A perfect husband a devoted father a loyal friend a successful architect—yes Steven Burke (David Duchovny) is the kind of flawless family man we only encounter in hankie-soaking Hollywood melodramas. He exists solely to be killed off just so his friends and family can become better people through their loss. So it comes as no surprise that Steven dies a Good Samaritan's death while on his way home—of course—from buying ice cream for his two kids. If that won’t get you crying nothing will. Steven’s death leaves his wife Audrey (Halle Berry) a mess. She can’t look after herself let alone her daughter Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and son Dory (Micah Berry). Instead Audrey turns to Steven’s best friend Jerry (Benicio Del Toro) for help. Not really the smartest choice—Audrey despises Jerry for squandering his life and career on drugs. But Audrey’s desperate for a shoulder to cry on so she inexplicably invites Jerry to stay at her home while he tries to clean up his act. Quicker than you can say “rest in peace ” Jerry’s dispensing words of wisdom to Steven’s kids and in a moment of unintentional hilarity spooning with the lonely Audrey in her bed. Audrey naturally comes to believe that Jerry isn’t the strung-out leech she’s considered him all these years. Still we can’t help but count down the minutes until Jerry slips back into his old habits. Or wonder how long it will take for Audrey to kick Jerry out of her house when the inevitable happens. Things We Lost in the Fire serves an important purpose: to make clear that Halle Berry’s performance in Monster's Ball wasn’t a happy accident. As a widow unable to function without her soul mate Berry shakes up the otherwise maudlin proceedings with a rage and intensity that’s honest and fearless. Never afraid to present Audrey as occasionally cold and unsympathetic especially in regards to her treatment of Jerry and her children Berry nevertheless always makes us feel Audrey’s burning love for Steven without resorting to Joan Crawford-like histrionics. Too bad Audrey is defined only by her role as a wife and mother—Berry never receives the chance to show that Audrey has a life outside her family. She does share a good rapport with the typically brooding Benicio Del Toro whose ravaged face reveals more about Jerry’s lifetime of self-inflicted pain and suffering than words ever could. But there is a slight spark to be found in Del Toro’s sleepy eyes which gives us the impression that Jerry has what it takes to live one day at time with the support of his new friends. David Duchovny doesn’t do much beyond smiling like he’s just been named Father of the Year for the 10th time. Not that Duchovny needs to exert himself to make Steven charming and likeable—Steven is as happy and uncomplicated as Duchovny’s Californication philanderer is as sad and screwed up. Alexis Llewellyn and Micah Berry (no relation to his onscreen mother) nail the anguish confusion and profound sense of loss that comes with grieving for a dead parent without being annoyingly precocious. How disappointing it is to discover that not even the usually calm and collected Susanne Bier can turn Things... into something more than the standard Lifetime TV weepy of the week. The Danish director’s Hollywood debut is very much like her earlier character-driven dramas in that it is preoccupied with how established family dynamics shift in the wake of a life-altering event. After the Wedding and Brothers managed to be poignant without getting too gushy but Bier cannot keep Things... from drowning in its own sentimentality. The problem clearly lies with screenwriter Allan Loeb’s emotionally manipulative script which fails from the start to convince us Audrey would open her house to her late husband’s drug buddy. Ignoring Loeb’s hard-to-swallow premise Bier does an excellent job of establishing the relationship between Audrey and Jerry. Theirs is a well-presented study in co-dependency which results in an insightful—though occasionally obvious—exploration of drug addiction the grieving process and the pursuit of personal redemption. Things... smartly avoids making much of its interracial marriage—it would only overcomplicate matters—or taking Audrey and Jerry down a path that would led to an ill-advised romance. If only Bier and Loeb showed some guts in the way they portray Steven. Surely he had at least one skeleton in his closet to make him seem more human. Everything we learn about Steven—especially about the fire referenced in the seemingly cryptic title—merely reinforces the notion that he was too good for this world. Or at least the world Hollywood thinks we live in.
A “bedtime story” is a fairly succinct way to describe Lady. Of course a bedtime story being told by M. Night Shyamalan can go into any number of weird and wild directions. The writer/director says the idea for Lady was based on a story he’d told his kids which began with “Did you know that someone lives under our pool?” and revolves around Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) a lowly superintendent for an apartment building who inadvertently finds Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) a mysterious nymph-like “narf ” living in the pool. She’s there to complete a task and now that it’s done she needs to go home back to the Blue World. But that’s easier said than done. She only has a small window of opportunity and apparently there’s a ferocious beast called a “scrunt” lurking in the grass around the pool waiting to kill her if she tries to leave. Now Cleveland and a few of the other tenants—who find themselves intricately tied to Story’s plight—must help her escape to freedom. Thank god for Sideways. Without it Giamatti would have gone on playing under the radar without the recognition—and juicier parts—he deserves. He is truly a wonder as Cleveland a sad little man with a stutter who is quietly trying to hide from a tragic past. It’s only when Story comes into his life does he face his personal tragedy and learn to live again. Howard on the other hand who wowed most of us with her stunning performance in The Village doesn’t have nearly as much to work with as the pale water nymph. The mystical character is fairly one note—befuddled and cheerless. But the rest of the apartment tenants shine: Jeffrey Wright (Syriana) as a single dad who has a penchant for crossword puzzles; Freddy Rodriguez (HBO’s Six Feet Under) as a weight builder who only lifts weights on one side of his body; Bob Balaban (A Mighty Wind) as a pompous film critic (and as a critic I’m not at all offended when he gets his comeuppances); Cindy Cheung as a Korean college student who is key in telling the epic bedtime story; Sarita Choudhury (She Hate Me) as a quippy young woman looking for her mission in life and Shyamalan himself as her brother the person Story is meant to inspire to write something extraordinary. There’s never a dull moment with this crew around. In a way M. Night Shyamalan has become his own worst enemy having to live up to this reputation as a master of suspense and surprise twists. His last effort The Village left many of his fans feeling unsatisfied—and unfortunately he may alienate more with Lady in the Water. But the fact of the matter is he is still one of Hollywood's more brilliant minds on par with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman for originality who has an innate talent for crafting ingenious stories filled with genuine human emotions. So maybe this time around he’s made a movie more for those most ardent of his fans who simply revel in the way his mind works no matter how incomprehensible and frivolous it may seem. So what? The diehards might feel compelled to defend Shyamalan’s choices with Lady—how he has come up with an entire universe where things like “scrunts” and the “Tartutic” (simian-like creatures who form an invincible force that maintains law and order in the Blue World) and “Madam Narfs” interact with humans in the real world. If the story actually took place in the Blue World then maybe it’d be easier to swallow. But that’s sort of the genius of Shyamalan. It’s as if with Lady in the Water he’s crafted a child-like movie for those adults who remember being told wildly creative bedtime stories who then in turn tell the stories to their kids.
Based on the best-selling novel by Dennis Lehane Mystic River is full of characters wrought with heavy emotions--and burdens. Yet it is also a fairly simplistic murder mystery. Three 13-year old boys Jimmy Sean and Dave are playing on a street in a tough Boston neighborhood when two pedophiles pretending to be cops grab Dave and take him away. In that moment all three lives are irrevocably changed. Jimmy (Sean Penn) grew up as tough as his neighborhood doing time for robbery but finally settling into a comfortable family life with his wife Annabeth (Laura Linney). Sean (Kevin Bacon) went on to become a cop but his personal life is in a shambles and he is estranged from his wife. Dave (Tim Robbins) has never been able to face his demons despite being a loving father and husband to Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden). Now 25 years later tragedy brings them together once again. Jimmy's 19-year-old daughter is found murdered and while Sean is assigned to the case with his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) Jimmy seeks his own vigilante investigation with the local hoods--and Dave emerges as a prime suspect. As the mystery is unraveled all are pulled closer toward an abyss that will force them to face their true selves--and will mark them as irrevocably as the past itself has tainted their lives.
This is one of those dream scripts serious actors simply go gaga over--and the high-quality ensemble in Mystic River does their jobs superbly. To pinpoint the best performance of the bunch however is virtually impossible--and the Academy may have a tough time making the same distinction as there is surely going to be a nomination or two coming from this film. Penn as the emotionally charged Jimmy stands out a little ahead of the rest with his fury resonating throughout the film. Robbins' ultra-vulnerable Dave is also a remarkable study of a soul completely wounded by the horrors he has experienced. Linney and Harden too are excellent as the spouses; Linney as Annabeth is a strong defiant mother whose only impetus is to protect those she loves while Harden in contrast is meek and unsure as Celeste faced with the dilemma of showing faith and loyalty to her husband while at the same time being convinced he committed the murder. All the performances will quite literally blow your socks off.
With all its excellent acting Mystic River has the added benefit of being helmed by director Clint Eastwood who has enormous talent behind the camera. He likes his films to simmer; his Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Oscar-winning Unforgiven are two examples. Mystic River is beautifully put together with lingering shots of Boston neighborhoods and the people who live in them. He doesn't move the camera much keeps things steady but knows when to pull in or pull out as the drama escalates (an aerial shot of an anguished Jimmy being held back by several policeman after he discovers his daughter's body shakes you to the core). Still there are some problems with this slow-burn technique in that sometimes things should move along rather than stand still. Eastwood seems also to have had trouble finding the ending. After a pivotal powerful climactic scene with Jimmy and Sean discussing Dave's kidnapping 25 years ago and its effect on all their lives Eastwood tacks on a few more final scenes of the men tying up loose ends resolving feelings with each other and their wives--and then going to watch a parade. It's a minor point compared to the quality of the rest of the film but it still leaves things on an anti-climactic note.
A Guy Thing's premise is standard and remarkably uneventful. Paul (Jason Lee) thinks marrying the sweet and perfect Karen (Selma Blair) and working for his tough soon-to-be father-in-law Ken (James Brolin) is the best thing he's got. Until he meets Becky (Julia Stiles) the girl he wakes up with after his wild bachelor party. Paul can't remember what happened but assumes the worst and tells Karen a little lie to cover it up. His friends tell him it's fine it's "a guy thing" and he shouldn't feel guilty but in the week before his nuptials he watches the whole thing blow up in his face. See Becky is Karen's free-spirited cousin a girl who lives life to the fullest. Even if Paul wanted to forget Becky and the apparent incident he can't especially when he realizes he is beginning to have feelings for Becky and that maybe Karen isn't the right girl for him. Oh boy he's got some s'plaining to do. This is life folks--these are the tough choices you've got to make. Or so that's what the film wants us to remember when we walk out of the theater with our sides splitting from laughing so hard. Right.
After last year's stinker Stealing Harvard one would have hoped Jason Lee learned his lesson--but apparently not. The thing is the guy is talented. He's shown great comedic flair alongside director Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy) but it's obvious his judgment has been impaired somewhere along the way. Lee looks like he is sleepwalking through most of the film as Paul does nothing more than react to all the craziness around him typically coming to his senses just in the nick of time. Blair (Legally Blonde) once again plays the country-club princess to a tee but someone please give this actress something meaty for a change. She can handle it. Yet it's Stiles who surprises you in A Guy Thing. Venturing into a balls-out comedy for the first time she just seems so out of place in the romantic comedy milieu. You think it isn't going to work but then suddenly you realize she's grown on you and Becky's gangly klutzy style becomes the only refreshing thing in this tired genre movie. Larry Miller also makes a hilarious appearance as Paul's minister neighbor who has seen the whole "guy thing" transpire. Funny stuff.
Someone really needs to tell why these vacuous romantic comedies keep getting made. A Guy Thing portends to be different claiming the comedy comes from real-life choices rather than from outlandish unbelievable situations. OK then it makes sense Paul would climb out his future in-laws' bathroom window to escape seeing Becky only to get hung up on a tree limb then get shot at by big bad daddy Ken and then have to climb back in the bathroom and wind up squirting a shampoo bottle into the toilet to make it seem like he was having gastric problems to those listening outside the bathroom door. Sure that happens all the time. Comedy works best when it's a tad outrageous and don't think A Guy Thing is anything but although it fails most of the time. Still under the guidance of director Chris Koch (Snow Day) the film has a few laugh-out-loud moments including the rehearsal dinner scene where a pharmacy technician caters the meal (don't ask) and spikes the gravy with marijuana resulting in priceless reactions from some veteran actors such as Diana Scarwid and Julie Hagerty playing the two mothers. The actual meaning of "a guy thing " which can ultimately be defined as a guy's inclination to back his buddies up also gets explained in a few hilarious ways. Overall though it's just one formulaic moment after another.