Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Why the Discovery Channel Rocks


That pretty much sums it up.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

88 Minutes

Here's another simple, somewhat recycled premise. Al Pacino plays uber-successful university professor and forensic psychiatrist Dr. Jack Gramm who, when he's not teaching class and being an all around confident guy, is a consultant and expert witness for the F.B.I. On the day before the scheduled execution of serial rapist/killer Jon Forster (Neal McDonough), a new murder scene is discovered bearing the exact same modus operandi as Forster. This turn of events, of course, not only raises doubts concerning Forster's guilt but also brings into question Gramm's expert testimony which was responsible for the conviction. To add to an already perfect day, Gramm receives a phone call telling him he has only 88 minutes to live. Ticktock doc. As the minutes fall away and the reality of the situation sets in, Gramm, convinced that Forster is somehow behind what is happening, realizes that the perpetrator must be someone very close to him, and he's going to need to push his skills to their limit in order to unravel the puzzle and hopefully stay alive.

Not bad - not great. I would say this movie rests comfortably on the low side of 'good', and that's only because of the performances of Pacino and McDonough. Pacino come through with his familiar I'm-a-forceful-but-charming-kinda-guy persona that he's perfected over the years except, in this instance, his character is highly intelligent and quick on his feet as well. Pacino adds the intelligence factor without coming across as pompous, which is a very good thing because it wouldn't have taken much for me to switch sides and root for the killer. This brings me to McDonough, the incarcerated serial killer who may be behind the machinations affecting Pacino's character. Honestly, I think I would have liked this film much more if McDonough had received more screen time. McDonough's portrayal of Forster was intense, calculating and just a tad chilling, and the interactions between Forster and Gramm were some of the best moments of the movie. I've seen several things with McDonough in the cast (Minority Report, The X-Files, Timeline, Band of Brothers) but this was the first I'd seen him play such an intense character - he should do it more often. The other two notables in the cast would have to be Leelee Sobieski as one of the grad students and Alicia Witt as Gramm's teaching assistant, both of whom bring a polished realism to their characters that could have easily slipped past other, less experienced actors.

All in all I think this was an adequate film considering the story, however, this definitely falls into the 'rental' category. Had it not been for Pacino and McDonough, this could have conceivably been a direct to video release and, considering the plot, if the four main roles were replaced with full time television actors, you'd have a perfect Lifetime movie. Now I realize that some people who don't read and aren't particularly fond of logic will find this movie much more satisfying than I did, and that's fine. Sometimes I wish I was one of those people because, then, I'd have so much more to like but, unfortunately, I'm not so I'm relegated to the disappointment isle, but that's just fine because it means that when something really well thought out and surprisingly written comes along, I'm all that more impressed by it and my day is truly improved. Sadly, 88 Minutes didn't fall into that category.

p.s. In case you're wondering what does fall into that category, considering the story line, look no further than the first season of The X-Files to episode 12 entitled: Beyond the Sea. Brad Dourif guest stars as a convicted serial killer about to be executed when crimes mirroring his m.o. begin to occur, opening the door to lots of questions and bringing Mulder and Scully to the prison since it was Mulder's profile that caught Luther Lee Bogs (Dourif) in the first place. Awesome episode and amazing performances from Duchovny, Anderson and, as usual, Dourif. Check it out - you won't be disappointed.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Ruins

Well, this one's fairly simple. You've got your four American college kids (boy-girl couples) on a Cancun holiday when, two days before they're to depart, they meet Mathias (Joe Anderson), a friendly German who, following an afternoon of beach frivolity, offers to take them to the archaeological site where his brother is working. The site, as fate would have it, is very off the beaten path (even though they end up following an actual beaten path) in a secluded area found only by hand drawn map and consists of an obviously ancient and heretofore unknown Mayan pyramid. Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) & Amy (Jena Malone) and Eric (Shawn Ashmore) & Stacy (Laura Ramsey) agree to spend their last day of holiday as students of history exploring a site that has not yet become a tourist trap. Curiously, this situation could cause one to wonder at the origins of the phrase 'tourist trap'. Also on the excursion is tag-along history buff, Greek tourist and wannabe adventurer, Dimitri, who had been invited, along with his two Greek buddies, on the same day but, unfortunately, as the morning of the trip dawned, his two buddies were still sleeping off the previous night's festivities forcing Dimitri to leave them behind with instructions under their sleeping heads. So, as the six set off on their day of fun, the first thing that is apparent, at least to the initiated, is that if this were an episode of Star Trek, Dimitri would be wearing a huge red shirt. Anyway, after some riding and hiking, the group arrives at the pyramid only to be confronted by a group of locals waving guns, bows and arrows and shouting in a language no one understands. Things get violent and confused, quickly, and the group takes refuge atop the pyramid. It is at this point that the writers, producers and studio intend for the story to sprout and grow into full bloom.

This film is based on the novel (which I haven't and probably will not read) of the same name by Scott Smith and was, from what I understand, a bestseller. After seeing the movie, I've decided that either the book really wasn't that good and the mass of people reading it were not typically well read, similar in nature to the group that flocked to The da Vinci Code, or the book actually was good and, considering how movie studios have a propensity for altering novels, the original story was 'doctored' in a formulaic fashion with the intent of inducing the proper scares at predefined intervals along with anticipated higher ticket sales. Whatever the case, the movie was a disappointment.

The cast, consisting of four primary individuals, performed as well as could be expected. They were confused, exasperated, terrified, frantic, stupid, falsely noble and borderline psychotic right on queue. The performances were adequate but typically over-the-top. I know, I know, there are always those people who say something like, "Don't be so judgmental because you don't know how you'd act in a similar situation." Yes I do, and besides, only certain types of people find themselves in those types of situations and, since nothing remotely comparable has ever occurred to me, I'm obviously not one of those types of people. Additionally, the cast did their absolute best for what they had to work with and in a few scenes, they were as convincing as their surroundings would allow them to be. Curiously, the characters who I found most convincing and unnerving were the Mayan characters who spoke no English but easily conveyed a sense of panic, intensity and unease. So, all in all, I don't really think the actors can be held responsible for the lackluster story.

I realize I'm being a bit tough on this film so I feel I should clarify that the movie isn't horrible, it's just typical and the few truly clever devices and interesting aspects of the plot are never fully realized or explored in their entirety. Granted, the beginning of the movie, showing the four main characters partying in Cancun, is rather uninspired and does nothing to instill confidence in or imbue either character with any redeeming qualities. The first fifteen minutes are so vacuous, they could be used for the opening of a horror movie, a sci-fi movie, a 'teen angst' movie, a Lifetime Network 'action' movie or an episode of The O. C. However, once the actual story begins to play out, several potentially interesting and compelling scenarios are revealed but, as I previously mentioned, never fully realized. At one point during the movie, I thought, "Wow, this would have made an excellent episode of The X-Files........wait a minute, this was an excellent episode of The X-Files." My point being, similar setups can be found throughout the horror and sci-fi genres, but it's the exploration of the unique attributes that make the journey engaging. The X-Files had five or six similarly setup episodes, but each was uniquely different because of the scrutiny given to specific details and plot twists. There are obvious aspirations in The Ruins' but, unfortunately, rather than sharpen the thought provoking facets, the story succumbs to banality and ignores the gripping questions and aberrations that are posed.

I definitely can't recommend seeing this in the theater but I think this would be an adequate rental for, if for no other reason, exercising your brain's 'what if' capabilities. I know I spent a significant amount of time mentally exploring the possibilities that the filmmakers missed, which was surprisingly satisfying. Also, if you're a fan of typical 'horror' where predictable things occur and the effects are inventive and well done, then this would be a good rental, as well. Curiously, if you are a fan of horror (movies and books), then you may have already seen or read a somewhat condensed version of this story if you've ever read Stephen King's Skeleton Crew or seen the movie Creep Show 2 because the short story The Raft, which was the second segment of Creep Show 2, is remarkably similar to the overall concept of The Ruins. I hope that doesn't ruin it for you.