The Big Lebowski (R) BUY THE:Poster!
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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
The Replacement Killers (R) BUY THE:Poster!
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
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 (R) BUY THE:Poster!
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
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
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
Deceiver (R) BUY THE:Poster!
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 (R) BUY THE:Poster!
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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 (NC-17) BUY THE:Poster!
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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)
Desperate Measures (R) BUY THE:Poster!
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.
The Gingerbread Man (R) BUY THE:Poster!
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 (R) BUY THE:Poster!
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)
Half Baked (R) BUY THE:Poster!
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 (PG) BUY THE:Poster!
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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
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.
The Boxer (R) BUY THE:Poster!
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 (R) BUY THE:Poster!
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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
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.