DVDregs: Mimic

Well, here’s a surprise: a new DVDregs from the “M” section of my collection? Wasn’t my last movie from “D”? Were there really no questionable movies from E-L? Actually, there are still movies in “D” that I’m considering for this segment. It just so happens that I needed to watch Mimic for another reason, and it was one of the stronger contenders from my collection for this segment. So, you know, two birds, one stone, yadda yadda.

I remember seeing Mimic in the theater when it came out in 1997. I also remember liking it, which is why I bought it on DVD a few years later when I found it in a Halloween-themed bargain bin for $5. I also remember never watching the DVD after I bought it. So it’s been more than 10 years since the last time I saw this movie. Could it really stand up to the passage of so much time in between viewings? Or would this be another one of those impulse buys destined to migrate downstairs to the donation box?

The story begins with a scene in which we and the primary protagonist, Dr. Susan Tyler, are introduced to a room full of dying children, all suffering the final stages of a disease that is being spread by the cockroaches of New York City. Why has the CDC called in Dr. Tyler? Why, because she’s a renowned entomologist! Who else would you bring in to deal with diseased cockroaches? Orkin?

So Dr. Tyler goes about doing something that we pretty much thought was completely impossible: She eradicates the entire cockroach population of NYC. She creates an insect hybrid, which she calls the “Judas” breed, that is designed to release an enzyme that will be the kiss of death to the roaches. Hey, was that a pun made at the expense of the name Judas? And should we be concerned that something might go amiss with a bug breed named after the disciple who betrayed Christ? Hmm, I wonder if this bug is going to…I don’t know…betray anyone? Nah, that can’t happen, because Dr. Tyler has also programmed these insects to have a limited life span and an inability to breed. What could possibly go wrong with that?

The Judas bugs are successful. The roaches are all killed, the children stop getting sick, and all is well. We think. So does Dr. Tyler, who is heralded as a hero. Er, heroine. So we skip ahead 3 years. Dr. Tyler is now married to Dr. Peter Mann, the CDC dude who first brought her in on this project, they’re happy, they’re upwardly mobile, they’re attractive…all is right. For about 10 minutes. Then the shit hits the fan. Or the ceiling, actually. Yes, there is a scene in which we see poo hanging from a ceiling. We see more than one of these scenes throughout the rest of the movie. Along with a lot of blood. And sweat. And gooey, viscous white stuff.

Okay, here’s where I derail the description a little bit and go off on a famous Loba Tangent. I make no secret about the fact that I love horror movies. I’ve seen my share of all kinds of them…slasher flicks, thrillers, monster movies, sci-fi horror, psychological, etc. I know what scares me and what I view with a sense of meh-laise.

Most stuff gives me a momentary jolt and then passes into the mist of my movie memory banks. Some stuff sticks around. White gooey glop? That sticks. I don’t know why, but I find scenes in horror movies that contain some kind of milky, viscous substance to be very squeam-inducing. It’s just gross. Worse than blood. Worse than entrails. Worse than rotting flesh.

This movie is filled with this goo. It’s everywhere. People are smearing it on themselves. The bugs are oozing it. It looks glisteny and gross and there’s no escaping it.

I don’t really want to give away much else about the actual story, because it is a rather intriguing twist. Let’s just say that Dr. Tyler wasn’t very successful at programming her Judas bugs to self-terminate. And they are aptly named. How they betray is where the intriguing twist resides.

One of the things that most surprised me when I re-watched this film was the fact that it was directed by Guilermo del Toro. In fact, I think this was one of his first American movies. I adore del Toro’s style, which is definitely prevalent throughout this film, even if it is early in his career (and even if he has pretty much disowned this movie because of “artistic differences” between him and the Weinstein brothers, who produced the movie). There is an unevenness in the storytelling at times, shifts in the script that stray away from the darkness that is so obviously a del Toro trademark. It makes me wonder what a purely del Toro take on this movie could have been.

That being said, Mimic is still successful at setting a disturbing, dark atmosphere. There are pure slices of fright embedded throughout this movie. There’s also an annoying boy who plays the spoons and calls out types and sizes of shoes worn by everyone who walks by him. I have a feeling he was supposed to be a sympathetic character. I kept wishing for the white viscous glop pit for him. Sadly, it never came (and that’s the only spoiler I’m going to give you). True, the movie does show its age through some rather dated and mediocre CGI effects, especially toward the end. But there are enough traditional physical effects throughout to make up for the less impressive CGI.

The cast includes Mira Sorvino as Dr. Tyler, Jeremy Northam as Dr. Mann, Charles S. Dutton as a surly but good-hearted NYC cop, Josh Brolin as Dr. Mann’s coworker (ironically named Josh), F. Murray Abraham as Dr. Tyler’s mentor/conscience, Dr. Gates, and Giancarlo Gianini as Manny the shoe shine guy with the annoying spoon-playing kid. Not a bad cast, although I did find Sorvino to be a bit of a weak link at times.

To be honest, I have a very difficult time seeing Sorvino as anything other than either Romy or her guest role on Will & Grace (“You spun me right ’round, Will! Like a record!”). To me, she’s a brilliant comic actress, perfect at being the foil to the silliness transpiring around her. In roles like this one, she simply doesn’t bring the gravitas I expect in such characters. Whether that’s a flaw of her skills or of my expectations, I don’t know.

Dutton and Brolin, however, provided two of my favorite performances in this film. Dutton is especially likable and sympathetic, and you’re with him all the way (even if you can see where he’s heading a thousand miles away…even in the damp darkness of those underground subway tunnels).

DVD Special Features: Um. There are none. Unless you consider the theatrical trailer and “Chapter Selection” to be special features. Personally, I don’t. I’m quite surprised by the fact that there was nothing else included with this movie, not even a sunshine-pumping featurette or the standard commentary track. I guess this might have something to do with the clash between del Toro and the Weinsteins, who put up the financial backing for this film and apparently interpreted that as “We’re paying for it so screw your artistic vision and give us what we want to see.”

Of course, this makes me wonder why del Toro wouldn’t be interested in releasing his own director cut of this movie, to fix all that he felt went wrong due to Weinstein interference. Then again, he’s moved on to much more impressive things like Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, Frankenstein, and prep work for At the Mountains of Madness (look! A tie-in with yesterday’s BookBin2010 posting!).

Final Verdict: Even though I feel supremely let down by the fact that this DVD had absolutely no special features, I still like this movie enough to want to keep it in my collection. Though not a cinematic classic, it’s still a fun, gooey thrill ride to pop in on a dark and rainy autumn evening.

DVDregs: The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

Considering the current state of secret sins now stripped bare within the Catholic Church, you’d think that a movie called The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys would be about something completely different than it is. However, there is not one mention of the abuse that I’m sure many have assumed would be present in a movie with such a title. This isn’t Sleepers after all.

Instead, this is a quirky independent film based on a novel written by Chris Fuhrman. Unfortunately, this was Fuhrman’s only novel, as he died of cancer not long before Altar Boys’ 1991 publication. I have read the book and remember being pleased by the fact that it and the movie, while sharing fundamental similarities, are quite different in complementary ways. I wish I could be more precise. However, it’s been almost 10 years since I read the book, so I would definitely need to re-read it to speak more precisely about such things.

The story springs from Fuhrman’s semi-autobiographical memoir of growing up in a small Southern town in the 1970s. One of the things that I immediately identified when I watched this movie for the first time was that they filmed in a small Southern town where I spent many an adolescent summer. I know it’s a silly thing to latch onto in a movie, but there were so many scenes in which I recognized where the actors were…places that held happy memories of my own. I think this fact became an unexpectedly large point in this movie’s favor, even before the story began to really take form.

Beyond this, however, it’s a pretty straight-forward coming-of-age tale with some unique twists that are at times quite disturbing and quite spectacular. Francis Doyle is a 14-year-old boy who attends the St. Agnes Catholic School with his best friend, Tim Sullivan. To stave off boredom, Tim unmercifully harasses the headmistress, a wooden-leg-sporting nun named Sister Assumpta, and Francis longs for his first crush, Margie Flynn. Francis and Tim come from disparately similar troubled families, although in the film Tim’s home life is far more emotionally brutal, and so they escape from reality into a fantasy world that aspiring comic artist Francis draws for them.

This fact leads to one of the more delightful twists offered by this film. Rather than taking the trite and over-abused Wonder Years-esque voice-over route, this movie uses animated sequences to transition between scenes as well as to reflect how Francis is dealing with some rather dark and heavy moments in reality by processing them through his fantasy world. Add to this the fact that the filmmakers brought in comic artist extraordinaire Todd McFarlane to handle all the animated sequences and you get animated sequences that are brilliant in how they reflect and translate moments from reality so beautifully.

They also provide one of my favorite moments/transitions in the movie. There’s a scene where Sister Assumpta drives by the boys on her moped, her habit flowing behind her in sharp contrast against the dusky light. The moment, from an objective standpoint, is quaint and whimsical: a nun on a moped at twilight. McFarlane, however, carries that innocent moment immediately over into his animation, transforming Assumpta into the highly subjective image that Francis and his friends see when they think of the sister: the villainous Peg Leg, her habit whipping menacingly toward the screen as she roars away from us on her motorcycle and spins around to face us. Her face is shrouded in darkness by her habit, her eyes white slits sans irises or pupils, giving her visage a hideous, demonic cast. It was such a simple yet highly effective transition, and is one of the first glimpses we as an audience get of Francis’s fertile and slightly twisted fantasy world.

I’d rather not delve much deeper into the complexities that arise throughout the story, because this is a story best experienced without any knowledge to spoil twists that are at times predictable but sometimes startling. I will say that this is a somewhat unevenly paced story, both in its novelization and subsequently in the screenplay, but there are moments of brightness and brilliance, of darkness and delight that salvage it from spiraling into the purgatory of irredeemable cinematic schlock. Plus, the cast is fantastic: Emile Hirsch, in what I think is one of his first big screen appearances, plays Francis, while Kieran Culkin plays Tim. Both do a remarkable job in their respective roles; Hirsch displays a remarkable emotional depth in his performance and this younger Culkin plays truculent quite well, although he does have a bit of what I call “Christian Bale feral weasel mouth” that I found a bit distracting.

Jena Malone portrays Francis’s crush, Margie Flynn, a young girl with a horrifying secret that contributes amply to the movie’s darkness. She is a complex creature well beyond Francis’s level of understanding but desperate for his earnest attempts to accept and comfort her. Malone’s portrayal of Margie is suitably portentous, as I had expected. Malone is an actress I am quite surprised has not broken into the Hollywood elite yet. I first saw her in another book-to-movie adaptation, Bastard Out of Carolina, which makes Altar Boys look like Alice in Wonderland. Malone played the eponymous character of that movie. She was 10 years old at the time of filming (which many considered quite scandalous because of the graphic and disturbing nature of many of her scenes), and I don’t think many adult actors with years of experience could have given a more moving performance. I really hope Malone continues to seek out films that challenge her. I suspect she has the makings of another Jodie Foster or Meryl Streep.

Speaking of Jodie Foster, she appears in this movie as well, as Sister Assumpta. I make no bones about this: I adore Foster. To me, her career is representative of how you play the Hollywood game correctly. I own more movies from her oeuvre than any other actor, and I’ve seen one of her Oscar-winning performances more times than I’ve seen any other film (what do you think of that, Clarice?). It was delightful seeing her as the “baddie” in this film, at least in the minds of Tim and Francis and their friends. This evil side of her character really shines through in her voice-over work for the animated sequences (actually, all of the actors recorded remarkable voice-over contributions for McFarlane’s animations).

My least favorite part of Foster’s performance? How she makes a Kevin Costner-esque accent faux pas that is rather noticeable and, I’m sorry to say, unforgivable from an actor of her caliber. The first time we see Sister Assumpta, she speaks with a slight Irish lilt. Because, you know, all nuns apparently have to be Irish…even ones from the American South. However, in subsequent scenes, the accent simply isn’t there. Did the director decide partially through the film that he didn’t want Foster to sport the accent anymore, and they didn’t have time to go back and redo that first scene? Or did she just wake up one morning and forget that she wanted Assumpta to be Irish? Either way, it irritated me in that ridiculous way that such ridiculous nit-picks do. Still, Jodie Foster in a nun’s habit delighted me for inexplicable reasons.

Probably the only other immediately recognizable name in this film is Vincent D’Onofrio, who appears as Father Casey, a somewhat bedraggled, smoking, swearing, Magic Eight Ball-consulting priest and only semi-positive male role model in the entire film. He’s really not in the movie long enough to make much of an impact, but it was great seeing him in a far less jarring role than the last time he appeared in the DVDregs.

DVD Special Features: The special features are an interesting mix of how to do things right and completely botch things when preparing materials for DVD release. The commentary track, which features director Peter Care and screenwriter Jeff Stockwell, is a rather banal offering. It’s not that they sound ignorant or disinterested. In fact, they seem quite engaged in discussing the various aspects of this film that they feel might be of interest to listeners. I fear, however, that I am becoming anesthetized to the whole concept of the feature-length commentary. I found that my attention wandered massively several times while listening. Care has a lovely English accent, which is quite mellifluous on the ears, and Stockwell is very passionate about giving the utmost respect to Fuhrman’s original work while still making it his own and making it film-friendly, but I don’t imagine this is a track I would ever want to revisit.

There’s a Sundance Channel-produced show, Anatomy of a Scene, which I thought at first would be a typical sunshine-pumping featurette. Instead, it was just as its title indicates: the anatomy of a particular scene from the movie. The director, screenwriter, producers, editors, and actors break down a particular moment in the movie, give you details about how it was filmed, and then put it all together into the final shot at the end. Along the way, you also get other tidbits of information about the film in general. It’s kind of a truncated version of the director commentary, but slightly more interesting.

The DVD also gives you the option of viewing just McFarlane’s animated sections together, which I thought was a nice touch. You can also view the opening credit illustrations one at a time, which I guess is interesting but a bit tedious.So, too, are the production notes and biography sections. Not to be churlish, but I prefer to read books and watch DVDs. I don’t like when the two mix and I have to read my bonus materials.

Then you get your deleted scenes. Still haven’t found any scenes from this section that didn’t deserve to be deleted. There’s a second featurette, which is where the sunshine-pumping comes in, along with a series of interviews with various members of the cast and crew. I found these two things to be duplicative and a bit confusing as to why they weren’t just combined into one longer offering. Seemed like a bit of poor bonus material preparation to me. Finally throw in the theatrical trailer, the television spots, as well as some DVD-ROM features that for some reason wouldn’t play on my computer and you’ve got a predictable bonus buffet with some tasty morsels hidden among some rather bland, warmed-over mush.

Final Verdict: This is a first, denizens. I’m still undecided as to what I want to do with this DVD. Obviously, my life has continued to go without giving this movie much thought beyond buying the DVD and then never watching it. But sitting down and watching it now, even with its somewhat lackluster special features, has left me feeling both glad to have revisited this story and torn as to whether or not I’d really want to let it go. I still see the potential for discovery in additional viewings. Plus, seeing those filming locations that are so ingrained into my memory still makes me smile. So I’m going to give this one a temporary reprieve. Those dangerous altar boys can stick around a little longer in my collection…just as long as they give Sister Assumpta a break every now and then. I’d rather not have an irate nun roaring through my collection on her moped.

DVDregs: Charlie’s Angels

[Loba Note: I began writing this entry almost a month ago and finally finished it today, so please forgive any lapses in memory or uneven pacing.]

John Forsythe, forgive me for what I’m about to write.

What in the name of all things angelic was I thinking when I bought Charlie’s Angels?! Better yet, when did I buy it? I don’t even remember seeing this movie for a first time, let alone having it register enough in my mind that I would willingly purchase it. To be honest, I’m mildly concerned that I have no memory of seeing the film or buying the DVD. I’m usually frighteningly good at remembering when and where I buy things. This? Not a freaking clue.

Truth be told, though, I’m a huge Charlie’s Angels fan. Old school Angels, that is. Kate, Jaclyn, and Farrah. Sabrina, Kelly, and Jill, those three little girls from Charlie’s “once upon a time,” with their feathered hair and super-70s…everything, really. It’s silly and fluffy and packed to the bikini line with cheesecake of all varieties. But it also got those three “little girls” out of their pearls and kitchen aprons (and subsequently into far, far less) and into a realm that was once a bastion of boys-only-ness. Yes, they were sex kittens (who hasn’t seen that Farrah poster, eh?), but they were also proof to the girls of my generation that yes, Virginia, there can be more to life than finding the perfect apple pie recipe (ooh, I’m going to get comments on that one, aren’t I?).

Besides, what is there not to love about this?

[Loba Pop Quiz: Can you guess which Angel is my favorite? I’ll give you three guesses…]

So what about this movie then? What about it, indeed. There’s really no point in discussing the plot. Whatever predictable, poorly written (a total of 18 different writers purportedly hacked away on this script; 18!!) crime-capery plot you can imagine, you’re probably pretty close to being right. Nothing deep there.

What about the cast? Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu play Dylan, Natalie, and Alex, the newest Angels to join the Charles Townsend Detective Agency. I don’t really know much about Liu beyond the fact that apparently she and Bill Murray, who played Bosley in this movie, shut down production for a day with a rip-roaring argument. Other than that, she didn’t really make much of an impact on me as Alex. Diaz? Though there are times when I find her delightful (The Mask, There’s Something About Mary, and Shrek come to mind), truth is I find her taxing after a while. No one human being should be allowed to be that perky and bubbly for such an extended period of time.

And Barrymore? As much as I admire and respect how she pulled her shit together and came back from the precipice of drug-induced disaster that so many other child stars have tumbled over, I simply did not buy her in this role. She wanted so desperately to be sexy and smoldering. But with her cherubic face and Cindy Brady lisp, she’s always going to be (to me, at least) trapped by her own adorableness. Even when she’s reveling in a little on- or off-screen badassery or naughtygirlness, it’s with heart-dotted Is and a cutesy giggle that makes you want to hang from the monkey bars with her and trade friendship bracelets that you made at summer camp.

[Okay, maybe that’s just me on that last one.]

The rest of the cast is rounded out by Tim Curry, Sam Rockwell, and Kelly Lynch as well as Crispin Glover playing a character surpassed on the creep-o-meter only by his turn as Willard, the rat wrangler. Glover was probably the most perfect casting choice in this movie, actually, but I think that’s just because he plays creepy/crazy better than anyone else. Curry, however, was severely underutilized, especially for an actor of his level of awesome. Rockwell was entertaining as always, but his character was surpassed only by Lynch’s in villainous predictability (oops, gave that one away, didn’t I).

But is my biggest gripe about this movie the fact that it was so by-the-numbers predictable? No, not really. I’m sure if I went to my DVD shelf right now, I could pull at least five movies that were just as, if not more predictable than this one. Maybe it’s all the reverential references to the original show that grated on me. Or maybe it was the mixed message that little girls can be total badasses and do anything they want…but they’re still going to have to dress like hookers when they do.

Not that I’m in any way disparaging those who practice the world’s oldest profession. Or ignoring the fact that the original Angels probably wore far less far more frequently than Dylan, Natalie, and Alex. But…I don’t know. It seemed more expected back in the day. With this movie, it felt misplaced and false. Not to mention ridiculous. Again, that’s a word that I expect to be associated with 70s TV shows. I guess I didn’t want such huge helpings of it with the movie remake. Or maybe I just didn’t want a remake period, and nothing they did was going to please me. I’m persnickety that way.

DVD Special Features: Yet again, I’m astounded by the plethora of special features on another 10-year-old DVD. First, we’ll get the obligatory commentary track out of the way, this one featuring director McG and director of photography Russell Carpenter.

I desperately wanted not to like McG. Really it’s because of his nom de directeur. Loba doesn’t trust people who don’t go by their real names. However, he and Carpenter make a great team and present a strong and enjoyable commentary: lots of background information, lots of tech talk, and lots of fun tidbits. Plus, McG’s excitement is infectious and Carpenter’s knowledge holds it all together when the excitement isn’t quite enough. I still don’t think much of McG’s oeuvre, but really it’s not big enough to make a final ruling on his abilities.

[Wow, did that sound dirty or is it just me? Just me again? Right.]

Also on tap are deleted and extended scenes, which again I think are a bit of a waste. Still haven’t seen anything from this portion of any DVD that didn’t deserve to be cut or edited in the first place. The outtakes and bloopers are fun; however, you’ll have already seen them all if you make it to the end of the movie and watch the credits. Of course there are music videos (McG was the director, after all). Videos for Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women” and the Apollo 440 remix of the Charlie’s Angels theme are included here. Meh on both videos. I’ve seen better. I’ve heard better as well.

We’ve also got a heaping helping of featurettes: on McG (lots of sunshine pumping all around in this one), the wardrobe (because, you know, it’s important to look sexy when you’re straddling a torpedo while trying to reprogram it), set design, the martial arts training of the Angels, and the wire work that was involved. You know what? I think that’s one of the things that irritated me the most about this movie: the obvious wire work. It’s not like they left the wires in or anything, but every time the actors were doing something while fitted up with wires, you could instantly tell. It always looked to me like they were in some sort of slow-motion suspension…deep sea Kung Fu diving until the fast-paced editing kicked in. And that just ruins all chances of suspension of disbelief (as if this movie had any chance of that anyway). Besides, if I want to watch a movie with wire work, I’ll watch it done right and pull out my copy of The Matrix. More black leather in that one anyway. Black leather, FTW.

The DVD also includes talent files, production notes, and theatrical trailers. It’s also old enough that it still mentions “animated menus” as a special feature. I only mention it here because I think the opening menu animation was my favorite part of this movie. Yes, I know exactly what that says about this movie. Here, watch this teaser trailer. The beginning of this, with the one man breaking into the three Angels is what they used as the opening menu animation. Excellent bit of CGI there. Also, this teaser trailer is pretty much all you really need to watch in order to get the full movie experience: pretty actresses pouting their lips and doing high kicks (don’t forget to flip your hair, Angels!), and Bill Murray being silly (okay, Bosley, you can flip your hair, too).

Final Verdict: Sorry, Charlie, but I’m going to have to let your Angels go. I enjoy silly and pointless as much as the next movie geek, but there’s something so offputting about this movie. I’m still not quite sure that I’ve even come close to explaining myself on this one…but something about this movie really, really turns me off. Maybe it’s the music video-style pacing. Maybe it’s the jumbled pastiche of ripped-off tricks from other movies that McG attempted to make fresh for the millionth time. Maybe it’s just that, while I don’t mind sexy, I think I prefer sexy and substantial. And this movie is about as deep as Justin Bieber’s kiddy pool.

Whatever the reason, time to say goodbye. And don’t even think for a second I’m giving the sequel a chance.

DVDregs: Cellular

Poor Cellular. There it sat on my shelf, so quietly minding its own business that I might have looked right past it on my search for purge-worthy DVDs. But it had the misfortune of being neighbors with my last DVDregs review, The Cell. So I started trying to remember how this movie found its way into my collection and realized that it was an impulse buy from the days when Netflix sold previously viewed DVDs (I’m still pissed that they stopped doing that). I shelled out $5 to buy this after renting it and liking it. Then I never watched it again. I tend to do that a lot.

So, Cellular. There’s something amusingly serendipitous (to me, at least) about the fact that this movie not only comes from New Line Cinema (“The House That Freddy Built”) like The Cell, but also includes an advertisement inside the case for…The Cell. So far, two bad omens, considering the fact that my copy of The Cell is now sitting in a donation box.

Quick rundown of the premise: Groovy surfer dude Ryan gets a weird call on his cell phone. It’s a woman named Jessica Martin, claiming to have been kidnapped that morning. She doesn’t know why. She doesn’t know where she is. She’s just a high school biology teacher who randomly connected to Ryan’s cell phone while tinkering with a conveniently still semi-working even though it’s been smashed landline phone, and she needs his help to get free. Strangely enough, he agrees and gets involved. Hilarity thus ensues.

I know it’s a silly sounding premise. I even remember thinking that as I was clicking to rent it from Netflix. Somehow, though, it works. First, we have a great script. Yes, I said great. Not like Godfather great or American Beauty great. This isn’t a deep movie. I mean it features a biology teacher who wears fishnet stockings, for crying out loud. But if you’re looking for a fun action flick, this is what you’re looking for. Writers Larry Cohen (who apparently really loves phones since he also wrote 2002’s Phone Booth) and Chris Morgan have hammered out a fast-paced, full-speed-ahead action script that, in the hands of former-stuntdude-turned-director David Ellis, never drags, never wanders, never bores. The entire movie is about one thing: saving Jessica Martin (well, okay, there are some other things going on here as well…but saving Jessica is the most important thing). And you are on-board from the first ring right down to the final low battery beep.

Next, let’s talk cast. Kim Basinger, William H. Macy, Jason Statham, Chris Evans, Jessica Biel, Richard Burgi (The Sentinel!), Noah Emmerich…quite a great cast, actually. All of them perfectly paired to their roles. I can’t think of a single miscast. Evans was enjoyable as Ryan of the eponymous Cellular phone. Most people probably know him better as Johnny Storm from the Fantastic Four movies (and he’s now causing nerdgasms for fanboys everywhere by being cast as the new Captain America). I like him here, though, playing goofy and earnest very well.

Basinger was a major key to this movie’s success. After all, at the end of the day (and the movie) it’s all about trying to save Jessica Martin (der!). Basinger brings a certain gravitas that you don’t necessarily expect in an action film but really appreciate when you find it. Kind of like Alan Rickman in Die Hard. She makes Jessica Martin immediately likable and believable enough that you even forgive the fishnets after a while (no, I’m not kidding about this; she’s really wearing fishnets).

Then there’s William H. Macy. Oh wow, do I adore him. He’s awesome in a can, that one. And in this movie, as the predictably days-away-from-retirement, “I’m too old for this shit” police officer who becomes another key to the mission, he proves that you can bring teh awesome to even trite and predictable.

Round out the big hitters with a big roundhouse kick from Jason Statham, another delightful actor who is always a joy to watch. Even when he’s in less-than-spectacular movies, he’s still great to watch. And he’s wonderful here as a proper baddie. The scenes he shares with Basinger are incredible in their intensity and really help to ratchet up the tension and drag us even deeper into believing that…all together now…we’ve got to save Jessica Martin! Oh, and her family, too. But, really, Jessica.

DVD Special Features: Of course there’s a commentary track. That seems to be de rigueur for DVDs these days. This one features director Ellis; his daughter, assistant producer Tawny Ellis; and his sister, assistant stunt coordinator Annie Ellis (who, by the way, has an amazing stunt resume). However, what makes this commentary a little different (in a cutesy, kitschy kind of way) is that Ellis takes breaks from talking about the movie to call various people from the crew…on their cell phones. See? Cutesy/kitschy.

Throughout the movie he calls people like New Line Cinema’s founder Bob Shaye, Chris Evans, producer Lauren Lloyd, composer John Ottman, stunt coordinator Freddie Hice, and a couple other people whose names now elude me (I would have taken notes, but I was exercising at the time!). Sometimes, the cute factor became a bit annoying, especially when Ellis decided to call someone during a scene in the movie that I would have liked to have heard him talk about. All in all, though, I’d rate this a worthwhile commentary track, filled with lots of interesting tidbits about the movie, the actors, and the crew.

Of course, there are also the obligatory deleted scenes, complete with optional director commentary. I’ve yet to see a deleted scene that didn’t deserve its deleted status. Nothing really special in this batch either, and that includes the alternate ending between Evans’s character and Biel’s character. Yawn. I’m glad they switched to the ending that’s now there.

Finally, there are three featurettes: the hilariously outdated “Dialing Up Cellular,” which is all about cell phone technology back in 2004 (probably was outdated before it was even finished filming); “Celling Out,” the obligatory sunshine-pumping love-fest in which the actors and crew all talk about how wonderful they are and how great their movie is (they get a pass this time because they’re right); and “Code of Silence,” an interesting and surprisingly serious documentary on a 1999 police corruption scandal in LAPD’s Rampart Division, which apparently inspired some of the movie’s plot.

Final Verdict: Yeah, obviously this one’s a keeper. I’m actually quite surprised that I haven’t watched this one more. It’s fluffy fun for a Saturday afternoon, with ample pathos, nicely paced action, and random moments of funny…plus William H. Macy for the win. Oh, and also? It features Nina Simone’s “Sinner Man” in a great way. How do you not love a movie that gives Simone some love?

DVDregs: The Cell

I was quite embarrassed when I pulled this one from my shelf and realized that this is another one of the DVDs that I have never watched. What made this realization even worse was when I saw that the movie came out in 2000, and I remember buying this DVD from the used CD store not long after it came out. So for almost 10 years, this has been a dust collector.

Needless to say, when I fired up this movie, I could barely remember anything about it. Perhaps that was a blessing in disguise.

Let’s start with the positive. This movie is visually glorious. That was why I bought the DVD in the first place. First, this was one of the early examples of how CGI was revolutionizing the medium, pushing back the boundaries of “real” in far more believable ways than any of its predecessors. Yes, some of the special effects look dated or obvious now, but they don’t look as obvious as, say, the stop motion animation of the ED-209 in RoboCop. Also, they are used sparingly, which makes all the difference in the world. It irritates me to no end how movies today abandon any decent form of storytelling for the big nerdgasm-inducing frenzy of bigger-than-life special effects. A little goes so much further than too much.

Of course, some of the CGI imagery felt somehow very familiar to me, particularly the “cube” in which Jennifer Lopez’s character finds herself trapped (and which appears in its more familiar spinning form in a later scene). Then it dawned on me. Someone, whether it was director Tarsem Singh or someone on his crew, drew a lot of inspiration from what I consider to be one of the greatest music videos of the 90s, Madonna’s “Bedtime Story.”

This video was released a full 6 years before The Cell. I’ll refrain from now going off on a Madonna tangent about how there was a time when she led the pack in so many ways and now she’s a trend-following popstar who doesn’t seem to know when to put her ass away.

Besides CGI trickery, however, the visual style of this movie is award-worthy. There are some moments within this movie that caught me so by surprise with their beauty and/or uniqueness that I found myself holding my breath several times throughout my initial viewing. Rich, vibrant colors, unusual camera angles and shot compositions, stunning costumes and makeup, gorgeously disturbing and surreal imagery…this movie is a feast for visual fetishists.

Why these mind-blowing visuals were wasted on such a ridiculous story is beyond me. The plot, though freshened up by an intriguing sci-fi twist, is well-worn and predictable as well as unrepentant torture porn at times, mild by today’s standards, but obviously a precursor to movies such as Saw, Hostel, Untraceable, and I Know Who Killed Me. I’m by no means prudish when it comes to violence or gore in my movies. Horror movies compose a large chunk of my DVD collection. But this movie is oftentimes guilty of gore solely as a means of shocking viewers rather than contributing to a cohesive plot. Implications are more often so much more powerful than full-frontal vulgarity. Singh should take that under advisement.

Screenwriter Mark Protosevich hasn’t written much for Hollywood, but what he has written falls within the category of movies that I’ve seen once…and never want to see again: I Am Legend and Poseidon. I Am Legend was particularly upsetting for me as it’s based on a wonderful Richard Matheson novella. All my positive feelings toward Matheson are perfectly reflected in my negative feelings toward the latest movie telling of his classic vampire tale.

Protosevich is listed as writing the screenplay for the upcoming Thor movie and the American remake of Old Boy. I’m a bit nervous for both movies.

Then there’s Jennifer Lopez. I’m sure she’s a lovely actress, but in this movie she was definitely not a strong link in the chain. I simply never believed her in this role. Vince Vaughn, however, was money, as he usually is, and Vincent D’Onofrio was freakishly over-the-top, which was precisely what he needed to be for this role. Rounding out the recognizable cast was a solid though disappointingly small supporting role for Marianne Jean-Baptiste, a quick visit to the office of Pruitt Taylor Vince and his nystagmus, and a minor appearance by Dylan Baker. Unfortunately, all I think of now whenever I see Baker is his role in Todd Solondz’s 1998 movie Happiness, which continues to reign as the worst movie I have ever seen. Needless to say, thinking about Happiness makes me anything but happy.

There’s also a character in this movie played by Musetta Vander. I only mention her name because she could pass as Melinda Clarke’s twin sister. Even stranger is the fact that both actresses played characters on Xena: Warrior Princess (Vander was Ilainus in the episode “Amphipolis Under Siege,” and Clarke played the evil Amazon Velasca) and for the longest time, I thought Clarke had played both roles. I’d love to see Vander and Clarke cast in a movie together. It’d be like Playing By Heart, which cast Ellen Burstyn and Gena Rowlands together. For some reason, I always confuse those two actresses, so seeing them together in scenes was quite trippy.

DVD Special Features: This is another fine example of “more bang for your buck” from a DVD. This film comes with two DVD commentaries, one from director Singh and the second from the production team.

Honestly, they could have totally left Singh’s commentary on the cutting room floor. Along with all his whinging. This is the type of commentary that I’ve always feared finding on one of my DVDs. Singh provides limited information of any interest, instead spending an unhealthy portion of the commentary discussing the depths of his anger toward the actress cast to play Carl Stargher’s latest kidnap victim. Apparently, the actress lied to him about her ability to swim, and Singh decides that the commentary is the perfect time to vent the vitriol he’s been carrying around inside ever since. Nice. That’s exactly what I want to listen to instead of talk about all the beautiful shots and awesome camera angles. Oh, and let’s not forget about how often Singh talks about how many times he was stopped from doing something that he thought would have been awesome…but someone got too squeamish or someone wouldn’t give him the money to make it happen.

Yawn.

If you do have a couple of extra hours to waste, I would recommend the second commentary track. Pieced together from recorded commentaries from director of photography Paul Laufer, production designer Tom Foden, makeup supervisor Michèle Burke, costume designer April Napier, visual effects supervisor Kevin Haug, and composer Howard Shore, this is the commentary that this movie deserves. Each of these production team players brings plenty of insight into the many layers that went into giving this movie the gorgeous and unique look it maintains throughout. There’s lots of technical talk (perhaps a little more than many people want to know, but it’s still very interesting), plus the commentary track has lulls here and there where no one had anything of importance to say. I’d much rather have silence that inane filler (again, see Singh’s commentary for that).

Also included were several deleted scenes, with optional commentary from Singh; an isolated score track; two behind-the-scenes documentaries, “Style as Substance: Reflections on Tarsem,” and “Visual Effects Vignettes”; a section called “Interactivities” broken into “Empathy Test” and “Brain Map” (both of these were somewhat silly, but the information provided in the Brain Map section was interesting); a trailer and a demo version of the first level for a video game called Home World, which was named 2000’s game of the year by PC Gamer, but looks so dated 10 years later; and the domestic and international movie trailers. Meh to the deleted scenes. Nine times out of 10, there was a very good reason they were deleted in the first place, and Singh’s commentary didn’t make them any more interesting.

All in all, though, this DVD contains an amazing variety of special features, which makes it all the more disappointing that the movie simply doesn’t merit so much fanfare and focus, in my humble opinion.

Final Verdict: Time for this DVD to move along and collect dust on someone else’s shelf. As gorgeous as the cinematography is, the movie itself is subpar. And that’s a shame, because I think the visuals are so very worth seeing. The movie? Not so much. Poor Marianne Jean-Baptiste, though. This is the second movie with her in it to hit the chopping block (the first being 28 Days), and it’s the second to fail. Maybe 2000 was just a really bad year for her cinematically…

DVDregs: Big Fish

Yes, that’s right…not even the movies from Loba’s directorial gods are safe from this culling. And so it is that a Tim Burton movie has made its way to my chopping block. This is 2003’s Big Fish, starring Albert Finney, Ewan McGregor, Jessica Lange, Alison Lohman, Helena Bonham Carter, Steve Buscemi, Marion Cotillard, Danny DeVito, Robert Guillaume, and Billy Crudup.

I saw this film at the theater, but it coincided with some personal matters that obfuscated the memory of the movie itself and left it intrinsically linked with said “bad patch.” So, even though I instinctively purchased the movie when it was released on DVD, as any right and proper Burtonian disciple is apt to do (with the exception of the shit bog known as Planet of the Apes, ownership of which is illegal in 47 of the 50 states), I never watched it. Each time I looked at the case, all that came to mind was the unhappiness that surrounded the original viewing. So it’s just been sitting on my shelf, for almost 6 years, completely untouched by anything more than dust bunnies and the occasional vacuum attachment.

Until now.

Based on a novel by Daniel Wallace, this is a two-tiered tale in which a son struggles to come to terms with the imminent death of a father he’s never really understood, while trying to sift out the truth of his father’s elusive life from the myriad tall tales his father has always spun. It’s a somewhat stock Hollywood story, fleshed out with a bit of Burton-bizarre panache. Really, it’s two movies taking place simultaneously: the father/son piece, dominated by Albert Finney as Edward Bloom and Billy Crudup as his son Will; and the more fantastical flashbacks of the father’s embellished life, dominated by Ewan McGregor as Finney’s younger counterpart. I guess, though, you could view the flashbacks as several different mini-movies, visual vignettes that when pulled together, form the pastiche of Edward Bloom’s life.

Sounds a bit cacophonous, doesn’t it? I suspect in the hands of a less-skilled director, this movie could have found 100 different ways to unravel, crumble, explode, and immolate itself. However, Burton and screenwriter John August somehow hold it all together, keeping it at a smooth, swift pace that resists getting bogged down under the weight of all that it’s trying to accomplish in the space of 125 minutes.

I can understand why this movie wasn’t that big a hit with audiences. Those new to Burton’s world were probably frightened away by the level of sinister whimsy that Burton injects into all his films, while long-time fans of his work might have considered this level to be somewhat shallow in comparison with his earlier classics like Edward Scissorhands or Beetlejuice. There’s also a more pronounced mainstream sentimentality to this Burton film, which I can see would be off-putting to his more diehard fans. However, there’s an even, almost subdued tone to the more emotional aspects of this story, which gives it a surprising sincerity. Needless to say, the end moments, including the final scenes between Will and Edward, left me quite the soppy mess. Stoicism be damned, it was a satisfying conclusion that didn’t seem at all overwrought or cloying even if it was somewhat predictable.

I know that a lot of people have problems with Ewan McGregor, and I do agree that when McGregor isn’t enthusiastic about a role, it all turns to shit in the blink of an eye (see Star Wars prequels). However, I found him to be delightful as the young Edward Bloom. Another stand-out from this cast was Alison Lohman, who absolutely blew me away in last year’s awesomeness known as Drag Me to Hell (another Loba-approved movie!). Albert Finney is delightful as the older Bloom, and you really can’t ask for a more powerful supporting cast than one that includes talents like Buscemi, DeVito, Bonham Carter, Cotillard, and Guillaume.

Also, this is one of the last times you’ll get a chance to see Jessica Lange before she traded in her original face for one of perpetual surprise. It’s a shame, really, because I’ve always thought that Lange was both a beautiful and capable actress. She impressed me here for her willingness to take on a role that some actresses of her caliber might have considered too small or too beneath them…and she brings to it all her light and skill.

The only actor I have problems with in this movie is Billy Crudup. But that’s just because I think IRL he’s a douchewanger. I know that I shouldn’t judge his acting ability through the lens of knowing that he left Mary-Louise Parker for Claire Danes, while Parker was pregnant with their child…but I do. This also really dampens my enthusiasm for Danes as well. Still, Crudup is capable as Will Bloom and pulls off beleaguered without stepping too far into the depths of mawkishness.

DVD Special Features: Burton provides a commentary track, although it’s unlike any commentary I’ve heard thus far. It’s more like an interview being given in sync with a viewing of the movie. I can’t remember the name of the bloke interviewing him, but he did a splendid job of never letting the pace falter or letting the discussion dry up. He knew Burton’s oeuvre well, and he also knew when to shut up and let Burton take the reins, and when to jump back in and give Burton the prodding he needed to continue the commentary’s conversation. It’s an enjoyable mix of technical talk, behind-the-scenes storytelling, and glimpses into some of Burton’s other cinematic endeavors. He speaks most often of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (already a documented Loba favorite) and his 1989 take on Batman, which remains not only one of my favorite superhero movies but also my favorite of the modern-day Batman movies.

Beyond the commentary, there are numerous featurettes, including: The Character’s Journey on “Edward Bloom at Large,” “Amos at the Circus,” and “Fathers and Sons”; The Filmmakers’ Path on “Tim Burton: Storyteller,” “A Fairytale World,” “Creature Features,” and “The Author’s Journey”; and The Finer Points: A Tim Burton Trivia Quiz (which sadly I almost aced in one try). There’s a proper dose of sunshine-pumping throughout all the extras, but there’s also a lot of information about special effects, CGI, casting, story development, et cetera that make each extra worth watching.

Final Verdict: All critical commentary and subjective issues aside, this revisit has shown me that there is much to love about this Burtonesque fairytale. Plus, the special features did wonders in pushing this DVD far into the safety zone. This one has earned its reprieve and delighted me with how much I truly enjoyed this “big fish” tale.

DVDregs: 28 Days

So here is where I start off this new feature in which I go through my DVD collection and put to the test all the movies therein that are infrequently/never watched, to determine whether they get to stay or go. My DVDs are in alphabetical order, with numerical titles appearing first. So we start off with the 2000 Sandra Bullock movie 28 Days.

Obvious Loba reason for owning this movie? Sandra Bullock. I don’t own very many movies that could be considered “chick flicks,” but a lot of the ones I do own are more than likely from Bullock’s oeuvre. She’s funny, beautiful, doesn’t seem too wrapped up in herself, gravitates toward characters that have universally recognizable flaws and strengths, she’s kind of a hometown girl (she hails from Arlington, Virginia), and she knows how to drive a bus. Okay, maybe not so much that last one. But she also has two strong links to the Trek universe:

  1. One of her co-stars in 2000’s Miss Congeniality was the ever awesome, the one and only Captain James Tiberius Kirk, William Shatner.
  2. In 1990, she was cast as Tess McGill in the sitcom version of Working Girl, with Nana Visitor, she of “Kira Nerys” fame, playing her boss. See, here they are:

    Look at those outfits. Look at the hair. Look at the dot matrix printer paper. Oy.

Trek links are always bonus points in your favor in the Loba universe.

All that being said, with as wonderful as Bullock can be, she also has quite a few…less than stellar movies under her belt. Two If by Sea, Speed 2: Cruise Control, Hope Floats, Murder by Numbers, Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous. These are the ones that immediately come to mind. I haven’t seen any of the movies she’s made since 2006’s The Lake House, so I don’t know about the new stuff.

But what about 28 Days? Bullock plays Gwen Cummings, a NYC-based writer by day/drunk by night who is sentenced to, surprise, 28 days of rehab in lieu of jail time after she crashes her sister’s wedding limo into someone’s house (which happens right after she ruins her sister’s wedding by falling ass first into the wedding cake). I remember this movie being marketed as a straight comedy. That decision gets a big “FAIL” since a lot of the plot is quite heavy, emotionally taxing…and predictable. If you’ve seen one Hollywood-cliched movie about drug or alcohol abuse, you’ve seen this movie.

And that’s quite a shame, because this movie had the potential to be wonderful. It had a great cast. In addition to Bullock, there were Elizabeth Perkins, Steve Buscemi, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Viggo Mortensen, Diane Ladd, Alan Tudyk…all amazing actors who have done fine work throughout their careers. And they do fine work here under the direction of Betty Thomas, who used to have cool points in my book for having directed the funny Brady Bunch movie, but has lost all credibility now that I see her latest directorial effort is Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. Screenwriter Susannah Grant seems to be the queen of chick flicks, having also penned Ever After, In Her Shoes, and Catch and Release. She also wrote Erin Brockovich, which I very much enjoy, so I’ll cut her a bit of slack.

Not much though.

It all really comes down to is the fact that this is a story that has been told many times before, and will continue to be told many times again. This telling wasn’t particularly fresh or surprising, and doesn’t ever make you feel the deep connection with any of these characters that I think they were striving to make.

DVD Special Features: There’s a commentary track with Betty Thomas, editor Peter Teschner , composer Randall Poster (I think), and producer Jenno Topping. It’s a relatively solid commentary at first, with ample amounts of technical talk and behind-the-scenes stories. It did seem, however, that they all sort of ran out of things they wanted to say and were still talking simply because they had to fill out the rest of the track. Also included is an HBO “making of” special, which was cute and quick and filled with plenty of sunshine-pumping and smiles; a bunch of “clips” from Santa Cruz, the fake soap opera that played a prominent role in this movie (I have to admit I didn’t watch all of these; I hate soap operas, so this bored/irritated me very quickly); additional “Guitar Guy” songs; deleted patient testimonials; actor biographies; theatrical trailers; isolated music score; and “how to make a gum wrapper chain.”

All in all, there’s a nice selection of special features on this DVD, which is pretty impressive for a movie released in 2000. Sadly, though, the special features ride on the shoulders of a not-so-impressive movie and simply aren’t enough to tip the scales in favor of this one.

Final Verdict: As much as I love Sandra Bullock, and as amused as I always was to see this sitting right next to my copy of 28 Days Later (which I originally thought was a sequel to this movie because, yes, I am that stupid sometimes), I’ve got to release this one. It’s a movie that I might stop to watch for a few minutes if I saw it on television, but there was never a moment in this movie that grabbed me as something I would ever want or need to revisit in its entirety.

Also, one more thing: The poster for this movie is a prime example of what I hate most about a lot of recent designs. What about this poster tells you anything more about this movie than the fact that the designer wanted to showcase Bullock as the star…and they just discovered the lens flare filter in PhotoShop? Boring, boring, boring.