Mini Reviews (January 2007)
Ann Vickers, Abandon, The Whole Town's Talking, The Puppet Masters, Night Skies, The Big Clock, The Robber Bride
Ann Vickers (January 1/07)
It's not often that one chides a film for being too short, but that's precisely the problem with John Cromwell's Ann Vickers. Based on the lengthy novel by Sinclair Lewis, the 76-minute film leaps forward in time from scene to scene - lending the proceedings a distinctly disjointed and half-baked sort of vibe. That being said, there are certainly a number of positive elements within the movie - including star Irene Dunne's superb performance and Cromwell's surprisingly stylish and fluid directorial choices. And though released in 1933, the film possesses a number of unusually contemporary themes - with the abortion (!) that the titular character undergoes the most overt and obvious example of this. But the bottom line is that the insanely quick pace ultimately prevents the viewer from really connecting with Ann, and there's certainly no denying that the film's conclusion (in which Ann denounces her ambition and accepts her role as a housewife) can't help but come off as ludicrous and utterly dated.
Abandon, the directorial debut of noted screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, casts Katie Holmes as Katie Burke - a frazzled college student who must deal with the return of a former love (Charlie Hunnam), as well as an alcoholic cop's (Benjamin Bratt) investigation into said boyfriend's disappearance two years earlier. There's little doubt that Gaghan is aiming for a sort '70s-paranoia-thriller vibe, and on that level, the filmmaker generally succeeds (ie are the events in the movie actually happening or are they all in Katie's head?) That being said, Gaghan's choice to infuse the film with an egregiously deliberate pace is lamentable; it's virtually impossible not to wish that Gaghan would just get on with it already, but he instead stubbornly focuses on Katie's various academic and personal struggles (who cares, though?) Gaghan's sporadically intriguing directorial choices are intriguing (if occasionally a little too showy), while his dialogue tends to lean more towards the pompous than anything else. The film's final twist is admittedly quite effective, though it doesn't even remotely justify the interminable build-up leading into it.
The Whole Town's Talking (January 3/06)
The Whole Town's Talking casts Edward G. Robinson as Arthur Jones - a meek clerk who is shocked to discover that he looks exactly the same as escaped convict Killer Mannion. After being mistakenly arrested by the police, Arthur is given a signed form stating that he is, in fact, not Mannion - a piece of paper that inevitably brings the real Mannion into our hapless hero's life. That The Whole Town's Talking generally possesses the feel of a Frank Capra film doesn't come as much of a shock, as co-scripter Robert Riskin had a hand in several Capra efforts - including Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Meet John Doe. Robinson is surprisingly convincing as a character that's essentially the antithesis of his tough guy persona, although, as Mannion, he does deliver as creepy and sinister a performance as one might've expected. Jean Arthur provides most of the film's laughs as a sassy co-worker Arthur has a crush on, while director John Ford infuses the proceedings with an appropriately light-hearted touch. And while the movie begins to run out of steam towards the end - particularly as it abandons its various comedic elements in favor of and relegates Arthur's character to the sidelines - The Whole Town's Talking is generally an amiable little comedy that benefits greatly from the charisma of its two leads.
The Puppet Masters
Based on a 1951 novel by Robert A. Heinlein, The Puppet Masters follows several characters - including Donald Sutherland's Andrew Nivens, Julie Warner's Mary Sefton, and Keith David's Alex Holland - as they attempt to prevent parasitic aliens from successfully inhabiting the bodies of everyone on Earth. The film's screenplay (by Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, and David S. Goyer) eschews character development and actual instances of plotting in favor of an unreasonably quick pace, with the invasion kicking off almost immediately (there is, consequently, not even a hint of surprise or shock among any of the protagonists). The strangely disjointed vibe is compounded by Stuart Orme's styleless direction, and there's simply no getting around the feeling that large chunks of Heinlein's story have been omitted. And aside from the inclusion of a few decent action sequences and several genuinely creepy moments, The Puppet Masters is generally as far-fetched and overwrought as its 1950s sci-fi brethren.
Night Skies (January 9/07)
Night Skies follows five friends - including A.J. Cook's Lilly, George Stults' Matt, and Gwendoline Yeo's June - as they're confronted with increasingly sinister forces after their RV breaks down in the middle of a desolate forest, where they also encounter a shady ex-soldier (played by Jason Connery). There's little worth recommending in Night Skies aside from a fairly effective final 15 minutes (which is set aboard an alien ship), with the majority of the film devoted to the padded-out misadventures of these uniformly unpleasant characters. Screenwriter Eric Miller doesn't give the viewer a single reason to care about any of these people, and exacerbates the problem by emphasizing laughably overwrought instances of dialogue. This is clearly the sort of story that demands the big-budget Hollywood treatment, as evidenced by the egregiously low-rent production values and all-around vibe of needlessness (ie the movie can't help but come off as a second-rate riff on Fire in the Sky).
The Big Clock (January 9/07)
The Big Clock stars Ray Milland as George Stroud, a successful newsman who is forced to subvert his own publication's murder investigation after it becomes clear that he's being set up to take the fall. Directed by John Farrow, The Big Clock generally comes off as a prototypical effort from within the film noir genre - yet there's no denying that the movie possesses a surprisingly contemporary vibe. The brisk pace and darkly comedic script certainly go a long way towards cementing this feeling, while Milland effectively steps into the shoes of an increasingly frantic figure (Farrow's stylish direction doesn't hurt, either). Charles Laughton delivers a scene-stealing performance as George's sinister boss, infusing the character with a whole host of oddball quirks and ticks (ie he does this weird, Dr. Evil-esque thing with his little finger). And though saddled with an overlong and repetitive third act, The Big Clock recovers in its final minutes for a thoroughly thrilling conclusion - complete with one of the more memorable deaths in a film of this sort.
The Robber Bride (January 23/07)
Based on the book by Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride casts Shawn Doyle as John - a cop - turned - insurance - investigator who reluctantly agrees to look into the death of a mysterious femme fatale type named Zenia Arden (Mary-Louise Parker). John soon encounters three women whose past history with Zenia makes them plausible suspects for her murder, though it becomes clear that there's much more to the story than John initially thought. The Robber Bride is essentially a run-of-the-mill television movie that's elevated by some unusually superb acting, with Parker delivering a performance that's as complex and intriguing as one might've expected. But in condensing Atwood's novel into an approximately 90-minute production, there's little doubt that screenwriter Tassie Cameron has omitted huge chunks of the source material - ensuring that certain aspects of the story can't help but come off as confusing (something that's particularly true of Zenia's motives, which become increasingly muddled as the movie progresses). That the film transforms into a melodrama (complete with overwrought instances of dialogue) somewhere around its midsection surely doesn't help matters, although it does seem apparent that such problems will have little impact on viewers familiar with Atwood's novel.