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Higher Learning

Don;t know how I missed HIGHER LEARNING when it first came out. This look at the first year of college at a major university has the ring of truth about it, although perhaps hyped up a bit for dramatic appeal. The primary player in the group is Omar Epps, a student on an athletic scholarship who is trying not to be compartmentalized by everyone. A fellow black student who seems to be living in the 1970s (Ice Cube) sees him as a sellout while one of his professors (Larry Fishburne) is working hard to get him to learn. Michael Rapaport is a loner with a hearing problem who falls in with a gang of skinheads. Kirsty Swanson is a naive miss from the boonies who undergoes a major transformation after being raped by a fellow student. The film is dotted with familiar faces, most if not all of whom have gone on to stardom of one sort or another, including Cole Hauser, Jennifer Connelly and Tyra Banks. Definitely worth a look.

Scrubs: My Princess
Episode 11, Season 7

Off the charts
I will admit I have been unhappy with the final season of SCRUBS. The episodes I have seen rarely rose above the mediocre, and used many well-worn gimmicks and plot devices from the previous six seasons. Laughs have been few. Now comes what appears to be the final episode of the series, MY PRINCESS. It starts out ordinarily enough, with the crew trying to save a patient, but takes a turn for the verse when Cox tells his son a bedtime fairy tale that has Janitor playing a 10-foot ogre with a taste for babies, Ted as a hideous hunchback, Turk and Carla as a two-headed something or other, Cox as (what else?) a heroic knight, Kelso as an evil warlock, J.D. as the village idiot and Elliott as a very fetching princess. This fairy tale goes back and forth from Cox's fantastic telling to the actual events in the hospital that parallel Cox's Grimm Brothers version. The laugh meter is on high and the cleverness of the episode helps make up for the debacle of Season 7. If this indeed is the final episode, it is a fitting one. One small plot hole: Kelso apparently is back in charge of the hospital. No explanation. But who cares, really?

Ghost Whisperer: Pater Familias
Episode 18, Season 3

The End -- for now
Part 2 of a 2-parter to close out Season 3 has Melinda coming to grips with her father and her childhood. In the previous episode, she thought her father Tom Gordon (Martin Donovan) may have shot himself to death, but discovers he has survived. He has been intermittently possessed by a masked ghost who spent time in jail on a murder charge thanks to Tom Gordon when he wass a prosecutor and appears to want revenge on Gordon and family. But nothing in this episode is as it seems, and it takes a very long hour before things get straightened out. Anne Archer is back as Melinda's mom. By the way, the spectre behind the mask in this and the previous episode is Corin Nemec, a former child actor who has popped up on TV and in some "B" flicks in more recent years. Not one of GW's beter episodes, this season ender plays more like a soap opera than a thriller drama. The very end, with everyone marching arm in arm, contains an unexpected gag.

Ghost Whisperer: Deadbeat Dads
Episode 16, Season 3

Par for the course
Professor Payne runs into an old girlfriend with some shocking news: she had a child by him years before, and now she's hoping for some financial assistance. Some of you may recognize the actress playing the girlfriend. She is Nikki Cox, who used to be on a TV sitcom that aped MARRIED WITH CHILDREN, called UNHAPPILY EVER AFTER, or something like that. In this episode, she is barely recognizable as the daughter from that show due to a major cosmetic change in her facial appearance. Meanwhile, Melinda frets about whether to have kids or not. We've heard this before, of course. Her decision at the finale may surprise some of you.

Ghost Whisperer: Horror Show
Episode 15, Season 3

Jay Mohr shines
If I recall this episode correctly, Professor Payne asks Melinda to mentor a young lady who is herself being haunted. I think I have that right. Of course, the sinister-looking ghost hovering around the gal turns out to be something other than we think. This show often seems to be about not judging a book by its cover. And while we're at it, let me say a few words about the professor. When Jay Mohr was first introduced to the series, I thought this will be the ruination of the show. I was wrong. Mohr has brought an added touch of comedy and pathos to the series, which could easily have stagnated without his character. He is the polar opposite of Melinda's stony-faced, even-tempered husband. This episode is a strong one for Mohr.

House M.D.: House's Head
Episode 15, Season 4

I never go above an 8, but I sure felt like it for this first of a two-part story that wraps up the show's fourth season. House finds himself suffering from a slight case of amnesia. He's also bleeding from a head wound. Turns out he was drunk and had to take the bus home, but the bus gets hit by a truck. As a wobbily House and his crew tend to the injured, he finds he has a partial memory of something severe having happened during the crash. Under hypnosis, he relives bits and pieces of the crash. He then decides to take more drastic measures, and this is when the suspense kicks into high gear. Along the way, House confesses feelings for Amber, which sort of amuses Wilson. And us. We also get to see Cuddy stripped down to a pair of sheer, French-cut panties, performing a private pole dance for House. Cuddy and House also lock lips. God, I have waited so long for this. Anyhow, the bus crash itself is incredible, filmed in the style of the airplane crash in FEARLESS, one of Jeff Bridges' best films. That, and some tricky photography as House relives the events leading up to the crash, are the highlights of the episode. A must-see, but definitely keep the little ones away. The gore quotient is off the scale.


Foreign film that goes nowhere
I missed the very beginning and end of BABEL, but the film I saw made me wonder why it was made at all. Even foreign film fans will be hard-pressed to make sense of this one, or admire it for being a foreign film. Brad Pitt and wife Cate Blanchet go off on the road to Morocco, miss Bing and Bob by a hair, and she gets shot. Instead of putting her back on the tour bus they arrived in, Pitt awaits an ambulance that never comes. A helicopter finally arrives, but before then we get to watch Blanchet use a bedpan. In closeup. Back home, an illegal Mexican nanny takes Pitt's two children along with her to a relative's wedding in Mexico. On the return trip, she loses them in the desert for awhile. Over in Japan, an emotionally disturbed deaf girl who has witnessed -- or may have caused -- her mother's death gets naked in front of the cop interviewing her. I wish I could say she was the Japanese equivalent of Jennifer Love Hewitt, but no such luck. Her only connection to the plot is that her father, who apparently abuses her, sold his gun to the Moroccan who shot Blanchet. Watch MAGNOLIA instead.

Cradle Will Rock

Lots of fun and educational, up to a point
An all-star production, CRADLE WILL ROCK chronicles the events leading up to the debut of Mark Blitzstein's "The Cradle Will Rock," a labor-oriented drama with music, written in the turbulent 1930s. It is to be performed at the WPA Federal Theater, but the government gets cold feet at the last minute and closes the theater. So the players take their production to a private theater and perform before an SRO crowd. Oddly enough, the performance turns out to be the least interesting part of the film, done up in a "Let's fix up the old barn and put on a show" routine seen in countless Andy Hardy and Little Rascals films. It is what happens before that is fascinating, as we shift back and forth between New York and Washington and are exposed to the "isms" of this post Depression/pre-WWII time: communism and fascism. One supposes most of what writer/director Tim Robbins portrays here is real enough, but keep in mind Robbins is an avowed leftist and so the film is probably best taken with a large dose of salt. But what a cast: John and Joan Cusack, Susan (Mrs. Tim Robbins) Sarandon, Cary Elwes, John Turturro, Jack Black, Bill Murray, Vanessa Redgrave, Ruben Blades and Hank Azaria. All play real-life figures of the era, including Orson Welles and John Rockefeller. A must-see for art-house film lovers and those interested in the period. All others, beware.

The Sopranos

Ah me
I know I have written about this show in the past, but I cannot find that post. THE SOPRANOS is a comedic take on THE GODFATHER, and clearly inspired by GOOD FELLAS, with mob boss Tony Soprano (Gandolfini) torn between his family problems and gangster lifestyle. It gets so bad, he ends up seeing a shrink (Bracco), who is frightened of yet fascinated with this flinty-eyed serpent of a sociopath. The show is all on the surface. It is no LAW AND ORDER, God knows. Occasional outbursts of violence obviously satisfy the male viewers and keep them coming back for more. For those who come to this for the outright comedy, nothing is as funny as Tony's skewed relationship with his messed-up, slovenly, brassy-mouthed sister (Tuturro). The encounters between the two are comedy gold. And Turturro is bound to remind everyone of you of someone you know. Guaranteed. Watch it for the curiosity factor, if nothing else. Gandolfini is the main attraction. Hell, he could probably interact with mops and brooms and still be fascinating unto himself, the way Fred Astaire used to do.


Gritty Western and a love story to boot
Kurt Russell gives the performance of his career as Wyatt Earp in 1993's TOMBSTONE, a fairly accurate rendition of the Earp brothers adventures in a booming mining town. It's Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt versus a loose-knit gang of thugs known as The Cowboys for control of Tombstone. Things heat up after a showdown adjacent to the OK Corral, and Wyatt -- now a federal marshal -- creates a special posse including Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer in top form) and a trio of Cowboy deserters to hunt down the remaining Cowboys. Many familiar faces dot the landscape, including Sam Elliott as Virgil Earp, Powers Boothe as Curly Bill, leader of The Cowboys, and Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo, second-in-command of The Cowboys. Russell is given two women to romance in this film, Earp's drug-addicted wife Mattie (Dana Nicholson) and saloon singer Josephine Marcus (Danas Delaney) who has her sights set on Wyatt. A big production with a genuine feel for the mythical cowboy era, although the truth is more likely that the Earps and Holliday were as ruthless a gang as The Cowboys. The only concession to modern times is the Maybelline-style makeup on all the ladies and the contemporary use of the English language.

Forever Fever

A Singapore Sling
When's the last time you saw a movie shot in Singapore? And in English, yet? THAT'S THE WAY is just such an animal, and tells the story of a grown man (Adrien Pang) living home with his parents and siblings who wishes for nothing more than to have a motorcycle. To do so, he enters a disco dance contest, and begins taking dance lessons. The plot is derived directly from Saturday NIGHT FEVER. In fact, our blue-collar hero even sees John Travolta done up as Tony Manero whenever he daydreams hard enough. The music is mostly horrible re-creations of the SAATURDAY NIGHT FEVER soundtrack, but the dancing is terrific. And the Bruce Lee-looking Pang is a nifty kung-fu fighter to boot. It all comes to a predictable ending, but one we wanted it to get to.


OK if totally illogical
Why do I have the feeling VACANCY was rushed into production during the period that gave us HOSTEL, HIGH TENSION and whatever the latest SAW installment was in 2006? It borrows liberally from those films, and even echoes PSYCHO. But what we get is a TURISTAS set in the American Southwest. A stranded couple (Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale) puts up at a rundown motel in the middle of nowhere. They are the motel's only occupants, but soon enough an unseen someone or something is pounding away on their door and Wilson finds tapes of torture/murders being committed on previous occupants of that very same room. Turns out the motel owner (Frank Whalley) is a psychopath and has a couple of buddies who enjoy joining him in his favorite pastime, torturing and killing people and videotaping the whole thing. Wilson and Beckinsale, who should know better than to appear in nonsense like this, are soon doing their best to fend off the killers. This includes crawling around in tunnels under the motel. Scary in parts, but nothing makes much sense and the film feels very rushed, including the fairly predictable ending.

The Hot Spot

Don J. at his finest
HOT SPOT is what Virginia Madsen calls her loins, dear ones. Don Johnson does his best to keep them cooled them off but he has trouble keeping up with her, especially since Don has his eye on the luscious and very young Jennifer Connelly. Don plays a drifter who picks up a job at a used car lot in a small Texas town. He soon finds himself bedding the owner's absolutely insatiable wife. And he is soon working on the oh-so innocent Connelly. The lusty trio is ably supported by such veteran character actors as Jerry Hardin, Jack Nance and Barry Corbin, and this his hot-as-hell, steamy production was directed by none other than Dennis Hopper. A great film for adults. The ending is a classic. I wonder how much fun the notorious lothario Johnson had while filming this, since he spends a lot of screen time in the arms of Madsen and Connelly, both of whom are at the top of their form.

Sleep Easy, Hutch Rimes

STV stuff
Steven Weber stars as the title character, and he hardly sleeps easy. An insurance man completely devoid of morals and scruples, he gets caught up in a murder plot against his latest gal pal's husband (a bald Gregg Henry), only it backfires. He later gets caught up in yet another murder-the-spouse plot, this time involving a ravishing but raving lunatic of a woman (played by Gail O'Grady). Then the husband of the first situation comes back into his life, and the husband of the more recent bimbo (Steven Tobolosky) starts pestering our antihero. Weber only has his aging, meek secretary (Swoosie Kurtz) to protect him. Plus he is looking at possible bankruptcy. This dark comedy is largely devoid of laughs, but the violence when it finally erupts is impressive and the strong cursing profound. Also, the finale holds a surprise or two. Plus Weber's at his venal best here.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley

OK Irish uprising movie
I'm not sure if the world needs yet another Irish rebellion movie, but here it is. Except for a highly inevitable and predictable ending, WIND is watchable for the growing schism between brothers as each takes a side in the Northern Ireland uprising of the 1920s. Definitely an anti-war film, it portrays the Brits as the inhuman empire builders they were at the time (an empire doomed to erode a decade later). But it also portrays IRA members as equally brutal in return. Many graphic killings, and a real downer of a movie, so best keep the little ones away. The only familiar actor is Cillian Murphy, the hollow-eyed villain from REDEYE. The director uses some locals for small parts, which works in the movie's favor.

The Messengers

Passable horror film
THE MESSENGERS is a watchable horror film, a cross between a conventional American haunted house movie like THE AMITYVILLE HORROR with Asian ghost flicks like THE GRUDGE and THE RING, where the ghosts are palpable creatures, almost like our American notion of graveyard ghouls. A family moves into an old farmhouse and the teenage daughter starts seeing scary apparitions, all eventually leading her to realize maybe the last family to occupy the house didn't exactly move away. The ghostly figures represent excellent CGI work and can be pretty dreadful to look at, so I'd advise keeping the little ones in the house away from this one. This is not an Oscar-type movie acting-wise, but I must point out John Corbett who plays a lanky-haired handyman. A costar on NORTHERN EXPOSURE and recurring character on SEX AND THE CITY, he chews up and spits out the scenery every chance he gets. Frankly, I didn't even recognize him right away, which can be a good thing when you're trying to get into a movie character. Worh a watch, even if there's nothing exactly new here. It also is a notch above higher-budgeted fare like THE REAPING and the remake of THE WICKER MAN.


I missed some of HEAVEN, but what I saw was mesmerizingly awful. A woman plots revenge in the death of her husband but things go wrong and she ends up in jail, where one of her jailers falls for her and plots her escape. English actress Kate Blanchett (not to be confused with Kate Bekinsale or Kate Winslett) plays the woman but the story is set in Italy, and all but one of her fellow actors is Italian (the exception being American-born Giovanni Ribisi) and huge chunks of dialog are in Italian with subtitles. The movie is extremely slow-going. Also, I am yet to find anything particularly appealing about Ms. Blanchett, whom I have now seen in three or four movies. I would have preferred Ms. Beckinsale and her perky breasts. And an American or possibly English setting.

Elvis Meets Nixon

Excellent satire
This satiric and somewhat surreal Showtime comedy details Elvis Presley's historic meeting with Richard Nixon not long before Watergate and while the Vietnam War was still raging, and does so in an oddly affectionate manner. Rick Peters portrays the drug-taking, purple cape-wearing, Vegas-playing Elvis who had long ago been eclipsed by the Beatles. Elvis sadly finds out how far over the hill he is when he finds his albums in the oldies section of an L.A. record shop. Nixon of course was the paranoid, vindictive, petty tyrant we knew and hated, particularly bitter about the protests taking place over a war he tells everyone he didn't start. Bob Gunton, a wonderful character actor best known as the chief villain in THE GLIMMER MAN, nails Nixon cold. In fact, the entire cast, right down to the White House security guards, are spot-on. For instance, Richard Beymer playing H.R. Haldemann will give those who remember the real deal absolute chills. And keep a close eye on the very talented Canadian actor Gabriel Hogan as Bobby, Elvis' right-hand man. Some real-life folks, including Wayne Newton and Tony Curtis, whimsically portray themselves as they help narrate the story. In the end, this is a movie about two extraordinary and ill-fated men, each fighting his own particular demons, thrown together under highly unusual circumstances. Director Arkush does an exceptional job.

House M.D.: No More Mr. Nice Guy
Episode 13, Season 4

Not House at his best
House is in open war with Amber in NO MORE MR. NICE GUY, but the episode drags and House is way beyond his normal curmudgeonly self. After awhile, in fact, you wish he'd just disappear. While House and Amber duke it out, Wilson stays largely silent and Cuddy ends up playing referee. The patient this time around is a middle-aged man afflicted with being too nice, which House figures has to be due to a disease. No one can be that nice without being sick, he reasons. The man is married to one of the hospital nurses, played by an amazing actress (I think she is Bobbie Bergstrom) whose face in several closeups reveals an astonishing range of changing emotions. The episode falls flat all too quickly, however, and all I can think of is perhaps different writers may have been involved. Who knows? Maybe it's the director's fault. For those who have missed the old team, by the way, they play a bigger role in this episode. It's funny to see Cameron and her lookalike, 13, sitting near each other in a couple of scenes as they simultaneously try to figure what's wrong with their patient -- and House.

Hudson Hawk

Bizarre but watchable
Make no mistake about it, HUDSON HAWK is strictly a vanity vehicle for Mr. Willis, who wrote the story and stars as the title character, a cat burglar who gets caught up in the biggest cat burglary of all. Danny Aielo is Hawk's partner in crime, and he just about steals the movie in every scene he's in. The luscious Andy MacDowell is on hand as Hawk's love interest, even though she is a Vatican nun (!). The villains, including the masterful James Coburn, are a motley lot. No one takes the plot too seriously, which both helps and hurts the movie. If you can get past the middle segment where Willis, Aiello and MacDowell are trussed up and drugged, you'll make it safely to the very James Bondian end.

The Invisible

A high schooler, beaten and left for dead by some very bad people, sends his spirit out to get help for his broken but not quite-dead body. No one can see the spirit but one of the people involved in his beating can sort of hear it. The boy has limited time to get aid, as his body lies at the foot of a dam scheduled to release water. That's the basic premise of the Canadian-lensed THE INVISIBLE, which has some pretty tense moments. A non-star cast (excepting Marcia Gay Harden) makes it all the more believable in an eerie sort of way. David Goyer, a well-known screenwriter and director, made this low-budget puppy. Worth a look, but don't expect it to be like SUPERNATURAL or GHOST WHISPERER. Even with a "ghost" floating about, the movie is more of a character study.

K-9: P.I.

Dooley (Jim Belushi) and his canine partner Jerry Lee are back for a third go-round in K9:PI. This time, they are battling thieves over some stolen computer chips in a plot so thin, it makes Belushi look extra fat. Also, Belushi is now retired from the police force and working as a private investigator, hence the title. The excitement and action and comedy of the first movie are long gone, replaced by endless flatulence and poo jokes. K9:PI is passable, but barely. The first half, about the chip robbery and Dooley accidentally getting involved, is more entertaining than the second half, during which Dooley "pimps" Jerry Lee in order to make some money when he finds his pension temporarily frozen. As this subplot drags on and on, the action really dies and barely picks up in time for the end. And I wasn't kidding about Belushi being out of shape in this. He looks terrible.

Casino Royale

Back to basics
Let's make sure we understand that Daniel Craig is not Sean Connery before I write that Craig's James Bond in CASINO ROYALE is very much in the mold of the James Bond of old, before things started getting out of hand in the Roger Moore era. The plot is simple enough, the number of characters stripped down (no Q or or Miss Moneypenny or stuffy prime minister, just Bond and M), the action sequences tight and brutal. Craig makes a believable-enough blond Bond on his first mission, as he uncovers a plot among a mysterious cartel to amass a fortune based on some nefarious doings including blowing up a jumbo jet and winning a high-stakes poker tournament. The actor playing LeChiffre is sinister enough, and the actresses playing the Bond girls (there are really only two) are strictly eye candy. The focus is heavily on Craig, who seems physically fit enough (or perhaps it is his stunt double) as he races around the world to expose and defeat this cartel. And the truth is, he does remind me of Connery's Bond, with a touch of Tim Dalton thrown in. No clownish Bond he, like Moore or Brosnan. The always entertaining Jeffrey Wright plays Felix Leiter, Bond's American counterpart.

Employee of the Month

Funny despite itself
Star Dane Cook should be shot and parboiled before he makes another movie. Other than that, EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH is a pretty funny slacker comedy about -- what else? -- a bunch of slackers who work in a Costco-like warehouse club. Cook's nemesis is the gold star-winner, arse-kissing Dax Shepard, who is funny as all getout here. They are vying for the hand of Jessica Simpson, who is the store's newest employee. They also decide to compete for some meaningless store prize, hence the title. The plot is as old as the hills and the slapstick is exactly what you'd expect, but Shepard and the rest of the supporting cast, including an almost unrecognizable Andy Dick, keep things rolling along. The talentless Cook thinks he's the new Bill Murray, I guess. He's not. He's so laid back, he might as well be unconscious throughout this trifle.

Scrubs: My Manhood
Episode 8, Season 7

Going, going....
I guess it was inevitable SCRUBS would go out with a whimper, especially when it wasn't clear if NBC would pick the show up for its seventh and final season. It did, but with fewer episodes than in previous years. Then came the writers' strike to further mess things up. What it all boils down to is, the last couple of episodes have not been overly funny nor overly sad. If I have the right episode here, Zach questions his manhood in the face of a beatdown by Turk. When he fights back, it becomes out and out war. In a subplot, Cox finds himself the subject of a slanderous article by Janitor in The Janitorial, suggesting he is a softie at heart and needs hugs and reassurance. A patient of Elliott's has cancer. And so on and so on. Nothing new here that hasn't been done to death in previous seasons. Zach is too old to keep acting the way he does and Carla and some other regular characters, including Kelso, are sort of shoved to the back. Perhaps six seasons was enough. About the only laugh I got was watching Zach running through some oddly empty hospital hallways to get away from an enraged Turk. And I wasn't laughing all that hard.

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