EW reviews: Bad 'Weather,' grim 'Saw'
Also: Mild 'Zorro,' amazing 'Paradise'
By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Michael Caine and Nicolas Cage in "The Weather Man."
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(Entertainment Weekly) -- The conditions of youthful alienation, middle-aged misery, and old-age regret may be bad for the heart, but they're good for art and, face it, great for indie filmmaking.
Show me a reasonably contented, emotionally mature fellow with satisfying ties to family and community and I'll show you a guy who has probably never toyed with producing a screenplay influenced by "Garden State," "In the Company of Men," "Happiness," or "American Beauty."
By now, the indie cinema of anomie, disappointment, and stifled rage is such a familiar genre that within two minutes of affectless voice-over and establishing shots of dead-eyed Americans drinking Big Gulps, we know everything we need to know about the contemporary quagmire in question except, perhaps, which route of indecision and eccentric behavior the antihero will follow on his path to accepting that, for grown-ups, life sometimes sucks.
"The Weather Man" is what indie misery looks like when re-created by one of Hollywood's big studios: The emotional visibility is atmospherically limited, but the job of making a muted, intimate picture has been given to "Pirates of the Caribbean" director Gore Verbinski, whose instinct is to make something big and the opposite of ruminative.
Dave Spritz (Nicolas Cage), the sad sack with the title job, is a Chicago TV personality whose earliest misery was, no doubt, some dumb joke about the surname he inherited from his forebears. Actually, the family name is Spritzel, proudly carried by his father, Robert (Michael Caine), a prize-winning author.
Spritz is what happened to Dave when he became a talking head: He knows how to sparkle in front of the camera, but he fizzles off screen every day of his life.
Dave is dazedly related to an irritated ex-wife (Hope Davis), an overweight and unhappy daughter (Gemmenne De la Pena from "Erin Brockovich"), and a teenage son ("About a Boy's" Nicholas Hoult, growing up nicely) who, while kicking drug problems, can't distinguish between kindness and predatory sexual interest from his counselor (Gil Bellows).
And then there's Dave's father, who conveys a sense of lifelong disappointment with his son. Robert affects a tyrannically prissy ignorance of the pop culture in which Dave has achieved a middling measure of success. And in response, Dave has, until now, preferred emotional stupidity and interior blankness to self-awareness.
But now, Robert has announced that he's dying. Dave's ex has announced that she's remarrying. Dave's daughter hasn't announced anything, but the inappropriately unflattering clothing she wears screams self-loathing.
And Dave, with a shot at a high-visibility job at a fictional morning show very much like "Today" -- Bryant Gumbel even plays himself as the "Hello America" anchor -- must decide whether it's okay to be ... Dave: sometimes disappointing or disappointed, sometimes clumsy or foolish, and sometimes a disposable celebrity who gets pelted with junk food by strangers -- but sometimes, too, just a decent, well-paid, reasonably appreciated, lucky SOB.
Now is as good a time as any to mention that in contemplating his own stasis, Dave takes up archery, one of those metaphor-laden activities with hits, misses, and bull's-eyes so beloved by writers and embraced by cinematographers partial to long shots of lone archers taking aim at outdoor ranges against wintry skies. "The Weather Man" luxuriates in its own decorative dreariness -- the oppressiveness of malls, traffic, TV studios, doctors' waiting rooms, Chicago weather -- but it enjoys its own words even more; the movie is an illustrated short story, rather than a discrete cinematic invention.
And the imbalance influences every performance. Cage uses the dampened inside voice he perfected for "Adaptation" -- so defeated, so in denial of feelings -- but the tonelessness only serves to expose the self-consciousness of the dialogue and deadened voice-over in Steven Conrad's screenplay. Given no direction about who the ex-wife is -- the women in this picture, including Dave's mother and daughter, are placeholders, not people -- Davis can only produce a standard-issue approximation of a once-loving wife who has lost interest in understanding her former mate's neuroses.
Even Caine, a wily vet, gives up on defining the implacable father he plays. "That's quite an American accomplishment," he says coolly, proffering wound and compliment in the same breath as he congratulates his son on the glitzy new TV job.
But the reasons for Robert's snobbery, his hauteur, his own disappointment in "this s--- life" are never defined. In "The Weather Man," the forecast is a never-ending hail of life's crap. But there's no compelling reason to believe the messenger.
EW Grade: C
Reviewed by Gregory Kirschling
If you had only a few seconds to decide, would you cut your own eyeball out with a razor to save your face from getting squished in by a head-mounted, time-sensitive, bear-trap contraption made up of a hundred rusty nails?
Neither would the poor fella in the first frazzled minutes of "Saw II," a sequel that delivers another round of the kind of elaborate Rube Goldberg shocks that made the first movie a surprise hit last year. The contest is close, but "Saw II" is just barely a better B flick than "Saw." It wins by a hair wire thinner than the one that trips the blades that slice off a blindsided SWAT guy's feet.
The killer of the series remains Jigsaw, a sicko with engineering capabilities limited only by how far the new set of screenwriters is willing to beggar belief. In the first film, he was mostly unseen, represented by a bulbous, papier-mache-type puppet with red swirlies painted on its cheeks -- that is, until a last-second reveal that felt like one of the biggest "whatever!" cons in surprise-ending cinema. This time the puppet cameos early on and then kindly takes a powder.
As the droopy-lidded maniac in the flesh, Tobin Bell is, for all the film's gewgaws, "Saw II's" sturdiest horror, a Terence Stamp look-alike who calls to mind a seedy General Zod lazily overseeing the universe from his evildoer's lair. Jigsaw's grand plan involves sticking eight people in a cavernous, dilapidated old house and having them kill, scream, and reason their way out of his booby traps as if this were a hard-edged sequel to "The Goonies."
In the meantime, Jig volleys face-to-face with a conflicted cop whose teen son is among those lost in the deadly fun house. The cop is played by Donnie Wahlberg, who's overshadowed by Bell, but it's Jigsaw's franchise, so that's probably the point.
Where "Saw II" lags behind in "Saw's" novelty, it takes the lead with its smoother landing, which is again primed to blow the movie wide open, but manages a more compelling job of it than the original's cheat finish. Yet the nagging thing about both movies is that they're more clever and revolting -- first hitting on the nervy idea of an open grave of a thousand syringes, for example, and then chucking a character down into it so we can watch her writhe -- than they are actually chilling.
EW Grade: B-
'The Legend of Zorro'
Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum
"The Legend of Zorro," the legend of "Spy Kids," what's the diff?
Both swash franchises buckle their chances for success to the panache of Antonio Banderas, the Spanish star who began his movie career in the queer demimondo of Pedro Almodovar's early films and went on to become the dashing Latin Lover of stage, screen, and Melanie Griffith's household.
At this point in his delightful career, Banderas has catalogued every configuration of glower, smolder, wink, twinkle, pout, grin, and pose of ole! of possible use for a gentleman whose constituency ranges from swooning women and their disarmed male companions to giggling children who only know him as supersecret agent/papa Gregorio Cortez.
And Banderas uses all his old wiles in this well-oiled, businesslike, quite clangingly violent sequel to "The Mask of Zorro." He reunites with Welsh-born senorita Catherine Zeta-Jones as Elena. And he follows Martin Campbell's direction for yet another go at the old black mask, flashy sombrero, and Zorronic attitude of do-gooding. There's no distinction to this sequel -- except that it's designed, with more calculation than ever, to be a Saturday-afternoon seat-filler for the whole world's pants.
Legend's cleverest notion (the cocky screenplay is by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, and the piled-up story credits include original Zorro scripters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio) is to move the action ahead 10 years since last we saw Z and E ("The Mask of Zorro" came out in 1998); now Alejandro de la Vega (Zorro's daytime name) and Elena are the parents of 10-year-old Joaquin (Mexican scene-stealer Adrian Alonso).
It's also a time when the oppressed, viva Zorro!-shouting good people of the California territory are on the verge of voting to become the 31st state of the union, and villains appear in two forms: silky, cultured schemers like the aristocratic French vintner Armand (Rufus Sewell), and greasy-haired, scar-faced, stubble-cheeked, wooden-toothed varmints like the ruthless robber baron McGivens (Nick Chinlund).
Happy couples, though, make for dull superheroes (even Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl had to fight before they found strength in unity). And parenthood is now widely promoted in movies as a sainted form of superherodom all its own. So Zorro and Mrs. Zorro fight about child-rearing attitudes: She says he's not home enough and kicks him out of the hacienda for a spell. And time is unnecessarily wasted misunderstanding each other, when there is never any doubt, not even to the littlest viewer, that the two are meant to be together as superheroes and superparents.
A couple of fancy fight sequences allow the stars, and their stunt doubles, to demonstrate how dashing they still look with swords in hand. And every shot of Zeta-Jones, with rosy lips, glistening black hair, and at-home gowns of sumptuous design, is a lit and composed thing of beauty.
Still, too many scenes -- particularly those with McGivens and his similarly unwashed henchmen -- emphasize gross butchery over the elegance of the blade. At least Joaquin has a couple of nice moments with his slingshot, fighting against injustice in a pint-size way. "The Son of Zorro"? So long as there's injustice and Banderas in this world, it's a possibility.
EW Grade: B-
'The Protocols of Zion'
Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum
The impetus for the concerned but unrigorous personal documentary "Protocols of Zion" was a taxicab confession: An Egyptian cabbie in New York City repeated the false and insidiously persistent post-9/11 conspiracy rumor that Jewish workers had secretly been warned to stay home the day the Twin Towers were attacked. The passenger was "Slam" director Marc Levin, who, ethnic identity aroused, got to thinking about the persistence of anti-Semitism, which had never before affected him personally.
Levin identifies the discredited 19th-century publication "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," which warns of a nefarious plan for Jewish world domination (and is still, unfortunately, a hot seller), as the ground zero of anti-Semitic fallout. Then he talks, superficially, with various anti-Semites, as well as some anti-anti-Semites.
In addition, the filmmaker keeps himself squarely on screen. This is fine when he engages in throwdowns with the bigots but distasteful when Levin shows himself reacting to footage -- unseen by viewers -- of the beheading of reporter Daniel Pearl. Using evidence of one man's murder as an element in another man's commerce feels painfully wrong.
EW Grade: C
Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum
Of all the shocks in the riveting and timely political thriller "Paradise Now," the most unsettling may be the dignity bestowed on a pair of prospective Palestinian suicide bombers -- not horrified condemnation, not rabid support, just calm regard for a couple of young men prepared to kill themselves and others for what they believe is a just cause.
Is there room and time for such neutral consideration of terrorism? Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), West Bank car mechanics and friends since childhood, prepare overnight for their "holy" mission to murder Israelis the next day in Tel Aviv (the rituals of readiness are depicted with precision, and sometimes with jolting humor). And Palestinian director and co-writer Hany Abu-Assad suggests that taking the time to understand the grievances of angry young men like Said and Khaled is time well spent.
Abu-Assad, who also made the lighter but no less politically engaged 2003 drama "Rana's Wedding," doesn't condone the murder the bombers think they are ready to commit -- whether they will or not is the nail-biter -- but he also empathizes with what could fuel such desperate frustration. (An attractive woman friend of Said's argues for positive political change and articulately abhors the escalation of violence.)
Shooting with energy and a great sense of storytelling, Abu-Assad gambles, astutely, that disappointing those who demand complete condemnation -- or support -- is a risk worth taking if it furthers the causes of peace and justice, not to mention exciting filmmaking.
EW Grade: A-
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