Reel Opinions

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Madea's Family Reunion

If Madea's Family Reunion proves anything it's that I should learn not to speak so soon. Just yesterday I called Running Scared the most uncomfortable, unsettling, and just plain nasty filmgoing experiences I'd had in a long time. And it was before today when I saw Madea's Family Reunion, a complete and absolute train wreck of a film that plays like a collision between the sappiest soap opera you've ever laid eyes on and Big Momma's House. This is a lamebrained, schizophrenic mess that wants us to suffer through its heroine's pain of being physically abused by her husband one minute, and then just seconds later devotes an entire scene to an old man farting very loudly numerous times. I felt like I was switching back and forth between two TV channels, and was forced to go between an unfunny and crude family comedy, and a family melodrama so over the top that the serious moments generated more laughs out of me than the comedic ones. I haven't hated a movie this much since Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo.

Having never seen last year's surprise hit, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, this was my first (and most likely last) introduction to the world of writer-director Tyler Perry. For those of you who don't know, Mr. Perry initially found fame writing a series of plays centered around a large black woman named Madea whom he plays in a fat suit and an unconvincing wig. I'm sure the effect works better on stage, because in this movie with Perry dressed in drag and surrounded by hundreds of real old women, he looks so out of place it's not even funny. Maybe it'd help if Madea herself was a likeable character, but she came across to me as an abusive, obnoxious felon in the disguise of a sweet old grandmother. Madea is just a plain disturbing character, as her advice to others usually resorts to "kick their ass" or "kill them". The audience I saw this movie with was in hysterics, and couldn't seem to get enough. I was disgusted, and fail to see how anyone can view such a hateful and desperate character as being positive.

The film's plot mostly centers around two sisters - Vanessa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson) and Lisa (Rochelle Aytes). The two women have had a hard existence from the beginning, thanks to their evil gold-digging mother (Lynn Whitfield) who has made their lives a living hell in different ways. The mother looks down on Vanessa, who is poor and a single mother, and has started to fall in love with a kindly bus driver (Boris Kodjoe). As for Lisa, she has all of her mother's attention, because she is set to be married to a wealthy black man named Carlos (Blair Underwood). Problem is, Carlos frequently abuses Lisa physically, going so far as to literally threaten to throw her off the balcony of their apartment if she ever tries to leave him. Lisa's too scared to tell anyone the truth, and the mother wants Carlos' money, so she keeps on trying to find excuses to keep the two together, even though she knows her daughter's life is in danger. Added to the plot is Madea trying to cope with raising a troubled preteen girl that she's been placed into care of (usually through physical abuse and ridicule), and an upcoming family reunion where everyone gathers together and listens to Cicely Tyson and Maya Angelou recite poetry about how black people should love each other. And yes, the scene is just as awkward and out of the blue as it sounds, but not as awkward as the final wedding scene that features black women hanging from the ceilings playing harps, and half-naked black men dressed as angels.

Madea's Family Reunion is a movie so misguided it is almost a textbook example of how not to make a good movie. The dramatic scenes are so broad, the acting so over the top, and the dialogue so "scripted" and fake that I almost couldn't believe what I was seeing and listening to. Consider the scene where Lisa and Vanessa ask Madea what they should do about Lisa's abusive fiancee. Madea's advice? Throw a pot of hot grits in his face, then bash him in the head with a frying pan. Only in the world's worst sitcom would someone actually make such a suggestion. It gets even worse when Lisa actually does this to Carlos near the end of the film. The scene is supposed to make us cheer, but it is shot all wrong. It is a moment of intense hatred and evil, not payback. The look on Lisa's face as she hits her fiance in the head with a frying pan is a look of murder and psychotic rage. And then she keeps on hitting him over and over again, and the scene just becomes more and more ugly and awkward. When the audience started cracking up and cheering with each blow, I wanted to stand up and scream "what the hell is wrong with you people"? Even more disturbing is that the film leaves it at that. After viciously cracking her fiance's head open, she goes off to the local church and celebrates with her family, and they all laugh and dance and sing. The message of this moment seems to be if someone is violent to you, be even more violent, and all will be forgiven. No punishment, no police, just a lifeless body lying on the kitchen floor while our heroine goes off and celebrates.

Indeed, the entire moral standing of the movie is so screwed up that I don't think even Tyler Perry himself could explain it. Although he spends most of the film looking down at violence, he seems to think it's okay as long as it's a means for revenge or for raising young children. Take the very disturbing subplot of Madea getting foster care of a troubled preteen girl early in the film. The girl is mouthy and rude to her. Madea's advice? Climb into the back seat of the car and punch her, or in a later scene, slap her repeatedly with a belt. What makes it so disturbing is that whenever we see the girl from then on, she's a perfect lady and suddenly is doing good in school and has dreams of being a lawyer. No single explanation is given for this girl's sudden and drastic change from mouthy brat to perfect angel who goes to church every Sunday. The only conclusion I could draw is that she is behaving out of fear of what Madea will do to her if she acts up. The little girl is all but forgotten for most of the film anyway, so I have no idea why she's even in the movie in the first place. The movie seems to want to take multiple stances on its issues. It can't decide if violence is bad or if it's comical. Abuse is abuse I say, and Madea deserves to have her head bashed in with a frying pan just as much as the evil Carlos does.

Madea's Family Reunion fails in just about every way imaginable. Some scenes are about as easy to swallow as having an ocean liner shoved down your throat (like the opening scene where a guy somehow surprises his girlfriend with rose petals leading to a filled bath and a small orchestra sitting by the tub without her knowing), while others are just plain ludicrous, such as the scene where Carlos and the sisters' evil mother are plotting and say their dialogue with such evil glee that you're surprised they don't chew a hole right through the scenery. All the dramatic moments are played so broad that I quite literally could not stop laughing at some of them, such as the out of the blue poetry session during the reunion scene. The comedic scenes, on the other hand, come across more as being just plain wrong. Take the scene where a small group of dirty old men spot a sexy teenage girl dressed in a revealing outfit, and have her reach far into a cooler for a drink so they can film the act with a video camera, and make leering faces at her behind her back. That's not funny, that's just plain creepy. There's not one single second of Madea's Family Reunion that works the way that Tyler Perry intends it to. Even if the film's title character was played by a real woman instead of a guy in unconvincing drag, this movie still would not work in any way.

I am positively mystified by the audience's reaction to this film who seemed to be eating this stuff up. Not one single second is honest, true, or even entertaining in the slightest. It is a vile, miscalculated, ugly little movie that made me feel worse as it went along. Madea obviously tries to lift our spirits, but I was too busy wondering how any movie could possibly be this bad. I don't know, maybe something got lost in the transition from the stage to the screen. I can't see how, though. For all its messages of peace and love, this movie is a surprisingly hateful and angry little piece of bitterness. Apparently there's more Madea movies on the way, as Lion's Gate Films gave Perry a 7-film deal after Diary became a surprise hit. If the promise of more Madea doesn't make you scared to set foot inside a theater, nothing will.

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Saturday, February 25, 2006

Running Scared

Movies exist for various reasons, but in the end, they exist to get a certain emotion or reaction from us. The reaction that writer-director Wayne Kramer (The Cooler) obviously wants from his latest film, Running Scared, is total disgust and revulsion. If this is true, he's done his job well judging by the reaction of different audience members walking out of my screening. Here is one of the most unflinchingly violent, uncomfortable, unsettling, and just plain nasty filmgoing experiences I've had in a very long time. For its entire 2-hour running time, the movie parades deplorable and evil people doing deplorable and evil things in graphic detail and, just to make us feel even more uncomfortable, puts two 10-year old boys right into the middle of it all. The film's total lack of any sort of moral value makes the film's final twist, which seems to exist solely to give us a happy ending, all the more of a cop out. While I can't really recommend a movie like this, as I have no idea who the heck this would appeal to, I would be lying if I didn't say I couldn't take my eyes off the screen the entire time, mostly out of stunned disbelief.

Joey Gazelle (Paul Walker) is a low-level hood in the mob who, as the film opens, has just survived a gunfight with some crooked cops after a drug deal goes bad, and has just been charged by his boss to dispose of the weapon used in the fight. He puts the gun in a bag and stashes it in a secret compartment in his basement. Unknown to him, his 10-year old son Nicky (Alex Neuberger) and his best friend Oleg (Cameron Bright, who previously played the evil clone kid in Godsend and Nicole Kidman's reincarnated husband in Birth) were playing hockey in the basement earlier, and happen to see him stash the weapon. Oleg lives in the house next door where his Russian immigrant stepfather (John Noble) frequently abuses both him and his mother, and does nothing but sit around and watch old John Wayne movies on TV. Oleg has had enough of his father's cruelty, and so without anyone knowing, takes Joey's gun from the secret compartment, and uses it to injure his father.

Oleg is now on the run, and with the gun in his possession. The film follows Joey as he desperately searches for the child and also tries to cover up the evidence so that his boss does not discover that the gun he was told to get rid of is missing. With crooked cops combing the city for the weapon, and the mob following his every move and becoming increasingly suspicious, Joey has his work cut out for him. As for Oleg, he is on the run as well from a series of unsavory characters that he keeps on encountering. Abusive pimps, psychotic pedophile couples, and even his own father (who seems to make a remarkably fast recovery) are just some of the people who will frequently put his life in danger, hold him at gunpoint, or torture him. The film cuts back and forth between both characters until the stories merge in a climax that takes place at a hockey rink that has to be seen to be believed.

Running Scared is so over the top that it would be downright ludicrous if it didn't take itself so seriously. Here is a movie that paints the city of New Jersey as if it were the lowest level of Hell. Every single person is crooked, evil, vile, corrupt, or a murderous lowlife. The film has an increasingly bleak and horrific tone that carries all the way through the film up to the last 10 minutes when the movie suddenly takes a sharp turn into sunshine and loved ones wrapping their arms around each other. To say that the last couple minutes don't fit the rest of the movie is an understatement. Here is a movie that opens with an action sequence that contains more violence and more obscenities than most R-rated films contain in their entire running time. In the first 3 minutes alone, not only do we get to hear an unheard of number of swear words (the ones that aren't drowned out by gunfire, at least), but also graphic depictions of a man getting his brains blown out of his head and another man getting shot in the crotch. This certainly sets you up for what's to come, but it's only the start, as the film will also force us to watch such acts as a man setting himself on fire, someone getting their ear bitten off, and an extended sequence where 10-year old Oleg is held captive by a pedophile husband and wife who videotape sexual acts with him, and then try to suffocate him with a plastic bag. The fact that this movie got by with just an R-rating is a small miracle, and I haven't even mentioned the psychotic hockey players who gruesomely bloody Paul Walker's face by shooting pucks at him while evil mobsters hold him down to the ice, and threaten to murder the kid.

Judging by the animated sequence that accompanies the ending credits (where we watch highlights from the film done in a children's storybook style, which makes it all the more twisted), this is supposed to be some sort of deranged urban fairy tale about a little lost boy who is trying to escape from his evil stepparent, and keeps on running into even worse individuals. I didn't realize this until I saw the credits however, because the movie is so chaotic and fast-paced, I don't think anyone could have picked up on that angle without the help of the cartoon at the end. Writer-director Kramer seems to be channeling filmmaker Tony Scott here, as the movie uses just about every cinematic trick in the book. Slow motion, fast motion, instant replay, rewind and fast forward, jump cuts, shaky cam, black and white, animation...You name the film method, and Wayne Kramer tries his hand at it. In the wrong hands (see Tony Scott's last film, Domino, which was a confusing mess of images and ideas), this style of filmmaking can quickly become obnoxious to me. But, somehow, Running Scared knows how to exploit it in such a way so that it's used constantly but never becomes annoying. This is a very artistic film, and there are many moments that really caught my attention. The most clever and creative is when Oleg has locked himself in the bathroom of the pedophile couple, and is trying to reach help via a cell phone. The evil wife is hovering just outside the door which is covered in glass which distorts the image of the person outside. Although she appears as a human outside, whenever the film cuts to Oleg in the bathroom and we see her pacing back and forth outside the glass, trying to hear who he's talking to, her silhouette appears to be that of a demon or some other sort of monster. It is a very creepy and very effective moment, and I guess it ties into the whole fairy tale theme that Kramer was trying for. Also, the rapid fire film style never becomes so chaotic or messy that the story becomes lost, or that we can't tell what we're supposed to be looking at. There is a method to the madness.

The performances are also generally solid all the way through. For the first time, Paul Walker actually seems to be acting and playing someone else besides his usual nice guy pretty boy image. He's intimidating and ruthless, but not so much so that we don't want him to find the child. I guess he's the lesser of multiple evils, considering the other people who inhabit this film. Young Cameron Bright as the boy on the run is generally good, though he doesn't have much in terms of dialogue, and basically has to react in horror to what he's exposed to. I do have to question what his parents were thinking agreeing to let him take this film, however. I'm sure the mood on the set was kept intentionally light for the sake of the children who are often at the center of the film's most gruesome and over the top sequences, but still, you have to wonder if the filmmakers had to do a little extra coaxing with the parents to get him involved.

Though the film is generally well made all around, you get the sense that it's just a lot of bells and whistles built around a script that seeks only to shock, offend, and offer gory thrills. That's where Running Scared starts to fall apart. There's very little to the film other than some elaborate action sequences where multiple people get murdered in increasingly violent ways, some bordering on inhumane masochism. The film keeps on trying to shock us, and although the characters never quite become lost in the madness, it does kind of get hard to keep track of everything that's going on when the movie keeps on throwing buckets of blood in our faces. There are a lot of characters in this movie, many of whom exist only to die, and some who seem to come and go as the screenplay sees fit. The film also becomes almost laughable near the end as it has not one, not two, but three climaxes where the Russian kid's life is threatened, and Joey must murder a bunch of more people to protect him. It's like the movie just doesn't know when to stop. Too bad it didn't stop before we get an almost groan-worthy twist on Joey's character which not only goes against absolutely everything we've seen him do up to that point, but also screams desperation for some sort of a happy ending. The ending is actually too happy judging by everything that comes before. This is a movie that gives us an hour and 50 minutes of the overly exaggerated dark side of human nature, and a final 10 minutes of sunshine, rainbows, and fluffy bunnies. It's almost like the director is apologizing for his own movie, and wants us to leave on a high note. Sorry, Mr. Kramer, doesn't work that way.

Do I recommend Running Scared? Only for those who are looking for an increasingly violent and immoral film experience. The movie was a bit much at times for me, but I admired the skill with which the film was made. It constantly wobbles on that dangerous line of becoming a completely reprehensible filmgoing experience, but somehow never quite falls over the edge. I did not like the movie, but did not hate it quite as much as I probably should have. This movie had a very strange effect on me, and it looked like on the rest of the audience too, as opinion was widely mixed from "it was interesting" to "who would want to make a movie like that"? I guess I fall somewhere in-between. I will say this, I'll never look at a hockey game the same way again.

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Date Movie

There is one funny moment in Date Movie, and it occurs right during the opening credits. The credits state that the movie was "written by" Jason Friedberg and Andy Seltzer. Maybe it wasn't funny when I saw it, but thinking back on the movie, I can't stop laughing. The reason is because Date Movie has no screenplay. It is simply a hodgepodge of scenes taken from other films loosely connected by a paper thin plot to string them together. Date Movie claims to be a parody of romantic comedy films (A parody of comedies?...), but it's not even that, because often the film does not parody the films it uses for inspiration, it simply stages remakes of scenes from other films, and expects us to laugh at the familiarity of the sequence. This movie wasn't so much written, as it was the screenwriters had a movie marathon session, decided to do third rate remakes of their favorite moments, and call it a day.

Poor morbidly obese single girl, Julia Jones (Alyson Hannigan), is so unlucky in love that people run away in terror at the very sight of her, and would prefer to shoot themselves with a nail gun through the brain than date her. Her multi-cultural parents who run a Greek restaurant (Eddie Griffin and Meera Simhan) are trying to force her to marry a man she does not love, insisting that her spouse should be multi-cultural as well, specifically a Greek-Indian-Japanese-Jew. Desperate to escape the fate her parents have planned for her, Julia turns to midget love doctor, Hitch (Tony Cox), who "pimps her out" and sends her off on a reality dating show where the Bachelor seeking love rejects the single women by shooting them with a shotgun. The bachelor in question happens to be a charming British man named Grant Fonckyerdoder (Adam Campbell), and he is enchanted by Julia, sparing her life. The two share a romantic evening of beating up and mugging homeless people, and plans are instantly made for the two to be married.

Of course, it's not that easy. The couple will not only have to deal with both of their parents (Grant's parents are based on Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Streisand's characters in Meet the Fockers, and are portrayed in this film by Fred Willard and Jennifer Coolidge.) who generally do not approve of the union, but also with Grant's sexy and vindictive ex-fiance, Andy (Sophie Monk) who wants to split the pair up before they can say their vows. Will true love prevail? How long will it take before you come to the conclusion that this is probably one of the most desperately unfunny comedies to come along since 2002's Dana Carvey flop, The Master of Disguise? (Took me about 10 minutes.) These questions, and many more, will be answered if you're unfortunate enough to pay theater price to watch this.

As I mentioned earlier, it's kind of hard to classify Date Movie as a comedy, as it's simply nothing but a series of references to other movies, often playing the references straight, or "spicing them up" with a crude joke that not only pushes the limits of the film's PG-13 rating, but also makes you wonder if Mr. Friedberg and Seltzer hail from another world, and that this is their idea of humor. The films that are referenced during the film's 80 minute running time include...*takes a deep breath*...Bridget Jones' Diary, Pretty Woman, Sweet Home Alabama, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The 40-Year Old Virgin, My Best Friend's Wedding, Say Anything, When Harry Met Sally, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Wedding Crashers, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, Legally Blonde, The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Hitch, Meet the Parents and its sequel Meet the Fockers, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars: Episode III, King Kong, Napoleon Dynamite, Kill Bill, and even that hamburger commercial starring Paris Hilton. Celebrities such as Britney Spears and Michael Jackson are also parodied, but they work about as well as the film parodies, mainly because the movie does absolutely nothing funny with them. Not only are the jokes not funny, many of them are usually dragged on way too long, such as when we are forced to watch the family cat suffer from explosive bowel movements, or when Julia has to pop a massive zit, the resulting explosion I will leave to your imagination.

A very good example of just how lazy this movie is at parodying other films is its Pretty Woman sequence, which is simply nothing more than a role reversal. (The guy is dressed like Julia Roberts, and the woman is the Richard Gere role.) Equally lame are its attempts at mocking Wedding Crashers and Napoleon Dynamite, as these "parodies" are simply nothing more than a look alike of the original films' stars who just happen to be standing there. The film can think of absolutely nothing funny to do, so they just hope we'll laugh out of recognition. We don't, and we laugh even less at the film's over the top gross out humor that makes me question how some mostly harmless films that only contain a sex scene and one utterance of the f-word can get an R-rating, while this film depicts a cat humping a decaying corpse and gets a PG-13. If you're a parent, ask yourself what you would rather have your teenage child see.

We're only two months into the year, and I've already been subjected to four absolutely atrocious comedies (the other three being Grandma's Boy, Big Momma's House 2, and The Pink Panther). Of the three, only Grandma's Boy has failed to make any money. People often say comedy is hard, but hey, if garbage like this is bringing the people in, maybe it's easier than we thought. Heck, Date Movie doesn't even try to be funny most of the time, and it still got backed by a major studio and is playing on more screens than it probably should! All Date Movie does is give hope to other mediocre screenwriters out there that they too can get their movies made. Heck, if these guys can get this screenplay sold, there's hope yet. Don't stop believing, keep reaching for the stars, and maybe someday I will have to watch and review your very own third rate comedy. Or maybe you could actually make an effort, and try to make a good movie, but your chances of it getting bought would probably be lowered. Lower your standards, future screenwriters of America. If it worked for Mr. Friedberg and Seltzer, it can work for you.

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Eight Below

If ever there was an argument to be made that the Oscars should seriously consider a category for animal stars, Eight Below is it. I'm sure that last sentence sounds silly, but you'll understand when you see the expressive and almost emotional performances that director Frank Marshall (Archnophobia, Alive) got out of his canine stars. They are actually the sole reason to see this film, as their human co-stars actually come across as more wooden and hollow. When the film is focusing on the dogs' plight for survival, it is a stirring and emotional adventure tale in the tradition of some of the best nature films. Much like last year's surprise hit, March of the Penguins, Eight Below proves that animals can carry a film without the aid of highly paid comic stars doing "funny" voice overs off camera.

Set in the frozen wastelands of Antarctica, the film centers on experienced guide, Gerry Shepherd (Paul Walker), and his team of eight sled dogs who seem to share an almost brotherly bond. Gerry's latest assignment is to guide a geologist named Dr. McLaren (Bruce Greenwood) to a site where a piece of a rare meteor is supposed to be located. The journey quickly becomes treacherous when the doctor is injured during the journey back to camp, and one of the fiercest snowstorms in Antarctica's recorded history is starting to hit. The team makes it back in time, but both the doctor and Gerry (who is suffering from severe frostbite) need to be transported to a hospital immediately. The helicopter is not big enough to carry all of them and the dogs as well, so the animals must be left behind with the promise that a rescue team will come for them shortly thereafter. The storm quickly intensifies, however, and it becomes impossible for any team to make it to the region until the summer. With his hope for the dogs' survival decreasing each day, Gerry becomes determined to find a way to make it back to the camp and bring the animals home, while the dogs themselves find that they must brave the elements and dangerous animals of nature if they want to survive the long winter season on their own.

I have no idea how faithful Eight Below is to real events (the film's title claims that it's "inspired by a true story"), but the film's depiction of how the dogs survive on their own is exciting, suspenseful, and downright fascinating. Despite the fact that this is a family film and a Walt Disney Studio production, the film pulls very few punches in its depiction of the trials and hardships that the dogs must endure. It is refreshingly honest, treating the dogs as real animals, not as wisecracking humans in disguise. The dangers they face are real and, sensitive young children and adult dog lovers be warned, not all of the canines live to see the end credits. The filmmakers' decision to treat the story seriously is a rewarding one, as it helps make this seemingly hopeless situation all the more real and heartfelt. A subtitle that appears from time to time that keeps track of the number of days the dogs have been on their own also adds to the tension. But, it is the dogs themselves that ultimately make these scenes work. Though they come up with some clever ideas to survive their situation, they never become so clever that you don't believe an actual animal could think of such a plan. Unlike some other animal movies, they don't develop crude yet complex devices, or teach themselves how to skateboard for the entertainment of the audience watching. Each of the eight four-legged stars also have their own unique, yet believable, personality which helps differentiate them. I don't know if all of this is due to some very talented animal trainers or some very clever editing, and quite frankly I don't care. I want to believe these dogs did all this stuff on their own, because these sequences are just that believable.

It is when the movie switches over to the human side of the story that Eight Below begins to drag a little. Paul Walker will never be mistaken for a master thespian, and has often been accused of simply being a pretty face with little acting talent. While he's not exactly awful in this, I do think his character lacked personality. While he interacts with the dogs well enough, he unfortunately spends most of his scenes with his human co-stars, and whenever he does, he comes across as a bit more wooden and unnatural than he should. Maybe this was somewhat intentional, as the film seems to hint that his character is more comfortable around the dogs than with other people. Still, Walker just does not have the charisma and personality to carry a film. His fellow human stars don't hold up much better, as they either don't get enough screen time for us to get to know them, or they just don't do enough to capture our attention. The only other two actors besides Walker who caught my attention is Moon Bloodgood as his love interest, who is pretty yet somewhat bland in her underwritten role, and Jason Biggs from the American Pie films as the movie's needless and hopelessly unfunny comic relief. Not only does he grind the film to a halt whenever he's on screen, he does not fit into the mostly dramatic tone the rest of the film carries. It's like he walked in from some kind of straight to video teen comedy, and made me want to see him freezing his buns off in the arctic instead of the dogs.

On a technical level, the film is a success with stunning landscape shots and some tightly edited action sequences, such as when the dogs must face off against a giant leopard seal in order to get some food. Even though the movie was not actually shot on location in the arctic (it was filmed in British Columbia), I was certainly fooled, and did not find this out until I looked up information on the Internet about the movie. The only real fault I can think of, besides the slightly less than charismatic human cast, is that the film does seem to run a little long with an almost 2 hour running time. It never drags too much, but there still seems to be a bit too much filler material, most of it concerning the material that does not concern the dogs. I think if this had just been a straight nature film like March of the Penguins, Eight Below would be one of the most remarkable films of the year.

Despite its share of problems, Eight Below is still worthwhile just for the nature scenes alone. Children are bound to be entertained, as the film does not talk down to them, and the adults in the audience will be equally enthralled. My advice to whoever owns and trained the four-legged stars of this film is to congratulate them on a job well done, and try to get them some co-stars that can match their personality and ability. Even if the movie isn't as good as it could have been, I have to remind myself, it could have been much worse. Disney could have made this into Snow Dogs 2 - a sequel to the nightmarish sled dog comedy they released a couple years ago starring Cuba Gooding Jr. The very thought alone causes me to cringe. With a mostly honest and realistic tone and not a talking or wisecracking animal in sight, Eight Below is ultimately a refreshingly rewarding family film.

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You can see a lot of promise in Freedomland. Everything about it seems to point to an intriguing little dramatic thriller. You've got a good set up, a racially charged storyline, strong performances by some very good actors, and most surprisingly of all, mostly competent direction by Joe Roth, a man whose previous films (which includes Revenge of the Nerds II and Christmas With the Kranks) made me wonder if the guy even had anything close to a good movie within him. He comes close here, but Freedomland is brought down by some confusing scenes and ham-fisted melodrama and dialogue, when the film should be honest and sincere. The movie's not as bad as the negative hype would lead you to believe, but you still see a lot of wasted potential.

When Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore) enters a local medical center with her hands covered in blood and a story of a carjacking, she is brought immediately to the attention of tough-talking investigator Lorenzo Council (Samuel L. Jackson). While questioning Brenda about what happened, she reveals a terrifying part of the story that she strangely did not mention initially to the doctors when she arrived - her 4-year-old son, Cody, was asleep in the backseat of the car when the jacker, a large black man from a local low-income housing project she states, threw her out of the car and drove off with it. Lorenzo knows the housing project area well, as he deals with a lot of the people in that area and he has a lot of respect amongst the locals. However, when the missing child becomes part of the case, he quickly finds himself losing control of his own investigation, as another officer who is also Brenda's brother (Ron Eldard) makes it his personal goal to track the carjacker down, and convinces the police force to initiate a lockdown in the project housing area, keeping everyone prisoners in their own homes until the guilty person is found.

This obviously does not sit well with the mainly black community of the area, who feel they are being punished by racist cops. Lorenzo is powerless to help the people who he has tried so hard to win the respect of, and what's more, the more time he spends with Brenda, the more he begins to question her integrity. She has a history of drug use, she's prone to wandering off, and her behavior seems very erratic and unusual. The search for her son becomes a national media frenzy, and even a group of local mothers who specialize in looking for missing children led by an honest and caring woman named Karen (Edie Falco from TV's The Sopranos) get involved. Racial tensions between the tenants of the projects and the police are mounting, and Lorenzo has a feeling that as he digs deeper for the truth that everything is going to explode like a time bomb.

Originally intended to be an Oscar hopeful with a December release date, Freedomland's mid-February release might make some think twice about purchasing a ticket. However, it's not all bad. In adapting his own novel to the screen, screenwriter Richard Price has crafted an intriguing story that pushes a lot of hot topic buttons ripped out of many real life situations. The film tackles such issues as media frenzies around missing persons, race riots, people who use race riots to their own advantage, and overall tensions between different types of people, whether it be race, wealth, or status symbol. Unfortunately, I think Mr. Price bit off a bit more than he could chew, as most of these aspects don't seem to have as much screen time devoted to them as they should have. I'm sure this story works really good in a novel format, but in a movie that runs just shy of under 2 hours, there's just too much plot and not enough time to get all the points across that I think the movie wanted to. And instead of treating these topics with honesty and realism, the movie takes everything so seriously to the point of overblown melodrama. You can tell this was originally intended to be an Oscar bait movie by the number of scenes that seem to scream to be used as clips when an actor's name is called. There are some good performances on display here, but Joe Roth often directs his scenes like there's an important development on the way, even if nothing actually happens.

The film also contains a number of scenes that make very little sense, or characters that seem to play important roles then disappear with little to no resolution. This hints that the movie was once much longer, and probably much better. A very good example is when the character of Brenda is walking down the street, and a black woman on the street tells her to stay away from her child. It has been established earlier that Brenda is a respected person in the community, as she volunteers at a local children's center, so the scene seems awkward and out of place. I also found it quite strange that Brenda would be placed in the personal care of Lorenzo without anyone monitoring or following them, especially given Brenda's past history and behavior. There are also some characters who seem to play a big role in the story, but then disappear, such as Brenda's brother, whose role in the story doesn't even have any resolution or even a climax. I have a strong feeling that an extended version on DVD could fill in some of the blanks, as I don't think anyone adapting their own novel to the screen would intentionally leave such gaping holes open. Or maybe I'm wrong, and this is Mr. Price's vision on the screen.

Although the film does not always work, when it does, it works well. I like it how the story does not take any sides in the issue of race. Both sides are wrong, and both sides manipulate in order to get their point across. There are a number of strong scenes, the most memorable of which is when Edie Falco's character has a quiet interrogation of Brenda. She starts talking about her own missing son, which led to her forming her group for missing children, and slowly turns it into her questioning Brenda about what happened that night. The performances from both Falco and Moore in this scene are real and genuine. In fact, all of the lead performances are strong all across the board. Sure, Samuel L. Jackson could play the role of the pissed off black guy in his sleep, but no one does it better than him, and he's still able to find ways to make her performance not seem like a complete rehash of past roles. Julianne Moore also takes on the difficult role of Brenda with seemingly great ease. We have our suspicions about the character almost from the beginning, but she is still able to make her sympathetic to us all the way through her character's development. And, when Joe Roth isn't trying to force Oscar clips upon us, the film is tightly directed and edited. It has a rapid pace that never becomes confusing, and actually helps to enhance the tension and mood of the scene.

I really wanted to fully support Freedomland. It seems to have all the right pieces. But, there are more than a couple pieces missing from the complex jigsaw puzzle that makes up the film's plot. (Lorenzo's turn from fully supporting Brenda to being suspicious of her seems to be forced and come without warning.) I think there is a very good movie here that got lost somewhere in the editing room. Freedomland fails in the end, but it doesn't go down without a fight. If anything, it does show that Joe Roth does potentially have a good movie in him, which is more than I ever thought I could say about him. Worth a look, but not much more than that.

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Monday, February 13, 2006


As his first major film role since 2003's Hollywood Homicide, Harrison Ford returns to the big screen in Firewall, an action thriller where Ford pretty much plays the same character we've seen him play many times before in the past 10 years or so - Namely that of the over the hill noble family man who is forced to fight when his family is placed into danger. There's no denying that he plays the part well, and at 63 years old, he can still pull off an action sequence without making it look too ridiculous. But, if Firewall proves anything, it's that it's time to move on. Director Richard Loncraine (the romantic comedy Wimbledon) has crafted a strictly by the book, predictable thriller. The film succeeds only as "check your brain at the door" entertainment, and while it's far from boring, the film just fails to leave any sort of lasting impression, and has a sort of "been there, done that" quality to it, since Ford is basically playing the same character he always does, whether it be Jack Ryan in the Tom Clancy series, or the President of the United States in Air Force One.

This time, Ford plays Jack Stanfield, a high level security specialist who has developed one of the most complex anti-theft computer devices for the bank that he works for. We spend the first 15 or so minutes of the film watching a regular day in his life, both on the job, and at home with his wife, Beth (Virginia Madsen from Sideways) and two children - 14-year-old daughter Sarah (Carly Schroeder) and 8-year-old son Andrew (Jimmy Bennett). Jack's normal life is thrown out of sync when a group of high tech thieves force themselves into his home, holding his entire family hostage. Led by Bill Cox (Paul Bettany) the thieves want Jack to crack his own security system, and deposit the money from the bank's wealthiest clients into his own secret account. Fearing for the safety of his own family, Jack complies to the demands of the villains, but he is constantly on the look out for ways to escape the ever-watching eyes of the thieves who have bugged his house and even his clothes with hidden cameras and microphones so they can follow his every move. As Bill Cox's evil plan falls into place, Jack quickly realizes that he must find a way to fight back, or else risk losing everything.

Firewall is the kind of movie that pretty much tells you the direction the plot is going to take almost from the opening scene. The characters drop many hints at important plot developments yet to come, such as the fact that Jack's son is allergic to peanuts, or that the family dog has a knack for running away and has a GPS collar so they can track his location. Almost from the instant this information is revealed, you already know that it's going to play some sort of role in the story to come. The film also contains many red herrings to try to throw us off, some of which are never fully wrapped up or developed, such as Robert Patrick's character of a shady and slimy guy at Jack's job that he does not trust. The film also contains numerous plot holes and lapses in logic, particularly the fact that the villains' have missed a very obvious problem in their plan when everything else in their plot seems so calculated and meticulously thought out. And could an I-Pod really be used as a back up hard drive for a database at a bank? Talk about your product placements!! Firewall is a movie that becomes increasingly ludicrous as it unfolds. (Gotta love the car that seemingly explodes into flames for no reason after it hits someone during the climax sequence.) Yet, it's constantly fast-paced, never boring, and as long as you don't apply a lot of thought to it, can be fun sometimes. But, come on, we've seen this all before, and done much better at that.

The big problem with the screenplay by Joe Forte is that it never takes the time to truly get to know its characters. Therefore, it's impossible to care about Jack's plight to save his family, especially since he seems to spend as little as time as possible around them. The characters are stock, one dimensional characters that hold no interesting aspects whatsoever. The movie seems to hint that one of the thieves is somewhat sympathetic toward Jack's family, but nothing is done with this subplot, other than some subtle hints. No real relationships are created, and the only character who sparks our interest is the main villain, Bill Cox, and that's thanks mostly to Paul Bettany's lively performance. Rather than develop its story or characters, the movie prefers to throw at us predictable fist fights, car chases, and shootings. There are some interesting and well done sequences, such as when the family tries to escape from the house by setting off a false alarm, but then the script goes back to the mundane and the ordinary.

Because of the one-note nature of the characters, very few of the actors are given a chance to do anything interesting with their characters. Virginia Madsen is beautiful and likeable as always, and as mentioned earlier, Paul Bettany seems to be having a ball playing his first evil character in a film, and gets some very dryly funny lines throughout. Harrison Ford gets a couple funny lines, too, though I don't know if they're intentional. There's a moment late in the film where he says "I'm going to find my dog" with the same level of seriousness as if he was saying, "I'm going to save the President's life" that had me rolling with laughter. Harrison Ford plays the same overly heroic and noble hero that he usually plays, while his family really don't do anything but sit in the bedroom, looking scared or concerned. Bill's henchmen are a shallow bunch that we learn little about, other than their first names. The only semi-interesting character besides the villain is Jack's young secretary, played by Mary Lynn Rajskub from TV's 24, and even she does not seem as developed as much as she should be. (Would be nice to know why she was so trusting of Jack's character after he barges into her apartment with a gun, and practically forces her down into a chair.)

It's very hard to exactly pinpoint my thoughts on this movie. Sometimes I admired the film's silliness, and sometimes I found it tired. I walked out of Firewall not exactly entertained, but I don't regret seeing it either. I guess you have to be in the right mood for the film's special blend of silly, check your brain at the door entertainment. It doesn't succeed fully as a crowd pleaser, and I really think Harrison Ford could have picked a better script than this after being gone from films for so long. If you have the ability to stomach major plot holes and just enjoy it for what it is, you'll probably have fun. I guess I enjoyed the nonsense only some of the time.

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The Pink Panther

I am convinced more than ever that Steve Martin is on a mad quest to kill his own career after viewing The Pink Panther. Not only does Martin's name headline this appallingly laughless attempt at a farce, but he's also credited as a co-writer. Writing a film like this for yourself is akin to slitting your own wrists. Director Shawn Levy (Cheaper by the Dozen, Just Married) obviously has no clue to stage a slapstick sequence, as literally every gag from frame one falls flat on its face, coughs, wheezes, and lies there dying as it chokes on its own blood. There's no other way to say it, this Panther is a disaster.

The film is not a remake of the original film, rather it is a prequel of sorts that is supposed to tell how the bungling Clouseau (Steve Martin) became an Inspector in the first place. A famous, yet openly hated by many, soccer coach (Jason Statham) is murdered during the victory celebration at a big playoff game, and his famed Pink Panther ruby ring is mysteriously stolen in the process. The hot-tempered and scheming Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline) intentionally plans to put the most incompetent officer on the case, so that he himself can take over the case when the bungling officer inevitably fouls up, solve it, and win a prestigious award and fame. Clouseau happily takes the promotion to Inspector and the case, unaware of Dreyfus' plans to make him a fool in front of the whole world. Of course, Clouseau is already a fool, causing chaos and mayhem literally wherever he goes, often without realizing that he is the cause of it. Teamed up with a French detective who is secretly monitoring and reporting Clouseau's actions to Dreyfus (Jean Reno), the clueless Inspector begins his search for the truth and the long list of suspects, which includes pretty much everyone on the soccer team (since they all hated him), and the coach's American pop superstar girlfriend, Xania (Beyonce Knowles).

Intended to be released last August and forced to sit on the shelf for six months after a series of disastrous test screenings, The Pink Panther is every bit the clunker that most fans of Blake Edwards' franchise pegged it to be from the beginning. I myself cannot claim to have much knowledge of the film series, as I have not seen many of the films. But, I can say with complete certainty that even if you walk in with no pre-conceived opinion on the original films, you will be able to see this film for what it really is - a great big insult to a classic series. There is not a single bright spot in the film's entire dreary 90 minute running time. It is simply a series of unfunny and misdirected gags that you can predict coming from a mile away, and are even less funny than you think they're going to be. That's because Shawn Levy does not know how to film slapstick sequences. The scenes are slow and poorly paced instead of fast and frantic like they should be. Most of the jokes fail because they are just plain not funny in the slightest, but some fail because they simply don't make any sense. In one scene, Clouseau is using the Internet, and clicks on a button on the screen. This causes his computer to literally explode, and then all the lights in Paris go out. There is no set up, that's the entire scene in itself. Ho ho.

When the film is not making us groan at its tired pratfalls, it makes us groan even more with jokes that grew old a long time ago. Do people still find Viagra jokes funny? And a running gag where Clouseau keeps on being caught in seemingly sexual positions with his secretary (Emily Mortimer from the far superior Match Point) falls flat each and every time, but that doesn't stop the movie from using it 3 or 4 times, hoping it will be funnier each time it tries it. And then there is a painfully embarrassing scene where Clouseau and his partner must pretend to be Xania's back up dancers for a concert she is giving, and to throw suspicion off of themselves, they are forced to do a sensual dance with each other where they grab each other's crotches and slap their butts. If I am ever forced to watch Steve Martin and Jean Reno in skin-tight outfits grabbing at each other again, I will personally tear my eyes from their sockets. And that's a guarantee.

Although Steve Martin is obviously enjoying himself in his role and seems to think he's a screaming riot, watching his performance is kind of like watching a stand up comedy act die right there on the stage, and the comedian somehow deludes himself into thinking he's bringing the house down. His antics did not crack a single smile with me, and I downright hated him before the film had hit the half hour mark. He is not a likeable fool, he is simply annoying. Martin and the film bring many other talented actors down with them like a sinking ship. Jean Reno is supposed to act embarrassed by Clouseau's screw ups, but sometimes I couldn't tell if he was acting or not. And Kevin Kline, who is actually a very gifted comic actor, is positively horrid as the scheming Chief Inspector who just can't get rid of Clouseau no matter how he tries to shame him. He seems to slip in and out of his fake accent at various times, and his performance is more pathetic than comedic. It's like he knew what he was stuck in, and just didn't even bother to try. And fans of Beyonce Knowles will have to simply wait for Dreamgirls to come around this December, as her role here is nothing more than a glorified 10 minute cameo used mostly to promote the film's soundtrack.

It takes a real kind of talent to make a comedy as clueless as The Pink Panther. Not even the film's opening credit animation sequence generates any laughs, and those have always been the best part of the earlier films, even the more forgettable ones. This is a charmless, humorless, pointless, and excruciatingly painful comedy that should have never seen the light of day. To say that this film has at the moment shot to the top of my Worst Films of 2006 list is an understatement. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must go tear out the chunk of my brain that forces me to remember Steve Martin and Jean Reno doing a sensual dance with each other.

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Match Point

The very first thing we see in Match Point after the opening credits are done is a tennis ball being shot back and forth over a net between two off camera rackets in slow motion. Eventually, the ball hits upon the net and starts to wobble back and forth. Which side of the court the ball decides to fall on can change the very course of the game. This is a very fitting opening image, as the film follows a man who is constantly wobbling back and forth upon a moral line. Which side he decides to fall upon will change his life and the lives of those around him. Writer-director Woody Allen has written a surprisingly dark and eerily plausible little dramatic thriller that is increasingly engaging as the story and its characters slowly grab a hold of you. Not only is this probably one of Allen's strongest films in recent memory, but it is easily one of the better releases of 2005.

Much of the joy I had in watching Match Point was knowing very little about the film beforehand, so in all fairness, I will try to reveal as little as possible about the film's plot. Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) was once on his way to the top of the professional tennis circuit, but never quite had the ability to play against the greats. Moving to London and looking for a fresh start, he gets a job as a tennis instructor until he can figure out what he wants to do with his life. It is at this job that he meets a man who will change his life, Tom Hewitt (Matthew Goode) - the wealthy son of one of the richest families in the U.K. The two quickly become friends, and Tom invites Chris into his privileged world where Chris quickly wins favor with the family and even wins the affections of Tom's sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer).

Before long, Chris is seen as one of the family, and is even offered a high level job at the company that Tom's father owns. It is during this time that he meets Nola (Scarlet Johansson), a struggling American actress trying to make it in the London theater world, and Tom's future fiance. Tom's family is not as thrilled about Nola as they are about Chris, but there is a definite attraction between her and Chris which begins a secret affair. Nola is hesitant to betray the man she's promised herself too, but when Tom breaks off their relationship, it becomes harder for the two to deny their passionate feelings for one another. The deeper Chris goes into the relationship, the more he will rely on deceit - not only to guard his secret, but to also protect this new lifestyle he has come to enjoy.

Much like the tragic Opera music that makes up the film's soundtrack, Match Point is a personal tragedy about a man who is pushed to limits he didn't even know he had. The film is a compelling, dark, and quite unflinching look at an increasing world of lies and deception. Although the film has mainly been advertised as a forbidden love affair film, it goes and works much deeper than that. It is about chance and how the little things can affect our lives. Allen's screenplay starts off innocently enough, but it slowly and surely begins to hook its claws into you and refuses to let go for the rest of the film's running time. Like the best thrillers, it draws you in so subtly that you almost don't realize that it's happening. And just when you think you've figured the film out, it throws a curve that you may not see coming, but like the best of curves, it plays fair, makes sense, and does not seem desperate and cheap.

The real miracle that Match Point pulls off, however, is that it is able to explore the dark side of human nature without asking us to sympathize or without overly humanizing the characters' motives. At the same time, the characters, no matter how desperate and twisted their morals become, never become so hateful that we don't care about them. Allen achieves this tricky balance by showing us the world through their eyes, and by allowing us to share in their twisted rationalizing of their own actions. The film never asks us to understand what they're doing, it just gives us their reasoning. The lead character of Chris is a particularly interesting study as we see him change from a washed up almost-celebrity, to a man of high society, to a man who does not know what kind of life he wants anymore. He is at a constant struggle with himself to keep his life in balance, even though he himself is not sure if it is what he wants. Compare this to the film, Derailed, which came out a couple months ago, and also dealt with a man who was trying to keep his life together despite an affair with another woman and an increasing web of lies and deceit. Whereas Derailed treated the story as some sort of cartoon revenge fantasy where the lead character turned into a gun-toting vigilante that we were supposed to cheer for, Match Point is too smart for that. The lies and the resulting pain are all the more real and crushing because the screenplay treats its characters like real people.

A story such as this needs the right cast to tell it, and here Allen has done a wonderful job. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is soft-spoken, yet strong, in the lead role - a very complex character who must go through a range of emotions throughout the film. He is cold and distant, but not so much so as it feels like he is alienating the audience. Scarlet Johansson also gives a multi-layered performance in a very difficult role. Although she threatens to destroy the relationship Chris has with his unsuspecting wife, Chloe, she is not an "evil" character. Johansson is able to make us understand her side, and make her very relatable. It makes Michael Bay's comments last summer about how his failed summer blockbuster, The Island, flopped because she's an inexperienced actress all the more laughable. And, like just about all of Woody Allen's films, the soundtrack is almost a character in itself. His use of classic opera recordings throughout the entire film (complete with pop and hiss sound effects as they're being played directly off a record) sets an appropriate sad and almost distant mood.

Match Point is not without its flaws (it's a bit slow to start for one thing), but it is by far Allen's most assured and tightly written work in quite a long time. The film is a slow burn that eventually erupts into a quiet, yet powerful, explosion that will stay with you long after you've walked out of the theater. The film is currently stuck in a fairly limited release, but the effort to seek it out is highly worth it, I believe. This one took me by surprise, and hopefully you will have a similar experience when you see it.

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Saturday, February 04, 2006

When a Stranger Calls

In an increasingly long list of forgettable horror remakes including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, and The Fog, the 2006 update to When a Stranger Calls is certainly far from the worst of the bunch. Of course, if you've seen those other three remakes I mentioned, you probably already know that's faint praise. I do admire that director Simon West (Tomb Raider, Con Air) and first time screenwriter Jake Wade Wall have tried for something a bit more psychological instead of your standard teen slasher flick that the film's ad campaign makes it out to be. Running by at a breezy 83 minutes, the movie never wears out its welcome, and actually has a couple of successful scenes. But, thanks to some dodgy acting, some major lapses of logic in the screenplay, and a laughable music score that drones ominously even when nothing even remotely scary is going on, When a Stranger Calls is immediately disposable horror fluff prepacked for the teen market to scare up a decent weekend before it fades into obscurity.

When high school student Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle) agrees to babysit the children of a noted doctor who lives in a high-tech secluded mansion in the middle of nowhere, she's already been hit by a string of bad luck. She recently caught her boyfriend kissing her best friend, Tiffany (Katie Cassidy), and has been at war with both ever since. This little war of words between friends has led to a massive phone bill, and as such, Jill's parents have grounded her and taken away her phone and driving privileges for the rest of the month. Needless to say, poor Jill is pretty bummed. Her boyfriend and best friend are jerks, her parents are breathing down her neck, and now she has to babysit some kids while all her other friends get drunk and party. The night drags on, and eventually, she begins to receive ominous phone calls from a stranger (voice by Lance Henriksen). The calls start out as bizarre and ominous (heavy breathing for a couple of seconds, then hanging up), but quickly turn deadly serious once the stranger makes it known that he wants both Jill and the children she's watching over dead. It seems there's been a string of murders across different states, and Jill's the next target.

Rather than being slavishly faithful to the original 1979 film, the 2006 version takes the opening 20 minutes of that movie and extends it into feature length. The film takes place during the course of a single night as Jill receives an increasing number of ominous phone calls. She's not sure what to make of them at first. She thinks they're simple pranks being played on her by her fellow classmates. But, as the ominous clues start to build (the live-in housekeeper mysteriously vanishes half-way through the night, she sees the car of her best friend who came to visit her earlier in the driveway, even though the friend left over an hour ago), Jill becomes more fearful and begins to feel that she is being watched. The film makes good use of its enclosed surroundings and a growing sense of paranoia. This was a surprise to me, as the film's opening moments that showcase Jill's school and personal problems led me to think this was going to be a brainless teen horror yarn like I Know What You Did Last Summer. While I wouldn't quite label the movie as being intelligent, it did some things right that I wasn't expecting.

The film opens very strongly as it contrasts an ordinary night in a small suburb (a summer carnival, friendly neighbors greeting each other from the front porch) with the stranger stalking a victim. It's a good way to set up the villain, and is appropriately chilling as it cuts back and forth from small town American life to the brutal stalking and murder of a teenage girl and some young children. It's atmospheric, suitably creepy, and a great way to grab the audience's attention. Our attention takes a dip during the set-up scenes that introduce Jill, but once she gets to the house, things start to look up again for a while. The house itself is dripping with atmosphere, and director West knows how to use it to his advantage, even if he does fall back on just about every horror cliche in the book. But hey, at least he has some new ideas on old favorites. Not only do we get the pre-requisite "it's just a cat" scare, but we also get a "it's just the automatic ice maker in the refrigerator" scare! I think that's a new one...

The movie wants to be an 80-minute game of cat and mouse as the unsuspecting Jill is watched from the shadows by the murderous stranger who slowly makes his presence known as the film goes on. While a good idea, the film is not always successful at stretching out its thin premise to feature length. There are just too many scenes of Jill wandering around the house doing nothing, too many false alarms, and way too many scenes of Jill talking on the phone. It gets to the point that you almost think the phone company deserves a credit in the cast. It certainly doesn't help matters that the highly manipulative musical score is constantly trying to creep us out, even when we know there's no reason to be. It doesn't matter if Jill is talking to her best friend at school, or if she's grabbing a bite from the fridge, the film's soundtrack makes it sound like every action the characters make is ominous and mysterious. Because the movie is constantly trying to creep us out with false alarms literally ever 5 or 7 minutes, we almost start to roll our eyes. That's why it always comes as a surprise when that rare effective moment comes along.

More so than the stretching of the thin premise, the thing that really tested my patience is the just plain idiocy of Jill in order for there to be a movie. If you were alone in a house, and you noticed ominous signs that something had happened to the housekeeper, would you ignore it and wait 20-30 minutes before you start investigating? If you were receiving threatening phone calls from a murderer, would you wait 50 minutes before you decided to try to use the one phone in the house that has Caller ID? And just how did the best friend get into the house in the first place without triggering the house alarm, and bypass the electronic gate at the foot of the driveway, which is shown as being shut when Jill investigates the friend's abandoned car? And how about the scene where Jill discovers a dead body lying on the floor in plain view a good 3 minutes after entering a room? You'd think that would be the first thing her eyes would fall upon, especially since the body wasn't hidden very well. The movie contains numerous lapses of logic throughout which make it increasingly hard to take things seriously.

Due to the movie's isolated structure, Camilla Belle is pretty much forced to carry the entire movie on her own. At this, she is not entirely successful. While she's not a terrible actress, she seems to get a bit too afraid a bit too soon into the movie. And her reaction to the stranger telling her over the phone that he wants to see her covered in blood seems to suggest a rather inappropriate "ew...icky" rather than the sheer horror one would think would greet such an announcement. The rest of the cast mainly get one or two scenes each, so they fail to make any sort of impression. The only actor who stands out is Lance Henriksen who provides the phone voice of the stranger. (When he finally shows up during the last 10 minutes of the movie, he's played by a different actor.) He doesn't have very much dialogue, but he's appropriately unnerving in his line delivery.

Aside from a couple well-done scenes, there's very little worth looking into here. When a Stranger Calls clearly has no aspirations higher than milking some easy to scare teenage girls out of their allowance money. At this, I'm sure it will be successful. The movie is good at building atmosphere, but falls apart in the telling of the story. But still, it's tightly edited and makes good use of its limited surroundings. As far as escapism horror goes, this is pretty much second rate. But, at least they made somewhat of an effort, which is more than I was expecting walking into the theater.

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Brokeback Mountain

When describing Brokeback Mountain, the new controversial romantic drama by acclaimed director Ang Lee, many critics like to use words like "haunting", "beautiful", "lyrical", "poetic", and "memorable". I'd like to add a few more words to that list. Namely, "tedious", "monotonous", "repetitive", "padded", and most of all "overrated". While it's true that no movie could possibly live up to the amount of hype and praise that this film has generated over the past few months, Brokeback Mountain fails to surpass even the most lowered of expectations. Yes, the film is beautifully shot, and has a couple good performances to its credit, but the film's central love story struck no chord with me. It certainly doesn't help that Ang Lee has given his story an overly leisurely and lethargic tone that makes the 2 hour and 15 minute running time seem to stretch on for 5 hours. Strip away the controversial love story angle and the hype, and you're left with your standard forbidden love affair movie that wouldn't get half as much attention if it weren't for the fact that the two lovers just happen to be men.

The film chronicles a 20-year relationship between two young sheep herders (yes, they're "gay sheep herders", not "gay cowboys" as everyone else calls them) that meet initially in 1963. Ennis (Heath Ledger) is the strong silent type, while Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the more wild, rowdy type. They've been hired to tend sheep on Wyoming's Brokeback Mountain as the film opens. Spending their days alone together in the mountains with the sheep and the dogs, the two men strike up a bond that eventually turns physical as time goes on. When their job ends, they must return to their normal lives. Ennis marries his fiance, Alma (Michelle Williams), while Jack catches the eye of a beautiful rodeo queen named Lureen (Anne Hathaway) who is the heir to a big business in Texas. However, the two men never forget their time on Brokeback, and make periodic meetings every couple years to take "fishing trips" together. Ennis' wife discovers the truth about their relationship early on, but must hold back her feelings for the good of their growing family and children.

The rest of the film deals with the hardships the men find leading their double lives, and the effect their relationship has on those close to them. Jack is the dreamer, wanting to run away with Ennis and start a life on a ranch somewhere. Ennis, on the other hand, is more pessimistic. He knows their relationship could never be out in the open, as he's seen first hand what can happen to those who live outside of society's expectations. (When he was a child, he saw the body of a gay man who had been murdered in a Matthew Shepherd-style killing.) Tensions supposedly flare on all sides, but I couldn't tell, because the film's central characters are so dull, and the film seems to be more interested in padding its running time with seemingly-endless nature shots that drag on too long.

Though its premise is ripe for high drama, Brokeback Mountain fails because the movie is emotionally distant for the most part. Ennis and Jack are not interesting people, nor do they possess any real spark during their scenes together, so I never once believed their forbidden relationship. Both of the men lack any real character to their personalities. Just because Ennis is the strong and silent type doesn't mean he has to be completely dry and mumble most of his words to the point that you sometimes can't understand what he's saying. But that's exactly how Heath Ledger plays him. All of Ennis' scenes basically revolve around a few basic emotions - silent and steely, angry and bitter, violent and drunk, or passionate and lustful whenever he's around Jack. He keeps on repeating these same motions over and over throughout the entire movie, so you pretty much see everything the character has to offer before the film's hit the 45-minute mark, and we've still got an hour and a half left to go in the movie by that time. Jack, while being the more interesting of the two (he actually tries to show some form of complex emotion), also fails to grab our attention because the movie doesn't bother to develop him enough. He pops up every now and then, runs off with Ennis for a "fishing trip", pouts about how they can't be together all the time, then goes back to his wife at home. The movie keeps on repeating the same motions over and over again almost like clockwork. By hitting the same emotional notes over and over, Brokeback Mountain quickly becomes a repetitive experience.

The film is also sloppily edited. Not only does director Ang Lee seem to linger a bit too long on nature shots and scenes where absolutely nothing happens, but the scenes seem to have no coherent flow or reason. The movie often jumps from one scene to the next with no warning. Sometimes it even feels like a scene isn't over yet, but it moves onto the next scene anyway. A very good example is a scene where Ennis is walking to a bar in a bad mood after having an argument with his wife. He almost gets hit by a truck as he crosses the street. The driver of the truck yells at him, Ennis gets mad, and forces the driver out of the truck. A violent fistfight erupts between the two men, but the movie doesn't even bother to finish the scene. We see the two men fighting, and suddenly, the film jumps to a completely different scene without any warning. There is also a pointless scene where Ennis picks a fight with a couple of drunk bikers at a Fourth of July celebration. The movie keeps on adding scenes that have little to do with anything, so we wonder what the point is in the first place. There were many times when I thought the movie could be developing its characters further (especially some of the more underwritten ones like Jack's wife, Lureen), but instead, we get scenes where we get to see Heath Ledger leaning against a wall and smoking for about a minute and a half.

Another problem is that the movie does not do a successful job at expressing how much time is supposed to have passed. We can mostly tell by the dialogue (someone will say what year it is), or by the growth of Ennis' two daughters. Surprisingly Ennis and Jack seem to change very little in the 20 or so years that the film covers. Ennis looks pretty much the same in the early 80s then he did in 1963 when the film begins. As for Jack, the filmmakers gray his hair a little, and add a very distracting mustache to his face that, as one other critic pointed out, kind of makes him look like one of the Village People. Thanks to the sloppy editing, the film seems to jump around from year to year with little clue to the audience as to just exactly how much time is supposed to have passed.

That's not to say the film's all bad. Even though I think the movie lingers a bit too long on the shots, the nature cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto is certainly beautiful. And although the lead performances are a mixed bag (Heath Ledger's decision to mumble most of his dialogue is a grave miscalculation), there is one very strong performance that stands out in the film, and that belongs to Michelle Williams who plays Ennis' tortured wife, Alma. She is sympathetic and powerful in her performance, particularly in a scene where she confronts her husband about his "fishing trips". This 3 minute scene holds more emotion and power than the entire rest of the film's running time, and is one of the few scenes that actually hint at a much better and more interesting movie. Her recent Academy Award nomination is well deserved, and is one of the few nominations this film received that I actually agree with.

Brokeback Mountain, much like other failed Oscar bait dramas this past year like Syriana and Memoirs of a Geisha, is an Emperor without any clothes. It's so meandering and repetitive that I almost have to wonder how anyone can praise it to the skies the way many have. The movie attempts nothing new at its core, it's simply an old story of forbidden love given a new coat of paint by having the two lovers be men. That's not enough for me. The movie doesn't dig deep enough and it doesn't hit hard enough. It is emotionally cold and distant when it should be warm and passionate. It is dull and pointless when it should be engaging and heartbreaking. I admire what the film tried to do, but it just failed to grab my attention. I'm sure many of you reading will disagree with me, so be it. I couldn't call this site "Reel Opinions" if I wasn't honest. To those of you who lavish this movie with praise, I ask if you would do so if the couple at the core of the story were a man and a woman. It's unique angle is all this film has going for it. Brokeback Mountain is nothing more than a gimmick disguised as high art.

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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Big Momma's House 2

I thought I'd start this review off a little differently than normal by asking all of you a multiple choice question...

Which of the three sequels listed below is nothing but a desperate attempt for comic star, Martin Lawrence, to hold onto what little bit of celebrity he has left in the industry? Is it...

A: Ice Age 2: The Meltdown
B: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
C: Big Momma's House 2

If you chose C, not only are you right, but you're probably too smart to waste your time and your money on this unwanted and lame sequel.

Much like last week's Underworld: Evolution, I walked into this film with no knowledge of the previous entry. And believe me, I think I'll be fine going through life without the knowledge of what happens in Big Momma's House 1. Martin Lawrence plays FBI agent Malcolm Turner, and as the film opens, things are not going well. He's been stuck with a desk job, and is now forced to make public appearances at elementary schools as a safety mascot. His wife (Nia Long) is also very pregnant, and is pressuring him to make some changes in his life for his new role as family man, such as selling his beloved car for a minivan. When an agent friend of Malcolm's is killed while going undercover and investigating a computer hacker ring that plans to sell a disc containing all of the US government's secrets to our foreign enemies, Malcolm sees his chance to get back into the action game that he longs for.

It seems that one of the people involved in this ring is a family man, and said family has just placed an ad for a nanny to watch over the kids while the workaholic parents ignore them. Going against the wishes of his superiors at the FBI and his wife (he lies, and tells her he's going to a safety mascot convention), Malcolm dons his "Big Momma" disguise once more, and poses as an applicant for the nanny position so he can get some information on the father, and his role in the crime. While Malcolm initially thinks he can just blow the family off and concentrate on his private investigation, he quickly learns that this is one messed up family, and that they desperately need the guidance of his Big Momma personality. The parents are strict, overly orderly workaholics who schedule every single second of their family's day, the eldest child is a rebellious goth dating a "bad boy", middle daughter needs help with her dance routine for a cheerleading squad, and the youngest toddler son is apparently suicidal since he enjoys jumping from high ledges and falling on his face over and over repeatedly. Even the family dog is emotionally depressed after witnessing its mate dive into a wood chipper to fetch a ball. Malcolm will teach them how to be a family again, and they will supposedly teach him the importance of family, even though I have no idea how since he blows off his wife who is going to give birth any day to go undercover as Big Momma, but she forgives him anyway for no reason whatsoever.

Martin Lawrence seems to be trying to escape his raunchy image and turn himself into a second rate Eddie Murphy. If you're going to imitate Murphy's career, at least try to imitate the early years when he was actually funny. Lawrence seems to be dipping into the Dr. Dolittle/Daddy Day Care well for inspiration. For the life of me, I can't figure out the point of this movie. Is there really a big enough of an audience willing to pay to see Martin Lawrence in a fat suit not once, but twice? That seems to be the audience Fox is banking on, as that's what most of the film is based around. It's episodic structure follows the Big Momma character as "she" is dragged into one wacky situation after another. The plot and characters almost seem to be an afterthought, as subplots and characters are introduced only to be dropped completely or never seen from again. The movie doesn't even care about the main hacker plot, as the villains are scarcely seen except for the final climax. It's simply all an excuse to get Martin Lawrence back in that stupid and unconvincing fat suit.

I have to say, the very second "Big Momma" stepped onto the screen, I had a hard time convincing myself that anyone could mistake him for a woman, unless everyone around Malcolm has the intelligence of Jell-o pudding. He looks, talks, and acts nothing at all like a woman. Rather, Big Momma looks like a stand up comic from a sketch show impersonating a woman for laughs. In a 5 minute sketch setting, the character would probably work. But looking at Big Momma for 85 of a 100 minute long movie was just way too much. I kept on asking myself how the character of Malcolm could be fooling anyone, especially since he routinely slips out of character within ear shot of the family he's supposed to be investigating, yet no one ever notices. Since the Big Momma character is forced to carry almost the entire film, the movie fails, because we never once believe what we're looking at on the screen, even though we're in on the joke. We don't buy the concept that this guy could fool anyone, so therefore, we don't buy anything that happens afterward.

Since the movie fails at its sole purpose, the rest of the movie feels completely empty and hollow. As I mentioned earlier, the script is a total mess with characters who are mere afterthoughts and disappear into the background. The villains are so underwritten, I almost forgot they were around when they finally showed up near the end to kidnap one of the children. There's a child hacker character who is enlisted by the FBI to help on the case, but he too is let go shortly after being introduced, just appearing in the background now and then. And then there is Nia Long, who plays Malcolm's wife. Not only is her character underwritten to the point of non-existence, but the script doesn't even bother to wrap up her plot successfully, which is tied into the main "family is everything" theme of the movie!! This is just lazy writing when your movie is more interested in having a guy in a fat suit performing in a cheerleading competition with 10 year olds than in bringing forth your message that the kids in the audience are supposed to bring home with them. The final scene of Malcolm happily walking with his wife, stepson, and new baby is supposed to make us smile, but it just left me scratching my head, since the movie failed to explain how or why his wife forgave him for running out on her and lying to her when she was due to give birth any day.

Big Momma's House 2 is as lazy and as desperate a sequel as I have ever seen. It's a one joke movie, and that joke was told the first time around, so there's absolutely no reason for this sequel. Don't tell that to the filmmakers, however, as the ending seems to be hopeful for a Big Momma's House 3 in the future. Although that's a scary thought, I can't picture it being more inept or creatively bankrupt than this. I hope no executive at the Fox studio happens to read this review and sees that statement as a challenge. How bad is Big Momma's House 2? The original film's director, Raja Gosnell, wouldn't come back. When you can't lure back the director of Home Alone 3, the Scooby-Doo movies, and Your's Mine, and Ours - that's pretty darn bad.

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