Sunday, February 19, 2006

Moore Melodramatic: Run Away from “Freedomland”

I was so ahead of “Freedomland” that I was already planning the rest of my day. Equal parts racial tension drama and Lifetime soap, Freedomland only begins to skim of the surface of what could have been a powerful film about race relations. Oh wait, but didn’t Crash just come out last year? And isn’t that film up for several Academy Awards? That’s because Crash is well written, well plotted and doesn’t manipulate its audience. If you want a gritty race drama rent something by Spike Lee. If you want dopey soapy movie-of-the-week melodrama turn on Lifetime. What you don’t want to do is sit through Freedomland.

Julianne Moore is a good actress. When given meaty roles she can bury inside a character’s psyche. However, give her weak dialogue and an over-the-top woman in despair role and she’ll be, um, over-the-top. She is a woman whose car was hijacked. She’s traumatized by the situation. She enters the hospital dazed and confused. Flash forward several hours later, and oh by the way, she just remembers her son was in the back seat of the car. The clock is set. The longer the police wait the shorter the time they have to find the kid. What does this have to do with racial tension? Well the man who stole her car just happens to be a Black man. And wouldn’t you know there’s a housing project right where her son was taken.

Of course the police quarantine these people as if they all had SARS perhaps hoping that if the carjacker is part of the community he’d be locked in too. What?? Is this making any sense?? Enter Edie Falco who is a mother of a lost son. Her and her fellow tragedy stricken mothers have formed a group that helps the police track down missing children. The search is on. Samuel L. Jackson is the cop who doesn’t dress like one, who is helping with Julianne Moore’s case. He’s got asthma or something because as she rants and raves (all that’s missing is a shaking bed and pea soup and we’d have Lind Blair from The Exorcist) about her stolen child he’s busy sucking out the last bits of his inhaler.

There are scenes of policemen yelling at the Black people in the living community and how they’re mad cause they’re being treated like dogs just because a white woman’s child just so happened to be taken by a black man. Yada yada yada. And of course a huge riot breaks out that looks like lost footage from Troy. The reason the whole racial tension plot is thrown in is to make the carjacking all the more dramatic. Whenever the director (Joe Roth of Revenge of the Nerds 2) wants the audience to feel dramatically manipulated he cuts to people arguing about race and such.
The film is basically pointless in that it seems to throw moral issues at the audience but it really doesn’t. The film doesn’t say anything about race relations. You’d probably be able to learn a better moral lesson from an episode of Full House. Skip this overdramatic dreck and rent the wonderful Oscar-nominated Crash on DVD. Steer clear of Freedomland. Frankly, I’d rather be carjacked. GRADE: D+

Saturday, February 18, 2006

“Date Movie:” If You Cringe at Romantic Comedies, You’ll Cringe Here As Well

The only thing that lingers in your mind after seeing “Date Movie” is that annoying “Don’t Cha” song that is played about a gazillion times during the film. Other than that the film is quick, lame, and occasionally funny. If you’re expecting dumb this is your ticket. The problem that lies beneath the surface of Date Movie isn’t the purposely underdeveloped, clichéd characters or its “guess what movie this is from” script, is that it doesn’t pack in enough humor into its 80-minute running time. Watch about 15 minutes of any of the Scary Movie trilogy (and # 4 is on the way!!) if you want to laugh. Heck, rent Showgirls if you want to laugh. Date Movie isn’t supposed to be smart and sophisticated. If you don’t have high expectations you might find yourself having a mildly amusing time. Ok, ok maybe not.

Every recent romantic comedy is lampooned in Date Movie, which follows the likes of Not Another Teen Movie and Scary Movie. I certainly can’t wait for Action Movie, Flying & Magic Movie, or even Not Another Spoof Movie. (That’s a million dollar idea Mr. and Mr. Weinstein) Films like Meet the Parents and its sequel Meet the Fockers, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Hitch and let’s not forget that sap-fest When Harry Met Sally… certainly get what’s coming to them. Unfortunately most of the jokes involve disgusting things being thrown in front of the camera instead of true comedy. And if this film proves anything, it’s that fat people are ugly, disgusting and really, really funny. And you guessed it, this is the type of movie where the jokes don’t really go anywhere.

Most of the actors seem rather embarrassed to be here and others are having a gay old time. Fred Willard and Jennifer “Stifler’s Mom” Coolidge are rather amusing in a take on Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Streisand’s characters from Meet the Fockers. Coolidge is funny all the time. Give her a ball of yarn and she’ll knit you one heck of a comedic scene. But of course like most of the film these characters are only funny because they’re trying to be the characters from the referenced film. Perhaps most of the jokes seemed funny written on the page but they didn’t translate very well. Of course I have to give writers Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer credit if only because they had the guts to write this movie and actually film it. I’d love to make a spoof movie, but there’s no way I’d actually want to show it to anyone.

Most of the jokes that do work aren’t very memorable but are worth a few stupid chuckles. I found myself laughing at the obviously mechanical kitty cat Jinxers as he lets out oodles of bodily noises on the toilet. Toilet humor is timeless and transcends all cultures. The fact that the cat was obviously fake is what sold it to me. After all wasn’t it just so silly that Robert DeNiro’s character actually taught his cat to use the potty in Meet the Parents? Boy that cat had it coming. And of course our romantic leads Alyson Hannigan (the flute girl from American Pie) and newcomer Adam Campbell beating up a homeless man to the tune of “If You Believe in Magic” was simply rib-tickling. A take on Mr. & Mrs. Smith was amusing as well.

If you watch a lot of movies you’ll mostly have fun guessing which film is being parodied. But like most recent spoof-a-thons the jokes won’t hold up very well over time. For instance, in the 25 years since the incredible parody Airplane! first took flight, the jokes are still funny and fresh. In 25 years I hardly believe any one will ever know Date Movie ever existed. GRADE: C

Friday, February 03, 2006

The Babysitter’s Clubbed: “When a Stranger Calls” is Light, Suspenseful Stuff

It’s amazing what a bunch of screaming 12 year olds can add to a suspense movie. As the lights dimmed and the Hilary Duff fans’ mouths didn’t shut up, I began to worry. Could the movie be ruined? Before I knew it as the chatting turned to screams which echoed throughout the theater I realized everyone was screaming for a reason: the movie is scary! We were all in the same boat. Just me and a bunch of WB fans. Who knew? When a Stranger Calls, a remake (surprise!) of the 1979 thriller of the same name, is a taut, suspenseful shocker that makes you feel uncomfortable and delights in scaring the audience right out of its pants. At about an hour in, a small group of kids ran screaming for the door.

So everyone knows the story. Like, my sister’s friend’s cousin was babysitting and she kept getting these strange phone calls from this creepy guy. And when the police went to trace the call, they found the calls were coming from inside the house. The guy had been in the house the whole time and murdered the young children without the babysitter knowing. That’s one hundred percent true. The only thing this movie is missing is the obligatory “based on actual events” insert. Okay so the story isn’t really true, but it could happen right? Well actually, part of what makes “Stranger” scary is the fact that the film is based in realism. Sort of. Come on I know this is Hollywood popcorn stuff, but work with me here. Everyone’s afraid of being home alone, especially in a strange house at night in the middle of nowhere. It’s that fear that plagues many of us. The film uses that to its advantage. And who hasn’t been a babysitter at some point? Of course the moral of the story is not take the babysitting job in the first place. But I digress.

Young Jill (Camilla Belle) is a typical teenage girl with a typical teenage life. (And she actually looks like a teenager!) Her boyfriend was caught smooching with her bestest friend and she’s devastated. She racked up a huge bill on her cell phone so her dad has cut her off. She’s grounded and has to resort to filling her weekend evenings doing more constructive things than going out and partying. Her father drives her to East Bumble Whatever to baby-sit two sleeping children in a huge high tech house with even bigger windows. There seems to be a remote control for everything, even the fireplace. So of course it’s impossible to turn on the TV. The house even comes equipped with its own tropical ecosystem with chirping birds and a pond full of fish. This is tended by Rosa the house’s maid, who we most likely won’t hear from for the rest of the movie. It’s dark its windy the house is creepy. Something evil is about to go down.

Jill is plagued by phone calls that result in more static than actual talking which seems a whole lot scarier than any dialogue a writer could come up with. The fresh young actress handles her situation as well as she can. She doesn’t stay ahead of us. After all we want her to be vulnerable. And she doesn’t do anything terribly stupid. Most of the time. The film has Jill’s friend stop by the house, which just seems kind of silly. Like they need in the film her just to kill her off. Because of course we know the more people that die in a movie the scarier it is. Not true. Director Simon West (Con Air) uses his frame to his advantage. He fills up the screen in most shots of the large windows. We are just waiting in bloody nervousness for something to come into frame. And of course you’ll need an extra hand to count the clichés but what difference does that make? This isn’t Lawrence of Arabia.

I must commend West for creating an unsettling atmosphere unlike those of The Fog or The Grudge. He also makes the villain credible, creepy and most important unseen for most of the movie. And after all he’s a real person. You won’t find Freddy or Chucky here. The film doesn’t rely on scary images of eerie children, scary puddles and the house is thankfully not haunted. It’s the realistic situation that’s frightening. Nor will you find piles of gore in this PG-13 film. Remember I mentioned the Hilary Duff fans? How else would they have gotten in? They screamed a lot and if their screams are any indication the film’s success, Sony Pictures will be screaming all the way to the bank. GRADE: B+