April 27, 2012
Film Review: The Raven


Dir.
James McTeigue
Score: 3.5

In the spirit of the casting of John Cusack as Edgar Allen Poe, perhaps we can come up with some other, similarly ill-conceived actor/writer combinations. How about Nick Nolte as Ernest Hemingway? John Travolta as William Faulkner? Elizabeth Banks as Emily Dickenson? Jack Black as Homer? The possibilities are nearly endless. Unfortunately, the producers thought they were on to something with Cusack — who, it must be said, does at least share a similar hair line to the great, gothic writer — but instead, they’ve found the perfect personification of every other horrific misstep the filmmakers have chosen.

This is something of a shame, because the essential components of the film are solidly intriguing: Late in Poe’s life, as he’s struggling with alcoholism and dissolution, a serial killer begins murdering people in Baltimore using Poe’s various macabre short stories as a study guide. It’s up to Poe to try and solve the mysteries, along with Det. Fields (Luke Evans) before the killer acts again. The ante is considerably raised when Poe’s beautiful fiancé, Emily (Alice Eve), is abducted by the killer, who uses her as bait for Poe to write one final story and publish it in the daily paper.

But whereas the actual Poe, a grave and somber man, filled with equal amounts arrogance, self-loathing and intellectual fire, might have taken this challenge in the right spirit, Cusack’s Poe — quick-witted, rascally and lovable — whines and winnies his way to solving the case. The film goes (way) out of its way to include some of Poe’s own fine prose — going so far as to have the writer bark out the most famous line of his signature poem in a crowded rough and tumble bar — as a way of paying homage to him, but the version of Poe presented on screen is more cartoonish than anything Chuck Jones would have dreamed up.

Apart from everything else, Cusack simply doesn’t have the spirit of his character in his emotional possession. You can no more ask him to play the despondent, twisted Poe than you could have a six-year-old do justice to King Lear. As a result, from the get-go, the film has the tacky veneer of a Hollywood production, too weak-minded to bother getting the details correct. They fill in the cracks with plenty of CGI fog and blood splatters, and ridiculous plot points that don’t lead us anywhere the least bit interesting. It doesn’t help that screenwriters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare make liberal use of the laziest crutch in the canon of mystery writing: a villain whose every intricate plan and nuance works precisely as intended and at the exact right time (a messenger on a horse riding from far away arrives at a party precisely at the stroke of midnight; a clue is discovered in preposterous fashion and is instantly understood to be mark of longitude, etc.)

For all its precision claptrap, however, the movie is never able to identify its single, greatest mystery: Who thought this would be a good idea?

December 21, 2011
Film Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (U.S.)


Dir.
David Fincher
Score: 6.1

We already know David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac) can direct, but in adapting Stieg Larsson’s bewilderingly popular novel, he’s been given one of his greatest challenges: Turning Larsson’s clunky and overwrought book into something resembling a fluid and arresting narrative. The Swedish adaptation, directed gracelessly by Niels Arden Oplev already made the first, largely lame attempt and mostly failed, a tedious and torpid exercise in shabby shock value and overwrought depravity. So how does Fincher fare? Ladies and gentlemen, we might be witnessing one of the rarest and most elusive of all cinematic forms: An American remake that far outdoes the foreign original.

The story involves a recently humiliated journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), having just lost a libel lawsuit against an oily corporate fat cat, taking on a well-paying assignment from an elderly business man (Christopher Plummer) and trying to track down the truth behind a decades-old suspected murder amongst members of one of Sweden’s wealthiest — and most dysfunctional — blue blood families. Quickly getting in over his head, he enlists the aid of a crack computer expert, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a fierce young woman with a pretty seriously messed up background of her own. Together, the two of them quickly make progress with the case, but as they begin to get close to the truth, Mikael, living in a small carriage house on the estate of the family, becomes increasingly under attack from unknown sources.

Fincher’s film, unlike Oplev’s TV-movie style, is, as always, meticulous and gorgeous to watch (the opening credit sequence alone, involving abstract imagery cascading with what appears to be jet-black oil is like a cross between a hip-hop music video and an art installation), and his cast is far better equipped to handle the rigors of their characters (with the possible exception of Noomi Rapace’s Lisbeth, who was suitably bewitching). The production value is sky-high, from the beautiful art direction to the superbly crafted wardrobe. Fincher is at his best with creepy, sensationalist material, and gets plenty to work with in Larsson’s darkly psycho-sexual storytelling. The film also has atmosphere in spades (the snowy Swedish backdrop has never looked more eerie) and unlike the original, it actually makes the effort to show its two protagonists hard at work trying to piece together the scattering of clues they’ve been given. It’s not a film of facile shortcuts and lazy exposition.

None of this considerable effort, however, is able to raise the film completely above its source material’s many significant faults. The late Larsson — a journalist-turned-novelist — worked in what might generously described as broad strokes, and his herky-jerky plot attempts to be far more tangled and intricate than it actually is. Following the lead of the novel, the film has its dubious action climax about two hours in, giving us a roughly 45-minute denouement that feels cut from a strangely different cloth. To continue with the fabric analogy, try as he might Fincher is unable to quite make a silk purse out of this literary sow’s ear.

December 15, 2011
Film Review: Sherlock Holmes - A Game of Shadows


Dir. Guy Richie
Score: 4.5

The first Guy Richie-helmed Sherlock Holmes was almost shockingly entertaining. With a crafty, engaging script by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg, outstanding performances from leads Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, and Mark Strong, and the twisted atmospherics of Richie’s vision of 19th century London, the film was both rollicking and — at least in limited bouts — contemplative of its hero protagonist. For purists, with its bare-chested Holmes breaking rib cages while throwing out bon mots, it was regrettable, but for everyone else it successfully paid homage to the character while venturing into something at least slightly new. It was also lightning in a bottle, at least in light of the sequel, which does away with much of the wit and complexity of mystery — the very basis of the Holmesian narrative — and replaces it with an endless parade of over-the-top set pieces and helter-skelter bombast.

The film opens with Holmes (Downey Jr.) knee-deep on the trail of a dark and shadowy nemesis only alluded to in the first film, Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), whose brilliance and ruthlessness are meant to counter Holmes’ keen intellect and morality. The trail of the evil Cambridge professor leads Holmes, the newly married Watson (Law), and a small band of gypsies lead by Madam Simza (Noomi Rapace, sans dragon tattoos), across great arcs of western Europe, encountering many would-be henchmen and a cadre blistering CGI explosions along the way. The film’s climax takes place, naturally enough, in Switzerland, where Holmes is finally able to engage Moriarty on something like his own terms.

While not entirely devoid of the humor and craft of the first film, it’s far too reliant on keeping a breakneck pace and constantly shifting locales to hold much in the way of interest. As a result, it never seems to take a breath, throwing one obstacle after another at Holmes and his intrepid companions, without ever letting the audience in on the great detective’s inner mind, one of the more successful elements of the original movie. For every good line (Holmes describes horses as “trouble on both ends and crafty in the middle”), there’s a large dollop of undistinguished action scenes, all lobbying for our immediate gratification. Worst of all, Moriarty, Holmes’ self-proclaimed “greatest challenge” never rises above the level of popcorn villainy with an unkempt beard, offering all the pomposity but little of the searing intellect that would give Holmes a real run for his money. It might seem on the surface as if it’s a hard working crowd-pleaser, but someone should have told the filmmakers the benefits of setting their own agenda with audiences, rather than catering to their every whim.

December 16, 2010
Film Review: All Good Things


Dir. Andrew Jarecki
Score: 6.2

Ryan Gosling is blessed with appreciable Hollywood looks and a startling amount of charisma, but what makes him one of the more interesting actors of his generation is exactly what he does with those physical gifts. Not content to ride out a string of pallid romantic comedies and paint-by-numbers dramas, Gosling is far more interested in turning his natural charms around on his audience. Whether as a hapless would-be family man in the upcoming Blue Valentine, or here, playing the unhinged son of one of New York’s most notorious real estate barons, Gosling is unafraid to surface the ugly inner demons of his characters.

This is all to say, he’s an actor who doesn’t play it safe, and never more so than in this role. Based on continuing real events (whatever that may mean at this point), director Andrew Jarecki (Capturing the Friedmans) has continued with his excursions in neo-reality with this murder mystery, based on the infamous Robert Durst saga. David Marks (Gosling) is the son of a New York real estate tycoon (Frank Langella), a man whose ruthlessness and corruption drove his wife to commit suicide in front of the then 7-year-old David. As the film begins, David, now in his mid-twenties, seems affable and guileless. He meets his future wife, Katie (Kirsten Dunst) after being sent out to her mid-town apartment in order to fix her kitchen sink. Determined to separate himself from his family, David marries Katie and opens a health food store in Vermont, but the idyll doesn’t last long: after a short while, he finally acquiesces to his father’s wishes and joins the family business in Manhattan. At first, Katie allows herself to get lost in the glamour and power of her in-laws’ wealth, but it’s not too long before cracks begin to open up in the façade. For one thing, her husband, always a little preoccupied, begins to harden; for another, his dominance of her gets more physical. He talks to himself, a steady stream of barely audible garble. By the time she disappears, it’s clear that David’s grip on sanity is fragile at best.

The film, written by Marcus Hinchey and Marc Smerling, uses as its base the known facts and testimony of many of the principles (throughout the film, we hear Durst’s testimony in his own defense in a separate murder trial), however Jarecki attempts to answer questions in this still-open case with a unnerving combination of heresay and speculation. The result is as if Oliver Stone were making a film on the assassination of Caesar: Engaging, yes, but impossible to fully trust. Removing that element, however, you can still appreciate the fine work turned in by the cast, especially Gosling, the always commanding Langella and, somewhat surprisingly, Dunst, who seems to have grown up considerably since her last on-screen appearance. Taken as a work of speculative fiction, the film is moody and compelling, I would just hate to see the filmmakers go to court with their evidence.

December 9, 2010
Film Review: The Tourist

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Dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck 
Score: 4.4

Just how many times has Angelina Jolie been referred to as “the target” in her films? For an Academy Award winning actress, she certainly seems content to play out an endless string of unstoppable assassin-type roles. With her almost cartoonish beauty — all absurdly swollen lips and verdant eye lashes — and her perpetual knowing smile, as if its all too painfully obvious how well everything will turn out for her, her character work can easily become an afterthought. Fortunately for her, in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s puffball of a spy thriller, she’s not required to do much more than wear that grating smile along with a giant wardrobe of fabulously expensive clothes and cavort around Western Europe enjoying the best of everything.

She plays Elise Clifton-Ward, a wealthy woman with a possibly criminal past, whose vanished boyfriend, Alexander Pierce, remains a most-wanted fugitive by Scotland Yard for stealing an enormous sum of money, from, among others, a very well-connected criminal (Steven Berkhoff), who has a penchant for killing anyone who comes anywhere close to crossing him. With her every move being observed by British authorities, lead by the impulsive Acheson (Paul Bettany), Ward receives a note from her lost lover while in Paris, asking her to head to Vienna by train and, on the trip, find someone of roughly his build with whom she can fool the authorities into thinking is him after his rumored facial reconstruction surgery. The mark she finds for this task is a lonely schoolteacher from Wisconsin, Frank Tupelo (Johnny Depp), whose wife has died and is looking — presumably — to drown his sorrows in the beauty of Italy. Naturally, Frank falls instantly for this ravishingly beautiful woman who seems to have stepped right out one of his spy novels, but before he knows it, he’s being chased and shot at by Russian thugs and sold out by Italian authorities.

The film moves quickly enough, enjoying its gorgeous surroundings, but as the plot groans on and the implausibilities pile on, it becomes increasingly difficult to appreciate it for what it does have: two of the biggest movie stars in the world cavorting in the world’s most beautiful cities. It didn’t work in this summer’s dreadful Knight & Day, and it certainly doesn’t work here, but for slightly different reasons. The film has every reason to remain coy about its main characters, you see, but in the process of setting up its (easily deduced) ‘twist’ ending, it robs its actors of having a chance to really embellish their roles. Depp can be one of our most gifted character actors when he’s given a character to display, but when he has to produce a basic everyman, his energy fades and he becomes just another pretty piece of scenery, like a Testarosa being forced to follow the 35 m.p.h. speed limit. Jolie, for all her looks and glamour, never bothers to dig any deeper into Elise than she has to, happy to let her elaborate make up and wardrobe do the work for her. “Women don’t like questions,” she tells Frank shortly after they first meet. Apparently, they don’t care to read the screenplays before accepting their roles, either.

October 29, 2010
Film Review: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

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Dir. Daniel Alfredson
Score: 3.3

So, Lisbeth Salandar, we are finally at the last of your adventures. I can’t say I’m altogether sorry to see them go, at least the cinematic editions. The two previous Girl films have been equal parts asinine, uneven, brutal and irritating, but they didn’t come close to being as dull and devoid of drama as this final installment. 

This film begins closely after the close of The Girl Who Played With Fire, wherein our diminutive, punky heroine, Lisbeth Salandar (Noomi Rapace) charged into her evil father’s compound, tried to kill him with an axe, got shot and beaten on, and watched as her equally evil half-brother slithered away from the authorities. The first hour of the film is mostly devoted to scenes of Lisbeth recuperating in a hospital bed just down the hallway from her wretched father, and many, many old men dressed in formalwear, meeting at various junctures and planning to silence her forever. We are again asked to pay attention to the imbecilic quasi-journo stylings of Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), as arrogant and insufferable as ever. He spends the entire film “gathering” evidence — though, in actuality, getting other people to procure the essential documents — and sporting his goddamn black leather coat all over the city. 

The plot continues on in this manner for some time. Lisbeth is due for an attempted murder trial — one the evil organization that backed her father hopes will leave her recommitted to a mental hospital — so, it’s up to her lawyer, Michael’s sister, to stave off the evil doers and free her gamine client. So, then, the second half of this interminable gumbo involves her trial, and all the good things that eventually happen for her. 

If there’s one unifying thread to the films, it’s the filmmakers insistence in streamlining and dumbing down all the particulars in order to move the story along as quickly as possible. The thing is, the result of all this gerrymandering only serves to show the idiocy of their interpretations. Thus, the evil octogenarian organization can employ only a geriatric assassin (who can’t even open Lisbeth’s hospital door for cripes’ sake), or a couple of dunderheaded “snipers,” who try to shoot their targets by walking into a busy restaurant and producing a gun long before they get to the table. The criminal trial, filled to the brim with hidden evidence produced at the last possible second, is equally inane.

Perhaps the greatest trick of all is to present Michael’s magazine, Millennium, as an essential bastion of journalistic truth and a trusted source of information for the entire country. As much lip service is played to computers and cell phones and Lisbeth’s uncanny hacking abilities, in the world of The Girl, it’s only a printed magazine that carries sufficient weight for Michael’s journalistic ambitions. 

July 9, 2010
Film Review: The Girl Who Played With Fire

Dir. Daniel Alfredson
Score: 4.9

Watching the second cinematic installment of Steig Larsson’s wildly popular novel trilogy, I was struck with a certain kind of filmic déjà vu. Almost all the flaws and weaknesses inherent in the first film, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, are once again at play in the second. Fans of the books might be able to better identify with the characters and ridiculous plot machinations, but everyone else, I suspect, will have better things to do

Our story begins, again, with Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), the waif-like computer security expert and former mental patient and rape victim. In the year since her last escapade with “super journalist” Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) in exposing a decades-old sexual murder scandal, the ever-loner has traveled around the world and set up shop in a beautiful enclave in the Caribbean. She returns to Stockholm only to settle some affairs, but before she knows it, she is suddenly implicated in a triple homicide spree and must go on the lamb while Blomkvist works to clear her name. The two of them, largely independent of each other, commence performing their investigation in only the most obvious and unconvincing ways: Blomkvist, in particular, though his fame as a kind of wonderkind reporter is brought up time and again, seems to acquire most of his important clues and information by guilelessly talking to two obvious sources and asking them utterly basic questions. Lisbeth, meanwhile, has somehow morphed herself into a kind of superagent ninja — at one point even needlessly painting her face like the Starchild from KISS for a beatdown of a possible lead. 

Once again, we are asked to believe a lengthy series of wildly improbable coincidences and half-baked clues that seem to fall out of the sky for our intrepid heroes. In one particularly galling sequence, Lisbeth travels out to the remote cabin of one of the murder victims to try and find some pertinent documents. The house has been fully ransacked, several times over by both villains and, presumably, police, but within several minutes Lisbeth finds them by actually looking in the house’s attic. It is this kind of meandering detail — lazy and uninspired — that renders the film ultimately flat and lifeless. It doesn’t improve matters that Mikael remains such a largely dislikable and pompous ass, striding arrogantly into every situation and never getting called out on it. The lone reason to watch remains Rapace, who again infuses Lisbeth with a cunning mixture of vulnerability and intractable will. Otherwise, at the risk of repeating myself, this Swedish import is much closer to a poorly constructed GM-era Saab than the sleek Volvo it imagines itself to be. 

March 19, 2010
Film Review: Mother (Madeo)

Dir. Joon-ho Bong

Score: 7.2

Joon-ho Bong’s new film begins in a swaying field of yellowed, tall grass. A woman comes up a small rise, staring into the camera, an intense, but inscrutable look in her eyes. Music softly fills in the background, and the woman begins a somewhat ridiculous series of dance gyrations, her face at turns severe, smiling and half-crazed. There is almost no way to read the scene. Comic? Tragic? Are we meant to find this woman peculiar, funny or regrettable? There’s simply no way of knowing, a feeling that echoes throughout this beguiling South Korean thriller.

The woman in question, known only as “mother,” (Hye-ja Kim), is an aging and somewhat neurotic piece of work, who spends her time at a small eastern medicine shop, filled with roots, dried plants and powders. We know very little of her, other than she seems to have no family other than her twenty-something son, Yoon Do-joon (Bin Won), of whom she is fiercely devoted. Do-joon isn’t slow, exactly, he’s not crazy, either, but he is an innocent, extremely eccentric, and more than a little flighty. He also has severe memory problems, things aren’t clear to him minutes after they happen, in order to recall details, he has to go through a ritual of rubbing his temples and concentrating. Thus, when he is suddenly accused of murdering a young schoolgirl late one night as he was returning from a night of heavy drinking, he can’t conjure up a clear picture of his innocence. His mother certainly can, even after he blithely signs his “confession” that will send him away to prison for years. In an attempt to prove her son’s innocence, she puts herself on the case, following leads and, in the process, taking things further than she would ever normally dare.

The single most striking element of this fascinating film is the mastery with which Joon-ho Bong (The Host) takes command of his film’s tone. At various times, it swings from comedy to drama to mystery almost effortlessly, sometimes combining more than one element at a time. It also travels in thoroughly unexpected trails, but never without justification. It plays a bit like Hitchcock through a David Lynch prism, projected onto a Pedro Almodóvar canvas. Joon-ho Bong employs a skillfully arch tone that slyly undercuts even some of the most dramatic scenes with oddly effective pinpoints of humor. And then similarly dots some of his more comedic scenes with touches of extreme pathos.

It also doesn’t hurt that his leads do such fine work. Hye-ja Kim, given an almost impossible task, makes her character believably desperate, pathetic and mesmerizingly fierce, without ever losing our sympathy. Bin Won, who plays Do-joon with an almost Johnny Depp-like deadpan, walks the faint line between incredibly affable and densely unknowable: We have no idea what he may be capable of. Still, the film is a veritable showcase for the talent of Joon-ho Bong, so in command of his craft that he can take enormous risks with his material and get away with them in ways you scarcely notice with the practiced ease of an accomplished magician.

March 19, 2010
Film Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Dir. Niels Arden Oplev

Score: 5.6

Much has been written of late about the Swedes recent sneaky appropriation of Hollywood formulas and tropes for their burgeoning film industry. Their filmmaking machinery does appear to be on a roll with the rampant success of the stark, atmospheric horror film Let the Right One In and the mordantly gritty neo-western Terribly Happy. And now, the dopey, follow-the-clues crime thriller gets its turn in the cold, Nordic sun. The problem is, these films didn’t just borrow the formulas from Hollywood, they’ve also inherited many of the same clumsy plot devices and uninspiring character arcs of these American archetypes. 

To wit, this loopy two-and-a-half hour long escapade by Niels Arden Oplev. Based on the best selling novel by the late former journalist Stieg Larsson, the plot begins with two distinct and separate strands: In one, a renowned journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) recently falsely convicted of libel, is hired to investigate the baffling 40 year old disappearance of a wealthy young woman by her doting uncle, Henrik (Sven-Bertil Taube). In the other, a young goth woman, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), who works as a computer hacker for a security company, has to contend with her new guardian (a kind of PO), who uses his position of authority to commit heinous sexual acts upon her. Naturally, the two main characters eventually cross paths — they team up to solve the case and become romantically entangled in the process. 

As a far-fetched thriller, the film offers many of the standards of the genre — red herrings, peculiar coincidences, withering lapses of logic, and obvious fake outs — in addition to unusually brutal scenes of rape, torture and bloodletting. The result is an odd and unpleasant mishmash, like a Nutter Butter dipped in motor oil. A cheesy Hollywood-style film, with the added bonus of creepy sexuality and physical violence (a gruesome byproduct of a country whose gun restriction laws are admirably adamant: crazed psychopaths have to find new and inventive hands-on ways to murder people).

It certainly doesn’t help that the murder mystery is more idiotic than transfixing. As the two heroes go about the business of rapidly solving a case that police, journalists and other private investigators were absolutely unable to crack over four decades — apparently it helps to have Google as your primary source of missing persons information — the film speeds up its pace in order to avoid having to explain the many narrative leaps and plunges it proceeds to take. As successful as these films have been, it’s clear that, in the process, the Swedes have picked up many of Hollywood’s worst habits. 

February 26, 2010
Film Review: The Ghost Writer

Dir. Roman Polanski

Score: 6.7

The first question that comes to mind watching Roman Polanski’s latest thriller — set mainly in a dreary, off-season Cape Cod — is where did they film the damn thing? (Germany, it turns out, was suitably downcast for the role). Polanski, a convicted sex offender, fled the country more than 30 years ago and hasn’t stepped foot on American soil since. The context is significant, and not just because the film is about a disgraced former British Prime Minister about to be tried for war crimes, forced into holing up abroad.

As the film opens, the former PM in question, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), has been hard at work defending his name and trying to write his memoirs, only his original ghost writer has turned up drowned in the Atlantic. Thus, a newly dispatched writer (Ewan McGregor, referred to as The Ghost), is paid very handsomely to take over the project. The Ghost isn’t on the job long before Lang gets indicted for having extradited suspected terrorists from Britain to foreign soil for torture purposes. This puts even more strain on his relationship with his wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), and adds pressure to the Ghost’s situation, as he tries to unravel the mystery surrounding his predecessor’s death.

For all his acknowledged issues, Polanski, who during postproduction on the film was himself finally placed under house arrest in Switzerland before extradition hearings to finally come back to the States, remains an accomplished and vital filmmaker. The weight of the political thriller genre rests largely in the tone and pace of its convolutions, and Polanski has made a daring throw-back here. Details, from the Ghost’s confusion at a car’s keyless entry system, to the manner in which pebbles scatter loosely from under a bike tire, are duly noted, creating an atmosphere of naturalism even as the situations of the film become more and more unreal. But where Polanski’s hand is most assured is in the film’s pace, never hurried or anxious, nor languid and ponderous, instead it becomes the driving force of a thriller so confident in its execution, it doesn’t have to rely on the obsequious slight of hand of Hollywood’s more garish and cynical versions. It is also the keen touch of a masterful filmmaker. He might soon be returning to the U.S. as a convicted criminal, but we can’t take away the fact that this 77-year-old can still cook.

November 6, 2009
Film Review: The Box

Dir. Richard Kelly

Rating: 3.3

Just three films into his career, is it fair to label Richard Kelly a one-hit wonder? The writer/director of Donnie Darko, has, in the eight years since his original cult fave, made the frenetically and stylistically over-the-top Southland Tales and now this woefully ineffectual thriller.

After the convoluted hodge-podge of Southland, the seeming simplicity of this film’s premise seemed to hold some promise: A mysterious stranger (Frank Langella) shows up at a family’s doorstep, offers them a strange wooden box with a button on top and tells them if they push it they will receive a million dollars — and someone they don’t know will die. Unfortunately, the initial concept quickly gets mired, both in a cipher-filled plot (which Darko fans will well recognize) and, as in Southland, a curiously kitschy sense of humor. Kelly doesn’t do his cast many favors, leaving them to flounder with the material: Cameron Diaz, playing the sweet-but-doleful wife, attempts a southern accent that comes straight from a Lil’ Abner cartoon (life = “laaf”), while James Marsdon, the husband, is apparently some kind of NASA scientist, but drives around a corvette and has his hair blown into a perpetual fuzzy ball over his forehead.

Set in Richmond, VA, the citizens, many of whom come to be involved in this ridiculous set up, are notably idiotic-looking. The thing is, it’s hard to tell whether Kelly is in on the joke or not. He is fond of going for a high degree of difficulty, tone-wise, but you have to wonder if, like an overtaxed pitcher who’s lost the strike zone, he is no longer able to paint the corners of his multi-faceted contraptions. Are the nosebleeds that all the characters seem to have meant to strike you as funny, scary or neither? Is the ridiculous ascot that Diaz wears meant to evoke the mid-’70s, when the film is set, or remind you of the terrible stewardess uniforms on a bargain-basement airline?

The magic of Darko — though greatly diminished in the too transparent director’s cut — is that it laid out a believable reality and left just enough clues for you to fill in the rest. Here, Kelly lays far more information on you than you could possibly want, offering up a strenuously tedious explanation in the process. The box is a test of our morality, you see, only this “test” — with a stranger coming to your door and making an entirely unbelievable offer without giving any option of corroboration — is far less a test of human ethical concern and more an exercise in human gullibility. So much for that survey sample.

May 15, 2009
Film Review: Angels & Demons

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Dir. Ron Howard
Score: 3.1

The Catholic Church has obviously got to Dan Brown. How else to explain just how far out of their way he goes to excuse the Church and provide it with ample PR in the form of this dreary, nonsensical thriller — Brown’s sequel to the wildly successful Da Vinci Code.

Again, director Ron Howard and author Brown see fit to drag Harvard Prof Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and his barely-perceptible quasi mullet to the Vatican, only this time it’s to help the Church out in its hour of need. The pontiff has died, leaving a gathering of the Cardinals to elect a new pope, only four Cardinals have been kidnapped, supposedly by a centuries-old underground organization known as the Illuminati, hell-bent on revenge for the Church’s persecution of scientists whose theories don’t bend to the Catholic theology. Coincidentally, a small amount of extremely powerful anti-matter has been stolen out of a top-secret science facility, and has been placed, bomb-style, somewhere in Rome, set to detonate unless a fantastic amount of unspecified money is wired to the kidnappers.

Helping Langdon out this go round is one of the anti-matter scientists, Vittoria (Ayelet Zurer), ostensibly to help diffuse the bomb when found, but mostly to echo every idea out of Langdon’s head as absolutely dead-on right and to look fabulous in a tight black dress. In search of the missing Cardinals and the bomb, our heroes run pell-mell through Rome, always with Langdon making some obvious, cataclysmic observation that inevitably leads them right to the next clue. One of the trite tricks the film continuously serves us is whatever Langdon says happens to be dead on the money (“This is it!” he bellows confidently time and again) . So little time is wasted solving clues and riddles, it seems impossible that the secret location of the Illuminati hadn’t been discovered for four hundred years and not by a illiterate six-year-old sheepherder.

That’s not the hardest part of this lackluster tripe to swallow, either. It is not giving away much to say that the kidnapping scheme is only but a small part of a larger — absolutely, spot-on idiotic — caper that turns everything on its head at the expense of any conceivable plausibility. As for the Church, they come across far more benevolent and wise than in Brown’s previous novel, culminating in an absolutely embarrassing monologue about the power of the Church by the acting Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor) to the Cardinals deep in conclave. Not sense James Earl Jones asinine “the one constant is Baseball, Ray” speech in Field of Dreams has any mouthful of uttered dialogue rang as completely false and unjustified.

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