Instead of following a ragtag team of brutes hired for a suicide mission to destroy an Earth-bound meteor Seeking a Friend for the End of the World plays out the apocalyptic "what if?" scenario from the everyman vantage point. Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) the film pairs average joe Dodge (Steve Carell) with wallflower Penny (Keira Knightley) for a journey across the east coast a hunt for Dodge's college sweetheart. Scafaria takes a character-first approach to her anti-blockbuster examining the end of the world with a pitch black sense of humor. But the road trip loses steam as it chugs along with the film's insistence to avoid Hollywood disaster tropes taking a toll on the entertainment value. Dodge and Penny are so normal they aren't that interesting to watch. In turn neither is Seeking a Friend.
Worse for Dodge than the whole "destruction of humanity" thing is the fact that he's facing it alone; his wife leaves him he has no real family and he hates nearly all of his friends. While everyone he knows is either hooking up or shooting up in hopes of going out on a high note Dodge buckles under the weight of an existential crisis that feels all too familiar. To his rescue is next-door neighbor Penny who insists the two hit the road together to go find Dodge's one-that-got-away. They don't have much of a choice as New York City is quickly overrun by Malatov cocktail-hurling riots.
When the catastrophe and societal chaos is seen through Dodge's eyes and Carell's complex interpretation of the straight man Scafaria hits all the marks. Watching Dodge tell his cleaning lady to go home because "What's the point?" is heartbreaking while his good friend's descent into frat boy madness for the same reasons nails mankind's vile tendencies. And through it all it's funny thanks to Carell's impeccable timing. When Dodge is eventually paired up with Penny the film meanders the two never unearthing what it is about each other that keeps them sticking together. The duo run into a kindly truck driver (who's hired an assassin to off him when he's unaware) a TGIFriday's-esque restaurant full of zany drugged up waiters and even one of Penny's ex-boyfriends whose locked down with automatic rifles and Ruffles chips in anticipation of the end. But Dodge and Penny's quest is mostly about the in-between moments the quitter grounded human reactions to the apocalypse. Even with great performers at the helm Seeking a Friend doesn't organically shape those moments so much as contrive them. In one scene Penny fondly recalls the wonders of listening to music on vinyl Dodge listening carefully and learning. It's a soft and low key discussion perfect juxtaposition against the big-scale problem at hand but when a twenty-something is explaining records to a guy nearing 50 it comes off as twee instead of truthful. The problem infiltrates most of Seeking a Friend's character moments.
Scafaria has an ear and eye for comedy but Seeking a Friend boldly reaches for something more. Sadly ambition doesn't translate to success a messy tonal mix that fail to make it all that engaging or emotional. Carell and Knightley serve the material as best they can but this is the end of the world an even that requires a little weight a little sensationalism and a little more than a casual road movie.
Poor Donna Keppel (Brittany Snow). Some years back her parents and brother were slaughtered by Richard Fenton (Jonathan Schaech) a teacher who had developed a psychotic fixation on her. Richard went to an insane asylum but he broke out and now he’s back in town just in time for Prom Night where he resumes his pursuit of Donna and knocks off some of her friends for good measure. Bringing up the rear is dogged Detective Winn (Idris Elba) desperately trying to nail Fenton as the body count mounts. Sooner or later--and it’s much later unfortunately--Donna will come face to face with Fenton one last time. With characters as one-dimensional and dumb as these there’s not much the cast can do except stand around in their prom outfits waiting to get killed off. As the deranged killer Schaech stares glares and skulks around. Leading lady Snow widens her eyes and worries accordingly throughout while Elba tries to inject a little intensity into the stock role of the cop on the case. Working from a bad screenplay by J.S. Cardone first-time helmer Nelson McCormick displays little enthusiasm--either for the genre or for this particular film. The scare tactics are hackneyed and usually involve characters surprising each other--a gag that gets really old really quickly. When one character mutters “This is getting silly. Enough already ” we couldn’t agree more. And we’d add “boring” to that statement. It should be noted however that there’s an awfully high body count for a film rated PG-13 even if the film isn’t as bloody as one might expect. McCormick and Cardone have re-teamed on the upcoming remake of The Stepfather and if their collaboration here is any indication horror fans may have reason to be afraid--very afraid.
Based on Ian McEwan’s equally stirring novel we begin the story in 1935 on the cusp of WWII. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) a 13-year-old fledgling writer lives with her wealthy family in their enormous English country mansion and on one hot summer day she irrevocably changes the course of three lives including her own. It seems the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) carries a torch for Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). And on this warm day it becomes clear she feels the same way; their love ignites. Little Briony who harbors her own secret crush on Robbie witnesses the beginnings of this love affair and not understanding its meaning feels compelled to interfere going so far as accusing Robbie of a crime he did not commit. He is arrested and whisked away eventually forced into the British army but thankfully the two lovers have a moment before he goes to war to reconnect. Cecilia promises to wait for him urging him to “come back” to her once the madness he is about to become immersed in is over. Meanwhile Briony (played in adult years by Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave) has grown up regretting every single moment of that fateful day and in desperately trying to seek forgiveness finally finds a path to understanding the power of enduring love. The performances in Atonement are nothing less than captivating beginning with the young Irish rose Saoirse Ronan (who is also set to play the lead in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones). Since it is primarily Briony’s story Ronan must make the first most indelible impression and set the tone for the rest of the movie--and she succeeds on every level. From the moment you see Ronan’s pale face clear-blue eyes and steadfast gait you immediately recognize Briony’s need and determination to make everything in her life just so. Indeed Briony is a strongly focused child and Ronan so embodies the character an Oscar nomination is almost a certainty. As the 18-year-old Briony Garai (Dirty Dancing 2) does the best she can following such a tough act as Ronan but can never quite match the same intensity. On the other hand Redgrave who comes in at the very end as the much older Briony nails it right away adding her own nuances to a character who has lived a full life. Of course Knightley and McAvoy are no slouches either vividly capturing the passion bubbling up between Cecilia and Robbie then turning around and showing the heartache as their love is ripped apart. McAvoy is particularly effecting as his Robbie must also witness some truly horrific wartime scenes. Actually Oscar nods should come fast and furious for everyone in Atonement. With Pride & Prejudice and now Atonement director Joe Wright may have just established himself as the new James Ivory (of Merchant/Ivory fame). Wright is a real visionary for the romantic period piece expertly delivering truly spectacular vistas. From set design to costumes to cinematography the look of Atonement is at once verdant welcoming and then startlingly grim. The first half of Atonement at the Tallis’ country home is certainly the film’s most defining peppered by an effective musical score which uses the sound of a typewriter like a metronome. Through a soft lens Wright displays the general idleness of summer day at a country home like a sunny floral motif that belies an undercurrent of sweating bodies wilting flowers stagnant pools--and an imminent tragic event. Then once Wright moves with Robbie into WWII he actually paints an even more grim view of war then maybe seen before. The one continuous shot of the historical Dunkirk--a French beach on which thousands of British soldiers were forced by the Germans and then waited to be evacuated--is absolutely stunning and surreal. Atonement does drag ever-so-slightly in the middle especially as Briony trains to be a nurse in London but overall this is a film Academy voters eat up with a silver spoon. Expect to be hearing about it in the months to come.
Twins Carly and Nick Jones (played by Cuthbert and One Tree Hill heartthrob Chad Michael Murray)--with Carly being the pretty goal-oriented "good" twin and Nick the sullen brooding "bad" one-- are road tripping to catch the big college game. Along for the ride are Carly's beau Wade (Gilmore Girls' Jared Padelecki) mini-cam-obsessed Dalton (Jon Abrahams) sports fan Blake (Robert Ri'chard) and his maybe-preggers girlfriend Paige (Paris Hilton in her first major acting role--unless you count certain portions of her infamous sex video). The requisite car trouble ultimately leads them to a requisitely isolated Iowa town where they must seek help from the requisitely creepy locals. Dominating the town is the House of Wax a paraffin-filled museum which doesn't just feature amazing wax likenesses of people and objects: the whole place is made out of wax walls and all. This despite being constructed over a fiery furnace used for…well these films aren't about logic are they? Throw in the requisite twisted menacing blood-lusting boogeyman--but wait! Let's have TWO bad guys! And make them twins! (Did I mention the script was written by Chad and Carey Hayes who happen to be twin brothers?) Cut to the running and the chasing and the cinematic carnage the corpses turned into those impossibly lifelike wax figurines the curvy Cuthbert in a white tank top and the impossibly big drippy finale and call it a day. This is just a messy pile of waxy build-up that'll take an extra-long Q-Tip to clean out of your brain.
Despite the jibes she gets for her 24 character's penchant for getting into laughably contrived peril the pert and sexy Cuthbert--who fills up a movie screen even more potently than the tube and lent a genuine vulnerability and pathos to her smoldering turn in The Girl Next Door--is emerging as one of the more interesting actresses of her TV-launched generation. Despite her natural charisma however there's no such opportunity for a multidimensional turn in House of Wax and for her career's sake Cuthbert should make this film her one-stop shopping trip to Horror-dom. She's made for much better things and the sickly sadistic and bloody punishments she endures in this film quite frankly can only distract her admirers from how hot she is. Murray also impresses as a film presence though he too is stuck in this thankless mess as the rebel who really has nothing to rebel against. Padelecki the film's "Hey let's see what's in here!" jackass whose idiotic actions drives every shallow horror plot should stick to his day job. And then there are the splendors of Paris: both she and the filmmakers seem to think that stripping the heiress of accessories like her tiny dog Tinkerbell and her Pepto-pink fashions is all that's necessary to believe Hilton as an entirely different character. Except none of us really want Paris to be an entirely different character. She's really only entertaining--and often equally as stiff and insipid like she is in this film--as herself and we'd all rather see her and Nicole Richie (or Kim Stewart or whatever less attractive less-wealthy and less-ditzy sidekick she's hanging with these days) screaming bloody murder at a real House of Waxing.
Let's hope for his sake music video director Jaume Serra didn't burn any bridges at MTV when he got called to the Hollywood ranks because House of Wax effectively demonstrates a lack of invention as a visualist an inability to effectively pace and develop a story--even one as shallow as this one--and an utter incapacity to create tension suspense or any genuine fear. The only scares here are the kind of easy unearned "pop-up-and-say-BOO!" variety that does little more than jolt the audience and cause their popcorn to spill. I'm tempted to give him mini-props for the nearly impressive and gooey finale but the credit probably belongs more to the f/x team than Serra. And it's shocking to learn that the entire film was shot on location in Australia if only because the claustrophobic town in which most of the action takes place seems as artificial and hermetically sealed as the Universal backlot.
Nate Johnson (Cedric the Entertainer) an insurance agent thinks it would be a great idea to take his estranged wife and three children to his family reunion in Missouri by car from California. Nate's motives are sincere enough: He is separated from his wife Dorothy (Vanessa Williams) who has custody of teenagers Nikki (Solange Knowles) DJ (Bow Wow) and Destiny (Gabby Soleil) and hopes the road trip will help them bond as a family and with any luck re-ignite that loving feeling with the mother of his children. But everything that can go wrong does even before the trip begins. Nate brings his SUV into the shop to have an 8-track tape player installed in order to listen to his old Motown classics but what he gets is something straight out of MTV's Pimp My Ride although not even West Coast Customs would do something this gaudy. Off they go in their Burberry-outfitted low-rider Lincoln Navigator complete with four TVs and 26-inch Spinners. Vehicle with up-to-the-minute gadgetry notwithstanding the Johnsons encounter every clichéd road trip disaster including running out of gas and needing a pay phone. It's hard to figure out what's more trite--the journey to Missouri or what happens when they actually get there.
Cedric the Entertainer's trademark observational comedy which made him stand out as a cast member of The Steve Harvey Show simply isn't enough to carry an entire film. Cedric is truly the only funny thing Johnson Family Vacation has going for it and he has a few gags that are simply hilarious including a scene in which he bans CDs from artists who have been shot like Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. from being played in the car. Imagine his dismay when his wife points out that also includes Marvin Gaye "who was shot by his daddy--twice." But the comedian's arsenal of jokes--no matter how witty--do not a story make. Speaking of wasted talent the casting of stunning Williams as Nate's wife Dorothy is quite baffling. While Cedric the Entertainer could be married to someone this hot poor Nate probably couldn't. Nonetheless the quick-witted Williams holds her own next to one of the Original Kings of Comedy. Seventeen-year-old Bow Wow has worked hard to prove that he's not just a flash in the pan--and it's worked for the most part. He proved with Like Mike that he can act but the role of DJ here gets buried in this lousy film.
Christopher Erskin who makes his directorial debut here delivers a mess of a movie despite having squeezed out everything he could from his stars. Visually the sets resemble skits on a TV variety show rather than professional feature film sets the worst being the sequences where the family is in the SUV--almost half the entire film. To wit: you see them driving with the same scenery in the background--it's like in the The Flintstones when Fred would drive past the same palm tree next to the same rock house again and again. You can't help but picture the actors sitting in the Lincoln Navigator prop car in front of a large blue screen windows rolled down with a wind machine pointed at them. Matching the abysmal visuals are writers Todd R and Earl Richey Jones' ill-paced script. The film drags as the Johnson family encounters unoriginal setbacks and the end is not even a payoff; it's punishment. See the film doesn't end when family finally reaches Missouri: Moviegoers must the sit through the actual reunion and the Johnson family's Brady Bunch-style musical performance costumes and all. The only moment of brief relief is Steve Harvey's guest appearance as Nate's brother. But wait! It doesn't even end then--we have to follow the family back home to California.
With four days left before his execution notoriously reticent death row inmate David Gale (Kevin Spacey) decides at last to share his story with the press. He chooses as his vessel reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) who's just spent a week in the slammer for refusing to reveal her sources on a kiddie porn cover story. As Gale's story unfolds (and we see it in flashback) Bitsey becomes convinced he's innocent and she and her intern Zack (Gabriel Mann) begin a race against the clock to discover the truth that will save him. Sound like an overblown blurb from a movie studio's press files? Apologies for that but the best way to talk about this story's climactic points is to resort to hyperbolic clichés of this ilk--the movie's key moments are without exception melodramatic and overblown. Nonetheless most of the movie is suspenseful the story has several interesting (I wouldn't go so far as compelling) twists and there are plenty of reasons to root for Gale's cause especially if like him and admittedly like me you're a political liberal who fancies yourself at least somewhat intellectual.
If there's one thing that defines Kevin Spacey's acting style it's his unparalleled ability to discourse at length on philosophical minutiae a gift that undoubtedly contributed to his getting this role in the first place. But Spacey gets to stretch a bit more playing Gale--the professorial character in his pre-death row life was a loose cannon even by academia's standards: he partied with his students talked about fantasy and desire in class and belonged to Death Watch a liberal advocacy group opposed to the death penalty. Beyond that his personal life was a disaster. His wife was having an affair with a Spaniard Gale was a borderline alcoholic and his ego was the size of a generously proportioned watermelon. So there are plenty of challenges for Spacey in the part--both in the flashbacks and the death row sequences--and he obviously embraces them all; unfortunately sometimes he squeezes the life out of them in the process foregoing for example the tragic nuances of real alcoholism for the stumbling sobriquets of an overblown town-drunk philosopher. The equally gifted Laura Linney as Constance--Gale's stalwart friend fellow professor co-director of Death Watch and alleged murder victim--finds herself in less familiar territory. Her character is complex yet remarkably one-dimensional for most of the movie which leaves the talented actress turning--albeit reluctantly--to melodrama for support. Winslet too is on unfamiliar ground with an American accent (quite well done old chap-ette) a mission and a bitchiness that's too little seen from this pristine young girl.
It's truly unfortunate that director Alan Parker didn't keep a tighter handle on The Life of David Gale's more dramatic moments since had they come off better this would have been a more even and generally more watchable film. As it is each of the talented lead actors has a scene in which they really let loose on the hysterical wailing waterworks--Winslet lucky gal has two. They may not be bad enough to make you cringe necessarily but they're obviously overplayed. The film would have benefited from a wail-o-meter that would have allowed the bawling to go so far and only so far. All that aside though this film is ultimately less melodramatic than its equivalent TV movie version would have (and probably has) been--and that leads me to my final point. The Life of David Gale is about what TV pundits would call a hot-button issue and while the public is intelligent enough not to be emotionally swayed by the hue and cry of activists on either side of the argument we can--and by God we will--be entertained by it. So I just want to say thank you Hollywood for once again one-upping the 6 o'clock news and for showing that even discussions of the most important issues of our time can be squeezed into a two-hour movie and manipulated in the interests of suspense and drama.