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Films I Forgot To Review: Volume II
by Peter Sobczynski

Because I have fallen a bit behind in regards to the glut of holiday movies and because not every title in release requires a 2000-word dissertation, here are some brief--okay, brief by my standards--comments on a number of films currently in release.

It will probably not come as a shock to most observers to learn that “Awake” is a fairly crappy would-be thriller–most films don’t spend a couple of years sitting on a shelf only to be quickly tossed out into the marketplace on what is traditionally one of the weakest moviegoing weekends of the year without any advance screenings unless they are somewhat deficient in regards to that whole quality thing. What does come as a shock is that while it isn’t very good by any means, the central premise–a poor dope (Hayden Christensen) with millions in the bank, a bum ticker in his chest and a sexy new wife (Jessica Alba) by his side suffers an anesthesia-related malfunction that leaves him fully awake and aware during his heart transplant surgery but unable to move or communicate his condition–is the kind of immediately gripping gimmick that might have made for a classic “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” episode back in the day (actually, the show did use that premise for an episode in which Joseph Cotten was paralyzed and assumed dead after an auto accident) and as long as the film sticks to it, it kind of works on its own squirmy terms. Alas, writer-director Joby Harrold apparently assumed that this wouldn’t be enough to interest viewers and so he throws in all sorts of complications and detours–Christensen’s memories of his late father, his weirdly Oedipal relationship with his mother (Lena Olin), a merger with a shady Japanese company, out-of-body experiences and one of the most ill-advised conspiracies ever undertaken on the big screen–that somehow manage to come across as both ridiculously elaborate and curiously underdeveloped. It is too bad because while much of “Awake” simply doesn’t work, there are just enough things on display that do (including one neat twist towards the end–not the one shamelessly given away on the posters) to make you wish that someone had taken the time to elaborate on them and leave all the other nonsense on the cutting-room floor.

Although “Enchanted” has pretty much been dominating the box-office charts for the last couple of weeks, this says more about the relatively poor quality of the recent crop of family-oriented films (such as “Fred Claus,” “Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” and the upcoming “The Water Horse”) and the mysteriously untapped market for films aimed at the pre-teen girl market (what else have they had this year that they could call their own besides the abysmal and insulting “Bratz”?) than it does about its intrinsic qualities. The storyline sounds kind of clever at first–Giselle (Amy Adams)an adorable princess from a typical Disney animated fantasy world, is banished to the flesh-and-blood world of Manhattan and charms everyone that she encounters, especially an adorably cynical divorce attorney (Patrick Dempsey) and his adorably adorable daughter, with her sweetly naive ways–but as it goes on, it quickly becomes obvious that instead of finding a fresh angle of approach, the filmmakers have simply given us yet another fish-out-of-water fantasy a la “Splash” that has been laced with the kind of self-consciously “ironic” jokes about fairy-tale conventions that we’ve seen before in the increasingly tiresome “Shrek” series and the criminally underseen delight “Ella Enchanted.” To make matters worse, the film unnecessarily drags the proceedings out with a particularly pointless final act that adds nothing more to the proceedings than 20-odd minutes of running time and countless millions to the budget in an effort to presumably attract boys with little working interest in princessey things. The one element that does work fabulously well in “Enchanted” is the delightful presence of Amy Adams as Giselle–she throws herself into the part with such gusto and sincerity that she pretty much single-handedly keeps the entire enterprise going long after the rest of it runs out of steam with a performance that is completely fresh and utterly unforced. Too bad I can’t say the same for the rest of the film.

Whatever the sins of “Enchanted” might be, at least I could figure out what was going on at any given time, which is more than I can say about the lugubrious would-be spectacle that is “The Golden Compass,” the latest attempt by Hollywood to kick-start a new money-spinning fantasy franchise to compete with the likes of “The Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter” and “The Chronicles of Narnia.” The source this time is the first novel of Philip Pullman’s controversial “His Dark Materials” trilogy, a series of fantasy novels that have engendered no small amount of criticism for serving as a critique of organized religion in general and Catholicism in particular. That aspect has been all but eliminated from the screen version (although there are still a couple of hints that poke through here and there if you are looking for them) and it is too bad that writer-director Chris Weitz has done so because while such elements might have offended certain audiences, they might have brought some focus to the story. Instead, we have been given a virtually incomprehensible stew of elements cribbed from other fantasy epics that, as far as I can tell, illustrates a battle for the souls of innocent children waged between the forces of evil, represented by what looks like a shotgun marriage of the Catholic church and Big Brother that is led by a seemingly flash-frozen Nicole Kidman, and the forces of good, which consists of a spunky little girl (Dakota Blue Richards) who possesses a magical compass that reveals the truth about everything (a fact that the film cordially reminds us of every six seconds or so), a more-grizzled-than-usual Sam Elliott and an alcoholic talking polar bear (voiced by Ian McKellan).

The combination of murky plotting, inexplicable jargon-heavy dialogue and actors (including brief appearances for Daniel Craig and Eva Green, who look as if they wandered in during a lunch break on “Casino Royale” and then just as quickly wandered off once they got a load of what was going on) standing around in uncomfortable-looking outfits may remind some people of David Lynch’s “Dune” but alas, Weitz, who in the past has done some fine work as a filmmaker with such charmers as “About A Boy” and “In Good Company,”simply lacks the filmmaking skills needed to bring an elaborate tale of this sort to life–thanks to the enormous amount of special effects on display (each character as a CGI animal that sticks with them at all times as some kind of spirit guide), the film is said to cost upwards of $200 million but thanks to the lack of any visual verve on Weitz’s part, the whole thing looks like a cheap and uninspired knock-off than an example of the real thing. That, and not its alleged anti-Catholic bias, is the real sin of “The Golden Compass” and it is one that isn’t likely to be forgiven anytime soon by anyone who sits through it..

There have many films in the last year or so that have dealt, either explicitly or implicitly, with the war in Iraq–some of them have been great (such as Brian De Palma’s wildly misunderstood “Redacted” and the eye-opening documentary “No End In Sight”) and some have been not-so-great (such as Paul Haggis’ “Crash”-ingly obvious “In The Valley of Elah”). However, I don’t recall one that infuriated me as much as “Grace is Gone,” a smugly insufferable soap opera that uses the conflict as an excuse to offer up 90 minutes of muddled mawkishness. John Cusack stars as a patriotic man who, due to poor eyesight, has been left behind to take care of his two adorable daughters–12-year-old Heidi (Shelan O’Keefe) and 8-year-old Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk) while his wife, the Grace of the title, goes off to fight. When he receives word that she has been killed in combat, he can’t bring himself to break the news to his girls and instead packs them up for an impromptu cross-country road trip to an amusement park to give them one last happy memory before finally admitting what happened. In other words, the movie consists of sitting around for an hour or so watching John Cusack staring forlornly at his blissfully unaware children before dropping the bomb on them and as unappealing as that sounds in theory, it is even worse in practice thanks to the heavy-handed efforts of writer-director James C. Strouse.

The story is unbelievable, the characters are annoying (Cusack is stuck playing a low-wattage monster of self-absorption while the kids are the standards Central Casting types with bright smiles and zero personality) and for a film that goes out of its way to bring up the war as part of the story, it seems curiously uninterested in actually dealing with it in any significant way–we never get a sense if Cusack’s attitude towards the war has changed because of his loss or if he is somehow comforted by the belief that his wife died for a just cause. (Frankly, Grace could have been hit by a truck while at a conference in Toronto and the film could have played out more or less the same.) However, the most annoying aspect of the film is the scene that the entire film has been building up to–the moment in which Cusack finally comes clean to his daughters about what happened to their mother–turns out to be a manipulative rip-off in which Clint Eastwood’s bathetic score is cranked up so that we can’t actually hear any of what is being said by the characters. This is a cowardly cop-out of a moment that is more interested in jerking a few unearned tears than in paying off the story and it serves as an all-too-fitting capper for one of the most unforgivable films of the year.

Based on the international best-seller from Afghani author Khaled Hosseini, “The Kite Runner” tells a story of guilt and redemption spanning two decades and two continents. Opening in Afghanistan in 1978, it tells the story of two young boys, Amir (Zekeria Ebrahami) and Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada), whose friendship is torn asunder when Hassan is attacked and brutally raped by an older bully and Amir is so ashamed about his inability to help his friend that he tells a lie that causes Hassan and his family to leave town for good. 22 years later, having relocated to America with his father and begun a new life for himself, the now-adult Amir (Khalid Abdalla) is still wrought with guilt over what he has done and when he gets a call from an old family friend regarding Hassan, he is compelled to go back to his home country, now occupied by the Taliban, in an effort to finally put things right.

I have been mulling over “The Kite Runner” ever since I first saw it last September and I remain more or less at a loss as to how to review it. On the one hand, it is a well-made, well-acted and well-meaning tale of guilt and redemption that tells its story in a simple and direct manner that only rarely lapses into the kind of melodramatic excesses that are often found in movies of this type. (These lapses occur here mostly through the somewhat unbelievable final reels.) On the other hand, while there is nothing really wrong with the film, there is nothing really right about it either–it simply doesn’t have the overwhelming emotional impact that a story like this needs if it is to have any hope of connecting with audiences. On an intellectual level, I can appreciate what it is going for and I suppose that I could even crank out a review praising it along those lines but to do so, I would have to ignore the not-insignificant fact that as the lights went up in the screening room, I wasn’t even feeling whelmed, let alone overwhelmed, by what I had just witnessed.

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originally posted: 12/15/07 04:51:24
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