gets the slight edge over Flags Of Our Fathers only because of its more unique history lesson.  Flags presented a sidebar to American history I didn’t know that much about, while Letters taught me a bit about a culture that seemed completely alien.  Taken together, they are an amazing achievement by Clint Eastwood.  Both shine spotlights on some heroic figures and how they become heroes based on what they do and not on what some might expect of them.

License To Wed   (It Is What It Is)
          The producers of TV’s The Office must have sent a memo out about Summer 2007:  “Make movies but please make them bland.  We don’t want your outside work to overshadow the very funny stuff we do here.”

           Steve Carell has done great work in movies before, but he’s wasted in the very bland Evan Almighty.  Now, it’s The Office’s John Krasinski (he plays Jim Halpert) who gets his chance to be bland in License to Wed.  Fans of the show will be interested to know the people who play Kelly, Kevin and Angela are all in this movie, and none of them really stand out either.
          But this isn’t a review of The Office
          In License To Wed, Krasinski seeks his license to wed with Mandy Moore, as cute as usual, but she too has done edgier work (Saved, American Dreamz).  Together, they’re a chemistry-free couple going through the motions of a romantic comedy.  They’re also going through kind of the Pre-Cana from Hell with Robin Williams’ Reverend Frank testing their relationship before he’ll agree to marry them.  Williams too is going through his Patch Adams motions.
          The movie is saved from a complete trashing by the robot babies Reverend Frank has the couple carry around to see how they’d do with a real one.  The babies are disturbing to look at and do all kinds of disgusting things.  The sequence with them is hysterical.  They’re the couple worth talking about.    

The Longest Yard   (2005 remake)   (It Is What Is Is)
          The big question asked whenever a beloved classic is remade is "why?" Why mess with something so many people love? Why not leave well enough alone?
          I rented the 1974 original Longest Yard before seeing the new one so I could try and answer the question. I'd seen scenes from the cable tv staple over the years, but never sat down to watch it start to finish.
          So I'll start with the original and ask: "this is a comedy?"
          Blockbuster didn't think so. It was a challenge finding the original. I tried "comedy." (Most of what I've read about the film labels it as a comedy.) I tried "drama." For the record, if you're looking for the original, you have to look under "action."
          OK, so I saw it.  So why remake an action/drama/comedy classic with Adam Sandler playing a part made famous by Burt Reynolds? Because it should have been a screwball comedy to begin with. It's a movie about a bunch of misfit prisoners playing football against the guards. Sounds like a lot of funny material there. But I had trouble believing the warden would care that much about a football game he set up to begin with. And then there's what happens to Caretaker (if you've seen it, you know), guards beating up prisoners, Reynolds beating his girlfriend.... so funny I forgot to laugh.
          So along come Adam Sandler and Chris Rock to remake The Longest Yard--and you'd think with those two you've got yourself the screwball comedy we should have had before.
          Well, it cuts back a little on the serious stuff-- Sandler doesn't beat his girlfriend to get into prison. The transvestite cheerleaders get more screen time. Chris Rock as Caretaker is a lot funnier than what the original role called for. And at least the game is televised on ESPN this time out, so you can believe the warden has such a huge stake in it.
          But otherwise, it doesn't stray too far from the original. Fans of the first will know exactly what's coming when (although a couple of plays in the big football game are a bit different).
          It's not being marketed that way, but I think this movie is another step in Sandler's quest for respectability. Last time we saw him, he did a decent job in the chick flick Spanglish. Surprise-- the audience that loved him in Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison didn't want to see him in a movie from the man who made Terms Of Endearment. They wanted something with-- well-- balls.
          So a sports movie? You bet they'll go see this. Still, they might be a little surprised to see a more restrained Sandler. He's a bit of a wise-cracker, but he's not the lovable loser from Gilmore. He's the center of the movie, but really not the center of comedy.  He's our hero, our straight guy, the man who has to learn nothing is more important than his manhood and his honor.
          Of course, he's also a hard sell as a former football star. Burt Reynolds you bought as an athlete because he was. Reynolds himself is in the new movie, playing the former football star played by Michael Conrad in the original. Ironically, Sandler isn't as good in the Reynolds role, and Reynolds isn't as good in the Conrad role.
          Let me be fair and stop comparing the movies. Clearly, some people at the screening I attended never saw the original, and I could hear them react favorably to the game and to some of the dramatic turns. They and I also got a kick out of watching for cameos from rap stars, former NFL players and pro wrestlers.
          Fans of the original will have nothing against this movie-- it really doesn't mess with the original. The changes are subtle. People who have seen neither just have to decide if they want a more modern take or a classic one.  They can start with a movie about a guy named Paul "Wrecking" Crewe or Paul "Motley" Crewe.

Lord Of War   (Tremendous)
          Don't be fooled by the commercials-- Lord Of War is not an action movie.  Oh sure, there's gunfire and quite a bit of it.  But that'll happen in a movie about an international arms dealer.  It's world events told through his narration about his life of crime.  Think Goodfellas more than Con Air.
          A slick Nicolas Cage plays an amalgam of five real-life arms dealers, selling weapons to just about anyone who wants them.  His clients include the world's most brutal dictators and terrorists (he never sold to Osama bin Laden, but only because his checks bounce).
          Cage has a charm that lets him get inside some scary inner circles, and that charm is a big reason to stay with the film.  You can't root for the guy really-- his business transactions result in the slaughter of innocents-- but you don't want him to get caught either.  If he's caught, the movie could end, and it's too interesting to see how guys like this have a "backstage" role in some pivotal moments in history.
          As for the film's take on guns:  this is about guns in the wrong hands.  If you're not into "message" movies, the message is simply guns are serious business.  The film opens with a slick montage set to classic rock, but the fun ends as soon as the first shot is fired.  The U.S. government doesn't come off great here, but then no government does.  The film may even be making the case that we have to have the arms we do-- because the other countries can get them so easily. 

Lords Of Dogtown   (Kept Checking My Watch)
          You know those kids on skateboards hanging outside Wilson Farms, getting in your way when you just want to park, run in, and grab some milk?
          I'm talking about those kids who never hit a move-- they skate up to the curb, take to the air and land on their behinds.
          They never hit the move, but they could care less. Skateboarding is all about attitude. You may want to stick your foot out and trip these kids, but they think they look cool.
          Lords Of Dogtown is their movie. Lords Of Dogtown is their story.
          It's the true story of the Z-Boyz, a group of California kids who pioneered a new way of skateboarding in the mid and late 70's. They apparently helped turn skateboarding into a mass appeal sport and worldwide phenomenon. There's an interesting story to be told in there, and actually, about thirty minutes toward the end of Dogtown covers the interesting part.
          Until then, it's like watching an X-Box commercial. It never stops moving. The camera is all over the place, moving fast even when the Boyz aren't boarding. The hard rock keeps playing no matter what the guys are up to. There's part of the problem-- the skateboarding scenes are lively, but if the whole movie moves at the same fast pace, it's hard to appreciate the parts that are supposed to be fast paced. They're just eating lunch-- we don't need a video to go along with it. Settle down.
          Of course, you know the movie will be style over substance when you look at the credits and see it's "based in part on the photo session by blah blah blah..."
          Another problem-- these kids are interchangeable. We see each of them react differently to their skateboarding fame. But it's not clear why one long-haired blonde kid joined a gang, why one long-haired blonde kid became a jet-setter or why one long-haired blonde kid became a smart businessman and filmmaker. Who are these kids?
          Then there's my real question:
          I'm not knocking it. I know nothing about it. Each hobby or sport has its superstars, and it's got to be hard to explain to the uninformed. The young, cool guy buried somewhere inside me wanted to understand skateboarding, but Lords Of Dogtown didn't help.  It assumes you already think it's cool.
          If skateboarding wasn't a big deal before the Z-Boyz, why was there already a Skateboarding Monthly magazine? Why are there companies lining up to get these kids for endorsement deals? How did the promoter played by Johnny Knoxville get to live such a pimp lifestyle in such a niche sport? Where are the crowds coming from to attend these championships? The movie's premise that these guys built skateboarding doesn't work because Lords makes it look like skateboarding was already huge.
          The best thing about Lords Of Dogtown: the soundtrack. At the risk of sounding like an old fart, it's cool to see skateboarding sequences set to the music of Deep Purple, Blue Oyster Cult, Ted Nugent, T. Rex.... if nothing else, maybe the soundtrack will inspire the kids at Wilson Farms to crank something good out of their boom boxes.  I might not feel the urge to trip them.

Meet The Robinsons   (It Is What It Is)
          Disney is promising us the next phase in CG animation with the Digital 3-D of Meet The Robinsons.
          It’s definitely neat to watch and kind of fun to look around at a theater full of people wearing 3-D glasses, but aside from being computer animated as opposed to hand drawn, the experience is really still just a novelty.  Audiences won’t mind putting on funny glasses every once in awhile, but this is hardly the wave of the future.
          Meet The Robinsons also isn’t a memorable enough movie to set off the wave of the future.
 It’s cute enough to be a fine way to pass an hour and a half, but it’s not a landmark in storytelling.  It also has a misleading title, because it takes forever for the Robinsons to show up.  You’ll spend a good chunk of time early on wondering “Is his last name Robinson?  Who are the Robinsons?”  It’s like watching a monster movie as a kid:  they take forever to get to the Godzilla content.
          Still, there are a lot of cute moments before the Robinson-reveal.  Young Lewis is an orphan (what would a Disney movie be if the hero wasn’t orphaned?) who is also a brilliant inventor.  He scares adoptive parents off because he’s an overzealous science nerd.  Frustrated, he builds a machine that he hopes will let him look back in time to see who his real mother is.  At a science fair, he befriends Wilbur Robinson (there they are) who is actually from the future and has come back in time to enlist Lewis’ help. 
In the future, we meet the Robinsons, the wacky family that the movie is named after.  They’re bizarre and animated (in the lively sense), and are probably who Disney plans on making merchandise out of.  But I actually preferred the first half of the story.  Lewis’ desires to be adopted and to make his inventions work were more touching and more engaging than the madcap things that happen in the future.
          I also wonder if kids will be able to follow the time travel plot.  Time travel stories can be incredibly confusing even to the most seasoned of sci-fi fans.
          If you enjoy modern animated movies for the celebrity voices, I’ll tell you now you can save yourself the effort of trying to figure out the voices you’re hearing.  I was under whelmed at the star power in the credits (although there is one surprise voice toward the end that was a smart idea).  
          Parent and grandparents will want to get to the theater on time:  Meet The Robinsons is preceded by a newly-restored 1950s Donald Duck/Chip and Dale cartoon.

A Mighty Heart  (Tremendous)
           If you followed the sad story of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, you know how it ended—which could have ruined this mostly procedural drama about the hunt for his kidnappers.
          However, we ignorant Americans really don’t know all that much about Pakistan or what it’s like to be a journalist there, so for those who want to learn, A Mighty Heart is fascinating.  When I first thought about the Pearl story, I foolishly imagined the guy out in the middle of Afghanistan somewhere, grabbed by cave-dwelling members of the Taliban, but Pearl and his wife Mariane (Angelina Jolie) were staying with friends and U.S. allies in Pakistan.  They were very much at home there, holding dinner parties and discussing world affairs and philosophy with their international friends and keeping in touch with the rest of the world via the internet and cell phones.
          I’d like to think that’s something that Daniel and Mariane Pearl would have wanted me to get out of this movie.
          Mariane spends much of the movie not only waiting for word on her husband but appearing on TV or in front of the police defending the couple’s presence in Pakistan in the first place.   It sounds very Lifetime-Movie-Of-The-Week, but its authenticity and a strong performance by Jolie keep it above that level.
          As for Daniel Pearl's tragic death and what we see onscreen:  the movie stays in line exactly with what the Pearls would want us to see.

Millions   (Tremendous)
          Two British kids find a big bag of money and each has a different idea of what to do with it.  Interestingly, it's the one named Damien who does good with it.  Damien starts giving out money to the poor-- or to anyone he perceives as poor.  His older brother pays off his friends to be his security guards and do things for him. 
          Damien is a good soul, as evidence by his obsession with Biblical saints.  He has little visions of the saints coming to visit him, because he's told himself his deceased mother is one of them.  By contrast, his brother tells people his mother's dead so they'll feel sorry for him and give him stuff.
          If the above sounds heavy, don't worry, it isn't.   Millions is a cute movie that takes place largely in Damien's head.  His fantasies are funny.  Every time a saint pays him a visit, I chuckled at Damien announcing the saint's name and following it up with where he or she is in the Bible.   I won't enter the minds of the religious, but I'd bet believers would think of the movie as something of a parable.
          It also touches on money and its value-- particularly on the concept of owning a home.  The house their widower father builds for them becomes a presence of its own.  As the camera moves around the house, you appreciate what it is and what the father is doing for these boys. 
          I don't know pounds from quid from euros.  And neither do the boys, who learn a lot about money as they have to hurry up and spend it.  (The film takes place as Great Britain is about to convert all money to euros.)   Watching the family handle this bag of money, you'll appreciate how money means different things to different people.

Miss Congeniality 2: Armed & Fabulous   (Kept Checking My Watch)
          Quick:  name Miss America.  ANY Miss America other than Vanessa Williams.
          That's what I thought.
          If you're going to buy into this movie, you have to accept the premise that America loves beauty queens and that the participants become huge stars.  Sandra Bullock's Gracie Hart has become a major celebrity since Miss Congeniality-- so much so that she has to give up undercover work and instead become a spokesperson for the FBI.  She's gained so much fame as the FBI agent who went undercover in the "Miss United States" pageant that she walks through airports and people scream:  "It's Gracie Hart!"  Now, I'll grant you she'd be a bit of a celebrity as the FBI agent who went undercover in the "Miss United States" pageant, but people would instead be yelling (or more likely whispering):  "Look!  It's the FBI agent who went undercover in the 'Miss United States' pageant!"
          You shouldn't expect CSI.  The actual Miss United States and show host William Shatner have been kidnapped, and they rely on Gracie to find them.  You'll figure the caper out soon, the movie will explain it to you, THEN Gracie will get it.
         You WILL like the movie if you think Sandra Bullock is cute and funny.  Her new partner Regina King (Ray Charles' mistress in Ray) provides a few more laughs, as does Shatner.  So if you're willing to let the "oh, come on..." moments go, you'll probably have some fun.
         The scene that most insults intelligence:  a celebrity cameo at the end of a long scene.  I won't give it away but you KNOW the celebrity in question is going to show up at the end and takes way too long to get there.
         Finally, for those who do see the movie, you'll understand this question.  How long does it take a smart kid to do a book report anyway?

Monster-In-Law   (It Is What It Is)
          A few weeks ago, I reviewed Guess Who and said that Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac were no Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro.
          Now, I'll review Monster-In-Law and tell you that Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda are no Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro either. But it's not a fair comparison since they're not really a comedy team either. In Monster-In-Law, only one of them gets any laughs or shows a willingness to end up in ludicrous, funny situations.  That would be Jane Fonda.
          Fonda returns to the movies after more than a decade away, and she owns this movie. She's a veteran network anchorwoman replaced so her network can appeal to a younger demographic. It drives her to a nervous breakdown, and just when she's on the road to recovery, her beloved son announces his engagement to Jennifer Lopez. Nobody will be good enough for her son, so she does whatever she can to break them up. She wears crazy clothes, she fakes relapses, she pretends to talk in her sleep and take a swing at Lopez, she invites her to parties where she knows she'll be outclassed ("she's a temp," Fonda says of her future daughter-in-law while speaking to world leaders). It's a funny over-the-top performance that Fonda has a lot of fun with.
          Jennifer Lopez has food allergies.
          That's about all the comedy Lopez is able to offer for her half of the movie. Her character is perfect without a vulnerability or a quirk on display. How could Fonda disapprove of such a person?
          The movie should be a battle of two film divas from different eras. But J. Fo outclasses J. Lo way too much. It's not a fair fight.

Munich    (It Is What It Is)
          People on both sides are taking a long, critical look at Munich, and given the subject matter, maybe they should. It's gutsy for Steven Spielberg-- hailed for his work with and for Holocaust survivors-- to make a movie about terrorism that doesn't take obvious sides.
          Most of Munich though is a bit like a caper-movie with a different tone. Instead of an Ocean's Eleven-like jewelry heist, we have assassinations. Munich is largely a suspense thriller inspired by the very real and tragic events at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Eric Bana, Daniel Craig and a team of unlikely assassins are assigned by the Israeli government to "take out" the men who planned the kidnapping and murder of a team of Israeli athletes.
          The setup brutally establishes just how horrible the events in Munich were. The famous footage of Jim McCay and other journalists is mixed with a staging of the hostage crisis and gun battle that followed. The violence is very real, very graphic and as jaw-dropping as the gunfire in the opening of Saving Private Ryan.
          The team is given a couple of ground rules: stay in Europe and don't hurt civilians. But as they get deeper and deeper into the terror underground, it gets harder for them to obey and still do the job they've been hired to do. As a thriller, it's very effective, and based solely on that aspect, the film would be a "Go See."
          Of course, Munich is about much more than just a ragtag group of assassins on a mission, and that's why it has to come under more scrutiny. There's a point in many movies these days where a good movie becomes a questionable one. Munich, like those other movies, is about 20 minutes too long, and in those 20 minutes, Spielberg wants to get a point across. So with their mission behind them, members of the team evaulate what they've done.
          It's a thought-provoking point: that violence leads to retaliation which leads to more retaliation and so on and so on. While the assassins do their work, we see news clips of yet another bombing at yet another airport. The problem with Munich is those events happen on TV, too far away from the main action. To make his point, Spielberg needs to have more events set on the world stage, not in the back alleys.
          I'll be critical of Spielberg's movie while defending him on one point that's being used against him. Some have said the movie humanizes the terrorists. It does show them as human: vile, disgusting humans. Some have said Spielberg seems to be implying that Israeli policies led to Munich. Personally, I didn't see it. The brutality of the murders makes it pretty obvious that people are responsible for their own actions.
          There's a scene where Bana shares a safehouse with some Palestinian foot soldiers and ends up in a conversation with one. Intentionally or not, Spielberg makes another point in that scene. There's no reasoning with some of these people on either side. The violence will go on, and maybe it has to.
          Of course, that leads to the current War On Terror. Is Spielberg trying to make a point about it? Look at the long shot of the World Trade Center in Munich, and you tell me.
          One scene towards the end really deserves criticism. The events of Munich come back onscreen for one more flashback, juxtaposed with something else. I won't give it away, but if Spielberg was making a point here, it's lost on me. I found the juxtaposition disturbing. Anyone with closer ties to the groups at the center of the movie would have to be offended. This scene very nearly ruined the movie.
          It is a good movie, dealing with some obviously serious issues. Munich isn't the masterpiece Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan is. Those movies show good and evil, and ultimately end up being tributes to the good. Munich instead is a flawed movie about flawed policies and flawed people.

Murderball   (Tremendous)
          Don't even think about calling it the Special Olympics.
          It's the Paralympics, and if you call it the Special Olympics, the guys who play murderball will wheel right up to you, grab you where it hurts, and show you what they're all about. These are tough guys, wheelchairs or not.
          "Murderball" is a nickname for full-contact quadriplegic rugby, which these guys play with all the intensity of any professional player. Yes, quadriplegic rugby is possible-- this documentary explains how it's possible and clears up public misconceptions about quardiplegics. It also shows a fascinating game and how a group of brave people cope with what life has dealt them.
          The face of Murderball is Mark Zupan, who with his tattoos, goatee and muscles looks like he could play any extreme sport. Zupan was paralyzed after riding in the back of his friend's pickup truck. His buddy didn't even know he had a passenger when he got in a wreck. Zupan is at peace, his friend is haunted by it.
          Their story is one of a handful we follow over the course of a couple of years. The other most interesting is Joe Soares, a player cut from the team. Soares is so angry he was cut from the U.S. Paralympic Rugby team that he takes a job coaching the Canadians. The U.S. team feels Soares has betrayed them and their country.
          Filmmakers Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shaprio also found some people who have just recently been paralyzed, and are trying to make the adjustments that Zupan and Soares have already made. I felt guilty complaining about the leg cramps I was having in the theater.
          It's funny, it's gripping, it's even touching by the time we get to the championships. Women who went with me asked at first: "you're taking us to something called Murderball?" were crying by the end.

Must Love Dogs    (It Is What It Is)
          Diane Lane's character in Must Love Dogs is newly divorced and wants to find a good man. So she places a personal ad online and tries her luck. She gets John Cusack, who fits most of the criteria she's asking for, including that he "must love dogs."
          And together, they fit the criteria needed for a passable romantic comedy. They each are trying to overcome the pain from the end of their last relationships, they are each surrounded by well-meaning family and friends who provide them with snappy one-liners, she tries a series of dates with a series of losers, he has a best friend who wants him to forget the relationship thing and just "hook up," he has an odd hobby that reveals his artistic soul, she has a gay best friend, and so on.
          You'll see everything coming, but may still be entertained. Amazingly, the woman behind me called everything (out loud, but that's another issue), yet still managed to laugh. "Watch, the other guy's gonna show up." Sure enough, the "other guy" shows up, she howls with laughter.
          Fans of Diane Lane and John Cusack-- and there are quite a few I've found-- will enjoy it. I've talked to many men who, like me, just love Diane Lane. She's never top-of-mind or on the cover of Maxim or even Entertainment Weekly, but you bring up her name, and you hear "Oh, I loooove Diane Lane." And around women? Bring up John Cusack and you get the same reaction. They're a good pairing. Good-looking enough that you can watch them, but not too famous that they're distracting.
          So I'd say "Must Love Diane Lane/John Cusack/Romantic Comedies", and if that's you, you're fine.

The Nativity Story    (Tremendous)
          You’ll see quite a few Nativity scenes this time of year, but you may not see many of the scenes leading up to it—at least not like you will in Catherine Hardwicke’s reverential and respectful The Nativity Story.
          If all you’ve seen for years is children in the key parts using church aisles for desert, you’ll be reminded of some of the parts of the story you may not have thought of.  Full disclosure:  I haven’t been to church on Christmas in years, and when I did, I tended to zone out.  There are details of the story I guess I knew, but never really thought about.  Case in point:  Joseph and Mary were in love. 
Sometimes when you break out a Nativity set, you have trouble telling Joseph from the shepherds, but Oscar Isaac plays Joseph as a standout character.  He is possibly the hero of the story, a man doing the right thing, protecting his wife and facing his detractors with a lot of courage.
          Keisha Castle Hughes’ Mary isn’t as three-dimensional, possibly out of Hardwicke’s fear of being too disrespectful to the Virgin Mary.  To stay true to the Bible, she’s cast Mary as a very young girl, but sadly she’s bland through most of the movie.  I’ll give credit where it’s due though—that may be intentional.  After the Nativity, she is radiant.
          Mary, Joseph and most of the characters speak very solemnly through the movie and are as you might expect, very serious.  Believe it or not, there is a bit of levity with the Three Wise Men.  They are by no means buffoons:  they’re wise and clever men who seem to enjoy teasing each other good naturedly.  They are not what you’d expect in a Biblical movie.
          You probably would expect a Biblical movie to be preachy and to have an epic running time.  It is not unreasonably long, which I was thankful for.  I was also thankful I wasn’t preached to.  It is very matter-of-fact.  It opens, it says there were these prophecies, it tells us we’re going to watch a story that takes place during the rule of Caesar Augustus, and then we’re underway.  When it’s over, it never proclaims “this is the fact.”  The faithful will enjoy the story they believe so strongly in, and the not-so-faithful (granted, that will be a minority of the audience) will have enjoyed a familiar story told compellingly.

Night At The Museum    (Kept Checking My Watch)
It could have been a passing of the torch, but instead it becomes an ironic and unfortunate moment.
          Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney-- two movie icons who have appeared in some of the most memorable childrens' films ever-- play night watchmen at the Museum of Natural History.  They're leaving, and they interview Ben Stiller for the job (never mind that people leaving a job don't interview their replacements).  Stiller gets the job, and it's his chance to headline a kid's movie.
          With nothing to work with, the star of There's Something About Mary and Along Came Polly is going to have to wait a little longer before he has a classic he can show off to his kids.  The two legends onscreen retirement becomes a symbol that kids movies aren't what they used to be.  I wonder if Mary Poppins or Pete's Dragon are showing at the Museum of Natural History.
          It's too bad, because the idea should be a good one, especially to a kid with an active imagination.  When the sun goes down, the exhibits at the Museum come to life, making Stiller not just a security guard but a peacekeeper and babysitter to the diaramas, statues, stuffed animals and wax figures that become animated.  Sadly, they don't turn interesting.  They do rather unoriginal things (the monkey steals keys, the diarama figures fight over space, a tiki head wants gum).  They and the special effects are the stars, forcing Stiller to do nothing but react.  And since he's reacting to uninteresting things, he returns in kind.  I'd like to think a kid that would fantasize about the museum coming to life would be smart one:  one who would appreciate good jokes and an interesting plot.    The over-arching mystery is both obvious in it conclusion and not logical when you think about it.
          One of Stiller's trademarks in losing his temper and going off the deep end, which he does to some degree here.  But this is a kid's movie, so he can't go too deep into that end or he'll scare the audience.  
          Stiller's all-star list of co-stars (Carla Gugino, Robin Williams, Ricky Gervais, Paul Rudd and a for-some-reason-uncredited Owen Wilson) won't be able to show off to their kids either with this one.  They may be able to keep them busy, but the entertainment value won't stay with them for long.

 Norbit   (Kept Checking My Watch)
          This was almost the creative pinnacle of Eddie Murphy’s career.
          He is up for—and deserves-- an Oscar in a couple of weeks for playing James “Thunder” Early in Dreamgirls.   Now while Dreamgirls may be the best movie Eddie Murphy’s been in, the best “Eddie Murphy Movies” are the ones where he disappears behind layers of makeup and/or plays multiple roles.  The Nutty Professor is a charmer, and Coming To America is an absolute classic.  I’m even a fan of the underrated Bowfinger and Murphy’s performance as a nerdy wannabe actor.
          I’d hoped Norbit could have ranked with those movies, and we could talk about an Eddie Murphy renaissance.  Norbit has some ok Eddie Murphy performances, but it’s not a very good movie.
          Murphy plays three roles here:  Norbit himself—a mousy loner who marries the only option he thinks he has;  Rasputia—the overweight, overbearing and downright evil woman Norbit settles for;  and Mr. Wong—the racist, offensive head of the orphanage where Norbit was raised.  Mr. Wong is sometimes incomprehensible, but if you can figure them out, he probably has the best lines.
          Norbit may be the title character, but it’s Rasputia who’s the star.  Murphy and the Rick Baker makeup team have created a truly vile character.  If you think fat jokes are funny, you’ll laugh at Rasputia.  We never saw Nutty Professor’s Sherman Klump in a bathing suit, but we do see Rasputia at a water park in a skimpy bikini.  Despite myself, I found myself laughing at that and some of the other fat jokes, telling myself at least she’s a villain. 
          Norbit though isn’t much of a hero.  Yeah, nerds in movies aren’t supposed to be strong characters at first, but the movie spends so much time on Rasputia that we don’t get enough time with Norbit to feel sorry enough for him.  His character exists for Rasputia to torture, not for us to root for. 
          Ah well, we still have Thunder Early.