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Gothika

An expert psychiatrist working in a hospital for the mentally disturbed, Miranda Grey (Halle Berry, painfully miscast) is a master at deducing the logical mind and separating fact from fiction. Driving home one rainy night, Miranda finds a bloodied little girl standing in the road. As she tries to help the child, Miranda blacks out, and when she wakes up three days later she finds herself a prisoner in her own hospital. Learning from a co-worker (Robert Downey Jr.) that she has murdered her husband (Charles Dutton) with an axe, Miranda has no recollections of the event, and with only the violent memories and reappearances of the ghostly girl as clues to what really happened that night.

Usually a Halloween staple, Dark Castle Entertainment decided to change things up this year due to heavy competition – a certain chainsaw massacre that happened in Texas – and move their new chiller, “Gothika,” to a Thanksgiving release. Dark Castle specializes in low-budget horror films that all share common traits: they are cast with a bevy of B and C-level talent (“House On Haunted Hill“), feature ample ghosts and blood (“Thirteen Ghosts“), and are usually set in one area to save money on locations (“Ghost Ship“). “Gothika” is a slight change of direction for the company, as they’ve snagged A-lister Halle Berry to star, fresh off her Oscar winning turn in “Monster’s Ball,” along with convincing French director Matthieu Kassovitz (“The Crimson Rivers,” but best known as the object of desire in “Amelie”) to helm what was once a B-list horror film, but now has loftier ambitions with its sudden surge in filmmaking pedigree. It should’ve stayed B-list.

Kassovitz is a talent, no disputing that, but his Hollywood debut reeks of desperation to maintain his vision even as he’s copping out to the easy lay horror fans that show up for anything with a psycho in the mix. Kassovitz is a sleek stylist, and the opening scenes of the film display the filmmaker trying to build dread and creepiness efficiently: playing with sudden stops in the soundtrack, milking the supernatural elements of the tale, and making the asylum as big a character as Miranda. I enjoyed these moments and was excited for Kassovitz to turn this deeply and resoundingly routine thriller on its ear. But halfway through the film, something as unseen as the paranormal girl haunting Miranda stops Kassovitz in his tracks, and the film tumbles mightily from the hill of invention. Suddenly, “Gothika” is all about cheap, nonstop “boo!” scares and worthless shock cuts. Kassovitz is a better director than this, which makes the distinct smell of laziness in chasing honest-to-God scares even more disappointing.

To make matters even worse, “Gothika” is a film about common sense and awareness, yet Kassovitz and screenwriter Sebastian Gutierrez drop some pretty large logic-bending bombs to keep their story running. The biggest whopper features a security guard who assists Miranda during one of her escape attempts. It’s not like this guy has been working around the criminally disturbed for decades or anything, rightr In a less motivated thriller, I wouldn’t think twice on such a gap in logic. But the first half of the film is built on the fascinating war between the unknown vs. clinical mind, with the second half giving way to gigantic holes in the plot and clownshoes screenwriting just to simply wheeze its way to the safety of a suspense or action sequence. Kassovitz takes away any real sense of danger or logical boundaries, rendering his own film a tedious bore as it slowly peters out of interesting ideas.

When the ending finally does arrive, you’ll want to cover your eyes right away, and that’s not out of fear. The climax to “Gothika” is such a functionally retarded cop-out, meant only for those who live off the singular ideal that anything to end a movie on a happy note is a good thing. Reason goes by the wayside, along with several supporting characters and a general appreciation for the filmmaking process. Whatever potential the film had to start with is a distant memory as the picture ends up promising, or should I say threatening, a future franchise for the ghost busting Miranda.

Rating: D
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Cat in the Hat, The

With Mom (Kelly Preston) away at work, planning for a big company party that evening, her children, disobedient Conrad (Spencer Breslin, “Santa Clause 2”) and high-strung Sally (Dakota Fanning, “I Am Sam”), are stuck home under the sleepy yet watchful eye of their babysitter (Amy Hill). With the edict “Don’t mess up the house” burned into their brains, the children are painfully bored until an unlikely visitor comes to their rescue. Enter The Cat in the Hat (Mike Myers). Armed with a cap full of mischief, along with Thing 1 and Thing 2, the Cat takes Sally and Conrad on a journey of messy pranks and merriment for the day. Along the way, they try to thwart evil neighbor Quinn (Alec Baldwin), who plans to steal Mom’s heart and send the kids away to military school.

The thing about these Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) translations from page to screen is that the filmmakers always overcompensate for what Seuss purposefully left out of his stories. Ron Howard’s abysmal 2000 feature, “How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” was front-loaded with special effects and holiday white noise, and was in constant need of attention. It went directly against what the good Doctor was after: whimsy, imagination, and poetry. Considering his widow authorizes these Seuss pictures, one has to wonder just what kind of Sneetches she’s been hanging out with to OK such smears on her husband‘s good name.

“The Cat in the Hat” is a noticeable improvement on the live action Seuss formula. Directed by former production designer Bo Welch (“Beetlejuice,“ ”Edward Scissorhands“), “Cat” is a brighter, only slightly less obnoxious production that benefits immensely by keeping its action confined to two major locations. It does share with “Grinch” the overridingly garish look of a studio dumping money into something that would’ve been just as successful had the minimalist route been chosen. But compared to the overstuffed “Grinch,” “Cat” is practically “My Dinner With Andre.” Welch captures what is now an expected Seussian landscape of intense colors and slightly askew vistas, only really pouring on the special effects in the picture’s last act, when the Cat turns the house into a wonderland of purple goo and water slides (as well as a slick plug for Universal Studios theme parks). “Cat” is technically proficient enough, and a lot more pleasant to look at than “Grinch,” but it’s tough to get past the fact that these Seuss films are poorly conceived and way too overproduced. “Cat” may not be the crime against nature it could have been, but that doesn’t excuse such a bloated production trampling on the elegant wonderment of the Seuss world.

And when “Cat” tramples, it positively steam rolls. Only a panicking studio and production team would cram a Seuss adaptation with this many careless and entirely unnecessary bodily function gags, which are all (I mean all) represented here – some, like belching and vomiting, are recalled more than once. Dr. Seuss didn’t feel the need to include them, why do the filmmakers feel the need to keeping going back to this tired well of easy gagsr

The biggest surprise of “Grinch” was that Ron Howard managed to make Jim Carrey exceptionally unfunny. I never thought that could happen. Given the same make-up scheme and tone of production, Mike Myers (whose appearance in “Cat” is due to a contract dispute resolution) has a little more success trying to squeeze out laughs from under the prison of his fur bodysuit. Myers, channeling the voice of Linda Richman and the sugar-binge mannerisms of a carnival barker, is often uproarious in the title role, jumping from subversive pop culture ribbing (including infomercials and “Cat in the Hat” raves, with a timely cameo by Paris Hilton), to typical Myersesque reaction shots, and back to children’s film entertainer in a matter of moments. Myers has fun tossing the film’s PG rating around, and his Seussian energy isn’t at the snapping point Carrey’s was in “Grinch.” Along with the rest of the film, Myers is swallowed up in the purpled-gooed sound and fury, but the very idea that the actor could compete with the extreme level of style and budget the rest of the film is playing at, and still get a laughr That’s an amazing feat.

I’m not suggesting that “Cat in the Hat” isn’t a direct slap in the face of Dr. Seuss, and every child and parent across the planet earth that has picked up one of his books. This truly is a misguided adaptation. Yet compared to the “Grinch, “Cat” is more of a success story, and just might get some belly laughs in the process.

Rating: C+
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Elephant

Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” is set in a high school, but it is not named Columbine. It’s a story centered on average high school students who, one day and without warning, commit acts of ultra-violence against their fellow classmates, but they’re not named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. While “Elephant” directly mirrors the events of the 1999 Colorado tragedy in a fictional setting, the film isn’t constructed to answer questions posed by either itself, or the factual events it’s based on. Bathed in an insincere, “arty” glow; “Elephant” is a whopper of a misfire from the usually accountable Van Sant.

The failure of “Elephant” wouldn’t be nearly as grotesque had Van Sant not already taken a lap around the cinema verite track with this past spring’s, “Gerry.” The Matt Damon and Casey Affleck rumination on nature, survival, and philosophy gave Van Sant a chance to work out some issues he had with modern MTVesque filmmaking, and while it didn’t capture my imagination, I respected his vision for the arid drama. “Elephant” uses the exact same tools as “Gerry”: protracted, unbroken tracking shots capturing life inside the unnamed high school as it happens, improvising actors that are given no direction outside of their own marks, and a story that completely gets off on being both elusive and debatable. Gus Van Sant has come to “Elephant” with the intention of simply shining light on a particularly awful day at school. There is no effort to understand the motives of the killers, the mind frame of the students, or the reasoning behind the filmmaking. I’ve seen hundreds of movies that have failed to make a point in the end, and that’s been fine with me. But none in recent memory have been so glaringly, spitefully obtuse as “Elephant.” This isn’t filmmaking, just Van Sant masturbating cinematically with zero intent to examine over what he’s developed. There are no answers to why events occur in “Elephant.” What’s worse is that there isn’t any questions either.

The picture would be an even bigger travesty if it weren’t so affectionately shot by cinematographer Harris Savides. Savides uses natural light to capture the daily grind of high school, nurturing a promise that Van Sant might attain the unthinkable and finally render high school properly in a major film. The director has hired a cast of unknown, Calvin Klein-ready teenagers to portray the students of the massacre (which is appropriately vivid), also lending the film a prospect of authenticity. But these unprofessional kids are horrible actors who occasionally look into the camera lens and shockingly appear impassive and awkward during the film’s climatic bloodbath. Van Sant assigns each character a name, but fails to do anything else when it comes to a characterization outside of that. Could the reasoning be to pursue a thematically larger idea based on the arbitrariness of the impending massacrer I say laziness and poor screenwriting. Watch Van Sant use bulimia and vapid teenage girls here for comedic effect for further proof of lame content choices.

Van Sant also doesn’t tax himself too hard in detailing the killers’ background, making the two bullied kids sensitive souls who play Beethoven on the piano, but also enjoy Hitler documentaries and first-person-shooter video games. There is also a last minute glimpse of homosexuality between the two boys that Van Sant sets aside (cowardly, I might add) as “curiosity.” Why doesn’t he give them waxy mustaches to twirl on top of thatr Well, that would be making a point about the two murderers. The last thing Van Sant wants to do in this movie is to be nailed down to a singular and precise thought. Why, that would make “Elephant” an actual film, wouldn’t itr

At least the endless 5-minute walking takes and mind-numbing story in “Gerry” led to somewhere. “Elephant” is not nearly as neatly planned out. The end of the film is as random as the opening, even with the dramatic foundation Van Sant delicately lays out during the film’s protracted trip to the big execution climax. Van Sant ends the film right at the heart of an important scene. Thank you, Gus. I guess I didn’t want to know how the story ends. How’s that for a big middle fingerr

I “get” the indifferent, observational camerawork and naturalistic casting choices. I wouldn’t want “Elephant” to be the silly, movie-of-the-week picture it might have been under a different filmmaker.

Rating: D-
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Shattered Glass

In 1998, young journalist, Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen, Star Wars Episode II: “Attack Of The Clones“), was at the top of his game writing for the respected political magazine, The New Republic. Churning out story after story, he was beloved by his co-workers (including Chloe Sevigny and Melanie Lynskey) for his charming, self-deprecating demeanor, and by his editors for his ability to write colorful stories. When Glass’s latest article covering a computer hacker becomes the focus of a rival’s fact-checking eye (Steve Zahn), Glass’s inability to substantiate his sources starts to become worrisome to his editor, Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard, “Boys Don‘t Cry“). As Lane begins to investigate Glass’s escalating deceptions, the editor soon learns just how fraudulent Glass has truly been with his stories throughout his time at the magazine.

The Glass saga is ripe for exploration again, since the very same incident occurred this year with a New York Times writer named Jayson Blair. “Glass” helps get inside the mind of an impulsive soul seeking a way to stand out in front of his bosses, as well as savagely questing for adoration. “Shattered Glass” is careful not to make Glass solely an unethical beast, but it also doesn’t make excuses for his reckless behavior – which is deeply needed for the film to work. The audience should be able to feel the wonderment, panic, and desperation of a mind that goes so far to cover its lies, it becomes unaware of what the truth is anymore. In that regard, “Glass” is wildly successful.

Recognition must be paid to the cast, which is a corral of fantastic young talent. The film really belongs to Hayden Christensen and Peter Sarsgaard, who ride this roller coaster of trust and betrayal impressively with their roles. Christensen nails Glass’s overconfidence and perpetual self-pitying suspicion perfectly, creating a concrete portrayal of ambition turned sour. For those who pooh-pooh his work in the “Star Wars” films: do the both of us a favor and check out how Christensen manages to convey so much self-loathing and concealed pride in one look. It’s remarkable. The same goes for Sarsgaard, who develops the film’s best dramatic arc: the slow reveal of deception as Lane begins to discover Glass’s lies. A consistently reliable supporting talent (“K-19“), Sarsgaard shines here unlike ever before.

“Shattered Glass” hits the screen from writer/director Billy Ray. This is Ray’s first time behind the camera, but one would never know that from the finished product. This is as clean as filmmaking can get. Ray chooses economy over style and presents Glass’s world as the paranoid, ego-boosting environment it is. Ray’s previous screenwriting foibles included the Bruce Willis dud, “The Color Of Night,” and one of the worst films of 1997, “Volcano.” It’s a small miracle that “Glass” has turned out so good after looking at Ray’s filmography. The film takes place mostly in the cubicles and offices of wet-behind-the-ears journalists, but Ray breathes life into these surroundings. Where there could be just talking heads and office politics, Ray fashions The New Republic workplace as a battlefield of writers using gossip, charm, and occasionally genuine talent to rise to the top. The newsroom hasn’t looked this exhilarating since “All the President’s Men.”

“Shattered Glass” is a film that could have been as dry and boring as say…reading The New Republic, but Ray makes conscious choices to keep the drama securely wound and permits the true story and commanding performances to compensate for lack of scope or budget. As riveting as any action blockbuster, “Shattered Glass” is further proof that there is occasionally better drama behind the headlines.

Rating: A-
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Master and Commander: The Far Side of The World

The year is 1805. Napoleon has captured most of Europe, and Britain directly in his cross hairs. The H.M.S. Surprise is an English naval warship sailing the Atlantic Ocean looking for French ships to intercept. Lead by Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), the crew maintains a well-oiled working atmosphere due to Aubrey’s diligent leadership, and his crucial friendship with the ship’s medical officer, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). Sailing the desolate Brazilian seas, the Surprise comes across an errant French warship and immediately begins a chase that will take Aubrey to unseen corners of the Pacific Ocean as well as to the brink of his own leadership abilities.

“Master” is an impeccably designed motion picture that sets lofty goals for itself, and accomplishes 90% of them. It’s an often rousing adventure movie, turning the high seas into an elaborate game of cards, in which each participant is forced to exercise their brains to a greater extent than their brawn if they are to come out victorious. Weir, having already touched this type of historical production before with his 1981 film, “Gallipoli,“ takes great pleasure in the world of cannonballs, cryptic naval dialog, grimy sea dogs, and the discreet associations that kept the Surprise afloat. Weir is an accomplished and respected director (“The Truman Show,” “The Mosquito Coast,” and “Fearless“ to name only a few), and by taking his time with the massive material, he produces a picture that does a noble job at providing thrills and detailing a little historical context for the interpersonal relationships that make up this lengthy story.

The film is based on a handful of installments in Patrick O’Brian’s 20 volume series of novels on the exploits of Aubrey and Maturin. 20 volumes, now that’s a lot of dramatic and character development to cover, but Weir and screenwriter John Collee do a very significant job trying to get into the heads of Aubrey and the crew. In attempting to find the decision making process aboard the Surprise, Weir does have some trouble making the story flow seamlessly. “Master” stops and starts frequently, developing an episodic delivery to each of the film’s major sequences. It gets a little frustrating at times, when the cast is so game to perform, and Weir has limitless technology, that the natural flow of events could become disrupted so easily.

And while Weir’s trademark intense character study is rewarding when it comes time to actually care about these characters, it’s hard to deny that the main story arc of the picture, the cat and mouse game with the French ship, is really the most invigorating element of the film. Weir stages the chase with considerable filmmaking aplomb, creating mystery with the Atlantic Ocean fog and refusal to show the point of view of the French army, along with the naturally glacial speed of the chase. These aren’t the latest in speedboats mind you, but massive war ships dependant on wind and manpower. They don’t turn on a dime. Weir investigates the realities behind these battles, and how they weren’t always fought to the death, but more until the resources dried out. The battle sequences are selections of tremendous filmmaking, and should test the limits of the local multiplex’s sound system.

If there’s any actor who could fill the sizable boots of Aubrey, it is Russell Crowe. An actor with a wellspring of authority and composure to draw upon, Crowe is pitch-perfect in the crucial role of the captain. The audience needs to feel the compulsion of the crew to follow a man on what many would consider a fool’s quest. Crowe can achieve that very element in his acting without uttering a word. The real surprise of the production is Paul Bettany, a sweaty, aloof supporting actor from such films as “Dogville” and “A Knight‘s Tale.” Bettany isn’t a terribly strong actor, but his work here as Maturin is an agreeable mixture of medical disapproval and military understanding. Bettany is a nice counterpart to Crowe’s authoritative stance, and they both make good on the picture’s central idea, that the friendship forged between these two men is what really drove the heart of the H.M.S. Surprise.

Rating: B+
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Looney Tunes: Back in Action

It’s a rough time for Warner Brothers animation. Forced to make a choice and fire one of their leading cartoon stars, Daffy Duck, the brothers Warner send studio lackey Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman, winningly playful) to break the news to the paranoid duck. Removed from his Hollywood lifestyle, Daffy hits the streets. He finds comfort in the friendship of studio security guard and wannabe stuntman D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser, the only one in the cast who understands exactly what kind of film he’s in). D.J.’s father (Timothy Dalton) is soon revealed to be a super-spy, trying to protect a secret diamond that the maniacal head of the Acme corporation (Steve Martin, oddly but deeply unfunny) wants for his own nefarious plans. When D.J. goes to Las Vegas to retrieve the diamond, he reluctantly takes Daffy along for the adventure. Back in Hollywood, the studio has had a change of heart and wants Daffy back, forcing Kate and Bugs Bunny to head off after D.J. to the city of sin and convince the duck to return.

The “Looney Tunes” collection of animated characters were somewhat tarnished by the hip, 1996 cash-in “Space Jam,” which teamed Bugs and Daffy with Michael Jordan, with hopes to save the world on a basketball court. The film was not without its charms – God bless Bill Murray for his cameo – but it wasn’t the “Looney Tunes” that dominated the cartoon short market in the 1940s and 50s with irreverent humor and pointed satire. Who else would be more skilled at returning the “Tunes” to all their uncontrolled glory than director Danter The filmmaker behind such neo-classics like “Gremlins” and “Innerspace” has the imagination needed to weave a world where Duck Dodgers and Foghorn Leghorn can co-exist peacefully in. Besides, Dante has already mounted a massive ’Tunes” homage with his lovably outlandish 1990 “Gremlins” sequel, “The New Batch.” “Back In Action” just offers Dante an authorized attempt to make use of these classic cartoons.

And use the characters he most certainly does. Daffy Duck has returned to the annoying complainer he once was, endlessly bitching about his screen time and billing. Bugs Bunny sips carrot martinis again and wonders if “he shoulda takin’ that left turn at Albuquerquer” And Porky Pig openly worries about his stutter. Dante makes time for each of the “Tunes” mainstays to get their moment in the sun, even awkwardly shifting the action to Paris, so Pepe Le Pew can get in on the fun.

But is there that the film finds its best sequence, in which Elmer Fudd chases Bugs and Daffy through the Louvre’s classic paintings, taking on each artwork’s appearance as they jump from wall to wall. It’s the best merger of modern animation technology with traditional screwball comedy found in the film. I can’t say “Back In Action” is a laugh riot – it isn’t as hilarious as it thinks itself – but its ambitious pursuit of oddball subjects to make fun of, along with Dante’s decision to feature cameo appearances by a host of the “Tunes” archive characters, is enough to save the film. But make no mistake, this is strictly a Joe Dante movie.

Dante has always loved to pay tributes to classic films as well as himself, so he’s filled out the picture with cameos by Kevin McCarthy (holding an “Body Snatchers” pod), Mary Woronov, Dante regulars Robert Picardo and Dick Miller, and legend Roger Corman (and you know this film is fiction, because it shows Corman directing the new “Batman” picture). Dante also steers the action to the secret government outpost “Area 52” (apparently “Area 51” is an elaborate sham), which is stacked with classic rubber sci-fi monsters from the 1950s, and guarded by Robby The Robot. There is a fantastic madcap vibe to the opening sequence set in the Warner Brothers backlot, revealing a bustling community of the past, when productions crisscrossed regularly. Dante even has the seeds to recreate a comedy version of the “Psycho” shower scene with Bugs in the Janet Leigh role. Trying explaining that one to a group of 8-year-olds.

“Back In Action” is pretty brave in the jokes that it tells, not fearing to fly wildly over the heads of children everywhere. Hell, even today’s parents aren’t going to pick up on half of the tributes paid in this distinctly Dantesque picture. To combat the exclusivity of the gags, Dante has made sure the physical comedy is well represented. There are enough pratfalls and face smashes in “Back In Action” for three movies, but it keeps in line with the special brand of slapstick that the “Tunes” pioneered eons ago. It’s still fun to see Daffy get his beak blown off, or to see Yosemite Sam fall into a pit of dynamite, with only a single match to illuminate his surroundings before quickly being blown to kingdom come. Dante treats the traditional “Looney Tunes” formula with unreserved reverence, and deserves credit, along with screenwriter Larry Doyle, for attempting to return this franchise to its roots of pure slapstick and mile-a-minute joke telling. This is far from “Space Jam 2,” and thank God for it.

Rating: B
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