Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Armistead Maupin this haunting albeit slow moving mystery follows the disturbingly eerie twists and turns that unfold in the relationship between a popular late-night radio host Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) who is in the throes of his own personal crisis and a devoted 14 year-old listener named Pete (Rory Culkin) who has written a memoir describing a terrifying childhood filled with physical and sexual abuse. What begins as a long-distance phone relationship the wounded Gabriel soon bonds with the precocious boy as a surrogate father. But things start to get dicey when Gabriel grows more and more suspicious of Pete’s overprotective adopted mother (Toni Collette). Suddenly Gabriel finds himself on a desperate quest to uncover the elusive truth on whether Pete’s stories are for real or more importantly if Pete even exists at all. Many may forget that Williams is a Julliard-trained actor. He can handle emotional range and has done so in films such as Dead Poet's Society and Good Will Hunting which won him his Oscar. Of course we still love it when he acts like a nut. In fact during certain moments in Listener when Williams is on the radio you half expect the funnyman to yell “Good Morning Vietnam!” But of course the 55 year-old Williams has obviously matured and is easily convincing as the low-key Gabriel dealing with the demise of his 10 year relationship with his lover played nicely by Bobby Cannavale (The Station Agent) as well as trying to unravel this strange mystery which grows more macabre by the minute. Matching Williams' intensity is Collette (Little Miss Sunshine) as Pete’s enigmatic mom Donna who is pretty much the center of all the creepiness. The underrated actress is one of those performers who generally throws vanity aside to dig deep and give honest portrayals no matter how twisted they are. It’s evident The Night Listener is something close to Maupin’s heart having had a similar real-life experience with his ex-partner Terry Anderson and a young devoted fan. The screenplay was adapted by the acclaimed author along with Anderson and Patrick Stettner (The Business of Strangers)—who takes the helm on this psychological thriller—so it’s no surprise how well they tap into the same nightmarish journey the bestselling page-turner takes you on. Listener explores the nature of lies and how much we are willing to believe them when in an emotional crisis. And much like a great Hitchcock thriller Stettner also keeps you on your toes by peeling away each layer the deeper Gabriel gets involved. After flying to the where Pete is suppose to live things really start to get weird until Gabriel finally asks “What the hell am I doing here?” It’s a very valid question. But that’s sort of the beauty of the film. You’re expecting any manner of bad things to happen but are surprised by the outcome nonetheless.
Once respected NYPD detective Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) is now pretty much on his last legs literally and figuratively. He drinks is relegated to a desk job and walks with a limp. One morning after a long shift he’s corralled into transporting a petty criminal Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) to the courthouse 16 blocks away so he can testify by 10:00 a.m. What Jack doesn’t know is that Eddie is one of the key witnesses in a case against crooked cops--that is until the two start getting shot at. Then it becomes crystal clear. The main bad guy Jack’s former partner Frank (David Morse) basically lets Jack know Eddie will never testify to just go ahead and hand him over but Frank underestimates Jack’s desire to finally do something good. So Jack and Eddie fight their way to the courthouse block by gut-wrenching block. Oh no there’s nothing formulaic about 16 Blocks not at all. In a film as predictable as this the only thing that’ll make it stand out is the performances. 16 Blocks nearly succeeds--but not quite. It would seem Willis is playing a character he’s played a hundred times before--the misunderstood and slightly unorthodox cop with a heart of gold. But as Jack the actor does a nice job trying out some new things namely playing fat bald and grizzled. You can almost smell how bad Jack’s breath has to be. Rapper/actor Mos Def who usually brightens any film he’s in also tries his hand at something different but his choices aren’t as smart. As the talkative and affable Eddie Mos comes up with one of the more annoying nasally accents ever recorded. After about five minutes of screen time you desperately want him to stop and say “Just kidding! I don’t really talk like this.” But he doesn’t. It’s too bad something like an accent can ruin an otherwise decent performance. Old-school director Richard Donner best known for his Lethal Weapons is a consummate professional when it comes to making these kind of movies. In other words he pretty much paints by numbers. We watch Jack and Eddie get out of one tight situation after another as the gaggle of bad cops try to gun them down. I mean 16 blocks doesn’t seem that far to go so they better throw in as many highly implausible obstacles as they can. Chinese laundries alleyways rooftops subways. And yes even a city bus which the pair--who have by now bonded big time--has to hijack. Donner also employs a popular but nonetheless annoying technique of zooming in when the action heats up so you can’t really see what’s going on. Even if you’re addicted to action movies--a Bruce Willis action movie no less--16 Blocks just doesn’t deliver the goods.
A fresh update on the Pocahontas legend. Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) arrives in disgrace on the shores of the New World but he is pardoned and soon rises to lead the English settlers of what will eventually be Jamestown Virginia. Sent to trade with a local chief Powhatan he falls in love with his daughter Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher). He follows his duty rather than his heart and returns to Jamestown whose starving citizens would not have survived the harsh winter without Pocahontas’s help. Powhatan (Wes Studi) mounts an attack to force the settlers to leave but Pocahontas warns Smith leading to her banishment and her new life with the Europeans. Eventually Smith is called away to mount his own expeditions leaving Pocahontas behind with a heavy heart. She finds a new suitor a gentleman farmer who wants to marry her but she still pines for Smith. Her fame spreads far beyond the New World back to England where she is summoned to meet the king and queen. Farrell is finally delivering on his early promise momentarily setting aside noisy action films to work with a world-class director and reminding us just how subtle of an actor he can be. The amazing chemistry between Farrell and newcomer Kilcher puts nearly every other movie pairing this year to shame. Kilcher who had one screen credit to her name before this was only 14 during filming quite close to Pocahontas’ believed age of 12 or 13. Before you reach for that picket sign please note that while the romance is incredibly sensual as is the whole film nothing is shown other than longing looks and playful platonic embraces. As Pocahontas Kilcher radiates beauty and innocence and it’s easy to see why John Smith would be mesmerized by her. After Smith has left her scenes of grief are heartfelt and her later solemnity is remarkable for someone so young. I had no idea of her real age until I looked over the production notes. Christian Bale who only shows up in the last third of the film is wonderfully restrained and melancholy as the widower who woos her after her own loss. Terrence Malick has always been a very sensual director one who can capture nature so well that you feel you are in the film not just watching it. But his previous films such as The Thin Red Line often have a way of losing focus of missing the forest for the trees of throwing out the plot for yet another beautiful but pointless shot of the landscape. Here his narrative is strong enough that we aren’t impatient when the camera lingers on lush forests or a lovers’ embrace. He’s made the love triangle the backbone of the film and you don’t miss the larger picture here at all. The film is not only achingly beautiful but deeply felt. His sympathies are clearly with the “naturals ” as the Europeans call the Native Americans; it’s from their perspective that we first see the tall ships arrive. The Englishmen part from Smith for the most part are dirty cruel and petty and the less time the film spends with them the better. What Malick has made is most definitely still an art film with occasionally abstract or non-linear editing choices but one that is never just art for art’s sake.
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.
After a particularly rough jamming session Metallica frontman James Hetfield warns his bandmates that he's in a "shitty mood " which basically means he's about to become one extremely uncooperative guy. Metallica formed by Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich in 1981 have been through their share of problems in the past two decades and it's not surprising to see them bickering like an old married couple. But as the film reveals their issues are far more complex than some matrimonial spat and the group is ready to shell out $40 00 a month to Phil Towle a therapist and performance enhancement coach to help them work through their differences and hopefully St. Anger--Metallica's first studio album in six years. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster documents this two-year struggle which begins when Hetfield checks himself into rehab to sober up and leaves the band in limbo for almost a year. They eventually regroup and after a few more clashes record arguably their finest album since 1984's Ride the Lightening. This documentary covers everything about the band including Ulrich's public bout with Napster that resulted in a fan backlash the group's struggle to replace bassist Cliff Burton who was killed in a 1986 bus crash in Copenhagen and how to get rid of the increasingly controlling Towle once they've been "cured."
Hetfield and Ulrich share the spotlight in this documentary which ironically is also the root of Metallica's problem--the constant tug of war between the two members for control of the group. Take Hetfield's post-rehab return to the studio: In order to keep his sobriety in check the singer must stick to a regimented schedule which includes limiting work hours from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. daily. This irks Ulrich who says Hetfield's demands are just a manipulative way of asserting his power over the group. But it's interesting to see how the presence of cameras as well as Towle affects the two's interaction. Rather than lash out at one another they express their anger politely. "I'm not enjoying being in the room with you playing " an annoyed Hetfield passively tells Ulrich after a hot disagreement over a tune. The underlying issue for Ulrich however becomes clear when he discusses former guitarist Dave Mustaine who joined the band in '82 and was booted a year later. Ulrich laments that he and Hetfield use to be close even declaring their love for one another after some 42 beers--until Mustaine came between them. Flying under the radar in this film is guitarist Kirk Hammett who prides himself on being the ego-less member of the band.
Documakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky use their no-nonsense approach to filmmaking to deliver a straightforward documentary devoid of the usual narration and artistic cinematic effects and whittle away 715 days worth of footage into a 135-minute film. Although it's a bit on the long side it works nonetheless thanks to the documentary's participants who put themselves out there emotionally for the world to see. And while the filmmakers detail the inspiration behind various songs from St. Anger the charm lies more in their personal trials and tribulations than their creative ones. But will Metallica's attempt to bare their souls win back the fans they lost because of Ulrich's attack on Napster? On May 3 2000 Ulrich showed up at Napster's headquarters with the screen names of 350 000 users who had downloaded their songs and demanded each be removed from the online song-swapping aid. But in their fight to bring an end to Napster Ulrich and the band alienated fans who were quick to point out that Metallica benefited from the circulation of bootleg copies of their albums early in their career. Looking back Ulrich comments the Napster thing made him "the most hated f***ing ass in the history of rock 'n' roll " but doesn't elaborate beyond that. Berlinger and Sinofsky then show Ulrich making a cool $5 million off his oil-on-canvas paintings through Christie's which makes the drummer's Napster fight look so damn petty. Even more interesting than the auction's bottom line is Ulrich's reasoning for selling the work that adorned the walls of his home for years: To wipe the slate clean.
Since they were young girls growing up in the Midwest Connie (Nia Vardalos) and Carla (Toni Collette) have shared the same dream--to become the next biggest thing to hit musical theater but so far performing in an airport lounge is the closest they've come. Their lives change however when they witness a murder by some nefarious drug dealers and in an attempt to escape end up in Los Angeles which has "no dinner theater no musical theater no culture at all." It's the perfect place for them to hide out and all goes to plan until Connie and Carla happen upon a local drag club. Suddenly they see an excellent way to elude their pursuers--and fulfill their need to be on stage at the same time. Pretending to be men dressed as drag queens Connie and Carla are soon headlining at the club belting out the show tunes they love. They become a huge hit getting the fame and recognition they've always wanted--but as time wears on the whole charade turns out to be a real "drag" ("pun intended " as the gals like to say) especially when Connie falls for nice guy Jeff (David Duchovny). Still with the killers hot on their trail Connie and Carla have to stay incognito--at least until they can find a way to come out of the closet without getting killed or disappointing their growing legion of fans.
The very charismatic Vardalos wowed audiences with her first feature the smash hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding and is probably feeling more than a little pressure to follow up with something just as good especially since the Big Fat Greek spin-off TV series failed miserably. Luckily she succeeds with Connie and Carla due in large part to her co-star Collette who finally--after a string of dramatic movies such as The Sixth Sense and The Hours--gets to use the comedic skills she deftly showed in her feature film debut Muriel's Wedding. Together the actresses' natural rapport and infectious charm permeate the film and despite a sometimes hackneyed script they keep things lively and boy can they sing! Vardalos and Collette make the most of their musical theater backgrounds working the stage and making the film's musical numbers truly memorable. Vardalos also displays a fair amount of chemistry with Duchovny as the straight Jeff desperately struggles with his burgeoning feelings for someone he believes is a man. The last little plus is C and C's supporting cast including the bonafide drag queens the girls befriend at the club. Led by the Tony-winning Stephen Spinella (Angels in America) as Robert/"Peaches " who also happens to be Jeff's estranged brother the supporting guys/dolls add that certain La Cage joie de vivre.
As she did in My Big Fat Greek Wedding writer/actress Vardalos' script speaks from the heart with genuinely fresh funny and down to earth dialogue. Apparently she did loads of dinner theater in her early years so she's familiar with the subject. Unfortunately she relies on a contrived Some Like It Hot plot about vengeful drug dealers to get Connie and Carla to L.A. but once the film gets into drag it zings. Connie and Carla is also in capable hands with director-actor Michael Lembeck (The Santa Clause 2) a former song-and-dance man himself at the helm. The broad comedic style he picked up directing countless television sitcom episodes serves well here and he turns the musical numbers into mini show-stoppers each one topping the next. The last is the best of course when the girls launch into "I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No" from Oklahoma capped by a special guest appearance from the musical theater goddess herself Debbie Reynolds. Classic.