Monthly Archives: March 2005

Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous (2005)

Sandra Bullock is the nation?s most famous tomboy. She began in action flicks but soon settled under the familiar road traveled by so many winsome, likeable young actresses: romantic comedies. She even turned down the role in Million Dollar Baby that Hilary Swank would later ride to Oscar gold. Bullock has now publicly stated that she wants to step away from romantic comedies and challenge herself as an actress. She of course must have felt this way before agreeing to Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous.

Just weeks after foiling a beauty pageant tragedy, Gracie Hart (Bullock) is returning back to the FBI undercover field. Her newfound celebrity makes her stick out in a crowd of autograph-seekers. She cannot work undercover anymore so the FBI, in a stroke of public relations, wants Gracie to be the new face of the bureau. She gets a makeover (again) and a hot-tempered bodyguard (Regina King) to shadow her on talk show circuits, book signings, and other public appearances. Just when things are looking rosy, the reigning Miss United States, Cheryl, and the pageant host (William Shatner, gleefully hammy) are kidnapped. The kidnappers want millions or else they?ll kill them both. Gracie regroups from her makeover madness and jumps on the case to save her friend.

Bullock is a very likeable actress but seems prone to more pratfalls than Buster Keaton combined with two of the Three Stooges. The physical comedy comes off being tired this go-round. Watching Bullock be clumsy can be funny, but the comedy of Miss Congeniality 2 is too forced to crack a smile. The friction between Gracie and her bodyguard is one conversation away from evaporating. The girls have to pose as Vegas entertainers to get backstage, when they just could have used their “oh I don’t know?” FBI status. When Gracie goes undercover Bullock becomes unhinged and flounders around in rubbery ethnic stereotypes. Miss Congeniality 2 isn’t funny because the film doesn’t know what to do.

The finer moments of Miss Congeniality involved the dry wit of Michael Caine, and he is sorely missed in this sequel. The strangely necessary role of gay makeover artist is passed to Deidrech Bader (The Drew Carey Show). He amps up the sass but can’t really replace Caine. King is a greatly underrated actress (Jerry Maguire should have made her a star), but she suffers from the constraints of a rough-around-the-edges loner character. She mainly scowls and grumbles.

What made Miss Congeniality appealing was the fish-out-of-water conceit of an ugly ducking in a world of swans. Even though I didn’t like the film, it could at least muster up broad humor from its comic premise. Miss Congeniality 2 is a lot like Austin Powers 2, in that the sequel puts the fish back into the water. As a result the film loses whatever comic firepower it might have had. Miss Congeniality 2 attempts to be a female-buddy-cop caper, but the butting heads rarely produce any comedy. This film didn’t make me laugh until after 20 minutes in, and the ratio of screen time to laughs didn’t improve much afterwards (and that includes jokes about bad breath and tampons!).

Miss Congeniality 2 has some of the dumbest police work ever. Characters go to extreme lengths for basic information, make wild assessments on little to go with, and key clues are tripped over with the subtlety of a jackhammer. The idiotic police work syncs up with the preposterous nature of the crooks? scheme. They are ex-employees of the Treasure Island casino, so to take revenge they?re going to trap their prey inside the pirate ship display, which is set to sink as part of the attraction’s script. Yes, death by casino attraction.

There are also some wildly brainless moments. Gracie is about to flee the sinking pirate ship, when her elaborate showgirl costume gets trapped under a heavy canon. Now, with time and air running out, any normal person would quickly strip out of the costume and swim away. Instead, Gracie tugs at her costume trying to yank it out, and she does this until she nearly drowns. I don’t care who you are, if you’re about to drown then modesty isn’t going to get in the way. Better to be alive and naked than dead and soggy. For that matter, when Gracie discovers that the pirate ship has her friends she runs to get inside. Wouldn’t it be infinitely easier to find someone at the casino that could stop the animatronic attraction? I’m sure something that organized doesn’t just run without safety controls.

Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous is clumsy and riddled with contrivances and inanities. The jokes are forced and dead on arrival, and Bullock falls into what she does best, which is falling down. There is no reason for this film to exist other than that the original made money. Die-hard fans of Miss Congeniality may be the only ones to get some enjoyment out of this tepid sequel. Even casual fans of Bullock’s romantic comedies will likely be disappointed. You know you’re watching a tired comedy when they make Dolly Parton boob jokes in the year 2005. Miss Congeniality 2 is a film that doesn’t make the cut.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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The Ring Two (2005)

I loved The Ring. Loved it. So I had some trepidation when I found out they were making a sequel. Surely it wouldn’t have the punch of the first film. To see Ring Two I went to a theater frequented by somewhat affluent teenagers and pre-teens. Big. Mistake. People were chattering away the entire time, laughing stupidly, and shouting ridiculously lame jokes: (on seeing a damp bed: “Oops, somebody wet the bed”). There were two managers that had to patrol the theater to keep order. Worst of all was a team of easily riled prepubescent girls that sat behind me, shrieking like banshees even during movie trailers. The same thing happened to me when I went to see The Village at the same theater. I must attract the most annoying people in the crowd. The sound quality in my theater was also very poor. Now, I can’t help but think that this was some divine act to warn me how bad Ring Two was going to be.

Rachel (Naomi Watts) has taken her son Aidan (the creepy David Dorfman) to a new town to start a new life. It’s been years since the incident with the videotape, and Rachel feels guilt about her role in spreading the killer tape. She’s got a new job at a small town newspaper but yet she can’t escape her past. A teen has been found with a contorted face, soggy floor, and a certain videotape. Rachel finds the tape and burns it. Samara, the evil young girl who started the evil tape, is none too pleased. Seems the evil tyke wants to be a real girl with a real mommy, and is slowly taking over Aidan. His temperature is dropping, he’s not sleeping, and bad things are happening. Rachel confronts more of Samara?s history to learn what it takes to stop her and get her son back.

Everything that worked in the first film feels forced and meaningless when rehashed in Ring Two. In the previous film, there was context for the image of a tree on fire and Rachel yanking a fly right out of a TV screen. In Ring Two, these plot points are now reduced to being contrived signs of doom. There’s a scene where we’re supposed to be scared because a single fly comes out of a faucet. Huh? The fly and the tree made sense in The Ring, but in the sequel they are stripped of their context and seem alien. And dumb. After everything fit so tightly together in The Ring, it’s disappointing that little makes sense in the sequel.

Watts is such an enormously appealing actress that even in dreck like this she can come off as luminescent. With the two Ring films and Peter Jackson’s upcoming King Kong, Watts could establish herself as the scream queen of her generation. She’s a gifted actress and melts into whatever role she plays.

Ring Two‘s director, Hideo Nakata, knows a thing or two about the territory. He did direct the original Japanese Ringu films, which the American remakes are based upon. Nakata generates a fun sense of anticipatory dread. He also lucks into the occasional eye-opener like a bathtub whose water flows up and fills the ceiling. Nakata has a confidant touch but I miss the sheen of Gore Verbinsky’s direction.

What’s sorely missing is a killer premise like in The Ring. The premise was razor sharp, presenting a videotape as a virus and human nature’s willingness to taste forbidden fruit as the vehicle for its spreading. There was a sense of urgency because of the looming seven-day death deadline. In Ring Two there is no sense of urgency at all. In fact, the film takes an overly leisurely pace. It’s quite awfully boring. Samara wants a mommy and can?t really be stopped until a late revelation. This leads to a lot of impotent pacing and waiting. Except for a snappy opening, Ring Two completely ditches the videotape virus storyline that made its predecessor so compelling. As a result, it also ditches suspense and most of its intelligence.

The Ring had a strong central mystery and a sense of urgency, which both blended to create tightly wound tension. Ring Two sputters around and relies on gimmicky jump scares as its main source of spooks. We see a character look into a mirror, look away, and then look back and something else is right there! Does this really work for anyone still? I just assume when a character ducks out of the way of a mirror that something’s coming. It’s these kinds of creaky, transparent tricks that Ring Two goes back to over and over to goose an audience. Because the story isn’t engaging the filmmakers have to resort to gimmicks. Since we’ve seen the results of Samara’s murders (the grotesque facial distortion) is it even scary to see it again when we know exactly what we’re about to see? The essence of horror is the unexpected. Finding the expected is about as scary as looking at leftovers in the fridge.

There’s a great moment early in Ring Two. Rachel and Aidan are driving through a forest and are followed and then attacked by a horde of deer. It’s the lone sequence in this sequel that feels different and exciting. It’s somewhat crazy, somewhat marvelous, and very weird. Too bad Ring Two relapses from there on into a turgid horror flick.

The Ring was a smart, tense, expertly crafted film that rose beyond genre conventions. Ring Two is nothing but genre conventions and repeatedly goes back to the well to drub up scares that aren’t there anymore (unless you’re the prepubescent girls that sat behind me). Watts is still in fine form and there are some visually striking moments. However, Ring Two is bereft of excitement and scares and has become just another tired, languished sequel. When I walk out of a horror moving saying, “I guess the best thing about that film was either Sissy Spaceck’s crazy cameo or deer,” then you are in a world of bad. Ring Two is meek, dumb, and boring. Let this one go straight to video.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Jacket (2005)

In The Jacket, Adrien Brody plays a mentally disturbed soldier sentenced to spend his days in a treatment facility. He gets strapped into a straight jacket and locked inside a morgue drawer as part of his “therapy.” Inside these closed quarters, for whatever unexplained reason, Brody has the ability to travel through time. This got me thinking about some other weird/lame ways people travel through time in films. In 2004’s The Butterfly Effect a bearded Ashton Kutcher is able to jump through time by reading his childhood journals. Sure this is weird, and may give false hope to a nation of gloomy journal-scribbling teenagers, but when it comes to incompetent time travel techniques, 1980’s Somewhere in Time is number one with a bullet. Christopher Reeve’s character desperately wants to travel back to 1912. So he removed all modern furniture, clothing, and anything post-1912. Then he lies down on his hotel bed and keeps repeating to himself that he’s living in 1912. Somehow this works and Reeve gets to embark on romance, 1912-style y’all.

Jack Starks (Brody) is a helpful and well-meaning guy that just can’t catch a break. As a soldier in the 1991 Gulf War, an Iraqi kid he was trying to befriend shoots him in the head. When he returns home he starts a long trek through the Northeast. Starks helps out a mother and daughter whose car has stalled. He befriends the non-gun wielding little girl, Jackie, but her drunken mom nearly accosts Starks and they drive away. Then he gets a ride with a drifter (Brad Renfro). They get pulled over by a cop. The drifter kills the cop; Starks gets knocked out and framed for the murder. He’s sentenced to spend the rest of his days in a clinic for the mentally disturbed. And you thought you were having a bad day.

The operator of the clinic (Kris Kristofferson) has some unconventional methods of therapy, like locking Starks in a straight jacket and sliding him into a morgue drawer. Inside this confined space Starks can zip through time to 2007. In the future he goes home with an angsty young woman (Keira Knightley) who, surprise, ends up being an adult Jackie, the girl he helped at the side of the road. They’re both confused and freaked out, but what spooks Starks even more is the knowledge that he dies on New Year’s Day, 1993. Starks must now get into that jacket so he can visit 2007 some more, fall in love with Jackie, and piece together clues to prevent his soon-to-be death.

Brody seems to be having as much bad luck post-Oscar as Halle Berry and Nicole Kidman. He’s in some funk playing glum character after glum character. Brody and his gaunt figure do have a natural haunted quality and he does excel at emoting grief and horror (hence the 2002 Best Actor Oscar for The Pianist). Brody gives the film more intensity than it deserves.

Knightley is a decent actress but has little to work with. Her role is wrapped in a slab of Gothic traits posing as characterization. When she talks it sounds like she has a cold. I don’t know if this is because of her attempted American accent, the glum character, or maybe she just had a cold from all that outdoor shooting in the snow.

Director John Maybury has the irritating habit of filming scenes entirely in jagged close-ups. Two people will be talking and then -WAM!- huge close-up of an eyeball. Then -POW!- giant mouth filling up the screen. Then -WAM! (again)- more of the same. This editing decision is a distraction but it also lacks purpose. It doesn’t effectively communicate character emotion or scene tension; it just annoys the crap out of you.

The Jacket is fairly interesting for a good while. The premise is almost ingenious: a man must travel to the future to collect information to prevent his mysterious death in the past. The Jacket adds further intrigue with the question of whether Starks really is traveling through time. Maybe he truly is disturbed and this is all in his head. Sadly, but as expected, The Jacket disproves this tantalizing possibility after an hour of tease.

When the film does transition into its final half, the possibility it showcased seems to go slack. The answers seem either overly tidy or simply anticlimactic, like the truth behind Starks’ death. The Jacket opens strong and strings us along with some intriguing prospects but the end results merely peter out the film’s potential until The Jacket seems completely drained of blood.

Their relationship also has some unexpected creepy moments. Starks, in 1992, visits the little girl he will eventually have sex with in 2007. Yes she’s an adult when they take their tussle in the sheets, but having him later visit her when she’s a child is just plain cre-eeeee-py.

For a while, The Jacket aims to be an intelligent mind-bender but the film squanders its potential. The answers don’t seem nearly as thought-out as the film’s initially intriguing questions. Brody gives the movie more brooding intensity than it deserves, and Knightley shows why she should never be allowed to film a love scene again (in a case of life imitating art, Brody and Knightley are currently dating). The Jacket is irritatingly directed, alternating between pale shots of white wilderness, extreme close-ups, and overkill on style. The Jacket seems like a nice fit for a while but becomes too frayed to be memorable.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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