Killing Zelda Sparks (February 7/08)
Killing Zelda Sparks is an effectively acted yet otherwise interminable piece of work that bears all the marks of filmmaker in over his head, as director Jeff Glickman has infused the proceedings with a number of progressively ostentatious cinematic tricks that are ultimately more of a distraction than anything else. The overtly quirky dialogue within Josh Ben Friedman's screenplay only exacerbates matters, and the end result is a limp thriller that hardly manages to hold the viewer's interest for even a fraction of its mercifully brief running time. The needlessly convoluted storyline follows two high school friends (Vincent Kartheiser's Craig and Geoffrey Arend's Terry) as they reunite a decade later and consequently plot their revenge against the sultry vixen (Sarah Carter's Zelda Sparks) who tormented them way back when. Friedman's efforts to build suspense and develop the characters prove fruitless, as the unreasonably deliberate pace all but assures that most viewers will check out long before the admittedly eventful third act rolls around (ie the payoff isn't even remotely worth the seemingly endless buildup). Kartheiser's engaging (albeit undeniably over-the-top) performance remains the one bright spot within the movie, although there's little doubt that his extraordinarily fake-looking wig often prevents one from taking his character completely seriously (and let's not even get into the ridiculous moustache he sports during a few flashbacks).
Eye of the Beast (February 14/08)
Though saddled with a microscopic budget and an admittedly silly premise, Eye of the Beast generally comes off as a surprisingly entertaining little monster movie that benefits substantially from some unexpectedly above-average performances. The film kicks off with a tongue-in-cheek sequence in which a hapless teen couple is attacked by an unseen creature (the assault is, of course, preceded by the words "what was that noise?"), with the remainder of the proceedings devoted to aquatic scientist Dan Leland's (James Van Der Beek) efforts at solving the mystery of the enormous underwater assailant. Director Gary Yates effectively makes the most of the film's low-rent production values by taking the emphasis off of the monster and placing instead it on the problems of the various characters, which - thanks primarily to efforts of lead actors Van Der Beek, Alexandra Castillo, and Arne MacPherson - ultimately ensures that Eye of the Beast comes off as a cut above the usual straight-to-video creature feature. That being said, there's no denying that the film does suffer from a fairly saggy midsection - as screenwriter Mark Mullin plays up the conflict between the film's feuding native and white communities. Such sequences sporadically feel as though they'd be more at home within an entirely different movie, yet - as the characters are forced to put aside their differences to fight a common enemy - Yates does a nice job of infusing the third act with precisely the sort of action and suspense that one might've expected from such a premise (this is despite the rather underwhelming effects used to finally bring the titular beast to life).
The Spiderwick Chronicles (February 15/08)
Though The Spiderwick Chronicles ultimately fares a whole lot better than the majority of its contemporary fantasy brethren, there's little doubt that followers of Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black's series of books will find themselves scratching their heads at the omission of several key plot points and characters. Worse still, screenwriters Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum, and John Sayles have removed virtually any trace of the five novels' decidedly epic sensibilities - something that's certainly reflected in the baffling choice to move the film's climactic battle from an imposing ogre stronghold to a ramshackle house (huh?) The storyline - which follows three siblings (played by Sarah Bolger and Freddie Highmore in a dual role) as they're unwittingly drawn into an alternate world dominated by faeries, sprites, and other mystical creatures - basically retains the essence of DiTerlizzi and Black's work, which does ensure that the film possesses a number of genuinely thrilling action sequences (although, admittedly, the filmmakers' overuse of computer-generated effects sporadically lends such moments a distinctly cartoonish vibe). It's consequently entirely likely that The Spiderwick Chronicles will work best for those viewers unfamiliar with the books, as fans will surely spend much of the movie's brisk running time questioning the myriad of changes that have been made - with the most glaring and unwarranted example of this the downright bewildering decision to scrub the fifth tome's tear-jerking conclusion in favor of a comparatively bland and upbeat finale.
Definitely, Maybe (February 16/08)
Though filmmaker Adam Brooks does deserve kudos for attempting something different within the romantic-comedy genre, Definitely, Maybe ultimately doesn't fare much better than its mediocre brethren - with the almost unreasonably overlong running time certainly the film's most overt failing. Brooks' efforts at infusing the movie with a smarter sensibility than a typical romcom ensures that, at the very least, the whole thing is almost always entertaining, and there's little doubt that the uniformly compelling performances effectively sustain the viewer's interest even through a few less-than-enthralling patches. Ryan Reynolds stars as Will Hayes, a young father who agrees to tell his daughter (Abigail Breslin's Maya) how he met and fell in love with her mother - though he decides to complicate matters by including two other women in the story (Elizabeth Banks, Isla Fisher, and Rachel Weisz play the ladies in Will's life). The deliberate pace at which Definitely, Maybe moves proves to be an ideal fit for the material, as Brooks smartly takes his time in allowing things to unfold - with the end result a film that's been populated with a number of unusually well-developed characters. And while the off-beat structure does set Definitely, Maybe apart from other romantic comedies (A Lot Like Love, the 2005 Ashton Kutcher/Amanda Peet romance, being one notable exception), Brooks' mid-movie use of a fairly hackneyed plot device ensures that most viewers will be able to figure out the identity of Will's ultimate choice far sooner than one might've liked. Nevertheless, Definitely, Maybe generally remains an affable effort that surely proves Reynolds has what it takes to tackle more leading-man roles in the future.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (February 18/08)
Given the degree to which Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is initially unable to hold the viewer's interest, it really is quite remarkable just how compelling and flat-out entertaining the film ultimately becomes. Director Bharat Nalluri's early efforts at infusing the proceedings with the energy of a '30s screwball comedy fall entirely flat, with the almost oppressively stagy atmosphere and conspicuous lack of plot certainly not doing the proceedings any favors. It's only with the inclusion of a few admittedly conventional elements - ie the whole thing eventually morphs into a fairly standard romantic comedy - that the story finally starts to hook the viewer, and there does reach a point at which one is essentially won over by the increasingly likeable characters. Frances McDormand stars as the title figure, a British governess who reports for work at the home of American performer Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams) and subsequently finds herself drawn into her employer's various professional and social quandaries. While the frenetic yet wholly ineffective opening half hour of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day doesn't seem to hold much promise, there's little doubt that the pronounced emphasis on the amorous escapades of both Miss Pettigrew and Delysia slowly but surely breathes some much needed life into an otherwise stale affair. Their romantic entanglements (Miss Pettigrew is wooed by Ciaran Hinds' Joe, while Delysia must choose from three suitors) undeniably save the movie from utter tedium, with the uniformly superb performances ensuring that one can't help but crave a happy ending for the majority of the players (in addition to Adams and McDormand's expectedly stellar work, Ciaran Hinds and Lee Pace offer able support as the pair's love-struck admirers).
Vantage Point (February 21/08)
The gimmick at the heart of Vantage Point - the same event is shown from the perspective of several different characters - ultimately proves to be the least effective element within the proceedings, as there's little doubt that the film improves considerably once it adopts a linear structure somewhere around the one-hour mark. The storyline - which revolves around the events leading up to and following the assassination of the President (William Hurt) - certainly seems as though it would've benefited from a more traditional approach, with the inclusion of several mini cliffhangers and a myriad of plot twists admittedly holding the viewer's interest yet infusing the movie with the feel of a similarly-themed television show (ie imagine a full season of 24 or Alias compressed into a 90-minute feature). And while the repetitive vibe proves instrumental in maintaining an air of mystery, it does become difficult to overlook the increasingly superfluous nature of the film's intricate modus operandi. Pete Travis' hopelessly derivative, flat-out distracting directorial choices (shaky camerawork, rapid-fire editing, etc, etc) notwithstanding, Vantage Point's final half hour is as thrilling and exciting as one might've hoped - though it's impossible not to wish the filmmakers had gone for an R-rating (ie lots of people are bloodlessly shot). The exhilarating car chase that closes the movie is alone worth the price of admission, and it goes without saying that fans of the various actors - particularly Dennis Quaid and Matthew Fox - will surely find plenty here worth embracing.
Charlie Bartlett (February 24/08)
Though uneven and overlong, Charlie Bartlett nevertheless establishes itself as one of the most effective high-school comedies to come around in quite some time - with star Anton Yelchin's winning performance certainly playing a key role in the film's success. Charlie Bartlett (Yelchin) is a precocious troublemaker who must use his upper-crust smarts to win over the students at his new school, where he immediately finds himself picked on by an angry bully (Tyler Hilton's Murphy) and generally viewed as a weird outcast. Much to the chagrin of the troubled Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.), Charlie begins doling out prescription drugs as per his newly-created role of school psychiatrist and eventually leads a mini-revolution within the institute's hallowed halls. Screenwriter Gustin Nash initially infuses Charlie Bartlett with a wish-fulfillment sort of vibe that proves impossible to resist, as one can't help but root for Charlie to turn things around for himself (ie Charlie has the kind of high school experience that most people could've only dreamed of). The admittedly gimmicky opening half hour eventually does give way to a more substantive atmosphere, with the emphasis placed on the problems of the various students and also on Charlie's downright charming relationship with a fellow student (Kat Dennings' Susan). In terms of the latter, there's little doubt that the film is often more successful and compelling as a romance than anything else - as neither Charlie nor Susan are portrayed as prototypical teen-movie characters. And while the off-kilter structure employed by Nash does sporadically lend the proceedings an overlong and erratic feel, Charlie Bartlett - buoyed by the uniformly effective performances - ultimately comes off as a breath of fresh air within an exceedingly tired genre.
Impossible as it may seem, Semi-Pro actually fares worse than star Will Ferrell's prior stabs at sports-themed comedies - which, given the presence of such underwhelming efforts as Kicking & Screaming and Blades of Glory within his filmography, is certainly no small feat. Director Kent Alterman - working from Scot Armstrong's hopelessly meandering screenplay - has infused the proceedings with a limp, almost perfunctory vibe that's exacerbated by the almost total lack of laughs, and there does reach a point at which one can't help but shake their head at the relentless needlessness of it all. Set in the mid-'70s, Semi-Pro casts Ferrell as Jackie Moon - a flamboyant basketball-team owner/player who is forced to whip his colleagues into shape after learning that his organization is due to be shut down at the end of the season. It's worth noting that the film works neither as a raucous Ferrell comedy nor as an inspirational ragtag-team-makes-good sports drama, as the free-wheeling (yet wholly uneventful) structure effectively prevents the viewer from entirely connecting with the material (this is despite some fine work from a uniformly game cast, including Woody Harrelson, Will Arnett, and Andy Richter). The dreary visuals and erratic pacing only compound the movie's various problems, and - overlooking an expectedly entertaining cameo from Tim Meadows - Semi-Pro is devoid of positive attributes to such an extent that it's ultimately difficult to imagine even the most hardcore Ferrell fan walking away satisfied.