Mini Reviews (February 2006)
Love, Ludlow, Volunteers, Must Love Dogs, House of 9, The Fog, Night Watch, Too Smooth, Hi-Life
Love, Ludlow (February 2/06)
Love, Ludlow is a sweet little romantic comedy that's generally engaging, though the overly quirky vibe often borders on oppressive. The story revolves around a tough-talking secretary named Myra (Alicia Goranson) who starts up an unlikely relationship with the shy and socially inept Reggie (David Eigenberg), despite the objections of Myra's younger brother Ludlow (Brendan Sexton III). Ludlow, a bi-polar painter, lives with Myra and has clearly been the dominating force in her life ever since the death of their mother a few years earlier. Love, Ludlow is never quite able to hide its stage origins, which isn't necessarily a bad thing as scripter David Paterson has a gift for writing dialogue that sounds authentic. And although Paterson occasionally infuses his characters with personality traits that come off as needlessly peculiar, the writer does a nice job of turning these three characters into believable, sympathetic figures. That the trio of actors are all superb certainly doesn't hurt matters, with Goranson (best known as Becky #1 on Roseanne) delivering an especially compelling performance. But the movie never quite makes the impact one imagines it's aiming for, primarily due to an overwhelming feeling of triviality. Still, the palpable chemistry between Myra and Reggie ensures that Love, Ludlow remains - at the very least - an above-average romance.
Volunteers (February 5/06)
Volunteers is a silly, thoroughly unmemorable comedy that would hardly be worth mentioning were it not for Tom Hanks' fantastically entertaining performance. Hanks stars as Lawrence Bourne III, who - despite being the son of an exceedingly wealthy man - finds himself forced to flee the country after racking up thousands of dollars in debt. After swindling his way into the Peace Corps, Lawrence must help fellow enlistees Tom Tuttle (John Candy) and Beth Wexler (Rita Wilson) build a bridge for the local villagers. Unbeknownst to the trio, the U.S. Army, a group of Communists, and a powerful drug lord all have their own plans for said bridge. Hanks initially elevates the material to something that's surprisingly watchable (and even sporadically funny), but the film's bizarre third-act transformation into an Indiana Jones-esque adventure ultimately sinks it.
Must Love Dogs (February 15/06)
Filmmaker Gary David Goldberg is best known for his work on television shows such as Family Ties and Spin City, so it comes as no surprise that Must Love Dogs generally plays out like a 98-minute sitcom. The story revolves around Sarah (Diane Lane), a 40-something preschool teacher who's slowly working her way back into the world of dating following a divorce. Her sister (Elizabeth Perkins) surreptitiously signs her up on an internet dating site, and following the requisite montage in which she meets a series of losers, Sarah encounters the handsome and charming Jake (John Cusack). It comes as no surprise that Lane and Cusack deliver engaging, charismatic performances, given that the actors have essentially built their careers around films of this sort. Despite Goldberg's almost ceaseless reliance on the conventions of the genre - ie the inclusion of an expected yet irritating fake breakup - the film is ultimately difficult to resist, though it's clear that those who generally dislike this sort of thing will really hate this.
House of 9 (February 18/06)
Nine strangers (well, eight; there's a married couple thrown into the mix) awake inside a strange house from which there is no escape, and are told to battle one another until there is only one person left standing (he/she will then receive $5 million, supposedly). With a seemingly foolproof premise like that, one can't help but feel utter shock as House of 9 ultimately reveals itself to be a thoroughly irritating and hopelessly inept piece of work. Screenwriter Philippe Vidal populates the story with an assortment of frustratingly stereotypical characters - from the tough-as-nails cop to the fragile young woman to the angry black guy - and immediately pits them against one another (there's absolutely no period of shock or disbelief). The performances are, likewise, teeming with exceedingly histrionic overtones, something that's particularly true of the ridiculously hostile black character (an aspiring rapper, no less!) And although director Steven R. Monroe initially infuses the movie with an intriguing sense of style, the filmmaker quickly kills any momentum the story has going for it with one interminable montage after another (all of which are set to astoundingly awful songs). In the end, it's the lack of believable, compelling characters that triggers House of 9's downfall; this is despite a twist ending that is admittedly pretty clever, though in no way indicative of what preceded it.
The Fog (February 18/06)
Based on the John Carpenter film of the same name, The Fog is the latest in a long line of needless horror remakes - though this one, thanks to a toothless PG-13 rating, is particularly egregious. Tom Welling stars as Nick Castle, a fisherman who - along with the residents of Antonio Bay, a small coastal town - must battle a group of blood-thirsty ghosts bent on revenge. Director Rupert Wainwright infuses The Fog with a glossy, overly polished sort of vibe, resulting in something that feels more like a feature-length trailer rather than an actual film. Welling and costar Maggie Grace deliver appropriately shallow performances, while Selma Blair - stepping into Adrienne Barbeau's shoes - looks vaguely uncomfortable spitting out the film's distinctly second-rate dialogue. That all of the actors are stuck playing stock characters culled from the Horror Movie Rulebook (there's even a sassy black guy!) certainly doesn't help, nor does Wainwright's incessant use of slow-motion cinematography during the film's action-oriented (yet entirely gore-free) sequences. But the bottom line is that this version of The Fog comes off as nothing more than a shameless cash-grab, and the thought that a whole generation of viewers are going to lump this mess in with Carpenter's far-superior original is a fairly depressing one indeed.
Night Watch (February 21/06)
That Night Watch has become the top-grossing film in Russian history is flat-out shocking, given just how terrible and thoroughly incoherent the movie immediately reveals itself to be. Director Timur Bekmambetov infuses the film with wildly over-the-top camerawork and special effects galore, but comes up short in terms of offering the viewer a single compelling character or a storyline that's worth following. The ridiculously complicated plot has something to do with a decades-old truce between good and evil, and the "others" that have been tasked with ensuring that peace reigns. It clear almost immediately, though, that Bekmambetov has virtually no interest in establishing any kind of reality for the viewer to grab ahold of; instead, the filmmaker assaults us with one broad, utterly absurd sequence after another (ie during an attack by a woman-turned-tiger, a figurine grows spider legs and starts stumbling around the room). As a result, virtually every aspect of Night Watch feels artificial and nonsensical - to the extent that the film eventually adopts a vibe of total and utter meaninglessness. And though it becomes easier to figure out just what's going on as the movie progresses, Bekmambetov is either unwilling or unable to provide the viewer with a single reason to care about any of this.
no stars out of
Too Smooth (February 24/06)
Too Smooth is a typically predictable, thoroughly tedious romantic comedy that's saddled with a virtually insurmountable hurdle, in the guise of an incredibly unappealing central character. Danny (played by writer/director Dean Paras) is essentially a stereotypical scumbag, having long-since developed a seemingly foolproof method for tricking women into sleeping with him. He uses the scheme to draw in the sweet Corinne (Kate Wright), but is shocked when she invariably dumps him after learning of his sleazy ways. Paras is clearly going for a Swingersesque sort of vibe here - particularly in terms of the characters and their snarky interplay with one another - though his decision to place Danny front and center quickly proves to be a disastrous one. Like Vince Vaughn's Trent before him, Danny is the sort of figure that would best be left on the sidelines; the character's slutty tendencies ensure that the viewer couldn't possibly care less whether or not he's able to win back Corinne. And despite the best efforts of the various cast members - except for Degrassi's Stefan Brogren, who delivers an egregiously broad performance - the whole thing just comes off as a glorified sitcom, complete with overly obvious punchlines and a hopelessly sentimental third act.
Hi-Life (February 26/06)
Hi-Life, starring Eric Stoltz, Moira Kelly, and Campbell Scott (among others), is an enjoyable if altogether forgettable comedy revolving around the exploits of several characters over the course of one very long night. Jimmy (Stoltz) owes Fatty (Charles Durning) $900, which he doesn't have but is confident he can get from his gullible girlfriend (Moira Kelly). Said girlfriend asks Ray (Scott), her brother, for the cash, explaining that she's accidentally gotten pregnant and now needs to have an abortion. Ray begins the process of collecting from everyone that he's lent money to, including the ex-girlfriend (Daryl Hannah) that broke his heart. In addition to filmmaker Roger Hedden's penchant for writing clever dialogue that's often quite funny, Hi-Life features several better-than-expected performances (Scott, in particular, is especially strong here) and an underlying vibe of sincerity. Despite the film's various positive attributes, though, the whole thing just never becomes anything more than a mildly entertaining romp (one would imagine, however, that that was exactly Hedden's goal).