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More Great Work From Nolan; Masterful Work From Pacino
Al Pacino has always been known and rewarded for his loud, showy, abrasive, and larger-than-life characters. He's garnered Oscar nominations for big, in-your-face roles such as in Dick Tracy and The Godfather, and finally won for Scent of a Woman, in which his gargantuan, wild performance literally carried an otherwise average film. That's why it's such a shock and treat to see him playing the lead character, Detective Will Dormer, in Insomnia as a man so lost and broken in spirit that you can see the failure, defeat, and exhaustion on his face. This isn't a variation of his shouting, impassioned, bordering-on-caricature personas; it's a performance of subtlety and depth as he slowly becomes bogged down by both guilt and lack of sleep. In short, it may be Pacino's best performance of his career.
L. A. detectives Will Dormer and partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) arrive in the small Alaskan town of Nightmute (sumptuously photographed) to assist local police in the murder of a young girl. The town is in the middle of a 6-month period of constant twilight, with the sun never going down and light pervading all, adding to Dormer's sleeplessness. Ellie Burr (Hillary Swank, in a perfunctory role), a rookie cop, serves as their guide and helps with the investigation. Dormer and Eckhart are in conflict; Eckhart threaten sto give information to the LAPD about misconduct on Dormer's part. During a chase for the killer, Dormer accidentally shoots his partner. The killer sees this, and uses it to blackmail him into helping him flee police capture.
At the midway point, the murderer is revealed, and is played by Robin Williams. Again, here is a performer known for his energetic and spontaneous work in a variety of comedy and family films. Under Nolan's direction, Williams turns in a creepy cool performace, underplaying his role and imbuing the character with an intangible, offbeat quality. With the two main performers doing such quality work, it's sad that Hillary Swanks' role was not more fleshed out. Her job is too basically be in peril when the script calls for it or act suspicious. It's not so much that it's a poorly written character, it's just that a great performer deserves a great role.
Director Christopher Nolan has directed another fine thriller with Insomnia. Of course its much more conventional than Memento, but that's to be expected and really can't be held against a top-notch mindgame such as this. He gets fantastic performances out of his cast, especially Pacino with his masterful onscreen deterioration of his character. A well-paced and engrossing film, with just the right amount of action and a fascinating and thoughtful psychological dance between the two main characters. Nolan is filling the niche he carved himself in the suspense genre with more quality work.
8 out of 10
Panic Room (2002)
Suspenseful, But Nowhere Near Fincher's Previous Work
After delving into a different dimension with Fight Club, David Fincher has returned to the genre that helped realize his brilliance. Panic Room brings Fincher back into the suspense game, directing Jodie Foster in a thriller that finds her forced to retreat into the room of said title.
David Koepp (Stir of Echoes) scripts this potboiler about a recently divorced mother (Foster) and her diabetic daughter (Kristen Stewart) move into a New York home whose previous owner had a panic room built in; basically it's a room surrounded by steel and filled with surveillance monitors, medical kits, and water to last for days. It's a good thing, too, since on their first night, three burglars (played well by Whitaker, Leto, and Yoakam) break in, attempting to find a fortune that's been hidden in, of course, the room.
Foster is used to playing strong women roles, but she's never come off as being more resourceful as in Panic Room. She makes her character seem like less a victim than a force to be reckoned with, and instead ably matches her captors. Whitaker, Leto, and Yoakam all play their parts convincingly as the intelligent, strategic, and violent burglars, respectively. The only role that comes off as a plot device is the daughter, who seems to be there not as a character but more a hinderance to the film's heroine.
Fincher is a master of suspense, and there are droves of it as Foster smartly and able participates in a game of cat-and-mouse with the thieves. She comes up with clever and effective ways of dealing with them, which I won't reveal here. Suffice to say there are many moments when the audience is riveted to the screen and also never feels as if the movie is becoming an implausible eye-roller. Panic Room isn't near Fincher's other work, but still is a tense, above average thriller.
7 out of 10
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Lynch's Mind-Spinning Masterpiece
If you've never seen a David Lynch film, you've never seen the kind of disorienting and hypnotic power film can be capable of. There's no other director like him, no other filmmaker who creates disquiet, illusion, and an uncomfortable atmosphere as he does. In Mullholland Dr., Lynch's most complex work to date, he has fashioned all of the ideas that intrigued in Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and Lost Highway into a maddening, surrealistic, and dreamlike tapestry; the audience may or may not know what's happening, but they are glued to the screen trying logically fit the pieces of the puzzle into an understandable fusion.
I realize I've said nothing about the plot of the film, because its so labyrinthine and mind-boggling that it can't be described justifiably in a single review. The basic storyline however, begins with an actress (Laura Harring) about to be killed by her drivers on Mulholland Dr when a speeding car collides with her limo, leaving her with amnesia. At the same time, Betty (Watts), an aspiring actress oozing sweetness arrives in Los Angeles from Canada. They meet at her apartment, and Betty attempts to help "Rita" (a name she adopts from a movie poster) regain her identity.
Lynch outdoes himself in such cryptic, confusing, sometimes hilarious, but most often odd scenes as a mafioso/film producer spews out his espresso while his partner inexplicably yells out, "Help me! Help me!"a jealous director coats his cheating wife's jewelry in pink paint, and an evening excursion to a nightclub that climaxes with a heartbreaking rendition of a Roy Orbison song in Spanish.
The first 2 hours or so of the movie seem conspicuously solvable, but t a point during all of the story shifts or unravels. Identities change, some characters disappear, reappear, simply don't come back at all, or maybe become one. The audience feels jerked around, manipulated, but intrigued by it all. Logically, we want to know what is going on and try to put all of the pieces together. There are so many pieces however, that it is nearly impossible to look at the proceedings in a logical sense.
This film is not for those who want a straightforward story with a beginning, conflicts, heroes and villains that might as well have name tags on them, or resolutions with a neat and tidy ending. They key to getting any kind of understanding is to simply let it flow through you the first time you watch it (multiple viewings are required, as with most Lynch films) and understand that much of it is dreamlike, so as with dreams, may have happened or may not have. You may get it of you may not. Regardless, it's a fascinating and recommendable journey that's been masterfully created by David Lynch.
9 out of 10
Hearts in Atlantis (2001)
Great Drama Marred by Flimsy Supernaturalism
Probably the most distinct element about Hearts in Atlantis is the way it provokes emotion through atmosphere more than with, what is, a weak narrative pull. It is doused in a haze of memory and nostalgia, of fear and the unknown. Director Scott Hicks seems busy in recreating the 1950's era, but the emotional tug that is expected never really hits a high note.
Hearts in Atlantis stars Anton Yelchin as Bobby, a young boy living in rural middle America with his neglectful mother (Hope Davis), when an older man named Ted (the inimitable Anthony Hopkins) arrives to live in the suite above their home. Bobby and Ted soon become friends, and Ted hires him for $1 a week to read the paper to him. The true purpose for hiring him, Ted reveals, is to inform him of "the Low Men," people looking for him because of Ted's strange quality to foresee the future.
Stephen King penned the novel, but the movie has more to do with the relationship between Bobby and Ted than the supernatural. It's actually more in the vein of Stand By Me. In fact, were it not for the psychic overtones, Hearts in Atlantis could have easily played out as a straight, coming-of-age drama. Instead, the shift in tone misleads the audience with a schizophrenic mood that switches back and forth between dramatic arcs and hints of otherworldliness, making for, unfortunately a rather dissatisfying payoff.
Both Hopkins and Yelchin are in fine form, making up for the uneven lulls in storytelling, with fine performances. Hopkins excels at the these sort of father-type, knowledgeable roles, and newcomer Yelchin complements him with a believable heartfelt turn as the stalwart, courageous Bobby. Hope Davis is suitably (yet one-dimensional) icy as his self-absorbed mother), and as Bobby's girlfriend, Boorem more than holds her own.
Hearts in Atlantis is not near the caliber of King's other mainstream works that have reached the big screen, such as The Shawshank Redemption or The Green Mile. It is still, however, a quiet, gentle, and well-acted and shot coming-of-age story. With the supernatural backstory eschewed and a keener eye for character, this could have been a truly heart-tugging, powerful film, instead of only being strewn here and there with real emotion.
7 out of 10
Soul Survivors (2001)
Derivative Psychological Thriller Posing as Teen Horror
Like a relative that gives you a bad gift, Soul Survivors has its heart in the right place but trips up with a bad execution. Stephen Carpenter's writing/directing effort borrows freely from other, better films, such as Jacob's Ladder and Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes). For those who haven't seen either of these films, I won't give the premise away; suffice to say it's not nearly as well handled here than in those two superior films.
Melissa Sagemiller stars as Cassie, about to go away to college. Her current boyfriend Sean (Ben Affleck) and ex-boyfriend Matt (Wes Bentley), both friends, and Annabel (acerbic Eliza Dushku) are in a car accident after being pursued by two killers (?) in transparent masks. She survives the wreck, but while attending college has visions of the hospital ordeal and dead people reappear and disappear, leaving her in a state of total confusion: who is dead? Who's alive? What's real?
Soul Survivors has the look of a bad been-there, done-that, gore-filled, blood-splattered, body-stacking teen exploitation flick. True, it has its share of killer-stalking-the-victim scenes (plentiful, repetitive, and mind-numbing), but at least it attempts to build suspense through ideas rather than cliches, unfortunately rather unsuccessfully. It breeds confusion much more often than cohesion, as the story becomes jumbled, messy and incoherent near key points of the mystery (predictable as it is.)
Horror fans who pick up a copy will have no idea they are in for a film that is more concerned with building an uneasy facade of reality than delivering a body count. Credit goes to Carpenter for attempting to create something beyond a derivative teen horror flick; too bad he's created a derivative psychological thriller. Sagemiller also deserves kudos for showing strength in the central performance, actually developing her character and evoking some sense of emotion as the unraveling Cassie. It's great the filmmakers try something different, but the film ends up a mixed bag and failed experiment.
4 out of 10
The Score (2001)
Scores of Talent
Director Frank Oz is known mostly for lightweight comedies like In and Out, What About Bob?, and various Muppet movies. The Score is his first entry outside of the comedy genre, and he's done a fantastic job creating an intelligent, absorbing, and refreshingly different kind of crime flick.
Robert DeNiro stars as a brilliant, skillful thief who wants to settle down with his girlfriend, a perfunctory role played by Angela Bassett. Problem is, he is sucked in by temptation and a huge payoff into doing one last job for retired thief and friend Marlon Brando: stealing a priceless scepter from thr 1600s. Enter Edward Norton, who works at the customshouse being targeted for the robbery and feigns mental retardation, enabling him to get info and access about the security system.
Perhaps the most attractive, engaging aspect of The Score is the variety of its three lead actors, arguably the best actors of their time. Each brings uniqueness and individuality to their roles, all the while bouncing off each other and creating a mesmerizing powerhouse of ensemble acting. DeNiro is calm, collected, and ever so professional as the tired, eager to withdraw thief, Marlon Brando is believable as the seasoned, retired thief with a been-there, done-that attitude. and Norton comes off as both arrogant and knowledgeable as the rookie. Angela Bassett, a good actress, has little do here besides dote on DeNiro; her role is severely underwritten and could have benefitted from more development.
The Score is also an usual crime movie in that there are no grandiose shootouts, no car chases, and no climax culminating in huge fireballs and explosions. The screenwriters have wisely chosen to let the talent of the actors and the complexity of the caper take center stage, and director Frank Oz slowly and laboriously paces the film as it leads up to the heist. relying solely on dialogue and clever plot twists to build suspense.
While The Score may sometimes seem to tread familiar ground in its plotting, the bevy of talent bursting from the three lead actors more than makes up for story lulls; in fact, it makes The Score feel more like an authentic, old-school thriller than an explosion-filled, testosterone-fueled heist flick.
8 out of 10
Jeepers Creepers (2001)
Great First Half, Trips Second
For its first half, Victor Salva does a bang-up job of creating dread and suspense in Jeepers Creepers, the latest entry into the teen-horror genre, the director eschewing the normal genre cliches and gives us a truly uncomfortable and disturbing premise: As two college students (brother and sister, and not boyfriend/girlfriend, for a change) drive home through a rural highway, they encounter a ghastly sight: a cloaked person heaving what appears to be dead bodies down a sewer drain. They investigate, make a truly ghastly discovery and are pursued by a road-raged trucker in sequences that echo "The Duel."
From the uncovering of the villain, however, Jeepers Creepers becomes quite standard in its course, and thought it offers quite an unseen ending, the rest of the film doesnt measure up to the nail-biting tension of the first half.
After establishing a nightmarish premise, introducing smart rather than gullible and dumb main characters, and invoking a gim, menacing killer, the film degenerates into the usual cliches: cops who don't believe the main characters, a CGI killer, and a bad screenplay crutch: a psychic who knows some mumbo-jumbo lore about the killer.
Still, Salva does deliver a disturbing start, Justin Long and Geena Phillips are fun and watchable as the siblings, and though it does fail to deliver an equally effective follow up, it's certainly above the likes of the horror tripe that's infested the horror genre (see Valentine) and recommendable.
7 out of 10
Training Day (2001)
Searing Work From Washington and Fuqua
Audiences looking for a big, mindless, action-driven cop flick in Training Day will be surprised by two things: director Antoine Fuqua, who made the dismally mediocre Jaime Foxx vehicle, "Bait", has molded an adult, tense, mature, and engrossing action-drama, and two, Denzel Washington has eschewed his good guy persona, playing a charismatic but unlikable rogue cop.
While the story of corrupt cops lurking in the police department may be done to death, a certain timeliness is present with such stories as the recent LAPD Rampart scandal. Ethan Hawke plays a rookie-cop who hopes to work his way up the rungs of the LAPD to detective by working with seasoned undercover narcotics cop Washington. Washington proves, however, to have questionable methods of investigation and procedure. Hawke unwittingly is drawn into the sickly logical and charasmatic musings of Washington until he ends up unwittingly becoming a participant in a coverup.
Again, the story has been done before, but rarely has it been tackled with such a tense, uneasy, and guttural realism. Director Antoine Fuqua injects the film with a searing authenticity: LA hasn't been such an uninviting. dangerous, ugly urban jungle in a while, with bleak, rainy shots of the city swimming in dirt, litter, and graffiti. The use of realistic looking and acting gang members, and also the cameo appearances of rap stars helps keep tensions high as well, and also adds striking resonance.
Anchoring the whole movie is Denzel Washington, in a refreshing change from his usual upstanding, righteous roles. As the corrupt cop, he gleefully goes for broke in a manic, antihero, larger-than-life performance so unlike his previous work that it will surely garner him an Oscar nomination.
While the last 15 minutes almost undo the fantastic work by the cast and crew, Training Day is an accomplished renewal in the cop movie genre, a promising feature in Fuqua's career, and another great performance under Denzel Washington's belt.
8 out of 10
One Night at McCool's (2001)
A Good Night Time
The enormous influence of Pulp Fiction's staggered, broken, complex structure continues to show up in countless crime films, most of them using it as a crutch to compensate for weak story and characters. One Night at McCool's is a comedy that makes good use of a non-linear story structure, yet it too rests all its weight on it. It's sad, too, since much more fun could have been derived from its quirky characters.
One Night at McCool's story revolves around Liv Tyler, who enchants three men she meets after a night at the bar of the title. There's Matt Dillon who stars as a lonely guy in need of a motherly type of girlfriend,Paul Reiser as a self-proclaimed gift to women, and John Goodman, as a widowed, religious cop looking for a new wife. The story is structured around their retelling of their encounters with Tyler, who is of course, incapable of doing wrong in their eyes. It's funny to see each character project their own twisted view on what went on, and then see another character retell the same scene in a completely different way.
What isn't funny, however, is to see the film desperately trying to interweave these points of view while forgetting about characters and dialogue. While the characters are all easy to laugh at, there really isn't a main character to keep narrative focused, since they all commit a deplorable act that makes the stories they are recounting all questionable. True, it's fun not to know who's giving the closest rendition of the truth, but to have not one redeemable character makes it hard to care about what happens to them.
Paul Reiser gets the most laughs out of any of the other main actors, but it's Michael Douglas' small role as a retro, overgrown-hair, bingo-playing hitman, chewing up scenery and that generates the most laughs and steals every scene. Had One Night at McCool's focused on its characters more than attempting to seem clever with its plot device, it would have been side-splitting rather than simply amusing.
6 out of 10
The Others (2001)
Intelligent, Atmospheric Horror
It's almost impossible to discuss The Others without bringing up 1999's already classic ghost thriller The Sixth Sense. Both are films that move deliberately slow, drawing in the audience with a fine eye for details and no special effects, creating a brooding atmosphere and getting frights from suggestion and small effects. Still, Amenabar's The Others goes even further with his minimalist style, constructing a film that becomes increasingly creepy with the slightest sound effect or plot point.
Nicole Kidman, in a bravura, chilling performance, stars as Grace, mother to two children with a rare disease that makes exposure to sunlight deadly. She lives in a mansion on an island, fog smothering their secluded existence, when one day three servants come looking for work. She hires them, and suddenly strange noises and occurences start descending on the house. Slowly, it becomes evident that they are not alone when her daughter begins to describe her experiences with a mysterious ghost boy named Victor.
The Others is an elegantly mounted film, and Amenabar succeeds in building an uneasy tension with striking cinematography that makes the light and darkness seem to come alive, as if it were a character in itself. At times, the look and feel of it seems more like a macabre Merchant-Ivory production than a haunted house movie. Amenabar's pacing is perfect; it's refreshing to see a summer movie that slowly and confidently ups the ante to the point where the audience doesn't know where the story is going to go. When the film finally reaches it's end, its quite a spine-tingling climax.
8 out of 10