Reel Opinions


Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Invisible

David S. Goyer's The Invisible is a very bad movie about very stupid people doing things we couldn't really care about. That's because the movie isn't clever enough to make us care about them. It simply sits there, spinning its wheels, and repeating the same kind of scenes over and over. The film's ad campaign would like you to believe that this is somewhat of a teen retread of 1990's Ghost, about a young man who is killed and has to try to solve his own murder. The thing is, the kid's not dead. He's in some sort of strange limbo area between life and death. It probably would have been easier if he was dead, because screenwriters Mick Davis and Christine Roum constantly change the rules, so we're never quite sure what to think.

The film centers on an angst-filled teen named Nick Powell (Justin Chatwin from 2005's War of the Worlds remake). He likes to write poetry and has dreams of escaping from his emotionally distant widowed mother (Marcia Gay Harden), and take a writer's course in London. His travel plans are cut short when a troubled girl at his school named Annie (Margarita Leviera) is busted for stealing, and she is led to believe that Nick is the one who squealed on her. Annie and her friends extract their revenge by beating Nick senseless in the middle of the woods late one night. When it looks like he's suffered a fatal fall, the hooligans try to cover up their actions. Nick awakens the next morning, somehow completely unaware of the fact that he shouldn't even be walking around after the events of the night before. He does not go home, but rather goes straight to school and discovers that for some reason, no one can see or hear him. It takes Nick a lot longer than it takes us to figure it out, and even after he's figured it out, he still keeps on trying in vain to make someone hear him even though he knows no one can. Eventually, our hero is able to put the pieces together and discovers that he's not actually dead, but rather in a near-death state. He has to somehow get a person's attention, and lead them to where his body is. When it's eventually discovered that Annie can for some reason hear him or at least sense him, he will have to rely on the help of his attacker to find out who set him up and fix all of this.

Perhaps The Invisible would be easier to enjoy if the lead character wasn't as dumb as dirt. As I mentioned before, he doesn't even seem to find it curious that he's up and walking around without any pain or bleeding after being beaten within an inch of his life and falling a great distance just hours before. He obviously remembers what happened in the woods, so why doesn't he stop and pause to try to figure out how his miraculous recovery is even possible? When he arrives at school, he finds that no one can hear him, nor is he able to manipulate objects. He picks up a student's text book and throws it angrily across the room, knocking some objects down, only to glance again and see the text book still sitting on the desk and the objects still in their proper place as if nothing has happened. Okay, so he learns fairly quickly that it's futile to manipulate objects. Then why does he keep on trying to manipulate them time and time again throughout the movie? He gets the same results every time, and he always seems surprised when it happens. Another curious scene is when he tries to shoot himself with the rifle mounted on the wall of his home, even though at the time this scene happens, he thinks he's dead. Why would he think to kill himself if he thinks he's already dead? Nick never seems to think things through, and keeps on trying the same tactics over and over, even though he knows it's a lost cause. You get the sense that if this kid was told not to touch a stove because it was hot, he would go ahead and touch it anyway, just to see how hot it is.

So, people can't hear him, right? How then is Annie able to hear him? The movie conveniently leaves out this detail. At first, she doesn't seem to be able to hear him whenever he's around, but then late in the film, there is an out of the blue revelation that she can sense someone calling her name or talking to her. Previously, only animals seemed to be able to sense that Nick was around. The movie changes its own rules late in the game, because if it didn't, it would be a hopeless situation for Nick. Things get even more confusing when it appears that not only can Annie sense Nick, but she can hear him, talk to him, and even speak for him. There's a scene where Nick starts talking through Annie so that his mom can hear his words. Is he possessing her? Is he controlling her? Are they sharing a telepathic moment? Who knows, really? It's almost as if the writers were making the story up as they went along, hoping no one would notice. But we do notice, because this is not a very interesting movie. It repeats the same scenes over and over with Nick either trying to talk to someone and failing, or trying to manipulate something and failing. Nothing much of interest happens during the course of the film, and it seems that director David S. Goyer (Blade: Trinity) was left to simply try to kill as much time as he could to fill a 100 minute movie.

Much like the movie itself, the characters never seem to go anywhere. Not only is Nick an incredibly stupid person, but he's not very interesting to begin with. He has no real personality traits other than that he's angry with his mom for not supporting his dream of being a writer. We don't learn much about him beyond that, so it's kind of hard to pull for the kid to get his life back when it didn't really seem like he had much of one to start with. Justin Chatwin does what he can, but his performance is hindered by the shallow character. Margarita Leviera comes across a little bit better as Annie, simply because the movie seems more interested in her character. She does a good job at playing all the different sides of her character, and is mainly able to come across as sympathetic. Everyone else simply disappears into the background as they are either mere shells with no character traits at all, or not interesting enough to grab our attention. In particular, the very talented Marcia Gay Harden is stuck with a thankless role that obviously got no attention at the screenplay level. I can only hope she got a nice paycheck off of this movie, and that she can tackle a real role soon.
The Invisible was not screened for critics this weekend, and it's easy to see why. This movie would be laughed right off the screen by anyone seeking something resembling entertainment. It's dumb, it's labored, and it fails to go anywhere or captivate us in even the slightest. Like the character of Nick, it can't seem to figure itself out, so it just keeps on doing the same thing and making the same mistakes. The idea probably could have worked if we were following a semi-intelligent and interesting person trying to get his life back. Trying to root for Nick to get his life back is a lot like trying to root for termites to infest your wooden furniture.

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Kickin' It Old Skool

There is a moment about halfway through Kickin' It Old Skool where I smiled. That moment comes when the main character, Justin Schumacher (Jamie Kennedy), is on a date with a pretty young woman named Jennifer (Maria Menounos). Justin has recently awakened from a 20 year coma, and laments over the fact that he's missed so much, particularly the sequels to two of his favorite 80s movies, Ghostbusters and Gremlins. This moment made me smile, as I consider Gremlins 2 to be an unsung sequel, and any acknowledgment of it is sure to make me happy. I was grateful for this brief fleeting moment of joy, because the rest of Kickin' It Old Skool is a crudely made, moronic cinematic junkyard that holds about as many laughs as the aftermath of a train wreck. The movie itself is a different kind of wreck, and were it not for the deplorable Norbit, would easily grab the crown of being the worst film of the year.

So, why has Justin been in a coma? We learn that when he was a 12-year-old kid back in 1986, he was a champion breakdancer. Even back then, he had a crush on the lovely Jennifer, and while trying to perform a particularly difficult dance move in order to impress her, he fell off the stage and suffered a massive head trauma. His parents (Debra Jo Rupp and Christopher McDonald) have kept him alive all this time in his comatose state, but are starting to be pressured to pull the plug now that it's been 20 years since the accident. Miraculously, Justin awakens just in time. Unfortunately, he still has the brain of a 12-year-old, even though his body has aged to that of an adult. At least, the movie wants us to believe he has the brain of a child. The way Jamie Kennedy portrays Justin, it seems more plausible that he has the brain of a mentally challenged alien from Mars who doesn't know how to fit into human society. He hooks up with his childhood friends, including aspiring inventor Darnell (Miguel A. Nunez, Jr), overweight meter maid Hector (Aris Alvarado) and Asian office drone Aki (Bobby Lee). They want to win a big upcoming dance competition for a chance to win a big money prize so that Justin can pay back the medical bills his parents have been forced to endure the past 20 years. There's also the romantic subplot between Justin and Jennifer, as Justin tries to rekindle the flames they once held as kids, and prevent her from marrying the former school bully Kip (Michael Rosenbaum).

Does any of this plot matter? Not really. Kickin' It Old Skool exists solely to make us laugh, and at that it is an appalling failure the likes of which I would not wish upon anyone. There are some hints at cleverness early on, such as when Justin discovers what MTV has become during the 20 years he's been asleep, or when he's visiting a local toy store and sees action figures based on characters from the new Star Wars movies and not the characters he grew up with. After these fleeting glimpses of hope come and go in a flash, the movie gets bogged down in an endless series of unfunny racial gags, stereotypes and childish insults. Judging by the way the adult characters act in this movie, Justin isn't the only person who's been in a coma for 20 years, as everyone who surrounds him also acts like they're just being reintroduced to the world. How else can you explain the fact that the evil Kip acts like a lame parody of every teen bully villain in just about every 80s teen comedy ever made? Perhaps this was intentional, but the movie keeps on stressing that Justin is the only one out of touch with reality. I actually started to pity poor Jennifer, as she was forced to choose between a "man-child" from outer space, or an idiotic bully who still acts and talks the same way he did in the opening scene set in 1986. The way I see it, she loses either way. The only option I could see for the girl is to pack her bags and move to a town where the men don't act like complete morons. When the movie informs us in its epilogue that Justin and Jennifer went on to be married, I couldn't help but picture her sitting in a therapist's office a couple years later, talking about what a total mess her life has always been.

It's a popular belief that for every good movie, there's a bad version that attempts to tell the same story. This is the bad movie version of 13 Going on 30, a sweet and likeable romantic comedy from a couple years ago that handled a similar plot of someone from the 80s being transported into the present and trying to rekindle a relationship with someone from their childhood. The way the character was transported into the present day was much less believable, but it didn't matter, because the characters were much better and the dialogue was funnier. Kickin' It Old Skool is the lamebrained brother of that much better film. Because it can't think of anything funny to do with its characters, it throws a bunch of 80s references into its dialogue and hopes we'll laugh. It even has some cameos, many of which exist simply for the sake of being a cameo and nothing more. Alan Ruck, best known for playing Matthew Broderick's friend Cameron in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, appears as Justin's doctor early on. There's also the seemingly required cameo by David Hasselhoff that every bad comedy needs to have. The cameo itself is bizarre to say the least, but at least holds the second moment that actually managed to make me smile. Everything is so depressingly mundane and below average about this movie, we start praying for the slightest bit of inspiration. The movie itself even looks uninspired. First-time director Harvey Glazer shoots the movie with a muted and washed out look that makes the entire movie look like an amateur student film rather than a theatrical release. The actors seem lost and confused, almost as if they're wondering right along with us why anyone would think this material was funny.
There are bad movies, and then there are movies so awful that you pity them. Kickin' It Old Skool made me want to somehow find a way to put it out of its misery so I wouldn't have to watch it anymore. It's like being forced to watch someone die as it flops about in agony. It's painful, it's cruel, and you just want it to be over with. Judging by the literally vacant theater my screening was held in, people have found better things to do than to watch this. These people have my support, whereas the people responsible for this movie have my condolences. Hopefully something better will come along so that they need not have to remember this movie. I, for one, know that I'll be doing my best to forget it as soon as humanly possible.

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The Condemned

Let it be known that I have never watched a professional wrestling match all the way through. And yet, something tells me that after the competitors are done fighting, they don't start preaching to the audience an anti-violence message. The Condemned, the latest film from the WWE's film division, spends most of its nearly two hour running time rubbing our faces in deplorable over the top violence, only to take a turn during the last half and start shaking its finger at us. Director and co-writer Scott Wiper was obviously trying to give his movie a heart-felt message, but something tells me that's not what the wrestling fanbase has come for. The past two films to come out of WWE (See No Evil and The Marine) certainly weren't classics, but at least they didn't try to apologize for themselves at the end and stuck to their guns, being dumb and violent all the way through. The Condemned just ends up being offensive and dumb all the way through.

The plot set up is quite simple, and should be familiar to anyone who has seen The Most Dangerous Game or the Japanese action thriller Battle Royale. An evil and heartless Hollywood producer named Ian Breckel (Robert Mammone) has come up with what he feels will be the ultimate Reality Show. 10 vicious convicts, all of whom are on Death Row, are rounded up and dropped on a barren jungle island. The goal is for the convicts to battle with each other in a deadly game of survival. They all have bombs strapped to their ankles that will go off in 30 hours. If one of the convicts is the only one left alive before 30 hours is up, he or she will win their freedom and a wad of cash to begin their new life. Ian and his team set the whole thing up illegally, and decide to air it on the Internet, charging people $50 to watch the carnage as it unfolds in real time through the various cameras that are set up throughout the island. As the game starts, the number of subscribers watching on line begins to grow to Super Bowl-caliber numbers. However, some of Ian's crew, including his girlfriend Julie (Tory Mussett), are starting to have nagging moral feelings about what they're doing to these prisoners. Meanwhile, on the island itself, a wrongly-accused former military man named Jack Conrad (wrestler Steve Austin) is trying his best to survive and possibly find a way to contact civilization and the girl he left behind (Madeleine West). His main opponent in battle is a deranged British madman named Ewan McStarley (Vinnie Jones from X-Men 3), who will go to any lengths to win his freedom.

With a better script, The Condemned could have been a pretty biting satire on Internet videos, the public's fascination with violence, and the legal system as well. Unfortunately, the screenplay mainly plays it safe and fills itself to the brim with a number of elaborate and overly gory action sequences. We're forced to watch the actors playing the convicts do terrible things to each other over and over, but the movie itself gives us very little reason to care. It intentionally leaves every convict, even lead hero Jack Conrad, completely undeveloped and with very little background info. We're not supposed to be attached to these people, we're just supposed to hoot and holler when their grisly death is splattered upon the screen. And yet, I was feeling something that I don't think the filmmakers intended while I was watching this movie. I kept on asking myself, who would want to watch something like this? I know, the movie is supposed to be making a comment on violence and the voyeuristic nature of people, but I couldn't help but think that exploiting violence in order to make a point is just as bad as exploiting violence just for the sake of exploiting it. The movie is pretty much competently made and is probably the best-looking film the WWE has put out so far, but so what if the script's not there? The movie could have dug deep into many of the issues it brings up, but it doesn't seem interested, and just wants to throw more blood and gore up there on the screen.

At least until the final 20 minutes or so of the movie, where it suddenly wants to yell at its audience for watching it. We get a teary-eyed news anchor talking about what our society has become, complete with shots of everyone who has been watching the action hanging their heads in shame as the anchor's voice rings out on the soundtrack. This manipulative moment offended me almost more than any of the violent sequences the movie had previously subjected me to. What kind of a movie tries to lure in an audience hungry for action and violence, only to look down on them for watching it? People will come for a movie, and all they'll wind up getting is a guilt trip. Of course, after this message is over, we get even more violence with a particularly bloody climax that I think will hit a little too close to home for some people, especially after the mass shootings in Virginia recently. This is a movie that can't decide if it wants to revel in bad taste or apologize for itself. Someone should have told the filmmakers that they can't have it both ways. The film does try to take short breaks from the violence with a couple of subplots, including FBI agents trying to track down the location of the island itself, and Jack Conrad's girlfriend watching the action from a local bar as she silently hopes he makes it out alive. Unfortunately, they ultimately shouldn't have even bothered in the first place, since the movie is obviously not interested in these plots, and give them a mere passing glance before going back to the carnage.

In his first lead role, Steve Austin gets to show off his physical ability, but displays very little emotion. I guess that's to be expected, but when he's trying to do an emotional scene, such as the one where he sneaks into one of the island's control towers to contact his girl back home, he recites his dialogue with no feeling whatsoever and kills whatever mood the filmmakers were trying to create. In action, he's even less interesting, as his dialogue and personality seems to be made up of every 80s action movie character cliche in the book. We find ourselves as emotionally distant to him as we do to all the other convicts fighting on the island, because the movie never gives us a chance to truly know him. In comparison, Vinnie Jones portrays Austin's main rival on the island with joyous evil glee, and probably gives the closest thing resembling a stand-out performance. The rest of the cast is fairly non-existent. The remaining convicts are completely forgettable and don't even get to create anything resembling a genuine character, and Robert Mammone as the soulless man responsible for the carnage never comes across as being as interesting or as hateful as I think the movie intends him to be. Everyone seems to know what kind of movie they're in and go along with it, but no one looks like they're having fun doing it except for the previously mentioned Vinnie Jones.
And that's really the key problem with The Condemned. The movie is just not fun in any way. It doesn't have the brains to enlighten us with its own preachy message, and at the same time the action is not dumb enough to leave its audience with a goofy grin on their face. It's just a shallow, nasty, manipulative little film that won't appeal to anyone. Wrestling fans won't like the fact that the movie ends up scolding them, and regular movie goers are likely to be bored with the silliness of it all. When all is said and done, I felt offended and angry walking out of this movie, and found myself asking the same question I had asked myself many times throughout it all - Who would want to watch this?

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Next

Were it not for the plot's central gimmick, Next would be a perfectly standard action film, and a pretty mediocre one at that. Thank goodness screenwriters Gary Goldman, Jonathan Hensleigh, and Paul Bernbaum get to use this gimmick every chance they get to keep things interesting. At its heart, Next is a perfectly average film that wouldn't stand out at all were it not for the fact that its main character has the ability to see two minutes into his own future. Why two minutes? Heck, even the character himself doesn't know. The movie is wise to throw common sense to the wind, and just let us get wrapped up in this ludicrous yet entertaining plot device. It certainly manages to hold our interest for a while, but a gimmick can only take you so far.

Second rate Las Vegas magician Cris Johnson (Nicolas Cage) was born with the ability to see into his own future. He's never understood it, and spent most of his childhood being studied by doctors because of it. He is now trying desperately to lead a semi-normal life, which is right about the time no-nonsense government agent Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore) walks into his life. Somehow, she's been able to figure out his ability to see the future by watching his Vegas act, and wants his help in tracking down a stolen nuclear weapon that was recently obtained by a small terrorist army who is planning to detonate it on US soil. Cris, however, is not interested in letting the government exploit his ability. The only thing he's interested in is finding out the identity of a mysterious woman in a diner who he saw in one of his visions. The woman turns out to be a lovely young teacher named Liz (Jessica Biel), and when the two strike a bond, Cris hitches a ride with her in an attempt to outrun his government pursuers. The situation will quickly escalate into something he can no longer ignore, especially when Liz gets involved, and Cris will find himself dragged into a situation where the lives of thousands of innocent people depend on him.

Freely adapted from a short novel by Philip K. Dick, Next is pure junk food entertainment that is relatively harmless, and manages to go in one ear and out the other. The movie may not explain how Cris possesses this ability, but at least it's smart enough to exploit his talent to the benefit of the screenplay. It is clever in the way that it shows a deadly outcome for Cris if he keeps on continuing on his current path, then literally rewinds, revealing what we just saw was a vision, only to have Cris make a split-second choice that changes his fate. There is a memorable sequence where Cris causes a landslide in order to escape the people pursuing him, and throw off the gunmen who are lying in wait for him. If this all sounds needlessly complex, it probably is, but the movie has a lot of fun toying with us. And, for a little while, we have fun right along with the movie. Cris' ability adds some much needed interest to some action sequences that would be pretty mundane without them. The problem is, the gimmick wears off after a while. We can tell when we are being toyed with, yet the movie still thinks we're not in on it. It's like someone trying to explain something to you, and under the mistaken assumption that you don't know what they're talking about. We see Cris "die" many times throughout the movie, and it obviously loses it's effect after a while. I must admit, the movie's final attempt at toying with us near the end of the film is a pretty big surprise, but it also winds up cheapening everything that came before it. It's hard to talk about without dipping into spoilers, but I admit I was a little ticked to discover that the movie spent so much time making us care about nothing.

Still, as I mentioned, the use of Cris' abilities probably winds up helping the movie in the end. All of the film's action sequences, while well done technically, don't wind up offering a lot of thrills. They're pretty mundane, especially the climax, which is mainly composed of people wandering around in the dark. A lot of this has to do with the fact that a lot of the characters are not developed very well, and there's never a true sense of impending danger, despite the whole nuclear bomb being stolen. The villains are a mainly faceless group of ethnic thugs from around the world who have decided to blow up a bomb on US soil for no reason whatsoever, if this movie is any indication. No motivation or goal is given, nor are they given any real personalities. On the side of the law, Callie Ferris is mostly portrayed as a stern yet understanding officer with no personality or interest outside of her job. We know that she's been following Cris for a while, and knows of his ability, but we never learn how she first discovered him, or what led to her idea to chase him down in order to get his help. A lot of this has to do with the film's fairly brief 96 minute running time. It feels like a lot got cut out of this movie, especially since very little of the film actually deals with the terrorist plot at hand. You would think someone blowing up a nuke in a residential area would be a bit more pressing of a matter. Yet, it seems to be the last thing on Cris' mind. I suppose you could argue that it's related to the whole "I don't want my powers exploited" thing, but still I would think he'd be a bit more concerned than he lets on.

Next is far from anything great, but the performances do help it go down a little bit easier than it probably should. Nicolas Cage once again turns in a likeable performance as Cris, giving the character his usual sleepy-eyed sarcastic edge that just about all of his recent performances contain. It's not that I'm complaining, as even in his worst films, Cage is always a joy for me to watch on the screen. He has a good screen presence, and he always comes across as likeable to me. It's an added plus that he's teamed up with Jessica Biel, who has a warm presence in this film and a good overall chemistry with Cage. They don't get developed very well as a couple, but they still manage to build some enjoyable moments together. As the head government agent, Julianne Moore seems to be slumming just a little, but at least she manages to leave a mostly positive impression. The role is beneath her abilities, but she doesn't let it show, and she's certainly game throughout the film. A special note must also be made of a short cameo by veteran actor Peter Falk. It's merely a walk-on, but it's still a comfort to see the guy still has that likeably crusty and slightly cranky screen presence that's always made him stand out.
By all accounts, Next is a movie that should not work. The characters are weakly developed and two dimensional, it never seems quite as exciting as it should be, and it relies too heavily on a gimmick. And yet, at the same time, the gimmick is the very thing that makes it work from time to time. Not enough for me to call it a success, but enough for me to tell that they at least made a serious effort. I suppose I should give credit to Nicolas Cage and company for not completely screwing up such a silly idea. And yet, I can't help but wish Cage would move past these kind of genre films, and go back to some real acting roles. I understand the guy's got a sense of humor about himself (see his cameo in Grindhouse for proof), but he's also got some great skills that are being neglected. Here's to hoping he wises up soon enough.

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

In the Land of Women

Jonathan Kasdan, the writer and director of In the Land of Women, is the son of filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan. We can tell that he has learned a lot from his father. Even though he works with a much smaller cast in his directorial debut than his dad (Lawrence Kasdan is well known for his ensemble cast films like The Big Chill and Grand Canyon), Jonathan Kasdan shares his insight into characters and dialogue. This aspect is on display numerous times throughout the film. In the Land of Women is a bittersweet comedic drama about people realizing the mistakes they've made in their lives, and about mistakes they could make if they keep on going down the path they're currently headed. The film walks that fine line between truthfulness and preachiness, and although it comes dangerously close to tipping over into sappy sentimental territory at times, it walks a steady line and is often quite hilarious.

Struggling 26-year-old Hollywood screenwriter Carter Webb (Adam Brody from TV's The O.C.) is suffering from an early life crisis after his actress-model girlfriend (Elena Anaya) breaks up with him. His career certainly isn't going the way he wants it either, since he's currently stuck writing scripts for soft-core porn films. Wanting to escape from the hectic L.A. scene for a while, he moves in with his ailing and acid-tongued grandmother (Olympia Dukakis) in an upper scale Michigan suburb. He plans to spend his days writing a serious project he has dreamed of working on since his high school days, but that goal seems to take a backseat when he meets the neighbor across the street - a pleasant middle-aged woman named Sarah Hardwicke (Meg Ryan). The two strike up a friendship as they start to go for morning walks together, and soon they are talking about more personal things, and how they feel their lives aren't going where they once dreamed they would go. Sarah has a 16-year-old daughter named Lucy (Kristen Stewart), who at first is somewhat embarrassed at having to spend time with Carter, but slowly grows to respect and even like him. More than taking time away to sort out his personal doubts, Carter will find himself playing a key role in the lives of both of these women across the street from him, just as they will fill an important part in his.

Though the film is sometimes a little too predictable to be praised for being real, In the Land of Women is often quite honest with the topics it does try to cover. The movie looks at the sadness of these different main characters, and how even though they come from very different backgrounds and situations, they are all able to relate to one another. Carter feels he has lost his way in his career, and can't seem to write anything but porn screenplays. Whenever he tries to sit down and write a serious piece of work, nothing comes out. All he can think about is his lost love back in L.A.. and what if there is something he could have done to make the relationship last. Sarah is a woman who has recently been hit with the news that she has developed breast cancer, and will have to go through chemotherapy. This causes her to look back on her life, wishing that she might have made more out of it rather than just being a housewife. She clearly loves her family, and has even stood by her husband's side to this day despite the fact she suspects he has not always been faithful to her in the past. She also envies Carter's feelings for the woman who left him. She has never known anyone who felt as strongly for her as Carter seems to feel for this other woman. As for Lucy, her sadness mainly stems from the isolation she feels from her mother, as she never quite understood why Sarah stayed with her husband when it was clear he was having an affair. The distance between mother and daughter has been building for years since Lucy was a child, and in Carter, she finds someone that she can confide honestly to about her own feelings.

In the wrong hands, this material could easily have strayed into heavy handed melodrama. However, the screenplay by Jonathan Kasdan keeps things fairly light with a strong sense of humor that carries throughout the film. The humor is never forced, never disrupts from the emotion of the current scene, and (most fortunate of all) is often laugh out loud funny. This is Kasdan's first time behind the camera, and you can tell that he already has a good grasp at how to handle tricky subject matter in an expert manner. The relationships between the three main characters is given plenty of time to develop in such a way so that it is believable, Their reactions to each other and the way they interact with each other is easy to understand, and does not seem to come out of the blue. He's also good at avoiding forced sentimentality. When I heard that one of the characters was fighting with breast cancer, I immediately started to dread the tear-filled hospital scenes that were sure to come. While there are scenes set in a hospital, they turn out not to be what we expect, and they manage to come across as being heartfelt instead of cloying. The screenplay is very respectful to its characters, so much so in fact that it even understands that not all of the characters' problems can be solved in just one movie. When the film ends, we get a sense that there's a lot more ahead for these people, and that although the experiences we have just seen have made them stronger, they still have a long road to cross before they find happiness.

With his first major starring role in a feature film, Adam Brody is understated yet excellent as troubled screenwriter Carter. He is often quiet and subdued in his line delivery, but it fits for his character, and he is able to be sarcastically witty as well as sympathetic and sad. He is not filled with self-pity, he just is lost and confused, not really sure where he fits in. Meg Ryan's career may have cooled since the days when she was a leading romantic comedy star, but she proves that she is just as wonderful in the role of the strong-willed Sarah. She too gets to run the full range of emotions playing a woman trying to be strong for her family about the recent devastating news, but can't help but feel some remorse that she didn't do more with her life before this happened. Former child actress Kristen Stewart has grown into a capable teen actress with her performance as Lucy here. Put to much better use here than in the lame supernatural horror film, The Messengers, just a couple months ago, Stewart proves that she could grow into a fine adult actress. Another fine young performance on display is Makenzie Vega as Sarah's youngest daughter, Paige. Even though it's a small role, she manages to sell every scene she's in honestly and without the cuteness of most child actors. Finally, it would be a crime not to mention Olympia Dukakis in her scene-stealing supporting role. Not only does she get some of the biggest laughs in the film, but she is also heartbreaking and wonderful in her more serious moments.
On paper, In the Land of Women sounds almost like it could be Lifetime TV movie material. I admit, I was a little bit afraid walking into the theater. My fears were quickly set to rest when I realized just how confident Jonathan Kasdan was in his debut. I look forward to seeing how his career progresses, as I think this film shows he has a lot of potential. When all is said and done, the movie is able to hit all the right emotional notes without overshooting the mark. It doesn't try too hard, and it certainly earns my respect for that. This is the kind of movie that sneaks up on you as you realize it has a lot more on its mind than you initially thought. Sometimes those are the best kinds of films.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Vacancy

If we learn anything about David (Luke Wilson) and Amy Fox (Kate Beckinsale), the heroes of Vacancy, it is that they have obviously never watched a horror movie in their lives. If they had, they would have known better than to check into the Pinewood Motel and we would be left without a movie. The obvious signs are numerous and ominous. There's the sound of a woman's blood-curdling screams coming from behind the front desk when they check in, there's the mousy and immediately suspicious man running the front desk (Frank Whaley) who makes Norman Bates look like a well-adjusted model employee, and there's the overall creepy vibe that the entire building itself gives off. It's not until they discover the gruesome snuff films in their motel room and the masked madmen start chasing them down that the two finally start fearing for their lives. All the audience can do by that point is sit back and silently say "told you so" to the characters.

When we first meet the unlucky couple, they are a constantly feuding husband and wife who are taking an ill-advised road trip together as kind of a last memory of their relationship before the divorce papers become final. Tensions are high, as the recent death of their young son still looms heavily over the couple. The fact that their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere does not exactly help matters. This leads them to the "Motel from Hell" where they ignore the previously mentioned signs of trouble, and check into a scuzzy room where roaches scurry about and mysterious stains cover the bed sheets. They quickly catch on that there's much more to worry about when David discovers some videotapes of what appears to be former guests in the same room they're staying in being brutally beaten and murdered by masked men. Discovering that they are being videotaped at all times by numerous hidden cameras in the room, the couple try to escape, but find the outside area of the motel being patrolled by those mysterious men on the video who refuse to let them leave. It turns out this entire building is a trap set by some very deranged individuals who murder any guest unfortunate enough to check in, and videotape the results for their own twisted amusement. Trapped miles from civilization and unable to call for help, the pair will have to try to outsmart their captors if they want to survive.

With a running time that barely manages to hit 80 minutes, Vacancy is tightly edited and tightly paced. Not a second is wasted as the movie dives head-first into its genuinely creepy premise. There are a number of scenes that are bound the raise the tension of all but the most jaded of horror buffs. The brief glimpses that we see of the crudely made murder videos are terrifying without being exploitive, as the movie is wise not to linger too long on the images. The tension is built up even more when creepy and mysterious stuff starts happening. There's a very loud banging on the door of the motel room, and even on the walls from the room next door. (Of course, when David opens the door to see who is making the noise, no one is there.) The power starts flickering on and off at random, and it's obvious that someone or something is messing with them. It's when the mysterious men start popping up and chasing our heroes that the movie stops being frightening and intriguing, and simply turns into a generic slasher film. (Albeit a slasher film with better production and acting values than the norm.) The men causing all this trouble wear masks over their faces that kind of look like they wandered in on the set after spending the day auditioning for the role of Michael Myers in the next Halloween movie. The men lurk about in the dark just outside the motel room, pop up in front of windows suddenly, and really don't do a whole heck of a lot. It's a bit of a let down after such a generally creepy set up.

Filmmaker Nimrod Antal (making his US film debut here) has a strong look and an obvious eye for creeping out his audience, but he seems to run out of ideas once his characters start running away. That doesn't mean he doesn't do what he can with the material. He makes the most of his limited setting, managing to find ways to avoid making the movie come across as being repetitive. He stages some sequences in a large variety of places around the motel, as well as a complex series of tunnels underneath the building that the villains use to get around. He is further aided by a game cast that help lift the material up a little bit from the B-grade junk it obviously is. Mainly known for his comedic work, Luke Wilson makes for a pretty decent everyman in the male lead. He seems genuinely unnerved as the realization of just how bad the situation is slowly dawns on him. As his wife, Kate Beckinsale is given slightly less to do until the final 10 minutes or so when she is forced to take control and fight for both of their survival. Until then, she mostly switches back and forth from being bitchy and irritable to being weepy and fearful. She's not exactly bad, I just know she's capable of much more. As the head of the whole shady motel operation, Frank Whaley is appropriately slimy, but much like the other villains, he is given very little to do once his role in the plot is revealed.
Vacancy has no notions of being anything but what it is - a somewhat enjoyable little piece of horror escapism that hits some good notes, but is far too slight and forgettable to leave much of an impression. It's not bad, but it is disappointing after a fairly strong opening half hour that hints at much more. The movie is brisk and well-made, at the very least. Still, I can't get over the notion that perhaps the film does it's job a bit too well at setting up an ominous atmosphere at the motel. I don't think anyone would be able to set foot there without expecting murderous masked madmen lurking about somewhere nearby. If you're trying to lure people into a death trap, I would suggest maybe using a somewhat more cheerful facade. Might attract more business. Couldn't hurt is all I'm saying.

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Fracture

Gregory Hoblit's Fracture is being advertised as a thriller, but it is actually a quiet and subtle psychological battle between two very different men who spend the entire course of the film looking for each other's weaknesses. One's a young criminal prosecutor who is so good at finding flaws in courtroom testimonies, he is rapidly building his career. The other is a highly intelligent man who plays the role of the innocent while secretly dissecting and destroying his enemies. When these two highly overconfident and egotistical personalities battle one another, it makes for some great drama. By the time Fracture is over, we haven't learned as much about these two men as we probably would have liked, but we are entertained nonetheless.

Wealthy airplane engineer Ted Crawford (Anthony Hopkins) finds himself in the media eye when he attempts to murder his wife after he finds out she has been unfaithful and carrying on an affair. The seemingly open and shut case comes across the desk of hotshot deputy district attorney Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling) who is on the fast track to a promotion at another prestigious company. With the new job certain to be confirmed any day, Willy's mind is not exactly on the case, which proves to be a huge mistake on his half, since Ted is much smarter than he initially appears. Although he has made a confession to the act of violence, Ted uses some technicalities to his advantage to possibly get him acquitted. Willy's job future is in jeopardy, and he knows that Ted planned all of this ahead of time. Realizing what he's up against, Willy becomes obsessed with discovering why this supposedly fool-proof evidence has fallen through the cracks, and where the real evidence can be found. As for Ted, he haunts and taunts his opponent from captivity, setting more mind games and deception for Willy to work his way through.

I will try my best to be vague about the plot from this point on, as much of the fun of Fracture is how carefully it has been constructed. Unlike last week's silly Perfect Stranger, this movie's plot is laid down in such a way so that every surprise and revelation makes sense. While the material it covers is not exactly anything new, it still has enough twists and turns that will likely have audience members thinking it through long after the credits have finished rolling. However, this is not the kind of movie that wastes its time trying to throw you off course every chance it gets. The plot and the characters are fairly straightforward, it is the relationship between the two main antagonists and how they try to throw each other off that keeps our attention. Both are cocky in their own way with their own self-inflated sense of invincibility. Ted barely pays attention to what's going on in the courtroom half the time, only speaking up when the moment is exactly right to bring up the technicality that may very well set him free. He has obviously thought things through, and feels he doesn't even need to concern himself with coming up with a proper defense. Willy, on the other hand, has a nearly spotless success rate, and has become so wrapped up in his own success that he can't even realize the mistakes that he's making. More than Ted himself, it is Ted's wife (who survived the murder attempt and is in a coma at a nearby hospital) that haunts Willy most of all. He begins visiting her daily, almost as if he is punishing himself for letting his arrogance get the best of him.

Fracture is indeed driven by these two characters and their personal mental war. In bringing these men to life, Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling are wonderful in their own unique way. Hopkins brings a certain icy subtlety to his performance as Ted. He is quiet, yet obviously dangerous and calculating, and is often devilishly funny as he delivers his many darkly comic one liners. This is not simply a repeat of his Hannibal Lecter performance, as one would suspect. His dialogue and his actions have been well thought out in the screenplay by Daniel Pyne (2004's The Manchurian Candidate remake) and Glenn Gers, so that the character of Ted can come across as a unique villain who stands out in his own way. As Willy, Ryan Gosling does not have nearly as interesting of a role, but he is still able to match wits with Hopkins' performance in every scene they share together. It is the scenes where the two square off that we not only realize the intelligence of the movie itself, but also get to admire the performances the most. There is definite intensity, most memorably during their final moments together near the end of the film. When Gosling is working alone, he's not bad, but he never quite comes across as anyone we can truly get behind. And that brings me to my one big problem with the film.

For everything it does right, the movie makes a great misstep in preventing us from truly getting to know the characters and care about them outside of the situation at hand. We learn very little about Ted's life before he shot his wife. Was he always this cold and calculating? Did his wife start to see signs of this, and she started drifting away from him looking for comfort in other men? When Ted is talking about the night he tried to kill his wife, he says that he snapped, but we never truly get to learn the meaning behind those words. Willy comes across as even more of a mystery, as we seldom if ever get to see him outside of the office, or interact with anyone aside from an underdeveloped fling with a woman at his new job (Rosamund Pike) that, while not exactly pointless to the movie itself, still seems to come across almost as an afterthought. When the two main characters are matching wits, either in the courtroom or in private, the movie is dramatic and alive. Take them apart, and the film still manages to entertain, but definitely falters. We can see greatness in just about every scene, and perhaps if the script had gone through just one more rewrite, it would have been perfect.
What we end up with is a very good dramatic thriller that still manages to entertain despite its obvious shortcomings. Fracture has obviously been developed with care, and it shows in the writing and the performances. Perhaps its a credit to the film that I wanted to know more about the characters. They both seemed interesting, and I was left wanting to dig even deeper into them. Still, what we have here is something that should please just about anyone looking for a compelling look at two equally compelling rivals. Could it have been better? Absolutely. But I'm not complaining too much about what I've been given.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Perfect Stranger

After viewing Perfect Stranger, I went on the film's page at the IMDB, and found out that there were three different endings filmed, each one with a different character being guilty. This does not surprise me at all. This is a movie that jerks us around simply for the sole fact that it wants to jerk us around. It doesn't want us to figure it out, and it doesn't play fair. It exists simply to throw red herrings at us and cover all of its bases so that we're left constantly guessing. Of course, the guessing is futile, because anyone could turn out to be the guilty one. When I realized that there was no point in following the clues and the movie simply plays to the demands of the filmmaker and which ending worked best with test audiences, it made me hate this shallow and silly excuse for a thriller even more.

The film centers on an investigative journalist named Rowena (Halle Berry) who specializes in going undercover and exposing corporate and political frauds with the help of her creepy best friend and co-worker Miles (Giovanni Ribisi) who seems to have a certain unhealthy obsession with her that is painfully obvious to the audience, yet Rowena seems blissfully ignorant to. Rowena's having a tough time after she quits her job due to one of her stories falling through and a childhood friend of hers named Grace (Nicki Aycox) turns up dead. The two women just happened to have a chance meeting in a subway shortly before Grace's murder, and she told Rowena about how she had been having an on-line affair with a powerful New York ad executive named Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis). Grace had mentioned that their relationship had recently soured, and that Harrison was no longer talking to her. When evidence pops up that Grace may have been pregnant, Harrison becomes all the more suspicious to Rowena, especially since the man is married and has a long history of past affairs. Deciding to investigate on her own, Rowena turns up at Harrison's corporate office as a Temp and tries to get close to him, with Miles trying to dig up more dirt on the guy. Naturally, things are not what they seem, and the movie has more red herrings than a fresh fish market to keep us guessing in sheer futility.

There's nothing exactly wrong with the concept behind Perfect Stranger, and director James Foley (a veteran filmmaker who has had a long and diverse career that spans everything from Madonna's Who's That Girl to David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross) certainly gives the movie an attractive look. The problem lies with the screenplay by Todd Komarnicki. He seems to be trying to make an erotic murder thriller along the lines of Basic Instinct, but the movie is not very erotic nor is it very thrilling. The pace is leisurely to the point of being nearly stagnant, and the few sex scenes contained within the film are completely and instantly forgettable. I guess we're supposed to be enthralled by the twisting plot that casts everyone who plays a major role into a shadowy light. The movie stresses time and time again that everyone has dirty secrets, and yes, many secrets are exposed. The problem is almost all of these secrets exist simply to throw us off course. Not one leads to the correct answer. The answer exists simply in whatever of the three endings worked out the best. A thriller like this needs to lead to something. It has to be planned out and lead to one true answer, not whatever answer the filmmakers feel like. All of our hard work during the course of the movie is for naught. I felt like a lab rat making it's way through a maze, and when I was done, all I had waiting for me a Styrofoam ball shaped like a hunk of cheese.

Long before we find out that the movie doesn't even want to play fair, Perfect Stranger never truly captures our attention to start with. The characters are murky at best and, as previously mentioned, exist simply to lead us in multiple directions. They are victims of a plot that knows it's clever. They have no personality and no real motivation other than to act as red herrings. A good example is the character of Harrison Hill, who is slimy simply because he is supposed to be slimy for the sake of the story. He cheats on his wife, he threatens his business enemies, and when he finds out that one of his employees has been leaking info to an outside source, he physically abuses him right in front of all the other employees. None of these actions truly matter. They have no motivation and they do not drive his character to any sort of goal. He's playing for the audience. So is everyone else. I mentioned previously about Rowena's creepy best friend, Miles. He sometimes comes across as the best friend character, and sometimes he comes across as an obsessed freak who lurks in dark shadows to spy on Rowena while creepy music whispers on the soundtrack. He's whatever the screenplay wants him to be. I slowly came to realize that these are not characters, but walking and talking plot devices. We can't become attached to these people, because they're not even human to start with.

Since winning the Oscar for Monster's Ball, Halle Berry seems to be on a strange single-minded quest to kill her career appearing in a long string of dud performances in films like Gothika and Catwoman. Chalk up another loss for Berry, because she fails to inject even the slightest bit of personality to her character. She goes through the motions, doing what the screenplay expects of her, but doesn't do much more than that. She's passable at best, but just about any other actress could have filled her shoes, and she brings nothing to the character. Same goes for Bruce Willis, who talks in the same monotone voice throughout the movie, except for those brief moments when he goes into screaming violent rages. He has absolutely no charisma, and we cannot understand why he is such a ladies man except for the fact that the movie tells us he is. The only performance that does stand out is Giovanni Ribisi as Miles, and it's for all the wrong reasons. He is immediately suspicious to us, because Ribisi plays up the weirdness of his character almost from the instant he walks onto the screen. This makes the fact that Berry's character does not even seem the least bit unnerved by him make her come across as a total idiot. I know Ribisi is just doing his job, and we're supposed to suspect everyone, but he still tries a bit too hard at times.
I will not reveal the ending of Perfect Stranger, but I will say this. When the ending comes, did you personally see anything during the course of the movie that could have led us to the conclusion it wants to lead us to? We get a series of flashbacks and scenes that are supposed to make us slap our foreheads and shout out "Of course"! The problem is, most of the stuff it shows us are stuff that the movie intentionally left out beforehand. We weren't getting the full story. All the clues, all the evidence, all the paths it had led us down had nothing to do with anything. The movie is a great big exploding cigar that laughs at us when everything blows up in our face. Of course, that's the way it was supposed to be. The guilty party could have been anyone, and the ending we get was all a whim. There are no right and wrong answers. Just one very uninteresting movie that doesn't even have the nerve to play fair.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Pathfinder

It's impossible not to think of 300 when you're watching Pathfinder. Both are very loose accounts of historical battles that seem to be inspired more by video games than history. To be fair, this movie was filmed and finished long before the film adaptation of 300 was, as Pathfinder has been sitting on the studio's shelf for almost two years before finally being released. This is also where the similarities come to an end. 300 was a gloriously stupid movie that still managed to entertain thanks to some striking visuals and well-staged sequences. Pathfinder, on the other hand, is so murky and muddy you almost feel like you're watching the movie through a dirty window at times. There's very little story to speak of, and no real characters to give anything resembling emotion. All the movie gives us is some ineptly edited action sequences, and a lot of over the top gore that isn't even presented very well to begin with.

The film attempts to depict a struggle between a noble Native American tribe and some vicious Vikings. Because the Native Americans are the heroes, they speak English, while the evil Vikings are sometimes subtitled, but usually speak in grunts and bellowing demonic roars that sound like they were lifted from a Godzilla movie. While exploring the ruins of a Viking ship, a woman of the Native American tribe discovers an abandoned boy that the enemy left behind. She takes him back to her village and raises him amongst her people, where he grows up to be an appropriately muscular and personality-free young man who goes by the name of Ghost (Karl Urban from Doom) because of his pale skin. When Ghost's original clan returns 15 years later to continue pillaging and plundering the innocent tribal people, he teams up with a small band of survivors to fight back. Numerous heads are removed from their proper place above the neck, blood and limbs fly at the camera, and we can't help but realize how dull and uninspired it all is.

The only surprising thing about Pathfinder comes during the ending credits, when we realize that the characters we have been watching for the past 90 minutes or so actually had names. Aside from the heroic Ghost, I do not recall a single other character's name being mentioned in the dialogue. Kind of makes it hard to figure out who played who at the end, since the entire cast is made up of faceless drones who all look alike and exist simply to be killed in the film's many action sequences. Besides not having names until the very end of the movie, the characters don't seem to talk much either. I wouldn't be surprised to discover that dialogue makes up maybe 40 minutes (and that's being generous) of the film's running time. The lack of dialogue make the characters impossible to identify with or even understand their slightest motives. Things keep on happening, but it leaves absolutely no impression on us. When the characters do open their mouths, what they say is often so laughably bad that we look forward to them being silent again. Ghost may be the hero, but he doesn't say a single intelligent thing in the entire screenplay. You get the sense that he's the lead by default, rather than for his personality.

All of this could have been forgiven if Pathfinder's action sequences were anything special. Unfortunately, director Marcus Nispel (2003's Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake) seems to have no idea how to stage or shoot a battle sequence successfully. He uses a lot of dramatic slow motion shots as the enemy approaches, and then whenever people actually start fighting, he suddenly shoots the battles so tight and so close to the action that we sometimes can't even tell what's going on. It's just a mess of blood and flying body parts that has been edited so sloppily that we can't tell who is decapitating who. A sequence where a man battles with a ferocious bear is particularly humorous in how badly the entire thing comes across. Since the fights make up a good portion of the story, I quickly lost interest and found myself asking why anyone would want to watch this. It is a 90 minute long black hole that sucks the time and money away from anyone foolish enough to venture into a cinema showing it. It can't be bothered to entertain or excite us, or even give us a very basic thrill. The film's visuals seem to have gotten about as much attention as the dialogue, and often look dark and bland.
At the very least, Pathfinder is mercifully brief and manages to go in one ear and out the other without leaving too much of an impression. A lot of money was obviously put into the project, and I can't help but wonder where it all went. Watching this movie is a lot like watching money being burned right up there on the screen for no reason at all. It can't give us a reason as to why we're supposed to be entertained, so all we can do is wait for it to be over. When the end finally did come, I didn't feel relieved or happy. I actually felt about as indifferent as I did throughout the rest of the film. Pathfinder accomplishes nothing at all and gets exactly the kind of reaction it deserves.

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