Mini Reviews (September, October 2008)
Choke, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, The Falling, The Secret Life of Bees, Sex Drive
Choke (September 26/08)
There's certainly no mistaking Choke for anything other than an adaptation of a Chuck Palahniuk novel, as the film is chock full of the sort of anarchistic, nihilistic musings that the Fight Club author has become known for. And while the movie boasts an expectedly superb performance from Sam Rockwell, it's hard to deny that the increasingly random and aimless atmosphere inevitably wears one down. Rockwell stars as Victor Mancini, a low-life sex addict who must cope with the declining health of his ailing mother (Anjelica Huston's Ida) - as well as the very real prospect that, for the first time in his sleazy existence, he's finally experiencing actual feelings for another person (Kelly Macdonald's Paige Marshall). Fans of Palahniuk's book will probably find more here to embrace than detractors, as writer/director Clark Gregg has admittedly done a fine job of capturing the sardonic essence of the source material. Yet the relentlessly cynical modus operandi eventually does grow tiresome, with the film's various problems exacerbated by the aggressively freewheeling nature of Gregg's screenplay. There's little doubt, however, that Choke's visuals ultimately prove to be its most egregious failing, as Tim Orr tests the viewer's patience virtually from the word go with the oppressively muddy, downright unpleasant cinematography. One's subsequent attempts at overlooking the movie's deficiencies are seriously stymied, with the end result a hopelessly uneven effort that's generally more effective as an actor's showcase than as a fully-realized piece of work.
How to Lose Friends & Alienate People
It's ultimately difficult to recall a cinematic endeavor that crashes and burns with the ferocity of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, as the film's relatively engaging opening hour gives way to an atmosphere of eye-rolling predictability and higher-than-high melodrama. The movie, based on Toby Young's entertaining memoir, follows obnoxious British tabloid writer Sidney Young (Simon Pegg) as he accepts a job with a high-profile American magazine and subsequently bungles his way through a series of progressively embarrassing situations. Though screenwriter Peter Straughan has infused the early part of How to Lose Friends & Alienate People with an admittedly repetitive sensibility - ie Sidney does something really inappropriate, is reprimanded, does something else inappropriate, is reprimanded again, etc, etc - Pegg's expectedly ingratiating work proves effective in holding one's interest and there's little doubt that the movie can be genuinely funny at times. Yet it's just as clear that the increasing pervasiveness of decidedly uncomedic elements - the sudden appearance of Sidney's father, Sidney's growing fondness of acerbic coworker Alison Olsen (Kirsten Dunst), etc - ensures that the laughs come to a dead stop, with the whole thing eventually morphing into an incredibly tedious romantic drama that's simply breathtaking in its inanity. As a result, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People's few positive elements (including Jeff Bridges' scene-stealing cameo as Sidney's exasperated boss) are rendered moot in the face of its growing (and undeniable) ineptness, and one can't help but leave the movie wondering how it all went so colossally wrong (ie was it studio interference? Or is Peter Straughan just that incompetent?)
While there's little doubt that writer/director Nicholas Gyeney does deserve some credit for attempting to create an epic piece of filmmaking despite an all-too-obvious lack of funds, The Falling suffers from an egregiously low-rent sensibility that's increasingly impossible to overlook - with the movie's hopelessly convoluted storyline and periodic reliance on melodramatic elements certainly not helping matters. In terms of the former, Gyeney offers up a virtually impenetrable tale detailing the battle between good and evil that ensues after minions from Heaven and Hell arrive on Earth. Satan himself eventually makes an appearance, though it's a grizzled cop (Scott Gabelein's Grayson Reed) who eventually becomes the deciding factor in the progressively bloody confrontation. Gyeney's sporadically stylish visual choices notwithstanding, The Falling is - by and large - almost entirely devoid of positive attributes and it's subsequently not difficult to envision even ardent fantasy fans growing tired with the film's relentlessly pointless modus operandi. The exceedingly amateurish atmosphere effectively exacerbates The Falling's various problems, with Adrian Van Meter's mind-numbingly incessant score and Gabelein's far-from-enthralling performance ranking high on the movie's list of overt deficiencies. The inclusion of an eye-rollingly mawkish subplot revolving around Grayson's junkie brother proves to be the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back in terms of the viewer's patience, with The Falling ultimately coming off as a well-intentioned yet unequivocally disastrous effort from start to finish.
The Secret Life of Bees
Infused with a very deliberate, very gentle rhythm, The Secret Life of Bees admittedly (and ultimately) does a fantastic job of capturing the essence of Sue Monk Kidd's novel - yet it's not terribly difficult to envision certain viewers tuning out early as a result of the film's unapologetically high cornball quotient. The movie, set in 1964, follows a scrappy young girl (Dakota Fanning's Lily Owens) and her caregiver (Jennifer Hudson's Rosaleen) as they run away from an abusive home and eventually find solace with a house full of beekeepers, including matriarch August (Queen Latifah), stern June (Alicia Keys), and simple May (Sophie Okonedo). Filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood efficiently draws the viewer into the story's admittedly familiar terrain by emphasizing atmosphere and character development over plot, which undoubtedly proves instrumental in the emotional resonance of several of the movie's third-act developments and revelations. Fanning's expectedly solid performance is matched (and then some) by her various costars, with Latifah and Paul Bettany (cast as Lily's cruel father) offering up exceptional work that effectively perpetuates the irresistibly homey vibe. And while the film consequently possesses a love-it-or-hate-it sort of sensibility (ie the whole thing will surely come off as a long slog indeed for those viewers unable to immediately buy into the characters), The Secret Life of Bees is a pleasant, unexpectedly enthralling endeavor that manages that rare feat of actually improving upon its source material (Kidd's book, though quite good, spent just a little too much time on the minutia of beekeeping).
Though it kicks off with a relatively promising opening half hour, Sex Drive's increasingly tedious storyline - coupled with a distinct lack of laughs - ensures that it ultimately comes off as an almost interminable endeavor. The film stars Josh Zuckerman as Ian, a dorky high schooler who - along with friends Lance (Clark Duke) and Felicia (Amanda Crew) - embarks on a cross-country road trip to meet (and hopefully sleep with) a beautiful internet pen pal named Ms. Tasty. Filmmaker Sean Anders does a fairly decent job of initially drawing the viewer into the movie, with James Marsden's hilariously over-the-top turn as Ian's 'roid-raging brother proving to be a highlight almost immediately. The creeping inclusion of egregiously stale elements within the proceedings slowly-but-surely renders the film's few positive attributes moot, however, as screenwriters Anders and John Morris emphasize some of the most hackneyed plot developments imaginable - with the trajectory of Ian's friendship with lifelong crush Felicia undoubtedly a key (and hopelessly eye-rolling) example of this. The road trip that occupies the bulk of Sex Drive's midsection has been infused with a whole host of entirely ineffective (and wholly unfunny) encounters and characters, which is certainly no small feat given the presence of such naturally hilarious folks as Brian Posehn and David Koechner in cameo roles. The painfully drawn-out third act - in which all the major characters (and a few others) somehow converge on the same spot - only exacerbates the film's various problems, with the end result one of the least impressive comedies to come around in quite some time.