In much the same manner that David Lynch deconstructed the myth of the squeaky-clean small Southern town in Blue Velvet, so too does director David Cronenberg take a hatchet to the façade of bland Midwestern homeliness. The movie establishes the proper tone of unease from the start, as two men check out of their motel in the grisliest way imaginable. From here, we jump over a few cities to the home of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a hard-working café owner and family man blessed with a devoted wife named Edie (Maria Bello) and two children. Toms peaceful existence disappears the night that a pair of strangers bust into his diner with the intention of slaughtering everybody in sight. Springing into action, Tom kills the intruders, which in turn leads to his national status as a hero. Unfortunately for Tom, this widespread exposure brings more strangers to town -- specifically, gruff mobster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) and his two flunkies. Fogarty seems to believe that Tom Stall is actually Joey Cusack, the homicidal brother of an influential Philadelphia kingpin (William Hurt) as well as the guy responsible for Fogartys mangled face. Far be it from me to reveal whether this is anything more than a case of mistaken identity, but with this plot thrust, Cronenberg and scripter Josh Olson create a dizzying examination of this countrys love-hate affair with brutality. Viggo Mortensen, formerly a wretched actor who has matured in leaps and bounds these last few years, was a wise choice for the lead -- its impossible to read anything on his passive face, thus making it hard to gauge whether or not hes telling the truth about his past. Maria Bello also shines as the wife whos forced to confront some unpleasant truths about both her spouse and herself.
INTO THE BLUE P1/2
With its gorgeous shots of inviting surf and sand, Into the Blue is the very definition of a mindless summer movie. So what does Columbia Pictures elect to do with it? Hold it until the fall. Then again, that dense thinking goes hand in hand with the doltish shenanigans occurring on screen during the course of this silly yet harmless piffle. Paul Walker is Jared Cole, an amicable beach bum hoping to find sunken treasure in the Bahamas. Jessica Alba, who wears the same vapid look she displayed earlier this year in Sin City and Fantastic Four, plays Samantha, whos apparently content simply being Jareds sweetheart. Along with Jareds insufferable best friend Bryce (Scott Caan) and his opportunistic girlfriend du jour Amanda (Ashley Scott), they not only discover a sunken pirate ship but also a downed airplane containing millions of dollars worth of cocaine. This is the sort of low-IQ fare in which Albas derriere receives more close-ups than her face, yet writer Matt Johnson does make an admirable stab at providing some dramatic heft to his script until the inanities finally get the best of him.
OLIVER TWIST PP1/2
Roman Polanski finally won his Oscar a few years ago for The Pianist, but that actually represented one of his least interesting directorial excursions: Because that Holocaust story was both so personal in nature and so global in its tragic implications, a mindful Polanski stayed away from the cinematic flourishes seen in such masterworks as Chinatown and Rosemarys Baby. So whats his excuse with Oliver Twist? This re-imagining (as the press material calls it) of the Charles Dickens classic tinkers with the original tale, but deviation from the source material isnt its primary problem. Instead, its that while this timeless tale has been uncorked once again, it isnt allowed to properly breathe, stewing instead in its own stodginess. Leanne Rowe makes a favorable impression as the ill-fated Nancy, while Ben Kingsley, while never matching Alec Guinness peerless portrayal in the Lean version, turns the sniveling thief Fagin into a figure more likely to be pitied than loathed. As for the child actor essaying the title role, Barney Clark is rather non-descript.
Fans of the short-lived TV series Firefly will doubtless want to add another couple of stars to the rating for this big-screen spin-off. But for those who havent already built up a rapport with these characters and their struggles, Serenity is a long slog through sci-fi tedium, mixing elements from the countless space operas that preceded it without bringing anything new to the party. Written and directed by Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), this is set 500 years in the future, with the universe under the thumb of the evil Alliance. Its only opposition comes from the crew members of the spaceship Serenity, captained by a cocky scoundrel named Mal (not to be confused with Han Solo). After Mal (Nathan Fillion) and his team agree to protect young River (Summer Glau), a girl with telepathic abilities and an occasional appetite for destruction, the Alliance dispatches its ace operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to settle the matter. Offering next to nothing in the way of character development or even simple introductions, this is a cinematic flatline, only perking up for a bravura finale.
WALLACE & GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT ***1/2
Not only the best animated flick of the year but also one of the most enjoyable outings in any genre. In this yarn, Wallace and his silent sidekick have taken it upon themselves to rid their burgs rabbits by forming a pest control outfit called Anti-Pesto. Using Wallaces latest invention, the Bun-Vac 6000, the team is able to humanely capture all the bunnies that have been helping themselves to the neighbors garden patches. But shortly before the annual Giant Vegetable Competition is scheduled to take place, one of Wallaces experiments goes horribly awry.
TIM BURTONS CORPSE BRIDE PPP
With Corpse Bride, Tim Burton returns to the stomping ground of his previous foray into stop-motion animation, 1993s Tim Burtons The Nightmare Before Christmas. Compared to Christmas, which featured better songs, more interesting characters and a darker sensibility, Corpse Bride cant help but qualify as a mild disappointment. Based on a Russian folk tale yet set in Victorian England, Corpse Bride finds Johnny Depp providing the voice of Victor Van Dort, a shy lad whos set to marry a shy lass named Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson). While practicing his wedding vows he places the ring on a spindly branch, only to watch in horror as the branch reveals itself to be the finger of a corpse that rises from the ground like a zombie extra in a George Romero feature. This turns out to be Emily (Helena Bonham Carter), a young woman who died on her wedding night and whos been waiting ever since for her true love. Corpse Bride is a marvel of craft and imagination, yet whats most surprising is its ability to make us care about the fate of Bonham Carters character, a lovely woman who suffered a cruel betrayal she didnt deserve.
Is it too late to modify my opinion of Red Eye? Augusts plucky-woman-in-peril-while-aboard-an-airplane thriller was a nifty B-styled flick that only went down as it hit its conventional third act. By contrast, Flightplan, Septembers plucky-woman-in-peril-while-aboard-an-airplane thriller, is an involving A-list project that doesnt just go down as it reaches its preposterous third act -- it then explodes on contact, creating fireballs of flaws so massive that they obliterate entire theater auditoriums and even singe the concession stands. Kyle Pratt (Jodie Foster), a recent widow catching a Berlin-to-New York flight along with her six-year-old daughter (newcomer Marlene Lawston), becomes frantic once the girl disappears during the course of the flight. The entire premise rests on the fact that no one else aboard the plane, from the crew to the passengers, ever once caught a glimpse of the moppet, thereby establishing in their minds Kyle as a woman whos delusional and possibly dangerous. Director Robert Schwentke exhibits aptitude in his ability to stage tense confrontations between Kyle and her doubters, while the meticulous recreation of a jumbo airliner provides the film with a setting that feels as expansive and full of mystery as Baskerville Hall. Yet what really sparks this portion is Jodie Foster: Glimpsed at the beginning of the film as a lost soul still shell-shocked by the sudden death of her husband, Kyle springs into action once her daughter goes MIA, alternately scaring passengers, ignoring the flight attendants and berating the flights pilot (Sean Bean) and air marshal (Peter Sarsgaard).