September 07, 2004 12:11pm EST
In Paparazzi celebrity photographers are an affliction that torment tens if not dozens of residents of Brentwood the Hollywood Hills and Malibu. Bo Laramie (Cole Hauser) is one such denizen. As Hollywood's brightest new action star Laramie along with his wife Abby (Robin Tunney) is set to enjoy the sweet ride of success until paparazzo Rex Harper (Tom Sizemore) and his marauding band of slimy shutterbugs turn his life into a living hell. Or at least a fairly large inconvenience. With a blatant nod to Princess Di the pesky paparazzi cause a high-speed car wreck which sends Bo's son Zach (Blake Bryan) into a coma of convenient duration and results in the loss of Abby's spleen. Which is fitting as the movie has no discernible spleen of its own. And so our hero who has obviously not received the standard studio briefing on the joys of contract killers takes matters (and a baseball bat) into his own hands. The model for Paparazzi is the vigilante movie: Death Wish Billy Jack Walking Tall and the like. But whereas Bronson's Paul Kersey devolved from architect to cold-blooded killer only when faced with impossibly high stakes (the murder of his wife and rape of his daughter) Laramie by contrast turns into a serial killer and a sloppy one at that over a little retinal glare. And doing it all by himself? One imagines the Anthony Pellicanos of the world dispatching guys like Harper during a Pilates break.
It's problematic asking non-movie stars to play huge movie stars for obvious reasons. Bo Laramie is supposed to be the biggest thing since Ah-nuld held his day job but as Hauser plays him he comes off more like Michael Dudikoff. Even as he's beating paparazzi to death with his own hands there is no sense of a human being or even a movie star being pushed to his limits. Tunney who was terrific in Niagara Niagara has nothing to do and neither does Dennis Farina as the cop conflicted by the A-list avenger. Sizemore of course steals every scene he's in effortlessly and ruthlessly. In spite of his recent legal troubles (or perhaps because of them) he brings just the right dosage of dangerous persona and edgy charisma to his growing roster of manic miscreants. Ultimately though even his involvement is disappointing: When he's on screen he fools you into thinking a real movie is about to start.
First-time director Paul Abascal is but a pawn in Mel Gibson's dogmatic production slate. Screenwriter Forrest Smith had a small role with Gibson in We Were Soldiers and reportedly leveraged the moment to pitch Paparazzi to the actor/producer/Catholic poster boy. Gibson has had issues with his privacy before and has already proved himself shameless in using the movies to promote an agenda. So as with The Passion of the Christ a movie that wouldn't have gotten so much as a sniff at any other studio found itself with a green light. And Bo Laramie became family man/action hero Gibson's violent alter ego. Or maybe just ego. (Gibson also has a brief cameo and the one sheet for Laramie's "movie" Adrenaline Force 2 is a dead ringer for the poster art for Lethal Weapon 2). With Gibson's personal profits alone surpassing the $400 million mark with this week's Passion DVD sales and Paparazzi's budget listed at $20 million Gibson could make 20 sequels to Paparazzi. Or he could use the producer's pulpit to speak out against other vexations in his life. Somewhere at Icon world headquarters Leaf Blower: The Movie just went into pre-production.
One thing The Country Bears has in its favor is that the film keeps the plot simple. A convoluted storyline in which bears and humans interact would only make this even more painful to watch. Set in a music-video-type format where the bears and the humans sing and dance and have a grand old time the movie focuses on 11-year-old Beary Barrington (voiced by Haley Joel Osment) a young lad growing up with a very loving--and very human--family. Yet something doesn't feel right to Beary. Maybe it's because his jealous older brother Dex (Eli Marienthal) keeps telling him he has been adopted. Or maybe it's because he is a bear. Whatever the reason Beary feels connected only when he is playing his guitar and worshipping a hugely successful '60s rock band called The Country Bears--a quartet of big hairy fellows with names like Tennessee O'Neal Ted and Fred Bedderhead and Zeb Zoober who broke up over "creative differences" many moons ago. Beary decides to head out into the wild beyond to look for his true heroes--and find his place in the world. What he discovers is that the old Country Bear Hall where those wily bears used to perform is going to be torn down by the evil Reed Thimple (Christopher Walken. Yes we just said Christopher Walken.) Beary can't let this happen so he comes up with the plan to find the ex-Bears get them back together for a benefit concert and save the venue. Yee-haw.
Everyone associated with this film (from the actors to the long string of cameos by real-life musicians) surely believed they were making a fun-filled romp for the kiddies. You know "something to take the whole family to see " but they may not have realized how incredibly inane it would turn out to be. Or maybe Disney called in a lot of favors. Walken could have just lost a bet. The point is this--the human cast simply serves a purpose as the framework for the bears. Megan Fay and Stephen Tobolowsky are Beary's sugary-sweet mom and dad. Diedrich Bader and Daryl Mitchell play bumbling police officers looking for the hairy little fellow. Only Marienthal's Dex recognizes the absurdity of the situation--Beary is a bear and Marienthal gets to say probably all three of the best lines in the film. Cameos by artists such as Bonnie Raitt Don Henley and Elton John are fun but don't add much to the fray. Meanwhile the vocal talents are notable only when real-life singers like Raitt and Henley (who "sing" a duet as Tennessee and lady bear Trixie) and country singer John Hiatt (also as Tennessee) get to perform. Haley Joel Osment as the voice of Beary is more animated than the young actor has ever had the chance to be onscreen but there may be a reason for that--Osment is annoying as a chipper guy.
Most of us know about Disney theme parks and their most popular attractions--the Haunted House the Pirates of the Caribbean and of course the Country Bear Jamboree. Now Disney has gotten the bright idea to turn these attractions into movies--cashing in on the familiarity--and those singing dancing bears are the first guinea pigs. In other words Disney is grasping at straws. Granted the film is intended for children but let's not insult their intelligence as well. Besides a bad script so-so puppetry and sappy original songs the most bothersome thing about The Country Bears is that the bears walk and talk like their human counterparts have jobs eat in restaurants and play in rock-and-roll bands but there are only about six of them altogether. There aren't any other bears around. Or any other animals for that reason. At least in a Muppet movie the Muppets are everywhere and so it's understood they simply co-exist with humans. If you were to meet one of these Country Bears on the street you'd be very afraid.
FBI agent Wesley Doyle (Powers Boothe) is cold on the trail of Texas' notorious "God's Hand" serial killer until he's paid a mysterious call by solemn Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey). It seems Meiks could bust the case wide open--he declares that "God's Hand"'s handiwork is that of his brother Adam and he's got a long and complicated tale to tell that'll explain it. Doyle's ears perk up and he and Meiks embark on a trip to the rose garden where Meiks claims Adam buried his victims and then killed himself. On the way Meiks reveals his gory story. It involves the boys' kindly father (Bill Paxton) who was a sensitive caring man--until he went insane one day claiming God had chosen him and his family to kill all the "demons" that inhabit Earth disguised as real people like their neighbors. Dad regularly makes a list and checks it twice for all the demon folk he needs to exterminate on any given Sunday but he's not on this holy mission alone--his sons are "God's hands" as well and together they must hunt down the demons and destroy them. In a weird variation on Cain and Abel 12-year-old Fenton rebels against Dad (killing others isn't exactly his idea of a fun after-school activity) while little brother Adam is happy to join in.
Because the movie is told mostly in flashback McConaughey is relegated mostly to voiceover and a few present-day scenes in which he acts frighteningly morose and gives the sense that there's more to his story than first meets the eye. Because most of the story takes place in 1979 the boys are the ones who really make this film work. Fenton the younger (Matthew O'Leary) is a real find--he clearly struggles with his love for his father whom he knows has gone over the edge and his repulsion for the deeds Dad is determined to have the family carry out. Wrestling with his own demons he finally is able to settle on a solution for how to stop the horror. Little Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) is quite good as the innocent youngster who adores his dad and hangs on his every word seeking only his approval and refusing to believe he has lost his mind. Paxton effectively bridges the transitions between gentle loving father and insane murderer insisting the boys finish all their veggies and revealing his next victim in one breath. He's like those killers on the news about whom people say "But…he was such a nice quiet guy." The performance almost verges on funny if it weren't so horrific.
Paxton makes an auspicious directing debut with this tight little movie keeping the action going and the plot flowing and letting you completely get to know the characters as they exist in their own eras. He deftly avoids choppy flashbacks and the potentially confusing story is perfectly clear yet no less gripping. The killing scenes are absolutely squirm-in-your-seat nightmarish but thankfully we don't see all the grisly details as with so many slasher flicks. Instead we're shown everything right up to the point of death and we're spared the splattering blood and guts. It's just enough to make you cringe and cover your eyes and ultimately far worse to imagine the outcome than to see it all in special effects and makeup. Frailty is also scarier than the typical slasher flick bloodfest--it's way more frightening to imagine the nice guy next door committing such crimes than a made-up character wearing a hockey mask or razors on his gloves. The movie also comes up with a startling twist that you don't see coming right away. But--without revealing too much--the movie falls apart at the end with some enormous problems. Sometimes directors try to explain too much; we won't so we'll just leave it at that.