Uma Thurman and John Travolta in Be CoolBE COOL

Granted, I've missed a few of the year's more high-profile flicks - Are We There Yet?, White Noise, Son of the Mask, that thing with the Heffalumps - but, in general, the releases I have viewed have been so crummy as to be some kind of joke. (The Citizen Kane of the group would actually be the remake of Assault on Precinct 13, which should tell you everything you need to know about Hollywood's output in early 2005.) But, with the arrival of Be Cool, the joke is no longer funny. Be Cool is worse than Elektra. Hell, it's worse than Alone in the Dark. I literally can't remember the last time I left a screening feeling so angered by the waste of time and talent onscreen; it's the sort of smug, lazy Bad Movie that puts you in a foul mood for the rest of the day.

Be Cool is all the more maddening for being one of the only 2005 works thus far to look even vaguely promising. Consider: The film is a sequel to 1995's Get Shorty, with John Travolta's thug-turned-producer Chili Palmer abandoning the movie business for the rough-and-tumble world of the music scene. Joining Travolta is an almost embarrassingly promising cast that includes Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, Vince Vaughn, Cedric the Entertainer, The Rock, James Woods, Danny DeVito, Debi Mazar, the late Robert Pastorelli, and OutKast's Andre Benjamin. And while director F. Gary Gray is no Barry Sonnenfeld (not that that's saying all that much), even films such as Set It Off, The Negotiator, and The Italian Job had some zip; his movies might be crap, but at least they move.

Be Cool doesn't move. It just lies there - like a dying animal on the highway that you wish someone would put out of its misery already - and the only viewers who could possibly get anything out of the experience are those who still aren't exactly sure what it is a director does; Be Cool is like a textbook study in Doing It Wrong. Nothing in this film works. It makes continual references to Southern California icons - the movie is lousy with celebrity cameos - but the references don't have any particular meaning; they're in-jokes without the jokes, employed merely to congratulate the sector of the audience who recognizes them. ("Oooo! The Viper Room! I threw up there once!") Despite featuring more subplots than the movie knows what to do with, the main storyline - which involves Chili's attempts to make a singing sensation out of Christina Millan's generic chanteuse - wouldn't be out of place in a Muppet movie, and the film's characters are so cartoonishly drawn that you can't believe a single thing any of them says or does. This wouldn't be so damaging if Be Cool actually ran with its farcical structure and left you with little time to dwell on its goofiness, but every scene in the film seems to last twice as long as it should, and several of the movie's performers are so badly served by the director and screenwriter that the only feeling they inspire is one of pity. (I exhausted myself by thinking, in scene after scene, "Poor Uma. Poor Vince. Poor The Rock.") From Chili, with nauseating condescension, explaining to Steven Tyler what Tyler was really thinking when he wrote "Sweet Emotion" to Cedric's fourth-rate approximation of a Samuel L. Jackson monologue to the presence of the least believable dead body I've ever seen onscreen - his freakin' eyes move! - Be Cool is about as terrible as big-budget filmmaking gets. And, based on the expectations this cast and material carry with them, this staggeringly inept work is almost guaranteed to turn a profit. Who says Hollywood no longer has a sense of humor?


Adrien Brody in The JacketTHE JACKET

The psychological thriller The Jacket starts out like Jacob's Ladder and ends like Donnie Darko, but if you're not crazy about either of those films you might still find something to enjoy in director John Maybury's work - it also steals liberally from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, 12 Monkeys, The Matrix, Courage Under Fire, the Terminator movies, and, in Keira Knightley's performance as The Lost Soul with Attitude and Smudgy Eyeliner, the Helena Bonham Carter scenes in Fight Club. (Miss Knightley's Method-gone-mad portrayal makes you wish that some impossibly beautiful performers didn't attempt to stretch.) Really long story short: Adrien Brody stars as a Gulf War soldier who is killed in battle, miraculously returns to life, and gets convicted of a murder he didn't commit. Then he's shipped off to a mental hospital, is pumped full of hallucinogens, straitjacketed, and shoved in a morgue, where he begins seeing visions of both his past and future. And while The Jacket, with its trippy images of doom and depressive morbidity, strives to be an artsy mind-bender - Gothika on Quaaludes - it all boils down to Brody doing everything in his power to prevent Knightley from a soul-crushing career as a waitress. For all its earnestness and sci-fi "depth," the movie is enervated and amazingly silly, but at least it ends well, and you're grateful for the intensity that Brody and Jennifer Jason Leigh, playing a kindly doctor, give it. Moments of professionalism aside, though, The Jacket takes its goofy premise so seriously that you have little choice but to laugh at it; when Leigh's character, contemplating a radical method of therapy, said that the process could lead to "a permanent state of seizure," my friend whispered to me, "Just like this movie." Damn. Wish I had thought of that.


Christina Ricci and Jesse Eisenberg in CursedCURSED

Is it just me, or have werewolf effects gone consistently downhill in the twenty-plus years since An American Werewolf in London? All those sequels to 1981's The Howling went directly to video for good reason, 1997's instantly-forgettable An American Werewolf in Paris, despite having the good sense to star Julie Delpy as one of the hairy beasties, featured lycanthropic transformations too ridiculous to be believed, and the snarling monsters in last summer's Van Helsing resembled nothing so much as computerized dogs, a pretty fair analogy for the film itself. Director Wes Craven, in the new werewolf flick Cursed, is still able to pull off (or luck into) the occasional "Boo!" moment, but any sense of excitement or dread you might feel will be alleviated once the characters begin sporting fangs and excessive body hair; it's hard to get spooked when you're fighting the giggles.

To be honest, though, it's not clear how much better Cursed would have been even with more impressive visuals. Working again with his Scream collaborator, screenwriter Kevin Williamson, Craven's make-'em-laugh-then-make-'em-shriek style feels incredibly dated, especially considering Hollywood's new trend of co-opting every Japanese horror movie under the sun; even if its release hadn't been protracted by several years, Cursed would still feel like something that had lingered in Craven's bottom drawer for too many years. Although the movie does feature a few of Williamson's amusingly self-referential touches - Jesse Eisenberg, co-starring with an ill-used Christina Ricci, displays an ironic awareness of his character's plight, and the fate of the film's gay-baiting bully is an enjoyable, if predictable, turnaround - Cursed is a lethargic piece of work, and the requisite celebrity appearances are off-putting in their meaninglessness: What's the point of the film's lengthy Scott Baio cameo if he's not going to become a werewolf himself or, better still, become lunchmeat?

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