Black Sea – Film Review

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In the new adventure thriller from British director Kevin Macdonald called Black Sea, Jude Law plays a Scottish submarine captain who takes a motley crew of unemployed divers way down into the murky depths of European waters.  They’re the undersea Kelly’s Heroes in search of lost gold said to be buried in a sunken Nazi U-boat, except that the stakes are higher and the men more desperate.

When we first meet Captain Robinson (Jude Law) he’s in the process of being fired by an ocean salvage company.  He’s worked as a submarine captain for 11 years and now he’s no longer needed.  Because he worked without a contract, there’s no severance, but as an act of corporate fairness – at least, that is, fairness from the corporate point of view – he’s given eight thousand pounds (approx. $12,000) as a parting gift.  But he’s angry.  Plus, he’s too young to take it easy; he needs to work.

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It’s while drowning his sorrows down the pub along with some fellow laid-off workers that the captain suddenly hears of a sunken Nazi U-Boat loaded with stolen Russian gold said to be somewhere at the bottom of the Black Sea.  With the help of a genuine mixed bag of unemployed salty sea dogs, some considerably more salty than the others, the captain secures financial backing from a mysterious donor, boards an old rust-bucket of a submarine that has seen much better days, and heads off to the dark waters of Southeastern Europe.

Regarding the gold, the captain has one simple rule: in order to stop any squabbling over who deserves what and how much, everyone on board is to get the same share, regardless of duties.  On the surface, the equal-shares-for-all sounds reasonable enough, but once underneath, it boils the blood of some who feel their role in the salvage is more important than others.  “What happens when the men figure their share is bigger if there’s less to share it with?” asks Daniels (Scoot McNairy in the weasely Paul Reiser role from Aliens).  Daniels is the American banker sent along for the ride by the project’s millionaire donor to keep an eye on things.  His point about men wanting more and what they might do to get it is a valid point, and once it’s made, the idea that everyone will be watching each others’ back while looking for an opportunity to reduce the numbers is always present.

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With the exception of an appearance from Jodie Whittaker in a couple of the captain’s flashback memory sequences, this is an adventure populated by men.  Unemployed Russians work alongside Aussies, Irish, Scottish and English sailors, all speaking in their native brogue and all communicating with the uncompromising sound of thick, regional accents.  When the Russians speak, some conversations are subtitled, others not.  When the English speaking characters talk, nothing is subtitled, but occasionally you might wish it was.  The feeling of authenticity is there, but with the exception of Jude Law’s effective Scottish dialect, softened to the point of being understood by all, there are times when side remarks or even full statements are lost.  This is not altogether a bad thing, however; hearing voices not always understood adds to the claustrophobic tension created by the fights and squabbles of these modern day, undersea pirates.  It makes a frustrating situation more desperate.

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For the most part, Black Sea works.  At a running time of just under two hours, there’s never a moment that lags.  Even if there’s the occasional feeling of having been there before or experiencing an underwater situation that seems perhaps a little overly familiar, there’s something about the in-built tension of angry, distrustful men being huddled together in confined spaces with no view to the outside world that always succeeds in keeping everyone on edge.

Like many films of late, Black Sea still feels a little too long, but with its plot twists and the practically insurmountable problem of trying to get those heavy gold bars to the water’s surface before the crew kill each other, the film has the overall feel of a gritty though well made, conventional underwater thriller with an ending that keeps you guessing right up until the final few seconds.

MPAA Rating:  R   Length:  115 Minutes   Overall Rating:  8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Two Days, One Night – Film Review

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There’s an industrial town in southern Belgium called Seraing.  It’s part of the Walloon region where the principle language is French.  To the north is the area called Flanders.  This is the Dutch speaking region where the language is most commonly known as Flemish.  It makes sense when you realize that to the north of Belgium is Holland while France is to the south.

In the new Oscar nominated French speaking drama from Belgium, Two Days, One Night, Marion Cotillard plays a young, working-class wife and mother of two called Sandra who has only recently crawled her way out of public housing and off welfare.  Her husband is a kitchen worker while Sandra works in a factory along with sixteen other employees.  Problems seem to befall Sandra.  On top of a low paying job, the young mother has only recently recovered from a bout of depression causing her to miss a certain amount of work.  But at least she still has a job.  Then she gets the call.

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It’s Friday, the end of the work week, and Sandra has just been told that due to factory downsizing, an issue was proposed to the workers: they could chose between either receiving their annual 1,000 Euro bonus (roughly around $1290 at the current rate) or decline the extra money so that Sandra could keep her job.  The majority went for the bonus.  “I mustn’t cry, I mustn’t cry,” she tells herself after the call.  But, of course, she does.

However, there is one avenue Sandra could pursue in order to get her job back: a secret ballot Monday morning.  If throughout the course of the weekend she can convince her fellow workers to forgo their bonus, the company will reinstate her.  If not, Sandra remains redundant, something that would cripple both her and her family and could potentially send her back on welfare and eventually back to public housing.  A friend has the best advice.  “The only way to stop crying is to fight for your job,” he tells Sandra, and that’s what she does, and she has the weekend in which to do it.

What fascinates the most in Two Days, One Night is not so much the situation or the chance to observe the plight and struggles of the working-class in another culture – there are no political points to score nor social issues to be made – but rather the ability to observe the looks on the faces of Sandra’s co-workers as she approaches each one of them, door to door, face to face, asking them to reject their bonus and vote for her in that Monday morning secret ballot to get her job back.  She’s not trying to make waves, there’s no peasant revolt behind her request, no union uprising; she simply wants everything to be the way it was, though you can always question your own level of morality behind the film’s theme and ask yourself two questions: is it really okay to personally profit at the expense of someone’s loss and what would you do?

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Her fellow workers listen to her blank faced.  Often it’s difficult to read how they’re going to respond.  Those whom you think might be sympathetic to Sandra’s plight react negatively – there’s a new patio that needs to be built; someone’s daughter needs the bonus to help pay tuition – then there’s the worker who listens then breaks down in tears stating how ashamed he was to have voted for the bonus in the first place knowing that it would come at the cost of a fellow worker.

The film’s Oscar nomination is for Cotillard in the Best Actress category and it’s easy to see why.  The hand-held though never jerky camera lingers on characters and holds the shot longer than usual.  It offers the luxury of observing actions and reactions in a more intimate fashion that, scene after scene, portrays the honesty behind the performance.  As with fellow Oscar nominee, Julianne Moore in Still Alice, there is no grand-standing and no scene stealing hysterics in Cotillard’s performance, just the quiet subtlety of natural expression displaying the desperation of a young woman trying to change minds while not wanting to rock any boats.

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Like Gary Cooper who attempted to rally a town behind him while the clock ticked, Sandra faces her own High-Noon Monday morning, and when it eventually comes, its conclusion is unexpected.  Once a different proposal is presented you may find yourself asking the same question you previously asked; what would you do?

Two Days, One Night quietly illustrates the plight of ordinary, working-class people simply trying to keep their heads above water.  It’s an intimate observation of power over those who need.  A bone is thrown – one that should never have been tossed in the first place – and the needy scramble to reach, knowingly harming one of their own in the process.  It’s a good film but it’s made even better because of one element; Marion Cotillard.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13   Length:  95 Minutes   Overall Rating:  8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Annie Get Your Gun – Theatre Review: The Palms Theatre, Mesa

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Since 1946 when it first opened on Broadway, Annie Get Your Gun has gone through so many revisions – altering details, changing characters, even cutting songs – to the point where today it’s hard to determine what version theatre purists consider to be the definitive presentation of this tuneful Irving Berlin musical.   In 1999, a new Broadway revival by the late writer Peter Stone was developed and it’s this one that The Palms Theatre on Brown Road in Mesa is presenting, and what a colorfully rousing, foot-stomping, well-cast production it is, all the more remarkable considering the glaring missteps the theatre’s previous production took.

Watching Palms’ new production is like seeing a theatre company that stepped back, took stock of its abilities and decided to approach the year with a new beginning, determined to show the valley what it can really do with its available pool of local talent, and it’s delivered a winner.

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The revival – which itself was altered somewhat once it left Broadway and went back on the road – is here presented as a show-within-a-show.  Like the recent revival of Pippin where the revamped production presented its story as played by traveling performers under a Cirque Du Soliel type canvas, Annie Get Your Gun does something similar, only the AGYG revival did it first.

Under a traditionally red and white striped big-top circus tent, the players have come to town to present the fictionalized account of real-life sharp-shooter Annie Oakley, played out by the circus performers who all assume their assigned roles in their traveling, theatrical show.  Painted tent strips frame the stage as a decorative reminder that what we’re watching is all being played out under canvas; it really is a show-within-a-show.

The revised production is somewhat politically correct.  Gone are the musical references deemed inappropriate and insensitive to Native-Americans, including the jaunty I’m An Indian Too and Buffalo Bill’s opening song, plus the whole subplot cut from previous revisions regarding the cross-cultural romance between Winnie (Melissa Mitchell) and her part Native-American boyfriend, Tommy (Nicholas Gallardo) is here reinstated.  There’s also a blow for what was considered a 1946 bow to male superiority with the climactic shoot out between Annie (Aimee Blau-Little) and Frank Butler (Rob Watson).  In the revised edition the outcome is the same but the way it gets there is different.  Equality of the sexes, even in gun play, is the order of the day.

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The real Annie Oakley is said to have been surprisingly quiet and practiced needlepoint in her down time instead of rifle-shooting, but the show presents her as we’ve come to believe the character to be; rowdy, unruly and animated, which is exactly what the enjoyably engaging and hugely likeable Aimee Blau-Little brings to the role, while adding her own sense of winning, down-home humor and innocence to the character.  Rob Watson also brings his individual, commanding style to the fore as Annie’s rival and love interest, Frank Butler, possessing not only a strong voice but also a surprising though appropriate sense of vulnerability.  When Frank’s inflated ego is punctured due to Annie’s success with the public, you actually feel sorry for him.

But despite solid turns from the show’s two leads, plus good support from an able and lively supporting cast, it’s David Simmons as Buffalo Bill who pulls the production together.  With a strong sense of authority, a commanding presence, plus a keen sense of humor delivered with good, comic timing, David draws your focus every time he enters.  By sheer size alone, not to mention his wild west, colorfully theatrical appearance, he attracts your attention by default, but it’s his talent that keeps you there.

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Production values under director JR Stuart’s guidance are high; Lauren Stanis’ hoe-down choreography is fun, lively and sharply executed by the cast, while Stephen Schermitzler’s music direction is a good support to the show’s wonderfully tuneful Irving Berlin songs without overpowering the voices.  Michael Haslenger’s light design alters its look with every song, which at first seemed odd – did every number need mood altering lighting within a scene, you might ask – but when you consider the structure of the musical is supposed to represent a big-top, circus environment and not a traditional musical played out on a Broadway stage, spotlights and other atmospheric changing lights during songs work fine.  It even adds a variety show element that would be absent in a regular Broadway musical, but one that a glitzy, big-top circus would present

It’s only when scenes are played out on a section of the apron based extreme stage right where the spell is broken.  By moving the cast to an area that is supposed to be backstage, away from under the tent, the idea of everything being a show-within-a-show is damaged.  After all, if what we’re seeing is intended to be traveling performers portraying characters in a story played out under a big-top, moving the action to a place not framed by a circus tent, and one that the audience wouldn’t ordinarily be able to see, punctures the illusion.

But it’s a minor quibble considering how much fun the rest of the show has turned out to be.  After a shaky close to 2014, The Palms Theatre has approached 2015 by successfully rising to the challenge of competing with the rest of the valley’s substantial professional theatrical community.  See Annie Get Your Gun.  You should be impressed.

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For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for The Palms Theatre website.

Posted in Theatre

Mortdecai – Film Review

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Charlie Mortdecai (Johnny Depp) is a raffish, debonair art dealer with the heart of a rogue and the life style of an aristocrat.  With the slightest of gaps between his teeth and a brand new mustache that is just beginning to curl at either end, Mortdecai is about to discover just how deep in hock he is to Her Majesty’s Government.

We are looking down the barrel of insolvency,” his tall, leggy, blonde wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) informs him after yet another legally suspicious art deal goes belly up.  When Inspector Martland (Ewan McGregor) reminds Mortdecai he owes taxes to Her Majesty’s Government to the sum of eight million pounds, Mortdecai responds with “I had no idea I was so deep in Her Majesty’s hole.”

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Based on a series of books written in the seventies by the late comic novelist Kyril Bonfiglioli – himself an art dealer, a champion swordsman and, by all accounts, a somewhat eccentric man of clever wit and offbeat humor – Mortdecai is an American comedy made in the style of a British sixties caper movie, complete with brightly lit, eye-catching widescreen cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister and an appropriate retro sounding soundtrack by Mark Ronson and Geoff Zanelli.  As played by Depp with the upper-class accent of a twit, Mordecai has the voice of Terry-Thomas, the pompous mannerisms of Robert Coote and the energetic delivery of Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster in the “I say, ol’ boy,” style of speech.

The plot is a comic romp that takes Mortdecai and his thuggish man-servant Jock Strapp (an uncomfortable looking Paul Bettany) halfway around the world in pursuit of a stolen Goya thought to contain codes to a lost bank account full of Nazi gold.  There are lots of twists and turns, a few sight gags and the occasional one-liner, plus several guest characters with recognizable faces who come and go to either help or hinder Mortdecai and Jock in their pursuit of the stolen painting, yet it’s somewhere around the halfway mark that your mind wanders – at least, mine did – and you lose interest.  The shenanigans are whacky, the characters are generally likeable, the plot is humorously silly, and the film’s production values throughout are high – the CGI graphics as Mortdecai flies from city to city are outstanding – and yet it never fully engages.  Once you’ve got used to the film’s style and its sixties movie manner, it’s over; the joke is done.

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The film is based on Bonfiglioli’s first Mortdecai novel called Don’t Point That Thing At Me, a line used by Johanna when first introduced to her caddish husband’s new, curling ‘tache.  The mustache is one of a few running jokes continually repeated throughout.  The other is what Mortdecai asks of his manservant every time they find themselves in a sticky situation.  “Will it be alright in the end?” Mortdecai asks while ducking and diving from bullets.  “I couldn’t say, sir,” a breathless Jock always answers.

However, what’s missing amongst all this malarkey is a steady flow of laugh-out-loud gags.  Eric Aronson’s screenplay covers the basics but while the rhythm is there, some of the beats are missing.  It needs a serviceable flow of satirical, rapid-fire one-liners executed with the punch and speed of the kind we’ve become used to on TV’s The Simpsons or The Family Guy.  After all, Mortedecai is really a big screen cartoon begging for big-time zingers, but they’re not there.  Instead, the jokes are mostly genial and thinly spread – the kind that raises a smile but not a real laugh – with just the occasional moment of genuine wit.  When Mortdecai and Jock land in Los Angeles for the first time they’re faced with something they’ve never seen in public before; shapely, bikini clad babes casually strolling through the lobby of an L.A. hotel.  “Have we taken a wrong turn and ended up on the set of a pornographic film?” he asks of the hotel concierge.

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Perhaps the most fun you’ll have with Mortdecai is deciphering the accents and determining whether they work or not.  America’s Gwyneth Paltrow has a comically clipped, high-society British accent, Scotland’s Ewan McGregor possesses a posh London accent, Londoner Paul Bettany’s usually educated sounding English here echoes Ray Winstone’s brute force cockney, and America’s Depp makes a comical meal out of his Terry-Thomas.  They’re a mixed bag of noises that only work in the spirit of a colorful cartoon – funny, but at a running time of 106 minutes, eventually wearisome.

According to reports, last year, Lionsgate announced it was creating a film franchise of Mortdecai.  That was over a year ago when the movie was still in production.  Presumably the dailies looked good.  Now with the product completed you have to wonder whether the suits at the studio are still of the same mind.  I’m thinking, probably not, ol’ boy.

MPAA Rating:  R   Length:  106 Minutes   Overall Rating:  4 (Out of 10)

Posted in Film

Still Alice – Film Review

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There’s a reason why there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s, and this is it.  By the time the first signs of dementia appear it’s too late; the neurodegenerative disease has been there for years, but no one would know.  It begins with short term memory loss – little things like forgetting a name or misplacing an object; something that might initially be mistaken for a natural progression of age – then it takes on other behavioral aspects; mood swings, getting easily lost.  Worst of all, there are no treatments to reverse it.  Alzheimer’s disease usually manifests in those sixty-five or older.  This is why the Alzheimer’s patient at the center of the new drama Still Alice is somewhat different.

Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a middle-aged linguistics professor at Columbia.  She’s fairly wealthy and highly educated.  There appears to be no reason why Alice – an otherwise all-round healthy person – should suddenly be forgetting things; not at her age.

The first sign is inconsequential.  While at a dinner party when talking about the activities of her family, Alice casually mentions that her actor daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart) is currently in “Some TV thing,” but she can’t recall the name.  “Something Enemy,” she says.   It’s hardly a sign of dementia, but as we know, in a film, nothing is said nor done without reason if it doesn’t somehow have something to do with the plot.

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The second sign is of consequence.  While in front of a class discussing the issues raised in her recently published book From Neurons to Nouns, Alice forgets a word.  It stumps her.  She’s in the middle of a sentence stating, “By observing these baby steps into… er… er.”  She’s trying to say wordstock, but it doesn’t come.  All she can do is apologize with an embarrassed smile and make a joke about having drunk too much champagne the night before.

Then it gets worse.  While jogging on campus, what should look like familiar territory becomes a blur.  Alice looks around her and suddenly panics.  By having us see things from the professor’s point of view, directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland shoot the moment as though everything around Alice is out of focus, though it’s not her vision that’s impaired; she simply can’t determine where she is.  It isn’t until one of the campus buildings before her suddenly takes on recognizable details that Alice realizes her location.  The confusion on her face is replaced by relief, but her intelligence tells her something else: She has a serious problem.

In a following scene with a doctor, the whole exchange is shot from one perspective.  We see Alice talking about her forgetfulness and listening to the doctor’s prognosis but we never see the doctor; we simply hear him.  The camera’s focus is on Alice alone; it never cuts away.  And even though it’s only Alice that we see, the scene is still played out from the woman’s point of view.  Presumably, because of the devastating news regarding Alzheimer’s, Alice doesn’t really see the doctor, either.  She just hears the words.

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There’s a major difference with Alice and the average patient with dementia, and it’s not simply her age.  It’s her intelligence.  Because of the character’s education, handling those early days and talking about it intelligently tends to make things initially easier to handle.  It’s not that having an education slows the process, it’s how the patient handles the symptoms and the realization of what is happening.  Many patients in later years have no clue.  Alice, on the other hand, is aware.

Still Alice is a heartbreaking film without the tears.  There are no scenes of hysterics, no tempers flair, and no high drama.  By expressions, and expressions alone, we know what’s happening with Alice.  Julianne Moore’s face changes but those expressions are never overplayed.  The panic when being lost will turn to relief when realization falls into place.  The concern of what she realizes is happening turns to worry.  Worst of all, the look of total disconnect appears when Alice is simply unaware.  She becomes a blank slate.  What makes us who we are is the sum total of our experiences and the memory of them.  Once that memory is wiped, so too is our character.  Alice’s memories are being wiped.

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As an educated person being able to talk coherently about her disease, Alice gives us the occasional insight to what it feels like to have Alzheimer’s.  “It’s like something drops out from under me,” she volunteers when trying to articulate how it feels to forget something.  “I see the words hanging in front of me, but I can’t reach them.”

Often, when the subject of dementia occurs in a story, the plot is invariably seen from the point of view of the caregiver or the family and how it affects them.  In Still Alice we get to know her family, but it’s always Alice and her point of view that matters.  Despite nicely restrained performances from Alec Baldwin as Alice’s husband, plus Kate Bosworth and Kristen Stewart as Alice’s daughters, the center of attention is Moore.  It’s a performance of subtlety.  The look of joy on her face as tears emerge after making a speech to her peers regarding her dementia is one of great, emotional depth.  This is a turning point in her long career as illustrated with a Golden Globe Best Actress win and now an Oscar nomination.  She deserves the attention, even if the film itself wasn’t recognized.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13   Length:  99 Minutes   Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The Boy Next Door – Film Review

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What do you think is gonna happen?” demands desperate sounding high-school teacher Claire Peterson when the unhinged boy next door won’t leave her alone. “We’re gonna go on dates together?”

On a dark and restless night, after a few glasses of wine followed by a moment of weakness, Claire (Jennifer Lopez) succumbs to the overpowering persistence of Noah Sandborn (Ryan Guzman).  He’s The Boy Next Door who’s moved to town to act as a kind of caregiver to help his ailing grandfather.  With his male model good looks and his willingness to drop by at a moment’s notice, Noah soon becomes a problem.

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In keeping with the overall tone of the film, when we first meet Noah it’s not his face we see but his sweaty, muscular biceps.  His tanned, chiseled body-work aside, at first glance, the nineteen year old seems likeable enough to Claire and her teenage son, Kevin (Ian Nelson). Peering through her bedroom window late at night – in stilettos, full makeup, magazine-cover hairstyle and sexy, silky underwear no less – Claire even spies the young man tenderly caring for his grandfather.  He tucks the old man in bed and affectionately kisses his forehead.  How considerate is that?  With the economy of time, Noah has soon ingrained himself into Claire’s life; he fixes the garage door, tinkers with the car, teaches young Kevin how to box and protect himself from school bullies, and even quotes poetry.  Instead of a box of chocolates as a gift, he hands Claire a rare, early edition of Homer’s The Iliad.  For a lonely, seemingly educated school teacher, separated from her philandering husband (John Corbett), what’s not to like?  The boy next door is a dreamboat.

But it’s that one night, somewhere around the twenty-five minute mark, when Claire surrenders against the wall, murmuring “This is wrong” that everything changes.  “Let me love you, Claire,” Noah whispers as he proceeds to disrobe her, “It doesn’t feel wrong.”

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The next morning, when the sun rises and the wine is out of her system, Claire sees things differently.  “What have I done?” she asks herself repeatedly as she frantically tries to piece the murky events of the night before into some kind of perspective.  What she’s done has had a tawdry, one-night stand with the teenager who’s moved in next door.  Now she wants out.  But the nineteen year old, kick-boxing, Homer-quoting neighbor is having none of it.  When he angrily punches his fist in the wall with full force and bloodies his knuckles you immediately realize what you’ve known ever since you first saw a close-up of that bulging bicep; the hottie is a nut case.  It’s the ol’ cougar as victim scenario.

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There’s a subplot surrounding Noah’s parents and the suspicious nature of their deaths, but the film never really questions why Noah acts as he does; its formula dictates otherwise.  He’s obviously insane but the reasons behind his insanity are of no concern to the film.  All it really wants to do is to set the situation up as quickly as possible then spin the wheels of what it thinks is an erotic thriller but is really just a junky, predictable stalker flick with Lopez looking cover-girl gorgeous throughout, just as any high-school teacher would.  Director Rob Cohen delivers a competently enough made movie with all its ready-to-be-pushed buttons in place, where good looking people do stupid things in tense situations, but the outcomes are all what you expect.  It’s really dull.

MPAA Rating:  R   Length:  91 Minutes   Overall Rating:  3 (out of 10)

Posted in Film