Reel Opinions


Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Nights in Rodanthe

In the new romantic drama, Nights in Rodanthe, a couple makes love during the middle of a hurricane as the house around them almost flies apart, secret pasts are revealed in flashbacks filmed in soft light focus, and they exchange love letters with each other that sounds like the worst kind of material that would be written in a grocery store romance novel. Fortunately for the film and us, it features two bright leads in Richard Gere and Diane Lane. They may not be able to make the material work, but they at least make it a little more watchable than it would be if they weren't here.

The two have acted together in previous films (The Cotton Club and Unfaithful), so they obviously have an easy chemistry together in this cliched and highly predictable love story. Lane plays Adrienne Willis. She's a recent single mom who is under a lot of pressure from her unfaithful husband (Christopher Merloni) to give him another chance, and her two children (Mae Whitman and Charlie Tahan) basically blame her for the family splitting up in the first place. She gets a chance to escape her problems when her stereotypical black best friend (Viola Davis) who runs an old lakeside inn goes on a trip, and Adrienne is left to manage the inn while she's gone. The inn only has one guest, and it's Gere's character, a tortured and solemn surgeon named Paul Flanner who has come to the island to meet with someone and face his traumatic past. The two start to warm up to each other, and before long, they're involved with each other's personal affairs, and sending horribly written love letters to each other when they're apart.

Nights in Rodanthe is sensible enough when it is focusing only on the charming and warm bond that Gere and Lane share. They're comfortable with each other, and are able to get past moments where they make love to each other in the middle of a raging hurricane, despite only knowing each other for about two days by my estimate. But then it has to delve deep into the bowels of romance novel melodrama, and it turns into one eye-rolling moment after another. The dialogue gets sillier as it goes along, the characters become less warm and honest and almost start to resemble parodies of the people we met earlier in the film, and it simply tries too hard to jerk the tears from its audience. The entire movie is completely contrived and convoluted beyond belief, but the performances at least keep things slightly grounded. There's only so much that Gere and Lane can do, however, before the movie begins to sink in its own pit of sappy emotions and tears that it digs for itself.

Despite all of its efforts to evoke emotion, the movie is a surprisingly dry and passionless affair. We eventually find out why Dr. Paul Flanner is so tortured and forlorn in his early scenes, and while the revelation would be heartbreaking in a more assured film, here it never quite works. I was in a fairly packed theater for a Tuesday afternoon, and I did not hear a single nose being blown or anyone reaching for their Kleenex. (Though I did hear some during the film's all-too predictable climax.) The romance and sparks that the two lead characters are supposed to be experiencing are never quite strong enough, and the entire film has a strangely laid back and muted feel. I never felt for the characters as much as I should, and that's just not what you want in a movie like this. The performances are there, but the passion is not.

I'm not going to complain about Nights in Rodanthe being a chick flick tear jerker, because that's what it is, and I knew that walking in. The problem I have is that it's not a very good or even a memorable one. For all of its soft focus-lit flashbacks accompanied by tearful piano music and the sometimes laughable romantic dialogue, the movie just never connects on any sort of emotional level. All this movie leaves us with is two good performances, a lot of romantic ham, and a whole lot of cheese.

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Miracle at St. Anna

Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna is an important movie. Unfortunately, the movie is aware of its own importance. This leads to an overall bombastic feel. From the overpowering music score by Terence Blanchard, which telegraphs every single emotion before it happens, all the way to the melodrama which Lee directs most of his scenes. This gives the entire project a sense of self-importance and egotism from which it never recovers.

The film's opening moments are set in 1983, where a middle aged black World War II vet named Hector Negron (Laz Alonso) watches a John Wayne war movie before he angrily turns off the TV, and mutters "We were there too, Pilgrim". He goes off to his job at the post office selling stamps, only to have a run-in with a man whom he apparently recognizes. The man barely has time to utter a word before Hector pulls out a hidden German Luger, and blows the guy away. Not stopping to ask how Mr. Negron was able to sneak a Luger into his desk without his boss or fellow employees noticing, we're introduced to a bright eyed young reporter who wants to know the truth behind the shooting, and why Hector has a priceless statue head in his closet that's been reported missing for years. For no conceivable reason, the police allow this reporter to be alone and interview him, and we're brought into a flashback which holds the film's central plot.

It's now 1944, and we're introduced to a younger Hector Negron and his fellow men of the 92nd Infantry Buffalo Soldiers. Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke), overweight gentle giant Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller), and Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Micheal Ealy) are there with him trapped behind enemy lines. They are trapped in a small village in Tuscany, Italy waiting for help to arrive. As the Germans approach the town, the four men befriend some of the locals, including a young boy (Matteo Sciabordi) whom Train rescued from attack. There's personal rivalries between the men, such as when two of them fall for the same woman in the village, and they sometimes find themselves wondering why they're fighting to protect a country that does not even respect them in the first place.

All of this is well and good, but Spike Lee often chooses to hit us over the head with his racial themes. There's a commanding officer who is written simply to be a narrow-minded racist in a completely one-note role and performance. There's dialogue exchanges between the men as they wait for rescue from their fellow officers, where they talk about how they have more freedom in a foreign land than they do in America. That's not to say there is not some effective moments. There's an early scene where the men of the Infantry are making their way toward battle, and over speakers, they can hear Nazi radio propaganda where a woman asks them to join their side, and asks why they fight for a country that treats them as slaves and second class citizens. The looks on the faces of the men listening to the woman's words shows their weakness and how, despite the fact they are fighting for their country, may agree with her in some way.

Miracle at St. Anna seems to think it is revolutionary, telling the story of black soldiers in wartime, completely ignoring the fact that the Civil War film from 1989, Glory, pretty much told a similar story and much more memorably. The screenplay by James McBride (who also wrote the novel that the film is based on) never digs deep enough into the characters, or bothers to flesh them out. The men of the Infantry come across as thin caractures, instead of people we can truly get behind. This is surprising, since the movie runs for nearly three hours. You'd think McBride would spend some of that generous time delving into his characters. But no, we get a lot of meandering scenes of the men walking through battlefields, and war scenes that seem to be trying way too hard to emulate the emotion and feeling that Spielberg brought to the battle sequences in Saving Private Ryan, but fall short. It doesn't help that the battles make up maybe 10% of the actual film itself, and are immediately forgettable.

It's been a while since my screening of this film, and I'm still trying to figure out where Spike Lee went wrong. The performances are perfectly acceptable, though no one performance really stands out. And the movie does carry some interesting ideas and themes along with it that should be spellbinding, but never is. I think it's the overall heavy-handedness of the entire production that turned me off. It's almost as if the movie is so afraid we won't understand it or doesn't trust us to figure out its emotional story, so it spells everything out in the dialogue and the previously mentioned music score, which seems to never take a rest, and constantly bangs us over the head. Instead of spending so much time worrying if we would be smart enough to understand it, the movie should have spent its time developing a more interesting narrative that could have engaged us.

Miracle at St. Anna is overlong and boring at times, but not completely unwatchable. There are moments that hint at a good or even great movie that is brought down by Lee's complete distrust of the audience watching the movie. We feel like we're being led along, instead of being wrapped up in the story itself. Miracle at St. Anna may be an important movie about a topic that isn't mentioned much in films, but that doesn't automatically mean that it's a good one.

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Eagle Eye

As a thriller, Eagle Eye is probably about the darn silliest thing I've ever seen. As a movie, it replaces Ghost Rider with Nicholas Cage as the silliest movie I've ever seen. I know it's saying a lot, but if there's a movie sillier than this somewhere further in 2008, I don't know if my brain will be able to take it. What else can be said about a movie that climaxes with an evil force trying to stop the heroes from reaching a bomb which is hidden in an elementary school student's musical instrument that threatens to blow up the President of the United States while the kid is performing at the Kennedy Center? Not very much, except for the fact that if this movie becomes a hit (and it's already looking like it will), I will lose all faith in humanity's desire to be entertained.

The movie reteams rising young star Shia LaBeouf with director D.J. Caruso, who previously came together for last year's sleeper thriller hit, Disturbia. I liked that film. It had a strong lead performance from LaBeouf, and expertly mixed humor with its thrills. Eagle Eye is a completely different movie all together. Here, Caruso seems to have been possessed by the spirit of infamous filmmaker, Michael Bay, and is intent to make the movie as big, dumb, and loud as possible in the vain hope that maybe we won't realize how ridiculous the whole thing is. But it doesn't. There's not a single frame of film that's believable once the plot kicks into motion, nor is there a single moment that even bothers to ring true. And don't start defending the film by saying it's supposed to be "popcorn entertainment". Even those kind of movies need something for the audience to attach to. Eagle Eye is a giant void of nothing, covered by endless noise, car chases, and special effects. The only thing amazing about this film is that it took four different people (and probably more uncredited) to write it.

LaBeouf plays Jerry Shaw, a college drop out and general slacker who works at a copy store, while his twin brother went off to do great things, and has come home a hero after he is killed in action fighting in the war. When Jerry comes home from his brother's funeral, strange things immediately start happening. When he accesses his ATM account, it suddenly says he has $750,000. And when he returns home to his apartment, he finds it filled top to bottom with illegal weapons and chemicals for making bombs. As Jerry tries to sort this out, he receives a phone call with a mysterious woman's voice on the other end, telling him to escape, as the FBI will be arriving at his apartment in 30 seconds to arrest him. Jerry doesn't know what's going on, and can't think fast enough to avoid the heavily armed agents bursting in and containing him. He's put into custody, where a grizzled agent (Billy Bob Thornton) grills him on why he had all those weapons in his apartment. Jerry, obviously, has no idea. When the agent leaves, Jerry once again receives a phone call from that mysterious voice, who once again tells him what to do if he wants to escape. Somehow, this voice causes a vehicle to smash right into the wall of the room where Jerry is being contained, and enables him to escape. You following this?

Meanwhile, a single mother named Rachel (Michelle Monaghan) has just sent her young son off to Washington to perform a concert for the President, when she too receives a call from the same voice that's been helping Jerry escape the law. The voice tells Rachel that unless she does what she's told, her son will die, as the voice apparently is able to control the train that her son is currently taking to Washington, and can cause it to derail. The voice can even manipulate the TV monitors at the local McDonald's restaurant she's standing outside of, which shows her video footage of her son on the train. (Oddly enough, none of the customers in the restaurant or outside of it notice this but her.) Rachel's orders from the mysterious voice eventually bring her face-to-face with Jerry, and the two must figure out what's going on, who this voice is, and why this person seemingly has the power to control everything from traffic lights to power lines, and even cars. I won't spoil the answer for you as to who is behind the voice should you happen to see it, which I sincerely hope you don't.

Eagle Eye is a nightmare on just about every possible level. Conceptually, the film is a big tease, leading us to think it its early scenes that it's going to be a movie about paranoia and the dangers of technology, before it veers severely into silly action territory with endless car chases and action sequences that don't go anywhere. The film's editing is also a mess, with so many rapid split-second cuts, you wonder if the filmmakers even wanted us to see the movie at all. The performances are also trite, with the usually strong LaBeouf and Monaghan reduced to merely running around constantly, and screaming. The movie never slows down long enough for them to make any interesting characters. And poor Billy Bob Thornton and Rosario Dawson are stuck with such generic and underwritten "agent" roles, I wouldn't be surprised if the script simply read "Insert generic FBI agent archetype here" for every line of dialogue.

The movie is certainly fast-paced, but not in a good way. It rams through its plot with the speed of a runaway semi, and moves at such a breakneck pace that not only do we have time to get to know the characters, it allows very little time to explain its own plot. After offering some tantalizing bits of suspense and intrigue during the opening 20 minutes or so, the movie checks its brain at the door and never looks back. In order for this approach to work, Eagle Eye needs to give us something to attach to. It never does. It just keeps on throwing poorly edited action sequences, and builds onto an increasingly implausible plot to the breaking point. If you're not trying to hold back your laughs by the time it reaches its ludicrous climax, you're a stronger man than I. The way it keeps on building is odd, since it's quite clear by the halfway point that the movie is going nowhere. And when the true identity of the villain is revealed, it's impossible not to think of another famous movie villain.

Eagle Eye pummels your senses, and pretty much forces you not to think. Sometimes this can be enjoyable if it's done with a certain amount of skill. There is nothing skillful here. The movie almost seems to be at a loss as to how to entertain us. This is the first huge misfire for LaBeouf's growing career, and I'm sure he'll rise above it, and impress me again in another movie. But something tells me if his career continues to the point where he receives honors, this movie won't make it onto the "honor reel" of clips showcasing his career.

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Choke

Here is a movie that could have been a real winner, if only it was more focused on what it wants to be. Choke seems to want to be a lot of things. It wants to be a raunchy comedy about sex addicts. It sometimes wants to be a heartfelt drama about a son watching his mother slipping away. It sometimes wants to be a thought-provoking look at how past experiences can shape a man. Choke wants to be all of these things, but it never quite settles on a consistent tone or structure. Despite some bright moments and a strong lead performance from the always reliable Sam Rockwell, Choke never quite clicks.

Rockwell plays Victor, a sex addict who spends most of his time making love with any woman willing, and the rest of his time in a dead-end job working as a costumed tour guide at an early America-themed education center for children. He goes to meetings to help his sex addiction with his best friend Denny (Brad William Henke), a chronic masturbater, but Victor still finds himself stealing off to the men's room during meetings to have a quick fling with one of the girls in the group. Rather than getting help for his problem, Victor seems more concerned about helping his ailing mother, Ida (Anjelica Huston), who is suffering from dementia and doesn't even remember who he is anymore. To raise money for Ida's hospital care, Victor frequently pulls a scam where he goes to a restaurant and forces himself to choke on the food. When someone saves his life, he strikes up a relationship with that person, who usually gives him money out of pity. It's been a pretty good life for Victor, but it's brought to a halt when he meets a young doctor at the hospital named Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald). He doesn't recognize the feelings of genuine love building within him, since he's only familiar with lust, and he finds himself confused. As he looks for answers, he searches deep into his dysfunctional childhood with his mother.

We witness this childhood through flashbacks, where a 12-year-old Victor (played by Jonah Bobo) lives a life constantly on the road, as his mother and him constantly flee from the law, and live sort of like traveling gypsies, going from place to place at a moment's notice. We learn that Ida was somewhat of an anarchist in her younger years, such as the scene when she tells her son they're going to a zoo, not telling him she's planning to have them both break into the zoo late at night and free all the animals. We also get a hint that Ida is not his birth mother, such as the flashback when they are eating at a diner, and young Victor just happens to see his own face on the milk carton the waitress hands him. These flashback sequences are certainly interesting to watch, but oddly have very little to do with the actual film itself. They almost start to feel like a completely separate entity, as writer-director Clark Gregg never quite figures out a way to turn the movie into a coherent whole.

And yet, it is the mother-son relationship that earns the best material, as well as the best performances. Oddly enough, this relationship is stronger than any of the romantic and sexual ones that Victor experiences during the course of the film. A lot of this is due to the performances. Sam Rockwell and Anjelica Huston have a heartbreaking and sweet chemistry together during their scenes in the hospital. He has to put up with her calling him a different name every time she sees him (she usually refers to him as "Fred"), and sometimes has to deal with her mistaking someone else for him. I wanted to know more about these characters, and about how Victor feels about his mother, and her current condition. The movie never quite goes deep enough into these characters and their relationship, leaving them as interesting but still half-finished shells that needed to be fleshed out more.

The material that is more hit and miss deals with Victor's relationships outside of his mother. While some of the sex comedy is quite funny, the movie never quite builds to a complete whole, due to the fact that this aspect is somewhat half-hearted in how it's been written. The screenplay once again never quite goes deep enough into the relationships and the characters. Victor's relationship with the doctor at the hospital seems forced, almost as if they are falling in love because the movie requires them to. We never get a true connection with them. Worse of all, when a big revelation is made about Paige near the end of the film, the movie forgets to give Victor time to truly react, and he takes the news with what can only be called casual stride. Many of the film's subplots, such as Denny striking up a relationship with a stripper at a local bar, are curiously underwritten and lack any sort of payoff.

Choke is a very odd and uneven movie that I admired from time to time. Some of the stuff, especially the material concerning Victor and Denny's job at the theme park, is quite funny. (I liked their boss, who speaks in old English even when he's not on the job.) But the screenplay as a whole is too underwritten to grab me, and I felt myself constantly detached. Despite the strong performances, the characters never come across as real people. This is a missed opportunity all around, and a movie that should have been better than it is.

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Towelhead

Watching Towelhead, it's easy to see that it sprung from the mind of writer-director Alan Ball, best known for writing the screenplay to 1999's American Beauty. (Although technically, the film is based on a novel by Alicia Erian.) Both films are darkly satirical looks at what goes on behind closed doors in suburban America. Both are films about teenage sexual discovery. And both mix biting humor and drama with ease. Towelhead adds a couple new themes as well, such as racial prejudice, due to the fact that the central character is a 13-year-old Middle Eastern girl living in America at the height of the Iraq War back in 1990.

The girl in question is Jasira (Summer Bishil), and right at the beginning, she is sent away by her irrational American mother (Maria Bello) after Jasira is caught shaving her pubic hair with the aid of her mother's new boyfriend. The mother coldly puts her on a plane (not before saying it's Jasira's own fault she's being sent away), and sends her to live with her estranged Lebanese father, Rifat (Peter Macdissi). Her father lives in an upper class suburb in Texas, and is determined to keep his daughter under his thumb. When Jasira has her first period, he refuses to buy her a tampon. When she begins dating a sensible young black boy at school named Thomas Bradley (Eugene Jones), he becomes outraged. It doesn't help matters that she seems to be hanging around a lot with the Army reservist who lives next door (Aaron Eckhart), who seems to have taken a sexual interest in the young girl. As Jasira experiences her sexual awakening, her father finds her harder and harder to control, which infuriates him to no end, to the point that he begins to resort to physical abuse. Jasira's only means of sanctuary from her controlling father is the neighbor on the other side of her house (Toni Colette), who at least offers her shelter from the insanity around her.

Towelhead is a film that's been sitting on the shelf for well over a year, but for once, it is not due to its lack of quality. It was merely the victim of its studio's decision to scale back on independent films, which left its release in question as the studio tried to figure out what to do with the film. It's a shame that the movie is being buried because of this, because Towelhead is a very intelligent and somewhat tragic look at a young girl who is manipulated by the adult figures around her. Both of her parents are constantly changing their tone with her. Her father is usually very demanding and almost militaristic in his beliefs, but whenever Jasira does something that pleases him, or when he is around friends of his daughter that he personally approves of, he turns into a very sunny and deceptively open-minded individual. Her mom and dad almost seem to be at war with each other to win their daughter's heart, such as the scene when her mother comes to visit for Christmas, and keeps on emphasizing how much money she spent on Jasira's presents. Her boyfriend has left her by this point, and she wants to win her daughter's favor back. She is also manipulated into sexual acts by both her boyfriend at school and the military neighbor next door.

Jasira is obviously too young to recognize this, and just goes along with everything around her. And yet, the film's often comic tone keeps things from getting too heavy or depressing. Despite this, the film does not shy away from its own dark material. The film's title stems from one of the many insult names Jasira is called by her fellow students, and the son of the Army neighbor whom she babysits after school. Even her father gets some racial profiling, due to the fact that everyone immediately assumes that he supports Saddam because of what he is, despite the fact he proudly hangs an American flag outside of his house. (He even has lights around it, so everyone can see it even at night.) This ties somewhat into my favorite feature of Ball's screenplay. Despite the terrible things that the characters sometimes do, he is careful not to go too far, and allows them to hold onto their humanity. These are not bad people, they are weak. And they often feel remorse for the things that they do to Jasira. This complexity is featured throughout the film, and allows us to maybe relate to the characters more than we would if they had been written more broadly.

The performances are equally complex, with young Summer Bishil being the main stand out in her big screen debut after mainly acting on television. Despite the fact that she was in her late teens at the time she shot this film (she's 20 now), she is very convincing as a girl just beginning her adolescence, and brings a lot of vulernability to her character. The other main highlight is Aaron Eckhart, who brings a lot of humanity to a character who could have all too easily been demonized. Peter Macdissi also handles the many sides of his character very well. Even if his "sunny and open-minded" act he displays before people he approves of seems quite forced, I believe this was intentional. Aside from the performances, I also admired the very subtle music score by Thomas Newman, which is never intrusive or spells out how we're supposed to feel during the scene.

Towelhead is a movie that deserves to be seen, and will hopefully be given a chance by it's distributor, Warner Bros. The movie is due to slowly get a wider release as the weeks go on, and it's one to be on the watch for. This is a highly entertaining and thought-provoking film which is only let down by an ending that's a bit too neat and tidy provided everything that led up to it. Nonetheless, this is a memorable first-time directing effort from Ball, and I look forward to what he decides to do next.

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Appaloosa

As a western, Appaloosa is about as standard as you can get. It has some nice New Mexico scenery, good guys who come riding into town then go riding off into the sunset at the end, and villains who like to stage train hold ups and kidnap the hero's gal. Director and star Ed Harris obviously wasn't trying to reinvent the genre, which has been going through a resurgence as of late, after a long period of pretty much being non-existent at the box office. The movie is fine enough for what it is, with some good performances and an undercurrent of humor to boost it up. But even these positives can't quite get the fact out of our minds that we've seen this all before.

The two heroes who come riding into town at the beginning are Virgil Cole (Harris) and his long-time partner Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen). They've come to the town of Appaloosa to bring some much needed law, after the town's resident villain, a not-so jolly rancher named Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), shot the old town marshal when he came to his ranch to arrest him. Bragg and his boys are pretty much allowed to do whatever they want in town, from not paying for anything to urinating in public. Virgil and Everett take up the job to change all that. Added to the plot is a pretty organist and piano player named Alison French (Renee Zellweger), who threatens to break up the law-upholding duo in a love triangle. She falls for Virgil at first, but when it seems like he's more married to his work, she starts to have eyes for Everett.

Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker, Appaloosa is pretty thin on plot, and there's very little to surprise. Fortunately, there's enough good stuff here to distract us. Despite the movie's somewhat laid back and leisurely pace, there's a lot of energy in the performances, and everyone seems to be having a good time up on the screen. Harris and Mortensen have an easy-going relationship with each other. I liked the way that Harris' Virgil would often get tongue tied, or couldn't think of the right thing to say, and Everett would pitch in with the proper word. Jeremy Irons makes for a magnetic villain, and it makes me wonder why no one thought of casting him as a western villain sooner. He snarls with the best of them, but has the right amount of class to make him come across as appropriately slimy in a gentlemanly sort of way. The only lead actor who is given little to do is Zellweger, who doesn't quite have the ease or charm of her fellow co-stars. Maybe it was those uncomfortable looking dresses she wears throughout the film.

The movie has an attractive visual style, taking full advantage of the landscape to create some beautiful imagery and settings. I also admired the screenplay by Robert Knott and Ed Harris, which throws a lot of sly humor in to catch us off guard. So, why was I not more captured by this movie? I liked it enough, but I also found myself not enjoying it quite as much as I thought I should. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Harris' directing style is a bit too laid back. There's never any tension, not even when the bad guys are making threats, or when Virgil and Everett are locked in a shoot out. The movie's atmosphere is very casual and somewhat lazy, which kind of makes the movie drag at certain points. The movie manages to hold our attention, but not completely, and never as fully as it should. This brings Appaloosa into a strange gray area where I found myself liking the movie, but at the same time, wishing for more.

Appaloosa has enough to offer for me to recommend it, which is saying something, since I generally do not go for westerns. This is a good movie that could have been a great one if it just had a bit more energy. As long as you're not expecting anything too new or revolutionary here, you'll have a good time. I'm still waiting for the great true western that changes my mind on the genre, and makes me a fan. I've seen a few good ones, but none that really and truly stuck with me. As good as it is, Appaloosa just doesn't do enough to change my mind.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Ghost Town

Back in 1999, writer-director David Koepp (whose past screenplay credits include Jurassic Park and the original Spider-Man film) made a criminally underseen supernatural thriller called Stir of Echoes. That movie followed a common everyman played by Kevin Bacon, who was given a gift to see the spirits of the restless dead, and aid them in their unfinished business. His latest movie, Ghost Town, is somewhat of a romantic comedy look at the same idea. Though somewhat formulaic in structure, there are a lot of genuine laughs to be found, as well as a lot of heart.

The film marks a wonderful leading man debut for British comic, Ricky Gervais, best known for creating and starring on the British version of the TV series The Office. If this movie is any indication (and if there is any justice in Hollywood), more leading roles will follow. He plays Bertram Pincus, a miserable sort of a guy who loves his job as a Dentist, solely because he doesn't have to talk to his patients. He's the kind of guy who sneaks out of the office when a fellow co-worker brings cake to celebrate the birth of his first child. Bertram's solitary existence is thrown to the winds when he has a near-death experience during a routine medical procedure. Because of this, when he leaves the hospital, he can suddenly see and communicate with ghosts who wander the streets of New York unseen by everyone else. One ghost in particular decides to use Bertram's sudden sixth sense ability to his own use. He is Frank (Greg Kinnear), a man whose life was cut short when he was struck by a bus, and now wants Bertram's help in breaking up the relationship of his former wife Gwen (Tea Leoni) and her new boyfriend Richard (Billy Campbell).

This obviously poses problems for Bertram, since he's not exactly a people person, and has not exactly been kind to Gwen in the past. Turns out they live in the same apartment building, and their past brief encounters together have not given Gwen a good impression of Bertram. (He steals her cab, and closes the elevator door when she asks him to hold it for her.) But, if Bertram wants to get rid of Frank so he can cross over, he has to shed his steely demeanor and warm himself up to Gwen. No prizes for guessing that the two start to fall for each other the more time they spend together. But, there are some surprises to be found. I liked the way the movie treated Gwen's new boyfriend. He's not the insensitive jerk that one would expect, and is actually a decent guy. It creates some personal conflict for Bertram, as he realizes he is developing feelings for her, while at the same time wondering if maybe she would be better off with Richard. While most of the plot is fairly cut and dry, there are a lot of moments that turn our better than we expect.

That's because the screenplay by Koepp and John Kamps (Zathura) doesn't rely solely on the conventions of the plot or the plot itself to carry the movie. Ghost Town's biggest strength is with the characters, the dialogue, and the humor. Just yesterday, I reviewed My Best Friend's Girl, a dreadful romantic comedy that tried to cram intentionally unlikable people into the standard formula. The movie didn't work, because they didn't fit into the standard outline of a romantic comedy. Ghost Town does a better job, because it doesn't go out of its way to make us hate Bertram. Yes, he's a jerk and is often cold to people, but we get the sense that it's a shield. He's not that way when he's alone and by himself. It also helps that Gervais does a much better job at playing a human cynic than Dane Cook did. Cook came across as someone who was trying too hard to be a jerk. Gervais plays his part as if it's something he's been practicing for years, and he's not exactly proud of that fact, but won't let on to anyone.

This is a movie that grew on me in a lot of ways. The relationship between Bertram and Gwen is sweet and guarded. They both obviously don't fully trust each other, and the movie spends enough time with the characters and their relationship that we can see their defenses melting away. And yet, the movie is briskly paced and funny enough that it never feels like the story is dragging its heels. A lot of the laughs are contributed by Gervais, who not only proves himself a great romantic lead, but a genuine comic talent. His dry wit and sarcastic asides fit his character, and though I suspect some of it was improvised, it fits into the screenplay and does not seem out of place, like some improvised humor. Tea Leoni makes for a sweet female lead, and holds our attention whenever she's on the screen. There's also a wonderful supporting performance from Kinnear, who plays his ghostly character as a bit of a swindler, but with a touch of sadness in the center of the role, which is appropriate.

Ghost Town is one of those movies that you walk in expecting at least a good time, and then it ends up giving you more. The movie knows how to hit the right emotional buttons, without seeming manipulative or without pushing too hard. Just like the best romantic comedies, we want to see the characters succeed and get together at the end. More than that, the movie has been made with more intelligence than you might be expecting. What a wonderful surprise, and what a wonderful movie.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!

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Vicky Cristina Barcelona

When Woody Allen is on his game, there's few people who can do better. But when he's off the mark, there's very few who can go quite so off the mark. Vicky Cristina Barcelona has a picturesque Spain setting and a lot of possibility as a sex comedy-drama, but Allen's needlessly talky and wordy dialogue sucks all the joy out of the premise before it even has a chance to intrigue us. The movie never lets us figure things out for ourselves, because there's a "helpful" narrator (voiced by Christopher Evan Welch) to explain every single detail when the characters are not explaining.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is the kind of movie where the characters say what they're going to do before they do them. It's like they're giving us fair warning, such as when a character says, "I'm a little out of control" right before she...well, goes out of control. It's almost as if Allen has written the DVD commentary into the screenplay itself, like he wanted to save time and money. But that does not even compare to the narrator, who pops up to point out the obvious. When the characters arrive at a hotel, he chimes in with a helpful "They arrived at the hotel...", just in case you were digging through your bag of popcorn instead of looking at the screen, I guess. And don't worry, when they leave the hotel, he once again tells us "They left the hotel...". He also pops up at the worst times to tell us exactly what the characters are thinking, so there's absolutely nothing left for us to figure out on our own. There's not a single moment that isn't telegraphed or explained, which makes you wonder just whom this movie was made for.

I found all this over-explaining curious, as the story at the center of the film isn't very complicated to begin with. Best friends, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlet Johansson), arrive in Barcelona, Spain for a summer holiday. Their first night there, they have an encounter in a restaurant with a handsome painter named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem, much more different and charming here than he was in No Country For Old Men). The painter invites the two girls only seconds after introducing himself to fly away with him to a Spanish island for wine and sex. Instead of being offended by having a total stranger walking up to them and offering sex, Cristina is intrigued, while Vicky is more nervous. Of course, we already know this, since the narrator has gone through the trouble of spelling out the way these girls think, THEN the girls themselves tell us what they think. They agree to his offer, and at first, Juan tries to seduce Vicky, even though she has a fiance waiting for her back in America. He then turns his sights to Cristina, and they enter into a relationship that lasts the entire summer. Things get complicated when Juan's ex-wife Maria (Penelope Cruz) walks back into his life, and moves in with the couple. Cristina, Juan, and Maria soon enter into a strange relationship where the three become intimate with each other. (The movie does hint at an "experimental" relationship between Johansson and Cruz, but due to the PG-13 rating, all we see is them kissing briefly, a fade out, and then more narration.)

It's not simply the fact that everything is explained to the point of ridiculousness in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but also the fact that nothing happens that truly grabbed my attention. The film moves at an almost glacial pace, and although certain scenes did grab my attention or intrigue me, they are fleeting and too far between. The movie almost seems to be more interested in showing off the Spanish scenery, which is indeed quite lovely and beautifully shot. Cristina just happens to be a photographer, so there's plenty of scenes of her touring the landscape, taking photos. Though billed as a comedy, there are scarcely any genuine laughs. The characters are constantly making observations in their dialogue which I guess are supposed to come across as witty, but they seemed scripted to me and often glaringly so. Not only has everything been over-explained, everything is over-written too, to the point that the dialogue does not seem natural in any way.

The performances try to lend some energy to the proceedings, but they never quite give enough. As the title characters, Johansson and Hall are both likable, but not much more than that. None of their particular scenes stand out, and Allen seems to be having a hard time making us care about them. Javier Bardem is usually quite charming in his performance, which is a good thing, since the character has been written as a silly bore. His Juan Antonio is just an assembled bunch of cliches of various Spanish lovers, and never truly develops into a real character. Bardem's on screen charisma is the only thing that keeps the character afloat. And then there is Penelope Cruz, who is pretty much the closest thing this movie has to a living, breathing entity. Her Maria is fiery, passionate, and gets the closest thing resembling laughs in this movie. She also gives the only performance that demands our attention, forcing us to pretty much ignore everything but her whenever she's on screen.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is almost a complete and total misfire, which isn't exactly surprising considering some of Allen's recent work. (In my opinion, Match Point was his last good movie.) What did surprise me is how utterly dull I found the film. Part of this is due to the film's desire to explain every last detail, and another part is due to the fact that nothing ever captured my interest. The movie's received strong word of mouth, and I just could not see it. The movie isn't sexy or passionate enough, nor is it emotional enough to make me want to go along for the ride.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

My Best Friend's Girl

In My Best Friend's Girl, Dane Cook plays a guy named Tank Turner. Not only does he have a name only a screenwriter could dream up, but he also has a job only a screenwriter could dream up. I'm not talking about his day job, where he half-asses his way through a customer complaint phone line, ignoring customers while he plays Nintendo in his cubicle. I'm talking about his other job, which he describes in his own words as a "professional asshole". He also calls himself an "emotional terrorist".

So, just what does a "professional asshole" do? Tank is paid by people to act like the worst guy in the world. The idea is guys who have just been dumped by their girlfriends but want them back pay Tank to take the girl out on a date. The idea is that Tank acts like such a rude, crude, and selfish jerk that by the time the date's over, the girl is pleading to go back to her last boyfriend. We see a couple of his "dates" with various women, like the one where he disgusts a girl with his graphic stories of sexual acts, or the one where he takes a religious girl to a sacrilegious pizza parlor called "Cheesus Crust". (ho, ho) Tank does a pretty good job at offending the ladies, and probably owes a lot to his womanizing father (Alec Baldwin). But then the movie dares to ask the question of what would happen if Tank actually did fall in love? It's a good question, but there's a big problem. The movie forgets we're supposed to like Tank if he's going to be a romantic lead, and we don't.

As the title suggests, Tank's best friend and roommate Dustin (Jason Biggs, who eerily looks exactly the same way he did almost 10 years ago in the original American Pie.) has just been brushed off by a female co-worker named Alexis (Kate Hudson). Dustin has been crazy about her since he met her, and when he finally works up the courage to tell her how he feels, she says she just wants to be friends. His idea? He hires Tank to meet her, and take her on the "date from hell", thereby guaranteeing that she'll come flying into Dustin's arms when it's over. Tank stages a "meet cute" with Alexis in the park, and then takes her out to a strip joint, hoping to offend her. The problem? Alexis is too drunk to care where she is that night, and is actually looking for the quick and dirty love that Tank can provide, and "nice guy" Dustin cannot. Tank and Alexis start seeing each other regularly, while Dustin (unaware of their relationship) turns into a creepy stalker as he tries to discover who Alexis is dating.

Does anyone I've just described sound like someone you'd want to watch in a romantic comedy, or even be sitting next to on a long bus ride? If My Best Friend's Girl had maybe been a dark comedy, or maybe a parody of romantic comedy conventions, then yes maybe it would work. But after spending 45 minutes or so of developing Tank as the kind of guy who takes his date to strip joints, the movie suddenly switches gears, and expects us to realize that underneath all the filth and sexist behavior, he's not that bad of a guy. If there was any lead in to this change of heart, then I might have been able to buy it. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The movie suddenly turns into a by-the-book date comedy. Just like Ashton Kutcher in What Happens in Vegas, Dane Cook is not a romantic lead. He's the slob. He's the jerk. He's the goofy best friend. When the movie asks him to clean up his act, not only does it seem to go against the character's nature, Cook himself doesn't seem comfortable.

Of course, if the movie wanted to be taken seriously as a romance, it would have helped if the two leads had anything resembling chemistry. Dane Cook and Kate Hudson don't share a single moment in the film that creates any true spark, or even any feelings that the two want to be in the same room together. This is a movie that wants to have it both ways. It wants to be raunchy and crude, but it also wants to be sympathetic and sweet. It fails on both counts. The crude humor is never funny, nor does it push hard enough to want to be truly offensive. And when the movie switches tone, it can't think of a reason for us to care. I have no doubt that the two halves of the movie could work together in a different and smarter script. But director Howard Deutch (The Whole Ten Yards) never finds a way for everything to fit. All we have is one big movie that feels very uncertain about itself or what, if anything, it has to say.

Last year around this time, Dane Cook did a raunchy romantic comedy called Good Luck Chuck. I think I hated that movie more than I hated My Best Friend's Girl, but at least that movie had the balls to stick to one plan all the way through. It knew what it wanted to be. When this movie reached its happy ending, and extras in the background started applauding the lead characters, I wondered why they were cheering. The people in this story don't deserve the happy ending they get, nor do they deserve this formulaic treatment. If they were in a different movie that suited them better, I probably still would have hated them, but at least the movie wouldn't be trying to shoehorn them into roles that don't fit them.

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