Before assessing the Hollywood output designed to fill us all with holiday cheer (Jerry Bruckheimer's action extravaganza, Oliver Stone's historical war epic, Tim Allen after a Botox injection ... y'know, that sort of thing), let's take a brief look at a few titles flying a bit beneath the blockbuster radar.
AFTER THE SUNSET
After the Sunset is magnificent. Directed and performed with remarkable subtlety and skill, it's an incredibly funny, touching, deeply romantic tale that's -
Oh wait. That's Before Sunset. After the Sunset is the one about diamond thieves.
Really, what can you say about this crime caper? It's going to be exactly what some audiences want it to be: a lightweight, inconsequential heist comedy set in an exotic locale, and starring likable performers. Most of them won't mind that the movie is a completely bland and pedestrian genre outing, devoid of any true thrills and totally lacking in romantic chemistry between Pierce Brosnan and Salma Hayek. (Though, by establishing both Brosnan and his spare tire as sexy, I applaud the film for giving hope to paunchy, hairy-chested, middle-aged men everywhere.) Brett Ratner's "stylish" direction is mostly a joke, and he directs Woody Harrelson to perhaps the most thoroughly obnoxious performance of 2004, but the movie is still pretty easy to sit through; like a virgin daiquiri, After the Sunset won't give you a buzz, but it's pleasant enough. I guess.
SEED OF CHUCKY
Is it overly greedy to say that I wanted more from Seed of Chucky? Because, really, writer-director Don Mancini is actually trying for something clever here. Like Wes Craven's New Nightmare, this fourth sequel to Child's Play puts the "meta" in "metaphysical": It concerns the attempts of the murderous doll's son to connect with the parents he didn't know he had, while, simultaneously, a "Chucky" movie is being filmed in Hollywood, and Chucky himself is attempting to impregnate the film's star, Jennifer Tilly, who plays herself. That synopsis sounds a lot more entertaining than the movie ever gets, though Mancini certainly deserves points for trying. The scenes of carnage are enjoyably (if predictably) staged, and the film shows some wit in its Tinseltown satire. But the potshots about brainless Hollywood hacks are knowing without being especially amusing; they're actually - and I can't believe I'm going to write this about a "Chucky" movie - smarter than they are funny. (The Bound references are nice; you gotta love that Mancini doesn't care that Seed of Chucky's chief demographic won't get those jokes.) And while Tilly - such a good sport - acts up a storm, no one else comes close to matching her enthusiasm for this project. (That might, however, be a sign of their mental health.) In the end, the movie is certainly better than it should have been, but not nearly as good as it could have been.
Schedule conflicts have, thus far, kept me away from Annette Bening's lauded performance in Being Julia, which is currently playing at the Brew & View. But I did manage to catch the Canadian doc the theatre recently screened: The Corporation, which just ended its weeklong run. I wish my schedule conflicts came during that week, because The Corporation, as a work of documentary film, is a drag. It deigns to show how corporate America is not-so-subtly controlling our lives, and although there are a couple of devastating sequences toward the end, the film is far overlong at two-and-a-half hours, and its endless comparisons between corporations and mentally imbalanced humans are snide and trite; it feels like Michael Moore on an off day. (Moore himself appears as an interviewee, and by making continual reference to his own past cinematic works - The Big One and Bowling for Columbine in particular - he actually comes off as more self-serving than usual.) Even though its heart is in the right place, the movie is mostly repetitive and a little dull - it feels exactly like a Canadian Fahrenheit 9/11.
THE CLEARING and A HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD
Though, among them, our area's theaters do manage to screen most of the year's more noteworthy releases, even if the works are independents with minimal publicity - and we all know what venue to gratefully thank for that, don't we? - a few still slip through the cracks. This summer, The Clearing, starring Robert Redford, and A Home at the End of the World, with Colin Farrell, never made it to the area, despite featuring bankable actors, and despite being released by major studios' independent divisions. (The Clearing is a Fox Searchlight production; Home is a Warner Independent release.) The movies seemed intriguing enough, and both were (relatively) high-profile. So why didn't we get them? Well, the films recently made their debuts on video and DVD, and I'm here to tell you: It turns out we weren't missing a thing.
Not that they don't have good things in them. The Clearing boasts a magnificent performance by Helen Mirren, playing Redford's wife; Home displays a few moments of startling emotion, which stem from the marvelous Michael Cunningham book it's based on. Yet both films are dawdling and unconvincing. In neither movie do you feel any spark of spontaneity or true-to-life experience - except, maybe, in a few of Mirren's scenes - which is odd, because both works are essentially about chaos in the human condition. (The Clearing has Redford's auto tycoon kidnapped by laid-off schlemiel Willem Dafoe; Home concerns a most unorthodox love triangle between Farrell, Robin Wright Penn, and Dallas Roberts.) Yet the films are quite different in their mediocrity: The Clearing is crap material relatively well-produced; Home has sublime (original) material trashed by crummy presentation.
Of the two, I can take or leave The Clearing - Mirren is great, and yet her greatness is countered by Redford's typical, painfully dull moral superiority - but A Home at the End of the World really sticks in my craw, because terrific source material has now been screwed up for everybody. Cunningham's novel is a wise, graceful piece, filled with remarkable insight, but the film has been directed by Michael Mayer with sledgehammer obviousness, and Cunningham - adapting his own work - proves to be one of the film's bigger detriments, making his characters' every utterance sound overtly meaningful and subtextual. (And here's one for the book's fans: Didn't Cunningham realize that excising the character of Erich leaves the story with no point?) Under these conditions, Wright Penn and Roberts are mostly awful, and while Farrell has a few lovely moments, his character, like most of the film's action, barely makes sense here. Despite a few sweet moments that occur almost by default, the film version of A Home at the End of the World sucks. My heart is officially broken.