The Films of D.J. Caruso
Black Cat Run
The Salton Sea (October 1/02)
The Salton Sea casts Val Kilmer as Danny, a speed freak who spends his days hanging with a ragtag group of fellow addicts. But as we soon learn, he wasn't always that way; his name used to be Tom and he was a trumpet player married to a beautiful woman. After her murder, however, Tom became Danny - an undercover informant for the cops. It's there that he plans to track down his wife's murderer, but it's not long before he finds himself unwittingly drawn into this sleazy world. The opening scenes of The Salton Sea don't hold much promise, but there's little doubt that movie improves considerably as it progresses. This shift is due primarily to the casting of Vincent D'Onofrio as a sleazebag named Pooh Bear, as the actor's almost insanely entertaining performance essentially takes the film to an entirely different level (how could it not, really; this is, after all, a character who stages a reenactment of the Kennedy assassination using pigeons - complete with a pink-pillbox-hat-wearing Jackie O. bird). Likewise, Kilmer effectively steps into the shoes of a heartbroken trumpet player with apparent ease and certainly offers up one of the best performances of his career. Filmmaker D.J. Caruso deserves some recognition for his directorial choices - which are stylish without being intrusive. There's a moment late in the film, for example, in which Danny must figure out how many rounds are left in a gun, and Caruso inserts a rapid-fire count of each bullet being shot. Interesting stylistic elements like that, coupled with D'Onofrio's flat-out jaw-dropping performance, ensure that The Salton Sea remains worth a look, with the drug-and-sleaze-infused storyline never quite becoming as oppressive as one might've suspected (and feared).
Two for the Money
Disturbia (April 14/09)
A loose remake of Hitchcock's Rear Window, Disturbia follows a housebound teenager (Shia LaBeouf's Kale) as he becomes convinced that his next-door neighbor (David Morse's Mr. Turner) is actually a notorious serial killer. It's an unabashedly high-concept premise that's primarily employed to surprisingly positive effect, as director D.J. Caruso does a superb job of establishing Kale's cramped situation (and his ongoing efforts at amusing himself) without resorting to the staginess that one might've expected. There's subsequently little doubt that Disturbia ultimately fares best in its opening hour, with LaBeouf's incredibly charismatic and personable performance proving effective at capturing (and sustaining) the viewer's interest. The almost episodic nature of Christopher Landon and Carl Ellsworth's screenplay ensures that the movie initially comes off as an appealingly lighthearted drama, as the emphasis is consistently placed on Kale's various activities and relationships - with his tentative romance with a comely neighborhood girl named Ashley (Sarah Roemer) an obvious highlight. The viewer is so firmly entrenched in Kale's easy-going escapades that the film can't help but suffer once it morphs into an unapologetically broad thriller, with the almost generic manner in which the third act plays out - ie Kale's claims of Mr. Turner's malevolence are ignored by various figures of authority - exacerbated by the inclusion of several incongruously over-the-top action interludes. The pervasively been-there-done-that vibe is alleviated somewhat by Caruso's steady directorial hand and Morse's deliciously sinister performance, yet it's finally clear that the Disturbia is slightly more effective in its buildup than in its payoff.
Though essentially entertaining from start to finish, Eagle Eye suffers from a relentlessly convoluted atmosphere that ultimately stymies one's efforts at comfortably following the storyline on a consistent basis - with the increased emphasis on absurdly over-the-top action sequences effectively ensuring that the movie inevitably comes off as a conspiracy thriller that's been filtered through the sensibilities of a big-budget, typically mindless summertime extravaganza. The film stars Shia LaBeouf and Michelle Monaghan as Jerry Shaw and Rachel Holloman, a couple of strangers who find themselves unwittingly thrown together after a mysterious figure forces them to pull off a series of seemingly random criminal endeavors. The almost Hitchcockian nature of Eagle Eye's set-up proves effective at initially luring the viewer into the proceedings, with the personable, downright charismatic work from LaBeouf and Monaghan ensuring that one can't help but sympathize with the efforts of their respective characters at extricating themselves from an increasingly perilous situation. There does reach a point, however, at which the progressively complex maneuverings of the script become overwhelming, as Eagle Eye's four credited screenwriters emphasize hard-to-swallow contrivances to such an extent that the movie evolves into an alternatingly ludicrous and confusing experience. Not helping matters is D.J. Caruso's less-than-competent handling of the film's myriad of high-octane interludes, with the director's reliance on shaky camerawork and rapid-fire editing transforming many such moments into an indecipherable jumble of images. The end result is a popcorn flick that seems somehow trapped between two worlds, yet it's nevertheless worth noting that one could certainly do far worse as far as movies of this ilk go.
I Am Number Four
Based on the book by Pittacus Lore, I Am Number Four follows teenage alien John Smith (Alex Pettyfer) as he and his guardian attempt to blend into the fabric of a small town - with their efforts inevitably confounded by the arrival of vicious warriors from a rival planet called Mogador. Despite the decidedly sci-fi bent of its premise, I Am Number Four is primarily concerned with the budding (and idealized) relationship between John and a kindhearted local (Dianna Agron's Sarah) - which, when coupled with a slightly overlong running time, does contribute heavily to the film's distinctly erratic atmosphere. There's little doubt, however, that director D.J. Caruso does a superb job of holding the viewer's interest even through the narrative's more overtly lackadaisical interludes, as the movie boasts a number of enthralling action sequences that prove instrumental in carrying the proceedings through its romance-oriented midsection. (It also doesn't hurt that Caruso has populated the film with an impressive assortment of performers, with Pettyfer's engaging turn as the reluctant hero matched by a strong supporting cast that includes Timothy Olyphant, Teresa Palmer, and Kevin Durand.) The exciting, unexpectedly gripping third act - which revolves almost entirely around John's battle against the evil Mogadorians - cements I Am Number Four's place as an above average sci-fi thriller, and it goes without saying that the promise of further installments at the film's close is far more welcome than one might have initially anticipated.
The Disappointments Room
xXx: Return of Xander Cage (February 6/17)
Vin Diesel reprises his role as the title character in this hopelessly underwhelming third xXx feature, with the storyline following Cage as he reluctantly agrees to come out of retirement to recover a potentially unstoppable weapon known as Pandora's Box. xXx: Return of Xander Cage admittedly does hold some promise in its early stages, as director D.J. Caruso delivers a brisk, easygoing opening stretch that's heightened by Diesel's impressively charismatic turn as the jocular protagonist (ie Xander Cage is a far cry from Diesel's dour The Fast and the Furious character). It's not long, however, before the movie begins its slow but steady transformation into a progressively interminable piece of work, with this change triggered by a seemingly endless sequence set at a dimly-lit island rave that stops the proceedings dead in its tracks. It doesn't help, certainly, that this misguided stretch is immediately followed by the first of many incoherent action interludes, as Caruso inexplicably infuses the movie's many, many high-octane moments with an aggressively kinetic feel that's nothing short of exhausting (ie enough with the shaky camerawork, already). The remainder of xXx: Return of Xander Cage is as frustratingly underwhelming and uninvolving as one might've feared, and although there are pockets of fun sprinkled here and there (eg the stuntwork, when clearly visible, is surprisingly impressive), the movie, which is admittedly right in line with its lackluster predecessors, ultimately comes off as just another cranked-up, over-the-top contemporary actioner.