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Mini Reviews (July 2007)

88 Minutes, License to Wed, Come Early Morning, Let It Ride, Gray Matters, Gone, The Contract, The Simpsons Movie, Becoming Jane

88 Minutes (July 2/07)

Shockingly inept from start to finish, 88 Minutes casts Al Pacino as Jack Gramm - a forensic psychiatrist/college professor whose life is thrown into considerable upheaval after a mysterious caller informs him that he only has 88 minutes left to live. There's certainly no shortage of suspects, as virtually everyone in Jack's life seems to want him dead (including his assistant, a few of his students, and even a random secretary). While it's safe to assume that supporting players such as Alicia Witt, Amy Brenneman, and Ben McKenzie were drawn into the production by the prospect of working alongside Pacino, one can't help but wonder what Pacino himself found appealing about the project - as the film remains a baffling and thoroughly frustrating ordeal throughout its egregiously overlong running time. Gary Scott Thompson's remarkably incompetent screenplay is certainly the most overtly troublesome element here, although Jon Avnet's questionable directorial choices (choppy slo-mo? Really?) and Pacino's surprisingly unfocused performance are equally deserving of derision. The conclusion - in which the would-be killer's inexplicable identity is revealed - is nothing short of laughable, and 88 Minutes ultimately establishes itself as a low-point in Pacino's otherwise solid body of work.

out of

License to Wed (July 6/07)

License to Wed, much like the recent Jennifer Lopez comedy Monster-in-Law, initially establishes itself as a cute (if entirely predictable) romcom and quickly devolves into a grating, nigh unwatchable piece of work. And while stars John Krasinski and Mandy Moore are affable and cute together, screenwriters Kim Barker, Tim Rasmussen, and Vince Di Meglio prove to be entirely incapable of placing the pair into a single situation that feels even remotely authentic. Instead, the scripters offer up a relentless series of distinctly unfunny vignettes revolving primarily around Robin Williams' expectedly over-the-top shenanigans. The inherently flawed premise casts Williams as a deranged reverend who subjects Krasinski's Ben and Moore's Sadie to an intrusive and flat-out absurd marriage preparation course, in which the couple is forced to participate in one eye-rollingly ludicrous exercise after another. That the entire film is essentially predicated on Sadie's insistence on going through with the course - despite the fact that no rational person would ever agree to do so - is certainly License to Wed's most overt failing, and there's consequently never the feeling that these characters could exist anywhere but in an idiotic romantic comedy such as this. That the third act is devoted primarily to the anticipated fake break-up is the least of the movie's problems, as License to Wed ultimately has the dubious distinction of actually being a far more interminable romcom than Moore's previous effort (the intolerable yet comparatively accomplished Because I Said So).

out of

Come Early Morning (July 17/07)

The directorial debut of actress Joey Lauren Adams (who also wrote the screenplay), Come Early Morning follows 30-something Lucy Fowler (Ashley Judd) as she attempts to get her life back on track after years of engaging in meaningless one-night stands. With its exceedingly slow pace and plot-free structure, Come Early Morning will never be mistaken for anything other than a laid-back character study - yet there's no denying that the film is, for the most part, an intriguing and thoroughly compelling piece of work. Judd surely deserves the lion's share of kudos for the movie's success, as the actress delivers a performance that's heartbreakingly complex (in her hands, Lucy - as sympathetic a figure as there ever was - manages to come off as tough-as-nails in one scene and achingly vulnerable in the next). Adams' willingness to allow the story to unfold deliberately - coupled with her ear for natural dialogue - lends the proceedings an unmistakable vibe of authenticity, although there's also no denying that the movie is occasionally just a little too meandering for its own good. The inclusion of a few overtly predictable elements - ie the trajectory of Lucy's relationship with Jeffrey Donovan's seemingly down-to-earth Cal Percell - can't quite derail what is otherwise an impressive first effort, and it seems certain that Adams is destined to move onto bigger and better things.

out of

Let It Ride (July 17/07)

Low-key and forgettable, Let It Ride casts Richard Dreyfuss as Jay Trotter - a gambling addict who shocks himself and his friends as he embarks on a spectacular winning streak one afternoon at a local racetrack. Director Joe Pytka - working from Nancy Dowd's screenplay - has infused Let It Ride with a muddy visual style that only compounds the film's various problems, while Dreyfuss delivers an almost absurdly over-the-top performance (the actor spends much of the movie with his energy level cranked to 11, even during scenes that practically demand a more subdued approach). The inclusion of a few admittedly effective sequences - ie a surprisingly tense moment in which Trotter awaits the results of a photo finish - ensures that the film maintains a relatively amiable vibe throughout, but Let It Ride is ultimately the sort of movie that disappears from one's memory minutes after it ends.

out of

Gray Matters (July 20/07)

Though infused with a number of personable performances and a few genuinely funny bits of comedy, Gray Matters is ultimately unable to sustain the energy and effectiveness of its opening half hour - with the end result a romantic comedy that generally feels like a prolonged episode of a forgettable sitcom. Heather Graham and Thomas Cavanagh star as Gray and Sam, a pair of exceedingly close siblings whose relationship is put to the test after Sam meets (and proposes to) a beautiful zoologist (Bridget Moynahan's Charlie). Complications ensue after Gray realizes that she is also attracted to Charlie, despite the fact that she is not - to the best of her knowledge - a homosexual. First-time filmmaker Sue Kramer initially does a nice job of peppering the proceedings with appropriately light-hearted elements, ensuring that - for a while, anyway - the film's thinly-drawn characters are placed into relatively intriguing situations. Graham's open, likeable performance certainly goes a long way towards allaying some of the more overt deficiencies within Kramer's script, though there does come a point at which the film's increasingly predictable and flat-out silly shenanigans become impossible to overlook. The inclusion of one or two genuinely poignant moments towards the finale - ie a scene that finds Gray slowly realizing the consequences of her newfound sexuality - temporarily elevates things, yet it's ultimately impossible to view Gray Matters as anything other than an amiable misfire.

out of

Gone (July 21/07)

Featuring a trio of admittedly impressive performances, Gone nevertheless suffers from an egregiously laid-back pace that ultimately negates its few positive attributes - as one can't help but wish that director Ringan Ledwidge would just get on with it already. The story follows British couple Alex (Shaun Evans) and Sophie (Amelia Warner) as they encounter a mysterious American (Scott Mechlowicz's Taylor) while vacationing in Australia, though it's not long before Taylor's friendly demeanor is replaced by something far more sinister. One of the more overt failings within Andrew Upton and James Watkins' screenplay is their reluctance to genuinely spell out Taylor's malevolent modus operandi, as the character seems to do this sort of thing quite often (judging from his weird and extensive collection of Polaroid photos) - yet, by the time the credits roll, the viewer hasn't the slightest clue as to why he's done the things he's done. That Alex seems uneasy with Taylor right from the get-go certainly doesn't help matters (ie why doesn't he ditch the guy right away), and there's little doubt that the film's various problems are exacerbated by an excessively meandering opening hour. And while the violent third act is undeniably quite thrilling, there's simply no overlooking the painfully deliberate build-up (Mechlowicz does a superb job of stepping into the shoes of a flat-out evil character, though).

out of

The Contract (July 23/07)

Starring John Cusack and Morgan Freeman, The Contract is a sporadically intriguing yet thoroughly mediocre thriller that never quite manages to shed its straight-to-video status (despite the fact that, presumably, it was shot with an eye towards a theatrical release). Though better acted and more impressive visually than its DTV brethren, the film does suffer from many of the same problems that tend to plague movies of this ilk - including conspicuous gaps in logic, subpar supporting performances, and an overridingly rushed atmosphere. The seemingly foolproof premise revolves around a father and son (Cusack's Ray and Jamie Anderson's Chris) who encounter a handcuffed assassin (Freeman's Frank) while on a fishing trip, and their subsequent efforts to avoid Frank's heavily-armed minions and safely bring him to the authorities. It goes without saying that The Contract works best during scenes in which Freeman and Cusack share the screen, as both actors step into the shoes of their respective characters with expected ease (Freeman is particularly effective as the charming yet strangely pragmatic villain). Problems emerge as screenwriters Stephen Katz and John Darrouzet pepper the proceedings with an inordinate amount of needless subplots and supporting characters, with the Cusack and Freeman storyline increasingly relegated to the sidelines (honestly, who cares about the dirty FBI agent hot on Frank's tail?) The rough-around-the-edges becomes impossible to overlook as the film progresses, and although there are a few admittedly thrilling sequences (ie Cusack's Ray beats a baddie to death with his bare hands), The Contract is ultimately an ineffective and entirely forgettable piece of work.

out of

The Simpsons Movie (July 27/07)

Though the quality of The Simpsons has been declining steadily for the past decade or so, The Simpsons Movie generally manages to capture the energy and charm of the show's best moments - ensuring that even the series' most rabid detractors will find something worth embracing here. The film - which revolves around a calamatous event that occurs within Springfield after Dan Castellaneta's Homer pulls an expectedly massive blunder - kicks off with a series of short-but-sweet vignettes in which the various characters engage in enjoyably silly bits of business, including Bart's naked skateboard ride around town and Homer's newfound friendship with an adorable pig. Such antics eventually give way to the film's frenetic central storyline, and while it does possess a number of genuinely compelling moments (including one of the most unabashedly sentimental sequences in the show's history), there's ultimately no denying that the movie fares best in its earlier, more freewheeling scenes. Still, it's impossible not to be won over by the film - it's Simpsons, after all - and the film does a surprisingly effective job of essentially living up to almost two decades worth of expectations (even if it does, at times, just feel like a feature-length episode of the show).

out of

Becoming Jane (July 30/07)

Though it's certainly possible to envision an effective film being made of Jane Austen's early years, Becoming Jane drops the ball almost immediately by emphasizing some seriously hackneyed plot twists and an overall atmosphere of predictability (ie some of this stuff wouldn't seem too out of place in a Disney Channel movie). The movie - which follows Anne Hathaway's Jane as she struggles to complete Pride & Prejudice and resist a growing attraction to scrappy Irishman Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy) - hits every beat that one might've anticipated from such a premise, with the eye-rollingly obvious trajectory of Jane and Tom's relationship easily the most apt example of this (ie he's a bare-knuckle boxer who hates books and she's a cultured novelist with exquisite manners; will they overcome their differences? Three guesses, and the first two don't count). Director Julian Jarrold's efforts to infuse the proceedings with a playful, light-hearted vibe prove fruitless, as Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams' script suffers from an unfocused sensibility that ultimately ensures that the whole thing comes off as an interminable and thoroughly pointless ordeal (the inclusion of several false endings, when one just wants the thing to finish already, certainly doesn't help matters). The performances are fine - Hathaway and McAvoy are convincing, while supporting players such as James Cromwell, Maggie Smith, and Julie Walters offer a temporary respite from the film's relentlessly dull storyline - and the visuals (courtesy of cinematographer Eigil Bryld) are admittedly impressive, but Becoming Jane nevertheless remains a toothless, entirely bland effort for the majority of its oppressively overlong running time.

out of

© David Nusair