Thursday, March 31, 2011

Panic (2000) [R] ****

A film review by Mick LaSalle, for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Panic is the movie equivalent of a great read at the beach. It's about a guy having a midlife crisis, except that he's not a regular guy but a hit man. And not just a hit man but a corporate hit man, which means he dresses better. He also has serious issues with his father, and his marriage is a mess, and he's attracted to a woman half his age...

Panic will inspire two types of reactions. People who go to movies just so they can walk out complaining, But that wasn't realistic! will be made apoplectic by this film's unlikely turns. Others, who have a taste for the dramatic, the absurd and the exaggerated, will find themselves on the movie's wavelength.

William H. Macy stars -- that always helps -- as Alex, a man in his 40s who is beginning to have moral qualms about walking up to strangers and shooting them. Maybe it's just a phase, but he's depressed, so he goes to a psychiatrist (John Ritter).

He meets a young woman, played by Neve Campbell, in the waiting room. In his own low-key way, he falls immediately in love with her. Strange enough. She falls in love with him. That's not just strange -- that's science fiction.

But the award for strangest in Panic goes to Donald Sutherland, who reaches the apotheosis of his corporate sleaze roles as Alex's dad. Dad started the killing business and trained Alex in it from an early age by having the boy shoot squirrels. Ah, those cozy walks in the woods with Father! Now he gives Alex a new assignment. He tells him to kill his psychiatrist.

Writer-director Henry Bromell makes good use of Sutherland's remarkably unreassuring smile and gives him a handful of scenes in which he gets to act like a sadistic wacko. Fun stuff.

Panic is not the kind of movie anyone will remember at Oscar time. But no one who sees it will forget it.

This film contains strong language and violence. -- Mick LaSalle

Labels: comedy, crime, drama, thriller

Here on Earth (2000) [PG-13] **

A film review by James Berardinelli, for

Note to readers: this review contains spoilers. Those who wish to see Here on Earth without having previous knowledge of certain plot elements would do well to bail out now and return after they have seen the film.

They say that anything can happen in the movies, and Here on Earth gives several examples of it. A self-centered jock willingly gives his lifelong love to his rival. A girl dying of cancer suffers no pain or distress as the disease ravages her body. And, most incredibly of all, two teenagers show evidence of having memorized poetry. Thus does Here on Earth, a tearjerker for teens, strain our suspension of disbelief.

Credibility issues aside, the movie is not well written. Director Mark Piznarski (who cut his teeth on such TV shows as Relativity and NYPD Blue) and screenwriter Michael Seitzman, both apparently having recently graduated from Melodrama 101, apply all the clich├ęs they can uncover. You know things have entered the realm of the overly-familiar when you can predict whole segments of dialogue - that is, when those lines aren't howlingly laughable. The story centers on an uninspired love affair, then tries to develop dramatic power by employing traditional techniques of audience manipulation. In a way, I envy people who fall for this sort of thing, because at least they'll get something out of the movie, which is more than I can say for myself.

The early portions of Here on Earth are as drenched in testosterone as the later parts are in estrogen. Kelley Morse (Chris Klein) is a stuck-up senior at Rallston Academy, an exclusive boys' prep school set just outside of Hicksville, New York. One evening, Kelley and his buddies take a joyride into town, where they get into it with one of the locals, Jasper Arnold (Josh Hartnett), and his friends. An out-of-control car race ensues, ending with a crash and a local diner going up in flames. Kelley and Jasper are arrested and the judge sentences them to probation as long as they work for free with the employed crew to rebuild the diner, which is owned by the family of Jasper's girlfriend, Samantha (Leelee Sobieski). But when Sam spies Kelley without his shirt on, all thoughts of Jasper slip from her mind. Soon, the two of them are running through the woods together, staring vacantly at beautiful nature-scapes, and reciting Robert Frost (my favorite poet, incidentally) to each other. But tragedy looms ahead, as Samantha becomes stricken with one of those mysterious cancers that only victimize attractive women in movies.

Since the characters are not written with any degree of depth or feeling, it's up to the actors to bring them to life. In that regard, Leelee Sobieski, a capable young actress who will almost certainly be cast as Helen Hunt's daughter in some upcoming film, is successful. Sobieski, who has appeared in A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, Deep Impact, and Eyes Wide Shut on the big screen and as the title character in the made-for-TV production, Joan of Arc, is a genuine talent, and she does impressive things with this underwritten part. Unfortunately, her co-stars aren't up to the challenge. Josh Hartnett (H20) is flat and Chris Klein (American Pie) fails to convince us that his character is undergoing the uncaring snob-to-perfect guy transformation. His robotic performance is fine early in the film, but it doesn't get the job done later. The supporting cast includes Annette O'Toole, Michael Rooker (not playing a psycho for a change), and Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood. Greenwood gets to play a scene where he weeps uncontrollably over his daughter's fate. It's one of the movie's few moving moments, but this is probably because Greenwood has had practice. This is the third film in which he has portrayed a bereft parent (the other two being Atom Egoyan's masterpieces, Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter).

Ultimately, Here on Earth doesn't serve a purpose beyond giving melodramatically susceptible girls in the audience a chance to cry. Perhaps the filmmakers believe that, since it's aimed at a relatively young crowd (witness the soft PG-13 rating), they don't have to worry overmuch about things like a well-crafted story. And it doesn't matter if the males can act; they just have to look good with their shirts off. (Sobieski, by the way, keeps hers on, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that this movie is not at all male-oriented. Although it is perhaps worth mentioning that Kelley nicknames her breasts New York and New Jersey.) It seems probable that when the final box office tallies come in, Here on Earth will be in a low orbit.

Labels:  drama, romance, teenager, tragedy
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 25/100
Tomatometer (critics=17, viewers=62)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Keeping the Faith (2000) [PG-13] ****

Jake Schram, Anna Riley and Brian Finn might have just been three children living in New York City in the 1980s, growing up in the same neighborhood and going to the same elementary school. But Jake, Anna and Brian were much more... they were the closest of friends until Anna's father took a job in California and moved the family west. Jake and Brian continued their friendship, though, and now, in 2000 the two have grown up and graduated from seminary.

Jake (Ben Stiller) is a Jewish rabbi, while Brian (Edward Norton) is a Catholic priest. Still best friends, Jake and Brian are the local God squad. Jake has a problem though... rabbis in his synagogue have traditionally been married, and although Jake goes out on a lot of first dates with daughters of his congregants, he still has not found the right girl. Then, out of the blue, Anna Riley (Jenna Elfman) reappears, now a beautiful, high-energy, workaholic, businesswoman... a turnaround specialist for ailing corporations, on assignment in NYC. The threesome is back together, but there's a problem: Jake and Brian both find themselves falling in love with Anna. Unfortunately for Rabbi Jake, Anna is Catholic. And, unfortunately for Father Brian, Anna is someone for whom he might give up celibacy and the priesthood.

This is a well-written romantic comedy with a smooth, believable story arc and excellent character development. Edward Norton does an impressive job as actor/director, and there is terrific chemistry among the three leads. The supporting cast, including Eli Wallach, Anne Bancroft, Ron Rifkin, Milos Forman, Holland Taylor, Rena Sofer, Ken Leung and Lisa Edelstein, is excellent; the producers were very fortunate to assemble such a stellar cast, and it must have made Edward Norton's directing job much easier. Jenna Elfman is the key to making this story work, so if you enjoyed her in Dharma & Greg, you won't want to miss Keeping the Faith.

Labels: comedy, drama, reunion, romance
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 60/100
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=62, viewers=60)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Kid (2000) [PG] ***

Russ Duritz (Bruce Willis) is a successful image consultant living in L.A. He's approaching forty, but he doesn't realize that although he's accumulated wealth, power and status, he really has nothing meaningful in his life. His assistant Amy (Emily Mortimer) and his secretary Janet (Lily Tomlin) see him for the loser he really is; they barely tolerate him and secretly hope that someday he will get a clue.

Then into Russ' life comes a seven-year-old boy named Rusty (Spencer Breslin). Russ tries unsuccessfully to get rid of Rusty until he discovers they have the same mannerisms, the same figures of speech, the same birthmark and scar and the same memories. Disbelieving at first, the two finally accept the fact that they are different versions of the same person, 32 years apart in age. Russ becomes convinced that they've come together so he can help young Rusty cope with elementary school and his father. But it's only when Deirdre Lafever (Jean Smart), Russ' TV newscaster friend, raises the possibility that it might be the other way around - that Rusty might be there to help grownup Russ - that he begins to understand.

The film starts out as a comedy, occasionally bordering on slapstick, but about halfway through it elevates into a thoughtful, compelling romantic drama. This is a film that every parent should see, especially if they are raising young children. There are two important lessons in The Kid. The first lesson is that children are very fragile, very impressionable; when we say something to a child that is thoughtless, mean, heartless or cruel we could be unintentionally scarring them for life. And the second lesson is that just because someone calls us a name, or describes us in a way that is mean or cruel it doesn't mean that it's true. It doesn't mean that's who we are. Each of us decides who we are and who we'll become when we grow up.

The screenplay is innovative, the performances are pitch-perfect, production values are excellent and the soundtrack and cinematography are brilliant. The storyline relies on the concept that time, while linear, runs both forward and backward, that multiple versions of us exist, and that the future can potentially affect the past. So, if you enjoy films like Big, Flight of the Navigator, The Lake House, Peggy Sue Got Married, Pleasantville, or Somewhere in Time, you'll probably really enjoy The Kid.

Labels: comedy, family, fantasy, flying, space-time
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 45/100
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=52, viewers=60)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

State and Main (2000) [R] ****

Directing a film is a difficult task at best, but when the cast and crew of The Old Mill arrive in Waterford, Vermont to shoot a film set in the 1890s, about purity and redemption, director Walt Price (William H. Macy) must be convinced that the gods are punishing him. His male star Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin) has a penchant for underage girls, which is why they had to flee their original New Hampshire location, where they had already built an expensive old mill.

Walt's female star Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker) tearfully tells Walt she can't do the film's nude scene - unless she's paid an additional eight hundred thousand dollars. Novice screenwriter Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman) can only work with a manual typewriter, and his is missing. Producer Marty Rossen (David Paymer) is an aggressive film company executive who has dealt with plenty of locals like Doug Mackenzie (Clark Gregg), town councilman and state political hopeful, who sees an opportunity to extort money from the production company and tries to manipulate Mayor George Bailey (Charles Durning) to that end. Doug's fiancee Ann (Rebecca Pidgeon), who directs a local theater company, thinks the film company's presence is a wonderful opportunity for the town, while the mayor's wife (Patti LuPone) plans an elaborate banquet for Walt, Bob, Claire and Marty, and teenager Carla (Julia Stiles) plans to throw herself at Bob Barrenger.

Written and directed by the incomparable David Mamet, (Glengarry Glen Ross, Wag the Dog, Ronin) the screenplay is a wonderfully eccentric satire, filled with deliciously quirky characters and hilarious dialogue, for example... Joseph: Do you like kids? Ann: I never saw the point of them. Joseph: Me, too. If you've always suspected that being part of a film company on location is like entering a slightly off-kilter, parallel universe, State and Main will confirm your suspicions. This is a memorable film to enjoy more than once. 

Labels: comedy, drama, filmmaking, satire     
Internet Movie Database    
Metacritic 75/100     
Tomatometer (critics=86, viewers=70)
State and Main

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Return To Me (2000) [PG] ***

Bob (David Duchovny) owns a commercial construction engineering company in Chicago. His wife Elizabeth (Joely Richardson) is a primate zoologist at the Chicago Zoo. Bob and Elizabeth are very much in love. Then, one evening after a zoo fundraising event Elizabeth is killed in an auto accident. Since she's an organ donor, her heart is transplanted into Grace (Minnie Driver), the granddaughter of Marty O'Reilly (Carroll O'Connor), a kindly gentleman who, with a group of his senior citizens friends, runs O'Reilly's Italian Restaurant, where Grace works as a waitress.

In a strange twist of fate, Bob meets Grace at the restaurant, and they are instantly drawn to one another. However, Grace is very self-conscious about her heart transplant scar, and after several months of dating, she still has not told Bob. Then one evening at Bob's flat, Grace discovers the letter of thanks that she had written and sent to the organ donor institute, to be forwarded to the family of her heart donor, and she realizes that Elizabeth's heart is beating in her chest.

David Duchovny and Minnie Driver are attractive leads, and there's reasonable chemistry between them, although there isn't a great deal of romantic tension or memorable dialogue. The plot line is linear and straightforward, with no real surprises. So Return to Me will be best appreciated by those who enjoy low-key, character-driven romantic dramas like Only YouKissing a Fool and A Stranger's Heart, as well as fans of Minnie Driver and David Duchovny. 

Labels: comedy, drama, romance     
Internet Movie Database     
Metacritic 54/100     
Tomatometer (critics=61, viewers=80)

About Adam (2000) [R] ****

Lucy Owens (Kate Hudson) works as a waitress and singer in a local pub in Dublin, Ireland. She's the youngest of four, with two sisters and a brother. Lucy is pretty, fun-loving, lighthearted, and a heartbreaker. One evening, as she's singing, Lucy sees a new face in the pub - Adam (Stuart Townsend). She suggests an entree and wine, and then asks him out. In no time Adam meets her whole family, and, before we know it, Lucy asks him to marry her, and Adam says yes.

Then, curiously, we see the story retold, but this time from the perspective of Lucy's sisters, Laura and Alice. Laura (Frances O'Connor) is sensitive and romantic; she's dissatisfied with her M.A. thesis in Victorian literature. Alice (Charlotte Bradley) is sensual and voluptuous; she's dissatisfied with her life as a wife and mother.

Adam senses their dissatisfaction, understands what each one needs and responds accordingly. Around Laura, he's shy, tactless and tongue-tied, unable to express his desire for her. Around Alice, he's earthy and direct, telling her how gorgeous she is, and how much he wants her. This is what Laura and Alice need to hear and each one opens up to Adam; before long he is involved in secret love affairs with both sisters. When Alice expresses her fear that he'll be unfaithful to Lucy, Adam explains to her that when he's with people, listening to them, he notices that they always want something from him. He really likes it, and he likes to give people what they want - to make them happy, if he can. Adam doesn't actually reassure Alice, however, and we're left wondering if Lucy realizes what she is getting herself into.

The film's concept is well executed, with a great screenplay and direction. The cast is excellent, and Townsend has terrific chemistry with all three sisters, especially O'Connor and Bradley. If you enjoyed AlfieDon Juan DeMarco and What Women Want, then I predict you'll really enjoy About Adam. 

Labels: comedy, romance

Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 64/100
Tomatometer (critics=68, viewers=47)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Better Than Sex (2000) [R] ***

Josh (David Wenham) is a wildlife photographer, in Australia for only three days before returning to London. Cin (Susie Porter) is a dress designer. They meet at a party, enjoy a one-night fling and then something happens. Knowing that Josh is leaving encourages them to spend the three days together. The fact that they have great sex together clearly helps. But what begins to develop is an emotional bond, a passionate entanglement that joins them even when they are satiated with sex.

Wenham and Porter are believable in their roles. With lots of freckles and moles, and less than perfect bodies, they aren't airbrushed Hollywood glamour. But their eyes genuinely sparkle and they have terrific chemistry together. On one level this is a delicious little romantic comedy. It is quite erotic, although most of the sex is only heard and not seen since it takes place under the bed sheets. But it is all quite titillating and believable. On another level, however, it's a cautionary tale. Be careful about extending a one-night fling. It might turn into something far more passionate and emotionally compelling than you ever intended.

Labels: drama, romance

Internet Movie Database

Metacritic 47/100
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=50, viewers=68)