Mini Reviews (February 2007)
The Italian, Comeback Season, The Lives of Others, Hannibal Rising, Music and Lyrics, Zoom, State's Evidence
The Italian (February 1/07)
Set entirely in Russia, The Italian follows a parentless little boy named Vanya (Kolya Spiridonov) as he embarks on a perilous journey to track down his birth mother. The film's opening hour, however, details Vanya's Dickensian existence within a shoddy orphanage - where he must contend with several quirky figures, including a sinister adoption broker (Maria Kuznetsova), a surprisingly helpful fellow resident (Polina Vorobieva), and a corrupt headmaster (Yuri Itskov). Though there's a palpable sense of gritty authenticity contained within The Italian's early scenes, the relentlessly downbeat atmosphere - coupled with the inclusion of more characters than one can easily keep track of - makes it awfully hard to actually care about Vanya's plight. That being said, the film does pick up once the boy leaves the institution - to the extent that The Italian ultimately becomes quite a compelling and genuinely moving piece of work. It doesn't hurt that Spiridonov reveals himself to be a surprisingly charismatic and natural performer, and there's consequently little doubt that Vanya slowly-but-surely morphs into a figure worth rooting for.
Comeback Season (February 4/07)
Though it possesses all the complexity of a typical movie-of-the-week, Comeback Season remains an affable piece of work that's generally elevated by the above average performances. Filmmaker Bruce McCulloch has infused the proceedings with a distinctly conventional sensibility, ensuring that most viewers will have little difficulty in predicting exactly what's to occur over the movie's admittedly brisk running time. The storyline - which finds two disparate characters (Ray Liotta's Walter and Shaun Sipos' Skylar) forced to bunk together after they each hit rock bottom - has been peppered with a whole host of wacky subplots and asides, though most such moments tend to fall flat (something that's particularly true of a recurring bit involving an off-the-wall bank manager). The increasingly syrupy and far-from-subtle vibe is tempered by Liotta and Sipos' better-than-expected work, with Sipos turning in a surprisingly effective performance (which, given that most of his screentime is spent opposite Liotta, is certainly no small feat).
The Lives of Others (February 7/07)
Sporadically interesting but primarily dull, The Lives of Others revolves around several characters as they attempt to navigate the treacherous and thoroughly paranoid waters of the former East Berlin - with the emphasis placed on a loyal Stasi agent (Ulrich Muhe) and the hapless playwright (Sebastian Koch) he's assigned to watch. While there's certainly no denying the effectiveness of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's stylish yet understated direction - it's hard to believe this is only his first movie - The Lives of Others is ultimately undone by the glacial pace with which the filmmaker has infused the proceedings. The inclusion of a few genuinely suspenseful sequences notwithstanding, there's just nothing here to capture (and sustain) the viewer's interest; von Donnersmarck spends an egregious amount of time on expository matters, with the end result a film that often feels as though it's all build-up and no pay-off. And although things start to pick up in the confrontational third act, the film's positive attributes - including a pair of superb performances from Muhe and Koch - are consistently undermined by the unreasonably overlong running time and leaden atmosphere.
Hannibal Rising (February 8/07)
A prequel to Thomas Harris' previous Hannibal Lecter adventures, Hannibal Rising charts the infamous sociopath's traumatic childhood and murderous beginnings - with the bulk of the film devoted to young Lecter's efforts to get even with the men who killed his beloved sister. The film, much like Harris' novel, suffers from a bloated midsection in which nothing of overt interest occurs, with the emphasis placed almost entirely on Lecter's tumultuous progression from adolescence to adulthood. It certainly doesn't help that Gaspard Ulliel - as Lecter - proves to be a distinctly unconvincing replacement for forebearers Anthony Hopkins and Brian Cox, as the actor offers up a series of smirks and Kubrickian stares in lieu of an actual performance. That being said, the film improves substantially once Hannibal embarks on his mission of revenge - with the whole thing morphing into a brutal actioner along the lines of Death Wish and Man on Fire (a vibe that's undoubtedly enhanced by Rhys Ifans' superb turn as the smug and flat-out evil central villain). Hannibal Rising is, ultimately, a slightly more effective piece of work than Harris' overwrought novel - if only because it doesn't take quite as long to get through.
Music and Lyrics (February 11/07)
Music and Lyrics casts Hugh Grant as Alex Fletcher, an '80s pop star who receives a second chance at fame after a Britney Spears-esque superstar (played by Haley Bennett) asks him to write a song for her. Problems ensue after Alex's initial attempts at penning the ditty fall flat, though things start to look up once Alex encounters an offbeat young woman (Drew Barrymore's Sophie) with a natural gift for songwriting. Written and directed by Marc Lawrence, Music and Lyrics isn't even remotely as much fun as its premise might have indicated - something that's due almost entirely to the inert and oddly slow-paced vibe that's been hard-wired into it by Lawrence. Lawrence's penchant for taking mildly interesting characters and shoe-horning them into thoroughly uninteresting situations has never been more evident, and although Grant and Barrymore share a palpable sense of chemistry with one another, there's simply nothing propelling the story forward. The end result is a film that's intermittently amusing but mostly dull, and one can't help but marvel at the lack of both comedic and romantic elements within Lawrence's screenplay (ie an effective romcom this is not).
Zoom: Academy for Superheroes
Much maligned but basically entertaining, Zoom: Academy for Superheroes casts Tim Allen as Jack Shepard - a washed-up former superhero who finds his services needed after his evil brother emerges from a 30-year sabbatical. Assisted by a clumsy scientist (Courteney Cox), Jack reluctantly sets out to train four youngsters (including Spencer Breslin's Tucker Williams and Kate Mara's Summer Jones) with preternatural abilities in the proper use of their powers. While there's certainly no denying that Zoom: Academy for Superheroes has been infused with more than a few unreasonably puerile jokes and gags, the film does benefit substantially from Allen's funny, expectedly charismatic performance - which, along with with quirky supporting turns from folks like Rip Torn, Chevy Chase, and Thomas F. Wilson, generally ensures that the whole thing remains surprisingly watchable throughout. That being said, one can't help but lament Jack's egregiously predictable character arc and the inclusion of a few eye-rollingly sentimental moments (all of which are accompanied by laughably corny pop songs). And while it's easy enough to see why it received torrents of negative reviews upon its initial release, Zoom: Academy for Superheroes - viewed on the small screen - essentially comes off as a light-hearted and mindlessly engaging time-waster.
State's Evidence (February 18/07)
Although it boasts a surprisingly effective opening half hour, State's Evidence quickly degenerates into an exploitative mess that has little to offer in terms of authenticity or plausibility. Douglas Smith stars as Scott, an average high schooler who - having made the decision to kill himself - starts documenting his every move with a video camera and subsequently (and inadvertantly) winds up convincing his closest friends to also commit suicide. It's at that point that the movie starts to go off the rails, as the viewer is asked to accept that four reasonably normal teens would - with barely a hint of prodding - spontaneously decide to end their respective lives. Screenwriter Mark Brown has similarly infused the proceedings with a whole host of implausible elements, including - but not limited to - an absurd subplot in which Kris Lemche's Patrick attempts to stand up to a laughably over-the-top bully. Brown's efforts at rationalizing the antisocial behavoir of his characters ultimately comes off as superficial and trite, although that's certainly preferable to the ridiculously preachy vibe that dominates the film's third act. The performances are a mixed bag, with only a few of the actors able to convincingly step into the shoes of these uniformly screwed up teens (only Lemche is able to make any kind of positive impact). In the end, there's little doubt that State's Evidence would've worked a whole lot better as a short - though it's just as clear that director Benjamin Louis does hold a certain amount of promise (he just needs better material to work with, unquestionably).