The Matador

When you’re as much a fan of 80s music as I am, and as much a sucker for the inclusion of favourite songs in a movie, you know you’ve liked a film when hearing Asia’s Heat of the Moment is only the third or fourth best thing about it. Such is the case with “The Matador”, an unassuming, low-key dark comedy written and directed by Richard Shepard whose highlight is a most interesting performance by Pierce Brosnan.

Trading the suave and collected airs of James Bond for the shifty eyes and leering gaze of a cynical hit man, Brosnan’s performance is outstanding when looked at individually, but also playing off Greg Kinnear and Hope Davis in smaller yet important roles. The Irishman plays Julian Noble, a hit man whose career is slowly but surely hitting the skids. He’s by and large a con man, but the movie takes its time in revealing that he just might have a conscience after all. When we first see him, Julian is sitting on a park bench. A kid asks if the Porsche nearby belongs to him and adds that he’s caught the eye of his mother on the next bench. Julian tells him to bug off after saying he doesn’t know anything about the Porsche and bluntly mentioning the reasons why he’s not interested in his mom. When the Porsche blows up a few seconds later, we know right then and there we’ve just been introduced to a cool character.

Julian is also a bit of a quirky dude who covertly uses the toenail polish of a lady-for-hire he just spent the night with. He’s basically a horny middle-aged showoff who never misses a chance to peek at cleavage and offers the kind of inappropriate comments that make women roll their eyes with a brief laugh. Neither is he shy, in a very funny sequence, about walking through a hotel lobby in only black briefs and boots to get to the pool, which he enters as unceremoniously as possible.

Julian finds himself in Mexico City for a hit. One night at the hotel bar, he strikes up a conversation with Danny, a real estate businessman from Denver. After the mention of his son’s death in a school bus accident three years before, Danny is understandably appalled at Julian’s response, which is to launch into a midget joke. Julian comes across as a lyin’, cheatin’ bastard, but he manages to make amends for his conduct. One thing leads to another, and Danny accepts an invitation to a corrida where he learns the occupation of his new friend. He’s taken aback, but shows an undeniable curiosity about this man’s line of work. And after he asks him to go through the pretend version of his livelihood, a bond is established that will allow us to explore its effect on the psyche of both characters.

That the stories of Julian and Danny become mutually influential is a credit to Shepard’s focused and layered screenplay. A flashback which reveals a new dimension to the material is especially efficient, and the dialogue has an above average clarity of purpose and the right level of exposition. It is at that point that “The Matador” becomes more than a story about an unlikely relationship and starts looking at what makes these guys tick and what ultimately brings them some form of stability. After the part in Mexico City (where the most important development was a realization on Danny’s part stemming from Julian’s surprisingly lucid words), the story jumps ahead six months to Denver. One winter night, Julian shows up unexpectedly at Danny’s home. The latter’s wife Bean (Hope Davis) looks a bit too bohemian with those extra-long hair extensions and is a bit too unfazed at the arrival of somebody not far from being a stranger, but there’s a feminine charm to her acceptance and enjoyment of a dance with Julian. From this visit, the final act involves the two men going to Tucson for reasons I won’t reveal, and Danny accepting to go because he feels morally indebted to Julian.

Philip Baker Hall makes the most of his limited screen time as Julian’s boss and mentor, while Kinnear and Davis also give good performances, notably in a subdued bedroom talk that gains relevance and poignancy when the end credits roll.

The Matador has an intimate feel and moderate aspirations, which are far from bad things in and of themselves, yet that is precisely why the movie’s emotional impact is rather fleeting. The film deals with powerful human needs and emotions but seems hesitant or unwilling to flesh them out beyond the level of a nicely presented slice of life. I was also mildly puzzled at the falling tree crushing through Danny and Bean’s kitchen during a storm, a scene that would fit better in a natural disaster-themed film or possibly a madcap comedy. But those are minor complaints because “The Matador” deserves to be seen, if only for the lead performance. Brosnan is remarkable as a man who’s confronted with the nature of his work and, just as importantly, with his own loneliness. His work in this film is a fascinating portrait of a man for whom deceit has been a reliable weapon, but one that is powerless against the decency he uncovers within himself and in others.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

The best & worst movies of 2005 By Jean-François Tremblay

Top 10

1. A Lot like Love: out of basically nowhere came this romantic gem taken to a superior level by the charming and engaging performances of Ashton Kutcher and Amanda Peet. A Lot like Love beautifully balances the expectations of a romantic comedy with the mature sensibilities of a sincere drama.

2. Walk the Line: a fabulous film about the life and times of Johnny Cash. Walk the Line is not just an irresistible love story but also a spirited musical showcase. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon are absolutely brilliant and Oscar-worthy in this powerful biopic about the Man in Black.

3. Shopgirl: the quiet grace of Claire Danes’ performance is the driving force of this perceptive film where Jason Schwartzman and Steve Martin are also in fine form in a masterful adaptation of Martin’s novella.

4. The Exorcism of Emily Rose: this is both a very frightening horror movie and a demanding but enthralling courtroom drama, with stellar performances from Tom Wilkinson, Laura Linney and Jennifer Carpenter. A thought-provoking genre effort.

5. Corpse Bride: energetic, funny and touching. Artfully imbued with muted sadness, this film is a real treat for the eyes, ears and heart. Death comes alive in Tim Burton’s latest creation.

6. Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire: this great addition to the franchise juggles exciting magical adventures and nicely observed adolescent concerns with style and a clear understanding of the book’s material. Highlights include the stunning Beauxbatons arrival and the emotional handling of death at Hogwarts.

7. Serenity: for pure entertainment value it ranks as one of the very best films of the year. Jewel Staite (Kaylee) has possibly the funniest line of the year when she says “To hell with this… I’m going to live!!!” with a delightfully over-the-top resolve.

8. Saw II: Jigsaw is back for more deadly moralizing in this gory, inspired horror movie whose shocking ending qualifies as one of the best in the genre’s history, nothing less.

9. Batman Begins: Christian Bale is simply terrific as Batman in this origin story that looks at how the themes of anger, guilt, fear and justice shaped the personality and motives of the Dark Knight. Superior writing, excellent direction and exciting action sequences also make this film a new reference of the superhero genre.

10. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Andrew Adamson’s ambitious film can be appreciated on many levels: as a Christian parable, an enchanting fantasy epic or an old-fashioned love letter to sibling solidarity. Rich themes, magnificent use of computer-generated animation and heartwarming family dynamics: I loved it.

Very honourable mentions go to The Family Stone and Sin City, which came closest to inclusion on the above list. I also want to bring up these especially good films, which one way or another gave me a great time at the movies in 2005: Racing Stripes, Dreamer; Crash (Matt Dillon would be my pick for Best Supporting Actor), The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Coach Carter and King Kong.

Worst 5

1. The Amityville Horror: this assault on our senses is much more annoying than frightening with Ryan Reynolds in full psycho mode, weird behaviour from every character and cheap scare tactics. A wholly unpleasant experience.

2. Stealth: She’s a gorgeous young woman, but even Jessica Biel can’t make up for the outrageous plot and cringe-inducing dialogue of this jingoistic turkey. I felt like using some stealth of my own to disappear from the theater.

3. The Skeleton Key: I was fighting boredom from all the plodding hocus-pocus long before I was shaking my head at the nonsensical, out-of-nowhere final twist.

4. Cry Wolf: Severely lacking in star power (unknown actors can sometimes be a good thing, as in The Blair Witch Project or Open Water, but certainly not here), with stupid stock characters and a very weak twist ending.

5. Unleashed: this bungled attempt at contrasting bizarrely conditioned violence with the humanizing effects of a few gentle souls is mawkish, corny and supremely ridiculous.

The Ice Harvest

Charlie Arglist has a strong suspicion that what he’s done will bring him a lot of trouble, but he doesn’t feel his actions are wrong. That’s because Charlie, played by John Cusack in an especially strong performance, stopped caring a long time ago about right and wrong. He’s a crooked mob lawyer and a moral drifter who has lost sight of the shores of honesty. On Christmas Eve in Wichita, Kansas, he and shady business partner Vic Cavanaugh (a brilliantly cast Billy Bob Thornton) have just embezzled more than 2 million dollars from a Kansas City crime boss. They’re set to leave town but an ice storm delays their escape, which leads to all kinds of complications in “The Ice Harvest”, a praiseworthy dark comedy from director Harold Ramis (Caddyshack, Groundhog Day, Analyze This).

Charlie has fallen in love with strip club owner Renata (Danish beauty Connie Nielsen) and allowed himself to believe that she’ll also leave Wichita behind to go live with him in some tropical paradise. Renata is a calculating woman whose velvety voice utters the loaded whispers of a femme fatale, and Charlie can’t help lusting after her. She has a way of tilting her head to use her cascading chestnut locks and raspberry-hued lips as irresistible weapons of seduction.

Ramis opens the movie with shots from a Nativity crib, to the beats of The Little Drummer Boy, but we soon realize this will be no Merry Christmas as we enter film noir territory. Right from the get-go, Charlie looks like he may have bitten off more than he wanted to chew. When Charlie and Vic go their separate ways for part of the evening and it is decided to leave the money under Vic’s care, we can see the subtle hesitation on Charlie’s face and the lingering doubt that pops into his mind. I shall say no more about the plot, crisply adapted by screenwriters Richard Russo and Robert Benton from Scott Phillips’ debut novel. Reading the book I thought it took forever for the story to pick up, but I recognized some rich characters in Charlie and his drinking buddy Pete (Oliver Platt). Platt’s performance is a delirious display of goofy drunkenness and crude behaviour you’ll want to see. The quick joke from a policeman- and the guy’s silly smile at his own line- when he sees the smashed and pitiful Pete being helped by Charlie is also priceless.

The film echoes the too-much-money-will-bring-you-hell storyline of A Simple Plan and Fargo and the disregard for Christmas goodwill of Bad Santa, yet it’s largely original in its character studies on top of having inspired acting. Some of Cusack’s good guy charm carries over from his romantic roles, but he proves once again the great work he can do with heavier fare. Thornton plays a thoroughly despicable man with aplomb while Nielsen (Gladiator, The Devil’s Advocate) hits the right notes as Renata.

The ending is quite different than in the book and represents an intriguing choice, but you can make the case that it validates the attention given to the lead character and the overall tone. Here’s a movie that shoves the holiday spirit aside, choosing to replace carols and celebrations with bitterness and lethal decisions, and the result is a twisted but very well-done take on the powerful pull of the almighty dollar.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

Saw II

After I brought my jaw back up when it considerably dropped at the end of Saw II, I pondered whether it fit within the happenings of sequel and predecessor, or whether it instead sparked a ton of questions. It was the latter with Saw’s final twist, which was just as stunning as it was hard to believe for a number of reasons. And I have concluded that the twist in this latest offering is pure demonic brilliance in concept and execution, a true shocker which demands both familiarity with the first film and avoidance of specific ideas about where the second one might be taking you to maximize the surprise.

If you love horror films you’re no doubt familiar with Saw, the mega-hit of last year’s Halloween, a film that cost a little more than a million, grossed 35 M $ after two weeks (including an 18 M $ opening) and went on to make 55 M $ in the USA. It was the brainchild of Australians James Wan as director and Leigh Whannell as screenwriter and co-star, and it was a raw vision of terror that obviously scored big with genre fans. It introduced us to the serial killer nicknamed Jigsaw and to his evil games, whose twisted purpose was to make people appreciate being alive by placing them in traps that virtually guaranteed their gruesome deaths.

This time Darren Lynn Bousman is the director, and he shares the writing credits with Whannell. Cinematographer David O. Armstrong and composer Charlie Clouser are back and they bring well-done continuity to the proceedings. The music, for example, is still foreboding and nervous but more restrained than in Saw. The story is very good but the film loses some points because of a definite lull in intensity before the final revelation and also because as clever as it is, the film comes close to cheating in terms of its editing.

The movie begins with one of several gory death scenes. A police informant has fallen victim to Jigsaw after finding himself in a death mask, with the only way out of it too horrific to attempt. This leads to the involvement of Det. Matthews (a solid Donnie Wahlberg), who has a difficult relationship with his teenage son Daniel. A day later, John the Jigsaw killer is captured by the authorities, but not before he has locked eight people unrelated to one another, including Daniel, in a house where they’ve been breathing a deadly nerve gas. Through his usual tape recorders, Jigsaw tells them the only way they can survive is by finding the antidotes he has hidden somewhere inside the booby-trapped house. John, played once again by an excellent Tobin Bell, also starts a battle of wits with the detective, who hears more than he would want to about his own past. We also get some good background, although the insight is not entirely satisfactory, about the motivations of this unusual killer, a moralizing terminal cancer patient.

The eight people trapped in the room where the game starts are played by people that quite frankly I’ve never heard of, except for Shawnee Smith playing Amanda, the sole survivor of Jigsaw’s deadly games in the first outing. Boy, this girl can’t seem to catch a break. Also noteworthy are Erik Knudsen as Daniel, Glenn Plummer as Jonas, Emmanuelle Vaugier as Addison and Franky G as Xavier. Acting is by and large decent but unremarkable, and with that many people there’s always someone who stands out in ways that aren’t necessarily good. That’s the case with Franky G, who basically plays Xavier as a more extreme version, if that can be, of Maurice Dean Wint’s Quentin in Cube.

But all things considered, Saw II easily remains one of the year’s best horror films. It’s even more audacious than the original, it has plenty to satisfy gore aficionados and the “Holy shit!” ending puts it a good notch above the vast majority of the horror films of 2005. Don’t trick yourself out of such a treat this Halloween.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay


“Shopgirl” is Steve Martin’s screen adaptation of his novella of the same name, and he stars alongside Claire Danes (Romeo + Juliet, Les Misérables, Stage Beauty) and Jason Schwartzman (Slackers, i ♥ huckabees ) in a bittersweet meditation on the hurts and healings one can experience in the search for love. Martin here shows a deft hand at streamlining ever so slightly the themes and actions of his novella, which was exceedingly introspective and intellectualized too much too often.

Mirabelle (Danes) works at the glove counter at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, in a part of the store that can only be described as so secluded it’s almost forgotten. This fact underlines her sense of isolation from the world. She’s an artist who sells a few drawings once in a while, a transplant from her native Vermont and a sufferer of depression, for which she takes medication. From the movie’s narration (Martin going through it as an omniscient presence unrelated to the character he plays), we gather that what Mirabelle yearns for the most is for somebody to care about her. The narration is a device that could easily be didactic, but it’s used sparingly enough to be valuable and interesting instead of sounding hollow.

Anybody who’s ever loved (and possibly lost) can empathize with Mirabelle’s longing, and perhaps that’s what draws us in when Jeremy, an unkempt and slightly weird young man, says a brusque but heartfelt “Hey! I mean, Hello” to her one day, out of the blue, at a Laundromat. A tale could be spun with just those two in it, but things are expanded, meaning severely complicated, when wealthy computer entrepreneur Ray Porter (Martin) shows up at her counter and buys a pair of gloves. He sends them back to her as a gift along with an invitation for dinner. She accepts. It leads to more dates. Those dates lead to sex. He lavishes her with magnificent clothes, even paying off her substantial student loans, while she glows from the feeling of finally being important to someone.

But there’s an insidious problem in their relationship. A speech is made, wishful interpretations of it differ strongly, and then later sensibilities are really hurt. There’s a scene among others that tells us a lot about Ray Porter. As she can hardly believe she’s having an Armani dress fitted for her, Ray is nonchalantly leafing through a catalog. It’s a seemingly innocuous moment, but it helps demonstrate that while she may very well be in love, for him love is that door he’s right in front of but whose handle he cannot muster the will, or courage, to turn.

Meanwhile, Jeremy is on the road with a rock band to promote his company’s amplifiers (he designs the logos which appear on them). Happenstance puts him in contact with self-help and meditative books and tapes, and surprisingly enough this just might help him polish his off-kilter appearance and personality. It’s all handled in a very mature fashion by Martin’s script and perceptively captured by director Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie). This is a story that’s well served by a superb performance by Danes, a solid one by Martin, especially in the film’s second half, and a quietly tone-perfect one by Schartzman. Martin once played romantic hopefuls around the mid-80s and early 90s (The Lonely Guy, Roxanne, L.A. Story), and this is definitely a change of pace after his recent roles in films like Bringing Down the House and Cheaper by the Dozen. Danes, who has the widest scope of emotions, is a gorgeous ray of light, equal parts vulnerable but strong, hurt but resolute. And Schwartzman makes us believe that Jeremy can indeed be “an OK guy, by the way”, and then some, as he tells Mirabelle that day at the Laundromat.

I’d be at fault not to mention the inspired use of Dusty Springfield’s catchy “I only want to be with you” tune and the evocative, if a bit heavy-handed, score by Barrington Pheloung. There’s also a distant echo of Lost in Translation in the ending, and that’s a good thing in my book. “Shopgirl” is ultimately about life, and it’s a touching film about its complexity, the bumps on the road and the rewards along the way.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

Just like Heaven

Jean-François Tremblay :

“Just Like Heaven” is of the opinion that love conquers all, including the frontier between our world and the afterlife. From my understanding, it also takes the position that if you really believe something happened, then it’s no longer just a dream and it becomes reality. Your own private reality, if you will. If I had a lower tolerance for the many whimsical forms love can take at the movies, I would dismiss its story as pure schmaltz, and there’s a fair deal of that for sure. But the leads, played by the winning combo of Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo, give such appealing performances in a tale that threatens to derail into lovey-dovey fluff that you end up liking the film anyway. To a degree.

As romantic comedies go, it’s a gentle enough ride helmed with competence by “Freaky Friday” and “Mean Girls” director Mark Waters. Gentle, that is, except for a couple of occasions including the opening scenes where San Francisco medical resident Elizabeth (Witherspoon), quite the busy little bee, is on the tail end of a 26-hour shift, no less. In this overdone opening sequence, she basically does everything but mop the floors and work at the cafeteria, although for all I know she might have done that too. For Elizabeth, work is everything. So much so, in fact, that the perils of a workaholic lifestyle become a secondary theme given more importance than the handling of a social issue that recently made headlines in the United States, which I’ll touch upon a bit later. Elizabeth is soon told by one of those authoritative-looking doctors that she’s earned a coveted attending physician job, but also that for now what she really needs to do is go home and get some quality sleep. But fate strikes on the way there, in the form of a major crash with a transport truck, sending her into a deep coma.

Meanwhile, landscape architect David (Ruffalo), looking for an apartment, chooses this elegant and cozy pad with a great view. His chips & beer-sustained moping/stagnancy/grief (his wife died two years before) is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Elizabeth’s spirit. She doesn’t know she’s in a coma or even what happened to her, believes this is still her apartment and sees David as a messy intruder. He’s the only one who can see and hear her and he wonders if he’s going insane. They bicker a lot at first, which allows for some humorous repartee. David wants her gone and ends up going to some alternative bookstore run by Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) playing a middling character with psychic abilities. Side note about a breach of the movie’s internal logic: if Elizabeth’s ghost condition prevents her from grabbing a phone, how come she can twist David’s body in crazy ways at a bar and actually push him out of the place?

Eventually the feelings between the bickering pair turn to affection as they retrace who Elizabeth was and what her life was like. This plays out in a series of scenes brilliantly underplayed by Witherspoon, especially, who conveys her character’s plight and longing with subtle changes in her facial expressions. Supporting characters, however, are perfunctory, notably Elizabeth’s sister Abby (Dina Waters), who has to decide whether or not to sign the papers stopping the artificial prolonging of her sister’s life. Those looking for a substantial examination of this issue after the Terri Schiavo case are no doubt ill-advised in looking at Hollywood to provide it. I’ll trust the audience to make what they want of what happens. There are easy conclusions to be drawn, but how valid they are when framed by the formula of American romantic comedy is something to keep in mind as well.

“Just Like Heaven” is the adaptation of a Marc Levy novel called If Only It Were True, and screenwriters Peter Tolan and Leslie Dixon have noticeably reworked the material, which is not really a bad thing since the book is incorrigibly mushy. They’ve also added a revelation late in the story that’s kind of cute and clever, yet the movie as a whole is little more than cinematic comfort food. It may be unfair to expect otherwise, but at the same time the best and most memorable love stories rise to a level this film only floats around. I’ll end with this, people: there’s a moment where we can hear a few bars of the “Ghostbusters” theme. One thing’s for sure: if they can look as good as Reese Witherspoon does, then I ain’t afraid of no ghosts either.

Kevin L.:

Aww, Reese. Gotta love the Reese. She’s so funny and sweet, she’s got such a bright smile and sparkling eyes… Love her. The movie doesn’t need to spend a lot of time introducing her as overworked Dr. Elizabeth Anderson. 5 minutes and a montage and we already buy her as a dedicated, wonderful young professional whose whole life is her work, then WHAMMY! Her car is rammed into by a truck while she’s driving home from a 26 hour shift.

Cut to Mark Ruffalo, giving good deadpan and pathos as David Abbott, a landscape architect who spends his night listening to Beck, watching TV and drinking beer alone – ooh, I can relate to that (well, not the landscape architect part). His sad, lonely life is shaken up when he discovers that Elizabeth, the former tenant of the San Francisco apartment he’s subletting, is still living there, but he’s the only one who can see her. Is he going nuts? Is she a ghost? I’ll let you find out for yourself.

Based on Marc Levy’s best-selling novel Et si c’était vrai…, “Just Like Heaven” is part romantic fantasy (“City of Angels” meets “Ghost”), part supernatural comedy (sort of a gentler “Beetlejuice”). It makes for a pleasant watch, despite uninspired patchwork direction and a screenplay that indulges facile metaphors: David was already haunted by the loss of his wife, Elizabeth was always “invisible” and disconnected from people, both of them desperately needed to find each other, etc. Despite its high-concept premise, it’s an ultimately predictable rom-com but it’s touching anyway, not unlike “13 going on 30”, which not so coincidentally also paired Mark Ruffalo with a spunky young woman (Jennifer Garner).

Bad News Bears

“Bad News Bears” charts the season of a Little League team so lacking in baseball fundamentals and team unity it makes Charlie Brown’s bunch look like favorites to win the World Series. But for all its inadequacies, who could at least have comic potential, the team, and as a result the film itself, can’t escape a serious case of blandness. Adding to the “E” for error on the film’s scorecard is the surprisingly ineffective casting of Billy Bob Thornton as Coach Buttermaker, as Thornton fails to evoke the nuances of the role, be it the well-hidden goodness or the devil-may-care booziness, that Walther Matthau perfectly captured in the 1976 original film.

Virtually every development feels like a watered-down version of the previous film, which was funnier both in general and in specific instances. One of the few times I laughed in BNB ’05 was when Buttermaker, whose day job is being an exterminator, brings the kids along to help with some fumigation tasks: you feel guilty when laughing at the complete disregard he shows for the safety of his players. Overall the screenplay is quite similar in both films, but there’s very little rhythm in the new one and comparing the actors is almost always favorable to those in the earlier “Bears”. As a rival coach who takes the game way too seriously, echoing a valid social concern, Vic Morrow gave a more focused performance than Greg Kinnear, who isn’t bad by any means but comes across more as a mildly dictatorial life coach than anything else. An interesting bit of irony to observe, however, is the inherent conflict in what coach Bullock (Kinnear) says and does when he goes to the mound to yell at his pitcher son for not following his “orders”. Yet the scene was more powerful and better handled in the original, including the reactions of the mom in the stands and those of the abusive coach and his kid. That scene clearly showed the breaking point where youth sports can become so devoid of what they should be, fun, that kids simply walk out.

Another thing that works better in the first film is a hurtful heart-to-heart discussion between Buttermaker and his daughter from a failed marriage, who was recruited on the team because of her killer fastball. The rest of the squad is an uninteresting hodgepodge of underachievers, never-achievers and ethnic misfits that we’re never made to care about. The only character that’s lively and funny in both films is shortstop Tanner (Timmy Deters), a good candidate for anger management sessions who had me greatly amused at his efforts to impede the forward progress of the runners rounding second base.

The director is Richard Linklater, who two years ago helmed the very enjoyable “School of Rock”. But that movie had key elements sorely missing from his “Bad News Bears”: a lead actor who’s colorful, kids who have engaging personalities and a sense of a group working towards a common goal. This new film, pretentiously called an “homage” on its official website, rarely grabs your attention and doesn’t seem to have anything to say in a decisive manner. Thornton can be a marvelous actor, and I especially liked his work in “A Simple Plan “ and “Friday Night Lights”. After his turn as a foul-mouthed and bitter Santa in “Bad Santa”, you’d think of Thornton as a great fit for the kind of coach who takes his players to Hooters and finds a gentleman’s club as the sponsor for his team’s uniforms, but the puzzle piece strangely doesn’t fit. Matthau’s Buttermaker, while a boozy and generally grumpy man, looked like his heart was in it to coach the little rascals, while Thornton doesn’t play him in a way that conveys that. Remakes are often despised these days, often with great justification, but there’s a positive aspect to even the weakest of them: they can make you discover some fine films by renting the originals, and this is something movie lovers would be well advised to try, with “Bad News Bears” specifically and as a general rule. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

Dark Water

Let me first say this about Walter Salles’ “Dark Water”. However efficient it is as a horror movie, however well-crafted it is in the ghost story vein of the genre, it’s not the kind of stuff I’d want to see again. As you step out of the theater after a movie like this, boy do you feel like watching some crazy cartoon or a breezy comedy. Because make no mistakes about it people, “Dark Water” has images that can chill your blood and terrify you to your very core. I felt much the same way about the original Japanese film made in 2002 by Hideo Nakata and released this week on DVD. Both are creepy, scary affairs that take the same cruel detour to show a mother’s decision made at a terrible, terrible price. One of the differences in Salles’ version is that the story makes perhaps too much of an attempt to ground things in reality, especially towards the end, for example when the police is involved. The Brazilian director, from a screenplay by Rafael Yglesias, made a film that could be interpreted as more “positive”, although you could easily argue with that and contend the Japanese film offers the same kind of “closure”, if you’re willing to use that term.

Let’s get to the story, here set on Roosevelt Island, a small piece of land squeezed between Manhattan and Queens in New York City. Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly) is in the middle of a custody dispute with her estranged husband (Dougray Scott) as she’s looking for an apartment for her and 5 year-old daughter Cecilia (Ariel Gade). They visit a sprawling and, quite frankly, depressing high-rise apartment complex. The lobby’s uninspiring, the elevator’s worrisome and the janitor doesn’t look too reliable, but the rent is affordable and it’s close to a school, so they decide to take it. The actual visit introduces us to the building manager and the janitor, two characters who seem off-key because they bring comical touches to material that relies, mostly with great success, on a slowly mounting sense of dread.

The manager, Mr. Murray, is played by John C. Reilly. As with used car salesmen, infomercial pitchmen and others of similar objectives, Mr. Murray knows that it’s important to just keep on talking, no matter how inane or pointless the words. He keeps finding doubtful advantages and qualities to what are in truth structural failings or oddities. My favorite spins are what he says about the bizarrely placed window that supposedly lets in lots of sunshine in the afternoon, the side-folding dinner table (“no clutter”) and last but not least the overall view from the apartment. Murray casually describes it as the envy of many when all it does is reveal how crushingly enormous, dull and grey the complex is. Pete Postlethwaite is the janitor, a quiet man who’s humorously gruff but most of all looks like he knows more than he lets on.

Very soon after Dahlia and Cecilia move in, they notice an ugly water stain on the ceiling, a stain that will get bigger and quite repulsive. It’s eventually patched up by the janitor, but the real problem remains. That’s because there is something lurking upstairs, something dark whose actions will have horrible consequences. Without saying too much, it’s about the abandonment of a child by her parents but also the devastating yet undeniable need it created for a little girl of Cecilia’s age. “Dark Water” centers on the notion of humanity and more precisely of motherhood, and therefore creates its own peculiar ray of light, but the road it takes to get there is paved with creepy or horrific images, including the most chilling look I’ve ever seen at the movies from a child character. Yet even if the mix of horror and family drama is disturbing, Salles, who directed “Central Station” as well as the splendid “Motorcycle Diaries”, maneuvers with a sure hand. He and cinematographer Affonso Beato, along with the visual effects team, use the island and the apartment to build a strong sense of displacement and a feeling of being dwarfed by uncontrollable forces. The performance of Connelly (“A Beautiful Mind”, “House of Sand and Fog”) is first-rate in the role of a mother with a traumatic childhood now just trying to start anew in life, and both little girls, coached by Andrew Magarian and played by Gade and Perla Haney-Jardine, are stunningly expressive. I recommend “Dark Water” to those who wish to broaden their horizon of horror film knowledge, because it is made with skill at multiple levels and because it is gripping, but do know that it deals with very heavy and harrowing stuff.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

Herbie: Fully Loaded

If you have the slightest interest in the lives and times of Young Hollywood, you’ve probably come across the worrisome pictures of the new-look Lindsay Lohan. Miles away from her former voluptuous self, Lohan, now with blonde hair, looks disturbingly thin and in need of several good meals. Where is the fleshy, busty, healthy-looking beauty who was one of GQ’s hottest covers ever in October 2004 ? If we are to believe the reports, and the pictures indicate we should, she’s down to 100-some pounds from 140 pounds a year ago, yet journalists were forbidden from asking about the weight loss during the junket for her latest film, “Herbie: Fully Loaded”. The film was shot in the second half of 2004, so at least we get a much better-looking Lindsay in comparison to her current appearance.

This is the third Disney remake for Lohan, after the cute but forgettable “Parent Trap” and the surprisingly good “Freaky Friday”. “Fully Loaded”, which brings back the Volkswagen Bug with a mind of its own that the studio first introduced in 1969 with “The Love Bug”, is enjoyable enough and directed with unquestionable energy by Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S.), but it remains lightweight stuff with its share of weaknesses.

After “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen”, Lohan had a star-making turn in the well-written “Mean Girls”, after which (and because of which) the authenticity of her ample chest became a matter of national interest. There have been internet reports, regarding “Fully Loaded”, that Disney digitally reduced the star’s chest size because it supposedly distracted from the story during the final scenes at a racetrack. I found the whole thing suspicious but possible, coming from a company (and a country) prone to puzzling puritanical decisions. Upon viewing the big screen evidence (someone’s gotta do it), I don’t know, people. Those racing outfits really tend to be great equalizers in the breast size department. If there really was digital downsizing, it would be tough to see the point because Lohan spends a great deal of the film in curves-friendly t-shirts or in a black mini-skirt which makes her appear taller than her 5’5’’ frame.

Lohan plays Maggie Peyton, the daughter of Ray Peyton Sr., a former NASCAR champ played by Michael Keaton (Breckin Meyer is Maggie’s brother, a race driver, in a role and performance that barely registers). In a bit of a stretch age-wise, Maggie has just graduated from college and seems headed to New York to work at ESPN as a producer. But things change when her dad offers to buy her a car to be rescued from a junkyard as a graduation present (at least that’s how I understood it since the story, credited through various wording to a bunch of people, doesn’t always bother with clear explanations for what’s happening or why). Herbie is chosen, and soon Maggie finds a cryptic message in the Bug’s glove compartment saying that if she treats it well, “whatever the problem is, Herbie will help you find the answer”. This might lead one to believe that Herbie will reveal the meaning of life, publish a self-help book or solve complex mathematical equations, with the secret of the Caramilk thrown in for good measure, but the darn thing is more interested in inflicting all manners of innocuous harm on whoever puts it down, magically swinging its hood or sending oil somebody’s way.

But somehow, Maggie starts caring about the car, and we later get to some sort of regional gathering where we meet hotshot pilot Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon, having fun with a mildly arrogant baddie), who’s beaten by Herbie in an impromptu street race. After various happenings, Herbie is abandoned and lost to Murphy, which leads to Maggie rescuing it from a demolition derby in the film’s most exciting sequence. More zany developments will take Herbie to a NASCAR race with Maggie behind the wheel, a plotline that also wraps up a half-hearted subplot about Ray Sr. being overprotective of his daughter. Justin Long is in there as Maggie’s love interest, but every time he was being wide-eyed about something, I couldn’t stop thinking of that catchy chorus from this horror film he was in: Jeepers, creepers… where d’you get those peepers? Another weakness is that the connection between Maggie and Herbie is never explored in any way that would tell us why one is so important to the other.

It may seem like a lot of things bothered me a little, but I still enjoyed the film. I often value the presence of popular or simply neat songs in movies, and this one makes fun use of tunes from Van Halen, The Beach Boys and Lionel Richie, for example. Lohan and Dillon play their characters well, and the final race is cool even though the outcome is never in doubt. Consider Herbie a bit better than half-loaded.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

The Longest Yard

“The Longest Yard” is the story of a guards vs. convicts prison football game about which one inmate comments that “the blood of the guards will flow like the rivers of ancient Babylon”. I don’t wanna sound like I’m a proponent of violence, but who wouldn’t want to watch a game foreseen in such outrageous terms?

In the film’s opening scene (radically different from the 1974 original movie, which is a good thing in that the treatment of a woman is sort of clever instead of appalling), we are introduced to former NFL star quarterback Paul Crewe (Adam Sandler), who was banned from the game six years before for rigging the score for bettors. He’s down on his luck at a party, watching footage of his old glory by himself in a room when he’s told to go mingle with the crowd by his sexy but obnoxious girlfriend (Courteney Cox). He responds by tricking her into looking for a gift in a closet, locks her there then decides to “borrow” her Bentley. A wild police chase follows, leading to a massive pile-up, and Crewe is sent deep into the heart of Texas to Allenville State Penitentiary.

There, Warden Hazen (well played by James Cromwell) oversees a semi-pro football team made up of guards. The team’s performance has been lacking for a few years, so Hazen figures a former star like Crewe can give his squad a few pointers as a consultant. When Crewe suggests they should have a tune-up game before the upcoming season, Hazen leaves Crewe little choice but to assemble a team of convicts and act as their quarterback. With help from Caretaker, the inmate who can get you stuff (Chris Rock), and from a coach who shows up like a gunslinger in a troubled Wild West outpost (Burt Reynolds, who played Crewe in ’74), Crewe starts recruiting and preparing the troops for the big game. But as the big matchup unfolds and Hazen realizes the cons offer much tougher resistance than he wanted, he throws a wrench in Crewe’s Mean Machine at halftime: the quarterback is to let the guards run away with victory, or Hazen will hold him as an accomplice to the murder of a key character. The emotional focus then becomes whether personal pride and team spirit will triumph over control and blackmail.

There’s something about Sandler as a star quarterback that’s a little unconvincing, but as a guy who faces The System and eventually wins over his teammates, he does a fairly good job. The use of split screens during the football action, which was rather excessive and disorderly in the original, is done more sparingly, and as such more efficiently, in the new film. Director Peter Segal, who directed Sandler twice before (in “Anger Management” and “50 First Dates”) succeeds at building a sense of team unity and purpose, with good contributions by Sandler and former Dallas Cowboys star wideout Michael Irvin. And if you enjoy football, the game itself is shown with bone-crunching energy.

But the screenplay from Sheldon Turner, while in many instances respectful of the 1974 film, involves too many odd or overly quirky characters. There’s the warden’s assistant who could be a closeted uncle of Tom Hanks’ character in “The Ladykillers”, a nutcase who blames his poor ball control on eating popcorn, a ping-pong loving giant who mumbles his few words, a guard who goes all sensitive after the cons change his steroids for estrogen, the prison cross-dressers who double as cheerleaders led by Tracy Morgan, and I’m leaving out a few more. Yet even with these dubious audibles from the 1974 playbook, “The Longest Yard” remains a decently enjoyable production, especially if you like movies featuring team sports.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay