Four Dramas from Sony Pictures
Deep Winter (February 25/09)
With its emphasis on admittedly impressive downhill skiing sequences, Deep Winter has clearly been geared towards enthusiasts of winter sports - yet the film's absence of compelling characters or a plot worth following ensures that the majority of viewers will find exceedingly little worth embracing here. The storyline kicks off with ace skier Tyler Crowe (Eric Lively) receiving the boot from his coach (Robert Carradine's Dando) after crashing in spectacular fashion during a pivotal (and televised) competition, and eventually follows the character as he heads to Alaska to help out a buddy (Kellan Lutz's Mark Rider) with the filming of an extreme-sports video. It's not surprising to note that there are few twists within Deep Winter that one doesn't see coming from a mile away, as screenwriter John Protass places a consistent emphasis on cliches that are almost egregiously hoary (ie the scripter seems to have employed a template for movies of this ilk). And since the movie has been infused with a number of striking outdoor interludes, there's consequently little doubt that one's tolerance for the film is directly related to one's interest in downhill skiing. That being said, the unreasonably uneventful midsection will likely test the patience of even the most ardent extreme sports buff - as it primarily details the various squabbles that ensue as Crowe and Rider wait to tackle a legendary Alaskan run. It's nevertheless worth noting that Deep Winter never quite crosses into unwatchable territory, with the aforementioned scenery and irresistibly earnest performances effectively perpetuating the movie's low-key, relatively affable atmosphere (and, of course, it's impossible not to get a kick out of Michael Madsen's expectedly idiosyncratic work as a grizzled Alaskan).
Frozen River casts Melissa Leo as Ray Eddy, a grizzled single mother whose financial difficulties are virtually resolved after she meets an irritable Native American (Misty Upham's Lila) and is subsequently drawn into an illegal border crossing scheme - although, as anticipated, there does reach a point at which she and her two kids (Charlie McDermott's T.J. and James Reilly's Ricky) start to feel the consequences of her increasingly perilous jaunts over the eponymous locale. First-time writer/director Courtney Hunt has infused Frozen River with a gritty fly-on-the-wall visual sensibility that proves an ideal match for the low-key storyline, with Leo's consistently engaging and downright hypnotic performance effectively carrying the movie through its less-than-enthralling sequences and subplots (ie it's hard to work up much enthusiasm for Lila's ongoing efforts at regaining custody of her child). There's little doubt, however, that the inclusion of several unexpectedly suspenseful interludes - the majority of which stem from, natch, Ray and Lila's trips to and from the Canadian border - ultimately elevate Frozen River above its microscopically-budgeted indie brethren, as Leo's character is fleshed-out to such an extent that one can't help but sympathize with her plight and root for her success. It's also worth noting that Leo's various co-stars - particularly Upham and McDermott - generally match the actress in terms of disappearing into their respective characters, which only cements Frozen River's place as an above-average kitchen-sink drama and instantly establishes Hunt as an up-and-coming talent worth watching.
Unapologetically sentimental and melodramatic, Seven Pounds casts Will Smith as Ben Thomas - an enigmatic figure who has maneuvered his way into the lives of seven strangers (including Rosario Dawson's Emily and Woody Harrelson's Ezra) for reasons that remain unclear until the film's closing minutes. Screenwriter Grant Nieporte's decision to leave the viewer in the dark for the majority of the movie's running time results in a midsection that's often frustratingly abstruse, as one can't help but grow impatient for an explanation regarding Ben's increasingly head-scratching motives (ie the character is kind and gentle with Emily in one scene and mean and abusive to Ezra in another). There's little doubt, however, that the film remains surprisingly compelling even through its more overtly mysterious stretches, with the strength of the various performances - as well as the question surrounding Ben's end game - proving instrumental in sustaining the viewer's interest. In particular, Smith's stirring and downright spellbinding work effectively compensates for the (intentionally) obscured nature of his character's actions - which ensures that Ben has become an incredibly sympathetic figure by the time the pieces finally fall into place. It's subsequently easy enough to look past the deficiencies within Nieporte's script - ie his tendency to telegraph certain elements well in advance, the shamelessly manipulative bent of the third act, etc - and there's simply no denying that Seven Pounds packs one hell of an emotional punch as it approaches its affecting and flat-out devastating conclusion.
The Tenth Circle
An adaptation of Jodi Picoult's novel, The Tenth Circle casts Ron Eldard and Kelly Preston as Daniel and Laura Stone - a not-so-happily-married couple whose lives are thrown for a loop after their teenaged daughter (Brittany Robertson's Trixie) accuses her boyfriend (Jamie Johnston's Jason) of rape. Though screenwriter Maria Nation generally does a nice job of retaining the source material's various beats and plot points (excluding a third-act journey into the wilds of Alaska), The Tenth Circle is ultimately unable to shake its origins as a made-for-Lifetime-television production - as it's as typically overblown and hopelessly unsubtle as one has come to expect from the network's cinematic endeavors. It's consequently not surprising to note that the film's few positive attributes - ie Eldard's stirring turn as Trixie's increasingly unhinged father - are slowly but surely rendered moot by the relentless emphasis on melodramatic elements, with such problems compounded by the ineffective supporting performances and almost uncommonly low-rent visuals. The end result is an effort that will leave both newcomers and fans of the book alike scratching their heads and rolling their eyes, which is a shame given the undeniably promising nature of the movie's set-up.