Archive for the ‘1.5-Star Movies’ Category

365 – Atonement

January 11, 2008

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this movie is a twisty-curvy, tightly plotted suspense thriller on the order of Notes on a Scandal. Instead of a plot that takes plausible but largely unforeseeable left turns, Atonement’s story is obvious, too blunt, and crackling with cliche. Everything, from the haphazard direction and editing to the numb acting, is a bit of an embarrassment to all involved.

Wildly overrated, Atonement is closer in style and scope to a Merchant-Ivory film, so if that’s your cup of tea, you might like this one a little more than I did. But it’s more like the dimwitted, held-back-in-school bastard child of such films, because although it contains all the proper hoity-toity attitude and pretty costumery, it has none of the subtlety or charm – in short, the characters are all largely unsympathetic, giving the audience no one to root for. This isn’t always a deal breaker for me, but when the characters are dull, vapid, vacuous space takers, it does sort of put a damper on things.

At age 13, Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is a pretentious, self-possessed newbie writer. She’s supposed to be a child prodigy of sorts, but she seems more perfunctory than imaginative (to be sure, we don’t get much of a glimpse of her writing efforts at that age; it’s merely implied how great she is). She harbors a crush on the handsome, strapping son (James McAvoy) of her wealthy family’s housekeeper, who has long had eyes for Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). On a hot summer day, Briony illicitly reads a note from Robbie (McAvoy) intended for Cecilia (gasp) and then later sees something she shouldn’t have. Subsequently the girl swears to seeing something she definitely didn’t see, her perspective colored by her feelings for Robbie and her interception of the note. This irrevocably alters the lives of all three, of course.

The movie jumps around quite a bit, timewise, which at one point was an interesting approach to filmmaking but more often than not nowadays seems sort of played out and unnecessary; here it’s done to confuse the audience a little bit, some trickery thrown in to distract from the fact that the plot itself is fairly bland and melodramatic. Because of Briony’s misinterpretation, Robbie winds up in prison and later in the military, fighting in WW II. Much of the film describes his attempts to get back to London to be with Cecilia. Cecilia, meanwhile, works as a waitress – a job that’s a bit lower than her family’s station should allow. Briony forgoes attending an exclusive writing academy and becomes a nurse, all owing to her guilt (not to mention her obstinancy).

But what does it all mean? That one person’s sworn testimony can screw up the lives of somewhat-innocent people? Oh, there’s news. In the end, it all feels like much ado about nothing. Has Briony truly atoned for her sin? Of course not. She didn’t have the guts to say anything when she had the power to do so; to make herself feel better, she writes a novel over the course of the rest of her life. So, no real atonement, just a general sense of comfort and insincere assuaging of guilt.

I think that’s the crux of the issue here – the movie feels insincere. Are Robbie and Cecilia madly in love, or do they just want to have hot sex all the time? Little in the early half of the movie indicates the former, and plenty of evidence is shown for the latter. But even if they are in love… well, here is where the issue of What the Movie Is crops up; this is not a psychological thriller, it’s a dopey romance movie. It’s a chick flick, even with some truly garish and probably unnecessary war scenes. (Do we really need to see burn victims? How does this further the plot?) The script is even based on a romance novel, by Ian McEwan. If pining for lost loves sounds like a grand old time to you, by all means dive into this murky, tortured movie.

As for the casting, it’s not terrible. Knightley, who has said she wants to play more mature roles, continues to look like a tal, bug-eyed boy, with her shapeless, bony figure. She’s not a bad actress, but she might have been a little in over her depth here; at no point did I feel sympathy toward Cecilia, although she’s supposed to be a victim here. McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) looks a little more girlish here than Knightley does, what with his impossibly red lips, even in the war scenes.

So. If you’re expecting a thick-plotted, twisty thriller about what happens when a lie spirals out of control, this is not the movie for you; if you like costume dramas with actors rising to their material, this is also not the movie for you; if you like love stories with no apparant happy ending and actors sinking to melodramatic depths, this is a winner.

*1/2

364 – Spider-Man 3

January 8, 2008

Spider-Man 3 might be best subtitled, “Peter Parker Grows a Pair.” That would seem like an endearing quality if this was a coming-of-age movie about the sand-in-the-face nerd finally overcoming bullies and low self-esteem to win the girl of his dreams, but it’s not so wonderful or interesting in a superhero movie.

Sure, Spidey DOES have low self-esteem, and sure, Peter Parker IS a nerdy little twit, but he’s no weakling – that ship has long since sailed. Now, Spider-Man is the hero of children across the city, so there’s less reason to empathize with him, to identify our own uncoolness within Parker.

The problems with this movie are manifold. To begin with, the webslinger has far too many bad guys to face. First, there’s the Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), an escaped convict who fell into a particle accelerator and now has the properties of, well, sand. Then there’s an alien parasite, conveniently falling from the sky so it can latch onto Peter and bring out the worst in his repressed personality. Then there’s Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), a supremely vicious rival photographer. Oh, and Harry Osborn (James Franco), the son of the Green Goblin; he thinks Spidey killed his pop (he didn’t), and he knows Peter is Spidey (oops). So you can imagine what’s on Harry’s mind.

With all of these villains, you’d think there’d be plenty of conflict.  Clearly, however, the writers felt something else was needed, so they invented a highly contrived plot thread in which Peter (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane’s (Kirsten Dunst) relationship disintegrates. It should be no surprise to you whatsoever that somehow this relationship gets resuscitated by movie’s end. They’re together! They’re apart! They hate each other! They love each other! You’ll hate them both! And what bugs me more than the obviousness, the sheer craptastic predictability of the relationship angle, is that both MJ and Peter act like completely selfish, rotten jerks to each other – and we’re supposed to eat that up. Apparently, we’re supposed to think, “Hey, yeah, that’s exactly how it is!” Supporters of the movie might point to the fact that Peter’s under Venom’s control when he’s treating MJ like garbage, but that’s not true – he’s a creep to her well before Venom shows up. He’s smug, self-centered, clearly soaking up the adoration of the city like he was Donald Trump handing out low-income housing in Brooklyn. Okay, maybe not that smug, but still. Peter Parker, in this movie, behaves exactly opposite from what makes Peter Parker interesting to the rest of us in the first place – that he is an insecure dweeb who happens to have superpowers. A crass, smarmy punk is not appealing.

There’s one telling scene – it was in the trailer, too – that shows Peter strutting down the street, wearing the Venom costume under his normal clothes, and every girl stops to stare at this supposed virile paragon of masculinity. Yeah, Peter Parker. The problem is that Tobey Maguire isn’t much of an actor, and when he has to stray from the golly-gee innocent-lamb of Peter Parker, his inabilities are completely exposed. In short, he sucks ass. He can’t carry a scene without putting on a mask and looking like he’s swinging on some web-like substance. The casting of Maguire made sense originally, because he looks exactly like the kind of doofus nitwit you’d expect Peter Parker to be, but in this movie, when he has to be more than just that doofus, Maguire can’t hack it.

Speaking of looking like he’s swinging …. isn’t the whole purpose of CGI to make awesome things look real? Remember back in the day when actors would be in a car, appearing to drive through a city, when it was obvious they were on a set with the city scene playing in the background? I mean, on the cheaper films, it was pretty clear what was going on. The CGI in this movie is a lot like that. When Spider-Man is swinging between buildings, it looks like they took Maguire jumping around and plopped it onto a city background. It looks terrible, and it’s distracting.

So, let’s recap. Too many villains (they should have stuck with Sandman and Harry), a shallow, ridiculous relationship, poor special effects, and bad acting, at least on  Maguire’s part. But hey, I can’t blame him entirely – Sam Raimi’s script turns Spider-Man into Emo Spidey – complete with stereotypical Goth haircut and dull monotone! And who knew that simply wearing the Venom costume could make one an accomplished jazz pianist and dancer? With all of these obvious inadequacies, you’d think that the door would finally be closed on this series, but since the movie did well, you can bet a S-M 4 will pollute the theaters sooner rather than later.

*1/2

355 – Lions for Lambs

November 18, 2007

“Whatever it takes,” says Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) to journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) as he explains his foolproof plan to save the world from the scourge of terrorism. Too bad director Robert Redford didn’t apply the same sort of balls-out approach to this film, because what we’re left with seems more like a commercial, either for the armed forces, the starched-shirt suits who run wars from their armchairs, or the pompous professors who presume to know everything. Bah to all of it, I say.

The movie’s told in three intertwining parts. In one, a college professor (Redford) talks with one of his many apathetic students (Andrew Garfield) about idealism and acting on principles and doing something, even if it is destined for failure, instead of doing nothing at all. To illustrate his overreaching, heavy-handed points, Redford’s Malley talks about two previous students of his (Michael Pena, Derek Luke) who left the friendly confines of college life to enlist in the current Iraq war.

In the second story, Irving grants an interview to Roth (an hour long one-on-one session, exactly mirroring the professor-student talk) in which he will lay out his grand new plan to retake Afghanistan from the Taliban. For Irving, the interview is a way for him to resell the war to the American public through the use of a very-willing American press. For Roth, it’s a way to get information that no one else in the ultracompetitive media world will have, as it’s an exclusive interview. But who is using whom? Redford wants us to believe that the press is being used by the government, but that’s hardly news; he would also prefer that we think that Roth, representing the media, understands now how much of a shill she and her colleagues have become, but Roth’s actions in that direction come much, much too late in the movie. She certainly should have been pushing Irving a lot harder than she was; instead, she seemed content to sit back and ask the occasional probing question. The underlying effect of this is that Irving’s neocon senator gets to make a long, barely contested speech about saving the world from terror is awesome, and by golly if you don’t agree then you must hate freedom, and blah blah blah. Such posturing would make some sense if any of the jingoistic points made by Irving were addressed, even refuted, but no. For some reason Redford just lets the words hang out there.

The third story involves Malley’s two former students, now Special Forces rangers in the middle of the new operations launched by Irving. For much of the movie, they’re trapped behind enemy lines, one very badly injured, the other trapped in a snowbank, with Taliban members closing in. They don’t know if their fellow soldiers can get to them in time. In the closing moments of the film, one of them makes a decision so disturbingly stupid that it negates all the evidence seen to that point that the two former students had any kind of wits or intelligence about them.

Watching this movie, you can’t help but feel like Redford is smacking you across the head with a 2 x 4, screaming that we need to stand up or fall down or some such emptyheaded nonsense. Like Jasper Irving, Redford’s film offers no ideas, no real food for thought; he’s selling us an vague concept as political theater. Lions for Lambs is a gelatinous dessert, full of sound, half-empty with fury, and signifying nothing new.

*1/2

320 – Hostel: Part II

June 10, 2007

Hostel 2 is a totally different movie from Hostel 1. This time, it’s three dimwitted female Americans, whereas last time it was two dimiwitted male Americans and their equally dimwitted European friend. It’s these differences that are necessary for a sequel to separate itself from its progenitor.

As in the first movie, the Americans are lured to a lurid youth hostel in Slovakia, whereupon they’re to be tortured in inventive manners by rich businessmen from around the world. The young women are Beth (Lauren German), the smart-but-cute one (not too pretty but certainly not a fugly); Whitney (Bijou Phillips), the mean-and-skanky one; and Lorna (Heather Matarazzo), the shy, sneezy one. (There you go, the Three Clueless Dwarfs: Smarty, Skanky, and Sneezy.)The girls are headed to Prague when a sexy stranger (Vera Jordanova) tells them about therapeutic hot springs in Slovakia. Being raised to be cautious around strangers, the girls don’t decide to take their new friend’s advice until they’ve all had some time for girl talk.

Only one true spirit can survive a horror movie, and it’s pretty easy to figure out who’s being positioned as the Good Guy who will live to see Hostel 3: Robots in Your Bedroom. By the same token, it’s also easy to see who among the bad, evil torturin’ rich dudes will turn out to be hunky dory. We know this because there’s an inordinate amount of time spent on the two guys who win the auction that gives them the right to torture Beth and Whitney. One of the guys seems reticent, almost unsure whether he wants to get into this business at all, while his buddy is gung ho and ready to start some creepy pain-giving.

The method that the secret torture society uses is unchanged; they plant young travelers in the hostel and pay them to lure the tourists to their doom. The hostel itself is complicit, as the creepy-looking desk clerk scans the girls’ passports and puts their pictures on the auction site, thus setting the bidding in motion. And they would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for these meddling kids. Oh, wait, that implies they don’t get away with it.

Blah, blah, blah, the kids get separated, despite all omens of Bad Things Afoot. I mean, look, they’re alone in a foreign country, and most of the citizens don’t speak English. They’re the very picture of Ugly Americans, in that they think nothing could possibly happen to them, no matter how loutish they behave. It doesn’t speak well for the movie when you quickly hope not only that they’re captured and tortured but that it’s sooner rather than later. You’re supposed to be rooting for these three girls (yeah, I know, they’re technically women, but they don’t act like it), and yet they’re so annoying, so steadfastly stupid, and so perfectly one dimensional that you openly wish for their demise. Bad start.

When we finally do get to the torture scenes, our rooting interest hasn’t really changed, although we know in our hearts that our feisty girls are going to come out on top somehow. Well, at least one of them, anyway. As with the first movie, there are some truly garish gore scenes; this isn’t a movie for those with weak constitutions, although oddly enough no one throws up on screen. Just lots and lots and lots of blood.

The movie feels particularly misogynistic, too; in the first one, the guys were ultimately killed because they were simply overpowered and outwitted and outgunned by the bad guys, but in this one the girls suffer because they are dumb and flighty and self-absorbed. Here’s a good indication of how bad the movie is – people are killed, tortured, maimed, what have you, but what REALLY sets off our heroine is a certain four-letter word that begins with the letter C. Yes, up till that point – when she’d been shackled and humiliated – she was as tolerant as she could be, but man, once the Bad Guy calls her a C-word, oh NO HE DIDN’T! At that point you just know she’s gonna be okay, and he might not be.

There’s an interesting opening bit that ties the end of the first film to this one, but that’s about the only connection there is between the two, other than the general rich-American-kids-get-tortured-and-killed bit. It’s actually one of the more suspenseful and powerful scenes in the entire movie. But overall this is a dead movie, listlessly throwing buckets of blood at the audience in hopes that something goopy will stick. It’s a prime example of a sequel that’s been mailed in, what with a nearly identical plot. There are a couple of twists tossed in to keep things mildly interesting, but it’s all for nothing. And the ending is completely unnecessary, other than to prepare us for the next installment of a so-called franchise that should have quit at one.

*1/2

309 – My Super Ex-Girlfriend

March 19, 2007

Uma Thurman is a superheroine who falls for schlumpy everyman Luke Wilson, who then dumps her, and we find out the True Meaning of a woman scorned. This makes no sense, of course, since she’s supposedly the Good Guy, but it’s explained away by the unassailable reasoning that all ex-girlfriends are certifiable.

In fact, the movie’s conundrum is that because Thurman’s G-Girl/Jenny Johnson is wacko, should we be rooting for her or against her? And when Wilson’s Matt falls for a cute coworker (Anna Faris) instead, are we supposed to be on her side, or Jenny’s?

The women in the audience, of course, are probably supposed to think Jenny’s in the right, because she’s been wronged. If I’d seen this in the theater, I’d probably hear endless “You go girls.” This is what passes for self-actualization, the empowerment of women by way of destroying men. Watching the movie, you know full well that somehow, even with all the violence and insanity perpetuated by Jenny, she’ll wind up on the good side of things.

Meanwhile, the men are all nodding their heads in sympathy. “I hear ya, man,” as they watch Matt put up with Jenny’s crap. And then wincing as she zaps him with heat vision. Man, that’s gotta hurt.

Wilson is underwhelming in the lead; it’s almost as if he’s playing the role of the sincere best friend instead of the charming (if ordinary) Everyman. He doesn’t have the effortless charisma of his older brother Owen, and that strong personality is missing. Then again, Thurman’s acting style is to underplay most roles, even tough ones like Beatrice in Kill Bill. That would be fine here if her role wasn’t that of a psychotic, neurotic superhero; instead of giving the character some depth or nuance, Thurman’s performance felt superficial and artificial, as if it were spit out of the RoboActor 4000.

Adding to the dull leads were Rainn Wilson as Best Bud Vaughn, an incorrigible womanizer, and Faris as Hannah, Matt’s actual Tru Luv 4 Evah. Wilson’s okay, although poor writing makes his character more annoying than you’d think he’d be. Faris is blah. She’s always blah, though, so I wasn’t disappointed. She does look good, though, so there’s that.

Getting a special dishonorable mention is the terrible, constipated performance by Wanda Sykes. With her nails-on-a-chalkboard voice combined with a cranky, bitchy attitude, Sykes does grievous harm to the movie. Take her useless character out of the equation (she plays Matt’s boss, who sees sexual harassment everywhere, so you know right away she’s annoying as can be), and you could bump this rating up a half star.

Even the effects were kind of lame. So G-Girl can fly. And of course, there’s the obligatory bring-the-not-flying-dude-up-above-the-city thing. But so what? Considering how many superhero movies there have been lately – and this was released right after Superman Returns – the action scenes aren’t anything you haven’t seen before. Add to that the fact that G-Girl (the reason for this moniker is never explained) indiscriminately wrecks cars and buildings while trying to avenge the breakup, thus putting innocent people in constant mortal peril, and you get a convoluted mishmash of shady, ambiguous motivations.

I think that if about 20 minutes had been chopped out of this Ivan Reitman film, it might have been palatable. There’s too much standard romantic-comedy crap in there. Of COURSE Jenny has to screw up Matt’s Big Day at work, with his Big Presentation in front of the new Chinese clients. I mean, duh. And of course, at the denouement, every freaking secondary character except Sykes’ shows up, some for no particular reason at all. It’s as if there were several writers, each working in his or her own trailer on separate planets, and the results were fed into the Script Generator O’ Awesomeness, and this is what we get. Same for the editing, come to think of it.

Bah. Worst part of it all is that Matt doesn’t break up with Jenny until the movie’s halfway over! I mean, it’s in the title! Look! That’d be like having a movie called Superman Returns, only he doesn’t come back until Metropolis has already had its ass kicked and the plane’s crashed, and General Zod rules the world. When a movie can’t even deliver effectively on its own title, you know you’re in for a world of hurtin’.

*1/2

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Dr. Blurbenstein, I presume?

January 15, 2007

(Originally published on September 28, 1994  in The Gleaner of Rutgers University-Camden.)

Being Human

*1/2

This karmic drama stars Robin Williams as five men in five diffferent time periods, all cosmically connected. All are struggling to find happiness; all are failing. We follow each character through the ages via an omnipresent narrator (Theresa Russell).

There are many problems concerning this movie, perhaps too many to mention. We’ll try to cover as many as we can in the short space we have. The film, if it needs to be classified, is sort of a cross between Hook and Mrs. Doubtfire; in each of those films Williams needs to win back the love of his kids. In Being Human, Williams is forever trying to win love lost and love never gained.

The primary crime committed by this heinous shadow of entertainment is the writing, or lack thereof. Writer-director Bill Forsyth has created a script which is neither funny nor sad, which has few action scenes and no room for pathos or compassion. None of the five mini-stories ends satisfactorily; in fact, we know less about Williams’ characters than when we first met him! Additionally, there are several contrived scenes, and illogic reigns supreme.

Williams, who usually is believable in any movie, seems miscast; however, it should be noted that his mere presence in this waste of celluloid raises its rating by a half-star. He provides effortless charisma, when permitted by the compact script. Unfortunately, he is not allowed to be funny at all, which is his primary talent!

There is little reason to recommend this film; you could watch it for Williams or because you are a true masochist at heart. As for the supporting cast, John Turturro is off-kilter as a Greek who owns slave Williams; Lorraine Bracco is quickly glimpsed as Williams’ modern-day girlfriend; and Hector Elizondo is fine as a pioneering priest. Skip it unless it’s two-for-one night at the video store.

The Snapper

***

This quirky little British comedy was a pleasant surprise this year. It centers on the problems a 20-year-old unwed girl experiences when she learns she’s pregnant — and won’t divulge the father’s name to anyone, including her befuddled father (Colm Meaney of Star Trek: The Next Generation)!Tina Kellegher plays the unfortunate girl, who steadfastly tries to hold back with any full explanations, until the incident snowballs into a neighborhood-wide situation, with most of the people siding against her and her father becoming bloodied due to his defense of her.

This is a sweet, delightful film; full of laughs and excellent one-liners. Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liasons, The Grifters) once again exercises deft direction and a good eye for detail.

Son of 1995 blurbs

January 15, 2007

(Originally published spring 1995 in The Gleaner of Rutgers University-Camden.)

Airheads: This could have been a fun one. Three dimwitted metalheads are desperate to have their demo tape played on the radio, so they take over a station armed with toy guns and a lot of cahones. This plays out like Wayne’s World meets Dog Day Afternoon, although any resemblance to those two superior movies ends there. Brendan Fraser, Steve Buscemi, and Adam Sandler star, with support from Michael McKean, Joe Mantegna, Chris Farley, Ernie Hudson and Michael Richards. *1/2

Baby’s Day Out: Another comedy from John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), who seems to be returning to the Home Alone well. Baby Bink has been kidnapped, and somehow eludes his captors long enough to wander New York City untethered. Story is simple, but effects and the baby’s charm are so good, who cares? ***

Blown Away: Perhaps the only real crime perpetrated by this film was that it came out in the theatres around the same time as Speed. Jeff Bridges is a bomb-squadder in Boston; an over-the-top Tommy Lee Jones is his nemesis.. Plot is predictable, but effects are eye-popping and nearly make up for the over-acting. **1/2

The Client: The third John Grisham novel turned into a movie, about a boy who may know a crucial Mob secret, isn’t bad; although it takes several liberties with the plot. (For example, Susan Sarandon’s character was an older black woman in the book.) But overall it’s fine entertainment, with Sarandon’s endearing work and Tommy Lee Jones’ galvanizing performance major assets. Only drawback: the abrasive, shallow portrayal of the boy himself. **1/2

I Love Trouble: Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte star as competing Chicago reporters after the same breaking story. They start out at each other’s throats, but (surprise!) they fall for each other in the end. Few sparks fly between the leads, and this miscasting (plus a stilted script) sink this film. **

Maverick: Side-splitting western/comedy stars Mel Gibson as the itinerant gambler; Jodie Foster as his love interest, a bettor herself; and James Garner as the intrepid lawman keeping tabs on them both. Fantastic performances by all three charismatic leads, a hilarious script, and some excellent action scenes make this a must-see for everyone. ***1/2

North: Elijah Wood (Forever Young, The Adventures of Huck Finn) plays a boy who decides he’s had enough of his neglected parents, so he declares himself a free agent and travels the globe looking for replacements. Rob Reiner’s (This is Spinal Tap, When Harry Met Sally…) comedy was supposed to be funny and touching, but fails miserably. Too many stereotypes and too many colorless jokes remove any potency this film may have had. Bruce Willis contributes in a hilarious minor role as, among other things, a giant bunny rabbit. **

Renaissance Man: Danny DeVito, an out-of-work ad man, is relegated to teaching slightly mentally deficient Army soldiers remedial English. Penny Marshall (Big, A League of Their Own) gives us another heartwarmer, but this one doesn’t jump into sappiness, thanks to DeVito’s personality. If only all Shakespeare was taught like this. **1/2

The Stoned Age: Terribly inferior rip-off of Dazed and Confused, with lots of loud, hard-edged music and little else. Two druggie high school pals are in search of the perfect party… among other things. Amateurish acting is supplemented by godawful script. A waste of time. **

True Lies : Watch out! Arnie’s back in the action biz again! For those of you who loathed Last Action Hero, here’s your reward! Schwarzenegger plays a super-spy for a super-secret U.S. organization who’s successfully hidden his true job from his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis)… until now. Arnold’s great as always, and James Cameron can direct an actioner like no one else, but the effects are the big attraction here. Watch a bridge get torched by missles and Arnie pilot a Harrier jet. ***1/2

Wagons East!: John Candy died while making this turkey; you’ll die watching it. And I don’t mean by laughing, either. This offensively bad comedy/western has nothing going for it; even Candy’s role careens between pathos and slapstick, and doesn’t do either emotion well. A lot of talent wasted, and hardly a fitting end to such a glorious career. *

Blurbs from 1995

January 15, 2007

(Originally published on February 11, 1996 in The Gleaner of Rutgers University-Camden.)

Whole buncha shorties here, folks.

Dangerous Minds: Michelle Pfeiffer plays an ex-Marine who teaches inner-city schools. Excuse me? Talk about casting against type. And didn’t we see the same movie, more or less, in Stand and Deliver and Lean on Me? Hey, even Dead Poet’s Society is similar. Pfeiffer is great, of course, but the script isn’t. C

Desperado: Robert Rodriguez’ big-budget followup to El Mariachi is a tale of vengeance and romance in the West. Starring Antonio Banderas as a musician with more ammo than Rambo and more charisma than Don Juan, Desperado is an exhilarating experience, full of explosions. With Quentin Tarantino, Cheech Marin and Steve Buscemi. Grade: A

Kids: This is the movie about 14-year-olds growing up in the big city. Sure, they’re just like everyone else’s kids, except these jokers drink and do drugs about as often as, say, Tommy Chong. Specifically, there is one girl in search of the boy who not only deflowered her (and who is well on his way to making it two virgins in 24 hours) but who might very well have given her the AIDS virus. A sad commentary on today’s society, yes; but in the end we don’t give a damn about the kids, and the film offers no possible solutions. C-

Jade: Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, who scored with Basic Instinct, tried to recapture his glory with this film and Showgirls. Neither panned out. Starring David Caruso, Chazz Palmenteri and Linda Fiorentino in a web of intrigue and boredom. D

Living in Oblivion: An independent film about the making of an independent film. And who better to play the independent film maker than Steve Buscemi? This movie is so believable that it’ll have you thinking this is all actually happening. One quickly forgets that there are cameras behind the cameras. With James LeGros and Dermot Mulroney (who’s excellent). A-

Lord of Illusions: If you like Clive Barker, you’ll love this tale of a detective (Scott Bakula) who specializes in investigating the occult. Barker himself directed his own script here, and the result is a fluid (if gory) horror treat. B+

National Lampoon’s Senior Trip: This series ran out of gas as soon as Chevy Chase stopped making those Vacation films. Remember when the Lampoon label meant cheap-but-sincere laughs? No more. This is not a brainy movie, but it does feature some cool stunts and funny jokes. And Tommy Chong is always good for a few chuckles. D

The Net: Sandra Bullock is the type of actress who seems to be getting the same roles in every film. She’s a sad-sack lovelorn, communicating only through her modem and telephone. Then — surprise! — she gets wind of a cyberterrorist threat when a evil group deletes her life, which is, of course, on the computer (you know, credit cards, medical history, financial statement). It’s supposed to be a thriller; it’s not. And Bullock isn’t all that good in it. C

Nine Months: This is a pedestrian movie until the scene in the delivery room. Unfortunately, this comes when the film is mostly over, but it more than makes up for any prior lapses. Hugh Grant stars as a young, upwardly mobile man who is suddenly saddled (he thinks) by impending fatherhood. B

Priest: This sleeper centers on a priest (Linus Roache) who knows a very terrible secret about one of his young parishoners, but who is, of course, bound by his vows not to discuss the matter. On top of that, he has his own confessions to sort out. Riveting and fascinating. A winner by all counts, though some may be put off by some graphic scenes. A

Something to Talk About: Once upon a time Julia Roberts was cool. No more. Here she’s a Southern wife who has caught her hubby (Dennis Quaid) with another woman. Does she succumb to her upbringing, or does she leave him? Who cares? Only Kyra Sedgewick (as her sister) and Gena Rowlands (as her mom) are entertaining. C

Under Siege 2: Dark Territory: Whereas the cool part of the first one was that Steven Seagal got some actual support from his supporting actors, this one relies on the wit and wisdom of Eric Bognosian, not Gary Busey and Tommy Lee Jones. Luckily, Seagal refrained from directing himself, for which we can all be thankful. Still, it’s not that good. C-

The Usual Suspects: A cinematic rarity: a movie with a lot of twists and turns that you might have figured out — only to discover you weren’t even close. Bearing a slight resemblence to Reservoir Dogs, this is the story of five thieves, brought together for a big job from disparate sources by an unseen force. One of the top movies of the year. A+

292 – Nacho Libre

December 5, 2006

Jack Black is a Mexican friar who secretly is a masked wrestler, or luchador. He has the hots for a cute, pious nun and wants to help all the little orphans at his church. It’s as awful as it sounds.

Ignacio (Black), caught as a child by the brothers stealing materials for a wrestling costume, has worked at the church his entire life as the cook, and he’s not terribly good – his specialty appears to be nachos – and he yearns to live free, to express himself, to discover wonderful things. No, wait… he doesn’t yearn to do those things. He just wants to wrestle.

But wait! The new nun, Sister Encarnacion (the beautiful Ana de la Reguera) doesn’t like wrestling. It is violent and bad and stuff, she claims. So Ignacio doesn’t mention to her that he has donned tights and a mask and wrestles on the weekends with a partner, Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez), a skeletal thief. The two make quite the pair, and they’re not very good at wrestling, much like Esqueleto and thieving or Ignacio and cooking.

Black probably should have been, pardon the pun, the saving grace of the film, but he’s poorly cast and completely unfunny. There’s hardly a laugh to be had; what chuckles one gets come from the antics of the seldom-seen orphans, chiefly Chancho. It’s not as if Black isn’t typically funny, that he’s some sort of Serious Actor who hardly ever does funny. He’s Jack Black! He’s pretty much nothing but funny. Except here, where’s he’s everything but; he’s painful to watch at times.

But he’s not helped by a meandering film, either. With no belly laughs, one would think the emphasis would be on sentimentality with a dash of light humor. Only you hardly ever get any of that, either, except at the very end with a predictable ending. It’s so wildly predictable that you could guess it RIGHT NOW. Without having seen the movie. If this were a parody of fighter films, like Hot Shots was of fighter-pilot movies, then the deadpan deliveries might make some sense – if, of course, they were accompanied by actual jokes, even throwaway lines.

Otherwise, one might make the mistake of thinking the movie was set in a more-melodramatic period, where people left their lovers by fog-dampened train and the star quarterback married his sweetheart right after scoring eleventy-five points against Big Mean Old Jerks U in the homecoming game. But it’s not that, either; everyone, save perhaps the radiant de la Reguera, seems listless, sleepwalking through a dull pseudocomedy that shouldn’t be mentioned again.

Heck, they don’t even get the wrestling part of things right, as Ignacio (wrestling as Nacho) and his various opponents do all sorts of things that would be forbidden in a true luchador match, such as a pinfall outside the ring, the removal of a mask, and so forth. I guess
the gang behind this one felt they needed to include more American wrestling features, you know, to sex it up a little.

About the only saving grace is de la Reguera, who, although she’s given nothing with which to work, does manage to come out of it looking fine; I’m sure she’ll be able to use her role as a springboard to better things, although if I were her I’d put “Was in Jack Black film” on my resume and hope no one asks questions.

*1/2

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279 – Silent Hill

September 11, 2006

Before you even press play on your DVD, you have to realize that Silent Hill is based on a video game, and that’s usually a bad sign – note Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, and last year’s Alone in the Dark. Bad movies come from even the best video games, so already Silent Hill has a strike against it.

But ultimately what does Silent Hill in is its incomprehensibility. Oh, the plot is fairly easy to figure out, and luckily enough there are a few moments of exposition in which everything is painstakingly explained to the faithful, luckless viewer. It’s just that the movie is so darkly filmed, it’s often impossible to discern what’s happening in any given scene.

Rose (Radha Mitchell) and Christopher (Sean Bean, who’s underused) have a young daughter named Sharon (ha, get it, Rose of Sharon? Nah, coincidence). Sharon sleepwalks and mutters about a place called Silent Hill so, against her husband’s wishes, Rose decides in the middle of the night (?) to take Sharon to this mysterious place. I mean, who wouldn’t? Surely the key lies there and not in, say, locking the door to the house so Sharon can’t sleepwalk her way off a cliff, as she almost does in the first scene? Nah, that would be too easy.

So Rose gets it in her head to take Sharon there in hopes that the town – a ghost town with a 40-year-old coal fire burning beneath it – will somehow trigger a cure in her daughter. A cop pulls her over on the way, but Rose panics and floors her SUV, and a high-speed chase – at night, in the rain – is underway. Yep, real Mommy of the Year material, she.

Inexplicably (meaning a combination of stupidity and rain), the vehicle crashes, and Rose finds herself in Silent Hill – and Sharon’s gone. So now she has to go find the little kid. Who she brought there in the first place. I kind of felt my sympathy for Rose ebbing at this point.

Meanwhile, Christopher is trying to find both Rose and Sharon. He doesn’t get to do much other than Fight the Man on the outside, but his actions provide some background to the whole mess (i.e., why is Sharon having these episodes, what is Silent Hill the town hiding, and so on), because he’s able to search records, or at least try to access them, leading to confrontations with The Man. Well, the sheriff, anyway.

If you’ve never played the game – which I suspect would be a lot of you – then you’ll likely find the whole thing to be a gobberslop of gore. (I’m thinking of trademarking “gobberslop,” because I like the way it sounds and I think I made it up.) It’s particularly gruesome near the end, but really the entire movie is a crimson cannonball.

The ending is a bit open ended, which might be the movie’s saving grace. It’s left up to the viewer’s interpretation. Overall, though, it’s not very tightly plotted or interesting – odd, since it was written by Roger Avary, who cowrote Pulp Fiction.

*1/2

Son of Random Blurbs

July 13, 2006

The Cutting Edge (1992) *** Often sweet, sometimes derivative romance of big, burly hockey player (D. B. Sweeney) and frigid ice queen (Moira Kelly). The leads click pretty well, and the movie never descends into oversentimentality. Cute fun.

Parenthood (1989) ***1/2 Hilarious sendup/cautionary tale of, well, parenting, with Steve Martin as harried pa, Jason Robards as crotchety old man, Tom Hulce as scheming brother, and Keanu Reeves as a lackabout fiance. Also features Dianne Wiest, Mary Steenbergen, and Rick Moranis. Honest and uproarious.

Tommy Boy (1995) ** Sometime hit features Chris Farley and David Spade as a loser and his uptight companion (who’s hired to keep an eye on Farley) getting into trouble while trying to save the auto-parts business of the former’s father. Wouldn’t have worked at all if not for the great chemistry between the blustery Farley and the snide Spade.

Immediate Family (1989) *** Sometimes tender tale about a young couple (Mary Stuart Masterson, Kevin Dillon) that puts their baby up for adoption, and the older adoptive couple (James Woods, Glenn Close). Solid work from the four leads, particularly the females; it tries not to be too preachy, and it usually succeeds.

The Usual Suspects (1995) ***1/2 Bryan Singer’s killer-diller tale of dishonor among a bunch of lowlife criminals crackles every step of the way, with a wonderful twist at the end that – if you haven’t already been spoiled – should knock your socks off. Bravura performance by the ensemble cast, particularly Kevin Spacey in a breakout role, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Nurse Betty (2000) ** Surprisingly ineffective, mild comedy about a waitress (Rene Zellweger) who becomes delusional after her husband’s murdered – and takes on the persona of her favorite soap-opera star, traveling to L.A. to find her “fiance.” Meanwhile, the real killers (Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock) are on the loose and looking for her. Zellweger’s adorable as always, but this was a misfire for her.

Witness (1985) *** A young Amish boy witnesses a murder in Philadelphia, and it’s up to intrepid big-city cop Harrison Ford to protect the child – and solve the murder. Soon corruption is exposed, and Ford must find a way to blend in with the agrarian community that the boy calls home – oh, and maybe fall for the lad’s mom (Kelly McGillis). Ford’s rock solid as usual, and he and the gorgeous rural Pennsy scenery more than make up for plot holes.

Dead Poets Society (1989) *1/2 An idealistic teacher (Robin Williams) at a posh private school exhorts his charges to seize the day; they do, and The Man (i.e., school authorities and the kids’ parents) take notice and umbrage, not necessarily in that order. Predictable movie in the rebel-teacher mold, although any movie that mentions “O Captain, my Captain” isn’t a total loss. Film tugs hard on your heartstrings, but you’ll wonder what the fuss was all about.

It Could Happen to You (1994) **1/2 Fun, whimsical look at a real story, that of an honest cop (Nicholas Cage) offering to split his potential lottery winnings with a waitress (Bridget Fonda) in lieu of an actual tip. He wins, he doesn’t welsh, and all is well – except his wife (Rosie Perez) is none too pleased with her man’s sincerity. Movie works if it hits you in the right mood, sweeping you on its flight of fancy; Perez is wonderful.

Fearless (1993) ** A man (Jeff Bridges) walks away from a deadly plane crash and finds his life changed forever in more ways than one. Soon he thinks he’s invulnerable; his analyst introduces him to other survivors, trying to find out What It All Means. Bridges is earnest, and Rosie Perez (as another survivor) is solid, but it all feels somewhat put-on.

Ruby in Paradise (1992) **1/2 Ashley Judd, in her first big role, plays Ruby Lee, a young woman who moves to Florida to start life anew. She falls under the protective wing of store owner Mildred (Dorothy Lyman) and tries to right the mess she’s made of her life. Sleepy film gives great glimpse at Judd as a novice; her quiet strength carries the film.

Ed Wood (1994) ***1/2 Pitch-perfect comedy about the life and times of the world’s worst director, Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Johnny Depp) and his cadre of has-been and never-was actors and crew. Bill Murray plays Bunny Breckinridge, Jeffrey Jones plays Criswell, and Patricia Arquette plays Wood’s gal pal – but it’s Martin Landau in a jaw-dropping performance as the elderly Bela Lugosi, who steals the show.

Ed TV (1999) *** Ed (Matthew McConaughey) is followed around by a camera crew all day and all night, and hilarity ensues. Warily drawn into the mix are his brother (Woody Harrelson), his girlfriend (Jenna Elfman), and his estranged parents (Dennis Hopper and Sally Kirkland, not to mention his friends and coworkers. Ron Howard film is as jaunty as Splash, with the underlying theme of privacy ringing even truer today than then, with the increase of reality television.

If you plant Ice (Harvest) you’re gonna get… well, a pile o’crap

April 26, 2006

I finally plopped on down in the recliner to watch The Ice Harvest, which was billed as a caper/comedy thriller starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton as two guys trying to rip off the Mob. The movie was directed by comedy auteur Harold Ramis and was cowritten by Robert Benton (who wrote and/or directed such gems as Superman, The Late Show, and Nobody’s Fool).

So there was a pedigree at work here. A certain expecation, if you will. Only it didn’t pan out. Sure, those guys were in it, and that guy directed it, and that other guy wrote it. That much is true. But the result was pretty awful.

Cusack, whom I like in almost everything, ever, ever, plays Charlie, a crooked lawyer. Thornton plays a strip-club owner. They team up to rip off Charlie’s boss and plan to leave Wichita Falls as soon as planes can take off (it’s icy and rainy out). You know how it is, they just gotta lay low for a few hours, act “normal,” and then they’re home free, but they can’t, so they’re not.

The characters suck. Cusack’s is never a good guy. I mean, sometimes you see characters who are generally nice guys who do bad things, like kill a guy in self defense, or maybe cheating on his wife. But Charlie’s actions and motives in this movie weren’t exactly pristine – and, what’s worse, they also weren’t ambiguous. He was a jackass and a creep. Tough to root for a guy like that.

The plot is hopelessly contrived – let’s see how much trouble Charlie can get into! Let’s use a running gag of a local cop pulling him over and recognizing him, and letting him go if Charlie can remember the cop’s name! Let’s have an extended sequence where Charlie tries to chaperone the drunken husband of his ex-wife, who is of course a close friend, back home. The friend’s played by Oliver Platt, who brings the only excitement and interest to the movie.

All in all, a real shame. With the people involved, this should have been much, much better.

Dig it, man.

March 27, 2006

Saw a little movie last night called The Beatniks (1960). Now, you know that with a title like that, you’re not going to get Hamlet, right? Nowadays, I think of a beatnik as someone who’s just too cool for school, daddio, at least 1950s school and whatnot. Beatniks to me are kind of laid back, precursors to hippies, doing their own thing, you dig? Or not.

Well, in this one they’re hoodlums, petty criminals, gang members, and so on. You know the type – they drink, they smoke, they even stay out late at night! (Horrors!) The leader of the gang here is Eddie, who sports an Elvisian pompadour. Or maybe Sinatraian. With a little cowlick in the back. Eddie is the “good guy.” Turns out the lad can sing, you see, so an agent named Bayliss signs him to a deal. This doesn’t sit to well with Eddie’s gang, but he starts to like the opportunity for success, thanks in part to a new girl, Helen. Which, naturally, doesn’t sit too well with Eddie’s current girl, Iris, who’s as dumb as a post and as quiet as an auctioneer.

Aside from the oh-so-clever good girl/bad girl dichotomy, there’s also a murder and a stabbing, a “crazy” gang member, a gang member who gets himself seriously injured, and a nondescript gang member. So most cliches are hit pretty solidly in this one, which isn’t nearly as much fun as it seems. I got it on DVD for $1, and that includes the legendary Wild Guitar (1962), which follows some of the same plot line and most of the cliches, too.

257 – Red Eye

March 6, 2006

Do what I say or your (dad, brother, son, whole darn family) gets it, says the evil killer, who’s usually male and quite insecure with himself otherwise. In this film, purportedly by one-time horror great Wes Craven, pretty hotel manager Lisa (Rachel McAdams) is the victim-protagonist, the tough woman-in-jeopardy who must do what one must do to save her pa (Brian Cox) and the director of Homeland Security (wha?), while some 30,000 feet in the air, from smarmy dweeb Jackson (Cillian Murphy).

This preposterous movie is nothing more than your typical damsel-in-distress plot, except it’s set almost exclusively on a plane, where the limitations of the storyline, the acting, and especially the directing are painfully obvious. This red eye could use a real shot of Visine, or maybe just an eyepatch.

There really isn’t much more to say about the movie, which is thankfully short. If you think there might be a serious question as to whether she’ll save her pappy from the long gun of the assassin, this is the movie for you. You probably won’t even wonder at the stupidity of all involved, or even the perfunctory, underwhelming thanks shown at the end for a job well done. You might not even mind that a hotel manager was able to save the world from a greater evil pretty much all by her lonesome, without needing to cave in and call real professionals.

McAdams gives it a good try, but she just can’t carry the film herself, and the burden of also having to put up with a crappy script is too much. Murphy makes for a dopey, cardboard villian – maybe he should stick to playing henchmen – and Cox is solid as always. Still, one expects a little oomph from a Craven film, some style, something, but this one’s utterly faceless.

Red Eye: *1/2

251 – Brokeback Mountain

February 17, 2006

The story of a long-time romantic relationship between two cowboys should, in a perfect world, be a beautiful tale. It should show that despite the taboo of same-sex relationships, love and compassion can reign supreme. Instead, we’re stuck with a deadeningly dull piece of slop that would put any sentimentalist to sleep if there weren’t so many goshdarn panoramic views of mountains.

Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) are itinerant cowpokes who sign up to herd a mess o’ sheep across Brokeback Mountains, and during the long drive, they fall for each other. Only it doesn’t happen gradually, it’s lust at first sight, after a cold night in a hot tent up in the mountains. After that, it’s decades of pining and not immediately getting what one wants.

I honestly believe that this movie has been such a big hit (critically and commercially) because of its same-sex theme, rather than because of its, oh I don’t know, good acting or script. The plot is exceedingly simplistic; it’s so easy to follow, you’ll be able to predict the next scene with ease. But because the two principals are men, suddenly what’s such a humdrum story ascends to an exalted level of genius.

Make no mistake, it’s a pretty picture to look at, and I do recommend watching it with the sound off. Maybe you love lovely scenery – there’s a lot of gorgeous setting. Or maybe you’re a straight woman or gay man and think Ledger and Gyllenhaal are hot hunks. With no sound, you’ll be very happy. Turn the sound on, though, and you’ll quickly realize there’s no there, there. The problem with being a Beautiful Person on the outside, of course, is that people often assume you’re a dullard inside. When Ennis or Jack speaks, there aren’t pearls of wisdom that come dropping out; no, they’re more like balls of silt, spoken either sotto voce or outright mumbled, the better to fame the words as Profound. There’s nothing profound about the movie, other than the vast infinity of the untamed mountains.

The movie perks up only when other actors show up. Randy Quaid has a few short scenes, and he easily outacts the younger leads. Michelle Williams, who plays Ennis’s wife Alma, and Anne Hathaway, who plays Jack’s wife Lureen, light up the screen when they’re there, showing more vigor and passion with the hook of an eyebrow than either of the lunkheaded leads can with every expressionless countenance they can conjur. Ledger, who seemed to be channelling Steve McQueen’s look, mumbles incoherently through much of the movie; this was partly owing to the chaw in his mouth (I presume), but still – when trying to be Profound, it is wise to be Understandable.

I believe that this movie was swept up in hype, as people were first astonished at the man-on-man sex scenes (which looked and sounded as loving as a rape scene, although I’m no expert on gay sex scenes) and then proud of themselves for deigning to watch it. It’s a real shame a taboo like this couldn’t have been broken by a solid, adult film instead of the crappy, one-dimensional cliches and characterizations that screenwriter Larry McMurtry came up with; somehow, in the world of this movie, laconic equals deep.

Brokeback Mountain: *1/2

246 – The Upside of Anger

February 6, 2006

Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen) has just found out that her husband’s run off to Sweden with his secretary, leaving her to take care of the house and their four (mostly) grown daughters: Popeye (Evan Rachel Wood), Hadley (Alicia Witt), Emily (Keri Russell), and Andy (Erika Christensen). Terry soon turns to drink and the friendly comforts of her neighbor, ex-baseball great Denny Davies (Kevin Costner).

What should have been a touching treatise on Why Families Are Important instead de-evolves into a competition to see who can be the most pathetic, the most lecherous, the most indolent character. Chief among these transgressors is Terry herself, a woman with few (if any) redeeming values – although we’re frequently reminded that she “didn’t used to be like this.”

“Redeeming” is a good word here, because throughout the movie you keep expecting Terry to find redemption, that one day she’ll wake up, put a drink down, and declare her love for her daughters, who are suffering from her verbal abuse. That she’ll suddenly Get It and realize how wrong she’s been. As the movie progresses, though, you keep hoping that doesn’t happen, because then the only choice would be a sudden denouement, which might be even worse than her abuse.

Everyone who’s close to Terry has to put up with her outrageous behavior. Emily is a devoted dancer, but Terry refuses to support her, opting instead to squash Emily’s dreams. Andy wants to eschew college and get a job, but instead of working with her on that Terry chooses to demean her, especially after she gets a job working at the same radio station Denny does. Even Denny’s not immune to her wrath. And none of it makes much sense. Sure, her husband left her. And sure, that’d drive anyone to drink. But does it really have to mean the continued abused of one’s family?

What really puzzles me about it, though, is that the movie veered sharply from alleged poignancy to … well, broad comedy. And the shifts weren’t subtle, either. Were we supposed to laugh at Terry, or with her? Should we have felt sympathy for an incorrigible boor?

Allen is a great actress, and this would seem to be a fine, plum role for her, but I don’t think she performed to the best of her abilities. Faring better was pretty much everyone else in the cast, especially Christensen and Costner. Yes, Kevin Costner. He’s really quite likable as a supporting player nowadays.

The Upside of Anger: *1/2

239 – Match Point

January 18, 2006

Match Point is Woody Allen’s latest offering. The director of such gems as Manhattan, Annie Hall, Zelig, Bullets over Broadway, and Hannah and Her Sisters has been the king of the American art-house film for decades. Sometimes his movies are poignant, and sometimes they’re slapstick hilarity. This offal, however, never even hints at Allen’s writing or directing abilities; indeed, it may as well have been directed by John Badham for all of the flavor and panache it expresses.

Even though the movie’s appeared on many must-see lists as people gear up for the Oscar nominations, Match Point is a travesty of a sham of a mockery of an entertaining film. It’s a longwinded load of dung. Nearly every scene is deadeningly dull, and the few that aren’t are instead serve as perfect cliches.

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays Chris, a tennis pro who falls for Chloe, the daughter of a rich British family (the movie’s set in London), played by Emily Mortimer. Chris’ best pal is Tom (Matthew Goode), Chloe’s sister. Rounding out the main quartet is American actress Nola (Scarlett Johansson), who’s engaged to Tom. Wouldn’t you know it, seconds after meeting Nola – after already being partnered with Chloe – Chris falls for the flaxen-haired lass, who’s strong-willed and outspoken where her British counterparts are a little more complacent.

Can Chris keep his lust a secret from Tom and Chloe? And what of the parents, the richer-than-rich Eleanor (Penelope Wilton) and Alec (Brian Cox)? They dote on Chris, showering him with money and gifts and a job. How could Chris give all of that up to be with Nola?

Several things work against the movie aside from the faceless direction and writing. For one thing, Chris is utterly unappealing. A protagonist certainly does not need to be likeable, but there must be something about him or her that makes the audience want to see what happens to him or her. The appalling acting by Rhys-Meyers doesn’t help matters at all; he’s lifeless, utterly devoid of emotion. He can’t even seem to conjure enough strength to show a good facial expression. He’s a blank, a cipher no one wants to learn more about. Allen didn’t write the character well at all, to make matters worse. It’s a little too easy to figure out Chris’ intentions, but his motivations are sometimes a mystery. And for goodness’ sake, someone give this boy a spine transplant! How can a lead character be so terminally wishy washy?

Of the supporting cast, only Johansson and Cox emerge unscathed. Cox is a veteran actor and could probably have played this role in his sleep, and Johansson is a rising star, capable of fantastic range. She was given very little to work with (her character doesn’t really possess any unique traits), and it showed.

The pacing is mind numbing. I cannot tell you how many times I checked my watch to see how much time remained in the movie. It’s plodding and aimless, certain to bore even the most rabid Merchant-Ivory fan, even though those masters had nothing to do with this one. Instead, we’re given the vagrant stepchild of a true master American filmmaker. Allen would have been much better off removing his name from the credits for the pseudonymous Alan Smithee. Another annoying debit: Despite the title, tennis takes place for maybe three scenes.

If you’re not a fanatic of tedious, overwrought melodramas, please adjust this rating down at least half a star.

Match Point: *1/2 

237 – Dark Water

January 16, 2006

I’ve long been an admirer of Jennifer Connelly’s work and have followed her career for some time, from the child role Labryinth to the one-dimensional sex role of Career Opportunities to her evolution into one of America’s premier actresses (Pollock, A Beautiful Mind, House of Sand and Fog, Requiem for a Dream). She’s a fantastic talent, with tremendous range that prevents her (to a degree) from being pigeonholed.

But her latest, Dark Water, is a senseless pile of dung. Not to slight the more-sensitive piles of dung out there, of course, but this one just isn’t terribly comprehensible. It’s schizophrenic – does it want to be a psychological thriller, a la Gaslight, or does it want to be a haunted-apartment thriller? Let me tell you, this movie couldn’t carry Gaslight’s water, pun strongly intended. It has twelve times the special effects but one hundreth the quality. There’s no real chills, nothing that’ll set your teeth on edge.

Dahlia Williams (Connelly) is newly separated from her husband and they’re bitterly fighting over their young daughter, Ceci. Dahlia moves into an old apartment building to start a new life, but she quickly runs into a couple of major problems: the giant leak in her apartment and the sudden appearance of an invisible friend for Ceci.

If you’ve seen Hide and Seek, or any movie in which an invisible friend appears (oh no, another pun), you know how adults react in these movies: They don’t believe the kid. Ceci insists her new friend Natasha is real, and yet there are no other children in the apartment building, according to building owner Mr. Murray (John C. Reilly). And so Ceci acts out in her new class, and the leak grows and grows..

Is Dahlia going crazy? Is her husband trying to drive her insane, so she’ll give up the custody battle? Some evidence points to him, and then it’s quickly dropped as a story thread. To buttress the case for Something Being Awry, we’re given a bit of Dahlia’s own history; apparently her mother was a neglectful drunk, and something about the rain and water and such, and you can see how Dahlia might go bonkers with water leaking in her tiny apartment.

I can forgive an awful lot in movies – you have to, really; it’s call suspension of disbelief – but when a movie trots out all kinds of possible explanations and never seems to settle on one, I’m not so forgiving. What should have been suspenseful was merely amusing; what should have startled me I saw coming. I think you will, too.

Dark Water: *1/2

234 – House of Wax (2005)

January 6, 2006

House of Wax, a loose remake of the 1953 original, is so stridently campy, replete with bad jokes and countless cliches, that it practically dissolves into vapors before your very eyes.

A group of college-age kids (or maybe they’re out of college; either way, they act like high schoolers), on its way to a Big Football Game, takes a shortcut … to DOOM! Of course, it’s ironic that they take a shortcut, since cutting is indeed involved. They spend the night camped in the woods and are interrupted by a strange pickup truck whose lights shine directly on them. Muahahaha. The next morning, the fan belt to one of their cars is broken, and they find a dumping ground of dead critters, and…

Oh, let’s face it. You’re never gonna watch this for the horror, are you? Maybe you’ll root for Paris Hilton to die or you’ll watch it for Elisha Cuthbert, who’s pretty good. If these are your noble goals, you probably won’t be disappointed. The rest of the cast is completely forgettable; in fact, aside from Hilton, you don’t openly wish any of them would die, as you might in better horror films.

Only some of the action takes place in the actual House of Wax; the rest is in the other buildings of an apparent ghost town – made of WAX! Dun dun dun! Which means ample opportunities for our screwy gang to get eviscerated and flayed and such. Much fun. There’s a movie theater and a gas station and houses, all filled with implements of destruction.

Hilton is believably vapid and lifeless as, in an example of brave casting, The Blonde Slut. Since she spends much of her screen time smooching with her boyfriend, there aren’t many chances for her to show off her rapier wit and keen intellect. Cuthbert is a fine heroine, and she shows just enough skin to make the movie slightly interesting. At least you don’t root for her to die, always a plus for your protagonist.

There aren’t too many geniune scares, but there are just enough to bring this above a true BOMB rating. Still, not enough to make you, I don’t know, scared. Or something.

House of Wax: *1/2

Phantom from Space (1953)

December 9, 2005

Yep, you guessed it – on the same DVD as Killers from Space. Just one Phantom, though. A UFO darts across the night sky and crashes in southern California. A man encounters the passenger and is killed. But here’s the catch – the “man” is dressed in a suit resembling that of a deep-sea diver (circa 1953, anyway), but when people peer into the helmet…. there’s no head!!! Aaaahhhhhhh!!!

As you might suspect, the science is about as useful and accurate as in Killers from Space. It’s a fascinating relic of 1950s gee-whiz science fiction, but that’s about it.

Phantom from Space: *1/2