Agnes (Ashley Judd) is bored with her life--and she's sworn off men. She's a bit fearful of her abusive ex-husband Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.) who just got paroled and works at an all-girl bar with her lesbian friend R.C. (Lynn Collins). When R.C. finds a handsome stranger Peter Evans (Michael Shannon) wandering through town she tries setting him up with lonely Agnes. She doesn’t really click with him but feels sorry for him and lets him spend the night in her rundown motel room. Then the bugs begin to bite. According to Peter they're not just bedbugs but aphids—and Peter thinks the bugs are part of a government conspiracy. To off-set the bug bites fend off the persistent helicopters flying around outside and avoid the mysterious Dr. Sweet (Brian F. O'Byrne) Peter and Agnes cover their hotel room in tin foil hole up from the rest of the world—and spiral down into a world of madness. It's a strange role for Judd. She's not glamorous at all but successfully pushes the edge as a white-trash waitress looking for something more out of life. Judd transforms believably from a strong hard woman to a fragile fearful female on the edge of sanity. She gets naked with a stranger she kisses her best girlfriend--and then she starts believing bugs are biting into her skin. Shannon is alternately a handsome handyman type who is also very uneasy and creepy to be around. "I make people uncomfortable " is his grand understatement. At one moment he is someone who Judd willingly decides to sleep with and in the next moment he's a psychotic wild-eyed madman that she should be running away from. Either way he is compelling. Connick Jr. however plays his bully ex-con role in a characteristic one-dimensional one-note depiction that isn't as interesting nor as threatening as Peter. Director William Friedkin who gave us Exorcist and The French Connection expertly helms this relatively narrow-focused screenplay by playwright Tracy Letts. Since it is an adaptation of a play the actors are sometimes limited in their actions and the setting is almost too claustrophobic. As the camera swoops down overhead to an isolated motel in the middle of the desert from unseen helicopters the drab hotel room transforms into a sparkling foil-covered eerie set with a blue tint courtesy of the talented production designer Franco Carbone (of the Hostel movies fame). Tightly winding up this conspiracy thriller--in which theories about Tim McVeigh the Unibomber and the Bilderberg Group abound—Friedkin allows the paranoia to wash over you in wave after agonizing wave. And nothing is more unnerving than Peter pulling what he thinks is an insect egg out of his tooth. Shiver.
Kill Bill Vol. 2 picks up where the first installment left off with The Bride (Uma Thurman) delivering a "refresh your memory" monologue as she drives to her next victim Budd (aka Sidewinder). These shots are cut through with flashbacks that tell the whole story of the "Massacre at Two Pines " and it's instant-gratification city. First we meet the wedding party the reverend and his wife and Rufus the piano player (Samuel L. Jackson in a cameo role). But most importantly we meet the elusive Bill (David Carradine) for the first time. (He appeared in the first film only in voiceover.) You know from the start that this movie isn't going to rely on the same suspense devices the first film did and you soon learn it doesn't rely as heavily on the blood and gore that so distinguished the first installment. The creatively shot and intelligently constructed opening scenes make Tarantino's epic of evil gripping right from the start in its own right. Amazingly considering the way she ripped her enemies apart in the first film The Bride doesn't always get her man in this one; Budd (Michael Madsen) actually gets the best of the Bride--at least temporarily--and entombs her in "The Lonely Grave of Paula Schultz " one of the most horrifying scenes of burial alive ever. Flash back to "The Cruel Tutelage" of kung-fu master Pei Mei (Gordon Liu) who taught The Bride how to break through wood planks with her fists from three inches away (which comes in handy now) and the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart technique (which will come in handy later). Freeing herself from her makeshift grave to do battle with her victims once more the Bride dispenses with both Budd and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) who's conveniently appeared on the scene and it's on to the greatest battle of them all--it's time to Kill Bill
Thurman proves her calm cool collected mettle once more as The Bride (aka Beatrix Kiddo aka Black Mamba) plucking out eyeballs bloodying her fists punching wood exploding hearts and the like. But we also see her completely vulnerable during flashbacks to the time she spent in a coma after the attack (some gnarly stuff happens in the hospital but no spoilers forthcoming from this reviewer). And there's a softer side to Black Mamba when she's awake too. In another flashback we see The Bride on her last assignment before she quit the assassination business to become a wife and mom--the stick in her EPT has just turned blue when a rival assassin comes knocking through the door and it's a poignant moment (with a Tarantino edge) as she tries to protect her unborn child. Carradine's Bill is somehow less menacing than one might have expected but there's enough creepiness in the character for an audience to imagine what a real hard case he must have been in his glory days. Hannah enjoys a splendid comeback role as The Bride's fellow assassin and she's regal in her adherence to the warrior code they share. Madsen wears Sidewinder's cowboy hat and slouchy jeans like he was born to them and swills whisky like a ranch hand yet he still captures the wistfulness of the once-great fighter if somewhat ironically.
Fans of Tarantino's Pulp Fiction can start rejoicing. He's finally made a film that lives up to the standard he set back in 1990. All the influences on the first film are still very much in evidence here--Asian martial arts films in particular--but each chapter in this installment as in the previous has its own look creating a mix n' match patchwork feel that somehow manages to work in spite of itself. If there's one criticism it's that it indulges a bit in its own cleverness and that makes it a little too long. But Vol. 2 shouldn't see the big criticisms aimed at Vol. 1's dark gory violence; instead Vol. 2 finds kinship with its creator's first big hit in its story and characters. Sure it's overblown; sure everyone is evil on some level. That's the fun of it. And every now and then a little compassion comes through or a little humor and it captures the ridiculousness of human nastiness whether it's the petty arguments you had all day at work or all the slaughter that's been perpetrated with a Hattori Hanzo sword.
Here's a story about two murderesses who backstab lie and cheat--plus sing and dance--in order to make themselves stand out in roaring 1920s Chicago a town full of legends. Honestly what more could you ask for in entertainment? Velma Kelley (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who has a sensational nightclub duo with her sister blanks out and shoots her philandering husband after she catches him cheating on her--with said sister. She lives the high life in jail enjoying the perks as long as she pays for them given to her by the warden Matron "Mama" Morton (Queen Latifah). Velma also hires Chicago's slickest lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) to keep her notorious murder case on the front page. Enter little Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) a wannabe singer/dancer who's entranced by Chicago's promise of fame and fortune and winds up on the row for offing her abusive lover because he lied to her about breaking her into show biz. Billy immediately recognizes enormous potential in Roxie's crime of passion and while postponing Velma's case turns Roxie into America's latest sweetheart. The press loves her and Roxie milks it for all it's worth convinced she'll be famous when it's all over. The jilted Velma however has other plans for little Miss Perfect and sets out to sabotage Roxie's case. The two women stop at nothing to top one another and claim their rightful place in the spotlight. Still maybe there is room for two on that stage after all.
Once again we see how Hollywood movie stars can sometimes do more than emote on screen. Michelle Pfeiffer wowed audiences when she sang her own songs in The Fabulous Baker Boys; Nicole Kidman knocked 'em dead in Moulin Rouge. Now we have Zellweger Gere and Zeta-Jones singin' and struttin' their stuff in Chicago. The three do an admirable job handling the musical chores though Zellweger emerges as the best of the trio. Her dancing skills may need a little work but they're thankfully kept to a minimum and she certainly possesses the right amount of charisma to pull the whole musical thing off. Gere continually surprises you once you get over the fear that he's going to fall flat on his face. He even manages to pull off a tap-dancing number. Zeta-Jones who lobbied hard for the part of Velma makes her talent as a dancer evident but it's possible that Bebe Neuwirth (TV's Frasier) who originated the part in the recent Broadway revival may have fit the bill a little better. (The casting is reminiscent of the decision to give the big-screen lead in My Fair Lady to Audrey Hepburn instead of the Broadway show's star Julie Andrews.) And John C. Reilly miraculously shows some talent as a singer playing Roxie's husband Amos who supports his wife even after she cheated on him. Reilly adds this character to his list of schlub husbands this year (The Good Girl; The Hours).
Like last year's Oscar-winning Moulin Rouge Chicago's sleek production values may trumpet the triumphant return of the big-screen musical. Director Rob Marshall whose only other directorial credit is turning the musical Annie into a well-made television mini-series knows how to frame the musical numbers within the context of the story. As Roxie fantasizes about just how famous she is going to get the action segues into a dazzling solo in front of mirrors. Another standout is Queen Latifah's introductory song as Mama Morton where the scene switches between her drab warden walking through the jail and her buxom lounge siren working the audience. The film really comes alive though during the "murderess row" number where a series of jailed women explain exactly what they did to get where they are. But in this fantastic spectacle lies the main problem with the film. The scene sparkles because it incorporates real dancers women who obviously know how to dance the way Chicago's original creator/choreographer Bob Fosse intended them to dance. At this point in the film you almost wish you were watching Chicago live on stage where dancers do amazing choreography without the comfort of knowing their performance will be edited. Singing is the easy part; if musicals are truly going to make a comeback on screen Hollywood will have to go back to what it did in the '30s and '40s--groom professional dancers into movie stars. Fred Astaire where are you when we need you?