Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Grodin to the max: "Midnight Run"

Here's something that surprised me: According to IMDB, Robin Williams was considered for and interested in the part opposite Robert De Niro in "Midnight Run." This would have been after "Good Morning, Vietnam" and before "Dead Poets Society," when Williams had left behind his Mork days and was pretty hot as a movie actor. That may have been why the studio wanted him. Yet director Martin Brest said no, going instead with Charles Grodin.

Great call. I liked Williams as much as anyone in the '80s -- even "The Best of Times." But what makes "Midnight Run" so good is the pairing of a quiet bookworm, not a hyperkinetic spaz, with tough guy Bobby D.

And why not Grodin? While De Niro is One of Our Great American Actors, Grodin rarely gets any recognition. Hey, doing not one but two "Beethoven" movies has its price. Yet Grodin has been a funny supporting guy in multiple movies -- "Dave," "The Woman in Red" and especially "Seems Like Old Times" -- and he definitely holds his own against the Man Who Was Bickle-La Motta-Pupkin.

"Run" has De Niro as a bounty hunter charged with bringing a mob accountant (Grodin) who jumped bail back from NYC to L.A. Alas, with the FBI, the mob and another bounty hunter chasing the duo, it's not an easy trip. Grodin's character doesn't make it any easier, which is understandable. Even if he makes it back to jail alive, the mob boss will have him bumped off before trial. Drag.

While the chase leads to all sorts of fun scenes, the real treat here -- again -- are the exchanges between De Niro and Grodin. Of course, De Niro is all "f*ck this" and "f*ck that," and doesn't mind punching guys out. Meanwhile, Grodin always seems to be shrinking within his overcoat, quietly taking in the situation and asking questions in monotone. He really has a distinctive voice; there's nothing overly unpleasant about it -- like, say, Fran Drescher -- but I can see how it would grate on you after a while, and you understand why De Niro wants him to "shut the f*ck up."

Of course, this is as much buddy movie as chase movie. Again, the two leads are perfect, delivering the right balance between antagonism and grudging respect and even friendship. You aren't quite sure how it will end, but it's clear these two guys are getting to each other in a good way as much as a bad one. The scene with them at Red's bar -- "do the Litmus Configuration" -- is one good example.

"Run" also has a solid supporting cast -- Yaphet Kotto as FBI agent Alonzo Mosely, John Ashton as a rival bounty hunter and Dennis Farina as the mob boss. But this really is about the two guys on the run, and I'll always have a soft spot for Grodin no matter what else he does. Yes, that includes "Beethoven's 6th: Scoop the Poop."

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Bear with me: "Grizzly Man"

This is one of those movies bound to provoke debate. Was Timothy Treadwell a dipsh!t, or merely a dumba$$?

(Also, get a load of this pattern: "Inside Man," "The Weather Man" and now "Grizzly Man." Now accepting nominations for the next installment. "Ladies' Man?" "Repo Man?" "Encino Man?")

As documentaries go, "Grizzly Man" generated a fair amount of buzz due to its wacky subject, the aforementioned Treadwell. For more than a decade, this loopy, floppy-haired dude spent part of each year living among bears in Alaska. Saying he wanted to commune with the animals is an understatement. I'm actually surprised he didn't walk around in a bear suit.

Treadwell achieved some fame for this, but that apparently was lost on the bear that killed him and his girlfriend a few years ago. That led German filmmaker Werner Herzog to get to the bottom of things, seeking out those who knew Treadwell and reviewing hours of footage Treadwell shot while among the bears.

Early in the movie, I thought Herzog was being easy on Treadwell, and it p!ssed me off to see this nutjob get a pass. Fortunately, the director revealed a clearer head, and while Treadwell wanting to be one with the bears is all well and good -- hey, it's your life -- we ultimately realize two things that should make anyone who watches this movie a little upset:

1. Treadwell is a glory hog.
This has nothing to do with him being on Letterman or other national TV. Instead, consider this: The guy had a girlfriend who joined him in bear country, and in 100 hours of video footage, she appears twice. Yeah, twice. More telling, Treadwell always talks to the camera about being alone with the bears, and "I this" and "I that." Um, who's holding the camera, bud?

2. Treadwell is a hypocrite.
This ticked me off even more. We're watching this guy out in nature, raving on and on about loving and protecting the bears. Yet on more than one occasion he disrupts the natural habitat. In other words, he's so fixated on bears that he doesn't much care about upsetting an ecosystem by artificially sending salmon downstream. Forgive me if I forget the specifics here, but that's because I was yelling at the TV, "What a hypocritical a$$face!"

Of course, all of this makes for compelling viewing, and it's easy to watch the countdown to the deaths of Treadwell and his girlfriend. (Her name was Amie Huguenard, by the way.) Herzog's voiceover is often heavy, and not just because of the accent, but in general he does a good job of not glorifying Treadwell. Instead, we see a man who clearly is not well. Sure, no one deserves to get mauled and eaten by a bear. But you keep rolling the dice, Yogi, and it's going to come up snake eyes sooner or later.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Partly cloudy with a chance of weirdness: "The Weather Man"

This was a rather odd movie, and not in a David Lynch, backward-speaking dwarf kind of way.

Not surprising, really, given the way Nicolas Cage has been lately. Remember when he won an Oscar 10 years ago for "Leaving Las Vegas?" Sure, there were some dogs before that -- I think he and Sam Jackson will stab anyone who mentions "Amos and Andrew" -- but Cage was young, and you got the sense that "Vegas" would set him up for great roles.

Alas, first came the mindless blockbusters -- "The Rock," "Con Air" and "Face/Off" -- which were easy enough to watch but no great reflection of Cage's acting ability. (When Travolta out-thespians you, that's a problem.) After that, we got clunkers like "Snake Eyes" and curiosities like "8mm" -- the latter just great for family viewing during the holidays.

Cage also had a thing about directors, from working with bigtime guys (Scorsese and Woo) to being one himself (the largely forgotten "Sonny"). Even when he delivered a strong role, such as in "Adaptation" and "Matchstick Men," you wanted to shake Nic and scream, "Yeah, do more of this! Forget 'National Treasure!'" I don't know ... maybe I'm being too hard on him. After all, this is H.I. McDunnough we're talking about.

Where does "The Weather Man" fall into all of this? Hard to say. I know when it came out I was skeptical and a little surprised when reviews were mixed. I expected worse, and the mediocre reception was enough for me and My Passion Queen to burn a free Blockbuster rental on Cage's turn as a Chicago weather man undergoing some kind of midlife crisis.

With the perfect moniker of "Dave Spritz," Cage is divorced, out of touch with his kids and starved for attention from his father, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author (Michael Caine). He's also stressed about the chance to join a "Today"-like national morning show, which would be great for his career and -- he naively thinks -- his family. Why, if I can get this job, my wife will take me back, and all will be right with the world! Yeah, that's the ticket.

What makes this movie weird, and a little maddening, is the general unevenness of this story. It's all kind of moody, which allows for some funny touches -- Spritz always getting fast food thrown at him, and ultimately figuring out what that means. There's also how Spritz helps his daughter buy some new clothes -- one thing he actually gets right with his kids.

The problem is that the movie never clicks altogether. There are other funny moments, such as Spritz's internal monologue as he tries to remember to bring something home to his wife. But while that and the fast-food bit are good, other voiceovers don't connect and make Cage sound a little pompous. Hey, voiceovers are risky in any case, and it says something that it partly worked here. But again, only partly.

I also didn't think some relationships were as developed as others. While we get tender moments between Spritz and his daughter, the interaction with his son -- even with dad coming to his defense -- wasn't as strongly portrayed. The same thing with Spritz and his dad. I got that Spritz was the antithesis of his father -- fluffy weather man vs. important writer -- but I wanted more than clipped conversations to show that void between them.

Ultimately, "The Weather Man" is probably worth seeing since I can't name another movie quite like it. If it didn't have big stars or a slick look, it might be considered an intriguing indie film better received by critics. Maybe it's not fair to judge the story and performances based on that, but hey, we can't ignore that Cage and Caine are heavy hitters. C'mon ... "Fire Birds" meets "Jaws: The Revenge" ... shield your eyes from such brilliance.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Hey, y'all ... let's go to the trailer park!

Since I've actually been to the cinema in recent weeks, it's time to grade the trailers for upcoming movies:

Apocalypto: C
First, it's from Mel Gibson. Second, I have no idea what it's about other than Aztecs or Mayans running around. Third, there were waaayyy too many objects shoved through people's noses, ear lobes, lips, etc.

The Break Up: B
I' m not much for romantic comedies, but this one had me at a woman telling her man, "I want you to want to do the dishes." His response: "Why would I want to do dishes?" Truer words have never been spoken. Oh, and Jennifer Anniston still looks hot. Who loves ya, baby?

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift: D-
Because there were so many unanswered questions from "2 Fast 2 Furious" ...

Poseidon: B
Could be decent in a loud, wet way, even if I find Josh Lucas to generally be a putz. Hopefully Kurt Russell is the man here.

The Sentinel: B-
Wait a minute ... Kiefer Sutherland plays a government agent? No way! Slightly harder to swallow, however, is Eva Longoria in the Secret Service. Escort service, maybe.

Click: C-
Seriously, I could have storyboarded this trailer in 15 minutes. Adam Sandler isn't bad in general, but this supposedly family-friendly claptrap looks like a step back. Bring back Billy Madison!

A Scanner Darkly: B+
Still not sure what it's about, but it's hard to take your eyes off those weird cartoons seemingly wrapped around real actors. Although really, Keanu Reeves already is a cartoon anyway, right?

United 93: A-
When you're not sure you'll even be able to watch the movie because the trailer gets you choked up, that's something. This could be a gut-wrencher, especially the way Paul "Bloody Sunday" Greengrass captures tragedy on film.

Akeelah and the Bee: C+
Some may see this as the feel-good hit of the summer. (Just nudging out "United 93.") Me? I'd rather see Larry Fishburne back in the Matrix instead of headlining this sappy crap.

Mission: Impossible III: B+
Another unclear plot -- which is better than giving everything away, true -- but the action looks solid. Bonus to see if Philip Seymour Hoffman can do blockbuster stuff. Of course, I won't pay for this and put money in the Couch Jumper's pocket. Maybe I'll buy a ticket for something more worthy, like "United 93," and sneak into "M:I III."

X-Men: The Last Stand: A-
After a slightly bumpy first installment, this series is shaping up as relatively kick-a$$. Loving the idea of a mutant war and some new freaks to admire. Of course, the more mutants, the more you wonder what makes Wolverine so great. Storm can control the weather, dude, and all you got are some Ginsu hands?

Monday, April 17, 2006

Bank on it: "Inside Man"

Very odd. This is the second movie I've seen and enjoyed recently despite it coming from a diminutive, bespectacled director whose movies I usually don't think are as good as everyone else does. And based on a quick Google search, Spike Lee just loves being called "the black Woody Allen." Um, yeah.

Of course, "Inside Man" is a bit different from "Match Point," but both movies show how good directors can try something different and succeed. Whereas Allen strayed into suspense and thriller territory, Lee tries another mainstream genre: action. Well, maybe there's some suspense here, too. Hey, cut me some slack on all this "genre" jazz. The only film class I took in college was for a pass-fail grade. (I passed ... film students apparently are so bad at writing essays that mine were brilliant by comparison, even if written the mornings they were due.)

Whatever you call it, "Inside Man" is a decent cat-and-mouse story centered around a hostage situation at a Wall Street bank. The bad guys are led by Clive Owen, who continues his mission to obscure his face with each movie. Since gaining notice as a smooth-faced, slicked-back croupier, Owen has let stubble grow and hair hang over his face. Now he goes further with sunglasses and a mask for most of this movie. Um, don't people think you're good-looking, Clive?
Once the bank is taken, we meet the police negotiator, played by Denzel "Carbon Copy" Washington. The third leg of this triumvirate is Jodie Foster as some kind of corporate fixer/problem-solver brought in by the bank board's chairman (Christopher Plummer) to keep the contents of one particular safe-deposit box safe.

Washington does the "Training Day" thing except with less menace. I guess there's a little "Out of Time" and "The Siege" in there, too. It's really nothing new for him, but he's solid as usual. Foster is all polish and control, immaculately dressed in power suits -- but with skirts; go Jodie! -- and completely composed at all times. It's a good role for her, and I suspect other leading ladies would have gone too far and tried b*tchiness when simple firmness sufficed.

Owen also is fine as the man in control, although his role probably is the weakest, and not just because he's masked. Not to get all Actors Studio here, but for all the twists and turns in this plot, I found myself wondering, "What's his motivation?" The story is fine -- just like Denzel, we're left to guess what's really going inside the bank, and we see more than the cops on-screen do. All I knew was that there had to be something more there, and it was enough to keep me interested.

As for Spike Lee's fingerprints, we're spared the hammer-on-the-head messages about race, equality, etc. There's some of that stuff, i.e. a Sikh getting his turban taken away, but it seems to fit the plot well and even has a little humor. On the technical side, a few scenes are classic Lee, but they're indulgences more than necessities.

When it comes to the story, there's at least one relatively decent-sized hole/stretch, and probably a couple of others if you think about it. Definitely not enough to torpedo the plot or movie, but enough to keep me from calling this as a great movie. Instead, it's merely good and well worth a weekend matinee. In these pre-May times, when your other options are "The Benchwarmers" and "Take the Lead," what more can you ask for?

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Not nearly as funny as when Phil Hartman was the tour guide: "The Rock"

C'mon ... from "So I Married an Axe Murderer?" He played "Vicki?" Anybody? Hello?

(Just so you don't miss out, here's the best part of Vicki's tour: "Now this is something the other tour guides won't tell you. In this particular cell-block, Machine Gun Kelly had what we call in the prison system, a 'b*tch.' And one night, in a jealous rage, Kelly took a make-shift knife, or 'shiv,' and cut out the b*tch's eyes. And as if this wasn't enough retribution for Kelly, the next day he and four other inmates took turns p!ssing into the b*tch's ocular cavities. (Pause) This way to the cafeteria!")

I seem to recall "The Rock" coming out longer ago than it actually did. Instead of the early '90s, though, it was 1996. So I guess it just seems like Michael Bay has been delivering sh*t for a long time.

Wait ... that's not fair. True, "Armageddon" was overblown crap, "Pearl Harbor," I heard, was a wreck and "Bad Boys II" was uninteresting enough that I didn't get to the second half. But "The Rock" -- Bay's sophomore effort after winning attention with "Bad Boys" -- wasn't all noise. While I'd stop short of saying there was "substance" here, the movie generally works as a brisk actioner with a solid cast and fun, albeit cartoonish, characters.

"The Rock" gives us a rogue Army general (Ed Harris) whose crew steals deadly nerve gas and takes hostages at Alcatraz Island, threatening to unleash the gas on the Bay Area unless the U.S. government gives money to the families of officers who died during secret operations. The only way to stop these guys is to sneak into Alcatraz. The only way to do that is with the help of the only guy to break out, a British Army guy played by Sean Connery. Once you find the gas, of course, you need to disarm the missiles. That's when a chemical weapons expert (Nicolas Cage) comes in.

Also in the mix are a bunch of solid supporting players: Michael Biehn, David Morse, William Forsythe, John Spencer ... even Tony Todd. Yeah, the Candyman! It's a good cast, and not a bad story. Really, how could you not get pumped up for an assault on Alcatraz, led by the best James Bond ever as a military prisoner who could go off the reservation at any moment?

This was probably the third or fourth time I'd seen "The Rock," and while it still was entertaining, a few holes are starting to show. One, it's awfully hard to swallow this attack on Alcatraz in general -- the speed at which it comes together, the wild cards of Connery and Cage, etc. Second, the "villain," Harris, is just too sympathetic for this kind of B-movie plot. Third, the dialogue -- while meant to be humorous -- is much too forced and ends up funny in a different way than intended. Consider these lines:

-- Stanley Goodspeed (Cage; yeah, some name): You know, I like history too, and maybe when this is all over you and I can stop by the souvenir shop together. But right now, I just ... I just wanna find some rockets!
-- Goodspeed: Look, I'm just a biochemist. Most of the time, I work in a little glass jar and lead a very uneventful life. I drive a Volvo ... a beige one. But what I'm dealing with here is one of the most deadly substances the earth has ever known, so what say you cut me some friggin' slack?
-- John Mason (Connery): Are you sure you're ready for this?
Goodspeed: I'll do my best.
Mason: Your "best?" Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and f*ck the prom queen.
(NOTE: If this exchange ended here, it would have been funny. Alas ... )
Goodspeed: Carla was the prom queen.

(Ooooh ... burn.)

Like I said, "The Rock" is decent popcorn fare, and even if it takes a little bit for the real Alcatraz fun to get going, Bay keeps things moving and tension high. Nobody will ever confuse him with Spielberg or even Tarantino, but it's a safe bet that most people who go for this kind of fare check their brains at the door. You know, kind of like what Cage did with his next effort, "Con Air." Compared with that, "The Rock" is "Lawrence of Arabia." Well, with fewer camels, I guess.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Only the best drivers-education video EVER: "The Road Warrior"

I can't recall the exact order in which I watched the "Mad Max" trilogy, but I know it wasn't the right one. I think I first saw "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" on HBO when I was 13 or so, thinking it was pretty cool. Even today, I liked to propose Thunderdome as a way to settle arguments. "Two men enter, one man leave! Two men enter, one man leave!"

Then I think I saw "The Road Warrior" a few years later and realized what a real "Mad Max" movie was. Finally, I rented the original "Mad Max" after college, thinking it wasn't bad but that it suffered from too much family stuff and not enough crash-crash, kill-kill. Still, you gotta start somewhere, and the first "Max" does a good job setting up the character -- surliness, psychosis and all.

No question, though, that "Warrior" is the "Empire Strikes Back" of this trilogy -- far and away the best installment. As you may know, the original title is "Mad Max 2," but since U.S. audiences really hadn't seen the first "Max," it got a more generic, stand-alone title. That works, though, because the movie can stand alone. It helps to know why Max is out in the wasteland, roaming around alone, but it's not vital. In fact, not knowing his background makes him more of a mystery and makes for a simpler story about a stranger who takes on a band of murderous scavengers.

Did I say the plot is simple? In post-apocalyptic Australia, Max (Mel "Air America" Gibson) comes across a group of people holed up in an oil refinery. The bandits want the fuel, the people just want to make it out alive. There's no time wasted on how they got there and what they'll do when they leave -- just a focus on survival. That's all Max does, too, but he sees a chance first to set himself up with fuel, then to do the right thing and help the trapped folks get away.

What makes this movie so much fun? For one, the lean-and-mean story allows for great characters. Max may be sullen and quiet, but the villains include a metal-masked, leather briefs-wearing leader named Lord Humungus and his No. 1 "dog of war," a chaps-wearing, Mohawked mongrel who really likes killing people. On Max's side, we have The Gyro Captain, a gangly guy with a small helicopter who provides some comic relief. Skulking around the refinery is The Feral Kid, a grunting tyke with a razor-sharp boomerang.

That boomerang comes into play, of course, and it's far from the only violence as the bandits try to kill anyone who leaves the refinery. That allows for several great chase scenes, with wildly tricked-out cars loaded with guys shooting arrows and swinging chains at their prey. We're talking hardcore pursuit that goes on a lot longer and has more stunts than any other movie I can think of -- people flying through the air, cars flipping over ... all that good stuff.

It's enough, in fact, that you really don't think too much about Mr. Passion himself. Gibson was young and mostly unknown when "Warrior" came out, and he really just plays the hard man who cares only about himself. That's a role that, oh, several dozen other actors could have handled just as well, and the movie benefits from not having Max visibly suffer a crisis of conscience. Even when he comes back to the refinery a second time, there's not a lot of soul-searching and hand-wringing about him helping the group. He wants to do it, so he does it.

For this reason, I can still enjoy the "Mad Max" movies without thinking too much about our man Mel going all "Catholics are best" on us. (And I'm Catholic.) And really, what's the bigger insult -- "The Passion of the Christ" or "Bird on a Wire?"

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Ghosts and hoopsters and rioters ... oh my!: Movie roundup

Recent viewings are starting to pile up, so here's a multi-movie post for your reading pleasure.

Watts the big deal?: "The Ring Two"
The first "Ring?" OK, I guess. I like my horror movies a little more concrete than supernatural, but the story was interesting enough -- and the kid was creepy enough -- to keep me watching. Also, after seeing Naomi Watts in "Mulholland Dr." and "21 Grams," there's always a chance she'll get naked, and that's a good thing. Anyway, Naomi and the creepy kid are back in "Two," with the ghost of that girl from the killer video in the first movie haunting them in a new town, Astoria, Oregon. I've been to Astoria ... not so scary. Kind of the same with this movie. Decent special effects, and sure, I had no idea what was going to happen. But mostly we get a muddle, and it's not going too far out on a limb to say Watts won't be around for "The Ring Three: Spooky Spokane."

If "Hoop Dreams" seemed way too long ... : "Through the Fire"
Can't say I automatically gravitate to the ESPN movies. C'mon ... Brian Dennehy as Bobby Knight? Dude, he's an alien ... didn't you see "Cocoon?" But "Through the Fire," the account of Brooklyn high school hoops star Sebastian Telfair, seemed decent. And that's about the best I can say about it ... "decent." As a documentary, "Fire" has an aura of authenticity, but alas, it doesn't go to any lengths to challenge our subject. Telfair is a "legend" at age 17, and we're asked to hang on his every word and action as his family charts his fate. College or NBA? It's interesting, sure, but when Bassy was filmed driving a Lexus halfway through the movie, I was more than a little curious about why there was no explanation for how a high school senior living in the projects had come into that.

When Irish eyes are dying: "Bloody Sunday"
Here's a movie that's been on our TiVo list at least a couple of times before being deleted to make room for other movies. ("Hey, 'They Live' is on!") It's not the first movie by Paul Greengrass -- whose "United 93" looks good -- that I've seen. That was "The Bourne Supremacy," which had too many herky-jerky, close-up camera shots for me. In "Bloody Sunday," those work much better, with the hand-held camera work giving this tragic tale a nice intimacy. "Sunday" captures the day in 1972 when a march for civil rights in a Northern Ireland town turned into a bloodbath at the hands of the British military. But even if there's a clear villain here, the movie does an excellent job of showing how everything led up the fateful shootings. It's a bit jarring, perhaps, with a bunch of short scenes split up by quick fades-in and -out. But that helps the plot move along quickly, so much that even if you know the massacre is coming, it's still on you like that. And even Jason Bourne can't do anything to stop it.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Please secure your tray tables and paranoid mothers: "Flightplan"

I used to travel a lot for business ... maybe 2-3 times a month, from coast to coast and even Alaska. I've been on a few planes, and my check-in routine is so polished that I can't remember the last time I set off a metal detector. ("But officer, it's only a small-caliber pistol ... ")

If there was a common denominator in all of these flights -- we're talking more than 100 round-trips over four years -- it was not having enough room. This is painfully obvious when you have the middle seat on an old America West jet on a redeye from Phoenix to the East Coast. (Tylenol PM washed down with a Jack and coke, anyone?) But even when you find the gold mine of seats -- the empty exit row -- you still only have that little bubble of space, and forget finding any elbow room outside of that. How smokers and people with back problems manage, I have no idea.

I share all of this because the key plot point of "Flightplan" -- a woman may or may not have lost her little girl on a plane -- requires a rather significant leap of faith. No matter how much stuff people cram in overhead bins and flight attendants cram in galleys, it's gotta be hard to hide a whole girl. Which, of course, is why the mom who claims she's missing must be crazy.

The trailers showed us all of this, which caused me to think "eh ... maybe" when "Flightplan" was in theaters. I can't recall the reviews being particularly good or bad, so no real regrets at missing it on the big screen. Instead, I called on Netflix, since I figured this would be a movie that The Woman Who Gives My Life All Meaning and I could watch together. (Someday she'll appreciate "Krull.")

Playing the panicked woman is Jodie Foster ("The Hotel New Hampshire"), which makes our second "Taxi Driver" connection in about a week. (And get this: Harvey Keitel was in "Reservoir Dogs," while Cybill Shepherd was in "The Last Picture Show," which I'm watching now. Weird.) Now in her 40s, Foster has settled into the icy, hard woman role. Not so much an butt-kicker, even with "Panic Room," as a cold person with cold blue eyes that get really big with something's amiss.

In this case, she and her 7-year-old daughter are flying from Germany to New York with Foster's dead husband in a casket in the cargo hold. Clearly these ladies are distraught, and they end up taking a little nap in empty rows across from each other. The only problem is that when Foster wakes up, the girl is gone. What follows is a search that goes from casual to intense, much like the scrutiny of Foster's sanity by such folks as the captain (Sean Bean) and an air marshal (Peter Sarrrrrrsgaaaaaaaaaard). Evidence mounts that the girl was never on the plane, and as you might expect, Foster doesn't take this claim very well.

None of this is a shock to anyone who saw the previews. What is surprising is the timetable, and without giving too much away, the above series of events -- and others -- didn't play out the way I expected. The final outcome may not have been all that great by itself -- raising more than a few questions -- but it was nice to see a movie stray from the standard route.

Put another way, I'm no Kreskin or Nostradamus, but I can spot lazy storytelling a mile away. (See "Hide and Seek" below.) That wasn't the case here, and even people who might suspect they know what's really going on probably won't guess the full story. It was enough to keep me watching, as least until "Krull" came on.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

If you thought you couldn't trust Joe Isuzu ... : "Thank You for Smoking"

Ivan Reitman has made some funny movies ... "Stripes," "Ghostbusters," Dave." Heck, I still think "Meatballs" should have won Bill Murray his first academy nomination. "It just doesn't matter! It just doesn't matter! It just doesn't matter!"

Does this pedigree mean his son Jason can direct for squat? Of course not. Kid's gotta make his bones on his own. Based on "Thank You for Smoking," though, it looks like he's off to a decent start.

I'll admit I was excited about this movie from the trailer, which outlined a biting satire with plenty of good actors. While the satire was biting only some of the time, and "Smoking" asks you to suspend belief when it comes to some characters' actions -- even for a satire -- it's still an amusing story and relatively easy to digest and even appreciate in its intentions. That is, to make fun of the uptight, no-fun crowd. Boo!

"Smoking" gives us Aaron "Butt Chin" Eckhart as the lead spokesman for the tobacco industry, aka Satan. The movie has all sorts of fun with this, and so does Eckhart, portraying a character who embraces his role as the ultimate challenge, and one at which he usually succeeds.

The story has Eckhart working to keep cigarettes popular among the people amid attacks from such critics as a granola senator from Vermont (the great William H. Macy). We also follow Eckhart as he pals around with fellow Merchants of Death -- reps for the alcohol (Maria Bello, not naked, unfortunately) and gun industries (David Koechner, also not naked, fortunately) -- lobbies a Hollywood superagent (Rob Lowe) for prominent cigarette placement in movies and visits a former Marlboro man (Sam Elliott) who's now dying.

All these folks do a fine job in their limited roles, as do J.K. Simmons as Eckhart's boss and Robert Duvall as the last tobacco baron. Somewhat less impressive is Mrs. Silent Birth, Katie Holmes, as an investigative reporter who catches Eckhart's eye. (And crotch, too.) As an actor, she makes a great mother for a crazy Scientologist's child.

Eckhart's character also tries to educate his young son in the ways for the world while doing his sleazeball job, which gives his character a little more depth without making him actually deep. The guy remains a mouthpiece ... he just tells his kid why America needs mouthpieces. "If you argue right, you are right." Talk about taking PR to the extreme. Your own kid, man?

So does it all work? Sure, for the most part. Even at 90 minutes, it's drags a bit in places, and the father-son thing wasn't all that interesting after a while. The movie also felt a bit like a series of skits, with Eckhart going from one politically incorrect situation to another. None of these are killers, and overall the movie is funny.

I just might have gone further and given it an even rougher edge, especially since Eckhart -- despite his sh*t-eating grin and unapologetic attitude -- mostly comes off as lovable here. It's kind of a "He's in on the joke, so he can't be that bad" thing. This definitely isn't "In the Company of Men." I think I read somewhere that women would come up to Eckhart after that movie and tear into him for being such an a$$hole. Now that's acting.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Travis Bickle is rolling over in his grave: "Hide and Seek"

There's really no point in lamenting the decline of Robert De Niro these days. I mean, when he spoofed his infamous "Taxi Driver" role in "The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle," all bets were off.

(Just saw the trailer for that one, by the way. No worries. All's well. Remain calm.)

Still, it's just sad to see one the Great Actors of Our Time and Maybe All Time slumming in crap for a paycheck. Hey, I enjoy light fare as much as the next guy -- "PCU," anyone? -- and De Niro has actually chosen some decent roles that weren't Important Movies, i.e. "Meet the Parents," "The Score," even "Cape Fear." But as Bobby D approached 60, his discretion started to be more than a little questionable. Or perhaps you found "Showtime" hilarious?

All of this is to say that I sure as hell wasn't going to pay money to see "Hide and Seek." Alas, I did recently succumb to the "Well, while it's on HBO" trap. Regrets ... I've had a few.

We also get the precocious Dakota Fanning in this would-be thriller. A friend of mine who shall remain nameless once made the mistake of calling little Dakota "hot," thereby inviting severe mocking and inevitable shame once he learned she was born in 1994. Dude, what's wrong with you? I will, however, praise her acting abilities, as she seemed pretty good at such a young age in "I Am Sam" and "War of the Worlds."

Here, Dakota mostly plays quiet and haunted as she and her daddy (De Niro) move away from New York City following a family tragedy. Dad thinks the country air will be good for his girl, but we soon find that Dakota has taken an imaginary friend who may or may not be real. You'd think that would be pretty easy to figure out, but all sorts of spooky doings have De Niro wondering. Drifting in and out of these proceeding are supporting players Famke Janssen, Elisabeth Shue (playing "Elizabeth" ... how confusing) and Dylan Baker.

Here's where I might opine on how the plot developed and tension built and blah blah blah. But get this: I was so sure I knew the inevitable plot twist that I fast-forwarded through the second half of the movie.

Let's let that sink in. I think I'm generous to a fault when it comes to letting a movie play out. Hell, I sat through "Rent." So when a movie is so uninteresting and obvious that I'm willing to gamble on a fast-forward ... well, not good filmmaking, kids. Not good at all. (Is it clear I guessed right?)

I suppose my point is that there have been enough family thrillers and enough decent actors sleepwalking through them that you really need to come up with something at least a little creative if you want to earn our attention. (Not to mention money.) Fortunately, not too many people ponied up to see the De Niro-Dakota Follies, with "Hide and Seek" grossing just over $51 million on a $30 million budget. Even better, I wasted less than an hour instead of the full 101 minutes. That left time to watch one of Bobby's better efforts ... you know, like "The Fan."

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The three-eyed fish in Lake Springfield was the first clue: "Silkwood"

Quick, how many times has Meryl Streep been nominated for an Oscar. Come on ... come on ... what do you say? Seven? Eight? To tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world ... oops, wrong movie.

Give up? Let's check IMDB. Wow, 13 times, including 1o for Best Actress. Even if she's won "only" twice, that's not too bad when it comes to an acting career. And that doesn't even count her turn in "Stuck on You." (Hey, I still say that's a funny movie, or at least the funniest movie ever about conjoined twins. "We're not Siamese. We're American.")

Of course, as a thirtysomething heterosexual male, I'm not exactly Dame Streep's target demographic, and a quick scan of her filmography reveals that I've seen ... well, about a half-dozen of her movies, including somewhat forgettable fare such as "The River Wild" and (gulp) "She-Devil." While I also had seen more respectable turns, i.e. "Defending Your Life" and "Adaptation," I was woefully lacking in a firsthand look at what made Meryl the bee's knees when it came to today's top thespians.

Enter "Silkwood," which played recently on one of the HD channels and seemed something I could absorb a lot more easily now than when it first came out more than 20 years ago. Streep plays Karen Silkwood, an employee at an Oklahoma nuclear plant. She, her boyfriend (the esteemed Kurt Russell) and their lesbian friend (the long-stemmed Cher) all like their jobs OK, but it slowly dawns on Karen that all is not right in Radiation Land, and that workers may not be better off because of it.

This kind of conspiracy stuff can make for a decent plot -- expect when the movie is actually called "Conspiracy Theory" -- and "Silkwood" works well. Director Mike Nichols does a decent job easing into the seriousness of things -- first nicely portraying how happy folks are to work at the nuclear plant, then showing how Silkwood's poking around could jeopardize those jobs. He also does a pretty good job of explaining how an average employee could get caught up in all this. Silkwood didn't set out to challenge the system; it just ended up that way.

One thing I'm not sure worked, though, was when the movie stepped away from the doings at the nuclear plant and shed light on Silkwood's personal life. True, this helps make her a real person -- all the back-and-forth with Snake Plissken and Butterfly Butt, as well as the stress over not being with her kids. But it was a little distracting at times, and I might have trimmed those scenes a bit to allow more focus on what brought Silkwood to prominence: her desire to expose possible contamination and general malfeasance at the plant.

Even so, it's hard not to like our man Russell, and we get a solid supporting cast of Movievangelist favorites: Fred Ward, David Strathairn, Ron Silver, Craig T. Nelson, M. Emmet Walsh, Will Patton, Anthony Heald, James Rebhorn and the unparalleled Bruce "D-Day" McGill. Cher's also pretty good in one of her first movie roles, although, again, not as good as in "Stuck on You."

But this is Streep's show, and she nails the role with the right mix of redneck, caring soul and troublemaker. It's kind of a tricky part, and a lesser actor could come off as too indignant -- not right given Silkwood's humble roots -- or too terrified, which also wouldn't work since the nuclear plant guys aren't exactly the Corleones. It's not surprising that Streep is the current gold standard for actresses. After all, not anyone can hold her own against conjoined twins.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Love bites: "Open Water"

Now this is what you expect in an indie flick: a basic story, short running time, unknown actors and no nice, neat ending. Even if "Open Water" isn't "Casablanca," it's still an easily digestible nugget of entertainment that came out of nowhere, grossing more than $30 million in the U.S. after being made for less than $200,000.

Not sure why I missed this movie when it was in theaters, but it moved to the top of our Netflix queue a week or so ago, even before I heard from friends about the random nudity displayed by the female lead. (Good friends, those guys.) While this definitely wasn't a film for My Eternal Beloved -- she's not a big fan of the water, and even less of herky-jerky camera work -- I knew I could crank this 79-minute movie out in short order.

Our story has an engaged thirtysomething couple, apparently somewhat at odds, taking off for a tropical vacation. This includes scuba diving, with our heroes joining a large group expedition into far offshore waters. Alas, due to a mixup in the head count, the two emerge from the deep to find they've been left behind. What to do, what to do ...

It's a shockingly simple concept, "inspired by true events," and when something like that is done well, it's enough for a decent movie. I'll admit that when I heard this was based on two people left behind, I wondered how in hell something that stupid could happen. But you know what, it was pretty understandable as portrayed here, so much that I thought, "Oh, this is going to suck."

Of course, the real action is after the boat leaves, with Susan and Daniel first amused, then annoyed, then afraid. Hey, imagine how you'd feel. If you had the guts to go scuba diving in the first place, you probably wouldn't be scared right away, thinking the boat would be back before long. But the longer you're out there, the more tired you get, and the more like shark bait you seem.

Ah yes, the sharks. We don't get a big-a$$ Jaws-type here, but there are plenty of smaller guys who become bolder and bolder about nibbling this nubile duo. The documentary feel -- not sure there's any music in the water scenes -- allows the shots of the sharks to speak for themselves, and you get a decent idea of what the couple is going through. "What was that? Did you feel that?"

That said, a more experienced director and bigger budget could have amped up the tension a bit more, as could more talented actors. No question that this basic of a story doesn't need Kate Winslet and Daniel Day-Lewis, but the actors we do get (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) are pretty one-note and didn't have quite the range to pull off all the emotions, from frustration with each other (before the dive and after being left behind) to love so strong that each really didn't want the other to be eaten by sharks.

All in all, "Open Water" was easy to watch and commendable for (a) not going any longer than its short running time and (b) not taking the easy way out with the ending. I'd hate to ruin it for you, but ... what the hell. Turns out Susan was cheating on Daniel ... with one of the sharks!