The Call

March 15, 2013 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin, Morris Chestnut
Directed by: Brad Anderson (“The Machinist,” “Transsiberian”)
Written by:  Richard D’Ovidio (“Thir13en Ghosts,” “Exit Wounds”)

From time to time, publicists send out emails to film writers across the country to make them aware of upcoming movies. These typically include the stars, the title, and release date, so that if you are preparing some sort of seasonal movie guide or something, you’ll be able to populate it with all the relevant information your readers will need. In the case of the new Halle Berry film “The Call,” however, we got an email two months ago advising us that the new “UNTITLED HALLE BERRY THRILLER” would be released in “SPRING 2013.” It’s rarely a good omen when a publicist can’t drum up something less generic than that.

In “The Call,” Halle Berry stars as hotshot Los Angeles 911 operator Jordan Turner. Working in the slick call center known as The Hive, Jordan is a rock star, handling emergencies and prank calls like a champ. When a teenage girl calls to report a man breaking into her house, Jordan buckles down and talks the teen skillfully through how to throw the prowler off her trail and hide until the police arrive. When the girl accidentally disconnects the line and Jordan redials, however, the man is able to find the teen’s hiding place thanks to the ringing phone. After taunting Jordan over the phone, the man kidnaps and kills the girl, sending Jordan spiraling into a moral crisis over her mistake. Six months later, Jordan takes the call of another abducted teenage girl (Abigail Breslin) and must overcome her personal demons to help save her.

In spite of the ho-hum premise that wouldn’t be out of place as the plot of a typical “Law and Order” episode, for the first hour “The Call” just plain works. Director Brad Anderson (“The Machinist”) fills each frame with tension, sticking extreme close-ups of Breslin panicking in the trunk next to surveillance-style footage of the kidnapper’s car speeding anonymously down an L.A. freeway. The interaction between Berry and Breslin on the phone feels real, and the tactics Berry has Breslin employ to get the attention of other drivers (like kicking out the tail lights and pouring paint out to leave a trail) are extremely clever. When the chase ends, though, is where some disappointment sets in. The last half hour starts going to some icky-yet-routine places as the kidnapper drags the half-naked Breslin down to his underground dungeon to begin whatever psychotic ritual he had in mind. All is not lost, though, as a last-second plot zigzag (that I won’t spoil here) gives the ending a weirdly satisfying kick.

What kind of contractor builds those underground sex dungeons anyway?

New Year’s Eve

December 9, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Sarah Jessica Parker, Jessica Biel, Ashton Kutcher
Directed by: Gary Marshall (“Valentine’s Day”)
Written by: Katherine Fugate (“Valentine’s Day”)

Forget about eating healthier or going to the gym more often. Don’t worry about watching less TV or cutting back on coffee in the morning. If you really want to make a New Year’s resolution that will benefit your well-being, promise yourself not to feed the holiday cinematic beast called “New Year’s Eve,” the second purposeless celebrity mishmash rom-com brought to you by Hollywood nice-guy director Gary Marshall (“Pretty Woman”).

It’s been quite a while since Marshall has given audiences anything with substance. Unless you liked the torturously unfunny “Valentine’s Day” of last year, there’s no need to subject yourself to the same humdrum narrative pattern screenwriter Katherine Fugate has tried once again to pass off as something resembling a logical script. As if “Valentine’s Day” never happened, Fugate fails to realize that squeezing a sizeable series of storylines into one movie is like force feeding a full person. There is literally no room to expand on anything and – more than likely – things are bound to get messy.

Even more curious than the shameful script is the fact that so many high-profile stars decided to add their name to the swelling cast. Sure, money (and what was probably a short production schedule) talks, but actors like Robert De Niro, Halle Berry and Hilary Swank can’t be that hard up for work to take on a project as thinly-written as this. They should’ve known something was wrong when the New York City they inhabit in this movie is one where comedian Seth Meyers has a chance to make babies with Jessica Biel.

Rango

March 4, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin
Directed by: Gore Verbinski (“Pirates of the Caribbean”)
Written by: John Logan (“Gladiator”)

Industrial Light and Magic sure knows how to make a great first impression. “Rango,” the first-ever animated feature created by the George Lucas company, is an impressive adventure film set in the Old West featuring a scrawny pet chameleon as it’s courageous hero.

When Rango (Johnny Depp), an aspiring thespian, strolls into the small town of Dirt after landing in the desert, he is given the chance to start on a clean slate and become whoever he wants in his new surroundings. No one in Dirt knows who he is, so he conjures up a few lies and jumps into character as a mysterious gunslinger who isn’t afraid of anything the big, bad desert has to offer, including the villainous Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy).

Reminiscent of the storyline in the 1986 comedy “The Three Amigos,” the towns people, made up of some bizarre looking creatures, accept Rango into their dried-up community and make him sheriff when he accidentally kills a terrorizing hawk. As sheriff, it’s now up to Rango to somehow bring water to the thirsty people of Dirt before more of them pack up and take off in search of the one thing they need to survive the desert heat.

As an animated spaghetti Western, “Rango” takes its original narrative and sets it on a dark and dangerous path most cartoons would never tread. Leave it to director Gore Verbinski, who teamed up with Depp in the first two “Pirates” movies, to find inspiration from Western classics like those from director Sergio Leone. Along with exquisite imagery and witty dialogue from the title character, “Rango” is an imaginative and sort of hallucinatory tribute (see if you can spot the “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” reference) to a genre most kids aren’t exposed to nearly enough. With a lizard as the lead, this is as kid-friendly as it’s going to get.

Abigail Breslin – Rango

March 4, 2011 by  
Filed under Interviews

While actress Abigail Breslin, 14, might not be too familiar with the films of John Ford and Sergio Leone, her first experience with the Wild West also has a style all its own.

In the animated Western “Rango,” Breslin lends her voice to Priscilla, a young mouse who believes a strange chameleon named Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp) has arrived to save her small desert town.

During an interview with me, Breslin, who, at the age of 10, earned an Oscar nomination in 2006 for her role in “Little Miss Sunshine,” talked about the unique way actors were recorded for their scenes in “Rango” and admits she was so young when she starred her first movie, she can’t even remember making it.

Not too many Westerns are made nowadays. Were you at all familiar with the genre?

I’ve actually never seen a Western. The only Western I’ve seen is “Rango.” My dad loves spaghetti Westerns, so I have a feeling I’m going to be seeing some more.

You’re originally from New York City, so I’m wondering what inspired Priscilla’s southern drawl?

I worked with a dialect coach in New York and L.A. [Director] Gore [Verbinski] had a specific way he wanted Priscilla to sound. He wanted her to sound rougher and not as pretty.

Most actors who do voice work for animated projects usually just show up at a studio and record their lines alone in a booth. Did it feel more liberating getting to interact with other actors?

Yeah, it was crazy. We all got to work together, so we got to play off each other. We wore costumes during the shoot. It was like when you were younger and you would go on a play date with your friends and play dress up and pretend, except this time it was with Johnny Depp.

What did you wear and did dressing up like your character help you actually get into character?

I wore a wig and a hat. It did [help] for a bit and then I started getting a rash from my wig on my neck so I had to stop wearing it. (Laughs) But it did get me to look and feel like Priscilla for a while.

What did you think of Priscilla when you first saw her?

I thought she was the most adorable thing ever. When I first got a sketch of her, I wanted to play her just based off how cute she was. Then I actually learned about the story and the character and wanted to do it even more. She’s gorgeous to say the least.

You’ve been acting in movies since you were five years old. Now that you are 14, do you have a better sense of what you are looking for in a project?

I just go role by role and decide if the character is someone I would like to know. That’s how I choose what I want to do, I guess.

So, how did it work back in 2002 when you got your role in “Signs?”

I was five so I honestly can’t remember. (Laughs) I honestly couldn’t tell you. (Laughs) That’s probably something my parents could tell you. That was such a long time ago. I can’t even really remember making the movie much less remember how I made decision about things.

Did life change for you back in 2006 when you were nominated for an Oscar for your role “Little Miss Sunshine” or did everything sort of just go back to normal?

It was a very exciting time in my career, but my life didn’t really change that much. I still had to take out the garbage and feed the dogs. Obviously it gave me a lot of opportunities. I was very lucky.

So you were never like, “Mom, come on, I’m an Academy Award-nominated actress. Do I really have to clean my room?”

(Laughs) No, I would have gotten killed. My brother actually tried to do that on the day I was nominated. My mom was like, “Alright, time for school” and my brother was like, “Aw, come on mom, don’t make her go today. And don’t make me go either because I’m obviously overwhelmed with excitement for her!” (Laughs) Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that.

Recently, your co-star in “Zombieland” Woody Harrelson said he really wasn’t interested in making sequels, but he really liked the script for “Zombieland 2” and could see himself doing it. Would you be interested in revisiting that role if you got the chance?

Definitely. I loved making the first one. It was a lot of fun. I loved the character, so, I’d love to.

Zombieland

October 2, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone
Directed by: Ruben Fleischer (debut)
Written by: Rhett Reese (“Cruel Intentions 3”) and Paul Wernick (debut)
 
It’s all about survival of the fittest in the riotous new zom-com (zombie comedy) “Zombieland,” a surprisingly fresh crack at the subgenre by first-time director Ruben Fleischer. It’s also a farther step away from the type of movies director George A. Romero popularized in the late 60s. To put it simply: “Zombieland” isn’t your grandma’s zombie movie.
 
Zombie flicks first started evolving in 2003 when British director Edgar Wright and comedians Simon Pegg and Nick Frost made destroying a zombie’s brain a hilarious delight instead of a chore in the insanely clever “Shaun of the Dead.” Now, in “Zombieland,” Fleischer stylizes his own outrageous war against the undead and does it in a most amusing way.
 
Reminiscent of the book “The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead,” in which author Max Brooks gives tips about how to survive in a world flooded with flesh-eaters, “Zombieland” serves up its own thoughtful pointers. Here to guide the audience through the post-apocalyptic United States is Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), a delicate young loner who has managed to avoid becoming a zombie’s midday snack by following his own personal rules for survival.

On his way to Ohio to see if his parents are still alive, Columbus (no one uses their real names to avoid personal attachment) teams up with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), an eccentric, Twinkie-craving cowboy who packs some serious heat and loves showing off his zombie-killing skills whenever he gets the chance.

Tallahassee gets to do a lot of point-blank-range shooting since that’s basically what “Zombieland” is all about. Without much of a plot, Fleisher, who comes from the music video industry, pays specific attention to the crazy ways zombies meet their demise. Sisters Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) and Wichita (Emma Stone) join the diverse group and set off on a road trip to a rumored zombie-free theme park. No one believes it’ll really be safe there, but what else are they going to do with their time?

As Tallahassee, Harrelson steals the show in the same manner as Robert Downey Jr. does in “Tropic Thunder.” Harrelson might not earn an Oscar nod like Downey did, but it’s definitely his funniest role since playing Roy Munson, a one-handed bowler in 1996’s Farrelly Brother comedy “Kingpin.” 

While it’s almost impossible to offer up anything new in zombie mythology (here the zombies emerge from a strain of mad cow disease), it’s the playful and mischievous dark humor that makes “Zombieland’ such a hoot.

My Sister’s Keeper

June 26, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Cameron Diaz, Sofia Vassilieva, Abigail Breslin
Directed by: Nick Cassavetes (“The Notebook”)
Written by: Nick Cassavetes (“Alpha Dog”) and Jeremy Leven (“Alex and Emma”)

There’s so much negative connotation when a film is referred to as a Lifetime Movie of the Week. Typically, this signifies the movie is cliché, overacted, and sappy and usually about spousal abuse or someone dying of a mysterious disease or someone fighting an addiction. But in the entire history of the Lifetime Channel, isn’t it possible that at least one of those dramas was actually watchable to more than the female demographic it caters to?

“My Sister’s Keeper” isn’t a Movie of the Week, but if it were it would be that unmentioned tear-jerker that is the exception to the TV-movie rule. Although it tries to slide into that position in the final act, director/writer Nick Cassavetes (“The Notebook”) and the entire cast create a poignant foundation where family thresholds are tested with life and death scenarios.

Based on the best-selling book of the same name by Jodi Picoult, “My Sister’s Keeper” tells the story of the Fitzgerald family, who are waiting helplessly as their oldest child, Kate (Sofia Vassilieva), slowly dies of leukemia. Through nonlinear storytelling, we watch parents Sara and Brian (Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric) faced with a decision to have another child (Abigail Breslin) so that later in life when their sick daughter needs a new kidney, a carefully customized baby with the same chromosomal makeup would be available. Along with an inevitable surgery, their engineered daughter, Andromeda (did they really have to make her name sound so sci-fi?), would also be used to collect blood cells and bone marrow to keep her older sister alive.

But by the age of 11, Andromeda doesn’t want to be a lab rat anymore. When Kate finally needs a kidney transplant, the family is shocked when Andromeda hires a high-profile lawyer (Alec Baldwin) and sues her parents for “medical emancipation,” which means she can’t be forced to give her kidney to her sister.

Of course, this splits the family down the center and forces them into court. Sara, who was a lawyer before she stopped practicing to care for Kate, is beyond disbelief because her own daughter would allow her sister to die. Compassionate father Brian, sees both sides of the argument. What kind of life would Andromeda lead if the transplant wasn’t a success?

It an ethical mindbender as the family waits as Kate becomes sicker. “I don’t mind my disease killing me,” Kate says, “but it’s killing my family, too.” While it would have been easily to let the sentimentality wander all over the place, Cassavetes stays focused on the issue at hand and allows his characters to work their way through these scenes organically.

With some effective performances by all the women – Diaz, Vassilieva, Breslin, and Joan Cusack as the judge hearing the case who is going through her own tragedy – the film is touching on many levels despite unnecessarily dabbling in melodramatic tone. When only the heart of the matter is at the forefront, “My Sister’s Keeper” is a moving piece.