The Raven takes a solid foundation (the works of Edgar Allan Poe) gives it an interesting twist (a Se7en-esque crime riff on Poe's existing works) and squanders the opportunity into an unwatchable 111-minute film fit for no audience. One part CSI one part Saw the thriller plods its way through bloody setup after bloody setup as Poe (John Cusack) accompanies Detective Fields (Luke Evans) in search of the author's fiancee Emily (Alice Eve). She's been kidnapped by a murderous literary-inclined madman prompting Poe to put on his Sherlock hat and scream a lot.
Turns out the inventive demises of Poe's characters recreated by the faceless serial killer aren't that exciting — at least in the hands of director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta Ninja Assassin). The Raven is a straightforward procedural souped up with Victorian era production design but the unique setting doesn't forgive any of the ineptitude on display in the other aspects of the film. Poe is forced by the murder to chronicle his villainous exploits for the Baltimore newspaper — the perfect way to torture an entitled author and a dramatic hook to draw us into the antics. But McTeigue abandons the slow burn quality that could have been in favor of buckets of blood. The grisliness of the killings is one of the film's obsession red splashing across the screen as a pendulum guts a random victim. The Raven's gore earns the film's R but it's out of place.
Cusack's performance as Poe is befuddling. At times he's an egomaniac a wise thinker an action hero — he's completely in flux and every ounce of the movie's attempted seriousness vanishes. Never before has a part cried out for Nicolas Cage's signature brand of crazy-eyed manic heightened realism. Late in the film Poe and a team of police frantically search for his wife-to-be in a crypt. He calls out "EMILLLLLLLLYYYYYYY" in what sounds like the actor's best Ron Burgandy impression. Cusack doesn't know what movie he's in and there's no one around to help him.
There's little to enjoy in The Raven even on the surface. The muddy and dull cinematography looks like it was shot with a pea soup filter drab period-costuming and production design making squinting even more imperative. There's a strong core idea that dimly flickers under the bland mess of ideas flopping around in the movie — one Cusack and McTeigue even seem capable of pulling off. But The Raven is a spilled quill of ink sopped up with scare tactics and over-the-top performances. Less nevermore than never began.
Did you know there are scientifically documented cases of very young children who had spontaneous memories of things and people and places they could never possibly have known about? Apparently The Return’s screenwriter Adam Sussman discovered this phenomenon and created the character Joanna Mills (Sarah Michelle Gellar) a young woman who since she was 11-years-old has been having disjointed flashbacks of some horrible attack she never experienced herself. She flashes regularly on a dank bar paintings of seahorses and ends up hiding from a man who calls her "Sunshine.” And who knew hearing Patsy Cline on your radio would spell supernatural trouble? The best part is when Joanna has one of these episodes she ends up cutting herself. Needless to say the girl’s a tad screwed up. Eventually Joanna finds herself inexplicably drawn to La Salle Texas where she finally starts to piece together the murder mystery that has been plaguing her for so long. Thank god! Someone just needs to hand Sarah Michelle Gellar a Coke and a smile. Forget about being a scream queen Gellar has become the queen of depression with the two Grudges and now The Return under her belt. She has actually made an art form of sad teary-eyed stares in the mirror sinking onto a bed with head in hand and general malaise. She also plays scared pretty well but deep down you know at any moment Gellar can get all Buffy the Vampire Slayer on whoever is threatening her especially as the tough Joanna. But the actress has to be getting tired of all this despair so let’s hope she decides to move on. The other Return cast members really aren’t worth mentioning except for a brief appearance by Sam Shepherd as Joanna’s dad. One can only imagine he did this for some extra cash. The Return is one of those cases in which the trailer makes the movie look a hell of a lot scarier than it really is which is probably why the studio didn’t pre-screen it for critics. It’s a marketing ploy of course pitching a thriller with an established horror actress attached--except this time they are messing with their built-in audience. Reminiscent of the truly creepy What Lies Beneath The Return may have a few jumps and bumps here and there but as a ghost story there isn’t any oomph. Maybe it has something to do with the ultra-depressive main character who isn’t nearly developed enough. We aren’t invested in what happens to Joanna or the woman periodically possessing her so she can solve her murder. The Return doesn’t measure up to its expectations lulling us instead of thrilling us.
There ain't much of one. In a nutshell a group of spun-out druggies living in the drab sun-baked land of the mini mall known as North Los Angeles Valley are focused on one thing and one thing only--getting and using drugs--and we get to tag along with them for three wasted sleepless days. There's Ross (Jason Schwartzman) a college dropout pining over a girl who dumped him and the only one of the gang you think might have some redeeming quality--until he handcuffs his stripper girlfriend spread-eagled to the bed naked duct-tapes her eyes and mouth and leaves her with a thrash metal CD--skipping--on the player for three days. (All that ruckus of course raises the suspicions of a butch biker broad--Deborah Harry in a cameo--who runs a phone sex line out of her apartment next door.) In exchange for dope Ross runs errands for a big badass Jesse James type known as the Cook (Mickey Rourke) 'cause he brews the crystal in a squalid motel room he shares with sweet misguided stripper Nikki (Brittany Murphy). The Cook provides drugs to dealer Spider Mike (John Leguizamo) a seriously paranoid hopped-up speed freak and his mossy-teethed tweaker girlfriend Cookie (Mena Suvari) who use and sell the Cook's drugs to hangers-on like the absurdly pimply faced Frisbee (Patrick Fugit) in between sex sessions and flip-outs involving guns spray paint and socks.
Every last person in this ensemble seems to relish getting down and dirty--and by dirty we mean fetid. Murphy and Rourke are particular standouts: with big kohl-smudged eyes and wide friendly smile she's sweetly innocent bobbling aournd in her f***-me Daisy Dukes and high-heeled boots; he's terrifying and larger than life in torn jeans tucked into white shitkickers a ponytail and a Stetson but he actually pulls the heartstrings when he muses about watching puppies be put to death as a boy and defends two chola mini-mart clerks from an abusive gangster. Watching Schwartzman's Ross whom you expect to like as the film's hero perform what amounts to torture on his girlfriend so casually and with such good intentions is more shocking than any of the film's drug scenes or seedy imagery and Ross becomes all the more menacing in his regular-Joe ways. Props to Suvari for letting the world watch her strain so vigorously on the can and to Leguizamo for giving his all in his few scenes whether threatening his pseudo-friends with a gun shooting up crank or jacking off. Peter Stormare and Alexis Arquette give lively performances as a sort of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas-meets-COPS pair of vice guys hot on Spider's trail; look out also for former Judas Priest singer Rob Halford porn star Ron Jeremy and Eric Roberts.
With its over-the-top caricatures hyper-frenetic camerawork and creatively near pornographic animation segments this movie looks an awful lot like a music video and with good reason: Director Jonas Akerlund is best known for his controversial Prodigy "Smack My Bitch Up" video and Madonna's "Music." He is unafraid to put this sordid bunch right up in your face flinging the greasy underbelly of the So Cal meth scene sunny side up and zooming in with the cameras up close and personal to a point that's almost unbearably uncomfortable. Akerlund's techniques are sometimes overdone like the bone-crunching sounds and wildly rolling eyeballs that herald each and every high and sometimes screamingly funny like Ross's daydream of a Patton-like Cook pontificating about the female vagina in front of an American flag. A well-done score by former Smashing Pumpkins' singer Billy Corgan moves the film fluidly from calm states of relative normalcy to paranoid herky-jerky scenes of jabbering addicts flying right off the mental deep end. These people are shallow vile and irredeemable and Akerlund's brilliance lies in making you feel for them in spite of themselves.
A Guy Thing's premise is standard and remarkably uneventful. Paul (Jason Lee) thinks marrying the sweet and perfect Karen (Selma Blair) and working for his tough soon-to-be father-in-law Ken (James Brolin) is the best thing he's got. Until he meets Becky (Julia Stiles) the girl he wakes up with after his wild bachelor party. Paul can't remember what happened but assumes the worst and tells Karen a little lie to cover it up. His friends tell him it's fine it's "a guy thing" and he shouldn't feel guilty but in the week before his nuptials he watches the whole thing blow up in his face. See Becky is Karen's free-spirited cousin a girl who lives life to the fullest. Even if Paul wanted to forget Becky and the apparent incident he can't especially when he realizes he is beginning to have feelings for Becky and that maybe Karen isn't the right girl for him. Oh boy he's got some s'plaining to do. This is life folks--these are the tough choices you've got to make. Or so that's what the film wants us to remember when we walk out of the theater with our sides splitting from laughing so hard. Right.
After last year's stinker Stealing Harvard one would have hoped Jason Lee learned his lesson--but apparently not. The thing is the guy is talented. He's shown great comedic flair alongside director Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy) but it's obvious his judgment has been impaired somewhere along the way. Lee looks like he is sleepwalking through most of the film as Paul does nothing more than react to all the craziness around him typically coming to his senses just in the nick of time. Blair (Legally Blonde) once again plays the country-club princess to a tee but someone please give this actress something meaty for a change. She can handle it. Yet it's Stiles who surprises you in A Guy Thing. Venturing into a balls-out comedy for the first time she just seems so out of place in the romantic comedy milieu. You think it isn't going to work but then suddenly you realize she's grown on you and Becky's gangly klutzy style becomes the only refreshing thing in this tired genre movie. Larry Miller also makes a hilarious appearance as Paul's minister neighbor who has seen the whole "guy thing" transpire. Funny stuff.
Someone really needs to tell why these vacuous romantic comedies keep getting made. A Guy Thing portends to be different claiming the comedy comes from real-life choices rather than from outlandish unbelievable situations. OK then it makes sense Paul would climb out his future in-laws' bathroom window to escape seeing Becky only to get hung up on a tree limb then get shot at by big bad daddy Ken and then have to climb back in the bathroom and wind up squirting a shampoo bottle into the toilet to make it seem like he was having gastric problems to those listening outside the bathroom door. Sure that happens all the time. Comedy works best when it's a tad outrageous and don't think A Guy Thing is anything but although it fails most of the time. Still under the guidance of director Chris Koch (Snow Day) the film has a few laugh-out-loud moments including the rehearsal dinner scene where a pharmacy technician caters the meal (don't ask) and spikes the gravy with marijuana resulting in priceless reactions from some veteran actors such as Diana Scarwid and Julie Hagerty playing the two mothers. The actual meaning of "a guy thing " which can ultimately be defined as a guy's inclination to back his buddies up also gets explained in a few hilarious ways. Overall though it's just one formulaic moment after another.
A family headed for a weekend in the backwoods is stranded when a wounded deer jumps in front of their car and sends them into a ditch. A posse of threatening rednecks appears and the ringleader Otis (John Speredakos) shoots the wounded deer point blank as the child in the car looks on. This is how the filmmakers establish Otis as the bad guy--and this will also create dramatic tension later between Otis and the Wendigo monster so you never quite know which one's actually terrorizing the family throughout the film. Once it's painfully clear who the bad guy is the trouble begins in earnest. When dad George mom Kim and son Miles finally arrive at the country house where they're staying they realize that someone's been shootin' up walls and windows. By now everyone in the theater knows it must be Otis. He certainly reappears soon enough--and now the big mean deer killer "knows where we live!" You bet he does Miles and he's watching your parents have sex right now. But that just makes him a pervert--not a psycho killer. Or does it? You'll spend the rest of this nightmare movie waiting to find out the answer to this and other compelling questions. Like what the hell is a Wendigo anyway?
When little Miles' head first appears in the back seat of the car you can't help but gasp. It's Dewey--oops Erik Per Sullivan--with hair and playing about three years younger than he looks like he really is. Yes Malcolm in the Middle fans your dear hamster-toting pal has finally hit the big screen. The filmmakers probably told him that he'd be the next Haley Joel Osment: "Wendigo is the next Sixth Sense. You just have to be in it!" Poor kid. It's not and he didn't. Still he does well enough with material that calls for him to do little other than look vacant and cry. Patricia Clarkson as Kim and Jake Weber as George are vacuous and their performances utterly forgettable. Of course the utter crappiness of the script doesn't help and since they have most of the lines they come off the worst.
There's a certain '80s charm to the wintry look of this movie which is probably more to director of photography Terry Stacey's (Spring Forward Trick) credit than to director Larry Fessenden's. Credit Fessenden who also wrote and edited and designed the Wendigo creature with well the Wendigo mostly. Because the sheer stupidity of this completely non-frightening creature pretty much nails exactly why this movie is as awful as it is. The Wendigo looks kind of like a deer standing on its hind legs with um hands. Yeah that's right. Hands. The creature might be the stuff of Miles' nightmares--there's certainly that possibility--but surely it should be at least a little scary. It's a joke as it's incarnated here. This is also the case with any number of scenes that are supposed to be scary but just aren't: at Otis' place the hangin' deer meet is supposed to spook ya; it doesn't. Dad and Miles chop wood with an axe? Come on. Chopping wood is only a frightening event if your daddy slices his leg open with a chain saw. When George falls off the back of a sled leaving Miles to torpedo down the hillside and later flee on foot as a smoke-thing (Wendigo spirit perhaps?) roils after him you're not frightened. You just want to cry "Run Dewey run!" The biggest joke is the ghostly Native American guy who appears at key moments (and once in a Quickie Mart) never speaks but manages to deliver voiceovers like "Wendigo is a mighty powerful spirit…part wind part tree part man part beast shape shifting." He also gives Dewey--oops Miles--the little carved statue that will play a key role in the plot's twist.
HOLLYWOOD, May 11, 2000 - It's time to separate the men from the boys, and by all accounts, "Gladiator" is going to do the separating. The Roman action epic, which opened last weekend at No. 1 and, as of Tuesday, had pulled in a tidy $42 million, should have little trouble defending its box-office supremacy this weekend, what with "Battlefield Earth" -- a baggage-carrying sci-fi vanity project from John Travolta -- mounting the most formidable challenge (such as it is).
Meanwhile, there are four other new films arriving at cinemas this weekend ("Center Stage," "Screwed," "Hamlet," and "Held Up"), but none aspires to blockbuster credentials.
Here's a rundown of the new releases:
"Battlefield Earth" "BATTLEFIELD EARTH" The skinny: At long last, John Travolta brings to the screen one of his favorite books, written by Scientology guru, L. Ron Hubbard. It's about a bunch of evil, dreadlocked aliens who treat humans real bad and feed them nothing but fluorescent guacamole; the humans, sick of Mexican condiments, rebel and take their planet back. The upside: It's rated PG, and is devoid of cuss words and graphic violence. The downside: It's devoid of a story, originality, good acting, and other things audiences like. "Center Stage"
"CENTER STAGE" (See the trailer) The skinny: Young dancers try to make it to the Broadway stage. The upside: An uplifting, inspiring story of dreams fulfilled. The downside: Nothing against Peter Gallagher, but ... it stars Peter Gallagher. "Screwed"
"SCREWED" The skinny: The screenwriters who penned "Ed Wood" and "The People Vs. Larry Flynt" make their directorial debut with this comedy, starring Norm MacDonald as a bumbling chauffeur. The upside: Norm Macdonald is one funny guy. The downside: Unfortunately, almost no one seems to get the joke. "Held Up"
"HELD UP" (See the trailer) The skinny: Jamie Foxx flees urban life to work at a rural mini-mart after he's carjacked and involved in a lovers' quarrel. Laughs ensue. The upside: Also features Nia Long. The downside: Can this be nearly as good as "Booty Call?" We don't think so. "Hamlet"
"HAMLET" (See the trailer) The skinny: Murder, jealousy, revenge, Ethan Hawke. The upside: It's one of the greatest stories ever told, and it's got a great cast. How could anything go wrong? The downside: In this modern-day update, the prince of Denmark is now the prince of the Denmark Corporation. "There's something rotten in ..." Oh, never mind. (Also, it's only opening in New York and Los Angeles.) Elsewhere, "U-571," "Where the Heart Is," "Frequency," "The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas," "28 Days," "Rules of Engagement," and "Keeping the Faith" all will try to avoid being bumped out of the Top 10.