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The Movie Report
Archive
January 2005

#451 - 453
January 14, 2005 - January 28, 2005


all movies are graded out of four stars (****)

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#453 January 28, 2005 by Michael Dequina

M O V I E S

Hide and Seek one-sheet Alone in the Dark one-sheet Hide and Seek (R) no stars
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Alone in the Dark (R) no stars
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While this January certainly hasn't been lacking the cinematic suck, it hasn't had that classically distastrous, so-amazingly-awful-as-to-be-comic-gold type of suck--that is, until the final weekend of the month, with the double-whammy releases of the twin terribles known as Hide and Seek and Alone in the Dark.

In the case of Hide and Seek, the raucous result is a bit of a letdown as there are some promising elements involved. Although his taste in projects is hardly infallible, Robert DeNiro's presence is always at the very least an initial source of some hope for quality; on hand for support are able players Famke Janssen, Elisabeth Shue and Amy Irving; and--in the one move that seemed especially inspired--for the first time, someone was harnessing child star Dakota Fanning's innate creepiness for intentionally unsettling dramatic effect.

However, that casting decision is the sole sign of cleverness on display in the film. Right before the lights dimmed at the press screening, I turned to a fellow writer and rather jokingly called the big plot twist, naming what I believed to be the stupidest non-surprise I could think of--and, sure enough, come climax time, I was both amused and horrified that I was correct. But then I suppose I shouldn't have been shocked as the movie is directed by John Polson, he who also perpetrated the terrible teen Fatal Attraction rip Swimfan. Even before the ludicrous and heavily telegraphed conclusion, though, Polson and writer Ari Schlossberg offer plenty of laughable fodder once psychologist David Callaway (DeNiro) and daughter Emily (Fanning) move upstate from NYC to rebuild their lives after the tragic, traumatic, pre-credits loss of beloved wife and mother Alison (Irving). But the Callaways' situation goes from bad to even worse when Emily conjures up an imaginary friend named Charlie who causes David--and the film--some very real trouble. The would-be shocks are repetitive and ridiculous (how many times can a dirty bathtub be menacing?), not to mention how the Callaways' new town might as well be named Red Herring, for every resident, from their neighbors (Melissa Leo and Robert John Burke) to the town sheriff (Dylan Baker) are called on to act over-the-top creepy and/or suspicious depending on Polson and Schlossberg's random whim. The one exception is that of David's divorcée friend Elizabeth Young (Shue), who is called on to act slutty for every second of screen time; case in point: she wears fuck-me boots and a shamelessly cleavage-baring, low-cut dress... to visit Emily?

The film grows more comic as its supposed to be scary, as Polson lets any modicum of tension go slack by drawing out both the build-up to the not-so-stunning revelation and the home stretch. Pacing and (whatever passes for) tension would've been dramatically improved had there not been needless, often laughable contrivances that pad out the run time; one especially lengthy and ineffective stretch could have been excised had one character simply gone out the wide open door that is mere steps away instead of inexplicably running back up the stairs. And in a naked attempt to generate conversation once the movie's over, the film closes on an ambiguous shot whose meaning I'm not so sure the filmmakers themselves thought through--that is, beyond its potential to elicit one last reaction from the audience. But I kind of doubt loud groans were what they had in mind.

Similarly, I doubt the minds--using that term very loosely--behind Alone in the Dark had hysterical laughter in mind with this video game-based sci-fi/horror actioner. But then I can imagine them having a good laugh at their financiers' expense, for I can't imagine such an Ed Wood-level display of ineptitude existing as anything other than a complete joke. The laughs come hard and fast right from the start, with a scrolling text introduction that is not only read aloud for less literate moviegoers by a voiceover in that melodramatic movie trailer mold, but literally goes on for minutes. What exactly is said in those paragraphs and pages I'm not entirely sure; some purple prose nonsense about an ancient civilization called the Abkani and mysterious alien cross-breeding experiments involving orphaned children.

After the eyestrain of having to read a veritable essay on the screen, it is almost a relief to see actual actors appear. Any such thought quickly fades, though, as writer-director Uwe Boll keeps on finding new ways of hitting rather astonishing cinematic lows. Even more voiceover soon follows, listlessly delivered by our nominal hero Edward Carnby (Christian Slater), which is quickly cut short when Boll launches into the film's first big action sequence, beginning as a car chase and then ending as one big tussle between Carnby and a seemingly superhuman attacker. It's not a terrible idea in theory, but it certainly is in practice, as Boll's hacksaw cutting, penchant for cliché indulgence (hello, fruit carts) and frugal approach to FX; the image compositing is noticeably sloppy.

It just gets worse from there on serious cinematic terms, and even better for great bad movie connoisseurs. Beyond the shoddy effects (the aliens almost always appear blurred and somewhat transparent, and not purposely, almost as if the filmmakers figured having vague outlines onscreen were enough) the film looks downright cheap. The soft, grainy look doesn't seem to be an artistic choice so much as the result of shooting on bargain bin film stock; the so-called precious artifacts look like the plaster casts spray-painted in gold that they more than likely are. Speaking of cheap, Tara Reid--sporting specs and a "sensible" up-'do--co-stars as a brilliant museum curator, and while blasting that improbable bit of casting appears all too easy, her pronunciation of Newfoundland as literally "New Found Land" erases all benefit of the doubt, and it's hard to not forget her real-life image when Boll has her character engage in a gratuitous, completely context-free sex scene--scored to a middle-of-the-road rock ballad that could have very well been a straight-faced version of Team America's "Only a Woman"--with Slater. At least it can be said that she and an overacting Stephen Dorff, as the head of a secret paranormal-fighting government agency to which Carnby once belonged, are obviously trying (to do what, exactly, is up to debate, however), which is more than can be said for the sleepwalking Slater, who for the whole run time understandably appears to be pondering just how his once-promising career came to this.

Similarly, viewers will be asking themselves how every last thing about the movie came to be. Why does every dead body, regardless of where and/or how they were wounded, lie in a dried puddle of blood that appears to originate from the center of the back? Why do those infected/possessed by the aliens have the ashy faces of undead zombies? How can a flimsy garage door seal a gateway between dimensions--and keep killer creatures from breaking through? How could anyone think that having a character actually say "I just felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up" would be anything but laughable? That the filmmakers never stopped to think about such obvious issues as these (and this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg) is what is truly scary about Alone in the Dark, which has just about everything a snarky bad movie lover could want--that is, except a guy and two robots sitting in the bottom right hand corner.


In Brief

Are We There Yet? one-sheet Are We There Yet? (PG) *
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The noble intent behind this family-targeted comedy is to apparently show how child-hating bachelor Nick (Ice Cube) comes to see value beyond the playa lifestyle and has his paternal instincts awakened after a long road trip with the children of a comely divorcée (a completely wasted Nia Long), his latest object of lust. But any hope of the film successfully relating that message is shot completely to hell within two minutes when we witness the two little hellions (charmlessly played by Aleisha Allen and Philip Daniel Bolden) completely humiliate one of their mother's innocent, well-meaning suitors with an array of slapsticky, Home Alone-style booby traps. What a way to make the audience immediately wish painful, if not fatal, comeuppance upon these brats, and believe it or not, the four (!) credited writers and director Brian Levant spend most of the rest of the running time piling on even more reasons to completely loathe this terrible twosome, in essence justifying Nick's anti-kid stance as he's put through the wringer of would-be comic humiliation over and over again.

As much as I felt bad for his character, though, I couldn't feel completely bad for Ice Cube. At first, I continually wondered why he would choose such a project to not only to star in, but to also produce; as the film went on, it became clear--this is a rigorous, if quite surprising, warm-up for his upcoming action hero duties on xXx: State of the Union, for he gets to do many elaborate stunt sequences here, from a big chase/ramming session with big rig trucks (!) to chasing a running train while on horseback (!!). That said, this won't be a film Cube will want to highlight on his résumé, and Long will most certainly want to sweep this one under the rug, which begs the question: what does Levant have against the stars of Boyz N the Hood? First Cuba Gooding Jr. in Snow Dogs, now Cube and Long in one fell swoop; attention Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Regina King, Morris Chestnut--if Levant comes a-callin', run for the hills.


Assault on Precinct 13 one-sheet Assault on Precinct 13 (R) ***
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Bigger, slicker, cleaner is usually the philosophy Hollywood follows when it comes to remakes, particularly when it comes to updates of low-budget cult items such as John Carpenter's 1976 thriller. But despite a cast full of recognizable faces led by Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne, Jean-François Richet's higher-budget and -profile 2005 take admirably retains the scuzzy '70s exploitation sensibility--and is all the more effective for it. Hawke is well-cast as the tormented head of the run-down, understaffed precinct; the ever-authoritative Fishburne is the vicious crimelord with whom he must forge an uneasy alliance when unknown forces lay siege upon the crumbling building and all of its inhabitants, whether cop, civilian, or criminal. Given the greater resources available to Richet, it must have been tempting to open up the action beyond the title location, but he and screenwriter James DeMonaco wisely stay close to the claustrophobic and more dramatically rich confines of the precinct, emphasizing the fascinating, ever-shifting character dynamics over action--not that the film doesn't deliver on that latter level. There is plenty of gunplay, chases, and assorted mayhem, and the sequences have all the more impact due to the film's solid character foundation, not to mention its down-and-dirty, hard-R brutality; in a time where it's all too fashionable and commercially viable to soft-pedal violence, this film shows that not only is such roughness sometimes a necessity, but can also be an effective storytelling enhancement. Like the original film, this Assault may not be the most ambitious nor original of undertakings, but it's a reminder of how enjoyable a simple formula picture can be when done with commitment and craft.


Shwaas one-sheet Shwaas (The Breath) ** 1/2
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Given how the prominent presence of children is an often foolproof way to earn a spot in generally geriatric Academy voters' hearts, India's choice for its entry into the Foreign Language Film category, the Marathi-language indie Shwaas, is understandable. Not only is a young boy (Ashwin Chitale) front and center, but so his loving grandfather (Arun Nalawade), who is faced with a difficult choice when the boy is diagnosed with a life-threatening condition that can only be thwarted if he loses his eyes. It's an undeniably, if shamelessly, heart-tugging hook, and Nalawade is rather remarkable as the man from the small village bewildered by big city medicine and the even more profound enormity of his grandson's plight. However, the simple story strains to maintain a run time (107 minutes) that is already far shorter than the Indian film norm, and and as such some scenes feel padded out beyond the breaking point; for instance, I understand the importance of a scene where the grandfather is confused by a hospital's form-filling procedure, but did the scene have to run on for some ten or so minutes? Shwaas does boast a moving climax, but its power would have been greater had it been the capper to a short film version of the same story, and not an overextended feature.


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#451 January 14, 2005 by Michael Dequina

M O V I E S

Coach Carter one-sheet Coach Carter (PG-13) ***
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As they always say in sports--particularly on the grade school level--whether win or lose, it's how you play the game. The same can be applied to the formula-ridden genre of the sports movie, as Thomas Carter's high school basketball drama Coach Carter goes through familiar motions yet does so with conviction.

But then it could be argued that the hoops action is almost incidental in this fact-based story, for the title character, Richmond High School (though actually filmed at my alma mater, Long Beach Polytechnic High School, which somehow became the go-to ghetto high school filming location after I graduated) basketball coach Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson), is less concerned with how his young charges fare on the court than they do in the classroom and, ultimately, in the game of adult life. If that sounds a bit corny, you wouldn't be mistaken, as Carter and writers Mark Schwahn and John Gatins aren't immune to wallowing in sappy contrivance; for instance, one player's incredibly saccharine climactic monologue is enough to send non-diabetics into insulin shock. However, this is a refreshing angle for any sports film, particularly one set at the school level; not only is winning not everything to the coach, neither, really, is the game itself.

And so the film takes time to illuminate the off-court and off-campus lives of the Richmond squad, or at least a few of its members. As is the nature of this particular genre, there are a few team members who are no more than glorified extras, which is especially jarring when those particular placeholders suddenly appear in the middle of a scene and never make a sound, let alone utter a single word, let alone line. Those who do command Carter and the writers' focus, however, have the attention justified by performances that go beyond schematically-written types. Most notable are Rob Brown, making a most welcome return to the screen after a long post-Finding Forrester hiatus as the hard-working, well-meaning, reluctant father-to-be (with girlfriend Ashanti, doing just fine in her big-screen acting debut); Antwon Tanner as the cocky kid better known by his nickname (Worm); real-life college hoopster-turned-thesp Nana Gbewonyo as the athletically gifted but academically troubled big man; and Rick Gonzalez as the star player caught up in a wrong crowd (even if he's saddled with that thankless monologue). The writers do deserve some credit for not using the presence of Carter's son (Robert Ri'chard) on the team as an all-too-obvious source of conflict.

The performance that makes the strongest impression, of course, is that of Jackson. While Carter does a good job with the players' side stories and the numerous basketball sequences, Jackson's effortless authority and shaded portrayal of Coach Carter holds the film together. While there's no doubting the nobility of his intentions and actions, Jackson doesn't soften his stubborn, self-righteous qualities, which adds further flavor to the formula. Indeed, Coach Carter offers little, if anything, that is new, but there's no small pleasure in seeing a well-worn tale told with class and style.


Elektra one-sheet Elektra (PG-13) *
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Elektra certainly appeared to be a can't-miss proposition: a spin-off of the financially successful 2003 screen adaptation of Daredevil, focusing on what was considered one of the best things about the film; a headlining vehicle for rising star Jennifer Garner; a release date closely following the season premiere of Garner's cult/critics' fave television series Alias, which so happens to be enjoying a ratings upsurge of late. Rob Bowman's finished product, however, is a study in how such a "can't miss" project can go awry in just about every conceivable way.

As with any film, it all starts with the writing, and the root of Elektra's evil can be traced to scripter Zak Penn and co-story creators Stu Zicherman and Raven Metzner's efforts--or lack thereof. That the sai-wielding woman warrior Elektra Natchios (Garner) now sports her traditional red (after inexplicably wearing black in Daredevil) appears to be the extent of their and Bowman's understanding of the character. After an interesting, if not terribly thrilling, action sequence in which we witness the now-resurrected Elektra on the job as a hired assassin, the film then dives into thirty minutes of this badass, blood-thirsty babe... sitting around, doing nothing. Literally. Her latest contract job puts her on a remote island, and while awaiting further instructions, she reluctantly gets to know her neighbors, Mark Miller (the ever-boring George Clone-y, a.k.a. Goran Visnjic) and his thoroughly annoying young daughter Abby (Kristen Prout). No prizes for anyone who correctly guesses who Elektra's latest mark(s) turn(s) out to be.

Of course, Elektra suddenly feels pangs of a conscience and decides to instead protect the pair, irking the ninja syndicate The Hand, who are after the two for mysterious (and, as it turns out, thoroughly ludicrous) reasons. This should be the point where Elektra takes off, but it's where the film completely falls to pieces. It's not due to the whole "killer finds value in life" hook, which is actually rather expected; what is unexpected, however, is the degree to which the traditionally dark character of Elektra softens. While bouts with guilt do plague the character on the page, one would never see her goof around and engage in tickling sessions with kiddies, as she does with Abby here; she would always maintain some steely resolve. But not only is the portrayal of the character of Elektra problematic, so is her world. One major part of her appeal is that she is one of the more down-to-earth, down-and-dirty characters of the Marvel Universe; she's a deadly martial artist, and as such the opponents she generally faces were on that decidedly less fanciful level. Bowman and the writers, thinking that gritty action isn't enough for a comic-based blockbuster, go overboard with incredibly chintzy-looking visual effects that serve no discernible purpose other than to fill some type of unspoken, understood CGI quota.

And it just gets worse from there. I can understand why the filmmakers would not want to heavily reference the events in Daredevil so as to make this film stand more firmly on its own, but it is baffling from a storytelling perspective. Considering how Elektra's murderous rage is a key point, why then is the incident that stoked the fire in the first place--her beloved father's death, as seen in the previous film--not addressed at all? Granted, action, not story, is the main interest here, and even in that respect Elektra disappoints, as the stunningly few action sequences are unimpressive; the falling, billowing sheets accenting one swords-'n-sais faceoff may have been slightly interesting had we not already seen it done far more memorably in Zhang Yimou's Hero. (Okay, maybe not.) Even other would-be "cool" touches are simply cold: shoehorning Daredevil villainess Typhoid Mary into the proceedings makes little sense in a film centering on Elektra (after all, her split personality--which isn't even covered here--and twisted relationship with Matt Murdock is what makes her character really fascinating); and Terence Stamp, who initially seemed an inspired casting choice as Elektra's blind martial arts master (and, in the comic mythos, he also trained Matt Murdock) phones it in, apparently just content to cash a check and bolster his already-strong geek cred by turning up here.

"Phoning it in" applies to just about everyone involved in the making Elektra, and as such it appears every bit the slapdash, cash-in rush job that it is. Even Garner is adrift here as Bowman seems at a complete loss as to how to make anything work: the story, any of the characters, just about every action scene (do we really need multiple slo-mo shots of Elektra merely leaping?)--or simply holding the audience's attention. Above being a bad movie, Elektra is a boring one, and a horribly missed opportunity for making a viable screen franchise for one of the most compelling characters to grace the comic book page.


Swades one-sheet Swades: We, the People ***
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It's interesting to witness Ashutosh Gowariker and Farhan Akhtar, the two filmmakers who breathed fresh life and creative polish into Bollywood with their respective 2001 releases Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai, both follow up such revolutionary, globally successful efforts in 2004 with earnest odes to their homeland of India. But while Akhtar stumbled into jingoistic, Hollywood-level flag-waving with his ambitious but underachieving war film Lakshya, Gowariker's Swades: We, the People gets his nationalistic message across with powerful understatement.

Subtlety nor modulation are not qualities one generally associates with Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan, but even more than in his other film of the season (the epic love story Veer-Zaara), here he impressively reigns in his usual (though often effective) histrionics as Mohan, a scientist working for NASA. Despite a skyrocketing career and prosperous life in the States, Mohan feels something is missing: namely, his childhood caretaker Kaveriamma (Kishori Balal). So he takes leave from an important satellite project to travel back to India with the mission to bring her over to America. But, of course, Mohan finds more than he bargains for in her poor village of Charanpur--and not just the beguiling presence old friend Gita (Gayatri Joshi), who nobly works as a schoolteacher to try to bring about advancement in this remote, electricity-starved location.

The paces of Gowariker's plot are as predictable as they appear, nor does it have as easily crowd-pleasing a hook as Lagaan, so it is a testament to his and his collaborators' talents that such a fairly simple story remains consistently engaging for its three hours. After successfully pairing then-newcomer Gracy Singh with established name Aamir Khan in Lagaan, Gowariker yields similarly winning results with the combination of "King Khan" and not-unknown-for-long Joshi; their easy-going rapport keeps one interested in their developing relationship while their strong individual turns do justice to the sharply written characterizations. As in Lagaan, music duties fall to maestro A.R. Rahman, and freed from the period restrictions of his previous teaming with Gowariker, he offers a score more befitting his infectiously eclectic norm. Rahman's wide-ranging score is just about the epitome of "world music," and he tackles all the styles with flair, whether it be the thumping dance pop of Mohan's road trip toe-tapper "Yun Hi Chala Chal" ("Keep Roaming") to my personal favorite, Gita's entrancing ballad "Saanwariya" ("My Love"), which improbably but seamlessly fuses traditional Indian percussion and instrumentation with UK garage/two-step beats.

No song quite packs the punch, however, as the climactic "Yeh Jo Des Hai Tera" ("This Country of Yours"), which not only exempliflies Rahman and Javed Akhtar's mastery in film music but Gowariker's skill as a director. Up until this point, the film is certainly enjoyable and involving enough as a story and general entertainment. But this song sequence--through its memorable visuals, bittersweet melody, and heartfelt words achingly sung by Rahman himself--brings all of Gowariker's sentiments, the flavor of Charanpur and its residents, and Mohan's spiritual journey and evolution to a culmination of unexpected and downright startling poignance. While the outcome of this scene can easily be foreseen, all of the little touches that preceded it in the film (including side character silliness, slow patches, or speechifying) suddenly gel into a picture that is far more vivid than the sum of its parts. As such, the slow-burning Swades requires a bit of patience from its viewers, but such an investment is a minimal expense when the payoff is richly rewarding. (Special thanks to Naz 8 Cinemas and UTV)


In Brief

Racing Stripes one-sheet Racing Stripes (PG) * 1/2
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"Babe meets Seabiscuit" pretty accurately describes this family film in a nutshell. While I like both of those films, I wasn't so sure I'd want to see them morphed together, and this silly, strictly-for-kids, feel-good underdog talking animal sports movie (whew) just confirmed that suspicion. Bruce Greenwood and Hayden Panetierre, bless their talented and well-meaning hearts, bravely give committed performances as the token human leads, a widowed ex-horse trainer and his headstrong daughter, who adopt an abandoned baby zebra. Alas, that zebra named Stripes (voiced by Frankie Muniz), his colorful and equally chatty barnyard friends (including Dustin Hoffman's mentor-like pony and Whoopi Goldberg's mother hen of a goat) and, above all, his delusions of being a championship racehorse are the main course. Any perceived parallels with Babe end there, though, as that film's truly all-ages appeal is nowhere in evidence as director Frederik DuChau is all too eager to sink to cheap juvenalia, namely animal excrement and flatulence jokes courtesy a pair of painfully unfunny and badly CG'ed horseflies (voiced by Steve Harvey and David Spade).


White Noise one-sheet White Noise (PG-13) *
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As if being the very first wide release of the movie wasteland known as January didn't already make it critical cannon fodder, not only does the title of White Noise provide more easy ammunition, so does the name of the director. Geoffrey Sax? Geoffrey sux. But there's no stronger ammunition than the film itself, a tedious and thrill-less thriller that does indeed, for lack of a better description, suck. At the center of the film is the purportedly real Electronic Voice Phenomenon (or "EVP"), in which messages from the dead can be received through electronic static on televisions or radios, and this intriguing concept could serve as foundation for a film that serves as both an insightful exploration of the phenomenon and a creepy chiller. However, Sax and writer Niall Johnson have somehow made a film attempting that yet making the two approaches feel mutually exclusive and pleasing just about no one, neither the viewers looking for a thoughtful supernatural enterprise nor those out for a good scare.

Most of the film is one long slog in which widowed architect Michael Keaton (lending the silly proceedings more credibility than they deserve) watches and listens to tape upon tape of the titular white noise for some sign from his recently departed "international best selling author" (as is repeatedly drilled into our collective heads) wife (Chandra West). Despite all the time spent watching Keaton attempting to make use of EVP, Sax and Johnson make precious little effort to explain the basic logistics of the phenomenon--for example, on what channels/stations must one tune one's televisions and radios?--making for some truly tedious viewing. Only by the final third do they remember that the film is also supposed to be a thriller, and Keaton suddenly receives ominous visual messages that reveal that the dead apparently speak in the language of movie one-sheet iconography: shadowy walking figures (Dawn of the Dead); a silhouetted profile of a man's face (Mission: Impossible); a frightened, ghostly looking-figure screaming with their hands reaching out (The Relic). But not even that prepares one for the head-slapping stupidity of the finale, which would only satisfy those who had a perverse desire to see those evil, hell-dragging spirits in Ghost blow open a few cans of whoop-ass.


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