Deadline (2009)


Maybe she should have taken a shower.

Maybe she should have taken a shower.

(2009) Psychological Thriller (First Look) Brittany Murphy, Thora Birch, Tammy Blanchard, Marc Blucas, Claudia Troll, Michael Piscitelli (voice). Directed by Sean McConville

Writers block is a bitch. When in the throes of it, you can’t think and you certainly can’t write. Everything feels wrong, like things are out of place and you can’t think where they are supposed to be. It’s frustrating and there is no sure way to break it.

Alice (Murphy) is a screenwriter with a deadline coming up. She is fast in the grip of Le Block but has good reason to be – her boyfriend tried to drown her in their bathtub, causing her to lose the baby she was pregnant with at the time. Her boyfriend was sure that she was sleeping around and the baby wasn’t his.

A producer friend with more money than sense offers up a decrepit Louisiana plantation he has access to for Alice and tells her that if she locks herself alone in there with a week’s worth of food and drink with nothing else to connect her to the outside world the words will start flowing like the Mississippi. Alice, despite the fact that her homicidal boyfriend is being released from jail, agrees to it despite the misgivings of her friend Rebecca (Blanchard).

So to distract herself from the blank pages Alice explores the crumbling mansion and in the attic discovers a box of videos taken by the house’s former owners and a camcorder. She begins to watch them and discovers they are of David (Blucas) and Lucy (Birch), a couple who simply left the mansion one night and never returned. Nobody knows where they are.

Alice discovers some eerie similarities to her own situation. Lucy, for one thing, was pregnant. And David was growing paranoid, thinking that the baby wasn’t his. And Alice is becoming more and more certain that Lucy haunts the old plantation. And that her boyfriend (Piscitelli) is stalking her and knows right where she is. Is all this really happening or is it a product of Alice’s paranoid imagination?

This was the last picture to be released during the late Murphy’s lifetime (another one, in the can, still awaits release later this year although she passed away four years ago) and it isn’t a bad one from her perspective. She nails the role nicely, giving Alice a kind of emotionally fragile veneer but with a personality that’s endearing enough to make you identify with her character. Even those who aren’t fans of her work as I am will find this performance worth checking out.

It’s a shame that she wasn’t given a lot more to work with. The script is fairly routine, with the usual jumps and twists that you expect to find in a psychological thriller/is the house haunted or is she crazy kind of movie. There are also some real head-scratchers here; why would anyone agree to go somewhere remote all by themselves when there was prospectively someone who wanted to do them harm running around on the loose? And if the couple disappeared, what were their videos doing in the attic, particularly if there was damming evidence on the tapes (i.e. Lucy’s murder)?

One gets the sense that the script was written in a hurry by someone with writer’s block just borrowing whole cloth bits and pieces from other movies. The concept is nice (although it could have gotten there with a little more logic) and there is some genuine creepiness to be found. Those and Murphy’s performance are pretty much the film’s saving graces but I wouldn’t look too hard for this one.

WHY RENT THIS: Decent performance by Murphy. Some chilling moments. Nice concept.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Basically kinda been there, done that. No real surprises and a whole lot of stuff that must be taken on faith.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s some nudity, some disturbing images, a bit of violence and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The DVD was pulled from Redbox shelves after star Brittany Murphy passed away 19 days after the video release.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: What Lies Beneath

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

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The Dead Girl


The Dead Girl

The late Brittany Murphy is about to become The Dead Girl.

(2006) Mystery (First Look) Josh Brolin, Rose Byrne, Toni Collette, Bruce Davison, James Franco, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Beth Hurt, Piper Laurie, Brittany Murphy, Giovanni Ribisi, Nick Searcy, Mary Steenburgen, Kerry Washington. Directed by Karen Moncrieff

Every so often we experience something profound; it changes our point of view and might well change our lives completely. Not all of these experiences are pleasant. Some, in fact can be grisly and ugly. That is simply the nature of life; not all of it is pretty.

Arden (Collette) discovers a badly beaten and mutilated body of a young woman while out jogging. She calls the police and becomes a bit of a local celebrity which gets the notice of Rudy (Ribisi), a bagboy at her local grocery who asks her out. Arden lives with her mom (Laurie) who is a bit of a sadistic monster, forcing her daughter to wait on her hand and foot and generally degrading and belittling her.

Leah (Byrne), a graduate forensics student, finds out about the body on the news and thinks it might be her long-missing sister. Her mother (Steenburgen) urges Leah to let go and move on but Leah is convinced it’s the missing girl. However, after a close medical examination it turns out that Leah is mistaken.

In the meantime Ruth (Hurt), a devout Christian, suspects that her husband Carl (Searcy) is sleeping with another woman. She sets about finding proof of his infidelity and discovers instead evidence that her husband might be a serial rapist and murderer. She is torn between her loyalty to her husband and telling the police what she’s found.

The dead girl is identified as Krista Kutcher (Murphy) and her devastated mom (Harden), from whom Krista had run away from years back, tries to pick up the pieces, visiting her roommate (Washington) to find out more about the daughter she never knew – and to meet the granddaughter she never knew she had.

Finally, we see the last day of Krista, her relationship with her pimp boyfriend (Brolin) and the love she has for her daughter and the determination that she doesn’t repeat her past mistakes. We also discover what led her to the fateful encounter with the man who would leave her in that field for Arden to discover.

The story is told in a series of five vignettes, each concerned with a specific woman and how she is affected by the discovery of the dead body, even indirectly (as with Ruth). Moncrieff who attracted some critic love with her feature debut Blue Car resists the temptation to interweave the vignettes and instead tells them consecutively, back to back to back to back to back, letting each story play out to its conclusion and leaving us to wonder about the dead girl until the final tale.

She cast some very strong actresses here starting with the late Murphy, who would die tragically young only three years after making this. She makes Krista a strong woman but one who has allowed her emotions to override her sense time after time. She’s a little unstable and that has led to her girl being raised by others. Although we know in advance what fate is to befall her, she is not portrayed so much as a victim here as much as someone who refuses to be one any longer.

Harden also gets kudos as the mom who alienated her daughter to the point where she ran away, now realizing too late she can never make things right between them. It’s a powerful portrayal and while there is much pathos to it, Harden is never manipulative in the role, preferring to make her character try to understand her daughter rather than grieve nonstop over her.

Some of the vignettes work better than others (the first two are less effective than the last three) but all of them work as a whole. There is a certain squalor here – this isn’t a pretty picture as mentioned earlier – and a dark undertone that is relentless throughout. This isn’t a happy tale, although there are moments where characters experience some kind of enlightenment.

This isn’t always an easy movie to watch. It hits hard on an emotional level, aided and abetted by strong performances throughout (including the ones highlighted). It is definitely a woman’s movie, about how women are affected by the death of a sister, a daughter, a stranger. It also illustrates how vulnerable women are in a world where men will absolutely take what they want regardless of consequence, both to themselves and to the woman involved.

WHY RENT THIS: Very well-acted and the stories resolve together nicely. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Like all of these sorts of anthology films, not every vignette works.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of bad language, some nudity and sexuality and some images that are a bit grisly and disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, the Dead Girl’s last name is Kutcher. Actress Brittany Murphy dated Ashton Kutcher for a time after both starred in the movie Just Married.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $905,291 on an unreported production budget; it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that the movie lost money during its brief theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Hatchet II

Happy Feet


Happy Feet

Mumble (the big penguin, center) and friends get a glimpse of a whole new world, except that phrase is owned by Disney so they can't use it. They can't use "circle of life" for the same reason. Damn that mouse!

(2006) (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Robin Williams, Elijah Wood, Nicole Kidman, Brittany Murphy, Hugh Jackman, Hugo Weaving, Magda Szubanski, Miriam Margolyes, Anthony LaPaglia, Chrissie Hynde, Steve Irwin, E.G. Daily.  Directed by George Miller

If there’s anything I learned from the documentary March of the Penguins is that it sucks to be a penguin. I’m not sure after seeing this that director George Miller didn’t get the same impression that I did.

It is said that emperor penguins have a heartsong, something that comes from so deep inside them that it conveys the essence of who they are. They use their heartsong to find a mate whose heartsong resonates with their own, creating a brand new harmony that is timeless and eternal.

Norma Jean (Kidman) is searching for the penguin with the right heartsong. While there are plenty of suitors for the gorgeous young female, only one – the somewhat unique Memphis (Jackman) catches her ear. Together they make a baby. Well, they lay an egg anyway.

The cardinal rule of antarctic egg-siting is “don’t drop the egg.” While Norma Jean is off gathering fish for her husband and unhatched child, Memphis does just that. It’s just a quick little thing and immediately picked up and set back where it belongs, but Memphis is worried that he has killed the life inside the egg with his own clumsiness.

Hatching day comes and eggs all over the ice floe are releasing cute, fuzzy little chicks, but not the egg of Memphis and Norma Jean. Memphis is just about to give up when there is some movement. First one foot pokes out, then the other. At last, a cute little ball of fluff emerges, but to the horror of Memphis, he does this shaky-foot dance. “Stop that son,” he says in his best Elvis drawl, “that’s not penguin!”

However, as his son, named Mumble (Daily) grows up and goes to chick school, the happy feet dance continues. And, to the horror of everyone in his class, Mumble can’t sing a note. All he can do is shriek. His affronted teacher, Miss Viola (Szubanski) sends him to the best vocal teacher in Antarctica, the matronly Mrs. Astrakhan (Margolyes). She has never failed to develop a chick’s voice yet, but Mumble’s proves to be the first. He becomes an object of ridicule and scorn, although his kind heart and generous spirit catches the notice of Gloria (Murphy) and as he grows up into a young man (Wood), her beauty and song (she’s the best singer in the great white South) catches his notice as well.

He is prevented from graduating with the rest of his class by the elder of the tribe, Noah (Weaving) but he goes out fishing with them anyway. After all, fish is becoming more and more scarce and with all the predators out there – bull seals, killer whales and such – it’s awfully tough for a penguin to find a good meal. Still, Mumble proves to be a good fishcatcher, despite the best efforts of slovenly skua (a seabird) Boss (LaPaglia) to steal Mumble’s fish away. However, seeing that Gloria didn’t catch one, he gives her his. 

However, more and more he is finding it easier to communicate with his feet rather than with his song, and as his moves begin to catch on, the elders – fearing that his blasphemy has caused the Great Provider from giving them fish – cast him out. He hooks up with Ramon (Williams), a homeboy of the adelie penguins and leader of the Adelie Amigos, who admires his moves. For the first time, Mumble has found someone who thinks he’s cool. 

Mumble decides to seek the advice of the great oracle Lovelace, who has a plastic six-pack ring around his neck, to discover why the fish are growing more scarce, but Lovelace has no answer. Eventually, it turns out that Lovelace is slowly choking to death because of the plastic ring. Mumble determines to go to the Forbidden Coast to find the answers and save Lovelace as well as the rest of the penguins. 

With CGI animated features becoming more and more commonplace, it requires much more than spectacular animation to get me to recommend one, and frankly, while this is as well-animated as the Pixar movies, it just doesn’t have the heart, the soul or the story to compete with the creme de la creme of CGI filmmakers. This is very standard stuff about an outcast who finds his own individuality and through his/her courage gains acceptance from the rest of his/her community. While there are certainly ecologically sound subtexts to be found here, that is not the main focus of the story, and perhaps it should have been. 

I have no quibble with the voice acting jobs – there is a stellar cast here, and they wisely lean on genre veteran Williams for three seperate roles, all of which are entertaining and completely different from one another. However, the characters are essentially bland types who don’t really add any freshness to the genre. Let’s face it – we’ve seen about all of the outcasts I can handle in CGI movies, from Boog and Elliott in Open Season to D.J. and Chowder in Monster House.

We’ve seen the traditional animation go the way of the silent movie and watched as CGI movies take over. One of the things that killed traditional animation (along with the prohibitive cost and time-intensive labor and creating them) is that the studios – particularly Disney – stopped paying attention to story and became more concerned with creating characters that were marketable for their theme parks and merchandise. Pixar, on the other hand, gets it – to create timeless classic animation, you must first start with a timeless, classic story. Once they find a good story to tell, the animation comes afterwards. Audiences respond to this and that’s why they create hit after hit.

Yes, Happy Feet did great box office, but honestly, who will remember it five years from now, or even two hours after you leave the theater. There is more to animated movies than this and while there are enough good features to give this a mild recommendation, quite frankly I’m beginning to get a bit burned out on the genre.

WHY RENT THIS: Excellent vocal cast and some standout animation, nearly as good as Pixar’s best.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A standard animated feature plotline about outsiders banding together to make good. *yawn*

FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly rude humor and a bit of peril but nothing too difficult except for the littlest of kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Naturalist Steve Irwin provided the voice of an elephant seal shortly before his untimely death. He had also provided the voice of an albatross for a scene that was cut from the film before it was animated; the scene was animated afterwards for the DVD release as a tribute to Irwin.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: In addition to the aforementioned Irwin scene, there is also a classic Warner Brothrs animated short whose plot is alarmingly similar to this movie and a couple of music videos. There is also a featurette showing Savion Glover’s tap dance routine being recorded on motion capture for use in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $384.3M on a $100 production budget; the film was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Miracle Match