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.
In 1930 Mrs. Erlynne (Helen Hunt) an American socialite in search of debt relief and a fresh start transfers to Amalfi Italy. Her reputation as an indiscriminant adulterer comes along and she’s quickly the talk of the small town. Amidst her misadventures with married men she stumbles upon Robert (Mark Umbers) and Meg (Scarlett Johansson) a young blissfully married couple from America. Robert immediately strikes up a relationship with the older temptress and it’s immediately assumed by the resident paparazzi—a.k.a. citizens with binoculars and nothing better to do—that he is the latest prey. Meanwhile Mrs. Erlynne is being courted by another wealthier man named Tuppy (Tom Wilkinson) who can’t help but fall for her despite tepid interest on her end. When Meg learns of her husband’s rumored paramour she reacts hastily uncovering surprises that shock and affect all involved. The acting is where A Good Woman suffers. The female leads while both rightfully esteemed actresses are both miscast. Hunt’s Mrs. Erlynne has a world-wise and profound retort for every question thrown her way but her delivery just doesn’t fit her words; she seems uninspired but it’s much more likely her trying too hard. Johansson meanwhile is an anachronism in the film: She is an impossible sell for a reason having nothing to do with physical beauty or acting chops—she’s completely and simply at long last out of her element. But Wilkinson as always shines here as the pathetic yet adorable Tuppy. It’s perfectly plausible to see him in 1930s Italy—or any setting whatsoever. His eloquence befits the time and place and he makes his sad little man engaging funny and relatable even today. Director Mike Barker is charged with bringing A Good Woman adapted from Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan to the big screen. It’s a tall order to adapt someone as revered as Wilde especially on the heels of the widely lauded adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice but Barker comes through for the most part. Luckily for him the lush mesmerizing scenery of the setting is at the forefront. And the director would’ve succeeded in transporting us back to the whole exotic pristine milieu had it not been for the aforementioned actresses’ inabilities to do the same. Nonetheless he holds up his end retelling a typically complex Wilde tale of love and narrow-mindedness without butchering or overstating the message.
Deep in the Carpathian mountains a team of scientists stumbles upon the entrance to a vast and intricate underground cave system--one that just screams "Explore me!" But this isn't your Aladdin Cave of Wonders garden variety filled with treasure and a genie in a lamp. Oh no. This Cave is deep treacherous and well possibly crawling with any number of things that could kill you. No matter. Biologist Kathryn (Lena Headey) believes there might be an entirely new ecosystem waiting to be discovered (what fun!) so she and her team hire experienced cave diver Jack (Cole Hauser) and his team to help them get in there. But what they all don't realize is that these ancient caves actually do contain brand new species of subterranean life both small and very very great. And could it be that some of the more deadly creatures have mutated from--gasp!--human life forms? Yeah they are about to get into some serious trouble.
How sad for Cole Hauser. He's a fairly serviceable actor with a penchant for solid action flicks (2 Fast 2 Furious) but he's picked bad scripts lately. Paparazzi? Please. Same goes for Morris Chestnut who plays Jack's right-hand man. He started out strong in Boyz N The Hood but had the unfortunate duty of being terrorized by giant snakes in last year's horrid Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid. Also braving the big bad Cave are Piper Perabo (Coyote Ugly) as a spitfire rock climber; Eddie Cibrian (TV's Third Watch) as Jack's hotshot brother; and Daniel Dae Kim (TV's Lost) as a photographer. Only Headey (who also co-stars in this week's The Brothers Grimm) seems to add a bit of credibility as the earnest biologist. But really that isn't saying much.
The one positive thing you can say about The Cave is that it looks pretty darn authentic. With the help of professional speleologists and cave divers director Bruce Hunt--known as Australia's premier commercial director--paints a realistic view of what these caves represent and what dangers cave divers go through to explore them. Shot entirely in Romania the cave system described in the movie apparently exists in the Carpathian mountains and some do indeed contain various new species of life. Of course none of these creatures are big enough to rip your head off and gnaw on your remains--at least none that they have found anyway--but you never know. Nice thought. But all the pretty pictures and why-would-you-want-to-go-in-there? moments don't make up for a lackluster scarefest. The twist at the end is mildly compelling but perhaps The Cave would have been better suited as a documentary on the exploration of these Romanian caves for the Discovery Channel. At least you could fall asleep on a comfortable couch watching it.
September 16, 2004 12:22pm EST
In 1930s New York Chronicle investigative reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) gets a lead on a story she's been covering about prominent scientists from around the world who are mysteriously disappearing. When Manhattan is attacked by giant robots Polly reluctantly seeks the help of an old flame ace aviator Captain Joseph Sullivan aka Sky Captain (Jude Law) to get the scoop and find out who's behind these strange events and discovers an Oppenheimer-type science man named Dr. Totenkopf has abducted the scientists in a mad bid to build a doomsday device to annihilate what he believes to be an already damned human race. Assisted by Captain Franky Cook (Angelina Jolie) who runs a secret mobile airstrip thousands of feet in the air Sky Captain and Polly head out to stop Totenkopf and save mankind. How could such a visually dazzling film where the fate of the world rests on the shoulders of three dashing Hollywood stars be so ... unexciting? Much stronger storylines could have evolved from supporting players Dex Sky's right-hand man (Giovanni Ribisi) and especially daredevil Franky and her amphibious squadron all of which are used too sparingly throughout the film.
Paltrow in the lead role of Polly completely captures the witty rapid-fire dialogue of the era immortalized by Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. But while her performance is nearly flawless Polly's self-centeredness turns the would-be heroine into an antagonist; it's hard to like a character who can't put humanity's needs before her own career ambitions. Polly's rabble-rouser persona should bring some exciting tension between her character and Sky Captain's Boy Scout guise but it doesn't--in fact there's a complete lack of chemistry between the two leads. But Law's performance as Sky Captain brilliantly matches Paltrow's as the actor encompasses the new-yet-old type of movie hero one more suave than macho. Less platonic however is the on-screen relationship between Law's Sky and Jolie's Franky. The script's purposefully ambiguous take on the characters' history adds spice to the film's otherwise bland relationships. It's too bad Jolie's performance probably the highlight of the film isn't brought more to the forefront. Ribisi injects some light comedy to the heavy story and Omid Djalili impresses as Kaji a friend of Sky Captain's who helps them during a leg of their journey to find Totenkopf. To their tremendous credit all the cast members delivered seamless performances especially considering all their scenes were shot in one room using a blue screen.
The production behind Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is what this film is really all about. Based on a six-minute test reel created on his home Mac writer/director Kerry Conran was able to nab studio backing and secure major names--not shabby for one's feature debut. The final product delivers too--a retro sci-fi picture where nearly everything onscreen except for the actors was painstakingly computer generated in post-production. It's amazing how the actors blend flawlessly into the film's animatic backdrops. Every shot makes the most of its visual effects and the film has a dark and dramatic comic book feel a sort of Gotham meets War of the Worlds. Conrad pays homage to literary masters such as H.G. Wells New York's 1939 World's Fair and films including The Wizard of Oz: Sky Captain tracks down Totenkopf like Dorothy searched for her sorcerer and although they are not in Kansas and there is no yellow brick road there is a mysterious genius hiding behind the curtain. But unlike Wizard of Oz Sky Captain doesn't hold its momentum. There's a chase scene for example that goes on way longer than it should have and an overly weighted storyline about Polly and Sky Captain's defunct love affair. Did he cheat on her when they were together years ago? Did she sabotage his airplane? Who cares! Luckily the ending somewhat redeems the story thanks to a couple of surprising little twists.