Although it's modern day there's a distinct Raymond Chandler-esque feel to this story about a petty thief named Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) who lucks into a movie audition and finds himself heading to Hollywood. Harry is replacing Colin Farrell as a detective in a film and to get the realism of the part he's shown the detecting ropes by Det. Perry van Shrike (Val Kilmer) also known as Gay Perry--because he's gay. Then Harry runs into his old high school sweetie Harmony (Michelle Monaghan) at a Hollywood party. She believes Harry is a real detective and begs him to help her. That's when the bodies begin coming out of the woodwork. Greed torture and mayhem ensue. If there's any way to prove that Downey is back in true form this is it. He's glib charming deep and truly becomes a modern-day Chaplin in this very trampy role. Kilmer avoids some of the stereotypes of playing gay but as he points out "we're not good cop bad cop we're fag and New Yorker." Both deserve awards. Monaghan holds her own as a feisty red-head. Even Downey's real-life son Indio--who plays his character in the early flashback scenes--shows incredible promise as an actor. This is the Shane Black’s directorial debut the same guy who wrote Lethal Weapon and Long Kiss Goodnight. He knows violence that’s for sure but he also has a keen sense of humor. In Kiss Kiss he mixes them well. Black sets the mood with Downey--giving his best Bogie-like voiceover-- narrating the action along the way. This is better than Get Shorty as far as a dark look into the entertainment industry and far more entertaining. And as Harry's character promises "I've seen Lord of the Rings and we're not going to end this 17 times."
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.
A middle-school version of Mean Girls and darn close to every other PG-rated girl-power movie you or your daughters are likely to see this follows four brash eighth-graders as they have a sleepover to wear dress-up clothes freeze their bras fantasize about boys dance madly and celebrate their graduation to high school. They see themselves as social outcasts but while one (Kallie Flynn Childress) is short and plump. the others could be cheerleaders at any real school--Spy Kids' Alexa Vega (who gives the party and is the film's star) Mika Boorem and Scout Taylor-Compton. (Does anybody still name their kid "Jane" these days?) But just when they're being good girls and staying home as mom (Best in Show's delightfully edgy Jane Lynch) has demanded a snooty rival (the statuesque blonde Sara Paxton) and her coterie challenge them to a slightly risqué scavenger hunt. That involves getting into a bar and ordering Sex on the Beach cocktails changing the display in an Old Navy window (one of many shameless plugs) and escaping from a dimwit security guard by driving a tiny lime-green electric car that is the ugliest movie vehicle ever. In a surprisingly erotic scene for a PG movie Vega--wearing a tight red party dress with a plunging neckline that amply reveals why she's been having "growing pains"--sneaks into a "hot" boy's bathroom to steal his boxers watching from the shower as he removes them. Just in case you thought this all would lead to a teen reenactment of Psycho Sleepover ends with the usual sentimental empowerment lessons learned and friendships sealed. And the chubby girl even finds a boyfriend who likes brownies more than carrots.
The film's three casting directors all worked overtime to find young actresses amazingly reminiscent of slightly older girl-role-model favorites. Vega conveys the same mixture of insecurity and self-confidence as Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls and even has the same expressions. With her moon-round face long tangle of dark hair and glowing smile she might also remind adults of a teen Bonnie Raitt. But she's maturing so fast she already seems too old for this part physically and temperamentally. There are moments in fact when the actress acts dismissive of the story's clunky derivative plot mechanics. Meanwhile Boorem is warmly Kirsten Dunst-like and Paxton such an amazing reincarnation of Reese Witherspoon that I'll look for her in a Legally Blonde sequel when she hits 18. This is all good by the way - most everyone appears to relish her chance in the spotlight. But even better are the two offbeat comic actors who play Vega's parents--Lynch and the portly Jeff Garlin (of Curb Your Enthusiasm) as the clueless dad. The film reaches a moment of Freaky Friday hilarity with Vega discovers enthusiastic mom Lynch wiggling and writhing at a dance club. "Yeah older lady shakin' her boo-tay " the deejay announces as Vega cringes. It's a great movie parent-child moment.
Director Joe Nussbaum got his start in Hollywood with the cult favorite short George Lucas in Love and this marks his feature debut. He gets the train to the station in time so to speak but the pace is so chop-chop quick that a lot of promising comic and romantic scenes go underdeveloped amid the editing pace. And unfortunately Nussbaum kept in all the corny scenes involving an unfunny security guard (Steve Carell) who harasses the girls. There also are a lot of tiresome close-ups and two-shots - this could (and doubtlessly will) play on TV with little lost. So unlike the cast the direction isn't pretty. But writer Elisa Bell however does embellish the formulaic plot with some unusual--sometimes even downright surreal--dialogue. I'm still trying to figure out for instance what Sam Huntington as Vega's slightly older brother (a Giovanni Ribisi look-alike by the way) means when he tells her "Go be a teenager. It ends too soon. And it gets replaced by ribbons and lampshades." Huh?