Reviewed by Deborah Young
In the fall of 1998, divers Thomas and Eileen Lonergan disappeared from
shark-infested waters in Australias Great Coral Reef. A diving boat
had left them there.
The mystery of the Lonergans disappearance is the kernel that inspired
Open Water. But what happened while the Lonergans were in the water
is a mystery. Writer/director Chris Kentis film is the story about
what might have happened, the story of what happens when human nature
meets unthinkable adversity.
Handled differently Open Water could have been a big, noisy film
with eerie music in the background and toothy sharks in the foreground
overshadowing the human story. Instead, the film was executed in large
part like a home movie of Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis).
In the beginning, we witness the couple leaving their home to go on vacation
in the Bahamas. Were given tight close-ups of everything, including
their luggage, their faces and then souvenirs for sale in an open market
in the Bahamas and fruit being cut. Were voyeurs in their uneventful
lives for about half an hour. Were treated (or not) to half an hour
of classic low-budget movie fare, complete with banal conversations that
seem to be shouted by the actors and random camera shots of everything
in the actors paths.
Then the film approaches redemption. Susan and Daniel get into the water
and dive beneath the surface. We see them touching an eel and observing
other marine life, and the cold casualness of the film begins to warm.
When they surface and discover the boat that brought them is nowhere in
sight, the film starts to get interesting. From that point forward were
observing something that feels like truth. At first the couple fails to
grasp whats happened to them, then time passes and they begin reaching
for optimism, engaging in humorous repartee that seems inappropriate to
their situation but highly probable.
At one point the camera shows them floating out there like two ants in
a bathtub and while the camera is revealing the seriousness of their position,
Susan says to her husband, Daniel, did you just pee?
Thats just one example of whats good in this film. Once the
couple is in the water, we see a range of human emotions, from strained
optimism to stubborn wit to anger and finally, acceptance.
Much of the time the camera only reveals what Susan and Daniel see, so
that we can be afraid with them. We see Susans discomfort and hear
her say that something is stinging her, for instance, but like her, we
can only see the waters surface and guess at the unseen source of
her torment. Other times, the camera creeps beneath the surface to show
us the horrible secrets that are hidden from the divers. We see the shark
when it first bumps against Susan, but she doesnt, which makes us
fear for her even more.
Theres been a lot of hubbub about this film because the actors were
in the water with real sharks. But thats not the only thing that
makes this movie special. It succeeds in unveiling complex human emotions
even though that success is only achieved in the films last half.
No matter how brief the achievement, it is still a somewhat rare and notable
one. (R) Rating: 2.5; Posted 8/20/04
Reviewed by Uri Lessing
When it comes to quirky romantic dramas, theres a fine line between
genuine originality and forced originality. Films like Saved and
Love Actually seem on the surface to be unique, yet there is something
uninspired and forgettable about them. However, there is nothing forgettable
about Garden State, a truly impressive directorial debut by television
actor Zach Branff. The film manages to be delightfully offbeat while simultaneously
providing weight and depth.
Branff plays Andrew Largeman, an actor who has spent his entire adult
life in a lithium-induced stupor. Largemans life in Los Angeles
is not just empty; it is absent. His walls are bare, his apartment is
nearly unfurnished and his acting career consists of one major role as
a retarded football player. When Largeman learns that his mother has died,
he leaves LA (and his lithium) behind and heads home to New Jersey.
There, Largeman reconnects with old high school friends, including gravedigger
Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), but finds these relationships somewhat lacking.
Like him, his friends are heavily medicated (granted, with illegal drugs)
and their lives lack any direction. Yet this reunion serves as the perfect
starting point for his reinsertion into life.
Its only when he meets Sam (Natalie Portman), an eccentric, vivacious
girl that he learns to embrace his emotions and the wonder of living.
Sam, like Ruth Gordons Maude, loves life and takes immense pleasure
in every facet of it. When she enters his world, Largeman begins to wake
up. Portman truly thrives in this role and reminds the audience how misused
she is in Hollywood. (Hopefully George Lucas will feel some shame).
Through his flawless direction, Branff manages to be unique while not
sacrificing any emotional punch. Each scene in Garden State is
carefully constructed and the dialogue remains consistently clever and
inspired. The soundtrack is also lovely and perfectly captures the moods
and feelings of the film. You will find yourself staying to the end of
the credits and searching for the artists names.
This carefully paced labor of love pays homage to films like The Graduate
and Harold and Maude while entering their ranks. It wins its audience
over with charm, originality and beauty. How wonderful it is to see such
an impressive debut! (R) Rating: 5 ; Posted 8/20/04
Reviewed by Uri Lessing
Iniquity walks the earth. He has no mercy and no shame. He profanes the
sacred, tortures millions, brings suffering to the earth and is relentless.
This evil knows no bounds, and yet Hollywood mysteriously continues to
embrace him and pay homage to his monstrous works. Iniquity walks the
earth and has a name: Renny Harlin.
Harlins previous works includes such soul-torturing films as The
Adventures of Ford Fairlane and Cutthroat Island. His latest
heresy is Exorcist: The Beginning. Apparently Paul Schrader (Affliction,
Autofocus) filmed a version that Warner Brothers found too tame, so
they scrapped the film, developed a new screenplay, brought on a new cast
(apart from the lead) and hired Harlin.
Why a fourth Exorcist film was produced is a mystery considering
the stand-alone quality of the original and the stupidity of the first
two sequels. One would think studios would shy away from this dead horse;
I guess the power of crap compels them.
The film follows Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård) twenty-five years
before the original took place. He has lost the faith thanks to a particularly
nasty encounter with the Nazis, and has turned into an Indiana Jones style
archeologist. When he heads to East Africa in search of a relic, he finds
the cursed spot where Lucifer fell from heaven and does battle with the
evil-one in an ancient buried church.
Harlin relies on three elements to try to scare his audience. First, he
uses long dark scenes that follow a victim on his way to a
certain death. Whiney violins, creaky doors, spooky winds and creepy dark
locals give the film an atmosphere similar to the Haunted Mansion ride
at Disney World. Theres even a sexy woman forced to leave the shower
when the power goes out. Each scene has a false jolt followed by the real
kicker, not a terribly original technique.
The second element is gore. Exorcist: The Beginning flashes skin
disease, slit throats, axes to the head, bones shattering through skin,
crushed skulls and rotting carcasses with a sense of pride, decency and
sophistication of a 13 year old with a copy of Fangoria.
However, what downgrades Exorcist: The Beginning from a sub-par
slasher film to inexcusable garbage is the third element: the inexplicable
use of children as victims. Kids are graphically killed on screen throughout
the film. One child is ripped apart by jackals. Another is shot point
blank through the head. Theres even a child born covered with maggots.
Being an insipid uninspired filmmaker is not evil, but disguising ones
lack of talent by gruesomely killing kids on screen is really wrong. At
one point, Merrin cries out to a young boy to look away from the evil.
Good advice indeed. (R) Rating: 0; Posted 8/20/04
Academy Award Nominated Shorts
Reviewed by Uri Lessing
On Aug. 20-21 and 27-29 (unfortunately), the Screenland Theater is offering
a wonderful mix of animated shorts and live-action films that were nominated
for the 2004 Academy Awards. While watching these rich and iconoclastic
shorts, one realizes just how original filmmaking can be compared to most
Die Rote Jake (translated as The Red Jacket) follows
a childs jacket, thrown away by a grieving parent. We travel with
the jacket into Kosovo where a boy finds it. This intense film layers
tragedy upon tragedy, and ends with a touching and beautiful scene. We
are offered little hope, but experience the power of survival: a moving
Harvey Krumpet is a wonderfully irreverent animated film that follows
an odd immigrant from birth to the final chapter in his life. Poor Harveys
life is one train wreck after another and yet the small moments of joy
propel him forward. Each odd event and fakt that Harvey picks
up brings the hilarity level up a notch, and Geoffrey Rushs narration
seals the deal. Adam Elliot won an Academy Award for this delightful Australian
(A) Torija is a Slovenian film that begins with a choir awaiting
safe passage through a tunnel in war torn Sarajevo. A local farmer finds
out that one member is a former veterinarian and begs for help. It seems
his pregnant cows is suffering from torsion and soon the choir members
finds themselves on a noble mission. Not the subtlest film in the bunch,
(A) Torija is still a moving comment on what constitutes decency.
The Canadian film Nibbles can be summarized in one sentence. This
cartoon shows the true story of a father and his sons on a fishing trip.
Yet the pacing, repetition, intense sound and wild uninhibited animation
will bring you to hysterics faster than a family of three can guzzle down
a plate full of burgers.
Squash follows in real time a match between a boss and his subordinate.
At first, this French film seems like a two-dimensional analysis of belittlement,
but when the stakes are raised, the game becomes a fierce battle that
will have you further on the edge of your seat than the last five Harrison
Ford films combined. While the ending is not nearly as satisfying as the
rest of the film, Squash is a wonderful exercise in tension.
Not much can be said of the final film, Perpetual Motion without
spoiling this 1 minute and 30 second Student Academy Award winning film,
so lets just say it involves cats and jam and you will find yourself
laughing about it days after the viewing experience a wonderful
conclusion to an enjoyable film series. (NR) Rating: 4; Posted 8/20/04
Reviewed by Russ Simmons
The official credits name Fred Wolf, Harris Goldberg Tom Nursall, Jay
Leggett and Mitch Rouse as the screenwriters. Director Steve Brill (Mr.
Deeds, Little Nicky) claims to have contributed as well. He
also admits that the actors did a lot of improvisation.
Naturally, this means that the script for the new comedy Without A
Paddle is a slap-dash mess. Even without a glance at the credits,
its obvious that a committee of incompetents wrote this juvenile
opus. It also seems likely that a lot of beer was passed around while
the writers bounced around ideas lifted from other, better
A list of flicks that Without a Paddle rips off would be quite long, but
it is John Boormans 1972 classic Deliverance that appears
to be the movies inspiration.
The story involves a quartet of lifelong friends who, once they hit adulthood,
went their separate ways. When one dies suddenly, the three remaining
pals reunite at the funeral.
Jerry (Scooby Doos Matthew Lillard) is stuck in a boring
job and dreams about surfing. His diminutive friend Dan, played by Seth
Green (Austin Powers), is a successful doctor, although hes
a bit of a wimp and a washout with the ladies. The third member of the
clique is Tom (Dax Shephard from MTVs Punkd). Hes
a world-class prevaricator who has had more than his share of run-ins
with the law.
When they explore their old tree house, they discover evidence that their
deceased friend had been planning an excursion to find the treasure left
in the woods of by the infamous bank robber D.B. Cooper. They decide to
take on the task themselves, and embark on a dangerous canoe trip through
the Pacific Northwest.
Along the way, a bear chases them, they stumble upon a massive marijuana
field, are pursued by murderous hillbillies, and meet beautiful women
who live in a tree. They also encounter D.B. Coopers friend Del
Knox (Burt Reynolds), who has been searching for the treasure for 30 years.
The likable cast manages to breathe a little life into this pallid effort,
and the stunt casting of Reynolds adds a modicum of interest for viewers
who remember his role in Deliverance. If youre old enough
to remember, however, youre probably not in the demographic group
that this movie is aimed at.
Most of Without a Paddle seems forced and uninspired, but audiences
willing to put their brain on cruise control may not care. (PG-13) Rating:
2; Posted 8/20/04
Reviewed by Russ Simmons
There isnt a single character in the French drama Intimate
Strangers who is under the age of 35. That should be enough to ensure
that it will be a box office failure.
If so, it would be a shame. An intelligent, tense and well-acted film
from Patrice Laconte (The Girl on the Bridge, The Man on the
Train), Intimate Strangers presents an absorbing, suspenseful
story that keeps its roots in reality.
Sandrine Bonnaire (East/West) plays Anna, a beautiful and mysterious
woman who is having marital problems. Seeking an analyst for advice, she
accidentally walks past the door of Dr. Monnier (Michel Duchaussoy) and
into the office of a tax lawyer named William Faber (Fabrice Luchini).
There, Anna begins to spill her guts. Transfixed by her confessions, William
neglects to inform Anna of her error.
Energized by her encounter with William, Anna says that shell return
in a week, but neglects to leave her last name and number. William explains
the situation to Dr. Monnier and asks what he should tell Anna. Thus begins
a strange three-way dialogue infused with more than a bit of deception.
Over time, Anna explains that her crippled husband is abusive, that they
havent had sex in six months, and that hed like her to have
relations with other men. William is riveted by Annas story that
contrasts markedly with his own uneventful life. He also becomes infatuated
with her and afraid to confess that hes no doctor.
When Anna finally discovers Williams ruse, she overcomes her initial
anger and continues her unorthodox visits.
Henry James novel, The Beast in the Jungle seems to have
inspired the script. (When William suggests she read it, Anna rejects
it as too heavy.) He takes the story in another direction however, one
that will keep audiences guessing.
Laconte and screenwriter Jerome Tonnerre (A Man and a Woman: 20 Years
Later) are obviously unafraid to examine the psychological inner workings
of middle-aged people. Here, they uncover the emotional stagnation of
a man who, in many ways, is still a juvenile.
The film evokes an uncomfortable ongoing tension that some may compare
to the work of Hitchcock. Unlike the master of suspense, Laconte doesnt
end his story in Hitchcock fashion.
Some viewer may feel a bit cheated by the direction that Lacontes
story takes. There are no showy theatrics or dizzying denouement. What
he delivers may be less cinematic, but it is certainly more
pragmatic. (R) Rating: 4; Posted 8/20/04
Off the Leash
Reviewed by Russ Simmons
When producers promote the fact that their film imparts wholesome
family values, its generally a marketing ploy to appeal to
a specific demographic group. Those who believe that Hollywood is run
by the devil may respond to such claims.
Benji: Off the Leash is an innocuous bit of family fluff that,
by any critical standard, is merely adequate...and then only for the small
fry. It will be greatly over-praised in some circles because it is so
inoffensive. (The tots will say that they love it, but theyd love
anything that will let them get out of the house and into a real theatre.
Look at Yu-Gi-Oh, for heavens sake.)
This is the fourth theatrical Benji movie (the sixth, if you count
a couple of TV ventures) written, produced and directed by Joe Camp (The
Double McGuffin). Its completely devoid of originality or narrative
strength. But, hey, its clean!
The original Benji was an amazingly talented pooch named Higgins
who appeared on the old Petticoat Junction TV show. Since Higgins
was rescued from an animal shelter (and has since moved on to doggie heaven),
Camp conducted a well-publicized search through shelters for a new Benji.
He found a 3-year-old female mixed breed terrier in Pass Christian, MS
to take the role. He also discovered another adorable pup in a Chicago
pound named Shaggy, and he plays Benjis sidekick, Lizard Tongue.
These two mongrels are not only cute, but theyre the best actors
in the film.
In Camps screenplay, a 14-year-old lad named Colby (Nick Whitaker)
is the son of an abusive dad named Hatchett (Chris Kendrick) who runs
a puppy mill. When one of their dark colored, purebred dogs gives birth
to a light colored mutt, Hatchett abandons it.
Naturally, Colby rescues the pup and secretly raises it in a shack he
keeps out in the woods. Things are fine until the bungling dogcatchers
(Duane Stephens and Randall Newsome) stumble upon the shack when chasing
the elusive stray, Lizard Tongue.
The movie is full of silly, slapstick humor and cloying sentimentality.
It also gives a light treatment to heavy subjects (child and animal abuse).
Camp relies too heavily on the inherent cuteness of the dogs to carry
the day, but they carry it pretty well.
There is a right way and a wrong way to make quality films about cute
dogs. (Check out 2000s My Dog Skip for an example of the
right way.) Being clean isnt enough. Those who will praise a film
for what it isnt should take a closer look at what it is. (PG) Rating:
2; Posted 8/20/04