In a screen adaptation of the Philip Roth novella The Dying Animal this highly charged sexual drama comes to the fore as its central character wraps himself around a dangerous life-changing relationship. David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) is an engaging very successful professor whose personal life he closely controls--never letting commitment get in the way and keeping the women in his life at arm’s distance. Although he can go on The Charlie Rose Show and charm with the best of them his emotional needs have remained hidden to him--that is until a gorgeous young student Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz) enters his classroom and rocks his tightly monitored world. Suddenly everything he thought he knew about his own human nature and longings are thrown out the window. He becomes obsessively involved with the much younger Consuela--SO obsessive in fact that his jealousy and possessiveness take their toll and eventually drive her away. Drowning his sorrows in other personal matters he will discover that this relationship is not quite over and the woman who haunts his dreams is going to come back into his life with an urgency neither one could possibly have imagined. Kingsley an Oscar winner over a quarter of a century ago for Gandhi has perhaps his richest role since then as professor Kepesh a man overwhelmed by desire he never knew he was capable of. It’s certainly unusual and definitely refreshing to see an actor who is just hitting retirement age get such a full-bodied and sexual role. Let’s face it Kingsley is no Brad Pitt but he certainly represents a group of men who are still in the game and even just discovering their full romantic potential in the autumn of life. Of course what red blooded American male wouldn’t fall hook line and sinker for the rapturous Cruz. Her Consuela is a woman in complete charge of her being--until events out of her control bring out the vulnerability. Without revealing plot spoilers there are two distinct parts to this complicated and fascinating performance and Cruz effortlessly nails both. The supporting cast is also top notch with Patricia Clarkson a particular standout as Carolyn the professor’s long-time lover who finds her mutually convenient affair threatened for the first time. There’s also Dennis Hopper as a distinguished poet and David’s good friend; Deborah Harry as Hopper’s long-suffering wife; and Peter Sarsgaard as the prof’s distant son are all fine in the exceptionally well-cast film. Spanish director Isabel Coixet (My Life Without Me) brings an intimacy and strong woman’s touch to a story that might have had a different spin if directed by a man. After all how many Hollywood films have we seen with 60 and 70 year-old male stars cast opposite much younger actresses that fail to examine the irony of those pairings? This relationship is shown warts and all in a much more emotionally complicated way than most films dare. Emphasis on Clarkson’s spurned lover also adds a nice touch and we can completely empathize with this smart sexually alive woman whose main sin is her age similarity with the man she has slept with hassle free for over 20 years. A major studio would never touch a story like this that deals with the sexual proclivities of mature adults unless it had something to do with Batman and Catwoman. We can thank Coixet’s sharply detailed work behind the camera particularly in intimate bedroom conversations and a smart adaptation by Nicholas Meyer which gets right to the heart of Roth’s ultimately heartbreaking story. Those expecting something along the raunchy lines of the aging author’s Portnoy’s Complaint will be in for a surprise with this independently made contemplative beautifully crafted and acted romantic drama. Finally a film for grown ups.
Playing second fiddle to a more famous sibling can be rough. Just ask Fred Claus (Vaughn) a regular guy who has had to grow up under the shadow of his little brother Nicholas Claus (Paul Giamatti) aka Santa. That’s a big shadow to say the least both figuratively and literally. As an adult Fred has pretty much steered clear of his family but when he finds himself in dire need of some fast cash he calls his brother. Pleased as punch to hear from him Nicholas nonetheless makes him a deal: If he comes up to the North Pole for a visit and to help out the few days before Christmas then Fred can have the money. Fred reluctantly agrees and soon he’s being whisked off in Santa’s sleigh by head elf Willie (John Michael Higgins). But once Fred gets to the North Pole nothing seems to go right and soon he is the cause of much chaos--which unbeknownst to Fred causes Nicholas even more stress since his North Pole operation is one step away from being shut down by a cold-hearted efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey). Can Fred quit being bitter in time to save his brother’s livelihood? Of course he can. Hmmm Vince Vaughn minus the R-rated Wedding Crashers/Old School irreverence? It’s a stretch. Seeing the comic actor playing it PG is a little weird but you might enjoy how Vaughn infuses his unique energy into Fred Claus. From getting all the elves to boogie down in Santa’s workshop to going on one rant after another (on his brother: “He’s a clown a megalomaniac a fame junkie!”) to pilfering money on the street and then being chased by Salvation Army Santas it’s all good. Giamatti too seems a little out of his comfort zone as the saintly St. Nick. The actor who usually plays such endearing sad sacks has already played against type to great effect this year as the maniacal bad guy in Shoot ‘Em Up but he isn't nearly as successful in doing the flipside of that in Fred Claus. And what the hell is Kevin Spacey doing in this? As the villain of the film he fills the shoes nicely but he is almost too good at it (natch) for such a feel-good family film. Even Higgins--a character actor who is usually so hilarious in films such as The Break Up and all of Christopher Guest’s movies—has to shed the cheekiness and sugar himself up for Fred Claus. There’s also Rachel Weisz as Fred’s beleaguered girlfriend (you heard right) and Kathy Bates as the Claus boys’ mother who always sees Fred as inferior to her other son to fill out a cast of big names doing family fare. Director David Dobkin is a Vince Vaughn favorite having directed him in Wedding Crashers and Clay Pigeons but like his muse Dobkin seems a little out of place guiding this material. Granted Dobkin creates a pretty magical North Pole complete with an entire city of little dwellings a Frosty Tavern and a huge domed Santa’s Workshop. The montage of Fred delivering presents on Christmas Eve—falling down chimneys stuffing cookies in his face zooming around in the sleigh—is also well done. But overall Fred Claus is a Vaughn vehicle—even as sugary sweet and family-friendly as it is--and all Dobkin really does is turn the camera on and let the man do his stuff. Dan Fogelman's script is also so very bland full of any number of holes and only picks up once Vaughn starts to improvise. Bottom line: If you’re looking to take the kids to a sweet Christmas movie and are a Vince Vaughn fan then Fred Claus is for you.
Lonesome doctor Kate Forster (Sandra Bullock) must move out of the lake house she loves so much but leaves a letter for the new tenant in the mailbox with a forwarding address and a few pointers about the house. When Alex Wyler (Keanu Reeves) who’s father built the house moves in he finds things very different than Kate’s letter has revealed. After a few exchanges of questions and curiosities they realize they are living on the same day two years apart. Wondering how this could be happening (as are we) the mailbox suddenly becomes a conduit for their burgeoning love affair. But attempting to meet face to face is the challenge. Reeves is generally perceived as an action hero with Speed and The Matrix movies cementing his fate. So seeing him in romantic films such as Sweet November makes us cringe a little since he always looks like he’d rather be off chasing buses. While this still remains true in Lake House the stiffness actually works since the character doesn’t have much interaction with his object of affection. And of course pairing up with his Speed co-star is a plus. The emotion pours out of the two. Bullock’s slightly guarded character begins to open up to Reeves’ and the letters which turn into conversations throughout the movie depict the connection nicely. Inspired by the South Korean film Il Mare Argentinean director Alejandro Agresti handles The Lake House with a fine hand. It’s true the time-travel premise is more than a little confusing and riddled with plot holes but one has to keep in the back of their mind The Lake House is meant to take you on a journey of sorts. Agresti does an excellent job of doing this highlighting the scenic beauty and having the characters talk to each other through their words. If you just don’t think about the ridiculousness of it too much you’ll enjoy it.
It’s Christmas Eve in Wichita--the Las Vegas of Kansas--and there’s a mystery (with scant comedy) unfolding: Charlie (John Cusack) a disgruntled attorney and frequent strip-joint patron and his unsavory associate Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) have just embezzled $2 million from Charlie’s mob boss. But they have grown skeptical of one another natch. Also factoring into the equation is Charlie’s undying lust for strip-club owner Renata (Connie Nielsen) with whom he plans to escape once the ice on the roads melts. But she’ll only flee with him if he’s a million bucks richer which leads him back to Vic to sort everything out once and for all. Charlie’s final dealings with Vic lead them both down some slippery roadways but the ice does indeed melt. The only question: Who’ll be fleeing with whom once it does? The lead actors in Harvest are a bit miscast. Cusack’s droll demeanor is utilized once again but ad nauseam. His Charlie ends up being more confused than endearing further highlighting the film’s lack of clarity. Thornton shows promise and continues to fine tune his skills at dark comedy. But his role is limited leaving you wanting more especially since he’s being touted as one of the film’s main selling points. And Oliver Platt--who plays Charlie’s belligerent drinking buddy--has his funny moments but is ultimately too erratic and uncertain in a part tailor-made for indie darling Philip Seymour Hoffman. There is an exception in Harvest from we-didn’t-know-he-could-do-that Randy Quaid. Although he appears late in the film as the merciless bloated mob boss who has just been robbed of several million dollars the actor is entirely memorable. It’s usually tough to successfully mix noir sensibilities with comedy. Director Harold Ramis deserves praise for his bravery and departure but he should’ve simply stuck with his own tried-and-true comedy formula that has guided his career so well. Of course the director’s clout affords him some big-name actors for offbeat roles a prime holiday release date and a script that probably was once quirkily gorgeous. But they’re square pegs now to be put into round holes. The cinematography is wasted which is unfortunate since it nicely underscores the bitterly cold and distant Midwest. The Ice Harvest just proves to be another element foreign to Ramis’ fans who likely covered their eyes and ears when Robert De Niro yelled in Ramis’ Analyze This.
Dreamer is another one of those family films--based on a true story no less--that makes you feel guilty for not liking it because it means so well. The film revolves around the Cranes who have worked on their Kentucky horse farm for generations. But gifted horseman Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) loses his love for the job when the farm hits hard times. His estranged father Pop (Kris Kristofferson) feels like his son has given up unnecessarily. Even Ben’s young daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning) can’t get through to her dad. The only way this family can heal is by helping an injured horse named Sonya get ready for a seemingly impossible goal: to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. Say it together: “Awww!” At least the film gets it half right in its casting. Russell is perfect as the beleaguered Ben a man who needs a little inspiration to get back on track and he thankfully never takes it over the top. Same goes for Kristofferson who is aptly crusty and unwilling to give his son an inch--that is until his granddaughter and that darned horse melt his heart. And the family resemblance is uncanny; apparently the two actors have been told quite often how much they look like each other. The one misstep here is Fanning. Yes she is an extraordinarily gifted actress for her age but Cale should have been played by a happy sunny child. The oh-so-serious Fanning doesn’t really qualify. Also Elisabeth Shue as the mom is all wrong. A horse farmer’s wife? Please. Writer-director John Gatins takes a big gamble making his directorial debut with a movie about an underdog horse. First there’s the underdog part. This year seems a bit saturated with the plot device what with films like Cinderella Man and most recently Greatest Game Ever Played. Second there’s the whole horse thing. It’s just going to be hard to top the Oscar-nominated Seabiscuit--the quintessential true horse-racing movie to beat them all. True Dreamer is based on a true story and is nicely--albeit conventionally--framed. But the film isn’t unique in any way. It’s the same feel-good family stuff we’ve been swallowing all year. See? I told you I’d feel guilty for knocking it.
Richard Riddick (Vin Diesel) has a really bad rep and with good reason: Five years ago convicted killer Riddick escaped the galaxy's law enforcement during a botched interplanetary prison transfer and has been on the lam ever since. As The Chronicles of Riddick picks up our antagonist finds his relative freedom has been compromised when mercenaries out for the $1 million bounty on his head discover his location and hunt him down. Riddick escapes their clutches steals their ship and sets off for Planet Helion to find Imam (Keith David) the Muslim cleric he rescued in Pitch Black and the only person who could have squealed his location to authorities. But while Riddick's hunch about Imam are correct the cleric has a reason for luring the mammoth murderer out of hiding: Helion is falling to unholy armies of Necromongers--warriors who conquer by force in the vein of Star Trek's Borg. Of course Riddick doesn't give a damn about the Helions or their plight--until he gets wind that the Necromogers want to kill him because of an old prophecy that foresees their end at Riddick's hands. Like it or not Riddick is left with no other choice but to battle the Necromongers.
The character of Riddick is unquestionably what made Pitch Black one of the most sequel-worthy sci-fi films in years. And Riddick would not have been one of sci-fi's most intoxicating characters if it weren't for Diesel. Like his Dominic Toretto in the 2001 actioner The Fast and the Furious Riddick is a villain of few words but when he speaks his carefully chosen words have impact--even if the dialogue is at times overly theatrical. Riddick is the perfect antihero; a cold-blooded and indifferent being who somehow evokes more compassion than the film's so-called good guys. Joining Riddick are some recurring characters including David as Imam but Riddick benefits the most from the addition of some new characters particularly Colm Feore as Lord Marshal the Necromonger leader whose goal is to rid the universe of all human life. Feore channeling nuggets of Julius Caesar into his role makes for one of Riddick's most thrilling foes. Another prominent addition to the cast is Judi Dench who has a surprisingly small role as Aereon an Elemental captured by the Necromongers and used for her special powers including ESP.
Writer/director David Twohy took his horror pic Pitch Black which gained a cult following since it was released four years ago and managed to successfully turn it into an sci-fi actioner of epic proportions. Everything is grander here which is almost a given considering Twohy shot Pitch Black on a dime in Australia using colored filters. In Riddick the director distinguishes the film's different environments--the Necros' mothership Crematoria's cavernous prison and Helion--using warm to cool tones that are dazzling yet more subtle than its predecessor. The CGI effects get a little gamey at times but production designer Holger Gross' gargantuan sets are impressive and help craft Twohy's otherworldly vision into a plausible one. And although Twohy jumps genres from Pitch Black to its sequel his storyline evolves logically from the original premise. But while moviegoers unfamiliar with Pitch Black will be able to follow the story easily enough they may have a difficult time grasping what makes Riddick such a big deal; the film explains the legend but never fully captures its quintessence. This could hurt Riddick's chances to broaden its Pitch Black fan base.
John Q is just your ordinary average blue-collar worker in Middle America trying to make ends meet. Unfortunately things are slow at the plant and John's hours have been cut in half. To make matters worse his wife's car has just been repossessed and he can't find a second job to bring in more income. Then the hammer really falls: his son collapses during a Little League game and the doctors say the boy needs a new heart--and fast--or he will die. When John finds out that his insurance won't cover the operation (his policy has been downgraded by his company because his hours were cut) and that the hospital won't put his son on the organ transplant list without a stiff up-front cash payment John takes matters into his own hands. Holding the ER hostage John demands that the hospital put his son on the organ transplant list.
Denzel Washington is Everyman letting his hair get unruly packing on some un-Hollywood-star inches around the middle and wearing nothing but cheap hats and jeans. Despite some silly screenwriting Washington manages to raise John above soap-opera dramatics and weak polemics ("The enemy is us--we shot down national healthcare") with genuine emotion and convincing resolve but barely. James Woods is perfect as the sniveling smarmy and supercilious doctor but unfortunately he and the rest of the talented cast are wasted as one-dimensional characters and saddled with routine clichéd dialogue. Anne Heche (who should be commended for taking on such a villainous role) is the icy hospital administrator; Robert Duvall is the by-the-book hostage negotiator; Ray Liotta is the trigger-tempered police chief; and Shawn Hatosy is the big-city brat who just won't stand for being a hostage. The rest of the hostages aren't even remotely interesting nor are any of the other characters.
While weak dialogue is partially to blame when a cast as strong as this one can't breathe real life into their characters some of the culpability must be laid at the feet of the director. Nick Cassavetes' (She's So Lovely) movie suffers from heavy-handed treatment: every five minutes the audience is beaten over the head (again) as someone rails against the country's failing health system and places guilt on this party or that complete with obligatory tight close-up shot (and halo) directly on that character. Not to mention Cassavetes tips his hand with the opening scene. The patter by screenwriter James Kearns (TV's Highway to Heaven) is cute at times but on the whole the script is didactic yet inane and would make for a poor episode of E.R.. The story however does manage to engage the audience on an emotional level with its timely message. One cannot help but root for John Q no matter his vigilante ways. After John's denouement Cassavetes closes the film with news clips of celebrities stumping for the cause. This is typical of the movie as a whole; while it attempts to deal with the serious issue of health care reform it only does so on the most superficial level.