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The Movie Report
Archive
Volume 28

#127 - 129
January 22, 1998 - February 5, 1998


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

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#129 February 5, 1998

M O V I E S

The Big Lebowski poster The Big Lebowski (R) *** 1/2
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Leave it to the Coen brothers to use a man urinating on a rug as the catalyst for an entire film's events. No, an Oscar win and wide-spanning critical acclaim has not put a mainstreaming damper on the reckless imagination of bros Joel and Ethan, who have made an instant cult hit with their warped but hilarious comedy-thriller, The Big Lebowski.

Said urinating man is a thug out to collect a debt owed by Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid), young trophy wife to Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston), wheelchair-bound Pasadena millionaire. The problem is, he urinates on the rug of the wrong Jeffrey Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), a.k.a. "the Dude," a lazy loser who wastes his days drinking and bowling with his buddies Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), a short-tempered Vietnam vet; and Donny (Steve Buscemi), a slow-witted ex-surfer. When the Dude attempts to receive compensation for his soiled rug from "the Big Lebowski," he sets off an outrageous chain of events that involves everything from kidnapping, ransom, double crosses, and pornography to a writer for the vintage TV western Branded, a gang of German nihilists, and their lethal pet marmot.

Needless to say, The Big Lebowski's story is intricate, out-there, and distinctly Coenesque; it is just about impossible to sum it up in a single sentence. While the Coens' unpredictable, ridiculously complex, and consistently funny plotline is one of the film's greatest virtues, the most pleasures lie with the cast of colorful characters. Standing first and foremost is the easily excitable Walter, prone to violent outbursts and suspicious of just about everyone. Goodman, in the film's standout performance, brings him to life with appropriate bluster without going too far; he's a blowhard, but he's a very loyal and helpful one, and as such we understand why anyone would want to be his friend. Making their marks on a smaller scale are Julianne Moore, who continues to shine as the perpetually robe-clad Maude, the Big Lebowski's sophisticated feminist artist daughter; John Turturro as flamboyant bowling adversary Jesus (not pronounced the Spanish way) Quintana; Philip Seymour Hoffman as the Big Lebowski's geeky assistant; and Buscemi, who is endearing, if underused, as the mild-mannered link in the Dude-Walter-Donny trio.

But what about the Dude? Out of the odd array of characters in The Big Lebowski, he is by far the least interesting. Sure, he's a layabout; he pays grocery bills for 69 cents by check; he likes drinking White Russians and smoking a joint here and there; he always looks like he just got of bed; he loves Creedence Clearwater Revival; and he has vivid fantasies involving bowling, including one elaborate Busby Berkeley-style musical number complete with dancers wearing bowling pin headdresses. He's certainly not a conventional mystery "investigator" hero, and Bridges manages to make the slob likable, but he's a downright bore compared to, say, the vibrantly boorish Walter or even cameo characters such as a giddy art world contemporary of Maude's played by David Thewlis.

To call The Big Lebowski "strange" or "quirky" would be an understatement; at times it's flat-out weird. Its unconventionality (another understatement) is sure to leave many a moviegoer perplexed, but that's exactly what makes the film such a fresh and imaginative piece of entertainment.


The Replacement Killers poster The Replacement Killers (R) *** event pix
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Hong Kong action star Chow Yun-Fat is a living legend, and it's about time that mainstream America found out. The ever-charismatic Chow will certainly have no trouble winning new fans with his English language debut, Antoine Fuqua's brisk, explosive The Replacement Killers.

In comparison to the dark, complex collaborations with John Woo (who executive produced) that made Chow an international superstar, Replacement is not exactly the sturdiest of vehicles. The entire storyline of Ken Sanzel's thin script can be summed up by its title. Chow plays John Lee, a hitman who wants out of a contract with his mob boss employer (Kenneth Tsang), who hence dispatches "replacements" to kill him and his ally, a document forger named Meg Coburn (a game Mira Sorvino, running around in an open shirt).

The plot is just the glue that holds together what is essentially one long series of wildly choreographed gunfights, which is far from a bad thing. Fuqua, whose slick style is best described as a cross between Michael Bay and (of course) Woo, wisely lets Chow be Chow--in other words, do all the things that makes him the coolest actor around. Throughout the film, I found myself breathing sighs of relief as the outrageous derring-do from the Chow I know and love appeared onscreen--sliding on floors, flying through the air, rolling around and flipping, firing from each hand. Early on, though, Fuqua makes a serious miscalculation by having Chow hold a gun with both hands (believe it or not, Columbia Pictures reportedly brought in someone to teach trigger-happy Chow how to shoot a gun), and his discomfort is obvious. But there is only one scene where he does so, and soon after Chow is allowed to ease into his normal routine.

As well as Chow is serviced by The Replacement Killers, it still only scratches the surface of his talent. His dour role erases all traces of his appealing sense of humor; Fuqua, perhaps caught up in his reverence for the man, takes Chow's character a bit too seriously, sometimes eliciting an odd chuckle from the audience. And the depth of his dramatic range is only hinted at in the silent, subtly acted scene where Lee cannot go through with what is to be his last hit.

But I suppose all depth will have to be reserved for when Chow reunites with Woo (which he is slated to do in the forthcoming action comedy King's Ransom). Until then, Replacement will do. It delivers all the mayhem and thrills one would want--and expect--from a popcorn action film and serves as a perfectly adequate American introduction to the living legend that is Chow Yun-Fat.


Zero Effect poster Zero Effect (R) ***
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Writer-director Jake Kasdan's Zero Effect gets its title from its main character, Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman). Zero is perhaps the world's greatest private detective, solving many a case without even setting foot outside of his well-secured penthouse apartment. And that's the problem--Zero is unquestionably a head case, a shut-in with no social skills whatsoever, writing bad love songs, guzzling cans of Tab, and eating tuna straight from the can when not working on a case. His only contact with the outside world comes in the form of his overworked assistant, attorney Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller).

From the sounds of it, Zero Effect sounds like one of those painfully labored and unfunny comedies focusing on a wacky hero who somehow achieves brilliance through his sheer stupidity and dumb luck. In reality, though, the film could not be more different. While it does have its share of humorous moments, Zero Effect is an intriguing character study of its protagonist disguised as a conventional comic mystery.

Not that there isn't a mystery involved, and it is certainly one of Zero Effect's weakest points. Zero is hired by wealthy Portland businessman Gregory Stark (Ryan O'Neal) to recover a set of lost keys. Naturally, this simple investigation leads to something more complex, mainly a blackmail scheme involving Stark and a paramedic named Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens). How this mechanical mystery plays out is flat, suspenseless, and more than a little predictable, not helped at all by Kasdan's unnecessarily languid pacing.

However, with the development of Gloria's relationship with an incognito Zero the film achieves a surprising poignance. Zero may be an oddball, but he's also incredibly intelligent, and that is the root cause of his reclusiveness. Throughout the film, Zero describes his investigation technique in a "how-to" voiceover, and it is here that he explains the key to his success: "the two 'obs'"--objectivity and observation. In becoming the best P.I. in the world, Zero has mastered the art of objectivity, literally and figuratively detaching himself from the rest of the world. When the investigation forces him to deal directly with Gloria, Zero is treated to his first genuine emotional human contact and a glimpse of what real life is about--direct involvement, not objective observation. This is not to say that Zero Effect degenerates into something sappy and touchy-feely; the power of the relationship and its effects on Zero and Gloria derives from its subtle execution.

Zero Effect is not a perfect debut for Kasdan (son of Lawrence); in addition to the by-the-numbers mystery, there is also a weak subplot revolving around the strain Arlo's work puts on his relationship with his girlfriend (Angela Featherstone). But even in its flawed form, Zero Effect is a lot more accomplished and mature than a lot of work by more established filmmakers.


In Brief

Deceiver poster Deceiver (R) ** 1/2
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A clever little thriller--perhaps a bit too much so. A prostitute (Renée Zellweger) is found dead and in halves, and the police's main suspect is a textile heir/compulsive liar (Tim Roth) who insists he didn't know her. Twin brother writer-directors Jonas and Joshua Pate gradually unravel the mystery through a series of flashbacks, both real and imagined, strung together by a seemingly endless string of polygraph test sessions conducted by a couple of cops (Chris Penn and Michael Rooker) with secrets of their own.

I was consistently engaged by Deceiver (in particular its strong performances), but it could have used a bit more restraint. Each late-inning turn of the plot comes off as a bit too much. Eventually the twists and revelations are piled on so high that things get way out of hand--a melodramatic scene involving a single bullet in a revolver is one climax the film did not need, and, as events progress, the truth behind the murder becomes increasingly murky. And the Pates also lay on the visual style a bit too thick; the flashy camera work at points becomes a distraction (most notably in a scene where the camera keeps on panning downward). The brothers are talented filmmakers to watch, but they still need to recognize the fine line between cleverness and excess.


Great Expectations poster Great Expectations (R) ** event pix
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I confess that I have never read Charles Dickens's classic novel (I was spared in high school), which provides the basis of this opulent modern-day translation. But even on its own merits, Alfonso Cuarón's Great Expectations does not quite satisfy. Ethan Hawke plays Finn, a poor young artist who haplessly pursues wealthy ice queen Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow), who has been programmed to toy with men by her aunt Ms. Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft), who, in turn, holds a grudge against all men after being left at the altar years ago.

From what I understand, the hook mirrors Dickens's basic idea, but a few obstacles keep Finn's quest from becoming terribly involving. The first is a question of chemistry--it's not that Hawke and Paltrow don't have any, it's just that it's difficult to say since their screen time together is fairly limited. Second, Finn is a very passive character; a dreamer with "great expectations" cannot endear himself to the audience if he doesn't take much action for himself. Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki make the film great to look at, but in the end, shiny surfaces are just that--surfaces, with nothing necessarily underneath.


V I D E O

The Pillow Book poster The Pillow Book (NC-17) ***
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Video will certainly compromise the visual sweep of Peter Greenaway's often baffling yet fascinating erotic fabrication. The film centers on Nagiko (Vivian Wu), a young Japanese woman obsessed with having calligraphy painted on her body. Her search for the perfect calligrapher/lover leads her to Jerome (a seldomly clothed Ewan McGregor), a bisexual Brit who also happens to be carrying on an affair with the male publisher who sexually humiliated Nagiko's father when Nagiko was a child. Even that summation of the film's outre plot does not accurately describe the unique experience of watching this stunningly composed film. Story and character take a backseat to the raw sensory craft. Greenaway crafts a literal tableau of imagery, sometimes overlapping shots over others, letterboxing certain shots, moving from black and white to color, all of which is married to haunting, surreal music. For the more adventurous viewer, The Pillow Book is never less than mesmerizing, even when you're not exactly sure what exactly Greenaway is trying to say. (Columbia TriStar Home Video)


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#128 January 29, 1998

M O V I E S

Desperate Measures poster Desperate Measures (R) * 1/2
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A pair of shadowy figures lurk about a dimly lit building as the opening credits crawl ever so stealthily along walls, floors, and windows. Sadly, this is the pinnacle of creativity for Desperate Measures, a routine, sometimes laughable thriller whose originality and intelligence is in inverse proportion to its overwhelming absurdity.

Not that David Klass's premise is not without some tinge of freshness, albeit preposterous. After a frantic search for a bone marrow donor for his leukemia-stricken son Matthew (Joseph Cross), San Francisco police detective Frank Conner (Andy Garcia) finds a compatible match in Peter McCabe (Michael Keaton). There's just one pesky complication: McCabe is a brilliant, psychotic killer serving a lengthy prison sentence, and conducting the transplant means placing escape-prone McCabe in a situation where he easily can--and, surprise, surprise, he does.

There's a germ of an interesting, if somewhat comical, idea here--the cop wants to catch the bad guy, but, unlike the other police, he wants him to catch him alive. But Desperate Measures soon settles into an all-too familiar series of by-the-book standoff set pieces where Conner catches up to McCabe, McCabe takes someone hostage and gets away, said hostage is somehow released, Conner catches McCabe again, etc. And for all the gunplay, fights, and assorted mayhem director Barbet Schroeder is able to pack into his briskly paced 100 minutes, nothing about the proceedings is very suspenseful--just tedious.

Not helping things at all are the unintentional laughs that are had along the way. Quite a few of the guffaws stem from how Conner wants McCabe alive. Consider this one stupefying gutbuster: the good guy shoots the bad guy and in a standard thriller moment; then suddenly we see the two in a maudlin rushing ambulance scene, with the good guy holding the bad guy's hand, telling him he's going to make it as treacly music plays in the background. Some things are just insulting. Much is made about how Matthew only has hours to live, but for someone near death, he's awfully energetic; the final act has him running around a lot, exhibiting no signs of weakness or fatigue, and for someone whose blood has trouble clotting, a nosebleed stops rather quickly and conveniently. I'd say that the transplant could wait a few days. Make that weeks. Months even.

What keeps Desperate Measures watchable is the work of Keaton and Garcia. Garcia makes you sympathize with Conner's plight, and he is able to lend the weak material some emotional gravity. Keaton is allowed to be more colorful here than he was in Jackie Brown, voraciously sinking his jowls into the psycho role. If anything is wrong with Keaton's portrayal, it's the fault of the script, which paints McCabe as nothing more than a garden variety loon. Keaton suggests something a bit more quirky and off-center (that is, if there is something "centered" about psychotic killers), but none of that gets any deep follow-through, if any at all.

But any pleasures to be had with Desperate Measures are just about wiped away by the film's abrupt finale, which bears the unmistakable stench of test-screening tinkering. It's a cheap, gimmicky conclusion, which makes it the perfect capper to this dopey thriller.


In Brief

The Gingerbread Man poster The Gingerbread Man (R) ***
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John Grisham. Robert Altman. Kenneth Branagh. This odd assemblage of talent suggests a most unusual film, but there's just about nothing unconventional about this thriller, which gets the formulaic job done--with a considerable amount of style. In the bestselling author's first story written directly for the screen (the screenplay itself is written by Al Hayes--a.k.a. Altman), cocky Savannah lawyer Rick Magruder (Branagh) becomes romantically and professionally entangled with one Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz), a young woman who is being stalked by her unstable derelict father Dixon (Robert Duvall). Rick succeeds in having him committed, but he is sprung by his cronies just about as soon as he is locked up, not only placing Mallory in danger but Rick and his family as well.

Sounds like boilerplate Grisham, and that The Gingerbread Man is for all of its twisty (yet predictable) way. But what makes this one of the more interesting Grisham thrillers is Altman, who leaves his indelible signature under the familiar trimmings. The film has a most daunting atmosphere, created through a rich synthesis of stunning photography (by Chinese cinematographer Changwei Gu) and haunting music (created electronically by Mark Isham). Altman's penchant for long takes and complex sound design are also in evidence, as is his uncanny ability to attract a lot of solid acting talent (in addition to Branagh, Duvall, and Davidtz, the cast includes Robert Downey Jr., Daryl Hannah, Tom Berenger, and Famke Janssen). None of these touches are surprising; what is--refreshingly so--is how well Altman's distinct, idiosyncratic tools service the needs of as straightforward an entertainment as a this. In the end, The Gingerbread Man may not be a slick crowdpleaser like A Time to Kill or The Rainmaker, but it's the closest a Grisham film has come to approaching art.


V I D E O

Temptress Moon poster Temptress Moon (R) ***
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This quietly affecting Chinese drama, set in the 1950s, focuses on the intertwined lives and loves of three young adults who grew up in the posh Pang estate: Ruyi (Gong Li), an opium addict who inherits control of the dynasty when her father dies; Duanwu (Kevin Lin), her amorous and ever-loyal cousin; and Zhongliang (Leslie Cheung), abused brother-in-law to Ruyi's brother and suave hustler in Shanghai. When Zhongliang reluctantly returns to the place of his childhood trauma for a score, he sends everything in upheaval when he falls for Ruyi. As with a lot of Chinese imports, Chen Kaige's film is slow-moving and a big downer, but the story does pack a strong emotional punch, due in large part to some nice work by Li and Cheung. Best of all, though, is Christopher Doyle's vibrantly breathtaking cinematography. (Miramax Home Entertainment)


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#127 January 22, 1998

M O V I E S

Half Baked poster Half Baked (R) no stars
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The title of the comedy Half Baked actually gives the film a lot more credit than it deserves. Despite a few amusing moments and sporadic flashes of wit and creativity, this silly and strange film as a whole is so undercooked that its entirety can be summed up in three letters: P-O-T.

Even though it clocks in at only 82 minutes, Dave Chappelle and Neal Brennan's script for Half Baked features barely enough plot to sustain even that brief of a running time. The threadbare storyline focuses on the marijuana-selling operation pothead buddies Thurgood (Chappelle), Brian (Jim Breuer), and Scarface (Guillermo Diaz) create to raise bail money for their friend Kenny (Harland Williams), who is in jail for inadvertently killing a diabetic police horse by feeding it junk food (don't ask).

Aside from a forced romantic subplot between Thurgood and the staunchly anti-drug Mary Jane (Rachel True), the above is all Half Baked has in the way of plot. This would not be a problem if there were at least something funny going on. But there really isn't--though director Tamra Davis can be credited with at least trying to make something unique. Part of what gives the film a decidedly strange feel is its reliance on elaborate, sometimes inventive, sight gags, most of these depict the characters' state of mind while high. While some of the gags are interesting, such as the young Thurgood envisioning and eating giant-sized candy bars after he has his first puff, there are also quite a few lame ones, such as a recurring bit where characters float in the air after trying some especially strong product (in one instance, the wires carrying the actors are visible). But these mildly amusing (at best) gags are nothing more than an obvious disguise for the thinness of the premise, as is the parade of celebrity cameos, encompassing the likes of Snoop Doggy Dogg, Willie Nelson, Janeane Garofalo, Stephen Baldwin, Steven Wright, Jon Stewart, and Bob Saget. Strip all that away and what remains is lots of smoking, the main trio acting stoned (Breuer especially lays it on thick), and even more talk about smoking. Needless to say, all the pot use, wild antics while high, and discussion about marijuana gets very old after a while--like five minutes.

I must say that I was actually found more amusement from Half Baked, which was not screened in advance for critics (shocker), than I originally expected. The filmmakers obviously tried to make something strange and different, which the film indeed is. It's just that they forgot to come up with more than one joke, and the one that they do have isn't very funny.


Spice World poster Spice World (PG) 1/2*
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OK, I admit it--I find camp amusement with the Spice Girls. Yes, the same Spice Girls of the gimmicky individual "identities," they of the annoyingly infectious bubblegum pop hooks and cheesy unifying mantra of "Girl Power." But not even their guilty pleasure appeal isn't enough to carry their big screen debut, a junky mess which would be more aptly named Shite World than Spice World.

The film begins amusingly enough, with a cheeky 007-esque title sequence in which the British quintet--"Scary" (Melanie Brown), "Baby" (Emma Bunton), "Sporty" (Melanie Chisolm), "Ginger" (Geri Halliwell), and "Posh" (Victoria Adams)--are introduced one by one (to, much to my surprise, excited and only slightly mocking cheers from the press audience) as they croon the silky ballad "Too Much" (a tune that would sound right at home in an actual James Bond film). A few minutes and an Elton John cameo later comes an introductory tour of the numerous plotlines that run through the film: (1) the Spicy ones go on a European publicity tour leading up to their first live concert at London's Royal Albert Hall; (2) a film producer (George Wendt) and a screenwriter (Mark McKinney) pitch various film ideas to the Girls' manager, Clifford (Richard E. Grant); (3) a documentary film crew follows the Girls; (4) a pregnant "mate" (Naoki Mori) of the group rapidly approaches her due date; and (5) a tabloid publisher (Barry Humphries) attempts to destroy the group with the help of a sneaky shutterbug (Richard O'Brien). Capped off by a live rendition of the Girls' bouncy hit "Say You'll Be There," a wealth of laughs and merriment is sure to follow, right?

Wrong. It's all downhill from there as Spice World collapses into a series of misfired comedy sketches. I must give the Girls credit for their refreshing willingness to make fun of themselves, but writer Kim Fuller and director Bob Spiers can barely come up with a funny joke between them, much less a organized framework for all the "wacky" goings-on. Spice World jumps from vignette to vignette, subplot to subplot with no direction and little sense, at one minute having the Girls meet with aliens (no joke) and at another having them stage a daring rescue of two young fans who fall into the water during a boat ride. While a decent joke slips through the cracks here and there--during a "dance bootcamp" scene, the Girls sing the lyric "We know how we got this far/Strength and courage and a Wonderbra"--much of the material is not even funny on the chuckle level. Some gags are just plain pointless, such as Roger Moore's recurring role as the mysterious Chief, who dispenses cryptic, metaphor-heavy advice to Clifford. The only reason why I can think anyone would find that funny is the fact that Moore once played James Bond. Ha ha.

As weak as the script is, I think there's one insurmountable problem with even attempting to make a Spice Girls movie, and that is the Girls themselves. The point is not that they can't act (and, for the record, they really can't) but that their individual personas, which works as a gimmick over the span of a four-minute music video, are too thin to survive outside of the truncated, video bite MTV world. Posh (who garnered the most enthusiastic cheers during the introductions) comes off best by default because her persona (rich bitch) most easily translates into character in a film. Baby's persona (young innocent), to a lesser extent, also works, but the remaining Girls' identities are a little harder to flesh out. There really isn't much to do with Sporty besides having her exercise every so often (which is exactly what Fuller and Spiers do), and, after all, what exactly entails being "Ginger" or "Scary"? Apparently, just their wardrobes.

Spice World manages to pick up some steam in the late going following a flashback performance of the Spices' signature hit, "Wannabe." The song is as grating as ever, but the energy of the number gives the proceedings a much-needed shot in the arm, setting the stage for a wave of self-referential humor stemmed from the screenwriters' film ideas (the film almost mirrors Robert Altman's The Player in the way the film snails into itself). This section of the film, involving all manner of derring-do involving a speeding bus, is perhaps its most effective, but it also points up how all the other storylines (the publisher, the documentary crew) lack a satisfactory payoff.

Spice World is harmless entertainment suitable for the entire family, and it will please the Spice faithful. But this sloppy enterprise surely won't win them any new fans, which is what the group sorely needs to bolster its rapidly waning Girl Power in the States. Once the hype disappears, Spice World will likely serve as the the Spices' final hurrah in America.


In Brief

The Boxer poster The Boxer (R) ** 1/2
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An Irish boxer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is released from prison after serving a 14-year sentence for IRA terrorism. He returns home to Belfast a changed man, wanting nothing more than to train and fight quietly without dealing with the Irish conflict with the British. Of course, this proves to be a force stronger than his own formidable will.

The Boxer marks Day-Lewis's third collaboration with director Jim Sheridan, and while it is a well-made, well-meaning drama, there is nothing said here about Irish strife that was not more powerfully explored in their last collaboration, the 1993 Best Picture nominee In the Name of the Father. Even with a predictably strong performance from Day-Lewis, who once again immerses body and soul into his role, the film is a letdown, as is Sheridan's limited use of Breaking the Waves's extraordinary Emily Watson, who plays Day-Lewis's now-married former flame.


Phantoms poster Phantoms (R) no stars
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An impressive array of acting talent comprised of four hot young up-and-comers (Ben Affleck, Joanna Going, Rose McGowan, and Liev Schreiber) and a six-time Oscar nominee (Peter O'Toole) was assembled for Joe Chappelle's schlocky adaptation of the Dean Koontz novel, and exactly why is anybody's guess. Koontz, who also wrote the script with an uncredited assist from Steven Soderbergh, does, though, cook up an promising premise: virtually the entire population of a small Colorado town has disappeared, and only a doctor (Going), her sister (McGowan), the sheriff (Affleck), his deputy (Schreiber), and a professor (O'Toole) are left to get to the bottom of things--literally.

As with too many sci-fi/horror thrillers involving a mysterious enemy, Phantoms quickly degenerates from X-Files to Baywatch Nights once the culprit is ultimately revealed (I won't give it away, but think Exxon Valdez). By that time, no amount of flashy visual effects (of which there are plenty) can save the film, not even the charismatic actors, who invest a certain amount of (undeserved) conviction into the material.


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