[Movie Review] The Watch

Starring: Clea DuVall, Elizabeth Whitmere, James A. Woods, Victoria Sanchez, Morgan Kelly
Director: Jim Donovan
Genre: Thriller
Cert: 12
Released: 2008

Cassie (Clea DuVall) is struggling to finish her psychology thesis on post-traumatic stress disorder in children and is relieved when Professor Bateman (Matthew Kabwe) grants a one month extension to his students. Finding it hard to focus on the thesis, Cassie decides to accept a four week assignment as a “firewatch” officer – a person stationed in the woods who alerts the ranger if they see a fire. She reckons the secluded nature of the job (she will live alone in a log cabin for a month) will not only give her time to work on her thesis but also help her attempts to overcome her own inner demons – a deep-seated fear of the dark that dates back to her own abduction when she was seven.

She is greeted by the slightly-aloof ranger Rhett (James A Woods) who helps her settle in to her post. But before long strange goings-on haunt Cassie. She sees shadows outside her cabin, furniture is moved around when she’s asleep and the only interaction she has are radio conversations with a fellow lookout called Polly. As the days pass, Cassie begins to have flashbacks. Could the creepy events be linked to her abduction nineteen years before?

For a low-budget TV movie “The Watch” does a lot of things right. The cinematography (by Manfred Guthe) is wonderful with a great use of autumnal colours and some beautiful pseudo-panoramic shots across the forest. Indeed, there is much to admire. The story is well-paced and doesn’t always choose the obvious plot device, leaving you expecting a horror cliché several times during the movie only for nothing to happen. This is, oddly, quite satisfying.

Director Jim Donovan is 37 years of age and has been directing since the mid 90s. Although mainly involved in TV series, “The Watch” could be a breakthrough movie for him. He does well with the material and teases some genuine tension in key scenes. It’s clear he enjoys working with James A Woods (they have previously worked together in “Naked Josh” and “Seriously Weird”) and the character’s ambiguity is played off well by both director and actor.

So, why the low mark? It was all going steamingly well … until the last 15 minutes. Donovan is let down by writer Ben Ripley (“Species III”, “Species 4: The Awakening”) who totally drops the ball, letting the story fizzle out disappointingly. We got from creepy psychological thriller to Scooby Doo in the blink of an eye. You’ll see a lot worse than this on TV but be prepared for the ending.



[Movie Review] The Wicker Man

The Wicker ManStarring: Nicolas Cage, Ellen Burstyn, Kate Beahan, Frances Conroy
Director: Neil LaBute
Genre: Thriller
Cert: 15
Released: 2006

Nic Cage is back! Again! In another movie!

This time he’s Edward Malus, a cop haunted by being unable to save a woman and young girl from a horrific car wreck. With his world caving in around him he is lured to a remote island in the Pacific Northwest by an ex-fiancée. She tells him that her daughter, Rowan, has been kidnapped and is being kept somewhere on the island.

After careful consideration Malus decides to hitch a ride to the island and encounters an eerie, closed society who pay no heed to mainland laws or conventional religion, where women seem to rule the roost and his ex-fiancée, Willow (Kate Beahan), seems afraid to reveal too much. Malus lays down the law to the likes of the domineering Sister Beech (the powerfully-built Diane Delano) and Sister Summerisle (Ellen Burstyn) and makes headway in his investigation, finding evidence that Rowan is on the island.

But there’s something in the air (Malus: “Something bad is about to happen”). What can it be?

My advice is don’t bother to find out. This is a remake of the well-received 1973 cult classic with Edward Woodward, a film I haven’t seen. I can only imagine it’s infinitely better than this. How could they get it so wrong?

Scenes and storylines seemingly exist for no reason other than to confuse you. Malus’ decision to visit this remote island and his behaviour there (wouldn’t you know it – he’s got no phone signal) makes no sense. It’s part-“Children of the Corn”, part-“In the Mouth of Madness”, part-“The Forgotten”, perhaps a bit of “Flightplan”. But it’s all rubbish.


[Movie Review] Next

NextStarring: Nicolas Cage, Julianne Moore, Jessica Biel, Peter Falk
Director: Lee Tamahori
Genre: Sci-Fi
Cert: 15
Released: 2007

Cris Johnson (Nicolas Cage, who it seems has appeared in every movie for the last five years) is a Vegas magician whose corny, low-key act doesn’t seem to raise many eyebrows around town. But FBI agent Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore) is a keen observer because she suspects there’s more to it than an “act”.

And she’s right. Johnson can see any event two minutes in to the future as long as that event impacts his own life. For Ferris it’s a matter of life and death as she’s got international terrorists with a nuclear warhead (obviously) and she wants Johnson to track down its exact location before it is detonated.

But Johnson doesn’t fancy it and he goes on the run with Liz (Jessica Biel), a local stranger who for a reason unknown to him enables him to see much further in to the future than he otherwise could. Johnson wants to know why but with the FBI and the terrorists trying to track him down, will he live long enough to discover?

“Next” is borderline diabolical and features a cast who know they are starring in a hell of a turkey. Nic Cage rolls out his jaded, slack-jawed character and even the few moving scenes he and Biel share are trite. Julianne Moore – one of my favourite Hollywood ladies – is only short of rolling her eyes as she wrestles with weary lines and a director in Lee Tamahori who is unable to breathe life in to what turns out to be a disappointgly linear story. Peter Falk appears for a couple of minutes and it’s great to see the old boy who is 81 this year.

The whole thing is almost a plot-hole in itself but in its defence the final ten minutes go some way to giving a tiny level of satisfaction.


[Movie Review] Momentum

MomentumStarring: Louis Gossett Jr, Teri Hatcher, Zach Galligan, Grayson McCouch
Director: James Seale
Genre: Thriller
Cert: 18
Released: 2003

Zachary Shefford (Grayson McCouch – honestly, that’s his name) doesn’t like to use his telekinetik powers but relents in order to foil a hold-up at his local convenience store. The store’s security camera, which shows him throwing the gunman across the store without touching him, is passed to government agent Raymond Addison (Lou Gossett Jnr).

Addison hires Shefford to infiltrate a gang of telekinetiks who are intent on murder and mayhem. Once Shefford gets in he discovers from group leader Adrian Grieger (Michael Massee) that Addison is actually quite underhand and is trying to eliminate the group to cover up a top-secret government project (Momentum) from the 70s.

Meanwhile two FBI agents, Jordan Ripps (the lovely Teri Hatcher) and Frank McIntyre (the entertaining Carmen Argenziano) are investigating a heist on a security van which leads them to Grieger and his group. From there it’s a case of, well, not much…

I like these mind-based movies – “Scanners”, “The First Power”, “Fear” – but usually they are better when they have a plot to speak of. “Momentum” is so poorly plotted and scripted that it’s hard to really accept any of the characters as credible. The lovely Alexondra Lee appears in about three scenes for what seems to be no reason at all. McCouch’s character flip-flops around the place, seemingly forever packing up his office at the university he teaches at. Gossett Jnr sleepwalks through the minor role he has looking utterly bored and even too lazy to remove his hat.

There’s no real action, a feeble narrative and a hint at a future sequel which we could really all do without.


[Movie Review] White Noise

White NoiseStarring: Michael Keaton, Deborah Kara Unger, Ian McNeice, Sarah Strange, Chandra West
Director: Geoffrey Sax
Genre: Thriller
Cert: 15
Released: 2004

Michael Keaton reappears from whatever cryogenic career-freeze he indulged in over the last few years to take the lead in yet another of those appealing spooky movies that everyone loves to watch. Think “Ghost”, “Stir of Echoes” and a touch of “The Ring” and you’ve got “White Noise” down pretty good.

After his writer wife Anna (West – “The Salton Sea”) dies in an accident one night, architect John Rivers (Keaton – “Batman”, “Beetlejuice”) spends the following months piecing his life back together again. After her death, a stranger called Raymond Price (McNiece – “From Hell”, “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”) tells him that Anna has contacted him from “the other side”. Although he dismisses Raymond at first, eerie calls from Anna’s switched-off mobile phone cause John to have a re-think.

He goes to see Raymond who tells him about EVP, an unexplained phenomena in which the dead seemingly contact the living through everyday technology like TVs and radio. He plays simple messages from Anna and intrigues John so much that he starts attempting to record his own EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena). Before long he’s hearing disturbing voices and receiving messages that he interprets as his opportunity to help people who are in trouble. He befriends one of Raymond’s other clients, Sarah (Unger – “The Salton Sea”, “The Game”), and while they investigate the phenomena they begin to realise that there is something more sinister at work.

Even Batman is finding it spooky.Michael Keaton is a somewhat niche actor who appeals to just about everyone – housewives (“Pacific Heights”), students (“Batman”), film buffs (“The Paper”) and families (“Beetlejuice”, “Jack Frost”). Likeable though he is, he doesn’t always add a layer to movies that come up short like, say, Rutger Hauer or Christopher Walken can. The whole cast of “White Noise” is clearly struggling to take anything dramatic out of the B-class script and Keaton just seems downright bored.

Director Geoffrey Sax has done little in the way of big screen action before and while he throws in the usual goose-pimple moments (effective panning, use of mirrors and shadows) he probably fails to elevate the script to where it needed to go. I was amused, like “The Ring”, at the use of “static” sounds and visual throughout the movie. As a kid, before the advent of 24 hour television, I always remember always being spooked out by static on TV. Even the radio static at 5am before programs started on some channels used to unsettle me a bit. Indeed maybe Sax is hoping that this focus will have the affect on me as a grown up. it doesn’t.

But more importantly, as the storyline itself unfolds, the eventual direction is something of a disappointment. There is the odd minor-league cliffhanger but the thrills are short-lived and not very memorable.

By no means a write-off of a movie but there are many better supernatural thrillers and therefore this one is somewhat redundant.


[Movie Review] The Salton Sea

00190_001Starring: Val Kilmer, Vincent D’Onofrio, Adam Goldberg, Luis Guzmán, Anthony LaPaglia, Peter Sarsgaard
Director: D.J. Caruso
Genre: Thriller
Cert: 18
Released: 2002

I’ve never heard of director, D.J. Caruso. I’m often weary of people who use initials as their name. You don’t catch me calling myself G.D.. Actually, it sounds pretty cool. From now on, or certainly for the duration of this review, you can call me G.D.

D.J. is no beginner but “The Salton Sea” could probably be his most ambitious and well known project. The panned “Taking Lives” in 2004 was his other big-screen effort but his TV movies “Black Cat Run” (Jake Busey, Patrick Muldoon) and “Mind Prey” (Luis Guzmán) were reasonably well received. The reason I build up all this is because Caruso has quite simply directed one of the stand-out movies of the last few years. You know me (good old G.D.), I’m moderately impressed by plenty but much impressed by little.

Val reflects on "The Island of Dr Moreau" and "The Real McCoy"The movie opens up with a trumpet-playing character (Kilmer – “The Ghost and the Darkness”, “The Doors”, “Batman Forever”) about to be engulfed by fire in a burning building, telling us that he’s a bit of a bad guy but urging us to listen to his story first before we judge him. He is Danny Thomas, a drifter who spends his days and nights doing speed with the likes of Kujo (Goldberg – “A Beautiful Mind”, “Saving Private Ryan”, Eddie in TVs “Friends”) and his best friend, Jimmy the Finn (Sarsgaard – “K-19”, “Boys Don’t Cry”, “Garden State”). To beat a felony rap, he snitches dealers out to police officers, Garcetti (LaPaglia – “Lantana”, “So I Married an Axe Murderer”) and Morgan (Hutchinson – “The Green Mile”, “I Am Sam”, “Batman & Robin”, “Con Air”). They treat him like crap and refuse to protect him when it turns out that a dealer he put away has put a contract out on him.

But behind the tattoos and the drug abuse, Danny seems a nice lad. He shows concern for his new neighbour, Collette (Deborah Kara Unger – “White Noise”, “The Hurricane”, “The Game”), who is being beaten by her abusive boyfriend (the ever brilliant Luis Guzmán – “Magnolia”, “Traffic”, “Boogie Nights”, “Punch-Drunk Love”). He also shows reluctant regret when he sees the distraught wife of a dealer he has shopped (Glenn Plummer – “Speed”, “The Day After Tomorrow”), even though she was abused by him. But Danny’s background is not one of crime and cruelty. He is reflective and mourns the loss of the love of his life, haunted by the thought that he could have done something to save her.

With Garcetti and Morgan no longer protecting him, Danny decides that he has to make some money and ‘go away’. He tries to set up a deal as a middle-man to buy from ruthless drug-baron Pooh-Bear (D’Onofrio – “Ed Wood”, “The Player”, “JFK”, “Full Metal Jacket”, “Malcolm X”) but his buyer (B.D. Wong – “Executive Decision”, “The Substitute 2”, “Jurassic Park”) is moving the goalposts and irritating Pooh-Bear. His life is seemingly falling apart but Danny is determined to get through it and try to find out who he is exactly. He warns you at the start – nothing is as it seems.

There are so many elements to “The Salton Sea” that elevate it right up there in to my all time top ten. I rented this originally because my top man, Anthony LaPaglia, was in it. And while he plays his police officer role with his usual, entertaining intensity (although it’s quite a shock to find that he doesn’t like dolphins), the quirky characters that pop up throughout are one of the main drivers.

The movie is set apart during moments like when dealer, Bobby, whacked out of his head on meths, starts aiming a Vincent actually put on 3 stone for this role. Nutter.spear gun at Danny and Jimmy asking them if they brought the ‘plastic men’ and then introducing himself as ‘the ocean’. Surreal characters like Pooh-Bear who has no nose, hasn’t slept in a year and recreates the Kennedy assassination using pigeons in a remote-control car or Asian cowboy, Bubba, who likes to call Danny ‘Hoss’, bring a unique slant to the film.

There are numerous laugh-out-loud moments like when Danny comes-to and wonders to himself if he has died. The first thing he spots is linoleum – “This must be hell”. When foul-mouthed Quincy (Guzmán), who is in the middle of aggressively banging down Collette’s door, asks him what he’s looking at, Danny casually replies “I was just admiring your boots. Did you purchase them locally?”.

And there are twists and turns along the way. Not all of them are completely logical or likely, but as plot devices they work perfectly and there is not that much suspension of belief required.

As I say the characters are terrific, backed by a sharp script (Tony Gayton – “Murder by Numbers”) and some spot-on direction from Caruso. Stylish close-ups, slow-motion and occasionally abstract scenes make this seem like it came straight out of Tarantino’s hot period in the early-mid nineties.

Thankfully no mistakes were made in casting, and while the cast is quite well known there are no names here for the sake of it. Kilmer is not someone I’ve ever warmed to on the screen but he’s outstanding as Danny whether he is being humorous or overwrought. D’Onofrio is just about the MVP, putting on about 50lbs for his role as mega-psycho dealer, Pooh-Bear. His appearance, the “nose” back story and his hilarious and ill-fitting accent make him one of cinema’s weirdest characters in a long time. Plummer is brilliant in his small role as Bobby, Guzmán is class as usual and Unger, who I only recalled from 1992s “Whispers in the Dark”, does a more than solid job.

“The Salton Sea” is a top-notch movie which inexplicably seemed to disappear off the radar, only having a limited release and picking up just one Prism award for best actor (Kilmer). G.D. don’t fawn over too many films but this is one that gets just about everything right.


[Movie Review] The Forgotten

The ForgottenStarring: Julianne Moore, Anthony Edwards, Linus Roache, Gary Sinise, Dominic West, Alfre Woodard
Director: Joseph Ruben
Genre: Thriller
Cert: 12
Released: 2004

Julianne Moore, one of my guilty Hollywood pleasures. Her name on a movie promo poster is normally all the encouragement I need to have a peek. She’s got talent and beauty. That’s pretty much my checklist taken care of. We’re gonna kick straight in to this review because this one is going to be difficult to review without giving too much away.

Telly (Moore – “Magnolia”, “The Hours”, “Assassins”) is mourning the loss of her son Sam in a plane crash 14 months earlier. When pictures of herself, Sam and her husband, Jim (Edwards – “Thunderbirds”, TVs “ER”), are overnight replaced with a picture of just herself and Jim, and photo books of Sam are emptied, she accuses him of trying to erase Sam from her life. Her psyhotherapist, Jack Munce (Sinise – “Ransom”, “Forrest Gump”, “The Green Mile”) thinks she is delusional. There was no son, no plane crash. They explain that she had a miscarriage and subsequently invented a fictitious life with a nine-year old child.

Failing to understand exactly what is happening, she goes to the apartment of a local man, Ash (West – “Chicago”, “Mona Lisa Smile”, “28 Days”) whom she claims also lost a child on the same flight. He tells her she has got him mixed up with someone else and calls the police. After they take her away, something clicks, and he starts to recall deep rooted memories that he never knew he had. When he gets outside to tell Telly that he remembers something, the National Security Agency have turned up to question her. What does the NSA want with Telly? When Jim reports her missing to Detective Anne Pope (Woodard – “K-Pax”, “The Core”, “Primal Fear”, “Radio”), she asks the same question. Ash and Telly are running out of time to find out the truth about their forgotten lives – and they’re being watched all the time.

“The Forgotten” is an enthralling attempt to bring a story to the screen that seems so non-sensical, it can’t possibly work. And while there are pitfalls and holes along the way there is plenty to enjoy throughout.

The central performances make things believable. As you know I’m a big fan of Moore but solid turns from Dominic West, Alfre Woodard and Linus Roache keep things moving along well. I think the biggest crimes are the rather bit-part roles of Anthony Edwards and Gary Sinise – good actors with little to do.

Joseph Ruben is one of my favourite directors on the basis of the brilliant “The Stepfather” (ignoring the irksome “Money Train” and “Sleeping with the Enemy”). I personally think he does a damn good job here. The early minutes of the storyline seem to make sense but they look somewhat muddled as the story progresses. Best thing to do is ignore the plot holes and indulge yourself in the mystery.

And it’s a good mystery. A character’s memory is different to everyone elses – so just who can be right, and what can it all mean regardless? The last twenty minutes might make the same mistake that “Vanilla Sky” did, slipping in to a pseudo-science fiction style ending. But thanks to the story, the solid direction and good performances, it keeps you hanging in there.