The film opens as teenagers Katie (Amber Tamblyn) and Becca (Rachael Bella) are having a sleepover and spooking each other with ghost stories. Trouble is the urban legend Becca retells is all too true as Katie is just about to find out in the most grisly of ways. The story centers on a mysterious videotape that should you be so unfortunate as to view it will kill you in seven days (you know this because someone calls right after you watch it to alert you that you're gonna kick). Katie and her friends watched it and sure enough they're all dead a week later--sparking Katie's aunt an investigative journalist named Rachel (Naomi Watts) to uncover what happened and why. When the trail leads her to the sinister tape she watches it receives the foreboding phone call and consequently sets off on a race against time to somehow save her life by finding out the meaning of what she's seen. She enlists the help of Noah (Martin Henderson) the father of her rather strange and solitary young son Aidan (David Dorfman)--who like all kids in horror movies these days is seeing frightening visions too--and over the course of seven days the two find themselves embroiled in a mystery that involves the tape a twisted family and dying horses.
The acting by all involved is generally good. Naomi Watts who hit the radar with David Lynch's Mulholland Drive last year ably carries the film although there are times in close-up when she looks too self-aware with an almost smug expression as though she's about to smile when the situation isn't the least bit funny. Maybe it's because she knows her Rachel does some pretty mind-blowingly foolish things the most noteworthy among them leaving the deadly video out where her curious son (who annoyingly invokes Haley Joel Osment and looks absolutely nothing like either of the folks playing his parents) can pop it in the ol' VCR. Though Watts is a basically likeable fresh face any number of up-and-coming actresses could have done this role--as well or better.
It's been awhile since jaded horror fans have had something to get excited about. Gore Verbinski justifies his career after the miserable The Mexican with this taut thriller which opens with the teen girls in a truly terrifying sequence reminiscent of Scream. Verbinski is keenly aware of the value of keeping things just out of sight and not resorting to cheap horror movie shlock so there are genuine chills to be had (animal lovers will want to cover their eyes during one particularly horrifying scene). Although the moments that'll really make you jump out of your skin are few and far between the secret behind the videotape is compelling as is the imagery. Without overdoing it The Ring displays some fantastic cinematography particularly with the Buñuel-esque videotape (you could have heard a pin drop as engrossed as the audience was at this review screening) and the shots of gloomy mist-enshrouded Washington State are disquietingly atmospheric. However the last third of the movie is somewhat disappointing and contains several utterly ridiculous scenes--particularly one at the ending (which actually has a nice twist).
Based on the life of New York City police detective Vincent LaMarca City by the Sea vacillates between a true-crime mystery and a family drama. As Vincent (De Niro) investigates the murder of a Long Beach N.Y. drug dealer it becomes painfully clear that his estranged son junkie Joey (James Franco) known on the street as Joey Nova is the prime suspect. Vincent is of course taken off the case but when his partner is killed while pursuing Joey the search becomes the Long Beach police department's top priority--and saving his son from a police department eager for cop-killer blood becomes Vincent's. The fact that Vincent discovers that he has a grandson Angelo doesn't help the situation especially when Joey's supposedly clean ex-junkie girlfriend (Eliza Dushku) leaves the kid at Vincent's apartment when she goes to buy cigarettes and fails to return. Vincent who's always defined himself against his criminal father finds himself forced to decide whether he's a cop or a father and grandfather first a quandary that naturally leads to some pretty compelling if slightly melodramatic scenes for De Niro. Interestingly despite the somber subject matter and the dramatic tone the film still manages a few lighthearted moments which really save it from the pitfalls of its own seriousness.
Sometimes a great cast can make even a mediocre film good and that's what happens in City by the Sea. Even though the dialogue they're given to work with isn't always completely natural--in fact sometimes it's downright contrived--the cast still manages to create a compelling final product. You just can't go wrong with De Niro as a hardened streetwise emotionally distant cop and he makes everyone opposite him look great especially relative newcomer Franco (whose performance as a young James Dean in TNT's James Dean earned him some critical kudos of his own). The young actor swaggers onto the scene like a very young Bob Dylan a hollow-body vintage guitar slung across his back. Of course he's selling it for drugs not heading for a gig. Patti LuPone really sinks her teeth--and catty claws--into her role as LaMarca's bitter ex-wife creating some of the film's most dynamic scenes while Frances McDormand lends her subtly expressive style to the most emotional moments as De Niro's sometime girlfriend Michelle.
Director Michael Caton-Jones delves into the dark side of his imagination with images of a desolate Long Beach: graffiti-covered walls crumbling casinos and a rickety boardwalk--all the detritus of a once-thriving tourist destination. In this grim setting Joey wanders virtually empty streets and beaches where as a child he played happily; meanwhile in Manhattan Vincent is wandering his streets in much the same way. It's an interesting device Caton-Jones uses to show the similarities between the two men and it's as effective at establishing their relationship as the relatively few scenes they have together. At moments like this when the film is making its emotional impact visually it shines; unfortunately City by the Sea relies a little too often on its average dialogue and does a little too much telling and not enough showing.
December 21, 2001 8:07am EST
Jamal (Redman) and Silas (Method Man) have spent the last six years attending a two-year community college and smoking way too much marijuana. When their friend Ivory (Chuck Davis) dies after falling asleep with a lit joint loosely dangling from his lip and catching on fire Silas uses his ashes to fertilize one of his plants. Now it seems that whenever the two smoke weed from the special plant they get a visit from the ghost of their dead friend. When the time comes to take their THCs (that's Testing for Higher Credentials) Jamal and Silas light up and enlist Ivory's help to pass the tests. The plan works and the twosome's perfect test scores get them admitted into Harvard University. But the high times quickly take a nosedive when an on-campus security guard steals the spiritual plant. The two must now figure out how to stay at the highbrow institution and fulfill their dreams of developing pot in a real lab.
Method Man plays Silas a pot dealer with big dreams with Redman as his best friend Jamal. Because the roles are practically tailor-made with them in mind they are able to play their characters as written and bring much of their public persona to the screen. They also have great chemistry and literally light up any scene they are in together. With a shaky script to stand on these two easily carry the film. Lark Voorhies (Saved by the Bell) is convincingly sweet and natural as the poor but really smart girl and Silas' object of affection but Essence Atkins is too over-the-top and contrived as the U.S. vice president's daughter with eyes on Jamal. Obba Babatunde had some good scenes as the uptight but underdeveloped character of Dean Cain and there are some great notable cameo appearances by Spalding Gray as a professor of African-American history and rappers Cypress Hill as party deejays.
How High was produced by Danny DeVito's Jersey Films and marks Jesse Dylan's feature directorial debut. The movie has some extremely funny moments like the overly dramatic slow motion shot of Jamal's cheese doodle dropping onto Dean Cain's imported handmade rug and some great references that aren't too obscure to catch (does "Pass the dutchy from the left hand side" sound familiar?) But while the film has its creative moments it is marred by a superficial script complete with a not-so-funny pimp his sidekick and some stereotypical "hos." The story becomes a little too formulaic and lacks the sophistication of Ice Cube's Friday and the intricacies of Tamra Davis' Half-Baked. But as far as this comedies go How High--thanks mostly in part to Redman and Method Man--is entertaining enough to join the ranks of classic pot comedies like Cheech & Chong's Up in Smoke.