Cradle 2 the Grave (R)
One simply expects thrills and agreeably thought-free entertainment upon seeing the names of stars Jet Li, DMX, and producer Joel Silver, and there's no denying that their latest collaboration with Romeo Must Die and Exit Wounds director Andrzej Bartkowiak is never boring. Whether or not it's really any good is still very much up for question, but some fun is definitely to be had when thief-with-a-heart-of-gold DMX and Chinese secret agent team up to find the thief's daughter and her kidnapper, a dastardly dude (Mark Dacascos) on the trail of some black diamonds. Yes, the film finds Silver falling into laughably inappropriate treacle more befitting the Jerry Bruckheimer oeuvre whenever DMX and his screen daughter share the screen; yes, Dacascos's evil scheme is total wannabe Bond villainy; yes, Bartkowiak tries a bit too hard to evoke the spirit of his last two hits, particularly in rehiring comic relief sidekicks Tom Arnold and Anthony Anderson and making them do another end credit verbal sparring session. But when the film features a memorable steel cage brawl between Li and a gaggle of Ultimate Fighting Champions, a cool ATV chase with DMX, and a kick-ass girlfight between Kelly Hu and Gabrielle Union, enduring the dreck is a relatively small price to pay.
The Life of David Gale (R)
It certainly sounded like a recipe for something worthwhile: two-time Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey, three-time Academy Award nominee Kate Winslet, and Academy Award nominee Laura Linney in a film about a hot button issue, the death penalty, by celebrated director Alan Parker. But the astonishing awfulness of The Life of David Gale proves that if there's anything more frightening than a January dump release, it's a one-time prestige project that's pushed from awards season to an early date the following year.
Spacey is Gale, a Texas university professor and death penalty abolitionist who--irony alert!--finds himself on death row for the brutal rape and murder of a colleague (Linney). In the days leading to his execution, Gale decides to break his silence to a bleeding heart news magazine journalist (Winslet), who discovers that his side of the story is even more shocking than the crime itself. Or, I should say, at least she discovers his perspective to be shocking, for it won't necessarily be the case for the audience. After all, Parker and screenwriter Charles Randolph open by flashing back from a scene that will be revisited later in the film, featuring the Winslet character in a mad, desperate dash to get to the execution site. She can't exactly be rushing there to make sure Gale fries, no?
But as Al Pacino declares ad nauseum in The Recruit, nothing is as it allegedly seems in David Gale, which can hence be translated to mean that it is. While one can understand why someone would want to cast a gifted and accordingly decorated actor such as Spacey in a lead role, like any actor he carries a certain baggage from previous roles, and in this film his specific baggage works to his disadvantage. I don't want to give too much away, but his mere casting tilts expectations in a certain way that purported surprises become glaringly obvious far long before they are revealed. It doesn't help that Spacey's performance in general is generally uninspired and unimpressive. Linney and particularly Winslet do what they can (and it is nice to see the latter work in contemporary-set American film for a change), but there's only so much that can be done with a film that loudly transitions in and out of each and every flashback--and there are plenty of them--with a 360-degree rotation of the camera and flash cuts of "provocative" terms such as "rape," "pain," "self-sacrifice," etc; or uses a nonsensical contrivance such as a randomly malfunctioning rental car to build pseudo-suspense.
Bad movies are easy to make, but as this overheated and self-defeating propaganda piece (the film wears its liberal heart on its sleeve yet the characters spreading the message are far from the most sane, let alone admirable, people) shows, it takes a genuinely talented group of people to come up with the most jaw-dropping botch jobs--and, indeed, The Life of David Gale's true twist ending is how incredibly inept it all turns out to be.
Till Human Voices Wake Us (R)
A more appropriate title couldn't have been given Michael Petroni's romantic drama--except, maybe, Till Any Noise Wakes Us. The formidable acting talents of Guy Pearce and Helena Bonham Carter are squandered in this sluggish story of a psychiatrist (Pearce) who returns to his childhood home to bury his dead father, only to face up to memories that also need to be laid to rest: namely, those of his first, lost love. Perhaps not so coincidentally, on the way to town he meets a mysterious young woman (Bonham Carter) whose murky past may very well be tied to his own. The woman's true identity won't be a surprise to anyone who watches the film, but Petroni takes his sweet time making the key revelations, in vain hopes that his cuts back and forth through time and Pearce and Bonham Carter's charisma and chemistry would maintain interest. But the nonlinear structure and glacial pace is less dream like and more like a droning trance, and accordingly Pearce and Bonham Carter sleepwalk through their roles. They don't seem terribly interested in the material, let alone each other, so the love story that is supposed to drive the film fails to ignite a single spark--and, hence, the film fails to generate a single iota of interest from the viewer.
As a fan of the Marvel Comics superhero Daredevil, I was pleased when the long-aborning screen version finally go into production last year. However, there were two big question marks attached to the project: writer-director Mark Steven Johnson, whose previous turn behind the camera was the decidedly un-superheroic Simon Birch; and star Ben Affleck, who wasn't exactly whom most DD readers envisioned donning blind attorney Matt Murdock's famous red horns. The finished Daredevil shows the two big gambles paying off in a solid, though not perfect, start to a possible screen franchise.
Of the two gambles, the one that perhaps incited the most fan fretting was the casting of Affleck, and he proves to be up to the challenge. All of the so-called "Afflecktions" (the smirk, the cocksure persona) are completely absent in his portrayal of Matt, who lost his sight--and, in turn, gained a superhuman heightening of his remaining senses--at an early age in an accident involving radioactive waste. Affleck does a convincing job of acting sightless and makes a capable action hero when donning Daredevil's red leather get-up; but more importantly, he captures the anguish at the heart of Matt: the unquenchable thirst for justice fueled by his father's (David Keith) years-ago murder, which led to his contradictory existence as a lawyer by day, law-flouting masked defender of Hell's Kitchen, New York City, by night.
That all said, Affleck's is the least colorful performance in Daredevil, which is a measure of just how well Johnson cast the supporting characters. Walking away with top acting honors is Jennifer Garner, who completely nails every facet of Matt's lady love--and Daredevil's nemesis--sexy sai-wielding heiress Elektra Natchios. As she shows every week in her regular TV gig on the spy series Alias, she is more than up to the role's demanding physical requirements, but she also has a vulnerability that lends the character and the Matt/Elektra love story genuine pathos. With his imposing size, formidable presence, and booming voice, Michael Clarke Duncan is a snug fit for the part of "kingpin of crime" Wilson Fisk; Colin Farrell is a scary hoot in his fairly limited screen time as assassin Bullseye; and Jon Favreau has some choice wisecracks as Matt's partner Franklin "Foggy" Nelson.
However, that supporting cast points up one of the chief flaws of Daredevil. With no less than three primary adversaries facing our hero over the span of only about 100 minutes, the film feels overstuffed and rushed; once everyone is set up, the film is barreling headlong into its climactic stretch. It's understandable that Johnson would want to cover all three of Daredevil's main villains in the film in the event there would not be a sequel, but something cannot help but feel as if it's given short shrift--namely, Kingpin. Johnson would have been wiser leave him out or keep him at the fairly background status he has for most of the film; with the tied-together Elektra/Bullseye resolutions carrying both a visceral charge and dramatic weight, the final face-off that follows between Daredevil and Fisk feels tacked-on and anticlimactic.
While it helps to have an avowed fanatical fan in the director's chair to protect the integrity of the material (and, despite some necessary alterations and cuts, the Elektra thread is a worthy homage to Frank Miller's legendary original storyline in the comics) Johnson, as his previous credits would indicate, isn't too seasoned when it comes to action, and it sometimes shows. The first action sequence in particular, set in a bar, is too murkily edited and lit to make much sense, let alone thrill; and while Cheung Yan Yuen's wire martial arts choreography works wonders for a memorable fight sequence between Daredevil and Bullseye, his elaborate aerial stunts stretch the already-shaky credibility of the meet-cute between Elektra and an out-of-costume (!) Matt.
Nonetheless, Daredevil is a faithful translation of the character and one of his more memorable tales on the page; it satisfies as an adventure and as a more intimate story. It certainly isn't as definitive an adaptation as last year's Spider-Man, but there's definitely potential and promise for any future installments.
All the Real Girls (R)
With only two features under his belt, writer-director David Gordon Green has emerged as one of the most distinctive and fascinating voices in cinema. After focusing on children in the deep south in his haunting debut George Washington, Green, while still working in his small Southern town milieu (again stunningly photographed by Tim Orr), turns his attention to young adults experiencing first love. The pleasure and the pain are shared by 18-year-old Noel (Zooey Deschanel) and the 22-year-old Paul (Paul Schneider)--particularly Paul, a notorious womanizer who surprises everyone and himself when he develops pure feelings for the girl, the younger sister of one of his best friends. While the characters and Green himself (he's only 27) are young, he tackles such a complicated issue with remarkable maturity and authenticity; actually, its his very youth that enables him to achieve that realism. From the first scene, Green vividly captures the scary/exciting feelings that come with a new relationship; the playful awkwardness is rather endearing--which then makes the inevitable souring all the more heartbreaking and real. Deschanel and Schneider completely inhabit these complex characters, fleshing out the good, bad and just plain human; their effortless chemistry lends their romance a rooting interest, but their just as believably drawn flaws make it plainly obvious that their love will never be the ideal either of them--especiallly Paul--hopes for. The film may not have quite the haunting spell of George, but Girls is a poetic, powerful work that makes one even more anxious to see what Green does next.
While Ben Affleck is donning superhero duds in a big-budget studio franchise starter, his Good Will Hunting collaborators, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck and director Gus Van Sant, have gone in the extreme opposite direction with this ambitious, avant garde piece. To describe the film's story as being about two guys (Damon and Affleck) who get lost in the desert is not to be flip and vague: as far as straight narrative goes, that really is all there is. But what the film lacks in traditional satisfactions is compensated by some truly transcendental virtues. Most notably, the cinematography by Harris Savides is, quite simply, jaw-dropping; the desert landscapes are stunning and intimidating in their beautiful vastness. Not lost in the scenery, however, are Damon and Affleck. Their nameless characters begin as aimless goofs, but their initially silly, everyday banter makes their dying desperation in the film's latter stages all the more relatable and involving, turning an experimental concept into an intimately experiential work. Gerry is a difficult, demanding sit, but it wouldn't have been nearly as fascinating and rewarding a film if it weren't.
#360 February 7, 2003
M O V I E S
Deliver Us from Eva (R)
Gary Hardwick opens his comedy with a truly adorable title sequence: three of the four focal couples in the film do a dance-and-lipsynch routine on a bare set to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's classic "You're All I Need to Get By," all while decked out in fashions from the Motown era. But when one of the ladies literally opens the book to the rest of the film, charm gives way to smarm as we're introduced to Eva (Gabrielle Union), an uptight bitch who makes life a living hell for her too-devoted younger sisters (Meagan Good, Essence Atkins, and Robinne Lee)--and their men (Dartanyan Edmonds, Mel Jackson, and Duane Martin), who hire love-'em-and-leave-'em playboy Ray (LL Cool J, now being billed under his given name, James Todd Smith) to romance Eva out of their hair. Union sinks her teeth into Eva's shrewish persona with verve, but the early comic scenes used to establish her bitchiness are a bit too broadly executed by Hardwick, not to mention become repetitive after a while. But when Smith enters the picture to butt heads with Union, the rocky beginnings pave the way for a sweet yet edgy, tender yet very sexy romance. It's no spoiler to say that Eva falls for Ray and vice versa, but the familiar motions are smoothly orchestrated by Hardwick and convincingly executed by the tremendously appealing pair of Smith and Union, who overcome the sometimes-strained mechanics of the plot.
Shanghai Knights (PG-13)
The only two credits that will matter much of anything to most viewers of Shanghai Knights are the two names that appear before the title: Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson, the reunited stars of the 2000 martial arts comedy/western, Shanghai Noon. But a bigger, better reason why this sequel works shows up in the end credit roll: "fights choreographed by Jackie Chan." Far more than much of his recent Hollywood work, the fight scenes here recall the set pieces of Chan's Hong Kong heyday, where no prop or miscellaneous piece of set decoration is left unused as a potential weapon. When Chan's Chon Wang puts his moves on bad guys in a marketplace setting, fruit carts, ladders, rooftop coverings and, rather memorably, umbrellas factor in the wacky rumbles; in a room full of precious antiques, Chon makes unexpected use of vases to his advantage. The fights are clever enough to make one forgive director David Dobkin's penchant for scoring them to cutesy "comedy" music. Almost.
But the Chan/Wilson chemistry that drove the first film and draws people back to this one hasn't lost any of its snap, and their rapport smooths over some of the more questionable decisions by Dobkin and scripters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar. Having Chon and Wilson's less-than-suave fast-talker Roy O'Bannon bring their buddy act to Britain to find Chon's father's killer is an inspired move, but that just sets up some painfully precious and unfunny little in-jokes (for instance, an in-disguise Roy looks at a label on a clock to come up with the alias of... Sherlock Holmes); and while a new kid character mercifully never develops into the cutesy additional sidekick he threatens to become, his limited presence is still irksome. Thankfully, there isn't much lag time between a decent wisecrack by Wilson or a kick-ass fight scene featuring Chan and/or comely newcomer Fann Wong (as Chon's feisty sister). Sadly, the brief confrontation between Chan and another great Hong Kong martial arts movie star, Donnie Yen, is highly disappointing, but the fun, flighty film as a whole is not.