The Glass House (PG-13)
Even if the trailer didn't give away darn near every turn of its plot, one would still have had an easy time predicting the course of events in The Glass House. A formulaic film that is more typical than terrible, The Glass House still makes for frustrating viewing, given the level of talent involved.
Topping that list is Leelee Sobieski, whose natural poise lends the preposterous proceedings a certain level of credibility. Her Ruby Baker is introduced as a rebellious high schooler, but she quickly becomes more well-behaved when her and her younger brother Rhett's (Trevor Morgan) parents are killed in a mysterious auto accident. Ruby and Rhett are then put in the care of wealthy family friends Terry (Stellan Skarsgĺrd) and Erin (Diane Lane) Glass, who not only live in a large hilltop home made of (yes) glass, one of their cars has the license plate "24KGLSS." With all the heavy-handed symbolism, could it be possible that this newly formed household could be in danger of being shattered by a stone?
But of course, and after Ruby rather conveniently happens upon some suspicious conversations involving Terry, she finds out that her new guardians don't have the most crystal clear of intentions. Director Daniel Sackheim, who cut his helming teeth on numerous episodes of The X-Files, somehow manages to generate an air of suspense even if he sometimes too easily falls in the trap of dropping shady "hints" with all the subtlety and grace of a trowel. Ultimately, Sackheim and his able cast cannot overcome the increasingly overdone twists of Wesley Strick's script (based on his output since, one wonders just how much of the gripping 1991 Cape Fear remake was his doing and not director Martin Scorsese's). Did an unexceptional, unsurprising thriller need to morph into another one of those films with a villain that just won't die?
Then again, that's just another example of how by-the-numbers and off-the-rack The Glass House is. Sobieski does intermittently rise above the occasion, doing what she can with the film's only halfway-realistic role; some usually reliable co-stars fare less well: Skarsgĺrd gives in to the histrionics of the script too easily while Lane is stymied by a role that's a nonentity on the page. Perhaps Lane's part is most reflective of the whole of the film: neither here nor there, and easily forgotten.
Now that Glitter, her feature starring debut, has finally arrived in theatres, the reason for pop/R&B diva Mariah Carey's much-publicized breakdowns (at last count: two) is abundantly clear: the film itself. While the local press screening for Glitter played to only a half-capacity crowd, this downsized audience's peals of laughter were loud enough to fill every corner the auditorium--not exactly the hoped-for reaction to an inspirational tearjerker, which is what Glitter so disastrously, laughably strives to be.
Glitter doesn't waste any time exploiting Carey's most frequently showcased assets--and no, I'm not talking about her Grammy-winning pipes. After a brief intro that shows how single (and singing) mother Lillian Frank (Valarie Pettiford) was forced to give up daughter Billie at an early age, Carey's adult Billie is first seen all decked out in fishnet stockings and black lingerie with leopard print trim, shaking her groove thing as a not-quite-exotic dancer at an NYC club, circa 1983. After she and her friends/roommates/dance partners (Da Brat and Tia Texada) are soon offered a gig as back-up singers to a shockingly untalented dance artist, Billie's soaring voice draws the attention of DJ Julian "Dice" Black (British actor Max Beesley, called on to bark his lines in a bad New Yawk accent and flash as much flesh as Carey), who offers her his services as producer. Not long after Billie and her friends start making the club rounds as a Mary Jane Girls-ish trio of trilling trollops, Billie and Dice are offering each other more than just their musical abilities, and Billie's rapid ascent in showbiz is offset by the increasing turbulence in her relationship with Dice.
Carey has stressed that her Glitter role of Billie Frank is far from autobiographical, but the similarities to her true story are staggering. Billie, who is biracial (a fact that the film makes a point of emphasizing), has a big voice to match her big dreams, but she starts off distinctly small-time as a back-up singer for another pop act. Her talents are discovered by someone established in the music business, and they become romantically involved. The pair's relationship turns stormy when he expresses the svengali-like (or should I say "Mottola-like"?) desire to steer both her career and her life, including controlling her mode of dress. And so on.
But the blatant parallels to Carey's own story are the only aspects to Glitter that bear any resemblance to real life. The film may be a wish fulfillment fantasy aimed at teen and pre-teen girls, but director Vondie Curtis Hall (who previously directed the very entertaining--in the right way--Gridlock'd) and screenwriter Kate Lanier's similarly naive depiction of the music business is laughable. Billie gets a record deal literally overnight and without ever signing on a single dotted line. Billie becomes a major star without a single significant concert date nor television appearance, and MTV was two years old at the time the film is set and already an influential force. Come to think of it, there's no reason why this film is set in the 1980s--everyone looks like they could be from the '90s or 2001, for that matter--except to give Carey a chance to cover and/or sample the R&B hits of the era (most prominently, Cherrelle's "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On"), which, in the film's storyline, are original hits by Billie--hence giving Miss Mariah a history-rewriting ego boost.
Then again, the film is designed as one huge ego boost for its star. Instead, however, it comes off as one huge embarrassment, and much of the blame goes to Miss Mariah herself. She spends the whole film in a state of vacant, wide-eyed, smiley catatonia--that is, whenever she's not passing off a constipated look as one of "sadness" or lipsynching to her own prerecorded vocal tracks (and quite horribly at that; one would think that a decade's worth of music video experience would've given her that one ace-in-the-hole). As in all of her recent videos, Carey also shows a lot of skin (though this being a PG-13-rated film, she still leaves some threads on), but her ample cleavage--and the inexplicable streak of silver paint that shows up on various areas of her body--can't distract from her awful attempts at acting, not to mention the already laughable situations in which she finds herself. In fact, one of the most hilarious scenes is one of gratuitous body baring: Billie films her first music video wearing a translucent wrap over a silver string bikini, but the wind machine is too strong, and--whoops!--there goes the wrap!
Yet that is just one of the many unintentional moments of high comedy in the howlerfest that is Glitter. Just when you think it could not get more ridiculous, Hall, Lanier, and Miss Mariah go that extra mile. A scene where Billie, all decked out in a sequined gown and spike heels, struggles to walk--make that "wobble"--across a lawn and one where a split-up Billie and Dice engage in seemingly telepathic songwriting (if only I were kidding) are instant entries into the Bad Movie Hall of Fame. But even more jaw-dropping is the one-two punch finale that is a pathetically desperate bid to make viewers cry. If anyone does shed any tears at Glitter, it's undoubtedly from busting a gut laughing.
Happy Accidents (R)
While at its core a romantic comedy, Brad Anderson's Happy Accidents defies conventional categorization, and that's undoubtedly the reason why it's taken so long to make its way to screens (shot and set in 1999, the film fell off the radar after premiering at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival). That very unconventional quality also what makes the film so well worth seeking out.
And seeking out is what it'll take to find Happy Accidents, for in keeping with its low-budget indie roots, the film is appearing only in a handful of arthouses--a shame, since this is as commercial a romantic comedy as mainstream Hollywood has put out all year, not to mention an even more satisfying one. Marisa Tomei has her first worthy role in years as Ruby Weaver, a hopelessly romantic single in New York City with an unfortunate knack for hooking up with guys with problem. One day at the park she meets Sam Deed (Vincent D'Onofrio), and not only is the attraction instantaneous, it looks like he could be the perfect, normal guy she'd always wanted. Alas, bliss is short-lived when Sam drops the whopper to end all whoppers: he claims that he is originally from Dubuque, Iowa... in the year 2470.
That Ruby's reluctant decision to hang on to Sam is completely believable owes a lot to D'Onofrio's performance. He delivers the increasingly convoluted back story with the right balance of wry humor and earnestness that keeps the audience continually off-balance as to whether Sam is telling the truth or downright insane. D'Onofrio is also so naturally warm a performer that one cares for the character regardless of his mental state, and he strikes quirky but no less potent sparks with the ideally cast Tomei, who nails both Ruby's comic neuroses and genuine, soul-deep romantic yearning. Unlike Anderson's previous comic meditation on romantic fate, Next Stop Wonderland, one is given convincing reasons why these two could, indeed, be destined to be together, as Sam often insists.
That idea of balance is the key to the success of Happy Accidents. Anderson strikes the right note in the humor, relying on a subtler, more natural, situation- and personality-driven comedy than broad, buffoonish physical gags. Similarly modulated are the sci-fi touches; Sam's stories of "the future" are outlandish but follow a certain plausible logic that could very well account for their truth. Most impressive about Happy Accidents is how Anderson is able to make the two seemingly incompatible genres of sci-fi and romantic comedy mesh into a seamless whole that remains completely convincing even at its most disbelief-tempting.
If Biggie Smalls weren't dead already, certainly the sight and sound of Keanu Reeves murdering his hit "Big Poppa" not once, but twice in Hardball would have done the job. For the rest of us, sitting through the schmaltzfest that is Hardball amounts to a two-hour torture session that would make one long for the great beyond.
Watching Reeves lord over a boys' baseball team in a Bad News Bears-ish comedy is a horrifying enough prospect, but Hardball is even more galling than what the misleading ad campaign sells it as: it's a teary, inspirational sports drama. But despite having the same early fall berth and also featuring a name star above its title, Hardball is no Remember the Titans, the truly uplifting and moving blockbuster that starred Denzel Washington--for reasons that go far beyond the lopsided Keanu vs. Denzel argument.
First and foremost is the lead character of Conor O'Neill. Reeves' lackluster performance aside (more on that later), Conor, who begins the film as a compulsive gambler deep in debt to loan sharks, is hardly an interesting or appealing "hero." In exchange for a weekly check, a businessman friend (Mike McGlone) makes Conor coach an inner city little league team, the Kekambas. The usual would-be heartwarming hokum ensues: Conor learns that there's more to life than sports bets; the kids are inspired to win by Conor.
Or are they? Conor does a lot of things with the Kekambas, but one of them is certainly not coaching. The most he is shown doing during practice sessions is hitting balls to outfielders. He never gives anyone any pointers except that it's important to show up. Duh. As such the Kekambas' winning ways are completely their own doing, with very little to no help from Conor. It's staggering how director Brian Robbins and screenwriter John Gatins adapted a book (by Daniel Coyle) about little league coaching by completely erasing just about all trace of the practice.
So Hardball becomes one of those films where the African-Americans make life better for the white man with little to no return, and the balance is thrown even further with one especially manipulative late-inning turn. But Robbins starts making mawkish far earlier than that; any occurrence that can make the slightest tug at a heartstring, such as a player not getting a team T-shirt, is accompanied by a maudlin score cue. The young cast is instructed to pout for maximum effect whenever not hammering home their characters' single defining quality, e.g. one player has to wear headphones and listen to "Big Poppa" while pitching (hence setting the stage for Reeves' rickety renditions); one kid who is actually too young to play nonetheless listens to Conor's sage advice by showing up for every game and practice.
Reeves has turned in awful performances for top-notch directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and Kenneth Branagh, so it's no shock that he doesn't do any better for a hack like Robbins. What is surprising is that Robbins appears to have given Reeves complete free reign, for Conor is prone to Keanu-isms that you see the star doing at awards shows and in interviews: the constant head bobbing, the arm-waving. Reeves is also still a block o' balsa when it comes time to show emotion, whether during the sappiness of the final stretch or in the afterthought of a romantic subplot between Conor and a schoolteacher (Diane Lane, wasted again).
Yet as tempting as it is to pin Hardball's failure on Reeves, fault must go to the shockingly untalented Robbins, who, after Varsity Blues and Ready to Rumble, continues his streak of wretched sports-tinged movies. It figures that Hardball's big lesson is about the importance of showing up, for obviously the Head of the Class alum owes his directing career to being at the right place at the right time. Who the hell knows wherever and whenever that may have been, but it's certainly a moment in time cursed by true film fans everywhere.
Soul Survivors (PG-13)
With its ripped-from-the-pages-of-YM cast (Eliza Dushku, Wes Bentley, Casey Affleck, and newcomer Melissa Sagemiller), at first glance Soul Survivors looks just like the lot of teen-targeted horror films that have infected screens the past five years. However, those going in expecting the usual slice-'n-dice will instead get something quite different. But "different" doesn't exactly mean "good," and this surprisingly sedate supernatural story proves that point quite well.
The focal foursome are introduced with a backstory knotty enough to fill a season of Dawson's Creek. Sean and Cassie (Affleck and Sagemiller, who perhaps not coincidentally has a Gwyneth-ish vibe about her) are in love, but Cassie's ex Matt (Bentley), who also happens to be Sean's best friend, still carries a torch. Meanwhile, Cassie's freespirited best friend Annabel (Dushku), who is apparently cozy with Matt, remains unaware--or at least pretends to be--of his lingering romantic feelings for her buddy. Got that?
Actually, it doesn't matter, for one fateful night where Sean discovers Cassie and Matt in a clinch becomes more dramatic when the quartet are involved in an auto wreck. The accident claims one of them, and while the other two survivors appear to have escaped unscathed both mentally and physically, Cassie is plagued by disturbing visions. What is real? What isn't? Will you care?
Not likely. Between the accident scene and its conclusion, Soul Survivors is an exercise in spinning wheels, a muddle of images, ideas, and characters (such as Angela Featherstone's androgynous lesbian role) that don't go anywhere, let alone make any sense. Writer-director Steve Carpenter was obviously going for a dream-like atmosphere, but even when taking such a surreal bent, events should follow some sort of internal logic. They don't here; one scene has Cassie having a major row with a friend, and the next scene has the friend cheering her on at a swim meet. Cassie's visions are supposed to instill horror, but would-be shocks such as a rather violent nosebleed and a shot of blood going down a bath drain aren't exactly the stuff that nightmares are made of.
Artisan's much-publicized decision to recut the film from an R to a PG-13 may have indeed diluted Carpenter's original vision, but when the "meaning" behind Soul Survivors becomes clear, issues of explicitness become moot. That Carpenter didn't have the heart to come up with one halfway creepy scene, even in PG-13 form, speaks of his true intent, which reveals itself to be far more gooey and touchy-feely than one would have expected--and, hence, a lot less fun.
The Musketeer (PG-13)
It appears that venerable, time-tested approaches to adventure yarns just aren't good enough for Hollywood these days. Coming fresh off the ready-for-the-WB-network Gen-Y western stylings of American Outlaws is The Musketeer, which presents an even more curious take on melding the traditional with the current cinematic trends: placing Hong Kong-style wirework choreography in the world of Alexandre Dumas' ageless swashbuckling heroes. Not a terrible idea per se, but entrusting a hack like Peter Hyams to pull off such a risky endeavor is.
Xin-Xin Xiong, an esteemed HK action veteran who has worked with no less than Tsui Hark on several occasions, choreographed the high-flying swordfights, but as captured by Hyams' inept camera, it's difficult to tell if he's done a noteworthy job. If there is a wrong angle to shoot from or an ill-advised edit to make, Hyams goes for it, and the choppy result are a number of incoherently assembled flips and leaps being passed off as action scenes. Hyams only figures out where to place the camera for an elaborately staged duel that takes place on a number of unsteady, ever-shifting ladders, but this one genuinely interesting set piece--the only one that allows one to clearly follow the action--also happens to be the film's last.
But there are plenty of other problems plaguing The Musketeer. The title character is young D'Artagnan (Justin Chambers), who has two goals in life: to follow in his father's footsteps and join the King's royal fighting force; but most of all to seek out the man who killed his parents 14 years prior: Febre (Tim Roth, appropriately camping it up), a ruthless enforcer to the scheming Cardinal Richelieu (Stephen Rea, sleepwalking). That the film is called The Musketeer rather than The Three Musketeers is no accident; actually, a more appropriate title would've been The Super-Musketeer, for this version of D'Artagnan is downright invincible, able to defeat any number of opponents with his gravity-defying derring-do. Such a heavy-handed approach is made even more ridiculous by the charisma vacuum known as Chambers, who lacks the forceful presence to make an engaging hero, let alone a convincing superhero.
However, it's doubtful any lead could have made the awful script by Gene Quintano (who previously worked with Hyams on the Van Damme vehicle Sudden Death) any more tolerable. The primary revenge plot is a bore, which is still better than can be said about D'Artagnan's soggy romance with a chambermaid (a very out-of-place Mena Suvari); that thread is memorable for all the wrong reasons, in particular some forced and downright embarrassing sexual innuendo. Too bad Quintano didn't heed a line he gave the Suvari character--"Sometimes it's better to say nothing"--for the dialogue as a whole is atrocious, especially the clanging one-liners that pop up at the most inappropriate moments. Take this gem during what's supposed to be the "tense" climax: "I'm not dead, so why don't you hurry up and kill him already?" While enduring the ordeal that is The Musketeer, you may find yourself asking the person next to you--that is, if there is anyone else in the auditorium--"I'm not dead, so why don't you hurry up and kill me already?"
Two Can Play That Game (R)
Any film that opens with its protagonist saying directly to the camera, "Oh hey! I didn't see you there!" courts disaster. That Two Can Play That Game turns out to be far from one is less a measure of the efforts of writer-director Mark Brown than his leading lady, Vivica A. Fox, whose considerable charms are able to make the film's less appealing qualities rather tolerable.
And how fortunate is that, given that two potentially repellent elements lie front and center in the film. First is the excessive breaking of the fourth wall. Main character Shanté Smith (Fox) directly addresses the camera so frequently that the audience can be considered another cast member, playing the best friend/sounding board role. More problematic is the character of Shanté herself. A sexy, successful professional woman, Shanté is also characterized by a self-confidence that creeps dangerously close to off-putting arrogance--particularly in the relationship department, which is the focus of the film. The ostensible plot has Shanté suspecting her boyfriend Keith Fenton (Morris Chestnut) of cheating, and the remainder of the film has her outlining to the audience her allegedly foolproof ten-day plan, which entails lying and all sorts of psychological manipulation, to get any man in gear.
Given her penchant for self-centered scheming, Shanté could have easily come off as an icy bitch. Yet she never does, and that's a tribute to Fox. Her natural warmth and instant likability adds an invaluable layer of sincerity to the character. While some of the games she plays seem a bit extreme, Fox's sympathetic portrayal paints the behavior as more misguided than mean-spirited; her Shanté may be a little cocky and deluded, but she clearly has her heart in the right place and does truly love Keith (contributing mightily to the latter is Fox's convincing chemistry with Chestnut). As deserved as Shanté's inevitable comeuppance is, Fox is able to connect with the audience so strongly that one cannot help but feel for the character when her strategy starts to backfire.
But Two Can Play That Game isn't all about sweet sentiment. Its bigger concern is simply fun, and Fox and her equally appealing supporting cast lend the familiar proceedings a sassy, spunky zing. Standing out from the pack are Mo'Nique (as one of Shanté's girlfriends) and Anthony Anderson (as Keith's co-worker and "coach" in the ways of women), who get the best of Brown's dialogue in the designated comic relief roles. Two Can Play That Game makes no bones about being as insubstantial and disposable a film as one can find, but it's a cute little trifle that delivers on the good time it promises.
The Deep End (R) BUY on Amazon (#ad):Poster!
"The deep end" describes the lengths to which Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton) go to protect her teenage son (Jonathan Tucker) from a possible murder rap. Unfortunately, writers-directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel don't quite go deep enough themselves. This thriller gets off to an eerie, promising start when Margaret discovers the body of her son's lover (Josh Lucas) near her lakeside home and, jumping to conclusions, then proceeds to dispose of it. The introduction of a blackmail subplot is also the point where the film begins to unravel. Figuring prominently in this side of the story is a shady character named Alek Spera (Goran Visnjic), whose initial menace quickly softens without so much as a hint of an explanation. The Margaret-Alek "relationship" becomes a greater concern at the expense of believability, and not even the quiet force of Swinton's performance nor Giles Nuttgens' stunning photography can bridge the ever-increasing disconnect between the film and the audience.
Original Sin (R)
Make no mistake: Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie smolder together. The moment he of the bedroom eyes and she of the come-hither pout first meet in Michael Cristofer's adaptation of Cornell Woolrich's novel Waltz into Darkness, the erotic electricity is undeniable. But sexual sparks are a completely different thing from romantic rapport, and the absence of the latter is the most ruinous flaw in this period thriller. After a plot-packed first act where Cuban coffee plantation owner Luis (Banderas) meets, marries, and then is betrayed by his mysterious mail order bride Julia (Jolie), the film then lumbers from one predictable twist to another, with the purportedly passionate love between Luis and Julia supposed to act as the engine that drives the increasingly improbable story. But one is never quite convinced of any connection beyond shallow lust, and Cristofer is too enamored of his attractive leads (particularly Jolie) to be bothered with probing beneath their frequently bared flesh to find any sign of a soul--thus turning an already preposterous story about obsessive love into a ridiculous one about how far people will go to maintain possession of an especially phenomenal fuck.
Together (Tillsammans) (R)
"Tillsammans" is the name of a hippie collective in 1975 Stockholm, but despite their apparent unity in trying to be antiestablishment, the group is slowly but surely coming apart at the seams when Elisabeth (Lisa Lindgren), the older sister of meek de facto leader Göran (Gustaf Hammarsten); and her two children come to live with them after she leaves her abusive husband Rolf (Michael Nyqvist). The tensions between recently divorced Lasse (Ola Norell) and Anna (Jessica Liedberg) increase when Anna, now a lesbian, starts to come on to Elisabeth. Göran has relationship problems of his own; while willingly engaged in a open relationship with his girlfriend Lena (Anja Lundqvist), he isn't exactly enjoying it. Then there's the drama across in the more traditional household across the street, where the son (Henrik Lundstrom) of a neglected housewife and her porn-loving husband quietly falls for Elisabeth's daughter Eva (Emma Samuelsson). That's just a taste of all the complications, but Together is not just soapy melodrama; it's actually more of a gentle satire of the counterculture movement, one that wrings witty laughs from such absurdities as debates over the aggressive capitalism of Pippi Longstocking and a boy named Tet (yes, named after the offensive) pretending to be Pinochet and "torturing" his playmates. Above all, the film is about the importance of its title, and the engaging cast make ones care whether or not they find their sense of togetherness.
Jeepers Creepers (R)
For a little while, writer-director Victor Salva seems to be on to something. His main characters, bickering siblings Trish (Gina Philips) and Darry (Justin Long), may be annoying from the get-go, but the situation in which they soon find themselves does pack a fright: a large truck attempts to run them off the road as they drive down a deserted highway. Echoes of Steven Spielberg's Duel can be heard, but the sequence still works.
As it turns out, it's about the only thing that ends up working in what quickly devolves into a mind-numbing monster movie. The siblings spy the driver of the truck dumping what appear to be human bodies down a pipe, and in true stupid horror movie protagonist fashion, the two decide to investigate. While I am able to forgive this instance of idiotic behavior (after all, there wouldn't be a movie without it) the pair's already collectively low IQ diminishes by the nanosecond, reaching its nadir in one scene where Trish commits the same unwise act multiple times--which left the aggravated all-press audience yelling and hissing at the screen.
With two incredibly unlikable lead characters (the worse being Darry, thanks to Long's feature-length impersonation of Freddie Prinze Jr.'s mouth-agape stare), one is left to hope for at least some decent scares, but outside of the opening sequence, there aren't any. Not helping matters is murderous monster that is "the Creeper"; the more is seen of him, the less menacing he becomes. No consolation lies in the shoddy script. Exposition is clumsily handled by a Miss Cleo-like psychic (Patricia Belcher); and Salva actually makes a hackneyed attempt to incorporate the title song into the plot, resulting in a "payoff" so painfully, unbelievably literal. For a truly horrifying Victor Salva film, go rent the treacly and ludicrous would-be inspirational tale Powder--now there's some disturbing stuff.
V I D E O
Company Man (PG-13)
This little-seen spy satire has no shortage of name talent: Sigourney Weaver, Alan Cumming, Denis Leary, Anthony LaPaglia, John Turturro, even an uncredited Woody Allen. The film's big shortage, however, is in laughs. Co-writer/co-director (with Peter Askin) Douglas McGrath plays a bland high school teacher in 1959 whose lie about being a deep cover CIA operative somehow gets him involved in the tense political situation in Cuba. McGrath and Askin start off amusingly enough, and one scene where the McGrath character's fastidious ear for proper grammar inadvertently shakes out a double agent is a smartly written hoot. Ultimately, though, the wit is drowned out by caricature, particularly in the supporting performances; that a characteristically impish Cumming plays ousted Cuban prez Batista says how laboriously over-the-top the antics become. (Paramount Home Entertainment, DVD also available)
D V D
The Brothers (R) Movie: ;
Gary Hardwick's relationship comedy The Brothers was most certainly a success during its theatrical run (a $28 million gross vs. a $5.5 million budget), yet didn't cross over to as broad as audience as it should have--that is, until now. Recently the film landed at #1 in the DVD sales chart, and while that's surprising in light of the box office take, it certainly is not in light of the film itself. Although its central characters are four young African-American men (very well played by Morris Chestnut, D.L. Hughley, Bill Bellamy, and Shemar Moore), the concerns of the film are universal: the search for love and fulfillment; the mercurial relations between the sexes; and the importance of family and friends. Hardwick approaches these rather heady issues with an appealing mix of (sometimes raunchy) humor and warmth that never feels saccharine or forced--which can be largely attributed to the very sympathetic and realistic characters, who are brought to life through the very natural performances.
Of course, the DVD's strong sales were also certainly of a reflection of the solid package assembled by Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment. A beautiful audiovisual transfer of the film is accompanied by a very informative running commentary by Hardwick. Although a first-time director, he has a keen sense for expressing his themes and concerns in a visual manner, and it's interesting to hear about all the subtle flourishes that one may not easily pick up on. Sometimes Hardwick falls into the trap of simply summarizing the action of a given scene, but more often than not he rebounds with some comments about the deeper meanings of the scenes in terms of the characters and the larger picture.
The behind-the-scenes featurette on the disc is not, as is too often the case, reappropriated electronic press kit material. This 20-minute conversation with Hardwick was produced expressly for the DVD, and while some of his comments overlap with the feature-length commentary, this program allows him to talk about a few things he did not address--namely, how he arrived at the casting of all the principal roles. For once, the making-of featurette is not token.
A selection of brief and understandably deleted scenes (most viewable with or without commentary by Hardwick), the film's theatrical trailer (along with those for a few other films), and the music video for the Eric Benet's main title tune round out the supplements, but such features are just gravy on what is a satisfying presentation of the very enjoyable main feature.
Specifications: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Surround; French Dolby Surround; English and French subtitles; English closed captioning. (Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment)
Exit Wounds (R) Movie: ;
The powers that be in Hollywood are certain to read the healthy box office take of the Steven Seagal starrer Exit Wounds as an indication that the formerly ponytailed, slightly less paunchy one is somehow back in the public favor. But those with any common sense will know that the film's financial success is owed more to his co-star, rapper DMX--a fact that is abundantly clear to anyone who sees his film. Not only is DMX simply more popular than the once-mighty Seagal, his charismatic presence is one of the few things in this Joel Silver-produced actioner to rise above formula. Of course, that this tale of police corruption and the cop (Seagal, natch) and crook (DMX) out to fight it is merely average makes it worlds better than Seagal's heretofore most recent output, but anyone looking for a reinvention of his stoic superman image won't find it here.
For the DVD, Warner Bros. has included a handful of supplements to go along with a nice widescreen transfer of the film and the theatrical trailer. The behind-the-scenes documentary is, as with all making-of specials on theatrical releases that air on HBO, a 20-minute exercise in promotional hype, but the talking head interview segments make this this one is more amusing than most. At one point, DMX asks the interviewer if he's allowed to use the word "motherfucker" (he is, it being HBO); but even funnier is the pretentious talk by producer Dan Cracchiolo about the movie being an "homage" to cop films (how?) and how Seagal has a "human" quality (since when?). Almost as funny is a second behind-the-scenes segment that follows affable supporting player Anthony Anderson on the set for a day. Rounding out the solid if unspectacular package are selected cast and crew filmographies and the video for DMX's Bill Withers-sampling soundtrack cut "No Sunshine."
Specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English and French 5.1 Surround; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; English closed captioning. (Warner Home Video)
Memento (R) Movie: ;
On a very rare occasion comes a film that simply gets so much right that there doesn't seem to be anything of real worth left to say about it once you see it--and Memento is one such film. I had seen Christopher Nolan's indie sensation more than a few times over the past few months (dating back to even before the film's release), yet I could not get myself to write a proper review for it. So far this year there hasn't been anything quite as exhilarating in form and content as this masterfully executed thriller in which Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a man who has lost the ability to form new memories, attempts to find his wife's killer. Much has been made of the film's unusual time structure (which, in fact, it is a bit more complex than backwards), but it is less a gimmick than a necessary and ingenious storytelling device that places the viewer squarely in the point of view of its extremely unreliable protagonist. But Nolan doesn't rely on the device to generate thrills and suspense; the story takes many surprising turns as the story winds down to its beginning, and immeasurably helping Nolan keep the audience involved and riveted is a superb Pearce, who leads a solid principal cast rounded out by Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano.
Given how intricately constructed the film is, one would want and pretty much expect a supplement-heavy special edition DVD, but that's not what Columbia TriStar has released--at least not at this time. That said, this is a well put-together and cleverly designed standard edition. Jonathan Nolan, brother of Christopher and the author of short story on which the film is loosely based ("Memento Mori," which is included in its entirety on the disc), designed the menus. Like the nebulous notion of "truth" in the film, the menus are in constant shift; don't be alarmed if your remote control buttons suddenly don't function as they normally would. Nolan does not provide a running audio commentary for the film, but he does say his piece in a 23-minute interview with New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell that originally aired on the Independent Film Channel. Of course, this segment hardly makes up for the absence of a commentary, but it is nonetheless insightful and informative. A gallery that compares production sketches of Leonard's many tattoos with actual photographs is good for nothing more than a single look; a feature with more repeat value is a DVD player-ready duplication of the film's official website (otnemem.com), here simply labeled "Memento" (or "Otnemem," depending on which version of the special features menu you happen to land on). Branching out from a mock newspaper article that covers the aftermath of events depicted in the film, this feature takes a look at various handwritten notes and other documents--some seen in the film, some not--that more extensively flesh out Leonard's story. The film's trailer; one for Nolan's debut feature, Following; and director and cast biographies fill out the generally satisfying but still mildly disappointing disc--even if the light amount of supplements feels completely, perfectly in line with the air of mystery about the film. Come to think of it, that may have been the point.
Specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Surround; English Dolby Surround; English and Spanish subtitles; English closed captioning. (Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment)
The Criterion Collection
Withnail & I (R)
Criterion Collection #119 Movie: ;
DVD: How to Get Ahead in Advertising (R)
Criterion Collection #120 Movie: ;
Bruce Robinson's most recent directorial effort may have been 1992's thoroughly forgettable Andy Garcia-Uma Thurman mystery Jennifer Eight, but his first two projects, made in his native England during the '80s, still enjoy a following. In the case of Robinson's 1986 debut Withnail & I, it's a particularly rabid following. Maybe one has to be English to really understand why. Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and "I" (Paul McGann) are struggling actors in late '60s London who escape their grimy flat to go on holiday in the country. Alas, this holiday turn out to be anything but, for the country cottage turns out to be more of shack, and things are further complicated when Withnail's uncle (Richard Griffiths), who owns the country house, arrives with designs on "I". Plot obviously has little to do with the film's cult status, for there is barely any; my best guess is that the characters and dialogue strike a certain chord. Yet while the screen is filled with good performances and eccentric types, only one (the acerbic Withnail, zestily played by Grant) made a truly indelible impression; and I found the dialogue sharp only in spots, with no lines being particularly quotable (perhaps that's a result of the cultural divide).
Fortunately, Criterion's DVD sheds some light on the Withnail phenomenon with the inclusion of Withnail and Us, a 25-minute documentary on the film's legacy that aired on the BBC in 1999. Robinson, Grant, McGann and other principals recount insightful and amusing anecdotes about the making of the film (most interesting of all: Grant had never gotten drunk before playing his hard drinking character), and diehard Withnail fans weigh in with their favorite characters, moments, and lines; not being a fan of the film, it was particularly interesting to find out what scenes and pieces of dialogue are especially notable for fans. But the thing I found most interesting about this documentary was something unrelated to the film: the BBC's odd standards as far as acceptable language. "Fuck" and various other obscenities fly freely, but the word "cunt" is bleeped.
The inclusion of pre-production photos on the disc and a fold-out poster along with the standard in-case booklet do not compensate for the fact that the presentation of the film itself on the disc is a bit lacking. While the transfer was supervised by cinematographer Peter Hannan, the image looks dark and muddy; it certainly doesn't help that it's a non-anamorphic transfer. The disc also preserves the original mono soundtrack. The drab presentation is disappointing coming from Criterion, but it feels strangely appropriate for this rather monotonous film.
However, "monotonous" is one of the more unlikely terms one would associate with Robinson's 1988 film, How to Get Ahead in Advertising, which reunited the writer-director with star Grant. The film is essentially a dark satire of contemporary consumerism, but to describe it as such is to hide just how incredibly bizarre it is. Grant plays a hotshot advertising exec who hits a creative roadblock while trying to come up with a campaign for acne cream and ends up developing a boil on his shoulder. One that grows. And grows. Until it has its own face and starts talking. Hard to believe, but things then get even stranger--and thanks to Grant's bravura performance, the film becomes even more wickedly enjoyable. Robinson is more adept at the surrealism than the satire, and when the latter takes hold toward the end, the film falters; however, Grant doesn't, and the film is worth a look if only for his fearless, funny work.
Too bad Criterion's DVD shows barely a fraction of the imagination of the film. Despite being a part of the exalted Collection, this release is as standard as they come. The passable (a remaining reel change mark or two aside) non-anamorphic transfer was supervised, as with Withnail, by cinematographer Peter Hannan; and the film's original stereo track is presented with no added enhancement. The theatrical trailer is the only supplement included on the disc.
Withnail specifications: 1.85:1 non-anamorphic widescreen; English Dolby Digital mono; English subtitles. Advertising specifications: 1.85:1 non-anamorphic widescreen; English Dolby Surround; English subtitles. (The Criterion Collection/HomeVision)
Bubble Boy (PG-13)
Tinseltown has always been guilty of questionable, for lack of a better term, "creative" decisions. Look no further than the last couple of weeks at the movies for proof: Because no one asked for it, Freddie Prinze Jr. adds yet another to his inexplicable string of starring vehicles; and an inordinate amount of money and valuable energy continues to be expended on the wasteful task of trying to make Penelope Cruz a household name (Memo to producers and Ms. Cruz's publicist: it's not gonna happen). As it turns out, these annoyances were just a warm-up of sorts for the ultimate bafflement, one that will leave the most jaded Hollywood observer with a Prinze-like look of bug-eyed, slack-jawed shock: Bubble Boy.
Watching the trailer or any TV spots for Bubble Boy, it's easy to stare in mouth-agape disbelief. Now, making a comedy that involves a young man stricken with an immune deficiency is not unheard of; after all, one of the most memorable episodes of Seinfeld involved a "bubble boy." The difference with this film, however, is its relentlessly mocking tone. The plot is obviously designed for the audience to sympathize with the innocent Jimmy (Jake Gyllenhaal), who ventures into the outside world for the first time to make a cross-country trek to stop the wedding of the nice girl (Marley Shelton) he loves. But the level of humor pitched by director Blair Hayes and writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio runs counter to any such aim; that viewers are supposed to laugh at the wide-eyed Jimmy every time he stumbles and/or bounces in his bubble suit--and that happens a lot--says it all.
Not content to leave worse enough alone, Hayes and the writers apparently decided to pack in as many unfunny and potentially offensive jokes in Jimmy's journey as possible. Jimmy's ultra-conservative Christian mother (Swoosie Kurtz), who is singlehandedly responsible for Jimmy's heretofore extremely sheltered existence, is but one of the insulting caricatures that appear in Bubble Boy. There's also a Latino biker (Danny Trejo) who teaches Jimmy some Spanish terms that he can later butcher for "humorous" effect; a Hindu ice cream/curry salesman (Brian George) who gets all worked up when a cow becomes road kill; and a bar full of Chinese men whose "funny" accents are mocked. Are we laughing yet? If not, there are bits involving a little person (played by Mini Me himself, Verne Troyer) being treated like a baby because of his size. Ha ha ha.
To be fair, Bubble Boy does boast one laugh. Not so surprisingly, though, it has nothing to do with the writing, directing, or performances. In the midst of a really bizarre subplot (a welcome, if still unfunny, change of pace from the tastelessness evidenced in all the other plot threads) involving a sing-songy cult, there is a brief glimpse of the group's leader, played by... everyone's favorite I Can't Believe It's Not Butter pitchman, Fabio. Perhaps the casting director should take up screenwriting or directing, for that faint glimmer of inspiration is the sole one in the abysmal abomination known as Bubble Boy.
Summer Catch (PG-13)
Freddie Prinze Jr.'s movie career continues with Summer Catch, and if that's not enough to bring fear to the hearts of intelligent moviegoers everywhere, this will: it's a sports-themed romantic comedy-drama. "Romantic comedy" as in giving his target teenybopper audience all that lovey-dovey crap that first endeared him to the shrieking TRL demographic with 1999's She's All That; "sports-themed" as in Prinze trying to show to any guys in the theatre that he isn't such a girlyman; and, most painful of all, "drama" as in Prinze wanting to prove to his many (justified) critics that he, in fact, does possess range. I'm sure he has one, but this is acting, not kitchen appliances, we're talking about here, and Summer Catch won't hold much, if any, appeal to anyone outside Prinze's limited fan base.
This fact is made all too explicitly clear in the opening stages of the film when Prinze's Ryan Dunne runs around a baseball field... wearing only women's thong underwear. From this point, it's obvious that the appeal of the story of Summer Catch is moot; one's enjoyment of the film is ultimately tested by whether or not such an image of a bare-assed Prinze sets off one's gag reflex. But without such a scene, perhaps the story would have been just as boring to teenage girls as it would be to anyone else. Ryan is a pitcher for a team in the Cape Cod Baseball League; for one reason or another, the current season is his last chance to catch the attention of pro scouts. But his focus on the game is shaken when he falls for the wealthy Tenley Parrish (Jessica Biel), for whose family he and his father do gardening work.
Thus begins all sorts of purported drama revolving around class differences, following your heart, believing in your abilities, and so on. Director Mike Tollin and writers Kevin Falls and John Gatins' already humdrum material is made more vapid by the leads. Biel, who rather distressingly looks at least a full decade older than her 19 years, is at least only flat and unconvincing in her handful of "dramatic" scenes, which is more than can be said for the ever-embarrassing Prinze. His attempt at an accent comes and mostly goes, and as in all his previous films, he uses the same eyes bulging/mouth agape look to convey the entire spectrum of emotions.
Prinze's lack of any acting talent is the only source of laughs in Summer Catch. The intentional comedic element in the film is either tired or just plain stupid. Falling into the former category is Matthew Lillard, once again playing goofy sidekick to Prinze (which he will yet again do in next year's Scooby-Doo). In the latter category are the inordinate number of jokes involving women's lingerie: Lillard is also seen in a thong; a heavy-set woman is shown in revealing lingerie (just one of the film's oh-so-funny jokes at the expense of larger women); and, most bizarre of all, an uncredited, lace-clad Beverly D'Angelo plays a character who apparently likes to put fruits and vegetables in her nether regions.
True to sports movie formula, Summer Catch ends with a big game scene. Just like the rest of the film, there are no surprises to be had--except that somehow, some way, the fluke that is Freddie Prinze Jr.'s film career has managed to go on for another couple of hours.
John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (R)
Only ghosts of what once was John Carpenter's talent appear in this schlocky, B-grade sci-fi actioner. Natasha Henstridge heads a group of red planet cops called in to transport convict James "Desolation" Williams (Ice Cube) from a mining town. It turns out that Desolation is one of the few people alive in the mysteriously barren town, thanks to the titular murderous phantoms led by a creature named--no joke--Big Daddy Mars. Aside from Henstridge's calm performance, there's little of the sense of grounding realism needed for such a flight of fancy to work. Everyone in the cast (which also includes Jason Statham, Clea DuVall, and a criminally underused Pam Grier) save Henstridge speaks their every last line through gritted teeth, so it comes as a relief whenever the film leaves the plot, such as it is, by the wayside and simply becomes a festival of bloody mayhem. But once you've seen one beheading or similarly bloody killing, you've seen them all--and that's all of any vague interest that Carpenter has to offer here.
Maybe Baby (R)
Ben Elton's comedy has plenty of "S"'s: silliness (Rowan Atkinson as a wacky gynecologist and a cameo-ing Emma Thompson as a New Agey friend); sap (the plot, about a married couple trying to conceive a baby); self-indulgence (Hugh Laurie, as the husband, decides to write a screenplay about their real-life situation). But there is also one very positive "S": sweetness. Laurie and Joely Richardson not only make a believable and very likable couple, they have an equally natural way with delivering zingers as they do pulling off the heavier dramatic content. Sometimes one of the bad "S"'s take charge, as in a sticky subplot where their best friends' baby becomes seriously ill. But Elton is able get the film back on track before such diversions become extended detours, and Maybe Baby maintains a fairly smooth course on the delicate line between tenderly funny comedy and affecting, involving drama.
V I D E O
Just when you thought the teen-friendly slasher genre had mercifully been left for dead, along comes this abysmally wasteful exercise to drain it of whatever life it has left. A cupid-masked killer preys on a group of high school friends (Marley Shelton, Denise Richards, Jessica Capshaw, and Katherine Heigl) who all spurned a geeky classmate at a fateful middle school dance years ago. As with most modern slasher flicks, the identity of the killer is supposed to be a mystery, but it's incredibly obvious in the first five minutes who it is. So the most one can then hope for are some decent shock/scare scenes, but director Jamie Blanks fails in that respect as well; one murder scene in particular involving an iron is certain to leave you screaming--with laughter. Ditto for the rest of this poor excuse for a horror film. (Warner Home Video; DVD also available)
D V D
Head Over Heels (PG-13) Movie: ;
DVD: Head Over Heels technically marks teenybopper fave Freddie Prinze Jr.'s first "adult" starring role--a fact that may or may not be a reason for the film's poor box office showing earlier this year. My personal opinion is that the reason is much simpler: it's a bad, bad film. The likable Monica Potter, whose rising star is certain to stall if she keeps on racking up duds, plays Amanda Pierce, an unlucky-in-love art restorer who moves into an apartment with four "struggling" and stereotypically vain and ditzy models (Shalom Harlow, Sarah O'Hare, Tomiko Fraser, and Ivana Milicevic). Amanda thinks she may have found Mr. Right in Jim Winston (Prinze), the pretty boy fashion consultant whom she and her roomies spy in the apartment across the way; but one night they apparently see him do something decidedly un-right: bludgeon someone to death.
Yes, scripters Ron Burch and David Kidd (working from a story credited to them and two additional writers) have ripped no less than Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. And, yes, director Mark Waters has cast Prinze--who trades in his usual fixed mouth agape look for a fixed goofy grin--in the Raymond Burr role. That alone makes Head Over Heels a bad movie, but what makes it especially awful are the painful double-pronged attempts at comedy. When anyone's not delivering the groaners that pass for zingers, someone bumps into something and has a "hilarious" pratfall. It's even more labored and thuddingly unfunny than it sounds.
While not completely culled from electronic press kit material--some press junket interview segments are also thrown in--the DVD's "Spotlight on Location" featurette is still the usual ten-minute exercise in back-patting. In this case, it's especially hilarious, particularly some comments by producer Robert Simonds, who liked the script's "witty, urbane, fast-paced dialogue" and actually admits that Prinze was his "first and only choice." How sad and scary is that?
As humdrum as that featurette is, it's still the only supplement of any note on this barebones disc. The theatrical trailer is included, as are those for the better films Bring It On, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, and Bowfinger; there are also the standard cast and crew bios as well as production notes. Even so, this just-average treatment is still better than this horrendous movie deserves.
Specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; English DTS; English and French 5.1 Surround; English subtitles; DVD-ROM features. (Universal Studios Home Video)
Sugar & Spice (PG-13) Movie: ;
As far as the generally homogenized teen film genre goes, the premise for Sugar & Spice is pretty unique: a bunch of perky high school cheerleaders decide to rob a bank. Unfortunately, writer Mandy Nelson is only able to deliver her story's daffy promise in fits and starts, and director Francine McDougall botches the tone. The subversive amusement stemming from snatches of funny dialogue and knowingly absurd situations (such as how the spirit leaders research their crime by watching various heist films), clashes against McDougall's goal of painting the girls as strong, admirable women; after all, quirky caricatures can hardly be seen as noble. Attempting to pick up some slack are the actors, particularly Marley Shelton as the focal cheerleader, whose pregnancy by the school's football star (James Marsden) sets the plot into motion.
A few minutes have been added to the film for its video release, but they don't make the film any better. Four additional scenes, a couple of which are extended versions of scenes in the existing cut, are presented in the deleted scenes section. These bits were scrapped for obvious reasons: the two alternate takes were obviously excised to secure a PG-13 rating; the other two are throwaways that add nothing to the finished product. The rather standard set of supplements are rounded out by the theatrical trailer, cast and crew filmographies, and--amusingly--character profiles.
Nonetheless, this disc earns some bonus points for snazzy presentations. New Line prides itself on "setting the standard for standard editions," and the clever animated menu design, patterned after a Monopoly game board, and section headings display a level of wit that is largely absent in the feature presentation.
Specifications: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and 1.33:1 full-frame; English 5.1 Surround; English Dolby Surround; English subtitles; English closed captioning; DVD-ROM features. (New Line Home Entertainment)