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Reviews of Ghost Town, The Duchess and more...

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EAGLE EYE The peril of encroaching technology has been a cinematic mainstay at least since Stanley Kubrick allowed HAL to temporarily get the upper hand in 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey (film purists can feel free to go even further back, to Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis), but rarely has this intriguing concept been presented as daftly as in Eagle Eye. Executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, this tiresome action yarn finds slacker Jerry Shaw (Shia LaBeouf) and single mom Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monaghan) drawn into what appears to be a terrorist strike against the United States. Initially strangers, they find themselves working together after each one receives threatening phone calls from a woman who orders them to carry out her instructions ... or else. The caller seemingly has control over every electronic device in sight, as she's able to manipulate traffic lights, power lines, subway cars and cell phones. Even allowing for the big twist that reveals the villain's identity, this requires a greater suspension of disbelief than might be humanly possible. If Jerry perishes during the course of his misadventures, then the assignment's a bust, yet the caller repeatedly places him in death-defying situations (I especially liked his leap-before-you-look jump from a speeding train). A faster running time might have helped us overlook the gaping idiocies, but the film is packed with repetitive – and poorly edited – vehicular chases that bloat this to a punishing two hours. But pay heed to the movie's warning: Technological advancements might indeed become a concern in the future, especially if they allow for greater mass production of duds like this one. *1/2

GHOST TOWN Given the dearth of quality romantic comedies produced by the major studios – these days, it's up to the independent outfits to provide them – it's a pleasant surprise to discover that Ghost Town manages to buck the odds. Certainly, the high-concept storyline makes it sound rather dreary: Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais), a dour dentist who avoids interacting with people at all costs, suddenly finds himself surrounded by dead people. That's because he himself died for seven minutes while undergoing a routine colonoscopy, and this established an open line of communication with restless ghosts still hovering around Manhattan. Chief among them is Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), who demands that Bertram prevent his widow Gwen (Tea Leoni) from marrying a human rights lawyer (Billy Campbell). Ghost Town is given a significant boost by the presence of Gervais, whose caustic wit and no-nonsense demeanor provide the picture with more of an edge than it would have received with a more conventional leading man at the helm. But the picture surprises in other ways as well, thanks to unexpected tweaks in the script co-written by John Kamps and director David Koepp. Kinnear's ethereal hubby isn't exactly the dashing nice guy he initially seems, while the emotionally torn widow played by Leoni (who really needs to appear in more movies) isn't just a pawn to be moved around by the three men in her life but instead takes control of the situations presented before her. Charming and unassuming, Ghost Town offers enough in the way of laughs to raise anyone's spirits. ***

MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA There's a scene in Miracle at St. Anna in which a light bulb mysteriously flickers back to life, and it feels as if director Spike Lee is paying tribute to whimsical Italian maestro Federico Fellini. Alas, that moment passes, and it no longer becomes clear exactly what Lee is honoring with this baffling motion picture. Certainly, Lee wants to pay tribute to the black soldiers who served this country during World War II, but a more linear narrative might have helped him accomplish that goal. This turns out to be a clusterfuck of good intentions crossed with clunky storytelling, opening and closing with a contemporary (read: 1983) framework that's supposed to infuse the story with a heady mystery but only adds unnecessary clutter to the 150-minute film. The flashback portion of the movie finds four African-American soldiers (Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso and Omar Benson Miller) stranded in a Tuscan village in Nazi-occupied territory. The quartet take it upon themselves to protect the locals, leading to underdeveloped storylines involving Italian partisans, supernatural intervention and, worst of all, an ongoing feud between two of the men as they vie for the attention of a shapely villager (Valentina Cervi, trapped in an impossible madonna/whore role). Despite his personal commitment to the material, Lee rarely blesses this picture with his trademark style, an expression of cinematic prowess that enlivens even his clunkiest films. On the contrary, there's no moviemaking miracle at work here, just a half-baked project that might be Lee's biggest disappointment to date. **

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