Mad Hot Ballroom
Directed by Marilyn Agrelo
Reviewed by Sean Burns
Fri., May 20
The hot ticket at January's Slamdance Film Festival (a more
indie-minded offshoot of the increasingly glitzy Sundance) was this amusing, disappointingly
superficial documentary that follows three classrooms full of fifth-graders through
a grueling, emotional tournament. At the end of the day only one team will rule
them all-as New York City's youngest ballroom dance champs.
Yup-it's fifth-graders doing the fox trot. An odd, delightful
school program, run by the American Ballroom Theater, currently boasts more than
50 N.Y.C. public schools competing annually.
As sheer spectacle, it's a riot. There's something undeniably
endearing about watching a bunch of awkward 10-year-olds dolled up in semiformal
wear, counting off their steps and desperately trying to forget that their opposite-sex
partners "have cooties."
Which makes it all the more wonderful to witness flashes of actual
grace and elegance coming from these youngsters. One of their teachers even begins
blubbering: "They're turning into real ladies and
Directed with a great deal of enthusiasm and a sad shortage of
focus by first-timer Marilyn Agrelo, Ballroom follows a demographically diverse
cross-section of kiddies from Tribeca, Bensonhurst and Washington Heights along
their long and often heartbreaking road to the final competition, held outdoors
at the World Financial Center.
Agrelo obviously began with the noble intention of illuminating
vast cultural and economic disparities among kids the same age in the same city.
She holds up ballroom dance as a sort of democratizing force-one of the few
arenas left where talent still trumps social advantages.
But by doing so, Agrelo crowds Mad Hot Ballroom beyond
capacity. Three teams is too many for the movie to handle with any degree of coherence.
Despite brief, tantalizing interview snippets, even the most interesting children
get lost in the constant
shuffle on- and offstage.
A voiceover narration claims the ballroom dancing program has
pulled a number of at-risk children out of potentially dangerous spirals. But a
better movie might've offered some footage (or even an interview or two) to
back up such an assertion.
Ballroom suffers particularly when compared to 2002's
Spellbound (the movie it clearly was modeled after). That thrilling spelling-bee
doc picked eight of the contestants and really let you get to know them before the
competition started. Mad Hot Ballroom drops straight into the fray and spends
too little time with too many people.
The kids are awfully cute, though.
Directed by Kim Ki-Duk
Reviewed by Sean Burns
Fri., May 20
In the modern screenwriter's handbook, words are overrated.
Proof comes from Kim
Ki-Duk's 3-Iron, a hushed, mysterious love
story during which our two main characters utter nary a syllable to one another.
It's without a doubt the
quietest movie we'll see
this year (there's not even a musical score-just a CD popped in by the
protagonist every once in a while), and yet the epic silences are riveting-as
if the absence of aural clutter is forcing you to pay closer attention than you
Taking a cue from the giddy Faye Wong sequence in
Express-which found our shy heroine breaking into her
dream lover's house in order to tidy the place up for him every afternoon-3-Iron
stars Jae Hee as a nameless wanderer fond of harmless home
If nobody's around he's likely to slip into your place
and help himself to whatever's in the fridge. Then he'll probably do some
of your laundry and fix a broken appliance, or maybe he'll just goof around
and sabotage stuff that already works.
But one night this trespasser miscalculates and unwittingly makes
himself at home in the presence of Lee Seung-yeon's battered housewife. Theirs
is an instant inexplicable connection (one made quite visceral by both performers'
haunted stares), and the best part of 3-Iron finds these two drifting through
the empty houses and apartments of Seoul like a couple of ghosts, wordlessly falling
Alas, the picture loses a good deal of its magic during the plot-heavy
(comparatively speaking) back nine. There's a thuggish revenge scheme by our
lady's nasty husband, as well as a couple crooked cops and far too many characters
being brutally thwacked by golf balls.
But the stillness of the film sticks with you.
Kim is a famous bad boy from the recent South Korean cinema explosion.
(I was frightened off from watching his widely acclaimed The Isle thanks
to the following quote from a friend: "Dude, you totally see fish hooks stuck
in a vagina!")
But 3-Iron, as well as 2003's tranquil Buddhist parable
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring strike me as sincere (if
a bit too formally rigorous) attempts to pare storytelling down to its barest essentials.
Kim's austere compositions and innovative sound design convey
more information than most contemporary filmmakers can wring out of a five-page
monologue. Even if it gets a little precious in the end, 3-Iron admirably
illustrates that sometimes you can speak volumes without saying anything at all.
by Susanne Bier
Reviewed by Leo
Opens Fri., May 20
This powerful Danish story of two brothers, which won the World
Cinema Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is like two movies
in one-a war picture and a family melodrama-tied to one family dynamic.
There's the revered older brother, a major in the army, with
a hot blond wife and two cute daughters; a dissolute younger brother, just out of
jail; a father who idolizes one son and scorns the other; and a loving mother who's
a little out of it.
Just when we think we're in for a Legends of the Fall-style
soap opera about squabbling siblings, older brother Michael goes down in a plane
crash and the grieving family has to rework its relationships.
But wait! He's not dead. And then everything has to change
all over again.
Using intimate close-ups that put you right in the middle of the
action, the movie's almost anthropological in its attention to the minute behaviors
of specific people-and the domino effects that make each person part of a larger
If you've seen The Celebration-the 1998 Danish comedy/drama about an
outrageously dysfunctional family-you've
got a sense of this movie's style. It's got the
focus on emotional and psychological responses of other recent Danish movies influenced
by that country's Dogme 95 film movement, like Breaking the Waves, Italian
for Beginners and Dancer in the Dark.
Here, though, Susanne Bier enlarges those movies' narrow
focus by tying the domestic drama to the war drama. The family's circumstances
are similar to a hostage situation: Hostages and captors act out the same psychological
warfare, on a wider and deadlier scale, that a nuclear family does.
Brothers proves that a movie's intimate attention
to human beings can play out in a broader social and political context. It takes
the Dogme (and Sundance) tradition of small-scale dramas to the next level-while
implicitly rebuking them for their insular self-
Bier doesn't pay as much attention to her women as to her
men, and some of the story's events follow each other a little too conveniently.
Yet overall this is one of the best movies of the year so far, as involving and
convincing in small details as in large ideas.
My Mother's Smile
Directed by Marco
Reviewed by Leo
Fri., May 20
Blasphemous! That's what the Catholic Church thinks of this
Italian drama. First released in 2002, it starts with a great premise-a cynical
atheist named Ernesto learns his mother is up for sainthood.
He always hated her, and he hates the Church too. But now everything's
going their way. His son talks to God, his family's gung-ho for sainthood and
he sees his mother's smile on his own lips.
The movie's fiercely anti-Catholic. It portrays sainthood
as a scam, cardinals as glad-handing politicians, and sainthood advocates as
Ernesto's aunt-who runs the website for her sister's
sainthood-admits she doesn't believe in God, but "just in case, I'm
taking out insurance. It doesn't cost anything. If God exists, he'll forgive."
Only a young boy has pure religion. He goes off to chat with God
and asks searching questions like, "How can God control 6 billion people at
The hero's family knows their sainthood story is a lie, but
they're riding it for status and opportunity.
"Can't you see the advantage of having a saint for a
mother?" asks the viperish aunt. "Your children must return to the privileged
position that your disastrous ideals reduced to ashes!"
Yes, the characters speak like that. (The film is in Italian;
the dialogue is subtitled.) That's because they're not so much characters-they're
stick figures in a one-sided argument against bad, bad Catholicism.
Talky and static, the movie makes the same points over and over
again, forgoing discussion of other issues, such
as why the Church wants to
canonize this woman in the first place.
It seems that all she did was forgive a man who killed her. Is
that really enough for an express train to sainthood?
We also never learn why Ernesto hates her so much. "She was
stupid. She understood nothing." That's all he has to say about it, as
if director Marco Bellocchio were too consumed with anti-Catholicism to dramatize
his own story. It feels like he came up with a smart concept, then quit for lunch
before fleshing it out.
Sometimes he throws in weird digressions to liven things up. These
David Lynch-like scenes don't fit with the
realistic drama, but they gave
me a great idea: The whole thing's in Ernesto's head! It's
a crazy anti-Catholic
I still think maybe that's the point-but the film's
so unformed, I don't know. In any case, it would make a better movie.
Kicking & Screaming
Directed by Jesse Dylan
Reviewed by Steven Wells
The best soccer movie ever is Shaolin Soccer, in which
an itinerant Chinese kung-fu artiste overcomes seemingly impossible odds to transform
a bunch of misfit monks into a world-beating soccer powerhouse. The worst is perhaps
Soccer Dog: European Cup, in which a soccer-playing dog does much the same
thing with a gaggle of Scottish school kids.
Kicking & Screaming doesn't deviate from this
Will Ferrell plays a coach who transforms a bunch of goofball losers
into a pint-sized Manchester United. In doing so he and the boys learn not only
about themselves but also about what it means to be American. Or something.
This barely disguised Bad News Bears rip-off is given an
Oedipal twist by the fact that the evil rival coach, played by Robert Duvall, is
also the hero's dad. And then there's Ferrell's demented spiral into
the hellish pits of espresso addiction.
But these quirks aside, even the lack of monks or dogs won't
fool you into thinking you haven't seen this movie a hundred times already.
Kicking & Screaming is a puckless Mighty Ducks.
The positive if stereotypical portrayal of a pair of lesbian soccer
moms (which drew a burst of recognition laughter from the preview audience of Philly
soccer brats) and a heavily hammered anti-elitist "sport for all"
moral probably means that we can count Kicking as a goal for culture-war
good guys. Hurrah!
The downside is that it's a half-arsed bollock-fest of a
movie. This is heralded by the entirely unnecessary casting (as himself) of one
Mike Ditka-who apparently once coached a "football" team to victory
in a globally irrelevant sporting nonevent known as the "Super Bowl."
His annoying presence suggests a certain lack of confidence in the movie's
The same second-guessed hesitancy is apparent in the sometimes
clunky editing and a script that veers from baby-boomer ribaldry to prepubescent
tomfoolery like a staggering drunk.
And then there are Will Ferrell's eyes. On the poster he
has them tightly shut-and with good reason. Ferrell's tiny-eyed stare
might look winsome on TV, but when blown up and
projected onto a cinema screen,
he looks like a psychotic hamster with a Ritalin habit.
That said, the soccer-playing small person in your family
probably think Kicking & Screaming is a hoot-assuming they don't
have an irrational fear of giant amphetamined
Asanee Suwan brings a shy sweetness to real-life athlete Nong
Toom, who used his ass-kicking skills to earn enough money to have a sex-change
operation at 19. You might think having a drag queen at the
center of the story
director Ekachai Uekrongtham the inspiration to deliver some vamped-up
style to the film. But with its workout montages and plentiful but brief fight scenes,
Boxer might as well be a Karate Kid sequel. C+ (Dan Buskirk)
For a film itching to examine the truth about America's simmering
racism, writer/director Paul Haggis' script has a propensity for turning its
characters into stereotypes. In an opening scene two African-American twentysomethings
discuss how white people unfairly see them as thugs-only to interrupt the conversation
to carjack a district
attorney and his wife. It's believable that race
would play a part in all of the film's interactions, but Haggis, screenwriter
of Best Picture-winner Million Dollar Baby, can't resist making every
clash a verbal punch-out. C+ (D.B.)
Death of a Dynasty
Supposedly based on hip-hop mogul Damon Dash's exploits as
one of the brains behind Roc-A-Fella Records, Dynasty tells the story of
David Katz (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), an inexperienced
hip-hop journalist assigned
to uncover unrest at Dash's outfit. As Katz becomes closer to Dash (played
by rapper Capone), his knowledge of the label's secrets leads him to a lucrative
deal spilling information to a gossip newspaper. The stories spark a feud between
Dash and Jay-Z (Robert Stapleton), which threatens to end the life of Roc-A-Fella
Records. F (Emily Brochin)
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
A drama is only as good as its villains, and Enron: The Smartest
Guys in the Room has some of the slimiest. The trio of Ken Lay, Jeffrey Skilling
Fastow may have been piloting Enron's ship, but their greed
brought out the worst in their crew of energy pirates-right down to the giggling
traders seen rejoicing in the rolling blackouts that hit California in 2001. B (D.B.)
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
For the few who remain uninitiated regarding this cult that began
as a radio play in 1978: It's basically a Python-esque take on Star
Wars with everyman Arthur Dent, who's dragged in his bathrobe, pissing
and moaning across the universe, after earth is destroyed to make way for a new
Creator Douglas Adams' main gag seemed to be that
all the mundane, bureaucratic annoyances and miscommunications of modern life are
only multiplied exponentially when amplified across the stars. It's a conceit
that comes through too seldom in this busy, overproduced
blockbuster. C (S.B.)
The Holy Girl
The Holy Girl's protagonist, the dewy-skinned Amalia
(Maria Alché), lives in a crumbling hotel run by her uncle and her divorced
mother Helena (Mercedes Morán). The hotel hosts a conference of doctors,
one of whom rubs up against Amalia while watching a street performance. The girl's
almost orgasmic devotion to Catholicism leads her to seek the man out and try to
save him. An overarching sense of doom is present from the beginning, but unlike
the gruesome ending of director
Lucrecia Martel's La Ciénaga,
Holy Girl's conclusion is more vague, and ultimately more evolved. A-
House of Wax
This shitty horror remake has precious little to do with its 1953
Andre de Toth-directed 3-D namesake and everything to do with the delicious promise
of watching Paris Hilton suffer a grisly death-which isn't a spoiler,
but a selling point. D (S.B.)
night Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman) just so happens to be going back to work to
pick up a bag she just so happened to forget in one of the U.N. listening booths,
and she just so happens to overhear an assassination plot that just so happens to
be discussed in the language that she's one of maybe five people in America
who can just so happen to understand. To his credit, Secret Service agent Tobin
Keller (Sean Penn) thinks Silvia's story sounds a little fishy. Still reeling
from the car-accident death of his wife two weeks prior, Keller spends a lot of
time getting drunk and listening to Lyle Lovett before heading back to work, where
he's immediately and illogically placed in charge of a potentially globe-altering
international conflict. C- (S.B.)
The main problem with this dry Argentine drama is it's not
intimate enough. This story of three isolated people in the remote town of Fitz
Roy doesn't offer much in the way of character development or narrative action.
It just follows its characters as they travel to San Julian, the big city more than
200 miles away. This movie isn't uninteresting, unpleasant or poorly acted.
But it's so impersonal that it left me baffled as to why it was made. Don't
the writer and director have anything they're burning to say? B- (L.C.)
Anthony Anderson stars as a filthy rich businessman who tries
to thwart his soon-to-be-ex-wife's gold-digging ways by masterminding his own
kidnapping. But things soon go awry. (Not
Kingdom of Heaven
Set in 1186, during what appears to be a bit of a timeout between
the second and third Crusades, Kingdom of Heaven stars blank-eyed teen heartthrob Orlando Bloom as a tempestuous blacksmith named Balian. We begin as Balian is reunited with his long-lost father (Liam Neeson), a legendary knight who, having something of a midlife crisis, suddenly wants to get to know his bastard son and bring the boy into the family crusading business. C (S.B.)
Kung Fu Hustle
In an unspecified time that looks like the Old West but boasts
'50s cars and modern neon signs, the hardworking, poverty-stricken residents
of Pig Sty Alley must band together to stave off the mob tactics of the Axe Gang,
a top-hatted, snazzily dressed pack of tap-dancing goons. Yes, this is silly, often
repetitive stuff. But as films like this, Hero and House of Flying Daggers
continue to demonstrate that martial arts have relocated from the grind houses to
the art houses, I'll take Hong Kong director Stephen Chow's goofball exuberance
over Zhang Yimou's stilted Merchant-Ivory Fu any day of the week. B (S.B.)
Le Grand Role
This odd yet affecting French comedy/drama plays like a hybrid
of Diner (male buddies), Love Story (pretty girl's pretty death)
and The Last Metro (French-Jewish actors). It starts as a larky buddy
movie, as Maurice Kurz and his four actor friends are all up for parts in a
Yiddish-language version of The Merchant of Venice to be directed in
Paris by a famous American director (Peter Coyote) who wants to use his clout to
bring back Yiddish movies. Maurice gets cast as Shylock, then he's uncast in
favor of a bigger star. But he's already told his wife, who turns out to be
dying. B- (L.C.)
Look at Me
Sort of like a Hannah and Her Sisters-era Woody Allen
dramedy transposed to Paris, Look at Me stars co-writer and director Agnès
Jaoui as a stuffy classical choral teacher who spends most of her time making excuses
not to spend an extra second with her overweight, needy student Lolita (a remarkable
Marilou Berry). But that's before she discovers the ironically named Lolita's
father just so happens to be famous author/publisher Étienne Cassard (co-writer
Jean-Pierre Bacri). B+ (S.B.)
Seven-year-old Damian (played by the absurdly endearing Alex Etel)
is hanging out by the train tracks when a giant bag of money drops out of the sky.
We later find out there was a train robbery nearby, but young Damian thinks the
money's a present from God-or maybe from his mum, who died recently. Danny
Boyle's bouncy, touching Millions is on one level a farce about what
a couple of schoolboys would do with a giant sack of cash, but it quickly digs deeper
to reveal that sadness isn't always something you can buy your way out of.
Christian Slater, LL Cool J and assorted TV talent are FBI detectives
training at a spooky abandoned Army facility on an island off North Carolina. Val
Kilmer plays their hard-nosed taskmaster. During his first exercise events turn
deadly, leaving one team member's body to be sent home in separate packages.
Now the unknown assailant begins offing the detectives one by one, their times of
death foretold by broken wristwatches found at the murder scenes. B- (D.B.)
Jane Fonda rips into her role as every bride-to-be's worst
nightmare with a manic energy that borders on psychotic, and Jennifer Lopez headlines
as yet another one of those immaculate wallflowers that her ludicrous
seems to have trapped her in. Once Lopez is engaged to Michael Vartan's blank-slate
surgeon stud, it's time to settle in for the main event: J. Lo vs. J. Fo. The
bout ain't much during the early rounds, as Lopez at first tries to be accommodating
and kind to her obviously troubled new mother-in-law. But things get seriously funny
once the fiancee starts fighting dirty. B- (S.B.)
Music From the Inside Out
While the members of the Philadelphia Orchestra are the nominal
stars of Daniel Ankers' lightly probing documentary
Music From the Inside
Out, the subjects could hail from any orchestral outfit. The doc is a discourse
on the orchestral art form itself, with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra serving
merely as the internationally renowned experts on the subject. At its best, Music
makes you focus intensely on one aspect of the art. It'll certainly wind up
in junior high music classes in the not-too-distant future, but its target audience
is anyone with a set of ears. B (Matt Prigge)
Mystery of the Nile
In this IMAX film a group of explorers make their way down the
3,260-mile river, which takes them 114 days. (Not reviewed.)
Matthew McConaughey goes through the motions as Dirk Pitt, a deep-sea
bounty hunter ensnared in both an African water-poisoning plot and an obscure Civil
War coin plot. There's a germ of an original thriller idea here about the perils
of globalization. "The problem is no longer ours. It's our neighbor's
downstream," sneers a warlord about his toxic water. Mostly, though, Sahara
is like a clone of an action movie with clones for its leads. C- (L.C.)
Jet Li stars as a man who was raised to be a fighting machine
by an evil Bob Hoskins. After he gets into a car accident, he loses his memory and
is taken in by Morgan Freeman's benevolent
piano teacher. (Not reviewed.)The Voyage Home
In fifth-century Rome the idealistic but weary prefect
Rutilio Namaziano (Elia Schilton) takes it upon himself to breathe newer,
better life into the waning Roman Empire by going on a trek to locate the last emperor
(who's in hiding) and persuade him to return to the Eternal City. And so begins
a soporific, frustratingly aimless odyssey, sporadically enlivened by vicious ne'er-do-wells, mutinous nautical crews and rock-throwing
Christian hermits who skulk along the seaside cliffs like the Jawas from Star
Wars. C (M.P.)
Walk on Water
Diagnosed as psychiatrically unsound after his wife's suicide,
Eyal-the top hit man for the
Israeli spy service Mossad-is given the
low-key duty of spying on a visiting German brother and sister whose grandfather
is an elderly Nazi war criminal still at large. Eyal is surprised to find his terse
exterior melting as he befriends this couple while secretly observing them. The
strawberry blond Caroline Peters is so natural on-screen as the sister Pia, it's
a shame director Eytan Fox hasn't given her more to do. Instead Fox is interested
in playing the brother's gay liberal politics against Eyal's macho Israeli
heartlessness in a smart and talky buddy flick. B- (D.B.)
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is an uplifting documentary
by Judy Irving that tells the story of Mark Bittner, a ponytailed
dropout who spends his days squatting in one of San Francisco's chichi enclaves,
feeding and doting on a weird batch of non-indigenous parrots. Drama arises when
the Bay Area's real estate prices finally budge Bittner from his squatting
quarters. What will become of his birds? The movie may sound like a feast of a pet
owner's desperate emotional projections, but Irving's up-close footage
delivers the goods. B+ (S.B.)
XXX: State of the Union
This thoroughly preposterous yet satisfyingly acerbic sequel to
2002's dunderheaded XXX finds Sam Jackson's shadowy NSA operative
on the run from a breathtakingly elaborate frame-up
job by the sinister secretary of defense (a deliberately
Rumsfeldian Willem Dafoe). It seems our wishy-washy
president wants to fight "a more sensitive war on terror," prompting Dafoe
and his cabal of neocon hawks to plot a massive assassination/coup attempt during
the State of the Union address. So it goes without saying that the only person who
can save the republic is Ice Cube. B- (S.B.)