Reel Opinions

Monday, October 31, 2005

The Weather Man

You certainly have to hand it to director Gore Verbinski, he doesn't allow himself to be pigeonholed to any one genre of film. From family comedy (Mouse Hunt), to horror (The Ring), to action adventure (Pirates of the Carribean), he likes to try something different each time. The Weather Man is perhaps his most challenging film yet, as it cannot exactly be placed under any one particular category. Is it a comedy? Yes, it has some of the biggest laugh out loud moments I've seen this year. But, it is also a tragedy. Its protagonist is a broken man who is trying desperately to put the pieces of his life back together. The smile that he portrays on the TV whenever he does the local area weather is so forced that no one watching him buys it. Maybe that's why he's continuously pelted by junk food as people drive by him on the street...

Nicholas Cage plays David Spirtz, a Chicago-area Weather Man who, as the film opens, is forced to watch helplessly as his life around him falls apart. His ex-wife (Hope Davis) is planning to remarry, his teenage daughter, Shelly (Gemmenne de la Pena) is ridiculed at school and looking for direction in her life, his son, Mike (Nicholas Hoult), seems to always be in some sort of trouble, and he's just received word that his father, Robert (Michael Caine), only has a few months left to live. David has dreams of someday being an author like his father, who won the Pulitzer Prize when he was only 28 years old, but he sees his dreams of success slipping away day by day.

The only source of hope in David's life is a possible job as a Weather Man for a national morning news show in New York. Not only does he see this as a chance for more money, he sees an opportunity to perhaps reconcile with his family, and get them back together. He thinks that perhaps if he becomes a national celebrity, his wife and kids will view him as less of a loser, and they will be happy again. Of course, that's not the reason. David's entire family looks down upon him because he is desperate to buy his family's love with expensive gifts, and other such luxuries. Even with a bigger paycheck and national recognition, David will still be a broken, defeated, bitter man who lashes out into fits of obscenities often without knowing, and who is forever jealous of those more successful than him. David is a man who has taken the easy route in life, and now doesn't know what he wants anymore.

The Weather Man has mainly been billed as a comedy in its advertising, and it is in many scenes. But it is also painfully honest, truthful, and somewhat sad at the same time. David is a great leading character, because we see parts of ourselves in him. True, they may be parts that we may not want to admit that are there, but they are there nonetheless. David is a man who is so worn and beaten in life that we almost pity him just by looking at him. He is a sad sack constantly looking for acceptance, and never getting it, because everyone knows he's a phony. His TV career, his lavish apartment, his nice clothes and fancy car - it's all a ruse. It's all built on a career that he really has no interest in. Hell, the guy doesn't even have a degree in metrology. The only reason he's a Weather Man is because it's big pay for working 2 hours a day, and occasional personal appearances once in a while. His career, and basically his entire life is built on taking the easy way out instead of following his true desires, and it is now starting to take its toll.

The heart of the film is David's numerous attempts to win favor with his family, especially his father, Robert, who has been enormously successful all his life and has been loved by many. He got that way through hard work and determination, things David has lacked all his life. Robert has always been somewhat disappointed in the path his son has taken. David, meanwhile, wants nothing more than for him to be proud of him and acknowledge his accomplishments, which he never has. Why should he acknowledge them, though? It's not what David truly wants. There is a scene early in the film that displays their relationship beautifully using only visual imagery. David picks up Robert to take him to the hospital for some tests. He lays a letter he has sent to the New York TV show, hoping his father will notice. He does not, rather he sits upon it without even blinking an eye. Later, David takes the letter and lies it upon the dashboard, so that it will reflect in the front windshield, hoping once again that his father will notice. Once again, he does not. It is not that Robert does not love his son, it is simply that he knows his son is desperate for his love, and is going about it all wrong. Their final scene together, set to a classic Bob Seger tune, is powerful and honest, and a great way to wrap up their relationship.

The performances of both Nicholas Cage and Michael Caine make these scenes all the more memorable. This is by far some of their best work for both actors in recent years. Cage is able to bring sympathy, yet anger, and a certain likableness to his challenging role. He is able to make David somewhat pathetic without making him appear unlikable. This is key, as the entire story is shown from his point of view, and he's in literally every scene. Caine plays a once-great man who is near death, and does not know how to be open to his son, because his son won't stop lying to himself and those around him. Both actors bring three dimensions to their performances, and are definitely the most intriguing characters I've seen in a mainstream movie so far this year. The entire cast all around is fantastic, bringing depth and true feelings. David's ex-wife is not a shrieking harpy like in most comedies, but is a sensitive and realistic portrayal of a woman who has been trying to put the pieces of their relationship back together (they even go to group counseling sessions at one point), and has begun to realize that there is no hope for them - something that David has yet to realize.

The Weather Man is an odd little film. It is a comedy about a tragic life, but it does not laugh at the situations in David's life. The comedy comes out of the dialogue and the reality of the situation. We laugh out of familiarity, and we also laugh at the witty dialogue by writer Steve Conrad. And yet, we feel a certain sadness. The sadness comes out of the same things, just in different ways. From it's performances, to its appropriately bleak Chicago winter setting, this movie is such a fascinating little find that I really hope finds an audience. People will either embrace or push away its leisurely paced story. It is not so much a mainstream dramatic comedy, as it is the evaluation of a life that has gone wrong. The Weather Man is certainly one of the more thought-provoking films of the year.

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North Country

North Country is a movie loosely based (the film is wise enough to say "inspired by a true story" at the beginning) on the very first class action sexual harassment lawsuit which occurred back in 1984. Some people rightfully find it disturbing that it took so long for such a thing to happen. What I find equally disturbing is how such a manipulative and one-note movie such as this is being championed, and is even being considered for Oscars come next year. North Country is a movie so single-minded in its determination that its almost appalling. It's so desperate to make us cheer for its underdog heroine that it falls back on almost every feel good cliche in the book, including the ever famous "slow clap" (a person gives a speech, there's silence for about a half a minute, then one person in the back of the room starts clapping slowly, leading to everyone else in the room to join in) and even an "I am Spartacus"-style scene where everyone starts standing up to show their support and approval while the music swells on the soundtrack. North Country has a lot of good performances and good intentions, but the heavy-handed melodrama of the scripting and the overall one-sidedness of it all sinks the movie like the overweight stone it is.

Charlize Theron plays Josey, a blue collar woman who decides to pack up her children and leave her abusive husband in the film's opening scene. She moves in with her parents (Richard Jenkins and Sissy Spacek), and starts desperately looking for work so she can afford to live on her own. While working as a hair stylist at the local beauty parlor, she happens to come across an old friend named Glory (Frances McDormand) who is currently working at the town mine. Josey is attracted to the promise of big pay, and decides to take the job so she can get a house of her own.

It does not take Josey long to realize that she and the other new female workers are not welcome there. They are ridiculed almost from day one, have sexual-themed pranks played on them, have slurs and obscenities whispered and shouted at them in the hall, and ultimately, Josey is sexually abused while on the job. She tries to complain to the higher ups in the company, but they do not seem interested, and simply tell her to deal with it or quit, as they don't feel women belong in the mine in the first place. What's worse, the men of the mine begin to turn the entire town against Josey, making it seem like it's her own fault these things happen to her. Josey wants to sue the company, and turns to a local lawyer named Bill (Woody Harrelson) for help. He's doubtful it will work, but eventually agrees, and thus begins Josey's plight to let the truth be told, and to make her fellow female co-workers believe in themselves enough to make a difference.

North Country is undoubtedly well made, thanks to the expert direction of Niki Caro (Whale Rider) and an overall strong cast that includes some standout performances, particularly Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand. Unfortunately, it all seems kind of pointless in the end, as you can almost predict everything that's going to happen before it does. This is a movie that plays by a strict set of rules set down by hundreds of movies just like it, and does very little to nothing to truly stand out in the crowd. The movie is obviously trying for realism, but the film is so one-sided that it winds up shooting itself in the foot. Apparently this town that Josey lives in is the male chauvinist capital of the world, as there seems to be only one man in the movie who truly believes in her. And believe it or not, it's not Woody Harrelson's lawyer character. I never got the sense that he was truly in her corner, he only takes her case for his own personal gain, because he thinks he will make history if he wins. Their working relationship was never established strong enough to me, so I always got a sense that Harrelson's character was only being supportive to her out of duty.

The movie tries to explain the town's reaction to Josey by expressing that she had an active sexual history growing up, and had her first child when she was a teenager after she was raped by a teacher. Everyone, including her father and even her son, views her as a blemish to society because of her sexual past. They kind of go to extremes here, just short of lynching the girl in public. Of course, eventually her son and her father see the light and stand by her at the end, but even then, their change of heart seems forced and sudden. Once again, I did not believe that these people were supporting her out of respect, I felt they were supporting her because the script required them to. This is a movie that plays all the right notes, but doesn't know how to put them together in a successful way. When people change their minds and decide to support Josey, it seems illogical and awkward, as if it were an out of the blue decision.

A good example of this is Josey's father. Throughout the entire film, he looks down upon her, and calls her a disgrace to the family. He has a falling out with his wife over the subject, who walks out on him, and leaves him a note (which we do not even get to see the contents of). The next scene, Josey is giving a speech about her views to all the miners, and is practically being booed off the stage. All of a sudden, her father is supportive, standing up for her, and telling her how proud he is of her. He goes from seeing her as a disgrace to fatherly pride in the span of 2 minutes without any explanation. Josey does not even seem surprised or question his sudden change of heart, which kind of kills the impact of the scene. The fact that we do not even see her father and mother reconcile (the father simply picks up his wife at a motel, and they drive home together without saying a word) also makes them getting back together seem somewhat forced and unnatural.

North Country is a movie so single-minded in its determination that it's almost comical. It's simply Josey's view, while every single other person in the town is a chauvinistic jerk, or hates her because of her sexual past. I guess the screenplay is trying to play up the notion that when a woman is sexually harassed, it feels like they are alone in the world, and fighting a losing battle. However, I think this movie takes its own ideas a bit to the extreme. It's all in the name of melodrama, and that's what ultimately sinks the film. And that's a shame, because there are a number of scenes that hint at a much better movie. I must give director Niki Caro credit for pulling no punches, and fully embracing the adult subject matter, giving us some very powerful and disturbing scenes. But then, the movie goes right back into underdog melodrama, and it made my heart drop every time.

North Country is far from a terrible movie, but its overly simplistic views of its own topic make it less than it strives to be. If the film didn't feature such a cliche-ridden climax and aimed more for realism rather than melodrama, they could have really had something here. As it stands, North Country is an interesting, yet underwhelming, little "against all odds" story that just did not click with me.

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Stay is the first time I have ever wished there was an optional director's or writer's commentary when you watch a movie at a theater. This movie is so complex, so bizarre, so abstract that I highly doubt anyone can truly figure it out, only make speculation as to what it's all supposed to mean. The movie gives us no straight answers, I guess we're supposed to walk away with our own thoughts as to what it was supposed to be about. The problem is, director Marc Foster's (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland) vision is so muddled and confusing that it's almost impenetrable. This is one of those movies that's going to spark debate amongst film geeks for years. It's also going to unfortunately divide people into two camps - those who "get it", and those who don't. I'm all for a movie letting us make up our own minds about what the movie was supposed to be about. But, you need to throw the audience somewhat of a coherent bone once in a while, and Stay just does not play fair with its own mystery.

The action begins with a cryptic opening sequence involving what appears to be a car crash, followed by a young adult by the name of Henry (Ryan Gosling) sitting distraught and dazed in front of the flaming wreckage of a car. Some time later (how much time has passed is not indicated), Henry finds himself in the office of college campus psychiatrist Sam (Ewan McGregor). Their meeting is brief, but there are many more to come within the next couple days. And the more Sam learns about Henry, the more concerned he becomes. Henry complains about hearing voices, not knowing what's real anymore, and openly mentions that he plans to kill himself this coming Saturday night at midnight - Henry's 21st birthday.

Sam is naturally concerned, and does his best to get Henry the help he needs, but the young man is often aggressive toward his compassion, and disappears for days at a time, only to appear without warning. Sam feels a personal need to help Henry get past his suicidal thoughts, as he is currently living with his girlfriend, Lila (Naomi Watts), who attempted to take her life at one time, and still has the scars on her wrists from that moment. As Sam tries to track the elusive Henry down, he is drawn into a bizarre world of madness where nothing seems to make sense. He keeps on meeting people that other people around him insist are dead (such as Henry's mother and father). The world seems to be constantly changing around him, and he keeps on seeing the same people over and over again doing the exact same thing that he saw them doing the previous day. Is Sam losing his mind? Is there some kind of connection between doctor and patient? Is this all some kind of fantasy dreamed up by a feverish mind?

Stay certainly has all the makings of an intense psychological thriller/drama in the style of Jacob's Ladder or the modern day anime classic, Perfect Blue. It is a movie that distorts reality, makes us question what is real and what is not, and intentionally reveals as little as possible. Unfortunately, the film is a bit too vague for its own good. Answers are either unsatisfactory or completely nonexistent. When the movie was over, I only had a rough estimate as to what the ending and everything that had come before it was supposed to mean. It was not until I did some scouring on the Internet, and read other people's reactions that I started to get a clearer picture. Stay is the kind of movie that tells you very little, allowing the viewer to piece together the puzzle.

Unfortunately, this puzzle is missing a few pieces, most of which is an overall sense of coherency. In Jacob's Ladder and Perfect Blue, there at least seemed to be a method to the madness. If you put enough thought to the films, then yes, they actually started to make some sense. Although I am slowly piecing together the plot of Stay, there are still some things that just don't plain make sense to me, and seem to have simply been included by screenwriter David Benioff just for the sake of being weird. I will not go into detail to avoid spoilers, but I personally feel that Stay does not play fair. It bends reality and toys with us from the very first frame of the film, and expects us to be delighted with its own cleverness. Actually, I'd be more delighted if there actually seemed to be more rhyme and reason. I don't know, maybe I'm missing something. But to me, the movie simply seemed to be toying with us, and not even caring if we understand its message or not.

Stay is not only the most perplexing screen riddle I have seen in a while, it's also one of the more visually interesting. Director Forster does some very nice visual tricks, like how scenes literally morph into each other. This is not only a cool effect, but it also ties into the film's overall theme of reality being distorted and bended. The performances are pretty strong all around as well. It's nice to finally see Ewan McGreggor in a real acting role again, one where he's not under the oppressive directing ineptitude of George Lucas, or voicing a CGI cartoon character. Ryan Gosling gives an appropriately angst and terror-ridden performance, but also seemed strangely distant to me. The more I think about it, the more I think that he's supposed to be the emotional center of the film. He's passable, but something seemed missing from his performance. The main highlight to the film is Naomi Watts, who brings an unforced charm to her performance as Sam's faithful girlfriend who becomes increasingly interested in his most recent patient.

Stay is certainly a thought-provoking film, and I think it's one that's going to be hotly debated amongst film fans for years to come, especially after it comes out on DVD. (Hopefully with a commentary of some sort.) Unfortunately, I cannot truly recommend it, as I became frustrated with the film's own games. There's just not enough logic applied to back up the film's own ideas, even after reading other people's reactions as to what they thought it should be about. A movie like Stay should leave you thinking, and smiling as the pieces slowly fall into place the more you think about it. Well, I've been thinking about this movie since 2 this afternoon, and I still feel like I'm no closer to solving its puzzle. Stay is a noble failure, but a failure nonetheless.

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"This is based on a true story. Sort of." - Disclaimer that appears at the very beginning of the film.

You certainly have to admire director Tony Scott's honesty with those opening words. The only way I could believe that Domino, a film based on the life of a young female bounty hunter, was based on a true story is if we were looking at the life of the woman through the eyes of someone high on just about every illegal substance imaginable all at once. Domino is billed as a bio-pic, but it really isn't. Actually, the movie doesn't really fall under any genre. What it is, really, is a total and non-stop bombardment on the senses - something that director Tony Scott (Man on Fire) seems to excel in. Well, this movie makes some of his past efforts seem like textbook examples of coherent storytelling. Domino is a loud, headache-producing, non-stop bombardment, and it will leave you exhausted and angry. It's not so much a movie as it is a cinematic pinata that's been busted open and random images explode upon the screen for 2 hours straight in a losing battle to tell a coherent story. Watching Domino, you almost get this mental image of Dennis Hopper's character from Speed in the editing room, threatening to blow up Scott if the movie drops below 50 images a minute.

This highly fictionalized account of bounty hunter Domino Harvey (who in real life died earlier this year from an overdose) follows the woman from her childhood years to the height of her bounty hunter days. The daughter of actor Laurence Harvey (best known for his role in the original Manchurian Candidate film with Frank Sinatra), Domino was born into a life of wealth. After her father passed away when she was young, her mother moved her to California. Domino quickly grew bored of the youth CA lifestyle (the "90210 generation", she calls it), and decided to rebel in her own way. While other kids her age were driving fast cars and attending parties, she was training herself in martial arts weaponry.

After the now young-adult Domino (played by Keira Knightley) is kicked out of college for her violent behavior, she has a chance meeting at a seminar about bounty hunting with two veterans of the game - Ed (Mickey Rourke) and Choco (Edgar Ramirez). They are skeptical of her at first, due to her age and somewhat delicate form, but Domino quickly proves that she has the stuff it takes, and the three form almost a bizarre family unit as they travel the nation, tracking down various criminals. Their exploits eventually catches the attention of a fast-talking TV producer at the WB network (Christopher Walken) who wants to do a reality show based mainly on Domino, and hosted by former Beverly Hills 90210 stars Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green, who follow them around with a camera crew during their jobs. Of course, once the camera crew is present, things quickly go downhill when the three hunters are involved in a messy heist situation that may be set up by the FBI, and involves a crime boss, some mysterious fellons disguised as former First Ladies, and a powerful Las Vegas hotel owner (Dabney Coleman).

That's really all the plot I got out of Domino. That synopsis may fool you into thinking that the film has a point, but it really doesn't. The entire running time is simply an excuse for Tony Scott to throw everything but the kitchen sink up on the screen to distract us from the story. Slow motion, sped up film, black and white, old grainy images...Just about every film trick except for animation is used at one point or another, and often with very little rhyme or reason. The images come fast and furious, often allowing very little time for our brains to register it all. This movie is one big distraction from beginning to end, and when you've got a movie with a complex plot that deals with numerous betrayals, double crosses, and even tripple crosses, that's not a good thing. The entire movie plays like you're watching a crime story on TV while under the influence of illegal narcotics. I've never tried any kind of drug, but after seeing Domino, I have a pretty good idea as to what it must be like being high.

The movie fails to slow down and concentrate on its plot, and therefore, the characters are underdeveloped and unrelatable. That's a shame, because there seems to be some interesting characters here. I liked what little was hinted at in the almost father-daughter relationship between Domino and her mentor, Ed. Mickey Rourke and Keira Knightley have good chemistry together, so it's a shame that the film is constantly trying to pull away our attention with non-stop camera tricks. A bio-pic is supposed to bring us into the world of the person. The characters are shallow, the relationships near non-existent, and quite frankly, I think that's the way Tony Scott wanted it. He directs the story like a film student run amok, and offers no apologies whatsoever. I don't know, maybe I didn't get his "vision". I'm assuming that vision meant not even attempting to tell a coherent story. As if the headache-inducing editing wasn't confusing enough, the film's storyline is told out of sequence just to throw us off even more. The story constantly jumps around to the point that it feels like 3 or 4 different movies edited together.

It's a shame that this movie refuses to slow down and allow us to admire it, because there is some good stuff here. The performances are very good for the most part. Keira Knightley successfully plays out of type as the tough-talking Domino Harvey. During the few scenes she's actually able to express emotion without Tony Scott trying to distract us, she's very believable, and comes across as a likable tough heroine. The movie features a number of C-list celebrities, mostly in walk-on roles. Everyone from Lucy Liu to Jerry Springer pops up here. No one quite leaves the impression that Knightley does, however, except for Mickey Rourke who after this and Sin City, is having a very good year in terms of performances. I also sort of liked the look of the film. It's appropriately gritty in appearance with its primary colors being orange, black, and green. Some scenes have a dirty, overexposed look to them, almost as if the film had been left out in the sun too long. If there was a point to the artistry, I'd admire it even more.

I knew very little about the real life Domino Harvey before walking into this movie. Now that I've seen it, I feel I know even less. All I do know is that Tony Scott has made a movie that should come with a free sample packet of asprin with each ticket. I know quite a few people who really liked this movie, because it was "different". Well, it's not enough to be different, you've gotta have something to say as well. Domino has very little to say, and that's a shame. Her life story probably would have made a very interesting movie. Too bad this isn't one.

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The Fog

Well, it's October, and it's time once more for the studios to parade out their horror films in an attempt to scare up enough money for one or two decent weekends before the holiday comes and goes, and the films sink like a stone come November. First out of the gate is The Fog, an empty-headed and mind-numbingly dull excuse for a thriller. I was actually looking forward to this film, as I have never seen the John Carpenter original, and had heard good things. I thought that with a fresh and unbiased look, I could get the full enjoyment out of the experience. If only there was any enjoyment to be had. If Carpenter's film is anything like this shallow piece of boredom, I guess I haven't been missing much.

A small island fishing village is gearing up to celebrate its four founding fathers with a statue and a celebration as the film opens. The village seems to be comprised of maybe 20 people tops due to the scant number of extras that populate the streets. Amongst the crazy old men and alcoholic priests that run rampant, we've got our main cast. One of our stars is Nick (played by Tom Welling from Smallville), the head of a small fishing boat who's having an affair with the local DJ (Selma Blair) while his girlfriend, Elizabeth (Maggie Grace), is away. Things aren't going well for Nick. His business is near rock bottom, and all he's got for company during his voyages at sea is his obnoxious jive-talking black ship hand (DeRay Davis).

Elizabeth makes an unexpected return to her island home after she rather suddenly departed for New York City six months ago without telling anyone, and that's when the ominous signs start popping up.It starts out innocently enough with trinkets like pocket watches and hairbrushes that seem to be centuries old washing up on shore. But then, in true horror movie fashion, the animals start acting strange (Rule # 1: When you see hundreds of birds flocking, and dogs acting strangely, get out of town.), and Nick's ship is attacked out at sea by a mysterious fog bank which winds up killing all but the black guy, who survives by hiding out in the freezer, breaking the cardinal rule of horror films that the black guy must be the first to die. Elizabeth seems very unnerved by these events, as she is continuously haunted by nightmarish visions of people being set on fire and drowning. It certainly doesn't help that dead people are now coming back to life for no explainable reason to give her cryptic warnings, and she has come across a book that seems to hint that perhaps the four founding fathers weren't too great after all.

After way too much ominous set up, the fog that attacked Nick's boat finally reaches the village. Chaos ensues, zombie-like ghosts start walking the street, and then it's over almost as soon as it begun. To call The Fog anticlimactic is an understatement. The entire first hour of the movie is literally devoted to almost nothing but build up. I'm serious, it literally takes well over an hour before the ghostly fog finally makes it to the town, and things actually start happening. We get a couple brief glimpses that hint at excitement, but then it goes right back to concentrating on the characters. This wouldn't be so bad if the characters in this film were interesting, but they're about as deep as a puddle, and about as fun to watch, as well.

Those descriptions I gave above for each character? That's literally all there is. Nick has supposedly been romantically involved with a single mother who works at an alternative music radio station, but aside from an awkward meeting between the two on the street, that's all we get. His relationship is even more forced with the female lead, Elizabeth. Other than a brief love-making scene in the shower (done in a PG-13 way, of course), we get no real look into their relationship whatsoever. Why are they together? What is their attraction? My only guess is it's because Nick is the only man on the island who's not an alcoholic or over 60 years old. If you're going to devote over half your movie to build up, you need interesting characters. Alas, The Fog contains not one single person we can relate to or even like, so we just sit patiently and wait for the carnage to begin.

Even when the carnage does come, it's underwhelming to say the least. I don't know, maybe I had grown frustrated by the seemingly endless build up that I just did not care anymore. But after what I sat through, I wanted a little bit more than a transparent Crypt Keeper reject walking around in dry ice. It'd certainly help if some of the scenes that were supposed to thrill us made more sense. A good example is the scene where Elizabeth is checking out the bodies of those who died on Nick's boat. One of them suddenly sits up and starts talking to her, then falls down again. No explanation or logic is given here. It just...happens. And how about the scene where the DJ woman is at work, and a trinket she got from her son that he found on the beach suddenly sets part of the room on fire? After she puts out the fire, it leaves bizarre symbols burned into the wall. Yet, she does not tell anyone, she simply calls her son, and tells him not to go to the beach, though she doesn't explain why. Okay, I can understand not telling the kid (who would believe her), but why the hell does she not get the heck out of there after that happens? Next time we see her, it's nighttime, and she's still in the room. I don't know about you, but if I was alone in a room, things started blowing up, and I started to hear bizarre screams and blood-curdling cries through my radio speakers, I'd get the hell out of there!

The Fog is filled with moments that don't make very much sense when applied to basic logic. But nothing quite compares to the highly anti-climactic ending that you can not only see coming from a mile away (even if you have not seen the original film), but almost seems to be an afterthought. We get about an hour of build up, 25 minutes of carnage, and then an ending that seems to come out of nowhere, like director Rupert Wainright suddenly ran out of budget, and decided "Okay, people, we've gotta wrap this one up!" I don't know if the original ended the same way, but I can't picture how Carpenter's version could be considered a classic by some people if the ending is this abrupt.

The Fog is a failure in just about every conceivable way. The writing, the plotting, the pacing, the performances, the music score...Everything is instantly forgettable and just plain half-assed. You can tell that no one cared when making this project, so why should you? The Fog is a thrill-less and junkie little horror film that will probably play well to the kiddie crowd and those who are easily scared by weather patterns. Even the Weather Channel is more exciting than this. Just stay away.

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Two For the Money

It's always sad to see a great actor appearing in a not-so great film. I mean, heck, does anyone look forward to Robert DeNiro films anymore after the guy's track record the past 6 or 7 years? Al Pacino is a great actor who also occassionaly slips into the "cashing a paycheck" phase, though fortunately not quite as often as DeNiro. I've always admired Pacino as an actor. Yes, it's true, the guy can be a bit too passionate in his performances, and his trademarked ranting and raving has been rightfully parodied in many a sketch comedy show. But, even when he's at his worst, you can always tell that he's at least trying to inject some life into the proceedings, and to me at least, he's always a pleasure to watch.

Two For the Money is a paycheck film for Pacino, but at least it's a watchable one. It's a simple morality tale that's been told too many times before, but it at least holds your interest. And a lot of that interest has to do with Pacino. Even if the man is just cashing a check here, he gives it his all, and gives a much better performance than the film deserves. He's bitingly funny, he always demands your attention in every scene he's in, and he all but steals the movie away from his less-talented co-star, Matthew McConaughey. I almost wish the film had completely dropped McConaughey's character, and just focused on Pacino. Not only is his character much more interesting, but we would have been spared of the horribly cheesy final scene that all but betrays the film's earlier attempts at integrity.

McConaughey plays Brandon, a once on the rise football quarterback who had his dreams cut short when he suffered a career-ending injury during a game. Despite his best efforts to get back in the game, recruiters are nervous to hire him because of his bad leg. These days, he lives with his mother, and is forced to make a living making pre-recorded messages for Jessica Simpson's 1-900 number. Fate steps in the day that the guy who usually records messages for the sports betting number calls in sick, and Brandon is left to fill in for him and make predictions for this weekend's football games. He's obviously a natural for the job, because of his personal experience and first-hand knowledge of the players. His accurate predictions make him an overnight success, and catches the attention of Walter (Al Pacino), a man who runs a professional and legal sports betting service in New York City.

Two For the Money is a standard "small town, good old boy gets lured to the big city, has it all, then loses it all" story that's been in the Hollywood machine probably from the very beginning of the industry. We can pretty much predict everything that will happen to Brandon every step of the way. Walter invites Brandon to come work for him. Brandon takes up the offer, moves to New York, and instantly starts indulging in the big city life that Walter provides him. (Fast cars, fast women, luxury apartments, etc.) Because of Brandon's skill at picking winners, Walter pretty much builds his entire business around him, and gives him a new public persona named "John Anthony" - a hot shot, egotistical, "gambling god" who can do no wrong. Naturally, Brandon's ego begins to grow to dangerous levels, and he truly begins to believe that he actually is his hot-shot alter ego that Walter creates for him whenever he appears on Walter's sports TV show. Brandon begins to lose his own identity, and when his luck at picking winners starts going downhill, he finds that people who he once considered his friends are suddenly not so friendly toward him once he's no longer the "golden boy" that Walter built him up to be.

Two For the Money's morality tale of greed and overinflated ego taking over a good person, while as old as the hills, could still work if handled properly. Unfortunately, direct D.J. Caruso and writer Dan Gilroy don't try anything new. What's worse, characters and plot developments are introduced and then disappear without any word or warning. For example, at the height of Brandon's success as "John Anthony", he is invited to fly to a tropical island where a famous multi-millionaire gambler (and thug) wants to hire him to pick his winners. Brandon takes the job, and helps the millionaire win for a while. But when he starts losing, the millionaire gets mad, and comes to New York along with some of his thuggish goons, and they threaten Brandon at gun point in public. (In broad daylight, no less...) The evil millionaire threatens to kill Brandon if he does not start picking winners again. Brandon's luck does not change after this encounter, yet strangely, we never see or hear from this evil millionaire ever again. He threatens Brandon's life, then exits the film. It seems like an entire subplot got cut out and left dangling with no resolution at all. It certainly doesn't help that Matthew McConaughey is not the most dynamic actor. He's not bad, mind you, he just does not do enough to make us truly sympathize with Brandon enough to make us want to see him crawl out of the hole he's gotten himself into. McConaughey's performance basically centers around his Southern drawl and flashing that toothy grin of his every chance he gets.

If the movie focussed solely on McConaughey, I'd probably be less kind to this film. Fortunately, there's Pacino and Rene Russo (who plays his wife) to pick up the slack, and make the audience perk up a little. As mentioned earlier, Pacino gives a passionate performance that is all at once hilarious and heartbreaking. He gets some wonderful and honest one-liners, and almost every line of dialogue that comes out of his mouth is a winner. Russo is also effective as his long-suffering, yet devoted wife. She used to be a junkie on the streets, and Pacino seems to be recovering from every bad habit in the book. (As Ruso's character says at one point, "If it says 'anonymous' at the end, he goes".) Russo's character has been making strives to improve her life, and to be a good mother to their 6-year old daughter. But Pacino's Walter seems to only care about his job and his vices. He's the type who shows his love with lavish birthday parties and dinners, and expensive gifts. Despite his fancy facade, Walter is a broken man, however. He has health issues, and seems that he could drop dead in an instant due to his tell-tale coughing fits and that he carries pills wherever he goes. Yet, he still wants to live the fast life, health be damned, and is not ready to give it up for anything. Sure, their storyline is almost as cliched as Brandon's rise and fall, yet Pacino and Russo make it work. They have great chemistry together, their dialogue is great and honest, and they bring life and dimension to their characters.

Once again, however, the screenplay betrays them, as the script once again brings up plot points then never mentions them again. After a collapsing spell at an airport, Walter's health issues are never really mentioned again. Up to that point, the movie reminds us off and on that his health is on a downward spiral, but then the movie seems to forget about it after that scene, and he never has any trouble again. Equally underdeveloped is a subplot concerning McConaughey and Russo having a possible attraction to each other. The movie never completely drops the subject, yet it never seems to be focussed on as much as it should, especially since the relationship between the two plays a big part in Pacino and Russo's final scene together. You get the sense that a lot got cut from this film, perhaps due to time restrictions. (The film already runs at a little over 2 hours.) Due to the small amount of time established to the possible affair, the conclusion of Pacino and Russo's characters, while dramatic enough, does not seem as powerful as it should be. The ending is further ruined by the filmmaker's decision to add a syrupy sweet "extra happy" ending sequence, which seems almost as if it were added at the last minute because test audiences wanted a truly happy ending. All it ends up doing is killing what little credibility the film had remaining.

Is Two For the Money a bad movie? Aside from the epilogue, not really. It just does not really do anything special that sets it apart from the pack. It's notable mainly for the strong performances of Pacino and Russo, but even they're not enough to fully save this movie from the dire pits of mediocrity. Pacino may have been cashing a check, but at least he made the movie worth watching. This is one time I'm actually glad he was in it for the money, as his talent makes the film watchable. Of course, I'd be even happier if Pacino was in a better movie. Maybe next time.

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Cry Wolf

If one were to watch only the trailers for the new thriller, Cry Wolf, one would not be blamed for assuming that this is a throwback to the mid to late 90s when various Kevin Williamson-inspired teen "thrillers" raided theaters. That was certainly my impression when I saw the WB-style cast being stalked by what appeared to be a psycho killer in an orange ski mask. However, this ad campaign is very misleading. What co-writer and director, Jeff Wadlow, has given us instead is a study of fear and its effects on people. This is not exactly a psycho killer film, as technically, there's no psycho killer to be found. No, I have not forgotten the guy with the ski mask, and yes, he does appear in the film. Cry Wolf obviously wants to be more than your standard teen stalk-fest, and for this, it is commendable. What's less commendable is how the movie tries to jerk you around in so many directions that by the end, I felt more frustrated and exhausted than entertained. Cry Wolf seems to be trying to make a point. Unfortunately, due to its muddled screenplay, the only message I can make out is "snobby rich kids suck". Like I didn't know this before walking in...

The action begins when British exchange student, Owen (played by Julian Morris) arrives at a posh, private high school for rich kids after he got expelled at his last school. He quickly befriends a young girl named Dodger (Lindy Booth) and her group of wealthy, snobby, stuck up, jerk friends. From what I gather, these kids don't do anything but talk about how much life sucks, insult each other, and play very mean-spirited and cruel pranks on each other. This "likable" bunch have gotten bored with pissing each other off, and Dodger gets a new idea - they can piss off the entire student body, and scare the crap out of them too in the process! The other kids don't know how they could pull off such a feat. Fortunately, Owen's here, and he's heard about this newfangled invention called The Internet and E-Mail. (I'm serious, the kids in this movie act like they've never even heard of e-mail before Owen brings it up.)

You see, as we learned in an opening sequence, there was a teenage girl who was murdered in the woods near the campus by an unseen killer. Owen decides that his new friends and him can use this fear to start their wacky mischief. They send out a mass e-mail to every student in the school about this fictional serial killer who they dub "The Wolf". They create an elaborate background story about a series of murders that have happened in different cities, similar to the death of the girl in the woods. The jolly pranksters get a good chuckle as the e-mail spreads throughout the campus, spreading fear throughout the student body. And to top it all off, Dodger seems interested in Owen! Ah, creating mass hysteria and falling in love - life is good for Owen!...

...Or is it? Wouldn't you know it, it seems that someone has decided to take advantage of the fear gripping the school, and is now going around dressed exactly like this Wolf character described in the e-mail, and is starting to send threatening private messages to Owen's computer. Owen suspects he's being pranked by his group of friends until one of them disappears under mysterious circumstances, and bloody pieces of jewelry from said friend starts popping up. Is this all some elaborate plan for someone to get back at Owen, or has whoever murdered that girl a couple days ago decided to use his lie to his or her advantage? And who could be behind it all? Is it the elderly janitor who is seen in many scenes just glaring at Owen at his friends for no reason at all? Is it Owen's teacher (Played by Jon Bon Jovi. Yes, THAT Jon Bon Jovi.), who seems nice enough, but also seems to have a shady side, and an unhealthy attraction to certain female students in his class? Or does the film have an even dumber and more complex solution in mind?

You can certainly see what the goal was during the making of Cry Wolf. It's quite obvious that the film was intended to be a study of fear, rather than your standard masked killer movie. It simply uses some of the cliches of the stalker genre to its advantage. There are many scenes where the characters talk about fear. What it is, what scares people, and what happens when a lie becomes the truth. As I'm sure you can judge by the title, the film was intended to be a modern day thriller retelling of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf". Everyone knows that Owen sent the e-mail, and they know about his troubled history in other schools that he's been kicked out of. Therefore, when he begins to be stalked by the mysterious killer, no one believes him. This is certainly an interesting idea, and it has numerous possibilities for it to work as a premise. Unfortunately, the screenplay is not smart enough to make it work. In fact, it seems as if the writers just thought they were oh so clever with this stuff that they kept on piling it on, not knowing when to stop.

Yes, Cry Wolf ultimately collapses under its own weight as it becomes increasingly complex by throwing shady character after shady character and piling on layers of plot twists until the movie just cannot support itself anymore, and the viewer starts to feel like the movie isn't playing fair. What beings as a semi-intriguing expose on fear and its effects on people quickly degenerates into a teen horror story that's as ludicrous as those horror books aimed at preteens that used to be so popular. I'm trying very hard to avoid stepping into spoiler territory here, but we ultimately discover that the movie pulls the rug out from under us, revealing that everything was not real, not even the fear. If you were pissed off by the ending of The Village, than Cry Wolf is gonna leave you walking out of the theater in a howling rage. By the time the end credits started to roll, I almost wished they had gone with the standard psycho killer route. It would have been more interesting, and besides, I really wanted these snobby jerks to meet bloody ends. This is one movie where I was rooting for the killer. Too bad the conclusion can't even give us that satisfaction.

The performances are about as good as can be expected in a film like this. The kids are your typical, angst-ridden "pity us, we're rich" schmucks that make you hate them from the moment they walk on screen. They do their job well if their intention was to make us hate them and want to see them get slaughtered. The adult characters are completely forgettable, though, and are mostly there to arouse suspicion. Jon Bon Jovi is able to come across as a teacher without being laughable at least. Although, if they had to cast a former 80s rocker in the role, couldn't they have cast David Lee Roth? That way, they could use the song "Hot For Teacher" when it's revealed he has an unhealthy relationship with one of his students. Character actor Gary Cole is pretty much non-existent in his minor role as Owen's father. He's in, I think, four scenes total, and three of those four scenes simply involve him picking up a telephone and immediately hanging up, then cutting to the next scene. Hope they didn't pay much for him...

Cry Wolf is the kind of movie that fools you into thinking the filmmakers are going to be daring and try something different only to follow it up with a conclusion that is best compared to the director spitting a giant goober in your face and laughing. Sure, the world didn't really need another teen slasher thriller, but it certainly didn't need this, either. It's not the least bit scary, and really just leaves you feeling screwed in the end. This is one of those movies I'm glad I saw by myself in a completely empty cinema. It gave me ample opportunity to speak out against the film as it drew to a close. Cry Wolf is not a painful movie to sit through. Just an annoying one.

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