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Taut detective thriller
Director Christopher Nolan made a sensational splash with the indie hit "Memento", earning him this shot at the big time. For the most part, he proved himself up to the task. "Insomnia" provides a multilayered psychological thriller where two distinct storylines are interwoven in the character of Will Dormer (Al Pacino). The workup is a bit contrived, with Dormer coming to Alaska from LA to help out an old buddy with a murder investigation as he is himself being investigated by internal affairs. This serves as a foundation for the two storylines. The first is the animosity that develops between Dormer and his partner, who wants to cut a deal with internal affairs. The second, of course, is the murder investigation. After Dormer accidentally (?) shoots his partner while chasing the suspect in dense fog, the psychological games begin. Local detective Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), who is fawning all over Dormer and has read all his books on detective work, begins to suspect that her hero may have feet of clay.
The psychodrama becomes intense as Dormer is confronted with communications from his killer nemesis Walter Finch (Robin Williams), while suspicions swirl around the death of his partner. Add to this his inability to get any sleep in Alaska's perpetual daylight and you have a man driven to the absolute brink.
Nolan does an excellent job of shooting this film and the editing intensifies the psychological tension. The cinematography is also superb, aided by the majestic Alaskan and British Columbian locations. While the interaction between Dormer and Finch is unlikely, the symbiotic relationship that develops is fascinating and Nolan squeezes every psychological tingle that can be wrung from it.
Pacino is masterful as the insomniac cop who has made certain ethical compromises in his career in the name of justice. He looks so terrible that he must have been purposely depriving himself of sleep to increase the realism of the character. Pacino gives Dormer (an interesting play on the latin dormire, "to sleep", a dormer is the window of a sleeping room) a hard edge that gradually erodes as he becomes more sleep deprived, blurring the distinction between good and evil.
Robin Williams seems to be trying to shed his nice guy image with back to back wackos. He follows up his sociopathic performance in "One Hour Photo" with this character who is a sort of sinister pragmatist. Williams is at his best when he is pushing sanity's limits, whether that be in zany comedy or maniacal mayhem, which is precisely why he was wrong for this part. This character is far too calculating and controlled for Williams talents and the part is also much too physical for him. He is just not convincing as a cold blooded killer and tough guy. That is not to say it was a bad performance, just the wrong actor. Hilary Swank unfortunately doesn't have much to do in a film that is dominated by Pacino and Williams.
This is an excellent big budget debut for Nolan and another terrific performance by Pacino. The suspense and pace are first rate and despite the contrivances, it delivers. I rated it an 8/10. Definitely not a snoozer.
Murder by Numbers (2002)
Implausible but engaging murder mystery
This is an interesting detective flick that could have been much better. The story is a contemporary twist on the standard crime drama where the diabolical murderers try to outsmart the wily detective. The contemporary twist is that the murderers are two high school students who are brilliant but bored, so they decide to plan the perfect murder and play a cat and mouse game with the police.
Therein lies the flaw. It is plausible that high school students could go on a killing spree because they are angry, frustrated or alienated (we have unfortunately seen too much of this phenomenon), but boredom doesn't produce this level of methodical evil. Also, when teens like this snap, the result is messy, not cold and calculated as depicted here.
Director Barbet Schroeder (Single White Female) presents these kids as normal high school students who simply decided that their brand of mischief would be murder. It might have been more believable if they showed some sociopathic tendencies, but other than the murder, they seem like regular kids. The union of two kids who are so different, the intropsective loner Justin (Michael Pitt) and the popular rich kid Richard (Ryan Gosling), also fails to resonate. They supposedly met when Justin was tutoring Richard, which is utterly implausible given the fact that Richard is portrayed as being extremely bright himself. Also, these types of kids generally have a natural disdain for one another in real life.
The script also bogs down with unnecessary plot elements like Cassie's (Sandra Bullock) mysterious past and a relationship with her partner. This is an attempt to develop Cassie in a way that has little bearing on the main storyline, and the subplot klunks annoyingly away like a square wheel.
The gathering of forensic evidence and the deductive reasoning that follows is fascinating along with the boys manipulation of the evidence to point the detectives in the wrong direction. Cassie's intuitive approach to the evidence is also well scripted.
The acting by the boys is well done, with both creating believable characters. Pitt is moody, sensitive and introspective and renders a tortured character that tries to appear far more confident than he really is. Gosling gives Richard a cocky bravado that reminded me of James Caan. He creates a character that is manipulative and cunning.
Sandra Bullock is a terrific actress, but she seems out of place in this role. Part of the problem is that her character is given too much excess baggage with which to to deal. She plays Cassie far too tentatively considering this is a female characters that other cops call "the hyena". She seems intimidated by confrontations. She is completely dominated in the confrontation with the teenage Richard, but she is also weak in scenes with her boss and her partner. She is much better in the subplot regarding her anguish over her past and the uneasy relationship she has with her partner. Unfortunately, this is the most irrelevant component of the script.
This film has some interesting elements, but the pieces fail to come together. Bullock's middling performance along with an unbelievable story reduce this film to mediocrity. I rated it a 6/10.
This lackluster comedy simply fails to deliver sufficient laughs per hour to justify spending the time to watch it. Martin Lawrence, who is normally a funny guy, just isn't on his game in this flick. Danny DeVito is better, but the material doesn't give him much with which to work.
There is a lot of talent wasted on stereotype bits that are more insulting than comical. William Fichtner's flamingly effeminate detective would only be funny to homophobes. John Leguizamo's Arab imitation is less humorous now than it might have been before September 11.
The only really funny bit in the film is a strictly visual gag by Stephanie Clayman as the sign language interpreter. Without virtue of a solitary line of dialogue, she single handedly produces all the most hilarious moments in the film.
This film is a dud. I rated it 3/10. Martin Lawrence fans are likely to be disappointed.
The Rookie (2002)
Inspirational human interest story
As someone who loves films and baseball, this film was a mixed bag for me. As a human interest story it is excellent, but as a baseball story it is somewhat of a disappointment. It is a very upbeat tale of Jim Morris (Dennis Quaid), a high school science teacher who rediscovers his fastball at the age of 35 and tries out for the major leagues. The story mixes together his personal quest and that of the high school baseball team he coaches, both of which overcome incredible odds to achieve near impossible feats.
As a baseball story, Jim Morris is really nothing more than an interesting footnote in baseball history. There are far more compelling baseball stories to be told, like Tommy John who came back from reconstructive surgery to pitch another 14 seasons (that were some of his best), or Jim Abbott who was born without a right hand and pitched in the major leagues for ten years, pitching a no hitter against Cleveland in 1993. Morris only played for Tampa Bay for parts of two seasons, pitching a total of 15 innings with a 4.80 ERA and almost as many walks as strikeouts. Still, it is pretty inspirational that he made it to the majors at all given his age.
This film plays well on Main Street, where regular folks are reminded of the faded fantasies of their youth. It strikes a chord because to root for Morris is to root for their long abandoned dreams. Director John Lee Hancock does a fine job of bringing out the best in the human story, although the sports components are marginal.
There are just too many instances of unrealistic baseball in this film. For instance, Morris is repeatedly shown throwing as hard as he can with absolutely no warm-up. Any little leaguer can tell you that you will blow out your arm if you do that. This is especially unrealistic given the fact that Morris had surgery on that shoulder when he was younger. Unless he was plain stupid, he would warm up before he attempted to throw flat out.
As an athlete, Quaid is not terribly convincing, with pitching mechanics that are far short of professional caliber. Kevin Costner was much more credible in `For Love of the Game', though that film lacked the story of this one.
From an acting perspective Dennis Quaid is marvelous in the lead. This is one of the best performances of his career. He is convincing as the high school coach pushing his kids to reach for their dreams and maximize their potential. His chemistry with the young cast is terrific. However, in the pursuit of his own dream, he is even better. This is a complex and nuanced performance showing Morris as filled with desire and self doubt. Quaid's portrayal of his determination in the face of his own insecurity is phenomenally insightful and compelling. Rachel Griffiths and Brian Cox give splendid performances and Morris' wife and father.
This is a wonderful feel-good film that is great for the whole family. I've been a little hard on it because I'm a long time baseball fanatic, but the human interest story is so well done and Quaid's performance so compelling that I have to give it at least an 8/10. This is a film that everyone can enjoy, regardless of whether you love sports.
A correction to my previous post. I confused Imelda Staunton (petite) with Anna Chancellor (tall and blunt spoken). Chancellor was the doctor and Staunton was the police chief. I had it the other way around.
My apologies to the actors and their fans.
40 Days and 40 Nights (2002)
Immature twenty-something comedy
It was bound to happen. Josh Hartnett became a very hot property after `Pearl Harbor' so it was inevitable that he would get the lead in a romantic comedy. Unfortunately, it isn't a very good one. The screenplay is a typically sex-obsessed teen flick with twenty-something characters.
Matt (Hartnett) is trying to get over his ex-girlfriend Nicole (Vinessa Shaw) by having sex with every woman he meets. When it dawns on him that this is superficial and fraught with anxiety, he decides to give up sex for lent. Of course, as soon as he makes "The Vow", he meets his dream girl Erica (Shannyn Sossamon) and he spends much of the ensuing time trying to come up with reasons not to have sex with her. Meanwhile, his co-workers and half the internet have a pool on what day he will give in. The comedy is mostly puerile, though there are a few funny lines sprinkled here and there.
Director Michael Lehmann has plenty of experience with vacuous comedy, having directed `Heathers' and `Airheads'. He has done better on TV with `The Larry Sanders Show' and `The West Wing'. Lehmann keeps it light, but the material is just too jejune for him to do much. To his credit, the cast seemed to be having fun with it.
Josh Hartnett is an excellent dramatic actor. However, as a buffoon he is just not that funny. His true skills emerge in the romantic scenes with Shannyn Sossamon where his sincerity shines through. Hartnett and Sossamon have terrific chemistry. There is a very sensitive and endearing quality about their scenes together. Sossamon is a bright young talent who might do well with the right scripts. She is lovely and engaging with good acting ability. Paul Costanzo provides much of the best comedy as Matt's sexually fixated roommate.
This isn't a terrible comedy, but it is rather immature considering the age of the characters and the target audience. I rated it a 6/10.
We Were Soldiers (2002)
Among the best war films in recent memory
`Saving Private Ryan' redefined the war genre and opened the floodgates to a new generation of war movies. It pushed the boundaries of acceptability by frankly showing war in all its grisly glory. As such it gave us a better understanding of how terrible and frightening war is. `Black Hawk Down' took the graphic violence to a new level, with an intensity that matched the beach landing of SPR, but of a duration that was almost unbearable.
`We Were Soldiers' is the latest big budget war offering from Hollywood. In many ways, I consider this to be the most complete of the three. Writer/Director Randall Wallace (who wrote "Braveheart", "Pearl Harbor" and the screenplay for this film), takes the understanding of war to the next level, by offering more than one perspective to the events. Of the three films, this film has the best workup, the best character development, and the most nuanced look at the battle. He brings all the sustained intensity of BHD in the action sequences, but introduces the NVA perspective, the wives' perspective and a far more charismatic and heroic central figure in Lt. Col. Hal Moore.
Based on real events, this film shows war as being horrendous and heartless to both sides. It expands outside the combat zone to visit the ramifications on the families as well. The scenes with the wives getting the telegrams are poignant reminders of how war reaches beyond the battlefield. Wallace's treatment grabs us on an emotional level and shocks the senses. Unlike BHD, which presented the characters in a very anonymous way, we come to know these characters and their families and identify with them.
Of course, the film lacks the hard edge that would make it starkly believable. It is after all a Hollywood production and not a documentary. However, Wallace pours enough realism into the depictions to assure that this doesn't turn into another sappy melodrama like `Pearl Harbor', which was really nothing more than a romance with a long battle scene in the middle. Wallace finds the optimal balance between engaging storytelling and the brutality of combat.
The acting is excellent. Mel Gibson offers the right combination of hard nosed officer and father figure (both to his children and his men). Gibson is steadfast and courageous without being harsh. His portrayal of Moore is so well played, so charismatic and heroic, that it is impossible to believe that such a person could actually exist.
Sam Elliot follows an outstanding performance in `The Contender' with this gem as Sergeant Major Plumley, the tough as nails warhorse who serves as Moore's non commissioned adjutant. Elliot plays the intransigent career soldier to the hilt, where nothing including life itself is more important than honor and discipline. Barry Pepper also turns in a fine performance as Joe Galloway, the photo journalist who hops on a helicopter to take pictures in the center of the battle and finds himself with a rifle in his hands fighting for his life.
This is among the best war films in recent memory and probably the best film on the Vietnam War film since `Full Metal Jacket'. I rated it a 10/10. This film is not for everyone. It contains graphic violence and disturbingly realistic battle scenes. It is a gripping and distressing film that should be required viewing for statesmen and generals alike.
A Gentleman's Game (2002)
This is not really a film about golf, but a film about life with golf as the backdrop. Therein lies the problem. First time director J. Mills Goodloe can't seem to choose where he wants to go with the story and it meanders aimlessly from storyline to storyline in an attempt to give it a coming-of-age flavor.
He would have been better to concentrate on Timmy (Mason Gamble) and his relationship with Foster (Gary Sinise) in his quest to improve his golf game. This is clearly the best and most interesting element of the story. Instead he flits about following Timmy's relationship with the other loopers, his infatuation with the beverage girl and the happenings at various club events. The relationship between Timmy and Foster, never really gets much traction until the final scene and even then the validation is delivered via a letter rather than a face to face encounter, which would have made it poignant and satisfying.
The acting by Mason Gamble and Gary Sinise is excellent. They have good chemistry and it is clear they connect. Gamble gives a very steady performance throughout and gives the character a naive charm and steely resolve that are extremely engaging. Sinise plays a stolid and standoffish character harboring a terrible secret and bitter disappointment. His understated performance is a perfect fit for this complex character whose cavalier nature hides deeper turmoil. The rest of the cast is simply terrible. Dylan Baker is horrible as Timmy's dad. Phillip Baker Hall is awful as the two faced Charlie Logan.
This film had great potential that was never realized. I rated it 5/10. It should have stayed with the golf story rather than dissipate itself on the other less interesting elements.
The Sweetest Thing (2002)
Mindless and predictable romantic comedy
The sweetest thing about this film is Cameron Diaz. Unfortunately, the script is so mindless and predictable that all the pizzazz that Diaz can muster hasn't a hope of rescuing this film.
This is yet another tired romantic comedy about meeting that one true love on the eve of his/her wedding. The cast is energetic but the screenplay is lifeless. Christina (Diaz) is the consummate party girl. She never commits to a relationship. When she runs into Peter (Thomas Jane) in a club they argue, he leaves and of course she falls madly in love with him and tracks him down on his wedding day, aided and abetted by her loyal friends Courtney (Christina Applegate) and Jane (Selma Blair). There are a few funny scenes, but mostly it is just a parade of visual blonde jokes.
Diaz is vivacious, energetic, cute, pouty and cold all at the same time. This performance is a no brainer for her (literally and figuratively) and doesn't really test her acting ability. Christina Applegate plays an uncharacteristically smart character and probably delivers the most dynamic performance of the cast. Selma Blair is the least well known of the three, but steals just about every scene she is in. Thomas Jane is soggy in the romantic lead with all the magnetism of overcooked pasta.
This film laid an egg at the box office and rightfully so. It had a good first week and then tanked as is often the case when a popular star like Diaz opens a mediocre film and word of mouth overcomes the initial hype. I rated it a 5/10. The cast tries hard to have fun with it, but the material is just too dopey.
De Niro wastes his talent on another mediocre comedy
Robert De Niro must be going through mid life crisis. Arguably one of the best dramatic actors of his generation, De Niro continues to try to prove himself as a comic actor in a parade of mediocre scripts (The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Meet the Parents, Analyze This, Showtime). De Niro isn't a terrible comedian; he is just such a great dramatic actor that his comic ambitions seem pointless. It is like Michael Jordan trying to play baseball.
This script is a weak satire of reality cop shows and buddy cop flicks. It is no coincidence that the director of this film is Tom Dey, whose only other directorial effort was `Shanghai Noon', a Jackie Chan vehicle where Jackie does a comic duet with Owen Wilson in a lampoon of westerns. The hope was that Dey would be able to weave the same kind of satirical magic here, but this film comes up way short. To his credit, he did manage to give the film some good action footage.
De Niro tries to play the straight man in an absurd situation and it seems like his is the only character that realizes the lunacy of it. Everyone else seems to take their absurdity seriously. The tongue in cheek comedy is way over the top. Rene Russo, William Shattner and Eddie Murphy overact so terribly that it is more sad than funny. As a footnote, Drena De Niro (Robert De Niro's adopted daughter), appears for the fifth time in a film with her dad as Annie, the assistant producer and Rene Russo's sidekick.
The star power in this film was costly with a hefty budget over $85 Million and a box office of half that amount. I rated it a 4/10. This one needs to gather dust on the rental shelves and De Niro needs to get back to serious acting.