Reel Opinions

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Nights in Rodanthe

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

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

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

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

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

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


Miracle at St. Anna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Eagle Eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, September 21, 2008

Ghost Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Vicky Cristina Barcelona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, September 20, 2008

My Best Friend's Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lakeview Terrace

I'll admit up front, I was not looking forward to seeing Lakeview Terrace. The film's ad campaign made the movie look like a big, loud, and brainless spectacle about clashing neighbors. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that director Neil LaBute (2006's remake of The Wicker Man) seemed to be attempting something a little more subtler and actually more thought-provoking than the trailers suggested. Then imagine my disappointment when the last half of the film turned into the kind of movie I was dreading when I walked in. Lakeview Terrace is a terribly uneven film, but at least it's not a disaster.

The title stems from the film's setting - a quiet upscale suburban community in California. Young married couple Chris (Patrick Wilson) and Lisa (Kerry Washington) Mattson have just bought their first house, and are excited about the possibilities about their new lives, and maybe starting a family. (At least Lisa is excited to have children. Chris seems more unsure.) Not long after moving in, they meet their new neighbor, Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson). Abel is a veteran cop with the LAPD, a widower trying to raise two children, and lives a very strict and mannered lifestyle, almost to the point of obsession. Abel takes an instant disliking to his neighbors, due to the fact that they are an interracial couple. He also looks down on them, due to a lack of moral standing in his eyes, especially after he spies them swimming naked in their backyard pool. Abel eventually decides that he does not want people like the Mattsons living next door to them, and begins a personal campaign to drive them away, all the while trying his best to hide his issues with them, even though he doesn't do a good job and Chris can practically feel Abel's hatred for him whenever they're together. Meanwhile, a raging California wildfire is making its way slowly toward the community, which seems to act as a symbolism to the growing tension between them.

Lakeview Terrace earns some points early on by treating its characters as actual people for most of its running time, especially Jackson's character. His Abel Turner is not a psycho cop, he is simply a man with very strict and unfailing beliefs, no matter how wrong they may be. The movie takes its time to introduce him to us and his beliefs before the Mattsons even move in next door, and we see his homelife with his two children. The movie's attempts to flesh out his character, and that of Chris and Lisa, were reassuring to me that screenwriters David Loughery and Howard Korder were not going to take the straight-forward and easy approach at least. These are all flawed people who are trying to do the right thing. In Abel's eyes, he's trying to be a good father, and is trying to "protect" his kids from the corruption he sees next door. Chris and Lisa aren't exactly perfect, either. There's a lot of tension between them, based on how everyone looks at their interracial relationship. It's obvious from a scene at a restaurant where they have lunch with Lisa's father that there is family tension about Lisa's decision to marry Chris, not because of who he is and his lifestyle, but because of what he is. The movie is surprisingly subtle in dealing with racial issues, and the performances are honestly low key for the most part.

The movie starts to betray the promise it created about halfway through, when it decides to turn Jackson's character from a too concerned for his own good neighbor, into a sneering madman who slashes the couple's tires, and hires someone to break into their house and ransack it. It comes across as if the writers didn't know what to do. They were trying to write a thoughtful and intelligent dramatic thriller about race relations, and then they just start to go on auto pilot. This is when the movie starts to go downhill, leading to a climax that is loud, dumb, and pretty much against everything that came before it. It would fit maybe in a more violent and sensationist movie, but here, it sticks out like a sore thumb. People who seemed intelligent suddenly start making dumb decisions just to fuel the plot and keep things moving, and Samuel L. Jackson starts going more and more over the top. The movie tries to explain this change in his behavior at least in some way. It also wisely writes his two kids out of the movie halfway through so they don't get involved, which would be pretty exploitive. Doesn't make it feel like any less of a cop out, though.

What makes the direction the film ultimately goes in even more disappointing is that during its more quiet moment, Jackson's performance here is very good. He doesn't try to make Abel Turner into a likable person, but he at least doesn't seem to be trying to make us hate him right up front. There's a scene where he's in a bar with Chris and talking about the day his wife died. Not only does it offer a window into why he thinks the way he does, but it's also a genuinely effective scene and performance from him. Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington are good too in their roles, if not a little bland. This is clearly Jackson's movie, and they seem to know it. These performances deserve the movie the first half was trying to be, which gives the climax an even more bitter taste. You had to wonder if anyone stopped and asked director LaBute if there was perhaps another way to end this thing, one which didn't go against the characters they had been building.

One final note: Lakeview Terrace was obviously intended to be R-rated, and is about one "F bomb" short of that rating. (Surprisingly, it is not Jackson who drops the bombs in this film.) This was obviously intended to be an adult thriller, and there's nothing here to appeal to kids and teens, so I don't know why the filmmakers decided to water it down to a PG-13. Not that I think it would make this a better movie, I just hate it when obviously adult films have content cut so that kids can see them. Even with its rating, I still think the movie is inappropriate for young viewers. I saw a surprising number of preteens with their parents at my screening, and had to wonder what their parents were thinking when Patrick Wilson's character goes over next door to stop a rowdy bachelor party at Abel's house, and winds up having a lap dancer force sex upon him.

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


Friday, September 19, 2008


As I was watching Igor, I found myself pleasantly surprised on different levels. First, I admired the film's look, which seems inspired by Tim Burton's animated style in Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride. Then, I admired the film's dry and surprisingly macabre humor, which is appropriate for its horror theme. Finally, I found myself surprised by how attached I had gotten to the characters by the end, and how I eventually ended up caring about them. This is a wonderful little surprise of a movie that hopefully will find an audience, despite the studio's infinite "wisdom" of releasing a Halloween movie for kids in mid-September.

The film's imaginative premise is set in the far off land of Malaria, where all the diabolical mad scientists in the world live and make their plans for global domination. Malaria is full of dark castles, constant dark and threatening skies, and pretty much looks like every classic horror image rolled into one landscape. I liked the subtle (and not so subtle) references to classic horror that the animators threw in, and I also liked the idea of Malaria's ruler, King Malbert (voice by Jay Leno), holding an annual competition, where the mad scientists pit their most evil creations against each other. The reason for the contest is that Malaria thrives off of threatening and blackmailing all the other neighboring kingdoms into giving them money, or else they'll unleash the winning creation of the contest on the world. We learn early on that the mad scientists of Malaria hold all the power and respect, while the lowly hunchback servants (who are all named Igor) act as errand boys. One little Igor (voice by John Cusack) has a secret desire to change all that. He's tired of being the lackey to the obviously incompetent Dr. Glickenstein (John Cleese), and has some secret creation plans of his own that he keeps hidden from his master.

Glickenstein is removed from the picture early on when he is killed in a lab accident after not listening to his Igor's advice. With the doctor out of the way, Igor can now work on his dream monster, and enter it in the competition, winning respect for Igors everywhere. He already has some experience with creating life. His two closest companions and sidekicks are a couple of his past secret creations - A roadkill rabbit named Scamper (Steve Buscemi), who has been reanimated and blessed with eternal life, even though he doesn't want it and is constantly seeking ways to end it, and a robot with a human brain named Brain (Sean Hayes). With the help of his two friends, Igor builds his female monster, but it doesn't turn out the way he expects. The creature, named Eva (Molly Shannon), is a gentle and kind soul who is more interested in being an actress and singing showtunes than in wreaking havoc on villagers. As Igor tries to train his monster in time for the competition, the kingdom's most famous mad scientist, the wonderfully named Dr. Schadenfreude (Eddie Izzard), learns about the monster's existence, and tries to steal it so he can enter it in the contest himself.

What impressed me the most about the film was the amount of intelligence in the screenplay by Chris McKenna (TV's American Dad). Igor strikes that perfect balance between not talking down to kids, while not insulting the intelligence of any adults in the audience. This is one of those movies where adults may find themselves laughing at it more than the kids, thanks to clever references to horror cliches and classic films like A Clockwork Orange. The film's sense of humor is refreshingly offbeat, and sometimes even dark. I liked the scene where Igor is presented with one of those "Hang in there, baby" posters, only instead of a cat hanging from a tree by its claws, it shows a smiling cat hanging from a tree on a noose. And then there's the character of Scamper, who pretty much walks away with the film. He's a rabbit with a dry wit, not to mention a death wish, despite the fact he knows he can't die due to his zombie state. Steve Buscemi brings the right amount of sarcasm to the character, with plenty of witty asides that will most likely fly completely over kids' heads.

Yes, Igor is often very funny, but more than that, the movie has a lot of heart as well. I liked the relationship that Igor strikes up with Eva, and how he slowly begins to learn that he doesn't have to be evil, or follow in the footsteps of anyone else before him. Despite the sometimes twisted humor, the film's heart is constantly in the right place, and this creates some surprisingly effective moments. The voice cast should also be applauded for bringing these characters to life, and for making them so appealing. Despite the big names, this is the rare case where they seem to have been cast based on their talent, rather than just putting another famous name above the title like in some animated films. John Cusack and Molly Shannon bring a lot of warmth to their roles, especially Shannon, who plays the monster as a dainty Broadway starlet stuck in the body of a hulking behemoth. Everyone seems to be having a great time with their characters, and that energy comes through in the movie itself. Other stand outs in the cast include Jennifer Coolidge, who gets some big laughs as Schadenfreude's girlfriend and assistant, and Sean Hayes, who makes a great goofy counterbalance to Buscemi's dry humor.

I was quite surprised by Igor, and by how much I wound up enjoying the film. I don't know how it will go over with kids, as I was the only person at my screening. I have a feeling, though, that accompanying adults will find a lot more to like here than they expect walking in. This is a great little movie with a dark streak that is never too mean, and a sweetness that is never cloying and overbearing. Judging by this film, the team at French animation studio Sparx has a lot of talent, and I hope it carries over to their next production.

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


Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Women

So far this year, I've seen three films about a group of four female friends tackle relationships and the world around them. First was Sex and the City, which was watchable but nothing special. Then there was The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, which I just couldn't care about. Now there is The Women, and my reaction is pretty much the same as Sex and the City. This is fitting, since both films are fairly similar at their core. The Women has been a project that's been stuck in "development hell" for about 15 years now, but it's obvious that writer-director Diane English (a former writer on TV's Murphy Brown, making her big screen debut) was more than a little inspired by the structure and success of the Sex TV show and film.

The four best friends this time around involve Mary Haines (Meg Ryan), a wealthy mom and wife who can't see that her relationship with her husband is falling apart, Sylvia Fowler (Annette Bening), a cutthroat editor of a woman's magazine who is trying to hold onto her job in a man's world (even though no men actually appear in the film itself - more on that later), Edie (Debra Messing) who is pregnant with her fifth child, and Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith), who fills the role of both the pre-requisite black girl and the pre-requisite lesbian, and not much else. The plot concerns Mary discovering that her husband Steven is having an affair with the girl at the perfume counter at Saks 5th Avenue - an icy cold gold digger named Crystal (Eva Mendez). As Mary tries to deal with the emotions she feels about her relationship falling apart, and how to reach her increasingly emotionally isolated preteen daughter Molly (India Ennenga), she goes on a personal journey of self discovery to find out who she really is, and what she wants out of life.

The film is billed as a remake and update of a classic film from 1939, but to be honest, it's really just a patchwork collection of scenes inspired by just about every "chick flick" ever made. The Women is far from bad, and hosts some strong performances from its undeniably talented cast, but there is just absolutely nothing to get excited about here. English's direction style definitely shows her television roots, as there is absolutely no visual flair to this movie. As the four friends make their way about New York City, gossiping about men and their personal lives, there's a heavy sense that we've seen it all before, which we of course have. This wouldn't be so bad if the characters were more interesting, but aside from Ryan's Mary and Bening's Sylvia, the characters are thinly development. The other two friends who round out the main group, Messing's Edie and Smith's Alex, may as well have been written out of the film, since they only pop up in the film sporadically, and when they do, don't really add anything. Edie is there so the movie can end with that standard of comedies aimed at women - the childbirth scene. And yes, it plays out exactly as you'd expect. As for Alex, I'm still trying to figure out why she was in the movie, since we don't learn anything about her except for the fact that she likes to sleep with women.

The thing is, there are some strong scenes to be found that at least prove that The Women is on the right track at times. Some moments that stand out are the scenes where Candice Bergen pops up in a small role as Meg Ryan's mother. The scenes between mother and daughter here are sweet, and hold an honesty that a lot of the movie lacks. I also liked the scene where Annette Bening's character strikes up a relationship with Mary's young daughter, and wished they could have expanded upon that relationship more, since it's pretty much dropped after their big scene together where they talk about Molly having a hard time relating to her mother, and the feelings she's experiencing about her parents divorcing. That's a big problem in this film. Good ideas or characters are introduced, and then nothing is done with them. There's a scene where Mary goes to some kind of health retreat to get away from her problems, and befriends a spirited woman who speaks her mind played by Bette Midler. Midler's scene with Meg Ryan is so good here, and yet, it's her only moment in the film. It made me wish they had made her character one of the four friends, and gotten rid of the worthless Edie or Alex.

But if there is one core problem to the film, it falls back on its own gimmick, which is that there are no men in the cast, not even as extras in the background. Men are constantly spoken about, but never seen, as if they were as elusive as Bigfoot. I understand that the filmmakers are being faithful to the original film, as that had no men in it either. But, it really hurts the emotional drama when we don't even get to see Mary's husband, or even get to see their confrontation. We just get two of Mary's hired help at her house talking about it in hushed whispers in the kitchen. It's just not the same, and it really lessens what is supposed to be an important moment of the film. The gimmick winds up hurting the film in the end, because quite frankly, I think male characters were needed in order for this film to work. If it had been written in a certain way, then yes, I think the "no men" gimmick could have worked. But the way this film is written, it comes across as contrived and awkward as it constantly calls attention to itself throughout.

The Women feels like a missed opportunity all around, and is never quite as strong as it should have been. I'm sure it will make money, as it pretty much has a guaranteed built in audience. However, the filmmakers seemed to stop there. They knew certain people would see it, so it's almost like they didn't feel like they didn't have to try so hard. Maybe if they had tried, this movie could have not only reached its target audience, but also beyond. Just a thought, it all I'm saying.

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


Saturday, September 13, 2008

Burn After Reading

There's no such thing as a predictable Coen Brothers movie. Not only do you not know what their next move will be when it comes to projects, but you often don't know what their next move will be when you're watching one of their films. Burn After Reading, their follow up to the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men, is simultaneously a pitch black comedy, a suspense, and a very personal film about people who continue to look for love even though they've already found it. Not anyone could have made these elements work together, but then again Joel and Ethan Coen have been known to defy conventions.

Burn After Reading probably has a plot as packed to the brim and stuffed as Tyler Perry's The Family That Preys. The difference is that the screenplay here cares about the characters, and knows how to use them. The movie gives us an alcoholic ex-CIA agent named Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), his cold and unfeeling wife (Tilda Swinton), a paranoid former Secret Service agent named Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), who is unhappy in marriage and working on a "secret project" in his basement (which I would never dream of revealing, as it's the best visual gag in the film), and a pair of employees at a local gym named Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt). The characters are brought together when a CD containing top secret government information is found on the floor of the gym by Linda and Chad. Being "good samaritans", they track down the owner, discover it's Osborne, and decide to blackmail him for a large amount of money so Linda can afford some cosmetic surgery. And when that doesn't work, they try to sell the information to the Russian Embassy. These characters are also connected in other ways, such as the fact that Harry is a frequent womanizer, and is seeing both Osborne's wife and Linda at different times whenever he can get away from his wife.

I have revealed very little, and plan to keep it that way. The joy of the movie is how the plot builds, and how the Coen Brothers are able to keep the action and the storytelling under the slightest amount of control - Just chaotic enough to be absurd, but not so much so that the characters never become cartoon caricatures of who they're supposed to be. There's actually a lot of joy to be found here. There's the joy of the dialogue, which is frequently very smart and funny. (One of my favorite lines comes in the film's first scene, when Osborne finds out he's being fired because of his "drinking problem", and his response is, "You're a Mormon - Next to you, everyone has a drinking problem!") There's also the joy of how the movie frequently flies in the face of expectations. Just when you think you've figured out the tone of the film, it shocks you by going in a different direction. In the wrong hands, the movie could have come across as schizophrenic. I don't think anyone can make me laugh and be terrified at the same time like the Coens. And yes, I mean that as a complement.

As a matter of fact, I've already gotten in a debate with someone else who's seen the film as to wether it's a comedy with thriller elements, or if it's a thriller with comedic elements. I personally view it as a very dark comedy, similar to their earlier film, Fargo. While not quite as memorable as that classic, it shares the same trait of ordinary people being drawn into a situation that they think they have control of, until it starts to grow bigger than they could have ever imagined. The entire cast plays it straight, however, no matter how absurd the material sometimes gets. Consider Brad Pitt's character. His character is slow-witted and hardly seems to know what's going on around him, but Pitt does not play him as an over the top buffoon. He's a realistic one, one that you may have met, and then brushed off as simply not being all there. This is important, especially late in the film. His character would not work if he had played Chad broadly or over the top, and the movie is wise enough to realize it.

The rest of the cast is excellent all around, with Clooney and McDormand taking top honors. He plays a man who would be charming if his eyes weren't always darting about, looking for suspicious cars following him whenever he's jogging, and if he could just settle down and realize what he has in his life. She plays a woman who is very lonely, and believes the only way she'll ever get someone to love her is with cosmetic surgery, which sets the plot into motion when Chad and her discover the CD. She's driven by desperation and the desire to be desired by someone else. There's a certain poignancy to their scenes together that I enjoyed. We understand that neither can truly be happy, but are looking for happiness in each other. John Malkovich is also very intense and often funny as the man in the middle of it all. I suppose if there was a weak link, it would be Tilda Swinton, and that's only because the movie doesn't spend enough time with her. Special mention must also be given to David Rasche and J.K. Simmons as a pair of CIA superiors who get a lot of big laughs in their few scenes as they try to sort the plot out.

I'd like to close this review by saying another thing I love about Burn After Reading, and that is how the movie finds humor in everyday things. There's a small scene I loved that had nothing to do with the movie itself. Frances McDormand's character is on the phone, trying to get a hold of someone about her surgical procedure. She gets a recording, and we get a small routine as she desperately tries to talk to a live person, while the recorded voice frequently misunderstands and misdirects her. It's not just the fact that it's something everyone can relate to. The way the scene is written and played is so honest, it's almost brilliant in its own way.

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


Tyler Perry's The Family That Preys

When I reviewed Tyler Perry's last film, Meet the Browns, back in March, I bent over backwards trying to be as positive as I could. I praised some of the performances, and even though I didn't recommend the film, I did say it was probably Perry's best film to date, and that it seemed he was at least trying to grow a little as a filmmaker. What do I get for my efforts? The Family That Preys - A film that is just as manipulative and as ham-fisted of a melodrama as some of his earlier work. Tyler Perry's back to his old tricks, I'm afraid, but at least he has two very good performances at the center of the film.

Those performances come from Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard. They play the matriarchs of two very different families who have been friends for the past 30 years. Their characters come from very different worlds. Bates plays Charlotte Cartwright, a wealthy tycoon who is in danger of losing control of her company as her greedy son William (Cole Hauser) plots to slowly get rid of her influence and power in the business. Woodard plays Alice Pratt, a God-fearing middle class woman who runs a local diner, and likes to help the homeless on the side. The two actresses have great chemistry together during their subplot, which concerns them leaving their troubles behind for a little while, and going on a cross country road trip. Their performances are almost enough to make us forget just how poorly they've been written in Perry's screenplay. Take for example the fact that Charlotte seems to suffer from a split personality. Usually when she's around Alice, she's a fun and spirited woman. But whenever she's alone, she comes across as a cold and unfeeling millionaire right out of an 80s prime time soap opera like Dallas. Unfortunately, this won't be the last time I use the word soap opera in this review.

That's because The Family That Preys isn't just about the two women I mentioned, it's also about their intertwined family, and the numerous betrayals, affairs, and other ludicrous overstuffed plots that would be right at home in any afternoon soap. Let's just see how many plots there are. The first concerns Alice's daughter, Andrea (Sanaa Lathan) having an affair with Charlotte's previously mentioned son, William. Andrea's husband, Chris (Rockmond Dunbar), works as a construction worker for William's company, and has no idea about their bedroom meetings behind his back, even though it's painfully obvious to everyone else. Poor Chris comes across as the slowest guy in the world, as he frequently stares the obvious in the face, and chooses to look the other way until the screenplay decides to finally give him a clue. Chris and his best friend on the construction crew, Ben (Tyler Perry), want to start their own construction company, but Ben doesn't know if they should take the chance, despite the urgings of his wife, Pam (Taraji P. Henson), who just happens to be Alice's other daughter. Meanwhile, William's wife, Jillian (KaDee Strickland) is a bit more on the ball than Chris is, and suspects her husband's affair. Not only that, there's another woman worked into the story named Abby (Robin Givens) who has just been hired to the company by Charlotte, much to the anger of William, since he wanted the position and is upset that his mom didn't give it to him.

All this, and I still haven't mentioned the mysterious homeless person (Sebastian Siegel) whom Alice helps out, and eventually ends up playing a part in the plot. There's also friction between Charlotte and William's wife, because Charlotte never approved of her, although the movie doesn't go very deep into this. And yes, there's also that previously mentioned road trip between Charlotte and Alice as they go on a trip of self discovery, while stopping at various cowboy bars and male strip joints along the way. (Because this is a Tyler Perry movie, Charlotte also stops to get baptized at one point.) Watching this movie, you can almost picture Tyler Perry writing this screenplay after a marathon viewing of his daytime TV soaps. The writing, direction, and storytelling is all on the same level here. He does his best to juggle the film's various plots, but they never come together. It's jarring the way the movie constantly jumps between its numerous characters and plots. It seems that Perry had a hard time squeezing them all in, as some get more attention than others. The whole affair situation between William and Andrea gets the most attention, but even that never seems to truly build anywhere. The characters just keep on going through the same motions over and over, while Andrea's husband Chris begins to resemble an unintentional running gag with how clueless he is about everything.

The only aspect of the film that does work are the scenes between Bates and Woodard, and that's more due to their screen presence than the material the film gives them. If the movie had trimmed away all lamebrained corporate backstabbing and affairs and just centered on them, I may have been able to forgive the sometimes dopey dialogue between them, and the last minute revelation about Bates' character that cries out of desperation. The Family That Preys obviously wants to tackle some heavy issues, but everything's been written in Perry's trademark over the top style. This makes it hard to identify with just about anyone who walks into the frame of the camera. The only character who does come across as a genuine human is the one Perry has written for himself, and unfortunately, he plays a minor role in everything. Given his somewhat genuine performance here, it's hard to believe that this is the same guy who dresses in drag and a fat suit for his most famous portrayal as the shotgun-toting granny, Madea. Perry fans will be glad to know that his Madea character will be back in his next film, Madea Goes to Jail. Everyone else has been warned.

The Family That Preys is overlong, overstuffed, and overacted to the point of ridiculousness. This should be expected to anyone who has seen a Tyler Perry movie, but there are still those hints that he wants to move past all that, and maybe make a real movie someday. One that doesn't revolve around complete manipulation and bash its audience over the head with emotion. The scenes between Bates and Woodard hint at that movie, and I pray that it's somewhere in Perry's mind or stored on his word processor. If he can get that movie made, it would be a cause for celebration.

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


Friday, September 12, 2008

Righteous Kill

If there's one thing I hate, it's movies that think they're smarter than their audience. Righteous Kill opens with a character giving a video confession to a series of murders. The film then flashes back, explaining the events leading up to those murders, and a pair of detectives who try to solve it. So, the movie is a mystery. If this is true, logic automatically points to the fact that the guy we saw giving the confession in the opening scene (and various times throughout the film) is not the real killer, and the movie is playing with us. After all, why would a mystery give itself away in the very first scene? We know this, but the movie thinks it's just too smart for us, and we're constantly one step behind it.

The detectives in question are a pair of life-long partners and friends named Turk (Robert De Niro) and Rooster (Al Pacino). I smiled when I first heard their names, as those are the kind of names cops only have in the movies. They talk the way cops only talk in the movies, too. They're constantly throwing zippy and overly scripted one liners back and forth to each other, and discussing pop culture references like Underdog in their dialogue while they're in the middle of a sting operation. De Niro and Pacino are obviously legendary actors, and the film's ad campaign seems to be built solely around their pairing. These are not legendary characters they're playing here, or even good characters. They're stock tough talking cliches inhabiting a poorly developed story. It's almost as if the filmmakers cast the lead roles, gave themselves a pat on the back, and thought their presence alone would help the script. The screenplay by Russell Gerwitz (Inside Man) didn't need the right stars, it needed another couple drafts before going in front of the cameras.

The plot concerns a series of murders involving various criminals, drug dealers, and rapists who have all managed to escape or dodge the law in one way or another, and start winding up dead. Turk and Rooster are assigned the case, and almost find themselves sympathetic to this vigilante who is taking the law into their own hands. As the bodies pile up, another pair of detectives (played by John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg) start to get suspicious of the friends. The victims seem to be criminals that Turk and Rooster have dealt with in the past, and so they start to get curious. Director John Avnet (who directed Pacino's last bomb from earlier this year, 88 Minutes) tries his hardest to hide the identity of the killer, which is another tip off that it's not who it's trying to lead us to think it is. It's almost comical the lengths the movie goes to hide what we already know. When we see one of the victims come face to face with the off screen killer, their dialogue suddenly turns awkward and stilted, instead of simply saying who they're looking at.

The thing is, anyone who is half awake within the first 10 minutes of the movie or so will constantly be ahead of these characters. Righteous Kill tries to throw some worthless red herrings at us, like a drug dealer named Spider (rapper Curtis Jackson), who winds up having very little of anything to do with the film itself. He's simply there to throw us off, not really doing a good job while he's at it. The main reason being that this is a sparsely populated film. Because there are so few characters that the movie focuses on, and we can already cancel out the one it's trying to trick us into thinking is the killer, it's not that hard to put the pieces together long before the characters do. When the big revelation does finally come, it gives both De Niro and Pacino a chance to do some of the biggest ham acting of their individual careers. This movie goes from either stagnant and dull, to convoluted and over the top. There's no room for in-between here.

Unfortunately, the screenplay is not the only problem that can be found here. This is a movie where no one seemed to know what they were supposed to be doing. De Niro and Pacino look tired and worn here, like they're trying to look like they're engaged by this material, but they just can't bring up the energy. Given the fact that their teaming is this film's big selling point, it's a disappointment. The other performances don't hold up much better, as no one is given anything to do, and they simply stand around, withing they were in a better movie with these legendary actors. What's worse, the movie seems to be edited in such a way that no one really cared. Scenes start and end abruptly, take us forward and backward in time at a drop of a hat, and there's very little lead in or rhyme to the next cut. This is some of the sloppiest editing I've seen in a straight drama in a while. Not that the movie is much to look at to begin with. Despite being set in New York City, the film's visual style is charmless, and uses none of the city's character to its advantage.

As Righteous Kill wheezes to the finish line, it falls on that all reliable cliche where the villain holds the hero at gunpoint, and just won't stop talking. The killer drones on and on about why they did what they did, and what led them to it. I couldn't believe what I was seeing, and it only got worse from there, but I'm not going to ruin the surprise. Let's just say that if either De Niro or Pacino win an honorary award for their life's work, and they show a montage of their past films, we won't be seeing any clips from the climax, or most likely any other moment that came before it.

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


Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Brideshead Revisited

Basing your movie on a beloved novel is often daunting enough, especially in trying to please the fans. But the recent Brideshead Revisited not only has to live up to the expectations of the readers, but also the fans of the monumental mini-series starring Jeremy Irons that aired in the early 80s and became a phenomenon. Despite its best efforts, the film obviously cannot equal the original or the first screen adaptation. After all, both had more time to flesh out the story and the characters, while this movie only is given a little over two hours. Still, director Julian Jarrold (Kinky Boots) and screenwriters Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies do a satisfying job of at least keeping the heart of the story alive.

The film opens on a luxury cruise liner, where famed painted Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) has a run-in with a woman from his past named Julia (Hayley Atwell). This causes Charles to think back to his days as a college student at Oxford, and brings us into the main story. As a student, he befriended a young man named Sebastian (Ben Whishaw). Despite the two coming from completely different worlds (Sebastian came from an upper class lifestyle with a strict Catholic upbringing, whereas Charles was middle class and atheist.), the two become very close, and Charles is invited to Sebastian's sprawling mansion home for the summer. It is there that Charles meets Sebastian's sister, Julia, for the first time. An affair between the two begins, much to the dismay of Sebastian, whom the movie not so subtlely hints may have stronger feelings for his friend than expected, and to their mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), who looks down upon Charles' lack of religious faith and does not want her daughter to love him. The film follows the bizarre triangle between the three young friends, and the lengths that Charles will go to hold onto Julia.

Brideshead Revisited would be a fairly ordinary story about class struggle (a topic that is all too common in British period piece dramas), but the film adds an interesting element with its theme of religious tension. This is a theme that carries through not just in the forbidden love story between Charles and Julia, but in other aspects of the plot and the lives of the characters. Charles is a man who sees that no good can come from religion. Not only does it forbid him from having Julia (at one point, Lady Marchmain tells him that she could forgive his social status if he were not an atheist), but he sees what it does to Sebastian, who is frequently drunk and wracked with guilt for his sins that his mother presses upon him daily. He drinks to escape the torment of his own sin, and finds himself spiraling down into self-destruction. Religion is something which Charles has a limited view of, and because of this, these experiences cloud his perception. He is not sure how to react to everything he sees around him.

Although the film remains mainly faithful to the original novel by Evelyn Waugh, there is one particular aspect that seems to be highlighted much more here, and that is the relationship between Charles and Sebastian perhaps meaning a bit more than just friends. This part of their relationship, which was a mere undertone in the original story, has been brought into the center spotlight in this film, though in a way that the film is able to hold onto its PG-13 rating. This is obviously supposed to bring more tension in the triangle between Charles, Sebastian, and Julia, especially when Charles begins spending more time with Julia after they share a fling together in Venice. The problem is, the movie does not delve deep enough into the emotions of these characters. Charles' change of heart and focus seems merely a whim here, and we never quite get a sense as to what caused him to change his mind and go in another direction.

Though the filmmakers obviously attempted to squeeze as much of the story as they can into a limited space, this central problem comes back to haunt their good intentions frequently. Though handsomely shot and holding some good performances (none quite Oscar-worthy, however), the movie never quite connects on an emotional level as much as it should. Charles Ryder in particular comes across as a somewhat cold and calculating protagonist, whom we never quite get a good sense of. Matthew Goode plays him as somewhat of a blank slate, so we never quite know what he's thinking. The rest of the cast is excellent however, particularly Emma Thompson as the icy and manipulative mother of Sebastian and Julia. It's one of her better recent performances, and the one that winds up being the main stand out. Credit must also be given to the cinematography, especially the scenes set in the lovely Brideshead mansion home. This is a beautiful film to look at through and through.

Brideshead Revisited is satisfying enough to recommend, and certainly daring in some ways. I just kept on getting the sense while I was watching it that if it had pushed a little bit more, it could have been a great movie instead of just a good one. Still, given the expectations that it had to live up to, this is probably about as good as we could have expected. This was no doubt a daunting task, and the movie at least manages to stay afloat and hold our interest. If anything, the movie made me want to visit the house that acted as the main location for the film.

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


Saturday, September 06, 2008

Bottle Shock

It's impossible not to think about Sideways while watching Bottle Shock. Sideways was a charming and very funny movie that understood wine and the people who drink it. Bottle Shock wants to be that kind of movie too, but it doesn't have the energy to do much of anything. I can understand the appeal of the premise and why someone would want to film this idea, but the lazy and lethargic direction of Randall Miller, combined with the aimless screenplay by Jody Savin, Ross Schwartz, and Miller, rob the idea of any potential interest it may have.

The film is loosely based on the true story of how back in 1976, a blind taste test was performed, where the best wines of California and Paris were put up against either other by a panel of judges and wine experts. California won the competition, and brought world-wide attention to the industry. This in itself is interesting, but before we get to that, we have to go through a very slow and plodding story about how a British wine shop owner in Paris named Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman) travels to California to experience firsthand that state's wine production. His ultimate goal is to pick the best US wines to place in the upcoming competition. One of the vineyards he stops at is Chateau Montelena, which is run by the struggling Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) and his adult son Bo (Chris Pine). Jim does not exactly hit things off with the somewhat uptight and proper Steven, and thinks that the competition he speaks of is just a way for the French to humiliate the US in public. But Bo thinks they have a chance, and along with recently hired intern Sam (Rachael Taylor) and good friend and co-worker Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez), enters his father's wine in the competition.

The problem with Bottle Shock is that it never truly knows how to hold our attention, nor does it know how to bring these characters together. Alan Rickman as Steven Spurrier may as well be starring in his own separate movie, since he has surprisingly little interaction with anyone else except for his shop's sole customer (Dennis Farina), and spends most of his time doing his own thing. The film moves literally at a glacial pace and despite some time-tested themes as father-son rivalries and love triangles, never manages to spark even the most remote interest. That's because these subplots are hastily thrown in, and not nearly developed enough. The rivalry between Jim and his son Bo has a lot to do with the fact that they don't see eye-to-eye on anything. They're at each other's throats so often, they even have a crude boxing ring constructed on their property so that the two can throw punches at each other. The relationship never quite works, because Bill Pullman and Chris Pine never seem fully behind their characters. They act more like total strangers to each other, rather than a father and son who have had differences all their lives, but still respect one another. The basis of their relationship and why they stick together despite it all never comes through, making their scenes come across as awkward and forced.

The other main subplots, both of them concerning Bo's two friends at the vineyard, manage to come across even worse, surprisingly. One of them concerns Bo's budding relationship with the lovely Sam, and how she also builds feelings for Gustavo to the point that she sleeps with him. This would be a major detail in another movie, but here, it's simply glossed over haphazardly. The fact that Sam and Gustavo spent the night together is hardly brought up or even mentioned again after it happens, and the relationships of the three characters never seems that strained afterward, almost as if it never happened. Same goes for another subplot concerning Gustavo, where it's discovered early on that he's making his own wine secretly without Jim or Bo knowing about it. It's established, but it never really goes anywhere, nor does it have anything to do with the rest of the movie after that. The movie could have easily followed and made something out of the tension these ideas naturally create, but it chooses to ignore this fact, and keep on showing a lot of aerial overhead shots of vineyards and close ups of workers picking grapes.

There's absolutely nothing that stands out about Bottle Shock, not even the fact that it was filmed in California's wine country. You'd think that alone would at least give the film a sort of visual splendor, but the cinematography is just as dull and lifeless as everything else in this movie. The performances also fail to rise above the material, despite the fine cast assembled. I didn't think it was possible, but apparently you can put Alan Rickman in your movie, and make him boring to watch. For that, the filmmakers deserve some kind of perverse praise for their achievement. To be fair, Rachael Taylor has a warm screen presence as Sam, but the movie doesn't do enough to exploit that fact, opting instead to focus on the less interesting characters around her. Eliza Dushku also has a small role as a bartender, and in her very brief scenes, manages to give her character more intelligence than just about anyone else in the movie.

By the time Bottle Shock starts to pick up and actually become interesting, it is far too late. It had killed too much time, and I just wanted the movie to end. Watching the movie is a lot like listening to a potentially interesting story from a person who routinely stops and pauses as he or she tries to think of the details, while you're forced to just sit there and wait for the person to continue the story. By the third or fourth time that person takes a lengthy pause, you're sorry you even asked to hear the story. Kind of like how I was sorry I spent $6 to watch this movie when it was over.

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


Friday, September 05, 2008

Bangkok Dangerous

To say that I walked into Bangkok Dangerous with low expectations would be an understatement. The fact that the film had not been screened for critics, combined with the current state of Nicolas Cage's career (Remember, this is a guy who went from movies like Moonstruck and Raising Arizona, to Ghost Rider and The Wicker Man.), did not exactly fill me with hope. For a movie that the studio is supposedly afraid to unleash upon the paying public, Bangkok Dangerous really isn't all that bad. It's very middle of the road and never really stands out, but it's at least watchable. For an early September release, sometimes that's a blessing.

The movie is actually a remake of a 1999 film from Thailand. Unlike most Hollywood remakes the original directors, Asian filmmaking siblings, The Pang Brothers (The Messengers), have returned behind the camera for this update. I have not seen the original, so I cannot compare the two. One thing I did find curious is how dark and dimly lit everything in this movie is. Watching it, I couldn't decide if it was a poor stylistic choice, or if the theater showing it was running the film on a projector with a dying bulb. I did some research on line, and found other people complaining about the film's dim visuals, so I obviously was not alone. Dark visuals can work in a movie, especially the kind of crime drama that Bangkok Dangerous is. But this movie isn't dark, it's murky and muddy. You feel like you're watching the movie through a pane of dirty glass. Given the film's exotic locations, that's a real crime.

Nicolas Cage plays a hitman named Joe, who arrives in Bangkok to do a few jobs for his newest client. In a morose narration, he tells us that he pretty much lives by a series of simple rules, which pretty much revolve around not opening up to anyone, not questioning your orders, and not letting the outside world interfere with what you have to do. During the course of the film, he will break those rules. It starts when he hires a young hustler named Kong (Shahkrit Yamnarm) to be his assistant while he's in Bangkok, running various errands for him. The two start out at odds with each other, but when Kong is beat up by some thugs while delivering a package for Joe, he becomes interested in his line of work, and wants to learn how to fight and kill so that he can better protect himself. Joe, perhaps against his better judgement, takes him on as a student. He also meets a beautiful deaf woman who works at the nearby pharmacy named Fon (Charlie Yeung). Joe feels a special bond with her, and before long, they're going on dates in his free time, and he's telling her he's a banker when she takes him home to meet her mother. The movie could have had a lot of fun with this idea, maybe have him actually try to pass himself off as a banker and pretend he knows what he's talking about. But, it completely skips over this.

Instead, Bangkok Dangerous is a redemptive story about a man who has been trained to be unfeeling, only to find himself opening up for the first time because of these people, and questioning the world he knows for the first time. It's an idea that's been explored numerous times in various other films, but it could have worked here if the screenplay by Jason Richman (Swing Vote) had been more interested in actually exploring its own ideas and characters. The script is built upon a series of vague assumptions and ideas. It gives us just enough to go on, but doesn't go far enough. Consider the scene where Kong botches a job, and Joe contemplates killing him, but he instead decides to accept his request to take him on as a student. Joe tells us in his voice over that he let him live because he sees something of himself in Kong. That's nice and all, but the movie doesn't go any further than that. We don't know anything about Joe, nor what he sees of himself in Kong, so we never understand exactly what he means. There's actually surprisingly little dialogue in the film, other than the narration provided by Cage, and it doesn't give us enough to go on. This makes the relationships at the center of the film, particularly the romantic one between Joe and Fon, much more forgettable than they are intended to be.

Despite the film's murky look, it is edited surprisingly well. There's a well-staged action sequence in the middle of the story where Joe has to chase down a fleeing target, and I was impressed by how clean and easy to follow the sequence was. Compare that to the jumbled mess of last weekend's Babylon A.D., and you really appreciate the work that the filmmakers put into the sequence. If the movie had more action, it'd be easier for me to recommend. But this is mainly a character piece, and because the movie doesn't go deep enough, we find ourselves kept constantly at a distance. Certain scenes or moments attempt to draw us in, but they don't fully succeed. The performances also fail to connect. Nicolas Cage speaks in the same tone of voice throughout the film, despite whatever may be happening to him. I understand he's playing a character whose emotions are largely muted due to his line of work, but he would have been much more effective if he tried to insert a little more personality during his scenes outside of his job. The one performance that does stand out is Charlie Yeung, who is not only lovely to look at, but is also very sympathetic. I wish more had been done with her character, especially after she learns the truth of what Joe does for a living. The confrontation, which should be inevitable in a film like this, never comes.

I found myself wondering if there was more to this movie that was either in the original film, or left on the cutting room floor. I was surprised that Bangkok Dangerous turned out to be a quiet and almost reflective drama, rather than the fast-paced action film I was expecting. But I was also left disappointed by how content the movie was to merely scratch the surface of its characters. It doesn't want to dig or pry, and that was a big mistake to me. This is a movie that wants to make us feel for the characters, but at the same time, doesn't want to take the time to allow us to feel for them. Talk about your missed opportunities.

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


Powered by Blogger