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August 11, 2006

WTC = M8 4 TV

World Trade CenterTo pan a work as sincere and well-intentioned as WORLD TRADE CENTER would seem a bit of a bullying move, but for all its noble intent Oliver Stone’s film brings to celluloid life makes just about every fear anyone had about a Hollywood treatment of the 9/11 tragedy. The specific real-life story Stone tells is indeed one worth telling: the rescue of Port Authority policemen John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) from underneath the rubble of the twin towers. For about twenty or so minutes, Stone finds a fresh angle to what the audience has become all too familiar with, staying with McLoughlin, Jimeno, and their ill-fated colleagues as they are among the first inside the building after the planes hit the World Trade Center–and the buildings collapse right on them. The catastrophe and the immediate aftermath are gripping; Stone gives the collapse a chilling you-are-there immediacy.

But the genuine terror makes for manufactured mush once the action shifts from outside the rubble and McLoughlin and Jimeno’s families as they wait for news on their loved ones. As hard as Maria Bello (as McLoughlin’s wife) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (as Jimeno’s very pregnant spouse) work to make the suffering real, they are at the mercy of first-time screenwriter Andrea Borloff’s Hollywood hackneyed script, which have the two spouting unconvincing dialogue (such as Bello’s “He gave the best years of his life to you” rant to the police department) and doing only-in-the-movies actions to amp up the “drama” (Gyllenhaal storms out of a car in a huff because a stop light was taking too long). Reportedly a great deal of research went into the script, and the words spoken and the actions taken may have very well taken place, but as committed to film they come off as artificial–and Stone, never one known for subtlety, hammers everything home with a heavy hand, confirming that straight-laced sincerity is not organic to this natural born filmmaker’s repertoire. I’m not one who thinks that a 9/11 movie needs to be dark and depressing or have a distinct political point of view; I’m certain a truly inspirational film celebrating the courage and resilience that came to the fore on 9/11 can be made and is perhaps even needed. World Trade Center isn’t that film, though; for all the A-level big screen talent involved, its mawkish manipulation is no different than any typically trite TV-movie based on a real-life tragedy.

Missing a Step

Step UpThe TV spots for STEP UP claim that it “captures the voice of a generation,” and if that’s the case, then the voice of the youth hasn’t changed at all in the five years since Save the Last Dance hit theatres. Once again classical dancer (Jenna Dewan) meets street dancer (Channing Tatum), and through some plot contrivance they become unlikely rehearsal partners for her big school showcase. Along the way his keep-it-real hip-hop style loosens up her traditional one; his aimless existence gains some order and purpose; and they, of course, fall in love. Dewan and Tatum are capable dancers and likable presences, as are Drew Sidora and Damaine Radcliff as their respective best friends, but director Anne Fletcher doesn’t dress up the old blueprint with enough energetic dancing to distract from the gnashing gears of a mechanical plot.

Hold on to the Nights

Talladega NightsWith Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and now TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY, Will Ferrell and director/writing collaborator Adam McKay have carved out a comfortable comic niche in taking confidently clueless oafs and pulling the rug out from under the core of resolutely prototypical alpha male existence. This time, it’s Deep South Americana and NASCAR hyper-machismo rather than ’70s TV news, and the results are sharper, smarter, and funnier as Ferrell and McKay are able to hone their episodic, personality-driven approach into a more cohesive overall story. Not that personality isn’t the engine that drives this wild, fast ride; Ferrell’s champion race car driver Ricky Bobby is no doubt an exaggerated paragon of male and American arrogance and chauvinism, but he’s innocently, not mean-spiritedly, so, and Ferrell’s innate sincerity paired with his go-for-broke commitment to the part make it easy for the audience to root for Ricky as he attempts to make it back to the race track after a traumatizing crash. The arc of Ricky’s story also allows Ferrell and McKay to savvily spin on sports biographies, cheerfully making beelines toward every corny cliché only to subvert any sap (and never ultimately surrender to it, unlike the oeuvre of fellow Saturday Night Live alum Adam Sandler) with a perfectly deployed zinger. While undoubtedly a showcase vehicle for Ferrell’s talent, even more so than in Anchorman he and McKay are unusually generous to his impressive supporting cast, who, regardless of the size of the part, are given a moment to call his or her own: John C. Reilly (as Ricky’s race partner/best friend); Gary Cole (as Ricky’s deadbeat dad); Jane Lynch (as Ricky’s tough mom); Sacha Baron Cohen (as Ricky’s very French, very gay rival racer); Amy Adams (as Ricky’s loyal assistant); Michael Clarke Duncan (as the head of Ricky’s pit crew)–the list literally does go on. So, too, does the list of potential targets Ferrell and McKay would have a comic field day skewering; I eagerly anticipate whatever’s next.

The Cave Done Right

The DescentThe headline sounds like damning with faint praise, but a comparison between THE DESCENT and last summer’s largely forgotten late-season turkey are inevitable, as they are both thrillers in which people venture into a cavern only to find some nasty creatures awaiting them inside. But that’s where the similarities begin and end, as Neil Marshall’s UK import, while delivering the anticipated blood ‘n guts, is genuinely suspenseful and unsettling. In fact, it’s almost a disappointment when the creatures first show up, as Marshall already builds enough palpable tension as an all-female group of thrill seekers find their spelunking adventure gradually go awry. While this includes some conventional calamities as cave-ins and less-than-navigable passageways, the drama is enhanced by the increasing friction between the group members, particularly the fearless, feisty de facto leader Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and the tormented Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), still recovering from the tragic loss of her husband and child. Thankfully the drama doesn’t deflate but rather intensifies once the bloodthirsty creatures show up, and while Marshall does pile on the blood and body parts, the gore is not the be-all end-all unlike some recent “thrillers” but mere tools to go along with staging, editing, and pacing to create an intense, horrifying atmosphere. After all the carefully-wrought mayhem, the conclusion in this U.S. cut (as usual, someone saw the need to alter a foreign piece to tailor it to domestic tastes) is a bit of a cheap jolt, but it doesn’t dilute the disturbing effect of what comes before.

Fly the Coop Already

BarnyardTogether, John A. Davis and Steve Oedekerk made the refreshingly witty Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. Apart, they have exemplified why studios need to slow down the CG/3-D animation output, first with Davis’s The Ant Bully and now Oedekerk’s BARNYARD. That the lead character is a “male cow” complete with udders shows how confused the picture is; it wants to be a Lion King-like story about a carefree son (voiced by Kevin James) taking responsibility and assuming the mantle of his dad (Sam Elliott) as leader and protector of his barnyard’s family of animals, but also wants to revel in the shallow joys and excesses of hakuna matata obnoxiousness. The result is neither moving nor charming–not to mention particularly funny to viewers over the age of ten–and the lackluster work of the B-level star cast (which also includes Arquette-less Courteney Cox and Andie MacDowell) makes one further yearn for the days of animated features starring bonafide voice actors.

No One Is Listening

The Night ListenerDespite his claim to fame as a manic cut-up, these days for me Robin Williams more interesting to watch in dramatic roles, from the summer 2002 one-two punch of Insomnia and One Hour Photo, and even in lesser projects such as 2004’s little-seen The Final Cut and now THE NIGHT LISTENER. Williams has a captivating, anguished stillness as Gabriel Noone, a writer and radio personality who strikes up a phone mail friendship with Pete, a dying teenage fan who may or may not actually exist. As he showed in The Business of Strangers, director Patrick Stettner knows how to keep the pace tight, the atmosphere unsettling, and the run time lean. But even at 82 minutes, this film of Armistead Maupin’s (who also had a hand in the script) novel seems padded out, spinning its wheels and generating no suspense once the central, easily answered question is introduced. Toni Collette delivers another solid turn as a woman who holds the key to the mystery, but the work by her, Williams, and Sandra Oh (largely wasted as Gabriel’s sassy housekeeper and confidant) cannot disguise what is plainly, quickly obvious to the viewer–though not the characters themselves.

The Sundance Afterschool Special

QuinceaneraAway from the high altitudes and freezing temperatures of Utah in January, the celebrated Sundance prizewinner QUINCEAÑERA doesn’t look quite so special. Although it boasts appealing work by two promising newcomers–Emily Rios as Magdalena, who discovers she is mysteriously pregnant in the weeks before her traditional Mexican fifteenth birthday celebration; Jesse Garcia as her cousin Carlos, a gang member coming to terms with his homosexuality–Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s drama is as slavishly routine as it is warm and crowd-pleasing; there’s even an aging great-grand-uncle (a winning Chalo González) whose fate is telegraphed even without me adding “saintly” to his character description. The themes of teen pregnancy, young homosexuality, and radical changes in an old neighborhood are handled in a simple, tidy fashion that feels as calculated and programmatic as a Very Special Episode of a series or an afterschool special; the cursory ethnic angle particularly gives the film the latter feel, and Carlos’s scandalous affair with one half of the gay landlord couple gives the film instant Sundance-anointed R-rated indie arthouse chic. The beguiling genuineness of Rios, Garcia, González, and most of the cast ultimately cannot combat the carefully orchestrated paint-by-numbers formula.

Not So Spectacular

The L.A. Riot SpectacularWith a title like THE L.A. RIOT SPECTACULAR, writer-director Marc Klasfeld’s aim is obvious: to shock and, better yet, offend with this outrageous satire of the 1992 civil unrest that erupted in Los Angeles after the Rodney King police beating and trial verdict. But not unlike the recent crop of gore-filled horror movies that spend too much energy trying the gross out the audience instead of scaring it, this is one of those comedies that exhausts itself trying to be outrageous and crass but often forgetting to actually be funny. A number of familiar names–Emilio Estevez, Charles S. Dutton, George Hamilton, Charles Durning, Ronny Cox, William Forsythe, Ted Levine, Christopher McDonald, even Jonathan Lipnicki–pop up as Snoop Dogg narrates the wacky, irreverent chain of events that follow the beating of King (T.K. Carter), but the parade of random recognizable faces underscores how thrown together and scattershot the film is. Very occasionally something hits and incites a chuckle, but much like the overall broad approach, whatever targets are hit are from the most obvious angle (e.g. some faintly amusing bits about how the media are–shocker–heartlessly exploitative vultures), and even at only 80 minutes the forcibly over-the-top, in-your-face lowbrow shock tactics become exhausting well before the halfway mark.

Sights Unseen

Dimension Films and the Weinsteins may now be free of the Disney reins, but the hot-potato game of release dates for genre films continue as the remake of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s PULSE finally hits theatres after getting tossed around the schedule for the last year. Kristen Bell, Christina Milian, and Rick Gonzalez are among the teens terrorized by a deadly force unleashed on the Internet.

Tim Allen’s latest family film ZOOM casts him as a retired superhero bringing together a group of superpowered youths to battle a supervillain (Rip Torn). Courteney Cox also stars.

At the Video Store

The screen adaptation of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s celebrated graphic novel V FOR VENDETTA (Warner Home Video) wasn’t quite the huge blockbuster that a lot of recent comic-to-screen projects have been, but director James McTeigue and screenwriters Larry and Andy Wachowski have fashioned a masked (anti)hero yarn mixing the requisite action with unusually provocative, thought-provoking ideas–brains to go with the bangs, booms, and blood. Central to the story is not so much the titular Guy Fawkes-masked terrorist/freedom fighter V (Hugo Weaving) combating the fascist government of Great Britain than the political and intellectual awakening he inspires in a young woman (Natalie Portman) who becomes his unlikely ally. Warner Home Video has issued both a standard edition (available in either widescreen or full-frame) and two-disc special edition (widescreen only). The latter includes extensive documentaries on the making of the film, the original comic, and the real-life Guy Fawkes; as well as, as an Easter egg, Portman’s infamous Saturday Night Live music video.

Walt Disney Home Entertainment’s DVD of their Tim Allen-starring remake of THE SHAGGY DOG has to go down in some sort of history book for offering a “bone-us” feature strictly for the dogs (literally): a “bark-along” Sing-Along Songs-style clip for the song (yes) “Woof! There It Is.” The usual deleted scenes and commentary by director Brian Robbins are also included.

Next Time…

…more reviews, including Accepted. As always, for additional reviews from past and present and and more, check out my home site, TheMovieReport.com.




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