Movie Reviews (for this weeks releases).

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Registered: 03-27-2003
Movie Reviews (for this weeks releases).
Fri, 04-25-2003 - 9:00am
Identity

Ten strangers converge in an isolated desert motel. A storm is raging, the roads are flooded, the landlines are down and the single cell phone is out of juice. And a diabolical killer is stalking and killing them, one by one. But the big question isn't who will survive — it's who they are. George York (John C. McGinley) is on a trip with his wife Alice (Leila Kenzle) and little boy (Bret Loehr) when they get a flat and stop by the roadside to fix it. Distracted by the spoiled, over-the-hill B-movie actress (Rebecca DeMornay) he's ferrying back to Los Angeles, limo driver Ed (John Cusack) mows Alice down. Ed offers to drive them to a hospital, but the roads are washed out and everyone's forced to take refuge at a rundown, no-name motel along with several other guests. Paris (Amanda Peet) is a hooker looking for a new start, bickering newlyweds Ginny and Lou (Clea DuVall, William Lee Scott) are already beginning to think their spur-of-the-moment Las Vegas wedding was a mistake, and Officer Rhodes (Ray Liotta) runs out of gas while transporting a grinning multiple murderer (Jake Busey). Meanwhile, a handful of legal professionals have gathered for a highly irregular midnight sanity hearing. Convicted serial killer Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince) is scheduled for execution in less than 24 hours, but his lawyer has uncovered suppressed evidence that supports an insanity plea; his doctor (Alfred Molina) has prepared an impassioned appeal. The two stories dovetail in a big fat twist that, depending on how you feel about such things, either takes the story to a new level or invalidates everything that precedes it and turns the rest of the movie into a giant-sized "so what?" A supremely self-conscious reworking of Agatha Christie's pioneering body-count mystery Ten Little Indians, dressed up with '80s slasher-movie gore and a dash of the Twilight Zone, this stylish exercise in genre rejiggering is almost pedantically clever. Clues to the coming twist are carefully incorporated into the story in exactly the same way the killer's signature room keys, which count down the corpses, are hidden at each murder scene: tucked away in plain sight. You can't accuse screenwriter Michael Cooney or director James Mangold of cheating: From the case-file montage shown under the opening credits to the spooky bit of childhood verse ("As I was walking up the stair/I met a man who wasn't there...") repeated at key intervals, the puzzle pieces are all there. But when you put them all together, the result is a bit of a gyp — neat but utterly forgettable.



Manic

THE BREAKFAST CLUB on meds. After brutally assaulting a high-school classmate with a baseball bat, Lyle Jenson (3rd Rock From the Sun's Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is remanded to the care of the Northwood psychiatric facility, where troubled teens and assorted deranged adults are guided along the road to wellville by the likes of tireless staff psychologist David Monroe (Don Cheadle). At his first group session, Lyle is introduced to his peers, who bear a predictable gamut of psychological bruises. Sara (Sara Rivas), who hides her vulnerability behind a mask of black lipstick and heavy eye make-up, hates her mother and sports a trellis of tell-tale scars up and down her arms. White hip-hop poseur Mike (Elden Henson), has a trigger-temper and a chip on his shoulder, and takes an instant dislike to Lyle. Quiet, 12-year-old Native American Kenny (Cody Lightning) is trapped in a chain of sexual molestation. While trying to get to the root of his own uncontrollable rage through a combination of pills and group therapy (hint: it has something to do with physical abuse at the hands of a now-absent father), Lyle bonds with manic-depressive rich-kid Chad (Michael Bacall, who also cowrote the screenplay) and flirts with pretty-but-damaged Tracy (Zooey Deschanel), who, like every one else in the movie, is defined strictly by her laundry list of trauma: low self-esteem, an emotionally abusive mother, a sexual assault and chronic night terrors. The film doesn't really go anywhere, other than outside for endless games of basketball, and the group-therapy environment allows for far too many young-actor monologues. First-time writer/director Jordan Melamed tries to cook up a CUCKOO'S NEST-type friction between the staff, who are only interested in keeping the residents medicated and out of trouble, and the kids themselves, who just want to be free to smoke pot and turn the day room into a mosh pit. But it's only half-heartedly developed, even though the film's violent climax depends upon the conflict. A natural stylist, Melamed uses the soundtrack's doped-up beats, glaring natural light and jittery, hand-held camerawork to put you inside his characters' troubled minds, but that's an awfully dreary place to be.



It Runs in the Family

A wealthy New York clan tries to settle old feuds in this mild-mannered ensemble piece, designed to exploit the mystique — such as it is — of Hollywood's Douglas dynasty. Patriarch Mitchell Gromberg (Kirk Douglas) has recently survived a debilitating stroke; his diabetic wife, Evelyn (Diana Douglas), requires exhausting dialysis treatments and his senile brother, Stephen (Mark Hammer), is dribbling away his last days in a nursing home. Mitchell's middle-aged son and daughter-in-law, Alex and Rebecca (Michael Douglas, Bernadette Peters), are harried professionals who spend too much time at work; Alex hates corporate law and therapist Bernadette is understandably afraid that they're losing touch with their boys. College-age slacker Asher (Cameron Douglas) deflects every parental query with a joke and sixth-grader Eli (Rory Culkin) doesn't say much at all — when he wants a bigger allowance, he draws up a spreadsheet. The film starts at a migraine-inducing Passover seder, proceeds through two funerals, several grand emotional blowouts and an arrest, finally arriving at a tentative detente between generations. Director Fred Schepisi's LAST ORDERS (2001) is exactly the kind of rueful, bittersweet comedy-drama this film appears intended to be, but the mawkish sitcom schtick about loved ones driving each other crazy defeats him. Clearly geared for an older audience, its heartwarming raison d'etre, the stunt casting of real-life family members, may resonate with viewers old enough to remember Kirk as a swaggering star. Kirk, who survived a real-life stroke, isn't acting the ravages of age and infirmity; he embodies them, and if you're unfamiliar with the brash physicality and arrogance that once defined his performances there's nothing on screen but a frail old man gamely trying to enunciate through recalcitrant lips. His son Michael's smug screen presence undermines Alex's crisis of conscience, and while Michael's son, Cameron, lacks the acting skills to make Asher more than a caricature. He nails the callow jerk whose parents need to stop subsidizing his goofing off, but if Asher has inner depths, Cameron can't evoke them. The elegant Diana (a minor actress in her heyday who now radiates restrained grace under pressure) was married to Kirk for eight years and her sons — Michael and associate producer Joel — must have melted at the sight of their parents dancing together onscreen half a century after their divorce. But to an outsider, it's pretty thin stuff.



The Real Cancun

Producers Mary Ellis-Bunim and Jonathan Murray, who created MTV's pioneering reality series The Real World, bring their psuedo-documentary style to the big screen. They scoured college towns in search of 16 diverse strangers whom they could pluck from obscurity and deposit in a glamorous house in Mexico, where all their exploits over the course of a week were taped. The unscripted result is undeniably entertaining, though calling it "reality" is a bit of a stretch: Most vacationing college students don't arrive in Cancun and get set up in a posh dwelling with beachfront view and fully stocked bar, along with their own personal tour guides. The ever-present camera crews also bring the cast some added attention from other Spring Break attendees hoping for their own 15 minutes of fame. The raucousness begins when the co-eds land in Cancun, don their skimpy duds and head to the free bar to begin the process of getting to know each other. Eighteen-year-old Alan, who's never imbibed alcohol, declares that his goal for the week is to see some "boobies." And that he does. The beaches are a mass of topless party animals and housemates Roxanne and Nicole, New Mexican twins who make the Hilton sisters look like models of propriety, are the first to doff their tops during a wet T-shirt contest, helping nudge the out-of-control Spring Break mentality into full swing. Much effort is expended in the cause of getting Alan to loosen up and take his first drink; and there's lots of relationship drama as housemates attempt to hook up with members of the opposite sex, with varying degrees of success. Sara is stung by a jellyfish while bungee jumping and develops a yen for Matt, despite the fact that she has a boyfriend back home. Paul spends a great deal of time wooing Sky; long-time friends Heidi and David try and deal with the sexual tension between them; and self-proclaimed "ladies' man" Jeremy has an early fling with Laura that becomes extremely awkward. The film's most challenging aspect is trying to figure out who's who among the attractive cast. Only those who went out of their way to distinguish themselves stand out, while the others blur together or fall by the wayside. The film's editors did an admirable job of extracting complete story arcs from hundreds of hours of footage, especially given that filming ended on March 23, 2003 — barely a month before the movie landed in theaters.



A Mighty Wind

Smart with heart is a rare combination. Add funny and you're down to about five filmmakers worldwide, and one of them is Christopher Guest. Most will say that Guest, reuniting most of the troupe from his dog-pageant satire BEST IN SHOW (2000) and his community-theater lampoon WAITING FOR GUFFMAN (1996), does for folk music what THIS IS SPINAL TAP did for heavy-metal, but that's a bit too glib: Folk music is as broad, storied and complex as jazz. But this mockumentary (a term Guest says he dislikes, but whatever) does send up the early-'60s "folk revival" and its boomer attendant nostalgia, and like SPINAL TAP (which Guest co-wrote), you don't need to know the music to get it. In a too-short 87 minutes (culled, like the earlier films, from many hours of material improvised along a scripted outline), we spend two weeks with Jonathan Steinbloom (Bob Balaban) as he scrambles to organize a memorial concert for his late father, beloved folk-music producer Irv Steinbloom. Arranging for it to be held at (where else?) New York City's ever-earnest Town Hall and aired live on (where else?) public broadcasting, Jonathan reunites the Folksmen (SPINAL TAP-sters Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer) and the romantic-couple balladeers Mitch & Mickey (Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara), and calls in the New Main Street Singers, the sort of smiling, overly upbeat group in matching sweater-vests that might still be playing state fairs. (The three acts appear to be loosely based on such groups as the Kingston Trio; Richard and Mimi Fariña by way of one-hit popsters Paul and Paula; and The New Christy Minstrels, respectively.) Anyone who saw BEST IN SHOW and then watched a real dog show on TV might have had a hard time telling them apart, so closely did Guest and his actors understand and empathize with that world. Here, too, they zero in on aficionados' quirks and the music's conventions, from the naively sincere proclamations of peace, love and working-man authenticity to the homogenized packaging of folk-pop. Yet even the most self-absorbed characters here are never pathetic, and the movie's climax is genuinely and unexpectedly touching. And the songs are great — some are exaggeratedly precious, others could have come right off albums of the era. While the unfortunate epilogue strains the naturalism of what's gone on before and leaves a bit of a sour taste, this semi-improvisational comedy otherwise reaches Balzacian brilliance.  



Confidence

Forget understanding the sting, which has something to do with start-ups and offshore bank accounts — just sit back and enjoy the sharp performances and stylish ambiance that are clearly this film's real reason for existing. Con man Jake Vig (Edward Burns) takes his grifting seriously, and has painstakingly assembled a crackerjack crew — Gordo (Paul Giametti), Miles (Brian Van Holt) and Big Al (Louis Lombardi) — supplemented by a pair of corrupt cops (Donal Logue, Luis Guzman) whose greed and stupidity he manipulates to his own ends. He owns a too-cool little dive bar where they stage swindles and hang out between gigs, and everything's copacetic until they scam a guy named Lionel (Leland Orser). Not that the take isn't good — it's great. But Lionel turns out to have been working for a volatile crime lord named King (Dustin Hoffman) — The King to his associates and friends, if he had any — and King isn't happy. Jake is forced to pull off a high-stakes con for King by way of making things right, and nothing but burning businessman Morgan Price (Robert Forster), against whom King has a longstanding grudge, will do. With the addition of sultry pickpocket Lily (Rachel Weisz) and King's scary flunky, Lupus (Franky G), Vig's new crew is ready to start looking for the weak link in Price's organization. Further complicating matters are a scruffy agent (Andy Garcia) who's out to bring Vig down and Price's all-purpose muscle, Travis (Morris Chestnut), who's looking out for number one with a bullet. This intricate thriller doesn't aim for the psychological intensity of David Mamet's HOUSE OF GAMES (1987), in which every twist of the convoluted plot reveals another layer of tortured personality. It just wants to keep you guessing — no one is what he or she seems and nothing unfolds without a couple of flashy kinks — and by and large, it succeeds admirably. Screenwriter Doug Jung's dialogue is snappy, James Foley's direction is brisk and Juan Ruiz Anchía's cinematography imparts a smeary neon glamour to shopworn locations. The cast — a felicitous blend of character actors and up-and-comers — work together like a street-smart machine, and Hoffman's scummy turn as porn-peddler and all-around creep King is a reminder of just how sleazily funny he can be.



City of Ghosts

Actor Matt Dillon's directing debut is a steamy, sleepy chronicle of an American grifter playing hide and seek with his conscience in impoverished but richly evocative Cambodia. Co-written by Dillon and neo-noir novelist Barry Gifford, it revolves around veteran con man Jimmy Cremmins (Dillon), who flees the U.S. one step ahead of the FBI and goes looking for his mentor, Marvin (James Caan) in Southeast Asia. On the advice of another longtime partner-in-crime Kaspar (Stellan Skarsgard), Jimmy leaves the relative safety of Bangkok for Phnom Penh, where Marvin is laying low in hopes of eluding some Russian Mafiosi. Time and trouble seem to slow to a crawl amidst the shimmering haze and crumbling beauty of Phnom Penh, whose serene Buddhas and ornate colonial architecture exist side-by-side with crowded slums and brutal poverty. Jimmy takes up residence at expatriate Emile's (Gerard Depardieu) decrepit Belleville Hotel, befriends a cyclo-driver named Sok (Sereyvuth Kem), flirts with pretty English art restorer Sophie (Natascha McElhone), banters with Emile and waits for Marvin. By the time Marvin finally materializes, sarong-clad and deep in the throes of setting up a shady and potentially lucrative scam involving construction of a resort casino, Jimmy has started wondering what he's doing with his life and whether it's possible for a leopard to change his spots. Dillon makes an assured directing debut, neither indulging in unnecessary stylistic flourishes nor allowing scenes to run too long, a tendency in actors-turned-director. As befits a film inspired by a location — Dillon decided to set a film in Cambodia after a 1993 trip — Phnom Penh is a far more compelling presence than any of the characters (though Skarsgard's sullen, sweaty Kaspar gives it a run for its money), but that isn't entirely a liability. The city's hazy juxtaposition of beauty and squalor, coupled with the oppressive sense of brutal history scabbed over with a fragrant layer of jasmine, is enthralling and adds depth and melancholy color to a story that's drowsily evocative rather than propelled by the snappy twists and turns that traditionally drive crime films.