Secret Window


Divorce and the solitary life spell disaster for author Mort Rainey in “Secret Window”, which is based on Stephen King’s novella Secret Window, Secret Garden. Rainey (Johnny Depp) is a successful New York mystery writer who has been living like a recluse at his lakeside cabin upstate since he caught his wife cheating on him six months before. He spends most of his time sleeping on the couch, struggling with a severe case of writer’s block and asking for approval from his timid-looking dog Chico.

One day, a stranger by the name of John Shooter (John Turturro) shows up on his doorstep with these puzzling words: “You stole my story”. The man leaves Mort with a manuscript, much against the latter’s will, of a short story which he claims Mort took credit for. Shooter, who has come all the way from Mississippi yet looks vaguely Amish, is a tall, slender figure with something eerie about him.

Mort is at first annoyed rather than worried about this, convinced that he’s dealing with a nutcase reader. He contends he wrote the story, and had it published in a magazine, before Shooter wrote his. Doubt invades his mind, though, when comparisons reveal striking similarities between the two tales. As Shooter resorts to increasingly evil tactics in demanding a new story, Mort tries to get him off his back by saying he’ll come up with the magazine to settle the escalating dispute once and for all.

The relationship between the writer, the reader and fiction itself is something King explored before in Misery and The Dark Half. The novella on which this film is based is an involving 150-page read that told us more about Mort Rainey’s past and his difficult relationship with estranged wife Amy (Maria Bello) and new man in her life Ted (Tim Hutton), while also putting a little more emphasis on the small-town dynamics of which King is a master observer.

For better or for worse, “Secret Window” is no doubt a Johnny Depp showcase. When the action around him is relentless, in stories which leave room or even call for them like “Sleepy Hollow” or “Pirates of the Caribbean”, Depp’s mannerisms add a nice touch. Here, his quirks only feel, and look, weird. The final 20 minutes are nonetheless quite effective in creating a palpable sense of dread. Helped by a semi-claustrophobic setting in the form of the Tashmore Lake cabin, which sends a faint echo of the Overlook Hotel, and a dark score by Philip Glass, director David Koepp (“Stir of Echoes”, the screenplay for “Panic Room”) has put together a very good terror film.

Bello (“Payback”, “Coyote Ugly”, “The Cooler”) is very convincing as Amy and Turturro is excellent as Shooter, playing him halfway between an insidious harbinger of doom and a “Deliverance”-style country weirdo. Taken on its own, the film is a fine psychological thriller although those who read the short story might appreciate it more, coming in with more information about the main character. We should mention the film is helped tremendously by its ending. It is gripping not so much in its nature, which is predictable, but in its combination of acting, visual effects and music that fits the material extremely well.

Review by J-F Tremblay

Club Dread


Broken Lizard’s “Club Dread” is a hit-and-miss hybrid of a movie. It wants to be both funny and scary in such quick rotation throughout its 105 minutes that it sometimes loses effectiveness across the board.

At various points the film brings to mind Scream and Friday the 13th, but also goofy fare like Scooby-Doo and American Pie. Indeed Stifler would fit right in on Pleasure Island, a Caribbean resort island where there’s wild fun to be had- and, we soon learn, a lot of blood to be spilled. The island is the domain of washed-up rock star Coconut Pete (Bill Paxton).

The film opens as a boatload of attractive young people are ready to let loose at his party-crazy resort. Since the whole premise and release date has a distinct Spring Break feel (everybody on the island except Pete and a bodyguard (!) looks of college age or slightly older), we expect a good dose of booze and sex, and we get it.

The five Broken Lizard guys have roles that make them seem like glorified camp counselors, and it comes as no surprise that this film includes a spooky tale by a campfire. Director Jay Chandrasekhar is Putman, the British tennis coach with a very unconvincing accent. Steve Lemme is Juan, a diving expert with a wild sex drive. Kevin Heffernan is Lars, the island’s new masseur with the magic touch. Paul Soter is the I-can’t-stop-grooving DJ and Eric Stolhanske is the head of the Fun Police, which is as corny as it sounds.

Added to the ensemble are Brittany Daniel (“Joe Dirt”) as an aerobics instructor and Jordan Ladd (“Cabin Fever”) as one of the guests. All would be fine on Pleasure Island if it weren’t for a crazed machete-wielding killer who’s regularly bringing down the head count. When the gang realizes what’s happening, Coconut Pete first insists that the show must go on: he’ll be damned if a psychotic maniac is going to interfere with such revelry as Fashion Show Wednesday.

Chandrasekhar and the rest of the Lizards (they all share screenwriting credit on their movies) use a decent amount of gore on the way to the revealing of the killer, while not forgetting to include a few topless girls, sex and drunken partying. It’s all done in good fun, and there’s something refreshing about BL’s unapologetic approach to humour, heavy on the frat boy kind but not limited to it.

Broken Lizard began in 1989 while the five were students at upstate New York’s Colgate University. They formed a comedy troupe originally called Charred Goosebeak then hit the sketch comedy scene in NYC in the early 1990s. With Chandrasekar as director, they made their first film in 1996, the very little-known “Puddle Cruiser”, then made a much bigger name for themselves with 2002’s “Super Troopers”, the hilarious (but also uneven) comedy about the shenanigans of five Vermont State Troopers. “Troopers” grossed six times its 3 M $ budget, and it was Chandrasekhar’s wish to move on to a slasher film.

He made one alright, although such a large core of central characters can be both a blessing and a curse. They have more shots at creating funny bits but also more opportunities to miss badly and give you the impression that the plot is going nowhere. Not helping is the way the false alarms are handled, with some being so clumsy and the accompanying sound effects so overdone that it comes off as amateurish rather than clever.

At the same time, the performances are fun to watch. Lemme’s Juan and Heffernan’s Lars are especially entertaining, and Daniel is a charming actress who’s a natural in the fun parts and convincing in the scary ones. The totally outrageous ending summed up the film well: dumb bordering on annoying, but also likely to cause roaring laughter for those who play along with Broken Lizard’s humour.

Review by J-F Tremblay

The Blue Butterfly


Brimming with heartfelt emotion, Léa Pool’s “The Blue Butterfly” shows the beauty of the majestic rain forest and its smallest inhabitants with a humanist touch. It introduces us to a wide array of colorful insects with an entomologist’s passion while going beyond that showcase. It’s a story about the magic of one child’s dreams and the bonds that form along a journey that is part adventure, part intimate drama.

Shot in Costa Rica and Montreal, the film opens in our city’s Insectarium (founder Georges Brossard was a consultant) where renowned entomologist Alan Osborne (William Hurt) says a few words of thanks as his work is honored in an exhibition. 10 year-old Pete (Marc Donato), who’s wheelchair-bound and suffering from brain cancer, is there with his mom Teresa (Pascale Bussières).

Doctors have given Pete three to six months to live. His room is a mini-shrine to all sorts of insects and butterflies, and to him Osborne is the coolest guy in the world. Without any trace of shyness, the boy asks Osborne to take him to the jungle to catch the elusive Blue Morpho, a butterfly which has come to represent all things worthwhile to Pete.

After initial reluctance about not being good with kids and Morpho season being practically over, Osborne accepts. And so we follow Osborne, Pete, Teresa and a few locals in their efforts to track the creature, to the lively and moody rhythms of the rain forest. The captivating music and Pierre Mignot’s cinematography give us a great feel for the wild environment, making it come alive or showing how the jungle’s density can also be suffocating at times.

At one point Alan, baffled by Pete’s calm in the face of a repeated lack of success in their hunt, asks him whether he ever gets mad, being a kid who’s been told he will probably die soon. “I’m just not a mad kind of person”, Pete replies softly.

Not all has been rosy in Alan’s life. We learn he has a daughter he abandoned to her mom when she was a baby 17 years before. We sense perhaps an emotional gap has been bridged in Alan’s character by being in contact with a boy who is so resolute to catch a specific butterfly. I’m not sure how much of a father figure we can read into Alan as it relates to Pete, who lost his dad in a car accident, but what is made certain is that both gain from their jungle interactions.

Part of Pete’s journey in learning that life is more than the pursuit of a single butterfly involves Alan suffering an injury that could be viewed as an artificially created plot element, but the charmingly understated manner in which a local girl’s of Pete’s age tries to teach him the same message more than counters it.

Pool is not afraid to let the camera linger on her cast to get the full measure of a warm smile, a contemplative look or something as seemingly simple as gently holding a hand. Pascale Bussières gives a wonderful performance in that regard, with the only scene clashing in tone from the rest of the movie is a temper tantrum she throws as the group has to cross a swamp.

“The Blue Butterfly” is a tale about the magic of dreams and the nobility of believing in them. It was inspired by a true story: in 1987, granting the wish of a 7 year-old with terminal cancer, Brossard took him butterfly hunting in Central America. When they returned, the cancer was in remission and the young man has since defeated the illness. Independently of this, or in light of it, the film is a moving experience of poetic beauty.

Review by J-F Tremblay

Barbershop 2: Back in Business


There are a lot of funny moments in “Barbershop 2: Back in Business”, don’t get me wrong. Yet, in an attempt to expand its emotional reach, it somewhat dilutes the energy and charm of the original film.

Released in theaters in the fall of 2002, “Barbershop” was about Calvin (Ice Cube) realizing the importance of his South Chicago barbershop, which his father had passed on to him, to the people who earned a living there or made it a community gathering place.

Wisely, B2: BiB brings back pretty much all the characters from the first film, starting with Calvin, and we’re also given historical background about outspoken old-time barber Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer).

This time, the enemy is not a loan shark but land developers who want to replace established places like Calvin’s with snazzy chain businesses, namely a Nappy Cuts franchise right across the street. Now this is not just any barbershop. This Nappy Cuts comes complete with aquariums, the finest haircutting equipment and a basketball court, no less, as we see when the old gang breaks in at night-time to know what they’ll be up against.

To add more oestrogen to the mix, not that the don’t-mess-with-her Terri (Eve) wasn’t pulling her weight, a role was created for Queen Latifah as a hairstylist at the beauty shop next door. She’s a dynamic enough presence, but her part basically serves only as an introduction to her spin-off movie “Beauty Shop”, set to be released in November.

The film tries to integrate too many elements for its own good. We get a loosely explained romance between Eddie and an old flame, and a slightly more fleshed out one between Terri and Ricky (Michael Ealy), who also works at the barbershop. On the visual level, director Kevin Rodney Sullivan (“How Stella Got Her Groove Back”) uses unnecessary bird’s-eye view transition shots with a swooping camera that feels badly out of place in this movie.

The first film was hugely successful (on a 12 M$ budget, it brought in over 75 M $) because it showed a close-knit milieu while giving great attention to the quick-trigger sentences and frank talk that made the regulars at Calvin’s shop so likable. It valued the familiar. When it goes beyond the comfy confines of the shop is when the focus is diluted in this offering, or at least made a little unclear. The movie opens with shots of several African-Americans whose accomplishments vary widely, going from Arthur Ashe to MC Hammer by way of Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s raised fists on the podium at the 1968 Olympics. I appreciate the effort to add dramatic weight to the proceedings, and there is a strong flashback sequence where a younger Eddie confronts a rioter after the assassination of Martin Luther King, but these opening shots feel a little like part of another movie.

We cannot fault the performances. Ice Cube is once again solid as a rock as Calvin, and Cedric the Entertainer can be counted on for another helping of outrageous rambling statements. Cedric can be credited with Eddie’s particular speech pattern, with his often shortened words seemingly coming from a region somewhere between his mouth and his nose. Eve also handles her role very well as the main feminine presence, whether Terri gets in someone’s face or whether she has more subdued scenes with Ricky. And the part where a smooth-talking alderman pays a visit to the barbershop is absolutely hilarious as he gets more (or less, technically) than he bargained for in the chair manned by eager-to-impress rookie barber Kenard (Kenan Thompson).

However, “Back in Business” does precisely what it criticizes Nappy Cuts for: too many gimmicks. The end result feels a bit like a hairdresser tinkering endlessly here and there with your haircut when you thought the first go at it was just right.

Review by J-F Tremblay

Along Came Polly


“Along Came Polly” is a bit of a bumpy ride, but at the end of it you’re still able to say it was enjoyable. It maintains your interest despite some superfluous plot developments and cut-rate soul searching thanks to its genuinely likable characters.

Semi-neurotic Reuben Feffer (Ben Stiller) is a risk analyst at an insurance company in New York. He has his whole life planned and he spends his time minimizing risk, or eliminating it altogether, from all aspects of his existence. He has a number of pillows that must always be placed on the bed, and in their cabinets, the exact same way every time. He uses a numbers-based rationale in explaining why nuts or mints from public places should not be eaten. Could he possibly, through an attractive free spirit (Jennifer Aniston), learn to let loose a little?

I believe you can guess the answer. Roger Ebert sometimes reminds his readers of this key rule of his criticism: it is not what a film is about but rather how it is about it. And for the most part, “Along Came Polly” marches toward its final scene in entertaining enough fashion, with a fair amount of help from Philip Seymour Hoffman and a ferret with bad vision. It’s just that we could have done without, for example, dialogue from Reuben’s dad that spells out as if we were slow-learning schoolchildren what the grand Message is here.

The movie begins as Reuben is marrying Lisa (Will and Grace’s Debra Messing), and we follow the pair as they go to the Caribbean island of St. Bart’s for their honeymoon. Soon after they arrive, though, Lisa cheats on him with a scuba instructor (Hank Azaria). Understandably more than upset, Reuben goes back to single life in New York, receiving questionable advice from his best friend Sandy (Hoffman), a former child actor. The accomplished Hoffman brings outrageous life to his down-and-out character, notably when his delusions of fame bring chaos to a community theater play he’s involved in.

Sandy takes Reuben to a party where he has a chance encounter with waitress Polly Prince (Aniston), who he went to grade school with. Polly has been leading a bohemian life that took her to Sri Lanka and Buffalo among other fine places. Somehow, there’s an attraction, and they start dating. And so the rest of the movie is about the existential questions (and wackiness and toilet humour, it seems) that come up when opposites attract.

The problem is Polly’s character feels underwritten and underdeveloped. To describe her as commitment-phobic would be giving too much credit to the screenplay. Why exactly is she afraid of commitment, or is that how we should see her?

The film also leaves an impression of being drawn out but is saved by the chemistry and acting talents of Stiller and Aniston. The storyline where Lisa comes back and asks for forgiveness feels forced. I have rarely seen a comedy come to such an awkward halt as we’re supposed to wonder if Reuben will want her back instead of pursuing his relationship with Polly.

Rodolfo, Polly’s near-blind crash-test ferret, deserves a mention. I would have liked to see a little more of the troublesome creature (Stiller was bitten during the shoot). I will admit, and PETA please don’t be up in arms, that Rodolfo’s high-impact collisions with various obstacles generate some of the film’s numerous good laughs.

Written and directed by John Hamburg, who co-wrote “Zoolander” and “Meet the Parents”, this movie could be one of those romantic comedies that is soon forgotten. It is an innocuous offering that can be a nice change from heavy dramas or three-hour epics involving a hobbit and a ring. It is no doubt unspectacular, but there are more reasons for liking it than for putting it down.

Review by J-F Tremblay

Peter Pan


This live-action adaptation of the classic story about the boy who wouldn’t grow up will be remembered for a few of its spectacular images more than anything else. Some scenes have a mesmerizing beauty, such as the “fairy ball” and the ensuing moonlit dance shared by Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter) and Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood in her first role). There is a sense of amazement at the first glimpse of Neverland, but we’d like more of that sensation as the film progresses.

Whereas Steven Spielberg turned Peter into a grownup and made the tale about a father reconnecting with his son in “Hook” , P.J. Hogan (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”) juggles two themes: the bond between children and parents and the first feelings of love in early adolescence. Love is strongly implied in what Peter feels towards Wendy, but for him such an emotion cannot and is perhaps not meant to last. Before anything else, it is the young girl’s knowledge of stories that spurs Peter to teach her, along with her brothers John and Michael, to fly that fateful night in the Darlings’ nursery.

The foursome is thus on its way to Neverland, where the return of Peter turns winter into spring and where he’s soon to launch into battle with his archenemy, Captain James Hook (Jason Isaacs), after Hook makes prisoners of first the brothers, then Wendy and the Lost Boys. An attempt is made to paint Hook as a tragic and lonely figure, much as in the book, but there is little exposition of that aspect of his character so his fate doesn’t impact us that much.

Hogan deserves credit for honoring the spirit of James Barrie’s play and novel but as an adventure story, the movie would be better called an episodic success. The thrill is there for the battles between Peter and Hook, helped by impressive sets, production design and a fantastic score by James Newton Howard, but curiously the film as a whole equals less than the sum of its parts.

The pirate Smee curiously looks a bit like Santa Claus, making it seem as though the Christmas icon made a wrong turn at the second star to the right then went straight on till morning. And why is there a weird animatronic parrot in there, only succeeding half the time at comic relief? What’s more, the mermaids and the native American princess Tiger Lily could have been shown more as examples of what gives Neverland extra life.

Sumpter is well-cast in the title role. He manages to express both the vulnerability and insouciance of Peter Pan, who remains at heart a spur-of-the-moment personality. Making a nice screen pair with Hurd-Wood (he’s 14, she’s 13), these two evoke what it’s like to have those first powerful feelings of attraction. But Wendy, who acts as a mother figure for the Lost Boys, eventually realizes, out of caring and love for their own parents, that she and her brothers cannot stay in Neverland forever.

Tinker Bell (Ludivine Sagnier), Peter’s faithful fairy prone to fits of jealousy, is at first annoying. Sagnier comes close to overacting, even with the inherent implications of a non-speaking part, but surprisingly it is when life is leaving her body (the reason of which we won’t reveal for those unfamiliar with the source text) that at long last we really grasp how important she is to Peter.

When all is done, this Peter Pan is one of a few memorable moments more than the captivating mini-epic it could have been. In one of many interesting comments he makes about growing up in his book, Barrie wrote this about children’s Neverlands, these magical islands: “We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more.” In Hogan’s Peter Pan, we marvel at the sights, we do hear the waves, but if we were to land, we would nonetheless feel somewhat removed from it.

Review by J-F Tremblay

Honey


First-time feature director Bille Woodruff, who helmed several music videos, mostly hip-hop including Nelly’s Hot in Herre but also Celine Dion’s My Heart will Go On, plays to his strengths here. Parts of the movie are essentially a showcase for what you’d find in his videos, yet there runs such a feel-good energy throughout “Honey” that it doesn’t feel forced down our throats.

The film is about a strong young woman’s efforts to find happiness for herself and others. Honey Daniels (Jessica Alba) is a dance instructor at a youth center in the Bronx (the movie was actually shot in Toronto) who also works at a club and a record store.

After a shift at her dance club where she gets “recruited” by video director Michael Ellis (David Moscow), Honey and best friend Gina (Antwone Fisher’s Joy Bryant) stumble upon a group of neighborhood kids breakdancing in a backalley. A first connection is made there with impossible-not-to-like little Raymond (8 yrs-old Zachary Williams), which will serve as a thread throughout the film.

Honey gets to be a dancer in Michael’s videos and is soon made choreographer. Her new job duties cause her to abandon teaching her class, and she has to miss Gina’s birthday party in Atlantic City. Michael’s true intentions are later revealed at a party, and he gets what he deserves when he attempts to turn his relationship with Honey into something more, er, physical.

Meanwhile, the center shuts down because of decay and the kids, who were already missing Honey, are left with no place to go to. Raymond’s brother, Benny (Lil’Romeo) looks as if he’ll be back to “thug life”, especially after Michael gets back at Honey by ditching her idea to have the kids star in Ginuwine’s video (Tweet, Jadakiss and Sheek also appear, and Missy Elliott has two funny cameos).

Honey, apparently blacklisted, cannot find work. She was counting on the money for a payment on a building where she wanted to open a dance school. Undeterred, she resolves to put on a dance benefit with the neighborhood youngsters. Her boyfriend Chaz (8 Mile’s Mekhi Phifer) finds her an old church about to be turned into office space.

The story find time to pause for well-written dialogue, like when Honey and Chaz are in the barbershop talking about what can steer people on the right track in life. The romance between these two unfolds quite naturally.

Is the story too good to seem true? The movie’s focus is on showing the power, and inherent goodness, of initiating positive change. The plot points it takes to get there should not necessarily be dismissed out of cynicism. Would Chaz really know somebody with a tip about an available place for the benefit? Would it actually draw a crowd? Would a banker know people willing to financially support Honey’s dance school project? Once in a while, a film will pull you in despite a few narrative shortcuts.

The charm of Honey is in the resiliency of the title character. Alba shines in probably her biggest role yet, other than television’s Dark Angel. She has the energy for the dance scenes but also a silent strength about her that radiates, and there is something very sweet about how Honey takes young Raymond, a kid from a tough home, under her wing. I also liked how the screenplay dealt with the ending, being in line with the heartfelt intentions of Honey for that final big show, capping a very enjoyable ride.

Review by J-F Tremblay