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Untraceable (2008)

The Internet can be a scary place, no question. There’s plenty of weird crap in wide-open world of the World Wide Web. There are sites devoted to teaching people how to make bombs in the privacy of their own kitchen. If you can name a fetish, chances are there’s a pay sex site already built for it (I tried “clown porn” and was not disappointed, and by that I mean that I found a site for it and WAS deeply creeped out). According to the ongoing Dateline specials, everyone wants to “talk” to adolescent girls while they’re home alone. In short, the Internet can be a scary place. Untraceable, a barrel-scrapping genre movie, taps into our fears of the unknown in cyber space.

Agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) is a member of the Portland, Oregon office of the FBI. She specializes in tracking down cyber criminals and bringing them to real-world justice. There’s a new Web site called “Kill With Me.com” that invites anonymous users to serve as executioners. The site creator creates death traps that increase in deadliness the more users click onto the site; so a man bleeds out faster the more people that want to catch a glimpse of it. Lucky for the FBI, the cyber killer is doing all this nasty business in Portland. Marsh and her cyber assistant (Colin Hanks) try finding the location of the IP site but, somehow, it skips around the world and cannot be pinpointed. The victims of the site are specifically chosen, and Marsh is struggling to put it all together. Then the cyber killer begins stalking her and lets others join in on the fun.

Untraceable is rather hypocritical in nature. It wants to titillate an audience but then shame them for embracing the titillation; the movie is purveying the same crap that it derides. The premise of a digital age serial killer that transforms murder into an online democratic act sounds nifty. Plenty of insightful questions generated by this premise like the nature of exploitation, media, and the culpability on the account of the insatiable viewing public. It’s too bad, then that Untraceable just uses the premise as a jumping off point to create a half-assed Saw. The movie is mostly concerned with reworking the familiar tropes of the serial killer genre, this time with some extra dashes of torture and Saw-style death traps. But the movie doesn’t fully commit to horror so much of the gore is implied. The extra attention to torture seems timidly tacked on to the framework of a thriller, likely grossing out the older folk that came to the movies thinking they were going to watch Diane Lane assert justice on this new fangled Internets thing. The movie has a vague fear of technology and computers and seems programmed to scare people that don’t know any better, namely the people who think computers are bigger toasters.

The script by relative neophytes is where the movie treads water. The villain is revealed fairly early, like a half hour in, and this revelation does nothing to help build tension. The culprit responsible for the laughably implausible death traps is a gangly eighteen-year-old twerp (Running with Scissors‘ Joseph Cross; yes that kid). I understand that in serial killer movies the villain usually takes on some form of supernatural abilities, like the ability to be everywhere and never be seen, or the ability to draw super strength at opportune times. When Untraceable apathetically reveals its villain the movie seems like it’s already giving up and conceding, “Okay, this is the big bad dude and he weighs about 110 pounds soaking wet. We know he could never outmatch anyone that is over five feet tall.” Marsh’s home life is also given obligatory screen time, including Marsh’s mother keeping watch of the home, but it never matters. In this world, birthday parties just get in the way of FBI manhunts.

The film also requires character to act inexplicably stupid at a moment’s notice in order for the plot to hum along. Marsh is such an expert on cyber crime, and yet she doesn’t bat an eyelash when her young daughter downloads a mysterious computer program sent to her by a “friend”? Never mind that this FBI expert logs onto the “Kill With Me” site on her home computer, allowing the killer to hack into her computer and look through all her personal information and cyber dirty laundry. The worst lapse occurs after our tech-savvy killer has effectively hacked into Marsh’s OnStar computer system in her car. The engine shits down and the car slows to a halt. Marsh leaves her car to use a roadside telephone to tell another cop that the killer has hijacked her car. The cop on the phone advises her to be on alert. Right after she hangs up, the car’s engine and lights become operational once again. Marsh trots over to her car, whose door had been open since she left, and simply hops back inside without checking the vehicle at all. She is swiftly tazed and kidnapped by the killer who was routinely hiding in the back seat. It’s not like a trained FBI agent would be able to miss the inescapable sight of somebody hiding in a tiny backseat with little room to crouch. I can excuse smart people making stupid decisions, but when a movie like Untraceable has experts not following through on situations that require their expertise, then it comes across as contrived. Really, a cop wouldn’t even peek in the backseat?

Lane holds her own, and even that is an accomplishment for something so rote. She’s an actress easing into her forties and finding a new tap of talent. Frankly, she should have won the Best Actress Oscar for 2002 with her fabulous work in Unfaithful. That movie came out five years ago, and yet the Diane Lane in Untraceable looks so much older. I think the filmmakers were trying to make her look more harried by not applying makeup or utilizing soft focus. You can see her wrinkles and her age, and these are all well earned for a great actress, and Untraceable wants to maker her look her age in a time where Hollywood seems to dump out an actress’ business card once she hits 40. I just thought that was interesting, but the most interesting facet of this entire movie is that the actor who plays the head of the FBI team (Peter Lewis) looks remarkably close to 2008 Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. It’s uncanny. If Huckabee ever plans on contributing to a filmed biopic of his life, then Peter Lewis should be on his shortlist.

Untraceable scrapes the serial killer genre for some form of life. The novel premise gives way to predictably lackluster thrills and gaping plot holes. Lane saunters around with a gun for two hours, mixed in with some extended sequences of torture, including one that involves hundreds of heat lamps. Look, I know I’m no cop, but couldn’t someone simply trace the massive electric bill this guy is generating? It’s just sloppy police work all around. Why? Because the movie requires giant lapses in judgment so that it can continue. The world can be a sick place, but has it always been this way? A better movie would dig deeper; this movie just wants to fry a cat and call it a day.

Nate’s Grade: C

King Kong (2005)

Has there been any movie this year that’s had a bigger hype machine than Peter Jackson’s King Kong? Coming after his Lord of the Rings trilogy, about two billion in revenue and a slew of Oscars in tow, Jackson decided to recreate the movie that captured his imagination as a child. It was King Kong that made Jackson want to become a filmmaker, so now he is returning the favor. Universal ponied up a staggering 200 million dollars for a budget and paid Jackson a record 20 million to sit in the director’s chair. Like his Rings series, this Kong clocks in at a gargantuan 3-hour running time. Will audiences share Jackson’s adoration with the story of a woman, a big ape, and a bigger building?

Carl Denham (Jack Black) is a filmmaker feeling studio pressure. The suits want to reel him in before he even starts shooting his next picture. Carl scrambles to get his crew and equipment onto a boat before the studio can shut him down. He?s on the prowl for a new lead actress and spots Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a hungry out of work vaudeville actress. He quickly convinces her to be apart of his movie and hurries her aboard, the selling point being that Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) has written the story. Carl practically kidnaps Jack and they all set a course for the mysterious Skull Island, a place only rumored to exist. The ship’s captain and crew are wary but sure enough their vessel washes ashore on an exotic island. But this is no sunny getaway, as the crew is immediately besieged by hostile natives and Ann is taken prisoner and offered as a sacrifice to Kong, a 25-foot gorilla. Jack leads an expedition to retrieve Ann, who begins to bond with her hairy captor (Stockholm syndrome, anybody?). Kong rescues Ann from dangers, be it bug or dinosaur, but flies into a vicious rage when she’s plucked away from him. Carl realizes an even bigger attraction: a giant ape to headline Broadway and line his own pockets. His schemes come true as Kong is knocked out and transported back to New York City. However, no stage is too great for Kong, as he busts free and looks all over for the love of his life, Ann.

The sweet love story gives Jackson’s update a surprising emotional richness. In the 1933 original, Fay Wray never stopped shrieking until the big guy toppled off the Empire State building. She had no emotional connection to her furry captor and his unrequited love. In the 2005 King Kong, the strength of the movie is the relationship between Ann and Kong. Jackson of course stacks the deck of his story to all but guarantee an audience will fall in love with the big brute (he appreciates sunsets, how romantic!). There?s not much choice whether or not to sympathize with Kong, especially those moments where we stare into his soulful eyes welling up with emotion. King Kong has always been a tale of exploitation with man as the true monster. By administering time to fully develop a convincing relationship between beauty and beast, it makes the later scenes of exploitation have a larger sense of tragedy. Immense credit goes to Watts for selling this relationship and spurring our sympathy for Kong, instead of making their bond something for snickers and eye-rolling. Poor Adrien Brody though. It’s pretty bad in a romantic triangle when you’d rather pick a giant primate than Brody.

The performances go a long way to adding to the enjoyment of King Kong. Watts is a luminous actress and a natural beauty. It’s because of her that the second half of the movie has a beating heart and some kicks to the gut. Brody is ho-hum but given little to work with as a, wait for it, second banana. Black works wonders to make his villainous role so charismatic. Denham is a huckster that would step over his dying mother to make a buck, and yet Black’s charming and funny even at his most dastardly and cowardly. I don’t think King Kong would have worked the same with different actors; few could bring the heart and emotion Watts emotes, and few could bring Black’s comic virtuosity that makes it plausible why others would follow his showman character. Colin Hanks (also along side Black in Orange County), as Denham’s assistant, imparts a favorable impression. I’d like to see him paired up with Topher Grace sometime. Give it some consideration, Hollywood.

King Kong is a spectacular vision by one of cinema’s greatest visionaries. Jackson has lavishly recreated the excitement of his youth, bringing the story of Kong into the modern age with studly panache. The film is marvelously beautiful to take in and has plenty of moments that will reawaken the child within you, transporting you to an age when movies truly seemed larger than life. During the epic battle between Kong and the T. Rexes, I knew the exact curiosity and excitement Jackson felt when he saw the 1933 original. The action is intense and rarely lets up once our adventurers reach Skull Island. The special effects are some of the best movies have ever seen. Kong moves with expressive accuracy that goes a long way toward expressing his humanity, whether it is in a sigh or a tantrum. Andy Serkis has yet again brought life to another entirely CGI character. King Kong is well worth the price of admission just to sneak a peek at the Jackson’s limitless imagination.

With Jackson’s beefed-up recreation, he has also brought with him a terrible amount of bloat. This King Kong runs a frightful 3-hours plus, and most viewers will just feel exhausted by the time the lights go back up in their theater. Jackson’s love affair with his material is indisputable but it also seems to cloud his judgment as far as pacing is concerned. Numerous scenes seem to stretch longer than necessary and lose their point of interest, the first hour seems too drawn out and prosaic, and the movie haphazardly mixes in the serious with the soapy (Kong on ice?). Some scenes lose their sense of believability the longer they stretch on, even in a movie filled with giant monsters. Certain subplots have set-up but no follow-through, like all the added attention to Jimmy (Jamie Bell), the ship’s teen that wants to experience danger too. Jackson even makes sure we catch that he’s reading Heart of Darkness. So where does this character go? Nowhere and very slowly at that. The character has no bearing on anything that happens with the plot and is dropped entirely once they leave the island. There’s no point. Did something get cut from the inevitable 8-hour extended edition DVD that will prove how pivotal Jimmy really was? I doubt it.

Some nipping and tucking and a comprehensive editing overhaul would certainly make King Kong a better movie, but it would lose its sense of spectacle. I can’t complain about length too much since Jackson packs such a wallop of entertainment like few others, so while King Kong certainly is a bloated and exhaustive film, it’s also an artistically bloated, exhaustive film. Jackson sure does have reverence for his source material (some lines and scenes are directly lifted), though he may have overlooked the 1933 King Kong‘s 100-minute running time.

Peter Jackson’s King Kong is an epic, epically grandiose, epically imaginative, epically action-packed, and epically bloated. The update is a bit exhausting but Jackson packs more entertainment per minute than few others in the film business, even if he has too many minutes to work with. Watts really sells her tender relationship with Kong and gives the film a surprising emotional heft absent from the 1933 original. Because of our emotional investment the film has a greater sense of sadness and tragedy as it plays out. King Kong was the 800-pound gorilla of the movie year and Jackson knows how to deliver a visual epic, even if he tiptoes into self-indulgence. While I can protest the length, pacing, and some subplots that go nowhere or strain credibility, it’s hard to argue that King Kong is the popcorn spectacle of the year. Your bladder may hate you by the end of it but you won’t want to miss a second.

Nate’s Grade: B

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