Mini Reviews (October 2004)
Stark Raving Mad, The Rules of the Game, Shredder, Head in the Clouds, Breakout, The Spirit of 76, The Brooke Ellison Story
Stark Raving Mad (October 3/04)
About the only impressive element in Stark Raving Mad is Seann William Scott, an actor best known for playing Stifler in the American Pie movies. As it turns out, Scott's a surprisingly talented and charismatic performer whose presence is more than a little reminiscent of a young Tom Cruise. The film, on the other hand, offers up a warmed-over heist plot that's exacerbated by an extremely annoying visual style (who thought it was a good idea to set the entire movie inside a dance club?) Scott stars as Ben, a club manager who's forced to steal a rare statue for a threatening mobster named Gregory (Lou Diamond Phillips) after his brother is murdered. Stark Raving Mad's been written and directed by Drew Daywalt and David Schneider, who infuse the movie with a variety of film tricks and dialogue that's trying way too hard to sound hip. It's possible there's a decent film buried underneath the garish exterior, but it hardly seems worth the effort to find out.
The Rules of the Game (October 11/04)
This is like finding out Citizen Kane sucks. The Rules of the Game is a supposed classic that's about as interesting as a bag of nails, filled with meaningless chatter and dull characters. The plot involves a group of stuffy rich folks who head to a palatial estate for a weekend of eating, hunting, and - most importantly - squabbling. Though there's no denying director Jean Renoir's skill behind the camera - indeed, the film's visuals are clearly the best thing about it - there's virtually nothing here to hold our interest, as the screenplay (by Carl Koch and Renoir) places the emphasis on the antics of these entirely tedious characters (something exacerbated by the complete lack of a storyline). As a result, the film is chock full of prolonged sequences in which these people engage in aristocratic activities that aren't compelling in the least (ie a hunt in which the filmmakers appear to have actually killed a handful of animals). It's hard to imagine what it is about The Rules of the Game that's made it such an enduring classic among cineasts, but it's fairly obvious the movie is one of those so-called masterpieces of cinema whose time has come and gone.
Shredder (October 11/04)
Shredder is an astoundingly dull and inept slasher flick involving a bunch of obnoxious teenagers who head to an abandoned ski lodge for a weekend of wild debauchery. This is despite the many warnings from local townspeople, including one particularly grizzled fellow with a bumper sticker that reads "death to snowboarders." Shredder is yet another horror/comedy hybrid, something that very rarely works - primarily because such films invariably contain the lamest jokes one could possibly imagine. Exacerbating matters is a cast comprised almost exclusively of terrible actors, though to be fair, they're not given a whole lot to work with (Edward Norton would be hard-pressed to inject life into this material). The only area in which the film succeeds is in its gore quotient, which is fairly high - though the obvious low budget of the movie couldn't possibly be more obvious (that disembodied head looks like it was slapped together with foam and some silly putty). Even the presence of Scott Weinger (DJ's boyfriend on Full House) can't save this mess.
Head in the Clouds (October 21/04)
Head in the Clouds is a well-made, visually distinctive period piece that's nevertheless a complete bore almost from start to finish. The story revolves around a free-spirit (played by Charlize Theron) who finds herself drawn to a politically active man (Stuart Townsend), and the rocky relationship that ensues. The film, which begins in the '30s and ends after World War II, certainly has an epic feel to it, and director John Duigan imbues the proceedings with an appropriate amount of visual splendor. But the meaningless chatter that these characters ceaselessly engage in eventually become overwhelming, making it impossible to care about their respective fates. Having said that, the movie does start to pick up a little once the Second World War kicks in; the title becomes more than just an abstract concept as we watch Theron's character deal with the ramifications of her unwillingness to choose sides. It's the overly melodramatic machinations of Duigan's screenplay that finally kills Head in the Clouds, something that's exacerbated by a seriously overlong running time.
Breakout (October 25/04)
Breakout is a surprisingly slow Charles Bronson vehicle that casts ol' Chuck as an easy-going bush pilot who's hired to airlift a prisoner out of a Mexican jail, despite the fact that he's never actually flown a helicopter before. Robert Duvall costars as said prisoner, while Jill Ireland plays his concerned wife. Breakout is notable only for the fact that Bronson plays a much more jovial, likable character than we've come to expect from the actor. His Nick Colton is certainly a far cry from the sort of tough guy roles he was famous for, and it's Bronson's performance that keeps things interesting even during some of the more superfluous sequences (this is a story that could've easily been told in half the time without losing a thing). As a result, there's not much here that'll appeal to non-Bronson aficionados - though you've got to admire the surprisingly brutal death-by-airplane-blades sequence.
The Spirit of 76 (October 25/04)
There's a good reason most people have never heard of this movie, and not just because it's an instantly forgettable Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure ripoff. The film opens in the year 2176, and mankind is on the brink of extinction. Three time travelers are charged with the task of journeying back to the year 1776 in order to determine just where things went wrong, but mistakenly wind up in 1976. Because all historical records were destroyed in a worldwide magnetic surge, the trio has no idea they're in the wrong century (sadly, wacky hijinks do not ensue). It's a great concept that's squandered thanks to a subpar screenplay and all-around feeling of amateurishness. But worse than that, the film's just not funny (this is particularly problematic given that The Spirit of 76 is supposed to be a comedy). Director Lucas Reiner (Carl's son) tries to imbue the movie with a satirical edge, but fails miserably; these are the kind of jokes one expects out of a third-rate sitcom. As for the Bill & Ted connection, aside from the obvious time-traveling thing, there are two stoner characters here that have clearly been influenced by that iconic duo. At the very least, the film's short running time (around 80 minutes) assures that's never entirely boring - which isn't exactly high praise.
The Brooke Ellison Story (October 25/04)
The Brooke Ellison Story marks Christopher Reeve's final effort as a filmmaker, and though it does have its share of problems, it's hard not to be won over by this engaging and tremendously inspirational tale. Based on a true story, the film follows quadriplegic Brooke Ellison as she overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds to graduate from Harvard University summa cum laude. Vanessa Marano and Lacey Chabert star as, respectively, the adolescent and 20-something Brooke, and both actresses are very effective in the role. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio co-stars as Brooke's mother, giving a performance that's far better than one might expect out of a made-for-television production. Camille Thomasson's screenplay provides a real glimpse into the sacrifices Brooke's mother is forced to make, including accompanying her daughter to class and flipping her over every two hours at night; essentially giving up her entire life for Brooke. And while Reeve overplays a few elements in Thomasson's script - was the evil nurse really necessary? - he does a nice job of presenting this story in an efficient and entertaining way. In the end, the genuinely touching nature of The Brooke Ellison Story makes it easy enough to overlook the film's few flaws (including an unresolved plot strand involving Brooke's sister's problems in dealing with the whole situation). A fitting swan song for Reeve.