Posts in Category: Film Monthly

The “Human” Factor (1975)

The opening scenes in The “Human” Factor dramatize the humdrum but happy family of John Kinsman (George Kennedy), a U.S. government computer programmer stationed in Naples. When he comes home one evening and finds his wife and children slaughtered, the grief-stricken man decides to take revenge. This leads him on the twisted path of finding who killed his family and why. In the process, he impedes the investigation of local Italian authorities, abuses government resources, and ends up running from the police himself after impersonating a NATO ambassador to get information.

Kennedy’s strong performance as Kinsman is the key to the film’s success. In addition to selling the grief and confusion over his family’s death, Kennedy’s stocky build and hang-dog face give the impression of a regular joe pushed to extremes. This is not a super-badass like Charles Bronson in Death Wish 4: The Crackdown. When he’s chased on foot, Kinsman is visibly out of breath and ready to collapse. When he makes the decision to track his family’s murderers, he doesn’t run out guns blazing, trying to punch and maim his way to the killers. He does it the only way he knows how: with computers.

Obviously, in a movie that’s more than 30 years old, the technology will be dated. This isn’t as severe an issue as it could have been; Kinsman essentially uses a primitive version of Google to search international databases and learn the killers are terrorists who announced their political intentions to Interpol. The use of computers really only gets goofy and far-fetched when he uses an experimental computer program (which he helped to design) to analyze psychiatric profiles and tell him the terrorists’ modus operandi. (Of course, rudimentary forms of this technology exist today, but the key words are “rudimentary” and “30 years old”—it may have been easier to swallow back then, but in our computer-dominated world, it comes across as silly.)

Screenwriters Thomas Hunter and Peter Powell do a good job of making the “high-tech” clues plausible, but this isn’t Kinsman’s only method for tracking these terrorists. Once he discovers how they selected his family “at random” through a newspaper ad, Kinsman calls every American family who placed similar ads, which leads to an actual confrontation with the terrorists. In an effectively suspenseful sequence, he’s nearly shot by both the terrorists and the family he’s trying to save. However, it leads him to a woman’s purse loaded with clues that may lead right to the terrorists.

Modern audiences might not appreciate the slow pacing of the first hour. At times, it does rely too much on “wowing” the 1975 audience with the computer aspects. I’m a nerd, so I found the dialogue-free 90 seconds of George Kennedy unscrewing a phone receiver and plugging it into a computer input jack nostalgic and interesting. I can’t convince myself that other audience members will feel the same way.

Mostly, the pacing is in line with Kinsman’s old-fashioned detective work, slowly building suspense, lingering on Kinsman’s emotional pain as he discovers one of his daughter’s toys in the terrorists’ hideout. This quiet tone is occasionally punctuated with scenes of extreme violence, car chases, gunfights. It all leads to a climax where it seems Kinsman might finally get the revenge he so strongly desires. Director Edward Dmytryk (Murder, My Sweet; The Caine Mutiny) does an excellent job of letting this suspense fester so the payoff in the third act feels earned and gratifying.

This is not to say the film is perfect. There are occasional moments of hackneyed dialogue that not even the excellent cast (which includes Oscar winner John Mills and Italian actor Raf Vallone) can rise above. Several moments seem a little too convenient, none more than when one of the terrorists chases Kinsman into the courtyard of an apartment building and pins him down, and a long and deadly iron chain just happens to be resting on a chair within Kinsman’s reach. (All this on top of the aforementioned computer goofiness…)

Could more have been made of Kinsman’s government/military connection, in light of these politically motivated murders? The fact that the full scope of the terrorists’ plan is never revealed could be seen as a flaw, but it works because Kinsman doesn’t care about their plan (and to that end, neither does the audience); he just wants them dead. However, I wonder if the impact of discovering this was a truly random, senseless act of violence could have dealt yet another emotional blow to Kinsman’s already-weary psyche. However, none of the characters (including Kinsman) seem to consider the possible connection between the target and the terrorists, before or after they learn of the random selection of victims.

The film works, though. Even with the contrivances, it gets the most important thing right: it sticks with Kinsman, his grief, and his desire for vengeance. It never lets up on that aspect, and thanks to George Kennedy’s great acting, it’s easy to ignore the flaws. This film has never been issued on DVD until today, but it’s a worthy entry in the extensive library of ’70s revenge thrillers. Better late than never.

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My Boys (2006)

Having found success airing reruns of recently concluded sitcoms like Sex and the City, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Friends, it appears TBS has sought to create an original sitcom taking elements from these “new classics” in an effort to make a new classic of their own. Have they succeeded? Sort of.

My Boys (premiering tonight at 10/9c) focuses on PJ Franklin (Jordana Spiro), a sportswriter covering the Cubs for the Sun-Times, and her group of male friends. The show attempts a bit of a twist on the Sex and the City formula by surrounding PJ with a group of men with relationship quirks. She helps them manage their love lives while neglecting her own. In fact, she spends roughly four hours per episode explaining in voiceover how she’s like the manager of a baseball team, and “her boys” are the players. This voiceover is the show’s only major narrative flaw, but man is it grating.

Here’s the rundown on the boys and their problems: PJ’s older brother, Andy (Jim Gaffigan), is married with children. He wishes he could still hang around with the boys, drinking and playing poker, but his wife keeps him on a short leash. PJ’s closest friend, Brendan (Reid Scott), can’t seem to stay broken up with his ex-girlfriend. Kenny (Michael Bunin) takes a very long time to lay groundwork to asking a girl out. And Mike (Jamie Kaler) just yells at Kenny a lot. I guess he’s supposed to be the ladies’ man of the group, but like most of the boys, Mike is painted in broad strokes that never quite take shape. It’s a shame, too, because this group of actors are hilarious. They add a lot of nuance and humor to thin characters.

When she’s not ignoring her love life altogether, PJ’s big struggle is to find a guy with whom she can be More Than Friends. She’s somewhat of a tomboy and only has one girl friend (Kellee Stewart). In the pilot, PJ thinks she’s found him when she meets the new kid on the Cubs beat, Bobby Newman (Kyle Howard). Of course, he immediately becomes one of the guys, but the show seems like it’s quietly attempting a will-they-or-won’t-they relationship dynamic.

My Boys comes close to being good. The “boys” are a great ensemble, it has a few laugh-out-loud moments (and several big-smile moments), but unfortunately its flaws outweigh its strengths. The story subject matter is personal and character-driven, which is great if one ignores that we never really get to know these characters. Same with the style of humor—I love that it’s not the typical setup-punchline style of sitcoms, and that more of the humor is derived natrually from the situations and characters. That’s great, but again, the actors obviously have a better awareness of their characters than the writers give to the audience. Even PJ, the character we spend more time with than we should, comes across as underdeveloped. We get the bare essentials of what we need to know about a given character as they’re thrust into the episode’s story, but (the actors’ valiant efforts aside) they never feel like fully realized characters.

My Boys has some odd pacing problems that make the whole show feel stilted and awkward, at least initially. It took awhile to figure out what was causing the problem, and it’s kind of disheartening to write. Jordana Spiro, while gorgeous, ends up being the weak link. She’s hard to believe as a tomboy, she delivers lines in a flat monotone, and her comic timing leaves a bit to be desired. This wouldn’t even be the biggest problem if the show concentrated more on her group of friends (it should), but it’s not really an ensemble so much as a show about a woman who happens to have some friends. Her character drives every story, she’s in almost every scene, and it cripples the show.

There are some hints of better things to come, like several running gags with the boys that are pretty funny (my favorite is Kenny’s insistence on taking girls out for coffee, without asking them out on a date, until they lose interest), and the quality of the writing improved with each episode. The review DVDs I received have episodes one through four and episode nine, which is by far the best episode. Given time to work out its kinks, My Boys could evolve into something pretty entertaining, but it’s not there yet.

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The Wild Blue Yonder (2005)

Do you enjoy long, dialogue-free sequences of astronauts floating in a space capsule? Do you like watching people scuba-diving under Antarctica while voiceover narration pretends this is an alien world? Do you enjoy listening to ear-bleedingly awful music? Do you want to watch an incoherent faux-documentary with some beautiful cinematography but not much else?

If you answered “yes” to one or more of those questions, you’ll love The Wild Blue Yonder, Werner Herzog’s follow-up to last year’s critical lovemuffin, Grizzly Man. It’s a movie that feels like somebody shot a half-dozen reels of documentary footage but couldn’t figure out how to piece it together. The end result is tedious at best, but most of the time it’s just awful.

Its solution to the problem of stringing together all this footage is to create a “science fiction fantasy,” a fictitious narrative using actual theoretical ideas (explained in interviews by real mathematicians and physicists) about space travel and the future of humans colonizing other worlds. Much of the fiction is explained to us by “alien” Brad Dourif (from Deadwood, among other things), who left his dying planet in the Andromeda galaxy to settle on Earth. Apparently, he and his alien cohorts had the idea of building a big city focused around a huge mall, but “nobody came.” It’s unclear whether or not these aliens are pretending to be humans or if they’re peacefully coexisting with humans; at first it seems like the former, but Dourif keeps ranting about things he could have told “them” (the CIA, ostensibly), but nobody believed him. Also, he seems a little bitter and angry about nobody visiting their great, mall-based city. Perhaps if they had said they were aliens, people would have been more interested; without a hook like that, it seems hard to believe that people would rush out to a desert town in the middle of nowhere to go to the Gap.

But then, that’s par for the course in The Wild Blue Yonder. The overwhelming problem here is that the narrative Herzog constructed to loosely tie together the randomness of the documentary footage…doesn’t make much sense. The alien loses focus on his own people’s journey and starts to ramble about Roswell, and how 50 years after that crash, the U.S. government decided to use modern technology to figure out where it came from. The ship released some sort of alien microbe that scientists think may destroy the human race. They launch a rocket immediately; the intention is to head into deep space and find a potential planet to colonize.

This seems like a reasonable solution if the faster-than-light propulsion popular in space-based sci-fi existed here, but this is supposed to take place in a world resembling our own. As the alien explains, with current technology it’d take roughly 6,000 years to reach the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, but that’s already been ruled uninhabitable because it burns too hot to support human life. The nearest star with potential is about 200,000 years away.

I know a seemingly endless series of budget cuts has nearly crippled NASA over the past few decades, but one would think they at least realized the futility of this mission before they sent the rocket up. But it’s only when resources on the ship start to dwindle that anybody on the ground realizes maybe their strategy of sending five people on a 200,000-year journey was a little short-sighted. They need to speed the trip up a little bit.

They come up with a solution, and here’s where all the goofy theoretical physics come in. Real-life NASA scientist Martin Lo explains a theory about chaotic orbits (as opposed to the standard, perfect orbits formerly believed to guide celestial bodies) and how “tunnels” created by the chaos will somehow speed up space travel exponentially, which he calls the “Inter-Planetary Superhighway.” Which is great; it sends them clear to Brad Dourif’s home planet in Andromeda, a trip that should take hundreds of thousands of years (if not millions). It’s never made clear why the crew happens to coincidentally set their sights on this particular planet. Was this the planet located by NASA as the origin of the Roswell ship? Why would they send their people to colonize a planet that released the potentially deadly microbe?

The crew spends time scouting locations on the alien planet. The odd, otherworldly ocean under Antarctica plays the role of the alien planet. The footage is pretty amazing, but it made me wonder why Herzog chooses to pretend this alien-looking world really is an alien world—isn’t it slightly more impressive that such a strange place exists on Earth?

Either way, while the theoretical science behind it is interesting, the “story” Herzog crafts with it just doesn’t work. At all. It reaches its shrill apex of nonsense when an interview with a scientist reveals that a modern colony—as opposed to the type of colony popularized in 1950s sci-fi, which often resembled a huge jungle in a greenhouse—would essentially be a huge mall. Dourif gets really incensed by that, noting again that his alien race had tried to make a mall-based colony. Except the analogy doesn’t work, because they built a mall on a planet that already has tons of them, and the mall was for humans, not their alien race. As opposed to the colonies the scientist was referring to, made by and for humans in places where Earth-friendly shopping malls did not previously exist.

So I’ve established that the story makes no sense, but some might argue this isn’t a movie that’s about story; it’s about imagery and symbolism and poetry, and the themes of consumerism and humans turning everything they touch into a blight zone trump a lousy narrative. It’s just hard to take any of the subtext seriously when the story, which the film takes very seriously, is garbage.

It’s also hard to accept it when the film gives us so much time to sit back and ponder what we’ve already seen. Endless, glacially paced sequences show astronauts bobbing up and down in slow-motion. We get to see them swimming around the “helium atmosphere” of the “alien world.” All of this is set to strident, plodding, cello-and-foreign-choir music that might confuse people into thinking it’s very artistic and deep. I was too busy thinking that whatever points Herzog tries to make are lost in the mess of fiction he’s attached to these images and themes. Its 81-minute runtime feels more like watching the astronauts’ supposed 15-year journey in real-time, and it’s a big bucket of garbage masquerading as art. Avoid.

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A Perfect Day (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.

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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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State’s Evidence (2006)

State’s Evidence, from writer Mark Brown (the Barbershop movies) and director Benjamin Louis, could have been a good movie. It really could have. It starts with an offbeat premise that somehow comes across more believably than it should. It has assembled an ensemble of mostly capable young actors. On occasion, the screenplay even has flashes of insight that will resonate deeply with many audience members who went to a public high school in the United States. But the movie has so much working against it that, even though it tries pretty hard, it ends up descending into a total craptastrophe.

Starring as Scott, Douglas Smith (Big Love) tries pretty hard to sink the movie right off the bat with performance that hits a couple of sour notes (“boredom” and “smugness”). His dull monotone and pseudointellectual rambling don’t get us off to the best start. Scott announces the first plot point: “I am going to kill myself today.” He’s talking to the audience via a camcorder. The audience he thinks he’s talking to is, perhaps, somebody in the District Attorney’s office. Because, you see, the eponymous “state’s evidence” will consist of videotapes of his last day on Earth. He wants whoever will try to psychoanalyze these tapes to understand fully that there is no explanation for his suicide. As Sandy (Alexa Vega from Spy Kids) says of him later, “He’s so deep.”

Scott introduces us to his average parents and sister, living in their average house in the average suburb of Glendale, California. The entire film is shot with a combination of traditional cinematography and shaky stick-the-camera-in-my-face pseudo-handheld stuff. It’s not that the combination is jarring; it’s just irritating. Both cinematically and narratively, the faux-documentary comes across as a very lazy choice. The handheld shots are instant “style”—who needs firm directorial choices when we have grit and the raw power of a shaky camera capturing suburban malaise? More detrimentally, it gives the characters an opportunity to state, in blunt terms, everything they think and feel, rather than finding visual ways to show us this information.

When Scott announces to his disparate but apparently close-knit group of friends that he plans to commit suicide, they decide they want to make it a group effort: they’ll all commit suicide, each for different reasons. This is where the film goes from mildly annoying to fascinating, and suddenly I found myself wanting to learn as much about these characters as I could before they went through with killing themselves. The film squanders this sudden burst of goodwill by losing its focus in record time.

If State’s Evidence had stuck with its initial premise, it could have functioned as a morbid update of The Breakfast Club: a varied group exploring what has led them to the decision to die. Maybe, in the end, they’d talk themselves out of it, realizing like George Bailey that you’re never a failure as long as you have friends. Even if they didn’t, a meaningful exploration of everything that drives teens to suicide could have made for an interesting film.

Instead, the focus hangs far too long on Patrick (Kris Lemche, perhaps most recognizable as “Cute Boy God” on Joan of Arcadia). After a few interesting insights about the power a person can feel when he knows he won’t have to face any consequences, Patrick rapidly goes off the deep end, using the camera for all manner of unsavory acts. When a bully punches him in the face, Patrick decides to make a list of everyone he wants to kill. Fair enough. From there, State’s Evidence holds a pretty steady course toward the inevitable Columbine-like massacre, making a few pit-stops along the way so Patrick can gratuitously rape and murder a nine-year-old girl and the others can find out, be horrified, and do nothing about it.

Even with Patrick as the main focus, we don’t get a lot of insight into his character. He’s clearly disturbed, but aside from that he’s undeveloped. To be fair, the movie also short-changes most of the other characters. I still have no idea why Brian (Cody McMains) and Rick (Jamie Tyler Bell) were in this movie. I don’t even think Brian had any lines, and the only thing I remember about Rick is him running around during the third-act massacre, following Patrick around while videotaping him as he kills everyone. For no discernible reason. We never find out why most of these characters (including Patrick) agree to the suicide solution. Is it really just supposed to be about their boredom? Or getting picked on? The film doesn’t give us many clues, which makes the entire story difficult to accept.

By far the best parts of this movie are the fleeting insights into its female characters, Sandy and Trudi (Majandra Delfino). Not only do these two characters feel like authentic high school students, they’re the kind of offbeat pairing that might really be friends, somehow. Sandy’s a bookworm with a lot of romantic notions but not a lot of life experience; Trudi’s clearly smart herself, but she has developed the smart-ass cynicism that comes from an upbringing where the world always feels like it’s crumbling around her. They spend most of their time together talking about love and sex and arguing about each others’ reasons for suicide. Delfino in particular gives a heartbreaking performance, playing a character you can really believe—a girl who thinks suicide is her only way out, when if she just had an influence in her life saying, “It’ll all be over in a few years,” she could push through it.

On the other hand, Sandy’s madly in love with Scott and thinks the two of them sleeping together and then killing themselves would be a romantic way to go. Trudi is appropriately outraged and baffled by Sandy’s stupidity. Sandy argues her reasons for loving him are that he’s really smart, but unlike most smart boys he isn’t conceited. This is hilariously misguided in light of Smith’s performance as Scott: he speaks only in over-rehearsed, multisyllabic monologues in a transparent effort to show he is smarter than everyone else. Whether this is a deliberate (but bad) choice on Smith’s part or just poor acting, I can’t say.

Bottom line: a great movie can come from exploring the idea of a group suicide pact, especially if it contained characters like Sandy and Trudi. Unfortunately, State’s Evidence suffers from cinematic ADD, never sticking with its ideas or characters long enough to create a decent film.

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Gamerz (2005)

It’s hard to imagine watching a movie about people who sit around playing Dungeons & Dragons-like games. It’s not the most visually compelling of pursuits. It also strains credulity a bit, in a world that now has massively multiplayer online role-playing games (which have, essentially, replaced old-fashioned D&D), to think that university students would obsess over a game like this. Gamerz handles both of these causes for concern with wonderful deftness: to make the game more interesting, an imaginative hybrid of animation and live-action shows us the content of the game as it’s narrated by the dungeonmaster; to make us believe these folks would play these games, we’re given the hilarious throwaway explanation that seeing Lord of the Rings under the influence of psychedelics would inspire a 20-something to pick up a 20-sided die.

On a deeper level, playing this game is about having control. The group who play it have been dealt crummy lots in life, against their wills. How do they get it back? By creating characters that are, on many levels, idealized versions of themselves. Our hero, Ralph (played by the perfectly cast Ross Finbow), goes one better: he writes his own game, creating an entire universe out of thin air. In the game, he can assert all the control he lacks in real life. In his ordinary life, Ralph lives with his grandmother (his parents have died) in a rough section of Glasgow. When he’s not spending time working on his game, he mostly gets beaten up by a street gang and fantasizes about women who might give him the time of day if he had the guts to ask them out.

The object of his affection, Marlyn (Danielle Stewart, who does a great job at playing vulnerability and toughness, while still being funny), is a part of the University of Glasgow’s fantasy RPG club. She shows some interest in Ralph, especially after he shows the club his game, and they share similar backgrounds. Things get complicated (as they often do) when Ralph reluctantly lets his former friend, a hood named Lennie (hilarious James Young), take part in the game. Not only do Lennie and Marlyn appear to know each other already, Ralph notices a mutual attraction between the two of them.

Gamerz really shines when it becomes a fairly dark, skewed take on the romantic comedy. The more Ralph learns about Marlyn as he pursues, the less he really wants her. At some point, it stops being about wanting her and transforms into acts of passive-aggressive hostility via the game—where Ralph has all the control. It builds to a surprisingly effective and tense finale with results that aren’t the norm in a romantic comedy, and because of that its conclusion is very satisfying. One of Gamerz‘s biggest strengths is its ability to use the framework of a genre without falling into the pitfalls of formula. It tells a story about a love triangle, but it’s so deeply ingrained in its characters (who are a complex lot) that it works exceptionally well. Its comedy has a subdued, deadpan quality that manages simultaneous hilarity and heartbreak—not an easy task.

It’s a credit to both Ross Finbow and first-time writer/director Robbie Fraser that, as he gets hurt and becomes more malicious toward Marlyn within the game, Ralph remains a lovable underdog. We don’t necessarily want him to act the way he does, but we are given ample reason to empathize with his actions. This isn’t easy to pull off, but Gamerz does it with impressive ease. In fact, the entire cast—no matter how small the role—is pitch-perfect, and Fraser gives each character a few quirks. Even the least developed characters feel like real people. If American romantic comedies still had this level of bravery and complexity, it wouldn’t be such an embarrassing, dying genre.

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Bridge to Terabithia (2007)

Bridge to Terabithia proves a few important things studios seem to have forgotten: you can make movies for kids without treating anyone under the age of 16 like they’re rock-stupid, and you don’t have to throw in a bunch of “edgy” ironic jokes that float over kids’ heads in order for it to appeal to adults. After watching approximately 450 trailers for kids’ movies that look godawful (Firehouse Dog, Meet the Robinsons, and especially Nancy Drew), it’s easy to appreciate the warmth and intelligence in a film like Bridge to Terabithia.

A fairly straightforward adaptation of Katherine Paterson’s 1977 novel, it tackles some pretty weighty themes of escape, grief, and human perseverance. Somehow, both the novel and the film manage to hit all the right emotional notes while managing to keep it at a level the average fifth-grader can understand. It tells the story of Jess Aarons (Josh Hutcherson, Zathura), a “farm-boy” outcast with a secret love of drawing. He has no friends, four sisters, and poor parents who barely make ends meet. After practicing all summer, Jess wants to win a race for the fifth-grade boys, but he’s forced to suffer the embarrassment of wearing pink hand-me-down sneakers. On top of that, just when it looks like he’ll win the race—the new girl, Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb, Because of Winn-Dixie), breezes past him.

Their adversarial relationship turns friendly as Jess realizes Leslie lives next door, and she needs to be shown the ropes of the student hierarchy. As time passes, they become best friends partly out of necessity, but mostly because they share a deep emotional connection. This is represented by Terabithia, a fantastical kingdom conjured up in their imaginations. They just run down to the end of the dirt road, swing across the creek on an old rope, and their kingdom is there, in the isolated backwoods. Jess and Leslie use Terabithia as an escape from the oppression of school and family: it’s their place, where nobody else can find them. There, they are king and queen, with plenty of fantastical friends to help them fight their imaginary enemies. First-rate special effects blend the reality of an empty forest with a wild kingdom full of giant trolls, mutant squirrels, and tiny winged warriors.

Over the course of the film, the pair realize that they can’t hide from their problems forever. Jess and Leslie give each other much-needed confidence. Before long, they’re both confronting what they once feared, and they learn to enjoy their lives.

The film has a surprise (which is no surprise to anyone who has read the novel, but for those who haven’t, I’m withholding it) that a lesser film would have either drenched in cloying sentiment or excised completely. As with the rest of the film, screenwriters Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson (son of Ms. Paterson) and director Gabor Csupo handle these scenes with understated sensitivity and understanding. It also gives the exceptional cast, including Zooey Deschanel (Elf, All the Real Girls) and Robert Patrick (Terminator 2, The X-Files), opportunities to really shine.

Bridge to Terabithia is a wonderful, moving film for kids and adults. It’s another in Walden Media’s long line of exceptional kids’ movies (Charlotte’s Web, Holes). If more movies were this good, they’d actually be worth the $278 theatres charge for admission.

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Immoral Women (1978)

With their awesome powers combined, three short films form Immoral Women, a provocative and baffling film that provides audiences with the following insights into feminine psychology:

  1. Women will murder men for fun and profit.
  2. Women will murder their parents and servants as a symbol of their sexual maturation.
  3. Women will allow their huge pet dogs to chew off the tender vittles of any man, be it a kidnapper or husband, and will watch with apathy as the pain forces them to roll into an awkward jump cut that lands them in a river, where they drown.

Good times all around in Immoral Women, now available on DVD!

The first and third stories are largely a waste of time, both in terms of erotica and in terms of cinema. Though the “immoral women” featured in them (Marina Pierro and Pascale Christophe) are attractive, each section gets too bogged down in their stories to be erotic. This would be fine if not for the fact that each story manages the impossible feat of being both incoherent and plodding. The only entertainment derived from “Marie,” the third story, is the bizarrely inappropriate Kraftwerk-esque theme music assigned to Marie’s dog. “Margherita,” the first story, tries to pad its runtime with awkward papal satire, even more awkward physical comedy, and an attempt at “art” by showing the way Margherita inspired Raphael Sanzio’s later works. This would be a great sentiment if not for the fact that in the end, she poisons him to steal his money to share with her real lover. She also murders a banker. But hey, at least she’s not Marie’s dog, who has an affinity for biting off men’s penises for no coherent story reason (okay, okay, the kidnapper deserved it—but why the husband?).

On the other hand, the middle story, “Marceline,” tells one of the most disturbing stories I’ve ever seen. Unlike the other two stories in Immoral Women, this one reaches heights of complexity and dramatic intensity that make it almost brilliant. Too bad the subject matter is so vile and twisted it’s hard to recommend in any form.

Marceline (Gaëlle Legrand) is a childish teenager (it’s never said, but I think we’re supposed to believe she’s 15 or 16) in 19th-century France. She spends the bulk of her time with a pet rabbit. This rabbit… How do I put this politely? She has trained him to lick her where it counts, and they maintain an alarming “secret” relationship until Marceline’s parents decide it’s time for her to grow up. Their servant/cook kills the rabbit, cooks it in a stew, and they all tell Marceline it’s lamb. After Marceline has made a big meal of it and expressed how much she enjoyed the lamb stew, her father explains the manner in which they’ve traumatized her (clearly not the first trauma Marceline has faced).

Horrified, Marceline runs away to the slaughterhouse from which the family gets most of their meat. I’m not sure why. I guess so she can run into a delivery boy who felt up Marceline at the beginning of the story. She asks to see the living lambs, so he takes her to their pen…and then rapes her. Viewers know a sex scene is coming (no pun intended), but anyone who thought it would be a horrifying, intense, suspiciously well-acted rape scene—seek help. Afterward, the delivery boy thinks he’s accidentally killed Marceline; there’s virginal blood everywhere, and Marceline has fallen asleep. The delivery boy tries to hang himself, then begs for help when Marceline awakens; instead of helping, she lets him die, then goes back home to kill her parents, framing the delivery boy for the crime.

This is 1970s European erotica, a relic of a bygone era where pornography had story, character, and halfway decent (in some cases exceptional) acting. Sadly, this era has passed mostly because the stories are half-assed (in more ways than one!) and incoherent, the characters usually have one trait (“lustful”), and they usually become so focused on a story few viewers care about that there’s little time left to be erotic.

One thing that makes the “Marceline” section so special is that nothing about it is remotely erotic—it’s very sexual and contains excessive nudity, but it’ll leave you more nauseous than aroused—and yet it tells a focused story with well-drawn characters. Disturbing as hell, yes, but it’s using the “advantages” of erotica—excessive nudity and an ability to unflinchingly portray bestiality and rape—to underscore its story, rather than tossing in some T&A for the hell of it.

Perhaps the biggest complaint of these three stories is that two of the three of these “immoral” women are victims; in fact, aside from lying idly by while her dog chewed off her husband’s johnson, Marie is a victim for every frame of her story. It’s never made clear why she allows herself to be repetitively victimized, and while it sort of makes sense that she’d be happy that her kidnapper/rapist and oppressive husband are disposed of by her loving dog, Marie herself doesn’t take the “immoral” action. Meanwhile, Marceline is a victim first of abusive parents, then of a terrorizing rapist of a delivery boy. Does it justify triple-homicide and accessory-after-the-fact to a suicide? One of the reasons “Marceline” stands out is that a case could be made to justify either side of that argument.

The only character who isn’t a victim is Margherita, the sultry and unpleasant minx who seduces and then murders two men for money. We never find out what motivates her, other than pure greed, which perhaps is enough. A more accurate title is Immoral Woman Plus Two Victims of Horrific Misogyny.

If you want a movie to disturb you without remotely arousing you (despite what the back of the DVD box suggests), at least look at the “Marceline” section. The other two aren’t really worth the time. Hell, “Marceline” will give you nightmares if you have any decency. Happy viewing!

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