Mini Reviews (December 2003)
The Toolbox Murders, Pieces, Avenging Angelo, The Ghost Club, It Had to be You, The Hitcher, The Hitcher 2: I've Been Waiting, Wasabi, Just Married, Home Room
The Toolbox Murders (December 1/03)
For a while there, it seems as though The Toolbox Murders is going to become the horror flick to end all horror flicks. A masked killer wanders through an apartment complex, killing women at random (or so it seems) using a variety of implements found in his toolbox (a hammer, a nailgun, etc). That's the first 15 minutes or so, and there's a certain amount of sick satisfaction that goes along with viewing these horrific murders first-hand (and without any actual character development). But, like so many other low-budget horror movies from the '70s, the plot eventually kicks in - and completely destroys any tension that's been built up. The storyline - involving the brother of a kidnapped victim initiating his own investigation - is an absolute bore and the acting is uniformly atrocious. Cameron Mitchell, playing the masked psycho, delivers one of the most obnoxious performances ever in a horror movie - spending the majority of his time babbling incoherently and singing off-key. The effectiveness of the opening is negated almost immediately after, which really is a shame given how brutal and unflinching it is.
Pieces (December 1/03)
Pieces, like The Toolbox Murders, features a number of effective kill sequences - but also contains a tedious storyline and beyond subpar acting. The film follows the exploits of a maniac that's dismembering women with a chainsaw and using their various body parts to assemble a life-sized jigsaw puzzle. Virtually every aspect of Pieces is inept, aside from moments of gore - which are admittedly quite spectacular. This is, after all, the film that famously shows a chainsaw piercing skin in close-up (it's really just a pig being sliced). The terrible performances are exacerbated by even worse dubbing, while the plot is predictable and cliched. And then there's the so-called "twist" ending, which doesn't even make sense - and requires us to believe that the main character wasn't just crazy, but also a mad scientist.
Avenging Angelo (December 2/03)
Avenging Angelo marks the latest Sylvester Stallone vehicle that was clearly intended to premiere in theaters, but instead is making its debut on home video. And though it's not as bad as his last straight-to-video effort, Eye See You, it's still a far cry from some of his more memorable efforts (ie Cliffhanger). Stallone stars as a mafia bodyguard working for an aging gangster (played by Anthony Quinn, in his final role), who long ago gave up his only daughter in order to protect her. After he dies, the truth finally comes out - requiring Stallone to begin protecting said daughter (Madeleine Stowe). Avenging Angelo is watchable, in a predictable sort of way. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the two are eventually going to fall in love (the film spends the majority of its running time developing their relationship, so it's fairly obvious where all this is going), while the revenge subplot never becomes anything that's terribly interesting. Elevating the movie to something more than just movie-of-the-week fodder (and that's exactly what it occasionally resembles, complete with romantic montages set to sappy rock ballads) are the performances by Stallone and Stowe. Stallone proves to be an affable leading man, and his sad-sack character ultimately develops into someone that we're rooting for. And Stowe, despite her disturbing puffy lips, abandons her more serious past and easily slips into the shoes of this wacky role. Avenging Angelo's appeal is probably limited to die hard fans of Stallone, most of whom will probably enjoy this admittedly slight romantic comedy.
The Ghost Club (December 6/03)
What can I really say about The Ghost Club? It's a film designed to appeal solely to small children, without a single element thrown in to keep us adults interested. It's like watching one of those live-action Saturday morning shows, except there aren't any merciful commercials to break up the monotony. The story follows a young girl named Carrie as she convinces her friends to help save her mother's store, which an evil land developer wants to demolish and turn into a country club. There's also a subplot about a local ghost that doesn't go anywhere, as the film clearly didn't have the budget to include apparitions of any sort. Everything about The Ghost Club is badly done, from the one-dimensional villain (who practically rubs his hands with glee every time he sees the kids) to the horrible acting throughout the cast. Although, in terms of the latter, that's not necessarily a bad thing as all the performers are equally bad, creating a plateau of suckiness that's easy enough to get used to (unlike in something like Stolen Summer, which cast excellent actors like Kevin Pollak and Aidan Quinn alongside two of the worst child performers in the history of motion pictures). The movie's not inoffensively bad, at least, so you can attempt to daydream if your kids force you to watch it with them.
It Had to be You (December 11/03)
It Had to be You is an entirely predictable, although admittedly entertaining romatic comedy kept afloat by two incredibly charismatic stars. Natasha Henstridge and Michael Vartan star as Anna and Charlie, a pair of soon-to-be-married strangers that keep bumping into each other over a single weekend. Sparks fly, and the two find themselves spending more and more time together - even though their respective marriages are looming. Also thrown into a mix is her best friend, Tracy (Olivia d'Abo), who's beginning to fall for a cop buddy of his named Henry (Michael Rispoli). The endless charm of Vartan and Henstridge makes it easy enough to overlook the more cliched aspects of the story, which are just slightly less than plentiful. And though it's easy enough to figure out exactly where all this stuff is going (Vartan's Charlie quit his job as a police officer after he lost a jumper on his watch; think maybe he might confront his demons?), the good-natured vibe goes a long way in keeping things interesting.
The Hitcher (December 27/03)
The Hitcher is one of those movies where, right from the beginning, it's virtually impossible to resist the urge to tell the protagonist what to do (ie Don't get out of the car now! or Picking up that gun is a really bad idea right about now!) C. Thomas Howell stars as Jim Halsey, a fresh-faced college kid driving a rental car cross country. Along the way, he picks up a mysterious hitchhiker (played by Rutger Hauer) who eventually reveals himself to be a card-carrying psycho and begins making Jim's life a living hell (he implicates him in a series of murders). Director Robert Harmon brings a nice sense of atmosphere to the proceedings, but the film never becomes anything more than a mildly engaging thriller. This is primarily due to the surprising lack of tension throughout, as it never seems as though Jim is truly in jeopardy. It probably doesn't help that Howell isn't exactly the best actor around, but even Kurt Russell would've had trouble elevating this material. What it really comes down to is the fact that we're never under the impression that Jim's life is at stake; Hauer's character is clearly having a lot of fun toying with the man. Still, it's essentially entertaining throughout - though as far as films of this ilk go, it's got nothing on Breakdown or Duel.
The Hitcher 2: I've Been Waiting (December 28/03)
The most logical question to be asked of a sequel to The Hitcher is: Why would C. Thomas Howell's Jim Halsey ever pick up another hitchhiker? As it turns out, it's his far-too-helpful girlfriend that picks up said hitchhiker (natch). She's played by Kari Wuhrer, and though Howell is in the cast, this is really her story. Jake Busey steps into the shoes of the psycho, and proves to have zero difficulty in becoming this person. The Hitcher 2: I've Been Waiting is less a sequel and more a remake, except with less style and inferior production values. And logic dictates that Busey's hitcher would somehow be related to Rutger Hauer's character from the first film, and is therefore getting revenge on his behalf. Nope, he's just another random weirdo hitching his way across Texas. Not much else to say about this one, except that Howell is admittedly fairly good as this grizzled and haunted man who's unable to put his past behind him. The film probably would've fared better had he been the focus.
Wasabi (December 29/03)
Wasabi marks the latest Luc Besson production, after Kiss of the Dragon and The Transporter, that bears all the tell-tale signs of a flick he directed - slick action sequences, a wisecracking hero, and Jean Reno. Reno stars as a grizzled French cop who learns that he's got a nineteen-year-old daughter after a former love dies. Complicating matters is the plethora of goons that are now after both Reno and daughter because of a large inheritance that's coming her way. Wasabi is nothing more than a time waster, with admittedly stellar action sequences and creative direction. Reno is playing his tried-and-true hard-ass role, though there's no denying that he's brilliant in that part. But this is a step below other Besson productions primarily because the storyline just isn't all that compelling. Given that that's always been the weakest aspect of his non-directorial efforts, the underwhelming plot is particularly noticeable here. Still, as far as action flicks go, you could do worse.
Just Married (December 30/03)
It'd be easy enough to put the blame for Just Married's failure on Ashton Kutcher's shoulders, as he's such an obvious target. But given that the film requires little of him other than comedic timing, that's not really a fair criticism. No, it's the paper-thin characters and utterly predictable storyline that does the film in. Kutcher and Brittany Murphy stars as (not surprisingly) a just married couple, who are heading off to Europe for their Honeymoon. But when anything that can go wrong does, the two wind up bickering until their flight home. Part of the problem with Just Married is that it takes these two fairly charismatic stars, and forces them to argue and fight for virtually the entire running time. And as The Story of Us has already proved, that doesn't really work. It doesn't help that the majority of the jokes are of the sitcom variety (and a bad sitcom, at that), and the film's flat visual style manages to obscure photogenic locales like Italy (blame that on director Shawn Levy). The whole thing has a TV-movie feel to it, though with slightly better actors and no commercial breaks.
Home Room (December 31/03)
Home Room, like the recent Elephant, deals with the tough subject of school violence. But unlike that Gus Van Sant flick, Home Room employs a more direct approach to the material; the film follows two very different survivors of such an event as they attempt to cope. Busy Philipps and Erika Christensen star as Alicia and Deanna, two very different girls that are forced to spend time together. Deanna's a popular student that was hit in the head during the shooting, leaving her confined to the hospital with a half-shaven head. Alicia may or may not have known the shooter's plans, and escaped from the crisis unharmed; it's their principal that forces Alicia to spend time with Deanna. Though the set-up is very much in the same vein as The Breakfast Club, Home Room becomes very different as it progresses. Writer/director Paul Ryan really allows the audience to get to know these two characters, through their conversations and interact with the various other figures in the film (primarily the lead detective on the case, well played by Victor Garber). Though the film is overlong (it runs over two hours), it's never boring - mainly due to a pair of fantastic lead performances. Both actresses are very compelling, and it's because of them the film remains intriguing. Ryan's John Hughes fixation notwithstanding (in addition to the Breakfast Club similarities, the conclusion echoes Planes, Trains and Automobiles), this is an impressive effort that somehow got lost in the shuffle.