Monthly Archives: September 2004

The Forgotten (2004)

Fair warning: This screed contains huge spoilers about the movie as I rip it apart. The press release for The Forgotten says, “What if you were told that every moment you experienced and every memory you held dear never happened?” And now, upon having seen The Forgotten, I say, “Oh, if only.”

Telly (Julianne Moore) is still grieving the loss of her nine-year-old son who died in a plane crash 14 months ago. She’s seeing a psychiatrist (Gary Sinise) and slowly coming to terms with her loss. One day she discovers all remnants of her son missing. His clothes, baseball glove, even his appearance in pictures has vanished. She accuses her husband (Anthony Edwards) of stealing them, but then is shocked when her hubby and doc both tell her that Telly never had a son. She’s been delusional for years since a miscarriage and has created an imaginary son. Telly refuses to accept the possibility that she’s nuts, and finds initial resistance and then acceptance from another parent (Dominic West) who also remembers a daughter that died in the same plane crash. Together they set off to learn the truth, all the while being hunted down by the NSA for some mysterious reason.

The Forgotten shares a very dubious honor. Only twice in my life have I been strongly tempted to walk out on a movie, and that was while watching Lost in Space and The Thin Red Line. Six years later, The Forgotten became the third. It got so bad during the second half that I was fashioning my moveable armrest into a crude headboard for me to sleep upon. I was that bored. I can explain the reasons for my boredom very easily: terrible plot structure.

The Forgotten opens with Telly grieving over the loss of her son, and Moore is so good at grief that she can hook an audience as soon as her face crinkles into sadness. Around the 20-minute mark, Telly is told that she never had a son and has been delusional the whole time. Now, stop right there. That’s a great premise. If the makers of The Forgotten had stretched this part of the movie to about 90 minutes, put some thought and skill toward it, then we could have had something fascinating and heartfelt. Instead, you’re given the easily expected and the very boring.

At the 20-minute mark, Telly is told she has no child and she’s crazy. At around the 30-minute mark, none of this matters. The movie doesn’t even allow an opportunity for Telly to even doubt for a sheer second about her wild hunch that everyone in her life, including The New York Times, being apart of some global conspiracy to hide the fact she had a child. And of course, because she?s our heroine and this is Hollywood, her incredibly outlandish theories will be proven right. I understand that, but to reveal her theory’s accuracy only TEN MINUTES later is ridiculous. The Forgotten wastes no time proving Telly’s wild ranting as being correct. It’s as if The Forgotten feels that its audience is cultivated from the dumbest common denominator.

At the 40-minute mark the “A-word” is used, and before the 60-minutes mark, the audience knows everything. The last hour of the film is so obvious; no, it’s beyond obvious. It’s super obvious. It can’t even be obvious because The Forgotten has told you EVERYTHING. You’re not waiting around for predictability to play its way out, because you’ve been told everything. All that’s left is to sit and watch dull chase scenes (a book editor outrun NSA trained agents? Please).

There will be some heavy spoilers in my discussion of the film’s plot. I’m posting fair warning now, but doubt they’ll be too surprising given the ads on TV for The Forgotten (who else would you think was responsible?).

I have no idea what the makers of The Forgotten were thinking. They blow all their secrets in the first half and then mill around for another hour. It’d be like if The Sixth Sense revealed Haley Joel Osment sees ghosts and Bruce Willis is dead in the first hour, and then for another hour they sit uncomfortably and ask about the weather. Anyone think that movie would have worked the same? This is why I was so bored. I could have fallen asleep and accurately predicted everything that would happen in the second hour. There didn’t even need to be a second half to this film. It was all irritatingly explained to us in the first hour. Once the mystery’s gone, the only thing the audience has to keep its faltering attention are the questions of whether Telly can win back her son, and who will be vacuumed out of the universe next. That’s not much to justify another tension-free, revelation-free hour of awful movie.

The ending is also steeped in lunacy. So apparently all-powerful aliens love to play experiments on us and basically control our whole lives. Peachy. Telly is apart of an experiment, and the creepy, slim alien tells her that she’s the anomaly. All the other test subjects have forgotten, but not her, and the little green men want to know why. What’s even more peculiar is that this specimen of a supposedly advanced race is mad at Telly for gunking up the project, and he’s (its?) going to beat her until she forgets and the project is finished. But the alien just said she was the lone anomaly. By definition the project worked if everyone else succeeded. I’m no advanced race and I figured that out. Guess I’m smarter than the screenwriter of The Forgotten.

Once again, humans miraculously triumph over supposedly all-powerful alien species. I realize an audience wants to see our heroes succeed at the end and conquer evil, but is it even plausible when this evil can alter everyone’s existence at a moment’s notice? In the end, Telly gets her son back and her life is fulfilled. The makers of The Forgotten expect you to take this for a happy, victorious ending. Don’t. Sure, Telly has her kid back, but what’s to stop these all-powerful aliens from doing it again. For that matter, since she was the anomaly, wouldn’t they continue to perform experiments on her to see what makes her tick?

What makes The Forgotten even more irksome is that it’s a blatant rip-off of Alex Proyas’ visionary 1998 sci-fi noir, Dark City. The plot of Dark City is about all-powerful aliens that experiment with human beings. They plant different memories into their heads, allow their human test subjects to live multiple identities, to see what makes us work. A reluctant doctor helps the aliens but is really rooting for the one test subject that seems beyond their power. The aliens are baffled about this anomaly. This is practically the entire plot for The Forgotten; trade Shell Beach for Quest Air, lose all the style, thrills, imagination, and pacing of Dark City, and what you’re left with is The Forgotten.

It’s not enough that The Forgotten is possibly the most ineptly plotted movie ever, or that the trailer and commercials gave away too much (I knew the ending before stepping into the theater), the ails of The Forgotten are exacerbated by the fact that it’s a shallow, homely, incompetent rip-off of Dark City.

I do not fault Moore. She is one of the finest working actresses today and will elevate anything she is in to some degree. She’s stranded by the material. The only performance I even took any note of was the surprise appearance of Lee Tergesen. He’s shown equally impressive comedic chops (USA’s Weird Science) as dramatic chops (He was the closest thing to a hero on HBO’s Oz). It’s always fun to see personally beloved character actors, even if it is in an abomination like The Forgotten.

Director Joseph Ruben (Money Train, The Good Son) finds astonishing ways to make The Forgotten even worse. He overplays his hand early, like having many overhead shots cued with weird, aerial noises. There’s also an ominous and extremely mobile cloud formation that spells out the antagonists. The second half is filled with pointless chase scenes, and Ruben can’t manage to make any part of them exciting. He does have one interesting jump moment while Telly is riding in a car, but I already saw it this year in the superior Bourne Supremacy.

The Forgotten may end up being the worst film of 2004, and with a year dotted by the likes of Hellboy, Van Helsing, Catwoman, and National Lampoon’s Gold Diggers, that may be all I need to say. I suppose someone out there may find something redeemable about The Forgotten (if they haven’t already seen Dark City), but the film’s tepid pacing, mind-numbingly foolish plot structure, and mounting illogical doom the poor audience to two hours of head-smacking boredom. This is a first-class Hollywood train wreck. It doesn’t work as a drama about grief, it doesn’t work as a psychological thriller, and it really doesn’t work as a half-baked X-Files episode. The Forgotten is a really great title, because in a few weeks it’ll be exactly that.

Nate’s Grade: F

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Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow started as a six-minute home movie by Kerry Conran. He used computer software and blue screens to recreate New York City and depict a zeppelin docking at the top of the Empire State building. The six-minute short, which Conran spent several years completing, caught the attention of producer John Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes). He commissioned Conran to flesh out a feature film, where computers would fill in everything except the actors (he even used the original short in the feature film). The dazzling, imaginative results are Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

Polly (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a reporter in 1930s New York. She?s investigating the mysterious disappearance of World War scientists when the city is invaded by a fleet of robots. The city calls out for the aid of Sky Captain, a.k.a. Joe (Jude Law), a dashing flying ace that happens to also be Polly?s ex. Joe and Polly form an uneasy alliance. He wants to stop Totenkopf (archived footage of Laurence Olivier) from sending robots around the globe and rescue his kidnapped mechanic, Dex (Giovanni Ribisi). She wants to get the story of a lifetime, a madman spanning the world to abduct scientists, parts, and the required elements to start a doomsday device. Along the way, Captain Franky Cook (Angelina Jolie) lends her help with her flying amphibious brigade. Together they might stop Totenkopf on his island of mystery.

Sky Captain is a visual marvel. It isn’t necessary a landmark, as actors have performed long hours behind green screen before (just look at the Star Wars prequels). Sky Captain is the first film where everything, excluding props the actors handle, is digitally brought to life inside those wonderful computers. The results are breath-taking, like when Polly enters Radio City Music Hall or during an underwater dogfight with Franky’s amphibious squadron. Sky Captain is brimming with visual excitement. The film is such an idiosyncratic vision that there’s no way it could have been made within the studio system.

Sky Captain has definite problems. For one, the characters are little more than stock characters going through the motions. The story also takes a backseat to the visuals. The dialogue is wooden and full of clunkers like, “You won’t need high heels where we’re going.” Generally the dialogue consists of one actor yelling the name of another character (examples include: “Dex!” “Joe!” “Polly!” and “Totenkopf!”). My father remarked that watching Sky Captain was akin to watching What Dreams May Come, because you’re captivated by the painterly visuals enough to stop paying attention to the less-than-there story and characters. The characters running onscreen also appears awkward, like they’re running on treadmills we can’t see, reminiscent of early 1990s video games.

Let’s talk then about those characters then. Paltrow’s character is generally unlikable. She’ll scheme her way toward whatever gains she wishes, but not in a chirpy Lois Lane style, more like a tabloid reporter. She whines, she yells, she complains, she berates, and she doesn’t so much banter as she does argue. Sky Captain is more enigmatic as a character. He seems forever vexed. Jolie’s Captain Franky Cook gives her another opportunity for her to use her faux-British accent. Jolie’s character is the strong-willed, sexy, helpful heroine that should be the center of the film, not Paltrow’s pesky reporter.

It’s also a bit undignified to assemble Laurence Olivier as the villain. It’s very unnecessary, but at least he wasn’t dancing with a vacuum cleaner.

Now, having acknowledged the flaws of Sky Captain, I must now say this: I do not care at all. This is the first time I’ve totally sidestepped a film’s flaws because of overall enjoyment. I have never felt as giddy as I did while watching Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. When the giant robots first showed up I was hopping in my seat. When I saw the mixture of 1930s sci-fi, adventure serials, and Max Fleischer cartoons, I was transported to being a little kid again. No movie has done this so effectively for me since perhaps the first Back to the Future. I loved that we saw map lines when we traveled from country to country. I love the fact that the radio signal hailing Sky Captain is reminiscent of the RKO Pictures opening.This is a whirling, lovelorn homage that will make generations of classic movie geeks will smile from ear to ear. I don’t pretend to brush over the flaws, with which story and characters might be number one, but Sky Captain left me on such a cotton-candy high that my eyes were glazing over.

One could actually make a legitimate argument that the stock characters, stiff dialogue, and anemic story are in themselves a clever homage to the sci-fi serials of old, where the good guys were brave, the women plucky, and the bad guys always bent on world domination. I won?t make this argument, but it could lend credence more toward the general flaws of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

Sky Captain is an exciting ode to influences of old. It’s periodically breath-taking in its visuals and periodically head scratching with its story, but the film might awaken childhood glee within the viewer. I won’t pretend the film isn’t flawed, and I know the primary audience that will love Sky Captain are Boomers with a love and appreciation for classic cinema. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow will be a blast for a select audience, but outside of that group the film’s flaws may be too overwhelming.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Cellular (2004)

Cellular, a new thriller, relies on the simple device of a cell phone for the crux of its plot. With cell phones becoming ever more present, and ever more an eyesore in our daily lives, it was only a matter of time before they had their own movie. They’ve slimmed down from their heavier 1980s days, and become more useful, allowing one to surf the Web, take candid pictures of people in gyms, and are able to ring in the tone of the new hot rap song of the week. The premise for Cellular may be pitch-perfect for our modern society, but will an audience answer its call?

Jessica Martin (Kim Basinger) is a high school biology teacher caught up in some scary events. She’s been kidnapped by a gruff man (Jason Statham), and locked in an attic. She’s informed that her son and husband will be found and kidnapped, unless she tells him what he wants to know. Unfortunately, she’s clueless as to what her kidnappers want. There is a wall phone in the attic, and one kidnapper smashes it with a sledgehammer and walks away satisfied. Jessica goes to work re-configuring the shattered phone pieces, tapping wires until she can reach out and touch somebody.

Ryan (Chris Evans) is a hunky beach bum who’s chastised by his ex (Jessica Biel, I know, I didn’t believe it too) for being too irresponsible. He’s driving around in his cool ride when he gets a panicky phone call from, you guessed it, Jessica. At first he thinks it’s a practical joke until he overhears her kidnappers threaten her. Reluctant to help, Jessica asks him to stop the kidnappers from reaching her family. Ryan runs around town all day scrambling to help Jessica’s family and solve the case. He also enlists the help of a retiring police officer (William H. Macy), who’d rather open a day spa than do desk work.

The premise for Cellular is near-genius and provides an abundance of smart, problematic possibilities. Ryan runs around and is always in danger of losing the signal. At one moment his cell phone is about to die from low battery charge. Another time the lines get crossed. Every step seems believable and the characters’ reactions seem credible. With Cellular, the audience thinks along with the characters step-by-step. When Ryan encounters stumbling blocks, the audience is with him in solving them, and this makes for a very engaging and thrilling movie.

The acting in thrillers is usually a minimal speed bump but the actors in Cellular do fine work. Basinger attempts to make up for her role in The Door in the Floor and plays harried and teary like a pro, but her best moments are when she uses her biology teacher know-how in precarious situations. She’s like a female MacGyver. Cellular is really a coming-out for Evans as a leading man. He’s had small roles before in The Perfect Score and Not Another Teen Movie, but this is his first leading-man role, and he handles the running, shouting, and panting with aplomb. Statham does his usually fine work of sneering and acting menacing. It’s also fun to watch William H. Macy, usually playing an every-man or a sadsack loser, play a bloodhound cop that morphs into an action hero.

The pacing in Cellular is breakneck. In the first 10 minutes, we witness Jessica’s kidnapping, and the momentum built up from that point is exhilarating. There is rarely a moment to catch your breath in Cellular. The action sequences are exciting but not redundant, and the tension readily mounts, especially when the audience is given more information than our heroes. There’s also some fun jabs at our country’s cell phone lifestyle.

Director David R. Ellis worked as a stunt coordinator for 20 years, before advancing into the director?s chair and helming 2003’s schlocky gore-fest Final Destination 2. Ellis knows how to keep his plot moving, and something is always happening in Cellular to draw our attention or to push us on edge. Cellular was written by Larry Cohen, who also penned Phone Booth and probably won’t rest until he’s the Robert Rodat of telecommunications (Rodat wrote Saving Private Ryan and The Patriot, and seems destined to write a movie about every American war). Might I envision an erotic thriller with the “Can you hear me now?” Verizon guy just around the corner? Only time will tell.

As with any thriller, there are going to be lapses in logic that have the possibility of stopping the story dead in its tracks. Cellular‘s biggest logic loophole occurs right at the start, and if you can get behind it then you can enjoy the rest of the ride. Instead of smashing a telephone, why not yank it out of the wall and fully decommission it? Or, even better, why leave your kidnapped victim in a room, out of your sight, with a phone? Would it not have been easier to just tie her to a chair in plain sight? The mind boggles. The real answer we all know, of course, is because then we wouldn’t have a movie. There’s also a sequence late in the film where the bad guys discuss their evil plan on cell phones, which seems a tad careless considering anyone with a police scanner could listen in. As I said, gaps of logic are expected in this movie terrain and it’s your ability to rise above them that will determine if you enjoy the film.

Cellular is a thriller that dials the right numbers. It may have some gaps in logic, but it delivers when it comes to sharp suspense, smart action and a great premise. Fans of action thrillers should lick their lips with what Cellular has to offer. Just remember to keep your cell phones turned off during the movie, unless, of course, you’re surfing the Web, sneaking pictures of some girl, or jammin’ to the rap song of the week.

Nate’s Grade: B

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