Mini Reviews (May 2009)
Balls Out: Gary the Tennis Coach, Love to Kill, The Code, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Uninvited, 40 Is the New 20, Shutter
Balls Out: Gary the Tennis Coach (May 2/09)
Armed with Seann William Scott's gloriously over-the-top turn as the title character, Balls Out: Gary the Tennis Coach almost manages to overcome its tedious storyline and hopelessly erratic pace to become a minor comedic masterpiece - yet there eventually does reach a point at which Scott's performance, ingratiating as it is, simply proves unable to compensate for the film's myriad of deficiencies. And while the almost Napoleon Dynamite-esque sensibilities of Andy Stock and Rick Stempson's screenplay might be enough to sustain the interest of certain viewers, it's ultimately impossible not to view the movie as anything more than a disappointment (albeit one that boasts a central performance that needs to be seen to be believed). Scott stars as Gary Houseman, a tennis pro turned high school janitor who reluctantly agrees to help coach his school's ragtag tennis team - with the bulk of the proceedings devoted to his efforts at whipping his pathetically incompetent players into champions. It's a familiar premise that's generally employed to underwhelming effect by the film's scripters, with the pair's decision to emphasize the relentlessly quirky comings and goings of the various supporting characters ultimately exacerbating the plot's aggressively low-key nature. The creeping realization that there's virtually nothing pushing the story forward inevitably results in several lulls within the narrative, with the movie's eye-rollingly hackneyed final half hour finally proving a test to one's patience - which is a shame, certainly, given the number of genuine belly laughs elicited by Scott's go-for-broke performance (with the highlight being a sequence in which Gary fruitlessly attempts to teach a foreign student to say "I love Coach Houseman!")
Love to Kill (May 4/09)
Though competently made and surprisingly well acted, Love to Kill ultimately comes off as a tedious, almost egregiously familiar direct-to-video thriller that generally feels like the cinematic equivalent of background music (ie it's watchable yet rarely engaging). The movie stars Blanchard Ryan as Frances Sweete, a money-hungry sociopath who has evidently made a pretty good living marrying wealthy older men and knocking them off a few months later. Frances' latest target, a fledgling politician named Nicholas Landon (Rick Ravanello), falls hook, line, and sinker for the black widow's well-honed act, though Nicholas' loyal assistant (Sonja Bennett's Theresa) eventually comes to suspect something's not quite right with her boss' new beau. The utterly routine nature of Love to Kill's premise ensures that there are few surprises throughout its mercifully brisk running time, with the strong performances generally standing as the one bright spot within the proceedings. Ravanello's undeniably bland performance is offset by both Ryan and Bennett's ingratiating work, as the actresses - particularly the former - prove fairly adept at freeing their respective characters from the constraints of their two-dimensional origins. And while the film does improve slightly once Nicholas starts to investigate Frances' sordid past, Love to Kill is precisely the sort of run-of-the-mill small-screen endeavor one expects to see on Lifetime in the middle of the afternoon.
The Code (May 5/09)
The Code casts Morgan Freeman as Keith Ripley, an aging thief who teams up with a hotshot criminal (Antonio Banderas' Gabriel Martin) to pull off the most lucrative job of his career - though the pair ultimately find themselves confronted with a whole host of obstacles, with Martin's fledgling relationship with Ripley's goddaughter (Radha Mitchell's Alexandra Korolenko) inevitably causing friction between the two men. The Code marks the latest in an increasingly long line of middling thrillers starring Freeman, as the actor – in addition to his work within genuinely stirring efforts like 2007’s Gone Baby Gone and 2008’s The Dark Knight – has recently appeared in such utterly forgettable titles as 2005’s Edison and 2006’s The Contract. And while The Code may not be quite as relentlessly mediocre as either of those films – it takes real talent to transform a heist flick into a flat-out unwatchable piece of work – the movie is nevertheless unable to hold the viewer’s interest with any degree of consistency. The inclusion of several less-than-enthralling subplots – especially Martin’s on-again-off-again relationship with Mitchell’s character – proves effective at dampening the strength of The Code’s few overtly positive attributes, while the impossibly convoluted third act ensures that the movie ends on as underwhelming a note as one could possibly envision. Despite its myriad of questionable elements, however, The Code is undoubtedly worth a look for the impressive heist sequence that arrives at its mid-point. Director Mimi Leder does a fantastic job of transforming what could have been a run-of-the-mill interlude into an admittedly engrossing (and surprisingly suspenseful) 20-minute stretch of film, with its effectiveness ultimately ensuring that virtually everything that comes after it can’t help but come off as anti-climactic. The end result is a hopelessly uneven endeavor that's consistently buoyed by Freeman's mere presence, yet there's little doubt that the actor deserves so, so much better than this.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (May 10/09)
After famously leaking onto the internet more than a month prior to its release, X-Men Origins: Wolverine - which details the origins of Hugh Jackman's titular character - was quickly caught up in a miasma of negative buzz as illicit downloaders almost unanimously panned the movie (which was, to be fair, missing a hefty chunk of footage and a whole host of special effects shots). It’s quite surprising to note, then, that the final product is actually a slight degree more effective than its immediate successor (yet it’s also a far cry from Bryan Singer’s effortlessly masterful X2: X-Men United), as the movie has been infused with the various elements that one has come to expect from this ongoing series – including over-the-top action sequences, memorable villains, and an almost Oscar-worthy turn from Jackman as the character that essentially made his career. And although the movie does suffer from the presence of a few unintentionally campy elements and a noticeably flabby midsection, X-Men Origins: Wolverine primarily comes off as a satisfying, sporadically enthralling bit of popcorn escapism that marks a fine start to the summer-movie season. Director Gavin Hood, best known for dramas such as 2005’s Tsotsi and 2007’s Rendition, instantly establishes himself as a far more adept filmmaker than such purveyors of action as Michael Bay and Len Wiseman, as he thankfully eschews the shaky camerawork and rapid-fire editing tricks that have lamentably come to define most contemporary action movies. Dig a little deeper, however, and the viewer is presented with an unexpectedly compelling revenge thriller, with Wolverine’s efforts at avenging the death of a loved one ensuring that Jackman’s already-grizzled character reaches points of viciousness heretofore unseen within this series. Add to that a series of enjoyable tough-guy performances from a supporting cast that includes Liev Schreiber, Ryan Reynolds, and Taylor Kitsch, and you’ve got a recipe for an entertainingly testosterone-fueled installment within the X-Men franchise.
The Uninvited (May 11/09)
A mild improvement over its nigh unwatchable predecessor, 2003's A Tale of Two Sisters, The Uninvited nevertheless comes off as a typically chaste, hopelessly dull contemporary horror effort that seems to have been designed to appeal solely to bubbleheaded teenagers. The movie follows troubled youth Anna (Emily Browning) as she returns home to her sister (Arielle Kebbel's Alex) and father (David Strathairn's Steven) after a stint at a mental hospital, though it's not long before both Anna and Alex begin to suspect that something's not quite right with their dad's new flame (Elizabeth Banks' Rachel). There's little doubt that The Uninvited primarily plays out like a movie-of-the-week mystery, as screenwriters Craig Rosenberg, Doug Miro, and Carlo Bernard place a relentless emphasis on the siblings' ongoing investigation into the mysterious death of their bedridden mother (Maya Massar) - yet the viewer is left at arm's length from Anna and Alex's efforts right from the get-go, as the two characters are left undeveloped beyond their most superficial attributes. It's equally clear, however, that the rampant lack of subtlety within the script plays a substantial role in the movie's downfall, with the inclusion of several laughable plot developments and twists sure to leave even the most laid-back viewer furiously rolling their eyes in derision (ie Rachel doesn't even seem to be trying to hide her maliciousness from Anna). And while the admittedly out-of-left-field twist ending is impressive in its audacity (even if its doesn't make a whole lot of sense), The Uninvited ultimately fits comfortably aside its myriad of underwhelming Asian-horror-remake brethren (ie One Missed Call, Pulse, etc, etc).
40 Is the New 20 (May 14/09)
The English-language debut of French-Canadian filmmaker Simon Boisvert, 40 Is the New 20 casts Pat Mastroianni as Gary - a successful stockbroker who becomes convinced that his search for love has come to an end after encountering his high school sweetheart (Claudia Ferri's Jennifer). Though it becomes increasingly clear that Jennifer's simply not interested in him romantically, Gary nevertheless plows full-steam ahead in his efforts at rekindling their long-lost coupling - with his methods taking an unexpectedly sinister turn as he begins surreptitiously spying on her movements and hindering her attempts at meeting other men. There's little doubt that 40 Is the New 20 initially boasts the feel of a prototypical Boisvert endeavor, as the writer/director emphasizes dialogue in which the various characters explore the ins and outs of contemporary relationships - yet it's not long before the lack of a concrete storyline results in a lull within the proceedings. The movie quickly regains its footing, however, as Boisvert slowly-but-surely paints Gary as a far more duplicitous figure than one might've initially suspected, with the film's subsequent transformation from affable comedy/drama into a dark examination of the lengths men will go to control women - one that's ultimately reminiscent of Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men - certainly proving instrumental in its overall success. Mastroianni's effortlessly charismatic performance ensures that Gary remains likeable in spite of his progressively sleazy actions, while Bruce Dinsmore effectively steps into the shoes of Gary's exceedingly slimy friend Simon. The end result is an uneven yet intriguing piece of work that fits comfortably within Boisvert's remarkably consistent filmography, and it's undoubtedly becoming awfully difficult not to label the director Canada's answer to Ed Burns (although, to be fair, Burns has yet to emerge with such an unapologetically cynical take on romance in the 21st century).
Shutter (May 25/09)
Based on the 2004 shocker of the same name, Shutter follows newlyweds Ben (Joshua Jackson) and Jane (Rachael Taylor) as they move to Japan after Ben is offered a lucrative position as a fashion photographer. Their jubilation is ultimately short lived, as the pair inevitably find themselves caught up in a mystery involving a creepy long-haired girl who died under suspicious circumstances. It's thanks primarily to Jackson's expectedly charismatic work that Shutter fares marginally better than its nigh unwatchable predecessor, as the movie has been otherwise outfitted with a myriad of less-than-enthralling elements that cement its downfall. The excessive familiarity of the film's storyline is exacerbated by the almost unreasonably plodding pace, with the hopelessly inert midsection - in which Ben and Jane investigate their demon's tragic past - certainly proving a test to the viewer's ongoing patience. And while there are admittedly a few nifty twists within the third act - all of which, naturally, were present within the original film - Shutter's place as an absolutely redundant piece of work is undeniable virtually from start to finish (which is a shame, really, given how infrequently Jackson is afforded the opportunity to take on leading man roles within theatrical releases).