Monthly Archives: March 2002

Panic Room (2002)

Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) is a newly divorced woman shopping around Manhattan for a new place to sow her wild oats thanks to a healthy marital settlement. The brownstone in question is truly spacious. It comes complete with four floors and a working elevator installed by the invalid former owner. Meg’s teenage daughter Sarah immediately takes a shine to her new digs and urges mom to sign the dotted line. It seems besides a great location the place also comes complete with a secret room that houses a separate phone line, a wall of monitors all corresponding to cameras, as well as medical supplies and a silver commode. This “panic room” is surrounded by four feet of concrete and sealed by an airtight steel door. It seems it’s the ultimate in home protection.

But before Meg and Sarah can barely unpack a trio of burglars enters the home with the hopes of securing the reclusive former owner’s riches. Meg grabs her daughter and scurries into the panic room just in time to seal the door behind her. She communicates to the men to take what they want and leave. One of them writes on a piece of paper that what they really want is inside the panic room. The burglars aren’’t going anywhere, are well equipped and know the panic room better than she does. Meg and her daughter are safe but trapped with little voice to the outside. Thus the pieces are all set and an intricate game of moves and counter-moves takes place to see who has the upper hand, in and out of the panic room.

Panic Room is that rare treat as a movie alive and well with energy, tenacity and a double-dose worth of entertainment. The movie flies by and you’re left catching your breath or checking your pulse at certain junctures. The suspense continues in an arching fashion and keeps giving the audience new situations to be taken with.

It’’s been two years since the public has last seen Jodie Foster in a movie and it’s good to have her back. Her performance is nominal but she’’s put through what must be the most physically strenuous film of her career. She has that rare versatility as an actress to wear corsets and frilly-wear one film and then to be holstering a gun and barking at transsexual serial killers the next, all while maintaining complete confidence and integrity at either.

It seems that today we have a staggering lack of female action leads that could kick your ass. Sigourney Weaver once owned this throne but now the only thing we have to offer is pinups. We have Angelina Jolie’’s scary glares. We have the pout of Michelle Rodriguez, who has since blown what promise she showed in Girl Fight by starring in two horrible consecutive films about zombies (one of these said zombies being Vin Diesel). And I don’t think I even need to go into Milla Jovovich. So it’’s refreshing knowing that Foster, even while pregnant for part of filming, can swing with the big boys and surely roll some heads and take some names.

The actors portraying the burglars play basic criminal archetypes, but do passable jobs with them. Forest Whitaker is the soft-spoken security expert who refuses to play rough if the situation calls for it. Jared Leto is the comically impulsive grandson who feels slighted by not being granted a sum of the inheritance. Dwight Yoakam (yes the Dwight Yoakam) is the questionable addition with an itchy trigger finger and a determination to get his mitts on the money.

Director David Fincher, the auteur that gave us a head in a box with Se7en, returns with his kinetic kick and brooding finesse. Fincher is a vastly talented visual director and adds more richness to the film with lovely cinematography and an astutely mature sense of tension.

However, Fincher’’s sensory excesses get the better of him the longer the film goes. Does the audience really need to have the camera travel through the handle of a coffeepot? Does anyone really need the camera to swirl into the bulb of a flashlight so we see how it works? It may come to the point where you’’re anticipating the next superfluous camera movement, and praying that it isn’’t plunging into Yoakam’’s nostrils. Once or twice is fine, but after awhile the nomadic camera movements become far more distracting to the film. The ending is also a bit anti-climactic for my taste.

Panic Room, despite a few missteps, is a great exercise in suspense. You may get so wrapped up you’ll find yourself, as I surprisingly did, reverting to the annoying habit of talking to the characters on screen and trying to instruct them. Panic Room is the kind of movie you wish Hollywood made more often: something with genuine thrills that leaves you pinned to your seat and bubbling with anticipation, before turning you into a puddle of warm goo.

Nate’s Grade: B

Metropolis (2002)

It has the screenplay penned by Katsuhiro Ôtomo, writer/director of Akira. The director is Tarô Rin, director of numerous anime including X. And it’s based upon a classic manga by the same name. If you understood any of this, especially if you successfully identified anyone, then you are a prime candidate for Metropolis.

Metropolis is a future wonderland of a city, with the coronation of Duke Red’s gigantic Ziggurat building, to which he plans to rule the world. He’s evil. Detective Shunsaku Ban and his nephew Kenichi have been hired from Japan to find an illegal organ trader who they believe has some connection to Duke Red. Sure enough, with his help the duke is building the most powerful robot named Tima who also happens to look pristine like his deceased daughter. His adopted son Rock takes offense, kills the organ trader, and chases Kenichi and Tima through the subterranean bowels of the city. Then there’s some chase scenes. And… um… the disaster montage ending. There’s your story folks.

Time for an anime checklist. Androgynous heroes? Check. Sprite looking females with super duper powers? Check. Bad guys with snozes like Toucan Sam? Check. Robots, robots, robots? Check. A story that bites off more than it can chew? Check. Gratuitous nudity and grotesque gore? Nope. Well this is a PG-13 movie.

Metropolis is without a doubt one of the most beautiful animated films I have ever seen. The dazzling vistas of the city are a wonder to behold. Metropolis is an amazing movie to watch. To say it is candy for the eyes is an understatement; it’s Girl Scout cookies for the eyes. The visuals are astonishing but the story lacks any character development. The script borrows heavily from Blade Runner, Brazil and the original Fritz Lang silent masterpiece Metropolis. There’s also a rather dumbfounding sequence where the montage of destruction, including the annihilation of the Ziggurat, set to Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”

For anime fans it all won’t matter. The film is a sight to behold. It’s gorgeous but flaccid in its thinking and plotting.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Kissing Jessica Stein (2002)

Kissing Jessica Stein stars Jennifer Westfeldt as the perfectionist title heroine searching for true love in the Big Apple. She answers a personal ad sent by Helen (Heather Juergensen), an art gallery manager trying her hand at women for the first time. What begins in comedic awkwardness turns to the fires of passion. Which leads to much more awkwardness as Jessica attempts to keep her secrets and the true identity of her “friend” from her mother.

Juergensen and Westfeldt wrote the script based on characters they have nurtured for several years, and their comfort level with the material shows. Each gives a wry and charismatic performance, with Westfeldt proving herself an acting revelation. It must be nice for her to have something else to her résumé than being one of the “girls” in Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place.

Kissing Jessica Stein tiptoes a fine line with some characters possibly becoming gay or Jewish stereotypes; however, they never do fall into the abyss of Caricature Land. Tovah Feldshuh, playing Jessica’s mother, might make you wince at the thought that she’d be mired as a Mike Myers “Coffee Talk” portrait. But she has scenes where she shows real tenderness that is very affective.

At times the movie feels a bit too wrapped up in its own precocious-ness. There’s even a standard montage of bad dates that becomes annoying much sooner than it ends. Those looking for deep lesbian issues needn’t apply here. Kissing Jessica Stein hits its targets on a surface level, which can be deemed appropriate for an innocuous romantic comedy. The downer closing 10 minutes seems to come from nowhere and betray the feel of the movie.

The film plays by conventional rules for the most part but these don’t diminish the healthy humor in the least. Kissing Jessica Stein is a charming and fun experience and would serve as a good date movie for prospective couples.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Time Machine (2002)

The Time Machine is one of the most famous works of fiction in history. It was writen long long ago by the great H.G. Wells. It presents a fantasy glimpse into our future, but in it Wells also gave readers the opportunity to ponder what would happen if they could go back and change their own lives. People have used the story as a cautionary allegory to our own times, like the 1960 film version of The Time Machine. Now, a bigger budget Hollywood remake attempts to put another spin on the Wells classic.

Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) is an absent-minded professor interested in cracking down the physics of time. He’s chided by some of his peers for crackpot theories and his fascination with any new gadget. He’s supposed to meet Emma (Sienna Guillory) at Central Park and tonight’s the big night he plans to propose to her. He eventually catches up to Emma and the two go strolling off into the park. Shortly after popping the question the two become victims of a mugging and in the fray Emma is left dead. The death drives Alex to create his fanciful time machine, which only happens to take four years time.

Alex gives his big brass LA-Z-Boy looking machine a try and travels back to that fateful night to avoid Emma’s death. Alex avoids the mugger all right, but while purchasing flowers his fiancé gets plowed over by a runaway carriage instead. It seems that one cannot change the past. Alex decides to give the future a chance and travels to a very Back to the Future 2 looking 2037. Someone astutely asks Alex if his time traveling machine makes a good cappuccino.

When Alex hops a little further into the future the moon is breaking up because of ill-fated lunar construction. Moon rocks are hurtling toward the surface and disrupting everyone’s day. (It was in this moment that a scene of rocks smashing into the World Trade Center was cut for taste) Alex jumps back into his machine but is konked out by some lunar cheese and falls asleep at the wheel. The next thing you know Alex is in a mysterious future world.

The place where The Time Machine really bogs down is once Alex arrives in 80,000 something or other. The child-like thrills and adventure of Alex zipping between the past and near future are buried underneath the standard post-apocalyptic movie world. The people dress in loin cloths and rags (though some of the female natives wear revealing tops that look like see-through chain mail) but still have perfect teeth. When Alex doesn’t understand the linguistics of 80,000 AD the next words that he hears are English from shapely native Mara (pop star Samantha Mumba). It’s amazing that English survived 81,000 years when Latin didn’t last a mere 2,000 and change.

It turns out these people who live in huts resembling hot air balloons along the faces of cliffs are called Eloi. The Eloi don’t have anyone looking old enough to carry an AARP membership and are apprehensive to speak of why. Perhaps it’s because creatures resembling something that would belong in The Mummy Returns pop up from the sand to capture whatever slow moving prey they can and return to for an underground feast.

The creatures, called Morlocks, are the offshoots of evolution. Seems after the whole moon destruction thing (whoops!) those who took refuge below the surface have evolved into dusty hunchbacked cannibals. Their rowdy ranks are controlled by Uber-Morlock (I’m not making up that name) who resembles an albino bassist for Poison or Skid Row. It’s actually acclaimed actor Jeremy Irons under all that pancake makeup and fleshy spine-showing prosthetic. The less said about Irons the better.

It’s during this part that The Time Machine reverts into a half-baked Stargate. Alex encourages the Eloi race to stand up to their oppressors and fight for their freedom. He becomes part of the Eloi community, rallies the troops into rebellion, and also has to save the damsel in distress.

The Time Machine remake isn’t the political statement the 1960 film was on man’s folly with technology, particularly nuclear weapons. What this suped-up version is all about is special effects and plenty of them. The effects are for the most part dazzling, especially the scene where Alex travels to 2037 and we see the development of New York City with skyscrapers assembling themselves.

Simon Wells (The Prince of Egypt) directed this remake and is actually the great-grandson of the famous adventure’s author, H. G. Wells. Trivial Pursuit fans everywhere rejoice. Wells had to sit out the last 18 days of shooting due to “exhaustion” and Gore Verbinsky came off the bench to finish the directorial duties. The film clocks in at a scant 90 minutes but there are definite moments of drag.

Pearce (Memento) is a hunky hero and for the most part is admirably gung-ho with the role. Samantha Mumba’s motivation must have been to stand and look pretty the entire film, which is all she really does. To think that Mumba might be the most talented of the recent singers-come-actors (Mandy Moore and Britney Spears) is a distressing thought all its own.

As The Time Machine kept dragging into its Mumba-filled period I began day dreaming of an alternate, darkly comic version. In my head, Pearce’s character keeps traveling back again and again to save his beloved only to lose her a different way each time. I could picture a humorous montage of his girlfriend dying an assortment of colorful deaths and Pearce just getting more frustrated and jaded. I could picture them skating only to have her plunge below the ice. I could picture the couple dining at a fine restaurant only to have her choke and Pearce just throw his napkin onto the table and sigh loudly. I was enjoying my alternate take on The Time Machine so much that I didn’t want to return to the one that was playing.

The Time Machine has its moments of thrills and excitement but they are mostly condensed to the opening third. This remake doesn’t have the political edge or wow-factor the original did. It plays more to the rules of conventional Hollywood than the wide open possibilities Wells wrote about. Pearce tries valiantly and the special effects are really something, but more often than not The Time Machine is not worth your time.

Nate’s Grade: C

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