Posts in: December 30th, 2006

Final Move (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.

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Family Plan (2005)

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.

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