Reviews for November 6th, 2009
Directed by Richard Kelly.
Based on the short story Button, Button by Richard Matheson. In 1976, Arthur Lewis (James Marsden), an inventor working for NASA, lives with his wife, Norma (Cameron Diaz), and son, Walter (Sam Oz Stone), in the suburbs of Virginia. Norma can no longer receive a special discount on Walter’s tuition while Arthur learns that he failed his psychological exam that he’s required to pass in order to be promoted as an astronaut, so they’re both clearly going through financial woes. One day, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), a mysterious man with a grotesque disfigurement on the side of his face, shows up at their door with a wrapped-up box. He offers them a tempting proposition that they’d receive 1 million dollars if they choose to push the button the box which would lead to a stranger’s death. They have 24 hours to make the decision or else Arlington will offer the proposition someone else. When Norma decides to push the button, someone gets murdered and Arthur, in turn, contacts the police with the license plate of Arlington’s car, Arlington makes them suffer for going to the authorities. Why do some of the people around Norma and Arthur stare at them, give them the peace sign and get nosebleeds? Why does Arlington play such a twisted game with them? Is he involved in something supernatural? Writer/director Richard Kelly combined sci-fi, suspense and drama so well in Donnie Darko, but in this case, those he blends those genres with very mixed results. More often than not, the plot seems rather lazy and pointlessly bizarre rather than clever, riveting or intriguing. The dialogue and performances gyrate between stylized and laughably awkward, although Frank Langella does give a quietly eerie performance as Arlington which often makes you wonder when he’ll stop speaking so calmly and just explode with anger. Cameron Diaz seems a bit miscast in the role of Norma while James Marsden delivers a decent, but unmemorable performance. Unfortunately, the third act feels rather disappointing, leaving you with too many plot holes and implausibilities that sink the film into silliness. At a running time of 1 hour and 53 minutes, The Box has stylish production values and a somewhat creepy performance by the talented Frank Langella, but it’s often too lazily constructed, unimaginative and lacking much-needed suspense. Number of times I checked my watch: 3 Released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Opens nationwide.
A Christmas Carol
Directed by Robert Zemeckis.
Based on the novel by Charles Dickens. Ebenezer Scrooge (voice of Jim Carrey), a grouchy, greedy and selfish old curmudgeon, prefers to stay alone on Christmas without enjoying the festivities with his family or friends. Fred (voice of Colin Firth), his nephew, invites him to a Christmas dinner with his family, but he turns it down immediately. He doesn’t even treat his clerk, Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman), warmly by merely giving him the day off from work on Christmas day. Three different ghosts show up in front of Scrooge to give him a moral lesson about the ways that he treats others. The Ghost of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come (each voiced by Jim Carrey) give him glimpses from moments from his past, present and future. Robin Wright Penn provides the voice of Belle, a woman whom Scrooge had been engaged to, but she called the marriage off and ended up marrying someone else instead. Scrooge also observes others from his past including Mr.Fezziwig (voice of Bob Hoskins), a very kind-hearted business man who dances at a Christmas ball. Anyone familiar with the classic Dickens story already knows the conclusion and the moral lessons that Scrooge learns. The state-of-the-art CGI animation blended with stop-motion animation, which can also be found in The Polar Express and Beowulf, surely looks lively and dazzling, especially in the 3D format, with plenty of attention to detail. Some of the action sequences feel exhilarating thanks to skillful editing, sound design and visual effects that make you feel like you’re in a roller-coaster ride. There are some scenes, i.e. with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come,that will probably frighten little kids, though. Unfortunately, the third act which is supposed to be all heartwarming and fuzzy, feels rather rushed and unmoving. Writer/director Robert Zemeckis has pretty much drained away virtually all of the genuinely poignant and engrossing aspects of the story and replaced them with too many contrived scenes and cold characters that simply never get a chance to come to life. At a running time of 1 hour and 35 minutes, Disney’s A Christmas Carol boasts dazzling CGI effects and important moral lessons, but it suffers from excessive style over substance while lacking the genuine, unadulturated warmth, emotional resonance and soul of the Dickens classic. Number of times I checked my watch: 2 Released by Walt Disney Pictures. Opens nationwide.
The Fourth Kind
Directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi.
Dr. Abigail Emily Tyler (Milla Jovovich), a psychologist in Nome, Alaska, puts one of her patients, Tommy Fisher (Corey Johnson) under hypnosis to try to figure out why he has had trouble sleeping lately. He claims that he sees a white owl stare at him at night from outside his window. While he tries to recall the specific events that occurred at night, he freaks out as if he’s recalling something bizarre and horrific. Soon afterwards, he murders his family before killing himself. It turns out that other patients of Dr. Tyler are also seeing white owls and having trouble sleeping and recalling what happened to them at night. When her dictation tape somehow has a nonhuman voice speaking in a mysterious, unknown language, she suspects that she might be dealing with something paranormal. Another patient, Scott Stracinsky (Enzo Cilenti), also undergoes hypnoses and freaks out and even levitates during the session, leading to a spinal injury that leaves him paralyzed. Will Patton plays Sheriff August, a skeptic who believes that the tragic events that occurred to Dr. Tyler’s two patients have something to do with Dr. Tyler’s use of hypnosis. He refuses to believe that it has something to do with an encounter of the fourth kind, a.k.a. alien abduction, because there’s no hard, empirical evidence even though Abel Campos (Elias Kotias), Dr. Tyler’s supportive colleague, was actually there to witness Scott’s levitation. Writer/director Olatunde Osunsanmi infuses those narrative sequences with “documentary” footage from “actual” interviews with himself and the “real” Dr. Tyler as well “actual” footage of the hypnosis sessions side-by-side with the reenactments. You’ll be able to sense that Dr. Tyler and the patients in the “documentary” footage are all giving performances, so that immediately diminishes any of the intended realism and gives away that it’s a lame hoax played on the audience. Unfortunately, the there aren’t enough truly terrifying or creepy scenes, with the exception of nighttime footage of the exterior of Dr. Tyler’s home from a police car’s surveillance camera. The scene showing close-ups of the white owl ends up unintentionally funny rather than eerie. The plot becomes quite dull once it veers from the mystery surrounding the possible alien abductions to a silly subplot involving Sheriff August’s continued interrogation of Dr. Tyler and his simple-minded skepticism as he places the blame of the tragic events on her. At a running time of a 1 hour and 38 minutes, The Fourth Kind is mostly engaging with fleeting scares, stylish cinematography and an initially intriguing premise, but the suspense and chills wane as its script grows increasingly silly, unfocused and dull. Number of times I checked my watch: 2 Released by Universal Pictures. Opens nationwide.
The Men Who Stare at Goats
Directed by Grant Heslov.
Inspired by the book by Jon Ronson. Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), a journalist, wants to travel to Iraq to write about the war in hopes of impressing his ex-wife. He gets an assignment to interview with Gus Lacey (Stephen Root), who claims that he was once a physic spy with the special superpowers. Bob happens to bump into Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), who used to be among the members of the top-secret psychic spy unit back in the 1980’s. Soon enough, Lyn lets Bob tag along with him through Baghdad and, eventually, both of them end up getting lost in the desert and run into terrorists. It’s very amusing to watch the flashbacks of how the secret spies came together 20 years earlier to form the New Earth Army. Jeff Bridges stands out the most as Larry, the founder of the New Earth Army who trained Lyn as well as Larry (Kevin Spacey) how to develop psychic abilities, such as walking through walls and, even more outrageously, staring at goats as a means to kill them. The screenplay by Peter Straughan never really takes itself too seriously and pokes some absurdist, satirical fun at war and politics. However, the attempts at offbeat, dry humor start to feel a bit forced and fall slightly flat midway because of repetitiveness and diminishing cleverness. Straughan could have taken the comedic material much further by giving it more bite and maintaining the wittiness and refreshing zaniness that exists during the half of the film. Nonetheless, director Grant Heslov keeps the film’s momentum chugging along smoothly with a brisk pace that never drags. Each actor gives a lively performance and has a lot of fun in his role, although Jeff Bridges shines the most by giving one of his most hilarious and lively performances since playing The Dude in The Big Lebowski. More scenes with Bridges here would have been quite beneficial. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 33 minutes, The Men Who Stare at Goats manages to be an outrageously funny, tongue-in-cheek satire filled with lively, amusing performances, but its comedic momentum gradually loses steam and leaves you wishing that it had more consistent cleverness and bite. Number of times I checked my watch: 2 Released by Overture Films. Opens nationwide.
Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire
Directed by Lee Daniels.
In 1987, Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe), a morbidly obese 16-year-old African American girl, lives in Harlem with her physically and emotionally abusive mother, Mary (Mo’Nique). Claireece not only has to deal with the second pregnancy by her absent father who raped her, but the fact that she’s illiterate and feels like a loner. She gets the chance to brighten her future when the opportunity arises to enroll in an alternative school, Each One/ Teach One, after her school principal Mrs. Lichenstein (Nealla Gordon) kicks her out of school when she learns that she’s pregnant. At her new school, she develops a special bond with her literacy teacher, Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), and receives guidance from a social worker, Mrs. Weiss (Mariah Carey). Director Lee Daniels includes a well-chosen soundtrack, appropriately gritty cinematography and expert editing that’s quite stylish and enhances the overall melancholic mood. The screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher has so many moving and heartbreaking moments which tug at your heart that you’ll find it easy to forgive the few scenes that feel forced and contrived as well as the plot’s formulaic threads that would have made you roll your eyes otherwise. Claireece moves along through her hardships without being fleshed out enough as a character so that you can grasp precisely what she’s thinking and feeling through her eventual transformation. Nevertheless, Gabourey ‘Gabby” Sidibe a raw, utterly convincing breakthrough performance which helps you to truly care about Claireece and be emotionally invested in her troubled life as she tries to improve herself. It’s universally inspiring to observe how she finds the courage to overcome her many obstacles. Concurrently, Mo’Nique nails the performance as Claireece’s mother with so much conviction that you really feel angry toward her abusive behavior. She’s a very bad mother, wife and person in general, but she also has a lot of emotional baggage that she carries with her. In one particularly unforgettable scene, she gives a powerful soliloquy that will not only bring tears to your eyes, but also, perhaps, lead to an Oscar nomination for Mo’Nique. At a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes, Precious manages to be an inspirational, emotionally devastating drama that occasionally veers toward contrived melodrama , but remains captivating thanks to the raw, heartfelt performances by Mo’Nique and Gabourey ‘Gabby” Sidibe. Number of times I checked my watch: 1 Released by Lionsgate. Opens limited in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta. Expands on November 13th and 20th.
Directed by Brant Sersen.
Justin Frost (Thomas Middleditch), a young man who still hasn’t grown up, lives in a small town with his single mom, Susan (Lea Thompson), and works part-time mowing lawns for the landscaping business of his best friend, Wayne (Jason Rogel). He gradually develops a friendship with Galaxy (Rachael Taylor), a young woman who he initially meets when she cons him for cash at a gas station. It turns out that Galaxy works as a splinterhead, an employee at a traveling carnival who runs a game booth. She’s also obsessed with a form of modern treasure hunting called geocaching and brings Justin along with her for one of her hunts. Not surprisingly, Justin must deal with Galaxy’s tough, abusive boyfriend, Reggie (Dean Winters), and his own mother’s ex-boyfriend, Bruce Mancuso (Christopher McDonald), who’s a police officer. Edmund Lyndeck briefly adds some much-needed charm and wisdom as Justin’s 116-year-old grandfather, “The World’s Oldest Living Man.” The meandering screenplay by writer/director Brant Sersen aims for comedy, but, more often than not, falls flat with juvenile humor that’s more awkward than funny. For instance, after Galaxy’s boyfriend beats him up, Justin begs him not to pee on his face. In another scene, Justin emerges with just his boxers on after swimming in a lake and local youths laugh at his package, so-to-speak, as he walks by. Even the way Justin and Galaxy flirt with one another seems like the kind of flirtation you’d expect to find in harmless movie for kids. There’s not a single character who behaves the least bit mature; they each come across as cartoonish, especially Susan’s ex-boyfriend. Rachael Taylor certainly has the sexy looks to play Galaxy, but she lacks charisma as does Thomas Middleditch as well. Whenever Sersen veers the plot toward romance, it becomes too corny. Similarly, the dramatic scenes feel contrived rather than genuinely organic. Although the subplots about Justin’s oldest-living grandfather and the geocache are quite imaginative and amusing, they merely convolute the plot and could have been explored in an entirely different movie. On a positive note, Sersen includes picturesque cinematography that looks even more vivid in glorious, crisp high-definition. Splinterheads, at a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes, manages to be amusing, lively and imaginative with terrific, crisp cinematography, but it’s often too cartoonish, convoluted, juvenile and low on laughs. Number of times I checked my watch: 3 Released by Paladin. Opens at the Regal Union Square 14.