Here's something obvious that I don't think many people consider: unabashed love for an actor doesn't always translate to that actor having an easy career. Take Michael Biehn, who can't sit down for an interview without being asked about Terminator, Aliens or how he almost nabbed a part in Cameron's Avatar. To be fair, Biehn's been finding steady work for the last two decades, either in television or with bit parts in horror flicks and the occasional supporting drama role (he packs a short, but sweet punch in the recent Chris Evans medical thriller Puncture). But people still think of him as their '80s hero.
But his scene-chewing role in The Divide, the new film by Xavier Gens (Frontier(s), Hitman), feels like a calculated move. As Mickey, the psycho super of a New York City apartment building who houses the complex's tenants after an unknown nuclear blast wipes the city clear, Biehn drops his own atomic bomb...on our nostalgia. His character's paranoia-induced, manic state opens the door for a maelstrom of cigar-chomping, grizzled fury, and it's a "hey, look what I can do!" performance in the very best way. Nearly unrecognizable under his Nick-Nolte-mugshot hair do and equally jagged beard, Biehn inhabits the same kind of confidence we saw in his Cameron collaborations, but now, as an older man. It's a wake up call for any of his diehard fans.
Biehn isn't the only one reinventing himself with The Divide, a horror sci-fi indebted more to Sartre's No Exit than Book of Eli. Gens' had ground to make up, after his last film, the big budget adaptation of the popular video game series Hitman, floundered with both critics and movie-goers. In The Divide, Gens uses his visual prowess to terrorize, taking the audience through a grinder of fallout shelter living conditions, mysterious masked men with a kidnapping mission and the general mental instability that comes with living underground for a few weeks (note: if this ever happens to you, you'll probably shave off your eyebrows and start tearing through cans Spam like a rabid wolf). The important shift in Gens direction is the emphasis on characters and performance—a tactic that succeeds as far as he can. The script for The Divide is paper thin and the movie uses its assemblage of stock characters as pawns: Josh (Milo Ventimiglia), the angry rebel, Eva (Lauren German), the quiet, beautiful caretaker, Bobby (Michael Eklund), the feeble minded follower, and Delvin (Courtney B. Vance), the reasonable human being who will inevitably suffer at the hands of the stupid). But Gens, through color, production design and some damn fine actors, makes it situation as intense and grueling as it would be in real life. The Divide doens't strive for realistic scenarios, but on an emotional level, the ensemble feel like real people. Unlike Hitman, which still felt like a video game.
Between Michael Biehn barking his fellow shelter-mates into submission, another familiar face takes a stab at a vulnerable, heartbreaking performance. Rosanna Arquette plays Marilyn, who early on in the film, loses her daughter to a gang of gas-masked invaders. If you didn't think the apocalypse could get any worse, think again. The incident sends Marilyn into a downward spira—her depression starts with a stint of starvation, then escalates into a transformation from mother to lifeless plaything. She smears lipstick on her face, opens her up for sexual promiscuity, and, eventually, finds herself taped up and mutilated S&M style. In a stronger movie, Marilyn's complete destruction of self-worth would have more gravity, but Arquette's daring turn still paints it boldly.
People have a certain preconception of the phrase "indie," as if low-budget movies that start at film festivals (The Divide premiered at the 2011 SXSW Fest) and eventually make their way to theaters are all for the arthouse crowd. But making a movie on a dime affords filmmakers and actors, ones with focus on quiet dramas or ones with blockbuster/genre sensbilities, the advantage of stepping out of the box. A playground. The Divide isn't a perfect movie, but it gives three creative minds, Biehn, Gens and Arquette, the chance to do something different and challenging. It's not easy to escape your own legacy, but taking a chance with a movie like The Divide never hurts.
Yet another in a continuing line of dismal Dane Cook so-called romantic comedies (Good Luck Chuck Employee of the Month) My Best Friend's Girl can’t seem to decide exactly what kind of movie it wants to be landing somewhere between gross-out humor and silly relationship dreck. Tank (Cook) is a moronic commitment-free sex-addicted loser who offers up his services to guys in need of keeping their girlfriends from jumping ship. The solution? One date revolving around Tank’s intentionally repulsive antics and they will come running back no questions asked. So when his roommate and best friend the love-struck Dustin (Jason Biggs) finds his new girlfriend Alexis (Kate Hudson) isn’t ready to marry him after just one month he turns to Tank to work his disgusting mojo on her. But it backfires when Alexis turns into a drunken sex-starved slut on their first outing to a strip bar thoroughly impressing Tank. The complications pile up as the mismatched pair fall in love and Tank begins second guessing the new relationship he has created behind his buddy’s back. Cook has now been down this road so many times it feels like yesterday’s warmed-up oatmeal. There’s no doubt he’s got comic talent and even a kind of oddball leading man appeal--but over and over he is asked to play the same garish guy an expletive hurling sex machine with no sense of social decorum manners or even common sense. He’s the poster boy for beer guzzling dunderheads who want jump into bed with no questions asked. He has a moment at the end of Best Friend's Girl in which he finally get the laughs but a little too late. Hudson is also apparently determined to take any script that comes her way floundering helplessly as the sexually confused Alexis who can’t seem to decide what she wants in a relationship: the good boy or the bad. Unfortunately she doesn’t seem to have any chemistry with Biggs--or for that matter Cook. All they do is shout at each other repeatedly using some form of the word “asshole” over and over. Biggs as the third wheel just doesn’t have anywhere to go with this role basically serving as an annoying plot device to get the two leads together. The only one who survives with any dignity is Alec Baldwin as Tank’s unapologetic womanizing father who offers up advice to his son that is blissfully politically incorrect. Sure Baldwin can do this kind of thing in his sleep but he does it with style even if wasted on this sorry enterprise. Eighties teen movie veteran Howard Deutch (Pretty In Pink) finds his career literally in the tank (pun intended) trying to unearth a romantic comedy from material that just doesn’t give him much to work with. Deutch is so divorced from the concept that it looks like he just turned the cameras on and let his stars improvise for the most undemanding moviegoers imaginable (even though there is a credited script supposedly written by Jordan Cahan). To top everything off he shoots most of it in unattractive poorly lit close-ups that do no favors for anyone particularly the usually bright and fetching Hudson. This looks like one of those movies in which everyone is having such a good time on the set they forgot to let the audience in on all the “fun.”
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.