Playing Catch-Up: Crisscross, The Dust Factory, Gambit, In The Arms of a Killer, Overboard, Shy People


So, this year I am making a sincere effort to review every film that I see.  I know I say that every year but this time, I really mean it.

So, in an effort to catch up, here are four quick reviews of some of the movies that I watched over the past few weeks!

  • Crisscross
  • Released: 1992
  • Directed by Chris Menges
  • Starring David Arnott, Goldie Hawn, Arliss Howard, Keith Carradine, James Gammon, Steve Buscemi

An annoying kid named Chris Cross (David Arnott) tells us the story of his life.

In the year 1969, Chris and his mother, Tracy (Goldie Hawn), are living in Key West.  While the rest of the country is excitedly watching the first moon landing, Chris and Tracy are just trying to figure out how to survive day-to-day.  Tracy tries to keep her son from learning that she’s working as a stripper but, not surprisingly, he eventually finds out.  Chris comes across some drugs that are being smuggled into Florida and, wanting to help his mother, he decides to steal them and sell them himself.  Complicating matters is the fact that the members of the drug ring (one of whom is played by Steve Buscemi) don’t want the competition.  As well, Tracy is now dating Joe (Arliss Howard), who just happens to be an undercover cop.  And, finally, making things even more difficult is the fact that Chris just isn’t that smart.

There are actually a lot of good things to be said about Crisscross.  The film was directed by the renowned cinematographer, Chris Menges, so it looks great.  Both Arliss Howard and Goldie Hawn give sympathetic performances and Keith Carradine has a great cameo as Chris’s spaced out dad.  (Traumatized by his experiences in Vietnam, Chris’s Dad left his family and joined a commune.)  But, as a character, Chris is almost too stupid to be believed and his overwrought narration doesn’t do the story any good.  Directed and written with perhaps a less heavy hand, Crisscross could have been a really good movie but, as it is, it’s merely an interesting misfire.

  • The Dust Factory 
  • Released: 2004
  • Directed by Eric Small
  • Starring Armin Mueller-Stahl, Hayden Panettiere, Ryan Kelly, Kim Myers, George de la Pena, Michael Angarano, Peter Horton

Ryan (Ryan Kelly) is a teen who stopped speaking after his father died.  One day, Ryan falls off a bridge and promptly drowns.  However, he’s not quite dead yet!  Instead, he’s in The Dust Factory, which is apparently where you go when you’re on the verge of death.  It’s a very nice place to hang out while deciding whether you want to leap into the world of the dead or return to the land of the living.  Giving Ryan a tour of the Dust Factory is his grandfather (Armin Mueller-Stahl).  Suggesting that maybe Ryan should just stay in the Dust Factory forever is a girl named Melanie (Hayden Panettiere).  Showing up randomly and acting like a jerk is a character known as The Ringmaster (George De La Pena).  Will Ryan choose death or will he return with a new zest for living life?  And, even more importantly, will the fact that Ryan’s an unlikely hockey fan somehow play into the film’s climax?

The Dust Factory is the type of unabashedly sentimental and theologically confused film that just drives me crazy.  This is one of those films that so indulges every possible cliché that I was shocked to discover that it wasn’t based on some obscure YA tome.  I’m sure there’s some people who cry while watching this film but ultimately, it’s about as deep as Facebook meme.

  • Gambit
  • Released: 2012
  • Directed by Michael Hoffman
  • Starring Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz, Alan Rickman, Tom Courtenay, Stanley Tucci, Cloris Leachman, Togo Igawa

Harry Deane (Colin Firth) is beleaguered art collector who, for the sake of petty revenge (which, as we all know, is the best type of revenge), tries to trick the snobbish Lord Shabandar (Alan Rickman) into spending a lot of money on a fake Monet.  To do this, he will have to team up with both an eccentric art forger (Tom Courtenay) and a Texas rodeo star named PJ Puznowksi (Cameron Diaz).  The plan is to claim that PJ inherited the fake Monet from her grandfather who received the painting from Hermann Goering at the end of the World War II and…

Well, listen, let’s stop talking about the plot.  This is one of those elaborate heist films where everyone has a silly name and an elaborate back story.  It’s also one of those films where everything is overly complicated but not particularly clever.  The script was written by the Coen Brothers and, if they had directed it, they would have at least brought some visual flair to the proceedings.  Instead, the film was directed by Michael Hoffman and, for the most part, it falls flat.  The film is watchable because of the cast but ultimately, it’s not surprising that Gambit never received a theatrical release in the States.

On a personal note, I saw Gambit while Jeff & I were in London last month.  So, I’ll always have good memories of watching the movie.  So I guess the best way to watch Gambit is when you’re on vacation.

  • In The Arms of a Killer
  • Released: 1992
  • Directed by Robert L. Collins
  • Starring Jaclyn Smith, John Spencer, Nina Foch, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, Sandahl Bergman, Linda Dona, Kristoffer Tabori, Michael Nouri

This is the story of two homicide detectives.  Detective Vincent Cusack (John Spencer) is tough and cynical and world-weary.  Detective Maria Quinn (Jaclyn Smith) is dedicated and still naive about how messy a murder investigation can be when it involves a bunch of Manhattan socialites.  A reputed drug dealer is found dead during a party.  Apparently, someone intentionally gave him an overdose of heroin.  Detective Cusack thinks that the culprit was Dr. Brian Venible (Michael Nouri).  Detective Quinn thinks that there has to be some other solution.  Complicating things is that Quinn and Venible are … you guessed it … lovers!  Is Quinn truly allowing herself to be held in the arms of a killer or is the murderer someone else?

This sound like it should have been a fun movie but instead, it’s all a bit dull.  Nouri and Smith have next to no chemistry so you never really care whether the doctor is the killer or not.  John Spencer was one of those actors who was pretty much born to play world-weary detectives but, other than his performance, this is pretty forgettable movie.

  • Overboard
  • Released: 1987
  • Directed by Garry Marshall
  • Starring Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Edward Herrmann, Katherine Helmond, Roddy McDowall, Michael G. Hagerty, Brian Price, Jared Rushton, Hector Elizondo

When a spoiled heiress named Joanne Slayton (Goldie Hawn) falls off of her luxury yacht, no one seems to care.  Even when her husband, Grant (Edward Herrmann), discovers that Joanne was rescued by a garbage boat and that she now has amnesia, he denies knowing who she is.  Instead, he takes off with the boat and proceeds to have a good time.  The servants (led by Roddy McDowall) who Joanne spent years terrorizing are happy to be away from her.  In fact, the only person who does care about Joanne is Dean Proffitt (Kurt Russell).  When Dean sees a news report about a woman suffering from amnesia, he heads over to the hospital and declares that Joanne is his wife, Annie.

Convinced that she is Annie, Joanne returns with Dean to his messy house and his four, unruly sons.  At first, Dean says that his plan is merely to have Joanne work off some money that she owes him.  (Before getting amnesia, Joanne refused to pay Dean for some work he did on her boat.)  But soon, Joanne bonds with Dean’s children and she and Dean start to fall in love.  However, as both Grant and Dean are about to learn, neither parties nor deception can go on forever…

This is one of those films that’s pretty much saved by movie star charisma.  The plot itself is extremely problematic and just about everything that Kurt Russell does in this movie would land him in prison in real life.  However, Russell and Goldie Hawn are such a likable couple that the film come close to overcoming its rather creepy premise.  Both Russell and Hawn radiate so much charm in this movie that they can make even the stalest of jokes tolerable and it’s always enjoyable to watch Roddy McDowall get snarky.  File this one under “Kurt Russell Can Get Away With Almost Anything.”

A remake of Overboard, with the genders swapped, is set to be released in early May.

  • Shy People
  • Released: 1987
  • Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky
  • Starring Jill Clayburgh, Barbara Hershey, Martha Plimpton, Merritt Butrick, John Philbin, Don Swayze, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Mare Winningham

Diana Sullivan (Jill Clayburgh) is a writer for Cosmopolitan and she’s got a problem!  It turns out that her teenager daughter, Grace (Martha Plimpton), is skipping school and snorting cocaine!  OH MY GOD!  (And, to think, I thought I was a rebel just because I used to skip Algebra so I could go down to Target and shoplift eyeliner!)  Diana knows that she has to do something but what!?

Diana’s solution is to get Grace out of New York.  It turns out that Diana has got some distant relatives living in Louisiana bayou.  After Cosmo commissions her to write a story about them, Diana grabs Grace and the head down south!

(Because if there’s anything that the readers of Cosmo are going to be interested in, it’s white trash bayou dwellers…)

The only problem is that Ruth (Barbara Hershey) doesn’t want to be interviewed and she’s not particularly happy when Diana and Grace show up.  Ruth and her four sons live in the bayous.  Three of the sons do whatever Ruth tells them to do.  The fourth son is often disobedient so he’s been locked up in a barn.  Diana, of course, cannot understand why her relatives aren’t impressed whenever she mentions that she writes for Cosmo.  Meanwhile, Grace introduces her cousins to cocaine, which causes them to go crazy.  “She’s got some strange white powder!” one of them declares.

So, this is a weird film.  On the one hand, you have an immensely talented actress like Jill Clayburgh giving one of the worst performances in cinematic history.  (In Clayburgh’s defense, Diana is such a poorly written character that I doubt any actress could have made her in any way believable.)  On the other hand, you have Barbara Hershey giving one of the best.  As played by Hershey, Ruth is a character who viewers will both fear and admire.  Ruth has both the inner strength to survive in the bayou and the type of unsentimental personality that lets you know that you don’t want to cross her.  I think we’re supposed to feel that both Diana and Ruth have much to learn from each other but Diana is such an annoying character that you spend most of the movie wishing she would just go away and leave Ruth alone.  In the thankless role of Grace, Martha Plimpton brings more depth to the role than was probably present in the script and Don Swayze has a few memorable moments as one of Ruth’s sons.  Shy People is full of flaws and never really works as a drama but I’d still recommend watching it for Hershey and Plimpton.

Film Review: Ice Princess (dir by Tim Fywell)


In the 2005 Disney film, Ice Princess, Michelle Trachtenberg plays Casey Carlyle.

Casey is a brilliant high school student with a potentially wonderful future.  At least that’s what her mother, Joan (Joan Cusack), has decided.  As far as Joan is concerned, Casey’s destiny is to go to Harvard, become an award-winning physicist, and serve as an inspiration for young women everywhere.  When Joan looks out of her kitchen window and sees that Casey is skating on a nearby frozen pond, she doesn’t praise her daughter’s athleticism.  Instead, Joan taps on the window and holds up a text book.  It’s time to study!

If Casey’s going to go to Harvard, she’s going to need to win a scholarship.  And Harvard doesn’t just give out scholarships to anyone!  I mean, I sent them a note asking for money a few years ago and I still haven’t heard back from them.  So, Casey decides to prove that she’s Harvard-worthy by filming a bunch of ice skaters and showing how she can use physics to make their routines even more impressive.  Or something like that…

(Look, I’ll just be honest.  Science was always my worst subject in school.  Quite frankly, I don’t have the attention span necessary for it and I kind of like the idea of not knowing how the universe works.  I love the mystery of it all.  I realize that Neil deGrasse Tyson would probably be disappointed in me but, honestly, I know more about movies than he ever will.  So, I figure it all evens out.)

For her experiment, Casey tries to watch and film some other skaters, just to discover that the parents of ice skaters are insane.  Not only are they convinced that Casey is some sort of spy who has been sent by a rival skater but they also put their children under a tremendous amount of pressure.  They expect their kids to be champions and, even more importantly, to land the type of endorsement deals that go with being champions.  Casey, on the other hand, just wants to skate.

When Tina Harwood (Kim Cattrall), a former Olympic skater, agrees to teach Casey how to skate, she is shocked to discover that Casey is a natural on the ice.  Casey not only befriends Tina’s daughter, Gen (Hayden Panettiere), but she is also soon competing in regional competitions.  However, Casey’s mother still doesn’t know what Casey is actually doing and Tina soon becomes paranoid that Casey will outshine Gen.

So, what happens?

Does Joan discover that Casey is more into skating than science?

Does Casey win her scholarship to Harvard or does she give it up so she can pursue her dreams?

Does Tina try to sabotage Casey?

Does Gen encourage Casey to follow her dreams?

And, most importantly, does Casey win the heart of the guy driving the Zamboni?

You probably already know the answer to all these questions.  I mean, this is a Disney movie.  It was rated G and, after a somewhat unsuccessful run at the box office, it found a second life on the Family Channel.  Ice Princess is not exactly a revolutionary film.  It doesn’t set out to rewrite the rules of sports film genre.  Instead, it’s content to be a likable crowd-pleaser.  Michelle Trachtenberg and Hayden Panettiere were both perfectly cast as the unlikely friends and their relationships with their respective mothers feel authentic and true.  More importantly, the film features enough real-life ice skaters to lend verisimilitude to the competition scenes.

Right now, like all good people, I am insanely enthusiastic about the Winter Olympics.  (For the record, I’m hoping that Team Ireland and Team Italy takes everything.)  That’s one reason why I watched Ice Princess.  While no one in the movie actually goes to the Olympics, it’s still a figure skating movie and I imagine that, if there had been a sequel, Casey would have been skating at the Winter Games.

Ice Princess is an entertaining and thoroughly light-weight film.  There aren’t any surprises but you don’t really watch a movie like this to be surprised.  In an uncertain world, there’s a definite comfort to be found in movies that are content to simply be likable and entertaining.

My advice is to watch Ice Princess as a double feature with I, Tonya.

(This trailer is Italian but you’ll get the general idea…)

Film Review: Custody (dir by James Lapine)


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Last night’s Lifetime movie premiere, Custody, didn’t really feel like a Lifetime film.

This was largely because it really wasn’t.  Custody was written and directed by the acclaimed theatrical director, James Lapine.  The cast features not only Emmy winner Tony Shalhoub and Oscar nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno but also two Oscar winners, Viola Davis and Ellen Burstyn.  Unlike most Lifetime films, Custody was not filmed in Canada.  There were no Toronto landmarks in the background.  (You never realize how much you miss Canada until it’s gone.)  Custody played at Tribeca last year.  Much like Stockholm, Pennsylvania, Custody was made for a theatrical release but it ended up premiering on television instead.  As a result, Custody did not follow the usual Lifetime 8 act pattern.  The commercial breaks felt awkward.  With a 150 minutes running time, this film tested my four-minute attention span.

The other thing that set Custody apart from most other Lifetime films was that it wasn’t much fun to watch.  The great thing about Lifetime movies is that they are almost always fun.  It doesn’t matter what serious subject is being examined.  It doesn’t matter how dramatic things may get.  Lifetime movies are always fun.  To use one of my favorite terms, Lifetime movies embrace the melodrama.  Lifetime films push the limits.  Lifetime films say, “You think we won’t introduce a crazy twin halfway through the movie?  JUST WATCH US!  You think we won’t toss in a sudden case of amnesia or a cheating husband or a psychotic au pair in lingerie?  YOU DON’T KNOW LIFETIME!”

Custody, on the other hand, was a very serious movie about a very serious topic and therefore, it wasn’t much fun to watch.  In fact, Custody was a bit of a well-intentioned mess.  It followed one case as it worked its way through the family court system.  Sara Diaz (Moreno) has been wrongly accused of being an unfit mother.  Her attorney is Ally Fisher (Hayden Panettiere), who has just graduated from law school and who comes from a rich family.  Ally’s grandmother is played by Ellen Burstyn, largely because everyone’s rich grandmother is played by Ellen Burstyn.  Representing the state is Keith (Dan Fogler), who has absolutely horrid taste in ties.  The judge is played by Viola Davis and she’s going through a messy divorce from Tony Shalhoub.

I could see what Lapine was going for.  Custody juggles several plotlines, showing how everyone involved in the case has their own individual biases and problems to deal with.  Will the judge’s dissolving marriage make her more or less sympathetic to Sara?  Will the white and privileged Ally ever be able to truly understand Sara’s situation?  Will Keith ever learn how to properly select a tie?  These issues may seem petty when taken on their own but, when crammed together, they form one big human drama.

Or, at least, that seems to have been the plan.  Lapine gets some good performances from his cast but Custody never quite comes together.  This is one of those heavy-handed films where characterization is more likely to be advanced by a lengthy monologue than by action.  Add to that, Custody is ultimately far too enamored of the family court system.  Everyone means only the best and the bureaucracy is your friend.

I will say this.  Based on my own experience working as an administrative assistant in a law office, Custody does get one thing very right.  Male lawyers are always the worst dressed people at any courthouse.  On this count, Dan Fogler played one of the most realistic attorneys ever seen on TV.

 

Film Review: Scream 4 (dir. by Wes Craven)


Before I start, note that Scream 4 is also referred to as Scre4m. While this is true and cool in a hacking/cyberpunk sort of way, I refuse to call it that as it just erodes my writing ability (which is rough enough as it is). I keep that up by the end of the year, everything I write will have numbers in it.

Compared to some of his earlier attempts, Scream 4 is pretty much a triumph for Wes Craven. With Kevin Williamson’s help, they manage to take the fourth part of a story and turn it into something remarkably enjoyable and surprising. The audience at my showing loved the way it started and ended. Although it retreads some of the older themes of the series, it does so in a way that almost makes fun of itself and the genre it’s a part of. Since it’s not taking itself too seriously, the audience doesn’t have to either.

Scream 4 basically brings what’s left of the remaining cast back to the tale. The Arquette’s (Courtney Cox and David) have returned as Gail Weathers-Riley and Sheriff Dewey Riley, respectively. Neve Campbell returns to form after a long hiatus, and really, it’s almost as if none of them ever left. The film starts off in a way where it pays homage to the original Drew Barrymore opening while still managing to keep it fresh. Cameos by Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell help to move that along.

After the events of the last three films (ten years of time in the movie), Sidney Prescott (Campbell) has managed to put her life back together by writing a novel about being a survivor. Thanks to Gail’s book on the Woodsboro murders and the multiple “Stab” movies that were created for them, the town has become famous for something it really shouldn’t be. Ghostface masks are a dime a dozen now, yearly Stab marathons are all the rage and the town kind of looks at it all like Crystal Lake – people died there, sure, but it’s just so much to say “I was there!”.

Sidney’s fame did little for her niece, Jill (Emma Roberts) and her friends, Kirby (a short hairdo wearing Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe). Having to grow up as a relative to the most famous person in town means everyone has something to ask her about Sidney when she returns to Woodsboro on her book tour. The younger trio keep their distance from Sidney as they consider her trouble. After all, all these deaths seem to occur when she’s around or has something to do with her. However, when a new rash of murders start when Sidney arrives, everyone has something to worry about. What follows is a bloodbath in typical Scream fashion, and as always, just about everyone is a suspect.

The Positives:

– Conspiracy Theory

What worked for me in Scream 4 was the conspiracy aspect. Williamson paints a picture that basically says “Here’s your cast. Any one of them could be the killer. Can you figure out who?”. The misdirection isn’t on a Harry Potter like level, but it does serve a purpose here. By the time everything was brought out, I found myself nodding and smiling. It’s actually worth it to ride out the movie to get to the big reveal. Without giving anything away, both that reveal and the story behind it was damn near excellent.

-Sidney as Ripley

Another good thing about the film is that Sidney is pretty much a powerhouse here. She takes on the Ghostface without too much fear. So much so that it sometimes seems like she’s like a Jason Bourne type character. It’s nice that she’s able to hold her own, though after 3 films, you’d expect the character to probably do that.

– Remembering the Original

Another element that proved useful was the homages to the original Scream films. There are a few scenes that even if you only watched the Original Scream, you’ll recognize them instantly. Some serious recognition goes to Panettiere’s Kirby, who at one point spits out the name of nearly 30 horror films in the space of a minute. All in all, it might seem like rehashing, but the context they were set up in were enough to warrant a whispered “Wow” from me. Maybe I’m just easily impressed. Craven also managed to bring back Roger L. Jackson (Mojo Jojo from The Powerpuff Girls) as the voice of the Ghostface Killer. So much fun to hear his voice again after all these years. That was definitely a plus.

The Negatives:

Not a lot of Bodies Hitting the Floor.

If Scream 4 suffers from any problems, it’s that there really isn’t that much of a body count. Granted, I wasn’t expecting anything like Dead Alive or Dawn of the Dead, but as slasher films go, it’s pretty light on the numbers, and as always, most of the people who are dispatched are done well, but I left the theatre wondering if there weren’t just a few more people who could have been taken out. That, and outside of the main players, I didn’t really care about the rest of the cast. They were pretty much cannon fodder for Ghostface.

– The Rules have Changed, but aren’t Exactly Enforced

While the movie seemed to be big on changing what the rules for how horror movies go, they weren’t really mind-blowing. In some ways, it seemed it was useful, but perhaps it would have been better to simply say that there were no rules and leave it at that. The rules here didn’t seem as enforced as the first film. Anything kind of goes.

Overall, Scream 4 is a fun ride, and quite possibly the best entry in the series since the first Scream. It peppers original elements with a few new ideas. It’s not all perfect and there some moments that are over the top, but in the end, it’s refreshing when compared to the 2nd and 3rd parts of the series.