The Skeptic


The Skeptic

Tim Daly is being haunted by Tiger Woods.

(IFC) Tim Daly, Tom Arnold, Zoe Saldana, Edward Herrmann, Robert Prosky, Andrea Roth, Bruce Altman, Lea Coco, Sarah Weaver. Directed by Tennyson Bardwell

We all believe in something; some believe in the spiritual, others in the rational. Some believe in nothing at all, but even that is believing in something.

Bryan Beckett (Daly) falls into that category. Then again, he’s a lawyer so I suppose that goes along with the territory. He believes only in what he can see, what he can touch and what he can hear, and even those things he doesn’t necessarily trust. His wife Robin (Roth) has begun to suspect that he doesn’t believe in marriage either, so she asks him to leave so he can maybe get a handle on whether he believes they should continue in their relationship or not.

He kind of wants to but then again, what is marriage anyway but a contrivance of the ecclesiastical and secular authorities to put an intangible relationship into some kind of quantifiable box and quite frankly, Bryan is all about the tangible baby and those who think otherwise are nutcases and idiots.

His aunt certainly qualifies as a nutcase. As she has come to the end of her life, she has come to believe in the supernatural to a great extent. When she dies suddenly, she leaves Bryan her house. Bryan sees it as an investment opportunity, but when Robin kicks him out, he uses it as a cheap bed for the night.

As you can guess, he begins to experience things he can’t quite explain. He hears people whispering but there isn’t anyone there. He sees fleeting images of a mysterious woman but again, he is alone. His partner and best friend Sully (Arnold) thinks he’s cracking up and needs a vacation. Eventually Bryan contacts the founder (Altman) of a paranormal investigative group that his loony tunes aunt had been involved with and is surprised to find him as skeptical as he. However, he does introduce Bryan to a sexy psychic (Saldana) who believes there is something malevolent in that house. Bryan thinks its hogwash. Is he right and just imagining these things, or is she right in which case he’s in mortal danger?

This is a movie that tries very hard not to pander to the baser instincts of the horror genre and in general it succeeds. Director Bardwell is out to create a mood of tension and spine tingling creepiness and when he succeeds, the movie is at its best. However, he necessarily has to temper the chills with the cold water splash of reality and the juxtaposition of the two is a very difficult tightrope to walk and he doesn’t always succeed completely.

Daly who was such a promising lead in “Wings” has had a checkered film career. He does a reasonably good job of playing the rational lawyer who’s more than a little bit of a cold fish. Unfortunately, his character as written tends to make it difficult for the audience to identify with him and root for him; he’s so good at portraying the unemotional, detached part of the character that at the end of the day there’s no emotional bond for the audience to hang onto. The central premise of the movie makes it nearly impossible for you to really root for the main character.

The end is a bit of a letdown and one that you can see coming early on. After watching The Skeptic I found myself not really caring that I’d seen it; it has some things going for it, enough that I can recommend it for those who like supernatural horror movies as well as psychological thrillers. However, I don’t see general audiences caring enough about the main character to make this movie a must-see.

WHY RENT THIS: A traditional haunted house movie that doesn’t involve teenagers is quite refreshing. Bardwell delivers a very creepy atmosphere in places

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This lacks in visual frights compared to more extravagant fair like The Haunting in Connecticut. The ending is a bit of a letdown.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing and frightening images, as well as some sexuality and a whole lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the final film role for veteran character actor Robert Prosky.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Grown Ups

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Blind Date (2007)


Blind Date

An uneasy romance.

(Variance Films) Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson, Thijs Romer, Gerdy De Decker, Georgina Verbaan, Robin Holzhauer, Sarah Hyland, Peer Mascini. Directed by Stanley Tucci

A relationship is a fragile thing. It requires nurturing and growth in order to survive. Sometimes, events happen which put this fragile existence in jeopardy. In those instances, a couple has to be willing to go to extreme lengths to make things work.

Don (Tucci) owns a rundown bar (although it’s never specifically said, we assume it’s in Amsterdam) and periodically takes to the small stage to perform a desultory Vaudeville-like magic act, usually to be met with disinterest. People go to this bar to drink and maybe hook up; entertainment is not really on the minds of any of the barflies who frequent it.

He is married to Janna (Clarkson), someone he has spent much of his adult life with. The marriage is a lifeless one, it seems; they are trying to spice it up with a series of blind dates arranged through personal ads. In each date the two take on different personas, trying to find two that mesh well. However, reality intrudes on each date as their problems peek through the façade, causing each date to end badly, inevitably.

It’s a simple premise, and only two gifted actors could make this work. Tucci wrote and directed this movie based on a 1996 movie by the late Dutch director Theo van Gogh, who would be murdered by Muslim extremists in 2004 for making a film critical of Islam. Tucci has chosen to take that movie and strip it down to a bare frame, shooting on two sets over the course of seven days, utilizing many of van Gogh’s regular crew to do it.

The results are mixed. The movie at times has a stagey feel, like you’re watching the filmed version of a stage play. I get the distinct impression that Tucci as a director was deliberately going for that feel, and to be honest, I think that it makes some of the movie ring false. The powerful dialogue and plot might have been better served in a more natural setting, but that’s just me.

What makes this movie worth seeing are the performances of Tucci and Clarkson. Their characters have both been wounded deeply and are struggling to find a way to co-exist and both of them are very well aware that they may be clutching at phantoms that don’t exist. The actors have to portray people playing different roles, only accidentally allowing their true selves to peek through. This is the kind of acting that requires great discipline, much preparation and a whole lot of talent. Fortunately, these are two of the better actors working today, people who elevate every movie they’re in but very rarely get lead roles.

There is some voiceover narration from the couple’s daughter which helps to explain the goings on (and it is much needed) but other than that all the lines (other than background chatter) are spoken by Clarkson and Tucci. Fortunately, Tucci has written compelling dialogue that is not only interesting but gives a good deal of insight not only into the hell these two characters are in but also into the nature of failing relationships in general.

This is a very intimate film in the sense that it delves deeply into the deepest, most private parts of a marriage – and I’m not necessarily referring to the bedroom, although sexuality is touched upon at times. This is about the emotional sanctuary that a married couple provides each other, and what happens when that sanctuary is eroded. It’s very difficult to get it back once it’s gone.

This is not a movie for everybody. It is painful and awkward at times and the emotional places it visits can be very traumatic for those who have been in similar situations. It also requires a certain amount of focus from the viewer to pick up on the nuances, and a willingness to be in a quiet, still place. Still, if you’re willing to commit to the movie, you may find that you get a good deal out of it. What that might be is totally up to you.

WHY RENT THIS: A very powerful look at two people trying to save their marriage in an unorthodox way. Tucci and Clarkson deliver strong performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is a very emotionally complex movie without a good deal of language; less cerebral viewers may get bored.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of sexual tension and a fair amount of foul language. These, along with the very adult subject matter, should make this off-limits for kiddies.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Don was originally offered to Tony Shalhoub but when he had to drop out due to schedule conflicts, Tucci decided to take the role himself.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Skeptic

Revolutionary Road


Revolutionary Road

In their latest movie, the only ship that's sinking for di Caprio and Winslet is their marriage.

(Paramount Vantage) Leonardo di Caprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, Kathryn Hahn, David Harbour, Richard Easton. Directed by Sam Mendes

We are all of us to a certain extent trapped by the circumstances of our lives. Our dreams are often casualties of the pressing immediate needs to make a living and a home. When those dreams die, often so does a part of ourselves.

When Frank Wheeler (di Caprio) sees April (Winslet) across a crowded room at a party, the attraction is immediate and undeniable. These are two young people who embrace life and are filled with it the way endemic to young people. Their futures are limitless, the world their oyster.

Several years later, the two of them are married, living in a Connecticut suburb. April, an aspiring actress, continues to perform on community theater stages, but we’re led to understand her performances are growing less and less outstanding. After such a performance, Frank tries to offer encouragement but in a way that hints at the cruelty that lurks within. We will later learn that the cruelty is the byproduct of his own desperation.

He is trapped in a soul-sucking job that he cannot stand. To make matters worse, he is working for the same firm his father did years before. He has become his father without realizing it. Their lives have become an endless parade of cigarettes and martinis, banal conversation at banal parties in a series of increasingly mind-numbing suburban get-togethers.

In desperation, April suggests they move to Paris. She could get a job as a secretary, or a translator at the U.S. Embassy while Frank took some time off to find out what he really wanted to do. At first, Frank is enthusiastic about the prospect, which elicits quiet scorn from their neighbors. Then he gets the offer of a promotion at work. He’d still be stuck in a soul-sucking job, but he would be getting paid better and isn’t that what the American dream is all about?

Into this mix comes John Givings (Shannon), son of Helen (Bates) their realtor and her husband Howard (Easton), a Norman Rockwell painting sprung to life. John has spent some time in a mental institution and Helen thinks he would benefit from being around “normal” people like the Wheelers. It turns out that Givings’ mental illness had to do with speaking his mind, and as he does we discover that he has quite the keen intellect and a very detailed observational sense. He speaks his mind and the truth isn’t always pleasant. This provokes terrible fights between April and Frank and we see the façade slowly crumbling. As it does, the pretenses are stripped away and we see what the American Dream has made of this once-promising couple.

Director Sam Mendes also did American Beauty, a more modern look at the American suburban existence and this makes an excellent bookend to that work. This was based on a novel by Richard Yates, considered one of the leading voices of his generation, one of the few not bound by the conformity of the times. Mendes touches on that a great deal here; everyone is expected to adhere to a certain standard of behavior and any deviation from the norm is met with mistrust and unspoken derision.

Much was made of this being Winslet and di Caprio’s first film together since Titanic and its clear to see that the chemistry they built in that film (which Bates also appeared with them in) has only strengthened in the intervening years. Their performances are scintillating and multi-layered with all sorts of nuances that it will certainly take repeated viewings to uncover completely. There is love between this couple, most certainly; there is also as it turns out much hatred as well. This is the kind of relationship that is prevalent in a lot of marriages (fortunately not mine) in which the passions are so extreme that both emotions are there in nearly equal quantities.

The screenplay by Justin Haythe is so good, I’ve noticed that nearly every review I’ve read on the film (including this one), the reviewer is moved to write in the kind of prose that is meant to show off our abilities as writers. That says a great deal about how well-written this script is, and quite frankly, how good the source novel is.

One of the best features I’ve saved til the end and that’s Michael Shannon. He’s in only three scenes but they are riveting. You watch this man in the rumpled suit that he clearly feels ill-at-ease in steal each scene and with his performance help fuel the engine of the story. He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and would have certainly taken it home were it not for Heath Ledger’s Joker. Hopefully we’ll see Shannon get more work because of his performance here.

The novel was a child of its times and in some ways that is a criticism; the push for conformity still exists but not nearly at the same level it did in the 1950s and those points seem a bit dated. Still in all, that’s a minor quibble, especially given the overall strength and power of the story.

It is sometimes said that we turn up the music in our heads so that we can’t hear our own screaming, and that is certainly true in this movie. Mendes has come up with one of his best works, a movie that shows the pernicious dream-killing dark side of the suburban experience. As armies of men in grey suits march from Grand Central to their eight hours of meaningless work, we wonder how sane we really are to buy into an American Dream which has, in this case, become the ultimate American nightmare.

WHY RENT THIS: Outstanding performances by Winslet, Shannon and di Caprio. A gripping look at the darkness beneath the suburban façade.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the elements (such as the push for conformity) are from another era and not really relevant now.

FAMILY VALUES: Rough language abounds. There is also some nudity and some seriously sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actors who play Frank and April’s children are siblings in real life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A 25 minute feature on Richard Yates, author of the novel on which this is based, gives some insight into the themes of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Lovely Bones