Oh where to begin the insanity? Let’s start with a serial killer breaking into two young women’s apartment killing one of them but getting scared off before he can finish off the other one. At the trial of Jon Forster (Neal McDonough) the possible serial killer testimony from celebrated forensic psychiatrist Dr. Jack Gramm (Al Pacino) sends the guy to the gas chamber--even though the lone witness didn’t get a clear look and all the other evidence is circumstantial. Jump to nine years later when Gramm is still celebrated--mostly by the females in his life including a few of his college students (Alicia Witt Leelee Sobieski) the dean of the college (Deborah Kara Unger) and especially his loyal assistant (Amy Brenneman). But Gramm’s cushy life is turned upside down when a woman he knows is found murdered by what looks to be the same serial killer Gramm thought he put away. Did the wrong man get accused? Oh and Gramm also receives a phone call that he has 88 minutes to live. Bad day for Gramm. Bad movie-going experience for us all. Al buddy what were you thinking? At least the over-the-top Pacino plays it to the hilt as only he can. His requisite screaming scene for example has his Gramm trying to “get into the head” of Forster (played by McDonough with all the malevolence he can muster) by yelling all his dialogue at him so the convict will crack. Right. The real kicker is Gramm describing his little sister’s murder years ago his voice cracking with emotion. It doesn’t even come close to sincerity. Pacino is also supported by a bevy of recognizable actresses who probably took the job just to work with the actor but who shouldn’t count this one on their resumes. Witt is reduced to playing wide-eyed terror as she follows Pacino around on his quest to find out who’s threatening him while Sobieski mostly moons over the professor. The usually good Brenneman’s super-assistant delivers all of Gramm’s CRAZY requests with much calm and precision. But all these women seem to have some kind of ulterior motive so which one has it in for the good doctor? I won’t tell. Director Jon Avnet whose best known for helming Fried Green Tomatoes and Red Corner does a fair enough job. There are enough jumps and starts to at the very least keep the action going. No truly the most laughable part of the film is the script by Gary Scott Thompson (The Fast and the Furious). From the moment Gramm gets the threatening phone call to how the killer can find him anywhere anytime with any communication device--none of it makes sense. You can’t even suspend disbelief just for a moment. And the dialogue? Wow. Thompson must have pilfered from all the bad thriller/cop/serial killer movies ever made. Rumor has it 88 Minutes was slated to go directly to DVD but somehow got the green light for a theatrical release. Let’s hope Al Pacino didn’t push for it--that would just be sad.
Lonely Hearts is really two stories set in post WWII America. The main story is about Ray Fernandez (Jared Leto) a small-time swindler who bilks war widows out of their insurance money and life savings by getting them to fall in love with him. He then marries them and kills them once he has control of their assets. His neat little scam is thrown off kilter when he discovers that one of his targets Martha Beck (Salma Hayek) is penniless. He tries to dump her but she figures out his scheme and they become lethal lovers and partners in crime. The other story is about the detective (John Travolta) who tracks them down. He is picking up the pieces of his own tragic life after his wife commits suicide. His son (Dan Byrd) is a distant and difficult teenager and his girlfriend (Laura Dern) is trying to help him get on with his life. Jared Leto (Requiem for a Dream) is excellent as the greasy playboy who seduces and kills lonely women. He plays the sleazy charm and indecisive weakness of Ray Fernandez perfectly. But the standout performance of the film is Salma Hayek. Although Martha Beck on her best day never looked anywhere near as good as Hayek does on her worst the actress makes the cold-blooded character her own doing whatever it takes to get her hands on the ill-gotten gains. The image of a bloody and frustrated Hayek in a frumpy housecoat sucking on a cigarette with a hacksaw in hand complaining about the tenaciousness of one of their victims is priceless. John Travolta is either miscast or misused as the tortured tough guy detective Elmer Robinson. This wasn't a cool character and Travolta is a cool star who seemed to be straight jacketed by a character who is almost completely reactionary. James Gandolfini and Laura Dern do their best in their supporting roles. Writer-director Todd Robinson turns in a serviceable job behind the camera but falls down on the script. Lonely Hearts' main problem seems to be his inability to wiggle away from the facts to create an engaging movie. Robinson is actually the grandson of the real-life detective who brought Fernandez and Beck to justice. Robinson never gets beyond the made-for-TV luridness of the basic story. Gandolfini gets stuck in the role of narrator which would have been much more engaging if Travolta's character would have been the one talking to the audience. Robinson never lets the audience inside the characters long enough to make the film a more emotional experience. This is a problem with true stories; the writers are often not able or willing to be creative with the lives and motivations of the characters who have done extraordinary and well-documented things.
A fictional fever-dream mystery crafted loosely from the notorious still-unsolved 1947 murder of wayward wannabe starlet Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) the tale teams two rising L.A. police detectives whose bone-crunching boxing bout give them political juice—Mr. Ice cool young Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Mr. Fire hotheaded veteran Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). Both men become embroiled in and obsessed with the sick horrific crime even as Dwight falls hard for Lee’s victimized world-weary live-in love Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson)—with Lee’s unspoken approval: he’s too busy spiraling downward into a psychotic fixation with solving the murder having previously lost his sister to foul play. But Dwight’s also led astray by the more carnal temptations of voracious Madeline Sprague (Hilary Swank) the daughter of a bizarre high-society family with her own shadowy connections to the Dahlia. Sordid subplots abound simmering and swirling as in death the Black Dahlia threatens to suck everyone into an ever-widening abyss. Not entirely an epic of miscasting the film nevertheless falls short finding performers to essay Ellroy’s compelling cast: Hartnett demonstrates more depth here than in most previous efforts but comes fathoms short of the necessary mix of drive and angst to suit the complex role. Although she physically conveys a maturity beyond her years Johansson shows none of the wounded wisdom of the novel’s Kay—her seductive ethereal air would with an ebony dye job have served her far better as the Dahlia herself a cipher who becomes in the eyes of those obsessed with her whatever they dream her to be. Conversely Kirshner delivers in that elusive spectral role but the been-around-the-block-one-too-many times faded glint in her eyes would have made her a much more involving Kay. Eckhart has the spit and polish of a political-minded cop down pat but lacks the self-destructive inner fire that fuels the façade. Swank is mostly delightful by degrees—many of her choices are intriguing occasionally outrageous and give her femme fatale needed dimensions but others are overindulged. There are certainly macabre grand guignol moments in the story that make it more akin to Sunset Boulevard than its more obvious comparison Ellroy’s own L.A. Confidential but De Palma—never known for his subtlety—handles them with such an overt determined campiness any wry irony is wrung from them. The result is more of a parody—indeed an unflattering caricature—than a modern commentary on classic noir style. Add in his ceaseless camera-swooping swipes from Hitchcock and his ongoing fixation with meaningless gore—ham-fisted homages and hemorrhaging hemoglobin to ape Ellroy’s alliterative gossip-rag riffs—that distract from the intensity of the source material and all that remains is a bloody shame.
Once respected NYPD detective Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) is now pretty much on his last legs literally and figuratively. He drinks is relegated to a desk job and walks with a limp. One morning after a long shift he’s corralled into transporting a petty criminal Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) to the courthouse 16 blocks away so he can testify by 10:00 a.m. What Jack doesn’t know is that Eddie is one of the key witnesses in a case against crooked cops--that is until the two start getting shot at. Then it becomes crystal clear. The main bad guy Jack’s former partner Frank (David Morse) basically lets Jack know Eddie will never testify to just go ahead and hand him over but Frank underestimates Jack’s desire to finally do something good. So Jack and Eddie fight their way to the courthouse block by gut-wrenching block. Oh no there’s nothing formulaic about 16 Blocks not at all. In a film as predictable as this the only thing that’ll make it stand out is the performances. 16 Blocks nearly succeeds--but not quite. It would seem Willis is playing a character he’s played a hundred times before--the misunderstood and slightly unorthodox cop with a heart of gold. But as Jack the actor does a nice job trying out some new things namely playing fat bald and grizzled. You can almost smell how bad Jack’s breath has to be. Rapper/actor Mos Def who usually brightens any film he’s in also tries his hand at something different but his choices aren’t as smart. As the talkative and affable Eddie Mos comes up with one of the more annoying nasally accents ever recorded. After about five minutes of screen time you desperately want him to stop and say “Just kidding! I don’t really talk like this.” But he doesn’t. It’s too bad something like an accent can ruin an otherwise decent performance. Old-school director Richard Donner best known for his Lethal Weapons is a consummate professional when it comes to making these kind of movies. In other words he pretty much paints by numbers. We watch Jack and Eddie get out of one tight situation after another as the gaggle of bad cops try to gun them down. I mean 16 blocks doesn’t seem that far to go so they better throw in as many highly implausible obstacles as they can. Chinese laundries alleyways rooftops subways. And yes even a city bus which the pair--who have by now bonded big time--has to hijack. Donner also employs a popular but nonetheless annoying technique of zooming in when the action heats up so you can’t really see what’s going on. Even if you’re addicted to action movies--a Bruce Willis action movie no less--16 Blocks just doesn’t deliver the goods.
Talk about pressure. When LAPD hostage negotiator extraordinaire Jeff Talley (Bruce Willis) has a bad day lives are lost--and it is after one particularly bad day that Talley decides he's had it with the job. Plagued by guilt he relocates his family and becomes the police chief of a sleepy northern California town. But it's about to be woken up. Corrupt accountant Walter Smith (Kevin Pollak) and his two kids--teenager Jennifer (Michelle Horn) and grade schooler Tommy (Jimmy Bennett)--are taken hostage in their house after a carjacking attempt by a trio of young punks goes awry. Talley is forced to step in once again as the hostage negotiator. Why you may ask since he is now just a lowly police man? Because it turns out Talley's family is being held captive by Walter's superiors who need to get something very important out of the house. They demand the seasoned Talley take control of the situation before things get really ugly. And they do get ugly.
I'm sure Willis would say he agreed to play yet another reluctant hero whose family is in danger because the concept was intriguing. But we all know he probably made Hostage for the money. However Willis is still an appealing actor and a tried and true action star. He infuses Talley with his usual quiet strong demeanor which inevitably turns tortured--and then revengeful--when things go badly. Another standout includes Ben Foster (HBO's Six Feet Under) who does a nice job as Mars the most demented and brutal of the three kidnappers. Not only is the cold-blooded Mars on the edge but he's also some kind of a super delinquent who's able to knock out police cars professional hit men and the like with ease. Scary what they teach kids these days. Willis' daughter Rumer also gets some screen time as Talley's sullen daughter--but since she doesn't get to say much the jury is still out on whether she's inherited any of her parents' acting skills.
Hostage unfortunately takes a good idea and ruins it. To his credit French director Florent Siri who is best known in his native country for crime thrillers seems to understand about building the tension. The Smiths' isolated fortress situated in the hills is a perfect place to piece together the action-thriller ingredients: the shell-shocked cop trying not to repeat his past mistakes; the novice in-over-their-heads kidnappers lead by a trigger-happy psychopath; the resourceful and brave young hostages on the inside; and the menacingly ominous outside influences. But Hostage ends up taking these well-placed elements and running them into the ground. The film starts to drag in its logistical inconsistencies. Why don't the corporate baddies just come in and blow everyone away from the beginning? They obviously have the means to do so. But no. We are instead subjected to Willis running around trying to outsmart everyone natch while having heartbreaking conversations with the precocious little boy inside the house. When things finally do come to a head we are left with a severely over-the-top overtly bloody climax.