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Shared Darkness

A Communal Life in Film, Examined

The Watchword Bible

Author Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code
has captivated millions of readers since publication, and its big
screen adaptation, starring Tom Hanks, stands poised to do the same
this summer. But The Watchword Bible seeks to tap into an even bigger and more dedicated community: a Christian constituency looking for some faith-based Da Vinci Code counter-programming.

The Bible
was written over a period of many hundreds of years, by more than 30
different authors. Standing in starkest contrast to some of the
theoretical postulations of The Da Vinci Code is the Book of Acts, scripted by Luke circa 63 A.D. The Watchword Bible
is spread out over 10 separate discs, but it’s this book that most
centrally examines the days following the crucifixion and death of
Jesus of Nazareth.

Narrated by Don Wadsworth, The Watchword Bible is, in
reality, an interesting act of straddling the line between
proselytizing and entertainment.
Simply put, it offers forth a sort of
picture-book realization of the Scripture. Large-type white text —
alternating with the color yellow, which indicates spoken quotes within
the passages — unfolds serenely over thematically linked pastoral and
historical city shots. There are no Unsolved Mystery-style dramatic reenactments or desultory silent acting. Indeed, The Watchword Bible
doesn’t personalize Caiaphas, John, Peter or Alexander, and it
generally eschews humans entirely in favor of more scenic and
picturesque environments.

The end result is oddly both emotionally distancing and
slightly fascinating and mesmerizing
, just because of how different an
experience it is. For those who chafe at reading and find Biblical
texts particularly taxing on their focus or attention, The Watchword Bible
and its convenient chapter stops allow for viewing in bite-sized
morsels. Viewed in this manner, or even wholesale, the stories have an
extra layer of magnitude when you allow them to be dictated to you. For
those hungry for more information about the apostles secret meetings
after Jesus’ death and other mysteries of that era, The Watchword Bible offers an interesting new way to explore and grapple with these age-old questions.

Though not yet available at traditional retailers, The Watchword Bible
comes housed in regular Amray cases like other DVD releases, and is
presented in full screen with an English mono audio track, though there
are unfortunately no supplemental extras
. A more mainstream commercial
release may be timed to The Da Vinci Code’s own DVD bow later this fall. B- (Movie) C- (Disc)

Robert Altman Collection

The explosion in popularity of the DVD format has created a new set of both opportunities and challenges for studios eager to exploit their back catalogues. For every comprehensive set like Warner Bros.’ recent Bette Davis Collections, there’s another — or, truth be told, probably three or four — weirdly cobbled together affairs, a rationalized way for studios to justify the cost of releasing marginal or niche titles. Ladies and gentlemen, meet 20th Century Fox’s Robert Altman Collection.

Altman has always been known as a bit of an iconoclast, a savvy corruptor of studio policy and preference. Actors love him because his films are partly mapped out, partly of-the-moment discovered treasures, yet this makes for not only tremendous financial risk, generally speaking, but also a filmography as hit-and-miss as it is narratively diverse. Any representative career sampling, then, is bound to include some highs and lows, even within the same movie. A quartet of diverse flicks makes up this Robert Altman Collection; two are rated R, two are rated PG. The biggest hit of the bunch, 1970’s Best Picture Oscar nominee M*A*S*H, is the odd film out here, and in some ways the least essential, or at least the least related to the rest of the lessons this set teaches us.

Starring Mia Farrow, Lauren Hutton, Carol Burnett, Desi Arnaz, Jr. and silent film legend Lillian Gish, 1978’s A Wedding evidences the director’s abiding love of shaggy ensembles over all else, telling the story of a handsome rogue and blushing bride-to-be whose nuptials are intersected by an obsessed wedding planner, a drunken doctor, meddling relatives and a beleaguered priest. A few moments pop out, but the movie is overall terribly self-indulgent and meandering. A Perfect Couple, from the following year, is a relationship companion piece of sorts, in that Altman cooked up the nascent idea of two young lovers (Marta Heflin and Paul Dooley) tripping through an unusual courtship on the aforementioned film. Formless and just as sprawling, at 111 minutes, it’s a movie that doesn’t live up to its title, but it does score points for astutely predicting the ascendancy of computer dating services.

Those wondering why Paul Newman doesn’t or didn’t do more science-fiction movies, meanwhile, will find their answer in 1979’s Quintet. The salad dressing and popcorn pitchman stars alongside Brigitte Fossey in a film billed as “one man against the world,” no doubt an attempted evocation of his Cool Hand Luke character. Thing is, this is just a weird, weird film. Set against a windswept, post-apocalyptic Ice Age, its characters all live to play — like, literally — a backgammon-inspired board game, created just for the Montreal-shot movie, in which the loser is then murdered. As the brooding Essex, Newman looks mightily unhappy under his Davy Crockett coonskin cap and fur-meets-burlap rags, and not without cause. The bizarre incongruity of it all carries you along for about 20 minutes, but that unfortunately still leaves 100 minutes more. “The thrill is just the magic of it, of making someone sit in their chair for two hours and be curious,” explains Altman in an interview featurette at film’s end. Well, Bob, the sitting, yes. The rest… not so much.

Altman’s audio commentary track, a still photo gallery and the AMC Backstory episode on the film complement the M*A*S*H disc, but the real, if adjusted and to-scale, windfall lies in brief featurettes on the other films that include up-to-date interviews with Altman, his prop master/production designer son Stephen, editor Dennis Hill and others from his steadfastly loyal production team. They’re remarkably frank and wide-ranging, and give crystalline insight into the auteur’s reasoning and thought processes, even if the final product doesn’t meet its intended mark. For filmmakers as risk takers, Altman is an emboldening, sterling example. To purchase the DVD set via Amazon, click here. C (Movies) B (Discs)

These Girls

No disrespect, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel
fans, but David Boreanaz is one of those of those actors who, if he
hadn’t gotten his big break on the small screen, couldn’t sniff a role
as a lead in a theatrical feature
. His eyes limpid pools of
sensitive-guy yearning, his chest properly Soloflex-toned, Boreanaz is
most successful because he’s an empty vessel for (mostly female)
audience projection
. Absent a compelling serial arc, though, or a
strong authorial presence in the form of puppet master like Joss
Whedon, you’re left with nothing more than a blank canvas, as the wan,
butt-baring, Canadian sexual comedy These Girls evidences.

Provincial
girls Keira St. George (Caroline Dhavernas) and baseball-loving Jesus
freak Lisa McDougall (Holly Lewis) catch their friend Glory Lorraine
(Amanda Walsh) in the sack one evening with Keith Clark (Boreanaz), a
scruffy, married pot-grower with a young infant and a wife whose
night-shift schedule as a nurse affords him plenty of unsupervised
recreational time. Their own burgeoning sexual curiosity piqued, they
each in turn seduce Keith. Glory finds out and is furious, but the
three eventually find salvaged accord in a unique “joint custody”
program in which they share bed time with him.

Written and directed by John Hazlett, These Girls ascribes
arbitrary traits to its characters, particularly the underwritten
Keith
, who wows one girl by… pulling a knife on some 13-year-olds who
are non-threateningly heckling another kid. Wow, how chivalrous! The
movie tries to mine comedy from Keith’s sexual weariness, but it
doesn’t really work. The fetching Dhavernas (who would also turn in
good work in the unfortunately short-lived Wonderfalls) is by
far the best of the three actresses, but none of them really
convincingly pass for teenagers — the use of posed cigarettes and
retainers for props notwithstanding — and horrible voiceover narration
only further highlights the parade of obviousness already on display
. A
desultory score is credited to Ned Bouhalassa, Peter Hay and Polo,
though pop act Tegan and Sara’s “Walking with a Ghost” provides a pinch
of vibrancy, however brief.

What else… oh, right, the butt-baring.
Yes, Boreanaz drops reverse-trou at one point, and stands prone in his
underwear another time. Didn’t do much for me personally, but there you
have it, ladies
.
The film is presented in a clear, 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen
transfer, with no grain or discoloration that sometimes mar independent
releases. English 2.0 stereo and English Dolby digital 5.1 audio mixes
ably complement the visuals, but there are no additional bonus
features, save some preview trailers for other Ardustry releases. D (Movie) C- (Disc)

In Living Color: Season Five

The
idea of a sketch comedy show with Jim Carrey, Chris Rock and Jamie Foxx
is enough to send shivers of anticipation running through most folks,
but it’s already happened
, about a dozen years ago on the fifth season
of In Living Color. That reunion would cost you, what, around
$35 million right off the top these days? And that’s not even counting
David Alan Grier and his Ambien prescription
.

An unruly, irreverent half-hour show, In Living Color
was the brainchild of Keenan Ivory Wayans, and it was the perfect match
for the upstart Fox Network. By the fall of 1993 and into ’94, Keenan,
his brother Damon and his sister Kim had all departed — the result of
various contract and creative squabbles — but the series still employed
a few original cast members, including Carrey, Grier and Tommy
Davidson, to go along with a new roster that included Alexandra
Wentworth, Anne-Marie Johnson, Marc Wilmore, Reggie McFadden and
others. Rock, meanwhile, migrated over from Saturday Night Live to do a bit of part-time night-player work.

This season honestly isn’t the show’s best, as it showcases the
difficulty of sketch comedy in the half-hour format unless comedic
capriciousness is fully embraced
, a la David Cross and Bob Odenkirk’s Mr. Show. There’s a funny if too brief African-Americanized send-up of The Mary Tyler Moore Show,
and the idea of a talk show built around the illegitimate black
children of white celebrities — wherein Carrey delivers a perfectly
unctuous turn as Geraldo Rivera — similarly runs out of steam after
just scratching the surface potential of its conceit. These partially
birthed bits are most emblematic of the show’s struggles, but the
series also has a tendency to infuse overt “wackiness” into basically
funny ideas, as it does in Grier’s “Loomis Simmons: Custom Built
Condoms,” about a small businessman/sexual pinch hitter.

Foxx and Tommy Davidson’s recurrent “Ace and the Main Man” sketches,
in which they hold forth as chattering security guards at a variety of
locations, don’t particularly hold up as anything more than unfunny
placeholders for a clutch of celebrity cameos
(Tupac’s is refreshing,
though for all the wrong reasons — Johnny Gill’s, not so much). Among
the bits that do sustain an edge are an “Ike Turner &
Hooch” bit, interrupted by fake news coverage of white looting after
the Reginald Denny case verdict, and “Jerry Seinfeld in the Ghetto,” in
which Carrey pontificates: “Projects? Looking at the state of it, I
hope they’re grading on a curve” and, “Why do they call it ‘the hood’?
Is it like the entire city’s a big sweatshirt and that’s the part you
pull over your head? What… is the deal?” Likewise, some of the musical
segments (Us3, Souls of Mischief, Me’Shell NdegeOcello, Leaders of the
New School) are bracing because so there’s so little performance
footage on some of these acts
.

Housed on three double-sided discs in slimline cases stored in turn in a cardboard slipcase, all 26 episodes of In Living Color: Season Five
are presented in 1.33:1 full frame, with English 2.0 stereo mix and
optional English and Spanish subtitles. There was some uproar,
previously, over the fact that the DVD releases of the series featured
abridged episodes, trimmed for syndication.
The packaging on In Living Color: Season Four
more clearly advertised that fact, but we’re back here to a policy of
don’t ask, don’t tell, and I honestly can’t discern whether or not
these are the condensed versions, though I suspect they are.
Furthermore, there are still no supplemental extras to add additional
value to the set. While it’s obvious that the major headliners (and
even probably Grier) have busy schedules and better things to do with
their time, it’s a shame that some of the series’ writer-producers
weren’t corralled for commentary tracks or retrospective interviews. In Living Color was a trailblazing series in its own right, and while it’s quite nice to get full-season releases (paging Lorne Michaels and Saturday Night Live!), they deserve to go out on a higher, slightly better-packaged note than here. B- (Show) C- (Disc)

Delicatessen

French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet stepped boldly into the arthouse spotlight with Amelié, starring Audrey Tatou, but it was 1991’s Delicatessen,
co-directed with Marc Caro, that authoritatively established his
elaborate visual style and its delicate counterbalancing with gross-out
gags and broader slapstick elements.
(Hey, it’s no coincidence that
ex-Monty Python member Terry Gilliam presented the movie’s American
release). Already a deserved cult classic that will find welcome
reception among those who similarly favor Gilliam’s cinematic trinkets,
Delicatessen, with its unusual mix of tones, is worth a look for
those who enjoy their comedy dark and deadpan, but with nonetheless a
pinch of fanciful optimism
.

Set in a post-apocalyptic, 21st century Paris where food is scarce (sorry, though, no Kevin Costner), Delicatessen
unfolds chiefly within the confines of a single apartment complex owned
by a man named Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), who also operates the
downstairs butcher shop. Bartering with locals for other goods and
services, Clapet keeps everyone fed by cycling through and chopping up
a steady stream of drifters who take work in his dilapidated deli. The
latest to answer his newspaper ad is a pliant young former circus
clown, Louison (Dominique Pinon), who is, of course, completely unaware
that Clapet plans to serve him up to the building’s bizarre coterie.
Things change when the butcher’s nearsighted daughter Julie
(Marie-Laurie Dougnac), who buys two of everything to stave off all the
inevitable accidents that befall her, falls for Louison and goes to
abundant lengths to systematically foil her father’s plans.

Jeunet and Caro devised the story with comic book writer Gilles
Adrien, and the latter’s exaggerated sense of action definitely helps
inform the movie’s unique sensibility
. The performances are all top
notch, impressing an air of theatricality upon the filmmakers’ definite
humanist leanings. Delicatessen teases up the absurdity of its
cannibalistic premise to dizzying heights, and yet also succeeds in
locating the unlikely whimsicality therein.

Housed in a regular Amray case, Delicatessen is presented in
1.85:1 widescreen enhanced for 16×9 televisions, with a Dolby digital
surround sound original language track and optional English and Spanish
subtitles. The transfer captures the darker chocolates, golds, greens
and other murky hues of Jeunet’s frame, and the audio presentation is
leaps and bounds better than the movie’s previous VHS tape
incarnations, allowing for a fuller appreciation of Jeunet’s sterling
sound design, wherein there’s a sound or three for every gag.

Supplemental extras include a French-language audio commentary track
with Jeunet, meaning American audiences will have to double down on the
subtitles
to hear his thoughts on Stateside filmmaking and his own
directorial shortcomings. There’s also a 13-minute making-of
featurette
, “Fine Cooked Meats,” and around eight minutes of screen
tests
, rehearsal footage and the like. The original theatrical trailer
and a collection of other teaser advertising materials rounds out the
disc. B+ (Movie) B (Disc)

If Only

If Only Jennifer Love Hewitt would return my calls. If Only Jennifer Love Hewitt would revoke the restraining order against me. Ahh
yes, then we could make beautiful music together… or at least films
with a bit more personality than this anonymous 2004 confection, in
which she stars, co-produces and even performs two songs featured in
the movie.

If I seem to have an unnatural or unbecoming
affinity for “Love,” it’s only because I appreciate her utterly
refreshing self-awareness in an industry where all too often young
actors and actresses fall victim to all sorts of delusion and inflated
grandeur
. Pleasant and unaffected, Hewitt exudes both a professional
sense of responsibility and a down-to-Earth charm — she gets
the nature of her appeal (yes, boobs and all) and has fun with it.
She’s a real girl with real curves, real personality and no diva-esque
drama. If only more starlets were like her.

Efficaciously shot on location in London, If Only is a sort of slightly more wishy-washy version of Sliding Doors.
It provides a decently rangy vehicle for Hewitt — who’s quite good,
actually — but there’s little else of dramatic heft here. Hewitt plays
Samantha Andrews, an impetuous American music teacher and aspiring
singer-songwriter living in a tidy English flat with her workaholic
boyfriend Ian Wyndham (Paul Nicholls, out-blanding oatmeal). When he
won’t reward her surprise morning gift of a leather jacket with a
proper boinking, and accompany her on a forthcoming back to the States
to meet her mother, she feels neglected. This and other stressors
eventually lead to a fight and the couple’s near break-up. Shortly
after, that same evening, Samantha is in a horrible car accident (In the Bedroom’s
Tom Wilkinson costars as the fated cabbie) and dies. In the second half
of the movie, a grief-stricken Ian gets a once-in-a-lifetime
opportunity to relive the tragic day all over again in the hopes of
changing the events that led up to Samantha’s death. There are kisses
in the rain, of course, but can there be a happy ending for all
involved?

If Only is directed by Gil Junger, a television veteran who made the swing into features with 2001’s Black Knight,
starring Martin Lawrence. It’s decent in terms of general production
value, but definitely shows its ABC Family television movie roots in
the conventional staging and an overly maudlin score from Adrian
Johnston. Hewitt is certainly a welcome sight in her Hanes, and again,
she gets an expansive character arc to enjoy — from love-strung but
ebullient to full-blown teary breakdown, which she conveys surprisingly
movingly. The film’s dramatic track, however, feels wan and
predetermined
.

Housed in a regular Amray case, If Only is presented only in
1.33:1 full screen, with an English 5.1 Dolby digital surround sound
track; subtitles in only English and French further blunt the movie’s
international appeal amongst hopeless romantics. If Only there were some supplemental features, even a few EPK-style interview tidbits. C (Movie) D (Disc)

On Mascara and Christian Tele-Conservatism

Inside Deep Throat didn’t. Equally revelatory and
entertaining
, the film overcomes Tammy Faye’s uncomfortably screwy public
persona — she still flies the freak banner high here, but a little less
gloriously — by offering what will be for many viewers their first unprocessed
glimpse of Tammy Faye’s unfettered spirituality, which while so hard to accept
at face value in reductive media snippets here informs her character and comes
off as altogether genuine. Tammy Faye is thus resurrected, unlikely though it
may seem, as a sensitive, sympathetic and generally good-hearted martyr who
found herself in over her head, and paid with the sort of complete humiliation
that only a 24-hour cable news cycle world can dispense.

The film opens by detailing its subject’s childhood and her April Fool’s Day
marriage (a telling date, some would say) to an earnest young itinerant preacher
named Jim Bakker. After watching their successful local children’s TV show fold,
the two went on to launch The 700 Club, the first Christian talk show of
its kind. A dream of Jim’s, it was an afterthought as part of a deal with Jerry
Falwell for the pair to create and oversee another children’s show based around
their puppet characters — a sort of Mr. and Mrs. Bakker’s Neighborhood,
if you will. Both were successful, but it was the former that became a
phenomenal worldwide hit over satellite and cable outlets before Jim and Tammy
Faye were ousted acrimoniously.

The couple then started Praise the Lord, another Christian cable TV venture.
The response was huge; Jim and Tammy Faye were bonafide small screen stars, and
their dreams of a non-denominational Christian empire culminated in the
construction of Heritage USA, a sprawling, immaculately designed resort and
water theme park. Soon though, PTL turned into a never-ending telethon, with
Bakker claiming that he needed to raise three or four million dollars a week
just to stay afloat. Uncertain with the direction of it all and stricken with
panic attacks, Tammy Faye developed an addiction to painkillers. Proving tragedy
and comedy often come in threes, the PTL dream then came crashing down in a hail
of embezzled donations, bitter feuding, familial back-biting and, of course,
Bakker’s notorious sex scandal with Jessica Hahn, amusingly rendered here with
an interview and, umm, artistic footage from her Playboy home video.

Though the filmmakers have an obvious affection for their subject, The
Eyes of Tammy Faye
is relatively even-handed in its presentation of opinion,
if not necessarily the most deep-digging piece of entertainment journalism.
Bailey and Barbato stock their film with production bells and whistles both
playful (sock puppet bumpers introduce scenes with thematic cards like “A Star
Is Born” and “Love at First Sight”) and grandiose (Falwell’s kiss-off press
conference in which he claimed the Bakkers were attempting to extort money from
PTL plays complete with slow motion and shrieking music of betrayal). There’s
also a terrific sense of humor and chiding juxtaposition throughout. In one
scene, Tammy Faye explains that she’s kicked prescription pain killers and all
other addictions — except for Diet Coke, which can’t be that bad since it’s a
habit she shares with President Clinton, who is then seen tersely sipping a
frosty one during his Monica Lewinsky deposition.

It may seem strange to call a film like The Eyes of Tammy Faye
explosive, but that’s just what it is — a fascinating, cathartic,
from-the-ground-up reconstruction of an American pariah
, and a full-bodied,
three-dimensional look at one of the more outrageous personalities of the
opening salvos of a culture war that’s still raging in this country.

Goal! The Dream Begins

BBC import Footballer’s Wives, minus the wives and further recalibrated to PG-style melodrama. (Yes, this means there is
an explosive argument in which one character chafes at parental counsel
by belting out that he wants his “own life.”) If soccer doesn’t have
quite the stranglehold in the United States that it does around the
rest of the world, it won’t matter for the core audience of this
attractively shot underdog’s tale.

The story centers on a
hard-working illegal immigrant living in Los Angeles, Santiago Munez

(Kuno Becker). Having snuck across the border with his family when he
was but a child, Santiago finds his opportunities severely limited. He
works as a dishwasher and does landscaping with his father, Hernan
(Tony Plana), but his real passion is soccer, which he plays with a
local club team. One afternoon, former British player turned freelance
scout Glen Foy (Stephen Dillane) witnesses Santiago’s tremendous innate
talent
and pitches him on trying out for Newcastle United. Against the
edict of his practical father, Santiago heads to England, courtesy of
clandestine travel arrangements booked by his loving grandmother.
There, Santiago hooks up with Foy and promptly botches his first
audition, on a muddy pitch in the driving rain — much different
conditions than he’s used to in L.A.

Foy prevails upon reluctant Coach Erik Dornhelm (Marcel Iures),
however, to give Santiago another shot, and Santiago eventually makes
the practice squad
. While the Newcastle A-team and its party-happy new
star, Gavin Harris (Alessandro Nivola, deploying sly, dark charm),
makes a late-season push to try to salvage a playoff birth, Santiago
must negotiate standoffish teammates, a coach trying to teach him the
value of a pass and his own secret struggle with asthma, all while
wooing nurse Roz Harmison (Anna Friel).

Impressively staged outdoor action mixes in energetic club tracks
from Kasabian, The Perceptionists, Unkle, Supercharger and deejay Paul
Oakenfold. One of the interesting things about the movie is that casual
viewers have less of a relationship with the sport of soccer through
predetermined television angles
than baseball or (American) football,
which somewhat feeds the match excitement. Unfortunately, though,
there’s a lot of character-rooted drama, and it’s here that director
Danny Cannon — who’s made good coinage on all the various iterations of
CSI — is less successful. Granted, he’s saddled with a cobbled
together script that too often doubles back to validate twice over
Santiago’s choices
; one sequence, in which he explains to Coach
Dornhelm why he’s chosen to remain with his teammates in the face of
grave family circumstances, is immediately and pointlessly followed by
a phone conversation with his grandmother in which she declares,
“You’re right, it’s God’s will.” Worse still is a score by Graeme
Revell that swells disagreeably during these melodramatic moments
,
feeding the movie’s overly demonstrative style.

Savvy casting helps Goal! trump its formula. Iures strikes just the right balance between taskmaster and mentor, and Becker (Imagining Argentina, Mexican television’s popular Soñadoras),
if honestly a bit one-note, has a certain magnetic charm to match his
perfectly boyish good looks. Brief cameos by David Beckham, Sven-Göran
Eriksson, Raul Gonzalez Blanco and other soccer stars, but most
importantly the sanctioning of governing body FIFA, lends the movie a
rooted authenticity that’s missing in many Hollywood sports films. If
underdog tales are your screen soft spot, you’ll likely be hollering Goal! (Touchstone, PG, 117 mins.)

Poseidon

“Strange” might be one of the best ways to describe director
Wolfgang Petersen and Warner Bros.’ streamlined, mega-budget
refashioning of producer Irwin Allen’s 1972 capsized-ocean-liner flick The Poseidon Adventure. “Unsuccessful” might be another.

While
its reduction in handle was dictated from on high by marketing folks
(“One-word titles sell better internationally,” Petersen says he was
told), dropping the surname might be a good idea given the movie’s
rather stark depictions of mass disaster as mass entertainment in a
more on-edge, post-Sept. 11 world. (While its graphic nature isn’t
sustained, the movie’s PG-13 rating is borderline generous, considering
that dozens of people are engulfed in flame, and electrocutions and
tumbling corpses are seen en masse.) There’s air-quote adventure here,
but it’s hardly of the swash-buckling type.
No, the interesting thing
about the spatially challenged Poseidon is how closely it hews,
emotionally speaking, to another genre: the slasher flick. Inexorably
on the rise, water comes off as a faceless stalker here
, dispatching in
like fashion members of a thinly sketched ensemble with swift (sans
credits, the movie is just under an hour and a half) if generally less
dispassionate focus than any number of masked psychotic killers.

Emmy Rossum)
and her boyfriend Christian (Mike Vogel); Maggie James (Jacinda
Barrett) and her 9-year-old son Conor (Jimmy Bennett); galley waiter
Valentin (Freddy Rodriguez) and his stowaway companion Elena (Mia
Maestro
); and Richard Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss), a well-to-do, older
gay man despondent over the recent dissolution of his longtime
relationship.

Unlike some of its ’70s-era ancestors, Poseidon isn’t glib or
kitschy, but it is marked by some puzzling inconsistencies and lapses
in logic, which help spur feelings of tonal vertigo
. As the ship’s
captain, Andre Braugher has to deliver a bizarre speech in which he
holds forth about “man emerging from the salty depths,” and intones
that the ancient marine deity Poseidon “made his home on the ocean
floor.” (Wow, nice foreshadowing.) Faced with questions from fellow
passengers after the catastrophe, meanwhile, Josh Lucas has to suffer
the indignity of huffishly barking the line, “Hey man, I work better on my own!”
Umm… all right.

A total pro and a veteran with oceanic mayhem from his experience with both Das Boot and The Perfect Storm,
Petersen crafts just a few sequences that really stick in your craw.
The ship’s capsizing feels like watching a human pinball machine, with
uniformed stunt-people bouncing to and fro in a manner that may prove
unnerving to some. Narratively, the film also benefits greatly from
some fresh, breathlessly paced decisions with regards to whom to kill
off
and when. In a time when it’s become increasingly easy to blindly
predict fatality based on character type and/or casting, Poseidon
presents a few head feints and at least some difficult choices/moments
for its charges, and this injects the proceedings with a few flashes of
tension largely missing in such fare. Poseidon’s pièce de
résistance, though, comes during a vertical shaft ascent
, in which the
group, with water rising beneath them, must wiggle through a confined
space and somehow smash through a locked grate. The claustrophobia here
is palpable.

Damningly, though, Poseidon lacks almost any contextual
clarity
. That the characters are almost all cardboard proxies is
forgivable, really, given that so much of what’s here as backstory is
awkward and/or awful. What the movie most vitally needs, then, is an
overview of its obstacle course, so that its headlong dash makes some
sense.
Instead, characters make loose, of-the-moment proclamations with
regards to their course of escape, and rip conveniently placed
emergency diagrams off the wall when cornered, instantly translating
that into actionable intelligence. Through ostensibly driven by Johns’
naval experience and Ramsey’s disaster preparedness, none of this
passes the smell test, and we as the audience have no sense of
differentiation from one room to the next. We just know what Klaus
Badelt’s score tells us, which is that… more water is coming
.

A slick tale of group-enabled heroics, Poseidon means to be,
in its own allegorical way, a celebration of humanity under duress,
presumably of the genus of the sort of quick thinking that helped save
lives during Hurricane Katrina and the attacks on the World Trade
Center. In actuality, though, it’s nothing more than a snuff film for a
higher income bracket
. (Warner Bros., PG-13, 98 mins.)

American Dad! Volume One

After his Fox sitcom Family Guy
underwent the fitful throes of its initial cancellation, creator Seth
MacFarlane and several writers moved on to a new animated series titled
American Dad!, a show whose kinship was on display for all to
see in the similarly sarcastically doting title
. While the former
series has returned to the air stronger than ever, American Dad!
has in turn held on tightly to the coattails of the Griffin family,
while also trying to put an anarchic, post-Sept. 11 comedic spin on the
American family. It’s not cynical posturing, either — MacFarlane was
initially scheduled to be on American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston,
one of the airplanes that hit the World Trade Center
.

American Dad!
centers around Stan Smith (voiced by MacFarlane), a super-conservative
CIA operative whose headstrong dedication to his country leads him to
read everything through Threat Level Red glasses — everyone’s a
terrorist and everything is a potential threat to national security.
His family consists of his wife Francine (voiced by Wendy Schaal); his
brainiac, lockstep son Steve (voiced by Scott Grimes); his daughter
Hayley (voiced by Rachel MacFarlane); and Roger (Seth MacFarlane
again), an alcoholic extraterrestrial living with the family. Yes, you
read that right. Oh, there’s also Klaus (voiced by Dee Bradley Baker),
a snippy goldfish with a German Olympian’s brain.

While its overall penchant for whimsical indulgence is definitely
cut from the cloth of MacFarlane’s other show, some other points of
character comparison are easy. Klaus is obviously to American Dad! what Stewie is to Family Guy,
namely a self-involved voicebox for ankle-nipping asides and
non-sequiturs; Roger, meanwhile, recalls Brian, both in his tipsiness
and status as sardonic family outsider. Tonally, there’s a good bit of
groping in the dark here
, as the series oscillates early on between
overtly topical humor and the sort of serial mayhem and silliness (sans
extended chicken fights, however) that is both Family Guy’s
strongest selling point and Achilles heel at times. To me, the
characters aren’t as strongly sketched, but some of its newsworthy
jokes score
. Thankfully, as things progress, Francine’s relationship to
Stan and Hayley’s disagreement with her father’s obstinate politics
become more pronounced and better sketched. Still, the show is pretty
out there (in Saudi Arabia, the family is sentenced to death by the
Office of Vice and Virtue), so it’s mostly fans of absurdist tangential
humor who will find something here to enjoy
.

MacFarlane’s Family Guy was, of course, legendarily
resuscitated by DVD, and subsequent releases have similarly gone the
extra mile to provide fans with a value-added experience, so it’s no
surprise that this release of American Dad! likewise takes full
advantage of the format. Housed in three slimline cases in a cardboard
slipcase, the series’ 13 episodes are presented in 1.33:1 full screen
with an English 5.1 Dolby surround mix and subtitles in English,
Spanish and French — the latter no doubt particularly disappointing to
Stan.

Genial audio-commentary tracks from MacFarlane and the writers
and voice cast stud all but one episode, and table reads and animatics
are also included
.
The real boon, though, comes in the form of a whopping 42 deleted
scenes, totaling around 15 minutes
. A making-of featurette, extended
promo spot and more only further extend the set’s exploration and
replay value
. Many commercial releases of the DVD will apparently
include a bonus disc, “Family Guy: Off the Cutting Room Floor,”
which includes more than two dozen deleted scenes from the fourth
season of that show. Check your local paper’s fliers and advertisements
for store-to-store availability. C+ (Show) A (Disc)

Walking the Bible

I just got back from Walking the Bible, and boy are my legs
tired.
Hey-O! Is this thing on? Seriously, you should never walk the
Bible without proper footwear. Oh yeah! When Walking the Bible, be sure to hydrate, lest you get stuck in the desert for 40 years, or turned into a pillar of salt. Zing!

The Chumscrubber

Is it a DVD review? A film review? It’s really kind of both, don’tcha know, originally published on IGN upon its release on DVD a few months back, and reproduced here in slightly truncated form since they are having trouble processing payments. To wit:

If Quentin Tarantino spawned a legion of talky Pulp Fiction knockoffs with neither the pop vitality nor storytelling savvy of his creations, it looks like the cult hit Donnie Darko might, a dozen years later, do the same thing on the indie scene — where plenty of hack “auteurs” have their eyes trained more on commercial break-out potentiality than narrative inventiveness. A sort of very poor man’s mash-up of that cult Richard Kelly hit, the American dystopias on display in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, and Ang Lee’s ’70s-set The Ice Storm, in which self-involved and just as screwed-up adults are told the truth at long last about adolescent goings-on, The Chumscrubber is a precocious, smarmy film that tries to spin surliness, dissonance and spurious coincidence into high art.



Written by Zac Stanford and directed by Arie Posin, the story is set in a sun-drenched, dusty Southwestern suburbia that may look like the American Dream on the surface but is actually rotting and corroded under the hood. When a high school student hangs himself, his death throws the community’s carefully maintained psychotropic balance into a state of panicked disarray. Said student’s putative best friend, Dean Stiffle (Jamie Bell), finds the body, but can barely manage a manifested reaction. Meanwhile, Crystal (The Ballad of Jack and Rose‘s Camilla Belle, above left), the punkish Billy (a glowering Justin Chatwin, above right, from War of the Worlds) and his sycophantic toadie Lee (Thumbsucker‘s Lou Taylor Pucci) together concoct a kidnapping scheme by which they’ll snatch Dean’s younger brother, Charlie (Rory Culkin), and hold him for ransom in exchange for Dean retrieving some needed pills from the room of his dead friend. Problem is, they grab the wrong Charlie, leading to further complications.

The adult characters in the film (including Glenn Close, John Heard, Rita Wilson and a dithering Ralph Fiennes, in bizarre grinning-idiot mode… perhaps recalling his own work in Maid in Manhattan?) are a collection of forgetful, self-obsessed neuroses, and the characterizations of its youthful ensemble are hardly better, pieced together from comfortable — if colorfully extrapolated — archetypes. The Chumscrubber attempts to ride a razor’s edge between sly, dark comedy and shadowy menace, but Posin accomplishes this chiefly through tossing together random bits of affectation, including computer-animated segments, distorted sound mix elements, weird interstitials and some admittedly nice Super-35 cinematography, from Lawrence Sher, which spotlights the film’s desert town setting. It all just seems to read “Bag of Tricks,” though — almost nothing in The Chumscrubber feels rooted or realistic, even within its own hyper-stylized world.

The only true light in this clumsy and dim affair, honestly, is Bell (Billy Elliot), who as the intelligent but obviously conflicted Dean — the rare high schooler who’s emotionally and psychologically moved on from the place before the constrictions of the temporal world have allowed his body to follow — casts a long, impressive shadow over the entire movie. His piercingly captivating performance may merit a rental for those who are big fans of the young actor, but honestly, otherwise you won’t be missing much.

Presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1 and enhanced for widescreen televisions, this single-disc release of The Chumscrubber, housed in a regular Amaray case, enjoys the benefits of a nice transfer. There are no signs of artifact or grain, and slight edge enhancement mars only one scene, a late act outdoor confrontation. Again, cinematographer Sher’s work is superb, and the clarity of his outdoor compositions is nicely preserved here. Two English language audio tracks anchor the movie — a Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound mix and a Dolby digital 2.0 surround sound mix. Dialogue is clean and consistent in both, but the aforementioned affectation of this well-mounted production is best serviced in the former. Subtitles in English, Spanish and French are also available.

A 12-minute making-of documentary kicks off The Chumscrubber‘s supplemental features, comprised solely of EPK-type, on-set interviews with cast and crew. (The exceptions are Posin and producers Lawrence Bender and Bonnie Curtis, who are interviewed post-filming.) While the range of these collected ruminations are impressive, their profundity is a half-inch deep. Perhaps the most perplexing and disturbing line is when Posin praises Bell’s performance and then mutters, “I hope he does the next one,” sending confused fears of a sequel running through one’s mind. There’s also an audio commentary track from Posin, and he here reveals himself to be a generally thoughtful fellow, if blind to the script’s flaws. More interesting than production anecdotes are the flash-forward and backwards comparisons he makes to scenes in the movie and their status during auditions or earlier iterations of the screenplay or movie.

Unfortunately, a collection of 10 deleted and/or extended scenes comes with no appended commentary, leaving one to suss out on their own the reasons for their clipping or exclusion. Most of this material extends the relationship between Billy and Crystal, but in a fairly non-revelatory fashion. Rounding things out are brief previews for Red Eye and Just Like Heaven. Overall in regards to the bonus features, this is a case of lack of quality trumping perceived quantity.

The bottom line: The Chumscrubber is illustrative of one of the film business’ longest and grandest traditions — its susceptibility to showmanship. Stanford and Posin have crafted a product that is in many respects bold and different, but still emotionally hollow. Bell’s performance is really the only compelling reason to see the film, and even that is debatable depending on your own personal threshold for precocity. D+ (Movie) C- (Disc)

Mission: Promotional Overkill

Ethan
Hunt could successfully pull off, trying to negotiate a full summer weekend
absent any knowledge of an impending $100 million-plus action flick. It used to
be that if you didn’t care much for movies, you could, with a little luck,
peaceably go about your business in happy obliviousness
— basically avoid the
late night talk show dragnet and a couple nights of primetime television — and
not have to suffer the encroachment of Hollywood into your life. Tom Cruise,
however, is not the biggest movie star in the world for nothing. He has a little
film called Mission: Impossible III coming out. And by Jesus,
you’re going to know about it.

In 2006, this means all the usual blitz of television and radio advertising,
those aforementioned talk show appearances, countless print interviews,
entertainment newsmagazine footage and cross-promotional commercials (“DHL… the
official carrier of Mission: Impossible III”), but also the type of
ridiculous filler shows that litter our overpopulated cable television channels.
If you haven’t stumbled across two gems of this latter genus this past weekend —
Diary, on MTV, and Catering Impossible: M:i:III, on the Food
Channel — you really owe it to yourself to track them down and check them out,
for amusement’s sake.

MTV’s special episode of Diary (in which, yes, Cruise does intone the
series’ trademark line: “You think you know, but you have no idea…”)
finds the Top Gun star arriving at Van Nuys airport by private airplane
(one of the original aircraft from the historic Tuskegee fleet, he claims) and
then taking dreadlocked veejay Sway up for a spin by himself. Before that,
though, Cruise points out the plane’s name, “Kiss Me Kate,” and fetishistically
strokes its emblazoned moniker.
Once back on solid ground, the duo ride
motorcycles at the Willow Springs International Raceway in nearby Rosamond,
California, where Sway eventually wipes out and eats asphalt.

The show includes plenty of Cruise’s trademark manic laughter and a sort of
weirdly frenzied masculine bon homie that’s entertaining in its utter
sincerity. But the runoff election for the apex of hilarity is a two-candidate
race between the highest-paid and most sustained, successful movie star of the
past quarter decade saying, in direct address confessional, “I’ve had a great
day with Sway, it’s been very memorable for me,” and, “Hey, Sway, I will fly and ride with you any day, man!” So…
might you say, Tom, he could be your wingman?

Really, it’s not for me to encourage, but there’s an absolutely great
mash-up of wicked double entendres waiting to be made and posted to YouTube.com

from this footage. Get cracking, wiseacres.

Catering Impossible: M:i:III, meanwhile, lets us in on the fact that
there were 7,140 pounds of meat served (to only 5,283 pounds of chicken) during
the film’s production, which spanned the globe from Los Angeles to Italy,
Shanghai and back again. And in case you were wondering how many cappuccinos a
tired movie crew might consume to help stave off Scientology “information
officers,” that number would be 22,312. That’s right, more money really
was spent on cappuccinos on M:i:III than you make in a year. Feel better?

Hoot

Hoot, based on the Newbury Award-winning young adult novel by bestselling author and Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen. That’s right, folks: greedy land developers. (Insert loud booing here.) Even this justifiably loathsome antagonist, though, can’t completely rescue Hoot, a sincere but muddled family film.

Hoot’s
story centers on perpetual new kid on the block Roy Eberhart (Logan
Lerman), a newcomer to the small coastal burg of Coconut Grove,
Florida, who finds his first day of middle school rudely interrupted by
chubby bully Dana Matherson (Eric Phillips). His face squashed up
against the school bus window, Roy sees a mysterious, blonde-haired,
barefoot kid, later to be known as “Mullet Fingers” (Cody Linley), go
streaking by outside. Roy is captivated by the kid’s blinding speed,
and the fact that he’s apparently a vagrant, since no one at school
knows him. No one, that is, except Beatrice Leep (Brie Larson), who
only further excites Roy’s curiosity by warning him to stay away.

Parallel to this intrigue is the story of a plot of land marked for
development
, the future site of a new chain-restaurant pancake house.
The area is beset with vandalism, causing no small amount of
consternation for regional manager Chuck Muckle (Clark Gregg) and Curly
Branitt (Tim Blake Nelson), his dim-bulb man on the ground. Local
deputy David Delinko (Luke Wilson) is assigned to investigate, but he
falls asleep in his squad car one night on a stakeout, and wakes up to
find his windows spray-painted black. Demoted by his captain and
derided by his peers, Delinko stays on the case, determined to get to
the bottom of the mystery, which turns out to involve an endangered
species of subterranean owls
. As Muckle presses forward with plans to
bulldoze the lot, can Roy and his new friends avoid capture, raise
proper awareness and save the day for their new little feathered
friends?

Satirist Hiaasen, who previously suffered the indignity of Hollywood’s adaptation of his novel Striptease,
works in much simpler and more earnest strokes here, but he’s done few
favors by the adaptation and direction of Wil Shriner, a lauded sitcom
veteran making his feature debut. Perhaps the challenges of working on
location and frequently outdoors proved taxing on Shriner’s grasp of
the big picture, because many of the adult performances are broad
and/or unfocused
, seemingly copped from different pages, tonally
speaking. Hiaasen’s fellow Floridian Jimmy Buffet contributes five
ukulele-influenced tunes for the soundtrack, and cameos as a laidback
science teacher, but the film is otherwise slow-pitched at a much
younger demographic.

What Hoot does have going for it, though, is Lerman, who makes me almost wish I’d paid attention to UPN’s Jack & Bobby
before it got axed. Relaxed and naturally charismatic, he suffers
serial abuse (his parents make him write bully Dana a letter of
apology) with aplomb. If the other characters are kind of wan and
familiar and the film’s plot twists dutiful, you at least never get
tired of having Lerman as your guide. (New Line, PG, 89 mins.)

Mission: Impossible III

Michelle Monaghan), a nurse who believes Hunt works for the Department of Transportation. They’re engaged (crazy in love,
you see!
), but when a former agent trainee (Keri Russell) gets nabbed
by sadistic and elusive arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour
Hoffman), Hunt finds himself — at the behest of his friend and
immediate boss, John Musgrave (Billy Crudup) — coerced back into
action.

After a botched extraction operation in Germany, Hunt comes across
some intel that places Davian in Vatican City the following evening, so
he takes the further ennobling step of intensely tearing up and
arranging a quickie marriage (at the hospital where Julia works?)
before re-teaming with a squad of faces both old and new (Ving Rhames,
Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Maggie Q) to intercept a highly expensive
weapon known only by its code name, the “Rabbit’s Foot.”
Keeping
Impossible Missions Force Chief Theodore Brassel (Laurence Fishburne)
out of the loop, Hunt kidnaps Davian, only to have him escape before he
can get him all the way back to IMF headquarters in suburban Virginia.
From there, a timed and tense game of cat and mouse ensues, with Davian
endangering Julia and Hunt literally racing around the globe to
retrieve the items he needs in order to ensure his new bride’s safe
return.

Scripted by Abrams and his fellow Alias scribes Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, M:i:III
is crisp in its shorthand and confident in its action staging
, which
include a Shanghai high-rise siege, Davian’s high-octane escape and the
breach of the Vatican. In compressing for feature film length the sort
of head feints and twists that might play best over a full season of
episodic television, though, the film suffers significant pains. (It
also, during a climactic revelation, suffers a rather unfortunate,
howlingly delusional line of dialogue given the current state of world
affairs.) There’s a cool detachment to the self-contained and
self-absorbed narrative
, with the chief irony being that the more
complicated the plot gets, the more emasculated Hoffman is as a
villain.
Davian is a bad man, but as rendered here a bit of, if not a
herring, then at least a resolutely indefinable entity. The more
conspiratorial collusion Hunt uncovers, the absolute less sense some of
the actions of Davian and others make.

Lest I be derided as a killjoy, it must be stressed that M:i:III
generally hits all its beats, both dutifully and robustly.
It’s a
well-made film. While none of the action sequences quite measure up to
the Langley computer-room break-in of Brian De Palma’s original, and
they eventually additionally reach a point of critical mass; you at
least leave M:i:III entertained — if exhausted and chuckling a bit at the sheer, maniacal and exposed effort of its spectacle.
(Paramount, PG-13, 125 mins.)

VIP: The Complete First Season

They
were at one point the Bill Paxton and Bill Pullman of erstwhile chesty
blonde Playmates — two separate and distinct individuals still bound
together by public confusion over exactly who was whom
. A decade
removed, the fog of mistaken identity has lifted (hey, marrying a
crusty nonagenarian and throwing on a hundred-plus pounds will do that
for you), but the difference between Anna Nicole Smith and Pamela
Anderson (below, for the record) can still be measured most acutely in one hyphenated word:
self-awareness.
The latter has it in spades, as the DVD release of VIP: The Complete First Season amply demonstrates; the former, well, she might be able to spell it.

Natalie Raitano),
perpetually nonplussed Kay (Leah Lail) and the muscle, Quick (Shaun
Baker) — to guard high-strung actresses, centerfold models, talk-radio
stars, basketball prospects and more.

Tone is everything for a syndicated romp like this, and VIP
has the smarts not to take itself at all seriously.
It’s also rather
ingenious in its construction, the manner in which the parties truly
need each other in order to succeed. Tasha may register continued
exasperation with Vallery — especially for her serial fashion
indulgence — but the latter’s lack of prescribed experience always
lends itself to some outside-of-the-box thinking that proves helpful.
Likewise, Quick and the others provide the practical know-how to
implement Vallery’s schemes and plans. Anderson’s off-screen
likeability is further evidenced by a wide-ranging roster of guest
stars that includes Jay Leno, Morgan Fairchild, Jerry Springer, Sherman
Hemsley, Pauly Shore, Robin Leach, Marie Osmond and magicians Penn and
Teller. While it’s definitely not re-inventing the wheel, there’s
enough campy and lightweight fun here to qualify the show for a look
for those looking to shake some of the sand from Baywatch out of their trunks.
All 22 episodes of VIP’s 1998 inaugural sashay are included
here, in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen format with an English stereo
audio mix. Spread out over five discs housed in three slimline cases in
turn stored in a single cardboard slipcase
, supplemental extras include
a trivia track on the series pilot and audio commentary on the season
finale, “Val the Hard Way,” with executive producers Jonathan Lawton
and Morgan Gendel, actress Raitano and writer Steve Kirozere. There’s
also a brief behind-the-scenes featurette and a selection of cheeky,
newly filmed cast introductions to three episodes.
More with Anderson
would certainly be welcome, but VIP has the smarts to leave you wanting more. B- (Show) C+ (Disc)

Flight 93

Director Paul Greengrass’ United 93, from Universal, isn’t the only film detailing the events aboard the
sole airliner that didn’t hit its intended target on Sept. 11. The A&E movie
Flight 93 (above), releasing this week to DVD, actually beat it to the screen,
though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from most media reportage.

Directed by Peter Markle, Flight 93 is in every way the lesser
“experience” of the two films — for better and for worse — yet certainly no less
respectful and possessing of a heart in the right place. It shares with its big
screen sibling a mostly unknown if occasionally recognizable cast, and it too
plies us with small pedestrian details
leading up to liftoff of the titular
flight.

Whereas for some viewers United 93 is too painfully antiseptic —
giving us a raw, gritty realism but no lasting personal identification with the
actual individual passengers — Flight 93, tighter in scope, takes the
opposite approach. It introduces characters by name via their boarding passes,
and compacts the correlated events of Sept. 11 into the film’s first 15 minutes,
all in order to spend more time on the plane and have greater leeway to intercut
the action there with more passengers’ desperate, doomed calls to their loved
ones.

Flight 93 cannot sustain this emotionality for a myriad of reasons — even
though, somewhat manipulatively, everyone safe on the ground seems to be
cradling a baby
. With the hijackers reduced to more of a minimalist menace, the
panic and dread feels artificially sketched; whereas United 93 ratchets
the tension and grief-soaked anxiety up to taxing levels by showcasing the
clipped, whispering fright in all parties, in Flight 93 the passengers
huddle up, football-style, and conduct a dramatic raised-hand vote to storm the
cockpit. Still, you can’t help but have your heart catch in your throat given
the devastating simplicity of a line like, “Mom, I’m on a plane that’s been
hijacked, and I’m calling to say goodbye.”

One of the interesting things for me about both films lies in just the
experience of watching either of them with an audience, of sharing in that pain
and discomfort with others — be it a hundred people or a single loved one. In a
weird way, it’s kind of beautiful, if that makes sense, because no one
choosing to view either movie doesn’t know or think on some level that they’re
going to be moved by having all those stark real-life memories and their
attendant emotions churned up again. You can’t enter into it lightly, without
care — it’s not possible.

For that reason and others, the debate of whether or not it’s “too soon” for
Sept. 11 movies is to me a pointless and silly one, the definition of media
fire-stoking. What is popular culture if not a reflection of our current mood
and zeitgeist — certainly what titillates us, but also too what frightens and
unnerves us?
Hollywood is rapped all the time — and not always incorrectly — for
its vacuousness and indulgence, for making loud, garish films about nothing.
Both United 93 and, despite its more limited production means, Flight
93
are responsible films born of the real world. They may not be for
everyone, but how can that be assailed?

Happenstance

Is it Happenstance that I’m just now re-posting this review of the same-named 2001 French film, originally published upon its limited Stateside theatrical release late in the year? Hmmm…

A gimmicky yet remarkably spry tapestry about the “random
interconnectedness” of life in general and romance in particular
,
writer-director Laurent Firode’s debut film opens by depositing two youngsters
with identical birth dates — low-key appliance store clerk Irene (Amélie’s Audrey Tatou) and restaurateur
Younes (Algerian singer-actor Faudel) — on the same train, and then spends the
rest of the movie detailing the various and sundry zigzags of fortune, glimpsed
only by the audience, that bring the two back together.

The sheer mania of this sort of jumbled causality is
captured in a much hipper, extroverted fashion in Guy Ritchie’s East End
knuckle-dusters (Lock, Stock and Two
Smoking Barrels
, Snatch) and even
in something as passingly flip as Run
Lola Run
, which spins out digressive, what-if story strands in a blinking
instant. Yet Happenstance, a
charming enough cinematic riff on chaos theory
(consult Jeff Goldman’s Jurassic Park explanation if necessary), doesn’t find great
self-satisfaction in its structure. Despite the fortuitous and often comic
interactions between upwards of 20 strangers, what ultimately emerges as the
film’s backbone is the prequel to a love story, the events — or fate, if you
must — that bring two people together
.

In the ensemble of Happenstance,
wide-eyed Tatou is certainly less of a central figure than she is in Amélie, yet the movies, radically
different in style and approach, interestingly offer a remarkably similar
preoccupation with destiny and good will, as well as several similar scenes
(including one in which Tatou is again trapped in the apartment of a senile old
biddy). Other characters include Luc (Eric Feldman), a tranced-out
twentysomething given to pathological lies of inversion; Bobby (Frederique
Bouraly), an old man taken in by a bartender’s explication of the cyclical
nature of karma; and Richard (Eric Savin), a disillusioned father torn between
his loveless wife and the gently nagging mistress, Elsa (Lysaine Meis), eager
to introduce him to her parents and legitimize their relationship. There’s also
a mysterious old codger who counsels a stranger — a proxy for the audience — that
every detail reveals an infinity of truths, and thus has grandiose repercussions.
(Or, more colloquially, you need only to piss in the sea to make the ocean
rise). The truth about Happenstance?
A bit slight, perhaps, but a well-made and immensely enjoyable watch. (Lot
47, R, 90 mins.)

Dreamer

Horseracing has the reputation of being a sport ruled by and mainly for the wealthy — those unencumbered by the pesky constraints of regular, office-bred employment. As the relatively recent critical and crossover screen success of Seabiscuit proved, though, the same general rules of other underdog movies apply to tales of uplift set in the world of horseracing. The new family drama Dreamer is a bit less of an overt sports movie (it’s equally if not foremost about reconciliation and settlement), but it’s no less of a film than director Gary Ross’ 2003 Best Picture Oscar nominee, and in many ways much more of one. At once familiar and fresh, Dreamer is a stirring and heartfelt film that scores courtesy of a simple and sincere emotional investment in the material.

When a Stranger Calls

When a Stranger Calls isn’t an emotionally vacuous siege,
but more of an exercise in anxiety provocation, a psychological
thriller. This doesn’t mean it lacks huge lapses in logic, though.
On a playing field of its own devising, the movie somewhat fails because it introduces kids as bait but can’t — due to the
constraints of its PG-13 rating — fully integrate them into the story
.
Jill doesn’t “check the children” until roughly two-thirds of the way
into the film, and even later, in the mad scramble to stay alive, they
have to be tucked away while Jill bears the direct force of attack. For the full review, from IGN, click here.

Thank God It’s Friday

That
the staid, torch-bearing woman who serves as the erstwhile Columbia
TriStar’s logo
— you know, the one that looks like a cross between
Annie Potts and Annette Bening — busts out some disc moves at the
beginning of Thank God It’s Friday should tell you everything
you need to know about this slice-of-nightlife musical dramedy from
1978
. Featuring early performances by Jeff Goldblum and Debra Winger,
and written by Armyan Bernstein — who would go on to produce a wide
range of chiefly guys’ flicks, including The Hurricane, Air Force One, End of Days, Spy Game and For Love of the Game — the movie is a weird sort of time capsule; think of it as informal prequel to 200 Cigarettes, made very obviously for the boogie-down crowd to capitalize on a waning trend.

Set over the course of a single evening at the hottest nightspot in town, all leading up to a scheduled set by the Commodores, Thank God It’s Friday
tells a clutch of intersecting stories
, including that of a mismatched
couple on a blind date; a disco diva trying to get the deejay to play
her demo; another uptight couple, Dave (Mark Lonow) and Susan (Andrea
Howard), celebrating their anniversary; two underage disco queens
(Terri Nunn and Valerie Landsburg) out to crash Club Zoo and strut
their stuff; and a sleazy, glad-handing owner, Tony Demarco (Goldblum),
who’ll do anything to bag a lady. The big news, per the DVD cover, is
Donna Summer — who sings the Oscar-winning “Last Dance,” and sets the
dance floor a-burnin’ as Nicole Sims — but she and the Commodores are
in all honesty late entries to this party, and blow in and out like a
cool but inconsequential breeze.

Full of polyester threads, banana daiquiris and laughably bad helmet-hairdos, Thank God It’s Friday
is a yawning trifle through and through
. The music is decent, but the
film’s intense stroboscopic dance scenes are enough to induce seizure
on the small screen, even without the presence of Mary Hart. The acting
is, for the most part, declamatory and amateurish (on occasion you even
see a couple actors look down to hit their marks), but it’s amusing to
see Goldblum’s Cheshire cat grin in its nascent stages, and Winger
shows flashes of why she would go on to establish herself as a breakout
star
. Given bad dialogue and rote set-ups, she still manages to put a
fresh spin on things, as in a scene where she spills a drink on a
fellow patron and knocks over items from the bar.

Housed in a single-disc Amray case and presented in anamorphic
widescreen that preserves the aspect ratio of its original exhibition, Thank God It’s Friday
features a 5.1 Dolby digital surround soundtrack in English and a
poorly-mixed track in Portuguese, as well as alternate subtitles in
English, Japanese Spanish and Portuguese — though the latter two are
unbilled on the disc’s packaging sleeve. There are unfortunately no
supplemental bonus features contained herein, vacuuming this title free
of any possible kitsch replay value. D (Movie) D (Disc)

House of Wax

I’m filing this piece, originally tapped out for IGN last fall, as both a full-fledged film and DVD review, since it trips into substantive analysis (as much as the movie will allow) on both fronts. To wit:

In theory, teen and early twentysomething couples actually have to do something between dinner and making out; ergo Hollywood product like House of Wax,
a remake of the old Vincent Price flick adapted by Chad Hayes and Carey
Hayes and captured in moving form by Spanish music video and commercial
director Jaume Collet-Serra, who makes his feature debut. It’s not the
familiar template narrative (car troubles lead a group of bickering
college students into a small, abandoned, backwater town and its
eponymous wax museum overseen by a sadistic, psychopathic curator) that
grates. No, it’s the fact that House of Wax is studded with
such a choking number of incongruities and irritations, small and
large, that it eventually — or rather quickly, actually — deflates even
the possibility of vicarious shock fun
.

Paris Hilton, above right, and every bit as bad
as you might assume
). They’re all heading to a football game, but end
up waylaid in the bayou outback after a no-good shortcut, woodland
camp-out and car trouble conspire to foul up their plans. Split up, one
pair hitches a ride to the nearest “town,” Ambrose (which looks like
part of a backlot studio tour, even though it was constructed
especially for the movie), and comes across the House of Wax. They also
finally stumble across a peculiar mechanic (Basic‘s Brian Van Holt) who invites them back to his place for the fan belt they need to repair their car.

House of Wax takes an awfully long time before it starts
dispensing bodies, and while I wish I could say that was because of
some sense of either care or cleverness, that’s hardly the case
. Wade
is pretty much the worst boyfriend ever, whether letting Carly ride
next to creepy, knife-wielding dudes in pickups, goading her into
stupid situations or leaving her alone in cars. Hilton, meanwhile, is
given such a number of fawning close-ups — including, I hesitate to
mention, a striptease with no payoff — that you could be forgiven for
thinking her billionaire father bankrolled the production. When she’s
finally offed (her death involves perhaps the worst movie hide-and-seek
intuition I’ve ever seen), the audience will likely let loose with a
collective sigh of appreciation.

It’s true that House of Wax plays much, much better on the
small screen, where many of the film’s practical effects (though
certainly augmented, particularly in the third act) are different
enough to hold your attention
. Still, narratively, so much of the movie
defies plausibility that you just don’t at all get caught up in the
proceedings. (I’m no genius, but it would seem that the requirements of
climate control would necessitate that elaborately posed wax funeral
chambers not be lit solely with, oh, open flames.) Too preposterous to be truly scary, House of Wax in the
end is just what it its ridiculous theatrical tagline — “Prey, Slay,
Display” — first expressed: less a movie than a creaky claptrap poke in
the ribs, a piece of posed entertainment
.

House of Wax is the fifth big screen venture of Joel Silver and
Robert Zemeckis’ Warner Bros.-based Dark Castle production shingle,
following in the footsteps of Thirteen Ghosts, House on Haunted Hill, Ghost Ship and Gothika. Owing at least in part to the accumulated clout of that pair, you know House of Wax is going to get a fair shake in terms of its DVD release, which it certainly does here. I take some umbrage with the way that Collet-Serra and cinematographer
Stephen Windon have shot the picture — many action scenes are much too
dark, most notably Hilton’s robed, pre-death dash through the woods and
an abandoned factory and some ill-advised campfire shenanigans that
incorporate handheld video footage from the characters’ points-of-view
— but House of Wax, presented on DVD in 1.85:1 widescreen, is
additionally difficult to handicap since it’s so color-corrected —
everything is given a slight blue-green tint, even in the daytime
scenes. There are no massive irreconcilabilities, but a little bit of grain is
present here and there (again, in Hilton’s death scene and some
nighttime driving sequences early in the film), but these few specks
come mostly in scenes that are darkly lit, so the inattention is both
mostly masked and not that offensive or distracting.

Dolby 5.1 surround mixes in English, French and Spanish stand alongside
subtitles in each language. Part of any almost horror film lies in the
aural presentation, and while House of Wax
isn’t particularly sophisticated in this area, its surround mix does
allow a wide variety of elements to come into play in the more charged
scenes. Of particular note is the final battle in the titular
structure; as it burns around them, viewers are given a good sense of
the gloopy running of the wax, hand-to-hand combat and the sound of the
structure crumbling in on itself.

Kicking off the slate of supplemental extras is the “B-roll and Bloopers Video Cast Commentary,”
with Cuthbert, Hilton, Murray and Padalecki. In this 27-minute,
split-screen featurette, the quartet basically sit in a room together
and watch the aforementioned footage; it’s an awkward idea rendered
much worse by the fact that the audio mix all but guarantees we can’t
hear most of the actual bloopers and B-roll footage
. Highlights include
how-to footage in regards to the whizzinators used in the film, as well
as Cuthbert’s massive, comically duct-taped boots (wood blocks on top
of flats, actually), used to trim the one-foot height difference
between she and Padalecki. Remarkably, Hilton herein manages to make even more of a fool of herself, revealing that she was somehow duped by a director whose first language isn’t
English into a scene that mocks her sex tape fellatio
(“Yeah, it wasn’t
supposed to be like that. My boyfriend was so upset”). This bit also
reveals that she had the entire crew scream along with her during her
first several death scene takes (because she was “embarrassed”), and
that Hilton is apparently a method actress, as she runs up and down a
flight of stairs to prepare to simulate breathlessness during
aforementioned chase sequence. Wow… priceless stuff.

Other extras include an amusing, tongue-in-cheek introduction by Silver from the set of the just-released Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,
a seven-minute featurette on the design work in the movie, a
three-minute gag reel, a 10-minute look at the visual effects work of
the movie and a 90-second alternate “cold open” in which an anonymous
character gets tossed by the neck from a moving car through a
windshield. The bottom line? House of Wax isn’t necessarily a very good movie; the acting is
of such varying quality that it really becomes a problem in sustaining
credible mood
. Likewise, the relative novelty of seeing a lot of
practical effects work is somewhat stunted by a narrative that
repeatedly presses the Staples “Easy” button. That said, its DVD
presentation offers up a decent enough mix of supplemental material that
those so inclined to delve into obvious genre fare will more likely
than not find House of Wax a relatively diverting if not completely fulfilling rental. If you really want to see the original layout of the review, from IGN, click here. D+ (Movie) B (Disc)

Behind Enemy Lines

We swell the rolls here at Shared Darkness as time and inclination permits. Ergo, this review of Behind Enemy Lines, originally published upon its theatrical release in November of 2001:

Behind Enemy Lines
sails along on the sheer surface thrill of its let’s-play-war hook, a
satisfying piece of giddy-up entertainment
that raises a few passing questions
about the American “cowboy mentality” as applied internationally before
ultimately deciding it’s a lot more fun to simply eat your action movie cake
than try to have it too.

Behind Enemy Lines, which angles to be
the official Mountain Dew “X-Treme” entry, does pretty well. Even if the film’s editing and
handheld camerawork seem to often work against each other and jittery techno
music bumps jarringly up against a traditional score by Don Davis, the bullets
whiz around you in glorious Dolby surround sound and things get blowed up good,
with everything building to a satisfying if unrealistic climax.

Another feature debut of an acclaimed commercial director
(in this case John Moore), Behind Enemy
Lines
manages to avoid many of the pitfalls of similar bows due mainly to a
well-executed if functional script from David Veloz and punch-up maestro Zak
Penn
, who receive screenplay credit on James and John Thomas’ original story.
The narrative, goals and what hangs in the balance are all simple to grasp and
follow; it’s an entertaining case of get-out-of-the-way moviemaking. Of course,
having two pros like Hackman and Wilson certainly doesn’t hurt either. And if
it’s a hint of their chemistry in the upcoming The Royal Tenenbaums, that’s not a bad thing at all. (20th Century
Fox, R, 106 mins.)