The peril of encroaching technology has been a cinematic mainstay at least since Stanley Kubrick allowed HAL to temporarily get the upper hand in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (film purists can feel free to go even further back, to Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis), but rarely has this intriguing concept been presented as daftly as in the new thriller Eagle Eye. Executive-produced by Steven Spielberg (whose own techno-infused thriller, the superb Minority Report, bests this on every imaginable plane), this tiresome action yarn finds slacker Jerry Shaw (Shia LaBeouf) and single mom Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monaghan) drawn into what appears to be a terrorist strike against the United States. Initially strangers, they find themselves working together after each one receives threatening phone calls from a woman who orders them to carry out her instructions ... or else. The owner of the disembodied voice seemingly has control over every electronic device in sight, as she’s able to manipulate traffic lights, power lines, subway cars, and even cell phones. Meanwhile, hot on Jerry’s trail is government agent Thomas Morgan (Billy Bob Thornton, coming off as the dimwitted cousin of Tommy Lee Jones’ sharp tracker in The Fugitive), who can’t decide whether the kid is really a terrorist or just a dupe who’s been set up. Even allowing for the big twist that explains the villain’s identity, this movie requires a greater suspension of disbelief than might be humanly possible.
As is the case with most great filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen produce only two classifications of pictures. There’s Major Coen, like No Country for Old Men and Fargo, and there’s Minor Coen, such as Intolerable Cruelty and The Big Lebowski. (And then there’s the strange case of Raising Arizona, which looks Minor but is Major every step of the way.) Burn After Reading is decidedly Minor Coen, which means that it’s still more enjoyable than a lot of the product out there. With George Clooney and Brad Pitt in full-on clown mode, the film feels as much of an insignificant riff as those Ocean heist flicks, but with the Coens at the helm, it features a pitch-black comic sensibility that will either attract or repel moviegoers. The memoirs of a recently fired CIA wonk (John Malkovich) accidentally fall into the hands of a pair of idiotic gym employees (Pitt and Frances McDormand). Their awkward attempts at blackmail produce a vortex of misunderstandings that also ensnares the ex-CIA suit’s aloof wife (Tilda Swinton) and her lover (Clooney), a bundle of energy who enjoys jogging, womanizing and building stuff in his basement (his creation yields one of the film’s biggest laughs and will be at the top of most women’s Christmas wish lists). The three guys are more fun to watch than the two gals, although the film is stolen by J.K. Simmons (Juno’s dad) as a thoroughly confused CIA bigwig. Still, while the picture offers strikingly off-kilter characterizations and a number of huge guffaws, it won’t remain in the memory like most of the siblings’ output.
Given the dearth of quality romantic comedies produced by the major studios -- these days, it’s up to the independent outfits to provide them -- it’s a pleasant surprise to discover that Ghost Town manages to buck the odds. Certainly, the high-concept storyline makes it sound as dreary as a Kate Hudson vehicle. Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais), a dour dentist who avoids interacting with people at all costs, suddenly finds himself surrounded by dead people. That’s because he himself died for seven minutes while undergoing a routine colonoscopy, and this established an open line of communication with restless ghosts still hovering around Manhattan. Chief among them is Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), who demands that Bertram prevent his widow Gwen (Tea Leoni) from marrying a human rights lawyer (Billy Campbell). Ghost Town is given a significant boost by the presence of Gervais, whose caustic wit and no-nonsense demeanor provide the picture with more of an edge than it would have received with a more conventional leading man at the helm. But the picture surprises in other ways as well, thanks to unexpected tweaks in the script co-written by John Kamps and director David Koepp (best known for penning such blockbusters as Jurassic Park, Spider-Man and the latest Indiana Jones installment). Kinnear’s ethereal hubby isn’t exactly the dashing nice guy he initially seems, while the emotionally torn widow played by Leoni (who really needs to appear in more movies) isn’t just a pawn to be moved around by the three men in her life but instead takes control of the situations presented before her. Charming and unassuming, Ghost Town offers enough in the way of laughs to raise anyone’s spirits.
The witty and wise 1939 screen version of The Women, based on Clare Booth Luce’s play and helmed by “woman’s director” George Cukor, has been unfortunately refashioned as a Sex and the City wanna-be, in the process losing all the smoldering conflicts and zesty support system of its classic predecessor. In that version, Norma Shearer’s angelic society woman had to decide whether to stay married to a husband who dared to dally with Joan Crawford’s skanky shopgirl. With nary a male in sight but an all-female-cast to die for (Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine were also part of the ensemble), the picture began with a playful title sequence and went on to examine females as complicated beings forced to simultaneously respond to social duties, potentially duplicitous acquaintances, and the demands of their own independent hearts. Predictably, this new version opens with a nod toward modern materialism (a woman mentally catalogues each item in a department store with an inner computer not unlike the Terminator’s) and then proceeds to offer contemporary stereotypes rather than memorable individuals. Here, everything has been smoothed out to the point of tepidity: Eva Mendes (as the hubby-swiper) is merely naughty where Crawford was lethal, and Russell’s role as a backstabbing “frenemy” has been transformed into Annette Bening’s tough-yet-tender editor. Meanwhile, Meg Ryan (as the jilted spouse) doesn’t stray too far from her established persona, while Jada Pinkett Smith’s casting in a worthless role (cut it, and the movie doesn’t change at all) demonstrates that writer-director Diane English was more interested in covering all demographics than in making any salient points about 21st-century girl power.
According to the Internet Movie Database, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner has appeared as himself (or a variation thereof) in over 150 movies, TV shows and video productions, including episodes of Laverne & Shirley, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Sex and the City. Presumably, Hefner enjoys lengthier screen time in the new comedy The House Bunny, although personally I don’t think he’ll ever top his cameo in the Roman Empire segment of Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part I, wherein he sports a toga while brandishing his trademark pipe and explaining to a bevy of beauties that “It’s a new concept; I call it the centerfold.” In The House Bunny, the 82-year-old Hef serves as a father figure of sorts to Shelley Darlingson (Anna Faris), a Playboy bunny who lives at his legendary mansion and dreams of becoming the magazine’s next centerfold. But right after her 27th birthday (59 in Bunny years, she’s told), she’s kicked out of the house, although it’s not long before she finds herself with a new gig: serving as a house mother to the socially awkward girls from the Zeta Alpha Zeta sorority. Soon, she’s instructing them on how to attract boys and pledges while they’re teaching her how to depend on more than just her looks. The House Bunny was co-written by the same women (Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith) who penned Legally Blonde, and it’s safe to say that their roots are showing. This is basically an inferior version of that Reese Witherspoon hit, and it isn’t even up to the standards of last year’s similarly plotted Amanda Bynes comedy Sydney White. But Faris strikes the proper airhead notes, and Lutz and Smith feed her some funny lines.
Meryl Streep fans and ABBA fans can at least count on those two components firing on all cylinders in this adaptation of the Broadway smash. Everyone else, though, may be forced to rummage through the debris that constitutes the rest of the picture to find anything worth salvaging.
It was 30 years ago that the Christopher Reeve version of Superman was released, and now we have its equal on the other side of the aisle, a superhero saga that’s as dark and deep as its forefather was cheery and colorful. Even in superior entertainment like Spider-Man and Iron Man, there’s a feeling that it’s all make-believe, but The Dark Knight offers no such safety net -- it wears its danger on its sleeve. In this outing, Batman (Christian Bale) has done a fine job of tightening the reins around the mob bosses who have long controlled Gotham City, and he’s soon aided in his efforts by idealistic district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). But their combined attempts to corral the city’s crooks are hampered by the presence of a murderous psychopath known as The Joker (Heath Ledger). Eckhart stands out in what proves to be the picture’s most fully realized characterization, though we all know who’s the MVP of this particular show: The late Ledger is simply mesmerizing as this whirling dervish of cackling, lip-smacking, cheek-sucking sin. cs