Sure, we know they can blow up ships with their nose-strap detonators and knife Vietcong frogmen, but can dolphins really commit suicide? Yes, they can, according to Richard O’Barry, the activist subject of Louie Psihoyo’s buzz-y dolphin-slaughterhouse documentary The Cove, premiering this weekend at Sundance.
A slickly packaged yet ultimately unpersuasive political action thriller, Eagle Eye
collapses under the weight of various story incongruities, in large
part because its sprawling, conspiratorial plot — approaching almost two hours — and supercharged, empty-dialogue mode of
storytelling don’t ever quite fully align. As a re-teaming of Disturbia director D.J. Caruso and star Shia LaBeouf,
the movie’s theatrical release last autumn represented a crucial test of commercial leading man viability
for the young actor, coming on the heels of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It was a test he passed, to the tune of a $178 million worldwide gross, with almost 60 percent of that haul coming Stateside.
Set in and around Washington D.C., the movie’s story
centers on a piecemeal terrorist plot, with different “cells” being
activated against their will. Disaffected copy shop employee Jerry Shaw
(LaBeouf) finds his life turned upside down when his twin brother
mysteriously dies. Returning from the funeral, he discovers his
apartment crammed with bomb-making supplies. A strange woman calls his
cell phone and orders him to flee, but Jerry is captured, and
questioned by FBI Agent Thomas Morgan (Billy Bob Thornton).
Simultaneously, single mother Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monaghan)
sends her 8-year-old son off on a school field trip, only to get a call
from the same woman threatening to derail his train if Rachel doesn’t
obey her orders. The voice on the phone is soon revealed to be a rogue,
omnipotent government defense computer system, who brings together
strangers Jerry and Rachel and parcels out instructions that
unwittingly lead the pair into complicity in a scheme to eliminate most
of the United States’ elected government. In pursuit of the on-the-lam
duo, along with Morgan, is Air Force investigator Zoe Perez (Rosario Dawson).
Hatched several years ago by executive producer Steven Spielberg as a techno-phobic thriller, Eagle Eye shows the wear of much tinkering by many writers — a credited group that includes John Glenn, Travis Adam Wright, Hillary Seitz and Dan McDermott. The
wildly preposterous plot hinges on governmental vigilance and hyper-competence at a
time when, especially at the time of its theatrical release, all evidence in the real world points to the contrary,
and isn’t aided by brawny sequences that paint a colorful picture of
the super-computer’s god-like abilities, which stand in stark contrast
to the third-act messiness it spawns in trying to concoct an intelligent ruse that
will eventually frame Jerry and Rachel.
Furthermore, there’s a
baffling, poorly conceived scene mid-film — nakedly designed to pull
the audience along, and distract from narrative potholes — in which the
computer summons Jerry and Rachel to a consumer electronics store and
reveals a portion of their mission. This sequence defies credibility, even within the heightened world of the movie’s own construction; it would be akin to the Man
Behind the Curtain outing himself halfway through The Wizard of Oz, just for shits and giggles.
Former television director Caruso has proven himself a stylish shooter of genre fare, and Eagle Eye
is his biggest outing to date. From a technical point-of-view, the film
is fairly well put together, though a first act car chase sequence is
choppily edited, and lacks spatial clarity. Unfortunately, the method of conveyance doesn’t match the degree to which the story is steeped in paranoia and invasion of privacy.
A grittier treatment or more futuristic setting would have been more in
keeping with the story’s themes. Or a compelling case could be made for
a tone of polished, heightened absurdity similar to this summer’s
international hit Wanted. By spurning either of these more stylized visual approaches, however, Eagle Eye feels trapped between two very different, unconnected worlds.
For its Blu-ray release, Eagle Eye is presented in superb 1080p high definition, in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, with the AVC MPEG-4. Blacks are deep and consistent, and the English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio track solidly captures the various and sundry mechanical swirls used to frequent, brawny effect in the movie’s many chaotic chase sequences. Other audio options includes French and Spanish language 5.1
Dolby digital surround sound tracks; optional English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles are also included.
The disc’s bonus material is all presented in high definition, save a bonus photo gallery, and is kickstarted with a 25-minute making-of featurette that includes interviews with LaBeouf and Caruso, as well as other on-screen and behind-the-scenes players. While there’s definitely a strong EPK-type feel to some of this material, they thankfully delve further into the development history of the project than most of your average, self-congratulatory featurettes, and there’s also a nice split-screen comparison of raw footage and finished, assembled product, which has the effect of underscoring some of the difficulties of directing not frequently discussed or acknowledged.
Next up is a clutch of four deleted scenes, running just under five minutes, followed by a quartet of shorter featurettes, running between three and nine minutes. Two are somewhat interchangeable, detailing location shooting in Washington, D.C., and at the Library of Congress; more interesting are a thumbnail investigation of the current state electronic surveillance and a chat between Caruso and one of his mentors, filmmaker John Badham. The professional connection between the two is Badham’s War Games, on which Caruso served as a second unit director, and it’s interesting to see them reconnect and dissect how computers and technology in general have changed with respect to their portrayal on the big screen. Rounding things out are the movie’s theatrical trailer and a seven-minute gag reel which spotlights flubbed lines galore, and showcases Thornton cutting loose. To purchase the Blu-ray disc via Amazon, click here. C- (Movie) B (Disc)
Written and directed by Jonathan Levine, The Wackness is a slang-laden, b-boy-style coming-of-age dramedy set against the backdrop of Brooklyn, summer 1994. The story centers around Luke Shapiro (the heavy-lidded Josh Drake), a 17-year-old
recent high school graduate who befriends a misguided, pot-smoking
therapist, Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), by trading weed for therapy. A somewhat socially awkward “technical” virgin, Luke also tumbles into
love with the therapist’s sarcastic, mature-beyond-her-years
stepdaughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). Housing his marijuana in an
antiquated ice cart, Luke escapes from an unhappy home life and the
pressures of any impending college decision by wheeling and dealing around the
sweltering city. In the process, he comes into contact with a colorful
coterie of characters — from hippies and hip-hoppers to drug pushers
and prostitutes, the colorful fringe-dwellers of the salad days of pre-Giuliani gentrification — and falls into a weird friend/mentorship with Dr.
Squires, even as his burgeoning relationship with Stephanie seems primed to fall apart.
Owing largely to its outrageous drugs-for-therapy conceit but also a twisted, marble-mouthed adolescent poetry present in some of the film’s dialogue, The Wackness won the Audience Award at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. And it’s a fun movie that doesn’t entirely abandon some of the gritty realities of teenagedom. Mostly, though, it’s nicely shot, and imagined. (At one point, after a lip-lock with Stephanie, Luke leaves and dances down the street, the sidewalk squares lighting up like a certain music video of yesteryear.) If Peck’s performance is a bit hit-and-miss, he’s still intriguing, and the scenes with he and a loopy Kingsley are amusing to watch.
Housed in a regular plastic Amray case, and presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen with optional French and Spanish subtitles, The Wackness comes anchored with a feature-length audio commentary track with Levine and Peck. Props are dished all around, naturally (especially since production designer Annie Spitz is Levine’s girlfriend, too), but there’s a hearteningly solid division between anecdote, thematic discussion and snarky asides.
Four deleted scenes run a bit over five minutes, and offer no new wild revelations, per se. There’s also a 17-minute making-of featurette with cast and crew interviews in which Levine confesses to smoking weed, and Kingsley jokes about taking a comedic pass at the character of Gandhi, and says that he and Peck are “the new Laurel and Hardy.” Even more interesting is the eight-minute featurette “Keeping it Real: A Day in the Life of Jonathan Levine,” in which a camera
follows the filmmaker through a day of interviews and other commitments (including a taped sit-down with his costars and Ben Lyons, who comes across as slightly doofy) prior to the movie’s premiere at the Los Angeles
Film Festival. It’s amusing to see Levine so stoked about a promotional chocolate boom box for the movie — a goodie he eventually offers up to an audience member at a post-screening Q&A. Two tossed-off minutes-long “episodes” of Luke Shapiro’s Dope Show, a mock cable access show in which Peck, in character, strikes poses and trades high-fives with his deejaying doorman, are passingly amusing, but one-joke, quick-watch things. Along with five separate trailers for the film are a slate of previews for Synecdoche, New York, Brick Lane, Ashes of Time Redux, Elegy and other Sony titles. For an interview with Levine, click here. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, meanwhile, click here. B (Movie) B+ (Disc)
That might be the film’s enduring legacy — as a freeze-frame masturbatory aid for fans of Veronica Mars.
I should’ve posted this long ago, but the Los Angeles Film Critics Association awards dinner was earlier this week, Monday evening at the InterContinental Hotel in Los Angeles, and it went swimmingly — smoothly produced, briskly paced and engaging all the way around. Special commendation on this front goes to Lael Loewenstein, group president. The full list of winners can be accessed here, but Wall▪E was the Best Picture winner, a first for an animated film.
I’ll perhaps sprinkle in a few more items from the event this week, but it’s worth sharing that Best Actor winner Sean Penn — who was a no-show at the Golden Globes the night prior to the LAFCA event — gave a very funny, warm acceptance speech, and told an anecdote about his Mystic River director Clint Eastwood. Penn said he was sitting two feet away from the filmmaker at the recently concluded Palm Springs International Film Festival when it was remarked upon that Slumdog Millionaire‘s Freida Pinto — also present at both events — was very beautiful. Penn observed that she looked like Eastwood’s wife’s younger sister, at which point the 78-year-old screen legend leaned over and whispered mischievously, “That’s what I’m trying to put together!” Swears Penn: “True story, that’s what he said!”
The phenomenon of runaway producer credits is a topic of special interest to me — maybe because it feels too much like the situation in high school where a couple loafers glom onto the work of others on a group project, and it thus strikes a nerve — so it’s worth noting that the recent indie flick Yonkers Joe tallies a dozen top-lined producers, including star Chazz Palminteri, and that’s not counting a line producer and two associate producers.
Still, I tend to give independent films more of a pass, and I think others (to the extent anyone else cares about this) do too. Why? Because there are more side deals to be made, many more gears to be greased when making a film outside of the studio system. And that sometimes means making deals with unsavory characters, or simply asshats that want a spread of personal pictures with Keira Knightley and Jessica Biel, and are willing to dole out a couple million dollars to get them. So those guys get producer credits — hedge fund managers and dotcom cowboys, multimedia tycoons and silver-spoon business scions — because “filthy rich bore” or “necessary evil” are credits deemed too insensitive. And that’s fine, in my book. If suffering wealthy dullards is the price of a go-it-alone shot at great art that Hollywood studios want to make, I’m not going to hold it hard-and-fast against the real-deal players that lent these guys the same credit they take.
But, on a knee-jerk level, if I see a dozen names on a studio film, I think overkill, and immediately start scanning for the star’s manager, or some other corporate glad-hander who somehow manages to accrue two dozen credits a year, despite not being part of a start-up, self-sufficient production shingle. There’s no reason, to my mind, that an originally conceived studio film with no labyrinthine source material backstory needs 10 producers. There just isn’t.
I’ve talked with a lot of producers about this issue, both on the record and off, and while many are pissed about it, a lot more are awfully touchy. “Don’t rock the boat, whaddya gonna do, go along to get along,” they seem to say, in ways both fancy and abstruse. In this regard, Hollywood is like the Mafia, or a corrupt police union; there’s an unspoken code (“Those who need to know know“), and there’s less interest in exposing credit-mongering than exposing those who want to expose it.