Sunday, January 18, 2009

Eagle Eye, Righteous Kill, Ghost Town

Eagle Eye (** out of ****)
(Director: D.J. Caruso, Starring: Shia LeBouf, Michelle Monaghan, Billy Bob Thornton, Rosario Dawson, Running Time: 118 min., Rating: PG-13)

Rather than actually review Eagle Eye I was contemplating instead sending out a distress signal hoping maybe someone could explain to me a single thing that happened in it. It’s a relentless assault on the senses, fusing the worst work of Michael Bay and Tony Scott, but boasting a script far stupider than either of those directors’ worst efforts. Sadly, that Steven Spielberg executive produced this mess doesn’t come as nearly as much of a surprise as it should after enduring Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I know it’s too late to strip him of his Oscar, but can we do something about that Cecil B. DeMille award he just won? If asked about the film, I can actually picture him rambling on about how it evokes memories of North by Northwest or The Manchurian Candidate. It doesn't. At all.

Jerry Shaw (Shia LeBouf) is an unmotivated Stanford dropout who unwittingly finds himself in the midst of a massive government conspiracy. He returns home to his apartment to find weapons and bomb making ingredients and is soon on the run as a wanted terrorist. He and single mother Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monaghan) are brought together and by a mysterious cell phone voice that somehow controls all forms of transportation and communication. They must complete a series of VERY complicated tasks if Jerry wants to live and Rachel wants to see her kidnapped son again. And not a lick of it makes any sense at all. I couldn’t explain to anyone anything that happened and if I were given a quiz (even multiple choice) on the film’s events I’d undoubtedly fail.

The nicest I can say for director D.J. Caruso (who directed LeBeouf in 2007’s Disturbia) is that he keeps things moving at such a breakneck pace that you have no time to think about how absurd and illogical the screenplay is (which is incidentally credited to about 50 writers). Shia runs fast and screams his head off. It isn’t much of performance. Monaghan is worst than that as her character may as well just be referred to as “SINGLE WHITE FEMALE” playing Rachel with a blandness that doesn’t even live up to that meager description, surprising since I usually like her.

There’s no chemistry at all between the two leads and I don’t even necessarily mean romantic chemistry (the movie is at least smart enough not to try that), but the chemistry that should exist between two characters thrown together in a perilous life or death situation. An attempt to give Jerry an emotionally compelling backstory involving his twin brother goes up in flames as does any attempt to humanize Monaghan’s single mother. Billy Bob Thornton and Rosario Dawson collect paychecks as government agents with the former playing the sarcastic, grumpy Bad Santa card yet again. The final minutes are especially preposterous and unbelievable even for a movie like this. Sure, Caruso’s Disturbia had some issues, but it could be considered a certifiable masterpiece next to this. Shia really needs to re-think his game plan moving forward because this won’t work long-term, despite what the box office receipts say now.

Righteous Kill (** out of ****)
(Director: Jon Avnet, Starring: Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Carla Gugino, Running Time: 101 min., Rating: R)

Here we go again. I’ve made it no secret that Jon “The Hack” Avnet is among my favorite bad filmmakers and found his 88 Minutes to be a fun, goofy guilty pleasure. While this film does feature shades of that endearing Avnet goofiness and probably would have been far worse with another director behind the lens and without the two legendary leads, it’s one of his limpest efforts. It actually accomplishes something I didn’t think was possible from an Avnet picture in that it’s kind of limp and dreary. Normally, he at least has more fun than this. Something tells me movie buffs salivating over the thought of DeNiro and Pacino re-teaming, a Direct-to-DVD rip-off of a gritty ‘70’s cop thriller that you’d catch on Cinemax at 1 a.m. wasn’t what they had in mind. And the thought of Pacino calling his pal in the middle of the night after wrapping 88 minutes and telling him he has to work with Avnet is too funny for words.

The ridiculously nicknamed “Turk” (DeNiro) and “Rooster” (Pacino) who have been partners and best friends for years, are now on the trail of a serial killer who preys upon criminals who have unfairly gotten off on technicalities. A videotaped confession that opens the film and reappears rather clumsily as a framing device throughout the film suggests that Turk is the murderer. Detectives Perez (John Leguizamo) and Riley (Donnie Wahlberg) start to put the pieces together while Carla Gugino gets in on the action as Turk’s girlfriend Karen, a police forensics expert who likes it rough. The “big twist” is telegraphed literally 5 minutes into the picture and when the reveal finally comes one character (or rather Russell Gewirtz’s pedestrian script) is overcome with the desire to spend the last 15 minutes of the film needlessly explaining it.

Both DeNiro and Pacino give serviceable (if unspectacular) performances under the most thankless of circumstances and it helps since those two at half-speed is still better than any other actors would have given in the roles. The film isn’t quite as awful as you’ve heard and falls on the higher end of 2 stars, although that’s coming from someone with an unusually high tolerance for Avnet’s junk. For these two icons it’s an embarrassment. DeNiro’s probably done with but I think Pacino still has one masterpiece left in him somewhere. But it isn’t Righteous Kill, which should be coming to a Wal-Mart bargain bin near you soon.

Ghost Town (*** out of ****)
(Director: David Koepp, Starring: Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear, Tea Leoni, Running Time: 102 min., Rating: PG-13)

Whenever a brain dead romantic comedy like Fool’s Gold finishes first at the box office we’re left scratching our heads asking, “Why?” So what a shame it is that finally a smart, enjoyable comedy geared to all ages and genders is released and no one goes to see it. While Ghost Town doesn’t re-invent the wheel it’s a textbook example of how to execute a romantic comedy well and a reminder of how enjoyable this genre can be when the right script, sure-footed direction and likable lead performances converge. It’s a surprise (no scratch that, a flat-out shock) that it was directed and co-written by Spielberg’s got-to scribe David Koepp who cruelly inflicted the aforementioned Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on us. But the real story here is the charming performance of Ricky Gervais. If you’ve enjoyed his antics on awards shows recently, know that it was just scratching the surface. This guy needs to star in more movies immediately.

Cranky, anti-social dentist Betram Pincus (Gervais) awakens from his routine colonoscopy to discover that he died for approximately seven minutes before being miraculously revived. This near-death experience has given him the ability to see dead people, really annoying dead people who have unfinished business. Chief among them is Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear) who wants him to break up the impending marriage of his widow, Gwen (Tea Leoni) to smug do-gooder Richard (Billy Campbell). The humorless Richard may or may not be a complete jerk but Frank certainly was one when he was alive having cheated on her. Pincus is no better (if not worse), but the plan is for him to charm her just enough so she has doubts and calls off the engagement. It’s a tall order, especially when he’s stealing her cab or letting elevator doors slam in her face. Of course she eventually warms up to him and they start to fall for each other.

Gervais has to sell a difficult transformation here, going from pretty much the most unlikable person you’d meet to someone who slowly breaks his walls down, allowing love into his life. He pulls it off perfectly and manages to be equally funny doing both, impressively juggling the off-color and warmhearted humor. It’s a rare event when Leoni even co-stars in a film but a very welcome one because she always raises the level of any material she’s handed and projects a natural, down-to-Earth quality most actresses have to work hard at projecting. I wish she’d work more because few actresses play this type of part better. All three stars have great chemistry, which helps carry the admittedly run-of-the-mill premise to a satisfying and smart finish with ease.

The movie plays as kind of a cross between Roxanne and The Sixth Sense with a dash of Heart and Souls thrown in as Pincus tries to win over Gwen with Frank’s help and the sub-plots involving the ghosts pestering him is wisely underplayed, only showing up at the right moments and actually handled poignantly at the end. In fact, it's surprising how restrained the finale is considering the circumstances. It didn’t end how I thought it would, which is a good thing considering the paint-by-the-numbers screenplays lazily churned out by studios these days. Ghost Town is definitely "mainstream fluff" but this time I actually mean that as a compliment. It’s fluff done well and it’s difficult to think of any reasons why someone wouldn’t enjoy this.


JD said...

Eagle Eye just reminded me of a really pale imitation of Colossus: The Forbin Project.
And not a very good one.
Righteous Kill- I do not expect anything from DeNiro or Pacino anymore, I haven't for a long time.

Ghost Town was very well done.

Excellent reviews!!

Ben K said...

Haven't seen "Eagle Eye" or "Ghost Town," and I am not really sure I want to... Well, maybe "Ghost Town," maybe...

"Righteous Kill" was a disaster in my opinoin. I expect much better than this from Pacino and DeNiro.

All the same, great reviews!

thebonebreaker said...

I'm with Ben, as I have only seen Righteous Kill [which wasn't near as good as I was hoping for!]

I still want to give Eagle Eye a shot though [and after reading your review of Ghost Town, I'll have to add that one to my Netflix Queue]