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Arts & Entertainment / Freeze Frame with Russ Simmons
Published 02/05/2010 - 12:00 a.m. CDT

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Nicholas Sparks has discovered a literary path that leads directly to the tear duct.

Six of Sparks’ novels have been converted into hankie-wringing cinematic melodramas, including “The Notebook,” “Message in a Bottle,” “A Walk to Remember,” “Nights in Rodanthe” and the upcoming “The Last Song.”

The latest Sparks adaptation is “Dear John,” brought to the big screen by a director who knows a thing or two about the weeper genre, Lasse Halstrom (“My Life as a Dog,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Chocolat”).

Amanda Seyfried (“Mamma Mia!”) stars as Savannah, a pretty UNC-Chapel Hill student from an affluent Southern family. She and John (Channing Tatum from “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”) ‘meet cute’ when the Army Special Forces soldier risks his life by diving into the Atlantic to rescue Savannah’s fallen purse.

Can amour be far behind?

Published 01/29/2010 - 12:00 a.m. CDT

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

With the exception of a couple of cameo appearances, the last time that Mel Gibson appeared onscreen was in the 2002 sci-fi curiosity, “Signs.”

Of course, he’s been preoccupied by directing (“The Passion of the Christ,” “Apocalypto”) and with some highly publicized personal matters.

Choosing to keep a relatively low profile for a box office superstar, Gibson hoped to find a suitably lighthearted comedy script for his Hollywood comeback. No such luck.

Gibson’s return to the big screen is a violent, hardboiled conspiratorial thriller with lots of gnashing teeth, beads of sweat and throbbing forehead veins.

“Edge of Darkness” is a big screen, Americanized adaptation of an acclaimed series that was named one of the twenty best in British TV history. Something, apparently, was lost in the translation.

Published 01/29/2010 - 12:00 a.m. CDT

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

“When in Rome” is the best romantic fantasy of the year!

Don’t be too surprised to see that quote, or one very much like it, on the billboard ads for this whimsical Hollywood offering.

Here’s the kicker: “Leap Year” and “Youth in Revolt” are the only other romantic comedies to come out so far this year. The only fantasy has been “The Tooth Fairy.”

Yes, that first sentence is a case of damning with faint praise.

It really takes a deft touch to pull off this sort of thing and while it’s well meaning and has a very likable cast, “When in Rome” is a clichéd romantic fantasy.

Published 01/22/2010 - 12:00 a.m. CDT

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

“Extraordinary Measures” is the first theatrical release from CBS Films. It plays like the first theatrical release from Lifetime TV Films.

Everything about it screams “TV movie.” The cinematography, art direction and editing all seem like they were designed for the small screen. Even the aspect ratio appears as though it were designed for television.

This pedestrian, by-the-numbers drama is extremely well meaning and is loosely based on an inspiring true story. Sadly, the uninspired script and direction undermines the efforts of a capable cast.

Published 01/15/2010 - 12:00 a.m. CDT

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Who would you want to hang around with in a desolate, post-apocalyptic world? You could do a whole lot worse than Denzel Washington (“The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3”).

Washington’s latest vehicle is “The Book of Eli,” a stark sci-fi drama that inhabits a cinematic world that lies somewhere between the cerebral high-mindedness of “The Road” and the over-the-top violence of “Mad Max.”

As a result, it isn’t quite as good as either of them.

The story that filmmaking brothers Albert and Allen Hughes (“Menace II Society”) and novice screenwriter Gary Whitta are telling has spiritual aspirations, but they allow some curious absurdities to derail them.

Published 01/15/2010 - 12:00 a.m. CDT

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When they adapted for the screen one of the most beloved novel series of all time, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, director Peter Jackson and screenwriting collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens hit paydirt.

Naturally, hopes were high that they’d find a way to work the same magic with Alice Sebold’s haunting story, “The Lovely Bones.” This time out, they misfire.

Jackson’s heavy-handed visuals nearly suffocate this heart-wrenching story of a 14-year-old girl who is raped and murdered and then watches over her parents and killer from heaven.

Published 01/08/2010 - 12:00 a.m. CDT

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

When Heath Ledger died in 2008 at the age of 28, his Oscar-winning role as The Joker in “The Dark Knight” was touted as his career finale.

But Ledger was working on another movie when he passed away, one that most people presumed would never be completed.

Filmmaker Terry Gilliam (“The Brothers Grimm”) had other ideas. He re-jiggered his screenplay (co-written with frequent collaborator Charles McKeown) to allow three other actors to step into the scenes Ledger had yet to shoot.

The end result is like many of Gilliam’s other films, visually wondrous but terribly convoluted.

Published 01/01/2010 - 12:00 a.m. CDT

Theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy. Mosaic, Roman artwork, 2nd century CE.

By Russ Simmons

In 2008, the box office numbers were astronomical, settling in the $9.6 billion range domestically. Few experts thought that 2009 had much of a chance to top it.

But when the final figures are published, 2009 will have surpassed 2008…by a wide margin. According to the trade bible “Variety,” the $10 billion level is in the rear view mirror and Christmas weekend was the biggest in movie history, up over 35% in revenue and over 5% in attendance from 2008.

Is it due to the fact that patrons are looking for modestly priced entertainment options in a shaky economy? Is it the emergence of high-tech digital projection, IMAX and 3-D options that are drawing in new audience members? Is it simply that ticket prices are a bit higher this year?

Regardless of the reasons, Hollywood is on a roll.

“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” was the box office champ, taking in nearly $834 million worldwide.

But that number will likely be topped by James Cameron’s 3-D sci-fi spectacle “Avatar.” In its first ten days of release, the total worldwide box office for “Avatar” surpassed $615 million.

Along with “Transformers,” there were a few other ‘tentpole’ franchises like “Harry Potter, ” “Night at the Museum” and “Twilight” that padded Hollywood’s bankroll.

But there were some surprises, too. A modest gross-out comedy called “The Hangover” took in $460 million and “Paranormal, Activity” a horror flick made on a miniscule $15,000 budget, has made $107 million so far.

Locally, the trend was the same.

Published 12/31/2009 - 9:17 p.m. CDT

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The big selling point behind Disney’s latest feature isn’t that is employs old-fashioned, hand-drawn animation techniques.

Neither is it Disney’s much-ballyhooed return to the Mouse House’s fairytale roots.

The real push involves the heroine, Disney’s first African-American “princess.” Whether this is social progress or opportunism is debatable.

Published 01/22/2010 - 12:00 a.m. CDT

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Many filmmakers struggle for years to hone their skills and learn the nuances of their craft.

Undoubtedly, some of them are green with envy when an untrained outsider decides to make a movie…and does an outstanding job of it.

Tom Ford is a noted fashion designer and former creative director at Gucci. He has successfully adapted a Christopher Isherwood novel, “A Single Man,” into an effective and affecting drama.

But Ford had a little help. He collaborated with another newcomer, David Scearce, on the screenplay and assembled a first rate cast to bring it to life.

Published 01/22/2010 - 12:00 a.m. CDT

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Think “The Wrestler” with country music.

That may be an oversimplification, but comparing the drama “Crazy Heart” to last year’s acclaimed character study “The Wrestler” is apt and a compliment to both films.

And as “The Wrestler” made us reflect on what a remarkable (and wasted) talent Mickey Rourke is, “Crazy Heart” forces us to reckon with an equally impressive actor, Jeff Bridges (“The Men Who Stare at Goats”).

Novice filmmaker Scott Cooper has adapted Thomas Cobb’s novel into a realistic and poignant look at a down-and-out, alcoholic country music singer.

Published 01/15/2010 - 12:00 a.m. CDT

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

If you’re a film buff, you may find yourself experiencing a bit of déjà vu when watching the lush movie homage called “Broken Embraces.”

Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar (“Volver”) is a cinema fanatic as well as a major director, and he’s layered his latest work with canny tributes to many other films…including his own.

“Broken Embraces” is a love letter to the movies as well as an engaging film noir melodrama. Almodovar’s potboiler doesn’t always work but his love of the cinematic art form is certainly contagious.

The story-within-a-story deals with a Spanish screenwriter by the name of Harry Caine, played by Lluis Homar (“Bad Education”). That’s not his real name, but a moniker he cribbed from movies featuring Orson Wells.

Published 01/08/2010 - 12:00 a.m. CDT

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Sometimes, a release date is all you need to know about a movie.

When Hollywood honchos know that they’ve got a turkey on their hands, they’ll often send it to die in theatres in early January. That way, the popular holiday offerings that are still doing well at the box office will cover the movie’s failure. With the strong holdovers, the studio’s balance sheet still looks good.

It’s likely that the studio behind “Leap Year” had a limited amount of faith in this modest romantic comedy.

Amy Adams (“Julie & Julia”) stars as Anna, a high-maintenance Manhattan yuppie who can’t seem to get her boyfriend, a successful doctor named Jeremy (Adam Scott from “Step Brothers”), to pop the question.

Published 01/08/2010 - 12:00 a.m. CDT

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Sometimes, the road from cult novel to cult movie is a bumpy one.

Hollywood has been struggling to get C. D. Payne’s 14-year-old antihero Nick Twisp to the big screen since the book “Youth in Revolt” was published in the early 1990s.

After an unseen TV pilot and another aborted big screen attempt, “Youth in Revolt” has finally hit theatres…and the result is a mixed bag.

Michel Cera (“Year One”) plays Nick in a self-consciously quirky adaptation by screenwriter Gustin Nash (“Charlie Bartlett”) and director Miguel Arteta (“The Good Girl”).

Published 12/31/2009 - 9:21 p.m. CDT

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

When considering those lines from William Earnest Henley’s 1875 poem “Invictus,” it’s easy to conjure up a mental image of Nelson Mandela, the ultimate survivor.

Published 12/31/2009 - 9:11 p.m. CDT

Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Purists, beware.

Director Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” bears little resemblance to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed detective hero.

But fans of action movies will find much to like in this bit of popcorn escapism that plays more like a James Bond flick than a crime mystery.

Robert Downey, Jr. (“Iron Man”) portrays the famed Victorian master of deductive reasoning and Jude Law (“Alfie”) is his best friend and fellow amateur detective, Dr. Watson.