Maya (Dawson) is a smart 19-year-old college co-ed who seems to have everything going for her. But soon we discover that she's just out of a bad break-up which makes her a little leery of dating other guys in her classes. That is until handsome football star Jared (Chad Faust) makes a play for her at a party. When she falls for him their first date goes well until she says no to sex and he rapes her. Thus begins her dark Descent into a mire of depression alcohol drugs and sexual promiscuity. Slowly the seasons pass (we know that as they are noted as “chapters” of the story) and when classes start up again she is in a physical and moral quagmire barely keeping her life together. As the film ploddingly unfolds to its final disturbing sequence Maya finally takes the action that she is sure will make her whole again as she lashes out for revenge on her attacker. Descent is basically a vanity piece for Rosario Dawson (she also produced the film) and she proves what filmmakers like Spike Lee Barry Sonnenfeld and Oliver Stone have already noticed--she is a talented actress with an amazing face. As Maya Rosario Dawson believably transforms from a glowing young woman into a tormented and troubled person. Unfortunately despite her active involvement in the production the transformation is not particularly compelling nor does it offer any new insights into the emotional devastation felt by rape victims. Chad Faust (best known for TV's The 4400) is also credible as the cocky jock who blithely takes her by force and expects no retribution for his actions. He also proves that he is a fearless actor for Descent includes that taboo of American cinema: a full-frontal male nude shot as well as later physical degradations rarely seen outside of pornographic films. The problem with the film is not with the acting as the supporting characters are perfectly serviceable as well; the problem is with the writing and the direction the combination of a distasteful amoral revenge plot combined with extremely graphic sexual visuals (thus the NC-17 rating) that worst of all takes forever to unfold. First-time feature-film director-writer-producer Talia Lugacy stumbles with her freshman outing as a filmmaker creating a movie that only succeeds in making us wonder how she ever got it made. Shot mostly in dark rooms or shadowy nightclubs with often incoherent and disjointed action she has fashioned a story that moves in fits and starts with long stretches of boring dialogue paired with pointed silences. Combine that with a plot that centers around visually (and aurally) disturbing rape scenes and also condones the idea of a victim's choosing to take justice for a violation way outside the confines of the law and the end result is a movie that falters in every way. The only redeeming element of “Denial” comes in the last frames of the film and that moment comes as no surprise. Overall there's little here to recommend spending two hours of your life and $10 of your hard-earned money to experience it unless your love of Rosario Dawson is so strong that you will forgive anything just to see her perform.
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.
Mary (Jena Malone) -- born again at the age of 3 and an unquestioning bible thumper ever since -- is about to start her senior year at American Eagle Christian High School and God is smiling on her. She and her pretty devout friend Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore) are popular she has a handsome boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust) and she religiously rocks out at Christian concerts. The first sign of trouble is when ice-skating chastity embracing Dean tells Mary he thinks he's gay. Determined to bring her man back to the Lord Mary makes a deal with Jesus: She'll seduce Dean if the Lamb of God then restores her "emotional" and "spiritual" virginity. Cut to a few weeks later: Dean-o's been packed off to sexuality rehab Mary can't keep her breakfast down and all of a sudden Jesus is looking a lot less like a pal and a lot more like a used car salesman. With the core of her faith shrinking as her belly is expanding Mary sees her peers in a whole new light -- "perfect" Hilary Faye has plenty of flaws and "bad girl" Cassandra (Eva Amurri) might not be the spawn of Satan after all. All of which helps Mary and company discover what being a Christian really means -- just in time for prom!
The cast of Saved! is almost as eclectic a mix as a real high school class. Malone Amurri (Susan Sarandon's daughter) Patrick Fugit (as alterna-cutie skateboarder Patrick) and Heather Matarazzo (as blunt hanger-on Tia) are all card-carrying members of the Hip Indie Actors club while Moore and Macaulay Culkin (as Hilary Faye's wheelchair-bound brother Roland) come from the Much-Mocked Pop Culture Icon school. All acquit themselves admirably with Moore and Amurri as particular standouts. Moore has Hilary Faye's mix of smug self-entitlement and hollow concern nailed: This is one pop tart who knows how to play a sugar-coated bitch. Her showy piousness is particularly amusing when you contrast it with her PAX-worthy performance as a doomed preacher's daughter in A Walk to Remember. Playing American Eagle's token Jewish student Amurri expertly offers glimpses of tough-talking Cassandra's inner vulnerability and warm heart; her scenes with Culkin's wryly cynical Roland are some of the movie's best. Malone is occasionally a bit tepid but her sparks with Fugit seem real. The token adult actors -- Mary-Louise Parker as Mary's trashy widowed mother Lillian and Martin Donovan as principal Pastor Skip (whose insecurity almost overwhelms his own faith) -- also turn in strong performances.
Saved! made its debut at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and it's not hard to see why: Brian Dannelly's film has "indie" written all over it. Dannelly deserves credit for pushing the envelope as far as he has -- suffice it to say that Saved! probably won't go over so well in the heartland (or even the suburbs) -- but the film isn't a total success. Its mix of dark humor and sincere sentiment is a bit jarring; just when you're guffawing at Dannelly's send-up of "hip Christianity" in the form of Pastor Skip's unbelievably lame attempts to connect with his young flock ("let's get our Christ on!") or Hilary Faye's forceful attempts to perform a drive-by saving on the wayward Mary you land with a bump as Mary and her mom share a quiet moment or Patrick and his dad exchange some tense words. It's obvious that Dannelly didn't want Saved! to be dismissed as mere parody but the film strays too far into spoof territory to be a drama and vice versa.
Based on a series of six Marvel Comics created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby in 1962 The Hulk revolves around a scientist named Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) who following a laboratory snafu absorbs a normally deadly dose of gamma radiation. Bruce thinks he has escaped unscathed--until he gets mad ... real mad which causes him to turn into a huge rampaging green monster known as the Hulk. In order to make this 40-year-old gamma theory somewhat more believable for today's science-savvy moviegoers screenwriter James Schamus and his team decided to arm the script with a somewhat more convincing scientific rationale. The story follows Bruce's father David Banner (Nick Nolte) who as a young scientist conducted prohibited genetic experiments on himself thus changing his son's life before he was even out of the womb. While modernizing the scientific reasoning behind Bruce's transformation makes sense it's a pity it had to be done in such a heavy-handed way. By adding such an elaborate layer to the story The Hulk becomes more about Bruce and David's tormented past and any semblance of a plot is buried in melodramatic dialogue between the characters. The result is a comic book adaptation that is much too serious for its own genre.
Despite the theatrical discourse don't expect complex characters to emerge from The Hulk. Although Bana (Black Hawk Down) is a good choice for the lead of the nerdy scientist and reluctant hero his character is so busy pretending he doesn't have any problems that the audience never gets to see his emotional side. Bana's character grimaces convincingly as he represses his anger for example but he fails ever to open up on a personal level to his love interest in the film his co-worker Betty played by Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind). Betty is Bruce's old flame but the two are obviously still in love: she is obsessed with fixing whatever is broken about him. As the Hulk Bruce need only look at Betty once for his anger to subside and allow him to morph back into human form. They have weighty discussions about the significance of their dreams and Bruce's past yet they never seem to connect on any level. One of the film's best performances comes from Nolte (The Good Thief) in the role of Bruce's mad scientist father David. Almost Shakespearean at times Nolte--scraggly hair and all-- completely immerses himself in the role. The cast's performances however are muted by the general heaviness of this would-be actioner. Look for quick cameo appearances by Lou Ferrigno (from the 1970s TV series The Incredible Hulk) and Marvel legend Stan Lee.
For his follow-up to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon Ang Lee has turned to bigger greener matters. The Hulk the director's visual effects-intense picture (with a little help from Industrial Light & Magic) is stunning and startlingly well done. The green beast's computer generated movements from his heaving chest to the single leaps that spring him well into a different zip code are convincingly real. Not only does the ground shake when this goliath lands but his momentum even throws him off balance at times sending his lumbering arms flailing. But while the CGI Hulk has been meticulously honed Lee's homage to the world of print comic books--using multiple screens to present concurrent storylines and alternate angles of the same scene--is off-putting: Rival researcher Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas) suspiciously walks out of the lab Betty reacts in one panel Bruce sits back in another. The simultaneous screens don't necessarily show anything pertinent going on making the far and wide close and medium shots of the character's reactions a distraction rather than a helpful storytelling technique. But the most disconcerting thing about the film is that in its leap from the four-color paneled pages to the big screen it lost its wit.