December 2006 Archives
December 18, 2006
I have to admit up front that A Perfect Day really had me going. It had its share of problems, but I was willing to ignore them because everything still worked in spite of the problems. Then I got to the end, and all was lost. The only significant problem with A Perfect Day is its ending; sadly, its conclusion is so tragically awful that it negates everything that came before it. Maybe a few extra scenes tacked on after the denouement would have done it some good, so our last impression of the movie wouldn’t be such a mess. Alas, it ties up its loose ends and the credits roll, leaving audience members (even the ones only half-watching while they make dinner or do laundry) with stunned, baffled looks on their faces.
The ending makes this review difficult to write. I want to say, “Wow, that ending — don’t watch this movie based purely on the the fact that the last ten minutes say, ‘Hello, I’m a representative of Johnson & Johnson, and I have just wasted your time. Joke’s on you, sucker!’” At the same time, I don’t want to spoil the ending for anybody whose opinion differs from mine. So I’m just going to ignore it and concentrate on what works and what doesn’t in the rest of the film.
Rob Lowe and Paget Brewster give nice, nuanced performances as a husband and wife whose marriage breaks down over the course of the movie. Why? Well, Lowe gets fired from his job (as an ad salesman at a radio station) and decides to write a novel. His wife helps by being very supportive, insisting that things could work if she went back to work and he took care of their young daughter (Maggie Geisland, who gives a natural performance, thankfully without a trace of child-actor precociousness).
After an undisclosed amount of time, Lowe finishes the novel, which isn’t really a novel at all; it’s a barely-fictionalized telling of the last days Brewster spent with her father before he died. The film tells us it’s very poignant and well-written, but they wisely don’t attempt to show us anything from the book except its title (also the title of the film).
Lowe’s character is believably sensitive, articulate, and intelligent enough to write a novel from his wife’s perspective. He’s portrayed as a good man who really cares about his family, which is important because everything changes when he finally finds an agent (Frances Conroy) who helps him get the book published. By this time, Lowe is working for his brother digging up septic tanks. When the book sells, he’s elated. Conroy whisks him off on a book tour, and that’s when things start to go wrong.
A publicist from his publishing company (Rowena King) rushes in and snatches him away from Conroy, getting Lowe better bookings and more important publicity. Soon, his book is number one on the New York Times bestseller list. Does it go to Lowe’s head? Absolutely. When Brewster tries to bring him back down to planet Earth, he says a variety of hostile things that prompt her to leave. Lowe decides his career is more important than his family and continues jetting around the country, largely ignoring his wife and daughter.
If not for the awful ending, I’d actually suggest the movie be a bit longer. The performances do their best to keep it grounded, but the screenplay by Joyce Eliason (based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Richard Paul Evans) can only give us broad strokes. Brewster is angry; Geisland is sad; Lowe is a dick. The story tries to cover a lot of ground in two hours, and it does a serviceable job. It would just be nice to see everything taken a bit further.
Instead, the movie gets distracted with another problem: the excellent Christopher Lloyd shows up as an angel who stalks Lowe. The big turning point comes when Lloyd tells Lowe he has only 14 days to live — he’ll die on Christmas Day, unless he changes himself in an unspecified way that will make God happy. Lowe reevaluates his priorities and realizes the hollowness and solitude of his life. He returns home; Brewster’s still angry, but at least their daughter is ecstatic to see him.
Eventually Lowe confesses to Brewster that he’s going to die; he makes amends with her and his father (the underused Jude Ciccolella), and here’s where I have to admit the movie really got to me. When I think about it, the fact that an angel has to scare him into changing instead of coming to the realization himself…it’s a sad comment on Lowe’s character how believable that is. I bought into it completely, which maybe is also a sad comment on me.
At any rate, Lowe’s making amends leads to the craptacular big ending. It’s obvious, at least, that he doesn’t die, which is probably a good thing; however, everything else about the way A Perfect Day finishes is goofy and, while logical, impossible to believe. It’s too bad, because while the bulk of it isn’t perfect, it somehow manages to work anyway. It’s worth investing time in if you just turn it off at the last commercial break and make up your own ending; trust me, anything you come up with is better than the movie’s actual ending.
December 30, 2006
There’s an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 where Mike and the ‘bots tackle an awful PBS-produced sci-fi thriller called Overdrawn at the Memory Bank. Yeah. It’s about a rebellious worker-drone in a futuristic dystopian who figures out how to pirate movies on his computer. He becomes obsessed with Casablanca, prompting Mike to say, “Hey! No showing scenes from a good movie in the middle of your crappy movie.” A similar rule could (and should) be applied to Final Move: no naming the detective in your movie after arguably the most famous private detective in fiction. Comparisons are inevitable, and in the case of Final Move, that’s a very bad thing.
Matt Schulze (The Transporter) stars as Dan Marlowe, a homicide detective whose last case drove him somewhat insane. The insanity might or might not have to do with psychic visions he sometimes gets, especially around horrific crime scenes. Why does he have these visions, and what insight does it give him? These are questions the film doesn’t explore. The visions are, basically, one of many red herrings and dead-ends the film drops in our laps to pad its running time. He sees indistinct visions of murder but doesn’t see the killer. Later, he sees a vision of the killer, but the face is covered up. All he can see are the eyes, which Marlowe swears he recognizes — but from where?
Maybe his psychic ability is worthless in the present, but apparently it led to Marlowe to solve the famous “chess murders” that plagued Los Angeles some years back. Why “chess” murders? Two reasons: the murderer has divided Los Angeles up into a grid like a chessboard. He calls up the detectives with clues about his next move, which means the next murder will take place in whichever grid he moves his next piece to. See, it’s human chess, and boy does director Joey Travolta beat the hell out of that particular hunk of overwrought symbolism. Oh, also, the killer jams a chess piece into the victim’s mouth (just in case the cops didn’t understand the subtlety of the grid).
We first meet Marlowe at a mental hospital, where his ex-partner and brother-in-law Krieg (the underrated Lochlyn Munro) springs Marlowe because he needs help. It would appear that, on the same night the chess murderer is executed, a woman is killed with the exact M.O. of the chess killer. Krieg wants to believe it’s a copycat, but whoever murdered this woman knew details never released to the press. Krieg is concerned that maybe they (and by “they,” he means Marlowe, whose psychic visions led them to the first chess murderer) put the wrong man to death. This news fills Marlowe with similar self-doubt. He reluctantly agrees to help.
His wife, played by Amanda Detmer (TV’s What About Brian?), is not terribly happy with this news. She’s happy he’s come home until she sees Krieg on television talking about the chess murders. They spend most of their scenes together fighting about the way Marlowe makes crime-solving the priority instead of his wife and diabetes-stricken daughter. Marlowe staggers around drunkenly and screams at her, but mostly he ends up sleeping in his car and not shaving.
With the help of a few other homicide detectives and celebrity guest star Captain David Carradine, Marlowe and Krieg investigate a series of fruitless leads trying to get the drop on the killer. This section of the film is rambling, episodic, and ultimately leads nowhere. At the same time, it’s the first place — other than endlessly hearing the name “Marlowe” — that we see the apparent influence of Raymond Chandler on the screenwriters. Chandler’s novels have the same type of episodic structuring, with Marlowe talking with and occasionally getting his ass kicked by a bizarre cavalcade of characters. The difference is that, more often than not, Philip Marlowe barely did any actual investigation. He’d have a few leads, but as soon as he said, “I’m a private investigator,” they’d end up tipping their hands so he knew he was on the right track, even if he had no idea where the track led. In Final Move, suspects are led into the interrogation room for some goofy, bizarre scenes, but they add up to nothing. They aren’t even tangentially involved with the crimes.
But there are some things the screenwriters do right. The midpoint (where the killer narrowly escapes the detectives at a downtown hotel) through the end is actually pretty tight, and the resolution is somewhat satisfying. From a writing standpoint, anyway. It seems weaker than it is because the film has bigger problems than a decent (but not great) screenplay.
Joey Travolta has directed a lot of movies over the past decade, but I haven’t seen any of them. Maybe detective thrillers aren’t his genre. Maybe the budget and time constraints evident throughout the movie threw him off his game. I’m not sure, but in Final Move, he tries to cover the myriad flaws with flashy editing. He also breezes past important moments for the characters to focus more intently on the crime story. The big third-act turning point is when the killer kidnaps Marlowe’s wife and daughter. This is a decent plot point, but the big moment should come when Marlowe (who’s neglected his daughter and has fought with his wife almost nonstop about it) realizes his daughter needs her medicine. This is his character’s turning point, when he finally cares less about catching the killer and more about keeping his family safe and healthy. The flat direction on this scene makes it seem like a dull, unimportant detail, when in fact it’s probably Marlowe’s most important moment of character development.
While Travolta clearly bears some of the blame for some awkward pacing, the dunderheaded chess metaphor (which seems more a product of editing-room spicing-up than poor writing), and playing up the wrong aspects, he’s not fully to blame. Matt Schulze, who’s in nearly every scene, drags the movie down a bit. He’s not a terrible actor by any means, but there are quite a few scenes where slurred speech and uncontrolled giggling make it seem like he’s more committed to the role of drunk detective than he should be. He’s either much better at playing drunk than I give him credit for, or he’s way too into The Method and/or The Whiskey.
Of course, it doesn’t help that our theoretical star is surrounded by people who act circles around him. This includes Lochlyn Munro, Amanda Detmer, the clearly-phoning-it-in David Carradine, and the big surprise of the movie — supermodel Rachel Hunter. Maybe it’s a sign of how bad the movie is when Rachel Hunter gives a revelatory performance, but…there it is. Lochlyn Munro always gives performances that are far better than the material deserves, and this is no exception. Along with Detmer, Carradine, and Daniel Baldwin (in a pointless but hilarious, bizarre cameo), Munro almost makes this move passable. Almost.
Despite the valiant effort of a few capable actors, the filmmakers have taken a screenplay a few notches above average and made it into an awful mess of a movie. What a shame.
I’ll admit it: I’m addicted to made-for-cable movies. My idea of a nice weekend is waking up, turning on the Sci-Fi Channel, and watching 40 low-budget movies of dubious quality in a row. Maybe I’ll switch it up and turn on ABC Family or the Hallmark Channel in the evening to see what kind of goofy romantic comedies they have going. If none of these channels are playing movies, I’ll scroll through the digital cable guide until I find something.
These movies are, by and large, mindless entertainment. If I have to get off my lazy ass to run an errand or take a phone call or generally pretend like I’m interested in a life outside of made-for-cable movies, I can leave in the middle of the movie and come back for the end without feeling like I’ve really missed anything. Or I can pick up another movie after missing the first act and — this is actually really fun (P.S.: I’m a nerd) — try to piece together the setup based on the second and third acts.
But the best thing about these movies? The actual setup. At their core, these movies are just new spins on old stories, but it’s always nice to watch the set-‘em-up-and-knock-‘em-down structure at work. Everything you need to know about the movie is established in the first 20-30 minutes. After that, you could stop watching and know how it ends, but the filmmakers always know that. They frontload it with setup and then meander a bit with the plot twists and the wacky developments before giving us the inevitable conclusion.
Family Plan stays true to the made-for-cable spirit with its setup. Tori Spelling (Beverly Hills, 90210) stars as a marketing executive who, taking the misguided advice of her wacky best friend (the hilarious Kali Rocha, who had a few memorable guest spots on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer a few years back), pretends to be married to impress her new boss (Greg Germann of Ally McBeal). Germann wants to promote her, but it hinges on him meeting her family. Spelling scrambles to find a family on short notice when Rocha (whose character is a suspiciously smooth liar) comes up with a solution: Spelling can borrow Rocha’s house and daughter for the evening, and then all they need to do is find a husband. But how?
Enter the underrated and hilarious Jon Polito as a sleazy talent agent. His scenes are wall-to-wall comedy gold, from the moment he suggests his potential husbands reenact the Russian roulette scene from The Deer Hunter to the selection of actors he has selected to play Spelling’s husband for a night. Spelling is unhappy with the choices until dashing and amusing Jordan Bridges waltzes into Polito’s office to demand his payment. He gets the gig, and a web of lies begins.
You see, the house next door to Rocha is available for rent. Germann, impressed with the neighborhood and pleased that the house butts up against a golf course, decides to rent the house while his new home undergoes renovations. So Spelling, Bridges, and Rocha’s daughter (played by the overly precocious Abigail Breslin) are forced to continue the family charade for the rest of the movie. Ironically, Spelling and Bridges actually fall in love. Well, it would be more ironic if it weren’t obvious from the moment they lay eyes on each other. But it still works, for the most part.
They gradually ease into the part of husband and wife and by the time everything gets screwed up (Germann and his wife see Bridges in a commercial), they’re in love. From there, it’s the straightforward happy ending you’d expect after the first act. What’s always important about these movies is the second act: what happens between the obvious setup and obvious conclusion, and is it worth your time?
Family Plan isn’t the greatest made-for-cable movie available, but it works if you enjoy these movies as much as I do (if not, your mileage may vary). Polito and Rocha are scene-stealers. Germann always manages to have a way of delivering his lines like he’s just thinking of them, like a real person would. Spelling, who I’ve never seen in anything before (I, unfortunately, missed out on the 90210 craze), is better than I thought she’d be without really being outstanding. The real find here is Jordan Bridges (Beau’s son). He’s charming, funny, and easygoing at the outset, but as he gradually realizes Spelling is only interested in her career, he’s surprising and effective at playing wounded and vulnerable. Like the best of these movies, the cast makes the material work better than it probably should.
Family Plan is a solid made-for-cable romantic-comedy. It doesn’t quite transcend its station in life like the underrated S.S. Doomtrooper or I Want to Marry Ryan Banks, but it’s closer to those movies than it is to, say, the awful Haunted Prison.
December 4, 2006
Author: Craig A. Schwartz & Jacinthe Dessureault
Writer’s Potential: 7
Logline:A divorced mother takes her daughter on a vacation to an isolated lake cabin, where they are kidnapped by a seemingly friendly couple.
Synopsis:Forty-year-old JEAN MILLER is a psychologist trying to analyze a recurring dream in which she’s attacked by a bear. She talks about it with her friend, PAUL BISHOP, and they both toss out ideas about what the bear could symbolize. Neither makes a firm conclusion. Paul compares bears to his theory on the “tripwire effect,” about how environmental stimulus will cause a person to snap, and he thinks perhaps Jean’s dream is her subconscious way of saying she’s afraid she’ll snap. Jean isn’t so sure.
She’s planned a trip with her daughter, AMY (15), to a cabin retreat. Amy is pretty angry about Jean’s recent divorce, and Jean thinks the trip will help them. Amy’s less than cooperative. On their way down to the lake, they stop at a truck stop store. They meet an overly friendly couple, RYAN and SHELLY. When Ryan startles Jean and causes her to accidentally break a ceramic bear figurine, he insists on paying for a new one and buying Jean and Amy lunch. Turns out, Ryan and Shelly live in a motorhome and just travel around. Shelly is well-off, so they can afford to not work. After the lunch, the group separates. Both Jean and Amy are a little uncomfortable after the lunch. They continue on their way into the mountains and reach the lake. Turns out, Jean’s husband — who made the reservation at the cabin — canceled the reservation. Jean is offered another cabin, more isolated, that had been reserved but the renters hadn’t shown up in over a week. Amy wants to get a hotel in town, but Jean would prefer to stay in a cabin, isolated or not.
Shortly after they arrive at the cabin, Ryan and Shelly show up. They claim they were the ones who reserved the cabin, and when Jean refuses to leave, Ryan explodes with rage. The group can’t even settle things because the cabin caretaker, after renting to Jean, has conveniently left for the week. Jean runs away and goes to the sheriff, but by the time she gets there (apparently) Ryan and Shelly have left. Because they left, the sheriff thinks Jean has nothing to worry about. She still feels unsafe, but there isn’t much the sheriff can (or will) do. For some reason, despite feeling isolated and unsafe after the encounter, Jean refuses to go to a hotel in town. They go back to the cabin. Ryan and Shelly are there. Ryan starts out with an apology, which turns into insulting Jean and Amy, which turns into more threats and rage. Finally, they slam their motorhome into the back of Jean’s SUV and speed away.
When Jean contacts the sheriff, he calls the police in Redding and learns Ryan and Shelly turned themselves in, swearing it was an accident and offering to pay for all the damages and Jean’s entire stay in the cabin. Jean refuses, but the sheriff recommends her taking their offer. He insists they won’t come back and recommends they relax and enjoy the vacation. They try, going out to the lake. Amy meets a guy her age, SCOTT. They make a date for that night. Jean thinks she may have seen the motorhome in the distance, back at the cabin. She calls the sheriff to make sure they’ve left town; he’s insistent. Jean and Amy return to the cabin, where Ryan and Shelly are waiting. They drug Jean and Amy into unconsciousness.
When they awaken, they’re treated to a bizarrely polite kidnapping. Ryan and Shelly act like it’s harmless, even while beating them into submission. They cook for Jean and Amy. There’s a knock at the door — Scott. Reluctantly, they allow Amy to go on the date, just to keep up appearances, but they threaten to kill Jean if she says anything to anyone or isn’t back at a certain time. Amy and Scott have a strange date at his family’s barbecue. He’s a bit morbid. Later, back at the house, Ryan and Shelly go through Jean’s things. They find her mother lives nearby. Amy barely shows up on time, and Ryan pulls a gun.
The next morning, the sheriff shows up at the cabin. Ryan forces Jean to go out and convince the sheriff everything’s fine and they’re having a great time. The sheriff seems mildly suspicious that Jean has gone from paranoia and fear to fast friends with Ryan and Shelly, but he accepts her word and leaves. When she goes back inside, Amy pleads for Jean to use her skills as a “shrink” to outsmart them. Ryan overhears this and isn’t pleased. They decide to divide and conquer. Ryan forces Shelly and Jean to go off shopping and to pick up Jean’s car (undergoing repairs in nearby Redding). While they’re out, Jean calls her mother at a phone booth. She tries to use her cell phone to dial 911, but it dies. She hears sirens in the distance, but it turns out they’re on the way to a drowning victim in the lake. Jean overhears this on the radio and assumes Ryan has killed Amy. They rush back to the cabin, where it turns out Ryan merely locked Amy in a closet; the drowning victim is unrelated.
Later, Jean awakens from a nap to discover that Ryan’s left. She tries needling Shelly with the idea that she’s subservient. When it’s not entirely successful, she tries a different tactic — fooling perfectionist Shelly into believing something’s floating in her hot coffee. When Shelly bends to look, Jean throws the coffee in her face, kicks her, and knocks her out. Jean and Amy run. They run to the caretaker’s empty cabin and call the police. Ryan has returned to the cabin, finds Shelly, and goes out to search for Jean and Amy. Ryan smashes the phone box outside, cutting short their call to the police. Jean discovers that Ryan and Shelly had never reserved the cabin to begin with. She doesn’t have time to be properly baffled by that because Ryan jumps through the window and grabs Amy. Jean throws the phone at his head, knocking him off balance. Amy gets away, and she and Jean run until they finally reach a dock with a boat. Just as they do, Amy is shot in the leg by Ryan. Jean finally snaps, turning back to Ryan as he continues shooting. He hits her in the arm, but she keeps coming. Jean leaps at Ryan, who drops the gun. After some struggling, Jean gets the gun. She’s about to shoot him when Amy brings her back to her senses; instead, Amy kicks a coil of rope under Ryan’s feet, knocking him into the water. Once he’s gone, Jean and Amy realize they’ve been shot with paintballs — not bullets.
When the sheriff comes to investigate, the boat at the dock where Ryan was pushed in is gone, Shelly is gone, and the motorhome is gone. A month later, Jean and Amy have moved to San Francisco, and Jean vows that Ryan won’t come back, because she’s a different person now, and he won’t be able to hurt her anymore.
Comments:Biggest question, hands-down, is one Jean herself asks but never answers: why did any of this happen? Most of the story works pretty well, but without giving us anything resembling a motive, it’s really hard to accept their actions. Even if it’s a game to Ryan and Shelly — which is the only thing that even marginally hints at an explanation for their behavior — why do they play this game? What makes them so utterly sociopathic? Without even a hint of their motives, they’re cartoon characters, very difficult to believe. The explanation can be just as creepy and off-kilter as their behavior, but there needs to be some kind of method to their madness, and we have to know that in order to take them seriously as characters. Beyond this, the script works pretty well as-is.
December 19, 2006
A year after launching the Abysmal Crucifix blog to promote a screenplay and double-album nobody but me cared about, I decided it needed fresh blood — new music. I started going back and recording songs that allegedly populated previous Abysmal albums, but first, I came out with an anti-commercial Christmas single. The song has a sound unique in the Abysmal canon because, at the time, I was having serious intonation issues with my electric guitar and could afford neither a strobe tuner nor a professional re-intonation. So I plugged a fuzzbox into my microphone chain and played the majority of the song on a multitracked acoustic guitar. (The only exceptions are the two guitar solos — it’s much harder to distinguish intonation problems when you aren’t strumming chords.)